Continuing with my ongoing love affair with books about carnivals or circuses, I decided to check out Freeks by Amanda Hocking which features a group of traveling sideshow performers in the 80s as they travel across the country looking for work.
The story stars Mara, a teenager who has practically spent her whole life growing up on the road with Gideon Davorin’s Traveling Carnival. While their show boasts many of the usual attractions, what most folks don’t realize is that many among Gideon’s crew actually possess supernatural powers. For example, they have a telekinetic on staff who helps out with a lot of their magician’s “tricks”. Their trapeze artist has abilities to manipulate the air around him so that he can never fall. Mara’s own mother is a fortune teller who gains insights about her clients’ lives by being able to commune with the dead. However, despite being surrounded by these powered individuals and being the daughter of one herself, Mara has no special abilities. She has sometimes wondered what it might be like to settle down and live like “normal” people, but the carnival is the only family she has ever known, and even though the going can get tough sometimes, Mara loves her life and can’t imagine it any other way.
That is, until Gideon takes up a contract to set up camp in a small southern town named Caudry, and sparks fly between Mara and Gabe, a handsome local boy she meets at a party. Mara likes Gabe—a lot—and he seems to like her too. But how would he feel once he finds out she is a carnie? On the other hand…does he even need to know? By this time in two weeks the sideshow will be on the road again and Mara would be on her way to their next destination; if the relationship is doomed to fail anyway, she sees no harm in withholding a few personal details, especially since Gabe seems to be keeping some secrets himself. Before long though, Mara has more pressing matters to worry about. One by one, members of Gideon’s crew go missing or come under attack, savaged by some mysterious creature. Caudry also seems to be giving off some strange, bad vibes. The carnival came here in the hopes of making some extra revenue, but if the incidents keep up at this rate, Mara fears they’ll run out of performers long before their contract is up.
What I didn’t realize before starting this book was how prominently it would be featuring the romantic side plot. While that by itself isn’t always a negative, it is somewhat frustrating when you get teased all these other fascinating elements in the story, such as the sideshow’s supernatural performers and all the peculiar goings-on happening around Caudry. I wanted more of the carnival life, more details on the backgrounds and personalities of the people working there, and more development into the mysteries of the town. But instead, most of what we got was Gabe, Gabe, and more Gabe. The story keeps shoving his and Mara’s relationship down our throats and I can’t help but think way too many pages were wasted in this area.
Plus, after all this buildup to the grand finale where supposedly huge revelations would be revealed, the results were decidedly underwhelming. When all is said and done, the mystery felt much smaller than it was meant to be, and reasons are clear as to why: there’s actually very little plot in this book. Like I said, most of it is padded by the romance, and I won’t deny that this is somewhat disappointing. Hocking has set up something really cool here, creating a world where people with supernatural abilities live among us, then shining a spotlight on a traveling sideshow run by many of these special individuals. However, instead of exploring this aspect, she has decided to go with the tired and well-trod route of “yet another YA romance” while adding nothing too new or different to the formula. Big time missed opportunity here, which is what gripes me the most.
In sum, Freeks had the potential to be more but ended up being rather average. Too much emphasis was placed on what was arguably a lackluster romance complete with stale dialogue and hints of insta-love, while regrettably the best and most interesting aspects of the story were underplayed. The book wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, just another ordinary middle-of-the-road YA fantasy novel.
Audiobook Comments: I’m glad that I listened to the audiobook version of Freeks, otherwise my rating might have been slightly lower. The performance by narrator Em Eldridge made up for some of the weaknesses of the story, as talented voice actors and actresses are able to do sometimes. For one thing, she’s great at accents—when a character’s description states that they have a southern drawl, for example, that is exactly what she delivers. Her energy also gives life and personality to everyone in the story, especially Mara. I believe this is the first book I’ve ever listened to Ms. Eldridge read, but I’ll definitely be looking for more audiobooks narrated by her in the future....more
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
On the surface, this book had everything going for it: an original premise, a tantalizing mystery, a very promising plot. By all accounts, I should be extremely pleased with it, so why then can I not seem to shake this vague sense of discontent? Perhaps it is precisely because this book had so much potential, and knowing that it could have been even better is the source of my disappointment. Had the author carried out his ideas more effectively—and not tried to do too much all at once—the story might not have started fraying at the seams as it did.
