Review: The Varangian Descendants by K. Panikian

I read the Varangian Descendants by K. Panikian as an omnibus (and boy, was that hard to maneuver on the subway at nearly 600 extra-large pages!) so I’m going to do one big review of the series here, with some extra attention to each book.

There were a lot of things I loved about this series. The premise was very original, and explored some parts of Russian mythology I haven’t seen even in the boom of recent novels drawing on these cultural traditions. I really liked Panikian’s writing style. I liked how each book focused on a different character (though not all the characters worked equally well for me), and I really loved the focus on a big, magical family. I feel like most magic stories show characters that are very isolated, and it was cool to see the descendants all working together towards their goals. Here’s some thoughts on each book:

Verena’s Whistle: this was the first book in the series, and probably my favorite. I liked Verena’s character a lot, and it was a very cool introduction to the world. The pacing was well-done here, too.

Astrid’s Wings: Astrid was my favorite character in the series, at least conceptually! The fish-out-of-water introduction to a new world is such an intriguing concept, and I wanted to know more about how that affects her! Unfortunately, the execution wasn’t quite believable to me. It felt like Astrid’s level of familiarity with the world wasn’t consistent from page to page, and her voice feeling so modern made it hard to feel connected to her story. On the bright side, I loved the dragon shifters, and that storyline made me very emotional!

The Alkonast’s Egg is a strong series concluder. It thoroughly ties together the loss threads from the previous books, and finishes the story in a satisfying way. I still more consistency from the worldbuilding, but I enjoyed the read!

Overall, this is an easy, fast-paced, and quite fun urban fantasy series. While I wanted more consistency from the worldbuilding and characterization, I very much enjoyed the read!


Review: Horns and Haloes by Nia Rose

This book has an absolutely phenomenal premise. It is set in a quasi-Western apocalyptic world full of scattered human settlements, each of which relies on a pact made with a devil to sustain themselves. When Sia is chosen as a sacrifice to her village’s devil, she is cast out into exile and must explore this strange and dangerous world.

My favorite character, by far, was Draki, a demon with whom Sia is forced to make a deal of her own for survival. He is clever, sly, compellingly evil, and I kept looking forward to his appearances in each scene. All of his banter with Sia is beautifully executed. He is a truly great character.

Another real strength of the book is its prose. Rose is an extremely skillful writer, and her mastery of the English language shows throughout the book. Particularly strong are her descriptive passages, which really conjure up the imagery of this new world. However, character-based introspective scenes are also written with moving insight, and the dialogue is clever and consistent to each character.

The only thing I didn’t love was the pacing. It felt like the revelations and worldbuilding came very fast at the beginning, and then there was a long period of relatively aimless wandering for Sia, followed by an explosive climax. That did not detract, however, from an overall excellent read.

Review: Riddled Worlds by Phil Coleman

I loved this book. First off, isn’t that cover gorgeous? Secondly, it’s a really great story, told very well. This book reminded me of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series in the way it layered myth and legend, an aesthetic drawn from the Western genre, and a brilliant fantasy plot. But, with all due respect to Mr. King’s masterpiece (of which I do consider myself a fan), this book is quite a bit more enjoyable to read.

A book cover for Riddled Worlds: an orange background, with several blue spheres showing the coronas of planets.

This is a thoughtful take on the portal fantasy genre. It tells the story of a young boy from a world largely similar to our own who enters a Hole, a sort of reality-eating portal, to find himself in a vastly different America plagued by dangerous chimeras.

The plotting is excellent, neatly marrying scene-by-scene conflict with an overarching plot. The characters are great, particularly the secondary characters. However, for me the standout aspect of this book is the themes it addresses. I won’t spoil the ending, but the book takes a turn into the philosophical that I thought was very well done, and that left me thinking about its message long after I had turned the last page.

Review: Hawkwing by L.A. Gregory

Hawkwing is an intriguing debut novel from an obviously talented writer. The book focuses on Kestrel, a young healer who has to use her skills to try to discover an evil menacing her land.

