Friday, August 19, 2016

AND I DARKEN


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Review of AND I DARKEN by KIERSTEN WHITE
(review based on advance reading copy)

Last summer I read my first novel by White and loved it so much that I’ve been on the lookout for her next release. With AND I DARKEN, she spins a long, unfolding epic about three politically powerful children and their doomed friendship.

Princess Lada may be another tough heroine but she is by no means a cliché. She makes most other tough heroines you’ve read look like wimps (or at least like they have more soul). Lada is brutal and merciless. She learns about power and control at a very young age and lives her life in pursuit of gaining more and dread of losing what she has. This “education” includes lessons on the dangers of caring about anyone, for when you care for someone that only turns them into a weapon that can be used against you.

Lada can’t help caring for her younger brother Radu, at least not completely. Radu cares enough for the both of them and, unfortunately for himself, he doesn’t have Lada’s warrior instinct. He hides and cries where she fights. He will never understand how Lada can sit by at times when someone hurts him, but little does he know Lada believes the best way she can protect him is by refusing to let on how much she cares.

Then their father sells out Lada and Radu by offering them up as collateral to an enemy in exchange for peace. Their situation doesn’t seem so bad when they meet Mehmed, son of the Sultan holding them both captive. Both Lada and Radu fall for Mehmed and he holds them captive in his own way as once again they both care more than they would want. The three form a tight trio, but fate will not make their friendship easy.

Despite funny parts here and there, there is a significant melancholy tone to this entire book. While I enjoyed the novel, the ending frustrated me greatly. In a good novel, I want events to change the characters in some way. This end puts far more weight on fate over decisions than I like philosophically speaking. There’s a sense of being trapped on the hamster wheel, always ending where we started, and us the fools if we think otherwise.

I’ve mentioned before that I dislike rating books because sometimes I want to give the book so many stars for some aspects or chunks and a different number for the rest. I think I would give this book 4-5 out of 5 stars up until the very end when I want to give it only 1 of 5. In short, it feels like a great story…without any actual point.

Friday, August 12, 2016

THE MORNING STAR


Review of THE MORNING STAR by ROBIN BRIDGES
(third in THE KATERINA TRILOGY)

Young necromancer Katerina is back for her finale. Her mission of protecting the tsar from the undead Konstantin’s pursuit of power continues. She doesn’t yet know Konstantin’s next move, but she knows their fight isn’t over. To complicate things further, at least on a personal level, the tsar grants his blessing for Katerina to marry his son, on the condition that she abandon her dream of becoming a doctor.

I respect that this trilogy holds steady in its appeal. I read plenty that lag in the middle or tapper off from brilliant first book to waste of my time third. The writing and plotting feels consistent from the start of this series to the end and that indicates, to me, a writer comfortable in her style.

For that matter, any criticisms I have remain the same. Katerina takes a little bit more initiative in this book, but she’s still more of a passive vessel. When she takes physical action, it’s with the help of an enchanted object. Also in all three books, the climax scenes felt so chaotic to me I had trouble following what was happening.

There’s a twist at the end of this trilogy that I LOVED! It feels both powerfully affecting as well as hilariously delivered, and I didn’t see it coming in the least.

A strong conclusion to a great series and one that I can add to my growing list of vampire books I actually enjoyed.

Friday, August 5, 2016

EVERY OTHER DAY


Review of EVERY OTHER DAY by JENNIFER LYNN BARNES

On some days, teenager Kali is completely normal, attending high school and doing her best to blend into the wall. However, every other day, she’s superhuman. She doesn’t know if there’s a word for what she is, since she’s never met anyone else like her, but every other day she’s a driven, unstoppable hunter. She tracks down hellhounds, dragons, and other beasts that endanger her world. She senses their presence, feels lured to them, and compelled to kill them. On these days, she’s inhumanly fast and strong, with blood that poisons these beasts if they get a taste of it and a miraculous healing rate. Then Kali notices a symbol on a girl at her high school, a symbol that means that girl will die within the day. Unfortunately, it’s on one of Kali’s “normal” days.

