Snowed is a story about Christmas, but it is definitely not like your usual schmaltzy Christmas book. It stars Charity Jones, a sixteen-year-old biracial student with a natural talent for all things science and engineering. At her high school in a conservative county of California though, this only gets her mercilessly bullied because she is different. Thankfully, for Charity there’s one bright spot in this bleak situation: Aidan, the sweet mild-mannered teen runaway whom her family takes in as a foster child. No one know where Aidan came from, but it is clear that he is running away from something—something terrible.
Still, despite his reluctance to share much about his past, Aidan and Charity wind up hitting it off and they quickly fall in love. Things actually start looking up for Charity, but of course this respite doesn’t last. The community is shaken one day, when the body of Charity’s worst bully is found behind the bleachers, savaged and torn apart. The authorities are quick to suspect a wild animal attack, but Charity isn’t so sure. After all, unbeknownst to the rest of the school, she was actually the first one to find the victim, and there was something strange she saw at the scene…
First, I want to go into the positives of this book, and there are certainly many. Number one is diversity. Kudos to the author for doing her best to include perspectives from all walks of life, even though her approach can be pretty heavy-handed at times, almost like she was making sure to check off all the boxes on a #diversereads checklist. Having main characters that reflect and honor the lives of all people is always wonderful though, and something to be celebrated especially in the young adult genre.
I also liked how Snowed was a Christmas story for those who might be looking for something other than the usual feel-good and campy holiday-themed books that flood the market around this time of the year. Personally, I love the festive atmosphere around Christmastime, but hey, it’s also okay to have a “bah humbug” moment every now and then. If you ever feel the need to take break from the holiday madness and the constant barrage of holiday-themed music and TV hitting you from all directions, then this book is the answer. Forget the warm and fuzzy feelings, because this is one dark book that likely won’t be filling you with the holiday cheer by the time it’s over. On the other hand, how cool is it that we get a story that explores Krampus lore and presents a darker, more sinister side to the figure of Santa Claus?
And now for the things that didn’t work so well for me. The big one was the extreme-to-the-point-of-contrived stereotypes. All the horrible people at school bullying Charity are of course the jock and cheerleader types, all of them white, bible-thumping and gun-happy ignorant rednecks according to our protagonist. The irony is that Charity frequently comes off as even more judgmental and patronizing as the people she rails against. There are also very few responsible and admirable adult characters, which is a pet peeve of mine when it comes to YA. Charity and her friends paint the police as a bunch of incompetent meatheads, while Charity’s parents are portrayed as a couple of dopes in denial, helpless in stopping her deranged psychopath of a brother hurt her and everyone she loves. The teachers are also apparently too busy planning their own holidays (or worrying about new charter schools opening in their county, threatening their precious hegemony) that they can’t be bothered to do anything about serious problems like bullying and death threats to their students.
In fact, the narrative tries very hard to make you think that Charity and her little “enlightened” group are the only ones capable of getting anything done. Not only was this unrealistic, it just made Charity and all her friends intensely unlikable. Furthermore, Charity also can’t help but remind readers every other chapter that she’s into science, robotics and technology (yet apparently not computer savvy enough to prevent her own email account from getting hacked). I agree we need to encourage girls and young women to enter and succeed in the STEM fields, but there’s no subtlety at all in the way the author is trying to prop up her protagonist as a poster child for the cause.
Finally, I didn’t like the romance. In my opinion, the instalove and Charity’s dramatics actually undermined a lot of what the story was trying to achieve, removing some of Aidan’s mystique. After knowing him for little more than a week, Charity professes to love Aidan so much that she can’t live without him, that she “dies every minute” they’re not together, or that losing him would be like the worst thing that’s ever happened to her (even worse than when Grandma Jones passed away!) In retrospect, the overwrought and sentimental adolescent language probably didn’t help either.
That said, overall I had a good time with Snowed. Ultimately it’s a book with some great ideas but which might be lacking in polish when it comes to execution, though it’s nonetheless impressive especially since we’re talking about a book from a small indie publishing house. Admittedly the story could have been streamlined to bring the horror aspects and Krampus plotline to the forefront while toning down the exposition and romance, but I also have to give it credit for its diverse cast of main characters and the fact that it also explores difficult topics, including a few that don’t get talked about much, like the emotional struggles that families of incarcerated teens go through (and I actually wish this had been given more attention in the book). All told, an interesting read that offers something a little different for the holidays....more
Children of the Different is the fantasy debut from author S.C. Flynn that has been making some waves around the blogosphere, and I was delighted when I discovered that it was also available in audiobook format. The reality of the busy fall season means these days I find myself with less time to curl up with book; it’s much more likely that I’m bustling around listening to one in my ear, rather than actually sitting down turning the pages. Needless to say I immediately leapt upon the opportunity to review this one, especially since I’ve been curious about it for a while.
The first thing that struck me was the uniqueness of the setting. Post-apocalyptic novels are a big trend these days—especially in the Young Adult genre—but Children of the Different manages to avoid clichés and stand out with its offbeat approach. First, I really like that the book takes place in south-western Australia, in a forest where our protagonists live. Arika and her twin brother Narrah were born after “The Great Madness”, a catastrophic event that happened nineteen years ago, unleashing a brain disease that decimated the earth’s population. Curiously though, many of the survivors were those who had brain diseases or mental conditions from the world before, and came out of the Great Madness miraculously cured. Others, unfortunately, were transformed into cannibalistic zombie-like monsters called “Ferals”.
And now, children born into this new reality are at risk. At the start of their adolescence, all of them must experience a trance called the “The Changing”, a process which sends their consciousness into a dreamscape. At the end of that journey, they either emerge endowed with a special mental power…or they become Feral. After the intro of this book, both Arika and Narrah have come out of their Changings, thankfully with their minds intact, but the things they saw in the Changeland have shaken them, terrified them. A malicious force known as the Echidna, or the anteater, has fixated its attention on the twins. In order to survive, the siblings will have to rely on their newfound powers, and their love for each other, to face and defeat this nebulous new threat.
I’ll admit, because so much of the beginning dealt with the Changing and what our characters experienced in the Changeland, it took me a while to find my bearings and get a feel for this story. I don’t always do well with metaphysical themes in fantasy, and many of the scenes described during the dreamscape sections came dangerously close to being too weird for me to handle.
My initial confusion ebbed, however, once we got past the introduction and into the meat of the story. I liked how the author linked the concept of the Great Madness and the Changing to the post-apocalyptic world, creating a premise which feels at once familiar and but also very fresh. It’s a nice blend of many genres, with themes from both sci-fi and fantasy mingling happily together, and hey, why not throw in some elements from the zombie horror genre as well, or even some survival suspense-thriller?
And no doubt about it, a huge part of the book’s appeal also comes from its atmosphere. I have not been back to Australia in many years, but I still have fond memories of my visit to its cities and wilderness. While the version of Australia in Children of the Different may be a crumbling, lawless place and civilization is virtually nonexistent after the devastation of The Great Madness, S.C. Flynn still retains some of the setting’s charm in the diversity of the landscape, wildlife, and culture of the survivors.
It’s worth noting as well that, even though the book’s description makes no statement whether this is an adult or YA novel, I think it would work well for both audiences. It’s true that this book stars teenage protagonists and has strong coming-of-age vibes, but for readers who are open to those themes, I think this story would have good crossover appeal.
Finally, because I reviewed the audiobook, I just want to end with some comments about the narration. I’m really glad I got to experience the novel in this format, because I the narrator Stephen Briggs was absolutely fantastic. He does amazing accents for the characters, giving readers that extra layer of immersion with his performance. The production team could not have chosen a better reader for this novel, and if you are curious about checking out Children of the Different, I would highly recommend the audio edition....more
I didn’t really expect much from Iron Cast. It’s one of those books where its cover caught my eye while browsing Goodreads one day, and the description sounded interesting enough that it led me to add it to my to-watch list. Afterwards though, I must admit it’d pretty much flown out of my mind— that is, until one day I read a very positive review from Kaja whose blog I follow, and her praise was enough to put this book on my radar again. When the opportunity to review the Iron Cast audiobook came along, I jumped on it, and I am very glad I did.
The story is a historical fantasy that takes place in Boston. The year is 1919 and the city’s club scene is full of life, even as the country teeters on the cusp of the Prohibition Era. In underground venues all over, hemopaths entertain patrons on stage. They are the “blood afflicted” ones, gifted—or cursed, depending on your point of view—with the ability to create illusions and affect emotions through art. Best friends Corinne and Ada are two such talented individuals, employed at Johnny Dervish’s Cast Iron Club. By night, Corinne recites beautiful poetry while Ada plays mesmerizing tunes on her violin, but by day, the two young women work their magic as con artists.
Our protagonists aren’t exactly proud of what they do, but it’s a rough world out there for hemopaths and they have to take certain measures to keep themselves and their families safe. Ada and Corinne rationalize that they are cheating and stealing only from the people who deserve it, using the funds to hide the secret of their abilities and what they do for Johnny Dervish. Hemopaths using their abilities is illegal, and those captured are taken to institutions where inhumane experiments take place on prisoners under the pretense of rehabilitating them and making them “fit” to enter society again. One day after a botched job, Ada finds herself thrown into one such place, the nightmare that is Haversham Asylum. Corinne manages to break her out, but upon returning to the Cast Iron, the two of them discover to their horror that even worse misfortunes have befallen their friends at their beloved club.
In many ways, this book reminded me of a lot of Lee Kelly’s A Criminal Magic, another novel I read this year about illegal sorcery as a form of entertainment in clandestine nightclubs, which also takes place around this historical time period. While I enjoyed that one quite a bit, I do think Iron Cast managed to handle several elements with a lot more flair and energy. First of all, the setting: Destiny Soria really captured the essence of 1919 Boston in her descriptions of the people and places, from the poor and downtrodden in the urban tenements to the glitz and glamour of the city’s elite. It’s also an era of tumultuous politics, which is subtly but unmistakably reflected in the social climate portrayed in the story. The nature and soul of the time and place is so important for me when it comes to historical fiction, and in my opinion, the author nailed it. As I listened to the audio, I could practically feel the atmosphere oozing from every word.
