The Great Animorphs Re-Read #52: “The Sacrifice”

125338Animorphs #51: “The Absolute”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, April 2001

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The Yeerks have abandoned all secrecy. They are loading people onto underground trains that run directly to the Yeerk pool where they perform mass infestations. The vast army of Controllers is growing rapidly and will soon be unstoppable. Ax and the Animorphs can think of only one solution‹to use one of the trains to blow up the Yeerk pool. But the cost will be measured in hundreds, perhaps thousands of innocent human lives. 

Narrator: Ax

Plot: This really start to heat up in this one, and unlike the previous book, we get a lot more of the emotional fall-out of Cassie’s decision. There’s a good balance of character work with some significant (and important!) action. Unfortunately, for all of that good work, we also have a huge retread and out-of-character thinking for our main character, Ax.

Really? We’re doing the “Ax questions his loyalties” thing again?

The Yeerks have taken the war more and more public. Now they’ve started rounding up people by the hundreds and herding them onto subway trains that the Animorphs can only assume run directly to the Yeerk pool. Ax, Rachel, and James see the horrors for themselves when out on a scouting mission: people dragged out of their cars and herded down to the station. In a rash plan (lead of course by Rachel), the three head off into the subway system to try and save people. Instead, they end up on a wild ride, chased by falcon!Yeerks. Most of the Yeerks are taken out, inexperienced as they are in their animal morphs. Ax catches up with one that pleads with him to let him go, that he only has a few minutes left before he is trapped in his falcon form, which he sees as a vast improvement on his original Yeerk form as a slug. Ax lets him go.

Back in the camp, the team discusses what they’ve seen. They know that something must be done, and slowly come to the realization that only an extreme action can be the next step: bombing the Yeerk pool. Cassie is opposed, but Jake snaps at her that given the morphing abilities of the Yeerks now, they’re left with fewer options. Ax and the team are surprised by this. They decide that a nuclear weapon would be too hard to get and do too much damage, but that there might be some large bombs at a nearby National Guard station. But it would also take them all, original Animrophs, parents, and auxiliary Animorphs, to get in and find the bombs before they are detected.

Later that night, Ax sneaks away into the forest and makes contact with the Andalites. It is clear that this isn’t the first time, and they ask for a report. Ax dutifully gives details of the situation, noting that the human resistance seems to be fraying under the increased pressure of the more open war. He does hold back the information about the Yeerks now having morphing abilities, however. For their part, the Andalite leaders inform him that the plan of action is to quarantine Earth and try to hold the Yeerks there. Ax knows this terminology for what it is: they have decided to surrender the humans to the Yeerks, and, to enforce the quarantine, they will eventually take out the planet and wipe out humans and Yeerks alike.

The next day as they continue to put their plan in place, Cassie informs them that she won’t be participating. This leads to another fight between her and Jake and during it she confesses to having let Tom escape with the blue box. Everyone is horrified, especially Ax who immediately labels her a traitor. Cassie cries and apologizes for her actions, saying that she doesn’t know what made her do it, and she’s sorry to see where it has taken them all. Jake forgives her, hugs her, and informs the team that they now have to work in the reality they have, that there’s no point wishing for what was. Ax, however, is not really listening, too angry at Cassie to hear.

They continue to plan and decide to give a 5 minute warning before the bomb explodes to allow as many people to escape the Yeerk pool as possible. Cassie agrees to this, and Jake reflects that their new motto will be to defeat the Yeerks, but not to become them. Ax, however, is more focused on the fact that while before he had thought Rachel’s reckless pursuit of battle was the most dangerous, maybe the opposite extreme is the more deadly: Cassie’s kindness, so like Seerow’s.

Later he makes time to speak to Cassie about why she did what she did.  He calls her out for betraying her friends, humanity, and even Elfangor who entrusted them with the awesome power. While she says that in the moment she didn’t know why she make the decision she did, now, later, she’s begun to think that the morphing ability could provide a wedge in the Yeerk forces. That those who are less interested in war may see the morphing ability as a legitimate alternative. Ax mentions the falcon!Yeerk he ran into earlier and Cassie sees this as proof that there may be Yeerks out there who just want a way out. Ax isn’t sure, but thinks he won’t ever feel the same about Cassie or (bizarrely) humans in general.

Even later that night, Tobias approaches Ax and asks him what he’s going to do, having followed him the other night and seeing him communicate with the other Andalites. Ax admits that he doesn’t know and the two of them continue the discussion about how morphing now changes the situation with the Yeerks.

They finally put the plan in action. Ax leads adults from the group through the woods where they run into a National Guard station and the parents pretend to have been lost in the woods. Cassie’s dad fakes heart problems, and they’re all loaded up on trucks and headed towards the base. Several Animorphs and auxiliary Animorphs hitch a ride in various morphs and the Hork Bajir follow in the trees. Once at the base, they all split into groups and begin searching the many, many buildings for the bombs. They manage to locate them eventually and load as many as they can on a few trucks. On the way out, however, they’re stopped by a head operative of the National Guard. With no other choice, they reveal themselves and explain that what the Governor said on TV a while ago is true: aliens are really invading Earth. Ax plays his usual role, demonstrating that he is, in fact, an alien. Luckily the head guy is not a Controller, though they do have to capture a few Controllers in the mix of witnesses. He also happens to know Rachel’s mother, and this connection further helps them convince him to let them pass.

They make their way with the bombs to a subway station and prepare for a confrontation. Many of the Yeerks morph as well, including several to wolf form. Just as things are beginning to look bleak, the National Guard guys show up and help them win the fight. All of the wolf!Yeerks are dead and Ax has a brief moment of panic thinking that Cassie died, too, since how could anyone tell the difference in the midst of the fighting. She’s ok, however, and he realizes that he doesn’t hate her.

