Review: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Bright azure blue cover with gold text and golden outline of a mechanical dragonflyARC Review:

Title: Strange the Dreamer (Strange the Dreamer #1)

Authors: Laini Taylor

Publisher and Year: Hodder and Stoughton, 2017

Genre: fantasy

Blurb from Goodreads:

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around – and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance to lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries – including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

In this sweeping and breathtaking new novel by National Book Award finalist Laini Taylor, author of the New York Times bestselling ‘Daughter of Smoke & Bone’ trilogy, the shadow of the past is as real as the ghosts who haunt the citadel of murdered gods. Fall into a mythical world of dread and wonder, moths and nightmares, love and carnage.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

This was one of those books that I saw getting a lot of buzz, certainly the Booktubers I follow were very excited about it. And, who wouldn’t be with the gorgeous bright blue cover with gilded dragonfly? Even the gold and blue flecked cover was striking. It’s a book whose appearance begs you to pick it up and read it. And if that wasn’t enough, the blurb is fantastic and sucked me in. I’m new to Taylor’s work and I am really excited I got to read this book. What Taylor does here was really unique for me, there are certainly the trappings of epic fantasy but they’re used in really interesting ways.

I adored Lazlo’s character and enjoyed him as an unusual hero type, a dreamer where the story doesn’t really fit him but he’s there doing the best he can anyway. I loved his bookishness and his quiet dedication. I loved the whimsical fantasy of the world-building and the adventure, although honestly, Lazlo was one of the only characters I was attached to at all. Lazlo and Sarai, and I thought her short changed as a character. I struggled with the godspawn characters as the ‘them’ of the book entirely – they were too juxtaposed as both terrifying and dangerous and also helpless and trapped in a way that never really worked for me. Same with the band of experts gathered to attend the problem in the city of Weep, save the thief who took up the betting ring, they were unremarkable – I’d read much more of her story though.

That’s kind of where shine wears off for me, because although Lazlo was interesting and engaging. Although I empathised with Sarai’s empathy and loneliness, the story itself fell flat for me. I struggled with the plot, especially as it just seemed like there was so much more plot in the history of Weep than in the present, and it was horrific history and I found the way it was shared felt a bit wooden. I was told characters were traumatised and such, but I didn’t get that from the characters themselves. I also struggled with the romance between Lazlo and Sarai, I liked the premise but found the execution left me cold, I wanted more from them, more for them, and I find the ending of the book abhorrent. The interaction between all the characters save Lazlo and Sarai is flat and unsatisfying – it’s hard to care about what they’re doing and why.

The writing itself makes up for a lot here, it’s lyrical and paints such a beautiful picture while you’re reading that you don’t seem to mind the lack of substance. At least, that’s what I found for myself until I got to the end and I felt like I’d taken in so little for all the pages I’d read. Others have commented that they thought the pace a little slow in places and I’d also agree with that. I’m really glad I got to read this and my favourite part was how much of a whimsical dreamer Lazlo was, and that although he was happy in the depths of the library, he got to go on an adventure and explore the city of his dreams.

If you’ve enjoyed other works by Taylor, you’ll likely enjoy this book similarly. It’s a good read overall, though I’m left a little wanting – and not in the way you’d hope. It’s worth noting that there’s some heavy content in here, reference to rape and torture and forced pregnancy – it’s not gratuitous, but it’s there and I found it uncomfortable reading in the story – again it was part of the being told rather than finding out as the story unfolds more organically. Although I’ve had Taylor’s work recommended to  me several times, I’m not sure if I’m up for book 2 at this stage.

Review: Wanted & Wired by Vivien Jackson

A woman with long dark hair side holding a large gun on to the left of the cover, background is fiery orange sunset ARC Review:

Title: Wanted & Wired (Tethered #1)

Authors: Vivien Jackson

Publisher and Year: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2017

Genre: science fiction, romance, dystopia, paranormal romance

Blurb from Goodreads:

A rip-roarin’ new snarky, sexy sci-fi paranormal romance series with the perfect balance of humor, heat, and heart. Now that Texas has seceded and the world is spiralling into chaos, good guys come in unlikely packages and love sprouts in the most inconvenient places…

Rogue scientist • technologically enhanced • deliciously attractive
Heron Farad should be dead. But technology has made him the man he is today. Now he heads a crew of uniquely skilled outsiders who fight to salvage what’s left of humanity: art, artefacts, books, ideas-sometimes even people. People like Mari Vallejo.

Gun for hire • Texan rebel • always hits her mark
Mari has been lusting after her mysterious handler for months. But when a by-the-book hit goes horribly sideways, she and Heron land on the universal most wanted list. Someone set them up. Desperate and on the run, they must trust each other to survive, while hiding devastating secrets. As their explosive chemistry heats up, it’s the perfect storm…

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

This book came along at a time this year when I needed something fun to read, something romantic, but still something decidedly science fiction. I loved the pacing of the story and fell in love with the characters. While the story was slow to start and clunky in places, there was plenty to keep me going.

