Serena’s Review: “Shadow & Flame”


40042001Book: “Shadow & Flame” by Mindee Arnett

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, June 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: From acclaimed author Mindee Arnett comes the thrilling conclusion of the stunningly epic, action-packed, and romantic fantasy adventure about a powerful girl possessed of strange magic, the outcast prince she loves, and the kingdom that has torn them apart.

Kate and Corwin are on the run, desperate for allies in a new world of war among the kingdoms of Rime. As the book opens, Kate suffers a massive loss, one that will shape the struggle for freedom of all wilders and magic folk—that is, if Kate can learn to control her own power.

Previously Reviewed: “Onyx & Ivory”

Review: I really enjoyed “Onyx & Ivory” when I read it last year. It was a fresh new fantasy story, and I particularly enjoyed the romance at the heart of it. Kate and Corwin had been attached in the past, but after a disaster through them apart, they slowly came back together throughout this story. It was a refreshing new angle on the romance subplot. The story ended fairly abruptly, however (I even wondered if my early copy wasn’t complete or something). So I was excited to see that the sequel was coming out only a year later and I placed my library request for it the first chance I got!

A year or so after the events of “Onyx & Ivory,” Kate struggles to reconcile the massive success of the Wilder rebellion, resulting in their now ruling an independent city of their own, with her own personal tragedy with the loss of Corwin in a failed rescue attempt a year past. Grown determined and ruthless in her grief, Kate has used her “sway” abilities to not only win the war, but to keep her city safe, earning her the title of the “Wilder Queen.” Unbeknownst to her, Corwin is alive and struggling to stay that way working in the deep mines of their enemy. Slowly but surely, however, their paths are winding towards one another where they will meet in the most challenging of circumstances.

I’m not really sure if my little synopsis above is a spoiler, but I don’t know how to review this book without the reveal that Corwin is alive. Indeed, that information is only in question for a brief 30-ish page section right in the beginning (and I doubt it had many readers fooled even then.) But at the same time, the book description itself goes to lengths to avoid this. Who knows!

Overall, I felt like this book was a lot darker than the first one. It’s main topic is exploring the morality of Kate’s sway power, both in her own hands and at the hands of a man much less scrupulous. It is the kind of power that wins wars, but one that comes at a high cost. In the hands of an enemy, we see just how brutal its effects can be. I particularly enjoyed this exploration of the power. We are able to get into the heads of those who suffer under the influence of someone using sway against them, forcing them to do things they never would have considered under their own free will. It’s not only tragic in the moment but leaves lasting scars that take time to heal.

Even Kate’s (the good guy) use of her power comes under question as we see how grief and loss have hardened her into a sense of rightness in the use of her power to protect those she loves, even against their own will. The debate between free will and security plays out in a very interesting manner throughout the story. And Kate herself must learn to balance her own fears with a respect for the individuality of those she cares about and their right to make choices for themselves, even if it puts them in danger.

The story took a lot of twists and turns that took me by surprise and kept me on the edge of my seat. There was a great balance between these slower scenes of character growth and moral exploration and action pieces that ramped things back up. There were also a lot of good moments that paid off on things set up in the first book and I really liked how it was all tied together in the end.

The romance took a bit of a back seat for much of the book as Kate and Corwin aren’t even reunited until halfway through the story. And then from that point there is a lot of baggage that has built up on both sides and takes time to be worked through. While I do appreciate the commitment to how the events of the last year would affect them both, there was also an unfortunate tendency to seemingly draw out the drama by not allowing the characters to communicate. Some of these instances made sense, but there were others where it felt more contrived. And as this technique to insert romantic tension into a story by having characters simply not say the obvious things is one of my least favorite, I did struggle with the romance aspect of this book more than I did with it in the first.

That aside, however, I very much enjoyed this book and felt like it was a fitting conclusion to the story that was set-up in the first. I appreciate the darker nature of the story and the fact that it delved so deeply into the concepts of free will and the darker side of being a “hero” when the hero takes away the choice of those they are saving. Where is the line when you are dealing with the question of “for the greater good?” If you enjoyed the first book, I think you’ll be happy with this conclusion. Just beware that the romance is put on the back burner a bit more.

Rating 8: A solid end to the duology that tackles some tough subjects and pays off on the mysteries laid out in the first book.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Shadow & Flame” is a new title, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “End of Series in 2019.”

Find “Shadow & Flame” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Wanderers”

32603079Book: “Wanderers” by Chuck Wendig

Publishing Info: Del Rey, July 2019

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

Book Description: A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. In the tradition of The Stand and Station Eleven comes a gripping saga that weaves an epic tapestry of humanity into an astonishing tale of survival.

Shana wakes up one morning to discover her little sister in the grip of a strange malady. She appears to be sleepwalking. She cannot talk and cannot be woken up. And she is heading with inexorable determination to a destination that only she knows. But Shana and are sister are not alone. Soon they are joined by a flock of sleepwalkers from across America, on the same mysterious journey. And like Shana, there are other “shepherds” who follow the flock to protect their friends and family on the long dark road ahead.

For on their journey, they will discover an America convulsed with terror and violence, where this apocalyptic epidemic proves less dangerous than the fear of it. As the rest of society collapses all around them–and an ultraviolent militia threatens to exterminate them–the fate of the sleepwalkers depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart–or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

I have been totally enthralled by post-apocalyptic fiction ever since my Dad handed me his copy of “The Stand” when I was thirteen years old and told me to read it. While I have a whole lot of anxieties about the potential ways that the world could end, the genre itself has always thrilled me, be it pandemic fiction, nuclear holocaust, zombies, or what have you. “The Stand” has always been the crown jewel of the genre for me, and so when I heard about “Wanderers” by Chuck Wendig, and saw that comparisons to that masterpiece, I requested an eARC from NetGalley and was lucky enough to be sent one. The comparisons were apparent straight away: not only is the book a story about a devastating pandemic, it’s also a deep character study of a huge cast, AND it’s a LONG book (though at 800 pages it’s still only roughly half as long as the uncut version of “the Stand”, which is a mighty beast unto itself). Having this comparison in my head did a weird thing, where it both made me enjoy “Wanderers” more, and also made me more critical than I think I would have been had it not been there. Buckle up, everyone. A long book means a lot of dissemination.

The pacing and content of the plot immediately sucked me in. It’s told when the ‘sleepwalker’ phenomenon starts, and then slowly builds and builds until we have met the big, actual threat, which is a fungal-based disease that has already infected enough people to take out the world population. We have a number of different perspectives we follow, all of which show different group factions as society starts to panic and slowly break down. My favorite perspective, both in terms of characters and approach, was that of Benji, a former CDC scientist whose brilliance was overshadowed by a scandal. I was deeply invested and interested in the science aspect of this novel, and being able to see Benji and his colleagues, which include access to an AI called Black Swan that has been predicting numerous outcomes to the various situations, kept me enthralled and interested as the pandemic began to unfold. Benji is complex and nuanced, and his determination mixed with his anxieties, be it regarding his past, the AI aspect, or the very real catastrophe unfolding, made him very appealing as a character.

