Kate’s Review: “The Town Built On Sorrow”

34773852Book: “The Town Built on Sorrow” by David Oppegaard

Publishing Info: Flux, September 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Description: Welcome to the strange mountain foothills town of Hawthorn, where sixteen-year-old Harper Spurling finds herself increasingly obsessed with the diary of a local 1860s pioneer girl while a serial killer runs unchecked through the area, dumping his victims into the town’s dark river. As Harper’s curiosity leads her closer and closer to the killer, she’ll have to think fast or join the killer’s growing list of victims. Because in Hawthorn, a town built on sorrow, the barrier between life and death is as fragile as an old, forgotten skull.

Review: First and foremost I’d like to give a huge thank you to both NetGalley, for providing me with this book, and David Oppegaard, whose FB post pointed me towards the book on NetGalley in the first place.

We are officially kicking off Horrorpalooza, in which I try and keep my focus (mostly) on horror/scary stories for the month of October! October is my very favorite month because of Halloween, and I intend to honor it with tales to chill your bones and give you nightmares! So let’s begin!

A few years ago I took a horror writing class at a local writing workshop in downtown Minneapolis. My teacher was a man named David Oppegaard, who also happened to be a friend of a friend. Not only did I enjoy his class immensely, I still see David at Halloween and Christmas parties each year, in which we stand over various punch bowls and talk about any and all things. David has written a few books, his previous book “The Firebug of Balrog County” a Minnesota Book Award Nominee (and one that I quite enjoyed). While that one was more realistic/contemporary teen fiction, his newest book “The Town Built on Sorrow” is straight up horror/thriller, with a little historical fiction thrown in for good measure. It’s a combination that works pretty well, and sets up for a dreamy and atmospheric setting.

We follow the storylines of three characters. The first is Harper, an ambitious and driven high school girl living in the small town of Hawthorn. She has been obsessing over the diary of a pioneer girl who was part of the settling party of the town in the 1800s, named Sofie Helle. Right off the bat I thought this was pretty unique, as what YA novels as of late have shown their lady protagonists having a healthy interest in history? Perhaps there are some, but I haven’t read them. The second is Olav, an outsider from his peers at the high school is is also, spoiler alert but not really, a serial killer. The third is Sofie Helle herself, through not only her diary, but also flashbacks to see what the diary never did. Of the three, I probably liked Harper’s the most, just because she did feel like a pretty typical teenage girl, and her interests were of interest to me. And since we know that Olav is bad news, it was rife with tension when we saw her slowly getting to know him and becoming attracted to him. I really liked that aspect of the story, as the suspense about her wellbeing would teeter towards unbearable. I also liked the Sofie story, as the dangers and horrors of the prairie to the untrained interloper can have dire consequences. Right out of the gate a baby is taken and eaten by a wolf, which really got my attention. You know from the get go that Hawthorn is going to have a dark pall over it, and darkness is indeed oozing off the page. It’s definitely a dark, dark book, as death is always just within striking distance, and watching it slowly circle Harper in the form of Olav is distressing. And then when a strange dark form appears in a dark room part way through the book, well, the gothic tension just shuddered and oozed off of the page, and damn was it effective. The blend of real life horror and supernatural horror works well here, and I almost always imagined Hawthorn with a dense fog because of how Oppegaard builds it in the reader’s mind.

But while the atmospheric notes are tight and on point, the characters themselves, likable as some were, kind of fell a bit flat for me. I liked Harper enough but she didn’t really stand out too much outside of her interest in history. Olav gave me the creeps to be sure, but it was definitely rooted in his actions and not in who he was as a person. Sofie, too, is likable enough, but there was little connection to her for me and little investment in what exactly did happen to her. I suppose that I was worried for Harper as I read the book, but only because you are supposed to be.

So while the characters themselves didn’t do much for me, Hawthorn the town was enough of a character in and of itself that the chills there made up for it. I think that “The Town Built on Sorrow” would be the perfect read for a chilly autumn night this Halloween season. So wrap yourself in a blanket, pick it up, and if you live in small town setting or in a place with forest and nature surrounding you, maybe try not to get too freaked out as you read it. I’m sure come Halloween I will get to talk to David about this story, and I know that I will definitely give him props for Hawthorn and it’s demons.

Rating 7: Tense and atmospheric, “The Town Built on Sorrow” weaves three stories together over two time periods. While the characters were kind of flat, the setting was eerie and unsettling.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Town Built on Sorrow” is new and not on many Goodreads lists as of yet. I think that it would fit in on “Small Towns with Secrets”, and “Epistolary Fiction”.

Find “The Town Build on Sorrow” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Sweet, Far Thing”

While I make an effort to complete most books I read, every once in a while I come upon one  that I just can’t get through. When I find myself repeatedly putting down a book to the point that attempting to finish it is taking up weeks of my time, I sometimes come to the conclusion that a book is a book, not a life and death contract to read until completion. There are too many books in the world that I will never get to to spends days on end trying to finish a book that I already know will not be my cup of tea.

