Knife Sworn, by Mazarkis Williams

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Publication date – November 1, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) After spending most of his life in captivity, Sarmin now sits upon the Throne of Cerana. But his reign is an uneasy one. And the emperor’s own heart is torn between two very different women: Mesema, a Windreader princess, and Grada, a lowborn untouchable with whom Sarmin shares a unique bond. In times past, a royal assassin known as the Emperor’s Knife served to defend the throne from menace, but the last Knife has perished and his successor has yet to be named. Sarmin must choose his own loyal death-dealer… but upon whom can be he bestow the burden of the Knife-Sworn?

Thoughts: Continuing shortly after the point where The Emperor’s Knife left off, the Empire is in a state of uncertainty. Sarmin, his life spent in captivity and more than half mad, is now the Emperor. The Many, previously afflicted with the Pattern, are directionless, seeking the unity and certainty that they once felt through the Pattern-Master’s influence. A new religion rises. The Empire is under threat from a spreading emptiness from the previous Emperor’s tomb. Plots weave in and out, a tight set of stories all interconnecting, with a rich culture behind them and a fascinating world to explore.

If it’s been a while since you read the first book of the series, then I recommend picking it up for a reread before tackling Knife Sworn. There are very few reminders of events that happened in the first book, so unless your memory is quite good, you’re going to be a little lost in the beginning. This is where the book fell down for me, largely. I spent the first chunk of the novel trying to figure things out from context, and there’s no gentle reminders or nudges in the right direction. Williams pulls no punches when it comes to assuming that readers know the ins and outs of what’s been happening. Easy to circumvent, but only if you know what’s coming first.

Williams has a superb ability to weave separate plot thread into one solid story, taking complex situations and characters and building upon the foundations of the world established in The Emperor’s Knife. The characters, even when you don’t like them or understand the depth of their motivations, are never the less highly interesting to read about. From Sarmin’s attempts to understand reality and his own hidden gods, to Nessaket’s political schemes, to Rushes’s encounters with a growing religion inside the Empire, each character’s focus is unique and attention-grabbing, switching often enough to keep things interesting but not so often that the multiple stories become disorienting.

But while the set-up and story-building was engrossing, the ending was somewhat underwhelming, leaving things feeling incomplete not just in a way that heralds another book in the series, but more in the way that an ending was just reached, anti-climactic, because that was the end of this plot arc. I can’t fault Williams too much on this, because an underwhelming ending is still better than dragging a book on when there’s nothing left to be done, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel disappointed.

While definitely a strong novel with intelligent themes and masterful characterization, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed the previous one in the series. It has a great deal of potential and I’m looking forward to seeing where the rest of the story goes, though I think after my experience with Knife Sworn, I’ll make a point of rereading the series once more before picking up any future books, just to make sure that the author and I are on the same page.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley)

The Warded Man, by Peter V Brett

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Publication date – February 26, 2009

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) As darkness falls after sunset, the corelings rise–demons who possess supernatural powers and burn with a consuming hatred of humanity. For hundreds of years the demons have terrorized the night, slowly culling the human herd that shelters behind magical wards–symbols of power whose origins are lost in myth and whose protection is terrifyingly fragile. It was not always this way. Once, men and women battled the corelings on equal terms, but those days are gone. Night by night the demons grow stronger, while human members dwindle under their relentless assault. Now, with hope for the future fading, three young survivors of vicious demon attacks will dare the impossible, stepping beyond the crumbling safety of the wards to risk everything in a desperate quest to regain the secrets of the past. Together, the will stand against the night.

Thoughts: I’m going to confess something right away: The Warded Man, the first book in Peter V Brett’s Demon Cycle, could actually be a lot worse than I’m judging it to be, but it’s going to have a special place on my bookshelves for a long time to come. It saw me through my first hospitalization this past year. When I was lying in a less-than-comfortable hospital bed, hooked up to IVs and getting blood transfusions and waiting to find out whether I would have surgery, this book was there with me. It was a wonderful distraction, something to get lost in, which was exactly what I needed when I needed it most. So you can see why I might be just a touch biased in my opinion.