When it comes to the next stage, a smaller group is needed. It is agreed that Jake is too valuable to send on such a risky venture (the timing of the bomb going off while also giving enough of a warning to get people out will be pretty tight.) In his stead, Jake insists that Cassie go, that he trusts her to make the right decision. Marco and Ax will go along with. Ax notes that it feels like the team is beginning to come together again.

The bombs are loaded on to a cleared out subway train and the three get on. As the train barrels towards the Yeerk pool, they all morph cockroach to survive the impact. The train crashes into the Yeerk pool, killing many Yeerks in the process. Cassie, Marco, and Ax demorph and Cassie climbs on top of the train yelling a warning to everyone around. Marco and Ax work to free humans from the cages and Ax is amazed to see human Controllers help with this effort as well.

Visser One morphs some huge octapus-like beast in the Yeerk pool but quickly realizes that with a bomb ticking it’s in his best interests to just get out of there. By the time Cassie, Ax, and Marco head out, the Yeerk pool is mostly empty, except for the pool itself that is still full of Yeerks.

The next day, the Animorphs all come to survey the damage. Almost the entire downtown area has been collapsed in on itself and the devastation is extreme. They know they’ve inflicted a massive strike against the Yeerks, but none of them can feel happy about it. Ax thinks about the human Controllers who stayed behind to help others and realizes that Cassie is right; Aftran wasn’t the only Yeerk who wanted a different life.  They see Visser One’s Blade ship flying in and are resigned to the fact that, yet again, he escaped. But they console themselves that he will have a lot of explaining to do to the Council about this disaster. Ax ends the story with a very familiar couple of paragraphs about how he’s chosen to throw his lot in with the humans.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: So this was a really strange and frustrating book for Ax. There were some really good moments in there, but most of it was a direct re-tread of emotional conflicts that he had already solved before, therefore making many of his decisions and thoughts read as very out of character for the Ax we have now.

The good stuff mostly came with his reflections on Rachel’s warmongering and Cassie’s decision with the blue box. With Rachel, as I’ll note later, there was a good discussion about what it means to lose one’s childhood. Ax reflects on this for himself, that by Andalite standards, he’d still be a soldier in training and a young kid. But now, he’s a battle-weary soldier in the body of a young kid. This conflict is not only hard on Ax (and the others), but a challenge for those around them. Part of Rachel’s mother’s struggle seems to be accepting that her daughter has been operating as an adult for some time and can’t just slip back into being her kid and listening to her parent as a point of authority in a war situation that frankly Rachel knows way more about than her mother. Ax, too, has this same conflict when he interacts with the adult Andalites. They see him as a kid who is in need of direction by the adults in the room and that he should just follow orders as dictated to him (though some of this also seems to be a cultural aspects of the Andalites).

Ax’s thoughts on Cassie are also good. His rage at her decision are almost cathartic for those of us readers who were also incredibly frustrated with her thought process. But Ax and Cassie also have the most useful conversation in really digging into what that decision means, and, after the fact, Cassie’s own reflections on it. It’s pretty excellent stuff.

But other than that, man, it’s hard to like Ax in this book. We never really get at what motivated Ax to contact the Andalites in the first place and end up in this situation. For one thing, it directly contradicts his own vows to follow his Prince, Jake. He’s clearly been doing this in secret for quite a while.

What’s more, he’s somehow fallen completely back into the “I’m an Andalite soldier. I must follow Andalite commanders before anything.” Which, like I said, is a conflict we’ve already seen before and resolved. It’s not only boring but it makes the book read as if it’s completely detached from any character growth Ax has gone through in the series as a whole. Did the author even read Ax’s other books?? It sure as heck doesn’t read like they did. (Yes, yes she did. She even wrote one, ugh.) The Ax we see here is almost identical to the one in the very beginning when he had zero understanding of humans and no knowledge of the wrongs the Andalites routinely commit against other species. Now, after years of fighting with humans, and having seen the Andalites behave pretty poorly in the past, Ax has grown into a different character. For him to suddenly regress reads as really terrible writing and makes Ax into a pretty unlikeable character, if we’re meant to believe that he simply changed his mind again and needed to learn this lesson for like the 4th time. You could literally copy and past his last couple of pages and stick them in the end of at least three other Ax books that came before. Yada yada, humans are broken but they’re also great. I’ll side with them. Blah blah blah.

Our Fearless Leader: We definitely see Jake coming back to himself in this book. In many ways, the blow up with Cassie where he finally reveals what she did with the blue box seems to serve as a turning point. Once she admits to the folly of it and apologizes, he’s the first one to forgive her. And from there on out, he’s pretty much back to his old ways,leadership-wise. Even going so far as to reprimand Ax for calling him Prince once again. He also seems to finally realize just how important he is to the war effort, as he is successfully talked out of going on the last mission as it would be detrimental to lose him.

Xena, Warrior Princess: This is one of the better books for examples of Rachel’s war issues coming out in realistic ways. In the very beginning, she’s the one to lead the charge into the subway system with Ax, even though there is obviously nothing to be gained from this action. And then she takes off after the Yeerk that Ax released. As it seems that Ax was speaking to the Yeerk privately, Rachel could see it as the Yeerk escaping rather than Ax letting it go. But either way, chasing down fleeing enemies is another step in Rachel’s hard path. Ax makes a few snide comments about how Andalite warriors who grow to love war too much are “put out to pasture” essentially. Though, as I’ll discuss later, nothing we’ve seen from the Andalite as a whole (disregarding the ones we’ve had in book like Ax and Elfangor) really proves that they have the same sense of morality about warfare as Ax is thinking. It’s a bit rich to rag on Rachel’s ruthlessness when you know your own people are planning to just sacrifice an entire species as just another chess move in their war with the Yeerks.

