Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!
Book Description: While winter snows keep the Witch Lord Ruven’s invading armies at bay, Lady Amalia Cornaro and the fire warlock Zaira attempt to change the fate of mages in the Raverran Empire forever, earning the enmity of those in power who will do anything to keep all magic under tight imperial control. But in the season of the Serene City’s great masquerade, Ruven executes a devastating surprise strike at the heart of the Empire – and at everything Amalia holds most dear.
To stand a chance of defeating Ruven, Amalia and Zaira must face their worst nightmares, expose their deepest secrets, and unleash Zaira’s most devastating fire.
Review: I have loved this series from the get-go, so it was with very mixed emotions that I picked up and started this book. On one hand, I was dying to know how everything would be wrapped up in one, admittedly long, book. And on the other hand, I didn’t want it to end and had some concerns about whether it would stick the landing. The last book really does make or break a series, and while so far the books have only gotten better and better…you just never know. Luckily, this was a solid landing, and now I’ll just have to wait to see what the author has up her sleeve for a next book/series!
Amalia is coming into her own, heading up her first political action with the introduction of a new law that would grant the magic-wielding Falcons unprecedented freedoms. On top of this all, she is still balancing her complicated feelings for Captain Marcello and the witch-lord Kathe, whom she has been courting for months now. Add to that the mad witch-lord Ruven who is making increasing threats to the Empire and may finally push things to the point where Amalia and Zaira will have to confront the harsh reality of using Zaira’s balefire in combat. But nothing is too great a challenge for a Cornaro. Or is it?
What makes this series special has been the sheer number of points of interest and enjoyment that have pulled me in throughout story. Not only have I enjoyed Amalia as a main character, but I’ve loved her relationship with Zaira. The balance between political and military action has always been on point. The romance has gone in unexpected directions, somehow avoiding gaping pitfalls that many series fall into. And throughout it all, the story tackles larger questions regarding duty, loyalty, and the balance between freedom and safety. This book continued to deliver in all of these areas.
To start with characters (because we all know how much I love character-driven stories), Amalia and Zaira have traversed quite a journey throughout this trilogy and we see the dividends of this slowly built relationship pay off big time in this book. On their own, they are each excellent characters. Amalia’s sense of duty and her clear-eyed vision of her role in the world and the privileges, sacrifices, and burdens that come with it has never been more clear. She is so blessedly free of angst regarding this all. She sees the true dangers of her role (the hardening of one’s heart that comes with making life and death decisions), but doesn’t get caught up in any self-pity or dramatic indecision of the kind that we see all too often from YA protagonists. Zaira, too, is still her prickly self. However, she’s also come to value the relationships she’s built with those around her, and with these connections, she sees her own role in the Empire in a different light. She is still terrified of her balefire and its seeming control over her, but now, with people she loves in danger, she’s willing to risk herself in a way that would never have been true of the self-focused Zaira from the first book.
And together, Amalia and Zaira have come so far. They don’t where BFF bracelets or anything, but the respect and genuine love and friendship between them feels earned and true after the struggles of the first two books. And it’s only through that slow-growth that the almost impossible choices they must face in this book can be believable.
Ruven is also an excellent villain. Not only is he fun to hate, but he is actually given a bit more depth to make him, well, not relatable, but a bit more understandable. And his abilities are legitimately challenging to the point that a way through the threat he presents is never quite clear until the very end, and even then readers are left on the edge of their seat.
And then, of course, we have the romance. In the second book, the author somehow managed to introduce a love triangle that I didn’t hate. I honestly didn’t think this was possible. Much of it comes down to, again, Amalia and her dramatic-free, pragmatic approach to her life and the requirements that come with it. It is believable that she would have feelings for both Kathe and Marcello, and that these feelings could exist at the same time and still be wholly separate from each other. I was incredibly nervous to see how this would ultimately play out, and I was so pleased to find that the resolution presented felt natural and satisfactory. I guess this goes to show that even the most hated tropes don’t always hold true!
This is a long book, however, and it is this length that forces me to drop it down from a perfect 10. There’s a bunch of story here, and it’s not that I was bored at any point. However, especially in the beginning with the ins and outs of Amalia’s political actions to get her Falcon bill approved, there were a few points where I feel like a bit of editing could have been done to streamline the story. When there are all of these greater factors swirling around, this beginning portion almost felt like it was from a different book at times. But not a bad book, even then! Just a different one.
Other than that small, very tiny quibble, I absolutely loved this book and this series as a whole! I so hope that it gets all the attention that it so rightly deserves, and if you haven’t read any of these books yet, just you wait! You have an excellent ride ahead of you!
Rating 9: Perfectly sticks the landing in what turned into one of my favorite trilogies to read in a long time!
Book: “Into the Dark” (Fear Street #49) by R.L. Stine
Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, 1997
Where Did I Get This Book: An eBook from the library!
Book Description:Paulette Fox refuses to let her blindness stop her from living a full life. But one thing she’s never done is fall in love – until now. Paulette knows Brad Jones is the only guy for her. Even when her friends see Brad commit a horrible crime, Paulette is sure that he’s innocent. Her friends tell her he’s out of control, that she will be his next victim. But Paulette is sure he would never hurt her.
Is Paulette right about Brad? Or has her love put her in terrible danger?
Had I Read This Before: No.
The Plot: Before I go into this, I just want to say that if you want to experience some actually suspenseful thrillers with blind women in peril, just go watch “Wait Until Dark” or “Jennifer 8”. I do think that necessary conversations should be had about casting actors without disabilities as characters who have disabilities, just as there should also be conversations about who should be writing stories about disabled characters. But since these conversations weren’t getting attention in 1997, let’s continue with the break down of this late series “Fear Street” book.
First there is a prologue section in which the third person narrator alerts us that there is a mysterious guy who likes ‘spying on the blind girl’. Then we meet said blind girl, Paulette Fox, who is being dropped off at her music lesson by her friend Jonathan. Paulette likes that Jonathan doesn’t treat her like she’s fragile because she’s blind, and wishes that everyone could be like him. He asks her what gym class she’s going to sign up for, and she says self defense, and Mr. Doesn’t Treat Her Like She’s Fragile is worried when she says self defense because it’s ‘dangerous’. Paulette has been blind since she was a baby, dude, I’m pretty sure that she has adapted and adjusted to the world enough that she can take self defense classes, but I get the feeling this is going to be a theme of the book. Jonathan drops her off so he can go find a parking spot, and Paulette starts to walk up the slope towards the doors, when someone suddenly knocks her to the ground. Caught off guard she asks what happened, and the person tells her that a car was just about to hit her so he pushed her aside (we get our first inconsistency here; Stine just spent time describing how Paulette could hear the sounds of distant music from inside the school because her other senses are so adept, but she couldn’t hear a car on pavement that was about to hit her?). Another guy says that the emergency brake must have broken because there was no driver and the car just haphazardly crashed. Guy number 1 offers to take her to the ER (she’s FINE, dude!), but she declines, and he tells her that he’s happy he got to her in time, and addresses her by name. She says she doesn’t recognize his voice, and he says he knows her because EVERYONE knows Paulette at Shadyside High, and he’s a senior named Brad Jones, who’s a new student. She asks if he also takes lessons at the music academy, but he says that while he plays, he can’t afford it and is a part time janitor there instead. Jonathan joins them, and he knows Brad from English class. Paulette explains what happened, and Jonathan offers to take her home, but she says she’d prefer to go to her lesson. Once that’s over, Brad catches up with her and asks for her phone number. Paulette is over the moon and gives it to him, but Jonathan is skeptical. Once Brad heads off, Jonathan tells Paulette that there are rumors swirling at school about Brad and his old town of Springfield. People are saying he was involved with a robbery and that’s why he had to move! Paulette doesn’t believe it one bit because he was nice to her! So how could he possibly be a bad guy?
