August DNFs

Posted 30th August 2023 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Queer Lit, Reviews, Sci-Fi Reviews / 2 Comments

Nine DNFs this month – a new record! But in fairness, quite a few of this month’s DNFs are good books that just didn’t sync with me personally, as opposed to being objectively terrible.

A Market of Dreams and Destiny by Trip Galey
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: M/M, secondary brown character, secondary nonbinary character
Published on: 12th September 2023

Enter the bazaar of the bizarre—where fate and fortunes are for sale just beneath Covent Garden—in this high-stakes historical fantasy debut set in 19th-century London, perfect for fans of Neverwhere and The Night Circus.

Below Covent Garden lies the Under Market, where anything and everything has a a lover’s first blush, a month of honesty, five minutes of strength, a wisp of luck and fortune. As a child, Deri was sold to one of the most powerful merchants of the Under Market as a human apprentice. Now, after seventeen years of servitude and stealing his master’s secrets, Deri spots a chance to buy not only his freedom but his place amongst the Under Market’s elite.

A runaway princess escapes to the market, looking to sell her destiny. Deri knows an opportunity when he sees it and makes the bargain of the century. If Deri can sell it on, he’ll be made for life, but if he’s caught with the goods, it will cost him his freedom forever. Now that Deri has met a charming and distractingly handsome young man, and persuaded him that three dates are a suitable price for his advice and guidance, Deri realises he has more to lose than ever.

News of the princess spreads quickly and with the royal enforcers closing in, Deri finds himself the centre of his master’s unwanted attention. He’ll have to pull out all the stops to outmanoeuvre the Master Merchant, save the man he loves, make a name for himself, and possibly change the destiny of London forever.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

This one is another case of the writing sounding ‘out of tune’ to me – a problem I run into all the time, but still don’t know how to explain, or if anyone else on the planet experiences the same thing.

Galey’s Undermarket is exactly what I want from a magical market – peopled by all manner of strange, scary, and wonderful beings, with all sorts of intangible things for sale; whispers from loved ones, memories, promises, and, of course, destinies, alongside ‘yell-hounds’ (hellhounds?), arrows that never miss their targets, and firstborn children. After several very unsatisfying goblin market stories in the last few years, the Undermarket was a delight.

And I absolutely loved the explanation for how magic ended up back in the world: Henry the 8th accepted the ambassador of Faery’s offer of druidism rather than inventing the Church of England! It’s a small detail, not really relevant to what’s actually happening in the story, but it’s the kind of small detail that often makes or breaks a book for me.

But no matter how badly I want to adore this book, I just can’t deal with the prose. It’s not objectively bad; it’s just that sense of being out of tune, like the writing rhythm is just off. To me, it reads as awkward and clunky, stopping and starting constantly; distracting and discordant. But as I’ve confirmed many times, this is one of those things that not only doesn’t bother other people, other readers usually have no idea what I’m talking about – so if Market of Dreams and Destiny sounds good to you, I encourage you to go for it: it’s unlikely in the extreme that you’ll have the same issue with the prose that I do.

And aside from my issues with the writing? This book is kind of ridiculously awesome. So a DNF from me, but I do recommend it despite that!

A Fragile Enchantment by Allison Saft
Genres: Fantasy
Published on: 30th January 2024

In this romantic fantasy of manners from New York Times bestselling author Allison Saft, a magical dressmaker commissioned for a royal wedding finds herself embroiled in scandal when a gossip columnist draws attention to her undeniable chemistry with the groom.

Niamh Ó Conchobhair has never let herself long for more. The magic in her blood that lets her stitch emotions and memories into every dress she makes is the same one that will kill her—sooner rather than later—and she’s determined to spend the little time she has left guaranteeing a better life for her family. When she’s commissioned to design the wardrobe for a nearby kingdom’s royal wedding, she knows this is her one chance to make something of herself.

