Serena’s Review: “Questland”

Book: “Questland” by Carrie Vaughn

Publishing Info: John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books, June 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Dr. Addie Cox is a literature professor living a happy, if sheltered, life in her ivory tower when Harris Lang, the famously eccentric billionaire tech genius, hires her to guide a mercenary strike team to his island retreat off the northwest coast of the United States. Cox is puzzled by their need for her, until she understands what Lang has built. It’s said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and Lang wanted to prove it. On this distant outpost, he has created an enclave full of fantasy and gaming tropes made real, with magic rings that work via neurotransmitters, invisible cloaks made of nanotech smart fabric, and mythological creatures built from genetic engineering and bionics.

Unfortunately for Lang, the designers and engineers hired to construct his Questland have mutinied. Using an energy field, they’ve cut off any communications and are preventing any approach to the island. Lang must retake control before the U.S. military intervenes. The problem? The mutiny is being led by the project’s chief designer, Dominic Brand, who also happens to be Addie Cox’s ex-boyfriend. It’s up to her to quell the brewing tensions between the tech genius, the armed mercenaries, and her former lover before the island goes up in flames.

Review: This was an impulse read for me based purely on the fact that the description sounded sort of like “Jurassic Park but with magic.” Plus, how often do you get to see a literature professor be the hero of the story? As a literature major myself, not often, I’ll say! The concept altogether seemed just weird enough to work. Unfortunately, for me, it landed a bit flat. Which is the exact opposite of what you want from a story that should be a high octane romp!

Addie’s life, while not particularly thrilling, is stable and predictable. For example, one evening while in her office at work, it is completely predictable to be faced with a student who has not fully thought through their paper idea that sounds suspiciously like an excuse to just play a lot of video games. What is a surprise, however, is to be suddenly whisked away by mysterious players and informed that her unique skillsets have qualified her for a mission. Namely, she’s familiar with stories and an island that has been technically enhanced to play out these stories in real life has gone rogue. Now Addie and a team must venture into the wilds and make contact with Addie’s ex-boyfriend, the brilliant man at the heart of the dysfunctional island.

There were definitely some fun ideas in this book. For fantasy fans, spotting all of the references and similarities to classic fantasy works and tropes made for much of the enjoyment. “Lord of the Rings” got a heavy dose, so that in particular stood out. And the general character beats hit well. Addie is the survivor of a school shooting that left her boyfriend and best friend dead. Her struggles with PTSD have driven her life to a large extent and make her particularly uncomfortable working with the military task force who breach the island alongside her. I really enjoyed watching the mutual respect between these two forces come together, particularly the clear (to the reader, maybe not to Addie) understanding that the military characters had for Addie and how she was tackling a struggle that is so real for many in that field.

Ultimately, however, I struggled to really buy into the scenario at the heart of the book. In many ways, the concept (and goals) are similar to “Ready Player One.” Essentially, the author creates some sort of system that allows for their character and readers to revel in all the best-hits of whatever genre their focusing on. For “Ready Player One,” that was 80s pop culture. For this book, it’s classic fantasy and RPG tropes. However, the concept of the island was hard for me to really buy into. We’re meant to believe it has gone rogue for five months, that a team of military personnel have already died trying to reach it, and that, somehow, this is all still operating in secret and without the knowledge of the government.

From there, the decisions of Addie’s ex-boyfriend and the crew that worked with him were equally hard to understand. Their end goal seemed silly, that somehow cutting off contact to the island would result in them being given control of it from the tech billionaire who owned it and employed them. From a team of people who must be incredibly smart to build the island’s systems in the first place, they seemed remarkably dumb about real-world concepts and consequences. It made it really hard to take them, or their position, seriously.

To be fair, I don’t read a lot of the very small subgenre that is LitRPG. With this book, it seems that the author is attempting to merge that type of storytelling with more classic, and generally approachable, fantasy fare. I’m not sure it’s a success, however. I feel that many LitRPG readers would prefer books that simply went that route more fully, and that classic fantasy readers will struggle to accept the premise as its laid out. If you’re a fan of LitRPG, this might be worth checking out. But it’s a fairly lackluster fantasy novel at its bare bones.

Rating 6: I struggled to believe the basic concept at the heart of the story, and from there, even the best character work wasn’t enough to save it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Questland” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on a list like this Books About Video Games and Virtual Reality.

Find “Questland” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Wild Sign”

Book: “Wild Sign” by Patricia Briggs

Publishing Info: Ace Books, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: In the wilds of the Northern California mountains, all the inhabitants of a small town have gone missing. It’s as if the people picked up and left everything they owned behind. Fearing something supernatural might be going on, the FBI taps a source they’ve consulted in the past: the werewolves Charles Cornick and Anna Latham. But Charles and Anna soon find a deserted town is the least of the mysteries they face.

Death sings in the forest, and when it calls, Charles and Anna must answer. Something has awakened in the heart of the California mountains, something old and dangerous — and it has met werewolves before.

Previously Reviewed: “Burn Bright”

Review: If you go back and read my review of the previous book in the “Alpha and Omega” series, you’ll see that I was…less than thrilled with that entry. My concerns from that book spanned both this series as well as the “Mercy Thompson” books. But as my review earlier this week demonstrated, that series managed to sidestep the implications of the events in “Burn Bright.” But I was always a bit more concerned with how the next book in this series would do, given that Bran is more of a main character here. And, well, Briggs tries to walk it back a bit, I guess. But unfortunately the distraction offered in the main plot just introduces another frustration of mine.

