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A delightfully peculiar, intricate, and engaging mystery.

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A college freshman stumbles on a dark web-rooted conspiracy in this thriller.

University of Chicago student Zak Skinner is failing engineering school—again. He transferred from New York University mere months ago for that same reason. Understandably distraught, Zak runs into David Wade, a floor mate from his dorm, and winds up voluntarily drinking a hallucinogenic concoction. By the time Zak comes to, things have turned noticeably weird. David has seemingly disappeared, and Zak has a simple store receipt with hidden numbers and, perhaps, a secret message. It may all be part of a scam, as someone has been supposedly drugging impressionable freshmen who will believe anything anyone tells them. But that doesn’t explain the thugs who capture Zak and his best friend/roommate, Pat Riley, giving them 24 hours to hand over the receipt. Deciphering the significance of that piece of paper takes Zak deep into a conspiracy linked to a darknet website and billions in American dollars. But answers aren’t easy to come by, as the receipt’s apparent code isn’t clear, and people evade Zak’s myriad questions. Time may be running out, as he’s fairly certain someone is trying to kill him. Towles’ taut novel moves at a steady clip, as the protagonist encounters a variety of odd characters both on and off campus. Regarding the plot, readers may be just as confused as Zak; it’s often cryptic and features someone promising to protect Zak from “villains you can’t see.” But it’s undoubtedly suspenseful, with dubious characters aplenty who occasionally threaten or assault Zak. They’re not all bad; Riley makes a superb sidekick who also finds trouble (mostly by association), and Zak dabbles in some effectively understated romance. While there’s definitely a resolution, along with an enlightening glimpse at the hero’s past, the ending implies that a sequel may be forthcoming.

A delightfully peculiar, intricate, and engaging mystery.

Pub Date: Nov. 24, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-64456-334-2

Page Count: 242

Publisher: Indies United Publishing House

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2021

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From the Empyrean series , Vol. 1

Read this for the action-packed plot, not character development or worldbuilding.

On the orders of her mother, a woman goes to dragon-riding school.

Even though her mother is a general in Navarre’s army, 20-year-old Violet Sorrengail was raised by her father to follow his path as a scribe. After his death, though, Violet's mother shocks her by forcing her to enter the elite and deadly dragon rider academy at Basgiath War College. Most students die at the War College: during training sessions, at the hands of their classmates, or by the very dragons they hope to one day be paired with. From Day One, Violet is targeted by her classmates, some because they hate her mother, others because they think she’s too physically frail to succeed. She must survive a daily gauntlet of physical challenges and the deadly attacks of classmates, which she does with the help of secret knowledge handed down by her two older siblings, who'd been students there before her. Violet is at the mercy of the plot rather than being in charge of it, hurtling through one obstacle after another. As a result, the story is action-packed and fast-paced, but Violet is a strange mix of pure competence and total passivity, always managing to come out on the winning side. The book is categorized as romantasy, with Violet pulled between the comforting love she feels from her childhood best friend, Dain Aetos, and the incendiary attraction she feels for family enemy Xaden Riorson. However, the way Dain constantly undermines Violet's abilities and his lack of character development make this an unconvincing storyline. The plots and subplots aren’t well-integrated, with the first half purely focused on Violet’s training, followed by a brief detour for romance, and then a final focus on outside threats.

Read this for the action-packed plot, not character development or worldbuilding.

Pub Date: May 2, 2023

ISBN: 9781649374042

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Red Tower

Review Posted Online: Jan. 12, 2024

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From the Empyrean series , Vol. 2

Unrelenting, and not in a good way.

A young Navarrian woman faces even greater challenges in her second year at dragon-riding school.

Violet Sorrengail did all the normal things one would do as a first-year student at Basgiath War College: made new friends, fell in love, and survived multiple assassination attempts. She was also the first rider to ever bond with two dragons: Tairn, a powerful black dragon with a distinguished battle history, and Andarna, a baby dragon too young to carry a rider. At the end of Fourth Wing (2023), Violet and her lover, Xaden Riorson, discovered that Navarre is under attack from wyvern, evil two-legged dragons, and venin, soulless monsters that harvest energy from the ground. Navarrians had always been told that these were monsters of legend and myth, not real creatures dangerously close to breaking through Navarre’s wards and attacking civilian populations. In this overly long sequel, Violet, Xaden, and their dragons are determined to find a way to protect Navarre, despite the fact that the army and government hid the truth about these creatures. Due to the machinations of several traitorous instructors at Basgiath, Xaden and Violet are separated for most of the book—he’s stationed at a distant outpost, leaving her to handle the treacherous, cutthroat world of the war college on her own. Violet is repeatedly threatened by her new vice commandant, a brutal man who wants to silence her. Although Violet and her dragons continue to model extreme bravery, the novel feels repetitive and more than a little sloppy, leaving obvious questions about the world unanswered. The book is full of action and just as full of plot holes, including scenes that are illogical or disconnected from the main narrative. Secondary characters are ignored until a scene requires them to assist Violet or to be killed in the endless violence that plagues their school.

Unrelenting, and not in a good way.

Pub Date: Nov. 7, 2023

ISBN: 9781649374172

Page Count: 640

Publisher: Red Tower

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2024

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