Serena’s Review: “A Curse So Dark and Lonely”

43204703Book: “A Curse So Dark and Lonely” by Brigid Kemmerer

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury YA, January 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Fall in love, break the curse.

It once seemed so easy to Prince Rhen, the heir to Emberfall. Cursed by a powerful enchantress to repeat the autumn of his eighteenth year over and over, he knew he could be saved if a girl fell for him. But that was before he learned that at the end of each autumn, he would turn into a vicious beast hell-bent on destruction. That was before he destroyed his castle, his family, and every last shred of hope.

Nothing has ever been easy for Harper Lacy. With her father long gone, her mother dying, and her brother barely holding their family together while constantly underestimating her because of her cerebral palsy, she learned to be tough enough to survive. But when she tries to save someone else on the streets of Washington, DC, she’s instead somehow sucked into Rhen’s cursed world.

Break the curse, save the kingdom.

A prince? A monster? A curse? Harper doesn’t know where she is or what to believe. But as she spends time with Rhen in this enchanted land, she begins to understand what’s at stake. And as Rhen realizes Harper is not just another girl to charm, his hope comes flooding back. But powerful forces are standing against Emberfall . . . and it will take more than a broken curse to save Harper, Rhen, and his people from utter ruin.

Review: So, as always, another “Beauty and the Beast” retelling comes out and I line up obediently to read it. This, if anything, is proof that I am an eternal optimist, as I’ve had pretty poor luck with this particular fairytale and the versions I’ve read. Yes, “Beauty” is and likely will always be one of my absolute favorite fairytale retellings, and I loved “Uprooted.” But from there…maybe a few middling titles, but then it’s straight down to versions that I highly dislike.  So the scale is pretty heavily weighted on both sides of the extreme. Sadly, “A Curse So Dark and Lonely,” while not my least favorite version, joins the ever expanding ranks of disappointments for this story.

In the fairly standard layout of the story, Rhen is our cursed prince, doomed to relive one season over and over again, attempting to win over a new girl every three months. But, what’s worse, his failures don’t simply reset things, but end with his transformation into a terrible beast that kills all those in his path. Harper, a girl growing up in D.C. and with struggles of her own, suddenly finds herself pulled away from her life (one full of its own strife with her ill mother and a brother caught up in crime rings in an attempt to pay off the family debt) and thrust into the middle of this curse, the most recent would-be curse breaker. To make matters worse, this will be the last season and Rhen’s last chance to break the curse and avoid a life ever after as a monstrous beast.

This book has received a lot of positive reviews, so I just want to say right away that there’s a good chance much of what bothered me with this book wouldn’t hold true for others who enjoy YA fairytales. There have been comparison to “A Court of Thorns and Roses,” for example. Which, given the massive appeal of that series, means many will ultimately really like this. I hated ACOTAR, on the other hand, so that comparison might be even more apt. I didn’t hate this book, but it definitely wasn’t for me.

The good thing about this book is that it does what it sets out to do. We have a unique (ish) take on the “Beauty and the Beast” tale that leans into its darker elements (beast!Rhen is truly destructive and dangerous). A heroine who represents those with disabilities in a really great way (she has what seems to be a high functioning version of cerebral palsy). And a story that delivers both action and romance (eventually).

But, for me, it did all of these things in a very “meh” way. The world-building, for one, was an immediate let-down. Emberfall is simply “such and such, generic fantasy world with magic.” There is no real explanation or true creativity behind any of it. The castle itself has some of the standard magical elements that we expect to see (ooooh, musical instruments that play themselves) and even those that we are given are too few and far between. It’s just enough to set the stage as a fantasy land, but not enough to make it stand out in any way from the millions of other fantasy lands we’ve seen.

And when juxtaposed against the “real world,” this lack of world-building is made even more stark. It’s one thing to set a book entirely in a fairly bland fantasy world, but when you have the “real world” as an element in your book and characters from that world, it’s inevitable that the “hows” and “whys” of it all should come more to the forefront. If everyone lives in this fantasy world, there’s more of a “get out of jail free” card in that, naturally, everyone (and thus the reader) would take things at face value. That’s simply not the case when you have “real world” characters who should be asking these questions.

Beyond that, while there was nothing overtly objectionable with Rhen or Harper, neither of them were particularly intriguing either. Obviously, the inclusion of Harper’s disability is an interesting take and, not having any experience with this of my own, seems to be represented well. But that is not enough to make her a fully-fleshed out character. Rhen, too, was just kind of…fine. I just never felt fully invested in either of them, and there wasn’t enough given to either to make them feel like much more than the fairly standard “beauty” and “beast” cut-outs we’ve come to expect.

