The Great Animorphs Re-read #26: “The Attack”

125335Animorphs #26: “The Attack” by K.A. Applegate

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, February 1999

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The Ellimist has helped the Animorphs many times. He is all-powerful and has only one enemy, the Crayak. In a cosmic showdown, the two enemies choose champions to represent them in a battle to end all battles. The Crayak chooses the dreaded Howlers. The Ellimist chooses the Animorphs.

Narrator: Jake

Plot: I remembered exactly three things about this book:

  1. Crayak shows up
  2. The Howlers have lava skin
Rachel literally says “it’s about time” after it happens. Preach it. (source)

Ever since becoming Controlled way back when and seeing a monstrous eye creature, Jake’s been having recurring dreams with this same eye-force-of-evil that keeps saying “Soon.” Now the answers have came in the form of the always-dreaded Ellimist who shows up at one of their school meetings, freezes times, and tells the Animorphs that he needs their help.

He gives them a brief overview of the state of things. Crayak is a similarly almost all-powerful being with whom the Ellimist has been warring with for forever. Once, they actually had a full on brawl, but after realizing that they took out huge swathes of the galaxy, they both agreed that their conflict needed to be continued in a different way (the Ellimist was upset by the general loss of life, Crayak at the loss of opportunities for continued dominion). Since then, they have been involved in an intergalactic game of chess, essentially. But they’ve come to an impasse. There is one alien species they cannot comprise my on. Crayak wants to destroy this species, the Ellimist can’t allow this to happen. To solve their problem, they’ve decided to host a cage fight, each putting up their seven bets fighters. Winner’s team takes all. The Animorphs are surprised and horrified to learn that the Ellimist has chosen them, plus Erek. Crayak has chosen his Howlers, the alien species that wiped out the Chees’ creators, the Pemalites, so long ago.

The Animorphs debate their options. They all wonder at the Ellimist’s choice: how could they be his best fighters? Knowing him and the tricks he’s pulled in the past, they are suspicious that there is more to the story. On the other hand, the fate of an entire species is on the line, so ultimately, they agree.

In a second’s time, they find themselves smacked down in the middle of an alien city on another planet. The city is made up of a series of buildings, bridges, and stairways all towering miles above the planets surface. It is populate by an alien species that do their best to give the Helmacrons a run for their money as most obnoxious alien species. The Iskyoort are all obsessed with buying and selling random things, up to and including body parts and memories, and continuously badger the Animorphs until they finally decide to sell some of Rachel’s hair to hire a guide…who calls himself Guide.

As they wander, they run into their first Howler. Even with six against one (Erek cannot fight, given his peaceful programming), the battle does not go well. Not only is the Howler vicious and powerful, but he uses his namesake ability to devastating affect, emitting a head piercing howl that cripples most of the Animorphs. Ax, the only one not in morphs, suffers the most and briefly runs away from the battle. He does return, but they all suffer horrific wounds. Tiger!Jake gets stabbed in the neck and passes out. He wakes up in a room somewhere and is informed that they all barely escaped, and only survived by listening closely to Erek’s directions when one of them was about to be attacked. Ax is clearly not dealing well with the fact that he ran away, and is hiding in a corner.

The Animorphs realize there’s no way they will be able to outfight the Howlers, they will have to out think. They ask Guide whether the Iskyoort have any memories purchased from the Howlers that they can review. He says yes, and Erek downloads them all into his memory bank and shows one horrifying scene to the Animorphs, a group of Howlers systematically eliminating a peaceful group of aliens who don’t understand why they’re being attacked. The scene is hard for them all to see. The realize that the Howlers simply kill for the pleasure of killing, something that Cassie is quick to point out doesn’t make any biological sense. Erek reveals that it is becomes Crayak himself created the Howlers with only this purpose in mind.

They sleep in shifts, but are soon attacked again. Jake orders them all to morph small, hoping to outrun the Howlers. Erek manages to block the doorway with his own body to allow them more time to complete their morphs to fly. After they escape, they have Erek find Guide and hide him in his hologram so the Howlers can’t simply follow him to the Animorphs. The others also demorph and hide in the hologram as well. They realize that the rules of the game prohibit the Howlers from attacking the Iskyoorts themselves. Guide leads them to a place he calls the “Servant Guild” where he says they will be taken care of. He then informs them that he needs to leave them for a bit as the Iskyoort are a symbiotic species, and one part, the Yoort, needs to feed every three days in a Yoort pool.

Reality hits: the Iskyoorts are a variation of Yeerks. They force Guide to explain and explain fast. Guide explains that they are not like the Yeerks the Animorphs know. Far, far back in their own history, the Yoorts created the Isk. And to make them true symbiotes, the Isk NEED the Yoorts to live, but the Yoorts also NEED the Isk to live. One cannot survive without the other, thus creating a unified being. Slowly the reality of this sinks in, and with their understanding of the species, they see why this fight is so important to the Ellimist. If the other Yeerks could see this, learn of this alternative, some of them might also see this as a better way of living. If they Iskyoorts are wiped out, however, the Yeerks may continue as they are now forever.

They are then attacked once again by the Howlers, this time they push an airborne poison into the air system, prohibiting the Animorphs from re-using their bug strategy. Jake has Erek project an image of birds flying out one window, drawing the Howlers’ fire, as the rest escape as actual birds through a back window. One Howler, however, spots them and takes off after them, shooting at them with a Dracon beam. Rachel and Cassie both quickly get hit, and Marco a bit later. Jake shouts at the others to use the Iskyoorts as cover. He tries to dive after Cassie, who is stunned on the ground, but realizes that he is simply leading the Howler to her. He is forced to leave her behind.

Jake manages to trick a Howler into chasing him through a hedge that leads to a drop off from one of the bridges. The Howler has miles to fall to his death. Jake manages to drop after him, demorph to human, acquire the Howler, and make it back to peregrine falcon before hitting the ground. On the flight back up, he meets up with Tobias who leads him to the entire group. Everyone is there, including Cassie. THEY KISS. Rachel says “Finally” and all readers agree.

Throughout this all, Jake’s had a series of revelations. First, he realizes that Crayak must have a way of controlling the Howlers, so he can direct them as he chooses. Second, Erek had mentioned that when he downloaded the memories of the Howler, it was ALL of the memories, reaching back millions of years. From this, Jake theorizes that the Howlers have some type of collective memory, and in this collective memory the Howlers have never lost.

Jake then asks for a volunteer to pose as bait to lure the Howlers in. Ax volunteers, and they move to a more populated area, full of Iskyoorts and put the plan in action. Ax wanders out, gets the attention of the Howlers, and then runs, using the crowds of Iskyoorts to prevent them from getting a clear shot at him. Meanwhile, with grizzly!Rachel and gorilla!Marco standing nearby to take him out should things go badly, Jake morphs the Howler. Once morphed, he is bombarded by the same collective memories that Erek saw. Worse, he realizes that the Howlers are children, with lifespans of only three years. To them, they don’t understand anything about killing other than it being a fun game. There are no adult Howlers, and they are all simply created by Crayak, with no reproductive system of their own. Jake is horrified to realize this, but there is still no other choice, so the plan proceeds.

A bleedy Ax barges into the room, followed by the Howlers. The Animorphs grab one, and using the Iskyoort memory device (a headset and a transmitter), Howler!Jake begins to download his own memories into the collective. All of the Howlers pause. Then suddenly they disappear. Seconds later, the Animorphs, too, disappear and find themselves in the presence of Crayak himself. Crayak isn’t pleased, but the Ellimist shows up and confirms that they Animorphs one, the Iskyoort will live. Jake searches his Howler memories. As they planned, Crayak had to kill his own Howlers to prevent Jake’s memories from polluting the entire species, not allowing the childlike Howlers to ever realize that this was more than a game, that their kills were actual beings. But Jake spots one memory that slipped through: his kiss with Cassie.

The Ellimist confirms that this will be problematic for Crayak, as in a future battle, he’s seen the Howlers attempting to kiss the species they were sent to kill. He also confirms that the big win of this entire ordeal was that the odds have now been somewhat increased that 300 years in the future, the Yeerks will meet the Iskyoort and realize that there is another way. The Animorphs are all a bit put out that this is all they will have to show for their work. Jake goes home, and his dreams of Crayak are gone.