127459Book: “The Sweet, Far Thing” by Libba Bray

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, December 2007

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

Book Description: It has been a year of change since Gemma Doyle arrived at the foreboding Spence Academy. Her mother murdered, her father a laudanum addict, Gemma has relied on an unsuspected strength and has discovered an ability to travel to an enchanted world called the realms, where dark magic runs wild. Despite certain peril, Gemma has bound the magic to herself and forged unlikely new alliances.

Now, as Gemma approaches her London debut, the time has come to test these bonds. The Order – the mysterious group her mother was once part of – is grappling for control of the realms, as is the Rakshana. Spence’s burned East Wing is being rebuilt, but why now? Gemma and her friends see Pippa, but she is not the same. And their friendship faces its gravest trial as Gemma must decide once and for all what role she is meant for.

Previously Reviewed: “A Great and Terrible Beauty” and “Rebel Angels”

Review: As I said above, I try to push through most books, and those I can’t, I often choose not to review on this blog. After all, I rarely have much positive to say about the experience (and we do try to include positives in most of our reviews, even for lower rated ones), and…I didn’t finish the book! Can I really accurately speak to the book as a whole in a review? But since I’ve reviewed the previous two books in this trilogy, I didn’t want to leave the series hanging without a conclusion to my thoughts. So here they are.

The thing I most enjoyed about the first book was the juxtaposition of these young girls growing up in a very prim, restrained Victorian boarding school against a wild and mysterious magical backdrop made up of an organization of powerful women who have operated behind the scenes throughout history. Gemma and her friends are challenged to re-think their position in society, their own abilities, and the way they relate to each other and those around them. The magical world was unique and by no means “fluffy,” full of lurking danger and unknowns. By the end of the story, our main characters had learned that they did know all that much in the grand scheme of things, and perhaps there were more important things out there than petty, girl fights. They had lost a friend, discovered a new enemy, and seemingly grown closer, knowing that together they must face the challenges ahead.

The second book squandered all of this excellent set up, dialing back any growth the characters had gone through in the first book, making their decisions and thought processes confusing and frustrating. They still focused on the silly, bickered as if they had learned nothing, casually dismissed warnings, knowing full well the major consequences this type of behavior had lead to before, and generally behaved as if the first book had not happened, other than knowing that magic existed. Beyond this, the author introduced a terrible love triangle and some truly problematic scenes about consent.

So, with this second book as an example, I did not have high hopes going into the third. My only reassurance was that, after the events of the second book which were even more dire and traumatic than the first, there was no way that the author couldn’t address the growth and new outlook on the world that Gemma, Felicity and Anne must now have gained. How wrong I was.

I made it about a third of the way into the book before realizing that nothing had changed. Absolutely nothing. The girls were still caught up in petty nonsense, made decisions that made no sense, and behaved as if nothing had happened in the previous two books now that would influence the choices they made going forward. The author actively walked back on all progress that had been made in book two. I quickly realized that I was simply reading the same book over again.

Pippa was turning to the dark side? Nope, she’s still just there in the Realms, hanging out and making Gemma feel guilty for a decision that Pippa made herself back in book one. Gemma had decided to share the magic with everyone in the Realms? Nope, best to re-debate that decision AGAIN for huge chucks of this book,too. Kartik had decided to support Gemma and the girls? Nope, he’s distancing himself again and, of course, won’t tell Gemma why. Learned that when others much more experienced with the Realms warn you about something then you should really listen? Nope, Gemma will stop listening to others (when did she ever??) and maker her own choices!

It was truly incredible how neatly and quickly the author pulled back any and all progress that had been made in the last book and quickly seemed to start re-writing that book all over again. It was inexplicable to me. That last point, where Gemma once again refused to listen to warnings given to her by those in the Realms, was the point where I put down the book. Gemma does not read as a real person, or at least not one whom I could have any respect for at that point. Somehow she had learned nothing, and I’m not interested in reading another 700 pages about a character who is nothing more than a device for the author to indulge herself in a writing exercise that badly needed an editor.

I can’t speak to the end of the novel, but I’ve read a few reviews that further justify my decision to set it down. I won’t speak to these ending issues, as I didn’t technically get to them myself, but it doesn’t surprise me that the author ended up scrambling to pull things together and then missed the mark. How can you end a story when you haven’t really told a story? A story involves characters who learn, grown, and come out the other side as different people than they went in. That just didn’t happen in this trilogy.

Bray is an author with ideas, but she couldn’t write a single character arc for any of these girls. In a stand alone book (or the first in a series, like in this case), limited abilities with characterization might be passable. But it’s unacceptable for a trilogy. I’m having a hard time thinking of another trilogy that started as promising and then plummeted so steadily over the next two books.

