When I finished Storm Siren, I was speechless. If I am correct about what the ending implies, I just could not believe the story had the audacity and boldness to say, “Oh YES indeedy, I am going to go there!” And honestly, it’s refreshing whenever a Young Adult novel surprises me. I like unpredictability especially when it comes to my YA, and weird as this may sound, I admit I do get a little thrill in my heart whenever I get completely blindsided.
It was, however, a journey to get to that point. One of the reasons why I think Storm Siren will be a very successful book is because it mixes the familiar with the new. Yes, we have some unexpected plot twists and bombshells, an incredible world with a rich magic system, and a heroine with a unique superpower. But balanced with this is also a novel that feels distinctly like it belongs in this genre, with archetypal characters and the usual tropes of YA. Despite this, I believe YA readers will feel comfortable with it and love it for what it is.
The book opens with our protagonist, a seventeen-year-old Elemental girl named Nym, facing her fifteenth sell as a slave. An unfortunate incident triggers her storm-summoning powers while she is on the auction block, resulting in chaos and panic. After passing out, Nym wakes up inexplicably in a luxurious bedroom in a mansion, and is informed that she has been purchased by Adora, the rich and influential noblewoman and court advisor to the king of Faelen.
Throughout this entire novel, we are told that Nym is special. This is practically thrust into our faces the entire time, from the fact that she shouldn’t even exist, since Elementals are all supposed to be only born male, to her role as the only person who can save Faelen in the war against the neighboring kingdom of Bron. But Nym isn’t the perfect savior either. She’s reluctant to use her powers even in defense of her friends due to her inability to control the storm. She has also already caused no small number of deaths in her life, albeit accidentally, and hates the idea of killing more people even if they are the enemy.
Storm Siren features a great story, encompassing a lot of political intrigue and epic battles. The story itself is definitely a winner. But that isn’t to say it couldn’t have been stronger, and perhaps it is a credit to the book and author that my only issue was that I always felt like wanting more.
I mentioned the world and the magic earlier in this review, for example. When Nym is sent to train with a tutor to hone her Elemental abilities, her classmate as it were is a boy named Colin who is a Terrene, someone from his land who can manipulate the earth and stone. Terrenes are also always born as twins, with one twin having abilities and the other not. Apparently, there are even more “brands” of magic users in this world, each with their own specific types of powers and presumably interesting facts about their backgrounds. I mean, this stuff is great! It’s world-building gold. Unfortunately, we just don’t get to learn much about them at all. This is possibly due to limitations like book length or the fact the author couldn’t work those details into the plot, but I sometimes also felt like she may have been trying to put too much into her story.
I also think more emphasis could have been placed on supporting characters. We only have a total of about five characters we really get to know, and I found Breck and Eogan interesting but a few others were quite superficial, like Adora the classic cold villain or Colin with the heart of gold and a personality of a golden retriever puppy. I thought some of the other characters of the court, like the king and a couple of visiting nobles and a princess could have been developed more as well, since relatively they weren’t given much attention but they all had pivotal roles to play by the end of the novel. It would have given the politics and the brewing war between the different kingdoms that extra oomph, and perhaps made things less confusing.
Like I said, I wanted more – but I’m also the kind of person who constantly asks questions when I’m reading, especially when it comes to a book’s world and lore. Did I need all this information to enjoy the story? No, the story itself is solid, even though I felt more world building could have enhanced it. Just when I thought for sure I had everything nailed down, just when I figured it was all going to end the same neat and tidy way that all YA books do, the last few chapters with the final showdown threw me for a loop. I learned that Mary Weber is someone who is not afraid to do things with her characters, even if it means shock and heartbreak to the reader. And I just have to admire and raise my glass to that.
The issues I mentioned notwithstanding, I did have a good time with this book. It started out like the YA novel it’s meant to be – feels like YA, reads like YA – but then went and gave me a surprise at the end. So ultimately I got exactly what I expected, plus a bit more as a bonus! 3.5 to 4 stars from me.(less)
This book would be perfect for readers looking for a well-balanced blend of fantasy with a historical fiction-type setting, overlaid with a story laced with a heavy dose of the kind of chaste, slow-burn romance one might find in a traditional Regency novel.
Graham Marshall – Gray to family and friends – finds himself out of favor at Merlin College when a midnight errand goes terribly wrong, landing himself and a couple friends in the infirmary while another boy loses his life. Disgraced, Gray is sent away to the summer home of the arrogant and unpleasant Professor Appius Callendar until such time the college can decide his fate. It’s there that Gray has the pleasure of meeting the professor’s middle daughter Sophie, who for some reason Professor Callendar seems to neglect and disdain. There’s certainly no love lost between father and daughter.
Even though he was told none of the Callendar girls were born with any magical talent, Gray senses something strange about Sophie. Because proper women studying magical theory is considered scandalous in their society, Sophie has been secretly learning it herself from the books in her father’s library. She’s delighted to meet Gray, finding him very different from the pretentious and foppish young men her father usually invites home from the college, and is grateful when he offers to fill in the gaps in her knowledge. The two of them strike up a friendship, and so when astounding revelations are revealed about Sophie’s past, Gray is wrapped up in the whirlwind of events. And here he was, thinking his life was complicated!
From page one, I was drawn in by the gorgeous writing. Admittedly, it can be somewhat difficult to get used to. Clunky and awkward in some places, it’s not exactly what I would call easy on the eyes, with a style and tone suited to the historical era. But it’s extremely effective when it comes to setting the mood, and once you adapt to it, the reading goes much faster and smoother.
The novel’s greatest strength is the characterization. Gray and Sophie take center stage, and the whole book is told through their perspectives, which alternate back and forth – a lot. Again, it can be distracting, at least initially. The author jumps between Sophie and Gray whenever it suits her, so that sometimes you can get a few paragraphs of Gray’s point of view and then abruptly we would switch to Sophie as she picks up the narrative. Regular readers of romance are probably used to this, but it was something else I had to adjust to at the beginning.
After getting the hang of things, it was easier for me to simply sit back and soak in the story. It bears emphasizing again that the characters are just great in this; because the relationship between Gray and Sophie are so integral to the story, it makes sense to establish and build upon them early, and that’s what we get here. Before Gray and Sophie can get to know each other intimately, the reader has to get to know them as individuals, which makes their eventual coming together that much more satisfying. As I mentioned before, theirs is a slow-burn romance (the kind where everyone around them can see what’s going on before the two can even admit it to themselves) so if you’re looking for instant gratification, this is not the book you’re looking for. We’re also not talking fiery passion or red hot love scenes here, keeping things clean and proper with good manners!
The heavy focus on G+S notwithstanding, that’s not to say the other characters were forgotten or underdeveloped. In fact, my favorite character was a supporting character, Joanna Callendar, who probably has more personality in her little finger than her sister Sophie had in her whole body. Sad to say, as much as I liked Sophie, she was an idealized character, a special snowflake that came across just a little too perfect in a lot of ways, and that makes her less interesting than the spunky, lippy and slightly insolent Joanna.
By the same token, plot is probably not this novel’s strong suit. A lost princess, a prophecy foretelling the return of “The One” and the pivotal role they play in the fate of a monarch and the kingdom…it’s a little clichéd, perhaps, but it’s also not a negative if you go in knowing what to expect. This book is obviously more interested in telling Gray and Sophie’s story, it makes its intention loud and clear right from the start, and so a lighter, less original plot is something I could overlook.
Bottom line: The Midnight Queen is a very beautiful, very atmospheric novel about young love, slow-going at times, making it feel like very little happens while the author develops the two characters. You can probably predict the outcome of the story with no effort at all, but the emotional payoff is worth it if you stick around and give the book a chance to let Gray and Sophie to resolve their feelings for each other. Recommended for fantasy lovers who want romance, but who also won’t mind the slower, sweet-and-tender but also more subtle approach.(less)
I practically binge read this series, which is unusual for me. But truly, it is a rare pleasure indeed when subsequent books in a series just get better and better. I’ve had such a change of heart about this trilogy from the first book to the last book, that I am actually floored with amazement. I certainly don’t take back my thoughts in my review of The Magicians – I liked the book but I also had some very real issues with it and those still stand – but by God, it’s hard to believe how The Magician King and now The Magician’s Land have managed to completely revive this series for me.
We’re at the third and final book at this point, so it’s going to be hard to summarize it without giving away spoilers. Suffice to say, protagonist Quentin Coldwater has been through a lot since finding out the magical world of Fillory from his beloved childhood fantasy novels is actually real. He has been its king, explored the farthest reaches of its borders, been ejected unceremoniously from the realm by its god, but through it all Quentin has always had his magic. We return to Brakebills College where he takes on a position as a junior faculty member, but when that falls through, Quentin’s going to need to find another way to make money and make it real fast, especially for the plans he has in mind.
For you see, Quentin has never truly forgotten Alice, whose fate still haunts him daily. She was my favorite character in The Magicians, and to my dismay, I thought we had heard the last of her by the end of that book. So yes, it was invigorating to discover that her story might not be over yet. When it comes to the first book, saying that Quentin had an attitude problem is a massive understatement; I believe I wrote that the only cure for his malaise was a few years of growing up and possibly a swift kick to the seat of his pants – except what happened to Alice was more like a knife through his heart. What happened to Alice defined and transformed his character, so I was also happy to see things come full circle.
The book also has two very distinct parts. In the first half, we have an exciting heist which, departing from convention, doesn’t go well at all – but everyone who knows me know how much I love a good heist story. And trust me, you wouldn’t want to miss how spectacularly disastrous it goes for Quentin and his partners in crime. The action and the dry humor in this book is ramped up to a whole other level, which is something readers have always loved about this series.
The second part of this novel focuses on Quentin and his old friends’ quest to save Fillory. Like all good things, it must come to an end, but not if the old Brakebills gang has anything to say about it. The Magician’s Land was at times thrilling, at others touching, but always it was full of wild magic and fantastic imagination. My only complaint? The link between the two story threads was tenuous at best and the transition between them was very abrupt (whatever happened to the others involved with the heist? “Betsy” got a throwaway mention at best towards the end of the book, and I wouldn’t have minded more Stoppard, I liked him a lot!) but despite this, I have to say the story never faltered in engaging me and holding my attention.
In essence, The Magician’s Land achieved something that all series-enders should strive for. Not only does Grossman tie everything together, he does it in a way that makes you think back to the earlier books and it suddenly occurs to you: Oh, so THAT’S what he was setting up for. The first book The Magicians was a coming-of-age tale which felt rather aimless at times, if I’m to be honest. But somewhere between its last hundred pages and the first hundred pages of the book two, I think the series finally found its direction. From then on out the story took off, straight and steady, and as a result, this last book is marked by a certain cohesiveness that makes sense – that just feels right.
And Quentin. Quentin, Quentin, Quentin. If it is possible to feel proud of a fictional character, it is the feeling I get for him after reading this book. What a far cry from when I wanted to wring his spoiled, whiny neck and throttle the life out of him in The Magicians. He grew up. He grew up a lot. He became someone I liked and admired, and as infuriatingly annoying as he was in the first book, I don’t know if I would have appreciated his growth and character development this much if he hadn’t been so unappealing to begin with. He was a shallow, self-absorbed child who ultimately became an adult worthy of his magical gifts, and it is a testament to the author’s pacing and writing style that it was a journey that didn’t feel forced or contrived.
