Book Review: The Kaerling

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Synopsis

When Otta and Erl are banished from their village for angering the gods, they embark on a peculiar quest.

Commanded by a wandering god, Otta is obliged to follow the strange, elusive “unicorn’s trail.” Her twin brother, Erl, has lost his memory and is struggling to discover who he is and where he is.

As they travel further from the shelter of the Homestead, the siblings discover unpleasant traits in their personalities. They must learn to adapt and change before they are driven apart.

Who is the wandering god? Just what is the “unicorn’s trail” and where will it lead? What are the kaerlings? And who are the brown-robed travellers that trespass in Otta’s dreams?

Review

Read: Summer 2019

Rating: 1.5 stars out of 5

A few months ago, I received an email from Freya Pickard asking me to review the first book of her Kaerling series. I’m ashamed that I didn’t complete this review much sooner, but ya know how life happens and ya get really busy. Anyway, I’m flattered that Ms. Pickard reached out to me to request a review.

In my reviews, I strive to adhere to the policy of honesty, and the honest truth is that I am unimpressed – and often befuddled – by Silver Fire. The story itself could be interesting, but it’s weighted down by a variety of issues. For one thing, the writing is choppy. Not only are the sentences often stilted-sounding; Pickard also has a tendency to throw in details where they aren’t really pertinent. In fact, those randomly placed details don’t shape the setting enough to prevent the reader from feeling like they’re just… watching a flipbook. There isn’t much buildup to plot events, either. Stuff simply happens very suddenly. My biggest beef, however, is with Erl’s amnesia. I get that amnesia is not always a blanket blackout, but I don’t get why Erl remembers one thing but forgets something else even though the thing he forgets is related to the thing he remembers. The best example: His concept of human decency is intact enough for him to sympathize with an ethnic minority and defend their right to live in their native land, but not enough for him to remember that attempting to rape anyone – especially the girl who insists that she is his twin sister – is a mega no-no. His priorities when he apologizes to her later are completely out of whack too. “This incest thing seems important to you so I’ll stop” doesn’t strike me as the first thing someone who has committed sexual assault against their sibling should say to said sibling; what they should say is more along the lines of “oh my god, I’m sorry I tried to rape you and I understand this not-being-raped thing is important to every human being so I’ll stop”. This whole incest/sexual assault ordeal adds nothing to the plot of the story; instead, it serves as just a giant what-the-fuck dead-end subplot. 

What I can say for Silver Fire is that I wasn’t bored while reading it. Whether that was because of the fast-paced plot, sheer curiosity, or the potential of the story itself, I really couldn’t tell you. Maybe it was all of the above. In any case, I’ll probably try reading the next installment of The Kaerling, just for kicks. 

Image and synopsis are from BarnesandNoble.com.

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: The Living God

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The Blurb

Saran and Keiler are elemental mages bound by love and sorcery: one destined to rule a kingdom, the other to destroy it. Five years ago, Saran reached into Keleir Ahriman’s heart and imprisoned the demon within him, tying her soul to his. Together, they’ve conspired against Saran’s father—a fanatical king who worships that world-ending demon inside Keleir, a being known as the Vel d’Ekaru. When Saran risks everything to save a village of innocent people, the king rips her magic away, splintering the wall she built around Keleir’s heart. Powerless and desperate, Saran struggles to see her rebellion finished and stop Keleir from becoming the Vel d’Ekaru – the Living God.

In a world that is equal parts magic and political intrigue, heroine and hero must now battle their way back to each other if they are to overcome their doomed destinies.

Review

Read: April 2019

Rating: 1 star out of 5

*Thank you to NetGalley for the free digital ARC!*

I probably should have known this book would be awful just by the first sentence of the blurb. Instead, I tried to be optimistic. Sometimes, hoping for the best pays off, but this time I was just disappointed. The Living God is just another book to add to my “Did Not Finish” shelf on Goodreads.

