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Review: Seraphina, Rachel Hartman

seraphinaSeraphina has spent much of her life refusing friendships and hiding herself from those who might get close to her. Why? Because she is half dragon, would be considered an abomination by almost everyone she knows, and cherishes her relative freedom from prejudice and prosecution. The love between her parents was forbidden and she has already overstepped her bounds slightly by taking a job in the royal court, helping with the orchestra and giving the Princess Grisselda music lessons. The peace between dragons and humans is an uneasy one, however, particularly when dragons can take human form, indistinguishable from real humans if they fail to wear their bells. Both dragons and humans are wary, and it would take just one powerful rebel to tip the balance.

Seraphina is a book that completely surprised me. I don’t know why – I bought it because I’d seen many praising reviews of it around the blogosphere, so I knew, objectively, that I might like it. But subjectively, it didn’t actually appeal to me that much. I didn’t feel like reading a book about dragons, the cover didn’t broadcast to me that I would like it (although why I’m not sure – on a closer look it’s actually lovely), and YA is not my favorite genre. I bought it when it was on the Kindle Daily Deal, as something that I knew I should try, but had no particular plan to read it. And then I was on the train on Friday, I’d finished the last book I was reading (Widow’s Web by Jennifer Estep), which had ended on a slightly low note, and I just had no idea which book I wanted to read next. For whatever reason, Seraphina called to me then, so I opened it.

It wasn’t even love at first few pages. In fact, I found it difficult to get into, and if I wasn’t sitting on train with nothing else appealing to me much, I might have wandered over to my bookshelves and chosen something else. But I stuck with it, because I had twenty minutes to fill. And then I fell in love with it, and found myself absolutely glued to the Kindle until I finished. I loved it even more because it blind-sided me and I expected not to like it; instead I found an absolute gem. The book has a fantastic, multi-layered world, deep characters, and a plot that races along and managed to surprise me at the end.

I simply adored Seraphina. I loved that the book took prejudice head-on and showed that this tough, brave, sensitive, clever, gifted girl is someone that most of the population around her would hate if they knew her true nature. They adore her, but how easily that could change, and how worried she is despite that affection – this is a worry that is justified but this book is a perfect example of how well fantasy can teach us about our world, too. I even loved how Lucian Kiggs, another significant character in the book, shares some stigma with Seraphina because he’s a bastard, but in a totally different way. We could also talk about how much I loved the romance and how utterly perfect it was, but that really just capped off a book that was already spectacular.

This is the book I wish I’d read instead of all of those disappointing YA fantasy books I did read. Highly, highly recommended.

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Review: Blood’s Pride, Evie Manieri

blood's prideThe story of the Norlanders and the Shadari is that of conquest. Two decades ago, the Norlanders laid waste to the Shadari homelands, killing their strongest people and enslaving the rest. Nearby, the desert people, the Nomas, watched in silence, despite Shadari calls for aid. Now, Lord Eonar rules over the Norlanders still far from home, while his three grown children squabble amongst themselves for power. But the Shadari aren’t as subdued as they might seem, and it will soon be time for all three of Eonar’s children to grow up and face the people that they have lived with for their entire lives.

This book hit me at just the right time, when I was completely ready to read an immersive fantasy novel, and though I didn’t fall in love with it, I really liked it. All of the components fell together neatly and I really liked what the author did with the story.

The Norlanders, who reminded me of fantasy-Vikings with their often pale coloring and actual cold skin and blood, are very typical conquerers, reigning over a much larger popular of darker skinned “natives”, the Shadari, who have a king and culture of their own. The Shadari can hardly bear to touch Norlanders, and the language that Norlanders speak is actually impossible for Shadari to hear or understand, though the Norlanders can speak the Shadari language.

What I liked about this book, in part at least, is how well it demonstrated the way that conquerers can integrate into the societies completely by accident. Eonar’s children have grown up with the Shadari, in very close contact, and as a result see this supposedly conquered people as, well, people, rather than the “Other” their parents’ generation easily attacked. Many of the Norlanders who were later transplants don’t integrate quite the same way, and the learning process is still going on by the end of the book. There are examples of “good” and “bad” characters in both and the plot revolves around their machinations, rather than any external events.

