Heartwood, by Freya Robertson

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 29, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) A dying tree, a desperate quest, a love story, a last stand.

Chonrad, Lord of Barle, comes to the fortified temple of Heartwood for the Congressus peace talks, which Heartwood’s holy knights have called in an attempt to stave off war in Anguis. But the Arbor, Heartwood’s holy tree, is failing, and because the land and its people are one, it is imperative the nations try to make peace.

After the Veriditas, or annual Greening Ceremony, the Congressus takes place. The talks do not go well and tempers are rising when an army of warriors emerges from the river. After a fierce battle, the Heartwood knights discover that the water warriors have stolen the Arbor’s heart. For the first time in history, its leaves begin to fall…

The knights divide into seven groups and begin an epic quest to retrieve the Arbor, and save the land.

Thoughts: I wish I could say that I enjoyed this book more than I did. It had the potential to be something that was, if not revolutionary, at least something very good and something worth talking about in the fantasy genre. Instead, it largely fell flat, was formulaic and stiff, with very distanced narration that kept me separate from even the intense action scenes.

The world that Robertson creates is an interesting one, with many familiar elements pulled from British landmarks and mythology creating a kind of pastoral fantasy world that has a more centralized feel than many of the world-spanning fantasies out there. The central religion is that of Animus, and a part of that divinity is made manifest in the Arbor, a giant oak tree that the religious/military city of Heartwood is built around. But the Arbor has been slowly dying, crops have been failing, and the land’s people aren’t always capable of agreeing on what should be done. An unexpected attack by water elementals forces everyone’s hands and people of all lands must band together to embark upon quests to activate dormant focus sites around their countries, to revitalize the Arbor and stave off the coming war between humanity and the water elementals.

This book had all the earmarks of a slow but satisfying return to mythology-based fantasy tales, something often lost in the crush to come out with brand new completely original concepts. Sometimes what we crave in our reading material is a bit of nostalgic fare, and I thought that Heartwood was poised to be just that.

Unfortunately, instead of being merely slow, the pace was plodding. Characters were flat and devoid of emotion, and even though over half the cast dies by the end, I couldn’t really bring myself to care about them, with a mere one exception. Battles are going on, swords are being slung, flesh getting stabbed and sliced, and the writing style and pacing is exactly the same as when a scholar is explaining a previously-unknown bit of history, or when a group of characters were engaged in a barely-lukewarm political discussion. For a book with so much potential for passion of all kinds, it was remarkably devoid of it.

The amount of suspension of disbelief required was pretty high, too, which only added to the feel of distance. After the water elemental attack, a book is found that essentially turns their religion on its head, explains how the founder of it completely misunderstood previous oral traditions upon which he based the religion, and characters find out that the very nature of the world doesn’t function the way they’d assumed. A couple of people raised minor, “But how could that be?” objections, but this huge revelation is accepted by multiple diverse groups of people within a few paragraphs with little more fanfare than, “I guess nothing else explains what just happened.” Come on, people now end up breaking off into different denominations of Christianity based on whether they interpret a passage of the bible as meaning that Jesus drank wine or drank grape juice. The revelation in Heartwood was akin to someone finding a book here that claims Jesus said that Satan was God’s long-lost brother, they formed the universe together, and everyone’s been getting it wrong ever since and that’s why climate change is happening. You don’t greet that with a shrug and a proclamation of, “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” I had to suspend my disbelief over every character essentially suspending their belief, and that never bodes well.

The book does get points for creating the military ideology of the Heartwood knights, who hold that males and females are equally able of standing up and being defenders of the faith, both spiritually and in battle. As such, multiple characters on the various quests are female knights, no less capable than their male counterparts. Rape did occur within the book’s pages, not as a half-assed form of character development, but as brutality and part of torture. Robertson broke the mold with this treatment, and even with all the rest of the book’s problems, it deserves praise for that.

Ultimately I have to say that I was disappointed by this book. It may seem a bit unfair to judge a book by what it wasn’t rather than what it was, but a good deal of my disappointment comes from the fact that I felt this book could have been so much more than what it was. It was a great idea and had good world-building that didn’t pay off in the end. Mostly it was the unemotional writing style that ruined it for me. I can forgive other things, but if I can’t connect to the characters nor feel any urgency when there’s a quest to save the world, even the positive parts of a book can’t salvage it for me. Sadly, not a book I feel comfortable in recommending.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Aberrant, by Ruth Silver

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Author’s website
Publication date – April 16, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReadsIn the future dystopian society of Cabal, the government instills equality for all and offers its citizens the perfect system. There is food, shelter and jobs for everyone. The one requirement is to follow the rules without question, including the government’s match in marriage and “The Day of the Chosen”, a lottery that randomly selects families to conceive children as natural means hasn’t existed in generations. Following her eighteenth birthday, Olivia Parker accepts her requirement to marry her childhood best friend, Joshua Warren, and is eager to start her work assignment and new life when it all comes abruptly to an end as she’s arrested and thrown in prison. The only crime committed, her existence. Olivia is unlike the rest of the world born not from “The Day of the Chosen.” The truth haunts the government and puts her life in grave danger as one simple fact would destroy the perfect system.

