Book Review: Questland by Carrie Vaughn

Title: Questland
Author: Carrie Vaughn
Publisher: John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books
Publication date: June 22, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

YOU FIND YOURSELF IN A MAZE FULL OF TWISTY PASSAGES…

 

Literature professor Dr. Addie Cox is living a happy, if sheltered, life in her ivory tower when Harris Lang, the famously eccentric billionaire tech genius, offers her an unusual job. He wants her to guide a mercenary strike team sent to infiltrate his island retreat off the northwest coast of the United States. Addie is puzzled by her role on the mission until she understands what Lang has built:  Insula Mirabilis, an isolated resort where tourists will one day pay big bucks for a convincing, high-tech-powered fantasy-world experience, complete with dragons, unicorns, and, yes, magic.

 

Unfortunately, one of the island’s employees has gone rogue and activated an invisible force shield that has cut off all outside communication. A Coast Guard cutter attempting to pass through the shield has been destroyed. Suspicion rests on Dominic Brand, the project’s head designer— and Addie Cox’s ex-boyfriend. Lang has tasked Addie and the mercenary team with taking back control of the island at any cost.

 

But Addie is wrestling demons of her own—and not the fantastical kind. Now, she must navigate the deadly traps of Insula Mirabilis as well as her own past trauma. And no d20, however lucky, can help Addie make this saving throw.

To understand the basic premise of Questland, it’s helpful to refer back to Arthur C. Clarke’s famous statement, explicitly referred to in this book:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Questland is contemporary fiction, but with technology and fantasy as its underlying themes. In Questland, Professor Addie Cox, an expert in comparative literature with a focus on mythology and fantasy, is approached by tech billionaire Harris Lang with a proposition: Help him reclaim control of his top-secret project, which has been hijacked (supposedly) by his underlings.

The project is a fantasy island in the truest sense of the words: Think Jurassic Park, but instead of T-Rex and velociraptors, insert wizards, goblins, elves, and archers. Insula Mirabilis is conceived of as a fantasy vacation resort, where hardcore gamers and fantasy geeks can immerse themselves in a world in which magic appears to be real. Thanks, of course, to the sufficiently advanced technology to pull it all off.

But Insula Mirabilis seems to have cut off all access and communication with the outside world, and Lang wants it back. Addie is sent to infiltrate the island along with a small band of mercenaries. Addie’s gaming/fantasy brain immediately recognizes her role in all this — their group may have a Cleric and a Ranger, but she’s clearly the Bard.

Her unique knowledge and experience in fantasy worlds quickly becomes important, as the team encounters a Sphinx, a maze, and all sorts of dangerous riddles and traps. Worryingly, the fail-safes for the fantasy elements seem to be turned off — so yes, those arrows and stunners and spider claws can do real damage, and worse.

Addie also carries with her very significant baggage. As a teen, she survived a school shooting, but watched her two closest friends die. Fantasy worlds and gaming became a sort of refuge for Addie:

All I’d ever wanted to do was escape. No, that wasn’t true. All I wanted was for what happened to mean something. Stories meant something, and real life… didn’t.

The plotline of Questland follows Addie and her team’s journey across the island, from the realms of dwarves to the magical and beautiful realm of elves, with random weird encounters with animal villages, Robin Hood and his Merry Men, unicorns, wargs, and more. It’s all so real — but Addie knows it’s not.

My feelings on Questland are mixed. First, delight — who wouldn’t want to inhabit a real-feeling world that incorporates every fantasy element you could possibly desire? It sounds too good to be true, and of course, none of it really is true. For all the mead and antlers and fairy lights, there’s a backroom filled with computers and controllers and transmitters. It may feel like entering a fantasy world, but the ancient stone castle is 3D-printed.

Beyond the delight of the concept, I was often frustrated by the quest itself. The overarching plotline about the corporate takeover veers between being overly complicated and just not very rational. So one faction seizes control of the island — and then everyone there just stays there, wearing costumes and acting as if they live inside the fantasy? To what end, ultimately? If Addie’s team hadn’t arrived, how long would this have gone on?

Still, it’s fun to see Addie use her wits and her geek sensibilities to outsmart the traps and puzzles of the island, getting to be heroic while those around her want to view her as a damsel to be shielded. I wish Addie’s backstory had been even more fleshed out — the pieces dealing with her PTSD and the lingering trauma of her past are sensitively depicted and quite moving.

Never having played D&D or other fantasy-based games or RPGs myself, perhaps I wasn’t quite primed to be the perfect audience for Questland, although I did appreciate how seriously Addie and the island characters take Harry Potter, the Tolkien masterpieces, Narnia, Labyrinth, and more. These aren’t presented in the wink-wink pop culture cool way of many contemporary novels that want to show their characters’ geek cred — instead, in Questland, knowledge of modern fantasy epics is as foundational as a knowledge of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey.

