Kate’s Review: “Riding the Bullet”

11605Book: “Riding the Bullet” by Stephen King

Publishing Info: Simon and Schuster, January 2000

Where Did I Get This Book: Audiobook download from the library!

Book Description: A Stephen King ghost story in the grand tradition, Riding the Bullet is the ultimate warning about the dangers of hitchhiking.

A college student’s mother is dying in a Maine hospital. When he hitches a ride to see her, the driver is not who he appears to be. Soon the journey veers off into a dark landscape that could only be drawn by Stephen King.

Review: As a longtime Stephen King fan, I have read a lot, and I mean a LOT, of his books. But given how prolific of an author he is, and given how long he’s been at it, there are still plenty of King books, novellas, short stories, et all that I haven’t read yet. And while I’ve hit most of his more popular and famous works, it’s the ones that I’ve never heard of that continuously surprise me on my reading adventures. Be it “The Long Walk” (written under his Richard Bachman pen name) or “Charlie the Choo-Choo” (a children’s book based on the book within his “Dark Tower” series), King has popped up and shown me new things in the past couple of years. So when I was looking for something to listen to in the car, I just punched King’s name into the search bar to see what was available. It was then that I saw a title I had never heard of before: “Riding the Bullet”. Seeing that it was short and that I’m always trying to expand my King repertoire, I downloaded it.

Even in a novella such as this one, King has created a cast of characters who feel so well explored and real that I got a sense for who they were and what motivated them. Specifically Alan Parker, our narrator and protagonist who is picked up by a ghost on the night his mother is sick in the hospital. As you read the story you get the sense that Alan has a strained relationship with his mother; though they are really all the other one has, Alan also notes moments in their past that could be seen as abusive. You understand the love he has for his mother and why he would drop everything to try and hitchhike down to see her when she has a minor stroke and ends up in the hospital. But taking this into account, even without King saying how deep this tension and complexity to their relationship goes, it makes things down the line seem believable in the face of incredulity.

I really enjoyed how king took the old urban legend/ghost story of the Phantom Hitchhiker and turned it on it’s head, with the hitchhiker being the one who is potentially in the presence of a ghost who leaves a trinket behind. In the usual story a person picks up a hitchhiker on the side of the road on a dark night. Usually it’s a man picking up a young woman. They talk and connect, telling each other their names and about their lives, and the driver drops the hitchhiker off to wherever she wants to go. They part on friendly terms, but as the driver is driving away he realizes that she left a sweater, or a scarf, or something behind. He tracks down where she lives based on her name, and when he brings the object back to the house, a family member will ultimately tell the driver that “She died ten years ago” or something to that effect. It’s a classic. In this case the ghost is George Staub, the ghost of a man whose grave Alan had seen in a cemetery on his journey south. While on the short but terrifying ride with George, Alan notices the button that the ghost is wearing: “I Rode The Bullet At Thrill Village, Laconia”, a rollercoaster that Alan once had the chance to ride when he was a child. But when he and his mother got to the front of the line, he chickened out. Now instead of trying to return the forgotten object (as there is no question that Staub is a ghost from the get go), it serves as a reminder for what happened that night, and the consequences to what happened in the car between Alan and Staub.

What I liked most about this story is that there is a certain ambiguity to it. The ambiguity isn’t whether or not Alan was picked up by a ghost that night, as that much is clear. But the ambiguity is placed within the choice that Alan makes (which I don’t want to reveal), and whether he ultimately has any culpability in the potential consequences that may, or may not, come because of it. It kind of digs into philosophy about what children owe to their parents, and what parents want from their children. As the story carries on beyond the encounter with the ghost, Alan has to grapple with these questions. He’s convinced that because of his actions, something bad will happen to his mother…. And the tension of this, of finding out whether or not this is the case, definitely had me on the edge of my seat in the car. I think that there wasn’t really a good release for the tension I was feeling, and that I could have used more story to really unwind from all of it. As it was, it just kind of tapered off, and I was left wanting a bit more.

I should also mention that Josh Hamilton was the narrator for this audiobook, and I thought that he did a great job. I know him best from when he played Serge on “Absolutely Fabulous” and also from a driver’s ed video I watched when I was a teenager (I WISH I COULD FIND THIS VIDEO). It’s so important to have a person who really dives into the story they are reading, and I was totally immersed in his narration.

Overall, I enjoyed “Riding The Bullet”, both for it’s effective suspense and for the bittersweet pathos that it had. Stephen King is so good at both horror and humanity, and “Riding the Bullet” is a solid example of both.

Rating 7: A solid ghost story with some fun references to various urban legends. King is so good with characterization that while I felt more could have gone into this book, I got a feel for Alan and George Staub alike.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Riding the Bullet” is included on the Goodreads lists “Riders Up!”, and “Theological Weird Fiction”.

Find “Riding the Bullet” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “This Savage Song”

23299512Book: “This Savage Song” by Victoria Schwab

Publication Info: Greenwillow Books, July 2016

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

Book Description: There’s no such thing as safe in a city at war, a city overrun with monsters. In this dark urban fantasy from author Victoria Schwab, a young woman and a young man must choose whether to become heroes or villains—and friends or enemies—with the future of their home at stake. The first of two books.

Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city—a city where the violence has begun to breed actual monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the humans pay for his protection. All August wants is to be human, as good-hearted as his own father, to play a bigger role in protecting the innocent—but he’s one of the monsters. One who can steal a soul with a simple strain of music. When the chance arises to keep an eye on Kate, who’s just been kicked out of her sixth boarding school and returned home, August jumps at it. But Kate discovers August’s secret, and after a failed assassination attempt the pair must flee for their lives.

Review: After reading and loving Victoria Schwab’s “Darker Shade of Magic” series, I decided to go ahead and check out her young adult offerings. And while I still prefer her adult fantasy trilogy (though this was a very high bar so most books should be excused from not reaching the same highs, even those by the same author), I very much enjoyed this first book in what will be a completed duology once the final book comes out one week from now.

Schwab herself described this book as “Romeo and Juliet” but with monsters and without romance, and since my biggest problem with “Romeo and Juliet” wanna-be stories is the often trite romantic flounderings of the protagonists, I was excited to see how she would pull this off. I mean, what even is a “Romeo and Juliet” story without romantic nonsense? Turns out its pretty much a gang war in a city that has been taken over by demons of its own creation.

