Navigators of Dune by Brian Herbert & Kevin Anderson

navigators-of-duneI know, I know. Don’t judge me. Dune books are like drugs for me. I’m so in love with the world that I can’t stop reading them, and while the original Dune is clearly the best by an astronomical margin, I enjoy revisiting the world as Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson craft new stories in it.

Saying all that to say, I got this book two weeks early at DragonCon in Atlanta, and I met Kevin Anderson and he signed it for me. I WAS VERY HAPPY. I REGRET NOTHING.

Now, to the book:

Navigators of Dune is the conclusion to the Great Schools trilogy, set in the years after the Butlerian Jihad as humanity finds itself able to focus on other things than simply the great war with machines. Manford Torondo and his fanatical Butlerians have seized even more power than before and vehemently oppose Josef Venport and his enterprises (the beginnings of the Spacing Guild). Josef, on the outs with new emperor Roderick Corrino after the details of his brother’s death came to light, struggles to fight on two fronts and keep his business going – and the light of science strong. And meanwhile, Vorian Atreides and Valya Harkonnen, Mother Superior of the Sisterhood, are spiraling toward a final confrontation that will surely be fatal for one of them.

One of those axioms that writers repeat ad nauseum is “show, don’t tell.” It’s not always true, as there are instances where things must be told, but it generally makes for a stronger novel. That was one of my main issues with this book – there’s so much telling in the first half of the novel, telling us what happened in previous books, telling us what characters feel instead of showing it through their actions, etc. In a few chapters, recapping and telling what so and so feels such and such takes up 90% of the chapter. It bloats the first half and makes it drag, which is frustrating because SO MUCH happens in the second half.

The other thing that bugs me is that the book sets you up to root for Josef Venport (Roderick Corrino too to some degree, but he hasn’t been in the series as long). You can’t really root for Manford because he’s very anti-progress, Valya is kind of a jerk, Vorian isn’t in it enough to be your primary character, so you’re left with Josef. And despite his choices and his use of cymeks against humans, I wanted Josef Venport to win so badly.

That’s the problem though – you know he can’t. We know how this ends, how this has to end, to bring about the world of the original Dune. As a result, Josef has to make some exceptionally stupid decisions that don’t fit with his character. It’s immensely frustrating to read in places, and I wish it hadn’t been framed the way it was. There had to be a better way to handle Josef’s plotline.

But there are good moments, and Erasmus is one of them. It’s interesting to see how his memory core pans out in this final book, and almost touching that he develops some feelings for Anna Corrino. I’ve always liked Erasmus as a character, in part because he is so unique, and so this book was satisfying on that front.

Roderick Corrino is also a much more interesting character than his brother Salvador. I don’t often find myself liking the Corrinos, but Roderick is an exception and I wish he’d been more of a focus in previous books. He’s front and center here, making the best of a difficult situation, and I appreciated his chapters greatly.

We also get a bit of the Atreides/Harkonnen feud. Vorian is desperate to bring it to an end with his death, and while he succeeds in making Valya think she’s won, he doesn’t get the result he ultimately wanted because we know the feud continues.

On the whole, it’s a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy and there are some good setpieces that are fun to read (like the attack on Lampadas). Is it the strongest of the Herbert/Anderson books? No, it’s not. I would only recommend this particular spin-off series if, like me, you just can’t put the world down.

Grade: 3.5/5

Memorable Quote

“Josef’s thoughts went wild. Such weapons were utterly forbidden in the Imperium. Atomics! Emperor Roderick would never have authorized this strike – Manford Torondo and all his followers would now be shunned, banished from imperial society.

Or…would Roderick gloss over the horrendous war crime as the price of vengeance? Josef was sickened. Did the Emperor even know about this?”

— Navigators of Dune, pg. 257

-Regina

Originally appeared on Regina’s blog

The Last Mortal Bond by Brian Staveley

the-last-mortal-bond.pngI actually finished this book several months ago, but I’ve been so behind that it’s taken me this long to review it. Which is a shame, because wow – this was such a good conclusion to The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series. Slow clap for Mr. Brian Staveley.

Picking up where The Providence of Fire left off, The Last Mortal Bond follows the emperor’s children as they struggle to thwart the Csetriim plot to rid the land of the new gods and, in so doing, “cure” and/or purge humanity from the earth. Kaden has set up his republic, but it goes ill, and he cannot convince Triste to do what she must to save everyone. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, as Adare finds out. Her general is losing to the sadistic Urghul (thanks to the leach Balendin), and she must make amends with her brother to save her kingdom. Valyn is lost in the wilderness, blind but not blind, and full of rage and desire for revenge. And Gwenna and the remnants of Valyn’s Wing return to the islands to salvage what’s left of the Kettral.

That sounds like a lot – and it is. This book is a doorstopper in size to deal with it too. Yet daunting as it may look, the story breezes by. There’s so much that has to happen, so the plot never drags, and you’ll find yourself at the end of it before you know it.

