Serena’s Review: “The Emperor’s Blades”

The Emperor's Blades

Book: “The Emperor’s Blades” by Brian Staveley

Publishing Info: Tor, January 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: The circle is closing. The stakes are high. And old truths will live again . . .

The Emperor has been murdered, leaving the Annurian Empire in turmoil. Now his progeny must bury their grief and prepare to unmask a conspiracy.

His son Valyn, training for the empire’s deadliest fighting force, hears the news an ocean away. He expected a challenge, but after several ‘accidents’ and a dying soldier’s warning, he realizes his life is also in danger. Yet before Valyn can take action, he must survive the mercenaries’ brutal final initiation.

Meanwhile, the Emperor’s daughter, Minister Adare, hunts her father’s murderer in the capital itself. Court politics can be fatal, but she needs justice. And Kaden, heir to an empire, studies in a remote monastery. Here, the Blank God’s disciples teach their harsh ways – which Kaden must master to unlock their ancient powers. When an imperial delegation arrives, he’s learnt enough to perceive evil intent. But will this keep him alive, as long-hidden powers make their move?

Review: It’s just a fact that a lot of high fantasy novel descriptions start sounding all the same over time. If you’ve read a lot of the genre, you immediately recognize staples in these summaries. Ruler’s death. Fight for the throne. Assassins. Mysterious religious/mystical figures. A forgotten past. And this isn’t a gripe about lack of creativity. If you pick up a horror novel or a science fiction novel, there will be a similar case with each. It’s just the nature of genre storytelling. If a reader loves a specific genre, chances are good that what they really love are these specific features common to that type of story. But there is a balancing act to be found between crafting these typical elements to support new and interesting characters and support creative world building and using them as a crutch. More and more, I am wary of the latter. So when I read the description for this book, I kind of sighed and thought, well, here we go! But not only was I wrong; I was so, so wrong. This is Brian Staveley’s first book, but “The Emperor’s Blades” reads like it is already a fantasy classic.

The narrative is split between the lately deceased Emperor’s three children: the youngest and heir to the throne, Kaden, the oldest child and only daughter, Adare, and the middle son, Valyn. So, from the get go, Staveley sets himself up with a challenge. Three perspectives ranging in age, gender, and life experience is no easy task. Often I find myself strongly gravitating towards one narrative and wishing to flip quickly through the rest. And while I feel like I could rank the three stories in an order of preference, I truly did enjoy them all. If anything, a large part of my complaint has to do with unequal distribution. I wanted more from each character!

Specifically, I wanted more from Adare. Sadly, Adare only has a handful of chapters in this book which I felt did her story a disservice. The author is clearly attempting to set up these three storylines as parallel journeys  with each character taking a unique path and answering different questions in the mystery of what happened to their father, the Emperor, and what political mechanisms are in play in the Empire. And Adare is the politician, the daughter who has grown up in the capital city, learning at her father’s knee from birth. But she is not the heir, and after her father’s death, she discovers he has placed her in a political role not typically held by women. Struggling to find allies and unravel the truth behind her father’s cryptic messages, Adare’s story seems central to the larger tale being started with this book. Not only is her position so clearly important, but her practical, no-nonsense approach and savvy political mind were fascinating to read about. A few chapters weren’t enough!

Kaden’s story, on the other hand, is the slow burn in an otherwise fast-moving story. As customary for the heir in the Empire, he has spent the majority of his life being raised far away from the capital by a holy order of monks. This was a fascinating swap in typical fantasy tropes. Kaden spends a large part of his narrative discussing the peaceful, meditative practices that he has spent the last several years learning. Not only was I (a fantasy reader used to hearing all about a typical princelings learning fighting and politics in the middle of court drama) confused by Kaden’s segregation from his family and kingdom, but Kaden himself struggled to understand the value of his tutelage. This storyline was initially a bit slow for me. Kaden is the most cut off from the mayhem that comes from his father’s death, and as a character, he is drawn as a thoughtful, careful person. But while it might have taken a bit for me to become fully invested in his story, there was a big pay off in the end, and I am excited to see where Kaden goes next.