The world building was strong, right out of the gate, from the equally hellish northside and southside of the city and their various approaches to life in a now monster-filled world, to the monsters themselves. Born from human acts of hatred and violence, the city is plagued by three types of beasts. The Corsai, a viscous shadow-like creature that lurks in the dark places of the world only to emerge at night and shred its victims. The Malchai who resemble skeleton-thin humans and drink blood, similar to vampires in all but their ability to walk during the day. And the Sunnai, most rare and least understood of the monsters who can steal a soul with their song. Years ago, with the sudden appearance of these monsters, the city’s population sank into warfare only creating a tenuous peace after a massive disaster took out several city blocks. Since then, the city has been split, north and south, with one side fighting against the monsters and enforcing a strict rule of law for those committing crimes (and creating more monsters in the process), and the other ruled by a gang lord who has managed to rope the monsters into some semblance of control and requires his citizens pay for protection. These are the two sides from which our main characters come. Kate, the daughter of said gang lord, eager to prove herself stronger than the mother who attempted to flee the city so many years ago only to meet a tragic end. And August, a Sunnai, and adopted son of the fighters’ leader, who wishes he weren’t a monster and who struggles to find his role in this war.

Both Kate and August were intriguing, complicated characters. Each struggles with their own tenuous understanding of family, from Kate’s complicated relationship with a father who has distanced himself from her throughout her entire life, to August’s role, alongside his “brother” and “sister,” the only other two Sunnai, who all have been adopted by the leader of the resistance. Not only do the two not fully understand the war that they’ve inherited and the people who have already been fighting it, but each struggles with their own understanding of what is and what is not “monstrous” in this world.

August’s Sunnai abilities were particularly interesting, both the connection to his music and his own limitations. The Corsai and Malchai are fairly clearly described early in the book, while the Sunnai remain mysterious, even while having chapters featuring a Sunnai himself. This exploration of what it means to be a monster and what it means to be a Sunnai specifically was very compelling. All three Sunnai, August, his brother, and his sister, are all different in their abilities, their philosophy on the use of those abilities, and the arc they travel throughout the story.

Throughout all of this detailed world and character-building, Schwab manages to insert an action-packed plot full of danger and mystery. Every time that it felt like the plot was reaching a crescendo (ha!), she would wisely pull back for a quiet, character-driven moment. It was this delicate balance between action, adventure, and quite frankly, a lot of violence, with these these slow, beautiful, character introspections that really made this book stand out.

The only thing I will say as a negative was that while I loved Kate and August as characters in their own right, they didn’t jump off the page the same way that Lila and Kel did. There were a few scenes that read a bit flat, a few instances where I felt that Kate and August were slow to pick up the clues that were laid before them, and just a few missteps with dialogue that rang a bit forced. But, really, take all of these criticisms with a gigantic grain of salt. Again, see the overly high expectations that were set by the “Shades of Magic” series. For fans of young adult fantasy who are looking for a completely unique magical setting and two main characters who are blessedly free (so far) of romantic entanglements, definitely check out “This Savage Song.”

Rating 8: A great new YA fantasy, blessedly free of love triangles and any romance at all, really!

Reader’s Advisory:

“This Savage Song” is on these Goodreads lists: “YA Feuding Families” and “Unique special abilities/superpowers.”

Find “This Savage Song” at your library using WorldCat!

A Revisit to Fear Street: “The Stepsister”

842704Book: “The Stepsister” (Fear Street #9) by R.L. Stine

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, October 1990

Where Did I Get This Book: ILL from the library!

Book Description: Emily wants to like her stepsister, but it hasn’t been easy. As soon as Jessie moves in, she takes over Emily’s room, starts wearing Emily’s clothes, makes secret late-night calls on Emily’s phone – and that’s just the beginning!

Before long, Emily is living in total fear of her stepsister. Emily tries complaining to her parents. But Jessie is such a good liar, no one will believe Emily!

Emily’s terror mounts when she picks up Jessie’s diary and learns a horrifying secret from Jessie’s past. Did Jessie really murder someone? Does she plan to murder again? Emily knows she must find out the rest of her stepsister’s dark secret. Her own life depends on it!

Had I Read It Before: No.

The Plot: So this is the story of Emily Casey and her newly cobbled together blended family. While she and her sister Nancy have been the only siblings in the house for awhile, their mother just married a man named Hugh Wallner and he has two kids, Jessie and Rich. Now that Hugh and Mom (because why should she have a name?) are married, they’re finally moving in together. There’s talk of Jessie and Rich’s mom being an absent parent, but it isn’t really harped on too much. Jessie and Emily are going to share a room, and when they both go up there Jessie establishes herself as a total cooze. First she says the room is too small, then she says that it’s a ‘dump’. It then turns into making fun of Emily’s Mom for being ‘enthusiastic’ and Nancy for having red hair, and bitching about lack of closet space. Then she says she’s sorry because she’s so ‘nervous’ and worried about the changes of becoming a blended family. Yeah, okay, because that makes it alright to be such a bitch. To make matters worse, Tiger the terrier runs in, and Jessie freaks out and shoves him away lest he get fur all over her sweater. Then, as the coup de grace, she ‘accidentally’ rips the head off of Emily’s teddy bear. JESUS. Nancy comes in and tries to quell the tension by talking about Rich and his love for Stephen King (You’re a good man, Rich), and slips in the plot exposition that Emily is now dating Nancy’s ex Josh. Yeah, I don’t think that’s so cool, Emily.

Over cake and ice cream we get to see what a dick Mr. Wallner is.  He makes fun of Jessie’s anxieties, makes fun of Rich for reading and for his cracking voice, and acts indignant when his abuse isn’t seen as funny. He also likes to brag about not reading books. Emily is reminded that her Dad loved to read books. But on a camping trip to Fear Island, when he and little girl Emily were out on a boat on Fear Lake, a wind kicked up and her father fell overboard, drowning. Oof.

The next night after Emily and Josh arrange a time for him to come over, she goes down to eat dinner with the family. And then Jessie comes down wearing Emily’s sweater, but insists that it’s hers. An argument ensues, but no one believes Emily. Mr. Wallner says that he’s glad that he has ‘four women’ in the house to clean up. (SO, not only is he applying antiquated gender roles, he’s also picking on his young and shy son by calling him ‘womanly’. This fucking guy.). After dinner Emily goes to work on her big paper for school. She leaves the room to get an apple, and when she comes back Jessie is at the computer. Emily tells her she isn’t done, but when she tries to pull up her paper again, it’s been erased. As someone who has been there to some degree, I legitimately feel for her in this moment. Emily pitches a fit and attacks Jessie. Everyone runs into the room and believes Jessie when she says she didn’t do it. After they leave Jessie snarls at Emily to not embarrass her in front of her father, and then kicks at the poor dog Tiger. Emily grabs her dog and runs to Nancy’s room. Nancy tells her that Jessie is seeing a therapist a couple of times a week and that she has emotional problems.

