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REVIEW:  The Foxhole Court (All for the Game – book 1) by Nora Sakavic

REVIEW: The Foxhole Court (All for the Game – book...

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Neil Josten is the newest addition to the Palmetto State University Exy team. He’s short, he’s fast, he’s got a ton of potential—and he’s the runaway son of the murderous crime lord known as The Butcher.

Signing a contract with the PSU Foxes is the last thing a guy like Neil should do. The team is high profile and he doesn’t need sports crews broadcasting pictures of his face around the nation. His lies will hold up only so long under this kind of scrutiny and the truth will get him killed.

But Neil’s not the only one with secrets on the team. One of Neil’s new teammates is a friend from his old life, and Neil can’t walk away from him a second time. Neil has survived the last eight years by running. Maybe he’s finally found someone and something worth fighting for.

Dear Nora Sakavic,

I bought (that is, I downloaded since the book is free on Amazon) your book several months ago on the strength of a great review by someone whose tastes are quite close to mine. However, the book has been sitting in my TBR mountain until recently, when a friend whose tastes coincide with mine about 95 percent of the time highly recommended it. Of course whatever she recommends I have to read.

I loved your voice very much. I have not read a book for a while where I simply fell in love with the raw energy of the writing; it almost literally swept me away. This is also a most unusual book – which is both a good and a bad thing as far as I am concerned. First and foremost this is not a romance or a love story – *at all*. I have heard that the writer has promised some romance in the last book of the trilogy, but I have not read that comment myself, so I cannot guarantee anything. Right now this is a book about a teenager on the run who loves a particular sports game and who gets drafted to play for the most unusual University team in this most unusual game. When we learn that Neil is running from his father who is a mafia Boss (Don, whatever you want to call him), I understood that this book would have a lot of violence. After I read it I think that while the book is bursting with hints of future violence and we learn about some past violent things which took place in the narrator’s (and some of his teammates’) pasts, there is no graphic violence happening in this book. The interactions between Foxes definitely had violent undercurrents, but for me it did not go over a line that would disturb me. I have heard that the second book “Ravens king,” which is already out, does have a lot of on-page violence though.

What I loved the most in this book are the characters. Neil is someone who lived through the violence his father unleashed on him and people around him, so his everyday concern is to survive, run, and never stop in order to survive. Neil is not your typical angsty teenager. He is sarcastic and angry with good reason, but in fact while I can definitely call him a tortured character, there is very little angst in this book. There is a lot of anger, but not angst.

“He glanced up at the sky, but the stars were washed out behind the glare of the stadium lights. He wondered – not for the first time – if his mother was looking down at him. He hoped not. She’d beat him to hell and back if she saw him sitting around moping like that”.

The only problem is Neil still loves one thing in his life – Exy. Exy is a fictional game that is very popular in this world and to be honest, because it is taking place in a world equivalent to ours I could not fully accept it as fictional. The author’s brief explanation of Exy as a mixture of several games known to us also did not help me to see this game as something completely abstract, which was both a good and a bad thing.

“Exy was a bastard sport, an evolved sort of lacrosse on a soccer-sized court with the violence of ice hockey, and Neil loved every part of it from its speed to its aggression. It was the one piece of his childhood he’d never been able to give up”.

Neil lets himself be convinced to sign up with the Foxes and play for a while until his past catches up with him. The problem is that this happens faster than he expected. One of his teammates was somebody Neil knew from his violent past and he appears to have so many issues on his plate that he just does not recognize Neil from several years ago. The Foxes turned out to be a strange team – their coach basically formed a team of second chances, team of misfits, who almost all of them had different kind of problems.

A lot of this book is devoted to this sport and how much these men and few women love Exy (almost all of them anyway), but also the violent dispositions of many characters bring very interesting tensions in their everyday communications even when they were not on the training field.

Remember when I said that it was a good and bad thing that Exy felt to me just as another game from our world – it has college tournament, it has governing body, etc? Well, one of Foxes has to take antipsychotic medications on the regular basis as a part of the plea bargain he struck after doing something bad. He is allowed to play by Exy’s governing body and I could not completely suspend disbelief about that. I also could not completely suspend disbelief about a coach striking a private agreement with this boy and allowing him to get off his medications when he is playing. It kind of felt too real world for me and meds making him feel worse than he felt without them? He was described as feeling high while *on the medications* and experiencing the symptoms of withdrawal without them. What? Change the medication people.

