Paper Plane Reviews

A Book Review Blog

Blue Angel by Phil Williams

This is a bit of a first for the blog, given that Blue Angel is my first sequel sourced from TBRindr, which is kind of cool. Given that I quite enjoyed the previous book Under Ordshaw, I was quite looking forward to finding out how the series continued. Spoilers for Under Ordshaw will be abound.

Following their encounter with the Minotaur at the end of the last book, Pax finds herself on the run along with Letty and the Barton family. In order to avoid detection, they find themselves seeking shelter with people that they would otherwise try and avoid. Having gotten a lot more close and personal with the Minotaur than she had wanted, Pax also seems to be seeing and feeling things that she can’t explain or understand. The bad feelings start to come thick and fast as inexplicable accidents occur across Ordshaw, coming from underneath the city.
I really liked how the plot continued in Blue Angel, with a lot more escalation that I’d anticipated. While the primary threat still lies firmly underground, the tension around not being seen and not knowing who to trust is a nice change of pace. Sort of like going from a slasher film to a thriller, it’s a different sort of feel but still nice and tense. As part of that, the reader is given a little more information about how the supernatural phenomena work in Ordshaw, but only enough that you realise just how powerful it is and how difficult it will be for it to be vanquished.
One of the issues that I had in my last review was Pax’s characterisation. While I don’t feel that she matches the whole lone wolf image that was originally projected, I do think that she comes into her own more in Blue Angel, where she manages to be both blunt enough to get things done quickly, but still being the voice of reason compared to most of the cast. I still feel that Letty and Casaria are the stand-out characters, especially given that they both get more dimensions added, which is rarely a bad thing.

Blue Angel is a bit of a tonal shift after Under Ordshaw, but not so much that it’s jarring. Instead it makes the problems presented in the previous book feel much bigger and more complicated, and I am so down for more of that. While my previous issue with the characterisation of Pax doesn’t really get addressed, she does feel a lot more believable and comes into her own as a leader of sorts. I look forward to seeing how the series continues. 5/5

Next review: Therese Raquin by Emile Zola

Signing off,
Nisa.

Maskerade by Terry Pratchett

When I asked my partner how to best get out of a motivational rut, they recommended reading a book that you know that you will enjoy. In fact, they specifically said to read the next Discworld on my list. Given that this was Maskerade, the next book in the Witches sub-series, it was hardly an onerous decision.

Following Magrat’s marriage at the end of Lords and Ladies, the witches are now missing the Maiden from their trinity, left with only the Mother and the… Other One. Remembering that a girl from Lancre, Agnes Nitt, had previously shown promise as a witch, and concerned that Granny Weatherwax may go Black Aliss without the right mental stimulation, Nanny Ogg decides to recruit her as their new Maiden. Meanwhile, Agnes, styling herself as Perdita, has travelled to Ankh-Morpork to try and make her way as an opera singer. Whilst at the opera house, she has to deal with providing the voice for a colleague with no actual talent of her own, and rumours of an Opera Ghost murdering members of the troupe.
It was lovely to see Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg again, and I think I need to thank my partner for pointing out the obvious for me. There was something comforting about seeing them at their best, terrifying entire stagecoaches of people and poking their noses into situations where they aren’t wanted, but soon prove to be needed. Agnes had technically been introduced in an earlier Discworld novel, but this felt like a proper introduction. While I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know her, her realisation that, while she desperately wants to be a part of the opera world, she will never quite fit in was unexpectedly difficult to read for me. It was a bit more real than I had prepared myself for, those echoes of being the fat nerdy girl at school. I’ll be interested to see how Agnes develops further down the line.
The stuff at the opera was an entertaining backdrop, with some nice nods to Phantom of the Opera, but I wasn’t as enamoured with the setting as I have been with some of his other pastiches. I think, having studied opera briefly at university and occasionally watching it, that Pratchett did himself a disservice by not going over-the-top enough. I was kind of expecting there to be more balls-to-the-wall insanity and disappointed that it wasn’t there.

An incredibly entertaining pastiche of opera and the wonders that can happen when thoroughly sensible people come along and try and make sense of things. I feel like it could have been more over-the-top, but it’s always great to see Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg cause havoc. 4.5/5

Next review: Blue Angel by Phil Williams

Signing off,
Nisa.