Second, I adored Soria’s approach to the theme of female friendship. I know that’s a term that gets thrown around a lot, especially in YA where perhaps more readers are seeking out stories that feature strong friendships as a counterbalance to the genre’s heavy emphasis on romance. I’ve been drawn to books before that claim “female friendship” only to be disappointed the moment a guy steps in and overshadows that relationship (Truthwitch is an example that immediately comes to mind) so you can understand why I went into this one with no small amount of skepticism. Thankfully, those turned out to be unfounded. Corinne and Ada are indeed the best of friends and the strength of their bond was apparent from the get go. The two of them come from very different worlds—Corinne’s parents are prominent and wealthy members of the Boston elite and her brother is running for political office, while Ada is the daughter of two hardworking but impoverished immigrants and her father has been jailed for a crime he did not commit.
It may seem like a cliché for two girls from such different walks of life to bond over their shared hemopathy, but there’s so much more to their friendship than that. Corinne and Ada provide each other comfort and support, but each character also shows time and time again that she is willing to put the other’s safety and happiness above her own. That unconditional love means that they are aware of each other’s foibles and they even joke about how they drive each other up the wall—but all it does is make that loyalty stronger.
All told, I thought this was a great novel and a rather happy surprise. The audiobook was a great way to experience the story, with Christine Marshall’s narration bringing to life all the beauty and magic of Boston in the post-WWI era. I enjoyed her accents and intonations for the various characters and the way her smooth reading kept even the slower, more understated parts of the story moving along at a smart pace. A fantastic debut and highly recommended....more
On the face of it, the premise behind this book resembles something which might have resulted from an ill-considered bet, quite possibly after a wild night of tequila shots. “Duuuuuude, what if you made Breaking Bad take place during the French late Baroque period? Except everything’s, like, totally in the future? You could have Marie Antoinette peddling pep pills out of her panniers! Bet you couldn’t write a story about that.”
“Just watch me!” says my imaginary Aprilynne Pike. And so, we have Glitter, a novel featuring a weird cocktail of historical and futuristic elements, where you will frequently find things like tablets or servitor bots mentioned in the same sentence as corsets and petticoats. All of this is set to the backdrop of the Versailles, where the interiors have been transformed back to their 18th century royal court-and-pomp glory. While modern day life outside the palace goes on as normal, inside its marbled walls the people live much differently, dressing, acting, talking and even eating like it’s still the 1700s.
The reason for this bizarre scenario is soon given, and seriously, you have to read it to believe it. Sometime in this world’s past, a global famine swept the planet, and the only way people survived was thanks to a new kind of crop seed developed and sold by Sonoma Inc. The company then became so stinking rich that, when France fell into massive debt and started offering up its landmarks for sale out of sheer desperation, Sonoma jumped at the chance to purchase the Versailles under the guise of a historical society. After screwing France out of one its most beloved heritage sites, they decided to rename it Sonoma-Versailles and the palace became sort of its own little corporation-kingdom. And since the CEO of Sonoma back then was a huge Louis XIV enthusiast, he made himself and everyone that worked for him live like the decadent royals and courtiers did back when his favorite monarch sat the throne (only with all the luxuries of modern technology too, of course). The tradition continued after him, so that now, three generations later, it has become the culture within Sonoma-Versailles.
Understandably, it’s a bit hard to categorize this novel. I’m not even sure how to describe it (is there such a thing as historical sci-fi?) but whatever it is, it’s crazy and weird but also strangely appealing. If you can get past the sheer absurdity and logical gaps (for one thing, how does a company like Sonoma Inc. manage to stay so rich, when all of their top execs are literally doing nothing but LARPing the Court of the Sun King?) then you’ll find this story is actually quite an entertaining read.
Still, perhaps it is because so much convoluted background information was required to explain its ridiculous premise, the actual hook of the story doesn’t even come about until well into the novel. Our protagonist, Danica Grayson, was just a daughter of a low-ranking Sonoma employee until her father unexpectedly inherited an influential position at the palace. Her power-hungry mother Angela immediately uses this an opportunity to groom Dani to catch the eye of King Justin, Sonoma’s current young CEO. The problem is, Justin turns out to be a murdering megalomaniacal psychopath—not that it seems to bother Dani’s mom one bit. In fact, Angela only uses the King’s dirty secrets to blackmail him into agreeing to marry Dani, so that her daughter can become queen.
Desperate to escape her betrothal, Dani seeks out a crime boss in Paris to help smuggle her out of Sonoma-Versailles. Problem is, his fee is enormous, and she can’t come anywhere close to meeting it on her own. So Dani decides to make a bargain with the crime boss: she’ll mix and deal a highly addictive kind of new drug called Glitter for him, under the pretense of selling it as cosmetics to her unsuspecting peers at court. The plan is that they will all get hopelessly addicted to Dani’s new makeup products and keep throwing money at her to buy more of it without ever knowing why, and she will make her fee and be out of there before her wedding to the King.
Okay. So I had one major issue with this book, and after laying out Dani’s situation, you can probably guess what it is.
The blurb for this book compares it to Breaking Bad and I can see why one would draw that parallel. After all, the show’s main character Walter White also had to resort to cooking and selling drugs because he needed the money, even though it is a heinous thing to do. However, Walter still came off as sympathetic character not only because he was in a bad situation, but also because he was initially doing it to secure his family’s future and well-being. Dani, on the other hand, never managed to earn that kind of sympathy from me. Yes, she was in a bad situation too, but foisting a highly dangerous and addictive new drug on her unwitting fellow courtiers without their knowledge or consent, with the express goal to get them hooked so she can get rich fast?
That is APPALLING.
At first, I didn’t like it, but still had to admire Dani for her cajones. She didn’t want to have to marry her psycho King, I get that. But somehow, being in a bad place made her feel justified to put hundreds of others in a bad place too, even after the horrors of watching her own father deal with Glitter addiction. In the end, it was Dani’s complete disregard for innocent human life that really put a damper on my feelings for this book. To her credit, I think the author knew that her protagonist would be a tough sell, and tried to soften the blow by trying to convince us that Dani had no choice, or that she was frequently wracked with guilt. Thing is, I just didn’t buy it. Dani had plenty of opportunities to back out, but she made the conscious decision not to at every single turn.
I also didn’t like the romance too much. It was like a light switched on and Dani and Saber went from hating each other one day to professing their undying love the next. Their relationship was an awkward match right from the start, when Dani was halfway to throwing herself at Saber the moment she laid eyes on him—even though they’d barely spoken two words to each other. If only she had showed even a fraction of that regard for the clueless folks she’s secretly doping up in Sonoma-Versailles.
Glitter was a very interesting book though, I have to give it that. I was intrigued the moment I read its synopsis, not to mention a little skeptical, but Aprilynne Pike pulled it all off with unashamed poise and gusto. The world-building is a bit iffy in places, but I really didn’t mind that too much. My main complaints had to do with the protagonist, and had she been a tad less despicable I probably would have enjoyed this book even more. If the next book promises growth for Dani, I just might be convinced to continue the series....more
If you are a fan of Star Wars, especially the animated The Clone Wars TV series, then Star Wars: Ahsoka is certainly not to be missed. While that show may have ended a couple years ago, many were surprised when Anakin Skywalker’s young Padawan Ahsoka Tano, who left the Jedi Order near the end of the Clone Wars, suddenly resurfaced again in the current run of Star Wars: Rebels. This Ahsoka is older, wiser, and carries a lot more scars. What exactly happened to her during those mysterious intervening years? How did she survive the Jedi slaughter following the execution of Order 66? What led her to join the Rebel Alliance’s fight against the Empire? I was excited to read this book in the hopes that it provide some insights into these questions, and I was not disappointed.
I was also fortunate enough to receive the audio edition of Star Wars: Ahsoka for review. With their high production values, sound effects, and music, Star Wars audiobooks are always a treat, but I have to say the very best part of this one is the narrator, Ashley Eckstein, who was also the voice actress for the Ahsoka on The Clone Wars and Rebels. If you’re on the fence about giving the audiobook version a try, this might end up being the deciding factor. Personally speaking, I thought that listening to Ms. Eckstein read the book gave my experience that extra little “coolness” boost, almost like I was listening to Ahsoka tell her own tale.
The story begins on Empire Day a few years after the end of Revenge of the Sith, where we find Ahsoka hiding out on the planet Thabeska under her new assumed name, “Ashla”. When circumstances force her to go on the run again, she decides to head for the remote moon of Raada, home to a rustic farming community. Here, Ahsoka hopes to continue eking out a quiet and simple life for herself, working as a mechanic. However, that peace is about to be shattered. Thanks to its rich soils and resources, Raada has suddenly come to the attention of the Empire, and the Imperial Navy has moved in to take over the agricultural industry. Needless to say, the locals aren’t too happy with this. The Empire is only interested in quantity over quality, and their crops are destroying the moon and the future of its citizens.
Against her original plans, Ahsoka finds herself unexpectedly pulled into Raada’s rebellion. The new friends she has made are humble farmers, full of anger towards the Empire but inexperienced when it comes to fighting. To prevent any more people from being hurt or killed, Ahsoka decides to help them put together a more organized resistance.
Star Wars: Ahsoka can be enjoyed by anyone, even if you only have a slight familiarity with anything to do with Star Wars, but obviously readers who already have a good knowledge of the character and her roles in the two shows will find it a lot more interesting and emotionally impactful. E.K. Johnston made her story accessible to new readers, but there are also a lot of references and flashbacks to past events—many of which were from The Clone Wars—which will no doubt appeal to fans of Ahsoka.
I imagine writing a Star Wars novel is no small task, especially when you’re tackling such an important and popular character like Ahsoka, but I thought Johnston did a fantastic job. Her writing and storytelling remained true to the Star Wars universe and the protagonist’s personality, detailing the thoughts and actions of the young Togruta. The former student of Anakin Skywalker has come into her own, and even though the Clone Wars has hardened and matured her, she still retains all of her courage and hopeful optimism.
With regards to the story, I felt there were some mild pacing issues, namely at the beginning and at the end of the book. The energy in the first few chapters was definitely a bit on the sluggish side, owing to the fact that the main conflict took too long to be introduced. This is understandable in some ways, since the setting as well as characters have to be established, and Ahsoka herself was trying to keep a low profile. After the first quarter of the book though, the plot’s pacing noticeably picks up. The reader’s patience pays off as the action and excitement gradually builds to an amazing climax. After this point, I actually wished there had been more to the finale! I won’t deny that the ending felt rushed and that the book could have been longer, but those complaints aside, I had an amazingly good time with this novel.
