Cara Sweeney is at the top of the academic ladder at Midtown High and is all set for a final year of excellence when the principal hands her an unexpe...moreCara Sweeney is at the top of the academic ladder at Midtown High and is all set for a final year of excellence when the principal hands her an unexpected - and not entirely welcome - assignment. As part of the fledgling treaty with an alien race two years after the L'eihrs first made contact, three top students from across the world have been picked by the aliens to host three of theirs, ambassadors on an exchange program of good will and mutual education. After which, the human hosts will travel to the L'eihr homeworld, a much smaller and tightly controlled planet, on exchange for the same reasons.
The student ambassador who Cara and her family will play host to is an eighteen year old boy called Aelyx. The other two ambassadors will stay with host families in China and France. Cara's parents are overjoyed - ever since her mother's life was saved when the L'eihrs gifted humans with the cure for cancer, they've been pro-alien (and on their humble income, the stipend for hosting helps, too). Not so many others in Cara's town and across America. Anti-alien sentiment continues to grow as the school year starts, and unbeknownst to Cara, it's mutual.
Aelyx and his friends, Syrine and Eron, have their own reasons and plans for destroying the alliance and severing the newly-forged ties between their people and the puny, barely civilised humans. Over the weeks, though, Aelyx finds himself drawn to his friendly host, and even appreciative of her efforts to cook him something he can actually eat. He's not concerned by the growing group calling itself HALO: Humans Against L'eihr Occupation - if anything, it plays perfectly into their plans of sabotage.
With her older brother, Troy, a Marine, on the L'eihr home planet, her boyfriend, Eric, joining HALO, and her best friend, Tori, caving under pressure and ditching her, Cara finds that soon her only friend in the whole town is Aelyx himself. Being in each other's company so much, they're learning more from and about each other than they could have dreamed - and discovering that there's more to their friendship, and more to the treaty, than they had expected or understood. But is it too late to fix things, repair the damage - and stay together?
I'll admit that, going into this, I didn't expect a whole lot. Another American teen drama featuring young love, obstacles and misunderstandings, nothing fancy but hopefully entertaining. I wasn't sure I should expect realism or believability as well. But actually, or maybe because of those expectations, Alienated proved itself to be more than just entertainment and teen drama - though it has plenty of that. Grounded in familiar sci-fi tropes, Landers has nevertheless managed to make it feel and sound fresh and not all that predictable. Cara is a strong, likeable heroine for whom it's not surprising that Aelyx would develop deeper feelings for - or that her ex-boyfriend and her best friend would remain loyal to her, albeit secretly.
By keeping the sci-fi elements simple and relatively straight-forward, Landers avoided many common pitfalls and plot-holes. You might find a few minor ones, but nothing that's going to aggravate you and distract you from the story. You learn enough about the aliens for it all to make sense, which provides a well-grounded context. And of course the human side and its varied reactions rings true as well, with the xenophobia, suspicion of (literally, in this case) the "alien Other" and fear-mongering: you can clearly see that a group like HALO would form and build steam, paranoid about alien weaponry and ulterior motives, and would quickly lose control. Threaded through the story is a pleasing sense of humour that adds the right - and realistic - edge to the novel's tone; humour both lightens and darkens a scene, all in one go.
Dad hooked his thumb toward the back door. "You two go for a walk or something." In other words, he didn't want their guest to witness the fury he was about to unleash. Cara grabbed Aelyx's sleeve and tugged him into the kitchen. "Hurry," she whispered. "You don't wanna be here when he explodes, trust me." As they hurried outside, she heard Ron's hysterical voice calling, "He has a weapon! I saw him hide it in his sweater!" What a lunatic. No wonder [his son] Marcus was so screwed up. Her dad's voice boomed from inside the house. "I've got a Glock, a shovel, and five acres of woods, Johnson!"