That night as Paulette gets ready for bed we get a pretty thorough and from what I can tell realistic portrayal of how Paulette’s life is around her house. There are mentions of Braille coded hangers, consistent placements of furniture and objects, and what can happen if things are left out of place. The phone rings and it’s Cindy, Paulette’s other best friend. Cindy asks Paulette about Brad (as Jonathan has a big fat mouth), and Paulette says that she’s hot to trot. Cindy isn’t sure that it’s sure a good idea given the rumors, but Paulette just says that Jonathan is way too overprotective of her (SO WHICH IS IT? Is he overprotective, or one of the few people who doesn’t treat her like she could break?). They say their goodbyes and hang up. After Paulette daydreams about Bran awhile, the phone rings again, and when she answers the caller says it’s Brad giving her a call! She’s surprised and asks why he’s talking so lowly, and he says he’s at a friend’s house, and then says he can’t stop thinking about her and says that she’s the one he’s been looking for, and wants to know if she feels the same way about him? Paulette is a little put off, and says they JUST met, but he says he has to know if she feels the same way about him. When she doesn’t answer, he hangs up.
Now we’re at school, and Paulette is doing awesome at her first self defense class. The teacher isn’t going easy on her and is telling her it’s about anticipating and concentrating, and once they’re done she tells Paulette that she still needs the signed permission slip from her parents. Paulette isn’t sure her parents will sign off, but says she will bring it in ASAP. After she gets all cleaned up it’s lunch time, and Paulette heads to the cafeteria. She’s always had a great sense of smell, so she knows what lunch is going to be just by the scent. She finds an empty table by listening to the noise levels, and waits for her friends to arrive. Cindy is first, who has the hot gossip like usual, and Paulette admits that her mind is elsewhere because she’s been thinking about Brad. She confides in Cindy about the strange phone call and how he sounded different in both voice and what he said. But before they can explore this more, Brad shows up, and Cindy, being a true wingman, makes her exit. Paulette decides not to bring up the weird phone call, and they have a nice chat. He then puts her hands on his face so that she can get a feel for how he looks, and she notices that he has a scar on his eyebrow but is otherwise pretty handsome. He says that no one can see the scar, so her senses are very well tuned. They talk about piano and he says that he doesn’t own one but is trying to practice. She invites him over to practice on hers, but he gets quiet and declines, saying that he found a piano he can use at any time. It’s in an abandoned house on Fear Street! WELCOME BACK, FEAR STREET! I feel like it’s been far too long since we’ve had any kind of mention of you!
Walking home that day Paulette thinks about the abandoned piano and the weird phone call. She gets home and remembers that her parents are going to be out late that night, and settles in to handle the house herself. She gets to her room, and runs into her waste basket. Figuring she bumped it without knowing, she goes back downstairs to practice piano. Cindy arrives soon after to work on a school project, and Paulette says they can go work in her room. But when they enter it, Cindy suddenly freaks out. She tells Paulette that someone has written all over the walls with red paint, and the phrase is ‘You Will Be Dead, Blind Girl’!!!! Paulette asks Cindy if anything else looks out of place, but Cindy says no. Paulette goes to where Cindy says it is written, and feels the paint with her hands. Cindy says that the person who did this might still be here, and Paulette says that they should investigate! They arm themselves and start looking. I would get sanctimonious about how they should call the cops, but back in college I was living in a house with some roommates and one day a roommate and I were convinced we saw someone in our kitchen (we had all the doors and windows open due to an oven cleaning mishap). Instead of calling the police on the potential intruder we grabbed knives and went to flush them out. We didn’t find anyone (a strange outcome, as there was definitely someone in the kitchen and there was no where to escape without us seeing), but it was foolish of us to do that. Anyway, Paulette and Cindy also come up empty, and Cindy thinks they need to tell someone. But Paulette says that her parents are SOOOO overprotective they will surely blow this whole thing out of proportion. But Paulette, this isn’t them maybe being worried about you taking self defense, this is a LITERAL THREAT AGAINST YOUR PERSON AND A BREAKING AND ENTERING SITUATION. But Cindy agrees, and they start to cover up the entire thing.
The next morning over breakfast Paulette gives her parents the permission slip for her self defense class. They predictably waffle on whether or not she can handle it, but she convinces them that she can, so they sign. As she’s walking to school she thinks that she better not tell them about Brad yet, given that there are those pesky rumors about him being a criminal. As she’s walking she suddenly hears shoes running up behind her. She calls out a greeting, but gets no answer. Then she’s suddenly shoved into oncoming traffic. She isn’t hit, but a car does spin out trying to avoid her. The woman in the car asks Paulette if she’s okay, and Paulette says yes. The woman offers to drive her home, but before Paulette can undoubtedly decline because her parents are SO overprotective, she’s helped up by Brad, who sounds like he has a cold. Brad says that he can take her to school, and says that he was across the street and saw the whole thing. He says he saw Paulette trip. When Paulette tells him that someone pushed her, he says no, he didn’t see anyone, she pretty clearly tripped. He then pulls her into a creepy hug, and asks if she thinks about him as much as he thinks about her. She shoves him away and asks what’s wrong with him, but he just gives her back her cane and runs off.
At the library that afternoon Paulette is thinking about the strange encounter with Brad. Jonathan and Cindy ask her why she’s so spacey, and she doesn’t tell them about what happened that morning. Brad then comes up to them and asks Paulette if they can talk. She agrees, warily, and he asks her if she would come hear him play the abandoned piano on Fear Street that night. She isn’t certain, but now Brad seems perfectly normal, so she says sure. He says that he was happy he saw her because he was thinking about her, and she said that they saw each other that morning. He soundss confused, and has to go back to class before they can discuss it more.