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(source)

Josh comes over. As he and Emily make out, Jessie spies on them. Emily ignores it. That night Emily wakes up and hears Jessie on the phone saying ‘I really could kill her!’

A few days later, things seem better, as Emily and Jessie are going to make a cake. Their playful natures come out and they spray whipped cream all over each other, and Nancy too. Emily goes to take a shower. But when she gets out, she sees her hair has become patchy and miscolored. Someone put peroxide in her shampoo! And this time, no one believes that Jessie didn’t do it, because Nancy says Jessie spent a lot of time in the bathroom earlier in the day. Jessie runs off crying, and Emily’s hair is somehow saved by a home haircut that Nancy performs.

Not to be outdone by his sisters, Rich is escorted home by the police for shoplifting.

A few nights later is the homecoming dance. While Emily and Josh have a great time dancing and then making out in the car afterwards, the fun is short lived. Because when Emily gets to her room, she finds that someone has killed Tiger! While Emily accuses Jessie because she always hated Tiger, Nancy accuses RICH because HE LIKES TO READ STEPHEN KING AND IS READING “PET SEMATARY”!! Rich denies it because OF COURSE HE DIDN’T DO IT BECAUSE OF STEPHEN KING, and Jessie offers to run a bath for Emily she she can relax. Emily is interested at first, but as Jessie is in the bathroom Emily decides to read her diary! In it Jessie talks about how in her old town people think that she was involved a murder! She hides the diary before Jessie can see that she was reading it, and balks at the bath because the water looks like Jessie put some kind of crazy chemicals in it! But then Jessie takes the bath instead, because water conservation, and proves that Emily is succumbing to paranoia.

Emily is awakened from a nightmare by Rich, who really wants to tell her that he didn’t kill her dog. She believes him. Later she wakes up again, and sees that Jessie’s bed is empty! She discerns that Jessie must have snuck out because the window is open, and decides to read more in her stepsister’s diary. Seems that Jessie’s friend Jolie died in some kind of awful accident and everyone assumed that Jessie had something to do with it because she was the one who found the body. I think that’s pretty flimsy, but her reputation was ruined. The next day Emily wants to get away from the house and says that she’s going to a computer lab at school. And when she opens her backpack, Tiger’s corpse is inside.

At dinner that next week, talk goes from talking about Rich getting into fights at school to Jessie talking on the phone at late hours (which she denies of course). After dinner she’s upstairs expecting Josh, and hears voices downstairs. Josh is down there, having a VERY in depth conversation with Jessie! Emily pulls Josh outside and chews him out for talking with Jessie. Josh thinks she’s acting silly.

At school, Emily is trying to enjoy a lunch of suspect macaroni when Jessie’s friend Krysta confronts her about being so mean to Jessie. Emily spills food on her shirt and goes to the girls’ room, only to find Jessie. They rehash the usual fight, accusing each other of being awful, and Jessie leaves. Emily dawdles, and while she’s in there she hears footsteps come and go. And then she smells smoke. Someone has set the bathroom on fire! And when she tries to escape, the door won’t budge and the windows have been painted shut! Luckily the teacher Mrs. Hoffler opens the door and Emily is freed. The school is evacuated and Emily can slowly breathe again after nearly choking to death on all the smoke. Nancy takes Emily home, and it seems like she finally believes her now about Jessie.

Though a bit later they’re all going to a concert together. Emily and Nancy hadn’t wanted to take her, but their parents insisted. Jessie has been very nice to Emily since the fire, but Emily isn’t buying it. At the concert they are up in the nosebleed section, with very steep cement stairs. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that someone shoves Emily when the lights drop of the concert to start. She falls down the steps a few seconds, but someone stops her before too much damage is done. Must have been Jessie! A few weeks later it’s cold out and Emily is walking home, when she sees Josh’s car in the driveway. Did he come to surprise her? NOPE! He’s making out with someone else! JESSIE! Emily starts to run off, but then decides to go home and confront Jessie once and for all (but apparently not Josh for kissing someone else. Typical)!! She doesn’t find them anywhere, but does find a knife in Jessie’s drawer! The one that must have killed Tiger! It’s all coming together.

And now the family is going on a camping trip together. Because Mr. Wallner wants them to act like a family for once. I would argue that he’s one of the main tension factors in the house, but it’s nothing a little wilderness can’t fix. Nancy and Emily are frustrated because they were trying to organize their evidence (and Nancy has SO MUCH HOMEWORK) but now they have to go camping in South Carolina, boo hoo hoo. Once on the trip Mr. Wallner refers to his family as a harem and I think he should seriously be reported to the police, guys. Emily, Nancy, and Jessie are recruited to go get wood. Emily gets separated from Nancy, and in a paranoid moment runs away, convinced Jessie is going to kill her. She runs into an old cemetery, and falls into an open grave!!!! She screams at Jessie to let her out, and she can’t climb out herself, and thinks that she’s going to die in there as Jessie leaves her to rot. But when she looks up, she sees it isn’t Jessie… It’s NANCY!!!! IT WAS NANCY THE WHOLE TIME! Everything that Emily thought was Jessie was Nancy, the dog, the peroxide, the fire, the JOSH! Nancy blames her for their father dying, and for stealing Josh, as they were the two most important men in her life!!!!

But luckily Jessie is there, as she hits Nancy with a shovel to knock her out, and helps Emily out of the grave. I still can’t get over that there’s just a random open grave in an old timey woods cemetery. They go get the rest of the family, because there’s no way this camping trip is continuing.

So we end with assurance that Nancy is getting the help she needs, and Jessie and Emily are finally sorting out their differences. Jessie didn’t kill Jolie, of course, and would disappear at night or be up late on the phone because of her mystery boyfriend that she is seeing. Emily apologizes for blaming her for everything. Rich comes into the room with a new book. But when they ask if it’s another Stephen King story he reveals that it’s, in fact, The Hardy Boys! And the book ends with the three of them laughing and saying “Wow! Things really ARE changing around here!”

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This is how we react to your sister having a psychotic break, eh? (source)

Body Count: One, in the form of poor poor Tiger. We had a good run of not killing any animals in these books, but that ended.

Romance Rating: 1. First of all, I still contend that Emily never should have hooked up with her sister’s ex, and then Josh just happily makes out with Nancy again? Terrible boyfriend. Also, Mr. Wallner is a total prick and his wife can do much better.