With Joshua’s help, Olivia breaks free of prison and is forced on the run. Together they set out to find the promised rebel town in search of a new home and new life together. Their situation seems less than promising as they reach the town of Haven. New rules and customs must be adhered to in order to stay. Leaving would mean most certain death in the large expanse of the Gravelands. Time is running out as the government mounts an attack to destroy Olivia and bury her secret with her. Thrown into a world unlike their own, they must quickly adapt to survive.

Thoughts: In a safe world where cities are the only refuge from harsh death at the hands of nature, where the government assigns your spouse and job and provides all you need, one dissatisfied young woman flees for her life and joins the rebel alliance in order to bring down the oppressive regime of the life she grew up in.

Sound familiar? Sound like a dozen and one YA dystopian novels on the shelves already? Welcome to Ruth Silver’s Aberrant.

The book follows the story of Olivia, recently turned 18 and newly assigned to her best friend Joshua as a spouse, and quite happily so. Until she’s arrested one night, freed, and then flees into the wasteland surrounding her city of Genesis, running across problems and secrets as she goes. For a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, this one’s fairly standard. Nothing surprising ever really happens, and the characters are bland enough that the reader can put any face they choose upon them. Nobody really stands out, and the main character herself would be fairly forgettable if she wasn’t the main character and everybody’s paying attention to her because of her assumed specialness.

I’m not saying that to be harsh. Really, everybody does assume she’s special. Females in the book are infertile, a side-effect of a vaccine that saved the human race from a great plague. Government intervention is needed for a woman to fall pregnant. Except that Olivia was conceived naturally, and so as her mother is now past child-bearing age, everyone’s turning to Olivia as the great savior of humanity, a figurehead to give people hope that they can rise above the government and no longer need their help simply to keep humanity going.

Enter plot problem 1. The assumption is that because Olivia was conceived naturally, she herself must be able to conceive naturally too. No tests are done to confirm this before everyone decides that she has to bear kids and be a figurehead. No mention of how her mother conceived naturally in the first place, and so maybe anybody can. Just that she did, and so they assume Olivia can too.

Plot problem 2: nobody in Genesis seems to understand about, well, how babies are made. The logic behind this is presented as if getting pregnant involves some mysterious governmental intervention, then nobody would sleep with anyone because there’s just no point. This ignores that vast majority of human sexuality and assumes that humans are, by default, asexual, and unless reproduction is a factor then nobody even feels any urges. At least in Lois Lowry’s The Giver, these urges were eliminated by medication. They weren’t just handwaved.

As with many dystopian stories that have a focus on population control, the math doesn’t add up. Families are chosen by the government by a lottery in order to get that intervention and produce a child. A single sentence indicates this happens once a month, to one woman. Assuming every pregnancy is carried to term, this means 12 children born each year. Any children past the first child are taken and given to other cities, for reasons that are never really explained. But that’s still pretty much a maximum of 12 children per year to any given city. But Olivia notes that there are 16 males and 16 females, 18 years old, being matched for spouses that year. Unless every spare child from every other city is given to Genesis, that math doesn’t really work.

Also the inherent problems with a “1 child per family” policy essentially halving the count of the next generation, which is only feasible if you’re already dealing with major overpopulation. Which they aren’t.

Aberrant tries to take the best parts of many other popular dystopias and combine them into one, and while that may be appealing to fans of the genre who are looking for more of the same, I find that it made for more of an unfocused story. Olivia gets arrested for being different, flees the city and falls into the hands of people who want to use her in a different ways, flees again and finds herself in a situation where she has to pass tests in order to gain a place in the society. Nothing is settled, nothing is sure, and very few characters get enough time or development for me to really want to care about any of them. Even Olivia and Joshua are fairly bland and uninteresting, with little to define them beyond, “These people are the main characters and are in love.”

As I said, for those who are looking for just another dystopian novel, you could do worse, and if genre standards are your thing then you may find yourself liking Aberrant. If you’re looking for a book that adds something to the genre, however, or really stands out, then you’d do best to look elsewhere.

(Provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.)

The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust and Skyler White

incrementalists  Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com

Steven Brust’s website | Skyler White’s website
Publication date – September 24, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The Incrementalists—a secret society of two hundred people with an unbroken lineage reaching back forty thousand years. They cheat death, share lives and memories, and communicate with one another across nations, races, and time. They have an epic history, an almost magical memory, and a very modest mission: to make the world better, just a little bit at a time. Their ongoing argument about how to do this is older than most of their individual memories.

Phil, whose personality has stayed stable through more incarnations than anyone else’s, has loved Celeste—and argued with her—for most of the last four hundred years. But now Celeste, recently dead, embittered, and very unstable, has changed the rules—not incrementally, and not for the better. Now the heart of the group must gather in Las Vegas to save the Incrementalists, and maybe the world.

