Serena’s Review: “Age of Swords”

32337902Book: “Age of Swords” by Michael J. Sullivan

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, July 2017

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

Book Description: Raithe, the God Killer, may have started the rebellion by killing a Fhrey, but long-standing enmities dividing the Rhune make it all but impossible to unite against a common foe. And even if the clans can join forces, how will they defeat an enemy whose magical prowess makes the Fhrey indistinguishable from gods?

The answer lies across the sea in a faraway land populated by a reclusive and dour race who feels nothing but disdain for both Fhrey and mankind. With time running out, Persephone leads the gifted young seer Suri, the Fhrey sorceress Arion, and a small band of misfits in a desperate search for aid—a quest that will take them into the darkest depths of Elan. There, an ancient adversary waits—an enemy as surprising as it is deadly.

Previously Reviewed: “Age of Myth”

Review: I raved about “Age of Myth” in my review of it a few months ago. So much so that it even made its way onto my “Top 10” list for the year! Part of my enjoyment for the book was the promise of what looked to be an excellent, epic fantasy series, but one can never know for sure based on just one book. Well, as I mentioned in said “Top 10” list, I’m here with my review for the second book in the series, and I can report that yes, my enthusiasm was not unfounded!

While it hasn’t hit the fan yet, humankind knows that a conflict with the powerful, magical, and long-lived Fhrey is on the horizon. But they are woefully unprepared: they do not have weapons, they do not have a leader, and they do not have a strategy. Persephone has her own opinions on the last two, but for the weapons, at least, she has a plan. Gathering together a rag-tag group of powerful (in their own specific ways) women, she sets off to discover the secrets of making stronger weapons, a secret held by yet another antagonistic race. Raithe remains behind to deal with the squabbling clans as they work towards electing a leader. Each must face a new set of challenges that will only be one more small step in preparing their people for what feels like an impossible fight.

There are a lot of comparisons to “Lord of the Rings” in fantasy literature. And it’s pretty obvious why that is. It’s one of the few fantasy series that has truly bounced past its genre limitations, in that even readers not familiar with fantasy and sci fi are likely to have read it, or at least be passingly familiar with this story. Don’t get me wrong, “Lord of the Rings” is by no means the be-all, end-all and much of what even that great work does is pulled from a long tradition of story-telling and hero’s journeys. This is important to remember when we see elements from that series pop up in other series. Stories are all influenced by each other, and that’s ok! All of this to say that there are some pretty distinct lines to be drawn from this series and “Lord of the Rings,” and I, for one, am fine with it.

As I mentioned in my review of the first book, we have our three staple fantasy races: humans, elves and dwarves. Many of the characteristics of each is familiar from traditional portrayals. Humans are kind of pathetically (but heroically!) resilient in the face of their limitations. Elves are obviously the most powerful, but are pretty arrogant to boot. And dwarves just do their own thing, with a certain dickish flair. These are familiar traits from “Lord of the Rings” and other fantasy novels, and they hold true here. But what really got me (in a good way) in this book was that as I was reading, I just had this, fairly iconic now, scene playing in my head:

I can’t find a gif of the whole thing, but we all know what I’m talking about.

But take this scene and replace all the men with women! And then they all go into Moria, essentially, and terrifying and heart-breaking things occur. Yes, many of these things felt familiar, down to the almost all-powerful beast lurking in the depths, but frankly, I couldn’t care less just due to how awesome it was to find a band of adventurers that was completely made up of women! And they all fulfilled the same roles that you would typically find men filling in this type of group expedition. The leader. The magician. The scribe. The warrior. The inventor.

The one criticism I found here had to do with the characterization of Roan. I really like this character, over all. But it did start to feel as if she was literally inventing every new type of technology or discovery all by herself in a very short period of time. The wheel? Roan’s got it. Bows and arrows? Yep. Swords? Sure! It just got to be a bit much, especially as all of these things were invented over a very short period of time between the two books so far. I mean, at this rate, she’ll have invented computers and space technology by the end of the series!

However, I did like the ongoing gender-swapping that was going on between Persephone and Raithe. Persephone is the go-getter in this series. Through her own sheer will and persistence, action happens. Raithe is the one dragging his feet. His pessimism towards the entire affair was a bit challenging to read, but it also felt very true to his character. His experience of life has not been a happy one and, in many ways, he’s right about the seeming hopelessness of this situation. And having come from a tribe and family that rarely expected to see another day, and thus maintained only fleeting connections to those around them, the idea of fighting for a cause or for other people is a bit foreign to him. It was refreshing to see his slow growth as a heroic character, rather than have him spring up as a fully formed, capital “H” hero in the traditional sense. I’m curious to see where his story will go as things move forward.

This book also made me cry. Like, a lot. Not throughout the entire book or anything, but just really hard at one very specific part. My husband happened to walk in to the garage while I was sitting in my car listening to this particular part on the audio book (definitely wasn’t going to turn it off just because I’d, you know, gotten home!) and I’m pretty sure he thought someone had died.

And, while the plot has a lot of great action scenes and a fun arc of its own, it is also definitely continue to slowly set the stage for the series as a whole. Very little actual movement was made in the larger conflict, but we can see the pieces slowly coming into place.

