Review: Truthwitch (The Witchlands, #1)

Image from BarnesandNoble.com

Synopsis

On a continent ruled by three empires, some are born with a “witchery,” a magical skill that sets them apart from others.

In the Witchlands, there are almost as many types of magic as there are ways to get in trouble—as two desperate young women know all too well.

Safiya is a Truthwitch, able to discern truth from lie. It’s a powerful magic that many would kill to have on their side, especially amongst the nobility to which Safi was born. So Safi must keep her gift hidden, lest she be used as a pawn in the struggle between empires.

Iseult, a Threadwitch, can see the invisible ties that bind and entangle the lives around her—but she cannot see the bonds that touch her own heart. Her unlikely friendship with Safi has taken her from life as an outcast into one of reckless adventure, where she is a cool, wary balance to Safiya’s hotheaded impulsiveness.

Safiya and Iseult just want to be free to live their own lives, but war is coming to the Witchlands. With the help of the cunning Prince Merik (a Windwitch and privateer) and the hindrance of a Bloodwitch bent on revenge, the friends must fight emperors, princes, and mercenaries alike, who will stop at nothing to get their hands on a Truthwitch.

Barnes and Noble

Review

Re-read: June 2021

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

The Witchlands is one of those series that I stumbled upon by surfing through the Nook Store’s “$2.99 and Under” section – a favorite place of mine to snag books. In retrospect, I got even more bang for my buck than I originally thought, since Truthwitch would’ve been more than worth its cover price, let alone the measly $3 I shelled out for it.

Two-and-a-half years ago, when I first read Truthwitch, I very much enjoyed it but felt somewhat… adrift. Susan Dennard has built such an expansive world in the Witchlands that readers might feel overwhelmed. But that feeling is the good sort of overwhelm – the kind you experience when something is saturated with intricate detail, yet there are still so many questions that demand answers. Reading the rest of the series and then re-reading Truthwitch dissipates any remaining confusion. This first book of a truly spectacular series proves to be an excellent introduction to the riveting story Dennard has to tell.

The pace of this book could be best described as “barreling” or “breakneck.” Seriously, the action never ceases. It all kicks off with a bungled heist, and Safi and Iseult spend the rest of the book running. Dennard isn’t bad at writing fight scenes either – which is a good thing, because there are plenty of skirmishes throughout the novel. The characters are multidimensional, complex, and dynamic. Each viewpoint character has some hangup to battle with: Safi’s uncontrolled recklessness, Iseult’s failure to live up to the expectations of both her mother and her society as a Threadwitch, Merik’s temper, and Aeduan’s struggle to discern exactly which morals he holds. While Truthwitch decidedly focuses on Safi’s character development, the other characters experience distinct – if slower and subtler – progression of their character arcs.

There is only one reason I knocked off half a star: Dennard’s writing sometimes feels a bit unwieldy, the type of awkward that often accompanies an author still trying to figure out how to best guide readers through their story and illustrate their characters. For instance, I remembered there being sexual and romantic tension between Safi and Merik, but I forgot how ridiculously horny Merik is during the last hundred pages or so. Occasionally, the characters make what appear to be (and sometimes are) completely boneheaded mistakes, but those mistakes usually end up painting them as realistic people who are imperfect and who fuck up, all while keeping the book at a healthy distance from a disastrous “idiot plot” saga. Really, the plot is so amazingly good and the characters are so wonderful that it’s easy to forgive most of the bumps in the road.

Whether you’re reading Truthwitch for the first time or revisiting it, prepare to find yourself in a fascinated daze at the end. Considered in isolation from its successors, I highly recommend Truthwitch. Considered along with its successors, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

June 2021 Update

Hello again, and thanks for visiting!

Sooo last month I’d planned to post more often, but my final paper got in the way. The good news: That paper is out of the way now.

And the even better news:

I FINISHED MY DEGREE. I’M GRADUATING!

I’m both excited and anxious to begin my searches for jobs and remote master’s programs, but honestly, after the last year of school, one thing I’ve been very much anticipating is reading whatever the fuck I want. I’ve been doing just that, and you will be hearing about those books here on this blog.

Blog Announcements

As I announced in last month’s update, I am planning to renovate this blog – give it a little facelift. Now that I have more time on my hands, those renovations are getting underway. Again, you will see some changes on the Book Hawk, but bear with me while I straighten everything out.

For books that I thoroughly enjoy and therefore want more people to read, I’ve been trying to keep my reviews light on spoilers. Limiting spoilers, however, can curtail the material that I can discuss; it leaves me feeling constrained. Hence, I’ve settled on a compromise: For select books, I will post two versions of my review – one light on spoilers and one loaded with them. That way, you, my reader, can take your pick of how much you want divulged about a book, and I can cover the topics that I think need to be addressed. Please note that I will be incorporating the spoiler-light review into the spoiler review. (I’m not going to write a whole new review for the same book.)

Upcoming Reviews

Priority Content

  • Rule of Wolves (spoiler-light version): I promised you guys this one last month.
  • Libertie: I just finished the audiobook.
  • The Burning Blue: This nonfiction account of the Challenger disaster of 1986 was my first physical ARC won from a Goodreads giveaway.
  • Truthwitch: In preparation for the release of the next book in one of my favorite series ever, I am rereading Truthwitch, Windwitch, and Bloodwitch.

