Serena’s Review: “Heartstone”

31290944Book: “Heartstone” by Elle Katharine White

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, January 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: A debut historical fantasy that recasts Jane Austen’s beloved “Pride & Prejudice” in an imaginative world of wyverns, dragons, and the warriors who fight alongside them against the monsters that threaten the kingdom: gryphons, direwolves, lamias, banshees, and lindworms.

They say a Rider in possession of a good blade must be in want of a monster to slay—and Merybourne Manor has plenty of monsters.

Passionate, headstrong Aliza Bentaine knows this all too well; she’s already lost one sister to the invading gryphons. So when Lord Merybourne hires a band of Riders to hunt down the horde, Aliza is relieved her home will soon be safe again.

Her relief is short-lived. With the arrival of the haughty and handsome dragonrider, Alastair Daired, Aliza expects a battle; what she doesn’t expect is a romantic clash of wills, pitting words and wit against the pride of an ancient house. Nor does she anticipate the mystery that follows them from Merybourne Manor, its roots running deep as the foundations of the kingdom itself, where something old and dreadful slumbers . . . something far more sinister than gryphons.

Review: I keep doing it to myself, picking up books that are re-tellings of Jane Austen’s famous novels, always hoping and yet so often disappointed. But this, this, is why I do it! Every once in a blue moon an author gets it right, not feeling too beholden to the original, while also staying true to the themes and doing proper justice to the characters. I very much enjoyed “Hearstone,” both as a retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” and as an original work of fantasy fiction!

As the summary explains, only the barest of bones of the original story can be seen here. This is a different word with a different history and a different society. Fantastical beasts aren’t simply inserted into the Regency England we know from the original novels. And right off the bat this is a strength of the story. Jane Austen’s works are filled with female characters who in one way or another struggle with the limitations that dictate their lives. White does away with this aspect right away. Women not only populate this world equally, but they are active, functioning members of the world. There were many characters from the original who are gender-swapped, like Colonel Foster who becomes a female commander. This was a particularly interesting and freeing choice, I believe, as the story is laid out in a much more action-oriented manner, and White’s world allows all of her characters to play in it equally. Aliza and Anjey (the “Jane” sister) don’t simply get to know their to-be Rider beaus through balls and dancing, but by contributing to the cause to rid their land of monsters.

The story is also told from first person perspective, another change from the original. But Aliza is an entertaining and relatable leading lady. It is interesting watching her develop her opinions and prejudices from the perspective of her inner thoughts, something we don’t see from Elizabeth Bennet. Further, her change of heart as she learns the truth about Daired and grows to care for him is an interesting arc that feels news and fresh coming from this more introspective viewpoint. Daired himself is an appealing leading man. While there is no competing with Mr. Darcy, Daried’s own prejudices and points of pride make sense for the character. In some ways the fact that he manages to attach himself to Aliza based on very few interactions is both more understandable and less than Darcy’s affection for Elizabeth. The two spend more time together than Darcy/Elizabeth and in situations that would cause attachments to develop more quickly. However, as great as the Aliza is, as a character it is less obvious to see why she would stand out so much to Daired who runs into so many people throughout society. Elizabeth’s sparkly wit and uniqueness were always obvious. However, I very much enjoyed their romance, specifically the added action towards the end of the book.

As for secondary characters, it is interesting to see that White seems to have looked at Austen’s original supporting cast and essentially thought “Man, not everyone can be that obnoxious!” This, too, was a welcome change. Austen’s ability to write the ridiculous side of humanity and people is unparalleled. So rather than try to mimic it, White simply eased up on it altogether. The Mr. Collins character is still silly, but she makes him also a good man who ends up in a truly affectionate marriage. Mrs. Bentaine is still set on marrying off her daughters, but she’s also clearly a loving parent, and her insufferablness is very much cut back on. Even deplorable characters like Lady Catherine and Caroline Bingley are reformed, though still flawed. The Caroline Bingley character is a perfect example of both this more positive reimagining and the increased role that female characters play in the story, being a Rider herself alongside Daired and Brysney.

As for the world-building, I very much enjoyed how White built up her fantasy world around this classic story. Nothing felt forced, and she used the fantasy elements as motivations for the plot, not simply as window dressing to support a pre-determined system of events. All of the major plot points from the original story are inherently tied to the specific aspects of this new world.

This was one of the more enjoyable Jane Austen retellings that I can remember reading in quite a long time. If you enjoyed the originals, but also like high fantasy, I definitely recommend checking this one out!

Rating 9:

Reader’s Advisory:

“Heartstone” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on “Best Jane Austen Retellings.”

Find “Heartstone” at your library using Worldcat!

The Great Animorphs Re-Read: #5 “The Predator”

125337Animorphs #5: “The Predator”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, December 1996

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Marco never wanted to be an Animorph. He never wanted the ability to change into any animal he touches. He just wants to chill. Whatever happens, happens.

