Serena’s Review: “Iron Gold”

33257757Book: “Iron Gold” by Pierce Brown

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, January 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: A decade ago, Darrow was the hero of the revolution he believed would break the chains of the Society. But the Rising has shattered everything: Instead of peace and freedom, it has brought endless war. Now he must risk everything he has fought for on one last desperate mission. Darrow still believes he can save everyone, but can he save himself?

And throughout the worlds, other destinies entwine with Darrow’s to change his fate forever:

A young Red girl flees tragedy in her refugee camp and achieves for herself a new life she could never have imagined.

An ex-soldier broken by grief is forced to steal the most valuable thing in the galaxy—or pay with his life.

And Lysander au Lune, the heir in exile to the sovereign, wanders the stars with his mentor, Cassius, haunted by the loss of the world that Darrow transformed, and dreaming of what will rise from its ashes.

Previously Reviewed: “Red Rising,” “Golden Son,” and “Morning Star”

Review: I absolutely loved the “Red Rising trilogy. It was epic in every sense of the word: a sweeping landscape that sprawls across the entire galaxy. An intimidatingly large cast of characters whose political machinations were challenging (in a good way!) to keep track of. And a story driven by one man’s quest to begin a revolution that would shake an entire world order. But in Darrow’s success, and the trilogy’s success, where is left to go? Many, many places it turns out!

From the get go, “Iron Gold” sets out to be its own story. It’s been ten years since Darrow’s revolution, and yet he, his comrades, and his civilization are still at war, both with the remnants of the old system who seek to bring back their own ways and privileges, as well as with those in their own fledgling government who struggle to direct this new world order from within a different political and societal perspective.

The narrative is also split between four characters. Alongside Darrow, we have Lyria, a Red girl who grew up on a “freed” Mars where all is not as well as they had been promised when her family and their colony were brought up to the surface from the mines below. Back on Luna, an ex-solider-turned-thief struggles to find meaning in an existence void of his fiance who died years ago and finds himself caught up in an underbelly mafia that might be more than he can handle. And far on the out reaches of the galaxy, Lysander, the exiled heir apparent, drifts along until he unexpectedly finds himself pulled into a revolution of its own.

Both of these tactics, the expanded POV cast and the time jump, were managed extremely well. Not only was it a great choice to set the story 10 years later, but by splitting the narrative, “Iron Gold” was freed up from some of the constraints that were beginning to niggle at me back in “Morning Star” when Darrow’s hero complex and habit of speechifying was just beginning to annoy me.

Here, not only do we have the three other characters, but Darrow is very much a changed man from the hopeful, conquering hero that we saw at the close of “Morning Star.” Through him, Brown tackles complicated issues surrounding ongoing warfare, the effects to the psyche on career soldiers, and the simple truth that winning a revolution doesn’t magically deliver up a new world freed of the systemic social classism that was at the heart of the old one. Darrow doesn’t know how to come home, and his discomfort while there, surrounded by friends, his wife, and his son, is palpable. Further, Brown gives us a more complicated Darrow. No longer is the reader assured that however morally grey Darrow’s decisions may be, that of course he is on the right side of this issue, he’s going to save the day! This Darrow is operating in a world where the black and white issue, upending the Gold class system, has already happened. But Darrow’s own legend has become  a burden and throughout this story I often found myself questioning not only his actions but his justifications. Darrow almost becomes an unreliable narrator, and I loved it all.

This discomfort and moral greyness carried over throughout much of the series. While the first trilogy was in many ways a simple mission with the good guys saving the world, this book challenges much of what we took for granted before. Through Lysander, we see a young man who was torn from the only life he had been trained to and cast out into the wilderness. Alongside him, we see the fallout of decisions that were made years ago to support Darrow’s revolution, but had their own catastrophic consequences on other parts of the galaxy and felt by other people. I enjoyed Lysander for the most part, but I also struggled with his decisions towards the end. While I understood them and why he, specifically, would choose as he does, this discomfort of both rooting for AND against a character at the same time was challenging.

Lyria, growing up in the slums on Mars, highlights the fact that winning a war isn’t all that is needed to save a downtrodden people. She and her family are essentially refugees on their own planet, forgotten by the very people who set out to save them who are now caught up in the “bigger picture.” Yes, that big picture is important, but through Lyria, we see the very real image of a revolution that is still actively failing the vulnerable. Lyria was the one character who was entirely sympathetic, and I loved all of her chapters.

Ephraim, the Grey solider-turned-thief, was almost the most “Darrow-esque” character of the whole lot, at least as far as you can judge from the original trilogy. Which is funny, since of the four, he’s also the one most in the wrong throughout the book. But through him we had much of the action and adventure we had in the first series. More jokes, less brooding.

