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!

Serena’s Review: “The Kingdom of Copper”

35839460Book: “The Kingdom of Copper” by S.A. Chakraborty

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, January 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss +

Book Description: Nahri’s life changed forever the moment she accidentally summoned Dara, a formidable, mysterious djinn, during one of her schemes. Whisked from her home in Cairo, she was thrust into the dazzling royal court of Daevabad and quickly discovered she would need all her grifter instincts to survive there.

Now, with Daevabad entrenched in the dark aftermath of the battle that saw Dara slain at Prince Ali’s hand, Nahri must forge a new path for herself, without the protection of the guardian who stole her heart or the counsel of the prince she considered a friend. But even as she embraces her heritage and the power it holds, she knows she’s been trapped in a gilded cage, watched by a king who rules from the throne that once belonged to her family and one misstep will doom her tribe.

Meanwhile, Ali has been exiled for daring to defy his father. Hunted by assassins, adrift on the unforgiving copper sands of his ancestral land, he is forced to rely on the frightening abilities the marid-the unpredictable water spirits-have gifted him. But in doing so, he threatens to unearth a terrible secret his family has long kept buried.

And as a new century approaches and the djinn gather within Daevabad’s towering brass walls for celebrations, a threat brews unseen in the desolate north. It’s a force that would bring a storm of fire straight to the city’s gates . . . and one that seeks the aid of a warrior trapped between worlds, torn between a violent duty he can never escape and a peace he fears he will never deserve.

Previously Reviewed: “The City of Brass”

Review: Obviously, I was excited for this book. I’ve been patiently waiting and waiting for its release, and the second I spotted an e-copy available, I rushed to snag it. And then…I delayed reading it! Mostly because I was so excited that I wanted to ensure that I had as much uninterrupted time as possible to read major chunks of it. I’m typically fairly good about being able to pick up books and read a few pages here and there throughout the day and enjoy them as much as reading any other way. But, like every avid reader, I feel, there’s nothing like having a solid chunk of hours/days solely devoted to reading. And the cherry on top of that cake is having what is sure to be an excellent read to fill it! So I waited until my husband and I headed up north for a cabin trip and then whizzed through this book in blissful, quiet hours reading by the fire.

The story picks up a few years after the events of “The City of Brass.” Our two main protagonists from the first book, Nahri and Ali, are both making due with a life that hasn’t gone to plan. Nahri, married through a political alliance to the heir to a throne that had been stolen from her family generations ago, has continued to learn to master her own healing abilities and navigate the unfamiliar historical and political upheaval at the heart of djinn society. Ali has made a quiet life for himself living in a small village, banished from his beloved home city. There, he has been diligently trying to hide the residual water powers that he has developed after his experience with the marid in the lake around Daevabad. Joining our main two narrators, we also have chapter perspectives from Dara, a character that is believed dead by Nahri and Ali after the events of the last book.

What struck me most forcefully in the first book was the complicated and detailed world and history that the author had built. This wasn’t simply a story of the now, it was a story of how hundreds and thousands of years shaped what is the current situation. Similar to the true history of the Middle East, nothing is so simple as what can bullet pointed with current tension points. No, you have to dig back through centuries to understand a complicated history that more and more begins to resemble an impossible knot. So, too, in this fantasy version of the region. The first book laid the foundation, but this one really dives into the bigger questions that arise in a situation like this, where wrong-doings have been being committed for centuries and no party is innocent. Where is the line between justice, revenge, pride, and simple violence? When atrocities have been committed for centuries, one people to be repressed by another, only to rise and switch the roles for a few more centuries, who’s “wrongs” outweigh the other’s? There is no easy answer, and Chakraborty does a masterful job of portraying just how challenging finding peace and resolution in situations so whetted in historical conflict can be.

And to tackle all of these complex themes, we have our main characters. Nahri continues to be the stand-out character for me in this series. Not only is she approaching this situation from an outsider’s perspective, often giving her the most healthy and balanced outlook on the situation, but she is an eminently practical and resilient character. Where other books would get bogged down in the angst and drama of an arranged marriage, Nahri has persevered. She knows where her power lies and recognizes the powerlessness of those around her as well; for everything else, she will make the best out of a less-than-ideal situation. I can’t say how relieved I was to find that the book didn’t get caught up in relationship drama, as far as her arranged marriage goes. Too often I think this type of romantic drama is misidentified as action in and of its own. But here, it’s clear that Nahri’s priorities are much bigger than worrying about her political marriage. She has a proper perspective on not only her own challenges, but the challenges of her people and city.

