Walking the Labyrinth, by Lisa Goldstein

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 21, 2014

Summary: In this compelling fantasy novel, the author of Tourists and Summer King returns to a present-day setting and a magical realist mode, in the story of a woman in San Francisco who discovers magic in her past–and her present.

Thoughts: A family secret, magical performances, and philosophy all combined in Walking the Labyrinth. Molly’s family has a dark and interesting history, one that she knows nothing of until a private investigator approaches her with a request for information about the whereabouts of a relative she’s never even heard of. Molly’s curious mind latches onto the mystery and she digs deeper into what is revealed to be a secret society in England, and its continuation in modern-day America.

Much like a labyrinth, the story has a lot of twists and turns, and it’s hard to tell sometimes just how close to the truth you really are. Molly experiences this plenty of times through the story, which does get a little tiring when it turns into a round of, “Did Fentrice do it? No, she couldn’t have, because of this thing. Oh, but then there’s this thing! Did Fentrice do it after all?” It’s a good question. Did she do what she’s being accused of? Who is telling the truth, and is it the whole truth? But the circular nature of half the arguments make it difficult to keep track of what I’m even supposed to be mentally debating at times.

As with the last work I read by Goldstein, I found the historical aspect of this novel to be quite fascinating. Everything historical was told through diaries and letters rather than through dialogue or from a character actually being there, which weirdly appeals to me. Finding out about the Order of the Labyrinth and how that turned from a secret society devoted to the supernatural and philosophy in England to a traveling magic show in America was definitely a fun journey to embark upon.

Though I could have done with a couple of characters now and again who hadn’t heard of the Order. Everyone they asked had heard about them, despite them being a secret society that’s really only mentioned in one pamphlet and a couple of family documents. Everything tied in so neatly that it stretched the bounds of credulity.

Part of the problem I had with this book, though, was the rather meandering nature of the plot. The pacing wasn’t that great, meaning that you’d spend pages and pages reading diary entries of life and family affairs in a traveling show, then BAM, major plot development with Molly’s family that has roughly the same amount of book space devoted to it. You’d get used to one pace and then suddenly it would switch, and it was never the same twice.

This could have been a wonderful way of showing that things aren’t what they seem and that life throws you curveballs all the time, a meta-commentary on the events of the story themselves, but it didn’t really come across that way. It came across, unfortunately, as just poor pacing, and I suspect my suddenly thought about it having deeper implications was just my habit of overthinking things and finding connections where there are none.

But the story itself was pretty good, and an interesting blend of the old and the new, an exploration of the psychic craze that swept England in the 1800s and a connection to the more mundane aspects of modern day. I like the ideas that Goldstein played with here, and it was really only the pacing issues that kept me from enjoying it all more.

Walking the Labyrinth is a quick read, only around 200 pages, and when the pacing is even it’s so easy to fall into the story and get caught up in everything. It’s intelligent, prompts personal reflection, and is a good exploration of someone uncovering that her family has far more to it than she ever gave thought to. Not Goldstein’s best work, but still worth reading, and it definitely stands the test of time better than many urban fantasies that I’ve read from the 1990s (the edition I read was a digital reprint rather than the original publication). Worth checking out if you like some history with your mystery!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Legacies, by Mercedes Lackey & Rosemary Edghill

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Lackey’s website | Edghill’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 6, 2010

Summary: Who—or what—is stalking the students at Oakhurst Academy?

In the wake of the accident that killed her family, Spirit White is spirited away to Oakhurst Academy, a combination school and orphanage in the middle of Montana. There she learns she is a legacy—not only to the school, which her parents also attended, but to magic.

All the students at Oakhurst have magical powers, and although Spirit’s hasn’t manifested itself yet, the administrators insist she has one. Spirit isn’t sure she cares. Devastated by the loss of her family, she finds comfort with a group of friends: Burke Hallows, Lachlann Spears, Muirin Shae, and Adelaide Lake.

But something strange is going on at Oakhurst. Students start disappearing under mysterious circumstances, and the school seems to be trying to cover it up. Spirit and her friends must find out what’s happening—before one of them becomes the next victim…

Thoughts: If you read the description and think this sounds like Harry Potter for teens, you’re not far off the mark. It’s hard to avoid comparisons to that series when part of your premise is, “Person goes to a school for magic-users.” Doubly so when your main character is an orphan. So that colours the interpretation of the book right from the get-go; it’s just impossible to avoid.

That being said, there are plenty of departures from that concept that make accusations of it being derivative pretty much pointless. I can think of a handful of books that share similar starting points. That doesn’t make them all Harry Potter clones.

(Speaking of being derivative, though, I do feel compelled to mention that characters using guns loaded with rock salt seemed lifted wholesale from Supernatural. A clever idea, and I’m sure it’s been done elsewhere as well, but given that I personally saw it done first on that show, it seemed like a bit of a stale idea.)

The story follows Spirit White, and if that name causes you to roll your eyes, just know that it does the same thing for Spirit herself. After her parents and younger sister died in a tragic car crash, she found herself to be a Legacy, someone with a place at Oakhurst Academy. At least one of her parents attended school there, and due to a not-at-all-creepy policy, the school keeps track of all their former students and makes arrangements for their children should anything similarly tragic happen. Oakhurst, as you could tell from previous comments, is a school specifically for children who can do magic, so yes, you have a boarding school full of magic orphans. But students keep disappearing from Oakhurst. Not often, just a few a year. Most of the students accept this as a fact of life. Some troubled kids run away, so find their fortunes elsewhere. Nobody thinks twice about it. They have enough to do. But a suspicious Spirit and her friends think there’s more to it, and so set out to find out what’s happening to the missing Oakhurst students.

