Serena’s Review: “Flamecaster”

Flamecaster Book: “Flamecaster” by Cinda Williams Chima

Publishing Info: HarperCollins, April 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Adrian sul’Han, known as Ash, is a trained healer with a powerful gift of magic—and a thirst for revenge. The son of the queen of the Fells, Ash is forced into hiding after a series of murders throws the queendom into chaos. Now Ash is closer than he’s ever been to killing the man responsible, the cruel king of Arden. As a healer, can Ash use his powers not to save a life but to take it?

Abandoned at birth, Jenna Bandelow was told the mysterious magemark on the back of her neck would make her a target. But when the King’s Guard launches a relentless search for a girl with a mark like hers, Jenna assumes that it has more to do with her role as a saboteur than any birth-based curse. Though Jenna doesn’t know why she’s being hunted, she knows that she can’t get caught.

Eventually, Ash’s and Jenna’s paths will collide in Arden. Thrown together by chance and joined by their hatred of the king, they will come to rescue each other in ways they cannot yet imagine.

Review: I had read and thoroughly enjoyed Chima’s “Seven Realms” series, so I was very excited to hear that she was returning to that world for a second go with a new cast of characters from the next generation. From past experience, series that are set in the same world, but later in time, can be very hit or miss. It’s hard to not want to spend time with the characters I am already familiar with and the jump in time can come with some nasty surprises. While I enjoyed “Flamecaster,” I did fall prey to this type of disappointment when comparing it to the last story and featured characters.

Right off the bat, I was reminded why I enjoyed the first set of books. Chima’s world building is solid, and it was very easy to slip back into this time, place, and culture even with the years that have passed since I finished the last book. Much of this book is set in the kingdom of Arden, now ruled by the tyrant King that Raina, the Wolf Queen of the Fells and one of the main characters from the first series, refused to marry 25 years ago. Things have not improved since. He’s still busy rounding up, burning or collaring the magic users of his kingdom while conducting  a long, drawn out war with the Fells. It hasn’t been going well, but he is anything if not persistent.

Here enters Jenna, a coal miner, orphan, and rebel with a personal vendetta against the King. Unfortunately, rebel!Jenna is the most interesting part of her character and we get very little of that in this book. Her secret and forgotten past play a large part in driving this story, but we only get a few tidbits of answers towards the end of the story. And in the meantime, she is largely a pawn stored away in a dungeon through significant chunks of the book. For a character with mysterious abilities and a penchant for blowing things up, I wish we had gotten more from her.

Ash, the other main character mentioned in the description, is the son of Raina and Han, our protagonists from the first series. His story starts off with the type of tragic happenings that I always dread from next-generation-stories. But as a character, he was fairly enjoyable. His magic and personality are distinctly different than his father’s, which is important in a character who could have easily read as Han 2.0. We spend more time with Ash and that alone makes his story line more enjoyable than Jenna’s. Though, here too, I didn’t feel like he was as fully fleshed out as either Raina or Han were from the first series.

What wasn’t mentioned in the book description and what surprised me as I read is the fact that Jenna and Ash are not the only protagonists of this book. Lo and behold, there are two other characters whose perspectives are given a decent amount of page time: smuggler and quick witted, Lila, and Destin, a mage and spymaster working for the King of Arden. Destin only has a very few chapters, so I don’t have much to say about him. He serves his purpose, but didn’t add a lot to the story, in my opinion. Lila, however, is by far my favorite character in the book. She is the most action-oriented, we see her weaving in between all of the other characters with ease and skill, and her personality reads the strongest on the page. In all honesty, while events at the end of this book make it clear why Jenna will be serious player in the future, I finished this story kind of wanting Lila to me our main female protagonist.

So, while I enjoyed aspects of this book, there were some disappointments as well. As I’ve highlighted a bit here, many of the main characters simply weren’t as engaging as I would have wanted. I remember that the first book in the “Seven Realms” series also seemed a bit lackluster only to vastly improve with the three following books, so I’m hopeful that that will prove true with this series as well. However, while I love the addition of Lila, I’m concerned that balancing four perspectives and characters may ultimately weaken my attachment to each. I finished this book not really caring about Destin or Jenna, and mildly interested in Ash (and a lot of that interest still has to do with his connection to the characters from the previous book.) Still love Lila, though.

The other major detractor that has to be mentioned is a very, very unfortunate bout of instalove. If I was going to mention one thing that made the “Seven Realms” series stand out to me amongst the plethora of YA fantasy series, it would be the solid characterization and slow build of its main romantic pairing. Each book read as a solid step in Raina and Han’s relationship, from mere acquaintances who really know nothing of the truth about one another even at the end of the first book, to casually dating with the struggles that come with that, to a serious relationship by the end. And here, in this new series, we get one of the worst examples of an instalove relationship that I cam remember. And I’ve read a lot, so that’s saying something. Again, part of me hopes that there will be some explanation for the rush of this in the first book, perhaps they’re not meant to be together and things will get switched up (go Lila!)? I’m not sure. But if this relationship is supposed to read as a main fixture in the story, this was not a good start.

