Serena’s Favorite Reads of 2018: Picks 10 Through 6

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

363010231Pick Number 10: “My Plain Jane” by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

“My Plain Jane” Review

The unexpected companion novel to the unexpected joy that was “My Lady Jane,” this story tackles a re-imaging of “Jane Eyre” with all of the twists, humor, and nonsense that I’ve come to expect from this author trio. The twists pile on top of each other right from the beginning when we are introduced to not only Jane Eyre, a girl who sees ghosts, but her school mate, Charlotte Bronte, a girl who likes to write. What made this unexpected addition all the better, was the fact that I ultimately ended up enjoying Charlotte’s story even better than Jane’s! All of the required pieces from the original are present, but almost only if you squint. And that’s a compliment! “My Plain Jane” feels completely fresh and original, and the fact that these authors somehow pulled this little stunt off for a second time is pretty incredible. I hear there’s a third book “My Calamity Jane” in the works, and you all know I’m already lined up for it even though it’s not slated for publication until 2020.

32991569Pick Number 9: “Jane, Unlimited” by Kristin Cashore

“Jane, Unlimited” Review

Not only do I include this book because it is fully deserving, but I do it in the same mode that I wrote my review: as a service to a book that has been criminally overlooked or DNF’d by fantasy fans who were disappointed that it wasn’t the next “Graceling.” As I said in my review, I understand that reaction (I, too, loved Cashore’s first trilogy), but I also feel that because of the massive popularity of her first books, “Jane, Unlimted” didn’t get a fair shake of it. This book is so completely new, so completely unique, that it’s a true shame that it has gone by so unnoticed. Cashore described her writing experience as trying to essentially create a “choose your own adventure” novel for adults. And it’s that and so much more! This genre-defying story follows the twists, turns, and choices of Jane, an average girl who likes to make umbrellas, as she explores a mysterious house and all of the wonders, and horrors, it contains. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy reading this book, but it left me thinking long after I turned the last page. And now, just re-reading my review, I feel compelled to re-read the entire book to try and remember exactly how this complicated story played out. I’m sure I missed many little nuggets that would be great to discover on a re-read!

25446343Pick Number 8: “Strange the Dreamer” and “Muse of Nightmares” by Laini Taylor

“Strange the Dreamer” Review & “Muse of Nightmares” Review

Can you believe that I read both of these this year?? In my mind, it was FOREVER ago when I read “Strange the Dreamer.” Probably because it ended on a killer cliffhanger that tortured us all until the sequel and conclusion came out this fall. But man, I loved them both. The beautiful writing, the sharp characterizations, the increasingly complex look at what makes up who we are and why we do what we do. Grief, family, love, retribution. It’s all there! Looking back, I think I enjoyed “Muse of Nightmares” even more than the first book, preferring its deep-dive into some pretty dark topics over the heavy focus on romance in the first book. But, of course, you couldn’t have the sequel without the first, and I loved that one as well, so they both get a shout-out and the duology as a whole should be a “must” for all YA fantasy fans.

33555224Pick Number 7: “Thunderhead” by Neil Shusterman

“Thunderhead” Review

Speaking of cliffhangers, beware this next book unless you want to live through the waking hell that is counting down the days until “The Toll” comes out…sometime in 2019? Ugh. I loved “Scythe” and the uptopian world that Shusterman created where people live in a perfect world where death doesn’t exist, except when doled out by a select group of people whose job it is to keep the population under control. “Thunderhead” takes the concepts introduced in the first book and expands them exponentially. We get an even greater look behind the curtain into the corruption that exists in this seemingly perfect system. And our two heroes, Rowan and Citra, are coming at the situation from very different angles: one as a rebel, trying to  blow up the entire system, and the other working from withing, attempting to gather the power and influence necessary to steer the course of the future. The events at the end of this book are huge, effecting not only our main characters, but also the entire world. I have no idea where the story will go from here, but I can’t wait to find out! Soon, hopefully!

35921536Pick Number 6: “The Defiant Heir” by Melissa Caruso

“The Defiant Heir” Review

“The Tethered Mage” came out of nowhere and blew me away, so it was with much excitement that I got my hands on “The Defiant Heir” as soon as possible. And, again, this sequel proved that even good things can get better with time! No mid-trilogy slump here! What I loved most about the first book, and continued to love here, is the incredible female friendship that operates at the core of the story. Not only are Amalia and Zaira cautious friends, though. Their complicated relationship bound up in the restrictions placed on those with magic is being constantly challenged by the different forms of power and restraint they each face. This second book also expands the world out even further and we get a look into the massively crazy power of the Witch Lords whom we had heard about so much in the first book. Amalia and Zaira spend much of the book behind enemy lines and in tremendous danger. It’s definitely a more action-packed take than the more politically-focused first book. The third one comes out in April, and I’m already scheming up ways to get my hands on an early copy!