With this in mind, I found myself caught up in the plot and wondering what was going to happen next. Manieri also includes a number of stronger female characters, though this is still largely a world where men dominate the highest leadership positions. There are a few worthy characters that had me rooting for them and I really liked where the author took the story. This is the first of a trilogy, I believe, but I thought the ending would have been quite satisfactory even if it wasn’t. Most things wrap up fairly well, with just enough still happening to keep readers ready for the next installment.

Blood’s Pride is a fantasy novel that I enjoyed greatly – and if you like character-driven fantasy, you might want to try it too.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

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Review: The Water Witch, Juliet Dark

the water witchJust when Callie McFay thinks she’s returned her life to normal, having banished the incubus she very nearly loved from her home, she’s recruited to help save the world of Faerie. Convinced that the supernatural creatures which are entering the human realm are causing harm, a group of witches are about to close the last door to Faerie; as the doorkeeper, only Callie can stop them. Some of her nearest and dearest friends in her adopted town of Fairwick are fae and splitting the two realms will cause a disaster for many of them. But Callie can’t even work out her feelings for her banished incubus lover, her tutor in magic, or her new handyman, let alone save the connection to Faerie for all.

Somehow, when I requested this book from Netgalley, I completely missed that it was the second in a trilogy. I strangely assumed that it was the first in a new series, perhaps because I hadn’t heard of it before, but I kept wondering why so much had happened before the book started. Once I finished, I looked online, and I did realize that this is the middle book of a trilogy – so it’s worth keeping that in mind. I actually found that, while this meant that I had no real introduction to the world, the author did a fantastic job making sure I knew what happened in the previous book. While I as always would have preferred to start from the beginning, I didn’t feel I’d actually missed out too much.

Once I’d settled into the rhythm of the story and accepted that I wasn’t going to get a deep introduction to the world, I found myself quite enjoying the book and wondering if Callie was going to manage to actually save all the people she cared about. This was an extraordinarily fast read, and while I wouldn’t really say it was particularly deep, it was definitely fun. I also enjoyed the romantic side of the book, with Callie’s many love interests – although the three get narrowed down in different ways as the book rolls along. There were a few moments towards the end when I felt as though she was being blind and wanted to tell her what was going on, but since she’s traumatized from so much happening and figures it out, I couldn’t hold it against her too much.

The Water Witch would be a great read for someone who enjoys both fantasy and romance, although I’d probably recommend starting from the beginning. I intend to.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

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Review: Ill Wind & Heat Stroke, Rachel Caine

ill windThese are the first two books in the Weather Wardens series. I thought it was easiest to review both in one post and share more general thoughts on the series, rather than a specific book review for each.

Joanne Baldwin can control the weather. As one of the Weather Wardens, she’s responsible for maintaining the natural flow of the weather and helping even out major crises. But things aren’t going so well for her, as she’s acquired a Demon Mark and the only person she knows who can help her get rid of it is in hiding. In fact, he’s impossible to find, and Joanne is running out of time. With deceitful Djinn (genies) in her way and secretive friends, Joanne isn’t sure who she can trust to help her get rid of her Demon Mark and return to her job.

Urban fantasy is one of my favorite genres. I have plenty of examples of the genre where the characters are amazing and develop with realistic relationships and death-defying odds and cool magic systems – everything that I look for in a fantasy novel. Unfortunately, these books didn’t deliver on what I wanted, and as a result I think I’ll be leaving this series behind. I’d purchased these books in a 2 for 1 style deal, so I thought I’d keep going, but the second one didn’t really improve on the first.

heat stroke

Primarily, I didn’t connect at all with the main character, Joanne. She’s too focused on fast cars, attractive men, and clothes for me to like her, in perfect honesty. She doesn’t seem all that bright and she doesn’t make the right choices. Or, I should say, the choices I would make in her shoes, nor is she the sort of character that I’d try to understand anyway.

