Book Club Review: “Sky in the Deep”

34726469We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘genre mash-ups’, where we pick two random genres and try to find a book that fits both. 

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Sky in the Deep” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, April 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: Kate got it from the library,

Genre Mash-Up: Fantasy and Romance

Book Description: Raised to be a warrior, seventeen-year-old Eelyn fights alongside her Aska clansmen in an ancient rivalry against the Riki clan. Her life is brutal but simple: fight and survive. Until the day she sees the impossible on the battlefield—her brother, fighting with the enemy—the brother she watched die five years ago.

Faced with her brother’s betrayal, she must survive the winter in the mountains with the Riki, in a village where every neighbor is an enemy, every battle scar possibly one she delivered. But when the Riki village is raided by a ruthless clan thought to be a legend, Eelyn is even more desperate to get back to her beloved family.

She is given no choice but to trust Fiske, her brother’s friend, who sees her as a threat. They must do the impossible: unite the clans to fight together, or risk being slaughtered one by one. Driven by a love for her clan and her growing love for Fiske, Eelyn must confront her own definition of loyalty and family while daring to put her faith in the people she’s spent her life hating.

Kate’s Thoughts

I went into this book with hesitance, if only because it’s described as ‘fantasy’ and you all know how I am about fantasy books. I had remembered that Serena had read it and enjoyed it, and I do have to admit that the idea of Viking based mythology was a tantalizing thought. Still, I was nervous. But it turned out that I had nothing to be nervous about, because “Sky in the Deep” ended up being a really fun read for me!

The greatest appeal of this book was Eelyn, as not only is she a fierce and strong warrior, she is also a complex character who is still a relatable teenage girl. She loves her family and she is very set in her beliefs, and when her belief system is questioned she has to reconcile that life isn’t as black and white and straightforward as she previously thought. But even in the face of these changes to her opinions and realizations of nuance, she still remained true to her self, and it didn’t feel like she strayed from her character in ways that seemed unbelievable. I also really enjoyed seeing how she had to relearn about, and learn to forgive, her brother Iri after his perceived betrayal. I felt that while her relationship and eventual romance with Fiske was an interesting dynamic, I was more invested in whether or not Eelyn would be able to reconcile with Iri.

The world that Young built also kept me interested in the story. I have very little working knowledge of Viking lore and history, so I went into this with little to no expectations. This worked in my favor in two ways: one, I had no idea of anything stood out as ‘inaccurate’ (though as a fantasy that doesn’t necessarily need to enter into it), and it was still exciting enough that it  kept me going. I liked the world building and the explanations of the different cultures and how they were similar and dissimilar, and felt like they were distinct from each other. The action sequences and conflicts were also very well written, and I found myself on the edge of my seat with worry for all the characters I liked. Investment in characters is always a huge plus!

“Sky in the Deep” was a really fun read and a great exception to my usual lukewarm feelings towards fantasy. It makes me feel like people who may not like fantasy will find things to like here!

Serena’s Thoughts

I was excited when I heard that this book was chosen for one of our bookclub picks. Yes, I had already read it, but I had liked it the first go around and was more than happy to revisit it. On a second read-through, my feelings remain pretty much the same. The short and sweet of it: I liked the main character quite a lot, the story could be predictable at times, but the awesome action and subdued romance all hit the right marks for me.

Again, this re-read, the thing that really stood out to me was just how badass Eelyn is. This book is the epitome of showing and not telling as far as warrior skills go. All too often, readers are simply informed that the main character is “such and such incredible fighter” but we either never see it in action, or only get a brief glimpse. This could partly be due to the fact that writing good fight/battle scenes simply isn’t as easy as one would think. But Young rises to the challenge and again and again we see Eelyn’s abilities on display, both in larger battles scenes (like the ones at the beginning of the book) to the smaller skirmishes that Eelyn gets in throughout the story. What’s more, we’re free from having to read through any moral hand-wringing about all of this violence. This is the culture and world that Eelyn has grown up in. It’s brutal and bloody and it simply never occurs to her to question her own role in taking part in this. Through a modern lens, we can have our questions. But through a realistic portrayal of a character living in this world, she wouldn’t have these same thoughts.

Beyond this, one thing that did stand out more for me this re-read was just how beautiful some of the turns of phrase were. Much of the book is action, but there are a few quieter moments throughout the story that are really quite gorgeous, either in the depth of the reflections taking place (especially Eelyn’s struggles to understand her brother and his choices) or simple descriptions of a winter-y scene. The title of the book draws from one of these moments. I think these quieter moments really worked well to balance out what was otherwise a very fast-paced story.

Obviously, re-reading this, I knew what was coming when, so my original criticism of its being a bit predictable is harder to evaluate a second go-around. I do think that that thought remains true, however. Much of this probably has to do with the length of the book. It’s a standalone (yay!), but it also doesn’t have a terribly long page count on its own. Within these restrictions, plot points need to be gotten through fairly efficiently, and the manner in which this is accomplished is, yes, fairly predictable to readers familiar with this type of story.

Overall, however, I still very much enjoyed this book, and it’s definitely one worth checking out if you’re looking for a standalone story that mixes fantasy, history, and romance in an action-packed book.

Kate Rating 8: An action packed adventure with a compelling set of characters and distinct world building, “Sky in the Deep” was a fun surprise!

Serena Rating 8: I’m going to actually up my rating a point after this re-read. I think the strength of the writing as a whole stood out even more this go-around, and it deserves that edge up.

