Serena’s Review: “Dark of the West”

32949202Book: “Dark of the West” by Joanna Hathaway

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, February 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Netgalley

Book Description: Aurelia Isendare is a princess of a small kingdom in the North, raised in privilege but shielded from politics as her brother prepares to step up to the throne. Halfway around the world, Athan Dakar, the youngest son of a ruthless general, is a fighter pilot longing for a life away from the front lines. When Athan’s mother is shot and killed, his father is convinced it’s the work of his old rival, the Queen of Etania—Aurelia’s mother. Determined to avenge his wife’s murder, he devises a plot to overthrow the Queen, a plot which sends Athan undercover to Etania to gain intel from her children.

Athan’s mission becomes complicated when he finds himself falling for the girl he’s been tasked with spying upon. Aurelia feels the same attraction, all the while desperately seeking to stop the war threatening to break between the Southern territory and the old Northern kingdoms that control it—a war in which Athan’s father is determined to play a role. As diplomatic ties manage to just barely hold, the two teens struggle to remain loyal to their families and each other as they learn that war is not as black and white as they’ve been raised to believe.

Review: I’m pretty sure I came across this book just by browsing through NetGalley one day and being intrigued by its rather simple cover. The fact that I couldn’t really guess what it was about based on the cover was mystery enough (this is a fun little game if you’re a book lover and have too much time on your hands: the match the cover with the general synopsis game). Then I read the description and became even more intrigued. Spies, and royalty, and…wait…fighter pilots? One of these does not go with the other!

The world is teetering on the brink, torn between a past that was ruled by a council of kings and queens who all regarded royal blood as the necessary component in leadership in their various countries, and a new world that, built on the back of technology, would suggest that leadership and charisma, regardless of the birthright of the one who carries these traits, are all that is needed. If the people follow you, your family history means nothing. Aurelia and Athan each come from opposing sides of this political stand-off. Aurelia has grown up a princess, confident in her place in the world, if still struggling to find a path forward that will fulfill her. Athan has had his life’s plan laid before his feet by his ambitious military leader father since the day he can remember. Neither fully understands the complicated history and political environment they have been thrust into, but in each other, they find a kinship that is as unexpected as it will be challenging.

This book took my so happily by surprise! Even with the book description, I had very little idea what I was getting into (part of the appeal, of course), so I turned to page one with a bit of hesitation. But immediately I was drawn in. For one, the writing in this is so solid. The very first chapter had me convinced that I had made the right choice in picking this one up. It’s one of those parts of reviewing books that I find most challenging: how to explain exactly what it was about the writing style that appealed to me.

For one, the book is a shared dual narrative between Aurelia and Athan. The challenge here, of course, is to effectively differentiate the voice between two characters who should read very differently. And right away, this is expertly handled. I think I ended up preferring Athan’s narrative style, but this potentially could have to do with his story being the one with the larger scale view of happenings in mind. Aurelia spends much of her time much more out of the loop. But either way, their voices were immediately distinct and their characteristics informed the way they spoke about and looked at the events unfolding around them.

From a more basic level, the writing is varied and complex. This is the weird part of evaluating writing where one feels tempted to start talking about the extent of the vocabulary used or the sentence structure. Again, not too sexy of a topic for book review material. But these are the kinds of things that you know when you see them, that make a book immediately pop out from the very first few pages.

All of this emphasis on writing is very important for a book like this. It’s a longer title and, as far as action goes, it’s a slow read. There’s a lot of complicated political and military tactics that are discussed, hidden, and revealed throughout the story. Our main characters are often only aware of the tip of the iceberg of it all, and that is felt by the reader. Schemes only become clear in the very end, and even then, one is never quite sure they have a finger on who all the players are in all of this. I believe there will be a map in the final version, but without that as well, the complicated geographical relationships between the various countries could also be overwhelming. To sum up: there’s a lot of talking and thinking in this book. Without strong writing, it could come across as pretty dull. But for me, it all came together perfectly.

This is also a strange book to assign to a genre. It’s technically referred to as a YA title and fantasy. But that said, I feel like this could easily be new adult or simply adult fiction; and any fantasy involved has to do with it being a made-up world. There aren’t any dragons or spells flying around here. Instead, the fascinating mixture of a completely invented world and history with very familiar, WWII level technology was refreshingly new.

There is, of course, a romance at the heart of the story. And I really enjoyed how this played out as well. Aurelia and Athan don’t simply fall instantly in love and all of their differences fade away. They come from different worlds, with different parental figures who have imparted very different lessons on their children. Throughout the story, no easy answers are provided and instead a slow sense of dread builds to what will be an inevitable clash.

As I said, this book took my completely by surprise. Luckily for me, it hit a lot of the tick boxes I look for in a story, but I can also see how the very unknown nature of it could leave other readers cold. If you go in with your typical YA/fantasy expectations in place, there’s a good chance this will feel like a slower, less interesting read. But for those looking for a more complicated, politically-focused story with a hard look at warfare and nationalism (with a dash of young love added in), this will be the perfect book for you!

Rating 9: Complicated and well-written, this book will appeal to fans of “Game of Thrones” who would be ok without all the dragons/white walkers stuff.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dark of the West” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Books Marketed as Young adult that might be New Adult, Adult Fiction” and “YA Second World Fantasy.”

Find “Dark of the West” at your library using WorldCat!