The biggest problem with this book is that it feels like half a novel. Spirit and friends do get to the bottom of why the students disappeared, but that felt more like a single episode of a TV show rather than a complete story arc. There were hints dropped of a much larger plot, one that seemed far more interesting than what everyone else was dwelling on. Why the headmaster of the school has a split personality, going from yelling tyrant to kindly doddering old man depending on the scene. Why, after what seems like a fairly routine disappearance, everyone starts acting like a war is beginning A war may be beginning, but those disappearances were either related to the Wild Hunt plotline, or else that whole plotline (and thus over half the novel) was a diversion and just pure coincidence. Why Spirit’s magic doesn’t manifest.

Why nobody seems to have put together that for a parent to have gone to Oakhurst in the first place, all of their family must have died too, leaving this giant bloody trail across generations.

So while the story and the twists on lore were interesting, it felt unsatisfactory and incomplete. And that was quite a let-down. Likely it was done as sequel-bait, leaving some dangling plot-threads to be picked up later, and I’m sure this book will appeal to people looking for some supernatural adventure involving kids with tragic pasts in an elite boarding school. As fluff fiction goes, it really wasn’t that bad. But I did expect more from it, especially with the tantalizing hints that were being dropped.

Another thing I do want to point out is that this book suffered from some weird assumptions and editing mistakes. Assumption-wise, I’m referring largely to a throw-away scene in which a character talks about creating holy water, and how it’s easy to make because really it just involves water being blessed by a believer. And Spirit’s thoughts essentially go, “Huh, I didn’t know he was a Christian.” At no point was a specific religion brought into it, and blessed water exists as part of different practices in multiple non-Christian religions. So it was a weird assumption, and I’m not sure if it speaks more to character bias or author bias. Could go either way.

As for editing mistakes… Oakhurst was refered to as Oakdale at one point. Spirit’s little sister, Phoenix, was called by the nickname Fee once, at the very end of the book, and after Spirit has thought about her dozens of times through the novel. This is the sort of stuff I expect to be caught in the editing stage of a book, and here, it just slipped by. And before anyone asks, no, it wasn’t an ARC or an uncorrected proof that I read. It was a finished release copy. These errors made it to the final version. Small, and also easy to ignore because they don’t affect the story, but they speak of poor quality control.

So overall? A decent YA adventure. It had its problems, but it was still pretty fun to read, and I’ll probably continue with the rest of the series just to see how the larger story plays out. But after this introduction, I don’t expect great things from it. I expect some fun, some quick reads, and a story that entertains but it largely forgettable, a take-it-or-leave-it series that is neither meant to nor does it leave an impact. Good for passing the time, good for those looking for some comfort fiction, but not for those looking for a book to really wow them.

Ink, by Amanda Sun

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 25, 2013

Summary: On the heels of a family tragedy, the last thing Katie Greene wants to do is move halfway across the world. Stuck with her aunt in Shizuoka, Japan, Katie feels lost. Alone. She doesn’t know the language, she can barely hold a pair of chopsticks, and she can’t seem to get the hang of taking her shoes off whenever she enters a building.

Then there’s gorgeous but aloof Tomohiro, star of the school’s kendo team. How did he really get the scar on his arm? Katie isn’t prepared for the answer. But when she sees the things he draws start moving, there’s no denying the truth: Tomo has a connection to the ancient gods of Japan, and being near Katie is causing his abilities to spiral out of control. If the wrong people notice, they’ll both be targets.

Katie never wanted to move to Japan—now she may not make it out of the country alive.

Thoughts: I have an almost instinctive pull to books involving Japan, largely because I’m interested in the culture and language and like to immerse myself in both things as much as I can since I can’t actually go there at the moment. Unfortunately, for a long time I seemed destined to be disappointed, since almost every SFF novel I read that incorporated Japan in some way did it, well, badly. Poor use of the language, having every Japanese character act like they popped out of a mech anime, you name it. I was starting to think that the only novels that might actually portray Japan anywhere near accurately would be the ones actually written in Japanese. (And alas, I don’t read it well enough at the moment to make attempting that anything more than an exercise in translation, which wouldn’t really allow me to sink into a story the way I can when it’s in English.) I even found some of those issues in books that had been translated from Japanese into English, which, aside from being the sign of a poor translation, just didn’t give me much hope that I’d ever manage to find what I was looking for.

Then along came Ink, and I was pleasantly surprised.

Katie is living with her aunt in Shizuoka, after the death of her mother, and she’s not exactly happy with the arrangement. Her grasp of Japanese is just barely enough to get her by, she misses where she grew up, and that’s all on top of experiencing a major family tragedy. Then she gets involved with Tomohiro, a mysterious boy from her school who has a bad reputation but turns out to be an artist and athlete with a huge secret. He’s kami, a being somewhere between what we know as a god and a spirit, and far from being limited only to ancient stories and religious doctrine, he and his kind play a part in Japan’s affairs even now. Tomohiro would rather suppress his abilities, preferring to keep them in the dark rather than letting them out and risking hurting those around him, but when the yakuza get involved, he might not have much choice in the matter.

If what I described sounds like it’s also something right out of an anime, well, that’s a pretty accurate judgment. But Sun manages to balance that element rather well with actual day-to-day life events; it was, in the beginning, more like a slice-of-life anime than a shoujo story with supernatural elements. And I kind of liked that, since it portrayed living in Japan as realistic. Kids go to school, they go to school clubs, they go home, they eat curry-rice, they watch ridiculous game shows on TV. Then the paranormal stuff comes in and makes it far more of a YA urban fantasy, the plot kicks up a notch and things get far more action-packed as Katie and Tomohiro try to keep his powers a secret from the thugs who want to use them to their advantage.

Sun also incorporates Japanese words and phrases in a way that I actually like. Most novels I’ve seen try to do that end up making the dialogue seem awkward, in part because the author’s knowledge of Japanese seems, well, lacking. I don’t claim to be fluent, but I know enough to be able to tell when the grammar is stilted or verb tenses are being used incorrectly. Sun makes mention in the author’s notes that she actually consulted native speakers to make sure the characters were speaking like actual Japanese teenagers, a small step with big results. Those who are interested in the language can pick up a few new phrases, and those who already know enough to not need the glossary will be able to move along at a swift pace. (Personally, I was amused right from the cover, listing it as part of the Paper Gods series; the pun there is that depending on how it’s written, kami can refer to either a god or paper.)

