Tag Archives: alternate history

The Shadow of Black Wings (The Year of the Dragon #1)

Title: The Shadow of Black Wings

Author: James Calbraith

Series: The Year of the Dragon #1

Bran is a young dragon rider eager to graduate from the Academy and go on with the rest of his life—even if he’s not too sure what he wants to do. A journey taken with his father on a ship bound for places he’s never heard of sounds like a good start. But destiny has some marked him for something else . . .

The land of Yamato is more isolated than the Qin behind their barrier. An island unreachable by most sailors, it nonetheless contains a civilization to rival the rest of the world. But strange divinations foretell great changes. A shrine maiden and her best friend, a female samurai, are more involved than they suspect in the turmoil to come.

I really liked this, but the book suffers greatly from a lack of cohesion. The worldbuilding is excellent, picturing an alternate-history where Bran, who is from either Scotland or Wales (I never looked up what the new names referred to), finds himself on a sea voyage that takes him all the way to China and Japan. Along the way we see various kinds of dragons and magic, and the ways different cultures approach them both. The majority of the beginning and middle is devoted to this, with the greater plot only picking up at the end.

The biggest flaw is that the narrative doesn’t flow well at all. The initial scenes put a great deal of emphasis on Bran’s time at school and the bully that torments him. Both of these things drop out of the story after he graduates (hopefully they’ll surface in a future book so the time spent developing them wasn’t wasted). Then the sea voyage is less of a journey and more of a series of vignettes about various places Bran sees along the way (and the frequent switches from Bran’s point of view to his father’s don’t help much). Then we switch to Yamato and spend a good amount of time setting things up there before the story ever circles back around and connects the two threads. And the story cuts off in the middle of rising action, with nothing resembling a climax, even a minor one.

The ending may be less of a problem if you read the bundle, since I presume the second book will pick up immediately after this one left off. But whether or not you enjoy the book is probably going to come down to how much you like exploring the world, as the rest of the story feels like it needed another draft. I would have preferred alternating chapters between Bran and the girls, as it would have allowed the moment their stories merge to come much closer to the event that caused it.

Overall, I suspect I’ll keep going with this, because I do like it, but you’re probably better off getting the first book while it’s free and sampling it that way. I rate this book Neutral.

The Burning Page (Invisible Library #3)

Title: The Burning Page

Author: Genevieve Cogman

Series: Invisible Library #3

The Library’s timeless existence may be running out. Alberich, though he cannot enter, has found some way to threaten it—a fact painfully clear to Irene, who has been stuck doing dangerous missions thanks to her probation. But she, Kai, Vale, and the rest of her allies don’t have the slightest idea what Alberich is up to. Irene only knows she must do whatever she can.

This has good points and bad points. Irene remains amazingly competent in a great way. I love how ready and able she is to bite back on petty retorts, or force herself to overlook offenses, because it’s childish and won’t help what she really wants to do. She’s smart and quick to judge situations (usually correctly), but she’s not perfect by any means. She knows the Library is hiding things from her but accepts that as part of the way things are and tries to work within the system (at least, to the extent that’s even possible).

The dragons still frustrate me. We finally get to see Kai’s true form, which is nice. I’m way less a fan of how dragons appear to be the dumping ground for things that don’t make sense with their natures. This time around it’s creatures of order who are totally fine with a dragon’s gender being whatever said dragon says it is, regardless of biology. Which is a headscratcher. So dragons never change their minds? But mostly it’s the biology. We have a dragon willing to declare Irene insane and take over for her because she makes what that dragon considers an irrational choice, but declaring one’s gender to be opposite one’s physical sex somehow makes sense. It would make total sense as a Fae trait, because they define themselves by the stories they tell, or participate in. I guess the dragons got stuck with it in order to make this sound cool.

I had mixed feelings about the ending. The final fight was good, and everything plays out well until the very end, when certain matters about Vale suddenly come to a head. And then the completely-exhausted Irene does something that we’ve already seen is very difficult and it’s over in about two sentences. It felt more like getting this out of the way than bringing that tension to a climax and resolution. Vale mentions nothing, and we can’t even see him react, and then it’s the end.

I also suspect Irene may be more right than she knows, and Alberich may be wrong, about one crucial detail. And Bradamant probably found out in the first book, because she’s the one who actually read the Grimm story, and I still think she cut the ending short. But if that is the case, it will take another book or more to play out.

Overall this didn’t grab me as much as the previous books. The story was more straightforward, and one of the more interesting subplots fell flat on its face by the end. If you’ve been reading the previous books and liked them, you’ll probably still like this one. I rate this book Recommended.