Kate read only the first book in this series and liked it, as did I. For those out there in the same boat? Just stop there. Turns out you’ve already read books two and three as well in one go! Why waste the time re-reading that one again for another 1400 pages?

Rating: DNF

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sweet, Far Thing” is included on these Goodreads lists “Thickest Books Ever” and “Worst Ending.” Yes, I know those are negative lists, but that’s how I feel about this book and others seem to agree.

Find “The Sweet, Far Thing” at your library using Worldcat!

 

Kate’s Review: “DC Bombshells (Vol.4): Queens”

35500613Book: “DC Bombshells (Vol.4): Queens” by Marguerite Bennett, Laura Braga (Ill.), Mirka Andolfo (Ill.), and Marguerite Sauvage (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Comics, June 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The explosive creative team of writer Marguerite Bennett (BATWOMAN) and artists including Laura Braga (Witchblade), Mirka Andolfo (Ms. Marvel) and Marguerite Sauvage (Faith) bring an all-new chapter in the acclaimed alternate-history saga inspired by the hit DC Collectibles in DC COMICS: BOMBSHELLS VOL. 4: QUEENS.

Technology and terror form an unholy alliance in a world at war, and only the heroines known as the Bombshells can shut it down!

As World War II rages around them, Batwoman, Catwoman and Renee Montoya take a journey to Africa to get help from an old ally: Vixen, Queen of Zambesi and co-founder of the Bombshells.

But they’re not alone. The lethal Cheetah has her claws out, and she’s digging them directly into a forbidden site: the dwelling place of the mechanical gods, whose incredible powers could spell triumph for the Reich and the destruction of all that the Bombshells hold dear.

Now Vixen, her fellow Bombshells founder Hawkgirl and the rest of the squadron must face their biggest threat yet! Can this brilliant but beleaguered African queen count on the support of a fellow royal-Wonder Woman-to turn the tide?

Find out in DC COMICS: BOMBSHELLS VOL. 4: QUEENS. This volume contains the debuts of Vixen and Hawkgirl-and the secret origin of the Bombshells! Collecting issues #19-24.

Review: As you all know, I really really REALLY love the “DC Bombshells” series because damn does it give my favorite superheroines something to do. There is something so organically feminist about this series, and it keeps the thrills, action, humor, and pathos balanced out expertly. Seeing some of the best and brightest DC ladies at the forefront is a delight, and whenever a new one comes out I can’t wait to read it. We are now on Volume 4, and after an action packed Volume 3 in which the Nazis were dealt a severe blow by our Bombshells, we’ve moved the action to North Africa and been introduced to Vixen and Hawkgirl! Also mechanical animals and Cheetah, aka the woman who killed Batgirl and Renee’s adopted son Jacon!

I sometimes get worried when new characters get brought into the fold in comics, especially since sometimes I have a hard time keeping track of characters as it is. But with “Bombshells” I am always excited to see which classic heroines will show up next and in what capacity, and Vixen and Hawkgirl were no exception. Vixen (aka Mari) was especially great, as we got to see her stand up to Hitler and steal his dog Blondie, as well as see her in a position of power as the Queen of Zambesi. She and Hawkgirl (who is delightfully tech minded and a very clever inventor) also helped found The Bombshells, so we got to see them interact with the team they created, as well as interact with each other as confidants, partners, and lovers. I think that ultimately the relationships between the women in these stories are the strongest parts of them, and these two fit right in in that regard. I liked seeing more interaction and background between Kate (aka Batgirl) and Renee as they faced their past relationship and the death of Jacon, but I have to admit that I’m kind of not digging the fact that Kate seems to have completely forgotten about Maggie back on the home front. Sure, Batwoman and Renee Montoya have a shared past and a shared pain, but Maggie is Kate’s present.

Speaking of Maggie, we got a fun story back on the homefront with the Batgirls again. I had thought that they were going to be a one-off story, seeing as so much is going on with the Bombshells in Europe, but I really liked seeing them and Lois get some more time to shine. I think that my favorite aspect of it is the way that their presence is handling some familiar storylines. And with that, I give you a

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(source)

I think I mentioned that Harvey (eventually Two Face) Dent was in the previous Batgirls storyline as a mayor who was promoting an “America First” agenda. Well, he eventually got over that and had become an ally to the Batgirls, with self reflection and redemption on the mind. But given that Harvey really does have to turn into Two Face, I braced myself for it, and indeed, it does happen in this collection (won’t say how, but it does). Ever since I read the classic “Long Halloween” story arc, I’ve felt so incredibly bad for Two Face and the road that he takes, and I was worried that it was going to happen here as well. After all, Batman couldn’t help him in that universe, so my hope was slim. But in this one….. he doesn’t take the road to villainy, at least he hasn’t yet. Because while yes, he’s been horrifically scarred and has had something of a fall from grace, The Batgirls have done what Batman never could: they have rallied around him and affirmed that he is still Harvey Dent, imperfect but trying to be better Harvey Dent, and that they are going to support him and be there for him. And it seems that because of this, he’s MAYBE going to stay on the side of good, and remain their ally and friend. Cheesy? Maybe. But I think that it’s also a testament to the power of empathy and understanding towards those who have experienced trauma, something that Batman just couldn’t ever pull off the way that a bunch of awesome ladies can. The last panel of the Batgirls embracing him got me like