So that’s ten through six. Next time I will give a countdown of my top five. What have been some of your favorite reads of 2018?

Serena’s Review: “Finding Baba Yaga”

39680799Book: “Finding Baba Yaga” by Jane Yolen

Publication Info: Tor.com, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Netgalley!

Book Description:

You think you know this story.
You do not.

A harsh, controlling father. A quiescent mother. A house that feels like anything but a home. Natasha gathers the strength to leave, and comes upon a little house in the wood: A house that walks about on chicken feet and is inhabited by a fairy tale witch. In finding Baba Yaga, Natasha finds her voice, her power, herself….

Review: I don’t read a lot of novels in verse, but I’ve been a fan of Jane Yolen for quite a while. Pair that with a Baba Yaga story, and I’m in! This was a quick read, and while it took me a bit to really feel invested in the story, in the end, I really enjoyed this interpretation of Baba Yaga and the writing decisions behind presenting it as a story in verse.

The story follow Natasha, a girl running from a very unhappy home. As the cover of the book so beautifully depicts, she makes her way into the woods where she finds a certain house walking about on chicken feet. From there, the modern setting from which Natasha came mixes with the fairytale version of Baba Yaga that readers are more familiar with.

There are a bunch of incredibly strong themes in this book. Natasha, coming from a bordering on abusive home, travels an intense journey of self-discovery throughout the story. Through her, we see the struggles that face those who live in shut-down families, like the challenges to not only find one’s own voice, but even to give validation to one’s own thoughts as valid and worthy of expression. In her “new life,” she must not only tackle these growth areas, but deals with both sides of the emotional coin in loss and love. There’s also a very nice through-line about found families and the strength of connections that can be forged between two individuals who, outwardly, have nothing connecting them.

I also very much enjoyed the poetic style of the book. Like I said, I don’t read a lot of novels in verse. If anything, I’m more likely to pick up a collection of poetry than I am to read a book like this. In the past, I’ve often struggled to feel truly connected to a story that reads like a novel but is told through such a reduced number of words and often presented in challenging formats on the page itself. Maybe this comes from too many poetry classes, but I’m often so distracted trying to analyze line breaks and why a certain piece was laid out on the page the way it was and what that says about the content to maintain a consistent connection with the ongoing story.

I had the same problem with this story, but about halfway through, I was able to get more fully into the action. I think this slow dive in also had to do with the way that Yolen tells her story. Things aren’t all simply revealed from the beginning. Instead, we’re slowly introduced to who Natasha really is, what her life has been, and how the events she’s currently experiencing connects to it all.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s a very short read (not only page count, but word count), so readers are likely going to be able to finish it in one setting. If you’re skeptical about novels in verse, I’d also say that this might be a good introductory piece, especially if you have an interest in fairytales and Baba Yaga in particular (I didn’t get into her much, but I really enjoyed Yolen’s interpretation of this classic character as well!). And, of course, fans of Yolen’s work will not be disappointed by this new entry.

Rating 8: Though it starts slow, the style of the story adds power to the deeper themes it is presenting throughout, such as self-discovery and finding one’s own power in the world.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Finding Baba Yaga” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many relevant lists. But it should be on “Novels in Verse.”

Find “Finding Baba Yaga” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Last Namsara”

32667458Book: “The Last Namsara” by Kristen Ciccarelli

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, October 2017

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

Book Description: In the beginning, there was the Namsara: the child of sky and spirit, who carried love and laughter wherever he went. But where there is light, there must be darkness—and so there was also the Iskari. The child of blood and moonlight. The destroyer. The death-bringer.

These are the legends that Asha, daughter of the king of Firgaard, has grown up learning in hushed whispers, drawn to the forbidden figures of the past. But it isn’t until she becomes the fiercest, most feared dragon slayer in the land that she takes on the role of the next Iskari—a lonely destiny that leaves her feeling more like a weapon than a girl.

Asha conquers each dragon and brings its head to the king, but no kill can free her from the shackles that await at home: her betrothal to the cruel commandant, a man who holds the truth about her nature in his palm. When she’s offered the chance to gain her freedom in exchange for the life of the most powerful dragon in Firgaard, she finds that there may be more truth to the ancient stories than she ever could have expected. With the help of a secret friend—a slave boy from her betrothed’s household—Asha must shed the layers of her Iskari bondage and open her heart to love, light, and a truth that has been kept from her.

Review: This book came out a bit ago, but it’s been lingering around on my audiobook holds list for a while. So when I was looking for a next book to listen to and saw that it was available, it seemed like fate had finally decreed that now was the time! And, really, a book about dragons? ANY time is THE time as far as I’m concerned! But, while the dragons themselves were, of course, awesome, I didn’t end up loving this book as much as I had hoped.