Old things live in the dark wilds of the forest. And if you stay on the path, maybe you’ll miss the dangers lurking there. But when an entire town’s worth of people go missing, what lurks in the shades of the trees leaves a mark to big to ignore. Anna and Charles are called into action to track down the mystery. Where do you start, though, when all of the victims seem to have vanished into the air leaving behind no trace? Clues exist however in rumors of a powerful force that once lived there centuries before and may have faced werewolves before.

So, I did like this book overall. It’s hard, however, to write a review without taking up tons of wordcount on how this book deals with the fallout of the previous one. Or getting sucked into a long commentary piece on my frustrations with one particular aspect of it that I’m beginnig to struggle with more and more. So…I’ll try to write a fairly general bit before getting into any of that.

Overall, I liked the villain at the heart of this story. Its powers and backstory were very unique and interesting and left me guessing for much of the story. I was able to piece a few bits together early on, but there were a number of genuine surprises throughout that really helped build towards the final conflict. The action and threat-level felt high when it needed too, and there was a underlying sense of doom that pervaded the book in a really nice, creepy way.

I also liked what we got from Charles and Anna. Brother Wolf, the personified version of Charles’s wolf half was given more to say/do here and it was almost like having an entire third character. Might be a bit unfortunate, though, when your wolf character is more interesting than the two humans. Not that Charles and Anna are bad characters, but they still seem a bit dull and one-note, especially in comparison to the characters in the Mercy Thompson series.

The book also introduces a few chapters from Leah’s perspective. On the surface, this is a good thing. The story largely has to do with events in her history, and it’s great seeing inside the head of a character who has been at the heart of so much conflict earlier in the series and even in the “Mercy Thompson” series. It seems clear that by doing this Briggs is attempting to respond to the criticism of the previous book. Her history is such that Bran’s actions in her life are highly criticized by both Charles and Anna. Briggs also seems to try to build up a more true relationship between Leah and Bran with Bran needing to deal with his own past actions and open up to Leah more. It’s all well and good, I guess, but, really, it just makes the previous book’s “reveal” about Bran’s feelings for Mercy feel more about of place. This book not only doesn’t address that but seems to want to just paint over that with some alternative history in which Bran does care for Leah and that whole Mercy thing…never happened.

But when diving into Leah’s history, Briggs steps right into another big problem that I have. I’ve already struggled with the fact that both of Briggs’ leading ladies has a history of being a rape victim. Several SFF authors have written about how pervasive this particular trauma is within the genre and how unfortunate that fact is. Here are two of my favorite pieces, one by Seanan McGuire and one by Sarah Gailey. Each tackles the topic much more thoroughly and eloquently than I can.

Unfortunately, this book not only includes another rape attempt on our main character, but gives the only other POV female character we have a history of rape as well. Now all three POV female characters we’ve had in both series have experienced this particular trauma. Beyond that, the topic is placed firmly at the center of the conflict in this book. I wouldn’t have a problem with that fact on its own if it wasn’t for this established history of using it for our two other main characters. It not only begins to feel a bit much, but Briggs is falling into the exact trap that McGuire and Gailey discuss in their pieces: that somehow rape and sexual assault are almost necessary traumas that female heroes must go through in the ever-chased goal of “character development” and “added depth.” And in Leah’s case, particularly, it almost seems to be used as a way to excuse her abusive treatment of Mercy in the past. The entire thing reads as lazy and uninventive at best and as exploitative at worst.

So, there you go. Another book in this series that’s hard to evaluate based only on the merits of the story itself, but instead gets stuck in challenging topics that outweigh much of the rest. At this point, I’m sure I’ll still continue to read this series if there are more to come. But I’m on high alert now with this author and if these topics continue to come up in this manner, it might be time to throw in the towel.

Rating 6: A solid story is marred by the unfortunate, recurring use of sexual assault as a character-building tactic.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wild Sign” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on this funny-titled one: My Vampire Book Obsession Book Boyfriends

Find “Wild Sign” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Smoke Bitten”

Book: “Smoke Bitten” by Patricia Briggs

Publishing Info: Ace, March 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: I am Mercedes Athena Thompson Hauptman. My only “superpowers” are that I turn into a thirty-five pound coyote and fix Volkswagens. But I have friends in odd places and a pack of werewolves at my back. It looks like I’m going to need them.

Centuries ago, the fae dwelt in Underhill–until she locked her doors against them. They left behind their great castles and troves of magical artifacts. They abandoned their prisoners and their pets. Without the fae to mind them, those creatures who remained behind roamed freely through Underhill wreaking havoc. Only the deadliest survived.

Now one of those prisoners has escaped. It can look like anyone, any creature it chooses. But if it bites you, it controls you. It lives for chaos and destruction. It can make you do anything–even kill the person you love the most. Now it is here, in the Tri-Cities. In my territory.

It won’t, can’t, remain.

Not if I have anything to say about it.

Previously Reviewed:“Moon Called,” “Blood Bound,” “Iron Kissed,” “Bone Crossed,” “Silver Borne,” “River Marked,” “Frost Burned,”and “Night Broken” and “Fire Touched” and“Silence Fallen” and “Storm Cursed”

Review: This series has probably been the longest-running Urban Fantasy series I’ve read. With a series that has run for so long and includes so many books, it’s assumed that there will be highs and lows. There was a period a few books back that had me worried, with several underwhelming entries in a row. But the last one was super dark and very good, so it was with a refreshed interest in the series that I picked up this latest book. And while it wasn’t my favorite, it at least didn’t backslide into the low points that had come before.

All is not well for Mercy Thompson. Her husband, Adam, has been withdrawing from her for the last few months, clamming up when asked and shutting down the magical bond between them. On top of this, another werewolf pack is attempting to move in on their territory and the magical creator Underhill has created a doorway to her realm in Mercy’s backyard. And a door goes both ways, letting thins in…and out. Not a powerful magical creature is on the loose, taking over people and making them murder to fuel its terrible power. But so is the life of one Mercy Thompson: full of madness and danger. Will she, Adam, and their pack be able to tackle this most recent threat?