The cover image for Hawkwing: a young woman with brown skin wearing a light brown tunic, in front of a background of many hawks’ wings.

I liked Kestral, the main character, a great deal. She is a thoughtful, likable character. It’s nice to read a coming-of-age fantasy with such a mature protagonist. She’s not so much struggling to find herself as she is using what she already knows about herself to grow and thrive.

The world was very well-developed, though I wish Gregory had told us a little more about it. This is just personal preference–the mystery is obviously deliberate, I just (as a reader) tend to prefer more insight into the world-building. The magic system is very cool and unique, and I’m looking forward to hearing more about it in the sequels.

The climax didn’t quite land for me (it felt a little sudden), but that doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a truly fresh and original fantasy story.

Review: Song and Wind by Alexis D. and B.A. Johnson

A really brilliant dark fantasy read. One of my favorite aspects was the little worldbuilding details, from customs to greetings to meals. You really got the sense that this was a real place. It felt lived in and alive.

The writing is gorgeous. Richly textured, with lots of little details that help draw readers in. Description, action, dialogue, all very well done. (The description is a particular strength). The training scenes were especially absorbing and horrifying, in a good way. I think Medlar’s first big punishment might legit give me nightmares. It’s described so viscerally I could almost feel it.

I wouldn’t call this a character-centered book, but I liked the characters a great deal. They’re very flawed and grey, and they have distinctive, strong voices.

The sirens are terrifically compelling enemies. Seductive, fascinating. I wanted to learn more about them throughout the book, and was glad when I got to.

My only critique is that occasionally things feel a tiny bit info-dumpy, because this book is just so big. There’s so much information and so many ideas packed in! But that’s a minor thing. Overall, a brilliant start to a new series. Can’t wait for more.

Review: Finding Balance by Amanda April Walsh

I am always leery of books that use mental health as a metaphor within fantasy, but this one is done really well. Finding Balance is a story about a girl who is kept very isolated by her parents due to headaches and delusions, which turn out to connect her to a destiny behind the ordinary.

Here’s what I liked: Devika, the heroine, is really likeable. She feels very much like an ordinary teenaged girl, thinking about boys, trying to rebel against her parents, but she’s also clearly a kind and genuine person who wants to do the right thing and isn’t quite sure how. I really enjoyed the time I spent with her in this book, and I really empathized with her. I also admire the way her mental health concerns were presented, particularly the shame and stigma she feels.

Her relationship with both her best friend and her boyfriend were great. I even liked her parents, even though they were overbearing to the point of abusiveness. They still seemed like believable characters.

The depiction of everyday high school life. Devika’s day-to-day felt so real. It’s not the overblown drama we’re used to seeing in high school movies and shows. It’s just an ordinary high school, with ordinary things happening in it (except for the things that happen to Devika, of course!)

The one thing I would really have liked more of is fantasy! This book is billed as fantasy, but it really reads more like thriller. The magic barely makes an appearance, and the primary plot is about crime, not about magic. I hope this will be developed more in future books, and I look forward to seeing where the story goes.

Review: Sleeping Beauty No More by Aisha Urooj

Whenever I’m accepting ARCs, I always tell authors: if you write romance, I am probably not the best person for you. I’ll read romantic fantasy (I’ll read anything that isn’t nailed down), but I am not an ideal audience for it, especially if it’s not queer.

Sleeping Beauty No More doesn’t change this preconceived notion for me, but I suspect there’s much to appreciate about the book for someone who is a fan of the genre. I found things I enjoyed too! I really liked Devon as a character. He was likable as well as heroic, and he had a great dynamic with Aurora. However, the jealousy dynamic between the two of them felt strained and rather petty (this is one of the things I have a hard time getting behind in romance-focused books). Nonetheless, I was definitely rooting for the couple the whole time!

The side-plot with Morgan and Xavier was very compelling, and I wish it had gotten more time in the book. However, my favorite character was Anya, for obvious reasons.

