Serena’s Review: “Grave Mercy”

9565548Book: “Grave Mercy” by Robin LaFevers

Publishing Info: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2012

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

Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?

Review: Our bookclub theme this go-around is books that have been on our TBR list for over two years. And there are a lot. My lists is somewhere in the mid-300s though, so cut me some slack! But while going through it, I tried to match up a few titles with ones that are currently available at the library in audiobook format and I struck across “Grave Mercy” and thought “Why not? Killer nuns sounds pretty neat.” And here we are. Sadly, killer nuns were not, in fact neat. But one could argue that the story wasn’t really about that anyways, so some other author could still cash in on what sounds like a cool idea.

Just as Ismae’s life is taking a distinct turn for the worst (an arranged marriage, said husband being an abusive jerk, etc. etc.), she’s caught up by a mysterious organization., a convent that follows an old god, one who calls upon his followers to take out evil in the world. The convents train in these deadly arts to carry out this work. With a new route before her, Ismae excels in her new life and role. But when the straight-forward plan of killing targets gets caught up in a much more murky world of courtly politics, Ismae finds herself out of her depth. Add in some romantic feelings, and she’s in a real mess.

To start with any pros, the best thing this book has going for it is the cool premise. I was excited to pick up this book, as assassins always seem like they would be good for an action-packed story full of potentially interesting moral quandaries. Unfortunately, the book itself fails to follow through on this premise, so even that is a pretty luke warm pro.

My biggest problem with this book comes down to the writing itself, both the style of sentences construction as well as the numerous plotting issues. I’m not personally a fan of first person present tense writing, and this one definitely falls prey to the weaknesses of this tense. The voice is often wooden and off-putting. Her emotions are conveyed using a handful of cliches that do nothing to really show us Ismae’s feelings, rather just informing us of them, as a matter of fact. I’m not sure I would have loved the character of Ismae had she been presented in another way, but this definitely didn’t help.

The other big problem with the writing is the way numerous writing crutches are used. The story opens with Ismae’s abusive first day of married life, quickly moves on to her being taken in by the convent and informed, succinctly, of their role in the world. Then two seconds later Ismae’s all on board and we have a time jump. Suddenly, she’s now this badass assassin out on her first mission. It all happens too fast and readers are left to just swallow it all, no questions. There is far too much telling and no showing. We never see Ismae gain any of these so-called skills, and with the introduction of a magical knife that kills with just the barest touch, we’re left wondering why any training is needed at all.

Frankly, it feels as if the author did the barest amount of work in the beginning of her story to get to the part she really wanted to write about. Which, fine. But if that’s your goal, just skip it all together and introduce these pieces of history as the current story plays out. This method would have worked much better and solved several of these problems.

I also struggled with the romance. It’s pretty much just what you would think, so I don’t really need to even bother explaining any of the details. But given Ismae’s early marriage (which, by the way, seems fairly valid and never is addressed again) and the abuse that came with it, I would have hoped for a more nuanced approach to her love story. Instead, we have generic googly eyes at the hawt guy and, again, a long list of cliched descriptions and emotions.

Assassin books are a strange thing for me, now. I feel like I really like them. But when I try to think of examples of books with this theme that I’ve enjoyed, there are really very few. And on the other hand, a rather long list of books with this plot that I’ve absolutely hated. It makes sense: how do you write about something as brutal as assassination without also taking the time to really address the moral issues at the heart of it? Far too many authors simply want the badass points of it all without the latter responsibility to the emotions and decisions behind it. So we end up with books like this, where we’re told that our main character is a badass and then proceed on to a pretty bland love story that is more focused on court politics that assassinations, anyways.

Rating 4: The weak writing really killed this one for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Grave Mercy” is on these Goodreads lists: Books With Heroes/Heroines Who Are Assassins and Young Adult Books Without Love Triangles.

Find “Grave Mercy” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Innocent Wife”

32187685Book: “The Innocent Wife” by Amy Lloyd

Publishing Info: Hanover Square Press, January 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Twenty years ago, Dennis Danson was arrested and imprisoned for the brutal murder of a young girl. Now he’s the subject of a true-crime documentary that’s whipping up a frenzy online to uncover the truth and free a man who has been wrongly convicted.

A thousand miles away in England, Samantha is obsessed with Dennis’s case. She exchanges letters with him, and is quickly won over by his apparent charm and kindness to her. Soon she has left her old life behind to marry him and campaign for his release.

