The Garden Gate (Threshold #4)

Title: The Garden Gate

Author: Christa Kinde

Series: Threshold #4

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The angelic battle Prissie alone could see tore up her bedroom, her family’s orchard, and her father’s bakery. It destroyed much of what she treasured about her home—and to make matters even worse, although Ephron was finally rescued, her own Guardian, Tamaes, was captured. How can she move forward? How can she trust? But Prissie isn’t facing anything alone. . .

This was just the perfect cap to an already amazing series. Not much worked out how I expected, but there were plenty of surprises and laughs along the way. Beau, Prissie’s brother, is now in on the secret (at least some of it). I thought this would be a bigger thing, was surprised it wasn’t, and then realized that fits perfectly with the kind of story this has always been. Angels are here. It isn’t some big flashy fire-and-lightning, prophecies-from-heaven event, but something that fits so well into the ordinary everyday that it’s hard to draw a line between the natural and the supernatural.

That’s not to say there aren’t battles aplenty. Tamaes is suffering. Adin is scheming. More is happening in heaven and on earth than Prissie has eyes to see.

[Beau said] “Running is . . . not my gift . . . gimme books, Lord . . . keyboard . . . comfy chair . . . and an angel on my fridge. Any day of the week.”

But the heart of this book is the relationships. I was very surprised at how things ended up with Prissie’s former friends . . . they all moved on. Separately. The same way they’ve been drifting apart for the last three books. Even though Prissie could wish it were otherwise, no miraculous change of heart occurs, and the rift between them by now feels rather final. Perhaps one day it will turn around again, but that was not this book.

In their place, she has a growing friendship (despite her best efforts, and because of his) with Ransom. Ransom feels like the real hero of these stories, to me. He’s been far better to her than she deserves, and his persistence finally bears fruit.

There it was. Prissie dared to ask, “Are you lonely?”
“Nope. I’ve got friends.” Ransom took the topmost box of leftovers from the stack Prissie carried and peeked under the lid. “There’s still an opening if you’re interested.”

And of course, Ransom provides so many laughs.

“They say this is a dream, and I’ll forget everything in the morning.” Ransom edged closer to her. “Never had a dream that came with a disclaimer before. Should I be worried?”

(What happens after this had me laughing until I cried. . . Ransom decides to go for broke because he won’t remember any of it anyway, so why should he care?)

And I grew to like Marcus more and more over the series, but here he’s just perfect. I love how his character develops from barely-talking tough guy that Prissie writes off as bad news to someone she trusts with her life.

“This round, I’m demoted to hand-holder.” Without a trace of irritation, he admitted, “There’s a decent chance I’ll be hiding behind you. But it sounds better to say I’ve got your back.”

I’m so glad we finally get to see Ephron, and that he’s finally in a place where he can recover. I liked Prissie’s conflicted emotions around him. It was her prayer that helped set him free, and it was a prayer she put off making for a long time. Yet how the angels deal with the situation and how Prissie deals with it are totally different. She has a lot of trouble with him because of her own guilt, and because she’s not comfortable being confronted with real suffering and its aftermath.

And Koji has been a faithful friend, but as the year turns, his time with her family is coming to an end. The anticipation of loss is something both of them have a hard time bearing. I really liked how that played out too.

One final quote, because this is totally me too and made me laugh:

“Which do you think—a whole bagful of cheap chocolate, or a little box of the good stuff?”
Prissie shook her head. “Depends on if you’re asking me or Neil. I prefer quality over quantity.”
“Don’t underestimate Neil. He just prefers quality in quantity.”

All in all, these are delightful books. I read this one twice in quick succession because I happened to discover a couple of free short stories on the author’s website, and a few of them give so much context to certain characters that I just had to read this again to catch some of the deeper implications of certain scenes. Highly, highly recommended.

Between Worlds

Title: Between Worlds

Author: Skip Brittenham

In the forest is an aspen tree said to grant wishes. When Marshall and Mayberry encounter it, they end up in a world full of strange creatures, magic, and danger. Can they survive?

This was stuffed with all the things I usually enjoy, but maybe because of that I never connected much with anything. It was too much, too fast. Or perhaps I just didn’t feel enough of a connection to the characters or the world to really care about what happened to either.

The illustrations are easily the best part. Every few chapters another full page color illustration showcasing a nearby scene. The pictures really help to bring some of the strange creatures to life.

The characters are generic. Mayberry is the “too cool for the country” new girl, and Marshall is the dork with no self-confidence. Both of them are outcasts, and pretty much the other’s only friend. They feel similar enough in the prose that I had a hard time telling them apart; other than surface details it felt like most of what one of them did the other could’ve done and it wouldn’t have made a difference.