Also, Malorna’s entrance right near the end was truly kick-ass. A great plot twist, and really well-written. (For the most part, the author’s style felt unpolished to me, but this scene was an exception).

It was also a cool reimagining of the Sleeping Beauty story. It’s a very troubling myth, thematically speaking and in terms of its treatment of women, so it was nice to see it get this reinvention. Urooj definitely succeeded in recasting it as a love story.

Other than these things, though, I felt like the book focused on romance to the exclusion of other factors–the worldbuilding was really underdeveloped, most of the characters were hard to tell apart, and the writing style was very simplistic. However, for a reader of fantasy romance, I suspect this would be a great fit!

Review: Rebels of Halklyen by Paula Baker and Aiden Davies

Rebels of Halklyen is a dark adventure fantasy (though suited, I would say, for younger readers) about a boy named Flint who is wrongfully sentenced to death and then caught up in a political conspiracy.

The book tends more toward military fantasy than is my personal preference. I’d like to get to know the characters a little better, and also learn more about the magic in this world, which didn’t feel as central as I prefer. However, it does what it does extremely well.

The authors are wonderful storytellers, with a clear voice and a particular talent for action sequences . The book is very well-paced and well-plotted. The scenes of action are filled with a page-turning energy, and also coalesce into a sweeping narrative. Also, Mortakallu, the villain, is a terrific antagonist in the “dark lord” mode. Powerful, scary, and totally evil.

I look forward to learning more about the characters and the world in the sequels!

Review: Awakening by Rachel Rener

I have been so excited to dive into this series starter, and it definitely delivered on the promise of its beautiful cover. Awakening rehashes some of my favorite tropes (basically, a girl becoming the chosen one and developing super-cool magic powers) in a fun contemporary setting. I enjoyed the mash-up of the real and the fantastical.

Aspen is a great narrator. She felt very real and human, and I found myself really engaged in her struggles throughout the book.

I also really appreciate that this is a truly “new adult” fantasy. Readers moving from YA to Adult are often sort of neglected by the genre, or relegated to work that amounts to little more than smut. Awakening’s romance is realistic but chaste, and instead engages with lots of other interesting and unique things about being a newly adult person.

The plot is a tiny bit choppy–things start off pretty slow, with the magic not being introduced until a ways in, and then there are a few twists that feel like they come out of nowhere. Overall, though, I found this a great read! Highly recommended.

Review: Disrupting Destiny by Jan Foster

It’s the beginning of the Indie Fantasy Addicts summer challenge! Though I work with a publisher, it’s a tiny one, and I am trying to make more of an effort to be involved with the indie publishing community. I’ve reviewed indie books on this blog before, but there will be tons of them this summer (I aim to win this challenge).

And boy, have I started off with a winner! Disrupting Destiny is one of my favorite reads of 2022 so far. It’s a fae fantasy set in Tudor England. I’m not a big fae person, but I do have a love for Renaissance history, so I was eager to give this a try. And Foster delivered in spades.

The book is action-packed, with a prologue that introduces us to the world from the first words. Right away, I couldn’t wait to read more. Foster’s writing is elegant and clear, well-edited and a pleasure to read.

The best part of this book was the worldbuilding. I have a degree in the literature of this period so I know it pretty well, and I can tell you Foster got every single detail right, from daily life on a smith’s shop to the herbs used in cooking. It really helped the story come alive for me, and even if you’re not a nerd about Tudor history like I am, I think you’ll appreciate it. And so interesting to get the perspective of an immortal being on this world. Particularly well-handled was the intersection of religion and magic. It’s hard for a lot of modern scholars, let alone fantasy authors, to understand or communicate the role that religion played in early modern life. This book gets it. But the invented world of the fae court was just as well done.

I’m not much of a romance reader, but I loved the relationship between Joshua and Annabella. It felt comfortable and lived-in, and the care that these two people had for one another was so genuine.

Turning to book 2 now, and I can’t wait.