My final thoughts: I may have stumbled a bit with the first book of this series, but the way I see it, it’s always better to read a series that gets stronger than to read one that goes downhill after book one. And so, I tentatively recommend the first book The Magicians; after all, it’s one of the most polarizing books I’ve ever read. It seemed as many readers loved it as hated it, while some others like me fell somewhere in between. But I felt a lot more positive towards the series with The Magician King, and as the last book of the trilogy, The Magician’s Land was a solid finale. My thoughts on book one aside, I think the trilogy as a whole is fantastic and absolutely worth experiencing. What an adventure it has been.(less)
Back in my review of The Magicians, I wrote that you could have a miserably unlikeable character for the sake of writing a miserably unlikeable character and that I wouldn’t mind, just as long as you could give me a reason to care about him or her. While that’s still true, it does really help if your protagonist isn’t a whiny little ingrate and actually shows growth over the course of the novel. I really think that’s why The Magician King worked better for me than its predecessor. Like, a lot better. The ending of the first book gave me hope that I would enjoy the sequel more, and I did.
Things were looking up right from the start, with our story opening with a return to Fillory, the otherworldly realm from Quentin’s beloved childhood fantasy series that turned out to be a real place. He and his friends are now the kings and queens of this magical kingdom, but after a routine morning hunt goes wrong, Quentin and Julia decide to set off across the seas to the far reaches of Fillory to take care of certain matters. But their journey is interrupted by an unceremonious ejection from Fillory back to Earth and the mundane world. Thus begins an epic quest to find their way back, with the fate of all magic hanging in the balance.
I’ll admit it, the first book had its high points, but on the whole I wasn’t too enamored. The wonderful sections featuring Quentin at Brakebills aside, I thought most of the book was directionless and tedious, and I wasn’t impressed with the characters and their attitudes until almost the very end when they discover Fillory and set out to explore it. The thing is, I loved the spellbinding world of Fillory and its amazing denizens, as well as the incredible sights and sounds. When the final pages of The Magicians teased that we may be going back, I was very pleased. That’s one reason why The Magician King worked better for me; the fact that we got to be in Fillory right away was a huge plus.
The second reason is something I’ve already alluded to, that being Quentin has come a long way from the moody, self-absorbed and aimless young man he was in book one. He has grown up a lot between the two novels in my eyes, no doubt in part due to the traumatic events he experienced at the end of The Magicians. His concern for a young crew member and the neglected daughter of a diplomat really touched me; it’s not something I would have expected in a million years from the old Quentin. In this book, he is driven and finds it possible to become excited about the prospects of adventure again, and – shocker! – in the process he became someone I wanted to read more about.
The same could not be said for Julia, however. My one gripe about this novel are her chapters, which more or less alternated with the chapters focusing on the main story. Julia’s tale encompasses her own rise to the world of magic after failing her Brakebills entrance exam, which couldn’t have been more different than Quentin’s academically formal training. Her journey through the underground magical scene is actually quite interesting, though I was initially unsure how it all related to the book’s central premise. What bothered me wasn’t so much her story, but the fact that the role of annoyingly maudlin and dissatisfied character seemed to have been passed from Quentin to Julia, though we do see that she has had to go through a lot of suffering and very difficult times. I could also appreciate how the two lines of thought eventually came together, but felt that her “backstory” was a bit distracting at first.
All in all, however, I was pleasantly surprised by my positive reactions to this book. On the whole, this was a much deeper and complex novel, but also much more entertaining and engaging on multiple levels. I liked how a lot of the world was expanded, as well as the answers to a lot questions brought up by the first book. And that ending! I can’t believe my heart is actually aching for Quentin. It’s very rare for a sequel to grab me, especially since book one failed to do so, and it’s great whenever that happens. I’m really starting to see the appeal behind this series, and this second installment has really made it grow on me.(less)
I’ve never actually read Robert Jackson Bennett before City of Stairs, despite owning several books by him (and I can see there’s my copies of The Troupe and American Elsewhere on my shelf right now, glaring down at me balefully as if to ask, “Why haven’t you read me yet?”) So though the name of the author is familiar to me, I really had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that this book’s description was tantalizing in its promise of an atmospheric, immersive fantasy world, with a touch of the otherworldly and bizarre. As it turns out, City of Stairs is all that and more, being a sophisticated and cerebral cocktail of a multitude of different genre elements, including magic, mystery, and philosophy.
Years ago, magic was lost in the central city of Bulikov, then known as the Seat of the World, when its Divinities were killed by a Saypuri hero known as the Kaj. Throwing off the yoke of the Continentals, the Kaj led the rebellion to victory, conquering their conquerors and passing the Worldly Regulations which outlawed the possession and use of divine objects and miracles, even the worshipping of the old gods. With the passing generations, Bulikov went from being a shining capital to just another colonial outpost of world’s new authority
The story begins with the murder of Dr. Efrem Pangyui, the visiting Saypuri scholar who stationed himself in Bulikov to study and document the city’s history to the outrage of the locals who are prohibited from doing so themselves. Enter Shara Komayd, officially there as a lowly ambassador to smooth over matters, but she is not without her own secrets. A direct descendent of the great Kaj, Shara is really one of Saypur’s most accomplished spies, and she is determined to discover the truth behind the murder of the historian, who was also a very close personal friend.
First, let’s talk about the world-building, which is in a word: phenomenal. Admittedly, I wasn’t really convinced I was going to like this book from its first 50 pages or so. The story was slow to take off, but in truth, this had a lot to do with the author’s meticulous efforts to plunge the reader into the intricacies of his setting. Bennett has created many layers of context for this world and has left no stone unturned when it comes to achieving the effect of a living, breathing, working society with the kind of history that Bulikov’s people have endured. Everything from politics to religion has been touched upon, giving us a clear idea of the mood of the city.
The plot didn’t gain momentum until around after the first third of the book, but I can’t say I ever lost interest in reading, being completely captivated by the complexity of the world. Before the Kaj, the six Divinities of the Continentals each had their own worshippers, living by the rules and ideologies of the god they followed. After the Divinities were killed, Bulikov was also devastated by an event known as the Blink, causing chunks of the city to disappear or warp and resulting in a section filled with giant staircases that went nowhere, but which gave the book its title. There’s a lot of history here, not to mention the magic and the miracles described in this novel, which are just so creative and unique.
I also adored the characters. I have a feeling Shara’s companion, the unforgettable and indomitable Sigrud will be a clear fan favorite for many after reading this novel. However, I have to say the soft spot in my heart must go to Turyin Mulaghesh, the soldier turned governor who after years of dealing with the problems and instabilities and Bulikov just wants to be transferred to a quiet little coastal outpost where she can settle down and spend her days lying on the beach – ambitions be damned. But don’t let that fool you, for she is a force to be reckoned with. I love how this novel features two strong, spirited and over 30 women at the forefront, and they are just two of the many great characters in this refreshingly diverse cast.
It was hard to stop, once the story got going. The initial murder mystery deepens into shady political dealings and conspiracy, which ultimately leads to an incredible climax and final showdown that unfortunately was over far too quickly and neatly. But what an experience it was. And yet, City of Stairs is also about so much more than just the thrills and suspense. Bennett dives into some heavy topics here, exploring the significance of religion, attitudes regarding sexuality, and the ramifications of persecution and oppression.
Like I said, this was my first taste of Robert Jackson Bennett’s writing, and I am impressed. This really is an excellent novel, and it deserves to be a hit this year. I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised to hear there will be a sequel, since this book is the sort that would open doors to many great and interesting possibilities, and its world simply begs to be further explored. Highly recommended. This is an enjoyable fantasy that also makes you think.(less)
It’s been a while since I’ve read a satisfying maritime fantasy. “I wish you luck, love, and adventure,” says a character to the protagonist in the beginning of this novel, and incidentally that’s exactly what we get. Starring a princess masquerading as a young man, along with pirates, magic, a secret map and untold treasures, perhaps the “adventure” part is what we get the most of all in this story that takes place mostly on the high seas.
Princess Clarice is the daughter of the Duke of Swansgaarde, the eldest of twelve girls (I know…YIKES!) and one boy. While the arrival of a son and heir apparent was a much celebrated event, this left the family with a dilemma – they cannot possibly secure the futures of Clarice and her eleven sisters, as that many royal dowries would surely bankrupt the already small and modest Duchy. The girls, therefore, were raised from an early age to be able and independent, preparing for the day they would be expected to make their way into the world and find their own fortunes.
Sometimes, I get the feeling that a book really wants you to get into the action right away. These books tend not to weave the world’s history into the story and instead the authors push everything you need to know right up front. Readers of House of the Four Winds might find its prologue and the first couple of chapters to be exposition-heavy, outlining the Duchy of Swansgaarde’s circumstances and thus also explaining Clarice’s fighting prowess and motivations for traveling on her own to see the world. Granted, it’s not the most subtle way relaying the information, but it’s efficient and fast, and looking back, the introduction gave the book an almost fairy tale-like “Once upon a time…” quality, which was actually quite nice.
Then we get to the meat of the story, an action-adventure tale with a bit of romance thrown in. As the first princess to seek her fortune, Clarice has decided to play to her strengths as a sword fighter, and intends to hone her skills in the New World across the ocean. Disguising herself as a young nobleman named Clarence Swann, she is charmed by the charismatic and handsome navigator Dominick Moryet and books passage on his ship the Asesino, sailing under Captain Samuel Sprunt who is said to be extraordinarily lucky. There might have been more to Sprunt’s “luck”, however, as the unfortunate crew come to discover when tensions mount and an uprising becomes inevitable.
If your fancies run towards the nautical, then you’ll be in for a treat. Your journey will start with the down-and-dirty details of everyday ship living, as well as meeting the various crew members and officers, all of this seen through Clarice/Clarence’s eyes so it is all very natural and relevant to the young princess’ learning. The authors make it a fascinating experience and the story only gets better as the events unfold, leading to a mutiny and the discovery of a hidden island controlled by pirates and an evil enchantress. Pirates, of course, are always a fan favorite. The plot is also kept fun and lighthearted with the protagonist’s efforts to keep her disguise a secret, even as she begins to fall for the winsome Dominick. Mistrust between the factions aboard the ship keep the story interesting, not to mention the possibility of the crew of Asesino turning privateer themselves.
My only issue with this book involves certain aspects of the writing, especially when we are reading about significant events that I feel should hold more weight and suspense. In my opinion, these scenes weren’t very well executed. Deaths of important characters were glossed over unceremoniously. Fight scenes were cut-and-dried without much sense of urgency. And of course, the prime example was the critical and inevitable moment when Clarice’s identity is revealed to Dominick, and the result was a fizzle at best. There was no outrage and no shock of betrayal, and even if Dominick were the most understanding person in the world, I would not have expected his response to be “OMG I LOVE YOU TOO!” Things tied up just a little bit too neatly. Considering how Clarice kept the truth of her identity from the whole crew for pretty much the whole book, with everyone believing she was a man this whole time, I would have expected a more realistic reaction.
These tiny quibbles aside, The House of the Four Winds is a fine tale of swashbuckling adventure. The story is to be taken lightly and enjoyed at face value, and the book is the boisterous seafaring romp it was meant to be. As another bonus, it wraps up nicely with satisfying ending. This conclusion along with the series name of One Dozen Daughters leads me to wonder if future books will focus on Clarice’s sisters’ individual journeys instead, rather than continue with Clarice herself. If that turns out to be the case, then there’s no telling the places this series can go; the possibilities are exciting and endless. Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing more.(less)
It always pains me to write a negative review, especially for a book I had high hopes for and had looked forward to so immensely. As mythical or legendary creatures go, harpies don’t get near enough attention in fantasy, and I was very excited to see a novel feature them with such prominence and with a background that sounded so incredibly fascinating and unique. Unfortunately, I couldn’t enjoy this book. I try to look at the big picture when reviewing, taking into account both story and writing, and there were too many issues with both that prevented me from getting into it.