I loved the premise of this book. So many fantasy novels feature protagonists with too much power. It often doesn’t feel they’re earning enough of their accomplishments if they have too many or too strong of magical gifts. Kali manages to be both the cliché superhero and someone who will need to earn her triumph. Not only do we have front row seats to her resourcefulness, but there’s the added twist that she’s not accustomed to needing to be this resourceful. (She can’t help counting down throughout the day to when she’ll be invincible again.)

I also really enjoyed the varied characters and how they play off each other. For starters, Kali doesn’t even like the girl marked for death. She’s a popular cheerleader known for bullying misfits. It tells us a lot about Kali that she would risk her life for this girl nevertheless. And this girl (Bethany by the way) turns out to be an engaging mix of predictably superficial as well as refreshingly layered. Oh, and Kali’s own voice is consistently fantastic.

I did find the book sometimes told rather than showed too much, especially in regards to the characters. The author frequently makes explicit statements about someone’s personality that any attentive reader could figure out herself.

My only other criticism is that the story almost lost me from the start by opening with killing puppies. Granted, they’re hellhound demonic puppies, but I’m a zealous dog lover who felt disgusted by the opening scene all the same.

Back to more of what I admired though, there’s a very unique magic system that keeps unfolding throughout the story to reveal more twists. And this can probably go on the list of the few vampire books that I like! Probably because vampires are only a small part of what’s going on here and the author’s take on vampire’s feels fresh and intriguing.

Fresh and intriguing. Those words probably summarize this whole book pretty well.

Friday, July 29, 2016

THE UNFAILING LIGHT


Review of THE UNFAILING LIGHT by ROBIN BRIDGES
(second in THE KATERINA TRILOGY)

Katerina’s adventures continue in this second installment in a gripping trilogy about dark magic in 19th century Russia. She’s ready and eager to start medical school, but then the tsar waylays her plans. Given Katerina’s unique position as the only one capable of defending the tsar from a particular threat, he can’t very well afford to have her far away from him, for both his protection and her own. To make matters worse, it’s Katerina’s love interest, the tsar’s son George, who has to deliver this news, proving that Katerina is a bit of a shoot-the-messenger personality.

So Katerina finds herself back at her dull school for ladies, again roommates with Danilo’s sister. George goes off to study with wizards in France, leaving Katerina (and literally, thanks to a spell) trapped at the institute. With a violent ghost, apparently. And unfortunately the same spell that holds Katerina captive also suppresses her magic, so she’s about as powerless as anyone else to stop the ghost.

Thanks to a plot driven storyline, a very fast pace, and short chapters, it’s easy to tear through this whole novel in a few sittings. The book does and doesn’t suffer from middle book syndrome. On the one hand, I found it thoroughly engrossing from beginning to end. However, when I step away from the text and start thinking about the storyline, not much happens in this installment. The majority of it (maybe as much as three quarters) is build up to the actual developments.

I did continue to find Katerina quite a passive heroine. She spends most of the novel observing rather than taking part in events and always takes her boldest steps in each book’s climax. I do feel very frustrated that even Katerina’s amazing magical feats are usually accidental. She doesn’t understand or have much control on her powers. It would be more satisfying for me to feel she’s earned her impressive feats, but instead she’s usually looking around confused and asking, “Did I do that?” 

In general, Katerina does feel like a Mary Sue. I like the layers to her character, but everyone else in this fictional world revolves around her. The rest of the cast is drawn in rough strokes and often has unclear motives that seem more explained by the fact that Katerina (and the book) needed them to do that. In my favorite stories, every character, no matter how small their role, seems the star of their own story that we’re simply not reading at the moment.

I also continued to find myself confused by the characters. In this one, I mixed up titles, relationships, and light vs. dark court alliances. Sometimes it made scenes very difficult to follow if I couldn’t pinpoint those important details. I do like huge casts when the author can handle them, but in my favorites the author usually either manages to make each character unforgettably distinct or she offers a small reminder in important scenes that helps with context.

Criticisms aside, I would definitely call this series a page-turner and can’t wait to read the final novel.