All in all, this wasn’t the strong return to this world that I was hoping for. However, there were enough elements to keep me reading, and my previous experience with the slow start of the other series leaves me hopeful that this will grow in much the same way.

Rating 6: Decent, but some of the characters were disappointing and the instalove was maddening.

Reader’s Advisory:

This book isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but I would highly recommend reading the “Seven Realms” series by the same author. It isn’t necessary to appreciate this book, but I loved it and would recommend it simply for its own worth.

Find “Flamecaster” at your library using Worldcat!

 

 

 

Serena’s Review: “The Last Mortal Bond”

The Last Mortal Bond Book: “The Last Mortal Bond” by Brian Staveley

Publishing Info: Tor, March 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: The ancient csestriim are back to finish their purge of humanity; armies march against the capital; leaches, solitary beings who draw power from the natural world to fuel their extraordinary abilities, maneuver on all sides to affect the outcome of the war; and capricious gods walk the earth in human guise with agendas of their own.

But the three imperial siblings at the heart of it all–Valyn, Adare, and Kaden–come to understand that even if they survive the holocaust unleashed on their world, there may be no reconciling their conflicting visions of the future.

Spoilers for the first two books in the series.

Review: As I said in my review of the previous books (see end of post for links), Staveley went to great lengths to create a tangled mess of misunderstanding, dueling motivations, and confusion with his first two books. And my question was simple: how? How was he going to resolve all of these dangling threads in a way that stayed true to what has been a compellingly honest, complicated but realistic story up to this point? My doubts have been rested, and sign me up for the Brian Staveley fan club. “The Last Mortal Bond” exemplifies nailing the landing in epic fantasy, by no means an easy feat.

Continuing my pattern from my review of the first two books, it is easiest to review this book by checking in with our main characters, the royal siblings, Adare, Valyn, and Kaden and Kettral leader, Gwenna.

Let’s start with Gwenna, shall we? I love Gwenna. She only had a few chapters in the last book, and there at first it felt a little strange to be in the head of a seemingly random second tier character. She still plays the same role in the narrative, as a character with an exciting, but largely insular, story arc. Between all the politics, magic, secrecy, and anger going on between the royal siblings, Gwenna’s chapters were a breath of fresh air. A problem was presented, the downfall of the Kettral training islands, and Gwenna and her team were deployed to solve it. I really enjoyed returning to this aspect of the story. In the first book, when Valyn was still in training, we learned a lot about the Kettral and the role they play in the Empire. However, in the second book, they and their giant falcons, were largely absent. It was thrilling to return to the islands, especially as seen through the eyes of Gwenna, a warrior who did not grow up with any expectations of leadership, but has had it thrust upon her and is more than capable of rising to the occasion. And the giant falcons were back. Always a plus.

It’s interesting how Staveley has set up different levels of stakes for his three main characters. Kaden’s story has been one with the highest level of stakes (the war to save humanity), Adare’s has been on the second level (the war to save Annur), and Valyn’s on the most insular level (the war to avenge himself and his family).

Kaden’s story continues to be the one that I have had the hardest time predicting. While throughout the story Adare has been focused on the greater good of the Empire, and Valyn has had a tendency to get caught up in the inner dynamics of whatever group he is in in the moment, Kaden has floated along the periphery, gathering knowledge and making unexpected decisions. For example, his decision to suddenly turn the Empire of Annur into a Republic in the last book. What a huge thing to decide, and so suddenly! I appreciate that Staveley didn’t try and make any political commentary here, which I was concerned with at first. This isn’t our world, and it becomes clear pretty early on in this book that while Kaden might have started from a very idealistic place, the powerful lords and ladies of Annur are not ready for the responsibility of truly ruling, instead focusing on power grabs and becoming mired in debate. So, too, in this book, Kaden’s journey is unexpected. Allying with Triste, who is understandably bitter and resentful of the role she has been thrust in, Kaden makes a desperate journey across the Empire in an effort to both contain the Gods who are walking the earth and also save them from the csestriim out to kill them, and thus, cripple humanity.

Adare remains my favorite character. As before, her practicality, ability to face tough choices, and general pizazz in face of it all, makes her a blast. Kaden could be frustrating with his idealism (come on, we all knew that handing over power to bunch of whining aristocrats was never going to be a good idea) and Valyn could get too caught up in his missions to take a step back and realize the larger implications of his decisions. And it makes sense that it would be this way. Valyn and Kaden grew up largely disconnected from the Empire. Adare, on the other hand, grew up at the foot of her father, by all accounts an incredibly successful ruler. But Adare’s failings are not swept away either. Her misjudgements come to bite her in the butt big time, specifically her choice to save the csestriim general il Tornja by stabbing Valyn.