When the campaign is successful and Dennis is freed, however, Sam begins to discover new details that suggest he may not be quite so innocent after all. 

But how do you confront your husband when you don’t want to know the truth?

The winner of the Daily Mail First Novel Competition, Amy Lloyd’s The Innocent Wife is gripping psychological suspense from a brilliant new voice in crime fiction.

Review: I listen to a whole lot of podcasts, mostly ones that dabble in true crime, and sometimes through those podcasts I get reading ideas. While usually these idea come in the form of non fiction books (usually thanks to Marcus Parks being a thorough researcher who likes to share his sources), occasionally a fiction title will catch my ear. So when Georgia Hardstark of “My Favorite Murder” mentioned the book “The Innocent Wife” by Amy Lloyd, I immediately threw myself on the request list. Eventually it arrived, and I was eager to open it up and dive on in. Happily, the moment I opened it it pretty much took my full attention until I was finished. Yes, it’s that readable and that addicting. But while it is absolutely readable and addicting, it also left a sour taste in my mouth when all was said and done. And to really explain why, I’m going to have to give you a big ol’ spoiler alert before I really break it down.

But, as always, I will first concentrate on the aspects of this book that I enjoyed. Lloyd has clearly done her research and has no problems showing the dark underbelly of American prison systems and how prisoners exist within them. The central question of this book is whether or not Dennis, a convicted murderer sitting on death row, is actually guilty of the crime he committed. There are similarities between this case and other cases of potentially innocent/clearly innocent people on death row, though I see many parallels to Damian Echols of The West Memphis 3. One consequence of sitting in a small confined cell for so many years is that Dennis’s eyesight has been warped so that he has to wear dark lenses on his eyes at all times. From being in a controlled and isolated environment for so long, Dennis doesn’t know how to function in the outside world, and things that we would take for granted such as newer slang or long passed world events are new and unexplained to him. There is also a focus on incompetence or corruption of law enforcement, and how sometimes law enforcement officials are far more interested in putting a collar on someone, anyone, to close a case, even if that person doesn’t necessarily fit the evidence or the realities of said case. I liked that Lloyd brought up these issues when other authors may not have, just to show that there are consequences to our systems, especially for those who shouldn’t be there in the first place.

But beyond those pertinent issues and themes “The Innocent Wife” was a quick but ultimately frustrating read for me. For one, I had a hard time with the characters. Our main character, Samantha, is completely unlikeable and unrelatable. She makes terrible decision after terrible decision, and is very self involved, getting married to a convicted murder that she barely knows (even if she’s convinced he didn’t kill the girl he supposedly killed) without thinking of potential consequences of said actions. She has temper tantrums of jealousy regarding women who visit Dennis in prison, gets petulant about how the public sees her after he’s been let out of prison, and has moments of feeling ugly because he is having problems with intimacy after he’s been INCARCERATED FOR TWO DECADES. While I don’t doubt that these are certainly realistic and believable traits, I had a really hard time stomaching them. The only character that I really liked in this book was Carrie, the filmmaker of the documentary that focuses on Dennis whose tenacity and will to expose a corrupt system was very enjoyable.

And why didn’t I like Dennis, you may ask? Well let me tell you. And here is your

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(source)

No, Dennis didn’t commit the crime for which he went to prison. But he SURE HELPED MURDER A NUMBER OF OTHER MISSING GIRLS AND WOMEN IN HIS HOMETOWN. Once that was revealed, I was pretty much miffed, and hate read the rest of the book. What frustrates me about this is that I felt like it negated all of the other legitimate injustices and concerns that were brought up within the narrative, as now the reader has his actual guilt which seems to negate the issues that were brought up earlier in the book. I felt like it knocked the legs out from under very reasonable arguments about inhumane treatment and corruption and incompetence, because now the ‘gut feeling’ the police officers had has been legitimized and the corruption of the conviction doesn’t have any weight anymore. I hated that. 

“The Innocent Wife” was a fast read, but an unsatisfying one. I won’t stop taking reading advice from podcasts, but I may be inclined to look into the titles a bit more from now on.

Rating 4: While “The Innocent Wife” did bring up interesting and grave truths about incarceration in this country, the ultimate solution was frustrating and I didn’t care for most of the characters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Innocent Wife” is included on the Goodreads lists “Murderino Reading List!”, and “The Girl Who Didn’t See Her Husband’s Wife When She Disappeared Twice From The Train.”

