The Dragons of Nova (Elise Kova)

5 stars

This is a review for the second book in the ‘Alchemists of Loom’ Trilogy and, as such, spoilers for book one will abound. If you want to learn more about the series, you can find my review for the first book, ‘The Alchemists of Loom’, here.

When I read ‘The Alchemists of Loom’ last year, it was actually the first of Elise’s books that I had ever read. Oh, how times have changed…

I can remember falling in love with the world of Loom, so dark and exciting and original, with its complicated Guild system and video game worthy mechanics. There’s always the worry when you find a book which is so fresh and different, that the second book will not be able to live up to the standards of the first. Thankfully, that is far from the case in ‘The Dragons of Nova’. If anything, Elise has stepped up her game with book two. It is a dream of a sequel.

So, without further ado, let’s get ourselves reacquainted with the world of Loom.

Ari is a chimaera, a Fenthri who has been spliced with multiple dragons parts to gain their magical properties. The events of book one saw our heroine leave Dortam, where she was the infamous thief ‘The White Wraith’, in the company of her apprentice, Florence, and a man who should, by all accounts, be her enemy, the Dragon Cvareh. The only thing keeping them together? The promise of a boon if she gets the errant Dragon to the distant Alchemists Guild.

But the journey was far from simple. Ari finds herself chased by the vicious Riders of the Dragon King, and, perhaps more harrowingly, by her own past. For in a world where chimaeras rot from the inside out under the taint of dragon magic, Ari is not. She is a perfect chimaera, every dragons greatest fear, and she must stop at nothing to avoid that information from spreading. Life is complicated further by her burgeoning emotions for Cvareh, a man she should feel nothing but hate for, and her distaste that her feelings are far from that.

‘The Dragons of Nova’ opens with Ari joining Cvareh on a journey to the Dragon land of Nova, floating islands hanging in the sky above the desolation of Loom. There they are to meet with his sister Petra, in the understanding that it is in both of their interests for the Dragon King to fall. There is, over all, the question of the Philosopher’s Box, the key component in the creation of a perfect Chimaera. How much does Ari know about their construction? And how much of that knowledge about the box, and herself, is she willing to share with her Dragon allies?

Down on Loom, Florence continues her work with the Alchemists Guild, very aware that, once again, she is an outsider in the Guilds and they will always put their lives before her own. Sent on a journey via train to the Harvester’s Guild, Florence becomes intimately acquainted with all facets of monstrosity; the monsters of Loom, and the monsters in humanity. Things are changing on Loom, and our top-hatted Raven-turned-Revolver has a first row seat for the action.

It is very hard to not just keyboard smash when writing this review. SO much happens in this book and my reaction is very much simply the emoji, 😱. Oh, you are truly lulled into a false sense of security by the end of book one. No-one is safe, no-one is secure in ‘TDON’. Our characters are truly trying to navigate violent rapids in a bathtub!

Ari, our protagonist, is mistrust and pride incarnate. Unwilling to accept help, partly because she has been so burned by her part, but also because she’s just the sort of person who would rather walk on hot coals than fall upon the generosity of another. Stubborn, capricious, difficult to love and let herself be loved, I, nevertheless, adore her. Driven by logic, yet coming to appreciate the ‘beauty as its own reward’ culture of Nova, we see so much growth in Ari during the book, both magically and personally. She’s also canonically attracted to more than one gender! Praise be for bisexual or pansexual protagonists in fantasy novels! They’re about as rare as white tigers, and it fills my little bi heart with joy to see myself represented in my favourite genre.

Ari is not the only character to undergo significant development throughout the novel. Florence, who had potentially been my least favourite of the main characters in book one, truly came into her own in ‘TDON’. ‘Tiny girl with a big gun’ is, in my opinion, one of the best tropes to come out of video games, and it’s a joy to see Florence actually be allowed to flourish without Ari being their to ‘save’ her before she gets a chance to save herself. Watching Florence come to a better understanding of herself and her place in the world was honestly one of the most exciting parts of the book. There were a couple of decisions that Florence made during the story that left me so shocked and impressed that I actually laughed out loud.

We see a lot more of Nova in this book, spending more than half of the page time above the cloud line. It’s a real treat to get to see more of the floating islands, with their environment and culture that is so different to that of Loom. Where Loom is built for function, the architecture of Nova is engineered for beauty and form. Cvareh seems a lot more comfortable and confident amongst the culture of his people, and we definitely see a different side to him, that of his sister’s second in command. Privy to his sister’s machinations and quest to return their family to power, there is a very political side to this story, exploring the social hierarchy of Nova and the implications of each and every act within their culture. Politics, I hear you groan, but do not fear, this isn’t a dry story of meetings, but politics that happens in the fighting pit and the gossip houses. The world building is far too interesting to ever let the politics get onerous.

