Bookclub Review: “An Ember in the Ashes”

20560137We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.

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

Book: “An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir

Publishing Info: Razorbill, April 2015

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Laia is a slave.  Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

Kate’s Thoughts

I like to think of myself as a good sport when it comes to my willingness to read genres that I’m not too keen on. Be it in an effort to stretch my reading wings or going off a recommendation from a close friend, I will try and be open minded about a book even if I wouldn’t really pick it up on my own or of my own volition. This happens a lot of book club with YA fantasy fiction, and I will be the first to admit that I’ve found some pretty good books this way that I wouldn’t have normally read. But when it comes to “An Ember in the Ashes”, it HAD been on my list in spite of the genre, it just never came up in my reading rounds. So when it was the selection for the month, I went in apprehensive but hopeful. YA fantasy, sure, but based on Roman history! That’s something I could enjoy, right?

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(source)

“An Ember in the Ashes” does have strengths that I did like about it. For one, as mentioned, the Roman influenced world was unique for me and fun to see, as I’ve had a fascination with Ancient Rome (specifically the Julio-Claudian Emperors) since college. I liked that Tahir took influence from the culture in terms of not only the way the characters were, but in the way that world was built. While it’s been tweaked to fit the story, there were definitely aspects of the society that felt familiar, and the society itself was definitely interesting enough that I wanted to know more about it. On top of that, the story itself was engaging and filled with enough conflict and stakes that I wanted to know what was going to happen next. I wanted to see what was going to happen to Elias and Laia, and wanted to know how their fates were going to tie together, as promised. We get two narratives within this story, of Laia and Elias, and of the two I liked Elias’s narrative more. One of the reasons for that is that I thought that his voice was more interesting to me as someone who is incredibly good at what he does, though he secretly despises it and plans to abandon it as soon as he can. The other reason, and the far more pressing one, is that while I liked Laia and was interested in what she was doing her ‘reluctant but willing rebel who has devoted everything to avenging and saving her family’ is a theme we have seen in YA for a very long time now, and it didn’t feel all that new or unique, nor did it stand out from the other narratives out there. Throw in some awfully cartoony/not terribly well fleshed out antagonists, and you have a story that has promise, but doesn’t quite land.

I thought that “An Ember in the Ashes” was an entertaining read, but I don’t think that I’m going to go on in the series. Should someone tell me that I should give it a chance, I will happily be a good sport and do so. But as it stands now, I am parting ways with Elias and Laia where we left them.

Serena’s Thoughts

I…wasn’t a fan of this book. I’ll also admit that right out of the gate I wasn’t feeling super hopeful about this one, as I remember it coming out and then looking into it at the time and choosing to pass. It then blew up into a huge read of the year, and I still didn’t read it. I can’t remember now why I didn’t read it, but I’m guessing that some of the trusted reviewers I follow must have flagged it and I had enough other things on my plate (a perpetual non-problem!problem) to write it off as likely not for me. But, like Kate said, bookclub is super handy in that it pushes me to read books that I otherwise wouldn’t, for whatever reason. And as I said, this was a huge fantasy novel, so really, it’s good that I read it so I could form my own opinion.

Most of what I liked about the book, Kate already covered. Though, even there, I had some pretty big qualifiers to my enjoyment of most of them. First off, the world-building. I did enjoy the Roman aspects that were being used and the unique world that was built around it. However, having read a lot of YA fantasy, these elements also didn’t standout as breaking some huge mold. Roman society and influences are at the heart of a lot of second world fantasy. I did find it interesting, however, that the rebellion seemed to be stemming from a different cultural background. Irish, I would guess, based on the naming conventions. One of our booklcub members had a theory that the world here was essentially the Roman empire shrunk down to a more manageable size. So some of the nearby cultures could be representing other place in the world that Romans expanded out to, like Ireland. It’s an interesting theory, and one that I think would be super clever. However, this is never explicitly said in the book itself, and I’m not sure there’s enough to conclusively say that that was the purpose behind some of these choices. If it was, I wish the author had made it more clear, because it is a very interesting idea.