Secondly, maybe I’m not far along enough yet in the series, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a unifying factor. A lot changes in the second book, yes, but then could be completely reversed at the end, which makes me wonder what was the point of reading it at all. The relationships didn’t develop in ways that I believed in, and the characters apart from Joanne felt mostly like cardboard. It’s really an action and emotion novel; you have to get sucked in to follow the ride, and this time I simply wasn’t sucked in at all.

It’s a shame because I really wanted to like this series, and it isn’t as though I minded reading it. I just feel like my standards for this genre have been raised so high by the utterly amazing fantasy that I’ve been reading that these two books weren’t really there. I am afraid I can’t recommend this series.

I purchased these books.

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Review: Gilded, Karina Cooper

gildedCherry continues her difficult balancing act between the aristocracy and the lower levels of society in this second installment of the St. Croix Chronicles. After the traumatic events of the last book, she’s determined to find out more about her family and where she actually comes from. At the same time, she is becoming aware how precarious her life is, and worse, how unsteady her behavior makes the lives of those around her. Soon Cherry is forced to make a choice, between keeping the life she’s used to and keeping those she loves safe, if that’s even a possibility …

I liked the first book in this series, Tarnished, but Gilded was magnitudes more involving. As happens quite often in a series like this, the part of the first book that’s devoted to setup can be devoted to plot in the second, and Cooper delivers on the promise of the first one in spades. I actually read them very close together, despite the fact that my reviews are scattered so far apart, and I was really rewarded by doing that. Unfortunately the result means I can’t separate them in my mind as much as I should be able to, except for the end.

This is in part because this book directly follows on from the last one. It has a little bit of a plot arc of its own, centered around a riddle that is posed to Cherry and which she can’t help but try and solve, but not as much as I was expecting. Since this plot arc follows on so well, though, I absolutely didn’t mind; I was quite happy to continue the story where it left off, because it left off in quite an uncertain place, with plenty of plot threads dangling.

As with the last book, what I really like about this world is the difference between literally the upper class in the upper part of London and the lower class down below. It’s impossible to walk from one to the other, you need transportation; it’s an actual separation between the classes. Cherry is dauntingly flitting between these two worlds, which effectively demonstrates to us that (of course) people are people and there are wonderful and terrible ones in both places, but breaking the barrier is the real challenge.

The love stories also progress, and I found my jaw on the floor at the ending – it was the kind of ending I’d expect to find later in a series, not in the second book. I immediately wanted to find out what happens next, and now I’m only sorry that there isn’t a publication date yet for it.

If you like the sound of a steampunk, alternate London urban fantasy, these two books are definitely worth picking up.  Highly recommended.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

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Review: Tarnished, Karina Cooper

tarnishedCherry St. Croix lives in two worlds, London Above and London Below. Above, she’s the somewhat ostracized daughter of a mad scientist and his aristocratic, much-loved wife; after their deaths when she was a child, Cherry has had to navigate the waters of London’s social set with the guidance of her guardian, but she has never had much success or care for the intricate social politics. Below, she’s a Collector, a detective of sorts who finds and turns in people who owe something to others. As the only female collector, and one who has to keep her identity a secret, Cherry takes great pride in her success. But then, one of her bounties disappears, and the “sweets”, or prostitutes, of Below’s menagerie tell her about a horrible murder and ask for her help in finding the killer.

I really liked this book; it’s a twist on steampunk London, adding fantasy and new elements that made for an interesting world. I thought the actual, literal split between London’s rich and poor was a fascinating division, and it means that whoever shows up “Below” has a real motive and a reason for being there. It appears to be a racial divide as well, although I don’t recall any explicit mention of this. All of the characters of color are met under London, and the social elites are all white. The literal divide means that Cherry actually does live in two worlds, and her different identities in each are starkly defined.

The story itself is actually wrapped up in Cherry’s identity, though; the mystery that she attempts to solve is closely wrapped up in her own past, and as a result we do get a significant amount of her backstory in this one book. We need to, just to understand what’s going on and why it matters. I thought the story was decently intriguing, although readers should be aware that it doesn’t end here at all, and plenty of mysteries are left unsolved for future books in the series.