Narrator: Marco

Plot: This book is a perfect example of something that I knew I was going to eventually stoop to discussing, and that is the awful individual names of each of these books. If anyone else noticed, by this point it might have become clear that there is ABSOLUTELY NO CONNECTION between the supposed name of the book and anything obvious in the plot. I read somewhere that the publishers, not Applegate, chose the names for these books, but I feel like they should have known there was going to be a problem when, in what turns into a 50+ book series, they were already having a hard time matching this “The____” format with the actual plot of the books themselves by only book #5. Who is the “predator” in this?? Anyways, this is going to be an ongoing issue, but I’ll try to restrain myself to commenting on it for only the most egregious examples. On to the plot!

Ax is feeling the effects of being stranded on a strange planet far from home and wants to establish contact. So the action starts off in a very “E.T. phone home” sort of way. Turns out, shockingly, that Earth tech isn’t quite up to the loft standards of the Andalites, so the first third is essentially a caper around the mall looking for adequate substitutes at Radioshack (oh, the 90s). This adventure doesn’t go as well as one would hope due to Ax’s inability to reign in his joy at the discovery of taste buds (Andalites have no mouths, as we must remember). The end results is an inordinate amount of time spent hiding as lobsters before being taken to some poor woman’s kitchen where the nightmare of her life takes place: three lobsters turning into two human boys and a bizarre alien. So she’s definitely scarred for life.

The second third consists of their next brilliant plan: sneaking back into Chapman’s house, this time as ants. What could possibly go wrong! Lots, as it turns out. Ants are by far the worst morph they have ever chosen so far, as I will go into more later.  They do manage to get the super specific, high tech communication chip that Chapman uses to communicate with Visser Three on the Yeerk home ship, however. So on a purely practical (but not ongoing mental health) sense, they are successful.

The third part is where it all really goes wrong. The plan is to call down one of the Yeerk Bug Fighter ships and use their technology to reach across space to the Andalite home world. Turns out the Yeerks aren’t complete chumps and see through this ploy from a mile away. They show up in force and things aren’t looking good for our gang. The group, all disguised in battle morphs, are corralled onto a ship and transported into space. They’re all pretty resigned to their fate, at this point, as not only would they now need to overcome a massive force of Yeerks, but they’d also need to find a ship, learn to fly it, and survive a return journey.

But, as always, they hit a stroke of luck. Visser One, the most powerful Yeerk on the Yeerk high council is visiting to see how things are going on “Project: Take Over Earth.” Visser One is Visser Three’s superior, and they don’t get along. This internal, political feud pays off for the Animorphs in a big way as it turns out that Visser One is more interested in embarrassing Visser Three and highlighting his incompetence by having him lose a bunch of Andalite warriors off his own main ship than in actually capturing said Andalite warriors. Thus the Animorphs are provided with a clear path out and a pre-programmed ship to return them home. But…the most major revelation of it all, Visser One isn’t just any old Yeerk Controller. She is Marco’s mother, not dead at all. This obviously changes Marco’s entire outlook on the fight going forward.

The Comic Relief: Marco has been the most reluctant Animorph from the very beginning, but he also has the best reason for this. Of them all (except for Tobias), Marco’s life already kind of sucked before this whole alien war started. His mother died suddenly in a boating accident a few years ago, and his dad has spiraled completely, losing his job and their home and essentially withdrawing from life and Marco. At this point in the story, Marco is coming up on the two year anniversary of his mom’s death, and looking at the state of his dad, he decides that this is his last mission. His dad can’t survive another loss if Marco doesn’t make it, and after the close call as a dolphin in the last book… In respect for the sacrifice that Ax’s brother, Elfangor, made on their behalf, he’ll help with Ax’s project to reach home, but after that he’s out.

Marco is the most reserved of the narrator’s we’ve seen so far. Not only have we seen Marco putting on a brave/snarky front in the other books to the other characters, but as a narrator himself, he feels more withdrawn and less open with the readers, still playing it close to home with his true feelings. As his book continues, these barriers come slowly down, most dramatically when he discovers the truth about his Mom. But I found this to be an interesting and very true take on the Marco, that something that is so central and has been so well established to Marco’s character (his unwillingness to easily lower emotional walls) would still be present, even in his first person narrative.

As a narrator, Marco is, of course, a good time. He’s witty, while also probably being the most insightful into the true character of each of his friends. And really, it’s a lucky thing he has all of this going for him considering the more weighty aspects of his tale. Other than Tobias, who has definitely locked in on the award for “Most Tragic Animorph,” Marco’s life has been rough for a while and though he discovers his mom’s still alive, the fact that she is controlled by the most powerful (and thus most well protected) Yeerk in the galaxy is a small joy. Though, this does give Marco his reason to finally truly commit to the war against the Yeerks.

Our Fearless Leader: Jake and Marco’s friendship is great. We have some lighter moments that shed some insight onto how these two became friends, with Marco’s wit to balance Jake’s more serious take on life. But Jake also is the one person who truly understands Marco’s reluctance to join this battle. When Marco says he’s out,  Jake doesn’t pressure him or judge him for this decision. Jake is also the only Animorph who had met Marco’s mother before, and thus the only one to realize who Visser One truly is. At the end of the story, Marco makes it clear that this is a secret he is not willing to share right now, and Jake respects this decision as well.