Asha has grown up as a princess, but one who has been shunned by the general public for an accident she caused when young. To make repayment for this error, she has made it her life’s mission to hunt down the dragons that, through breaking her trust, scarred her face and terrorized her city, killing many. With an unwanted wedding swiftly approaching, Asha begins to slowly uncover secrets at the heart of her society and its history that may change everything. But can a cursed girl still be a savior?

So, while this book ultimately wasn’t all that I hoped it would be, there were still some pretty cool elements involved. And first and foremost of those was the world-building and history at the heart of the story. This book doesn’t just plop you don’t in some generic fantasy setting with dragons and call it day. No, instead there is a detailed history that is carefully laid out before readers in interludes between chapters. Not only is this an actual history of events that lead to the society and cultural situation that Asha finds herself living in during this book, but there is folklore and legends incorporated as well, all neatly tying larger themes together. I think I ended up enjoying these interludes more than the actual story itself. They provided a lot of depth to the world itself and crucial layers to the complicated social dynamics taking place, but the writing style seemed also best served by this type of storytelling. Many of these sections had a certain fairytale-like ring to them that I truly enjoyed.

I also loved the dragons. It took a while for them to really show up, and, of course, I was happy when we inevitably got past the “dragons are evil and I must hunt them” stage of things, which we all saw coming from the start. There was a really nice connection again between storytelling and the dragons, and I thought this concept was both unique and played well to the author’s obvious strengths in this area.

But, while it did have those strengths, I had a hard time really connecting with the story and instead found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with Asha herself and the pacing of the story over all. We’re told quite a lot about how badass Asha is, but again and again, the story felt like it was building to a moment where we would actually SEE this badassery come out to play only to have the story pull back at the last minute. Not only did this damage Asha as a character (it became increasingly hard to believe what we were being sold as far as her abilities when she continuously chose the cautious and inactive route), but it really hurt the pacing of the story itself. The tension would be racketed up, all of the players would be in place for conflict, and then Asha would just give up, pass out, not engage, whatever and the whole thing would deflate like a sad balloon. This happened again and again and AGAIN.

Asha was never a driving force in this story. Instead, almost all of the action that takes place to move the plot ahead was done by the characters around her. There was truly only once instance in the very end where we saw her make an active choice, one that wasn’t forced upon her, and by that point it was too little too late. It also takes waaaaaay too long for Asha to figure out certain secrets and reveals that are made very obvious to readers from the beginning. This kind of drawn out “suspense” does nothing but annoy readers who have already guessed and make the protagonist seem like an idiot for not figuring it out, too.

But, again, the dragons were super cool. I also liked that the book was written as a stand alone story, so Asha’s tale is now complete. The author has a companion novel featuring a few of the other characters who were present in this book, so I might check that out. Like I said, the storytelling and writing were strong enough, it was just Asha herself and the pacing that failed. Perhaps with a new tale to tell and new characters at its heart, everything will click together in a second go-around. If you like stories with dragons, this might be worth checking out, but I recommend it with cautions due to the main character and the story’s struggle with pacing.

Rating 5: Half of a positive rating for the dragons/history/world-building and half of a negative rating for Asha/poor pacing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Namsara” is on these Goodreads lists: “Dragons” and “ADULT Fantasy books with stong female leads and a romantic SUBplot.”

Find “The Last Namsara” at your library using WorldCat.

The Great Animorphs Re-Read #42: “The Journey”

363389Animorphs #42: “The Journey”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, June 2000

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The Helmacrons need more power to escape the earth’s atmosphere, so they have returned to demand the morphing cube. When Rachel tries to destroy their ship, the tiny egomaniacs bail — right into Marco’s left nostril. And the other Animorphs have to get them out before the little aliens do some real damage.

Narrator: Rachel & Marco

Plot: We all know the story: a frizzle-haired teacher, a class of students, and a magical school bus that goes anywhere and makes even the most ridiculous things seem fun and cool. Sure, many of their adventures were legitimately cool on their own; who wouldn’t enjoy traveling to all of the planets! But some of them…definitely could have gone another way. And Animorphs is here to prove how!

I mean, I could get worked up. But like the Atlantis book, it’s just so wacky that why even bother?

The story starts off in the normal way: the team returning from yet another battle. But as they demorph in an alley, they are temporarily blinded by the flash of a camera. Some kid has taken a picture of them mid-morph! They chase after him, but he disappears into an apartment complex. The team sets up a state-out and agrees to meet up at Cassie’s barn the next day to discuss next steps.

And from there, it all goes haywire with the sudden reappearance of the Helmacrons. All together in Cassie’s barn, the tiny Helmacron ship reappears and, predictably, is again after the blue box that Cassie has hidden there. Rachel and Marco both lunge to grab the ship before it can get to the box, and in the process, Marco hits his head and falls to the ground. From there, Tobias gets to witness the truly terrible image of a group of Helmacrons marching straight up Marco’s nose.

