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Category: Adam’s Reviews



Dragonfired (The Dark Profit Saga, #3)
by J. Zachary Pike
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Epic Fantasy, Satire, Humor
Published: 1st September 2023, Gnomish Press

Dragonfired is J. Zachary Pike’s exhilarating final entry to the Dark Profit Saga, a fantasy satire that targets capitalism, racism, classism, role-playing games, and many other ripe topics. It concludes the hilarious, incisive, and moving tale of Gorm Ingerson and the Heroes of Destiny and their struggle to overthrow the evils that have corrupted the land of Arth.

It is perhaps the most serious of the trilogy, as it tackles heavy themes of love and redemption, duty and honor, and civil rights. Yet the mood is consistently counterbalanced with clever jokes, wordplay, and social commentary that mirrors our own society’s inadequacies. While it never strays too far from the central theme of how money corrupts, the book also successfully lampoons lawyers, business strategies, marketing, and evolving technologies. The commentary never feels forced or shoehorned; one of Pike’s greatest strengths is weaving these topics so tightly into the plot that they feel necessary and pertinent.

The characters are one of the book’s greatest strengths. Although there is a wide cast of characters and many points of view, each voice felt distinct and relatable. A silent character is written so well that he conveys some of the most emotional moments using only stares and body language. Almost all character arcs had powerful conclusions, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that one antagonist’s fate was a bit of a letdown. The trilogy seemed to be pointing toward a final confrontation between a Hero and this villain, but it went in a different direction.

One of my favorite aspects of the entire series is how well Pike consistently subverts tropes. At various times, I felt comfortable in thinking I knew where it was headed, only to be upended and proven wrong time and time again. There are some truly excellent bait-and-switch moments, many of them infused with laugh-out-loud humor, that made the book a joy to read. I snorted on one page, while being gutted on the next. Excellent stuff.

Having been a fan of Orconomics since it hit the SPFBO scene years ago, this has been one of my most anticipated series to finish. From the brilliant scene transitions – a series highlight – to the raw moments of Pratchett-like wisdom, Pike has crafted a witty and emotional conclusion to one of the most entertaining fantasy sagas I’ve read. If you’re looking for a series that is humorous, insightful, and pure fun on every page, then pick up the Dark Profit Saga.



Combat Codes (The Combat Codes, #1) by Alexander Darwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Martial Arts
Pages: 484 pages (paperback)
Published: 13th June 2023, Orbit

Combat Codes is a fun, immersive, and exciting genre mashup of martial arts, science fiction, and magic-school fantasy. The story is set in a dystopian future where the world is divided into powerful corporations that settle their grievances by hiring Combatants to engage in single combat. (“We fight so that the rest shall not have to.”) There is no use for large-scale military battles when the fate of trade routes and border expansions rests on the fighting prowess of a lone warrior. The high stakes create tension and excitement with each showdown, and Darwin’s commitment to writing realistic fighting styles had me engaged throughout the story. The combat scenes are expertly choreographed – a certain highlight of the book – as well as a nicely budding father/son, mentor/student relationship between its two leads.

Cego is a young, blind, gifted fighter that is trying to make a name for himself in the streets. His disability is overshadowed by his rare martial arts talent, allowing him to understand his environment at an elevated level. He reminded me of a teenage Daredevil as his extraordinary skills helped him rise to meet the challenges of his handicap. Cego eventually encounters Murray, an ex-Combatant who runs freelance jobs to make ends meet, and Murray quickly realizes the potential in this protégé. But Cego’s past hides many far-reaching secrets that will present a heap of trouble for Murray, and the world at large.

The dichotomy of Cego’s innocence combined with Murray’s stoicism and brute tactics make them an interesting pair. Both are unwavering and determined in their actions, and it was easy to root for them. While their bond and the ensuing battle scenes are well-written and imaginative, there’s much more to Combat Codes than what lies on the surface. There are various thought-provoking themes the story presents, including the morality of a corporate-controlled system, and the personal costs of war.

Overall, Combat Codes is an entertaining science fantasy novel that will appeal to fans of martial arts, a dystopian setting, and interesting world-building. It sets the table for the sequel in many exciting ways, and luckily we won’t have to wait too long for it to drop.



Ethera Grave (The Graven, #3) by Essa Hansen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 560 pages (paperback)
Published: 18th July 2023, Orbit

“Overhead, the Cartographer and passager fleet streaked the sky. On the opposite horizon, the encroaching rind flux hit the exosphere. Arcs of simmering luminosity coiled across the view. The salthuin entreated their heavens, billowing diaphonus bodies in synchrony, oceanic and serene.”