Overall, I enjoyed Questland, but got bored at points with the quest elements. And yet, it’s never a bad thing to see geek culture front and center, being celebrated for all its complexity and wonder. As Addie explains:

I’m not sure any of them really understand — it’s not the stuff. It’s not the magic, the unicorns, the rings. All that’s just things. Fantasy is about what you can’t patent. Honor and heroism and… and… hope.

And as the author says in the end notes:

It’s not just about the sufficiently advanced technology that appears to make magic possible. It’s about a culture hungry for worlds and stories filled with magic. That embraces a sense of wonder instead of being suspicious of it.

If you’re a fan of magical worlds, and especially if you’ve grown up immersing yourself in games and movies that transport you into those worlds, do check out Questland.

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Book Review: The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison

Title: The Witness for the Dead
Author: Katherine Addison
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: June 22, 2021
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Katherine Addison returns to the glittering world she created for her beloved novel, The Goblin Emperor, in this stand-alone sequel.

When the young half-goblin emperor Maia sought to learn who had set the bombs that killed his father and half-brothers, he turned to an obscure resident of his father’s Court, a Prelate of Ulis and a Witness for the Dead. Thara Celehar found the truth, though it did him no good to discover it. He lost his place as a retainer of his cousin the former Empress, and made far too many enemies among the many factions vying for power in the new Court. The favor of the Emperor is a dangerous coin.

Now Celehar lives in the city of Amalo, far from the Court though not exactly in exile. He has not escaped from politics, but his position gives him the ability to serve the common people of the city, which is his preference. He lives modestly, but his decency and fundamental honestly will not permit him to live quietly. As a Witness for the Dead, he can, sometimes, speak to the recently dead: see the last thing they saw, know the last thought they had, experience the last thing they felt. It is his duty use that ability to resolve disputes, to ascertain the intent of the dead, to find the killers of the murdered.

Now Celehar’s skills lead him out of the quiet and into a morass of treachery, murder, and injustice. No matter his own background with the imperial house, Celehar will stand with the commoners, and possibly find a light in the darkness.

Katherine Addison has created a fantastic world for these books – wide and deep and true.

Thara Celehar is the Witness for the Dead of this book’s title. He’s gifted with the ability to find out the truth of a death by making contact with the deceased’s body. He says a prayer of compassion, then asks the dead to answer questions. Sometimes, it’s too late, and there’s no one left in the body to answer the query. But sometimes, he’s able to get answers or at least an impression of the person’s last moments. He then bears witness for the dead person, testifying to what he’s learned in order to solve a mystery or resolve a dispute. His basic goodness allows him to carry out his duties with dignity.

However, despite being located in a smaller city far from the capitol, Thara is not completely shielded from the backbiting and political striving that characterizes the prelacy of Amalo. There are some who are jealous of Thara’s connection to the emperor; others fear that he might gain power and seek to tear him down. No matter how he tries to stay outside the fray, he’s drawn in repeatedly.

As the book opens, Thara becomes involved in several unsolved cases. In one, a family needs him to discover who their patriarch’s intended heir is, as the will is in dispute. In another, sadder case, a brother seeks his sister’s body, believing that the man she eloped with may have done her harm. And in the story that becomes the overarching plotline of the book, a beautiful young woman’s body is pulled from the canal — was her death an accident, or was she killed? And if it was murder, who did it?

As he investigates, he becomes drawn into the worlds of the opera, the rich patrons, the seedier bars and teahouses, the gambling establishments, and the law enforcement of Amalo. He persists in pursuing the truth, even when his own life and reputation are at stake. Despite his fears and doubts, Thara is always true to his calling, and his intelligence and bravery enable him to see his inquiries through until he can find the truth on behalf of the dead.

The world of The Witness for the Dead is the world of The Goblin Emperor… and I can’t even begin to describe or explain how much I love this world. Author Katherine Addison has meticulously crafted a world with a finely developed culture, religious underpinnings, class stratifications, nobility and commoners, courtiers and princes. There’s a strange beauty to the descriptions of the people and the society, and I am particularly head over heels in love with the language of The Goblin Emperor‘s world.

In her books, the author creates a vocabulary and grammar that is dizzyingly strange and difficult, making the books seem almost impenetrable at first — but if we stick with it (as I encourage everyone to do), the names of the people and places and institutions, as well as the forms of address and the contrasting formal and informal speech patterns, all create a sort of linguistic magic. As I re-read The Goblin Emperor via audiobook, I was enthralled all over again, not just by the story, but by the very sound of it all. Truly an incredible experience.

Back to The Witness for the Dead: I loved this story. It was fascinating seeing Thara Celehar about his work. We see him in action in The Goblin Emperor through his interactions with the Emperor, but here, we’re privy to more of his inner life and learn more about what sort of person he is and what drives him. It’s an engrossing character study, enhanced by clever mysteries for Thara to solve.

I suppose my only complaint about The Witness for the Dead isn’t really about this book at all: I just missed Maia (Emperor Edrehasivar VII) so, so much. I would gladly read a multiple-volume history covering the reign of the emperor… but I’d also happily settle for just one more novel!