Bonkers Rating: 5. Sure, the fact that it was Nancy the whole time was kind of crazy, but it was clear that there was going to be some twist from the start because no way Jessie was doing these horrible things.

Fear Street Relevance: 7. Once again, our characters live on Fear Street, so that’s a given. And the initial ill fated camping trip was on  Fear Island, so I’ll rate it higher than average.

Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger: 

“Struggling to free herself from Jessie’s emotional grip, Emily realized she had never been so afraid in her life.”

…. And then the next scene is them going to a concert together. Doesn’t seem very resonant.

That’s So Dated! Moments: At a school dance, Emily is dancing a song that has the lyrics ‘pump it up pump it up’ and a description of synthesizers in it, and while it wasn’t expressly said I’m thinking it was supposed to be “Pump Up The Jam” by Technotronic? The timing may be off, but it sure seems to line up. Also talk of floppy discs.

Best Quote: 

“She’s totally crazy about him, Emily thought with some dismay. What on EARTH does she see in him? He really IS a sexist pig!”

I like that Emily seems to be hip to feminism.

“The Stepsister” was predictable and kind of flat, and I don’t really know how it warranted a second one, “The Stepsister 2”. But that’s a long ways off in this re-read. Next up is “Ski Weekend” .

Book Club Review: “The Inquisitor’s Tale”

29358517We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is a “Book Challenge!” theme. This book comes from a “Pick A One Word Title” challenge.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for bookclub. We’ll also post the next book coming up in bookclub. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own bookclub!

Book: “The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog” by Adam Gidwitz, Hatem Aly (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Dutton Books for Young Readers, September 2016

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: 1242. On a dark night, travelers from across France cross paths at an inn and begin to tell stories of three children. Their adventures take them on a chase through France: they are taken captive by knights, sit alongside a king, and save the land from a farting dragon. On the run to escape prejudice and persecution and save precious and holy texts from being burned, their quest drives them forward to a final showdown at Mont Saint-Michel, where all will come to question if these children can perform the miracles of saints.

Join William, an oblate on a mission from his monastery; Jacob, a Jewish boy who has fled his burning village; and Jeanne, a peasant girl who hides her prophetic visions. They are accompanied by Jeanne’s loyal greyhound, Gwenforte . . . recently brought back from the dead. Told in multiple voices, in a style reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, our narrator collects their stories and the saga of these three unlikely allies begins to come together.

Beloved bestselling author Adam Gidwitz makes his long awaited return with his first new world since his hilarious and critically acclaimed Grimm series. Featuring manuscript illuminations throughout by illustrator Hatem Aly and filled with Adam’s trademark style and humor, The Inquisitor’s Tale is bold storytelling that’s richly researched and adventure-packed.

Beautifully illustrated throughout! Includes a detailed historical note and bibliography.

Kate’s Thoughts

Guess who has never read “The Canterbury Tales”? Me! Guess who isn’t really into Medieval Fiction? Also me! And guess who knows little to nothing about religion and the philosophy of it beyond the most basic tenants of Judaism and United Church of Christ Christianity? This girl! So I feel like all of these factors combine (as well as some spates of bathroom humor, one of the few types of humor that doesn’t especially appeal to me) to make “The Inquisitor’s Tale” a book that isn’t written for me. So yes, while I understand the praise for this book and the appeal of it, and understand why it works so well as a children’s book and does so much more than other children’s books, I never really got into it myself.

That isn’t to say that there wasn’t anything I liked about it. I liked that it asked some pretty deep philosophical questions that you usually don’t see in children’s literature. I feel like Gidwitz doesn’t patronize to his audience, and that he knows that these are hard questions to wrap minds around regardless of what age you are. What makes a Saint? How can some people say that they hold certain values and beliefs, and not realize that they are perpetuating cruelty towards others, especially those that they claim to care about? What are ways that stories can be told and passed on, and how can these stories be changed based on the storyteller? I also liked that Gidwitz had three very different protagonists to show different walks of life and different experiences that would have been common during this time period. You have Jeanne, the peasant girl who can see parts of the future, who has to function in a society where women and peasants hold no value. You have William, a boy raised to be a monk who is both of African and Muslim descent, and stands out among those around him. And there’s Jacob, a Jewish boy in a France where King Louis persecutes the Jews as heretics. Seeing all these kids come together (along with Jeanne’s resurrected dog Gwenforte) and try to understand each other is a great message.

I also had a very hard time reading about the anti-Semitism in this book, be it villages being burnt to the ground, Jews being humiliated and threatened with violence, and Talmuds being burnt. I know that it was the reality of the time period, but for whatever reason I really struggled with it and had to set the book down a number of times and calm down before I could continue reading. I appreciate that Gidwitz was being honest about this time period, of course, and I really liked the extensive historical notes that he put in the back of the book, and yet I wasn’t really on board for the ‘Louis was a complex person who thought he was doing what was right, no matter how wrong it was’ stuff. Because at the end of the day, no matter how noble Louis thought he was being, it WAS wrong. And I have less and less time for those kinds of explanations these days.

My personal issues with this book shouldn’t necessarily reflect this book. It just wasn’t for me, but I definitely see how it would be an appealing read for other people.

Serena’s Thoughts

From the other side of the spectrum, I have read “The Canterbury Tales!” I am into Medieval fiction (at least as far as the fact that much fantasy is set in some type of medieval-like world)! And I was raised Lutheran, so at least the Christian theological philosophy was fairly familiar to me! So I think Kate is right, there are some factors going in that if you have as a reader you’re perhaps more likely to immediately engage with the book. However, massive caveat in this whole theory is that this is a middle school children’s book and let’s be real, how many kids have read “Canterbury Tales” or have a strong understanding of religious philosophy??

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Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? (source)

So, while I did enjoy the story more than Kate did, I do have to agree with her on a few of the downsides of the book. Most notably the potty humor and, for me, the suspension of disbelief in a few parts.

But first the pros! Since by an large I did very much enjoy this book. I won’t repeat what Kate said about the great diversity of the cast, except for one extra note. I really appreciated the close up look at exclusion/inclusion that the narrator took with these three children. Yes, they are all in this together. And yes, they are all friends. But at various points throughout the book, even with the friendships that have formed from their shared experiences, they each have to confront the sense of “otherness” that comes from their own unique walk of life. For William,  he’s a black boy with two white children. For Jeanne, she’s a girl with two boys. For Jacob, he’s a Jewish boy with two Christian children. I loved the various triangles that were made up and the constant shift that was in play from situation to situation with each of their “ins” or “outs” becoming a strength or something that made them stand out as different. I felt that this was a really important message for a book like this: privilege comes in all shapes and forms and at any given moment any single person can be on the in or the out, so we must all be aware and kind.

