Review: ‘Out of the Shadows’ by Ashlee Nicole Bye

Nobody ever said death would be easy…

From the streets of Melbourne to the bowels of Westminster, the delicate balance between life and death that is so painstakingly maintained by the reapers of The Order of Dark and Light is being tested by the return of an ancient threat. Tensions are rising within the hidden world of The Shadowlands and if this threat is not contained war will be inevitable. And the destruction of the human world is bound to follow in its wake.

Amidst this tension, eighteen year-old Sachi Manning is struggling to cope with the grief and guilt that has plagued her ever since her best friend was murdered six months earlier—that is, until she spots him seemingly alive and well and being held at scythe point by a hooded figure who looks more like a GQ model than the Grim Reaper.

Sachi shouldn’t be able to see through the glamours that shield Shadowlanders from the human world, so the reaper in question wants some answers. And so begins the craziest couple of weeks of Sachi’s life as she is drawn into a world of mysteries, magic, monsters, and mayhem, encountering dragons, faeries, soul-sucking demons, not-so-grim reapers, and even the Horseman of Death.

With a mix of heart, humour and hair-raising action, Out of the Shadows is the adventure of an afterlifetime, perfect for fans of Cassandra Clare and Kresley Cole.

The first thing I should note is that I received a copy of this book free in exchange for an honest review. Those who’ve read my review policy know that I don’t normally agree to such requests, so when Ashlee approached me I quietly snuck away and read the first couple of chapters of the book on Amazon before committing to anything. Just in case. 😉

I’m glad I took the chance, though, because I loved Out of the Shadows. Sashi’s world is amazingly complex, full of supernatural creatures, competing factions and a complicated process for managing what happens to souls when they die. It’s mostly set in Melbourne, and I loved the Aussie touch (although the reapers, the main supernatural faction to which we’re exposed, can teleport, so there are scenes in New York, London and elsewhere — it’s a bit like Paula Weston’s Rephaim series in that regard).

Sashi, the main character, is Australian-born but with Japanese ancestry. She is tiny and fiery and quick with a joke. Her voice was one of my favourite things about this story — she had me giggling more than once at one observation or another. For example, it’s a bit of an urban fantasy trope that supernatural leading men are all ripped hotties. At one point, Sashi actually calls some of the lads out on it, asking if there’s a pill or something, subtly undercutting the trope while leaving the eye candy safely intact for our reading pleasure.

My other favourite character is the reaper Moss, again just because he is hilarious. He and Sashi quite often have movie quote exchanges, and every T-shirt he owns has a funny line on the front. Given my own T-shirt collection, I approved. (Oh, and Beelzebub, Prince of Hell, is hysterical too, in a “I suspect he’s unstable and might start killing folks at any moment” kind of way.)

I know I’ve talked a lot about the humour, because it was one of my favourite things about the book, but I should also mention that Out of the Shadows has its darker moments. There’s a supernatural conspiracy going on, one with a body count and a reach that I can only guess at from the first book. There are plot twists I didn’t see coming, and one exceptionally sad and shocking moment that was a dagger to the old feels.

I approve.

For those wondering about the quality of the writing itself (always a valid question for small press and self-published works), I can confirm that Ashlee writes beautifully. I did see a handful of places where I’d do something different with commas, but they are the sort of things that only a sharp copyeditor is likely to notice … and I’ve seen books published by traditional presses with similar mistakes.

The only reason this isn’t a five-star read for me is that occasionally I got a little overwhelmed by the number of different factions. I was able to track the characters fairly easily but, because I read this as an ebook, I couldn’t easily flick back to earlier to remind myself of the differences between all the different types of reaper, for example.

Still, the confusion was temporary and didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the story. I’m very keen to read the next instalment in the series.



‘False Awakening’ (‘Lucid Dreaming’ #2) cover reveal and excerpt

I’m so excited to be able to finally show you the cover for False Awakening, the second book in the Lucid Dreaming duology, my adult urban fantasy series. Kim Last of KILA Designs has designed all of my current book covers, and I love each one more than the last (IT HAS A DREAM CATCHER ON IT).

