Serena’s Reviews: “Magic Shifts”

"Magic Shifts"Book: “Magic Shifts” by Ilona Andrews

Publishing Info: Ace, August 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: The library!

Book Description from Goodreads: After breaking from life with the Pack, mercenary Kate Daniels and her mate—former Beast Lord Curran Lennart—are adjusting to a very different pace. While they’re thrilled to escape all the infighting, Curran misses the constant challenges of leading the shapeshifters.

So when the Pack offers him its stake in the Mercenary Guild, Curran seizes the opportunity—too bad the Guild wants nothing to do with him and Kate. Luckily, as a veteran merc, Kate can take over any of the Guild’s unfinished jobs in order to bring in money and build their reputation. But what Kate and Curran don’t realize is that the odd jobs they’ve been working are all connected.

An ancient enemy has arisen, and Kate and Curran are the only ones who can stop it—before it takes their city apart piece by piece…

Review: So, now that we’re all caught up with the “Kate Daniels” series, let’s jump right in to her next challenge! Life in the suburbs! I feel ya, Kate. Shockingly, Kate and Curran are not exactly ideal neighbors now that they’ve chosen to abandon living at the Pack fortress and have bought a home and property in suburbia. Curran’s habit of turning furry and huge and Kate’s late night excursions are most unwelcome.

odok9
Ew. Shapeshifters.

Curran seems to have been helping Kate with her usual tasks of cleaning up the city. Even more of a chore, now that she has “claimed” Atlanta as her own territory in an attempt to save it from her power-mad father, Roland. But, of course, something must go wrong and their friend, werebison Eduardo (I told you every creature that was ever imagined is in this series!) has gone missing and some new big bad is in town with a score to settle.

After having taken a break from this series for about a year and now jumping back in, I kind of forgot what a madhouse this world is! I mean, this book is comprised of not only a werebison, but the family drama of a werebison/werebear relationship, evil unicorns, a pegasus, and, count them, three giants! What is this book?! Fun, that’s what it is.

Kate is her usual snarky, badass self which is always the primary joy for me with this series. It was also fun seeing Curran outside of his role as the Beast Lord. In a lot of ways he was the Robin to Kate’s Batman in this book, which was a fun change from the usual Pack politics drama that he had been tied up within from the last few books. At the same time, it seems like he will now be running the Mercenary Guild, so he might fall back into the same type of position, just with another group. This probably makes sense for a character like this. Too much Robin is no one’s favorite thing. One book of it was probably enough!

Several of my favorite characters were noticeably light in this book, which was too bad. Saimen and Derek barely showed up. But we did get to meet Martha, a werebear who is the alpha of Clan Heavy. She was only there for moments, but I love her already. There was also a delightfully awkward family dinner with Kate, Curran, Julie, and Roland.

Roland’s all: “Family bonding time!”

Kate’s all:

date-wine-dinner-excused-brb-gif-blonde-awkward-gif

As far as the villain goes…meh? It was another new creature, and all in all it was an interesting concept. But at the same time, now that Roland’s on the scene, stories like these feel more and more like filler. And, not only did we not get a real showdown there or much progress beyond an info-dump at Applebee’s (Roland’s restaurant of choice??), Kate didn’t seem to even enhance her abilities in any way that could be read as progress towards that inevitable clash. So that was too bad.

That said, I still enjoyed this book for what it was: a quick foray into a messed up Atlanta that I’m sure as heck pleased NOT to live in. Though, I’d take the pegasus.

Rating 7: On par with my rating of the series over all

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Magic Shifts” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Badass Female Leads” and “It’s All About The Swords!”

Find “Magic Shifts” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Series Review – “Kate Daniels” Series

Kate Daniels SeriesA couple of years ago, I went on an urban fantasy binge. Urban fantasy, as a genre, has been very hit and miss for me. On paper it looks like something I would love. In reality? Most of what I’ve read has been fairly “meh.” There are a couple of series, however, that have caught hold and Ilona Andrews’ “Kate Daniels” series was one of them. Her newest book, “Magic Shifts” was published last August with the next in the series is coming out this September. I’ll be reviewing “Magic Shifts” soon and definitely have her newest on my mental list of books to look forward to this fall. But there are like 7 books in this series before this point! In lieu of an exhausting, and frankly, likely boring, review of each and every one of these books, I’m going to combine them all into a mega series review! We’ll see how this goes!