Valyn’s story was a stumbling block for me, this time around. He started as my favorite character in book one, was still highly entertaining in book two, but then seems to have taken an abrupt change of course in this book. I understand that his wounds were detrimental at the end of the last book, but his decision to isolate himself from his remaining Kettral Wing friends and sink into darkness came a bit out of left field. The reader is constantly told how dark, gritty, and angsty he has become, but it feels unearned. Out of the three siblings, Valyn was the one trained to believe in teamwork and reliance on others, so for him to be the one to sink so quickly into despair and reject human connection felt out of place. He suffers the most physically, it is true. But what has been the strength of the series, its ability to highlight the impossible choices they all have made, makes Valyn’s descent into self-loathing less palatable when compared to the other characters who are facing their own challenges, rather than running away and hiding. I felt myself often growing frustrated with him and wishing that the Flea would show up to slap some sense into him.

“The Last Mortal Bond” does an incredible job of wrapping up this series. I highly recommend it, and the whole “Unhewn Throne” series, to any reader who enjoys epic fantasy. Especially those looking for a series that wraps up nicely in only three books, which is practically unheard of at this point and is frankly a relief!

Rating 8: Great conclusion to a great trilogy! There were a few stumbling blocks, particularly Valyn’s odd character decisions, but other than that, I love it!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Mortal Bond” is very new so is on very few lists. As I particularly highlighted my love of it as the conclusion to a series, it is included in this Goodreads list: “End of Series in 2016”

Find “The Last Mortal Bond” at your library using WorldCat!

Previous Reviews of “The Empire’s Blades” and “The Providence of Fire.”

Serena’s Review: “The Providence of Fire”

The Providence of Fire Book: “The Providence of Fire” by Brian Staveley

Publishing Info: Tor, January 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: The conspiracy to destroy the ruling family of the Annurian Empire is far from over.

Having learned the identity of her father’s assassin, Adare flees the Dawn Palace in search of allies to challenge the coup against her family. Few trust her, but when she is believed to be touched by Intarra, patron goddess of the empire, the people rally to help her retake the capital city. As armies prepare to clash, the threat of invasion from barbarian hordes compels the rival forces to unite against their common enemy.

Unknown to Adare, her brother Valyn, renegade member of the empire’s most elite fighting force, has allied with the invading nomads. The terrible choices each of them has made may make war between them inevitable.

Between Valyn and Adare is their brother Kaden, rightful heir to the Unhewn Throne, who has infiltrated the Annurian capital with the help of two strange companions. The knowledge they possess of the secret history that shapes these events could save Annur or destroy it.

Spoilers for the first book “The Emperor’s Blades”

Review: The second book in Staveley’s “Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne” series is like one of those scenes that starts zoomed in a on kid playing, and then zooms back and the kid is in large park, and then zooms back and the park is in a huge city, and so on and so forth. What I’m saying is that the world building goes from complex to wait…what now?? But Staveley’s control of his narrative, world, and characters never stumbles under this added mythology. If anything, the strength of this series only grows with the additional challenges and complications thrown in the mix.

What is the most impressive about this series is Staveley’s ability to handle his three main characters. Kaden, Valyn, and Adare have a more equal balance this time, as far as page time goes. Each is traveling such a distinctive path. Kaden’s is a cerebral journey pealing back the mysteries of the Shin, the portal-like doorways of the kenta, and the history between the Csestriam, the gods they sought to kill, and humanity caught within a struggle between power players completely out of their league. Valyn’s journey continues as the most straight forward. He is a man of action, and action itself becomes his motivation. While Kaden and Adare spend much of their time balancing the intricacies of the pieces on the world-sized board, Valyn sets a goal and moves towards it, even if reaching that goal means aligning with the Urghul, the savage enemies of his own Empire. Adare, the politician, is forced to re-evalutate her own role in this crumbling world. Betrayed by her own general, Adare is driven out of her city in desperate attempt to gain allies and a find new foothold to combat the roving Urghul armies heading her direction.

What is so amazing about this balance is also what is so frustrating. Kaden, Adare, and Valyn all are seeing limited parts of the story and reacting in ways that are consistent to their worldviews and preferred operating methods. But these choices and stories conflict, setting the three up against each other with misunderstanding and suspicion. While reading each chapter, I could completely understand and sympathize with each character’s decisions. But then once I switched to the next chapter it became clear that no, this other character had the right idea about things.