Niamh arrives in Avaland, where young nobles are making their debuts into society during the candlelit balls and elegant garden parties that fill the social Season. The only damper on the festivities is the groom himself: Kit Carmine, prickly, abrasive, and begrudgingly being dragged to the altar as a desperate political act. Beneath Avaland’s glittery façade, unrest is brewing, and an anonymous gossip columnist has been spreading rumors about corruption within the royal family. As Niamh grows closer to Kit, an unlikely friendship begins to blossom into something more…until the columnist starts buzzing about her chemistry with the prince, promising to leave her alone only if she helps uncover the royal family’s secrets. Niamh discovers that the rot at the heart of Avaland goes far deeper than she bargained for—but exposing it could risk a future she never let herself dream of, and a love she never thought possible.

Transporting readers to a Regency England-inspired fantasy world, A Fragile Enchantment is a sweeping romance threaded with intrigue, unforgettable characters, and a love story for the ages.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I’m kind of heartbroken about this, because I loved Saft’s A Far Wilder Magic so much, but A Fragile Enchantment is simply not working for me. It’s not quite striking the right notes for the kind of soft romantic-fantasy I enjoy, and almost halfway through the book, I still don’t feel at all invested in the characters, never mind the romance.

It’s possible that Saft setting this story in an analogue of Ireland and England, post-Great Famine, is part of what’s making me feel uncomfortable – I’m half-Irish, was born and grew up in Ireland, and it’s not that I think Saft’s depiction is disrespectful or anything; it’s more that this is a hugely dark period of history that doesn’t mix well with the light-hearted charm Saft is going for here. Saft is writing ballroom scenes, and all I can think about are the pictures and exhibits from my history books and school trips to the museums. It’s jarring, and definitely keeping me from really connecting with the story.

If you never went through the Irish school system, then that probably won’t be an issue for you. I don’t think this is a badly-written book as such, but it’s not gripping me, and I really don’t care about how all the relationships and intrigue are going to fall out. (If anything, the idea of a not-English prince potentially marrying a not-Irish woman in the political climate Saft has set up is wince-inducing to me.) So I won’t be at all surprised if most other readers enjoy this a lot, but alas, I’m not one of them – and it’s not a book I’d recommend if I was asked for romantic fantasy recs.

This isn’t going to stop me from pouncing on Saft’s future books, though, especially A Dark and Drowning Tide, out next March, which sounds like it will be much more to my taste!

Sun of Blood and Ruin by Mariely Lares
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy
Representation: Mesoamerican setting and cast
Published on: 7th November 2023
ISBN: 0063254336

Rumor has it on the streets of sixteenth-century New Spain, there's a new vigilante in town serving justice. This reimagining of Zorro--featuring a heroic warrior sorceress--weaves Mesoamerican mythology and Mexican history two decades after the Spanish conquest into a swashbuckling, historical debut fantasy with magic, intrigue, treachery, and romance.

A new legend begins...

In sixteenth-century New Spain, witchcraft is punishable by death, indigenous temples have been destroyed, and tales of mythical creatures that once roamed the land have become whispers in the night. Hidden behind a mask, Pantera uses her magic and legendary swordplay skills to fight the tyranny of Spanish rule.

To all who know her, Leonora de las Casas Tlazohtzin never leaves the palace and is promised to the heir of the Spanish throne. The respectable, law-abiding Lady Leonora faints at the sight of blood and would rather be caught dead than meddle in court affairs.
No one suspects that Leonora and Pantera are the same person. Leonora's charade is tragically good, and with magic running through her veins, she is nearly invincible. Nearly. Despite her mastery, she is destined to die young in battle, as predicted by a seer.

When an ancient prophecy of destruction threatens to come true, Leonora--and therefore Pantera--is forced to decide: surrender the mask or fight to the end. Knowing she is doomed to a short life, she is tempted to take the former option. But the legendary Pantera is destined for more than an early grave, and once she discovers the truth of her origins, not even death will stop her.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I had such high hopes for this one – genderbent Zoro retelling with Mesoamerican mythologies! – but I straight-up hated it. Choppy, jerky prose combined with a pretty bland first-person, present-tense perspective, with a heroine right out of a bad YA novel. The dialogue stops and starts and jumps topics seemingly at random, and virtually every character is a predictable, simplistic trope – the evil stepmother, the wicked guard-captain, the wise but inscrutable magical mentor. I was torn between rolling my eyes and fighting to keep them open, because I was falling asleep despite the leaping from roof to roof and all. Blunt prose turns even moments that should be exciting into snoozefests – I was either pissed off at how stupid a scene was, confused, or incredibly bored.