Tentative Additional Content (or The Stuff I’ll Get To If I Have the Time)

  • Rule of Wolves (spoiler version): I already have this review in the works.
  • A Climate for Death: I really wanted to love this Great Lakes-based thriller/mystery, but I can’t say I’m terribly impressed.
  • Windwitch and Bloodwitch: Whether or not these are reviewed this month will depend on how fast I read.
  • The Lost Apothecary: C’mon. I finished this two months ago.

And now, without further ado, I present to you my review of Rule of Wolves.

Book Review: Firekeeper’s Daughter

Image from Barnes and Noble website

Synopsis

Eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine has never quite fit in, both in her hometown and on the nearby Ojibwe reservation. She dreams of a fresh start at college, but when family tragedy strikes, Daunis puts her future on hold to look after her fragile mother. The only bright spot is meeting Jamie, the charming new recruit on her brother Levi’s hockey team.

Yet even as Daunis falls for Jamie, she senses the dashing hockey star is hiding something. Everything comes to light when Daunis witnesses a shocking murder, thrusting her into an FBI investigation of a lethal new drug.

Reluctantly, Daunis agrees to go undercover, drawing on her knowledge of chemistry and Ojibwe traditional medicine to track down the source. But the search for truth is more complicated than Daunis imagined, exposing secrets and old scars. At the same time, she grows concerned with an investigation that seems more focused on punishing the offenders than protecting the victims.

Now, as the deceptions—and deaths—keep growing, Daunis must learn what it means to be a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) and how far she’ll go for her community, even if it tears apart the only world she’s ever known.

Barnes and Noble website

Review

Read: April 2021

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars!

Before I begin this review, I just want to point out that this book is not fantasy, despite its categorization on Goodreads. My best guess as to why is the role that the Little People and Anishinaabe medicines play in the story, but I see these as religious and cultural elements rather than ones of fantasy. If Christian fiction is not classified as fantasy, Firekeeper’s Daughter should not be either. (Please note that I am equating the two faiths, not disparaging Christianity.)

Spoiler-free!

I didn’t even know about this book’s existence until a week or two prior to its release date, but as soon as I did, I knew I absolutely had to read it. A Native American protagonist from Michigan? An author from Michigan? A Native author from Michigan? Yes, please.

Guys, this book has everything a Michigander like me could ask for: hockey (bonus: Detroit Red Wings references), the Great Lakes, smaller lakes, beautiful woods, Yoopers, and insights about a community I only really know in passing, if I can even say that.

Angeline Boulley does a phenomenal job crafting her characters. Daunis is a complex, spectacular protagonist. She is magnificently intelligent, she is loyal to her loved ones, she is fierce, and she struggles with her ties to both her white roots and her Anishinaabe roots. Her observance and acuity render her a spectacular first-person narrator for a mystery of any kind. Jamie is Daunis’s crush, but he too stands on his own. He is sweet and smart, and he’s mysterious in a way that comes of as guarded rather than edgy just for the sake of having an edgy character. Like Daunis, he also grapples with his identity as part-Native, but his heritage is much less clear. Boulley doesn’t neglect her supporting characters either. From Lily to Levi Jr., from Seeney to TJ, from Travis to Teddie, they’re all evocative and lifelike. You will hate certain characters; you will love others. And yes, you will hurt when certain characters die. (I’m not telling you who.) Also, shoutout to Herri the cat. I love you.

Really, Boulley is simply an amazingly talented author in general. The plot is riveting and complex without seeming contrived; the events of the story are realistic. Boulley doesn’t include certain matters for shock value: The darkest, scariest happenings of Firekeeper’s Daughter are there either for the purpose of the plot or to depict vividly what it is to be Daunis Fontaine – and what being a Native American woman can entail. Additionally, Boulley has avoided the all-too-common pitfall of infodumping. The details about Anishinaabe culture are woven skillfully into the material of the story, so that readers to whom Anishinaabe culture is unfamiliar can comprehend the context of the book without getting the sense that they’re reading a textbook. Readers can lose themselves in her book. I can attest to this from personal experience.

Firekeeper’s Daughter has earned a spot in my list of top reads this year. The characters are fascinating and the plot is enthralling, and Boulley has a beautiful writing style that is at once concise and detailed. Boulley spent ten years chipping away this masterpiece, and the final product is a testament to her efforts. I can only hope that the world doesn’t have to wait another decade for her next book. Hopefully, she’ll write about Jamie and Daunis a few years down the road, or perhaps even a prequel novel about Teddie or Levi Sr. Even if she writes a book with all-new characters, I’d still read it. With a debut novel this successful, I think we can expect wonderful works from her in the future.

Book content warnings: racism/colonialism, drug use, sexual assault, murder, gun violence, sexism.

Flash Review: Aurora Burning (The Aurora Cycle #2)

Image from Barnes and Noble website

Synopsis

Our heroes are back . . . kind of. From the bestselling co-authors of the Illuminae Files comes the second book in the epic Aurora Cycle series about a squad of misfits, losers, and discipline cases who just might be the galaxy’s best hope for survival.