This book was kind of hit and miss. There were several things I really liked about it, and then some that I didn’t care for as much. For the positives, I like that we’re back to the trend of having Mercy as our one and only narrator. Some of the weaker installments were the ones that deviated from her and included POV chapters from Adam. He’s great as a romantic interest, hero type. But it was pretty boring being in his head. Mercy’s voice remains strong and compelling, lending needed animation to even the less exciting mysteries and villains.

I also really liked the action in this book. The fight scenes were fast and thrilling, and the aspects of the fight that existed on a more magical element were also interesting. I liked the increased exploration of how the pack’s bonds and Mercy and Adam’s bond work and affect each other. Mercy’s own background and heritage adds an extra level of interest into how she deals with magical threats and powers. There was also the return of a fairly beloved element of her magic, which was fun to see.

I also liked the story regarding Adam and the reasons behind why he was pulling away from Mercy. At first I was concerned that it was going to be some sort of silly melodrama, especially with the return of his ex-wife’s meddling early in the book. But luckily it went a different route and even tied back to some of the challenges that we know Adam has faced throughout his long life. There was also an unexpected sense of real danger to this particular problem. If anything, it was almost the bigger threat than the actual villain of the story.

And that I didn’t love as much: the main villain and the threat he/she/it presents. For one thing, I was able to very quickly guess who/what they were dealing with, which just made the delay for the final reveal to read as boring at best and frustrating at worst. It’s implied that Mercy figures it out around the time that I did, so at least it doesn’t dumb her down in the process. But I still felt like the build-up itself didn’t work and the story would have done better without it. A few more jokes and references would have been way more fun than the false tension.

There were also a few story elements and subplots that I didn’t think were needed. The book wasn’t super long, so maybe these were used just to pad out the wordcount. But I think that speaks to problems with the main plot that needed to be tweaked anyways. Not only did these subplots not add anything to the overall story, but they drained out some of the tension when they popped up again here and there throughout the story.

That said, I still enjoyed this book overall. It could be a bit slower than I’d prefer at times, but I still found the characters compelling, especially the evolving relationship between Adam and Mercy. Fans of the series will likely be pleased with this installment.

Rating 8: Not as good as the one that came before it, but still much better than the low-points of the series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Smoke Bitten” isn’t on too many Goodreads lists, but it is on I checked it out of the library!

Find “Smoke Bitten” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Storm and Fury”

40291564Book: “Storm and Fury” by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Publishing Info: Inkyard Press, June 2019

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

Book Description: Eighteen-year-old Trinity Marrow may be going blind, but she can see and communicate with ghosts and spirits. Her unique gift is part of a secret so dangerous that she’s been in hiding for years in an isolated compound fiercely guarded by Wardens—gargoyle shape-shifters who protect humankind from demons. If the demons discover the truth about Trinity, they’ll devour her, flesh and bone, to enhance their own powers.

When Wardens from another clan arrive with disturbing reports that something out there is killing both demons and Wardens, Trinity’s safe world implodes. Not the least because one of the outsiders is the most annoying and fascinating person she’s ever met. Zayne has secrets of his own that will upend her world yet again—but working together becomes imperative once demons breach the compound and Trinity’s secret comes to light. To save her family and maybe the world, she’ll have to put her trust in Zayne. But all bets are off as a supernatural war is unleashed…

Review: This book had been hanging out on my audiobook holds list long enough that I had forgotten completely why I put it on there! Which can be a good and bad thing. For the good, it was a complete surprise, as I typically don’t read this type of book and probably wouldn’t have prioritized it if I had known that it was a modern YA fantasy. For the bad, I didn’t realize that this was a companion series to another, already finished series. Not that it had a huge effect on this read, but it was a factor. But, overall, I wasn’t super impressed with this book.

Trinity has been raised by the Wardens, taught to fight demons, and hidden from humans. But she is not any of them. Though going blind, Trinity’s unique abilities, aided by her excellent combat skills, have made her a force to be reckoned with. Her future, however, is anything but clear. It is made all the more murky when a group of stranger arrive with ill-boding news. And soon that news strikes closer than home than any of them would like. Now Trinity, with the help of the oddly appealing but supremely frustrating Zayne, must venture outside her home and put her true powers to the test.

So, as I said, this is the beginning to a companion series that had already completed. I will give props to the writer, however, for making this one feel pretty approachable all on its own. I felt like I had a pretty good understanding of the world and various players in it fairly early on. Once the main character and her love interest from the previous story showed up, I did feel like some background on their story and, particularly, their histories with Zayne would have been helpful. But even there, as they are all new to Trinity, it wasn’t hard to be introduced to them the first time through her eyes. If anything, I was more fully in her boat than I would have been otherwise, also not knowing what to believe between the various histories being told.

I also liked Trinity’s voice well enough at the beginning. She was funny and only ridiculous at times. Unfortunately, these traits swapped as the story went on, and she quickly became less funny and more ridiculous. Surprising no one, this change corresponded with the increased page time devoted to the romance. Again, not knowing the history between other characters and Zayne, it was all too easy to have to be mired in the nonsense of insecurity and drama alongside our main character.

The romance itself was everything I hated. First off, we have instalove or instattraction. Tons of mentions of how Trinity felt an inexplicable draw and interest in him. And he, too, with very little true development, is of course interested in her as well. Then you add in the forced drama in the middle. And then you get to the end and find out it was all just kind of pointless? I don’t want to spoil it or anything…but it’s another of my least favorite tropes. So the book strikes out three for three in the romance department.