The other thing that stands out as notable about this book was the violence of it all. I think that this was one of the aspects of the story that made it stand-out when it was first published, that it went further than other YA fantasy. But this is also where I started having major problems with the book. Primarily, the violent, serious nature of the world that our characters are living in didn’t match up with the often frivolous and silly nature of their thoughts and priorities, especially with regards to their romances. In other words, the book was trying to walk an unnatural line. It wanted to be “Game of Thrones,” but still have “Twilight” level romances. This simply doesn’t work. “Game of Thrones” is known for having teen characters involved at the heart of the story. The difference here is that when presented with the dire and very serious nature of the world around them, their thoughts and actions appropriately reflect that.

Laia and Elias have grown up in a world where violence and the threat of violence is around every corner. Beyond this, sex is used as a weapon and prostitution is a fairly normal thing for soldiers to participate in. Yet, Laia and Elias don’t reflect this as characters. Instead, right next to rape threats and horrific deaths, we have two characters who read so PG as to be almost laughable. It also weirdly worships the purity of these two characters. Elias is not like other boys and while he is constantly admiring the beauty of the women around him, he’s never engaged in anything himself. They both talk about physical attraction and love in the same way that teenagers today would. But that doesn’t work in a world where they would have grown up past this type of purity quickly (if they ever had it in the first place). You just can’t convince me that a character whose family has been murdered and is a spy for an evil queen would be so caught up in this love square or whatever it was.

I also didn’t appreciate the repeated rape threats made to Laia and Elias’s near constant worry about rape happening to the women in his life. It felt like the topic was used to further darken the world but was never explored further on how it would shape the lives of these women. Attempted rape has its own horrific aftereffects and yet none of this is explored with Laia.

Perhaps if this book had been written for adults I would have appreciated it more. There were some strong bones with the world and the political nature of the story. Elias and Laia, if aged out of their teenage swooning, could have also been good characters. But as it stands, the book seems to be presenting a weird position where tons of violence and rape threats are a totally ok topic for teen readers, but consensual sex between characters would be too “adult” so Laia and Elias must weirdly fixate the belly flutters. It’s a strange position to take and I don’t think it fits well.

Kate’s Rating 6: An engaging read to be sure, though a lot of the themes and characterizations we’ve seen in this genre over and over again.

Serena’s Rating 5: Not for me. I don’t think it did enough to address some of the serious topics it throws around and the romance didn’t mesh with the world that was created.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the world building in this novel? Did you think that it took accurate aspects from Ancient Rome and applied them well?
  2. There are two narrative POVs within this book. Did you connect more with Laia’s storyline, or Elias’s storyline?
  3. This book is labeled as a YA fantasy, though some would argue that it doesn’t have as many fantasy elements as other fantasies do. What do you think of this genre classification?
  4. What are your opinions on the antagonists of this story, specifically Marcus and The Commandant?
  5. Do you think that the romance aspects of the book lined up with the world that the characters lived within? More specifically, can people still be fixated on potential romance or attraction when they are surrounded by darkness and horrors?
  6. This is the first in a four book series. Do you have predictions on where the plot is going to go? Do you think you’ll keep reading?

Reader’s Advisory

“An Ember in the Ashes” is included on the Goodreads lists “Free Range and Morally Complex YA”, and “‘High Fantasy’ With Female Leads/Protagonists”.

Find “An Ember in the Ashes” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

Serena’s Review: “Skin”

24721903Book: “Skin” by Ilka Tampke

Publishing Info: Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, October 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Southwest Britain, AD 43.

For the people of Caer Cad, ‘skin’ is their totem, their greeting, their ancestors, their land.

Ailia does not have skin. Abandoned at birth, she serves the Tribequeen of her township. Ailia is not permitted to marry, excluded from tribal ceremonies and, most devastatingly, forbidden to learn. But the Mothers, the tribal ancestors, have chosen her for another path.

Lured by the beautiful and enigmatic Taliesin, Ailia embarks on an unsanctioned journey to attain the knowledge that will protect her people from the most terrifying invaders they have ever faced.

Review: I believe this book was self-published a few years ago (or published from a smaller, independent publisher?), so I wasn’t aware of it until I saw it and its sequel, due out in January, pop up on Edelweiss. Always in the mood for historical fiction and intrigued by the unique time period in which this was set, I was quick to request it! And while it was darker than I had expected, the beautiful writing and gripping story swept me along in a quick read-through.

