Tidesong by Wendy Xu (ARC Review)

Tidesong by Wendy Xu instagram photo

Information

Goodreads: Tidesong
Series: None
Source: PR company for review
Publication Date: November 16, 2021

Official Summary

Perfect for fans of Studio Ghibli and The Tea Dragon Society, this is a magically heartwarming graphic novel about self-acceptance and friendship.

Sophie is a young witch whose mother and grandmother pressure her to attend the Royal Magic Academy—the best magic school in the realm—even though her magic is shaky at best. To train for her entrance exams, Sophie is sent to relatives she’s never met.

Cousin Sage and Great-Aunt Lan seem more interested in giving Sophie chores than in teaching her magic. Frustrated, Sophie attempts magic on her own, but the spell goes wrong, and she accidentally entangles her magic with the magic of a young water dragon named Lir.

Lir is trapped on land and can’t remember where he came from. Even so, he’s everything Sophie isn’t—beloved by Sophie’s family and skilled at magic. With his help, Sophie might just ace her entrance exams, but that means standing in the way of Lir’s attempts to regain his memories. Sophie knows what she’s doing is wrong, but without Lir’s help, can she prove herself?

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Review

Tidesong by Wendy Xu is a whimsical graphic novel that has the feel of Kiki’s Delivery Service, but with dragons and a setting by the sea. The result is a story that ebbs and flows with protagonist Sophie’s struggles but ultimately will feel warm and familiar and cozy to readers.

The greatest struggle, I find, for many graphic novels is to create a complex story using limited words and space, and I do think Tidesong ultimately feels a bit sparse. There’s the main conflict of Sophie’s wanting to learn magic but then getting her magic tied up with a dragon’s and needing to sort it out so she can continue to practice for her audition for the esteemed magic academy she wants to attend, and there are side plots about Sophie’s family and Sophie’s own inner turmoil. It’s simply not as developed as I’d expect it all to be if the story were told in novel form. However, I don’t think it this will be an issue for the target audience of middle grade readers. As a child, I often imagined fuller stories into the books I read and was surprised to find as an adult that many of the books I loved so much seemed so short and simple. So I think young readers will absolutely fall in love with Tidesong and its world.

And the world has a lot to offer. In a brief space, and with the help of her gorgeous illustrations, Xu brings readers to a seaside town where Sophie’s family works magic and consorts with dragons. You can practically smell the salty air on the pages. I love the idea that Sophie’s magic is tied to water and that her family has a history of special magical traditions they have passed through the ages.

Finally, Xu ensures each character in the book has an arc, from Sophie who has to deal with learning magic in ways she didn’t expect, to Lir who has to come to terms with his memory loss and family problems, to Sophie’s extended family members who need to learn to let go of the past in order to truly see the present. The journey for each of them has up and downs but is a joy for readers to watch.

Tidesong is a book that is sure to delight readers and have them hoping Xu will return to this world with a sequel.

Briana
4 stars

The Halloween Moon by Joseph Fink

The Halloween Moon

Information

Goodreads: The Halloween Moon
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: July 20, 2021

Official Summary

Esther Gold loves Halloween more than anything in the world. So she is determined to go trick-or-treating again this year despite the fact that her parents think she is officially too old. Esther has it all planned out, from her costume to her candy-collecting strategy. But when the night rolls around, something feels . . . off.

No one is answering their door. The moon is an unnatural shade of orange. Strange children wander the streets, wearing creepy costumes that might not be costumes at all. And it seems like the only people besides Esther who are awake to see it all are her best friend, her school bully, and her grown-up next-door neighbor.

Together, this unlikely crew must find a way to lift the curse that has been placed upon their small town before it’s too late. Because someone is out to make sure Halloween never comes to an end. And even Esther doesn’t want to be trapped in this night forever.

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Review

The Halloween Moon is the perfect book to break out for Halloween, whether you’re an actual child or a just a child at heart. With engaging characters, a wild plot, and a setting that transforms magically from Southern California to a Halloween nightmare, the story has everything you could ask for.

I’ve read mysteries and thrillers and books about witches or zombies, but I’ve never before read a book so purely about Halloween itself. The Halloween Moon, while a scary book with a plot focused on adventure and a bit of a mystery (aka WHY ARE ALL THESE SCARY THINGS HAPPENING???) is a celebration of all aspects of the holiday: costumes, scary movies, trick-or-treating, candy, decorating your yard, and more. If you want a book that will truly immerse you in the spooky season, led by a protagonist who loves the holiday deeply herself, this is it.

I love that the book starts out focused on “normal” Halloween things, like Esther’s questions over what costume she should wear to school and whether her best friend will go trick-or-treating with her, and then things begin to take a more sinister shape as Esther starts seeing actual monsters. She loves being scared, but does she love being THIS scared? Isn’t the fun of scares at Halloween knowing that it’s all fake? Esther (and friends, some of them delightfully unexpected) rise to the challenge, however, and soon are fighting to bring back normal Halloween in a fast-paced and exciting plot.

The story also grounds itself in some real-world issues, such as the antisemitism Esther faces and her fears about growing up and going to high school next year. There are times I think the narrative voice might get too in the weeds pontificating on the nature of change and whatnot, but overall it’s very thoughtful.

Truly, this is an excellent read. It will be enjoyable any time of year, but you definitely won’t regret reading it around Halloween itself.