Book Club Questions

  1. This story mixes several different genres all together: fantasy, historical fiction, romance. Did one of these areas standout for you?
  2. Eelyn must grapple with a lot of prejudices and preconceptions in this book. How well do you think her growth in this area was handled?
  3. There are two primary relationships at the heart of this story: Eelyn and her brother, Iri, and Eelyn and Fiske? Were you more invested in one or the other and why?
  4. The book covers a host of dark themes and can be quite violent at times. What did you think about how these aspects of the story were handled?
  5. The story also focuses a lot on found families. Were there any notable elements in this area that stood out for you?

Reader’s Advisory

“Sky in the Deep” is on these Goodreads lists: “YA Vikings” and “YA Fantasy Standalones.”

Find “Sky in the Deep” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Girl Squads: 20 Female Friendships That Changed History” by Sam Muggs.

The Great Animorphs Re-Read: “The Ellimist Chronicles”

363351Animorphs #45.5: “The Ellimist Chronicles”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, October 2000

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: He is called the Ellimist. A being with the ability to alter space and time. A being with a power that will never be fully understood. He is the reason Elfangor came to Earth. He is the reason the Earth now has a fighting chance. And though his actions never seem quite right or wrong, you can be certain they are never, ever what anyone expects.

This is the beginning and the middle of the story. A story that needs to be told in order to understand what might happen to the future. The future of the Animorphs. The future of humanity. The future of Earth.

He is called the Ellimist. And this is his story…

Narrator: Toomin/Ellimist

Plot: I only read this one once as a kid, and now I remember why…

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That prologue! That epilogue! Just..nooooo!

There will be spoilers for the end of the series in this one for sure! You have been warned.

Bam. An Animorph will die. Just right there, in your face in the first few sentences of this book. I can’t remember my reaction as a kid, but it had to have been terrible. Especially since at that point the books were still being released so I didn’t know how many were left, whether it would happen in the last book itself or the very next one or when at all! Now, having a firm grasp on the few precious books we have left with dear Rachel, it’s not much better. And I had completely forgotten that these small bookend scenes were even part of this story, so that was sure a joy to discover when I picked this one up!

The story starts out in the nebulous unknown with a recently killed, unnamed Animorph questioning the Ellimist about the meaning of it all. Not having a succinct answer, the Ellimist lays out his story.

Long ago, he was born a member of the Ket race, an advanced alien life form that lived on crystal formations that the winged Ket kept in the air through shared lift duting. A young Toomin has lead a happy life of community and, importantly, gaming, where he goes by the gamer tag “Ellimist.” He and his friends regularly participate in a complicated game called “Alien Civilizations” which has complicated scenarios in which players try to control the outcome of alien races throughout time. In the midst of all of this, the Ket are preparing to launch their first Z-space ship to explore the greater galaxy. Toomin is lucky enough to be sponsored and drafted as non-essential crew for this ship.

In the months leading up to its launch, Toomin and his friends (he’s especially pleased to hang around more with the attractive female Aguella) visit another crystal colony where he meets another gamer named Menno. Menno describes how their crystal has recently adapted a democratic system of governance, doing away with the traditional form of following the leadership of an older member of the Ket. His mentality of chasing change crosses over to his approach to gamesmanship. Toomin is both fascinated and distrubed by Menno’s attitude.

As Toomin continues to learn about the ship and his impending trip into space, he and Aquella (also drafted to the crew) are brought into the secret that the Ket race had recently discovered a new species and part of their mission will be to reach out this new race. A few days before the launch, however, a mysterious ship shows. With brutal efficiency, it uses a host of weapons to take out Toomin’s home crystal, killing thousands. Toomin and about one hundred others happen to be on the ship at the time and so escape immediate death. Using a crystal shard, Toomin is able to take out the small alien ship, but as the Ket ship makes its final escape, they trap the now disabled alien ship in their force field. Out in Z-space, Toomin and the others discover that the alien is a member of the race that they had been planning to visit. They know they must head back to their planet to see if they can find any other survivors.

But when they get back, all they find are empty skies. They do manage to find one crystal however: Menno’s crystal that is using cloud cover to run away from the chasing alien ships that are leisurely hunting it. Toomin and the others land and meet up with Menno and the leadership of this crystal. They discover that Menno and the others, so proud of their embrace of change, sent out videos of themselves playing games in “Alien Civilization.” But the real disaster is they sent no explanation for what is being shown in the videos, leaving it to look like the Ket are a race of beings that simply play with the fates of others species for the fun of it. Menno and a few others make it onto the ship before the other aliens blow up that crystal as well.

Over the next 60 some years, Toomin and his crew scour the galaxy for a new home world. Menno, who Toomin makes his second in command to appease the Ket from the other crystal, pushes for them to accept their reality and adapt their own biology to become a land-based species. Toomin, Aguella (the two have now bonded into a pair but are waiting to have children until they can find a home), and the others resist this idea, insisting that they are beings of the air. As they continue their search, they discover a blue moon. Toomin heads up a crew of a handful of Ket who pilot a smaller ship into the ocean that makes up much of the moon. Once there, the ship is quickly destroyed.

Toomin “awakes” to find that he is the only member of his crew that is still alive (Menno and the original ship tried to save them after seeing the exploratory ship being attacked). He has been assimilated, essentially, into the living being that essentially makes up the entire moon and calls itself Father. Using plant-like tentacles, Father attaches himself to the bodies of all the beings trapped on his planet, using their knowledge to build himself up. Over the course of a century, Father insists that Toomin play games with him as a form of entertainment. Toomin continuously loses (something that he was also famous for doing back on his home world when he tried to play there, often focusing on trying to find the most moral route through scenarios). But at one point, Father introduces a new game that involves something called music. This new art form opens Toomin’s mind in a completely new way and he begins to win. As he wins more and more, Father retreats in a huff. While he’s away, Toomin reaches out and begins “downloading” the essences of all the trapped,dead beings around him, including his former Ket crew. When Father finally notices, Toomin has grown strong enough to over throw him and he does so, finally killing his captor.