I can’t imagine reading The Witness for the Dead without having read The Goblin Emperor. I do know at least one person who’s planning to do just that, and I’ll be interested to hear her thoughts. I don’t think this book would work as a stand-alone, since I can’t see how someone could truly make sense of the world (not to mention all those names!!) without having read the previous novel. But, I’d be happy to be proven wrong!

I highly recommend The Witness for the Dead, but please do yourself a favor and read The Goblin Emperor first. I hope you’ll love it as much as I do!

Note: As part of a preorder sales promotion, I also received a digital copy of a new short story called Lora Selezh. It’s a compact story about Thara witnessing on behalf of a petitioner, and I really liked it. I don’t know if it’s available elsewhere, but if so, don’t miss it.

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Audiobook Review: The Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski

Title: The Time of Contempt (The Witcher, #2)
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Narrator: Peter Kenny
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: 2013 (first published 1995)
Print length: 331 pages
Audio length: 11 hours, 55 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Geralt is a witcher: guardian of the innocent; protector of those in need; a defender, in dark times, against some of the most frightening creatures of myth and legend. His task, now, is to protect Ciri. A child of prophecy, she will have the power to change the world for good or for ill — but only if she lives to use it.

A coup threatens the Wizard’s Guild.
War breaks out across the lands.
A serious injury leaves Geralt fighting for his life…
… and Ciri, in whose hands the world’s fate rests, has vanished…

The Witcher returns in this sequel to Blood of Elves.

It’s always confusing to try to keep track of the book of the Witcher series — an explanation is always necessary.

The Time of Contempt is the 4th book in the Witcher world, but it’s considered The Witcher #2, because it’s the second novel — the first two books are interwoven short stories, but they rightfully should be considered books 1 and 2. Anyhoo…

The Time of Contempt picks back up with the story of Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher of the series’ title, his ward/foster daughter Ciri, and the enchantress Yennefer. Our main characters spend most of their time separated from one another, but always trying to to reconnect or find a way to save the others.

Ciri is young and impetuous, trained as a Witcher but also with her own magical powers. In the company of Yennefer, she’s traveling to Aretuza, the academy for young enchantresses, where she’ll be enrolled as a novice. Meanwhile, Yennefer plans to attend a conclave of mages, where intrigue and alliances and plotting take center stage. Geralt is in pursuit of both, aware that there are terrible forces trying to locate and control Ciri, if not outright kill her.

It all goes to hell, as the conclave turns into a massive battleground. After briefly being reunited, the main trio is once again separated, with Geralt left critically injured, Yennefer’s whereabouts unknown, and Ciri isolated and forced to survive danger after danger.

If you’ve read this far in the Witcher series, none of this will be terribly surprising. The series thrives on thrusting the main characters into horrible danger over and over again. It’s at its strongest when we see them using their skills and their wits to outmaneuver, outfight, and outthink their opponents.

In The Time of Contempt, a lot of time is spent on political wrangling, and that’s where the story frequently lost me. There are kingdoms, kings, the kings’ mages, borders, fortresses, and all are seemingly at odds or in cahoots or shifting loyalties or betraying one another. It’s a lot, and maybe especially because I listened to the audiobook, I had an awfully hard time trying to keep all the players straight.

At the same time, I do truly love the narration of the audiobooks. Narrator Peter Kenny does a fabulous job with the characters, and I especially love hearing him do Geralt and the bard Dandelion. He also does a great Ciri and Yennefer, and excels at all the various accents the supporting characters of different countries and races speak in.

Overall, I have very mixed feelings about The Time of Contempt. There are some compelling new developments, but too much time is spent away from the main characters, and that’s where my attention and interest inevitably drop off. I found the politics too confusing to follow via audio, but fortunately, there’s a huge Witcher fandom and I counted on the various wikis to clarify matters for me whenever I lost track of who was who and which side they were on.

I do want to continue the series, and I have a hard time imagining sticking to the print version, since I’d really miss the sound of Geralt’s voice. Still, I’m a little hesitant, because I can only imagine that as the plot progresses, it’ll only get more complicated, and potentially all that much more difficult to follow.

If you’ve read the Witcher books, I’d love a little advice: Continue with the audiobooks, or switch to print? I guess the bigger question is whether it’s worth continuing with the series at all, but my gut is telling me yes! And how could I stop now?

Book Review: Across the Green Grass Fields (Wayward Children, #6) by Seanan McGuire

Title: Across the Green Grass Fields (Wayward Children, #6)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: January 12, 2021
Length: 176 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: ARC via Netgalley; hardcover purchased

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A young girl discovers a portal to a land filled with centaurs and unicorns in Seanan McGuire’s Across the Green Grass Fields, a standalone tale in the Hugo and Nebula Award-wining Wayward Children series.

“Welcome to the Hooflands. We’re happy to have you, even if you being here means something’s coming.”

Regan loves, and is loved, though her school-friend situation has become complicated, of late.

