Serena’s Review: “This Shattered World”

13138734Book: “This Shattered World” by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

Publishing Info: Disney-Hyperion, December 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: audio book from the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Jubilee Chase and Flynn Cormac should never have met.

Lee is captain of the forces sent to Avon to crush the terraformed planet’s rebellious colonists, but she has her own reasons for hating the insurgents.

Rebellion is in Flynn’s blood. Terraforming corporations make their fortune by recruiting colonists to make the inhospitable planets livable, with the promise of a better life for their children. But they never fulfilled their promise on Avon, and decades later, Flynn is leading the rebellion.

Desperate for any advantage in a bloody and unrelentingly war, Flynn does the only thing that makes sense when he and Lee cross paths: he returns to base with her as prisoner. But as his fellow rebels prepare to execute this tough-talking girl with nerves of steel, Flynn makes another choice that will change him forever. He and Lee escape the rebel base together, caught between two sides of a senseless war.

Review: After reading and liking “These Broken Stars,” the first book in the “Starbound” trilogy, I was excited to jump right into the sequel. As I said in that review, I was even more intrigued by this book (and this series) by the fact that it was being written as companion novels, each featuring new characters, while spinning out a larger mystery that connects them all. When most YA series have recently followed a very predictable path, this was a creative take and a way to “have your cake and eat it, too” as an author. Sustainable series that will build and maintain a reading followership? Check. Get to write exciting, new characters and storylines? Check. Garner new readers with each book by not requiring knowledge of a previous story to engage with the current one? Check. So, in theory, “This Shattered World” was a brilliant concept. In reality, it was a swing and a miss for me.

Starting with the things I liked. Strengths from the previous novel were still present here: strong grounding in science fiction, not shying away from the realities and horror of the story’s premises, and the ability to draw characters who are both flawed and sympathetic and whose journey to mutual understanding is believable and compelling. These are no easy marks to meet, and I can’t emphasize enough how impressed I have been by the authors’ ability to balance alternating character chapters in a way that makes each perspective relatable and interesting in both of these stories. I personally found Jubilee’s voice more compelling, but this is likely due to my own personal preference for her character type as opposed to the more quiet and introspective Flynn.

Further, I was impressed with the way that the previous book’s main characters were tied into this story. The larger conflict dealing with Lilac’s father, his company, LaRoux Industries, and the experiments they have been undertaking on a mysterious alien life form were neatly woven in to this book. The unique conflict and peril of the story, the growing rebellion between the military and rebel leaders, were balanced nicely with this larger plot point. And while Lilac and Tarver are not present for much of the story, when they do make an appearance, it doesn’t feel forced or contrived. This story neatly builds upon the first one and does a good job laying down more groundwork and pushing the narrative towards the inevitable confrontation that will take place in the final book in the trilogy.

Now, sadly, for the negatives. First off, the writing in this book, overall, felt weaker than the last. The limited vocabulary was noticeable to a point of distraction. At one point, the word “shattered” was used 4 times within 2 pages. Hearts shattering. Sound shattering. Thoughts shattering. And it was only later that day when I remembered that that word was also in the title! I wouldn’t necessarily say that this is a marked difference from the first book, but instances like this did happen often enough to make me notice it in this story. Whether that comes down to the fact that there was an actual drop in writing quality in this book, or instead an indicator that I was not as thoroughly invested in this story enough that I was noticing things like this, I don’t know. Honestly, neither explanation is very good.

For some reason, beyond the alternating character chapters, the authors chose to include dream sequences from Jubilee’s perspective between each chapter. In a book as long as this is and with chapters as short as they were, that’s a lot, A LOT, of dream sequences. Way too many to be of any actual use to the story. A few of them may have contributed some background knowledge into Jubilee’s past, but I’m not convinced that this method was the best way to go about this. We learned Flynn’s past fine without resorting to 20+ dream sequences spread out through the entire book. And by the time the story gets to the final act, these dream sequences were not only failing to add to the story, but actively distracting from it and inserting a jarring tonal change between action-packed sequences. Further, there were more writing quality issues with the decision to refer to Jubilee as “the girl” throughout each dream sequence. “The girl hid under the table. But the girl could not see anything.” This writing technique is only rarely successful, from my experience, and there needs to be a good reason to choose to do it. That wasn’t the case here.

This also ties in neatly to my last critique. Typically I don’t have a lot to say about the audiobook version of a book I’ve read. Maybe I’ve just been lucky so far and had good experiences. This, however, was decidedly not. The writing challenges were only further highlighted, I feel, when listening to the story. And some of the creative decisions were very poor. For instance, they decided to have three narrators, one for Jubilee, one for Flynn, and another for the dream sequences portion.