The story is also incredibly long, something like 500 pages? Much of this is devoted to witty repartee and smaller character moments. Some have value, others not so much. And the few action scenes we get are brief and over before you really realize what’s going on. Overall, the story probably could have lost about 200 pages worth of filler and been a tighter, more compelling story for it.

I also really, really disliked the “reveal” at the end of the book. It wasn’t so much that I could see it coming, as that it just didn’t make that much sense. We get a bland, villain speech as an explanation, but no groundwork or character development had been laid down beforehand to make any of it feel earned or believable.

Yeah, so not much about this book worked for me. I was mildly intrigued by the characters who were introduced from the other book, but I also don’t trust this author anymore as far as developing an interesting, trope-free romance. So, I think I’ll probably skip those and not continue this either. If you’re a fan of her other series, this may be worth checking out. But if you’re new to this author, I can’t recommend this. If it sounds like your thing, probably just read the other series first and go from there.

Rating 5: A cringe-worthy romance really killed the mood on this one.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Storm and Fury” is on a bunch of fairly random Goodreads lists, but this one made me laugh and given my rating…“I’ve Thought About Reading… But I Probably Won’t.”

Find“Storm and Fury” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol. 1)”

52295766._sx318_sy475_Book: “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.1)” by Sina Grace and Siobhan Keenan (Ill.)

Publishing Info: BOOM!Box, May 2020

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

Book Description: Daphne Walters moves to Los Angeles and finds that the only ones who can help her find love and live life to the fullest are the ghosts of her new home!

In Los Angeles, finding an apartment is killer—unless you live with the dead. Daphne Walters moves to Los Angeles for her boyfriend Ronnie, ready to live her happily ever after. But when happily ever after turns into happily for a month, she’s stuck in a strange city with no friends, family, or prospects for fun. Desperate to escape the lingering ghost of Ronnie’s presence everywhere, Daphne sets out to explore the city—and ends up encountering ghosts of a more literal kind! Rycroft Manor is abandoned, beautiful, and haunted. Will the dead be able to help Daphne find the life she’s been missing in the big city? From GLAAD Award-nominated Sina Grace (Iceman) and illustrator Siobhan Keenan (Jem and the Holograms) comes a story about learning how to make friends, find love, and live life to the fullest with a little help from some friends whose lives didn’t end at death. Collects Ghosted In L.A #1-4.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this graphic novel!

When the writing was on the wall about the social distancing measures we as a society would need to take regarding COVID-19, I knew that my library pile wasn’t going to sustain me through the long weeks of staying at home. So I hopped onto NetGalley and began to request books that captured my interest. One of those was “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol 1)” by Sina Grace. I saw a cute looking graphic novel style and the promise of ghosts, which was enough to pique my interests. What I got, however, was something more than I anticipated, and something that I ended up really enjoying.

For one, yes, we have a ghost story, people. I love a good ghost story, and it doesn’t even have to be scary for me to enjoy it. The ghosts in “Ghosted in L.A.” (for the most part) aren’t all that threatening, but have mysterious reasons as to why they have continued their afterlives in the abandoned Rycroft Manor. Before each chapter, we get a bit of insight into the backgrounds of each ghostly character, from ringleader Agi to kindhearted Bernard to toxic Maurice, which makes their interactions with Daphne more layered an interesting. It also means that they aren’t relegated to ghost sidekicks, and that we get to see their motivations and backgrounds. I am very interested in learning more about them, and given that we’ve discovered some pretty dark and even dangerous things about some, it makes me feel like there are no guarantees that these ghosts are all going to be the kindhearted roommates that Daphne wants.

But surprisingly, the aspect of this comic that I liked the most had less to do with the ghosts, and more to do with the coming of age journey that our protagonist Daphne is on. She’s an 18 year old who has followed her boyfriend to Los Angeles for school, but then finds herself single and in a city that she knows very little about. 18 is already a confusing and scary time, so this, of course, sets her on a path of making some questionable decisions, and having to contend with not always pleasant people who are going to be supportive of her. Daphne is definitely a flawed and sometimes frustrating character. Sometimes I wanted to shake her because she was being foolhardy or blissfully un-self aware, but at the same time I remember what it was like being an 18 year old in the middle of a huge identity shift. From problems with her standoffish and judgmental roommate to conflict with her at home best friend to trying to reconcile her newly single status (especially since her ex Ronnie is really a good guy), Daphne is all kinds of realistic and relatable. I find myself really wanting her to succeed, even when she’s being all kinds of unreasonable.

And finally, I really love the artwork. It’s upbeat and colorful, and all of the characters have their unique feels while still being very of the style at hand. Plus, I love the coloring on the ghosts, which makes use of the darker side of the color wheel without being limited to just different shades of grey.

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(source)

I really enjoyed “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol. 1)”, and I will definitely be on the look out for Volume 2!

Rating 8: A super cute and creative comic about finding oneself and ghosts, “Ghosted in L.A.” has a lot of potential to become a new favorite comic series of mine!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.1)” is included on the Goodreads list “Paranormal Romance/Urban Fantasy Set in California”.

Find “Ghosted in L.A. (Vol.1)” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The City We Became”

42074525._sy475_Book: “The City We Became” by N.K. Jemisin

Publishing Info: Orbit, March 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She’s got five.

But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs beneath the earth, threatening to destroy the city and her five protectors unless they can come together and stop it once and for all.

