The Alchemist’s Box, Alex Avrio

The Alchemist’s Box, Alex Avrio

The Alchemist’s Box (The Merchant Blades Book 1)

Regina Fitzwaters is a mercenary, one of the many soldiers who enlisted in an army that, with the advent of peace, no longer needs them. After losing her savings in a high-stakes card game, she finds herself entrapped into a mission across the treacherous Ugarri Pass at the onset of winter. Employed by a pair of criminals with no scruples and forced to take as her co-commander a mercenary previously from the opposing army, Fitzwaters is so far outside her comfort zone that she couldn’t even find it on a map, and that’s only the start of her troubles…

The Alchemist’s Box is a well-written fantasy adventure, spiced with magic that hardly anyone believes in, true prophecy that no one wants to believe in, and full of unlikely alliances. I read this book in two sittings, and on top of an excellently paced and planned plot, I found that the characters really shone. I’m a shameless sucker for intelligent anti-heroes, and Kapitan Maximillian Jaeger deserves, at the least, an honourable mention in that category. Competent, conflicted, and dark to the core, I found that he stole centre stage as far as characterisation went. The protagonist, Regina Fitzwaters, expressed very accurately the vivid exasperation of a competent, intelligent woman consistently underestimated and insulted on account of her gender, but that was the main impression left by the character. The twist at the end of the book in the very conflicted relationship between Fitzwaters and Jaeger was also a nice change from the traditional cliché. Overall, I would highly recommend this book – a most engaging read.

Web of Eyes, Jaime Castle

Web of Eyes, Jaime Castle

Web of Eyes (The Buried Goddess Saga Book 1)

Torsten Unger is Wearer of the White to a dying king. With one sickly son and a foreign-born, unstable Queen, he’s all too well aware that the conquered lands around the Glass Kingdom will be planning their invasions before the throne goes cold. Despite this, the Queen insists that more knights be sent into the deadly Webbed Woods in an attempt to retrieve a doll for the heir to the throne – a doll that she insists holds a piece of her son’s soul. To stand a chance where so many others have failed, Torsten knows he needs to enlist some help – the kind of help he wouldn’t normally consider.

Web of Eyes has a lot going for it – a truly excellent, attention-catching title, imaginative world-building, and complex politics with a variety of nations and influences. On the other hand, the characters didn’t do much for me; if they had benefited from the same level of development that clearly went into the world-building, I would have been ecstatic. As it was, Torsten and all his entourage came across as takes on various well-established types – the emotionally fragile queen, the muscled warrior hero, the trickster thief…you get the idea. However, with a little tightening up on the storylines, and a bit more character development, this would have been solidly in the running for five stars. I would still recommend it to anyone who enjoys adventure fantasy.

The Fall, MJ McGriff

The Fall, MJ McGriff

The Fall: Book 1 of the New Earth Series

Lieutenant Cairo Wilson is happy with her career; born into a backward settlement where the role of a female is to mind the kitchen and have children, the Federation’s military training and education opportunities were a life-changing escape from a future of boredom. When she’s assigned to one of the remote colony settlements to investigate rumours of terrorism, she accepts it as an opportunity to develop new skills. However, none of her training prepares her for a cataclysmic meeting with her erstwhile best friend from the Academy…or what that friend has been doing.

The Fall mixes classic adventure sci-fi with YA-style exploration of cultural restrictions and the younger generation’s rebellion against them; Lt. Wilson’s encounter with her parents, many years after she ran away from home to join the Federation military, is a set-piece of the type. I found that in places the youthful rebellion theme impacted the pacing of the main storyline; conversely, there were areas of the world-building where I felt some additional detail would have been beneficial, not to mention some shades of gray between the protagonist and antagonist. The story is very much ‘youthful trauma turns against the government that trained her’ versus ‘perfectly programmed citizen’. However, the book overall was well-written and an enjoyable read – I would recommend it to sci-fi readers, especially those in the younger age brackets.

Jungle Eyes, Lindsay Marie Miller

Jungle Eyes, Lindsay Marie Miller

Jungle Eyes (Stranded in Paradise Book 1)

Set in the spring of 1899, Lindsay Marie Miller’s Jungle Eyes introduces us to Mr. Henry Rochester of New York, descendant of royalty and eligible bachelor, whose mother is unrelentingly anxious that he should make a good match. In desperation, Henry signs on for an exploratory voyage into the Atlantic, timed to get him safely out of reach of all good matches for at least nine months. However, as voyages of exploration tend to, the voyage took an unexpected turn, and Mr. Rochester finds himself stranded on a tropical island, wholly dependent on a beautiful castaway for care of his injuries. However, their survival hangs by a thread…

Jungle Eyes is a solid period romance, a little flexible on geography but studded with beautifully set cameo locales and close-ups of our hero and heroine. Written with a good feel for dialogue, the main focus is on Henry Rochester, and the tempestuously chaotic attraction that springs to life between him and his island rescuer, Elaine Carmichael. Lindsay Marie Miller creates an unusual, antagonistic atmosphere between the two, which remains remarkably consistent right through to the close of the book. With exotic locations, pirates, treasure caves and hurricanes, this book has something to offer to a range of readers.

Stone and a Hard Place, R L King

Stone and a Hard Place, R L King

Stone and a Hard Place (The Alastair Stone Chronicles Book 1)

Stone and a Hard Place is a story of magic, academia, and a demon for good measure. Alastair Stone has a quiet job teaching Occult Studies, to classes mostly composed of would-be horror authors. Unlike his colleagues, Alastair actually knows what he’s talking about; he’s a mage. It’s a fact he goes to some lengths to keep hidden, and he’s got pretty good at his cover. However, a late-night call from an old friend lands him with something he’d never seriously contemplated having: an apprentice. After that, it’s only a matter of time until Alastair finds himself facing personal and demonical upheaval in his quiet life – and the odds aren’t stacked in his favour.

R L King’s writing offers memorable characters with their own goals, histories and conflicts, and a setting straight out of urban legend, all spiced with touches of well-timed humour. The tension develops very neatly, with the layer of subterfuge and deceit adding depth to the main plot, and villains and victims who come to vibrant life in the pages. I found Stone and a Hard Place had everything a good urban fantasy needs, including a really credible magic system. The writing style is excellent, making it very easy to lose yourself in the story. I’ll definitely be making my way through the rest of this series.