Series Review – The Silk & Steel Saga

The Steel Queen CoverThe Steel Queen
The Flame Priest
The Skeleton King

by Karen Azinger

This is going to be a very unusual review for me, wherein I will gush praise for a self-published series.

I read these about a month ago, during a brief period of unemployment. There are currently six books in the series, with the final seventh volume due out toward the end of the year.

I found these books while looking for a warrior-woman story. I ended up getting a warrior teenager, but she grows up quickly, so I shall not quibble with that. I absolutely devoured these first three books. I didn’t continue reading only because I like to take books in series three at a time. I plan to start reading the series again in September, and hopefully the last book will be coming out by the time I am ready for it.

At the center of this story is Princess Katherine, who is the only daughter among five brothers who are all warriors. She wants nothing more than to be a warrior as well, but that is forbidden to women in her kingdom. She lives in a castle that is fortified with some sort of long-forgotten magic, and which is home to the Octagon Knights, of which she longs to be a part.

The story begins when she tricks a newly-made knight into promising to train her as a warrior.The Flame Priest

Meanwhile, something evil is wakening. Twenty or thirty years earlier, the Mordant has his executioner kill him so that he may be born again. His rebirth is due, and his kingdom is stirring. A messenger comes south out of his lands with a warning, but the only one who listens to his cryptic message is Kath, and the reader doesn’t find out what it means until book 3.

It’s hard to write about three books without spoiling book one and two. So I’ll speak in general terms.

First–these characters are great. Ms. Azinger can really get behind the eyeballs of her characters and make you feel what they feel. The evil characters seem unstoppable, and the good characters are playing constant catch-up. The deities of the evil characters give them all sorts of advantages, and the good characters seem to be hopelessly left in their dust. Or, in their trail of bloody body parts.

And the plot has some of the most unique elements I’ve read in a long time. Sure, the over-arching plot of the dark lord is familiar, but the execution is fresh. For example, the Mordant is a harlequin, which is a soul that has been reborn over and The Skeleton King Coverover because he has pleased his evil deity with his dark and bloody deeds. And once he is reborn, he has to get back to his old kingdom and prove who he is by passing all these tests that he, himself, devised. In the meantime, other, younger harlequins–and one harlequin wannabe–are trying to out-do each other with their evil-deeds-doing in order to please their deity so they might be reborn again. And as the reader, you don’t know about the secret harlequins, the identities of which, once revealed, are devastating.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints that include two warrior princesses, a bard prince who ventures into an evil theocracy, his native guide from the theocracy, an archer who travels with one princess but falls in love with the other, two Octagon Knights, the queen of a wealthy and powerful nation, her evil son, a candidate harlequin who ventures into the evil theocracy to make it even more evil, and of course, the Mordant, and more.

I loved this series and may not be able to wait to read more.

Review – Oath of Fealty by Elizabeth Moon

Oath of Fealty CoverOath of Fealty
by Elizabeth Moon
Del Rey – March 11, 2011
ebook – 5.99 (purchased) – also available in paperback

I purchased this book quite a while ago, made an unsuccessful attempt to read it, and then set it aside. For quite a while now, I have been in the mood for a warrior woman story , but have been unable to find one that suited. So I restarted this book from the beginning, and this time, I had none of the problems I had the first time around.

This book picks up after the ending of one of my all-time favorite fantasy series, The Deed of Paksenarrion. I reread the Deed before starting this book, so everything was fresh. I recommend reading it before reading this one–it is well worth the read. At the end of the Deed, Paks is a paladin who helped her former mercenary commander, Kieri Phelan, ascend to the throne of Lyonya, one of the kingdoms of the North. One of Keiri’s captains, Dorrin, also helped. Another captain, Arcolin, manned Phelan’s stronghold in the kingdom of Tsaia.

This book follows Dorrin, Kieri, Arcolin, and occasionally Paks as the story continues. For Kieri’s story, he is mainly setting up his administration and determining how best to protect his vulnerable new kingdom. Arcolin has been granted Kieri’s former lands and possessions, and he takes control of the mercenary company.