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I have so many feels. (source)

But all that said, I was a bit disappointed seeing that the big problem to overcome this time around was a group of mechanized animals from another planet. I liked the Zambesi setting to be certain, but it felt like a whole lot more conflict crammed into a story that is already rife with conflict. Plus, given that it’s more ‘Nazis want to get their hands on otherwordly weaponry’ stuff, it kind of feels like more of the same. The good news is that we get a couple returns here, including Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor, and Supergirl, all of whom I dearly missed in the last collection. I just wish that we could have seen more Wonder Woman and Supergirl (seriously, Kara was barely in this), before the last fourth of the book.

So while this is the weakest “Bombshells” collection for me so far, it’s still incredibly strong and I can’t wait for the next one. And I think I only have to wait a little while longer for that!! “DC Bombshells”, you still got it!

Rating 8: While I enjoyed the new characters quite a bit and the Batgirls story was heartwarming, I wasn’t totally sold on mechanical animal fights, and wish that Wonder Woman and Supergirl had been in it more.

Reader’s Advisory:

“DC Bombshells (Vol.4): Queens” isn’t on many Goodreads list at this time. But it is included on “Graphic Novels Featuring LGBTQ Themes”, and would fit in on “Female Power Comics”.

Find “DC Bombshells (Vol.4): Queens” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “DC Bombshells (Vol 1): Enlisted!”, and “DC Bombshells (Vol 2): Allies”, and “DC Bombshells (Vol.3): Uprising”.

Serena’s Review: “River of Teeth”

31445891Book: “River of Teeth” by Sarah Gailey

Publishing Info: Tom Doherty Associates, May 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.

Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.

This was a terrible plan.

Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge.

Review: The fact that this novella is based on a true consideration undertaken by the U.S government, importing hippos to the U.S. to be used alongside cows in meat production, was all it took to land it on my TBR list. The fact that the cover features several characters riding hippos moved it quickly to the top.

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And if the finished result wasn’t all I had hoped it could be, there’s still no denying the pure fun that is delivered with such a unique concept as hippo-riding outlaws!

First for the parts I did enjoy. As I said, the pure genius of this concept is spot on. I mean, who knew about the late, great hippo plan? If anything, this proves that the U.S. government was just as capable of thinking up ridiculous plans back in our earlier days as country as it seems to be now! But Gailey doesn’t just rest the historical wackiness of this plan, she brilliantly conceptulizes what this plan would have looked like if implemented.

The Louisiana territory is largely converted to extensive marshland, as hippos can only travel so far out of water. Various breeds of hippos have emerged, beyond the ones simply raised for meat. Some are faster than others, some larger, some more capable of managing longer distances on dry land. They are imagined to be a combination of a horse and a cow: close traveling companion in some cases, purely a form of meat production in another.

But, let’s not forget, hippos are very much NOT cows. They are strong, faster than they look, and fully capable of enacting their tempers on poor, unaware people who may get in their way. And, like all good plans, the great hippo importation quickly got out of control in this case, leaving wide range of the Mississippi river chocked up by an out-of-control feral hippo population, one that the notorious riverboat crime lord, Mr. Travers, has fully made use of to create his own scary, little kingdom.

Enter our heroes, tasked with a government funded mission to clear out the feral hippo population, once again opening up the river to commercial traffic. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Travers is not on board with this plan.

As I’ve said, the setting and creative use of the hippos was spot on in this story. So, too, the pacing is strong, reading like a charming classic Western adventure story, but with hippos. It’s easy to see these influences play out in many scenes, and in many ways the writing reads like a screenplay for what would surely be a super cool TV mini series.

But this strength is also a weakness. It almost reads too much like a screen play with a few beats hitting just slightly off target. There are moments when the dialogue veers a tad too close to the cheesy, and the descriptions could also seem pedestrian at times, lacking the detail and cohesion.

Which leaves us with our cast of characters. And there are many. We have the leader of our little troop, a man with a dark past tied up with Mr. Travers. A con woman. An assassin. A poisoner/munitions expert. And a man who knows the Mississippi region like the back of his hand. This is a lot of characters, all with big personalities, to be jammed into a short novella that also has a lot of story to tell. Characters would come and go so quickly that the fates that awaited them never really struck any chord. See you later, I barely knew you, I guess?