Without spoiling anything, I will say that the events of the story and the ending truly do set the series up for an enormous conclusion. There’s bloody violence, betrayal, assassination and ‘Game of Thrones’-esque political maneuverings. It truly is beautifully and exquisitely satisfying (and painful).

The famous line from Robbie Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’ comes to mind at this moment:

‘the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft a-gley’.

We truly have been set up for suffering. It’s going to be a painful old wait for book three!

Many thanks to Keymaster Press for a copy in return for an honest review.

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The Court of Broken Knives (Anna Smith Spark)

5 stars

“In the richest empire the world has ever known, the city of Sorlost has always stood, eternal and unconquered. But in a city of dreams governed by an imposturous Emperor, decadence has become the true ruler, and has blinded its inhabitants to their vulnerability. The empire is on the verge of invasion – and only one man can see it.

Haunted by dreams of the empire’s demise, Orhan Emmereth has decided to act. On his orders, a company of soldiers cross the desert to reach the city. Once they enter the Palace, they have one mission: kill the Emperor, then all those who remain. Only from ashes can a new empire be built.

The company is a group of good, ordinary soldiers, for whom this is a mission like any other. But the strange boy Marith who walks among them is no ordinary soldier. Marching on Sorlost, Marith thinks he is running away from the past which haunts him. But in the Golden City, his destiny awaits him – beautiful, bloody, and more terrible than anyone could have foreseen.”

Was I expecting, when requesting this on a whim, to find that a book that was one of my favourites of 2017? The answer is no, and I’m so glad that I listened to the feeling in my gut and decided to pick this one up. Because, as much as I love fantasy, sometimes I have a really hard time telling books apart from their blurbs. Large fantasy cities? Mercenaries? Empires? I can name off the top of my head a veritable list of books that contain these components. It’s what an author does with these building blocks that makes them special…

And this is certainly something special.

Sorlost is a City built behind towering walls of Bronze, residents comfortable, protected, despite being surrounded by a crumbling Empire of Dust. Orhan Emmereth is Lord of a once powerful house and sometime confidante of the Emperor. He sees the way the tiles are falling, that they are living in the dying ages of the Empire. Along with other high ranking Lords and his charismatic lover, Darath, he devises a coup, hiring mercenaries from across the desert to infiltrate the Palace and take out the Emperor.

This ragged band of mercenaries are much like any ragged band of mercenaries, apart from the cuckoo in their midst, a boy with the face and education of an aristocrat, the dreams of a broken soldier and the bloodlust of a beast.

In the great Temple of the Lord of Living and Dying, a young High Priestess completes her ritual sacrifices to keep the doors between life and death secure. She has no idea how this revolution could affect her temple and how it will change her life forever.

‘A crown of silver. A throne of gold. A sound of weeping. A scent of blood in the air. King Ruin. King of Dust. King of Shadows.’

This book is 100% for people who came out of ‘Game of Thrones’ more interested in the story of the Targaryens than anything else. It has all the trademarks of a dark fantasy, a brutal antihero, gallows humour, dragons…but there’s something else about this book. It’s just so well written. Seriously, it’s so rich and poetic and gorgeous. It’s a tale told by a poet with the mouth of a sailor and the voice of an angel, and it suits the tone of the book so well.

Take the character of Marith, a boy who looks as if he’s been carved from marble and storm clouds, but with an almost demonic killing frenzy. He’s not your classic anti-hero, not perfect in every crooked way; he has flaws that frequently take him to the edge of death, that make him unpredictable. You mourn for Marith, for the life and love that he could have had, for the addictions that plague him and for the lack of sympathy and help extended to him. I mean ‘cool motive, still murder’ is definitely a phrase that comes to mind and he’s not written in a way where you are expected to forgive him his crimes. I honestly felt at times as if we might be watching the end of the world…

Without spoiling much of the story I really loved how Smith Spark handled the story of the our dark hero’s lover. Through reading her sections you can entirely see how the character knows that falling in love with this person is a terrible idea, how they teeter between staying and leaving and yet, somehow, fall under their spell. So many times when reading fantasy novels, I find myself questioning why someone would stay with their despot lover, but this book definitely explored how people can become someone that they never knew they could be.