I’ll also throw in a few good words for the illustrations! I loved the metacommentary of the way the book was illustrated, mimicking the images that monks would draw into the margins of their transcribing work. Some would align with the action of the story while others were intentionally obtuse (a fact that is noted in the beginning of the story, that the illustrator would draw what came to him, with some images existing without connection to the story or explanation).

The ties to “The Canterbury Tales” were also fun, with the story being told by various narrators. I loved the way this element of the book came to life towards the last third, drawing these outside forces into the story itself. There were a few very clever twists with this that I don’t want to spoil! That said, as I mentioned above, I doubt any kid reading this will have read “The Canterbury Tales” and I don’t think there is anything missing for it. It’s more just a fun plug for those English nerds out there who have plowed through that thing and all of its incomprehensible Old English.

But I also agree with a few of the down points that Kate mentioned, notably the potty humor. This is purely a personal preference thing, as I know many kids (and adults!) love this type of humor. But there was one side plot that really lost me as it focused almost entirely on these types of jokes. Secondly, there were a few points in the story where my suspension of disbelief was called into question. We’re dealing with magical children, so for the most part I was ready to just go with this. But there were a few scenes, notably a fight scene where William beats up a bunch of bandits with a donkey leg, that pushed me out of the story a bit wondering how much of the “real world” this story was supposed to be set in.

Those issues aside, I really enjoyed this book. It is a tough read in parts like Kate mentioned. Serious issues are tackled and the persecution and tragedy of the time period weren’t glossed over. I appreciated this fact, but it does make for some sad happenings. But ultimately I would recommend this book to middle schoolers and adults. It’s one of those rare children’s books that can equally appeal to adults.

Serena’s Rating 8: A strong middle school story set in a unique time period with a lot to say about history, religion, and inclusiveness.

Kate’s Rating 6: I see the value and I understand the praise, but I had a harder time with this book than I would have liked.

Book Club Questions

  1. This book is told from multiple perspectives when a group of people gather in a pub to recall the story of the three kids. Did you have a favorite perspective voice?
  2. The illustrations in this book are similar to that of illuminated texts that are seen throughout history in religious works. Have you ever encountered this kind of illustration before? What did you think of the illustrations?
  3. King Louis IX was an actual person in history, as was his mother Blanche, as were other people mentioned in this book. What did you think of using real people in this fictional story?
  4. Each of the main characters comes from a different walk of life, has their own set of challenges to overcome, and their own magical powers. Did one of these characters stand out more to you? Why?
  5. This story tackles a lot of big questions about religion and diversity. Did any of these points stand out to you as particularly strong? Could any have been improved upon or weren’t fully realized?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Inquisitor’s Tale” is included on the Goodreads lists “Newbery Medal Honor Books”, and “Bravewriter Boomerangs”.

Find “The Inquisitor’s Tale” at your library using WorldCat!

Next book club book up is “The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making”.

 

The Great Animorphs Re-Read #10: “The Android”

7089Animorphs #10: “The Android”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, September 1997

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: When Marco runs into his old friend Erek he doesn’t think too much of it. He’s got a couple of more important things to do. Like helping to save the world. But then Marco finds out Erek’s been hanging with some of the kids at The Sharing. And he starts to think that something just a little weird is going on. So Marco, Jake and Ax decide to morph and check old Erek out. Just to see if he’s been infested with a Yeerk. The good news is that Erek’s not a human controller. The bad news is that Erek’s not even human…

Narrator: Marco

Plot: After convincing Jake to join him in an “inappropriate use of morphing” escapade to crash a concert in dog morph, Marco and he discover that a friend of theirs from school, Erek, is not what he seems. He has no scent! He’s also handing out pamphlets for “The Sharing,” the Yeerk front group for recruiting new Controllers. All highly suspicious! Let the sleuthing begin! Some more scouting has Marco and Tobias in bird morph see Erek get hit by a bus and then pop right up as if nothing had happened. Even more amazing was the flicker they see, revealing a bizarre metallic body beneath what seems to be a hologram of some sort. The Animorphs then conclude that they need to use “non traditional” eyes to see beneath this hologram to discover the truth of Erek, so Marco and Ax end up morphing spider and infiltrating a “Sharing” lake-front gathering to sneak up on Erek. I’m unclear why they couldn’t have used their fly morphs which also have compound eyes and would be much safer than spiders due to the simple fact that they can fly. This is even more true since Marco gets eaten by a bird at one point and must demorph THROUGH THE BIRD’S NECK to escape! But, they do discover that Erek is definitely some type of android when he comes upon Marco and Ax morphing and “invites” them back to his house to discuss things.

What follows is the introduction of a completely new set of aliens into our growing catalog of interstellar life. Beneath Erek’s house is a whole host of androids that they learn are called the Chee. The Chee are the creation of an extinct species called the Pemalites, a technologically advanced, but peaceful, species that was wiped out when they were attached by another race. The last of their kind escaped to Earth where the Chee were able to somehow connect the remaining essense of their creators into the most similar species to be found on Earth: wolves. The result was the modern dog, the happy-go-lucky animals that share the same spirit as the lost Pemalites. But due to their peaceful perspective, the Chee were programmed in a way that doesn’t allow them to commit violence in any way. Now that the Yeerks are threatening Earth, the humans, and the dogs that contain all that remains of their creators, Erek and some other Chee wish to join the fight. And this is where the Animorphs come in.

Turns out that the Yeerks have somehow acquired a Pemalites crystal that they are using to develop a super computer that will be able to take control of all the computers in the world. Further, this same crystal could be used by the Chee to re-write their programming and allow them to more actively join the fight. All of this is enough motivation to get our heroes involved.

What follows is an action sequence right out of the movie “Entrapment.” Morphed as cockroaches and spiders, they must navigate a piped tunnels, fall great distances (seriously, there’s so much falling in this series as a whole), evade a rat, almost get burned alive by a furnace activating at an inopportune time, and then morph bats to sneak through a pitch black room full of trigger wires. All of this to discover that once they get there, they have no way of carrying the crystal back. So, because no Animorph book can be completely without them all using their battle morphs, the team decide they must bash their way out. This is…not successful. There was a reason they were told by the Chee that sneaking in was the best option. The Animorphs are sliced and diced and only saved by Marco’s dying push to shove the crystal through a window to Erek who is waiting outside. He is then able to re-write his programming and save the day by massacring the remaining Controllers. But he discovers the price of this violence is too high, especially for an android whose memory is always clear, giving no relief or escape from these acts. The story ends with the Chee offering to help by providing information as they can, but refusing to take the crystal. Marco and Jake have a final moment on the beach with Homer and some other dogs where, majestically, Homer carries off the crystal to be lost in the ocean. The end.