There is also a romance element to this particular book, although it doesn’t actually get very far. Cherry doesn’t really fall in love with anyone, but she has an intense attraction to two men who personify the split between her two worlds. The first is the leader of the Menagerie, a dark and charismatic figure that Cherry can’t avoid being attracted to; the second is the son of her worst aristocratic nemesis, a tall and golden-haired earl. It’s immediately clear that to be with either, Cherry would have to sacrifice one of her identities, but there’s no hint of a choice in this book, just the beginning of what could be a love triangle in the future.

While Tarnished was a good read, it remained a like, not love, book, for reasons I can’t really explain. Certainly good enough to continue with the series, though; I’d recommend it to those who like urban fantasy and steampunk, but it wouldn’t be the first on my list for current urban fantasy series just yet.

All external book links are affiliate links. I purchased this book.

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Review: City of Ghosts, Stacia Kane

city of ghostsChess Putnam is a wreck in almost any way she can think of. She’s driven away her closest friend by sleeping with another man and she’s a drug addict that can barely function without a few pills. The only positive thing in her life, really, is her job as a Church witch and her faith in the Church’s ability to debunk ghosts. Even that faith is about to be thrown into question, though, as Chess begins working with a girl called Lauren, the daughter of the Grand Elder, a Church cop. Chess feels that there is something wrong about Lauren; her spells are wrong, her magic is wrong, but with the promise of a hefty check in the bank and little reason to pursue other paths in life, she goes along with it, only to find that the Church is not nearly so powerful as she’d thought.

I’ve more or less stopped reviewing most of the urban fantasy that I read on my blog because I tend to read books in a series very often and very quickly, and once I get to the middle of a series, it gets harder to keep track of spoilers and find something unique to say about each installment. But everyone, I loved this book in a way that makes me want to write about it, so here I go giving it a try once again. I don’t love it in the way that I love, say, The Remains of the Day or Among Others, but this was such an incredible, addictive, heart-pounding read that it satisfied every little desire I had for an urban fantasy book.

I really like the darkness that this series brings along with it. Chess’s city, especially Downside, is not a nice place to live. It reminds me of a Gotham city, except even more corrupt; the people she cares about are all generally drug pushers or addicts, except for those in the church, and her own life is an example of how a person gets so addicted to drugs that they can rarely care about anything else. But Chess does care about something else, and that something else is actually a person called Terrible. You see, in the last two books, we’ve been watching the relationship between Chess and Terrible develop, in a heart-melting, exciting way, until he saw something that turned him away from her completely.

The agony that’s resulted from this for Chess is incredibly intense – it took losing him to realize how much she really cared about him, and watching their relationship move on from this was honestly so emotional that I couldn’t believe I was feeling quite that much about these two people who are so incredibly broken. Terrible is a guy that scares the people of Downside as Bump’s chief enforcer; he is the guy who forces money out of people if they don’t pay up for their drugs. He’s so far from the charming rogues that grace some of my favorite historical romance novels that I doubt he’d recognize a suit if he saw one. But based on these books, I completely fell in love with his character, and with Chess and him together. Yes, she screwed up, but this relationship is simply addiction of the strongest kind. For them, and for me, the reader.

The story itself is good too, of course; the mystery around what’s happening with Lauren and Chess’s investigation is well worth following. But as always for me with a series, it’s the relationships that characters build that keep me going, and this series has completely, already, hooked me in. Very, very highly recommended.

I purchased this book.

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Catching up with more mini reviews

I have an unfortunate number of books that I read too long ago to write a normal, coherent, 500+ word review. So, more mini reviews are in order, to wipe the slate clean and feel like I can actually catch up with this blog of mine one of these days. These are all fantasy, although Blackout is on the line between fantasy and science fiction.

ashes of honorAshes of HonorSeanan McGuire

I love these books so much that I’ve lost the ability to even review them objectively, let alone in a way that will get you to read them with me. The stakes for Toby are always high, but in this one, they keep going up, and many characters from earlier books in the series pop back in again to help. And, I have one word for those who have read books in this series before: Tybalt. I am so invested in this series and these characters; I just sat down and read this book straight through because I simply had to know what happens next.

