Reviews

Fair warning: my “reviews” will not tell you if you will like the book. They’re not intended to. Instead, they’re a way for me to pick apart something I read.

They’re a way for me to learn and grow as a writer. By doing a review or critique, I force myself to think through the book and bring to fore all that did and did not work for me. You’ll find me often comparing it to my own writing, drawing parallels and discovering new approaches or faults. By seeing what another author does wrong, I often discover what I’m doing wrong in my own writing.

These are also very much my own opinion. It’s quite likely I will poo-poo something you like. You will disagree and that’s okay. Opinions aren’t like truth such that there can be only one. You’re allowed to have yours and I’m allowed mine. But having established that level of respect, feel free to post comments, discuss, and disagree. I encourage it. Discussion is yet another great way to learn.


Instrument of Omens

April 14, 2021

Somewhere in the preface to the first book, David mentions that his source of inspiration revolves around greats like Tolkien and Jordan. I usually roll my eyes when I read something like this, not because Tolkien and Jordan didn’t write great books, but that naming them as inspiration is so often done it’s become something of a trope at this point. They practically defined entire genres of fiction. Of course you took inspiration from these source, who hasn’t?

But it did get me thinking. The Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time are both massive works, and in this way they are something like the Bible: two different people can take very different, if not diametrically opposed, interpretations of it. It is no surprise that many books inspired by these greats can so often look nothing like each other.

So what does David Ashura think makes those works great? How did he weave those elements into his books?

More importantly, what can I learn from this?

Note: Spoilers, maybe? I’m gonna discuss some plot elements I do not really consider spoilers, but some might. There will be serious spoilers for TLOTR and WOT, though. Reader beware.

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Spinning Silver

March 22, 2021

Okay, so having read “A Deadly Education”, I decided to finally go back and read “Spinning Silver”, a book I kept seeing recommended but never read because I just knew it was a stupid retelling of a story I already knew 1.

And I hate stupid retelling of stories I already know. I really do.

Except this was not that. Novik more takes the bones of the original story and rearranges them into something almost entirely different. Perhaps it would be better to say she took the original as a kind of inspiration, but there’s no doubt it is her own creation.

And here’s the thing: this was a great story. Really. I loved the story. It kept me reading as a story should.

But, oh my god did it do it in such a painfully laborious way.

  1. I really don’t. I looked into and realized my entire understanding of Rumpelstiltskin comes from the TV show “Once Upon a Time”. Yes, I am ashamed. I should rectify this some day. 

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A Deadly Education

March 15, 2021

This was a delightful book, and the problem with delightful books is they’re hard to critique. Instead of making mental notes, I find myself enjoying the story. As a reader, this is great; it’s exactly what I want out of a book. As a writer looking to learn from other people’s writing, this is kind of the worst type of book to read. I’m left with ‘wow, that was a good book’ and not with lessons I can apply to my own craft.

First, of course, is why I bought the book in the first place. Naomi Novik isn’t an author I’ve read before, though I’ve been aware of her for a while now. She’s shown up in recommendation engines, but always the premise of her books hasn’t been strong enough for me to purchase them. The one I see most frequently, Spinning Silver, is a retelling of Rumplestiltskin. It’s highly recommended with lots of good reviews and I just haven’t wanted to read a retelling of an old story, so I didn’t. A Deadly Education, though, was something new, and this time when I came across the recommendation, I picked it up.

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Shadow and Bone

March 9, 2021

This book— oops sorry, these books are well written.

Actually, let’s start there first: in my head, they’re a single book. This is, perhaps, an artifact of buying an entire trilogy packaged into a single Kindle Edition racking up a page count equivalent to many epic installments. So while I speak of this work as a single piece, it might help to realize my view is a little skewed. Were there cliffhangers? I’m not sure. If there were, I didn’t really notice as I simply turned the page.

I picked up the book after watching a Netflix trailer for a cool looking new fantasy series with the same title. A few minutes later, I’d downloaded the trilogy 1. My general assumption is a series must be at least somewhat good if people are willing to throw millions into turning it into a TV/Movie series.