Now the team is in a real pickle. The Helmacrons have their tiny lasers on them, and there’s a real concern over the amount of damage they could do to Marco if they should start firing inside of his body. So naturally, the only thing to be done is to go in after them! Jake strictly instructs Marco to lay low and not to morph, not knowing how morphing could affect them while inside Marco’s body. They use the Helmacrons’ ship to shrink themselves down to size, and Marco uses a bit of straw to deposit them in his nose.

Insert lovely scenes about snot and walking through snot and burying oneself in snot to avoid a sneeze. Lovely stuff. They eventually come upon the Helmacrons but quickly notice something is wrong: the Animorphs are much, much smaller than even the Helmacrons. They realize that they had been set up and fallen into the trap. Luckily, the Helmacrons are engaged in a bit of a civil war between the genders and aren’t making too much progress with whatever their plan is either. After a few mishaps, the Animorphs and the Helmacrons all end up falling down Marco’s throat and end up in his stomach.

Meanwhile, Marco is getting bored of waiting. He can’t speak to the team, and for some reason Ax is just not updating him on what’s going on. Restless, he decides to go check out the kid’s apartment and try and get a hold of the camera and film. Breaking in doesn’t go as planned and he ends up being bitten by the kid’s pit bull.

In Marco’s stomach, the team struggles to survive being eaten away by the acid, an all too familiar scenario for poor Rachel and Tobias. Cassie morphs a whale at one point and the team huddles on top of her to try and gather their bearings. From there, they witness several Helmacrons die in the acid themselves, but the others manage to slice a whole in Marco’s stomach and make their way out into his blood stream. The team figures that they must be capable of breathing “under water” and determine that the best way to follow would be in shark morph. They morph sharks and all struggle at first with the madness that their close proximity with blood inspires in the sharks’ minds. They follow the Helmacrons out into the arteries. Along the way, Cassie shares “body facts” about what they’re seeing.

Back in Marco’s perspective, things are not going well. He has begun to feel strange, reckless and anxious. He decides to go back to the kid’s apartment once more and try again to get the camera. Once there, he decides that he needs to morph a cockroach. He proceeds to morph.

Inside Marco, the others realize that Marco is morphing and frantically wonder what is going on that would force him to take such a reckless action. They all manage to survive the morph, and immediately thought speak to Marco asking him why he felt the need to risk their lives morphing. Marco responds in a very petulant manner and Rachel begins to wonder what is going on. She knows that it’s not a great situation for Marco, but that he’s never stupid, and morphing with them in his body was stupid.

They finally catch up with the Helmacrons, but they won’t be reasoned with and start firing their guns. Marco goes still. The others are convinced that he has been killed by the internal damage. They manage to get a hold of the laser guns from the Helmacrons and force them to give in. They cut a hole in cockroach!Marco and make their way out. Outside his body, Cassie begins to theorize that it seems strange that Marco would have died as a cockroach, since they are practically unkillable. The team takes turns trying to wake him up before the two hour deadlines expires. At the last minute, he comes to. He morphs a gull, the team climbs on, still holding the Helmacrons hostage, and Marco grabs the camera in his beak on the way out.

Xena, Warrior Princess: Like the Atlantis book was for Jake, and the first Helmacrons book was for Cassie, these books that veer all the way into crazyland tend to be rather dud-like as far as any real character growth goes. But, on the other hand, the last several Rachel books have been more damaging to her character than anything, so maybe I should count this as a lucky miss that there’s practically nothing worth discussing for her here. Sure, there are a couple of moments where we see her dive head first into the action, but even those instances are pretty restrained and not too notable. Towards the end, there are a couple of moments that reflect the deeper understanding of Marco’s character that she has gained from being an Animorph with him. Before, I imagine, he was just her cousin Jake’s annoying friend. Now, she knows him well enough to notice that his defensive and weirdly aggressive responses to why he morphed when Jake had expressly told him not to were out of character for him. She notes that while he can be annoying, he is anything but stupid, and morphing in this instance was stupid. It not only risked the other Animorphs’ lives, but Marco’s own.

Our Fearless Leader: Jake has a few comical moments when he tries to mimic the Helmacrons’ grandiose way of speaking in an attempt to convince them to leave Marco and give up their quest for the blue box. He also shows how comfortable he has become giving members of the team orders, noting in the end that he still needs to talk to Marco about why exactly Marco disobeyed a direct order. This is definitely the type of comment that we’d not expect to hear from early-series Jake who was still struggling to accept his role as a leader, especially when it comes to laying down laws on his best friend.