The direction for the dream sequences was absolutely atrocious, and I don’t say that lightly. For some reason, they decided to include this whispery murmuring and wind sound affect in the background for each bit. And the voice actor read the entire thing in a very dreamy, whispered voice. It was almost impossible to take it seriously. The combination of these affects, and the dramatic reading voice,  alongside the very simplistic writing style and the whole “the girl” narrative style, was severely off putting. It was taking itself way too seriously and ultimately made a joke of the whole thing. This is very unfortunate. I feel like I would have disliked the dream sequences even if I had simply read the book for the reasons I highlighted earlier, but the audio book version almost made them unbearable.

And sadly, the voice actor who read for Flynn was also not a favorite of mine. His tonal inflection was very bland and he didn’t vary his voice at all between characters which made several portions of the story very difficult to follow. The woman who narrated Jubilee, however, did a very good job. It is just too bad that having only one successful voice actor out of three makes a serious impact on the audio book’s success overall.

I would have rated the story alone as a 6. The strengths from the previous book were still present, however this book suffered from slightly weaker characters, a slightly weaker plot, and even perhaps slightly weaker writing. However, when the audio book is as bad as this one, I have to detract another point. It just goes to show how important it is to properly cast and direct an audio book. It has a huge effect on a story, making small flaws that much more noticeable and potentially adding points of distraction and distaste to an otherwise adequate story.

Rating 5: The story was ok, but the audio book was not.

Reader’s Advisory:

“This Shattered World” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Australian Women Writers – YA Speculative Fiction”and “Companion Novels”.

Find “This Shattered World” at your library using Worldcat!

Previous Review of “These Broken Stars.”

 

Serena’s Review: “These Broken Stars”

13138635Book: “These Broken Stars” by Aime Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

Publishing Info: Disney Hyperion, December 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Luxury spaceliner Icarus suddenly plummets from hyperspace into the nearest planet. Lilac LaRoux and Tarver Merendsen survive – alone. Lilac is the daughter of the richest man in the universe. Tarver comes from nothing, a cynical war hero. Both journey across the eerie deserted terrain for help. Everything changes when they uncover the truth.  

Review: For all the proliferation of young adult fantasy novels, there is a distinct lack of young adult science fiction. I’m not quite sure why this is the case as the two genres are so often combined into one “fantasy/sci-fi” due to the vast number of similarities. Further, if there was ever a saturation point for readers, I have to think we’re reaching it with the number YA fantasy series out there right now. In this way, “These Broken Stars” stands out. Not only is it distinctly science fiction, but it is also a book that can be read as a stand alone! Both of these aspects were a refreshing change, and while there were some weak points in the story, for the most part “These Broken Stars” left me very satisfied.

Heiress and socialite Lilac LaRoux and war hero Tarver Merendsen have a typical meet-cute: plummeting towards a planet aboard a malfunctioning escape pod from an exploding spaceship. But really, the ship was called the “Icarus,” what did they expect? Why would anyone, ever, get on a ship named the “Icarus”?? There’s your first mistake. After crash landing, the two discover they are the only survivors of the wreck and must trek across an unknown planet in the hopes of discovering some means of sending a distress signal and escaping alive.

This is a solid plot. I appreciated the fact that Kaufman and Spooner didn’t pull any punches with the realities of a disaster of this magnitude. Not only do Tarver and Lilac have to deal with the challenges of their maroonment, but gruesome details of the crash and its aftermath are not shied away from. There are no easy outs. Injuries, starvation, dehydration, the confusion of a new environment, the grief and fear of a situation so fully out of one’s control: these are all painted with deft strokes. At one point, Tarver and Lilac reach the main wreck of the ship and the practicalities and horror of the situation is fully explored. Often, young adult novels can have a tendency to go easy on the realities of the story in favor of focusing on character drama. It can be very disappointing and also distracting. (Why is that character fretting between her love interests when an army is invading her kingdom?!?!) Not so, here.

And that’s not to say the characters in this do not experience their own drama. It’s only that their drama seems more grounded in the situation they find themselves in and their own biases and preconceived notions of the individual they have been forced to experience this trial alongside. The love story feels earned with its two characters going through misunderstanding, frustration, and anger, before building mutual understanding, respect, and care.

There were a few points where Tarver and Lilac fell a bit too closely into stereotypical characterizations. Or, more like, their “shocking reveal” anti-stereotypical characterizations. Of course Lilac isn’t just a socialite, but also a wiz at mechanics! However, each time I was about to roll my eyes at some overdone character moment, the authors would surprise me with a bit of realism that was enough to draw me back in. Lilac may be a wiz at mechanics, but she still struggles with her situation. So, too, Tarver, who could easily be written as the character more fully in the know and the right with his judgements of his companion, is also given flaws that make him more relatable and believable. Their physical and emotional journey is surprisingly balanced.