The Great Animorphs Re-Read #45: “The Revelation”

343179Animorphs #45: “The Revelation”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, September 2000

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Things were already really weird. Fighting aliens. Battling to save Earth. And still trying to be normal. Marco, the other Animorphs, and Ax are almost used to it. Almost. But things are changing. The Yeerk invastion of Earth started out passively. Secretly. But now, everything seems to be stepped up. Even Marco’s father is talking about some top secret project at his job. Something about developing Zero-space…

Marco doesn’t even know whether his father is a Controller. But he does know he’s not going to let the Yeerks win this one. They’ve already got his mother. And Marco will do anything it takes to save his father. Anything…

Narrator: Marco

Plot: I had honestly forgotten that this was one of the first big game changer books in the end game line up of this series. For one, I think the previous Cassie book being so incredibly not relevant to the overarching plot serves as a pretty big distraction. You read that one and are left feeling like “yep, here we are, still in the middle of filler land!” Then you pick up this one and…

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It’s just an average evening at home for Marco: making frozen pizza for the family, accepting Nora as part of said family, avoiding any and all views of displays of affection between Nora and his father. Then his father starts up on the dinner conversation and low and behold, his company is just a few short steps away from creating a zero space communicator. Marco recognizes this for the potential disaster it is. He immediately calls Jake and the group meets up at Cassie’s barn.

At the barn, Marco says that he tested his father and doesn’t believe him to be a Controller yet, but that they’ll need to keep him under surveillance. The group agrees, and Jake sends Tobias and Ax out on first watch: it is clear that Jake thinks Marco is too invested. Back home, in the middle of the night, Marco wakes up to a phone call. He picks it up and overhears a man from his Dad’s work saying that a co-worker’s wife has died and that he should come in for some support. Marco is quick to realize that this is a ploy, calls Rachel for back-up, and sets off after his father.

He barely makes it in time, seeing through a window that his father is bound and held by two Hork Bajir who are preparing to dunk him into a mini Yeerk pool. Without thinking, Marco barges in to save his father. Rachel shows up as back up and they make their escape. Rachel retreats to tell the others what has happened and gorilla!Marco and his father speed away in a car. After they get a ways away, Marco’s dad begins questioning everything and Marco reveals who he is and what he can do with morphing. They stop at a run-down diner and Marco tells him everything.

He allows his dad to call home, but when his dad almost reveals to Nora where they are, Marco disconnects the call, angry that his father clearly hasn’t listened to anything he said. Marco does a quick breeze through of his morphs to finally convince his dad that what he’s said is true. He also reveals that his mom is alive and is Visser One. Marco’s dad struggles not only to accept that his son is now giving him orders (like the fact that Marco has decided to stow him away with the Chee for now) and with the fact that his first wife is alive, but he also loves Nora.

Marco takes him to the King’s house where his Dad gets even more of an eye-opener on just how weird Marco’s world is. But he’s also distracted by the amazing technology on display. Erek and the other Chee go out in disguise as Marco and his dad, knowing that if they both are seen as missing that Marco will be under suspicion and through him, all of his friends. Marco takes off back to the barn to meet up with the rest of the Animorphs.

Once there, it is clear that none of them technically approve of what he’s done, but they also know that they wouldn’t have done anything differently had they been in that position. They also realize that the fact that Marco’s dad knows how to build a zero space communicator is a huge win. Marco and Ax return to the Chee and recruit Marco’s dad into helping Ax build it.

The next day, cockroach!Marco watches himself die. Erek and Mr. King, posing as Marco and his dad, are “killed” by a force of Yeerks who storm Marco’s home. Nora, now clearly infested, stands outside and watches. Once it is done, Marco realizes that life as he knew it is over, not stopping to even take anything from his room.

Back with the Chee, Ax and Marco’s dad have made progress on the communicator, enough to have discovered that Visser One has been convicted of treason and is being held in the Yeerk Pool for execution by starvation. Visser Three will be promoted to Visser One and his plans for all out destruction are imminent. They decide to rescue Marco’s mom and eventually set up his mother and father for life in the free Hork Bajir valley.

To get into the Yeerk Pool, the Animorphs need to steal a Bug fighter. The security has been upped once again and no living thing can make it through the entrance tunnel, but the shields of a Bug fighter will do the trick. They lure a ship into the forest claiming to be a forest service worker who “captured a strange, bladed monster” and quickly take over the ship. But the ship is a new version and one that Ax has trouble handling. Luckily, there is an auto pilot system installed that can take over if the pilot seems “erratic.” After a bumpy ride, the team, now all in Hork Bajir morphs, find themselves in the Yeerk Pool entrance tunnel that is accessed through a holographic sunken ship under the ocean.

They make their way to the Yeerk Pool only to discover that Visser One has been tied to a pier in the middle of the pool and is clearly at the last stages of her starvation. They head back to the ship, thinking to use it to grab Visser One. On the way, things go sideways and they are discovered. They rush back to the ship and end up having to blast their way back into the Yeerk Pool. Marco and Rachel jump out to grab Visser One, but the others are forced to retreat in the ship, leaving them exposed.

An elite force of Hork Bajir show up who are clearly more skilled at fighting. They manage to grab Eva and make their way back to the edge of the pool. Rachel is badly injured in the fight and Visser One makes a break for it, escaping out of Eva’s ear. Marco is left trying to save his mother (who is violently struggling to kill Visser One before she makes it to the pool) and helping Rachel. Eva manages to nab Visser One and with the help of Marco, they kill her. Visser Three shows up and morphs a huge, fanged winged alien that comes after them. But the other Animorphs in the Bug fighter are able to badly injure him and rescue Marco, Cassie, and Eva. However, the ship is shot and lands in the pool.

With Eva’s extra knowledge of how the ship operates, they manage to overhear the engine corp enough to get the ship up again, boiling a large portion of the Yeerk pool in the process. They finally manage to escape.

Marco sets up his mother and father at the free Hork Bajir colony. They have a happy reunion though later Marco’s father approaches him about Nora’s fate. Marco plants the suspicion that Nora was always a Controller and had been put in his path to monitor his work. Marco himself sets up camp living with the Chee at the Kings’ household, making trips to the Hork Bajir colony every once in a while.

Later, on the beach, the team finally use the zero space communicator they made to contact the Andalites. Jake is the one to speak and when asked who is on the other line, he says “This is Earth.”

