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.

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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

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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: Shadow Frost

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The Blurb

In the kingdom of Axaria, a darkness rises.

Some call it a monster, laying waste to the villagers and their homes. Some say it is an invulnerable demon summoned from the deepest abysses of the Immortal Realm. Many soldiers from the royal guard are sent out to hunt it down. Not one has ever returned.

When Asterin Faelenhart, princess of Axaria and heir to the throne, discovers that she may hold the key to defeating the mysterious demon terrorizing her kingdom, she vows not to rest until the beast is slain. With the help of her friends and the powers she wields-though has yet to fully understand-Asterin sets out to complete a single task. The task that countless trained soldiers have failed. To kill it.

But as they hunt for the demon, they unearth a plot to assassinate the princess herself instead. Asterin and her friends begin to wonder how much of their lives has been lies, especially when they realize that the center of the web of deceit might very well be themselves. With no one else to turn to, they are forced to decide just how much they are willing to sacrifice to protect the only world they have ever known.

That is, of course, if the demon doesn’t get to them first.

Review

Read: April 2019

Rating: 2 stars out of 5

Thank you to Edelweiss+ for the free digital ARC! 

*Mild spoiler warning.*

I really had high expectations for Shadow Frost. The synopsis held so much promise. And the cover – oh, it’s just gorgeous!

Sadly, this book wasn’t the vaulting champion I anticipated. I actually didn’t even finish it. You know how some books are so atrocious that you forge on because the whole thing is so laughably dreadful? Not the case with this book. It was just so mediocre that I couldn’t even chuckle over its absurdity.

Don’t get me wrong. There were things that I liked. The world-building was pretty solid, and I enjoyed Orion and Asterin’s and Asterin’s and Luna’s friendships (okay, I enjoyed the latter until the end of the book), as well as Luna and Eadric’s relationship. Unfortunately, the characters themselves were quite bland – and Ma had plenty of opportunity to develop them, given that just about everyone was a viewpoint character at one time or another. Without that crucial characterization, the characters seemed more like the vaguely described players in old fairytales: They were there and they were somewhat entertaining, but I never really felt connected to them. Instead of existing in their own rights as distinct individuals, the characters merely functioned as plot devices. Some of these characters were just jackasses – particularly Quinlan, who apparently thought it perfectly acceptable and safe to crash through Asterin’s window just to show off a baby bird that he’d found. Like, what a shithead. And he’s the love interest?? And like The Crown’s Game, the protagonists were way too powerful. One being omnifinitied would’ve sufficed, but two or three pushed the line from cool to cheesy.

The plot itself was inane and formulaic, and even the “twist” was way too easy to predict. (Yes, I read the end. Guilty.) By the time the fight at the Rainbow Salmon Inn concluded, I was getting the distinct impression that much of the action would just be Quinlan Showing Off™. Also, some of the grand plans didn’t make a ton of sense, like evacuating all the occupants of the inn except the princess heir, who was then imprisoned in her room as a wyvern monster tore gaping holes in the walls of the inn.

Perhaps worst of all was the uneven pacing. Take, for instance, the first sixty-seven pages in the book. Much of it focused on introductions, Asterin and Priscilla engaging in tense interactions, and sparring. While I understand that a good story demands a good exposition, so much of this content was just vapid filler. Ma could have eliminated at least fifteen pages and still been able to include the important events and grant her readers adequate background information. Then, once page sixty-eight hit – bam! – three dozen guards were dead and the heroes had to take action to eliminate their killer. The ensuing debate over who else to send on the mission proceeded to consume way more page space than it should have. Quinlan got to show off, and he secured his spot on Team Hero.

What started out with so much potential quickly stultified me. With final exams and project deadlines approaching, I deemed continuing on to just not be worth it. I have neither the time nor the tractor to deal with this overabundance of corn.

Cover image is from BarnesandNoble.com.

Book Review: We Set the Dark on Fire

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The Blurb

At the Medio School for Girls, distinguished young women are trained for one of two roles in their polarized society. Depending on her specialization, a graduate will one day run a husband’s household or raise his children, but both are promised a life of comfort and luxury, far from the frequent political uprisings of the lower class. Daniela Vargas is the school’s top student, but her bright future depends upon no one discovering her darkest secret—that her pedigree is a lie. Her parents sacrificed everything to obtain forged identification papers so Dani could rise above her station. Now that her marriage to an important politico’s son is fast approaching, she must keep the truth hidden or be sent back to the fringes of society, where famine and poverty rule supreme.