Cut to Paulette getting off at the Fear Street bus stop. Brad is there to pick her up and walk with her to the abandoned house, and Paulette notes to herself that Fear Street even has a different smell from the other streets in town, and I personally really like that tidbit. They get to the house, and the door is easy to open. Not only that, in a convenient twist of fate, while the electricity is out, the gas was never turned off, so it’s nice and warm! He tells her that there’s rumors that the person who owned the house was a music teacher whose family was murdered, and the piano was left behind. We get new tidbits about other hauntings in the area, and man, I missed this aspect of these books, it’s been too long. They start to play, but then they hear noises upstairs. Brad says he’ll go check it out, and she can hear him moving around upstairs. Then there’s a slam, and shouting, and footsteps running down the steps, and a door slamming. And then that’s it. Paulette calsl out for Brad, but gets no answer. She decides to try and find him in this house that she’s never been to, and uses her cane to explore the space. She eventually finds a staircase, and is about to climb it, but then someone grabs her from behind! It’s Jonathan! He tells her the staircase is rotted out and it could collapse, and she asks what he’s doing there. He admits that he followed her there, and started to get worried when the flashlight they were using stopped moving around. Jonathan says he’ll go check the house, but doesn’t find Brad. Brad’s gone. She says that he wouldn’t have ditched her in an abandoned house, and yet… that’s exactly what he did. When she and Jonathan get to his car she demands to know why he followed her. He says that he thought it was weird she was getting on a bus, and then when he saw she was meeting Brad he wanted to be sure she was safe because of the rumors about him. She says she can hang out with whomever she wants and he says he can worry about his friends, and Paulette wonders if Jonathan is hiding something. And I mean, sure, he has serious boundary issues and a hero complex, but the fact that she’s questioning HIM over the guy who has been a total weirdo the entire time she’s known him, that seems misguided to me. Once she gets home she waits for Brad to call with an explanation as to why he ditched her in an unfamiliar place, but no such phone call is to be had.
At lunch the next day Paulette and Brad finally meet up, and he says that he was ‘really sorry’ about the night before and didn’t mean for it to end up like that. She calls him out on it, but he doesn’t have any better explanation of reasoning. He also tells her that he can’t see her anymore. She asks him to tell her what is going on, but he balks and says that he ‘can’t let this happen again!’, and runs out of the cafeteria.
That evening Paulette is moping and her friends ask her why. She tells them about Brad, and they both agree that it’s probably better this way, and Paulette doesn’t like that one bit. She tells them about how weird he acted after the car incident, and they both say that he is BAD NEWS, but Paulette doesn’t want to believe it. She goes home and her mom tells her that her grandmother fell and broke some bones, and so for the next few nights her parents are going to have to be out late taking care of her. They ask if she wants to stay and her aunt’s house, but Paulette says no. She waits for Brad to call, but he doesn’t. As she’s trying to fall asleep, she hears a scratching at the window. She gets up the shut it, but then someone grabs her! She begins to scream, calling for her parents for help, but of course whoever it is lets her go and by the time her parents arrive she’s alone. But instead of coming clean about everything (and this would be the perfect time to do so), she just says she had a BAD DREAM and that everything is okay. Her Dad goes to check the window anyway, and then finds a ring on the floor. It says ‘B.J.’, and those are Brad’s initials! Paulette lies and says she was holding the ring for a friend of hers and just forgot to give it back, and they believe her. Paulette doesn’t understand! How can Brad be so sweet and thoughtful one moment, and then trying to hurt her the next?!
At Pete’s Pizza the next day Paulette, Cindy, and Jonathan are talking about Student Council, but Paulette is so sulky the others discern that she’s still upset about Brad. Jonathan tells her that Brad dropped out of school (how Paulette didn’t hear this is beyond me). Paulette is upset, but Cindy says that this is probably a good thing because Brad turned out to be such an unstable creep. Then, someone in a mask bursts into Pete’s Pizza and holds up the place!! He also says that everyone has to hand over their cash! Paulette’s backpack slipped to the floor, and as she’s trying to find it the gunman gets antsy about her movements. Jonathan stands up to try to explain that she can’t see where her backpack is, and then the gunman shoots him! He then tells a girl (Ann Johnson, Paulette recognizes her voice) to gather up the valuables as Cindy and Paulette try to stop the blood from pouring out of Jonathan’s body. They hear police sirens, and a scuffle ensues, and Cindy tells Paulette that two guys unmasked the gunman… And it’s Brad!! The police arrive and an ambulance crew hauls Jonathan away, and the police say that they need to ask some questions. A number of people say that Brad was the gunman, but Paulette realizes that it wasn’t Brad’s voice that was yelling at everyone, and she remembers that the gunman’s scent wasn’t like Brad’s scent. Paulette decides to pipe in and says that it wasn’t Brad, but the police officers are…. skeptical to say the least. Paulette tries to explain that voices are like faces to her and that she knew that Ann Johnson was there just by her voice, which Ann confirms. The police still don’t listen, and radio out a request for a warrant for his arrest.
As Paulette and Cindy wait at Cindy’s house for news about Jonathan, they argue about whether or not it was Brad. But they get the call that Jonathan is going to be okay, and they both are too relieved to be too mad at each other about their differing opinions. Cindy asks if Paulette is going to tell her parents about all of this, and Paulette says she’ll tell them about the robbery but nothing about her and Brad. Paulette also says that she has to warn Brad that the police are looking for him, and the argument is back on. Paulette asks Cindy to drive her to the Music Academy since Brad works there, but Cindy refuses at first, but then agrees once Paulette says she will just walk then. They get to the school and ask if Brad is there, but one of the music teachers says that Brad never showed up for work. Paulette suggests that they check the locker room, and Cindy reluctantly agrees. They go to the locker room, and Cindy narrates what she finds in the locker that says ‘Jones’, and let me tell ya, it’s incriminating AF. There are a bunch of newspaper clippings about robberies in Springfield, Brad’s old town, of businesses and homes, and it names Brad as the number one suspect. Paulette laments how she could have been so wrong about him.
As Paulette is trying to fall asleep that night she pretends not to hear her mother ask if she’s okay. Then her phone rings, and it’s Brad. He tells her that he knows that it looks bad, but he’s innocent! And he can’t tell her why or how, but he just wants her to know that he didn’t do it. Oh, and that things are going to get pretty bad in the next few days….
The next evening after her parents have left to go check on grandma, Paulette is sitting in the backyard trying to do homework. She’s having a hard time concentrating, as she can’t stop thinking about Brad, but she she hears an out of place noise. She turns off her recording, and listens. She hears footsteps. She calls out, hoping it’s a neighbor or a stray animal, but we know better, don’t we? She then hears heavy breathing right next to her ear, and when she tries to get up to grab one of the handrails that should be there, they’re gone! Without any sort of marker for where she is in the backyard, she becomes completely disoriented. She knows that someone is watching her as she tries to find her way to something familiar, and this is actually a very effective scene and one of the better done moments of suspense in a long time within this series. She eventually gets hold of a landscaping stone she recognizes, and can get back into the house handily once she’s oriented again. She locks all the doors and windows and calls Cindy. Cindy rushes right over, and when Paulette asks her if the backyard looks different she says no, which means whoever was stalking her put everything back. Cindy suggests that Paulette call the police (YES, CALL THE POLICE), but Paulette doesn’t see the point. Cindy asks if she wants to stay at her house at least, and Paulette says no. Then Cindy gasps, and turns up the TV. Someone just robbed a store that is two blocks from Paulette’s house, and the description matches that of Brad Jones! The address he gave the school isn’t a real address and he’s considered armed and dangerous. Cindy practically begs Paulette to come stay with her, but Paulette still refuses. Cindy says she will at least call the check in later, and leaves.
