The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin: A wildly imaginative and creative MG Fantasy

The Assassination of Brangwain SpurgeThe Assassination of Brangwain Spurge

by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin


Hardcover, 523 pg.
Candlewick Press, 2018
Read: January 24 – 25, 2019

Let me start with a hat-tip to Paul at Paul’s Picks for putting this on my radar. Thanks, Paul.

For a MG book, I’m surprisingly intimidated by the prospect of trying to give a synopsis. That’s probably a clue about the book. Brangwain Spurge is an elfin historian of moderate renown — when (as far as he knows) an ancient goblin relic is found in his land, he’s dispatched to present it to the goblin’s king. No elf has survived being in — much lest returning from — goblin territories in more than a century, but the conventional wisdom is that a historian should be safe — even if he is also spying.

The goblins and elves have spent centuries fighting each other, and are in a rare season without warfare — and no one expects it to last for long. Each side distrusts the other in ways that make relations between the USA and USSR in the 1960’s seem warm and cordial. So this mission of Brangwain’s is an unexpected and welcome overture of peace. Or so many people think.

Brangwain’s host is a goblin names Werfel — who’s also a historian. Werfel is a very odd, but seemingly pleasant, person living in the midst of pretty odd, and apparently pleasant, people. Every goblin he meets goes out of their way to welcome Brangwain and try to make him feel comfortable, while celebrating elfin culture. Brangwain’s a nervous guy, who has spent most of his life (going back to childhood) being insulted, bullied and overlooked — he doesn’t really see the efforts of the goblins for what it is. Besides, he’s too busy trying not to get caught while spying on his hosts.

Now, how does this elf — who most people expect is on a suicide mission — get his information back to the elves? I’m glad you asked — this is an ingenious move by Anderson and Yelchin — while alone and resting, Brangwain uses elfin magic and imagines what he’s seen which is transmitted to a device in the office of his king’s military intelligence, that takes these transmissions and “prints” them out. These would be the illustrations that make up a significant portion of this book.

Ultimately, things go awry and Brangwain and Werfel are on the run together, trying to survive and hopefully keep the peaceful overtures alive. A friendship will rise between the two as they depend on each other and realize how much they have in common.

There’s some great commentary on the power of perspective when it comes to history. Werfel and Brangwain differ greatly in their understandings of the same event/person, wholly dependent on their backgrounds. It’s all about who writes the history — even if it’s an obscure scholar — when it comes to establishing “fact.”

A little bit more about the art. First, it’s just great. This isn’t a book directed at the picture book crowd, but the art might as well be for people who can’t read the text — it’s as much of the story telling as the text. Yelchin actually saves them a couple hundred pages telling the more dramatic portions of the story in his pictures. Interestingly enough, the events described in the narration and the events depicted in the art/Brangwain’s reports differ significantly, and part of the fun of the book is comparing them. Yelchin’s art reminds me of Jules Feiffer’s from The Phantom Tollbooth, which is possibly the biggest selling point for me. Well, except the picture of a spider-creature that makes Shelob and Aragog look tame.

It’s a fun story, a little wry, and it will appeal to grade schoolers who have an off-kilter sense of humor. I really enjoyed reading it and recommend it for middle graders and their parents/older siblings alike.

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3 Stars
2019 Library Love Challenge

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Awakenings by Edward Lazellari: A Solid Beginning to a Portal Fantasy Series with a Twist

AwakeningsAwakenings

by Edward Lazellari
Series: Guardians of Aandor, Volume One

Hardcover, 348 pg.
Tor Books, 2011

Read: January 12 – 15, 2019


When I heard Lazellari talk about the setup to this novel/series on The Once and Future Podcast, I knew I had to give this a shot. I just love the premise — to secure the future of a war-torn fantasy world, a group of loyal subjects take a royal infant into our world via a great magic working. Once here, something goes horribly wrong and they forget who they are and split up.

Thirteen years later, more people come into our world from theirs — hunting for the now young man. Not as much goes wrong for them — they retain their identities, if not all their magic (this just isn’t the right kind of world in the multiverse for magic to work easily). Once they’ve somewhat acclimatized to Earth (aided by a spell or two), they begin hunting for the protectors and the child, er, teen.