First, the bad news: An ancient evil—your standard consume-all-life-in-the-galaxy deal—is about to be unleashed. The good news? Squad 312 is here to save the day. As soon as they’ve just got to take care of a few small distractions first. Like the clan of gremps who are holding a serious grudge against the squad. And a bunch of illegit GIUTA agents with creepy flowers where their eyes used to be. Then there’s Kal’s long-lost sister, who’s not exactly happy to see him.But with the reappearance of the colony ship that Auri was found on, new clues about Auri—and her powers as a Trigger—begin to come to light. And just in time. Because if Auri can’t learn to master her powers, the squad going to be soooo dead. Shocking revelations, bank heists, mysterious gifts,inappropriately tight bodysuits, and an epic firefight will determine the fate of the Aurora Legion’s most unforgettable heroes—and, you know, the rest of the galaxy.

Barnes and Noble

Review

Read: March 2021

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Spoiler warning!

Aurora Burning isn’t perfect, but like I said about its predecessor, it’s hella fun. Kristoff and Kaufmann seem to have ironed out the majority of their most annoying writing issues and replaced those with excellent character development. Leading the pack in this area is Zila. If you’ve read my review of Aurora Rising, you’ll know that I was peeved to have Zila included as a viewpoint character, only to find that her chapters were the length of my pinkie finger. Zila gets the spotlight in several chapters now, and damn, are those chapters engrossing. Readers finally get a horrifying glimpse into her tragic past and the reason for her emotional detachment; even better, they experience her blossoming out again as she bonds with her team. Finian too gets some truly heartwarming moments in his point-of-view chapters that show him blossoming as a friend and gaining confidence around people. Tyler also gets the opportunity to deal with his feelings for Cat and her loss. His interactions with Ra’haam Cat are dripping with angst. (I WILL GO DOWN WITH THIS SHIP.) Even without his crew, Tyler manages to hold his own, and I think that really reinforces his ability as a leader.

The plot is fast-paced (for the most part). The story opens with a confrontation with a gang of grempfs and barrels on to a skirmish with Kal’s sister Saedii, a bank heist, and another clash with the bad guys. (The bank heist, especially, is hilarious.) That said, I was underwhelmed by Auri and Kal’s time in the Echo with the Eshvaren. And as much as I enjoyed seeing Kal and Auri’s relationship develop in the Echo, those chapters felt… underwhelming, if not frustrating. Yes, Aurora gets her catharsis with her parents and sister, but the training is something of a slog – and training can be fun if it’s written right. Plus, I just dislike Esh as a character. I know that the Eshvaren is not meant to be liked, but they serve more as a annoying minor source of conflict and resolution rather than a fully fleshed out antagonist.

The huge reveal of Caersan being Kal’s father, unfortunately, is totally foreseeable. The handling (read: fumbling) of the crew’s reaction to Kal’s parentage is the main reason I’m knocking a star off this book. I guessed that Kal’s father was the Starslayer from his very first viewpoint chapter of the series, all the way back in Aurora Rising. That predictability renders all the ensuing drama in Squad 312 more contrived and even stupider than it already is. Yes, I understand that Caersan is a genocidal maniac, everyone hates him, how could Kal keep this from us, yada yada ya. But seriously, out of the four other people on board the ship, no one could see the big picture: Adams and de Stoy somehow were able to deliver exactly what was needed to the squad – and have that stash of supplies ready eight years prior to 312 ever needing it – and yet the squad thinks that Adams and de Stoy didn’t know about Kal’s parentage? Finian seems to be the only one even close to grasping this (at least prior to Aurora refusing to believe Kal is on her side until the Starslayer nearly kills her), but he still has not reached this conclusion. Aurora’s reaction is more than a little ridiculous too. When the Eshvaren enjoins her to break up with Kal so he won’t hold her back, her response essentially amounts to “Lmao, get fucked.” But when Caersan outs his son, she’s all jazzed up to ditch poor Kal – literally. On the other hand, the revelation about Tyler and Scarlett’s Waywalker mother is an interesting surprise, and one that Tyler takes in stride. I’m interested in learning more about the story of Jericho and his Syldrathi lover. In fact, I smell the potential for a gripping space opera romance novella.

Aurora Burning still has its kinks, but it’s a worthy read. I’m both eagerly anticipating and dreading the release of Aurora’s End.

Book Review: Aurora Rising

Image from Barnes and Noble website

Synopsis

The year is 2380, and the graduating cadets of Aurora Academy are being assigned their first missions. Star pupil Tyler Jones is ready to recruit the squad of his dreams, but his own boneheaded heroism sees him stuck with the dregs nobody else in the academy would touch . . .

A cocky diplomat with a black belt in sarcasm
A sociopath scientist with a fondness for shooting her bunkmates
A smart-ass tech whiz with the galaxy’s biggest chip on his shoulder
An alien warrior with anger-management issues
A tomboy pilot who’s totally not into him, in case you were wondering

And Ty’s squad isn’t even his biggest problem—that’d be Aurora Jie-Lin O’Malley, the girl he’s just rescued from interdimensional space. Trapped in cryo-sleep for two centuries, Auri is a girl out of time and out of her depth. But she could be the catalyst that starts a war millions of years in the making, and Tyler’s squad of losers, discipline cases, and misfits might just be the last hope for the entire galaxy.

NOBODY PANIC.

Barnes and Noble website

Review

Read: February 2021

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Spoiler warning!

Over the summer I read Jay Kristoff’s The Lotus Wars series, and after finishing the excellent space opera Seven Devils just last month, I was finally in the mood to try out Aurora Rising.

This book almost made its way into my inglorious Did-Not-Finish pile. Almost.