I really wanted Heron and Mari to succeed in sorting out what had gone so wrong with their mission. I empathised with Mari’s desire to do the right thing by her father, even though that turned out to be a huge problem. I loved the technology and world-building, I loved Heron’s post-human and enhanced character and I loved the way that was discussed subtly throughout in relation to humanity and morals and choices and so on. I found Heron especially compelling as a character – but that’s not surprising as I have a big soft spot for characters that create found-family. I did love that Mari was included even if she didn’t know about it.

I love that Mari was complicated, she had issues with her history and memory, but also just with coping day-to-day, I appreciated that realism to her character – she’s great at what she does, but not infallible. I love how much she realises that she’s come to rely on Heron. I love the unfolding of their relationship and Mari being confronted with her own biases and the need to reevaluate them. The sexual tension between these two was excellent and I have a soft spot for sex scenes where the author has remembered that one party has extra tech to bring to the equation – I’m all for the misuse of science and technology for better sex. This was excellent in that regard.

Overall this was a really enjoyable book, I’m interested in the story ongoing and am hoping that future books will trend more toward science-fiction romance and less romance driven with a couple per book, I love the urban fantasy feel of this book, it’s clearly science  fiction but it has a lot of the elements that draw me to urban fantasy and I’m solidly hooked.

Review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

A dark blue cover with white text, and a flourished font for the title Caraval. There is a multipointed star behind the title and it is surrounded by red artistic flourishes around the title and author name.ARC Review:

Title: Caraval (Caraval #1)

Authors: Stephanie Garber

Publisher and Year: Flatiron Books, 2017

Genre: fantasy, young adult, romance

Blurb from Goodreads:

Whatever you’ve heard about Caraval, it doesn’t compare to the reality. It’s more than just a game or a performance. It’s the closest you’ll ever find to magic in this world . . .

Welcome, welcome to Caraval―Stephanie Garber’s sweeping tale of two sisters who escape their ruthless father when they enter the dangerous intrigue of a legendary game.

Scarlett has never left the tiny island where she and her beloved sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval, the far-away, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show, are over.

But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.

Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But she nevertheless becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic with the other players in the game. And whether Caraval is real or not, she must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over, a dangerous domino effect of consequences is set off, and her sister disappears forever.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I thoroughly enjoyed Caraval, it was a face-paced read that was enjoyable in the way that you don’t notice how much you’ve read until you should have gone to sleep an hour ago.  I loved the set up of the story and the game of Caraval with the mystery of its game master Legend.  The magic and the worldbuilding were deeply interesting and honestly I wish I could have seen more of this – especially inside the game world itself. For five days of game there was a surprising lack of detail and richness to the experience within it.

The characterisation was all pretty solid although I thought the father’s character was a little two dimensional as a villain. I loved the two sisters, although I was disappointed that they didn’t share more page-time together and I thought that there was a bit more telling about them rather than showing – Tella was almost absent from the book although critical to the story itself which I thought was actually a bit of a shame – I couldn’t relish in her triumph because I barely knew her. Scarlett was contradictory but in a good way and I thought I had a good chance to get to know her, but I thought that she was a bit too easily led and naive for someone who was supposed to be aware of being manipulated, based on her background. I did really love Julian’s character, and he was one of the stand out characters for me, he was complicated and interesting, was a great foil for Scarlett without being lost in her and without doing anything that made my teeth hurt.

I enjoyed the resolution to the story quite a lot, I thought it was quite fitting and I thought that the fact that there was a rhyme and reason to how Scarlett and Tella ended up at the game at all was well plotted. I was bewildered by the random arrival of the fiance – that whole sub-storyline was a bit clunky for me and I don’t think it played out as well as it could have. I didn’t much care for the cliffhanger, but I am glad to know that there’s more story, it was definitely compelling and enjoyable enough that I’m overtly looking forward to the sequel. This is an interesting YA novel, it’s not a coming of age, but it is a stepping out into the world in a way for the first time, and Scarlett comes to know herself and what she wants for her life a bit more, out from under the thumb of her father and the certainty of her betrothal. I love that the relationship between the sisters is so important and underpins the whole story even if they didn’t share the pages as much as I’d have liked, and overall I’d have loved to see more of Tella. Congratulations to Garber on an excellent debut novel.

Review: Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey

A book cover with a dark background and darkened images, a dark skinned boy is embraced by a white skinned girl, there are feathered birds at the bottom of the image.ARC Review:

Title: Miranda and Caliban

Authors: Jacqueline Carey

Publisher and Year: Tor Books, 2017

Genre: fantasy, retellings, romance, literary fiction

Blurb from Goodreads:

Miranda is a lonely child. For as long as she can remember, she and her father have lived in isolation in the abandoned Moorish palace. There are chickens and goats, and a terrible wailing spirit trapped in a pine tree, but the elusive wild boy who spies on her from the crumbling walls and leaves gifts on their doorstep is the isle’s only other human inhabitant.