A Hawk’s Life: Tobias doesn’t have a lot in this book other than his confrontation with Ax about Ax’s communications with the Andalite leaders. Tobias has always been one of the more cool-headed members of the group, handling big revelations with a much more reserved manner than the others. So it makes sense that he handles this conversation as he does, not coming down on Ax too hard for doing this all behind their backs. The conversation is pretty short, however, and I do think that it leaves something to be desired. For one thing, it isn’t acknowledging that this is like the millionth time that Ax has seemingly wavered back and forth between Andalites and humans, even though he’s repeatedly in the past come out vocally for the side of the Animorphs. For all of his talk about Cassie’s traitorous ways…

Peace, Love, and Animals: This is a really good book for Cassie and gets at a lot of what was missing from her own book with the nonsensical decision to just end it where it does and then go an entire book more without addressing it further. We finally get the reveal to the entire group about what happened, and Cassie’s apologies and explanations read as much more believable and sympathetic (if still wrong-headed). She apologizes repeatedly and even takes ownership for the way that decision is impacting the huge things they’re doing now. She pretty much admits that she put them in the position to having to go to this level, so she’s on board to help, even if it’s the kind of action that she’s largely against.

In her discussion with Ax we also get her thoughts into the effect that morphing could have on the Yeerks. Even in this conversation, however, she admits that this was an after-thought, so we can’t give her credit for this line of reasoning when she made the initial action; she said then and repeats now that she didn’t have a reason for doing what she did other than it feeling right. But, as we see in this book, the domino effect on the Yeerks is happening and her quick understanding that that may occur is definitely spot on.

The Comic Relief: Marco’s kind of been a different character since the return of his mother. It seems like in many ways this is an intentional shift, with other characters noting that he is much happier now. And it makes sense that his attitude would change somewhat with the driving factor behind his choice to fight being resolved with the saving of this mom. But from a reading perspective, it’s a pretty big loss. Marco’s last book was a huge let-down, feeling as if he had lost much of his spunk. And here, we also see a very different character on the page. Most notably in his reaction to Cassie’s giving away the blue box. Rachel reacts with the anger we’d expect, but in the past, she was always joined by Marco who has almost zero tolerance for poor strategic decision making in the service of “feelings.” His perspective was an important aspect of the careful balance maintained by all members of the team, and losing a large part of what made Marco Marco is pretty unfortunate.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: Not a lot that I can really think of. The falcon!Yeerk who is desperate to get trapped in a falcon’s body does highlight just how miserable the natural state of being a Yeerk is. Beyond anything else, Yeerks who do this are essentially forfeiting huge chunks of their lives. Visser Three has been around and kicking for quite some time and doesn’t seem to be classified as an elderly Yeerk. But a falcon has a pretty short life span, around 13 years average and maxing out at about 20. Given this level of sacrifice to escape existing as a slug, it’s really a shame that the idea of using morphing to bypass the hosting thing wasn’t thought of sooner.

Couples Watch!: Again, really nothing. Tobias holds Rachel back when she’s getting mad at Cassie about the blue box. And Jake forgives Cassie for the blue box fiasco, but even that is fairly straightforward and devoid of much romance. Ax sees Cassie and Jake’s strained relationship as yet another sign that the group is falling apart. So, too, when they make-up, it’s almost the first steps towards the team coming together again.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: Visser One makes a token appearance at the end of this book, showing off a new morph before ultimately (and predictably) choosing to save himself and get the heck out of there rather than fight.

But, again, I think we have to admit that by and large the Andalites are pretty villainous. I mean, at this point both the humans and the Hork Bajir could agree that being “saved” by the Andalites is just as disastrous as being attacked by the enemy Yeerks. Probably worse, really, since the Andalites are so completely focused on conquering the Yeerks that they actually hinder the efforts of other species to defend themselves. They took out the Hork Bajir with disease, and here, we have Andalite commanders telling Ax to actively prevent the humans from fighting back so that the planet can be “quarantined.” At best, they’re no better than humans (who have their own pretty unfortunate history of warfare tactics), but they sure as hell aren’t any better. This kind of behavior makes it pretty hard to sympathize or connect with Ax in this book.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: There were some pretty depressing scenes in this book. From the very start, the descriptions of the humans being herded into the subway system had definite concentration camp vibes. Ax describes seeing adults and children wearing pjs, clearing having been rounded up from bed and herded down. And then in the end, the Animorphs give the warning to get out of the Yeerk pool, but this warning also causes a panic and Ax notes that people were getting trampled to death in the crush to get out. It’s pretty tragic sounding.

A smaller, character moment is one between Rachel and her mother. Rachel’s mom helps convince the National Guard commander to go along with Jake’s orders. And in that moment Rachel realizes that her mom can be helpful to the cause (before this, in the last several books, she’s been an active hindrance.) Rachel breaks down crying and hugs her mom. Ax notes that perhaps the emotional crux of the situation is that Rachel, like him, is realizing that she lost her entire childhood, something she can’t get back, like her old child/parent relationship with her mom. It’s a really great moment to humanize Rachel and not have her just feel cartoonish, something that’s been happening more and more in these later books.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: Most of the plans in this book are pretty good and are operating at an entirely new level. Jake doesn’t just need to plan the actions of a small, closely knit group; now he has to coordinate several groups all made up of different types of people with different abilities and roles to play. He’s got the Hork Bajir, with their commander Toby. The parents. And the auxiliary Animorpsh, with their commander James. It’s a lot of moving pieces to have in play and a lot of different personalities to wrangle.

Really, the worst plan is the one that Rachel and Ax have at the beginning because there is no plan, essentially. Ax notes from the very beginning that going into the subway has no point, but he goes along with it anyways. Rachel is clearly leading the charge, but Ax and James participate for longer than they should have, perhaps.

