Serena’s Review: “Smoke Bitten”

Book: “Smoke Bitten” by Patricia Briggs

Publishing Info: Ace, March 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: I am Mercedes Athena Thompson Hauptman. My only “superpowers” are that I turn into a thirty-five pound coyote and fix Volkswagens. But I have friends in odd places and a pack of werewolves at my back. It looks like I’m going to need them.

Centuries ago, the fae dwelt in Underhill–until she locked her doors against them. They left behind their great castles and troves of magical artifacts. They abandoned their prisoners and their pets. Without the fae to mind them, those creatures who remained behind roamed freely through Underhill wreaking havoc. Only the deadliest survived.

Now one of those prisoners has escaped. It can look like anyone, any creature it chooses. But if it bites you, it controls you. It lives for chaos and destruction. It can make you do anything–even kill the person you love the most. Now it is here, in the Tri-Cities. In my territory.

It won’t, can’t, remain.

Not if I have anything to say about it.

Previously Reviewed:“Moon Called,” “Blood Bound,” “Iron Kissed,” “Bone Crossed,” “Silver Borne,” “River Marked,” “Frost Burned,”and “Night Broken” and “Fire Touched” and“Silence Fallen” and “Storm Cursed”

Review: This series has probably been the longest-running Urban Fantasy series I’ve read. With a series that has run for so long and includes so many books, it’s assumed that there will be highs and lows. There was a period a few books back that had me worried, with several underwhelming entries in a row. But the last one was super dark and very good, so it was with a refreshed interest in the series that I picked up this latest book. And while it wasn’t my favorite, it at least didn’t backslide into the low points that had come before.

All is not well for Mercy Thompson. Her husband, Adam, has been withdrawing from her for the last few months, clamming up when asked and shutting down the magical bond between them. On top of this, another werewolf pack is attempting to move in on their territory and the magical creator Underhill has created a doorway to her realm in Mercy’s backyard. And a door goes both ways, letting thins in…and out. Not a powerful magical creature is on the loose, taking over people and making them murder to fuel its terrible power. But so is the life of one Mercy Thompson: full of madness and danger. Will she, Adam, and their pack be able to tackle this most recent threat?

This book was kind of hit and miss. There were several things I really liked about it, and then some that I didn’t care for as much. For the positives, I like that we’re back to the trend of having Mercy as our one and only narrator. Some of the weaker installments were the ones that deviated from her and included POV chapters from Adam. He’s great as a romantic interest, hero type. But it was pretty boring being in his head. Mercy’s voice remains strong and compelling, lending needed animation to even the less exciting mysteries and villains.

I also really liked the action in this book. The fight scenes were fast and thrilling, and the aspects of the fight that existed on a more magical element were also interesting. I liked the increased exploration of how the pack’s bonds and Mercy and Adam’s bond work and affect each other. Mercy’s own background and heritage adds an extra level of interest into how she deals with magical threats and powers. There was also the return of a fairly beloved element of her magic, which was fun to see.

I also liked the story regarding Adam and the reasons behind why he was pulling away from Mercy. At first I was concerned that it was going to be some sort of silly melodrama, especially with the return of his ex-wife’s meddling early in the book. But luckily it went a different route and even tied back to some of the challenges that we know Adam has faced throughout his long life. There was also an unexpected sense of real danger to this particular problem. If anything, it was almost the bigger threat than the actual villain of the story.

And that I didn’t love as much: the main villain and the threat he/she/it presents. For one thing, I was able to very quickly guess who/what they were dealing with, which just made the delay for the final reveal to read as boring at best and frustrating at worst. It’s implied that Mercy figures it out around the time that I did, so at least it doesn’t dumb her down in the process. But I still felt like the build-up itself didn’t work and the story would have done better without it. A few more jokes and references would have been way more fun than the false tension.

There were also a few story elements and subplots that I didn’t think were needed. The book wasn’t super long, so maybe these were used just to pad out the wordcount. But I think that speaks to problems with the main plot that needed to be tweaked anyways. Not only did these subplots not add anything to the overall story, but they drained out some of the tension when they popped up again here and there throughout the story.

That said, I still enjoyed this book overall. It could be a bit slower than I’d prefer at times, but I still found the characters compelling, especially the evolving relationship between Adam and Mercy. Fans of the series will likely be pleased with this installment.

Rating 8: Not as good as the one that came before it, but still much better than the low-points of the series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Smoke Bitten” isn’t on too many Goodreads lists, but it is on I checked it out of the library!

Find “Smoke Bitten” at your library using WorldCat!

Monthly Marillier: “Child of the Prophecy”

“Monthly Marillier” is a review series that is, essentially, an excuse for me to go back and re-read one of my favorite author’s back catalog. Ever since I first discovered her work over fifteen years ago, Juliet Marillier has been one of my favorite authors. Her stories are the perfect mixture of so many things I love: strong heroines, beautiful romances, fairytale-like magic, and whimsical writing. Even better, Marillier is a prolific author and has regularly put out new books almost once a year since I began following her. I own almost all of them, and most of those I’ve read several times. Tor began re-releasing her original Sevenwaters trilogy, so that’s all the excuse I needed to begin a new series in which I indulge myself in a massive re-read of her books. I’ll be posting a new entry in this series on the first Friday of every month.

Book: “Child of the Prophecy” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Tor, June 2003

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Magic is fading… and the ways of Man are driving the Old Ones to the West, beyond the ken of humankind. The ancient groves are being destroyed, and if nothing is done, Ireland will lose its essential mystic core.