Naturally, a story about aliens allows us to take a closer look at ourselves, from another's perspective. Aelyx's views and perspective are a consistent blend of alien and familiar, and his judgements of human behaviour and how we've treated our planet ring true, to our deep sense of shame. But even more than that, it is watching Aelyx grow, develop and mature as a character that really helps flesh out this story. He begins as a stiff, rather uptight kind of person, hard to figure out without understanding his culture and history, but intriguing. His people, the L'eihr, have spent centuries creating a harmonious society, breeding out unwanted genes and breeding in the best ones, creating an intelligent, strong and attractive race. But they've lost a lot in the process, and their wise elders understand what an alliance with untempered humans can give them, aside with strengthening their weakened gene pool. Humans might seem like children indulging in one selfish tantrum after another, but the L'eihrs - for all their sophistication and mind speech - are yet another kind of child, a sheltered, arrogant, inexperienced kind that has sacrificed the headier, impassioned emotions without realising - or appreciating - all the things they have lost alongside them.
Aelyx had once heard [Cara's father] Bill Sweeney say, A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. As he sat beside Cara on the sofa, watching her face tipped toward the makeup artist, her full lips parted to receive a coat of lipstick, he began to understand why. Ever since his research into kissing and other human mating rituals, his mind had relentlessly fixated on Cara, flashing manufactured sensations of how her soft, wet mouth might feel against his own. He could almost taste her on his tongue, and when his traitorous body responded to the fantasy, he had to pull an accent pillow onto his lap and force himself to recite Earth's periodic table of elements. Gods, what had he unleashed? How would he survive the remainder of the exchange like this?
As much as both Cara and Aelyx grow and change, by the end they still remain true to themselves, their culture and their people. Landers successfully and realistically matured them, making them much more interesting characters, strengthened by their exposure to each other. Not only that, but they actually have chemistry! Yes I know, you'd think that would be a necessary given in a sci-fi romance wouldn't you? But it's not always there. Another reviewer described the romance as a "beautiful mixture of sweetness and steamy", and I find this a very apt description. It's not overdone, it develops nicely, and there's a real depth of feeling to it.
The supporting characters are never much more than simply that, supporting. You never really get to know any of them very well, which was a bit of a shame. Of them all, though, it was Tina, Cara's best friend, who was the most disappointing. She's a short, petite Latina (I'm never sure what that means, specifically - of Mexican heritage? South American? Spanish-speaking, anyway) with the same characteristics that I've come across in other American YA novels. I can't remember which books, but I know I've come across Tina before, pretty much exactly. (The House of Night books come to mind, and another that's eluding me.) The cultural, or racial, stereotyping is lazy and disappointing.
Overall, though, this was an interesting story featuring two strong main characters who I really came to like and enjoy. I didn't find the ending predictable - it seemed like the story could go in various directions, and I was happy to go along and stay in the moment - but it has certainly added a whole new layer of tension and intrigue to the overall story arc. The first book may have ended, but the story as a whole has a whole universe to explore - and I'm definitely interested in seeing where it takes us. Cara and Aelyx's story has really only just begun in this well-written debut novel, and I think it's only going to get better from here.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. Please note that quotes in this review come from the uncorrected proof and may appear differently in the finished book.(less)
It has been three months, seven days and nine hours since Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard's mother died. Susan Worthington was a prolific horror wri...moreIt has been three months, seven days and nine hours since Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard's mother died. Susan Worthington was a prolific horror writer who died young, and Ophelia, her older sister Alice and their father, Malcolm Whittard, are still grieving.
In an effort to help them recover and give them a chance of scenery, Ophelia's father accepts a last-minute posting to a museum in another country to finish setting up the greatest-ever exhibition of swords. Malcolm Whittard is, according to his business card, the "leading international expert on swords", but with only three days to go before the opening of the exhibition on Christmas Eve, it's a demanding job that takes up all his time.
Alice seems content to sit and brood, but Ophelia spends the time exploring the museum. It is a cold place, in a city caught up in a perpetual winter, and the museum is a weird and wonderful place. The guards in each room are old ladies with black handbags who spend most of their time knitting or sleeping, so Ophelia is free to wander into parts of the museum she isn't allowed to be in. It is during her exploration that she encounters a peculiar room, with a little door and a big keyhole through which is the eye of a boy, staring back at her.
The boy, who was dubbed "the marvellous boy", has been alive for over three hundred years. He was sent here on a mission by the wizards of east, west and middle, who took his name to keep him safe. He no longer remembers it. They gave him a sword, a relatively plain and heavy sword with a carving of a closed eye near the hilt, and certain instructions. He was to find the "One Other" and give them the sword, with which they would defeat the evil Snow Queen.