The first thing I noticed was the very awkward and clipped writing style. A lot of telling and very little showing, laying out the character’s every single thought and action. There’s a clear message of environmentalism, but it’s delivered with the elegance and subtlety of a sledgehammer. Sometimes I would come across phrasing or word choice that is just plain odd, especially in dialogue. I couldn’t help but recall a piece of writing advice I once read, suggesting that writers should read their dialogue out loud to see how it comes across. Does it sound natural? Is it something you can picture a real person saying? A lot of the conversations in this book don’t pass this test, sounding very forced and scripted.
I was also distracted by too many discrepancies and questions that nagged at the back of my mind about the story. The book takes place on the planet Dora, following a young woman named Kari whose life was saved by a golden male harpy when she was a child. Ever since that day, Kari has been obsessed with harpies, particularly with her special golden named Shail, whose coloring is an extremely rare form of the half-bird, half-mortal species. Her father sends her to earth for ten years out of concern for her, hoping she would forget the harpy, but of course she doesn’t. Kari returns to Dora feeling bitter and angry, and more in love with Shail than ever.
I’ll be honest. When they were finally reunited, I was more confused than happy. Was I supposed to see Shail as an animal or a person? Kari treated him like a pet more than anything, giving him pats on the head and even calling him “Good boy”. I was at a complete loss as to what to make of their relationship, because calling it a romance felt horribly wrong on so many levels. The writing didn’t help this, describing their lovemaking as more animalistic (not in the good way), biological and Darwinian, completely devoid of emotion or passion. It’s also unclear at the beginning whether or not Kari truly fell in love with Shail, or indeed he had cast his “harpy spell” on her; if the latter, clearly there are disturbing implications, especially since he makes his first sexual advance on her out of instinctual desperation and while she was half “caught” in his magic. To be fair, a lot of this was semi-explained later on in the novel, but it still made me very uncomfortable and the relationship didn’t sit right with me at all.
Also, about two thirds of the way through the book are not one but two very graphic and violent rape scenes. Major trigger warnings should come with this novel. It’s an adult book with many adult themes, and while I don’t shock easily, I was a bit unprepared and blindsided. The mature and graphic content caused my brain to struggle with the dissonance caused by the relatively simplistic style of storytelling, and nothing in the description indicated that the book could take such dark, violent turns. Readers be forewarned, these are some very distressing scenes.
Finally, perhaps one of the biggest factors preventing my enjoyment of this book was Kari herself, who plays a disappointingly passive role in what is supposed to be her story. She’s a self-proclaimed recluse and standoffish, and a self-absorbed snob to boot, which by itself wouldn’t be so bad if she also wasn’t so weak of character. In the last half of the book, her involvement in resolving the conflict was practically nil, shrinking in on herself and relying on others to take charge and solve the problem. The concept of harpies in this book is underdeveloped and not very convincing, but (and minor spoiler here) what rankled me most about them is the idea that female harpies lose their minds out of grief if their mates die, and they either die themselves soon afterwards from despair or committing suicide. As someone who prefers strong, proactive female characters in my fantasy, both this aspect of harpies and Kari’s helplessness and utter lack of drive really bothered me.
I ended up finishing this book, and I don’t regret that, but I really wish I had liked it better. Ultimately, there were too many issues with the story and writing, and even a trivial detail like the fact I couldn’t stop picturing Shail as Brad Pitt (the author dedicated the book to the actor for providing the inspiration for Shail, and her bio on her website actually states all of her protagonists resemble a young Brad Pitt) compounded to make me rate the book the way I did. I wanted badly to like this book, but in the end it wasn’t for me.(less)
I am glad we’ve not heard the last of Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire, even if Jorg’s chapter of the saga has concluded. As far as endings go, that was a necessary and felicitous curtain call, even though I couldn’t be happier with the way things played out. But of course, that doesn’t mean I’ve had enough of this brilliant dark world.
Regarding his latest novel, Mark Lawrence has stated that what did not want to do was give us Jorg Ancrath again but in new clothes. Well, Mr. Lawrence, you can rest easy about that. I don’t think anyone can mistake that wicked, tortured young psychopath we first met in Prince of Thorns with his new protagonist in Prince of Fools.
Courage is overrated, as a character like the glib but glorious Prince Jalan can attest. A self-confessed liar, coward and cheat, our main character is also a bit of a rakish playboy, with an easy charm to him that makes him instantly endearing, for all his foibles. See? Nothing like Jorg. But the two of them are contemporaries, if you are wondering where The Red Queen’s War fits in relation to the original trilogy. As such, I don’t think fans of The Broken Empire will find much of a problem settling in. We even get to meet Jorg and his Brothers, albeit very briefly, in an unforgettable scene. Despite the mostly new faces though, Mark Lawrence has no trouble convincing me I am back in the haunted, post-apocalyptic milieu with which I first fell in love. As strange as it sounds, given the kind of place we're talking about, it was a bit like coming back home.
But while the writing style and setting may be instantly recognizable, we have a story here that is altogether very different. And yet, even the slippery Prince Jal can’t avoid running afoul of the dark sorcery that is rife in the Broken Empire. Finding his fate magically bound to that of an escaped slave named Snorri ver Snaggason, the two strike up a partnership in order to try to break the spell. We had an inkling of the Broken Empire’s vastness back in Jorg’s story arc, and here we are given the chance to explore even further as Jal and the Norseman’s journey takes them to the frigid and icebound north, towards Snorri’s homeland.
The two encounter many dangers along the way, including necromancy and other unseen malevolent forces. There is no escaping the Dead King, whose plans run far deeper than anyone can expect. Nightmarish beings called the Unborn are raised and fed by the stolen potential of lost infants, sent to carry out his bidding. Gruesome, disturbing elements such as these serve to push Prince of Fools into Horror territory.
And yet there is also a glimmer of optimism, a thread of light that I can easily pick out amidst the doom and gloom, making me feel that this book is actually “less grimdark” than the original trilogy. Prince Jalan, who assures us he has little ambition – beyond getting drunk, winning bets and seducing women – is really more of a hero than he gives himself credit for. I see a young man who wants to be more than just “that prince who is tenth in line for the throne”, even if he doesn’t care to admit that to himself.
The idea of the unlikely hero is not a new one, certainly, but the difference is Mark Lawrence actually makes me believe that Jalan has it in him. Jal’s growing friendship with Snorri also brings to light a hidden side of him, and vice versa; I think the two of them play off each other perfectly. The story displays the classic quest narrative, one that is very character driven. Forced to work together, the relationship dynamics between this pair of disparate and conflicting personalities is what makes this dark adventure shine.
There is no doubt this is a Mark Lawrence novel – pick it up and you will immediately see the hallmarks of his storytelling and writing style which made The Broken Empire trilogy such a incredibly addictive read, replete with his darkly droll humor and very quotable dialogue. Fans won’t be disappointed. But rest assured Prince of Fools is also a one-of-a-kind tale featuring a very different protagonist. Jal has immense potential, and if this is what Lawrence can achieve with his character in just one book, I can’t wait to see what’s next.(less)
Self-absorbed, annoying, moody, smug, dissatisfied, spoiled, fake, maudlin, insecure, aimless, whiny, stupid, pampered, emo, vain, egotistical, small-minded, excessive, inconsiderate, thankless, pretentious, snobby, entitled, mercurial, immature, depressed, hypocritical, mean-spirited, cynical, clueless – just a small sample of the words I could use to describe the characters in this book.
No, The Magicians isn’t going to your big smiling ball of sunshine no matter how many Harry Potter comparisons you see slapped on it. Instead, you have a book featuring a much darker, grittier and almost satirical aura, a “New Adult” urban fantasy about letting the unhappiness of wanting something you can never have consume you. We follow disillusioned Quentin Coldwater, a high school student who never really grew out of his love for a series of novels he read as a kid about the adventures of five siblings in a magical land called Fillory. Compared to that, what can the real world offer him?
Imagine how he feels then, when he discovers that magic is real. And not only is it real, Quentin himself is a promising young magician, accepted into very secret and highly exclusive Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy in upstate New York. It should have changed everything. Quentin should have been ecstatic.
But he is not. But of course he’s not. Magic isn’t going to make Quentin happy. Neither is finding out that Fillory actually exists. It’s a sad moment when the realization hits. There’s really no cure for what ails Quentin, except one thing and one thing only: a few years of life experience and a whole lot of growing up. Well, that or maybe a swift and forceful kick in the seat of his pants.
Thing is though, you can write a miserably unlikeable character for the sake of writing a miserably unlikeable character. I don’t mind. Not even if your character is an insufferably whiny little ingrate. You just have to give me a reason – any reason – to make me care about what happens to him. That’s not too much to ask, is it? My issue with this novel wasn’t so much with the mopey protagonist than it was with the directionless storytelling. In fact, I was quite excited for the first part of this book. I couldn’t get enough of the magical school idea the author’s jabs and funny references to Harry Potter and other humorous injections. That there was no sign of a main conflict didn’t bother me at this point either, as I was relishing the setting and enjoying myself too much.
Around the midway point was when the book started to lose me, coinciding with Quentin’s graduation and life after Brakebills. Until then I never really bothered asking where the story was going, and hadn’t felt the need to – but eventually there was a creeping sense that giving Quentin and his magician friends “real life” problems like relationship hang ups and dismal prospects for the future just wasn’t going cut it. Like, dudes, I get that y’all are bored with life. But I’m bored with you too now. Sorry. Worse yet, there is absolutely no development in their characters or personalities (unless you count decline as growth) and that’s absolutely mind boggling when you consider how a person’s time at college should have been the most formative years. I don’t know anyone who left college the same person they were when they arrived.
Admittedly, the final handful of chapters about the discovery and exploration of Fillory had their charm. Possibly enough to salvage my feelings for this book for a solid rating. And I suppose the conclusion, while incomplete and flinging the doors wide open for a new adventure, also manages to offer a sense of closure and satisfaction in its own unique way.
This book isn’t bad, apart from the pacing issues. The ending gives me hope for Quentin, and the promise of more Fillory makes me feel very optimistic about the next book.(less)
I was very excited when I first heard about Trudi Canavan’s Thief’s Magic, and doubly more so when I discovered it was going to be an introduction to a brand new universe we’ve never seen before. I’m not completely unfamiliar with the author’s work, having read The Magician’s Guild, book one of her Black Magician trilogy, but knowing that she has two series and a couple more novellas based in that world of Kyralia which I haven’t even yet come close to finishing, I was glad to have a fresh start in Millennium’s Rule.
Magic and magic users seem to feature strongly in Canavan’s books, and that’s no exception here. At the beginning of this novel we meet Tyen, a young archaeology student (though calling what he and his professor and fellow students do “Archaelogy” might be a bit of stretch…they’re more like tomb robbers) who discovers a sentient book while excavating an ancient tomb. The book can read the minds of anyone who makes physical contact, communicating through text appearing on the pages. Calling herself Vella, the book claims to have once been a sorcerer-woman, until she was transformed into her current form by one of the greatest sorcerers of history. She has been gathering and storing information through the ages ever since. Sensing bad things to come if Vella were to ever fall into the wrong hands, Tyen decides to keep her to himself for now, but as we all know, a secret this big is always bound to come out sooner or later.