There are other memories, too: vague, dream-like memories of another time and another place. There are questions that Miranda dare not ask her stern and controlling father, who guards his secrets with zealous care: Who am I? Where did I come from? The wild boy Caliban is a lonely child, too; an orphan left to fend for himself at an early age, all language lost to him. When Caliban is summoned and bound into captivity by Miranda’s father as part of a grand experiment, he rages against his confinement; and yet he hungers for kindness and love.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

This book is a melding of Carey’s lush prose and the theatrics of Shakespeare. I can’t comment on this story as a retelling specifically, as I’m not familiar with The Tempest. However, I really enjoyed Miranda and Caliban, it was a very satisfying story to read. I read this over a couple of days and found the characters, the setting and the mystery compelling. I loved the romance that was woven throughout this story, Miranda’s toward life, and Caliban. Caliban, towards Miranda – to a fault. I was often perplexed by Prospero and I never really connected with him, but perhaps that was also part of the design, as his personality was to hold himself apart and aloof.

The story and its mystery were quite linear, there were no true surprises – one thing did really lead to another. I did not find this to be a bad thing, the story comes across as something to sink into first and foremost, not something to challenge or trick you. I loved the way Miranda and Caliban interacted with one another, both teaching and learning from the other. I loved the beauty of Caliban through Miranda’s eyes because at no point did it seem twee, it fit perfectly with Miranda’s character and her naivety.

I really appreciated the ending to this book. While I thought there was tragedy in the experience of lost love, I also thought Miranda’s pragmatic acceptance of her situation and role in the manipulations of her father was very satisfying and realistic. There is no great hero to sweep in and rescue anyone, it is a tale of what happened, to interesting characters, no rose coloured glasses but not gratuitously dramatic either.

This book stands alone and is a satisfying story to read for some gentle escapism, it is fantastical but not overly so and may be suitable for those who don’t ordinarily like fantasy in their stories.  This is not a particularly in depth review but I don’t think it’s required as what I am left with is the lingering satisfaction for a book I quite simply enjoyed.

Review: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira

Pale blue book cover with flowery font text for the title and author name, there is a silhouette of female figure in a white dress blurred in the background and pink curlicue flowers surround the text and the blurry figure. ARC Review:

Title: Bookishly Ever After

Authors: Isabel Bandeira

Publisher and Year: Spencer Hill Contemporary, 2016

Genre: young adult, romance, contemporary

Blurb from Goodreads:

In a perfect world, sixteen-year-old Phoebe Martins’ life would be a book. Preferably a YA novel with magic and a hot paranormal love interest. Unfortunately, her life probably wouldn’t even qualify for a quiet contemporary.

But when Phoebe finds out that Dev, the hottest guy in the clarinet section, might actually have a crush on her, she turns to her favorite books for advice. Phoebe overhauls her personality to become as awesome as her favorite heroines and win Dev’s heart. But if her plan fails, can she go back to her happy world of fictional boys after falling for the real thing?

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

As someone who really enjoys reading books, and enjoys in particular the relationships, romances and friendships in books this book was right in my wheelhouse! It’s a cute YA about a girl who likes reading and knitting having a crush, being crushed on and figuring out real life romance for the first time. I really like that Phoebe was both curious about and a bit bewildered by the contrast between real life romance and the romances in the books she was reading. I loved that she saw herself in the heroine protagonist’s role time and again, and that she aspired to romance as awesome as those she was reading about.

I really loved the naive fantasy at play here – nothing bad happened to Phoebe! I found the way the story unfolded to be really believable for me because she’s a teen girl with her first real life romance experience. She was clumsy, so was the boy she liked. I liked all the supporting characters actually, her friends were varied and interesting, I liked the happy queer romance that her friend was enjoying, I liked that Dev was Indian and heavily involved with his cultural background, including travelling back to India during the story. There were just nice touches that made it a bit more real for me.

That said, I have minor complaints about the story becoming clunky in the second half, the way the romance unfolded was believable  but it was an effort to keep reading in some places because while I hate insta-romance in most cases, things here also seemed to just take forever – but not in a slow burn awesome kind of way, there were slow places that were a little boring and the let down the pacing a little. This is a minor criticism, and as a debut novel it’s a great beginning.

If you like sweet romance that’s non-explicit involving books, knitting, archery and camping, I highly recommend this book, it was great fun, the characters were endearing and I enjoyed reading it a lot. This book stands alone really well. However, I understand that there is also second book in the series forthcoming, I’ll definitely be looking forward to that when it comes out.

Review: He, She and It by Marge Piercy

He, She and It - coverARC Review:

Title: He, She and It

Authors: Marge Piercy

Publisher and Year:  Originally published 1991, this edition published by Ebury Digital, 2016.

Genre: science fiction, dystopia, feminist fiction,

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

In the middle of the twenty-first century, life as we know it has changed for all time. Shira Shipman’s marriage has broken up, and her young son has been taken from her by the corporation that runs her zone, so she has returned to Tikva, the Jewish town where she grew up. There, she is welcomed by Malkah, the brilliant grandmother who raised her, and meets an extraordinary man who is not a man at all, but a unique cyborg implanted with intelligence, emotions – and the ability to kill…

From the critically acclaimed author of Woman on the Edge of Time, comes another stunning novel of morality and courage. A Pygmallion tale for the modern age, this classic feminist speculative novel won the Arthur C Clark Award.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

He, She and It was a revelation to me, I’m so glad I got to read this and am so glad that somehow this book came to me exactly when I needed it. There is as much about this book that is literary as science fiction, to the benefit of the book and the story it tells. It has incredible depth and is written beautifully, with poignancy that I think is rare to find.