Finally, one more traveler came to Earth — a student mage (almost a full wizard, but not quite), Lelani comes, realizes what’s happened and sets out to protect those being hunted and to restore their memories. Early on, she comes across Seth, who studied with her under the same master. On Earth, Seth’s a deadbeat, drug-using photographer — mostly of desperate young women willing to pose for just about any kind of picture for a few dollars (yup, mostly those kind of pictures). Honestly, you have to work pretty hard to not want to see him eaten by something out of the Monster Manual for D&D.

You really can’t say that Lelani convinces Seth of anything, but he accompanies her as they come to retried the group’s leader. He’d been part of one of the ruling families, and was a star among the Guard. Here, he’s Cal MacDonnell, a police officer — not just a police officer, but in addition to his career, he has a wife and daughter — a whole family, one he doesn’t want to abandon for the sake of a fairy tale (even if he’s pretty sure that Lelani’s telling the truth). I think it’s this aspect of Cal’s story that grabbed me the most — he knows his duty, what’s expected of him, but he can’t just give up his life here to take up that duty. While Lelani tries to help them remember who they are, Seth and Cal set out to find the teen and their former companions.

And what of the child? He’s not officially identified, but the novel spends a lot of time talking about a young man living in a small town in New York. He’s bullied at school, his adoptive mother has married a drunk who abuses him, yet Daniel spends a lot of time defending others — friends and his sister.

The villains of this piece are more reminiscent of the more unsavory characters of Gaiman’s Neverwhere than anything that Weis, Hickman, Eddings, Tolkein, etc. created. But that doesn’t mean you can’t see them roaming around some semi-medieval land, terrorizing the populace.

This book comes across as an Urban Fantasy novel, but it’s not really one — it’s really an Epic Fantasy that takes place in New York. The feel is different than Urban Fantasy (but man, it sounds like I’m splitting hairs — but I bet it won’t when you read it). It’s a portal fantasy, with a twist. A band of heroes in a noble cause, trying to stave off chaos — not only for their world, but ours as well (now that the bad guys know where it is…a whole universe unprotected from magic and monsters).

The ending is clearly designed to propel you to the sequel (and it worked!), with Daniel in peril; Cal, Seth and Lelani poised to find him and the rest of the companions, and their foes preparing to eliminate them all. We’ve learned a lot about their world, but there’s a whole lot more to learn — ditto for the others who came here 13 years ago. Book two, The Lost Prince has a lot to accomplish, and I can’t wait to see how it does.

Here’s a bonus feature for a few readers — this is a complete trilogy, the third volume came out last year. You can dive into this without worrying about Lazellari getting distracted by life/other projects.

—–

3.5 Stars

2019 Library Love Challenge

In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire: Another Wayward Child’s story — magical, enchanting, heartbreaking. You know the drill.

In an Absent DreamIn an Absent Dream

by Seanan McGuire
Series: Wayward Children, #4

Hardcover, 204 pg.
Tor Books, 2018
Read: January 9, 2019

           …the worst she was ever called where anyone might here was “teacher’s pet,” which she took, not as an insult, but rather as a statement of fact. She was Katherine, she was the teacher’s pet, and when she grew up, she was going to be a librarian, because she couldn’t imagine knowing there was a job that was all about books and not wanting to do it.

Here’s a quick recap of this series for those of you who haven’t heard about it yet/have ignored everything I’ve said about the series these last few years: Imagine Children who go off to a magical kingdom for a bit from our world — Narnia, Fillory, the Lands Beyond, Neverland, Lyrian, whatever you call that land on the other side of the fourteenth door in Coraline, etc. — and then return home. Some will go on to live “normal” lives — others can’t forget or outgrow their attachment to the magical world — some of those, those who want more than anything to return to whatever was on the other side of the door wind up at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. This series is about some of those children.

There’s a basic outline to these books — McGuire introduces you to a Child and a new world. Her language will be lyrical, playful and enchanting. She’ll draw you in with the awe and wonder and while you’re not looking, she’ll set the hook, and you will be as emotionally tied to her characters as you are close family members*. Then something devastating will happen to those characters, and you will feel horrible, yet love the experience. No matter what kind of resolution is found in the book (death, rescue, brokenness), when you close the book you’ll almost instantly start waiting until the next book comes out, because McGuire is just that good.