So, if you haven’t read these and you have the slightest interest in urban fantasy, get started with Rosemary and Rue!

the hidden goddessThe Hidden Goddess, M.K. Hobson

I was one of the fans of Hobson’s The Native Star, so when the next book in the trilogy came out, I was looking forward to continuing this romantic historical fantasy series. While I liked it, I didn’t really fall in love with it. I think it’s suffering a bit from middle-book syndrome, and it’s definitely suffering from a lack of romantic interest. After the heady romance in the first book, I stopped being really sold on Emily and Stanton here. I’ll definitely pick up the third book in the trilogy, but it will probably sit on the shelf as long as this one did.

blackoutBlackout, Mira Grant

I feel guilty for consigning two of this author’s books to the mini reviews pile, but that’s what I get for putting off writing reviews – better something than nothing. Blackout was excellent; I had the pleasure of reading it with Jodie, mostly because we were terrified at what the author might do to the characters after the first book, but I was mostly satisfied by how it went and, while I was reading, I was completely glued to the pages. An excellent trilogy, totally worth your time, but make sure you start with Feed.

daughter of smoke and boneDaughter of Smoke and BoneLaini Taylor

And finally we get to the book that everyone raves about but which I didn’t like much. I still don’t entirely see the appeal. I just didn’t fall in love with this book. I do often have difficulty with YA romance-y books, which I appreciate makes no sense as I inhale regular romance novels easily enough. But this one, I just didn’t connect with. I didn’t buy the magical connection between Akiva and Karou and – in all honesty – I saw the twist coming. And that never happens for me, as I’m horrendously bad at predicting what’s going to happen (on purpose). It’s more than that, though; I just felt like the book was too contrived, and I didn’t believe in what was happening.

What the book did have going for it, though, was the setting. The descriptions in this book were everything I’d imagined Prague to be, and everything I was disappointed by when it wasn’t. So that might have predisposed me against it. Just a thought.

 

Have you read any of these books? What did you think?

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Review: The Alloy of Law, Brandon Sanderson

the alloy of lawThe Alloy of Law, Brandon Sanderson

A few hundred years after the original Mistborn trilogy, the world has moved on and progressed. The city of Elendel is a metropolis, and trains criss-cross the landscape. Criminals and lawmen alike carry guns, although the practices of Allomancy and Feruchemy in the Mistborn make life as interesting as ever. Our hero, Waxillium, is a noblemen who has taken to reviving the law in the rougher areas around the city. When personal tragedy ruins his happiness there, he returns to save his family’s estates, only to discover that the city may actually be more dangerous than the roughs ever were.

I’ve been a fan of Brandon Sanderson for a good few years now, since before I discovered he would be finishing The Wheel of Time (a discovery that delighted me at the time, but I’ve since failed to read a single book he’s written for this series). For the most part, I really enjoyed the original Mistborn trilogy, and I’ve been looking forward to The Alloy of Law for some time. While it ties into the original series, I think it stands quite well on its own and provides some excellent action, likeable characters, and an extension to Sanderson’s already very clever magic system. It’s just an all-around great read that was the perfect way to spend an evening.

Definitely recommended if you enjoy fantasy, as are all of Sanderson’s books; this isn’t an earth-shattering read, but it is a good one.

fate's edgeFate’s Edge, Ilona Andrews

Audrey Callahan wants nothing to do with the family that loves her drug addict brother, who ignores rehab and has attempted to sell her for drugs, more than her. In order to finally achieve the separation she craves, she must pull off one last heist using her unique magic ability to pick even the toughest locks. Unfortunately, that last heist kicks off a huge series of disasters, leaving Audrey on the run to get the stolen objects back with alarmingly attractive and skilled Kaldar Mar, a man who is unquestionably bad for her but somehow she can’t resist.