Relationships are central to this book, relationships of family, of parent and child, of community, of spousal partnership, of professional collaboration. Although many readers may centre on the romantic relationships portrayed in the book, these make sense only in the context of all the other relationships that are part of the tapestry of this book. They do not exist in a vacuum or in isolation from the rest of the story.

We follow Shira’s point of view as the dominant protagonist, although Yod and Malkah’s point of view features as well. The worldbuilding for this story is deft. We start with a picture of an enclave, such as we might imagine in any future science fiction city, perfectly coifed and artificial, everything manufactured – the suggestion of control and surveillance is everywhere. We are then introduced to the free city Tivkah, resisting the multi-corporations and having enough skill and leverage to hold onto tenuous freedom and the city’s prized democratic community. Upon losing custody of her son, Shira flees the multicorporate enclave she is employed by and returns to Tivkah, her childhood home. She takes up a position with the scientist Avram to assist him in the socialisation of his cyborg creation Yod.

I didn’t fall in love with Shira at first, and in fact it took me a very long time to warm up to her. Instead, I was drawn to Malkah, matriarch and storyteller, scientist and programmer with a formidable intellect. I took a long time to warm up to Yod too, but I think that is by design from Piercy – as Yod’s experience with personhood grows and expands, so to does the reader’s ability to recognise and appreciate Yod’s personhood. We are invited to mirror Shira’s experience in working with Yod and his socialisation, although her qualms are always situated as her own foibles, and not so much larger moral questions for the reader to ponder. Those questions come more from Yod himself, as he reads Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The crux of the book is the creation of Yod, a cyborg. A story that parellels the creation of a golem in the 1800s. Both created to protect, but as weapons with innate violence in their nature. This is something both the golem Joseph and the cyborg Yod struggle with. My take on it is that this is profoundly to do with existing in the world, regardless of being a human person or not. You cannot erase lived experience, you cannot unlearn compassion or empathy readily – even if you did not come to then naturally and were created whole, as with golem Joseph and cyborg Yod.

I keep coming back to the richness of Tivkah as the locale surrounding the story. A community, built on socialism, collaboration, and fierce anarchic independence. Tivkah is a Jewish city, the days and rituals and experience of the inhabitants within centre the normalcy of their daily lives as Jewish people. This is given further depth by the story Malkah tells for Yod about Joseph the golem. When Nili, a cybernetically enhanced woman from once-Israel, now a dead zone joins them for a time in their city and helps them to defend it, further layers to women, surviving, climate change, resistance, feminism, family and purpose are revealed.

The resolution of this book is one I found deeply satisfying, although it wasn’t an ending as such. Instead it felt like a change, where the people whose lives I’d followed for some time were about to embark on a new era of their lives, but the chapter for this part was over and it was time to part. I valued that and it is a  significant part of the poignancy that I observed as part of the book. There is hope and optimism amidst the realism of living in a dystopia. But people live their lives, they do the best they can with what they have, they value the people and ideologies that are important to them. As do we all. Perhaps with less grace than those in the free city of Tivkah.

I had begun to think maybe I had lost the ability to appreciate deep books that you must read slowly, over a several days and sittings. This book is a compelling read, but it needs breaks – time to think between putting it down and picking it up. Life has to be lived in between reading pages, because it is a book that is about the everyday, about living life, the constraints and difficulties we all face – small and large. I learned in my reading of this book, that in depth, more demanding books are not lost to me, merely I must simply find the stories that are stories for  me – and not dwell so much on stories that other people loved and I did not.

He, She and It is profound and I firmly believe one that will yield much more upon rereading. I loved the abiding feminism in this book where there were so many female characters and relationships between women in all kinds of ways. Women performed all kinds of roles, from the familial and maternal, to great scientific works, piracy, and military defence. The breadth of capability, of choice and recognition of both was startling and wonderful to me. And this is why I don’t think that this is a book of romance, despite that it is one of the plot arcs that is used to contextualise so much of the story. It is like having a spine in the human body – our spine does not define us, but it is critical and unique. Complexities surrounding relationships between parent and child, family in general are also similarly critical to the telling of this story – they are not less important than romantic relationships.

I loved this book, I count it among those I loved best in my reading this year. Although first published in 1991, He, She and It tells as compelling and profound a story in 2016 as it did when it was first published. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who loves a really good science fiction novel. Unlike many dystopian stories, this book is not at all grim, there is no constant sense of doom. Instead, this book is about life, living and problem-solving as well as possible in a future where technology is rampant and equal parts the solution and the problem to the climate change-ravaged future portrayed.

Review: Thorn by Intisar Khanani

Thorn - coverReview:

Title: Thorn

Authors: Intisar Khanani

Publisher and Year:  Self published, 2014

Genre: fantasy, epic fantasy, romance

Blurb from Goodreads:

For Princess Alyrra, choice is a luxury she’s never had … until she’s betrayed.