With all the knowledge and power that Father had now in his control, Toomin “downloads” everything into his own mind and builds himself an advanced ship that incorporates his physical Ket body into it as well as creates a massive “brain” of sorts for his greater being to reside. He destroys the dying moon that was Father and takes off into the world. He wanders for a long time before finding his calling as an all-mighty do-gooder, interceding in the affairs of various civilizations throughout the universe to establish peace and order. After centuries of doing this, he returns to the site of his first “intercession” where he prevented two warring planets from continuing their conflict. He discovers that the change he caused to stop the war inspired one side to discover a new method of warfare that allowed them to completely destroy the species on the other planet. And then, without that conflict driving them, the winning species slipped backwards in technological advancement and is living a primitive life. As the Ellimist watches on in dismay, another all powerful being arrives who calls himself Crayak.

Crayak says he has been searching for this inter-galactic do-gooder and is pleased to finally meet the Ellimist. Crayak shares that he has an opposing goal: where the Ellimist wants to bring order and prosperity, Crayak simply wants to exterminate. And so begins another game, with Crayak racing ahead creating manipulative and cruel “games” with the lives of entire species and forcing the Ellimist to always play what turns out to be a losing hand. Slowly, Crayak begins winning and more and more life begins to disappear from the universe. Eventually, the Ellimist despairs and races away to a far corner of the universe.

There he discovers a primitive race of grass-eaters and he creates a body for himself and goes down to live among them. He calls these aliens Andalites and throws himself into his new life there. He marries a female Andalite and has a child, but is devastated when that child dies from a disease that he knows he could have prevented (though he has learned caution about how far he can/should intercede with the lives of species.) He is shocked when his wife comes to him later saying she wants to have another child. Over time, they have 5 children, two of whom live. It is through his wife’s vision of hope that he finally discovers a way to beat Crayak: where Crayak destroys, the Ellimist will create. Some may die, but others will live. He leaves the Andalites and goes about doing this, spreading life amount the stars. One of his favorite creations is a species called the Pemalites who he sets out to spread life as well.

Eventually, Crayak catches up to him, but by this point the Ellimist is even more powerful. As centuries go by, the Ellimist begins to win their battle of extinction and creation, with more of his lifeforms thriving than Crayak can exterminate. On this high of success, the Ellimist finally confronts Crayak himself. The two engage in a massive battle that takes place across the entire universe, crushing planets and civilizations in their wake. The Ellimist slowly gains on Crayak until, in a bout of over-confidence, he is lead into a trap and is sucked into a black hole. There, somehow, while his entire “body” is destroyed, the vast being that is now the Ellimist survives, even managing to gain control of new abilities like managing time itself. He continues his work against Crayak subtly but is eventually discovered. Now past the point of being able to be physically destroyed by each other, Crayak and the Ellimist strike a deal for one last game with a final winner and loser. It will be the last game and it will need to have rules. And so it has been playing out for millennia.

Back with the dying Animorph, the Ellimist ends his story. The Animorph knows that they cannot ask whether they will ultimately win or lose and the Ellimist agrees that even he does not know that. But the Animorph has one last question: did they matter. And the Ellimist says yes, yes they did.

Ellimist/Toomin: Oof, as per the usual for our “chronicles” characters, Toomin leads a rough life. He essentially has a few happy years as a child and then is thrown into a millennia of existential horror. From the loss of his entire home world, to a few short years (relatively speaking) of aimlessly wandering the galaxy looking for a new home, to witnessing the ultimate destruction of the sole survivors of his race, to being trapped in some mind game scenario surrounded by his dead friends for centuries, to getting caught up in another horror scenario with some random force of evil that tracks him down, to ultimately getting sucked into a black hole during his one brief moment of almost-triumph, to finally, another game that he’s been stuck playing for who knows how long. I mean, what part of any of that sounds like a good time?

In this light, we see how important it must have been for him to have that brief life span as an Andalite where he married and had kids. And even that was tragic, with the loss of his kids, while knowing that he could have saved them!

Of course, the running theme of the book is around his being a brilliant loser, so we have to see him do a lot of just that. And the story does do a good job of highlighting the importance of those few relationships he had to building up his identity and giving him enough strength to persist in what can often feel like foolish optimism in the face of impossible odds. It’s also interesting see all of this “losses” in the light that, from our perspective, we’ve only seen the Ellimist come out ahead, winning all of the smaller skirmishes that he’s been involved in with the Animorphs.

Poor, doomed Animorph: In the prologue, there’s really no clues as to who this Animorph could be. I’d say be the way he/she is written to speak, we can pretty easily write off Ax and Cassie, but other than that, the remaining four would all work. But then once you get to the epilogue, it gets narrowed down quite a bit. The Ellimist refers to the fact that this Animorph wasn’t one of the one he’s selected, but a lucky addition. From what we know from the fourth Megamorphs book, that leaves us with either Rachel or Jake. And, I guess, you could probably make a reasonable guess that Jake wouldn’t be the one to be killed off since that would essentially end the series in a lot of ways. So, without being told as much, by the end of the book, I think it would be fairly reasonable to be confident that Rachel is the going to be the one to go. And, obviously, we know that’s the case. I don’t remember making this connection as a kid, but I think I was so busy being in denial about the whole thing that I didn’t spend much time really thinking about it and putting the pieces together.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: There are quite a few bad body horror moments in this book, really. But the worst has to be Father and the way that he is essentially a living graveyard, with his tentacles twisting in and out of the millions of dead beings trapped on his surface. Toomin’s brief looks into reality (when he’s not pulled in the gaming mind zone with Father) are pretty stark. He’s surrounded by his dead friends, some of whom are torn up by their deaths, and he can see the tentacles going through his own original body as well. Pulling himself out of all this when he finally escapes is pretty gross, too.

