Serena’s Review: “Age of Swords”

32337902Book: “Age of Swords” by Michael J. Sullivan

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, July 2017

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

Book Description: Raithe, the God Killer, may have started the rebellion by killing a Fhrey, but long-standing enmities dividing the Rhune make it all but impossible to unite against a common foe. And even if the clans can join forces, how will they defeat an enemy whose magical prowess makes the Fhrey indistinguishable from gods?

The answer lies across the sea in a faraway land populated by a reclusive and dour race who feels nothing but disdain for both Fhrey and mankind. With time running out, Persephone leads the gifted young seer Suri, the Fhrey sorceress Arion, and a small band of misfits in a desperate search for aid—a quest that will take them into the darkest depths of Elan. There, an ancient adversary waits—an enemy as surprising as it is deadly.

Previously Reviewed: “Age of Myth”

Review: I raved about “Age of Myth” in my review of it a few months ago. So much so that it even made its way onto my “Top 10” list for the year! Part of my enjoyment for the book was the promise of what looked to be an excellent, epic fantasy series, but one can never know for sure based on just one book. Well, as I mentioned in said “Top 10” list, I’m here with my review for the second book in the series, and I can report that yes, my enthusiasm was not unfounded!

While it hasn’t hit the fan yet, humankind knows that a conflict with the powerful, magical, and long-lived Fhrey is on the horizon. But they are woefully unprepared: they do not have weapons, they do not have a leader, and they do not have a strategy. Persephone has her own opinions on the last two, but for the weapons, at least, she has a plan. Gathering together a rag-tag group of powerful (in their own specific ways) women, she sets off to discover the secrets of making stronger weapons, a secret held by yet another antagonistic race. Raithe remains behind to deal with the squabbling clans as they work towards electing a leader. Each must face a new set of challenges that will only be one more small step in preparing their people for what feels like an impossible fight.

There are a lot of comparisons to “Lord of the Rings” in fantasy literature. And it’s pretty obvious why that is. It’s one of the few fantasy series that has truly bounced past its genre limitations, in that even readers not familiar with fantasy and sci fi are likely to have read it, or at least be passingly familiar with this story. Don’t get me wrong, “Lord of the Rings” is by no means the be-all, end-all and much of what even that great work does is pulled from a long tradition of story-telling and hero’s journeys. This is important to remember when we see elements from that series pop up in other series. Stories are all influenced by each other, and that’s ok! All of this to say that there are some pretty distinct lines to be drawn from this series and “Lord of the Rings,” and I, for one, am fine with it.

As I mentioned in my review of the first book, we have our three staple fantasy races: humans, elves and dwarves. Many of the characteristics of each is familiar from traditional portrayals. Humans are kind of pathetically (but heroically!) resilient in the face of their limitations. Elves are obviously the most powerful, but are pretty arrogant to boot. And dwarves just do their own thing, with a certain dickish flair. These are familiar traits from “Lord of the Rings” and other fantasy novels, and they hold true here. But what really got me (in a good way) in this book was that as I was reading, I just had this, fairly iconic now, scene playing in my head:

I can’t find a gif of the whole thing, but we all know what I’m talking about.

But take this scene and replace all the men with women! And then they all go into Moria, essentially, and terrifying and heart-breaking things occur. Yes, many of these things felt familiar, down to the almost all-powerful beast lurking in the depths, but frankly, I couldn’t care less just due to how awesome it was to find a band of adventurers that was completely made up of women! And they all fulfilled the same roles that you would typically find men filling in this type of group expedition. The leader. The magician. The scribe. The warrior. The inventor.

The one criticism I found here had to do with the characterization of Roan. I really like this character, over all. But it did start to feel as if she was literally inventing every new type of technology or discovery all by herself in a very short period of time. The wheel? Roan’s got it. Bows and arrows? Yep. Swords? Sure! It just got to be a bit much, especially as all of these things were invented over a very short period of time between the two books so far. I mean, at this rate, she’ll have invented computers and space technology by the end of the series!

However, I did like the ongoing gender-swapping that was going on between Persephone and Raithe. Persephone is the go-getter in this series. Through her own sheer will and persistence, action happens. Raithe is the one dragging his feet. His pessimism towards the entire affair was a bit challenging to read, but it also felt very true to his character. His experience of life has not been a happy one and, in many ways, he’s right about the seeming hopelessness of this situation. And having come from a tribe and family that rarely expected to see another day, and thus maintained only fleeting connections to those around them, the idea of fighting for a cause or for other people is a bit foreign to him. It was refreshing to see his slow growth as a heroic character, rather than have him spring up as a fully formed, capital “H” hero in the traditional sense. I’m curious to see where his story will go as things move forward.

This book also made me cry. Like, a lot. Not throughout the entire book or anything, but just really hard at one very specific part. My husband happened to walk in to the garage while I was sitting in my car listening to this particular part on the audio book (definitely wasn’t going to turn it off just because I’d, you know, gotten home!) and I’m pretty sure he thought someone had died.

And, while the plot has a lot of great action scenes and a fun arc of its own, it is also definitely continue to slowly set the stage for the series as a whole. Very little actual movement was made in the larger conflict, but we can see the pieces slowly coming into place.

I’m on the waiting list for the audiobook for the third book in the series (massive plug for the audiobook version of this series, the narrator is awesome). But part of me is also not in a huge rush for it to arrive since once I inevitably fly through that one, I’ll have to join the rest of the fans in waiting for a new book to be published. Hopefully it will be soon, but with a series as enjoyable as this one has been so far, “soon” is never quick enough!

Rating 9:

Reader’s Advisory:

“Age of Swords” is on these Goodreads lists: “Examples of Male Authors Writing Great Female Protagonists” and “Fantasy novels with positive portrayals of female leadership.”

Find “Age of Swords” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Kingdom of Copper”

35839460Book: “The Kingdom of Copper” by S.A. Chakraborty

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, January 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss +

Book Description: Nahri’s life changed forever the moment she accidentally summoned Dara, a formidable, mysterious djinn, during one of her schemes. Whisked from her home in Cairo, she was thrust into the dazzling royal court of Daevabad and quickly discovered she would need all her grifter instincts to survive there.