Nemesis introduces us to two main POVs, the first of which belongs to Melinda “Min” Wilder, a teenage girl who has been experiencing a frightening occurrence every two years ever since she was eight years old. Every other year and always on her birthday, a strange man in a suit with glasses finds her alone and kills her. Whether it’s throwing her off a cliff or bashing her skull in with rock, he never fails to show up and do the job. And as if that isn’t horrifying enough, what happens next is even more disturbing—after dying, Min always finds herself waking up again, alive and whole, in the same spot in the middle of the woods of her small rural Idaho town. The first time it happened, she walked home to find that only a few hours have passed since her death. During that time, all evidence of her killing had been erased. The second time it happened, on Min’s tenth birthday, the town psychiatrist diagnosed her with a dissociative disorder. Min was prescribed medication that she has been taking every day for the last six years, but without fail, the mysterious suited man still always shows up on her even-numbered birthdays and kills her.
Our second POV character is Noah, and though he doesn’t get to chime in until later, we first get to meet him through Min’s eyes. As the son of the richest man in town, Noah appears to have it all: money, good looks, and popularity. However, the truth is a lot more complicated. Despite being surrounded by friends, Noah is often emotionally aloof, quiet, and generally unassertive—pretty much the complete opposite of Min and her best friend Tack. Publically, Noah puts on a stoic face, but privately he is haunted by nightmares of violence and death. For almost all his life, his father has been telling him what a weakling he is for not being able to overcome the hallucinations and bad thoughts in his head. After so long, Noah has even started to believe that he is useless and weak. When his jerk friends start bullying Min and Tack, all he can do is stand silently by and watch, too timid to speak out against Ethan, the leader of the popular kids.
By the way, in the middle of all this, the rest of the world at large is facing bigger issues. At the beginning of the book, we’re made aware that earth is in danger of being in the direct path of a huge asteroid hurtling through space. The Anvil is deemed a planet-killer, and as the story opens the whole world is holding its breath for a press conference in which NASA will announce whether or not the asteroid will make impact. Scientists are putting the odds at 50/50.
With all this going on, how could I not think Nemesis would be great? And indeed, at least in the first half, the book lived up to the potential promised by its synopsis. The suspense was bolstered by the intrigue and all the questions of which there were plenty, such as, just what the hell is going on with Min? Assuming she is right in her convictions and that none of this is all in her head, how is what’s happening to her even possible? Is there a significance in the fact that she and Noah share the same birthday? And what does all this have to do with the giant asteroid threatening to end all life on earth?
The good news is, we get the answers to all these questions by the end of the book. The bad news though, is that explanations seldom live up to the hype generated by the mystery in these sorts of situations, and this can’t be more true in the case of Nemesis. I also didn’t really enjoy how the story took a turn in a completely different direction around the halfway point, when we abandoned the mystery and things sudden devolved into a Lord of the Flies meets The Hunger Games fiasco. It felt like an attempt to make this book conform even further to YA conventions, which of course never makes things more interesting.
That said though, overall Nemesis was an enjoyable, entertaining book. I liked that about it. But somewhere along the way, I also felt the story lost sight of its goal to be different and unique and exceptional, reverting back to the usual tropes to order get in on the teen dystopian boom. To be fair, I rarely take issue with the tropes themselves, which can be fun. But a lot of books seem to fall into this trap, and quite frankly I’m really starting to get tired of it. I also felt somewhat let down by the ending, which offered an explanation for everything but had more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese. After all the buildup and anticipation, I honestly expected more, and the scenario we got struck me as absurd and not well thought out.
All told, Nemesis could have been great, but halfway through I felt it started to become a different book. The premise was also fantastic, but for all the intriguing questions it raised, the answers offered at the end made me think Reichs might have bit off more than he could handle. Still, I’m not closing any doors to the possibility that I’ll read the sequel. Like I said, this book was overall fun and entertaining, and I think there’s also a good chance the next one can turn things around and bring us back to the suspense and mystery we first saw in the intro, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for it....more
What an amazing surprise this was! Though to be honest, I had no idea what to expect at first, only that from the moment I saw the book description for The Valiant, I knew I had to read it. I make it no secret that I am fascinated with anything to do with Ancient Rome, and so historical fiction set in this time period is like an instant Mogsy magnet. And secondly, FEMALE GLADIATORS.
The story follows Fallon, daughter of a Celtic king and younger sister to the late legendary warrior Sorcha who fell to the legions of Julius Caesar while fighting in defense of her homeland. Despite a druid’s prophecy predicting that she will meet the same end as her sister, Fallon remains undaunted and determined to follow in Sorcha’s footsteps, hoping to one day join her father’s fighting force. She even turns down a marriage proposal from the boy she loves, knowing she must make her mark on the world before she could make such a commitment.