I can’t wait till I can hold this one, and maybe pat and fondle it a little.

(What?)

So, without further ado, here they are! But don’t just look at the pretties; while you’re here, check out an excerpt below.

Ebook cover

Paperback cover

Excerpt

Usually when I stepped into someone’s dreams just after they’d fallen asleep, I didn’t arrive in an active dream so much as in a place of significance in their subconscious: a proto-dream of sorts. The kind of place they’d have recurring dreams about. As a lucid dreamer, I didn’t have true recurring dreams—deliberately conjuring dreams of my favourite places didn’t count. But I was familiar with the concept. Jen had told me that, usually, when she remembered her dreams, she found they contained elements of her family home. Brad often dreamed of his grandparents’ house, where he’d spent a lot of time as a child.

That was why, when I appeared in a brightly lit department store, I raised my eyebrows. Huh. First job, maybe? I stood in an aisle full of bags of confectionary: liquorice sticks, mixed lollies, chocolate drops. But, in the fashion of dreams, everything was slightly off. When I focused on a rustling purple and yellow packet, trying to make out the brand name, the logo slid away from my gaze as if it didn’t want to be nailed down. Price tags were illegible: smeared or written in gibberish characters. And when I looked between the packages I didn’t see a backboard filled with mounting holes but sheer, impenetrable darkness.

The darkness gaped back at me.

With goosebumps shivering along the length of my forearms, I took a moment to prepare myself, sparing a thought and a shred of energy to conjure my set of trusty motorcycle leathers. I didn’t have any such thing in the real world, but in dreams I’d found they served quite well as armour against the barbs on a blight’s tentacles. A clear-faced, round helmet made me feel like an idiot but protected my eyes. I didn’t know for certain that there was a blight here, but something was definitely not right. Even if it was just a creepy manifestation of Daniel’s subconscious—even if he was indeed going crazy—it paid to be careful. Ephemera could still have teeth.

I crept towards the end of the aisle, leather squeaking faintly as I listened for the telltale bubbling hiss of a blight. Peering past a stand of round-bellied plastic animals stuffed with jellybeans, I saw a row of unattended registers to my left. To my right, clothes swayed in a breeze I couldn’t feel. In front of me was the store’s main entrance: the roller shutter was down, allowing the vague impression of a darkened mall beyond.

Deserted apartment stores were bloody creepy. Even ones with the lights on. Still, this didn’t look like a place a blight had trashed. Brad’s had shredded the surface of his dream, tearing holes in walls and coating everything with a mess that would do a slimy Ghostbusters spectre proud. This store was creepy, but trashed? No.

Like my thought made it happen, a corner of the store went dark as one fluorescent light, then another, went out with a pop and a tinkle of glass onto tile. “What the…?” I whispered, looking up.

That was when I spotted the blight.

It hung upside down from the ceiling, somewhere above the menswear section, like a deranged bat a few feet wide, made of smog. Its tentacles were jammed deep into the rectangular ceiling tiles; the tiles themselves were slick with an oily coating of blight ichor that dripped downwards, spattering across a garish display of novelty ties that hurt my eyes.

“Gross,” I said, my voice somewhat muffled behind the helmet’s faceplate. The blight turned, rotating slowly until its stained yellow eyes glared down at me.

Oneeiiiiroi,” the creature hissed.

“I was talking about those ties, but you’re gross too. You look like an evil Christmas ornament up there, you know.” I gathered power around my hands, threads of blue-white lightning encircling my wrists and licking down my fingers. The fine hairs on the back of my hands stood on end, tickling until I had to resist the urge to scratch them. I forced my back straight and my shoulders square so the blight wouldn’t see my energy flagging, draining into the lightning.

With a shriek so high it hurt my ears, the blight yanked downwards, its tentacles tearing ceiling tiles free to smash to the floor. One tile, three, five. Then dozens. Fluorescent lights exploded, plunging the store into gloom. Tiles shattered around me and jellybeans scattered like marbles. By the glow of my lightning charge, I darted towards a service counter, diving under the counter hatch. Huddling in my leathers and helmet, I barely fit.

