Serena’s Review: “Crown of Feathers”

35715518Book: “Crown of Feather” by Nicki Pau Preto

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, February 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss +

Book Description: 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.

Review: As I mentioned in the Highlights post for this book, I was pretty excited about this one purely based on the phoenixes. While I love me some dragons, there have been approximately a million and a half books written about them, often including dragon riders as well, over the last several years. Obviously this has always been an appealing topic to writers and readers alike, but I have to think a certain HBO show has also had a hand in the sheer explosion of dragon books we’ve seen. But, all of that said, there are a lot more fantastical beasts out there to feature in books, so I was thrilled when I saw this cover and read the description that features riders not of dragons but of phoenixes! Add in some sister drama, and it sounded like it would be right up my alley. Unfortunately, while there were a lot of good elements included, it fell a bit flat for me.

Veronyka and her older sister have been living a vagrant life almost since Veronyka can remember. And all that has kept them going has been their shared dream of finding phoenix eggs and bringing back the famed Phoenix Riders who have faded almost into myth in the midst of civil war. But when things go wrong, Veronyka finds herself alone with this dream, hiding her identity from those around her. And, of course, there is much more going on than what there seems. What is the truth behind Veronyka and her sister’s strange family history? And what role will they each play in building a new future?

Most of what I liked about this book had to do with the world-building, and, of course, the entire concept of an organization of phoenix riders. Yes, there is a lot of cross-over between this and what we’ve seen from similar dragon rider books, but the unique attributes of phoenixes (notably their regenerative proprieties) adds a new layer of intrigued to how these great birds would operate with their partners. I also liked the complicated relationship laid out between Veronyka and her sister. From the very beginning, we see the tension that lies between them. There is love, but its always tinged with just a bit more. Sometimes jealousy, sometimes anger, sometimes suspicion. As the book plays out, this relationship becomes even more important to the story, and while I was able to guess at the reveal in the end, it was still a pretty interesting concept and a great set-up for the next book.

But beyond those things, I simply had a hard time getting into this book. I was never able to slip fully into the experience and instead the process of reading it began to feel like a chore. I think there were probably a few reasons for this.

One, there is a lot of info-dumping in the first quarter to a third of the book. The story alternates between Veronyka and another character, and between the two of them, they almost end up repeating the exact same historical and cultural lessons back to back. Information provided by one character will be almost directly repeated by the other, but with a few changes in perspectives (but by no means enough to justify the repeated dump). Not only was the repetition annoying, but info-dumping on its own is always a quick way to kick me out of a reading experience. Most of this information could have been sprinkled throughout and come up in more natural ways.

Second, the story drags. There are blips of exciting action only to be followed with long chunks of very slow plot movement. The story probably could have been significantly shorter and be better for it.

Third, the characters on their own weren’t all that interesting. While I did like the complicated sisterly relationship, that aspect of the characters’ relationships would often fall to the side. And when left with Veronyka herself and the other male character, Sev, I was often simply bored. Which is really saying something, given how much I typically enjoy girls-disguised-as-boys stories.  They both simply felt pretty flat. I was also not terribly interested in the romance included in the story.

So, while the book had a lot of good things going for it (world-building, unique fantasy elements, a diverse cast of characters), I have to ding it down a few ratings simply because I didn’t enjoy reading it. And really, at its heart, that’s my main requirement for a book! Readers who have more patience than me and who are looking for a YA fantasy novel that is still pretty awesome with its handling of phoenixes, this may be the book for you! Just wasn’t for me, sadly.

Rating 6: Info-dumping and a floundering plot bogged down this book despite the cool factor that comes with having a story about girls riding around on phoenixes!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Crown of Feathers” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Fantasy / Sci-fi Books With POC Leads” and “Fiction: Phoenix (Mythological Bird).”

Find “Crown of Feathers” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “My Sister, The Serial Killer”

38819868Book: “My Sister, The Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Publishing Info: Doubleday Books, November 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Satire meets slasher in this short, darkly funny hand grenade of a novel about a Nigerian woman whose younger sister has a very inconvenient habit of killing her boyfriends.