Meanwhile in another world, a dyer’s daughter named Rielle harbors a secret of her own. From a young age, she has had the ability to sense magic – and hence the potential to use it. However, Rielle’s society could not be any more different from Tyen’s, where magic is used freely (and some might say TOO freely) to power their fantastical machines. Instead, the priests of Rielle’s world teach that to use magic is the equivalent to stealing from the Angels themselves. Anyone caught committing this crime is published severely then cast out from the city to live out the rest of their lives in a prison. Rielle is therefore all too happy to just keep her head down, hoping to also to do what her family wants of her and find a prospective husband. But then she meets and falls in love with a local artist named Izare, which is patently NOT what her parents had in mind. Oh, hello, Forbidden Love.
What do these two plot lines have to do with each other? Very little, actually. Reading Thief’s Magic felt essentially like reading two-books-in-one. The novel’s structure can be a little jarring if you’re not expecting it. We first start with Part I which follows Tyen’s story, and several chapters after that Part II begins with Rielle’s. The novel continues like this, alternating back and forth between their narratives. Actually getting the hang of this perspective-jumping isn’t all that difficult, but Canavan likes to tease, and she seems to have this knack for choosing the most suspenseful moments to make the switch between characters. Often, I would find myself pulled away into Rielle’s story just as I was getting completely drawn into Tyen’s, or vice versa. This format was both simultaneously addicting and frustrating, though I have to admit I kind of liked it.
When it comes down to it, I’m just completely hooked by these two characters and their respective worlds. Both Tyen and Rielle are written very well, even though occasionally their naiveté would grate on my nerves. However, their decisions – misguided as they are sometimes – always led to interesting things happening. I’m fascinated by the differences in their cultures and how each of them view magic. I love that their own personal conflicts take them on completely disparate adventures, so that the individual challenges they face differ profoundly as well. I’m especially intrigued by Rielle and her struggles in a society where unauthorized use of magic is treated as the greatest sin, where women like her have very little choice and practically no future when they are discovered to possess magical abilities.
I don’t know if Tyen and Rielle’s paths will ever cross, though something tells me that they will – but that particularly story is not for this book to tell. At this point, I feel I’ve been given enough information to formulate a tenuous theory on how the two characters’ worlds are linked, but for the most part we don’t get too many answers on that front. I really enjoyed following both story lines, but if you’re the kind of reader who prefers self-contained story arcs or at least some closure at the end of a novel, you won’t really find it here. It’s a factor to think about, though I already know I will be picking up the next book in spite of it. Thief’s Magic may have all the hallmarks of a “Book One”, but Canavan has crafted a very fine beginning (technically, TWO very fine beginnings) and I want to find out what happens to both Tyen and Rielle. (less)
The Golden City is a book that may take a bit of patience to get into, but it ends up being well worth the time once the story gets going. It also stands out for being one of the more unique novels I’ve read this year, with its one-of-a-kind setting in an alternate Portugal around the turn of the 20th century and its rousing combination of subjects like dark magic and sea folk.
The book begins with an introduction to Oriana Paredes, a spy for her people called the sereia. As a member of a race of sea folk banned from the city by the ruling king, Oriana has been posing as a maid working undercover in a wealthy aristocratic household for two years, but has befriended the family’s lovely and vivacious daughter Isabel. When Isabel decides to elope to Paris, Oriana decides to help her make her escape by disguising themselves as simple servants. But before the young women could depart, they are abducted and left to die in an underwater trap. Saved by what she is, but at the same time forced to watch Isabel drown, Oriana is set on a course to uncover the mystery of a string of similar murders and seek justice for her human friend.
Ouch. I just want to say how surprised I was at how hard I took Isabel’s death. While it is revealed in the book’s description, I didn’t do much more than skim the back cover before I started reading and so the beginning was still quite a shock for me. But it was a good kind of surprise. In just a handful of pages, J. Kathleen Cheney has established a realistic friendship between the two girls and made me care for Isabel and the prospect of her grand romance. And in a blink, that life was taken away. It was a very effective and impactful (not to mention heartbreaking) way to start the book, and it only worked this well because the writing was so convincing. At this stage in the story, I still had only a vague sense of the bigger picture, but I understood the desire for vengeance as the driving force behind Oriana’s actions. I seized upon it, looking to it as the backbone of this novel, despite all the questions still buzzing away at the back of my mind.
For believe me, there were questions aplenty. While overall I enjoyed The Golden City, it did take me a while to immerse myself completely into it. Books that thrust me into the middle of situation tend to have me at a disadvantage. Admittedly, I will also sometimes overwhelm myself by asking too many questions. Possibly the biggest blank for me was Oriana’s role as a spy. The goals of her mission were never really clarified, and I wasn’t sure what kind of information she was supposed to be bringing back to her superiors. The “City Under the Sea”, which is a massive underwater art show featuring replicas of the aristocratic houses placed there by a mysterious artist, was also another source of confusion for me. A project that is so grand and ambitious even by today’s standards would have plenty of buzz and investigation into it, but it seemed like much of the city took its appearance for granted.
In fact, it is the replica of Isabel’s house in the City Under the Sea which should have been Oriana’s water grave, if she weren’t a sereia. After extracting herself from the death trap, she finds herself adrift in a city whose citizens would arrest or do worse to her if they discovered her true nature. That is until she crosses paths with Duilio Ferreira, a police consultant who has secrets of his own. Like Oriana, Duilio is looking into the disappearances of servants from wealthy households, but he is also the half human son of a Selkie (mythological creatures said to live as seals in the sea but shed their pelt to become humans on land) and is also in the midst of investigating certain crimes against his family.
Which leads me to the main reason why I’m glad I found a book like The Golden City – Sirens! Selkies! I am always on the lookout for good books about “sea people” that aren’t rife with The Little Mermaid clichés or that don’t simply portray creatures like sirens as malevolent seductresses. Cheney does a fantastic job providing Oriana with personality and purpose, and I love the cultural, historical and mythological details she has worked into her world.
In time, something more than a business partnership develops between Oriana and Duilio, but the romance is in no way distracting or overbearing. The romantic elements, like the mystery elements, are well blended and balanced. It won’t be enough for everyone, but it was perfect for me as someone who prefers a more subtle and natural approach to romance, and the author teases the relationship between her two characters just enough for me to remain invested in seeing how their feelings for each other will be resolved.
In sum, The Golden City may start off slowly, but the payoff will come. Somewhere along the way, it just clicked. And most of the answers I sought were answered by the end of the book. If an alternate historical with a dash of fantasy and mystery sounds like your thing, or if you’re intrigued by a story set in a unique place starring magical sea creatures as its main players, you may want to push this up to the top of your reading list. I’m looking forward to see what will happen in the next book of this series.(less)
I had no idea what to expect before heading into Gleam. I was only perhaps vaguely aware of its dystopian nature, and coupled with that striking image of the pyramid on the cover and the “Gormenghastian” description in the blurb, I was fully prepared for a wild ride through a world rooted in bizarre and unfathomable traditions.
The book ended up being all that and a lot more. But what I didn’t anticipate was the highly engaging quest narrative, following a group of ragtag adventurers on a journey to discover the dark secrets of their strange and wildly imaginative world. But boiling the story down like that somehow also feels woefully inadequate, because nothing is at all simple in the universe of Gleam.
The story starts off by introducing us to our protagonist Alan, who lives with his family at the center of the gargantuan factory of Gleam in the fully inhabited and operational Pyramid. However, we get the sense that Alan is somewhat of an outsider, which is hinted at by his mistrust for the other Pyramiders and his penchant for making trouble for the authorities. We don’t know what kind of trouble he’s been stirring up at this point, but it was enough to provoke the Arbitrators, who threaten Alan with attacks on his wife and young son. To protect his family, Alan is forced to exile himself into the Discard, the barren and lawless wasteland that surrounds the central district.
I admit, I wasn’t sure what to make of the book for the first 50 pages or so. Time skips ahead about four years, and I experienced many moments of confusion. It appears “Wild” Alan has done lot during that time, but it’s not clear exactly what he’s been up to. It’s gradually revealed that he has been surviving as a traveling musician, earning room and board singing songs that are mostly about the corruption of the Pyramiders. He’s also apparently run afoul of a Discard drug lord of sorts, for stealing from her supply of rare psychedelic mushrooms. It turns out Alan has a good reason for his pilfering, but all that doesn’t become clear until a good handful of chapters. Plus, we also discover that Alan did not always live in the Pyramid before his exile. In fact, his parents and his whole village was massacred by Pyramiders, but as an act of mercy a soldier brought him back to the Pyramid and he was raised there. Finally, his bitterness and dissension started to make sense. All the pieces of the puzzle ultimately did come together, but it just seemed to take a while which made this beginning section of the book a rocky experience for me.
To be sure though, after everything eventually fell into place, that’s when the story started taking off for real. With his supply of mushrooms cut off, Alan must find a way to get some more and get it fast – or it would mean dire consequences for his family still confined in the Pyramid. With the quest item established, our protagonist starts gathering himself a party to go forth into the unknown, braving the wilderness beyond. But like I said earlier, this is not your ordinary adventure.
Firstly, Alan is not your traditional hero. He’s not intrinsically a bad person, though he is entirely self-serving and makes it clear he’s on the quest for no other reason than his own purposes. His fellow adventures are a group of vagrants much like Alan, a quirky mix of eccentric and just plain weird characters. Hands down, my favorite member of the party had to be Bloody Nora, the woman who belongs to a mysterious group called the Mapmakers, a faction dedicated to exploration and recording of the features and changes to Gleam. They are also deadly fighters, as evidenced by Nora’s brutal efficiency at killing their enemies.
But the story and the brilliant characters are just icing on the cake. What really blew me away was the setting and the world building. While great world building is something I remark upon frequently in my reviews of fantasy novels, I have to say very few have actually come near to the caliber in Gleam. I don’t even know where to start. The large, mystifying concrete structures infused with “bubble” hollows in which Discarders make their home? The giant snails that can serve as mounts for vertical traveling? Freaky and disturbing descriptions of unusual ailments that afflict unfortunate locals? There’s just so much to talk about.
Even a wasteland like the Discard is so vivid and evocative in all its strange and wonderful details. The best part is the mystery – how did this place come about? Who built these crazy structures that litter the landscape? No one knows for sure, and it is part of the reason why the Mapmakers seek to explore and document everything. The world is disgusting yet beautiful, an all-around unpleasant place to be filled with monsters and mutants, but I couldn’t help but be drawn in by all the pure insanity of the surroundings. It’s amazing in all its slimy, swampy, icky glory.
Gleam is simply beyond fascinating. There are certainly dystopian undertones, but unlike a lot of dystopian novels, the focus here isn’t so much on the social or the culture, but on the environmental. It’s the physical world that really comes to the forefront, which really helped me get immersed in the story. The plot itself is also relatively simple, but not once did I feel the quest narrative flounder once it got going, because something was always happening, or my attention was held captive by yet another mind-boggling aspect of the world. After a briefly dicey start, I quickly fell in love with this book.(less)
The adventures of Janus Mikani and Celeste Ritsuko continue in Silver Mirrors, but the second novel of the Apparatus Infernum series takes a decidedly different tack. Of course, our two CID investigators have another mystery to solve, but their mission this time takes them across the ocean, over the treacherous peaks of the mountains, and deep into the fire elemental mining tunnels of the north.
Needless to say, I found Silver Mirrors to be a much more exciting novel than the first. The premise of the story – that the world’s elementals are unsettled and running amok as a result of the destructive events of the last book – is perhaps tenuous at best, but it hardly mattered. The important thing is, we get to go on an adventure out of the city and onto the high seas with our two protagonists. And thar be pirates!
