October DNFs

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

Four books that crashed and burned for me this month – all of them ARCs.

The Nightland Express by J.M. Lee
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Trans MC, Black MC
PoV: 3rd-person, past-tense, dual PoVs
Published on: 22nd February 2022
ISBN: B0851981ZT

In antebellum America, two teens bury their secrets and join the historic Pony Express, and soon discover the mortal world is not the only one on the brink of war.

Young, poor, and orphaned in rural Missouri, Jessamine Murphy frets over her very pregnant sister, not at all sure how to feed their family until the baby is born, let alone after. When Jessamine comes across a recruitment poster reading "Pony Express Special Assignment: St. Joseph, Missouri to California. Two riders wanted. Orphans preferred," her tomboy heart skips a beat: not only for the ample risk wage, but for the adventure and the chance to track down their wayward father in California. Jessamine cuts her hair, dons a pair of pants, and steps into the world as Jesse.

At the Pony Express station, Jesse meets Ben Foley, a quiet but determined boy, so secretive about his origin story there is little doubt it must be turbulent, and they become partners. They are an odd pair—one excitedly navigating the world as a boy for the first time, the other a mixed-race young man trying to defend his freedom—yet their esteem for each other grows as they head west across the United States.

As they encounter mysterious portals that carry them miles in an eyeblink and unusual creatures with uncanny glowing eyes, it becomes clear that this is no normal mission. A second, magical realm exists just below the surface of the mortal one, intertwined since the beginning of time—but the divisive violence of colonization and war are tearing the two worlds apart.

As Ben and Jesse struggle to find themselves, they discover their unlikely alliance may be the only thing that will save them . . . and the creatures and environment of two struggling worlds.

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 forced my way far past my usual cut-off point for a DNF – 20% – and made it halfway through the book before I just couldn’t take it anymore.

I’ve been looking forward to Nightland Express since the publishing announcement – what, two, three years ago? But unfortunately, the book didn’t live up to my hopes. The pacing is frantic, which gives neither reader nor the characters any time to process the magical events they’re caught up in; and the magic itself felt so blunt and dry. There wasn’t any sense of wonder to it, no beautiful-and-terrible vibes even though that was pretty clearly what Lee was going for. The prose was very bare-bones and unlovely, and although I liked the diversity of the main characters – a gay, white-passing Black youth and a young trans man – after a reasonably strong beginning both characters seemed to lose most of their personality, becoming very two-dimensional.

It’s an easy read, a quick read, and it’s not terrible. It’s just that it’s extremely basic (although granted, maybe the second half of the book would have wowed me with its originality…if I could have made it that far) – nothing about it stands out as special or interesting. I was literally nodding off (in the middle of the day) even as All The Things were happening.


The Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbai
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Egyptian-coded cast, sapphic MC
Published on: 10th January 2023
ISBN: 0063114771

From debut author Hadeer Elsbai comes the first book in an incredibly powerful new duology, set wholly in a new world, but inspired by modern Egyptian history, about two young women--Nehal, a spoiled aristocrat used to getting what she wants and Giorgina, a poor bookshop worker used to having nothing--who find they have far more in common, particularly in their struggle for the rights of women and their ability to fight for it with forbidden elemental magic.

As a waterweaver, Nehal can move and shape any water to her will, but she's limited by her lack of formal education. She desires nothing more than to attend the newly opened Weaving Academy, take complete control of her powers, and pursue a glorious future on the battlefield with the first all-female military regiment. But her family cannot afford to let her go--crushed under her father's gambling debt, Nehal is forcibly married into a wealthy merchant family. Her new spouse, Nico, is indifferent and distant and in love with another woman, a bookseller named Giorgina.

Giorgina has her own secret, however: she is an earthweaver with dangerously uncontrollable powers. She has no money and no prospects. Her only solace comes from her activities with the Daughters of Izdihar, a radical women's rights group at the forefront of a movement with a simple goal: to attain recognition for women to have a say in their own lives. They live very different lives and come from very different means, yet Nehal and Giorgina have more in common than they think. The cause--and Nico--brings them into each other's orbit, drawn in by the group's enigmatic leader, Malak Mamdouh, and the urge to do what is right.

But their problems may seem small in the broader context of their world, as tensions are rising with a neighboring nation that desires an end to weaving and weavers. As Nehal and Giorgina fight for their rights, the threat of war looms in the background, and the two women find themselves struggling to earn--and keep--a lasting freedom.