And, from the get-go, the story set off on the wrong foot. Pretty early in the book, right after Harper is kidnapped and brought to the castle, we start in on the “she’s so different than the other girls” lines of thought. I almost just put the book down at this point for how much I hate this way of writing. For one, it’s lazy. If you can’t make Harper look good without including negative comparisons to “other girls,” than you have a character problem on its own. Beyond that, Rhen is something like 300 years old at this point. So, how many seasons would that be? You’re telling me that in that entire time, girls have been kidnapped from the modern world and ALL of them have only ever been interested in dresses and NONE of them wanted anything to do with daggers or, I don’t know, trying to escape? Not only is this incredibly insulting (especially when it’s linked to another comment about how originally Rhen would ask for beautiful women in particular, so of course they’re also frivolous and, I don’t know, scared of weapons??), but it’s also beyond the point of belief. These women have been kidnapped. There is no way that they all simply got distracted by sparkles and sat around meekly adoring their wardrobes. It’s as if to say that, for women, the standard reaction to kidnapping is complacency, especially if your kidnapper is rich and handsome. And that Harper’s reaction of immediately trying to escape is somehow unique and note-worthy. I could go on and on with my frustrations with this, but I think I’ve made my point and any more would just be indulging myself in ranting.

So yes. This book wasn’t my favorite and sadly joins the list of “Beauty and the Beast” retellings that I won’t be recommending. Like I said, a lot of people have liked this book, so there is definitely an audience for it. But, for me, the world-building and characters were simply too bland to hold my interest and the early introduction of “other women shaming” into the story was an immediate turn-off.

Rating 5: Not for me, alas. Maybe check it out though if you liked ACOTAR?

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Curse So Dark and Lonely” is a newer book, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists. It is on this one (though I disagree about the “best” in this title): “Best retellings of Beauty and the Beast.”

Find “A Curse So Dark and Lonely” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “A Sorrow Fierce and Falling”

36443576Book: “A Sorrow Fierce and Falling” by Jessica Cluess

Publishing Info: Random House BFYR, October 2018

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

Book Description: It’s time for war.

After suffering terrible losses, Henrietta and Lord Blackwood have led their warriors to Sorrow-Fell, a vast estate where only those invited by a Blackwood may enter–and the ideal place to plan a final assault against the Ancients.

It’s time for a wedding.

Henrietta nervously awaits her marriage to Blackwood, but when the ritual to become his bride reveals a dark secret, she realizes that Sorrow-Fell is not a safe haven; it’s a trap. Convincing the sorcerers of this, however, is not easy. So with Maria, the true chosen one, and Magnus, the young man who once stole her heart, at her side, Henrietta plots a dangerous journey straight into the enemy’s lair. Some will live. Some will die. All will be tested.

In this stunning conclusion to the Kingdom on Fire series, Henrietta must choose between the love from her past, the love from her present, and a love that could define her future. While battles rage, the fate of the kingdom rests on her decision: Will she fall or rise up to become the woman who saves the realm?

It’s time for Henrietta to make her stand.

Previously reviewed: “A Shadow Bright and Burning” and “A Poison Dark and Drowning”

Review: This trilogy has traveled an odd trajectory as far as my feelings for a book series go. I was underwhelmed by the first book, a bit put off by the sheer number of love interests who were introduced. The second one fared better, expanding the world out by quite a bit, upping the ante with the villain, history, and Henrietta’s true role in all of this. And then this one…just kind of threw out a lot of different things and saw what stuck, essentially? I’m not even sure! I’m still experience a bit of whiplash from it all, but I don’t think I liked it, in the end.

Events had been coming to a head at the last book, not least of which saw Henrietta agree to marry Blackwood. However, now, as events continue to spin out of control, Henrietta is forced to re-examine all that she thought she knew about those around her. And with new revelations come new choices, each with their own prices to be paid. Surrounded by her friends and facing new and terrible dangers, Henrietta must face her final challenge.

So, as usual, I’ll try to start with some things I enjoyed about this book. The one consistent thing throughout this series that I have liked has been the general writing style. There’s a nice mixture of interesting turns of phrase alongside stark, to-the-point writing that solidly carries the story along. For the most part, purple prose, of the like that can all too often pop up in YA fantasy that has a strong emphasis on romance, is largely avoided. I also listened to this one on audiobook again (which I did for the second book, too) and enjoyed the narrator’s interpretation of characters. I remember thinking that my increased enjoyment of the second book could have something to do with this change of format. And I now have to think that continuing my read of this series using this format was a wise choice, as I’m not sure I would have made it through this one without the increased enjoyment of the audio narrator.