But of course, the biggest reason why you should read this book is all the wonderful and significant moments we get to see involving Ahsoka. We learn how she reestablishes contact with Bail Organa and joins the resistance, earning the codename Fulcrum. We also find out how she obtains her new set of white lightsabers, not to mention the fascinating new lore surrounding Force-attuned crystals.
All that being said, if you are relatively new to the wider world of the Star Wars universe, you can certainly still enjoy this novel for what it is—but I probably wouldn’t recommend starting here. This book feels first and foremost like it was written for an audience already familiar with Ahsoka. Johnston clearly knows and loves the character, and delights in sharing that love with her readers by giving plenty of nods to events that happened in episodes of The Clone Wars. Even if you haven’t seen the TV series you will have a great time, but for fans of the show, it’s the little moments like that which will give you an extra thrill. Needless to say, if you love The Clone Wars and Rebels, this is an absolute must-read, and you will get a well-written and entertaining story as well.
Additional Audiobook Comments: Other than stating how awesome it is that Ashley Eckstein is the narrator for this? She’s also amazing with voices and the fact that she voiced Ahsoka in the shows gave this audiobook an additional layer of immersion. She’s no stranger to voice acting, and her talent shines through in this performance....more
I was surprised how much I enjoyed this one. Last year’s Court of Fives and I didn’t hit it off very well, despite my excitement to read Kate Elliott’s first Young Adult novel. Happily though, this sequel improves upon almost every single issue I had, and I was really glad I decided to give the series another try.
In this world, the Fives is a popular game involving an intricate obstacle course: each adversary moves through through four challenges before tackling the final moving tower puzzle, which must be successfully scaled in order to claim the victory flag at the top. Our protagonist, a young woman of mixed background named Jessamy has achieved her dream of competing in the Fives and is now a Challenger, moving up the ranks and gaining tons of fans. Sadly though, it meant saying good bye to Lord Kalliarkos, the boy she befriended and fell in love with. The young Patron prince is being sent off to war, along with Jes’ father the great General Esladas.
Jes herself is traveling the countryside on tour with her Fives team, earning the money required to support her mother and siblings in secret after helping them escape imprisonment. Her family’s enemies are still out there though, so Jes has to be extra careful not to rouse suspicion, even if it means sneaking off when she’s not supposed to. However, war threatens to unravel all her plans as her traveling party and the fighting meet on a collision path.
I think it would be simplest just to run through all the improvements I felt were made by this sequel, matching them to the criticisms I had with Court of Fives. First, the world-building: I feel like we get a much better grasp of what’s going on in Poisoned Blade. At the end of the last book, the author introduced several elements hinting at a secret history and suggesting that there’s a lot more behind the lore of the Fives. The ideas are further developed here, and we’re also starting to see a lot more connections forming.
Second, the story: maybe it’s because I never found the concept of Fives to be all that interesting, but I was so glad the story in Poisoned Blade started to move away from the game. Instead, the book’s plot focuses more on the bigger picture of what’s happening around the kingdom—war, politics, and the power struggle between all sides. All the backstabbing and conflicts within the royal family are complicated enough to make my head spin, but it makes for a much more compelling story.
Third, the characters: In Court of Fives, Jes was one of the most frustrating protagonists I had ever met. She waffled constantly, which also resulted in a very confusing picture of General Esladas, because it seemed she could never make up her mind whether she admired her father or hated his guts. In my eyes, she also played Kalliarkos mercilessly, persuading him to help her out by goading him or poking at his weak spots. Fortunately, the romance was toned down a lot in this sequel, so there were fewer awkward moments between Jes and Kal. I’ve also come to appreciate General Esladas’ character a little bit more, now that his love for his family is starting to come through and Jes has decided that he’s a good man who is just as trapped as she is.
Furthermore, there are a number of general developments that make this book a better read overall. Jes’ experience of being the daughter of a Patron man and a Commoner woman was explored a lot more, like how growing up in the middle of two worlds has affected her, especially since her heritage is clearly written on her physical features. No matter how successful she is as a Fives Challenger, people still judge her by her sex and color of her skin. Going deeper into the social and cultural issues of this world also makes it feel a lot more real and immersive. I’m interested as well in the relationships between Jes and her siblings. There are quite a few shocking twists revealed in this book when it comes to her twin, and of course there’s also the matter of her newborn baby brother—very curious about where that’s going to lead!
Bottom line, I thought Poisoned Blade was much better than the first book. I wouldn’t call it a standout read compared to some of excellent YA I’ve read, as there’s still room for improvement, but nevertheless I was pleasantly surprised how well the story drew me in considering my less-than-stellar experience with Court of Fives. Frankly I did not expect to enjoy this sequel so much, and now is it’s all but assured that I will be picking up the third book to see how this trilogy will end....more
Well, Kim Liggett sure doesn’t mess around. That was my first thought after finishing The Last Harvest, but only once I was recovered from feeling like I was thrown off a bridge thanks to that ending. This book might be published under a Young Adult imprint, but when it comes to delivering horror, it’s the real deal—no kid gloves here. To give fair warning, I would probably place this on the “older teen” spectrum, and if you don’t like unsettling themes and endings, then you may want to stay away.
If, however, knowing all that only makes you more intrigued, then read on! Personally, I knew as soon as I heard about The Last Harvest that it would be right up my alley. The book was first pitched to me as a YA horror thriller, described as Rosemary’s Baby meets Friday Night Lights. Think sprawling wheat fields, high school football, cattle ranches and satanic panic. No way could I resist.
Our story is set in rural Oklahoma, starring eighteen-year-old protagonist Clay Tate. A year ago, Clay had it all—he was the star quarterback at Midland High, and as a scion of one of the six founding families of their town, he was also a well-respected member of the Preservation Society. But all that changed the night Clay’s dad lost his mind, took the living room crucifix off the wall, and made a sudden visit to Ian Neely’s neighboring cattle ranch. Now on the first anniversary of that night, people in town still talk in hushed whispers about how the elder Tate’s body was found among the blood and viscera on the floor of the breeding barn, after committing an unspeakable act. Clay himself has become a social pariah, having quit the football team and turned down his position on the Preservation Society in order to focus on working the family farm. Clay’s mom has also not yet recovered from her husband’s death, leaving him to raise his little sisters on his own.
With the days growing cooler, Clay is determined to finish harvesting the wheat before first frost. But between the bad memories and his worries about his family, he’s been having trouble sleeping, and the visits to the doctor and school counselor haven’t really helped. Worse, he begins to see and hear things that he suspects aren’t really there, like the slaughtered golden calf he finds in the wheat field one morning, only to come back later to find that all traces of it has disappeared. Disturbing visions featuring his family and friends continue to haunt him, making Clay wonder if he is now suffering from the same mental illness that affected his dad in his final days. Was this what made his old man go crazy and accuse the Preservation Society of devil worship? Clay knows something rotten is definitely going on in the town, but there are few whom he could trust to tell the truth of what he’s seen. Evil has come to Midland, and now Clay fears for his family and for the soul of the girl he loves.
I’ve always said, the best and scariest horror stories are the ones that make you wonder what’s real and what’s not as you’re reading. What I found most impressive about The Last Harvest was how Liggett managed to lure me into a false sense of security. She’s also good at playing her cards close to her vest. When the book begins and we meet Clay Tate, we’re aware that something bad has happened to his family and that it involves his late father, but details behind the “breeding barn incident” aren’t revealed until later. For a long time, it doesn’t appear that anything too out of the ordinary has been happening in Midland. It’s a very traditional town where everyone knows each other. Much of life revolves around church, football, and the Preservation Society. Like any population, the vast majority are good kind people, but they also have their bad eggs. So at the first signs of malaise, it didn’t set off any alarm bells in my head. Also, while a young man in his late teens experiencing the classic symptoms of schizophrenia is a distressing experience indeed, again there are no clear signs that anything supernatural may be afoot.
It’s not until later on in the book that Liggett springs her trap. And that was when it hit me, I really should have been paying more attention! The author had been laying down clues since the very beginning, planting the seeds for her very own harvest, and suddenly it was all coming together. At the same time, I realized Liggett had set the story up so brilliantly that I had no idea where it was going to take me. In the end, I had to give up on trying to predict anything and simply let myself to be swept away by the plot’s many twists and turns—and believe me when I say, it was worth it.
My only issue with the book is the polarizing effect it may have on its intended audience. The horror aspects are definitely intense, going a little beyond what I would have expected for a YA novel, but at the same time the story also contains clear YA genre elements including teen romance, high school drama, and a general atmosphere of teenage angst. For adult fans of horror, this might be a turnoff or even a deal breaker, and it’s a real shame because I know plenty of horror buffs for whom this book would be perfect, except they don’t read YA.
I can also see readers divided on their thoughts of the ending, though personally, I loved it. Revealing much more about it will be spoiling, so just take my word for it when I say it is not to be missed. The Last Harvest surprised the hell out of me, and it was everything I wanted plus a lot more....more
After finishing Wildwood Dancing, I’ve decided to give it a solid 3.5 stars. Considering this is my first Juliet Marillier book that didn’t rate at least a 4, I probably should be feeling more disappointed, especially since, out of all her older titles, this was one I’d been looking forward to reading the most. But honestly, I am not. The reality is, while I’m pretty convinced that Marillier is incapable of writing a bad novel, I also wouldn’t expect to fall in love with every single one of them, and even though I didn’t think this was one of her best, I still thought it was a very good book and I enjoyed it a lot.
Naturally, Wildwood Dancing is a reimagining of several fairy tales and other stories inspired by folklore. It’s a Marillier novel, after all. In the tradition of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”, the story follows a family of five sisters who put on their fine dancing gowns every full moon in order to travel to another realm, where they would dance all night with the magical creatures who live there. Only the five girls know how to get to this enchanted kingdom through the mysterious portal hidden deep in their home of Piscul Draculi, their castle nestled in the woods of the Transylvanian highlands.
The story is told through the eyes of Jena, the second eldest, who assumes the responsibility of looking after her sisters and running the family business after their father is taken to the southlands to recover from a grave illness. But everything changes with the arrival of their cousin Cezar, a power-hungry man determined to take over the castle and see Jena and her sisters grow up to be “proper” young ladies. His presence has made the girls’ full moon visits through the portal more difficult, and it doesn’t help either that Tatiana, Jena’s older sister, has apparently fallen in love with one of the dangerous dark creatures from the Other Kingdom. As trouble descends on all sides, Jena struggles to keep her family together and maintain her control over Piscul Draculi, even while Cezar tightens his grip around them all and Tatiana continues to slip away.