Though the main plot deals with the Csetriim, Ran il Tornja isn’t the only bad guy that has to be dealt with. I was more than a bit surprised to discover that Balendin is actually much more of an immediate threat, and a large portion of the book is devoted to plans to stop the invading Urghul he leads. This gives The Last Mortal Bond a nice balance as it bounces between dealing with a very metaphysical, intangible threat and a very in-your-face, here-and-now problem.

This is also far and away the best book for Staveley’s characters. Each and every one of them has to confront a problem and rise to the occasion, so we see much more growth here. Adare has to swallow her pride and find ways to compromise to do right by her people (and actually make good choices instead of poor ones). Valyn struggles with his new abilities and the dark feelings they’ve awoken inside him. Kaden finds himself forced to deal with emotions he hasn’t truly felt in years as he seeks out Meshkent, god of pain, to thwart Ran. And Gwenna’s budding leadership skills are put to the test as she struggles to reform the Kettral.

I like plots that hinge on religions or something to do with divinities, so the central plot here had strong appeal for me now that it was out in the open. Staveley handles it well, revealing just enough about how divinities work in his world, and creating some memorable characters and moments. Kaden finally came into his own here, and toward the end of the book, I finally found myself liking him for the first time.

The big showdown on Intarra’s Spear is exceedingly well-written and enjoyable – it’s possibly the best moment of Staveley’s prose in all three books. And I appreciate that Staveley didn’t pull any punches. The ending has a very real, bittersweet feel to it, without being overly grimdark; there was a cost to pay, yes, but there is hope for the future too.

A lot of other reviewers have found Gwenna’s story to be largely tangential, and it’s true that the book probably could have been thinned out by omitting it without too much damage to the central plot. But Gwenna’s story was most interesting, for me, and I found myself speeding through chapters to get back to her. Staveley’s created a real gem in her, because she’s a very compelling read. I found myself strongly identifying with her, and she has some of the most exciting passages of the book, with the retaking of the islands and the Kettral assault on Balendin.

The Last Mortal Bond also takes us to some exciting new places, including Rassambur, home of the Skullsworn, where we meet Pyrre again. I love the Skullsworn as a concept, so this was a welcome stop. As I did with The Providence of Fire, I have to commend Staveley on his world. It was on full display again here, much to my great satisfaction. In fact, there was very little for me to nitpick on this book, other than a few character decisions I didn’t fully understand here and there.

To sum, I’ve come full circle on this series. I found The Emperor’s Blades somewhat lacking, but with books two and three, Staveley really turned it up to 11, and I expect The Last Mortal Bond will rank on my list of favorite books from 2016.

On a related note, I’m excited to hear he’s writing some standalones, and I’m glad he’s starting with Pyrre because I missed her for much of this novel. Can we have one for Gwenna next?

Me, to Brian Staveley

Grade: 4.75/5

Memorable Quote

“He could remember a time when darkness had been a quality of the world itself, a thing of the sky when the sun sagged below the horizon and the light leaked out; a thing of the sea when you dove deep enough for the weight of the salt water to smother the shine; a thing of castle keeps and caves after someone snuffed the last lamp and the great stone space went black. Even the darkness of Hull’s Hole, that absolute absence of light filling the cave’s snaking chamber: you went into it, then you came out. Or if you failed to come, if the slarn tore you apart, then you slid into the longer darkness of death. It had seemed an awful fate once, being stuck in that endless black. That was before the blade had taught Valyn hui’Malkeenian a greater, more terrible truth: the outer dark, for all its horrors – the old, cold dark of caverns or the bottomless dark of the dead – it was nothing when set beside the darkness carried inside, a darkness bled into poisoned flesh and carved across ruined eyes, a darkness of the self.”

— The Last Mortal Bond, pg. 174

-Regina

Originally appeared on Regina’s blog

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

nevernightJay Kristoff – yet another author I wasn’t keeping close enough tabs on. I read his The Lotus War series two years ago (fortunately I discovered it just as Endsinger came out and was able to go straight through all three). After that, I neglected to add him to my list and thus, when I stumbled across Nevernight, the first book in a new series by him, I was pleasantly startled and immediately purchased it. Man, am I glad I did.

Nevernight takes place in a world where the suns rarely set and follows the story of a young girl name Mia. Her family murdered/imprisoned, she is tossed out to be killed as a child, but she escapes and begins plotting the downfall of those who wronged her family. To do that, she begins training as an assassin (and also a worshipper of Niah, the goddess of the dark, whom most of the world believes to be an evil goddess). Along the way, she makes both friends and enemies and uncovers a plot to rid the world of the cult of Niah.

Funnily enough, this book started with an argument about vaginas. In his post on John Scalzi’s blog, Kristoff states that he wrote the scene between the main character Mia and her love interest Tric first, where Mia explains to Tric why “cunt” is not actually a bad word. After he wrote the scene, he loved Mia so much that he built an entire world to explore her.