Further, Bailey attempts to right in a romantic story line, as well. And while I applaud her for her representation of this couple, their romance feels rushed to the point of unbelievability. And, in many ways, this relationship is used as a driving force for the decision-making of several of our characters, which just plays all the weaker for being given so little time to develop.

So, while I loved the conceptualization and adventure of this story, I was left wanting in a few areas. The writing style seemed to slip at points, and the numerous characters often overwhelmed any attachment I could develop for any single one, leaving some of the more important story beats to land flat. However, being a novell, this is a low stakes read, time-wise, so if you’re looking for a fun, quick adventure story unlike any other you’ve probably come across, I’d still recommend checking out “River of Teeth.”

Rating 6: An overwhelmingly large cast and some writing slips prevented me from fully committing to the Western adventure romp.

Reader’s Advisory:

“River of Teeth” is still relatively new and is on only one relevant Goodreads list “Alternate History in 2017.”

Find “River of Teeth” at your library using WorldCat

 

Serena’s Review: “Rebel Angels”

51428Book: “Rebel Angels” by LIbba Bray

Publishing Info: Ember, December 2006

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

Book Description: Ah, Christmas! Gemma Doyle is looking forward to a holiday from Spence Academy, spending time with her friends in the city, attending ritzy balls, and on a somber note, tending to her ailing father. As she prepares to ring in the New Year, 1896, a handsome young man, Lord Denby, has set his sights on Gemma, or so it seems. Yet amidst the distractions of London, Gemma’s visions intensify–visions of three girls dressed in white, to whom something horrific has happened, something only the realms can explain…

The lure is strong, and before long, Gemma, Felicity, and Ann are turning flowers into butterflies in the enchanted world of the realms that Gemma alone can bring them to. To the girls’ great joy, their beloved Pippa is there as well, eager to complete their circle of friendship.

But all is not well in the realms–or out. The mysterious Kartik has reappeared, telling Gemma she must find the Temple and bind the magic, else great disaster will befall her. Gemma’s willing to do his intrusive bidding, despite the dangers it brings, for it means she will meet up with her mother’s greatest friend–and now her foe, Circe. Until Circe is destroyed, Gemma cannot live out her destiny. But finding Circe proves a most perilous task.

Spoilers for “A Great and Terrible Beauty”

Review: Oof, this review, it’s going to be tough. It seems that “Rebel Angels” is widely believed to be the stronger book of the first two in Bray’s “Gemma Doyle” series. But man, I had some problems with this one.

But first, the good. There is no questioning Bray’s strength as a writer. The dialogue is always excellent, the descriptions of Victorian London are spot on. She includes many historical details that keep the atmosphere rich and poignant, and she’s mastered writing her action set pieces, something that was perhaps lacking in the first book. Further, the stakes have been raised in this book. Gemma, Felicity, and Anne have experienced real hardship with the death of their friend Pippa. And Circe, Gemma’s mother’s murderer, seems to circle ever nearer throughout this story. I enjoyed the expansion of both the “real world” setting, moving the story out from the walls of Spence Academy and into the social workings of London itself, as well as that of the Realms. We get to move beyond the perfectly lovely Garden and begin to see that now that the magic is released, things aren’t quite right in this magical land. Further, they might not have been right even before when the Order was in power.

So, there you go. This is a long book (a mark against it, really, since I think Bray could have used an editor to help trim this book up in places), but the writing and general plotting of the story are strong and got me through it. And considering my list of complaints to come, getting through it in a timely manner is actually a big mark in…something’s favor.

First off, the characters. As I said, there were some serious happenings in the first book. Pippa died. Felicity (and Anne in following her) did some truly awful things in the pursuit of power. It was made clear that the Realms weren’t all pretty flowers and magical powers with no strings attached. With this all, characters needed to grow! Other than mourning Pippa’s death, the threesome of girls quickly falls into the exact same pattern of behavior they exhibited in the first book as if they had learned absolutely nothing.

Felicity continues to bully Gemma into making bad decisions with the Realms, behaving as if it is still the free-for-all they had first supposed it to be, as if she hadn’t sacrificed a deer bare-handed in the previous book only to come this close to becoming a dark denizen herself. She routinely advises Gemma to ignore warnings and plays hot and cold with her friendship. You’d think that after coming through together what was experienced in the first book there would be a real foundation of friendship. Instead, we continue to see examples of a “mean girl” who only cares for Gemma when it is convenient. This doesn’t speak well to Gemma’s character either for tolerating such one-sided friendships (Anne has similar issues, siding with Felicity in all of her worst moments and never giving anything back to Gemma to justify Gemma’s continued loyalty).