As the story progresses, each character made decisions that made me want to shake them. However, I see this as a strength of the story. Staveley’s characters are flawed and limited by the knowledge they have and their own personalities and tendencies that lead them towards one decision or another. It was perhaps more uncomfortable if only because I think many fantasy readers are accustomed to our heroes and heroines quickly evolving into specific tropes. Kaden should be all-wise, calm, and reasoned. Valyn should be completely heroic, using violence in only the most esteemable ways. And Adare should be clever, easily wrapping her foes around her finger and springing elaborate traps. When they fail to behave as we expect, it’s frustrating, uncomfortable, and frankly, awesome.

This book also made a lot of strides to improve upon the last as far as page time and use of its female characters. Adare is given an equal portion of the story; in fact, hers becomes my favorite of the three siblings. And a new character, Gwenna, a member of Valyn’s group of Kestrel fighters, gets her own sprinkling of chapters. This was particularly welcome. As I said, the three siblings become very caught up in the increasingly complicated web that is the Empire, and it was a relief to read chapters from the very straight-forward thinking Gwenna. She was brash, sympathetic, and highly entertaining. So, too, Triste’s role in the story is greatly increased.

And, as I mentioned, the amazing world building cannot be over emphasized. Most epic fantasy relies on a complex historical past for its world. In this book, it becomes more and more clear that this history is not as understood as it was thought to be. Not only that, but history is still unraveling even in the present. The Csestriam, the old gods, the new gods, the mad, power-hungry leaches of centuries past, the Atmani. They all weave in and out of the story in completely unexpected ways. By the end of the book, I was left questioning everything I thought I had understood from the first book.

All told, “The Providence of Fire” only improved on what was an amazing fantasy epic to begin with. The added complexity of the world and the characters left me constantly guessing and re-evaluating my opinions. While the previous book had slow sections, particularly in the beginning with Kaden’s chapters, this story moves at full throttle from beginning to end. “The Emperor’s Blades” laid out the threads of each storyline, and “The Providence of Fire” tangled them all up into such a mess that I have no idea how Staveley is going to wrap this all up. But I do know that I’m looking forward to finding out!

Rating 9: So good! So worried about what’s coming next!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Providence of Fire” is included in this Goodreads list: “Must Read Epic Fantasy.”

Find “The Providence of Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Previous Review of “The Emperor’s Blades”

Serena’s Review: “City of Stairs”

City of Stairs Review: “City of Stairs” by Robert Jackson Bennett

Publishing Info: Broadway Books, September 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Years ago, the city of Bulikov wielded the powers of the Gods to conquer the world. But after its divine protectors were mysteriously killed, the conqueror has become the conquered; the city’s proud history has been erased and censored, progress has left it behind, and it is just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power. Into this musty, backward city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the quiet woman is just another lowly diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, Shara is one of her country’s most accomplished spymasters — dispatched to investigate the brutal murder of a seemingly harmless historian. As Shara pursues the mystery through the ever-shifting physical and political geography of the city, she begins to suspect that the beings who once protected Bulikov may not be as dead as they seem — and that her own abilities might be touched by the divine as well.

Review: This book is like a magical combination of everything I love to read.

Ingredients for Serena’s favorite reading experience:

  • a unique, fantasy setting
  • a compelling main character with a diverse and interesting set of companions
  • a mystery that is both challenging but has also been well laid out with clues
  • a good helping of action scenes
  • a dash of philosophy
  • a sprinkle of witty dialogue

Mix well and consume!

Bennett’s “City of Stairs” was a perfect concoction.

Honestly, this book was so good, I don’t even know where to start. Not only that, but the world that Bennett has created, its history, its peoples, its culture, is so elaborate and detailed that almost anything I say will be wildly, misleadingly, simplified. I guess I’ll try to just touch on a few of my favorite aspects.

The characters. I could probably list every single character here and just call it good. Shara was a great leading character. She’s reminiscent of a noir detective, combined with Hermione Granger, with the chops of James Bond. Her “secretary,” Sigrud is essentially a giant Viking with a dark past who’s taking names. Turyin Mulaghesh: grizzled war veteran. She just wants to retire on an island, but her inherent badassery is always going to get in the way. Vohannes, a Continental native whose political savvy and charm make him an indisposable ally or a disastrous foe. Aunt Vinya, the “M” of the Saypurian spy network. I could go on. Essentially, this cast is diverse, complex, and perfectly balanced. There wasn’t an unrealized character or point of view to be found.

But the real strength of this story is the intricate analysis of its world. There are two aspects that I most want to focus on: colonialism and religion. The relationship between the Continent and Saypur is laid out in a way that is so perfectly imperfect. The Continent, once the powerhouse of the world, invaded Saypur and enslaved its people for centuries. After their Gods fell at the hands of a Saypurian general, the Continent sunk into disrepair. Saypur has risen as the new center of culture and economics. Saypur has occupied the Continent and outlawed the Continent’s own history. What makes this balance so striking is the honest portrayal of the failings of countries. The line between the oppressor and the oppressed is constantly tested.