I should also probably note that Wildwood Dancing is categorized as a YA novel, and it’s possible that some of my issues with the book had to do with the fact it’s aimed at a younger audience. In spite of the story’s charming premise, it’s admittedly predictable at times and hampered by some annoying tropes. Not to mention, they aren’t very subtle. The moment Cezar sweeps in, you could tell he was the evil, evil bad guy, pumped up on his own self-importance and never misses a moment to tell Jena what a silly and improper girl she is for daring to think for herself. There is really nothing more to his character than being teeth grindingly obnoxious and soul-crushing. Tatiana also frustrated me, because while it’s all fine and good to fall in love, it’s not so cool when that love completely consumes you to the point you throw aside the concerns of those who care about you, or that you abandon all your responsibilities including the need to take care of yourself. Tatiana gradually becomes this empty shell because we’re to believe she’s so lovesick after a boy that she loses the will to eat. As the main character, Jena is not immune from criticism either; where her emotions are concerned, she has more blind spots than a drunk bat and I frequently found her stubbornness maddening. For a female protag who is supposed to be strong and independent, she can be stunningly ineffectual.
The characters were probably the novel’s weakest aspect. Happily, predictable or not, I was really interested in the story, and that kept me turning the pages. The Transylvanian setting was intriguing, along with all that it implies. I also liked how snippets of multiple fairy tales were woven into the plot, and the way Marillier somehow made it all work. Like most of her novels, Wildwood Dancing is infused with a whimsical but dark tone, enchanting but also potentially dangerous, and to be sure if you enjoy fairy tale retellings or stories with that kind of vibe, you really can’t go wrong with anything she writes.
Ever since I read my first Juliet Marillier novel and she became one of my favorite authors, I have been meaning to go back to read more of her work. I’m glad I read Wildwood Dancing, but given how I felt about it, I’ll probably set the sequel, Cybele’s Secret, as lower priority while I tackle some of her other adult novels since I find them to be more complex and feature more developed and convincing characters. Still, Wildwood Dancing was a delightful read and it is impressive for YA. Fans of Marillier owe it to themselves to check this one out....more
The first thing you should know about The Rift Uprising is that while it may be published under adult sci-fi and fantasy imprint Harper Voyager, it is patently, most assuredly, a Young Adult novel. Thinking there would be at least some crossover appeal, I did have to go through a brief adjustment period to alter my expectations, because I believe target audience matters. Indeed, once I donned my “YA reader” hat, I found this one easier to enjoy, and I think it has quite a lot of potential for fans of YA.
The story takes place in 2020, following the life of a seventeen-year-old girl named Ryn Whittaker, who is a Citadel—an elite super-soldier created by a secret military program in response to more than a dozen mysterious rifts opening around the world back in the mid-2000s. These rifts turned out to be portals to alternate Earths, and when it became clear that scientists were unable to close or control what came out of them, governments around the world decided to cover the whole thing up in a massive, coordinated global conspiracy.
An important development that came out of this though, was the arrival of a more advanced humanoid race from a parallel world who gave humanity the technology to protect themselves and guard the rifts. This technology involved implanting individuals with a cybernetic chip that would enhance their physical and mental abilities, turning them into powerful fighting machines. Problem was, adults didn’t do well on the implants; every single one who was a part of the initial experiment died. So instead, the government decided to put this technology in seven-year-olds (because somehow, the scientists were able to determine that young, still-developing brains were more resistant to the chip’s fatal effects) without the children’s OR their parents’ knowledge and consent. These kids would eventually become the Citadels, once their implants get activated when they turn fourteen.
This is what happened to Ryn, who has been living a double life for the last three years, ever since she found out what was done to her. At home she has to pretend to be a normal teenager in front of her family, who are blissfully unaware of the truth behind rifts and Citadels, and think that their daughter is part of a gifted government school program. In reality, Ryn patrols a nearby rift, either putting down enemies that come through or helping relocate non-hostile otherworld entities called “Immigrants” to one of the many sprawling internment camps around the world (which are also covered up by their respective governments, of course).
I’ve gone into the specifics of the premise because I feel so much of the Rift conspiracy doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. A large, widespread plot involving thousands upon thousands of people in more than a dozen countries, hiding the fact that they’ve been experimenting on hundreds of children (and praying that their parents are all idiots and won’t notice) while stashing countless hordes of interdimensional aliens in gigantic compounds located in thickly settled areas around the globe? I find it a little too farfetched and hard to believe that the world has been kept in the dark for so long, especially in this age of satellites and air travel, hungry media outlets and wary whistleblowers, class-action lawsuits and social media. In some ways, reading this book reminded me of how I felt while reading Divergent—that is, the setup is really cool, but a lot of the explanations are either iffy or require lots of logical leaps. If you don’t mind rolling with the punches though, or if you are reading this for the story and not the world-building, then this won’t be an issue.
Also to keep in mind is the fact that, as with most YA novels, there are certain tropes to watch for. There’s a romance, which I’m tempted to label instalove, because from the moment a boy named Ezra walks through the rift into Ryn’s world, she becomes utterly smitten with him. However, because all Citadels are conditioned to fly into a berserker rage the moment they make skin-on-skin contact with the object of their affection or anyone they feel even remotely attracted to (which is weird, because if you could condition any kind response into the Citadels, wouldn’t it make more sense to make them, say, violently ill at the thought of sex, instead of just plain violent? Less chance of putting your own soldiers or any number of innocent bystanders in the hospital and creating a media incident, if you’re inclined to keep the lid on a massive conspiracy, right?) Ryn and Ezra find themselves in the unenviable position of not being able to physically express their love for each other.
I wish I could say that Ryn’s motivation to blow the conspiracy wide open was driven by more noble reasons, like a desire to free herself and her fellow Citadels from the government’s yoke, or to save the Immigrants by helping them return to their home worlds. But the truth is, Ryn was mostly thinking about sex when she started on her mission to find out the truth about her implant, and the reason why she kept on fighting was because she was desperate to get laid. It’s admittedly a selfish and somewhat flimsy rationale, and therein lies another big reason why I saw this book as more YA than adult—mainly because I think an adult audience might be less patient with Ryn, who for the bulk of the book was a walking ball of angsty hormones with only one thing on her mind.
What I really loved though, was the mystery behind the rifts. Whatever may drive them, Ryn and Ezra make a great team uncovering the truth together, with him using his brains and her using her muscle. I enjoyed the suspense as it was gradually revealed how the portals work, and why the government might be going to such lengths to hide them from the world. I also liked the idea that anything at all can come out of the rifts, and I got the feeling the author had a bit of fun with that. Descriptions of the Village, where Immigrants from alternate worlds are relocated, were also amazing to behold. Imagine a neighborhood made up of a hodgepodge of different habitats and buildings to accommodate all manner of interdimensional beings. There’s even a menagerie to house all the otherworldly animals and creatures that come through.
All told, if you’re looking for a fun and entertaining sci-fi YA novel to spend a rainy afternoon with, The Rift Uprising might be exactly what you’re looking for, especially if you have a fondness for romance-driven stories. The world-building isn’t too deep and the adolescent characters might be motivated by their very adolescent yearnings, but nevertheless this book is a superfast read and its quick pacing also means never a dull moment....more
Well, it wasn’t the best of books, it wasn’t the worst of books, but for me Tell the Wind and Fire can only be summed up as underwhelming. I think like most, I came to this novel after hearing that it was inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities—not that I have any great love for that book, or Dickens for that matter, but it was the idea that initially intrigued me and drew me in.
What we end up with is a very loose retelling, infused with a smattering of fantasy elements and a generous dose of Young Adult dystopian tropes. The story takes place in New York, which has been split in two: the Light City and the Dark City. The two are separate but symbiotic; each side reluctantly needs the other, for balance and for survival. Our protagonist is Lucie Manette, a Light magic user who was born of a forbidden union between a Dark magician and a Light magician. A child of the shadows and destitution of Dark City, she came to the comfort and luxury of the Light after her father was punished for trying to save her mother, and Lucie was subsequently made into a symbol by those in power.
Now living a life of fame and opulence, Lucie has also claimed the heart of Ethan Stryker, heir to one of Light City’s most powerful families. When the book starts though, Lucie stumbles upon a shocking secret about her boyfriend, discovering that Ethan has a doppelganger named Carwyn. Doppelgangers are illegal because they are a product of dark magic when it is used to save a person’s life, after which the dark energy manifests itself as a perfect double of the person. Usually doppelgangers are killed soon after they come into being, but Ethan’s soft-hearted mother had insisted on sparing and raising Carwyn in secret, after dark magic saved the newborn Ethan at the time of his birth. But now Lucie knows the truth too, and that knowledge might ultimately lead her to her downfall. As rebellion erupts in Dark City, Lucie may have inadvertently handed the bloodthirsty revolutionaries their most important weapon.
To be fair, in spite of some of the more obvious parallels to Dickens’ masterpiece, I stress the “loose” in loose retelling and in the end Tell the Wind and Fire is an entirely different beast. In truth, the book probably has more in common with the countless YA offerings out there than anything to do with A Tale of Two Cities, which makes me wonder if the author had tweaked the book some more and perhaps titled it something different, then maybe it could have spared the crushing pressure of being compared to one of the most well-known and celebrated classics ever written? Granted, there were some parts in the story that I really liked, those which didn’t immediately strike me as a YA cliché or too formulaic, but that too presented its own unique set of problems. For example, if I’d never read A Tale of Two Cities, I might actually have been delighted and bowled over at the analogous ending in Tell the Wind and Fire…but then again, how could I bring myself to praise these “unique” aspects of the story when the ideas were originally Dickens’? It just feels like a no-win situation all around.
For every positive thing I liked about this novel, there would also be something else I didn’t care for, dampening my enthusiasm. On the one hand, I loved the magic system and was enchanted by the descriptions of the way light and dark magic coexisted, always in motion and fighting and feeding off one another. On the other hand, for such a vast and major city which has the added benefit of having two sides to it, the version of New York City in this book felt painfully small. Then there was the character of Lucie. For a young woman with such fame and magical power, her role as main protagonist was disappointingly passive. This girl seems to only take action when she shouldn’t, and yet stands idly by with her mouth shut when she should. Not only is she constantly acting like a dolt, she feels the need to point it out every single time she makes a mistake, drawing even more attention to her shortcomings as if readers need the extra help. We really don’t.