I mean – no sensory description of the magic, shapeshifting or wall-leaping means none of it hits me; you might as well be telling me your grocery list. Forget telling-not-showing; this is a telling-not-feeling book, which is infinitely worse.

Luckily I’m passingly familiar with the mythology Lares is drawing on here: if you’re not, good luck, because despite the clumsy 5-page-long info-dumps absolutely none of the mythos is explained. Neither is the history; do you know who Cortés is, and his role in the slaughter of the South Americas? No? Then you might want to have Wikipedia open as you read, because so much is treated like it’s general knowledge that doesn’t need explaining, when in fact a lot of readers are going to be pretty lost.

And – of course there’s a sexy pirate. Of course there is.

A really amazing premise ruined by an execution that couldn’t do it justice.

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy

Victorian missionaries travel into the heart of the newly discovered lands of the Fae, in a stunningly different fantasy that mixes Crimson Peak with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

Catherine Helstone’s brother, Laon, has disappeared in Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae. Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey, but once there, she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister house of Gethsemane. At last there comes news: her beloved brother is riding to be reunited with her soon – but the Queen of the Fae and her insane court are hard on his heels.

File Under: Fantasy

I have been banging my head against this book for THREE YEARS, and I am finally calling it quits – admitting to myself, and anyone who reads these posts, that I am never going to finish it, because I simply can’t stand it.

The premise is ridiculously cool, and the titular pendulum sun (as well as its accompanying ANGLER FISH MOON) are objectively amazing. But the writing just sends me to sleep. How is it possible for a book to get LESS interesting when the Faerie Queen enters the story?!

Ng works hard to make Faerie seem eldritch and strange, and for Gethsemane to be packed full of mysteries – but we don’t see enough of Faerie in the first third of the book for its strangeness to be enticing, and the many, MANY secrets of Gethsemane are just confusing without being interesting.

I liked the inclusion of Enochian, and really wanted to see how it was going to fit into Ng’s worldbuilding, but the reading experience is just so, so dull, and when it’s not dull, it’s frustrating in how it almost gives us something interesting, but not quite. I simply Cannot any longer. And I don’t feel like I’m missing out on much.

Talonsister by Jen Williams
Genres: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Achillean MC, minor M/M
Published on: 12th September 2023
ISBN: 1803364351

Uncover a magical past that refuses to be forgotten in a world of mythical creatures and ruthless religion in this brand-new duology from the multi-award winning author of The Ninth Rain, perfect for fans of John Gwynne and Andrea Stewart.

Leven has no memory of her life before she was a soldier. The process of turning her into a Herald – a magical killing machine – was traumatic enough that it wiped her mind clean. Now, with the war won and the Imperium satisfied, she finds herself unemployed and facing a bleak future. Her fellow Heralds are disappearing, and her own mind seems to be coming apart at the seams. Strange visions, memories she shouldn’t have, are resurfacing, and none of them make any sense. They show her Brittletain, the ancient and mysterious island that the Imperium was never able to tame. Leven resolves to go to this place of magic and warring queens, with the hope of finding who she really is.

Envoy Kaeto has done a number of important little jobs for the Imperium, most of them nasty, all of them in the shadows. His newest assignment is to escort the bone-crafter Gynid Tyleigh as she travels across the Imperium – as the woman responsible for creating the Heralds, his employers owe her a great deal. But Tyleigh’s ambition alarms even Kaeto, and her conviction that she has found a new source of Titan bones, buried deep in the earth, could lead to another, even bloodier war.