I stared at the rain of tile fragments as it slowed, and then stopped. Each was coated on one side with blight ichor, as if the entire ceiling cavity had been filled with the blight’s contamination.

This blight hadn’t destroyed the surface of the dream. It had rotted its very bones.

Blurb

How can you fight your nightmares when they’re real?

Melaina, half-human dream therapist, just wants her life to return to normal. Yes, her Oneiroi father is in prison and, yes, the place she worked burned down, but she has a cute boyfriend and a new house. She beat the bad guy. She’s earned a break. Right?

Unfortunately for Melaina, people are still getting possessed by nightmare spirits; the police are investigating her past; and the bad guy’s brother, the Morpheus himself, is coming to town to demand answers. When a deranged ex-nurse checks himself out of hospital on the same day her cousin runs away from home, Melaina is dragged into a fight not just for her life but for her soul.

Add to your Goodreads ‘to read’ shelf today

 


Review: ‘The Secret Science of Magic’ by Melissa Keil

Sophia is smart, like genius-calculator-brain smart. But there are some things no amount of genius can prepare you for, and the messiness of real life is one of them. When everything she knows is falling apart, how can she crack the puzzle of what to do with her life?

Joshua spends his time honing magic tricks and planning how to win Sophia’s heart. But when your best trick is making schoolwork disappear, how do you possibly romance a genius?

In life and love, timing is everything.

I know I’ve said this before (possibly in my last review of a Melissa Keil book), but I want to be Melissa Keil when I grow up. She writes the most amazingly geeky and relatable (to me) characters.

In The Secret Science of Magic, we have Sophia, a maths genius and Doctor Who fan who has all the hallmarks of being on the autism spectrum disorder (although she is bafflingly never diagnosed), along with a massive helping of anxiety attacks and self-doubt (presumably from the lack of diagnosis and treatment). She’s also a POC, although her family is very “Australian” as far as I can tell — if there were any elements from other cultures in there I missed them.

Sophia is struggling through the last year of high school, trying very hard not to think about her only friend’s impending departure to study medicine in the US. She’s acing most of her classes and doing university-level maths on the side, but was pressured into doing drama, which she hates and is terrible at. She has fixated on a Russian maths genius who went off the rails, trying, in her methodical way, to figure out where he went wrong so that she can avoid it — a bit like Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars, but without the road trip.

Elsie, Sophia’s best friend, is from a largish South Asian family, with three brothers who look lout for Sophia the way her own brother generally doesn’t. But there is growing tension there, which Sophia doesn’t really understand. The clues are all there, not just for the reader (as is often the case) but for Sophia too — the problem is that Sophia simply doesn’t know how to recognise or interpret them.

(I’m so mad at Sophia’s counsellor, by the way. We never actually see said counsellor, but surely if they were halfway competent they could have recognised what was going on with her! Gah!)

Joshua, the other point of view character, has a long-standing crush on Sophia, a lisp that emerges when he’s anxious, and a talent for magic tricks. He decides to finally start wooing her, getting her attention with tricks that are mostly cute and motivated by a desire to help her with her various problems, but that sometimes cross the line for me (for example when he stole her watch; even though she did get it back later, that was uncool, Joshua!). Happily, he does grow over the course of the book and, by the end, he comes good. 😉

I really enjoyed this story, which — more broadly — tackles the YA issues of “coping with the end of school” and “what next”, as well as the universal human issue of self-acceptance. The romance was tentative and sweet, and my heart broke for Sophia and her confusion and social anxiety. The Doctor Who references made me happy, and Josh’s various magic tricks, while not really my thing, made me smile.

Melissa Keil’s books are ones I wish I’d had as a teenager; I’m totally buying copies for my friends’ geeky pre-teen when she’s a few years older.


Review: ‘The Special Ones’ by Em Bailey

Esther is one of the four Special Ones. They are chosen by him to live under his protection in a remote farmhouse, and they must always be ready to broadcast their lives to eager followers in the outside. But on renewal day when he decides that a new Esther, Harry, Lucille or Felicity must take their place, the old ones disappear – forever. The new ones don’t always want to come, but soon they realise.