When she suddenly finds herself thrust through a doorway that asks her to “Be Sure” before swallowing her whole, Regan must learn to live in a world filled with centaurs, kelpies, and other magical equines―a world that expects its human visitors to step up and be heroes.

But after embracing her time with the herd, Regan discovers that not all forms of heroism are equal, and not all quests are as they seem…

A new Wayward Children book is always cause for celebration, and Across the Green Grass Fields is no exception.

In this book, the 6th in the series, we’re introduced to a young girl named Regan. She has lovely, loving parents, and is crazy about horses and riding lessons. At school, she originally had two best friends, Heather and Laurel, but when Heather dared to express interest in something Laurel deemed un-girl-like, Heather became shunned — and Regan learned her lesson. To retain her place as Laurel’s best friend, conformity is all that matters. She has to embrace Laurel’s strict rules about what girls do and don’t do and do and don’t like, if she wants to not end up like poor Heather.

Laurel was one of the “lucky ones,” according to the girls who flocked around her in their ribbons and flounces, praising her developing breasts like they were something she’d accomplished through hard work and personal virtue, not hormones and time.

But when Regan learns an unexpected truth from her parents, she makes the awful mistake of confiding in Laurel, and then realizes that she’s just blown up her own world. Distraught, Regan runs away into the woods, where she sees an unusual door, with the words “Be Sure”. In that moment, Regan is sure that anything would be better than where she is now, and she steps through into an entirely new world.

In the Hooflands, Regan is the only human in a world peopled by different hooved species — unicorns, centaurs, kelpies, and more. She is taken in by a family of centaurs, who adopt her as one of their own and love her fiercely. With the love of the centaurs, Regan grows and thrives — missing her parents, of course, but feeling more and more that she’s finally found a place to just be herself, a place that feels like a real home. And it’s Chicory, the centaur daughter, who shows Regan what a real friend can be:

In Chicory, she had finally found a friend who liked her for who she was, not for how well she fit an arbitrary list of attributes and ideals.

The only downside is that everyone in the Hooflands believes that humans have a destiny. Humans show up rarely, but when they do, they’re meant to save the world…. and then they disappear. No one really knows the how and why of it all, but all believe that sooner or later, Regan will have to confront the Queen of the Hooflands and do whatever it is that’s needed to save the world.

Destiny wasn’t real. Destiny was for people like Laurel, who could pin everything they had to an idea that the world was supposed to work in a certain way, and refuse to let it change. If these people said her destiny was to see the Queen, she would prove them wrong. She wasn’t their chosen one. She was just Regan, and as Regan, she ran.

Through her years in the Hooflands, Regan learns about listening to people and seeing beyond their surfaces, about true friendship and family, among making choices and remaining true to oneself, and about accepting and appreciating oneself, putting aside the unrealistic notions of “normal” and “destiny”. Regan learns to be Regan, and sees that she can be strong and pursue the people and activities that make her feel whole and good.

Across the Green Grass Fields is the first book in the Wayward Children series that does not include the Home for Wayward Children at all, although I imagine that that’s where Regan will be headed next. None of the characters from previous books pop up here either, so this book really can be read as a stand-alone. Still, it fits into the great world of the Wayward Children series, with its portal worlds and missing children and quests for meaning and one’s true place. Obviously, as a fan of the series, I’d recommend starting from the beginning and reading them all!

Across the Green Grass Fields includes illustrations by the amazingly talented Rovina Cai, and although I haven’t received my hard copy of the book yet, I’m already enchanted by the images available on Tor’s website, including this one of the centaur family:

Illustration by Rovina Cai; from Tor.com

The Wayward Children series as a whole is a delightful, magical experience, and Across the Green Grass Fields introduces a wonderful new world and heroine. Highly recommended.

Audiobook Review: Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski

Title: Blood of Elves
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Narrator: Peter Kenny
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: 2009 (first published 1994)
Print length: 324 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 55 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

For more than a hundred years humans, dwarves, gnomes and elves lived together in relative peace. But times have changed, the uneasy peace is over and now the races once again fight each other – and themselves: Dwarves are killing their kinsmen, and elves are murdering humans and elves, at least those elves who are friendly to humans… Into this tumultuous time is born a child for whom the witchers of the world have been waiting.

Ciri, the granddaughter of Queen Calanthe, the Lioness of Cintra, has strange powers and a stranger destiny, for prophecy names her the Flame, one with the power to change the world – for good, or for evil… Geralt, the witcher of Rivia, has taken Ciri to the relative safety of the Witchers’ Settlement, but it soon becomes clear that Ciri isn’t like the other witchers. As the political situation grows ever dimmer and the threat of war hangs almost palpably over the land, Geralt searches for someone to train Ciri’s unique powers.

But someone else has an eye on the young girl, someone who understand exactly what the prophecy means – and exactly what Ciri’s power can do. This time Geralt may have met his match.