Ink is a quick read, decently-paced and with writing that flows well. What works against is it that it does come across very much like an anime in the wrong ways, with a reliance on stereotypes that get tired quickly. It’s very predictable. The only character who seems to have much depth is Tomohiro, and even then it’s only within the rather strict confines of the Bad Boy With A Soft Heart stereotype. If you read this book expecting anything other than what you’d get in a shoujo anime, you’ll end up disappointed.

That being said, though, if that is what you’re looking for, then Ink is going to trip all the right triggers.

I’m curious to read the sequel, since this is so far one of the very few novels to actually portray Japan in a way that doesn’t grate on my nerves, and the plot got quite interesting toward the end, with Katie deciding to stay in Japan and with two sides fighting over Tomohiro’s powers. There’s a good amount of potential in that cliffhanger ending, and I want to see how it plays out. It’s definitely an indulgence read, like ice cream, a treat when you want something that doesn’t have to be amazing and blow-your-mind good but can still be enjoyable and fun. I can’t say I’d recommend Ink to everyone, but as I said, for fans of shoujo anime and manga, it’ll be right up their alley.

Deadeye, by William C Dietz

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 27, 2015

Summary: In the year 2038, an act of bioengineered terrorism decimated humanity. Those who survived were either completely unaffected or developed horrible mutations. Across the globe, nations are now divided between areas populated by “norms” and lands run by “mutants”…

Detective Cassandra Lee of Los Angeles’s Special Investigative Section has built a fierce reputation taking down some of the city’s most notorious criminals. But the serial cop killer known as Bonebreaker—who murdered Lee’s father—is still at large. Officially, she’s too personally involved to work on the Bonebreaker case. Unofficially, she’s going to hunt him to the ends of the earth.

In the meantime, duty calls when the daughter of Bishop Screed, head of the Church of Human Purity, is kidnapped by mutants and taken into the red zone to be used for breeding. Assigned to rescue her, Lee must trust her new partner—mutant lawman Deputy Ras Omo—to guide her not only through the unfamiliar territory but through the prejudicial divisions between mutants and norms…

Thoughts: Deadeye paints an image of near-future America, devastated by disease but doing its best to recover and get on with life. The disease, a bacterial infection, has left most of the infected as mutants, people with disfigurements and who are ostracized from society due to the possibility of passing the contagion to “norms.” Cassandra Lee escaped infection, is still “normal,” and works with law enforcement to make life safer for everyone.

Deadeye isn’t exactly a comfortable read at points, in no small part because of the prejudice between “muties” and “norms.” Mutants are actively discriminated against. They’re segregated from the rest of society, forced to live in “red zones” where the risk of contagion is higher, given little to no real support from the government, and even those in charge seem to just want to sweep them under the rug and not have to deal with them. Most of the animosity seems to stem less from fear of contagion and more disgust with the fact that they have disfigurements and people consider them ugly. Which got me wondering what kind of privileged life all these characters must have led, to have never seen a person with deformities from injury or genetic issue. That aspect of Dietz’s near-future world-building sat badly with me, to be honest, because it seemed to say that only people who contracted the disease look like that, and everyone else is has a perfect unblemished body. Especially given that some of the deformities listed are things like withered limbs or unhealing abscesses, rather than horns of pointy ears (though they’re present too).

I do have to commend Dietz for taking the idea of a new disease in the near-future that doesn’t create an army of zombies, because honestly, that idea’s been done to the point where it long since ceased even being stale. Having zombies as the outcome of emerging diseases seems to be weirdly in vogue, and as someone who vehemently dislikes zombies, I like seeing that concept go in a different direction. So while I imagine some people of similar mind might be put off by the description of this book, thinking that “mutants” is just going to be another word for the walking dead, I can assure you that it isn’t the case.

The ground is a little shaky when it comes to the science behind Dietz’s infection, however. Bacterial infections can cause disfigurements, but the kind of mutations you see in the book seem more likely to be caused by a virus meddling around with DNA, especially when you consider things like horns or elven ears. Also, it was stated that neither a cure nor a treatment has been found, because it keeps mutating and changing so quickly, and medical science can’t keep up with it. However, there seems to be no mention of people contracting it twice, which is what would happen if it kept mutating to a different strain. That’s why people get the flu multiple times in their lives. Influenza mutates quickly enough that the strain one year isn’t the same as the one next year. If it was mutating too quickly to formulate a vaccine, or even figure out which antibiotics might treat it, then people would run the risk of being infected multiple times, which doesn’t seem to be an issue since it never gets a mention.

Also, only mutants can be carriers or the disease, for some unexplained reason. This is part of the reason they’re segregated in the red zones. But the reason for this isn’t clear either, since it’s stated that people can survive infection without mutation, though it’s rarer. But logically, any human who survived infection could also be a carrier. It just seemed to be another piece of stigma attached to mutants, though this one can’t really be explained away by people being stupid and bigoted. Perhaps this is just so rare that it hasn’t happened yet, and this will be addressed in a future novel in the series; I don’t really know.

Dietz’s writing is decent, if a touch unpolished. In particular, what struck me was his tendency to explain acronyms with their full meaning in parentheses… in the middle of speech. Unless whoever was talking was doing the explaining (in which case, different punctuation than parentheses should have been used), that’s not the time to put aside the helpful little note for the reader’s sake. But for the most part, it’s okay. Very action-oriented, so if you’re looking for something that’s heavy on car chases and shootouts, then definitely take a look into Deadeye.