There was also, of course, the return of many characters from the first book. Most notably, Sevro is right along Darrow for much of this ride. I loved that for all of his craziness, of the two, Sevro was by far the more balanced individual, able to carry the trials of war more lightly, and, most importantly, still able to retain a healthy, loving relationship with his wife and children. His wife, Victra, was probably my favorite character in the book for the simple fact that she had a battle suit fitted for her 8 month pregnant body and didn’t let it slow her down one bit.

The biggest disappointment, however, was Mustang. Not in anything she does, but by the simple fact that she has very little page time in this book. It’s not unexpected, considering her role as Sovereign, but I still wish we had more from her. I did enjoy the conflict that arose between her and Darrow. They are on the same side, obviously, but Brown masterfully illustrated the fact that a ruling Sovereign and a general on the front lines might still find themselves in very different places and making very different decisions, even when reaching for the same goal.

This is clearly the first book in a trilogy (?), and while many of the storylines are wrapped up well enough for the book itself, there are just as many ongoing challenges that are only made worse in this first book. Things go pretty badly for almost everyone involved and it definitely seems to be heading towards a “darkest before the dawn” type place. Further, given this book’s willingness to confront the moral quandaries and grey zones of warfare, it feels like less of a given that all will end well for our heroes. As we’ve seen here, winning the battle doesn’t get you very far if you don’t know how to live without fighting. And what’s more, what is the line in a war to save a galaxy? And are you even saving it to begin with? This book challenges its readers in ways that the original trilogy did not, and that is one of the highest marks in its favor. If you’re a fan of the first series, definitely get your hands on this one soon! But make sure to browse through those first few books again first, cuz, man, there are A LOT of characters and connections that I had to try and remember as I went along!

Rating 9: Darker and more complicated than the first, but just as excellent, especially with its expanded POV character cast.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Iron Gold” is a new book and isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Sword and Laser Sci-Fi.”.

Find “Iron Gold” at your library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “Scythe”

28954189We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is a “Dewey Call Number” theme. This book comes from a Dewey Decimal Call Number range, and has to fit the theme of that range.

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

Book: “Scythe” by Neil Shusterman

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, November 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: Giveaway from ALA 2017!

Dewey Decimal Call Number: 600s (Medicine and Technology)

Book Description: Thou shalt kill.

A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery. Humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death. Now scythes are the only ones who can end life—and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control.

Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own.

Kate’s Thoughts

This book had been on my list but had never quite made it to my pile, so imagine my delight when Serena picked it for book club! I love Shusterman and his writing, and the premise itself is just like catnip to me. A future where people have conquered death, but still have to cull the population somehow, so they recruit ‘Scythes’ to do it? YES YES YES!

And it really lived up to my hopes and dreams and expectations. I liked that Shusterman thought outside the box for this book, giving us less dystopia and more utopia, but with the consequences a utopia would have. The idea that a person can regenerate to their younger physical self while maintaining everything else in their life is rich with possibilities, and I feel like Shusterman really did a good job of world building. From the Thunderhead to the small cultural things (like ‘splatting’, which sounds like the planking fad but with jumping off buildings because you can be rebuilt), he really made something that I wanted to explore to its limits.

I also really loved the characters. You have your veteran Scythes, Curie and Farraday, who both have their own approaches to ‘gleaming’, the process where they remove people from the population by killing them. Both Farraday and Curie end up as two of the mentors to our protagonists, Citra and Rowan, and their philosophies show that great care and reflection can be taken towards their jobs. An overarching theme in this is that people who are Scythes don’t want the job, and because they don’t want the job means they are the ones who should do the job. Both Farraday and Curie have these deep emotional moments surrounding that philosophy, and they were very likable and incredibly poignant. Between our protagonists I liked Citra more, but I think that’s because her arc was more about finding that balance between the job they must do, and how they can do it in the most thoughtful way possible. Rowan fell into a more used trope, as he is ultimately trained by a renegade Scythe named Goddard whose love for Scything is deeply disturbing, and his methods reflect that. I liked Rowan, I especially liked him with Citra, but where he ends up and where it looks like he’s going to go is less interesting because I feel like, as of now, we’ve seen it before.

I will say, though, that their relationship and their innate pull towards each other is going to make for a VERY interesting path in future books.

giphy14
Frankly, I’m hoping for a Veronica/JD from “Heathers” dynamic. (source)

Speaking of, I cannot wait for “Thunderhead” to come out. I’m so far down the list at the library, but oh MAN will it be worth it!

Serena’s Thoughts

I chose this book for bookclub even though I had already read (and reviewed) it. But that’s how much I enjoyed it! And it fit perfectly with my designated Dewey section which had a focus on medicine and technology. The whole story is about the effects that a perfected medical system, one that allows everyone to live forever, has on society. And for technology, we have the Thunderhead, the seemingly neutral AI that directs much of this world’s systems.