However, when the big day finally comes, instead of formally accepting Fallon into his war band, her father instead surprises everyone by announcing her betrothal to her true love’s brother, a Roman sympathizer. The king cites political reasons for his decision, and also because he cannot bear the thought of losing another daughter to war, but Fallon is unappeased and furious at what she sees as a betrayal.
At this point, you might think you know how this story will play out, or that all the components are laid out on the table. Within the first handful of chapters, we are introduced to a protagonist who has spent her entire life worshiping her older sister while also growing up in her shadow, and even after Sorcha’s death, all Fallon wants is to live up to her memory. Then there are the two boys around Fallon’s own age who for years have been fostered at her father’s castle, vying for Fallon’s affections. But while Fallon fell in love with one, her father decided to marry her off to the other. “Oh, this is a scenario that feels a little familiar,” I thought. “I have a few guesses about what might happen.”
Well, I was wrong about that. There were definitely plenty of surprises, a couple of which came very early on in the book too. I’m not going to spoil what they are, but suffice to say, they altered my predictions for the story entirely. Fallon ends up being captured by slavers and shipped off to Rome, where her steel resolve catches the attention of a representative for a school for female gladiators, and the rest, as they say, is history.
While The Valiant is marketed as a YA fantasy, in fact gladiatrices did exist in ancient Roman times, though they were very, very rare. They were seen more as novelties, according to the few accounts that have survived. And more than likely, they were not viewed or treated with the same regard as their male counterparts. No evidence either has been found of the training of female gladiators, or schools dedicated to them. So in a sense, this book does fall into the historical fantasy category, in the way it attempts to imagine a picture of what life would have been like if gladiatrices had been a big part of ancient Roman culture, in and out of the arena.
By combining history and elements from her own incredible imagination, the author brings the vivid world of The Valiant to life. Details are noticeably on the lighter side when it comes to setting, but Livingston makes up for it by creating an atmosphere that feels distinctly and authentically “Ancient Roman”, allowing readers to fill in any gaps with their own knowledge or understanding of the time period. I also loved the protagonist. At times, I might have found her a tad too melodramatic, but other than that, I don’t really have any major complaints about Fallon or any of the other characters. As I mentioned before, the story is sufficiently unpredictable and I was taken by surprise by a couple plot points. I might also have bemoaned the lack of gladiatorial fights in the first half of the book, but the second half showed me why it’s important to be patient. Towards the end, the ferocious action and the intense thrills succeeded in blowing me away.
In case you couldn’t tell, I loved this book. The category for my favorite YA novel of 2017 officially has its first contender, folks. If there’s any justice in the world, this book will be huge and it will deserve all the attention it gets. The future of this series promises to be exciting both on and off the arena floor, and I can’t wait to read more of Fallon and her sisterhood of ruthless and tough gladiators.
Audiobook Comments: I was lucky enough to be offered the audiobook of The Valiant for review, and I found it to be another splendid example of a fast-paced and addictive listen. Personally, thought the narrator Fiona Hardingham did a great job voicing Fallon’s story. I love her accent and the emotions she puts into her reading, and I would not hesitate to recommend The Valiant audiobook to anyone considering this format....more
The last couple years have seen me get a lot pickier with my choice of YA reads, the key reason being that originality is such a rare quality in the genre these days. That’s why when I first came upon the description of The Empress of a Thousand Skies, I thought it showed promise—because sometimes, it’s not what a book’s blurb says that seals the deal; it’s what it doesn’t say. Despite the synopsis being rather short and vague, I liked how it mainly focused on the roles of the characters themselves and the way these mini-profiles teased possibilities and potential.
First, we have the Empress—or soon-to-be Empress. Crown Princess Rhiannon Ta’an, affectionately known as Rhee, is the sole surviving heir to a powerful dynasty that has ruled the galaxy for hundreds of years. Today, on her sixteenth birthday, she will come of age and return to her seat of power to take back her rule, which a regent has been holding for her in trust ever since Rhee’s parents and older sister were killed in a starship crash. Everyone called it an accident, but Rhee knows in her heart that it was not. For the last ten years she has been training and preparing for this day, the day she will be crowned Empress so she can finally take revenge on the one who orchestrated her family’s death.