Until one day Esther has a realisation of her own – and it changes everything.

This book, you guys. After spending literally months in one world, reading a huge trilogy, zipping through this little thing was like a breath of fresh air.

A breath of creepy, creepy fresh air.

The premise of the story is four young people — a pre-teen girl, two late-teens girls and a young man — living in an Amish-style farmhouse where they are forced to play the roles of a long-dead family. Rules govern every aspect of their lives; for example, Esther, the main character, isn’t allowed to touch others or leave the farmhouse veranda. Transgressions are punished.

But the farmhouse is more like the Big Brother house … only it’s famous in a niche corner of the internet rather than being broadcast on national TV. There are cameras everywhere, and each night the four need to chat to their loyal followers, each providing advice on “their” area of expertise. The chats are monitored so they can’t ask for help, and they are so effectively brainwashed that some of them don’t want to.

It’s a creepy, Amish reality TV cult, where kidnapping a new member is standard practice after a previous one leaves to be “renewed” (and, Esther assumes, murdered). It’s also set in remote Australia, which I loved — the magpies, the drought, the thundering summer rain.

The various tensions between the four characters were well described and gripping; I was certainly never bored. There’s a bit of a romantic subplot here, but it’s not the main focus of the story. I was personally more attached to little Felicity, a girl who wouldn’t be much older than my son and who struggled to remember all the rules … even the fact she wasn’t allowed to use her real name. Poor wee thing!

However, like every story I’ve ever read or watched about mysterious, seemingly omniscient evildoers, I did sometimes wonder how “he” managed to do everything he did to keep the farm running day-to-day and the followers from realising that their heroes were brainwashed prisoners. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but I did wonder how it was possible for one human, no matter how much of an evil genius they are.

This niggling doubt is the only thing that stopped this from being a five-star read for me, and (as you can see) not by much! I’ll definitely be hunting for a copy of Em Bailey’s other book.

 

 

 


Cover reveal for ‘False Awakening’ — sign-ups now available

It’s hard being the second sibling (or so my friends who are second siblings assure me). Certainly that seems to be true of books, too. For the longest time, Lucid Dreaming, first in my adult urban fantasy series, got all the attention, the cover, and the series named after it.

But now it’s time to shine for the second book in the series, False Awakening, with its very own cover made by the fabulous KILA Designs!

The cover reveal is scheduled for 7 May. You can sign up here, which is an excellent way to get to see it first!

And, to celebrate, I’m offering Lucid Dreaming free to reviewers in all ebook formats. You can sign up for THAT here, or just email me directly. I don’t bite.

Hard.

Seriously, I am so excited to be able to share this cover with you … almost as excited as I am at the idea of photographing the two books together, united at last! ❤

False Awakening blurb

Melaina, half-human dream therapist, just wants her life to return to normal. Yes, her Oneiroi father is in prison and, yes, the place she worked burned down, but she has a cute boyfriend and a new house. She beat the bad guy. She’s earned a break. Right?

Unfortunately for Melaina, people are still getting possessed by nightmare spirits; the police are investigating her past; and the bad guy’s brother, the Morpheus himself, is coming to town to demand answers. When a deranged ex-nurse checks himself out of hospital on the same day her cousin runs away from home, Melaina is dragged into a fight not just for her life but for her soul.

Goodreads


Review: ‘A Tangle of Gold’ by Jaclyn Moriarty

The Kingdom of Cello is in crisis. Princess Ko’s deception has been revealed and the Elite have taken control, placing the Princess, Samuel and Sergio under arrest and ordering their execution. Elliot is being held captive by the Hostiles and Colour storms are raging through the land. The Cello Wind has been silent for months.

Plans are in place to bring the remaining Royals home from the World but then all communication between Cello and the World will cease. That means Madeleine will lose Elliot, forever.

Madeleine and Elliot must solve the mystery of Cello before it is too late.

A Tangle of Gold is the final book in The Colours of Madeline trilogy by Aussie author Jaclyn Moriarty. You can find my first two reviews here and here. I commented in my review of the second book that the series title didn’t quite work for me, because Madeline’s parts of the story in the first two books were the less engaging parts.