I won’t recap my entire previous review, but much of what I said then remained true in my appreciation of the book a second time. The sheer scope of creativity and attention to detail is what makes this world stand out as so fully realized and believable. Every minute aspect of society is touched by this one essential change. Without death, how would family life change? How would one approach day-to-day things like going to work or school? Would our friendships and marriages remain the same when the people we are befriending and marrying will now likely be around for centuries and “to death do us part” means a whole new thing?

Shusterman succeeds in one of the most challenging aspects of writing a dystopia/utopia storyline. Reading books like “The Hunger Games” or “Divergent,” it’s immediately clear to the reader that these worlds are terrible and it’s often confusing to see how they got to be where they ended up. How were people on board with that very first Hunger Games system where their children died? How did that overly complicated and nonsensically limited system of dividing people ever even get traction in “Divergent?” But here, it’s so easy to see how the world could end up in this place. Per Shusterman’s goal, the question can still be posed about whether this is a utopia OR a dystopia? Life seems pretty good for most of society and the steps that would move the world in that direction are easy enough to spot even today!

The second book has the rather ominous title of “Thunderhead,” so I’m excited to see where he is taking the series next. Will more of the curtain be pulled back and reveal a nasty underbelly to this seemingly well-ordered world? Is the Thunderhead truly a benevolent system? I’m excited to find out!

If you’d like to read my full, original review, here it is.

Kate’s Rating 9: Such a creative and engrossing novel! I love the characters and the world that Shusterman created, and cannot wait to see what happens next.

Serena’s Rating 9: I loved it just as much reading it again six months later! So much so that I went ahead and pre-ordered the sequel that is coming out any day now.

Book Club Questions

  1. Shusterman set out with the goal to write a true utopia. Did he succeed? Would you want to live in this world? Are there aspects that appeal to you and others that seem particularly challenging?
  2. There are a lot of advances to medicine and technology presented in this book. Do any of them seem more plausible or likely to be invented? Any that are unbelievable?
  3. Between Citra and Rowan, were you more drawn to one or the other’s character and story? Which one and why?
  4. We are presented with several different approaches to performing the work of a Scythe. Did any particular approach stand out to you? What are you thoughts on the various method of culling that are used? Are any more or less ethical?
  5. The Thunderhead is presented as a benevolent AI and plays an unexpected role in this story. What did you make of it? Any predictions, given the next book is titled after it?
  6. If you were a Scythe, what name would you choose for yourself and why?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Scythe” is on these Goodreads lists: “Fiction Books About Grief, Death and Loss” and “Grim Reaper Books.”

Find “Scythe” at your library using WorldCat

Next Book Club Pick: “Book of a Thousand Days” by Shannon Hale

Serena’s Review: “Strange the Dreamer”

28449207Book: “Strange the Dreamer” by Laini Taylor

Publishing Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, March 2017

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

Book Description: The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

Review: This books if full of dreams and mystery. Moths and monsters. Poems painted onto a page leaving stardust in its wake, and images leaping from page to mind in a way that pulls you further in. And, while the audiobook version of this story was incredible, I spent much of my time while listening wishing and dreading that the story would unfurl faster. And, by the end, this combination of joy and dread was the perfect explanation of this book.

Lazlo Strange is a boy who grew up without a name. He has one, but it is similar to the “Jon Snows” of the world, and his childhood was that of an orphan raised among monks who finds his true home in books, and then later, in a library. (Obviously the librarian in my loved the fact that Lazlo was a librarian and that this fact, combined with his love of dreams, fairytales, and curiosity (traits that ring true for librarians everywhere, I’m sure we’d all agree) was repeatedly referenced and critical to the story.) And when he’s given the opportunity to visit the mysterious city of Weep that had suddenly cut off contact with the rest of the world years ago, Lazlo, armed with his dreams, is quick to take up the call. What he finds is much more mysterious, wonderful, and terrible than he ever imagined.

Beyond this basic plot, it’s hard to discuss much of this book due to many of the mysteries at the core of this story. I will say that I was surprised to find, about a third of the way into the book, that we were given another viewpoint character. One who was completely shocking and tremendously important to the story. But one whose history, motives, and role in this book would spoil much of it if I dug in too deep.

Lazlo, himself, was a fantastic character. It is easy to see how he falls into the roles he does and becomes generally beloved by those around him. He’s endlessly optimistic, creative, and sees the world in a way that is new and, most importantly, beautiful. And, like Jon Snow, Lazlo is much more than he seems. I was able to guess where the story was going with his character, but given the many other mysteries that took me completely by surprise, and the ones that are still remaining, this is hardly much to pat myself on the back over.