I also generally still enjoy the world-building. There have always been a plethora of creative ideas at the heart of this story. And I’ve also appreciated the way the author has walked right up to the horror line with many of her villains, making them truly horrible. Much of that still continues here, though it did start to feel overly crowded and muddled at times. It’s only been a year since I read the last book, but there were times where I was still struggling to remember how some of these elements worked together and what there histories were.

However, other than those points, I really had a hard time with this book. I’ve never loved Henrietta as a character, but I also didn’t have any overt issues with her. I was particularly intrigued by the second book where we were introduced to Maria, the “real” chosen one. But here, Henrietta went from blandly ok to outright unlikable. We’ve had three books now to witness her making mistakes as she discovers herself and her role in this conflict. And that’s fine. But by this point, we need to start seeing the growth that comes out of those mistakes. Instead, if anything, Henrietta becomes more indecisive and makes even more nonsensical choices than we’ve seen in the past, often to disastrous results. It makes her not only a frustrating character to read, leaving the reader feeling like the character hasn’t grown at all over two entire books, but this weakness of character was necessary to drive much of the plot, as it revolved around said poor decision making and the results therein.

And, lastly, the romance was a huge problem for me. This has been the biggest question mark for me throughout the entire series. From the very beginning I had huge red flags going up regarding the sheer number of love interests that were introduced. We were way past love triangle and into the realm of love square or even more. It was always too much. As the story progressed, I was mostly able to distract myself from my concerns in these areas. But not here. To finally resolve all of the dangling romantic threads, several characters had to be almost completely re-written. One in particular became almost unrecognizable and the change came out of left field. Beyond this, Henrietta’s reaction to this change was not appropriate, as the character essentially became abusive. There are so many layers of problems with this that I’m tired even thinking about it. Ultimately, it felt like the author didn’t know how to resolve (or even decide!) all of the romantic plotlines that were introduced. So instead of making her main character progress along a natural arc of self-discovery throughout the series that would result in her forming a realistic attachment to one character over the others, the author just got to the last book and decided to write off at least two of the choices, leaving Henrietta with only one viable option anyways. It felt lazy and like a slap in the face to readers. What exactly were we wasting our time on before this point if this is how it’s going to be ultimately resolved?

So, while the book did have some creative ideas with its world-building, in the end that’s all it felt like: a collection of ideas. Looking back over the trilogy as a whole, it looks like the work of an author badly in need of an editor. Everything and the kitchen sink went into this series and it shows worst of all in this last book when you can see the wheels coming off as the author frantically tries to resolve all of the elements that have been introduced (most poorly in the romance arena, perhaps). If you’ve enjoyed this series up to this point, I’m not sure how you’ll feel about this one really. It’s the kind of thing where some readers may really enjoy it and others will hate it, but it’s going to largely come down to what each reader was getting out of the series before and how they wanted things to turn out in the end. For me, it didn’t work and almost retroactively lowered the first two books as well, as it seemed to highlight that there was only ever a shaky overall plot from the very start.

Rating 5: A disappointing conclusion, most especially in the lazy resolution to the multiple love interests that had been introduced.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Sorrow Fierce and Falling” is fairly new and isn’t on any very relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “YA Releases of October, 2018.”

Find “A Sorrow Fierce and Falling” at your library using WorldCat.

Kate’s Review: “Will Haunt You”

42175979Book: “Will Haunt You” by Brian Kirk

Publishing Info: Flame Tree Press, March 2019

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

Book Description: You don’t read the book. It reads you.

Rumors of a deadly book have been floating around the dark corners of the deep web. A disturbing tale about a mysterious figure who preys on those who read the book and subjects them to a world of personalized terror. Jesse Wheeler–former guitarist of the heavy metal group The Rising Dead–was quick to discount the ominous folklore associated with the book. It takes more than some urban legend to frighten him. Hell, reality is scary enough. Seven years ago his greatest responsibility was the nightly guitar solo. Then one night when Jesse was blackout drunk, he accidentally injured his son, leaving him permanently disabled. Dreams of being a rock star died when he destroyed his son’s future. Now he cuts radio jingles and fights to stay clean. But Jesse is wrong.

The legend is real–and tonight he will become the protagonist in an elaborate scheme specifically tailored to prey on his fears and resurrect the ghosts from his past. Jesse is not the only one in danger, however.

By reading the book, you have volunteered to participate in the author’s deadly game, with every page drawing you closer to your own personalized nightmare.