Dorrin has the most intriguing story of all, and her story is the main plot. She is an estranged member of the Verrakai family, who were behind a plot to prevent Kieri’s ascension to the Lyonyan throne. The Crown Prince asks her to take control of her mostly-evil family, sending all that she finds to stand judgement–including her own mother and father.

Her estranged family are all under an Order of Attainder, which means everyone in the family is wanted by the law. Dorrin is given the duchy of Verrakai and is sent to round up her family members. She is directly aided in this by Falk, her patron deity, which, at times, seems to give her paladin-like powers.

Arcolin appears to be in a plotline that will take longer to become clear. He has taken one cohort to Aerenis, the war-torn southern half of the continent, where he has a contract to solve a bandit problem in the area surrounding Cortes Vonja. His plotline merges with Dorrin’s as it becomes clear that some of the Verrakai are tangled up in the plot.

Paks makes an occasional appearance, as her job seems to be to support Dorrin.

I wish Ms. Moon would state the ages of her characters; all I really know is that Kieri is in his fifties, but as a half elf, he is biologically equivalent to 35 or so. Dorrin and Arcolin are acknowledged to be somewhat younger in years. I am assuming Dorrin is in her mid-to-late 40s. I get the impression that Arcolin is a little younger than Dorrin–maybe 40 or so. But I could be wrong.

Most of the action in the story takes place when Dorrin and Arcolin are on the page. Dorrin’s actions are mostly magical in nature, whereas all Arcolin has is his trusty sword. I find Dorrin compelling, but by the end of the book I stilled needed a reason to find Arcolin equally so. He is trusty and dependable and fights to the death for his people, and that should be enough. But so far, he seems to be more of a secondary character than the others, even if his story takes up as many pages as the primary characters. T

The same goes for Kieri. Reading about him setting up his administration was just not compelling, and during my first attempt to read the book, it was during his part that I set it aside. And he is a primary character.

Oath of Fealty appealed to me on a deeper level than I expected. It was entertaining and thought-provoking, and I will be moving on to the next book to see what other twists Ms. Moon has planned.

Four stars

The Deed Reread – Umpteenth First Impression

20130725-211203.jpgI am up to Chapter Seven of my The Deed of Paksenarrion reread. I was unable to read as quickly as I hoped, mostly due to a typically busy weekend. The next few weeks should be calmer.

After reading these seven chapters, I was suffering some serious eyestrain. The omnibus edition that I had (my second, purchased and read a few years ago) squeezes every square millimeter it can out of each page, so the font is maybe 9 point. Guys, these eyes ain’t young anymore. Presbyopia is probably the worst thing about middle age. Wrinkles? Aches and pains? No problem. Old eyes that don’t focus on small fonts anymore? Suckage. When I first read this book, way back in the misty past when the omnibus first became available, I didn’t even notice the font size. Not anymore.

Therefore, I checked out Amazon to see if Deed was available for Kindle. Lots of older books aren’t. Happily, it was–the entire omnibus was 8.99. I had 22 dollars left on a gift card so it was a no-brainer.

This is my third copy of this book.

So anyway, if you’ve read the book, I have a few questions and observations.

What is your opinion of Moon’s writing strengths with this, her first novel?

I think her strength was definitely point of view. In the first pages of the first chapter, we are behind the eyes of Paks’s father, Dorthan. Then, when Paks takes up a sword to defy him, we get a glimpse of her stubborn spirit. In the next instant, she runs out the door and from that moment, we are with her. Later, when Paks first puts on her recruit tunic, she is acutely aware of her bare legs in front of the entire platoon. And even later, when she must strip in front of the entire company, you can feel her humiliation.

What about her weaknesses?