Further, about half way through the story Bray introduces a dark backstory for Felicity with regards to her family. I have mixed feelings on this as I do think in many ways it was handled very well. But it was also used as a magic wand to somehow excuse Felicity’s behavior, which I don’t agree with. Further, after showing up briefly, there are many implications that are never fully addressed, which leaves the whole situation feeling all too close to a “plot convenience” which doesn’t sit well at all.

Anne has changed not at all. If anything, her character’s uselessness is doubled down upon. She has gained no bravery, no sense of self worth, and has actually actively stepped back into bad behaviors (self harm) that much time was spent on overcoming in the first book. Why was our time wasted then if she wasn’t going to improve at all here? And in this book, I can’t think of a single time when she truly aided the group. She was nothing more than dead weight throughout the entire story, and has now been given almost every negative stereotype a character like her can have, and gained none of the the strengths one would expect from a character moving beyond and through these set backs. Halfway through the book she ends up in a dangerous situation, and I was openly rooting for her to just be written out of the book. Alas, no.

And Gemma. The problems with Gemma aren’t even character problems. For the most part, I still very much like her as a leading lady. Unlike the other two, she has more sides to her that fully flesh her out and make her character arc interesting to follow. And while she does seem to grow throughout this book, there is the same problem from the previous to this: she has learned nothing! She naively believes everything that is told to her by every single person, even when she has explicitly been warned against this. Told not to trust anyone in the Realms? She immediately trusts EVERY SINGLE PERSON SHE MEETS. Oh, here’s a girl who was in the Order before and has made herself “mad” to avoid Cerci? Let’s NOT believe anything she has to say. It’s endlessly frustrating.

What’s more, the story opens with the reader witnessing a scene that explicitly makes it clear that a few characters are set against Gemma from the start. But then we have to go through an entire book watching her naively work with these characters. So not only is Gemma herself frustratingly naive to follow, making all of the wrong decisions for no good reason, but the reader is already set ahead of her, knowing more than she does from the start and yet still stuck in her ignorance. For any canny reader, the “twists” could be spotted a mile away which just makes it all the more frustrating watching Gemma and Co. struggle on. When she finally does realize things, there isn’t any breath of relief. You’re already 100 pages past that stage and simply want to smack her for not getting it earlier. Her following morose is all the more infuriating.

And lastly, the third member of the love triangle (you know it’s bad when the presence of a love triangle hasn’t even made the cut for my list of things to vent about) is essentially a date rapist and THIS IS NEVER ADDRESSED. He tries to get Gemma away from the others at a ball, and when this doesn’t work, he gets her drunk on absinthe, and then lures her to a remote part of the house and begins seducing her. They’re only interrupted by one of her visions which scares him out of it. And then the whole thing is forgotten, other than Gemma being embarrassed by her own behavior mid-vision!

There is zero discussion about this man’s intentions, the wrongness of his drugging her and attempting to seduce her, or anything. He continues to be a romantic interest! For a book, and author, that makes a big deal about talking about feminist and societal issues, I honestly couldn’t believe what I was reading. I kept waiting for the admonitions to role in, for Gemma to realize what a scumbag this guy was, for anything! There was nothing. It was left as if nothing had happened, he had done no wrong, and Gemma’s only concern was the worry that her own behavior would put him off. There’s no excuse for this. For young women reading this book, they are left with a scene like this presented as ordinary, ok, and not worth revisiting other than potentially shaming the girl caught up in it for getting too drunk and putting off the potential husband.

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So, it’s clear I had a lot of feelings about this book. For as many complaints as I had, I do feel compelled to finish the series, if only to see where Bray ends up leaving her characters in the end. Again, a lot happened in this book and you’d expect some character growth to come out of it, for us to have new versions of the same characters in the next book. But I had that expectation for this book and was utterly disappointed, so I’m not holding out hope. My prediction is that they will all behave the same exact way for way too many pages. I guess we’ll find out.

Rating 4: Complete lack of character growth and some very irresponsible messages leave this book as a disappointment.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Rebel Angels” is included on the Goodreads lists “Victorian YA Novels” and “Private School Paranormals.”

Find “Rebel Angels” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “A Great and Terrible Beauty”

 

 

Serena’s Review: “Now I Rise”

22817331Book: “Now I Rise” by Kiersten White

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, June 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: She has no allies. No throne. All she has is what she’s always had: herself.

After failing to secure the Wallachian throne, Lada Dracul is out to punish anyone who dares to cross her blood-strewn path. Filled with a white-hot rage, she storms the countryside with her men, accompanied by her childhood friend Bogdan, terrorizing the land. But brute force isn’t getting Lada what she wants. And thinking of Mehmed brings little comfort to her thorny heart. There’s no time to wonder whether he still thinks about her, even loves her. She left him before he could leave her.