The real horror doesn’t begin until you reach the end. That’s when the evil comes for you.

Review: I want to extend a thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this book!

“Weird” horror is a genre that, when done right, I find completely engrossing and effective. The best example of this that comes to mind is, of course, the classic “House of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski, in which a haunted house story is told through multiple layers of narration and formats. Weird horror ought to unsettle the reader in the same way the situation should be unsettling the protagonist, but it’s a fine line to walk. If you go too weird it can be confusing and frustrating. If you don’t go weird enough you may not have the intended impact. When I read about “Will Haunt You” by Brian Kirk, I was especially intrigued by the idea of a cursed Internet book that brings pain and suffering to those who read it. Frankly it sounds like a mix of “The Ring” and the amazing Creepypasta “Ben Drowned”, and with that amalgamation solidly in my mind I was every excited to read “Will Haunt You”. I wasn’t thinking about the trappings that can come with Weird horror, and perhaps I should have been.

The premise and ideas are absolutely solid. Jesse Wheeler is our main character, and his backstory and present are ripe for the picking when it comes to conflict. Once a metal musician on the rise, he is now married and has a son who is disabled. It was Jesse’s actions that led to the accident that caused the disability, and so Jesse’s guilt, mixed with the longing for his younger years, has turned him into a tormented former shell of himself. He is the perfect person to become victim to a devious book; he’s struggling to keep it together and has nothing to lose, so of course he isn’t daunted by internet folklore. That in and of itself is a solid premise to a novel, and Jesse’s flaws and strengths are on full display throughout the story to be explored and picked apart. As a character study, “Will Haunt You” is well done and interesting. If this was a book that was solely about an aging man who has to face his guilt and his culpability towards his family’s various struggles, I would be down.

But, as this is, it is a horror novel, and for me “Will Haunt You” fell squarely in the first of the two problems Weird horror can run into: It was very confusing for me and hard to follow. We are thrown into various scenarios and situations with very visceral and graphic moments, and we are introduced to characters who may or may not be reliable, but instead of feeling tight and on point it always felt like it never quite came together. I do wonder if this disorienting narrative was meant to make the reader feel the disorientation that Jesse felt, and therein made the reading experience all the more three dimensional, but instead of feeling scared in my confusion I just felt frustrated. Eventually I think I was able to get my mind wrapped around all of the pieces of the puzzle, but it took so long that it felt like it was too little, too late. I am considering going back and reading the tie in ‘haunted book’, “Obsidio”, because I feel like part of the fun of these ‘cursed media’ stories is the cursed media itself, and we didn’t really get that here, just the fallout from it. And yes, you can find it online. Given that I haven’t read it yet, I can’t say as to whether or not it’s inclusion would have made “Will Haunt You” more satisfying, but I can’t imagine that it would hurt.

All in all, “Will Haunt You” had some very well done moments when it came to character study, but the horror aspects didn’t do anything for me. As Weird fiction it didn’t work the way I wanted it to.

Rating 5: While the characterization was spot on and the protagonist was complex and interesting, the horror aspect of “Will Haunt You” didn’t work for me and left me confused and frustrated.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Will Haunt You” is new and not included on many Goodreads lists, but I think it would have a place on “Surreal Horror”.

Find “Will Haunt You” at your library using WorldCat (but as of now it appears limited).

Serena’s Review: “Mahimata”

37868558Book: “Mahimata” by Rati Mehrotra

Publishing Details: Harper Voyager, March 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss +

Book Description: Kyra has returned to the caves of Kali, but her homecoming is bittersweet. Her beloved teacher is dead and her best friend Nineth is missing. And gone, too, is Rustan, the Marksman who helped her train for the duel with Tamsyn–and became far more than a teacher and friend.

Shaken by his feelings for Kyra and the truth about his parentage, Rustan has set off on a quest for answers. His odyssey leads him to the descendants of an ancient sect tied to the alien Ones–and the realization that the answers he seeks come with a price.

Yet fate has plans to bring Kyra and Rustan together again. Kai Tau, the man who slaughtered Kyra’s family, wages war on the Orders of Asiana. Hungering for justice, Kyra readies herself for battle, aided by her new companions: the wyr-wolves, who are so much more than what they seem. And determined to keep the woman he loves safe, Rustan joins the fight to ride by her side.

But will this final confrontation ultimately cost them their love…and their lives?