Ailia has grown up living a half-life. Her mysterious origins left her without a skin, an identifier by which tribes connect to each other and their land. Without this marker, she exists outside of the normal structure of life, unable to fully participate and with a large question mark looming over her future. But when their quiet life is interrupted by the threat of war, Ailia journeys far and wide to not only find her own place, but to save her people.

This book was a bit hit and miss for me. But if I’m honest about it, the “misses” are likely just personal preferences at the moment and maybe not being in the correct headspace for some of the darker elements of this story. To start with the good stuff, however! The first thing that really stood out to me immediately was the beautiful style of writing. This book was very reminiscent of Juliet Mariller’s writing, and I really couldn’t give out a better compliment than that! It is lyrical and heart-wrenching, perfectly painting the picture of life in this early part of history in Britain. It’s the kind of thing that is hard to pin down; somehow the style of writing itself lends a sense of atmosphere to the story.

I also really liked the setting and time period of this book. It’s set in early AD Britain where Roman influence and invasion has been ebbing and flowing for a while. I don’t know much about this time period, so I can’t speak to the historical accuracy of the story. The author does include a good note at the end which does detail some of the historical influences behind the work. But beyond that, again perhaps due to the strength of the writing, it was easy to sink into the time and place being presented, even when elements of this life felt completely foreign.

I also like Ailia as the main character. The book is written in first person from her point of view, so it is quick and easy to fall into line with her character. While the general outline of her story isn’t the most original (outsider comes into her own power as a central figure in a growing conflict), I was still invested in her arc throughout the story. The idea of “skins” was also very intriguing, especially in connection with how Ailia sees herself and how other see her.

Now for the downsides. This book is dark. Very, very dark. Right from the start the reader is thrown into a pretty violent scene. And given the nature of the story, the lifestyle, and the growing conflict, this violence does continue to pop up throughout the story. Typically I’m not overly squeamish about violence, and it never felt gratuitous or glorified here. In fact, I would even say that this violence was part of what made the book feel so grounded in the time period and events that it was trying to depict. So, again, I think it was largely that I was just surprised by it and wasn’t in a good emotional place to read about some of these topics. Perhaps re-reading it later I wouldn’t struggle as I did here. And other readers may not have the same qualms I did.

My one other struggle with the book has to do with the ending, so this is obviously a hugely subjective problem. For me, the ending was of the sort that left me more focused on the grim nature of the story than on the beauty of the writing. It felt incredibly realistic, but it was the kind of reality that I didn’t necessarily want to be left with at the end of a story. I guess I needed a bit more light to counterbalance all of the brutality, and for me, the book just ended on yet another grim note.

It’s hard to rate and review books when you struggle with how they end. Obviously, that’s the last experience I had of the book, and it wasn’t an overly positive one. I’m definitely curious to see where the sequel goes from here. There is a chance that, depending on how that book goes, the ending of this one might be retroactively improved for me. And all of this to say, my qualms with this one were very much based on my own preferences. Overall, the writing, story, and characters are all strong. It was just too much darkness for me. Readers who aren’t put off by that and enjoy atmospheric historical fiction (with a dash of fantasy, of course!) will likely enjoy this.

Rating 7: A reader’s case of “it’s not you; it’s me.”

Reader’s Advisory:

“Skin” is on these Goodreads lists: “Coming of Age Stories” and “Books for the INFJ.”

Find “Skin” at your library using Worldcat!

Blog Tour: “Song of the Crimson Flower”

Blog Tour Banner

32605126._sy475_Book: “Song of the Crimson Flower” by Julie C. Dao

Publishing Info: Philomel, November 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Book Description: Will love break the spell? After cruelly rejecting Bao, the poor physician’s apprentice who loves her, Lan, a wealthy nobleman’s daughter, regrets her actions. So when she finds Bao’s prized flute floating in his boat near her house, she takes it into her care, not knowing that his soul has been trapped inside it by an evil witch, who cursed Bao, telling him that only love will set him free. Though Bao now despises her, Lan vows to make amends and help break the spell.