Fortunately, it seems I’m not alone with the high opinion of this book, and others seemed to like it even when they were in poor health and in need of distraction, so I can safely assume that it is, in fact, just as good as I think.

In a world where slavering demons roam the night, humanity cowers in fear, terrified to open their doors once the sun goes down, reliant on defensive wards to keep prowling demons at bay. Their only hope is to pray and atone for the sins of their ancestors and hope that the Deliverer arrives to save humanity soon. The book revolves around 3 different children, or rather children who we see grow up in exceptional circumstances: Arlen, talented with runes and out for revenge against the demons who ruined his childhood; Leesha, a healer who fights to carve out her own space in a society ruled by men; and Rojer, opportunistic performer with the ability to charm demons with his music. Their stories start separately, and over time draw together.

Brett draws on a lot of traditional fantasy elements and makes them a shade darker. I don’t feel much more malice or threat from corelings than, say, the Trollocs in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books. They’re enemies in an us-against-them fight and not much more needs to be known. The world is based largely upon medieval Europe, complete with male domination on society. It is traditional fantasy at some of its finest, with enough familiar traditional elements to appeal to those looking for a good epic fantasy to fall into, the kind many of us grew up on and were introduced to fantasy by. At the same time, there’s enough originality in the story, enough world-building to make the world stand out, and enough character development that it’s safe to say that this isn’t just one more book on a long list. It makes its mark. It draws you in and makes you want to keep reading because even though you know that it’s one of those books where the good guys will survive simply by virtue of them being good guys, they’re inventive and interesting enough to make you want to know how it all comes together.

This book doesn’t really break any molds. It sticks to the tried-and-true with a few little tweaks here and there, but its origins are clear. Strong females are only strong by way of being compared to men, or having it illustrated how unfeminine they are. Most of the characters are male, and the lead female takes the role as the healer. We go from medieval Europe to the middle of a desert city full of mostly negative Middle Eastern stereotypes, brutality and abusive caste systems abound. Where it succeeds is also where it fails; it gives readers an epic dark fantasy but riddles it with the same problems that so much fantasy, epic or dark, relied on in the past.

Still, this is a strong beginning to a series, the kind of thick book with a rich world and a long world-spanning plot that sometimes I just ache for, a throwback to what I read in my early years with the genre. It’s comfort reading, creative and entertaining, something that sucks you in and keeps you happily occupied for hours at a stretch. It’s a series I’ll definitely be continuing with once I get the remaining books, too, for I hear it, like all good stories, just gets better as it goes on.

Bloodstone, by Gillian Philip

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Publication date – November 19, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) For centuries, Sithe warriors Seth and Conal MacGregor have hunted for the Bloodstone demanded by their Queen. Homesick, and determined to protect their clann, they have also made secret forays across the Veil. One of these illicit crossings has violent consequences that will devastate both their close family, and their entire clann. In the Otherworld, Jed Cameron a feral, full-mortal young thief becomes entangled with the strange and dangerous Finn MacAngus and her shadowy uncles. When he is dragged into the world of the Sithe, it s nothing he can t handle until time warps around him, and menacing forces reach out to threaten his infant brother In the collision of two worlds, war and tragedy are inevitable especially when treachery comes from the most shocking of quarters…

Thoughts: Where Philip’s Firebrand was historical fantasy, Bloodstone leaps forward a few hundred years to the modern era, turning it more into an urban fantasy despite the fact that a good half of the novel takes place in a realm that is not the mortal one. (Which is considerably less than Firebrand, so I figure it still counts as urban fantasy.) This is urban fantasy with a greater leaning toward mythology and traditional fantasy elements, however, which makes it stand out from many UF offerings out there.

Exiled to the mortal world, Seth and co are searching for the Bloodstone for Kate, something she can use to tear down the failing Veil that separates this world from the Sithe world. Nobody is particularly happy about this exile or the task they’re set to, but they make efforts, dreading the day they actually find something. Tangled up in the tale now are Finn, a Sithe girl raised as a mortal and unaware of her heritage, and Jed, a mortal boy from a troubled home, giving the story an interesting dynamic that it lacked in the first book of the series. Modern meets traditional, mundane meets fantastic, and worlds collide.