The prophecies of long ago have foretold a way to prevent this horror, and it is the Sevenwaters clan that the Spirits of Eire look to for salvation. They are a family bound into the lifeblood of the land, and their promise to preserve the magic has been the cause of great joy to them… as well as great sorrow.

It is up to Fainne, daughter of Niamh, the lost sister of Sevenwaters, to solve the riddles of power. She is the shy child of a reclusive sorcerer, and her way is hard, for her father is the son of the wicked sorceress Oonagh, who has emerged from the shadows and seeks to destroy all that Sevenwaters has striven for. Oonagh will use her granddaughter Fainne most cruelly to accomplish her ends, and stops at nothing to see her will done.

Will Fainne be strong enough to battle this evil and save those she has come to love?

Review: Several years after the events in “Son of the Shadows,” we meet Fainne, the daughter of Niamh, Liadan’s lost sister. Growing up in practical isolation, and with the loss of her mother early in life and a reclusive father, Faine’s life has been one of quiet and seclusion. In many ways, Faine feels that she and her father aren’t simply hiding from his cruel, sorceress mother, Oonagh, but they are hiding from their own dark potential. But when the currents shift and Faine is forced out into the world and finds herself in her mother’s ancestral home of Sevenwaters, Faine must begin to make choices about her own future. Will she follow in her grandmother’s footsteps? Or will she choose a new way like her aunt and maternal grandmother before her?

By the time I got to this book, I’d actually read a few of Marillier’s other works. This was probably for the best as this is one of my less favorite of her books. It’s kind of surprising, because overall, I think her Sevenwaters series has been one of her biggest draws to her fantasy readership. But for me, something felt off about this book almost from the start. However, let’s talk about the things I liked, first off.

Marillier’s writing is almost freakish in its consistency. If you read a lot of her books, you’ll soon be able to immediately recognize her unique style of lyrical prose and straightforward storytelling. There’s a sense of wonder and comfort in much of her work, even as she touches on some dark topics. Every word feels delicate and intentional. There’s no denying the craftmanship of her work, and that was all on display here, especially when working with a character like Faine who is very different than the leading ladies who came before her.

I also liked seeing some familiar faces again. I, of course, really enjoyed Liadan and Bran’s story, so it was great seeing them again. It was also interesting to see side characters who had grown into roles they had just begun in “Son of the Shadows.” Sean, for example, has now been leader of Sevenwaters for over a decade. We also see Aisling, his wife, in her role as the lady of Sevenwaters. And, most jarring but also best of all, we get to see a grown Johnny balancing his role as heir to Sevenwaters and presumed fulfiller of the much-debated prophesy that has sat at the heart of the story from the start.

The problem with all of this, however, is that these side characters, both the very familiar, like Liadan and Bran, and the less so, like Johnny, are more intriguing than Faine. Much of Marillier’s work lives and dies on the strength of her characters. Most of her books are slow on the action and heavy on the introspection. So that main character has a lot of heavy lifting to do. And unfortunately, Faine just isn’t up to it. To some extent, I appreciate the challenges that Faine represents. Liadan and Sorcha were almost perfect women, so it’s refreshing to see Marillier tackling a heroine who faces challenges both physical and emotional. Faine walks with a limp, and due to her reclusive lifestyle, she struggles to form connections and maintain relationships. These parts of her character I thought were very well-drawn, and it was interesting watching her learn to piece together human interactions with people who are family in name only to her.

Unfortunately, her naivety turns into almost willful stupidity at points. Her concern of the darkness within her drives her actions past the point of reason. It’s hard to be sympathetic at points when events around her and those who would seek to use her are less than subtle. She does some pretty bad stuff for some pretty weak reasons. And much of her motivation seems weak and more told to the reader than shown in any way that would make it truly threatening feeling.

I also really disliked the romance. It’s not that it was bad, and the hero had his charming, appealing moments. But in comparison to the deep, well-drawn relationships that came in the books before, this one just feels shallow and uninteresting in comparison. I never felt any real chemistry between these characters, and there was very little tension in the proceedings. Some dramatic events happen towards the end, but even then, what should have been heavy hits felt fairly removed for me. I just didn’t care that much.

Of the original trilogy, this book is the weakest by far. It had a really interesting premise, featuring a character who has grown up more on the fringes of Sevenwaters and its stretching legacy, but several aspects of the book just felt a bit off. Faine wasn’t nearly as compelling as Sorcha and Liadan. And the romance felt stilted and thin. It’s still worth reading, however, if you’re a fan of the series as some pretty significant events occur and many of the mysteries laid down in the first two books are resolved. Events that occur here will also be referred to loosely in the second trilogy in the series.

Rating 6: Underwhelming after the flashes of mastery that were the first two books in the trilogy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Child of the Prophecy” is on these Goodreads lists: Great Celtic Fiction and Myth and Folktale Retellings.

Find “Child of the Prophecy” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Bone Maker”

Book: “The Bone Maker” by Sarah Beth Durst

Publication Info: Harper Voyager, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Twenty-five years ago, five heroes risked their lives to defeat the bone maker Eklor—a corrupt magician who created an inhuman army using animal bones. But victory came at a tragic price. Only four of the heroes survived. 

Since then, Kreya, the group’s leader, has exiled herself to a remote tower and devoted herself to one purpose: resurrecting her dead husband. But such a task requires both a cache of human bones and a sacrifice—for each day he lives, she will live one less.

She’d rather live one year with her husband than a hundred without him, but using human bones for magic is illegal in Vos. The dead are burned—as are any bone workers who violate the law. Yet Kreya knows where she can find the bones she needs: the battlefield where her husband and countless others lost their lives. But defying the laws of the land exposes a terrible possibility. Maybe the dead don’t rest in peace after all.  