Find “The Innocent Wife” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Caged Queen”

35843937Book: “The Caged Queen” by Kristen Ciccarelli

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, September 2018

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

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

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

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

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

All she has to do is kill the king.

Previously Reviewed: “The Last Namsara”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory: 

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

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

Serena’s Review: “Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge”

31019831 Book: “Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge” by Lisa Jensen

Publishing Details: Candlewick Press, July 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: They say Château Beaumont is cursed. But servant-girl Lucie can’t believe such foolishness about handsome Jean-Loup Christian Henri LeNoir, Chevalier de Beaumont, master of the estate. But when the chevalier’s cruelty is revealed, Lucie vows to see him suffer. A wisewoman grants her wish, with a spell that transforms Jean-Loup into monstrous-looking Beast, reflecting the monster he is inside. But Beast is nothing like the chevalier. Jean-Loup would never patiently tend his roses; Jean-Loup would never attempt poetry; Jean-Loup would never express remorse for the wrong done to Lucie. Gradually, Lucie realizes that Beast is an entirely different creature from the handsome chevalier, with a heart more human than Jean-Loup’s ever was. Lucie dares to hope that noble Beast has permanently replaced the cruel Jean-Loup — until an innocent beauty arrives at Beast’s château with the power to break the spell.

Review: Oof, another challenging “Beauty and the Beast” retelling. I think I could probably write an entire PhD on the pitfalls of re-telling this fairytale. When I first saw the book description, I was excited to read a version that was seemingly focused on an entirely new character, not “Beauty” herself. And while that aspect was still interesting, the book itself was very difficult to read and I will have a hard time recommending it to others, unfortunately.

Lucie is a servant in the house of the rich lord, Jean-Loup. After a horrific event, she is the one to wish the worst on her master, resulting in him turning into a beast, and her into a sentient household item. As time passes, she begins to suspect that this new, beastly version of her master might not be the same, and when a stranger arrives on the scene, the world begins to change once again.

So this is obviously not a positive review, but there are a few things I’d like to highlight as positives for this book. One, I still very much appreciate the originality behind the concept of this story. We’ve all read a million and one versions told from various “Beauty’s” perspectives. Some are better than others, but the basic construct is the same. They all arrive on the scene, confused and scared. And slowly come to change their minds and fall in love with the Beast. Here, Lucie knows Jean-Loup before his change and her experiences with him as a Beast are from the perspective of a servant, not the traditional heroine’s role. What’s more, Lucie isn’t even the “Beauty” in this story, and that character does make an appearance and play a part in the story unfolding. It’s a very creative take on things, and I truly wish that other choice had been made that would have allowed this new version to stand well on its own.

Further, I did like the writing for the most part. The “voice” fits well with the re-telling of a fairytale. It verges on rather simplistic and “younger” sounding, but I think that, done right, this tone actually works really well for fairytales which can be unique for having a different cadence, such as this. However, the writing also directly lines up with some of my major criticisms of the book.

It is very simplistic and straight forward. As I began reading, I started thinking “Huh, ok. So this is maybe more of a middle grade version of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ Great!” Mentally, I started aligning it with the words of Shannon Hale, who’s written a bunch of fairytales, many of which have a younger-sounding voice and simple story-telling technique. But alas, this comparison died a sudden, very harsh death only a few chapters into the story.

(This might be a spoiler, but it’s pretty crucial to understanding the negative reaction I’ve had to this book, so if you want to go in blind, skip the rest!)

The prologue to the story sets it up that Lucie is the one who directed the fairy to go “all in,” as it were, on the curse on Jean-Loup. So we know that something awful has to happen to inspire this level of hatred. And something awful does indeed happen, in the form of a graphic sexual assault scene.

This was shocking to see on several accounts, but not least of all is the direct contradiction that the graphic nature of this scene lays across the middle-grade nature of the writing itself. I was mentally comparing this book to Shannon Hale, of all people, based on the writing style itself. The most sweetest fairytale writer you can find! And that’s a problem. Likely, the type of reader who is going to appreciate the tone of this writing style is going to verge younger. Even for me, a fan of middle grade and YA fiction, I was distracted by the simplistic nature of this writing. So those who may truly enjoy it are going to be young. And then you get a scene that could have been straight out of “Game of Thrones.” It’s going to be tough to read for even the most hardened among us who are semi-used to running across scenes like this in adult fantasy, let alone younger readers. But, on this side of things, readers who are prepared for this type of dark scene, are likely going to be completely turned off by the young-sounding writing. So there’s a contradiction there where the writing and content are, conversely, going to turn off both options for a reader-base.