Chief amongst this book’s problems are its sucky characters. Saran is a gorgeous Time Mage who is engaged in a supposedly consequential rebellion against her father, the despotic yet sickly King Yarin D’Mor of Adrid. While Saran is strong-willed, just being involved in a rebellion against her dad isn’t enough to convince me she’s a badass. Her lover, Keleir Ahriman, is a Fire Mage who is esteemed by King Yarin. Since birth, Keleir hosted a demon called the Oruke, which is apparently also called the Vel d’Ekaru. Prior to the demon’s containtment – courtesy of the lovely Saran – Keleir committed terrible things with the demon. As a result, he bears the heavy yoke of guilt, and that makes him broody to an obnoxious extent. Between the fire affinity, the tenebrific disposition, and the stupid overprotective shit he does, he’s basically the bastard child of Edward Cullen and a garbage version of Prince Zuko. Rowe Blackwell is Keleir’s less interesting brother who somehow escaped the curse of the Oruke, despite the fact that Keleir was born with the curse. How this happened is unclear to me – either because the author never explains it or because I gave up before she did. And finally there’s Odan Marki. A commander or some shit in the Adridian army, he serves as the sexual predator antagonist who makes completely inappropriate advances on Saran, such as skulking around on her balcony to peep at her through the windows or attempting to extort her into sex. In contrast to Saran’s Fire Mage lover, Marki is an Ice Mage. Because that’s not at all cliché.

The beginning of the book is decent: It opens with an action-packed scene playing out in reverse as Time Mage Saran – who also happens to be the princess of Adrid – uses her powers to save a village of innocent people from slaughter at the hands of her father’s army. But an adequate start does little for a book if it’s the high point. By page forty-five, I thought of sloughing through all three hundred sixty-eight ass-damned pages with the consternation I usually reserve for large homework projects. The excitement of the opening scene fizzles out by Chapter Two, and it doesn’t return. Despite the rebellion’s status as a purportedly high-stakes conspiracy, nothing interesting really happens with it. In the portion I read, the most intriguing thing that happens involving it is Odan Marki discovering a rebellion-related letter in Saran’s room and then using it in an attempt to coerce Saran into fucking him. Yuck. I find it problematic that the attempted sexual assault is one of the more riveting (albeit one of the most horrific) points of the book. That’s just a low bar to set on so many levels. And all the fascinating potential of time/dimensional travel is wasted when Platt spends an entire fucking chapter on Saran and Keleir just… riding carnival rides. Yeah.

Platt’s writing is long-winded, but not in the charming way that J.R.R. Tolkien’s is. While Tolkien actually establishes his characters and universe in his monologues, Platt does not. Instead all I get out of her ramblings are tidbits about what color the curtains are. The details you do get are the details you do not care about or want to know at all. Consider, for instance, this sentence: “The full dining hall had long tables with men and women seated at them, eating the morning meal.” This detail is not presented in a manner that fleshes out the scene of a story; it’s just thrown in and sits awkwardly in the paragraph. If there is anything I want to know about the story, it’s nothing to do with the dining hall. I’d much rather know the name of this demon inhabiting Keleir – something that isn’t mentioned until well past where I called it quits. Then there’s this bit:

The wrestling ended with Saran mounted atop him, riding along a wave of ecstasy, while Keleir withered beneath her. He sought handfuls of flesh, and his mouth traced wet lines across her chest.”

Um, ew. Do I want to break this down? Of course I do. First off, if a lover ever told me that he wanted to grab “handfuls of flesh”, I’d immediately dump him and promptly alert the FBI of a potential serial killer. Also, don’t just say stuff like “his mouth traced wet lines across her chest” and then say pretty much nothing else before the simultaneous orgasms. That information floating on its own is plain gross. And is Keleir’s “withering” a recurring problem? Are you telling me that these people can contain parasitic world-eating horrors and travel between dimensions but can’t treat erectile dysfunction?

