Shadow City (The City of Diamond and Steel #2) by Francesca Flores #bookreview #YA #fantasy #TuesdayBookBlog

The stunning action-packed conclusion to The City of Diamond and Steel duology.

Aina Solís has fought her way to the top of criminal ranks in the city of Kosín by wresting control of an assassin empire owned by her old boss, Kohl. She never has to fear losing her home and returning to life on the streets again—except Kohl, the man who tried to ruin her life, will do anything to get his empire back. Aina sets out to kill him before he can kill her.

But Alsane Bautix, the old army general who was banned from his seat in the government after Aina revealed his corruption, is working to take back power by destroying anyone who stands in his way. With a new civil war on the horizon and all their lives at risk, the only way for Aina to protect her home is to join up with the only other criminal more notorious than her: Kohl himself.

As Bautix’s attacks increase, Aina and Kohl work together to stop his incoming weapons shipments and his plans to take back the Tower of Steel. To defeat them both, Aina will resort to betrayal, poison, and a deadly type of magic that hasn’t been used in years.

Through narrow alleys, across train rooftops, and deep in the city’s tunnels, Aina and Kohl will test each other’s strengths and limits, each of them knowing that once Bautix is dead, they’ll still have to face each other. If she manages to kill him, she’ll finally have the freedom she wants—but it might forever mark her as his shadow in a city where only the strongest survive.

I read the first book in this series nearly a year ago – an outstanding, action-packed debut novel – and couldn’t wait to see where the author took the story next, so when I was invited to read and review the conclusion to this duology, I jumped at the chance.

It’s always difficult to review a sequel without spoilers, so this may be brief. The end of the first book was filled with upheaval – political, religious, socioeconomic – and the struggles continue in Shadow City.

The complex relationship between Aina and Kohl was an endless source of fascination for me throughout this series. It’s a bizarre combination of mentor/mentee, love/hate, savior/worshipper, strength/weakness, and allies/enemies. They can’t seem to live with or without each other, yet there’s not an ounce of trust between them. Talk about your unhealthy relationships. Whatever their battles against each other are, they now face a common enemy who’s started a war to take over their city. As with the first book, this is a bloody tale – saying the body count is high is an understatement. Lots of action, lots of killing.

Aina is a gutsy, clever, and determined MC who trusts very few people, but she finds her crew in this story. They’re lovable, supportive, and ferocious when they need to be and add a lot to the story. The found family vibe is strong, and it’s easy to see how she’s grown and developed from the first book.

With power struggles, a touch of magic, fierce conflicts, and sky-high stakes, this is an action-packed, addictive fantasy series. I felt the ending was satisfying and perfect for these characters and had a hint of coming full circle. Whatever this author writes next, I’ll be reading it.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

The Project by Courtney Summers #bookreview #YA #suspense #thriller

Lo Denham is used to being on her own. After her parents died, Lo’s sister, Bea, joined The Unity Project, leaving Lo in the care of their great aunt. Thanks to its extensive charitable work and community outreach, The Unity Project has won the hearts and minds of most in the Upstate New York region, but Lo knows there’s more to the group than meets the eye. She’s spent the last six years of her life trying—and failing—to prove it.

When a man shows up at the magazine Lo works for claiming The Unity Project killed his son, Lo sees the perfect opportunity to expose the group and reunite with Bea once and for all. When her investigation puts her in the direct path of its leader, Lev Warren and as Lo delves deeper into The Project, the lives of its members it upends everything she thought she knew about her sister, herself, cults, and the world around her—to the point she can no longer tell what’s real or true. Lo never thought she could afford to believe in Lev Warren . . . but now she doesn’t know if she can afford not to.

The last book I read about cults featured the Manson Family, so it’s been a while. The way Charles Manson convinced people to follow him was disturbing and horrific, but also eerily intriguing. The cult in this book isn’t that extreme (thankfully), but there are still some similarities.

I like the way this story is contructed. Alternating between Bea’s and Lo’s perspective along with chapters from the past and present, the pieces of the puzzle gradually form a complete picture by the end – and it may not be what you expect. The Project has a different effect on both sisters, and their bond is demonstrated early and plays an important part of the plot.

The Unity Project initially sounds like a legitimate organization that does charitable work and community outreach. No one has been able to prove otherwise so far, and most of their members are unaware of the truth. It’s easy to see how they’ve won over so many folks. Lev Warren, their leader, is charismatic, empathetic, and knows exactly what to say to get into a person’s head. He preys upon those who are lost, vulnerable, and searching for something to cling to, a purpose. It’s hard to disagree with a lot of what he says – and that’s kind of unnerving. It’s nearly terrifying how quickly he is able to influence others.