Xena, Warriar Princess: We get another example of why as badass as Rachel’s elephant morph is, it’s really not the best battle morph she could have picked. Size issues are always posing a problem for her, and we’ve had one too many overly graphic scenes of her trying to frantically demorph while fleeing from the Yeerks, this time in cramped alien spaceship hallways. I know that she gets an even more awesome morph soon, and I can’t wait until then! Rachel also still clearly remembers her experiences in the Chapman house from book two and is very adamant that however the Animorphs choose to infiltrate the basement this time, there can be no chance that they will be caught and risk Melissa’s life again. It’s a nice little callback to Rachel’s story and to the fact that loyalty is such a strong motivator for her character.

A Hawk’s Life: Tobias actually ends up in the action for the last bit of this story which is a nice change. In the last book he was largely absent due to the obvious fact that hawks don’t do water. But here he gets to join in all the kidnapping fun and even take a few swipes at Yeerks during their escape on the home ship.

Peace, Love, and Animals: I feel like Cassie came up with the ant plan. And right there, Cassie has failed in her one and only duty! Knowing the animal facts! Come on, Cassie, you had to know this was a terrible idea!!

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Ax is comedy gold, guys. I have very clear memories of reading and cracking up at this  mall scene (and I’m sure others) where Ax goes nuts for Cinnabons. And it was just as hilarious now. There’s some bit where I’m pretty sure that it is established that Ax is so far gone in his love of taste that not only is he licking other people’s used plates, but even eating cigarette butts. It’s all very humorous. On a more serious note, Ax provides a lens that highlights just how far the Animorphs have already come. They’re kids, yes, but at this point they’ve seen many battles, and when compared to Ax, they’re pros. He’s much quicker to give in to Yeerk goading and has a bad tendency to want to rush to his death for the sake of “honor.” At this point, the Animorphs know that a good retreat is never in conflict with honor when the other option is a pointless death. Ax also serves as good mouthpiece for the group with the Yeerks, as he is the only true Andalite among them and adds credence to their disguise as an entire group of Andalite warriors.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: The whole ant scene. All of it. You’ve got the initial existential horror when Marco and Co. completely lose themselves in the ant mind. He describes it as literally forgetting that Marco exists at all. He just wasn’t there. So that’s horrifying. And then, even worse, they get into a fight with another ant colony and start getting eaten/torn apart alive, and they only escape by demorphing out of the ground. Marco mentions finding a severed ant head still attached to his waist when he showers later. Which….just….no.

Couples Watch!: Marco comments that Jake and Cassie are sort of together…or something…He notices them giving each other sappy looks, and such. As the one Animorph (not including Ax, which…obviously) not involved in a romantic pair, it was fun reading his narrative eye-rolls at the whole thing.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: I really liked the introduction of all the Yeerk politics. It adds depths to them both as villains and as a unique civilization that has its own problems outside of taking over the universe. Also, the fact that Visser One openly mocks Visser Three to his face on his massive ignorance of the planet he is charged with conquering is everything.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: The scenes of Marco’s dad, just sitting in a dark living room staring at the TV. And then the whole revelation at the end about his Mom. And not just the obvious, that she’s a Controller. But now Marco has to question all of his memories. When did she become a Controller? A month before she disappeared? A year? When was the last time his true mother was even part of his life?? All the cries.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: I mean, kind of the whole thing, right? But I have to say, the idea to hide as lobsters in a lobster tank from the Controllers chasing them (they spotted Ax trying to demorph in a state of panic in the mall, another example of Ax being new to this fight and cracking under pressure) seems particularly flawed. I’m not sure what the better option was, but when you find yourself having to demorph in someone’s boiling pot of water in their kitchen, you know something went very wrong somewhere along the line.

Favorite Quote:

This one cuz I love Rachel and this seems true:

“I swear that, if she could, Rachel would be wearing a suit of armor and swinging a sword. And it would be a fashionable suit of armor, and she would look great in it.” ~ Marco

This one cuz it highlights Ax’s newbie issues:

“The higher the danger, the higher the honor.” ~ Ax

And this one because it quintessential Marco:

“We’re mostly against the idea of getting killed.” ~ Marco,

Scorecard: Yeerks 1, Animorphs 2

The scorecard goes unchanged in this one. Yeerk political infighting was all that saved this from being a “Game Over” for our favorite morphing teens. But the Yeerks didn’t exactly show off their best face either. Though it does prove that sticking it to Visser Three really IS the best thing ever. Even better than potentially kidnapping the supposed Andalite warriors who are the only thing keeping the Yeerks from fully conquering Earth. So…there’s that.

Rating: Marco is great fun, though his sads are for real, folks.

Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all! But I’ll give a one sentence conclusion and you can take from that what you will!

Serena’s Review: “Wintersong”

24763621Book: “Wintersong” by S. Jae-Jones

Publishing Info: Thomas Dunne, February 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: ebook ARC from NetGalley

Book Description: All her life, nineteen-year-old Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, mysterious Goblin King. He is the Lord of Mischief, the Ruler Underground, and the muse around which her music is composed. Yet, as Liesl helps shoulder the burden of running her family’s inn, her dreams of composition and childish fancies about the Goblin King must be set aside in favor of more practical concerns.

