Series: Graceling Realm #3
Summary: King Leck has been dead for years, but Queen Bitterblue is still struggling to bring happiness back to her kingdom.
Review: Cashore continues her streak of writing marvelous, imaginative, and character-driven fantasy in her third Graceling book. This one features Bitterblue, about eighteen now and queen of Monsea. Of course, she has been queen of Monsea for years (she announced the fact herself after her father’s death), but the story reveals that she is still learning her way around the job. Her uncle and her advisors have been handling much of the kingdom’s business for years, and she is looking to learn more about the people and take on a greater responsibility for herself. The combination of her youth and feelings of inadequacy combined with her heart and strength make her a realistic and compelling character. Here is a teenager who can rule but knows she still has much to learn.
Cashore has once again put all her effort into creating Bitterblue as an individual. Though her thoughts are suitably progressive, Bitterblue is neither Katsa nor Fire when it comes to relationships. She is a little more mellow than the two, but still has enough iron to make her admirable and a convincing queen. Of course she has her own habits and mannerism, too. The only fault is that sometimes one is tempted to think, “Oh, look! One of Bitterblue’s mannerisms that establish her as a character with a unique personality!” So although Cashore is paying extreme attention to detail, it is possible some of those details could be better integrated.
As promised, Katsa and Po return in this novel, and it is quite interesting to see them years later. It is the sensation one gets seeing Tamora Pierce’s Alanna appear in the Protector of the Small quartet—grown-up and different but still very much the same. Other wonderful characters also make guest appearances.
Parts of the plot are nothing new to fantasy fans. The story opens with Bitterblue’s sneaking out into her own city disguised as a commoner so she can learn more about her people and the state of the land. Yeah…we’ve all seen that before. However, Cashore makes it work, and it certainly is not the overriding point of the book. In fact, the plot is so convoluted that most of it is wildly unpredictable. Only at the very end does it begin to make some sort of sense, though the degree to which it is satisfying in its logic is debatable.
Readers should be warned that much of Bitterblue’s job entails unraveling what her father King Leck did before her—and readers of Graceling will know that King Leck was a sadistic man. Bitterblue is not recommended for the faint of heart. There is a fairly wide difference between suspecting what Leck was doing and having the facts of it described. The effects of his actions are almost as catastrophic, and in many ways Bitterblue is an issues book confronting how his subjects cope with the violence and lies he inflicted on them.
On happier note, there is a touch of romance to give light to the book—not as much or as strong as in Cashore’s previous work, but very fitting to the story. There is also some interesting subtext which doubtless falls under the category of questions Cashore will not answer, but it begs to be interpreted happily.
An incredibly solid and magical work, and a worthy addition to the series.
Published: May 1, 2012
Series: Graceling Realm #1
Summary: In Katsa’s world, a select few are born with Graces, an incredible skill in one area. Unfortunately, Katsa was born with the Grace of killing, and her uncle the king uses her talents to terrify his subjects. Then Prince Po comes to court, looking for his kidnapped grandfather, and Katsa goes on a journey with him that will change her forever.
Review: Graceling is an extremely refreshing and innovative addition to the fantasy genre. The story is told in a unique voice (Katsa’s thoughts mainly, though the narration is third person) that is truly half the fun of the book. The writing is lyrical, simple, and original—and though I would love to see a movie version of this, much would be lost in the translation from text to screen.
Along the same lines, Graceling is just filled with excellent quotes, made memorable by the combination of the voice and the thoughts that it presents. Readers may find themselves stopping often just to reread or ponder Katsa’s thoughts. One that struck me: “When you’re a monster, she thought, you’re thanked and praised for not behaving like a monster. She would like to refrain from cruelty and receive no admiration for it.”
The plot is exciting and contains a number of twists. Both Katsa’s personal growth and the main action are full of surprises. Even seasoned readers used to predicting the outcome of any novel will be hard pressed to know exactly where Graceling is heading. The ride is certainly a pleasure.