I also liked seeing other consequences and cause and effects that you might see in this society as it starts to deteriorate, and especially liked Wendig’s take on how white supremacist and other racist nationalist movements prey on fear and uncertainty. While it did feel heavy handed at times, this plot was mostly seen through Matthew, a preacher in a small town who gets caught up with a charismatic, and incredibly dangerous, militia man named Ozark Stover. While the pandemic is the main driving conflict in this book, it’s Stover, his militia, and the ideas that they hold dear (which are being elevated by a far right and opportunistic Presidential Candidate) that were the scariest by far. Matthew tries to look past the way Stover, and the other right wing groups, use the Bible to promote fear and hate, and you see Matthew fall for his own elevated hype as he becomes a ‘moderate’ voice for their radical views, which in turn promotes violence against the ‘sleepwalkers’ and those around them. Apt and timely, these parts really kept me interested and on the edge of my seat. It was probably also a little heavy handed, but given how these groups and voices just seem to be getting louder and more violent I can’t really fault the non-subtle portrayals of them as dangerous and fanatical.

That said, in terms of characterization, Benji and those in his sections were really the only people I found myself caring about in this book. I wanted to like Shana, the teenage girl whose sister was the first ‘sleepwalker’, but I found her inability to see nuance in many situations to be frustrating, and it made me not care for her too much. I also wanted to like Pete Corey, a nearly has-been rock star who gets caught up in protecting the ‘sleepwalkers’ and their companions (aka shepherds) initially just to get attention for himself before making a true connection. But unfortunately he fit the trope of ‘he’s closeted and therefore pushes everyone away and embraces a hedonistic lifestyle’, and it’s well worn, almost overdone, territory now. And while I enjoyed and was invested in the content with Matthew and Ozark, I had a very hard time with Matthew as a person, and found no one in that arc very sympathetic either. And this is where the comparisons to “The Stand” hindered this book (and given that the narrative itself makes reference to “The Stand”, I feel that the door has been opened to compare the two). Say what you will about the ending of that book, but it is hard to deny that King really knows how to write a multitude of different characters, and to give all of them complex, multifaceted things to do within their character arcs. While some characters are definitely more black and white than others in that book, for the most part you get into the head and motivations of almost every member of that ensemble, for the good and the bad. In “Wanderers”, I felt that Wendig sometimes got lost with his balancing, and because of this the characterization suffered, and therefore so did my ability to care about them.

On top of all this, the ending (and I won’t go into why or how) had a big final ‘gotcha’ twist that felt unnecessary. Sure, it was set up in a way that I could track out and map, so it didn’t feel completely out of nowhere. But when it was revealed I did kind of wonder what it added to the overall story, outside of confirming other well-worn tropes that I had thought we’d left behind.

Finally, there’s one more thing that I really need to address within this novel. This ties in with the HUGE content warning that I want to give it, AND along with that I’m going to be talking about plot points in no uncertain terms. Therefore, we are getting a

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Chuck Wendig used to write “Star Wars” content for Marvel so I had to use this. (source)

There are many characters within this book, and all of them touch upon certain themes such as bigotry, racism, white supremacy, and using religion as a weapon and how these things can all go hand in hand. Matthew, our preacher who lets his own ego get him caught up with a white supremacist movement, becomes friends with the aforementioned Ozark Stover. After Matthew stops towing the line for Stover and white supremacist Presidential Candidate Creel, Ozark beats him, tortures him, and locks him in his bunker on his property. He also violently rapes him. I had no idea that this was coming, and when it did I had to put the book down for awhile and go do something else. While I am never going to be a ‘fan’ of sexual violence in books I read, as how could one be, if I can see a reason behind it or if it’s done in a responsible way I can be more forgiving of that plot choice, even if I’m going to be upset about it. In “Wanderers”, I felt that there was absolutely no reason for it to be there outside of sensationalism. We already know that Ozark Stover is an evil motherfucker. He’s manipulative, he’s violent, he incites hatred and violent actions amongst his followers, and he’s a murderous, misogynistic white supremacist who uses religion as a way to froth up his following. WE KNOW HE IS HORRIBLE. It felt like this scene was just a ‘and how can we REALLY hit the point home that he’s a bad guy?’ when we have rounded the bases of badness MULTIPLE times. On top of that, I didn’t like the framing of it. Matthew is a piece of shit in his own way, and while I know that we were supposed to feel bad for him and see him as more ‘flawed’ than anything else, I personally couldn’t abide him. BUT ALL OF THAT SAID, making him a victim of a graphic and violent sexual assault made me feel sick, because to me it felt like a ‘and now you know why you never should have gotten tangled up with this guy in the first place’ moment, which to me is unnecessary. Like I’ve said, I am NEVER going to be fully on board with a scene like this, but I think that there are ways that it can be done with sensitivity and with responsibility. This felt like it was for shock value, and I didn’t like that.

Overall, “Wanderers” is definitely a worthy contribution to the ‘post-apocalyptic pandemic’ genre, and I think that it’s going to stand the test of time. There were aspects that I greatly enjoyed, and aspects that fell flat, but I definitely can see myself as recommending it to people who like this kind of thing. I am very curious to see what Wendig does next.

Rating 7: While the world building, pacing, and downfall of humanity ticked all my boxes, I had problems with some characterization, a final GOTCHA twist, and a scene of exploitative sexual violence.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wanderers” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Books for a Pandemic”, and “This Is The End..”

Find “Wanderers” at your library using WorldCat!

Not Just Books: July 2019

While we do love us some books, believe it not, we do have a life outside of reading. So to highlight our other pop culture interests, on the last Monday of each month, we each will highlight three other “happenings” from the last month. Big events on favorite TV shows, new movies we’ve watched, old movies we’ve “discovered,” etc. Pretty much whatever we found of particular interest outside of the book world during the last month. Share your own favorite things in the comments! 

Serena’s Picks

mv5bzgexyjqzntqtngnhmi00ymy1ltlhy2mtmtrjodg3mju4ytayxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtkxnjuynq4040._v1_Netflix Show: “Stranger Things 3”

I think I speak for us all when I say that this show was a challenge: how long could you draw out those very few 8 episodes so as not to find yourself on the other side and left bereft once again waiting for the (hopefully, but surely, right??) next season. While I’ve loved all the seasons so far, I think this one out does season 2 in my estimation. I like that Eleven is now with the kids throughout the story instead of off on her own so much. The monsters were legitimately freaky and the body horror is ratcheted up quite a bit. There was also a surprise musical number that is sure to speak to the hearts of many in my generation! I give it maybe a month or two before I have to do a re-watch to tide myself over.

mv5bmgzlnty1zwutytmznc00zjuylwe0mjqtmtmxn2e3odyxmwvmxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymdm2ndm2mq4040._v1_sy1000_cr006741000_al_Movie: “Spider-Man: Far From Home” 

I’ve enjoyed the heck out of Tom Holland’s version of Spider-Man. While I’ll always hold a special place in my heart for Toby Maguire’s version, there’s also traumatic memories of emo dance numbers that do tend to taint my memories. Going in, I was a bit nervous about this film. This movie had a ton to do, not only needing to operate as a Spider-Man sequel in its own right, but also to take on the massive task of being the first MCU movie to follow the dramatic events of “Avengers: Endgame.” I think it succeeded perfectly at both! I love the fact that this movie continues to lean in on the “Spider-Man as a real teenager” angle, with all of the awkwardness and poor impulse control that comes with that. But it’s also much more creepy than some of the past movies. There’s one particular scene that I think is darker than almost anything we’ve seen before. And, of course, Holland is just pitch perfect throughout. If you enjoy superhero movies at all, this one is definitely worth checking out.

mv5bm2qynmzkntytzwqyzi00ndhhlwezmditymizy2u4zwvmownhxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyndg4njy5otq40._v1_sy1000_cr006751000_al_Netflix Show: “Jessica Jones” season 3

Going into this season was a little sad as we already knew it would be the last. The systematic cancellation of all of the Netflix Marvel shows has been one of the biggest losses to the streaming platform ever, in my opinion. And, while I enjoyed the second season of this show, it didn’t grab me in the same way as the first. But, never fear, season three is back on top of its game. It even retroactively made season 2 better by taking its story in truly unexpected directions. One of the brilliant things about these shows has been the clever way they have adjusted the comic book versions of characters and made them their own. We see one of the biggest twists on a character in this season. And while it’s a complete 180 from the comic book version, it also fits in perfectly with what this show has built up for Jessica and her friends. I’m really sorry to see this show go.