The mystery was also surprising. I enjoyed the reveal, and the final challenge in the third act of the story came completely out of left field. Also, while loose ends remained, the story also wrapped itself up in a way that was satisfying. Again, in young adult fiction where trilogies, cliff hangers, and dangling romantic plot lines that are drawn out through at least three books are the norm, I can’t emphasize enough how much I appreciated this respite.

There are two more books in this “series.” However, they each seem to focus on a new pair of individuals. This is a unique framing technique for what I’m guessing will be the larger conflict that was begun in this story. I’m curious to see how it will all pan out!

Rating 7: A solid outing for a young adult science fiction novel!

Reader’s Advisory:

“These Broken Stars” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Teenagers . . . IN SPACE!” and “Space Opera Romance”.

Find “These Broken Stars” at your library using Worldcat!

 

 

Serena’s Review: “Flamecaster”

Flamecaster Book: “Flamecaster” by Cinda Williams Chima

Publishing Info: HarperCollins, April 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Adrian sul’Han, known as Ash, is a trained healer with a powerful gift of magic—and a thirst for revenge. The son of the queen of the Fells, Ash is forced into hiding after a series of murders throws the queendom into chaos. Now Ash is closer than he’s ever been to killing the man responsible, the cruel king of Arden. As a healer, can Ash use his powers not to save a life but to take it?

Abandoned at birth, Jenna Bandelow was told the mysterious magemark on the back of her neck would make her a target. But when the King’s Guard launches a relentless search for a girl with a mark like hers, Jenna assumes that it has more to do with her role as a saboteur than any birth-based curse. Though Jenna doesn’t know why she’s being hunted, she knows that she can’t get caught.

Eventually, Ash’s and Jenna’s paths will collide in Arden. Thrown together by chance and joined by their hatred of the king, they will come to rescue each other in ways they cannot yet imagine.

Review: I had read and thoroughly enjoyed Chima’s “Seven Realms” series, so I was very excited to hear that she was returning to that world for a second go with a new cast of characters from the next generation. From past experience, series that are set in the same world, but later in time, can be very hit or miss. It’s hard to not want to spend time with the characters I am already familiar with and the jump in time can come with some nasty surprises. While I enjoyed “Flamecaster,” I did fall prey to this type of disappointment when comparing it to the last story and featured characters.

Right off the bat, I was reminded why I enjoyed the first set of books. Chima’s world building is solid, and it was very easy to slip back into this time, place, and culture even with the years that have passed since I finished the last book. Much of this book is set in the kingdom of Arden, now ruled by the tyrant King that Raina, the Wolf Queen of the Fells and one of the main characters from the first series, refused to marry 25 years ago. Things have not improved since. He’s still busy rounding up, burning or collaring the magic users of his kingdom while conducting  a long, drawn out war with the Fells. It hasn’t been going well, but he is anything if not persistent.

Here enters Jenna, a coal miner, orphan, and rebel with a personal vendetta against the King. Unfortunately, rebel!Jenna is the most interesting part of her character and we get very little of that in this book. Her secret and forgotten past play a large part in driving this story, but we only get a few tidbits of answers towards the end of the story. And in the meantime, she is largely a pawn stored away in a dungeon through significant chunks of the book. For a character with mysterious abilities and a penchant for blowing things up, I wish we had gotten more from her.

Ash, the other main character mentioned in the description, is the son of Raina and Han, our protagonists from the first series. His story starts off with the type of tragic happenings that I always dread from next-generation-stories. But as a character, he was fairly enjoyable. His magic and personality are distinctly different than his father’s, which is important in a character who could have easily read as Han 2.0. We spend more time with Ash and that alone makes his story line more enjoyable than Jenna’s. Though, here too, I didn’t feel like he was as fully fleshed out as either Raina or Han were from the first series.

What wasn’t mentioned in the book description and what surprised me as I read is the fact that Jenna and Ash are not the only protagonists of this book. Lo and behold, there are two other characters whose perspectives are given a decent amount of page time: smuggler and quick witted, Lila, and Destin, a mage and spymaster working for the King of Arden. Destin only has a very few chapters, so I don’t have much to say about him. He serves his purpose, but didn’t add a lot to the story, in my opinion. Lila, however, is by far my favorite character in the book. She is the most action-oriented, we see her weaving in between all of the other characters with ease and skill, and her personality reads the strongest on the page. In all honesty, while events at the end of this book make it clear why Jenna will be serious player in the future, I finished this story kind of wanting Lila to me our main female protagonist.