But when her sister Käthe is taken by the goblins, Liesl journeys to their realm to rescue her sister and return her to the world above. The Goblin King agrees to let Käthe go—for a price. The life of a maiden must be given to the land, in accordance with the old laws. A life for a life, he says. Without sacrifice, nothing good can grow. Without death, there can be no rebirth. In exchange for her sister’s freedom, Liesl offers her hand in marriage to the Goblin King. He accepts.

Down in the Underground, Liesl discovers that the Goblin King still inspires her—musically, physically, emotionally. Yet even as her talent blossoms, Liesl’s life is slowly fading away, the price she paid for becoming the Goblin King’s bride. As the two of them grow closer, they must learn just what it is they are each willing to sacrifice: her life, her music, or the end of the world.

Review: This book has been marketed as a good read for fans of “Labyrinth,” and while I’m familiar with the movie, I wouldn’t say that I’m a die hard fan by any means. I think I’ve only seen it once? But from what I remember, this book description does seems very close to that story. Perhaps too close? I have read several iterations of the “Goblin King” fairytale, however, and have had a hit or miss run of them. But I’m always intrigued by the basic arc and curious to see what new twists each author will bring to a fairly established story. However, while “Wintersong” is written beautifully, after reading it I wouldn’t list it as one of my top choices for this type of story.

Basically, this story can be split into two halves. The first deals with Liesl’s mission to save her beloved sister Kathe from the clutches of the Goblin King who has stolen her away. For the most part, I very much enjoyed this first half of the book. Liesl’s relationship with her sister is realistically complicated, based in both deep familial love but also challenged by Liesl’s jealously of the perfection she attributes to her sister based on her beauty. While this strained relationship could at times leave Liesl looking a bit selfish and self-centered, I felt like it also tapped into the true undercurrents that develop in many sibling relationships. And the fact that beneath it all Liesl would do anything, even sacrifice herself, to save her sister properly orients both her character and the sisters’ relationship as a positive one.

The second half of the story is where it goes a bit off the rails for me. This is kind of surprising, because as much as I loved the first half, I always knew where the meat of this story would lie: Liesl’s time spent as the wife of the Goblin King. And typically, this is the part of these types of stories that I enjoy the most. That said, it is also the most challenging to write as now the Goblin King must be developed to have more layers beyond villainy and the complicated relationship between him and his stolen bride must be more fully fleshed out.

And while there were elements of this half of the story I did enjoy, I also felt like the novel became a bit confused about what it was trying to do and say. Honestly, it almost feels as if this book would have done better if it had been marketed as an adult fantasy novel. Being pushed into YA territory leaves the physical aspects of the two’s relationship rather strained and almost working against the author’s arc of self-discovery for Liesl. It just felt odd at times.

The Goblin King’s transformation into a tragic, romantic hero also felt like something we have seen too often before. And while that isn’t always a fault (as I said, I’ve read many of these types of novels), this book’s descriptions of him at times seem to take its own angst and oh so tragic beauty too seriously. The lyricism of the novel that serves the story so well in its world building and descriptions of music, begins to feel a bit empty and cliche when it comes to their romantic relationship.

At this point in the review, I would say the book was coming in at a solid 5. I liked the first half, didn’t really like the second half, so a very middle of the road read. However, I won’t spoil it, but I was very disappointed with the end of the novel. I understand what the author was trying to do. However, there are too many questions left unanswered, and, again, the beautiful tragedy of it all seemed to be taking itself too seriously for the type of book this is. I hear there is a sequel in the works, and I do not appreciate books that leave cliff hangers that require readers to continue to get any sense of resolution. Sure, leave the door open and set the stage, but end it in a way that is still satisfying if readers don’t want to continue. So yes, I was unhappy with the end of the book. It may work for some, but it didn’t for me, hence the extra drop in my rating of it.

Serena’s Review and Giveaway: “A Conjuring of Light”

29939230Book: “A Conjuring of Light” by V.E. Schwab

Publishing Info: Tor Books, February 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: I bought it! (And an extra for this giveaway, since, let’s be real: I’m keeping mine!)

Book Description: Londons fall and kingdoms rise while darkness sweeps the Maresh Empire—and the fraught balance of magic blossoms into dangerous territory while heroes and foes struggle alike. The direct sequel to “A Gathering of Shadows,” and the final book in the Shades of Magic epic fantasy series, “A Conjuring of Light” sees Schwab reach a thrilling culmination concerning the fate of beloved protagonists—and old enemies.

Review: While I should have felt completely confident after Schwab nailed the always-challenging middle book of a series, the final book is really what a series lives and dies on and…and…nothing bad must happen to my lovelies, Lila, Kell, and Rhy! And, while bad things do happen in this book (narrative-wise, not quality-wise, thank god), as a closing chapter for the trilogy, “A Conjuring of Light” was everything I wanted and many things I didn’t know I even DID want!

I was lucky enough to have gotten around to “A Gathering of Shadows” only a week or so before this book came out. So I only had to live with that killer cliffhanger for a few days before I rushed out to my local bookstore and purchased this book. I feel true and deep pity for all the other readers out there who had to struggle with it for a whole year! With my approach, and the fact that this book takes off exactly where the previous one leaves off (Lila rushing to Kell’s rescue AGAIN, and Rhy sinking into death-remission), this almost felt like the very long second half of the story that was started in the second book.