Our Fearless Leader: It’s great to finally get the tie-in to Jake’s book #6 when he was a Controller and first saw the super scary red eye. From the very beginning, it’s clear that Jake feels a sense of relief knowing what this is really about, and also understands to a greater degree than the others the power and awfulness of this creature.

As I discuss in the “plans” section below, this book does a lot to highlight Jake’s quick thinking and ability to put together a complex plan using only pieces of knowledge. He also is able to anticipate the needs and actions of his group. He comments early that he’s grown to respect Marco’s suspicions and give them extra weight.  He effectively uses Ax’s adherence to military order to force him not to sacrifice himself when the Howlers attack, saying that he has to follow his Prince’s orders. He anticipates that Rachel will volunteer for the mission to pose as bait and is able to subtly warn her off, allowing Ax to volunteer. When Cassie goes down as a bird, he accepts that he has to leave her behind in order to draw away the Howler to save the entire group, even though this decision tears him apart.

It’s really great stuff all around. And particularly the end, when he has to confront the reality of the Howlers as children, we see the weight these decisions place on Jake and how he leans on his friends to help support him in making these choices.

Xena, Warrior Princess: There are a specific kind of Iskyoort whose who point is to shop (Guide explains that there must be people to buy all of the things they want to sell!). She claims that she has found her people: a species dedicated to shopping. Also, when Jake asks for volunteers for the dangerous mission to lure the Howlers to them, he has to quickly catch Rachel’s eye and subtly shake his head. She already has her mouth open to volunteer, when he spots her, but she quickly understands what he’s doing by giving Ax an opportunity to feel better about himself after running.

A Hawk’s Life: Tobias doesn’t have much in this book. He’s the most comfortable traveling around the city though, given his ability to fly. The others are quite perturbed by the heights and lack of railings that make up the world.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Besides the BIG KISS, Cassie provides further insights into violence and how out of whack with evolution and biology the Howlers are with their baseless violence. She is also an early “yes” vote in the discussion of whether or not to play the Ellimist’s game, as she sees the potential loss of an entire species as a nonnegotiable factor.

The Comic Relief: Marco suffers quite a bit of damage in this book. He gets hit badly in the first fight, gets a wing blown off in the second, and gets stabbed in the third. Other than that, the struggles to not be bitter and angry about the limitations of Erek’s programming that prohibits him from fighting.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Ax has a pretty distinct arc in this book, dealing with the fact that he is forced to run away when they are first attacked by the Howlers. He completely retreats into himself, and when the Howlers attack again, looks to want to go on a suicide mission to attack them, to prove to himself that he is now a coward. For the first time ever, Jake has to pull the “Prince” card out.

<Aximili-Esgarrouth-lsthill, you call me “prince” and you act like you mean it and I am giving you a direct order. Morph. Do. It. NOW!>

Later we see how savvy Jake is when he “offers” the opportunity for someone to take on a super special, super risky mission to serve as bait. Jake also takes the time to have a one-on-one conversation to Ax, telling him to snap out of it and cut himself some slack. The other Animorphs were all in morph and they know that the Howlers’ “howl” is meant to take out sentient species. That being the case, Ax, as the only one in his true form, was the only one hit with the full force of the howl. And given how much it messed up the others, even with their morphs shielding them somewhat, Ax running away was by no means a show of cowardice. Ax is skeptical, but it’s clear that some of this gets through to him, and with the opportunity to lure the Howlers in, by the end of the story, it looks like he makes it through this internal crisis OK.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment:  The gore of the fights with the Howlers was pretty bad. In the first fight, Jake describes gorilla!Marco getting hit by a flechette that pretty punched a hole the size of a pop can through him. Also when Jake is morphing the Howler, there are some lovely descriptions of his being able to see his own spine. Really, the Andalites need to work on this technology a bit more. It seems that morphers have an up-close view of their body without skin WAY too often in the process.

Couples Watch!: Um, obviously the kiss! I do like that the kiss itself played an important role in the story, as the one memory out of millions that slipped through into the Howlers’ group consciousness. This fact did help alleviate the problem that it really did feel like a “Finally!” moment in the the worst way. As I mentioned in a few reviews leading up to this, especially when laid parallel to the pacing and arc of the Tobias/Rachel romance, Jake and Cassie’s relationship has felt oddly lacking. It almost didn’t feel believable that they would have still been caught up in the teenage shyness and silliness after living the very traumatic and adult lives they’ve had to with this war. But, again, by tying the kiss into the actual over-arching theme of the book, Applegate does a good job of justifying the delay. It is implied that Cassie and Jake’s love is the firs step to the ultimate ruin of the Howlers.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: I don’t think I made either of these connections as a kid, but re-reading this book now, it was really hard to picture both of the big bads in this without referencing other, similar villains. Crayak might as well BE Sauron for all his descriptions sound exactly the same: big read eye that is on fire. Yep! The Howlers also are very similar to Predator, not so much in how they look (which I still think is super cool, with their dark lava-like skin), but in their general being that is focused on being the most efficient killers in the universe.

I also really loved the late-game reveal about the Howlers being children. For one, they were already awesome villains and were handily beating our heroes throughout most of the book in a way that we’ve never seen before. But then to realize that they are pretty much ignorant of what they’re truly doing? It’s like they think they’re in a very elaborate video game or something. And that they have no life outside of this game and are only kids, just like the Animorphs, but more sad, in that their lives are only 3 years long and they are just tools of this greater evil. It does a lot to “humanize,” as it were, the Howlers, making them not just mindless killing machines, but truly pitiable and almost tragic beings.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Appelgate doesn’t shy away from the reveal around the Howlers being children. Several pages are given to Jake fully coming to grips with what this means, and to Cassie’s horror. And to the fact that they still have no choice but to go through with a plan that’s success lies on Crayak destroying the remaining six Howlers. The very last bit of the book is what really got me though:

Instead I dreamed about Cassie. But in my dreams I also saw that Howler, falling and falling beside me. Falling still, as I spread my wings and split my fate from his.
Marco’s always saying you choose how to see the world. That you can look at what’s funny and cool, or you can focus on all the things that aren’t.
So I tried to follow Marco’s advice. I tried to turn my dreams to Cassie. But even looking into her eyes, I still saw that doomed Howler falling.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: All of their plans are pretty good here! Jake adeptly pivots and shifts as he gains experience with the Howlers’ methods. He quickly understands that simple survival is the key until they work out a better plan of action, coming up with first the fly morph to escape, and then the bait-and-switch with Erek’s hologram as they escape as birds. He also puts quite a few moving pieces together to form the final plan where they essentially hijack the Howler group mind.

Favorite Quote:

Throughout the story, there’s a lot of descriptions of precarious traveling from one level to another level using railing-less stairways miles in the sky, so Marco is a bit upset to learn:

Guide led us to a different level. This time we went up. And this time
we took an elevator.
“Elevators! You have elevators?” Marco raged. “We’re traipsing up and
down stairs and you have elevators?”
<The elevators are much
less scenic,> Guide said. <What value are memories of the inside of an elevator?>

Scorecard: Yeerks 6, Animorphs 12

A bit point to the Animorphs! Obviously they weren’t up against the Yeerks themselves, but in 300 years…But seriously, the Howlers were probably the toughest guys they gone up against yet, and the Animorphs were quite smart about putting together the one plan that would work to come out with a win.

Rating: I didn’t notice as much as a kid, but man, reading these again as an adult, it is so, so clear when you go from one of the ghost-written books back to one written by Applegate herself. Not only is the plot of this story so much more focused and clear, but the characterization is much more solid, and the series gets back to its roots of tackling the bigger moral and philosophical aspects of their ongoing battle. It’s such a breath of fresh air after the last few books.

Beyond that, this book is a solid installation into the series. We finally get an explanation for the red eye that Jake saw so long ago. The Ellimist shows up again, and we get a better idea of the sheer scale of his ongoing battle with Crayak. AndJake and Cassie finally kiss. FINALLY.