So, while I enjoyed aspects of this book, there were some disappointments as well. As I’ve highlighted a bit here, many of the main characters simply weren’t as engaging as I would have wanted. I remember that the first book in the “Seven Realms” series also seemed a bit lackluster only to vastly improve with the three following books, so I’m hopeful that that will prove true with this series as well. However, while I love the addition of Lila, I’m concerned that balancing four perspectives and characters may ultimately weaken my attachment to each. I finished this book not really caring about Destin or Jenna, and mildly interested in Ash (and a lot of that interest still has to do with his connection to the characters from the previous book.) Still love Lila, though.

The other major detractor that has to be mentioned is a very, very unfortunate bout of instalove. If I was going to mention one thing that made the “Seven Realms” series stand out to me amongst the plethora of YA fantasy series, it would be the solid characterization and slow build of its main romantic pairing. Each book read as a solid step in Raina and Han’s relationship, from mere acquaintances who really know nothing of the truth about one another even at the end of the first book, to casually dating with the struggles that come with that, to a serious relationship by the end. And here, in this new series, we get one of the worst examples of an instalove relationship that I cam remember. And I’ve read a lot, so that’s saying something. Again, part of me hopes that there will be some explanation for the rush of this in the first book, perhaps they’re not meant to be together and things will get switched up (go Lila!)? I’m not sure. But if this relationship is supposed to read as a main fixture in the story, this was not a good start.

All in all, this wasn’t the strong return to this world that I was hoping for. However, there were enough elements to keep me reading, and my previous experience with the slow start of the other series leaves me hopeful that this will grow in much the same way.

Rating 6: Decent, but some of the characters were disappointing and the instalove was maddening.

Reader’s Advisory:

This book isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but I would highly recommend reading the “Seven Realms” series by the same author. It isn’t necessary to appreciate this book, but I loved it and would recommend it simply for its own worth.

Find “Flamecaster” at your library using Worldcat!

 

 

 

Serena’s Review: “Marked in Flesh”

Marked in Flesh Book: “Marked in Flesh” by Anne Bishop

Publishing Info: Penquin/Roc, March 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: For centuries, the Others and humans have lived side by side in uneasy peace. But when humankind oversteps its bounds, the Others will have to decide how much humanity they’re willing to tolerate—both within themselves and within their community…

Since the Others allied themselves with the cassandra sangue, the fragile yet powerful human blood prophets who were being exploited by their own kind, the delicate dynamic between humans and Others changed. Some, like Simon Wolfgard, wolf shifter and leader of the Lakeside Courtyard, and blood prophet Meg Corbyn, see the new, closer companionship as beneficial—both personally and practically.

But not everyone is convinced. A group of radical humans is seeking to usurp land through a series of violent attacks on the Others. What they don’t realize is that there are older and more dangerous forces than shifters and vampires protecting the land that belongs to the Others—and those forces are willing to do whatever is necessary to protect what is theirs…

Review: This is the fourth book in Anne Bishop’s “The Others” series. I absolutely loved her first book in this series, “Written in Red,” and have been diligently following along ever since. Mostly because of the slow burn relationship building between Simon and Meg, let’s be honest. But Bishop’s version of the world, the complicated and flipped history of a native people retaining their influence and power over their homeland against a colonizing force, has also been a compelling factor in my decision to keep reading. However, my motivation has been slowly waning with each new book, as Bishop seems either unclear of her direction or unwilling to get there in what I consider a timely manner. I was generally frustrated by “Marked in Flesh,” as similarly to previous books, it continues the slow decline since the high of “Written in Red.”

This book starts off pretty much exactly where the last left off. The “Humans First and Last” movement, an anti-Others, radical terrorist group, is going strong in their attempt to claim land that they believe they are entitled to. The problem with this narrative has been the same throughout the series. As the book is framed from the perspective of Meg and Simon, primarily, the reader has first hand knowledge of the strength of the Others and the futility of the HFL movement is clear from the beginning. It’s not a true conflict. It’s more, how badly with the HFL movement fail and how many humans will suffer for it.

But this aspect of the story has also been one of the key elements that has kept me interested in the series. The complete flip in power that Bishop sets up is intriguing. It’s impressive how easily she manages to set up the humans (by and large almost all of them) as the villains of this world. I have increasingly found myself becoming exasperated not by the fact that there is a conflict between the humans and the Others, but because I’m reading along thinking “Just smite them already and be done with it!” A very bizarre take to have, I realize, but one that Bishop pretty effectively imposes on the reader. The humans in this world seem to be either full blown terrorists bombing, poisoning, or simply mowing down innocent Others with machine guns, or ignorant fools, content with not only sitting back as these atrocities are committed, but ostracizing and victimizing other groups of humans who don’t join the cause. It’s hard to feel sympathy for many people other than the ones we are directly exposed to.