Also threaded into this thrilling ride is the ever-present romantic side plot, with the sexual tension between Ritsuko and Mikani about to boil over and explode any second. Seriously, these two have it BAD for one another. And of course, everyone sees it except for them. If you prefer slow-burn romances and delayed gratification when it comes to love stories between characters, I can’t recommend these books enough. But it also behooves me to say it probably wouldn’t hurt to be prepared for how oblivious they are. Reading about the two of them dancing and flailing around each other’s emotions is a bit like watching a couple of hopeless players at game of charades. It’s hard to believe they actually make a living doing detective work and solving mysteries. But you know what they say about good things coming to those who wait. I think that goes for the characters and the readers both, and for now all we can do is root for Ritsuko and Mikani.
But I’m glad I decided to read this sequel not just for the progression of their romance, because there’s a lot more to the world of this series. Silver Mirrors expands it by having the characters travel afar, and not for the first time I wished a book would include a map. We also learn more about the magic and its limitations. For instance, when the behaviors of elementals are disrupted, the different instruments and devices they help power can also become unstable or fail spectacularly altogether. It wasn’t until this novel that I finally got a sense of the living, breathing connection between the mortal and the mystical.
The Aguirres are clearly not afraid to take their books into new territory. While Bronze Gods was more of a whodunit murder mystery, Silver Mirrors reads like an action-adventure with the characters embarking on a perilous quest. Book two may be a continuation of book one, but even so, the two stories can’t be any more different. It mixes things up and keeps this series interesting. Obviously, the Mikani and Ritsuko situation is something I’d like to keep an eye on, but I’m also looking forward to seeing what the authors will do in future installments and where they will take us next. (less)
I’m what you would call a book juggler, meaning at any given time you’ll find me with multiple books in my currently-reading list. From the moment I started Veil of the Deserters though, I ignored everything else on my plate, reading nothing but this book until I finished all 500ish pages of it in two and a half days. It was the only thing I wanted to read.
As a sequel, this was everything I wanted and more. If Scourge of the Betrayer was the delicious appetizer, then Veil of the Deserters is most definitely the main course. It’s always great to read an amazing book only to discover the second one is even better, because while the first book was the perfect tease, piquing my interest and whetting my appetite for more, here’s where we really get into the meat of it.
In my review of the first book, I talked about an air of mystery surrounding the direction of the plot. The main protagonist and narrator is a bookish scribe named Arkamondos, hired by the formidable Captain Killcoin to accompany his band of Syldoon warriors on their journey to complete a mission. We have very little idea of what the Syldoon are up to, since Arki himself is not made privy to the details of their quest. Why these rough and tough soldiers require a scribe or in what capacity Arki would be employed is also unknown. But in Veil of the Deserters, we get our answers. We get them in spades.
Not only that, the world building is much more substantial. The author fleshes out the world and the characters in this second installment, providing a lot more background information and history. Arki’s hunger for knowledge and his natural curiosity as a scribe is a great means to facilitate this; as he grows more comfortable around his traveling companions, they tell their stories and reveal their lives to him. We find out that the old veteran Hewspear is a grandfather, estranged from his daughter-in-law after the death of his son. We also learn that Killcoin has a sister, the Memoridon witch Soffjian who makes her first appearance in this novel. The relationship between the siblings is complicated, and we’re also in a position to find out why. This book humanizes the Syldoon, showing the reader another side to these men, letting us see that they are more than just brutal warriors.
I continue to enjoy these characters. They fascinated me in the first book, and here they are even more developed. What amazes me is Salyard’s talent for making each and every one of them unique. Not every author can do this. I love reading dark fantasy featuring raw, gritty badass characters – but sometimes a book can end up with a whole bunch of characters with practically indistinguishable personalities on account of how raw, how gritty, how very badass they all equally are. Thankfully, the Bloodsounder’s Arc novels avoid this pitfall. I liked each of the Syldoon for different reasons. Every one of them can stand on their own, displaying their individual quirks and qualities which can even extend to their behaviors and the way they speak, from Killcoin’s emphatic “yes?” to Mulldoos’ penchant for coming up with hilariously obscene insults. Now's also probably a good time to mention just how fantastic I think the dialogue is, well-written and sometimes injected with dark humor.
Arki himself is a delight to have as a narrator. He's come a long way since the beginning of the first book, evolving with every minute he spends with the Syldoon, every violent battle he witnesses. He gradually learns to shed his old life to adapt to the new one with Captain Killcoin and his men, and it’s interesting to see how the emotions war within him even as he grows more loyal to the Syldoon and makes friends among them. He's a stronger person in this book, both in the way he is written and in the manner he carries himself.
Seriously, why aren’t more people reading Jeff Salyards?! He's outdone himself with this one. The book all but throws open the doors to the world of the Bloodsounder’s Arc, giving us better insight into its history, politics, religion and magic. The sights and sounds get more magnificent. The battles are bigger and better. The story is far deeper now that all the cards are on the table, and Salyards isn’t holding back anymore. All around, this is an excellent book, exceeding all my expectations for a sequel.(less)
I wish I could write a more positive review for this book, I really do. The Shadow Master has so much going for it, including a setting resembling an alternate-history Renaissance Italy, with just a touch of that steampunk flavor with its clockwork inventions and automatons. We also mustn’t forget the biggie for me – a plot thread about a pair of star-crossed lovers separated by the warring between their families. I do get a kick out of Forbidden Love. This book just seemed made for me, and indeed I liked a lot of its separate parts. I’m just not sure how well I liked the whole.
If the book’s description didn’t make you think it already, then I’m sure its epigraph “A plague a’ both your houses!” certainly would – the basic plot is very much reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. However, this is not a romance. In fact, one of my biggest disappointments was not feeling any connection at all between the two young lovers: Lucia, daughter of the Duke of House Lorraine and Lorenzo, whose loyalties lies with the House Medici.
With the two families at each other’s throats, the future of Lucia and Lorenzo’s relationship hangs in the balance, but without first being convinced of their bond, I found it hard to stay interested. Their love story, which should have served as the starting point and foundation of the novel, didn’t initially captivate me, and as a result the rest of the story failed to deliver the desired impact.
But as I’d alluded to, there were quite a few things I enjoyed about this book. I enjoyed the appearance of several historical figures including Galileo and Leonardo Da Vinci, even though they weren’t contemporaries, but their “war of the wits” gave the Medici vs. Lorraine battle a certain fantastical flare. Both are reluctant geniuses caught in the conflict between the Houses, receiving pressure from their leaders to design and build magical inventions that would give their side the advantage. The city is also threatened by plague, a problem literally at its doorstep as hordes of the sick and dying amass outside the gates. The first half of this book was quite engaging for these reasons.
Around the 60% mark, however, events of the story suddenly made a turn for the confusing. Kidnappings and assassination attempts and negotiations become entangled in mystical machines, madmen and ancients. The events were so jumbled and disconnected that I’m still a bit uncertain as to what really happened.
I think the language and the author’s writing style might have also made following the story a little more difficult. I didn’t click with some of the dialogue between characters spoken in riddles, and at times the prose also had a tendency to feel overly embellished with the use of euphemisms, especially during moments of intensity. Torture scenes or sex scenes were made incredibly awkward by terms like “serpent of sin”, “tower of ivory”, “fountain of relief”, “cave of wonders” and “mountains of the goddess”. There was speculation between me and another blogger that some of these were done purposely for the sake of satire, which I admit was something that hadn’t occurred to me. It’s possible, I suppose, though if that’s the case it’s not presented in a very obvious manner.
If the last half had been tightened up and more clear and consistent, I might have enjoyed The Shadow Master a bit more, but as it is, the book feels slightly unfinished and rushed. I had pretty high hopes, but in the end this one just didn’t work very well for me.(less)
Ruin and Rising was good, but perhaps it was just good…enough? I sat on this review for several weeks trying to gather my thoughts about this book hoping to figure out exactly how I feel about it. And in the end, I finally realized why I was so conflicted. I liked this book – and heck, up to now this series has been one of my YA favorites – but as badly was I wanted this to be the grand finale, I just couldn’t convince myself to love it.
As you would recall, Siege and Storm had the unmistakable feel of a second installment within a trilogy, with our protagonists experiencing a momentary setback. Last we saw Alina, she was in pretty bad shape, having lost her powers as the Sun Summoner. She and Mal have retreated underground with their allies, surrendering themselves to the power of the Apparat and his band of zealots who worship Alina as a Saint. But while Alina may be weakened, she is far from broken. Her mission remains the same: to capture and secure the third amplifier, the elusive firebird that would be her key to defeating the Darkling thus freeing Ravka from his iron grasp.
In truth, I had my reservations from the very beginning. The first couple of chapters almost drove me to return the book. Looking back, these were so clearly “transition” scenes that served no other purpose than to link book two with book three. As an antagonist, the Apparat was almost a non-entity, used to accomplish what was required, and then quickly forgotten. I just wanted this obligatory intro done and over with as quickly and painlessly as possible, and fortunately and unfortunately, it seemed Leigh Bardugo had the same idea. We always knew Alina’s goal was to hunt the firebird, and this brief little romp through the tunnels and caves felt like nothing more than a throwaway distraction.
Thankfully, we soon get back on the right track. We meet up with Nikolai, the outlaw prince of lovable arrogance and smart-assery, and now we can finally ask the really important questions. How are they going to go up against the Darkling? And what would a future Ravka look like if they succeed? Alina has some difficult decisions before her. What is she going to choose? Or rather, ugh, WHO is she going to choose?
In some ways, I feel validated. I still love YA, but not long ago, I told myself I can’t read them for their romances anymore. And I’m a much happier person for it. Enjoying a novel mainly for its story and characters is how I’ve come to approach YA, because if you rely on the outcome of a relationship to satisfy you, you’re bound to be disappointed. Time after time after time, predictability and tired clichés have ruined YA romances for me, and I’ve found it much easier now to just NOT CARE. It also helps that I’ve never really felt much connection to the men in Alina’s life. I’ve failed for three books to see the Darkling’s appeal. And Mal was ruined for me in Siege and Storm (you can’t get stinking drunk and kiss another girl and expect bygones to be bygones, Mal – you only get one chance with me). Nikolai was perhaps the most interesting and had the best personality out of everyone, and that told me right there he was obviously all wrong for Alina, so I never took his role as a suitor seriously.
I’m not going to say what happens, naturally. But I will say Bardugo took the “safe” route. Which was pretty much what I expected, so I’m actually not too upset with the ending. I’ve come to accept the status quo in YA fiction, and it hadn’t even occurred to me that this series could end any other way. It’s entirely possible I would have rated this book higher if it had been a bit bolder and strayed from conventions, but I’m also satisfied if not entirely blown away. And if this had been the author’s plan from the start, I applaud her for sticking to her guns and telling the story she wanted to tell. Everyone deserves their happily-ever-after, and Alina got the one perfect for her which is all that matters.
I’d still recommend this series. It became increasing more predictable as the story progressed with each installment, to the point where there were really no surprises left for me by book three, but it’s an entertaining trilogy as a whole. I wish it had ended with less tepidness considering the incredibly strong start that was Shadow and Bone, but I have to say it’s worth experiencing from beginning to end.(less)
I make it no secret that I’ve been in a bit of a YA slump lately. This year saw a few of my favorite YA series finishing their runs and I’ve been flitting around checking out more books to fill the void, and it’s been difficult finding anything that clicked with me. This has led to discouragement and no small amount of burnout, so I’m really glad for books like Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King and now Chuck Wendig’s Blighborn to come along and snap me out of my funk.