Previously Reviewed: “Markswoman”

Review: I had some mixed feelings about “Markswoman,” but I was particularly intrigued by the interesting mixture of sci-fi elements, a post apoplectic (?) world, fantasy and a region/religious order that pulled heavily from Indian influences. My hangs ups (as they often are) had largely to do with the characterization of the main protagonists and, to a certain extent, the secondary character as well. Unfortunately, this book didn’t raise the bar on my overall feelings and I was left reflecting back on the completed duology in much the same way that I viewed the first book alone.

Kyra and Rustan have been separated and the board, in many ways, has been re-set. Each on their own paths of self-discovery, larger events force them back together at last when the evil  Kai Tau begins a war on the Orders. As mysteries begin to unfold and new ones to be discovered, Kyra and Rustan must, again, fight for not only their love but for the future of all they hold dear.

The story started off on the wrong foot right off the bat by committing one of the cardinal sins of second books: recapping the entire first book. Yes, it’s important to re-establish a few basic things, but I don’t think there’s ever really any excuse for an info-dumping, all out recap of a previous book. Especially not in a series that is only a duology and only had one year between publishing dates for the book. This type of thing immediately sets the wrong tone, most especially in that it essentially cripples this book itself in lieu of trying to serve some imagined need of the first book to be recapped.

And then once the story starts, I was back to being reminded about all that troubled me with the first book. Most especially Kyra and the bizarre ways that those around her interact with her. In the first book, I couldn’t understand why she had been promoted to a Markswoman in the first place, and here, that same idea is taken to the next level with Kyra taking over as leader of her order. But…she’s a teenager! With very few years of experience! It’s hard to imagine that such a well-organized and long-lasting organization such as the Order of Kali would be set-up in such a way that a decision like this wouldn’t lead to extreme confusion and outright rebellion. Yes, yes, Kyra has to be “special” because she’s the protagonist. But there’s “special” and then there’s special to the point that you have to make every character around said special character operate in a completely unrealistic way to justify said special character’s specialness. If the special thing you want to do with your character doesn’t work without undercutting the believability of your established world norms and characters, then maybe you should look for a different way to make that character stand out, one that holds more in line with who they are and what they are, realistically, capable of.

I also had a hard time fully connecting to Rustan and his story line, once again. Again, I’m not sure that many of the choices we see him make in this book really align with the character that had been established in the first book.

Some of the mysteries in the world-building also came with distracting or confusing resolutions. I’m couldn’t quite understand how some of them even made much sense. At times, it felt like the book was suffering from its own restricted page count and some of these explanations felt truncated simply due to that. Again, if an author is going to put the effort into creating such a unique world as the one that was given to us in the first book, it’s really disappointing to get to the second and final one and find yourself marooned at the end feeling as if any explanations given just opened up even more questions.

So yes. This wasn’t the duology for me. Many of my struggles with the first book carried over to this one, and ultimately it’s not a series I would recommend. I know a lot of readers enjoyed the first one and early reviews seem to be positive for this one as well, but for me, the diversity and unique world-building isn’t enough to get past the failings in the more basic parts of writing: good characterization and strong plotting. If you enjoyed the first book, this one will probably hold up for you. But if you were on the fence with that one, as I was, this one’s probably not worth the time or effort.

Rating 5: This seems really low, but I was just that bored with it all.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Mahimata” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. It is on “YA Releases of March 2019.”

Find “Markswoman” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “The Queen of Sorrow”

36039814Book: “The Queen of Sorrow” by Sarah Beth Durst

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, May 2018

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

Book Description: Queen Daleina has yearned to bring peace and prosperity to her beloved forest home—a hope that seemed doomed when neighboring forces invaded Aratay. Now, with the powerful Queen Naelin ruling by her side, Daleina believes that her dream of ushering in a new era can be realized, even in a land plagued by malevolent nature spirits who thirst for the end of human life.

And then Naelin’s children are kidnapped by spirits.

Nothing is more important to her than her family, and Naelin would rather watch the world burn than see her children harmed. Blaming the defeated Queen Merecot of Semo for the kidnapping, Naelin is ready to start a war—and has the power to do it.

But Merecot has grander plans than a bloody battle with her southern neighbors. Taking the children is merely one step in a plot to change the future of all Renthia, either by ending the threat of spirits once and for all . . . or plunging the world into chaos.

Previously Reviewed: “The Queen of Blood” and “The Reluctant Queen”

Review: I picked up this book purely on the strength of the first book in the trilogy, which I absolutely loved. The second book, on the other hand, held some pretty serious set-backs for me with the introduction of a new main character who not only distracted from the original main character who I was invested in but who also, in my opinion, was fairly unlikeable. But the unique world-building and the growing overall conflict that had been laid down between the first two books were enough to spur me on to pick up this one. Unfortunately, the book doubled down on the elements from the second one that I didn’t like and ended up muddling up the world-building that had been the element that was carrying me along so far. Alas.