Ethera Grave is a wildly imaginative and thought-provoking conclusion to the unforgettable Graven trilogy. I pored over its prose, chewed on its theories and conflicts, and allowed myself to walk in the shoes of all its main characters. It is a richly-drawn story that I connected with, hard. Hansen has an incredible talent for drawing the reader into her unique and colorful multiverse, populated with ideas that stretch the mind while still reflecting on our current society’s cultural values. It raises philosophical debates while addressing identity, responsibility, and influence, and above all, is an incredibly fun read. Every time I started a new chapter, I never knew what to expect, and it kept surprising me over and over again.

This story focuses on the pros and cons of choice versus unity on an immeasurable scale. But one of the themes that particularly stood out was how refreshing it was to have platonic love and found family as the strongest and most visible relationships in the story. While Ethera Grave contains more romance than the first two books combined, it doesn’t lose focus on the most powerful bonds forged within its wide cast of characters. I felt most connected to the tender moments shared between characters that weren’t overtly sexual in nature.

Character development is one of the book’s strongest assets. Every supporting character has their own distinct journey, but for the purposes of this review, I’ll focus on four major viewpoints.

Abriss is creating a utopia by collapsing universes into her own, but doesn’t seem to mind that you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelette. Unfortunately, these cracked eggs are acts of genocide, as entire civilizations and histories are wiped out if they cannot adjust to their new universal physics. Abriss has been steadily influenced by a Graven consciousness for entire life, so it is difficult for her to determine where her motivations stem from, nor how to control them.

Leta is uncomfortable in her own skin. Although her consciousness has drifted from body to construct, she has never quite felt like she belongs in any of the forms she’s been tied to, either in her service to Abriss, or her human origins. She longs for peace in her physical and mental space, but sacrifices so much of what she wants to help her companions when she can. She sacrifices love and a chance at happiness due to her deep empathy with those she is close to. Her arc is heartbreaking and hopeful, and is one of my favorite characters of the trilogy.

Threi is obsessed with control. For most of his life, he has much of the multiverse under his thumb due to his innate Graven abilities. Although that has affected the way he builds organic relationships with his peers, he takes advantage of his role and tries to build practical solutions to some of the universe’s biggest problems. But his sister Abriss is even more powerful, and stopping her plan of unifying the multiverse becomes his new obsession. Seeing how he deals with the ever-changing scope of his campaign, especially with loved ones at stake, is new territory for Threi. How does he react when he’s not the most powerful Graven-fueled human in the room? It’s time for Threi to assess what’s truly important, and what must be sacrificed along the way.

Caiden has come a long way since his days as a mechanic, but some things never change: he is a born fixer, and is willing to put aside his own needs and desires to achieve results. Caiden’s whole life has been about serving the greater good. Will there ever be a moment when he can focus on living his own life, on his own terms? Can he ever escape the clutches of his Graven influence? Is there a line he wouldn’t cross to stop Unity, to preserve a part of himself?

Beautiful, descriptive, and imaginative prose flows out of every page. It’s hard to choose which passages to share, since I highlighted so many, but here are a few of my favorites:

“The rind membrane splintered, and Unity paved into the other universe in a vicious front of conversion. Space expanded, allowing light to break its limits. Mathematics rioted. Music tangled into dissonance as it transposed into Unity, restringing space to play new chords.”

“Leta was too exhausted to carry hope. The shape of it had carved into her over all this time. One day it’d cut right through.”

“The chalarii was sensitive to the group’s scent information. He towered over the gathering but was viciously thin, body gelatinous and water-drop smooth over transparent, spongy bones. An oily sheen that migrated across him betrayed his irritations.”

“Pressure rolled in the air like thunder slowed. Electricity effervesced through the orrery as Ethera poured into physical space. The projected stars bent and rays crumpled, space bulged and contracted, huge folds of unnameable mass: coils and waves and scales and arms and roots. The light of heavens slicked over strange curves, helping define the Graven for her mortal vision.”

The Graven trilogy is one of the very best trilogies I’ve read — science-fiction, or otherwise. It is packed with emotion, discovery, allegory, and speaks volumes about our current cultural climate. Plus, it’s just so darn cool. It was a joy to read and I cannot recommend this series enough.



The Navigating Fox by Christopher Rowe
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fable, Fantasy
Pages: 160 pages (print)
Published: 26th September 2023, Tordotcom

The Navigating Fox was a joy to read. Each page is packed with well-developed world-building, compelling characters, humor, and mystery. I found it remarkable that so much excitement was packed into a one-session novella, and I hope to see many more stories set in this world.

