Sea of Shadows, by Kelley Armstrong

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Publication date – April 8, 2014

Summary: Twin sisters Moria and Ashyn were marked at birth to become the Keeper and the Seeker of Edgewood, beginning with their sixteenth birthday. Trained in fighting and in the secret rites of the spirits, they lead an annual trip into the Forest of the Dead. There, the veil between the living world and the beyond is thinnest, and the girls pay respect to the spirits who have passed.

But this year, their trip goes dreadfully wrong.

Review: Kelley Armstrong has made waves with her previous books, both for adult and YA audiences. Sea of Shadows is the beginning of a YA fantasy series that will probably appeal to many, but from where I stand it had a few problems that made it seem (and I feel bad saying this) like an attempt by a writer early in their career, to make something big by combining aspects of popular fields into a not-quite-cohesive whole.

For the most part, the story itself is quite interesting, with a pair of independent female protagonists, Ashyn and Moria, who both complement each other (as twins) and are still able to stand on their own, their personalities distinct. Their combined job is to keep and calm the evil twisted spirits that live in the nearby Forest of the Dead. But naturally, fate throws a wrench into the works and evil escapes, slaughters their village, and the twins set off on their respective journeys to get help and to find the few survivors that escaped the carnage. Along the way they meet new people with their own agendas, creatures of myth and legend, and a more sinister plot than they could have guessed.

The tone was unexpectedly dark, with more blood and death than I normally see in a YA fantasy, which was impressive. The more dialogue-heavy parts are balanced fairly well by the many action scenes. The romantic subplots were fairly predictable: one sister gravitates to a strong and quiet warrior with a shady past, the other gravitates to an outlaw with a heart of slightly tarnished gold. Not the most original, but I’ll grant you that at least the characters were developed more than it sounds in the brief description I’m giving. The romance may have been a bit contrived, but it wasn’t central to the plot, and the characters were built beyond the mere concept of “love interest.” My previous experience with Armstrong’s YA offerings hold true here: the characters she writes are flawed and largely realistic, the dialogue is more than decent, and the narrative is smooth with plenty of clear imagery.

My biggest problem with this book is that it tries, and fails, to integrate aspects of Japan into a setting that’s mostly based on traditional European fantasy. Sometimes this works, such as a quick and simple line about Ashyn and Moria’s diet being rice-based and that they eat with chopsticks. That sort of thing gives me little hints about the world and sheds light on the culture without having large infodumps. But some attempts are less effective, such as the attempt to blend European and Japanese names to the point where we get Tyrus Tatsu and Gavril Kitsune. Clan names serving as surnames, mostly, which is another glimpse into wider worldbuilding, except that it there doesn’t seem to be any reason for the smooshing of two different and distinct language types like this. Even a simple one-liner like, “Clan names are based on an ancient language that is no longer spoken but that we still retain some knowledge of.” That wouldn’t be great, but it would be better than what’s actually there, which leaves many of the names feeling mismatched and out of place.

Then there are the Katakana mountains, which is the most baffling random use of Japanese in this book. I’m torn between two thoughts on this one: either the author found a random Japanese word she thought people would recognize and named a fictional mountain range after it just because, or else the mountain range coincidentally resembles a set of written characters used to express foreign words. Things like this were what made it feel like any little dribbles of Japanese language or culture that were added to the story were there largely to capitalize on the still-ongoing Japanese craze in North America, thanks in no small part to the proliferation of anime and manga. It detracted much more than it added.

Still, the book wasn’t bad, and the story that Armstrong is setting up definitely has merit. There’s a deeper plot at work than what was initially presented, and my attention was caught enough to want to see it through to the end, in spite of the problems I have with the book. It’s my hope that Armstrong will eventually reveal a reason for her bizarre use of Japanese, if indeed there is a legitimate reason for it; if not, I admit that it makes it hard for me to take the book seriously or give much credit to the author’s ability to blend multiple elements into a smooth story. But the smooth narrative style alone could have me coming back for future installments, so despite reservations, I’m probably still willing to give the sequel a try.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Reckoning, by Kelley Armstrong

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Publication date – April 2010

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Only two weeks ago, life was all too predictable. But that was before I saw my first ghost. Now, along with my supernatural friends Tori, Derek, and Simon, I’m on the run from the Edison Group, which genetically altered us as part of their sinister experiment. We’re hiding in a safe house that might not be as safe as it seems. We’ll be gone soon anyway, back to rescue those we’d left behind and to take out the Edison Group . . . or so we hope.