Now, with Daevabad entrenched in the dark aftermath of the battle that saw Dara slain at Prince Ali’s hand, Nahri must forge a new path for herself, without the protection of the guardian who stole her heart or the counsel of the prince she considered a friend. But even as she embraces her heritage and the power it holds, she knows she’s been trapped in a gilded cage, watched by a king who rules from the throne that once belonged to her family and one misstep will doom her tribe.

Meanwhile, Ali has been exiled for daring to defy his father. Hunted by assassins, adrift on the unforgiving copper sands of his ancestral land, he is forced to rely on the frightening abilities the marid-the unpredictable water spirits-have gifted him. But in doing so, he threatens to unearth a terrible secret his family has long kept buried.

And as a new century approaches and the djinn gather within Daevabad’s towering brass walls for celebrations, a threat brews unseen in the desolate north. It’s a force that would bring a storm of fire straight to the city’s gates . . . and one that seeks the aid of a warrior trapped between worlds, torn between a violent duty he can never escape and a peace he fears he will never deserve.

Previously Reviewed: “The City of Brass”

Review: Obviously, I was excited for this book. I’ve been patiently waiting and waiting for its release, and the second I spotted an e-copy available, I rushed to snag it. And then…I delayed reading it! Mostly because I was so excited that I wanted to ensure that I had as much uninterrupted time as possible to read major chunks of it. I’m typically fairly good about being able to pick up books and read a few pages here and there throughout the day and enjoy them as much as reading any other way. But, like every avid reader, I feel, there’s nothing like having a solid chunk of hours/days solely devoted to reading. And the cherry on top of that cake is having what is sure to be an excellent read to fill it! So I waited until my husband and I headed up north for a cabin trip and then whizzed through this book in blissful, quiet hours reading by the fire.

The story picks up a few years after the events of “The City of Brass.” Our two main protagonists from the first book, Nahri and Ali, are both making due with a life that hasn’t gone to plan. Nahri, married through a political alliance to the heir to a throne that had been stolen from her family generations ago, has continued to learn to master her own healing abilities and navigate the unfamiliar historical and political upheaval at the heart of djinn society. Ali has made a quiet life for himself living in a small village, banished from his beloved home city. There, he has been diligently trying to hide the residual water powers that he has developed after his experience with the marid in the lake around Daevabad. Joining our main two narrators, we also have chapter perspectives from Dara, a character that is believed dead by Nahri and Ali after the events of the last book.

What struck me most forcefully in the first book was the complicated and detailed world and history that the author had built. This wasn’t simply a story of the now, it was a story of how hundreds and thousands of years shaped what is the current situation. Similar to the true history of the Middle East, nothing is so simple as what can bullet pointed with current tension points. No, you have to dig back through centuries to understand a complicated history that more and more begins to resemble an impossible knot. So, too, in this fantasy version of the region. The first book laid the foundation, but this one really dives into the bigger questions that arise in a situation like this, where wrong-doings have been being committed for centuries and no party is innocent. Where is the line between justice, revenge, pride, and simple violence? When atrocities have been committed for centuries, one people to be repressed by another, only to rise and switch the roles for a few more centuries, who’s “wrongs” outweigh the other’s? There is no easy answer, and Chakraborty does a masterful job of portraying just how challenging finding peace and resolution in situations so whetted in historical conflict can be.

And to tackle all of these complex themes, we have our main characters. Nahri continues to be the stand-out character for me in this series. Not only is she approaching this situation from an outsider’s perspective, often giving her the most healthy and balanced outlook on the situation, but she is an eminently practical and resilient character. Where other books would get bogged down in the angst and drama of an arranged marriage, Nahri has persevered. She knows where her power lies and recognizes the powerlessness of those around her as well; for everything else, she will make the best out of a less-than-ideal situation. I can’t say how relieved I was to find that the book didn’t get caught up in relationship drama, as far as her arranged marriage goes. Too often I think this type of romantic drama is misidentified as action in and of its own. But here, it’s clear that Nahri’s priorities are much bigger than worrying about her political marriage. She has a proper perspective on not only her own challenges, but the challenges of her people and city.

Ali, too, was still a fantastic character. If anything, I grew to like him more and more as this book continued. He, too, has had to face the realities of his own idealistic tendencies. While he still had moments where I wanted to slap him around the side of the head (because again, Nahri sometimes seemed to be the only adult in the room), his arc was compelling. I particularly enjoyed the deeper look into his relationship with his siblings.

Dara, our new character POV, was also a fantastic addition. He operates outside of the main action of the city for the majority of the story, but through him, we can see the conflict coming that both Nahri and Ali are ignorant of. Further, Dara, more so than the other two, truly understands the horrors of the past, having lived through much of it. His wrestling with these issues felt that much more poignant for having residual PTSD, essentially, from his own actions. It was heart-breaking reading him come up against some of these same terrible choices once again.

I also can’t say enough good things about the general strength of the writing in these books. Chakraborty pens her words with a solid, confident stroke. Not only is the imagery beautiful, but the dialogue is snappy and the philosophical explorations are cleverly drawn. It’s a big task to try to address such large and complicated issues as the ones presented in this book. But to do it, while also not losing sight of her characters and presenting a compelling book that feels fast-paced throughout? Incredible! Fans of the first book are sure to be happy with this one (though I will say, you have to be patient for the Dara/Nahri) re-union! The story also leaves off with a fairly sizeable cliff-hanger, so beware of that. But don’t let that put you off!

Rating 10: Simply excellent. No second-book slump here!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Kingdom of Copper” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Fantasy of color.”

Find “The Kingdom of Copper” at your library using WorldCat!

The Great Animorphs Re-Read #43: “The Test”

343437Animorphs #43: “The Test”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, July 2000

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Tobias, the other Animorphs, and Ax have seen things so bizarre that no sane person would believe their story. No one would believe that aliens have taken over Earth, and are in the process of infesting as many humans as possible. No one could believe the battles and missions and losses these six kids have had to deal with. And it’s not over yet.