My one reservation comes from the type of feminist philosophy presented in the book. [Minor spoilers.] Katsa is very set against marriage, convinced that it will be the end of her freedom. Even if a husband were to let her be free, he would be allowing her freedom, so she would never actually be free. Therefore, she refuses to marry, even if she loves someone. Having sex with someone, however, is fine. Apparently being so intimate with a man that way is not giving part of herself away. So, paradoxically, sex is special, but really it is not. [End spoilers]
The line between Katsa’s independence and her selfishness is sometimes blurry because of her opinions on men and marriage. In her mind, being strong means you can never be in a committed relationship because then you might have to be bothered thinking of the other person instead of your own desires. I personally feel that her decision at the end of the book is completely selfish and an indication that she did not really love at all.
That said, Katsa’s philosophy did not spoil my reading of the book. In fact, I loved it. So while we may disagree on some extremely important life issues, Katsa and I would probably agree that she went on an extraordinary journey that is a story worth telling.
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Summary: Briony can see the Old Ones that live in the swamp by her house–and so Briony’s stepmother told her she was a witch. But witches are not welcome in the village, and Briony must work hard to keep her powers secret. Even though she believes she deserves death for all the harm she has caused to others. Even though there is a new boy in town who makes living look very attractive.
Review: Chime could be a very compelling book for the right reader. The writing and the story were refreshingly new. The setting was very interesting and vividly described, ranging from the swamp, the dangerous abode of most of the Old Ones, to the parsonage to the rest of the town. A little more information to pin it down to a precise location would have made it nearly perfect.
Unfortunately, I found much of the book to be rather annoying. Briony, through whose eyes the story is told, has thought processes and speech patterns that came across as juvenile. She continuously describes things as her “witchy anger” or her “witchy hand,” which just makes her power sound cutesy instead of dangerous. She regularly calls the love interest a “boy-man,” which is an apt observation when he first appears, but which becomes old quickly. Again, it makes him hard to take seriously at times, even though he is a pretty strong love interest—mysterious, protective, loyal, chivalrous, and a “bad boy.” I could have done without that constant reference, as well, however. He is a little old to be a “bad boy” or at least to refer to himself as one, along with Briony.
Briony also has the exasperating habit reminding herself how much she hates herself and of assuring the reader that she is a terrible, wicked person. Yes, readers are supposed to realize these are only her thoughts and see the discrepancies between them and reality and think about how this might have occurred (ooh, mystery!). It is still annoying and a little depressing. And it takes the majority of the book for her to change her mind.
Luckily, her twin sister Rose is a fairly endearing character. Briony relates how she hit her head when she was seven and how she has not been quite right ever since—hence, Briony’s obsession with caring for her. Yet Rose is truly interesting and tends to make some of the best observations in the book. She tends to have strange thoughts and speech, too, but she has a reason. She comes across as quirky instead of just acting too young for her age.
There are also some very nice, clear clues given as to who the true villains of the story are. Readers will be able to catch onto them in a timely manner and piece everything together. Briony does miss most of these clues, being too obsessed with hating herself, but her obliviousness is not particularly frustrating. Overall, this is a mystery that allows readers to see what is happening without making it overly obvious.
Chime has its charms. There were times I very much enjoyed it. Readers will just have to make the call as to how much self-hating, immature characters will detract from their own experience of the plot, romance, and mystery.
Goodreads: The Power of Six
Series: Lorien Legacies #2
SPOILERS FOR I AM NUMBER FOUR
Summary: John Smith is on the run, since he was almost captured in Ohio. Number Seven is searching for news of him from Spain, desperate to find the other five Garde, as her Cepan has all but abandoned her. Six is trying to bring them all together. The Mogodorians will do anything to stop them, but John’s own feelings might be more dangerous than all his enemies’ plots.
Review: The Power of Six does not seem quite as urgent as I Am Number Four, perhaps because the characters are now stronger and more prepared to take on threats, but it has more than its fair share of action. With the narration alternating between John’s point of view and Marina’s (Number Seven), there is a lot going on, and a lot of it is dangerous. The Mogodorians are clearly preparing for something big, just as the Garde are preparing for their own fight. (How exactly six people are going to take on an entire planet and win remains unexplained, but for the sake of the plot, readers will just have to go with it. And the plot is worth going with it.)