A Hawk’s Life: Not much from Tobias in this book, which is always a bummer on its own, but is worse in Rachel books where we stand a better chance of getting more from him.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie plays the role of “Ms. Frizzle” in this book and is pretty much giving them a tour of Marco’s insides throughout the story. At one point, she is so caught up in this role that she is essentially evaluating the state of Marco’s immune system instead of paying attention to anything else that is going on. It’s pretty bizarre, frankly. But with a book like this, which is essentially setting out to accomplish exactly the same thing that the Magic School Bus episode was, to teach kids about the body’s inner workings, we would need a character like this along the way, and Cassie makes the most sense. She’s also the one to realize that Marco is likely not dead in the end, noting how difficult it is to truly kill a cockroach.

The Comic Relief: This is a strange book in that it’s another one where we get weird insert of POV chapters from another character’s point of view. Rachel is one of my favorite characters and, not only do I think she gets short-changed in a lot of books, other than Jake, she has potentially the most interesting arc throughout the series to follow. So with that in mind, it’s a bit unfortunate to see one of her books divided between her and another character. But, if I was going to have to pick that character, Marco’s always a good choice. Of course, he’s also weirdly written for most of this as he is suffering from rabies-induced mania for much of it. Even without Rachel noting Marco’s strange behavior, fans of the series, especially this late in the game, are sure to raise an eyebrow at much of the out-of-character decision making we see from Marco here.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Also not much from Ax. On and off, he serves as a communication point to Marco as one of the few members of group who can use thought-speak. But…yeah, other than that.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: Really, most of this book. Unlike the cartoon-y take we get from Magic School Bus, this book tears that cutesy band-aid off right away with overly disgusting descriptions of the Animorphs having to bury themselves in snot to avoid getting sneezed out. It’s pretty disgusting and vaults this book up next to the “Andalite toilet” book as far as catering to middle grade body humor goes. I did not enjoy a return to this level of “entertainment.”

Couples Watch!: Ugh, practically nothing! There was literally one line where Tobias privately thought-spoke to Rachel when they were in Marco’s stomach telling her to morph quickly when she was stuck in the stomach acid. Which can also be attributed to the fact that the two of them already had a close encounter with potentially being digested back in Megamorphs #2. So yeah, as far as romance goes, a pretty big let down here. It’s all the more sad to see knowing how close we are getting to the end.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: No Visser Three in this book! The Animorphs note a few times that they can’t be sure that the Helmacrons aren’t working with the Yeerks, so this is meant to add another level of urgency to their mission, though I’m never quite sure their reasoning makes sense.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Again, I cry at the return of childish body-humor as a form of entertainment. Just…no.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: Kind of the whole thing? I don’t understand what the Helmacrons’ endgame was. How was getting the Animorphs to follow them into Marco really going to accomplish anything? I’m not convinced that all of the Animorphs going in after them was wise, rather than just a few of them. And why oh why the group then chooses to keep Marco completely out of the loop the entire time is beyond strange. Ax should have been updating him the entire time and then when they all morph sharks, they definitely should have been letting him know what was going on. You could make the case that Marco wouldn’t have felt compelled to go after the camera in the first place had he been more in the loop with what the others were up to. Beyond that, I’m pretty skeptical of the whole rabies subplot. How exactly did someone’s pet pitbull end up with rabies? It’s pretty rare for that disease to be found in household pets since most are vaccinated and then rarely would come into contact with the wild animals that would need to give it to them in the first place. And there’s no mention of the fact that, hey, some kid and his family are now LIVING WITH A RABID ANIMAL! And Rachel thinks it’s more important to let Marco question his own sanity for another night than, I don’t know, warn this poor family about this life-threatening situation.

Favorite Quote:

TRUTH:

“You know,” Jake said thoughtfully. “I think this is the most disgusting mission we’ve ever done.”

Scorecard: Yeerks 11, Animorphs 15

No change!

Rating: All in all, a pretty “meh” book. It didn’t enrage me, but I also kind of buzzed through it, not caring at all what was going on. I didn’t enjoy the return of body humor and I was sad to see another book where Rachel doesn’t really have much character progression. For all that we hear about her deteriorating mindset from other characters in their books, it’s a real shame that we don’t see more of it from Rachel herself and how she is coping with these changes. The potential here is gold and it’s so, so wasted. Plus, the whole story was stock full of ridiculous scenarios that don’t make much sense. From the very beginning, it’s clear that this is just a “concept” book that derived from a wacky idea. There’s no good reason for the Helmacrons to be back, or for them to take the actions they do, or for them to give up in the end really and agree to leave. If I think about it too much, I could probably get frustrated with the laziness, but as it is, I’m happy enough just letting this one slide back into cool indifference, lost to memory eventually.

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

Serena’s Review: “Magic Triumphs”

Magic_Triumphs.inddBook: “Magic Triumphs” by Ilona Andrews

Publishing Info: Ace, August 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Kate has come a long way from her origins as a loner taking care of paranormal problems in post-Shift Atlanta. She’s made friends and enemies. She’s found love and started a family with Curran Lennart, the former Beast Lord. But her magic is too strong for the power players of the world to let her be.