The pacing of this book is essentially action-packed from the get go with a few, very few, breaks often in the form of flash back sequences. As the personified dark magic seeps into Kell’s world, the true magnitude of the disaster that our heroes are up against begins to take form. The stakes are impossibly high, and from the beginning it was clear that any hope of winning wasn’t going to come without a steep cost. While the second book highlighted what magic can do as it was put on show during the international competition, this book shows its limitations, especially at the hands of the fragile human magicians with their limited capacity to channel it. The fancy flourishes and tricks prove to be much too little against the seemingly unstoppable force that is the Shadow King.

This book also can be split into two parts. The seemingly futile disaster overtaking Red London, and then a jaunty ship journey, complete with Sea Serpents! If it sounds like those two things wouldn’t mix well, you’d be wrong. And in many ways, this second half of the book was my favorite. It was essentially an odd company adventure romp featuring my favorite characters: Lila, Kell, Alucard, and, bizarrely, Holland.

Lila is, and will always be, my favorite character. And while much of her growth took place in the second novel, we see her really come into her own in this book, recognizing the benefit of staying put every once in a while and the strength to be gained from relationships with others, even with the risk of loss.

Kell, too, was much more filled out coming off the second novel, so his arc was also more limited to simply overcoming this great nemesis. However, there was some interesting nuance added to his relationship with the royal parents, and his relationship with Rhy continues to by my favorite portrayal of brotherhood on page.

And, obviously, Lila and Kell now together….my heart!

The more surprising character arcs came for both Alucard and Holland. With both, but especially with Holland, we are given a much clearer look into their past through flashbacks. Alucard’s story highlights the fact that Red London, as advanced as it is, does struggle with similar prejudices as our own world, a fact that he suffers for greatly.

And Holland. His story came out of left field! While the first book does a good job setting him up as more than a simple villain, this is where we finally see behind the mask and are witness to the complete and utter tragedy that has been his life. Honestly, after seeing it all, Holland turns out to be the strongest character of them all, even given the fact that they largely wouldn’t even be in this whole “Shadow King” mess had it not been for him.

I’ve already written a bunch and I still feel like I’ve barely skimmed the surface of what’s to love about this book and series as a whole. I honestly can’t recommend it enough for fans of fantasy. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a trilogy that feels so perfect in every way. In this case, even the most wild and outlandish praise is well deserved.

Rating 10: A perfect 10 for the whole trilogy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Conjuring of Light” is newly released and thus not on many Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Fantasy/SF Atlas–London” and “Magic, Adventure, Romance.”

Find “A Conjuring of Light” at your library using Worldcat!

But wait! There’s more! If somehow you have managed to resist instantly purchasing this for yourself, never fear, I am hosting a giveaway for a hardcover edition of “A Conjuring of Light!”

EDIT: I failed to update the “comment on the blog” question for the giveaway! So instead of favorite murder mystery (darn you, Kate, and your murder mysteries and my own ineptitude when recycling your work!), what is your favorite fantasy novel that was published in the last year?

Click here to enter the giveaway!

Serena’s Review: “A Gathering of Shadows”

20764879Book: “A Gathering of Shadows” by V. E. Schwab

Publishing Info: Tor Books, February 2016

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

Book Description: It has been four months since a mysterious obsidian stone fell into Kell’s possession. Four months since his path crossed with Delilah Bard. Four months since Prince Rhy was wounded, and since the nefarious Dane twins of White London fell, and four months since the stone was cast with Holland’s dying body through the rift–back into Black London.

Now, restless after having given up his smuggling habit, Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila, who disappeared from the docks as she always meant to do. As Red London finalizes preparations for the Element Games–an extravagant international competition of magic meant to entertain and keep healthy the ties between neighboring countries–a certain pirate ship draws closer, carrying old friends back into port.

And while Red London is caught up in the pageantry and thrills of the Games, another London is coming back to life. After all, a shadow that was gone in the night will reappear in the morning. But the balance of magic is ever perilous, and for one city to flourish, another London must fall.

Review: After the high that was “A Darker Shade of Magic,” I went into “A Gathering of Shadows” with extremely high expectations. And without any ado, this book more than met those!

Second books in a trilogy are a beast. The stage has been set, the characters established, but the grand finale must be held off. Too many series experience the “second book slump” when these delicate balances can’t be met. Often these books come across as filler, so busy holding back that they never present a story of their own. “A Conjuring of Light” shows how you do a second novel right.

The story itself is simple yet effective. Schwab builds her narrative around an Olympics-like competition of magicians that will be held in Red London, using it as a support on which to overlay the character development of Kell and Lila.

Kell is struggling with his new reality, his life forced tied to Rhy’s. With any harm that is done to him affecting Rhy as well, his freedom has been greatly limited by a King and Queen who fear for their son and heir’s life. Further, while Kell struggled with the awe with which the city’s populace viewed him before, after the devastation left in the Black London artifact’s wake, hero worship has shifted to general fear and distrust. Sensing this growing restlessness and unhappiness, Rhy concocts a scheme for Kell to enter the Games in disguise.