I’m on the waiting list for the audiobook for the third book in the series (massive plug for the audiobook version of this series, the narrator is awesome). But part of me is also not in a huge rush for it to arrive since once I inevitably fly through that one, I’ll have to join the rest of the fans in waiting for a new book to be published. Hopefully it will be soon, but with a series as enjoyable as this one has been so far, “soon” is never quick enough!

Rating 9:

Reader’s Advisory:

“Age of Swords” is on these Goodreads lists: “Examples of Male Authors Writing Great Female Protagonists” and “Fantasy novels with positive portrayals of female leadership.”

Find “Age of Swords” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Two Can Keep A Secret”

38225791Book: “Two Can Keep A Secret” by Karen M. McManus

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2019

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

Book Description: Echo Ridge is small-town America. Ellery’s never been there, but she’s heard all about it. Her aunt went missing there at age seventeen. And only five years ago, a homecoming queen put the town on the map when she was killed. Now Ellery has to move there to live with a grandmother she barely knows.

The town is picture-perfect, but it’s hiding secrets. And before school even begins for Ellery, someone’s declared open season on homecoming, promising to make it as dangerous as it was five years ago. Then, almost as if to prove it, another girl goes missing.

Ellery knows all about secrets. Her mother has them; her grandmother does too. And the longer she’s in Echo Ridge, the clearer it becomes that everyone there is hiding something. The thing is, secrets are dangerous–and most people aren’t good at keeping them. Which is why in Echo Ridge, it’s safest to keep your secrets to yourself.

Review: Thank you so much to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this book!

I know that I probably over reference “Twin Peaks” in my blog posts, but given that for me it’s the pinnacle of storytelling it’s a standard that I can’t help but hold certain types of stories to. Basically, if you are writing a book about a small town with seedy secrets, I’m going to immediately start chanting in my head about magicians longing to see and stuff of that nature. If a book doesn’t live up to those (probably unfair) expectations, woe be unto the author and the universe they create. But when they do?

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And that brings me to Karen M. McManus’s newest YA mystery thriller “Two Can Keep A Secret”. Given my enjoyment of her previous book, “One of Us Is Lying”, I was excited and nervous to read her follow up to a stellar debut. The good news is that I liked “Two Can Keep A Secret” even more than “One of Us Is Lying”!

Once again, McManus has a compelling hook and likable characters that immediately pull the reader in. While on the surface our cast seems to fill various tropes of the genre (the cynical new girl, the misunderstood outsider, the manipulative and popular bitch), McManus writes them all in such a way that they feel fresh and unique. Our main two perspectives are Ellery, a true crime obsessed teen who has just moved to her mother’s home town of Echo Park, and Malcolm, the younger brother of a former golden boy. Both have outside connections to tragedy in this small town, as Ellery’s aunt disappeared when she and Ellery’s mom were teens, and Malcolm’s brother fell from grace after his girlfriend was murdered and he was the prime suspect. While it may have been easy to follow ever explored formulas for both our main characters, Ellery and Malcolm both surprised me with their depth. They both have moments of triumph and moments that were less than flattering, but at all times they felt like realistic teens who are trying to move past painful realities and traumas. While the supporting cast didn’t have as much time to shine as these two, when they were on the page they, too, felt like real teens with lives they were navigating as best they could. I especially liked Ezra, Ellery’s twin brother, whose love and loyalty to his sister was a good way to counterbalance the ever so tempting ‘all alone new kid’ plot line. It was also a thoughtful way to show how different people can approach and process a shared pain, as the twins have to navigate moving to a new place after their mother Sadie ends up rehab.

There are multiple mysteries tied up in “Two Can Keep A Secret”, but McManus juggles them with ease so they never feel overwhelming. Echo Park is a town filled with secrets, from who killed Lacey the Homecoming Queen, to the disappearance of Sadie’s twin sister Sarah (which, understandably, has possibly contributed to her mental problems), to secret familial connections that no one wants to talk about. The various tragedies at the center of this story were where the book most reminded me of “Twin Peaks”, and I think that’s in part due to how well McManus laid out this town and those who inhabit it. While there were some answers I was able to discern on my own before their reveals, for the most part I was left guessing and theorizing up until the answer was given. I greatly enjoyed the many different mysteries, from the tragic to the sudsy. They were all satisfying from start to finish, and McManus did a superb job of making sure all of her threads were pulled together by the end of the book.

“Two Can Keep A Secret” was a fun and suspenseful mystery, and it solidifies Karen M. McManus as a talented thriller author. Readers of thrillers, no matter their age, will almost assuredly find something to like here. And if you like the less surreal aspects of “Twin Peaks”, this book could be a good fit for you as well!

Rating 9: A fabulous follow up to a great debut, “Two Can Keep A Secret” is a tantalizing mystery with fun characters and many satisfying twists and turns. Fans of thrillers should check it out.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Two Can Keep A Secret” is included on the Goodreads lists “Secrets and Lies”, and “Mystery Thriller 2019”.

Find “Two Can Keep A Secret” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel”

37638211Book: “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel: A Story of Sleepy Hollow” by Alyssa Palombo

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Griffin, October 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: When Ichabod Crane arrives in the spooky little village of Sleepy Hollow as the new schoolmaster, Katrina Van Tassel is instantly drawn to him. Through their shared love of books and music, they form a friendship that quickly develops into romance. Ichabod knows that as an itinerant schoolteacher of little social standing, he has nothing to offer the wealthy Katrina – unlike her childhood friend-turned-enemy, Brom Van Brunt, who is the suitor Katrina’s father favors.