Let me tell you, folks: The start of this book is rough. No, Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufmann, it is not necessary to have three or four flashbacks in the span of a thirty-minute chapter, particularly when said flashbacks take place mere hours prior to the present. It is irksome. It gives readers whiplash. Please don’t do it! (My guess is that Kristoff is responsible for this writing choice, given that his book Nevernight begins with a similar temporal pattern. That was one reason I decided against reading that series.) If rescuing Aurora weren’t the reason Tyler misses the draft, the spastic time flip-flopping certainly would be. How could the poor guy be expected to show up on time when the authors can’t even decide what time it is? Also, I can appreciate the occasional breaking of the fourth wall in a work of fiction, but overuse of that device tends to induce a sense of awkwardness in me. It gives the impression that the authors are trying too hard, and it can make the writing a little bit corny.

But that being said, Aurora Rising turned out to be a very enjoyable book. The authors plunge right in with the action, and it’s not all just firefights: There are visions, chases, sleuthing, and even a mini-heist. The enemies our heroes face are myriad and many, and danger arrives in a variety of forms. And if you love conspiracies (no, not the batshit ones people actually try to pass off as real – the fun, fictional conspiracies), you’ll find something to love about this book. The world-building is just the right level of intricacy for the series too. It’s interesting without being overly detailed. That might not make for my favorite kind of universe, but it fits well with the planned trilogy length and the general arc of the story. Plus, any necessary exposition that doesn’t flow well in the context of the story is occasionally given in concise snippets by Auri’s uber-futuristic iPhone, Magellan, circumventing potential information holes.

I’m surprised how much I’ve come to love the characters. At the beginning of the book, all I wanted was for Tyler – and everyone else – to shut the hell up about his magical dimples, Aurora to stop uttering the phrase “holy cake”, and Scarlett to calm down with her boy-craziness. But the characters turn out to be so likable that those flaws can be overlooked – and in some cases, those flaws become a tad endearing. The flaws make the characters more real. Each character is lovable in their own way. By the end of the book, if I’d been asked to choose a favorite character, I’m not sure that I could have. Kal and Cat would likely be at the top of the list, but Tyler and Finian have both found special places in my heart as well. I do feel compelled to lodge a complaint about Zila, though – not because she’s done anything (particularly) wrong – but because she seems very… sidelined throughout the story. She has so much potential, but her point-of-view chapters never exceed two minutes in length. The more I ponder how everyone else has point-of-view chapters that actually last longer than it takes me to make microwave popcorn, the more jilted I feel on Zila’s behalf. Hopefully, Kristoff and Kaufmann will flesh out Zila’s character in Aurora Burning.

Now here come the spoiler parts of this review, so move on to the last paragraph if you want to skip the spoilers.

Aurora Rising is not mainly a romance book, but there is still romance to be found. To tell the truth, I’m a diehard Cat/Tyler shipper. Needless to say, Cat’s “death” (consumption by the Ra’haam) absolutely breaks my heart. While my brain tells me that Cat likely won’t be resurrected the way I want her to be, my romantic optimist’s heart believes she might yet be saved and subsequently revived. The one thing that keeps me clinging to hope is the symbolism of Cat’s phoenix tattoo. I know, I’m pathetic. It looks like Fin and Scarlett are set up for a slow-burn romance too, which absolutely warms my soul. And Kal and Auri’s gradual bonding is the perfect thing to balance out the Pull that Kal feels toward Auri. I’m looking forward to their relationship developing further in the next book.

Aurora Rising isn’t the most unique book I’ve ever read. Nevertheless, it’s certainly interesting, and it’s undeniably fun. If you’re looking for an entertaining read that isn’t too heavy, give this one a try.

Book Review: Scarlet (A.C. Gaughen)

Credit: Barnes and Noble

Synopsis

Scarlet is good at keeping secrets. To the people of Nottingham, she’s Will Scarlet, the young lad who protects those who cannot protect themselves. To Robin Hood and his band of thieves, she’s the girl with a tongue as sharp as her knives. But nobody knows the truth about Scarlet’s life before Nottingham–not even Rob, whose quick smiles have the rare power to unsettle her. And when someone from her past comes hurtling back into her life, everything she’s fought for is suddenly at risk, including her own life . . .

BarnesandNoble.com

Review

Read: April 2020

Rating:

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Spoiler warning!

This book might share the title with Marissa Meyer’s fantastic Scarlet, but readers will find no such entertainment here. Those of you who’ve read my previous blog posts know that I frequently buy books when the Nook Store has them on sale in their “$2.99 and Under” section. Scarlet is one such read. It took me almost three days to finish reading this book – and not because the story was so intricate and riveting that I wanted to savor it. I was only able to stomach so much each day.

It’s difficult to choose a starting point from my litany of complaints, but I’ll begin with the narration. The narration is first-person, which wouldn’t be a problem if Scarlet could adhere at least somewhat decently to grammar. Yes, I am a self-described grammar snob, so it really rankles me that Scarlet talks like this through the entire book:

“The words fell soft between us, and they settled and grew till all I could think of were the quiet.”

“It were Rob, sitting with his back against the door.”