The setting leans on Roman history for its naming conventions and overall aesthetic. In this world, the animals are divided into two categories. The gifted animals are “knowledgeable,” self-aware and able to communicate with spoken language. They have been bestowed the gift of high intelligence. The rest of the non-knowledgeable animals are referred to as “voiceless,” and they consist of traditional animal intelligence. What makes some animals knowledgeable? This is but one of many interesting questions raised during this story.

Quintus, our narrator, is a fox – and he’s the only knowledgeable fox in the world. He is a navigator, and helps expeditions travel and explore using hidden paths. We join Quintus after he returns from a first, tragic journey. But he is soon pressed into duty for a second expedition, with a terrifying goal. The story alternates chapters between past (first expedition) and present (second expedition), while Quintus aims to discover important secrets about his past along the way.

There is a wonderful set of characters in the story, and I quickly grew attached to several of them. Rowe injects lifelike personality into both his human and animal characters, while addressing issues of morality and purpose.

There’s so much going on in this highly entertaining world that I would be shocked if there aren’t more novellas planned in this setting. The Navigating Fox is a rich and colorful story, with fun characters and intriguing plot lines, and I am already hungry for the follow-up.



A Gamble of Gods by Mitriel Faywood
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction
Pages: 528 pages (print)
Published: 11th November 2022, Self-published

A thrilling mashup of genres: fantasy, sci-fi, comedy and romance, all whipped together into something unique and an absolute joy to read. Nearly every chapter is completely different than the previous, so much that it feels like you’re reading a series of linked short stories rather than a novel. This provides the book a consistently fresh tone that helps to completely immerse you in the three main first-person POV’s.

I found myself quickly attached to all three characters, who are well-developed: flawed, inspired, and brimming with personality. Some of their actions has me cheering, others made me facepalm, so don’t expect a typical hero’s journey from these three. Full transparency: don’t expect anything typical in this book, as it has a very different vibe than most books I’ve read in recent memory: it has robot chases, murder mysteries, treasure hunting, dungeon battles, inter-dimensional portals, and near-future London house parties. Through it all, the growing and strengthening relationships of the characters are a highlight, especially when the action scenes quiet down. Strong themes of found family, loyalty, commitment, and companionship won me over time and again.

A Gamble of Gods is a strong, beautifully written debut, with impressive world building that promises much more to come. Faywood’s well-crafted prose was great fun to read, and I’m eager to see what worlds and adventures are in store. If you’re looking for a new read that feels fresh and unique, give this one a go.




The Book That Wouldn’t Burn
by Mark Lawrence
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Science Fiction
Pages: 576 pages (hardcover)
Published: 9th May 2023, Ace/HarperCollins

“We are the stories we tell to ourselves. Nothing more.”

For more than a decade, Mark Lawrence has written trilogies, short stories, and novellas set within the same universe. Although the stories took place across different timelines and planets, careful readers could find common ground linking them all. The more Mark published, the more tightly woven his books became, culminating in 2022’s The Girl in the Moon. There was a definitive message in Moon stating that it was the last story taking place in the shared universe, and it was time for something new.

Enter: The Book That Wouldn’t Burn.

While I am a massive fan of Mark’s previous works, my anticipation level for a fresh start in a brand new setting was very high. I am pleased to say that my expectations for this story were exceeded. The Book That Wouldn’t Burn is Lawrence at the top of his game, offering a twisty, surprising, and heartfelt story with inspiring characters and magnificent world-building. It concocts a heady brew of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery that makes each chapter feel fresh and unique.

One of the aspects that makes the book so successful is the number of topics it tackles so well. It is a love letter to the written word, but it also addresses interesting themes such as the evolution of language, the cyclical nature of history, racism, autonomy, misinformation, education, and community.

The prose was another highlight. Lawrence doesn’t waste a single sentence, utilizing economical yet descriptive language to develop his characters while building a vast and compelling world around them. Insightful and humorous epigraphs add color and enrich the themes presented in each chapter. There were personal touches throughout the book, with references to Lawrence’s own family members (including an infamous feline) as well as tributes to other authors, influences, and his own previous work.

“It’s always the books you don’t have that call to you, you know that. Not the ones already on your shelf. They can wait.”

I’ve avoided plot details in this review because I think it wise to go into this one completely blind. It is a complex and rewarding story, one of the best of Lawrence’s prolific career. If I had the sequel, I’d start it immediately. Don’t miss it.



Death’s Beating Heart by Rob J. Hayes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy, Grimdark, Adult
Pages: 480 pages
Published: 26th December 2022, Self-published

Note: spoilers from the previous The War Eternal books below.

A powerful ending to a fantastic series, Death’s Beating Heart delivers equal measures of pain and triumph that grants Eskara Helsene the legacy she deserves.