Together, the two travel across the continent, finding themselves in the presence of greatness in the forms of the Great Forest’s Empress Jade and Commander Wei. They journey with Wei, getting tangled in the webs of war, blood magic, and romance along the way. Will Lan and Bao begin to break the spell that’s been placed upon them? Or will they be doomed to live out their lives with black magic running through their veins?

In this fantastical tale of darkness and love, some magical bonds are stronger than blood.

Review: First off, I would like to send out a big thanks for being included in the blog tour for this book! It’s always great to be included in a collaboration between between authors, publishers, and bloggers. I hadn’t read any other books by this author, but “Forest of a Thousand Lanterns” has been on my TBR pile for a long time (this is more a reflection of how out of control my TBR pile is than anything about the book itself). But this recent release seemed like a great time to jump on the bandwagon, and here I am! Fully on board!

Lan’s future is simple: marry the man she loves who just so happens to love her back and to be a perfectly appropriate match, thank you very much. Problem is, that man is not who she thinks and when Bao, a lowly apprentice, makes this known to her, the exchange doesn’t go well for either. When a witch’s curse binds the two together once more, Bao and Lan find themselves on an adventure that involves not only Bao’s mysterious origins but catches them up in the maneuverings of rulers and countries, bringing with it a few familiar faces from previous books.

There were many things to love about this book. For me, one of the best part was the fairytale-like nature of the story. It’s well-documented that this type of fantasy is one of my favorites, and it’s all the more exciting when I stumble across one that is unique, rather than just a re-telling of the ever popular “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cinderella.” While I do wish the rules of the curse itself had been fleshed out a bit more, I did like the fact that, while new, much of it was based on familiar staples of fairytales: a curse involving a witch, some type of magical object, family ties, and, of course, love as a cure. But while these elements on their own were wholly original, I think the way the author incorporated them into her original world lent them a feeling of freshness.

I think this was especially clear in the way the cure played out and the romance at the heart of the story. While the two characters have known each other since childhood, the beginning of the book makes it clear that they each saw this friendship very differently. And when the truth of the original romance is revealed, each behave poorly (most especially Lan). From there, the romance really begins to build as each has to get to know the real version of the other, metaphorical “warts” and all. I really enjoyed the slow burn of this love story. Aside from the lovely romance at the heart of it, the way their story developed allowed for each character to go through a lot of self discovery, exploring themes of forgiveness, patience, and understanding.

As I haven’t read the other stories by this author, I wasn’t familiar with some of the characters who showed up here but had clearly been the main characters in previous books. Readers familiar with those books will likely get a lot more out of these appearances than I did. But I can say that this book is also fully capable of standing alone and introducing these characters and this world on its own. While I may not have had any previous attachment, I was never confused or felt like more reading was necessary to understand the players at the table.

The world-building was also very interesting. And for being such a short book, I was impressed by how fully fleshed out this world was. To top that off, the secondary plot of the story (I would argue that the romance is mostly the main plot) was interesting and had many twists and turns. A mysterious illness, an illegal plant/drug, and, of course, how Bao is connected to it all. Even if I was there mostly for the relationship drama, there were enough other things going on to keep me on my toes.

I really enjoyed this story. It’s a fresh, fairytale fantasy with a sweet romance at its heart. Fans of the author’s other books will likely be happy with this one and pleased to see familiar faces. However, readers new to the story will have an easy introduction to the world and characters. Those looking for a lovely, standalone fairytale are sure to be happy with this one!

Rating 8: Sweet and unique, this story was lovely from start to finish.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Song of the Crimson Flower” is on these Goodreads lists: “Apprentices” and “Fairy tales & Retellings.”

Find “Song of the Crimson Flower” at your library using Worldcat!

Check out these other stops on the blog tour!

Week One

November 4 – Velarisreads – Review + Creative Instagram Picture

November 5 – A Gingerly Review – Dream Cast

November 6 – Love.books.and.coffee – Creative Instagram Picture

November 7 – Lovely Loveday – Review

Week Two

November 11 – Old.enough.for.fairytales – Creative Instagram Picture

November 12 – Confessions of a YA Reader – Author Q&A

November 13 – Library Ladies – Review

November 14 – The Paige-Turner – Creative Instagram Picture + Tumblr post

Serena’s Review: “Flamebringer”

40401975Book: “Flamebringer” by Elle Katharine White

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, November 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Book Description: Monsters, manners, and magic combine in this exciting final volume in the Heartstone Trilogy—an exhilarating blend of epic fantasy and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice—in which a fearless healer and her dragon-riding husband must stop a reawakened evil from destroying their world.