Kate and her father, Roland, currently have an uneasy truce, but when he starts testing her defenses again, she knows that sooner or later, a confrontation is inevitable. The Witch Oracle has begun seeing visions of blood, fire, and human bones. And when a mysterious box is delivered to Kate’s doorstep, a threat of war from the ancient enemy who nearly destroyed her family, she knows their time is up.

Kate Daniels sees no other choice but to combine forces with the unlikeliest of allies. She knows betrayal is inevitable. She knows she may not survive the coming battle. But she has to try.

For her child.

For Atlanta.

For the world.

Previously Reviewed: “Kate Daniels Series” and  “Magic Shifts” and “Magic Binds”

Review: It’s kind of a rare and strange thing to reach the end of an urban fantasy series. For some reason, it seems that urban fantasy in particular tends to draw forth series that go on and on. This has obvious pros and cons, but I tend to think that every story must come to an end, and I’d rather that happen on the author’s own terms than any outside factor. And, ideally, before the creativity of the world begins to leak out, something that occurs all too often with long-running series in any genre. So, it was with mixed emotions that I picked up “Magic Triumphs.”

There have really been only two urban fantasy series that I’ve followed for the last several years, the Kate Daniels series and the Mercy Thompson/Alpha and Omega series. My most recent review was from a book in the latter, and oof, it was rough and in many ways serves as a perfect example of the concerns I listed above about long-running series. With that warning in mind, I was pleased to discover that the Kate Daniels books would end with this one, but also…now what do I read as far as urban fantasy? Ah well, a problem for another day.

“Magic Triumphs” opens over a year after the events in “Magic Binds.” Kate and Curran have had their son, Conlan, and he is about a year old at this point. The rest of their lives are going as expected: continuously shoring up allies and points of strength in preparation for the ultimate show-down with Kate’s father Roland that they know could come at any time. And here, of course, it does. But not only that. Of course not only that! A new, mysterious and powerful force has attacked Atlanta, and now Kate and co. have to balance a war on two fronts.

This book was facing a pretty big challenge for me right off the bat: introducing a child character. This is completely a personal preference thing, but I often find child characters in books to have several problems. They’re often annoyingly “precocious” or “twee” and they have the tendency to re-focus all of the story’s action or the main character’s attention to them. Obviously, a new addition like this will impact the story and the main character’s relationships with everyone around them. But all too often I feel like authors somehow end up losing much of what made up the original characterization of their protagonists under this new force and drive.

Luckily, that is not the case here. While Conlan is definitely a new focal point for Kate and Curran and a huge motivation in the decisions they each make, all of the aspects of these characters that we’ve grown to know and love were still present. Kate kicks ass and takes names, but also, adorably, frets about minor issues with her son, constantly dragging him to the Pack doctor for check-ups. Curran is still protective and supportive, with his own plans on how to get his small family through the trials ahead.

There are also all of the many, many, MANY familiar faces sprinkled throughout this book. Honestly, I don’t think I had a full grasp on exactly who everyone was. The cast is so large and some characters have only had large roles in various books throughout the ten book series that I couldn’t quite pin down some of them. But, as far as it goes, Andrews gives readers enough information to catch you up on who is who and why they are important, so I was able to pretty easily just go with the flow for some of this unknowing.

I did like the addition of the new big bad that was introduced in this story. I was pretty surprised that the book even went this route, honestly. The series has been building to the show-down with Roland for books and books now, so I fully expected that to be the primary focus of this story. That made it all the more surprising when that aspect of the story took a back seat through much of it. I was sorry not to get more page time between Kate and her power-mad father, but given the situation that had been built up over the entire series, there weren’t that many options for resolving it that would have made sense, so this new addition and focus seemed to help. There were several other surprises in store throughout the book, including some hidden plans of Curran’s, an introduction to a new group of magical beings, and some pretty disgusting magical threats.

My one critique of the book comes down to pacing. The story starts off fairly slowly, taking quite a while to even get to the point where the main characters even know what they’re dealing with. And then once they do, there is very little page time left to really deal with the fallout of this situation. This then leads to a rather rushed ending and what felt like a bit of a truncated last battle and ultimate resolution. Like I said, the series has been building to this moment, so I wish there had been just a bit more given to it, be that increased page time or maybe just a bit more “oomf” put into the proceedings.

In the end, however, I was very satisfied with the conclusion to this series. I was sad to see these characters go, but I was glad they were able to go out on a high note. For fans of the series, this final chapters is definitely worth getting your hands on.

Rating 8: A bitter-sweet goodbye to what turned out to be an excellent urban fantasy series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Magic Triumphs” is on these Goodreads lists: “NEW ADULT fantasy & paranormal romance” and “Sci-Fi/Fantasy with Healthy Relationships.”

