The Great Animorphs Re-Read #45: “The Revelation”

343179Animorphs #45: “The Revelation”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, September 2000

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Things were already really weird. Fighting aliens. Battling to save Earth. And still trying to be normal. Marco, the other Animorphs, and Ax are almost used to it. Almost. But things are changing. The Yeerk invastion of Earth started out passively. Secretly. But now, everything seems to be stepped up. Even Marco’s father is talking about some top secret project at his job. Something about developing Zero-space…

Marco doesn’t even know whether his father is a Controller. But he does know he’s not going to let the Yeerks win this one. They’ve already got his mother. And Marco will do anything it takes to save his father. Anything…

Narrator: Marco

Plot: I had honestly forgotten that this was one of the first big game changer books in the end game line up of this series. For one, I think the previous Cassie book being so incredibly not relevant to the overarching plot serves as a pretty big distraction. You read that one and are left feeling like “yep, here we are, still in the middle of filler land!” Then you pick up this one and…

giphy

It’s just an average evening at home for Marco: making frozen pizza for the family, accepting Nora as part of said family, avoiding any and all views of displays of affection between Nora and his father. Then his father starts up on the dinner conversation and low and behold, his company is just a few short steps away from creating a zero space communicator. Marco recognizes this for the potential disaster it is. He immediately calls Jake and the group meets up at Cassie’s barn.

At the barn, Marco says that he tested his father and doesn’t believe him to be a Controller yet, but that they’ll need to keep him under surveillance. The group agrees, and Jake sends Tobias and Ax out on first watch: it is clear that Jake thinks Marco is too invested. Back home, in the middle of the night, Marco wakes up to a phone call. He picks it up and overhears a man from his Dad’s work saying that a co-worker’s wife has died and that he should come in for some support. Marco is quick to realize that this is a ploy, calls Rachel for back-up, and sets off after his father.

He barely makes it in time, seeing through a window that his father is bound and held by two Hork Bajir who are preparing to dunk him into a mini Yeerk pool. Without thinking, Marco barges in to save his father. Rachel shows up as back up and they make their escape. Rachel retreats to tell the others what has happened and gorilla!Marco and his father speed away in a car. After they get a ways away, Marco’s dad begins questioning everything and Marco reveals who he is and what he can do with morphing. They stop at a run-down diner and Marco tells him everything.

He allows his dad to call home, but when his dad almost reveals to Nora where they are, Marco disconnects the call, angry that his father clearly hasn’t listened to anything he said. Marco does a quick breeze through of his morphs to finally convince his dad that what he’s said is true. He also reveals that his mom is alive and is Visser One. Marco’s dad struggles not only to accept that his son is now giving him orders (like the fact that Marco has decided to stow him away with the Chee for now) and with the fact that his first wife is alive, but he also loves Nora.

Marco takes him to the King’s house where his Dad gets even more of an eye-opener on just how weird Marco’s world is. But he’s also distracted by the amazing technology on display. Erek and the other Chee go out in disguise as Marco and his dad, knowing that if they both are seen as missing that Marco will be under suspicion and through him, all of his friends. Marco takes off back to the barn to meet up with the rest of the Animorphs.

Once there, it is clear that none of them technically approve of what he’s done, but they also know that they wouldn’t have done anything differently had they been in that position. They also realize that the fact that Marco’s dad knows how to build a zero space communicator is a huge win. Marco and Ax return to the Chee and recruit Marco’s dad into helping Ax build it.

The next day, cockroach!Marco watches himself die. Erek and Mr. King, posing as Marco and his dad, are “killed” by a force of Yeerks who storm Marco’s home. Nora, now clearly infested, stands outside and watches. Once it is done, Marco realizes that life as he knew it is over, not stopping to even take anything from his room.

Back with the Chee, Ax and Marco’s dad have made progress on the communicator, enough to have discovered that Visser One has been convicted of treason and is being held in the Yeerk Pool for execution by starvation. Visser Three will be promoted to Visser One and his plans for all out destruction are imminent. They decide to rescue Marco’s mom and eventually set up his mother and father for life in the free Hork Bajir valley.

To get into the Yeerk Pool, the Animorphs need to steal a Bug fighter. The security has been upped once again and no living thing can make it through the entrance tunnel, but the shields of a Bug fighter will do the trick. They lure a ship into the forest claiming to be a forest service worker who “captured a strange, bladed monster” and quickly take over the ship. But the ship is a new version and one that Ax has trouble handling. Luckily, there is an auto pilot system installed that can take over if the pilot seems “erratic.” After a bumpy ride, the team, now all in Hork Bajir morphs, find themselves in the Yeerk Pool entrance tunnel that is accessed through a holographic sunken ship under the ocean.

They make their way to the Yeerk Pool only to discover that Visser One has been tied to a pier in the middle of the pool and is clearly at the last stages of her starvation. They head back to the ship, thinking to use it to grab Visser One. On the way, things go sideways and they are discovered. They rush back to the ship and end up having to blast their way back into the Yeerk Pool. Marco and Rachel jump out to grab Visser One, but the others are forced to retreat in the ship, leaving them exposed.

An elite force of Hork Bajir show up who are clearly more skilled at fighting. They manage to grab Eva and make their way back to the edge of the pool. Rachel is badly injured in the fight and Visser One makes a break for it, escaping out of Eva’s ear. Marco is left trying to save his mother (who is violently struggling to kill Visser One before she makes it to the pool) and helping Rachel. Eva manages to nab Visser One and with the help of Marco, they kill her. Visser Three shows up and morphs a huge, fanged winged alien that comes after them. But the other Animorphs in the Bug fighter are able to badly injure him and rescue Marco, Cassie, and Eva. However, the ship is shot and lands in the pool.