As Lo investigates The Project and pushes for a reunion with her sister, she finds herself unsure of what or who to believe. Although determined to discover the truth behind the organization, she wasn’t exactly on sure footing before meeting Lev Warren, and he seems to understand her like no one else she’s ever met. And he takes advantage of this.

After a bit of a slow start, this book grabbed me, and putting it down wasn’t an option. I had to see what happened next. Parts of it are very emotional and ripped my heart out, so be prepared. It’s a compelling, addictive read you’ll still be thinking about days after finishing.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Curse of the Divine (Ink in the Blood #2) by Kim Smejkal #bookreview #fantasy #YA #TuesdayBookBlog

Return to the world of inklings, tattoo magic, and evil deities as Celia uncovers the secrets of the ink in order to stop Diavala once and for all. This eagerly anticipated sequel to Ink in the Blood is perfect for fans of Leigh Bardugo and Wicked Saints.

Celia Sand faced Diavala and won, using ink magic to destroy the corrupt religion of Profeta that tormented her for a decade. But winning came with a cost. Now Celia is plagued with guilt over her role in the death of her best friend. When she discovers that Diavala is still very much alive and threatening Griffin, the now-infamous plague doctor, Celia is desperate not to lose another person she loves to the deity’s wrath.

The key to destroying Diavala may lie with Halycon Ronnea, the only other person to have faced Diavala and survived. But Halcyon is dangerous and has secrets of his own, ones that involve the ink that Celia has come to hate. Forced to choose between the ink and Diavala, Celia will do whatever it takes to save Griffin—even if it means making a deal with the devil himself. 

I nearly DNFed the first book in this series, but hung in there, and it quickly became one of my favorite reads of the year. The followup in this duology is everything I’d hoped.

This sequel begins a few weeks after Ink in the Blood ends. Celia is determined to save Griffin (the plague doctor) from Divala’s wrath, but of course that’s much easier said than done. She’s still reeling with massive guilt and grief over the death of her best friend and begins to wonder if saving Griffin is even a possibility. Their bond has grown stronger and both are willing to sacrifice their life for the other – but neither expects to survive what’s coming.

Lies and coverups run rampant in this story, and it’s difficult to know who to trust and what their underlying motivations are. After Celia learns some shocking facts about the ink’s capabilities beyond tattoos, it’s hard for her to even know what’s real. The intricate world-building from the first book is expanded upon and delivers some surprises – things may not be what they seem.

My favorite character continues to be the completely charming plague doctor (Griffin). His Riddlish (meaning hidden in vague nonsense statements) may still leave you scratching your head, but there’s always an underlying message.

Startling twists, clever plans, and devious characters – all are present in this sequel I’m still thinking about days after finishing. The themes of religion and magic create a compelling, atmospheric story in this dark fantasy, and it’s one I’d highly recommend to fans of the genre.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Liars and Thieves by D. Wallace Peach #bookreview #fantasy

Behind the Veil, the hordes gather, eager to savage the world. But Kalann il Drakk, First of Chaos, is untroubled by the shimmering wall that holds his beasts at bay. For if he cannot cleanse the land of life, the races will do it for him. All he needs is a spark to light the fire.

Three unlikely allies stand in his way.

A misfit elf plagued by failure—
When Elanalue Windthorn abandons her soldiers to hunt a goblin, she strays into forbidden territory.


A changeling who betrays his home—
Talin Raska is a talented liar, thief, and spy. He makes a fatal mistake—he falls for his mark.


A halfbreed goblin with deadly secrets—
Naj’ar is a loner with a talent he doesn’t understand and cannot control, one that threatens all he holds dear.


When the spark of Chaos ignites, miners go missing. But they won’t be the last to vanish. As the cycles of blame whirl through the Borderland, old animosities flare, accusations break bonds, and war looms.

Three outcasts, thrust into an alliance by fate, by oaths, and the churning gears of calamity, must learn the truth. For they hold the future of their world in their hands. 

Having read other books by this author, I know to expect masterful world-building, vivid imagery, and complex characters. This novel is no exception.

In this land of elves, changelings, and goblins, the already uneasy peace is threatened after a series of earthquakes. Friends go missing and each group places blame on the others. Everyone has their own agenda and political squabbling runs rampant.

Character development is strong, and Alue, Talin, and Naj each possess strengths, weaknesses, talents and flaws – all which make them realistic, fallible, and easy to identify with. With vast differences between the species in regards to wealth, privilege, and way of life, it’s easy to see the parallels in today’s society.