Thematically, this story covers a lot of pretty dark and grim ground. I was surprised by the levels of brutality the author brought to play, but it became clear that nothing else would do to fully realize the true horrors and terrible choices that were before all the characters involved. Both “villains” on either side of the conflict were terrible and terribly tragic. It was easy to see how each ended up where they did, and to feel the brokenness of their characters, and question what one would have done differently in their positions.

Beyond this more individual level, the story explored systematic oppression and trauma. And, the other side of the coin, the ugly side of hatred and fear, even if those feelings are based in truths. There was one line in the book about good people being just as capable of committing atrocities as the bad ones, only in the good people’s case they call those atrocities “justice.” I loved this, and it’s just one of a million examples of the careful handling of difficult subjects that Taylor covers in this story.

But, to balance all of this darkness, there is the sheer beauty of Taylor’s writing and storytelling. I’ve read other books by her, but it’s been a while and I had forgotten just how creative and poetic her writing style is. It walks right up to the edge of purple prose, looks at it, and walks forward, fully confident that it is beautiful and that that accusation won’t stick. There’s not a single falter in the entire book in this aspect. And the style of writing is just half of it. The sheer expanse of creative and lovely imagery is staggering. Taylor creates worlds within worlds and then invites readers to immerse themselves alongside her characters.

The only point that knocks this down from a “10” rating is the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger. I didn’t know going in that this was part of a trilogy, so that’s on me. But I also feel that it is possible to write trilogies without cliffhangers, and I’ve just never personally cared for them. This, however, may not be as off-putting for other readers (especially for those who know about it, or at least the fact that this is the first in a series, going in). Even with it, I highly recommend this book for fantasy readers everywhere. I think this has been marketed as young adult, but I feel like it falls pretty firmly into “new adult” (whatever that really means in the larger scheme of things). Who cares! Any fantasy fan should check out this book!

Rating 9: Dark and mysterious, full of wonder and wonderful terror. A must read for fantasy fans!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Strange the Dreamer” is included on the Goodreads lists: “Emotion Overload in Fantasy/Paranormal” and “Original Stories . . . a Breath of Fresh Air.”

Find “Strange the Dreamer” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “DC Bombshells (Vol.5): The Death of Illusion”

34690764Book: “DC Bombshells (Vol.5): The Death of Illusion” by Marguerite Bennett, Marguerite Sauvage (Ill.), Laura Braga (Ill.), Mirka Andolfo (Ill.).

Publishing Info: DC Comics, October 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Based on the hit DC Collectibles product line! As World War II rages across Europe, the Bombshells battle new enemies showing up out of the woodwork… and a Bombshell we haven’t seen since the Battle of Berlin shows up to help!
The incredibly popular DC Collectibles line is brought to life in these stories that reimagine the course of history! From writer Marguerite Bennett (BATGIRL, EARTH 2: WORLD’S END) and featuring artists including Marguerite Sauvage (HINTERKIND), Laura Braga (Witchblade) and Mirka Andolfo (Chaos) comes DC COMICS: BOMBSHELLS VOL. 5. Collects #26-29 and the DC COMICS: BOMBSHELLS ANNUAL #1.

Review: Ever since I discovered the “DC Bombshells” series, I’ve kind of been waiting for the other shoe to drop. Far too often do I find a comic series that I love, and inevitably have to have that moment of ‘oh, that was kind of lame’. It happens for most series and it’s by no means a bad thing! Sometimes there will be volumes that feel out of step with the others, and I’ve come to expect it and by no means hold it against the series as a whole. But for five volumes running, “DC Bombshells” hasn’t lost it’s step or it’s groove, and now we are at “The Death of Illusion” and I am STILL thrilled with almost everything about it as a whole.

We are now at the point where we can’t cover all of the characters in each volume, as there are too many and the cast is ever expanding. So while Batwoman, Wonder Woman, Renee Montoya, and the Gotham Batgirls sat this one out for the most part (more on that in a bit), we refocussed on a few familiar faces who had been away, some for a long time. Most importantly to me, we see the returns of Ivy and Harley, who are now an established lesbian power couple and leaving Atlantis to try and stop a famine in Russia, as Ivy plans to grow food for them. I already have to gush and geek out about this. I LOVE that in these stories, there is just as much creation as there is destruction. The women in this series are not only fighting to save the world, they are also trying to nurture the world back to life. It’s lovely and positive and a testament to the power of ladyfriends! With this plot line we get to see the less talked about ravages of war, specifically the starvation in Leningrad.