I understand that Scarlet speaks this way in an effort to dissociate from her former life as a noble, but it drives me absolutely crazy to read two hundred pages in which the narrator pretends that she’s never so much as heard of an adverb. It’s not impossible to capture Scarlet’s manner of speaking in a way that’s much more palatable to readers. Brandon Sanderson’s character Lift from The Stormlight Archive cannot read or write but is one of the cleverest characters in the series. Sanderson manages to convey all of that through Lift’s third-person narration. Narrating Scarlet from a third-person perspective and highlighting Scarlet’s speech patterns through dialogue with other characters might have made the book more bearable while still capturing her voice and character.

The descriptions and diction could use some work too. Gaughen seems overly fond of maritime metaphors and similes when it comes to Rob’s eyes.

“Loving him felt like drowning in his ocean eyes, like a tide I couldn’t hold back…”

“My cheeks felt hot and red under his fingers, and he smiled, his eyes heavy like the weight of the ocean.”

“All soft wet-wheat hair, eyes that were gray blue like the English Channel…”

“His ocean eyes…”

If she had described Rob’s eyes using the English Channel simile once and then maybe referred to his eyes as “blue” now and again, that would’ve been fine. But for the love of God, this book is only two hundred pages. Readers do not need to be constantly reminded how fucking “oceanic” Rob’s eyes are. At least utilize the numerous free thesauruses available on the web. They’re there for a reason. For all the effort Gaughen exerts reiterating the exact hue of Rob’s eyes, the imagery for the rest of the story is mediocre at best. The story and setting aren’t immersive – they feel distant and second-hand.

Perhaps most importantly, my feelings about the characters – with the exception of Much, who is an absolute gem – run the gamut from “you’re moderately annoying” to “I despise you.” Scarlet falls into the former category. I hate the way she talks, and her character is just drab. But Rob and John, who are both attracted to Scarlet, have the dubious honor of falling into the “holy hell, you’re horrible” category.

Honestly, I’m not sure who is worse. Rob is a brooding, mercurial jackass who thinks he’s hot stuff for being the town hero. He has a very obnoxious tendency to unnecessarily pull rank on others in his group. For instance, he doesn’t seem to think twice about butting into Scar’s business with John beyond what she’s asked him to be involved in. He offers to head off John if his advances become obtrusive and proposes not pairing off John and Scar for scouting because she appears uneasy around John; then he almost immediately turns around and tells Scar to quit playing John and choose because she’s disturbing the band’s dynamic. Scar has actually been pretty straightforward with John, so this comment is ridiculous – and it reduces her to tears. When Gisbourne shows up and it’s revealed that Scarlet was engaged to him by her parents against her will, Rob tries to comfort her by reassuring her that she’s not property to be returned to its rightful owner but then promptly blames her for concealing her unwanted engagement from him. Never mind that Scarlet’s creepy fiance, whom she’s been avoiding for two years, is plotting to kidnap her and marry her. Naturally, this is all about Robin. Then comes this beautiful exchange:

“Because you’re engaged, and because even if you weren’t, you’re with John.”

“I’m not,” I said.

His hand pushed me away, and he sounded angry but his eyes just looked like I’d stabbed him. “Well, then that makes you a whore.”

Wow, Rob. Way to win a girl’s heart.

At the end of the book, as Rob and Scar are discussing their relationship, Scarlet reminds him of this insult. His justification? He’s punishing himself by being an asshole to her and he was just jealous of John. I don’t recall him ever truly apologizing for that jab, by the way. If my memory serves, the phrase “I’m sorry” never crosses his lips – at least not regarding that incident. Plus, he faults Scar for Gisbourne’s capturing of two dozen people, even though she’s clearly not responsible for the situation.

Don’t start thinking John is a better option either. He’s interested in Scar. That’s fine. He kisses her. Okay. She’s trying to work out her feelings about this; he wants to define their relationship. Alright. But his behavior leaps over the line between reasonable and creepy to land firmly on the creepy side. After Scarlet explicitly tells him that she cares for him but does not want him to kiss her, he sees fit to respond like this:

“And you do want to be kissed by me. Don’t lie.”

At another point, John, being the smooth operator that he is, thinks it’s appropriate to ogle at Scar and make sexual comments about her while she’s being treated for a serious wound. Are you shitting me? Scarlet doesn’t deserve either of these louts.

Fairy tale retellings hold a lot of potential, but Gaughen fails to tell a good story altogether. Between the irritating narration, the lackluster imagery, the slut-shaming, and the boorish love interests, there’s not much to love about this book. The only thing it really had going for it when I read it was quarantine – and if the only reason I’m reading a book is just to kill time and nothing else, it’s just not good.

Book Review: The Seventh Sun

SeventhSunSynopsis

Thrust into leadership upon the death of his emperor father, young Prince Ahkin feels completely unready for his new position. Though his royal blood controls the power of the sun, he’s now responsible for the lives of all the Chicome people. And despite all Ahkin’s efforts, the sun is fading—and the end of the world may be at hand.

For Mayana, the only daughter of the Chicome family whose blood controls the power of water, the old emperor’s death may mean that she is next. Prince Ahkin must be married before he can ascend the throne, and Mayana is one of six noble daughters presented to him as a possible wife. Those who are not chosen will be sacrificed to the gods.

Only one girl can become Ahkin’s bride. Mayana and Ahkin feel an immediate connection, but the gods themselves may be against them. Both recognize that the ancient rites of blood that keep the gods appeased may be harming the Chicome more than they help. As a bloodred comet and the fading sun bring a growing sense of dread, only two young people may hope to change their world.