Blood of Elves is the 3rd book in the Witcher chronology, although the book spine calls it The Witcher, #1. Which is just confusing. While Blood of Elves is the first novel in the series, it’s preceded by two story collections that form a crucial introduction to the world of the Witcher and the events in Blood of Elves. If you tried to start these books with Blood of Elves, you’d be hopelessly confused. So don’t do it — start with The Last Wish.

Got that?

Blood of Elves is loosely Ciri’s story — Ciri being the young girl who comes under Geralt’s protection after her family and her kingdom are destroyed by the invading Nilfgardians. Geralt of Rivia probably is way down at the bottom of men to choose as father figures, but Ciri and he are destined to belong to one another, and at the end of the previous book, he finally accepts this destiny.

In Blood of Elves, we follow Ciri’s education, first at Kaer Morhen, the stronghold of the Witchers, where she trains in the ways of Witchers, learning to fight with speed and cunning. But Ciri also has nightmares and spells where she seems to be channeling a magical voice, so Geralt calls on magician Triss Merigold to help.

Under Triss’s tutelage, Ciri learns more about herself as a person and as a young woman, and Triss is able to ascertain more about the strange trances that Ciri falls into. Eventually, Geralt brings Ciri to the Temple of Melitele to learn more formally, and finally, the enchantress (and Geralt’s true love) Yennefer arrives to train Ciri in the use of magic.

Meanwhile, Geralt is off on adventures, trying to both keep Ciri hidden from those who seek her for nefarious purposes and to discover who is behind the search for her.

While there are action sequences scattered throughout, Blood of Elves feels strangely static. There are long sequences where various parties just talk and talk and talk — mostly kings and advisors and magicians, deciding whether to go to war and what Ciri’s future might bring, if only they can find her and control her.

I enjoy reading Witcher books, but maybe because this one only follows Geralt about half the time, it didn’t quite feel compelling enough, especially in comparison to the terrific two books that precede it.

On the other hand, the narration of the audiobooks continues to be outstanding. Narrator Peter Kenny does a marvelous voice for Geralt — strong, sarcastic, understated — as well as very good voices for Ciri, Yennefer, Dandelion, and more.

Having listened to the audiobooks, I think it would be hard to switch over to print. There are so many scenes that are driven by dialogue, and these are exceptionally fun to listen to. And while action sequences can get confusing, there’s enough explanation to keep them comprehensible.

Blood of Elves was somehow not as great as I’d hoped it would be, but I still enjoyed it, and I’ll definitely keep going with the series.

Audiobook Review: Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor

Title: Akata Warrior
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Narrator: Yetide Badaki
Publisher: Viking
Publication date: October 3, 2017
Print length: 469 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 43 minutes
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A year ago, Sunny Nwazue, an American-born girl Nigerian girl, was inducted into the secret Leopard Society. As she began to develop her magical powers, Sunny learned that she had been chosen to lead a dangerous mission to avert an apocalypse, brought about by the terrifying masquerade, Ekwensu. Now, stronger, feistier, and a bit older, Sunny is studying with her mentor Sugar Cream and struggling to unlock the secrets in her strange Nsibidi book.

Eventually, Sunny knows she must confront her destiny. With the support of her Leopard Society friends, Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha, and of her spirit face, Anyanwu, she will travel through worlds both visible and invisible to the mysteries town of Osisi, where she will fight a climactic battle to save humanity.

Much-honored Nnedi Okorafor, winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, merges today’s Nigeria with a unique world she creates. Akata Warrior blends mythology, fantasy, history and magic into a compelling tale that will keep readers spellbound.

As soon as I finished the audiobook of Akata Witch, I knew I had to listen to the sequel too. And after a lot of starting, stopping, and continuous interruptions, I finally made it through to the end!

Akata Warrior is a longer book and audiobook than Akata Witch. Akata Witch introduces us to the characters and world of the story, and does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of setting up the story and providing an exciting and dangerous quest for the main characters as they grow into their powers.

In Akata Warrior, a year has gone by, and the four friends — Sunny, Chichi, Orlu, and Sasha — are advancing in their magical studies. Their abilities are becoming more developed as they work with their assigned mentors. Sunny, our main character whose point of view we inhabit throughout the story, is being mentored by the formidable Sugar Cream, a regal older woman with unmatched powers, who sets rigorous standards for Sunny while introducing her to esoteric powers and abilities.

Sunny continues to have visions of a coming apocalypse, but doesn’t understand why or what her role is supposed to be. Danger to her older brother forces her to break Leopard Society (magic society) rules, and the ensuing punishment pushes her forward on a path toward a quest that she doesn’t fully understand.

As in Akata Witch, seeing the four friends together is a treat. They’ve all grown up, and their interactions and roles are more mature, yet they’re still in their teens and must abide by the rules set for them. At the same time, their magical abilities mean that they’re able to take on riskier tasks, and they show examples of ingenuity again and again throughout their adventure.

As I mentioned before, Akata Warrior is considerably longer than the first book, and it shows in the pacing. While the characters spend at least half the book on their quest, each episode along the way feels very lengthy and drawn-out, to the point where the action seems to sag a bit from time to time. It’s still engaging and exciting, but I would have preferred for a faster pace and less time spent on logistics.