Thoughts: I had such high hopes for this book. The plot sounded fascinating. A murder mystery, an odd kind of reincarnation, a secret society that had been influencing decisions in all cultures and locations pretty much since the people started to group together and form societies themselves. What’s not to love?

Unfortunately, the concept behind the book was roughly where it peaked for me. The story itself was, I admit, fairly interesting. The minds and memories of the people in this secret society are, upon death, collected and dumped into the mind of a willing participant. I won’t say volunteer because it’s so very easy for people to be influenced into doing something they may not otherwise do, so participant or host actually seem the most accurate. May the stronger personality win. And then these people go on to exert their influence over people, mostly in small ways, working for the improvement of humanity. But when one of them seems to be in multiple minds at once, and working to her own goals rather than group goals, things get violent, complex, and tricky to handle. Mix with Las Vegas and a little romance, and you should have a recipe for success.

Unfortunately, the success didn’t happen. While the story was interesting, it was hidden under piles of overly-complex actions and underdeveloped characters. About 4 characters got any development: the 2 main characters whose point of view we follow, the antagonist, and the possible romantic rival. That’s less than half of the named characters. The rest are mostly names with vague descriptions and even vaguer relevance to the story.

As I mentioned, the story was told from the viewpoints of Ren and Phil, switching off viewpoints at intervals as the story progresses. Both of these viewpoints are written in first person, with most of it being dialogue and very little narration. Given that the two characters are often in the same place at the same time, participating in the same conversation, it was very easy at times to forget just which “I” was saying something. Coupled with unmarked dialogue that would occasionally go on for pages at a time, it became very tedious to read.

The lack of narration, and thus description, made scenes very difficult to envision. People would be discussing things (endlessly) in hotel rooms, hotel restaurants, someone’s living room, someone else’s living room, and you have no idea what these places look like. I’m not asking for every detail to be explained, but some detail would be nice. An argument could be made for this being the limitation of a proper first-person viewpoint, because when we’re looking through our own eyes, we’re not thinking necessarily about the pattern on the curtains, the smell of cooking food, or if there are flowers in the yard, unless these things catch our attention. But the exclusion of so many details made for poor reading.

The romance was contrived, both in terms of actual plot and just the presentation. It was insta-love, which is one of my major turn-offs. There was a plot-related reason for this, at least; both of the main characters were manipulated to find each other attractive and so fall for each other quickly. But here’s the thing: there’s a difference between love and attraction. A very big difference. And there was no dividing line. Where the characters kept saying they loved each other, even after coming to know they’d been meddled with, it wasn’t believable. Attraction, I could see, but it was mostly physical, with some emotional elements mixed in. I felt no love. I barely felt affection. But I could see plenty of attraction, and it bothers me when that gets treated like love.

It’s a shame that there were so many stylistic problems with this book, because without them, I could have even tolerated the romantic situation and the complicated plot. But between the book’s 75% dialogue, the undeveloped cast of characters, and the constant discussions of poker (which might have been interesting to poker-playing readers, but it made little sense to me), I found myself struggling and ultimately couldn’t really enjoy this.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Son, by Lois Lowry

Son, by Lois Lowry  Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com

Author’s website
Publication date – October 2, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) They called her Water Claire. When she washed up on their shore, no one knew that she came from a society where emotions and colors didn’t exist. That she had become a Vessel at age thirteen. That she had carried a Product at age fourteen. That it had been stolen from her body. Claire had a son. But what became of him she never knew. What was his name? Was he even alive? She was supposed to forget him, but that was impossible. Now Claire will stop at nothing to find her child, even if it means making an unimaginable sacrifice.

Son thrusts readers once again into the chilling world of the Newbery Medal winning book, The Giver, as well as Gathering Blue and Messenger where a new hero emerges. In this thrilling series finale, the startling and long-awaited conclusion to Lois Lowry’s epic tale culminates in a final clash between good and evil.

Thoughts: The Giver was an amazing book that presented mature themes in a way that younger audiences could grasp. Gathering Blue tackled the issues of brutal societies and forced art. Messenger was occasionally baffling and unfocused and probably would have been better as a standalone novel rather than a continuation to The Giver, and was undoubtedly inferior to the previously two books.

Son just breaks the hell out of almost everything Lowry established in previous installments, with the exception of Messenger. Personally, I think that the only reason it made the bookshelves at all is because of its ties to The Giver. The bulk of the novel is about a young woman trying to get her son back after he was taken from her, and the loss she feels because of the situation. However, more often than not it seems like she’s a central figure to the story only because the story is going on around her. If Lowry meant to leave readers feeling distanced from the action and incapable of relating to Claire, then she certainly accomplished what she set out for. Otherwise…

We start the story in Jonas’s old community, and plenty of references are made to the events of The Giver to keep the reader centered. Unfortunately, this brings in the first major way that Lowry messed up her own continuity. She actually had characters refer to the Giver and the Receiver as separate people. It was previously established that there is the Receiver of Memory, and Jonas was his apprentive, but the title of Giver was something that seemed to be known only between the old man and Jonas themselves. He was still known as the Receiver to the rest of the community.