The King’s Traitor (Kingfountain #3)

Title: The King’s Traitor

Author: Jeff Wheeler

Series: Kingfountain #3

King Severn has gone past the point of harsh but not unjust, and is now becoming the very monster everyone said he was. Which leaves Owen in a hard position: continue to support the man who rules over him, or support those who would rather see him fall? And the king’s decision to use Owen’s marriage as a bargaining chip is not a welcomed one—particularly not when Owen finds things going in directions he never expected.

This was the hardest book to read, in a way, but also the best. Owen is no longer young, or idealistic. The loss of his first love (to a happy marriage, no less) has embittered him, and the long-term presence of King Severn and his biting remarks has shaped Owen into someone much more like the king than he wants to be. Owen has little left but his honor, and Severn seems determined to destroy even that.

The plot took several unexpected twists, although I think the title is unfortunate as there can be little doubt as to whom it will refer. But I did enjoy the ambiguity of it all. Owen wants to do right, but it’s terribly unclear what the right thing to do actually IS. He’s so sick of destiny playing the same story of betrayal, revenge, and usurpation that he continually tries to find a better way—but when magic can manipulate the fates of men, is that even possible? Can he trust his own judgement about those who offer support, but might after all be something far worse than the alternative?

I also really liked Owen’s struggles to stay honorable. To be a true knight, even though that costs him some of what he desires. It’s rare to find characters who both struggle with questions of virtue but also ultimately triumph—lust vanquished, and love remains. And I was also impressed at the way it ended. Breaking the cycle of violence isn’t just a platitude. Owen is so serious about it he goes way beyond what I’ve ever seen. And because of that, although it may still go horribly wrong in the future, the ending feels far brighter.

Overall this would be a rather bad book to start on, as watching Owen grow, mature, and change provides a lot of depth to what happens here (not to mention it would spoil a lot of neat things from the earlier books). I rate this book Recommended.

The Queen’s Poisoner (Kingfountain #1)

Title: The Queen’s Poisoner

Author: Jeff Wheeler

Series: Kingfountain #1

Owen never asked for this. Because his father hung back during a crucial battle, preferring to support the challenger to the throne instead of the current king (albeit indirectly), Owen has now been chosen to live as the king’s hostage for his family’s good behavior. It’s a role his eldest brother had until recently. Until the king killed him.  Now 8-year-old Owen is caught in a web of adult alliances and betrayals, just trying to stay alive . . .

This book surprised me several times, in good ways. Owen is largely ignorant of the political structure he’s been dumped into, which makes it a good way to find out not only what’s being said, but in the end, that the real story is more complicated than that. King Severn has a reputation for being a monster, and not without reason. But he’s also a man, in a position of power that precludes most friendship, and even the crown can’t protect him from other people’s wagging tongues. I liked all the different angles the book gave to a man who otherwise might have been nothing more than a villain.

Other characters, especially the Queen’s Poisoner of the title, are also very well drawn. The setting, too, has solid detail without ever being overwhelming. Other reviews have mentioned knowing history as background, but I don’t think that’s necessary (I didn’t even catch any connections others mentioned, but it didn’t preclude me from enjoying the story).

I do wish the magic system had gotten more development, although what was there made sense for the story. Owen will likely find out a lot more about this in the future, so I’m content to wait for the next book. The images of the Fountain as a source of magic and life, and the types of power that flow from it, are intriguing.

Overall this is an excellent book. It wraps up decently well, but I certainly am interested to see how Owen grows into his role and abilities. I rate this book Recommended.

The Invisible Library (Invisible Library #1)

Title: The Invisible Library

Author: Genevieve Cogman

Series: Invisible Library #1

Irene is a Librarian for an unusual Library, one that exists outside time and space and worlds, in its own reality. Mostly she infiltrates alternate worlds and collects unique books for its collection. But her latest assignment reeks of secrets and politics, and may be rather more dangerous than she’s been told. She’s supposed to train a junior assistant, the book she’s looking for has already been stolen, and the Library’s greatest enemies also want what she’s after . . .

This was mostly fun, with a few places where I just had to roll my eyes. Fun stuff first. Irene is a very likeable lead. She tries hard to stay cool and in control even when the situation has exploded away from her. She’s aware of what being a leader entails, and she tries to be responsible to that ideal. Kai’s presence tends to exaggerate that in her, too, as she both wants and needs to be a good superior for him. I was particularly impressed that she refuses to bed him after his explicit invitation (although other aspects of that scene were part of the eye-rolling bits). It wouldn’t have been a good idea, but I can’t say I remember the last book where that actually stopped the characters.

The world she ends up on has a lot of steampunk with a dash of mad science. Mechanical creatures! Zeppelins! Victorian fashion sense! Also werewolves and vampires and Fae (who are creepy, dangerous, and strongly magical). And I really liked the detective she meets, and how he engages the mysteries before him with his own skills, even though he’s got no idea of most of what she’s caught up in.