And Kristoff’s love for Mia and the world really shows. Mia is such a wonderfully realized character. She is brutal and yet tender, determined and yet vulnerable. She strikes a lovely balance between the stereotype of Plucky Female Protagonist and something much darker and more nuanced – you get a nice hint of both. The other characters are good and not flat, but they can’t hold a candle to Mia. She really carries the story; if you aren’t interested in her, you aren’t going to enjoy this book. Fortunately, I found her as fascinating as Kristoff and just raced through the novel.

He also built her a kickass world. Worldbuilding is one of my personal Kryptonites – if you build a lovely world, I will read and read and read your books just to learn more about it, characters and plot be damned. (See: why I’m still reading every single Dune book that comes out). This world has such uniqueness for a fantasy, in that its biggest conceit is astronomic in nature: its three suns, the varying “day” lengths of which means that the planet rarely sees “truedark.” Kristoff took this concept and built a religion around it (smart smart man), and that religion permeates everything in the book.

Then he also borrowed liberally from the Romans, and I love Romans. So it’s a nice combination, all told.

He also drops these lovely explanations of the world in his footnotes (THANK YOU for not putting them at the end), many of which are quite humorous. All told, the world has so much influence on the story that it’s almost a character – and that is the mark of excellent fantasy worldbuilding.

I was expecting to see a more refined version of Kristoff’s prose from The Lotus War, but this book is actually written in a very unique voice. We have a distinct narrator who is telling us the story, who clearly knows its beginning and end. For much of the novel, the story is told in both present and flashback to feed us Mia’s history, and DAMN does Kristoff make the past arcs parallel the present. His first chapter is a work of goddamn art in that regard (not going to spoil, just read it). A lot of other reviews I’ve seen found the style immensely distracting, and I can see where they’re coming from. Personally, I did not find it distracting; I found it to be a welcome change from the normal third-person omniscient or first-person standard of the genre. Your mileage, however, may vary.

The plot will grabs you too and never lets you go – it’s one part adventure, one part Hogwarts/Brakebills/insert other magic school here, one part Hunger Games, etc. It’s never boring, and it’s always brutal. Let me be clear: this book is not nice and sunshine and rainbows. There’s a lot of horrible stuff that happens.

The only negative thing I really have to say about the book is that I wanted a more original plot. It’s SO EASY to guess what’s going to happen next. Maybe that’s because I’ve been reading a lot of grimdark in the last few years, and I’m just expecting deaths left and right. Maybe it’s because I figured out who the traitor was about halfway through the book, and was slightly disappointed to be right. I’m not sure. I just felt like I wanted slightly more in this department, and didn’t get it.

On the whole though, and stacked against the other books I’ve read recently, this book was amazing and I highly recommend it. Kristoff has more than earned his place on my authors to watch list, and I won’t make the same mistake of forgetting to keep tabs on him twice! I look forward to the sequel, sir.

Warning: some language in the quote below because I just had to pick this section.

Grade: 4.75/5

Memorable Quote

“Cock is just another word for ‘fool.’ But you call someone a cunt, well…” The girl smiled. “You’re implying a sense of malice there. An intent. Malevolent and self-aware. Don’t think I name Consul Scaeva a cunt to gift him insult. Cunts have brains, Don Tric. Cunts have teeth. Someone calls you a cunt, you take it as a compliment. As a sign that folk believe you’re not to be lightly fucked with.” A shrug. “I think they call that irony.”

— Nevernight, pg. 60

-Regina

Originally posted on Regina’s blog

The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville

the-last-days-of-new-parisReaders, there’s something you should know about me: I love weird books. Which means that China Mieville rocketed to the top of my favorite authors list after reading only one of his books, and he’s now on my list of authors-whose-books-I-buy-without-reading-plot-synopses.

I about died when I saw he was releasing two this year, then I got sad because both of them were very very very short. That being said, The Last Days of New Paris is still a very enjoyable, if quick, read.

The plot sort of defies easy explanation, but here’s a stab. Thibaut is all that’s left of his group, struggling to survive WWII in New Paris where the inventions of surrealists have come to horrible, dangerous life after the “S-bomb” detonated. He meets up with the enigmatic Sam, a woman who claims to be here to document the city’s new denizens and topography, but she’s more than she seems. There are Nazis and the demons they’ve summoned chasing them as they attempt to escape the city, and periodically the story shifts back to before the bomb to explore the circumstances leading up to it.

I love Mieville’s prose, and this book is no exception. The man could describe paint drying and I’d still probably want to read it because I’m sure he’d use such beautiful, clever words. He has such a gift for it, and the subject matter of this novel provides him with plenty of fodder, with wolf-tables and exquisite corpses and more littering the landscape.