With Eva’s extra knowledge of how the ship operates, they manage to overhear the engine corp enough to get the ship up again, boiling a large portion of the Yeerk pool in the process. They finally manage to escape.

Marco sets up his mother and father at the free Hork Bajir colony. They have a happy reunion though later Marco’s father approaches him about Nora’s fate. Marco plants the suspicion that Nora was always a Controller and had been put in his path to monitor his work. Marco himself sets up camp living with the Chee at the Kings’ household, making trips to the Hork Bajir colony every once in a while.

Later, on the beach, the team finally use the zero space communicator they made to contact the Andalites. Jake is the one to speak and when asked who is on the other line, he says “This is Earth.”

The Comic Relief: This is a huge book for Marco. Everything kind of comes to a head all at once and he ends up being the first one of the group to have his cover blown. The speed at which it all falls apart is also a great example of how precariously balanced their charade has been this entire time. One little event and BAM! Marco’s entire life is up-ended and he has to fake his own death, and his father’s, and let his step mom get infested.

Obviously Marco struggles a lot with the action at the heart of the story. But on the emotional side of things, he is most struck by the realization that his dad truly loves Nora and what that means for his father to go through all of this. It’s a hard hit for Marco who, up to this point, it seems, always believed that while his dad cared for Nora, what he felt for her wasn’t the same as what he felt for Marco’s mother. To realize that one can feel that kind of love more than once and that a parent has moved on to another, it’s a hard hit for Marco.

He also questions whether he could have done more to save her and whether his own shock at his father’s feelings at all impacted his decision to not try to get back to their house to rescue her.

In the end, when he finally has his family reunited at the free Hork Bajir valley, we see that this joy, what he always wished for, has been tinged by the realities of adulthood, time, and what love looks like. His father is happy to be with his mother, but he’s also going to grieve Nora.

Our Fearless Leader: Early in the book, Marco notes that Jake is a fair leader when he asks for Marco’s input on the situation with his father. But at the same time, he catches himself wishing that Jake would just make the call, taking the weight of the decision off of Marco. It’s a nice moment to highlight how much the team members depend on Jake to shoulder this weight. Throughout the rest of the book, Jake pretty effectively highlights his hard-won ability to calmly and effectively roll with all of the punches that are thrown at them.

He’s also the one at the end to speak via the zero space communicator. He initially waves towards Ax to do it, but Ax rightly recognizes that Jake needs to be seen as the leader from the very beginning, so Jake ends up with the great closing line.

Xena, Warrior Princess: Rachel ends up teaming up with Marco several times in this book. She’s the one he calls when he sees his dad taking off in the middle of the night, and she’s also the one to end up on the pier with him at the end. Some of it is necessity (she’s the one available by phone and the one with the power morph at the pool), but at this point it’s also clearly more than coincidence that these two work well together.

We also get a great moment from her that highlights that she’s more than just the tank of the team. When they’re in the barn discussing how useful (or not) the zero space communicator would be (especially considering how often the Andalites have ignored the plight of Earth in the past, so who’s to say contacting them again is even worth it), she’s the one to draw their attention to its abilities to spy on Yeerk communications. Marco is frustrated that he didn’t see this himself. And as a reader, it is surprising, as this is exactly the kind of thing that we expect to see from his character. But it’s a nice reminder that Rachel has brains, too, and Marco isn’t the only one who can evaluate situations effectively.

A Hawk’s Life: Tobias doesn’t have a whole lot in this book. But he does contribute when it comes to Eva/Visser One’s experience with torture. The others all say that she will gain nothing from revealing their secrets, but Tobias is quick to correct them that, when under extreme suffering, one will do almost anything if they think there’s a chance to stop the pain. Another lovely reminder of poor Tobias’s sucky life. This is what he gets to be now: the guy with all the insights into torture experiences!

Peace, Love, and Animals: There are few quick moments from Cassie that are all kind of neat for her character. In the beginning, Marco notices Jake shooting a quick glance to Cassie before assigning Ax and Tobias to watch Marco’s dad. Marco realizes that in that quick look, Cassie was able to convey to Jake that she thought Marco was too close to it and shouldn’t be trusted to guard his own father.

Later, she’s also the one to quickly speak up for saving Marco’s mom. She knows that after everything the team went through for his dad, that Marco can’t ask them to take on a suicide mission back into the pool for his mom. So she does it for him, coming up with a good excuse for why it’s necessary. Marco is incredibly thankful for this.

And then, towards the end, when they end up boiling the Yeerk pool, we see her turn away from the window and the destruction, another reminder that, of them all, she struggles the most with moments like this where the destruction doesn’t come from battles, but from other choices.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Ax has some definite struggles coming to grips with the fact that humanity might have figured out zero space, and way faster than the Andalites did, relatively speaking to their own technological time lines. He also proves himself capable of giving Marco a run for his money on the bad driving front. Though, to be fair, the Bug fighter seems pretty advanced and Marco should have at least gone through driver’s ed at this point…It did lead to some fairly comical lines from Ax though:

<You should always wear the safety restraints,> Ax scolded, struggling futilely to get four humans and an angry bird off him.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: Marco definitely knew the right morph to effectively traumatize his father quickly: always, always go ant, if your goal is utter horror. Marco’s poor father, to see that, then followed by the bird, and then have your son threaten lobster morph on you…yikes. But, I have to say, of all the ridiculous cover morphs we’ve seen, it’s pretty dumb that the one that ended up using the ant morph was from the book where this morph literally gets about two sentences. Marco doesn’t even make it fully ant! It’s pretty silly.