HOPE Engine by Andrew Lynch

Okay, so this review ended up being way later than I had anticipated. Unfortunately, I’ve been in a bit of an emotional/motivational slump for the past couple of months and this has impacted on a lot of my more creative and feelings-intense hobbies. Of which reading and reviewing is one. So I apologise to all of those anticipating reviews from me, they are still in the pipeline. I just haven’t been in the right headspace, and might take a while to get back into the rhythm of things.
With regards to HOPE Engine, I had been looking forward to it, given my enjoyment of my previous LitRPG book, Battle Spire. It seemed to have the sort of underdog main character that I’m fond of too, so that was definitely a plus starting off.

HOPE Engine follows Severo, a new graduate who has chosen to spend the majority of his life in the Fantasy MMO named Tulgutha, rather than face the real world on the brink of war. While he finds himself enjoying the game, he seems to have joined up at a time where an army of glitched NPCs is taking out player settlements. And their next target is his starter village. Banding together with some displaced player characters, he tries to ready his followers for war. On top of all that, strange things are starting to happen in the real world as well.
I’m not sure quite how I feel about HOPE Engine, and a lot of that is down to events about two thirds through that are a bit… spoilery. I will discuss them, but later in the review.
Given that this is a LitRPG, the actual game portion plays a big part in how it comes across. My previous experience of the genre, while limited, had made me expect something reasonably crunchy, with a lot of numbers that you could potentially lift from the book and use elsewhere. The numbers were definitely there, but they were a lot less prominent. Given that the main character is trying to speed through the whole levelling up process, it does make sense, but there are times where the combat can seem a bit arbitrary. I’ve been a low level player against enemies way above my level, and for someone who is meant to be a low level newbie he does get away with a lot more than you would expect. Some of that does get explained by the end, but it’s still distracting in the moment. The main draw for HOPE Engine‘s RPG setting was actually the NPCs. If I’m honest, the other player characters were a bit underwhelming compared to some of the NPCs, in particular Horace. Horace is the first minion that Severo finds in the game, a cultist who both believes him to be an incarnation of a dark god and is perfectly aware that he is just another player. Horace is easily my favourite part of the book, because he can absolutely be counted on to be the agent of chaos that messes up or inadvertently accelerates Severo’s plans. He tells Severo that he’ll ease up on the conversions, quite happily making alterations to new cultist robes throughout the conversation. I look forward to seeing more of Horace.
SPOILERS START
Right, so now to mention the part that has been bugging me, which is primarily related to revelations about what has been happening to Severo in the real world while he was focusing on taking down an army several times his size. As it turns out, an incident towards the beginning where he had to be evacuated from the game to prevent getting some kind of MMO-induced virus causes a shady group to take an interest in him, and deliberately trap him in the game while they carry out a variety of augmentations on him. So when he inevitably wakes up in the last chapter, he finds that what felt like a few weeks or months to him was actually 2 years. Which raises the question of how much of his interactions with the other players that he allies with are genuine, given that it should be pretty obvious when someone that you are spending a lot of time with gets stuck in a loading screen for a couple of months. With those interactions in doubt now, it sort of tempers whatever enjoyment I got from player interactions. Given that HOPE Engine ends on a MASSIVE cliffhanger I imagine that it will get tackled in the sequel, but for now it’s something that just bugs me.
SPOILERS END

A thoroughly enjoyable read, although my thoughts on the last third or so are decidedly mixed. The RPG world is a bit vague at times, but issues with the realism of it are more than balanced out by some great characters, in particular head minion Horace. The cliffhanger ending does intrigue me enough to want to pick up the sequel whenever it comes out. 3.5/5

Next review: Maskerade by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

K-ON! College by kakifly

It’s been a while since I last read K-ON!, and after a reasonably intense book, I thought that I could do with something a bit lighter and fluffier. And there’s nothing in my library quite as light and fluffy as that.