Ali, too, was still a fantastic character. If anything, I grew to like him more and more as this book continued. He, too, has had to face the realities of his own idealistic tendencies. While he still had moments where I wanted to slap him around the side of the head (because again, Nahri sometimes seemed to be the only adult in the room), his arc was compelling. I particularly enjoyed the deeper look into his relationship with his siblings.

Dara, our new character POV, was also a fantastic addition. He operates outside of the main action of the city for the majority of the story, but through him, we can see the conflict coming that both Nahri and Ali are ignorant of. Further, Dara, more so than the other two, truly understands the horrors of the past, having lived through much of it. His wrestling with these issues felt that much more poignant for having residual PTSD, essentially, from his own actions. It was heart-breaking reading him come up against some of these same terrible choices once again.

I also can’t say enough good things about the general strength of the writing in these books. Chakraborty pens her words with a solid, confident stroke. Not only is the imagery beautiful, but the dialogue is snappy and the philosophical explorations are cleverly drawn. It’s a big task to try to address such large and complicated issues as the ones presented in this book. But to do it, while also not losing sight of her characters and presenting a compelling book that feels fast-paced throughout? Incredible! Fans of the first book are sure to be happy with this one (though I will say, you have to be patient for the Dara/Nahri) re-union! The story also leaves off with a fairly sizeable cliff-hanger, so beware of that. But don’t let that put you off!

Rating 10: Simply excellent. No second-book slump here!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Kingdom of Copper” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Fantasy of color.”

Find “The Kingdom of Copper” at your library using WorldCat!

Rev-Up Giveaway: “The City of Brass”

32718027Book: “The City of Brass” by S. A. Chakraborty

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, November 2017

Book Description: Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of 18th century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trade she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, healings—are all tricks, sleights of hand, learned skills; a means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles.

But when Nahri accidentally summons an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to accept that the magical world she thought only existed in childhood stories is real. For the warrior tells her a new tale: across hot, windswept sands teeming with creatures of fire, and rivers where the mythical marid sleep; past ruins of once-magnificent human metropolises, and mountains where the circling hawks are not what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass–a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound.

In that city, behind gilded brass walls laced with enchantments, behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments are simmering. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, she learns that true power is fierce and brutal. That magic cannot shield her from the dangerous web of court politics. That even the cleverest of schemes can have deadly consequences.

After all, there is a reason they say be careful what you wish for . . .

Giveaway Details: I have raved on and on about my love for “The City of Brass.” So of course I did everything in my power to get my hands on the sequel, “The Kingdom of Copper,” as quickly as possible. Spoiler alert: I loved it, too! My review for that book will be coming up later this week, but to get everyone in the properly anticipatory mood, I’ve decided to host a giveaway for the first book in the series. That way, if you’re not on board this train yet (why oh why not?!), here’s your chance to get caught up before checking out the brilliant sequel!

Check out my review for “The City of Brass.”

So, without further ado, on to the giveaway! It’s open to US entrants only and will run until January 20. Good luck and happy reading!

Click here to enter to win”The Kingdom of Copper!”

Serena’s Review: “Spindle Fire”

30163661Book: “Spindle Fire” by Lexa Hillyer

Publishing Info: HarperCollins, April 2017

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

Book Description: It all started with the burning of the spindles.

No.

It all started with a curse…

Half sisters Isabelle and Aurora are polar opposites: Isabelle is the king’s headstrong illegitimate daughter, whose sight was tithed by faeries; Aurora, beautiful and sheltered, was tithed her sense of touch and her voice on the same day. Despite their differences, the sisters have always been extremely close.

And then everything changes, with a single drop of Aurora’s blood—and a sleep so deep it cannot be broken.

As the faerie queen and her army of Vultures prepare to march, Isabelle must race to find a prince who can awaken her sister with the kiss of true love and seal their two kingdoms in an alliance against the queen.

Isabelle crosses land and sea; unearthly, thorny vines rise up the palace walls; and whispers of revolt travel in the ashes on the wind. The kingdom falls to ruin under layers of snow. Meanwhile, Aurora wakes up in a strange and enchanted world, where a mysterious hunter may be the secret to her escape…or the reason for her to stay.

Review: I don’t really remember how/when this book showed up on my radar, but I have a pretty good guess that it likely had something to do with the beautiful cover. Call me a sucker, but a detailed, non-model-featuring fantasy book jacket is likely to get a second look by me most days! Plus, it’s a fairytale re-telling, and we all know how I feel about those!

