December DNFs

Posted 30th December 2021 by Siavahda in Fantasy Reviews, Reviews, Sci-Fi Reviews / 0 Comments

I’ve decided to try and start doing a monthly summary of all my DNFs, so here are a few quick scribbles on the books that didn’t work for me in December!

The Circus Infinite by Khan Wong
Published on: 8th March 2022
ISBN: 0857669680

Hunted by those who want to study his gravity powers, Jes makes his way to the best place for a mixed-species fugitive to blend in: the pleasure moon. Here, everyone just wants to be lost in the party. It doesn’t take long for him to catch the attention of the crime boss who owns the resort-casino where he lands a circus job. When the boss gets wind of the bounty on Jes’ head, he makes an offer: do anything and everything asked of him, or face vivisection.
With no other options, Jes fulfills the requests: espionage, torture, demolition. But when the boss sets the circus up to take the fall for his about-to-get-busted narcotics operation, Jes and his friends decide to bring the mobster down together. And if Jes can also avoid going back to being the prize subject of a scientist who can’t wait to dissect him? Even better.

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.

As much as I loved the idea of an asexual, half-alien empath running away to join the circus, this did not work for me at all. There were some minor worldbuilding issues, like how all members of a given species speak the same language and share the same culture – but that’s so common a thing in SFF that it only made me twitch a very little bit. (And in fairness, Wong arguably justifies it with the existence of the nine-species federation, which might well have helped each species cohere into a single identity.) But there were some very cool worldbuilding bits and pieces too, like the connections all species have to their planets of origin, and how those bonds affect a person’s psionic abilities.

He moves his body like a dancer and the balls are his partners, only two of his arms are doing one kind of dance while the other two are doing another. He juggles shifting patterns of diminishing numbers as he divests himself of one ball at a time, tossing them to the waiting assistants, until there is just one rolling in his palm. It looks like it’s floating as he passes it from hand to hand to hand. A series of short rolls, then an elongated one across a bridge formed by two arms one way, then back the other way along the other two arms. He changes his positions fluidly and Jes can’t help but wonder if there’s some kind of complex code being transmitted by the hypnotic movements.

But the prose is way, way too simplistic and blunt for me. When you’re trying to describe a series of circus acts, on a not-planet famous throughout the universe for its decadence, and it reads like a shopping list? That’s when I know this isn’t going to work. As a general rule of thumb, you need beautiful prose to convey beauty. That doesn’t mean every page needs to be florid purple, but you do need to be able to turn on the evocative, appealing description occasionally – otherwise it all feels like reading a mechanics manual, which is especially disappointing when the POV character is an empath.

A face appears, flipping up from the mound. A beautiful human face, framed by legs – the performer’s legs, he realizes, that are not in places they should be. Her chin is on the floor, framed by her feet, and her body is bent in half. The contortionist unfolds herself to the murmur of the crowd. She tumbles across the floor, the embodiment of grace, Iands in a split before sliding her front leg behind her, then bending them both forward over her head so that the tips of her toes are in front of her forehead. She presses down with her hands and lifts herself off the floor before slowly rising up into a handstand. She spins and walks on her hands to the center of the stage, kicking her legs gracefully.

I don’t think you can convey the beauty of what a really top tier juggler (with four arms!) and an equally talented contortionist can do by listing off each step of what they’re doing. It becomes mechanical rather than artistic. It’s a list of actions, not a description of a performance. There’s no poetry here, and it desperately needs some.

I’m asexual myself: I went into this book looking to champion it. But The Circus Infinite is a hard DNF from me.

Hold Fast Through the Fire (NeoG #2) by K.B. Wagers
Published on: 27th July 2021
ISBN: 0062887815

The Near-Earth Orbital Guard (Neo-G)—inspired by the real-life mission of the Coast Guard—patrols and protects the solar system. Now the crew of Zuma’s Ghost must contend with personnel changes and a powerful cabal hellbent on dominating the trade lanes in this fast-paced, action-packed follow-up to A Pale Light in the Black.
Zuma’s Ghost has won the Boarding Games for the second straight year. The crew—led by the unparalleled ability of Jenks in the cage, the brilliant pairing of Ma and Max in the pilot seats, the technical savvy of Sapphi, and the sword skills of Tamago and Rosa—has all come together to form an unstoppable team. Until it all comes apart.
Their commander and Master Chief are both retiring. Which means Jenks is getting promoted, a new commander is joining them, and a fresh-faced spacer is arriving to shake up their perfect dynamics. And while not being able to threepeat is on their minds, the more important thing is how they’re going to fulfill their mission in the black.
After a plea deal transforms a twenty-year ore-mining sentence into NeoG service, Spacer Chae Ho-ki earns a spot on the team. But there’s more to Chae that the crew doesn’t know, and they must hide a secret that could endanger everyone they love—as well as their new teammates—if it got out. At the same time, a seemingly untouchable coalition is attempting to take over trade with the Trappist colonies and start a war with the NeoG. When the crew of Zuma’s Ghost gets involved, they end up as targets of this ruthless enemy.
With new members aboard, will the team grow stronger this time around? Will they be able to win the games? And, more important, will they be able to surmount threats from both without and within? 