Couples Watch!: We see Toomin/Ellimist form two major relation
If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: Crayak is obviously the primary villain in this book, but in some ways I feel like we almost got more from Father than from him. At least with Father, by the end, we understood what he was: essentially a moon-sized sponge the built itself off everything that was caught in it. His motivations were also clear. Crayak…is just kind of evil for evil’s sake? And the main problem in creating an entire book that gives a backstory to an all-powerful, godlike character is that it raises a lot of questions about how another can also exist. There were millions upon millions upon millions of odds that had to play out just right to end up with the Ellimist gaining the abilities he had by the end. It’s hard to imagine a similar order of events playing out for the creation of Crayak. And, if so, I’m just as curious about those as I was am about the Ellimist, if not more so. Not only how did he become as powerful as he was, but why does he have the destructive goals that he does? It all just raises more questions than it answers, ultimately, and Crayak really exemplifies the worst part of this.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Like I said, the “chronicles” characters always have a tragic story it seems, and the same goes for this. I mean, it’s pretty hard to choose a crying moment when you have genocide and then the loss of not one but two spouses. I think though that the saddest part has to go to the loss of his first Andalite child. Not only is the loss of a child horribly tragic, but you have to add that on to the fact that the Ellimist knows that he could have easily prevented the disease that killed his child. And he’s having to choose not to do this. And, of course, this tragedy leads to his greatest realization about how to beat Crayak, by putting his weight behind creation in the face of destruction.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: I mean, the worst plan has to be Menno’s. I have to think that Applegate pulled inspiration from Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” with the whole misunderstanding of aggression between alien species and how that leads to a war.

We had lost our world because the Capasins thought we were aggressors when we were not.

But man, isn’t it fairly obvious that blasting out videos of your species essentially playing god with entire civilizations and worlds without any explanation that it’s just a game is just a terrible idea?? And it’s definitely interesting that more aliens than just the ones that conquered the Kets must have seen these videos, because this is the exact perception that Ax has about the “Ellimists” as a species when they first encounter the Ellimist: that they’re all-powerful gods that play with other species just for the fun of it.

Favorite Quote:

This quote highlights both the arrogance at the heart of what gets the Ellimist in trouble at various points throughout the story, but still, even at the end, the driving force that moves him as he plays out his “game” with Crayak.

Boldness allied with restraint and a minimalist aesthetic, all in the service of moral certainties: that peace was better than war, that freedom was better than slavery, that knowledge was better than ignorance. Oh, yes, the galaxy would be a wonderful place under my guidance.

Scorecard: Yeerks 12, Animorphs 15

No change!

Rating: I really liked re-reading this book. Mostly because it read so differently this time around as it did as a kid. When I read it the first time, I was pretty not into it to be honest. So much so, that I was actually dreading reading it this go around, as all I could remember was being extremely bored. And really, I can see why I didn’t love it as a kid. This is the most “hard sci-fi” book in the entire series. Not only do we have a ton of alien species thrown at us, with very little explanation for them all, but there are a lot of “high concept” theories being tossed around throughout the story. It’s less one of action and what happens, and more the slow moral development of this godlike character’s approach to creation, destruction, and balance. Expand this book out a bit more, and it would fit in perfectly in the adult science fiction section at the bookstore. But as a kid, there was not enough from our main characters and much of the greater questions and theories either went over my head or were simply not interesting to me at that point.

I do still question whether it really adds something to the Animorphs series as a whole. Like I said, it’s only a few steps away from being a good stand-alone science fiction novel on its own. But as part of this series? I’m not convinced. In many ways, I think it introduces more questions than it answers and there’s almost too much “neatness” in the way that other aspects of the series are all tied together with the Ellimist’s journey (his creation of the Pemalites, his time as an Andalite, etc.). Bitter moment: the fact that this book exists makes me even more angry about the introduction of “the One” in the final book and the weirdness of whatever other godlike creature was at work in Jake’s book a few books back during his period spent in an alternate universe where the Yeerks had won. If you’re going to have a bunch of unexplained god-like creatures, don’t bother explaining any of them. Because all this did was highlight how very much the odds are against any being like this existing, given all of the things that had to play out just so for the Ellimist to end up how he does. And now we have not only the Ellimist, but Crayak (unexplained), the One (unexplained), and the nameless one from Jake’s book that has been noted by the authors to not be the One either (also unexplained). It’s just too much, and while I still would never love that number of god-like characters in a series like this, it would be easier to swallow if we were just given them all on equal footing. The explanation of the Ellimist just highlights the problems with the others.

Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all!

Kate’s Review: “Cross Her Heart”

37486235Book: “Cross Her Heart” by Sarah Pinborough

Publishing Info: William Morrow, September 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Lisa lives for her daughter Ava, her job, and her best friend Marilyn, but when a handsome client shows an interest in her, Lisa starts daydreaming about sharing her life with him too. Maybe she’s ready now. Maybe she can trust again. Maybe it’s time to let her terrifying secret past go. Then her daughter rescues a boy from drowning and their pictures are all over the news for everyone to see. Lisa’s world explodes, and she finds everything she has built threatened. Not knowing whom she can trust, it’s up to her to face her past to save what she holds dear.