But when romance gives way to passion, Ichabod and Katrina embark on a secret love affair, sneaking away into the woods after dark to be together – all while praying they do not catch sight of Sleepy Hollow’s legendary Headless Horseman. That is, until All Hallows’s Eve, when Ichabod suddenly disappears, leaving Katrina alone and in a perilous position.

Enlisting the help of her friend – and rumored witch – Charlotte Jansen, Katrina seeks the truth of Ichabod Crane’s disappearance, investigating the forest around Sleepy Hollow using unconventional – often magical – means. What they find forces Katrina to question everything she once knew, and to wonder if the Headless Horseman is perhaps more than just a story after all. In Alyssa Palombo’s The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel nothing is as it seems, and love is a thing even death won’t erase.

Review: I’ve had a deep affection for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” ever since I was a little girl. My first exposure to it was the Bing Crosby Disney vehicle, with it’s jaunty music and admittedly all too terrifying Headless Horseman. My favorite adaptation is the utterly faithless but still WAY fun and interesting Tim Burton film “Sleepy Hollow”, as while Johnny Depp is a creep his portrayal of Ichabod Crane as an earnest and logical detective is a preferable contrast to the original superstitious gold digger Washington Irving imagined. But something that cannot be denied in either version, from the fairly true to the quirky retelling, is that the female love interest, Katrina Van Tassel, really isn’t given much to do outside of being an object of affection. While it’s certainly true that Christina Ricci’s version of Katrina is perfectly adequate (hell, she gets to be a witch, which is pretty neat), it is mostly Ichabod’s story. So when I read about “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” by Alyssa Palombo, I knew that I had to read it, as it is a retelling of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” but from a female centered perspective.

This isn’t so much a ghost story this time around as it is a romance and mystery, and it’s certainly presented through a feminist lens. Like in the original tale, Katrina is the daughter of wealthy farmer Baltus Van Tassel, but instead of being merely a point in a love triangle she is a sharp and independent woman who sees life beyond Sleepy Hollow and the path that is planned out for her. While her father does encourage her studies and her interests, ultimately he sees her marrying her childhood friend Brom Van Brunt, aka Brom Bones, who remains the WORST. Katrina has other ideas, as she has come to despise him because of his treatment of her best friend Charlotte, the daughter of the town midwife. Brom is very much the macho and of the time ideal of a man, popular and the son of another successful (and therefore land owning) farmer, though his misogyny and bigotry turns Katrina off. It’s a solid portrayal of a timeless villain, and while he remains antagonistic, Palombo does a good job of making him a little more complex than merely the town brute. But don’t get me wrong, he’s still awful.

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It has to be done. (source)

Katrina’s loyalties are to Charlotte because Charlotte is one of two profoundly meaningful female relationships she has in this book, the other being Nancy, her former nursemaid. I loved that not only do we get Katrina to steer the ship of feminist interpretations, but that Charlotte and Nancy provide examples of positive and supportive female friendship that could otherwise have been completely waylaid. It also is a good way to address horrific realities of the time in organic ways. It brings up the distrust people had towards women like Charlotte and her mother, who are midwives and herbalists who are seen as potential witches, and the evil that was chattel slavery, as Nancy is a former slave who is now employed by the Van Tassels. While it is made clear that she is  given a wage and has her freedom, her past as property is not ignored, and it is addressed in a way that shows the privileges that women like Katrina and Charlotte DID have during this time because of their skin that were not afforded to Nancy. These three women band together and support each other, and it felt fairly even handed, as neither Charlotte nor Nancy felt like props there merely to hold Katrina up.

The romance between Katrina and Ichabod was very satisfying as well. Since it is through Katrina’s eyes, her agency and intent are always present, as Ichabod is portrayed as a man of intellect who sees Katrina as an equal in all ways. Her self worth and independence are only bolstered by him, and their love affair is not only on even footing, it’s also VERY romantic. And smutty. My GOODNESS is this book heavy on the love scenes during the first part. Palombo manages to make these love scenes feel fairly real for the time and place, and the romance is a slow burn that really makes you root for Katrina and Ichabod, even if the original story has mapped out a very clear, and tragic, path for it to take. Unlike “Sleepy Hollow”, “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” doesn’t completely throw the source material out the window, and while I knew that going in there would absolutely be bittersweetness, I wasn’t prepared for how emotional Katrina and Ichabod’s romance, and his ultimate disappearance, was going to be. Palombo constructs a love that feels timeless and complex, and makes Ichabod far more than a gold digging schemer, as well as more than a deep thinking hero. Yet ultimately, this IS Katrina’s story, and while her love for Ichabod sets it in motion she is the one fully in control beyond her relationship with him. She has to make some tough choices in the wake of his disappearance, choices that she doesn’t want to make and yet must because of the time period, and her drive to find out what did happen to the love of her life, be it him running off or Headless Horseman taking him, make her an all the more intriguing heroine. Because while love is a huge theme, there is also a lot of grief, and what grief can do to a person.