Princess Alyrra has never enjoyed the security or power of her rank. Between her family’s cruelty and the court’s contempt, she has spent her life in the shadows. Forced to marry a powerful foreign prince, Alyrra embarks on a journey to meet her betrothed with little hope for a better future.

But powerful men have powerful enemies–and now, so does Alyrra. Betrayed during a magical attack, her identity is switched with another woman’s, giving Alyrra the first choice she’s ever had: to start a new life for herself or fight for a prince she’s never met. But Alyrra soon finds that Prince Kestrin is not at all what she expected. While walking away will cost Kestrin his life, returning to the court may cost Alyrra her own. As Alyrra is coming to realize, sometime the hardest choice means learning to trust herself.

 

My Review:

I fell into this book and devoured it pretty much in one sitting. I then bought all the other novels available by Intisar Khanani. This was excellent, the kind of fantasy story that is highly enjoyable, beautifully written and extremely rewarding to read. I’m not familiar with the fairytale that this retelling is based, but it definitely has a fairytale feel about the story that I appreciated.

I loved the way Alyrra navigated her circumstances and I absolutely love that there was no ‘instantaneous love connection’. Instead, Alyrra and Kestrin although they are intended to marry are divided by magic and their ability to even get to know one another is hampered. Where in other stories Alyrra’s inherent goodness might have seemed a little two dimensional, here her ability to cope with the changes in her circumstances are true to her character and growing up experiences. Although she has had an abusive upbringing, Alyrra herself is not broken, but does realistically demonstrate traits that show her mistrust and the effect her past has had on her.

Although Falada’s character is the most fanciful in the story, I love horses in fantasy stories and so I was wholeheartedly willing to go with it, and I am glad that Alyrra got to have a friend while she was finding her feet as a goose girl. I liked that Falada wasn’t omnipotent, or overpowered but merely another sentient race – magical to be sure, but bound by realities that meant Alyrra’s own future was in her hands. I loved that this was consistently reinforced to her. And more than that, I love the way that Alyrra was happy to consider giving up on being a Princess all together, and embracing her change in circumstance as a chance to start anew and have a life she though she would like better. I appreciated the emphasis of being royalty and the duty involved in that position – whether one wants it or not.

I also liked the way Khanani explored differing power relationships and consequences of privilege between Alyrra as the goose girl and Kestrin as the prince. It’s very obvious that he comes from the mindset that he doesn’t intend harm and wants to find the truth and so he is in the right, no matter what difficulty it may cause Alyrra. I also loved the exploration of conceptions of justice in the book – the King’s justice versus the Thieves justice – similar in that they have limited reach to a specific area of the population, but different in terms of flexibility and willingness to follow through on holding people to account.

For me the ending was a little rushed and I would have liked to see that fleshed out a little more, the encounter between Alyrra and the witch, their return and the consequences of that. However, I was also immediately sad that I couldn’t read on to see what happened next – I do hope there are more books in this universe at some stage. I loved that this story was about growing up, coming into one’s self, and exploring ideas of belonging, justice, and family. It was a delight to read, I highly recommend it for reading.

Review: Tremontaine (Season 1) by Ellen Kushner et al.

Tremontaine - season one - coverARC Review:

Title: Tremontaine (The Complete Season 1) (The World of Riverside #0.5)

Authors: Ellen Kushner, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, Patty Bryant, Paul Witcover

Publisher and Year:  Serial Box, 2016

Genre: fantasy, epic fantasy, romance, serial fiction

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Welcome to Tremontaine, the prequel to Ellen Kushner’s beloved Riverside series that began with Swordspoint! A Duchess whose beauty is matched only by her cunning; her husband’s dangerous affair with a handsome scholar; a foreigner in a playground of swordplay and secrets; and a mathematical genius on the brink of revolution—when long-buried lies threaten to come to light, betrayal and treachery know no bounds with stakes this high. Mind your manners and enjoy the chocolate in a dance of sparkling wit and political intrigue.

Tremontaine is an episodic serial presented by Serial Box Publishing. This collected omnibus edition gathers all 16 episodes from Season 1.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

What isn’t to love about sword wielding women, politics, hot chocolate, frocks, parties, manners and physics? The serial format of Tremontaine works very well, it’s clear that the background world and universe of Ellen Kushner’s is beloved by all the authors that are invited to play in the world for this story. I’d fallen off the appeal of epic fantasy for a while, but between this and An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows, I’m excited about this genre again!

In particular I love epic fantasy that involves complex political intrigue and lots of diplomacy, talking around things, layers, and consequences too far reaching to see clearly. I also love characters that are engaging and interesting, sometimes I love the because I identify with them, and sometimes because I’d love to fall in love with them, and other times because they seem so wonderfully wicked – there are all these kinds of characters in Tremontaine and more.

I should point out that I haven’t actually read the other novels that this one is a prequel for, but given how much I enjoyed this book I will absolutely be looking forward to Swordspoint and The Privilege of the Sword!  This is a short review, mainly because I loved it without reservation, the story, worldbuilding, characters, blending of authorial styles were all fantastic and delivered to me an exceptional reading experience. More fantasy like this, with diverse characters who are queer, not all white, who come from different backgrounds and storylines with ‘villains’ who are complex and interesting characters too – you can’t just think of their wickedness, instead it’s tempered with compassion for them, sympathy and understanding for how they’ve gotten into the narrative dilemma they’re in. I really can’t wait for Season 2.