Review: I’ve been a fan of Jemisin’s since years ago when I first read “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.” But my love for her didn’t really set in until after I read the “Broken Earth” trilogy. Those books blew me away with the sheer scope of imagination and dexterity of language that were required to pull off such a feat. With those in mind, I went into this book knowing that if anyone could handle the strange set-up that was offered in the book description, it would be Jemisin. And she definitely does! Sadly, this book didn’t hit quite the same mark as the others of hers that I’ve read, but I suspect much of that is just down to my own reading preferences.

Birth is a painful, messy business. It can be as frightening as it is beautiful. A city’s birth is no different, especially for one such as New York City, a behemoth whose very soul can’t be contained in one vessel. Instead, when things begin to go wrong as NYC strives towards its own new life, five individuals are selected to represent the myriad of faces and lives that make up this one spirit. Together they must become the protectors the city needs and fight off a great evil that threatens this new life.

Even though this book wasn’t the huge hit for me that I was hoping for, there is still a lot to praise it for. As always, Jemisin’s creativity is without bounds. The idea of great cities developing souls is just fantastic, and the book takes that theme and runs with it into some crazy and unexpected places. The strength of writing needed to make some of these completely foreign fantasy elements make sense is mind boggling, and it’s here that Jemisin has always shined. There were a bunch of lines that not only jumped off the page, but more so slammed into my unprepared mind with all the beauty and shock of a firework. It was truly impressive.

Part of my struggle, however, also had to do with the writing. Not so much maybe the writing, but the way that it was so clearly an homage to New York City and the many cultures made up within that huge city. I’ve only visited NYC on one frantic, 24 hour period visit. So I know very little about the actual city itself. And for a book so focused on the heart of this city and the pieces that make it unique and tick, I was often left feeling like I was an outsider looking in. Many of the stronger pieces of writing I could see objectively as great, but I couldn’t connect to personally as it was so clearly talking about a specific place and people that I personally don’t know much about. And, unlike most second world fantasy where all readers are “newbies” learning about a world they don’t understand, this was clearly written to some extent with the idea that readers would know and connect to some of these elements, without the book itself needing to do that extra legwork. So, in this way, some of the mileage of this book might depend on the reader’s own familiarity, and to a lesser extent, interest, in New York City itself.

I also had a hard time feeling truly connected to many of the POV characters. The story starts off quite quickly and doesn’t spend much time laying out many details for readers. In some regards, this is a staple trick of Jemisin’s and one can have faith that the answers will come eventually. They do here as well. But this trick then depends on the reader connecting to and investing in the main characters themselves early on to carry one through until plot details begin to clarify. I’m not sure quite what the problem was here for me. Perhaps there were just too many characters, and combining that with the slow moving pieces of putting the plot together, was just too much.

Jemisin is also well-known for putting diverse characters first and foremost in her books, often strong women of color. And here, too, the cast is diverse across all kinds of lines. But there were also moments where I felt like the message (for lack of a better word) was a bit more hamfisted here than the incredibly powerful observations and mirrors that were held up in her previous works.  Really, it felt in some ways like this entire book was a bigger statement (particularly in response to the Lovecraft stuff that has pervaded SFF for so long) that the author needed to get out into the world.  And that’s a good thing! But it also, again, left it a bit harder for me to fully sink into this book as a reading experience.

Overall, I think this book is incredibly powerful and highlights again the strength of Jemisin’s skill as an author, both in her masterful world-building as well as just the strength of her writing. That this one didn’t really hit home for me could, in part, simply be due to my own lack of knowledge of (or real interest in) NYC itself. But for those with a stronger connection to that city, I’m sure some of these elements in particular will strike a much stronger chord. Fans of Jemisin’s work should definitely still try this out and those looking for an urban fantasy novel that breaks the mold for what urban fantasy typically offers are sure to be intrigued!

Rating 7: Incredibly unique with a widely diverse cast, but it was a bit harder to become invested in than other works by this author.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The City We Became” is on these Goodreads lists: “Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy Releases of 2020” and “SFF Set in Global Cities (No YA).”

Find “The City We Became” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Chosen Ones”

40944762._sy475_Book: “Chosen Ones” by Veronica Roth

Publishing Info: John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: A decade ago near Chicago, five teenagers defeated the otherworldly enemy known as the Dark One, whose reign of terror brought widespread destruction and death. The seemingly un-extraordinary teens—Sloane, Matt, Ines, Albie, and Esther—had been brought together by a clandestine government agency because one of them was fated to be the “Chosen One,” prophesized to save the world. With the goal achieved, humankind celebrated the victors and began to mourn their lost loved ones.

Ten years later, though the champions remain celebrities, the world has moved forward and a whole, younger generation doesn’t seem to recall the days of endless fear. But Sloane remembers. It’s impossible for her to forget when the paparazzi haunt her every step just as the Dark One still haunts her dreams. Unlike everyone else, she hasn’t moved on; she’s adrift—no direction, no goals, no purpose. On the eve of the Ten Year Celebration of Peace, a new trauma hits the Chosen: the death of one of their own. And when they gather for the funeral at the enshrined site of their triumph, they discover to their horror that the Dark One’s reign never really ended.

Review: I read the “Insurgent” trilogy like everyone else, seemingly, back when it was published around a decade ago. I didn’t fall in love with it, which worked in my favor in this instance as I wasn’t too broken up by the ending of the last book (most fans of the series were quite displeased). I also had heard that Roth published another duology, but that same indifference to the first trilogy didn’t lead me to getting around to it. But when I saw this book start to pop up, I was very intrigued. There are a million and one stories documenting the adventures of a “chosen one” in their grand battle against an ultimate evil. There aren’t many that tackle what comes after, other than perhaps brief epilogues or small cameo appearances in another “chosen one’s” book/series. This book turned out to be everything I was hoping for and more.