Review: After being burned so badly by “Behind Her Eyes”, I will admit that I was shocked to find myself picking up the newest Sarah Pinborough novel “Cross Her Heart”. But I so enjoyed “13 Minutes” I wanted to give her books another chance, in case “Behind Her Eyes” was a fluke. So it’s good news, bad news time. The bad news is that “Cross Her Heart” didn’t live up to “13 Minutes”. But the good news is that it blew “Behind Her Eyes” out of the freaking water!

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I knew my instincts about Pinborough were right! (source)

The story is laid out in a couple of different view points over a couple of different time frames. Pinborough keeps the ultimate plot pretty close to the vest until we get about half way through, and since that’s part of the mystery I’m going to do my very best to review without giving anything away. If I DO have to give a spoiler, though, I will make it very clear. Our main perspectives are Lisa, a nervous single mother who does her best to blend in as she hides from a traumatic past; Ava, Lisa’s teenage daughter who is corresponding with a mysterious older man online; and Marilyn, Lisa’s colleague and close friend who has some secrets of her own. While Ava and Marilyn’s issues are pretty clear cut from the get go, it’s Lisa’s who brings in the most intrigue. Pinborough slowly lays out the pieces of a mystery with a very well constructed conclusion, and she did it in such a way that she kept this reader guessing up until the first big reveal. Going back and looking at the set up confirmed that Pinborough knows how to set up a magic trick of a reveal, with deceptions and distractions. I was pretty well invested in how it all turned out by the time we got to that moment, wanting to see what was going to happen next. The characters themselves are pretty standard fare for this kind of book, and the story itself doesn’t really reinvent any wheels or break any either. It was just a fun and solid mystery overall that kept me guessing.

All that said, it did find itself close to derailing a couple of times. While the initial twist and some of the curve balls that come after felt pretty well executed, there were some things within the narrative henceforth that I didn’t quite buy. So here is where a big ol SPOILER alert is going to come in, even if I keep it vague. There is a moment where a character is revealed to have been masquerading as two different people, who are two very different ages. While I normally am willing to suspend my disbelief about these kinds of things, I do find it kind of laughable that we are to believe that a person could simultaneously be middle aged, and yet pass for someone who is a teenager, especially if they are interacting on more than a superficial basis with their peers. It was a moment where Pinborough didn’t quite convince me, and because of that i was taken out of the story and just snorted out a ‘yeah SURE’ before going on. Plus, there was one final twist that I saw coming about ten miles away. I am not certain if it was meant to be a big surprise once our characters are made privy to it, or if we were supposed to have figured it out before they did, but with the emphasis on the shocked reactions I’m thinking it’s the former. And it just wasn’t that surprising.

But when comparing it to “Behind Her Eyes”, I enjoyed “Cross Her Heart” far, far more. I don’t know if it’s merely by comparison, but even if it is, it was an altogether enjoyable read. If you were disappointed with Pinborough’s last runaway hit, don’t necessarily pass “Cross Her Heart” by! You may be surprised!

Rating 7: A quick and fast paced read that was quite the improvement over her previous work, “Cross Her Heart” is a standard mystery without too many surprises (and one ridiculous twist). Nonetheless, it’s enjoyable.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cross Her Heart” is included on the Goodreads list “Mystery & Thriller 2018”.

Find “Cross Her Heart” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Mahimata”

37868558Book: “Mahimata” by Rati Mehrotra

Publishing Details: Harper Voyager, March 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss +

Book Description: Kyra has returned to the caves of Kali, but her homecoming is bittersweet. Her beloved teacher is dead and her best friend Nineth is missing. And gone, too, is Rustan, the Marksman who helped her train for the duel with Tamsyn–and became far more than a teacher and friend.

Shaken by his feelings for Kyra and the truth about his parentage, Rustan has set off on a quest for answers. His odyssey leads him to the descendants of an ancient sect tied to the alien Ones–and the realization that the answers he seeks come with a price.

Yet fate has plans to bring Kyra and Rustan together again. Kai Tau, the man who slaughtered Kyra’s family, wages war on the Orders of Asiana. Hungering for justice, Kyra readies herself for battle, aided by her new companions: the wyr-wolves, who are so much more than what they seem. And determined to keep the woman he loves safe, Rustan joins the fight to ride by her side.

But will this final confrontation ultimately cost them their love…and their lives?

Previously Reviewed: “Markswoman”

Review: I had some mixed feelings about “Markswoman,” but I was particularly intrigued by the interesting mixture of sci-fi elements, a post apoplectic (?) world, fantasy and a region/religious order that pulled heavily from Indian influences. My hangs ups (as they often are) had largely to do with the characterization of the main protagonists and, to a certain extent, the secondary character as well. Unfortunately, this book didn’t raise the bar on my overall feelings and I was left reflecting back on the completed duology in much the same way that I viewed the first book alone.

Kyra and Rustan have been separated and the board, in many ways, has been re-set. Each on their own paths of self-discovery, larger events force them back together at last when the evil  Kai Tau begins a war on the Orders. As mysteries begin to unfold and new ones to be discovered, Kyra and Rustan must, again, fight for not only their love but for the future of all they hold dear.

The story started off on the wrong foot right off the bat by committing one of the cardinal sins of second books: recapping the entire first book. Yes, it’s important to re-establish a few basic things, but I don’t think there’s ever really any excuse for an info-dumping, all out recap of a previous book. Especially not in a series that is only a duology and only had one year between publishing dates for the book. This type of thing immediately sets the wrong tone, most especially in that it essentially cripples this book itself in lieu of trying to serve some imagined need of the first book to be recapped.

