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An enveloping epic in a strikingly harsh world.

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Balstrup’s moody fantasy novel explores religion and power.

Skalen Sybilla Ladain of Vaelnyr lives in an area of Velspar. The Seven Lands of Velspar place a lot of power in the hands of individuals known as Intercessors. These Intercessors make up a priest class that isn’t to be trifled with. For the average person, thinking “red thoughts,” which seem to be akin to “sinful” or violent thoughts, can result in execution. Sybilla hails from a ruling family, but when her father speaks against the Intercessors, retribution is swift. She wakes one day to find the family home aflame and says, “Because he had the courage to resist their advances, they silenced him with fire” (chapters are pegged to the incident; e.g., “Fifteen Years After the Fire”). The aggrieved daughter sets about her revenge in a merciless way, and she plans not only to kill the Intercessors, but to undo their past actions. Some wind up calling her the Red Skalen, and merely speaking her name causes one character to experience “an icy sensation.” But what does the future hold? Are the old ways of the Intercessors truly dead and gone? As the story progresses, it grows increasingly complex. There is much afoot in the lands of Velspar. Balstrup’s creatures are intriguingly unnerving; one looks like “a cloaked spirit falling from the sky” and another, a “mess of blood.” Not all surprises are physical either. One character manages to slip into a “gust of memory that was not her own.” Dialogue is often wooden, however (“You must be hungry after your journey, please sit and we can enjoy this meal while we talk”). Still, the murky atmosphere and the characters within it are full of surprises.

An enveloping epic in a strikingly harsh world.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2023

ISBN: 9780645474701

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Burning Mirror Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 5, 2022

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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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