We also get the return of Supergirl, which was both excellent and bittersweet. Kara is still very much in mourning over her sister Stargirl, and she and Steve Trevor find themselves in the clutches of Doctor Hugo Strange. Supergirl teams up with Lois Lane, who has her own reasons for wanting to take revenge on Strange, and they both have to face their pasts and those that they are mourning if they hope to defeat this madman who has violated them both in various ways. I liked that Kara’s trauma regarding Kortni dying is still very present, as it shows that she is very much human as well as Kryptonian. With war comes loss and with loss comes grief, and I love that Bennett is showing that these costs take great tolls, even on the strongest of us all. And along with this plotline comes the first of the two debuts that made me freak out. I don’t really want to spoil it here, because it was a gasp worthy reveal, but…… OKAY FINE,

giphy
(source)

SUPERMAN IS HERE, GUYS!! SUPERMAN IS HERE!!! But worry not, because while he has made his debut, much like Arthur Curry he does not step on any toes while doing so. While I’m sure it’s tempting to make him the focus, as he is, after all, the iconic Superman, this is still very much more Kara’s story than his, and he is staying in his lane as of right now.

Our universe expands again in this volume, as we go back to see Amanda Waller, who is one of the leaders of the Bombshells. She is tracking down a reclusive figure, a French woman who was a flying ace during WWI, but then disappeared into the swamps of Louisiana after her lover Luc vanished and was presumed dead. She hires Frankie Charles to go and find this strange woman. And who, is this strange woman?

Guys. Batgirl has arrived.

giphy1
I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR THIS MOMENT!! (source)

And not only is she here, but her storyline opens up a whole new set of possibilities involving her, Waller, Frankie, and The Suicide Squad. That’s right, WE ARE GETTING THE SUICIDE SQUAD!!!!!! I was admittedly hoping a bit for Secret Six (if Scandal Savage ended up in these pages I would absolutely DIE), but this is also excellent.

So yes, the shoe has not dropped yet and “DC Bombshells (Vol.5): The Death Illusion” has only upped the stakes when it comes to this series. It’s flying so high, and while I’m still terrified that it’s going to come crashing down, it has yet to do so. It oozes positivity and girl power, and it continues to be one of the most empowering and fun comics out there.

Rating 9: With the returns of Supergirl, Ivy, and Harley, along with the debuts of some familiar faces, “DC Bombshells (Vol.5): The Death of Illusion” continues the streak of excellence.

Reader’s Advisory:

“DC Bombshells (Vol.5): The Death of Illusion” is fairly newish and isn’t on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think that it would be good on “Graphic Novels Featuring LGBTQ Themes”, and “Girls Read Comics”.

Find “DC Bombshells (Vol.5): The Death of Illusion” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously reviewed:

Kate’s Review: “The Tea Dragon Society”

34895950Book: “The Tea Dragon Society” by Kate O’Neill

Publishing Info: Oni Press, October 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: From the award-winning author of Princess Princess Ever After comes The Tea Dragon Society, a charming all-ages book that follows the story of Greta, a blacksmith apprentice, and the people she meets as she becomes entwined in the enchanting world of tea dragons. 

After discovering a lost tea dragon in the marketplace, Greta learns about the dying art form of tea dragon care-taking from the kind tea shop owners, Hesekiel and Erik. As she befriends them and their shy ward, Minette, Greta sees how the craft enriches their lives—and eventually her own.

Review: Now see here, I may be the resident horror/thriller/true crime/all things macabre blogger, but I, too, am sometimes in need of a break from those things. While I do love me all the dark, dank, and creepy of the world, every once in awhile I yearn for a serious palate cleanser to take me down from a self made anxiety tower where I find myself perched all too often. So while at the desk at work the other day, my dear friend Tami (who is also the children’s librarian at my library) handed me this book and said “You are going to love this.” Boy oh boy, was she right, and was “The Tea Dragon Society” everything I needed in that moment!!! Hell, the cover alone gave me a vocal and physical reaction the moment I saw it.

giphy11
Specifically this with a loud “AWWWWWW!!!” (source)

“The Tea Dragon Society” is a calming and quiet graphic novel for kids, though I would argue that it’s suitable for all ages of youth AND adult as well. It takes place in an unspecified fantasy world, where there are dragons and goblins and animal creatures, and while none of it is really explained in depth, it really doesn’t have to be. This is just the world the story takes place in and it needs to explanation. We follow Greta, the daughter of a blacksmith who finds that her passion in life may actually be centered on Tea Dragon rearing. Tea dragons are dragons who grow tea leaves on their horns. Different kinds of dragons produce different kinds of tea. From Jasmine Dragons to Rooibos Dragons to Ginger Dragons, these creatures need love and attention to make the best leaves. IS THIS NOT THE CUTEST THING YOU’VE EVER HEARD? Maybe I’m biased, as I love love LOVE dragons, but the creativity and the gentle sweetness of it just hits me right in the feels.