But because she sets up the groups in this conflict so unequally, both in sympathy and power, this book was largely a drag. It was clear from the beginning that things were headed south for human/Others relations, and about midway through the book, the HFL movement pounds the last nail in their own coffin by committing an even more egrgious  act of violence. But it still takes so, so long for the conflict to even happen! And when it does, it is largely off screen. Instead, 80% of the story is spend preparing for the new world that will come after this near apocalyptic event. There are pages and pages of people discussing ordering extra supplies (an annoying fixation on female toiletries is I think meant to be some type of “Others don’t understand human females” joke but becomes tired very quickly), details on communication and travel logistics, space planning, etc. It was incredibly tiresome. Bishop has given us all-powerful native people! And instead we’re listening to Simon fixate on Meg’s need for books to read when she’s hunkered down waiting out this oncoming “storm” of the Others’ retaliation. Firstly, I’m pretty sure this is a silly thing to be discussing between multiple people. If this is actually a disaster level event, Meg’s boredom is NOT something that needs to be included in the “to worry about” list. And secondly, I don’t care! Give me some action, already!

Also, the cast of characters only adds to this problem. Simon and Meg are interesting. All of the extra human characters are not. The police men who have been present in the other book make a showing here, and while familiarity lends them a bit of interest, there is very little for them to do in this story. There is no preventing this, so again, it’s largely discussing reacting to an inevitable event. Discussions, discussions. And a few extra human characters show up as well. Guess what they’re doing? That is right. Discussing preparations in yet another town. The more interesting Other characters from previous books are also very underutilized in this book, only adding to the frustration of reading chapters from new human perspectives.

And I can’t finish this review without touching on Meg and Simon. Meg, for one, has sadly gone the route that I have been worrying about for the last several books. She has become increasingly inactive as the books have went along. In the first book, she was new to this world and actively participates in its going ons. Now, however, she is treated as a valuable commodity, to be worried over, but very rarely having anything to actually do. And for a powerful seer, that is incredibly disappointing. Even worse, in the first few books she was verging on becoming a bit of a “special snowflake” character where everyone and their mother loved her right off the bat with very little actual reason. Sadly, this becomes even worse in this book, to the point of being ridiculous.

Simon has now become my favorite character. The few action scenes in this book directly relate to how he sees the world and his position in it. His arc as a character has been steady, realistic, and interesting. And unlike other characters, his relationship with Meg feels earned and is thus much more intriguing. But come on, it’s been four books!

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I haven’t written off the series entirely, but “Marked in Flesh” continues a slow downward trend in my enjoyment of these books. I’ll give it one more go, but if I have to read about the “human female pack” creating lists of toiletries again, I’m out.

Rating 5: I’m very sad that it has come to this. But the primary emotion this book inspired was frustration, unfortunately.

Reader’s Advisory:

As “Marked in Flesh” is new, I’m going to mention Goodreads lists that include the first book in the series, “Written in Red:” “Monster Is Only in the Eye of the Beholder: Paranormal Xenofiction” and “Best Lesser-Known Books.”

Find “Marked in Flesh” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Last Mortal Bond”

The Last Mortal Bond Book: “The Last Mortal Bond” by Brian Staveley

Publishing Info: Tor, March 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: The ancient csestriim are back to finish their purge of humanity; armies march against the capital; leaches, solitary beings who draw power from the natural world to fuel their extraordinary abilities, maneuver on all sides to affect the outcome of the war; and capricious gods walk the earth in human guise with agendas of their own.

But the three imperial siblings at the heart of it all–Valyn, Adare, and Kaden–come to understand that even if they survive the holocaust unleashed on their world, there may be no reconciling their conflicting visions of the future.

Spoilers for the first two books in the series.

Review: As I said in my review of the previous books (see end of post for links), Staveley went to great lengths to create a tangled mess of misunderstanding, dueling motivations, and confusion with his first two books. And my question was simple: how? How was he going to resolve all of these dangling threads in a way that stayed true to what has been a compellingly honest, complicated but realistic story up to this point? My doubts have been rested, and sign me up for the Brian Staveley fan club. “The Last Mortal Bond” exemplifies nailing the landing in epic fantasy, by no means an easy feat.

Continuing my pattern from my review of the first two books, it is easiest to review this book by checking in with our main characters, the royal siblings, Adare, Valyn, and Kaden and Kettral leader, Gwenna.