“Femi makes three, you know. Three and they label you a serial killer.”

Korede is bitter. How could she not be? Her sister, Ayoola, is many things: the favorite child, the beautiful one, possibly sociopathic. And now Ayoola’s third boyfriend in a row is dead. Korede’s practicality is the sisters’ saving grace. She knows the best solutions for cleaning blood, the trunk of her car is big enough for a body, and she keeps Ayoola from posting pictures of her dinner to Instagram when she should be mourning her “missing” boyfriend. Not that she gets any credit.

A kind, handsome doctor at the hospital where Korede works, is the bright spot in her life. She dreams of the day when he will realize they’re perfect for each other. But one day Ayoola shows up to the hospital uninvited and he takes notice. When he asks Korede for Ayoola’s phone number, she must reckon with what her sister has become and what she will do about it.

Sharp as nails and full of deadpan wit, Oyinkan Braithwaite has written a deliciously deadly debut that’s as fun as it is frightening. 

Review: Satire is one of my favorite forms of humor, but I think that you have to be careful in how you implement it. If you aren’t mindful, you could end up being either unfunny or flat out offensive. Some of my favorite satire usually has to deal with dark things like murder and mayhem (hence my love for Caroline Kepnes’s “Joe” books), so that means that I’m usually treading into dangerous territory. Because for every “Joe” book there are a few “Summer Is Ended And We Are Not Yet Saved”: books that try for biting commentary, but just end up with things that make me feel icky.

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Because I don’t see the wit in a book about a religious zealot systematically murdering children in horrific ways, but THAT’S JUST ME. (source)

Luckily, “My Sister, The Serial Killer” is solidly in the first camp, and reading it was a twisted delight! Braithwaite is very skilled when it comes to creating believable, yet comical, plot points and characters that have done pretty terrible things. Our main protagonist and first person is Korede, a woman who is a hardworking nurse and who has constantly had to live in the shadow of her effervescent, and potentially psychopathic, sister Ayoola. When we meet them both, Korede is helping Ayoola dispose of the body of her most recent boyfriend. Korede is written in such a way that you feel super bad for her, but also can find humor and pathos in her exasperation about being put in this position (again). She is the only one who can see what a danger and terrible person her sister is, and while she resents her and berates her, she is also fiercely protective of her. Hence, the assisting in disposing of a body. Korede is a character that is flawed and well rounded, and also super relateable in her plight. And her running, frustrated, commentary about the inconveniences that crop up because of Ayoola’s psychopathic decisions is always amusing, which I think is the reason it works as proper satire. I didn’t find Ayoola as well rounded, but then again, all perspectives we are getting are from Korede, and as such that may be part of the point.

I also really liked the themes about sisterly loyalty, and how complicated it can be. I have a sister, so a fair amount of the feelings and complications that were between Korede and Ayoola felt very real and familiar (outside of the murdering others thing). Be it vying for attention from their mother, who sees Ayoola as the golden child, or romantic affection from Dr. Tade, a colleage of Korede’s who falls hard for Ayoola, the sisters are at odds, even if Korede is the only one who sees it. Korede loves her sister, but is jealous of her sister and scared of her sister, so while she wants to stay quiet about the multiple murders and her involvement, her resentment grows. Her only outlet is talking to a coma patient at the hospital where she is a nurse, as her reasoning is that he’s asleep so it’s not like he can rat her out (as you can imagine, this logic may be a little flawed as the story goes on…). Korede’s stark isolation because of her secrets is constantly on the page, and it simmers throughout the narrative, but it also means that her cynicism makes for some very funny moments in how she reacts to her circumstances. I found myself laughing out loud a few times while reading.

Braithwaite also gives a glimpse into the family history of Korede and Ayoola, and the abuse they and their mother had to suffer at the hands of their father, which gives some insight into how and why Korede feels the way she feels, and perhaps shows an origin of Ayoola’s instability, be it learned or innate. Getting to see their interactions throughout their entire lives really added to this book, and lifted it above just simple satire and made it a little more tragic, at least for Korede.

