Whenever I need a good pick-me-up or book to brighten up my day I always turn to John Scalzi, and he hasn’t let me down yet. I’ve been a big fan of his ever since I read Old Man’s War, and that’s also when I started associating his work with light, humorous sci-fi that’s also accessible and not too overwhelming for someone like me, who is predominantly a fantasy reader and not always in the mood for hard science fiction or heavy techno-jargon. In fact, many of Scalzi’s books were my gateway to the genre; they were perfect for when I was first getting my feet wet and trying to read more sci-fi.
So I was very excited to read Lock In, his latest novel about a future society of robots and humans. Of course, the big twist here is how this robot revolution came about, and the premise is unique and unlike anything I’ve encountered before. Indeed, Lock In is also quite different from all of Scalzi’s previous books – its tone is perhaps more pensive and serious, with a few scientific and technological concepts that are more complex and may be a little more difficult to grasp.
In this near-future setting, the world has survived a virulent flu that has swept across the globe and devastated much of humanity. This deadly new strain of the disease killed many of those infected in the first stage, but some of those who survived were also relentlessly hit with a second stage of symptoms which included acute meningitis. A percentage who went on to survive this second stage found themselves “locked in”, trapped in a state of being fully awake and aware, but having no control over their voluntary nervous systems.
This condition, named Haden’s Syndrome after the president’s wife who was the most famous person afflicted with lock in, was given much attention and a lot of money was thrown at it in the hopes of finding a cure. None was found, but a way to get “Hadens” walking and talking again was developed, thanks to biological advancements in neural networks and technological advancements in robotics. The brains of those locked in were essentially linked up to humanoid personal transports affectionately named “Threeps” (after C-3PO of Star Wars fame), allowing them to interact with the world once more.
Thus Scalzi sets the stage for the real story, which most closely resembles a mystery-suspense. However most of the above background information has to be pieced together as the reader progresses through the book, as we are pretty much dropped right into the thick of things without much explanation upfront. We don’t find out until about a dozen pages in the protagonist of the novel is a Haden himself. It’s rookie FBI Agent Chris Shane’s first couple of days on the job and already he’s thrust into a what looks to be a messy could-be-murder-could-be-suicide case involving an Integrator, who are rare individuals that survived the flu and the meningitis stage and didn’t get locked in, only to develop a brain structure which would allow Hadens to link up their minds to use their bodies as if they were their own or a Threeps’.
As you can see, the concepts in this novel are quite intricate and complex, and I’m actually really impressed Scalzi was able to get all the relevant information across without having to commit the cardinal sin of shameless, wholesale info-dumping all over these pages. After having a peek at several early reviews of Lock In from readers who found themselves slightly lost and confused especially at the beginning of this novel, I was a bit concerned that I would feel the same way, but surprisingly I did not. It’s true that not all the details and answers about the world are available right away, but I still found the story easy to follow and I ultimately liked the way knowledge about Haden’s Syndrome and its history were gradually presented to us. All the information came to light eventually, and it happened very naturally and in a way that didn’t distract from the storytelling.
And while this book is a tale of mystery at its heart, what I liked best about its was its subtle societal themes and messages about topics like disability, ethics in medicine, and other tough questions for a country in which millions suffer from a very expensive and life-altering condition. Scalzi explores the implications of this and the effects that Threeps might have on the population. I’ve always thought of his books as more “popcorn reads”, like with novels such as Redshirts or Agent to the Stars, but Lock In also surprised me with its depth and moments of thoughtfulness.
That being said, this book is still pure Scalzi in terms of his light, easy prose and plenty of humorous and snappy dialogue. Lock In was fun and entertaining, and I had a fantastic time reading this, but I also feel this is a next step for the author. It’s a huge part of what made this book such a great read, because to be honest, as mystery or suspense novels go, it’s not as mysterious or suspenseful as it could be (after all, it was pretty obvious who the bad guy was, and there’s really no having to guess whatsoever). But the writing, the premise of the story along with the background of Haden’s Syndrome and what it means for the world all came together in one perfect package for me. As a result I devoured this book in a bit more than a day and I loved every minute of it.(less)
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)
I think Masks slipped under a lot of radars last year, and even as someone who read the book, I really had no idea what a strong impression it made on me until the sequel Shadows showed up and I found myself wanting to dive right in. I do remember being struck by the richness of the world and magic, and realized that I was very much looking forward to continuing the story of protagonist Mara Holdfast.