Still, all in all, the world of Akata Witch and Akata Warrior is rich and fascinating. The author has an amazing ability to bring the Nigerian setting to life through her descriptions of sights, smells, colors, textures, and the food. Oh, the food! So many descriptions of eating and the dishes that sound amazing!

Akata Warrior has the same audiobook narrator as Akata Witch, and I just loved listening to her voice. Her accents and intonations for the different characters are wonderful, and each person comes across as an individual. For whatever reason, every time Chichi has a line of dialogue, it instantly brought a smile to my face!

I really enjoyed both of these books. I haven’t heard that there are plans for another book in the series, but a reader can hope, right? I do love these characters, and would love to follow along on further adventures.

Audiobook Review: Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski

Title: Sword of Destiny
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Narrator: Peter Kenny
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: May 19, 2015
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 58 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Geralt is a witcher, a man whose magic powers, enhanced by long training and a mysterious elixir, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer: his targets are the multifarious monsters and vile fiends that ravage the land and attack the innocent. He roams the country seeking assignments, but gradually comes to realise that while some of his quarry are unremittingly vile, vicious grotesques, others are the victims of sin, evil or simple naivety.

In this collection of short stories, following the adventures of the hit collection THE LAST WISH, join Geralt as he battles monsters, demons and prejudices alike…

Ready to toss another coin to your Witcher?

Geralt is back! In this second collection of Witcher stories, Geralt of Rivia once more battles monsters, saves people who can’t save themselves, fights his inner demons — love and destiny — and returns again and again to the people who are central to his life.

This set of six stories covers a lot of ground, some already familiar from the Netflix series, some new to me, and all delightful. As with the previous collection, The Last Wish, there are some fairy tale references included that make these stories extra fun.

While each story stands on its own, there are key characters (Dandelion, Yennefer, Ciri) who appear repeatedly. While the stories seem to be presented roughly chronologically, they’re only loosely connected — yet I’m guessing as a whole that they’re important in laying the groundwork for the novels that come next in the book series.

As for the stories themselves, the book opens with the wonderful The Bounds of Reason, which corresponds to the 6th episode of the TV series, “Rare Species”, aka the one about the dragons. The plotline isn’t exactly the same, but the main points hold true, and it’s awfully fun.

There’s also a story that focuses on Geralt and Yennefer, a story set in Brokilon Forest where Geralt and Ciri meet for the first time, a Little Mermaid-ish tale, and more. Throughout, the recurring theme is Geralt’s struggle to understand destiny — does it exist? Are we obligated to follow it? Is destiny enough to bring two people together, or does it require something more?

I had the pleasure of listening to the audiobook, as I did with The Last Wish, and I loved it. Narrator Peter Kenny does an excellent job of bringing the characters to life. I just love his voice for Geralt, although all are quite good, and even when there’s a crowd scene or a big action sequence, there’s never any doubt who’s speaking.

As an added plus, the narrator SINGS in the story about a mermaid, since that’s what mermaid language sounds like. It’s amazing.

Now that I’ve finished Sword of Destiny, I abolutely intend to continue with the series, and most likely I’ll stick with audiobooks. Blood of Elves is up next. Can’t wait!

Audiobook Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Title: Akata Witch
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Narrator: Yetide Badaki
Publisher: Viking
Publication date: April 14, 2011
Print length: 349 pages
Audio length: 8 hours, 49 minutes
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Sunny Nwazue lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. Her features are West African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits in. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a “free agent” with latent magical power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.

Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But just as she’s finding her footing, Sunny and her friends are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a career criminal who knows magic, too. Will their training be enough to help them against a threat whose powers greatly outnumber theirs?

Stories about Chosen Ones seem to be very much on my mind these days, and so I’m glad I finally decided to give Akata Witch a try. Akata Witch is by Nnedi Okorafor, author of the fantastic Binti trilogy. This novel is aimed at younger readers, either advanced middle grade or young adult.

The main character, Sunny, is 12 years old, and her three classmates and best friends are around 13 – 14 years old. (I say around, because no one is actually sure how old Chichi is, and she’s not telling!)

At the start of the story, Sunny considers herself mostly ordinary, except for how much she stands out because of her albino coloring and her American birth and upbringing. She does know that something’s a bit off — one night, she has a vision while staring at a candle, and it scares her deeply and indelibly.

Soon, Sunny becomes closer to her neighbors Chichi and Orlu, along with the new boy Sasha who’s just arrived from Chicago after getting in trouble back home. Sunny is amazed to learn that the other three have magical abilities, and even more amazed to find out that she does as well.

In their parlance, they’re all leopard people — people with magical powers from all over the world, not just Africa. The world of the leopard people is very secretive, and non-magical folks (“lambs”) have no idea that it exists. Sunny is what’s known as a “free agent” — a girl whose parents aren’t leopard people, but who still has a connection to the world of spirits and magic.

