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Today I’m excited to be a part of Tor Books’ #FearlessWomen celebration of science fiction and fantasy books by women and the blog tour for Jacqueline Carey’s latest epic fantasy novel, Starless—which will be released tomorrow! I absolutely loved this book, as you can see from my review below the book information. This is also followed by an excerpt from chapter three and a US/Canada giveaway of one hardcover copy of Starless plus a swag bag containing a Starless quote postcard, hawk feather, #FearlessWomen sticker, #FearlessWomen pen, and star confetti!

For more on Starless and other opportunities to win a copy, check out the other blog tour stops this week:

Tuesday, June 12
Tuesday, June 12
Wednesday, June 13
Thursday, June 14
Friday, June 15
Utopia State of Mind
If the book will be too difficult
Between Dreams and Reality
Her Graces Library
Starless by Jacqueline Carey


With STARLESS readers will fall in love again with Jacqueline Carey’s lush, character-driven fantasy: Kushiel’s Dart took the fantasy world by storm, winning the Locus Readers Award for Best First Novel and launching the New York Times bestselling Kushiel’s Legacy series. Now in STARLESS (A Tor Hardcover; $25.99; On-sale: June 12, 2018) Carey creates a whole new world and introduces a compelling hero.

In the world of STARLESS the gods have been cast down to earth by Zar the Sun for their rebellion.  Born during a solar eclipse, Khai has trained his whole life in the arts of killing and stealth by a warrior sect to prepare him to serve as protector of the princess Zariya. But when the dark god Miasmus rises Khai and Zariya join an unlikely crew of prophecy-seekers on a journey that will take them farther beneath the starless skies than anyone can imagine.

Pick up STARLESS and meet a hero whose journey will resonate long after the last page is turned.

Jacqueline Carey
Photo Credit: Kim Carey

Jacqueline Carey is the author of the bestselling Kushiel trilogy and has won the Locus Award for Best First Novel and the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Fantasy Novel.

Always an avid reader, Carey began writing fiction in high school. After graduating from Lake Forest College, she worked for six months at a bookstore in London, and returned to the United States with a driving passion to write professionally.

She resides in western Michigan.

Website: www.jacquelinecarey.com
Facebook: jacquelinecarey.author
Twitter: @JCareyAuthor

Jacqueline Carey’s standalone epic fantasy Starless showcases her extraordinary skill as a writer and worldbuilder, but especially as a wonderful storyteller. It’s a beautiful, memorable novel incorporating the tropes of chosen ones and prophecies while exploring gender identity, honor, redemption, fate, love, and the necessity of change and progress. It’s riveting from the very first page, and though I did prefer the earlier smaller scale parts of the story to the later larger scale ones, I absolutely loved Starless.

Long ago, the sky was alight with shining stars, the children of the sun and the three moons. But these stars grew weary with their place and rebelled against their parents. As punishment, the sun cast them to the earth and the gods have been bound there since.

The land of Zarkhoum is protected by two of the sun’s favorite children, the Sacred Twins Parhkun the Scouring Wind and Anamuht the Purging Fire. Throughout the ages, a member of the royal family has occasionally been born during an eclipse, and their soul’s twin always comes into the world at the same time. In order to find this child, the priestesses of Anamuht find and gather the babies that could potentially be this shadow of the young prince or princess and drop a hawk’s feather from above—and the one who catches it is revealed to be Parhkun’s chosen.

Khai is one such child, and before he and Princess Zariya were so blessed, there had not been such a pairing in 150 years—nor had a girl of the royal family ever been born during an eclipse before. As a shadow, Khai is raised as part of the Brotherhood of Parhkun in the desert, where he learns to fight so he will be able to protect the princess when they are both older. Though this training is traditional for the god’s chosen, Khai’s training is not conventional since it seems his god wants him to learn methods of stealth and trickery that the brotherhood always considered to be dishonorable.

Far away, the angry god Miasmus is awakening and beginning to wreak havoc across the earth—and Khai and Zariya have a role to play in the upcoming fight, a destiny that draws them far from their homeland.

With Starless, Jacqueline Carey weaves a mesmerizing story about a god-chosen young person who does his best to follow the path that’s been laid out for him since birth—and the strong, supportive bond he has with his soul’s twin that enables them to face their numerous challenges together. Though this is ultimately Khai’s tale as it’s told from his gracefully written first person perspective beginning with his training seven years before he meets the princess, Zariya plays a major role and is in his thoughts from the very start since he’s preparing to be a capable warrior in her service, like all shadows before him.

Starless is composed of three distinct parts, each with a different focus. The first third of the novel concentrates on this early life in the Brotherhood of Parhkun, and even though I enjoyed the novel in its entirety, I found this part the most compelling and vivid from the desert setting to the individual characters who shaped the shadow in various ways. Khai’s relationships with his mentors are especially well drawn, particularly that with the unlikely Brother Yarit. He was a thief sentenced to death who opted to take Parhkun’s test and used devious means to pass it, meaning he was allowed to live as part of the Brotherhood. Their Seer believes that their god brought him to teach Khai, but Khai does not want to learn from someone without honor until he’s told of how the last shadow may not have failed his duty to protect his own soul’s twin had he had knowledge beyond honor. Despite their rocky start, Khai and Brother Yarit develop a close relationship and the latter was my favorite character. He can certainly be sneaky and keep a secret when the situation called for it, but his usual manner was coarse and straightforward—and as unlikely a member of the Brotherhood that he is, he even proves to be honorable in his own way, particularly when making sure Khai is equipped for his future.

I would rate this first third alone a perfect 10, as I loved everything about it. The perilous heat and wind of the desert come to life, as do the two gods that reflect its nature. The land and its gods are intertwined, and the deities are larger than life, truly alien and godlike. Though insular, it also shows another part that is done so well throughout Starless: the variety of different cultures with different values and beliefs. As is shown more later, these are often tied to the land’s deity in some way, such as worshiping a two-faced god through convoluted speech or a shrewd god with bargaining and trade practices.