One thing I should mention is that while nothing about these books ostensibly scream Young Adult (at least not on the surface – it’s not really obvious from the cover, not published under a YA imprint, and not mentioned in the description), this really does read like a YA series. It’s more than just the age of the protagonist, who is fifteen years old in Shadows and for most of Masks; thematically and stylistically, the way it was written also made me want to categorize the first book as a YA, and book two only furthered my belief. This is neither good nor bad. However, I just think readers going in should be aware of it since it may affect expectations. I personally chose to view and rate this one as YA.
Last we saw her in Masks, Mara had escaped from the mining camps where the tyrannical Autarch sends all those who are labeled traitors and not fit to be part of society. She ends up back at the system of secret coastal caves where a group of underground rebels calling themselves the unMasked Army have made their home. The rebels’ leader has asked Mara to use her gifts to craft special masks for them, which would hide the user’s intent from the Autarch and his Watchers, but untrained and inexperienced with her magic, Mara is frustrated when her attempts to do so fail.
At the same time, a mysterious young man washes up on shore, claiming to be a scout from Korellia, a city long thought to have been lost, sunk beneath the seas. But Chell is even more than he appears, and though the unmasked Army remain wary of him, they allow him to accompany Mara on a dangerous mission back into the city in the hopes of reaching Mara’s father, the Autarch’s Master Maskmaker, in order to glean information about the secrets of his trade.
Like most second books in a dystopian series, this is the point where the danger and desperation starts to really come to the forefront and can be keenly felt by the reader. The Autarch’s forces continue to close in, pushing Mara and her allies to make riskier decisions, and sometimes those decisions lead to disaster. Mara is already an unstable vessel of magic, trying to learn how to handle her one-of-a-kind powers, and just when the slightest spark can set her abilities off, something akin to a mega-ton explosion happens in her life. It was a twist that was wholly unexpected to me, one that I didn’t think the author would carry through, but in retrospect I shouldn’t really have been that surprised. In both Masks and now in Shadows, the story has taken some pretty dark turns, and the emotional trauma transforms Mara into an uncontrollable element, adding unpredictability to her powers which are already little understood.
Mara also grows as a character, in ways that are more than just about her magic. The fact that she is played up to be the most powerful person in Aygrima is still a bit vexing, but it’s also clear from the events in this book that she is far from perfect. To put it simply, some of the decisions she makes are impulsive, inconsiderate, embarrassing, and in several cases, downright dumb. This, however, is not always a negative. Her bad choices indicate vulnerability in her character, showing that despite her staggering power, she’s still just a teenage girl who is prone to mistakes, not to mention she can barely control her gifts. I think it humanizes her and makes her less exasperating than she was in the first book where it almost felt like she could do no wrong.
There are definitely more high points than low points in this novel, though there are still a couple weaknesses I should mention. Despite viewing Masks as YA, I did note that a wider audience can probably appreciate it too, since the nature of the fantasy setting and the characters that E.C. Blake has created sets the book apart. Shadows, however, feels distinctly more YA, if that is a comparison I can make. One example is a not-so-subtle hint of a love triangle which manifests itself into a full-blown LOVE SQUARE within the first 40 pages. It eventually resolves itself, and I won’t spoil how, since that in itself is a pretty interesting side-plot. However, it did bug me a little to see romantic drama worm its way into the picture so soon in the story, when there’s so much else that’s more important in Mara’s life. There are also some very dramatic, very exciting developments in this book, but also large chunks of it that felt drawn out, most of it boiling down to Mara being on the run.