Favorite Quote: 

A really great explanation by Cassie. This thinking clearly applies to not only humans and Yeerks, but as we’ve seen, Andalites, too, who have had leaders come up with terrible plans that others follow.

“Humans have had some pretty evil leaders, too. Thousands, sometimes millions of people have followed those leaders, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. Sometimes because they were just too afraid to say no. What if some other species decided to wipe out the human race based on the existence of a few powerful people? What if that species decided all humans were cruel, based on the actions of a handful of sociopaths?”

And this pretty much sums up my attitude on Cassie’s blue box decision:

“You think I’m a traitor, don’t you?” she asked.

I nodded. <Yes.>

“But did I do the wrong thing?”

<I do not know.>

Scorecard: Yeerks 15, Animorphs 19

A clear win for the Animorphs. They’ve been talking about destroying the Yeerk pool almost from day one, so it’s pretty cool to see it happen. That said, I really like how “uncool” they make the whole thing. It’s clear that this is a disaster all around, a terrible situation that is barely worth celebrating. In the last chapter, many of them note that while this was clearly their biggest victory, it’s also the one they feel worst about.

Rating: This was another strange book where there was a lot of good stuff, but the main character’s story was pretty lacking. I really liked that we got more into the stuff with Cassie and the blue box. A lot of small character moments were devoted to this and we got to hear a lot of varying perspectives on her decision. I also really liked getting to hear more from Cassie herself, and what she had to say, while not making up for the decision itself, is really well handled and thought out. There were also great character reflections for Jake and Rachel. And even Tobias gets a good conversation with Ax. I definitely prefer Animorph books like this that balance out all of the crazy action with these smaller moments.

The action itself was also very good. We see more of how morphing on its own is still a learned thing for the Yeerks, as they struggle to get their falcon morphs under control. The introduction of the idea that some Yeerks may see morphing as an alternative is well handled. And, of course, the big fight in the end that finishes with the destruction of the Yeerk pool is great. The Yeerk pool has served as a tangible symbol of the enemy that is the Yeerks from book one, so it’s neat to see it come full circle with the Animorphs finally destroying it. And, like I said before, it’s nice that a huge disaster like this isn’t simply heralded as “awesome.” It’s a terrible choice to be forced into and very sobering, and all of the characters see it as such and reflect on that in the end.

But, for Ax himself, this was a really frustrating book. It doesn’t make any sense, character-wise and instead wastes his last book on a story that we’ve heard many times before. Ax is a great character and we got almost none of his great humor or his funny reflections on the foibles of humanity. His decision to contact the Andalites in the first place is never made clear, and his struggles with which side to choose come out of nowhere and don’t seem based in any natural character conflict. It’s really disappointing that this is the last book for him.

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

Serena’s Review: “Heartwood Box”

41541611Book: “Heartwood Box” by Ann Aguirre

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, July 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: In this tiny, terrifying town, the lost are never found. When Araceli Flores Harper is sent to live with her great-aunt Ottilie in her ramshackle Victorian home, the plan is simple. She’ll buckle down and get ready for college. Life won’t be exciting, but she’ll cope, right?

Wrong. From the start, things are very, very wrong. Her great-aunt still leaves food for the husband who went missing twenty years ago, and local businesses are plastered with MISSING posters. There are unexplained lights in the woods and a mysterious lab just beyond the city limits that the locals don’t talk about. Ever. When she starts receiving mysterious letters that seem to be coming from the past, she suspects someone of pranking her or trying to drive her out of her mind. To solve these riddles and bring the lost home again, Araceli must delve into a truly diabolical conspiracy, but some secrets fight to stay buried…

Review: This was an impulse request mostly because I was in the mood for something creepy and the title/cover art combo seemed to fit those criteria pretty well. The description of a teenager discovering the mysteries of a strange, small town just cemented by interest. But while the book does deliver on what it sets out to do, it didn’t quite match up with what I was looking for.

Araceli doesn’t know what to expect when she shows up at the small town where her great-aunt lives. But a town full of missing people and mysterious happenings in the woods surrounding it is not what she had in mind for her visit. Soon enough these mysteries end up knocking on her own door and curiosity and bewilderment quickly turn into fear and a fight for not only her future, but those who have been lost before her.

This is a tough book to evaluate, mostly due to the fact that it’s just not the type of book I read often. And for the reason that I typically don’t enjoy them as much as others. I’m not sure where the line is between “contemporary fantasy” and “urban fantasy,” but there definitely is one and it’s enough to make me greatly prefer the latter to the former. In this book’s case, there were a few aspects of the former that didn’t quite fit with what I was looking for.

First, our main character, Araceli. Most of the fantasy fiction that I read that features young protagonists is set in a world or time period where a young age doesn’t mean the same thing it does here. Teenagers often find themselves in very adult situations and it is perfectly normal that they be there. And, in fact, they have often been raised to expect to operate in an adult fashion by this age. This makes many YA fantasy novels essentially read as adult fantasy novels (I won’t start up again on the marketing mechanisms behind these choices).

So in part I’m simply not used to reading teenagers that, well, act like teenagers. It’s not really the fault of the book that Araceli is a believable teen and thus often makes poor decisions. But I won’t concede some of the dialogue. Teenage characters don’t have to sound immature in their speaking, and there were often bits of both her actual voiced comments as well as the commentary in her head that read as even more juvenile than necessary for belivablilty.

My other main struggle came down to genre confusion. Simply put, there are too many genres and genre conventions vying for page time in this book. I had a hard time settling in to any one type of story. Some genre blending is to be expected, but this one had a bit too much on its hands with fantasy, thriller, horror, and mystery all packed in. I think it was more a fault of blending than anything. It felt a bit too obvious when the story switched from one genre focus to another, reading as bumpy and jarring rather than a smooth, unnoticeable transition.