Books: “Magic Bites,” Magic Burns,” “Magic Strikes,” “Magic Bleeds,” Magic Slays,” “Magic Rises,” and “Magic Breaks” by Ilona Andrews*

Publishing Info: Ace, 2007, 2008,  2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014

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

Review: This series takes place in post-Shift Atlanta sometime in the near future. The Shift, a near apocalyptic event where magic suddenly re-entered the world, occurred years before and humanity is still adjusting to what this means for the world order. Suddenly there are shapeshifters, vampires, ghouls, and who knows what else running around the world wreaking havoc on the ordinary folk. The government has adjusted accordingly and attempted to set up systems to maintain order. One piece of this system is the Mercenary Guild. Its name is self-explanatory. Some creepy critter shows up, people can hire a mercenary to take care of it. Kate Daniels is one of the best, and this series is her story.

Throughout the series, Kate explores the mysteries of her past, while saving the day and forming close relationships with a ragtag group of other mercenaries, shapeshifters, vampire controllers, mages, etc, etc. Basically, she knows everyone in Atlanta. And, per typical urban fantasy requirements, there is a strong romantic element in her growing relationship with the Beast Lord, Curran, who is a werelion and the alpha of the Atlanta shapeshifter pack. Steaminess ensues.

What makes this series stick for me in ways that other urban fantasy series did not is our heroine, Kate. The spunky, snarky, warrior woman in these kinds of books is a well-trodden trope. However, Kate stands out not only in her consistency and general ability to avoid making ridiculous, self-sacrificial, dramatic decisions (per other frustrating heroines in series-that-shall-not-be-named), but also in the genuine evolution of her character throughout the books. While there are weaker books in the series than others, and there are moments where she falls into these stereotypes, overall, Kate learns from her mistakes, accepts who she is, and doesn’t devalue those around her, their feelings, or what they can contribute to her cause.

Curran, also, works well as the romantic lead. There are times, especially in the early books, where he plays a bit too much into the classic “alpha male” role which didn’t rub me the right way. But over the course of the series, he, too, evolves as a character and becomes a strong partner for Kate. And, even at his worst, he still acknowledges Kate’s independence and does not interfere in her adventuring ways.

There does come a point towards the last two thirds of the series where I call relationship shenanigans. Up to this point there had been the usual relationship set-up drama, but at this stage in the story, Kate and Curran were firmly an item and had worked through many of their issues. And then. And then!

Enough, I'm tired of your shenanigans

The wedge that was used to insert drama into their relationship felt very contrived. Both Kate and Curran behaved out-of-character, in my opinion, and it was all highly disappointing for a series that had handled its core relationship so competently up until this point. Luckily, this gaffe only lasted through the one book and things have returned to normal since. During this section in the series, it felt like Andrews was coming up against a sort of wall, having gotten her couple together and fleshed out many of Kate’s familial mysteries. She did recover, however, and I am happy to report that the next few books were on par once again.

When I said earlier that Kate knows everyone in Atlanta? Yeah, I meant everyone. There are so many characters in this series! And most of them are tons of fun. A few of my favorites are Aunt B, a werehyena, Andrea, a sharpshooter merc, Julie, a street kid with magical flare, and Saiman, a….who knows what really? But he snarks at Kate and makes her uncomfortable and is fun all around. And there are many, many more! This is both a plus and a minus. As the series continues, it becomes impossible to spend enough time with all of these great characters in each book. One book will spend extra time with one or two and only have brief appearances from the others, and vice versa. So, depending on which characters you like, and how much page time they get in each book, there can be a dramatic difference in your enjoyment of one book in the series as compared to another. Luckily, if you’re just there mostly for Kate, like I am, you’re good to go the whole time.