Review: The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library #1) by Genevieve Cogman

Invisible Library - coverARC Review:

Title: The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library #1)

Author: Genevieve Cogman

Publisher and Year:  ROC, 2016 (US edition)

Genre: urban fantasy, fantasy, steampunk

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

The first installment of an adventure featuring stolen books, secret agents and forbidden societies – think Doctor Who with librarian spies!

Irene must be at the top of her game or she’ll be off the case – permanently…

Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, which harvests fiction from different realities. And along with her enigmatic assistant Kai, she’s posted to an alternative London. Their mission – to retrieve a dangerous book. But when they arrive, it’s already been stolen. London’s underground factions seem prepared to fight to the very death to find her book.

Adding to the jeopardy, this world is chaos-infested – the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic. Irene’s new assistant is also hiding secrets of his own.

Soon, she’s up to her eyebrows in a heady mix of danger, clues and secret societies. Yet failure is not an option – the nature of reality itself is at stake.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I really enjoyed this book – it’s what you call a ‘rollicking good read’! The story and characters were just fantastic and hooked me from the beginning. I also love the idea of an inter dimensional Library with all the knowledge and spy librarians! Such an awesome concept and I’m delighted by the surge in books about libraries and librarians and how awesome they are lately!

In regard to this particular book and its story, I enjoyed the alternate London universe quite a lot, with magic being a likely threat and having to navigate unfamiliar politics – and without the resources one could usually expect. I’m very keen to see how the story continues and also whether we will get to peek into other dimensions and worlds that the Library is interested in!

My only thought is that the romance in this book was a bit clunky and I wanted to believe in it a little more from both sides. I’m hoping that element improves in subsequent books as the characters and story develops further. I think this is in part to Irene’s perceived immaturity – even though she has a quite extended lifespan, much of it has been spent in the Library confines and less being out in the world – or at least, that’s the only conclusion I can come to? I want a bit more growth from her overall. Kai plays the part of mysterious super-attractive side kick character really well – it’s not often the super-attractive character is the sidekick actually so that bit I particularly like.

I enjoyed The Invisible Library a lot and can’t wait to read more about the story and these characters! It was the right book at the right time – adventure and fantasy and just light and fluffy enough but also with enough depth to really have me enjoy the reading experience. Sometimes I think it’s as much the right book for the right mood/occasion as it is excellent writing/story/characters. The latter things are important, but if you’re not in the mood for a super crunchy thinky read then you’re not, and similarly if you want that and try to read something super fluffy, you’ll be disappointed. This book is not super crunchy, complex and deep – nor would I want it to be. It’s entertaining and full of adventure and All The Cool Things – because if you got to work for a magical library wouldn’t enjoying all the cool stuff be partly the point?

Review: Winter Wolf by Rachel M. Raithby

Winter Wolf - coverTitle: Winter Wolf

Author: Rachel M. Raithby

Publisher and Year: Rachel M. Raithby, 2014

Genre: YA, urban fantasy, romance

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Katalina Winter was prepared for life to change when she turned eighteen—but she never expected to actually change.

Learning that her birth parents were purebred wolf shifters is shocking enough. Now she’s expected to take her place in their unfamiliar world. Caught between two warring packs, Katalina must learn fast. One pack, led by the father she has only just met, wants to control her—and the other one wants her dead.

However, there is one bright spot to shifting, and his name is Bass Evernight. Tall, dark, and oh-so-handsome, Bass is the wolf that Katalina craves. He’s also strictly forbidden: a member of Dark Shadow, Bass is the son of her father’s mortal enemy. Yet deep down inside, Katalina’s new primal instincts howl that Bass is her mate. Can their love bring an end to the brutal war that has raged for so long, or will it spark the fighting around them into an all-consuming fire?

My review: 

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

If like me  you have a taste for the kind of urban fantasy that has a romance bent to it but is largely fluffy and entertaining, this book is a great choice. I liked the way that the romance began, although it was an instant connection it was one that fitted the characters involved. I found that the romance was quite heavy handed in how it continued – way deeper and more committed and permanent seeming than really makes sense for the age of the characters, particularly considering what Katalina was going through.

I enjoyed this story but was uncomfortable with how Katalina’s adoptive parents were essentially fridged to make way for the story – I think there are plenty of ways the story could have happened that didn’t involve fridging the inconvenient set of parents to give Katalina  motivation for her story. That said, I thought the way the story handled Katalina’s grief, the importance of her parents to her and how her extended adoptive family treated her was well done. I appreciated the way that her birth family handled her reintroduction to them badly – several times, but that Katalina never let them get away with the bad behaviour and called them on it. I like that she won’t be told how her life is going to be and who it’s going to be with. This book is a nice contrast to some of the other YA romance books I’ve read of late in that it had good examples of boundary setting, healthy relationships – both romantic and non-romantic. It’s not problem-free, but it was a damn sight better than what I’ve come across and I appreciated that a lot.