Overall, I thought Tell the Wind and Fire started strong and had an excellent introduction to the magic of this world, but things started going downhill after the first half. I applaud the book for its ambitious goals, but there were clear issues in the implementation those ideas, leading to an imperfect outcome. While it’s not all bad, I can only give this one a middling rating due to all the other issues that didn’t sit well with me....more
Here’s the deal: if you’re a fan of zombie stories or if a zombie origin tale that puts a fresh spin on the genre sounds like it might interest you, then you’re going to want to check out The Rains by Gregg Hurwitz. Double bonus for you too if you prefer books with a YA bent, as this is the author’s first book in a new series targeting teen readers.
However, if you happen to be a science/biology geek or a stickler for common sense and logic, then this book is going to make you cry.
The story begins with an introduction to the quiet and rural community of Creek’s Cause, where the peace is shattered one evening by a meteor strike. Not long afterwards, our fifteen-year-old protagonist Chance Rain and his older brother Patrick are awakened in the middle of the night by a commotion at their neighbors’ house, leading the two of them to sneak out and investigate. They arrive just in time to stop an attack on the kids by the stepmother, who appears to have been transformed into mindless raving husk by a mysterious and unknown parasite. After saving the children, Chance and Patrick find the father on top of a water tower where millions of alien spores look to have exploded from out of his bloated corpse.
Recalling what he’s learned about the Cordyceps fungus and “zombie ants”, Chance quickly deduces that these spores are what’s causing the infection, turning all of the adults—and only adults, it seems—into violent, savage hosts. But if this is indeed the way the parasite is spreading, then why aren’t those who are younger being infected?
Chance and Patrick find the answer to this once they arrive at the high school, where their science teacher Dr. Chatterjee has been sheltering the town’s children and teenagers. Chatterjee explains that the parasite appears to be affecting white matter, the paler tissue of the human brain mostly made up of nerve fibers and their myelin sheaths. And since the brains of children are not as developed as an adult's and do not have as much white matter, they are immune to the effects of the spore. This also explains why Dr. Chatterjee, who has multiple sclerosis—a demyelinating disease—is unaffected himself.
So far, this is going great. Things are getting pretty interesting. I’m liking the suspense, and the mystery behind the infectious agent is really driving things. But then, we get another bombshell. The group figures out that, at the exact moment a person turns 18, the brain will immediately become susceptible to the parasite. The exact moment. As in, right down to the minute of your birth. One second, you’re fine. But as soon as the clock ticks over, then happy birthday, you’re a zombie!
The bio nerd in me just wants to tear my hair out and scream, NOOOOOOO THAT’S NOT HOW THIS WORKS!
I do love it when zombie books use science to explain things (the Cordyceps idea is becoming a lot more common, for example, and I still can’t get enough) but let’s please try to make it more convincing. I thought that tying the parasite’s processes to brain development was ambitious and intriguing, but unfortunately the human body does not work like a clock. One does not wake up in the morning of their eighteenth birthday to find their brain suddenly and miraculously bursting with myelin. If only growing up and becoming mature was so easy.
So yes, that bothered me a lot. It might even have biased me against the rest of the book. If such a glaring oversight made it through the first few drafts, I can only assume that the prevailing attitude was “This is YA, good science and reasoning won’t matter so much.” But it does. It should. With this in mind, I soon started seeing more plot holes, inaccuracies, and logical leaps.
If things like that don’t concern you so much, then you should be fine, though for me they ultimately prevented me from calling The Rains a great book. It’s a shame too, because the plot was entertaining and fun in a way that reminded me a lot of The Faculty movie, and the characters were good, strong, and charming in the salt-of-the-earth sense. Still, generally speaking I don’t feel comfortable enough about recommending this book to just anyone; perhaps if you are a diehard zombie fiction reader or YA horror fan, you might want to take a look. However, if you’re a pickier reader like me who also predominantly reads adult speculative fiction, you might end up finding the flaws too distracting. I give this one 3 stars, and just barely....more
To be fair, Windwitch wasn’t bad at all, but I was in the minority in that Truthwitch didn’t blow me away and I went into this sequel hoping it would help me decide whether or not to continue the series. There’s a lot of potential here, and wouldn’t it be a shame if I gave up on something great just because I was on the fence about the first book? After all, sometimes a series just needs a little extra time to develop.
I was also left curious about the fates of the characters after the events of the previous novel. “Threadsisters” Safi and Iseult are still separated, each struggling with their own predicament. The windwitch admiral Prince Merik is also dead, or so the world is led to believe after his ship was devoured by a fiery explosion. The truth is much complicated though. Caught between life and death, the prince has returned broken, scarred, and bitter, filled with anger towards his sister whom he believes betrayed him. After making his way to the capital, he begins rallying the tired and starving refugees there under the guise of the Fury, a legendary figure who fights for freedom of the oppressed.
The bloodwitch Aeduan has a greater role now too, realizing the sizeable bounty he would collect if he could find the threadwitch Iseult and bring her to those hunting her. In a twist of fate though, Iseult somehow manages to get Aeduan on her side, convincing him to help her track down her best friend Safi. While the bloodwitch and threadwitch end up forging a precarious alliance, truthwitch Safi finds herself stranded in the pirate-infested wilderness after her shipwreck, with none other than the Empress of Marstok in tow. Alone and with no defenses, if the outlaws or mercenaries don’t get to them first, then the elements will—and that’s only if the two young women don’t succumb to their thirst and hunger.
Like I was saying, I didn’t dislike Windwitch, but it was also far from being the huge improvement over Truthwitch that I’d hoped for. In fact, I might even have liked it a bit less. First off, so much for having a strong female friendship at its core. This aspect, which was supposed to be a major selling point for the first book, ended up being severely lacking. The author continues to tell instead of show Safi and Iseult’s closeness, and maybe it’s time to just accept she’s more interested in developing their respective romances at this point. The title itself is also telling because it points to Merik as the character getting most of the attention, but unfortunately I felt he was one of the blander, more exasperating characters from the first book and this sequel didn’t do much to change that. Iseult remained my favorite, and I wish there had been more focus on her and Aeduan.
In terms of the story though, this book is definitely more complex than its predecessor, and I enjoyed the multiple plot threads. Some might argue that the political, magical, and action elements presented here are just the same tired old narrative tropes, but Dennard deserves credit for knowing what readers want and how to spice things up. My one complaint was how long it took for this book to build. Admittedly the first half was pretty sluggish, though once everything fell into place, things took off from there. There’s a moment where it all comes together and the story kicks into high gear; you can’t miss it.
Still, my future with this series is up in the air right now. Not too long ago, I would have been a lot more open to the idea of continuing with book three, especially since I really liked how this book ended. But given the insane number of series I’m currently following, this year I’m resolving to be pickier when it comes to deciding which ones to keep reading. Windwitch was a decent sequel, but I had pinned my hopes on it being more exceptional. The “click” I’d wished for just didn’t happen, so I’ll probably set The Witchlands aside, at least for now.
Audiobook Comments: I was glad I got to check out Windwitch, if nothing else because I was able to experience the audiobook edition. Cassandra Campbell did an excellent job as narrator, adding her own flair to the characters with interesting accents and inflections. Somehow the world of The Witchlands felt bigger for it. Reading the first book in hardback format, it hadn’t occurred to me what the characters might have sounded like, and pondering their different origins gave context to the vastness and diversity of the setting. Despite my mixed feelings for the story, I have no complaints about Campbell’s wonderful reading....more
After chilling readers with her debut YA novel The Dead House last year, Dawn Kurtagich is back with another horror tale about two sisters trapped in a house surrounded by a haunted wood…and is it just their imagination or are the trees slowly closing in? Since I had such a good time with The Dead House, when the publisher sent me an ARC of And the Trees Crept In, I just knew I had to give this one a try.
As a girl growing up in London, Silla Daniels had always heard stories about La Baume, the blood red manor that was her mother’s childhood home. It sounded like the perfect place, like a peaceful haven nestled safely in an enchanted forest. So one night, after their abusive and alcoholic father goes a step too far, Silla decides to pack up and escape with her younger sister Nori. Their destination: La Baume, where Silla knows that Aunt Cath, Mam’s older sister, still lives.
When the two girls arrive, Cath welcomes them in with open arms. And for a while, things are wonderful. Things are safe. But then they hear whisperings that a war is coming. The women hunker down at La Baume, where the surrounding woods keep them pretty isolated so they’re used to living off the grid. Not too long afterwards though, a madness seems to come over Cath. One day, the older woman retreats to the attic and never comes down again. Even though Silla still leaves plates of food at the attic door and can hear the constant creaking of Cath’s footsteps overhead, she knows she has lost her beloved aunt forever. Three years pass with only Silla taking care of Nori and Cath, all alone and struggling to survive. La Baume is not the magical place Silla imagined; now she knows it’s cursed. The woods won’t let them leave, and she thinks she can sense someone (or something?) out there, just waiting to take Nori the moment she lets her guard down.
Honestly, I thought The Dead House was pretty weird when I read it last year, but I have to say this one is even weirder. And it’s not just the story; it’s the entire structure and style of the novel. Whereas The Dead House was written entirely in the epistolary format, And the Trees Crept In only has random sections where it tries to include snippets of notes and journal entries, and sad as I am to admit this, it didn’t work nearly as well here. I was frequently bothered by the “creative” formatting and use of font sizes and styles, and together with the disjointed prose, at times it almost felt like reading bad poetry. The only positive I can think to this is the way it shows Silla’s state of mind her slow journey to becoming completely unhinged (unreliable narrator alert!) but on the whole I thought it was needlessly showy and a little gimmicky.
Not gonna lie, but that had an extremely negative impact on my overall experience. As a character, Silla was…problematic. The writing made it very hard for me to understand her, and that also made it very hard to like her. It’s one thing to be unable to connect with your main protagonist, but because most of the book is written in Silla’s rambling narrative, it was impossible to get a good sense of any of the characters either—Nori, Cath, or Gowan, the mysterious handsome boy who just appears out of the woods one day. And speaking of Gowan, there’s also a romance arc that will feel very strange at first. Not long after he and Silla meet, the word “love” gets tossed around like candy, and it just made me want to scream because not once did this book make me feel there was anything between them.