Couples Watch!: Man, you really have to feel for Marco’s dad in this one. His wife who died years ago, who he mourned, is now back in his life. His new wife, who he legitimately loved, is now essentially dead in her own way. What’s more, his son has now planted the idea that the woman he loved may have never even been real in the first place. I don’t think relationship drama gets worse than this.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: Visser Three only makes a brief appearance with yet another of his super sweet alien morphs that lasts a hot second before immediately getting taken down by the Animorphs. You’d think he’d at least learn to stop per-emptively bragging about his morphs’ badass abilities every time he tries out a new one, given his past failure rate. More importantly, the fact that Visser Three will now be Visser One is the crucial news of this story. After “Visser,” the Animorphs have a much clearer idea of what Visser Three’s vision of the Earth invasion looks like, and it’s a lot less of the subtlety and a lot more of this:

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Towards the very end of the book, Marco makes the decision to plant the idea that Nora was maybe always a Controller and had been put in his dad’s life to spy on his work. It’s a really dark moment, more so for the fact that’s it’s not clear whether this was the right or wrong call, to either Marco or the reader. Marco’s thought is that this idea will give his dad a sense of peace, that he didn’t simply abandon his wife to a life of infestation or that he cheated in some way on Eva, since Nora was a spy all along. But…is that really a comfort? His feelings for Nora were real, and with this idea, he’s now left with the thought that their whole relationship was a sham. And Eva is going to tell him, too, about the fact that that one “blissful year” that he remembers with her before she died, yeah, she was Controlled then too. So now poor Marco’s dad has two wives, both of whom were creating sham relationships with him for some portion of their time together. I kind of think this lie is just easier for Marco than for his dad. It’s a rough little moment, but I can’t also say he was completely wrong to have thought it might help.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: As you’ll see with my scorecard below, given the Animorphs’ past experiences with the Andalites, being able to contact them doesn’t seem like that great of a thing. They’ve been routinely dismissed by the Andaites and have heard through enough grapevines for it to be pretty believable that the Andalite fleet isn’t anywhere nearby and doesn’t even think of Earth as a priority. So, it’s not that it’s a bad plan to contact them, but all of the past stuff does kind of undercut what could have been a really cool moment at the end of the book.

Favorite Quote: There’s a great moment between Marco and his dad right after Marco has told him the truth, where it really gets hit home how swapped their roles now are:

“Dad, of course you’re my father,” I said, fighting an onslaught of emotion. And it would be so nice to have someone make decisions for me again, I added silently. “I love you. I respect you. But I’ve been fighting this war for a long time. I’ve been on more missions, in more fights, and seen more terrible things than you can imagine. This is my fight. My war. Me and my friends, we know what’s going on. You don’t.”

And with that, the son will now be the one making the decisions and fighting the battles. What’s always been is now just in the open. And for a more humorous addition to Marco’s dad’s life lessons:

“Dad, just a suggestion, but when you’re dealing with the Animorphs, never say it can’t get any weirder. It always does.”

Scorecard: Yeerks 12, Animorphs 15

I’m giving this one to the Yeerks. Not only was this the first time they successfully flushed out one of our main characters into having to fake his own death and go into hiding, but Visser Three somehow at last maneuvered Visser One into death penalty for treason and is about to get a big promotion and his all-out invasion protocol approved. The Animorphs do make contact with the Andalites in the end, but they’ve manged that before to rather disappointing results. So at this point, the Yeerks are making much more progress towards their own agenda while the Animorphs are forced to go into partial hiding and react.

Rating: This book is excellent. It’s truly the beginning of the end and it kind of just hits you out of nowhere. Like I said earlier, the fact that Cassie’s previous book was such a nothing story, really works in the series’ favor at this point, since you never see any of this coming. And then, I imagine for first time readers, as the story is going along, you just kind of keep waiting for the magical reset button that we’ve seen so often in the past to come into play and put everything back in place by the end. There have been some pretty crazy plots and ploys used to do this in the past, so it’s hard to believe as the story keeps going and going that yes, this is really going to end in a completely different place than any of the other books: Marco is in hiding, his dad knows about them, his mother has been saved, Visser Three is going to become Visser One, and the Animorphs reach out to the Andalites. It’s a lot to take in! But it definitely serves as a much-needed jump start to a series that was starting to feel like it was floundering for the last…many books now.

I also can’t leave this without noting the fact that they make a reference to “Independence Day” early in the book and then proceed to essentially rip off the entire third act of that movie with the Bug fighter/auto pilot charade. There’s even a line in this portion that is the Animorphs commenting on just how big the invasion force looks, exactly like Jeff Goldblum’s line about the aliens in that movie. I love that movie and I love these books, so I’m not mad about it. If only Jake’s epic last line had been more of a speech. You know the kind. Made to rousing music? In the misty night? Via a megaphone?

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

Kate’s Double Review: “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust”

Books: “The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized The World” by Sarah Weinman; “Rust & Stardust” by T. Greenwood

Publishing Info: Ecco, September 2018; St. Martin’s Press, August 2018

Where Did I Get These Books: The library; I was sent an ARC from the publisher

Book Descriptions: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is one of the most beloved and notorious novels of all time. And yet very few of its readers know that the subject of the novel was inspired by a real-life case: the 1948 abduction of eleven-year-old Sally Horner.

Weaving together suspenseful crime narrative, cultural and social history, and literary investigation, The Real Lolita tells Sally Horner’s full story for the very first time. Drawing upon extensive investigations, legal documents, public records, and interviews with remaining relatives, Sarah Weinman uncovers how much Nabokov knew of the Sally Horner case and the efforts he took to disguise that knowledge during the process of writing and publishing Lolita.