And the writing style is a clever conceit – the book is written as a “true account” of sorts, which the author relays from the man who told it to him and then disappeared – the implication being that this is some alternate universe that really existed (this being covered in the afterword). It’s also apparent in the lengthy and at times overbearing notes in the back, which detail in excruciating detail each of the various “manifs” and their provenance. The number of references weighs the book down in places; short of a specialist in that particular style of art, no one will recognize more than a few of the surrealist references offhand, and resorting to the notes constantly breaks the flow of the novel considerably. That’s not to say it’s wholly bad, but I almost wish Mieville had footnoted them instead of putting them at the end – it would have made this display of the book’s detail much less unwieldy.

The demons and the role Hell plays were an interesting stretch and certainly not what I was expecting. However, I felt like these sections of the book were vastly underplayed and could have used more exploration. That actually felt like an issue with much of the book – it was so condensed, so distilled, that there wasn’t time to truly explore some of the fantastical elements in the novel in anything more than a cursory way.

That also applies to more than the fantastical elements too. I mentioned earlier that the story bounces between now New Paris and past Paris, pre S-bomb. Yet the past sections are all too brief, a hurried mad dash to explain the bomb. It leaves no real time for characterization. I wanted to know more about Jack Parsons, the man who created the bomb, and how the bomb worked, yet all of that was glossed over.

There was opportunity too to see more of the outside world looking in. It comes up occasionally in passing, that the rest of the world is terrified that the manifs will escape, that whatever Surrealist disease infects Paris will slip its bounds to encompass the world. Yet this, and many of the wider ramifications of WWII, are largely ignored here in favor of focusing very narrowly on Thibaut and, to some extent, Sam. While I respect the choice, I can’t say I’m not disappointed by the lost opportunity to see more of this alternate universe.

For all that it’s so short and narrow and yes, somewhat pretentious in its detailed references, it’s a good book and a good story. It’s not his best (for me, that’s still a tie between The City & The City and Embassytown, both of which I dearly love), but still good. And now that I’ve finished it, I’ll settle back into waiting for the full-length novel from him I so dearly want.

Grade: 3.75/5

Memorable Quote

“The Siren of Keyholes becomes. Between Thibaut and the soldiers and the staggering Nazi manif is a wide-eyed woman, in smart and dated clothes. She is not like a person. The lines of her are not lines of matter.
She gabbles. Thibaut is staring at a dream of Helene Smith, the psychic, dead twenty years and commemorated in card, glossolalic channeler of a strange imagined Mars. The inaugurated thought of her, her avatar invoking a spirit in a new suit in a new deck. Keyholes for knowledge. She writes in the air with her finger. Glowing script appears in no earth alphabet.”

— The Last Days of New Paris, pg. 108-109

-Regina

Originally appeared on Regina’s blog

A Symphony of Echoes by Jodi Taylor

a-symphony-of-echoesI went ahead and purchased A Symphony of Echoes after I’d gotten about halfway through its predecessor, because I was certain I would want to read it. In a rather unusual move for me of late, I moved from one book directly into its sequel, with no time between.

A Symphony of Echoes picks up not long after Just One Damned Thing After Another. This time, Max manages to accidentally bring Jack the Ripper back from Victorian London, travel to the future to rescue that version of St. Mary’s and serve as its head, thwart the plot of one villain from the future and then travel back to Scotland to thwart the plan of another by ensuring the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots.

If that sounds like a lot, you’d be right. If it sounds highly episodic, you would also be right.

The first book showed some of this, but it still managed to have, on the whole, a cohesive book-long plot. A Symphony of Echoes doesn’t, and it’s the book’s biggest flaw. Each of these episodes could have worked as a standalone novel, but instead they’re strung together, and the book vacillates wildly between exposition, rising action, climax and denouement. None of the episodes really gets the time it deserves (the piece with Max in the future probably fares the best), and it makes for a really disjointed, bumpy narrative. I wish it had been smoothed out more, because the potential is definitely there.

That being said, oh my GOD this book is worth it for the dodo hunt chapter alone. That one made me giggle. (I desperately wanted a Thursday Next tie-in, actually – felt like it would’ve been appropriate).

Speaking of plot and transitioning to character, I have had it with the fluctuations in Max’s relationship with the Chief. That relationship goes literally everywhere in this book, and it’s not fun to read. It felt forced and melodramatic, and though it was one of the few threads to span the entire novel, I could really have done without it.

On the flip side of that coin, I will take every moment of Max/Petersen friendship that Taylor will give me. It’s lovely to see a friendship like that between male and female characters, where there is no sexual tension, just simple care and kindness and understanding.

I wish I had more to say, but there’s just not a lot of meat to this novel. What’s there is…OK, I guess, but it’s not really a novel – it’s a collection of short stories trying to be a novel, and it would have been better to just organize them as short stories or pick one of the plots and focus and expand it. As it is, I felt very lukewarm about this book (other than that GODDAMN AMAZING DODO HUNT). It didn’t completely put me off the series as a whole, but it definitely didn’t make me want to read the third one right away. I’ll get to it in time, and I hope it’s better than this one.