What Lada needs is her younger brother Radu’s subtlety and skill. But Mehmed has sent him to Constantinople—and it’s no diplomatic mission. Mehmed wants control of the city, and Radu has earned an unwanted place as a double-crossing spy behind enemy lines. Radu longs for his sister’s fierce confidence—but for the first time in his life, he rejects her unexpected plea for help. Torn between loyalties to faith, to the Ottomans, and to Mehmed, he knows he owes Lada nothing. If she dies, he could never forgive himself—but if he fails in Constantinople, will Mehmed ever forgive him?

As nations fall around them, the Dracul siblings must decide: what will they sacrifice to fulfill their destinies? Empires will topple, thrones will be won…and souls will be lost.

Previously Reviewed: “And I Darken” (some spoilers!)

Review: “And I Darken” was another surprise hit from last year, so much so that it made my “Top Ten” list at the end of the year. So I was anxiously awaiting this sequel. The stakes (…pun intended?? with impaling?? get it???) have never been higher for Lada, Radu, and Mehmed. Impossible dreams are being pursued, but how much will need to be sacrificed in the attempt? And once they get what they want, was it worth the price?

The narrative is again split between Lada and Radu, however, so many of their choices revolve around their conflicting feelings towards Mehmed, their childhood friend, ruler of the nation that has held them hostage from family and country, and lover/wished for lover of both, that he almost feels like a POV character, too.

As I mentioned, this story is mostly about obsessions that have taken the place of love. Lada, Radu, and Mehmed all serve as prime examples of how letting one goal become your purpose in life can begin to rule you and lead to choices you never would have imagined. Each of their goals are impossible in different ways.

For Lada, it turns out that reclaiming her homeland isn’t as easy as she thought. Also, Mehmed’s “support” isn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Lada’s story here is a tragic example of expectations vs. reality and her slow realization that she is truly alone in the world, even from those she loves best. Lada wishes to become Prince of her homeland of Wallachia, a nation that has never had a female ruler and has been willing subservient to the Ottomans for decades. She is routinely dismissed by those around her for simply being a girl, and it takes the entire book for her to realize that even those closest to her see and use her this way. And along her own path, she is forced to make choices, betray those she loves, in pursuit of this seemingly impossible goal. Terrible acts are committed all for the good of Wallachia. And what makes her story, and these books, most compelling is the morally grey area these choices always exist within. Lada does terrible things, but in a certain light, she also does incredibly good things. She betrays those around her and is betrayed herself. Routinely, she chooses Wallachia over those who love her and those who claim to love her. She pushes forward with a single-minded determination, dealing out consequences left and right, that both help and hurt her. So, too, she must deal with the fact that Mehmed and Radu are equally single-minded in their own pursuits, and those don’t always align with her own goals.

Radu’s unrequited love for Mehmed is front and center in this book. He has been shunted to the side in Mehmed’s court to serve as a “sleeper agent,” essentially. But this also results in real isolation and distance between the two. And then he is sent in to Constantinople as a spy and things go from bad to worse. The “enemy” is now humanized for him, and while he despises their strange obsession with “signs” and holy artifacts, he also grows to respect Constantine himself, and especially, the young man, Cypiran, who serves as host to Radu and his wife, Nazira. He is forced to double cross and double cross again his friends on both sides of what he is increasingly convinced is nothing more than a war of egos between Mehmed and Constantine.

While Lada, too, makes choices that are hard to read about, she’s also fighting for respect and acknowledgement for her accomplishments, a goal that I can very much understand. She’s also simply a badass character, and has some fun moments between herself and her soldiers that were even comedic. Radu…I struggled with more. His obsession with Mehmed is the epitome of unhealthy, something that Nazira (probably the most likeable and objectively “good” character there is in this book!) is quick to point out in the most strong language. His choices, while understandable for his character, routinely made me want to smack him up the backside of the head. But, all of this said, he is an intriguingly conflicted character. It’s a sign of incredible strength as an author to make a character whom I often very much disliked at the same time read as incredibly interesting and whose story I am still fully invested in.

And Mehmed. As I said, we don’t get a POV for him, but he’s so instrumental to the other two, that we are painted a fairly clear picture. And that picture is: nothing and no one matters except for Constantinople. His obsession is arguably the worst of them all. He uses Lada and Radu in truly unacceptable ways. He claims to love them both, and I believe he probably does, but by the end of this story, to me, he reads as the true villain.

The themes of this book are dark and heart-breaking. Again and again, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed choose impossible dreams over the love of family and friends. Radu abandons Lada in pursuit of Mehmed. Mehmed uses Radu’s feelings for him against him and abandons Lada in the wilderness in pursuit of Constantinople. And Lada sacrifices the goodness and softness in herself to become whom she must to be Prince of Wallachia. Poetic tragedy, conflicted characters, and a stark historic landscape that proves that no one wins when obsessions rule over love and kindness.

This isn’t an easy read, but the writing is incredibly strong, the characters are full fleshed out, and the story is like watching a slow-motion car crash that you can’t look away from. Definitely check this book out if you enjoy books that look at the darker side of history.