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: “The Heart Forger”

33918881Book: “The Heart Forger” by Rin Chupeco

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, March 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

Book Description: In The Bone Witch, Tea mastered resurrection―now she’s after revenge…

No one knows death like Tea. A bone witch who can resurrect the dead, she has the power to take life…and return it. And she is done with her self-imposed exile. Her heart is set on vengeance, and she now possesses all she needs to command the mighty daeva. With the help of these terrifying beasts, she can finally enact revenge against the royals who wronged her―and took the life of her one true love.

But there are those who plot against her, those who would use Tea’s dark power for their own nefarious ends. Because you can’t kill someone who can never die…

War is brewing among the kingdoms, and when dark magic is at play, no one is safe.

Previously reviewed: “The Bone Witch”

Review: Due to happy scheduling chances, I was able to read “The Bone Witch” and “The Heart Forger” pretty much back to back. Not only is this always a fun way to read books and their sequels, but it’s especially nice with stories that have complicated world-building and non-linear storytelling. “The Bone Witch” was a beast of a book, with tons of detailed descriptions of the world, magic system, and a past/future POV character. The “Heart Forger” pretty much picks up immediately after the events of the first book, and doesn’t hesitate to expand even further on its own world, while also adding a healthy dose of increased action to the mix.

Newly-minted bone witch, Tea, has a lot on her plate at the start of this story. Her beloved mentor is still slowly perishing due to her lost heartglass, Tea’s brother’s love life has presented some political complications, her own crush on Prince Kance continues, there’s a murderous woman in the dungeons who promises great power and to reveal secrets about the elder Asha if only Tea would listen, and now a sleeping sickness is making its way through the royal family, in a direct line towards Kance himself.

This says nothing of the future Tea’s story, which has gone from zero to sixty from the last book to this. No longer is the older Tea content to live her life banished on a desolate beach, raising her daeva beasts from the dead. Her mission has started, and alongside her newly-raised beloved, Kalen, she sets out to conquer nations, all in a greater quest whose origins and purposes are still only vaguely hinted at.

Between all of this, the increased action is probably the most notable aspect of this sequel. If there was one fairly common complaint about the last book, it was that it was perhaps a bit too slow. I enjoyed it quite a bit, as I like reading books that focus on detail and slow character development. And given this one’s fast-paced story line, in retrospect, the time and effort that was put into place laying the foundation for this world, this conflict, and the characters who take part in it, were well worth the effort. Our characters quickly travel from one location to another, surviving and battling against multiple city-wide sieges and more slinky, sinister hidden antagonists as well. I particularly loved the increased action for Tea’s dragon-like daeva. It  was all very “Dany and her dragons” esque.

The political intrigue was also ratcheted up to a new level. With the sleeping sickness spreading between the royal families, tensions are high and everyone is looking for someone to blame. And the only man who might have the answer, the titular Heart Forger, is no where to be found.

In the future, an older Tea is fully committed to her plan, whatever that is. From what we (from the bard’s POV) can tell, it looks a lot like raising armies of the dead to attack entire countries. We get further insights into Tea’s vengeance, something about secrets that the elder Asha have been hiding, and a larger plot by this world’s ever-dangerous arch enemies, the Faceless. But for all of battles, both large and small, we still know very little about Tea’s reasons as a whole. There are numerous references to her having killed some woman, but we don’t know who this was or how it happened. In the end, there were almost too many question left unanswered for my taste.

One of the things I most enjoyed was the developing romance between Kalen and Tea. At the end of the first book, we saw Tea raise him from the dead and welcome him as her beloved. But at the start of this book, the younger Tea is still fully enthralled with Prince Kance. Her slow realizations about her feelings for Kalen and their relationship’s progression were very enjoyable and probably best took advantage of the solid foundation that was built between these two in the first book. I really dislike insta-love romances, and this was a particularly good example of how to avoid that, and instead have a strongly built and developed romantic story line.

For all of these good things, I did struggle with this book a bit more than the first one. For one thing, the first book spent a lot of time with all of the details and rules of this world. But then, here, we see numerous exceptions and loopholes built into the world, all seemingly used to simply move the story the way the author needed it to go. At best this was distracting as I tried to work out how these exceptions made sense in the larger scheme of things, and at worst it felt like blatant deus ex machina moments where the author’s hand was all too visible.

Further, there were a few characters who made decisions that seemed completely nonsensical and out of character even. In particular, some of the “revelations” in the future story line really seemed at odds with the characters. People keeping secrets for no reason, and then revealing them when the story would be best served for a dramatic moment. But why then keep them in the first place? I have a hard time when suspense is built in a story at the expense of consistent and rational characters

And, while I still enjoy the juxtaposition of the future and past story lines of Tea, the devise itself is starting to feel like its hindering the story. The secrets thing that I just mentioned is largely a problem because they’re needed to prop up the suspense of the future story line. And, by the end of the book, there are still too many question that were left unanswered. The older Tea has said several thing that sure, sounded cool, but don’t particularly tie-in very well to the events taking place with past Tea. In my opinion, the story has out grown this structure and that trying to maintain it was starting to actively work against this book. I hope that in the next the two story lines quickly meet up and we move forward with a single plot.

All in all, however, I still very much enjoyed “The Heart Forger.” The increased action made it a fun read, and now that the characters have all been established, it was a joy to follow all of their individual plot lines. Further, the romance between Tea and Kalen is one the best I’ve read recently. “The Bone Witch” is required reading for this book, but if you liked that one, than you’re sure to enjoy this one as well!

Rating 7: Action packedwith a sweet romance to boot, but became a bit bogged down by its own writing device with the past/present dueling story lines.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Heart Forger” is a newer title, so isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Asian MG/YA 2018.”

Find “The Heart Forger” at your library using WorldCat!


Serena’s Review: “The Queen of Blood”

25036395Book: “The Queen of Blood” by Sarah Beth Durst

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, September 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: ALA 2017

Book Description: An idealistic young student and a banished warrior become allies in a battle to save their realm in this first book of a mesmerizing epic fantasy series, filled with political intrigue, violent magic, malevolent spirits, and thrilling adventure

Everything has a spirit: the willow tree with leaves that kiss the pond, the stream that feeds the river, the wind that exhales fresh snow . . .

But the spirits that reside within this land want to rid it of all humans. One woman stands between these malevolent spirits and the end of humankind: the queen. She alone has the magical power to prevent the spirits from destroying every man, woman, and child. But queens are still just human, and no matter how strong or good, the threat of danger always looms.

With the position so precarious, young women are chosen to train as heirs. Daleina, a seemingly quiet academy student, is under no illusions as to her claim to the throne, but simply wants to right the wrongs that have befallen the land. Ven, a disgraced champion, has spent his exile secretly fighting against the growing number of spirit attacks. Joining forces, these daring partners embark on a treacherous quest to find the source of the spirits’ restlessness—a journey that will test their courage and trust, and force them to stand against both enemies and friends to save their land . . . before it’s bathed in blood.

Review: This is another book that I snagged after getting to meet the author waaaaaay back at ALA 2017. Seriously, this is how long it takes me sometimes to get to books, even ones that I know are going to be amazing! Book scheduling, I tell you! There are trials and tribulations there. I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about! Anyways, I’ve read a few other books by Sarah Beth Durst, and while some of them have been misses, overall, I enjoy her writing style and her strong female characters. When I heard her speak about this book, I was struck by the completely original fantasy world setting and another heroine who sounded bad ass but also real and flawed.

In Daleina and Ven’s world, everything around them is made up of spirits set on destroying them. Air, water, fire, ice, tree, and earth, all wanting nothing more than to create with abandon and destroy humanity. The people’s everyday existence is one fraught with a balancing act that is delicate and completely dependent on the strength of the land’s Queen, the only person with the power to hold this malicious, wild strength in check. And when a 10-year-old Daleina’s tree-top village is destroyed, and only her small family is saved by her own  burgeoning powers, Daleina’s life changes forever. Now she must work to prove her worth and her ability to become a Queen’s heir, one of many powerful young women who must be ready at a moment’s notice to step into the role as Queen should anything ever happen to their ruler. Alongside her, Ven, a disgraced champion, will work to stave off a looming disaster that has been slowly revealing itself over the years when the Queen’s power seems to slip, as happened with the destruction of Daleina’s beloved home.