Grade: 2.5/5

Memorable Quote

“The first thing that struck me was that they were absolutely enormous. If I stood up, they would reach well past my waist. The second thing was that they were really bloody ugly. One of their names had been Dodaar – knot arse, probably because of the knot of plumage on their backsides. At the other end, their heads were completely naked. Being dodos, they’d probably been facing the wrong way when feathers were being allocated. They weren’t even a pretty colour. On an island filled with jewel-like bird life, they were a kind of grey-brown. Some were a kind of brown-grey. Their most colorful feature was their great nine-inch green, yellow, and black beaks. They looked like a cross between a turkey and a compost heap. And they were fat. I may be unjust; it was possible they stocked up on fruit in the wet season to get them through the dry season. But all the same, these puppies were fat.”

— A Symphony of Echos, pg. 110

-Regina

Originally appeared on Regina’s blog

Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor

just-one-damned-thing-after-anotherYou’re not supposed to judge books by their covers, but sometimes you can’t help it. In this case, it wasn’t so much the cover as it was the title. With a title like Just One Damned Thing After Another, it’s hard not to pick up the book after a long day being stressed at the office.

Plus the plot sounded interesting too. The book is about a historian nicknamed Max who joins a society called St. Mary’s, which uses time travel to do historical research. It promised to be very British (tea is called out specifically in the description) and there was something about saving the world from evil time travelers, etc. etc. It sounded similar to the Librarians or maybe a Warehouse 13 with more time travel and less artifact recovery. So I grabbed it off the shelf.

The plot runs basically in short episodes, but they all thread together. There’s Max’s initial introduction and interview, the training montage as she learns the necessary skills to work at St. Mary’s, her first trip in the pods, etc. But you’re never quite sure what it’s building up to until about halfway through the novel, when Max and her partner travel to the Cretaceous Period. Suddenly there is danger from other time travelers and a sort-of political coup at St. Mary’s. Eventually, Max saves the day and St. Mary’s continues its studies.

The best part of this book is undoubtedly Max (her real name is Madeleine Maxwell). It’s a first-person novel from her point of view, so everything is colored by her commentary. Fortunately, most of that commentary is hilarious or at least worthy of a chuckle. Max is irreverent, with little respect for authority, and loves to do things her own way. She has oodles of sass, and it makes the book fun to read even when you’re not really sure what the story is building to. It made me laugh out loud in several places.

It does have its flaws, however. I’ve already mentioned the disjointed, ambling nature of the plot, but there are other things. The science of time travel is all handwaved and never even remotely explained. While I get that Jodi Taylor needs this McGuffin to make the story work, I would have appreciate at least some basic explanation of how St. Mary’s developed the technology. Hell, I’d have settled just for knowing how they WORK – it’s all very ambiguous with just some punching in of carefully calculated coordinates and wham, you’re in eleventh century England.

I also have mixed feelings about her use of characterization. Max is overall well done, although there’s clearly some hugely traumatic event in her past that is never explained, only occasionally alluded to. It would have been nice to get a deeper exploration of that. The other characters also have a tendency to feel shallow and flat – I’d be hard-pressed to describe any of them with more than one or two words (except maybe Petersen, who is probably the most rounded after Max and whose friendship with Max warms my heart).

It’s still a fun book though, and it was good enough to get me to go buy the second one fairly quickly. It’s a short fun read, nothing too serious. Much like the Tearling novels, this book isn’t making any Best Of lists, but it’s entertaining and worth at least one readthrough.

Grade: 3.5/5

Memorable Quote

“Your personal details update form…Mr. Sussman; you are not a Jedi Knight. Kindly amend the details in Box 3 – Religion. Ditto Mr. Markham, Mr. Peterson, Miss Maxwell, Mr. Dieter, and Miss Black.
”Miss Maxwell, Box 5. You are not five feet seven inches tall and never will be. Live with it and correct your paperwork.
”Mr. Markham, the box marked “Sex” is not an invitation. Please amend the details and apologize to Mrs. Partridge.
”Mr. Dieter, the claims made in the box marked “Other Interests” are physically impossible and, in most of the civilized world, illegal. You also render yourself liable to prosecution for misuse of government property. Amend.
”Miss Black, there are two Ps in oppressed and only one N in minority. You are neither. Delete.””

— Just One Damned Thing After Another, pg. 94

-Regina

Originally appeared on Regina’s personal blog

The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

the-invasion-of-the-tearlingDilemma, thy name is, apparently, The Invasion of the Tearling. On the one hand, this book is a much darker story, giving me meat to dig into after the sugary sweetness of the first novel. On the other hand, holy middle book syndrome, Batman! The plot is a drag as the author crams in all the preparation for the third book, leaving this book with very little plot of its own.