Let’s start with Gwenna, shall we? I love Gwenna. She only had a few chapters in the last book, and there at first it felt a little strange to be in the head of a seemingly random second tier character. She still plays the same role in the narrative, as a character with an exciting, but largely insular, story arc. Between all the politics, magic, secrecy, and anger going on between the royal siblings, Gwenna’s chapters were a breath of fresh air. A problem was presented, the downfall of the Kettral training islands, and Gwenna and her team were deployed to solve it. I really enjoyed returning to this aspect of the story. In the first book, when Valyn was still in training, we learned a lot about the Kettral and the role they play in the Empire. However, in the second book, they and their giant falcons, were largely absent. It was thrilling to return to the islands, especially as seen through the eyes of Gwenna, a warrior who did not grow up with any expectations of leadership, but has had it thrust upon her and is more than capable of rising to the occasion. And the giant falcons were back. Always a plus.

It’s interesting how Staveley has set up different levels of stakes for his three main characters. Kaden’s story has been one with the highest level of stakes (the war to save humanity), Adare’s has been on the second level (the war to save Annur), and Valyn’s on the most insular level (the war to avenge himself and his family).

Kaden’s story continues to be the one that I have had the hardest time predicting. While throughout the story Adare has been focused on the greater good of the Empire, and Valyn has had a tendency to get caught up in the inner dynamics of whatever group he is in in the moment, Kaden has floated along the periphery, gathering knowledge and making unexpected decisions. For example, his decision to suddenly turn the Empire of Annur into a Republic in the last book. What a huge thing to decide, and so suddenly! I appreciate that Staveley didn’t try and make any political commentary here, which I was concerned with at first. This isn’t our world, and it becomes clear pretty early on in this book that while Kaden might have started from a very idealistic place, the powerful lords and ladies of Annur are not ready for the responsibility of truly ruling, instead focusing on power grabs and becoming mired in debate. So, too, in this book, Kaden’s journey is unexpected. Allying with Triste, who is understandably bitter and resentful of the role she has been thrust in, Kaden makes a desperate journey across the Empire in an effort to both contain the Gods who are walking the earth and also save them from the csestriim out to kill them, and thus, cripple humanity.

Adare remains my favorite character. As before, her practicality, ability to face tough choices, and general pizazz in face of it all, makes her a blast. Kaden could be frustrating with his idealism (come on, we all knew that handing over power to bunch of whining aristocrats was never going to be a good idea) and Valyn could get too caught up in his missions to take a step back and realize the larger implications of his decisions. And it makes sense that it would be this way. Valyn and Kaden grew up largely disconnected from the Empire. Adare, on the other hand, grew up at the foot of her father, by all accounts an incredibly successful ruler. But Adare’s failings are not swept away either. Her misjudgements come to bite her in the butt big time, specifically her choice to save the csestriim general il Tornja by stabbing Valyn.

Valyn’s story was a stumbling block for me, this time around. He started as my favorite character in book one, was still highly entertaining in book two, but then seems to have taken an abrupt change of course in this book. I understand that his wounds were detrimental at the end of the last book, but his decision to isolate himself from his remaining Kettral Wing friends and sink into darkness came a bit out of left field. The reader is constantly told how dark, gritty, and angsty he has become, but it feels unearned. Out of the three siblings, Valyn was the one trained to believe in teamwork and reliance on others, so for him to be the one to sink so quickly into despair and reject human connection felt out of place. He suffers the most physically, it is true. But what has been the strength of the series, its ability to highlight the impossible choices they all have made, makes Valyn’s descent into self-loathing less palatable when compared to the other characters who are facing their own challenges, rather than running away and hiding. I felt myself often growing frustrated with him and wishing that the Flea would show up to slap some sense into him.

“The Last Mortal Bond” does an incredible job of wrapping up this series. I highly recommend it, and the whole “Unhewn Throne” series, to any reader who enjoys epic fantasy. Especially those looking for a series that wraps up nicely in only three books, which is practically unheard of at this point and is frankly a relief!

Rating 8: Great conclusion to a great trilogy! There were a few stumbling blocks, particularly Valyn’s odd character decisions, but other than that, I love it!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Mortal Bond” is very new so is on very few lists. As I particularly highlighted my love of it as the conclusion to a series, it is included in this Goodreads list: “End of Series in 2016”

Find “The Last Mortal Bond” at your library using WorldCat!

Previous Reviews of “The Empire’s Blades” and “The Providence of Fire.”

Serena’s Review: “Doomsday Book”

Doomsday Book Book: “Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis

Publishing Info: Bantam Spectra, July 1992

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

Book Description from Goodreads: For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.

But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin–barely of age herself–finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.

Review: This book has been on my list for a long time. Connie Willis is regularly mentioned as one of the top women authors for science fiction, and “Doomsday Book” shows up on lots of “must-read” lists. So, when I spotted it as available when browsing my way through the library’s audiobooks a couple of weeks ago, it was as if the stars had aligned and it was finally, finally time for me to get to this one. And for the most part, it was ok? Sadly, it didn’t quite live up to all of my expectations.

