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.

Friday, July 1, 2016

THE GATHERING STORM


Review of THE GATHERING STORM by ROBIN BRIDGES
(first in THE KATERINA TRILOGY)

Young duchess Katerina lives in a glittering world of balls, etiquette, and, yes, magic. Only Katerina hides her power, ashamed of her disturbing gift. She’s a necromancer, and a powerful one at that. Even with her best efforts not to use her dark magic, sometimes it happens almost by accident. However, when a vampire prince threatens her family unless she marries him, Katerina doesn’t see a lot of other options.

Yes, vampire. My committed readers will know how I loathe all things undead, be they vampire or zombie or some attempt at a creature more unique. However, THE GATHERING STORM held my attention primarily because the focus isn’t on the undead (and, by the way, there are both vampires and zombies...and creatures more unique). This is a historical fantasy at its heart about Russian society and how to be yourself in an environment that pushes you hard to be something else.

My only complaint about the vampire element is that, as usual for me, I found there to be abrupt, erotically toned scenes that just seem random and out of place. I guess it’s supposed to allude to vampires’ seductive powers, but I’m at a loss to understand the appeal of these scenes where all of a sudden a guy you don’t like is stroking your neck.

I did keep mixing this book up with another one I read at the same time. (Review to come next week.) While I always read several books at once, I rarely do that, confuse them. However, these two featured protagonists so eerily similar as to be almost interchangeable. Both want to be doctors in a strict society that limits women’s options and laughs at such ambitions. Both have rule-abiding mothers who want only for their daughter to be good, normal, and feminine. Both have progressive fathers who encourage, even admire, their daughter’s controversial aspirations. From there, the books become so incredibly different that it’s funny I would confuse them: this one about the undead in late 19th century Russia and the other about an insane asylum in Victorian England. However, Katerina Alexandrovna and Louisa Cosgrove could easily be the same person.

The book opens with a disclaimer about all the names and will confess that I didn’t truly invest until well over halfway through because I couldn’t keep track of everyone. Also age was very unclear for me. It significantly changes things to know whether Katerina is talking to a teenage boy her own age, someone more her father’s age, or an elderly gentleman - and same goes with the women. I often couldn’t root the scene until I figured out age and sometimes I would discover later that someone was much older or younger than I thought and had to re-frame past scenes. I did find the villains enjoyably complex. Most seem more spoiled and entitled than “pure evil.” And, once I could keep track of everyone, I loved the large cast.  

I also found the novel slightly too gender roled for me. Now Katerina is certainly no damsel is distress. However, there is a sense of women being the brains and men the brawn. When wit is needed, she will step forward to help, maybe even be the foremost problem solver. However, when the situation calls more for a sword or a punch, she seems to stand around waiting for someone male to take action. In short, her self-sufficiency comes and goes.

I knew going in that this is the first in the trilogy and it definitely feels that way, more like the beginning to a bigger story. The climax is quite chaotic and the ending a little abrupt. While I’ve listed plenty of criticisms in this review, I did feel myself sucked in (sorry, couldn’t resist the vampire pun) and can’t wait to discover how Katerina grows into her own strength.