This world expands more with each third that follows and continues to be fascinating; however, I didn’t feel that either section was quite as engaging as the desert and the true-to-life relationships Khai found there. In the middle part, Khai leaves the desert for the palace at sixteen years of age and meets Zariya for the first time—and goes from living among men to living among women. Normally, a young man would not be allowed to share a room with a princess in the women’s quarter, but Khai would have been raised as a girl had he not been chosen by his god and raised within the Brotherhood instead. Here, he grapples more with his complicated gender identity as someone who doesn’t quite fit into society’s expectations of men or women, and he also sees firsthand that some of his previous beliefs about women were misinformed. Zariya especially may be underestimated by people since a childhood illness left her unable to walk, but all who know her see that her heart is that of a fierce warrior. She’s a courageous, thoughtful person, and Khai immediately feels a deep bond with her due to their fated connection and comes to love her for herself as he gets to know her. With palace life comes some royal intrigue, and this section also shows more of the fire goddess Aramuht and the rising threat of Miasmus.

The last third opens up the world even more since this is the part involving traveling with the prophecy-hunters in the book’s description. The various lands and peoples (and the sea-wyrms!) are fascinating, but I actually found this the least engaging of the three parts that make up Starless because the character relationships were not as strong. The voyagers were supposed to have a deep friendship forged by their experiences together, but I didn’t think it came through the page and dialogue as clearly as the bond between Khai and the Brothers or Zariya and some of her family. However, I still enjoyed it immensely even if I felt the last third was the weakest part of the novel.

With Kushiel’s Dart, Jacqueline Carey immortalized the phrase “Love as thou wilt.” These words could also be applied to Starless, but I kept thinking that the journeys of its two main characters could be summarized as “Be as thou wilt.” Khai and Zariya unconditionally accept each other from the start and they both learn to accept themselves regardless of societal expectations. I loved this about them, and Starless is a beautifully written, readable book that I can definitely see myself rereading in the future.

My Rating: 9/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

Read below for an excerpt from Starless—featuring the favorite character I mentioned—followed by the giveaway form and rules!




“Right.” On the floor of the Dancing Bowl, Brother Yarit looked me up and down, a sour expression on his face. “Here’s your first lesson, kid.” With a deft twist, he unwound the tie that bound his hair back. “Catch.”

Something tumbled through the air; I caught it by reflex. It was a length of tightly braided leather cord with bone pegs at either end.

“Always keep a garrote handy,” Brother Yarit advised me. “That’s what I damn near used to kill you.”

Oh, I remembered.

“Here,” he said. “Let me show you how to do it.” Honor beyond honor.

Those were the words I whispered in my thoughts as I suffered Brother Yarit to lay his hands on me and demonstrate, pulling my hair back into a tail and winding the cord and the pegs around it, releasing it with a twist. Those were the words I whispered to myself as he made me practice it over and over.

Several of the brothers watched from the mouths of tunnels above the Dancing Floor. It made Brother Yarit uneasy.

“I agreed to train the kid!” he shouted up at them. “I never agreed to share clan secrets with all of you!”

None of the brothers responded.

“You agreed to everything when you undertook the Trial of Pahrkun,” I murmured, twisting and untwisting the garrote around my hair. “You are Pahrkun’s instrument now, brother.”

Brother Yarit glared at me. “Let me see you jump.”

“Jump?” I repeated.

“Jump.” Suiting actions to words, he ran lightly toward the western wall of the Dancing Bowl, launching himself with a prodigious leap; high, higher than I would have thought possible. He caught an outcropping with both hands, hauled himself up, and launched himself again with a standing leap. Wedging fingers and toes into narrow crevices, he scrambled up the face of the bowl to the mouth of an unoccupied tunnel, then sat on the ledge with his feet dangling. “Come on, kid!” he called down to me. “Jump!”

I took a running start and did my best.

Brother Yarit snorted in disgust as I slid futilely down the face of the bowl, scraping my hands. “You’ve got the legs of a seven-year-old.” Dropping into a low crouch, he launched himself from the ledge. I heard someone above him make a muttered sound of alarm, but he landed safely, hands and feet braced against the stony ground, flexed limbs absorbing the impact. Shaking out his hands, he straightened. “Right, then. Jumping practice it is.” Glancing around, he led me over to a staircase etched into the wall that led to one of the middle tunnels, this one carved by human hands. “Hop up it.”

Feeling foolish, I hopped onto the first step.

“No, no, no.” Brother Yarit shook his head. “You pushed off on your right leg. Hop with both legs, feet together.” I did as he said, finding it considerably more difficult. “All right, keep going.” He clapped his hands together. “Hop like you’re a desert toad with a . . . what eats toads?”

“Hawks,” I replied, slightly breathless.

“Hop like you’re a desert toad with a hawk on its tail,” he said. “Do toads have tails? Never mind. All the way to the top.”

It was twenty steps to the top, and when I reached it, he ordered me to turn around and hop back down. When I regained the floor of the Dancing Bowl, the muscles of my legs felt wobbly.

“Good. Do that . . .” Brother Yarit considered the staircase. “We’ll start with ten times a day. Five in the morning and five in the evening.”

I pushed down a wave of resentment. “Hop.”

“Hop,” he said. “You want to learn to run? You start by walking. You want to learn to jump, you start by hopping.” He clapped his hands again. “Go on, kid! Hop to it.”

I turned back to the staircase.

“Hold, Khai.” Brother Merik emerged from the mouth of one of the lower tunnels. He folded his arms over his chest. There was a bloodstained white bandage around his left forearm. Sunlight glinted on his kopar and the pommel of his yakhan. “Do you seek to mock us?” he asked Brother Yarit in a grim tone, dropping one hand to his hilt. “Because I would welcome a, shall we say, friendly rematch in the broad light of day, with no trickery between us.”

Brother Yarit grimaced. “I’m sure you would, brother. I’ve heard the tales.”

“What tales?” There was a dangerous edge to Brother Merik’s voice. “They say the warriors of Pahrkun are as fierce and deadly as the desert.

They say the wind itself warns them of a blow before it lands.” Brother Yarit shrugged. “Make no mistake, I am no warrior. And yet I am here. Shall I tell you what defeated you the other day?”

“I know what defeated me,” Brother Merik said. “And I know what slew Brother Jawal. Trickery.”

I glanced uneasily from one to the other. Sparring was permitted among the brothers; feuding was not.

But Brother Yarit was shaking his head. “No, what defeated you was your own expectations. Brother Jawal expected a fat merchant who would be easy prey; he did not expect that merchant to spit out the wads of cotton wedged in his cheeks and use his fine robe as a weapon. You, Brother . . . Merik, is it? You expected the advantage of darkness, not the glare of an oil-wood knot. Brother Khai . . .” He glanced at me. “You expected me to be weaponless when I was not.”