Lila, on the other hand, is living her dream. Through a series of flashbacks, we see the way she managed to con her way onto a pirate ship and slowly ingratiate herself with the charming captain and powerful magician, Alucard Emery. She has also slowly been training as a magician and in true “Lila” style has decided that nothing will due but to also enter the Games as a disguised contestant. Her sheer brazenness and over-confidence is unfailingly charming!

While one of my favorite aspects of the first novel was the report that was built up between Kell and Lila, I found myself equally enjoying this extended period of separation. Schwab drew out the tension, ratcheting up reader’s expectations higher and higher, as she had her two main characters circle closer and closer to one other through their experiences in the Games before finally, and satisfyingly, clashing together towards the final third of the novel.

Through Lila’s lessons with Alucard and the Games themselves, Schwab also greatly expands her magical system. While we heard a lot about elemental magic in the first book, we were largely only exposed to Kell’s specific brand of blood magic. Here, however, the full force of what can be done with elemental magic is on display, and it was fascinating!

Behind the scenes, we also begin to see the stage being set for the grand final conflict to come in the last book. Holland, our favorite Antari villain from the first book, has survived and the Black London magic is yet again in play.

As I said, this book seemed to hit all of the marks as as second novel. Schwab carefully uses this book to add layers to her main characters and give them all room to grow and react to the happenings of the first book (we also get more of Rhy in this story, which I loved). The main story arc advances very little, but the Games serve as an architectural framework upon which to hang this character development, provide action, and expand an existing magic system. And behind it all, the building blocks are slotted in place for the final story.

A warning: this book ends on a massive, MASSIVE, cliffhanger. But despair not! The final book is out, and I will have a review for that up on Friday along with a giveaway!

Rating 10: A rare thing indeed, a sequel that meets the same high rating as its predecessor!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Gathering of Shadows” is included on these Goodreads lists: Thieves and “YA Books with Parallel Universes” (though this book is not a YA title, officially).

Find “A Gathering of Shadows” at your library using Worldcat!

The Great Animorphs Re-Read:#4 “The Message”

366784Animorphs #4: “The Message”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, October 1996

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: It all started with the dreams. But Cassie didn’t pay much attention to them. She and her friends had all been having weird dreams since they’d first learned to morph. Maybe it was just some crazy side effect.

Narrator: Cassie

Plot: Cassie and Tobias have been having strange dreams of the ocean. And when the Animorphs begin to see signs that the Yeerks, too, are showing interest in a specific part of the ocean, they decide they’d better check it out. They morph dolphins, and with the help of their whale friend, they discover a piece of the Andalite home ship sunk to the bottom of the ocean. And even more importantly, there’s an Andalite on board, but not the adult warrior who could lead their team that they’d been hoping for, but a kid, Elfangor’s little brother, Ax. Many ocean hi-jinks ensue including another desperate escape from Visser Three. This book is important because it introduces Ax for the first time, a main character who will be part of the Animorphs team going forward. I always forget how much he brings to the tone of the books and how much is missing in the first three with his absence. But he’s finally arrived! Yay!

Peace, Love, and Animals: This is our first book from Cassie’s perspective. And while Cassie isn’t one of my favorite characters in the series (in all honesty, usually her books are my least favorite), she does get one of the best books of the series. I liked this book so much that as a kid I picked it for a bookclub book (we had a family bookclub with another family and everyone got to pick a book, and I picked this one!)

As Cassie’s little section title implies, most of what we get from her in other books has to do with her pacifist take on the war and her role as the one with the animal connection. Diving into her viewpoint, we get a lot on both of these aspects of her personality. She struggles when she finds herself in a decision maker/leadership role in this book as one of only two Animorphs dreaming of Andalites; she’s clearly much more comfortable as the supporter of the group. But she does rise to the occasion which speaks well of her ability to do what needs to be done to save her friends and other creatures, even if it goes against her own nature.

Secondly, because the morph they use in this book is dolphins, we hear a lot about Cassie’s perspectives on animals. Specifically, here she is concerned that the Animorphs are not any better than the Yeerks in that a large portion of morphing has to do with taming the wild mind of the animal they become, so is it the same, especially when the animal is very intelligent, like dolphins? While I’m impressed that this short little book in this ridiculous sci fi series is tackling deeper issues like this, this same dilemma of Cassie’s is what makes her frustrating for me as a character. There seem to be large holes in her reasoning here, in that they are not taking over the minds of animals that exist independently of the Animorphs themselves. The morphed body is her own body and it does not exist on its own.

Further, we’ve been getting into each Animorph’s personal reason for fighting in each of their books. And here she finds her motivation after learning from Ax that the Yeerks not only arrive on a planet to take over the minds of the primary sentient species, but that they also terraform each planet to resemble their barren home world, destroying the natural flora and fauna. Yes, it’s horrifying what the Yeerks have planned for Earth itself, but it makes me question Cassie that her tipping point was its destruction not, say, the human race being killed and enslaved.