Five warriors—one broken, one gone soft, one pursuing a simple life, one stuck in the past, and one who should be dead. Their story should have been finished. But evil doesn’t stop just because someone once said, “the end.”

Review: Sarah Beth Durst has always been a bit of a hit or miss author for me. When she’s on her game, I really love her books. But there are others of her titles that have really not worked for me. So I never quite know which one I’m going to get when I pick up a new book by her. But this one, with its interesting premise and its focus on an older woman as its heroine, sounded like something that would be right up my alley!

What was a day of triumph to the nation was a day of horror to Kreya. While she and her four companions were successful in the heroic mission they set out upon, to take down the viscous bone maker Eklor, Kreya lost her husband in the process. Now, years later, Kreya is living as a recluse, desperately working forbidden magic to buy just one more day with her lost love. When she seeks out a method to work this magic on a more long-term basis, she discovers horrors that she thought were long ago settled. Now she and the others must grapple with the reality that their story may not actually be finished, and they’re not sure they can win this time.

This book checked two boxes of interest for me. Recently, I’ve really been enjoying stories that look at the “after” of heroic tales. Veronica Roth’s “Chosen” was one of my favorite reads last year and dealt with this very topic. While both that book and this one essentially present the same story, that the first “ending” wasn’t really the end at all but simply a pause on everything, they each tackle the topic of what life is like for these heroes in what they think is the end. While this book is mostly Kreysa’s story, Durst also offeres insights into the other heroes who fought alongside her. Through them all, we see the various methods each is using to handle an entire lifetime after such a momentous start. You save the world in your twenties…then what? Not only is the resulting PTSD and trauma something that must be carried afterwards, but the sense that one’s biggest moment in life is already behind one has to play with the mind. I really like the variety we see between the heroes and how they are all coping, nor not coping, with these challenges.

The second point of interest is its focus on an adult heroine. The book never specifies Kreya’s or her friends’ age, but we know their fight happened 25 years ago and that Kreya was married at the time. It’s like that she’s in her late forties or older. It’s always refreshing to read a book that focuses on older characters. By necessity, their lives look very different than the young adult heroes and heroines we so often see. Instead of new love, it’s often an established relationship or a second love. Instead of the challenges of coming into one’s power for the first time, it’s managing a life that has already contained a multitude of defining moments. Kreya and her friends have lived a quarter of a century’s worth of life since their grand adventure. During that time they’ve built lives and come to terms with the events of their youth. They also have to face these new challenges as the people they are now, not the people they were when they first fought their foe. There are both new strengths and challenges that come with taking up the mantle of heroism again later in life.

I specifically enjoyed the established romance between Kreya and her husband. We see all the strengths that have been built into it over the years of loving the same person. But there are also some unique challenges that come along with this. Specifically, of course, the fact that one member of the marriage has been dead on and off for the last 25 years…but it also speaks to the way that relationships grow and change alongside the individuals in them.

The only ding I have against the book is that the world-building and magic system are kind of simplistic and lack detail and depth. There are some cool monsters that live in a particular forest, some magically-operated cable cars, and a few other things. But none of them are described very fully or really made to feel like they are part of a fully-realized world. However, it was also clear that the focus of the book was meant to be largely about its characters, so while the world wasn’t very complex, I wasn’t necessarily feeling that it was lacking while I was reading. Fans of Durst’s work are sure to enjoy this, and fantasy lovers who prefer a more mature hero and stories focused on the “after” of the heroic journey should definitely check it out!

Rating 9: A very enjoyable, fast read that highlights the fact that no hero’s journey is every really over.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bone Maker” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021.

Find “The Bone Maker” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Monsters of Men”

Book: “Monsters of Men” by Patrick Ness

Publishing Info: Candlewick, May 2010

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: As a world-ending war surges to life around them, Todd and Viola face monstrous decisions. The indigenous Spackle, thinking and acting as one, have mobilized to avenge their murdered people. Ruthless human leaders prepare to defend their factions at all costs, even as a convoy of new settlers approaches. And as the ceaseless Noise lays all thoughts bare, the projected will of the few threatens to overwhelm the desperate desire of the many. The consequences of each action, each word, are unspeakably vast: To follow a tyrant or a terrorist? To save the life of the one you love most or thousands of strangers? To believe in redemption or assume it is lost? Becoming adults amid the turmoil, Todd and Viola question all they have known, racing through horror and outrage toward a shocking finale.

Previously Reviewed: “The Knife of Never Letting Go” and “The Ask and the Answer”

Review: So remember how I was all whiny about the cliffhanger ending in the first book? Yeaaaah, Ness definitely leaned into that inclination with the end of “The Ask and the Answer” with both the arrival of another ship from Viola’s fleet and an army of Spackle marching in on New Prentisstown full of righteous vengeance. Betwen all of that, you’ll understand why my reviews for these books came on after another. I simply never put down the series and blew through all there in a matter of days!

Todd and Viola have finally managed to reunite only to be immediately set off on separate missions. For Todd, his victory over the Mayor is fleeting as the Spackle army marches down upon the town and the Mayor’s army still recognizes only one leader. For Viola, two more of her people have finally arrived only to find themselves in the midst of an ongoing war with terrible choices all around. To engage in a war against a wronged native people? To side with a terrorist group? To side with the maniacal Mayor whose cruelty sparked much of the violence? With no good choices, once again, both Todd and Viola must face just how far they will go to save one another. And at what cost to the greater good?