However, the enemy’s reach is long and before Rhee can reach her destination, she becomes the target of a last-ditch assassination attempt. Against all odds she manages to survive, but the official word gets out that she has been killed, with the deed being pinned on a well-known reality show star. Enter Alyosha, the Fugitive. Overnight, Aly goes from being adored by fans to becoming the most wanted man in the galaxy. Now he is on the run, desperate to clear his name and find out why he has been framed. Meanwhile, Rhee teams up with an unexpected ally on her quest for the truth, and together they forge ahead with her plans to expose a Madman and to stop them from plunging the galaxy into all-out war.
So, did Empress of a Thousand Skies meet my expectations? Well…yes and no. While I had a good time with the book, it also didn’t take me long to realize the story wasn’t going to blow me away in the originality department as I’d hoped it would. Books featuring that timeworn cliché of a sole surviving royal character seeking vengeance for their murdered family are a dime a dozen, and I was really hoping Rhee’s story was going to add something more to this, but it didn’t. In fact, the entire book was rather predictable, with a plot that felt heavily formulaic and on-rails like a theme park ride you’ve been on many times before. Overall, the book’s themes and messages were commonplace and relatively bland. Even the “twists” were pretty well scripted in advance, with foreshadowing that’s so obvious that anyone paying close attention will know exactly what’s coming.
There was also this sense that the author wanted us to like her protagonist, and yet the story never failed to drive home Rhee’s many shortcomings every chance it could, with an almost cruel consistency. I wanted to root for Rhee, I really did, but the writing itself made that hard to do when it was constantly reminding me what a spoiled and sheltered princess she was, whose naiveté always steered her wrong or made her plans seem half-baked and ineffectual. Poor girl could never catch a break.
And yet, you know how there are movies you can watch over and over again without getting bored, the ones you can still enjoy even when you can recite all the lines and know when everything’s going to happen? Reading this book was a little like that. No matter how predictable the story got, I never stopped having fun with it. There was also enough to keep me interested, especially Aly’s chapters which offered a more unique point of view. And while world-building was a little lacking, there were a still a number of details that jumped out at me, such as the cool tech or the political relationships between the different cultures. It would be nice to see the next book elaborate on these areas.
For a YA novel, Empress of a Thousand Skies doesn’t bring anything terribly new to the table, but it’s still a pretty solid debut. The book was fun despite its flaws, the main ones being the story’s predictability and the weak development of the main character, but all that can be overlooked if you’re just looking for an entertaining read. It is the first of a planned duology and I am definitely planning on seeing it through to the end.
Audiobook Comments: As an audiobook, Empress of a Thousand Skies was the listening equivalent of “unputdownable”. Because their stories are relatively straightforward, I find that YA novels typically make for very fast and addictive listens, and this one was no exception. I’m also no stranger to the work of Rebecca Soler, one of my favorite audiobook narrators, having been a fan of hers since listening to her read Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles series. Since she always puts everything into her performances, I couldn’t imagine Soler bringing anything but her A-game to this one, and I was right....more
This year, if you’re involved in one or more of the many diversity reading challenges out there or simply encouraging yourself to check out more diverse reads, I hope you’ll consider Dreadnought. Books like this one have a relevant place in our world today for their role in celebrating LGBT voices and spreading awareness, and I think what excited me most was the depth of our protagonist and the way her story was told.
Fifteen Danny Tozer has always known in her mind and in her heart that she is a girl, even if her body says otherwise. The crushing anxiety of trying to keep people from finding out she’s transgender has been building lately, which is why at the start of this book, she finds herself hiding behind the mall secretly painting her toenails—holding onto this one thing she can control. That’s when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the world’s greatest superhero known as Dreadnought literally falls out of the sky and lands right in front of her. Gravely injured by a supervillain named Utopia, Dreadnought knows his time is near, so with his dying breath he passes his powers on to Danny.
In that moment, Danny is changed. Becoming the new Dreadnought has not only granted the amazing superpowers that come with the role, but it has also transformed her body into what she’s always thought it should be, the girl she has always been inside. For Danny, this is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to her, though that happiness is quickly dampened when faced with the hostile reactions of her overbearing father who refuses to accept her new identity. At school, her best friend David is also suddenly treating her differently, saying and doing these awful things. Furthermore, Danny has realized that the mantle of Dreadnought comes with certain responsibilities—like saving the world. Sure enough, it’s not long before the superhero team Legion comes knocking at her door trying to recruit her, and the offer has Danny feeling torn. She knows she wants to help people, but she’s just not sure she wants to be the kind of hero the Legion wants her to be.