The story is told mostly from Seth’s point of view, with his characteristic wry observations and caustic wit, with jumps to Finn and Jed’s respective points of view, though more often Jed than Finn. The two younger one bring some much-needed perspective to the story, without whom many of the revelations in the book would make little sense and seem to come out of nowhere, but I’ll be honest – I mostly read it for Seth’s point of view. His is a great perspective to read from, so morally ambiguous, a jerk with a heart of gold (though that gold may be a bit tarnished by this point). He’s not someone who always does the right thing. He acts out of self-preservation, frustration, anger, makes stupid mistakes and occasionally revels in them because they were his mistakes to make. His independence and intelligence make him a good character for narrative purposes, his tone and temperament providing much of the entertainment.

The plot is fairly slow-going, and there isn’t much in the way of action awaiting readers. It’s highly character-driven. Characters seem to be Philip’s specialty, really, with each character being wonderfully unique and real and flawed, likable and detestable for dozens of different reasons. You really get the sense that there’s far more to each character, even secondary ones, than just what gets written about, like the events being told are only one small part of their lives.

It does, however, suffer a bit from the way the plot seems to lead in circles quite a bit, with very little happening. They’re looking for the Bloodstone. They don’t know where it is or what it looks like. They argue about it. They go back to looking for it. Rinse and repeat. Ditto Seth’s clashes with Finn, and most of Jed’s interactions that have anything to do with his mother. It’s a bit repetitive, and while that repetition was no doubt there to stress the importance of certain things or how their quest seemed futile and unending, I had grasped that fairly early on and didn’t really need it hammered in over and over again.

Still, a strong continuation to a strong series start in Firebrand, and I know full well that I’m going to be following this series closely and anxiously awaiting the day I can read the third book. Philip creates a different kind of urban fantasy, one with deep and ancient roots that has, nevertheless, grown with the times, and it’s a treat to read. It’s fun, highly entertaining, and I don’t think I can really get enough of Seth’s narration. If you haven’t started reading the Rebel Angels series, you’re missing out.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

The Best of All Possible Worlds, by Karen Lord

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 12, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) A proud and reserved alien society finds its homeland destroyed in an unprovoked act of aggression, and the survivors have no choice but to reach out to the indigenous humanoids of their adopted world, to whom they are distantly related. They wish to preserve their cherished way of life but come to discover that in order to preserve their culture, they may have to change it forever.

Now a man and a woman from these two clashing societies must work together to save this vanishing race—and end up uncovering ancient mysteries with far-reaching ramifications. As their mission hangs in the balance, this unlikely team—one cool and cerebral, the other fiery and impulsive—just may find in each other their own destinies . . . and a force that transcends all.

Thoughts: Karen Lord’s anthropological sci-fi certainly seems to be very highly rated by reviewers, and for my part, I’m not completely sure why. The book isn’t a bad one by any strength of the imagination. It contains a lot of thought-provoking material, a few interesting characters, and has some interesting exploration of various cultures spread across an alien world. But it was also fairly slow-going, I felt distant from nearly all of the characters, and it largely seemed to lack a point or an end goal.

Open-ended cultural explorations can be a lot of fun, and the amateur anthropologist in me enjoyed the chance to look into the lives and cultures of so many different races of non-human, seeing how they interacted and what made them tick and how they thought and understood the world. Lord definitely shows some good imagination and an eye for detail where this was concerned. But the vast majority of the book can be summed up by jokingly saying, “Sorry, Mario, but your princess is in another castle.” Only replace Mario’s name with Dllenahkh, and the princess is compatible genetic material to keep the Sadiri race alive after their planet was destroyed. Very interesting premise, but the book was told in episodic leaps and bounds, jumping from one culture and place to another as the party seeks breeding partners for the last few Sadiri remaining, so that their lineage remains as pure as possible under the circumstances.

It felt similar, in many ways, to filler episodes in TV shows. But when over half the book felt like a succession of filler episodes, it seemed less like a cohesive story and more like a literary exploration of culture, a similar-themed collection of short stories where very little actually happens.