Following the path set in the first two books, Ness expands even further on the questions he presents his characters (and the readers) regarding violence, justice, and priorities. The first book was a very insular look at one boy’s, Todd’s, struggles to cope with one-on-one violence in his efforts to protect himself and those around him. In second book, we see Viola confronted with a terrorist organization that is working against a truly evil man but which is operating within its own questionable morality. And in the third book, we see the righteous fury of the native Spackle as they finally bring the Mayor’s great war to fruition. And we experience the horror of Viola, Todd, and, importantly, the two new comers as they are forced to pick sides in a volatile situation that seems to have no good outcomes.

The book jumps right into things with the first battle playing out between the Spackle, equipped with new powerful weaponry, and the Mayor’s army. There is no glory or exciting action here. Ness, through Todd’s eyes, is committed to presenting the horrors of war. Even from the Spackle whose mistreatment at the hands of the humans would justify much. It is all death, pain, and misery, as brought to home most poignantly in Todd’s eyes as he witness the death of a random man in the army whose Noise is projecting fear and longing for his wife and small son right up until the end. There’s no escaping the sheer nightmare of war as described in this battle scene. It’s powerful and painful and an excellent precursor to much of the rest of the book.

In the second book, we were given an extra POV through Viola’s eyes. Here, we get a third and begin to learn more about the Spackle themselves. I can’t talk to much about this without some fairly big spoilers. But I can’t emphasize how pleased I was with this addition. The first two books show a people who have been forcibly silenced by colonizers. All that is known of them is what the humans around them have projected upon them, with the original war and memories of what the Spackle were like before their enslavement all but gone in people’s memories. There were so many intriguing aspects of this portion of the story. I particularly liked the way Ness handled Noise and how, for the Spackle who are natives of this world, it is seen in a completely different light than it is by the humans who have torn themselves apart because of it.

Todd and Viola, for their part, are still excellent characters. We see each of them struggle with the choices before them, making missteps that are driven by what seems like the right choice at the time but that has lasting implications for everyone around them. Each has grown so much from the first book, but we almost get that much character growth all again in this single, last book. As a whole, their journeys are each spectacular and even more wonderful as a pair.

This entire trilogy is so very, very good. It challenges readers at every turn to evaluate the price of every action or reaction, regardless of how righteous the cause. Ness is smart enough to leave many of the conclusions left unsaid but obvious enough. It’s always nice to see an author trust his readers like that. The ending was rough, but so was the entire series. Sad, but hopeful. I think that’s how I’d sum up the the trilogy anyways. If you’ve enjoyed the first two books, I think it’s a given that you’re already planning on reading this given (yet again!) the massive cliffhanger at the end of that book. But I will reassure you all that Ness stick the landing perfectly.

Rating 10: Heartbreaking in the best way possible.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Monsters of Men” is on these Goodreads lists: Most Interesting World and Best War Novels.

Find “Monsters of Men” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Ask and the Answer”

Book: “The Ask and the Answer” by Patrick Ness

Publishing Info: Candlewick, May 2009

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: We were in the square, in the square where I’d run, holding her, carrying her, telling her to stay alive, stay alive till we got safe, till we got to Haven so I could save her – But there weren’t no safety, no safety at all, there was just him and his men…

Fleeing before a relentless army, Todd has carried a desperately wounded Viola right into the hands of their worst enemy, Mayor Prentiss. Immediately separated from Viola and imprisoned, Todd is forced to learn the ways of the Mayor’s new order. But what secrets are hiding just outside of town? And where is Viola? Is she even still alive? And who are the mysterious Answer? And then, one day, the bombs begin to explode…

Previously Reviewed: “The Knife of Never Letting Go”

Review: Keeping on my read of Patrick Ness’s “Chaos Walking” trilogy, I was eager to pick up this next book after the massive cliffhanger we were left with in the first book! Warning, there will be spoilers for the first book in this review as it’s almost impossible to talk about this book without revealing some of the reveals we had there.

After desperately fleeing the Mayor and his growing army, Todd and a grievously injured Viola finally reach Haven to discover it is really nothing of the sort. Without even putting up a fight, the people of Haven have already surrendered to the Mayor, and it is he who now controls the town and Todd and Viola’s fate. The division between men and women, with men’s Noise and women’s lack of Noise at the heart of it, grows daily. Like all of the other men and women, Todd and Viola are separated and life is very different under the control of the Mayor (now the President.) But a resistance quickly emerges calling itself the Answer and waging a terrifying guerilla war against the Mayor and his men. No one knows when the next bomb will go off or how the Answer is even doing what its doing. Todd and Viola separately with the cruel decisions put before them, desperately trying to find their way back to one another at the same time.

I feel like this series is systematically expanding a central thought at its core: is violence ever justified? In the first book, we see Todd’s struggles with what he has been told makes a man, the ability to kill. Again and again he fails to kill even when it would spare his life. But then in a fit of anger and fear, he kills a Spackle violently and suddenly. And then we see this decision haunt him throughout the remainder of the book. By the end, Todd has come to his own decisions about what does and does not make a man and cold-blooded murder decidedly does not.

Here, however, the question of violence is expanded outwards. On one hand, we have the Mayor who insists that his army and tactics are necessary for dealing with the rising threat of the Spackle and to create a unified force for when Viola’s people arrive in their ships. The Answer, on the other hand, violently opposes the Mayor’s brutal tactics and cruel treatment of women and Spackle. For them, the “answer” is to fight back with everything they have, waging a terrorist bombing campaign against the town itself. They try to avoid casualties, but any accidental hits are simply put down to necessary losses in the grander scheme. And from a third perspective, Viola, who spends much of the first half of the book in a House of Healing, meets a healer woman who’s firm line that saving a life must always come first demonstrates just how hard this approach is, watching cruelty unfold but not responding other than to treat those who are injured, both friend and foe alike.