Brother Merik regarded the smaller man with narrowed eyes. “It is not our way.”

“Shall I apologize for not dying?” Brother Yarit said dryly. “I will not. The Shahalim are thieves and spies, yes, but we take our name from the Dark Moon herself, and we are not without pride. Our weapons are disguise, stealth, distraction, and agility; an agility won through strength. I’m trying to teach the kid the latter.” He made a show of adjusting the sleeves of the loose tunic of the brotherhood that he had adopted. “Believe me, it wasn’t my idea. If you don’t like it, speak to your Seer.”

Remembering the throwing knives he had wielded in the Hall of Proving, I had a strong suspicion his hands were no longer empty. I stepped between them, facing Brother Merik. “I like this no better than you do,” I said to him. “But I think it is Pahrkun’s will that I learn from this man.” I made myself smile. “Brother Saan has me squeezing rocks. Shall I balk at hopping?”

After a long moment, Brother Merik gave me a brief nod. “I will be watching you,” he said to Brother Yarit. “I do not trust you.”

Brother Yarit shrugged. “I’ll do my best to defy your expectations. Again.”

I expected Brother Merik to bristle at that, but he merely shook his head and walked away.

Brother Yarit smoothed his sleeves. “All right. Get hopping, kid.”

I pointed at his nearest sleeve with my chin. “Would you have thrown on him?”

“You saw that?” One corner of his mouth curved in a faint smile. “You’re observant. Good. No, not unless he’d drawn on me.”

“May I see?” I asked.

He hesitated a moment, then pushed up one sleeve to show me a brace of three throwing knives strapped to his forearm; odd, flat little knives wrought of blackened steel nested in a cunning sheath. “They’re called zims. Hornets, in the traders’ tongue.”

Honor beyond honor, I told myself.

“Will you teach me to use them?” I asked. “To throw like you do?”

Brother Yarit stared at me for a moment. “What happened to all that high-and-mighty palaver about dishonorable ways? When all’s said and done, you’re a violent little bugger.” He nodded at the heshkrat knotted around my waist. “Will you teach me how to use that whatsit?”

I saw no reason to refuse. “Yes.”

“Then we’ve a bargain,” he said. “Now get hopping.”

I hopped; hopped and hopped up the staircase and down until my thighs were burning. After the midday rest, Brother Yarit made me hop the staircase three more times before taking pity on me.

“Let’s try something else.” He spilled a satchel of loose pebbles and gravel over the floor of the Dancing Bowl, spreading it about judiciously. “Can you walk across it without making a sound?”

I walked across it as light-footed as I could, but even so, the gravel shifted and crunched under my weight.

Brother Yarit took a deep breath. “Watch.” Standing at the edge of the gravel patch, he flexed his knees deeply, centering his weight above his left leg. His right foot reached out slowly, little toe descending first, then the outer blade of his foot. The ball of his foot, then the sole and heel descended with a slow, rolling motion. There was not a single crunch as he shifted his weight from his left to his right leg, then repeated the motion on the other side. Again and again, until he’d crossed the entire distance without a sound. For the first time, I found myself truly wanting to learn what Brother Yarit could teach me. He was strange to me with his dishonorable ways and his coarse language—and I could not yet bring myself to forgive him for Brother Jawal’s death—but Brother Saan was right. There were things I could learn from him that I could not learn from anyone else.

Still, I was not quite ready to give him the satisfaction of knowing it. “You wouldn’t want to be in a hurry,” I observed. “Takes a long time to cross a patch of ground that way.”

Brother Yarit snorted. “Yes, and there are different ways of silent walking for different circumstances, most of them faster. But if you need to move over that kind of turf without making a sound, you’d damn well better take your time.” He nodded at the gravel patch. “Try it again.”

It took a lot of effort to move in a deep crouch, but it was the only way to truly control the shift of one’s weight from one leg to the other. I began to see the point of Brother Yarit’s hopping exercise. I practiced until the shadows grew long and Brother Drajan blew the horn summoning us to dinner. “You did well, kid,” Brother Yarit said to me, genuine sincerity in his voice.

“I know it’s hard. But give it a month, and you’ll be amazed at the progress you make. Give it a year, and you’ll be walking like you were born to the clan.”

I felt a surge of pride that was not wholly welcome; but not unwelcome, either. I touched my thumbs to my brow in respect, reckoning he was owed that much. “Thank you, brother.”

That night I fell aching onto the carpet in my chamber. It was verging into autumn and the day’s heat gave way to a chill. I pulled a thick wool blanket over my sore body and slept deep and hard.

I awoke in the small hours before dawn to Brother Saan stooping over me with an oil-wood torch and shaking my shoulder. “Khai,” he murmured. “Brother Yarit is gone.”

“Gone?” I sat up. “What do you mean gone?”

In the torchlight, Brother Saan’s pupils were strangely wide and blurred. “He stole a horse and fled when the Bright Moon was yet high. As those who stood the Trial of Pahrkun for him, the duty falls to you and Brother Merik to retrieve him.”

Stifling a groan, I crawled out from beneath my blanket. My legs were so sore, I feared at first that they would not hold me. “Yes, Elder Brother.”

Brother Saan lit the wick of the little oil lamp in my alcove with his torch. “We will meet at the horse canyon.”

My legs wobbled. “Yes, Elder Brother.”

I dressed as swiftly as I could, donning a loose-fitting tunic that fell to my knees, wrapping my sash and my heshkrat around it and thrusting my dagger into the sash. In the Fortress of the Winds, we were shielded from the worst of the sun’s rays, but it would be different in the open desert. I wound a long scarf around my head and neck, securing it with Brother Yarit’s—curse him!—garrote, and laced my feet into tough camel-hide sandals. Throwing on my plain white woolen robe, I blew out the lamp and hobbled through the fortress in near darkness, making my way outside and down the long carved stone stairways to the horse canyon, where a cluster of men with torches was gathered.

The crescent of the Bright Moon was visible on the western horizon, and high overhead, the Dark Moon was full, a glowing sphere of ruddy ochre that laid a bloody pall over the landscape.

The horse canyon was long and narrow. Scrub grass and gorse grew there, and there was a brackish watering hole; enough to sustain the few hardy mounts—anywhere from four to six—that the brotherhood kept on hand for errands. There was a wooden gate across its opening and it had been left ajar, but it seemed the remaining horses had better sense than to flee into the open desert. Two of them were saddled and waiting. Brother Tekel, who tended them, stood at their heads.