“My Sister, The Serial Killer” is a very fun and unique thriller that takes on the bonds of sisterhood. It accomplishes walking the line between tension and satirical romp, and I will be very interested to see what Oyinkan Braithwaite comes out with next.

Rating 8: A darkly amusing thriller about murder, rivalries, and sisterly love, “My Sister, The Serial Killer” is a wicked read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“My Sister, The Serial Killer” is included on the Goodreads lists “African Fiction”, and “Books in the Freezer Podcast”.

Find “My Sister, The Serial Killer” at your library using WorldCat!

A Fine Romance: Romantic Books for Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is around the corner, and along with candy and flowers comes some lovey dovey feelings. While we here at the Library Ladies aren’t exactly hopeless romantics, we do love a good book with a focus on love. In honor of the holiday, we have some recommendations of love oriented books to check out.

98687Book: “Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman

Publishing Info: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007

The film adaptation of this book made a huge splash when it came out in 2017, and I took it upon myself to read the book afterwards because the story had such an impact on me. Set in the Italian countryside in the early 1980s, “Call Me By Your Name” concerns the love, passion, and heartbreak between Elio, the son of a professor, and Oliver, a graduate student on an archaeological project. The chemistry between Elio and Oliver is crackling, and it tackles the ups and downs of first love for a younger person, and the fears of coming out for an older one. Given the time period, the age difference, and the personalities of the two main characters you can see where things are going, but even as they end up at their logical conclusion the reader is still taken in by the sweeping romance and tenderness between Elio and Oliver. Read it but be sure you have a box of tissues to cry into when all is said and done.

7716140Book: “Married with Zombies” by Jesse Petersen

Publishing Info: Orbit, 2010

Unconventional romance can be fun as well, and what could be more unconventional than a married couple finding themselves again during the zombie invasion? Sarah and David are a married couple who are having relationship problems. Sarah thinks that they may be on the brink of divorce, and David doesn’t seem to care. But then the zombie apocalypse happens, and the two of them realize that they won’t be able to survive without helping each other. And as they try to make their way through the wasteland in hopes of finding safety, they start to remember why they fell in love with each other in the first place. “Married with Zombies” is the first in a campy and fun series that explores love and romance in an honest way when it comes to a marriage on the rocks, and brings in charming characters and fun zombie action.

36521316Book: “The Shape of Water” by Guillermo del Toro and Daniel Krauss

Publishing Info: Feiwel & Friends, 2018

Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” was the Best Picture at the 2018 Oscars, and while a number of people like to make fun of it (‘the Fish Fucking Movie won?!’), at the heart of it is a truly sweet and sweeping romance between two outsiders who are looking for companionship. Elisa is a mute woman working as a night cleaner at a scientific laboratory, and while she has friends she feels isolated because of her disability. But when she stumbles upon a secret project, which involves the captivity of a hidden creature taken from the Amazon River, she forms an immediate connection. The book is an adaptation of the film, but in written form it gives more in depth perspectives of a number of the characters, and approaches the romance from other angles. Fans of the movie will like the additional content, and those who haven’t seen it will probably want to after reading it.

33413958Book: “Your One and Only” by Adrianne Finlay

Publishing Info: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2018

For a science fiction angle, we recommend this YA title featuring a future populated entirely by well-regulated clone generations. Their orderly lifestyle and strict cloning process is thrown into chaos, however, by the introduction of Jack, the first non-clone boy to exist in this world for decades. Being the new kid at school takes on a whole new light from this angle, but luckily he forms a connection with Althea-310 who sees his struggles and becomes curious about this new form of life and what he may have to teach them. Their romance is sweet, while also leaving plenty of room for a deep-dive exploration into a dystopian society and what it means to be human.

33574143Book: “The Beautiful Ones” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Publishing Info: Thomas Dunne Books, 2017

Technically this is a historical fantasy, but I feel it fits much more neatly under the “historical romance” category as the fantasy elements only exist on the far outreaches of the story itself. And that story is first and foremost a romance. Told from three perspectives, we see the pains of old romance slowly give way to the joys of new love. Antonina, Hector, and Valerie each have distinct voices and challenges, and what made the book particularly enjoyable was not only being able to root so strongly for our main duo, but having a villain, who while sympathetic to a point, was also great fun to hate. Fans of historical romance are sure to appreciate this one!