There is no clear “right” choice in any of it, other than the Mayor himself who is pretty clearly bad. Viola and Todd each have to tackle incredibly challenging situations that really make the reader stop and think about what they would do if presented these options in the circumstances. I was never really sure, other than to be glad I was reading about it and not experiencing it myself. But I find this type of story that really challenges its readers to be the best kind. It’s definitely not an easy book. There’s darkness throughout and some really terrible things happen, but it’s also one that shows the resilience of the spirit to go on through even the most impossible feeling events.

For his part, the Mayor is an excellent villain. Ness doesn’t overplay his hand here with any mustache-twirling or silly excess. Instead, the Mayor’s oozing manipulation is all to easy to understand. We see how even Todd can be influenced by it, a young many who has tackled more than many of the other men who fall under the Mayor’s sway. I also really liked that we got to see more from Davy, the Mayor’s son. His character is really rounded out here and shines a different light on the Mayor as well.

The narrative is also now split between chapters from Todd’s perspective and Viola’s. This is, of course, necessary to tell each of their stories as they spend so much of the book apart. But it’s also great to finally see into Viola’s head. In the first book, it was clear that even though Todd has grown up on this planet, he still had very little understanding of his own people’s history. But Viola is coming from a completely different life experience. She grew up on a colony ship with this planet as its destination. And then to be suddenly thrust into this situation after her parents die in the crash…It’s inevitable that she would see the decisions before her and the events around her through a very different lens than Todd.

I really enjoyed this book. Like I said, it’s not a light, fluffy read, but it’s darkness and challenge is what makes it stand-out. Ness doesn’t pull any punches when pushing his reader to tackle these tough topics. If you enjoyed the first book, I’m sure this is already on your radar (again, that ending!) So rest assured that while the pedal might have felt like it was to the metal in the first book, this is where it really gets started!

Rating 9: Tackling some really tough questions about violence and the rights and wrongs therein, this book is kept from being too dark by its incredibly compelling two main leads.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Ask and the Answer” is on these Goodreads lists: Fast-paced books with Redeeming social value to read in one-sitting and Deep Underrated YA.

Find “The Ask and the Answer” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Knife of Never Letting Go”

Book: “The Knife of Never Letting Go” by Patrick Ness

Publishing Info: Walker, May 2008

Where Did I Get this Book: own it

Book Description: Prentisstown isn’t like other towns. Everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts in an overwhelming, never-ending stream of Noise. Just a month away from the birthday that will make him a man, Todd and his dog, Manchee—whose thoughts Todd can hear too, whether he wants to or not—stumble upon an area of complete silence. They find that in a town where privacy is impossible, something terrible has been hidden—a secret so awful that Todd and Manchee must run for their lives.

Review: I read this book way back when it first came out, but given that the movie adaptation, “Chaos Walking,” is coming out soon, I thought now was the perfect time for a revisit. As it has been over ten years since my first read, I only remembered a few very basic things about the overall plot and style of the book. So really, it was almost like an entirely new experience this go around! One thing stayed the same, however: I really like this book.

Todd’s world is one filled with Noise. Where animals speak their simple animal words and men project their every thought in blasts of emotion, there is no escape from the barrage. But so has life always been for Todd, the youngest member of a town of settlers who came to this planet hoping for a new life. Instead, what they found was tragedy and challenge. Or so Todd has been told. But only weeks before Todd is set to become a man and join the rest of the town as a full-fledged adult, he discovers something that shouldn’t exist: a spot of silence in a chaotic world. And with that discovery, his entire understanding of his world, his people, and his history is blown wide open, and he finds himself running for his life.

The first thing that stands out when reading this book is the style of writing. It’s first person perspective, which is unique enough, though less so in YA. But more notably, the narration is very much written in a stream of conscience style. Todd’s thoughts are hectic, incomplete, with short bursts of feeling, sprinkled with hints of description only when needed. It’s definitely the sort of style that takes a bit of time to get used to. By necessity, the world-building and history of the story comes out in small tidbits seemingly dropped in at random. Todd’s habit of often starting sentences only to stop them can be frustrating at times. But this also all adds to the tension and chaos that is inherent to this world. All on its own, this style of writing does more to convey what life would be like on this strange planet where men’s thoughts are projected out for all to see than any elaborate description ever could.

The short, quick style of writing also effectively illustrates the tension and drive that is at the heart of this story. Todd spends the majority of the book fleeing, and the hectic style of the sentences almost makes it read as if he is panting out these lines as he tries to catch his breath while running, always running. The story is a fast read, though, and I blew through the entire thing in almost a day.

It’s hard to talk about much in this book without revealing one secret or another. There are a few reveals that I think were projected well-enough that many readers will pick up on them. But there were others that served as legitimate surprises. By the end, there also seemed to be a decent about of history and reveals that were simply left to be discussed in the next book. Ness really doesn’t make much of an effort to even pretend that this book could be read as a standalone story, and it definitely ends on a big cliffhanger, so be warned that if you start it, you’re pretty much committing to the entire trilogy!

Todd is an excellent character in his own right. He can be just as frustrating as he is endearingly naïve. And alongside the reactions to extraordinary circumstances, we also see the fact that he’s just a teenage boy, with all of the conflicting motivations and emotions that come with that. Much of Todd’s narration is fixated on the fact that he will become a man, according to the traditions of his colony, in about a month’s time. So, too, then the story is focused on the messy, painful process of Todd actually making this transition in the story.