On her graduation night, Dani seems to be in the clear, despite the surprises that unfold. But nothing prepares her for all the difficult choices she must make, especially when she is asked to spy for a resistance group desperately fighting to bring equality to Medio. Will Dani cling to the privilege her parents fought to win for her, or to give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio—and a chance at a forbidden love?

Review

Read: March 2019

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

*Spoiler alert!*

Fun fact: I considered purchasing this book to read it, but I was deterred by the texture of the dust jacket because it felt like a nasty-ass gritty chalkboard. Instead I saved myself some money and a lot of goosebumps by renting it from the library, complete with a nice, smooth library cover.

I’ve been trying to expand my horizons by reading more books with diverse casts of characters. In the current climate, that’s not so difficult to do, as the issues of diversity and discrimination have been brought into the spotlight by the rise of far-right ideologies and the resulting backlashes against them.

The setting of We Set the Dark on Fire isn’t as immersive as that of, say, The Hunger Games, but it doesn’t need to be. It functions as a commentary on current issues including sexism, homophobia, classism, and xenophobia. You might have heard comparisons of We Set the Dark on Fire to The Handmaid’s Tale because of its feminist elements and criticism of sexism, and those claims are accurate. But even more poignant than the discussion of gender equality is Mejia’s commentary on the struggles of undocumented immigrants. Dani herself is the equivalent of a real-world DREAMer, having immigrated from the outer island with her parents at the tender age of four. Her experiences as a poor, undocumented immigrant drive much of the story: Her fear of discovery and subsequent arrest and her desire to honor her parents’ sacrifices compel her to work with rebel group La Voz. Through both current events and Dani’s flashbacks, readers bear witness to the various obstacles manifested by Dani’s immigration status and class. The poverty she and her parents were subjected to in the outer island motivated her parents to cross the border illegally; the poverty and fear in which they lived in the inner island pushed them to sacrifice much to elevate Dani’s standard of living. Because of her immigration status, Dani balks from forming friendships with her fellow students, hindering the development of a healthy social life (or as healthy a social life as possible in this fucked-up society). And in perhaps the most alarming example, La Voz utilizes Dani’s immigration status to extort her into spying for them, an endeavor that – while perhaps might be considered beneficial – thrust Dani into a very precarious position that could have cost her her life. The use of flashbacks to explain Dani’s background might cause some readers to feel disconnected from the plights of the undocumented immigrants and the impoverished of Medio. I argue that this delivery tactic is aptly applied. Not only does the use of flashbacks highlight the distance that Dani has tried to place between her past and her present; it also emphasizes the theme of injustice existing even if it’s not directly in front of you. Dani eventually reaches this epiphany and becomes a willing agent of La Voz.

Mejia’s characterization of “good” characters is generally strong. Dani’s character in particular undergoes drastic changes, from the discovery of her sexuality to her growing urge to act on her animus against the regime, rather than simply accepting things the way they are. Carmen’s character develops too, but she is not as fleshed out as Dani due to her enigmatic nature. Likewise, Mejia grants readers satisfying yet tantalizing glimpses into Sota’s complex character without completely tearing down the mystery surrounding him. On the other hand, the antagonists are villains worthy of contempt, but for the most part they are not fully formed. For example, Mama Garcia resides in Dani’s mind as a threat for most of the book but has few interactions with Dani, and in the end it’s revealed that she is not wise to Dani’s illicit activities but is to Mateo’s before she dies in a car crash. She might have just been Mateo’s lackey, but I think that Mejia could have crafted her to be more sinister. Mateo himself is a little flat, although he’s still repulsively cruel and unhinged. As I mentioned before, though, Mejia’s glossing over of his methods might be a part of the “distant injustice” theme that plays such a huge role in this book. Interestingly, despite Mateo Garcia and Median government being at odds with each other, they are both separate antagonists and different iterations of the same antagonist: Mateo is both an embodiment of the regime and an embodiment of a worse version of it.

Although the romance sometimes seems rushed, it’s ultimately a sweet story about two young women discovering themselves and finding love even when it’s difficult or dangerous. Median high society isn’t exactly amiable toward the idea of same-sex relationships, so Dani and Carmen face adversity that stems not only from the possibility of the discovery of their affair (does it count as an affair when you’re sort of forced into a marriage?) but also from the resulting outing they would face. And at the end of the novel, Dani and Carmen are separated suddenly after Carmen is forced to reveal her allegiance to La Voz to protect Dani, who is heartbroken and bewildered by this turn of events. Readers will be anxious to find out whether Carmen will be able to make her way back to Dani!