Rich in imagination and romance, and based on the legends and history of the Aztec and Maya people, The Seventh Sun brings to vivid life a world on the edge of apocalyptic disaster.

Review

Rating: 2.25 stars out of 5
Read: October 2019

It’s so satisfying to see a fantasy novel with a non-European setting. The representation isn’t the only thing to cheer about, though: There is a bevy of fantasy books written about medieval white people, so a novel focusing on people of color often speaks to some creativity on the part of the author. Lani Forbes’s The Seventh Sun centers on the fictitious Chicome people, whose culture is based on those of indigenous Mesoamericans. While I can’t speak to the Forbes’s historical or cultural accuracy, I can say that I appreciate the change of pace.

For the most part, though, this book is lackluster. The characters are mediocre at best and obnoxiously dull at worst. Mayana struggles with her moral objections to ritual sacrifices, which the religious leaders of the Chicome empire have essentially enshrined as dogma. This powerful internal conflict could have propelled a very interesting narrative had it been paired with a well-constructed character. I don’t despise Mayana – I even connect to her on some level – but she is just kinda bland. Prince Ahkin, the fantastically handsome and high-status love interest, is even emptier. For all of Forbes’s insistence that Ahkin is an intelligent man governed by logic, his behavior doesn’t match her claim. Not only is he apparently prone to tantrum-like outbursts and impetuous behavior, but he also overlooks critical information an alarming number of times, all while sporting the naivety of a child. He literally decides to kill himself immediately after hearing from a captured enemy solider that the sacrifice of his life is what will bring the sun back. He doesn’t bother to even consider this for a day or think about who might have ulterior motives; he just asks the high priest for his opinion and promptly marches off to the pit entrance to Xibalba, the underworld, to stab himself in the gut. The guy is repeatedly played like a fiddle – which is fair to say even if you factor out reasonable trust in the perpetrators. It’s no wonder Ahkin can’t swim: he’s got a head full of rocks. The supporting characters are way more interesting than the main characters. I would much rather hear how Yoli or Zorrah became who they are, or how Yemania has struggled with her father’s mistreatment, or Teniza’s story – a far more intriguing love story than the rushed romance in this book.

The plotlines – both romantic and not – are too foreseeable for my liking. While I enjoy the satisfaction of finding that my inferences are correct, it’s no fun if there’s no challenge to it. I smelled Coatl and Metzi’s game miles away. Maybe I just watch too much Dateline, but when a politically powerful, perfectly healthy man drops dead for no apparent reason, chances are there’s perfidy; who better to execute the crime than the palace healer? And Coatl’s potential motives are quickly elucidated when his sister Yemania arrives in the capital to be a bride/sacrifice and Princess Metzi requests to sit next to Coatl. Once Metzi is introduced, her shady, manipulative behavior promptly singles her out as a suspect. The whole scheme is so transparent that the “big reveal” lacks the wonderful coalescent effect in which the reader sees all of the details that they’ve overlooked crystallizing in one epiphanic moment. Instead, the moment of truth comes as absolutely no shock to anybody who’s been paying attention. Even the battles are unexciting. Honestly, I found the four-way catfight more interesting than the actual skirmish with death-worshippers that Ahkin takes part in.

Neither is Ahkin and Mayana’s romance in any way surprising. It seems crazy that Ahkin and Mayana have fallen madly and irrevocably in love in the course of like six seconds. It’s easy enough to figure out that Ahkin and Mayana end up together, which would be fine – except that the progression of their romance is just as trite and stupid as its beginning. A few tests and couple of illicit makeout sessions later and the deal is sealed: Ahkin and gorgeous, sweet Mayana are meant to be. The bummer is that Forbes could have explored one of a few other romances instead, one of which she herself actually mentions in the book. Instead of focusing on Mayana and Prince Hissyfit the Dumbfuck, Forbes could have written a new version of Stockton’s “The Lady, or the Tiger?” by delving into Teniza’s tragic love story. In my opinion, another more interesting romance would have been Ahkin (if he wasn’t such a mega clotpole) and Yemania, who is the plainest and shyest of the princesses but truly a diamond in the rough. Sadly, she opted for the cliche.

The long and short of it is that a lush jungle setting can’t compensate for a dull plot and equally dreary characters. If you’re a fan of The Bachelor, you’ll probably love this book, since that’s essentially what it is. Otherwise, stay away.

Synopsis and image are from BarnesandNoble.com.

Thank you to Edelweiss+ for the free digital ARC!

Book Review: The Storm Crow

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Synopsis

In the tropical kingdom of Rhodaire, magical, elemental Crows are part of every aspect of life…until the Illucian empire invades, destroying everything.

That terrible night has thrown Princess Anthia into a deep depression. Her sister Caliza is busy running the kingdom after their mother’s death, but all Thia can do is think of all she has lost.

But when Caliza is forced to agree to a marriage between Thia and the crown prince of Illucia, Thia is finally spurred into action. And after stumbling upon a hidden Crow egg in the rubble of a rookery, she and her sister devise a dangerous plan to hatch the egg in secret and get back what was taken from them.

Review

Read: July 2019

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

It’s difficult not to have high hopes for a book with such a breathtaking cover and such a propitious premise. When my expectations are so lofty, the disappointment when a book fails to meet them is all the more disheartening. 