Rating 10: Poignant and beautiful, terrible and tragic, a must-read for historical fiction fans.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Now I Rise” is on these Goodreads lists: “Historical Children’s and YA with LGBT characters” and “Diverse YA Retellings.”

Find “Now I Rise” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review & Giveaway: “The Waking Land”

32671619Book: “The Waking Land” by Callie Bates

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, June 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC giveaway from Goodreads & ARC NetGalley e-book

Book Description: Lady Elanna Valtai is fiercely devoted to the King who raised her like a daughter. But when he dies under mysterious circumstances, Elanna is accused of his murder and must flee for her life.

Returning to the homeland of magical legends she has forsaken, Elanna is forced to reckon with her despised, estranged father, branded a traitor long ago. Feeling a strange, deep connection to the natural world, she also must face the truth about the forces she has always denied or disdained as superstition powers that suddenly stir within her.

But an all-too-human threat is drawing near, determined to exact vengeance. Now Elanna has no choice but to lead a rebellion against the kingdom to which she once gave her allegiance. Trapped between divided loyalties, she must summon the courage to confront a destiny that could tear her apart.

Review: First off, thank you to the publisher and Goodreads for providing me this book through a give away! I also read a portion of it through an e-book ARC provided by NetGalley. You know, cuz I need to be able to read the book at ANY GIVEN MOMENT and thus need copies available in every format.

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Anywho! On to the review! Beyond the beautiful cover (yes, I do judge a book by its cover when it suits me, thank you very much), I was instantly intrigued after reading the story synopsis. It sounded like an appealing mix of political intrigue, manners and etiquette, and, of course, magic. And while it was all of those things, there were a few stumbling blocks along the way.

First off, the political intrigue. It became very clear early in the book that the author was drawing inspiration from the Jacobite rebellion between Scotland and England to create the history and heart of the conflict in her story. There are two countries occupying an island nation, one has been overthrown in recent history, but still hopes to put their own choice leader on the thrown and regain independence for their portion of the country. Obviously, there’s much more to it than this, but at its core, it’s fairly straightforward. I was very pleased with this portion of the story. It was interesting finding similar threads to real history sprinkled within this fantasy novel, especially when those threads diverged from the path with which we are familiar.

Bates clearly had a lot of world building she was trying to pack in this novel. Beyond these tie-ins to the Jacobite rebellion, there’s a complicated history that goes back centuries before it, involving not only these two nations, but another powerful nation who had conquered the entire region at one point and then retreated again.  Detailed histories likes this make a story interesting, but they also present a challenge to authors. All too often books end up with large info-dumps presenting all of these details, which no one loves. But here, we saw the opposite side of the coin. I was a good 150 pages into this story and was still trying to work out the timeline of who conquered who when and why. At a certain point, it was so frustrating that I simply gave up trying to understand. I hesitate to recommend more info dumping, but in circumstances like this, it’s probably the better option than sprinkling in details throughout a long-ish book where much of the plot revolves around the political implications of this history and readers end up just confused.

I did love the magical set up that was brought into the story. Sure there was the cool magic that Elanna was able to create, but the more interesting part was, again, the detailed framework and history behind her power. Not only are her powers needed for the rebellion, but the symbol that she represents as a corner of the tri-part governing force that traditionally ruled the land is highly motivating to the people.

I had mixed feelings with regards to Elanna herself. Her history (the stolen child of a failed rebel leader being held to keep the other side in check) is one that sets her up to have many conflicting feelings and views of those around her. Things like family, friendship, and even national loyalty are all tied together in knots. She feels abandoned by one family, guilty for developing attachments to her captors, questions everyone’s motives around her, questions her own loyalties. Much of this was very interesting and created a rich character arc for her to travel. Unfortunately, all too often she would perform complete 180s on a dime with very little explanation for why she changed her mind. She hates her father! She’ll join her father in this rebellion! Also, while the stress and frustration that would arise from her situation is understandable, at times she read as very unlikable and immature. I never could quite decide how I felt about her. Ultimately, I think I was more invested in the story that she was living than in her as a character on her own.

So there are my thoughts! To be summed up, I was very conflicted with this book. It had true moments of brilliance with a unique and complicated history, both political and magical, and the main character also had flashes of greatness. But I was also all too often confused by the same history and frustrated with Elanna herself. I would still likely recommend this book to readers who enjoy historical “fantasy of manners” type books based on its strengths. Want to judge for yourself? Enter our giveaway to receive an ARC of this book!

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Rating 6: Had so many things going on (complicated history, complicated characters) that it didn’t quite manage to fully flesh it all out.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Waking Land” is new and isn’t included on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Fantasy of Manners” and “Best Books Containing Elemental Powers.”

Find “The Waking Land” at your library using WorldCat!