Each book also seems to live and die by its villain. Some are stronger than others. There are some genuinely creepy magical beings in these books. But, in general, the creativity of the world and how civilization has adapted to all of the craziness is what makes this series so fun. I burned through the first 3-4 books in this series in a matter of weeks. I’m not sure I would recommend this approach, as aspects of the stories became a bit too familiar from one book to the next. But it can’t say anything too bad that I was invested enough to fall into that trap in the first place. If you like urban fantasy, definitely check out this series, and look out for my upcoming review of “Magic Shifts” where Kate beats up on some giants!

*Can we take a moment to ask why urban fantasy novels have such terrible names and covers? I mean, look at those things! Sigh.

Rating 7: Fun urban fantasy lark. You know what you’re getting, but it’s the good kind.

Reader’s Advisory: Since this is a series, it’s not really on a list, per se. If you liked this series, however, I would recommend the “Mercy Thompson” series by Patricia Briggs and “October Daye” series by Seanan McGuire.

Find the first book in this series, “Magic Bites,” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Morning Star”

Morning StarBook: “Morning Star” by Pierce Brown

Publishing Info: Del Rey, February 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: The library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Darrow would have lived in peace, but his enemies brought him war. The Gold overlords demanded his obedience, hanged his wife, and enslaved his people. But Darrow is determined to fight back. Risking everything to transform himself and breach Gold society, Darrow has battled to survive the cutthroat rivalries that breed Society’s mightiest warriors, climbed the ranks, and waited patiently to unleash the revolution that will tear the hierarchy apart from within.

Finally, the time has come.

But devotion to honor and hunger for vengeance run deep on both sides. Darrow and his comrades-in-arms face powerful enemies without scruple or mercy. Among them are some Darrow once considered friends. To win, Darrow will need to inspire those shackled in darkness to break their chains, unmake the world their cruel masters have built, and claim a destiny too long denied – and too glorious to surrender.

Unavoidable spoilers for “Red Rising” and “Golden Son.”

Review: This is it! The final book in Pierce Brown’s “Red Rising” trilogy. For me, from past experience with YA trilogies, the last book is what makes or breaks the series. And sadly, more often than not, they fall in the category of “breaks.” I’m looking at you “Allegiant” and “Mockingjay.” But not so with “Morning Star.” It’s good, guys, it’s really good!

happy win excited star trek yes
Yes! Nailed it!

“Morning Star” picks up pretty much where “Golden Son” left off. Darrow has been betrayed and captured by his enemies. Cue pain and suffering. It goes without saying that eventually he is rescued, otherwise there would be no book here, so I don’t think I’m spoiling much by acknowledging that yes, he does eventually escape. But only after his confidence has been shaken. This book is the culmination of Darrow’s journey towards leadership. One of my complaints from “Golden Son” was Darrow’s tendency towards over-confidence and arrogance. In this book he has to re-make himself and discover what it is that he really has to contribute to the uprising. It’s no longer as simple as “Darrow: magical leader fighting guy.” His journey through this book is so incredibly satisfying.

All the right character beats are hit exactly. And moreover, not only do we get more time and character expansion for favorite characters from past books (Sevro, Victra, Mustang) but yes, even more awesome characters are added, like the Queen of the Obsidians. I can’t write this review without dedicating at least a few sentences to my girl, Mustang. This series has come so far from its roots where I was skeptical as to the treatment of the few female characters. In this, Mustang comes into her own as equally important to the success of the revolution as Darrow. They’re the definition of a power couple.

Believe it or not, the world building expands even further in this final book. It’s incredibly impressive how creative, well-thought out, and organized this massive world is. We get to spend time in a variety of new settings and, specifically,  the politics of the Obsidians and Moon Lords are more fully explored.

The most impressive part of this story, for me, is the fact that Brown doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of a revolution of this nature. Darrow is forced to make heartbreaking compromises and, in the end, his “rising” looks much different than the one he imagined as the idealistic sleeper spy from book one.

My few criticisms of the book: I mentioned in my review for “Golden Son” the odd balance Brown strikes between writing shocking revelations and dealing with the boundaries of a first person narrative. There was some improvement in this area, but ultimately, I still found some of these reveals a bit awkward in the context of how the reader is viewing the story. I’m starting to think that Brown could also make it as a screenwriter given this tendency. There are also several grand speeches (ala “Independence Day” style) throughout the book which are easy to picture going over well in a summer blockbuster. Perhaps a few too many, honestly. However, it is ultimately saved by a couple of self-aware jabs at Darrow’s tendency to speechify which play well for humor’s sake.