At its heart, Dreadnought is a superhero novel—it’s fun, fast-paced, and action-packed. But as you can see, there’s also a lot more to the story, and the conflicts here are complex and multi-faceted. I liked how this book incorporated the superhero elements while at the same time using Danny’s super-powered transformation and the accompanying acquisition of Dreadnought’s abilities as an allegory for a person coming out as transgender. April Daniels has done a fantastic job exploring Danny’s story, especially in detailing her internal struggles, her hopes and joys, fears and doubts. I can’t even pretend to understand how it feels for teens in that situation, but reading about Danny was definitely an emotional journey. Her character is well-written, deeply developed and very real.
Plot-wise, Dreadnought is an entertaining read. Momentum took some time to build, but when Danny meets the Legion, I think that was when the story really hit its stride. I loved Doc Impossible, and the banter between her and Danny during their first major scene together quickly made her one of my favorite side characters. Another thing I loved about this book was the female friendship. While Danny considers Legion’s offer to join up, she meets up with another “greycape” hero named Calamity (and I have a serious weakness for cowgirl-themed heroes) and the two of them take it upon themselves to help those who slip through the cracks of the Legion’s watch. They have a great dynamic together, and the excitement ramps up as the duo decide they have what it takes to take down Utopia themselves.
But for all its strengths, the story also has its weaknesses. There were parts of it that felt a little too clichéd or unconvincing. For example, other than Danny and maybe a couple other characters, no one else was all that fleshed out, and they were treated more like props than real people. Take the Legion—we hear about all their great deeds and how they’re the most powerful superhero team in the world, but of course at the moment of truth they are rendered useless so that our protagonist can conveniently step up to save the day. Portrayal of characters like David, Graywytch, or Danny’s parents are also extreme to the point where they sometimes felt like caricatures of caricatures. While people like that certainly exist, the way they were written in this book felt scripted and done for the sake of pushing the story along. The author also did more telling than showing, with rocky prose in places and pages of info-dumping being a frequent issue early on in the novel. Finally, world-building felt sparse and glossed over, and throughout the book I couldn’t help but experience this disconnect to the wider world beyond.
All told though, I enjoyed Dreadnought a lot. It’s an eye-opening book featuring a wonderfully developed and genuine protagonist. This is the origin story about how she became the eponymous superhero, and it is an unforgettable journey of action and emotion. What a promising start, with much potential for the rest of the Nemesis series!...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
Rarely have I read a story where my thoughts at the end are such a complete turnaround from my thoughts at the beginning. When I first started Gilded Cage, I was beyond pumped–the excellent writing, solid world-building, and strong portrayals of the main characters all made me think this book was going to have everything I wanted. Yet by the time I finished, I could barely even put my feelings into words. I didn’t love it, but I also didn’t hate it. The whole thing just left me cold.
In the alternate world of this young adult dystopian, Great Britain is nation starkly divided along class lines. The Equals are the ruling elites who run the government, live on sprawling estates, and enjoy the power granted to them by their magical gifts. Then there are the commoners, who may be the majority, but they have no representation and are expected to submit themselves to a mandatory ten-year term of service to the Equals. This period is called their “slavedays”, in which they will have all their rights stripped away and no longer be considered citizens.
When the story begins, we are introduced to a family about to begin their slavedays. Siblings Abi, Luke, and Daisy Hadley have been arranged to accompany their parents assigned to the Jardine estate, home of one of the most prominent nobles in Equal society. However, on the day the Hadleys are scheduled to depart, a misunderstanding occurs and 16-year-old Luke is instead separated from his family and shipped off to the slavetown of Millmoor. Feeling desperate and alone, he befriends a group of fellow slaves who teach him how to survive, which in turn makes Luke realize there are more ways to fight back than he’d previously believed.
Meanwhile at the Jardine estate, the rest of the Hadley family are exposed to all the political intrigues and scheming of the Lord and Lady Whittam, along with their three sons Gavar, Jenner, and Silyen. Nevertheless, Abi ends up falling for one of the noble-born young men against her better judgment, putting her in the terrible place of questioning her loyalties and having to decide between freedom and love.