But given the ambiguity of the original source material (was it a Horseman who was responsible for Ichabod’s disappearance, or a very mortal man?), “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” would be missing something if the supernatural aspect wasn’t there. Luckily, Palombo does have eerie elements. Katrina is haunted by visions of the Headless Horseman her entire life, her gift for Sight being a main theme in this book. She and Charlotte both have seemingly otherworldly powers, though they are never overdone or overshot. Given that I LOVE The Headless Horseman as a ghost and antagonist, I was worried that he was going to be more of an afterthought in this story. But while he does play a smaller role, and a more opaque one at that, there was enough of him and the idea of him that still gave him a presence throughout the narrative. Palombo brings in other folklore from the original tale and region (and provides handy author’s notes at the end about it), as Katrina collects and tells the stories of ghosts and spectres through the area. After all, she too is haunted by things, though they are perhaps more of this Earth. By the end of this book I really liked how the ghostly tales were woven into the overall story arc, and how they could serve as metaphors for the things that Katrina was going through. And yes, The Headless Horseman does have one pretty damn satisfying moment, as ambiguous as it may be. After all, he himself is an ambiguous character in the original tale, so this time around it feels extra sweet to see the big moment that is given to him.

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#teamhorseman (source)

Overall, I really liked “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel”. It retold a story that I love in a unique and female centered way. I’m setting this book on the shelf next to my copy of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” so they can coexist in the way the two tales really ought to.

Rating 9: A lovely romance with a bittersweet mystery “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” re-tells an old classic with a female focused lens, and brings it satisfying new characterizations.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “The Best Fairytales and Retellings”.

Find “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review (and Mini Brief History): “Aliens: The Original Comics Series”

33161041Book: “Aliens: The Original Comics Series” by Mark Verdheim, Den Beauvais (Ill.), Sam Kieth (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Dark Horse Books, April 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: In 1986, James Cameron’s “Aliens” brought to theaters the horrors of a new kind of war against a terrifying enemy. Long before Alien3 was even a glint in director David Fincher’s eye, Dark Horse Comics was already crafting a terrifying post-Aliens continuity for Ripley, Hicks, and Newt. 

Earth is overrun by xenomorphs with no hope of saving it for humanity. But that doesn’t mean just leaving it to the Aliens. Ripley has a plan to capture, from what they believe is the Alien homeworld, a “Queen Mother”–a super queen that rules multiple nests–and bring it back to Earth. There the Queen Mother will command the xenomorphs to gather where they can all be destroyed by nuclear bombs.

Collects Aliens: Nightmare Asylum #1-#4 and Aliens: Earth War #1-#4. Includes cover art for all issues.

Review: Even though Science Fiction isn’t really my preferred genre, if there is an excellent horror theme to it I’m assuredly going to be game. So it most likely isn’t shocking that I love both the movies “Alien” and “Aliens”. Not only does it have a solidly excellent female protagonist (Ellen Ripley for LIFE!), it also has a very scary adversary in the Xenomorph, a creature that is essentially a giant parasitic space bug that you COULD fight, but you have significantly better odds if you just run away. The first two movies in the “Alien” franchise are awesome, and while I love them both my heart probably belongs to “Aliens” the most. Not only does Ripley get to kick more butt, but she picks up a rag tag group of friends along the way, specifically the Colonial Marine Corporal Hicks, the android Bishop, and the orphan Newt, a girl saved from an overrun colony. “Aliens” ends with the Alien Queen vanquished, and Ripley looking forward to taking her life back with her new found family in the wake of the one she lost while drifting in space post “Alien”.

…. And then “Alien 3” happened, and it completely trashed that perfect ending by crashing the ship, killing off Hicks, Newt, and Bishop, and throwing Ripley into a new clusterfuck of a PRISON COLONY SETTING because apparently she doesn’t get ANY breaks whatsoever.

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How I feel about the “Alien” franchise post “Aliens”, if I’m being honest. (source)

What does this have to do with “Aliens: Nightmare Asylum and Earth War” you may ask? More than you’d think. SO, after “Aliens” came out, Dark Horse created two mini series set within the “Alien” universe, focusing on Hicks, Newt, and Ripley a few years after the action in “Aliens”. But when David Fincher’s dark for the sake of dark “Alien 3” came out, Dark Horse decided that it had to be retconned because HEAVEN FOR FUCKING BID THAT HICKS AND NEWT REMAIN ALIVE IN COMIC FORM. So Dark Horse went back and changed the names of Hicks and Newt to Wilkes and Billie, and they were SOMEHOW not Hicks and Newt in spite of the fact they were CLEARLY Hicks and Newt, and re-released the two series with a brand new ‘now agreeing with film continuity!’ seal of approval. Given how “Alien 3” ended and what happened to Ripley, what with her DYING, I don’t understand why the comics decided to change Hicks and Newt to fit THEIR deaths, but let Ripley come back unaffected. But whatever, what do I know? Happily, in 2017 Dark Horse went back and righted this wrong, and both “Nightmare Asylum” and “Earth War” were re-released in a hard cover collection with Hicks and Newt back in tact. And now that this “Short Brief History” has concluded, let’s get to the review.