At the end of book four, Eska’s daughter Sirileth crashed a moon into the surface of the planet to prevent the world’s destruction from The Maker. Sirileth killed countless thousands to save millions. But the planet’s environment has become unlivable; there is no direct sunlight, crops are dying, the water is dirty, and kingdoms are focused on their own survival instead of working across borders to find solutions. Oh, and there’s an unspeakably powerful immortal entity called Norvet Meruun that is conquering all of Sevorai, and threatens to cross the rift into Ovaeris. It’s up to Eska, Sirileth, and the fear-devouring horror Ssserakis to raise a resistance before the planet either dies from neglect or is destroyed through invasion.

Eska is such a compelling character because she is consistently misunderstood. Although she is the boogeyman to her peers, she usually has best intentions in mind: she’ll defend her family and friends at all costs, taking no prisoners along the way. She is also prideful to a fault; she is responsible for unspeakable horrors, but also gravitates toward taking on extra guilt for actions of which she had little influence. Hayes has also done an excellent job writing Eska’s struggles with depression. The listlessness and desire to shut off during times of anxiety or crisis felt genuine and visceral. Eska is presented with excruciating choices where there is no easy solutions, and although she might be the most powerful Sourcerer on the planet, she’s just as vulnerable and human as the rest of us.

But not all is gloom and doom! This is a grim novel, but it is also an absolute blast to read. Hayes’ Otherworld creature design impressed me to no end. I won’t spoil the details, but Flowne and Kekran are two of my favorite monsters I’ve read in recent memory. They are powerful and horrifying and launched some of the best battle scenes in the entire series.

Death’s Beating Heart is a story about sacrifice and consequences, and how far a mother will go to protect what she loves. All throughout Eska’s narration, the reader was tantalized with foreshadowing and references, and Hayes managed to pull all the strings together beautifully for an epic, memorable conclusion. The first half of the book took its time setting the table, but the feast of an ending made it up for its relatively slower start.

Fans of grim fantasy with dark humor, high sorcery, epic battles and characters with singular voices will find a lot to love in The War Eternal series. Highly recommended.

The Shadow Casket (The Darkwater Legacy #2) by Chris Wooding

The Shadow Casket (The Darkwater Legacy #2) by Chris Wooding

The Shadow Casket by Chris Wooding
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy
Pages: 832 pages
Published: 16th February 2023, Gollancz

“Heroes don’t have to fight. They don’t even have to be the best at anything. So what do they do? They keep going.”

Three years have passed since the events in The Ember Blade. Aren and the rest of the Dawnwardens hoped for a spark that ignited a flame of revolution, but the fire never caught. Instead, the rebels have left southern Ossia and journeyed north into the highlands, home of the Fell people, to strike an alliance. But treachery lurks around every corner. New dreadknights threaten the land. And a hidden, powerful artifact, the Shadow Casket, could shift the balance of power if claimed. Aren, Fen, Grub, Mara, and a host of new characters must band together to uncover a horrifying act of oppression if they want a chance at uniting the Fell clans and turning the tables on the Krodan imperialists.

“Feelings may be the enemy of intellect, but they are also its engine, and it’s a fool that wishes them away.”

Much like in The Ember Blade, one of The Shadow Casket’s strongest aspects is its characters. Wooding has developed this cast remarkably well, giving ample time to each POV, ensuring consequences that hit hard. Each character has different motivations and fallacies, and their flaws and decisions create wonderful and unpredictable chaos. One of the biggest surprises is how much I enjoyed reading one of the most hated characters from the last book, Overwatchman Klyssen; he’s a character you love to despise, but come to understand. Klyssen’s story reminded me of Abercrombie’s Sand dan Glokta: evil, but relatable.

Another aspect of the story that had me up late reading each night was how many surprise bombshells there were. There were some excellent twists, and devastating losses. None of it would have worked so well if I hadn’t been attached to so many of these wonderful characters. Though this is a long book, over 800 pages, at no point did I feel there was filler – every chapter propelled the story forward, further developed the cast, and built itself up for the next explosive set piece.

The Ember Blade can be separated into three acts: the camp, the road journey, and the heist finale. The Shadow Casket can also be divided into a similar structure. I won’t spoil what they are, but it gave the book a naturally progressive feel. The action is paced beautifully; Wooding has created some breathtaking environments to play in. During one sequence, it felt like we were treading into horror territory, and I have a sense that we’ll lean more into that theme in the next chapter of the Darkwater Legacy.

“The cogs of history were greased with the blood of sacrifices; it dripped from their teeth. Without it, they didn’t move.”