It’s fair to say that, in the third book, Madeline finally comes into her own. I can’t say much more than that, because it’d be spoiler-tastic, but at last she becomes more than bizarre homeschooling, her mother’s illness, and her quirky friends.  Events in Cello rather than in the World (what they refer to Earth as) are definitely where the story is at, and they drive events. But there’s a lot more crossover, not just a parking metre-based postal service, so the World side of things gets a lot more interesting.

There are things that you need to know about these books if you are considering giving them a go:

  • Moriarty’s prose is beautiful. It’s lyrical and strange at times, but always beautiful. I’m sad that she never truly described the Cello Wind (which is alluded to often but remains off camera, so to speak). It would have been glorious.
  • Her world-building is astonishingly detailed. As a result, sometimes the story feels like it’s dragging a little, but things are always happening — even if their significance doesn’t become clear till later. Which brings me to…
  • The plot twists. OMG. There are things resolved in the third book that were delicately foreshadowed in the first. And some of these twists blindsided me. I usually guess or at least suspect in the right direction of plot twists, but I was way off base on this one, several times.

If you have the patience to read three 500-page books, and love parallel world stories with a truly unique alternate world and intense, intellectual and quirky characters, then this is the series for you.


Review: ‘The Cracks in the Kingdom’ by Jaclyn Moriarty

Princess Ko’s been bluffing about the mysterious absence of her father, desperately trying to keep the government running on her own. But if she can’t get him back in a matter of weeks, the consequence may be a devastating war. So under the guise of a publicity stunt she gathers a group of teens — each with a special ability — from across the kingdom to crack the unsolvable case of the missing royals of Cello.

Chief among these is farm-boy heartthrob Elliot Baranski, more determined than ever to find his own father. And with the royal family trapped in the World with no memory of their former lives, Elliot’s value to the Alliance is clear: He’s the only one with a connection to the World, through his forbidden communications with Madeleine.

Through notes, letters, and late nights, Elliot and Madeleine must find a way to travel across worlds and bring missing loved ones home. The stakes are high, and the writing by turns hilarious and suspenseful, as only Jaclyn Moriarty can be.

This is the second book in The Colours of Madeline trilogy by Sydney writer Jaclyn Moriarty. I finished it last weekend, and it’s taken me a while to sit down to write a review — largely because it took me more than a month to read, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on why.

Other than general life busyness and the danger of reading hardcover books in bed when you’re tired (ow), the obvious reason is that all the books in this series are quite long (and also heavy — ow). This one is almost 500 pages, and maybe my attention span isn’t what it used to be, but it just seemed like a lot. If you’ve read the first book in the series (or my review of same), you will know that the series is a parallel world tale where one of the two main characters, Madeline, is in England while the other is a boy named Elliot who lives in a magical modern-day equivalent of Earth that is called Cello. Moriarty puts a lot of work into world-building as far as Cello goes. Like, a lot. There are extracts from guide books, for example, and newspaper clippings, as well as the letters that the blurb mentions. They are relevant to the story, but gosh there are a lot of them!

There were some parts of the story that dragged and — despite the name of the trilogy — they are almost all Madeline’s sections. She doesn’t have as much to do in the second story other than live her quirky life, post some letters, and be increasingly interested in Elliot, who is (apparently) forever unattainable.

Elliot on the other hand is a very interesting character, as are the other members of the Royal Youth Alliance, Ko, Kiera, Sergio and Samuel. I far enjoyed reading about their meetings and efforts to rescue the royal family. That’s where all the action in the book is. (Sorry, Madeline.)

I realise this review might seem lukewarm, but I really did enjoy most of it — hence the four stars! I went straight into the last book in the series, and I’m hoping I can get it done more quickly than this one. 😉


This month on Aussie Owned and Read we’ve been doing a round robin series of interviews. I was interviewed by the lovely Heather Bosevski; you can find it here. I on the other hand interviewed spec fic author Sharon M. Johnston, and you can find that one here