The Comic Relief: This is a huge book for Marco. Everything kind of comes to a head all at once and he ends up being the first one of the group to have his cover blown. The speed at which it all falls apart is also a great example of how precariously balanced their charade has been this entire time. One little event and BAM! Marco’s entire life is up-ended and he has to fake his own death, and his father’s, and let his step mom get infested.

Obviously Marco struggles a lot with the action at the heart of the story. But on the emotional side of things, he is most struck by the realization that his dad truly loves Nora and what that means for his father to go through all of this. It’s a hard hit for Marco who, up to this point, it seems, always believed that while his dad cared for Nora, what he felt for her wasn’t the same as what he felt for Marco’s mother. To realize that one can feel that kind of love more than once and that a parent has moved on to another, it’s a hard hit for Marco.

He also questions whether he could have done more to save her and whether his own shock at his father’s feelings at all impacted his decision to not try to get back to their house to rescue her.

In the end, when he finally has his family reunited at the free Hork Bajir valley, we see that this joy, what he always wished for, has been tinged by the realities of adulthood, time, and what love looks like. His father is happy to be with his mother, but he’s also going to grieve Nora.

Our Fearless Leader: Early in the book, Marco notes that Jake is a fair leader when he asks for Marco’s input on the situation with his father. But at the same time, he catches himself wishing that Jake would just make the call, taking the weight of the decision off of Marco. It’s a nice moment to highlight how much the team members depend on Jake to shoulder this weight. Throughout the rest of the book, Jake pretty effectively highlights his hard-won ability to calmly and effectively roll with all of the punches that are thrown at them.

He’s also the one at the end to speak via the zero space communicator. He initially waves towards Ax to do it, but Ax rightly recognizes that Jake needs to be seen as the leader from the very beginning, so Jake ends up with the great closing line.

Xena, Warrior Princess: Rachel ends up teaming up with Marco several times in this book. She’s the one he calls when he sees his dad taking off in the middle of the night, and she’s also the one to end up on the pier with him at the end. Some of it is necessity (she’s the one available by phone and the one with the power morph at the pool), but at this point it’s also clearly more than coincidence that these two work well together.

We also get a great moment from her that highlights that she’s more than just the tank of the team. When they’re in the barn discussing how useful (or not) the zero space communicator would be (especially considering how often the Andalites have ignored the plight of Earth in the past, so who’s to say contacting them again is even worth it), she’s the one to draw their attention to its abilities to spy on Yeerk communications. Marco is frustrated that he didn’t see this himself. And as a reader, it is surprising, as this is exactly the kind of thing that we expect to see from his character. But it’s a nice reminder that Rachel has brains, too, and Marco isn’t the only one who can evaluate situations effectively.

A Hawk’s Life: Tobias doesn’t have a whole lot in this book. But he does contribute when it comes to Eva/Visser One’s experience with torture. The others all say that she will gain nothing from revealing their secrets, but Tobias is quick to correct them that, when under extreme suffering, one will do almost anything if they think there’s a chance to stop the pain. Another lovely reminder of poor Tobias’s sucky life. This is what he gets to be now: the guy with all the insights into torture experiences!

Peace, Love, and Animals: There are few quick moments from Cassie that are all kind of neat for her character. In the beginning, Marco notices Jake shooting a quick glance to Cassie before assigning Ax and Tobias to watch Marco’s dad. Marco realizes that in that quick look, Cassie was able to convey to Jake that she thought Marco was too close to it and shouldn’t be trusted to guard his own father.

Later, she’s also the one to quickly speak up for saving Marco’s mom. She knows that after everything the team went through for his dad, that Marco can’t ask them to take on a suicide mission back into the pool for his mom. So she does it for him, coming up with a good excuse for why it’s necessary. Marco is incredibly thankful for this.

And then, towards the end, when they end up boiling the Yeerk pool, we see her turn away from the window and the destruction, another reminder that, of them all, she struggles the most with moments like this where the destruction doesn’t come from battles, but from other choices.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Ax has some definite struggles coming to grips with the fact that humanity might have figured out zero space, and way faster than the Andalites did, relatively speaking to their own technological time lines. He also proves himself capable of giving Marco a run for his money on the bad driving front. Though, to be fair, the Bug fighter seems pretty advanced and Marco should have at least gone through driver’s ed at this point…It did lead to some fairly comical lines from Ax though:

<You should always wear the safety restraints,> Ax scolded, struggling futilely to get four humans and an angry bird off him.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: Marco definitely knew the right morph to effectively traumatize his father quickly: always, always go ant, if your goal is utter horror. Marco’s poor father, to see that, then followed by the bird, and then have your son threaten lobster morph on you…yikes. But, I have to say, of all the ridiculous cover morphs we’ve seen, it’s pretty dumb that the one that ended up using the ant morph was from the book where this morph literally gets about two sentences. Marco doesn’t even make it fully ant! It’s pretty silly.

Couples Watch!: Man, you really have to feel for Marco’s dad in this one. His wife who died years ago, who he mourned, is now back in his life. His new wife, who he legitimately loved, is now essentially dead in her own way. What’s more, his son has now planted the idea that the woman he loved may have never even been real in the first place. I don’t think relationship drama gets worse than this.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: Visser Three only makes a brief appearance with yet another of his super sweet alien morphs that lasts a hot second before immediately getting taken down by the Animorphs. You’d think he’d at least learn to stop per-emptively bragging about his morphs’ badass abilities every time he tries out a new one, given his past failure rate. More importantly, the fact that Visser Three will now be Visser One is the crucial news of this story. After “Visser,” the Animorphs have a much clearer idea of what Visser Three’s vision of the Earth invasion looks like, and it’s a lot less of the subtlety and a lot more of this:

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Towards the very end of the book, Marco makes the decision to plant the idea that Nora was maybe always a Controller and had been put in his dad’s life to spy on his work. It’s a really dark moment, more so for the fact that’s it’s not clear whether this was the right or wrong call, to either Marco or the reader. Marco’s thought is that this idea will give his dad a sense of peace, that he didn’t simply abandon his wife to a life of infestation or that he cheated in some way on Eva, since Nora was a spy all along. But…is that really a comfort? His feelings for Nora were real, and with this idea, he’s now left with the thought that their whole relationship was a sham. And Eva is going to tell him, too, about the fact that that one “blissful year” that he remembers with her before she died, yeah, she was Controlled then too. So now poor Marco’s dad has two wives, both of whom were creating sham relationships with him for some portion of their time together. I kind of think this lie is just easier for Marco than for his dad. It’s a rough little moment, but I can’t also say he was completely wrong to have thought it might help.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: As you’ll see with my scorecard below, given the Animorphs’ past experiences with the Andalites, being able to contact them doesn’t seem like that great of a thing. They’ve been routinely dismissed by the Andaites and have heard through enough grapevines for it to be pretty believable that the Andalite fleet isn’t anywhere nearby and doesn’t even think of Earth as a priority. So, it’s not that it’s a bad plan to contact them, but all of the past stuff does kind of undercut what could have been a really cool moment at the end of the book.

Favorite Quote: There’s a great moment between Marco and his dad right after Marco has told him the truth, where it really gets hit home how swapped their roles now are:

“Dad, of course you’re my father,” I said, fighting an onslaught of emotion. And it would be so nice to have someone make decisions for me again, I added silently. “I love you. I respect you. But I’ve been fighting this war for a long time. I’ve been on more missions, in more fights, and seen more terrible things than you can imagine. This is my fight. My war. Me and my friends, we know what’s going on. You don’t.”

And with that, the son will now be the one making the decisions and fighting the battles. What’s always been is now just in the open. And for a more humorous addition to Marco’s dad’s life lessons:

“Dad, just a suggestion, but when you’re dealing with the Animorphs, never say it can’t get any weirder. It always does.”

Scorecard: Yeerks 12, Animorphs 15

I’m giving this one to the Yeerks. Not only was this the first time they successfully flushed out one of our main characters into having to fake his own death and go into hiding, but Visser Three somehow at last maneuvered Visser One into death penalty for treason and is about to get a big promotion and his all-out invasion protocol approved. The Animorphs do make contact with the Andalites in the end, but they’ve manged that before to rather disappointing results. So at this point, the Yeerks are making much more progress towards their own agenda while the Animorphs are forced to go into partial hiding and react.

Rating: This book is excellent. It’s truly the beginning of the end and it kind of just hits you out of nowhere. Like I said earlier, the fact that Cassie’s previous book was such a nothing story, really works in the series’ favor at this point, since you never see any of this coming. And then, I imagine for first time readers, as the story is going along, you just kind of keep waiting for the magical reset button that we’ve seen so often in the past to come into play and put everything back in place by the end. There have been some pretty crazy plots and ploys used to do this in the past, so it’s hard to believe as the story keeps going and going that yes, this is really going to end in a completely different place than any of the other books: Marco is in hiding, his dad knows about them, his mother has been saved, Visser Three is going to become Visser One, and the Animorphs reach out to the Andalites. It’s a lot to take in! But it definitely serves as a much-needed jump start to a series that was starting to feel like it was floundering for the last…many books now.

I also can’t leave this without noting the fact that they make a reference to “Independence Day” early in the book and then proceed to essentially rip off the entire third act of that movie with the Bug fighter/auto pilot charade. There’s even a line in this portion that is the Animorphs commenting on just how big the invasion force looks, exactly like Jeff Goldblum’s line about the aliens in that movie. I love that movie and I love these books, so I’m not mad about it. If only Jake’s epic last line had been more of a speech. You know the kind. Made to rousing music? In the misty night? Via a megaphone?

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

Serena’s Review: “Four Dead Queens”

34213319Book: “Four Dead Queens” by Astrid Scholte

Publishing Info: Putnam, February 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: BookishFirst

Book Description: Get in quick, get out quicker.

These are the words Keralie Corrington lives by as the preeminent dipper in the Concord, the central area uniting the four quadrants of Quadara. She steals under the guidance of her mentor Mackiel, who runs a black market selling their bounty to buyers desperate for what they can’t get in their own quarter. For in the nation of Quadara, each quarter is strictly divided from the other. Four queens rule together, one from each region:

Toria: the intellectual quarter that values education and ambition
Ludia: the pleasure quarter that values celebration, passion, and entertainment
Archia: the agricultural quarter that values simplicity and nature
Eonia: the futurist quarter that values technology, stoicism and harmonious community

When Keralie intercepts a comm disk coming from the House of Concord, what seems like a standard job goes horribly wrong. Upon watching the comm disks, Keralie sees all four queens murdered in four brutal ways. Hoping that discovering the intended recipient will reveal the culprit – information that is bound to be valuable bartering material with the palace – Keralie teams up with Varin Bollt, the Eonist messenger she stole from, to complete Varin’s original job and see where it takes them.

Review: There are definitely some staple fantasy tropes that are sure to draw me in: dragons, women disguised as men, sisterhood, fairytale elements, etc. etc. Included in these is “thieves as protagonists.” While nothing has ever topped Megan Whalen Turner’s “Queen’s Thief” series, I’m still always on the lookout for a new favorite take on this theme. Not only does “Four Dead Queens” meet that criteria, but it was given an extra boost in that it’s a stand-alone novel. Rare, indeed, in this YA fantasy climate! But while there were definitely some good elements and legitimate surprises to be had in the story, in the end I was left feeling a bit flat after getting through this book.