In this book we meet Katherine — Katherine’s never been good at making friends her age (there are justifiable reasons for this), but she likes talking to adults more, she likes rules, and she loves reading. There’s something about each Wayward Child that readers can identify with, but Katherine is more relatable to readers than the others have been. One day, Katherine comes upon a tree that hadn’t been there before. This tree had a door in it, and before she realized what was happening — she was on the other side of the door, walking down a hall, on her way to a Goblin Market. In the last book, we saw a nonsense world — this is a logic world, through and through. There are rules, enforced by everyone who lives there — and somehow, by the world itself.

Unlike that (mostly) tongue-in-cheek outline above, each of these books are so different from the rest, it’s hard to compare them — so I’ll try not to. But the structure of this seems more different than the others have. So I’m not going to tell you any more about the plot than I have — I’ll just say it’s a great story, incredibly well told — and even when the narration tells you the ending is not going to be “kind”, you keep expecting/hoping/wanting for things to work out for Katherine and her loved ones.

I’ve made the ending sound bad — it’s not “happy,” but I’m not complaining, I’m not criticizing, I’m most definitely not warning a reader away. It’s the right ending for this story, it’s absolutely how things needed to go — but this is not the Feel-Good Novella of the Year. It is wonderfully written, beautifully written, imaginative, awe-inspiring, delightful, and eventually heartbreaking. McGuire’s one of the best at work today — and this is proof of it.

Yes, you can read these out-of-order — but I don’t recommend it. And hey, were talking 200 pages or less each, you’ve got time for that. You’ll be glad you did (once you stop feeling horrible)


* That might be a bit hyperbolic.

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5 Stars

My Favorite Non-Crime Fiction of 2018

When I was trying to come up with a Top 10 this year, I ran into a small problem (at least for me). With 44 percent of my fiction, Crime/Thriller/Mystery novels so dominated the candidates, it’s like I read nothing else. So, I decided to split them into 2 lists — one for Crime Fiction and one for Everything Else. Not the catchiest title, I grant you, but you get what you pay for.

I do think I read some books that were technically superior than some of these — but they didn’t entertain me, or grab me emotionally the way these did. And I kinda feel bad about leaving them off. But only kind of. These are my favorites, the things that have stuck with me in a way others haven’t — not the best things I read (but there’s a good deal of overlap, too). I know I read books that are worse, too — I don’t feel bad about leaving them off.

Anyway…I say this every year, but . . . Most people do this in mid-December or so, but a few years ago (before this blog), the best novel I read that year was also the last. Ever since then, I just can’t pull the trigger until January 1. Also, none of these are re-reads, I can’t have everyone losing to my re-reading books that I’ve loved for 2 decades.

Enough blather…on to the list.

(in alphabetical order by author)

Lies SleepingLies Sleeping

by Ben Aaronovitch

My original post
I’ve read all the comics (at least collected in paperback), listened to all the audiobooks, read the books at least once . . . I’m a Rivers of London/Peter Grant fan. Period. Which means two things — 1. I’m in the bag already for this series and 2. When I say that this is the best of the bunch, I know what I’m talking about. Aaronovitch writes fantastic Urban Fantasy and this is his best yet. The series has been building to this for a while, and I honestly don’t know what to expect next. Great fight/action scenes, some genuine laughs, some solid emotional moments . . . this has it all. Everything you’ve come to expect and more.

—–

5 Stars

The Fairies of SadievilleThe Fairies of Sadieville

by Alex Bledsoe

My original post
I was very excited about this book when Bledsoe announced it was the last Tufa novel. Then I never wanted it to come out — I didn’t want to say goodbye to this wonderful world he’d created. But if I have to — this is how the series should’ve gone out. It’s the best installment since the first novel — we get almost every question we had about the Tufa answered (including ones you didn’t realize you had), along with a great story. It’s just special and I’m glad I got to read this magical series.