The real success here is the sadness this book evokes. The Continentals did terrible things. But the remnants of their history are laid slowly before you, the ruin of what once were glorious feats of architecture, and you can’t help but feel a sense of loss. This ability to balance the wonder, beauty, and terrible, sudden quenching of culture and people with the true horror that was the Continentals’ reign makes this book special.

The commentary on religion is even stronger. In a world where once Gods walked the earth and directly touched the lives of people, religion and faith have a different meaning. The sense of entitlement that can come with a belief system would inevitably become even more prevalent. The Continentals can see and interact with their Gods. Saypur is literally Godless. How can the Continentals not be blessed and meant to be the center of the world?

Beyond this, each God has his or her own set of beliefs, ways of interacting with their followers, and chosen method of influencing the world. Kolkan reflects a rule-based religion. Judgement and punishment is at its core. Olvos is the Goddess of light. Hers is a faith based in thinking for oneself and living a life of service. Jukov is a God of mischief. He’ll as likely bless you as turn you into a flock of birds. Life should be lived to its fullest and the chaos of the world embraced. Each of these Gods and their specific faith systems carry traces of the familiar. Buried within it all is a deeper discussion of power and where it lies. Does faith and religion carry meaning because of the power of its God or the power of its followers?

It’s hard to discuss much of this book without spoiling the best parts. For a story that takes place in a world where knowledge of its past is forbidden, the slow reveal of history, its lies and truths, is a huge factor in the reader’s enjoyment. I won’t ruin it for you!

Let it just be said, beyond having some really interesting things to say, there are also some truly fun adventures. Shara and Sigrud battle a sea monster. Sigrud battles ninjas. There are portals, there are magic carpets, there are mysterious cults and creepy beasts. Like I said at the beginning, everything I could possibly want!

Rating 10: Practically perfect in every way.

Reader’s Advisory:

“City of Stairs” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Sword and Laser Fantasy List” and “Diversity in Fantasy and Science Fiction.”

Find “City of Stairs” at your library using Worldcat!

 

Serena’s Review: “The Emperor’s Blades”

The Emperor's Blades

Book: “The Emperor’s Blades” by Brian Staveley

Publishing Info: Tor, January 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: The circle is closing. The stakes are high. And old truths will live again . . .

The Emperor has been murdered, leaving the Annurian Empire in turmoil. Now his progeny must bury their grief and prepare to unmask a conspiracy.

His son Valyn, training for the empire’s deadliest fighting force, hears the news an ocean away. He expected a challenge, but after several ‘accidents’ and a dying soldier’s warning, he realizes his life is also in danger. Yet before Valyn can take action, he must survive the mercenaries’ brutal final initiation.

Meanwhile, the Emperor’s daughter, Minister Adare, hunts her father’s murderer in the capital itself. Court politics can be fatal, but she needs justice. And Kaden, heir to an empire, studies in a remote monastery. Here, the Blank God’s disciples teach their harsh ways – which Kaden must master to unlock their ancient powers. When an imperial delegation arrives, he’s learnt enough to perceive evil intent. But will this keep him alive, as long-hidden powers make their move?

Review: It’s just a fact that a lot of high fantasy novel descriptions start sounding all the same over time. If you’ve read a lot of the genre, you immediately recognize staples in these summaries. Ruler’s death. Fight for the throne. Assassins. Mysterious religious/mystical figures. A forgotten past. And this isn’t a gripe about lack of creativity. If you pick up a horror novel or a science fiction novel, there will be a similar case with each. It’s just the nature of genre storytelling. If a reader loves a specific genre, chances are good that what they really love are these specific features common to that type of story. But there is a balancing act to be found between crafting these typical elements to support new and interesting characters and support creative world building and using them as a crutch. More and more, I am wary of the latter. So when I read the description for this book, I kind of sighed and thought, well, here we go! But not only was I wrong; I was so, so wrong. This is Brian Staveley’s first book, but “The Emperor’s Blades” reads like it is already a fantasy classic.

The narrative is split between the lately deceased Emperor’s three children: the youngest and heir to the throne, Kaden, the oldest child and only daughter, Adare, and the middle son, Valyn. So, from the get go, Staveley sets himself up with a challenge. Three perspectives ranging in age, gender, and life experience is no easy task. Often I find myself strongly gravitating towards one narrative and wishing to flip quickly through the rest. And while I feel like I could rank the three stories in an order of preference, I truly did enjoy them all. If anything, a large part of my complaint has to do with unequal distribution. I wanted more from each character!

Specifically, I wanted more from Adare. Sadly, Adare only has a handful of chapters in this book which I felt did her story a disservice. The author is clearly attempting to set up these three storylines as parallel journeys  with each character taking a unique path and answering different questions in the mystery of what happened to their father, the Emperor, and what political mechanisms are in play in the Empire. And Adare is the politician, the daughter who has grown up in the capital city, learning at her father’s knee from birth. But she is not the heir, and after her father’s death, she discovers he has placed her in a political role not typically held by women. Struggling to find allies and unravel the truth behind her father’s cryptic messages, Adare’s story seems central to the larger tale being started with this book. Not only is her position so clearly important, but her practical, no-nonsense approach and savvy political mind were fascinating to read about. A few chapters weren’t enough!