Later dissatisfied with her life as a Birthmother after her son was taken from her (post-partum depression, and given the community’s very ordered and structured methods, it’s surprising that there was no pre-existing way to deal with this), our protagonist leaves, develops amnesia, and is re-raised by a fishing village that is confined by large cliffs. She eventually regains a sense of purpose and climbs the cliffs to leave, and finds her way to the village that Jonas established and presides over. But not before she encounters a dark and sinister man (the Trademaster, who was so bafflingly introduced in Messenger) to whom she basically trades away her youth.

From here, the perspective switches to that of Gabe, the young child who left the community with Jonas in the first book. Claire is, from here on, pretty much an incidental figure, someone who happens to be there but doesn’t actually do anything. This is, above all else, what made me think that Lowry mostly wanted to do a story about post-partum depression and the loss a young mother can feel, but didn’t think it would sell well on its own. She shoe-horned it in with an existing story from The Giver‘s universe, and left the whole thing feeling like 2 separate short stories rather than one cohesive novel. Sadly, it weakened both stories.

Anyway, we get to see Gabe’s big destiny is to defeat the Trademaster once and for all, shrinking and eliminating the embodiment of evil with the power of mercy and goodness. For the ending of a kid’s speculative fiction novel, this wouldn’t normally be bad. Clear-cut divisions, an ultimate triumph. But when you take it in context with the universe it came from, it seems like a cop-out. In The Giver, there are some hard-hitting issues tackled. Euthanasia of children for the convenience of others. Restrictive dystopias. Freedom and uncertainty versus captivity and security. Things that actually make people think hard no matter what their age. To have all of that come down to nothing but a rather tame battle between good and evil felt like nothing so much as the author just wanting to wrap things up in a neat package. It wasn’t challenging. It wasn’t even that interesting.

It also didn’t explain anything that had confused me about the Trademaster from the previous novel. It was obvious there that he was pretty much an analogy for the devil, but his appearance seemed so random and unsuited to the setting that I felt like I was missing something vital every time he was mentioned. Go from hard-hitting issues to being careful what you wish for was a let-down, and I wasn’t exactly picked back up in the fourth and final novel of the series.

Ultimately, this book wasn’t a good one, either in context or out of it. From my own standpoint, The Giver and Gathering Blue were wonderful as standalone novels, and didn’t need to be tied together in what became a disappointing series with unsatisfying conclusions. This one is definitely worth passing over, even if you enjoyed the previos novels. Possibly especially if you enjoyed the previous novels.

Sad to see something so amazing fall to this.

Revealing Eden, by Victoria Foyt

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Author’s website
Publication date – January 10, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Eden Newman must mate before her 18th birthday in six months or she’ll be left outside to die in a burning world. But who will pick up her mate-option when she’s cursed with white skin and a tragically low mate-rate of 15%? In a post-apocalyptic, totalitarian, underground world where class and beauty are defined by resistance to an overheated environment, Eden’s coloring brands her as a member of the lowest class, a weak and ugly Pearl. If only she can mate with a dark-skinned Coal from the ruling class, she’ll be safe. Just maybe one Coal sees the Real Eden and will be her salvation her co-worker Jamal has begun secretly dating her. But when Eden unwittingly compromises her father’s secret biological experiment, she finds herself in the eye of a storm and thrown into the last area of rainforest, a strange and dangerous land. Eden must fight to save her father, who may be humanity’s last hope, while standing up to a powerful beast-man she believes is her enemy, despite her overwhelming attraction. Eden must change to survive but only if she can redefine her ideas of beauty and of love, along with a little help from her “adopted aunt” Emily Dickinson.

Thoughts: I was cautious about this book from the beginning, since it stood a high chance of having a strong dose of racefail, given that the premise of the novel is that the ruling class consists entire of dark-skinned people, and now caucasians are treated with disdain and have no rights. Tie that in with the series title, “Save the Pearls” (Pearls being the derogatory term for white-skinned folk), there was every chance that this could turn into a sod story about how poorly whites are treated and how unfair it was that poor whitey gets such a raw deal in life.

As it was, I didn’t have so much of a problem with that, but only because it was overshadowed by so many other problems. The plot itself was, on the surface, fairly interesting. Earth is no longer protected by the ozone layer, the population and life expectancy has dwindled, and scientists are secretly working on a plan to fiddle with the human genome in order to combine attributed from sun-resistant animal species in order to increase humanity’s chance for survival. As an antagonist, we get the Federation of Free People, a group who seem to have the destruction of all Pearls as their main agenda. The government keeps the population complacent with carefully-delivered information and doses of emotion-changing drugs and nutritional pills.