It starts with the inconceivable: Wydrick, sworn enemy of the Daireds, is back from the dead, possessed by a ghast that grants him immortality and inhuman strength. From the isolated northern mountains, Aliza, Alastair, and Akarra chase him into the dangerous Old Wilds, realizing too late that he’s led them into a blizzard. Before he vanishes, Wydrick utters a warning: A terrible, ancient evil has awoken, hungry for blood, and is headed their way.

The danger is closer than they know. The Tekari—sworn enemies of humans—are openly roaming the kingdom and are headed towards the capital, Edonarle. Then unexpected news arrives: riding like a dark dragon on the winds from the south, an ambassador from the Silent King of Els, has left the shores of the distant desert kingdom for the first time in centuries.

Unknown enemy? Or unexpected ally? Plunged into a dangerous world of royal intrigue and ancient grudges, Aliza and Alastair soon realize it will take more than steel and dragonfire to save their kingdom. For the silence of Els hides a secret that could shake House Daired to its foundations, and the time has come to settle accounts.

Silence, it seems, is about to be broken.

Previously Reviewed: “Heartstone” and “Dragonshadow”

Review: As I mentioned in the post for the giveaway for “Flamebringer,” this series kind of came out of nowhere in many unexpected ways. Not only did it manage the difficult task of adapting “Pride and Prejudice” into an original fantasy story without losing the foundations of the former or sacrificing the freshness of the latter, but it produced an equally compelling sequel that was completely new. The second book went further to explore some challenging topics while also expanding on the original concepts set up in the first book. It also set up this third book. So, first chance I got, obviously I read it!

After the dire warning/threat from Wydrick, Aliza and Alistair attempt to make their way home and gather a council of war. On the way, they encounter various other mysterious parties, all with their own whispers of an evil stirring. History, it appears, holds secrets. Some on the grand scale, and some much more close to home. Will Aliza, Alistair and Akarra be able to piece together the puzzle in time? Or is the ancient evil that is coming beyond even the scope of House Daired?

While about average in length for a fantasy novel, this one sure packed a lot in. From my perspective, this was both a good and bad thing. It was definitely not lacking in story, plot, or action. But at times it also felt as if the author had crammed two books into this one. Both books were interesting, but at times the story felt disjointed and overwhelming.

For one thing, the story picks up immediately where the previous one left off. I’ve read both of the first books right when they came out, so there hasn’t been any delay in my read of this series other than the one that came with its own publication schedule. And yet I still found myself having to re-read sections to re-orient myself with this story. Part of this is due to the fact that the world is so fully formed and unique. There’s a lot going on with different places, peoples, histories, and religions. This is definitely a good thing, but it did make the story a bit challenging to focus in on.

This struggled isn’t helped by the fact that the first half of the book sees our main trio off on a few mini adventures. On their own, these events are exciting, a bit creepy, and give even more depth to the world that we’re in. They also sprinkle in more clues as to what the greater conflict may be. But they also add more things to keep track of. And throughout these action pieces, we also have the emotional repercussions of the last book still playing out for Aliza and Alistair, as well as some new, shocking information for them both. Again, great character development, but even more story points.

By the middle of the book, the main story does feel as if it is getting started, and once the final conflict begins, the story is off and running. The second book definitely introduced a darker theme to this series, and this one is quick to take that torch and run even further with it. As I mentioned, several sections were pretty spooky and the threat presented deals real damage to our characters. I whizzed through this last section of the book, intrigued and yet dreading every page turn.

As a final book, I do feel that this one perhaps bit off more than it could chew. There was just so much! The mystery of what is going on isn’t revealed until quite near the end of the book and it wasn’t a simple explanation by any means. Between trying to wrap my mind around that, while also getting through the emotional character arcs of our characters, I felt a bit overwhelmed. After the book was finished, I found myself looking back on it and still not feeling as certain portions of it were fully resolved or that I fully understood how it all fit together.