Beyond this, I have problems with the actual story line, having included a scene like this as the basis for Lucie’s hatred of Jean-Loup. For all intents and purposes, Lucie ends up as the romantic interest for the Beast, instead of Belle. The book tries to roll out the tried and true rug of “magically separated/changed selves” that would absolve the Beast of past actions, as he is now no longer truly that person. I will always struggle with this type of wand-waving. Regardless of the fact that the “reasons” that Lucie points to as evidence that these two beings are inherently different are horribly minor (like food preferences and fears of spiders), there’s always going to be an insurmountable hill, in my mind, between forgiving an attacker (a hard ask on its own) and falling in love with him. I just can’t get behind that story, and I don’t think this book did nearly enough, even, to highlight any exception that could be made.

While the latter argument could be a matter of personal preference (though I still don’t think there is a huge swath of readers out there who are just searching for that great tale highlighting a victim falling in love with her attacker), my first point about the very real conflict between writing style and content is enough for me to give this a low rating. I honestly just have a hard time really focusing in on who exactly the audience is supposed to be for this book. At the very least, I wasn’t part of it.

Rating 4: Not for me. I don’t think this is a message we want to send out, regarding victims and their attackers, and the writing style was in direct conflict with the content.

Reader’s Advisory:

Again, honestly, if you want a good “Beauty and the Beast” retelling, go read “Beauty,” (the classic, in my opinion), “Heart’s Blood,” (by may favorite author, Juliet Marillier), or “Hunted” (for a more recently published option).

Find “Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Burn Bright”

35839437Book: “Burn Bright” by Patrica Briggs

Publishing Info: Ave, March 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: They are the wild and the broken. The werewolves too damaged to live safely among their own kind. For their own good, they have been exiled to the outskirts of Aspen Creek, Montana. Close enough to the Marrok’s pack to have its support; far enough away to not cause any harm.

With their Alpha out of the country, Charles and Anna are on call when an SOS comes in from the fae mate of one such wildling. Heading into the mountainous wilderness, they interrupt the abduction of the wolf–but can’t stop blood from being shed. Now Charles and Anna must use their skills–his as enforcer, hers as peacemaker–to track down the attackers, reopening a painful chapter in the past that springs from the darkest magic of the witchborn…

Review: This is going to be a really challenging review to write. For one thing, I have read all of the other books in this series, but they were all before Kate and I started this blog, so the progression of my feelings for this particular series isn’t already documented. I’ll try to discuss that a bit in the beginning to lend some context to this review. My feelings are also all tied up because a very small moment in this book has a massive effect on not only this series, but also the Mercy Thompson series which I have been reviewing here. I’m still not even completely certain if my ultimate rating is accurate. So with that super clear and stellar intro, let’s get into it, shall we?

This story takes place directly after the events in the last Mercy Thompson book, thus Bran is still away overseas. This leaves Charles and Anna in charge of managing the pack back home in Montana. All seems well until the some of the more dangerous members of the pack, those so wild that they live removed from the others out in the wilderness, begin to report being pestered and attacked by strangers with powerful magical tools. But how are these strangers even aware of these far and removed wolves and what do they ultimately want?

As I said, I’ve been reading this series right alongside the Mercy Thomspon books, as Briggs seems to release one book from either series almost yearly. I’ve had my up and down moments with the Mercy books, but overall, I’ve always enjoyed her as a character and had a fun time with those books. Not so with this series. For some reason, Anna’s more passive character has never seemed to translate well for me, and combining her with the often stoic and reserved Charles does nothing to add any more energy to the story. What’s worse, I’ve felt that the books previous to this have been pretty light on the action over all, leaving most of the story to be carried by characters alone, something that I never felt either Charles or Anna were up to.

So that’s what makes this story particularly hard. For the most part, action-wise at least, I enjoyed this book way more than I have other entries in the series. Particularly the one that came directly before this, “Dead Heat,” which I barely made it through out of sheer boredom. Here, the action takes off almost immediately and the tension and mystery remains interesting throughout the story. While I still did get to a point where I was over halfway through the book and wondering when the main plot was going to get going, I still had had enough action in smaller moments to keep me on board. I particularly liked the addition of a few new wolves in the half-crazed wildlings that live on the periferary of the Montana pack. One in particular, a crux point for the entire story, had a very compelling back story and new take on how one becomes a werewolf and how ones life prior to this change can affect their life going forward.