But as you can see, I really enjoyed this for the most part, especially if I’m looking at it as a YA novel. I probably still liked Masks a little more, if I had to compare the two books in the series so far, but Shadows was a worthy sequel and promises to bring even more thrills and delights in the next installment. A 3.5 to 4 star read for me.(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)
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)
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 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)
“Out of the frying pan and into the fire”, so the saying goes to describe going from a bad situation to a worse one, and that’s exactly what happens to Clancy “Big Guy” and his friends after they escape from the Island only to find out that the mainland they hoped to return to is not the home they remembered.
Into the Fire is the follow-up to Peter Liney’s The Detainee, an adult dystopian novel that impressed me by setting itself apart with its dark brutality but also a beautiful, compelling message about love and courage. The most exceptional aspect of the first book was Liney’s ability to tell a story which explored the unpleasant effects of a dystopian environment across multiple age groups, detailing the horrors that befall both the young and the old. The main protagonist himself is sixty-three years old. Along with others who are past their prime, he was banished to the Island with society’s other castoffs like the sick, the dying, and unwanted children.
I admit, I had my doubts when I first found out about Into the Fire. My first thought was, Does The Detainee really need a sequel? After all, I was quite satisfied with the way it ended. Obviously, Clancy, Lena, Jimmy and Delilah managed to find the way off the island with the children they befriended and adopted, and it was the classic moment of triumph as we leave them swimming across the channel towards freedom. It’s always nicer to leave things on a high note, and I might have been content with simply imagining bright and pleasant futures for our beloved Big Guy and the gang as they make brand new happy lives for themselves back on the mainland. Into the Fire, of course, erases those hopes.
However, with a sequel also comes an opportunity for something I didn’t think we were going to get after the end of the first book. Clancy’s past has always been shrouded in mystery, and we knew from occasional mentions that it was a checkered one. When he was younger, his huge stature served him well as a mafia crime boss’ thug, a position which required him to commit no small number of unsavory “errands” for the crooked Meltoni. Decades later, upon his return to the radically changed mainland, Clancy must turn to his old life again in order to help his friends survive and also save the woman he loves.
Clancy always was a captivating character and narrator for me, with many more years of experiences under his belt than most protagonists. Going back to some of those years and finding out more about his life working for the mob was one of the highlights of this novel. In my mind he was always like a Clint Eastwood, someone you wouldn’t want to mess with no matter what his age. Despite his desire to turn over a new leaf, his fierce loyalty also makes him capable of showing no mercy to those who would do his loved ones harm. It was interesting to see that young or old, Clancy was and still is a force to be reckoned with.
Into the Fire was thus a worthy follow-up, but The Detainee was a strong debut that was hard to beat. We went from a small island where the dynamics and everyday dangers were well understood to a large city where too much seemed to be happening at once. It was hard to visualize this society and figure out how everything was supposed to work, and it really wasn’t clear to me how scattered pockets of the city such as doctors’ offices, sushi bars, gaming arcades etc. could still be operating like nothing was out of the ordinary while most of the place burned and crumbled, with hordes of sick people wandering the streets, refugees looting stores left and right, and Infinity just gunning down people indiscriminately.
While the setting wasn’t as coherent as it was in The Detainee, that was probably my only stumbling block. I love the story and the characters, and we get lots of development into both in Into the Fire. Peter Liney takes this world he has created and carries its background and history even further, which is something I really wanted to see, and this book sees some major changes in the characters’ lives and I couldn’t even begin to guess where the author will take us next. This is shaping up to be a fascinating series, one I would recommend for fans of dystopian fiction looking for something different.(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)
One of my greatest fears is being lost in space, helplessly drifting forever in the endless dark until you either die of thirst or starvation or run out of air, and it’s this idea of dying so utterly alone and far from home that gives me the major heebie-jeebies. Those scenes in movies like Deep Impact or Armageddon where those poor bastards get blasted off the asteroid or get their tethers cut loose and they go flying off into the abyss? Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity? OH MY GOD.