Tobias has been captured by the same human-Controller that nearly tortured him to death once before. She claims that she’s now a part of the Yeerk Peace Movement. That she just needs a favor. Tobias isn’t sure what to believe, but he knows that if the Animorphs and Ax don’t find him soon, what he believes won’t matter anymore…

Narrator: Tobias

Plot: Our favorite Yeerk psychopath/torturer is back! Taylor shows up once again and is ready and able to make Tobias’s already generally miserable existence that much worse.

Oh, Tobias books. Always good for all the feels.

On one of his usual fly-overs above the woods, Tobias stumbles upon a search and rescue attempt for a small boy who’s been lost. Communicating through thought-speak with the father, Tobias successfully leads rescuers to the kid. But he’s quickly taken out by a golden eagle. Luckily, the human rescuers save the “superhero hawk,” and Tobias awakes in a cage in the clinic. He sees on TV that his rescue has become a news story and knows that odd animal behavior like this is sure to attract the Yeerks. And sure enough, soon Hork Bajir barge into the clinic and nab his cage. On their way out, they’re attacked by the Animorphs who are there on a rescue mission. In the madness, Taylor, Tobias’s torturer/nemesis from several books ago, shows up and manages to knock out Tobias with a gas and steal him away. During the madness, however, Tobias manages to acquire Taylor.

He wakes up in a grimy trailer. Taylor proceeds to try to convince him that she is on the outs with the Yeerks, and that she and other Yeerks have decided to form a rebel force against leadership that they see as failing them. They want the “Andalite bandits” to help. She then opens the cage and lets Tobias go free. He immediately heads to Rachel’s house and the two decide to meet with the others.

At Cassie’s barn, after discussing the likelihood that Taylor is cray cray, Jake leaves the decision to Tobias. He decides that they need to hear more. Using a janky computer set-up that Ax has devised, they log in to a webpage that Taylor had given Tobias and leave a message board comment agreeing to meet up. They do so at  Borders bookstore where Tobias comes in his new Taylor morph while the others take up positions around the store. The two Taylors sit down and the real Taylor begins detailing her mission: she wants the “Andalites” to morph Taxxon and tunnel down to the Yeerk pool. Then she will release a natural gas pipeline leak that will explode, killing tons of Yeerks. In exchange for their help, Taylor will get them access to Visser Three. During the meeting, however, the real girl, Taylor, briefly breaks through and tries to warn Tobias off.

At the mall, the group meets up once again to decide whether to go through with Taylor’s plan. While expressing various levels of disgust and ruthlessness, they all decide on the mission, except for Cassie who refuses to participate. She briefly mentions that large number of human hosts will be killed, but focuses mostly on the idea that the Yeerk Peace movement might also be hurt by this action. She compares it to blowing up the mall that they’re all sitting in now. This makes everyone uncomfortable, but the others see the strategic advantage as too high to miss out on.

The next day, Ax and Tobias (in Andalite morph) meet up with Taylor to acquire a Taxxon she has captured. It goes about as well as expected, with Ax having to kill the Taxxon but both still managing to acquire it. They then meet up with the other Animorphs near the natural gas station to begin tunneling. Cassie is there to see where they will be working, but will be leaving, still refusing to participate.

Tobias morphs first and struggles to control the Taxxon morph. After almost killing his friends, he realizes that he will never be able to completely control the Taxxon’s all-consuming hunger, but instead can only direct it towards tunneling, eating the dirt as he goes. As he comes up against the two-hour time limit, he is just able to regain enough control to demorph. Then it is Ax’s turn. Ax, too, manages to gain cautious control of the Taxxon and begins tunneling. However, again, close to the two hour limit, the others realize that he’s lost some degree of control because he is not responding and has not returned to the surface to de-morph. They go after him, only to discover him almost passed out at the end of the tunnel. Turns out that Taxxons, in their crazed hunger, will literally kill themselves through exhausted eating of things that don’t contain nutrients, like dirt. They manage to get him to demorph, however, and Tobias once again takes over tunneling duty.

At last, he breaks into the top of the Yeerk pool. Looking down, he sees the usual chaos of weeping hosts and the horrible pool. But he also notices a large group of humans that look oddly calm, even determined. Before he has a chance to wonder too much about this, Taylor shows up and begins taunting him and trying to convince him in joining her attempt to take over the Yeerk Empire. When he refuses, she jabs him with her paralysis gas again and runs back up the tunnel. He tries to call out to warn the others, but they respond that they’ve already been paralyzed and are helpless to do anything.

Tobias manages to drag himself back up the tunnel. He catches up to her just as she reaches the gas line, but isn’t able to stop her before she blows a hole in it and toxic gas shoots out, knocking out the air and pushing them all back down the tunnel towards the Yeerk pool. The Animorphs all manage to catch on to each other through various holds and bites, and Taxxon!Tobias scrambles to keep hold on the tunnel walls, breaking off many legs in the process. Tobais’s Taxxon body is more able to handle the lack of clean air, and he manages to drag his barely conscious friends back up the tunnel to fresh air. They realize the gas has been turned off and all demorph.

They get to the main gas building and find  Controlled!humans laying on the floor, badly injured. In a back room, they find Cassie crying. She had turned off the gas and was struggling with having to viciously attack the people in the gas building to accomplish it.

The next day, Tobias and Rachel fly to a private beach that they have discovered. Once their, Rachel demorphs and Tobias morphs his human body. Rachel confirms that Jake had told Cassie that she could warn the Yeerk Peace group, and once she had, she discovered that all of the Yeerks in the movement had organized to feed at the pool on the same days. And one of those days was the day of Taylor’s attack. Taylor had been working with Visser Three the entire time and the plan had been to take out both the “Andalite bandits” and the Yeerk Peace movement all in one hit, pinning the disaster on the Yeerk Peace participants to boot. Rachel tries to reassure Tobias that they couldn’t have known, that they operated on the best information they had, and that through their actions they saved the Yeerk Peace group. Tobias wonders if Taylor survived. But, in the end, he and Rachel hold hands and agree that they can’t worry about what is done, but only move forward.