And then once the story starts, I was back to being reminded about all that troubled me with the first book. Most especially Kyra and the bizarre ways that those around her interact with her. In the first book, I couldn’t understand why she had been promoted to a Markswoman in the first place, and here, that same idea is taken to the next level with Kyra taking over as leader of her order. But…she’s a teenager! With very few years of experience! It’s hard to imagine that such a well-organized and long-lasting organization such as the Order of Kali would be set-up in such a way that a decision like this wouldn’t lead to extreme confusion and outright rebellion. Yes, yes, Kyra has to be “special” because she’s the protagonist. But there’s “special” and then there’s special to the point that you have to make every character around said special character operate in a completely unrealistic way to justify said special character’s specialness. If the special thing you want to do with your character doesn’t work without undercutting the believability of your established world norms and characters, then maybe you should look for a different way to make that character stand out, one that holds more in line with who they are and what they are, realistically, capable of.

I also had a hard time fully connecting to Rustan and his story line, once again. Again, I’m not sure that many of the choices we see him make in this book really align with the character that had been established in the first book.

Some of the mysteries in the world-building also came with distracting or confusing resolutions. I’m couldn’t quite understand how some of them even made much sense. At times, it felt like the book was suffering from its own restricted page count and some of these explanations felt truncated simply due to that. Again, if an author is going to put the effort into creating such a unique world as the one that was given to us in the first book, it’s really disappointing to get to the second and final one and find yourself marooned at the end feeling as if any explanations given just opened up even more questions.

So yes. This wasn’t the duology for me. Many of my struggles with the first book carried over to this one, and ultimately it’s not a series I would recommend. I know a lot of readers enjoyed the first one and early reviews seem to be positive for this one as well, but for me, the diversity and unique world-building isn’t enough to get past the failings in the more basic parts of writing: good characterization and strong plotting. If you enjoyed the first book, this one will probably hold up for you. But if you were on the fence with that one, as I was, this one’s probably not worth the time or effort.

Rating 5: This seems really low, but I was just that bored with it all.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Mahimata” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. It is on “YA Releases of March 2019.”

Find “Markswoman” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The Everlasting Rose”

39080472Book: “The Everlasting Rose” by Dhonielle Clayton

Publishing Info: Freeform, March 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I was received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: In this sequel to the instant New York Times bestseller, Camille, her sister Edel, and her guard and new love Remy must race against time to find Princess Charlotte. Sophia’s Imperial forces will stop at nothing to keep the rebels from returning Charlotte to the castle and her rightful place as queen. With the help of an underground resistance movement called The Iron Ladies-a society that rejects beauty treatments entirely-and the backing of alternative newspaper The Spider’s Web, Camille uses her powers, her connections and her cunning to outwit her greatest nemesis, Sophia, and restore peace to Orleans.

Review: I want to extend a big thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!

Last year you may remember that Serena and I both reviewed the book “The Belles” by Dhonielle Clayton. We both enjoyed it for the most part, it’s fantasy world focused on beauty and opulence a neat new theme to bring to a fantasy story. I was lucky enough to snag a copy an eARC from NetGalley, and while I gave it some time on my Kindle I finally caved and had to read it around the beginning of 2019. Given that it’s kind of rare for me to enjoy fantasy novels, I had really high hopes for “The Everlasting Rose,” the sequel and final installment in this duology. And there will be allusions to plot points of “The Belles” in this review, so tread carefully if you want to remain spoiler free for that book.

When we left off in “The Belles,” Camille, her fellow Belle/sister Amber, and former Imperial Guard Remy had escaped Orleans after the sociopathic Princess Sophia was positioned to take the crown after his mother died. Meeting up with rebellious and escapee Belle Edel, the group now knows that the only way to save Orleans from a cruel and capricious ruler is to find her sister Charlotte, believed dead but possibly only in hiding (and still comatose). So the stakes are high from the get go, with Camille under threat of capture and certain torture, if not death. There is so much action and so many plot points that need to be introduced that there are few moments of quiet and organic exposition. For the most part this wasn’t a bad thing; it made it so the action was fast paced and kept me in its thrall. But I did find it to be too bad that, unlike in “The Belles”, that these points couldn’t slowly unfold at a more ruminative pace. But I did like a good number of these points, from information on what Sophia is doing to The Belles who didn’t escape (sufficiently horrifying!) to how the kingdom is starting to fight back against her upcoming coronation and reign. It just felt a bit stuffed in. On top of that, the ending was a bit rushed, and I ended up wanting more focus and exposition there as well. I know that people are burnt out of YA trilogies, especially in stories of fantasy and dystopic themes, but I think that perhaps this series could have benefited from one more book.

I also was on a higher alert after I read some criticism of “The Belles”, a criticism I feel like I should have seen last time. A number of people were critical that in “The Belles”, the two prominent LGBTQIA+ characters were killed off for plot device and character conflict. The “Bury Your Gays” trope is certainly one that is not only overdone, but can also be damaging and hurtful to LGBTQIA+ readers. It was with that new perspective in my mind that I went into “The Everlasting Rose”. The good news is that there are more LGBTQIA+ characters in this one, and no, not all of them get fridged, but I would warn readers that there may still be some problematic optics regarding these characters. I don’t feel that I can say for sure given that I’m a hetero and cis, but just know that there were still things that I found a bit questionable.