No, you couldn’t pay me enough to go into space. Obviously, I’ve never had any designs to be an astronaut. Being caught at the center of a space disaster would be like my worst nightmare. But for some reason, I sure as hell love reading about them. And as space disaster/survival tales go, I gotta say The Martian is one of the best I’ve ever read.
So, rule number one of space disaster story: Nothing ever goes as planned. NASA’s latest Mars exploration mission is over before it even began, when a dust storm and a terrible accident forces the crew to head home and leave their presumed dead friend and colleague Mark Watney behind. But Watney, being ever resourceful, actually manages to survive. Now he’s stranded on the red planet with no way to contact Earth and NASA to tell them he’s alive, but even if he manages that, the next mission to Mars isn’t for another four years and he’ll run out of food long before then.
What follows is an incredible tale of Watney’s survival, using only his wits and astounding ingenuity to problem solve his way out of this mess, one life-threatening catastrophe at a time. Heck, this whole book is an engineer’s wet dream. I’m no rocket scientist, but author Andy Weir knows what he’s talking about, and even if he doesn’t, it sure sounds pretty convincing. The book gets technical at times, yes; Mark Watney’s character, being an engineer and a botanist, puts his knowledge of his fields to good use, making the most of what he has (mainly a habitat, rover, and other limited supplies) to find a way to contact earth and stay alive. He’s a man with a plan and it involves growing a crap ton of Martian potatoes. We’re kept up with all the procedures and calculations of making this possible, from Point A to Point B, so there’s a lot of scientific details and explanations. I don’t know how I would have received this book if I’d been reading the physical copy. Maybe I would have been tempted to skim, but because I listened to the audiobook, all the techno-jargon didn’t bother me too much.
The big surprise? This book was actually funny. I don’t know if I could have taken all the science and technical bits without the laughs. If I’m going to read about a person stranded on Mars for years with no one but his lonesome, I’m glad it was someone like Mark Watney. He’s so down-to-earth (in a manner of speaking) and so human. One of my favorite lines in the book was his self-deprecating observation that it wasn’t so much Mars trying to kill him but his own stupidity (but of course he’s far from stupid!) It’s hard to keep things light in a survival story, but as it was explained in the novel, Watney was partly chosen for the crew for his amicable nature. Without a doubt, this book wouldn’t have been the same with another personality in his place. I love his sense of humor and the random smartass quips about Aquaman, 70s disco, duct tape and whatever thoughts a person entertains himself with when he’s stuck by himself on Mars. You can’t help but root for the guy. I also don’t usually comment on audiobook narration, but I have to make an exception here and praise R.C. Bray’s performance. You can tell sometimes when a narrator is having fun and actually enjoying the book they’re reading; Bray’s enthusiasm comes through when he’s speaking in Watney’s voice, and he brings the character to life.
For a book of its type, The Martian is gripping, tension-filled but also unexpectedly feel-good, nowhere near as dry as it could have been. Interspersed between Watney’s scenes on Mars and his mission logs are also scenes on earth where NASA is going apeshit since finding out Watney’s still alive and that he’s stranded. The idea of a whole country’s eyes on one man, holding their collective breaths and cheering for the best outcome, and even another nation stepping in to help bring him home…well, it’s stirring and heartwarming.
This is one smart book, complete with cool premise and engaging characters. And you don’t have to have a degree in astrophysics to enjoy it, just a pulse. Check out this book and let take you on a rollercoaster ride of emotions; it’s well worth it. It definitely satisfied my love of space disaster stories without being too grim, and offered just enough tension to make me squirm.(less)
I’ve actually not read the first book of the Brilliance Saga, but was reassured when told I could read A Better World without having to tackle Brilliance first. And that was absolutely correct. Not once did I feel lost or confused, thanks to a detailed recap of prior events in introduction chapters. As a new reader, that’s always appreciated (and I’m sure those familiar with the series might also find the reminders helpful, if it’s been a while since you read book one).