Sally Horner’s story echoes the stories of countless girls and women who never had the chance to speak for themselves. By diving deeper in the publication history of Lolita and restoring Sally to her rightful place in the lore of the novel’s creation, The Real Lolita casts a new light on the dark inspiration for a modern classic.


When 11 year-old Sally Horner steals a notebook from the local Woolworth’s, she has no way of knowing that 52 year-old Frank LaSalle, fresh out of prison, is watching her, preparing to make his move. Accosting her outside the store, Frank convinces Sally that he’s an FBI agent who can have her arrested in a minute—unless she does as he says. 

This chilling novel traces the next two harrowing years as Frank mentally and physically assaults Sally while the two of them travel westward from Camden to San Jose, forever altering not only her life, but the lives of her family, friends, and those she meets along the way.

Review: I want to extend a special thank you to St. Martin’s Press for sending me an ARC of “Rust & Stardust”.

For someone who reads a whole lot for her profession and her pleasure, I have a pretty gaping hole in my literary experience when it comes to ‘the classics’. Between taking not so typical literature classes in high school and majoring in psychology, my exposure to classic books was limited, and while I’ve tried to pick up the pieces here and there I still have many left on the ‘theoretically to read’ list. So no, I have not read “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov, though the notoriety of the story means that I am pretty familiar with it as a whole. I’m in no rush to read it, not for any other reason than there are so many other books out there that interest me more. But when I got an ARC of the book “Rust & Stardust” by T. Greenwood, the fact that it was based on the very real story of Sally Horner, the girl who served as inspiration to Dolores Haze in Nabokov’s book, caught my attention. And then I heard that a nonfiction book about Sally Horner, called “The Real Lolita” by Sarah Weinman, was also soon to be available. So I decided to bide my time, and to read the two as a pair so that I could compare and contrast the two, which each tell the same story in very different ways.

And perhaps it’s implied, but just in case, I need to give some serious content warnings for both of these books. They do, after all, involve the kidnapping, rape, and abuse of a little girl.

“The Real Lolita” is a non fiction work that juxtaposes Sally Horner’s kidnapping at the hands of Frank La Salle with Vladimir Nabokov trying to write “Lolita”. Weinman surmises that Nabokov, who had been having stumbling block after literary stumbling block as he tried to write what would become his most famous work, heard the sensationalized news stories surrounding the case and used it in his work. Nabokov denied this again and again, but Weinman lays out the similarities between the two cases, and the timeline that he was working within and how it wa well within the highest media furor surrounding the case. It isn’t really a criticism of Nabokov’s decision to use this story as inspiration so much as it’s an indictment of him lifting a girl’s very real pain to profit from it without giving her any credit. I appreciated that she wasn’t going after the inspiration piece, because it isn’t uncommon for creatives to take inspiration from real life horrors and to make them into a fictional work. The issue is that Nabokov was too proud to admit that he in all probability did find inspiration in this trauma victim, which is deeply problematic in and of itself, and couldn’t be bothered to even acknowledge her pain and how successful of a novel it was. Her evidence is well researched and carefully laid out, and the details that she found regarding the Horner case and what her life was like before, during, and after the ordeal gives voice to a girl whose trauma was appropriated for a novel with the subject of her inspiration twisted and misinterpreted  into a nymph-like seductress (even if that wasn’t Nabokov’s intention). It’s a book that I had a hard time reading because of the awful manipulations and abuses La Salle did to Horner, though I appreciated how frank and ‘just the facts’ Weinman was because of the horrors of the case. I also liked that she wasn’t particularly fiery in her critiques of Nabokov, but that she simply presented the evidence as it was and let it speak for itself. Weinman’s book gives this girl a voice, a voice that wasn’t afforded to her in the moment, and that has been drowned out because of time and a novel that overshadowed it.

“Rust & Stardust” is also the Sally Horner story, but it has been adapted into a work of fiction. T. Greenwood  makes it very clear in a long author’s note that she approached this story through the eyes of a fiction author, but tried to keep a good number of the details, especially in regards to Sally’s experience, realistic and plausible. The prose flows neatly and succinctly, and while it is a longer book than “The Real Lolita” I found that it felt like a quicker read just because Greenwood paced it so well. The story is pretty much what you’d expect; Sally Horner is caught by Frank LaSalle as she’s stealing a notebook from the store, and what follows is the story of Sally’s kidnapping, captivity, and return, as well as the perspectives of those in her life during her absence. While it was definitely hard to read at times, Greenwood never made it feel lurid or exploitative. The emotions were there, but were able to remain untangled from bad taste. Greenwood also gave herself some creative plot leeway (though not in regards to Sally, which was good) so that she could highlight the problematic attitudes of the post-War American culture, specifically when it comes to abuse towards girls and women. Whenever someone would raise doubts about Sally’s relationship to Frank, almost every time they were told to be quiet because the very notion of bad intentions was disgusting and inappropriate. Frank is able to get away with his predation because the people around him and Sally don’t want to face that it’s happening. Which brings me back to the criticisms of “Lolita”, in that some people, be it Nabokov’s intent or not, have romanticized the story of Humbert Humbert and the ‘nymph’ he fixates on. Greenwood doesn’t give any leeway for that because the story is Sally’s, and those who care about her.

Reading “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust” has given me a larger picture of a tale I thought I knew, and in their own ways they tell the side that has been lost to time and literary critique and accolades. If you like “Lolita”, and even if you don’t like it, these books will give it more context, a context that it has probably always needed.