As I remembered hearing when Durst spoke at ALA, there are quite a few things that make “The Queen of Blood” standout in the vast expanse of “Queen of something” books that proliferate fantasy fiction nowadays. First off, as I stated, is the world-building. I loved the exploration of this world that we get through this story. The entire civilization seems to live in the trees, with only brief time spent on the ground (it’s more dangerous on the ground level). The Queen, and to a lesser extent, the other young women who train as heirs, all have control over the spirits and, through them, are able to manipulate the vegetation and trees to grow into elaborate structures and bridges. For long distances, a terrifying, but thrilling-sounding, wire system is set up for travelers to hook onto and speed through the trees.

I was pretty much picturing Lothlorian from “Lord of the Rings” the entire time.

The spirits themselves were equally beautiful and terrifying sounding. There were the expected descriptions of several spirits looking vaguely human-like, beautiful, and wispy. But there were others made up of animal aspects, or simply the elements themselves. There was one particular earth spirit that sounded especially terrifying, and another bird-like air spirit that sounded pretty awesome. But beautiful or otherwise, it was endlessly clear that all of them were wild, capricious, and only just contained from unleashing disaster on everything around them.

The other unique portion of the story is the way that it unfolds, both as a story and with its characters. The book begins when Daleina is only ten years old and concludes when she is near her 20s. To manage this, there are several significant time jumps ranging from only a few months to up to five years. But all of these jumps are done with care and each time, the characters and story are re-introduced with such precision and detail that it’s not jarring at all. I actually really loved this entire concept, as we got to experience Daleina and Ven’s entire existence over this fraught period of time. Particularly for Daleina and her schooling. Through these jumps in time, we get to see Daleina’s entire progress from completely untrained young girl to soon-to-be heir and grown woman. We see the steps of her process, but never linger too long on the ins and outs of her day-to-day life. It’s a difficult balance to strike: getting enough information in each glimpse to never lose sight of characterization and story, but also not getting too bogged down in any particular period of her life.

The characters, too, were both unique. Daleina, as the main character, was particularly well-rounded. She is the opposite of the “special snowflake/chosen one” and it is made clear that all of the accomplishments that she makes are through sheer determination and hard work. The hard work and training, in particular, are over and beyond what the other students must put in as Daleina doesn’t have the natural control or power over the spirits that the others do. I especially loved that the author never stepped back from this. Daleina never suddenly powers up or “discovers” some new unique thing about herself. She continues plowing forward in the face of many telling her that she can’t, and even in the face of her own understanding of her limited abilities comparative to her peers. Further, while she must work to find her own strengths, she doesn’t mope or become jealous of those around her. Instead, the story is made up of Daleina forming strong and powerful friendships with the other women around her.

Ven, our secondary lead character, was also quite a unique character to find in a book like this. For a story that seems to largely read like YA fantasy, Ven is a middle aged man who meets a young Daleina when he is already at the height of his skills. Throughout the story, and his own disgrace and redemption, Ven’s story is one of a mentor and grown man who is having to confront the realities of those he has always esteemed. Given his age and role in Daleina’s life, there is never a hint of romance (thank god), and instead a strong, steady mentorship bond is built and explored. I was there for all of this!

Throughout this all, Durst never backs down from the harsh realities and consequences of the world she’s built and the story she is telling. The action is built on true danger and violence, and no character is safe from the fallout of these fights with the spirits. The last third, in particular, took some pretty crazy and brave turns, as far as storytelling goes. I was honestly shocked by the follow-through on some decisions (in a good way!) and the ending was definitely not what I expected.

This book, and series, seems to have been skating along largely unnoticed and that’s such a shame! Durst has built an extraordinary world and peopled it with compelling and flawed characters whom you can’t help but root for. I strongly recommend it for any fans of fantasy fiction!

Rating: I loved it! The storytelling is bold and riveting, taking surprising twist and turns and committing to the tale that is unfolding.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Queen of Blood” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “YA Female Rulers” and “Gender Is No Object” Second-World Fantasy.”

Find “The Queen of Blood” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Rosemarked”

29346927Book: “Rosemarked” by Livia Blackburne

Publishing Info: Disney-Hyperion, November 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

Book Description: A healer who cannot be healed . . .

When Zivah falls prey to the deadly rose plague, she knows it’s only a matter of time before she fully succumbs. Now she’s destined to live her last days in isolation, cut off from her people and unable to practice her art—until a threat to her village creates a need that only she can fill.

A soldier shattered by war . . .

Broken by torture at the hands of the Amparan Empire, Dineas thirsts for revenge against his captors. Now escaped and reunited with his tribe, he’ll do anything to free them from Amparan rule—even if it means undertaking a plan that risks not only his life but his very self.

Thrust together on a high-stakes mission to spy on the capital, the two couldn’t be more different: Zivah, deeply committed to her vow of healing, and Dineas, yearning for vengeance. But as they grow closer, they must find common ground to protect those they love. And amidst the constant fear of discovery, the two grapple with a mutual attraction that could break both of their carefully guarded hearts.

Review: I was very excited to receive a copy of this book in the mail for review. I had seen it bouncing around on a few review sites, but generally it seemed to land fairly unnoticed. Which, now having read it, is quite a shame! “Rosemarked” is a powerfully simple story of invasion and colonization, hope in the face of loss, and the resilience of two characters who are set with an impossible task.

Zivah, a young healer, finds herself with the unwelcome task of caring for a troop of Amparan soldieres who fall ill with the dreaded rose plague while passing through her home. While her people have arranged a peaceful treaty with these forces, their lands is still regularly plundered and their people harmed. But Zivah knows her duty. She saves as many as she can, including the commander of the guard, but finds herself now cursed with the plague herself, doomed to die in a few years when the fever returns. But her life is not over. She finds herself drawn into a plan to infiltrate the Amparan capital to better learn what their plans are for her homeland. Now, alongside Dineas, a young solder who only recently escaped the dungeons of the city he now marches back towards and who still carries mental and emotional scars from this time, Zivah has a chance to use her knowledge of poisons and healing to save her people.

The story is told with alternating view points between Zivah and Dineas. This worked particularly well due to the vast differences in not only their personalities, but also in their life experiences and how these have shaped their worldviews. As a healer, Zivah struggles with her new reality, doomed to a short life in which even her vast knowledge cannot save her. Further, as she is highly contagious, her entire vocation has been lost to her. In this new mission, she is asked to bend and manipulate her own oaths as a healer to do no harm. What is “harm” when the balance is between individuals and nations? Where is the line when using her knowledge of herb lore and poisons?

Dineas, too, has a powerful arc throughout the story. After his time in prison, he is too broken to return to the capital as he is, not able to put on the performance necessary to convince the Amparan soldiers that he is one of them. Instead, Zivah uses a complicated potion to take away his memories. With this act, the story ultimately ends up with three characters: Zivah, original Dineas, and the Dineas who has no memory. This new Dineas, freed from his memories of torture and hatred, forms a close relationship with the healer who “saves” him. However, as their mission continues, the old Dineas must be brought forth routinely to report on what new Dineas has seen. This leads to much inner confusion and tension as he imposes his own memories, fears, and prejudices onto the actions and emotions of a self who has been freed of his difficult past. Both versions of Dineas’ are soldiers to the core. But through their two perspectives, one jaded and one naive, they each struggle with the harsh realities of warfare and the knowledge that soldiers on either side of any war are ultimately people themselves, with their own loves and lives.