But there are a lot of problems that got in the way of me enjoying that plot. For starters, it’s established right at the beginning that mineral-related terms to reference different ethnicities is a racist thing, and thus we’re expected to see it as bad. But everybody uses them. Not just when they’re angry or attempting to be insulting. hey use them all the time. Casually. In reference to each other, and to themselves. They’re all but sanctioned code-names. But when Eden gets annoyed and calls someone a Coal, everyone acts as though she just dropped a nuclear n-bomb in the office.

The author also has a habit of throwing in scientific names for plants and animals. This would have been fine had the book been written in first-person, from Eden’s perspective, since she’s deeply involved in the scientific world, but it came across more as the author trying to show off that they know scientific terms. They weren’t appropriate to the plot, and appeared with such freqency that it got downright annoying.

There is a huge logical flaw in the government’s plan to keep humanity on top of things, too. Females are required to breed by 18, males by age 24, and if they don’t, the government cuts off all supplies of food and water to them. Eden is 6 months shy of her 18th birthday, and is paid a visit by a government representative to remind her that if she doesn’t breed soon and contribute to the continuation of the decimated human race, her supplies will soon end. But couples may only have one child. Essentially halving the population with each generation. This doesn’t increase humanity on the whole, but decreases it. Food and water supplies are limited, and this may be a good reason for the limitations on offspring, but that still doesn’t mean that one child per couple is a viable way to keep the population even stable.

Then there’s Eden herself. She was a whiny self-involved brat quite often, who seemed to engage others in emotional circular arguments that served little point. her reactions to Bramford were particularly annoying, and they amounted to frequent renditions of, “Ugh, I hate this guy so much, he’s so arrogant and annoying and so dark and sexy and I keep getting turned on when he looks at me but I hate that jerk so much.” Repeat ad nauseum. It drove me nuts, and was profoundly frustrating and boring.

This was one of those rare books where I couldn’t wait to reach the end, not because I was compelled to keep reading but because I couldn’t wait to stop reading it so that I could move on to something potentially better. I can’t recommend this book. Other people seem to have enjoyed it quite a bit, but I found it too flawed, too unrelatable, and too boring to be worth passing along to somebody else.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Nostalgia Friday: Black Dawn, by L J Smith

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Author’s website
Publication date – November 1, 1997

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) First he put her in a dungeon. Then he realized they were soulmates. Now he wants to make her a vampire princess. Maggie Neely is a short, spunky sixteen-year-old with auburn hair and an iron will. When her brother turns up missing, she’s determined to find him. But she never suspects that the trail will lead her into the most secret heart of the Night World, a kingdom where no outsider has stepped in five hundred years.
The kingdom is ruled by the young vampire prince Delos…who keeps all humans as slaves. When Delos falls in love with Maggie, he frees her and demands that she join him in his life of dark pleasure. He’s handsome, he’s romantic Maggie can hardly resist him. But did he kill Maggie’s brother? And who are the strange people searching the kingdom for a Wild Power? Maggie won’t give up until she learns the truth even if it means destroying Delos and his secret land. If he doesn’t destroy her first…

Thoughts: More and more when I read this series, I wonder what I found so fascinating and good about them when I was younger. As far as the storytelling goes, they’re fairly average, and while I can make some allowances because the author was writing in a time when YA novels were mostly confined to 200 very short pages or less instead of having the allowance of expanding the plot, but that grace can only go so far.

This book starts out with another example of a teenager — Maggie — making a ridiculous leap of logic that turns out to be right. She awakens to find her parents distraught as her brother’s girlfriend Sylvia informs them that Miles (said brother) has died. Maggie deduces that Sylvia must be lying about what happened because her display of grief is “too perfect” and so must be acting. Following her intuition, she sneaks out of the house to follow Sylvia and ends up getting kidnapped by a group of Night People who are intent on bringing human slaves to their kidden kingdom in the mountains.

Yeah, you read that right.

The story itself, while fairly simple, is interesting enough. Maggie finds other people who are kidnapped, living in the castle town as slaves, and sets out trying to free them. Along the way she meets Delos, the vampire prince, scornful and cold and yet still her soulmate, as is typical for the Night World books.

But this really fails when you throw in some logical scrutiny. Aside from the opening scene, which really just seemed like the author wrote herself into a corner very quickly and needed some way — any way! — to get Maggie to follow Sylvia so the real plot could start, I have a hard time suspending my disbelief when it comes to the major end-of-the-world prophecy, specifically how it’s done here.

My biggest problem with it? Aside from the fact that the prophecy is translated into English and only one translation is ever mentioned anywhere ever, the kingdom in the mountains in relation to it is a major fail. The kingdom, with its sanitized medieval-style culture, was established around 600 years ago in an American mountain range, and yet they have the exact same version of the prophecy. Same translation, in modern English, in spite of only very recently (last couple of decades or so) having contact with the outside world. They all speak modern English there, in fact, and quite easily.