Thoughts: Two weeks… Through reading these novels, sometimes it’s amazing to think that the whole series really does take place over only a few weeks, the kind of timeframe that can, for some people, pass without a thought. But when you’re running for yourself and you’re not sure who you can trust and you’re trying to control frighteningly strong paranormal abilities, two weeks can seem like a lifetime.

Kelley Armstrong brought this trilogy to a wonderful conclusion. While not all the loose ends were tied up, things were set up so as to make it impossible for a small band of people to do so, and it’s obvious that while the battle was won, so to speak, the war goes on. The Edison Group has been stopped for now, but the Cabal is still around, and the group still have to learn to deal with their powers, plus the consequences of all their actions in taking down the Edison Group. It’s a good place to end the books, but the story still continues.

I never fail to be impressed with the realism that Armstrong conveys in her characters. The adults in this series act like adults. Not adult as is dark and gritty and full of sex and blood and all that, but more in the way that they don’t act like teenagers in older bodies, the way some YA novels portray them. I like it. Armstrong has a knack for writing teenagers and adults in a realistic fashion, which meant that at no point was I pulled out of the story by a jarring personality trait or line or action that didn’t seem to fit right with a character.

I swear, for that reason alone I could be persuaded to read more of what the author’s written!

Ultimately, between excellent characterization, pacing that is spot-on, and a plot that is a happy mix between the familiar and the unexpected, I’d have to say that this is an excellent trilogy, and one that comes highly recommended to fans of YA urban fantasy. Or hell, even fans of plain old generic urban fantasy. YA doesn’t have to be specifically to your taste to enjoy this series!

The Awakening, by Kelley Armstrong

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Publication date – April 28, 2009

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) If you had met me a few weeks ago, you probably would have described me as an average teenage girl—someone normal. Now my life has changed forever and I’m as far away from normal as it gets. A living science experiment—not only can I see ghosts, but I was genetically altered by a sinister organization called the Edison Group. What does that mean? For starters, I’m a teenage necromancer whose powers are out of control; I raise the dead without even trying. Trust me, that is not a power you want to have. Ever.

Now I’m running for my life with three of my supernatural friends—a charming sorcerer, a cynical werewolf, and a disgruntled witch—and we have to find someone who can help us before the Edison Group finds us first. Or die trying.

Thoughts: I read the first book in this series last year, and ended up rereading it again this year so that I could bring myself back up to speed on the story before ploughing ahead with the continuation.

I enjoyed The Awakening as much as The Summoning. Possibly more, since I can safely say that my book tastes have refined a little from last year.

I’m loving this series. I’m loving the way Kelley Armstrong writes. She’s got creativity, and she’s got a real flair for making realistic characters who are enjoyable to read about. I particularly love that for all there’s obvious romantic hinting going on in the book, Chloe really doesn’t seem to care. Love that.

Why? Let’s recap. Chloe’s 15, has only recently found out that she can talk to spirits and sometimes slam them back into their decomposing bodies without meaning to. She’s on the run for an organization who tickered with her genetics in utero and who now want to study her, and who have killed people who didn’t quite work out in the past. People have shot at her! Romance? Who’s got time for considering local males as potential dating prospects when you’re running for your life and don’t know who to trust?

Seriously. This is how real people behave, but you wouldn’t know it from a lot of YA urban fantasy these days. The trend is to have your lead female see a slightly older male from a distance, feel stirrings in her heart that she can’t explain, then fall head-over-heels in love with him. He feels the same way, of course, and can’t deny the powerful attraction to her. They skip dating, courtship, the whole shebang, and just go to being nauseatingly and unrealistically in love, and their feelings for each other often completely overshadow the fact that their lives are in danger and the world as they knew it is crumbling around them.

Nuh-uh. It doesn’t happen that way. Not in the real world. Not to the majority of well-adjusted people. And thankfully, Kelley Armstrong seems to recognise this. A situation involving magic powers and secret organizations out to get you isn’t the set-up for mushy romance. It’s the set-up for HOLY CRAP RUN FOR MY LIFE, which is exactly what Chloe’s doing.