And the fantasy world would have been better if we didn’t have Marshall and Mayberry mastering magic in the space of a week. There’s no attempt made to explain what magic is or how it works, which I could live with if it didn’t feel so haphazard. These kids have never seen magic before, but after only a week they can do complicated magical tricks like lighting multiple sticks on fire at the same time or calling up gigantic waves from nowhere? And all it takes is chanting a few words and twisting your fingers a certain way?

Same with the familiars just showing up and instantly being best friends, because the prose doesn’t have time to be anything but bare-bones. We have multiple intelligent races, there’s some kind of war going on, here’s a magical weapon that’s the source of all magical weapons, etc. And then the way the book ties up it doesn’t feel like it wants a sequel, so whatever this world is and whatever relation it has to ours doesn’t seem to matter either.

It was frustrating because I wanted to like this more than I did. Instead it felt like a firehose of fantasy trappings without ever getting enough depth to make anything stick. It’s not bad. It’s just that I’m more likely to remember the pictures than anything in the plot. I rate this book Neutral.

Overlord (unofficial fan translations)

Author: Kugane Maruyama

Series: Overlord

Volumes 5-11

I’ve been catching up on the unofficial fan translations of Overlord, because the official next volume isn’t out for several more months, so I thought I’d jot down a few brief thoughts (full reviews will come when the official volumes are released).

This was a blast all the way through. I think I like it more as a comedy than as a fantasy, although the fantasy portions aren’t bad. I just can’t get through most volumes without stopping because I’m laughing too hard. I like how other races keep popping up, even if they do tend to fall within a lot of the expected tropes (the lizardmen remain the most fleshed-out to date, and the best). Although seeing the Frost Dragons were amusing (and technically, the “loser” was smart enough to save most of his family).

The series keeps throwing out awesome curbstomp fights between various members of Nazarick and the high and mighty of the current world. Sebas gets a chance to shine, although I hope the upcoming season 2 will expand his fight scenes (well, give him more mooks to plow through, since he can’t help ending everything in one hit). Entoma is the only one who transforms, sadly—I’d love to see Sebas in his draconic form, but it’s hard to say he’d actually need it. Still, Sebas versus an underground crime ring, Ainz versus Demiurge (hysterical fight on multiple levels), and Ainz in the Arena were probably my favorite fights.

Another point that the series keeps making is that Ainz is the moron surrounded by people smarter than he is. Demiurge comments on how glad he is that the Empire’s ruler is smarter than average, because it’s easy to predict smart people and impossible to predict fools—by implication, Ainz is one such. There’s another moment later where someone outright suggests Ainz is just a moron who gets lucky sometimes. This works at its funniest level during things like the Arena match, where the Emperor is convinced that Ainz is some fiendishly brilliant strategist . . . and Ainz just wanted to say hello because he thought it was polite. And because Ainz said hello, the Emperor, Demiurge, and everyone who heard about it thinks he’s a genius, since it was the one move toppling a whole string of dominoes.

Also it only took Ainz 7 books to figure out Demiurge took his comment about world domination seriously and has been working diligently towards that end. And true to form, he’s too embarrassed to tell him to stop, so . . . he’s probably going to be taking over the world whether he wants to or not. Ainz is definitely not a good guy, but how evil he’ll be as a world ruler is largely going to depend on how many details he entrusts to those like Demiurge, who take pleasure in tormenting people, and whose plots to overthrow kingdoms follow more traditional routes. (Well, Ainz is so non-traditional he has no idea why it’s even working, since that wasn’t what he was trying to do in the first place.)

All in all, I can’t wait for the official versions to come out, and I’m glad eager fans have provided a way to get caught up a little faster. I don’t necessarily think these light novels are written well—book 5 in particular tends to drag a few things out—but in terms of sheer fun they’re some of the best I’ve read this year. I can’t wait to see the story continue to unfold. Ainz may have his side of the map cornered, but there are hints that the larger world will be a much bigger challenge. In particular I hope the Elves and the Dragonlords show up sooner rather than later, and at some point I hope they get to that desert city that looks like it was transported from the game previously, so they can uncover its mysteries.

So whether you’re curious enough to peek ahead like I did or are determined to wait for the official translations to emerge, it’s a wild ride ahead. I get that it probably takes a specific sense of humor to not get fed up with someone like Ainz, whose villainous acts come in equal measure with his more merciful ones, but for those who do like what’s come so far, what’s ahead is going to be lots of fun. Highly Recommended.

