Siege Weapons by Harry F. Rey

This is a very hard one to rate. The writing is solid, the world building and characterization decently done, and it is a quick and easy read. But the book has a very strong dichotomy: it is a moody sci fi merged with gay BDSM porn. Author Rey makes it work but just be aware that both aspects are fully described in detail. In a way, since it feels so niche, it does feel a bit like a Marty Stu. But a decently written one where the sci fi aspects are just as important as the sex.

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Story: Ales is a courier, crossing the galaxy delivering goods that are more or less legal. Lonely and haunted by being the sole survivor of the destruction of his home planet years ago, he spends most of his days and nights in transit or hooking up with faceless men while dulling the emotional pain with hard drugs. When employed to take a shipment to a blockaded world, he knows he is flirting with serious danger this time: the contraband hidden in his cargo hold would, if found, seal his fate immediately. But then a one-night-stand on the planet turns into something far different: for he has finally found someone to master him completely and satisfy all that he has needed for so long. But his master wants much more from him than he may be ready to give.

First and foremost, this is not a romance. This is a story about an emotionally crippled person looking for the person who can give him what he needs. There are a lot of scenes of random hookups, threesomes, and BDSM. The book does not, however, feel like someone was trying to fit a story around the sex; rather, the sex is integrated into the story seamlessly so it makes a lot of sense. Nor do we have the usual hackneyed heroes or overidealized love interests. This is a cold hard exchange with no build up or sweetness. Ales as a hero uses sex as one does drugs and so the pain of a BDSM relationship is an escape or repentance – perhaps survivor guilt?

The book is an extremely fast read – really a novella rather than a full story. Finished in about an hour, it moves quickly but quite seamlessly as well. Even when we are given the main character’s melancholia, the story doesn’t drag. Yes, this could have been fleshed out more but for what it is, it is strangely satisfying. Admittedly, the hard core sexual descriptions weren’t as interesting to me so I did skip a lot of them, making for an even faster read.

Because it is so short and does feel a bit like a Marty Stu, I think 3 stars is a fair rating. That does not reflect the writing, which is more of a 4 star. And for gay porn, BDSM style, I don’t have a lot of experience but it felt authentic and organic. At no time did I feel the sci fi was an attempt to put window dressing on porn – both the sci fi and the porn aspects (really more than erotic – this is porn) were solid. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis

This is shaping up to be one heck of a great series. Author Bennis has merged the horrors of the Napoleonic war with steampunk to create a grounded, brutal, but wonderfully readable story. At its heart, it’s the witty bon mots constantly thrown about by leads Josette and Bernat that make this so appealing. But there are great side characters as well – from Lieutenant Kember to Bernat’s brother Roland – who add so much appeal to this story. Add in the action and humanity and you have some very good writing here.

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Story: The Vins have seiged Josette’s home town and Josette fears for her mother’s safety. But getting the aristocrats to recognize and help is another matter. Yet Josette is one determined captain.

To give any more of the story would be to give too many spoilers. But for the most part, the first part of the books is Josette back in port after damage to her ship and trying to drum up help from the military to retake her home town. The second part of the book is the actual retaking – and it is very surprising where that takes the story.

As always, I love the maturity of the characters as well as the grounded realism. Anyone who has read about England and French military in the 18th and 19th century will recognize a lot of what Josette has to deal with from the aristocracy and military incompetence. People die brutally, however, and Bennis does not spare the horrors of war. But I have to appreciate how practical people can be when faced with daunting situations. Or how many are able to rationalize/justify/accept poor decisions.

I listened to the Audible version and the narrator did a good job of giving the characters personalities (almost too good a job – I almost hate Bernat most of the time!).

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Odysseus Ascendant by Evan Currie

This is just such a fun series! At times, I feel like this is what the entire Star Wars saga could have been, had Lucas written them all at once instead of piecemeal. It’s not high art science fiction – and is all the better because it lacks those lofty pretensions. At its heart, it is good old serialized pulpy sci fi – good guys, bad guys, lots of pew pew, and plenty of triumphs and valor!

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Story: An Empire lord has decided that it is time to make a preemptive strike and wipe out the Priminae before they know what hits them. Weston is not able to protect all the colonies in the path of the armageddon fleet and agonizes over the sacrifices he must make with the Priminae leaders. For he has a special weapon that may just be able to stop the fleet; or, failing that, bluff them enough to discourage them. But he needs to buy time in order to get it ready…..