As I said, this story is definitely written as the first in a trilogy. It’s a fast read, full of action and heart-break, and I already have the next two books purchased and downloaded onto my Kindle. I’m also really excited to see what the movie version has to offer, and I think Tom Holland is perfectly cast (though what isn’t he amazing in??)

Rating 9: A deceptively action-packed story hides a emotional wallop behind its unique style of writing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Knife of Never Letting Go” is on these Goodreads lists Books that should get more attention and Teenagers . . . IN SPACE!

Find “The Knife of Never Letting Go” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “We are the Fire”

Book: “We are the Fire” by Sam Taylor

Publishing Info: Swoon Reads, February 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: In the cold, treacherous land of Vesimaa, children are stolen from their families by a cruel emperor, forced to undergo a horrific transformative procedure, and serve in the army as magical fire-wielding soldiers. Pran and Oksana―both taken from their homeland at a young age―only have each other to hold onto in this heartless place.

Pran dreams of one day rebelling against their oppressors and destroying the empire; Oksana only dreams of returning home and creating a peaceful life for them both.

When they discover the emperor has a new, more terrible mission than ever for their kind, Pran and Oksana vow to escape his tyranny once and for all. But their methods and ideals differ drastically, driving a wedge between them. Worse still, they both soon find that the only way to defeat the monsters that subjugated them may be to become monsters themselves.

Review: Two books in a row that I requested based on intriguing covers! Plus a bunch of other things of course: fire magic, a central romance, and whatever those antlers are that they’re wearing in the cover art! This is the first book for this author, so it’s also always nice to support a new voice to the genre. While I did have some criticisms of the story in the end, overall, this was a fun, fast read.

Pran and Oksana share the same tragic story as most of their fellow soldiers: forcibly stolen from their families at a young age and then experimented on and trained to be fire warriors. Not only are the experiments that give them their abilities painful and cruel, there’s no guarantee they’ll even survive their training, all for the privilege of fighting for a nation that has invaded their own lands. But Pran and Oksana aren’t content to simply survive; they want to do away with the entire system. The struggle that follows will test their individual abilities and strengths as well as the heart of their relationship itself.

To start off, this book was very readable. A weird bit of praise for a book that is mean to be, you know, read, but it’s something that more than enough books still fail at anyways. The writing was perhaps simple, but it moved at a quick pace and I found myself blowing through the story in only a day or two. The story of two soldiers forced into battle and working against a tyrannical system and ruler is compelling and the action is tense. The story also doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the world it has built. I originally started questioning whether the book was actually going to demonstrate how bad things were (our hero and heroine escape horrible situations a few times too many to be entirely plausible), but the author really goes there about half way through with a pretty dark scene. It’s a weird thing to say, but I think this book might have benefited from leaning even more into this darker aspect of the story.

Like I alluded to earlier, Pran and Oksana, as interesting as they are as characters, did seem to have pretty obvious plot armor throughout the story. All main characters have this to some extent, but it depends on an author’s ability how well this fact can be masked. Here, it was less so. But simply as characters, Pran and Oksana do well enough. We see how the way they were forced into service has impacted all of their decisions going forward, for better and for worse. Their various relationships with the idea of family and the homes that they left behind drive them each to imagine a better life but direct them down very different paths to accomplish it.

I also liked the fact that the romance is already established at the beginning of the book. Yes, drama is added to give an arc to this relationship, but a story built around the challenges found in a previously strong romance is definitely unique among so many others that focus only on the beginnings. I could have used a bit more fleshing out, here, however. The story refers back to a few scenes that build up how these two came together, but perhaps a extending these into actual flashbacks might have helped make the romance feel more fully fleshed out as a whole.

My main criticism of the story is a bit hard to put my finger on. I think what it comes down to was that everything was a bit too simply described. There are the broad strokes of a world. The broad strokes of a magic system. The broad strokes of characters and their motivations. But I never felt like I was getting any details. I couldn’t describe the fort in which they lived. I couldn’t tell you what any characters looked like other than Pran and Oksana (and even there all I really knew for sure was that Oksana had red hair and what we see on the cover). I didn’t have a good sense of scope of the nations they each came from. It felt a bit like the author was writing a “just the fun bits” type of novel. I have read and liked a good number of fan fiction pieces, so I don’t say this as a heavy ding, but it kind of felt like those stories can: a bit simplistic with an over emphasis on the main characters’ inner thoughts and feelings at the detriment of fleshing out the world and story itself.

But like I said, this was a fun, fast read, if not fully realized. Fans of romantic fantasy who don’t require much deep world-building or intricacy to their magic systems will likely enjoy this book. Also, fans of the show “The 100″…the cover art looks bizarrely like Bellamy and Clarke, I think. A ship that I followed until it crashed and burned, so this was a bit like fan fiction in that sense too: wish fulfillment.

Right?! You see it too!

Rating 7: A sweet romance if a bit unsupported in other aspects of the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“We are the Fire” is on these Goodreads lists: Monsters and Magic Society and YA Fantasy Standalone Books.

Find “We are the Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Fireheart Tiger”

Book: “Fireheart Tiger” by Aliette De Bodard

Publishing Info: Tor.com, February 2021

Where Did I get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Quiet, thoughtful princess Thanh was sent away as a hostage to the powerful faraway country of Ephteria as a child. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court, haunted not only by memories of her first romance, but by worrying magical echoes of a fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace.