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 give up. I’ve been trying to read this all year, but I just keep bouncing off it. Warning signs started flashing when I reread the first book in this series to prepare for Hold Fast…and had no idea how it had ended up on my Best of 2020 list.

I don’t think this is a bad book, and I do want to come back and try it again eventually. But I found the writing style so bare and blunt, so simplistic. I still love the worldbuilding, the cast, and the effortless diversity, but I just don’t enjoy reading about those things through the lens of Wagers’ prose.

A Radical Act of Free Magic (The Shadow Histories, #2) by H.G. Parry
ISBN: 0316459143

A tale of revolution and wonder in a world not quite like our own, A Radical Act of Free Magic is the conclusion to this genre-defying series of magic, war, and the struggle for freedom in the early modern world.
The Concord has been broken, and a war of magic engulfs the world.
In France, the brilliant young battle-mage Napoleon Bonaparte has summoned a kraken from the depths, and under his command the Army of the Dead have all but conquered Europe. Britain fights back, protected by the gulf of the channel and powerful fire-magic, but Wilberforce's own battle to bring about free magic and abolition has met a dead end in the face of an increasingly fearful and repressive government. In Saint Domingue, Fina watches as Toussaint Louverture navigates these opposing forces to liberate the country.
But there is another, even darker war being fought beneath the surface: the first vampire war in hundreds of years. The enemy blood magician who orchestrated Robespierre's downfall is using the Revolutionary Wars to bring about a return to dark magic to claim all of Europe. Across the world, only a few know of his existence and the choices they make will shape the new age of magic.

This is another DNF that surprised me, because again, the first book in the series was one of my favourite reads of last year. What gives???

I just didn’t find Radical compelling. I was bored, even though I was still invested in Fina, whose story began in the previous book, and really wanted to know more about Kate, a Commoner with weather magic who we met for the first time in this book. But it just… dragged, for me. There seemed to be these long stretches where nothing was really happening, and when things did happen, all the excitement or wonder was sucked out of them. There’s a kraken, and a dragon, and neither of those things really felt special. How do you make a dragon feel mundane?! And I didn’t appreciate the plot devices that came out of nowhere – the kraken and dragon are both great examples, because nothing in the first book even suggested the existence of magical creatures. So the revelation of their inclusion felt like it came out of nowhere, and I hate that.

Wilberforce, Fina and Kate were all characters I cared about – but they were the only ones. I actively disliked almost the entirety of the rest of the cast, and even Wilberforce’s parts were painful because I knew how his campaigning for the abolition of slavery was going to go – because Parry has stuck very closely to historical events, so if you know a bit about the time period, you can predict and recognise the major milestones. That made Wilberforce’s parts more then a little depressing (although in fairness, that’s not on Parry, but on the awfulness of Britain’s history).

The Uncrowned King (The Sun Sword #2) by Michelle West

The second novel of the acclaimed Sun Sword series returns to a war-torn world of noble houses divided and demon lords unleashed...

The King’s Challenge—it was a proving ground for warriors in the Essalieyan Empire, the hallowed contest that made legends of men. And for Valedan, last survivor of the ruling family of the Dominion, it was a declaration of his right to claim the throne stolen from the Leonne clan by treachery and assassination.

Failure to earn the title of King’s Champion would not deprive Valedan of either his Dominion or Essalieyan allies, but winning would announce to the world that he was no callow boy, no mere pawn in the games of power. And the games of power were indeed being played—not only in the Empire and Dominion, but in the far more dangerous realm of the Lord of Night.

As the time of the Challenge neared, Valedan and all those who guarded him would be hard-pressed to survive long enough for him to enter the competition. For the demon kin had been set to hunt him down and destroy him. They had failed before though many innocents had paid for the price. They must not fail again, for slaying Valedan was but the opening gambit in a war that would free the Lord of Night to reign over all the mortal world....