Kate’s Picks

chernobyl_2019_miniseriesTV Show/Podcast: “Chernobyl”

I have the tendency to binge shows if they are bingeable. I definitely am an impatient person, and because of this I love just charging through content if it is there to charge through. This was a HUGE mistake with the HNO miniseries “Chernobyl”, as the existential crisis, horror, and anxiety it caused within me knocked me on my butt. This fantastic show explores (in a somewhat fictionalized way) the nuclear disaster in the Soviet Ukraine, shows the horrible damage it did to those who lived in the area, and shows how Soviet scientists tried to contain the disaster and get to the truth of it, while the Soviet Government tried to suppress and control the information that was being let out about it. The performances, specifically from the three leads Stellan Skarsgård, Jared Harris, and Emily Watson, are transcendent, and the frank but never exploitative depictions of the awful consequences (mostly in the form of radiation poisoning. GOOD LORD) set my teeth on edge and nearly sent me into panic attacks. As a bonus an official podcast was released alongside it to expand upon the stories that weren’t told, and to say what was real and what was dramatized for television, which admittedly DID happen but not as much as I thought. “Chernobyl” is the best TV of the year thus far. But steady yourself for something as devastating as it is terrifying.

mv5by2q0zgfiowetmwvkms00ngu0ltg2mmetzdkynzjmmzhkytfkxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntm3mdmymdq40._v1_TV Show: “Schitt’s Creek”

Why did it take me so long to get on this delightful, Canadian train?!?!?! I mean, SERIOUSLY, it stars two people I absolutely LOVE (Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy), and has a fun send up of the spoiled rich facing a monetary free fall. Levy and O’Hara join Dan Levy and Annie Murphy as the Roses, a wealthy and self centered family whose sudden financial ruin makes them move into the small town of Schitt’s Creek, their final asset. Hilarity ensues as the out of touch Rose family has to deal with real life. Everyone is on point in their performances, and while Catherine O’Hara is the shining star of the cast, everyone, from the Rose family to the townsfolk, does a great job bringing life to their characters. What I like best about this show is that while the Rose family is absolutely out of touch and in a lot of ways incredibly selfish, they are also super, super endearing and relatable, and because of this the show is pretty darn feel good.

the_wicker_man_281973_film29_uk_posterFilm: “The Wicker Man” (1973)

I feel like a lot of people are talking about “Midsommer” right now, and while I will probably see it at some point I was more inclined to revisit the original “Wicker Man”. Both are folk horror, both have strange nature-y cults, but only “The Wicker Man” has Christopher Lee looking like he’s in full Cher cosplay. It’s the story of deeply religious Sergeant Howie, who is called to the isolated island community of Summerisle after he’s been tipped off about a missing girl. When he gets there he finds a strange town inhabited by carefree, albeit odd, pagans, who are getting ready for their annual May Day Celebration. As Howie searches for the missing girl, he starts to question how much the town knows about her disappearance. I’ve loved this movie since I saw it in college, and had the opportunity to see it on the big screen at the local Alamo Drafthouse. It’s still freaking amazing, y’all. No bees to be seen. If you are a horror fan and have yet to see it, you need to go out and do so ASAP, as the plot is still creepy and the ending is still genuinely upsetting.

The Great Animorphs Re-Read #53: “The Answer”

125347Animorphs #53: “The Answer”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, May 2001

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The war is raging on, and the Yeerks are everywhere. Jake tries to convince the government to help him and the Animorphs destroy the Yeerk pool. But when that plan fails, they try to do the job themselves. In an effort to deter new arrivals and finish off the ones still around, the Animorphs and Ax blow holes throughout the Yeerks pool. In these gallant efforts, some innocent bystanders are hurt, but that is the way of the world they live in. But the plans go awry, and Jake and the Animorphs find themselves trapped in the new Yeerk Pool. They have lost all hope, when they find unexpected comfort and comradeship from the disgusting Taxxons — who have always been associated with Yeerks and have their own problems with the destroyers. They might just be able to save planet Earth — but has the end already begun?

Narrator: Jake

Ha. I realized I posted this without an intro and just a placeholder text saying “INTRO.” Well, it could have been some sort of artistic thing where I had so few words due to the trauma this book inflicts that I just skipped over the intro right to the crying gif. But alas, it was just an error that I just now caught, weeks later. Ah well. Anyways…yeah, I still don’t have a quippy intro for this so….on to the crying!

Me trying to hold it together during this book.

Plot: The Pool ship has landed and all out war has begun with Yeerk Bug Fighters easily taking out any jets and weapons the military sends against them. The Animorphs know that this is an opportunity they can’t pass up. They also know that Visser One will fully expect an attack of this sort on his precious Pool ship. But simply blowing it up comes with too many casualties, both human and Hork Bajir. Instead, what if they captured it?

Jake calls a meeting of only the original Animorphs but accidentally (subconsciously?) excludes Cassie, much to the anger of the others. They plan to set up a diversion of them attacking the Pool ship, all while the original Animorphs will already be on the Pool ship.

Over the next day, they learn that the Yeerks have the Taxxons building a new Yeerk pool out in the open. Marco also manages to locate the military general in command of the human forces arrayed against the Yeerks. All of the original Animorphs head off to meet with this general, General Doubleday. Jake and the others arrive in fly morph. Jake demorphs and is immediately arrested and put in a cell. After this happens a few times, with Jake always reappearing and demorhing in front of the general, he finally agrees to listen. After a few of his soldiers reveal themselves as Controllers, he even more fully commits to hearing Jake out. But in the midst of these talks, the Yeerks attack.

They manage to fight their way out, towing the general along with them. Jake is badly injured, but is saved by the others. After they get away, the general is quick to follow their instructions and lock down the base. However, they realize it will take 3 days before the general has enough men that are known to be non-Controllers and in that time the new Yeerk Pool could be completed. So now they have another mission: stop that project. Cassie points out that destroying a hole in the ground is pretty hard, and instead they need to go after the builders themselves: the Taxxons. With this in mind, they, the auxiliary Animorphs, and the free Hork Bajir go in with only one mission, to kill Taxxons.

They go in, staggering the battle with forces arriving at different intervals and from different approaches to prevent the Yeerks from forming a solid defense. They do a lot of damage and Jake begins ordering the retreat. But the ground opens up beneath him and he finds himself alone in a Taxxon tunnel. He is met by a handful of Taxxons with Dracon beams, and his shocked when one of them speaks to him in thought-speak and identifies himself as Arbron, a friend of Elfangor’s. He has a proposal: that he and the Taxxons have seen a way out of their perpetual, driving hunger by using the morphing cube to become nothlits in another form. If Jake and the Animorphs agree to help them with this, the Taxxons will fight with them to capture the Pool ship.