I’ll start with “Nightmare Asylum”. Ripley wasn’t seen much in this story, but I was surprisingly okay with this because it gave Hicks and Newt some time to shine. Set a fewish years down the line from “Aliens”, Newt is now a young woman, and has been living as a surrogate daughter/sister/friend to Hicks. They have been floating in space, as Earth has been taken over by the Xenomorphs and they escaped by the skin of their teeth (along with an android named Butler with whom Newt has been in a relationship). But unfortunately they run afoul a crazed General named Spears, who has gone full General Kurtz and thinks that he can make an army of Xenomorphs to fight against the Xenomorphs on Earth, namely by torturing and trying to condition an Alien Queen to make her control her brood lest he destroy her eggs. And while Ripley is nowhere to be seen for the most part, I REALLY enjoyed “Nightmare Asylum”, if only because Hicks and Newt (her in particular) had some fantastic story lines and moments of riveting action. Given that I have ALL the love for both Hicks and Newt, I am a-okay with the focus being on the two of them. For Newt it’s because she has taken on the role of the determined and scrappy Ripley character, and it shows how she has gone from scared orphan girl to be saved to an adult who is out to save the world. For Hicks it’s his continued journey of being a tough and competent soldier who is more than happy to let the tough ladies around him take the reins. He had the utmost respect for Ripley and trusted her, and  he has the same respect for Newt. And also, Hicks was played by Michael Biehn, who was foxy as HELL in the role, so yes, my libido has SOME influence over my affinity.

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AM I WRONG?! (source)

But I also REALLY liked the main plot with the crazed General trying to use the Xenomorphs to his own ends. Any “Alien” fan worth their salt is going to know that this is a TERRIBLE idea, but it feels original enough that it could totally fit within the hubris that we see so often in this universe. And with new but familiar protagonists coming in to deal with it it doesn’t feel like just another instance of  ‘Ripley is right AGAIN and why doesn’t anyone listen to her?’. Ripley can be right til the cows come home, but admittedly it would get a bit old. And yes, Ripley DOES show up, right at the end, so it doesn’t feel like she’s been forgotten or thrown to the side. One note I do have, though: I didn’t like that there were so many sexualized drawings of Newt. Sure, she’s an adult in this story arc, but was it REALLY necessary to have multiple shots of her in skimpy underwear and spread legs?

“Earth War” was next, and that one brings Ripley more into the fold. As she, Hicks, and Newt (along with other brave fighters) gather together to try and take Earth back, Ripley also has to contend with her leaving Newt and Hicks behind after “Aliens”. I liked the device that was used in this case, as it doesn’t feel too cheap (like “Alien 3” did, and no I will NOT shut up about how much I hate that movie) and also feels wrenching. To Ripley Newt was sort of seen as a stand in for her daughter, who died while Ripley was in hypersleep out in space, and so it was important to give a GOOD explanation as to why Ripley would have disappeared after “Aliens”. “Earth War” absolutely achieves that. But I think that the reason I found it to be the weaker of the two, in SPITE of Ripley’s presence, is that it feels very rushed. While the smaller story of “Nightmare Asylum” works in four issues, trying to cram a reunion for Ripley and her friends, information as to where she was that whole time, AND a battle to take Earth back from the Xenomorphs in the same number feels VERY rushed. Plus, I think that for me there was a HUGE disconnect from the artwork between the two, and I much preferred Den Beauvais:

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Versus that of Sam Kieth:

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I generally like Kieth (I REALLY like his work on “Sandman”), but I didn’t feel like it fit in as well with the content at hand. Which means I was taken out of it a bit more than I would have liked.

All that said. this collection is FINALLY back the way it is supposed to be, and I am SO happy that I finally got to read it. “Aliens: The Original Comics Series” gives “Alien” fans the stories that we’ve always deserved, and it gives Ripley, Hicks, and Newt a lot to do without getting dour or unnecessarily bleak. I greatly enjoyed this series as a whole.

Rating 9: The “Alien” continuation that we deserve to have, “Aliens: The Original Comics Series” is action packed, powerful, and a shining light on favorite characters from the first two movies.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Aliens: The Original Comics Series” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Supernatural (Not Superhero) Comics”.

Find “Aliens: The Original Comics Series” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Dragonshadow”

36300671Book: “Dragonshadow” by Elle Katherine White

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, November 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The Battle of North Fields is over—or so Aliza Bentaine, now a Daired, fervently wants to believe. But rumors are spreading of an unseen monster ravaging the isolated Castle Selwyn on the northern border of the kingdom. When she and Alastair are summoned from their honeymoon by the mysterious Lord Selwyn, they must travel with their dragon Akarra through the Tekari-infested Old Wilds of Arle to answer his call.

And they are not alone on this treacherous journey. Shadowing the dragonriders is an ancient evil, a harbinger of a dark danger of which the Worm was only a foretaste. And soon Aliza realizes the terrible truth: the real war is only beginning.

Previously Reviewed: “Heartstone”

Review: “Heartstone” was one of those unicorns of a book that was marketed as a retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” and actually managed to not only not disappoint but also hold its own as a solid piece of fantasy fiction, regardless of comparisons to beloved classics. What made it so special was the author’s ability to perfectly balance retaining the basic elements of the original story while not feeling bound to hit every beat or even exist in a world that looked very similar. I mean, the Mr. Darcy character rides a freaking dragon in this book! And “Elizabeth”  helps kill a gigantic, beastly worm. Your typical  Jane Austen re-telling this is not. This all left me in a strange state when I saw that there was a sequel. For one thing, the first book wrapped up so nicely that a sequel was by no means necessary. And for two, would the author be able to manage this again? Well, never fear, readers, “Dragonshadow” is proof that “Heartstone” wasn’t just a lucky hit, but evidence of a strong author with a clear story on her hands.