Beyond the expected battles, now featuring more Legacies and more technology from the chests, there is still romance. Between Sam and Six. Between John and Six. Another thing readers just have to go with. Six vaguely explains at some point that it is fine to like more than one person. And it is, but eventually someone is going to have to make a decision here. Lore seems like the only one eager to make such a decision, however, and his efforts are a little…obvious, to say the least. He essentially takes one scene to portray Sarah as a jerk, which will probably open the way to a stronger Six/John romance in the next book. Unfortunately, the scene seems contrived and completely out of character for Sarah. Maybe pairing Sam and Six would be a little too neat, in a “oh, look, everyone has someone to date” way, but it would have worked if Lore just wished to throw some romance in the book to keep readers hooked. It appears clear who everyone is going to end up dating, from the clue thrown around in the book, but only The Rise of Nine will confirm things.
The Power of Six is a nice middle book to a series. It keeps things moving along. It introduces new vital characters. It keeps people reading with crazy battles and revealed secrets. But The Rise of Nine had better more a little more mind-blowing; it must be, to convince readers six Garde can actually win the battle they were sent to win.
Goodreads: Born Wicked
Series: The Cahill Witch Chronicles #1
Summary: Cate’s mother died when she was thirteen, leaving her to raise her two younger sisters and to protect their secret—that all three of them are witches—from their father and the community. All seems to be going well until Cate finds her mother’s diary. The pages reveal that she and her sisters might be the subject of a prophecy, and if they are, they are in much more danger than Cate had ever imagined.
Review: I know a decent amount of readers never finished this book, and from the beginning, I can completely see why. Frankly, Cate is a whiner. She dislikes the responsibility her mother left her with by dying, and complains about it loudly and often. She is angry at her mother for not leaving her enough instructions, and equally angry with her father for being so often absent—and then insisting she and her sisters begin to act like proper young ladies. It is difficult to say what Cate would like to do, if not be a witch or a normal young socialite.
The second sister, Maura, also has her faults. She is in a rebellious state against Cate, which makes her generally angry and leads her to ignore a lot of good advice out of selfishness. In some respects, she might be a teenager, but her insistence on doing whatever she wants no matter how dangerous the consequences does not make her a particularly likeable character.
Fortunately, the youngest sister is wonderful. She is intelligent, accomplished, polite, and perceptive. She will be many readers’ favorite. And, if you can keep reading long enough, Cate becomes a great character, too. She develops into a smart, strong young lady who will do absolutely anything, including making huge sacrifices, to protect the people she loves. By the end, she is someone readers can admire.
Of course, Cate has her own in-book admirers, including two suitors. There is not really a love triangle, as Cate makes her opinions about the one man quite plain from the start. So the magic is in watching Cate and the other young man fall in love, and the mystery in how they will finally make everything work out. The plan is actually quite clever, and only one of a few plot surprises sprinkled throughout the book. I even have my suspicions as to how the prophecy, an overused plot element, may turn things completely around in the following books.
And now that I have plowed through the beginning of Born Wicked, I really am looking forward to the rest of the series. I finally like Cate. I like her boyfriend. I want to see how everything turns out, since Spotswood left things on a rather exciting cliffhanger.
Published: February 7, 2012
Goodreads: A Confusion of Princes
Summary: Khemri is a Prince of the Empire—practically immortal, supplied with everything he could ever want, possessing immense power. But his trainers never told him that the other Princes are his enemies, and they will do whatever it takes to kill him. Or that there might be things beyond the reach of the Empire that are more important than ambition or pleasure.
Review: Technically, I can find little wrong with this book. It is well-written and well-imagined. It touches upon the classic themes of what it means to be human and how much you can trust a government that claims to give you everything it is possible for you to want. It is both creative and thought-provoking.
Yet somehow I was bored through most of it.
I do not want to say that “space books” are just not my thing. I have read a decent amount of science fiction books that I liked, including Ender’s Game and War of the Worlds. I am a huge fan of the show Doctor Who. A Confusion of Princes is lacking something that makes those examples work, and ironically, I think it is humanity.