The Snow Queen was unable to kill him because of the protective spell on him which also prevents him from ageing and dying, and so she had him locked up here in the museum, and the sword taken away. She need only wait out the time of his protection spell, then she can kill him and be free to take over more of the world, as she did to his homeland and this place, where she has reigned ever since.
Ophelia, unlike her mother, is not prone to fantastical flights of the imagination. She is a member of the Children's Science Society of Greater London and believes in logic and reason and science. But little by little, she finds herself on small but dangerous missions to find the key to his room, to set him free and find his sword before the Wintertide Clock strikes on Christmas Eve and the Snow Queen's plan comes to fruition. But Ophelia is only eleven, she's not courageous and relies heavily on her asthma inhaler. She's a little girl up against a frightening woman, with only the whispered words of comfort from her mother for encouragement.
In her search for the hidden key and the missing sword, Ophelia might just find her hidden courage, and save her sister, her father and the world.
I don't read enough of stories like this one; or rather, I don't make enough time to read stories like this one, which is a sad mistake. Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy was utterly wonderful, a delightful story of adventure, danger, loss, grief, wizards who think a lot, deception, sibling love, resilience, courage and the classic fight between good and evil. It is fantasy in the tradition of the Chronicles of Narnia and similar works, a children's story that will engage and entertain readers of all ages, an old-fashioned tale given new life.
Ophelia is a timid and sensible girl, and the request made of her by the Marvellous Boy requires her to not just be brave, but to put aside all things rational, suspend disbelief and trust the word of a strange boy who claims to be several centuries old. The more involved she becomes, the more danger she is placed in, and the more her old certainties come crumbling down. She doesn't become a new person, or a vastly different person, she simply becomes her full potential as Ophelia. She's a great protagonist, suffering through the classic coming-of-age trial-by-fire that fantasy stories are best known for.
Wizards, [Ophelia] thought, when she gained her composure. What good were they if they couldn't tell you how to do stuff, if they were always talking in riddles and saying they knew everything before it even happened? It wasn't very helpful.
If she were a wizard, she'd write reports for people. She'd make sure everything was very clear. She'd write, Looking for a magical sword? No problem. Go to the fifth floor, turn left, open a large wooden chest, et cetera, et cetera. She'd have check boxes. Found your magical sword? Place X here.
The Marvellous Boy himself remains something of an enigma, and a sad one at that. He tells Ophelia his story in segments, and the vivid rendering of his life before being locked in the little room really brings him to life. He is quite clearly something of a sacrificial lamb, a boy hand-picked by the wizards who must sacrifice everything with little say in the matter. As such, he is an infinitely sympathetic character, a little boy lost who stays calm and friendly and positive in the wake of dire circumstances. I felt so sad for him, but also proud. Foxlee deftly captures the characters and their motivations within the confines of the fantasy formula, a fantasy that is none too clear about place and time. Any apparent plot holes - a never-ending winter somehow sustaining a human population, never mind the trees, is hardly believable - simply don't get in the way of the story. Such is the strength of Foxlee's writing, that it all comes together and works, much like a fairy tale still carries the strength of its own conviction despite the fact that the details don't really make sense.
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy oozes atmosphere and tension, suspense and the thrilling bite of danger. Among it lies the fragile workings of family dynamics and confused love, vulnerable to the atmosphere, which makes it all the more precious. While Ophelia is off exploring and adventuring, fifteen-year-old Alice is being lured in by the museum curator, Miss Kaminski, who gives her princess dresses and flattery and helps drive a wedge between the two sisters while also flirting with their father. Miss Kaminski - and it's no spoiler to say this - is the true enemy. Beautiful and elegant but infinitely cold, Ophelia sees glimpses of the woman's true self but is too young to understand it.