Our Fearless Leader: Jake has a nice little scene with Cassie that reminds us all why he’s such a great leader. She’s in the midst of a mini crisis about having to make decisions for the group, and we get some lovely thoughts from Jake about the way he handles this same pressure constantly. While he is not the decision maker behind this adventure, he is a leader all the same, providing the support needed for a teammate who is struggling. It’s these behind-the-scenes moments of strength and support that really show why Jake is such a natural leader.

Xena, Warriar Princess: Rachel’s not up to much, though it is interesting hearing about Rachel and Cassie’s friendship from Cassie’s perspective. They’re such oddball best friends, but it is clear how they balance each other out. Rachel has the confidence to challenge Cassie and get her moving when she could get stuck over-thinking every decision. But Cassie also brings reserve and caution to Rachel’s impulsiveness.

A Hawk’s Life: While we learn that the Animorph’s believe that Cassie is having these dreams due to her morphing powers (that she is so much better at it and thus more closely connected to Andalites in general), Tobias’s connection seems to only be that he had a deeper connection with Elfangor before he died (foreshadowing!!) Poor Tobias once again gets left out of much of the action due to the obvious: hawks don’t do water.

The Comic Relief: Poor Marco has a rough time, but we’ll get to that in “Body Horror”…But the fact that he can’t swim is a big problem in a book that involves the ocean. His close calls in this book only further cement his wariness about his future involvement in Animorphs missions. He’s still worried about leaving his father alone. But he does concede that after watching Elfangor heroically die trying to distract Visser Three from them, if there is an Andalite in need, he’ll be there. 

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Yay, Ax is here! We only get a bit of him when he shows up in the final third of the book. But his introduction does bring in a bunch of recurring things that will show up in later books. First, the running gag that he calls Jake “Prince Jake” since that is how Andalites address their war leaders. Second, his wealth of information on the Yeerks and space history. And third, the fact that he creates a new morph by combining the DNA of all of the Animorphs. It’s super wacky. It’s like his morph is their group-child or something.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: Marco gets bit in half by a shark! Marco gets bit in half by a shark! It’s as gross as it sounds. As dolphins, the group sees a whale being attacked by sharks and get into a scrap saving it that results in the horrifying image of Marco floating in the ocean with his dolphin tale only hanging on by a few threads of skin. But it does present an important concept about morphing going forward: any wounds that they get while in morph are healed when they de-morph/re-morph since it is all dependent on DNA which isn’t affected by this type of physical damage. Also, the Animorphs discover that the whales can sort of kind of speak? And the whale saves Marco here and the whole group later on.

Couples Watch!: Man, I really forgot how blatant she makes these couples right off the bat! While Cassie and Jake aren’t my favorite couple, they do have several very sweet moments together, including the scene I described earlier where Jake is boosting up Cassie’s confidence. They also have some nice “shared looks” and all of that.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: There’s a scene that’s described here that we never see but I want it now! Apparently, due to his Andalite host body, Visser Three is also having these weird dreams and they’re making him grumpy. So much so that at one point he shoves a Hork-Bajir out of an airlock when he disturbs him. So essentially he’s like Darth Vadar, and you’re going to get Force strangled or shoved out airlocks at any moment if you catch him at the wrong moment.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Poor Ax! The guy’s been stuck at the bottom of the ocean for a month or so now and then when people finally show up to save him he learns that his brother is dead. Stuck on a lonely planet as the only one of his kind, forced into a war he’s not prepared for with a bunch of kids who he doesn’t know and are a different species. Sad times.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: It turns out that the Andalite ship is wrecked out in the ocean quite a ways from the shore. So far, in fact, that one 2-hour dolphin morph won’t get them there. So they decide to first morph seagulls (this is a hilarious morph, by the way, in that they all become food obsessed while in it).

giphy2
(source)

Then they scout out a ship heading in the general direction they want to go and hop on board, de-moprhing to human and hiding out. Then when they get nearer, they jump off the side (forgetting somehow that Marco can’t swim, so he has to half morph a dolphin then get tossed over). Then swim the rest of the way as dolphins. Which…already this is a bad plan. But the biggest problem is HOW ARE THEY PLANNING ON GETTING BACK?? There’s no discussion of this and as it turns out, they end up needing to be rescued by the whale who carries them a large portion of the way back. Pure luck.

Favorite Quote:

Rachel: “First we morph into something like a seagull.”
Marco: “I hate plans that begin with the words ‘first we morph.'”

Scorecard: Yeerks 1, Animorphs 2

Another win for the Animorphs! Managing to swipe Ax out from under the Yeerks’ noses counts as a major win for the team. While they didn’t hurt the Yeerks directly, they gained a friend, comrade, and a team member who knows a whole heck of a lot more about the Yeerks and space history than any of them do! Currently the Animorphs are winning the scorecard, let’s see how long this lasts!

Rating: One of my favorite books that introduces our last main character, Ax!

Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all! But I’ll give a one sentence conclusion and you can take from that what you will!

Serena’s Review: “RoseBlood”

While I make an effort to complete most books I read, every once in a while I come upon one  that I just can’t get through. When I find myself repeatedly putting down a book to the point that attempting to finish it is taking up weeks of my time, I sometimes come to the conclusion that a book is a book, not a life and death contract to read until completion. There are too many books in the world that I will never get to to spends days on end trying to finish a book that I already know will not be my cup of tea. Sadly, one such of these books came across my desk recently.