The Invasion of the Tearling picks up where its predecessor left off – with the consequences of Kelsea’s actions. The Red Queen is royally peeved by the end of the slave tribute and desperately wants Kelsea’s sapphires, so her army invades. The Tearling army can’t stop it, only buy time for Kelsea. Meanwhile, Kelsea’s sapphires are transforming her, sculpting her into the image of a woman from the past and giving her flashbacks to pre-Crossing Earth.

If the above paragraph doesn’t make it plain, the two driving events of this novel are the approaching Mort army and Kelsea trying to unravel the mystery of her flashbacks to Lily. While there are a few sideplots (such as the new leader of God’s Church and his general conservative craziness, and Kelsea’s first affair), everything hinges on these two things – and it drags and drags until the inevitable conclusion. Maybe the reason it feels slow is that (aside from a few Red Queen POV chapters and the flashbacks) the story hardly ever leaves the keep, but there are ways to keep a plot in one place and still keep it moving.

There is a cliffhanger ending. You’ll see it coming from a mile away, yet despite that, it will still make you want to read the third book immediately. It did for me, despite the predictability (I mean, c’mon guys, we know it ends well – all the epigraphs are from the future and talk glowingly about Kelsea).

Even the revelations aren’t really revelations. (SPOILERS AHEAD: STUFF YOUR FINGERS IN YOUR EARS AND SCROLL TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW). I’d suspected from the first book that the world had something to do with Earth, and that’s borne out by this novel. It’s not difficult to guess that Lily will be William Tear’s wife and mother to the oft-mentioned Jonathan Tear. And as for the revelation that the Red Queen is (GASP) a former member of House Raleigh, I’d pegged that one since the first book.

Unfortunately, there’s just nothing new, surprising or all that terribly exciting about most of the plot.

What this book does do, and does extremely well, is take a dive in the dark end of the storytelling pool. The portrayal of spousal abuse and martial rape is viscerally disturbing and yet oddly compelling. It forces us to sympathize with Lily, when we might otherwise struggle because of how spoiled and pampered she is. More, it motivates her to progress as a character. The pre-Crossing world is also terrifying, especially for a woman – gender equality has skipped back several centuries, and woman are once again useful only for delivering children and serving as mothers. It definitely explains the odd dichotomy of the post-Crossing world, where there are several ruling female monarchs and yet women don’t seem to have many rights.

The darkness isn’t confined to the flashbacks either. The dark thing from first book is back again, and now it’s tempting Kelsea with offers of power. (For my thoughts on the creature’s identity, refer to previous comments on how easy it is to guess the plot of this book.) Kelsea also develops a cutting habit for some reason, though she quits by the end of the novel.

There are bright spots to this book that are enjoyable – I truly like Kelsea’s court priest, with his love of books and the backbone he shows in trying to do the right thing. By the end of the book, his whereabouts are unknown, and I am looking forward to his return in the third book. The Mace is as interesting as ever, especially as we find out little pieces of his past, and the end that Arlen Thorne meets is grimly satisfying.

I ended up somewhere in the middle on this one. The Invasion of the Tearling replaces the first book’s bright-eyed, simple charm with something much more grim, and while I enjoyed the change of tone, I found the plot floundering as Johansen sets up all the pieces she needs in place for the final novel. It was still enjoyable, and I look forward to reading the conclusion, but it’s not going to make my Best Of 2016 list.

Grade: 3.5/5

Memorable Quote

“Greg held up a box of her pills, pinching them between two fingers, the way he would something diseased. And now something utterly unexpected and wonderful happened: at the sight of her pills, Lily’s panic melted quickly and silently away. She straightened, took a deep breath, and tipped her head to one side, cracking her neck, as he loomed closer. She had to fight the urge to jump up and grab the small orange box out of his hand.”

— The Invasion of the Tearling, pg. 410-411

-ReginaOriginally appeared on Regina’s personal blog

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

queen-of-the-tearling.jpgI don’t read much Young Adult these days. It’s not because I don’t enjoy them; I buy all my books, and it simply takes far too little time for me to read a YA book. It’s not a good investment of my money. But when our very own Red Queen loaned me these and said I’d really like them, I decided to give them a shot.

As heir to the throne of the Tearling, Kelsea Raleigh Glynn has been raised and educated in secrecy. That changes the day she comes of age, when her mother’s guard shows up to escort her back into the public eye for her coronation. Kelsea must survive the ploys of her uncle the Regent in order to claim her throne, all the while learning more about the royal sapphires that mark her as the true queen and coming to terms with the idea that her mother was not a good queen.

A lot of fantasy these days has been sucked at least marginally into the grimdark area – characters that aren’t wholly good or bad, lots of character deaths, dark worlds full of blood and violence, etc. etc. So it’s refreshing now and then to read a book where the characters are clearly good and bad and the hero is easy to root for. Kelsea is Good. Her uncle is Bad. The Mace, leader of Kelsea’s guard, is Good. The man who runs the slave trade, Arlen Thorne, is Bad. So watching Kelsea toss her decadent uncle out of the royal keep, seeing her stop the slave tribute going to the nearby kingdom of Mortmesne – all of these passages are very satisfying.