I also liked the way witchcraft was brought into this story. There were some new magical weapons that were introduced, and an longer story arc was referenced that I could see continuing to play out in exciting ways in both future books in this series as well as in the Mercy series.

Charles and Anna, too, were fairly strong in this one. While I still don’t enjoy them nearly as much as Adam and Mercy, they were interesting enough here. Anna’s passivity still makes her not the most interesting character, but her unique Omega powers were used in a new way that lent some new depths to her character. We also had some ties to her past that reinforced some of the challenges that she still struggles with. Charles was…Charles. Not much changed there, but oh well.

So, with all of that, I would rate this book on its own around a seven. I probably would have rated most of the other books in this series around a 5 or 6, so a 7 is a marked increase for me in general enjoyment. And yet, as you can see, it has a 4.I really can’t discuss the reason for this drastic drop without spoilers. So for those who still want to read this book, spoiler free, just know that there is a particularly conversation that massively retcons a certain character that has, in my opinion, a dire impact on both this series and, maybe even more so, the Mercy series. But for those want to know, spoilers below!

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It’s bad guys, it’s real bad.

Apparently, Bran has had romantic feelings for Mercy since forever. And both Charles and Anna, and probably Leah, and pretty much everyone but Mercy (AND THE READERS) have known about this the entire time. I have so many problems with this, let me list the ways:

  1. First and foremost, we have had ZERO indication that this is the case through two entire series made of 14+ books. That’s a whole lot of writing in which this was never referenced in even the slightest way. Every discussion about Bran and Mercy’s relationship has firmly framed it as a father/daughter relationship. Nothing Bran has done or said has indicated anything else. Nothing Mercy has said or thought has indicated anything else. And no other character, even in passing reference, has even hinted that there is a romantic element to all of this. It’s a retcon in the most clear way.
  2. This is hugely upsetting and pretty much ruins Bran’s character. Up to this point, Bran had been one of my favorite characters in the series. He is supremely powerful, but has hidden it successfully for centuries. His love (fatherly!) for and loyalty to Mercy were always touching moments, especially for a character whose own real parents were largely absent from her life. Now he’s a pedophile. There’s just no way around this fact. Bran sent Mercy away from the pack when she was a teenager, fifteen or sixteen I think. He did this to prevent his own son from pursuing a relationship with her, knowing that the age difference and differing motives (Sam just wanting kids who will survive) made it an almost predatory situation for Mercy. She then spent the rest of her growing and adult years removed from Bran and the pack. So what this entire conversation between Charles and Anna sets up is a horrible, pedophilia-based interest from Bran in Mercy. Charles and Anna discuss that Leah’s poor treatment (abusive in its own right) of Mercy was largely due to her own knowledge of Bran’s feelings for Mercy. From what we know, Leah was terrible to Mercy almost always, meaning that Bran had romantic interest in Mercy from when Mercy was a very young child. Even in the best light (which again, doesn’t work with the Leah timeline), Mercy was only 15 when she and Bran were living in the same pack and had a relationship together. 15!!! And he’s thousands of years old!!! And the entire reason he sent her away in the first place was presumably  because of his own son’s age (and the child stuff).
  3. This entire thing also puts a horrible spin on Leah’s treatment of Mercy. It was always bad and cast probably the darkest shadow (up to this point) on Bran’s character that he didn’t stop it. Again, Mercy was a child and Leah tormented her to the point where Charles, in this book, admits that he followed Mercy when she was alone to make sure Leah didn’t try anything, hinting that he had legitimate concerns that Leah could do something extreme to Mercy. This book proceeds to try and make Leah a  more sympathetic character by setting up this “Bran having feelings for Mercy” thing. As if Leah has some sort of right to be angry AT A CHILD for inspiring wildly inappropriate feelings in her mate, and in some ways Mercy had the bad treatment coming.
  4. Anna, too, is ruined by this, because at one point she says she “understands” Leah and would “feel the same way” had Charles had similar feelings. Anna is supposed to be a character whose empathy and social awareness makes her unique among a species prone to emotional denseness. And this is terrible, to at all relate to essentially a mother who abuses her child (to the point that others fear for the child’s life) because the father has an inappropriate fixation on said child. For Anna to be on the wrong side of this situation, to be casually talking (and smiling!) about it as if no part of it is that big of a deal, other than pack gossip, pretty much ruins what is supposed to be her “super power.”
  5. This is a small thing in the grander scheme of disgustingness that is this entire situation, but we now have almost every male character in this series falling in love with Mercy. It was bad enough before with Samuel and Stephen, but now it’s just gone to a crazy level. As if no man is capable of having a healthy, platonic relationship with her without succumbing to wanting more.