The Comic Relief: Marco is definitely my favorite narrator. His voice is the most distinct, and, especially as I re-read this series as an adult, he is the character I most relate to. He’s highly pragmatic, but also comfortable admitting when things are getting too real and scary. As far as character-growth, there’s not necessarily a lot of that in this book for Marco. Probably some of the least as far the series has gone so far. Usually the POV narrator has some distinct arc to go through. But I’m guessing that there was so much action and world-building that came with the introduction of the Chee and the Pemalites, that some of this had to take a back seat. We get some nice moments between Marco and his Dad (see Adult Crying portion), and some fun friend moments with Jake, but at this point in the series, Marco is pretty committed what with his Mom being Visser One and doesn’t need much more motivation to keep this fight going. He does have a strong reason though to have a very frank approach to getting the Chee involved in the fight. No moral concerns from him, really, about tainting a peaceful species’ (?) soul with violence. Not when their help could make the difference in this war and save his mother and humanity. When Cassie is blathering on and on about the wrongness of tainting the Chee species, Marco has this to say:

“Look, no one likes violence. All right? But we didn’t ask for this war with the Yeerks. When the bad guys come after you, when they start the violence, they leave you no choice: fight or die.”

On the other hand, he doesn’t fight against Erek’s and the Chee’s choice to abstain from the war after he sees the effects Erek feels after the violence to save the Animorphs towards the end of the story. This whole approach to the Chee conundrum just felt very real and true to Marco’s character as a very practical guy, but also a very empathetic one. He’s just a very well-rounded character. And, funny, never forget funny.

Our Fearless Leader: It’s fun to see Jake get wheedled into just being a regular teenager by Marco early in the book with the concert escapade. Their relationship is very similar to Rachel and Cassie’s in that Jake is more serious, but Marco allows him to just be a regular kid who wants to see a band for free. Marco also mentions how much he appreciates the work that Jake does as a leader when they are all trapped in the building needing to decide how to break out. They all know they’re going to need to go the almost-suicidal-route and barge their way through in battle morph, but it takes Jake saying it for it to be real. And Marco notes the strength it must take to always be in that role.

Xena, Warriar Princess: I don’t know if this is “shipping” per se (though, again, re-reading this series, while I love Tobias/Rachel, I more and more can see a Rachel/Marco thing working), but it is interesting to note a pattern with Marco’s views of Rachel. In book 7, we see him change his vote about going with the Ellimist after seeing Rachel break down and admit that she’s struggling with this war. And here, Marco doesn’t fully understand the gravity of the situation with Erek’s pain after killing until he sees Rachel crying. In both of these examples, it is clear that Marco uses Rachel as a gauge upon which to judge his reaction to an event. Rachel clearly has a thing for Tobias, but Marco…even if it’s not romantic, he clearly respects Rachel very much and perhaps even identifies with her the most when it comes to these situations.

A Hawk’s Life: Ugh, poor Tobias! Again he is completely side-lined from the action in this book, especially the last half. He does some good work in the initial scouting of Erek, but can’t, obviously, do anything in their infiltration plan in the end.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie seems to have come to her senses a bit with regards to the fact that Tobias is a hawk that *gasp* eats baby animals sometimes. In one scene she’s scoping out a baby possum nest and notes how cute they are, but admits that Tobias as a hawk has a right to eat them if he needed to…but they’re so cute! Effectively guilting him out of it. Still, a vast improvement over her ridiculous anger in the last book. She is also, of course, completely against the idea of re-writing the Chee’s programming so that they can fight. But it must be noted that when Marco essentially gives her an out on the mission to steal the crystal by saying that he understands if anyone wanted to not involve themselves, Cassie steps up to the plate and accepts the group’s choice (and more importantly, in my opinion, Erek’s and the Chee’s choice!).

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Turns out that not only can Ax keep track of time in his head, he also has an innate ability to tell direction, which I’m sure will come in useful in the future. As always, Ax’s deadpan humor and inability to discern sarcasm plays as a great foil to Marco. These two are really the most entertaining pair in the group, and it’s always great when they end up on missions together, like they did here as spiders.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: We learn an important fact about morphing in this book that will come up again in a future book in a big way, if I remember correctly.  But, with his usual perfect timing, as they are morphing spider, Ax informs Margo that when one morphs a smaller animal then themselves, their “extra mass” gets ballooned out into Z space. So….blobs of extra guts, and skin, and hair just bobbing around in space. Disgusting and also incredibly nerve-wracking as Marco notes the freakiness of the fact that these blogs could be hit by a passing space ship at any time. Ax is very reassuring about this concern, of course, noting that a ship would never “hit” a mass of excess morph material; it would be disintegrated by the ship’s shields immediately. Thanks Ax.

Couples Watch!: Not a lot in this book, other than my own developing Marco/Rachel/Tobias love triangle that exists nowhere but my own head. When describing the team members, Marco mentions Jake and Cassie’s quasi relationship saying:

“The only time they’ll act that way is when we’re about twelve seconds away from doing something insanely dangerous. Then they’ll kind of give each other these pathetic sad looks. It’s so lame.”

Also, at one point, when Marco and Cassie barely escape being killed by the furnace which suddenly turns on as they are crossing it, Jake becomes very concerned about Cassie, forgetting to ask about Marco’s well-being, much to Marco’s annoyance.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: Visser Three isn’t in this book! This is a first I think! Instead, we get some high-ranking “grandmotherly” human Controller leading the troops in the final battle. But, guess it makes sense. Though we never see him in action, it sounds like Erek was pretty much an unstoppable killing force when he saved the group and we can’t have him taking out Visser Three right here and ending the whole series!

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: So, the scene between Marco and his Dad. It turns out that Marco’s Dad’s company is thinking about getting involved in developing some type of military technology. But Marco’s Dad tells him this story about how in the year before her death, his relationship with Marco’s Mom turned some type of corner and they had a blissful relationship. Never fighting, completely in love. And one night during this time he woke up to see Marco’s Mom sitting up in bed, clearly struggling with something. But all she says is “They won’t take you if you don’t become involved with the military.” And he never fully understood it, but it’s been enough for him to avoid military projects ever since.