Jake meets back with everyone to discuss this sudden turn of events. Cassie reveals that she had secretly been hoping this would happen. Ax makes it clear that the Andalites will never go along with the idea of giving Taxxons access to morphing power, and Cassie calls him out, telling him that now is the time to reveal his secret, that he has been in secret communication with Andalite command (she followed him as a flea on his body). Jake and the others feel very betrayed by the knowledge of what Ax has been up to and even more horrified when they learn what the Andalites have in mind for Earth. This decides it and they know they have to at least try to make a deal with the Taxxons. Cassie comes up with an anaconda morph has a potentially intriguing alternative for the Taxxons.

The next day, Jake, along with several flea!Animorphs, makes his way to the meet Arbron. He gets in an abandoned car that then rolls down an opened tunnel into the Taxxon lair (definite callback to “The Andalite Chronicles” and  you have to imagine that Arbron got the idea from that). There are tons of Taxxons gathered and after Arbron makes a speech about the potential idea, Jake does a neat little show of morphing, ending with the anaconda morph, emphasizing its calm mindset, not driven by an insatiable hunger. Arbron reveals that he knows the other Animorphs are there, and they demorph. And then he invites Tom to come out.

Turns out that Tom, too, has a plan and wants to turn against Visser One who he feels has deprived him of the promotions and respect he deserves. In exchange for his help, he wants the Animorphs to allow him and about 100 of his Yeerk compatriots to fly off in the Blade ship. As an extra wrench in the deal, he informs them that he has updated the security codes in the Pool ship and the way they are currently, Ax and the others have no chance of cracking them.

On the way back Jake contemplates his option. Cassie points out all of the problems with allowing Tom to fly off in the Blade ship (which is surely where the morphing cube is located as well). Jake also knows that there has to be more to the story, and that Tom can’t be trusted. With these facts in mind, he begins to form a plan.

First, he talks to Marco telling him that he has to find the Chee at all costs (sending Marco into a pretty dangerous part of the city to do it). Then he talks to Rachel. He doesn’t come out with what her role will be, but we know that it has to do with Tom, that it’s a last gamble that could be deadly, and that it’s bad enough that he doesn’t want Cassie to know about it, because she loves both Jake and Rachel and would blame herself for not trying to stop it.

Marco returns with Erek the Chee and Jake has to go to extreme measures to motivate him. Essentially, he tells Erek that if he doesn’t go along with their plans, Jake will kill Yeerk prisoners, starting with Chapman, who they had captured. It’s a new low for Jake and Erek is none too pleased about it, but his programming won’t let him resist. Jake then has Ax call the Andalite flight and tell them that he is going to deliver a major Yeerk ship into their grasp and they better get here quickly.

He then tells James that he needs him and the other auxiliary Animorphs on the ground with the military forces to serve as a distraction. It’s a dangerous role and James is hesitant. But Jake insists, telling him that this is what they were given these powers for, to fight. He gets into a pretty firmly worded rant, saying that he doesn’t care about the lives of any of them, that this is it, they either win this battle or it’s all over. Either the Yeerks will take Earth out or the Andalites will do it for them.

The next day they put the plan into action. Jake flies in to a truck that Tom is driving with Cassie bound and beaten in the back. He secretly confirms that Rachel is there in morph and the morphs a fly and makes it way to “Cassie” who is really Erek disguised. Tom gets them through security and then calls over Visser One to present the captured Animorph (he thinks Cassie is real). He reports that the Animorphs and humans will attack soon as a diversion while they try to sneak onto the Pool ship. A Taxxon prisoner is brought in and Tom explains how he discovered collusion between some Taxxons and the Animorphs. Tom maneuvers the situation so that he is put in charge of the Blade ship and gets Visser One to test his plan by having the Taxxon eat Cassie. This would have been Tom’s betrayal had the Animorphs simply believed him.

As it is, Taxxon!Tobias pretends to chow down as “Cassie” dies screaming but really Erek is just creating a show while slowly blending himself into the floor until nothing is left. Tom thinks that he has now killed off all of the Animorphs and won the Visser’s trust enough to be given the Blade ship. The other Animorphs wonder where Rachel is but only Jake hears her speak as she drifts away, hidden somewhere on Tom.

As the Pool ship lifts into the air, Erek and the other Animorphs retreat further into the ship. Jake remains behind on the bridge and gets to witness the horror that Visser One rains down on the fighting forces below as the military and auxiliary Animorphs attack. Jake frantically checks in with Ax and the others on their progress on taking over the ship, but as they work, Visser One picks off all of the auxiliary Animorphs. But the diversion prevents Visser One from firing off his largest canon that would take out thousands of the fighting human soldiers.

Just as he finishes killing them and decides to move to his larger weapons, Marco and the others gain control of the ship and move it up into low orbit. Visser One frantically calls in Tom with the Blade ship. Visser One and the Hork Bajir head to engineering. It’s a long trek and Jake understands why it took so long for Marco, Ax and the others to get there and take control. They blast away at the engineering room, killing most of their own, but the Animorphs had already escaped out a vent.

As Jake reports on what happened on the ground, that James and his people are dead, he is forced to admit that Rachel is on the Blade ship with Tom. Tobias is enraged. Cassie sad And Marco is grimly resigned, knowing that Tom needed to be stopped. While they have control of basic maneuvering for the Pool ship, Erek’s programming flatly prevents gaining them any access to the larger weapons systems: they’re sitting ducks for Tom’s Blade ship.

Jake and the others make their way to the bridge, fighting along the way. They pass by access to the Pool ship’s controls to the interior Yeerk pool itself. There is a flush option. But Jake needs Visser One to come to the bridge. He orders the flush, and 17,372 Yeerks are jetted into space to die. When they arrive, Visser One is there, staring out into space at the dead Yeerks. He has also figured out that Tom has betrayed him. He tries to say that it isn’t Jake who has beaten him, but the fact that he was betrayed because Visser One was “too trusting.”

Jake tells Visser One that he could disable the Blade ship, but Visser One notes that the Dracon beams are being drained of power. Erek’s doing, against their wishes, and to the detriment of the last chance to disable the Blade ship and save Rachel. They try to fire what they have, but the Blade ship avoids the shots and neatly disables the Pool ship itself. Tom hails the ship to gloat but is horrified when he sees Jake on board. He orders his ship to destroy the Pool ship, and Jake orders Rachel to go in.

Our Fearless Leader: Whelp, here’s where it all comes to a head for our Jake. Having gotten through the malaise that seemed to set in after the loss of his parents, he’s in full leadership form in this book. It’s action packed from the beginning to the end, and we see Jake needing to balance more and more moving pieces. Not only are there his own allies, but now we have the Taxxons and Tom and his people in play. Both of whom have their own goals and motivations and can only be trusted so far.

Jake’s strategic thinking is at the top of its form here, and his plan for the final battle is brilliant and ruthless. As he deploys his people we are in his head to see how, while he still struggles with the challenges of these decisions, he has really embraced the cold reality of the situation. The Yeerks will get them or the Andalites will. With those two fronts against them, any consideration for personal losses is now weighed against the loss of the entire planet. He’s brutal and efficient.

The hardest decisions to witness, as the reader, are the ones that affect our main characters directly. He sends Marco out into a war zone with an impossible task to locate the Chee, knowing he could be killed doing it. He keeps Tobias and Cassie back, not informing them of key pieces of his plan, knowing he needs to use them without the distraction of their opinions on other decisions. James and his crew get sent out onto a battle field that has already been lost but needs to serve as a distraction. And Rachel…in this book it’s not made clear what exactly her role is. But their discussion is enough for us to know that it is likely one that she won’t return from.