For one, the story is told with alternating perspectives between Kivrin in the Middle Ages and her mentor, Dunworthy, in Oxford in 2054. My usual problem with this storytelling method was highlighted again here. One story almost inevitably is much stronger and more interesting than the other. While Dunworthy learns very quickly that something (he doesn’t know what) has gone wrong with Kivrin’s trip to the past and works to find answers while also handling a sudden mysterious disease crippling the city, there’s just no way for him to compete with Kivrin’s story, stranded in the past, with her carefully laid plans crumbling around her.

So, too, there were aspects of Dunworthy’s story that were incredibly frustrating as a reader. It’s hard to know whether, as a longtime reader of sci-fi/fantasy, I’m more familiar with the trail of clues laid out in these types of stories and can anticipate the final destination from long practice, or whether these clues have simply become more standard in the genre all together in the 20 plus years since this book was initially published. Either way, Dunworthy’s progress learning what had happened to Kivrin was so drawn out. At certain points in the story, the character would outright ask another character a basic question and then, bizarrely, the other character would change the subject or, what, pretend not to have heard him? It started to feel really contrived, and by about two thirds of the way through the book when he was still struggling to get basic answers to simple questions, I started doubting my ability to finish all together.

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Only, it was an audiobook, so there was no flipping, just sad, sad listening.

Unfortunately, this forced confusion carried over to Kivrin’s narrative as well. While the a large part of the story revolves around the incompetence of the current director who even allowed Kivrin’s trip to the Middle Ages (an era of time that had previously been rated a “10” on the “too dangerous to travel to” scale), Kivrin herself would at times come across as equally incompetent. I have to imagine that this was not intended.

Things go wrong for Kivrin from the beginning, and it becomes clear why time travel to this era was going to be a bad idea for a young woman traveling alone. Beyond the obvious factors, things that Dunworthy pointed out from the beginning in his effort to stop her from going, the fact that a woman in this time period has almost zero agency seems to be an obvious reason to avoid this. If everything had gone right, how was Kivrin, a young, unmarried woman, supposed escape the household she was in? Women didn’t go anywhere by themselves, let alone walk miles into the wilderness along strange roads! Kivrin’s struggles in this area seemed easy to anticipate. The book even discussed two-person drops in time, and I never felt like there was an adequate explanation for why things moved forward as they did. Like I said, a lot revolves around the new director being an idiot. But for something as important as time travel, it was a bit hard to swallow that a disaster like this could so easily happen due to one man’s ego and ignorance.

Here too, Kivrin’s confusion and inability to catch on to simple clues didn’t feel right for a character who was presented as supremely thorough in her preparation for this trip. She seems genuinely confused at one point to discover that a 13 -year-old girl is engaged to  a much older man, after many, many clues to this have already been lain out. This kind of bizarre storytelling was very distracting. I feel like Willis was trying to build tension in these choices, but all it did was make me question the sanity of her characters and wish things would just start happening already.

That said, Kivrin’s story was still a very interesting read. I would recommend this book for fans of history, however, rather than sci-fi fans. Time travel aside, the majority of the story is an intricate look at life in the Middle Ages. This is where Willis shines. Not only did the characters feel exactly right, highlighting the various challenges of people’s different roles, but the small details of the challenges of every day things were touched upon in a way that felt incredibly natural. What could have come across as a history lesson, instead felt like catching a glimpse into a beautiful painting of a small slice of time. But this glimpse is entirely honest, and with that honesty comes a lot of tragedy. This book was very hard to read towards the end, but I appreciate that Willis didn’t shy away from the realities of the world she brought Kivrin into.

All in all, there were parts of “Doomsday Book” that I really enjoyed, however, I also felt like the story could have used a heavy dosage of editing. It was’t a short story to begin with, and the continued delay of basic facts that readers could guess on their own, only made it feel longer. It was not a light read, but if you enjoy history and a richly detailed story, I would recommend “Doomsday Book.”

Rating 6: I enjoyed the historical aspects, but I also wanted to knock the characters’ heads together a few too many times to fully get behind it.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Doomsday Book” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Best Time Travel Fiction”  and “Books for a Pandemic.” 

Find “Doomsday Book” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Providence of Fire”

The Providence of Fire Book: “The Providence of Fire” by Brian Staveley

Publishing Info: Tor, January 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: The conspiracy to destroy the ruling family of the Annurian Empire is far from over.

Having learned the identity of her father’s assassin, Adare flees the Dawn Palace in search of allies to challenge the coup against her family. Few trust her, but when she is believed to be touched by Intarra, patron goddess of the empire, the people rally to help her retake the capital city. As armies prepare to clash, the threat of invasion from barbarian hordes compels the rival forces to unite against their common enemy.