I think most of my apathy about this book is that unfortunately it just wasn’t too my taste. So while I didn’t think too highly of it, I think it’s quite likely that others, particularly those who tend to prefer police procedurals, will like it far more. The flaws I found may seem quite large partly because I didn’t find much to counter it, but even with that in mind I can’t say that it was a bad book. Just not one that I really enjoyed much. But I can say with certainty that there are those to whom this book will be quite appealing: as I said, those who like police procedurals, those who like their near-future fiction to be gritty and filled with action, those who are looking for a fast-paced ride through a grim and disturbing urban fantasy future that’s still in flux, then for you, it may well be worth checking out Deadeye when you get the chance. There’s enough mystery and suspense to keep the story going, and enough plot threads leading to the horizon to bring those readers back to the series for more.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Fire Sermon, by Francesca Haig

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Author’s Twitter | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 10, 2015

Summary: The Hunger Games meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in this richly imagined first novel in a new post-apocalyptic trilogy by award-winning poet Francesca Haig.

Four hundred years in the future, the Earth has turned primitive following a nuclear fire that has laid waste to civilization and nature. Though the radiation fallout has ended, for some unknowable reason every person is born with a twin. Of each pair, one is an Alpha—physically perfect in every way; and the other an Omega—burdened with deformity, small or large. With the Council ruling an apartheid-like society, Omegas are branded and ostracized while the Alphas have gathered the world’s sparse resources for themselves. Though proclaiming their superiority, for all their effort Alphas cannot escape one harsh fact: Whenever one twin dies, so does the other.

Cass is a rare Omega, one burdened with psychic foresight. While her twin, Zach, gains power on the Alpha Council, she dares to dream the most dangerous dream of all: equality. For daring to envision a world in which Alphas and Omegas live side-by-side as equals, both the Council and the Resistance have her in their sights.

Thoughts: Judging by the description, it would seem at first glance as though The Fire Sermon was just another average run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic YA novel, with young adults bringing down the corrupt system and proving themselves to a harsh world. And in some ways, that is what you’re going to get here. But there’s also more to the book that I don’t typically expect from such a novel, such as Haig’s gorgeous writing, with very evocative imagery. Other books I’ve read in this genre typically have decent writing, but it’s of a type, and much of it I find is very interchangeable with just about every other novel in the genre. Haig’s work stands out where that’s concerned; it has its own voice, one that’s quite distinct from the others surrounding it.

Cass is an Omega, the lesser of a pair of twins, the one who bears the brunt of deformity so that their perfect Alpha twin can live a whole and unblemished life. Cass’s burden, however, is that she has psychic powers, the ability to see glimpses into the future or far-away present events. Because she otherwise appeared whole and unblemished during her childhood, both she and her brother Zach were held back in society. Prohibitions against Omegas getting an education or even really interacting with Alphas meant that neither child could partake fully in society, since it was unknown for a long time whether she or Zach was the true Alpha. But her secret was uncovered eventually, and she was branded and outcast to live in one of the Omega villages while Zach took his place in Alpha society. But it wasn’t enough for her to be segregated like that. After a while in her new life, men on horseback approach her and take her away, imprisoned for reasons she doesn’t understand.

And that’s just the beginning of the story.

The story is quite long and involved, and to me, that was actually something of a failing, especially since there wasn’t a great deal of action to keep the story moving. This is partly a fault of expectations, however; I’m used to stories of this type being rather action-driven, whereas The Fire Sermon contained far more periods of reflection than high-suspense scenes. Things definitely happened, and the plot moved along at a relatively even pace, which was nice, but much of that lacked tension and instead focused on evoking reactions of pity and sadness rather than fear or anger. It was an interesting direction for the book to go in, and one that lends itself quite well to Haig’s polished prose, but it seemed to make the book feel rather flat with only a few memorable peaks in action toward the end.

The romance (you knew there was going to be some; it’s a YA post-apoc novel, after all) was decently done for the most part, affection between Cass and Kip growing over time and due to circumstance, rather than have a love-at-first-sight situation. Which I can appreciate. What I didn’t appreciate, though, was the rather clumsy attempt to shoehorn a love triangle in there, with Cass and Piper. Honestly, most of the time it seemed like the characters weren’t even going for it, there was no real interest except on Piper’s part, and it felt so forced and awkward that I feel the story would have done better to just have that part cut entirely. It didn’t add anything beyond a couple of conversations between Cass and Kip about jealousy, and it took away from more important issues occurring at the time.

What I did especially like, though, was Cass’s greater understanding of Alphas and Omegas, due to her rather unique perspective after having spent far more time with her twin than, well, just about anybody else in memory. In the battle between sides, Alphas versus Omegas, it was she who primarily remembered that every time one was killed, their twin died. You may kill off the invading army, but somewhere, all of their twins dropped dead, killed by connections they couldn’t help, all in the name of protecting people just like them. Normally I’m not so fond of characters who are the only ones who can see issues that other people just accept as a matter of course, or don’t even see at all, but I actually think this was done well enough to bypass most of my “special snowflake” complaints.

If you’re looking for a good new addition to the YA post-apoc genre, then The Fire Sermon fits that bill. It’s intelligent, compassionate, and written in a way that gives the whole thing a more mature feel than most readers, I suspect, are used to. (That the characters are actually in their early 20s probably helps, though they still come across like teenagers, for the most part. Maybe this is more “new adult” than “young adult?”) I rate it 3 stars, but a strong 3, bordering on 4, and most of where it fails in my eyes is because I’m still apparently burned out on that genre. It may have some exemplary features, but at its core it’s still an addition to a bloated genre that seems to have very little originality despite having a large number of new books. (This is where I maintain that it’s impossible to review ina vacuum; other books do affect our opinions of later books, and that has to be taken into account for both positive and negative.) If you’re a fan of the genre and are looking for something a little different but that still leaves you on familiar ground, then absolutely look into The Fire Sermon. If you’re looking for something to breathe new life into the genre, then sadly, this isn’t it. It’s good, but not that good.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Owl and the Japanese Circus, by Kristi Charish

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 13, 2015

Summary: Ex-archaeology grad student turned international antiquities thief, Alix—better known now as Owl—has one rule. No supernatural jobs. Ever. Until she crosses paths with Mr. Kurosawa, a red dragon who owns and runs the Japanese Circus Casino in Las Vegas. He insists Owl retrieve an artifact stolen three thousand years ago, and makes her an offer she can’t refuse: he’ll get rid of a pack of vampires that want her dead. A dragon is about the only entity on the planet that can deliver on Owl’s vampire problem – and let’s face it, dragons are known to eat the odd thief.