24473763Book: “Radiance” by Grace Draven

Publishing Info: Grace Draven, 2015

This one solidly falls under the romance category, being similar to “The Shape of Water” in its presentation of a non-typical romantic duo. Brought together through a politically arranged marriage, Brishen and Ildiko have much to learn about not only the stranger they married, but the very different worlds and cultures they each have come from. But what makes this book stand out from others is the truly sweet and respectful way that this romance unfolds. It just goes to show that angst, drama, miscommunication, and general “bad boy” behavior is not necessary to make a romance spark. Both of our main characters are simply wonderful people and it makes their love story all the more enjoyable for it!

Serena’s Review: “The Caged Queen”

35843937Book: “The Caged Queen” by Kristen Ciccarelli

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, September 2018

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

Book Description: Once there were two sisters born with a bond so strong that it forged them together forever. Roa and Essie called it the hum. It was a magic they cherished—until the day a terrible accident took Essie’s life and trapped her soul in this world.

Dax—the heir to Firgaard’s throne—was responsible for the accident. Roa swore to hate him forever. But eight years later he returned, begging for her help. He was determined to dethrone his cruel father, under whose oppressive reign Roa’s people had suffered.

Roa made him a deal: she’d give him the army he needed if he made her queen. Only as queen could she save her people from Firgaard’s rule.

Then a chance arises to right every wrong—an opportunity for Roa to rid herself of this enemy king and rescue her beloved sister. During the Relinquishing, when the spirits of the dead are said to return, Roa discovers she can reclaim her sister for good.

All she has to do is kill the king.

Previously Reviewed: “The Last Namsara”

Review: As promised, I decided to give the second book in this series (more of a companion novel) a go even though I struggled through the first. That one had enough cool factors with its world-building, history, and, of course, dragons to push past my ultimate dislike of its main character. I also liked the small scenes we got for Roa in that book and was curious to see how she would be handled as a main character. Alas, I’ve now come to the conclusion that while this author has some great ideas for stories and fantasy worlds, I simply can’t stand her characters, especially when they take on a POV role.

Roa is a reluctant queen, having involved herself in the political corruption and upheaval that we read through Asha’s eyes in the first book through marriage to the heir to the throne, Dax. Doing this, not only helped secure Dax the throne, but also secured an alliance that would see peace and prosperity for her own people, often at odds with the greater realm. But she has her own history with Dax, as well, and one that has not lead her to look upon him kindly. Now, caught up once again in political maneuverings, Roa is offered a way out: kill her husband, the king.

Frankly, I feel like I could almost copy and paste my review for “The Last Namsara” into this post, make a few edits for name changes, remove the dragons and that about covers it. The strengths and weaknesses were so identical between the two! Again, the world-building, magical elements, and folktales/history that are scattered throughout the story are what stand out. It’s in these elements that we see what a strong writer the author is. Again, the fables that we hear throughout the story, and that serve as a parallel to the choices presented to Roa, are told with a beautiful, simple lyrical style that I greatly enjoyed. Really, if Ciccarelli wanted to produce a small collection of short stories and fables set in this world, I’d be all over it! She clearly has a knack for story-telling itself as an art.

Also, while we sadly had many fewer dragons in this book, I liked the other fantasy elements introduced. Most notably, Roa’s connection to her deceased sister whose spirit has been trapped in this world and who has been a steady companion for Roa for the last several years. Again, this element of Roa’s story connects to the same fables that we’re given early on in the book in very clever ways. There’s some decent exploration of loss, love, and determination in the face of impossible odds that come into play through this story line.