In this twisted take on “Sleeping Beauty,” the cursed princess, Aurora, is joined by a half-sister, Isabelle. Together, they’ve navigated the complicated pathways of a royal upbringing, all while missing portions of their senses that were tithed away to fairies at Aurora’s birth. Aurora, beautiful and kind, has lost the sense of touch and the ability to speak; Isabelle lost her sight. Through a secret language of tapping and a strong sisterly bond, the two have faced down every challenge thrown their way. This all comes to an end, however, when a dreadful curse finally comes to pass. But Aurora isn’t just asleep; she’s somewhere else, in a new land that is rife with danger. Just as she works to find her way home, Isabelle sets out to rescue her sister, traversing the country to find a young man capable of kissing her sister awake.

While this book never hit the highs of some of my favorite fairtyale re-tellings, it did have some factors that played heavily in its favor. For one thing, in the multitude of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cindrella” re-tellings that are out there, I haven’t come across as many “Sleeping Beauty” stories. Kind of obvious, when you think about it. It’s definitely a challenge to tell a story where the main action all takes place while your heroine is asleep. But Hillyer had a somewhat brilliant, two-fold answer to that. Not only does Aurora experience a different world while her physical body back in “reality” sleeps, but we’re given an entirely new, secondary heroine in the form of Isabelle who inherits much of the plot often relegated to the Prince.

Stating the obvious once again, I do love me some stories about strong sisterly bonds and, as that’s at the heart of this story, I was also predisposed to enjoy it for that reason. We have just enough time and background detail given in the beginning of the story to appreciate the special relationship the two sisters have built with each other. For one one thing, each is approaching the world from a challenging position. Aurora cannot feel or speak. She doesn’t know when she’s injured and can’t communicate with those around her. Isabelle can’t see. Of the two, Isabelle, through either nature or necessity, is still the much more capable one. But even with that being the case, we see how Aurora’s more quiet goodness has protected Isabelle throughout their childhoods, as well. But when separated, we truly see them shine. Aurora comes into her own, having to play a more active role in her own story without the guiding force of her sister. And Isabelle escapes the confines of a palace that has always looked down on her as mostly just a nuisance.

I did end up enjoying Isabelle’s story more, of the two. Her experiences navigating the world without sight were interesting and spoke to the strength and abilities of those who are blind. She always manages to find clever ways of accomplishing things that one would at first guess to be beyond her. She is also able to use her better developed other senses to suss out information that others might have missed. She is also given the better story arc as far as romance goes, though there is a whiff of a love triangle in the air that I didn’t appreciate.

Aurora’s story fails pretty miserable in the romance department, introducing an instalove romance quite quickly and never really delving into much more than that. But luckily, her story is the one that takes place in the heart of an enchanted land where the mysteries behind her curse are truly at play. So we’re giving a good number of distractions on that front, and the secret history of the fairies is definitely worth the wait.

The story is also broken up with various chapters from some of the fae perspectives. Not only do we get into the mindsets and histories of the two fairy sisters who brought this all to pass, but other, secondary fairies are also given perspectives. Some of these felt more useful than others, but I also found the interludes to be nice breaks from the standard POV switches between our main heroines. We were given a lot of great world-building and the fairy history and politics were padded out, as seen through the eyes of the various fairies involved.

The story doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, but it also definitely doesn’t end at all, making it necessary to read the second book to complete the story. While this one felt a bit light, as far as storytelling goes, I was definitely invested enough in the princesses’ stories to want to complete the duology. Here’s to hoping the love triangle is stomped out quick and the instalove…I don’t know, does something. For fans of fairytale retellings, I think this one is definitely worth a shot. Go in expecting a lighter, quick read and you’ll likely be left satisfied.

Rating 8: A few stumbles in the romance department, but still a sweet fairytale retelling at its heart.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Spindle Fire” is only on variations of the same list on Goodreads, so here it the broadest one: “Fairy tales & Retellings.”

Find “Spindle Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Monstress (Vol. 2): The Blood”

33540347Book: “Monstress (Vol. 2): The Blood” by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Image Comics, July 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Maika Halfwolf is on the run from a coalition of forces determined to control or destroy the powerful Monstrum that lives beneath her skin. But Maika still has a mission of her own: to discover the secrets of her late mother, Moriko. 