Certainly, the book is about humanity and how Khemri discovers what it is and how he gains some. Unfortunately, a lot of the text is about the cool technology the Empire has, what kind of space suit Khemri is wearing, what type of space ship he is flying, what sort of weapons people are using. I skimmed a lot of this book waiting to get to some action or characterization.
Also, Khemri was annoying. He is supposed to be arrogant due to his background and training. I understand that. It nonetheless does not make him an overly endearing protagonist. I appreciate his journey of self-discovery, but it might have been nicer from my standpoint if the book had been a little shorter and I did not have to deal with his pride and ignorance for so long. (This is similar to the problem I had with Before I Fall. I guess I just do not empathize with mean characters as much as authors expect!)
In general, I am disappointed by A Confusion of Princes because it has such a good premise and I love the Abhorsen trilogy by Nix. Some selective editing could have fixed my main issues with the book.
Published: May 15, 2012 (US)
Summary: In the town of Bixby, five special teenagers called Midnighters discover they have one extra hour of the day, one hour starting exactly at midnight when every other human freezes in his or her tracks. The only problem: darklings also walk at this hour, and they like to eat humans. The Midnighters have developed ways to fight the darklings using metal and their special skills, but it seems as if the darklings have found human allies—and they can hunt at all the other hours of the day.
Review: As a beginning disclaimer, I read this book without having read the first book in the series. I was, in fact, oblivious that Midnighters is a series at all. Nothing on Touching Darkness says “Book 2,” and there are not even any review quotes that say something to the effect of “a stunning sequel!” Adding to the confusion is the fact that the Midnighters title is much larger and more noticeable than the Touching Darkness, which I only saw after having been suddenly enlightened to the fact that this book belongs to a trilogy.
One conclusion we can gain from this story is that I have my moments of being singularly unobservant. But it also reveals that Touching Darkness is great as a standalone. I was halfway through the book before I meandered over to Goodreads and discovered I had been missing the first part of the story all along. There are a few vague references to the fact that Jessica had previously fought the darklings and now they are all deeply afraid of her, but I was able to shrug this off as an eccentric back story. Otherwise, the book is full of enough background information that I had no difficulty understanding what Midnighters are, who all the characters are, or what types of things they do to fight the darklings.
Interestingly, this does lead one to question whether there is too much background for readers who choose, quite sensibly, to read the stories in order. Perhaps it could all come across as old news to anyone who reads straight through the trilogy, but it is doubtless a helpful reminder to anyone who puts a bit of space in between reading the first and second books.
Touching Darkness, as a standalone, is a very creative, creepy, and suspenseful work. Images of evil crawling things and humans that will hunt others down for money stand out on the pagers and will bring horrible visions to those reads this book late at night—even if the space in which darklings are able to materialize seems to be fairly localized. Westerfeld, as always, manages to create a unique, fascinating, and still believable world. In fact, a lot of focus is put onto how numbers and math can explain Bixby’s oddities.
The characters in Touching Darkness are also skillfully drawn. The focus is on the five Midnighters, all of who have distinct personalities to match their personal Midnighter talents. Together they have an intriguing and complex dynamic that readers will enjoy watching develop. Whether they are actually likeable, however, will be up to personal taste, as even they become testy with and annoyed by each other. I personally did not really relate to any of them, although I could see each of their merits. My favorite character may actually have been Jessica’s younger sister, whom I hope will have a larger role in the next book.
Touching Darkness was a fun, eerie adventure with a lot of action. It does not have the same urgency as Uglies, however, and even though there are a few loose ends, the third book does not even have to be read for it to feel like a complete story. A very solid book, but not mind-blowing.
Published: March 1, 2005
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Goodreads: Spirits of Glory
Source: Free Smashwords copy from author in exchange for an honest review
Goodreads Summary: One morning the people of the North woke up and the people of the South were gone. That s the first thing every child learns on the colony world of Jigsaw. But for one girl, knowing about The Disappearance is not enough. Hawkeye wants to know why.
