March DNFs

Posted 30th March 2022 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Reviews / 0 Comments

Full disclosure: I started new meds midway through this month that made me very restless and messed with my ability to focus, so take these with a larger-than-usual pinch of salt.

The Bone Orchard by Sara A. Mueller
Genres: Fantasy
PoV: 3rd person past tense, multiple PoVs
Published on: 22nd March 2022
ISBN: 1250776945
Goodreads
two-half-stars

Charm is a witch, and she is alone. The last of a line of conquered necromantic workers, now confined within the yard of regrown bone trees at Orchard House, and the secrets of their marrow.

Charm is a prisoner, and a survivor. Charm tends the trees and their clattering fruit for the sake of her children, painstakingly grown and regrown with its fruit: Shame, Justice, Desire, Pride, and Pain.

Charm is a whore, and a madam. The wealthy and powerful of Borenguard come to her house to buy time with the girls who aren't real.

Except on Tuesdays, which is when the Emperor himself lays claim to his mistress, Charm herself.

now—Charm is also the only person who can keep an empire together, as the Emperor summons her to his deathbed, and charges her with choosing which of his awful, faithless sons will carry on the empire—by discovering which one is responsible for his own murder.

If she does this last thing, she will finally have what has been denied her since the fall of Inshil—her freedom. But she will also be betraying the ghosts past and present that live on within her heart.

Charm must choose. Her dead Emperor’s will or the whispers of her own ghosts. Justice for the empire or her own revenge.

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 was really surprised to end up DNF-ing The Bone Orchard – it was one of my most anticipated releases of 2022, and I really enjoyed the beginning of the book. The prose was compared to Jacqueline Carey’s in the pre-release materials! But something didn’t quite work, and when I got to the halfway point and realised I had no interest in how it ended – well.

It’s really hard to explain what about this didn’t work for me. It’s specifically the prose – it’s…too fast-paced? I don’t know the technical terminology, but reading it was like…a paragraph would abruptly change halfway through to focus on a new thing. Or there would be a jump in topics between one paragraph and the next, with no transition. Details were shared in random places, jarring the flow of the writing. It’s kind of subtle; it took me forever to realise what was making me uncomfortable and disinterested.

Plot-wise, the story seemed to be packed full of All The Things, with not a whole lot of room for any of those things to get much emotional development – so I really didn’t care about almost any of it. Also, even once I was halfway through the book, I still had no idea who the Emperor’s murderer was – I didn’t have even the most tentative theory, it felt like there was no evidence one way or another on any of the suspects – and the book kept introducing new characters and issues and objects and expecting me to be immediately invested in them, despite not giving me much to work with. There were so many little sub-plots or threads going on, but even though I could follow most of them, none of them felt important, and most of them didn’t feel very relevant to the main story. (Possibly it would all have come together in the second half of the book, in fairness.) I had no idea why x, y or z was supposed to matter, which was frustrating in the extreme when the characters treated the thing as Very Significant.

The premise of Mistress Charm and the bone-ghosts, the true nature of them all, was very cool, but the execution felt a little clumsy to me, particularly the dynamic and interaction of Charm and The Lady.

I probably could have put up with all of that if the prose was actually Carey-esque, but as implied, it was not. The jerkiness especially was just not something I could put up with – it was incredibly grating, and the effect just got worse as the book went along.

This review over on Goodreads puts most of the problems with The Bone Orchard very well, I think.

Ordinary Monsters (The Talents Trilogy, #1) by J.M. Miro
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy
Representation: Black PoV character
PoV: 3rd person, past tense, multiple PoVs
Published on: 7th June 2022
Goodreads

A STUNNING NEW WORK OF HISTORICAL FANTASY, J. M. MIRO'S ORDINARY MONSTERS INTRODUCES READERS TO THE DARK, LABYRINTHINE WORLD OF THE TALENTS

England, 1882. In Victorian London, two children with mysterious powers are hunted by a figure of darkness—a man made of smoke.