Aratay should be stronger than ever. With an unprecedented situation of having two Queens at its head, each with her own strengths, it would seem that nothing could threaten them. However, the powerful Queen Merecot, whose schemes almost brought down the realm in the last book, is at work once again and this time she strikes at the heart of the matter: Naelin’s children. Now Queen Daleina must find a way to hold the world in order, with her fellow queen going mad with worry and her childhood friend threatening everything she’s worked so hard to create.

Oh man, this book. It was really disappointing, especially because I so clearly remember the high that was reading the first book. And many of those elements can still be glimpsed here, but then…I don’t know what happened? The world gets too bogged down introducing new elements and questions without resolving them. The great character of Daleina ends up taking a back seat once again, and it all was just not for me.

The world-building has always been one of the biggest draws for me to this series. The sheer maliciousness of the spirits and the way that humanity has built up a system for living in an environment that literally wants to kill them has been fascinating. We’ve gotten little peaks here and there behind the curtain to figure out that there is more to the spirit world than what we’re seeing, but it’s always been shrouded in the type of mystery that simply makes up any world and doesn’t necessarily need to be explained.

However, this book takes that world-building and completely turns it on its head. A bunch of new questions and additional layers (largely unnecessary in my opinion) were introduced that complicated so many elements the world and the way humanity functioned in it. What’s worse, most of these are then not even resolved by the end of the book. Instead, readers are now left with an upended understanding of the entire series because…why? Any potential that was gained by these additions was either squandered away with a return to the norm by the end of this book, in which case, why bother? Or left completely unanswered and only raising more confusion in their wake.

Beyond this, I have to again, go back to my dislike of the character of Naelin. Many of my problems in the last book centered around her characterization as a mother and a to-be Queen of this realm. By the end of the book, it felt like much of this had been resolved in a way that was satisfactory (if still annoying that it had taken an entire book to arrive at). But here, that same can of worms is torn open. Now fully a Queen and responsible for the lives of an entire nation, Naelin once again fails to behave in a way that garners any respect as a leader. She sounds like an excellent mother; but she shouldn’t be anywhere near a position where she holds an entire nation’s worth of lives in her hands.

Further, even Daleina begins to behave in a way that doesn’t hold with her own view of the responsibility of being a Queen in a country like this where the role is necessary to literally save the lives of the people. Both behave so sporadically and recklessly that it’s a wonder things don’t fall apart instantly. Daleina’s reunion with Merecot was also unsatisfactory, given up the very challenged history the two now have.

Overall, this book was the weakest of the entire trilogy for me. My known issues with the second book were just as prevalent here, and instead of being able to fall back on my interest in the world and magic system, that too was pulled out from under my feet with the introduction of a whole host of unnecessary and dead-ended additions to the mythology. If I was going to recommend this series, I would say just stop with the first one. It functions perfectly fine as a stand-alone novel and nothing the next two have to offer improves on that first story. In my opinion, they only detract from it.

Rating 5: A disappointment all around. I won’t be checking out the companion novel that is coming out soon.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Queen of Sorrow” isn’t on many relevant lists, but it is on “Original Stories . . . a Breath of Fresh Air.”

Find “The Queen of Sorrow” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Markswoman”

35008759Book: “Markswoman” by Rati Mehrotra

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, January 2018

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

Book Description: Kyra is the youngest Markswoman in the Order of Kali, one of a handful of sisterhoods of highly trained elite warriors. Armed with blades whose metal is imbued with magic and guided by a strict code of conduct, the Orders are sworn to keep the peace and protect the people of Asiana. Kyra has pledged to do so—yet she secretly harbors a fierce desire to avenge her murdered family.

When Tamsyn, the powerful and dangerous Mistress of Mental Arts, assumes control of the Order, Kyra is forced on the run. She is certain that Tamsyn committed murder in a twisted bid for power, but she has no proof.

Kyra escapes through one of the strange Transport Hubs that are the remnants of Asiana’s long-lost past and finds herself in the unforgiving wilderness of a desert that is home to the Order of Khur, the only Order composed of men. Among them is Rustan, a disillusioned Marksman whose skill with a blade is unmatched. He understands the desperation of Kyra’s quest to prove Tamsyn’s guilt, and as the two grow closer, training daily on the windswept dunes of Khur, both begin to question their commitment to their Orders. But what they don’t yet realize is that the line between justice and vengeance is thin . . . as thin as the blade of a knife.