Taking place in the not-too-far future, this series is based on the premise that 1% of the population are born as “Brilliants”, individuals who possess special abilities allowing them to do some pretty amazing things. After 30 years, this has created a growing social chasm between these exceptional people and the vast majority who are “norms”. As with the case of most societies where such a divide occurs, you have dissension and a clashing of ideologies. And then you get the violence.
Fear has led the government to clamp down on brilliants, leading some of the extremist groups to fight back. A terrorist organization of brilliants called the Children of Darwin have shut down Cleveland, Tulsa, and Fresno, cutting off power and supplies to these cities. Nick Cooper, former anti-terrorism agent and a brilliant himself, has been called in by the president to help stop those responsible and to prevent a civil war.
Those who have read Brilliance would already be familiar with Cooper, though I was only meeting him for the first time. As a character, he makes a fascinating study. He’s a brilliant, but also a dedicated to hunting down abnorms involved in terrorist activity. The crimes perpetrated by the Children of Darwin go against everything he stands for, but the methods used by the government for controlling brilliants have also proven questionable, like taking Tier 1 children from their parents and placing them in “academies” which are nothing more than maximum security prison camps and brainwashing facilities. Cooper has realized that the situation isn’t black and white, and has already shifted alliances once. The questions and the indeterminate grey areas continue, and because things are never as they seem, you never know what’s going to happen next. Cooper, who has always believed in doing the right thing, is placed in one moral dilemma after another when he realizes he could be harming more people than he saves.
Even good intentions can lead to disastrous consequences, and I think it’s this theme which makes Cooper’s personality easier to take, separating him from the multitudes of do-gooder protagonists from a lot of other books. He came across initially as a rather self-righteous and naïve character, but by the end I could hardly fault him, as he goes through a rather rough time learning these difficult lessons. There were several tremendous game-changing developments I hardly saw coming, which just thickens the plot. As tensions between norms and abnorms continue to escalate, and the population in the besieged cities grow ever more desperate, I started to wonder if war really was inevitable. The ending will probably shock you as it did me.
There were only a couple issues that took away some of the impact, which I think bears mentioning. In the book, the government was able to mobilize 75,000 troops in a matter of hours to the rural plains of Wyoming, but then struggles to find enough manpower to shift and transport food to three mid-sized cities full of starving people even after a week? I don’t know if I buy that. Debating plausibility in a science fiction novel is probably a moot point, but the story still takes a hit in my eyes, mainly because the plight of Cleveland plays such a huge role. I also love the idea of brilliants, and the explanations for individual powers are pretty unique; in many of the cases, they are based on principles of science and physiology. A woman can become “invisible”, for example, moving unseen simply by being able to predict exactly when to move where no one will be looking. A man seemingly moves at super human speeds, but only because he perceives time differently than everyone else, experiencing each one second as slightly more than eleven. In contrast, I wasn’t entirely clear on the nature of Cooper’s own gift, which involves “reading intent”; perhaps it was better explained in the first book, but rather than a brilliant, he really just came across as a regular guy who was extraordinarily bright and perceptive.
Otherwise, I thought this was very enjoyable. While jumping on board mid-series might work with this book, it may not be possible for the next. A Better World does end on a pretty serious cliffhanger, and author Marcus Sakey sets us up for big things in book three. I can’t wait to see how things will resolve after that climactic ending.(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)
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)
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)
Some books start off with a shaky opening but then end up getting better as the story gains momentum, but other times there are books like Unwept that go the opposite way. These books manage to capture my attention right off the bat and get me invested with an interesting premise, but then they stumble and lose me about halfway through. The magic fizzles out and I can’t get it back.