Ultimately, I think that Brown nailed the landing on this one. While the end was slightly predictable, Brown’s complex world, engaging characters, and talent for writing fast-paced, exciting action scenes make this book (and series) a must for sci-fi lovers.

Rating 8: Highly enjoyable. Am waiting for the movie announcement to come any day! How could it not?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Morning Star” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Best Science Fiction of the 21st Century” and “Best Grimdark.”

Find “Morning Star” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Rev-Up Review: “Golden Son”

Golden SonIn anticipation of my up-coming review of the recently released “Morning Star,” the final book in Pierce Brown’s “Red Rising” trilogy, I thought I would go ahead and post reviews for the two previous books in the series. Just so we’re all caught up and ready for what promises to be an action-packed conclusion! Here’s my review of the second book in the trilogy.

Book: “Golden Son” by Pierce Brown

Publishing Info: Del Rey, January 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: Bought

Book Description from Goodreads: With shades of “The Hunger Games,” “Ender’s Game,” and “Game of Thrones,” debut author Pierce Brown’s genre-defying epic Red Rising hit the ground running and wasted no time becoming a sensation.

“Golden Son” continues the stunning saga of Darrow, a rebel forged by tragedy, battling to lead his oppressed people to freedom from the overlords of a brutal elitist future built on lies. Now fully embedded among the Gold ruling class, Darrow continues his work to bring down Society from within.

A life-or-death tale of vengeance with an unforgettable hero at its heart.

Inevitable spoilers for “Red Rising.”

Review: Oh, look! Publishers have now added “Game of Thrones” to the list of books this series resembles! Except for space. And a color-based hierarchy. And set in the future of our current world. And a single, first person narrator. Wait…

“Golden Son” starts with a significant jump in time. This was very unexpected. As the series was initially marketed as young adult, it is usually customary for the story to pick up immediately where the previous book left off. However, for this series, I think it really works. “Red Rising” ends with Darrow being fully accepted into the Gold society, triumphant after his overthrow of the battle school system, and moving on to the next level of his training under the tutelage of his nemesis, Nero au Augustus. I suspect that Brown may have caught on to the lessons learned by “Catching Fire:” readers don’t necessarily appreciate “Sequel: Battle School 2.0.” So the decision to skip the majority of Darrow’s time going through this process is not only unexpected but appreciated. We are introduced to a recognizable, but extremely more confident and assertive Darrow who has fully come into his own without needing to experience every growing pain along the way.

The downside of this decision is that readers are immediately plopped into the middle of a very complex story. There are new characters everywhere (this isn’t helped by the use of difficult, Roman-inspired names like “Victra” and “Pliny” who are hard to keep track of). The story is also much more firmly set within a science fiction landscape. While “Red Rising” was considered a science fiction work, the majority of the plot took place on the planet and in an environment that resembled Earth in many ways, advanced technology aside. This story takes place in space with a capital “S.” There are battles between space ships, scenes set on different planets and moons, and space jumps similar to the kind seen in the 2009 remake “Star Trek.” If you were hoping for more sci-fi, Brown delivers.

Darrow remains an interesting protagonist. There are a few times in this book, however, where he makes decisions and acts in a way that, as a reader, you’re just shouting “Darrow, noooo!” It’s like when you’re watching a horror movie and you just know that that character shouldn’t go down into the basement. Why won’t they just listen to good sense? And Mustang? Mustang is the good sense Darrow doesn’t listen to. My concerns from the previous book regarding the use of female characters are addressed here. Mustang continues to be my favorite character, and there are several other female characters introduced who play vital roles to the story. Victra, especially, is a great addition as a scathing, broken Gold who, clearly against her will, befriends Darrow.