“Khai.” Brother Merik noticed my limping approach and frowned. “Can you ride?”

I made an effort to straighten my stride. “Yes, brother.”

Brother Drajan patted a bag lashed behind the cantle of  the  nearest horse’s saddle. “You’ve two water-skins apiece, dried meat, and a satchel of grain,” he said. “I reckon you won’t want to stop to forage.”

Brother Merik gave a brusque nod of assent and swung effortlessly astride his mount. I followed suit gracelessly, assisted by a boost from Brother Tekel. To be fair, it was a longer step up for me.

“He will have gone due west toward the supplicants’ campsite.” Brother Saan hoisted his torch and pointed. “It’s the nearest watering hole, the only one he can be sure of. By the time you reach it, it should be light enough to pick up his trail. I suspect he will bear northwest and attempt to make his way to Merabaht.”

“I trust you want him brought back alive?” Brother Merik sounded as though he hoped otherwise as he took up the reins.

“Yes.” Brother Saan turned his strange, blurred gaze on him. “Have a care. The Sacred Twins have left the deep desert and are abroad in the west. I have Seen it.”

My breath quickened, wisps of frost escaping my parted lips. Brother Merik was less enthralled by the notion. “I mean no disrespect, Elder Brother, but I would that you’d Seen the villain’s escape before it happened,” he said in a dour tone.

Brother Saan smiled, and his smile was as uncanny as his gaze. “What makes you think I did not?”

My skin prickled at his words, and Brother Merik’s expression changed. He touched his  brow with the thumb of one hand. “Forgive me, Elder Brother,” he said. “We go forth to do your bidding.”

Brother Saan returned his salute with both hands. “Ride with my blessing.” We set out at a slow, steady trot. I had ridden out from the fortress before, but never farther than a hunting excursion and never at this hour. Everything looked strange and unfamiliar in the bloody light of the Dark Moon. I gazed at the sky overhead, trying to imagine it filled with a thousand upon a thousand sparkling lights, and could not. The air was still, not a hint of breeze, and the sound of the horses’ hooves on the arid, stony ground seemed unnaturally loud to me. Then again, perhaps yesterday’s lesson with Brother Yarit had made me particularly sensitive to the sound.

I couldn’t believe he’d fled. It felt like a betrayal, especially after I’d worked so hard yesterday.

I wondered what Brother Saan had meant. If he’d Seen Brother Yarit’s escape, why hadn’t he prevented it? I pondered these matters in silence, hoping that Brother Merik would weigh in on them. When he didn’t, I broke my silence to ask him.

“There’s no merit in trying to guess at the Seer’s reasoning,” he said. “I doubt he could even explain it to the likes of you and me. But as for the Shahalim . . .” He shrugged. “Well, he’s a thief, isn’t he? I reckon he thought he’d try to steal his life back from Pahrkun.”

I frowned. “And cheat the god of his due?”

Brother Merik’s teeth flashed in a bloody-looking grin. “I didn’t say it could be done, little brother.”

As Brother Saan had estimated, although the sun had not yet cleared the mountains behind us, the sky was beginning to pale by the time we reached the supplicants’ campsite nearest the fortress. There was a small watering hole in a patch of greenery. It was mostly silted over, but when I dismounted to dig, I saw someone else had done the same not long before me.

“Look.” I pointed to the piles of wet sand.

Brother Merik sifted a handful of it through his fingers. “That’s our man, all right. I’d say he’s a couple hours ahead of us.”

I watered the horses, their sweat-dampened hides steaming in the dawn air, while Brother Merik scoured the area for signs of Brother Yarit’s passage.

“Looks like he’s following the tracks of the king’s guardsmen.” Brother Merik remounted. “The Bright Moon must have been high enough to make them out when he came through. Why do you suppose he’d head straight back to Merabaht where he was caught?”

I clambered into the saddle, my thighs protesting at the effort. “Maybe he thinks to enter in disguise.”

Brother Merik grunted, displeased at the reminder. “Let’s make time before the sun catches us, little brother.”

In the desert we say Make haste slowly. Brother Merik and I resumed our ride at a brisk walking pace as the sun cleared the mountains and began to climb overhead, dispelling the night’s chill. Heat began to mount. I shrugged out of my woolen robe, lashing it to the packs behind me.

There was no outrunning the sun. As the morning wore on toward noon, Brother Merik began casting about for shelter. “There should be . . . ah!” Standing in the stirrups, he pointed toward a rocky formation shimmering through the rising heat haze in the distance. “There’s an overhang on the leeward side.”

It was large enough to provide shade for at least a half a dozen men and horses, but there was no evidence that it had been used in recent days. On Brother Merik’s orders, I gave the horses each a handful of grain, then a few mouthfuls of water in a leather bucket. While I tended to them, he stretched out in the shade, crossing his feet at the ankles, folding his arms behind his head, and closing his eyes.

Make haste slowly.

My duties done, I sat in the shadow of the overhang with my arms wrapped around my knees and gazed out at the desert. It shimmered in the heat of the midday sun, dun-colored sandstone interspersed with outcroppings of ochre deepening to rust-red in places.

“Do you suppose Brother Yarit is taking shelter?” I asked.

“If he’s got any sense, yes,” Brother Merik said without opening his eyes. “He made the crossing with the king’s guardsmen, he ought to have learned a thing or two. If he didn’t, he’s a fool.”

I tipped a water-skin and took a mouthful, swishing it around before letting it trickle down my throat. “What if he reckons it’s worth the risk to . . . to make haste swiftly?”

Brother Merik cracked open one eye. “Do you think we’ll lose him? If the Shahalim is pushing his stolen horse in this heat, it will founder; and we will catch up to him sooner rather than later if it does. We’re on his trail. Trust me, we will catch him.” He yawned and closed his eyes. “Let the desert teach you patience, little brother.”

Brother Merik slept, snoring faintly.

The horses cocked their hips and dozed, heads hanging low. I chewed a meditative strip of dried goat.

The desert shimmered with heat.

I rested my head against my knees and dozed, too.

The rising wind woke me. There was something in it that called to me, that tugged at me, saying Now now now.

Brother Merik awoke and caught my sense of urgency. We mounted and began riding westward into the teeth of the wind, moving again at a steady trot. Sand swirled around the horses’ legs, plumes dancing across the floor of the desert.