But, again, the characters and romance are where this story falters. In the first book, Roa is introduced as a mature, serious character. One who, of all of them, is living in the real world and is willing to make hard choices to secure an outcome that is for the betterment of her people. While Dax and Asha flit around, ruled by their emotions and indecisive to the extreme, Roa seemed to be the steadying presence that held it all together. But here…what happened to that character? In the very first chapter, we find Roa literally running away from her problems. Easily anticipated struggles of a politically arranged marriage seem to have now taken her completely by surprise, and she’s full of complaints, regrets, and indecision, all expressed through what can only be described as immature whining. Her dead, bird sister even criticizes her for it! And really, of those two, who has more of a right to complain?

And these traits continue throughout the story. Gone is the competent, mature Roa we were given in the first book. Instead, we have an insecure, indecisive character who gets herself caught up in *sigh* a love triangle where all the “challenges” presented her could be solved with one simple attempt at communication. I wouldn’t enjoy this character had I come upon her completely fresh, but it was twice as frustrating to read her this way, after being given such a different, more intriguing version of the character in the first book. What’s more, many of these struggles and character flaws are identical to the problems I had with Asha, making the characters now read as very similar people. Sure, they had different struggles and histories, but swap that out and leave the voices and ways they deal with things? You wouldn’t be able to differentiate. And when that happens, I’m forced to conclude that the author simply struggles with characterization as a whole and is stuck in her own writing hole (that, or has bought into the false idea that indecisive, whiny teen girls are the only type of protagonists YA readers are into).

Ultimately, I disliked this book even more than the first one. Some of the fantasy elements (the dragons) that helped buoy that book were more absent here, and Roa wasn’t simply a let down as a character, but a complete reversal on what we had been promised. I think there’s a third book set to be released as a companion to these two, but at this point, I feel like I’ve already read it anyways, so why bother.

Rating 4: All the same problems of the first, if even more disappointing for now being repetitive problems.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Caged Queen” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “2018 – Sequels.”

Find “The Caged Queen” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Lost Man”

39863488Book: “The Lost Man” by Jane Harper

Publishing Info: Flatiron Press, February 2019

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

Book Description: Two brothers meet at the border of their vast cattle properties under the unrelenting sun of outback Queensland, in this stunning new standalone novel from New York Times bestseller Jane Harper.

They are at the stockman’s grave, a landmark so old, no one can remember who is buried there. But today, the scant shadow it casts was the last hope for their middle brother, Cameron. The Bright family’s quiet existence is thrown into grief and anguish. Something had been troubling Cameron. Did he lose hope and walk to his death? Because if he didn’t, the isolation of the outback leaves few suspects…

Dark, suspenseful, and deeply atmospheric, The Lost Man is the highly anticipated next book from the bestselling and award-winning Jane Harper, author of The Dry and Force of Nature.

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

I was late hopping on the Jane Harper train, but now I like to think of myself as a loyal fan. Her “Aaron Falk” series has had two pretty strong installments, and given that I liked the second one more I feel/hope that the trajectory can only go up as the series goes on. What I didn’t realize was that she has also decided to write standalone novels. So when I saw that her newest book, “The Lost Man”, was available on NetGalley I assumed that I was requesting the newest Aaron Falk adventure. Once I did a little more digging I realized that it was actually a new story with whole new characters, but that was just fine by me. The description fell more in line with the kind of mystery I like anyway, less of a ‘whodunnit’ and more of a ‘dark secrets of family badness coming to light’ kind of story.

Our location is still in Australia, this time in a small outback town in North Queensland, and our story concerns the Bright Family. Three brothers grew up in this small town, Nathan, Cameron, and Bub. Cameron has been found dead, and Nathan, Bub, and the rest of the family are left to wonder why it is that Cameron ventured out into the scorching heat on his own with no supplies or transportation. From the beginning you get the feeling that there is more to the Bright family than meets the eye, and with our focus on Nathan, the oldest and one with a fair amount of baggage in his own right, the secrets start to unfold. His relationships with just about everyone in his life are filled with complications; his late father was abusive, his youngest brother Bub resents him (and he had also resented Cameron), his divorce was acrimonious and it has left his son Xander in the middle. Even his relationship with Cameron’s wife, Ilse, is a bit messy, given that Nathan had been with her first and cared for her very deeply. It hadn’t gone anywhere because of some fallout from an in the moment mistake that Nathan had to pay for dearly. Nathan is kind of a mess, but his complexity, his background, and his eagerness to do the right thing make him easy to root for. The setting is still isolating and sprawling, and the Outback itself feels like its own character. 