Kaden’s story, on the other hand, is the slow burn in an otherwise fast-moving story. As customary for the heir in the Empire, he has spent the majority of his life being raised far away from the capital by a holy order of monks. This was a fascinating swap in typical fantasy tropes. Kaden spends a large part of his narrative discussing the peaceful, meditative practices that he has spent the last several years learning. Not only was I (a fantasy reader used to hearing all about a typical princelings learning fighting and politics in the middle of court drama) confused by Kaden’s segregation from his family and kingdom, but Kaden himself struggled to understand the value of his tutelage. This storyline was initially a bit slow for me. Kaden is the most cut off from the mayhem that comes from his father’s death, and as a character, he is drawn as a thoughtful, careful person. But while it might have taken a bit for me to become fully invested in his story, there was a big pay off in the end, and I am excited to see where Kaden goes next.

By far, the character with the most page-time and the most to do was the youngest son, Valyn. Valyn, too, has been growing up disconnected from his family and home. From a young age, he’s been training to be a member of the Empire’s most elite fighting force, a group of warriors whose primary skill set revolves around their ability to fly huge falcons. I mean, right there, you know this guy’s going to be fun. Valyn, also, is the first character to begin fully realizing the extent of the problems going on in the Empire following his father’s death which leads to a lot of exciting action. He also is surrounded by the most interesting tertiary characters. The other trainees provide for a very diverse look at the other people living in the Empire. The female members of his group also did a good job of making me feel slightly less disappointed in the small number of chapters that Adare was relegated. Valyn is probably the most typical character, as far as high fantasy goes. This is not necessarily a bad thing either. Like I said, genre readers like what they like. And by sandwiching his story in between Adare and Kaden, two far less typical high fantasy characters, Valyn’s familiarity works as a good balance point.

“The Emperor’s Blades” is the first in a trilogy, and it definitely reads like one. Major cliffhanger warnings! But luckily, the second book came out a while ago, and the third was just published this month. I’ll be diving into those immediately.

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Rating 8: Loved it. Wished there was more Adare, but I’ll by jumping right into the sequels, so hopefully I’ll find it there!

Reader’s Advisory: 

Getting on a bit of a soapbox here: I went to look up lists on Goodreads for this book and found not only one, but two lists that were titled something like “Best Fantasy Books for Guys.” There might have been even more, but after the first page included two of these lists, I stopped looking. Here is a pretty generic list that it’s on “Best New Fantasy Novel” and here are two articles worth checking out about gender and reading. Elaine Cunningham briefly discusses epic fantasy and the misconception of them as “boy’s books” here and Caroline Paul writes about how boys should read “girl’s books” here. Both really get to my main point: there is no such thing as “boy’s books” or “girl’s books.” People who like high fantasy will like “The Emperor’s Blades.”

Find “The Emperor’s Blades” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Rithmatist”

"The Rithmatist"Book: “The Rithmatist” by Brandon Sanderson

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, May 2014

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

Book Description from Goodreads: More than anything, Joel wants to be a Rithmatist. Rithmatists have the power to infuse life into two-dimensional figures known as Chalklings. Rithmatists are humanity’s only defense against the Wild Chalklings. Having nearly overrun the territory of Nebrask, the Wild Chalklings now threaten all of the American Isles.

As the son of a lowly chalkmaker at Armedius Academy, Joel can only watch as Rithmatist students learn the magical art that he would do anything to practice. Then students start disappearing—kidnapped from their rooms at night, leaving trails of blood. Assigned to help the professor who is investigating the crimes, Joel and his friend Melody find themselves on the trail of an unexpected discovery—one that will change Rithmatics—and their world—forever.

A “New York Times” Book Review Notable Children’s Book of 2013.

Review: Full disclosure: Brandon Sanderson is one of my all-time favorite authors. I think I’ve read almost everything he’s ever written, which is actually saying a lot as the man is known as a speedwriter. He published 2 novels just this year! And is writing another series that is made up of 900+ page books at the same time! I think he may have no life? Another fun fact, I got to meet him last year at a book signing here in Minneapolis!

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First and foremost, Sanderson is known for creating elaborate, unique magic systems. No lazy wand waving here! Rithmatics is comprised of a complicated system of chalk diagrams, essentially. As I was listening to the audiobook, each chapter would start with the narrator describing one diagram or another, all based around a system of circles. It was a bit challenging to picture it all: 9-point circles based on inscribed triangles, 2 point ellipses, jagged lines used for attacks, etc. But then, when clicking to hear the next chapter one time, I noticed that on the cover image it included illustrator information. *sigh* So, this was probably not the best book to be listening to as an audiobook. Live and learn! Considering that, I’m even more impressed by the fact that the narrator was mostly successful with these descriptions and that by the end of the book I had a fairly good understanding of the whole thing.