I was at once exhilarated and scared. It was one thing to catch a glimpse of one of the Sacred Twins in the distance from the safety of the fortress; it was quite another to face the prospect of encountering one or both in the open desert. Pahrkun and Anamuht guarded the realm to which they were bound, but that didn’t mean it was safe to be in their presence, no more than it was safe to encounter lightning or a sandstorm or any great force of nature.

The wind toyed with us, rising and falling, changing directions. It rattled pebbles and raised eddies of sand, erasing the signs of the trail we were following. More and more frequently, Brother Merik was forced to dismount to examine the ground at close range, searching for the various signs, the fresh scrapes and gouges and overturned stones, that indicated recent pas- sage; signs that became increasingly scarce. An hour or so after we’d resumed our pursuit, he rose from a futile search and shook his head in a reluctant admission of defeat.

“I’m sorry, little brother,” he said. “Either we’ve lost his trail or it’s gone for good. Maybe we should have ridden  through  the  heat  of  the  day.” He dusted his hands with a grimace. “Or maybe Pahrkun doesn’t want the Shahalim in his service after all.”

“Brother Saan wouldn’t have sent us on a fool’s errand.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement. “Look.”

There was a column of carrion beetles making their way in a northwesterly direction. While I watched, a scorpion emerged wriggling from its burrow and began scuttling across the sand in the same direction.

Brother Merik glanced at me, and there was something in his expression that reminded me of the way he’d looked at Brother Saan. There was a measure of respect in it. I was young, but I was Pahrkun’s chosen. I had caught a hawk’s feather in my fist. “We follow them?”

I nodded, feeling sure. “We follow them.”

The wind continued to rise as we followed the desert insects that were creatures of Pahrkun. Now sand filled the air, dimming the sun. The horses became balky, until at last Brother Merik and I had to dismount and lead them on foot.

“We can’t keep this up, Khai!” Brother Merik shouted to me above the roaring wind. “Time to take shelter or—” He halted mid-sentence, craning his neck and staring past me.

I followed his gaze.

A hundred yards from us, Pahrkun the Scouring Wind loomed out of the desert. For the space of a few heartbeats, my wits ceased to function altogether. Cloaked in swirling sand, Pahrkun stood mountain-tall. High in the sky, his great black head, long and inhuman, turned this way and that, glowing green eyes set in deep hollows surveying the landscape. I dropped the reins in my hand and fell to one knee, genuflecting without thinking. Beside me, Brother Merik did the same.

I forced myself to my feet, only to fall and genuflect again as Pahrkun moved with slow, graceful strides to reveal a vast tower of flame behind him: Anamuht the Purging Fire. One skeletal bone-white arm emerged from the flames to lift high, lightning crackling in her fist.

Brother Merik was shouting in my ear and pointing.

Anamuht flung her arm forward and a bolt of blue-white lightning struck the barren earth between us. In its sudden glare, the small figure of a man struggling to keep his seat in the saddle of a terrified horse was illuminated.

Brother Yarit.

“. . . with the horses!” Brother Merik shouted. “I’ll get him!” Dumbstruck and nigh frozen, I did as he said, gathering up the fallen reins. The horses tossed their heads in protest, fretful and fearful. Brother Merik ran unerringly toward the Shahalim, unwinding his head-scarf as he ran. He wrapped it around Brother Yarit’s mount’s eyes and began leading them back.

The wind howled.

“Let’s go!” Brother Merik cried. “Go, go, ride!”

I tossed his reins to him. Carrion beetles crunched underfoot as I hopped about in an effort to mount my horse. A strong hand grabbed the back of my tunic and hauled me belly-down across my saddle. From this undignified perch, I managed to scramble upright, my feet fishing for the stirrups.

“Watery hell!” Brother Yarit wheezed. His face was coated with a rime of dried sweat and sand, his eyes bleary and bloodshot. “All right, kid. I guess we’re stuck with each other.”

We rode, the wind dying in our wake.

I glanced over my shoulder once as we fled. The Sacred Twins had vanished into the desert.


Courtesy of Tor Books, I have a hardcover copy of Starless to give away, plus a swag bag featuring a Starless quote postcard, hawk feather, #FearlessWomen sticker, #FearlessWomen pen, and star confetti!

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below OR send an email to kristen AT fantasybookcafe DOT com with the subject “Starless Giveaway.” One entry per person and a winner will be randomly selected. Only those with a mailing address in the US or Canada are eligible to win this giveaway. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Wednesday, June 20. The winner has 24 hours to respond once contacted via email, and if I don’t hear from them by then a new winner will be chosen (who will also have 24 hours to respond until someone gets back to me with a place to send the book).

Please note email addresses will only be used for the purpose of contacting the winner. Once the giveaway is over all the emails will be deleted.

Update: The form has been removed since the giveaway has ended.

Children of Blood and Bone
by Tomi Adeyemi
544pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 6.5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.7/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.21/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.32/5

Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi’s #1 New York Times bestselling debut novel, is the first installment in the Legacy of Orïsha trilogy. This West African-inspired young adult fantasy book is a heart-wrenching story with characters facing memorable struggles in both their literal and figurative journeys, and I can definitely understand why it’s been making such big waves this year. However, despite being hooked throughout the first and last 100 pages, I did find the pacing between these two sections to be rather uneven—and, frankly, I found much of the middle difficult to slog through even though I appreciated the author’s vision overall.

Orïsha’s population once included maji, each of whom could wield a power associated with one of ten deities. Many came to hate the maji, and the king especially despised them since it was maji who killed his first wife and their children. When magic mysteriously disappeared one day, the king seized the opportunity and had all the maji slaughtered while they were no more powerful than any other.

Zélie was just a child when her mother, a powerful maji with power over life and death, was killed. Eleven years later, magic is still gone but those of the maji’s children who would have grown up to wield it had it remained—like Zélie—continue to suffer under the king’s rule. Marked by the white hair that was once celebrated as a sign of the gods’ gifts, these young divîners have never been able to access their powers but are still punished for their existence: for instance, they are often intimidated or assaulted by the guards and they are taxed increasingly heavily.

When the divîner tax becomes too expensive for Zélie’s family of fishers, her father is told that she will be forced to work off her debt in the stocks if they don’t come up with the coin quickly. Desperation to avoid this fate prompts her and her brother to journey to the city to sell a rare fish, but money becomes the least of their concerns after Zélie decides to aid a young noblewoman fleeing from the king’s guards and her brother helps them both escape.