That’s why she spent half her life researching The Disappearance. And that’s also why eight Neighbors show up on her doorstep, demanding that she accompany them into the Forbidden Cities ruled by the Southern gods to speak with the Spirits of Glory. Everyone thinks Hawkeye is an expert on Neighbors, these almost-humans who move, talk, and think as if they were born inside one of the Time Fractures. But she can’t imagine what they want to ask the ghosts of their ancestors, or why they need her to go along. The Southern gods caused every human inhabitant of the Southern cities to disappear overnight; what else might they do?
But the Northern gods say Hawkeye should go and her curiosity won’t let her refuse, even though she’s going into more danger than she can imagine. Pain and puzzlement wait along the broken interstate, along with scavengers who want to kill them all. Hawkeye’s questions only generate more questions as they move farther and farther into the South, right into the heart of the Disappearance, until Hawkeye’s questions have all been answered.
Even the ones she was afraid to ask.
Review: When Spirits of Glory begins, the plotline is rather confusing. Hawkeye is standing on her porch. Her pets seem to be uncannily aware of what is happening. People, Neighbors (whatever they are) and one human woman, are coming toward her. They want her help immediately with some immense project, mentioning gods and the South and time fractures.
Don’t panic! Just a couple chapters in, the pieces start coming together, and then the story gets really interesting. The people in the South of the planet vanished centuries ago—and no one really knows why. The description of this disappearance is deliciously creepy, and the protagonists’ search through the abandoned Forbidden Cities in the south is, as well. Readers will find themselves looking over their shoulders as often as Hawkeye and making sure their lights are turned on bright. Nothing is particularly threatening in this book, but there is definitely something wrong. The mystery is captivating.
Equally compelling is the bond that develops between the characters. Humans and Neighbors are not often friends. They do not understand each other, and Neighbors are generally unwilling to answer enough questions to clear up any misunderstandings. Why is not really part of their vocabulary. Hawkeye, however, manages to break through the barriers that separate them in order to befriend them. Her previous study of their culture and habits helps, but ultimately it is her own personality—smart, fun-loving, loyal, and mature—that wins them over. They make a fantastic team that readers will be cheering on every step of the way, whether in romance, friendship, or solving the great Disappearance. And Hawkeye by herself is an awesomely strong female protagonist.
The one real oddity of this book is Hawkeye’s frequent trips to the bathroom. At first, it seems Devenport’s attempt at realism; Hawkeye finds a toilet at literally every stage of their journey, and only once or twice does the scene even pretend to have any relation to the plot. Eventually Hawkeye makes so many trips to relieve herself that it seems as if must be Davenport’s idea of a joke. Hawkeye even kids at the moment of the big “reveal” that it might be “anti-climatic,” but she would like to use a restroom. It really was more anti-climatic than funny, and the whole thing gave the impression Hawkeye had bladder problems, even though she used the restroom at completely normal intervals.
Once Hawkeye returned to the climactic moment, things become a bit confusing again. Hawkeye is fascinating to the gods and integral to their plans for the world, but the reason she is so important is ambiguous. The final impression is that it is because she is just such a unique human being. Whether this explanation has merit is somewhat debatable.
The story itself, however, is ultimately so absorbing, so well-written, and so imaginative, that the question of whether the gods’ motives bear scrutiny becomes essentially irrelevant. The reader is likely to take them at face value. If not, the book’s wrap-up will blow him away so he forgets all about it. The conclusion is beautiful—not perfect and clean, but immensely satisfying. And hugely surprising.
Anyone who wants a unique, skillfully executed read (at an unbeatable price!) will not be disappointed by Spirits of Glory.
Goodreads: Clockwork Angel
Series: The Infernal Devices #1
Summary: Tessa Gray sails from America to London to meet with her older brother Nate. Instead, she is kidnapped and then rescued by a group called the Shadowhunters, who dedicate their lives to hunting demons. Quickly Tessa finds herself tangled in a battle between the Shadowhunters and the dark forces of the Downworld who want her for her unique powers and to create an unstoppable army of clockwork people.