All of that aside, one of the biggest decisions Jake makes is one that is given very little page time and happens in the midst of a lot of other action: the flushing of all of the Yeerks. We’ll see how this plays out in the next book, but it’s a huge move and one that Jake didn’t plan in advance, but had to decide in the heat of the moment. We can see him trying to justify it in his head as he goes: The Yeerks brought this fight to them. He needs Visser One to come to the bridge if there’s any chance of saving Rachel. It has to be done. It has to be done. It has to be done.

Xena, Warrior Princess: For most of this book, Rachel is away on her secret mission, only checking in periodically with Jake. There’s a lingering sense of horror around all of this as it’s always strange when the group isn’t operating together. Throughout the last half, various members of the group wonder where she is. I do feel it’s a bit unbelievable that Cassie and Tobias wouldn’t press more for details on this, but oh well.

Rachel’s conversation with Jake is short, but so important. It perfectly illustrates how well they each understand and accept the role they play. Rachel knows the risks and knows how coldly Jake is using her to complete a goal. But she’s not angry about it and knows that she is the right choice. She also agrees to not telling Cassie ahead of time about it.

Lastly, Rachel is one of the more angry members when she learns about Ax’s betrayal with the Andalite leadership. This holds true for the rocky relationship these two have had throughout the book. Marco usually joins her in this area and, in form with a complaint I’ve had throughout the last several books, it’s strange that he doesn’t react more strongly himself. It’s pretty clear that while she’s betrayed by Ax himself, she’s also written the Andalites off as a whole, snorting her derision when Jake claims they are allies when talking to the Taxxons.

A Hawk’s Life: Tobias really doesn’t have a lot in this book. At one point when Jake is assessing his use of people, he mentions that he has to use Rachel because of various reasons for the others and because he “needs Tobias.” I’m really not clear why this is exactly. I mean, obviously it makes sense that Rachel is the correct choice, just on merit of her being who she is. But Tobias specifically doesn’t seem to be needed. Seemingly it is because he needs to play the role of the Taxxon who “eats” “Cassie.” But Ax also has a Taxxon morph, so I’m not sure about this reasoning.

When Rachel’s role is made clear, Tobias is furious and inconsobale, alternating between cussing Jake out and begging him to save her. Jake mentions at one point that he can feel that Tobias now hates him.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie has some very interesting moments in this book. For one, when she hears about the Taxxons, she admits that she had hoped this would happen. Of course, this is another after-the-fact thought to her choice, but it does prove that she’s been thinking more creatively about the impact that morphing will have on the Yeerk forces. And when you think about it, she’s completely right that this would be a logical next step. These are the best moments for Cassie’s character when we see how her approach to things is so different than the others and often very ahead of the game. It almost makes up for some of her more boneheaded moments.

She is also the one to push Ax into confessing that he’s been talking to the Andalites, as she’s followed him in flea morph. The book doesn’t go into this very far, but again, it’s a nice highlight for her character. For all of her sometimes preachy ways, she’s not a blind optimist. We can guess that she may have thought that Ax might waver in light of recent events, and she’s suspicious enough to take it on herself to follow him. They may be team members, but she doesn’t simply blindly trust him in this instance. It does makes me wonder whether Tobias would have said anything at this point in the book. He’s the only other one who knew about Ax’s actions.

Lastly, unlike Rachel and Jake, we see Cassie’s embitterment about her own role on the team. At one point, she makes a few bitter statements about how Jake is expecting a morality lecture from her with regards to the choices they are making. Jake admits that he is waiting for that, but that he also values it, as he’s used Cassie to gauge his own actions for some time. It’s notable also that when it comes down to it, he chooses to make some choices without telling her about them, because he already knows what she will say and he can’t afford to be influenced by her completely, here at the end of it all.

The Comic Relief: My biggest complaint about this last section of books is the lack of good Marco action we’ve gotten. Seriously, it’s like he disappeared from the series. His action is almost always off page. We get only a handful of lines from his all told. And many of those are out-of-character, or at least out of the character we’ve know for so long. Yeah, his character has changed, and saving his mom is a big part of that, but there are things about him that would remain the same. Like what his reaction to Ax’s betrayal would have been. Marco, like Rachel, was always the slowest to warm up and most suspicious.

When forming the complete plan in his head, Jake references Marco’s “clear straight line” mode of planning, so that’s a nice connection. And then Jake entrusts Marco with quite a lot in this book. He has to locate Erek (the Chee base disappeared when the Yeerk Pool was blown up). And he and Ax lead the charge to try and disable the Pool ship.

There’s only a brief line, but Marco is the most resigned to Rachel’s fate. He clearly jumps quickly along the same train of thought that Jake has had and sees that Jake’s choice here was necessary. Brutal, but necessary. This is the Marco we all know and love. Practical to a point of coldness.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Ax has to come out with what he’s been up to in this book. More importantly, he has to admit to what the Andalites have planned. This book makes it pretty clear that all of the tragedies of the action in this book (the death of the auxiliary Animorphs, the Yeerks being jettisoned into space, Rachel) happen because Jake feels that they are being pushed into endgame level fighting due to the Andalites quarantine plan. They don’t have time to take things slowly, really figure out what to do with the Taxxons, with Tom, with all of it. The Andalites are coming; it has to be now. It’s pretty tragic, really, that the people who through much of the series have been heralded as the saviors they’re all waiting for instead turn into the catalyst that drives the Animorphs to the most desperate and brutal decisions we’ve seen. Here’s how Jake puts it to Cassie:

And when they’re negotiating with the Taxxons, Ax is also quick to note that the Andalites will never agree to the Taxxons getting morphing technology. So another blow against the Andalites. They want to beat the Yeerks. They often do this by removing host bodies from the field of play. But they’d rather just commit genocide against entire species than share their precious morphing technology with a different species. A technology that we know from other books isn’t even that highly valued by the Andalites.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: There are a lot of pretty horrible bits in this book, but I’m going to focus on a less obvious one in this section: Taxxon!Tobias eating Chee!Cassie. I mean, that has to be psychologically damaging. Even knowing it’s a hologram, we know how realistic the Chee can make these things. And this is your close friend and you’re having to listen to her “scream” and be torn apart with a close up view of it all, with it seeming like you’re the one doing it. I don’t know, it seems like that would mess with your mind.

Couples Watch!: I had completely forgotten this part, but about halfway through the book Jake and Cassie have a one-on-one conversation about their relationship and what they see for the future. It’s telling for both of them as individuals, with Jake thinking about the bigger impact on the world of the reveal that there are aliens out there, and Cassie focusing back in on her life, think she’ll just slip back into it and take over where she left off. They also briefly discuss their relationship and Cassie says that if they make it, essentially, she’ll marry him after a year. Woah nelly! They’re like 17 years old! I mean, I get that they’re older than this in most ways, having gone through all of this. And with that in mind, Cassie’s one year plan is sound in that it gives them some more time. But still. Funny the things you don’t even notice as a kid reading it, but as an adult, I’m like “But…but…you’re still babies!”