I have to admit, though, that there are a few drawbacks to the trilogy, the main one being that it could probably have been tightened to a duology quite simply. There are plenty of slower dialogue-heavy scenes that, while they’re interesting for character development and realistic in the way that they’re about things that people do talk about, are not always needed. I like my characters developped, but not to the point where they’re just inflating the story.

That being said, however, I have to also admit that these books are written so smoothly that you don’t realise just how far you’ve come in turning the pages. The character-driven sections like that do a fair amount to actually pull you further along, to give you a bit of a break from all the fear and action and keep you turning pages until you look up in surprise because you’re on the past chapter and you don’t know where all the time went.

I can’t say for certain that if the book was condensed a little that the same effect would be there. I suspect it would, just in a different way, since the high-action scenes certainly keep you reading too.

I’m looking forward to seeing what lies at the end of the trilogy, to seeing all the loose ends tied up. Definitely worth its 5-teacup rating – fans of urban fantasy definitely need to get their hands on this series!

The Summoning, by Kelley Armstrong

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Publication date – July 1, 2008

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) After years of frequent moves following her mother’s death, Chloe Saunders’s life is finally settling down. She is attending art school, pursuing her dreams of becoming a director, making friends, meeting boys. Her biggest concern is that she’s not developing as fast as her friends are. But when puberty does hit, it brings more than hormone surges. Chloe starts seeing ghosts–everywhere, demanding her attention. After she suffers a breakdown, her devoted aunt Lauren gets her into a highly recommended group home.

At first, Lyle House seems a pretty okay place, except for Chloe’s small problem of fearing she might be facing a lifetime of mental illness. But as she gradually gets to know the other kids at the home–charming Simon and his ominous, unsmiling brother Derek, obnoxious Tori, and Rae, who has a “thing” for fire–Chloe begins to realize that there is something that binds them all together, and it isn’t your usual “problem kid” behaviour. And together they discover that Lyle House is not your usual group home either…

Thoughts: What started off fairly slowly ended up action-packed by the end, and it was a fun read from start to finish. Not a spectacularly original story, but it was still put together decently, incorporated a few twists and turns that I didn’t see coming (most of them regarding Derek), and left me wanting more.

I have to admit, I’m not much for cliffhangers, though. It’s one thing to end a book before the complete story has finished but yet the book itself can be seen to have a conclusion is one thing. This book didn’t. The ending could well have been just another chapter, and while yes, it does make me want to read the sequel to find out what happens, it also leaves me with a slightly bitter taste in my mouth, as though the primary motivation for ending it there wasn’t to hook readers but instead to hook readers’ money. End a book in the middle of a story and completionists are going to shell out $10 just to find out the rest, even if it wasn’t a great story.

Really, had the writing been tightened a bit and some extraneous detail been left out, I’m sure the two books could have been condensed into one with little trouble.

The characters were certainly interesting and filled certain niches in the story without being terribly stereotypical. As a rare treat, we actually get to see an everygirl who’s actually an everygirl, not just some “I’m pretty but don’t think so, and I have no friends despite the fact that everyone loves hanging around me, and I don’t have any talents but am involved in all kinds of extracurricular activities” girl. Chloe is short for her age, not particularly popular, not hugely interested in boys… and she doesn’t let those facts rule her life the way some girls do. I want to applaud her for it. I do applaud Kelley Armstrong for finally making a female teenage character that I can relate to. Half the YA novels I read that feature female protagonists try to make her something that everybody can relate to, but only suceed in making the character someone that can be related to only if you’re really into fashion and boys and popularity and not being a geek. So bravo, Kelley Armstrong, for that!

What saddens me most about this is that the author doesn’t really have a distinctive writing style. I could have been reading a book written by LJ Smith or PC and Kristin Cast for all it mattered, and I don’t think the style would have changed at all. Not everyone responds well to distinctive writing styles, but the ones that have them tend to be remembered long past the time that other authors are forgotten, no matter how good their stories were.

That all being said, I am looking forward to reading the sequel, and I hope it keeps me as engaged as this one did. Though it dragged a bit in earlier parts, I couldn’t stop reading during the last third of the book, always wanting to turn the page and push the characters along in their lives. It may be fluff, but it’s tasty fluff!