It’s been ten years since Sloan and her friends, the other Chosen Ones, defeated the Dark One, an evil being they had battled throughout their teen years. And in this last decade Sloane has…hid. Not interested in the celebrity status she’s garnered, barely invested in the relationships she’s formed, Sloane’s life is simply going from moment to moment, not caring about much at all. When tragedy shakes her out of this numbness, however, Sloane finds herself caught in circumstances that she won’t survive unless she returns to her life as a soldier and confronts the horrors in her past.

This book was particularly interesting coming off my fairly recent re-read of the “Animorphs” series. That series follows a group of 6 teens, chosen ones, essentially, as they battle a big bad for years on end. The books deal a lot with the realities of a childhood given up to warfare and the life and choices of being a soldier. But after 50+ books, there’s only a small, final book that is dedicated to life after these events. It does a good job for what it is, only a hundred and fifty or so pages dedicated to wrapping up the lives of six characters over the years that follow the end of the war. It’s clear that the story is only scratching the surface of what life would be like for these kids. And this is only one example. We have so many chosen one stories, but so few deal with the aftereffects.

I wasn’t quite sure what we would get from Roth here. I wasn’t a huge fan of her original trilogy, and I also read that she had some ideas for this book based off “The Hurt Locker,” a movie that, while I can see the importance of the topic, I didn’t particularly enjoy. But, man, did I enjoy the heck out of this book. Not only did it tackle many of the tough topics around life after war, the isolation and distancing that many veterans experience, and how “moving on” can look very different to different people, including whether it is possible at all, but it had some amazing characters at its heart and some genuine surprises in the increasingly twisting world-building.

I loved Sloane so much in all of her broken, dark, and even sometimes cruel ways. The characters in this book definitely challenge the reader in that they often barely resemble the golden Chosen Ones we all imagine. Even a few of Sloane’s comrades who more closely mimic the typical hero pastiche often betray signs that they are simply using different coping mechanisms to deal with similarly twisted inner lives. But this is Sloane’s story, and it is Sloane’s darkness and path forward that we explore as we slowly learn more about her time during the war and how she’s been managing (or not) in the ten years since. She has some very unlikeable moments, but for me at least, these simply grounded the story all the more in a what reality would look like for young people whose life was essentially consumed by a prophesy and a seemingly never-ending battle against a more powerful evil force. There are no easy answers or easy fixes here, and even by the end of the book, it’s clear that any “completeness” for Sloane comes at understanding and accepting her entire person.

The world-building was almost the biggest surprise. I didn’t really know what to expect and the book description gives only the barest hints. But wow, I didn’t expect where this book went at all. There’s a huge twist that comes in the first third and when we got to that I thought “Ok, that was a surprise, but now I’m on the right page.” Nope! The twists and turns kept coming one after another from there on out. Even after finishing the book I was having to think back over it and try to piece things together.

I don’t remember a lot about Roth’s particular writing style from the “Insurgent” series other than it felt like a fairly standard YA style ala “Hunger Games.” But I have to think Roth has grown by leaps and bounds to create this. The writing is confident and sure, even as it tackles topics that can be hard to deal with and discusses moments and choices that, if not handled well, could turn readers off from some of our main characters and themes. The same world-building and all of its complexities also speaks to an increased dexterity in juggling many balls at once. There are layers within layers, but the story and character arcs are never consumed by the increasingly complicated world, history, and magic system.

This was a great book. I think Roth’s work has grown by leaps and bounds here, and she deftly tackles a topic that is rarely explored in fantasy works. It looks like on Goodreads it is listed as the first in a series, but to those who were burned by the “Insurgent” trilogy and have long memories and lasting wariness, I think this book reads perfectly as a standalone. If I hadn’t looked, I wouldn’t have known otherwise. This is also published as an adult fantasy novel, but I think it would appeal to YA readers as well. I’m pretty confident this will end up on next year’s Top 10 list for me; it’s that good.

Rating 9: Dark and twisty in all the right ways.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Chosen Ones” is a new title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on this very informatively-titled list: “2020 – Book Release.”

Find “Chosen Ones” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Jade War”

41716919Book: “Jade War” by Fonda Lee

Publishing Info: Orbit, July 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

Book Description: On the island of Kekon, the Kaul family is locked in a violent feud for control of the capital city and the supply of magical jade that endows trained Green Bone warriors with supernatural powers they alone have possessed for hundreds of years.

Beyond Kekon’s borders, war is brewing. Powerful foreign governments and mercenary criminal kingpins alike turn their eyes on the island nation. Jade, Kekon’s most prized resource, could make them rich – or give them the edge they’d need to topple their rivals.

Faced with threats on all sides, the Kaul family is forced to form new and dangerous alliances, confront enemies in the darkest streets and the tallest office towers, and put honor aside in order to do whatever it takes to ensure their own survival – and that of all the Green Bones of Kekon.

Previously Reviewed: “Jade City”

Review: After it took me so long to get around to reading “Jade City,” I wasn’t about to let the same happen for the second book in this series. I promptly started reading the sequel, and, sure enough, Fonda Lee has done it again. It was both everything I was expecting/wanting while also blowing wide the world and stakes that were set up in the first book.

Over a year after the events of “Jade City,” the Kaul family is still entrapped in the ongoing feud with their rival clan, the Mountain. While the Mountain was hurt by the sudden loss of one of their leaders, their calculating leader is nowhere close to finished. Throughout it all, Hilo and Shae continue to try to grow into their unexpected roles of leadership, while those closest to them try to find their own places. Wen, Hilo’s wife and secret ally of Shae, works in the open to provide an heir to the No Peak clan, while working behind the scenes to help gather information for Shae. And their adopted brother Anden finds himself exiled to a foreign land experience life for the first time out of both the shadow and the privilege of his powerful family.