Marco sees this story for what it really means. This “blissful” period of time is when his mother became infested. The Yeerk has no reason to involve itself in petting marital spats, preferring a simple home life to focus on its own work. And that night in bed between his Mom and Dad was his Mom’s massive fight against the Yeerk to gain enough control to give her husband that one warning to avoid the military to save him from becoming a Controller himself.

The whole thing is so tragic. His Dad’s false memories of this happy portion of their marriage. The real struggle, and likely high price that was paid, by his Mom to deliver the warning.

One last note on this, the book never really addresses this point again, that Marco’s Dad was considering getting involved with a military contract that would make him bait for the Yeerks. I guess we are left to assume that he decides to continue abiding my his wife’s warning, even if he doesn’t understand it.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: Marco notes how the original plan to infiltrate the Yeerk base to get the crystal was supposed to be a week away, giving them time to practice their bat morph and better prepare. But Erek discovers that the Yeerks are working to make the base even more well-protected, forcing the team to need to jump into action immediately. So, there’s some excuse (and self-awareness!) here about the lack of planning. However, turns out the bat morph is super easy to control, so practicing it wasn’t really necessary anyways. But the fact that they couldn’t carry the crystal out…that problem was always there, right in front of them, being ignored!

Favorite Quote:

Marco/Rachel banter is the best. And a big deal is made over the fact that Marco has cut his hair short in the beginning of this book (let’s be real, the model for Marco for the book covers cut his hair and the book needed to address it, for some reason).

“That’s what that hair of yours reminds me of: a wolverine. I knew it was something.” [Rachel said]

“Oh, yeah?” I shot back. “Well, how about your . . . your …”

“My what?” Rachel asked coolly, with the absolute confidence of a girl who never looked less than perfect.
“Your tallness,” I said lamely. “You’re . . . tall. Way tall.”
Somehow this brilliant comeback did not cause Rachel to break down in tears.

Scorecard: Yeerks 2, Animorphs 5

Even though the Chee don’t end up joining the war, escaping with the Pemalite crystal and preventing the Yeerks from creating some type of super computer that would control all computers is still a pretty big win, so a point to the Animorphs!

Rating: A solid Marco book! He’s my favorite narrator in the series, and even though he doesn’t have much of a personal arc in this story, we’re still introduced to the Chee who will play a role in future books, so this is an important installment in the series.

Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all! But I’ll give a one sentence conclusion and you can take from that what you will!

Kate’s Review: “Batgirl (Vol.2): Family Business”

26067583Book: “Batgirl (Vol.2): Family Business” by Cameron Stewart, Brendan Fletcher (Ill.), and Babs Tarr (Ill.).

Publishing Info: DC Comics, February 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Like daughter, like father.

Over the past few months, Barbara Gordon has made some big changes to her Batgirl alter ego. She has a new look, new support team and new home base in Burnside, Gotham’s trendiest neighborhood. But just when she’s hitting her stride, her fahter drops a bombshell–Babs isn’t the only masked crime-fighter in the family anymore. Jim Gordon is the new Batman.

After the original Batman fell fighting the Joker, the former police commissioner was given a high-tech super-suit and asked to take up the mantle. With a team of GCPD officers watching his every move, Jim Gordon’s new law-and-order Batman has zero tolerance for vigilantism. He’s been ordered to arrest any unsanctioned superhero in Gotham–and Batgirl is next!

Review: Barbara Gordon, as we all know, has a very special place in my heart. Because of that, I was very excited that I liked the new “Batgirl” storyline that Cameron Stewart brought to the world, but also kind of nervous. What if I liked it, and then it collapsed under it’s own weight? After all, that’s what happened to “Black Canary” in my reading experience. So while I was very eager to pick up “Batgirl (Vol.2): Family Business”, part of me was anxious. I finally sat down and read it, and I’m pleased to say that it did not disappoint.

I like how Barbara is progressing. While I was a bit lost regarding her father (ex) Chief Gordon taking up the Batman mantle (I haven’t read any New 52 Batman stories), I liked that we got an interesting shift in power dynamic, with Barbara knowing his secret identity without him knowing hers. Seeing her interact with her father in his Batman form (in a giant robotic suit, no less) was both a little bittersweet, and also a confirmation of both of their personalities; she being stubborn and fervent, and him being willing to bend the rules when deep in his heart he knows he should. This wasn’t the only crossover we got in this book, as Barbara also ran afoul Maps and Olive at Gotham Academy. I’m glad that they didn’t spend too much time there, though, because while it was good for a taste I tend to get a bit weary of crossovers. I do keep up with “Gotham Academy” as best I can, but I don’t think that I should necessarily have to read multiple storylines in the DC Universe to keep up with one title.

We also got a glimpse of Dick Grayson and whatever he is up to right now in the DC Universe. This was probably my least favorite of the crossover storylines, because it was just Dick trying to maintain the facade that he is dead, and hiding from Barbara… Until he decided to jump back into her life on his own terms and expected her to jump back into his arms, no questions asked.

giphy15
Grayson, please. (source)

I was happy to see that Barbara didn’t take any of that lying down, and called him out on it and how it’s not romantic, but incredibly hurtful…. But that said, as a person who deeply, deeply ships Batgirl and Nightwing, I was upset to see it go down the way it did. Not only was it sad for them, it just felt shoehorned in, and it distracted from a much happier (and lighter) storyline, which was Alysia and her girlfriend Jo getting married!!! True, the storyline leading up to it was a bit silly (involving tigers mauling people), but the end game was very pleasant. Nice to see that Barbara can still be there for her friends in spite of her life of daring do.

I am also happy to report that it seems that I’m going to be getting my Oracle fix in the very near future!! While Barbara herself won’t be taking this role, there have been hints that Frankie, Barbara’s coder roommate, is going to team up with her and serve as this role. Even if Barbara is reluctant to let her take it on just yet, because of worries to Frankie’s safety. The tension that this brings is a good way to remind us that Barbara, while well meaning, hasn’t quite reconciled that she does, in fact, need help. I think that giving this role to Frankie is perfect, because she’s incredibly technologically adept, and she is there to be a voice of reason to Barbara as well as someone she can confide in. And THIS, I feel, is how to reinvent a character in a comic setting. The transition wasn’t forced and the adjustment felt natural and completely plausible, nor did Barbara have to be humiliated or character assassinated to make it work. If Frankie is, indeed, on her way to becoming the new Oracle, I welcome it with open arms and hope that she gets a lot of cool, research-y things to do.

Overall, a couple of bumps notwithstanding, I was pleased with how the “Batgirl” storyline has been progressing. “Family Business” was a fun and bubbly read. Barbara is still charming and complex, and her adventures will keep me coming back for more.