Then on top of it all, the “finding Miles” subplot that occasionally pokes its head up at random places in the story, gets wrapped up almost as an afterthought, like Smith had forgotten Maggie’s sporadically-driving goal until someone pointed it out, and then she just tacked on an ending that makes sense but still comes somewhat out of left field and doesn’t flow well with the rest of the scene.

I keep trying to tell myself that I’m being too hard on the book and the author, that most teens won’t catch that, but that really isn’t much of an excuse. Smith has made some other major gaffes in this series, including some incredibly ironic and hypocritical ones, and the more I read them, the more I notice them. And the more I wonder why I bought the rereleased books a few years back. They aren’t as good as I remember, and rereading them now has ripped away the shiny happy veneer that nostalgia once gave them. There are so many better YA urban fantasy novels worth reading, and if truth be told, I’m rather glad that this is the penultimate novel in the series (unless you count the as-yet-to-be-released final book that should have come out over 10 years ago but is still in progress) and I won’t have to keep reading them much longer.

Sometimes things are best left in the past.

Nostalgia Friday: The Chosen, by L J Smith

Buy from Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, or IndieBound

Author’s website
Publication date – February 1997

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) She stalks the back alleys of Boston, seeking revenge on the vampires who killed her mother. Armed with a wooden stake, martial arts, and the will to resist mind control, she is killing the Night People one by one. But when she rescues Daphne Childs from certain death, she’s suddenly swept into the Night World Slave Trade, gateway to the vampires’ secret enclave.

Thoughts: Vampire hunter meets vampire, and they all live happily ever after.

Rashel decided to become a vampire hunter because when she was very young, she saw her mother and her friend (or possibly a kid her mother was babysitting; I don’t think the book was very clear on just who Timmy was in relation to Rashel) killed by a vampire, and decided some payback was in order. Then one night, on a mission, she runs into the vampire Quinn, and, true to the theme of this series, the two discover that they’re soulmates.

Now, I have to say that Smith did make a point of having Rashel deny the connection at first, refusing to believe she could be so bonded to something she despised so very much. But what really got to me was a scene in which Rashel and Quinn are mentally joined, and she senses darkness and fear in his mind so she (and I’m paraphrasing here) “dances through it kissing sunlight into the dark corners.”

Let me just point out that Rashel has spent over a decade at this point hating vampires with a passion, and being shuffled from foster family to foster family and refuses to form emotional connections, trying to cut herself off from others and keep her emotions cold, her mind removed. I understand that this is teen fantasy with an emphasis on romance, but honestly, I find it incredibly difficult to suspend my disbelief long enough to accept that “twu wuv” really heals all wounds in a heartbeat like that. It was trite, and horribly out of character, and it didn’t do anything but make me roll my eyes and wonder if Smith even understood the characters she was creating.

Nyala’s transition from mentally scarred to completely unhinged was also something that felt odd and out of place, like the author just needed a plot device to work in a little more tension.

Many parts of this book felt clumsily executed. Some scenes were powerful and touching, incredibly well done, but for every good scene there seemed to be one that was equally bad, and it made for a very poor experience. While this book wasn’t one of my favourites when I first read the series, my opinion on it has certainly dropped upon reading it again.

This novel also shows how dated it is by mentioning Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then adding that Rashel “missed the movie.” The vast majority of teens who read this book now will likely only know Buffy as the TV show, and may not even know that the multi-season show was based on and a continuation of a movie in the first place. It’s only a minor mention, but much like a previous book in the series mentioning Walkmans, it’s something that the audience doesn’t come across these days half as much as they used to. The stories are not timeless, and moments like this really underscore that.

Ultimately, I’d have been happier skipping over this book during my series reread, given all the problems I had with it. It needed serious work on the character development, the twist ending made only marginal sense, and it was far from the entertaining read I remember from my teenage years. Sadly, I came away rather disappointed.

Nostalgia Friday: Daughters of Darkness, by L J Smith


Buy from Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, or IndieBound

Author’s website
Publication date – March 19, 1997

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Here is a vampire story with a twist, the bloodsucking ghouls are three beautiful teenage sisters who escape from the Night World and try to find a new life, and love, with humans in a small town.

Thoughts: This is probably my least favourite book in the whole series. Despite it being the second, I didn’t read it until long after I’d read all the other Night World books, but my distaste for it isn’t solely due to the fact that it can’t really compare to the novels that came after. This book not only can’t stand the test of time (do teenagers even know what a Walkman is anymore?), but had a good number of flaws that would have been evident even at the time of writing.

For example, there’s a scene quite early on in which two teenage boys start in on their attempt to rape three girls. When these girls reveal themselves to be vampires, one of them shouts, ” How the freak did you do that? What the freak are you?” Freak? Really? A guy who’s about to rape someone isn’t going to play by PG language rules. If you can’t have swearing in your story, don’t try for swearing. Toning it down and substituting words just makes the whole situation look absurd, and is rather insulting to the intelligence of the reader.

