Book Review: Blackbird, Volume 1

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The Blurb

Nina Rodriguez knows there’s a hidden magical world run by ruthless cabals hiding in Los Angeles. And when a giant magic beast kidnaps her sister, Nina must confront her past (and her demons) to get her sister back and reclaim her life. Perfect for fans of SYFY’s The Magicians, CW’s Riverdale, and THE
WICKED + THE DIVINE
, don’t miss the first collection of the smash-hit neo-noir fantasy series from fan-favorite writer SAM HUMPHRIES (Harley
Quinn, Nightwing) and red-hot artist JEN BARTEL (Black Panther, Mighty
Thor)!

Review

Read: April 2019

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

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

*Spoiler warning!*

It’s worth noting that this is an ARC in the sense that it’s not yet been released in this bind-up format. (The content of Blackbird, Volume 1 has already been released.) Still, this is my first time reviewing a graphic novel ARC, so it’s nevertheless a cool experience. Blackbird isn’t the best graphic novel I’ve read (I’m trash, the ATLA graphic novels hold a special place in my heart), but it’s certainly enjoyable.

Art style heavily influences my opinions of graphic novels. Earlier this year I read a graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and although I understood the purpose of the story, the art style prevented me from truly appreciating it. Blackbird circumvents that problem with its skillfully rendered art. Its art isn’t just not so terrible or weird that it detracts from the storyline; it’s actually good. If I’d known who the artist was before I read this, my expectations would have been higher and I’d have been moderately less surprised by the quality of the illustrations. Best of all, the illustrations are in color – something that, after reading black-and-white manga for so long, I didn’t realize I missed until I started reading Blackbird.

Blackbird chronicles the adventures of some interesting characters. I’m a sucker for cats, so I of course adore Sharpie and care about him more than any of the human or Paragon characters. Clint is pretty much the stereotypical flirt with a golden heart and a scheming father. I’m curious to see how he’ll decide to play his cards in the next installment. Despite her tendency to be a little petulant, Nina is nonetheless portrayed as a complex character with a pregnant development arc. As she grapples with poverty, addiction to painkillers, and a broken family, Nina sets off on a journey to seize back control of her life as much as to rescue her sister, Marisa, with whom she has a complicated relationship. If I’m being honest, Nina’s character arc intrigues me more than any aspect of the Paragon world – excepting Sharpie, obviously.

The world the authors have constructed is fluorescently dazzling, but on some level it feels shallow. Occasionally it felt like they skimped on important events, causing those events to feel anticlimactic. Even when details are plentiful, the solutions to problems are often too simple given the storyline and what is known about the universe. In particular, Nina’s initiation as a Paragon is way too… comfortable, considering the horrific deaths that most of the other Paragons had to undergo. I mean, yeah, she was already sort of initiated partially after she died in the earthquake, but still, her full initiation is, perhaps fortunately dull.

All in all, Blackbird is an amusing read, even if it sometimes errs on the side of superficial. If you’re into urban fantasy like Shadowhunters, this might be a good graphic novel to try.

Cover image and blurb are from BarnesandNoble.com.

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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.

Book Review: As Long as Grass Grows

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The Blurb

Through the unique lens of “Indigenized environmental justice,” Indigenous researcher and activist Dina Gilio-Whitaker explores the fraught history of treaty violations, struggles for food and water security, and protection of sacred sites, while highlighting the important leadership of Indigenous women in this centuries-long struggle. As Long As Grass Grows gives readers an accessible history of Indigenous resistance to government and corporate incursions on their lands and offers new approaches to environmental justice activism and policy.

Throughout 2016, the Standing Rock protest put a national spotlight on Indigenous activists, but it also underscored how little Americans know about the longtime historical tensions between Native peoples and the mainstream environmental movement. Ultimately, she argues, modern environmentalists must look to the history of Indigenous resistance for wisdom and inspiration in our common fight for a just and sustainable future.

Review

Full title: As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, From Colonization to Standing Rock

Read: March 2018

Rating: 4.75 stars out of 5

Thank you to Edelweiss+ for the free digital ARC.

“If what the preeminent Indian law scholar Felix Cohen said was true, that Indians are the United States’ miner’s canary that signals the poison gas of the political atmosphere, to extend the metaphor, then in the larger world dominated by the fossil fuel industry all humans have become the miner’s canary… From an American Indian perspective, we’re all on the reservation now.”

-Dina Gilio-Whitaker, As Long as Grass Grows

When you sit down with As Long as Grass Grows, be prepared for some serious introspection.

Reading this book was difficult because as I read, my own naivety and ignorance – willful or otherwise – hit me again and again. I knew that white settlers had systematically and violently oppressed the Native American population, but I never really understood the exact extent this cultural squashing reached. After reading that Native Americans were enslaved by white settlers and being subsequently shocked by that fact, I then wondered why it never occurred to me that such a thing happened. It never dawned on me that the disappearance of the bison was more than just human – or more accurately, settler – carelessness pushing the bounds of nature’s resilience – that instead it was the result of an intentional extirpation of this majestic animal and valued food source by the American government in an effort to further subjugate Indigenous peoples. Nor did I ever really stop to think about how colonialism disrupted the diets of Native peoples and the deleterious effects it wrought upon their cultures and health.

The environmental injustices suffered by Native Americans have yet to be relegated to antiquity: They’re an ongoing problem – a problem that, as Gilio-Whitaker argues, is the progeny of the American government’s horrific history with Native peoples.

Gilio-Whitaker dispels the notion of a peaceful history between environmental groups and Indigenous peoples. Once environmental groups were powerful forces driving Indigenous displacement; later they would co-opt the Native American for their own purposes. These transgressions are part of an ugly past, and those of us in the environmental movement need to acknowledge them and take steps to mend what’s been broken.

Clearly, there is much room for progress. But that doesn’t mean there’s been none to speak of. Gilio-Whitaker cites the Keystone XL and Standing Rock protests as examples of coalition-building, despite their flaws. The keys to bettering relations with Native peoples and achieving environmental justice with them are that those of us who are “settlers” become more cognizant of our privilege and the harrowing story of how that privilege was established and enshrined into law, confronting the resultant biases and prejudices we hold, and recognizing the agency and sovereignty of Native American peoples.

Cover image is from BarnesandNoble.com.

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!

Coming Up…

Hey guys!

Things have been pretty busy for me lately since finals are next month, but I still find time to read. Here are the books I’ve been working on:

  • We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia (already on the shelves!)
  • As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock by Dina Gilio-Whitaker (on sale 2 April 2019)
  • Shadow Frost by Coco Ma (on sale 24 September 2019)

I plan to write reviews for all of three. Hopefully I’ll have the first review posted by the end of the week, so keep your eyes peeled!

Thank you for visiting the Book Hawk!

~Jamie

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.