—–

5 Stars

Dragon RoadDragon Road

by Joseph Brassey

I haven’t been able to get a post written about this –I’m not sure why. It’s superior in almost every way to the wonderful Skyfarer — the idea behind the caravan, the scope of the ship and it’s culture are more than you might think anyone has done before. A fantasy novel about wizards and warriors (and warrior wizards) in a SF setting. I had a blast reading this and I think you will, too.

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4 1/2 Stars

Kill the Farm BoyKill the Farm Boy

by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne

My original post
Probably the best comedic/parody/satire fantasy since Peter David’s Sir Apropos of Nothing. The characters are fun, well-developed and pretty strange. This is a great fantasy story, it’s a great bunch of laughs, but there’s real humans and real human reactions — it’s not all laughs but enough of it is that you won’t have to work hard to thoroughly enjoy the book.

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4 Stars

Kings of the WyldKings of the Wyld

by Nicholas Eames
Like Dragon Road, I’ve been trying to write a post about this book for months. An epic story about brotherhood, about family, about heroism, about integrity — but at its core, it’s a story about Clay Cooper. Clay’s a good man trying to stay one. He worked really hard to get to where he is, but he has to e back on the road to help his friends’ daughter. It’s a fantastic concept and set up, with an even better follow-through by Eames. Possibly the best book I read last year — and I don’t say that lightly.

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5 Stars

All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's FaultAll Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault

by James Alan Gardner

My original post
A Superhero story, a SF story, an Urban Fantasy, a story about friendship and destiny told with just enough of a light touch to fool yourself into this being a comedy. From the great title, all the way through to the end this book delivers.

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4 Stars

Smoke EatersSmoke Eaters

by Sean Grigsby

My original post
I started my original post about the book like this: Really, the case for you (or anyone) reading this book is simply and convincingly made in 13 words:

Firefighters vs. Dragons in an Urban Fantasy novel set in a futuristic dystopia.

That could’ve been my entire post, and it’s all I’m going to say now.

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4 1/2 Stars

Dark QueenDark Queen

by Faith Hunter

My original post
This could have been the series finale and I’d have been satisfied. I’m thrilled that it’s not. Hunter’s been building to this for a few books now — and it absolutely pays off the work she’s been doing. Better yet, there’s something else she’s been building toward that doesn’t get the attention it needed — and it’s devastating. The series will be different from here on out. Hunter’s as good as the genre has, and this book demonstrates it.

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5 Stars

Jimbo YojimboJimbo Yojimbo

by David W. Barbee

My original post
I don’t have words for this. I really don’t know how to say anything about this book — especially not in a paragraph. Click on the original post and know that even then I fail to do the book justice. It’s strange, gross, funny, exciting and thrilling.

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4 Stars

Beneath the Sugar SkyBeneath the Sugar Sky

by Seanan McGuire

My original post
As much as I appreciate McGuire’s Toby Daye, Indexing and InCryptid series, her Wayward Children books are possibly the best things she’d done. This allows us to spend time with characters I didn’t think we’d see again and the family — and world — of my favorite character in the series. It’s like McGuire wrote this one specifically for me. But it’s okay for you to read it, too. I’m generous like that.

—–

5 Stars

They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded by James Alan Gardner: The Newest Canadian Super-Heroes are Back in Action

 They Promised Me the Gun Wasn't Loaded They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded

by James Alan Gardner
Series: The Dark vs. Spark, #2

Paperback, 350 pg.
Tor Books, 2018

Read: November 26 – 27, 2018

When I read the first book in the series, All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, back in January, I said “the sequel can’t get here fast enough.” I didn’t quite expect to be reading it 11 months later, but I’m okay with that.

It’s just a couple of weeks after the events of the previous book, and the newly formed team of superheroes has gone home for Christmas break. Now with just a few days before classes start up again, the team is coming back. In the last book we focused on Kim/Zircon, this time our protagonist is her roommate/teammate Jools/Ninety Nine.

Jools doesn’t even make it out of the airport before she’s dealing with the police and a powerful Darkling — and maybe a powerful Spark artifact.

(Quick reminder: In this world there are two super-powered groups: the Darks/Darklings and the Sparks. The Darks are all the supernatural-types you can think of (and some you can’t): vampires, weres, etc. The Sparks are Super-Heroes and the like (although some have gone astray))

Jools, with a little help from her friends, gets out of that mess — only to find herself signed up for more.