K-ON! College follows Yui, Mio, Ritsu and Tsumugi as they go through their first year of university. Now having to deal with living away from home and being independent, they join the University’s Light Music Club in order to continue playing together. At their dorm they meet another first year band who seem to be setting up to be close rivals.
I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure where this was likely to go, given that the fourth volume ended on a pretty definitive note. Focusing solely on the older members of the band looked to be a good idea, as the university setting does fit well with the new theme that this volume brings to the fore. The introduction of the rival band, made up of the ultra-serious guitarist Akira, energetic drummer Ayame and shy bassist Sachi, force the group to consider how far they want to take music. Do they want to continue playing together as a hobby, or do they want to knuckle down and try to become professionals? It’s not a route that I was expecting from something that has until now been reasonably silly and inconsequential, but I think it worked well with the general growing up theme that university naturally brings. It’s not tied up by the end of the volume, but I think I’m okay with that. I certainly didn’t finish my first year of uni and know with absolute confidence where I was going, so it would seem weird if it had all been tied up.
The new characters are cute enough, although they act mainly as foils for one another. Ayame and Sachi become fast friends with Ritsu and Mio respectively, and it’s nice to see them interacting with people who are a bit closer to them in temperament. In contrast, Yui attaches herself to Akira, who can charitably be said to assume babysitting duties, although there is some grudging respect there. I think this was the relationship that I liked most, for two reasons. First, it’s always fun to see someone utterly lost for words at the chaos that is Yui. Second, Akira is just so damn sweet that seeing her come out of her shell is nice to see.

A bit more on the thoughtful side as the cast have to learn independence in their first time spent away from home. The new characters are cute enough, with Akira stealing the spotlight with ease. It’s as cute as ever and if you’ve made it this far, you’re unlikely to stop enjoying it here. 4.5/5

Next review: HOPE Engine by Andrew Lynch

Signing off,
Nisa.

The Narrows by Travis M. Riddle

Travis M. Riddle’s work graces this blog for the second time, this time in an entirely different genre. I remember enjoying the writing of Balam, Spring, but there was a big part of me that wasn’t sure how he would come across in modern horror after only reading cosy high fantasy. Either way, I liked the synopsis and was curious to see how it would pan out.

The Narrows follows Oliver and his childhood friends as they return to their home town of Shumard and prepare to attend the funeral of a former close friend, Noah. Haunted by the unexpected nature of his late friend’s death, Oliver finds himself drawn to the spot where he died. Whilst there, he sees the grotesque display of a man dissolving in the middle of the road, and is convinced that this is somehow connected to Noah’s death. Now facing the prospect that their friend may have been shielding them from something terrible, he decides to investigate further.
The easiest way to discuss The Narrows is probably to tackle the horror elements separately from the slice of life, coping with grief stuff. I’ll tackle the everyday stuff first, as Riddle really nails it. The thing that I find interesting about the regular world story-line is that it could probably stand by itself without the horror elements, had Riddle wished to do so. The grief expressed by various characters about Noah’s death is really complex and multi-faceted, as one would expect from dealing with the death of someone who used to be a friend. Davontae probably has the least complex reaction, sadness at the loss of a friend tempered by the distancing of their relationship. Sophia understandably decides that he stopped being their friend long before and so refuses to attend the funeral entirely. But, being the viewpoint character, Oliver gets the most interesting reaction, which is anger at his former friend’s apparent abandonment, but also a desperation for his subpar behaviour to be vindicated in some way. I can genuinely say that I would have read an entire novel of just those three dealing with grief.
That’s not to say that the horror elements don’t work. They definitely do, and it’s some of the more disconcerting and unusual imagery that I’ve seen in a while. The first sign of the supernatural is someone full on melting into orange fungi-vomit, so it doesn’t pull any punches. At the same time though, there’s not much explained about how the Narrows of the title actually works. In another genre, that would probably have bugged me, but I think it works in horror. The idea that this other world exists and there may be no real rhyme or reason behind it, it’s just something that the protagonists have to deal with now.

A great novel about grief and losing touch with childhood and the people in it, with a truly uncanny horror world lurking in the background. Definitely something that I would recommend to someone looking for some indie horror. 4.5/5

Next review: K-ON! College by kakifly

Signing off,
Nisa.

White Night by Jim Butcher

After the mind-screw that was The Automation and The Pre-Programming, it was nice to rest my brain with something a bit more familiar. And after enjoying the last book in the Dresden Files so much, I was keen to see how it continues.