If you’ve read the first book of The Heartland Trilogy, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Under the Empyrean Sky was a real shaker-upper for me, making itself stand out from a lot of Young Adult dystopians novels by being surprisingly candid and authentic. The Heartland is a rough place that breeds rough folk, a place where killer corn, deadly Blights and piss-blizzards are an everyday reality. After several YA sequels have disappointed me earlier in the year for having plots that are unimaginative and contrived, Wendig’s refusal to sugarcoat or hold anything back is exactly what I needed. Blightborn was interesting and unpredictable, much like life in the Heartland.
The book picks up where the first one left off, with Cael, Rigo and Lane on the run, looking to find a way skyward to the Empyrean flotilla. Right on their heels are Boyland Barnes Jr., Rigo’s father, and Wanda, who all have their reasons to pursue the three friends. Boyland wants revenge, after believing Cael killed his father. Rigo’s father just wants his son back. And Wanda hopes to be reunited with Cael, her “Obligated”. However, Cael’s heart already belongs to Gwennie, who is living the life of a Lottery winner on the floating city of Ormond Stirling Saranyu and is realizing it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
As you can see, interwoven between the various plot threads are these intricate relationships between the characters which add a lot to the story, so I highly recommend grabbing the Under the Empyrean Sky before reading Blightborn to fully experience all the underlying nuances. Wendig continues to explore and develop these relationships, especially when it comes to the dynamics between Cael, Lane and Rigo. As their fight for survival intensifies, the three friends learn to trust each other. Over a number of intense and sometimes touching scenes, they discover new things and gain a deeper understanding of each other and themselves in the process.
Romance also isn’t a central focus of this series, but love and devotion certainly plays a part. It’s the motivation behind so much of what the characters do, after all, with Cael and Boyland both going after Gwennie, Wanda after Cael, etc. Usually, I have very little patience with stuff like love triangles – or God forbid, love squares – but I’ve come to appreciate the complicated emotions flying between all these characters and the fact that they never remain static. Cael and his friends do a lot of growing up, and with growth also comes a more mature way of looking at the world and others. Cael, for example, is much less self-absorbed in this book, learning to put himself in his friends’ shoes, and sometimes even in his enemy’s. While he and Boyland have always been at odds, Cael can still admit to himself that what the other boy feels for Gwennie could be genuine and respect that, which is a huge step for him as a character in my eyes.
Another thing I loved about this book is the expansion of the readers’ world into the skies. We’d heard over and over about the corruption and decadence of the Empyrean in the first book, and now we finally get to catch a glimpse of how the elite live. It was important to see the huge disparity between life on the flotilla and life down in the Heartland as it builds the story up quite a bit, setting up the stage for new players like the Sleeping Dogs rebels, who do their share of stirring things up both in the skies and on the ground. No dystopian novel is complete without an uprising, and the pressure that has been around since the first book finally boils over in Blightborn, culminating in a stunning climax, but not before Wendig takes us on a crazy wild ride to get to that point.
I highly recommend this series, especially if you’re a fan of Chuck Wendig. I’ve always loved his writing style and characters, and that hasn’t changed even with his venture into YA dystopian. Books like this one keep me excited about the genre!(less)
I didn't think I was going to enjoy this book at first. Thank goodness I was wrong! Still, can you really blame me for having my doubts? After being inundated in recent years with the dozens upon dozens of movies, TV shows, video games etc. all featuring the same mindless gory battles against the shambling, moaning hordes of the undead, my initial thought was: been there, done that, now what more can this zombie book offer?
Well, this is the review where I happily eat my words! I should have known better anyway, because Ragnarok Publications has never let me down. As it turned out, Those Poor, Poor Bastards had a lot more to offer than I'd anticipated, in addition to that charming little title. The book did contain some of the usual trappings you'll find in a lot of zombie stories, but there were some twists as well, and I loved how the authors took the familiar and created something new. Also, while I haven't read enough of the Weird West sub-genre to consider myself a fan, a description like "Zombie Western" wasn't really something I could resist.
It is 1868, in the Sierra Nevada. The book begins with Nina Weaver and her father Lincoln riding into Coburn Station only to find that everything has gone to hell in a chuckwagon. The "Deaduns" have arisen and are sowing bloody carnage all over town, forcing the living to band together in order to survive. In typical fashion, you end up with a large, diverse ensemble cast. And like watching The Walking Dead, you just know before you even begin that many of them are going to end up zombie food before this whole thing is over.
Put a big group of people with disparate personalities into a stressful situation and you'll also inevitably get your clashes and alliances within the ranks. There are the good folks like Nina and her pa, the priest Father Mathias as well as the charming James Manning. On the other side of the fence you have the less savory types and troublemakers like the Daggett brothers or the scummy Mister Strobridge. Then there are those caught in the middle who just aren't sure. With tensions this high and a swarm of Deaduns at the door, it's the perfect set up for explosive conflict. Emphasis on explosive.
So far, with the exception of the western setting, things might be sounding rather familiar. But then, the authors work their magic and you suddenly realize there is way more to this story. Bucking tradition, we're actually given an explanation into the Deaduns and how they came to be. Their origins and motives, not to mention the actual reveal itself, were so unique that it completely threw me for a loop -- in a good way! I have to say this ended up being a delightfully fun read, in all its blood-splattered glory.
Those Poor, Poor Bastards also taught me something important about myself -- that I will never be too old or too jaded for a good ol' zombie story! What a fast-paced, crazy wild book. I think I'll just end this review with a suggestion to the potential reader: there are a lot of characters, so definitely try to tackle this novel all in one go if you can, ensuring that the dozen or so identities will always remain fresh in your mind. Besides, it shouldn't be too difficult -- because once you start reading, you just might find it hard to stop!(less)
I admit it, I read this book for FORBIDDEN LOVE! Turns out though, it was not exactly the kind I had in mind. I expected a little more chemistry, perhaps? A little bit more of that "it's you and me against the world"? The Winner's Curse ended up giving me two lovers who actually spent more than half the book locked in conflict with each other, and so their romance lacked some of that je ne sais quoi which makes forbidden love so scandalous and delicious.
Meet the two star-crossed lovers in question: Kestrel, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a Valorian general, who one day visits a slave auction and spontaneously decides to buy Arin, a native of the Harrani lands her people conquered. Their meeting, however, was no accident. Unbeknownst to Kestrel, Arin is actually a high ranked member of a group of Harrani rebels, planted purposely at the auction to draw her in. As a slave in the Valorian general's home, Arin would be in a position to gather intelligence and plan his people's uprising.
What neither of them counted on was that their master and slave relationship would eventually evolve into friendship, deepening into love. But that journey was far from passionate for me; instead, it felt tepid and sometimes even bordered on awkward. It's tricky creating chemistry when both your characters are torn between their loyalties to each other or their own people, and the story never managed to convince me that there was ever really any trust between Kestrel and Arin. Seeing as The Winner's Curse is essentially a romance, that's a pretty vital ingredient to be missing for me.
Okay, so their relationship was not as swoon-worthy as I would have liked, but no matter. The world, the characters and the story soon won me over, and I enjoyed this book a lot. While it is what I would classify as "standard" YA, it still contained plenty of surprises within its pages. I did love the setting, with the flavor of a historical fantasy. A martial civilization like the Valorians which also encourages women in their army fascinates me. If anything, I wish the scope of the story was bigger to encompass more of the events in the wider world. There's a lot of potential for world building here; because of the narrow focus on Kestrel and Arin, we only get to see a tiny slice of what's happening.
Forbidden Love just happens to be a trope I can't resist, but the comments I made above notwithstanding, if you are a fan romance I would still highly recommend The Winner's Curse. But if it's excitement or a thrilling adventure you're looking for, you might want to reconsider. The pacing is a lot more quiet, with a decent chunk of this book dedicated to getting Kestrel and Arin together, and it's a gradual process not achieved through any wild or fierce means. There's perhaps a slight pick up in pace in the final handful of chapters, but keep in mind the story itself isn't about providing a lot of action, it's about character development and building a relationship. The careful way in which Marie Rutkoski does it is undeniably this book's crowning glory, and even though the romance itself fell a bit flat for me, I'm sure for many others it will be the most engrossing aspect.
Despite the shaky love story, I really liked this novel, and I'll no doubt pick up the next book when it comes out. I'm still holding out for an exception forbidden romance to emerge triumphant from this series, and I think it still has a chance, not to mention things end just as the story gets even more interesting.(less)
There are a number of sequels coming out this year with big shoes to fill, and not the least of them is Tower Lord which is the follow up to the sensation that was Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song. While this second installment might not pack the kind of punch its predecessor did, I nonetheless enjoyed the book immensely. It’s a very different novel than the first book, with a shift in style, focus, and character perspectives, and yet it still has all the elements that we epic fantasy fans live for.
In book one, we met Vaelin Al Sorna, a brother of the Sixth Order and one of the greatest warriors the world has ever known. Coming home from a bloody war, he has sworn to fight no more, instead focusing his efforts on seeking any of his relatives that still might live. Named Tower Lord of the Northern Reaches by the new monarch, Vaelin has the noble yet perhaps naïve dream of living out his life in peace and quiet, for news of his exploits (and his crimes) have spread far and wide and those who know of his mysterious gift that guides him will not let him rest.
Anthony Ryan also adds several more point-of-view characters to the mix in Tower Lord, which I was glad to have been prepared for, as Vaelin no longer takes center stage. Instead, he shares the book with mainly three others: Reva, a young woman who begins this journey with hate for Vaelin in her heart and an unquenchable thirst for revenge; Princess Lyrna, sister to the new king and who possesses more strength and resolve than her brother ever would; and finally, Frentis, a familiar face from Blood Song, though he has been changed from his years of being held captive by the Untesh and being forced to fight in the slave pits.
Having been aware of this new format, with the chapters cycling through the character viewpoints, I had expected and prepared myself for the slower start. Indeed, with more characters to follow this time around, the author takes much more time to set the stage for the events in this book. And I have to confess it didn’t quite grab my attention right away. It was a pleasant journey through the first half of the novel to meet new faces or to catch up with old friends, but on the whole Tower Lord lacked a certain quality that made Blood Song the dangerously addictive and immersive read it was right off the bat.
However, I don’t think this makes Tower Lord a weak sequel. On the contrary, in fact. This second book is stronger than book one in many ways, not only because it expands the scope of the series by giving us multiple character perspectives and opening up the wider world, but it also showcases Ryan’s talents as a storyteller. He’s proven himself as an author who can write a very diverse and convincing cast of characters while maintaining a steady level of suspense and interest in all spheres of action, building intensity as he moves all the pieces into place for when things really start rolling.
Quite simply, Tower Lord is a totally different beast. And it’s just hard not to compare a sequel to what came before. It comes down to personal taste, and admittedly, Blood Song and I hit it off much faster. I had myself this experience with a couple other sequels this year; they were all excellent novels, but thematically they just worked slightly less for me. In this case, it’s hardly a surprise. Blood Song began with Vaelin Al Sorna as a young boy, entering the Sixth Order and a huge chunk of the book was dedicated to his training, the relationships he forged with his brothers, and his eventual rise to greatness. It was my favorite part of the novel. And come on, we all know how tough it is beat a good coming-of-age story.
The first book was absolutely a tough act to follow, I know. But all things considered, Tower Lord is a wonderful follow-up that might even appeal more to other readers, especially those who preferred the parts with “grown-up” Vaelin from the first book. I mentioned one of the things I liked about the “young” Vaelin’s chapters was his relationship with his fellow Sixth Order brothers, and it’s incredibly fascinating to see how those dynamics have changed over time. Brother Frentis was a huge surprise for me in this one. Thinking about all the terrible things that has been through and how they’ve affected him, it almost makes his story more interesting to me than Vaelin’s. I’m also impressed by Ryan’s female characters, and the energy and conviction he was able to put behind Reva and Lyrna, two women who are not afraid of setbacks and will fight for what they believe in.