Find “Magic Triumphs” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Julia Unbound”

30634302Book: “Julia Unbound” by Catherine Egan

Publishing Info: Alfred A Knopf, 2018

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

Book Description: Julia has been ensnared in so many different webs, it’s hard to see how she’ll ever break free. She must do Casimir’s bidding in order to save the life of her brother. She must work against Casimir to save the lives of most everyone else she knows.

Casimir demands that Julia use her vanishing skills to act as a spy at court and ensure that a malleable prince is installed on the throne of Frayne. But Julia is secretly acting as a double agent, passing information to the revolutionaries and witches who want a rebel princess to rule.

Beyond these deadly entanglements, Julia is also desperately seeking the truth about herself: How is it she can vanish? Is she some form of monster? Is her life her own?

With every move she makes, Julia finds herself tangled ever tighter. Should she try to save her country? Her brother? A beloved child? Can she even save herself?

Previously Reviewed: “Julia Vanishes” and “Julia Defiant”

Review: I have thoroughly enjoyed this very under-the-radar fantasy series. I knew very little about the book when I picked up the first one, but was quickly taken in by its unique world and a truly strong and complicated main character. The second book then impressed me even more by proving that not all YA series must rely on a “one true pairing!” romance as the emotional core of its story. The stakes were left higher than ever, so I was anxious to discover how things would be wrapped up in this, the third and final book. And I couldn’t be more pleased!

Back in Frayne, several weeks after the events of “Julia Defiant,” finds Julia up against a literal countdown to disaster. Not only is her beloved brother in the grips of the nefarious Casimir, but the political upheaval between the dying King and his cohort of witch hunters and the witches themselves seems to be coming to a head. And at the center of it all, a small child who has been left in Julia’s care and who holds the most powerful magic of all within him. A tangled web has been spun around her like a noose, and it’s slowly tightening.

This book did everything you want to see in a trilogy. Most especially, it took the strengths that had been established in the first two books and seemed to almost perfect them, all while wrapping up a complicated story and resolving the character conflicts that had been left over.

Throughout the series, I’ve liked the complicated world that has been built. Here, the conflict has expanded out to a city-wide, even nation-wide, level as the witches have finally found a rally point in a new heir to the throne who will look with a more friendly eye on their kind and hopefully reduce the persecution they have been living through during the past several decades. But Julia and co. are quick discover that no cause is perfect and that methods can matter just as much as the lofty goals behind them. Through this lens, the story explores topics such as domestic terrorism and political balance. Those who start out as heroes are questioned and those who have been presented as nothing more than villains are given expanded histories. This all leads to delicious conflicts that Julia must navigate. Her extraordinary power makes her a valuable ally to all groups involved, but she is beholden to no one and must come to her own decisions and walk her own path.

I’ve loved Julia as a character from the beginning, and this book really solidifies her as a unique heroine. As I mentioned in my review of the second book, I’ve really appreciated the author’s approach that has allowed non-romantic relationships to come to the forefront as the driving emotional force behind Julia’s choices. Rather than a “one true love,” Julia fights for her brother and the small boy under her care. She also fights for herself. She knows the power she possesses is rare and valuable to those around her. She knows that others will likely try to use her and manipulate her into aligning herself with their own pet causes. But Julia is her own woman.

We get to learn much more about Julia’s own history and abilities. Questions were raised in the second book that serve as a central plot point here. And the answers were surprising and satisfying. She also forms a brief, new romantic relationship. But like the ones that came before, she sees these relationships for what they are: meaningful, but not THE MEANING. There is a particular line that comes in the story where another independent woman, when asked if she needs help before setting out on a mission, responds with “You would only slow me down.” Julia takes this short phrase to heart, setting it as a goal: to be a strong woman who is simply slowed down by others, free to choose her own paths and complete her own goals. It was a refreshing new take on a YA heroine, and I loved her use of this phrase as a personal mantra.

I honestly can’t say enough good things about this book and series. My one complaint, perhaps, is that events are quickly wrapped up in the end. But even that flaw barely registered in my general enjoyment of the book as a whole. As I’ve said, this book has flown mostly under the radar, and it’s such a shame! In a genre that is flooded by novels that often follow fairly tried and true (and increasingly predictable) paths with tried and true (and increasingly predictable) heroines, this series stands alone as presenting something different. Read these books! Read them now!

Rating 9: An excellent finale to an excellent series!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Julia Unbound” isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Fantasy Books about Thieves.”

Find “Julia Defiant” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Stormcaster”

33816845Book: “Stormcaster” by Cinda Williams Chima

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, April 2018

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

Book Description: The empress in the east—the unspeakably cruel ruler whose power grew in Flamecaster and Shadowcaster—tightens her grip in this chilling third installment in the series.

Vagabond seafarer Evan Strangward can move the ocean and the wind, but his magical abilities seem paltry in comparison to Empress Celestine’s. As Celestine’s bloodsworn armies grow, Evan travels to the Fells to warn the queendom of her imminent invasion. If he can’t convince the Gray Wolf queen to take a stand, he knows that the Seven Realms will fall. Among the dead will be the one person Evan can’t stand to lose.