In this second volume of Monstress, collecting issues 7-12, Maika’s quest takes her to the pirate-controlled city of Thyria and across the sea to the mysterious Isle of Bones. It is a journey that will force Maika to reevaluate her past, present, and future, and contemplate whether there’s anyone, or anything, she can truly trust–including her own body.

Review: A popular definition of ‘insanity’ is repeating the same behaviors and expecting a different outcome each time. In this regard, I can call myself ‘insane’, because even though I wasn’t totally taken in by “Monstress” in it’s first volume, I went into “Monstress (Vol. 2): The Blood” thinking that perhaps this time something would be different. I really want to like this series, because it has so many features that draw me in: the art is beautiful; the world is dark and foreboding; two of the main characters are a Fox/human child and a necromancing CAT! Plus, monsters. Like, a seriously CREEPY monster. And yet, the joy that others get from “Monstress” continues to elude me.

I will start with the positives of this volume of Maika’s journey. Marjorie Liu has certainly made a creative world that her characters roam in. It continues to be complex and intricate, and it just keeps expanding. This time we get to spend time with a band of pirate Arcanics (those that are part human and part Ancient, and tend to have Animal characteristics), and on a mysterious Island of Bones where an Ancient creature named Blood-Fox resides. Maika is desperate to get answers about her mother, and perhaps figure out how to get rid of the Monster that’s living inside of her. All the while she’s being pursued by the Dawn Court’s Warlord, a military leader who also happens to be Maika’s Aunt. Ultimately, “Blood” isn’t really about the blood of battle, but the blood that runs in our veins and whom it connects us to. I liked seeing Maika try to find out some answers, and I liked that both Maika AND the Monster inside of her have to confront truths about their pasts that make them both uncomfortable. I also still have a great affection for Maika’s sidekicks, the sweet and adorable Kippa, and the sarcastic and somewhat mysterious necromancing cat Ren. As these three continue to travel together, they become more connected to each other, and they all balance each other out.

The art also continues to be gorgeous. There is less time in urban settings in this volume, in favor of taking it to the high seas and to a creepy as all get out island, which means there’s a bit less Art Deco influence. But Takeda’s style remains intricate and sumptuous, and I found my breath taken away a number of times as I turned the pages. The style for her characters also feels so unique, as all of the characters are stark contrasts from each other in their designs. I was especially impressed with the ghostly imagery that’s found on and near the Isle of Bones, as the ghosts are both ethereal but very present.

monstress10_3
(source)

But, like with the first volume, “Monstress: The Blood” still hasn’t made me fall head over heels for this series. I like the characters and the art, but the high fantasy aspects have not worked for me, and I found myself not as interested in it as I had hoped I would be. As the world continued to expand, I wanted more focus on the witches we’d seen in the previous volume. I’m connected to Maika as a character, but I’m not really invested in her story, which is hard for me to wrap my head around. Ultimately, it just comes back to my tastes about high fantasy, and how limited they are. That isn’t “Monstress”‘s fault.

And yes, I’m going to keep going. Even though I have been kind of left cold by the first and second volumes of this series, I REALLY want to like it, and I think that there are shades within these two volumes that make me think that I still can. So I’ve put Volume Three on my request list. And maybe next time I will have a more positive review to give. For now, know that my opinions of “Monstress (Vol. 2): The Blood” probably don’t and shouldn’t reflect the merits and positives of this series. So, like I said in my previous review, if you like high fantasy that has a bit of a darkness to it, you should absolutely check this series out. It will probably work for you better than it does for me.

Rating 6: Once again, I’m blown away by the amazing artwork, and I have a fondness for a few of the characters. But the high fantasy setting still isn’t gelling with me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Monstress (Vol. 2): The Blood” is included on the Goodreads lists “Girls Read Comics”, and “SFF Written by WOC and Non-Binary People of Color”.

Find “Monstress (Vol. 2): The Blood” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Radiance”

24473763Book: “Radiance” by Grace Draven

Publication Info: self-published, January 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: THE PRINCE OF NO VALUE

Brishen Khaskem, prince of the Kai, has lived content as the nonessential spare heir to a throne secured many times over. A trade and political alliance between the human kingdom of Gaur and the Kai kingdom of Bast-Haradis requires that he marry a Gauri woman to seal the treaty. Always a dutiful son, Brishen agrees to the marriage and discovers his bride is as ugly as he expected and more beautiful than he could have imagined.