Aliza and Alastair have been on their honeymoon. But as enjoyable as it is, inevitably, it must come to an end. And with this change comes the stark reality of the life that Aliza has signed up for: not being a Rider herself, she is destined to remain behind, alone in a large house she is meant to run, knowing her beloved husband is battling danger at every turn. She quickly realizes that this is unacceptable. So now, together, she and Alastair and his dragon Akarra set out on a new adventure, one riddled with danger at every turn and a mysterious force pulling the strings from behind the curtains.

Well, I just loved this book. And what I most loved about it was the fact that it went in directions I never would have expected. I am going to do a bad thing now and compare this book to another Jane Austen retelling (of sorts), but it’s another one of the few examples of these types of books that I think succeeds. “Death Comes to Pemberley” by PD James is essentially a mystery novel that also serves as a sequel to “Pride and Prejudice.” It features a murder mystery at Pemberley, but also dives into Elizabeth’s experiences after the wedding, now mistress of a large estate. Like that book, “Dragonshadow” does an excellent job looking past the “happily ever after.” Both Elizabeth and Aliza are in worlds that are unfamiliar, that they were largely unprepared to enter, and that naturally bring out many insecurities into their own roles and the strength of their relationships with their husbands.

While Aliza played a major role in the action of the first book in this series, it was clear that her choices were largely driven by extraordinary circumstances. An unbeatable foe was on the move, Alastair was dying slowly of poison. Her actions were a last resort, not a natural next step for a character who grew up with no battle training herself. And here, we see how these realities play out, her now being married into a family of warriors. So much of her arc here is just excellent, from her pushback against expected roles put upon her, to the still very true realities of her inexperience and lack of preparation to participate actively in Alastair and Akarra’s world. Alastair’s reactions are equally compelling. He makes several “wrong” choices, but also is largely right in his fears. Aliza, and his love for her, is not only incapable of taking care of herself, but is also a risk for him as a distraction. That said, her insistence to be more than a lady waiting at home isn’t wrong either. It’s exactly the kind of complicated, both sides are right/wrong situation that provides a rich reading experience.

I also greatly enjoyed the action of this book. We’re exposed to a wide variety of the different magical  beings that make up this world, and much of the politics and interactions between their species and how they interact with humanity is explored in a bigger way than the first book’s “big, bad, monster.” Importantly, the wide swath of grey and neutral roles that exist between the building sides in this larger conflict are explored in great detail. There were some excellent surprises, especially towards the end, and I particularly enjoyed how Aliza’s strengths were used to suss these things out. While not a fighter, she was able to prove her worth in other ways.

I was also very surprised by another element added to the story about halfway through. At first, my kneejerk reaction was negative as it seemed to be following (or introducing) a fairly typical romance novel trope that I’ve never particularly enjoyed. But instead, the story veered wildly into a topic that is rarely explored in many novels, let alone fantasy fiction. And the delicacy and care that was shown to a particularly challenging subject was lovely to see. In the end, I have to greatly applaud the author not only for choosing to include this difficult topic, but for handling it so well.

“Dragonshadow” was exactly the sequel I didn’t know I needed. In many ways, it makes “Heartstone” read as a bit simplistic. There’s a compelling mystery, dangerous action, an incredible character arc for both of its main characters, and the exploration of deeper topics such as love, loss, and the choices that these greater forces inflict upon us. Fans of “Heartstone” should definitely check out this novel. And new readers should definitely get their hands on the first book, knowing that it is just the beginning!

Rating 9: An excellent, unexpected sequel that raises the stakes in every way: action, topic complexity, and characterization.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dragonshadow” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on “Best Pride and Prejudice Sequels/Variations/Adaptations.”

Find “Dragonshadow” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Jar of Hearts”

36315374Book: “Jar of Hearts” by Jennifer Hillier

Publishing Info: Minotaur Books, June 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: This is the story of three best friends: one who was murdered, one who went to prison, and one who’s been searching for the truth all these years . . .

When she was sixteen years old, Angela Wong—one of the most popular girls in school—disappeared without a trace. Nobody ever suspected that her best friend, Georgina Shaw, now an executive and rising star at her Seattle pharmaceutical company, was involved in any way. Certainly not Kaiser Brody, who was close with both girls back in high school.

But fourteen years later, Angela Wong’s remains are discovered in the woods near Geo’s childhood home. And Kaiser—now a detective with Seattle PD—finally learns the truth: Angela was a victim of Calvin James. The same Calvin James who murdered at least three other women.

To the authorities, Calvin is a serial killer. But to Geo, he’s something else entirely. Back in high school, Calvin was Geo’s first love. Turbulent and often volatile, their relationship bordered on obsession from the moment they met right up until the night Angela was killed.

For fourteen years, Geo knew what happened to Angela and told no one. For fourteen years, she carried the secret of Angela’s death until Geo was arrested and sent to prison.