Review: As I was scrolling through upcoming releases, I happened upon a book that seemed intriguing. Once I looked into it a bit further, I realized that it was in fact a sequel to this book that came out last year and somehow missed my radar. Mission in hand, I set off to the library and was able to snag an aubiobook version of the story. I knew from a few other book reviewers I follow that this was a fairly popular title last year, so I had high hopes. Sadly, the hype machine let me down once again.

Ever since tragedy struck her village and family when she was young, Kyra has been raised by an order of all-female assassins, training to become a Markswoman herself. In this land, Markswomen (and the one order of men to also take on this calling, though there is much controversy over the legitimacy of their claim) are the sole arbitrators of justice, doling out death sentences when crimes have been committed. To do this, they use specially crafted blades that they have bonded with and hold unique powers. But soon after Kyra gains her role as  Markswoman, things go wrong in her order and she finds herself alone in the world and on the run from her own kind. She meets up with a young man from the male version of the assassin order, and together they must face the growing strife overtaking the land.

There is a lot to like about this story, and I can understand why it was popular for so many readers. Most notably, the world-building is incredibly unique. The story appears to be set in some version of India and there are various references to gods that come from the Hindu religion, most notably, Kali, the Markswoman’s patron goddess of death. But on top of this fantasy version of the region, we’re also quickly given hints to an even greater past. There are references to ancient beings who once walked the earth but retreated to the skies long ago. However, they left a series of doorways that operate using some type of technology that is not understood and that can quickly transport an individual from one place to another. This science fiction element was completely unexpected and probably one of the most intriguing aspects of the entire series. I was much more interested in the history of this world and this technology than in Kyra’s story itself, which, of course, is ultimately one of my problems with the book.

Frankly, I didn’t much care for Kyra or Rustan, each coming with their own unique frustrations. We’ll start with Kyra. We meet her during her first assignment that marks her as a fully-fledged Markswoman. She immediately hits with the expected hesitation and moral questioning I’ve now come to (sadly) expect from many assassin stories. Once back at the Order, she continues to flounder in her role, being easily provoked by another girl who is still at an apprentice level to the point where Kyra walks right up to a line of behavior that would see her immediately expelled. Lastly, in a discussion with her mentor, she seems to still be confused by her own order’s purpose, wishing to use her newly-gained role to go on a revenge quest against the people who attacked her family all those years ago. All together, only a few chapters in, we’ve seen literally ZERO evidence that Kyra has the maturity, responsibility, or thoughtfulness to have earned her this promotion. She doesn’t seem to have engaged at all with the greater meaning and purpose behind her own order; she questions authority at every opportunity; she is easily pushed into poor decision making by peers who are now her lessers; she’s not even particularly skilled in any of her lessons. I came away from these chapters with literally no idea what had made Kyra special enough to have been granted an early promotion other than, of course, the necessity of it for plot purposes, the WORST kind of story structure. I found it incredibly frustrating and it ultimately irreparably damaged the character in my mind early in the book. Even when the action picks up to the point that some of these flaws fade into the background, the damage was done.

Rustan, too, has similar character issues. He’s given fewer chapters than Kyra from the get-go, leaving the character with an uphill battle. And, again, we see another assassin who is really pretty terrible at being an assassin. He ultimately spends much of the first half of the book fretting over events in a way that was both repetitive and useless. Not to mention, again, at odds with the basic concepts of any assassin order that one could imagine.

Then the two get together and the inevitable romance begins. Here, too, the book flounders and this element of the story falls into many tropes and pitfalls. We’re never given any solid reasons why these two are drawn together and really, it seems to happen over night and out of nowhere. What starts as an antagonistic relationship literally upends itself for no good reason. I’d be more mad about it if I wasn’t quite so bored by how predictable it all was.

Ultimately, I was pretty disappointed by this book. The world-building and story at the heart of it had so much potential. But this just made it all the more frustrating to see those things being squandered and buried beneath poor characterization and an aggressively trope-ridden romance. I had already requested the sequel book for review when I picked up this one (this is what I get for blindly trusting in the hype machine), so we’ll see how that one turns out. Hopefully improvements will be made!

Rating 5: Having a lot of good things going for it just made it all the more painful to watch this one stumble its way through.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Markswoman” is on these Goodreads lists: “South Asian YA/MG” and “Indian Science Fiction and Fantasy.”

Find “Markswoman” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Last Namsara”

32667458Book: “The Last Namsara” by Kristen Ciccarelli

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, October 2017

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

Book Description: In the beginning, there was the Namsara: the child of sky and spirit, who carried love and laughter wherever he went. But where there is light, there must be darkness—and so there was also the Iskari. The child of blood and moonlight. The destroyer. The death-bringer.