A Hawk’s Life: Per the usual, this Tobias book deep dives into all of the issues. I think this might be a reason why Tobias, Marco, and Jake books are often listed as the most popular by other fans. Each of these three have ongoing challenges that they face throughout the entire series, and it’s a rare book for any of them that doesn’t touch on one of the main themes important to that character. Marco’s, of course, is his mother. Jake’s is his struggles with leadership and his own growing ruthlessness. And Tobias has…a bunch! And, unlike Jake and Marco, every single Tobias book has one of these issues, if not multiple, at its heart.

Not only does he have the challenges of his life as a hawk, and with it, the biggest question of all “who is he?” But he also struggles with what lead to his life as a hawk. And then, after his book before this one, he continues to feel the psychological repercussions of his capture and torture at the hands of Taylor. These last two, cowardice and the PTSD from torture, are a big focus for him in this book.

Throughout the book, Tobias struggles with his ongoing reaction to being tortured by Taylor. He sees his own reaction as one of cowardice and weakness, one that only Taylor knows. Whether she actually thinks of him this way or not, we do see her clearly taking advantage of his insecurities on these points throughout the book. In response, Tobias also insists on being the one to interact with Taylor the most. All of these thoughts come to a head when he comes up to the Yeerk pool and is looking out over it with Taylor whispering her evil words into his ear. At the same time, he sees the spot where he hid out way back in book one and became stuck as a hawk. He questions whether this, too, was a form of cowardice. That he could have done more to avoid this fate, but some part of him was too scared to go back to the challenges of the life he had before.

There’s a lot of great exploration of all of these topics, and less than what one could hope for as far as resolutions go. There are a couple throw-away lines towards the end where Tobias resolves once again not to fret about the past, but we’ve all heard that before. However, even without reaching any grand conclusions, I really enjoyed the deeper look into Tobias’s psyche and the fact that the events from his torture session are still playing large in his mind, even before Taylor shows up.

Our Fearless Leader: Jake’s got some typical “big leader moments,” what with knowing that Tobias ultimately needs to be the one to decide whether to go forward with working with Taylor, to accepting the fact that Cassie disagrees with their plan to the point of refusing to participate, but decides that the group will go on without her. There’s also a pretty dark moment, pretty important in the grand scheme of things, that if Tom is a victim of this attack, that is a risk worth taking for the larger advantage.

For all of that, this book sits very oddly with the last Jake book being the one that handled the topic of terrorism so thoroughly. Throughout his entire last book, Jake struggled with the question of terrorism and its role in warfare. He also was routinely horrified by it and saw it as one of the biggest markers of how wrong things had gone in that alternate reality. But here, in what is clearly the biggest act of terrorism the Animorphs would have ever participated in (hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent humans and Hork Bajir, and others, would die in this attack), he doesn’t seem to have any thoughts on the matter or references to his past struggles. Perhaps if his terrorism book had come earlier in the series, it would be easier to buy that he had hardened himself since then to making decisions like this. But…it was literally two books ago. It reads as really strange.

Xena, Warrior Princess: We see Rachel operating as Tobias’s primary support system throughout the book. She’s the one who constantly turns to him to see how he is dealing with the whole Taylor business, and she’s the one to talk him around in the end.

But we also seem some interesting shifts for herself throughout the book. It’s no surprise that she’s one of the first ones to be on-board for the mission when they are discussing next steps in the mall. Action is always preferred to inaction for Rachel, and she (with Marco and often Jake) is more likely to fall on the ruthless side of things as far as necessary sacrifices in war. But we also see her have a pretty major breakdown about three-fourths of the way through the book, questioning whether they are doing the right thing. It’s a really nice moment that serves as a reminder that a well-drawn portrayal of Rachel’s character can, and should, include more than just her ruthless (often shown as “mindless”) streak.

Peace, Love, and Animals: There’s some pretty good stuff for Cassie’s character in this book. One thing I did find very strange, however, was the focus of her objections when they all met to discuss Taylor’s plans in the mall. From a reader perspective, it seems pretty clear that her focus on the Yeerks Peace movement was a not very subtle way for the author to hint that that was going to come up as a thing later in the book. This group isn’t referenced too often, so it makes some sense to bring them up early on. But…as far as characterization goes, it ends up playing very oddly for Cassie herself. She gets out maybe one line about the innocent humans who will die in this attack before switching the entire rest of her argument to the  Yeerks Peace movement. And as a natural thought process or argument, it reads very oddly and makes Cassie seem to have strange, if even condemnable, priorities towards the “good” Yeerks over innocent human victims. Beyond making it seem like her own values are out of line, this argument is always going to be a harder sell to the rest of the Animorphs, who, while impressed by Cassie’s ability to form a connection with a Yeerk, have no personal attachments of their own. As a character who we know is a keen manipulator, a Cassie free from needing to do authorial work with foreshadowing would have known that pressing the innocent human line would have been a better route to convincing the others.

There’s also the moment in the end where Cassie saves them all by taking matters into her own hands. This is the kind of story that would have been great to read from Cassie’s perspective! She would have had some great insights into the humanity of choices like this with regards to the larger mission, but then would have to challenge her own values with the choice to attack human Controllers to save the Yeerk pool and her friends. Really, the more I write about it, the more I can just envision this as a Cassie book and wish we had it, especially given the general weakness of most of her books.

The Comic Relief: Marco doesn’t have a whole lot in this book. Even the number of jokes he has is pretty tamped down. This kind of makes sense since Marco is definitely one of the characters with a more peripheral relationship with Tobias.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Ax is the other Animorph to get to experience the joy that is morphing Taxxon. He manages to discover that the Taxxons have a hibernation state that allows him to gain more control over the morph, but then, in the end, he, too, succumbs to the morph and almost dies/passes the time limit when he gets stuck at the end of the tunnel. There’s also an interesting little bit where he cuts off some of Andalite!Tobias’s fur in an effort to make Tobias look less like an identical copy of Ax when they go to meet Taylor. He explains that cutting fur is a form a discipline that serves as a reminder of wrong-doing until the fur grows back out and the offense is forgotten. Just another interesting little tid-bit of Andalite society!