And then poor Tobias. I will always be bummed that we didn’t get much more from this couple for the last oh….tons of books! And we don’t even get a good scene between them in this last-ish book! Obviously, Tobias can’t know what’s going to happen, but throw readers a bone, why don’t you? The few lines we get from him after he finds out are so tragic. Even had Rachel lived, you can sense that Tobias would never forgive Jake for this.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: We haven’t seen a lot of Visser One for a while either, other than his token appearances where he morphs something freaky and then promptly exits the field for some reason or another. So it’s good to see him here. Tom mentions how Visser One is like a bludgeon, just hitting away at his enemies. This is definitely true, but we also see how he has changed after fighting the Animorphs for so long. He’s immediately suspicious when Tom shows up with “Cassie,” suspecting a trap right off the bat.

And when he’s in the Pool ship, he has massive weapons at his disposal that could quickly end the battle on the ground, but instead chooses to snipe at the morphed fighters, clearly taking personal satisfaction at taking them out after so many years of losses against them. I mean really, there have been 6 fighters against him (he’s probably been pretty clear on the number for a while due to the same morphs, regardless of any ploys the Animorphs have tried to play in the past to make it seem like there are more of them. Six fighters against all of the Yeerks and in years, YEARS, he hasn’t killed a single one of them. It’s more shocking than anything almost that he was ever promoted, given that record. And then when the Yeerks are flushed, the quieter moments when he realizes he’s lost. Not only are thousands of his people dead, but he knows that he has also been betrayed. But in that instance, the most important thing to him is to reconstruct it that Tom, a Yeerk, beat him; not the Animorphs.

Tom is also an interesting villain, for the short bits we get from it. Jake is on to him from the beginning, that a Yeerk who is smart enough to approach them in the way he did, is smart enough to not want to team up with them forever and will have his own plans in mind. It says something about how well Jake has grown to understand Tom’s Yeerk that he can anticipate him so well. Towards the end, Jake also breaks when everyone keeps referring to Tom’s actions as “Tom’s,” especially in the light of what he has ordered Rachel to do.

I exploded. “It’s not Tom! It’s not Tom, don’t call him that. It’s the Yeerk in his head. It’s the Yeerk, not my brother!” No one even looked shocked at my reaction.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Oh man, so many things. But everything to do with the auxiliary Animorphs probably takes the cake. It starts out early with the first attack on the Taxxons at the new Yeerk Pool resulting in the death of several Hork Bajir and Ray, one of the guys. And then, when Jake informs James of their role, James says he’s not sure they’re up for it, that they’re all still reeling from the death of Ray. Especially the younger ones. Oof. And Jake explodes again. But instead of the cool inspiration “Independence Day” style speech that make everyone feel uplifted, his is darker, and more brutally honest about what the stakes really are.

“Look, if we lose this battle it’s over, you understand me?!” I raised my voice to be heard by everyone. “If we lose it’s over. This is the battle. This is the last stand. We lose and here’s what happens: The Yeerk fleet fights the Andalite fleet. If the Yeerks win they’ll be free to enslave every living human being and kill the ones they don’t want. If the Andalites win there’s a very good chance they’ll sterilize Earth: kill everything in order to end the Yeerk menace once and for all. So, you don’t like me telling you what to do, you don’t like your job, you don’t like me, period? I don’t really care. Before this night is over the casualties will be piled high and some of you standing here right now will be dead and I don’t care because we are going to win. Is that clear? We’re taking that Pool ship and before this night is over we’ll have Visser One right here.” I held up my tight-clenched fist.

And then of course the end, with Visser One picking them off one by one. It’s by no means a short scene and the tension holds throughout, with the hope that Marco and Ax will get control of the ship at any moment. And Jake, like the reader, is trapped just watching it happen. Knowing that it is part of the plan and a risk from the start that they wouldn’t make it through. The dialogue from Visser One is just crushing, with his obvious glee in it all. He plays with them, like a cat, at one point and it’s just awful.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: Obviously the final plan is terrible in the other sense of the word. But it’s also the most brilliant of the ones we’ve seen. Jake has the most moving pieces on the board that he’s had the entire time and that are various levels of deception at play throughout. Not only does he have to keep Tom in the dark about the real plan, but several of Jake’s own crew don’t know the full plan until the last minute, with regards to Rachel’s role. And then Jake is having to improvise to a certain extent along the way as well.

The one bad plan of it all, I have to say, is the morphing scene when Jake is trying to get the attention of the general. It plays for good reading, but as a solid plan, it’s super risky. Here you have a general who has just found himself in the middle of a war with aliens who have unknown technology at their hands, and Jake just bursts in, de-morphing several times. He’s just lucky that some trigger happy soldier didn’t shoot him the moment he showed up. It’s showmanship for the sake of showmanship and would have likely ended in Jake’s quick, needless death.

Favorite Quote: 

This quote gets at what I was saying about the Andalites’ role in all of this. It’s also a really neat reflection on how much more complicated and evolved this series became over time. It’s hard to remember sometimes, but it did start out as simply as 5 kids try to hold it together until the savior aliens show up.

<It’s never completely clean, Cassie. Doesn’t work that way. But you try your best to keep it clean. The fact that you know you’ll be dragged in the gutter doesn’t mean you don’t try like hell to stay out of it. You don’t get a lot of straight-up good or evil choices. You get shades of gray. I mean, we started this war thinking we’d hold on till the great and glorious Andalites came to rescue us. Now we’re making deals with Taxxons and Yeerks to gain a victory fast enough to keep the great and glorious Andalites from making their own shades-of-gray decision.>

<What are you going to do?> Cassie asked.

<I’m going to win,> I said

And, of course, the discussion between Jake and Rachel about his plans for her is just one of the most solid conclusions you could ask for for the two characters who arguably had the biggest arcs throughout the series.

<You’re sure, Jake?> she asked solemnly when I had finished. <Because if you tell me ” Go!” I’ll follow your orders. You know what that means.>
<Yeah, Rachel, I know what it means.>
……
<Okay, then. Get started. Make sure Cassie doesn’t know.>
<You still don’t trust her?> Rachel said angrily.
<She loves us both, Rachel,> I said. <I can’t make her part of this. I can’t let her know in advance, so, you know, if it happens, if it happens, I don’t want her spending the rest of her life wondering if she could have stopped it somehow.>
Rachel said, <Okay, Jake. You’re right. And you’re right to use me for this. Not exactly something I’m proud of, maybe, but later, you know, if — don’t be blaming yourself, okay?>

Scorecard: Yeerks 16, Animorphs 20

I’m actually going to give a point to them both for this one. Yes, the Animorphs clearly win this exchange, but it feels wrong not to acknowledge the terrible loss of James and his crew. It was the biggest blow the Animorphs ever struck and they pretty much won the war right here. But it was also the biggest blow the Yeerks ever dealt, too, with them taking out 20 of the Animorphs, plus tons of soldiers and Hork Bajir.

Rating: There’s still one book left, but man does this almost feel like a conclusion on its own. This has to be one of the best books in the series. It has everything, action, character development, romance, tragedy. And it’s by far the most complicated, not only the plan itself, but the tangled moral lines that are crisscrossed throughout the story. And theses decisions aren’t just blown through; the story stops and takes the time to really look into them, and, rightly, often ends with a big ole question mark remaining. The reader is left to wonder for themselves what is right or wrong in these situations, whether Jake made the right or wrong decision at any given moment. It’s made clear that Jake himself doesn’t even know.

It’s also so perfect that the series comes full circle with the final single narrator book going to Jake. It would be an interesting experiment to now go back and read book 1 again, right after finishing this one. I’m sure the tonal difference would be astonishing.