Ratings 8: Though the backstory to “Lolita” has been glossed over and outright ignored by some (and denied by others), “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust” strive to give Sally Horner the ability to tell her story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Real Lolita” is included on the Goodreads lists “Women’s Lives”, and “Best Crime Books of 2018”.

“Rust & Stardust” is included on the Goodreads lists “#MeToo”.

Find “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Four Dead Queens”

34213319Book: “Four Dead Queens” by Astrid Scholte

Publishing Info: Putnam, February 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: BookishFirst

Book Description: Get in quick, get out quicker.

These are the words Keralie Corrington lives by as the preeminent dipper in the Concord, the central area uniting the four quadrants of Quadara. She steals under the guidance of her mentor Mackiel, who runs a black market selling their bounty to buyers desperate for what they can’t get in their own quarter. For in the nation of Quadara, each quarter is strictly divided from the other. Four queens rule together, one from each region:

Toria: the intellectual quarter that values education and ambition
Ludia: the pleasure quarter that values celebration, passion, and entertainment
Archia: the agricultural quarter that values simplicity and nature
Eonia: the futurist quarter that values technology, stoicism and harmonious community

When Keralie intercepts a comm disk coming from the House of Concord, what seems like a standard job goes horribly wrong. Upon watching the comm disks, Keralie sees all four queens murdered in four brutal ways. Hoping that discovering the intended recipient will reveal the culprit – information that is bound to be valuable bartering material with the palace – Keralie teams up with Varin Bollt, the Eonist messenger she stole from, to complete Varin’s original job and see where it takes them.

Review: There are definitely some staple fantasy tropes that are sure to draw me in: dragons, women disguised as men, sisterhood, fairytale elements, etc. etc. Included in these is “thieves as protagonists.” While nothing has ever topped Megan Whalen Turner’s “Queen’s Thief” series, I’m still always on the lookout for a new favorite take on this theme. Not only does “Four Dead Queens” meet that criteria, but it was given an extra boost in that it’s a stand-alone novel. Rare, indeed, in this YA fantasy climate! But while there were definitely some good elements and legitimate surprises to be had in the story, in the end I was left feeling a bit flat after getting through this book.

Keralie is just your typical thief, happy to continue her life of petty crime and freedom. The politics and greater movements of the complicated city that she calls home, made up of four quadrants each ruled by its own queen, exist largely outside of her life and she’s fine with that. Until, that is, one of her jobs goes side-ways and she finds herself caught up in a murder mystery that is greater than could be imagined. Not one. Not two. Not even three. No, all four queens have been brutally murdered. And now Keralie and the mark she hit that lead her into all of this mess find themselves wrapped up in a conspiracy that goes further than they could have ever imagined.

I really liked the complicated world-building that was constructed for this story. The four quadrants and the various cultures and philosophical approaches they take were well-established and interesting. The world felt “lived in” and fully realized in a way that I think is fairly impressive given the fact that there have been, again, a sort of over-abundance of this type of world-building in YA fantasy in the past (ascribing generic traits to regions/cultures and calling your world good). Given the fast-paced nature of the book and the fact that it was a stand-alone, I was pleased to see a decent avoidance of info-dumping to convey this type of background information. Could more have been done? Yes. But it’s hard to both rant about how there aren’t enough stand-alone novels out there and then ding the ones that do come out too heavily for having a restricted word count within which to do their work. So I’ll give that a pass here.

As I mentioned, the story was fast-paced. The action starts from the very first page and there is very little let-up as the mystery unfolds. I was able to guess at a few things here and there, but there were also a surprising number of twists and turns that I failed to see coming. That said, the fast-paced nature of the story could also work against the plot as well. Time itself didn’t feel very well delineated or established. Some of the action felt like it was all happening at once and then a bit later I would realize that no, several days had actually taken place. Again, kind of a weird complaint, but the fact that I was buzzing through the book as quickly as I was almost worked against it. I couldn’t quite settle in, at times. So while I didn’t guess some of the reveals, I’m not sure whether this was because they were truly surprising or because I was so off-balance by the speed of the book that I didn’t have time to think about it.

I also only felt marginally attached to our main characters. While Keralie had many of the traits that I like to see in my thief protagonists, she also felt a bit like a cardboard cut-out of everything we’ve come to expect from a character like this. The romance, also, was incredibly dull and uninteresting to me.

Like I said, I’m always really excited to come across a stand-alone fantasy novel. But they are, by their nature, very different things than books that are setting up, or continuing, a series. Much needs to be done with fewer words and fewer pages. That being the case, I often find myself wishing that authors would choose to simply leave somethings out when they go the stand-alone route. You simply can’t fit in every standard YA fantasy trope that usually takes place over a trilogy or series into one, single book. Does there have to be a romance at its heart? Does the world-building need to be simplified or the action condensed to a few big scenes? Simply put, this book felt like it was trying to mash every fantasy expectation we have into one book and the word count simply couldn’t support it. Luckily, the fast-moving plot largely distracted from this as I was reading. But looking back, I do find it disappointing. If you’re looking for more of a “beach read” fantasy story, however, the past, hard-hitting action of this book might be just the ticket!

Rating 6: Had a lot of good bones in all the places that mattered, but never felt fully fleshed out in a way that is necessary for me to fully buy-in.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Four Dead Queens” is included on these Goodreads lists: “NEW ADULT fantasy & paranormal romance” and “Queen in Title.”

Find “Four Dead Queens” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Deceivers”

39863259Book: “The Deceivers” by Kristen Simmons

Publishing info: Tor Teen, February 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The publisher sent me an ARC.

