Epic Fantasy Book Review: Fire in the Dawn

Fire In The Dawn is a dark, fascinating epic fantasy from Justin Fike, the first in his Twin Skies trilogy. It blends epic fantasy with multiple sets of cultural practices and mythologies from throughout Asia, which gives the entire book an interesting pan-Asian flair.

We open with a beautiful prologue involving a human character journeying to the world of the Velynn, the sky gods and goddeses that rule over Fire In the Dawn‘s world. The character demonstrates the magic of the four elements of Fike’s world, and with his incantations and motions we get some beautiful philosophy and poetry to go with the demonstration of magic.

Fast forward to Chapter One and we meet our protagonist, Kyren, the son of the fallen Emperor who was betrayed by one of the more powerful Se’gin (read: nobility) families working below him. We see him posing as a Rai’gin (read: peasants, no last names, lowest of the low) servant with a mental disability and musing over the fate of Rana, a beautiful Daynan (also known as Nightkin, dark-skinned remnants of another tribe that once populated the region and now has few remaining survivors) woman he has a massive crush on but cannot approach due to the aforementioned disguise.

Later in the story we discover that one of the families that had betrayed his father wants to ascend to the role of regional governor/representation in the Council of Five, the ruling body under the now Shogin, formerly emperor.

The author’s depictions of how these announcements fall out and how politics work within the world are stunning, as are his depictions of the minor characters I can’t talk about too much without spoiling future chapters.

I definitely got the sense of a fully developed world and the author’s confidence moving within it. Even the line-level writing is original and compelling, and I particularly enjoyed the little snippets of poetry, history, prose, and philosophy that head each chapter and hint at the themes contained within. Although Kyren is hot-headed and impetuous (and I disliked how much of that was attributed to his race, but we’ll get there in a moment), I found myself sympathizing with him and his plight as the book went on.

The magic system itself is well rendered and original, clearly borne of a great deal of painstaking research into the cultures he mimicked and used as the basis for his world. I’m not sure whether I can quite call appropriation here or not, but for what it’s worth I enjoyed my time spent within the world and look forward to the second book when it comes out.

I also particularly loved the climax of the novel. Although much of what happened was abstract and difficult for the character (and the reader, through the character’s confusion) to comprehend, the descriptions were stunning and my emotions rose with the peak of the text. I’m definitely looking forward to the release of the second book in the series sometime later this year.

4.5/5, well worth your time and attention.

Epic Fantasy Book Review: City of Shards

City of Shards is the debut novel in Steve Rodgers’ Spellgiver series, an epic fantasy with strong sword and sorcery overtones. I’d initially tried to get the review out for release day on the 30th, as the author was kind enough to provide me a review copy, but unexpected guests delayed my ability to finish it.

And boy was I upset about the delay!

The book opens with the story of Larin, a young orphan boy taken in by his uncle Akul, who resides in the temple of Emja, the supreme human god. When he’s around 10, he starts exhibiting strange behavior involving thrusting his fist in the air and shouting a phrase in an arcane language at the sky. Alarmed by this, his uncle secludes him in the store room of Emja’s temple, lest the priests ever discover his strange fits.

Fast forward to Larin at sixteen, and things get a bit worse for him when he manages to anger Oarl, a bully/gang leader who all but rules the Wormpile, the slum where Emja’s temple resides. He makes friends with a young thief who can stand by his side because he can “outrun everyone else in the Wormpile,” so Oarl’s men can’t touch him. When the bully gang finds out about Larin’s fits, they take to tormenting him specifically for the purpose of forcing them out of him, much to his chagrin.

Larin’s life shapes up for the better when his father contacts a sorceress. She creates a charm for him that stops the fits, and with his newfound freedom, Larin sets about taking revenge on those who hurt him. The campaign is short lived when the six-legged god of chaos and pain Morphat begins tricking the Wormpile residents into training at his temple of pain and misery, and Larin discovers his true purpose: bringing the mad demon king Haraf back into the world.

I can’t go too much deeper without spoilers, but I loved this book for all the reasons I wanted to love Breakers of the Dawn. Later on in the book we get some scenes from the point of view of an indigen (six legged monsters banished in a prior war to the icy part of the continent) general, and the creature genuinely felt both inhuman and relatable.

The writing style was gorgeous without being over the top, and despite how many unique concepts I was introduced to over the span of the novel, I never found myself lost. The magical system was well explained and I never found Rodgers breaking any of his own rules, which is a major plus. The idea of a god war between factions isn’t new, but the way this one was presented certainly was, and I found myself hooked into Larin’s (and later minor characters’ whose POV we explore from a quarter of the book onward) struggle right away.

All his characters were well developed, and the villain, once revealed, is bone-chillingly creepy without being overly generic. If I hadn’t been interrupted unexpectedly, I’d probably end up binge reading the whole thing in a night or two.

The book’s formatting was well done, though I did find a bit of odd line spacing between the chapter images and chapter headers. It didn’t bother me any, and for all I know it was an early copy glitch.

5/5, can’t wait for In the Claws of the Indigen.

YA Urban Fantasy Book Review: Shadow’s Wake

Shadow’s Wake is the debut novel in the Ruadhan Sidhe series by Aiki Flinthart. The author sent me a pre-release copy and shared an interesting tidbit: she learned how to throw knives so she could sketch out the action scenes better! That alone was pretty cool, but once I dug into the book, I knew I’d found something special.