Friday, July 22, 2016

THE FEARLESS


Review of THE FEARLESS by EMMA PASS
(based on a review copy)

It seems like a good thing when someone invents a drug that supposedly cures PTSD, but then come the side affects. Those given the drug not only feel no fear, they feel…nothing. And it doesn’t take long for these weaponized humans to take over the world, turning everyone in their path into more Fearless. Cass manages to flee with her family to an island prepped as an escape route, but a few years later a Fearless takes her little brother Jori. He’s all she has left and Cass will do whatever it takes to get him back. While the premise of this book is certainly an overdone trend (yes, another post-apocalyptic survival story and the ‘drug gone wrong’ angle isn’t new either), the author executes her specific story so well that I would encourage you to read this one anyway.

I enjoyed this book from the start and found myself riveted by the second half. It’s a quick read with short chapters switching between three character perspectives:  Cass, Myo (a boy who came to the island around the same time Jori was kidnapped), and Sol (Cass’s childhood friend turned bitter by unrequited feelings for Cass). There’s absolutely no boring parts in this book.

Cass is a tough chick without being cliché. Her life has taught her to bottle her emotions, at least until she’s handled a situation, and she’s certainly above average in the fitness category. That being said, she meets people on her search who make her feel like a weakling, all her training on a tiny island incomparable to the horrors they’ve had to survive. She’s likably single minded: Jori is the center of her shrinking world. Minor spoilers in the rest of this paragraph. The Fearless caught Cass’s father when they first fled and her mother killed herself not long after they settled on the island. Life on Hope island is a small flicker of what it used to be, focused more around survival than any kind of happiness. As long as Cass has Jori, though, everything else feels worthwhile. She won’t let anything steer her away from protecting him, or in this case saving him.

I found the perspective shifts confusing, mostly because the author uses first person for everyone’s perspective. A name at the start of the chapter tells you whose perspective we’re in, but it’s easy to forget along the way when it’s all first person.  

The ending also cuts off more abruptly than I wanted. I can’t tell if this is intended as a standalone or the first in the series, but regardless I would have liked a little more denouement.

I had very mixed feelings on Sol. Sometimes I felt his character seemed too flat. From the first chapter in his perspective, he’s not a likeable person and as we keep experiencing his viewpoint he’s a clear villain, close to evil. I kept waiting for more layers or development to his character, but what you see if what you get with Sol. That being said, I also argued with myself that his particular brand of “evil” is actually quite realistic and believable. Maybe my issue is actually more with the book following a bad guy. The typical style is to follow the hero. George R.R. Martin subverts this in his popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, but that aside there’s a reason we prefer to follow the hero. We can relate more. We care more. My interest sometimes waned when in Sol’s perspective, because I found little redeeming to him and couldn’t see other sides to his personality.

My few criticisms aside, I enjoyed this book beginning to end and certainly wouldn’t mind to discover it’s the first in a series. I do know I’ll likely be reading Pass’s debut novel ACID soon and keeping on the lookout for her next publication.

Friday, July 15, 2016

COLD BURN OF MAGIC


Review of COLD BURN OF MAGIC by JENNIFER ESTEP
(first in the BLACK BLADE series, based on a review copy)

I have criticisms aplenty for this book and yet I enjoyed it nonetheless, because the characters won me over. Lila lives on the streets, or rather squatting in a library, and earns a living running odd theft jobs. In a world run by powerful, magical Families, she does what she can to stay out of their squabbles. After all, the same can’t be said for Lila’s mother and that’s why she’s dead. Then Lila does the honorable thing and saves an important Family boy when he’s attacked right in front of her. Before she knows it, she’s roped into being his bodyguard and that position hasn’t ended well for the last few people who held it.

As far as my many criticisms, I’ll list a few. For starters, I couldn’t root myself in the setting for several chapters. It took me a while to figure out what time period this was supposed to be. (Answer: today.) While the language seems modern, everyone’s using swords. We later get an explanation for that...but the explanation makes no sense. Supposedly everyone uses swords, because they’re made of a special magical metal, but then why can’t they use that same magical metal for guns or more modern weapons? In general, there were a lot of logic gaps that kept distracting me from the actual plot. The beginning also opens with a big information dump explaining how magic works and despite these explicit explanations I still had so many unanswered questions. An important lingering confusion was that I didn’t understand Lila’s unique transference magic and exactly how it works. It doesn't actually seem that useful based on what I read, but everyone acts like it’s incredibly powerful. There’s also a lot of speculating about what others are thinking as well as characters talking to themselves as Lila walks into a room, which seems a kind of clunky way of getting around the fact that we’re only in Lila’s viewpoint. The last criticism I’ll throw out is that the book’s depiction of mobsters feels very cheesy and cliché. 