While the overall plot is as predictable as any fairy tale-fantasy story - whether or not you have ever read "The Snow Queen" fairy tale (which I have not, strange to say, though I don't think there are all that many similarities really), this story does follow a fairly standard fantasy formula - the story is brimming with imagination and you never really know what's going to happen next, or how things will play out. The writing is strong and near-perfect, the pacing fluid and smooth and not too fast, and the characters fleshed-out nicely. I grew quite attached to Ophelia, and the Marvellous Boy, and welcomed the satisfying conclusion. With such rich detail and atmosphere and action, the story played out like a movie in my head, and I can easily see this being adapted to film one day. It would be a costume- and set-designer's dream come true, to bring this magical story visually to life. As it was, my humble imagination did a pretty good job of it!
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. Please note that passages quoted here may appear differently in the finished book. (less)
Natalie Porter is a Ph.d student of history who has been working two restaurant jobs to help pay for private investigators in Russia, searching for he...moreNatalie Porter is a Ph.d student of history who has been working two restaurant jobs to help pay for private investigators in Russia, searching for her father, whom she's never met. She's lost contact with the latest investigator, Zironoff, but hasn't given up hope of tracking down her dad.
While out one night at a bar with her friends, Nat sees a man who steals her breath. Everything about him screams "danger", from his dark looks, brooding glare and tattoos. But he's far more interesting than all the jocks in the place, with that sexy Russian accent, so she makes an approach only to be shut-down swiftly. It's a shock, then, to find him in her apartment later that night.
Aleksandr Sevastyan - nicknamed "The Siberian" - is in America to guard Natalie from her father's enemies; only now does he make his presence known because his orders are to get her on a plane to Russia immediately. Her father, Pavel Kovalev - known as the Clockmaker in his own circle - is high up in the Mafia and his enemies, having discovered the existence of a daughter through Nat's last PI, are closing in on her. Sevastyan is Pavel's right-hand man, an orphan he took in when just a boy and raised like his own. Pavel's excited to learn that he has a daughter, and trusts no one but The Siberian to bring her "home".
I'm a major fan of Kresley Cole, but I have to admit I wasn't sure about this one when I first heard about it - or even when I started reading it. It's all so ... outlandish. But then I remembered: it's romance. It's almost always outlandish, especially the good ones. Unless there are really noticeable flaws and plotholes and stupid decisions in the story, it's easy to go with it and enjoy. And I need not have worried in this case: this is Kresley Cole, after all. She writes so well, she can overcome even the most outlandish of premises (I mean, since when did the Russian Mafia become sexy?!).
I'll put aside my real thoughts on learning that Pavel, Natalie's father, is a lovely man who became a crime boss in order to protect people from the other crime bosses - he's a little bit too good to be true. He lives in a real palace, centuries old, one rescued and renovated, on a vast estate outside Moscow. His nephew and Nat's cousin, the incredibly handsome Filip Liukin, is living there as well - he seems to have a gambling problem as well as a flirtatious eye for Nat. There's also the slight implausibility of Nat being okay with her father being a crime lord, though granted she didn't have much choice in relocating. But she's certainly putting aside any ethics (or morals, for that matter) and getting on board with the whole thing.
But like I said, I put all that aside and just went with it, and as a result got a highly enjoyable story full of steamy scenes and fraught with sexual tension (and I'll admit, the Russian Mob angle is very exciting and a nice change for me). Cole's skill at writing stories you can really immerse yourself in, and characters who don't drive you nuts, comes to the fore. Her trademark humour is present, though not quite so much as in her excellent Immortals After Dark series. There's enough detail for realism but the pace is tight, smooth and fast ("that's what she said" - sorry, couldn't resist!). There's a hint of danger and tension - not from without, as we haven't seen it yet, but from within; I'm much more alert than Nat, clearly, and am picking up on something suspicious in the air. I'm expecting betrayal any moment, though not from Sevastyan.
Mmm and isn't he a dish? Certain descriptors may sound a bit cliched - the tats, the leather clothes, the dark brooding glare - but somehow Cole makes it all feel fresh and exciting. Nat, despite being a virgin, is sexually experienced in every other way and doesn't resist her attraction to him. This is erotic romance (not erotica, that's a different kettle of fish entirely and not half so fun as erotic romance), so the sex scenes are steamy and edgy; Sevastyan likes it a bit rough and intense, and Nat's learning that how much it turns her on, as well. Another trait of erotic romance (as opposed to other forms of romance) is the proclivity of sex scenes, or steamy scenes - even within this novella, there are plenty to keep you satisfied. And it's only just getting going.