By far, the character with the most page-time and the most to do was the youngest son, Valyn. Valyn, too, has been growing up disconnected from his family and home. From a young age, he’s been training to be a member of the Empire’s most elite fighting force, a group of warriors whose primary skill set revolves around their ability to fly huge falcons. I mean, right there, you know this guy’s going to be fun. Valyn, also, is the first character to begin fully realizing the extent of the problems going on in the Empire following his father’s death which leads to a lot of exciting action. He also is surrounded by the most interesting tertiary characters. The other trainees provide for a very diverse look at the other people living in the Empire. The female members of his group also did a good job of making me feel slightly less disappointed in the small number of chapters that Adare was relegated. Valyn is probably the most typical character, as far as high fantasy goes. This is not necessarily a bad thing either. Like I said, genre readers like what they like. And by sandwiching his story in between Adare and Kaden, two far less typical high fantasy characters, Valyn’s familiarity works as a good balance point.

“The Emperor’s Blades” is the first in a trilogy, and it definitely reads like one. Major cliffhanger warnings! But luckily, the second book came out a while ago, and the third was just published this month. I’ll be diving into those immediately.

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Rating 8: Loved it. Wished there was more Adare, but I’ll by jumping right into the sequels, so hopefully I’ll find it there!

Reader’s Advisory: 

Getting on a bit of a soapbox here: I went to look up lists on Goodreads for this book and found not only one, but two lists that were titled something like “Best Fantasy Books for Guys.” There might have been even more, but after the first page included two of these lists, I stopped looking. Here is a pretty generic list that it’s on “Best New Fantasy Novel” and here are two articles worth checking out about gender and reading. Elaine Cunningham briefly discusses epic fantasy and the misconception of them as “boy’s books” here and Caroline Paul writes about how boys should read “girl’s books” here. Both really get to my main point: there is no such thing as “boy’s books” or “girl’s books.” People who like high fantasy will like “The Emperor’s Blades.”

Find “The Emperor’s Blades” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “In a Dark, Dark Wood”

23783496Book: “In a Dark, Dark Wood” by Ruth Ware

Publishing Info: Scout Press, August 2015

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description from Goodreads: What should be a cozy and fun-filled weekend deep in the English countryside takes a sinister turn in Ruth Ware’s suspenseful, compulsive, and darkly twisted psychological thriller.

Leonora, known to some as Lee and others as Nora, is a reclusive crime writer, unwilling to leave her “nest” of an apartment unless it is absolutely necessary. When a friend she hasn’t seen or spoken to in years unexpectedly invites Nora (Lee?) to a weekend away in an eerie glass house deep in the English countryside, she reluctantly agrees to make the trip. Forty-eight hours later, she wakes up in a hospital bed injured but alive, with the knowledge that someone is dead. Wondering not “what happened?” but “what have I done?”, Nora (Lee?) tries to piece together the events of the past weekend. Working to uncover secrets, reveal motives, and find answers, Nora (Lee?) must revisit parts of herself that she would much rather leave buried where they belong: in the past.

In the tradition of Paula Hawkins’s instant New York Times bestseller The Girl On the Train and S. J. Watson’s riveting national sensation Before I Go To Sleep, this gripping literary debut from UK novelist Ruth Ware will leave you on the edge of your seat through the very last page.

Review: I’m sure that a lot of women and girls can relate to the concept of having the friend who overshadowed you when you were together. Though I try to be a more confident and self assured person now, in the past I’ve had a number of friends who always held more of the attention and admiration than I did, which led to a great deal of insecurity. So it should be no surprise that I felt very deeply for our protagonist, Leonora (or Lee, or Nora), in “In a Dark, Dark Wood”. As someone who tried to reinvent herself at least somewhat since those days, there were moments that I just wanted to hold my hand out to Nora and say “Girl, I feel you.” When I picked up “In a Dark, Dark Wood” I thought that I was going to be in for the usual kind of story that many thrillers of this type have been; anti-hero mess of a protagonist, lots of crazy twists and turns, lots of cynicism and not much joy. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that, outside of a few said twists and or turns, this book sloughed off the other trends without a care in the world. Nora is a character who does have some issues, but I found her to be extremely likable and relatable. I wasn’t actively rooting against her, like Amy in “Gone Girl”, nor was I actively cringing for her in awful, self induced terrible situations she was in, like Rachel in “The Girl on the Train”. With Nora, there were moments of ‘you need to get a grip’, but they were done in a way that just made her seem well rounded and multi-faceted as a character.