One other odd bit: the book is written in such a way that it seems like it would be an effortless translation from page to screen. However, the types of revelations that come naturally to film play oddly within the structure of the book. There is a moment later in the book when a shocking plot point is introduced in a way that feels a bit unnatural. It should, and does, come out of left field for those around Darrow. But we’ve been living in his head for the past 200 pages with no reference to this information, even though facts that tie into it have been mentioned often. So it reads like a great movie reveal. But it’s weird when you’re reading a first person narrative where information should be as known to the reader as it is to the narrator (unless the author is writing an unreliable narrator, but that’s not the case here). The plot point is fun, it’s just the way it’s introduced that feels strange.

“Golden Son” expands Brown’s world in every way. The reader’s understanding of how this society operates and spans a solar system is grown and the political mechanisms at work to sustain such a web are fully explored. A final downside? Cliffhanger alert. But, luckily, “Morning Star” was published early this year, so that’s a relief.

Rating 7: Very good, slightly lower than “Red Rising” due to a challenging balancing act between so many new components and character motivations

Reader’s Advisory:

“Golden Son” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Best Picks: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Novels of 2015” and “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2015.”

Find “Golden Son” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Rev-Up Review: “Red Rising”

Red RisingIn anticipation of my up-coming review of the recently released “Morning Star,” the final book in Pierce Brown’s “Red Rising” trilogy, I thought I would go ahead and post reviews for the two previous books in the series. Just so we’re all caught up and ready for what promises to be an action-packed conclusion! Here’s my review of the first book in the trilogy.

Book: “Red Rising”

Publishing Info: Del Rey, January 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: Splurge! I bought it.

Book Description from Goodreads: Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations.

But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity already reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and sprawling parks spread across the planet. Darrow—and Reds like him—are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.

Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity’s overlords struggle for power. He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society’s ruling class. There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies… even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.

Review: This book was marketed as a cross between “The Hunger Games” and “Ender’s Game.” I liked “The Hunger Games” and loved “Ender’s Game,” so I was pretty sold. (Of course, this book also came out during a time when all YA books published that had even a whiff of dystopian influences were marketed as “THE NEXT HUNGER GAMES OMG.” So I was understandably skeptical of this claim.) However, for once, this marketing ploy wasn’t far off and actually followed through with its promise!

This book is fast paced. You meet Darrow, an unambitious family man (yes, he’s also a teenager, but hey, dystopia world!) who is content to live his life as a Helldiver, a risky role where he operates a clawDrill that bores into Mars’ core in an effort to terraform the planet for human life on the surface. Two seconds later, tragedy has struck, he’s been recruited to a rebel organization, and is a sleeper spy caught up in political intrigue within a  tyrannical society that spans the solar system. A society that uses an elaborate death school to identify the leaders in its elite youth. Hence: “Hunger Games in Space!”

The world building is impressive. The combination of a complex hierarchical system based on colors (Blues work in the medical field, Green are tech, etc. with Gold ruling over the lot), plus a sci-fi backdrop on Mars, with many creative uses of technology, leaves the reader constantly wondering what will come next and how these pieces will all fit together. Brown is clearly having a blast with this world, and his appreciation of staple works in the sci fi/fantasy genre  is expressed with a fun smattering of Easter eggs for fans to fish out.

Darrow is also a fantastic protagonist. At one point as I was reading, I started to become concerned that he was going to turn into the typical, hero-journey character that neatly ticks the boxes in his predictable path to becoming the savior of the people. But, luckily, his flaws are highlighted and there are enough wrenches thrown into the plot to defy expectation and keep things interesting.

And his companion, Mustang, is amazing. I want a companion series all about her. My one concern, however, is that in this book she seems to operate as the token “strong woman” character with several other female characters sliding into obscurity. And worse, at one point there comes a bit that strikes too closely to using violence against women purely for shock value. My biggest hope for this series is that it improves in this area.

All in all, I highly enjoyed “Red Rising.” The book is obviously setting up a trilogy but is also enjoyable on its own. Stay tuned for my review of “Golden Son” coming soon.

Rating 8: Very good, fun sci fi read

Reader’s Advisory:

“Red Rising” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Best Science Fiction of the 21st Century” and “YA Novels of 2014.”

Find “Red Rising” at your library using WorldCat!