This could have gone very badly indeed, but ultimately I think what saved this book for me was the ending. I admit that for most of the story I was confused, frustrated, and I didn’t even feel it was all that creepy. But the final reveal at the end made everything make sense! In fact, I’m still a little shocked at how well everything tied together. I can’t go into any more detail without revealing spoilers, so I’ll just say that pretty much everything I had an issue with had some sort of resolution and that went a long way in salvaging the overall experience. So much so that I thought this book deserved three stars rather than the two I was prepared to give. I still have major issues with the writing style, and my feelings about that haven’t changed. Story-wise, however, things actually turned out really interesting.
So would I recommend this book? That would depend on a few factors, I guess. Personally, the choppy writing and the style of the novel made my head hurt, but if you’re okay with the wonky use of font design, font size, “sliding text”, and other such formatting devices to portray a character’s descent into madness (after a few chapters of this, I felt pretty insane myself) it probably wouldn’t be an issue. Otherwise, choosing the audio version could be a good alternative, and I can’t help thinking I might have enjoyed this book a lot more had I done the same. In the end, I thought the story outcome made everything worth it though, even if it does take a bit of patience to see it all come together. I think readers who are fans of YA and horror will get a kick out of this, so go ahead and give And the Trees Crept In a shot if you think it sounds like something you’ll enjoy....more
As soon as I finished this book I wanted to jump up and scream YES! This is what more YA should be like. It has originality. It has depth. It has a talking, flesh-eating demon horse. Wait, what? Yeah, more on that in a bit.
Think of The Star-Touched Queen as a retelling of the Persephone/Hades story, but inspired by the grand sweeping epics of Indian mythology. And like the greatest of the legends, this powerful journey also has elements of magic and romance, beauty and darkness, death and sacrifice. Seventeen-year-old Princess Myavati is said to be cursed, tainted with a horoscope that promises a marriage of Death and Destruction. In a kingdom where the people are deeply superstitious, this makes Maya something of an outcast in her father’s palace. None of the women in the harem want anything to do with her, but that suits Maya just fine as she puts her mind towards more scholarly pursuits.
But then Maya’s world is shattered when the Raja announces his plan to barter her off in a political marriage. The news shocks and mystifies her, because princess or not, who would want her as a cursed bride? In the end, what her father had in mind turns out to be much more complicated and terrible, but just as Maya was about to accept her fate as a mere pawn in this game of power, a new player enters the field—Amar, a mysterious prince who claims to be from a magical kingdom far away. Indeed, Amar ends up whisking Maya away to Akaran, his world beyond the mortal realm. There, he shows her wonders she never thought possible, though he reveals little of the truth about himself, telling Maya that a magical geas prevents him from answering all her questions until a certain amount of time has passed. The secrets gradually begin to eat away at Maya, who is not content to stay in Akaran like a caged bird. Acting upon her instincts, however, she unwittingly unleashes a chaos may unbalance the fates of both the ordinary world and the Otherworldly one, and now Maya needs to figure out how to make things right and save the people she loves.
While it’s true that the prose edges into purplish territory at times (especially noticeable when you’re listening to the audiobook), I’m a little tempted to let this one slide…just this once. Somehow, the style actually ends up being a good fit for kind of the imagery presented in this novel—rich, vibrant, perhaps a little bit over-the-top in terms of abstractedness, but still grounded enough to be very enjoyable. Certain aspects in this story remind me of the different kinds of myths in antiquity or folklore/legend, only retold for a modern audience.
I also really enjoyed the heavy focus on Maya and Amar’s relationship, and I don’t simply mean that we spend a lot of time on the romance. This goes deeper than that. I love the fact that author Roshani Chokshi is not afraid to slow things down, especially when current YA fiction trends are seemingly always pushing for more ACTION, ACTION, ACTION! PEP, VIM, ZING! The Star-Touched Queen is not that kind of book, and I would even understand if others call it out for its languid pacing, though I have to say found this novel no less exciting in its own unique way. I marveled at the amount of bonding time between our two main characters, or how the thoughtful, reflective conversations they had with each other actually meant something.
If you were hoping for a faster-paced story, the second part of the book does bring a little more momentum. We get to know Maya a lot better as a character, watching her personal growth as she rises above her past memories and actions. In the tradition of the ancient Indian epics, this section chronicles a hero’s journey, except in this case of course, our hero is a heroine, a princess trying to find a way to save her world and her beloved. But Maya doesn’t fight this battle alone; by her side is Kamala, the aforementioned demon horse who makes for an unlikely but humorous ally.
I also highly recommend The Star-Touched Queen in audio format. I thought narrator Priya Ayyar’s performance started out a little strained at the beginning but it gradually smoothed out to become more natural over time, and she is really good with accents. Furthermore, some stories can work incredibly well when they’re being read out loud, with certain sections that make you want to close your eyes and imagine the wonderful things described. This is definitely one of those books.
All told The Star-Touched Queen was a delight to read and listen to; I would recommend it if you’re looking for an imaginative YA retelling that’s not as formulaic and contrived. A lovely mix of romance, fantasy, and mythology....more
I was super excited to read this sequel to Walk on Earth a Stranger, and not least because the first book was one of my favorite Young Adult reads of last year. Knowing how rare it is for a series to strike gold twice though (pun intended) I wasn’t surprised to find that I didn’t find Like A River Glorious quite as earth-shattering as its predecessor, but it was still an excellent sequel and a fun YA fantasy western.
At the end of Walk on Earth a Stranger, a novel which takes place in the midst of the great California Gold Rush, protagonist Leah “Lee” Westfall and the survivors of her party had managed to reach their destination at last. They’d wasted no time in settling in and staking their claims, and thanks to Lee’s remarkable secret, she and her friends have done pretty well for themselves.
After careful consideration though, Lee decides to let her trusted circle in on how she’s been helping them find the best plots. The truth is that she has a mysterious magical ability to sense gold in the environment around her, and being in gold-rich California, her powers have been practically humming within her. However, Lee also wanted to come clean to her friends to warn them that being close to her may have its own dangers. Her uncle Hiram, who knows about her secret, is still hunting her and wants to use her gold sense to his advantage. He had already killed Lee’s parents, and now she’s afraid that she’s put everyone associated with her at risk too. Lee had good reason to be worried. Despite their best efforts to remain discreet, news of Lee and her group’s success begins to spread, and it’s just a matter of time before Hiram tracks them down. Unwilling to put her friends through more pain and grief, Lee ultimately decides to take matters into her own hands and begins to plot a plan to confront her uncle.
First, the good stuff: Readers who felt that the first book did not have enough “fantasy” in it will be a lot happier with this sequel. Lee’s gold sense plays a bigger role this time around, and has a much greater impact on the outcome of the story. Her power is also evolving, growing stronger somehow. And as to why this is happening, that’s a mystery Lee is also trying to figure out for herself.
Then there’s the romance. While it wasn’t a big part of the first book, Rae Carson did plant a seed of something between Lee and her best friend Jefferson, and those feelings finally come to fruition. The pacing of the romance remains slow-burn though, which for me is a breath of fresh air especially after having read a string of YA novels featuring instalove, or female protagonists who immediately hurl themselves at a guy the moment he shows a hint of interest. I liked how Lee kept a level head despite her growing feelings for Jeff, keeping in mind what she would be gaining and sacrificing for marriage in an era where women have little power. It may seem like a rather cold, unromantic way to think about love, but it does show that Lee is mature, independent and insightful—traits that I admire in a protagonist.
Despite the book’s strengths though, I did have some issues with the depiction of Lee and her friends, especially given the historical setting and social climate of the times. I understand that, especially in a YA novel, we need our protagonists to be the good guys to cheer for and look up to, and true to form, Lee is heroine who wants to buck the system and fight against injustices. The problem is that it’s not subtle at all, and it’s immersion-breaking when looking at this book through a historical fiction lens. When it comes to historical novels I think it’s important to look at how context shapes character motivations and attitudes, and while I can understand why a lot of Lee’s experiences would shape her opinions on land ownership, slavery, religion, women’s rights, etc., a lot of the actions of her and her settler friends do come across a bit revisionist. At some point in this novel, Lee also started to feel too much to me like a present-day teenage character transported to the 1850s, but this probably didn’t bother me as much as it would have if this had been an adult novel.
Other than that minor issue, I honestly have no complaints. Overall I really enjoyed Like A River Glorious, and like the first book this one was also blessedly free of pesky cliffhangers. I like how both installments have so far ended with all its major story conflicts resolved, while still being a part of a greater narrative. This is another chapter in Lee and Jefferson’s lives, and I loved the happy conclusion. Looking forward to where the next book will take them....more
Prince Vlad III of Wallachia, known in his day as Dracula, also later received the sobriquet of Vlad the Impaler for his cunning cruelty and fondness for brutally punishing his enemies. But what if Prince Vlad had been Princess Ladislav…a girl? What choices would she have made? How would others have regarded her? How would the world have been different? These questions and more are explored in Kiersten White’s young adult alternate history novel, whose premise to actively subvert the archetypical princess trope immediately drew me in.
Indeed, Lada is not your average princess. Imagine spending your childhood and your formative teenage years as a political hostage far from home, your fate in the hands of your cold-hearted father who gave you up as a promise to remain loyal to the Ottoman empire. After that, Lada knew she could count no one but herself. For the longest time, there were only two constants in her life: her love for Wallachia, the country she vows she will one day return to, as well as her love for her younger brother Radu who, along with Lada, was also handed over to Sultan Murad to ensure their father’s obedience. Radu may not be a fighter, but he’s also the only family Lada cares about now, after her father has proven weak in her eyes.
Keeping her hatred for the Ottomans burning in her heart, Lada nonetheless goes through the motions, learning the culture, philosophy, and religion of her captors—though she fights her tutors every step of the way and refuses to forget her roots. She also learns the art of combat from elite Janissaries, who allow her to train with them after she impresses them with her ferocity and determination.
Against her judgment though, Lada ends up caring for another. Almost from the moment she and her brother meet Prince Mehmed, the young son and heir of Murad, the three of them have become virtually inseparable. As the children age, Mehmed becomes more than just a friend to both Lada and Radu. Lada, however, has never forgotten her promise to Wallachia, and even though she is still the same fierce princess, there’s also no denying that her years in the Ottoman court have changed her in other ways.