To discover the truth behind all these occurrences and ensure the safety of all of their races, Alue, Talin, and Naj must set aside their mutual hostilities and mistrust to form an unlikely alliance. Is there tension? Loads of it. But also moments of humor and enlightenment among the characters (I think some of Talin’s scenes were my favorite).

This is the first book in a trilogy, but unlike most series, the other two books are available now. If you’re a fan of this genre, this book is sure to thrill your dark fantasy loving heart and is one I’d highly recommend.

A House at the Bottom of a Lake by Josh Malerman #bookreview #magicalrealism #TuesdayBookBlog

Both seventeen. Both afraid. But both saying yes.

It sounded like the perfect first date: canoeing across a chain of lakes, sandwiches and beer in the cooler. But teenagers Amelia and James discover something below the water’s surface that changes their lives forever.

It’s got two stories.

It’s got a garden.

And the front door is open.

It’s a house at the bottom of a lake.

For the teens, there is only one rule: no questions. And yet, how could a place so spectacular come with no price tag? While the duo plays house beneath the waves, one reality remains:

Just because a house is empty, doesn’t mean nobody’s home.

When I requested this from NetGalley, I didn’t realize it was originally released in 2016. Reading reviews from that time, it looks like this novella was categorized as horror – which is absolutely isn’t. On Amazon, it’s now listed as coming of age and magical realism, which are much more appropriate descriptions.

Can I just say how cool this cover is? The eerie colors and perspective of the boat above the house just draw you in, and it helped me visualize the house as James and Amelia explored it underwater.

I’ve read three other books by this author and enjoyed them all, especially Bird Box. While I liked both of these teen characters and was riveted by their growing obsession with the house and their discoveries, I had to shove my disbelief out of the way several times to continue on with the story. Their first exploration of the house is done by holding their breath, but they quickly realize that’s not possible if they want to get through all of it. Then they bring an old diving suit which requires an air compressor. With only one suit, each of them takes a turn and also helps the other change in and out of it. Keep in mind all of this happens in a canoe – which is apparently large enough to hold hundreds of feet of hose and a heavy air compressor and is miraculously stable enough to never capsize. James and Amelia then decide to become certified divers, something I’ve never done, but I’d think requires more than a handful of days.

Once I pushed all that aside, I enjoyed this tale, which at times is eerie, claustrophobic, and even heartwarming, but it’s not my favorite by Malerman. For me, the ending is a thing of beauty and not what I’d expected.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Guns of Perdition (Armageddon Showdown #1) by Jessica Bakkers #bookreview #darkfantasy #TuesdayBookBlog

IT TAKES GRACE TO HUNT WHEN IT’S DARKSOME

Jessie expects he’ll be forever cleaning up after the cowpokes of the Bad Hoss Saloon. That’s until the day a drifter strides through the doors, and blows away a blood-sucking demon, along with Jessie’s belief in an everyday world. Jessie is captivated by the enigmatic Grace, with her pearl-handled revolvers, and wolf companion. He throws in his normal life and follows her across the Wild West, as she hunts down and slays the evil creatures that roam the frontier.

Along the way, they seek the aid of a Native American warrior, cross paths with a Cajun Queen, and encounter a small-town tycoon with a deadly hunger for gold. Animosity and distrust plague Grace and Jessie, and their strange group of allies, but they must put their differences behind them if they’re to have any hope of finding and defeating the frontier’s true evil, the Darksome Gunman.

The Armageddon Showdown is a dark-fantasy, weird western series of epic proportions, focusing on the age-old battle between good and evil, though in the Wild West, it’s not always clear just who is good and who is evil.

Join Grace Dyer and her band of miscreants as they battle demons and demi-gods, in the frontier’s deadliest conflict…the Armageddon Showdown. 

I haven’t read many westerns – to my knowledge this book makes a sum total of two. It’s not one of my favorite genres, but toss in Armageddon, dark fantasy, and a battle between good and evil and I’ll snatch it right up regardless of the genre.

The genre blend of western, dark fantasy, and horror is done so well and will appeal to a wide variety of readers. Some parts are a bit graphic, so heed the warning if that’s something you prefer to steer clear of (or just skim over those parts). It’s clear the author did her research for this time period, and I really enjoyed the western vernacular.

Morally gray characters are my favorite and these characters? Shades of gray dripping on nearly every page. Jessie had no idea what he was getting into the day Grace walked into the saloon where he worked or how much his life would change after leaving town with her. His character arc from young and naive to weathered and jaded is fascinating, but also kind of heartbreaking at his loss of innocence. It’s one of the things I enjoyed most. And Grace? She’s badass, hardened, lethal and ruthless, but I loved how the author also allowed her softer side and undying loyalty to her friends to shine through.