As for her weaknesses, for me, it was scene transitions. I had trouble with this throughout the series, especially when she is switching from Paks’s point of view, which does not happen very often. The beginning of Chapter 3, when Paks goes from being a top recruit to being locked up in the dungeon, is bewildering. It is probably meant to be that way, but I ended up paging back through the book to see if I missed anything. This is a pattern that kept up throughout the entire series.

What is your opinion of the secondary characters?

Secondary characters are very much in second place in this series. The book is about Paks, and even though she makes friends readily, none of them feel fully fleshed out. Vic is my favorite, the son of minstrels, yet he cannot sing. However, he is never more than a tertiary character. The true secondary characters — Stammel, Saben, Barra and later, Canna and the Duke — get more depth, but still, I wished I could have known these characters better–especially the one who later becomes a villain.

And what did you think of Paks?

To be honest, the first time I read this story, I struggled through the first book, mostly because of the sheer quantity of the battles. But it was my reader connection to Paks that kept me going. In the second book, all struggles disappeared because it then truly becomes The Adventures of Paks. Nowadays, when I reread these books, I don’t have the same trouble that I had the first time around, mostly because I know what is coming, and because it is just so fun to relive the story again.

Now hopefully there are a few of you out there who are ready to discuss this …

Monday Review – The Gate to Kandrith


Gate to Kandrith
by Nicole Luiken
Carina Press – 5.99

Epic Fantasy

I thought this novel was great.

It starts with a bang as Sara is prepared to assassinate the priest of the God of War if he –as she expects–withholds the blessing that her father needs as the new Primus of the Republic of Temboria. Withholding his blessing would be a death sentence, and Sara would do anything to protect her small family.

During a narrow escape from a undesirable suitor who drugged her with an aphrodisiac, Sara meets Lance, who she at first mistakes for a slave. She could not have been more wrong. Since she is under the effect of the aphrodisiac, she behaves somewhat (cough) inappropriately, but Lance is the gentleman, and he saves the day and disappears.

How can she help falling in love with him?

Turns out, he’s a Child of Peace. And the next day, her father asks her to become a Child of Peace herself as the Ambassador to Slaveland, aka Kandrith. She also has a secret mission–to learn the secret of Slave Magic, which her father is very afraid of. What follows is an adventurous journey with Lance, at the end of which she learns just what it means to be a Child of Peace, at which time she has to grow up in a hurry.

Nothing goes as you would expect. People you think are loyal turn out to not be so, and people you expect to betray Sara turn out to be steadfast. People you think are pitiless monsters turn out to be good guys, and good guys turn out to be pitiless monsters.

I was worried by the early aphrodisiac scene that this novel would be way more erotic than I expected or desired, but it surprised me. There are sex several scenes, but only after a very long romance building, and they certainly were not excessive. I will call out one rather crude groping; you are warned.

The amazing thing about this book is it is 134,000 words, and yet I read it in just a few days. The character development is amazing, and even a secondary character gets to have a major turnaround. There are surprises in this novel that will keep you guessing until the  very last scenes.

And dang–I have not even said anything about the magic system. Suffice it to say that you have never seen anything like this before. It is the most poignant magic system I have ever read. And what about that fabulous escape! It was the best one I’ve read in a great while.

If you like epic fantasy, you will probably like this novel despite the naughty scenes. They are brief. If you like fantasy romance, this is something you will like. I highly recommend it. Five stars!

Two Novella Reviews

I often buy other Carina Press books just to see what else they are buying. Here are two that I’ve read in the last month. I read a third one as well that I liked even better than these, a long epic fantasy that I’ll post about next time.

YesterdaysHeroesYesterday’s Heroes
by Heather Long
Genre: Superhero


This episodic novella is the start of a new series from Heather Long. I enjoyed it but whew! I was not prepared by the cover or blurb for how very hawt it is. I should have been: when they say passionate, they mean it.

Michael is the leader of a super team sent back in time to stop an event that makes the world the nightmare it has turned into. Rory is a super-something who specializes in calculating probabilities–sounds lame but she can manipulate those probabilities as well, resulting in super fighting abilities. The chemistry between Michael and Rory is so intense that his team suspects emotional manipulation–except Rory is affected as well.