The plot of “In a Dark, Dark Wood” is fairly standard for this genre: a bunch of acquaintances find themselves in a situation that might have gone better if they actually knew and trusted each other, but as it is there is suspicion and doubt for Nora as she tries to piece together what happened. While the setting of a remote cabin with little to no cell service is kind of old hat, it never felt like it was trying too hard in this story. I will say that this story did have some predictable aspects to it, at least predictable to me. There were a couple of moments where I felt that Ware was hinting a little too hard, and that she was spelling things out so much that I figured out some pretty big twists before they were meant to be found. While it’s true that I didn’t figure everything out, it can be pretty frustrating to know where a story is going by the time you get to the big reveal. But that said, there were a lot of things that did keep me guessing, and even though I discerned a bit before I was probably meant to, it didn’t take away from my overall enjoyment of the book. In fact, figuring some things out made it so I was distracted enough to be caught off guard by a few other things. That’s the sign of a good mystery, I think.

I also have to say that I liked the ending. I won’t spoil it here, but there was a certain amount of ambiguity to it, along with a bit of hope that a lot of these books really do lack when all is said and done. I choose to think the best of the possibilities, as while I’m cynical and snarky most of the time, I do like having a bit of hope in my life and in my literature. It was very refreshing to see some hope here, when so many books in this genre these days end with either no hope whatsoever, or with broken people for whom there will never be a total release. This one felt different, somehow, and I really, really liked that.

“In a Dark, Dark Wood” is a book that I cannot recommend enough for fans of thrillers. I think that this one could be and should be the most recent one to take off. Definitely check it out if you’re looking for a quick, twisty thrill ride.

Rating 9: A twisty and turn-y thriller with great moments of suspense and mystery. Had I not called the conclusion about fifty pages before, it would have gotten a 10. But even so, I really liked this.

Reader’s Advisory:

“In a Dark, Dark Wood” is included in these Goodreads Lists: “Psychological Chillers by Women Authors”, and “Psychological Thrillers”.

Find “In a Dark, Dark Wood” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Series Review – “Mercy Thompson” Series

Mercy Thompson series

Books: “Moon Called,” “Blood Bound,” “Iron Kissed,” “Bone Crossed,” “Silver Borne,” “River Marked,” “Frost Burned,”and “Night Broken” by Patricia Briggs

Publishing Info: Ace, 2006, 2007, 2008,  2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: Bought the first few, the rest from the library

Spoiler warning: I will try to avoid large spoilers, but some minor spoilers are inevitable to cover the progression of the story throughout the series. 

Review: The “Mercy Thompson” series holds the perhaps ignoble position of being the first urban fantasy series I picked up. As an avid reader of fantasy and sci-fi, I’m not sure what has held me back from urban fantasy overall, though I can’t say the cover choices are helping anything! I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but when I’m browsing the shelves in the library, covers featuring scantily clad women are probably not going to be the first to jump out at me. Which is unfortunate, because overall, these books are pretty darn fun. I am currently reading the most recent (the 9th!) book in the series, and prior to posting my thoughts on that, we’re going to jump into yet another series review!