Ynis was raised by the griffins, and has never seen another human face. She lives wild, as they do, eating her meat raw and flying with her talon-sister, T’rook. The griffins fiercely protect their isolation – the piles of skulls that litter the mountains of Brittletain are testament to that – but the magic they guard will always make them a target for the greed of men. By choosing not to kill Ynis when she was just a baby, the griffins may have doomed themselves – because the girl’s past is coming for her, and it carries a lethal blade.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I am so confused about why Talonsister isn’t working for me, because everything about it is objectively amazing??? We have a human girl raised by a pair of gay griffins, we have an ancient-Ireland analogue ruled by a Boudicca-esque queen, an empire called the Starlight Imperium (I completely understand that some readers might find that kind of trite or whatever, but I adore star-things in fantasy), and warriors who can FLY and are in practical terms unstoppable because they have the bones of magical creatures fused to them!

And it’s not like there’s a problem with the prose; Williams is a great writer, whose books I’ve massively enjoyed before.


Talonsister is like a pleasant walk; while I’m reading it, it’s perfectly nice, but every time I put the book down, I have no interest in picking it up again. Despite the well-crafted world, great characters, and various plots and mysteries that by any objective measure ought to be genuinely tantalising…there’s nothing drawing me on, nothing that hooks behind my breastbone and DEMANDS I see how it all ends. It feels weirdly…forgettable? I read dozens of books at the same time, reading a few chapters here, jumping to another book and read another few chapters there, and so on, and when I jump from Talonsister, I forget it exists until I happen to see the cover on my ereader screen while looking for something else.

This is very puzzling, but with an enormous pile of books I do feel the need to get through, I can’t justify pushing on with it when I simply don’t care about it. I fully intend to come back and give it another try later, though – maybe when the sequel comes out, I can try rereading this to prepare for it. Hopefully it’ll hook me then!

A Second Chance for Yesterday by R.A. Sinn
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Queer MC, nonbinary love interest
ISBN: 1786188260

Nev Bourne is a hotshot programmer for the latest and greatest tech invention out SavePoint, the brain implant that rewinds the seconds of all our most embarrassing moments. She’s been working non-stop on the next rollout, even blowing off her boyfriend, her best friend and her family to make SavePoint 2.0. But when she hits go on the test-run, she wakes up the next day only to discover it's yesterday. She's falling backwards in time, one day at a time.

As things spiral out of control, a long-lost friend from college reappears in her life claiming they know how to save her. Airin is charming and mysterious, and somehow knows Nev intimately well. Desperate and intrigued, Nev takes a leap of faith. A friendship born of fear slowly becomes a bond of deepest trust, and possibly love. With time running out, and the whole world of SavePoint users at stake, Nev must learn what it will take to set things right, and what it will cost.

Okay: this one is not the book’s fault. This is entirely on the publisher, because the blurb Second Chance For Yesterday had on Netgalley at the time I requested it comped it to This Is How You Lose The Time War.

Which obviously made me pounce on it!

(When am I going to learn?)

Someone in the marketing or publicity department realised that was a WILDLY INACCURATE AND MISLEADING comp, and it’s not in the blurb anymore, which I am very glad of because, as I said: WILDLY INACCURATE AND MISLEADING.

Taken for what it actually is, as opposed to holding it up against Time War and finding it extremely lacking, Second Chance For Yesterday is another book that is objectively excellent: the prose is quick and addictive, the characters are wonderfully human (even if I don’t love Nev as a person, she’s a great character and I enjoyed her antics), and the future the authors have come up with is very believable, including all the probable ramifications of and uses for extremely short-term time travel.

Second Chance For Yesterday also dodges the time loop trope, since Nev isn’t reliving the same day over and over but progressively going backwards – much more interesting, imo.

Unfortunately time travel in general is not actually my jam – I never would have picked this up without the Time War comp, which led me to think Second Chance For Yesterday was going to have the same kind of…untraditional framework and storytelling style that Time War did. That’s what I was here for, and alas, Second Chance For Yesterday doesn’t have that.

So I’m DNF-ing it, but if you DO love time travel stories, then it’s very likely you’ll enjoy the hell out of this. It’s clearly a really great book; it’s just one that’s not for me!