The rose plague plays a large part in this story, not only through the massive impact it has on shaping Zivah’s now shortened life, but in the portrayal of this world as a whole. The plague kills the majority of those it touches. A small few recover but are doomed to live solitary lives in plague villages, waiting for the return of the fever that will claim them. And an even smaller number recover completely, the rose-colored marks on their skin browning, resulting in their being known as “umbertouched.” Through Zivah’s eyes, we see the half-life that those left with this in-between portion of life are forced to live. Cut off from society, the rosemarked are shuffled out of sight into grimy, lawless colonies, similar to a leper colony. They can not interact with loved ones, for fear of passing on the disease. And they have no future, living only on borrowed time. What’s worse, for the majority of them, society prefers to pretend they simply no longer exist. Zivah, and all the others she meets who are rosemarked, are living life in a very different want than the average person. They know their time is limited, and with this in mind, their mental calculus of risk and reward is very different.

Also, for a fantasy novel, there was practically no magic in this story. Really, other than the fact that it is set in a made-up world that is pestered by a fictional plague, this book could read as historical fiction. I quite enjoyed the lack of magic in this story, and the slow, methodical way the plot plays out. The story is simple and straightforward, relying heavily on the strength of its two central characters and their individual arcs throughout the book. For some readers, this may read as a bit slow and dull.  But for readers who enjoy character-focused stories and who can appreciate a fantasy novel with very little magic, “Rosemarked” is definitely a book worth checking out! It’s the first in a duology, with the second, “Umbertouched” set to release next fall.

Rating 7: A character-driven story that perhaps lacks depth, but still touches on important topics of vocation, one’s role in the world, and the horrible decisions that ongoing warfare brings upon a people.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Rosemarked” is a newer title and isn’t on many relevant Goodreads list, but it should be on “Best Fiction Books About Diseases or Viruses.”

Find “Rosemarked” at your library using WorldCat!

The Great Animorphs Re-read #25: “The Extreme”

Animorphs #25: “The Extreme” by K.A. Applegate

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, January 1999

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: It’s time for the Animorphs to acquire some cold-weather morphs. The Yeerks are at it again, and they’re causing trouble near one of the coldest places on earth: The North Pole.

Narrator: Marco

Plot: So, all I remember about this one is that somehow, someway they end up at the north pole. And they were very cold. And that was much of the story.

The Animorphs in this book. And also me, reading this book. Um, spoilers? It wasn’t my favorite. (source)

The story opens with the usual listing of what’s really happening, we can’t tell you our names, etc etc. But, more importantly, Marco has a date. With Marian. The hottest girl in school. But unfortunately the date is for a trip to the orchestra. Worse, Marco discovers about halfway through that he is thoroughly not  into the orchestra. So much so that he falls asleep and Marian ditches him. At school, as he is regaling Cassie with the tale of his terrible date, when Erek, the friendly Chee, shows up. Never a good sign. He informs them that the Yeerks are trying to set up a Kandrona ray broadcast system using satellites which would allow them to turn any ordinary swimming pool into a  Yeerk pool.

The Animorphs all meet up with Erek at Cassie’s barn to discuss their plan. The Chee don’t know the location of the Yeerk base that is working on this project, but they do know Visser Three plans on visiting it soon and the location of his new feeding pasture. The plan is obvious: they need to hitch a ride with Visser Three from this pasture on the way to the site. But they still don’t know the location of the base, so to deal with what might be a prolonged absence, Erek and three of his Chee friends agree to pose as Marco, Jake, Cassie, and Rachel while they’re gone.

The next day they fly to Visser Three’s meadow, spot him, and one-by-one land in the woods surrounding him. They then morph fly, and Marco notes that they waste half an hour trying to find each other in the meadow cuz fly senses aren’t that great. Per Ax’s knowledge, the decide that the best way to intercept Visser Three without him seeing is to fly up beneath him and try and land on his underbelly. They all manage to land, and Visser Three boards his ship. As they get ready to depart, they overhear some bad news: the flight time will be 3.5 hours long.

As they contemplate what to do, the Bug Fighter lands in the Blade ship. They overhear Visser Three ask if all of the Venbar are on board, and Ax becomes very excited, only to then say he must has misunderstood. Time passes, and they wait, still on Visser Three’s belly while he works on his computer in his personal cabin. Marco passes the time by telling terrible jokes, but eventually they decide they need to do something to allow them to demorph. Ax, using his best Visser Three impression, yells out for guards to come into the cabin. He does this a few times, each time resulting in Visser Three becoming more irate at being interrupted. Finally, he becomes so mad that he charges out of his room and the Animorphs bail off him.  They quickly demorph and try to remorph, but Marco highlights how exhausting the entire process is, comparing it to a 200 yard dash. Everyone gets through but for Ax and Marco when a Taxxon barges into the room. Ax takes it out with his tail blade, but now they have a problem as it will be clear that something else happened here.

All now back to flies, they buzz out of the room. They plan to head to the storage bay, hoping it will be empty, when Visser Three returns, sees the Taxxon, and calls for guards. They manage to make it, but Cassie notes that the Yeerks know about their bug morphs and could flood the place with insecticides, so they all demorph. Marco quickly notices a long line of tall cylinders each containing some type of new alien, ones with silver bodies slashed with streaks of red and blue. They’re all frozen. Hesitantly, Ax says they look like Venbar, but that they have been extinct for thousands of years. The most notable thing about them was the fact that they lived on an ice moon in below freezing temperatures.

They feel the ship landing. Marco wonders why Visser Three would land, knowing the “Andalite bandits” are trapped on his ship. They morph their battle morphs. As they land, three of the bay doors  open: they are surrounded by Hork Bajir warriors and Visser Three himself. Marco realizes that the fourth door hasn’t been opened, and that’s the door to the outdoors. They guess that Visser Three won’t fire lasers in the room for fear of hitting the canisters, so Marco goes for the control panel to the door outside while Rachel slams into the nearest canister. As he frantically tries to pry open the door, tiger!Jake is overwhelmed by Hork Bajir, and wolf!Cassie is thrown past him, obviously injured. Rachel finally mages to break open a canister, releasing the freezing mist that freezes any body part of the Hork Bajir it touches. Marco gets the door open, and they all bail. Visser Three calls for the ship to take off, but the manage to jump out when it is only 20 feet up. The Blade ship, following Visser Three’s orders, continues to rise.

They land on ice in the freezing air. Quickly, those who are injured try to demorph and remorph. Gorilla!Marco’s skin sticks and peels off on the ice. Tobias spots a base or town in the distance, and tries to morph himself, his hawk body not handling the cold. But before he can, he collapses. Rachel grabs him and curls herself around him as she re-morphs grizzly. Above them, the Blade ship heads for the base. Still, they know they need to get out of there. They take off running, but don’t get very far before Ax starts to stumble. Without good cold weather morphs, Jake tells Ax and Tobias to morph fleas and hide in Rachel’s fur. The remaining four continue to run. Throughout it all, the cold bites and hits them all hard. Marco begins to become confused and disoriented.

They find a cave and do an assessment. None of their morphs are equipped for this level of cold, but wolf!Cassie and grizzly!Rachel are managing. Marco slumps to the floor, his thoughts becoming muddled. The others frantically try to get him to demorph, and he only comes to when grizzly!Rachel punches him in the face. They decide that the wolf morph is best, so the other three join Cassie in that form. Cassie says they may be able to use the wolf morph to survive, but they’re barely functional and will need to avoid fights. Looking out of the cave, they spot a pair of the Venbar sliding around on their ski-like feet. They realize that the Venbar are using echo-location to find where they are. The Venbar turn towards them and fire canon like weapons, bringing down the cave walls around them. The Animorphs take off, running along the shoreline of the half-frozen ocean.

After running for almost their allotted two hours, the manage to lose the Venbar and proceed circling each other as they, one-by-one, demorph and remorph. They continue on their way, desperately looking for shelter as it begins to get dark. Behind them, every once in a while, they get a whiff of the Venbar still following them. Suddenly they get a new scent: a polar bear. They continue to run, with the polar bear meandering to their side, but eventually they decide they need to stop for the night and dig themselves a snow lair. Overnight, they continue their miserable rotation of demorphing and remorphing.

As they wait through the night, Ax tells the history of the Venbar, how they were wiped out by another race called The Five, who then also disappeared to history. He theorizes that the  Yeerks have been able to retrieve some frozen DNA from Venbar corpses and combined it with other DNA and used it to grow the Venbar now chasing them. Even more disturbing, Ax suggests that it is likely human DNA that was used as a patch.