Sixteen-year-old Charlie Ovid, despite a brutal childhood in Mississippi, doesn't have a scar on him. His body heals itself, whether he wants it to or not. Marlowe, a foundling from a railway freight car, shines with a strange bluish light. He can melt or mend flesh. When a jaded female detective is recruited to escort them to safety, all three begin a journey into the nature of difference, and belonging, and the shadowy edges of the monstrous.

What follows is a story of wonder and betrayal, from the gaslit streets of London, and the wooden theatres of Meiji-era Tokyo, to an eerie estate outside Edinburgh where other children with gifts - the Talents - have been gathered. There, the world of the dead and the world of the living threaten to collide. And as secrets within the Institute unfurl, Marlowe, Charlie and the rest of the Talents will discover the truth about their abilities, and the nature of what is stalking them: that the worst monsters sometimes come bearing the sweetest gifts.

Riveting in its scope, exquisitely written, Ordinary Monsters presents a catastrophic vision of the Victorian world—and of the gifted, broken children who must save it.

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 don’t think Ordinary Monsters is a bad book at all – I suspect it will get very high ratings from most readers, and probably deserves to. This is one of those times where the problem is almost certainly the reader, not the book.

It just felt so heavy. Both in tone – it’s not grimdark, I don’t think, but the characters are not rich white people, there’s a great deal of poverty and some pretty horrific racism near the start of the book – and prose-wise. It’s hard to explain, which I think is a sign that the issue is me, not Ordinary Monsters. I’m just not up to reading this right now, and in fairness I don’t think I’ll come back to it – I hope things get better for the characters, but although I found all of them interesting and many of them sympathetic, I didn’t form any attachment to any of them; I’m just not emotionally invested, and the tone of the story is so grim, which…is just not something I enjoy. And I don’t want to trudge through the grimness in the hopes that it’ll get better later on in the story – especially since there was no hint that that was going to happen.

So a DNF from me.

The Splendid City by Karen Heuler
Genres: Fantasy
PoV: 3rd person, past tense
Published on: 12th July 2022
Goodreads


A genre-blending story of modern witchcraft, a police state and WTF characters, for fans of Alice Hoffman and Madeline Miller.

In the state of Liberty, water is rationed at alarming prices, free speech is hardly without a cost, and Texas has just declared itself its own country. In this society, paranoia is well-suited because eyes and ears are all around, and they are judging. Always judging. This terrifying (and yet somehow vaguely familiar) terrain is explored via Eleanor - a young woman eagerly learning about the gifts of her magic through the support of her coven.

But being a white witch is not as easy as they portray it in the books, and she's already been placed under 'house arrest' with a letch named Stan, a co-worker who wronged her in the past and now exists in the form of a cat. A talking cat who loves craft beers, picket lines, and duping and 'shooting' people.

Eleanor has no time for Stan and his shenanigans, because she finds herself helping another coven locate a missing witch which she thinks is mysteriously linked to the shortage of water in Liberty.

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 was originally on my list of Unmissable SFF of 2022, but I didn’t even make it three chapters into the ARC. So insert the usual caveats here re the book might have gotten a lot better after that!

I think a big part of the problem was the tone – The Splendid City is an oil-and-water mix of surreal humour, shock, and Being Serious; it opens with a cat walking around on two legs, carrying a gun in his fanny-pack, which he uses to shoot (non-fatally) a woman waiting for her bus. ??? The other problem was probably the dissonance between what I was expecting and what I got, because I was assuming the ex-boyfriend-turned-cat was going to be something like Salem in the Sabrina the Teenage Witch show back in the 90s, and that is…not the kind of human-turned-cat we’re talking about here.

I’m just not a fan of this surreal/not blend, a story that simultaneously wants to be weird and take itself seriously – and worse, expect me to take it seriously. It didn’t help that The Splendid City starts in what feels like the middle of the story – the ex is already a cat, after all, we don’t see that happen – which left me feeling pretty lost, even with the info-dump-esque dialogue that tried to cover for it.

Very interested to see what other readers end up thinking of this one, but I suspect I will not be giving it another go later.