I can attribute the distant narrative tone to the role of the narrator herself. Grace, as an observer to the mission, recorded events with detachment, not getting too close to what her job had trained her to not get too close to. Accurate, and conveyed well, but it’s the sort of thing that worked better in hindsight than when actually sitting and reading the book. That style of narration and observation made it very difficult for me to connect to any of the characters, and while intellectually I could comprehend their urgency and distress, there was no empathy.

Provided you go into this book with certain expectations, The Best of All Possible Worlds might well be something that works for you. It fell short of my expectations, however, and while I can’t deny Lord’s talent with writing and her evident creativity, I ended up not really enjoying this book as much as I wanted, and found myself continually disappointed with it. Interesting as a literary experiment, not so great as a singular cohesive story.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Cracked, by Eliza Crewe

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Publication date – November 5, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Ever since my mom was murdered, I’ve been completely alone. I live in the shadows, because there’s no one like me. I have no choice because I have to fight the Hunger, the Hunger that drives me to hunt people and eat their souls. And I have to fight it if I want to stay out of the darkness.

Who am I?
I’m Meda Melange.
What am I?
I don’t know—but I’m not human.
And now, I finally have the chance to find out.

In this first book of the gripping Soul Eater trilogy, find out who Meda is and which side she will come down on in a thrilling tale of the war between good and evil.

Thoughts: Meda is a soul-sucker, a half-demon who feeds on the life energy of others, and someone who ends up tangled up with Templars, people who have made it their mission to hunt down and destroy people just like her. As she struggles to keep her true identity a secret, her association with the Templars yields information about her mostly-unknown heritage, why she is who she is, and why there seems to be a never-ending horde of demons out to get her.

Cracked turned out to be one of those rare YA novels that not only meets my expectations but actually surpasses them. It was a great read, fast-paced and interesting. Meda’s narrative voice was really what made this book work so very well. She’s an abrasive, snarky, witty, observant teenager, and we get full access to her sarcastic thoughts and internal commentary, with the narrative describing not just what’s happening around the characters but also what’s going on inside Meda’s head without it being limited to simple introspection and attempts to understand an event or person. Sometimes the best parts of Meda’s thoughts consisted of nothing but frustrated snarking of the people around her.

Of course, the downside to this is Meda’s lack of internal censor. Very realistic in that people often think things they were never ever say, but also a bit painful in her unfiltered commentary on Jo’s disability, often referring to her early on as “the cripple.” She does this less and less as the story develops and she gets to know Jo more, but the knee-jerk reactionary judgment is a bit uncomfortable to read at times.

The story proceeds at a very fast pace, starting off a bare moment before the action starts and not letting up for very long. During the less action-heavy points of the novel, the text is filled with interesting character development, fleshing out some interesting characters concepts and really making you feel for the people you’re reading about. This is worthy of praise on its own, since slower character-development scenes aren’t always handled well enough to keep a reader interested if they prefer more action in their books, but I’d say it was done pretty well here, and too good effect toward the end of the book as you realize that nobody is invulnerable. Your heartstrings get tugged at the same time as Meda’s, and I have to say that it’s uncommon for a YA novel to make me feel sad at character death now. This jaded heart hasn’t completely turned to stone yet.

Interestingly, there is no romantic interest for Meda in this novel. You expect that it will follow the standard YA formula and that despite opposition, Meda and Chi will hook up by the end. But no, Meda spends part of her time trying to convince both Jo and Chi that the other is actually interested in them. I was deeply impressed by this, since the vast majority of YA novels involve a romantic subplot with the protagonist. Crewe was clearly unafraid of breaking the mold, and the effect was a stranger story that emphasized Meda’s priorities and showed that a good story doesn’t need romance to keep people turning pages.

I’m very interested to see where Crewe will take this story in future installments, and you can be sure that I’ll be making a point of reading them. This was a wonderful example of the kind of intelligent story and witty narrative that suits this genre so well. Crewe’s skill shines brightly, especially in dialogue and observation, and this book will consume your soul just like Meda herself. (Only with less violence and gore. Thankfully.) Don’t pass this one over; it’s well worth it.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

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.)