And let’s talk about those who blacksmith and those who raise tea dragons, and what that means for gender roles in this world. Right off the bat we are introduced to Greta’s mother, who is teaching Greta how to blacksmith. Greta’s mother is implied to be one of the best blacksmiths around, and it is Greta’s father who is the artist within the family. It was so refreshing to see a mother teaching her daughter a craft that is often associated with masculinity, and teaching her the family business. While Greta has some reservations about blacksmithing and her personal devotion to it, it’s never because of her gender. Along with that, the people who raise the tea dragons are two men, Hesekiel and Erik (though Heseikiel is some kind of animalesque being, kind of looking like a llama?). Erik used to be an adventurer, but after an accident those days are behind him. However, he is never shown as being weakened or at a disadvantage because he lost this previous life. On the contrary, he’s settled into a new life of dragon rearing and gardening as well as maintaining the home that he and his partner Hesekiel share.

We also get some really good diversity in this book, as Greta and her family are darker skinned, as is Erik. Along with that, Erik is in a wheelchair because of an accident in his past. As mentioned before, Erik and Hesekiel are romantic as well as business partners, and their relationship is so lovely and shows years of devotion and caring. Minette, Erik and Hesekiel’s ward, is also representative of a different ability set, and while I don’t really want to spoil it here, I will say that she also shows that with these inherent disadvantages she can still do what she loves. In the picture of the previous Tea Dragon Society there was also diversity, showing that just about anyone could take on this life and be successful at it. While I do think that explicit discussions of why diversity matters, and being explicit about these differences in these stories are important, I also like seeing normalized diversity such as in this world. Especially since fantasy and sci-fi does have a diversity problem within the stories that are told. This goes to show that it can be done and that it should be done.

And yes, we need to talk about the dragons. Because holy crap are they just the cutest things ever.

almanac_entertainment-1
OMG!!!! (source)
almanac_diet
SCREEEEECH! (source)

There are so many designs for these different kinds of dragons, and O’Neill made it so that they do kind of represent the various teas that their horns produce. The Chamomile Dragon (the yellow one above) always looks a little relaxed and sleepy. The Rooibos Dragon (the red one above) looks spiky and rambunctious. The Earl Grey Dragon looks dignified and regal. And so on. To make these dragons so varied and yet still similar amongst themselves is such a great design, and it goes to show that dragons don’t always have to be big and daunting and fearsome. Though hey, I’m never going to complain about those kinds of dragons either.

“The Tea Dragon Society” was the right bit of fluff I needed in my life to give me an overdose on cuteness while building a lovely fantasy world. I can’t recommend it enough to not only children and parents, but also to people who like fantasy. Or those like me who really just need a relaxing read once in awhile. While O’Neill says that the story has concluded, I would be so pleased if someday she decides to revisit these characters and the lovely world that they live within.

Rating 9: TOO CUTE FOR WORDS!!!!! Along with that, we have a diverse cast of characters and an interesting examination of gender norms.

Reader’s Advisory

“The Tea Dragon Society” is on the Goodreads lists “Comics & Graphic Novels by Women”, and “2017 YA Books with LGBT Themes” (though this book is definitely appropriate for all ages).

Find “The Tea Dragon Society” at your library using WorldCat!

Here is the website for the original webcomic for “The Tea Dragon Society”.

Serena’s Review: “The Tethered Mage”

34219880Book: “The Tethered Mage” by Melissa Caruso

Publishing Info: Orbit, October 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: In the Raverran Empire, magic is scarce and those born with power are strictly controlled — taken as children and conscripted into the Falcon Army.

Zaira has lived her life on the streets to avoid this fate, hiding her mage-mark and thieving to survive. But hers is a rare and dangerous magic, one that threatens the entire empire.

Lady Amalia Cornaro was never meant to be a Falconer. Heiress and scholar, she was born into a treacherous world of political machinations.

But fate has bound the heir and the mage. And as war looms on the horizon, a single spark could turn their city into a pyre.

Review: My first props (of many to come) for this book is to whomever designed the cover art. I’ve ranted in the past about cover art tendencies in which publishers try to piggy-back off the designs of other popular books, regardless of whether or not that style or art subject matches the topic of the actual book they are producing. And yes, I know that it’s a business, and I understand the marketing behind it. But that’s the case with every cover art decision ever, and “The Tethered Mage”‘s cover art shows that publishers are perfectly capable of creating unique, pertinent, and striking art for an individual book without needing to reference others to sell. I knew next to nothing about this book, but clicked through to read the description based on this art alone, and largely this was due to its originality. I hadn’t seen a book like this before, therefore I didn’t have expectations going into checking outs its details.