A Crown of Dragons (Unicorne Files #3)

Title: A Crown of Dragons

Author: Chris D’Lacey

Series: Unicorne Files #3

Michael is no closer to understanding the mystery behind his father, his own powers, or the secret agency UNICORNE that seems to hold all the answers. But when the dragon scale his father was hunting impacts his life once again, he’s pressing for answers. Even if finding out might change his life once again . . .

I didn’t think it was possible for the book to give some answers that actually made sense of some of my more aggravating questions, but it did. For starters, why would anyone try to make Michael into a secret agent when he clearly has little aptitude for the role? Although plot-wise, I think the second book could basically be skipped as it contributed very little, and the first and third books do a better job presenting the overarching plot with Michael, his dad, and Freya.

That said, I still had to force myself to finish. Michael feels like the wrong protagonist for a story like this. He’s got fun powers, but barely uses them at all except to pull a total rewrite for the end, and that feels cheap—he’s never really controlled them, and part of the fun was seeing the unintended consequences, like his sister becoming a musical genius, that always accompanied whatever he was ACTUALLY trying to do. Add to that he’s not showcasing much except incompetence and an ability to get into trouble (and not in a particularly entertaining fashion), and the adults who know more are basically jerking him around for the most part.

It’s not really badly written. It’s just that I ended up hating the main character, who I actually liked well enough in the first book, because it’s really hard to find things to like him FOR. I did like the ideas, particularly in this book, and its take on dragons. But I can’t see myself reading these again. I rate this book Neutral.

The Lizardmen Heroes (Overlord #4)

Title: The Lizardmen Heroes

Author: Kugane Maruyama

Series: Overlord #4

The lizardmen tribes thought little of the outside world, until the day an unwelcome visitor appeared with a message: in eight days, their villages will be destroyed. With the threat of annihilation upon them, a lizardman traveler named Zaryusu sets out on a desperate mission to unite the tribes. But can their efforts save them from the armies of Ainz Ooal Gown?

The series shifts gears in this book, telling most of its story from the point of view of the lizardmen Ainz intends to conquer. Having gotten a good taste of Ainz’s power in the last three books, there’s little doubt how this will eventually go . . . which is why it’s fascinating that most of the story humanizes so well those Ainz sees as little more than statistics.

I love the details about their culture and society, about the five tribes and their last war, about the day to day worries about food shortages and the new inventions that might disrupt their former way of life. Zaryusu’s solitary existence hasn’t bothered him until he meets Crusch, the head of another tribe. So there’s a bit of romance in play too as the two of them fumble around getting to know each other in the shadow of certain death.

There’s also some scenes carrying forward previous plot threads, like Shalltear’s reaction to having been under mind-control. Ainz is also still interested in running experiments, and those range from completely understandable (wanting to see what the ACTUAL area-of-effect is on some of his larger spells so he can more effectively use them) to the more villainous (wanting to wipe out the lizardmen for trivial causes).

It’s interesting that Ainz has trouble reacting to anyone not in Nazarick as beings with their own lives, hopes, and dreams, which is something this plot highlights extremely well. He mentioned in Carne village about how humans seem to him like ants, or perhaps like a pet once he’s talked with them for a bit. Whether it’s an effect of being undead, or his humanity being overstressed by not actually getting to sleep, or him thinking too much in game terms isn’t clear.

Actually, I really liked the detail about sleeplessness basically driving him insane. His body may not need it anymore, but his mind desperately wants a break from all the stress. And sure, he’s very likely overreacting (again), but the problem has always been a lack of intelligence about the world around him. He is PROBABLY overreacting, but he can’t be sure, and if he’s wrong he’ll lose everything left that he cares about.

And at the end of the day, things not going as he expected might be best for everyone involved.

I do hope Ainz and the rest can grow in this new world. I’d love to see Ainz picking up new magic (although making time to study would be a problem), or Cocytus figuring out how to become an able commander as well as an excellent warrior, and so on. Either way, it’s going to be a long and impatient wait for me until the next book arrives. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

The Bloody Valkyrie (Overlord #3)

Title: The Bloody Valkyrie

Author: Kugane Maruyama

Series: Overlord #3

Shalltear has rebelled? Backing up a bit, this book begins a little bit before The Dark Warrior ended, after Shalltear left Nazarick along with Sebas and Solution. Their plan is to learn more about the martial and magical artes of this world by finding strong warriors—preferably criminals whose deaths or disappearances won’t be noticed. But a chance encounter causes everything to go wrong, and Shalltear is now under a mind-control her undead status should have protected against. Ainz is furious, but also cautious, and heads out himself to stop her . . .