This is a time travel story that has fun with the usual time travel paradoxes. I enjoyed it and will buy the next book in the series to see what the author is going to do with it. The move toward episodic stories intrigues me, so I’ll stay with this one for another book or two.

Recommended if you enjoy science fiction romance or fantasy romance.

Heart of the Dragon's RealmHeart of the Dragon’s Realmby Karalynn Lee
Genre: Fantasy


Heart of the Dragon’s Realm is a poignant tale of a young woman named Kimri who is traded into marriage by her brother, the king of their land. When she thinks to never forgive him, yet looks back to wave one last time, I knew I would like this character.

On the way to the land of her husband-to-be, her party is attacked by soldiers from an enemy kingdom. However, Kimri manages to take their leader hostage, and he turns out to be Prince Herrol, the younger and  disposable son of the enemy king.

You might think this develops into a love triangle, but once you meet the king of the Dragon Realm, King Tathan, you know Herrol is no threat to him. Tathan tells Kimri that he will court her for a year, and if she does not want to marry him at the end of that time, she is free to return to her kingdom with no penalty to her brother.

This is a long novella/short novel. It has a lot of twists, and characters do a lot of things you don’t expect, and they will probably do some things you won’t approve of, but never in an amoral way (except one villain). The writing is just beautiful, and the romance between Kimri and Tathan slow and mostly sweet. Tathan’s kingdom is idyllic and almost crime free–and you find out why in the end. It is a standalone story, and I enjoyed it very much.


One final word: the awesome covers for both of these stories did a great job selling these books for me.

Monday Review – Nightingale by Jennifer Estep

by Jennifer Estep
Superhero Romance

Wow, I’ve been waiting for years to read this book. When I saw that Ms. Estep was re-releasing her other Bigtime books, I wondered if she would release Nightingale, which had been planned but never released.

Sure enough, here it is!

Nightingale was a fun return to the land of Bigtime, New York. Bigtime is Estep’s  version of New York City with a large cast of superheroes, ubervillians, and regular folk.

Abby Appleby is an event planner in Bigtime. Her events are the biggest, the best and the most lavish. She can meet any insane deadline, and can make real the most outlandish concept.

Except when ubervillians crash her parties. Which seemed to happen a lot in previous books.

By the time this book comes around, Abby has a bit of a complex, striving for the perfect event each time. After just pulling off an event that simultaneously announced an engagement and launched a new line of cosmetics, Abby is on the way home when she stumbles on a superhero battle that amazingly seemed to miss her event this time. She quickly discerns that the lone superhero is Talon, a gadget master who is fending off the Bandit and his band of thugs.

Bandit shoots Talon and sprays him with his blinding gas. Abby, a bit of a gadget master herself, whips out her cellphone and scares the bad guys off by playing her police siren ringtone. After they leave, Talon remains conscious long enough to refuse to be hospitalized, and then he passes out. Abby heaves the superhero home via an improvised sled made of a plastic bag and gumption, and nurses him back to health.

It’s the perfect scenario to fall in love.

The complications in this romance are mostly internal. Abby, determined to be as anonymous as Talon (he has a helm that shocks whoever tries to take it off), calls herself Wren, which reflects her own internal image of herself. He turns that around by calling her Nightingale, because of her beautiful singing voice and his own internal image of her that he has built up in his mind. Since she knows she is no beauty, this sobriquet does not entirely please her.

As they each try to get over their hang-ups, they naturally have to contend with the villains behind the Bandit attack. Which makes a perfect circle to the original makup-launch event from the start of the book. This time, Estep has improved her story by making her villains more difficult to guess. Everyone has alliterative names now, which means anyone can be a superhero or an ubervillain. I even suspected poor Piper Perez for a while, a beleaguered secretary who I think  could be the subject of an upcoming book. But in the end, the ubervillain made perfect sense, which is just as it should be.