Delia’s Shadow, by Jaime Lee Moyer

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Author’s website / Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 17, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) It is the dawn of a new century in San Francisco and Delia Martin is a wealthy young woman whose life appears ideal. But a dark secret colors her life, for Delia’s most loyal companions are ghosts, as she has been gifted (or some would say cursed) with an ability to peer across to the other side.

Since the great quake rocked her city in 1906, Delia has been haunted by an avalanche of the dead clamoring for her help. Delia flees to the other side of the continent, hoping to gain some peace. After several years in New York, Delia believes she is free…until one determined specter appears and she realizes that she must return to the City by the Bay in order to put this tortured soul to rest.

It will not be easy, as the ghost is only one of the many victims of a serial killer who was never caught. A killer who after thirty years is killing again.

And who is now aware of Delia’s existence.

Thoughts: I’m a bit of a sucker for fiction set in this time period, and throwing in a supernatural element just piqued my interest even further. Delia’s Shadow tells the story of Delia, a young woman who can see ghosts, and in particular one of them has been following her around for some time now, urging her back to her home in San Francisco. She calls this ghost Shadow, and knows little about her until the nightmares kick in. And then there’s the serial killer on the loose, following the same pattern as a serial killer 30 years earlier. Shadow, and thus Delia, and the serial killer are tied together somehow, and with the help of local law enforcement and a psychic medium, they must figure out how and bring the killer to justice.

You can spot the tropes coming a mile away.

The fact that this book is largely reliant on tropes, the tried-tested-and-true doesn’t make it a bad book. It makes it predictable, but that does work well for making a light comfort read, something to simply enjoy without expecting too much depth. That isn’t to say the book is mindless and doesn’t require any thought, since there’s some interesting commentary on the nature of spirits and social views of the supernatural, but that’s also fairly par for the course and wasn’t a ground-breaking revelation. It fit well within the confines of the story. There’s also the fun, as with many mysteries, of trying to guess who the killer is as the clues are slowly revealed. (I came to the correct conclusion only shortly before the characters did; my money was on somebody else through most of the novel.)

The book does have its drawbacks, however. The story lacked a great deal of depth, and many of the characters were largely trope-based. The high-society kind-hearted gossip awaiting her wedding day. The ahead-of-her-time psychic medium who doesn’t listen to male authority just because it’s male authority and actually views herself as equal to her lover. And oddly enough, I felt that the two main male characters were written so similarly that at times I couldn’t tell them apart. Which was pretty much the only reason I was incorrectly betting on a certain character as being the murdered through most of the book; it was so easy to forget who was related to who and what their history was. There wasn’t a huge amount to distinguish them.

The romantic aspect of the novel (because there nearly always is one) was okay. Nothing special. I didn’t feel much for the couples, but I didn’t feel that there was nothing to them, either, so it could definitely have been worse. Sadie and Jack were amusing enough, though Delia and Gabe were kind of a take-them-or-leave-them couple. It wasn’t insta-love, but it did move quickly, and without there being much time for the two to get to know each other.

Then again, that could be seen as points in favour of historical accuracy, so your mileage may vary on that one.

While I don’t think this is a book I would read again, I did still enjoy reading it. It was light and undemanding, with an easy style of writing that flowed well with even pacing. It was far from perfect, but I didn’t go in with those expectations and so didn’t come out disappointed. If you’re hungry for a quick read and you enjoy historical fantasy or historical romance, or a blend of the two, then Delia’s Shadow might well sate your appetite.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

The Nightmare Affair, by Mindee Arnett

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Author’s website
Publication date – Mar 5, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Sixteen-year-old Dusty Everhart breaks into houses late at night, but not because she’s a criminal. No, she’s a Nightmare.

Literally.

Being the only Nightmare at Arkwell Academy, a boarding school for magickind, and living in the shadow of her mother’s infamy, is hard enough. But when Dusty sneaks into Eli Booker’s house, things get a whole lot more complicated. He’s hot, which means sitting on his chest and invading his dreams couldn’t get much more embarrassing. But it does. Eli is dreaming of a murder.