Mercy Thompson is a coyote shape-shifter who lives in central Washington state and works as a mechanic. (Fun aside: I’m originally from the Pacific Northwest and get unreasonably excited when I’m reading a book that’s set in, believe it or not, Pasco, Washington. Surprising, central Washington is not a go-to setting for most authors!) Mercy was raised by a pack of werewolves after her mother discovered that her baby had turned into a coyote cub in her crib and being understandably perturbed by this decided that werewolves would be the best option as caretakers. Now an adult, Mercy has broken ties with the werewolves and is determined to make her own way through the world. Unfortunately for her, she just happens to share a backyard/field with the Alpha werewolf of the Columbia Basin Pack, Adam Hauptman.

Starting with the worldbuilding: Briggs calls on several of the traditional characters found in fantasy and urban fantasy. The series begins in a world that has just learned that the fae exist about 20 years ago. But the fae have been sneaky and carefully ensured that humans only know of their more “kindly” folk, hiding their power players in fairy reservations that the humans have set up for them. In an interesting take on the history of reservations stifling the people they are meant to protect, the fae make great use of their allocated land, much to the humans’ dismay as the series progresses.

Unbeknownst to humans, however, are the werewolves and vampires. They, understandably, have larger “image issues” when thinking of coming out to people. The vampires, specifically, just aren’t nice guys. Though Mercy does have an awesome vampire friend, Stephan.

The werewolves are the central group of this series, and as the books progresses it was fun watching the evolution of how the werewolves viewed and interacted with the world. Starting from a very isolationist perspective, they must adjust their perspective as they grow to have closer relationships with humans and as the fae begin making power moves against the human world.

Mercy, of course, plays a large role in this. There are no other coyote shape-shifters, so while not human, she is also not a werewolf and quickly becomes a bridge between these many different groups. Mercy is a great narrator for the series as a whole. Perhaps one of the things I appreciate most about her, as compared to other urban fantasy leads, is her acknowledgement of her limitations. Of course, she’s still heroic and always ends up in the middle of situations above her pay scale. But she is honest about her abilities, both the advantages they give her but also the weaknesses that restrict her.

And, per usual, there is the inevitable love interest. Love interests plural, actually. Sadly, the first few books of the series commit one of my larger “book trope sins” by setting up a love triangle between Mercy, Adam, and a werewolf from the pack she grew up with, Samuel. Mild spoilers for this: I didn’t mind the love triangle that much as it seemed very clear to me from the very beginning that Adam and Mercy were the eventual goal, and Samuel was more a stumbling block than a legitimate second option. That said, I feel like I could have lived without this aspect of the story all together. I have yet to find a love triangle that I feel truly adds value to the story. The best I can say is that this one doesn’t derail the story, and I was able to largely ignore it. High praise, as far as I’m concerned.

Briggs’s world is very creative, especially her version of the beings within it. The fae are set up in a way that allows for endless imagination, and Briggs takes full advantage of this. So, too, she expands the mythology of the vampires in her world in a way that also allows for creative new stories. This creativity most fully hit its stride later in the series when Mercy begins exploring her family history and the origins of her shape-shifting ability. Briggs’s unique take on the creatures in this world is what has allowed this series to remain engaging through 8 book.

However, there are also some weaknesses to the series that I must point out. While Mercy has a lot of admirable qualities, she also tends to fall into the trap of blaming herself for everything that happens. At a certain point, I just found myself rolling my eyes at this. There’s a fine line between accepting responsibility for things that happen that are truly a result of your own actions, and adopting a sort of “world revolves around my decisions” perspective that begins to come off as self-centered and denying the fact that other people have their own agency. This is especially a problem towards the last few books in the series, a point at which Mercy is surrounded by friends and family who care for her and make their own decisions to protect her or follow her lead.

Another flaw is the lack of other positive female characters in the series. In the beginning, this flaw isn’t as apparent as the cast of characters is significantly lower. But as the story continues, it becomes more and more apparent and uncomfortable. It’s not that female characters aren’t there. It’s that they are there, but then are set up in a way that makes them a negative contrast to Mercy’s awesomeness. Female members of the werewolf pack continually have issues with her. And then in the last book, Adam’s ex-wife is brought into the story in a way that is doing none of the characters any favors. I don’t appreciate stories that sabotage other women characters as a way to promote the female lead. The last book does make some cursory attempts with other women characters, but the unfortunate, and frankly unnecessary, use of the jealous ex-wife largely wiped out these small steps. This is an area that I will be on high alert for improvement in future books.