Keralie is just your typical thief, happy to continue her life of petty crime and freedom. The politics and greater movements of the complicated city that she calls home, made up of four quadrants each ruled by its own queen, exist largely outside of her life and she’s fine with that. Until, that is, one of her jobs goes side-ways and she finds herself caught up in a murder mystery that is greater than could be imagined. Not one. Not two. Not even three. No, all four queens have been brutally murdered. And now Keralie and the mark she hit that lead her into all of this mess find themselves wrapped up in a conspiracy that goes further than they could have ever imagined.

I really liked the complicated world-building that was constructed for this story. The four quadrants and the various cultures and philosophical approaches they take were well-established and interesting. The world felt “lived in” and fully realized in a way that I think is fairly impressive given the fact that there have been, again, a sort of over-abundance of this type of world-building in YA fantasy in the past (ascribing generic traits to regions/cultures and calling your world good). Given the fast-paced nature of the book and the fact that it was a stand-alone, I was pleased to see a decent avoidance of info-dumping to convey this type of background information. Could more have been done? Yes. But it’s hard to both rant about how there aren’t enough stand-alone novels out there and then ding the ones that do come out too heavily for having a restricted word count within which to do their work. So I’ll give that a pass here.

As I mentioned, the story was fast-paced. The action starts from the very first page and there is very little let-up as the mystery unfolds. I was able to guess at a few things here and there, but there were also a surprising number of twists and turns that I failed to see coming. That said, the fast-paced nature of the story could also work against the plot as well. Time itself didn’t feel very well delineated or established. Some of the action felt like it was all happening at once and then a bit later I would realize that no, several days had actually taken place. Again, kind of a weird complaint, but the fact that I was buzzing through the book as quickly as I was almost worked against it. I couldn’t quite settle in, at times. So while I didn’t guess some of the reveals, I’m not sure whether this was because they were truly surprising or because I was so off-balance by the speed of the book that I didn’t have time to think about it.

I also only felt marginally attached to our main characters. While Keralie had many of the traits that I like to see in my thief protagonists, she also felt a bit like a cardboard cut-out of everything we’ve come to expect from a character like this. The romance, also, was incredibly dull and uninteresting to me.

Like I said, I’m always really excited to come across a stand-alone fantasy novel. But they are, by their nature, very different things than books that are setting up, or continuing, a series. Much needs to be done with fewer words and fewer pages. That being the case, I often find myself wishing that authors would choose to simply leave somethings out when they go the stand-alone route. You simply can’t fit in every standard YA fantasy trope that usually takes place over a trilogy or series into one, single book. Does there have to be a romance at its heart? Does the world-building need to be simplified or the action condensed to a few big scenes? Simply put, this book felt like it was trying to mash every fantasy expectation we have into one book and the word count simply couldn’t support it. Luckily, the fast-moving plot largely distracted from this as I was reading. But looking back, I do find it disappointing. If you’re looking for more of a “beach read” fantasy story, however, the past, hard-hitting action of this book might be just the ticket!

Rating 6: Had a lot of good bones in all the places that mattered, but never felt fully fleshed out in a way that is necessary for me to fully buy-in.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Four Dead Queens” is included on these Goodreads lists: “NEW ADULT fantasy & paranormal romance” and “Queen in Title.”

Find “Four Dead Queens” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “His Majesty’s Dragon”

28876Book: “His Majesty’s Dragon” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey, March 2006

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

Book Description: Aerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleonic Wars as valiant warriors ride mighty fighting dragons, bred for size or speed. When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes the precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Captain Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future – and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature. Thrust into the rarified world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France’s own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte’s boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.

Review: I loved both “Uprooted” and “Spinning Silver,” both fairytale retellings by Naomi Novik. I’ve heard repeatedly about her Temeraire series, and yet for some reason hadn’t picked it up. While I do like fantasy fiction that mixes together historical and military fiction as well, I think I always just read the book description for this one and was overwhelmed with flashes of “Master and Commander.” But when my last audiobook expired and I was perusing my audiobook list, the library must have been going through some high demand period and none of the books I had mentally lined up for next were available. But there was “His Majesty’s Dragon” with a glowing, green “available” next to it. So, with no excuses left, I checked it out. Only a few days later, I now have the same problem with trying to find a replacement audiobook because I blew through this one so quickly!

Laurence is proud of his career as a naval man. While impressed with the aerial corps, he’s always preferred this avenue of military life and has looked with wonder at those who live a very different life paired with their dragon companions. But when his ship captures another that carries an egg that is about to hatch, Laurence finds his life taking quite the turn. With the birth of Temeraire, a rare dragon from across the world, Laurence is introduced to an entirely different world, and one that is only marginally understood by society as a whole. Now, on the brink of invasion by Napoleon and his forces, Laurence and Temeraire must learn where they will fit in the challenging future that is unfolding before them.

So, no surprise given my introduction paragraph, but I loved this book! I really don’t know what my problem was. Novik is definitely a strong writer and this book routinely shows up on “best of” fantasy lists. Like I said, all I can blame is having only read a very different sort of fantasy from her in the past (fairytale fantasy) and my completely-unfounded-on-any-facts concern that the story would be mostly about military action with only a dash of dragons. And while, yes, there are highly descriptive battle scenes and the rules and regulations of life in the military are an important part of Laurence and Temeraire’s arc, there was also just a ton of great dragon stuff. Not only between Laurence and Temeraire and their wonderful relationship, but in the entire concept of what a world would look like if dragons were a common thing.

Novik includes tons of detail on the many different types of dragons that make up the world, both the ones native to England and the ones coming from other regions of the world. Their strengths and weaknesses are then used in very specific ways when it comes to military action. In her version of dragon riders, dragons are more like ships, big enough to have entire crews and to operate in coordinated maneuvers with the other dragons around them. In this way, Laurence is both a bonded partner with Temeraire, but also a captain who much command the group of other military personnel who also “crew” the dragon. The whole thing was so incredibly unique. As I just got done saying in my last review about phoenix riders, we’ve seen a lot of books with dragon riders. But here, Novik has come up with a truly original way of approaching the concept and there is so much room to use and expand on this idea.