Book Description:Pretty Little Liars meets Ocean’s 11 in this intrigue-filled contemporary drama from acclaimed author Kristen Simmons.

Welcome to Vale Hall, the school for aspiring con artists.

When Brynn Hilder is recruited to Vale, it seems like the elite academy is her chance to start over, away from her mom’s loser boyfriend and her rundown neighborhood. But she soon learns that Vale chooses students not so much for their scholastic talent as for their extracurricular activities, such as her time spent conning rich North Shore kids out of their extravagant allowances.

At first, Brynn jumps at the chance to help the school in its mission to rid the city of corrupt officials–because what could be better than giving entitled jerks what they deserve? But that’s before she meets her mark–a senator’s son–and before she discovers the school’s headmaster has secrets he’ll stop at nothing to protect. As the lines between right and wrong blur, Brynn begins to realize she’s in way over head.

Review: Thank you to Tor Books for sending me an ARC of this novel!

One of my husband’s favorite movies is “The Sting”, the classic grifter feature in which Robert Redford and Paul Newman run an elaborate con job on Robert Shaw. While I am more than happy to indulge the guy on watching an old favorite every once in awhile (lord knows he has to sit through “Purple Rain” every so often), the ‘con artist’ trope isn’t one of my favorites. So when I got an ARC of “The Deceivers” by Kristen Simmons I was a little bit hesitant. But when I saw that it takes place at an ELITE BOARDING SCHOOL for special kids (aka budding con artists), my interest had officially been piqued. Bring on the sudsy drama of boarding school brats compounded with the promise of back stabbing. That’s all in the game when it comes to con artists, right? So while “The Deceivers” was out of my wheelhouse, I was more willing to give it a go.

The first thing that struck a chord with me in this book was our protagonist, Brynn. Brynn is cut from a similar cloth to a number of YA heroines; she’s snarky, she’s scrappy, and she comes from a troubled background that has solidly placed a chip on her shoulder. Her father was murdered while working at his convenience store job, and Brynn’s mother has bounced from lout to lout ever since, leaving Brynn in a precarious, and sometimes outright dangerous, position. But through it all Brynn maintains her composure and never treads into overused plot points of devices. I like that she feels like a realistic teenage girl in a world that isn’t exactly smacking with realism, and her need to escape from this life strikes the right chords. Her motivations are clear, and while she is something of a fish out of water at Vale Academy (aka the boarding school for budding con artists, more on that whole thing in a bit), her character growth is believable and interesting.

And while the plot is based in a theme that isn’t usually my cup of tea, I did find the meat of the plot and the cogs within pretty entertaining. While Vale Academy itself feels little under cooked as of now, this is a series and there is a lot of room to grow and to bring the school history to a closer focus. There were also a good deal of plot twists that did take me by surprise, and I felt like the most important ones worked very well, especially when they changed the game and turned Brynn’s perceptions (as well as the reader’s) on their heads.

But that said, there were a number of moments and devices that didn’t quite come to fruition in satisfactory ways. Brynn went from potentially stumbling into a new educational setting with no guarantee of admission, to having the deal in the bag already without much reasoning beyond ‘because she needs to be here for the story to work’. There were moments and characters who felt like they could have had more focus on them, or at least more exploration and elaboration. On top of that, this book was nearly four hundred pages long, which felt a bit too long for the story in itself. There were repetitive aspects to the plot, mostly regarding whether or not Brynn could trust any given person at any given time, and the ultimate backstabbing that would come of that. I felt like had this been parsed down a bit more and tightened up, the plot wouldn’t have seemed to drag on as much as it did. And as I mentioned above, Vale Academy itself is still a very vague idea by the end of this book. In other books with magical and/or questionable boarding schools that I have enjoyed I’ve gotten a good feel for what the school as an institution stands for, and what the stakes are in regards to that school. But here, Vale Academy feels less like an actual place, but more of an excuse for these teenagers to be trying to trick, con, and manipulate people. Whether or not this will expand in later books, I can’t be sure, but I think that it will have to if it wants to stand out.

Overall, “The Deceivers” had a fun main character and some good twists and turns, but it dragged on a little longer than it could have. People who do like con artist stories may be more receptive to the premise than I was.

Rating 6: With a strong protagonist, “The Deceivers” has a lot of potential, but felt a bit scattered and unfocused, and a little too long.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Deceivers” is new and isn’t on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Popular Caper Heist Books”.

Find “The Deceivers” at your library using WorldCat!

February Fantasy Giveaway: “Crown of Feathers” & “Four Dead Queens”

There are a lot of great new fantasy titles coming out this spring, and in celebration of a new year’s worth of reading about magical beasts and royal plottings, we’re giving away two ARCs of titles that came out this February! Check out the details and enter to win below!

“Crown of Feathers” by Nicki Pau Preto

35715518

I had a sister, once…

In a world ruled by fierce warrior queens, a grand empire was built upon the backs of Phoenix Riders—legendary heroes who soared through the sky on wings of fire—until a war between two sisters ripped it all apart.

I promised her the throne would not come between us.

Sixteen years later, Veronyka is a war orphan who dreams of becoming a Phoenix Rider from the stories of old. After a shocking betrayal from her controlling sister, Veronyka strikes out alone to find the Riders—even if that means disguising herself as a boy to join their ranks.

But it is a fact of life that one must kill or be killed. Rule or be ruled.

Just as Veronyka finally feels like she belongs, her sister turns up and reveals a tangled web of lies between them that will change everything. And meanwhile, the new empire has learned of the Riders’ return and intends to destroy them once and for all.

Sometimes the title of queen is given. Sometimes it must be taken.