Neil’s conflict between wanting to run and wanting to stay is one of the main themes in the book, along with his process of building some kind of communication with his teammates. The guys were all very interesting; especially Andrew and Kevin, and I can safely call these two tortured characters as well. I was also trying to guess who will be romantic couple in the book (if any), but I keep going back and forth between several possibilities.

There are couple other things I was really having trouble suspending disbelief about when I was reading this book (I did not get it for review initially so I read several other reviews and there is a review on Goodreads which is called “A Book of No” by Julio, which described those issues really well), but the sheer drive of the story and characters made me enjoy it despite that.

The ending was not an ending of a separate book and I heard it is worse in the book two. Apparently it feels more like one novel split in three parts rather than a trilogy. I am not starting book two till book three is out.

Grade C+/B-.

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REVIEW:  The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

REVIEW: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Dear Ms. Addison,

After a disappointing reading year in 2013, the past four or so months have comprised one of the best reading streaks I’ve had in a long time. And now comes your fantasy novel, The Goblin Emperor, another stellar book.

goblin-emperor-2The novel is set in a fantastical industrial age empire known as the Ethuveraz, Elflands ruled by a long line of emperors. There are no humans, only elves and goblins in the novel, and they are not at all Tolkienesque.

These goblins and elves aren’t different species, merely different races. They can marry and have children who are able to have children of their own.

Still, the elves and goblins have different cultures, as well as different skin tones and sometimes subtle differences in facial features, and unfortunately there is racism and distrust aimed at the goblins.

But as the novel begins, the emperor of the Ethuveraz, Varenechibel IV, and his three eldest sons have just been killed in an airship crash, leaving the fourth and youngest son of the emperor to rule.

Maia Drazhar, that fourth son, is not only just eighteen years old, but also half goblin, the product of Varenechibel’s unhappy marriage to the daughter of the Great Avar, a goblin leader in Ethuveraz’s neighboring goblin empire of Barizhan.

Since Varenechibel IV had three older heirs, no one ever expected Maia to rule. And since Varenechibel hated Maia’s gentle mother and exiled her and Maia from the moment it was clear she was pregnant, and after her death exiled Maia again with only a distant cousin as his guardian, no one ever prepared Maia for the role of emperor.

Maia is as shocked as anyone to learn the news brought by the messenger sent to the marshland estate he has been confined to. He has never dreamed of becoming emperor nor wanted to rule the Ethuveraz, and can only imagine how his father’s court will react to a half goblin emperor whom Varenechibel IV, much beloved by the courtiers, despised.

Maia’s guardian, Setheris Nelar, sent away from the court by Varenechibel for reasons unknown to Maia, has been abusive (usually emotionally and until Maia was fourteen, sometimes physically) to Maia during his decade of guardianship, so although Maia is kind and good, he cannot see his own goodness.

Despite Setheris’s past cruelty, Maia finds himself grateful that Setheris taught him good elvish manners, as well as appreciative of his advice. The message sent to Maia by his father’s Lord Chancellor, Chavar, is designed to put off Maia’s return to court, but Setheris, an enemy of Chavar’s, tells Maia that if he isn’t immediately crowned, Chavar will find a way to gain control of the court.

The crown is the last thing Maia wants, but history tells him that if he doesn’t find a way to consolidate power quickly, he may not survive at all. Because he wants to live, Maia determines to follow Setheris’s advice and take the same airship that brought the messenger to him back to the Untheilenenise Court, the elves’ seat of power.

But Maia arrives there to a cool reception. Although the coronation is, at Maia’s necessary order, scheduled to precede his father and brothers’ funeral, few elves welcome the thought of Maia as their emperor. Nor does Maia’s lack of grief for the father and brothers he never knew aid his cause.

Maia is determined not only to evade Chavar’s attempts to manage him, but also not to live under Setheris’ thumb any longer. To that end, Maia chooses Csevet, the messenger who brought him the news, to act as his secretary, and, in a huge stroke of luck I found a bit unlikely, Csevet turns out to be an excellent choice.

Maia is also quickly assigned a bodyguard as well as a spiritual guard, each of which has a replacement so they can take shifts. One of each accompanies Maia at all times. Maia likes them, but he misses having privacy, and feels uncomfortable at the thought of resuming his goblin meditation practice in their presence.