Despite its hackneyed dystopian premise and the overly simplistic concepts, I really did enjoy the first part of this book. From Animal Farm to The Hunger Games, you see a lot of the same themes get used over and over for these types of stories, and yet I never seem to get enough. While the core ideas behind Gilded Cage might not be anything we haven’t seen before, I did enjoy seeing Vic James’ take on them and her attempt to inject a few twists. The prologue was a perfect ten what it came to capturing my attention, and what I read in first few chapters made me want to know more. The writing was also delectable.
So I was shocked when it hit me; somewhere around the quarter to midway point, all my previous enthusiasm had somehow drained away, and I hadn’t even realized it was happening. It just occurred to me suddenly that I was bored, I didn’t really care about the characters, and I was zoning out more and more. The feeling was ambivalence, also known as the death knell of a book under review.
Here’s what I think happened: 1) over time, the strength of the story began eroding due to too many POVs. I couldn’t help but feel the author was trying to emulating the structure and style of an epic fantasy, except, of course, Gilded Cage is not an epic fantasy. 2) The story got hung up on too many unnecessary details. Don’t get me wrong, though. Details are nice. Details are important. But when I find I can zone out or forget everything that was said for several pages at a time, and then have it make absolutely no difference at all in the end, that’s a problem. 3) The split storytelling between the Jardine estate and Millmoor was an interesting decision, but I’m not sure that it was carried out too well. While it was nice seeing a picture of both sides of the world, the ultimate effect was neither here nor there. I couldn’t form a connection to either storyline, and ended up shrugging off both.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I’m disappointed. What started off so promising ended up making me feel so…blah. Still, that’s not to say the book didn’t have it strengths. I recommend giving it a try if the description interests you. It has also been received very positively by a lot of other readers, and I encourage everyone to check out their reviews for another perspective because they do a fantastic job covering all of the story’s charms and high points. Simply put though, the strengths were not enough to overcome the ennui I felt for most of the book, which stumbled after a great beginning and unfortunately never recovered its momentum....more
I’ve been going back and forth in my mind on how to review this book. Having anticipated it for so long, I honestly thought it would be more—and yet, I can’t say I’m all that disappointed either. Sparse at is might have been on story and plot development, The Bone Witch has a lot else going for it, including topnotch writing and impressive atmosphere.
The book introduces us to twelve-year-old Tea, a bone witch. Unfortunately for our protagonist, she came to discover her powers for necromancy in the worst way possible—by accidentally raising her older brother Fox from the dead, while everyone looked on at his funeral. From that moment on, the siblings’ fates were forever linked. But now that she has been identified as a dark asha, a magic user that deals with death, Tea must be taken away to receive the proper training. In this world, bone witches do not have the best reputations to begin with; within many communities they are feared and reviled, despite the crucial role that bone witches play—for you see, only they can defeat the demonic beings called Daeva, creations of the False Prince that resurrect every so often to plague the populace. During her training, Tea will not only learn how to control her powers, she will also be learning how to fight the Daeva.
Not long after Fox’s resurrection, an experienced bone witch called Mykaela comes to take Tea and her brother away to a school for dark asha. Far from home and still reeling over the fact that her life has been changed forever, Tea nonetheless puts all her efforts into learning all she can for the next few years, gaining control over her powers while also further bonding with Fox, the one tie she has to her family. Throughout this time, her resolve is tested again and again—and the challenges include more than just an appraisal of her magical abilities. Tea uncovers a whole other world of secrets among the leaders and other ashas at the school, some that may hold dire consequences for her homeland and those she cares about.
The story here is very simple. While I wouldn’t exactly say I was bored for most of the first half of the book, plot development in this section was admittedly on the sluggish side, especially once we got past the ruckus over Fox’s surprise resurrection. Instead the narrative spent a lot of time building up the relationship between Tea and her brother, which thankfully was something I enjoyed. Despite Fox’s awkward status as an undead, they say that no one can come back from the afterlife unless they truly wanted to, and it was clear that love and protectiveness for his little sister were the main driving forces behind his character. It was heartwarming to see his support for Tea, especially during her early years at the school at a time when she needed his guidance the most. In fact, this attention to siblings’ character development and the strengthening of their bond was likely what saved the book for me and kept me from losing interest completely.