There are some fun twists and turns in the plot here that I won’t put in this review for spoiler reasons. But unlike the last book which was a long drawn out single battle, we have quite a few small battles in this installment. It feels like it is all coming to a head soon, unfortunately, and all I can do is hope many more stories will come anyway (as happened after the Odyssey 1 arc).

The narration is fine in the Audible version and since this is such a purely cinematic series, I enjoy listening to the book more than reading it.

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The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowksi

The Witcher series chronologically begins here with this collection of short stories (all taking place well before the events in the game). Several have European fairy tale foundations (Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin) but retold in this series’ trademark grounded realism and fatality. Nuanced characters, lack of romanticism, and gritty violence, vulgarity and sex – it is the opposite side of the coin to the Lord of the Rings’ lofty good vs evil idealism.

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Story: In a medieval Europe-like world everything changed after the ‘Conjunction of Spheres’ event that trapped monsters and unnatural beings in this world. Humans, in desperation, created the Witchers through mutations – super humans given abilities and strength but at terrible sacrifices. Geralt is a Witcher living 1500 years after the conjunction – in a time when the monsters that were left in the world are dying out and Witchers are becoming rarer and less needed. Geralt travels the world seeking mercenary work – hunting down monsters for pay. With his friend Dandelion, he often finds that the true monsters aren’t the ones with fangs, talons, or sharp teeth.

The book is held together through Geralt recounting stories to a priestess while recovering from injuries. This first story became the cinematic opener for the first Witcher Game. Several stories then follow, most with Geralt questing with Dandelion the bard. The last story, the book’s title, is Geralt recounting how he met Yennefer.

What makes the books and the games (which, although not canon, are very faithful to the books) so special is that we have all the hallmarks that make modern urban fantasy so appealing – but in a pure fantasy form. It is almost an anti-fantasy, bucking the endless Tolkien retellings and instead bringing in all the muck, filth, ugliness, and seediness that humanity can offer. This is not the sanitized fantasy we grew up with and adored.

The series-wide arc comes later – these are just short stories that take place before Ciri is introduced. But many of the characters that you see in the Witcher games or places such as the Gwent card game are all here. And since the lore is so rich, it is well worth the read. I don’t envy the translator – I honestly feel he did an amazing job to really create the feel, sound, words, and spirit of the books through very clever solutions from Polish.

I listened to the Audible version and although hard to understand a lot of the time, I have to appreciate that the narrator put a lot of time and effort into giving us characters. This is not a dry reading and instead one with a lot of effort, time, and creativity.

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Twice Dead by Caitlin Seal

While Twice Dead is not a terrible book, it is burdened by cliche writing and lack of world building. Logic holes and character inconsistencies are rampant while the plot unfolds in a laboriously passive voice. It made for a chore to finish and not once did I ever believe in (or root for) the leads. As such, it is hard to recommend this YA fantasy romance.

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Story: Naya’s father discovers he has a daughter and decides to use her in his shipping business. While in a foreign port, she is sent off on an errand and killed. She is then resurrected as a wraith and finds herself straddling two worlds: her father’s country and its hate/mistrust of the resurrected/necromancers vs her new home and its tolerance of wraiths. But she may have special powers more than a regular wraith and be invaluable in stopping a war as she finds herself inducted into espionage.

So…..let’s go over the cliches:
– Supposedly strong female lead who is either saved by the hero constantly or whose ‘strong’ deeds pretty much amount to doing very stupid things that end up needing her to be saved by the hunky love interest.
– Lead female discovers she is a unique snowflake – and then has to spend a lot of time with hunky boy being taught how to handle her super new powers
– She is the only one who can stop a war/save the world
– Hunky male love interest falls madly in love with her for no particular reason that we can see – she’s pretty rude to him most of the time and isn’t that interesting a person anyway
– Big bad evil spends a lot of time telling our unique snowflake all his nefarious plans instead of just killing her
– Despite it being the smartest thing to do, no one tells our unique snowflake anything.
– Really bland milquetoast love interest and highly illogical reason that heroine and love interest are thrown together.

At this point, I understand that YA romance isn’t going to be about quietly intelligent women who use their brains (instead of unique snowflake powers) to save the world. So I am resigned to the ‘fiesty’ heroine who goes out and wreaks havoc and needs to be rescued by the guy. But at the same time, it would be nice if the actions our heroine did actually made sense and weren’t just there to create a deus ex machina scene to be saved.