Vile creatures, unsavory characters, shocking twists, somber moments – my emotions were all over the place. Alexa read this to me from my Kindle and I had to rewind her more than once because I let some curses slip out over suprising plot developments. The author absolutely didn’t pull her punches from the first page to the last.

Readers of westerns, horror, and dark fantasy will be delighted with this gruesome, gritty tale and after this book, I’ll have to retract my statement about not being a western fan. It’s a powerful debut, and I can’t wait to see where the story goes from here.

Conscience by Jonathan Pongratz #novella #scifi

Rory Bennels lives in a world ruled by a business entity known as the Corporation. For years he’s executed cerebral uploads for the recently deceased, but when the famed anarchist Epher Lore ends up in his lab, a series of events occur that shakes Rory’s world to the core.

I’ve been a science fiction fan since before I hit double digits in age, and I read across the board in the genre.  As a fan of this author’s horror novella, I was immediately interested in checking out his venture into sci-fi.

Cerebral upload isn’t a new concept to me, but the author puts a different spin on it.  What happens when the upload is from a wanted anarchist who has repeatedly eluded authorities and is accidentally transferred into a robot?

Rory is a follow-the-rules type of guy who’s just keeping his head down and doing his job, but then everything he believes about his world changes almost in the blink of an eye.  He’s forced to make a quick decision that will forever alter his life, and you’ll cheer him on until the last page.

Although this is a quick story, the author does a wonderful job with character development, and there’s plenty of action to go along with it.  If you’re a sci-fi/dystopian fan, I highly recommend this novella.  I’d be interested in seeing what happens next to these characters.

I was an early reader of this novella and received a complimentary copy from the author.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Crown of Bones (Amassia #1) by A.K. Wilder #bookreview #YA #fantasy #TuesdayBookBlog

Raise. Your. Phantom.

For fans of epic fantasies and sweeping adventures, this ensemble cast will immerse you in a world of unique magic, breathtaking action and unforgettable characters.

In a world on the brink of the next Great Dying, no amount of training can prepare us for what is to come …

A young heir will raise the most powerful phantom in all of Baiseen.

A dangerous High Savant will do anything to control the realms.

A mysterious and deadly Mar race will steal children into the sea.

And a handsome guide with far too many secrets will make me fall in love.

My name is Ash. A lowly scribe meant to observe and record. And yet I think I’m destined to change us all.

I’ve read plenty of YA fantasies where worlds are in danger or on the brink of war. But raising phantoms? This was something I haven’t seen and I needed to know more. The lavish cover was a bonus.

I’m not sure what my favorite part of this novel was – the wildly creative world-building, the well-drawn characters, or the whirlwind pacing – but I was completely submerged in this story from the first page.

Marcus is the heir to the kingdom of Baiseen and has difficulties controlling his phantom (which are unique to the individual), something that could prevent him from ever taking the throne. He’s sent to Aku for intense training and accompanying him are savant (people who raise phantoms) friends and his best friend and nonsavant (can’t raise phantoms), Ash. They’re on a tight timeline – if they don’t make it there before the gates close, Marcus will never take the throne. During their harrowing journey, they’re met with one life-threatening obstacle after another. I was breathless and couldn’t read the pages fast enough to find out what would happen.

The world-building is intricately developed and unique – the author did an outstanding job. Without being info-dumpy, it’s masterfully woven into the story – and there’s much to take in – but a glossary is included at the end of the book if your memory needs refreshing while reading.

This cast of characters will steal your heart with how they’re so protective of and devoted to each other. The strong friendship between Ash and Marcus is done so well, and they offer each other unconditional support. An intriguing mystery surrounds one character the group picks up along the way, and I’m anxious to learn more about him in the next book and his connection to Ash. Ash experiences some stunning revelations, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for her.

Battles, magical creatures, ancient scrolls, secrets, compelling characters – I’d highly recommend Crown of Bones to fans of epic fantasy. It’s a series I’ll absolutely continue.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Bright Shining World by Josh Swiller #bookreview #YA #darkhumor #thriller

A darkly funny thriller about one boy’s attempt to unravel the mysterious phenomenon affecting students in his new town, as he finds a way to resist sinister forces and pursue hope for them all.