But some of the huge strengths this book does have are the characters and the setting of Orleans. I was once again completely taken in with the descriptions of the world, from the tea cup animals (and YES, there are TEA CUP DRAGONS THIS TIME!!) to the descriptions of the foods and the colors and the beauty treatments. Clayton’s writing makes it so that the reader can really visualize what she sees in her mind’s eye. And I loved seeing more of Edel, my favorite Belle, whose rebellion and questioning personality has made her a formidable member of the Resistance. She and Camille are great foils for each other, as they have both experienced similar things in different ways, which makes them have to see the other’s perspective. Camille herself has changed a lot from the beginning of the first novel, and I still like how developed she is, from her strengths to her flaws. Her relationships all feel real and filled with complexity. Her burgeoning romance with Remy feels very in character with both of them, and while Clayton does tread a bit too much towards love triangle for my tastes, the interactions she does have with Auguste (her initial love interest and now consort of Sophia) aren’t overwrought or too sappy. It, too, felt a little quick to resolve, but ultimately it went in a satisfying way.

It was kind of a bummer that “The Everlasting Rose” was a bit of a disappointment, but I’m glad that we got to go back to Orleans one last time, and that we got to see how Camille’s story ended. If Clayton wanted to revisit this world, I would absolutely go along for the ride.

Rating 6: A bit of a let down from its predecessor, “The Everlasting Rose” was an okay finish to a story filled with beauty and darkness.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Everlasting Rose” is included on the Goodreads lists “#ReadPOC: List of Books by Authors of Color”, and “Most Anticipated 2019 SFF Books”.

Find “The Everlasting Rose” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed:

Highlights: March 2019

Will spring ever arrive? This is the question on every Minnesotan’s mind as we stare out at our snow-covered lawns, our icicle-encrusted roofs and our thermometers that are still, somehow, showing single digits. But at least we can add an extra hour of light in the evenings soon? Literal light at the end of this cold, snowy tunnel?? As always, however, we have a list of books to look forward to to distract us!

Serena’s Picks

42506143Book: “The Shadowglass” by Rin Chupeco

Publication Date: March 5, 2019

Why I’m Interested: I’ve been loving “The Bone Witch” series from book one. Not only is the world-building and dark, death magic completely fascinating, but the narrative is structured in such a way that we have essentially two timelines to follow at once: Tea’s past self and her experiences growing into her Bone Witch powers and the adult Tea who has seen some shit. By the second book, each storyline was jam packed with its own action, and while some questions were being answered here and there, many of the primary mysteries behind how things ended up the way they were in adult!Tea’s timeline in the first book are still unclear. So not only do we need to catch up to that point in this book, but the present timeline was also getting pretty intense in the last book, so it’s hard to even imagine how that will conclude as well!

30518319Book: “A Dangerous Collaboration” by Deanna Raybourn

Publication Date: March 12, 2019

Why I’m Interested: I mean, obviously. I’ve been loving this series from the start and this was the first book that had a serious wait time attached to it given the timing of my discovery of the series. I’m also particularly intrigued by the Gothic, ghost-centric, missing bride angle at the heart of this mystery. I’m sensing some serious “Jane Eyre” vibes all over this thing, and that can only be a good sign! Beyond that, Veronica and Stoker’s relationship seems to be coming to a head, so I’m intrigued to see where the series goes with that! Will this actually be followed through on? Or will we get more of the same will-they-won’t-they we’ve seen for the last several books? I definitely have a preference!

38734256-1Book: “Sherwood” by Meagan Spooner

Publication Date: March 19, 2019

Why I’m Interested: A few years ago I read and adored Spooner’s retelling of my favorite fairytale, “Beauty and the Beast,” in her book “Hunted.” There were just enough callouts to the original story for it to feel familiar, but, for the most part, the story was completely new. Add to that a compelling, strong heroine at its heart and you had a hit on your hands! So when I saw that she was releasing another standalone story, this time a version of Robin Hood with Marian as the focus, I knew I would have to check it out! Like has so often (sadly) been the case with “Beauty and the Beast” stories, I’ve read a fair share of Robin Hood stories that cast Marian in a more important role (often the archer herself) and been left underwhelmed. However, given Spooner’s past success and the fact that the book description starts out with the provocative line “Robin of Locksley is dead”…yeah, I’m game to see where this one goes!

Kate’s Picks

34993030Book: “The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick” by Mallory O’Meara

Publication Date: March 5, 2019

Why I’m Interested: As the horror connoisseur on this blog it comes as no surprise that a book about the woman who designed The Creature from the Black Lagoon is something that has caught my attention. Milicent Patrick created the now iconic creature from the Universal Monsters line up, but the credit was stolen by a male colleague, and Patrick’s legacy was stolen from her. Mallory O’Meara, angered by this injustice, went out and found out everything she could about Patrick’s life, and has now written a biography of a woman whose contributions to the horror film industry has been long overlooked. While I’m sure the sexism and misogyny is going to make my blood boil, I can’t wait to learn about a lady horror fan whose impact within the genre was formidable.

38167114Book: “Internment” by Samira Ahmed

Publication Date: March 19, 2019

Why I’m Interested: With our Government and this current administration promoting racist and Islamaphobic policies, “Internment” feels like a timely, and very scary, warning of a novel. It’s the story of Layla, a seventeen year old Muslim American, and how she, her family, and Muslims across the country are rounded up by the Government and relocated to Internment camps, echoing America’s shameful and horrific past of Japanese American internment during WWII. While Layla’s parents hope that remaining silent and compliant will keep them safe, Layla has other ideas, and wants to fight back. Heavy stuff, but given that this ‘what if’ scenario feels all too plausible it’s probably also necessary to think about.