It was almost an excess of good things, in the end. I enjoyed it all, but felt that it might have all worked a bit better had it been given two books. The second book in the series was a neat little mystery of its own that laid some ground work for the larger conflict of the series. This, too, could have been a nice third book that contained its own smaller story (the first half of the book has several portions that could have been expanded out further, I feel) while laying even more groundwork. This would have left a final book with more room to really breathe and fully dive into the complicated history and conflict of the threat looming on the horizon. So, too, it would have given a bit more resolution to our main characters.

The strengths of the first two books are definitely still here, however. I still loved Aliza as our main character and the ways she finds to contribute to a battle that she is not well-equipped to fight (not being raised a warrior). I also liked that we saw a return of several characters from the first book who were absent in the second.

Overall, I did very much enjoy this book. My main complaint seems like a weird one, that there was almost too many good things here. I do think, perhaps, the book would read better if being picked up immediately after the second. Had I not needed to spend as much time re-orienting myself in the beginning, some of these feelings of being overwhelmed may not have lingered as long. Mostly, I think the trilogy as a whole is a great success and that this book is best viewed as a segment of that. If you haven’t already, make sure to enter our giveaway to win your copy!

Rating 8: Best appreciated as part of a larger whole, but still a thrilling conclusion to the series!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Flamebringer” is on this Goodreads list: “Jane Austen variations published in 2019.”

Check out “Flamebringer” from your library using Worldcat!

Giveaway: “Flamebringer”

40401975Book: “Flamebringer” by Elle Katharine White

Publication Info: Harper Voyager, November 12, 2019

Book Description: Monsters, manners, and magic combine in this exciting final volume in the Heartstone Trilogy—an exhilarating blend of epic fantasy and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice—in which a fearless healer and her dragon-riding husband must stop a reawakened evil from destroying their world.

It starts with the inconceivable: Wydrick, sworn enemy of the Daireds, is back from the dead, possessed by a ghast that grants him immortality and inhuman strength. From the isolated northern mountains, Aliza, Alastair, and Akarra chase him into the dangerous Old Wilds, realizing too late that he’s led them into a blizzard. Before he vanishes, Wydrick utters a warning: A terrible, ancient evil has awoken, hungry for blood, and is headed their way.

The danger is closer than they know. The Tekari—sworn enemies of humans—are openly roaming the kingdom and are headed towards the capital, Edonarle. Then unexpected news arrives: riding like a dark dragon on the winds from the south, an ambassador from the Silent King of Els, has left the shores of the distant desert kingdom for the first time in centuries.

Unknown enemy? Or unexpected ally? Plunged into a dangerous world of royal intrigue and ancient grudges, Aliza and Alastair soon realize it will take more than steel and dragonfire to save their kingdom. For the silence of Els hides a secret that could shake House Daired to its foundations, and the time has come to settle accounts.

Silence, it seems, is about to be broken.

Previously Reviewed: “Heartstone” and “Dragonshadow”

Giveaway Details: I’m super excited to read this book! It’s pretty fantastic to see a what started out as a stand-alone fantasy novel turn into such an excellent series. I remember when I first heart about “Heartstone” I was pretty skeptical about the entire concept. I’ve been burned a few too many times on “‘Pride and Prejudice’ but with BLANK!!!” book pitches way too many times. And this one sounded like one of the more bizarre takes? Mr. Darcy rides a…a…dragon?? And Mr. Bingley also rides a magical beast? Something about a giant evil worm? And somehow it’s still “Pride and Prejudice??” Sounded super weird. But never say I’m not happy to be surprised! I loved the heck out of the first book; it was familiar enough to its source material to be recognizable but was in no means beholden to the same story and versions of the characters that came with it

And then there was a second! And here we really got to see the strength of the original world-buiding and= characterization that White had started in the first one. Freed of the trappings of retelling the classic tale, Aliza and Alistair were free to begin adventures of their own as a married couple. All of the wonderful fantasy elements were back and somehow the stakes seemed even higher. In many ways, this book was much darker than its predecessor. But what I appreciated the most about this second book was how it dealt with Aliza’s transition into the Rider way of life, one much more full of danger and uncertainty than her previous life. It also explored a pretty challenging and emotional topic in an incredibly thoughtful manner.