I really can’t say enough about how upsetting this turn of events is. It’s truly going to make it difficult to continue with either series. If taken as fact, it makes Bran a despicable character, a predator in the most base sense, and someone who can only be seen as a villain going forwards. Any interaction between him and Mercy has now retroactively been made cringe worthy to read, and going forward impossible to support. I honestly don’t know how Briggs can fix this or if she even will try. I’ll probably read the next Mercy book just to find out, but I don’t really have any hope for the situation. Other than killing off Bran, I don’t know what can be done. And even that still leaves it very difficult to go back and re-read the other books in the series without feeling incredibly uncomfortable and put off. If I could just tear these pages of dialogue out of the book and pretend I had never read them, I’d be so much happier.

So, that’s my feelings on that. As you can see, I massively downgraded this book because of what is only a short conversation, but one that has dire consequences for this and the Mercy Thompson series as a whole. And it’s too bad, because on its own, I liked this book the best of all the others in this specific series. But if I could, I’d rather have not read it at all and kept my good feelings about Bran and the Mercy Thompson series instead.

Rating 4: Honestly, if you’re a big fan of the Mercy Thompson series, I wouldn’t read this. It does more damage to those books than the good it does for its own series, in the end.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Burn Bright” is a newer title so isn’t on many relevant lists, it should be on this list (like many of Briggs’ other books are): “Best novels with Native American main character.”

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Serena’s Review: “Cruel Beauty”

15839984Book: “Cruel Beauty” by Rosamund Hodge

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, January 2014

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

Book Description: Since birth, Nyx has been betrothed to the evil ruler of her kingdom-all because of a foolish bargain struck by her father. And since birth, she has been in training to kill him.

With no choice but to fulfill her duty, Nyx resents her family for never trying to save her and hates herself for wanting to escape her fate. Still, on her seventeenth birthday, Nyx abandons everything she’s ever known to marry the all-powerful, immortal Ignifex. Her plan? Seduce him, destroy his enchanted castle, and break the nine-hundred-year-old curse he put on her people.

But Ignifex is not at all what Nyx expected. The strangely charming lord beguiles her, and his castle—a shifting maze of magical rooms—enthralls her.

As Nyx searches for a way to free her homeland by uncovering Ignifex’s secrets, she finds herself unwillingly drawn to him. Even if she could bring herself to love her sworn enemy, how can she refuse her duty to kill him? With time running out, Nyx must decide what is more important: the future of her kingdom, or the man she was never supposed to love.

Review: Sigh. I don’t know, I think I’m in some very specific, “Beauty and the Beast” related slump. Don’t get me wrong, you can tell from the above alone, this was better than the “Star-Touched Queen.” I mean, at least I finished it! There were things I legitimately liked about this story, but in the end, I was still very disappointed by yet another much-lauded retelling of this classic tale.

Nyx has known her entire life that she only has one destiny: to marry the Gentle Lord and try to save her world. But in reality, she is likely a sacrifice who will die on her wedding night at the hands of a demon lord who has imprisoned her world and tempted her people (including her father) with wicked bargains that never turn out well. But when she finds herself finally married and in a castle with secrets around every corner, she begins to question this mission. Who is this Gentle Lord really? How did he get here and what will it take to truly save herself and her people?

This story started out strong. As I said in my review of “The Star-Touched Queen,” I was enjoying this read as a palate cleanser for the first several chapters. The writing is strong, freed from the syrupy prose that drove me nuts with the former, the world-building was unique, and Nyx herself was complicated and interesting.

Nyx’s world is essentially a version of England had it remained under its Roman influences. Her people have combined the folklore of the original residents of Arcadia and the Roman pantheon of gods and myths. These myths and characters are sprinkled throughout the story, and I enjoyed this new take on the magical elements that came directly from some of these myths and how they could be twisted to fit a Beauty and the Beast like story.