Where the story will go from here I don't know, but I can't wait to find out with Part 2. I'm not a big fan of serialising romance stories, but it does seem to be the new "thing" for e-books, and I can understand the appeal to publishers. It's hard for readers, though, to get so far in a story only to have to wait to keep reading the same story. But once all the e-book parts are out, the complete novel should be printed. That's how it worked with Beth Kery, another erotic romance writer I love reading, so I hope that's how it will go here as well.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley.(less)
It's the year 6036, and thirty-three year old Fran is regretting leaving her comfortable, if dull, life in Adelaide for a colonising expedition in spa...moreIt's the year 6036, and thirty-three year old Fran is regretting leaving her comfortable, if dull, life in Adelaide for a colonising expedition in space. Her ship has been captured, she's separated from almost all of her fellow space-settlers, and the future looks dire. Locked up in a bare cell with a number of other females from different species on the planet of Olman, Fran can only keep young Margaret company as they listen to the sounds of alien warriors being tortured in a nearby cell.
Fran isn't one for sitting down and taking it, though, and she riles up the others to think of escape and freedom. One of her cellmates has an idea, but it requires Fran's willing participation. The warriors are Darkons, and while at the moment they're barely surviving, if they are awakened, sexually, then they become almost invincible. They would certainly be their best bet at escape.
There aren't many options available, and as one of the only human females there, it's up to Fran to awaken the warriors. At the time, she's thinking mostly of escaping this hell-hole, but all too soon the reality of what she's unwittingly committed herself to becomes clear.
I have to be clear: I haven't read Legend Beyond the Stars, the full-length story that begins this series and establishes the whole premise, and I think my reading of this novella suffered for it. The problem was that this was too short a story - too short to explain things, establish anything, create a clear context or even develop the characters. I feel a bit unfair, but all I can do is speak of my experience reading this novella.
While Fran's situation is explained, albeit in short detail, the broader context is missing. There's no explanation for why her ship was captured and all the colonisers imprisoned, or why any of the other females were locked up either. I don't think this would be explained in the first book. There're hints that there is a major inter-galactic war going on, when one of the aliens mentions that the Darkons are resisting and the Elite Guards of Olman are planning a major strike against the Darkon home world. But nothing is explained, and without the right context the scenario of Awakening the Warriors didn't quite hold up. I would hope that the first book fills in these gaps.
But let's take this as the erotic space-opera novella it is. It has a conventional, simple plot structure divided into three short sections: the prison, where Fran sexually awakens the warriors, and from which they flee amid much gunfire; on board the ship they escape on; and the last stage on the space station where Fran and Margaret are nearly captured again. There's not a whole lot to it, which made me think that I prefer longer stories to novellas. But mostly I was disappointed by how formulaic it was. I've read quite a few stories generally classified as Paranormal Romance, and this shared many of the same tropes. The Darkon Warriors could have been alpha vampires, or werewolves. The two Darkon who survive and are awakened by Fran are called Jarrell and Quain. Jarrell is younger, sweeter; Quain is older and very alpha - macho, even.
Since this is a novella, there isn't all that much sex in it - two scenes only, though with two men involved it feels like more. Again, the condensed nature of the novella format made the lusty writing come across as a wee bit silly. I often had to stop myself from rolling my eyes and work at going along with it. Again, the problem with a novella is how squished it feels, how rushed the sexual attraction and progression becomes, and how dependent the story is on romance conventions and familiar language. If you had enjoyed the first book and got into the world-building and set-up, it would be easier to enjoy this for its own sake and not worry about any of these quibbles. I didn't realise it was a sequel or a novella until I started reading it, but for all my criticisms, there were enjoyable elements to this story.
Fran is likeable, she rises to the occasion and becomes a strong heroine. She's got a sense of humour, and she doesn't over-think things or get self-indulgent in her thoughts and reflections. The writing is capable and flows well, and regardless of how corny you might find some of the lines, they are fun and Gilchrist made an effort to add a dash of originality. I found myself more curious about the world and its politics then this short story allowed, and rather wish there was a more serious, lengthy story available that really developed it. It makes me both interested in reading Legend Beyond the Stars but also wary, afraid that my questions won't be explained and I'll come out of it even more confused and frustrated.