All this might have been acceptable if the writing had been more mature. At the point where you have the evil bad guy capturing our heroine and she says to him, “Let me go!” I am going to be rolling my eyes. There were a LOT of lines like this that were so cliche as to be caricatures of cartoons (Perils of Penelope, anyone?). Other dialogue such as one character noting ..”I don’t want to be near that sucky thing…” had me rolling my eyes. A book truly needs to be edited beyond correcting grammar – depth and nuance and originality should also be carefully considered. Even for YA.

Finally, the book is told in a very passive voice that made the whole read rather laborious and quite boring. Not much happens, even when a lot happens, and we don’t have enough world building to even care after anything happens. I’m not quite sure the setting here either – fantasy countries with trams and galleys?. Something or other like that.

So again, there is nothing offensive here but the writing really needs to be more sophisticated to make the story work. The necromancy/wraith angle fortunately isn’t recycled but I just didn’t feel the author thought through all the ramifications and consequences of being able to resurrected people. And I especially didn’t buy the form they came back in – it was all a bit too simplistic (just like the politics, interactions, and dialogue of this world). Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Requiem of the Rose King 9 by Aya Kanno

Aya Kanno continues Shakespeare’s version of Richard IIIs life and stays fairly close to that version. In this volume, we have Richard, Duke of Gloucester, still broken over the death of Henry and single-minded in his drive to protect the throne of England. He is even willing to take out his brother in that pursuit – but the secret of his body is starting to become known and those who are looking to manipulate him for their own power will need to take matters in their own hand to protect ‘their’ king from exposure and ridicule.

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Story: George, brother to the King and Richard, has become unstable after the loss of his wife Isabelle. Through Buckingham’s machinations, Richard comes to the understanding that George is a danger to the stability of the throne. While the King may not do anything against his own brother, Richard can and will. Carefully manipulating the situation around both George and the King, Richard makes each feel he is in their corner as he skillfully gets them to do his bidding. George is
set up to make treasonous statements, then arrested and executed. The execution is made to look like a suicide to further drive the king mad as well since he feels he has made a mistake in not forgiving his brother.

Of course, much of what was in Shakespeare’s historical works of this era have pretty much been proven to be incorrect – a Tudor revisionist history to please King James or Queen Elizabeth. But Aya Kanno can have fun with the Shakespeare version since there is so much intrigue, plotting, and especially underlying supernatural elements. I’d advise against looking up how these characters really looked like in historical paintings since it can be jarring.

Of course, Kanno’s take on Richard’s ‘deformity’ was written before his body was found in Leicester – so she could have a lot of fun imaging Richard as intersex rather than Shakespeare’s hunchback. We know neither was the case but it still makes for a great story.

The art is, as always, a treat. Beautifully drawn and full of action. I do always recommend following Wikipedia on the actual events to make the story easier to follow. There are a lot of characters, many of whom share the same name, so it can get confusing at times. But in all it is still an engaging look into the War of the Roses and the events that lead to the Tudors taking the throne. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Skyward by Joe Henderson, Lee Garbett, Antonio Fabela

I greatly enjoyed Skyward. It is clear author Henderson had a fun time with the concept and characters and that made for an engaging read. The art is bright, clean, and inspired – matching the story perfectly. Of course, don’t take the concepts too deeply – this is a ‘superhero’ type of story after all. But it is a title I look forward to seeing more of after this promising first volume.

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Story: 20 year old Willa lives in a world where gravity stopped working one day and people had to adapt quickly or die. She is a courier making ends meet while her recluse father earns what money he can in a home he refuses to leave. When Willa seeks out an old work-mate of her father, she will soon discover that her father is very connected to the lack of gravity in the world – and there are those profiting off this new situation who would very much like to make sure things do not change.

The premise here is that Willa’s father watched her mother fly away and die on the day that gravity stopped working correctly. After that, he refused to leave his house over guilt of not saving her. But he believes he now has the cure to fix the gravity – though Willa believes he is just not sane. So the series long arc will be about fixing the gravity issue that most likely her father and his former workmate created. Of course, the former workmate is now rich and powerful and quite happy to stay that way.

There is a lot of action and Willa is a very likable character. A lot of the art is very inspired – the illustrator having a great time with the concept and creating so many memorable panels. I was as enthralled by the art as I was by the story and characters. The coloring is bright and clean and I really liked all the character designs.

Sure, the concept is somewhat silly. But not any more so than a Superman or a Spiderman. So I’m willing to have fun with it and enjoy it for what it is: pure fun. I greatly look forward to the next volume. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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