Soon, in an effort to keep this artifact from falling into the wrong hands — Jools finds herself cut off from her friends and in the secret-hideout with a very maverick group of Sparks — a modern-day Robin Hood and his Merry Men. This gives her an opportunity to watch other Sparks in action, to see how they live and think — and come up with some ways to evaluate her new lifestyle. Also, there’s a lot of fighting and nifty tech to read about.

I wasn’t crazy about how little time we got with the rest of the team because of this, but I think in the long run, it’ll work for the strength of the series. And when we get the team together again, it’s even better to see than it was before.

Again, I had a blast with this book. Gardner’s world is ripe with story-telling possibilities and I’m enjoying watching him develop these characters and this world. Jools is a great character — a solid combination of vulnerable and snarky, unwise and ridiculously intelligent — you’ll probably end up with her as your favorite character in the series (at least until book 3). Go grab this (and the other one, too) now.

—–

4 Stars
2018 Library Love Challenge

Twisted Magics by J.C. Jackson: A Great Spin on Contemporary Fantasy Kicks Off a Promising Series

Twisted MagicsTwisted Magics

by J.C. Jackson
Series: Terra Chronicles, #1

Paperback, 220 pg.
Shadow Phoenix Publishing LLC, 2016

Read: August 30 – 31, 2018


I had a brief conversation a couple of weeks ago with J.C. Jackson and she described the book as “Science Fantasy” and told us a little about the series. Something about fantasy characters but with modern technology, but phrased better. Not really getting what she said, I asked why not just call it Urban Fantasy, and she gave a decent answer — basically that she didn’t have enough vampires or werewolves in the books so readers told her she couldn’t. I was a chapter or two in to the book when I figured out what she was saying.

In your mainstream Urban Fantasy, you have fantasy creatures — wizards, druids, werewolves, fae — popping up in our world. On the other end of the spectrum (or an other end, anyway) you have things like the Eddie LaCrosse novels or the Dragon Precinct books that have modern ideas (police squads, private investigators) used in a fantasy series. Jackson takes a different tack — it’s a typical fantasy novel in that there’s a lot of magic, elves, halflings, Dark Elves, living next to humans — very standard kind of thing, but their technology matches ours (actually, it’s slightly more advanced). I loved this approach and there’s a good chance that I’d have had nice things to say about the book just because of this idea.

I do have more reasons to say nice things, though.

Ketayl is an Elven mage who works as a a CSI-like lab tech for the Terran Intelligence Organization (a FBI-like organization). Her strength is in finding ways to use devices to do forensic investigation of magical elements of particular crimes. She’s not the most socially adept of people, clearly more secure in her lab and with clearly drawn rules governing her interaction with others.

Then there’s an explosion in the Elven Territories, seemingly magical in origin — definitely devastating. The TIO director sends Ketayl, along with the rural tracker, Retanei; and Artemis, Retanei’s wolf companion to investigate. Along with the local TIO team — which does their best to bring these agents into their community — they dive into finding those responsible. It’s a kind of magic that doesn’t play by the rules that Ketayl is used to, and powerful enough to make her nervous.

While they look for what could have caused this destruction, we learn more about the world, the magic system and Ketayl. I still have a few questions about all of those and I think some of them should’ve been addressed in the first book — but I never felt lost in this world as I waited for the details to be given. This is a pretty decent thriller when you strip away the fantastic elements, or a pretty decent fantasy tale if you take out the criminal investigation elements. Keep them combined and the whole thing is stronger.

Eventually, the TIO hires a consultant from the Paladins — their kind of music is very different from Ketayl’s. The Paladins are also very prejudiced toward other magic users, and other species. Thankfully, the Paladin sent to help the team (Silver) is pretty open-minded and doesn’t get driven right into a religious conflict (which doesn’t preclude other kinds of conflict). Silver joining the team — primarily partnering with Ketayl — brings her out of her shell a bit.