Owl retraces the steps of Mr. Kurosawa’s ancient thief from Japan to Bali with the help of her best friend, Nadya, and an attractive mercenary. As it turns out though, finding the scroll is the least of her worries. When she figures out one of Mr. Kurosawa’s trusted advisors is orchestrating a plan to use a weapon powerful enough to wipe out a city, things go to hell in a hand basket fast…and Owl has to pick sides.

Thoughts: I do have to admire a book where the main character is an archaeology student turned “treasure hunter,” getting wrapped up in a supernatural plot which, as it turns out, is way more commonly found in archaeology than one might at first think. Add to this the fact that the main character is a rather socially awkward woman who enjoys a good MMORPG and has a loyal pet cat, and you have a good combination for a character that can win me over with little effort.

Fortunately, Owl wasn’t one of those Bella-esque women who supposedly are so socially awkward and self-declared as unattractive but still manage to get together with the hottest guy around. Neither was she one of those super-hot women that every guy flocks to because she’s just that awesome. Charish managed to walk that fine line that keeps a female character from become someone who readers just roll their eyes over, managed to keep her strong and interesting and relatively unique. I liked that. She’s smart, she’s a bit of a gaming geek, she prefers her own company for various reasons, and I can relate to that. Her works involves as much research as it does crawling around old tombs, and I like that too. One major drawback to her character, though, is that she manages to pull off some truly exceptional physical feats without much sign of a training regimen. The most practice she seems to get at keeping her body in good enough shape to dodge charging nagas and escape hordes of vampires is when those things are actually happening. I suppose it’s implied that she exercises between scenes, but really, when Corona beers get a mention about every 20 pages and how she stays in shape is just supposed to be assumed, there’s a bit of an oversight when you’re dealing with a dungeon-raiding adventurer.

The story itself is actually quite an interesting one, full of twists and turns that keep you guessing as the story progresses. Owl is hired by Mr. Kurosawa to find and return an artifact, one which he will pay handsomely for and one that Owl eventually learns isn’t so much an artifact as a large-scale weapon. She faces opposition from an old colleague-turned-vampire and her vampire minions, as well as a leak from within Mr. Kurosawa’s organization, all attempting to stop her from accomplishing her task and hopefully killing Owl in the process. There are a lot of mysteries to be solves, some large, some small, but all of them designed to keep you turning pages. And I have to say, as someone who isn’t typically that fond of urban fantasy, I think Owl and the Japanese Circus manages this quite well.

It’s not a perfect text, though, and I’m not sure how much of that has to do with the fact that I read an eARC and how much the book was simply in need of another pass from an editor. And someone with a decent grasp on Japanese. Or hell, even someone with just my level of understanding of Japanese, because I spotted exactly one name that didn’t have problems with it. First off, an outdated transliteration system was being used through most of the book, turning names that should have been, by modern conventions, Shoko and Kitsu. The book listed them as Syoko and Kitu. The jury’s out on Lady Siyu, who may not have actually been meant to have her name in Japanese, though if she was, it should have been Shiyu. Then there’s the matter of randomly transposed vowels, turning the Shibuya district of Tokyo into Shiyuba, and giving Oricho his name. I suspect that Oricho (and at one point, Ochiro; see what I meant about needing another pass, even for things like typos?) was actually meant to be Orochi, since there was a small line early on about both him and Mr. Kurosawa (whose first name is Ryu) having dragon-themed names. I only hope that these errors were present in the ARC only and won’t be found in the final print run of the book, because while they may escape the notice of a good number of readers, anyone with an interest in and knowledge about Japan will read this and cringe.

Ultimately, I think this book is a good fluff piece. Entertaining without making you work too hard for the story, engaging without needing to look beyond the surface of what’s being told to you. It’s got action, it’s got some cultural and historical interest, and it’s got the fun premise of using an antiquities thief as a main character. Even with the problems I had, I still found it to be a fun read. It has some interesting takes on bits and pieces of various mythologies, snappy dialogue, and a cast of interesting characters, most of whom aren’t human. I liked it pretty well, and I suspect those who are fans of the urban fantasy genre will appreciate it all the more. Especially if errors in language don’t bother them the way they bother me.

It’s good enough for me to be curious about a sequel, anyway.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Meritropolis, by Joel Ohman

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 8, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The year is AE3, 3 years after the Event. Within the walls of Meritropolis, 50,000 inhabitants live in fear, ruled by the brutal System that assigns each citizen a merit score that dictates whether they live or die. Those with the highest scores thrive, while those with the lowest are subject to the most unforgiving punishment–to be thrust outside the city gates, thrown to the terrifying hybrid creatures that exist beyond.

But for one High Score, conforming to the System just isn’t an option. Seventeen-year-old Charley has a brother to avenge. And nothing–not even a totalitarian military or dangerous science–is going to stop him.

Where humankind has pushed nature and morals to the extreme, Charley is amongst the chosen few tasked with exploring the boundaries, forcing him to look deep into his very being to discern right from wrong. But as he and his friends learn more about the frightening forces that threaten destruction both without and within the gates, Meritropolis reveals complexities they couldn’t possibly have bargained for…

Thoughts: This was one of those books that drew me to it out of rage-induced curiosity. The idea that on a weekly basis, people would be evaluated for their use to society, assigned a number based on that, and if they were deemed to be too useless, their score would be ‘zeroed’ and they were be turned out beyond the city’s protective walls, left to the mercy of the elements and the dangerous beasts that roamed at night. This brutal regime is the only way to keep the city’s population in check with their limited resources. It was an idea that hit home due to the sheer number of times I’ve felt that I’m utterly replaceable. I do no job that couldn’t really be done by anyone else. I have made no real contributions to society. I’ve affected nobody in a really significant way. I probably would have been zeroed long ago, if the world I live in worked in such a way. So I had to take a look and see what the book was all about.