The mystery of the story is good, though the comparison to “Stranger Things” is a bit too on the nose. I mean, creepy woods. Dudes in bio-hazard outfits. People disappearing. We get it. But still, I was intrigued enough about discovering what exactly was going on that I was able to get through my general frustration with the main character and some bumpy writing.

Essentially, if you’re a fan of contemporary YA fiction and enjoy a fantasy/horror aspect to your tale, you might really like “Heartwood Box.” Most of my complaints for this one are purely my own preference, so take that with what you will. I do think the writing lacks a bit to be desired overall, but that’s not a deal breaker if this kind of story is your thing.

Rating 6: Not for me. “Realistic” teenagers apparently annoy me too much.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Heartwood Box” is  a new title and isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it should be on “YA Fantasy Set in the Real World.”

Find “Heartwood Box” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Age of Legend”

22819354Book: “Age of Legend” by Michael J. Sullivan

Publishing Info: Grim Oak Press, July 2019

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

Book Description: With “Age of Myth,” “Age of Swords,” and “Age of War,” fantasy master Michael J. Sullivan riveted readers with a tale of unlikely heroes locked in a desperate battle to save mankind. After years of warfare, humanity has gained the upper hand and has pushed the Fhrey to the edge of their homeland, but no farther. Now comes the pivotal moment. Persephone’s plan to use the stalemate to seek peace is destroyed by an unexpected betrayal that threatens to hand victory to the Fhrey and leaves a dear friend in peril. Her only hope lies in the legend of a witch, a forgotten song, and a simple garden door.

Previously Reviewed: “Age of Myth” , “Age of Swords” and “Age of War”

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers for the first three books in this review, so reader beware!

Review: I don’t know how many ways there are to write an introductory paragraph to a series of books that you’ve been raving about the entire time. Yes, more of the same! Loved, loved, loved it! Yada yada. So without any ado for that, let’s just jump into the book summary and actual discussion!

While humankind one a massive victory in the last book, one that also cost an enormous price, the war has now been dragging on for years. Persephone and her people have slowly pushed forward, and it’s clear that they pose a real threat to the Fhrey people. This growing fear results in the leaders of the Fhrey admitting one crucial fact: regardless of the “crudeness” of the human species, they have a powerful weapon in the form of Suri, the only human so far to master the Art, and thus she must be dealt with before all else. This realization sets off a tragic chain of events that can only be stopped by another band of characters setting off on an impossible mission, this time one that leads into the very heart of the Fhrey land.

Given the dramatic events in the previous book, it was inevitable that this one would read very differently. For one, the loss of Raithe is huge. Not only do we lose the man whose actions ultimately lead to this conflict and a pretty important POV character, but he had a lot of important connections to the other characters. His loss is felt by both the reader and these other characters. I very much appreciate the fact that Sullivan picked up the story at a few different time periods. By doing this, he allowed readers an insight into the thoughts and feelings of characters into this loss over a period of time. We see the initial loss and signs of grief (anger, regret, etc.), and we also see how this loss continues to play out as characters, especially Suri and Persephone, are forced to make difficult choices.

Suri’s burden is by far the heavier. The dragon she created with Raithe’s sacrifice was pretty much solely responsible for the humans’ victory. It is so powerful that the knowledge and use of this “spell,” for lack of a better word, is pretty much all it takes to win the war for one side of the other. But the price is incredibly high and Suri has had to pay it twice now. Naturally, her conclusion is that she must not love anyone or anything to avoid future tragedy. But she’s not alone in this war, and there are those on both sides of the fight who would pay dearly for her to use it again or to teach someone else how to wield this deadly ability.

Persephone, for her part, has to deal with the regret she feels for turning Raithe away with false words of disinterest all those years ago. Instead, she has had to follow the path she set out for herself, making practical decisions for the betterment of her people. These decisions have come with some joy, but also a lot of increased pain, worry, and self-sacrificed. The Persephone we see in this book is the worn-down leader, a war-time general who has been fighting for too long.

As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, one of the things that stands out the most in this series is Sullivan’s ability to juggle a large cast of characters and choose just the right POV character for every situation. We’re always seeing event through the perfect angle, and just when you begin wondering what so-and-so’s take would be on events, bam! They get the very next chapter! It all plays out so smoothly and at times it feels like the author is reading one’s mind with regards to what is needed next to keep this perfect juggling act in order. This being the case, there were several characters in this book who we got to see more POV chapters from and I very much enjoyed it.

I also loved the story itself, though it is a bit handicapped by the overall nature of the book. Sullivan provides and introduction to the work and in it explains that the book was originally one longer book that was split into two. This is pretty clear as one reads the book, and especially at the end (big cliffhanger warning there!). But this is a half-hearted complaint at worst. For one, in the hands of a more strict editor trying to force it into one book, we may have lost some of the early chapters that gave us earlier scenes in time than when the majority of the story takes place. We might have missed out on some of the important character work that was laid down in these chapters, especially dealing with the fall-out of Raithe’s death, as I mentioned above. This type of devotion to key character moments is what has allowed the series to maintain its large cast. So while the pacing of this story might have suffered for having to be split into two books, I would still prefer this result to the likely other option of reduced character moments in the service of plot.

Like I said, there’s a pretty major cliffhanger at the end of this book, but don’t let that deter you! I zipped through this book, and it has done all the work needed to set up the next one as even more thrilling. Definitely check it out! And don’t forget to enter for our current giveaway for an ARC version of the book. 

Rating 8: There aren’t really any new ways of praising this series other than to wag my finger at any epic fantasy readers who haven’t jumped on this wagon yet!

Reader’s Advisory

“Age of War” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be “Popular Ensemble Cast Books.”