Sunny begins learning alongside her friends, from the basic of juju to more advance spells and the nature of the leopard power structure. Meanwhile, a ritual murderer has been preying on Nigerian children, and the leopard community suspects that he may be one of their own.

Akata Witch is a wonderful story, and the audiobook narration is absolutely lovely to listen to. I love how the narrator conveys the spirit of the different characters, and uses Sunny’s American accent as a way to really show how “other” she feels in her daily life in Nigeria.

I was fascinated by the magical systems of Akata Witch, with the different meanings of symbols and secret transportation and hidden villages and libraries, as well as the elders and the large gathering and the special leopard events.

My main quibble with this book comes back to the Chosen Ones trope. Why is it always the untrained, inexperienced children who have to go fight the big bad? This isn’t confined just to this book, of course — I mean, really, wouldn’t Dumbledore have been a better choice to confront Voldemort than a bunch of schoolkids?

Okay, prophecy seems to always end up dictating who is Chosen, but at some point, it seems silly. Sunny has only the bare minimum of training, yet the most advanced magical elders of the community send her and her three friends up against the evil bad guy?

It’s not really a spoiler to say that they survive — there’s no chance that that wouldn’t be the outcome. But is it logical? Not really.

Still, looking beyond my issue with teen Chosen Ones as a whole, I did really love Akata Witch. The characters are wonderful, the setting is so vividly portrayed, and the plot just zips along.

I’m so glad that there’s a sequel, Akata Warrior. I will definitely be listening to this one too!

Audiobook Review: The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

Title: The Last Wish
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Narrator: Peter Kenny
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: December 14, 2008 (originally published in 1997 in Poland)
Print length: 360 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 17 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Geralt of Rivia is a witcher. A cunning sorcerer. A merciless assassin. And a cold-blooded killer. His sole purpose: to destroy the monsters that plague the world. But not everything monstrous-looking is evil and not everything fair is good… and in every fairy tale there is a grain of truth.

A collection of short stories introducing Geralt of Rivia, to be followed by the first novel in the actual series, The Blood of Elves. Note that, while The Last Wish was published after The Sword of Destiny, the stories contained in The Last Wish take place first chronologically, and many of the individual stories were published before The Sword of Destiny. 

For anyone who developed an instantaneous obsession for the Netflix series The Witcher (*raising my hand*), the story collection The Last Wish is an absolute must!

The Last Wish introduces Geralt of Rivia, a solitary man who travels from place to place earning money by fighting monsters on behalf of the humans who hire him. He’s a Witcher, member of a profession of highly trained, magically enhanced people who take on the monsters of the world through their power with spells and swords.

Geralt is gruff, sometimes mean, straightforward, and never afraid of a fight. He has a strict moral code, and uses it to set his own path, even when men of power tried to oppose him or sway him with threats or bribery.

The book is structured as connected tales of Geralt’s adventures, with a through-story between chapters, called “The Voice of Reason”, where we keep up with Geralt after a particularly nasty escapade. Through the interwoven stories, we learn about his past adventures and how he got to this point.

The six stories in The Last Wish seem to be rooted in various fairy tales, but with some pretty big twists and variations along the way. This isn’t too surprising — as Geralt points out, all stories start from a grain of truth.

For viewers of the Netflix series, most of these stories will be at least partially familiar. We see the story of Renfri and the battle at Blaviken — which, by the way, is really a version of a Snow White story, which I totally didn’t get from watching the TV series. There’s also the feast at Cintra where Pavetta’s potential marriage is at stake (a great scene in both the book and the series), a Beauty & the Beast-inspired tale, and the story of the striga.

And, obviously from the title, The Last Wish includes the story of Yennefer and Geralt’s first meeting and the role of the djinn, although in many ways it’s pretty different from the presentation on Netflix.

Overall, I loved this book. There are pieces I missed, like Yennefer’s entire origin story, but so much added detail and explanation of various elements that it all evens out. Also, the fall of Cintra and the introduction of Ciri are not included in this book, but will be important in later books, from what I understand.

Jaskier, the delightful bard on the TV series who is responsible for the ultimate earworm, Toss a Coin to Your Witcher, appears in the books as Dandelion (pronounced by the narrator not like the flower, but as danDElion, which makes it sounds pretty charming). He’s still a totally fun character, but of course, I missed the singing!

Regarding the narration, I got off to a difficult start with the audiobook. I typically listen to audiobooks at 1.25x speed, and it took me a chapter or two to really accept that that just wouldn’t work for me in this case. Between the narrator’s speaking patterns and the heavy accents and rather incomprehensible names of certain characters, I finally realized that I’d need to either slow down the listening speed or give up and switch to print.

Once I took the speed down to 1.0x (normal speed), most of my problems were resolved, and I was much better able to follow conversations and narration. I ended up loving some of the voices, particularly the narrator’s approach to Geralt himself.

Fantasy character names can be tricky, so I ended up having to refer to a print version anyway because it drove me a bit batty not to have a clear idea of how certain names might be spelled. Nivellen, Coodcoodak, Eist Tuirseach, Drogodar, Crach an Craite… see what I mean?