The mystery at the heart of “The Lost Man” is less about what happened to Cameron, though it does play a large part, and is more about what kinds of secrets Cameron and the rest of the Brights have been keeping under wraps. Nathan thinks that he knows everything there was to know about his brother, but as he digs deeper and starts to find more pieces about his life, he begins to see truths that he never wanted to see. It brings up a lot of questions and themes about family and the loyalties that we think we owe them, and how cycles and systems of abuse can take their tolls in different ways. It’s because of this focus that I found myself enjoying “The Lost Man” more than I might have enjoyed another mystery with a detective with not as much of a personal stake in the outcome. While it’s true that this isn’t another Aaron Falk story (though if you keep your eyes open you will find a connection that is buried in the narrative to Falk and his past), it’s a more powerful and gripping story because it feels more urgent. It goes to show that Harper can create characters and settings outside the story that put her on the map, and is a testament to her skills.

“The Lost Man” was very enjoyable and suspenseful read. The twists and turns weren’t severe, but they had bite to them. I’m pleased to see that Harper is able to flex beyond what could be trappings of a notable series, and while I’m excited for the next Aaron Falk novel, now I’m also excited to see what her next standalone might be!

Rating 8: A dark and tangled mystery that raises questions about family loyalty, “The Lost Man” is an engrossing and powerful standalone from Jane Harper.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Lost Man” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best New Australian Fiction 2018”, and “Great New Thrillers and Suspense for 2018”.

Find “The Lost Man” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Markswoman”

35008759Book: “Markswoman” by Rati Mehrotra

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, January 2018

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

Book Description: Kyra is the youngest Markswoman in the Order of Kali, one of a handful of sisterhoods of highly trained elite warriors. Armed with blades whose metal is imbued with magic and guided by a strict code of conduct, the Orders are sworn to keep the peace and protect the people of Asiana. Kyra has pledged to do so—yet she secretly harbors a fierce desire to avenge her murdered family.

When Tamsyn, the powerful and dangerous Mistress of Mental Arts, assumes control of the Order, Kyra is forced on the run. She is certain that Tamsyn committed murder in a twisted bid for power, but she has no proof.

Kyra escapes through one of the strange Transport Hubs that are the remnants of Asiana’s long-lost past and finds herself in the unforgiving wilderness of a desert that is home to the Order of Khur, the only Order composed of men. Among them is Rustan, a disillusioned Marksman whose skill with a blade is unmatched. He understands the desperation of Kyra’s quest to prove Tamsyn’s guilt, and as the two grow closer, training daily on the windswept dunes of Khur, both begin to question their commitment to their Orders. But what they don’t yet realize is that the line between justice and vengeance is thin . . . as thin as the blade of a knife.

Review: As I was scrolling through upcoming releases, I happened upon a book that seemed intriguing. Once I looked into it a bit further, I realized that it was in fact a sequel to this book that came out last year and somehow missed my radar. Mission in hand, I set off to the library and was able to snag an aubiobook version of the story. I knew from a few other book reviewers I follow that this was a fairly popular title last year, so I had high hopes. Sadly, the hype machine let me down once again.

Ever since tragedy struck her village and family when she was young, Kyra has been raised by an order of all-female assassins, training to become a Markswoman herself. In this land, Markswomen (and the one order of men to also take on this calling, though there is much controversy over the legitimacy of their claim) are the sole arbitrators of justice, doling out death sentences when crimes have been committed. To do this, they use specially crafted blades that they have bonded with and hold unique powers. But soon after Kyra gains her role as  Markswoman, things go wrong in her order and she finds herself alone in the world and on the run from her own kind. She meets up with a young man from the male version of the assassin order, and together they must face the growing strife overtaking the land.