Obviously, I found a lot to nitpick, but despite it all I like Lila. She’s spunky and resourceful and had a direct way of thinking I admire. For example, plenty of books feature characters bent on revenge for a death of a beloved one. Lila addresses that the thought of avenging her mother’s death is tempting, but “I liked living a little too much to throw my life away on some suicide revenge mission.” I’ve read so many characters that don’t think any farther past the urge for revenge that I admired Lila’s maturity in understanding the consequences of seeking vengeance and whether it would really be worth it.

I also liked Devon, despite being the kind of moody and sulky love interest that can usually drive me crazy. I saw to his good heart as did Lila and he seems too sweet and caring for the lifestyle he’s living. I loved Felix, Devon’s outrageously chatty and flirtatious friend. Some of the other characters - Mo, Claudia, Oscar - feel a little more flat, but these three ringleaders had enough nuanced layers to make me really care what happens next to them.

Though this novel has enough closure to the main plot thread, there are lots of other allusions to additional secrets and clear plans being prepped for future books. In all honesty, I likely won’t read on. There are already too many books and too little time and the negative here outweighed the positive too much for me to go seeking out sequels. That being said, for anyone who’s curious if this book is for you, it’s an easy, fast read and won’t take much time to decide.

Friday, July 8, 2016

WILDTHORN


Review of WILDTHORN by JANE EAGLAND

Louisa Cosgrove doesn’t belong in her time. Victorian England simply can’t tolerate young women like her, women who won’t behave as a proper woman should. Louisa reads far too much for one thing. (If that’s a sin, I’m quite the rebel myself!) And this unhealthy obsession with knowledge has encouraged some ridiculous ambitions: Louisa wants to be a doctor.

As I mentioned in last week’s review, I did keep mixing this book up with another I read at the same time - THE GATHERING STORM - only because, in terms of personality, the two protagonists seem interchangeable: a desire to be a doctor in a society that forbids that for women, a mother who discourages such controversial ambitions, and a doting father who admires them. While Louisa lives in a world without magic, I bet you could plop her down in Katerina’s world of Russian balls and vampire princes - or vice versa: send Katerina to Victorian England - and each would behave exactly as the other did.

But back to WILDTHORN. Non-conformity can be dangerous in certain company and, unfortunately, it turns out to be such for Louisa. While she has always argued with family and strangers alike about the merits of her goals, she never anticipated that someone would have her sent to an insane asylum. I will say right off the bat that thematically this book was sometimes simply too depressing for me. I have already read plenty of others that feel similar, essentially about how poorly society treats the mentally ill, now and in the past, as well as using these broken systems to force someone back into their place.

I did invest more and more in the book as I kept reading, though, for several reasons. For one, for the first half or so I occasionally found myself bored because I was so convinced that I could predict everything. Then I discovered that the author had deliberately distracted me with “obvious” answers only to reveal more surprising twists later. For another, I found the characters flat at first, but then came to see that’s how Louisa is interpreting them. As she looks closer, so does the reader, and we both see a more nuanced portrait than we did initially.

This next paragraph contains a minor spoiler so skip if you don’t want anything revealed. I felt a little annoyed when Lou turned out to be gay. I would have preferred knowing that sooner rather than it being withheld as a big revelation. In particular, I dislike when I’m reading about a character who isn’t conforming to gender roles and then there’s a big reveal that they’re gay, because it implies that’s the only reason one wouldn’t conform to gender roles. Now if we know earlier on she’s gay, that’s simply another aspect about her that doesn’t conform - rather than an explanation.

I also found the story a little slow at times and think I would have enjoyed it more as a slimmer novel. I often suspected the author could have accomplished the same in terms of both plot and character development in much less space.

I love how the author “wraps things up” in this novel. Rather than the typical rushed ending after a dramatic climax, a good chunk of the book is devoted to aftermath. As someone who cares primarily about character, I adored that, because I don’t only care about the most dramatic moment but actually care more about how that dramatic moment changes the characters going forward. Louisa has always been spirited and the book’s resolution demonstrates how strong personalities can channel negative experiences into further personal growth.