Review: Clockwork Angel has an interesting premise, based on the interactions of various supernatural groups and the humans who associate with them during the Victorian era. It is the first steampunk book I have read that leans more toward fantasy than science fiction, and I enjoyed the blend of history and fantasy immensely, as it made the story exotic on more than one level. However, it is a bit disappointing that the tale does not lean very heavily on its setting at all; it gives the distinct impression the exact chain of events could have happened in a book set in the present.
The story itself is little on the long side, but it features some great characters, including absolutely wonderful villains, and it offers a few nice plot twists. Things in Clockwork Angel are never as straightforward as they seem. Also, a lot of hard choices need to be made about whom to trust and what to do when there is a conflict between friends and family and what might be right.
On the romance front, there is not really a triangle, but there are two different guys for Tess to be interested in. Will is a bit of a mysterious bad boy with a difficult past, which many readers have found appealing. For those who prefer nice guys, there is Jem. He is an incredible fighter who likes poetry and is protective of Tessa. He also, like Will, happens to be quite handsome. On the downside, I think he came across as a little too sensitive at points. It is hard to argue he is not manly, with the warrior thing going on, but the thought is tempting.
Clockwork Angel was exciting and quite fun to read. I will definitely be checking out the sequel, but this is not one over which I will suffer sleepless nights until I find a copy. Nice, but not mind-blowing.
Goodreads: Cinder and Ella
Summary: Cinder and Ella lived happily with their parents and two sisters until the prince came. Soon after, their father disappeared, and Cinder and Ella were left to care for a family who quickly became bitter and self-absorbed. Eventually, Cinder seeks work and better pay at the kingdom castle—but then Ella is brought there by force. It is then up to her to unravel the mystery of what the corrupt prince wanted with her father and now with her.
Review: Here is a retelling that comes close to the spirit of an original fairytale. Far from being a fleshed-out novel with psychologically complex characters, Cinder and Ella is something readers must simply accept. Plot events happen suddenly. There is little build-up to the romance. Not everything that happens even makes sense. A mother who sits in a corner all day doing nothing but spinning just because her husband disappeared? Interesting. Even a little haunting. But it requires some suspension of disbelief.
Generally, Lemon’s asking of the audience to simply accept her world as it stands works well enough. It becomes problematic mainly when the reader realizes that two of the major plot points are a little unclear. First, there is a legend of the trees that figures prominently in the story, which basically suggests that each person has a tree to which he or she is tied so that the health of one effects the others. Okay. Yet there are obviously some nuances to this whole process that Lemon never shared. Secondly, it is clear the prince is evil, practically from the first page. Why? Exactly how? This is a complete mystery for the majority of the story and once it finally is explained…it really is not.
Even more ambiguity arises when one strives to classify this book. Is it middle grade? The simplicity of the story and the storytelling could make it appropriate. Yet there are some minor themes that might inspire readers to push it into young adult, including the frequent drunkenness of a decently prominent character and the subsequent unwanted sexual attention he tries to bestow. In fact, he is stated as having a history of “ruining women.” None of this is graphic and none of it plays a particularly significant role in the tale. So the question becomes: what is it doing there at all? Perhaps I am, as accused, a slightly prudish reader, but I think I would be taken aback if a ten-year-old were to ask me what it means to “ruin women.”
The next genre dilemma is whether this is a Christian book. It is not overtly Christian, and any readers who are not particularly fond of Christian works have no reason to run away. The focus is on the fairytale and love—whether that is romantic or familial. So really it is quite surprising when the king gives a very God-like speech on the subject of free will and evil in the world. And after that it becomes simply impossible to stop from thinking of the prince as the “Prince of Darkness.” So clearly there is no Trinity going on here, and it seems a little strange to think of the devil as God’s son, but….it is there. Maybe Lemon simply has a religious philosophy that made its way into the book when she needed to address important life themes.
Lemon ultimately manages to tell an interesting story, although the extent to which it can properly be called a retelling of “Cinderella” is also debatable. There are mean stepsisters and a lot of chores, but the obvious parallels end there. There is generally more action than romance and, as stated, the actual prince is evil. In the end, the major issue with the book is that the story never quite decides what it wanted to be. Lemon has a great imagination, but there are a few technical issues transferring it to paper.