Once they’re outside the city, they learn that the young woman they assisted is the king’s daughter, Amari, who fled the palace after she saw her father awaken her servant’s magic and then murder her. But the princess did not flee empty-handed: she first stole the scroll that reunited her servant with her magic. With this document, the three may be able to bring magic back to the land permanently if they move quickly—but not if Amari’s brother succeeds in his own quest to stop them.

The plot of Children of Blood and Bone is about a quest to restore magic and fighting back against a tyrannical monarch, but at its heart it’s about the effects of oppression and cruelty, the power of empathy, and the strength of people working together. Despite these latter two themes and some hopeful notes at the end, it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to living in a land ruled by a cruel, discriminatory king and it does include death, tragedy, violence, sexual assault/near rape, torture, and fear—enough that the grimness almost overwhelms those little cracks of light that shine through at times.

Children of Blood and Bone shows this world and individual responses to its atrocities through the eyes of three different characters: Zélie, Princess Amari, and Prince Inan. Each is a major character, but Zélie is probably the most central since the story begins and ends with her and it is she who may be able to restore the connection between the gods and the divîners that would bring back magic permanently. Zélie once believed the gods died with magic, but now the weight of being chosen rests on her shoulders. Though it’s not a huge part of the book, I thought Zélie’s feelings about her faith in the gods and their role for her were quite well done, as well as her fiery rage at how she and the other divîners were treated. Hot-headed Zélie’s emotions are especially palpable and my heart broke for her when she remembered the chain around her mother’s neck and her deep self-loathing afterward.

Amari and Inan are interesting to compare and contrast because they share a similar background but make very different choices. After the murder of his first family, their father tried to ensure both of them were what he considered to be strong: ruthless. He believed Amari to be weak because of her compassion, but she proves to be the stronger as she stands by her convictions about what is right and opposes her father. She realizes that perhaps she could have done more in the past to help divîners, and she tries to move forward and comes to have a better understanding of what Zélie and the others have had to face. Though she initially has some difficulty with letting go of her fear of her father and fighting back with Zélie and her brother, she does not waver in her belief that her father is on the wrong side. I especially enjoyed the gradual progression of Amari’s friendship with Zélie.

Unlike Amari, Inan is conflicted. At his core, he’s not the person his father wants him to be, but he doesn’t have the strength of character to stand up to him and usually follows his orders—as he does when his father sends him to find Amari and the scroll she took. This journey, a secret he discovers about himself, and his growing feelings for Zélie challenge his principles, though, and he ends up wavering between being the person his father expects him to be and standing with Zélie and Amari. Though he is rather indecisive, I did feel that his characterization as someone who is torn between what he believes to be right and the lessons that have been drilled into him as the future king is realistic. Even the repetition throughout his narrative that became irritating at times seems true to someone trying to work through what they’ve been told repeatedly throughout their life.

Likewise, Inan and Zélie’s budding romance made sense to me but also made the book less enjoyable. Their relationship does take a sudden turn from hate to love, but I also think it’s clear that Inan has been attracted to Zélie since he first saw her. When the two are forced to call a truce to work toward a common goal, Inan makes a choice that shows Zélie a different side of him—and, as the only one who knows his secret, Zélie knows more of what he’s going through than anyone else. There are some ways in which they can understand each other better than Amari or Zélie’s brother, Tzain. Despite that, I did think that their relationship contributed to making the narrative more overwrought and self-indulgent than was necessary and was one of the factors that made the actual story move slowly.

Those pacing issues were what most hindered my experience with reading Children of Blood and Bone. From the very first chapter, I expected to love this book—and I actually did love parts of it, including the first several chapters. They were an excellent introduction to the world and the main characters, and there were also some exciting scenes with Zélie taking her mentor’s test with the staff and Amari and Zélie escaping from the guards. I was also immediately impressed by the smooth flow of the prose since first person present perspective can sometimes be stilted or awkward. But then a lot of the focus turned to the quest: traveling, obtaining new items, and racing against the clock while evading Inan and his retinue. Though there certainly were some highlights among the middle and I enthusiastically endorse characters journeying with giant lion-like animals (or, better yet, one of the royal family’s giant snow leopard-like animals), I found large swathes of it to be tedious and dull before the last 100 pages or so.

Children of Blood and Bone has a fantastic arc overall, and it particularly excels at making its characters’ internal conflicts poignantly felt. Yet the parts sandwiched between the strong opening chapters and the finale were unevenly paced—although it did end on an intriguing note that makes me want to know what happens next!

My Rating: 6.5/10

Where I got my reading copy: It was a birthday present from my husband.

Read an Excerpt from Children of Blood and Bone

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I discuss books I got over the last week—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (often these are unsolicited books from publishers). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

Though I made some progress on a review last week, it’s not done and posted yet so I’ll just get right to the latest books that came into my house last week!

Companions on the Road by Tanith Lee

Companions on the Road by Tanith Lee

This re-release of two fantasy novellas by World Fantasy Award–winning author Tanith Lee will be available on June 5 (mass market paperback, ebook). This slim book, which is about 200 pages in length, contains “Companions on the Road” and “The Winter Players.”


Now available in a redesigned edition, these classic fantasy novellas from master fantasist Lee relay the tales of brave adventurers whose lives are forever changed by the strange relics they encounter.

The Chalice:

Kachil the brigand, Feluce the rogue, and Havor the gallant–a night of blood and blood-red flames unites them in a grim siege, fabulous theft, and a journey fraught with peril. For their prize is the jeweled and golden cup of Avilllis, and their road will not end until the Force of Darkness destroys them…or yields to a far greater Power.

The Ring, The Jewel, The Bone:

These are the Relics. The Mysteries of the Shrine, known only to the priestess. Only to Oaive. Yet he knows of them–the wolflike stranger from beyond the mists. And when he profanes them, there begins a game of cold sorceries and burning shadows to be played through all eternity…one way or another.

Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker

Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker

This prequel to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is based on the author’s notes, will be released on October 2 (hardcover, ebook, large print paperback, and audiobook).

Both of the authors will be touring around the book’s release date in October:


The prequel to Dracula, inspired by notes and texts left behind by the author of the classic novel, Dracul is a supernatural thriller that reveals not only Dracula’s true origins but Bram Stoker’s—and the tale of the enigmatic woman who connects them.