 

“Four Dead Queens” by Astrid Scholte

34213319

Get in quick, get out quicker.

These are the words Keralie Corrington lives by as the preeminent dipper in the Concord, the central area uniting the four quadrants of Quadara. She steals under the guidance of her mentor Mackiel, who runs a black market selling their bounty to buyers desperate for what they can’t get in their own quarter. For in the nation of Quadara, each quarter is strictly divided from the other. Four queens rule together, one from each region:

Toria: the intellectual quarter that values education and ambition
Ludia: the pleasure quarter that values celebration, passion, and entertainment
Archia: the agricultural quarter that values simplicity and nature
Eonia: the futurist quarter that values technology, stoicism and harmonious community

When Keralie intercepts a comm disk coming from the House of Concord, what seems like a standard job goes horribly wrong. Upon watching the comm disks, Keralie sees all four queens murdered in four brutal ways. Hoping that discovering the intended recipient will reveal the culprit – information that is bound to be valuable bartering material with the palace – Keralie teams up with Varin Bollt, the Eonist messenger she stole from, to complete Varin’s original job and see where it takes them.

Enter to win!

Giveaway Details: Giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and runs through Sunday, February 24, 2019.

Serena’s Review: “His Majesty’s Dragon”

28876Book: “His Majesty’s Dragon” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey, March 2006

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

Book Description: Aerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleonic Wars as valiant warriors ride mighty fighting dragons, bred for size or speed. When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes the precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Captain Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future – and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature. Thrust into the rarified world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France’s own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte’s boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.

Review: I loved both “Uprooted” and “Spinning Silver,” both fairytale retellings by Naomi Novik. I’ve heard repeatedly about her Temeraire series, and yet for some reason hadn’t picked it up. While I do like fantasy fiction that mixes together historical and military fiction as well, I think I always just read the book description for this one and was overwhelmed with flashes of “Master and Commander.” But when my last audiobook expired and I was perusing my audiobook list, the library must have been going through some high demand period and none of the books I had mentally lined up for next were available. But there was “His Majesty’s Dragon” with a glowing, green “available” next to it. So, with no excuses left, I checked it out. Only a few days later, I now have the same problem with trying to find a replacement audiobook because I blew through this one so quickly!

Laurence is proud of his career as a naval man. While impressed with the aerial corps, he’s always preferred this avenue of military life and has looked with wonder at those who live a very different life paired with their dragon companions. But when his ship captures another that carries an egg that is about to hatch, Laurence finds his life taking quite the turn. With the birth of Temeraire, a rare dragon from across the world, Laurence is introduced to an entirely different world, and one that is only marginally understood by society as a whole. Now, on the brink of invasion by Napoleon and his forces, Laurence and Temeraire must learn where they will fit in the challenging future that is unfolding before them.

So, no surprise given my introduction paragraph, but I loved this book! I really don’t know what my problem was. Novik is definitely a strong writer and this book routinely shows up on “best of” fantasy lists. Like I said, all I can blame is having only read a very different sort of fantasy from her in the past (fairytale fantasy) and my completely-unfounded-on-any-facts concern that the story would be mostly about military action with only a dash of dragons. And while, yes, there are highly descriptive battle scenes and the rules and regulations of life in the military are an important part of Laurence and Temeraire’s arc, there was also just a ton of great dragon stuff. Not only between Laurence and Temeraire and their wonderful relationship, but in the entire concept of what a world would look like if dragons were a common thing.

Novik includes tons of detail on the many different types of dragons that make up the world, both the ones native to England and the ones coming from other regions of the world. Their strengths and weaknesses are then used in very specific ways when it comes to military action. In her version of dragon riders, dragons are more like ships, big enough to have entire crews and to operate in coordinated maneuvers with the other dragons around them. In this way, Laurence is both a bonded partner with Temeraire, but also a captain who much command the group of other military personnel who also “crew” the dragon. The whole thing was so incredibly unique. As I just got done saying in my last review about phoenix riders, we’ve seen a lot of books with dragon riders. But here, Novik has come up with a truly original way of approaching the concept and there is so much room to use and expand on this idea.

But, of course, for me the most important thing often comes down to characters, and I absolutely loved both Laurence and Temeraire. Laurence is just a good guy: honorable, noble, able to adjust to his changed circumstances with grace and care. In the beginning, we get a good understanding for just what a life change it means for Laurence to suddenly become a dragon captain and have to leave behind a promising career as a naval captain. But through it all, he puts Temeraire first, always, and handles the skepticism and often out-right reproach of those who resent his new role with firm grace. In these ways, the book is almost as much a fantasy of manners story as anything else. My Jane-Austen-loving ways were all over the intricacies of honor and politeness that Laurence displayed.

And, of course, Temeraire was amazing. He’s a unique type of dragon, not one common to England, so much of the book is learning more about him and what his strengths are. It is clear from the start that he is incredibly intelligent, and Laurence and he form a quick bond based on mutual friendship and respect. He also expresses his own set of moral codes, something that Laurence must struggle to understand when it varies from his own sense of duty. Perhaps due to Temeraire’s unique attributes, but also largely due to Laurence’s not having been raised up in the aerial corps, the two of them see the relationship between riders and dragons and the mode of operation of the entire corp through a unique lens. Along with the reader, they are learning as much as we are, but also coming to see flaws that have long been accepted, challenging norms as they go.

The book does have some excellent battle scenes and even a few scenes that made me tear up. But it also definitely reads as an introduction to a series. Much of the story is made up of world-building and scene-setting, letting readers get to know Laurence and Tameraire slowly throughout the story and setting up conflicts to come. This is where Novik’s strength as a writer comes to play. In another author’s hands, this type of book, that reads largely as a set-up for books to come, could feel plodding and useless. Instead, all of the details and attention to character building were completely absorbing in their own right.