Wallace Cole is perpetually moving against his will. His father has some deeply important job with an energy company that he refuses to explain to Wallace who is, shall we say, suspicious. Not that his father ever listens to him. Just as Wallace is getting settled into a comfortable life in Kentucky, his father lets him know they need to immediately depart for a new job in a small town in Upstate New York which has recently been struck by an outbreak of inexplicable hysterics–an outbreak which is centered at the high school Wallace will attend.

In the new town, go from disturbing to worse: trees appear to be talking to people; a school bully, the principal, and the town police force take an instant dislike to Wallace; and the student body president is either falling for him or slipping into the enveloping darkness. Bright Shining World is a novel of resistance, of young people finding hope and courage and community in a collapsing world.

I got a strong Stanger Things vibe after reading this description, and dark humor gets me every time.

I cannot emphasize how much I adored Wallace’s voice. I couldn’t contain my laughter at his internal monologue and snarkiness, but it was also easy to sense his vulnerability behind the humor. His past is heartbreaking, and his present isn’t much better with his father moving him around the country every few months. His awkwardness at his new school is endearing, and the supporting characters are just as likable.

The strange occurrences in the town – trees talking, weird visions, the outbreak of hysterics – and how it all relates to his father’s mysterious job had me forming theories (all incorrect) for several chapters, and the way the teens come together to fight for a common cause is admirable and heroic. Then the story spirals in a direction that was difficult to understand. I have no problem suspending disbelief in books – most of the time it increases my interest – but it still has to make sense to me within the confines of the story. Throughout the last half or more of the book, I was confused about what was going on, but kept reading because I assumed a logical explanation waited at the end – which is so abrupt I felt sure pages were missing. Maybe there’s a sequel?

The first part of this book is fabulous with a comedic, endearing MC, enjoyable supporting characters, and a curious mystery, but for me, the last half was difficult to follow and the abrupt ending left me baffled. Overall, it was an entertaining novel, and maybe other readers will have a better understanding that I did.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

The Initial Insult (The Initial Insult #1) by Mindy McGinnis #bookreview #YA #thriller #TuesdayBookBlog

Welcome to Amontillado, Ohio, where your last name is worth more than money, and secrets can be kept… for a price.

Tress Montor knows that her family used to mean something—until she didn’t have a family anymore. When her parents disappeared seven years ago while driving her best friend home, Tress lost everything. She might still be a Montor, but the entire town shuns her now that she lives with her drunken, one-eyed grandfather at what locals refer to as the “White Trash Zoo,” – a wild animal attraction featuring a zebra, a chimpanzee, and a panther, among other things.

Felicity Turnado has it all – looks, money, and a secret that she’s kept hidden. She knows that one misstep could send her tumbling from the top of the social ladder, and she’s worked hard to make everyone forget that she was with the Montors the night they disappeared. Felicity has buried what she knows so deeply that she can’t even remember what it is… only that she can’t look at Tress without having a panic attack.

But she’ll have to.

Tress has a plan. A Halloween costume party at an abandoned house provides the ideal situation for Tress to pry the truth from Felicity – brick by brick – as she slowly seals her former best friend into a coal chute. With a drunken party above them, and a loose panther on the prowl, Tress will have her answers – or settle for revenge.

In the first book of this duology, award-winning author Mindy McGinnis draws inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe and masterfully delivers a dark, propulsive mystery in alternating points of view that unravels a friendship . . . forevermore. 

I’m such a fan of this author.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to pull my chin off the floor after finishing one of her books.  She’s a master at shocking surprises.

At the heart of it, this story is about friendship – the sparkly highs, ugly lows, misunderstandings, backstabbing moments and all.  Your initial beliefs about what transpired between Tress and Felicity to get them to this point will be destroyed and reformed by the end.  Their alternating POVs and the varying timelines are perfect and crucial to the story.  It’s mentioned the author drew inspiration for this novel from Poe and it’s creatively interwoven with a certain darkness.

McGinnis does an incredible job at portraying realistic teens.  The topics of drugs, sex, drinking, and the downsides of social media are prevalent throughout the story and dealt with authentically.  Characterization is exceptional.

The girls’ fading friendship is gradually revealed layer by layer, but there’s also the big question – what happened to Tress’s parents?  I listened to NetGalley’s audiobook version of the novel, but feel like I might have missed some clues.  If I’d had a book ARC, I definitely would have been going back and double-checking some details.  While in a state of shock over the ending, I forgot this was a duology, then was so relieved I’d be able to see what becomes of these characters.

This book is tragic, dark, compelling, and such a well done thriller.  Some chapters are very short and may have just a sentence – but that one sentence is powerful and conveys so much.  Just another reason why McGinnis is an auto-buy author for me.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.