If you enjoyed the previous books in this series, Nightingale should be a great return to the world of Bigtime. If you have not read Karma Girl, Hot Mama or Jynx, it is not necessary to read them before reading this one, but you may want to read them afterward just for the sheer fun of it.

DNF Review – The Furies of Calderon

Furies of Calderon
Jim Butcher
ACE Fantasy

Epic Fantasy

This book was lent to me by my sister Alice, who touted it as one of her favorite fantasy series ever, which she re-reads every once in a while. Kind of like me with Dragonlance. If you’ve already read Furies, you probably know what the rest of this review will be like.

I didn’t read the blurb before I accepted her much-treasured copies of the entire series, and if I had I would have saved her book the wear and tear. Here goes:

For a thousand years, the people of Alera have united against the aggressive and threatening races that inhabit the world, using their unique bond with the furies – elementals of earth, air, fire, water, and metal. But now, Gaius Sextus, First Lord of Alera, grows old and lacks an heir. Ambitious High Lords plot and maneuver to place their Houses in positions of power, and a war of succession looms on the horizon.” “Far from city politics in the Calderon Valley, the boy Tavi struggles with his lack of furycrafting. At fifteen, he has no wind fury to help him fly, no fire fury to light his lamps. Yet as the Alerans’ most savage enemy – the Marat – return to the Valley, he will discover that his destiny is much greater than he could ever imagine.” Caught in a storm of deadly wind furies, Tavi saves the life of a runaway slave named Amara. But she is actually a spy for Gaius Sextus, sent to the Valley to gather intelligence on traitors to the Crown, who may be in league with the barbaric Marat horde. And when the Valley erupts in chaos – when rebels war with loyalists and furies clash with furies – Amara will find Tavi’s courage and resourcefulness to be a power greater than any fury – one that could turn the tides of war.

I cannot believe an author as prominent as Jim Butcher would be burdened with such a terrible blurb. Adjectives and adverbs and cliches abound, and we are supposed to have sympathy for a boy who can’t use furies to fly or light his lamps. Aww, poor baby. And the metaphors? Wars loom. Caught in a storm. Erupts into chaos. Plus, it is a coming of age novel. Ugh! I set the book aside for a week.

On the strength of Alice’s recommendation alone, I finally started reading it.

Tavi is a fifteen year old boy who has lost his sheep. And since he does not have furies, his mighty uncle Bernard decides he must accompany him in order to protect him. We are at first quite impatient with the uncle, but his instincts turned out to be dead-on. And when Tavi ends up saving his butt, it’s a pretty good start to the novel.

The next character is introduced, Amara. In short order, she finds herself betrayed and on the run. The betrayer, Fidelias, unfortunately gets his own point of view. I don’t mind villain point of view, but they have to be compelling. I did not find Fidelias or his companions anything other than contemptible.

Then Tavi and Amara get thrown together and the furyless Tavi saves her butt as well. But by this point, I have been noticing problems. The point-of-views are shallow, with very little character immersion. Therefore, I only felt the most tepid engagement with the characters. They had my sympathy for their predicaments, but I didn’t particularly like them. Tavi was whiny, Amara was a bland beauty.

A third POV character, Isana, had some potential. She is plain, thirtysomething, never married, and her fury powers make her an empath. However, I did not get enough of her, and I got too much of the other two. If the book was mainly about her, this would be a very different review.

The plot went on and on, and I got over halfway through the novel. Additional points of view were added. Stuff happened. Bad guys kept doing bad things. Good guys kept trying to keep ahead of the situation.

Then, I hit Chapter 28, where a minor villain makes Isana watch another woman get gang raped while he gives Isana his impressions of the proceedings. It is clear that she was next, but I didn’t read on to find out if she got away. The rape was a book killer for me. I set it aside without caring about Isana’s predicament, the upcoming savage/traitor invasion, or anything else.

I am sorry, Alice. Maybe we can read Dragonlance together.