I have my inklings as to why this might have been the case with Unwept. Thing is, I love being teased with a bit of mystery. And this book did that very well, starting off by painting a baffling yet very intriguing picture. A girl named Ellis Harkington comes to herself in the middle of a train ride accompanied by a nurse and baby, but has no memory of how she got there or any of her life before this moment. She arrives at a remote seaside town named Gamin where everyone seems to know her better than she knows herself, but she can’t even recognize any of their faces. A group of young men and women called the Nightbirds — who claims to be a literary society – welcome her back into the fold with open arms, and yet for a literary society they don’t seem all that interested in books…
Then there are the nightmares. Ellis dreams of clouds of moths and visitations from a strange soldier with a paisley-shaped mark on his face. There’s also talk of terrible things happening all over town, like a devastating fire, missing people, and the discovery of mutilated bodies pointing to a ruthless killer on the loose. And why are there no children in town? There this real sense of unease and foreboding. The atmosphere is practically humming with anticipation. The stage is set for something great, and you know deep down in your gut that this book has got to be building up to something huge.
Well. It didn’t really happen. At least, not for me. You must understand, this book had me wrapped around its finger and I was completely under its control and prepared to fall head over heels in love with it. I cannot give enough praise to the first half of this novel; it was fantastically well written and constructed to give the reader a perfect foundation. I simply adored the first 150 pages or so. But not long after that, the plot started fraying at the edges.
Unfortunately, being plied with all that escalation with ultimately not much payoff has a way of making me feel a bit grumpy. I’m also disheartened by the lost potential of this story. The book could only maintain the suspense for so long before I started questioning where it was trying to go and what it was trying to say. I had the sneaking suspicion that I was being led on a wild goose chase. Not long after that, I finally had to admit to myself that I really had no idea what was going on. By the time some answers were forthcoming, I don’t know if I felt as invested or engaged in the outcome anymore. The revelations were certainly eye-opening, but it’s a classic case of “too little too late.” I just can’t decide if the disappointment hurt more or less because the story had such a strong and promising start.
Unwept is also the first book of a series, and – unsurprisingly, perhaps – it has the stamp of a “Book One” all over it. Don’t expect any satisfying or clear-cut answers. Instead of growing and expanding, the story seemed to shrink back in on itself. There is mystery at the beginning, and there will still be mystery at the end, and probably more blanks and question marks than you started out with. It’s hard to tell now, but I think I might have had a more positive reaction to the book if I had known to rein in my expectations a little.
In the end, I don’t think Unwept is a bad book. The sheer enjoyment I got out of the first part of it is a testament to that. It’s also such a quick read that if you’re even remotely interested in the description, I would say it is well worth your time, as the average reader can probably knock it out in one or two sittings. It has a fascinating premise, and I have no doubt it’ll work for a lot of readers. I just personally wish I been better prepared for its peculiar pacing.(less)
Cyberpunk is another one of those science fiction subgenres that have been more miss than hit with me in the past, but that hasn’t stopped me from giving more of it a try, hoping to find something that’s more my liking. So even after my inability to get into William Gibson’s Neuromancer – a book considered a seminal work in the cyberpunk field – I still decided to check out Tomorrow and Tomorrow, which has been described as leading in the next wave following in the footsteps of Gibson.
Indeed, in the classic cyberpunk tradition, the book has its setting in a near-future dystopian with elements of hard-boiled detective film noir and overall a very bleak worldview. The city of Pittsburgh is a pile of rubble and ash after its destruction by terrorists in a nuclear blast. Ten years later, survivor John Dominic Blaxton still mourns his wife and unborn child while most of the world has moved on. Our protagonist is a marginalized loner, addicted to drugs as much as he is addicted to his memories of his lost life by immersing himself in the Archive where he can relive moments with his wife in a fully interactive digital reconstruction of Pittsburgh.
Dominic’s work also involves investigating deaths recorded in the Archive for insurance companies. One day, while pursuing a claim, he becomes obsessed with the apparent murder of a young woman when he discovers that her records have been tampered with, evidence that someone is trying to cover up the circumstances of her death. His digging around doesn’t go unnoticed. Like many cyberpunk protagonists, John finds himself manipulated by higher forces and trapped into a situation where he has little control.