It is 1868, and a twenty-one-year-old Bram Stoker waits in a desolate tower to face an indescribable evil. Armed only with crucifixes, holy water, and a rifle, he prays to survive a single night, the longest of his life. Desperate to record what he has witnessed, Bram scribbles down the events that led him here …

A sickly child, Bram spent his early days bedridden in his parents’ Dublin home, tended to by his caretaker, a young woman named Ellen Crone. When a string of strange deaths occur in a nearby town, Bram and his sister Matilda detect a pattern of bizarre behavior by Ellen—a mystery that deepens chillingly until Ellen vanishes suddenly from their lives. Years later, Matilda returns from studying in Paris to tell Bram the news that she has seen Ellen—and that the nightmare they’ve thought long ended is only beginning.

A riveting novel of gothic suspense, Dracul reveals not only Dracula’s true origin, but Bram Stoker’s—and the tale of the enigmatic woman who connects them.

The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French

The Grey Bastards (The Lot Lands #1) by Jonathan French

After The Grey Bastards won the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off in 2016, it was picked up for publication by Penguin Random House. This edition of the novel will be available on June 19 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

The publisher’s website has an excerpt from The Grey Bastards, as well as Jonathan French’s tour events schedule.


Live in the saddle. 
Die on the hog. 

Call them outcasts, call them savages—they’ve been called worse, by their own mothers—but Jackal is proud to be a Grey Bastard.

He and his fellow half-orcs patrol the barren wastes of the Lot Lands, spilling their own damned blood to keep civilized folk safe. A rabble of hard-talking, hog-riding, whore-mongering brawlers they may be, but the Bastards are Jackal’s sworn brothers, fighting at his side in a land where there’s no room for softness.

And once Jackal’s in charge—as soon as he can unseat the Bastards’ tyrannical, seemingly unkillable founder—there’s a few things they’ll do different. Better.

Or at least, that’s the plan. Until the fallout from a deadly showdown makes Jackal start investigating the Lot Lands for himself. Soon, he’s wondering if his feelings have blinded him to ugly truths about this world, and the Bastards’ place in it.

In a quest for answers that takes him from decaying dungeons to the frontlines of an ancient feud, Jackal finds himself battling invading orcs, rampaging centaurs, and grubby human conspiracies alike—along with a host of dark magics so terrifying they’d give even the heartiest Bastard pause.

Finally, Jackal must ride to confront a threat that’s lain in wait for generations, even as he wonders whether the Bastards can—or should—survive.

Delivered with a generous wink to Sons of Anarchy, featuring sneaky-smart worldbuilding and gobs of fearsomely foul-mouthed charm, The Grey Bastards is a grimy, pulpy, masterpiece—and a raunchy, swaggering, cunningly clever adventure that’s like nothing you’ve read before.

Additional Book(s):

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I discuss books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (usually unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

Only one book came in the mail last week and I didn’t get a chance to finish any new reviews over the last week, but I wanted to highlight the latest book because I am LOVING it so far. Although I’ve enjoyed some of the other books I’ve read this year, Melissa Caruso’s The Defiant Heir is the only one I’ve actually loved so I’m very excited about this one!

Starless by Jacqueline Carey

Starless by Jacqueline Carey

Jacqueline Carey’s next novel, a standalone epic fantasy, will be released on June 12 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). Tor.com has an excerpt from Starless.

I’ve read about 125 pages as of right now, and it’s wonderful so far. It’s one of those books that sweeps me away every time I pick it up, and I’ve found every page of it compelling so far.


Jacqueline Carey is back with an amazing adventure not seen since her New York Times bestselling Kushiel’s Legacy series. Lush and sensual, Starless introduces us to an epic world where exiled gods live among us, and a hero whose journey will resonate long after the last page is turned.

I was nine years old the first time I tried to kill a man…

Destined from birth to serve as protector of the princess Zariya, Khai is trained in the arts of killing and stealth by a warrior sect in the deep desert; yet there is one profound truth that has been withheld from him.

In the court of the Sun-Blessed, Khai must learn to navigate deadly intrigue and his own conflicted identity…but in the far reaches of the western seas, the dark god Miasmus is rising, intent on nothing less than wholesale destruction.

If Khai is to keep his soul’s twin Zariya alive, their only hope lies with an unlikely crew of prophecy-seekers on a journey that will take them farther beneath the starless skies than anyone can imagine.

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I discuss books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (usually unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

This covers books from the last couple of weeks, including three books I bought with a birthday gift card. All of these purchased books appeared on my anticipated 2018 speculative fiction releases list.

Before discussing the latest new arrivals, here’s what was posted last week in case you missed it:

Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Rosewater (The Wormwood Trilogy #1) by Tade Thompson

Rosewater, the African Speculative Fiction Society’s first Nommo Award winner for Best Speculative Fiction Novel and a John W. Campbell Award finalist for Best Science Fiction Novel, will be re-released on September 18 (trade paperback, ebook, audiobook). It will be followed by two more books in the series.


Tade Thompson’s Rosewater is the start of an award-winning, cutting edge trilogy set in Nigeria, by one of science fiction’s most engaging new voices.

Rosewater is a town on the edge. A community formed around the edges of a mysterious alien biodome, its residents comprise the hopeful, the hungry and the helpless – people eager for a glimpse inside the dome or a taste of its rumored healing powers.

Kaaro is a government agent with a criminal past. He has seen inside the biodome, and doesn’t care to again — but when something begins killing off others like himself, Kaaro must defy his masters to search for an answer, facing his dark history and coming to a realization about a horrifying future.

The Heart Forger by Rin Chupeco

The Heart Forger (The Bone Witch #2) by Rin Chupeco

The sequel to the young adult fantasy The Bone Witch was released earlier this year (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). Rin Chupeco’s website has excerpts from both The Bone Witch and The Heart Forger.

I loved Tea, especially the way the alternating timelines fleshed out her character, and have been looking forward to continuing both of her stories in The Heart Forger (my review of The Bone Witch). Rin Chupeco’s Women in SF&F Month 2017 essay on heroines and writing her own in The Bone Witch details much of why I found Tea to be such a compelling character.


In The Bone Witch, Tea mastered resurrection―now she’s after revenge…

No one knows death like Tea. A bone witch who can resurrect the dead, she has the power to take life…and return it. And she is done with her self-imposed exile. Her heart is set on vengeance, and she now possesses all she needs to command the mighty daeva. With the help of these terrifying beasts, she can finally enact revenge against the royals who wronged her―and took the life of her one true love.

But there are those who plot against her, those who would use Tea’s dark power for their own nefarious ends. Because you can’t kill someone who can never die…

War is brewing among the kingdoms, and when dark magic is at play, no one is safe.