I could probably go on and on about this book, but since this post has already gotten super long, I’ll leave it at that. This book is gutting, which right there proves how great it is. How could this final battle be anything else?

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

Kate’s Review: “A Stranger on the Beach”

41150430Book: “A Stranger on the Beach” by Michele Campbell

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, July 2019

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

Book Description: There is a stranger outside Caroline’s house.

Her spectacular new beach house, built for hosting expensive parties and vacationing with the family she thought she’d have. But her husband is lying to her and everything in her life is upside down, so when the stranger, Aiden, shows up as a bartender at the same party where Caroline and her husband have a very public fight, it doesn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary.

As her marriage collapses around her and the lavish lifestyle she’s built for herself starts to crumble, Caroline turns to Aiden for comfort…and revenge. After a brief and desperate fling that means nothing to Caroline and everything to him, Aiden’s obsession with Caroline, her family, and her house grows more and more disturbing. And when Caroline’s husband goes missing, her life descends into a nightmare that leaves her accused of her own husband’s murder.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

I kind of stumbled upon Michele Campbell’s books a year or so ago, picking up “It’s Always The Husband” on a whim and listening to it on eAudiobook. I was immediately taken in by the suspense, the plot twists, and the complex characters. I also enjoyed “She Was The Quiet One”, and at that point I decided that Campbell was going to be one of my go to requests when it comes to authors. I was lucky enough that NetGalley granted my request to read her newest novel “A Stranger on the Beach”. The plot enticed me straight away. A scorned woman decides to get revenge against her potentially cheating husband by having one night stand with a handsome younger man, and it goes terribly awry with secrets, sex, lies, and murder?

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Go on. (source)

It became pretty clear that Campbell had more in store for her readers than the simplicity of this tried and true plot line. The problem is that with “A Stranger on the Beach” she didn’t do a good enough job of keeping her cards close to her vest.

I’ll start with what did work for me, as there was a fair amount that did. I am a huge sucker for lurid and soapy thrillers, and “A Stranger on the Beach” is definitely that. The elements of a wealthy woman getting caught up with a man from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ has a lot of potential for fun and quick thrills, and because of that I breezed through “A Stranger on the Beach” pretty quickly. Caroline’s chapters were first person, and gave you a sense of what was inside her head and what was driving her emotions, and while Aidan’s were from a third person perspective you still knew who he was and what he was about. I also liked the power dynamics that Campbell brought into the story, with Caroline being part of the wealthy tourist population that spends summers in beach houses, and Aidan being a townie struggling to make ends meet and having to see the entitled hoi polloi throw their weight around. This made it so their interactions always had an added tension to them, beyond the tension that is already there because of their uneven affections for each other. It also brought in the questions of who is more trustworthy to the reader, Caroline or Aidan, based on gender, class, and what you know about the two of them and their personal lives. You know that Caroline is a potentially scorned wife, and you know that Aidan has had past run ins with the law. But what do you actually know about them when it comes down to it? I will say that it was fun seeing things get turned sideways.

That said, unlike Campbell’s previous novels, I found pretty much no one to root for in this story, as everyone was pretty much terrible, even if they were all pretty complex. In previous works by Campbell I feel like while there are rotten characters, there are at least some people to root for, and even some who buck the trend. But in “A Stranger on the Beach”, I couldn’t find one character with any redeeming qualities, and that made it very hard to connect to any of them. They weren’t even terribly fun villains that you love to hate, just unpalatable and frustrating to follow. Even the law enforcement officials who are trying to see the best in everyone came off as complete rubes. On top of that, while the plot was well paced and kept me going, I figured out almost all of the big surprises and plot twists very early on, far earlier than I should have been able to do so. I’m not sure if it’s another instance of knowing the clues and the devices and what to look for, or if it was a little too obvious. But even if it was an instance of being a huge thriller reader, given that I imagine thriller readers would be one of the main demographics for this series, it’s not a huge leap to say that I probably wouldn’t be the only person with this problem.

“A Stranger on the Beach” was a bit of a let down. I’m not about to write off Michele Campbell as an author, but I do hope that whatever she comes out with next is a return to form that we saw in her previous novels. 

Rating 5: While I found the read to be addicting and pleasantly fast, I didn’t care for many of the characters and called the big twists a long time before the reveals.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Stranger on the Beach” is included on the Goodreads lists “So You Love An Unreliable Narrator”, and “Down By The Sea”.

Find “A Stranger on the Beach” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Guardian of the Horizon”

157858Book: “Guardian of the Horizon” by Elizabeth Peters

Publishing Info: Avon, March 2005

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

Book Description: Amelia Peabody and her husband Emerson, along with their son Ramses and foster daughter Nefret, are summoned back to the Lost Oasis, a hidden stronghold in the western desert whose existence they discovered many years ago (in The Last Camel Died At Noon) and have kept secret from the entire world, including their fellow Egyptologists. According to Merasen, the brother of the ruling monarch, their old friend Prince Tarek is in grave danger and needs their help, however it’s not until they retrace their steps back to the Oasis, with its strange mixture of Meroitic and Egyptian cultures, that they learn the real reason for their journey.

Previously Reviewed: “The Crocodile on the Sandbank” and “The Curse of the Pharaohs” and “The Mummy Case” and “Lion in the Valley” and “Deeds of the Disturber” and “The Last Camel Died at Noon” and “The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog.” and “The Hippopotamus Pool” and “The Ape Who Guards the Balance”

Review: I’m again back with an Amelia Peabody mystery review! It’s so great to have a series like this in one’s back pocket whenever a solid read is needed. The fact that the audiobook version is so great is an even greater bonus! Though, while I’m still enjoying the series as a whole, this one did feel a bit weaker than some of the others.

For once the Emerson family is left without a plan for where to excavate this coming season. Of course, the problem is not long-lasting as adventure is always sure to arrive at their door, this time in the form of a young man named Merasen who claims to be from the ancient, lost city where they rescued Nefret so many years ago. Once again, they must make the perilous journey to that remote oasis, and all of Amelia’s plans cannot prepare them for what they will find. Now, caught up once again in these ancient machinations, it is up to Amelia and co. to resolve not only the many challenges that arise, but to get out alive while doing it!

Up to this point, I had been reading the books not only in chronological order, but publishing order as well. This is the first book that was written much later, but backtracks to tell a story that is wedged between other, existing books. It won’t be until I get later in the series that I will know how well it fit in with previously written material, but it’s hard to imagine how the events of this book won’t have a lasting impact on the series. The obvious explanation is that since they resolved not to talk about the Lost Oasis originally, that same silence explains the absence of references to this story.

But even with that being the case, this story hits a few crucial character beats that it feels would impact how these same characters behave going forward. By this point, Amelia and Emerson are pretty set, as far as characterization and grand arcs go. Their romance is solid, their foibles understood and managed, they tackle adventure with the easy partnership of two people who know one another inside out. And as, by this point, the reader also knows them inside out, they are like a familiar pair of shoes that fit just right. I still love them, but this book’s main emotional arc is that of Ramses, and, to a lesser extent, that of Nefret.