One of the books also includes a very violent scene with Mercy that was hard to read. I’m still not convinced that this was necessary to the story overall, which is perhaps the most unfortunate part. I don’t believe these types of scenes should be included lightly. The aftermath was also very challenging to read. I appreciate that Briggs made an honest attempt to deal with the lasting effects of this situation, and in a lot of ways she was very successful. But it’s a difficult situation to write, and there were a few stumbling points that were cringe worthy as well.

Overall, I have enjoyed the “Mercy Thompson” series. As with most long-running stories, some of the books are stronger than others. There have been points that I have enjoyed throughout them all (creative world building, fun characters, snappy dialogue) and also points of annoyance throughout them all (misuse of female friends for Mercy, love triangles, confusing plot points). However, if you like urban fantasy, this series is a staple in the genre and definitely one worth checking out. Stay tuned for my review of the newest “Mercy Thompson” novel: “Fire Touched.”

Rating 6: Reliable urban fantasy series. You know what you’re going to get, with the pros remaining solid, but unfortunately some of the cons are persistent as well.

Reader’s Advisory:  As a series, it’s not on any Goodreads lists as a whole. However, Patricia Briggs has also written a companion series called “Alpha and Omega.” This series features a new protagonist but has several cross-over characters. The main characters from each series never interact directly, but there are references in later “Mercy Thompson” books to the happenings from this series, so it’s worth checking out if you want more of this world.

Find the first book in this series, “Moon Called,” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Batwoman (Vol.2): To Drown The World”

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Book: “Batwoman (Vol.2): To Drown the World” by J.H. Williams III, W. Haden Blackman, Trevor McCarthy (Ill.), Rob Hunter (Ill.), Pere Pérez (Ill.), Richard Friend (Ill.), and Guy Major (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Comics, January 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: The library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Six lives, inextricably linked in the past and present, each on a collision course with the others: Batwoman, fighting for duty and vengeance against a threat of arcane power. Detective Maggie Sawyer, investigating a case that could end her career. DEO Agent Cameron Chase, commanding a vigilante she despises. Colonel Jacob Kane, clutching at a life that’s slipping away. Maro, a new villain corrupting Gotham City. And Kate Kane, wrestling with decisions that will test her loyalties.

J.H. Williams III and W Haden Blackman continue their stellar BATWOMAN run, joined by senational artists Amy Reeder and Trevor McCarthy! Collects BATWOMAN #6-11!

Review: We’re going back to Gotham, folks, and we are still ignoring the obvious Caped Crusader in favor of his female, lesbian counterpart. I am, of course, talking about Kate Kane, also known as Batwoman. We’d left her off at something of a crossroads, as she had joined a group  called the D.E.O., whose goal is to take down another secretive group called Medusa. Medusa has been kidnapping children in Gotham, and Batwoman hopes to find them and return them home…. And then there’s Maggie Sawyer, Kate’s lover who is a detective for the Gotham police department… And then there’s Jacob, Kate’s father, who is keeping vigil by his niece Bette, who is in a coma after her stint as Firebird went awry… AND THEN there’s Maro, an agent working for Medusa, who is doing a lot of the kidnapping dirty work….

What I’m getting at here is that there are a lot of perspectives. Specifically, six. With jumping timeframes and scenarios that told the story out of order, or deviated from the story completely to keep tabs on other past stories! And that was a bit much to follow, if I am being quite honest. Just as I would be getting into one perspective, we’d suddenly jump to another one, which made it very hard for me to get invested in any of the storylines that were being presented. Not to mention that I would find myself having to go back and remind myself what the linear progressions were so that the stories would make sense in the end. It felt like most of my time was spent turning pages back to remind myself just where I was in the plot, and then have to skip back AGAIN to remind myself of how we got to THAT point in the first place.