White Night starts when Murphy summons him to the site of a suicide that just doesn’t strike her as quite right. When he realises that this is actually a sophisticated murder and that she was a minor magical practitioner, he finds himself on the trail of a supernatural serial killer. Which may possibly be his half-brother, Thomas. On top of that, he has a hard time getting other potential victims to trust him, when it is revealed that the murderer has been seen, an unidentified tall man in a grey Warden’s cloak.
I think this is the closest to a crime thriller that the Dresden Files has felt in a long time, and I absolutely loved it. While it does have some of the heavy political stuff that has complicated the narrative, as to be expected at volume 9 of a series, the majority of it is a cat and mouse game, trying to figure out who is innocent and who needs to be taken care of in a big ball of fire.
Additionally, there is a lot of great character stuff. Thomas gets a fair bit of focus, with Harry having to finally face the question of how his brother has been feeding without turning into a monster, or whether that is even possible. Harry’s ex Elaine turns up again, trying to turn over a new leaf by following in Harry’s footsteps as a detective and helping people with less magical potential. Molly gets a whole bunch of development as she keeps turning up at places that she shouldn’t, and having to deal with the consequences of her brashness. And, my favourite and the one that really caught me off guard, Lasciel, the shadow of a Denerian stuck in Harry’s head. I really liked this development, specifically because it answers the question of how much effort can she put into trying to tempt Harry to the dark side without it become an exercise in futility. As he says early on, she’s been trying to convince him to access the full power of the coin for years now, where previous hosts only needed a few weeks of temptation. In previous books, it had been one of those questions that was interesting, but ultimately not important in the moment, but there was only so long that you could feasibly keep the status quo going before you want some closure on the damn coin. So that was kind of answered here, which was unexpected but nice.

A thoroughly entertaining cat and mouse game with great stakes and some genuinely creepy antagonists. The character development was also on point, with special mention going to Lasciel. Really looking forward to how the series progresses from here. 5/5

Next review: The Narrows by Travis M. Riddle

Signing off,
Nisa.

The Pre-Programming by B.L.A. & G.B. Gabbler

After the strangeness of The Automation, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect beyond more screwed-up pseudo-family drama and weirdly intriguing metafiction. I figured that there might be some conclusion in sight with this volume too. Spoiler warnings for The Automation below.

The Pre-Programming follows on directly from The Automation, after Odissa revealed her deeper sordid connection with the last book’s mysterious villain, Leeland. And as people start to die, it starts becoming more apparent that Odissa is much more important to the plot than any of the cast had originally suspected. In addition, B.L.A. starts hinting at how they may have originally been Bulfinch, Odissa’s cat, with G.B. Gabbler about as incredulous about that notion as you would expect.
Honestly, this didn’t go how I expected at all, and most of the stuff that I want to talk about is spoilers. I will start off with some more generic stuff and then have a section with spoilers.
So I liked some of the character development that takes place in The Pre-Programming, as there’s a section dedicated to the Masters acting in ways that are opposite to their normal behaviour, and their various reactions and attempts to reconcile that with what they consider their true self to be. In some cases they manage the task, but in others they dramatically fail and have to face their own guilt and judgement. The development of the Odissa/Dorian relationship is interesting, but ultimately I don’t see a great deal of chemistry between them. They say that they love each other, but they only seem to alternate between bitching and sniping at one another, and Odissa coddling Dorian like he’s a small child with serious separation issues. I realise that the relationship is most likely not meant to be healthy, but there isn’t much in the way of normal behaviour that would explain why they like each other’s company enough to put up with the shit they put each other through.
So, now to the spoiler stuff. If you’re still intending to read The Pre-Programming, then skip to the final summary.
I’ve never read a book before that replaces a large chunk of the cast right before the end, and I don’t know how I feel about it. So by the end, all the Masters are dead by their own hand or by Odissa’s, including Odissa herself. And the Automata have sentience that is built from the souls of their past Masters, in preparation for the next stage of the series. It’s a pretty major change considering that before this point the Automata were less characters in and of themselves and more extensions of the Masters’ personalities, so what has essentially happened is a total cast kill. I’ve only ever seen that in stand-alone novels, understandably right at the end. Never in the middle of an in-progress series. There’s a part of my brain that is wondering why you would start the series where they did, rather than starting with whatever weird D&D game the gods will possibly be playing and providing The Automation and The Pre-Programming as backstory where necessary. But at the same time, I’m also kind of marvelling at the sheer brass balls that you’d need to pull off a left-turn quite that sudden and brazen. So I think I’m still interested, in spite of the critic part of my brain still trying to rationalise the complete cast replacement two thirds in.