The first section also spent a considerable chunk of time on world-building. To the author’s credit, she has created a fascinating universe in The Bone Witch, filling it with a complex system of magic which became almost too convoluted at times. There are many types of ashas, or witches, in this world—most have powers that are based around the elements like earth, air, fire, etc. The book doesn’t really go into the details of each kind of magic, only telling us that the kind Tea has, i.e. death magic, is different. Apparently there is an entire set of other rules for bone witches, even though there’s no rhyme or reason as to why, and while they are considered to be a type of asha, it is also generally accepted that they are just “special”. Then there are the Daeva, plus the convenient fact that bone witches just so happen to be uniquely equipped to deal with them. Don’t get me wrong, the concept itself is interesting, but at the same time a lot of it feels way too “constructed” for me to find it convincing.
In the face of all this, the idea of heartglasses almost feels extraneous. To give you a crash course on what these things are, in this world everyone wears a mood ring like bauble around their necks called a heartglass, and they can change color depending on what the person is feeling. It is a more than a piece of jewelry though, because it many ways it is also part of the wearer’s identity and soul. They also hold cultural significance, as lovers can opt to exchange heartglasses (though given the dire consequences in the event one person becomes less committed, I don’t know why anyone would risk doing this) and as well the power of potential witches can sometimes be gleaned from the color of their heartglasses. However, heartglasses can also be forged. Not surprisingly, despite all the focus on world-building, I still have a lot of questions. If I do end up continuing this series, it is my hope that the next book will provide more information on ashes, the magic system, heartglasses, etc. and explore how it all fits together.
For now, I plan to take a wait-and-see approach. I didn’t love The Bone Witch, but I also saw a lot to like about the book, including great characterization and fantastic atmosphere. In addition, the magic system holds plenty of potential—though world-building probably needs to be streamlined and polished up a bit. I guess I’ll wait for reviews before deciding whether or not to dive into the sequel; if book two beefs up the storytelling and improves the plot, I just might give this series another try....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
Caraval seems to be the kind of book that readers either love or hate, but once more I find myself falling somewhere in between. While I enjoyed the story for its enchanting and whimsical premise, like many debut novels, it is also not without its flaws.
The book begins with an introduction to a pair of sisters living on the Conquered Isle of Trisda under the eye of their cruel, abusive father. Since childhood, Scarlett and Tella have both dreamed of Caraval, a legendary performance show that is only held once a year in a far-away land. For years Scarlett has written to Legend, the mysterious ringmaster behind Caraval, begging him to bring his show to their lonely island, but never once has she received a reply…until now.
Unfortunately, Legend’s invitation couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time. Scarlett has all but given up on seeing Caraval, and there’s no way she can travel there now, not when she is engaged to be married in about a week. She has never met her fiancé, whom her father had arranged for her, but that hardly matters to Scarlett; all she wants to do is leave the isle for good, taking Tella with her so that they can escape their horrible father forever. What she didn’t count on, however, was her sister having different plans. On her own, Tella had made the acquaintance of a handsome sailor named Julian and arranged for her and Scarlett’s passage on his ship to attend Caraval, unwilling to let this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity slip through their fingers.
What actually happens at Caraval has always been shrouded in magic and mystery. All Scarlett knows is that the show involves a game where the audience participates, and the winner is awarded with the ultimate prize, the granting of any wish by Legend. When they arrive though, the last thing she expected was for her own sister to be kidnapped and be made part of the performance. As the clock ticks down, Scarlett becomes less and less convinced that Caraval is just a game, and now she must do all she can to find and save Tella before her sister is lost to her forever.
First, the good: Caraval is a book full of twists and turns, and as expected there are plenty of surprises. Nothing kills my enthusiasm faster than a predictable YA novel, but thankfully this is not a problem here. Sometimes, I even wondered if the author had any idea where her story was going to go before she started, since the plot had that touch of randomness that made me think she might have just made things up as she went along. The ideas behind the novel are also imaginative and compelling. Together with the swift pacing, this creates the fever dream atmosphere that perfectly brings out the urgency of Scarlett’s quest.
And now for the not-so-good: for a novel that is supposed to espouse the loving spirit of sisterhood, I found the relationship between Scarlett and Tella incredibly off-putting. Scarlett is protective to the point of smothering, and Tella is a manipulative spoiled brat more often than not. It didn’t matter how many times the author tried to hammer a point home through repetition, I simply could not grasp any sort of connection between the two sisters, let alone any kind of trust. Then there was Scarlett’s romance with Julian, which was also built on shaky foundations. Julian is hardly what you would call a valiant hero, and I think I would have been more on board with their relationship if Scarlet’s attraction to him didn’t feel so much like Stockholm syndrome.