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I hear ya, Boone. (source)

And the biggest problem with this was that it took a lot of the focus off of Batwoman herself. I am reading this because I want to know what is going on with Kate Kane. Sure, it’s nice getting some background on what Medusa’s endgame is, or what the D.E.O is thinking in regards to the whole situation, but not nice enough to keep on hammering it into the plot line like a puzzle piece that just doesn’t quite fit, no matter how hard you try to make it fit.

There are positives though. I really enjoyed the use of Urban Legends in the origins of the Medusa plans. As a huge fan of stories like The Man with the Hook and Bloody Mary, it was super neat to see them thrown into this story and given a neat and creepy little twist. Plus, the art continues to be absolutely gorgeous, with vibrant and bright colors and stark, dour shades of grey and black. This matches the tone to this series quite well, as it’s mostly very dark and edgy, with moments of sweetness and light, specifically between Kate and Maggie. Normally I am the first to complain about the darker tones and grittier stories that some of the DC Universe has applied to it’s stories. But I feel that it works really well for Batwoman, if only because it’s a deliberate contrast to what she was when she was first created in the 1960s. To go from a glamorous and somewhat incompetent love interest to a tough and complicated crime fighter in her own right, the darkness and edge suits Kate Kane very well, and I’m glad that she has the chance to explore it.

I’m going to hope that things go a bit better in the next volume, and that the perspectives die down a bit. Just get back to Kate.

Rating 5: The origins of the villains was very original and the art is still gorgeous, but the story gets muddled with too many perspectives.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Batwoman (Vol.2): To Drown the World” is included in these Goodreads lists: “The New 52” and “Fantasy and Sci-Fi Featuring Lesbian Characters”

Find “Batwoman (Vol.2): To Drown the World” at your library using WorldCat!

Previous Reviews of “Batwoman”: “Hydrology”

Movie Review: “The Jungle Book” (2016)

As much as we like books, sometimes we like to check out the movie world as well. Today we reviewed “The Jungle Book.” We discuss the history of the stories, the changes this movie made, why we need more Kaa in our lives, and what Serena thinks of CGI talking animals. We also name drop almost every voice actor in the movie but failed to remember the actor’s name for the boy who plays Mowgli. For the record, it’s Neel Sethi, and he was amazing. Stay tuned at the end for our book recommendations if you liked this movie. (Titles also posted below).

Serena’s Recommendations:

Tarzan

“Tarzan of the Apes” and “The Return of Tarzan” by Edgar Rice Burroughs

 

 

 

Jane

“Jane” by Robin Maxwell

 

 

 

Kate’s Recommendations:

Julie of the Wolves

“Julie of the Wolves” by Jean Craighead George

 

 

 

Life of Pi

“Life of Pi” by Yann Martel

Serena’s Review: “The Rithmatist”

"The Rithmatist"Book: “The Rithmatist” by Brandon Sanderson

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, May 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: Audiobook from the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: More than anything, Joel wants to be a Rithmatist. Rithmatists have the power to infuse life into two-dimensional figures known as Chalklings. Rithmatists are humanity’s only defense against the Wild Chalklings. Having nearly overrun the territory of Nebrask, the Wild Chalklings now threaten all of the American Isles.

As the son of a lowly chalkmaker at Armedius Academy, Joel can only watch as Rithmatist students learn the magical art that he would do anything to practice. Then students start disappearing—kidnapped from their rooms at night, leaving trails of blood. Assigned to help the professor who is investigating the crimes, Joel and his friend Melody find themselves on the trail of an unexpected discovery—one that will change Rithmatics—and their world—forever.

A “New York Times” Book Review Notable Children’s Book of 2013.

Review: Full disclosure: Brandon Sanderson is one of my all-time favorite authors. I think I’ve read almost everything he’s ever written, which is actually saying a lot as the man is known as a speedwriter. He published 2 novels just this year! And is writing another series that is made up of 900+ page books at the same time! I think he may have no life? Another fun fact, I got to meet him last year at a book signing here in Minneapolis!