The night is terrible, and only the morphing ability which restores them to full health each time, saves them from freezing to death. Morning comes, and outside they spot the polar bear out on the ice fishing for seals. Starving, they do what they have to and gorge themselves on the remainders of the bear’s leftover seal. After eating they spot a pair of baby seals, ideal cold-weather morphs. Cassie and Marco morph dolphin and quickly nab one of the babies for the others to acquire. They all morph seal and relish in finally being warm.

Suddenly the Venbar turn up and start shooting. As they all flop towards the sea, they realize that the Venbar must have seen them morphing and now know the truth about them. They now have two choices, not allow the Venbar to return to the Yeerk base or destroy the Yeerk base itself. As they swim towards the base, a pair of orca whales attack. Chaos ensues, but the Animorphs manage to get back on top of the ice and demoprh into less-appealing meals. But as they’re standing on the ice, they realize that an Inuit man has been watching them from his boat. He asks whether they are animal spirits.

“My grandfather used to talk about animal spirits all the time. I just thought he was crazy.” He spun his finger around his ear in that universal gesture of insanity. “But I always told him, ‘Yeah, that’s right, Grandpa.’ “

What follows is a very bizarre scene with the Inuit guy (Derek) thinking the Animorphs are animal spirits, handing them seal skins to wear, and discussing how mad he is at the “Star Trek guys” who are shooting the seals with lasers. Turns out he knows quite a lot about the Yeerk base and the space ships he’s seen there. Also doesn’t seem to think much of conversing with an alien (Ax) and a talking bird (Tobias.) What’s more, Derek has been following around Nanook (the polar bear) for days and can lead the Animorphs back to him. Grizzly!Rachel and gorilla!Marco go in together to try and subdue the polar bear and manage to pin it to the ice so the others can acquire it. After this action, Derek just takes off and they all morph the polar bear.

They make their way back to the base once again, just as a storm winds up. Darkness begins to fall and they sneak up on the base. The Venbar are working away on building the satellite, but they don’t see Visser Three’s Blade ship anywhere. They slowly sneak towards the base, until a woman finally spots them and raises the alarm. Another Controller shouts to program the Venbar to attack quadrupeds. The Venbar attack, nearly taking out Jake and Tobias, but also opening a convenient “door” in the wall of the hanger that the rest pile through. Ahead of them, they see what remains of the Venbar that went through the wall: it was a biological computer. In the warmth, the Venbar chasing them desolve, but they follow their programming and continue to come in. Boarding a Bug fighter, the Animorphs watch as all of the Venber destroy themselves. They demorph. Ax takes the flight controls and Marco covers the guns. This isn’t the first time they’ve been in a Bug fighter, and it helps them fly this one now. Using the ship, they destroy the satellite and the entire base.

As they turn to fly away, the see the Blade ship moving to intercept. They fly as far as they can south, then set the ship to auto-destruct and fly away as birds. It takes them two more days to finally get home, flying and hiding out on trains and trucks. Back home, Marco luxuriates in a lot of hot showers.

The Comic Relief: Well, this was a dud for a Marco book. Up to this point, Marco books have been some of my favorites. Not only is his internal voice one of the strongest, but he has a good point of sustained drama and emotional tension with the situation with his mother as Visser One. Here, not only did we get none of that, but the story itself didn’t play to Marco’s particular narration strengths. In fact, this book wouldn’t have played well to ANY of their narrative strengths. There was simply no heart to it. Marco’s telling of this story could have been anyone’s telling of this story: it was cold and it sucked. The end. The one real moment of “Marco-ness” we got, other than some of the jokes in the beginning about his date, was when they were realizing they would need to eat a seal to live:

If I had to be the jerk in this situation, that was fine. I was used to it. I was usually the first one to state the obvious, no matter how ugly it was. Just call me Mr. Ruthless.

This was a pretty good character beat, and in line with what we know about Marco. Too bad it came from such a nothing moment.

Our Fearless Leader: Jake comes up with his usual good plans, remains the steady leader they need, and notably has a few self-sacrificial moments. When they first end up in the cold, Jake lasts the longest in his tiger morph, never complaining even though he was suffering as much as the others. When they attack the base in the end, he fights off the Venbar with Tobias as back up telling the other to go on without him. They are small moments, but good ones to show how well Jake holds up even under the most strange of circumstances.

Xena, Warrior Princess: Early in the book, when they’re first escaping the Blade ship amidst all of the freezing gas, grizzly!Rachel walks into the mist to save an unconscious wolf!Cassie, and when she walks out…she leaves a foot behind. First of all, yes, this is another great example of Rachel always being the first to sacrifice herself to save her friends, braving anything to get to them. But also…WHAT IS WITH RACHEL LOSING PAWS IN HER BEAR MORPH! I swear, this is at least the third time it’s happened. First, in book #7 when they attack the skyscraper with the Kandrona. Second, in Megamorphs #1 when she has amnesia. And now again, here!! And I can’t remember if she also lost a paw during the jungle craziness in Jake’s book #11? Either way, this seems to happen to her a lot!

Also, Rachel…and polar bears…and now all of the sobbing.

A Hawk’s Life: Tobias, with Ax, ends up spending the majority of this book in flea morph. Which just raises the question about why more of them didn’t do this. Have maybe two of them stay as wolves for the two hours, the rest go flea, and then alternate. Seems like this would limit the time each member would actually need to spend in the freezing cold.

In the beginning of the book when they’re all in battle morphs on the Blade ship, it’s starting to feel more and more ridiculous that Tobias’s “battle morph” is his original hawk body. I mean, really? It made sense when he couldn’t morph, but now that he can it’s just crazy that he wouldn’t use something with more fire power in moments like this. Particularly after this book, he’ll have a polar bear morph to use and yet he’ll continue with the hawk. It’s just weird.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Early in the book, when they’re all morphing on the Blade ship, there’s a mention to Cassie demorphing from her fly morph in a matter of seconds. This seems like an error (I’m going to start blaming ghost writers for everything, now that that’s at thing.) Yes, it is referenced that Cassie morphs more quickly, but I don’t think that it went down from 3-4 minutes to her being able to do it in a matter of seconds? But maybe I’m wrong.

She also has this to say in the face of Marco’s skepticism about whether or not she’d be on board for eating seals:

Do you guys think I’d put an animal’s life over yours? Or mine, come to think of it?”
“I don’t know,” I started to say.
“You don’t know? When did you start thinking I was some kind of fanatic? We’re freezing, we’re starving, and I’m going to go all tree-hugging, never-eat-anything-with-a-face on you?”

It is a nice sentiment, and it does make sense for her. But there have been books in the past where she seems to have this EXACT thought! I can never quite get a feel for where her moral lines really are. They seem to change quite a lot from one situation to another with little explanation. It makes her unpredictable and also a bit less real seeming, as if her character is just there to present whatever moral lesson is needed in whatever moment.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Ax recognizes the name “Venbar” when they hear Visser Three mention it on the Blade ship, but then doesn’t inform the others about it until much later. Presumably to build tension in the story, but it mostly just reads as false. Jake would immediately call him on it and get him to explain. Later, when he does explain, this turns out to be a subject that he did pay attention to in school, and he is able to give a pretty thorough history of the species.

The best part for Ax (and arguably the entire book) is the running gag joke between him and Marco about Ax’s tendency to refer to time as “your minutes.” Two examples:

“Ax, I really think you can just deal with the fact that they aren’t our minutes. They are everyone’s minutes.”


“About twenty minutes,” Ax replied. “Of your minutes,” he added, with what I swear was deliberate provocation.

It’s a joke that has come up repeatedly throughout the series, but they really go all-in on it in this book, and it plays pretty well. Especially in a book that really is a snooze fest in most other ways.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment:  There were actually quite a few disgusting moments in this book. Marco’s bird morph early on describes his fingers growing back out of his shoulder blades and twitching around back there. Ick. And then when the Taxxon walks in on them in the Blade ship and Ax swipes it with his tail blade, we get a lovely description of it eating its other half. And then later, the description of the polar bear hunting the seal pulls no punches. It catches the seal through a hole, but the seal won’t fit back up, so…shredded seal. Very gross.