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

Serena’s Review: “Grave Mercy”

9565548Book: “Grave Mercy” by Robin LaFevers

Publishing Info: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2012

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

Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?

Review: Our bookclub theme this go-around is books that have been on our TBR list for over two years. And there are a lot. My lists is somewhere in the mid-300s though, so cut me some slack! But while going through it, I tried to match up a few titles with ones that are currently available at the library in audiobook format and I struck across “Grave Mercy” and thought “Why not? Killer nuns sounds pretty neat.” And here we are. Sadly, killer nuns were not, in fact neat. But one could argue that the story wasn’t really about that anyways, so some other author could still cash in on what sounds like a cool idea.

Just as Ismae’s life is taking a distinct turn for the worst (an arranged marriage, said husband being an abusive jerk, etc. etc.), she’s caught up by a mysterious organization., a convent that follows an old god, one who calls upon his followers to take out evil in the world. The convents train in these deadly arts to carry out this work. With a new route before her, Ismae excels in her new life and role. But when the straight-forward plan of killing targets gets caught up in a much more murky world of courtly politics, Ismae finds herself out of her depth. Add in some romantic feelings, and she’s in a real mess.

To start with any pros, the best thing this book has going for it is the cool premise. I was excited to pick up this book, as assassins always seem like they would be good for an action-packed story full of potentially interesting moral quandaries. Unfortunately, the book itself fails to follow through on this premise, so even that is a pretty luke warm pro.

My biggest problem with this book comes down to the writing itself, both the style of sentences construction as well as the numerous plotting issues. I’m not personally a fan of first person present tense writing, and this one definitely falls prey to the weaknesses of this tense. The voice is often wooden and off-putting. Her emotions are conveyed using a handful of cliches that do nothing to really show us Ismae’s feelings, rather just informing us of them, as a matter of fact. I’m not sure I would have loved the character of Ismae had she been presented in another way, but this definitely didn’t help.

The other big problem with the writing is the way numerous writing crutches are used. The story opens with Ismae’s abusive first day of married life, quickly moves on to her being taken in by the convent and informed, succinctly, of their role in the world. Then two seconds later Ismae’s all on board and we have a time jump. Suddenly, she’s now this badass assassin out on her first mission. It all happens too fast and readers are left to just swallow it all, no questions. There is far too much telling and no showing. We never see Ismae gain any of these so-called skills, and with the introduction of a magical knife that kills with just the barest touch, we’re left wondering why any training is needed at all.

Frankly, it feels as if the author did the barest amount of work in the beginning of her story to get to the part she really wanted to write about. Which, fine. But if that’s your goal, just skip it all together and introduce these pieces of history as the current story plays out. This method would have worked much better and solved several of these problems.

I also struggled with the romance. It’s pretty much just what you would think, so I don’t really need to even bother explaining any of the details. But given Ismae’s early marriage (which, by the way, seems fairly valid and never is addressed again) and the abuse that came with it, I would have hoped for a more nuanced approach to her love story. Instead, we have generic googly eyes at the hawt guy and, again, a long list of cliched descriptions and emotions.

Assassin books are a strange thing for me, now. I feel like I really like them. But when I try to think of examples of books with this theme that I’ve enjoyed, there are really very few. And on the other hand, a rather long list of books with this plot that I’ve absolutely hated. It makes sense: how do you write about something as brutal as assassination without also taking the time to really address the moral issues at the heart of it? Far too many authors simply want the badass points of it all without the latter responsibility to the emotions and decisions behind it. So we end up with books like this, where we’re told that our main character is a badass and then proceed on to a pretty bland love story that is more focused on court politics that assassinations, anyways.

Rating 4: The weak writing really killed this one for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Grave Mercy” is on these Goodreads lists: Books With Heroes/Heroines Who Are Assassins and Young Adult Books Without Love Triangles.

Find “Grave Mercy” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Shadows of Self”

16065004Book: “Shadows of Self” by Brandon Sanderson

Publishing Info: Tor Books, October 2015

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

Book Description: “Shadows of Self” shows Mistborn’s society evolving as technology and magic mix, the economy grows, democracy contends with corruption, and religion becomes a growing cultural force, with four faiths competing for converts.

This bustling, optimistic, but still shaky society now faces its first instance of terrorism, crimes intended to stir up labor strife and religious conflict. Wax and Wayne, assisted by the lovely, brilliant Marasi, must unravel the conspiracy before civil strife stops Scadrial’s progress in its tracks.

Previously Reviewed: “The Alloy of Law”

Review: This is another series that I’ve been reading in audiobook format, and as such, am at the mercy of a more limited holds list at the library. But oh well! Not only is the narrator of Sanderson’s books excellent (I’m pretty sure he does them all), but I also have my own weird thing about switching formats halfway through a series. Yes, I know, I’m a freak. Anyways! My hold finally came through and it was on to the next installment in this second trilogy in the Mistborn world featuring our favorite lawmen, Wax and Wayne!

A year after the events of the first book, Wax and Wayne are still doing their thing, solving crimes in the city of Elendel. All the while, however, Wayne is having to balance his crime-solving with also be the lord of his house and planning a wedding with his fiance. The latter takes a back-burner position in priorities when a new enemy appears on the scene, one who seems to be able to predict their every action and disappear into any crowd. Wax and Wayne struggle to keep up, but also to put together a possible motive and endgame for this mysterious villain. Marasi, working as a more official officer of the law, joins the action, and soon enough they all find themselves caught up in a conspiracy that is set to rock the entire city.