And it was. Good, that is. I’m sure a lot of people really liked it and I can see why Netflix took it up. It just… wasn’t great. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

  1. This is common for me. I came across Game of Thrones the same way. 

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A Magician's Guide to Defensive Baking

February 12, 2021

So I picked this one up off a Kindle recommendation. It was fantasy, it looked entertaining, it had a ton of good reviews, and it was on sale for a dollar. It wasn’t even an impulse buy— my impulse to purchase it arrived after I’d pressed the button. It was also going to be a quick read, so I didn’t feel like I needed to finish any of my other books before starting this one, a nice interlude before I return to whatever ongoing epic fantasy I’m currently consuming.

A Magician’s Guide to Defensive Baking (henceforth referred to as Defensive Baking for the sake of sanity) is a Story, capital S. In the fantasy/sci-fi world, writers will often try to bring a strong sense of realism to their worlds. They are, after all, already assuming an unrealistic premise of magic and/or technology that might as well be magic. But there’s also a segment of authors that lean in to the unrealistic, practically turning their story into it’s own metaphor.

Defensive Baking is one of those books. It leans in toward the ridiculous, humorous, and the fantastical. It reads more like a fairy tale and a delightful one at that. It was a thoroughly enjoyable book, easy to read, and inviting to pick up. Kind of like a warm chocolate cookie, I found myself enjoying the simple process of reading a good simple story.

Defensive Baking is also a children’s book.

It’s telling that I did not realize this until after I’d finished the book.

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Heaven's River

February 1, 2021

Okay. Sci-fi, clearly, if the book cover didn’t clue you in. Heaven’s River is the fourth book of a series written by Dennis E Taylor. Given I haven’t written any reviews of his previous series, this’ll be a bit of an overall review of the series that’ll dive into a more detailed review of the later book.

Note: [MILD SPOILERS!]

I can’t really talk about the series without giving away mild spoilers for the first book. To be fair, I think the very title of the first book is about the level of spoilers I’ll reveal 1. But still, they are plot points, and it’s almost impossible to talk about the series without them. If you’re sensitive to that sort of thing, I suggest you just go ahead and pick up the first book.

Clearly, I like the books; I’ve read the whole series to date. If you like Sci-fi and ships, and some weird premises, this a good book to read.

I usual, I spent time trying to figure out why I like this series. As an aspiring writer, I want to be able to identify the core elements that draw me in and, I hope, will draw others in in my own writing. So as I read this latest installment, I paid close attention to what areas I found myself engaged in. What I discovered is something I’m tempted to call it’s own kind of sub-genre:

The Engineer’s Dilemma.

  1. “We are Bob” can only have so many explanations, and this is not a book on psychosis. 

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The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

January 19, 2021

I came across this book from a recommendation list published by… The Verge, I think? Or somewhere. It was recommended, had a lot of good reviews on Amazon, and I was itching for some sci-fi after going on a bit of a fantasy binge of late. Also, it was maybe $7, just within my impulse book-buy range 1.

So the question of why I bought it has a fairly clear answer. But why did I finish it? And… I’m not completely sure.

This is not an adventure book. It’s somewhat marketed as one 2, hinting at a kind of Firefly style of serial adventures. It’s good marketing; I bought it, and likely because I was craving that kind of adventure, even if somewhat subconsciously. But this book ain’t that. The best way I can think of it is as tour of a somewhat interesting place by fairly interesting characters. Yes, there is some action involved in a “will they or won’t they make it” scenario 3, but those scenes last at most a single chapter. Honestly, though, even within those chapters (they are, maybe, two of them?) the tension is resolved fairly quickly.

This author is, at least in this book, simply not interested in “action” part of action adventures.

  1. But $9… whew, I dunno. I gotta really think about it then. :-/ 

  2. “Follow a motley crew on an exciting journey through space” is how it reads on Amazon. 

  3. But we know they will because there’s at least twenty chapters left. 

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A Pattern of Light and Shadow

May 17, 2019

I started reading these books about the time my eldest son fell ill, trapping me on the couch while he watched kid shows. He kindly passed the virus to me, giving me both time and motivation to dive into a good series. I ended up reading all four of her books (the fifth one comes out in June) within a week, which makes it easy to review them all at once.