Nyx also started off as a promising heroine. She’s a brave, strong young woman, but also embittered and resentful of the role she is meant to play. Her father’s deal required he choose one of his twin daughters to marry the Gentle Lord, and Nyx has felt the weight of being the lesser loved for her entire life. What’s more, her sweet and naive sister has played a complicated role in Nyx’s life. She is innocent and has done no wrong, and Nyx can’t help but resent her. And this resentment leads to Nyx’s own self-loathing at her inability to disconnect her father’s choices from her relationship with her sister. So this was all a strong foundation. Nyx is presented as conflicted, but determined. Not perfect, but recognizing her own flaws. Seemingly, a character I should root for.

The problem became that Nyx was SO conflicted that I couldn’t root for her because I could never be sure what her actual goals were from one page to the next. Once she gets into the castle, meets the Gentle Lord, and begins going about her mission, Nyx becomes a bundle of confusion and indecision. This would be fine, except for the fact that every other page she states that she is DETERMINED to do such and such. Then a few pages go by and she’s DETERMINED to do the exact opposite. Her emotions are all over the place, and they are all the most extreme at any point. She hates her sister and the Gentle Lord. But no, she loves her sister and maybe the Gentle Lord is OK. It got to the point that whenever she had a new revelation, I couldn’t invest any true meaning into it, because chances were good she was going to walk back that decision/emotion in just a few pages, depending on whatever position on things the person she next interacted with had.

There was also a dreaded love triangle introduced almost immediately. Granted it was a unique version of a love triangle (more on that later), but a love triangle it remained. What’s more, both points of the love triangle capitalized on flaws that particularly irk me in romances. One was pretty much an instalove connection, with Nyx and this man kissing on almost their first interaction and their practically announcing their love a few interactions later.

The other came with all the complications of the romantic character being a truly bad guy as far as Nyx knows at this point. Obviously, with any Beauty and the Beast story (or Hades/Persephone, what have you), you know going in that there is going to be a change of heart somewhere along the line. But my one requirement for these types of romances is that the change of heart comes AFTER the love interest has done something to make the heroine begin to question her assumptions about his cruelty. He needs to earn not only her love, but first even the opportunity for her to consider him as even a decent person who might be worthy of love. When the heroine, like Nyx here, falls for the “Beast” when he’s still full-on in beast mode and has done nothing to redeem himself, it’s not a tragic love story but instead another example of setting up unhealthy and scary expectations for the type of behavior that is acceptable in a romantic partner. No amount of “hotness” makes it OK. When Nyx first starts feeling drawn to him, he’s still only the demon who killed her mother and is actively killing more of her people. She has no reason to question this, even if we the readers know this tale backwards and forwards and can suspect there’s more to it than that. She doesn’t know that, and it makes any attachment she feels for him at this point just another example of problematic romances in YA fiction.

The other big problem I had was that this love triangle also gave away the answer to the end of the book. I had no problem whatsoever immediately guessing the secrets involved in this story right off the bat. Not only does this drain any dramatic tension from the story, but it damages Nyx’s characterization by making her seem rather dull-witted for not figuring it out herself. What’s worse, the author makes the bizarre choice of having Nyx discover the answer halfway through the story and then conveniently forget. And that’s not even getting into the fact that the device used to reveal these facts to her had killed every wife of the Gentle Lord before, but not Nyx. It’s never explained why not Nyx, not even a tertiary throw-away comment that would somehow make her an exception. Nope, she’s just special because the story needs her to be.

Between the love triangle, Nyx’s inconsistent and hard to root for characterization, and the early reveal of an obvious conclusion, I really struggled with this book. It did have a unique magical world set up and I enjoyed Nyx at the beginning, but after she arrived at the castle, the story took a distinct downwards trajectory and never managed to recover.

Rating 4: Another disappointing “Beauty and the Beast” retelling, this time with improvements to the heroine, but an unnecessary and plot-revealing love triangle.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cruel Beauty” is included on a million Goodreads lists about heroines who fall for bad guys and best fairytale retellings, but I just can’t. Go read “Beauty” if you haven’t already. And if you have, give yourself a treat and re-read it!

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Kate’s Review: “Before I Let Go”

33918883Book: “Before I Let Go” by Marieke Nijkamp

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, January 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Best friends Corey and Kyra were inseparable in their snow-covered town of Lost Creek, Alaska. When Corey moves away, she makes Kyra promise to stay strong during the long, dark winter, and wait for her return.

Just days before Corey is to return home to visit, Kyra dies. Corey is devastated―and confused. The entire Lost community speaks in hushed tones about the town’s lost daughter, saying her death was meant to be. And they push Corey away like she’s a stranger.