I really can’t say enough good things about this book. Fans of fantasy fiction, especially dragons (and for those looking for a unique take on the whole “dragon rider” concept), should definitely check this one out. If you like historical fiction and military fiction as well, that can only be a plus! For me, these books are already added to my mental list of long-running series that I will need to work my way through in the years to come!

Rating 9: With two incredibly endearing protagonists at its heart, this military fantasy series is sure to appeal to dragon-loving readers!

Reader’s Advisory:

“His Majesty’s Dragon” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Alternate History Novels and Stories” and “Best Book With or About Dragons.”

Find “His Majesty’s Dragon” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Infidel”

38812871Book: “Infidel” by Pornsak Pichetshote and Aaron Campbell (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Image Comics, September 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: A haunted house story for the 21st century, INFIDEL follows an American Muslim woman and her multi-racial neighbors who move into a building haunted by entities that feed off xenophobia.

Bestselling editor Pornsak Pichetshote (Swamp Thing, Daytripper, The Unwritten) makes his comics writing debut alongside artist extraordinaire Aaron Campbell (The Shadow, James Bond: Felix Leiter), award-winning colorist and editor Jose Villarubia (Batman: Year 100, Spider-Man: Reign), and letterer / designer Jeff Powell (SCALES & SCOUNDRELS).

Review: Even though horror has almost always had stories with some kind of hidden themes within their works, I feel like as a genre people are starting to really realize the possibilities of metaphor for greater ills beyond a monster or a ghost. With books like “Lovecraft Country” and movies like “Get Out”, we are starting to see more expansion and room for not only POC characters, but also critiques of racism within our culture and society. “Infidel” by Pornsak Pichetshote is the most recent story of this kind that I have come across, and I can tell you that I was waiting very impatiently for my hold on it to be filled at my library. Given that NPR listed it on their ‘100 Greatest Horror Stories of All Time’ selection, my enthusiasm and anticipation was greater than most other books I request. It was also a lofty claim to make, and while I was open to the claim I wondered how much my own final opinion of it would line up with it.

Our story follows Aisha, a Muslim American woman who has recently moved into an apartment building with a tragedy attached to it. A few years before, a Middle Eastern man’s homemade bombs went off, killing a number of the tenants. Aisha and her friends, most of whom come from non-white backgrounds, are aware of the history, and aware of how the white tenants aren’t as welcoming to them as they are to non POCs. What Aisha and her friends don’t know is that the building is haunted by a very angry and aggressive set of ghosts. It’s Aisha that first sees the twisted and violent entities that haunt the complex, their rage focusing on her. The visual manifestations of these things are truly horrific, as they are warped and filled with rage and able to cause serious physical harm. Much like “Lovecraft Country”, racism and bigotry is the true villain of this book, with the ghosts targeting Aisha because of her Muslim faith and their association that gives them to the man whose bombs were their demise. Aisha isn’t the only one who has nasty encounters with the ghosts, as their ire holds a lot of the other characters hostage and puts them at risk as well. It starts slowly for all of them, noticing it bit by bit and making them wonder if they ACTUALLY saw something, or if it’s just a figment of their imaginations, a direct metaphor for those who are victims of racism in our day to day lives.

But the other kind of racism that Pichetshote shows in this book isn’t just the over the top obvious kind in ghost form; rather, it’s mostly micro-aggressions and fear based on ignorance and paranoia. Aisha is dating a while man named Tom, who has a daughter named Kris from a previous relationship. Kris’s mother is dead, and Kris is very connected to Aisha. Tom’s mother Leslie has just started warming up to Aisha and seems to be trying, though in the past she’s shown discomfort and flat out hostility towards Aisha and her culture. Aisha is more inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, though Tom and her childhood best friend Medina are not. There are also other tenants in the buildings who are more mistrustful of Aisha because of her faith. From a neighbor who is convinced she saw Aisha committing a crime (though Aisha herself at this point is a clear victim), to a woman who is actually in Aisha’s circle of friends but still doesn’t trust her fully, it’s these interactions that left me a bit more unsettled than the ghosts that pop out of the walls. These moments are based in realism, and show how people can be influenced by fear and prejudice even if they think they are open minded and accepting.

The artwork is stunning. There is a certain jarring atmosphere that the artist, Aaron Campbell, creates, with lots of vibrant colors and use of shadows. The ghosts within the building are especially grotesque, their distorted features harkening to disease and decay. At one point Medina refers to racism as a cancer, and the entities absolutely reflect that.

05_infidel1
Literal nightmare fuel. (source)

I think that one of the few criticisms I did have about this book was that it ended a little too quickly. I realize that this was very much a mini series, as it was only five issues all together, but for it to build slowly and complexly and then to be wrapped up very fast left me a little feeling unsatisfied. There were a couple of plot points that were tossed out into the fold that sounded like it would take a lot of work to get through, only to be resolved quickly, sometimes off page. Because of this, I did close the book wanting more.

“Infidel” is an effective story with some genuine scares. I highly encourage horror fans to pick it up, but know that it may feel a bit rushed by the end. That said, I am very much looking forward to see what Pornsak Pichetshote brings us next.

Rating 8: A unsettling ghost story that takes on racism and xenophobia in our culture, “Infidel” is a graphic novel with as many real world horrors as supernatural ones.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Infidel” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Horror Comics/Graphic Novels”, and “Against the Fascist Creep”.

Find “Infidel” at your library using WorldCat!