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: Obviously all of the Taxxon stuff. Not only morphing the disgusting Taxxon body, but the entire experience. Looking at it, though, I couldn’t help but start to wonder how Taxxons even exist, biologically speaking. The hunger thing seems to strong that it would override every other natural instinct. As we saw with Ax, Taxxons will literally kill themselves through futile eating of non-nutrient rich things, like dirt. We’ve seen them cannibalize themselves at the slightest injury as well. How are they not extinct??

Couples Watch!: We get a handful of sweet, little moments for Tobias and Rachel throughout the story. For one, the first thing he does when Taylor releases him in the beginning of the book is to fly to Rachel’s. Together, they decide what to do from there. Thoughts of Rachel are also the only thing that breaks through the hunger-haze when he first morphs Taxxons. He gets caught up in the hunger and imaging eating his friends, but when he gets to Rachel, it stops him up short and gives him just enough of a break to regain control. And then, obviously, at the end we have the two of them on their private beach, holding hands and talking themselves through what could have been a huge disaster of a mission.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: Taylor is the real villain of this book, even if the plan behind it all is laid at Visser Three’s feet. Taylor is a very interesting villain in her own right, as she was given quite a bit of page time and backstory in her first book. Here, we get further glimpses into her madness. However, many of these glimpses ultimately ended up just being frustrating teases. We get the brief break-through from the real Taylor at the bookstore, where she warns Tobias away (why this isn’t given more weight when they’re all considering what to do would also fit under the “Terrible Plan” segment). And Tobias himself wonders several times about the breakdown between Yeerk and girl. Before, Taylor was a willing host, having chosen this reality to restore her beauty. But clearly something has gone wrong since, and she’s fighting against her Yeerk. This is really interesting! And it goes…nowhere. We never get any answers to this and it’s the kind of frustrating add-on that I wish had just been cut out. It doesn’t add anything to the story as it is, but instead just leaves annoying questions in its wake, making it feel like there was much more story to be had here than what we are ultimately given.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: As we know, Tobias books are often big on the tears. This one’s discussion of cowardice and Tobias’s fears that he’s a coward at heart is pretty rough. Not only does he feel that he somehow “failed” while be tortured, exposing his “true nature” to his torturer, Taylor, but he also worries that he’s always been a coward. And that this cowardice was part of the reason that he ended up trapped as a hawk; he was too scared to approach life as a boy any longer. Beyond the obvious horrors of his human life (like living with his terrible aunt and uncle and the constant bullying), he even worries that part of him was scared of the joy, too, like being with Rachel. In some of the previous books, we’ve seen him deal with the fact that his hawk form has allowed him to keep careful control on that relationship, both to Rachel’s frustration and to his own shame. The moments when he’s hanging out above the Yeerk Pool looking directly at the spot where he hid so long ago are pretty heart-wrenching.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: There are a good number of awful plans in this book, both on the part of the Animorphs and the Yeerks. For one, as I mentioned in Jake’s section, it’s hard to buy that there weren’t more objections to the general terrible nature of the plan and the high human collateral it would entail.

Beyond that, they are all very willing to go along with a plan given to them by Taylor, someone they have a terrible history with. Not only does Taylor’s host break through at one point and literally warn them away, but they have no evidence that her plan is part of a larger revolt. They never meet any co-conspirators or see any proof that she’s not just operating on her own. What’s more, part of the carrot that is given for their cooperation is some vague promise that she will get them Visser Three. But..how? The whole explanation for her mission is that she’s on the outs. How exactly is she going to get them access to someone like Visser Three? And the Animorphs never even question this!

And then from the Yeerks’ perspective, the entire plan is very high risk, questionable reward. We know that Visser Three is happy enough to off Yeerks that displease him, but loosing the entire Yeerk Pool seems a bit much, even for him. Sure, he’s wiped out the Yeerk Peace movement, but he has to report back to the Council of Thirteen that a guerrilla group managed to blow up the entire Yeerk Pool under his watch…and bizarrely took themselves out with it? Not only does it not make sense, but it doesn’t paint in him a very good picture, and as we already know that his methods have been coming under question, it’s hard to see how this would benefit him. Beyond that, through Taylor’s successful contact with the Animorphs, there were much easier ways to simply lead that group into a trap. The successful capture of the “Andalite bandits” would do a whole heck of a lot more for him than taking out some Yeerk Peace movement members while losing the entire pool. And would have been super easy to pull off, considering how “all in” the Animorphs were with Taylor’s plan. I mean, at one point they were all lying paralyzed on the floor! How easy would it have been for Visser Three to swoop in and simply gather them all up?

Favorite Quote:

This book had a lot of good ruminations on a variety of topics, but I think some of the better parts had to do with fear and evil when Tobias was analyzing what makes up the heart of the Taxxon psyche and evil in general:

Yes, a fear. . . grossly exaggerated … beyond anything humans experience .. . a desperate fear of not having enough .. . a terror of starvation .. . a horror that your essential needs will go unfulfilled .. . a horror demented and contorted by the Taxxon mind until it became a sick, murderous evil.
Evil, even the worst evil, has banal origins every human can understand. Weakness. Fear. Insecurity.

Ax hooks up a janky computer set-up in the woods to contact Taylor initially, and the event ends with this utterly quotable line:

<The computer has, as you say, crashed,> Ax announced coolly.

Scorecard: Yeerks 11, Animorphs 15

No change! Both the Yeerks and the Animorphs had terrible instincts and plans in this book. I could easily justify taking a point away from each of them, but as that makes not overall difference, we’ll just leave things as they are.

Rating:  For all that it falls apart if you really start looking at things closely (like both the Animorphs’ and the Yeerks’ reasoning for all of these events, and the biological impossibility of the Taxxons), I really enjoyed this book. As I’ve repeatedly mentioned, Tobias books are always good for a deeper look into a variety of pretty tough topics. And, unlike Cassie books, usually avoid coming off as preachy or self-righteous. For that matter, as I mentioned in the Cassie section above, this book would have succeeded tackling many of these topics AS a Cassie book. But I particularly enjoyed the analysis of fear and cowardice, and Tobias tying all of these various factors together in his worries that he is a coward: his being caught as a hawk, his handling of being tortured by Taylor the first time, how he has handled the events of this entire book. Just a lot of good stuff!