Unknown to Adare, her brother Valyn, renegade member of the empire’s most elite fighting force, has allied with the invading nomads. The terrible choices each of them has made may make war between them inevitable.

Between Valyn and Adare is their brother Kaden, rightful heir to the Unhewn Throne, who has infiltrated the Annurian capital with the help of two strange companions. The knowledge they possess of the secret history that shapes these events could save Annur or destroy it.

Spoilers for the first book “The Emperor’s Blades”

Review: The second book in Staveley’s “Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne” series is like one of those scenes that starts zoomed in a on kid playing, and then zooms back and the kid is in large park, and then zooms back and the park is in a huge city, and so on and so forth. What I’m saying is that the world building goes from complex to wait…what now?? But Staveley’s control of his narrative, world, and characters never stumbles under this added mythology. If anything, the strength of this series only grows with the additional challenges and complications thrown in the mix.

What is the most impressive about this series is Staveley’s ability to handle his three main characters. Kaden, Valyn, and Adare have a more equal balance this time, as far as page time goes. Each is traveling such a distinctive path. Kaden’s is a cerebral journey pealing back the mysteries of the Shin, the portal-like doorways of the kenta, and the history between the Csestriam, the gods they sought to kill, and humanity caught within a struggle between power players completely out of their league. Valyn’s journey continues as the most straight forward. He is a man of action, and action itself becomes his motivation. While Kaden and Adare spend much of their time balancing the intricacies of the pieces on the world-sized board, Valyn sets a goal and moves towards it, even if reaching that goal means aligning with the Urghul, the savage enemies of his own Empire. Adare, the politician, is forced to re-evalutate her own role in this crumbling world. Betrayed by her own general, Adare is driven out of her city in desperate attempt to gain allies and a find new foothold to combat the roving Urghul armies heading her direction.

What is so amazing about this balance is also what is so frustrating. Kaden, Adare, and Valyn all are seeing limited parts of the story and reacting in ways that are consistent to their worldviews and preferred operating methods. But these choices and stories conflict, setting the three up against each other with misunderstanding and suspicion. While reading each chapter, I could completely understand and sympathize with each character’s decisions. But then once I switched to the next chapter it became clear that no, this other character had the right idea about things.

As the story progresses, each character made decisions that made me want to shake them. However, I see this as a strength of the story. Staveley’s characters are flawed and limited by the knowledge they have and their own personalities and tendencies that lead them towards one decision or another. It was perhaps more uncomfortable if only because I think many fantasy readers are accustomed to our heroes and heroines quickly evolving into specific tropes. Kaden should be all-wise, calm, and reasoned. Valyn should be completely heroic, using violence in only the most esteemable ways. And Adare should be clever, easily wrapping her foes around her finger and springing elaborate traps. When they fail to behave as we expect, it’s frustrating, uncomfortable, and frankly, awesome.

This book also made a lot of strides to improve upon the last as far as page time and use of its female characters. Adare is given an equal portion of the story; in fact, hers becomes my favorite of the three siblings. And a new character, Gwenna, a member of Valyn’s group of Kestrel fighters, gets her own sprinkling of chapters. This was particularly welcome. As I said, the three siblings become very caught up in the increasingly complicated web that is the Empire, and it was a relief to read chapters from the very straight-forward thinking Gwenna. She was brash, sympathetic, and highly entertaining. So, too, Triste’s role in the story is greatly increased.

And, as I mentioned, the amazing world building cannot be over emphasized. Most epic fantasy relies on a complex historical past for its world. In this book, it becomes more and more clear that this history is not as understood as it was thought to be. Not only that, but history is still unraveling even in the present. The Csestriam, the old gods, the new gods, the mad, power-hungry leaches of centuries past, the Atmani. They all weave in and out of the story in completely unexpected ways. By the end of the book, I was left questioning everything I thought I had understood from the first book.

All told, “The Providence of Fire” only improved on what was an amazing fantasy epic to begin with. The added complexity of the world and the characters left me constantly guessing and re-evaluating my opinions. While the previous book had slow sections, particularly in the beginning with Kaden’s chapters, this story moves at full throttle from beginning to end. “The Emperor’s Blades” laid out the threads of each storyline, and “The Providence of Fire” tangled them all up into such a mess that I have no idea how Staveley is going to wrap this all up. But I do know that I’m looking forward to finding out!

Rating 9: So good! So worried about what’s coming next!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Providence of Fire” is included in this Goodreads list: “Must Read Epic Fantasy.”

Find “The Providence of Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Previous Review of “The Emperor’s Blades”