Unfortunately, there were a few questions that didn’t really get answered that made me think the system was full of holes. First off, use is relative; a baby is utterly useless within those terms, especially if there’s a population problem, so enforced sterility would have worked better for controlling things. Most children are similarly useless. The system did have a bit of a sliding scale, allowing children to be graded on a bit of a curve relative to their peers and developmental milestones, but there was a case of a young girl who developed mobility problems, who was zeroed because of them. The system was painfully ablist, unless there are literally no useful jobs a person could do while sitting or lying down, this girl could still have had a use. No real mention was made of training outside of what High Scores get; many people feel pretty useless until they find something that really resonates with them and they get the training in it, and then they go on to be amazing.

All of that could be argued against by saying that there was no merit to wasting time and resources on someone who might grow up to be useful to society later, and the reveal at the end shows that the whole thing was meant to be a short-lived project anyway, but therein lies my second problem. Short-lived regimes like that don’t work without every inhabitant being brutally beaten down or given no other choice. The first generation to really be born and raised in Meritropolis (for that’s the city’s actual name) is just coming to age as the book takes place, which requires adults of many ages to have willingly and without a fuss consented to the whole system in the first place. I see this problem a lot in near-future dystopias, the idea that such a regime could crop up almost overnight and go entirely without a hitch until the protagonist comes along. People may have felt forced into Meritropolis because they didn’t think they had anywhere else to go, but that doesn’t mean they would have just lain down and accepted every single rule without question. People don’t even do that now and here, and the laws we live by here are much more permissive!

As for the protagonist, Charley, well, he’s a golden boy, the kind of do-no-wrong character that gets himself into all the right kinds of trouble in the name of justice. Disgusted with the system for zeroing his brother, he aims to get his revenge, to stand up for the wronged, and in doing so catches the attention of the city’s ruler and highest-scoring citizen, Commander Orson. Orson decides to fast-track Charley and put him in a dangerous position, raising his Score in doing so, as a sort of back-handed reward. Charley excels at this (further proving my point that some people may seem useless until put into the right situation or given the right training), and without any real experience with fighting, manages to do things like pole-vaulting over the head of a charging boar-hybrid, as well as seeing his Score skyrocket until he, not Orson, is the highest Score in the city. If mistakes happened, things would always come out perfectly in the end. He may drop his toast, but it will always land butter side up.

I found the characters to be fairly flat and uninspired. Charley is a hothead with little regard for consequence, which makes him a surprisingly boring protagonist to ride on the shoulder of as the story progresses. Meritropolis’s criminal kingpin, Chappy, shows more foresight and restraint and ability to plan than Charley does, and when the criminals are doing it better than the revolutionary hero, there’s a problem. Charley gets random spots of info from Orson’s incredibly attractive girlfriend, who gets said secret intel from Orson without problem and then, because it makes her unhappy, she just must tell someone and it just happens to be the person trying to overthrow the system. So few characters played major roles but had sparse motivation, or were just straight-up caricatures of humanity.

I think, when all is said and done, that the ideas explored in this book were fantastic and compelling but suffered from poor delivery. Too many unanswered questions and too few explored motivations made a lot of the story ring hollow, and it felt a lot like every event was set up just so Charley could show off how awesome he was destined to be. It was a hero story, a story of triumph against all odds, but an unrealistic one, and I feel that there were numerous missed opportunities for character development. The foundation on which the whole story was built was complex but ultimately unstable.

A lot of people really seem to enjoy this book. It’s been getting a lot of positive reviews, so this may simply be a case of Your Mileage May Vary. For my part, Charley was a rather unappealing character. Others who enjoy seeing someone act the hero and ignore consequences in his pursuit of personal justice may resonate better with him and find fewer problems with the story because of it. But it’s not a series I plan to continue with, because all the problems mounted up by the end and even the initial interest I had fizzled away after Meritropolis fell, so there’s not much for me to feel compelled to go back to.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Day 21, by Kass Morgan

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 16, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) No one has set foot on Earth in centuries — until now.

It’s been 21 days since the hundred landed on Earth. They’re the only humans to set foot on the planet in centuries…or so they thought. Facing an unknown enemy, Wells attempts to keep the group together. Clarke strikes out for Mount Weather, in search of other Colonists, while Bellamy is determined to rescue his sister, no matter the cost. And back on the ship, Glass faces an unthinkable choice between the love of her life and life itself.

In this pulse-pounding sequel to Kass Morgan’s The 100, secrets are revealed, beliefs are challenged, and relationships are tested. And the hundred will struggle to survive the only way they can — together.

Thoughts: The sequel to The 100, Day 21 picks up a very short time after the previous book ends, with the exiled children still, well, in exile, and the situation on the Colony quickly deteriorating. Oxygen is running out everywhere except the affluent Phoenix section of the Colony, people are dying, and there’s an unmet demand for justice. On Earth, it becomes increasingly apparent that the teens are not alone, and that some of the surviving humans really don’t want the newcomers there.

I want to say that Day 21 is more of the same, that if you liked The 100 then you’ll like this one. And it is, really, and you probably will. The positive aspects of the previous book are stronger here. Unfortunately, the drawback is that some of the weaker aspects are stronger too, resulting in the same lack of balance that caused the first book to suffer so much in my eyes. The story is no longer reliant on flashbacks to carry the weight of development, actually moving the plot forward instead of keeping things at a general standstill, though there still are some flashbacks to continue giving us insight into what made the characters who they are today. There’s more action and thus more tension as opinions divide on how to deal with the Earthborns, and the sickness that’s slowly spreading through the camp.