THE NOBLEWOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE

Ildiko, niece of the Gauri king, has always known her only worth to the royal family lay in a strategic marriage. Resigned to her fate, she is horrified to learn that her intended groom isn’t just a foreign aristocrat but the younger prince of a people neither familiar nor human. Bound to her new husband, Ildiko will leave behind all she’s known to embrace a man shrouded in darkness but with a soul forged by light.

Two people brought together by the trappings of duty and politics will discover they are destined for each other, even as the powers of a hostile kingdom scheme to tear them apart.

Review: This book showed up on some list or another that focused on lesser know romantic fantasy stories. I had already read many of them but was intrigued by the list author’s description of this one which focused on the incredibly positive romantic pairing at the heart of the story. All too often with romance novels, I find myself having to hold back my eyerolls or intentionally speed read through sections where one member of the central pairing (or both) is exhibiting behaviors that are pretty unhealthy and sometimes border on abusive. It’s one of the main reasons that I tend to avoid books where romance is too much of the focal point at the heart of the story. But since its healthy romance was at the heart of the list author’s reason for including “Radiance,” I thought that this one was worth giving a shot!

Brishen and Ildiko come from to very different races. Ildiko is a human, born to live during the day. Brishen is a Kai, a human-like being who lives at night, possesses certain magical powers, and looks terrifying to most humans with his dark skin, white eyes, and sharp teeth. Unlike the book description above would imply, both know they are destined for a marriage that would align their people and have resigned themselves to this fate. Together, they face the challenges of skepticism from their own people who resist seeing a bond such as theirs and threats of violence from outside nations who feel threaten by the increased tie between human kind and the Kai.

It was difficult to write even that short synopsis above because this book is definitely a character-driven story. There is a story arc, but it is one that is only sprinkled in here and there and comes into play only at the very end of the book. Instead, most of the story is devoted solely to getting to know Ildiko and Brishen and portraying their blessedly realistic (and devoid of instalove!) relationship.

Through them, we get some interesting world-building. Ildiko’s people seem to be standard humans. We don’t spend much time in her world, however, as the story quickly shifts to the land of the Kai, as Ildiko and Brishen travel their to establish their home. I really enjoyed the descriptions of Kai culture, their dress, food, and lifestyle. It was all very different from humanity, but also struck closely enough that a marriage between the two peoples still makes sense.

Some of the more intriguing portions of these descriptions, the cultural norms and the physical appearance of each race, came from the blunt evaluations offered up by Brishen and Ildiko. In the very first few chapters, they establish a strong, trust-based style of communication that allows them to express their bewilderment and sometimes fear at the other’s way of life and looks. See, right off the bat, healthy relationship norms! Communication, it will do wonders! These descriptions and conversations also highlight the witty dialogue that makes up much of the book and was incredibly enjoyable. Brishen teases Ildiko about her “horse-like teeth” and Ildiko points out some the disturbing aspects of Brishen’s all-white eyes.

As I said, much of the story is simply focused on these two characters and how they slowly build a friendship and romance over the course of the book. They are also, at the heart of things, both just very good people. It seems like a weird thing to have to highlight, but this aspect of the story, their inherent goodness and the healthiness of the relationship they build, is what makes this book stand out as so satisfying. There are real challenges they face and neither simply brushes off the disturbance they feel at the other’s physical appearance, but mutual respect, friendship, and trust is slowly laid out as the foundation of their growing attachment. It’s just a lovely example of how you can write a romance novel without having to make your main characters brooding, bizarrely non-communicative, or just constantly misunderstood.

It looks like there are follow up books to this story, but it can also mostly be read as a standalone novel. It’s definitely a light, romantic read, so don’t go in expecting epic world-building or elaborate magical systems. The fantasy elements are all clearly there as support systems for the character-driven story at its heart. I very much enjoyed this book, and I agree with the author of the original list (I can’t seem to find it or I would link it!): this book is rare for what it is doing right with its romance.

Also, a quick note. This is a self-published novel, but I was able to check out an ebook at the library. Just another plug for all self-published authors out there: libraries are often willing to stock your ebooks, especially if you’re local and can point to some interest in your story. There’s definitely no harm in asking!

Rating 8: A magical unicorn of a romance novel where the main pairing is based on healthy relationship norms!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Radiance” is on these Goodreads lists: “Slow-burn romance” and “Fantasy Romance.”

Find “Radiance” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Last Namsara”

32667458Book: “The Last Namsara” by Kristen Ciccarelli

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, October 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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