I wasn’t all that fond of Kai, though. His character is all over the place (although to be fair, Irene notices this too and remarks on it). Once more of his secrets come out, some of his behavior makes even less sense.

And the few personal nits: why does Kai have to be devastatingly handsome, with perfect looks, perfect voice, etc? I’m getting tired of “perfect boyfriend” type characters. (Irene subverts this somewhat by falling for the detective instead of her trainee, which made me very happy.) And the scene where he invites her to bed involves the two of them comparing the amount of sexual experience they’ve had, which also makes me roll my eyes. For one, it absolutely doesn’t suit Kai, whose nature is order, whose firm commitment is to family no matter what, to be such a player he might have spawned half a hundred offspring without knowing it. And then just moved on. Because the family he’s so emotionally invested in apparently doesn’t include people he sleeps with and definitely doesn’t include himself as a possible father. Does this strike anyone else as a total betrayal of the character’s deepest beliefs? The alternative is that he’s lying about said experience, which I don’t really buy either, or he wouldn’t have been so casual about asking Irene. And the way the whole scene plays out feels really pointless, except to have both the characters bragging about how much sex they’ve had, as if that somehow makes them better people. It has nothing to do with the story.

Overall this was a pretty good adventure, and although things wrap up in one sense, the deeper threads point towards a series. I rate this book Recommended.

Knightley Academy (Knightley Academy #1)

Title: Knightley Academy

Author: Violet Haberdasher

Series: Knightley Academy #1

Henry may only be a servant at the prestigious Midsummer School for Boys, but he’s not content to stay there for the rest of his life. So when a chance comes up to test for admittance to the prestigious Knightley Academy, he jumps at it. But not everyone is happy about the old class lines being broken down. Not everyone wants a commoner at the traditionally nobles-only Knightley Academy. And although Henry is in it for himself, he soon realizes he’s carrying much more than his own hopes and dreams.

I probably would’ve cared more about the overall class structure challenge part of the story (which is a large part) if the overall worldbuilding had been better. The focus stays on Henry and almost exclusively on the two schools he’s part of, as a servant and then a student. This was good for the schools, but not so great when trying to figure out how the world works. The Knights can function as detectives, policemen, and peacekeepers, but the only knight we ever see in action is just directing traffic at the train station. There’s no sense of the political landscape on the Knightley side, beyond the Knights themselves, but this becomes important when dealing with the neighboring country, the Nordlands. So I though the whole thing could’ve benefited from a bit more information on the rest of the setting. (I also didn’t buy that a treaty alone would convince multiple nations to basically disarm, but, well, I was reading a school story, so I let that one slide.)

The characters are well-done. I didn’t buy the ending twist about the ultimate villain, but I did appreciate how various characters—especially the unpleasant ones—were shown to be simply human. Even though the bullies can come across as rather one-dimensional in their defense of a system that mostly benefits them to the detriment of everyone else, they still aren’t entirely monsters. Henry does seem to blow off his earliest attempts to be friendly with the non-commoner students, which was a bit annoying, but understandable.

Overall this wasn’t a bad read, just one I thought could’ve used more worldbuilding to really ground the story in a country/place rather than just a building. I had trouble placing the existence of magic for a long time, since curses feature prominently in the beginning, but it appears this is more of an alternate-history than alternate-world. And despite the solid characters, not much grabbed me in the story overall. I rate this book Neutral.

Dreamwood

Title: Dreamwood

Author: Heather Mackey

Lucy is quite sure her father will forgive her for interpreting his note to mean he wants her to leave the boarding school she loathes and join him in Saarthe. Even if he hasn’t replied to the letter she sent warning him she was coming. But when she reaches the Northwest Territories, she discovers layers of mysteries—and her father’s whereabouts one of them. Still, she’s not about to back down, even if it means entering the most forbidden part of the area to find him . . .

The characters are the strongest part of the book. Lucy and Peter are each quite talented, in their own ways, but they need each other in order to get through the supernatural wilderness where they find themselves. For Lucy, who is used to being independent and always having the answers, working with another person is often hard and confusing. And Peter hardly appreciates her little digs or her air of superiority. They feel very solid, and it’s easy to see both the flaws and strengths in each of them.

I kind of expected the plot to go the way it did. I wish Niwa had more of a role, and that some of the odder things briefly mentioned—like men turning into wolves—got more than a nod. It was clear some forms of magic existed, but also easy to see that power is on the verge of extinction, or at least irrelevance.

So mostly this was more of a character journey than an adventure. Which is fine, as the characters were very well done, but does mean I probably won’t be rereading this. I rate this book Recommended.