I’ve never quite liked Ilona Andrews’s Edge series as much as the Kate Daniels series. I don’t think it’s because the books are any worse, but it’s mainly because I don’t like the shift in protagonists each time. They feel more like paranormal romance with plot, instead of plot with ongoing occasional romance but mostly other epic awesomeness. This book, though, was probably my favorite of the three in the series so far. The spark between Audrey and Kaldar was fantastic, and the plot held together alongside that, as the reasons driving them to be together made some sense. Moreover, I remember lots of the characters from the previous books, so I felt a greater sense of continuity than I had previously.

I’d probably still recommend the Kate Daniels series first, but the Edge series of books are worth reading if you enjoy those. I can definitely say I’ll be picking up the fourth in the series when it’s released.

All external book links are affiliate links. I purchased these books.

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Review: Among Others, Jo Walton

among othersIn recent years, since I’ve been keeping track, there have been two books that have catapulted themselves into becoming my instant favorite of the year. The first was The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. The second was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Barrows and Annie Shaffer. The first has remained among my favorites ever, a book that I have forced on a number of people; for some reason my enthusiasm for the second hasn’t quite stuck nearly so much although I did love that book. Among Others by Jo Walton is now the third, a book that spoke to me in so many different ways that I couldn’t help but love it nearly from the first word.

Fourteen-year-old Morwenna’s life has been irrevocably changed by magic; from an early age she understood the consequences of wishing for something to be, and now her mother’s magic has cost her her twin sister and the full use of her leg. Mori, as she prefers to be known, runs away from her mother and ends up with her father, who had also run away from her mother, after a stint in a home for children. Sent to boarding school and away from everything and everyone she loves, except for her beloved science fiction, Mori struggles to find a life for herself and escape permanently from her mother’s influence.

There are so many ways in which I connected to this book. For one, very obvious thing, I lost my not-quite-two-years-younger brother when I was a teenager, and while it’s not the same as losing your twin I’m sure, losing a sibling that you’ve been so close to and grown up with changes your life in significant and very similar ways. As Mori notes, “The thing with dying, well, with death really, is that there’s a difference between being someone who knows they can really die at any time and someone who doesn’t.” This is something you learn when you lose your sibling at a young age, the person who you expected to be with you throughout your whole life as they had always been in memory, and the difference between life before and life after simply isn’t the same. Mori is younger than I was, but I felt like I understood her, immediately.

But it’s not just that. It’s the way that Mori grows as the story progresses over the year, the way that she discovers who she is in the absence of her surroundings, what she loves and who she can become, if only she can make that happen. Her journey is nothing less than inspiring, and though it might seem quiet on the outside, if you actually read a summarized plot, it has that ability that books I love best do to show you what happens when it looks, on the outside, like very little is happening at all.

That’s not to mention the fact that Mori loves books and spends her time surrounded by them. She reads mainly science fiction, but she has special places in her heart for fantasy and for historical fiction, and loves to learn the context about the stories she’s reading. I think this book would be even richer for someone who was more familiar with popular science fiction from the 70s, as Mori doesn’t hide her opinions and talks directly about the books she’s reading. For those I did recognize, her quotes and references are intelligent and certainly add an extra layer to the book. It would be nearly impossible, in my mind, for someone who also loves books to not relate to her, and not appreciate the way they save her from difficult situations over and over again.

Anyway, I hope I am getting across my sheer love of this book to you. After I finished, I simply sat for a while and thought of it, and actually couldn’t bring myself to start another book. I didn’t want to let Mori and her world go, not yet. Certainly not before I’d written this review, one of those rare times I’ve finished a book and immediately felt the urge to tell you all about it and persuade you to read it yourself.

So, clearly if you’ve been reading this, Among Others has my whole-hearted, enthusiastic recommendation. Please read this book, and then come back and talk to me about it. It’s won multiple awards, so it isn’t just me that fell in love with it, plenty of others have too.

All external book links are affiliate links. I purchased this book (one of the best pounds I have ever spent).

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