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 one of my most anticipated releases of 2023…but I hate it.

It’s not that it’s technically bad? But I was expecting lush, gorgeous prose to go with the setting and that fabulous cover, and instead the writing is extremely basic, even blunt. The first few chapters are just a barrage of clumsy telling-telling-telling, all of it far more simplistic than I expect from Adult Fantasy. I was looking for intricate, detailed worldbuilding and politics and all, and I just didn’t find it here.

And it’s boring. The sexism the women have to deal with is appropriately rage-inducing, but a whole bunch of people were acting pretty stupidly because, I guess, the plot required them to. (Using blasphemous magic to attack a counter-protestor? Sure, that’s exactly what a real leader of a movement would do, and nevermind that the crowd is a breath away from rioting already! But the riot has to happen for the plot, so insert shrug here, I guess.) Events moved incredibly quickly, so there was no time for any of it to have real emotional impact, which in turn made them uninteresting. It didn’t help that most of the characters felt two-dimensional at best, defined by just one or two traits rather than being fully fleshed out. There was nothing to latch onto with any of the cast, no way to really make myself care about any of the characters.

I really, desperately wanted to love this. I tried to. But it wasn’t meant to be, I guess.

Tread of Angels by Rebecca Roanhorse
Genres: Fantasy
Published on: 15th November 2022

Celeste, a card sharp with a penchant for trouble, takes on the role of advocatus diaboli, to defend her sister Mariel, accused of murdering a Virtue, a member of the ruling class in the mining town of Goetia, in a new world of dark fantasy.

High in the remote mountains, the town of Goetia is booming as prospectors from near and far come to mine the powerful new element Divinity. Divinity is the remains of the body of the rebel Abaddon, who fell to earth during Heaven's War, and it powers the world’s most inventive and innovative technologies, ushering in a new age of progress. However, only the descendants of those that rebelled, called Fallen, possess the ability to see the rich lodes of the precious element. That makes them a necessary evil among the good and righteous people called the Elect, and Goetia a town segregated by ancestry and class.

Celeste and Mariel are two Fallen sisters, bound by blood but raised in separate worlds. Celeste grew up with her father, passing in privileged Elect society, while Mariel stayed with their mother in the Fallen slums of Goetia. Upon her father’s death, Celeste returns to Goetia and reunites with Mariel. Mariel is a great beauty with an angelic voice, and Celeste, wracked by guilt for leaving her sister behind, becomes her fiercest protector.

When Mariel is accused of murdering a Virtue, the powerful Order of the Archangels that rule Goetia, Celeste must take on the role of Advocatus Diaboli (Devil’s Advocate) and defend her sister in the secretive courts of the Virtue. Celeste, aided by her ex-lover, Abraxas, who was once one of the rebels great generals, sets out to prove Mariel innocent. But powerful forces among the Virtues and the Elect mining barons don’t want Celeste prying into their business, and Mariel has secrets of her own. As Celeste is drawn deeper into the dark side of Goetia, she unravel a layer of lies and manipulation that may doom Mariel and puts her own immortal soul at risk, in this dark fantasy noir from the bestselling mastermind Rebecca Roanhorse.

I’m bored, I’m bored, I’m so fucking bored.

To be fair, there was also a miscommunication here: where the blurb talks about Virtues and Archangels and so on, I thought it was referring to literal Virtues and Archangels – not humans who use those terms as titles. I went in expecting – and excited for – a very different world than the one Roanhorse created here.

But even so, I found it so incredibly dull and eye-rolling. I grit my teeth over the name Celeste (which literally translates as ‘heavenly’) but her surname is Semyaza? As in, the leader of the Watchers??? A link which is never pointed our or explained? (I ran a search in the ebook to check.) And then just a few pages in, we get, I kid you not, a mention of a saloon girl named Lilitha?

Picture me shoving my face in a pillow and screaming. And not in a good way.

I’m not even going to get started on Abraxas, the sort-of love interest who was a General in the war against Heaven (how is he still on Earth when the rest of Lucifer & co are not??? Who knows!)

My point is, if you’re interested in Tread of Angels because you’re into angelic lore, this is not the book for you. You will catch all the oh-so-clever little references and they will make you wince or grind your teeth, because they’re not half as clever as they think they are.

Even without all of this, the story is incredibly dull. Maybe it would have worked better as a novel, so the plot could have moved a little more slowly and been a fair bit more complex? It reads as rushed, in novella-form. And while I liked Celeste in theory, I don’t understand how she got to be the way she is – good (and quick) with a knife but also very naive, which doesn’t really make sense given her background and living situation. Abraxas is an embarrassing cliche. The worldbuilding is disappointingly simplistic and not very interesting.