There is a lot to like about this story, and I can understand why it was popular for so many readers. Most notably, the world-building is incredibly unique. The story appears to be set in some version of India and there are various references to gods that come from the Hindu religion, most notably, Kali, the Markswoman’s patron goddess of death. But on top of this fantasy version of the region, we’re also quickly given hints to an even greater past. There are references to ancient beings who once walked the earth but retreated to the skies long ago. However, they left a series of doorways that operate using some type of technology that is not understood and that can quickly transport an individual from one place to another. This science fiction element was completely unexpected and probably one of the most intriguing aspects of the entire series. I was much more interested in the history of this world and this technology than in Kyra’s story itself, which, of course, is ultimately one of my problems with the book.

Frankly, I didn’t much care for Kyra or Rustan, each coming with their own unique frustrations. We’ll start with Kyra. We meet her during her first assignment that marks her as a fully-fledged Markswoman. She immediately hits with the expected hesitation and moral questioning I’ve now come to (sadly) expect from many assassin stories. Once back at the Order, she continues to flounder in her role, being easily provoked by another girl who is still at an apprentice level to the point where Kyra walks right up to a line of behavior that would see her immediately expelled. Lastly, in a discussion with her mentor, she seems to still be confused by her own order’s purpose, wishing to use her newly-gained role to go on a revenge quest against the people who attacked her family all those years ago. All together, only a few chapters in, we’ve seen literally ZERO evidence that Kyra has the maturity, responsibility, or thoughtfulness to have earned her this promotion. She doesn’t seem to have engaged at all with the greater meaning and purpose behind her own order; she questions authority at every opportunity; she is easily pushed into poor decision making by peers who are now her lessers; she’s not even particularly skilled in any of her lessons. I came away from these chapters with literally no idea what had made Kyra special enough to have been granted an early promotion other than, of course, the necessity of it for plot purposes, the WORST kind of story structure. I found it incredibly frustrating and it ultimately irreparably damaged the character in my mind early in the book. Even when the action picks up to the point that some of these flaws fade into the background, the damage was done.

Rustan, too, has similar character issues. He’s given fewer chapters than Kyra from the get-go, leaving the character with an uphill battle. And, again, we see another assassin who is really pretty terrible at being an assassin. He ultimately spends much of the first half of the book fretting over events in a way that was both repetitive and useless. Not to mention, again, at odds with the basic concepts of any assassin order that one could imagine.

Then the two get together and the inevitable romance begins. Here, too, the book flounders and this element of the story falls into many tropes and pitfalls. We’re never given any solid reasons why these two are drawn together and really, it seems to happen over night and out of nowhere. What starts as an antagonistic relationship literally upends itself for no good reason. I’d be more mad about it if I wasn’t quite so bored by how predictable it all was.

Ultimately, I was pretty disappointed by this book. The world-building and story at the heart of it had so much potential. But this just made it all the more frustrating to see those things being squandered and buried beneath poor characterization and an aggressively trope-ridden romance. I had already requested the sequel book for review when I picked up this one (this is what I get for blindly trusting in the hype machine), so we’ll see how that one turns out. Hopefully improvements will be made!

Rating 5: Having a lot of good things going for it just made it all the more painful to watch this one stumble its way through.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Markswoman” is on these Goodreads lists: “South Asian YA/MG” and “Indian Science Fiction and Fantasy.”

Find “Markswoman” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Victor LaValle’s Destroyer”

36100937Book: “Victor LaValle’s Destroyer” by Victor LaValle, Dietrich Smith (Ill.)

Publishing Info: BOOM! Studios, March 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The legacy of Frankenstein’s monster collides with the sociopolitical tensions of the present-day United States.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein beseeched his creator for love and companionship, but in 2017, the monster has long discarded any notions of peace or inclusion. He has become the Destroyer, his only goal to eliminate the scourge of humanity from the planet. In this goal, he initially finds a willing partner in Dr. Baker, a descendant of the Frankenstein family who has lost her teenage son after an encounter with the police. While two scientists, Percy and Byron, initially believe they’re brought to protect Dr. Baker from the monster, they soon realize they may have to protect the world from the monster and Dr. Baker’s wrath.