The story did end with some hints about what was to come here in the third story. But so far I’ve been so off-base with expectations of these books that I’m hesitant to even make any guesses as to where the story will ultimately go. I’m excited to find out though!

My review of “Flamebringer” will go up this Friday, and in anticipation, we’re offering a giveaway for the book starting today. The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends November 13.

Click here to enter!

Serena’s Review: “Newt’s Emerald”

24737347Book: “Newt’s Emerald” by Garth Nix

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, October 2015

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

Book Description: On her eighteenth birthday, Lady Truthful, nicknamed “Newt,” will inherit her family’s treasure: the Newington Emerald. A dazzling heart-shaped gem, the Emerald also bestows its wearer with magical powers.

When the Emerald disappears one stormy night, Newt sets off to recover it. Her plan entails dressing up as a man, mustache included, as no well-bred young lady should be seen out and about on her own. While in disguise, Newt encounters the handsome but shrewd Major Harnett, who volunteers to help find the missing Emerald under the assumption that she is a man. Once she and her unsuspecting ally are caught up in a dangerous adventure that includes an evil sorceress, Newt realizes that something else is afoot: the beating of her heart.

Review: After reading “Angel Mage,” I found myself on a bit of a Garth Nix kick, as I had been clearly reminded just how much I enjoyed his writing. Not wanting to bite off the large task of re-immersing myself in the “Sabriel” world and series, I was happy to come across this short-and-sweet, standalone fantasy!

Lady Truthful, or “Newt,” is due a large inheritance, but more important than the money is a priceless, magical heirloom, an emerald with unknown but great powers. When the emerald is stolen from beneath her nose, Newt sets out on an adventure to recover it. Disguised as a man, she finds herself wandering dark alleyways at night and aboard ships raging through storms. And as a woman, she is caught up in an even more dangerous endeavor: a young woman debuting for her first season in London! By her side she finds the mysterious Major Harnett who also might be hiding his own secrets.

This was a strange little book. And really, I think that’s where many of its strengths and weaknesses lie, with how little it is. From my research, it seems that this was originally written as a novella and then expanded out into a full-length, albeit still short, book. Reading it, it is easy to see these backbones through what we are presented here. Everything that is given is excellent: a solid main character, a firm touch on both the genres its straddling (fantasy and historical romance), and a succinct, but clear, storyline. And I enjoyed it all. However, I do wish there had been a bit…more of everything.

In some ways, it feels that this was a novel born from a writing exercise on Nix’s part. That he went into the story wanting to dabble in historical romance, but, being a fantasy author, wanted to include his own trademark worldbuilding and fantastical elements to the standard elements. Perhaps readers not familiar with his other works would be less surprised by this book, but for those of us who have read those, this book feels remarkably light on the fantasy. There is the titular emerald, of course, and it seems that characters in this world are prone to having some level of magical abilities themselves. The ins and outs of these abilities, their range, scope, or power, is never really explored and the few times we see people use them, there isn’t much there other than a flash and bang. From an author that I know is capable of writing complex and thorough magic systems, it ended up reading a bit bland.

The characters themselves fared better, though even here it seemed we were getting only modestly adjusted variations on the stock historical romance characters one often sees. Newt’s time spend dressed as a man is a saving grace for her character, raising her above the tropes that often befall historical romance heroines. I particularly enjoyed the time spent between her and the love interest when she was still thought to be a man and their friendship began to develop.  Once the secret was outed, the story fell quickly back into the more expected beats of a romance.

There was a strange moment, however, when the reader is allowed to see behind the curtain on the Major’s side of things. I’m not quite sure what the goal of this inclusion was, but from my perspective it took the bite out of a few of the mysteries at the heart of the story. Newt has her own secrets, but so does the Major. Being privy to the truth before our main character quickly defangs many of the conflicts and makes Newt’s own agonizing and confusion read as more of a bore, knowing the truth and likely outcomes ourselves already.

Again, this isn’t meant to be all critical. I did enjoy the romance, it was sweet and funny. The action and adventure was probably the strongest portion of the story, with several good chase scenes and fights. And the writing was perfectly matched to the Recency romance style that Nix was clearly attempting to reference, most especially noticeable in the dialogue, which was witty and fun. Most of this seems due to the length of the story; it’s simply too short to fully flesh out all of its characters or expand on the magical system and world to the extent that I might have wished. It was a quick read, however, and a fun story. Readers who are looking for a light, beach-read-like story will likely enjoy this. Just don’t go into it expecting to see the full power of Nix’s abilities on display.