On the one hand The Pre-Programming continues to do what it did well in The Automation, which boils down to a lot of really unhealthy relationships and interesting contemplation of the self. On the other hand, there is probably the most drastic left-turn that I have ever seen a series take, and I still don’t know quite what to make of it. I will probably keep an eye out for whatever comes next, just to figure out if that twist was worth it. 4/5

Next review: White Night by Jim Butcher

Signing off,
Nisa.

The Automation by B.L.A. & G.B. Gabbler

The Automation and its sequel The Pre-Programming were sent my way by the publisher S.O.B. Publishing, to try and drum up a bit of publicity for the second book in the series. Given the interesting premise and the unusual mythpunk genre, I was more than happy to oblige.

The Automation follows Odys Odelyn, a reclusive young man whose only real company is his twin sister Odissa. One day his life as he knows it is shattered after a stranger commits suicide in front of him, bequeathing Odys a tarnished penny as his last act. Odys soon finds that the penny is actually an immortal called an Automaton that runs off of a human host’s soul, and is quickly embroiled in the complex conflicts of other Automata and their masters. Throughout the book, the Narrator (B.L.A.) is simultaneously attempting to convince the reader of the story’s truth and embellish it to fit within the Epic genre, while their Editor (G.B. Gabbler) can only try and curb their wilder narrative flares.
I don’t know quite how to feel about The Automation, because while there is a big part of me that was thoroughly entertained by reading it, there was also a large part of me that was thoroughly irritated by it. And I can’t really untangle the two from each other. For example, let me talk about the single worst character in the book, Mecca. He’s one of the other masters introduced in the narrative, stuck in childhood for at least the next century or so, speaks about himself in the third person, and is a thoroughly nauseating blend of childish and perverted. Every time he turned up in the narrative, I wanted someone to punt the little fucker into traffic. But during his original introduction, there was a little aside that has confused the matter somewhat for me, in which the Editor states that they too hate Mecca and only allowed him to stay in the narrative because he plays an important role in the second book. On the one hand, I kind of feel vindicated, like my rush of ill feeling towards the character is justified and shared by others. On the other hand, the writer and reviewer in me is stuck asking “Well, if he’s that important to the story, why make him so intolerably fucking aggravating?”. This keeps happening throughout the narrative, and I still haven’t made up my mind which emotion should be the prevailing one.
There are two other things that I would mention that people may want to consider before picking up The Automation. The first is that it ends on a cliffhanger, one that you are literally taunted with at the end of the book, so those looking for a one-and-done sort of book should look elsewhere. Second is that the plot, while engaging, is mostly people talking. It’s especially odd considering that the narrative keeps making reference to Greek and Roman epics, in particular those of Homer, which I seem to remember being just a smidgen more violent. Not necessarily a bad thing, but after a pretty dramatic beginning, it does slow a fair bit.

The Automation is a book that entertains and vexes me in near equal measure. On balance, I think I like it enough to look into its sequel, but I would advise that this is for readers who are looking for a bit of a challenge and something a bit different. 4/5

Next review: The Pre-Programming by B.L.A. & G.B. Gabbler

Signing off,
Nisa.

Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

Returning to Discworld for this review, I was somewhat torn. On the one hand, it’s Discworld, so it’s going to make me laugh and probably think as well. On the other hand, Interesting Times is part of the Rincewind sub-series, which is by far my least favourite. So the question was more how it stacked up against the other Rincewind books, rather than would I enjoy it.