Then Eli’s dream comes true.

Now Dusty has to follow the clues—both within Eli’s dreams and out of them—to stop the killer before more people turn up dead. And before the killer learns what she’s up to and marks her as the next target.

Thoughts: The first book is Mindee Arnett’s Arkwell Academy series, The Nightmare Affair tells the story of Dusty, a literal Nightmare who sneaks into houses and invades the minds of the sleeping in order to feed on the substance of dreams themselves. Dusty attends Arkwell Academy, a school for magic and supernatural creatures; hence the name of the series.

True to YA convention, Dusty ends up feeding on the dreams of the very attractive Eli, and through his dreams she witnesses a murder. Forced together by circumstance and made to repeat the procedure in order to uncover more about the murder, Eli enters the world of the dark and unseen, and Dusty enters the frustrating world of attraction and annoyance with Eli while trying to maintain professional distance.

The idea of a school for the supernatural is far from original, but Arnett manages to pull it off fairly well. There are a good number of clichés littering the novel, though; it’s far from perfect. The adult staff of the school seem, more often than not, caricatures rather than well-developed characters, people who were a quirk instead of just having quirks. While this allowed for some good comedic scenes, it felt very much as though some characters only existed for said comedic scenes, and that was a serious weakness.

Love polygons existed here too. Not content with just a couple, or a love triangle, there are in fact two love triangles going on within the book’s pages. I couldn’t really connect with either of them, to be perfectly honest, but I know that’s more of a personal thing than a reflection on the relationships themselves.

Most of the novel moves relatively slowly, albeit heavy with suspense and the gradual revelation of bits and pieces of the murder mystery, with only brief sections of action. The last quarter of the book has a much quicker pace, is full of swift-moving action and tension. Thus I can say that the pacing was uneven, but not to a greatly detrimental effect. If you’re reading this novel in a few sittings, it probably won’t make that much difference. If, however, you spread the reading out over time, you’re likely to feel that the early sections are somewhat ponderous.

Ultimately, The Nightmare Affair was a decent piece of fluff, creative and interesting but without much beneath the surface. It doesn’t stand out too much from the majority of YA supernatural mysteries, either positively or negatively, though I will say that it wins points for not having insta-love and actually having Dusty and Eli be really awkward toward each other due to the positions they find themselves in. Nothing particularly ground-breaking, but good for light reading.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Allegiant, by Veronica Roth

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Author’s website
Publication date – October 22, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The faction-based society that Tris Prior once believed in is shattered—fractured by violence and power struggles and scarred by loss and betrayal. So when offered a chance to explore the world past the limits she’s known, Tris is ready. Perhaps beyond the fence, she and Tobias will find a simple new life together, free from complicated lies, tangled loyalties, and painful memories.

But Tris’s new reality is even more alarming than the one she left behind. Old discoveries are quickly rendered meaningless. Explosive new truths change the hearts of those she loves. And once again, Tris must battle to comprehend the complexities of human nature—and of herself—while facing impossible choices about courage, allegiance, sacrifice, and love.

Told from a riveting dual perspective, Allegiant, by #1 New York Times best-selling author Veronica Roth, brings the Divergent series to a powerful conclusion while revealing the secrets of the dystopian world that has captivated millions of readers in Divergent and Insurgent.

Thoughts: Veronica Roth’s Divergent series comes to a close with the third and final novel, Allegiant, a book which comes in with a bang and leaves with a whimper. Not in the sense that the ending is disappointing, but, well, it’s more than a little sad, with a bittersweet feeling that you don’t find in too many YA books of that genre.

The city lies in chaos as the Factionless revolt and demand equal treatment, and this is bad because… Honestly, this is where I did have a problem with the book, because the reactions of many of the characters at this point seemed very “plight of the middle class.” Their secure positions in society were destabilized, and now those in command were demanding that everyone takes a share of the lousy work that was previously done by the Factionless. I can understand the anxiety and even anger at the world you knew tearing apart at the seams, but I found it very hard to feel much sympathy for anyone who was disgruntled at having to do dirty work that was previously done by the society’s outcasts. It felt a lot like anger at no longer being special, no longer having a Faction’s superiority to cling to, and the Allegiant, those loyal to the ideas of Factions and were thus fighting to restore the previous order, just made me angry.