28818314Books: “RoseBlood” by A.G. Howard

Publishing Info: Amulet Books, January 2017

Where Did I Get these Books: the library!

Book Description: In this modern day spin on Leroux’s gothic tale of unrequited love turned to madness, seventeen-year-old Rune Germain has a mysterious affliction linked to her operatic talent, and a horrifying mistake she’s trying to hide. Hoping creative direction will help her, Rune’s mother sends her to a French arts conservatory for her senior year, located in an opera house rumored to have ties to The Phantom of the Opera.

At RoseBlood, Rune secretly befriends the masked Thorn—an elusive violinist who not only guides her musical transformation through dreams that seem more real than reality itself, but somehow knows who she is behind her own masks. As the two discover an otherworldly connection and a soul-deep romance blossoms, Thorn’s dark agenda comes to light and he’s forced to make a deadly choice: lead Rune to her destruction, or face the wrath of the phantom who has haunted the opera house for a century, and is the only father he’s ever known.

There will be spoilers in this post!

Review: I included this book as one of my highlights in January’s post and even there I expressed nervousness going in. The expectation game plays a large part in books like this. I love everything “Phantom of the Opera,” so this being the case I have a critical eye for stories related to it. And while this was definitely part of my struggle with “RoseBlood,” it was combined with some other flaws to the point that I put it down about two thirds of the way through.

This book tries to do two things with “Phantom of the Opera:” present a sequel while also re-telling the classic tale in the modern day featuring our two teen protagonists. As a sequel, nothing about this book worked for me. Perhaps if had simply been a retelling I could have gotten on board, but as a sequel, the author wrote herself into a corner where she had to re-create and “modernize” the Phantom himself while also providing backstory into the original story that would make it fit with her new version. So the Phantom, Erik, becomes a…wait for it…psychic vampire whose method of feeding is siphoning off the emotions of others. And the way he does that is…wait for it…owning a rave where he shows the audience his face nightly and feeds off their fear. Yes. This is a real thing the book does. I can barely take it seriously enough to type it out.

Next, the author creates a paranormal “soulmates” device (but she calls them “twin flames” because apparently she can’t take the term “soulmate” seriously, but somehow “twin flames” is a more acceptable term?) where not only are our main characters “twin flames,” but so were Erik and Christine in the original story. Only she wasn’t “mature” enough to understand the deep love and soul connection she shared with the Phantom. So, now beyond the ridiculousness factor of psychic vampires who own raves, we’ve got a backstory that completely misses the message of deep tragedy in the original and throws Christine under the bus. The relationship between Christine and the Phantom was never a healthy one, and that was the whole point. Erik’s life was one of such deep tragedy that he was broken as a person, not knowing how to express real love for another or how to exist in society. At no point should Christine have ever stayed with him, and to paint her as an immature character who threw away true love does a huge disservice to the character and to the message of the original story.

So those were my concerns with this book as far as it goes as an adaptation of “Phantom of the Opera.” While I can’t say whether or not I would have continued reading had these been my only stumbling blocks, the fact that the novel as a whole reads as a “paint by numbers” YA fantasy was the final nail in the coffin of my ability to complete it.

In other reviews I’ve discussed some of the over-used tropes that can be found in YA fantasy that now feel so tired that they need to be shelved immediately. But this book manages to hit every single one of them, reading almost like a “Twilight” rip-off with only the aforementioned “Phantom” tie-ins differentiating it.

We have a main character with a ridiculous name who is gorgeous and has a special talent that she was born with but can’t control. She goes to a school that she hates (though it’s in Paris and full of rich, beautiful people), and immediately, through no effort of her own, becomes friends with everyone. The popular girls of school also immediately dislike her because they envy her beauty and talent. She meets a mysterious boy who wears a mask even though he, too, is incredibly good looking (this also felt like a very poor use of a “Phantom” tie-in, again missing the point of original that beauty is found beyond one’s face). She discovers they are soulmates, and they immediately fall in love (no stakes in the relationship, no growing to know, appreciate, and love each other, they’re just “destined”). Powers, magic, an attempt on her life. The end. There was just nothing there.

The unique aspects of this story were the connections to the original, and after they were used so poorly, there was nothing left to grab on to. The fact that the book was also over-written and overwrought with pages upon pages of flowery, descriptive language just really killed any interest I had in the story.

Now look, we here at The Library Ladies try to always include positives. And the positive for this is if you are a reader who truly enjoys the formula I described above, then this book will be great for you. And that’s fine! But, for me, nothing about this story worked. And while there are clearly readers who still enjoy this type of story, I also sincerely hope that we begin to move beyond these overly tired YA fantasy staples. They have been so over-used that they almost feel like a parody of themselves at this point. YA fantasy can do (and be) better.

Rating: DNF

Reader’s Advisory:

“RoseBlood” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Retellings of Classic Novels for Children and YA”and “Phantom of the Opera.”

Find “RoseBlood” at your library using Worldcat!