Paulette is playing the piano to calm her nerves when the phone rings. It’s Brad! He says that he called to apologize, and his voice is so weak that Paulette can barely hear him. He tells her that he needs to tell her the truth: he has a twin brother named Ed! And Ed has been jealous of him his entire life and made things really hard to Brad wherever they lived!
He says that the police are after him for things Ed did, and that’s why he moved to Shadyside. And he arrived the same time that Brad did, and saw Paulette and decided that she was his girlfriend. Ed’s the one who’s been stalking her and committing the crimes. He says that he and Ed fought and Ed hurt him, and he needs a doctor. Paulette says she can call the cops but he says he’ll be arrested. He needs to get to Ed first, then they can call the cops. He asks for her help and says he’s at the house on Fear Street, and then hangs up.
Paulette arrives at Fear Street and gets off the bus. She remembered the step count from the last time she was there, and makes her way to the house. She calls for Brad and hears him upstairs. She remembers what Jonathan said about the staircase, and slowly climbs it. When she finds Brad he tells her she has to help him trap his brother, who will be back soon. He says that when they hear the door open she should call to him, and he will come to her because he’s so obsessed. She agrees. When they hear him call for her, Brad says that he will knock him out as soon as he walks through the door. So Paulette calls for him. And indeed, as soon as he calls for her, she calls back, and she hears him run up the steps and into the room, followed by a thwack and a thud. Brad asks her to help tie him up, and she does. Soon Ed comes to, and he starts to freak out, but not for the reasons you’d expect. It’s because he’s claiming that HE is Brad, and that the guy Paulette just helped is Ed!! The twins argue both claiming to be Brad, but Paulette knows how she’ll figure it out! THE SCAR! She walks up to the standing twin and asks to touch his face. And whoops, wouldn’t you know it. No scar. Ed confirms he was the intruder at the window, he was the one who pushed her into traffic, who moved things in her backyard, who painted the message in her room. All because she was falling for BRAD, like they always do! And now she smells the cinnamon on him like she did at Pete’s Pizza (though I would have thought that she would have smelled it on a number of occasions when there was confusion given that her sense of smell has been so hyped up). Ed ties Paulette up because now she knows too much, and we get some lame thrown together reasoning for why there are no parents (both are dead) in this entire kerfuffle. Ed turns on the gas valve. He says once they’re both unconscious he’ll untie Brad to frame him for this whole thing. He’s going to take the money and skedaddle. Paulette decides to make a gambit of a move, and asks Ed to take her with him because she’s been in love with him the whole time! After some convincing he agrees, and tells her to hold up this flashlight while he pulls the fireplace apart to grab the stash. She does for a bit, but then smashes the flashlight against the hearth, making the room go black. Then we get a “Wait Until Dark” rip off moment as they play cat and mouse in the dark, and all you have to know is Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin did it better. Eventually at the top of the steps Ed grabs her, but her self defense skills kick in, and she waits until he’s off guard and slams into him. He pushes her towards the steps, and she pulls him with her. She swings him around and then tosses him down the steps as she flies back and lands on the top floor landing. Ed is not as lucky. She crawls back to where Brad is based on her memory, and helps him up, using his eyes to get them down the steps and past Ed’s broken dead body. They get outside just as the police arrive. The policeman asks if they’re okay, and Brad says that he feels like he’s ‘finally coming out of the dark.’ The End.
Body Count: 1. And his twin wasn’t very broken up about it either!
Romance Rating: 5. Brad wasn’t a homicidal maniac, but he sure kept a LOT of secrets from Paulette that could have prevented her from getting hurt…
Bonkers Rating: 7. The sudden evil twin reveal was pretty out there, but I don’t think it was in a good way.
Fear Street Relevance: 7! As if Stine realized that he’d been neglecting Fear Street as of late, we got some good action sequences there AND got some good reminders and new mythologies as to why it’s such a scaaaary place.
Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger:
“And it was obvious to Paulette that Brad was in terrible, terrible danger.”
…. And then that’s all she has to say about that in that moment. Even if this was true, Paulette should have been thinking that perhaps Brad was part of the terrible, terrible danger in some way, shape, or form.
That’s So Dated! Moments: Paulette, Cindy, and Jonathan are watching a generic slasher movie on VHS and if that didn’t take me back to high school, I don’t know what would. Also the outdated and offensive term ‘handicapped’ is used to describe Paulette.
“‘Great film!’ Jonathan said.
‘If you like swimming pools full of blood,’ Cindy commented.”
Ooh! Me! I like swimming pools full of blood!
Conclusion: “Into the Dark” was just kinda boring for the most part, and I did call the big twist pretty early on. But it wasn’t as abysmal as some of the late game “Fear Street” books. You could do worse. Up next is “The Best Friend 2”! We’re nearing the end of the original run!
On March 30th, 1939, “Detective Comics” introduced the world to Batman, the Caped Crusader known for fighting petting criminals and mental patients so that Gotham City would be a safer place! We kid, we kid (kinda). We’re both Batman fans here (though Serena is decidedly #TeamSupes when it comes down to it). Since it’s the brooding billionaire’s birthday this year, here are some essential takes on Batman through the decades. Happy 80th, Batman!
Book/Arc: “The Dark Knight Returns” by Frank Miller
The 1980s was a serious shift for comics, with titles taking on darker and more existential story lines. One of those seminal comics series was Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns”, which brings a middle aged Bruce Wayne to it’s pages. Gotham is being overrun by a gang called The Mutants, and Bruce Wayne decides that it’s time to bring Batman back to try and get some justice. But age and time has taken it’s toll, and Bruce isn’t certain he can do this alone. Especially when old foes start to come out of the woodwork, and have decided to take this moment to wreak as much havoc as possible. But it’s when Superman is enlisted to fight back against Batman as ordered by the Government that things take a real turn for the dramatic. Miller’s story is a favorite with many fans, and it brings darkness that hadn’t really been seen with Batman up until this point. While it isn’t one of Kate’s favorites, it’s hard to deny the impact that this story had for Batman in the years to come.
Book/Arc: “The Killing Joke” by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland (Ill.)
A controversial title to say the very least, Alan Moore wrote this essential, dark as night one shot story that changed the course of a few of the Batman characters in significant ways. The Joker is up to his old tricks, and this time he decides to hit Batman where it really hurts: by hurting his friends. Yep, this is the story where Barbara Gordon is shot in the spine and then, potentially, sexually assaulted. It is absolutely a rough read (and so on brand for Moore, who is one of Kate’s problematic faves in the comics biz), but it did so much for Batman stories from then on out that it has to be included. It gave Joker his most accepted back story that influenced Tim Burton’s “Batman”. It gave us Oracle, the superhero Barbara turned into after she was paralyzed, who became arguably the most powerful of the Bat Family because of her hacking and information skills. “The Killing Joke” has its detractors, and rightfully so. But its influence is indisputable.
Book/Arc: “The Long Halloween” by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale (Ill.)