One thing that I know can make a lot of people uncomfortable whilst reading grimdark fantasy is an over-reliance on gendered violence. ‘A Court of Broken Knives’ seemed to be refreshingly free of this trope. I mean, every single person in this book is at severe risk of being knifed, but the danger of being decapitated by a dragon was higher than being raped. Thumbs up for that. For everyone who is concerned that it indicates a lack of general gory glory, have no fear, it’s bloody enough to make ‘Game of Thrones’ look a kids bed time story, it just decides to make everyone at risk of a gory death, not just women.

Also, the relationship between Orhan and Darath was so unbelievably cute. Established m/m romance in grimdark, that is treated respectfully? I did feel sad that it was a world where, whilst m/m relationships weren’t really frowned upon, a marriage between two high ranking Lords was considered impossible. It did mean that Orhan had to be ostensibly in a loveless sham marriage where neither he nor his wife was happy. But, to be honest, I don’t think there was a happy marriage in the entire book, so it wasn’t entirely out of pattern. The story is young and dark, who knows what is going to happen.

As mentioned earlier in the review, this book is one of my absolute favourites of the year so far. It is just so irreverent but evocative, poetic but also blunt and gory, filled with gorgeous prose and enough cursing to make a soldier blush. I can’t believe I’m going to have to wait ‘who-knows-how-long’ for book two. I can’t wait that long to see how my favourite royally makes a mess of everything.

‘A Court of Broken Knives’ it out on the 29th of June (tomorrow) from the wonderful people over at Harper Voyager, and I know there are some beautiful signed copies available at Goldsboro Books *wink wink*.

Many many thanks to Harper Voyager Books for a copy in return for an honest review. It was a pleasure to read.

A Song for the Story? ‘Under Your Skin’ by Aesthetic Perfection really put me in mind of Marith’s character at multiple points in the book!

 

Moroda (L.L. McNeil)

4 stars

I was pretty much sold on this book the moment the author described it as princes, dragons and sky pirates. Moroda is a young woman thrown into a jail cell after speaking out against an Arillian Lord  who seems to have her people in thrall. Normally quiet and unassuming, Moroda is forced into an unlikely alliance with a Sky Pirate named Amarah when a dragon attacks the city. The slaying of the usually peaceful dragon by a mysterious Arillian hunter and the realisation that the creature may have been under a similar thrall to the people of the town, sends Moroda, and a motley crew of fellow travellers, across continents in search of answers.

‘Moroda’ was a classic fantasy novel in almost every respect, from the wide range of magical races to the dragons and in depth consideration of personal values and morals. Our protagonist Moroda, and indeed the dragons within book, are advocates of nonviolent methods of conflict resolution. Indeed, the whole premise of the book seems to be that war between humanoids is pretty much meaningless in the face of the damage that we wreak on our environment and our world. What use is an end to war, when the destruction we’ve wrought with kill us all anyway? The question raised at the very end of the story seems almost to be ‘do these people even deserve the world that they live in?’

One of my favourite parts of the novel was the dragon lore. We have a world where the souls of dragons are the source of almost all magical power, to the extent that the oldest Sevastos dragons are pretty much worshipped as gods and creators. Phoenixes are found in greater numbers near the largest dragons, attracted to their heat and power,  and phoenix feathers can be used to scry for their location.

Alongside the dragons there are several humanoid fantasy species. Arillians are winged beings with a strange magic of their own; the Varkain are grey skinned creatures that can transform into venomous snakes and the Ittallans are also shapeshifters, though more humanoid in appearance.

One thing that I’ve heard recently from some of my friends is how eager they are for a fantasy series that doesn’t focus on romance. ‘Moroda’ was entirely romance free, and whilst I personally prefer a love subplot, I can totally see why that would be a selling point for many people!

I was also impressed with the ending, it really made sense with the tone of the rest of the novel, focusing on non-violence and sacrifice. I’m interested to see where the rest of the series goes from this, who of the characters will be the focus and, to be honest, whether any of them with even survive! It’s been a long time since I’ve been unable to predict where a series will go and it’s honestly quite exciting to be able to say that!

The not-so-good:

It’s only a small thing but during the reading experience I really felt as if we needed a map. I was having trouble working out where people were going and what they were doing. Ironically, I rarely actually look at maps in books, but I felt myself turning the page to go and look for one a couple of times whilst reading this. Something to consider for future books in the series maybe!

The other small criticism I have is that the book felt very dialogue heavy. The thing with dialogue is that I like it fleeting and to try and mirror actual speech as much as possible, otherwise I end up skimming it. Pretty much every explanation in this book took place via speech and I wondered whether it would have been better explained via an internal voice recap, a letter or some other method, to allow the speech to be more playful and less ponderous.