Essentially, Rithmatists are able to “activate” chalk drawings to accomplish different tasks. A circle is for protection, certain jagged lines can be used to break through circles, and you can draw “Chalklings,” little creatures who can be instructed to perform certain tasks, such as protecting a circle or attacking a circle. In school, Rithmatists will hold duels to practice these skills with the end goal of being prepared to guard the United Isles (in this world the United States is made up a series of islands based on state names essentially, like “New Britannia” and the “Floridian Isles”) from Wild Chalklings, vicious creatures that will attack and eat people if not warded off.

The whole concept was a very fun idea. It was even more fun to have our main protagonist, Joel, NOT be a Rithmatist, but instead a regular student who just happened to be obsessed with the whole idea and befriends a Rithmatics professor, Professors Finch, and student, Melody. This was a clever way of introducing the audience to the world, through a narrator who, while knowledgeable, is still an outsider like we are in many ways. Joel was a good protagonist, but a little flat, I felt. He seened a bit like a paper cutout version of a YA hero. Good enough, but his personality didn’t stand out to me in any really interesting ways.

However, Professor Finch and Melody were amazing! Professor Finch is the typical bumbling, wise mentor. Combine Dumbledore with Dobby and you get Finch. Wise, kindly, but not self-confident. And Melody had all of the personality that Joel lacked. An unskilled Rithatmatics student herself, Melody is also an outsider who is taken in by Professor Finch. She’s dramatic, witty, and just the right foil for straight-laced Joel. She also loves to draw unicorn Chalklings, much to Joel’s continuous dismay.

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“The unicorn is a noble and majestic creature!”

The mystery itself was good. There were a few moments towards the end where I began to think Sanderson was going to take the easy way out, and I’m glad to say he didn’t. For the most part, the revelations were a surprise.

One criticism I have, however, is that after reading this and the first book in Sanderson’s other YA series, “Steelheart” I’m beginning to think he struggles just slightly with adjusting his tone for YA. While overall I liked this book, Joel is not fully fleshed out, and in some ways this feels like a result of the author’s discomfort with writing teenage characters. The story itself suffers from a similar feeling of slight “offness.” Again, maybe a discomfort with not knowing how to tone down a story for young adult audiences? It’s very hard to put my finger on exactly what it was. But having read his other works, this just felt like slightly…less.

Overall, however, I still enjoyed this book and think it would be a great recommendation for fans of YA fantasy/sci fi.

Rating 6: Strong concept and fun story, but had a few weaknesses

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Rithmatist” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Most Unique, Original, and Interesting Magic Systems” and “The League of Extraordinary Kids.”

Find “The Rithmatist” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Court of Thorns and Roses”

A Court of Thorns and Roses Book: “A Court of Thorns and Roses” by Sarah J. Maas

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury’s Childrens, May 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: When nineteen-year-old huntress Feyre kills a wolf in the woods, a beast-like creature arrives to demand retribution for it. Dragged to a treacherous magical land she only knows about from legends, Feyre discovers that her captor is not an animal, but Tamlin—one of the lethal, immortal faeries who once ruled their world.

As she dwells on his estate, her feelings for Tamlin transform from icy hostility into a fiery passion that burns through every lie and warning she’s been told about the beautiful, dangerous world of the Fae. But an ancient, wicked shadow grows over the faerie lands, and Feyre must find a way to stop it… or doom Tamlin—and his world—forever.

Review:  Last year our bookclub read “Throne of Glass” by Sarah J. Maas. The series was wildly popular with young adults, so we were diligent and added it to our list. Long story short, I was not a fan. I’ll refrain from getting on my soapbox for that book, but I make no promises that it won’t get pulled out again later in this review! Either way, when I saw that Maas’s next book was going to be a fairytale retelling, and one of my favorites, I decided to give her another go.

Fairytale snob moment: this book is often referred to as a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling. But actually! It is more accurately retells the fairytale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” (“Beauty and the Beast” is a more recent retelling of this older story) in which a girl is stolen away by a polar bear king, and after failing to save him from his curse (in the traditional version she actually makes things worse), she must travel to an ogre queen’s castle and perform three impossible tasks to rescue her prince. It’s all quite lovely and romantic. I’ve always been particularly fond of this fairytale, especially the fact that it boils down to the prince being a damsel-in-distress who must be saved by the heroic maiden. Fun times!