Just save yourselves some time and boredom, folks. Don’t read it. Just don’t.

Cover image and blurb are from BarnesandNoble.com.

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.

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!

Book Review: Beasts of the Frozen Sun

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The Blurb

Burn brightly. Love fiercely. For all else is dust.

Every child of Glasnith learns the last words of Aillira, the god-gifted mortal whose doomed love affair sparked a war of gods and men, and Lira of clan Stone knows the story better than most. As a descendant of Aillira and god-gifted in her own right, she has the power to read people’s souls, to see someone’s true essence with only a touch of her hand.

When a golden-haired warrior washes up on the shores of her homeland-one of the fearful marauders from the land of the Frozen Sun-Lira helps the wounded man instead of turning him in. After reading his soul, she realizes Reyker is different than his brethren who attack the coasts of Glasnith. He confides in her that he’s been cursed with what his people call battle-madness, forced to fight for the warlord known as the Dragon, a powerful tyrant determined to reignite the ancient war that Aillira started.

As Lira and Reyker form a bond forbidden by both their clans, the wrath of the Dragon falls upon them and all of Glasnith, and Lira finds herself facing the same tragic fate as her ancestor. The battle for Lira’s life, for Reyker’s soul, and for their peoples’ freedom has only just begun…

Review

Read: March 2019

Rating: 3.75 stars out of 5

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

When I first began reading Jill Criswell’s debut novel, I really wasn’t certain that I was going to love it. Beasts of the Frozen Sun was… just fine, for maybe the first third of the book. But I was well rewarded for reading on. 

This book’s biggest flaw is that the non-main characters simply didn’t feel as animated to me as they should have. Some character introductions and the subsequent interactions with other characters seem a bit abrupt. Quinlan, for instance, is introduced as Lira’s close male friend and someone whom Lira might or might not have feelings for, even though Lira does not mention him until his first physical appearance. Criswell often consigns minor characters brimming with potential to the sidelines, but I hope she will expand their roles in the next book. Right now it feels like she’s focusing so intently on Reyker and Lira that she’s skimping slightly on the other characters. Paying them some mind would, in my opinion, render this tale more colorful.

That’s not to say that the characters are unlikable, or that the main characters are uninteresting – just that there’s room for growth (and perhaps that’s what Criswell has planned for the sequel). While Reyker, a complicated warrior from Iseneld, embarks on a poignant and heart-wrenching redemption arc, Glasnithian Lira grapples with the societal constraints foisted upon her as both a young woman and a god-gifted individual and battles against the guilt she feels over the death of her mother several years prior. Lira’s elder brother, Garreth, proves to be noble and clever – and something of a maverick with a surprise up his sleeve, and Quinlan is a treasure – both as a friend and as a human being.

Although the lore of Criswell’s world isn’t complex, it’s not overly simple either – and that moderation suits this story. Likewise, Criswell is even-handed with her imagery: she doesn’t catapult her readers into a choppy sea of detail, but she provides enough for a reader to conceptualize the surroundings to a satisfactory degree. As far as the romance goes, this is one whirlwind love story. Despite the occasional over-gooeyness, Criswell executes the enemies-to-lovers trope well. Readers will find themselves invested in Reyker and Lira’s blossoming relationship and riveted by the parallels between their love and that of Aillira and the Great Betrayer. And at the end, the villain divulges a revelation that not only sheds a new light on his character but also leaves them bursting with questions.

Beasts of the Frozen Sun might not be a masterpiece, but it’s a solid beginning to Criswell’s series. I had some difficulty tackling the first portion of the book, but that hump was not insurmountable and the story ended up being entertaining. Adrienne Young’s Sky in the Deep has found its kin in Beasts of the Frozen Sun: If you read and enjoyed the former, I enjoin you to pick up the latter (which I’d argue is better).

You can purchase Beasts of the Frozen Sun at Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, IndieBound, Indigo, and Amazon. 

Cover is from BarnesandNoble.com.