Corey knows something is wrong. With every hour, her suspicion grows. Lost is keeping secrets―chilling secrets. But piecing together the truth about what happened to her best friend may prove as difficult as lighting the sky in an Alaskan winter…

Review: I want to extend a special thanks to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book!

It’s been a cold cold cold January up here in L’Etoile du Nord, and while we weren’t hit with a bomb cyclone of snow our temps were pretty low starting out the month. So whenever I read books that take place in Alaska, I usually think to myself ‘yeah, I feel that’. So the town of Lost Creek in “Before I Let Go” felt pretty darn relatable, at least in terms of climate and temperature. But Marieke Nijkamp made sure that the comparisons stopped there, as she created a community based on secrecy and lies. So when I picked this up I thought that I was getting a weird and creepy story about a town hiding things. Sadly, that wasn’t what Nijkamp gave me, and to be honest I’m not totally sure what exactly she did give me. “Before I Let Go” was a bit of a muddled mess.

The story is told in a couple of ways. The main ways are through flashbacks and moments in the present. We see the relationship that Corey and Kyra had before Corey and her mother moved away, and we also see how Corey is dealing with the loss of her friend, and how the town is dealing as well. And within those two ways, we get a couple of devices. Those devices include phone conversations, written out like transcripts, and then actual letters and correspondence, with notes as to whether they were sent or not. I usually like stories that experiment with the storytelling, and these devices were fine. But there was a third device that wasn’t introduced until halfway into the book, and that was through what appeared to be either screenplay or play directions. This only happened a couple of times, and it was introduced so late that it felt less organic and far more jarring. The first time it happened I was completely thrown for a loop, and it yanked me right out of the story. If you are going to use this device, I feel like it would better serve the story if you do it far earlier than halfway into it.

I also had a hard time getting invested in the characters and the story. The description seemed to imply that this was going be a mystery a la “Twin Peaks”, with a strange town with secrets that culminate with a dead girl who died mysteriously, but I didn’t feel like it ever took the plunge with any of the themes. For example, Kyra, who is bipolar (more on that in a bit), painted to cope with her manic episodes, and it’s implied that she has a bit of a psychic or prophetic ability through her painting. So, of course the town starts to take interest in this, as they want to know what their futures hold. Which is fine, but the psychic angle isn’t explored that much at all. It’s just thrown out there as a reason for the town to latch on, and it’s never said why she has them, IF she has them, or how they manifest. So it feels less like an intriguing plot point and more like a device that could have been achieved in other ways. So what did this story want to be? A small town melodrama? A coming of age/coming home story? A supernatural mystery? I wasn’t certain. If it wanted to be all three, I don’t think they were combined well into a single narrative. While we do get to learn a fair amount about Kyra through Corey’s memories, the letters, and the town people and their recollections, I feel like we know very little about Corey, our actual protagonist. All we know is that she had a deep relationship with Kyra, and wants to find out what happened to her, an obsession that is stoked by her own guilt for leaving her in the first place.

I do have to give props on a few things though. I did think that it was neat that Nijkamp made the choices to make a number of her characters LGBTQIA, as Corey is asexual, there is a gay couple in town, and Kyra was a lesbian. One of the central conflicts that Corey is struggling with is the fact that she and Kyra had a tense moment that they never really addressed, which wasn’t so great because it definitely felt a little ‘bury your gays’ for Kyra. But I do like that Nijkamp did have some ace representation, and doesn’t portray Corey as ‘disgusted’ by intimacy, as the stereotypes can sometimes imply. It also seemed to be that Nijkamp was conscientious to be careful and respectful when writing Kyra and her bipolar disorder. There was a very important moment where Kyra expresses frustration that she is only being seen as her bipolar disorder and not as a person, and I think that with so much stigma around mental illness having characters like Kyra is important for representation.

So while I think the representation and the themes of mental illness were well achieved, overall “Before I Let Go” was a disappointment, story wise. I had higher hopes for it, and while I could see myself recommending it to some, if you are looking for the thriller this might have wanted to be, look elsewhere.

Rating 4: It had some promise and takes a responsible and realistic approach to mental illness, but I felt like it didn’t really know what it wanted to be genre wise, and because of this felt confused and muddled.

Readers Advisory:

“Before I Let Go” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA & Middle Grade Fiction Set in Alaska”, and “Mental Health Book Bingo”.

Find “Before I Let Go” at your library using WorldCat!