“Jade City” was impressive in its detailed world-building, solid plotting, and nuanced characters who anything but paper cut-outs of typical staple roles. While the story left off with a wide open path ahead, I didn’t expect it to expand outwards as much as it does forwards. Meaning that the story moves ahead in unexpected ways, but the world itself and even our understanding of our main characters expands outwards in such a way that by the middle of the book I felt like I had been barely scratching the surface when I read the first book.

Through Anden’s perspective, the story expands past the borders of Kekon giving us not only new insights into the geo-political stagings of this unique world but offering a lot of commentary on the immigrant experience. Anden must learn new cultural norms, a new language, and confront the differences between the Kekon he grew up knowing and the smaller Kekon that his fellow immigrants have created for themselves in a new country. It was a really fascinating window into the feeling of familiarity yet continued displacement that is unique to an immigrant experience. While Anden sees elements of his familiar home, there are enough small changes and minor differences that highlight how the immigrant Kekonese community is essentially subculture all of its own.

The characters were also expanded upon and there were a bunch of twists here, specifically, that I didn’t see coming. Hilo, especially, had a few moments that really shocked me, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But this mix of traits that makes it hard to label him is the same thing that makes him read as so real. Flawed, desperate, constantly holding in his inner demons that push him towards foolish action. Shae also had an interesting story arc that I hadn’t anticipate. I continue to enjoy both Shae and Wen for the solid women characters they represent. Like Hilo, they are complex and we see their weaknesses and strengths laid out through the cool, objective, narrative of the story.

It’s a large book, and it fills it pages with as much continued world-building and expanded character moments as it does with plot. Readers looking for solid action might struggle with some of the slower paced portions. But if you enjoyed “Jade City,” than this book is a superb successor.

Rating 8: Bigger and better in every way! “Jade War” will leaving you craving for more!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Jade War” is on these Goodreads lists: “Essential Silkpunk” and “#ReadPOC: List of Speculative Fiction by Authors of Color.”

Find “Jade War” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Jade City”

43587154._sy475_Book: “Jade City” by Fonda Lee

Publishing Info: Orbit, June 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

Book Description: The Kaul family is one of two crime syndicates that control the island of Kekon. It’s the only place in the world that produces rare magical jade, which grants those with the right training and heritage superhuman abilities.

The Green Bone clans of honorable jade-wearing warriors once protected the island from foreign invasion–but nowadays, in a bustling post-war metropolis full of fast cars and foreign money, Green Bone families like the Kauls are primarily involved in commerce, construction, and the everyday upkeep of the districts under their protection.

When the simmering tension between the Kauls and their greatest rivals erupts into open violence in the streets, the outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones and the future of Kekon itself.

Review: This book has been on my TBR list for quite a long time. It received tons of praise when it first came out, but somehow I still missed the action. But when I saw that its sequel had come out recently, I knew that now was the time to get on board. So off to the audiobook library I went, and here we go! Another great fantasy trilogy to get caught up in!

Jade is what makes Kekon special, but also dangerous. Granting incredible abilities to those trained and predisposed to use it, controlling and possessing jade has forged the future of the small island nation. Now, run by several gangs made up of jade-enhanced warriors, Kekon sits in a precarious place in a world that wants what it has. To determine this future, however, each gang must continually prove its strength. The Kaul family, the head of one such gang, finds itself at an important crossroads as the reigns of power have been handed down to the next generation. Each of the three Kaul siblings have chosen very different paths, but each will soon learn that they all have an important role to play if the future of their family, gang, and nation are to be secured.

Having not read any  books that feature gangs prominently (at least that I can think of off the top of my head), most of my mental comparisons for this book came from movies like “The Godfather” and “Gangs of New York.” Which, again, each of which I’ve only seen once. All of this clearly highlights my lack of familiarly with the genre. But that aside, I think this was an exemplary take on a gang drama featuring a unique fantasy world that flowed together seamlessly.

The world-building was thorough and detailed, laying out a complete history of Kekon and how the abilities of jade warriors have shaped its trajectory. Now, in the modern world, we see how this power influences economic and political decisions, all while still being steeped in ancient tradition and rituals that weave their way throughout the country’s society and culture. The gangs themselves that primarily use and manage this jade are much more than the criminal enterprises we often associate with that term. Instead, they are acknowledged players on the world stage, even if their operations on the ground level still incorporate many of the aspects of crime lords: rigid territories, monitored petty crime, and a tightrope walk between peace and violence breaking out on the streets.

To make a story about a gang family really work you have to have strong main characters at the heart, and that’s definitely one of the biggest strengths of this book. The story centers around the three Kaul children, Lan, Hilo, and Shae. We also get several chapters from an adopted son, Anden, who is still in training to be a Green bone (a jade warrior). Each had their strengths, but I particularly enjoyed Hilo and Shae, together and separately. Hilo, as Horn of the gang, is essentially the enforcer, a role that suits him well with his charming personality disguising a brutal strength as a fighter. Shae, on the other hand, is the family member who got away, starting a new life for herself in a foreign country. But slowly, throughout this book, she realizes that one can’t simply cut family out of one’s life, and we see her clever mind and knowledge of politics and economics come more into play. She and Hilo naturally clash with their very different approaches to problem solving, and it’s the kind of fraught relationship that’s thrilling to follow. The reader is privy to both of their thoughts, so depending on whose mind you’re in currently, it’s easy to sympathize with one position over another. Until you switch, and then oh yes, maybe this one of the two has the rights of it.

