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A terrific and involving alternate version of a fantasy world.

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In Neill’srevisitation of his Elk Riders fantasy series, a young woman seeks a fabled treasure to save her village.

This offbeat fantasy novel acts as a standalone alternate take on the concepts and characters in the author’s five previous Elk Riders novels published in 2016, beginning with In the Darkness Visibleand concluding with The Magus. As the story opens, Gabriela Carlyle has brought her brother, Daven, to a ceremony presided over by a healer named Arkmaven, hoping that the meager offering she's brought might result in a miracle cure for the compulsive behavioral quirks that have led village bullies to refer to her sibling as “half-witted.” Her prayer isn’t granted, though, and she’s dealing with her disappointment the following day when chaos erupts in the village. Strangers called the Servior have come to Gabriela’s island village of Harkness seeking to purchase the ominous black tower at the center of local religious life. Gabriela, Daven, and an unlikely band of misfits (along with a noble elk character named Adamantus) embark on the sailing vessel Elawnin search of a hidden treasure that will allow the village to retain ownership of the tower. The group encounters pirates, armed combat, and other personal challenges along the way. Neill jumps into this tale with clear confidence that he’s not just rebottling old wine; fans of the Elk Riders series are sure to find this book fascinatingly different, even as it retains some similarities. To highlight its “alternate history” aspect, the author even alters character names (Gabriella from the previous books is Gabriela here, and Dameon is Daven). Neill’s prose is always evocative (“the movement of carts, horses, and people,” reads a passage about a submerged town, “had been replaced by silt and sand swirling through forests of seaweed and tall marsh grasses”) and he presents vivid descriptions at every turn; at one point, for instance, Gabriela notes a character’s hands as being “slick and hot with his blood.” Also, the emotional heart of the book—Gabriela’s evolving and deepening affection for her troubled brother—glows with sincerity.

A terrific and involving alternate version of a fantasy world.

Pub Date: April 7, 2024

ISBN: 9798884763340

Page Count: 303

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: June 14, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2024

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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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