Overall, I very much enjoyed reading We Set the Dark on Fire, even if it sometimes felt like there was something missing that I just couldn’t put my finger on and the world wasn’t as complex as I usually prefer it to be. When the sequel pops up on my library network’s catalog, you can bet I’ll place my hold on it ASAP.

I borrowed this book from my library. Remember to support your local library!

Book Review: Lost and Found

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The Blurb

Are you really a thief?”

That’s the question that has haunted fourteen-year-old Ezekiel Blast all his life. But he’s not a thief, he just has a talent for finding things. Not a superpower-a micropower. Because what good is finding lost bicycles and hair scrunchies, especially when you return them to their owners and everyone thinks you must have stolen them in the first place? If only there were some way to use Ezekiel’s micropower for good, to turn a curse into a blessing. His friend Beth thinks there must be, and so does a police detective investigating the disappearance of a little girl. When tragedy strikes, it’s up to Ezekiel to use his talent to find what matters most.

Master storyteller Orson Scott Card delivers a touching and funny, compelling and smart novel about growing up, harnessing your potential, and finding your place in the world, no matter how old you are.

Review

Read: March 2019

Rating: 4.75 stars out of 5

*Thank you to Edelweiss+ for the free digital ARC.*

Although I remember Orson Scott Card’s name from his praise of Fablehaven, I’ve never actually read any of his work before. But I did know that he was an author of some renown, so I couldn’t believe my luck when Edelweiss offered a review copy of his new novel free to download, no request and approval necessary.  Between the name recognition and the interesting premise, I figured I might as well give Card a try. 

Let me be clear: This is not exactly my preferred type of fantasy; it errs too much on the side of simplistic for my taste. That said, simplicity isn’t always a negative thing, and it’s quite apt in the case of Lost and Found. By eschewing an intensely complicated world, Card allows the magical abilities to take a backseat to the central internal conflicts and the accompanying character development. Through these micropowers, Card conveys the message that uniqueness has value, even if that quirk seems negligible and pointless.

More than solving abduction cases, Lost and Found focuses on the complicated inner struggles of Ezekiel Blast, a fourteen-year-old boy who has a knack for identifying lost items and returning them to their owners. Utilizing this power has caused him a great deal of grief and built an enmity between himself and the police. Because of this, he no longer acts on his power, causing him anxiety over the items that he cannot return. In addition to all of that, Ezekiel is weighed down by the death of his mother ten years prior.  As a branded thief, the kids at school ostracize him, so Ezekiel starts out the novel friendless. Enter Beth Sorenson, a self-described proportional dwarf who’s tough as nails. Due to her unusually small stature, Beth is a frequent target of school bullies, so she seeks protection in Ezekiel, whether he likes it or not. Sure enough, they become best friends. With her help – and that of a scientific/support group unflatteringly dubbed “GRUT” as well as a cop named R.P. Shank – Ezekiel learns to embrace his power as a gift and a useful tool. By doing so, he rediscovers his own self-worth and liberates himself from his “thief” label. 

Card provides positive representation through his male characters. Ezekiel Blast is sensitive, reacts to his emotions in a human way, and is not chronically thinking about sex, but Card does not portray him as not masculine because of these things. Likewise, Card does not neglect Father’s struggles as a single dad; nor is Father dehumanized for his occupation in “unskilled” labor. Detective Shank too is a refreshing depiction of a police officer: stalwart, yet judicious, supportive, and understanding.

Lost and Found also deals with some deep and heavy themes. As implied by the title, one of the main themes is loss – not just physical loss of an object or person, but also loss of sense of self and self-love. Mental health is also discussed via Ezekiel’s anxiety. At this point, I should mention that this book does take a screeching turn into child trafficking. The involvement of child predators always hung in my mind, given that the book chronicles Ezekiel’s attempted recovery of an abducted six-year-old, but I did not expect Card to be as forward as he was about it. Even though there is no explicit sex, it was still gut-roiling. One minute I was reading along, like, “Oh I wonder what will happen next,” and then – bam! – holy fuck, there are child predators. Card, in my opinion, handles this appropriately for the demographic he writes for, but it is up to you to decide whether you should read this book. 

Despite its sluggish start, Lost and Found is a worthwhile read. Although it’s not my preferred type of fantasy, it was objective well-written, and I’d recommend it to those who love suspense and strong character development with just a touch of magic.

Cover is from BarnesandNoble.com.

Book Review: Bloodwitch

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The Blurb

High in a snowy mountain range, a monastery that holds more than just faith clings to the side of a cliff. Below, thwarted by a lake, a bloodthirsty horde of raiders await the coming of winter and the frozen path to destroy the sanctuary and its secrets.