But, of course, for me the most important thing often comes down to characters, and I absolutely loved both Laurence and Temeraire. Laurence is just a good guy: honorable, noble, able to adjust to his changed circumstances with grace and care. In the beginning, we get a good understanding for just what a life change it means for Laurence to suddenly become a dragon captain and have to leave behind a promising career as a naval captain. But through it all, he puts Temeraire first, always, and handles the skepticism and often out-right reproach of those who resent his new role with firm grace. In these ways, the book is almost as much a fantasy of manners story as anything else. My Jane-Austen-loving ways were all over the intricacies of honor and politeness that Laurence displayed.

And, of course, Temeraire was amazing. He’s a unique type of dragon, not one common to England, so much of the book is learning more about him and what his strengths are. It is clear from the start that he is incredibly intelligent, and Laurence and he form a quick bond based on mutual friendship and respect. He also expresses his own set of moral codes, something that Laurence must struggle to understand when it varies from his own sense of duty. Perhaps due to Temeraire’s unique attributes, but also largely due to Laurence’s not having been raised up in the aerial corps, the two of them see the relationship between riders and dragons and the mode of operation of the entire corp through a unique lens. Along with the reader, they are learning as much as we are, but also coming to see flaws that have long been accepted, challenging norms as they go.

The book does have some excellent battle scenes and even a few scenes that made me tear up. But it also definitely reads as an introduction to a series. Much of the story is made up of world-building and scene-setting, letting readers get to know Laurence and Tameraire slowly throughout the story and setting up conflicts to come. This is where Novik’s strength as a writer comes to play. In another author’s hands, this type of book, that reads largely as a set-up for books to come, could feel plodding and useless. Instead, all of the details and attention to character building were completely absorbing in their own right.

I really can’t say enough good things about this book. Fans of fantasy fiction, especially dragons (and for those looking for a unique take on the whole “dragon rider” concept), should definitely check this one out. If you like historical fiction and military fiction as well, that can only be a plus! For me, these books are already added to my mental list of long-running series that I will need to work my way through in the years to come!

Rating 9: With two incredibly endearing protagonists at its heart, this military fantasy series is sure to appeal to dragon-loving readers!

Reader’s Advisory:

“His Majesty’s Dragon” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Alternate History Novels and Stories” and “Best Book With or About Dragons.”

Find “His Majesty’s Dragon” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Crown of Feathers”

35715518Book: “Crown of Feather” by Nicki Pau Preto

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, February 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss +

Book Description: I had a sister, once…

In a world ruled by fierce warrior queens, a grand empire was built upon the backs of Phoenix Riders—legendary heroes who soared through the sky on wings of fire—until a war between two sisters ripped it all apart.

I promised her the throne would not come between us.

Sixteen years later, Veronyka is a war orphan who dreams of becoming a Phoenix Rider from the stories of old. After a shocking betrayal from her controlling sister, Veronyka strikes out alone to find the Riders—even if that means disguising herself as a boy to join their ranks.

But it is a fact of life that one must kill or be killed. Rule or be ruled.

Just as Veronyka finally feels like she belongs, her sister turns up and reveals a tangled web of lies between them that will change everything. And meanwhile, the new empire has learned of the Riders’ return and intends to destroy them once and for all.

Sometimes the title of queen is given. Sometimes it must be taken.

Review: As I mentioned in the Highlights post for this book, I was pretty excited about this one purely based on the phoenixes. While I love me some dragons, there have been approximately a million and a half books written about them, often including dragon riders as well, over the last several years. Obviously this has always been an appealing topic to writers and readers alike, but I have to think a certain HBO show has also had a hand in the sheer explosion of dragon books we’ve seen. But, all of that said, there are a lot more fantastical beasts out there to feature in books, so I was thrilled when I saw this cover and read the description that features riders not of dragons but of phoenixes! Add in some sister drama, and it sounded like it would be right up my alley. Unfortunately, while there were a lot of good elements included, it fell a bit flat for me.

Veronyka and her older sister have been living a vagrant life almost since Veronyka can remember. And all that has kept them going has been their shared dream of finding phoenix eggs and bringing back the famed Phoenix Riders who have faded almost into myth in the midst of civil war. But when things go wrong, Veronyka finds herself alone with this dream, hiding her identity from those around her. And, of course, there is much more going on than what there seems. What is the truth behind Veronyka and her sister’s strange family history? And what role will they each play in building a new future?

Most of what I liked about this book had to do with the world-building, and, of course, the entire concept of an organization of phoenix riders. Yes, there is a lot of cross-over between this and what we’ve seen from similar dragon rider books, but the unique attributes of phoenixes (notably their regenerative proprieties) adds a new layer of intrigued to how these great birds would operate with their partners. I also liked the complicated relationship laid out between Veronyka and her sister. From the very beginning, we see the tension that lies between them. There is love, but its always tinged with just a bit more. Sometimes jealousy, sometimes anger, sometimes suspicion. As the book plays out, this relationship becomes even more important to the story, and while I was able to guess at the reveal in the end, it was still a pretty interesting concept and a great set-up for the next book.

But beyond those things, I simply had a hard time getting into this book. I was never able to slip fully into the experience and instead the process of reading it began to feel like a chore. I think there were probably a few reasons for this.

One, there is a lot of info-dumping in the first quarter to a third of the book. The story alternates between Veronyka and another character, and between the two of them, they almost end up repeating the exact same historical and cultural lessons back to back. Information provided by one character will be almost directly repeated by the other, but with a few changes in perspectives (but by no means enough to justify the repeated dump). Not only was the repetition annoying, but info-dumping on its own is always a quick way to kick me out of a reading experience. Most of this information could have been sprinkled throughout and come up in more natural ways.