While many people think of the deranged super villains that Batman fights, sometimes we forget that he also has helped take down organized crime syndicates in Gotham. The Falcone and Maroni Families takes a prominent role in “The Long Halloween”, a collection where Batman has to try to stop a mob war all while trying to figure out who is killing people on each holiday of the year. Not only do the crime families and their intricacies get a big slice of the plot pie, this is also the collection that give Harvey Dent his most complex and accepted back story as he goes from idealistic district attorney to crazed criminal. It should also be noted that this is a story arc that gives Bruce and his lady love Selina “Catwoman” Kyle a fairly functional relationship! Well, as functional as the two star crossed lovers can be, anyway. And keep an eye out for a whole slew of enemies like Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, and, of course, The Joker.
Book/Arc: “Knightfall” by Chuck Dixon, Jo Duffy, Alan Grant, Dennis O’Neil, and Doug Moench
Bane gets no respect when it comes to his movie counterparts. In “Batman and Robin” he was a weird street punk turned feral roided out monster, and in “The Dark Knight Rises” he is relegated to a crony role to Talia Al Ghul of all people! Is that any way to treat The Man Who Broke The Bat? “Knightfall” is the story line that introduced Bane as the first adversary who could not only intimidate Batman, but to put him out of commission when he broke his back on his knee (which “The Dark Knight Rises”, admittedly, adapted properly). Bane is a super genius as well as being suped up on Venom, a man who was born in a prison and had to serve the time his parents had racked up. He is a formidable foe to be sure, and to take down Batman and put him on the sidelines for an extended period of time? THAT is impressive.
Book/Arc: “A Death in the Family” by Jim Starlin and Marv Wolfman (Ill.)
We tend to think of Batman as someone who always comes out on top. But there was one time that when he failed, it was the worst failure he could have made. And that was when he couldn’t prevent the death of Jason Todd, aka Robin. Jason Todd was always a controversial figure in the comics; he was the second Robin, and a very different character from Dick Grayson, whose shoes were already VERY big to fill. The fans didn’t care for him, and when the creators gave the fans the chance to vote on whether he lived or died, he was given a resounding death sentence. Unfair? Perhaps. But it was one of the most powerful stories because Batman was bested when the stakes were at their highest. This storyline has been alluded to, if not directly addressed, in newer iterations of Batman mythos, and while they tried to replicate it with “Death of the Family” (and the death of Bruce’s son Damian), the initial power and gut punch of “A Death in the Family” will probably never be replicated.
Book/Arc: “The Court of Owls” by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo (Ill.)
The New 52 was the expansive reboot series DC did in the 2010s, and The Court of Owls is arguably the best story line to come from this era of Batman comics. It’s a little more secretive and clandestine than other Batman villains. Usually the villain is apparent and in our face. But with the Court of Owls, very little is known about the Illuminati-esque secret society that may be pulling the strings in Gotham City. Even Batman goes in with very little information, and can’t rely on his vast (and sometimes SUPER convenient) knowledge when facing off with these foes. It’s nice to see Bats at a disadvantage every once in awhile, and The Court of Owls puts him at a vast one.
What Batman stories are your favorites? Let us know in the comments!
Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, November 2000
Where Did I Get this Book: own it!
Book Description: The Animorphs and Ax have to make the most important decision they’ve ever had to make: Do they continue to fight the Yeerks in secret, or is it time to let everyone know there is a resistance? That the Animorphs exist. And that Earth does stand a small chance against the invasion.
Jake knows that either choice is a major one. Not one that some kid should be responsible for. But he’s getting tired of the pressure. So, even though he realizes the other Animorphs need him to be strong, he doesn’t feel that way. In fact, he feels just the opposite. And Jake knows if he starts to lose it the Animorphs are done…
Plot: Why. Why would we waste one of the Jake’s last precious books on this steaming pile? It’s only half a Jake book at best, and even that half is so, so not awesome. I think I could have resigned myself to this kind of nonsense if we were still in the doldrums that was much of the books in the 30-range, but here?? Now?! No.
Look, I’m too mad to even detail the Civil War plot. Let’s be honest, I skim read all of these sections. Not only did I not care one bit, but the parallels that were being drawn were so on the nose that it was just uncomfortable at times. And also unnecessary. The series as a whole has always done an excellent job of presenting complicated wartime decisions without the need to prop those conversations up against some historical event. So, here is the plot description for the half of the book that was, you know, actually an Animorphs book.
Jake returns home, exhausted from yet another mission. On top of that, after Marco’s exposure and their exploits on the military ship, the team is in the middle of a serious debate about how/when/or if they should make their war public. Everyone is grumpy, and Jake doesn’t know what is the right choice. His mom greets him with a chores list to clear out the basement. Trudging down, he begins going through boxes and discovers a journal from a past relative who served in the Union during the Civil War. [Here enters the alternating storyline that I will actively try to forget even happened.]
Cassie calls and through code informs Jake that he’s needed at the free Hork Bajir valley. Once he and the others arrive, they are told that the worst has happened: a couple of Hork Bajir warriors have been captured and will have been infested by now, exposing the location of the valley to the Yeerks. Jake and the Animorphs immediately insist that the Hork Bajir must flee the valley, but Toby insists that they want to stay and fight, even in the face of what has to be insurmountable odds. Once it becomes clear that they will not be moved from this position, the Animorphs get down to trying to plan their defense.
As they explore around the valley, they come across a beaver dam and pond. From there, Jake gets an idea: if they build up the dam even further, they can use the pooled water as a timed released to flood out the invading Yeerk forces. The team also discovers a group of campers in the area. The team split up to get to work with several of them morphing beavers and starting to build up the dam. Tobias and Jake head out to try and get the campers to move out.
They decide to approach the campers in their human form with some lame stories about incoming weather. Not surprisingly, the campers don’t believe them. They then decide to just forget it all and morph in front of them. Luckily for them, the campers turn out to be huge Stark Trek nerds and are immediately down with the idea of believing a wild story about invading aliens. Some of them take off, but a small group (a father and his two teenage kids) decide they want to fight alongside the Animorphs and head back to the Hork Bajir valley. There, they join in an assembly line where the Hork Bajir are building spears to fight against the Yeerks.
Finally, the attack comes. They manage to hold back the first line of Hork Bajir, but shortly follows Visser One (Three) himself, in the morph he used in the first book when he chased the Animorphs out of the Yeerk pool, along with a group of Taxxons. Jake frantically signals for the dam to be released as free Hork Bajir fall all around the fighting Animorphs. Tiger!Jake ends up in a one-on-one fight with Visser One, but luckily the flood of water hits right when things start looking bad for him. He manages to swim his way out, and Visser One and the remaining Taxxons retreat.
Knowing that the Yeerks will likely try again, Toby prepares the remaining Hork Bajir to flee into the woods where they will remain until the end of the war. Marco’s parents will accompany them. As for the campers, the dad died in the attack and the two teenage children are shell-shocked. Jake and the Animorphs head home, with Jake reflecting that all they can ever do is what they think is best in the moment.
Our Fearless Leader: The beginning of this book is really great for highlighting just how exhausted Jake has become at this point. He mentions the fact that the group is barely making it through school and are all running on empty. To then get home and be presented with a list of chores…you can see how it would almost be enough to break him. Especially on top of the looming debate about going public.