The Bloodwitch Aeduan has teamed up with the Threadwitch Iseult and the magical girl Owl to stop the destruction. But to do so, he must confront his own father, and his past.

Review

*Spoiler warning!*

Read: February 2019

Rating: 5 stars out of 5!

As I mentioned in a previous review, I’ve discovered some amazingly good books (and their attached series) through the “Books Under $2.99” section of the NOOK Store. That’s how I tumbled into the Witchlands series: My poor spending habits and I spotted Truthwitch, looked at each other, and said, “Eh, why the fuck not?” I will admit that I had my trepidations about Truthwitch as I was reading it, but I saw a lot of potential in it and forged on. By the end of the first book, I was completely hooked on the Witchlands series and read the next book, Windwitch, about a month later. It turned out to be even better. And OH MY GOODNESS, BLOODWITCH WAS GOING TO FOCUS ON AEDUAN?!?!? Try as I might to convince myself that I shouldn’t, I preordered it around the holiday season. The day it released, I was glued to my NOOK.

Susan Dennard’s debut series features an intricate system of magic, and with complicated magic systems, there exist greater opportunities for bungling both details and delivery. Witchlands avoids these mistakes: Dennard eschews info-dumping, instead opting to provide information as things crop up. Bloodwitch builds well upon the material of the first two books. In this installment of the series, readers get an even closer look at the mechanics of both regular magic and (*shudder*) Cleaving, and – in what I pictured as a super-intense Monsters, Inc. sequence – our heroes utilize a set of magic doorways between numerous locations (many of which are apparently very near to the Origin Wells). Those of you who are history/geography buffs won’t be disappointed either, since Bloodwitch‘s setting explores even more of the Witchlands. Although Safi and Vaness have actually made it to Azmir, Aeduan and Iseult – along with their headstrong charge, Owl, and her monstrous mountain bat, Blueberry – are still en route to the Carawen Monastery in the Sirmayan Mountains, and Merik has been whisked away to Ponzin. The variation in setting throughout the story will satisfy your inner adventurer and fend off setting fatigue. And the complex plot will make you anything but bored: There’s plenty of action and big reveals to keep you entertained.

The character development in Bloodwitch is top-notch. I’m gonna be honest: I didn’t like Safi’s character all that much at the beginning of the series. But she really has grown on me as she herself has grown, and now I love her. While she may not be clever in the way that Iseult is, she has proven to be smart in her own right. When Vaness’s birthday celebration devolves into a complete and dangerous fiasco, Safi’s leadership skills step to the fore as she reasserts her autonomy and helps Vaness escape. In Lovats, Vivia is stepping into a new leadership role as Queen-in-Waiting, but her opponents – including her own manipulative father, King Serafin  – have no qualms about stomping on her toes to curb her ascent. Vivia eventually realizes that she doesn’t need her father and that she needs to make her own decisions rather than constantly submitting to him. Meanwhile, Iseult continues to take initiative and have confidence in her snap judgments. Owl too evolves from being an overpowered mega-brat (get it? It’s a pun on “mega-bat”… Never mind) with a contrarian attitude problem. Slowly but surely, she emerges from her shell to befriend Iseult and proves herself unfalteringly loyal to her friends, even if she is still obstinate.

Obviously, though, this book focuses most on Aeduan’s internal journey, and his redemption arc is a powerful one. For more than a decade, Aeduan has been plagued with guilt and self-loathing. In Bloodwitch, readers gain an in-depth comprehension of why. The long and short of it is that Aeduan’s childhood traumas caused him to brand himself as a monster, and this view of himself allowed him to justify his unquestioning loyalty to his father, even when Ragnor’s orders were patently immoral. By the end of Bloodwitch, Aeduan has learned to forgive himself and that there is a path towards salvation for him.

And finally, the romance. God, the romance. Throughout Bloodwitch, Dennard continues to build upon the romantic tension between Aeduan and Iseult, culminating in the implication that they are Heart-Threads. At the end of the book, Aeduan has been separated from Iseult but vows to find her, and all I can say is that I am so ready for that journey back to each other. Just let my OTP be together. (Side note: Does anyone else spy a blossoming romance between Vaness and Vivia?)

Here I am at the end of this review and there are so many things that I haven’t touched on, simply because I can’t do them justice. Bloodwitch has more than earned its place on my Favorites and Cream-of-the-Crop shelves, and I enthusiastically recommend the Witchlands series to any fantasy fanatic. I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for Book Four!