Second, the story drags. There are blips of exciting action only to be followed with long chunks of very slow plot movement. The story probably could have been significantly shorter and be better for it.

Third, the characters on their own weren’t all that interesting. While I did like the complicated sisterly relationship, that aspect of the characters’ relationships would often fall to the side. And when left with Veronyka herself and the other male character, Sev, I was often simply bored. Which is really saying something, given how much I typically enjoy girls-disguised-as-boys stories.  They both simply felt pretty flat. I was also not terribly interested in the romance included in the story.

So, while the book had a lot of good things going for it (world-building, unique fantasy elements, a diverse cast of characters), I have to ding it down a few ratings simply because I didn’t enjoy reading it. And really, at its heart, that’s my main requirement for a book! Readers who have more patience than me and who are looking for a YA fantasy novel that is still pretty awesome with its handling of phoenixes, this may be the book for you! Just wasn’t for me, sadly.

Rating 6: Info-dumping and a floundering plot bogged down this book despite the cool factor that comes with having a story about girls riding around on phoenixes!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Crown of Feathers” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Fantasy / Sci-fi Books With POC Leads” and “Fiction: Phoenix (Mythological Bird).”

Find “Crown of Feathers” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Caged Queen”

35843937Book: “The Caged Queen” by Kristen Ciccarelli

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, September 2018

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

Book Description: Once there were two sisters born with a bond so strong that it forged them together forever. Roa and Essie called it the hum. It was a magic they cherished—until the day a terrible accident took Essie’s life and trapped her soul in this world.

Dax—the heir to Firgaard’s throne—was responsible for the accident. Roa swore to hate him forever. But eight years later he returned, begging for her help. He was determined to dethrone his cruel father, under whose oppressive reign Roa’s people had suffered.

Roa made him a deal: she’d give him the army he needed if he made her queen. Only as queen could she save her people from Firgaard’s rule.

Then a chance arises to right every wrong—an opportunity for Roa to rid herself of this enemy king and rescue her beloved sister. During the Relinquishing, when the spirits of the dead are said to return, Roa discovers she can reclaim her sister for good.

All she has to do is kill the king.

Previously Reviewed: “The Last Namsara”

Review: As promised, I decided to give the second book in this series (more of a companion novel) a go even though I struggled through the first. That one had enough cool factors with its world-building, history, and, of course, dragons to push past my ultimate dislike of its main character. I also liked the small scenes we got for Roa in that book and was curious to see how she would be handled as a main character. Alas, I’ve now come to the conclusion that while this author has some great ideas for stories and fantasy worlds, I simply can’t stand her characters, especially when they take on a POV role.

Roa is a reluctant queen, having involved herself in the political corruption and upheaval that we read through Asha’s eyes in the first book through marriage to the heir to the throne, Dax. Doing this, not only helped secure Dax the throne, but also secured an alliance that would see peace and prosperity for her own people, often at odds with the greater realm. But she has her own history with Dax, as well, and one that has not lead her to look upon him kindly. Now, caught up once again in political maneuverings, Roa is offered a way out: kill her husband, the king.

Frankly, I feel like I could almost copy and paste my review for “The Last Namsara” into this post, make a few edits for name changes, remove the dragons and that about covers it. The strengths and weaknesses were so identical between the two! Again, the world-building, magical elements, and folktales/history that are scattered throughout the story are what stand out. It’s in these elements that we see what a strong writer the author is. Again, the fables that we hear throughout the story, and that serve as a parallel to the choices presented to Roa, are told with a beautiful, simple lyrical style that I greatly enjoyed. Really, if Ciccarelli wanted to produce a small collection of short stories and fables set in this world, I’d be all over it! She clearly has a knack for story-telling itself as an art.

Also, while we sadly had many fewer dragons in this book, I liked the other fantasy elements introduced. Most notably, Roa’s connection to her deceased sister whose spirit has been trapped in this world and who has been a steady companion for Roa for the last several years. Again, this element of Roa’s story connects to the same fables that we’re given early on in the book in very clever ways. There’s some decent exploration of loss, love, and determination in the face of impossible odds that come into play through this story line.

But, again, the characters and romance are where this story falters. In the first book, Roa is introduced as a mature, serious character. One who, of all of them, is living in the real world and is willing to make hard choices to secure an outcome that is for the betterment of her people. While Dax and Asha flit around, ruled by their emotions and indecisive to the extreme, Roa seemed to be the steadying presence that held it all together. But here…what happened to that character? In the very first chapter, we find Roa literally running away from her problems. Easily anticipated struggles of a politically arranged marriage seem to have now taken her completely by surprise, and she’s full of complaints, regrets, and indecision, all expressed through what can only be described as immature whining. Her dead, bird sister even criticizes her for it! And really, of those two, who has more of a right to complain?

And these traits continue throughout the story. Gone is the competent, mature Roa we were given in the first book. Instead, we have an insecure, indecisive character who gets herself caught up in *sigh* a love triangle where all the “challenges” presented her could be solved with one simple attempt at communication. I wouldn’t enjoy this character had I come upon her completely fresh, but it was twice as frustrating to read her this way, after being given such a different, more intriguing version of the character in the first book. What’s more, many of these struggles and character flaws are identical to the problems I had with Asha, making the characters now read as very similar people. Sure, they had different struggles and histories, but swap that out and leave the voices and ways they deal with things? You wouldn’t be able to differentiate. And when that happens, I’m forced to conclude that the author simply struggles with characterization as a whole and is stuck in her own writing hole (that, or has bought into the false idea that indecisive, whiny teen girls are the only type of protagonists YA readers are into).

Ultimately, I disliked this book even more than the first one. Some of the fantasy elements (the dragons) that helped buoy that book were more absent here, and Roa wasn’t simply a let down as a character, but a complete reversal on what we had been promised. I think there’s a third book set to be released as a companion to these two, but at this point, I feel like I’ve already read it anyways, so why bother.