Conclusion

It’s been a while since I read a pure adventure fantasy and it was really refreshing to do so. Dragons, soul magic and sky pirates all combine into a rollicking start to what looks to be an interesting series. I look forward to seeing where the next book takes what is left of our motley crew!

Many thanks to L. L McNeil for a free copy in return for an honest review. All opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own.

Interview + Giveaway: Elise Kova talks Loom, Music and Inspiration

As I’m sure many of you know by now, I’m a huge Elise Kova fan! I was given the opportunity to read an advanced readers copy of ‘The Alchemists of Loom’ last year and fell in love with the dark steampunk world with its rich characters and videogame-like action sequences.

To give you a flavour, here’s is the synopsis for Book One, ‘The Alchemists of Loom’:


‘Her vengeance. His vision.
 
Ari lost everything she once loved when the Five Guilds’ resistance fell to the Dragon King. Now, she uses her unparalleled gift for clockwork machinery in tandem with notoriously unscrupulous morals to contribute to a thriving underground organ market. There isn’t a place on Loom that is secure from the engineer-turned-thief, and her magical talents are sold to the highest bidder as long as the job defies their Dragon oppressors.
 
Cvareh would do anything to see his sister usurp the Dragon King and sit on the throne. His family’s house has endured the shame of being the lowest rung in the Dragons’ society for far too long. The Alchemist Guild, down on Loom, may just hold the key to putting his kin in power, if Cvareh can get to them before the Dragon King’s assassins. 
 
When Ari stumbles upon a wounded Cvareh, she sees an opportunity to slaughter an enemy and make a profit off his corpse. But the Dragon sees an opportunity to navigate Loom with the best person to get him where he wants to go.
 
He offers her the one thing Ari can’t refuse: A wish of her greatest desire, if she brings him to the Alchemists of Loom.’

 


Now, with the release date of second book in the Loom Trilogy, ‘The Dragons of Nova’, looming ever closer I was lucky enough to get the chance to ask Elise some questions about her world and her inspirations!

  • The world of Loom is a very cinematic one. When you first started to envisage this story were there any images and ideas that stood out to you before all else?

[Elise] I’ve spoken about my video game influence in a few other interviews over the course of the read-along, so I’ll just take this as an opportunity to share my Loom Pinterest board which has a ton of my original inspirations and world images. 

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  • You’ve mentioned before that music had a profound impact on your writing of the ‘Air Awakens’ series, are there any songs that, through the writing process, you can’t hear without thinking of Loom?

[Elise] I wrote to a lot of the ‘Bloodborne’ Soundtrack, it was my “get in the mood” music when it came to writing Loom. Otherwise, I have a lot of songs that fit Ari specifically and seem to describe the overall feeling of Loom. Some of them are:

‘Control’ by Halsey

‘Gasoline’ by Halsey

‘Fairly Local’ by Twenty One Pilots


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‘Florence’ Trading Card by Nick Grey

  • Which character do you find the most enjoyable or rewarding to write?

[Elise] All the characters are so different that they each really fulfil me in different ways to write. I thought originally I would enjoy writing Arianna the most and her logical approach to problems… But I think the character I have the most fun writing and find the most enjoyable is Florence. I think this is because of just how much she grows throughout the course of the books and how she evolves. Some characters write themselves and Florence was certainly one of those in that she became a lot more important than I even thought she would be to the plot. But, now, I can’t imagine her any other way.


  • Have any of the characters changed drastically, even unrecognisably, during the writing process from the way you first envisaged them?
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‘Cvareh’ Trading Card by Nick Grey

[Elise] I think the closest to this is Cvareh… He was another character who (speaking of) “wrote themselves”. I wasn’t really sure what kind of character Cvareh was going to be going into his narrative. I knew aspects about his backstory, his priorities… But I didn’t know his voice. That was something I had the delight of discovering as I wrote. So I don’t know if he “changed drastically” because I didn’t have much for him going into things. But he definitely became someone I didn’t expect. 


  • Say you were to find yourself in Loom, harvesting dragon parts, which organ would you want for yourself?

[Elise] I think I would go for hands. I like the idea of being able to make illusions and think it could be used in ways that are both good (like “taking” someone who couldn’t otherwise go to a far away place there by illusioning it around them) and a little mischievous (like playing a harmless prank on a friend).

Many thanks to Elise for her time and her insights into the world of Loom! Keep an eye on my instagram (moonmagister) for a special ‘The Alchemists of Loom’ related post!


For the chance to win a signed copy of ‘The Alchemists of Loom’ visit the giveaway here!!

Bonus Content:


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