I like that both Bass and Katalina are uninterested in the feud and it’s continuation – they may be in the honeymoon phase of their relationship but it does make sense with how they want things to be better in their respective packs so they can enjoy being in love together. I’m disappointed that any sense of life or ambition outside of the pack for Katalina seems impossible once she finds out she’s a wolf shapeshifter – surely the prospect of college and a career isn’t so ridiculous? Katalina has an independent nature and I think it would have been very much in her character to still want to go to college and explore her options.

This was a quick urban fantasy read that was very enjoyable, it avoided making a bunch of mistakes in relationship dynamics in the romance that I’ve seen too often and hate, but the setup of the story and the romance weren’t without issues that should be examined critically. Overall this was an enjoyable and satisfying fluffy read.

Review: Kricket Series by Amy A. Bartol, books 1-3

NetGalley Review

An eARC of these books was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I do have to note outright that I do not recommend these books, they are problematic in ways that are never resolved. It’s not romance, it’s rape culture with badly drawn tropes. These are directed toward a YA market, and given my issues with the story and characters, find this quite disturbing. 

Under Different Stars coverTitle: Under Different Stars (Kricket #1)

Author: Amy A. Bartol

Publisher and Year: Amazon Publishing, 2013

Genre: YA, romance, fantasy

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Kricket Hollowell is normally not one to wish upon stars; she believes they’re rarely in her favor. Well versed at dodging caseworkers from Chicago’s foster care system, the past few years on her own have made Kricket an expert at the art of survival and blending in. With her 18th birthday fast approaching, she dreams of the day when she can stop running and find what her heart needs most: a home.

Trey Allairis hates Earth and doubts that anyone from his world can thrive here. What he’s learning of Kricket and her existence away from her true home only confirms his theory. But, when he and Kricket lie together under the stars of Ethar, counting them all may be easier than letting her go.

Kyon Ensin’s secrets number the stars; he knows more about Kricket’s gifts than anyone and plans to possess her because of them. He also knows she’s more valuable than any fire in the night sky. He’ll move the heavens and align them all in order to make her his own.

When everything in their world can be broken, will Kricket rely upon love to save her under different stars?

My review: 

Kricket is an interesting heroine, although seems to hit all the tropes for both looks and intelligence, plus a hard-luck past. Still, I like the way she engages, like the way the story begins. The writing tends toward info dumping, and it’s a bit slow in places, filled with tropes but not well done. I love tropes done well, but a lot of these made me cringe. Overall I quite liked the alternate universe in which Kricket finds herself. I read this because I was invested in her struggles (despite the make up of her character – although that was tempered somewhat by the fact that apparently that’s run of the mill in this alternate universe. Yes, I’m applying ‘handwavium’* with abandon here).

I kept reading this book (and the subsequent ones) because of some of the more disturbing plot elements and relationship dynamics that I hoped would be addressed. Relevant to my review for this book is the way that Kricket doesn’t seem to be able to make choices for herself and she ends up in various situations that aren’t great because of others’ who make decisions on her behalf. It’s very overtly gender essentialist although Kricket says all the right things about demanding independence – practically all the characters she meets who are male fall over themselves to be with her or have sex with her, and few end up having any genuine respect for her. Add that to the overdone over-protective streak of some of the characters once they decide she’s not the enemy and that they actually like/love her and want to look out for her, it doesn’t sit well. Kricket may not be a damsel in distress, but the other characters in the story try very hard to put her in that box.

And although in her own voice she rails against this – it’s frustrating to read. It’s also not an example I’d like to pass onto young people about how to navigate that kind of thing. Secondly, the development of the romance between Kricket and Trey is frankly unbelievable, I didn’t get the connection between them much at all – healthy respect and even friendship the way the other soldiers treated her, sure. But not romance. And on that note, while I’m good at handwaving and I’ve definitely done so for relationships I found problematic in other books, this romance didn’t sit right with me because of the differences in power dynamics as well as age and experience. Age and experience I can overlook in various contexts if it’s handled well, but I don’t think it was here and as such it came across as creepy – if less creepy than Kyon’s obsession with Kricket.

Overall I kept reading because I desperately wanted to read how things were addressed, dealt with, acknowledged, how Kricket empowered herself and what she did to get there. I could absolutely have gotten behind that. But… that’s not what happened in the first book. So I went onto the second, hoping that it was a bigger story building into something I could enjoy more and appreciate better.

 


Sea of Stars coverTitle: 
Sea of Stars (Kricket #2)

Author: Amy A. Bartol

Publisher and Year: Amazon Publishing, 2015

Genre: YA, romance, fantasy

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Eighteen-year-old Kricket Hollowell was looking for her place in the world when she discovered that the universe was bigger—and more dangerous—than she had ever dreamed. Now, whisked across space to the planet Ethar, Kricket learns that her genetic ability to see the future makes her a sought-after commodity…and the catalyst for war between her star-crossed parents’ clans. According to Alameedan prophecy, one house will rise to power and the other will be completely wiped out, and Kricket’s precognition is believed to be the weapon that will tip the scales.