Second example I can think of is when characters are wondering who might be the killer they’re all looking for. They land on a character who was mentioned only once or twice before that, and in passing: Bunny Marten. They suspect Bunny because of her name; born-vampires tend to have names related to nature in some way. Bunny is obvious, of course, but one character then says, “And isn’t a marten a kind of weasel?” Yes, it is, but the spelling of her last name was never mentioned, and it’s not as though a more common spelling isn’t “Martin.” It may have the same root, but it’s one heck of a leap, and a leap that only makes sense if the character suggesting it knows the odd spelling. Which she doesn’t.

The story itself wasn’t particularly engaging, either. Standard whodunnit mystery involving the death of a vampire. The killer turns out to be a mad werewolf who doesn’t display any signs of actually being insane until he’s triggered by jealousy, but apparently he was unhinged all along.

The only thing I really liked about this novel was the way to romance between Mary-Lynette and Ash was handled. The two are soulmates, which means that they’re bound together whether they like it or not, and can’t be truly happy without each other. Problem is that they don’t get along, and outside of a few moments of teen lust, even admit that there’s no way they can handle each other. But rather than refusing to acknowledge that, they agree to spend some time apart until they’ve both matured and come to grips with themselves and each other before exploring their connection any further. It was a refreshingly mature approach to the soulmate concept, and I really enjoyed seeing it.

Aside from a brief mention of a few characters in a later book, this is one that can be skipped over without losing anything of the series as a whole, and I highly recommend doing so. You don’t miss much, and you get to spare yourself the trouble of reading a clumsy novel that was subpar even for a decade and a half ago. Overall, not really worth it.

Eve, by Anna Carey

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Author’s website
Publication date – October 4, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The year is 2032, sixteen years after a deadly virus—and the vaccine intended to protect against it—wiped out most of the earth’s population. The night before eighteen-year-old Eve’s graduation from her all-girls school she discovers what really happens to new graduates, and the horrifying fate that awaits her.

Fleeing the only home she’s ever known, Eve sets off on a long, treacherous journey, searching for a place she can survive. Along the way she encounters Caleb, a rough, rebellious boy living in the wild. Separated from men her whole life, Eve has been taught to fear them, but Caleb slowly wins her trust…and her heart. He promises to protect her, but when soldiers begin hunting them, Eve must choose between true love and her life.

Thoughts: Being a sucker for dystopian novels, I had to give this one a try. I regret that I was actually pretty disappointed in it. The story had some potential, but there were far too many plot holes to make me comfortable with rating this book any higher than 2 out of 5.

The setting of the novel is a world in which 98% of the human population has been wiped out in a plague. America is now called the New America, is ruled by a King whose throne city is in the middle of a desert, and males and females are kept pretty much segregated. The man character, Eve, is in an all-female school, on the edge of graduation, after which she will cross the school’s lake into another building and spend four years learning her trade.

Or so she thinks, until one random girl whom nobody likes tells her that the real secret to that building is that girls are kept them and impregnated against their will. Despite having no reason to believe this, Eve decides to check it out anyway (swimming across a lake after admitting that she doesn’t know how to swim), and finds out that this is all true.

Waitasec, hold it. Completely ignoring the fact that she learns to swim after about 15 seconds in deep water, I want to take the chance to ask the following question: if girls are being prepped to basically be broodmares after they graduate from school, what the heck is the point? Why school them that long? Why waste time and resources and concoct an elaborate lie that makes them believe they’re going to have careers, and then just strap them to a bed and introduce them to a doctor with a turkey baster? It’s a waste of time and resources. If the real goal is to boost the population, then it would make better sense to make sure that the girls are fertile and then take them elsewhere as soon as possible, not continue to teach them how to dance and how to interpret 19th century novels.

I may also add that this all takes place about 10-15 years after the plague has ended. Too soon. 50 years, I can see. But in such a short time after the crisis is over, a lot of the changes don’t make much sense. Lawlessness running rampant because “people didn’t read the Constitution”? A politician setting himself up as King and nobody opposing him because they were all scared and sick? Complete segregation of the sexes, and the female teachers (who all were old enough to have survive the plague in adulthood, I might add) intentionally teaching girls that all males are heartless and cruel and will use girls and then spit them out? This book doesn’t take place hundreds of years in the future, when society can have radically changed in its views and perceptions. It takes place 20 years from now! Changes that massive don’t happen so quickly, and when they do, the resistance is more than scattered pockets of stubborn people.

So Eve leaves the school and decides to search for a rebel compound that she heard of, hoping that they’ll offer her protection and freedom from a life of birthin’ babies. On the way she runs into Arden, the girl who told her about the pregnancy program in the first place, and Caleb, a boy who escaped the all-male labour camps and is now living in an all-male society of hunter-gatherers. Naturally, Eve and Caleb fall in love.

Really, who didn’t see it coming a mile away?