Reading the book made me even more impressed with the Netflix series, because it made me appreciate how well they wove together so many different storylines into one cohesive whole. In fact, now that I’ve finished this book, I may have to watch the series all over again to see what I missed the first time around!

The Last Wish was a really fun, enjoyable listen, and I will absolutely be continuing with The Witcher books, either in print or via audio. After all, what else am I supposed to do with my time between now and whenever season 2 comes around?

Book Review: Come Tumbling Down (Wayward Children, #5) by Seanan McGuire

Title: Come Tumbling Down (Wayward Children, #5)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: January 7, 2020
Length: 206 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The fifth installment in Seanan McGuire’s award-winning, bestselling Wayward Children series, Come Tumbling Down picks up the threads left dangling by Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones

When Jack left Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister–whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice–back to their home on the Moors.

But death in their adopted world isn’t always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.

Eleanor West’s “No Quests” rule is about to be broken.

I adore Seanan McGuire. I adore everything she writes. I adore the Wayward Children series.

So is it any surprise when I say that I loved Come Tumbling Down?

In this, the 5th installment in what I hope will be a long, ongoing series of fantasy novellas, we return to the events of book #2, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, and finally find out what happened next.

Which, right off the bat, tickles me pink, because Down Among the Sticks and Bones is — no question about it — my favorite in the entire series. So I was thrilled to return to the world of the Moors, the war between mad scientists and vampires, and the struggle to resurrect and reanimate that which has been lost.

For those new to this series, the basic idea is this: Eleanor West runs a boarding school for children who’ve returned to their parents’ homes after an absence which has left them strange and unmanageable. What the parents don’t understand, but Eleanor West certainly does, is that these missing children found doors to other worlds — world of logic or nonsense, worlds of virtue or wickedness, and all sorts of points on the compass between extremes**. Whether kicked out or voluntarily returned, the children no longer fit in their mundane lives, but find solace and shelter with the other misfits like themselves at the home for wayward children.

In Down Among the Sticks and Bones, we learned about twins Jack and Jill and their time spent on the Moors. We pick up their story in Come Tumbling Down as one of the twins returns to the school – but which one?

Oh, I really don’t want to give anything away! This book, like all the others, is filled to the brim with fantasy and danger and challenges, but rooted deeply by its unique and memorable characters. There’s Sumi, a nonsense girl who knows her destiny lies in the world of Confection; Cora, a mermaid who longs to return to the sea; Kade, a Goblin prince who accepts that his chosen world may not choose him any longer; and Christopher, who dreams of life in the land of Mariposa with his true love, the Skeleton Girl.

When the missing twin returns and needs help with her life-or-death quest, the friends are quick to stand by her and venture through the door to the Moors, risking their own lives in an attempt to right the balance so crucial in that world.

As in all of the Wayward Children books, Seanan McGuire’s writing is lyrical and magical, infusing every moment with otherworldly flavors and fantastical elements, some menacing, some magical, some downright funny.

I’ll share some chosen selections here, although narrowing it down to just a few is hard. Here’s what my book looked like by the time I got close to the end:

 Sometimes Christopher thought any chance he’d had of falling for a girl with ordinary things like “skin” and “muscle tissue” and “a pulse” had ended with the soft, moist sound of Jack driving a pair of scisors through her sister’s horrible heart.

“My parents,” she said. “They were like Nancy’s but the other way around, chasing monochrome instead of spectrums. They didn’t understand. Thought if they threw enough gray and gray and gray at me, I’d forget I’d seen rainbows and learn how to be their little sparrow-girl again. She died in Confection and I rose from her ashes, a pretty pastry phoenix.

Sumi looked up and smiled serenely. “Look at the moon,” she said. “It’s like the sugared cherry on the biggest murder sundae in the whole world.”

Indoor lightning storms, resurrected girls, and giant, bloody moons were terrifying enough without throwing in headless corpses, vampire lords, and something called a “Drowned God.”

And another from Sumi, because she’s awesome and so are her sundae analogies:

“This is terrible,” said Sumi brightly. “I mean, we knew it was going to be terrible when we followed a mad scientist and her dead girlfriend to a horrifying murder world, but this is bonus terrible. This is the awful sprinkles on the sundae of doom.”

Ah, I’ll stop here. I loved this book, and I love this series wholeheartedly. Each of the books is lovely on its own, and Come Tumbling Down is a worthy, enthralling addition to the series.

Beautiful, haunting writing, a creep-tastic setting, mad scientists and Drowned Gods, and the bestest friends squad you’d ever want at your back. What more could we ask for?

A note of advice: If the events of Down Among the Sticks and Bones aren’t fresh in your mind, then definitely pause for a re-read (or enjoy the excellent audiobook version) before diving in to Come Tumbling Down.

**Want to know more about the worlds of the Wayward Children books? Check out this excellent guide!

Illustration by Rovina Cai from Come Tumbling Down.
You will love these two horses. Promise.