While this story still is very much Wax’s, one of the things that stood out to me the most in this book was how I felt it was improved by giving Wayne his own chapters as well as Marasi. I’ve always liked Wax, but I also don’t feel super drawn to his character. I think this is because he’s essentially Batman in the Mistborn world. Wealthy, powerful, fighting crime, and, of course, brooding. Just as Batman isn’t my favorite superhero for this reason, I don’t feel a lot of draw to Wayne in the same way. But I do very much like Wayne and Marasi. Both seem a bit more complicated, with internal struggles and story arcs that seem ripe for more exploration. Wayne, of course, is a very amusing narrator, though here I do wish that some of the clever lines would give away more often to the actual heart of the matter (something that, conversely, he is very good at identifying, unlike Wax at times). And I appreciate Marasi’s journey to prove herself worthy of working along the famed Wax and to carve her own place in the police force, one that she earns through her abilities and not through her connections to her notable family or Wayne himself.

I very much enjoyed the story itself. This entire trilogy so far has been tending much more towards Westerns and thrillers than fantasy (take out the fantasy elements and the stories themselves would hold up pretty easily). Neither of those are really favorite genres of mine, but this one counterbalances that with the introduction of a very compelling villain. The villain has really great abilities that truly challenge Wax (similar to Batman, it’s tough to create a villain that poses an actual threat when you’re hero is so established as a badass). I really liked how it wasn’t clear what the motivation or connection was behind the villain’s actions throughout the book as well. So not only are readers caught up in the fast-paced action, but there is a legitimate mystery at the heart of it all. And the best part is the incredible shock at the end of the story. Obviously, I won’t spoil it. But it’s not only huge for this book, but for the series as a whole. I’m excited to see how things play out from here!

My one criticism of the book (other than my own personal hang-ups on Wax’s character) has to do with some of the action scenes. I’m not really sure how to articulate the issue I had. It was by no means large, but it was almost as if there were times when some of the action read as a bit cheesy, with Wax pulling stunts that seemed a bit too similar to the likes of what you may see in the “Fast and the Furious” or some other corny action movie. Many of these scenes read well and the cool magic system that Sanderson has built up for this world continues to entertain. But there were just a few moments that walked the line of “cool for coolness-sake” a bit too closely for my taste.

Overall, however, I very much enjoyed this book. The ending itself with the surprise reveal probably helped bump the book up a whole point in my estimation. And it’s the kind of reshuffle that will have lasting impact, so it creates added interest for the next book in the series.

Rating 8: Some action points were a bit much at times, but some incredible twists and the addition of a viewpoint for Wayne made this a fun read.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Shadows of Self” is on these Goodreads lists: “Most Action-Packed Books” and “Best Steampunk Books.”

Find “Shadows of Self” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Black Powder War”

91989Book: “Black Powder War” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, May 2006

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

Book Description: Picking up where book two left off (in China, Macau) Captain Will Laurence and his extraordinary dragon, Temeraire, are ordered to retrieve and escort a precious cargo of valuable dragon eggs from Istanbul to England. They take the Old Silk Road from China to Istanbul, crossing deserts and mountains. En route to England, they help the beleaguered Prussians battle Napoleon.

Previously Reviewed: “His Majesty’s Dragon” and “Throne of Jade”

Review: Trucking along with this series! Once you get me started, there’s no stopping me! Well, the waiting list at the library for the audiobook does hold me up…mostly because I love the narrator for this book so much that I refuse to read it in any other format now. So really, it’s my own pickiness that is holding me up. But really, it’s also probably for the best, as it’s always nice to have a solid series on the back burner that one can return to if ever caught in the midst of a string of bad luck reads. That’s not the case right now, really. I just couldn’t resist.

Lawrence and Temeraire are anxious to return home to England and rejoin their fellows in the war against Napoleon. They are also tasked with picking up a few dragon eggs on their way home. After a few unfortunate events, a sea voyage ends up being off the table as means of travel, and they’re forced to prepare for an over-land expedition. Along the way they face challenges of terrain, both mountain and desert, as well as rogue dragons and shady political figures. They also eventually find themselves caught up in the war itself on the continent, pulled before dueling loyalties: their honor to the foreign allies and the urgency to deliver the dragon eggs before they hatch.

As my reviews indicate, the first two books in this series took me a bit by surprise. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting into when I started the series (many books that feature dragons have clear tropes, none of which were found here), and the second book went in a new direction even from that. But now I think I’m starting to settle in and it all comes down to a similar theme: Lawrence and Temeraire go on adventures! Not only has each book taken place in very different locations and featured very difference challenges, foes, and comrades. But within each book are a series of mini adventures that the two friends must navigate.

In this one, we have another travel adventure for the first half of the book, as the pair and their crew leave China and make their way across Asia towards their home. Along the way, they must battle the elements, getting into some dire circumstances in the mountains and in a sandstorm. I was also excited when they ran into a group of feral dragons. As the series has progressed, it’s become clear that Lawrence and many people in general, don’t truly understand dragons and what they are capable of. There have been a lot of preconceptions that Temeraire has proved false, about dragon intelligence and individuality. Throughout it all, we’ve often heard about feral dragons as those that can’t be tamed or made to work with people. I very much enjoyed the way they were worked into the story and the foibles of the mini dragon society we see here.

I was also excited to see a return to the military aspect of the story. The first book had a brief battle scene towards the end of the book, and the second one had very little in this regard. But half way through this book, we really dive into the military tactics of dragons. I like the way Novik highlighted how different countries have had different approaches to how they use their aerial corps, a detail that continues the heighten the believability of dragons fighting in the Napoleonic wars.

Further, we began to see how dragons themselves can contribute to these types of military strategies, with Temeraire putting to use his knowledge for formations and strategy for in-air battle. I also really liked the way we see Napoleon use his dragons in very clever ways, making his military brilliance transfer just as well to this fantastical element. We also see how the presence of dragons could influence the outcome of some of these historic events in ways that you wouldn’t necessarily anticipate.