Another gigantic plot hole occurred during an incident that proves beyond a doubt that the author doesn’t know much about biology and medicine. While investigating an abandoned house, Arden collapses and is coughing up blood all over her hands. My first thought is, “Ooh, is this a resurgence of the plague?” That would have been interesting. But no, it doesn’t seem so. Eve tells Caleb that Arden was outside in the pouring rain the previous night and that must be why she got sick. Three weeks of bedrest later, and she’s fine.

I’m sorry, but if there’s a condition that within 24 hours can chew up your lungs to the point where you cough and your palms are covered with blood, you’re not going to get better by just sleeping it off. You’re very likely to be dead in the next couple of days. Especially seeing as how the descriptions of the plague made it sound like a hemorrhagic fever, the author had a perfect chance to take the novel in a different direction and make it very hard-hitting, but she just let it go, and in so doing made a plot hole I could drop a piano through.

The novel ends with Eve and Caleb finding the rebel compound and Eve discovering that it’s a women-only deal, so Caleb can’t come with her. Having fallen in love, to the point of risking their lives on more than one occasion, she vows to find him again. And there the book ends, with the first part of the trilogy complete.

This feels, more than anything else, like an attempt to hop on the dystopia bandwagon before the journey is complete. The only way in which Eve stood out to me was in the mistakes it made. It could have been a novel by anyone, written at any time, with little in the way of a creative and original storyline. The author does have some talent, especially with introspective turns of phrase and artistic description, but the overall story was so lacking that it felt more like a “me too” than an “I have a great idea for a book.”

I can’t say I recommend this one. I know a lot of people who read my most recent “In My Mailbox” post seemed excited about it, but really, unless they want a bland and unoriginal romance in a post-apocalyptic world, they’re not likely to enjoy reading this novel.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Two Moon Princess, by Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban

  Buy from Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, or IndieBound

Author’s website
Publication date – April 15, 2010

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) In this coming-of-age story set in a medieval kingdom, Andrea is a headstrong princess longing to be a knight who finds her way to modern-day California. But her accidental return to her family’s kingdom and a disastrous romance brings war, along with her discovery of some dark family secrets. Readers will love this mix of traditional fantasy elements with unique twists and will identify with Andrea and her difficult choices between duty and desire.

Thoughts: I tend to like stories that have the “two worlds colide” theme going on, so when I heard about Two Moon Princess, I thought that it would be a YA book that’s right up my alley.

Unfortunately, it turned out to have some glaring oversights and flaws that turned what could have been a good book into one that straddles the line between “merely okay” and “blah.”

Princess Andrea is a girl who would much rather be a knight than a lady, and even though she seems to have the talent for it, she’s denied the chance to pursue knightly training by her parents. Frustrated with her family and the way they keep trying to force her into a place for which she isn’t suited, she runs away. And through a magic gateway, finds herself in modern California.

It’s not a story that hasn’t been done before, and it doesn’t see that the author did much with it that was new… unless you could the fact that Andrea was a spoiled girl who didn’t know half of what she thought she did. She runs off with half-formed plans in her head and is so sure she’s right about everything she does. Most of the time when characters do this, it’s because they actually do know something that other people don’t. In Andrea’s case, it was repeatedly demonstrated to her that she doesn’t know half of what’s going on, that her elders actually do have a better grasp of the situation and do have experience backing what they tell her. It’s not often you’ll find an author who essentially says, “Yeah, kids, you really ought to listen to your parents sometimes because they may actually know what they’re talking about.” Sometimes adults may have appeared harsh in their treatment of Andrea, but quite honestly, I read that as them losing their patience with her determined ignorance and self-righteous attitude.

The romance, at least, was also more believable than I see in many YA novels. Andrea doesn’t fall head-over-heels for an impossibly handsome guy. She gets a crush… and that doesn’t work out so well. She meets another guy, and crazy events take priority, and only when she thinks she’ll lose him does she start to think that she really doesn’t want to. She has teenage overreactions regarding him. It was quite realistic in its portrayal of teenager affection, actually.

But what really killed this book for me was the sheer amount of suspension of disbelief required. Andrea lives on another world, and her ancestors came from earth hundreds of years ago, and there are magical doorways between the worlds. Fine, that much I can accept. That’s not outside my capabilities. But when a woman from this world, who trained as a doctor, who has been in the world of Gothia for 20-30 years or so, gives somebody antibiotic pills she brought with her and hid the whole time, I start to question whether the author even knows that medications have expiration dates for a reason. And when a culture has been around for over a millennium, has tamed horses and built castles with functioning drawbridges and can make good swords and armour, why is it that it took an engineering genius “who’s far ahead of tis time” to build that society’s first bridge over a river? They can make a drawbridge, but not a regular bridge? It smacked of clumsy editing and fact-checking, an oversight that nobody expected readers to even notice.

But even if a lot of the oversights were fixed, this book still wouldn’t be anything special. Not bad, but not anything that would stick out in my mind as being worthy of attention.

I might recommend this book to girls between the ages of 10 and 12. Maybe. There are plenty of books, though, that I could recommend to someone in that category that are far better than Two Moon Princess, though. It could have been so much better than it was.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)