Thanh’s new role as a diplomat places her once again in the path of her first love, the powerful and magnetic Eldris of Ephteria, who knows exactly what she wants: romance from Thanh and much more from Thanh’s home. Eldris won’t take no for an answer, on either front. But the fire that burned down one palace is tempting Thanh with the possibility of making her own dangerous decisions.

Can Thanh find the freedom to shape her country’s fate—and her own?

Review: I’ll admit that this was another book that pulled me in on the strength of the cover art alone. I mean, that’s just a gorgeous cover, and there’s no second opinion about it! The description comparing it to “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “The Goblin Emperor” couldn’t help but add more intrigue. Plus, it’s a novella, which I haven’t read one of for quite a while. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite live up to all of those expectations!

Life as a political hostage is not easy, but then no one ever expects it to be. More surprising for Thanh, a princess returning home at long last, is that her homecoming proves to have its own set of challenges. Haunted by a first love now thrown back in her path who sees her own path forward, Thanh begins to understand that she will need to evolve. As a passive hostage, her life had been simple. But as princess, wielding great power and responsibility, she has choices, some of which could impact the future of her entire country.

While I can think of several good examples of novellas that I’ve read in the past (Seanan McGuire’s entire “Wayward Children” series, for example), unfortunately, this book highlights much of how to do them wrong. With the strict word count limit imposed on writing a shorter story, the author has to be incredibly efficient with world-building and character development. And even then, you can’t spend too much time on it, necessitating that both the world, story, and character are fairly interesting and compelling on their own from the very start. And in these key areas, this book fails the test.

Particularly, Thanh herself is a fairly paper-thin character. She doesn’t stand out in any bad ways, but she’s also not very interesting and lacks the charisma needed to drive a short story like this. Her lack of a strong voice makes the necessary info-dumping portions of the story stand out more than they should. Beyond that, I found the character to be a bit unlikable, seeming to wallow in self-pity more often than not and easily distracted by her own personal dramas over the larger state of affairs going on around her.

I also was very uninvested in the love interest and romance of this story. We simply aren’t given enough here to care. Ephteria’s attraction is almost entirely contained in the author’s telling rather than showing style. She has blue eyes…that’s about all we get. But Thanh spends pages upon pages obsessing over her, and the readers are stuck there with her, just not understanding why. The thin depiction of this relationship is mirrored in Thanh’s other relationships as well, with her mother, and with another young girl she befriends.

Beyond this, the writing didn’t work for me. I found it often to be jarring and uninspired, pulling out cliches when you’d most expect them and not helping to build any tension as the story worked its way through its plot points. The dialogue was at times particularly egregious, with some of the villains just one mustache-twirl away from being comical.

There may have been a good story here somewhere if the author had had more word-count to work on. But I’m also not convinced that the characters, world, or overall plot could have supported an increased page count. It’s kind of a chicken or the egg thing: did the page count limit the creativity of the characters and flow of the writing, or were these aspects weak on their own and would have just struggled more in a full-length novel?

Rating 6: Pretty disappointing overall. Though the cover is still one of the best I’ve seen in a while.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Fireheart Tiger” is a new title so it isn’t on too many Goodreads list, but it is on Upcoming 2021 SFF Books With Female Leads or Co-Leads.

Find “Fireheart Tiger” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Dragon Republic”

Book: “The Dragon Republic” by R. F. Kuang

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, August 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Three times throughout its history, Nikan has fought for its survival in the bloody Poppy Wars. Though the third battle has just ended, shaman and warrior Rin cannot forget the atrocity she committed to save her people. Now she is on the run from her guilt, the opium addiction that holds her like a vice, and the murderous commands of the fiery Phoenix—the vengeful god who has blessed Rin with her fearsome power.

Though she does not want to live, she refuses to die until she avenges the traitorous Empress who betrayed Rin’s homeland to its enemies. Her only hope is to join forces with the powerful Dragon Warlord, who plots to conquer Nikan, unseat the Empress, and create a new republic.

But neither the Empress nor the Dragon Warlord are what they seem. The more Rin witnesses, the more she fears her love for Nikan will force her to use the Phoenix’s deadly power once more.

Because there is nothing Rin won’t sacrifice to save her country . . . and exact her vengeance.

Previously Reviewed: “The Poppy War”

Review: I read “The Poppy War” over the summer. And while I really enjoyed it (it even made it onto my Top 10 list for the year!), it was also a super hard read. Kuang doesn’t back away from the awful realities of war, and how often the innocents are the ones to suffer the worst. That being the case, while I knew I wanted to continue with the series, I had to give myself a break before getting to the next one. So, about six months later, now is the time! Plus, the third book just came out a month or so ago, so I want to get to that one in a somewhat timely way.

The Poppy War has ended due to the extreme measures taken by Rin at the end of the last book. But the Empress remains and Rin’s vengeance has not been completed. However, even a powerful fire shaman such as herself cannot take on the Empress alone. Not to mention the opium she has been using to control the Phoenix’ voice in her head has consumed more and more of her life. When she’s approached by the Dragon warlord to join a new cause, a new war, Rin sees her only path forward. And is a soldier without a war, anyways? Rin’s not sure she wants to find out.

I enjoyed this second book even more than the first. In “The Poppy War,” there was a bit of a jarring tonal shift from the first half which read like a boarding school/coming-of-age story and the second half that was pure war and pure devastation around every corner. It got darker and darker and ended pretty much in the darkest place yet. This second book not only had to move Rin’s story forward from a seemingly impossible personal low, but it also must set up Rin’s path forward in her path for vengeance against an almost all-powerful foe. And while it fully explores the challenges of both of these things in very satisfying ways, that’s all covered in about the first third of the book! And instead, the author takes us into an even more complicated brewing conflict where Rin’s abilities could be the crux of everything.