The story opens with a young Rowan Gilmore backed into a corner at ChristChurch by two armed men who want to kidnap her for reasons she doesn’t understand. Her friend, Sarah, reveals the men threatened her mother and forced her to give up Rowan’s location. Angry and hurt, a dark power awakens within Rowan, and she ends up killing her attackers in cold blood.

Flash forward to the modern day, and we find Rowan and her mother Anna in Australia two years later. They haven’t had any signs of being pursued, and Anna is getting romantically involved with a mysterious Mitch in her company. Rowan, while training in the employee gym, makes the aquaintance of Mitch’s son Paul, who she accidentally knocks out in self defense. She’s able to convince him he fell and escapes having to explain her unusual strength, but ends up being forced to meander her way out of a date.

Paul, who isn’t used to being told “no” for anything, gives up after a mini-fit of disappointment and leaves. On her way home, Rowan gets mugged by two men and defends herself. Here she meets Fynn, a mysterious young man who seems to know something about why the men from her childhood were after her. Problem is, he has an agenda of his own.

What follows is a fast paced urban fantasy with strong sci-fi elements, combining Celtic myth, science, and young adult themes into a powerful action narrative. I really enjoyed the first person writing style and strong authorial voice that Flinthart employs throughout the novel. It kept me turning pages long into the night, as did the complex motivations of her supporting cast.

I also loved how Flinthart deftly avoids the “love triangle” trope so often foisted on female-led Urban Fantasy these days, and how she didn’t shy away from the sexually charged nature of some of the encounters between Fynn and Rowan.

The one complaint I have is that Paul felt a little underdeveloped, and the ending was less enticement and more cliffhanger. One of the major subplots in the book, the meaning of the mysterious word ocair, is left unsolved by the end, which was a bit of a disappointment. I would’ve kept reading to the next book either way, and it felt more like a tease than good storytelling.

5/5, thoroughly enjoyable read. Looking forward to the next one!

Urban Fantasy Book Review: Gargoyle Guardian Chronicles Omnibus

This is technically a review of three books by Rebecca Chastain, Magic of the Gargoyles, Curse of the Gargoyles, and Secret of the Gargoyles, all of which are packaged together in this bundle. I happened to pick it up for $0.99 on Kindle during a sale, so I definitely feel I got my money’s worth overall. I had varying opinions on each of the three books, and as such will handle each separately in this review.

Magic of the Gargoyles opens with a mid-level Earth Elemental (which took me a bit to figure out that by “elemental” the author meant magician, but we’ll get to that) named Mika Stillwater trying to repair some quartz containers for a demanding client. She has an unusual talent with quartz for someone at her power level, and manages to repair them perfectly despite most humans with talents similar to hers being unable to do that quality of work. Just as she’s sinking into the work, a beautiful panther gargoyle kit comes dashing into her home, thinking she’s a gargoyle and can help her save her friend.

She follows the kit and witnesses a terrorist act involving a fire gang that never shows up again, fueled by the life energy of the gargoyle’s littermate. This propels her into an action-packed (albeit brief) adventure in which she must rescue the rest of the litter from a wayward magician who auctions them off to the highest bidder. The worldbuilding is fantastic, as is the pacing. Her writing style is clean and readable, performing exactly as much as it needs to in order to get the story going. 5/5, it’s what led me to binge the next two books.

Curse of the Gargoyles opens up with the same client livid that her bottles weren’t finished, and one of the littermates from the first book has taken up residence in Mika’s apartment. She’s become a psuedo-celebrity as a gargoyle healer, and has taken up additional work along those lines. Soon she gets a call from the police department informing her that someone has begun insane experiments using gargoyle life energy again, this time involving separating the elements from inside the gargoyle’s bodies in defiance of nature.

This book spent more time working on defining the parameters of the magic system used in Chastain’s world, and although there was some character development and some fantastic descriptions, I didn’t find myself near as invested in the conflict in this second book. There was tension and danger, but the pacing felt off and most of the story felt like it was the same problem over and over again, more intellectual than emotional. 3/5. I still loved the characters from the first book, so I kept reading in the hopes things would get better.

Secret of the Gargoyles opens with the mystery presented at the end of Curse about a sleeping sickness that many humans had taken to be a part of the Gargoyle life cycle. After the dragon gargoyle who became her companion permanently at the end of Curse vouches for her in the presence of the mate to a sleeping gargoyle she attempts to heal (that was a mouthful), she’s declared a Gargoyle Guardian and given the secrets to eternal gargoyle life and healing, which the gargoyles deliberately kept hidden from all humans for millenia.

Mika enlists the help of one of her friends from the police force, a fire elemental she has a huge crush on but won’t admit her feelings to because she feels he’s out of her league, on a quest to delve into a dangerous area of wild magic where the key to healing the sick gargoyles lies.

This book had far better pacing than Curse, but didn’t quite live up to the potential in Magic. Chastain spends far too much time on the romantic subplot and not quite enough on the plot-plot for my tastes, though the climax and denoument were quite satisfying and in my opinion worth the wait. 4/5 stars, though I’m not sure how necessary Curse is to read in order to get here. I feel it could’ve been shortened to novella length or skipped over in favor of Magic straight into Secret.

4/5 overall for the series. I might check out the prequel/side story involving Mika’s best friend once she gets a few more books out. Not bad for $0.99.