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

Serena’s Review: “Once Upon a River”

40130093Book: “Once Upon a River” by Diane Setterfield

Publishing Info: Atria/Emily Bestler Books, December 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Book Description: A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child.

Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.

Is it a miracle?

Is it magic?

Or can it be explained by science?

Review: I’ve heard the name “Diane Setterfield” tossed around here and there over the last few years. Her novels, that often combine fantastical elements and historical settings, are the type that would likely appeal to me, so she’ll pop up on lists here and there that I glance through. All that said, for some reason or another, I’ve never actually taken the time to pick up one of her books. Big mistake! Apparently, I needed someone to take the choice out of my hands, so I’m very thankful for the publisher sending me a copy and giving my butt a good kick towards this excellent book and author.

There is an inn on a river. An inn where late nights are full of stories, tellers and listeners all gathering together over their beers to share new and familiar tales. Until one night, a story unfolds at their feet with the unexpected appearance of a little girl, apparently dead until…she’s not. But who is she? Where did she come from? Everyone has their own story, their own connection to this strange young girl. But what is the truth?

The very first thing that struck me is the writing tone of this book. In my opinion, any story that is going to also focus on storytelling as its subject matter must master this element first and foremost, and Setterfield accomplishes this quickly and thoroughly. From the very first few pages, one is swept into a lyrical story that reads like the best fairytales and folklore stories. The language is simple, but beautiful, and it’s easy to imagine sitting in the very same smoky inn, drinking mulled cider, while someone recounts this story aloud. The atmosphere is set incredibly, and while it only takes a few pages for the small girl to arrive, I already felt completely immersed in this world.

As the story progressed, I enjoyed the introduction of a larger cast of characters, all with their own distinctive stories and connections to the girl. In each story, we’re given just enough to begin forming assumptions and connections ourselves, but mysteries are ever present. Half of the fun of the book was attempting to weave all of these narratives together to form a complete circle.

Further, the setting was left a bit nebulous, but in this type of story, it seemed to work. It took a while for me to settle on what time period this was taking place in, which seems like it could be a criticism. But, like the best stories, a tale should be able to simply exist, without hard dates lodging it in time. Further, as the summary alludes to, there is a running question throughout the story of the fantastical. The little girl was dead. Everyone who saw her could confirm this. But then she wasn’t. Various characters come down on different sides when attempting to prescribe an explanation for this event. And readers, too, are left questioning what exactly is going on. Is there a level of fantasy being introduced here? Or is it the type of “fantasy” that we can all see in our everyday life, now, if we really look for it?

“Once Upon a River” is a beautiful story, mysterious and ever-flowing like the river that is at its heart. Fans of Setterfield’s previous books are sure to be pleased with this more recent entry. And new readers, like me, who enjoy stories about stories and lyrical writing will also come away satisfied. It’s just the kind of cozy book that is perfect to settle down with on these cold, winter nights.

Rating 8: A story that immediately draws you in with its beautiful writing and mysterious weave of intersecting tales.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Once Upon a River” is on these Goodreads lists: “Winter Seasonal Reads” and “Historical Fiction 2018.”

Find “Once Upon a River” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Spindle Fire”

30163661Book: “Spindle Fire” by Lexa Hillyer

Publishing Info: HarperCollins, April 2017

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

Book Description: It all started with the burning of the spindles.

No.

It all started with a curse…

Half sisters Isabelle and Aurora are polar opposites: Isabelle is the king’s headstrong illegitimate daughter, whose sight was tithed by faeries; Aurora, beautiful and sheltered, was tithed her sense of touch and her voice on the same day. Despite their differences, the sisters have always been extremely close.

And then everything changes, with a single drop of Aurora’s blood—and a sleep so deep it cannot be broken.

As the faerie queen and her army of Vultures prepare to march, Isabelle must race to find a prince who can awaken her sister with the kiss of true love and seal their two kingdoms in an alliance against the queen.

Isabelle crosses land and sea; unearthly, thorny vines rise up the palace walls; and whispers of revolt travel in the ashes on the wind. The kingdom falls to ruin under layers of snow. Meanwhile, Aurora wakes up in a strange and enchanted world, where a mysterious hunter may be the secret to her escape…or the reason for her to stay.

Review: I don’t really remember how/when this book showed up on my radar, but I have a pretty good guess that it likely had something to do with the beautiful cover. Call me a sucker, but a detailed, non-model-featuring fantasy book jacket is likely to get a second look by me most days! Plus, it’s a fairytale re-telling, and we all know how I feel about those!

In this twisted take on “Sleeping Beauty,” the cursed princess, Aurora, is joined by a half-sister, Isabelle. Together, they’ve navigated the complicated pathways of a royal upbringing, all while missing portions of their senses that were tithed away to fairies at Aurora’s birth. Aurora, beautiful and kind, has lost the sense of touch and the ability to speak; Isabelle lost her sight. Through a secret language of tapping and a strong sisterly bond, the two have faced down every challenge thrown their way. This all comes to an end, however, when a dreadful curse finally comes to pass. But Aurora isn’t just asleep; she’s somewhere else, in a new land that is rife with danger. Just as she works to find her way home, Isabelle sets out to rescue her sister, traversing the country to find a young man capable of kissing her sister awake.

While this book never hit the highs of some of my favorite fairtyale re-tellings, it did have some factors that played heavily in its favor. For one thing, in the multitude of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cindrella” re-tellings that are out there, I haven’t come across as many “Sleeping Beauty” stories. Kind of obvious, when you think about it. It’s definitely a challenge to tell a story where the main action all takes place while your heroine is asleep. But Hillyer had a somewhat brilliant, two-fold answer to that. Not only does Aurora experience a different world while her physical body back in “reality” sleeps, but we’re given an entirely new, secondary heroine in the form of Isabelle who inherits much of the plot often relegated to the Prince.