It says a lot about this series that the first serious threat Ainz faces is his own NPC-turned-rogue. That said, Shalltear is an NPC more or less built to attack players similar to Ainz, so he’s got a fair number of disadvantages going into the fight. Furthermore, Ainz’s paranoia about considering this a deliberate attack, and therefore possibly a trap, causes him to forgo some of the easier ways he could tackle the fight, because he’s too concerned about ambushes and the possibility of his god-tier gear ending up in the hands of enemies to properly equip.

The heart of the novel is this fight. The book does contain one significant scene with Albedo’s sister that the anime cut, but otherwise everything is by and large the same. I do like the smaller additional details, though. Sebas’s alternate form gets mentioned, and now I REALLY want to see him use it. I also like the explanations of game mechanics behind things like Ainz’s skill The Goal of All Life is Death. It feels better that he has so many huge abilities when there’s more context about how hard he had to work to get there (and, amusingly enough, that skill in particular was more of an accidental Easter egg, but still the result of fully developing a particular branch of magic). And the player-versus-player explanations are fuller in the book, drawing out more of Ainz’s experiences and strategies.

I like this a little less than the previous two books, though. Partially because I’m not as fond of Shalltear, and partially because the fanservice scene near the end has Ainz sneaking a peak at what’s physically about a 14-year-old kid. Nothing described in too much detail, thankfully, but still, did we have to go there?

All in all, though, there’s far more to enjoy than not. I like this different take on fantasy, where Ainz is almost a villain by default and not because he has any particularly bad intentions, and if Shalltear does anything really well it’s bringing out his mixed feelings at having to take down someone he sees more like his child. He’s absolutely not going to leave her in the hands of an enemy, but when he can’t cure her there’s only one option left.

I do really, really hope Ainz finds the culprit, though. He’ll make Clementine look like she died peacefully.

This is the final episodes, 10-13, of the anime (at least the first season). I think both the anime and the books do a great job, but regardless which one you like better, at this point in time the only way to get more story is to keep going with the books. And it’d be a shame to stop here, when Ainz is clearly only getting started. I rate this book Recommended.

The Dark Warrior (Overlord #2)

Title: The Dark Warrior

Author: Kugane Maruyama

Series: Overlord #2

Momonga (now Ainz) is fully aware of his own lack of knowledge about the world he now inhabits. He’s still uncertain how much his former-NPC’s loyalty can be trusted, and the world contains things both from the game Yggdrasil and things he’s never seen before. So Ainz goes undercover as the dark warrior Momon. Together with one of his battle maids, they pose as adventurers in the hopes of learning more. But other plans are afoot in the city, and Ainz may have inadvertently tripped over a few of them . . .

For those coming from the anime, this novel was adapted in episodes 5-9. Again, the adaptation was faithful and the differences are minor (although my favorite addition was the extra information about just what Ainz did with that Jewel of Darkness).

Once again, Momonga/Ainz is proceeding into the world with extreme caution, even though he’s so high leveled that he can afford to seal away most of his magic and simply wave swords around and still be stronger than pretty much any human adversary. But the fun, of course, is in watching HOW everything plays out. The plot really likes putting him in embarrassing situations as well as situations where he can show off.

For example, ogres. Ainz can dispatch ogres with a single blow. His technique is terrible, but his strength allows him to ignore the basics any actual warrior would know. Ainz knows this and is uncomfortable at the amount of awe his “mighty deeds” generate, because to him, ogres that low-leveled would never pose a threat.

This gets even funnier when Ainz decides to challenge the Wise King of the Forest, hoping for a faster way to spread his renown.

Here, too, Momonga’s inner loneliness comes through a little better than the anime. He’s hurting for the friends he used to have, which he sees reflected in a small party of adventurers he teams up with for a time. Their camaraderie reminds him of what he lost and wants to have again, and spreading his name is a way of crying out for them to notice that he’s still here, waiting for them. It’s a little sad he can’t take Touch Me’s example to heart and go out and befriend others, even if they are weaklings, but his paranoia about keeping himself, his former NPCs, and Nazarick safe precludes any overtures.

I like how the game world details keep coming, and also how the various techniques and abilities that pop up show that this is NOT the game Momonga played. That leaves him with plenty to discover (and plenty of new things to embarrass himself with, I’m sure). Again, for those who liked the anime, this is a great way to dig deeper into the world, and to see some of the technical explanations about spells and so forth that never made it to the screen. The book also contains several nice pieces of art on the interior. I rate this book Highly Recommended.