Sadly, Kelsea faces none of the consequences of her actions in this novel. Those are pushed off to the sequel, ending the book on a high you know the second one won’t be able to maintain.

As far as characters go, you’ve really got two primaries: Kelsea and the Mace. Kelsea is, in essence, your standard female protagonist. I could swap her out with almost any other YA female protagonist in terms of the actions she takes and struggles she faces, other than the unique decision that she is decidedly not pretty. (In fact, many of the characters comment on it). I did strongly empathize with her love of books though.

The Mace is a bit more interesting, something along the lines of the rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype. He starts out dubious of Kelsea and grows more and more loyal to her over the course of the novel, almost serving as a father figure to her as he coaches her through her accession to the throne. Oh and literally everyone is pants-shittingly terrified of him. The “why” behind that is never quite explained, but the effects it produces are fun to watch.

The world seems to be a vanilla fantasy land at first, but there are inklings of something more. Characters repeatedly refer to the Crossing as the event that brought them to this land, the capital of the Tearling is New London, God’s Church appears to be some form of Christianity…it’s evident that there’s some connection to our Earth, but the novel never quite makes it clear what that connection is. There’s also the Fetch, a thief who is obviously more than he appears, and the dark creature that the Red Queen of Mortmesne summons, both of which hint at more magic than the book initially lets on about.

Saying all that to say – I liked it. It didn’t blow me away (I know there’s talk of a movie, but I just don’t see it being a record-smashing success). There wasn’t a “wow factor” there that made me want to jump up and down after reading it, but it was an enjoyable read and intriguing enough that I want to see the series to its end, if only to get answers to the questions I have about the world.

Grade: 3.5/5

Memorable Quote

“Mace swung her carefully around and Kelsea faced her uncle, finding his eyes bright with stupid desperation. Slowly, deliberately, she leaned back against Mace until the hilt of the knife bumped his chest. The pain jolted her awake, but not much; darkness was closing in now, a blackening border around the edge of her vision.
”Get off my throne.”
Her uncle didn’t move. Kelsea leaned forward, summoning all of her strength, her breath rasping loudly in the vast, echoing chamber. “You have one month to be gone from this Keep, Uncle. After that…ten thousand pounds on your head.””

— Queen of the Tearling, pg. 174

-Regina

Originally appeared on Regina’s blog

Morning Star by Pierce Brown

morning-starIt’s the moment you’ve all (not actually) been waiting for – what did I think of the conclusion to Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy? Drumroll, please.

Okay, it was amazing. What did you honestly expect?

Morning Star picks up shortly after Golden Son left off, with Darrow imprisoned by the Jackal and slowly going insane. Fortunately, the Sons of Ares, now led by Sevro, Ragnar and the Howlers, show up to break Darrow out. From there, the book races around the solar system, from the polar caps of Mars to the moons of Jupiter and back to Luna, as Darrow forges alliances and fights battles – culminating in a showdown on Luna with the Sovereign and the Jackal that you won’t soon forget.

Brown does a lot of excellent character work here. We have Darrow, recovering from his brush with death and insanity, no longer invulnerable and no longer as ready to die as he once was. His friendships were one of his major struggles in the previous book, and here we see Darrow finally getting it right. He has it out with Sevro to save his friend from a destructive path, he re-builds his relationship with Mustang and he gets re-acquainted with his family. At last, Darrow’s friendships build him up instead of tearing him apart internally (and, in the case of Roque, externally).

Speaking of Roque – whew, talk about a tragic character. Roque is the mini-boss of this novel, if you will, framed by the larger villains of the Jackal and the Sovereign. Not surprisingly, then, he is dealt with about midway through the novel in brutal fashion, and his end is tragic, heartbreaking and somehow honorable – a fitting demise for the man with the poet’s soul.

Sevro is also a big focal point, in part because of what he becomes after his father’s death and Darrow’s capture – a semi-suicidal, end-justifies-the-means war leader. After Darrow and Sevro hash it out, Sevro relaxes back into the devil-may-care attitude of previous novels – and he even gets a happy ending. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Sevro is Darrow’s most loyal friend, and this novel will leave you with no doubt of that.

But perhaps my favorite storyline was Cassius. Yes, Cassius is back, and he is forced to acknowledge that Darrow isn’t the monster he so desperately wanted him to be. Darrow rescues him from death and manages to rekindle the dregs of their friendship, enough for Cassius to redeem himself and play his part in the rebellion. Like Roque, he too is a tragic figure, but more world-weary and tired. I was overjoyed that he didn’t fall flat into another obstacle for Darrow.

The girls are still here, though unfortunately the story doesn’t focus on them quite as much. Mustang’s connections and diplomacy open a lot of doors for Darrow, and Victra is still as badass as ever (maybe more so). Seriously, that chick is my hero (and if a movie of this does get made, I will cosplay the hell out of her).