I just. Keep falling asleep when I try to read this. I want to love this series so much, but using three pages to cover what could have fit into one paragraph only works when your prose is so unbelievably gorgeous that I’m really here for the writing more than the story. And West just doesn’t write like that.

I’m so unbelievably sick of conversations and character interactions where there are all these unspoken layers of meaning going on in what people are saying or doing…and none of them are clear to me. Am I just really stupid? Possibly. But everyone seems to be having a different conversation from the one they’re actually speaking aloud, and I don’t know what that real conversation is about – sometimes I’m not even clear on everyone who’s taking part in it. The effect is of dialogue that all sounds blandly mysterious, either incredibly banal or incomprehensible. And then there’s all the scene changes – we don’t need half of these POV characters; at least a third of what I read didn’t advance the plot in any way. And that isn’t always bad: I like it when authors take time to show off their worldbuilding, or give us quieter, more domestic and intimate moments with their characters. That kind of indulgence is one of the things that makes great fanfic > than a lot of trad-pubbed books.

But that’s not what’s going on here, unfortunately. Those extra scenes aren’t indulgent; they’re bloated.

I’d like to believe I’ll try this series again someday, but after how hard I had to fight to make it through book one, I regretfully doubt it.

The Blood Trials (The Blood Gift Duology #1) by N.E. Davenport
Published on: 5th April 2022
ISBN: 0063058480

Blending fantasy and science fiction, N. E. Davenport's fast-paced, action-packed debut kicks off a duology of loyalty and rebellion, in which a young Black woman must survive deadly trials in a racist and misogynistic society to become an elite warrior.

It's all about blood.

The blood spilled between the Republic of Mareen and the armies of the Blood Emperor long ago. The blood gifts of Mareen's deadliest enemies. The blood that runs through the elite War Houses of Mareen, the rulers of the Tribunal dedicated to keeping the republic alive.

The blood of the former Legatus, Verne Amari, murdered.

For his granddaughter, Ikenna, the only thing steady in her life was the man who had saved Mareen. The man who had trained her in secret, not just in martial skills, but in harnessing the blood gift that coursed through her.

Who trained her to keep that a secret.

But now there are too many secrets, and with her grandfather assassinated, Ikenna knows two things: that only someone on the Tribunal could have ordered his death, and that only a Praetorian Guard could have carried out that order.

Bent on revenge as much as discovering the truth, Ikenna pledges herself to the Praetorian Trials--a brutal initiation that only a quarter of the aspirants survive. She subjects herself to the racism directed against her half-Khanaian heritage and the misogyny of a society that cherishes progeny over prodigy, all while hiding a power that--if found out--would subject her to execution...or worse. Ikenna is willing to risk it all because she needs to find out who murdered her grandfather...and then she needs to kill them.

Mareen has been at peace for a long time...

Ikenna joining the Praetorians is about to change all that.

Magic and technology converge in the first part of this stunning debut duology, where loyalty to oneself--and one's blood--is more important than anything.

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.

First-person present-tense is my kryptonite. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single time it’s worked for me. I hate it with a completely irrational intensity, and I’ve never been able to explain why, even to myself. But this is why I wish there was an excerpt of every ARC, one you could check out before you hit the request button. I’ve seen excerpts on Netgalley a few times, so I know it can be done… Because really, this is a book I shouldn’t have requested. I can’t come close to judging it objectively.

So take it with a heavy dose of salt when I say: what I read of this read like YA, not Adult. And pretty bad YA, at that. There’s a lot of info-dumping, a hot-headed MC whose behaviour and personality make almost no sense in the context of the upbringing we’re told she’s had (even if she is grieving the death of the grandfather who raised her) and a world whose premise is interesting, but isn’t really explored – definitely not as much as I would have liked. The male bestie is introduced as a drop-dead-gorgeous lady’s man, and the female bestie is named Selene, even though this is another world – making the reference to a Greek goddess extremely jarring and so, so unnecessary.

(This is a culture that literally kills people for having any connections to any god ever, so WHY IS SHE NAMED FOR ONE???)

I also massively overestimated my ability to handle stories dealing with racism and misogyny. I must have been in a very different headspace when I requested it, but I’ve felt too raw for narratives like that for a while now. That’s not a reflection on the book; that part of my Nope-feels is definitely an it’s-me-not-you thing. Your mileage will definitely vary.

Probably a whole lot of people are going to enjoy this, but I am definitely not one of them.

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