In a Garden Burning Gold by Rory Power
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Bisexual MC
PoV: 3rd person past tense, multiple PoVs
Published on: 5th April 2022
ISBN: 0593354974
Goodreads

Twins imbued with incredible magic and near-immortality will do anything to keep their family safe—even if it tears the siblings apart—in the first book of a mythic epic fantasy from the New York Times bestselling author of Wilder Girls.

Rhea and her twin brother, Lexos, have spent an eternity helping their father rule their small, unstable country, using their control over the seasons, tides, and stars to keep the people in line. For a hundred years, they've been each other's only ally, defending each other and their younger siblings against their father's increasingly unpredictable anger.

Now, with an independence movement gaining ground and their father's rule weakening, the twins must take matters into their own hands to keep their family—and their entire world—from crashing down around them. But other nations are jockeying for power, ready to cross and double cross, and if Rhea and Lexos aren't careful, they'll end up facing each other across the battlefield.

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 was my first Rory Powers book, and I was so in love with it in the beginning! The magic is properly magical – mysterious, its mechanics unexplained but exquisitely beautiful, like the way Lexos has to embroider the stars on the sky every night! And the prose describing that magic is utterly sworn-worthy.

But this read for more like unsophisticated YA than what I expect of Adult Fantasy. Thea and Lexos are meant to be over 100 years old, but they behave and think like teenagers, and that’s just something I’m so tired of seeing. Not even the excuse that they’re both quite sheltered explains or excuses it; particularly Rhea, who, as she says herself, is constantly leaving home to spend weeks or months all over, and thus should have been exposed to all sorts of different experiences.

Then there’s the fact that Lexos and Thea just. don’t. TALK to each other, and I’m sorry, that trope is just Tired. I am tired of that trope. Especially after having read several Adult Fantasies this year where the characters act like actual, mature adults and communicate with each other even when it’s difficult.

Beautiful magic aside, this just feels like YA, with a lot of the usual YA tropes, and it just couldn’t hold my interest. The narrative wasn’t complex or sophisticated enough to pull off what Powers was trying to do for an Adult audience, in my opinion. I could see the twists coming from miles away, and that’s just not fun to read, not in a book that isn’t supposed to be light and fluffy and escapist.

I do think it’s unfair for other reviewers to critique the worldbuilding as a poor example of this place/that place/whichever place, when Powers specifically mentions in the author note that her world isn’t meant to be an analogue of any real-world country or culture. (Other critiques of the worldbuilding are more valid, although personally I was comfortable with the level of detail and explanation we got.)

If I’d read this a decade ago, I might have loved it, and I’m sure there will be plenty of readers who do enjoy it – readers who are much happier with YA/Adult blends than I am will likely have no problem with Garden Burning Gold at all.

The First Binding by R.R. Virdi
Genres: Fantasy, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: South Asian-coded MC
PoV: 1st person, past tense
Published on: 16th August 2022
ISBN: 1250799341
Goodreads
one-star

All legends are born of truths. And just as much lies. These are mine. Judge me for what you will. But you will hear my story first.

I buried the village of Ampur under a mountain of ice and snow. Then I killed their god. I've stolen old magics and been cursed for it. I started a war with those that walked before mankind and lost the princess I loved, and wanted to save. I've called lightning and bound fire. I am legend. And I am a monster.

My name is Ari.

And this is the story of how I let loose the first evil.

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.

A disclaimer: I did not get far into this book at all. My usual rule is to not DNF a book before at least the 20% mark, but readers, I didn’t even make it to 10% before I wanted to throw this thing out a window. So it is very possible that First Binding gets much better after a rocky start. Take my following review with a fair bit of salt.

The biggest issue I have with it is something that I doubt other readers will even notice: the ‘rhythm’ of the prose is off for me, like listening to a song that’s just a little out of tune. I really wish I had the technical knowledge to be able to explain this, because it’s an issue I run into a lot – often with books other readers enjoy, so I do think it’s more a me-problem than a book-problem. But when you put a comma after ‘but’ and ‘though’ at the start of every sentence, my eye starts twitching, and I’m not a fan of first-person anyway, so The First Binding was already working at a disadvantage.