As promised, Lada is a brutal and violent princess, even as a child (perhaps a preview of the adult she will one day become). Initially, I was a little disappointed that we had to spend so much of the book focused on her early life, but then the story evolved into a very interesting coming-of-age tale. When she still lived in Wallachia, Lada worshipped her father, wanting nothing more than to make him proud. Sadly, Vlad II didn’t really have much respect for girls, and later on Lada realizes to her anger and disappointment just how little he cared about his family. Her character remained unbowed after her arrival at the Ottoman courts, however, and she certainly didn’t take too kindly to being a political prisoner either, breaking a tutor’s nose when the man dared to offend her. I really enjoyed Lada’s character, because for all her recklessness and impotent raging, she’s definitely someone who can take care of herself.
Despite Lada being the main protagonist though, all my heart and sympathies actually ended up going to Radu, who became my favorite character. While Lada’s life was heartbreaking, Radu’s story utterly destroyed me. For all this book is centered on the brutal princess, I could probably go on forever about the gentle prince. Radu may be timid and weak, but he shows his strengths in other ways, opting for deep thinking and subterfuge in situations where his big sister would probably go in guns blazing. Unlike Lada, Radu actually manages to thrive in the Ottoman court, embracing all its ways. However, the most gut-wrenching part is when he falls in love with Mehmed, even knowing that his feelings will never be reciprocated. As if that’s not enough, he then has to watch the object of his affections fall for his sister. Poor Radu. I’ve never wanted so badly to reach into a book and give a character a hug. This book also portrayed the topic of sexuality wonderfully, capturing Radu’s internal struggle with much compassion and humanity.
It’s the relationships that make this novel. The description touts a love triangle, but as you can see, it’s like nothing you’d expect. There are so many complicated emotions between the two siblings, with love and loyalty sometimes giving in to resentment and jealousy. Lada and Radu are polar opposites of each other, with one having a fiery personality while the other is more soft and sweet-tempered. One also despises the Ottomans with all her heart, while the other has all but adopted their prison as his home. The one thing they do have in common is their love for Mehmed, but that relationship is also the cause of so much explosive friction in this book.
It probably comes as no surprise that I really enjoyed this. And I Darken is a character-oriented novel, the kind I love, where the bonds between people form the very essence of the story. The complex relationship between Lada, Radu, and Mehmed was so all-consuming that it made overlooking some of the book’s weaknesses a little easier. There were some minor annoyances, like mildly purple prose or some plot pacing issues, but I think one of my key regrets is that this story wasn’t as dark as the blurb teased. While Lada is modeled after the real Vlad the Impaler, who is known for his sadism and cruelty, the author probably pulled some punches on Lada’s ruthlessness in order to make the character more likeable (not to mention the book more age appropriate, but even by YA standards this is pretty tame…and so is Lada). To be fair, I know this is the story of her early life, but somehow I think I’ll still find it hard to reconcile the person she is now to the bloodthirsty ruler she’ll no doubt become if the rest of the series seeks to continue to echo Vlad’s reputation.
I’m looking forward to finding out how it’ll all play out, though. The scene is now set for the next book of The Conquerors Saga and I’m fantastically excited to see what will happen next in Lada’s journey....more
Once again I was unable to resist the temptation of a book inspired by Peter Pan. It’s almost a knee-jerk reaction at this point, whether it turns out for good or for ill. I have to say though, I had high hopes for Lisa Maxwell’s Unhooked when I first heard about it, with its blurb that hinted at such a different and unique vision. Because it offered such a cool new twist on Neverland unlike anything I’d seen before, I’d hoped this would mean something more than just another retelling, but in the end I was disappointed. This book could have gone in new directions, with virtually thousands of possibilities to explore, but all that potential was ultimately misspent on flat characters and superficial relationships.
What’s worse is that the beginning of this novel showed so much promise. Seventeen-year-old Gwendolyn Allister has just arrived in London with her mother, a rather unstable woman who believes monsters are after her and her daughter. The two of them have bounced around the globe, never settling down in one place for long, but at least this time, Gwendolyn has her best friend Olivia along for moral support.
However, that first night in their dingy new flat, the two teens are kidnapped by shadowy creatures and are whisked off to a strange new land. Gwen, separated from Olivia, discovers that this place is called Neverland, like in the storybooks. But to her dismay, everything she thought she knew about those tales is a lie. The dashing pirate captain who claims to have rescued her is nothing like the Captain Hook she pictured in her mind, and the horrible things she hears about Peter Pan makes the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up sound more like the villain than a hero. The fairies are also nothing like Tinkerbell, but are actually frightening beings out of nightmare called the Dark Ones. Suddenly, Gwen’s mother doesn’t sound so crazy anymore. And worst of all, the longer Gwen stays in Neverland, the more her memories start to slip away. If she can’t figure out a way to find Olivia and escape this world, she might not even remember the home she comes from.
The best thing about Unhooked is the idea that the Captain and Pan are simply agents caught on opposite sides of a much bigger conflict—the one fought between the Dark Ones. The scary fairies are the ones playing both sides in order to get what they want, and what they want is Gwen because there is an important secret about her, something that she has no idea about. But therein also lies one of the biggest problems I had with this book. Simply put, Gwen’s ignorance makes her a helpless victim for much of the story, unable to exert any control over her fate like a leaf blown on the wind. I can’t even blame her for most of the disastrous decisions she makes, because what could she have done differently, being kept in the dark? Literally, the first thing the Captain does is to shut Gwen up in a room without deigning to explain anything. For her own good, probably. Even frightened and confused though, Gwen’s response to this mistreatment is the first stirrings of attraction for this intimidating stranger with a bionic arm who has locked her up for days and refused to answer any of her perfectly reasonable questions. When your instalove looks a lot like Stockholm syndrome, no thank you.
The real slap in the face though, was the unfortunate way Gwen and Olivia’s relationship played out. I love seeing strong, supportive female friendships in YA, and my spirits were lifted by Liv’s kindness and loyalty to Gwen at the beginning at the novel when our protagonist needed it the most. It really broke my heart to see a boy get between them in Neverland, even if the rift was caused by said boy’s special magic; I just wished we could have seen more of the two girls working together, especially since I found the story behind their friendship so intriguing. I was really bummed by the end of the book and thought Liv’s role was rather wasted.
All told, I was never truly able feel connected to Gwen and her relationships because I felt so little depth in her and the other characters. The Captain was probably the best written out of all of them and mostly because he had the advantage of a mini-backstory you could piece together at the beginning of each chapter, but the rest of the characters are very two-dimensional. The story also left me cold. This tale of Peter Pan and Neverland could have been so different and special, but it didn’t quite capture my imagination even with some of the very neat ideas in here, which I wish had been better executed. To be honest, Unhooked wasn’t all bad, but with so many retellings out there, it simply didn’t stand out as much as it could have, and these days I just can’t help being pickier....more
While Into the Dim is not without its flaws (like calling it “an Outlander for teens" might be a bit of a stretch),4 of 5 stars at the BiblioSanctum
While Into the Dim is not without its flaws (like calling it “an Outlander for teens" might be a bit of a stretch), there’s still no denying this book has its charms. The story is impressively robust for a YA time traveling book, and what it lacks in world-building and logistical explanations, it makes up for with pure entertainment and plenty of fun twists along the way. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed myself.
Most of this story actually takes place in the twelfth century, but first there’s a considerable introduction to establish our main protagonist and her circumstances. We begin with sixteen-year-old Hope Walton at the funeral for her mother Sarah, an academic who was lecturing overseas when an earthquake struck and brought the building down around her. Eight months later, her family has finally given up the search for her body and accepted that she is gone. To help deal with the grief, Sarah’s sister has invited Hope to spend the summer with her in Scotland, and after much reluctance, Hope eventually realizes she has nowhere else to go and accepts.
Now this is where the adventure truly begins. Hope arrives in Scotland and learns more about her family than she’d ever bargained for. Turns out, her aunt is a leader of a group of time traveling agents who are battling another group of rival time travelers to locate a powerful gem lost somewhere in history. That, and Hope finds out that her mother Sarah might be still alive, but trapped in the past. There may be a way to bring her back, but only a small window of opportunity to make that happen, and Hope will need all the training she can get to prepare her for the mission of her life.
Hope and her new friends, fellow time travelers Collum and Phoebe, end up journeying back almost a thousand years to 1154, the year of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s coronation as queen consort of England. As the focal historical figure for this novel, I thought she was a most fascinating choice. One of the most powerful women of her age, Eleanor led an incredible life and was appropriately portrayed as an important character in Into the Dim. Also, the High Middle Ages was a period of much significance and change in Western Europe, creating an intriguing backdrop for the novel. We’re plunged into this world to experience the social, political and religious climate of the times, and author Janet B. Taylor certainly does not skimp on details of the sights, sounds, and–unfortunately—the smells.
For me, there were only two major weaknesses, and they kind of go hand-in-hand with each other. The first is Hope herself. A poster child for “book smart, street stupid” if I ever saw one, our protagonist was born was a photographic memory, but her brilliance is also offset by her staggering social ineptitude. Kept out of “that inbred travesty they call an education system” by her snobby and overprotective mother, Hope grew up completely clueless, which would perfectly explain the scene where she meets Bran Cameron for the first time. This segues into my second gripe: the romance. I’m still appalled by Hope’s reaction to Bran at their first meeting, where she catches him taking stalkerish photos of her with his camera without her knowledge. But instead of running for the hills to the closest police station, what does Hope do? She flirts with the creepy creeperish creeper, and finds his behavior totally adorable and flattering. Ew, no. Sadly, this soured the rest of the relationship for me.
While engaging, the plot is also nothing too deep. The historical aspects and “science” behind the time traveling will not hold up to heavy scrutiny, though to be fair, that’s not really what this book is about. Yes, you’ll definitely have to roll with some punches, but the story is entertaining and holds up well. I liked the fast-pacing, as well as the no-nonsense way Hope and her friends come up with creative ways to solve problems.
It’s worth mentioning too that I listened to the audiobook version, which was amazing. Before this, I had never listened to anything read by Amanda Ronconi, but her performance for Into the Dim made me an instant fan. They couldn’t have chosen a better narrator. With her wide range of accents, she was perfect for a book like this, which features characters from the US and from Scotland. Then, there are those characters from the past. Ronconi’s Olde English accents are convincing, as is the slight French lilt she gives Eleanor of Aquitaine when she reads her lines. I can see how listening to this book might be more immersive experience, compared to reading the dialogue as it is written.