There are some good moments between him and Tom. Tom even slips up a few times, making comments under his breath that would be suspicious if Jake wasn’t already in the know. It goes to show that the war is beginning to take a toll on the Yeerks as well; everyone’s guard is beginning to fall as things start to come to a head.
As for the rest of the book, we see a few good leadership moments from Jake, especially with his idea about the beaver dam. But we also see a lot of moments where things and people are definitely out of his control. He reflects on the choices that Ax made in the last book and has to come up against Toby and the Hork Bajir when they refuse to follow his direction to flee the valley.
Xena, Warrior Princess: Rachel is, of course, pro to the idea of the team going more public. She also uses her grizzly morph to help get the dam built more quickly when the beavers have a hard time moving some of the bigger logs. Not much else, other than that.
A Hawk’s Life: Tobias is with Jake when they confront the campers, so I equally blame him for the sheer stupidity of this move. I will detail my feelings on this whole “plan” later, but essentially I think it was a pretty terrible choice on both of their parts. I also wish we had gotten more from Tobias with the debate with Toby and the other Hork Bajir about the future of their life in the valley. He’s the closest to this group, so it always feels like a missed opportunity when he’s not more at the center of any discussion or interaction with them.
Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie is the one to wade into the beaver pond and captures a beaver for them to acquire. Not sure how believable her method is, but if anyone was going to do it, it would be her.
The Comic Relief: Marco, as usual, is the only reasonable one in the group when it comes to the nonsense that is the idea that the Hork Bajir want to stay and fight and the fact that Tobias and Jake revealed themselves to the campers. The entire time, he repeatedly points out that they have no chance of winning and fighting simply for pride or something is just a way to die more quickly.
E.T./Ax Phone Home: I have to say, one of the bigger disappointments of this book is the way that we get very little follow-up on the monumental decisions that Ax made in the last book. Jake pretty much says that they’ve both kind of silently agreed to just not talk about it. Jake admits that he is secretly glad that Ax took the decision out of his hands, but he’s also still mad that Ax would disobey him so directly. For his part, we see that Ax won’t meet Jake’s eyes and clearly still has strong feelings about the entire experience. And that’s about all we get. There is zero reference to the fact that Tobias, Rachel, and Marco all agreed with Ax’s plan and helped him execute it as well, which has to be almost as notable to Jake.
Best (?) Body Horror Moment: Not really a lot. The beaver morph was pretty straightforward, as far as morphing mechanics go. The fight between tiger!Jake and Visser One is pretty brutal, however. Poor tiger!Jake, always with the neck injuries!
Couples Watch!: Really nothing at all. There were a few nice references to how well Marco’s parents are doing with their life in the valley, but Jake and Cassie don’t have much and neither do Rachel and Tobias.
If Only Visser Three had Mustache to Twirl: It’s a cool call-back to have Visser One come after them in the same morph he used in book #1. I think this may be one of the first times we’ve ever seen him re-use a morph? I’ve always thought it was strange that he didn’t have preferred battle morphs in the past, but if he was going to have one, this one seems like a solid choice. The only reason it didn’t work way back in the first book was due to its size and the small tunnels in the Yeerk Pool. Out in the open, it seems like a powerful choice. He gets in his usual corny lines, so it’s nice to know that the promotion has done nothing to improve (?) his campy villain mode.
Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: The whole decision with the campers, especially when you look at the end result which is two teenagers who are now orphans. There was absolutely zero reason this had to go down the way it did. It’s one thing to reveal themselves to military personal on the ship, individuals who have signed on and trained for battle. It’s completely another to involve unprepared civilians. Not only have we seen the Animorphs deal with scenarios exactly like this in the past super easily (just send in grizzly!Rachel and the problem is solved), but they only make the barest attempts to convince the campers to leave before just jumping to “let’s reveal all of our secrets to a group of complete strangers!”
Then, to make matters worse, it becomes immediately clear that the campers are in no way tracking with the seriousness of the issue, making tons of references to Star Trek and such (these were fun for laughs, but should have been seriously worrying for Jake and Tobias). So what do Jake and Tobias do? Agree that sure, it’s fine if some of them want to join in the fight. And sure, it’s fine if the others want to head out, now knowing all of their secrets. Jake and Tobias even make some passing reference to the fact that no one will believe them because they’re Trekkies. Do you know who will believe them? The Yeerks, that’s who!! They’ve known this for literally years now, which is why it’s always been so important to not reveal their human forms. It’s just insane that they now hand-wave it away or “forget” this part of it.
And then what happens? The dad and teenagers get there and then the dad realizes that wait, yes, this is real and death is on the line. But, oops, it’s too late, and now the Animorphs have civilians who all they can do to protect is to tell them to hide. Which they do, and the dad still ends up dead. There’s no reference to what happens to the kids past this point. But there is zero excuse for any of this nonsense. Jake and the others essentially just exposed their whole operation for no reason and got two kids’ dad killed for nothing. It has to go down as one of the worst things they’ve done in the entire series.
What a Terrible Plan, Guys!: The whole idea that the Hork Bajir wanted to stay and fight. This falls largely on Toby’s shoulders, but also on the rest of the Animorphs for giving in as easily as they do. I get that they couldn’t force the issue, but Toby really has no excuse. There were a lot of pretty lines about freedom and defending one’s home, but all of this is completely pointless in the situation they were in here. Freedom is meaningless if you’re dead. Not to mention, in the middle of battle preparations Toby is also preparing her people for the necessary retreat at the end of it. What the hell?! It’s bad enough to be naive enough to think they could win the battle, but the fact that they know and acknowledge the fact that they’ll need to retreat at the end of it anyways? Then you are literally just throwing your life away for pride or some nonsense. And asking others to do it too by involving the Animorphs. It’s pure stupidity for nothing. They still suffer huge losses, and somehow we’re supposed to believe that this counts as a “win” because now they’ve “protected their home” or some such nonsense? You’re still retreating to life in exile in the woods!! Nothing changed from this other than the fact that you lost a lot of your people for nothing and had the same end result.
I will say that the beaver/dam issue was rather clever. I’m not sure about the mechanics of how this would work (how fast would water really build up?), but it’s a cool idea nonetheless.
A good comical line from Marco. The same could be said about the cover. Here we are, getting close to the end, and we have…a beaver morph.
<You know, this mission is seriously important. I’m thinking the morph should be a little more, I don’t know, glamorous. I mean, going beaver to save an entire colony of aliens is like putting James Bond behind the wheel of a minivan. With a bumper sticker that says, “World’s Greatest Mom.” No offense.>
Marco, again, calling it like it is. Jake’s rebuttal is completely weak, too. Marco legitimately did have to do what he did. Jake absolutely did not. If they had to reveal themselves to every person who’s been in the way on one of these missions, they would have shown themselves to people in almost every book.
<Exactly the problem!> Marco said angrily.<Jake, who decided it was okay to make public appearances?>
“Well, you, actually,” I said. “And that’s not an accusation. It’s a fact. When you told your dad about us. You did what you had to do and so did I.”