A target of both the Rafe and the Alameeda houses, Kricket finds protection—and a home—in the arms of Trey, her Etharian bodyguard-turned-boyfriend. But her visions of what’s to come disturb her deeply, especially since she must discover whether the gift of foresight will allow her to rewrite the future, or if her fate is as immovable as the stars.

My review: 

Book 2 of this series starts off looking up, but I felt like by the end it doesn’t really go anywhere. There are some nice character interaction moments, and I liked that Kricket got to save everyone once. I enjoyed that Kricket’s meeting with Charisma – Trey’s ex partner – was positive, although it did come across as a little saccharine. Also what the actual fuck is with the patriarchal nature of this worldset? It’s not actually worse than Earth on Ethar, but some of the overt views are really crap and again… it’s not something I’d want to give to other young adults as an example of dealing with this kind of stuff.

Aside from the few moments early on where Kricket gets to save herself and the others, she remains very much a commodity and I feel like this fact is reinforced well and truly above and beyond what is necessary. I don’t feel like her companions were effective in objecting to her status as someone seen as a commodity by others in their world. Also, in the end she ends up in the hands of the violent sociopath Kyon anyway. And is coerced into being a reluctant informant. I read speculative fiction because there’s enough of the real world to deal with on a daily basis, but this is straight out of something in my news feed. It’s nasty and insidious and is presented as though Kricket is a heroine for dealing with things, Kyon is presented as being insane but also as something of an antihero to sympathise with, Giffen is out to use her straight up – but at least he’s honest about it. Kricket’s so-called father is essentially meaningless in the story and the writing failed to give me any investment in the war at large overall – it was too impersonal and Kricket’s experiences were largely too removed from the war happening for it to be meaningful.

Again in reading this book I was left with a desperate sense of wanting it to be part of a larger story where Kricket gets to triumph for herself and the nasty, insidious, rape culture aspects of the story would be owned and dealt with in some way I could stomach. It didn’t happen, but I proceeded to the third book hoping, because it does read as though there’s a build up to some momentous event.

 

Darken the Stars coverTitle: Darken the Stars (Kricket #3)

Author: Amy A. Bartol

Publisher and Year: Amazon Publishing, 2015

Genre: YA, romance, fantasy

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Kyon Ensin finally has what he’s always wanted: possession of Kricket Hollowell, the priestess who foresees the future. Together, their combined power will be unrivaled. Kricket, however, doesn’t crave the crown of Ethar—she has an unbreakable desire to live life on her own terms, a life that she desperately wants to share with her love, Trey Allairis.

As conspiracies rage in the war for Ethar, Kricket’s so-called allies want to use her as a spy. Even those held closest cannot be trusted—including Astrid, her sister, and Giffen, a member of a mysterious order with a hidden agenda. But Kricket’s resolve will not allow her to be used as anyone’s pawn, even as the Brotherhood sharpens its plans to cut out her heart.

As the destiny prophesied by her mother approaches, Kricket will backtrack through her fiery future to reshape it. For she knows one thing above all else: the only person she can truly count on is herself.

My review: 

I very nearly did not finish this book because the rape culture and romanticising of domestic/intimate partner violence was a significant part of the story throughout most of the book. It sat really uncomfortably with me. At this point having invested two previous books, I was quite invested in Kricket as a character (having long handwaved the badly drawn tropes of her character make up), but it was just grim to read – and not in a good way. It’s like watching some of the worst elements of society unfold before you, but painted in pretty colours as though it will hide the ugliness. Plenty of people think these books are the best ever, that they’re super romantic and so on so clearly that’s worked but I’m reading this with constant discomfort.

I liked that Kricket managed to escape with another of the priestesses back to Earth. The ending is both satisfying and leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth – it’s not the empowerment I’d wanted for Kricket, but it is freedom and one she’s chosen. At no point do any of the relationships that Kricket is invested in really come through for her, not her sister, not her father, not Trey or the soldiers, certainly not Kyon. It’s just her surrounded by a whole lot of betrayal and sacrificial expectations. I feel like Kricket both simultaneously rejected and embraced the martyrdom of the story outcome, it’s part of the bad taste I think.

I doubt this is the end of the series, but I doubt I can be convinced to read any others. I can deal with this ending and write this whole experience of this series off as a bad idea, and evidence that just because you can read a book, and just because you hope that it will all come out in the wash, doesn’t mean you should read it, doesn’t mean the crap will be addressed. I should know that already, but apparently it’s one of those lessons you need to learn more than once.

I do not recommend these books at all. They do not take you to a good place, they do not leave you in a good place. They are not good examples of pretty much anything for young adult readers. The tropes are badly drawn and anything interesting is overwhelmed by the creepy rape culture factor. I’ve gone to the trouble to share my reviews and write up this post because I think it is incredibly important to challenge problematic things and to say what’s not okay about them.

 

*Handwavium refers to my ability and perceived need to handwave elements of something that I either find unbelievable, out of place, badly used tropes, or sometimes even offensive. (If I stopped watching and reading anything that was problematic well, I would read and watch very little, and that’s not how I roll, considered criticism and engagement for the win.)