All in all, Into the Dim is quite a lovely novel, even with its flaws. It’s a simple, straightforward book, which serves its purposes to be fun and light-hearted, but that’s not to say there aren’t a couple of unexpected surprises thrown in as well. I found it very refreshing, given the string of bad luck I’ve had with the YA genre lately, and I ended up enjoying this a lot more than I expected....more
Well, I just finished Blood for Blood and now I need a hug.
By the way, if you haven’t started this series already, you really need to pick up Wolf by Wolf and read it right away. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Otherwise I can’t promise this review won’t spoil anything for the first book, since this sequel picks up right where the cliffhanger left off and it’d be hard to talk about the rest of the story without going into context.
If you have read Wolf by Wolf though, then you already know that our protagonist has failed in her mission. Years of preparation and training are about to go down in flames. It is 1956 in an alternate history where the Third Reich and Imperial Japan rule the world. After riding more than twenty thousand kilometers in a motorcycle race from Berlin to Tokyo, Resistance fighter and skinshifter Yael finally made it to the Victor’s Ball where she can finally get close enough to assassinate her target, Adolf Hitler.
But things don’t go as planned. Around the world, millions sitting in front of their television screens may have just witnessed a teenage girl shoot and kill Hitler, but only Yael knows the truth of what really happened. And now there’s no choice but to press onward, because too many lives are at stake for the Resistance to fall.
The Wolf by Wolf series really is a special duology. The first book was an exciting and masterful piece of storytelling, introducing the alternate timeline in which the Axis powers were never defeated, as well to our protagonist Yael who is a death camp survivor. Side effects from the horrific human experimentation by the Nazi scientists left her with a mysterious ability to skinshift and take on the appearance of anyone she wants. After joining the Resistance, she was made a central part of a plot to impersonate a contestant named Adele Wolfe to enter the Axis Tour, a transcontinental motorcycle race which Yael needed to win in order for their plans to succeed. At first, I was a little skeptical of the premise, unsure how it was all going to come together, but Ryan Graudin pulled it off marvelously by packing in a whole lot of action. Better yet, she also did it without sacrificing the character development or world-building—important ingredients for a story like that to work.
That’s why I think Wolf by Wolf was still the better book. It was just so well-told and constructed, and a uniquely interesting reading experience. There was definitely something rare and exceptional about it that puts it in a special place in my heart, but that said though, Blood for Blood was no slouch either. It gave me the conclusion I wanted, and for that and so many more reasons I am glad I read it.
For one thing, I must confess I was never all that into Yael’s love interest and fellow racer Luka in the first book, but Blood for Blood redeemed him in more ways than one. While I still wasn’t all that emotionally invested in their romance (the circumstances around it were too complicated for me to find it convincing), Graudin made me see there was more to Luka by fleshing out his background and letting us see the world from his perspective. I might not have enjoyed him as a love interest, but I sure loved him as one of the main characters. It was one reason why I found the events surrounding the ending so impactful.
We also get to learn so much more about Yael in this second book. After having lived through so much pain and suffering, and with more adversity and impossible odds ahead, she does not give up. The scope of the narrative expands to include a few more POVs, exploring the dynamics between them, making this one a bigger, more meaningful and emotional book. The way I see it, Wolf by Wolf gets the edge when it comes to heart-pounding action, but Blood for Blood gets it when it comes to character and relationship development. This series is just so imaginative, riveting, and moving. The two books may form a complete whole, but I also love that they complement each other in this way. I can’t recommend them enough.
Audiobook comments: I also opted to switch formats and listen to the Blood for Blood audiobook, even though I read the first book in print. Best decision ever. I find emotional stories are often more engaging and immersive in audio, and the producers chose an excellent narrator in Christa Lewis, who delivered a touching performance. She projected an overall tone that I felt was perfect for this novel, expressing just the right amount of feeling and inflection in all the right places to make all the most significant scenes stand out....more
2015 was a great year for YA fiction, with lots of new ideas and debut authors breaking onto the scene. When S. Harrison’s Infinity Lost popped up on my radar late in the fall, I thought it sounded like an interesting book to check out.
The story takes place in the near future, following the life of a girl named Infinity “Finn” Blackstone. Her father, CEO of Blackstone Technologies, is one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, but while his company’s world-changing services and products are nearly ubiquitous, Richard Blackstone himself remains a highly reclusive figure. Not even Finn has ever met him. Raised by her father’s staff, all she knows about the man is what others have told her and what she sees on the news.
Finn is seventeen when she and her classmates from boarding school are taken on a field trip to visit the Blackstone headquarters. Elated, Finn believes this could finally be her chance to meet her father and confront him with all her questions. Lately, she has been having strange dreams, even though a part of her knows they are more than that. The visions feel like memories, but how can that be when she cannot remember actually experiencing them herself? Finn is determined to find some answers, and she believes Richard Blackstone is the key.
Beyond that, I really can’t say more; suffice to say, the plot takes a surprising number of turns and ends up in a place I never saw coming, and if I give away anything else I would be hovering dangerously close to spoiler territory. What I can say is that Infinity Lost was a really quick read due to its relatively modest page count, which along with being jam-packed with action and tight storytelling made this one a really fast-pace and entertaining read. I also thoroughly enjoyed the future setting which featured some innovative tech, some of which were pretty farfetched but nonetheless very cool. The book also stood out to me because of its departure from certain YA norms, such as downplaying any romance (at least in this first book) though quite honestly, the plot moves along so quickly that there’s hardly any room for unnecessary drama.
That said, while a lot of things in Infinity Lost worked for me, there were a few issues that tripped me up as well. First, you should know that technically, the “real story” doesn’t start until late in the novel, because the first half contains almost nothing but random and sometimes confusing flashbacks. Finn has these dream-memories, and the time jumps can get very jarring and tiresome after a while. Second, I’m a bit disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of the wider world, though this is mainly due to the limitations of looking through Finn’s eyes in the first-person. She’s being kept in the dark, and so by extension, we are as well.
Third—though this is not a problem for me personally, I still figured I should mention it—reading this book was a little like watching a movie that starts off PG-13, but then ends with a full-blown R rating. The final chapters are a veritable bloodbath, with heads popping off, bodies being blown into red mist, etc. all brutally described in vivid and graphic detail. I’ve read a lot worse of course, but I was still shocked at the lack of warning; the beginning held absolutely no clue that this book would end in such over-the-top, indiscriminate violence. If that kind of content turns you off, I would approach this with caution.
But my biggest issue was the cliffhanger. In this day and age of seemingly nothing but YA trilogies and series, I grudgingly accept the need for them, but at the very least I think each book should still contain the resolution to its main conflict. I don’t like it when a book ends abruptly in the middle of a scene; it’s clumsy and awkward and I end up with more questions than answers, which is not a good feeling. Unfortunately, this was the case here. There were too many loose ends, and the book did not in any way feel complete.
Even in the face of all these issues though, I liked the book well enough that I would be open to continuing the series, if nothing else to find out what happens to Finn. Infinity Lost felt very much like a long intro, and I feel confident that the meat of the story will be in the sequel Infinity Rises, out January 5, 2016....more
Rebel of the Sands was my most highly anticipated Young Adult novel of this spring, and I’m glad to report that it didn’t disappoint. Despite having an overly simplistic storyline and the second half ultimately giving in to predictability, I had a great time with this energetic and audacious debut from Alwyn Hamilton.
The book begins with one of my all-time favorite tropes, featuring our main character pulling off the good old girl-disguised-as-a-guy strategy to enter a shooting competition, where she hopes to use her excellent sharpshooting skills to win her the big cash prize. Her whole life, Amani has been scrimping and saving for the day she will finally escape her dead-end town of Dustwalk and the nasty relatives she has to live with after her mother, the only relative she’s ever known, was executed by hanging. The shooting competition was supposed to be her ticket to a new life, but as it turned out, the outcome was rigged and Amani is forced to go home without her winnings—though not before getting to know one of her rivals, a good looking foreigner named Jin.
Jin, however, turns out to be a wanted man on the run from the army. Back in Dustwalk, Amani goes out on a limb to protect him, resulting in her becoming a fugitive as well. She ends up getting her escape after all, as the two of them take off for the desert ahead of their pursuers, but their trek out among the dunes does not go as smoothly as they had hoped it would, and every setback they face is a chance for their enemy to draw closer.
The beginning of this story is fantastic. All at once I was introduced to a spunky main protagonist, an incredible new world with rich with history and lore, as well as Hamilton’s smooth and elegant prose. Amani is a very likeable character, wearing her talent with guns proudly but not arrogantly; her abilities are more about her way of life, and less about her being a special case. She also has a very good reason to want to leave Dustwalk beyond the fact she has no future there, because a woman who doesn’t get married after they come of age might as well be next to useless. Amani is trying to escape her social circumstances and to avoid being just another one of her uncle’s wives, so I found it easy to root for her.
I also loved the world-building. I’ve long been a fan of western-fantasy settings, though Rebel of the Sands is taking it one step further by combining it with an Arabian Nights feel, plunging readers into world of harsh sun and sand. Supernatural beings like the Djinn as well as magical horses fill these pages, and I was delighted to learn about the mythology that the author created for her book. Mortals endowed with special powers exist as well, and these cases are explained in a very imaginative way, by pulling in elements from legend and mixing them with Hamilton’s own touches.
Around the halfway mark though, the story returns to a well-trodden path, becoming more predictable and filled with clichés. It was very obvious that all the information and history dropped in at the beginning of the story was going to come into play later in the books. There were absolutely no surprises at this point, and the twist that came later on fell flat on its face because anyone paying attention could have seen it coming a million miles away. The lack of originality in to the plot was a little disappointing, but that might be the only reason why I’m not rating this book higher because I tend to be harsher than most on YA stories with predictable outcomes.
Otherwise, I can’t deny that Rebel of the Sands was a lot of fun, and I blew through this novel like a whirlwind because it was such an easy read. While the overarching plotline might not be the freshest, the book’s world itself was breathtakingly unique, and I had a really good time following its lovely cast of characters. Not much news right now on the sequel to this first installment of what is to be a planned trilogy, but I’m definitely on board for more....more