These are the legends that Asha, daughter of the king of Firgaard, has grown up learning in hushed whispers, drawn to the forbidden figures of the past. But it isn’t until she becomes the fiercest, most feared dragon slayer in the land that she takes on the role of the next Iskari—a lonely destiny that leaves her feeling more like a weapon than a girl.

Asha conquers each dragon and brings its head to the king, but no kill can free her from the shackles that await at home: her betrothal to the cruel commandant, a man who holds the truth about her nature in his palm. When she’s offered the chance to gain her freedom in exchange for the life of the most powerful dragon in Firgaard, she finds that there may be more truth to the ancient stories than she ever could have expected. With the help of a secret friend—a slave boy from her betrothed’s household—Asha must shed the layers of her Iskari bondage and open her heart to love, light, and a truth that has been kept from her.

Review: This book came out a bit ago, but it’s been lingering around on my audiobook holds list for a while. So when I was looking for a next book to listen to and saw that it was available, it seemed like fate had finally decreed that now was the time! And, really, a book about dragons? ANY time is THE time as far as I’m concerned! But, while the dragons themselves were, of course, awesome, I didn’t end up loving this book as much as I had hoped.

Asha has grown up as a princess, but one who has been shunned by the general public for an accident she caused when young. To make repayment for this error, she has made it her life’s mission to hunt down the dragons that, through breaking her trust, scarred her face and terrorized her city, killing many. With an unwanted wedding swiftly approaching, Asha begins to slowly uncover secrets at the heart of her society and its history that may change everything. But can a cursed girl still be a savior?

So, while this book ultimately wasn’t all that I hoped it would be, there were still some pretty cool elements involved. And first and foremost of those was the world-building and history at the heart of the story. This book doesn’t just plop you don’t in some generic fantasy setting with dragons and call it day. No, instead there is a detailed history that is carefully laid out before readers in interludes between chapters. Not only is this an actual history of events that lead to the society and cultural situation that Asha finds herself living in during this book, but there is folklore and legends incorporated as well, all neatly tying larger themes together. I think I ended up enjoying these interludes more than the actual story itself. They provided a lot of depth to the world itself and crucial layers to the complicated social dynamics taking place, but the writing style seemed also best served by this type of storytelling. Many of these sections had a certain fairytale-like ring to them that I truly enjoyed.

I also loved the dragons. It took a while for them to really show up, and, of course, I was happy when we inevitably got past the “dragons are evil and I must hunt them” stage of things, which we all saw coming from the start. There was a really nice connection again between storytelling and the dragons, and I thought this concept was both unique and played well to the author’s obvious strengths in this area.

But, while it did have those strengths, I had a hard time really connecting with the story and instead found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with Asha herself and the pacing of the story over all. We’re told quite a lot about how badass Asha is, but again and again, the story felt like it was building to a moment where we would actually SEE this badassery come out to play only to have the story pull back at the last minute. Not only did this damage Asha as a character (it became increasingly hard to believe what we were being sold as far as her abilities when she continuously chose the cautious and inactive route), but it really hurt the pacing of the story itself. The tension would be racketed up, all of the players would be in place for conflict, and then Asha would just give up, pass out, not engage, whatever and the whole thing would deflate like a sad balloon. This happened again and again and AGAIN.

Asha was never a driving force in this story. Instead, almost all of the action that takes place to move the plot ahead was done by the characters around her. There was truly only once instance in the very end where we saw her make an active choice, one that wasn’t forced upon her, and by that point it was too little too late. It also takes waaaaaay too long for Asha to figure out certain secrets and reveals that are made very obvious to readers from the beginning. This kind of drawn out “suspense” does nothing but annoy readers who have already guessed and make the protagonist seem like an idiot for not figuring it out, too.

But, again, the dragons were super cool. I also liked that the book was written as a stand alone story, so Asha’s tale is now complete. The author has a companion novel featuring a few of the other characters who were present in this book, so I might check that out. Like I said, the storytelling and writing were strong enough, it was just Asha herself and the pacing that failed. Perhaps with a new tale to tell and new characters at its heart, everything will click together in a second go-around. If you like stories with dragons, this might be worth checking out, but I recommend it with cautions due to the main character and the story’s struggle with pacing.

Rating 5: Half of a positive rating for the dragons/history/world-building and half of a negative rating for Asha/poor pacing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Namsara” is on these Goodreads lists: “Dragons” and “ADULT Fantasy books with stong female leads and a romantic SUBplot.”

Find “The Last Namsara” at your library using WorldCat.