The ending did seem to kind of come out of the blue, however, with things building up to a climax and then quickly ending. I’m not sure the pacing of the story overall was quite right, in this regard. But other than, I’m still thoroughly enjoying this series!

Rating 8: I particularly enjoyed the return to the military aspects of the story in this one.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Black Powder War” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Alternate History Novels and Stories” and “Dragon Books NOT ROMANCE.”

Find “Black Powder War” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Because of Miss Bridgerton”

25657772Book: “Because of Miss Bridgerton” by Julia Quinn

Publishing Info: Avon, March 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Sometimes you find love in the most unexpected of places…

This is not one of those times.

Everyone expects Billie Bridgerton to marry one of the Rokesby brothers. The two families have been neighbors for centuries, and as a child the tomboyish Billie ran wild with Edward and Andrew. Either one would make a perfect husband… someday.

Sometimes you fall in love with exactly the person you think you should…

Or not.

There is only one Rokesby Billie absolutely cannot tolerate, and that is George. He may be the eldest and heir to the earldom, but he’s arrogant, annoying, and she’s absolutely certain he detests her. Which is perfectly convenient, as she can’t stand the sight of him, either.

But sometimes fate has a wicked sense of humor…

Because when Billie and George are quite literally thrown together, a whole new sort of sparks begins to fly. And when these lifelong adversaries finally kiss, they just might discover that the one person they can’t abide is the one person they can’t live without…

Review: I don’t read straight up romance fiction very often, but when I do, it’s usually historical romance. And there’s no one better at writing historical romance than Julia Quinn at this point. She’s so successful that her “Bridgerton” series has been picked up by Netflix to be produced by Shonda Rhymes. I can’t say that that was my reason for initially starting this book, but I did discover that fact halfway through which made it feel a bit like fate, since I’ll definitely check out the show when it finally shows up.

The Bridgertons and Rokesbys have been neighbors for years, and as two of the most prominent families in the area, the children of both families have practically grown up together. None of them more close than Billie Bridgerton and Edward and Andrew Rokesby. Together, they’ve run wild throughout the countryside, often lead into the most trouble by Billie herself. Left out of these affairs has always been the eldest Rokesby, the serious and responsible George. But, as adults, when Billie’s bravery and gumption has translated into a sincere feeling of responsibility for caring for her father’s lands and George has come to appreciate the benefit of a bright smile and a joke, the two find themselves beginning to come to understand the other better and better.

I’m by no means a completeist of Quinn’s original Bridgerton series. I’ve read a few here and there. That being the case, it took me a bit to realize that this is essentially a prequel series to that one. The main chunk of Bridgerton books cover the exploits of the next generation, the children of Billie’s older brother. I’m not sure how many of these characters who up in that series, but I, at least, wasn’t familiar with any of them or their stories and backgrounds. But in this vacuum of my knowledge, I very much enjoyed what was presented here.

What stands out the most is the fact that this book doesn’t follow the traditional format of romance novels. The typical steps are as follows: 1.) Hero and heroine meet and while not understanding the other, sparks immediately fly 2.) Hero and heroine are compelled to marry for some reason or another 3.) Steamy scenes throughout the middle of the book while each character realizes they have feelings for the other 4.) Something happens to make the hero (typically) feel that he doesn’t deserve the heroine and he pulls away 5.) Heroine misunderstands this as the hero not truly having feelings for her and having just been forced into the whole thing 6.) Something occurs to force them to come clean to each other and happily ever after begins. The fact that these steps are often so predictable isn’t a criticism in and of itself. I know I, for one, reads romance novels like this exactly because I can predict what is going to happen for the most part. No nasty surprises or sad endings here! But what’s great about this book is that while still getting to the happy ending, it does so in a less traditional manner.

Instead of the rather quick build up to the mid-book steamy scenes, this one spends about 85% of the story building up the relationship between George and Billie. We get a bunch of casual scenes between the two where we can see the changes in their relationship slowly taking place. These characters have grown up knowing each other, so there’s a lovely balance of the familiar in their banter, but also the new wonder that comes with realizing that someone you’ve known forever isn’t necessarily the person you’ve always thought them to be. The romance is built more slowly and their relationship comes together much later in the book than I’ve typically seen, and I enjoyed this change very much.

Billie is an excellent character and she remains true to the heart of her character throughout the story. Often, when we get to the last two thirds section of the typical romance plot, even the most brave and confident heroine must fall prey to the insecurities that make her question the hero’s attachment to her. Thankfully, while Billie still has her doubts and misinterpretations, she also doesn’t wilt or fall prey to this typical arc. I was pleased to see these types of misunderstandings cleared up much more quickly through the type of frank conversation and steady sense of self that was originally built into both of these characters.

The book was also simply laugh-out-loud funny at times. The dialogue is fantastic. George and Billie’s conversations are great, of course. But George’s brother and Billie’s close friend Andrew really takes the cake for holding up the comedic side of things. I also really appreciated the strong friendship that was built between Billie and Andrew, one that remained solid throughout the book and wasn’t plagued with jealousy or unnatural rifts to serve some dramatic purpose.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this book. It’s light, funny, and the romance took a less expected route when getting to the happily ever after that we’re all there for. Billie was one of the more fun romance heroines I’ve read in a while, and I liked George’s solid sense of self and responsibility to those he cares about. Fans of historical romance fiction will enjoy this. And if you’re looking to get ahead of the Netflix show, this is an excellent place to start (though it’s unclear how much of these prequel stories will make it into the series itself.)

Rating 8: A fun romance novel that truly made me laugh out loud at times.

Reader’s Advisory: “Because of Miss Bridgerton” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Humorous Historical Romances” and “Love/Hate Relationships.”

Find “Because of Miss Bridgerton” at your library using WorldCat.