On the whole, I enjoyed the books and I’m looking forward to reading the next one in the series, but I have to admit there are a few weakness in the plot and structure I feel could have been done better. This means a lot of this review will be spent looking at those weaknesses, and yet I don’t want to give the impression that the series is bad. It’s not. In fact, I rather suspect that any series this large must inevitably contain weaknesses, even if those faults are due only to preference (and some of what I mention certainly is). I loved reading the Wheel of Time and those books had some serious issues. McPhail’s books are of similar scope, so it’s not unreasonable to expect similar issues. And so while I will expound them, I must reiderate: I really enjoyed these books.

Let’s dive in.

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Magic Bitter Magic Sweet

April 3, 2019

First, I’m a pretty big fan of Holmberg. I read her Paper Magician series a while back and found it to be a delightfully new kind of writing. Now, as a quick aside, I am one of those that believe there should be more female fantasy/sci-fi writers. This is not an opinion on social equality (although I do firmly believe women are equal in all regards), but an opinion on the necessity of diversity. There is only so much variety you can have from a male perspective, and much of that variety has been explored already. I don’t know why fantasy and sci-fi have been so male-dominated for so long, except perhaps that we claimed it for some reason, and kind of turned it into a boys club. In doing so, we cheated ourselves. Yes, lots of men try to write from the female perspective, but it’s often limited or skewed into caricatures. So as more female writers come into the fantasy/sci-fi genre’s, I expect to see an explosion of diversity of styles and perspective in the genre itself, something I think is sorely needed. I expect this because of, well, Holmberg.

It’s not just that she’s a female fantasy writer because, of course, she is. She’s a fantasy writer writing from a female perspective and that in itself will make it a different perspective from most of the stuff out there. More importantly, though, is that her ideas are utterly unique. While so many authors are out there crafting complex magic systems (myself included), she comes in from the side with a woman who bakes her magic into her food using her emotions. I’m reasonably certain I would never have thought of something like that.

And that is only the least interesting part of the story.

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Kingkiller Chronicles

March 29, 2019

If I had to point out one defining aspect to Rothfuss’ writing it would be that the man can linger. I had never considered this might be a strength before reading his books, nor would I have called the ability to linger a skill. On the contrary, most of what I’ve read about writing novels, even epic ones, is that you should only put in the book what is necessary. Too much detail, too much prose, too much exposition, and you’ll quickly lose the reader. Show, don’t tell, and only show enough to draw the reader in and drive them into the next scene. The pages should turn themselves.

So many books do this. They pack their story with action, witty dialog, humor, romance, and mystery. Most fantasy novels now days include a path to power, so the reader is constantly anticipating the next ‘level’. They use clever techniques like this to draw the reader in, and a quick pace to keep them there. If done well, the pages will indeed turn themselves until the very last one, leaving the reader desperate for more.

That style also leaves me vaguely dissatisfied, as though I’d eaten a meal that looked like one but was missing much of what makes it nutritious. My stomach might be full, but the sugar rush quickly runs out and I can’t help but wish there were more to the story. Not more action, not more dialog, not more humor, just more… depth, I think.

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Six Sacred Swords

March 27, 2019

I think the biggest surprise to me in this book was that I had unwittingly read other books about the main character. So, the main character, Keras, is a significant side character in Rowe’s Arcane Ascension series — something I already knew. This book, though, starts its own series by using the latest events in Arcane Ascension as an excuse for Keras to tell his story as a flashback in the first person. It’s a neat plot mechanic that I found cleverly implemented.

The surprise for me came in the interlude, where Keras was recounting an event even further back in his past than Six Sacred Swords, mostly his background. It was then I realized that Keras was a main character in Rowe’s other Broken Mirror series. I’ll admit that for a few minutes (prior to a quick Google search), I actually wondered if Rowe was ripping off someone else’s story. I’d gotten my authors confused and didn’t realize Rowe had actually written Broken Mirrors. Eh, fun times. I will say that I like it when an author connects their works together like this. It makes the world feel more fleshed out and real. I was delighted to find a character woven into now three separate series.

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