When I first reviewed The Ember Blade, I said it was everything I could possibly want in an epic fantasy novel. The Shadow Casket continues this tradition. It is full of action, heart, humor, and an expansive cast of endearing characters that I didn’t want to leave behind. One of my favorite reads of the year.



Until the Last by Mike Shackle
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy, Grimdark
Pages: 772 pages
Published: 21st July 2022, Gollancz

Until the Last concludes one of the more harrowing, anxiety-ridden, emotional whiplashes of a story I’ve read this year. It squeezes the tiniest shred of hope from the grimmest of situations and proceeds to hammer it down to a barely visible spark. But somehow, it’s enough for our protagonists to cling to as they solider on to try and liberate their beloved Jia from the colonization of the evil Egril empire. And that’s one of the biggest draws of the trilogy: how these characters can still hold on and press forward while things fall apart around them at such a grand scale. This is a violent, unforgiving tale that tests the boundaries of human willpower, and it’s fascinating to see the results.

The rebel Jian army, led by Zorique, Tinnstra, Aasgod and Ralasis, are marching their way north to Aisair for the final battle against Raaku, the self-proclaimed son of a God, and his Egirl army of Skulls, Chosen, and other winged demons and giant monsters. They face impossible odds, and the suffering is immense. There are fascinating POV characters carried over from previous books that give you perspective from different areas of the world: an in-the-trenches view from Ange, a rebuilding effort from the unlikely leader Yaz, a spy mission from Wenna… and then there’s Jax. Poor, wretched Jax. If you think Jax had it tough in the first two books, Shackle saved some of the best (worst?) for last for everyone’s favorite one-armed general. He’s the trilogy’s resident punching bag, the doomed soul, and Shackle’s brutality knows no bounds. I had to pause for some deep breaths after some of Jax’s chapters.

One of the strongest parts of Shackle’s writing is his pacing. Every chapter was key in moving the story forward, and they usually only took ten minutes or less to read through. It led to a ‘just one more chapter’ scenario each night and kept me up far too late. There wasn’t a single POV that I didn’t want to know what was going to happen next. There were several moments of “did that really just happen?” and a couple of good mysteries that weren’t revealed until the final pages, so there was always an excuse to keep pressing forward. The action was nonstop, but it was the tough moral choices and the characters’ grit that held my interest the most.

The Last War is a brutal, unforgiving series with hard choices and harder truths. If you like your stories grim with characters of questionable moral fiber, in a world where hope is the very thing that could kill you, then you’ve found the perfect series to keep you riveted.



Priest of Crowns by Peter McLean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Low Fantasy, Political Fantasy
Pages: 481 pages (Kindle Edition)
Published: 4th August 2022, Jo Fletcher Books

For three books, Tomas Piety’s memoirs have tracked his evolution from soldier to priest to gangster to Queen’s Man. Priest of Crowns takes what you know and burns it all down into glorious wreckage, and it was a brilliant and unexpected journey that caught me flat-footed.

Be very wary of an old man in a young man’s game.

Tomas Piety is a meticulous man. He plays every move close to his chest, and his clever and careful actions have allowed him to ascend far up the ladders of both politics and crime. But living in the capital city of Dannsburg, it’s not just about ascension anymore, it’s about survival. As a Queen’s Man, rubbing elbows with those who turn the gears of government, one wrong move—hell, one wrong comment—and Piety will find himself swinging from the gallows come morning. Thus, one of the more interesting struggles that McLean writes for Piety is a deep insecurity about the amount of respect he gleans from his companions. He is compelled to be the boss, even from those he calls friends. He craves respect and is willing to sacrifice the bonds of friendship to fulfill his need to be the alpha, in all situations. Therefore, it was great fun seeing Tomas out of his comfort zone, facing enemies more powerful than himself, or dealing with allies who were unreliable and borderline insane.

Priest of Crowns is full of surprises and savage heartbreak. Tomas’ evolution from man to boogeyman is a brilliant journey to witness, ingeniously constructed over four books and blown apart in its final moments. It questions the nature of sacrifice, and it dares you to re-read the series from the start with new perspective on it all.

‘Sometimes you have to weigh two evils in your hands and choose the lighter one.’
‘I’m not sure I believe that,’ Anne said.

I’m going to miss one of my favorite narrative voices in fiction, though he got the ending he deserved. A screen adaptation of War for the Rose Throne could easily stand beside prestige dramas like Breaking Bad, Peaky Blinders, and Better Caul Saul. McLean has crafted a remarkable story with a distinct voice on the state of modern politics, and a cast of colorful, vibrant characters that brought the story to life. Unputdownable.