<That was different with my dad,> he said forcefully. <Maybe even with those sailors and marines on the aircraft carrier. I don’t know. But come on, Jake. You don’t even know these campers. Who they work for, who they’re related to, where they’re from.>
Scorecard: Yeerks 13, Animorphs 16
A point for the Yeerks! Not only did the Animorphs/Hork Bajir make terrible decisions throughout this all, but the Yeerks successfully flushed out the Hork Bajir and took one of the Animorphs’ main bases of operation off the table.
Rating: This book was infuriating. I only covered the half that had to do with the Animorphs and as you can see from my multiple rants above, even that part was incredibly angering. And that’s not counting the fact that a full half of the book was wasted on a Civil War plot line that was completely unnecessary. Look, I get that in long-running book series or show, you reach a point where this type of experimentation with storytelling comes to play simply due to ideas running dry. But we were at that point books and books ago. Now, things are actually ramping up! The series is clearly building towards an ultimate conflict. This is absolutely NOT the time to waste an entire half of an already short book on stupidity like this. And really, it’s not like the Civil War story added anything to this. I skim read it, but I could have literally read zero of it and missed nothing. Like I said above, any parallels that were drawn were so on the nose as to seem comical. And Jake’s not even reading this story or anything where he could be making these connections himself as his own story plays out. It’s just two completely seperate stories running next to each other. I’m not here for the Civil War; I’m here for Animorphs, and there’s so little of it left that it’s almost insulting to read a book like this where half the page count is essentially just thrown out on a pointless side story.
Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all!
Book: “American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road” by Nick Bilton
Publishing Info: Portfolio, May 2017
Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.
Book Description: In 2011, a twenty-six-year-old libertarian programmer named Ross Ulbricht launched the ultimate free market: the Silk Road, a clandestine Web site hosted on the Dark Web where anyone could trade anything–drugs, hacking software, forged passports, counterfeit cash, poisons–free of the government’s watchful eye. It wasn’t long before the media got wind of the new Web site where anyone–not just teenagers and weed dealers but terrorists and black hat hackers–could buy and sell contraband detection-free. Spurred by a public outcry, the federal government launched an epic two-year manhunt for the site’s elusive proprietor, with no leads, no witnesses, and no clear jurisdiction. All the investigators knew was that whoever was running the site called himself the Dread Pirate Roberts.
The Silk Road quickly ballooned into $1.2 billion enterprise, and Ross embraced his new role as kingpin. He enlisted a loyal crew of allies in high and low places, all as addicted to the danger and thrill of running an illegal marketplace as their customers were to the heroin they sold. Through his network he got wind of the target on his back and took drastic steps to protect himself–including ordering a hit on a former employee. As Ross made plans to disappear forever, the Feds raced against the clock to catch a man they weren’t sure even existed, searching for a needle in the haystack of the global Internet. Drawing on exclusive access to key players and two billion digital words and images Ross left behind, Vanity Fair correspondent and New York Times bestselling author Nick Bilton offers a tale filled with twists and turns, lucky breaks and unbelievable close calls. It’s a story of the boy next door’s ambition gone criminal, spurred on by the clash between the new world of libertarian-leaning, anonymous, decentralized Web advocates and the old world of government control, order, and the rule of law. Filled with unforgettable characters and capped by an astonishing climax, American Kingpin might be dismissed as too outrageous for fiction. But it’s all too real.
Review:There is a misconception about the true crime genre, and that is the thought that there are only books about blood, violence, murder, and serial killers to be had. While those are certainly some of the more popular topics in the scope of the genre, you can find a large number of books about less violent crimes. So for those of you who like the idea of reading up on something salacious and scandalous, but are squeamish when it comes to violence and death, I may have a good true crime fit for you. It involves a whole lot of the scandal and law breaking, and outlandish twists and turns that don’t seem real, but is, for the most part, low on body counts. And you may never look at “The Princess Bride” the same way again after reading it. Let me introduce you to “American Kingpin”.
“American Kingpin” is the story of the rise of The Silk Road, a website that acted as a black market for drugs that was hidden within the Dark Web. It was founded by a man named Ross Ulbricht, who initially saw it as a way for people to have access to illegal drugs, a value that lined up with his Libertarian beliefs. His internet handle was “The Dread Pirate Roberts”, and he remained fairly anonymous for years. As his website and fortune grew, so did his love of power, and his need to hold onto it by any means necessary. Along with his story are the stories of the various law enforcement officers who tracked him, and even got embroiled with him and The Silk Road, in hopes of catching him. And boy, is it a doozy. Nick Bilton does a very good job of keeping all of the complicated character threads straight, and slowly weaves them together to create an all encompassing big picture that reads like a thriller novel. He writes not so much sympathetic, but well laid out backgrounds of the people, and I think that seeing Ulbricht especially in a complex light was important. But it never took away from the fact that this guy was an entitled, privileged, single minded narcissist who thought he was untouchable, and went from drum circle college student to a man who was taking out hits on those who crossed him. While calling himself The Dread Pirate Roberts of all things!
The narrative itself moves at a fast pace, and given that the events are so outlandish that they read like fiction, it has a high entertainment factor. Like the cast of players, I felt like I was reading a thriller novel as opposed to a non fiction account, and it really speaks to how good of a narrative non fiction writer Bilton is. There were multiple moments I shouted out ‘ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!’ Specifically when it was noted that The Silk Road considered dabbling in human organs. HUMAN. ORGANS.
As Ulbricht’s scheming escalated the tension did as well. The book is very well researched, and it’s constructed in a way that gives a pretty evenly distributed amount between the players and the goings on in all of their lives, and how they connected to each other. I had a very hard time putting it down as I was reading, and even though I had a pretty basic working knowledge of the story thanks to the “Casefile” podcast series on it, there was still a lot of information at hand that never got bogged down by the sheer volume of it all. Bilton is also certain to push back against the idea of the Libertarian Utopia of the Silk Road being ‘victimless’ in its drug business, detailing one especially sad story about someone who was an unwitting purveyor of drugs from the site… and then suffered terrible consequences because of it. While Bilton never outright maligns the values that Ulbricht was striving to champion, he definitely makes a very compelling case for debating them. It never feels preachy; just matter of fact.
All in all, “American Kingpin” is a thrilling write up of a truly unbelievable crime. If you’ve been curious about the new true crime interest in our culture, but are wary when it comes to violence and murder, I would absolutely recommend this rollercoaster of a book.
Rating 8: A tense and VERY addictive true crime thriller, “American Kingpin” does a great job chronicling the rise and fall of a black market empire and the man who was behind it all.
Book Description: Katya’s power to freeze anything she touches has made her an outcast in her isolated village. And when she loses control of her ability, accidentally killing several villagers, she is banished to the palace of the terrifying Prince Sasha in Kiev.
At the castle, though, she is surprised to find that Sasha is just like her—with his own strange talent, the ability to summon fire. Instead of punishment, Sasha offers Katya friendship, and the chance to embrace her power rather than fear it.
But outside the walls of Kiev, Sasha’s enemies have organized their own army of people who can control the very earth. Bent on taking over the entire world, they won’t stop until they’ve destroyed everything.
Katya and Sasha are desperate to stop the encroaching army, and together their powers are a fearsome weapon. But as their enemies draw nearer, leaving destruction in their wake, will fire and frost be enough to save the world? Or will they lose everything they hold dear?