The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

The Poppy War (#1 in a Trilogy) by R. F. Kuang

R. F. Kuang’s debut novel was just released earlier this month (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). I’ve been excited about The Poppy War since I first heard about it, and I also very much enjoyed the first chapter, available on Barnes & Noble’s Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog.

R. F. Kuang touched a little on the women in The Poppy War in her Women in SF&F Month 2018 essay “Be a Bitch, Eat the Peach” about her love for Azula with all her rage and ambition.


A brilliantly imaginative talent makes her exciting debut with this epic historical military fantasy, inspired by the bloody history of China’s twentieth century and filled with treachery and magic, in the tradition of Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings and N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy.

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe by Madeline Miller

Madeline Miller’s latest novel became a #1 New York Times bestseller after its publication last month (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). Entertainment Weekly has an excerpt from Circe.


In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child–not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power–the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.

But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

With unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language and page-turning suspense, Circe is a triumph of storytelling, an intoxicating epic of family rivalry, palace intrigue, love and loss, as well as a celebration of indomitable female strength in a man’s world.

Additional Book(s):

Before Mars
by Emma Newman
352pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.2/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.2/5

Emma Newman’s latest novel, Before Mars, is set in the same science fiction universe as two of her previously published books, Planetfall and Clarke Award finalist After Atlas. Despite being the third book in this setting, it does stand alone as a complete story, although I did find myself occasionally wondering if I might have felt more connected to it had I read the others first and been familiar with the major events that were referenced. After having finished it, I believe this lack of connection had more to do with the way it introduced some intriguing characterization and concepts but did not follow through with deeper exploration.

Before Mars begins with Anna, a geologist and artist whose billionaire boss sent her to paint unique landscapes of Mars, arriving on the planet after having spent six months alone traveling through space. During her long journey, the closest she came to human contact was being immersed in memories stored in her neural chip—which is rather risky since she’s been told she’s especially susceptible to immersion psychosis, a condition that makes it difficult to distinguish between past memories and present circumstances and can result in seeing things that are not truly there.

After Anna undergoes a successful medical evaluation and is shown to her room, she discovers a note warning her not to trust one of the other four residents of the Mars base. What she finds truly unnerving about this situation is that she knows she had to have written it herself since it’s on the same uncommon non-disposable paper she uses for her art, painted in her own style—but she cannot recall having created it.

This message is just the first in a series of strange occurrences that lead Anna to wonder if she can trust what she sees or if she could be experiencing the same dissonance with reality as her father—who traumatized her so deeply that she’s never been able to forgive him.

Before Mars is largely both a futuristic mystery and a character portrait, and both of these aspects are built upon suspense since the story of Anna’s past is gradually revealed. It starts with the big picture—such as her horror at the idea of becoming like her father—and fills in the details of her childhood and family, her relationship with her husband and daughter, her career as a geologist and hobby as an artist, and how she came to be on Mars. Despite being confident that I knew what had happened with the main mystery within the first couple of chapters, I was curious enough about the hows and whys of it and Anna’s history to keep reading.

One aspect of the novel that kept me turning the pages was the candidness of Anna’s first person viewpoint, particularly when it came to her struggles with motherhood—a role she never wanted in the first place—and postpartum depression. She carries a lot of guilt about not feeling like a good enough mother since she never felt that instant love that everyone always talks about being overwhelmed by the first time they see their child. Anna also never had a desire to make her daughter her whole world and left most of the childcare to her husband. Though there’s focus on her husband and their baby, Anna’s long felt she had to fake her way through life in order to pursue her career ambitions, pretending to be someone else and exhibiting the “normal” human emotions that others expect her to feel. Anna’s perspective is also open about the PTSD from her childhood experience and her dislike of therapy.

As much as I appreciated the honest look at Anna’s fears and some occasional poignant descriptions of her difficulties and art, her narrative didn’t entirely work for me mainly because it delved into her thoughts so thoroughly that not much room was left for subtlety. The majority of Anna’s characterization seems to follow the pattern of a flashback to her life on Earth coupled with a dump of all of her related thoughts, and though Anna’s viewpoint is not 100% reliable since she is capable of lying to herself or changing her mind later, it also often clearly spells out what we’re supposed to know about her. Anna doesn’t actually interact in real-time with those she has the closest relationships with since they’re all back on Earth, and though it fit thematically, I felt that showing all of these through her memories became stale after awhile—especially since it didn’t show her developing meaningful bonds on Mars or undergoing major character development herself. (That’s not to say that she didn’t develop any meaningful relationships on Mars but rather that the forging of such bonds was glossed over.)

As the type of reader who primarily enjoys reading about people over plot, the determining factors in whether or not a book works for me personally are usually characters and the exploration of society—and unfortunately, the latter also failed to keep me interested the further I got into the novel. Since the present timeline is set on an isolated base on Mars occupied by five people, the ways in which the world has changed for humanity as a whole are also glimpsed through flashbacks and infodumps. The main story is primarily focused on advanced technology that is rather standard in science fiction such as the AI that maintains operations on Mars, the printers that automatically create food and many other items, and the neural implants that are central to the story. Though I don’t mind inclusion of common elements, I do tend to prefer stories that examine ideas and societal effects. Before Mars does do this to an extent, but it seemed as though it just brought up typical issues such as security and privacy with increased digitization but only touched on them without going into depth.

That’s the crux of why I found Before Mars increasingly unsatisfying: it basically tried to stuff Anna’s life story plus the Martian mystery into about 340 pages. Though there are some interesting parts here, it’s constantly jumping around as it touches on many topics and themes, but in the end it seems to skim over many of them with a brief mention before racing toward the next thing. I found this frustrating because there were occasionally some beautifully written lines about art or science or humanity, but they were few and far between as it skipped from one scene to the next without breathing room—and I found these and Anna’s past far more compelling than the the Mars story, which seemed to bog down in the middle. It did pick up again toward the end, but at that point, I was still a little curious about the conclusion but mostly wanted to finish what I had started since it was a fairly short book.

If you’re a fan of futuristic mysteries looking for a diverting book, you may enjoy Before Mars more than I did. I have found that books in a similar vein don’t tend to work well for me even though they do for many others, and after reading samples from Planetfall and After Atlas, I concluded that this is probably a case of a well-loved series that is just not my cup of tea.

My Rating: 5/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from Before Mars