In the end, it’s definitely the characters who made this such a great read. I absolutely adore the new additions. The characters make things happen, set things in motion, and while the first half of this book might have lagged a little, the same cannot be said about the second half, and the final quarter was pure action bliss. Does it take a bit of investment to get to this point? Yes. But totally worth it. Love the intricate magical elements and political entanglements that made the finale such an edge-of-your-seat ride. Anthony Ryan really tied things together and delivered.
I hope when we next meet Vaelin and whoever Ryan decides to let us be acquainted with next time (assuming he once again chooses this multiple POV character format) in the third book Queen of Fire, we’ll be able to jump right into the action. The slower build-up at the beginning held this book back a little, in my opinion, so I can’t say I enjoyed this book more or even as much as Blood Song, but the difference is very close. And I’m not disappointed at all. If you enjoyed the first book, there’s absolutely no reason at all not to pick this up and continue the epic journey.(less)
Needless to say, putting this review together was quite difficult for me, on account of how very different it is from the one I thought I would be writing. I made it no secret I had high hopes for this one, not only because of the buzz the book has gotten since the ramp up to its release or all the glowing reviews it has garnered, but also I was personally very excited to finally read my first Kameron Hurley novel. Truly, I wanted to love this book and was set and prepared to add my praise to the chorus, but as a reviewer I also have to be honest with others and with myself when a book does not meet expectations.
In the end, I think The Mirror Empire is one of those cases in which I can recognize its literary merits and applaud the author’s designs to challenge the conventions of epic fantasy fiction, but the story itself failed to connect with me on any deeper level and I found myself strangely dissatisfied when I completed it.
First, a bit about the book: The world is about to be shaken up by a cataclysm, and as the dark star rises to herald this event, you have an orphan girl named Lilia who would anything to fulfill a promise to her mother, even if it means putting herself in danger and having to face down unspeakable threats. In another place, a new Kai ascends to power after the suspicious death of his sister and fights to keep his place and his land together even as legitimacy of his rule is called into question. Meanwhile, a young boy said to be destined for great things undertakes a journey to discover himself and his loyalties, for one day he ultimately must choose between sides. And on the battlefield, an able but brutal general faces a similar predicament, caught between her heritage and her oaths to the Empress.
As you can imagine, there are a lot of perspectives involved, and many more characters besides. That should have been my first warning sign. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mind a big cast of characters (when you’re into epic fantasy, I think that sort of comes with the territory). However, that also means a greater onus on the author to strike a balance when it comes to giving every one of her players enough time to resonate with the reader, and to pace their sections accordingly. Hurley falters in this area by trying to introduce too many characters, both main and supporting, without sufficiently developing them – especially in the beginning. Not only do the odd-sounding names make it harder to remember who’s who, but ironically they also make it all the more obvious when new major to semi-major characters are still being introduced even past the halfway point of the novel. It makes it that much hard to sit back and just enjoy the story when so much effort is going towards trying to keep all the characters straight.
However, to be fair, you should know that I am a “Characters First” kind of reader. Arguably, I place an inordinate amount of emphasis on characters and how effectively I can engage with them. They absolutely don’t have to be admirable or even likeable, but I have to care. Characters are like the foundation of a story – everything else tumbles like a house of cards if I can’t care about them. Naturally, anything they do or anything that happens to them isn’t going to impact me in any meaningful way. The biggest issue I had with this book is the lack of any strong characters, in the sense that none of them were very memorable. Hurley doesn’t develop any of them nearly enough, and her pacing is haphazard and disorganized, so that many long chapters could go by before returning to a perspective character, and then I find myself asking, “Who are you again?” That shouldn’t be happening.
The only one – ONE out of a half dozen or so main characters and at least four times as many supporting characters – that I found myself interested in was Lilia, and that’s likely just because she was the first to be introduced in the prologue. Zezili, Captain General of the Empress, was a close second, and probably because Hurley went to great lengths to make her memorable but did so by taking the easy way, presenting the general as archetypically evil, the cruel mass murderer and an unfeeling lover. Everyone else faded into the background, which unfortunately made me feel very indifferent towards any events of significance, including plot twists or unexpected character deaths.
But look, I’ve gone on for long enough about the negatives, and I don’t want to make it sound like I downright disliked this book, because I didn’t; so I think it’s time to talk about the positives. There were a lot of things I enjoyed about this book, not least of all was the world building. So much praise has been heaped onto this facet of the novel and I have to agree 100% with everything that has been said about originality, spirit and vividness of the universe and cultures of The Mirror Empire.
My favorite thing about this book is that it is bold, it is epic, and it is refreshingly different. I love the idea of two realms clashing together in a catastrophic world-shattering event, and also the more minute details like the sentient flora and giant carnivorous plants. Hurley is a great writer with an incredible imagination, and she’s at her best and in her element when she’s actually not trying so hard to turn things on their head or to be over-the-top. I can’t stress how important it is for both authors and readers to examine and confront the status quo and current state of fantasy, but doing something for the sake of doing it is also rarely interesting. Admittedly, Hurley is not at all subtle when it comes to her attempt at subversion in this novel, but at the same time I still respect her immensely for her steadfast interrogation of the genre.
These days, one can probably find some degree of social commentary in many works of speculative fiction; however, my favorite ones tend to be those that arrive at their messages organically, part and parcel with compelling storytelling, starting with well-developed characters. Since it’s the characters that fell flat for me in this case, I just couldn’t immerse myself in the story. It certainly wasn’t for the lack of trying, but as I’ve explained, I’m also aware I have some rather nitpicky and particular tastes. Despite my tepid feelings for this novel, I believe the accolades are well-deserved. Sure, I didn’t love it, but then I’m glad so many others did.(less)
You might have noticed that I featured the third book of The Grisha earlier in the month in one of my Waiting on Wednesdays. It goes without saying, I continue to enjoy this series very much! Still, it's only natural for readers to compare sequels with their predecessors, and the truth is I did not think Siege and Storm was as strong as Shadow and Bone.
There are several reasons for this. I don't want to single this book out because this is certainly not the only time I've felt this way, but it does serve to illustrate a pattern I've been noticing with me and a lot of young adult novels lately: Book One manages to make me fall in love with the characters and impresses me with a sweet, endearing little romance, and then invariably Book Two will show up with teenage melodrama and start stirring the pot.
Thing is, I haven't stopped rooting for Alina and Mal. I still love the fact they started out as childhood friends first, and that their trials and tribulations in the first book brought them together and made them see that their relationship might be something more. But of course, YA conventions dictate that NO ONE can ever be allowed to remain in a loving, happy relationship, dammit! Seems to be the case especially when it comes to middle books of a trilogy.
Now, don't get me wrong; I appreciate a bit of dramatics here and there to help spice things up. But why do they always have to stem from some form of silly misunderstanding or a simple case of miscommunication? You two are best friends, maybe you should try talking to each other. And a love triangle? I thought we'd dodged a bullet with that one when the Darkling turned out to be a nasty in the first book.
Thankfully, Sturmhond, the third wheel in question, doesn't seem like a bad sort, especially given his secret and intriguing background. Dashing, confident, and just tolerably vain, I actually thought he was a great addition to this series. That I preferred his character over Mal is a testament to just how far the latter had fallen. Oh, Mal, Mal, Mal. What happened? I have very little patience for characters who drown their sorrows by getting so severely smashed that they can hardly even remember their own names. Or those who kiss other girls when they are supposed to be in love with someone else, for that matter.
Alina doesn't get away scot-free either. This book sees her going through some big changes, after she and Mal are intercepted from their escape and taken back to the heart of Ravka to gear up for their fight against the Darkling. A darker side of her emerges, and though this is a result of certain events in the story, frankly her personality change disturbed me. Her arrival and new-found status also meant instigating a lot of social posturing within the egomaniacal ranks of the Grisha, giving the court an unpleasant dynamic, one reminiscent of a hormone-fueled high school cafeteria. Slipping deeper into her role of the Sun Summoner and the savior of her country, she begins to lose sight of what's really important. This mostly means Mal, really.
While this review may sound critical, know that I really did enjoy this book. In embracing a lot of the YA conventions, it also fit my mood like a comfortable glove, much like the first book did. The story may have been a tad too focused on the drama between Alina and Mal, but it also did a couple things really well, mainly in 1) expanding the world of The Grisha and 2) ending things with a bang. If the pattern continues with this series, as the third and final book of the trilogy, Ruin and Rising should be amazing.(less)
I thought Lumière was fantastic, so much so that I read the whole book in a day. Some parts even made me want to give this one a 4.5 or 5 stars, simply because for an independently published Young Adult novel I thought this was really impressive.
As you know, I'm a pretty picky reader when it comes to the YA category, plus I don't always jump on board with self-pubs or indies. Still, this book's description drew me in when it was brought to my attention; something about the story just struck the right tune with me. Right away, I knew I had something good when the prologue opened with an introduction to the heroine Eyelet (what a charming name!) at age eight at the time, looking upon a brass mechanical steam-powered elephant at a carnival. What else will I find in this world?
Fast forward to the first chapter and we see Eyelet as a seventeen-year-old, nine years after that fateful day at the carnival where a mysterious flash lit the skies and changed the world. Troubled by occasional seizures and desperate to hide her illness from the authorities, Eyelet is determined to hunt down the Illuminator, a fantastical machine that was invented years ago by her brilliant scientist father. The machine may be her only chance to cure herself, but first she has to find it before her father's old nemesis gets to it first.
Jacqueline Garlick made it easy for me to root for her characters by giving them such endearing and energetic personalities. Not far into the story we get to meet Urlick Babbit, the young man who unwittingly rescues our heroine as she escapes capture from her enemies. The poor guy had no idea what he was in for! Even with Eyelet and her total disregard for other people's privacy or some of the churlish questions that spills out of her mouth, I couldn't help but find myself amused by the dynamics between these two, as something deeper begins to develop between them. I also like that they're not a conventional couple. Eyelet has her nettlesome qualities and Urlick isn't your usual drop-dead gorgeous Prince Charming, having experienced injuries during his birth that marred his appearance. I found their relationship very unique and refreshing.
Again, I just can't get over how rich the setting is. It's an original world packed with amazing qualities, flavored with a healthy dose of magic and steampunk. Here and there you will find all sorts of quirky mechanical creations and bizarre creatures -- some that are helpful like Eyelet's ravens, others that aren't so friendly like the zombie/ghoul-like Turned. There's also a good chunk of the book where Eyelet is holed up at Urlick's place, trapped there because of the dangerous Vapours storms, where she discovers all sorts of gadgets and other wonky inventions designed and constructed by the strange boy. Even though this section was a slower break from the action, I was kept interested, never knowing what Eyelet would find next in Urlick's hideout.
I very much appreciated the nice blend of fantasy with the action-adventure elements of this one. And I was honestly surprised with the quality of the writing and storytelling; whatever polish it requires is very minimal, and as a whole the story was presented exceptionally well and flowed naturally. I wouldn't have devoured this book so quickly if it hadn't, and certainly the fun factor of the plot didn't hurt. I knew I was hooked when as soon as I finished the book, I went online and checked if there was an estimated release date for the next book. Alas, it won't be for a while yet, but definitely something to look forward to.(less)
The world knows our main protagonist as Eon, a twelve-year-old boy training hard to be the next Dragoneye apprentice. To be chosen by one of the twelve revered energy dragons of good fortune is a great honor; each year many boys vie for the position to serve as the conduit between the dragons and the mortal world. But there is more to Eon than meets the eye. In truth, Eon is actually Eona, a sixteen-year-old girl masquerading as a boy because females are prohibited from using dragon magic. If anyone discovered her secret, she would be killed on the spot.