39080472Book: “The Everlasting Rose” by Dhonielle Clayton

Publication Date: March 5, 2019

Why I’m Interested: Given how much I greatly enjoyed “The Belles” last year, I OF COURSE have to put it’s sequel, “The Everlasting Rose”, on my list! When we left off, Rogue Belle Camille has run from her duty to Princess Sophia and has met up with her sister Belle Edel, in hopes of fighting back against Sophia’s oppressive regime. Camille and Edel have to team up to find Sophia’s sister Charlotte, the rightful heir to the Orléans Throne, and have to keep themselves safe and hidden along the way. We’ve entered the revolution part of this dystopian tale, and the stakes are quite high. Will Camille and Edel, along with the help of former guard Remy and an underground rebellion group, be able to save Orléans from tyranny?

What books are you looking forward to this month? Let us know in the comments!

Serena’s Review: “The Queen of Sorrow”

36039814Book: “The Queen of Sorrow” by Sarah Beth Durst

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, May 2018

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

Book Description: Queen Daleina has yearned to bring peace and prosperity to her beloved forest home—a hope that seemed doomed when neighboring forces invaded Aratay. Now, with the powerful Queen Naelin ruling by her side, Daleina believes that her dream of ushering in a new era can be realized, even in a land plagued by malevolent nature spirits who thirst for the end of human life.

And then Naelin’s children are kidnapped by spirits.

Nothing is more important to her than her family, and Naelin would rather watch the world burn than see her children harmed. Blaming the defeated Queen Merecot of Semo for the kidnapping, Naelin is ready to start a war—and has the power to do it.

But Merecot has grander plans than a bloody battle with her southern neighbors. Taking the children is merely one step in a plot to change the future of all Renthia, either by ending the threat of spirits once and for all . . . or plunging the world into chaos.

Previously Reviewed: “The Queen of Blood” and “The Reluctant Queen”

Review: I picked up this book purely on the strength of the first book in the trilogy, which I absolutely loved. The second book, on the other hand, held some pretty serious set-backs for me with the introduction of a new main character who not only distracted from the original main character who I was invested in but who also, in my opinion, was fairly unlikeable. But the unique world-building and the growing overall conflict that had been laid down between the first two books were enough to spur me on to pick up this one. Unfortunately, the book doubled down on the elements from the second one that I didn’t like and ended up muddling up the world-building that had been the element that was carrying me along so far. Alas.

Aratay should be stronger than ever. With an unprecedented situation of having two Queens at its head, each with her own strengths, it would seem that nothing could threaten them. However, the powerful Queen Merecot, whose schemes almost brought down the realm in the last book, is at work once again and this time she strikes at the heart of the matter: Naelin’s children. Now Queen Daleina must find a way to hold the world in order, with her fellow queen going mad with worry and her childhood friend threatening everything she’s worked so hard to create.

Oh man, this book. It was really disappointing, especially because I so clearly remember the high that was reading the first book. And many of those elements can still be glimpsed here, but then…I don’t know what happened? The world gets too bogged down introducing new elements and questions without resolving them. The great character of Daleina ends up taking a back seat once again, and it all was just not for me.

The world-building has always been one of the biggest draws for me to this series. The sheer maliciousness of the spirits and the way that humanity has built up a system for living in an environment that literally wants to kill them has been fascinating. We’ve gotten little peaks here and there behind the curtain to figure out that there is more to the spirit world than what we’re seeing, but it’s always been shrouded in the type of mystery that simply makes up any world and doesn’t necessarily need to be explained.

However, this book takes that world-building and completely turns it on its head. A bunch of new questions and additional layers (largely unnecessary in my opinion) were introduced that complicated so many elements the world and the way humanity functioned in it. What’s worse, most of these are then not even resolved by the end of the book. Instead, readers are now left with an upended understanding of the entire series because…why? Any potential that was gained by these additions was either squandered away with a return to the norm by the end of this book, in which case, why bother? Or left completely unanswered and only raising more confusion in their wake.

Beyond this, I have to again, go back to my dislike of the character of Naelin. Many of my problems in the last book centered around her characterization as a mother and a to-be Queen of this realm. By the end of the book, it felt like much of this had been resolved in a way that was satisfactory (if still annoying that it had taken an entire book to arrive at). But here, that same can of worms is torn open. Now fully a Queen and responsible for the lives of an entire nation, Naelin once again fails to behave in a way that garners any respect as a leader. She sounds like an excellent mother; but she shouldn’t be anywhere near a position where she holds an entire nation’s worth of lives in her hands.

Further, even Daleina begins to behave in a way that doesn’t hold with her own view of the responsibility of being a Queen in a country like this where the role is necessary to literally save the lives of the people. Both behave so sporadically and recklessly that it’s a wonder things don’t fall apart instantly. Daleina’s reunion with Merecot was also unsatisfactory, given up the very challenged history the two now have.

Overall, this book was the weakest of the entire trilogy for me. My known issues with the second book were just as prevalent here, and instead of being able to fall back on my interest in the world and magic system, that too was pulled out from under my feet with the introduction of a whole host of unnecessary and dead-ended additions to the mythology. If I was going to recommend this series, I would say just stop with the first one. It functions perfectly fine as a stand-alone novel and nothing the next two have to offer improves on that first story. In my opinion, they only detract from it.

Rating 5: A disappointment all around. I won’t be checking out the companion novel that is coming out soon.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Queen of Sorrow” isn’t on many relevant lists, but it is on “Original Stories . . . a Breath of Fresh Air.”

Find “The Queen of Sorrow” at your library using WorldCat!