My second props comes for this same originality carrying throughout the book itself. I may not have had many expectations from the art, but reading the descriptions, I had a few guesses (concerns) about the story. Yet another fire mage with a “past.” Likely a duo protagonist situation. Two women protagonists, none the less, creating potential for the ever-dreaded competitive women themes. But almost immediately after reading the first few chapters, I was ecstatic to realize that not only some of these assumptions, but all of them, were completely off base.

While the story does focus on these two women, it is told only from the perspective of Amalia Cornaro, a young woman who is in line to inherit her powerful and canny mother’s position on the Council of Nine, a group of nobles who essentially rule the land. But when she helps a young Captain bring a fire mage under control, she finds herself in a precarious position, the Falconer of the only current fire mage in the realm, and one who had done her best to avoid capture her entire life. Now Amalia must not only win the friendship of this wary and angry young woman, but larger forces are moving within the Empire, threatening its peace and tempting its rulers to now use this suddenly gained powerhouse of a Falcon/Falconer duo, regardless of said Falcon/Falconer’s opinions on the matter of burning down entire cities.

I loved that this story comes from Amalia’s point of view. While I like the magical aspects of fantasy fiction as much as the next person, I have been finding myself growing a bit weary with the fire mage young woman protagonists who litter the genre, currently. No exaggeration, I’ve read three books in the last month that feature a young woman fire mage of some sort.

But while Zaira is a focal point of the story, and gets an intriguing arc of her own, she’s secondary to Amalia, an ordinary young woman who is beginning to understand the burden she will be inheriting as an up-and-coming political leader. She’s also a scholar who, while not magically gifted herself, gets herself and others out of several binds using her knowledge of the intricacies of magical formulas. She’s also a perfect example of a character rising to meet the challenges she’s presented with. Her arc is full of personal growth and courage, and while intimidated by her circumstances at times, she’s blessedly free of unnecessary drama or indecision.

Supporting Amalia, we have her mother, La Contessa, her Falcon, Zaira, and the Captain of the Falcon guards, Marcello. All of these relationships were incredibly drawn, speaking to the unique challenges they each represent to Amalia. I was especially pleased with the portrayal of Amalia’s relationship to her mother, La Contessa. So rarely do we get to see truly loving and supportive mother/daughter relationships in fiction. That’s not to say that Amalia and her mother are without conflict, but they handle their disagreements within the larger understanding and comfort of their love for one another.

Zaira, and her relationship with Amalia, is notably free of the overly typical woman on woman competition and sniping. Given the circumstances of their partnership, their relationship is built on a lot of mistrust and misunderstanding, but these circumstances, never the specifics of the other woman, are what drives their conflict and growth. And through these challenges grows a tentative friendship, free of competition and jealousy. Zaira is also a diverse character, expressing interest in both a powerful lord and one of her fellow Falcons, a young woman.

My third props goes to this story’s portrayal of a complicated society and its approach to its magical members. The system that has been created, wherein children with magical abilities have no choice but to join the Falcon system where there powers are tied to the control of a nonmagical Falconer who can, at will, release or bind the Falcon’s abilities, is one filled with problematic issues. But on the other side we see the legitimate dangers that unbound mages present to the city. Mages are incapable of controlling their powers beyond a certain point, getting lost within these forces. In the very first chapter, Zaira, with her fire ability running out of control, could have burnt down the entire city. And throughout the story we learn of other, more tragic, events that have occurred when mages are left free. I very much enjoyed the careful exploration of the many sides of this complicated system. The story touched on free will, choice, and sacrifices made for the good of the public, delving into the many aspects of these topics, without preaching on a correct answer to this complicated problem.

Lastly, the setting and politics. The story takes place in a world that loosely connects to historical Venice. Raverra is also made up canals and waterways, and it was easy to overlay images of Venice onto this new city. The politics of the region were also key to the plot of this story, with a powerful northern realm making inroads into the treaties that hold together many city states that used to operate independently, but now all fall within the oversight of the Empire. The mystery was compelling, and the action fast-moving.

I was incredibly surprised by how much I enjoyed this story. The characters are nuanced, the plot is complicated, and the book doesn’t shy away from confronting large issues that may not have a clear right answer. This is a must for fantasy lovers everywhere! Now I just have to anxiously wait for the sequel!

Rating 9: A wonderful surprise worth adding to your fantasy TBR shelf!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Tethered Mage” is included on the Goodreads lists: “Covers With Beautiful Art” and “‘Gender Is No Object’ Second-World Fantasy.”

Find “The Tethered Mage” at your library using WorldCat!