Stories involving girls disguised as boys are certainly nothing new, so what made this one special? Well, I suppose I’ve always enjoyed fantasy inspired by Asian cultures. In the world of Eon: Dragoneye Reborn, the influence of Chinese and Japanese mythological traditions makes itself apparent from the start. There are twelve energy dragons, for example, each associated with an animal of the Chinese zodiac – rat, ox, tiger, etc.
In Chinese philosophy too, the concept of yin and yang is an important one. Used to describe complementary forces rather than opposing ones, it has also been applied to the many natural dualities found in our everyday life -- light and dark, fire and water, the sun and the moon, life and death, and so on and so forth. Another one to remember is male and female. What struck me with regards to Eon/Eona’s story is the author’s approach to the concept of masculine and feminine energies, and what that ultimately meant for the character and the dragon that chose her. I was surprised that for a young adult novel, especially one which supposedly is just about a girl pretending to be a boy, the themes in it are surprisingly layered.
But okay, enough waxing philosophical from me. You probably want to know about the juicier bits, like with the magic and the dragons, the action and the epic sword fights. The setting Alison Goodman has created is absolutely gorgeous, with a heavy Far Eastern flavor but also bolstered with her own creative touches, the world’s magical history and dragon lore being one of the many highlights. Many YA novel plots also boast political intrigue, but this is probably one of the few I’ve come across that had delivered on that promise, and better yet, the consequences actually mattered and had a profound impact.
Also, the fact there wasn’t an overt romantic side plot was to me a feature, not a bug. Granted, there is some setup for a possible love interest and romance in the sequel, but this first book is mostly concerned with the main character’s personal journey to find herself and connect with her energy dragon, as well as to come to terms with her own disability (her hip is malformed due to a childhood injury). To be honest, I couldn’t be happier with this. I like romance, but I wouldn’t want to see it come at the expense of character development – or worse, in the form of insta-love or some other form of an awkward, stilted relationship. This way, I thought we got a much better idea of who Eon/Eona is as a person.
I wouldn’t say this book was perfect; the storytelling could have used some tightening up, especially in the middle where the plot wandered and did some meandering. But overall this was probably one of the more entertaining and unique YA novels I’ve read so far this year, featuring characters that have a surprising amount of depth, and that includes the villains too. Plot-wise, the structure and some of the concepts aren’t entirely original, but I don’t know if you should let that stop you. If the Asian inspired world appeals to you, or if you’re looking for a book that portrays dragons in interesting ways, then I would recommend this.(less)
Stolen Songbird was my top anticipated young adult novel coming out from Strange Chemistry this year, and I have to say all the lusting and the pining has been worth it. Author Danielle L. Jensen opens up a whole new world for readers who love magic, romance, and enchanted lands.
Buried deep within the Forsaken Mountain lies Trollus, a city forgotten by time. It is said that monstrous trolls live there, bound by a witch's curse. However, on the night before Cécile de Troyes is about to embark on her journey to become a famous singer, she is kidnapped and taken to Trollus, where she discovers there is far more to what she thinks she knows about the trolls and their city. For one thing, they're not all hideous monsters. The troll prince she is supposed to marry is actually pretty good looking! But one thing the legends got right is that trolls are talented magic users -- the more pure their blood is, the stronger their ability. Even all the magic in Trollus cannot break the curse and set the trolls free, however. Cécile and Prince Tristan's union was supposed to be the key, but the plan ends up failing, leaving Cécile a prisoner in Trollus, biding her time and waiting for the perfect moment to escape.
But over the weeks, Cécile inevitably falls for Tristan. How I just loved the way their relationship developed! Instead of the usual formula of treating each other horribly but then falling head over heels in love anyway (a trope which is a big pet peeve of mine), Cécile finds out that the prince really isn't such a bad troll after all. In fact, he's secretly championing the rights of the half-bloods, who are part troll and part human, treated as nothing more than slaves and property by the arrogant pure-bloods. So while Cécile and Tristan may at each other's throats in public, it's actually all a part of a brilliant plan they've hatched up to throw off suspicion. What a delightful little twist to the usual YA romance.
The story also has just enough of that "Forbidden Love" vibe to it so that I just can't help myself. I like romances a lot more when they are hindered by outside forces rather than internal ones like misunderstandings between the lovers (Tristan and Cécile aren't completely innocent of this, but at least it was kept to a minimum) and the relationships usually emerge stronger and more compelling to me. Of course, the author also leaves their relationship mercilessly hanging in the first book, making you wonder what will become of the hero and heroine, but this meant she succeeded in building a lot of interest in these two characters.
There are also plenty of little surprises all over this book. One thing that is sort of a "twist", but not really -- and I'm sorry if I'm being vague but I think it would be best if it comes as a surprise to others the same way it did for me -- is the nature of the trolls.
It did occur to me as I was making my way through the story to wonder the creatures are called trolls in the first place. They are smart, quick, have super strength and magic powers, but apart from a few exceptions in the royal family, they appear mostly human. And that's when the author began to drop certain clues and I had one of those "AHA!" moments where I realized where she's going with all this. Well played, Ms. Jensen, well played! Like I said, I don't think it's meant to be some big twist because once you start catching the hints it becomes pretty obvious what she has in mind, but in that moment of clarity I started to get really excited about the future of this series.
In fact, Stolen Songbird is an excellent start all around, the first of a trilogy that builds a good framework and promises even bigger things to come. I would like to know what happens to Tristan and Cécile, but I'm especially pumped for more about the troll origins story. It goes without saying, I'm all in for book two!(less)
Behold, the Young Adult sequel. This is where the real test is for me. First books of a series have the advantage of being new and shiny, and I can usually be won over by the prospect of exploring a brand new world full of fresh and interesting ideas. Second books admittedly have to work a little harder, not only because my expectations are higher now, but also because so many sequel plots invariably end up falling into a very predictable pattern.
So how does Crown of Midnight stack up? Well, in a nutshell, I can’t say it wowed me, and I probably liked it less than the first book. That being said though, I think it’s better than a lot of YA sequels, and despite the shameless rehashing of some of the same tired old tropes, there were still a couple of big surprises that kept the story entertaining.
The bottom line is, I am so done with YA romances. Girl meets boy, and if by book two they haven’t fallen in love already, this is where they will do so. Then invariably, boy will go and do something incredibly dumb – the result of a momentary lapse of judgment or just a gross failure of miscommunication – which causes girl to go ballistic on boy, throwing the entire future of their relationship in question, thereby also keeping the tension of a possible love triangle alive for just teensy bit longer. I can effortlessly name a handful of YA series that follow this pattern just off the top of my head, so I wasn’t surprised to see Crown of Midnight follow suit. Overused formulas suck. They have turned the romantic aspect into the weakest part the book. Nothing kills my enthusiasm and interest in the characters faster. And unfortunately, the book spends way too much time trying to shove the drama of Celaena and Chaol’s relationship down my throat. Maybe I’m just a bitter, jaded curmudgeon, but I just can’t find it in myself to care about such an artificial pairing.
But that’s my rant and the last of the negativity you’ll hear from me. Apart from my issues with the romance, Crown of Midnight was actually a pretty good book. Celaena has won the contest and become the king’s Champion and assassin, but instead of carrying out the king’s orders, she finds increasingly more ways to secretly fight back against his evil will, letting her intended victims go instead (ever notice how YA assassin characters actually do very little killing?) It was a relatively slow plod through the first half of the book, but once you get past this stage with its many clichés and run-of-the-mill romance, things will start to pick up.
I have to say, the plot elements in the later parts saved this book for me. The structure of the story remains somewhat predictable, but it always impresses me to see all the amazing things a writer can do while staying within a certain framework. The second half of the Crown of Midnight becomes a lot more bold and daring, which are certainly qualities I admire in a YA novel. There were a couple of unexpected developments, darker places I didn’t think the book would go. Once the pesky romance was out of the way, you started to get a lot less fluff and a lot more substance. Sarah J. Maas seriously ups her game, building up her world by weaving history and lore and magic into the story, dialing up the intrigue and mystery.
So all right then, sign me up for the third book. Despite a shaky start to this sequel, Maas has built something worthy of continuing with here, and has done some incredible things with her main character. I probably won’t hold my breath for the romantic aspect to improve, but thank goodness there’s so much more to like about this story. It’s definitely going places (literally!) and I look forward to visiting a new setting in the next installment as well as seeing the outcomes of several massive revelations.(less)
Moth and Spark was one of my top anticipated novels of 2014. My gut instinct told me it was going to be a good one, and while my gut might not be the best guide for a lot of things, it has hardly ever steered me wrong when it comes to books. And I was pleased to see to that it was right once again. If anything, Moth and Spark gave me even more than I bargained for.
To understand why I liked it so much, you also have to understand that I've been looking for a book like this for a long time. While I was reading Moth and Spark, a Goodreads friend of mine commented on one of my status updates with: "Fantasy with a romance sub-plot is rare." Indeed it is! Everyone who knows me knows I enjoy a good love story. And I would be reading a lot more romance, except I prefer it combined with other elements, especially from speculative fiction.
What I've always wanted to read was a meaningful and actively engaging romance in a high fantasy, but typically, most of the adult fantasy novels I enjoy merely scratch at the surface of romantic relationships. It's pretty much made me resign myself to the fact that I can only have one without the other. That is until this book came along and filled that void.
Moth and Spark is also different from a lot of romances. Yes, the love between the two main characters features heavily in this book, but at the same time it never lets you forget that both Corin and Tam are organically part of a much bigger story unfolding around them. Their relationship, as suddenly and swiftly as it occurred, is not merely the central focus with just the fantasy setting tacked on; it is part and parcel of the overall plot which involves a rich tapestry of courtly intrigue, back alley conspiracies and impending war, all culminating into a nation hanging in the balance. Together, the crown prince of Caithen and the commoner daughter of a renowned doctor must work together to save their homeland, combining their powers to free the dragons from their bondage to a mad emperor.
That's right, there are dragons. Just when you think things can't get any better, eh?
I think most of all, I loved this book for the wonderful characters that Anne Leonard has created. Call me a softie, but I like it when I see strong and inherently good, decent people find each other and fall in love. I like it when I see lovers like Tam and Corin sacrifice for each other, care for each other, and respect one another. I like that their romance is a partnership, where the chemistry is natural and mutual.
The author is also very adept at world building. She has a way of inserting very detailed information about the environment without encumbering the prose. For instance, I only noticed afterwards that there is actually a good amount of description in the text, but I hardly felt overwhelmed by them at all as I was reading. Anne Leonard accomplishes this by not laying out the background of the world all at once; instead, we gradually get to learn about things like the Empire's history or magical lore as the story progresses.
I could go on and on about a lot of the other aspects that I enjoyed, such as the magic, the dragons and their riders, the king's wizard-assassins (I really liked Joce, who was probably my favorite character after Tam and Corin), the court politics, the formal dances and elegant fashions, the sword fighting scenes and so on, but I should leave some of the more enchanting parts for people to discover for themselves. I will reveal though, that the ending involves quite a gripping scene of a duel on dragonback. Oh yes, this book gets my heart pounding in more ways than one!
Suffice to say I was very impressed with Moth and Spark, which is a debut for Anne Leonard. The novel's story of love and adventure struck the right chord with me, and it's going straight onto my shelf of favorites. I'll definitely be watching this author in the future for more.(less)