This a detailed and thoughtful story, taking its time to fully develop its world, the players, and the various histories that were at play to create the situation the Kaul clan currently find themselves in. There were a couple of surprises along the way and some good action scenes towards the end, but go into it expecting an immersive, slow read. It was very clear that this was the first book in a series, and that it was setting the stage for larger conflicts to come. I already have my copy of “Jade War” on hand, so I’m excited to see where things go from here! If you enjoy urban fantasy, specifically ones set in unique worlds with political maneuverings at their heart, this is definitely the book for you!

Rating 8: A fully realized urban fantasy that feels like one is only scraping the tip of the iceberg on what is sure to be an excellent series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Jade City” is on these Goodreads lists: “Diverse Fantasy and Science Fiction Settings” and “2018 Sci-Fi Award Nominees.”

Find “Jade City” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Storm Cursed”

9780425281291_StormCursed_FCO_mech.inddBook: “Storm Cursed” by Patricia Briggs

Publishing Info: Ace, May 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: My name is Mercedes Athena Thompson Hauptman, and I am a car mechanic.

And a coyote shapeshifter.

And the mate of the Alpha of the Columbia Basin werewolf pack.

Even so, none of that would have gotten me into trouble if, a few months ago, I hadn’t stood upon a bridge and taken responsibility for the safety of the citizens who lived in our territory. It seemed like the thing to do at the time. It should have only involved hunting down killer goblins, zombie goats, and an occasional troll. Instead, our home was viewed as neutral ground, a place where humans would feel safe to come and treat with the fae.

The reality is that nothing and no one is safe. As generals and politicians face off with the Gray Lords of the fae, a storm is coming and her name is Death.

But we are pack, and we have given our word.

We will die to keep it.

Previously Reviewed:“Moon Called,” “Blood Bound,” “Iron Kissed,” “Bone Crossed,” “Silver Borne,” “River Marked,” “Frost Burned,”and “Night Broken” and “Fire Touched” and“Silence Fallen”

Review: I had some trepidation going into this book. As a whole, the Mercy Thomson series has been on somewhat of a downward trend for me the last several books, so I was worried that would continue. On top of that, the last “Alpha and Omega” book introduced a new aspect to a beloved character who appears in both series, and one that influences Mercy’s own history more than anyone’s. And I had feelings about that. Not good ones. So I was worried how that might come into play here. And then, of course, my lovely Kate Daniels series just finished up, so now all of my urban fantasy hopes and dreams rest on this series. It was a lot. But I am pleased to report that what you have before you is a review where for once all of my worst fears were for naught and instead I found this book to be a happy return to what I always loved about this series in the first place!

Mercy and the Pack are busy protecting the territory that Mercy has claimed as theirs to protect. On top of that, she’s trying to re-open her car shop and help her husband, Adam, balance precarious negotiations between the powerful fae Grey Lords and the human political powers. These things barely in hand, Mercy is dismayed to find that a new group of witches have taken up residence in her neighborhood, bringing with them all the terrors and sorrows that accompany the dark magic they need for their powers. With tensions running high, this is just the challenge they don’t need. And on top of it all, Mercy and the others begin to wonder what role their own resident witch, the powerful Elizabeta plays in all of this.

The first thing that this book did right, in my estimation, is return to the original, single narrator format. I’ve always been here for Mercy and her story. And while the last few books have had a few interesting things to offer with the added POVs from Adam, overall, I’ve found these chapters to be at best distracting and at worst detracting from Mercy’s story overall. In the last book, for example, I came away from the story feeling that Adam’s portion could almost have been removed entirely with no other changes really needed. And as it was, those chapters just took away page time from Mercy herself.

So I was incredibly happy when I opened this book and realized that the entire thing would be from Mercy’s perspective alone. There’s not a lot of new things to say about her as a narrator, as we’re now so many books into the series. But the strengths that were there in the beginning were back again here: Mercy’s unique perspective on the supernatural world, her wit, and her practical approach to navigating challenges that are often far outside of her wheelhouse.

Overall, she was a bit more reactive to the events going on around her than proactive, but I think this is a natural change for her character, as the world she exists within has gotten so much bigger. With this expanding world has come an entire host of friends and allies to call upon, and I’m always glad when I see these individuals pulled in in creative ways. In particular, I enjoyed the return of Stephan, the vampire friend with whom Mercy now shares a complicated relationship that they are each still learning to navigate.

As for the story itself, I was pleased to find that no mention was made of the “reveal” that came up in the last “Alpha and Omega.” I’m hopeful that at the very least we can all go along pretending that that never happened, though I’d be happier still to find it categorically negated in some future book.

This book also felt much more dark than some of the previous entries. Witches and their black magic rely on inflicting pain and suffering on other creatures, so any book that features them as the primary antagonists is going to go to some pretty horrific places. For those animals lovers out there (among whom I count myself), definitely be prepared for some tears and cringe worthy scenes. At times it felt like a bit much. But on the other hand, I think I was also more invested in the downfall of the “big bads” in this book than in many of the previous ones due to the increased horror of their actions.

Accurate across all supernatural books/shows, it seems. 

I could have used a bit more Adam/Mercy time, and the book description with its focus on the negotiation between the fae and the humans is a bit misleading, as that feels like a more minor story line, ultimately. But overall, I greatly enjoyed this book, much more so than the last several in fact! It’s always great to see a long-running series prove that it still has something fresh and new to offer. This goes a long way towards reassuring my near panic about not having an urban fantasy series to look forward to any longer. Fans of the series should be pleased with this one!

Rating 8: Mercy Thomson and Briggs can still deliver!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Storm Cursed” is mostly on Goodreads book lists that have to do with new titles this year, so here’s one of those it is on: “2019 Paranormal.”

Find “Storm Cursed” at your library using WorldCat!