 

 

Kate’s Review: “The Followers”

Layout 1Book: “The Followers” by Rebecca Wait

Publishing Info: Europa Editions, July 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: On the windswept moors of northern England, a small religious cult has cut itself off from society, believing they have found meaning in a purposeless world. Led by their prophet, Nathaniel, they eagerly await the end times. But when the prophet brings in Stephanie and her rebellious daughter Judith, the group’s delicate dynamic is disturbed. Judith is determined to escape, but her feelings are complicated by a growing friendship with another of the children, the naive and trusting Moses, who has never experienced the outside world. 

Meanwhile, someone else is having doubts, unleashing a horrifying chain of events that will destroy the followers’ lives.

In the aftermath, the survivors struggle to adjust to the real world, haunted by the same questions: if you’ve been persuaded to surrender your individual will, are you still responsible for your actions? And is there any way back?

Review: I’ve been deeply interested in cults since I was in California during the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide. I remember seeing footage of the crime scene on the television, and being completely horrified and yet taken with the idea that this group believed that a spaceship was on the tail of Hale-Bopp comet. Ever since then, I’ve had a twisted interest in books about cults, be they true stories or not, and the way that people can fall into them. So when I stumbled upon a New York Times article about “The Followers” by Rebecca Wait, I requested it, thinking that it was going to be a thrilling yarn about a scary cult wreaking havoc. While I sat on the couch reading it (making a lot of scandalized noises that my husband kept enquiring about, until the fifth time and he just stopped asking), I was totally engrossed. This was everything I wanted it to be, but it was a bit more than I bargained for as well. After all, at the heart of this is the story of a woman who takes her daughter and whisks them both away at the whims of a religious fanatic who has completely cast her under his spell. So, you know. Fun times.

The thing that stuck me most was that it shifted between various levels of believer/non believer. First we have Stephanie, the single mother who falls in love with “The Prophet” Nathanial. She feels so doted on and loved by Nathanial when they first start dating, and she feels so trapped in her life as a single working mother, that his affection is enough to make her pick up her entire life and follow him anywhere. As I read it was clear that Nathanial was big trouble, but I could also completely understand why Stephanie wanted to go with him, even if I was cursing her and the terrible decisions she was making. Then there is the perspective of Stephanie’s daughter Judith, whose adolescent rebellion is only kicked up a few notches when they move to the commune. She’s a strong willed girl who may have treaded towards unbelievable in her mental strength, but she felt so real and so well realized that I didn’t even care. Then you have Moses, the only friend that Judith makes at the commune, who was born into it and fully believes that not only is Nathanial the Prophet and the ourside world the road to hell, but that his birthmark on his face is a mark of the devil. At first I was very worried about him and his intentions towards Judith, but he really is just the epitome of naive wonderment, raised in a warped society that is all he’s known. And finally you have Thomas, a long time member of Nathanial’s thrall, but who has started questioning it. With these different characters on different parts of the belief scale, Rachel Wait has done a great job of showing the full gamut of emotions for the members.

I loved the description of the commune, which is located in the Moors of England. The isolation was palpable, both physically (with the description of few buildings and many bogs, forests, and other barriers) and emotionally. The members are told that if they leave they can never come back, and will be doomed to stay in “Gehenna” and probably rot with all the nonbelievers when the end of days comes. The manipulation that Nathanial administered to his disciples was also incredibly creepy, through kind syrupy promises and yet no physical action of his own to place his controls upon them. I think that Wait hit the nail on the head with Nathanial, and he was the perfect villain, just as Stephanie, Moses, and the other members were perfect victims. And yet this was told in such a way that it always felt a couple steps up from your run of the mill thriller. We also got to see beyond the cult moments, and where Judith and Stephanie ended up after all was said and done. Spoiler alert, it’s pretty bleak. But along with the overarching bleakness, there was also a fair amount of purity and hope, specifically through the friendship between Judith and Moses. They are both outcasts in their own ways in the commune, and while he’s a true believer and she’s a non believer, they forge a bond that was absolutely sweet and powerful. They really do bring out the best in each other, and their types of belief and non belief feel more constructive than those of Stephanie and Thomas. Every time they were together, my heart would grow ten sizes bigger.

And yes, the slow build up of terror as the cult starts to fall apart was absolutely riveting. I love a good slow burn build up, and “The Followers” really nails the ‘frog in a pot of boiling water’ pace.

All in all, “The Followers” was an entertaining and insightful story that exceeded my expectations. If a good and twisty cult story is your idea of a good time, definitely pick this one up. You’ll get a bit more than you bargained for in the best way possible.

Rating 9: A sad and suspenseful tale about fanaticism, family, and the way that tenuous bonds can be broken if a monster figures out how to exploit them.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Followers” is not on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Cults and Communes in Fiction”.

Find “The Followers” at your library using WorldCat!