Thomas Sweterlitsch has created a future where technology runs rampant. Everyone has an adware implant in their head and access to information is near ubiquitous. People have become wholly dependent on the computer chips in their brains, and the result is a dehumanized society with a strong sense of disenchantment and nihilism. Feeds run continuously in an endless stream, with up-to-the-second news updates. Grisly details of accidents or crime scenes are made public at the speed of an eye blink, along with the darker secrets of the victims’ lives. The society eats up their sex tapes as voraciously as they revel in the graphic violence.
It’s this brutal, emotionally numbing aspect of cyberpunk that makes it so hard for me to click with this genre. Strangely enough, I can handle most kinds of gritty, dark fantasy without issue, but these near-futures and the negative effect of technology on human society have a way of cutting too close for comfort. All everyone seems to care about anymore is pornography and violence, and it is so off-putting not to mention mentally draining. The themes of grief and loss are also at the forefront of this novel, which makes reading it a real struggle if you’re not feeling in the mood for something so despairing. It’s hard to watch Dominic go through life relying so heavily on the Archive; instead of helping, the technology has pretty much halted his healing all together, and he hangs on to his grief like his wife died yesterday instead of a decade ago.
This wasn’t a bad novel, however. I thought the world-building was fantastic and the mystery, hardboiled noir and crime thriller elements were done very well. This is a story about a man destroyed by tragedy and the events that ultimately pulled him out of his funk and allowed him to move on, but it is for the most part a very stark, very depressing and sometimes disturbing book. I don’t regret reading it and I would recommend this to cyberpunk fans, but consider holding off if you’re in the mood for something lighter.(less)
I’m a pretty fast reader, but Shattering the Ley still took me about a couple months to read, due to the fact I started it earlier this summer right around the time when things got really busy. I was only able to read it in small chunks over the weeks, though it’s actually a very interesting book with well-developed characters and a good foundation in place when it comes to world building. That said, apparently it wasn’t a “must drop everything to read this now” kind of novel for me either, seeing how long it took for me to complete.
The story takes place in Erenthrall, one of many large cities powered by the Nexus and a system of magical ley lines. This also links Erenthrall to the world beyond. Specialists called Prime Wielders control the Nexus and the ley lines, maintaining and protecting the infrastructure, but it is the all-powerful Baron who controls the Wielders. Seeking to overthrow the Baron and destroy the ley system, rebels who call themselves the Kormanley are carrying out attacks across the city, shaping the future of Erenthrall and forever changing the lives of many.
The story is told in multiple parts, following several characters through different stages of their lives. Kara is first introduced to us as a young child, but later on in the book we see her as a young woman coming into her power as a Wielder, then finally as a Prime. Likewise, we follow another character named Allen, a “Dog” in the Baron’s guard who goes from being a green recruit to a fugitive on the run with his infant daughter. The timeline skips ahead at least twice during the course of this novel; the first time it jumps ahead by about two years, but the second time it jumps ahead by about twelve.
Time jumps like these are necessary sometimes to tell a story, but they can also be quite dicey. There’s the risk of the reader becoming detached from the characters, and to some extent I think that’s what happened for me. I never really felt connected to Kara, despite practically watching her grow into adulthood. The same goes for Allen because I felt we missed out on too much of his life, especially in the twelve years since he was exiled and had to raise his child by himself. People change after all that time, and I couldn’t help but wonder about those untold years.
To the book’s credit, very little of the story is given to filler. There’s a lot happening, constantly driving the plot forward, and the political intrigue and ideological conflicts between the clashing factions keep things fresh and engaging. There are many intense scenes, often followed by effects that are significant in the long run. But another obstacle that kept me from being completely immersed was the complexity of the ley line system and the fact it wasn’t explained very well. I wasn’t exactly sure how the Nexus and the ley lines were powering the city, or how the Wielders’ abilities worked specifically in controlling this system. Like I said, we were given a pretty good starting point for the idea, but I still had many questions. No doubt more can be built upon this premise. And the great thing is, I think it has a lot of potential.(less)