The story once again dives into the complicated nature of warfare, loyalty to one’s country, and making the tough decisions when weighing the balance of the greater good. For one thing, it explores whether “the greater good” is even a thing in these types of decisions. Alongside these themes, however, this book also explores concepts of religion and cultural power with the introduction of the Hesperians, a sophisticated society that has largely stayed out of previous wars but are beginning to makes moves in this book. Rin is a great character to explore these themes alongside. While she has shamanic powers, she’s by no means devote. She can see both the appeal and the danger in these others with their monotheistic faith.

There were also a bunch of twists and turns in this story. At this point, I’ve come to assume that almost every person in power is terrible, only telling part of the truth, and looking to exploit Rin somehow. But I never can quite pin down the intricate motives and histories that behind the decisions everyone is making. What’s more, we had some pretty big reveals about side characters in this book that I definitely didn’t see coming at all! Rin’s own story took a few pretty massive shifts that I didn’t expect, and I loved it all.

I also appreciated that, while this book is still dark, it wasn’t quite as tough to get through as the first one. This could also be simply because I was more prepared for what I was getting into, and Rin herself was more hardened to what she was seeing and doing. Fans of the first book are sure to love this second one. And I can guarantee that the wait time between this second book and the third will be much shorter than my wait between the first and second!

Rating 9: Excellent and somehow even stronger than the first!

Reader’s Advisory:

Strangely, “The Dragon Republic” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Asian Speculative Fiction by Asian Authors — #ownvoices.

Find “The Dragon Republic” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms”

Book: “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” by N.K. Jemisin

Publishing Info: Orbit, February 2010

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library

Book Description: Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle.

Review: Technically, this was a re-read for me. I picked it up originally right when it came out, so about ten years ago now. I really enjoyed it then, but for some reason didn’t continue on with the series. Well, I decided that now was a good time to revisit Jemisin’s first trilogy, so I picked up the second book from the library and started out. Whelp, turns out I remembered basically nothing from this first book and was super confused right out of the gate, so a re-read was definitely in order before continuing on. And I’m very glad I did! I had a few vague ideas about what this book was about, but I really had forgotten just how detailed and rich this story is.

Yeine Darr had only recently come into her role as the leader of her small sub-nation. Challenging as this new role is, it is nothing to the sudden upheavel to her life when she is summoned to the grand city of Sky and finds herself thrust into the middle of a political battle. From small provincial leader, she’s now one of three potential heirs to the ruler of the entire land. But there is much more going on than a simple political struggle: Gods are involved. As Yeine works to uncover the mysteries of her own past, she begins to unravel a complicated history of her own world that has been hidden for centuries. But what can a country nobody such as herself do in this grand opera of gods and magic?

What I remembered about this book could mostly be summed up as “girl goes to palace and falls in love with some sort of dark, magical being.” Which…is somewhat accurate but also so, so much less than what this book is really about! For one thing, I forgot just how skilled Jemisin’s writing and world-building was in this book. Having now read more of her work, this isn’t as surprising, I guess, but when I first read it, it’s a wonder I didn’t just immediately continue on!

In the midst of an action-packed story centered around a complicated mystery, Jemisin still somehow manages to introduce a large cast of characters, build up an intricate world full of an entire pantheon of gods and various nationalities, and create a magic system within which it all operates. And on top of all that, the story never falls into any “info dump” traps. Instead, our narrator casually introduces various aspects of this world and drops hints here and there that slowly begin to paint an intricate picture in the reader’s mind. Indeed, the image is almost fully complete before you even realize that one was being built in the first place!

I’ve also talked before about the challenges of writing first person narratives and how rare it is to find this style of writing in adult fiction. As challenging as it is to build a new fantasy world and magic system on its own without resorting to long, info-dumping paragraphs, it’s even harder to do it in a natural-seeming way coming directly from the mouth of a character who would already be familiar with all of these things and have no natural reason to be speaking it out loud. To tackle this challenge, Jemisin relies on a nice little trick where her narrator is recounting her own story to some unknown audience. While Yeine’s story largely plays out chronologically, it’s clear that the narrator herself is speaking after the fact in the recounting of this story. In this way, little tidbits of information and sneak peaks into events coming up are dropped throughout the narrative, building suspense in the story itself and building curiosity as to how the past Yeine whom we are following along with comes to be the one who is narrating and clearly has a different perspective on her entire world. It’s a really clever technique, and one that we see Jemisin utilize to great effect in many of her works.

I also really liked the cast of character Jemisin builds up around Yeine. The gods themselves are all very complicated, neatly balancing extreme charisma and appeal alongside an ever-present, trigger-haired sense of impending violence. And the humans aren’t much better. Indeed, in many ways, this book emphasizes just how much worse the humans are than the gods who are thought to not possess any sense of humanity themselves. Alongside the perils of power and the quest to retain it, the story explores the darker themes of love and the choices it will lead the unwary towards.

I really enjoyed revisiting this story. I really had forgotten most of it, and it was a joy to rediscover some of Jemisin’s earlier work. This is a fantasy novel that is fully reveling in being a fantasy novel. It checks all the boxes I look for in this sort of story. If you’re a fan of Jemisin’s work and haven’t gotten around to reading some of her earlier stuff, I definitely recommend checking this out!

Rating 9: Complicated and rich, Jemisin proves why she was a force to be reckoned with right from the very start!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” is on these Goodreads lists: Best “Strong Female” Fantasy Novels and Diversity in Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Find “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” at your library using WorldCat!