A strange message arrives in Ankh Morpork, originating in the insular and secretive Agatean Empire of the Counterweight Continent. In the note, a plea is made for the Great Wizzard to travel to the Agatean Empire is made, to save the country from a terrible fate. So of course, the Unseen University send Rincewind, the only idiot to misspell it like that. And so the least magical wizard on the Disc finds himself running away from power-hungry warlords waiting for the current Emperor to die, and a polite if incompetent revolutionary group who believe that he can lead them to successful political change.
So I can say for certain that Interesting Times is by far the best of the Rincewind books so far. This is mainly due to two factors. The first is the conflict that Rincewind finds himself inserted into this time. An obvious fantasy analogue to the Chinese Revolution, minus the child emperor that they had in the real world, there’s a nice black vs grey morality going on. Because while Lord Hong and the other warlords are obviously evil and perpetuating a broken system, the Red Army who aim to be rid of them aren’t necessarily all sunshine and rainbows. There’s a section that I really loved, where the Red Army have an opportunity to assassinate the Emperor and Rincewind is dead set against it, because of course it’s a trap. When he argues that there’s a high chance that they’ll die, there’s a revolutionary who retorts that the cause is bigger than their lives or the lives of their countrymen. And it really stuck with me, because of course Rincewind is horrified and can’t understand why you’d value a cause above people’s lives. Considering the times that we live in, where there are whole countries who are divided along ideological lines, I feel like this should be an attitude that is taken to heart more often.
The second factor is Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde, a group of barbarians who are firmly in old age. They were absolutely hysterical every time they appeared, especially considering that they were apparently trying to learn how to be civilised in their old age. They were the exact counterpart needed to balance out Rincewind’s cowardice and made up for the Luggage not being as big a part.

A pleasant surprise considering how much my enjoyment of the Discworld books has always been tempered whenever Rincewind was involved. But with Interesting Times, I think Pratchett finally got all the elements together to make Rincewind’s adventures actually work. The conflict at the Agatean Empire is more nuanced than expected, and the Silver Horde are a fantastic way to invite chaos into everyone’s nicely planned coups. 4.5/5

Next review: The Automation by B. L. A. & G. B. Gabbler

Signing off,
Nisa.

Never Die by Rob J. Hayes

After a brief rest with K-ON! I was ready for something a bit darker. Enter my next TBRindr book, Never Die, which promised to be both grimdark and part of a cool looking Asian-inspired world. A bit of a mood whiplash, but I really liked the sound of it.

Never Die follows Ein, a small boy who is on a mission from a god of death to kill the Emperor of Ten Kings. Alone, he has no chance of reaching the Emperor, let alone killing him, so he decides to recruit legendary heroes that he read about growing up. The only problem is that to recruit them to his cause, they need to die first.
There’s a lot that I liked about Never Die, so I’ll start with that. The main strength of the book is the characters, in particular the heroes recruited to Ein’s cause. There’s Whispering Blade, a swordswoman of few words and a strict code of honour, wielding two blades but only ever drawing one of them. The second to join is the Emerald Wind, a selfish and cowardly bandit who can teleport and leave copies of himself behind. Iron Gut Chen is a braggart only concerned with glory and a good meal, his skin impervious to damage. And the Master of Sun Valley is an honourable Wushu master, unbeaten in battle but rarely venturing outside of the confines of his valley home. Tagging along is Death’s Echo, a mysterious assassin who is convinced that Ein has the power to cure his leprosy. It’s a good mix of characters, with a nice balance of honourable and selfish characters. Their varied battle styles are fun to watch interact, which is a good thing considering the regularity of the battles that occur.
The plot is pretty damn strong, managing to be both action-packed and yet filled with subtle details that end up being more important than initially expected. There was one aspect of the plot that didn’t quite work for me though, and that was the ending. While it was very subtly signposted in the narrative, the ending kind of left a bittersweet taste for me, because while it made sense from a plot point-of-view, it made a lot of the character interactions feel a bit futile and sad. Not enough to invalidate the high quality of what went before, but enough that it marred what could have been a higher score.

A really strong story with an interesting world that I would like to see explored further. The characters and their growing camaraderie is the best part of the story by far though. The only thing that bothered me was an ending that felt a bit too bleak for my tastes. I would definitely look into Hayes’ other works, should the chance arise. 4.5/5

Next review: Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

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