Rating 7: Reads a bit more like a primer of Nix’s work than as a fully completed work of its own.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Newt’s Emerald” is on these Goodreads lists: “Fantasy of Manners” and “Girls Disguised as Boys.”

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Serena’s Review: “In the Woods”

46650269._sy475_Book: “In the Woods” by Carrie Jones and Steven E. Wedel

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, July 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: It should have been just another quiet night on the farm when Logan witnessed the attack, but it wasn’t.

Something is in the woods.
Something unexplainable.
Something deadly.

Hundreds of miles away, Chrystal’s plans for summer in Manhattan are abruptly upended when her dad reads tabloid coverage of some kind of grisly incident in Oklahoma. When they arrive to investigate, they find a witness: a surprisingly good-looking farm boy.

As townsfolk start disappearing and the attacks get ever closer, Logan and Chrystal will have to find out the truth about whatever’s hiding in the woods…before they become targets themselves. 

Review: This was kind of a whim request on my part. The description itself sounds more like the kind of book Kate would typically read than me. But I knew I’d need to have a few scary-ish stories lined up for October to at least pretend to be in the season of things, so here we are! However, it turned out that this book was more closely aligned to my reading habits than I had thought. Alas, that didn’t necessarily translate into increasing my enjoyment of it.

Something or someone is attacking things in Logan’s rural hometown. First it was cattle, but now people are beginning to be attacked as well. And the killer is only growing more bold, coming literally out of the shadows to attack in broad daylight. When Chrystal and her father, a man who chases adventure, arrive on the scene, they team up with Logan and his family to try and catch whomever or whatever is behind these mutilations. And as Logan and Chrystal grow steadily closer to each other romantically, and closer to the truth of the mystery, they soon find themselves no longer the hunters, but now the hunted.

So this was a tricky book for me. It’s so different than what I thought it would be that it’s hard to know how much of my experience was due to my expectations and how much was due to the book just not hitting the mark for me. It’s a strange twist, however, when the fact that I had thought I was intentionally reading out of my preferred genre somehow backfired when I found out I was actually reading more within it. I’m not quite sure what the marketing decisions were behind why this book was presented as it was, but I definitely went in thinking it was going to be some type of creepy, YA, serial killer story. Nope! Much more aligned with monster horror and cryptozoology stories. And yeah, on the face of it, those are my thing, but something about the way it was presented here just didn’t click for me.

Really, I don’t think it had anything to do with the monster angle. Yeah, I was looking for serial killer, but let’s face it, I’m not super dedicated to that or anything. My bigger problems had to do with the story itself and its two main character. There are hints of good characters here, but the writing itself let them down. The dialogue was almost laughable at times, and their relationship falls into the worst traps of instalove. They literally first meet and “feel a connection.” Not only is this not interesting, but it’s the laziest kind of romance building. No need to establish why two characters come together when they both “just know” instantly! Done, hard work finished. Now onto the mushy stuff! Ugh. My feelings about instalove have been well-established, so I’ll stop there.

The plot itself was rather lackluster. Sure, there were some fun, tense scenes sprinkled here and there, but there were too many moments where things happened that didn’t make sense or stretched my sense of plausibility beyond enjoyment. Much of the mystery is telegraphed to the reader pretty early in the story, so the reader is often ahead of the characters in terms of reveals. This is all made harder due to the writing which was just kind of banal. As I mentioned before, the dialogue was the real problem; didn’t read as natural which made it a constant distraction.

In the end I think it was six of one as to why this book didn’t click for me. On one hand, it wasn’t what I expected and contemporary stories featuring instalove have to be up there on my “most disliked” list. On the other hand, the strained writing and lackluster plot didn’t recommend it to me either. Readers who are more interested in contemporary YA and monster stories (notably NOT serial killers) might enjoy this. But I also think there are better options out there doing similar things.

Rating 5: Right down the middle of my rating system and largely forgettable.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“In the Woods” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Cryptofiction.”

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