Rating 8: The re-emergence of a new Oracle and some more fun action and thrills with Barbara made a fun second installment in the new “Batgirl” iteration!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Batgirl (Vol.2): Family Business” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best of Batgirl”, and “Girls Read Comics”.

Find “Batgirl (Vol.2): Family Business” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “Batgirl (Vol.1): The Batgirl of Burnside”.

Serena’s Review: “Shadowcaster”

30253091Book: “Shadowcaster” by Cinda Williams Chima

Publication Info: HarperTeen, April 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Alyssa ana’Raisa is the reluctant princess heir to the Gray Wolf throne of Fells, a queendom embroiled in a seemingly endless war. Hardened by too many losses, Lyss is more comfortable striking with a sword than maneuvering at court. After a brush with death, she goes on the offensive, meaning to end the war that has raged her whole life. If her gamble doesn’t pay off, she could lose her queendom before she even ascends to the throne.

Across enemy lines in Arden, young rising star Captain Halston Matelon has been fighting for his king since he was a lýtling. Lately, though, he finds himself sent on ever more dangerous assignments. Between the terrifying rumors of witches and wolfish warriors to the north and his cruel king at home, Hal is caught in an impossible game of life and death.

Review: I told Kate that I was struggling with how to start off this review because I have noticed a trend in my own reviews: nit-picky focusing on covers! I mean, the fact that I devoted time to griping about this cover in the limited word count available for our little features in “Highlights” posts…and then STILL want to rant about it more here? But I will resist, so please refer to our “April Highlights” post for my thoughts on this travesty.

“Shadowcaster” is the second book in Cinda Williams Chima’s “Shattered Realms” series that takes place a generation later in her “Grey Wolf Throne” world. I struggled with the first one, feeling that the characters were less interesting than the original cast and that the romance was a bad example of insta-love. So going into this, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Which, as it turns out, was the appropriate approach as, in many ways, this is almost a second beginning to the series. We’re introduced to a whole new cast of characters and a timeline that is largely running alongside the events of the first book. There were still aspects of the series that I am struggling with, but I did find myself enjoying this book more than the first (a bit of a trend, I’ve found with this author, as I had the same experience with her first series in this world.)

This time around, our two main characters (though there are several others with POV chapters, including a few from Jenna, a character from the first book) are Lyss, the reluctant heir to the Grey Wolf Throne, and an Ardenian captain, Halston, who after being capture by the enemy begins to learn more about the other side of this war and story.

First off, I think the main reason I enjoyed this book more than the first was the fact that I enjoyed both of these main characters more. Lyss especially was very fleshed out and well drawn. Her struggles with identity and with her relationship with the queen, her mother, are thoroughly explored throughout the course of the story. After her sister’s death, a sister who Lyss and the entire country revered as the ideal princess heir, Lyss finds herself in the impossible role of needing to fill those shoes. Further, her own talents for warfare and military strategy, combined with her physical fighting prowess, call her to a role of action. Throughout the years, she has gained respect and acumen for her success in the war against Arden, but whenever she returns home, the duties of ruling chafe, especially given her penchant for frank and perhaps less diplomatic language and ideas. All of this, plus the shared loss of all their family (or so Lyss believes, not knowing as we do that her brother lives) creates an ongoing tension point in her relationship with Raisa, the queen. Lyss was a brilliant character, and her journey throughout the book neatly tied the plot’s action to Lyss’s own growth and challenges.

Halston received less page time, but he too was a compelling character. Throughout the story, Halston’s story makes it clear how difficult life in Arden is. Politics is tangled around every aspect of life, with the fear of angering the cruel king tinging every decisions. After being captured by Lyss and her troops, Halston begins to see the falsehoods that have been spread by the King about the war and the northern country with whom they fight. However, loyalty and a fierce desire to protect his family must drive his every decision.

One of my primary concerns with the first book was the insta-love relationship that seemingly evolved out of nowhere. With that in mind, I was extremely pleased to see the more developed and extended relationship that was drawn between Lyss and Halston. Both characters are given the proper amount of time and shared experiences to make a budding relationship between the two enemies believable. I was much more invested in this relationship than I ever was with Jenna/Ash.

While Ash was referenced in this book, only Jenna had page time out of the original characters. Ultimately, while I did like elements of her chapters, especially now that we have her dragon pal to appreciate, I did question these inclusions. Her story line felt largely separate from the rest of the action and her reference to Ash only reminded me how much I disliked that relationship from the first book. There were a few plot points that were introduced and helpful to driving the larger story line crossing between books, but these chapters were so few and so disconnected from our main characters and plot that I question there inclusion.

Adding to all of these POVS is another, fourth perspective from a young man who has a mysterious gem or mage mark on the back of neck similar to Jenna’s. His role is more important to the driving factors in this story, and as a character I found his story and history interesting.

However, all of this highlights my biggest concern with this book and now the series as a whole. There are so many characters! The first book had around 4 POVs if I remember correctly, and this one introduced another 3. It was obvious in the first book that certain narrators were stronger than others, and the rushed elements of the book (the romance, specifically) I directly attributed to the choice to include so many. There is simply not enough page time in an already lengthy book to fully develop this many characters and their relationships with each other. So, here, we are given even more characters. And while I liked the main characters in this story more than I did those in the first, this just presents me with more concerns. Even in this book I found myself skimming through characters’ chapters (specifically Jenna’s) to get back to Hal and Lyss. What’s going to happen going forward when they all need to share page time together? I don’t want to lose the awesomeness of Lyss, for the less interesting Ash. Or, even worse, focus on the shallow Jenna/Ash relationship at the expense of Lyss/Hal.

While I enjoyed this book more than first, largely due to the strength of its main characters, I came out of the reading experience even more worried about the direction of the series as a whole than I did in the first. After that book, I had hoped that my concerns would be addressed by spending more time with Jenna/Ash so that I could get more on board with these characters and see their relationship flesh itself out further from its unfortunately rapid beginning. But now not only is that not the case, but I’ve been given character alternatives whom I enjoy even more and who are ultimately will have to give up their page time and stories to these originals. Not only do I not know how all of these characters will be given their due in a limited number of pages left in the series, but I now have a strong bias for/against a few of them. But I guess I’ll just have to wait and see, fingers crossed.

Rating 7: A stronger book than the first, but one that raises questions for the series as a whole.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Shadowcaster” is a newer title and isn’t included on any relevant Goodreads list, but it should be on “Music in Fantasy Fiction.”

Find “Shadowcaster” at your library using WorldCat.

Previously Reviewed: “Flamecaster”