Truth of Crowns: Book One in The Ash Eternal series by Carl D. Albert
Genres: Fantasy, High Fantasy
Representation: Indigenous-coded cast, nonbinary character
ISBN: 9798987897508

“Secrets, secrets are so fun. Secrets, secrets – cut my tongue.”

In a land where magick is heresy and ancient forces manipulate human whims, secrets will tear a fragile peace asunder. Four people stand at the heart of this burgeoning war.

An unproven prince who married a woman forbidden to him.

A sickly boy with a connection to an eldritch beast.

An outcast knight who hides the infidelity of her liege lady.

And a traitorous duke caught between the contradictions of his ideals.

Two will die. Two will rise. And the Age of Terkir will march toward its end.

Truth of Crowns is the tragic first installment in The Ash Eternal series, an epic fantasy rife with blood-soaked politics, arcane mysteries, and the human heart at conflict with itself.

I picked this up because I was promised epic fantasy with many a queer character – and I was initially pleasantly surprised, and massively intrigued, by the worldbuilding, which seemed to be built on the premise what if Indigenous Americans had started building castles?

(It’s actually more complicated than that – there’s references to the fae, bits drawn from Irish mythology, and the dominant religion features a triple god – a nice change from the usual triple goddess! – whose ‘evil’ face, events in the prologue suggest, may be incorrectly or unfairly demonised. Plus a ton of stuff that seemed to be wholly original, with no obvious – to me – real-world inspirations, including powerful Saint-Queens and female dukes, which, yes please!)

But there’s something about the prose that feels so heavy, that triggers my brain-fog hard, and despite the dream serpents, the ‘miracles or black magic?’ question, the secret marriage, the Mud King, the anti-royalist rebellion… I found I just didn’t care about any of it. And it was hard to get invested when the content warnings include transphobia and homophobia – I just don’t want to deal with that shit in my fiction, and the prose and cast weren’t nearly good enough to make me want to read on despite knowing that kind of awfulness was coming.

(Also, for the record? Having an extensive content warning list, and then finishing it with ‘among many other terrible things’ is…not a complete content warning list??? You’re literally telling us there’s other awful stuff you’re not including in your content warnings? What??? Why bother then???)

A Hundred Vicious Turns (The Broken Tower, #1) by Lee Paige O'Brien
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Nonbinary MC, major trans character (love interest?)
Published on: 12th September 2023

The heir to an arcane bloodline must outwit their ambitious rival to stop a ruthless magical adversary in a YA fantasy debut perfect for fans of A Lesson in Vengeance and Hell Followed With Us   

Rat Evans, nonbinary heir to one of the oldest magical bloodlines in New York, doesn’t cast spells anymore. For as long as Rat can remember, they’ve been surrounded by doorways no one else sees and corridors that aren’t on any map. Then one day, they opened a passage and found a broken tower in a field of weeds—and something followed them back.  

When Rat is accepted into Bellamy Arts, all they want is a place to hide and to make sure they never open another passageway again. But when the only other person who knows what really happened last year—Harker Blakely, the dangerously gifted trans boy who used to be Rat’s closest friend—turns up on campus, Rat begins to realize that Bellamy Arts might not be as safe as they’d thought. And the tower might not be through with them yet.  

Soon, Rat finds themself caught in a web of secrets and long-buried magic, with their friend-turned-enemy at their throat. But the closer they come to uncovering the truth about the tower, the further they’re drawn toward the unsettling powers that threaten to swallow them whole.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I cannot tell you how excited I was for a MAGIC SCHOOL STORY featuring a NONBINARY MC. I mean. !!!!!!!!! And then that jaw-dropping cover?!

*chef’s kiss*

But…I ended up being so bored. For a start, you really shouldn’t go into this looking for a magic school story – yes, the main setting is a magic school, but apparently that does not a magic school story automatically make. Not only do we never get to see classes, but Rat actually hates magic and doesn’t want to learn about it, never mind use it, at all. That was a pretty big shock to me, and was kind of difficult to reconcile – I didn’t really understand how even the frightening interactions with the Tower could turn someone born into and raised with magic into someone anti-magic.