Caraval is also the debut novel of Stephanie Garber and sure enough I spotted a few quirks in her writing that I often associate with relatively new authors. The big one is “telling not showing” and the constant repetition of key ideas as illustrated in the example of Scarlett and Tella’s relationship, which was just discussed. For the most part the prose is well-written, though occasionally there will be an awkward phrase or two that jumps out at you and smacks you in the face. World-building is also pretty sparse, though to be fair, more world-building might not have mattered that much due to the nature of this particular story, but still, I think it would have helped anchor readers more firmly to the setting.
Bottom line, Caraval wasn’t bad, but I fear my tastes in YA fantasy are growing increasingly hard to please. I see a lot of potential in this series, and even though that potential failed to manifest itself in this first book, I have hopes that the sequel will hit closer to the mark. Yes, I do plan to give the next book a try, since despite my issues with the book’s characters and writing, I think the next book will show development in these areas....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
For the second time this year, a Young Adult novel has disappointed me by starting off with a lot of promise, only to completely fizzle out in the second half. Gah, I just want to slam my head against a wall. After all, it’s one thing to read a book I did not like, but it’s quite another to watch incredible potential end up being squandered.
To its credit, Wintersong did have a great start. In fact the book had one of the most well-written and put together intros I’d ever read. The story begins in a simple 18th-19th century Bavarian village, where our protagonist Liesl and her family run an inn. All her life, she has heard tales of the mysterious Goblin King, a dangerous trickster who rules the Underworld and stalks the forests around their home, waiting to enrapture his next victim. An aspiring composer, Liesl has allowed these stories be her inspiration, even though she hides her talent from the world. In her family, it is her little brother who is destined for greatness, and all of Liesl’s efforts have gone into making sure that young Josef will get noticed and receive his apprenticeship.
But soon, our protagonist realizes she has made a mistake. With everyone’s attention on Josef, it is Liesl’s younger sister Käthe who has paid the price. One night, Käthe goes missing, stolen away by the Goblin King. Blaming herself for her sister’s plight, Liesl has no choice but to journey to the Underworld in the hopes of finding a way to rescue her. However, once faced with the Goblin King himself, she is reminded that in accordance with the Old Laws, Käthe’s freedom can only be bought with a sacrifice. The only choice Liesl has is to offer herself in her sister’s place, a trade that the Goblin King accepts.
While this is nothing terribly groundbreaking as far as folklore/fairy-tale inspired retellings go, I was initially impressed by Wintersong because of the writing. Whatever the story lacked in originality was made up for by S. Jae-Jones’ beautiful style, which is bursting with rich description and yet still incredibly easy on the eyes. For a debut novelist, she has a master’s talent for conveying a perfect atmosphere for whatever scene she is writing, and even a predictable plot could not prevent me from getting into the story. It helped that the beginning few chapters were so full of interesting conflicts, like the preparations for Josef’s once-in-a-lifetime audition or Käthe’s impending marriage to Liesl’s childhood sweetheart. Liesl herself intrigued me as a character, for even though she was the stereotypical bland and self-sacrificing older sister, I sympathized with her because of all that she’s had to give up for her family.
If I could have rated sections of Wintersong individually, I would have given the first half 4 or 5 stars—I just loved it that much. I was psyched. Imagine that, a book that has been described as Labyrinth meets Beauty and the Beast, actually living up to the hype.
But alas, it seemed I’d gotten my hopes up too soon. Around halfway, the story took such a steep nose-dive that I have to wonder if the second half had been treated to the same amount of scrutiny while in the editing phases. Barely anything happened. Liesl became a completely ineffectual, tedious character. The narrative spent an inordinate amount of time getting into the minutiae of musical theory. The story became an almost unbearable chore to read.
Once again I blame an awkward romance. While I can see how some readers might find the dark and sexy undertones beneath Liesl and the Goblin King’s relationship appealing, I believe a satisfying and realistic love story should encompass a lot more than that. What I missed from their entire courtship was a sense of chemistry or anything to convince me that there was something deeper, and unfortunately the longer the story belabored their hokey romance the more exasperated I became with everything.
It’s a real shame, because Wintersong could have been great, but sadly the promise shown in the intro did not extend into the rest of the book. At the end of the day, I simply wanted more to happen in the story, I needed more agency in the protagonist, and I needed a lot more conflict than just the cloying empty calories of a romantic drama. I do think that the author will have a long and successful writing career ahead of her though (because man, she can really write), and I am definitely open to the possibility of reading more of her books, but ultimately this one was just not for 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