For the last several books, Ramses unspoken love for Nefret has only grown. By this book, the torment has gotten to the point that he has begun looking for excuses not to be around her. Of course, given the nature of the story, that can’t be allowed to happen and he ends up on this adventure with her and the rest of his family. Along the way, however, he meets another mysterious and beautiful young woman. And throughout the book, Ramses struggles to understand his feelings for both of these women. It’s a very well-done side story as Ramses’ conflicted feelings are so relatable. He has a long-lasting, unrequited and unspoken, love for Nefret, and that is not given up. But at the same time, there is now the appeal of a young woman who sees him and can return his interest. Not knowing how the rest of the series plays out, it does feel like this experience would have a lasting effect on Ramses’ approach to his feelings for Nefret, either to make them more manageable, knowing that he can develop attachment for another, or drive him to the point of coming clean to her. But, given the fact that this book was written later, I’m not sure how that would work.

Nefret, too, takes a fairly hard emotional blow in the return to the Lost City. She had been raised there as a high priestess, a role of great importance but also great isolation. Upon returning, it is impossible to avoid the crushing memories of her childhood, both its joys and pains. Her experiences are arguably the most harrowing of them all in this book. But that also brings us to one of the downsides of this book. I’ve always loved the character of Nefret, and with the events of this book, she spends most of it very changed from the young woman we’ve been following before. With Amelia and Emerson remaining so steady (lovely, yet also not incredibly interesting either), much of the interest lies in Ramses and Nefret. And when you take her off the table, too, essentially…it’s just a lot of book to hang on one character’s shoulders, even if that character is excellent in his own right.

The story also relied on a few tricks we’ve now see many times before. I enjoyed the return to the Lost City and wish the book had capitalized on the novelty of that fact more so, without resorting to pulling in characters and mysteries that we often find in the other stories that are set in more traditional settings. It felt like a lost opportunity a bit and I think a few of these familiar additions were definitely unnecessary.

I continue to enjoy this series, though some of the characters felt a bit more bland in this book than in others. I also feel that it didn’t take full advantage of its own conceit and relied too heavily on past tricks to resolve many of the conflicts. But, of course, there’s no question that I will be continuing on with the series!

Rating 7: Not my favorite book in the series as I feel like it could have done so much more than it did.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Guardian of the Horizon” is on these Goodreads lists: “Historical Mysteries and Thrillers Featuring Women” and “Regency and Victorian Mysteries.”

Find “Guardian of the Horizon” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Superman: Dawnbreaker”

29749094Book: “Superman: Dawnbreaker” (DC Icons #4) by Matt de la Peña

Publishing Info: Random House Books for Young Readers, March 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: When the dawn breaks, a hero rises.

His power is beyond imagining.

Clark Kent has always been faster, stronger–better–than everyone around him. But he wasn’t raised to show off, and drawing attention to himself could be dangerous. Plus, it’s not like he’s earned his powers . . . yet.

But power comes with a price.

Lately it’s difficult to hold back and keep his heroics in the shadows. When Clark follows the sound of a girl crying, he comes across Gloria Alvarez and discovers a dark secret lurking in Smallville. Turns out, Clark’s not the only one hiding something. Teaming up with his best friend, Lana Lang, he throws himself into the pursuit of the truth. What evil lies below the surface of his small town? And what will it cost Clark to learn about his past as he steps into the light to become the future Man of Steel? Because before he can save the world, he must save Smallville. 

Review: Though I’ve come to terms with the fact that Batman is always going to be my choice of male DC superheroes (depressive demon nightmare boys are my weakness, as we all know) Superman is a very close second, and it’s probably because he’s the exact opposite of Bruce Wayne and his brooding tendencies. Clark Kent/Superman is an optimist who just wants to do the right thing, and to help people because he can. Sure, he has sadness about his home planet of Krypton blowing up, but overall he’s a cheerful and stand up guy whose motivation to do good is pretty much without strings. So it makes sense that the DC Icons Series, the YA books that have taken on DC’s favorite characters, has saved their Golden Boy for last. Therefore we come to Matt de la Peña’s “Superman: Dawnbreaker”, a new quasi-origin story for Superman set during his teen years in Smallville. 

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But without the ‘somebody saaaaave meeee’ intro. (source)

Overall, this was a very satisfying and well done Superman origin story. We’ve seen so many different iterations of this, but de la Peña manages to make it feel fresh and original, if only because he takes it to places that aren’t as obvious as the usual plot points. There are still familiar faces, like Ma and Pa Kent and Lana Lang, but de la Peña tweaks the relationships a tiny bit. In “Dawnbreaker”, Clark knows that he has powers, but he doesn’t know why, and he hasn’t felt comfortable asking his parents for answers. He gets the feeling that something is being hidden, but doesn’t necessarily know if he wants to know what, and wonders if he can be okay with not knowing all facets of his identity if it means living a relatively uncomplicated life. But, given that this is a Superman origin story, one can guess that all will come out soon enough, but even this I felt was handled with nuance and complexity. You see both Clark’s AND The Kents having to come to terms with the fact that Clark isn’t of this world, and what that could mean in both the greater scheme of things, but also their own familial ties. I was also VERY happy to see what de la Peña did with Lana Lang. I’ve always been solidly a Lois girl, and portrayals of Lana that I have seen have made her into an uninteresting love interest that I can’t abide. Partially because she’s competition for Lois (YES I AM THAT PETTY), but mostly because she could be so much more than just the hometown sweetheart. And de la Peña allows her to be more than that! While it could be argued that she’s just kind of been turned into Lois (though to be fair the comics did this too, with her being a TV newscaster on and off), I liked the spunky and intrepid Lana we got on the page. Also, she isn’t relegated to love interest here! She and Clark are best friends, and while they have some romantic tension it feels more like a wink towards their original storyline as opposed to a ‘will they or won’t they’ scenario. It means the Lana can be her own person, and her story isn’t defined by Clark’s affection for her. This is the Lana that Lana deserves to be.

But what struck me the most about this story was the plot and themes that de la Peña was able to bring together in a seamless way. When people think of Smallville they usually think of the humble and down home hometown that Clark grew up in, and the positive Americana that such a place an evoke. de la Peña doesn’t exactly blow this notion out of the water, but he does bring up the notion that small town simplicity and charm generally favors a very specific population, aka white people. In “Dawnbreaker”, Smallville (like many small towns in America’s midwest and heartland) has seen a growing population of Latinx immigrants, and racial tensions are on the rise as some townspeople miss ‘the good old days’. Seeing Clark hope that at the end of the day the people of Smallville will do the right thing is SO very Clark Kent, but it’s also a sad reality that unless checked and questioned and called out, prejudice and racism can easily run amok. And given that the people who are going missing are from the local Latinx population, Clark learns some hard truths about why they aren’t being sought out so much, and why their loved ones are too scared to push the authorities too much. In fact, while the main plot and mystery surrounding strange people in town and a mysterious new corporation moving in was well done, I was more interested in the themes about racism and xenophobia, and how capitalism and capitalist interests can claim they want to help, when they actually want to make a profit. And while it’s true that sometimes de la Peña is more inclined to spoon feed these themes to his reader as opposed to trusting that they can pick up on it, for the most part the execution was fairly well done.

“Superman: Dawnbreaker” was a strong end to the DC Icons series. I’m glad that they saved this one for last, because I think that it was my favorite of the bunch.

Rating 8: A strong end to a fun series, “Superman: Dawnbreaker” gives Clark Kent a timely and fun new origin story, while addressing social issues that remain incredibly relevant in today’s societal climate.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Superman: Dawnbreaker” is included on the Goodreads lists “Super Hero Books (Not Graphic Novels)”, and “YA-Fiction: Super Powered Fiction”.

Find “Superman: Dawnbreaker” at your library using WorldCat!