While everyone thinks they finally know the truth, there are dark secrets buried deep. And what happened that fateful night is more complex and more chilling than anyone really knows. Now the obsessive past catches up with the deadly present when new bodies begin to turn up, killed in the exact same manner as Angela Wong.

How far will someone go to bury her secrets and hide her grief? How long can you get away with a lie? How long can you live with it?

Review: Sometimes I get carried away in my request lists for library books. On my personal Instagram I have repeatedly posted pictures of book piles that are overflowing and busting at the seams, fifteen books high and not showing the books on my kindle OR the pile of ARCs in my home office library. And when this happens, I occasionally have to make sacrifices and send books back into the library pool. I did this with “Jar of Hearts” by Jennifer Hillier, thinking that it was probably going to be a book I liked, but one that could wait, like so many middle of the road thrillers ultimately can. But when I did eventually pick it up again (after sleeping on it AGAIN; I didn’t pick it up until a week before it was due), I was angry with myself for letting it go that first time. Especially since Caroline Kepnes, ONE OF MY FAVORITE AUTHORS, wrote the blurb on the cover, and I didn’t even notice! “Jar of Hearts” is one of the best thrillers I’ve read this year, and one of the reasons for that is that it is so dark in some ways it treads towards horror.

The story is laid out through a few different perspectives. The first is from Geo’s perspective, the woman who went to prison for helping her boyfriend Calvin James cover up the murder of Angela Wong, her best friend. We get to see Geo’s present day timeline, from her arrest to her trial to her stint in prison to her time out of prison, as well as moments from her high school days, when Angela was still alive and Geo was just getting involved with Calvin. Seeing how Geo changes over time because of the various experiences she’s had really gives the reader a feel for the character, and it allows her to become multidimensional in an organic way. To go from awkward and shy high schooler to world weary felon is heartbreaking to see, and you really see how much of a monster Calvin James is while also seeing why Geo would have fallen under his spell. Hillier does a very good job of showing the reader why Geo is the way that she is, and simultaneously doesn’t excuse her mistakes, but helps you understand them, and her. I really liked Geo, and while she had EVERY opportunity to fall into the tried and true ‘hot mess’ stereotype for this kind of thriller, I feel like she never did.

Geo and Angela’s high school friend Kaiser is our second perspective, and his is set firmly in the present. Kaiser was the sweet best friend who held a torch for Geo, who then ended up being the detective who solved the murder and then arrested Geo. While is isn’t as compelling as Geo is, I did like seeing this man with his own haunted past have to come to terms with his feelings for his old friend as he investigates a new spate of crimes that she may have a tie in, be it directly or not. While he DID fall into familiar traps of the genre (the cynical detective who is responsible on the clock but makes reckless decisions in his personal life), I really did like Kaiser and liked following him. He was also our main connection to the mystery at hand, while Geo was the connection to what happened to Angela.

And let’s talk about that mystery. Because “Jar of Hearts” is dark as hell. Kaiser is trying to figure out if Calvin James is back to killing women after years of being off the grid, as bodies start showing up that are similar to Angela’s murder scene. But along with the dead women, there are also dead children. This doesn’t match James’s original M.O., and as Kaiser digs deeper and does more investigating, things do start to fall into place because of the various perspectives we are getting. And not only is it suspenseful, there were moments in this book that I was completely unsettled. Hillier did a great job of slowly giving the reader the clues just when she deemed it necessary, and while I had an inkling as to where some things were going, I never got there too soon before Hillier wanted me to. The content was bleak and very upsetting at times, and while I greatly enjoyed this book, it is not for the faint of heart. It feels like it treads more towards “The Silence of the Lambs” than “The Girl on the Train”. Which is a SUPER positive in my book.

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If only the villain was as polite as Hannibal, though. (source)

But before I wrap things up completely, I do need to give a serious, SERIOUS content warning. This book has multiple depictions of rape in it, and while it doesn’t feel titillating or exploitative in how it’s done or portrayed, it absolutely could be triggering for those who are going into it. So just be aware that it is there.

“Jar of Hearts” is a fantastic thriller and an incredibly impressive debut novel. I truly cannot wait to see what Jennifer Hillier comes out with next. Do not let this one go, thriller fans! Don’t make the same mistake I did!

Rating 9: Suspenseful and disturbing, “Jar of Hearts” was a fantastic thriller that hit every bingo box for my dark thriller needs!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Jar of Hearts” is included on the Goodreads lists “Non-Caucasian Protagonists in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance” (I imagine this fits in horror?), and “Best Suspense Novels”.

Find “Jar of Hearts” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Flight of Swans”

38397799Book: “The Flight of the Swans” by Sarah McGuire

Publishing Info: Carolrhoda Books, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss Plus

Book Description: Princess Andaryn’s six older brothers have always been her protectors–until her father takes a new Queen, a frightening, mysterious woman who enchants the men in the royal family. When Ryn’s attempt to break the enchantment fails, she makes a bitter bargain: the Queen will spare her brothers’ lives if Ryn remains silent for six years.

Ryn thinks she freed her brothers, but she never thought the Queen would turn her brothers into swans. She never thought she’d have to discover the secret to undoing the Queen’s spell while eluding the Otherworldly forces that hunt her. And she never thought she’d have to do it alone, without speaking a single word.