Stating the obvious once again, I do love me some stories about strong sisterly bonds and, as that’s at the heart of this story, I was also predisposed to enjoy it for that reason. We have just enough time and background detail given in the beginning of the story to appreciate the special relationship the two sisters have built with each other. For one one thing, each is approaching the world from a challenging position. Aurora cannot feel or speak. She doesn’t know when she’s injured and can’t communicate with those around her. Isabelle can’t see. Of the two, Isabelle, through either nature or necessity, is still the much more capable one. But even with that being the case, we see how Aurora’s more quiet goodness has protected Isabelle throughout their childhoods, as well. But when separated, we truly see them shine. Aurora comes into her own, having to play a more active role in her own story without the guiding force of her sister. And Isabelle escapes the confines of a palace that has always looked down on her as mostly just a nuisance.

I did end up enjoying Isabelle’s story more, of the two. Her experiences navigating the world without sight were interesting and spoke to the strength and abilities of those who are blind. She always manages to find clever ways of accomplishing things that one would at first guess to be beyond her. She is also able to use her better developed other senses to suss out information that others might have missed. She is also given the better story arc as far as romance goes, though there is a whiff of a love triangle in the air that I didn’t appreciate.

Aurora’s story fails pretty miserable in the romance department, introducing an instalove romance quite quickly and never really delving into much more than that. But luckily, her story is the one that takes place in the heart of an enchanted land where the mysteries behind her curse are truly at play. So we’re giving a good number of distractions on that front, and the secret history of the fairies is definitely worth the wait.

The story is also broken up with various chapters from some of the fae perspectives. Not only do we get into the mindsets and histories of the two fairy sisters who brought this all to pass, but other, secondary fairies are also given perspectives. Some of these felt more useful than others, but I also found the interludes to be nice breaks from the standard POV switches between our main heroines. We were given a lot of great world-building and the fairy history and politics were padded out, as seen through the eyes of the various fairies involved.

The story doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, but it also definitely doesn’t end at all, making it necessary to read the second book to complete the story. While this one felt a bit light, as far as storytelling goes, I was definitely invested enough in the princesses’ stories to want to complete the duology. Here’s to hoping the love triangle is stomped out quick and the instalove…I don’t know, does something. For fans of fairytale retellings, I think this one is definitely worth a shot. Go in expecting a lighter, quick read and you’ll likely be left satisfied.

Rating 8: A few stumbles in the romance department, but still a sweet fairytale retelling at its heart.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Spindle Fire” is only on variations of the same list on Goodreads, so here it the broadest one: “Fairy tales & Retellings.”

Find “Spindle Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Radiance”

24473763Book: “Radiance” by Grace Draven

Publication Info: self-published, January 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: THE PRINCE OF NO VALUE

Brishen Khaskem, prince of the Kai, has lived content as the nonessential spare heir to a throne secured many times over. A trade and political alliance between the human kingdom of Gaur and the Kai kingdom of Bast-Haradis requires that he marry a Gauri woman to seal the treaty. Always a dutiful son, Brishen agrees to the marriage and discovers his bride is as ugly as he expected and more beautiful than he could have imagined.

THE NOBLEWOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE

Ildiko, niece of the Gauri king, has always known her only worth to the royal family lay in a strategic marriage. Resigned to her fate, she is horrified to learn that her intended groom isn’t just a foreign aristocrat but the younger prince of a people neither familiar nor human. Bound to her new husband, Ildiko will leave behind all she’s known to embrace a man shrouded in darkness but with a soul forged by light.

Two people brought together by the trappings of duty and politics will discover they are destined for each other, even as the powers of a hostile kingdom scheme to tear them apart.

Review: This book showed up on some list or another that focused on lesser know romantic fantasy stories. I had already read many of them but was intrigued by the list author’s description of this one which focused on the incredibly positive romantic pairing at the heart of the story. All too often with romance novels, I find myself having to hold back my eyerolls or intentionally speed read through sections where one member of the central pairing (or both) is exhibiting behaviors that are pretty unhealthy and sometimes border on abusive. It’s one of the main reasons that I tend to avoid books where romance is too much of the focal point at the heart of the story. But since its healthy romance was at the heart of the list author’s reason for including “Radiance,” I thought that this one was worth giving a shot!

Brishen and Ildiko come from to very different races. Ildiko is a human, born to live during the day. Brishen is a Kai, a human-like being who lives at night, possesses certain magical powers, and looks terrifying to most humans with his dark skin, white eyes, and sharp teeth. Unlike the book description above would imply, both know they are destined for a marriage that would align their people and have resigned themselves to this fate. Together, they face the challenges of skepticism from their own people who resist seeing a bond such as theirs and threats of violence from outside nations who feel threaten by the increased tie between human kind and the Kai.

It was difficult to write even that short synopsis above because this book is definitely a character-driven story. There is a story arc, but it is one that is only sprinkled in here and there and comes into play only at the very end of the book. Instead, most of the story is devoted solely to getting to know Ildiko and Brishen and portraying their blessedly realistic (and devoid of instalove!) relationship.

Through them, we get some interesting world-building. Ildiko’s people seem to be standard humans. We don’t spend much time in her world, however, as the story quickly shifts to the land of the Kai, as Ildiko and Brishen travel their to establish their home. I really enjoyed the descriptions of Kai culture, their dress, food, and lifestyle. It was all very different from humanity, but also struck closely enough that a marriage between the two peoples still makes sense.

Some of the more intriguing portions of these descriptions, the cultural norms and the physical appearance of each race, came from the blunt evaluations offered up by Brishen and Ildiko. In the very first few chapters, they establish a strong, trust-based style of communication that allows them to express their bewilderment and sometimes fear at the other’s way of life and looks. See, right off the bat, healthy relationship norms! Communication, it will do wonders! These descriptions and conversations also highlight the witty dialogue that makes up much of the book and was incredibly enjoyable. Brishen teases Ildiko about her “horse-like teeth” and Ildiko points out some the disturbing aspects of Brishen’s all-white eyes.