The work facing Maia is enormous. Corruption and potential treachery endanger his rule, and he must learn the workings of his government and the work of governance. Maia develops his knowledge and his skills in these arenas to the best of his ability, but he must also deal with disputes, petitions, hostile relatives, and the necessity of quickly arranging his sister’s marriage—and worse, his own.

As a half-goblin deprived of opportunities to learn, Maia is sensitive to the inequities and prejudices in his society, not just toward goblins and the working classes, but also toward women. It is important to him to ameliorate the status quo, but here too he faces opposition from those whose self-interests lie elsewhere.

Having internalized Setheris’s verbal abuse, Maia is hindered as well by his tendency to self-deprecate and harshly castigate himself for his mistakes, and by his feelings of utter loneliness in his position at the top.

And all this comes before he chooses, for political reasons, a fiancée he later learns does not want to marry him– and before he learns that the airship crash that killed his father and his brothers was caused by deliberate sabotage.

The greatest pleasure of reading The Goblin Emperor is seeing Maia’s growth. He learns to forge connections, grows into not just a good emperor but perhaps an outstanding one, and begins to appreciate and be compassionate to himself.

Early on in the novel, Maia is kind and good to everyone but himself. He is initially so harsh on himself and that wasn’t easy for me to read, especially since he also dislikes the gray color of his skin, which proclaims his goblin blood.

But as he comes into his own, Maia learns to value his skills, and his self-deprecation turns into the beginnings of self-confidence. Maia is such a lovely character that experiencing this transformation and his growth into a good leader is like seeing a butterfly emerge from a cocoon.

Another pleasure is the worldbuilding, which is detailed and multidimensional. The world has a somewhat Asian feel; for example Maia’s residence is located in a minareted tower, and his food is flavored with pickled ginger. But the world does not, as far as I can tell, correspond to any specific place and time in our own world’s history.

The Ethuverz has a complex government and social structure, with different governing bodies depending on branch and geographical jurisdictions, a religion with different types of clergy, levels to the military and policing groups, a language and grammar which include different titles used to designate class and gender, and all of that gives depth and intricacy to the society.

The complexity is at times overwhelming, but this serves the novel because Maia has to deal with it all and he begins knowing very little and feeling overwhelmed. At first the vastness of his empire dwarfs him, and that is part of what makes his ultimate transformation into a good emperor so satisfying.

Just as varied and interesting are Maia’s relationships; he has to learn to navigate deep social waters, but some wonderful connections are eventually made. I don’t want to spoil who turns out to be a friend and who a foe, since there are twists to that. But I found the way things turned out delightful.

Most of the book takes place in the Untheileneise Court and the claustrophobic sensation this caused me was uncomfortable at first, but it also helped me understand just how isolated from his people an emperor can be, and how crucial the contacts he forms can become, both to his nation and to his morale.

Before arriving in the capital, Maia had no love life to speak of. At about the same time he becomes engaged to a noblewoman who treats him coldly, he is also drawn to a beautiful opera singer. I don’t want to reveal how this develops, either, but I will say that at the end of the book, all the signs point to a happy ending.

But the romantic element is only a small subplot in the book. I wanted more romance, but I was still deeply satisfied because that romantic subplot was well-executed, and because this book was not a romance but a coming of age—and coming into power—story.

There are a few minor flaws I want to mention. First, even at the beginning, Maia seems far more mature than his eighteen years, more like a man in his early to mid twenties. A fourteen year old secondary character is also more mature than his age would indicate.

Second, the character names were unfamiliar to me and sometimes similar to each other. Since there are many characters in the novel, this was confusing, although a glossary in the back of the book helps.

Third, nearly half the book takes place over the first few days of Maia’s reign, while the second half takes place over the course of months. Although I wasn’t bored at any point, I was glad when the pacing sped up.

If a reader is looking for intense action, sorcery or swordfights, he or she should look elsewhere. If, on the other hand, a reader can enjoy a thoughtfully paced novel about ascendancy and leading a country into progress, about finding friendship and loyalty in unlikely places, about protecting and caring for loved ones as well as for a nation, and about learning to accept oneself, he or she need look no further than The Goblin Emperor.

Maia was such a lovely person and though half elf, half goblin, and emperor too, he seemed so real and human to me, and always interesting despite his essential goodness. I highly recommend this satisfying novel. A-.

Sincerely,

Janine

PS to readers: Katherine Addison is the new pen name of fantasy author Sarah Monette. I’ve heard from a few different sources that The Goblin Emperor is different from and not as dark as the books she wrote as Sarah Monette.

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