Couples Watch!: At one point, Marco blatantly calls Tobias and Rachel’s relationship out, when flea!Tobias is, according to Marco “all nice and warm in his honey’s back fur.” Rachel is shocked, but Marco shrugs the whole thing off, noting that it’s not like it’s a big secret. More examples of the fact that Tobias and Rachel’s relationship seems to be more of an accepted thing than Cassie and Jake’s ongoing awkward flirt-fest.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl:  First thing of note: when they’re on the Blade ship in Visser Three’s quarter, he has a collection of torture equipment on his walls. Cuz of course he does.

Second, it seems like a huge miss that he let the Blade ship even get close to landing when he was trying to trap the Animorphs in the loading bay. How many times have they escaped him by jumping out of windows? You’d think he’d learn his lesson on this by now.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: The baby seals of the dead mommy seal the polar bear kills!! Though the moment does, again, provide Cassie an opportunity to highlight her inconsistencies. Because here she says a very nice bit about how you can’t feel bad for the deaths of baby seals without feeling bad for the deaths of baby polar bears and baby whales who would die without hunting them. Right, yes, that makes sense Cassie! Tell me again about the part where Tobias was terrible for killing a baby skunk? I WILL harp on this until the last! #NeverForget #NeverForgive

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: 

Basically this:

We had a plan. The four fateful words that usually end up meaning a lot of yelling, screaming, mayhem, and madness.

Most of their plans were fine here. I mean, there’s no way they could have known about ending up in the north pole, so I’ll give them a pass on this. I still think they could have managed the cold better with more people going flea, but who knows, the psychological bit about being more alone in the cold for the one or two who had to remain as wolves might have been even harder.

Favorite Quote:

“No, no, no votes,” I said. “Jake decides. Then if it goes bad we can all blame him.”

They’re all pretty good about not blaming Jake for decisions, but as we’ve seen in other books, there is a distinct element of panic when he’s not around to make calls for them.

Scorecard: Yeerks 6, Animorphs 11

For all that I thought the book was a dud, and the fact that the majority of their time is spent shivering in caves, they do manage to take out the satellite Kandrona system that would have turned all pools of water in Yeerk pools. This is a pretty major win. Too bad it’s couched within this story.

Rating: Not great. I remember liking this book more the first time around. Probably because as a kid, adventures in the north pole sounded exciting enough for me. In this re-read though, I was majorly bored for much of the time. Which is really surprising for a Marco book, as he is usually able to salvage other duds of story lines purely on his strength as a narrator. But, really, no narrator is going to make hours of sitting around freezing entertaining to read about. Beyond this, I’m more bummed that we didn’t get more pages devoted to their return journey! It took days! They had to have run up against some adventures there, and it’s really the first time we’ve seen them run into a major time issue with their missions. So it seems like a huge missed opportunity. Remember, they’re still kids, for all of this war stuff. And now they have to “Homeward Bound” it all the way back to their city!

I also question the use of the Inuit man who shows up. I don’t quite know how to feel about it. It kind of walks the line on some offensive stereotypes about animal spirits, but I don’t think it crosses it. It also seems strange that the Animorphs wave it off so easily that he knows the truth about them being humans. The guy has clearly been snooping around the Yeerk base since he knows all about it. Chances are good he’s going to get caught one of these days and infested. So it seems like a weird inconsistency that this was swept aside. Further, the whole point of meeting him was so that he could lead them back to the polar bear. As they’ve run into the polar bear multiple times on their own already, there’s absolutely no point of this! They could just run into him again, since he’s nearby. Just remove the guy altogether and you lose any question marks about representation or inconsistencies with their secret.

All in all, this was my least favorite Marco book yet. I did still like some parts of it, but overall, it was pretty boring, giving me too much time to fixate on little things.

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: “Olivia Twist”

34817232Book: “Olivia Twist” by Lorie Langdon

Publishing Info: Blink/HarperCollins, March 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Olivia Brownlow is no damsel in distress. Born in a workhouse and raised as a boy among thieving London street gangs, she is as tough and cunning as they come. When she is taken in by her uncle after a caper gone wrong, her life goes from fighting and stealing on the streets to lavish dinners and soirees as a debutante in high society. But she can’t seem to escape her past … or forget the teeming slums where children just like her still scrabble to survive.

Jack MacCarron rose from his place in London’s East End to become the adopted “nephew” of a society matron. Little does society know that MacCarron is a false name for a boy once known among London gangs as the Artful Dodger, and that he and his “aunt” are robbing them blind every chance they get. When Jack encounters Olivia Brownlow in places he least expects, his curiosity is piqued. Why is a society girl helping a bunch of homeless orphan thieves? Even more intriguing, why does she remind him so much of someone he once knew? Jack finds himself wondering if going legit and risking it all might be worth it for love.

Review: I’ve only read the original “Oliver Twist” once and it was quite a while ago, so I was intrigued when I ran across this gender-swapped retelling of the classic tale. However, in the end, I felt a bit misled by the book description and had a few problems with the characterization of our leading lady.

Olivia grew up on the streets and it is only through a chance of luck that she now finds herself leading the life of a society lady. But even here, amidst the gossip and sparkle, she can’t escape her past. Especially when said pasts presents itself polished up in a dashing suit and shooting her wicked grins. Jack MacCarron is more than he seems, and his history with a younger “Oliver” is only the start of what will tie these two’s future together.

What I did enjoy about this book was the writing style and historical setting. I’m particularly prone to enjoying books featuring lords and ladies circulating around ball rooms and snarking wittily at each other. The story was also quite fast paced, jumping into the action mere pages into the story. Olivia and Jack are introduced to each other very quickly, and through some well-placed flashbacks, readers are able to begin putting together their history. What also makes this fun is Olivia’s extra knowledge of their shared past, as she was only known to Jack then as a young boy named Oliver. From what I can remember from the original book, the author also does a good job at tying together the two stories in creative and sometimes unexpected ways.

However, I had a lot of trouble with a few aspects of the book. My biggest problem was not being able to suspend my disbelief about the situation that our two main lead characters find themselves in. Somehow, magically almost, both are raised on the streets but then easily slip into lives as gentry after only a few years. What’s more, they are welcomed in with very little struggle or gossip. Part of my problem with this could be the same fast-paced-ness that I praised above. In the very first chapters we’re introduced to Olivia, a lady now living the life of a society woman. But then in some quick flashbacks, we see the abject poverty and limits of the world she grew up in until she was a pre-teen. And yet, there was no evidence of this in her current manner as a lady.

I don’t want to go all “My Fair Lady” on this, but…really? Not only would I have found Olivia’s story that much more compelling had her arc included more about the ongoing struggles she had to face living this life full of politics and rules, but it was frankly unbelievable to see her navigate the ins and outs of a society that was notorious for confusing and strict rules of conduct. Many other historical fiction works set in this time narrate on and on the challenges that even women who grew up to this life encountered when living life in public society. To simply buy that Olivia, a woman who grew up without an education, without parents, and, what’s more, as a boy, would be able to simply fall into this role was just too much to swallow. The same goes for Jack, to a certain extent, but as the rules are less strict for men of the time, I was able to let this go a bit more.

My second major criticism comes with the first line of the book description and the reality we are given. Right there, in the very first sentence of the summary, we’re told that we’ll be getting a character who is not a damsel in distress. The reality is exactly the opposite. In the first few pages, we get a very unfortunate reference to the “beauty leads to rape” myth when a man instructs a midwife to raise Olivia as a boy since if she turns out to have the looks of her mother, her life will be more rough. That alone is pretty bad. But as the story goes on, Olivia repeatedly makes terrible decisions, finds herself threatened with attack and assault, only to be saved by Jack. This happened repeatedly. Not only do I never appreciate repeated threats of sexual assault as a driving force in any story, but to combine that with the first chapter’s reference to it being at all affected by a woman’s beauty and the fact that we were promised the exact opposite of a damsel in distress in the book summary, makes the whole thing very upsetting.