As I said, much of the story is simply focused on these two characters and how they slowly build a friendship and romance over the course of the book. They are also, at the heart of things, both just very good people. It seems like a weird thing to have to highlight, but this aspect of the story, their inherent goodness and the healthiness of the relationship they build, is what makes this book stand out as so satisfying. There are real challenges they face and neither simply brushes off the disturbance they feel at the other’s physical appearance, but mutual respect, friendship, and trust is slowly laid out as the foundation of their growing attachment. It’s just a lovely example of how you can write a romance novel without having to make your main characters brooding, bizarrely non-communicative, or just constantly misunderstood.

It looks like there are follow up books to this story, but it can also mostly be read as a standalone novel. It’s definitely a light, romantic read, so don’t go in expecting epic world-building or elaborate magical systems. The fantasy elements are all clearly there as support systems for the character-driven story at its heart. I very much enjoyed this book, and I agree with the author of the original list (I can’t seem to find it or I would link it!): this book is rare for what it is doing right with its romance.

Also, a quick note. This is a self-published novel, but I was able to check out an ebook at the library. Just another plug for all self-published authors out there: libraries are often willing to stock your ebooks, especially if you’re local and can point to some interest in your story. There’s definitely no harm in asking!

Rating 8: A magical unicorn of a romance novel where the main pairing is based on healthy relationship norms!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Radiance” is on these Goodreads lists: “Slow-burn romance” and “Fantasy Romance.”

Find “Radiance” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Favorite Reads of 2018: Picks 5 Through 1

Another a year, another almost impossible task trying to each choose our Top 10 Reads of the year! And since it’s the end of the reading year, don’t forget to enter our “Twelve Days of Christmas” Giveaway! Today I’m going to countdown my favorites reads, ten to six. 

26244626Pick Number 5: “Veronica Speedwell” mysteries by Deanna Raybourn

“A Curious Beginning” Review & “A Perilous Undertaking” Review & “A Treacherous Curse” Review

We all know how much I love the Amelia Peabody series. So imagine my excitement when I discovered yet another historical mystery series that featured an excellent heroine! And a series that is being written currently, with the fourth book coming down the pike this upcoming spring! Veronica Speedwell, in many ways, is the natural heir to Amelia Peabody: she’s snappy, clever, and willing to do things herself if those around her shy away due to her “feminine sensitivities.” And, of course, with every talented female sleuth comes her gruff partner in crime, trailing behind being exasperated but also endeared by our heroine’s antics. Stoker is just such a man. And, unlike the Amelia Peabody series, the “will they/won’t they” relationship between these two has yet to be resolved, three books in. We’ll see what comes of things in the next!

22299763Pick Number 4: “Six of Crows” & “Crooked Kingdom” by Leigh Bardugo

“Six of Crows” Review & “Crooked Kingdom” Review

I had pretty mixed feelings about Bardugo’s original series. By the end, I actually disliked it quite a bit. So when “Six of Crows” was picked for bookclub, I went in with a pretty heavy dose of skepticism. Imagine my surprise when not only did I like it, but I loved it! Probably the most of anyone in our bookclub! I immediately went out and purchased the second book in the duology and read it in a few days. I loved all of the characters involved, their tragic backstories, and the effortless chemistry that developed between them all. Plus, a fantasy heist story. A FANTASY HEIST STORY! Of course, I’m all over this! It also had just the right dash of romance sprinkled throughout to satiate that side of things for me as well. These are technically two books, of course, but they read as one continued story, so I had to include both here!

26863057Pick Number 3: “Age of Myth” by Michael J. Sullivan

“Age of Myth” Review

This book makes this list not only for the story it contains in its own pages but for what it represents: a gateway into an entirely new fantasy world and fantasy author who I had previously not discovered. I read a lot of YA, and that’s my only excuse for how I somehow missed a prolific author such as Sullivan.  But after reading this book, I’m on this train for good. “Age of Myth” introduces a fantastic new world full of familiar beings (elves, dwarfs, giants, and humans), but stands on its own with strong characters and an action-packed story. I particularly enjoyed the strong women characters at the heart of the story: a middle-aged chieftain’s wife who finds herself at the heart of a growing conflict and a young seer girl who begins to understand that she may be more than she previously thought. We also get insights into one of our villain’s mindsets, and the fact that I enjoyed even this (against my usual preference for limited POVs in books) just speaks to the strength of this book as a whole. Look for reviews for the next two books in the series which should be coming your way shortly!

363423301Pick Number 2: “Lady Sherlock” series by  Sherry Thomas

“A Study in Scarlet Women” Review & “A Conspiracy in Belgravia” Review & “The Hollow of Fear” Review

Kate gave me the first book in this series last year for Christmas, and thus, a new great love was born. I quickly devoured the first two in the series and then waited anxiously for the third to finally arrive this fall. I’ve loved every bit of this re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes that cast the titular character as Charlotte Holmes. But while we’ve seen a gender-swap of the famous detective before, what makes this series stand out is its added interpretations of other staple characters from the series, often re-creating them in new and unexpected ways and providing plenty of surprises along the way. And, of course, Charlotte herself is an incredibly original character, not only from the original Sherlock, but from all of the other “girl Sherlocks” we’ve seen in the past. Fans of historical mysteries and Sherlock Holmes in particular should definitely check these out!

36896898Pick Number 1: “Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik

“Spinning Silver” Review

It will probably surprise no one to find this book at the top of my list. If Kate and I had been operating this blog when I read “Uprooted” I have no doubts that it, too, would have topped my reading list for that year. Novik has mastered the art of fairytale re-tellings, as far as I’m concerned. The best part of her approach is that while still distinctly told in a fairytale type way, the original story is often only barely discernible beneath the creative twists she’s taken on events and characters. “Spinning Silver” was even more thrilling because it was re-telling a lesser-used fairytale, “Rumpelstiltskin.” Novik also diverged from the approach she took with the first book and here introduced an entire cast of characters all sharing POV chapters to help unfurl the story. I loved everything about this book. So much so, that while now on Christmas break from work, I’m having a strong urge to re-read it, less than a year after the first go-around!

So there’s my complete list! What were your top five reads of 2018?