(That might be more of a personal hang-up than a failure of the writing, though. I can’t, off the top of my head, think of what might be enough to turn me against magic.)

That aside, A Hundred Vicious Turns just seemed to go in circles – I think I saw another review describing Rat’s actions as ‘running in place’, and yeah, that’s very much the vibe I got too. Rat is scared; Rat hates themself for [insert repetitive reason here]; Rat is sure Harker is Up To Something. Wash, rinse, repeat. Nothing seemed to actually happen, nothing moved forward, I had no idea why the stolen map mattered so much, the characters were superficially interesting but lacking the depth required to make them feel like real people, and the prose is very plain, with no appeal of its own. There’s none of the wonder or beauty I was hoping for, either in the magic, setting, or worldbuilding; there’s nothing very interesting about this set-up. I read the first 25% of the book and honestly, you could have set it in a normal high school and it wouldn’t have changed much.

Magic’s supposed to be magical, and this is just…dull.

I don’t even think this is a case of expectations not matching reality (although I do think readers should go in knowing this isn’t a magic school story); I think A Hundred Vicious Turns is just objectively really boring. The premise is still great, but it needed to be executed very differently to be a story I could care about.

HeartbreakingIy disappointed here.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Genres: Sci Fi
PoV: First-person, past-tense
ISBN: 059331817X

From her place in the store, Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her, but when the possibility emerges that her circumstances may change forever, Klara is warned not to invest too much in the promises of humans.

In Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro looks at our rapidly changing modern world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator to explore a fundamental question: what does it mean to love?

Klara and the Sun has been on my tbr for a while now, and I really enjoyed the beginning, while Klara was at the Store, before she’d been bought as an AF (artificial friend). Klara is very sweet, almost childlike in a lot of ways, and in the beginning that’s appealing – she’s new, new to the world (which in fact she’s extremely sheltered from), trying to understand how humans work by people-watching, confused about how she works (hence obsessing over getting enough sunlight, because she’s solar-powered and what if she gets too little sunlight and starts to get weak or worn down?)

But once the story gets moving – once Klara is bought as the AF for Josie, a young girl with an unnamed, long-term illness – I rapidly lost interest. Klara’s narration doesn’t grow any more complex as she gains experience, and the whole childlike thing palls eventually. It would have been really interesting (and so clever!) from a writerly perspective if Klara’s voice had grown more sophisticated as she herself learns and grows, but she doesn’t grow – and she’s so ignorant and naive that I’m baffled as to how she, and others like her, are supposedly designed to be full-time companions to human children. If you were designing a robot that was going to accompany, entertain, and take care of a child 24/7, wouldn’t you pre-load her with at least basic medical knowledge and some understanding of psychology? Wouldn’t you give her enough general knowledge to be able to help with understanding schoolwork and completing homework? How is it that she’s thrown by something like a food blender not remaining in the same place all the time; how on EARTH does she not understand that the sun can’t help or cure humans, because they’re not solar-powered like the AFs? Come on.

And then there was just – general Lit Fic levels of family and interpersonal drama that I could not care less about and did not pick up this book looking for.

There’s nothing at all unique or groundbreaking here, and I’m very confused by all the hype. If you don’t lose taste for Klara’s narration, then I can see this being a mildly pleasant read, but Klara and the Sun has nothing to offer beyond that.

Here’s hoping for FAR fewer DNFs next month!

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 responses to “August DNFs

  1. Oh no! I’m sorry to hear Ng’s prose doesn’t work for you; it’s not for everyone for sure. I hope Talonsister clicks better at another time – I hope to get to it this winter (but first I must enter The Pomegranate Gate after your awesome review!)

    • Sia

      I feel pretty sure I’ll love Talonsister the next time I give it a try. Still don’t understand why it didn’t click for me the first time around!

      Really happy you liked the Pomegranate Gate review! Crossing my fingers that you’ll love the book too!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.