Very much not recommended.

Where it Rains in Colour by Denise Crittendon
Genres: Sci Fi
Representation: Black cast
Published on: 13th December 2022
ISBN: 9781915202130

Swazembi is a blazing, color-rich utopia and the vacation center of the galaxy. This idyllic, peace-loving world is home to waterless seas, filled with cascading neon vapors, where tourists and residents alike soar from place to place in a swift wind force called The Sweep. No one is used to serious trouble here, especially Lileala.

Lileala is a pampered, young 50-year-old whose radiance has just earned her the revered title of Rare Indigo, the highest and most sacred of honours. But, her perfect lifestyle is shattered when a band of drug-addicts from a dying planet come up with a way to infect her with a fatal skin disease. They succeed and the unthinkable happens – Lileala Walata Sundiata loses her ability to shimmer. Where her skin should glisten like diamonds mixed with coal, instead it dulls and forms scar tissue. And she starts to hear voices in her head.

Distraught over her condition, she flees to the village where her Rare Indigo predecessor, Ahonotay, is said to be hiding. Ahonotay reveals a destiny to Lileala that awakens a new power inside her and she realises her whole life, and the galaxy, is about to change…

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.

The worldbuilding of Where It Rains In Color is amazing, and usually that would mean devouring a book to the end, regardless of the actual story – I care a lot more about interesting, epic worldbuilding then I do plot.

But even worldbuilding isn’t enough when the prose doesn’t work for me, and unfortunately that was the case here. The beginning chapters, in particular, are incredibly rough – the writing starts to smooth out around the 20% mark, but the overall rhythm is jerky and stuttering, with abrupt starts and stops that just don’t come together and had me grinding my teeth. There are too many sudden shifts in tone and rhythm and scene, as if it can’t figure out what its own style is.

The dialogue is, flatly, appalling. There’s a lot of exposition-through-dialogue that isn’t handled very well, so it feels like we’re just getting lectures from a bunch of different characters, but mostly it just…feels stilted and false, a bad script that just doesn’t sound like real people talking. And I’m not talking about the speech patterns Crittendon has created for her futuristic society – those are fine. I’m talking about how the characters switch gears mid-speech and the disjointed sentences and the seemingly random changes in topic and I just Could Not, okay? I was constantly cringing.

“Otto? The Otto next door to me?”

“Yes, that Otto,” Lileala replied, taken aback. “Don’t act so surprised. He’ll be my devoted in a few months.”

“You and Otto are getting joined?” Zizi faked a cough. “Never imagined the two of you.”

“Why?” Lileala rolled her eyes. “We were always friendly.”

a) Zizi has been away for two years – why is Lileala taken aback that Zizi doesn’t know of an engagement that happened while she was away?
b) Why is Lileala rolling her eyes? Isn’t that a weird way to talk about your fiance???

The whole book is like this. (Or, to be fair, the chunk that I read. I did DNF it. Maybe it gets a whole lot better in the second half.)

Lileala is…a character??? I don’t know what else I can call her when she seems to have a complete personality shift every few paragraphs. She goes back and forth between childish and mature, defiant and whining, shy and the life of the party. She’s chill one second and mad the next for no reason I can follow. It started off confusing and quickly became frustrating. And I still have no idea why she wants to be the Rare Indigo – okay, she entered training as a child, but she’s now an adult who hates the restrictions placed on her. So why not quit? I don’t know.

I read far enough for the book to shift away from Lileala and introduce us to a new character on a different planet – and honestly, that was even worse. One character goes from yelling, to cackling, to burying his head in his hands in three short paragraphs, and I couldn’t follow why. I mean, it’s clear in the scene why he’s angry, but the sudden about-faces to laughing and then defeated?

And then there’s this

“Listen to her,” Haliton whispered to him. “She’s crafty. That’s why she dared such an abomination as this. She and her birthmarks and her poetic way of talking, they help her get away with a lot.”

That’s just…incredibly clunky? The phrasing is so awkward. Or is it just me?

It might just be me – we’ve established I’m overly sensitive/picky about writing rhythm – and if so, then I hope you pick this up and give it a go, if the premise sounds interesting to you. But forcing myself to read this one was making me miserable, so I’m calling it quits.

Hopefully there’ll be fewer disappointing books in November!

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