That’s not to say there’s nothing to like about Kalyn Josephson’s debut novel. For her story, she has clearly crafted a colorful setting with rich backgrounds. At the end of her novel, Josephson even provides two brief appendices: one summarizing the culture, politics, and economics of each country; the other covering information on the magical crows of Rhodaire. I’m an incurable sucker for this kind of stuff because it indicates that the author really exerted a considerable amount of effort creating their setting and that they bothered to think outside the box. So those of you who enjoy lore-laden worlds might appreciate this. 

Josephson also writes a diverse cast of characters in terms of race and sexuality. Anthia, the protagonist, is heterosexual and brown-skinned. Her sister, Queen Caliza, shares her skin tone but is bisexual (or pansexual, perhaps?) and is wed to the black prince of Trendell, Kuren. Thia’s best friend, Sakiva, is hella pale and hella lesbian, and her romance with Auma, a young Asiatic woman who happens to be a Jin rebel spy posing as a servant in Sordell’s palace, is a prominent subplot. It’s even implied that Thia’s mother is also LGBTQ, and the same-sex partners of a few other characters are referenced. Through Thia, Josephson tackles another aspect of diversity: mental health. If the idea is reminding depression sufferers that they are not alone, two facets of solidarity need to be addressed. Representation is easy enough to pick out, particularly with Josephson’s wise use of first-person narration. A significant portion of the story focuses on Thia’s healing process as she grapples with debilitating depression, a psychological wound stemming from the attack on Negnoch. Although Thia faces some stumbling blocks as the story progresses, she eventually finds the strength to get back on her feet. Knowing that other people wrestle with mental health is a step, but it’s also vital that people feel that they can connect with and rely upon others. Just as important as Thia’s struggle is Kiva’s support. Stalwartly loyal and empathetic, Kiva is the kind of friend that everyone should have. Instead of withdrawing from Thia when she needs her most, Kiva stays by her side, a reminder that friends will not abandon you because of a mental health struggle.

The shortfalls of The Storm Crow truly diminish what could have been a mighty story. In stark contrast to the in-depth world-building, the plot itself sports a detail deficit. For instance, Thia concocts an acid to dissolve an iron lock on a door guarding a room full of crow eggs. There’s no real description of Thia learning how to do this beyond “I decided to help Caylus make this random acid and put on some leather gloves”. Hell, neither the acid nor the ingredients are even given names. Although this might seem like a petty complaint, the use of this acid is rather important to the plot, and it strikes me as lazy to not put more effort into the setup of the plot device. The detail void sucks away the story’s life even as the plot moves forward unhindered by description. The result is a pace that is simultaneously sluggish and rushed. 

Character arcs too suffer when details are scant. Fewer details often mean fewer opportunities to explore characters thoroughly without resorting to infodumps. For some characters, Josephson executes arcs quite well. Ericen and Razel both have strong storylines: Razel’s background, discussed in several conversations, elucidates her motives for her cruelty; Ericen’s actions throughout the book illustrate a conflicted character with a desire to do the right thing. Other characters’ stories are not so skillfully carried out. Caylus in particular stands out as an example of this. The concept of him is adorable, but despite his devastating backstory, he’s still rather flat. Interactions involving him divulge something new about him much less often than they reveal nothing about him. Auma’s arc is hurried and thus has a shallow sort of feel to it; however, I grant more leniency in this case as Auma is meant to be mysterious and Josephson would be unlikely to show much of her hand in the first book of a series for such a character. 

The Storm Crow isn’t a bad book. It’s no masterpiece either. It certainly isn’t good enough for me to want to read it again, nor is it disappointing enough for me to not read the next installment of the series. I mean, come on, there’s an embattled prince whose fate I need to follow and a gazillion crow eggs that need to be rescued. There’s no way I can’t at least try the next book.

Image and synopsis are from BarnesandNoble.com.

Flash Review: Two Dark Reigns

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Read: April 2019

Rating: 4.75 stars out of 5

*Spoiler alert!*

This series gets better with each book.

This installment of Three Dark Crowns really highlights the amazing character arcs Blake writes. Arsinoe is as strong-willed as ever, much to the annoyance of her mainland host (boyfriend Billy’s mother), and once again that obstinate determination propels Arsinoe’s storyline. This time she’s headed back to Fennbirn, with a series of mysterious dreams as her sole lead. Mirabella and Billy love her too much to just let her do that on her own, though, so they’re coming whether she likes it or not. Meanwhile, Katharine is finally regaining some of her own personality, but the dead queens still lurk beneath her skin and stir up trouble. When the mist that enshrouds the island turns on the people of Fennbirn, Pietyr can only deduce that the dead queens are to blame. Fearing for the safeties of both Kat and the island, Pietyr steps well outside of his comfort zone to find a solution. All this occurs against the backdrop of an incipient yet powerful insurgency gaining steam throughout the island – an insurgency centered around Jules Milone, the Legion Queen, who is still trying to come to terms with her dual gifts and the yoke of leadership that’s being foisted upon her.