So, first off, I really liked that aspect of this story. It does follow the fairytale in many ways while also adding its own creative twists. There were large segments in the middle and sections of the end where I was just breezing along enjoying the heck out of the story. Feyre is a great main character. She is flawed, but courageous. Her prejudices against fairies are given the proper amount of time to recede, and her emotional journey is believable. I particularly enjoyed a moment in the book where she has to completely readjust her opinions of her two sisters. In the beginning of the story, they are presented as the typical evil sisters that we are used to seeing in these kind of stories, and I was very disappointed that the book seemed to be going the “other women characters must be bad to make the heroine even more special” route. But, much to my surprise, this gets turned on its head in a way that is very emotionally satisfying.

The love story had the potential to be insta-love, but it was able to just walk that line enough that I bought it in the end. Your own tolerance level for that kind of thing will largely determine how successful this aspect of the story is. Tamlin is your typical hero, not much to say there, really. I honestly liked his companion Lucien much more.

But, as much as I loved parts of this book, I equally hated other parts. It was a very uncomfortable pendulum swing, honestly. I’m going to try to limit my rants, but man, some of the choices made in this book were so frustrating. First, there were small choices, like referring to women as “females,” that were so jarring that I almost put the book down.

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What is this decision? What does it add to the story overall to use this type of terminology that is so inherently dehumanizing? I mean, is it as simple as that? Some weird attempt to not use the word “woman” as a way to differentiate them as fairies rather than humans? If so, it doesn’t succeed. Especially when it is paired with another one of my biggest complaints about the book.

This might be a spoiler, but the section I’m going to talk about now ultimately has no affect on the plot, which is actually a large part of the complaint itself. Towards the middle of the book, Maas sets up this whole fairy festival which essentially boils down to Tamlin being “taken over” by magic until he’s a sex-crazed beast who must choose from a line of fairy females to sleep with that night to replenish the kingdom’s magic. It is so awful! Pair this thought with the overuse of the term “female” throughout the book. Maas has essentially lined up a bunch of fairy women, reduced them to “females” with no characteristics other than their function as a sex objects, and had her hero lose his humanity to beast magic, then select one of these women (she has no choice if she’s selected) to breed with. And Maas go further! Having Lucien explain the ritual to Feyre as unpleasant because Tamlin “won’t be gentle.” Umm…so icky. And at the end of the whole bit, there is zero, I repeat ZERO, impact on the ultimate story by having this scene. Other than, maybe, giving Tamlin an excuse to go all “dominant” and bite Feyre on the neck when she wanders out of her room the same night as this festival. Can you say “not worth it” loud enough? Especially since he goes back to being the sweet, caring love interest the reader is used to the very next day and for the remainder of the book. The whole thing is just gross.

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And sadly, this type of weird sexual objectification continues towards the end of the story with Feyre herself. I’ve always loved the ending of the original fairytale with the heroine attempting to complete her three impossible tasks. And, again, when this story is sticking to these origins, it’s very strong. I loved the tasks that were set up and Feyre’s struggles with them. So, why?! Why do we need to introduce what I can only assume is going to be the third character in the seemingly required love triangle, Rhys? A character who, even while helping Feyre through the tasks, in the mean time, has her dressed in lingerie each night, has her entire body painted so that he can tell if anyone else touches her, refers to her as his property, and then drugs her with fairy wine so she loses her senses and seductively dances in front of the entire fairy court and sprawls around on his lap. Again, I say, why?! What does any of this add to the story? Maas has already set up the fact that this court is terrible, and that Feyre is suffering getting through these trials. What does it add to have this element?

And, as these books can never just be stand alones, there is going to be a sequel, which this book sets up to strongly feature Rhys. Ugh. And this is where my main problem with this type of love triangle lies. Love option one: a man you’ve grown to love over months of time spent with him, someone who has proven his love to you through self-sacrifice and respect, and a person who you’ve now literally gone through hell to save. Love option two: a man who has, sure, helped you out a time or two, but in repayment has forced you to become his “love slave” essentially for two weeks every month for all eternity, and has dressed you up, drugged you, and humiliated you in front of hundreds of people. Yeah. Those are equal options. How could she ever choose?! It’s obnoxious. And yes, I see the clever Persephone/Hades thing you’re setting up there, Maas. It’s not cute.

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Ok, that was long. All in all, I was more upset by the fact that at times I was thoroughly enjoying this book. Honestly, if you just took out these bits I’ve mentioned you’d have a kickass fairytale retelling that I’d probably be raving about. But these other parts kept hitting like buckets of cold water being repeatedly dumped on my head throughout the story. Very disappointing.

Rating 4: The bad parts were a 1, but the fact that there was so much potential and parts I truly enjoyed, I bumped it up. Sadly, I couldn’t get past these flaws.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Court of Thorns and Roses” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Best Retellings of Beauty and the Beast”and “Best Books about Faeries.”

Find “A Court of Thorns and Roses” at your library using WorldCat!