The dialogue is also stronger, and I think that was due in part to how Morgan neatly sidestepped most situations in which verbal conflict was bound to happen. Most of the arguments between characters last for a line or two and then are either resolved or ignored, which isn’t how people tend to argue. So there was less arguing, which took away a weakness and made the rest of the dialogue seem stronger for it. There are still moments, of course, but they’re fewer and further between here than before, which was good to see.

One thing I didn’t touch on about the previous book is the suspension of disbelief required to accept a few of the major plot elements. The most egregious one comes at the end of The 100, where oxygen is cut off to Walden and Arcadia, and Glass and Luke are stuck in one of the oxygen-deprived areas. With a few hours, effects are being felt. People are getting dizzy. Their lips are turning blue. They’re losing consciousness. But we open on Glass’s perspective here to note that they’re confident they still have a few days of air left (and then have an ironic dinner by candlelight, something that will add to the oxygen depletion). Glass has the brilliant idea to access Phoenix via something she used to use to sneak from section to section in the past: air ducts! Ignoring, of course, that if the air ducts were open, there would actually be access to air. She’s surprised that the air duct she uses is blocked off, but it was blocked off by another person who snuck across, not because of the oxygen cut-off.

In a flashback, Clarke’s father mentions Saudi Arabia, which was actually renamed New Mecca, and he handwaves this gaffe by saying that the country changed names a lot before the Cataclysm that wiped out humanity. Over 300 years ago. Which means that he would have grown up knowing and using the correct name for the country if he referred to it at all, so this was a clear and clumsy attempt to convey information to the reader about Earth’s history. On Earth, some of the teens are falling ill from a mysterious sickness, which Earthborn Sasha eventually gives them the info to conclude is from a berry that grows near the came. She advises them that they should clear the plants so no one eats it, because it’s “very poisonous.” So poisonous, in fact, that without any form of treatment but time, she knows that everyone who ate it will be fine in a week, because you have to eat a really large amount to be sick enough to die. Yeah, that fits the definition of “very poisonous.”

And then there’s the issue of language. I could write a paper on this issue in books, I really could. 300 years separate the Colonists from the Earthborns. And they speak the very same variety of English with no vocabulary or grammar changes, or even an accent that’s tough for characters to follow. I can’t suspend my disbelief on that one. Come on, even today we still have new articles flying around websites to explain the differences between British English and American English, and when some people try to handle Canadian English, they get things wrong. Even assuming that Colonists and Earthborns had access to the same records and so the same written language and history, their spoken language would have diverged over 3 centuries, even just accounting for the vast differences in lifestyle. It’s not clear if everyone in the original Colony spoke English, though there are hints dropped that it was a multi-cultural group, so chances are there would be new words introduced from originating cultures, new words and phrases evolving over time. Ditto for the Earthborns, who spent about 250 years underground before finally coming back to the surface. But everyone communicates just fine with no awkwardness or struggle to understand a single thing.

It’s the little things like that which caused me to raise an eyebrow while reading. Things that weren’t planned that well, or thrown in for effect without considering how they tie in to, well, reality. Between that and the fact that in a few chapters, nothing happened except for watching people watch other characters, it still made the book feel like it was moving at a plodding pace, and most of the interest stayed with Glass and Luke as they fight their way back to Phoenix and then onto a dropship as the rest of the Colony starts falling apart. There’s tension in the Earth segments of the story, too, but much of it feels so distant than it’s hard to feel much concern about. The sickness was focused on by only a single character. A psychopathic killer within the group was revealed very casually at the end, with very little horror and emotion. With the exception of Bellamy, once again I had a hard time caring about what was going on.

This is an average sequel to an average book, with little special to redeem it and make it stand out from better books around it. It’s not bad, really. It’s just not that good. The idea behind the book is more interesting than the book itself. If you want to read a really good book about teenagers thrown onto a supposedly empty world where they have to survive after being expelled from a place with abusive control and population problems, then I recommend Monica Hughes’s Invitation to the Game instead.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

The 100, by Kass Morgan

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 3, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) In the future, humans live in city-like spaceships orbiting far above Earth’s toxic atmosphere. No one knows when, or even if, the long-abandoned planet will be habitable again. But faced with dwindling resources and a growing populace, government leaders know they must reclaim their homeland… before it’s too late.

Now, one hundred juvenile delinquents are being sent on a high-stakes mission to recolonize Earth. After a brutal crash landing, the teens arrive on a savagely beautiful planet they’ve only seen from space. Confronting the dangers of this rugged new world, they struggle to form a tentative community. But they’re haunted by their past and uncertain about the future. To survive, they must learn to trust – and even love – again.

Thoughts: Life in the Colony is tough. It’s not so bad for those in the Phoenix section, the wealthy and elite who get more ration credits and privileges than, say, those in Arcadia or Walden, but even on Phoenix, it’s tough. Being part of the privileged elite doesn’t stop you from getting arrested for rule infractions, Confined until your 18th birthday when you will be retried, and then probably executed anyway.

This is the situation that most of the characters in The 100 find themselves in. Imagine their surprise when they discover that instead of being killed on their birthdays, a group of 100 of them (hence the title of the book) are granted a sort of reprieve: to be sent down from the orbiting Colony to Earth, where they will see if the radiation and damage from the Cataclysm has faded enough for the rest of the Colony to resettle the planet. 1 prisoner escapes back onto the ship. 1 young man not condemned forces his way onto the ship to be with his sister. And down to the planet they go.

The story is told from multiple character viewpoints, one per chapter, with about half the book taking the form of flashbacks, revealing what the various characters had done that landed them in their current predicament in the first place. It was an interesting combination of both showing and telling, setting the story at a pivotal point in their lives, and taking steps back to reveal more about them. It’s a very character-driven novel rather than an action-driven one, as most of the interesting events happen in the past. I had expected, given the book’s premise, that there would be a stronger element of survivalism  to the novel, which I enjoy a lot, and I was disappointed by the lack of it. The flashbacks provided a great amount of information and background, but I feel that there was a lot of potential that got passed over by having the majority of compelling events be things that already happened.