The story was told from alternating viewpoints, both Tris and Tobias getting first-person time in the spotlight. The voices were similar but still distinct enough to tell them apart without much trouble, and I loved reading Tobias’s narrative because his thoughts flowed in a way similar to my own, expansive and thoughtful compared to Tris’s energetic emotionally-charged viewpoint. I’ve seen books do this where it really hasn’t worked, or where it seemed like they were trying to show two too-similar viewpoints with too-similar voices, and it just made a mess. This, happily, wasn’t the case here, and I think the different viewpoints added to the experience.

Nature versus nurture was possible the strong theme running through this book, with the issue of genetic damage enhancing one characteristic at the expense of another, and that being what led to the experiment in forming the Factions. It was an interesting idea to play with, especially in that there was no final determination as to which played a larger part in a character’s personality. Genetic predisposition combined with upbringing as well as the general essence of a person all combined, and those who tried to insist that one side or the other won out were pretty quickly shot down. I liked that, since there’s a tendency to try for hard-and-fast explanations in most futuristic fiction, and those rigid explanations rarely stand up to scrutiny.

Ultimately this was a powerful end to a powerful series, and I was glad to see it through even when my interest in dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction started to wane. If more books could be like this, I would be much more satisfied with YA genre books.

Alice in Tumblr-Land, by Tim Manley

Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com

Author’s website
Publication date – November 5, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The Ugly Duckling still feels gross compared to everyone else, but now she’s got Instagram, and there’s this one filter that makes her look awesome. Cinderella swaps her glass slippers for Crocs. The Tortoise and the Hare Facebook stalk each other. Goldilocks goes gluten free. And Peter Pan finally has to grow up and get a job, or at least start paying rent.
 
Here are more than one hundred fairy tales, illustrated and re-imagined for today. Instead of fairy godmothers, there’s Siri. And rather than big bad wolves, there are creepy dudes on OkCupid. In our brave new world of social networking, YouTube, and texting, fairy tales can once again lead us to “happily ever after”—and have us laughing all the way.

Thoughts: Fairy tales for the modern generation, the Millennials who go nuts with social networking, get embroiled in discussions of gender politics, and who understand that angst over whether someone really likes the thing they Like on Facebook is a thing. Welcome to Alice in Tumblr-Land.

The book features some modern retellings of fairy tales, and I’m not sure if it the fact that all the fairy tale characters (and the associated illustrations) were drawn from Disney’s adaptations of fairy tales was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek attempt at humour or an honest misunderstanding that, for example, the little mermaid wasn’t actually named Ariel in the original story, and that Mulan isn’t technically a fairy tale as we think of them.

The stories are told in short quick bursts, an appeal to the sound-bite generation, constantly jumping from story to story like someone changing TV channels. Break off one story, jump to another, rinse and repeat. This allowed for more of the humour to come through and kept everything quick and punchy, but it meant that the reader is holding over a dozen simultaneous plots in their mind all at once, and can’t just follow one particular story without having the others in the way.

This is a book to chuckle at, to read quickly and then put aside knowing that it enriched your life for the time you were reading it but that was all. Possibly another commentary on the Millennial generation; everything must be sleek and quick and gone almost as soon as it arrived. You roll your eyes at Peter Pan’s Internet addiction, you laugh at Pinocchio’s promises (the Pinocchio stories are usually a single sentence telling a classic lie, and that’s all there needs to be), you nod your head at Mulan’s gender transition and Robin Hood’s social activism, you root for Arthur’s crush on Lancelot, and you wince at the painfully accurate political commentary of the Three Little Pigs. For those who don’t know any world but this one, for those who live in this moment and no other, these are the fairy tales for the new generation, the messages the same as they ever were even in the stories’ new forms. The audience appeal may be pretty limited and the entertainment may be transient, but it’s a quick read and worth the chuckles it gives.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)