Ketayl frequently reminded me of Tilly Bradshaw, the analyst from M. W. Craven’s The Puppet Show (one of those books that I somehow haven’t had time to blog about, but you should read, if only for the Ketayl-like character). She’s a complex character that I look forward to learning more about. The rest of the characters — with Silver pretty much being the exception — aren’t as developed as you might like, but you get enough of to satisfy just about every itch you might have.

There were a few too many typos for me, and the misspellings/unfortunate slips like homonym confusion. It wasn’t horrible, but it was bad enough to stick with me.

The novel does a good job of introducing us to the characters and world while telling a compelling story. Jackson’s particular spin on merging fantasy and a 10-minutes-into-the-future world is refreshingly original. I liked the characters, the world and everything — I’ve already gone out and purchased the sequel and am trying to find time on the schedule to get it read.

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3.5 Stars

✔ Read a book written by an author from the state where you grew up.

Jade City by Fonda Lee: Immerse yourself in this world of Magic, Crime and Family

Jade CityJade City

by Fonda Lee
Series: The Green Bone Saga, #1

ARC, 444 pg.
Orbit, 2017

Read: August 15 – 16, 2018

So Fonda Lee has a great idea — others have employed it as well, don’t get me wrong, but the way she does it is great — instead of setting an Urban Fantasy in this world, just a version of it with some magic; you set it in a world a whole lot like this one — but you infuse the world with some sort of magic. A world where technology/science and magic co-exist. It’s enough like this world that you can get your hands around cultural mores and norms.

There’s this stone, a mineral, called jade. It looks a lot like our jade (from what I can tell, Hank Schrader, I’m not). Certain people are sensitive to it, and it enables them to channel magic, some become addicted to the mineral and what it does to them — others (“stone eyes”) are completely insensitive to it and are therefore the ideal candidates to shape it, transport it, and mine it. Only people from Kekon have this relationship with jade (not that unexpectedly, they’re also the world’s source for it).

There are other countries that want jade and what it can do to a person — military uses, primarily. But their people aren’t natively sensitive, so they’re working on ways to engineer the sensitivity. There’s a lot of money to be made controlling the Jade. Years ago — a generation or so — a group of “Green Bone” warriors drove foreign powers from Kekon and assumed control of the Jade trade. Working with the legitimate government, these Green Bones rule Kekon.

They are, for all intents and purposes, a criminal organization — or would’ve been were it not for a divergence of vision — they’re now two rival criminal organizations — with their own rules, laws, rituals, educational systems and cultures. There’s a Cold War between them — a perilous truce, with the citizens of Kekon stuck in the middle (paying tribute, currying favor, and occasionally serving as cannon fodder).

But then something shifts the balance of power — plans that have been brewing for years start to come to fruition and conflict erupts.

We focus on the Kaul family, their soldiers, their leadership, their friends and fortunes. There’s the aged warrior struggling with the weight of glory and past success in the face of the end of their life, there’s the new generation of leadership, trying to live up to the glories of the past and finding it more difficult than they expected. Some have tried to forge new paths in a new world, others are trying to recreate the past.

This is one of those that I can’t think how to describe without ruining everything — so that’s about as much as I’m going to say. The back cover blurb describes this as “The Godfather with Magic.” It’s easy to see why. It’s also incredibly easy to start casting various characters ___ is Michael (clearly), ___ is Tom, and if ____ isn’t Sonny, I’ll eat my hat. I do have real answers for those blanks, but I thought I’d better not give everything away. It is more than just The Godfather with Magic — but you can’t get away from that (unless you’re not that familiar with that particular work — and then you’re not missing a thing).

There’s magic, there’s a mob story, there’s family, love, loyalty . . . you name it, this book has it. Better yet, at the helm of this world you have Fonda Lee who does a great job building this world and populating it with people that the reader can relate to.

This is a rich world full of intrigue, danger, family and magic. It’s a fantastic piece of worldbuilding and you can tell that Lee has great plans in store for these characters, and I can tell that they have no clue what’s coming — and frankly, the readers have less of a clue. I’m looking forward to seeing just what it is.

Note that’s close to a disclaimer, yeah, I said ARC for a book that was published last year. How’d I manage that? Time travel? Well, no. I won the ARC at Indie Bookstore Day (or something like that). So, there be a couple of changes between what I read and the final product, but probably nothing major.

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3 Stars