Review: I’ve had some good luck recently with Russian-based fairytale/fantasy novels. Plus, I’m always on the look out for a good standalone as I have way too many series I’m currently invested in. It’s a problem. All of that plus a pretty cover, and I was quick to place a request to read an early coy of this. Ultimately, however, it didn’t live up to all of the expectations I had placed on it.
Katya’s life has been one of fear and isolation, except by the elderly couple who has raised her. One night, her worst fears are realized when she releases her incredible power over ice with horribly destructive results. But her banishment turns out nothing like she had imagined. Instead of punishment, she finds more of her kind, people with incredible powers over elements. Even the Prince of Kiev whose own power over fire seems to perfectly balance her own. Now, not only has she found a place of acceptance, but she finds herself drawn into a greater conflict where her rare abilities may be the turning point that saves her entire nation.
As a pro for this book, the greatest thing that stood out to be was the commitment to the darkness at the heart of Katya’s story and the true danger of her powers. This isn’t just Elsa from “Frozen.” People die when Katya loses control. The original incident that results in her banishment is rightly horrifying, and while yes, she is definitely provoked into it, we see how terrible the results are, not only for the villagers but for Katya herself, as at this point in time, she only has limited control of how her abilities manifest. Then, further into the story, when we begin to hear about the larger threats against the country itself, these incidents aren’t left as purely stories of terrible things happening elsewhere to other people. Again, we see the results of these attacks, and it has a direct impact on Katya and her story. I really appreciated that the author made not only the dangers of Katya’s powers, but the villains themselves, feel more real by raising the stakes in this way.
But other than that, this book simply felt too standard to spark my real interest. Even trying to type out that summary above was a struggle because it just sounds so similar to so, so many stories that are just like it. Ice powers, fire powers, what have you. A book about a teenage girl who has some incredible power, is misunderstood, and then turns out to be the “chosen one” essentially to save a nation? Been there, seen that. Add in a love story with, of course, the prince, and you have pretty much checked off every requirement for the base model of YA fantasy novels.
Katya herself could be incredibly frustrating at times, especially early in the story. Yes, her initial confusion about what is going on and what her role is in everything makes sense. But as the story continues, she bizarrely flips back and forth between being trusting of and then suddenly antagonistic against those around her. And there is never any clear instigating factor behind the switch. It never read as a natural reaction to events happening around her, and instead felt like authorial intervention to add drama.
I also hated the romance. It was a terrible case of instalove where I couldn’t see any true chemistry built between the characters and it happened incredibly fast, especially on Sasha’s side. While Katya is going through her little song and dance of “I like him! I don’t trust him! But he’s great! But no, I must be opposed to him!” Sasha was pretty fully invested in Katya from the start. But…why? Again, no reason is actually presented in the book. We’re simply told that this is how it is.
There was nothing truly bad about this book. But there was also nothing that made it stand out to me. The story felt incredibly familiar. The characters seemed to be just going through the motions that we expect from YA fantasy. And the entire read felt slow and plodding, except for a few instances of action thrown in here and there. I can’t even say the idea behind the book was exceptional, as, like I said, it felt very familiar to many other fantasy YA stories featuring powered young women. If you really love those stories, this is more of the same, and you’ll probably like it. But if you’re looking for a new take on things, this isn’t it.
Rating 6: Pretty much exactly what you’d expect after reading the book description. No surprises here, and that was a bad thing.
Book Description:When Lana and her father return to their seaside hometown to help clear the debris of a storm, the last thing she expects is to discover a colony of Aquicorns—magical seahorse-like residents of the coral reef. As she explores the damaged town and the fabled undersea palace, Lana learns that while she cannot always count on adults to be the guardians she needs, she herself is capable of finding the strength to protect both the ocean, and her own happiness.
Review: When I saw that Katie O’Neill had another graphic novel coming out, I knew, I KNEW, that I had to read it. I loved “The Tea Dragon Society” so very much, and gentle and vibrant cuteness was something that I was needing after a stressful couple of weeks. While aquatic mythical creatures may not catch my attention as much as dragons do (unless it’s a sea serpent, as those are basically water dragons if we’re being honest), the cover alone had me screeching with joy. A girl riding some kind of weird water unicorn Pegasus thing?!
But the thing that I noticed about “Aquicorn Cove” from the get go is that there is a far more bittersweet undercurrent running through this story than there was with “The Tea Dragon Society”. While the imagery is just as cute and serene as the imagery in that book, the premise here is a bit darker. Lana is a girl whose mother was killed during a violent ocean storm, and that is why she and her father left their hometown in the first place. They are coming back to visit her maternal Aunt Mae as well as clean up the wreckage after another bad storm. Lana has a genuine connection to the ocean like Mae and her mother did, even though being back is painful for her and her father. When she finds an injured baby aquicorn she wants to nurse back to health, her love of the ocean has a tangible element it can attach to. Mae, too, has a connection to the sea, given that she is a fisherwoman and she makes her living because of it, but there is always going to be the painful reminder that the thing she loves took her sister away. They are both coping with the trauma of the loss, but they cope in different ways.
The Aquicorn society that Mae and Lana interact with has it’s own issues that it brings to the story. Aure, the head of the community, has struck up a long time friendship with Mae, as they have helped each other in various ways. Mae has taken objects and products from Aquicorn Cove and has helped her own community thrive. But the give and take relationship has started to crumble, as Aure thinks that the cost for her community has started to become far too great. O’Neill has found a relatable and easy way to show kids the importance of giving back to the environment, and while you understand Mae’s need and want to keep her community alive, you see the cost it has to Aure’s and the reef. There was one panel that is especially relevant where, when pushed back on by Aure, Mae says that her community shouldn’t have to change it’s ways because ‘this is how it’s always been’, and THAT struck a chord. Mae is never presented as a bad person, per se, just someone who is unable to see the consequences that her actions have for others.
The other big theme in this story is the importance of ocean conservation, and how it can be a matter of life and death not only for sea creatures, but for the human communities that live on the seashore. Aquicorn Cove’s reef is sick and starting to die, and without the protection of the reef that can help buffer the strength of ocean storms, the severity on land is becoming more and more devastating. Climate change scientists postulate that storms will become worse and worse as time goes on, and with more of these natural buffers dying off or disappearing the costs and the losses will be higher. At the end of the book O’Neill listed a number of ocean conservation resources, as well as information for the readers on what they can do to help restore the tenuous ecosystems. What I liked about this section was that it was easy to understand for kids, and while O’Neill did simplify it she never made it seem like she was talking down to her readers. She really hits home that we may feel like in our smallness we can’t make a difference, but how we can connect to our community, which can connect to other communities, and how that can help amplify our voices for change. The message was loud and clear, and I really liked it.
And yes, let’s look at how sweet the drawings are.
The gentle design and all around charming style made the art pop and had me smiling from ear to ear.
“Aquicorn Cove” is another lovely graphic novel by Katie O’Neill, and with it’s important messages and themes it stands out from the crowd.
Rating 7: A cute graphic novel with a resonant message, “Aquicorn Cove” is a sweet story that brings out cute sea creatures and talks about the importance of our oceans.