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First and foremost, Sanderson is known for creating elaborate, unique magic systems. No lazy wand waving here! Rithmatics is comprised of a complicated system of chalk diagrams, essentially. As I was listening to the audiobook, each chapter would start with the narrator describing one diagram or another, all based around a system of circles. It was a bit challenging to picture it all: 9-point circles based on inscribed triangles, 2 point ellipses, jagged lines used for attacks, etc. But then, when clicking to hear the next chapter one time, I noticed that on the cover image it included illustrator information. *sigh* So, this was probably not the best book to be listening to as an audiobook. Live and learn! Considering that, I’m even more impressed by the fact that the narrator was mostly successful with these descriptions and that by the end of the book I had a fairly good understanding of the whole thing.

Essentially, Rithmatists are able to “activate” chalk drawings to accomplish different tasks. A circle is for protection, certain jagged lines can be used to break through circles, and you can draw “Chalklings,” little creatures who can be instructed to perform certain tasks, such as protecting a circle or attacking a circle. In school, Rithmatists will hold duels to practice these skills with the end goal of being prepared to guard the United Isles (in this world the United States is made up a series of islands based on state names essentially, like “New Britannia” and the “Floridian Isles”) from Wild Chalklings, vicious creatures that will attack and eat people if not warded off.

The whole concept was a very fun idea. It was even more fun to have our main protagonist, Joel, NOT be a Rithmatist, but instead a regular student who just happened to be obsessed with the whole idea and befriends a Rithmatics professor, Professors Finch, and student, Melody. This was a clever way of introducing the audience to the world, through a narrator who, while knowledgeable, is still an outsider like we are in many ways. Joel was a good protagonist, but a little flat, I felt. He seened a bit like a paper cutout version of a YA hero. Good enough, but his personality didn’t stand out to me in any really interesting ways.

However, Professor Finch and Melody were amazing! Professor Finch is the typical bumbling, wise mentor. Combine Dumbledore with Dobby and you get Finch. Wise, kindly, but not self-confident. And Melody had all of the personality that Joel lacked. An unskilled Rithatmatics student herself, Melody is also an outsider who is taken in by Professor Finch. She’s dramatic, witty, and just the right foil for straight-laced Joel. She also loves to draw unicorn Chalklings, much to Joel’s continuous dismay.

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“The unicorn is a noble and majestic creature!”

The mystery itself was good. There were a few moments towards the end where I began to think Sanderson was going to take the easy way out, and I’m glad to say he didn’t. For the most part, the revelations were a surprise.

One criticism I have, however, is that after reading this and the first book in Sanderson’s other YA series, “Steelheart” I’m beginning to think he struggles just slightly with adjusting his tone for YA. While overall I liked this book, Joel is not fully fleshed out, and in some ways this feels like a result of the author’s discomfort with writing teenage characters. The story itself suffers from a similar feeling of slight “offness.” Again, maybe a discomfort with not knowing how to tone down a story for young adult audiences? It’s very hard to put my finger on exactly what it was. But having read his other works, this just felt like slightly…less.

Overall, however, I still enjoyed this book and think it would be a great recommendation for fans of YA fantasy/sci fi.

Rating 6: Strong concept and fun story, but had a few weaknesses

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Rithmatist” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Most Unique, Original, and Interesting Magic Systems” and “The League of Extraordinary Kids.”

Find “The Rithmatist” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Fifth House of the Heart”

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Book: “The Fifth House of the Heart” by Ben Tripp

Publishing Info: Gallery Books, July 2015

Where Did I Get This Book: The Library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Filled with characters as menacing as they are memorable, this chilling twist on vampire fiction packs a punch in the bestselling tradition of ’Salem’s Lot by Stephen King.

Asmodeus “Sax” Saxon-Tang, a vainglorious and well-established antiques dealer, has made a fortune over many years by globetrotting for the finest lost objects in the world. Only Sax knows the true secret to his success: at certain points of his life, he’s killed vampires for their priceless hoards of treasure.