This book wavers between impressively dark and painfully simplistic, which is a shame because striking a better balance might have spoiled a bit of the impact of the more mature and disturbing scenes, but it also would have made for a better book, in my opinion. Orphaned children dying of intentional radiation poisoning (and the teenagers that slips one of them a lethal dose of painkillers to provide a painless death), a woman attempting to strangle and kill her unwanted and illegal second child, the idea of killing people when they become adults for crimes they committed as children, it’s all pretty grim, and the author deserves some praise for feature a few moments that made me recoil because they were deeply impacting and emotional. But then you get rather simplistic dialogue and motivations for characters who are in a complex and tense and altogether alien situation, and they seem more like bad actors reading lines than people with any real drive to what they’re doing or saying.

There are very few of the characters who I actually found likable, mostly for this reason. I think Bellamy was the one who had the fewest moments that made me want to facepalm. Bellamy may have been ignorant of some issues regarding his sister, but that was actually something that drove his character development, and I enjoyed seeing him to come grips with what he’d done and the revelations about the person he’d done it for. Glass and Clarke, the primary female protagonists, seemed to have much of their decisions based upon will-they-won’t-they romance, and it was only in their flashbacks that they really showed the depths of their respective personalities. Wells is the guy who endangered everyone on the Colony by actively sabotaging the ship’s structure in order to try to reconcile with the girl who said she didn’t want to be involved with him anymore, and believe me, there is no end to how much I ended up hating Wells. He makes a compelling case for how someone can be a good leader but a very bad stupid person.

The book wasn’t entirely bad. It mostly suffered from weak dialogue resulting in weak characters, and from a seeming lack of direction when it came to moving the plot forward instead of relying on flashbacks to carry the weight. The past was deep and full of development for the characters, but the present was weak and considerably less compelling, and that, I think, is what’s largely at the core of the book seeming uneven. Adding flashbacks to almost every chapter spreads the compelling backstory out across the whole novel, but that doesn’t make it a balanced novel, no matter how much it may seem at first to be. But there is still potential for the story to develop, since now that we’ve seen what brought everyone to their current positions, there’s nowhere to go but forward.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

The Girl From The Well, by Rin Chupeco

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 5, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) You may think me biased, being murdered myself. But my state of being has nothing to do with the curiosity toward my own species, if we can be called such. We do not go gentle, as your poet encourages, into that good night.

A dead girl walks the streets.

She hunts murderers. Child killers, much like the man who threw her body down a well three hundred years ago.

And when a strange boy bearing stranger tattoos moves into the neighborhood so, she discovers, does something else. And soon both will be drawn into the world of eerie doll rituals and dark Shinto exorcisms that will take them from American suburbia to the remote valleys and shrines of Aomori, Japan.

Because the boy has a terrifying secret – one that would just kill to get out.

Thoughts: Chupeco takes the Japanese legend of Okiku and does something quite interesting with it, turning her from simply a ghost locked in a loop into an avenging ghost that punishes those who murder and abuse children, not just in Japan but wherever she’s called by the trapped spirits of said children. She isn’t, however, some sort of beautiful avenging angel, as one might expect. She alters from human to hideous, the remnants of the young woman she was in life running alongside the powerful and brutal ghost that hungers for the death of the wicked. It’s an interesting path to take with a traditional ghost story, and Chupeco managed the balance of Okiku’s dual-natured character quite well, I think.

Tied up with Okiku is the story of Tarquin, called Tark, a modern teenage boy whose mother is in a locked psych ward after trying to kill him. Tark  knows the strange tattoos that cover his body were put there by her, though he doesn’t know why and he doesn’t remember much of his life before that moment. He struggles not just with the social stigma of all of this, but with the fact that elements of the supernatural are entering his life. His ordeal will lead him from small-town America to small-town Japan in an attempt to understand and alleviate the growing menace that plagues his life.

Most vast majority of the story is told from Okiku’s perspective, from her observations of Tark and his family to her brutal  murders of murderers, which make it interesting to see justice from the shoulder of a spiritual vigilante, so to speak. Some parts of the story, however, are told without her being present to observe, with no change in tone, and sometimes even outright stating that Okiku is not present, leading to a very consistent narrative with an inconsistent narrator. Very good for the reader, so that the full story can be told, but not so good for internal consistency.

Okiku’s narrative is extremely good to read, though, and there’s a kind of poetry to the prose that goes beyond what I normally see in YA writing. The dialogue, however, is probably the weakest part of the book. With the exception of Tark’s sarcastic commentary, most of the dialogue feels forced or unrealistic, from the strangely perceptive and articulate elementary school girl to the verbose infodumps that characters occasionally give each other, most of the speech feels more like somebody said it in an online conversation than face to face.

(As a bit of an aside, I understand that in review copies, errors will be there, and I’m not supposed to comment on them because they may well not be there in the finished version. However, I would feel like I was doing this book a disservice if I didn’t mention it in this case, because part of the reason I’m not rating this book higher is because of some very awkward phrases and incorrect word usage that I found scattered throughout the book’s pages. It affected my reading experience, and as such affected my ultimate opinion of the novel. Not just typos and formatting errors, either; those I can and most often do overlook. If the errors I found in my review copy aren’t in the finished version, then great. Things get ironed out in editing, and that’s a good thing for future readers of The Girl From The Well. But I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention that here. Consider that this book might have gotten 4 stars instead of 3 had that not been part of my reading experience.)

Fans of J-horror are going to love this book. I can say that with confidence. It’s the kind of book that I couldn’t read at night, due to some creepy and evocative imagery that reminded me of one too many horror movies and one too many playthroughs of the Fatal Frame video game series. Chupeco has a real gift for creepy narratives, and for providing a new and interesting spin on traditional tales, and it really shows well here. It was also one of the few novels I’ve read involving Japanese culture that didn’t make me wince from stereotypes and inaccuracies. There’s some real promise here, and for those who are looking for a YA horror novel that offers something different, then The Girl From The Well is a good choice.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)