As months as years go by, Ryn learns there is more to courage than speech . . . and that she is stronger than the Queen could have ever imagined.

Review: Omg, I was so excited when I just randomly stumbled on this book on Edelweiss. I obviously love fairytale retellings. But I LOVE the “Six Swans” fairytale in particular. Juliet Marillier’s “Daughter of the Forest” is probably one of my favorite books ever and is the golden standard as far as I’m concerned for retelling this fairytale. And, frankly, in a world becoming chock-full of other fairytale retellings, there are still very few that tackle this particular tale. So, with those facts in mind, I went into this both very excited and very challenged to not simply do a comparison read with Marillier’s take.

The story follows the classic fairytale. Ryn is a young girl when the story starts out, the youngest of seven siblings with six beloved older brothers. When a sorceress bewitches the king, their father, these siblings rebel only to become caught in the crosshairs of a magical spell themselves. The brothers are all turned into swans, and Ryn is left with impossible task of remaining silent for six years while weaving six tunics out of painful nettles to free her brothers and restore their kingdom.

Long story short, I loved this  book. I loved our main character. I loved how true it remained to the original fairytale. I loved the ways that it expanded on the original fairytale. I loved the romance. I loved the magic. Review done now? Probably could be if I didn’t feel like I owed readers (and the book) at least a bit more detail.

Outside of my general love for the story, there were a few things that stood out in particular. For one, I loved the brothers in this book. Six brothers who spend most of a story as swans and off the page is always going to be a hard thing to tackle for an author. How do you make sure they each have personalities and can be differentiated from each other? While I won’t say that McGuire was completely successful here (there are still one or two brothers who I can only remember small details about), for the most part she does an excellent job of giving the brothers enough distinct traits to make each stand out. For one thing, the way the curse is laid out in this book, the brothers get to spend one night each month as humans. This gives them much more page time than other versions of the tale (Marillier’s swans only become human twice a year). With the addition of these scenes, we get to see much more of the brothers. I particularly loved Aiden, the oldest  brother, and his close relationship with Ryn. He’s probably the brother that is given the most throughout the book, and I just loved everything about him. Secondly, I very much liked Ryn’s twin brother who is the one who has the most of an arc in this book, going from a kind of bratty, young kid to a loyal brother who is the one who really understands the extent of Ryn’s sacrifice in the end.

I also loved the inclusion of particular elements of the fairytale that have been left out of other versions of the story. I always loved the part of the original tale that dealt with the swans carrying their sister across the sea to safety. This is the kind of fairytale scene that is pretty hard to adapt, being very whimsical and hard to actually picture in the real world. McGuire adapts the scene here, having the swans pull a raft carrying Ryn. It was thrilling to see this part of the tale included, and it was also one of the most shining moments for Aiden as a character, even in swan form.

I also loved the romance that builds up between Ryn and the foreign prince, Corbin. As this is a middle grade novel, I had to repeatedly remind myself to be happy with the romance I was getting. But as an example of middle grade romances, this one does very well. It’s another tough part of the story to adapt, what with the usual late entrance of the romantic interest in the fairytale itself. And the fact that our heroine can’t speak, so creating meaningful moments where readers can really buy this type of connection forming can be challenging. McGuire rises to the occasion with aplomb.

The only criticism of the book I have does have to do with my expectations and comparisons to Marillier’s version. Like I said, it was a huge challenge to not compare the two as there are so few examples of this fairytale and Marillier’s is superb. “Daughter of the Forest” is also an adult fantasy novel and has some very adult scenes in the book. It can be a tough read, but its darker moments are also what adds to the ultimate beauty and triumph of the story.

This book, as a middle grade novel, had to take a very different route. And while I can appreciate certain changes (the romance needing to be written in a different way, for one), there were also a few choices that I felt were unnecessary and needlessly removed some of the teeth from the story. For one, the aforementioned monthly transformation of the brothers. This lead to a lot of great development for these characters, but also made Ryn’s experience much easier as she regularly had the support of her brothers to tackle basic tasks, like shelter building. She was also limited to not speaking or writing, but was still able to tell others every bit of her tale as long as she mimed it or acted it out. This let her explain her situation to a lot more people, thus creating even more of a safety net for herself. Beyond this, the nettles themselves become less of a challenge. Ryn quickly finds a way of handling the viscous plants in a way that doesn’t injure her at all. Much of the power of the original story is the way the heroine perseveres through the awful trial that is this curse, and part of that trial is the combination of remaining silent while completely a very painful task. All of these choices, when put together, make Ryn’s story a bit too light, in my opinion. Yes, it is a middle grade novel, but I think the author took it a little too far here and could have kept a bit more of the original’s darkness.

But! I still absolutely loved this story. I was so pleased that is lived up to many of my expectations and even surpassed some of them. It’s also a nice alternative to point to for readers looking for a retelling of this fairytale. There are some younger readers to whom, before, I would have hesitated to hand “Daughter of the Forest” because of some of its adult themes. But now we have this! And put together, we have a version for younger readers AND a version for adults!

Rating 9: A beautiful take on a much-overlooked fairytale.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Flight of Swans” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on “The Wild Swans/The Six Swans Retellings.”

Find “The Flight of Swans” at your library using WorldCat!