But now Sax’s past actions are quite literally coming back to haunt him, and the lives of those he holds most dear are in mortal danger. To counter this unnatural threat, and with the blessing of the Holy Roman Church, a cowardly but cunning Sax must travel across Europe in pursuit of incalculable evil—and immeasurable wealth—with a ragtag team of mercenaries and vampire killers to hunt a terrifying, ageless monster…one who is hunting Sax in turn.

From author Ben Tripp, whose first horror novel Rise Again “raises the stakes so high that the book becomes nearly impossible to put down” (Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother), The Fifth House of the Heart is a powerful story that will haunt you long after its final pages.

Review: If there is one thing that you need to know about me when it comes to my love of horror, it’s that I am supremely picky about my vampire fiction. I love vampire lore, and have always enjoyed a vampire tale if it is done right. What do I personally define as ‘right’ when it comes to vampires in my pop culture? Oh, let me tell you.

  1. The Lost Boys
  2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  3. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
  4. Martin
  5. Dracula
  6. The Hunger
  7. Lestat as a whole

And of course….

8. What We Do In The Shadows

What don’t I define as right?

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I will beat this dead horse forever. (source)

I am happy to report that “The Fifth House of the Heart” is going to be able to be used as one of my personal good examples of what I look for in vampire fiction. I will admit that I had to sort of have a jump start as I was reading, because I found myself skimming more than I wanted to and not appreciating the writing. So I jumped back about a hundred pages, and really delved deep into the narrative.

The vampire world and mythology that Tripp has created is a familiar one, but he puts his own spin on his vampires and his vampire hunters. While vampires have generally the usual characteristics and tropes that has become a part of the collective narrative, Tripp adds things and twists things to make them unique to his world. For example, in this world, vampires take on the form of their prey over time, so there are encounters with vampires that look like giant spiders and malicious frogs. He also gives a lot of time to theories on metallurgy and chemistry in relation to vampire weaknesses, giving garlic some potency through means of scientific explanation and silver weapons enhanced by blacksmithing. I really enjoyed that Tripp gave such deep thought to his story that he made stalwart themes completely new and creative. I also really enjoyed our rag-tag group of vampire hunters, as they felt like they were coming right out of an “Ocean’s Eleven”-esque heist movie. Sax is a very fun protagonist, because he’s by no means a brave man. Hell, he kills vampires because he wants their antiques for his collection, and doesn’t get his hands dirty unless he absolutely has to. And even then he really doesn’t want to out of sheer cowardice. But in spite of that you can’t help but really like him and root for him. His team consists of a paramilitary badass, a sociopathic assassin who has a tragic link to vampires in her past, an obnoxious burglar type, and a blacksmith and metal specialist who is far more interested in banging women than hunting vampires. Not to mention the Bollywood actress who is suffering from a vampire bite. It is seriously charming!

Tripp’s writing is also something that gels with me completely, as I found it laugh out loud funny, but also really scary at times. There were many scenes that had me on the edge of my seat, and his descriptions are vivid and evocative. I could picture everything so easily, and the change of place never felt awkward or choppy. There are a few flashbacks in telling Sax’s story, but they were always clear cut and put in at just the right times. And the shifts from really funny scenes to scenes that had me on the edge of my seat were never jarring, as the comedic elements were just a part of the characters and always felt like they were in place, no matter how tense the situation was. And his descriptions of gore and vampire things of that nature were just the right amount of brutal without making me squeamish. Granted, my threshold for that stuff is pretty high, but it never felt supremely exploitative or graphic to me.

Vampire fans really need to try out “The Fifth House of the Heart”. It was a true joy to read it, and I think that it should take it’s rightful place of honor in modern vampire fiction.

Rating 8: A solid vampire mythology with some really fun characters. The mix of humor and horror really gives in a bite and the creatures Tripp has created are fabulous.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Fifth House of the Heart” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Best Picks: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror Novels of 2015”, and “Hugo 2016 Eligible Works”.

Find “The Fifth House of the Heart” at your library using WorldCat!