Aside from anything else, this is a snappy and exciting story. The fast pace and novella format don't allow for dull moments, and the sex is quite steamy. Unfortunately, the Darkon warriors are under-developed as characters, and come across as mere muscle-men-with-demanding-cocks. Like any other intelligent woman, I find that sexy men are only sexy when they have personality and some brains, too. So overall, this was a frustrating mix of good and unsatisfying, exciting and disappointing.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley.(less)
Sixteen-year-old Kira Jordan has been living on the desolate streets for two years after her family is brutally murdered one night and she rejected th...moreSixteen-year-old Kira Jordan has been living on the desolate streets for two years after her family is brutally murdered one night and she rejected the foster care system. She's become an adept shop-lifter and pick-pocket, a petty thief who survives by her wits and has, like almost everyone else, the unlikely dream of one day making it to the Colony, a domed city where people are safe and comfortable and she could go to school again. Those fanciful dreams are even more unlikely when she wakes up one day in pitch blackness, chained to a metal wall by the wrist, and then realises she's sharing the metal box with Rogan Ellis, a teenaged mass murderer.
Unlike Kira, Rogan knows exactly what's going on, because unlike Kira, he signed up for it. Countdown, an underground television reality game show privately subscribed to by viewers who have it beamed right into their heads via the computer chip in the back of their heads. Two contestants are given a set of six tasks, or levels, each progressively worse, and a tight time limit to complete them. There can only be one winner. Rogan was in St Augustine's, a juvenile detention centre, just days away from turning eighteen and being sent to Saradone, a brutal adult prison, when he was offered the alternative choice of being in Countdown. He has little to lose, as either way means likely death, but at least the game show gives him a chance at wiping clean his criminal record as a reward if he wins.
Kira is the first female ever to be on the show, and the first contestant to be press-ganged into it. As such, she's less than willing, but she has to stay within 90 feet of Rogan if she doesn't want her head to blow up. She doesn't know who she can trust but as she learns more about Rogan - and he, her - they come to trust each other as a matter of survival.
But Rogan knows a lot more about this sadistic, murderous game than Kira had reckoned on. In fact, the game - and its creator - are a lot closer to home than she could have guessed. And as the game tries to force them into betraying each other, they instead turn their gazes on the man behind the game itself, and what's really going on.
Countdown was originally published by Shomi in 2008 as an adult novel under the pseudonym of Michelle Maddox. The idea to tweak it a bit for a Young Adult audience worked very well, and the result is a high-adrenaline, fast-paced adventure story with a bit of romance, more than a bit of sexual tension, and a satisfying climax (ha ha). Needless to say, they complete the levels with barely seconds to spare, which makes for some terrific tension.
Even before I started reading Countdown, when I just read the blurb, I was immediately reminded of The Running Man - the old Arnold Schwarzenegger film, not the book which I haven't read yet. And interestingly enough, the story reads very much like you're watching a movie. It has a rather formulaic structure to it, the kind of structure that works very well on screen, and the fast pace, powerful bad guy, slightly conventional plot twists and cinematic-like visuals make for the strong feeling of having just watched an exciting movie.
There is some tidy backstory given on the state of Kira's world, a post-apocalyptic world decimated by the ravages of a plague that wiped out large portions of the population. Her city is mostly derelict, and empty, and it seems like the middle class has mostly been wiped out. The world-building is nicely sketched but doesn't figure prominently, merely supplying the setting for the reality game show: a world where this could be possible.
The characters are few but were nicely developed with plenty of mystery left over to make it hard to know whether to trust any of them. Kira narrates, and while she has her moments, in the beginning, of denial, she soon rises to the challenge and whining is minimal. She becomes a strong-willed heroine, resourceful and intelligent, and between them Kira and Rogan have solid chemistry and plenty of tension. There wasn't anything especially unique or particularly memorable about them, but they were well-written and they hold your attention - and your sympathies.
This is all fun: solid, exciting, dependable fun. If there are "popcorn movies", then this is a "popcorn novel". It is a bit conventional and formulaic, but it's done well and it works, and it's never boring. It achieves its aims admirably and Rowen has delivered a thrilling, compelling story.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley.(less)