The character work isn’t perfect though – Darrow begins to grate about midway through the novel as he second guesses himself and doubts in the world he’s building. It gets somewhat redundant, but the action sequences usually rescue him before it gets too depressing. And damn, can Brown write action sequences. Man’s got a gift.

I won’t spoil anything, but prepare yourself for some sucker punches. There’s one about halfway through that made me tear up a little, and you’ll get another (happy) one near the end. They’re well-spaced and well-written, and there weren’t any events that seemed out of character or made me raise an eyebrow.

Overall, it’s a fitting conclusion to the series. I did, however, find myself preferring Golden Son – I think the middle book had more power and more weight because Darrow had everything to lose and everything to prove. Here, he’s come out of the bottom of his arc and, while he still has plenty to lose, his actions feel a bit like a foregone conclusion – I know he will win, and I know he will end up with Mustang. The stakes don’t seem as high, for some reason.

Don’t mistake me though – Morning Star is an EXCELLENT book, one of the best I’ve read this year. The flaws it does have are minimal and easily overlooked. Brown delivers in a big way, and you’ll definitely be satisfied with it.

P.S. I’ve heard Brown is working on a sequel series to explore how the effects of this one ripple through the solar system…so YAY.

Grade: 4.75/5

Memorable Quote

“I’m tired of this war, Darrow.”
”So am I. And if I could bring Julian back to you, I would. But this war is for him, or men like him. The decent. It’s for the quiet and gentle who know how the world should be, but can’t shout louder than the bastards.”
”Aren’t you afraid you’re going to break everything and not be able to put it back together?” [Cassius] asks sincerely.
”Yes,” I say, understanding myself better than I have for a long time. “That’s why I have Mustang.”
He stares at me for a long, odd moment before shaking his head and chuckling at himself or me. “I wish it was easier to hate you.”

— Morning Star, pg. 401

-Regina

Originally posted on Regina’s personal blog

Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja

mechanical-failureOK, so here’s the deal with this book, guys. The first chapter tries too hard. Like, way too hard. It feels like that person at a party who makes really terrible jokes and then laughs far too much at them, while the rest of the room makes cricket noises. It’s painfully awkward.

Get through it.

Because the rest is…genius. Utterly hilarious, wonderful, genius military sci-fi.

After getting arrested for smuggling, Sergeant R. Wilson Rogers returns to the military, but it’s not like his first stint. His first stint was one long party, with beer lights and very little work done. But now the military appears to be gearing up for an actual war, there are bizarre transfers taking place, and a bunch of suspicious droids are roaming the ship hanging posters…

I confess that military sci-fi isn’t usually my thing. Sure, I’ve read a few, but I’ll gravitate toward a lot of other stuff first. My husband found this book at Barnes & Noble and about died after reading the back cover, and I read it on his strong recommendation.

It has a lot going for it, not least of which is the humor. This is probably the most I’ve laughed at a book in years. After the flop of a first chapter, the book becomes effortlessly funny through a combination of witty dialogue and brilliant situational humor. Much of the humor is set up early on and pays off in spades later int the book. There’s a robot who can’t swear and censors himself. Rodgers gets put in charge of a robot unit, wrecks it magnificently and then gets promoted – twice. Picture an angry cat in zero gravity and a murderous barber-robot hellbent on giving Rogers a shave. And just wait until you reach the droid fu.

Setting the humor aside, you’ve still got great characters. Rodgers grows on you as time passes and he becomes less of a slacker. His self-censoring sidekick robot Deet was probably my favorite character; unlike the rest of the robots, he is a special prototype, meaning that he speaks normally and is learning to comprehend human emotions (including humor, causing several great lines). There’s the zookeeper and his animals, the Zapp Branigan-esque admiral who gives rousing speeches to hide his incompetence, the Amazonian marine whom Rogers crushes on…I mean, I can keep going.

The plot drags its heels a bit at the beginning as Zieja develops the environment, but it’s never boring. And once you reach the crucial tipping point (Rogers’ promotion), everything shifts into high gear and doesn’t let go for the rest of the book. It’s also not a long read, which means you can knock it out in a few good hours if you have the time.

If you’re looking for a read full of philosophy and Deep Thoughts, then this is probably not your book. But if you’re looking for an entertaining romp and a great laugh, go pick this book up now.

And then get excited – because it’s a SERIES. And there will be MORE.

Grade: 4.5/5

Memorable Quote

“Anyway,” Rogers said, looking up at the ceiling, “what are you doing down here? Droids need to be fully wiped before they’re destroyed. And how did you get all that damage?”
”It was those EXPLETIVE pieces of OBSCENITIES in the maintenance bay!” the droid said in a burst of volume. “They have their heads so far up their ANATOMICAL REFERENCE that they can’t think straight!”

— Mechanical Failure, pg. 176

-Regina

Originally appeared on Regina’s blog