Written by lauded novelist Victor LaValle (The Devil In Silver, The Ballad of Black Tom), Destroyer is a harrowing tale exploring the legacies of love, loss, and vengeance placed firmly in the tense atmosphere and current events of the modern-day United States.

Review: Victor LaValle is an author whom I greatly enjoy, as I don’t think I’ve read one thing by him that underwhelmed me. I really liked his mental institution horror story “The Devil In Silver”, I found “The Ballad of Black Tom” to be a fun deconstruction of a racist Lovecraft tale, and I REALLY liked “The Changeling” and how it made a modern day dark fairy tale out of New York City. So when my friend Tami told me that he had written a graphic novel that decided to take on “Frankenstein”, I absolutely had to read it. It was a long wait at the library, but when “Destroyer” finally came in I sat down and devoured it in one setting. Even if it ran me through the wringer and then some. I guess I never thought about how “Frankenstein” could be combined with present day socio-political themes, and yet LaValle meshed them so well that I was blown away.

The Monster has emerged from the Arctic in modern times, and his former longing of being included and understood has been thrown out the window. He is a beast that is intent on destruction of the human race, as he believes that it has wronged him, as well as everything else around it, and does not deserve to go on. In contrast, we meet a modern day descendent of Victor Frankenstein. Her name is Dr. Baker, and she, too, has her heart set on destroying the society that she has continuously wronged her. For her, though, that is mostly because she lost her son Akai after a witness mistook his little league bat for a gun, and police killed him. Her science experiment has brought Akai back from the dead, though her scientific genius has made him a wonder of modern technology as well as an undead twelve year old. It’s the perfect metaphor for the rage and despair that parents like her have felt over and over again, and her urge to destroy every part of the racist society that destroyed her life. Her rage and plotting is utterly terrifying, but damn does it make sense. I loved Dr. Baker, as you get to see her life before Akai’s death through flashbacks, including her time at a top scientific research organization (that basically fired her when she got pregnant, because heaven forbid a woman in a STEM profession want to start a family). That organization has also stolen her ideas and technology and intends to use it against her, which is another indictment of power structures stealing ideas from groups that it wrongs. LaValle does a very good job of showing how she could go from a bright eyed and enthusiastic young scientist to a revenge intent victim, and while I don’t think he ever makes it seem like her urge to kill everyone in society is correct, he makes you really understand why she’d feel that way.

Dr. Baker a great juxtaposition to The Monster, who has also decided to take a path of destruction because of his grievances. It takes those themes of science gone too far and what makes a monster and applies them to a T. Hell, the other little homages are also on point, like the names of the agents Percy and Byron, named for the two men to whom Mary Shelley first shared her vision of a Modern Prometheus. The Easter eggs are plentiful, and I had a hell of a time finding them. It’s a really fun thought exercise about what The Monster would possibly be like today if it finally left the Arctic, and boy is it bleak. I don’t know if I really like the idea of The Monster being reduced to, well, a monstrous/brainless being, because far too often has Shelley’s vision been misinterpreted from the thinking, and therefore plagued, creature of her intention. But in this case, I think that LaValle does it in a way that would be a potential foregone conclusion, and it does add to the symbolism all the more.

I really enjoyed the art work that Dietrich Smith brought to this story. It felt sufficiently comic book, but it also had bits of depth and darkness and shadow that conveyed various points of tragedy and sadness. I also liked the more abstract design of the cover (done by Micaela Dawn), though the drawing style inside was the design that I preferred. The details from the gore and the violence to the varied facial expressions are very well done.

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“Destroyer” is a superb reinterpretation of a classic story of horror and tragedy, and LaValle has once again shown his talent and retelling stories with a socially conscious lens that reflects today’s ills. It’s another update of “Frankenstein” that I think Mary Shelley would appreciate.

Rating 8: A dark and biting retelling of “Frankenstein”, “Victor LaValle’s Destroyer” takes a classic story and applies it to modern social justice themes with powerful results.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Victor LaValle’s Destroyer” is included on the Goodreads lists “Frankenstein Revisionist Novels”, and “Black Lives Matter Library Ideas”.

Find “Victor LaValle’s Destroyer” at your library using WorldCat!