But this is just so pretentious. It’s over 1000 pages on my Kindle, and I’m willing to bet that’s because the entire thing is the main character loving the sound of his own voice way, way too much.

The worst sort of prison held the Three Tales Tavern.

An emptiness.

A stillness.

And that is always meant to be broken.

It hung like a cord gone taut, quivering and waiting to snap. It was the quiet of held breaths, wanting for a voice, but ready to bite at any that dare make noise. It was the soundlessness of men too tired to speak and with an ear to hear even less. And all the stillness of an audience waiting for the play to begin.

This opening reminds me, painfully, of the opening to the first draft of the first book I wrote at 13, which was an awful lot of purple prose about the fact that it was raining. I just Cannot. It’s so…I’m blanking on coming up with anything other than pretentious again. I think it’s largely because this is in first-person. You can get away with this kind of thing in third-person, I think, sometimes, if you’re a good enough writer. But first-person? If you speak like this in first-person I already think your narrator is a jackass, and that’s not a great way to begin our relationship.

It just gets worse and worse from there. The magic system is intriguingly different to anything I’ve seen before – it involves ‘folding’ the mind like origami, as best I can make out – but that can’t trump describing the first female character you take notice of as having skin like cooked sugar. I really hope she turns out to be an ice-cold assassin or something, but she’s introduced as a singer who strokes men’s collars and bats her eyes and is The Most Beautiful and wow this is a very Straight Male book, isn’t it?

None of the drink left a trail of foam and froth across her lips. It was like it refused to adhere.

I’m having flashbacks to Kvothe obsessing over Denna in Name of the Wind.

And the singer isn’t even the first time we get these vibes; before she’s introduced in chapter 2 (in a chapter titled A Dark and Wild Woman, which, how about NO) we get this;

“It’s a silly thing–a woman was involved.”

There always is–always.

And this

Her. How so many stories start.

I really hope I’m wrong, and this book subverts all my new expectations of it, but everything I read screamed ‘dudebro book’ and I am just not here for that.

The Language of Roses by Heather Rose Jones
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Aromantic asexual MC, F/F
PoV: 1st person present tense, 3rd person past tense, multiple PoVs
Published on: 14th April 2022
Goodreads

A Beauty.
A Beast.
A Curse.

This is not the story you know.

Join author Heather Rose Jones on a new and magical journey into the heart of a familiar fairytale. Meet Alys, eldest daughter of a merchant, a merchant who foolishly plucks a rose from a briar as he flees from the home of a terrifying fay Beast and his seemingly icy sister. Now Alys must pay the price to save his life and allow the Beast, the once handsome Philippe, to pay court to her.

But Alys has never fallen in love with anyone; how can she love a Beast? The fairy Peronelle, waiting in the woods to see the culmination of her curse, is sure that she will fail. Yet, if she does, Philippe’s sister Grace and her beloved Eglantine, trapped in an enchanted briar in the garden, will pay a terrible price. Unless Alys can find another way…

This is the third volume of the Queen of Swords Press Mini Series.

I’m really upset about it, but I’m just not enjoying this. The prose is a bit too blunt, and something about the rhythm of the writing bothers me like a toothache. I wanted to love this so badly, and I really hope other readers do, but I just don’t. When you know (or think you know) how the story’s going to end, there needs to be something else to keep you invested, and for me there was nothing – especially with two of the biggest secrets revealed before the halfway mark.

Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Desi setting and cast, asexual MC
PoV: 1st person past tense
Published on: 26th April 2022
ISBN: 0759557330
Goodreads

"Patel’s mesmerizing debut shines a brilliant light on the vilified queen from the Ramayana….This easily earns its place on shelves alongside Madeline Miller’s Circe." –Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“I was born on the full moon under an auspicious constellation, the holiest of positions—much good it did me.”

So begins Kaikeyi’s story. The only daughter of the kingdom of Kekaya, she is raised on tales about the might and benevolence of the gods: how they churned the vast ocean to obtain the nectar of immortality, how they vanquish evil and ensure the land of Bharat prospers, and how they offer powerful boons to the devout and the wise. Yet she watches as her father unceremoniously banishes her mother, listens as her own worth is reduced to how great a marriage alliance she can secure. And when she calls upon the gods for help, they never seem to hear.