Meanwhile, the queen’s formidable daughter, Princess Alyssa ana’Raisa, is already a prisoner aboard the empress’s ship. Lyss may be the last remaining hope of bringing down the empress from within her own tightly controlled territory.

Previously Reviewed: “Flamecaster” and “Shadowcaster”

Review: This book came out last spring, and yet I’m reviewing it almost six months later. Part of this is due to the way my library holds list played out, and the other part of it almost seems reflective about my attitude towards this series. I just don’t know what to expect anymore, and so, I delay. I loved the original series that was prequel to this one, but that love hasn’t translated well, at least not consistently or evenly. I wasn’t a huge fan of “Flamecaster,” and while “Shadowcaster” was an improvement, it still didn’t reach the highs of the originals. What makes these feelings all the more clear in hindsight is the fact that when I started this book, it took me forrrreeevveerr to remember the details of the story or who some of these characters even were. Not a good sign. And, while I did like this one more than the fist book in the series, I’m also starting to accept the fact that, as a whole, this series might just not be my jam.

Per the usual with the books in this series now, the story opens in the past, then catches up to events that were occurring to other characters during the present of the period that made up the first book and much of the second, and then finally catches up to the last portion of the second book and moves forward. Confusing? A bit. The timeline jumping didn’t help with my general disconnectedness from the larger narrative. Our newest member to the ever-growing cast of characters is the titular stormcaster, Evan Strangward, a character we met briefly in the first book as a pirate who delivered the dragon, Cas, that Jenna has paired up with. (Another example of my confusion and lack of memory of this series: I absolutely did not remember this at all until it was literally pointed out on the page much later in the book. I thought this was a completely new character for most of it. So…yeah, that says a lot, I think). Evan has his own motives and connections to the villainous Empress across the sea, and teams up with other familiar characters. Meanwhile, we check in briefly with our other main characters, including Jenna/Cas, Lyss, Adrian, Lila, Hal, etc etc.

Look, I’ll just say it: there are too many characters for this series to handle well. At this point, Jenna, our main character from the first book and a girl with a literal dragon best friend, has only gotten about 3-4 chapters in the last two books. Adrian, the son of Raisa, was almost gone completely from the second book, but gets a bit more here. Hal and Lila have their own roles to play, and Lyss finally shows up about halfway through the book, but it’s all just too little too late. For one, there are simply too many characters to feel equally invested in them all. This will inevitably lead readers to forming preferences and then facing disappointment in one book or another when those characters have to be pushed to the side to fit in all of the other characters that have been introduced. For two, trying to juggle this large cast while sticking with a reasonable page length leads to corners being cut as far as character development goes. Most particularly, the romance suffers.

This series insists on pairings all of its characters up, and so far I’ve only really been able to buy into one of these relationships, the between Lyss/Hal. And objectively, this is likely due to my preference for Lyss as a character rather than any particular strength of this relationship on its own. Adrian and Jenna suffered from an extreme case of instalove, and we saw another version of that here in the relationship formed between Evan and Destin. One of the biggest strengths of the first series was the slow-burn/development of its main romantic pairing that took place over four entire books. Because this series has so many characters and adds more in each book, every single romantic pairing suffers, if not in the beginning (like the cases of instalove), then as the story progresses (like Lyss and Hal who in this book spend the entire time on opposite sides of the world.)

The story itself also suffers for this large cast. The action often feels reduced and stunted because the book must jump around so often to cover what is happening to everyone in their own little corners. And then in this book in particular, the “big confrontation” that comes towards the end felt a bit subdued and predictable. There were a few exciting moments in it, but ultimately, in an epic fantasy series, it felt more like a small action scene that should have happened in the middle of some book, rather than the grand finale of the third in the series.

There were a few things that still intrigued me here. I still very much enjoy Lyss as a character and was very pleased when she finally turned up. It was good to hear (and see!) more from the Empress and what her motivations/plans are. There are also a few neat scenes where various characters meet up with each other for the first time, and that was particularly enjoyable.

However, ultimately this series is starting to fall prey to what I call “Game of Thrones” syndrome where the concept has started to kill what might have been good originally. Namely, too many characters and POV switches don’t always help a series and can often prove to be detrimental, especially as they continue to build and eventually start overwhelming the story itself. An author is so busy catching up with a million different people and POVs that the story itself begins to feel lost. At this point, I will still finish off this series, but I feel pretty confident that unless there’s a major turn-around in the last book, this won’t be going down as as much of a favorite as its predecessor series.

Rating 6: Stumbles under the weight of its own increasing cast size.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Stormcaster” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists for some reason, but it is on “2018 – Sequels.”

Find “Stormcaster” at your library using WorldCat.