Rating 4: All the same problems of the first, if even more disappointing for now being repetitive problems.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Caged Queen” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “2018 – Sequels.”

Find “The Caged Queen” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Markswoman”

35008759Book: “Markswoman” by Rati Mehrotra

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, January 2018

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

Book Description: Kyra is the youngest Markswoman in the Order of Kali, one of a handful of sisterhoods of highly trained elite warriors. Armed with blades whose metal is imbued with magic and guided by a strict code of conduct, the Orders are sworn to keep the peace and protect the people of Asiana. Kyra has pledged to do so—yet she secretly harbors a fierce desire to avenge her murdered family.

When Tamsyn, the powerful and dangerous Mistress of Mental Arts, assumes control of the Order, Kyra is forced on the run. She is certain that Tamsyn committed murder in a twisted bid for power, but she has no proof.

Kyra escapes through one of the strange Transport Hubs that are the remnants of Asiana’s long-lost past and finds herself in the unforgiving wilderness of a desert that is home to the Order of Khur, the only Order composed of men. Among them is Rustan, a disillusioned Marksman whose skill with a blade is unmatched. He understands the desperation of Kyra’s quest to prove Tamsyn’s guilt, and as the two grow closer, training daily on the windswept dunes of Khur, both begin to question their commitment to their Orders. But what they don’t yet realize is that the line between justice and vengeance is thin . . . as thin as the blade of a knife.

Review: As I was scrolling through upcoming releases, I happened upon a book that seemed intriguing. Once I looked into it a bit further, I realized that it was in fact a sequel to this book that came out last year and somehow missed my radar. Mission in hand, I set off to the library and was able to snag an aubiobook version of the story. I knew from a few other book reviewers I follow that this was a fairly popular title last year, so I had high hopes. Sadly, the hype machine let me down once again.

Ever since tragedy struck her village and family when she was young, Kyra has been raised by an order of all-female assassins, training to become a Markswoman herself. In this land, Markswomen (and the one order of men to also take on this calling, though there is much controversy over the legitimacy of their claim) are the sole arbitrators of justice, doling out death sentences when crimes have been committed. To do this, they use specially crafted blades that they have bonded with and hold unique powers. But soon after Kyra gains her role as  Markswoman, things go wrong in her order and she finds herself alone in the world and on the run from her own kind. She meets up with a young man from the male version of the assassin order, and together they must face the growing strife overtaking the land.

There is a lot to like about this story, and I can understand why it was popular for so many readers. Most notably, the world-building is incredibly unique. The story appears to be set in some version of India and there are various references to gods that come from the Hindu religion, most notably, Kali, the Markswoman’s patron goddess of death. But on top of this fantasy version of the region, we’re also quickly given hints to an even greater past. There are references to ancient beings who once walked the earth but retreated to the skies long ago. However, they left a series of doorways that operate using some type of technology that is not understood and that can quickly transport an individual from one place to another. This science fiction element was completely unexpected and probably one of the most intriguing aspects of the entire series. I was much more interested in the history of this world and this technology than in Kyra’s story itself, which, of course, is ultimately one of my problems with the book.

Frankly, I didn’t much care for Kyra or Rustan, each coming with their own unique frustrations. We’ll start with Kyra. We meet her during her first assignment that marks her as a fully-fledged Markswoman. She immediately hits with the expected hesitation and moral questioning I’ve now come to (sadly) expect from many assassin stories. Once back at the Order, she continues to flounder in her role, being easily provoked by another girl who is still at an apprentice level to the point where Kyra walks right up to a line of behavior that would see her immediately expelled. Lastly, in a discussion with her mentor, she seems to still be confused by her own order’s purpose, wishing to use her newly-gained role to go on a revenge quest against the people who attacked her family all those years ago. All together, only a few chapters in, we’ve seen literally ZERO evidence that Kyra has the maturity, responsibility, or thoughtfulness to have earned her this promotion. She doesn’t seem to have engaged at all with the greater meaning and purpose behind her own order; she questions authority at every opportunity; she is easily pushed into poor decision making by peers who are now her lessers; she’s not even particularly skilled in any of her lessons. I came away from these chapters with literally no idea what had made Kyra special enough to have been granted an early promotion other than, of course, the necessity of it for plot purposes, the WORST kind of story structure. I found it incredibly frustrating and it ultimately irreparably damaged the character in my mind early in the book. Even when the action picks up to the point that some of these flaws fade into the background, the damage was done.

Rustan, too, has similar character issues. He’s given fewer chapters than Kyra from the get-go, leaving the character with an uphill battle. And, again, we see another assassin who is really pretty terrible at being an assassin. He ultimately spends much of the first half of the book fretting over events in a way that was both repetitive and useless. Not to mention, again, at odds with the basic concepts of any assassin order that one could imagine.

Then the two get together and the inevitable romance begins. Here, too, the book flounders and this element of the story falls into many tropes and pitfalls. We’re never given any solid reasons why these two are drawn together and really, it seems to happen over night and out of nowhere. What starts as an antagonistic relationship literally upends itself for no good reason. I’d be more mad about it if I wasn’t quite so bored by how predictable it all was.

Ultimately, I was pretty disappointed by this book. The world-building and story at the heart of it had so much potential. But this just made it all the more frustrating to see those things being squandered and buried beneath poor characterization and an aggressively trope-ridden romance. I had already requested the sequel book for review when I picked up this one (this is what I get for blindly trusting in the hype machine), so we’ll see how that one turns out. Hopefully improvements will be made!

Rating 5: Having a lot of good things going for it just made it all the more painful to watch this one stumble its way through.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Markswoman” is on these Goodreads lists: “South Asian YA/MG” and “Indian Science Fiction and Fantasy.”

Find “Markswoman” at your library using WorldCat!