Desperate for some measure of independence, she turns to the texts she once read with her mother and discovers a magic that is hers alone. With this power, Kaikeyi transforms herself from an overlooked princess into a warrior, diplomat, and most favored queen, determined to carve a better world for herself and the women around her.

But as the evil from her childhood stories threatens the cosmic order, the path she has forged clashes with the destiny the gods have chosen for her family. And Kaikeyi must decide if resistance is worth the destruction it will wreak—and what legacy she intends to leave behind.

A stunning debut from a powerful new voice, Kaikeyi is a tale of fate, family, courage, and heartbreak—of an extraordinary woman determined to leave her mark in a world where gods and men dictate the shape of things to come.

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 is not a bad book…but it’s also just not one I’m interested in finishing. I’m not invested, and I don’t know why, because everything about this seems catered to my tastes. And yet the thought of continuing makes me feel exhausted – not because the book is a heavy slog – it really isn’t – just… I just don’t care how the story is going to end.

Unfortunately Kaikeyi’s story is just too familiar – the princess frustrated with the limitations that come with womanhood in her culture, who learns to fight in secret, who is smarter than those around her but rarely appreciated…etc. And it’s not fair, because we haven’t seen that format/these tropes with a Desi protagonist before, but that doesn’t change the fact that I feel like I’ve read this story 100 times, and Kaikeyi doesn’t feel like it’s doing anything new.

Maybe if I pushed through further – I’m quitting at 26%, 6% after my usual cut-off point – it would turn into something new; after all, I don’t know anything about Kaikeyi as a mythological figure. But I don’t feel any desire to keep reading – just guilt that it didn’t work for me.

I think readers who loved Circe by Madeline Miller will love this to pieces – Kaikeyi has a very similar tone and vibe, and the voices feel comparable too. And I do urge other readers to give it a try, because it’s even odds that this is more a me problem than a book problem.

Sweep of Stars (Astra Black #1) by Maurice Broaddus
Genres: Sci Fi
Representation: Black cast
PoV: 1st, 2nd, 3rd
Goodreads

Maurice Broaddus's Sweep of Stars is the first in a trilogy that explores the struggles of an empire. Epic in scope and intimate in voice, it follows members of the Muungano empire – a far-reaching coalition of city-states that stretches from O.E. (original earth) to Titan – as it faces an escalating series of threats.

"The beauty in blackness is its ability to transform. Like energy we are neither created nor destroyed, though many try." - West African Proverb

The Muungano empire strived and struggled to form a utopia when they split away from old earth. Freeing themselves from the endless wars and oppression of their home planet in order to shape their own futures and create a far-reaching coalition of city-states that stretched from Earth and Mars to Titan.

With the wisdom of their ancestors, the leadership of their elders, the power and vision of their scientists and warriors they charted a course to a better future. But the old powers could not allow them to thrive and have now set in motion new plots to destroy all that they've built.

In the fire to come they will face down their greatest struggle yet.

Amachi Adisa and other young leaders will contend with each other for the power to galvanize their people and chart the next course for the empire.

Fela Buhari and her elite unit will take the fight to regions not seen by human eyes, but no training will be enough to bring them all home.

Stacia Chikeke, captain of the starship Cypher, will face down enemies across the stars, and within her own vessel, as she searches for the answers that could save them all.

The only way is forward.

This is yet another I was surprised to not-enjoy – especially after I downloaded and read the free preview, and loved it! But I can’t put up with sentences that read like they’re missing multiple words (not like a deliberate dialect) and characters whose voices are completely interchangeable, despite jumping between first, second, and third person narration. The prose jerks rather than flows, and characters make huge leaps to conclusions the reader just can’t follow – it’s like reading complex Math problems where noone showed their working; I have no idea how you got from point A to point L.

The premise is wonderful, and I really liked what I saw of the worldbuilding, but I didn’t enjoy the execution at all.

Hopefully April will have fewer disappointments!

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