This all added up to a fairly disappointing read for me. The romance and chemistry between the two leads was charming, and I still enjoyed many aspects of the historical setting. But I couldn’t get past the suspension of disbelief issue or my increasing dismay with regards to the use of assault as a plot point and Olivia’s role as a repeated victim in need of rescue. I do think this book will still appeal to many other readers, perhaps those looking for a bit more of a fluffy romance read, but unfortunately it wasn’t for me.

Rating 5:  The intriguing concept and strong romantic chemistry weren’t enough to distract me from an unbelievable leading damsel who too often found herself in distress.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Olivia Twist” is a new title and so isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “2018 YA Historical Fiction.”

Find “Olivia Twist” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Cruel Prince”

26032825Book: “The Cruel Prince” by Holly Black

Publishing Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, January 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: bought it!

Book Description: Jude was seven years old when her parents were murdered and she and her two sisters were stolen away to live in the treacherous High Court of Faerie. Ten years later, Jude wants nothing more than to belong there, despite her mortality. But many of the fey despise humans. Especially Prince Cardan, the youngest and wickedest son of the High King.

To win a place at the Court, she must defy him–and face the consequences.

In doing so, she becomes embroiled in palace intrigues and deceptions, discovering her own capacity for bloodshed. But as civil war threatens to drown the Courts of Faerie in violence, Jude will need to risk her life in a dangerous alliance to save her sisters, and Faerie itself.

Warning: This review contains a lot of ranting, and because it’s so popular on Goodreads and other places, I know this will be an unpopular opinion. But it’s mine. It doesn’t have to be yours and, while I think that even those who like this book deserve better, especially as far as the romantic interests go, everyone’s tastes run differently! And that’s ok! That’s why we have libraries packed full of options for everyone! But if it’s hard for you to read negative opinions on things you love (which I totally understand), it’s probably best to just pass on this review now.

Review: This was one of the few books that I broke down and bought without having read it before. Sadly, it is also further reinforcement for why I have that general policy to begin with. But I was beguiled by the beautiful cover and a book description that was right up my alley. Perhaps also the hype, which really should have been my warning sign, as I’ve found that very few books that are super hyped in the fantasy YA community these last couple of years actually turn out to be my cup of tea. Alas.

As I said, there is a lot to love in this book description. I’ve always loved stories about Faerie courts. I also love stories about sisterhood. And, of course, political intrigue. What should have been my warning was the concept of the cruel prince himself, Cardan. My bookclub comrade, Alicia, was also reading this book when I was and asked what I thought about this book when I was only 50 pages in or so. At the time, I said that I was enjoying it but that the main character had better not get together with the titular “cruel prince.” And Alicia just looked at me and laughed. Well…yeah…touche, I guess!

I like to try and say positive things about all books I review on here, and this book in particular seems to be getting a lot of raving reviews, so I know there must be things here that many people are liking. But honestly, I just don’t see it. The writing was technically good, I guess, and the Faerie court was appropriately capricious and beautiful, but that’s about all I have.

Though even with these aspects, Black wasn’t introducing anything we haven’t seen a million times before with fantasy like this! Yeah, yeah, beautiful food that is actually rotten. Faerie folk who have animal aspects like hooves and wings. Dancing. Mermaids. And this speaks to one of my first problems: the world-building and storytelling. If an author is going to write a Faerie court book, the fact that there a million others out there should serve as a motivation to put extra effort into plotting and characters. You already know you’re playing in a very full sandbox as far as the world itself, so you need to challenge norms in other areas. Unfortunately, Black does not. Instead we get a long checklist of YA tropes being ticked off one by one.

This book is a case study in “telling, not showing” writing. We are simply informed of most of the plot points with very little build up, no clear arc, and characters who behave and say things simply because they must, but without any written character support for their choices. We’re told that Jude wants to be a Fae Knight, and there is some hand service to her wanting to gain power, but none of this is set in any concrete character position that we are consistently shown throughout the story. At one point early in the book, we get to this grand tournament, an event she’s been training for her entire life and where she can exhibit her skills…and I’m pretty sure we get this exact line: “I fought harder than I ever had before.” End scene. Great. She’s a fighter whose been telling us for pages how important this all is and how much she’s trained (again, we’ve seen none of that) and then the moment comes! And we’re just told she fought hard.  How intriguing! I’m definitely invested now! It’s sheer laziness of writing and the kind of things that drives me crazy.

And this bland writing is paralleled in bland characterization. Throughout the entire book, I never understood Jude. What’s really important to her? Why did she do one thing here and another there? How is she growing, learning, and reacting to pretty big events happening around her? There was just nothing consistent going on with her character that readers could latch on to.

What’s more, most of her story is directly contrary to the message that I thought this book was going for, and the one thing that could have really given Jude depth as a character. She saw her parents murdered before her eyes and then was raised by the man who killed them and in a land where she and her sister are systematically abused and terrorized by those around them. This is the set up for a strong story of resilience and of reclaiming one’s own power. At its most basic level, you could get a pretty good revenge story out of this.

But no. Jude is every YA heroine we’ve ever read. We’re told she’s bad ass, despite never seeing it.  She makes horrible decisions with apparently no sense of self-preservation, and worse, no sense of the fact that her choices also result in harm to others. We’re told she’s terrified by those around her, but she still wants to be one of them. She’s thoughtless and impulsive, with no foundation to speak of that would explain why she does what she does when she does it.  Her thoughts on Faerie and its people are completely dependent on what the story needs her to do, or feel, next.

With all of this, Jude’s own Stockholm-syndrome-esque behavior and her sister’s passive victim hood, I thought the book was building up towards some sort of commentary on the effects of bullying, terror, and abuse. But nope. There’s nothing there: like the Faerie food, it looks beautiful and complex, but at its core, it’s nothing. It’s honestly confusing. Was this just a coincidence, that the author set up all of these factors around abuse and victim hood? Did she do it on accident while trying to write a fairly typical YA fantasy story? Because, as it stands, its as if she honestly didn’t realize that that’s what she had written for all of the attention its given.

And, worst of all, we have yet another YA love interest who is the epitome of abuse and bullying. And I am absolutely sick of this persistent and pernicious trope of authors creating a character who does despicable things, giving him “a past,” and then hand-waving away his own behavior (especially if he’s done it because secretly he’s kind of into the heroine). This is not a message we should be sending to young women. Yes, people can survive terrible things, and often those who commit them had darkness in their past. But they are still responsible for the terrible things they do, and while you can pity the circumstances that brought them to that point, they ARE NOT love interest material. They need help. Professional, practical, and ongoing help.

I’m completely fed up with this, and it is disheartening to see it continue in YA fantasy books and have those books receive rave reviews. In a year full of #metoo and terrible stories about women being subjected to horrendous behavior by men in power, the fact that we are still reading about YA heroes who outright abuse the heroine but are then presented as potential love interests just makes me sick. This is not ok. Even the final twist of the book doesn’t save this from what’s been set-up: multiple love triangles between victims and their bullies.

Ultimately, this goes down as my first major disappointment of the year. I’m not sure why this book is as hyped as it is or how it is receiving all of the positive reviews it is. At best, it’s presenting a pretty familiar story with all the elements we’ve come to expect: a story that is told to us, not shown; a heroine who has no clear characterization and whose decisions are nonsensical at best and outright stupid at worst; and a love interest who has no right being a love interest at all. I don’t recommend this book. Instead, if you want to read an amazing Faerie court book that’s come out recently, check out “An Enchantment of Ravens.”

Rating 2: A major disappointment. I expect more of YA fantasy. And, at this point, we have a responsibility to those who suffer from real life abuse and bullying to put away this notion that cruelty in any form, for any reason, can be “sexy” or “charming.”

Reader’s Advisory:

I’m not going to include the lists it is on, but if you’re looking for good Faerie court books, check out “An Enchantment of Ravens” and “Wildwood Dancing.”

Find “The Cruel Prince” at your library using WorldCat!