A number of times throughout this book I found myself beginning to like a character that I was once mostly indifferent to or previously hated. Mirabella started out as just “okay” in Three Dark Crowns because I viewed her as a sap and a source of drama. By this point, however, she has more than proven herself to be a strong young woman and probably one of the nicest and most loyal people in the series. Her friend Bree Westwood has evolved from superficially boy-crazy rich girl to burgeoning politician who definitely knows how to drive a bargain. And while Pietyr started out as an unctuous asshole, he’s shown that he truly loves Kat and wants what’s best for her, and that like his aunt Natalia, he possesses a great deal of political finesse. Multiple times he endangers himself for Kat’s well-being, even though that eventually costs him his life. By the end of Two Dark Reigns, even Madrigal had grown on me. As she tries to make amends with those she has wronged, Madrigal demonstrates that she’s not just a shallow, vain woman, that she actually has a heart. It’s quite fitting that Pietyr turns to Madrigal for aid in exorcising the dead queens from Katharine, because like Pietyr, Madrigal pays for her love with her own blood. In the end, she really steps up to her chance to shine as a mother, even if she’s not a maternal person.

Although the book is slow at times, most events are interesting enough to compensate for any dragging of the pace. Even though much of Two Dark Reigns centers on Jules’s rebellion, the action isn’t so much physical combat as it is traveling, discovery, and emotional development; the biggest enemy in this book – the mist – isn’t something that can simply be chopped, punched, or poisoned away. Like Game of Thrones, the conflicts that arise in the Three Dark Crowns series are often better solved via political or intellectual means as opposed to brute force – something I absolutely love. The twist at the end of the book is completely shocking, and I was not prepared to hear that Mirabella has to die to save Fennbirn from the mist. I’m really hoping that clever Arsinoe finds a way to save both Mirabella and Jules, but how often do we readers actually have wishes like that granted?

I’ll be preordering Five Dark Fates for sure. September can’t come soon enough!

Book Review: Grace and Fury

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The Blurb

Serina Tessaro has been groomed her whole life to become a Grace–someone to stand by the Heir to the throne as a shining, subjugated example of the perfect woman. It’s her chance to secure a better life for her family, and to keep her headstrong and rebellious younger sister, Nomi, out of trouble. But when Nomi catches the Heir’s eye instead, Serina is the one who takes the fall for the dangerous secret her sister has been hiding.

Trapped in a life she never wanted, Nomi has only one option: surrender to her role as a Grace until she can use her position to save Serina. But this is easier said than done…. A traitor walks the halls of the palazzo, and deception lurks in every corner.

Meanwhile, Serina is running out of time. Imprisoned on an island where she must fight to the death to survive, surrounded by women stronger than she is, one wrong move could cost her everything. There is no room for weakness on Mount Ruin, especially weaknesses of the heart.

Thrilling and captivating, Grace and Fury is a story of fierce sisterhood, and of survival in a world that’s determined to break you.

Review

Read: April 2019

Rating: 2.75 stars out of 5

*Spoiler warning!*

Without a doubt, Grace and Fury is feminist. Not only does it focus on sexism perpetrated by men against women, but it also, through the training and lives of Graces, explicitly spotlights the intra-gender competition that exists between women.

But being “feminist” doesn’t automatically net a rave review for a book. While Banghart’s point is exceedingly perspicuous, her execution is pretty humdrum.

The writing style leaves something to be desired. Banghart spends way too much time discussing sartorial choices. Such a decision might have been made to underscore the role that vanity plays in this society. Unfortunately, describing characters’ apparel at points where doing so adds nothing to the story is more disruptive than effective when it comes to driving such a point home. A thesaurus might also have been helpful, since the word “fury” appears about a million times. Banghart’s repetition of the word “fury” lends the impression that she’s trying too hard to explain her title when no explanation is really needed.

This story just doesn’t stand out creatively. The general plotline of “women are oppressed/get sexist bullshit and decide to fight back” can be a very compelling one, but Banghart fails to explore a truly unique iteration of that. Viridia does not distinguish itself as a noteworthy setting. Basically it’s just a super sexist version of Italy, I guess. Furthermore, its history is purposely hazy, but this hinders rather than assists the revelation of the true past, which is anticlimactically presented in the form of an infodump. With little known about Viridia aside from its enforcement of rigid gender roles, the divulgence of the country’s revised history just doesn’t pack the punch that it ought to.

The prosaic characterization drains life out of the story. Nomi is painfully gullible, Asa is an obsequious scum weasel, and Malachi is only slightly livelier than a yardstick. Though I appreciated Val, Renzo, and Maris, their characters are not fully explored (perhaps because Banghart is saving that for the sequel to Grace and Fury). Nomi’s character arc stands in stark juxtaposition next to Serina’s much sturdier one – a weakness that drags down the story, since half of the book is about Nomi’s experiences.

As is often true, flat characters make for dull romances. Val and Serina are a cute couple, but their affair isn’t exactly the most gripping I’ve ever read. Nomi’s romances, on the other hand, are just tedious. Long before Banghart revealed Asa’s perfidy I disliked him because he’s so patently untrustworthy, and although Malachi is more pleasant company, he’s insufferably stodgy. Even though I’m almost positive that Nomi will end up with Malachi, I don’t care much beyond being bored with Malachi and Nomi, whether they’re alone or together.

Overall, this book was shallowly entertaining. I liked Serina’s character and am curious enough about Ines’s position that I’ll probably read the sequel, but I’m not exactly on the edge of my chair in anticipation or ready to fork over money to read it immediately upon its release. Hopefully Banghart will seize upon the vast room for improvement and the next book will be more than just mediocre.

Cover image is from BarnesandNoble.com.