Briana
4 stars

The Wolf’s Curse by Jessica Vitalis (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: The Wolf’s Curse
Series: None
Source: ARC for Review
Publication Date: September 21, 2021

Official Summary

Twelve-year-old Gauge’s life has been cursed since the day he witnessed a Great White Wolf steal his grandpapá’s soul, preventing it from reaching the Sea-in-the-Sky and sailing into eternity. When the superstitious residents of Bouge-by-the-Sea accuse the boy of crying wolf, he joins forces with another orphan to prove his innocence. They navigate their shared grief in a journey that ultimately reveals life-changing truths about the wolf––and death. 

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Review

The Wolf’s Curse is a completely unique book, focused on grief but told with the feeling of a folk tale or fairy tale, softening some of the darkness. Readers will mourn with protagonist Gauge after the death of his grandfather while hoping he will find his way through the sadness — and through the cruelty of the villagers who believe Gauge is evil — and emerge stronger and ready to face on the world, even if his grandfather is no longer in it.

The treatment of death and grieving in The Wolf’s Curse is nuanced. Author Jessica Vitalis touches on the different ways people might react to death, the different ways they might grieve, and the different things they might believe happens to the soul. The book also engages with ritual, as Gauge and begins to notice that not all rituals are preformed for all people who die in the village and that different materials are used for their burial boats and must work through questions of whether the rituals are “real” and why they “matter.” It’s a complex journey of observation, questioning, and discovery, and I think it could help many young readers work through dealing with death or understanding what someone else who is grieving might be doing through.

The one thing that gives me pause is that the book is straightforward that what the villagers believe happens to the soul after death is not actually what happens to it. Souls still end up in a nice place, and there’s some discussion of the fact that what one calls the afterlife might not be the important part if it’s enjoyable place either way, but . . . I don’t know if this would be a sticking point for a young reader. The Wolf’s Curse is a good story on its own, but as it is so strongly an exploration of grief it also seems like the kind of book an adult would hand a child who is dealing with a recent death, and I question how the point of “What the characters believe about the afterlife is totally incorrect” would go over.

The plot, I think, is less complex than the themes explored, but it’s well-paced. Gauge travels a lot of the town and gets into and out of a few scrapes, and I believe the target audience will be charmed by him and the new friends he makes along the way. The slight simplicity of the plot also help the story feel more like an old folk tale we’re all comfortably familiar with, something that it is known and somehow true. The book could have felt preachy; instead, it feels as timeless as the Wolf that narrates it.

If you’re looking for something thoughtful and deep and different. The Wolf’s Curse is an excellent middle grade story that is sure to continue to win over reader after reader.

Briana
4 stars

The Theft of Sunlight by Intisar Khanani

Theft of Sunlight

Information

Goodreads: The Theft of Sunlight
Series: Dauntless Path #2
Source: Purchased
Published: March 23, 2021

Official Summary

I did not choose this fate. But I will not walk away from it.

Children have been disappearing from across Menaiya for longer than Amraeya ni Ansarim can remember. When her friend’s sister is snatched, Rae knows she can’t look away any longer – even if that means seeking answers from the royal court, where her country upbringing and clubfoot will only invite ridicule.

Yet the court holds its share of surprises. There she discovers an ally in the foreign princess, who recruits her as an attendant. Armed with the princess’s support, Rae seeks answers in the dark city streets, finding unexpected help in a rough-around-the-edges street thief with secrets of his own. But treachery runs deep, and the more Rae uncovers, the more she endangers the kingdom itself.

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Review

Note: Although this is being marketed as a companion book, I would highly recommend reading Thorn first. I have read Thorn, but didn’t remember some of the details, and I found parts of the book confusing because of that. I cannot imagine picking up The Theft of Sunlight while being completely unfamiliar with the characters and events of Thorn.

Intisar Khanani’s Thorn was one of my favorite books of 2020, so it was with great enthusiasm that I picked up The Theft of Sunlight to read more of Khanani’s work. Not only does the book deliver an engaging story with a sweet developing romance and a protagonist that had me admiring both her kindness and her sass, but it also tackles one of the threads I thought was bizarrely left hanging in Thorn: the fact that dozens of children are being snatched from the street each month.

I wrote in my review of Thorn that I guessed I could see how the characters had a lot to do in terms of reforming the country and maybe mass kidnappings was just on the list of things they hadn’t gotten around to yet, but I am actually really relieved to see that plot point taking center stage and getting the attention it deserves here because….MASS KIDNAPPINGS! It was truly weird it was almost a side point in Thorn. I love that readers are given a new protagonist to deal with the issue, as well, Rae, who is determined to get to the bottom of the issue to help the children she knows who have been snatched and the ones she doesn’t, no matter how dangerous her inquiries become. The princess cares, of course, but she doesn’t care the way Rae can because, for her, the problem is personal.

Readers also get to see more of the local thief lords mentioned in book 1, and who doesn’t love reading about thief lords and all their machinations and murders and schemes? Khanani does this really well; her thieves truly seem both skilled and dangerous. I believe they know what they’re doing and they know what they want, and they will be ruthless to get it. But we also see some of the softer sides of the Red Hawk gang, which is fabulous and makes me think I might have have missed something in not having ever having had a budding romance with a high-ranking thief. (Ok, never mind, actually. That would clearly be a terrible idea in real life, but it works great in fiction!)

The Theft of Sunlight is basically everything I like in YA, or just in a really enjoyable story. Strong, nuanced characters. A plot that hooks me and then keeps bringing surprises. Questions about life and morality and one’s own identity. I spent a long time thinking about this book once I finished it, which for me is always the mark of a good read.

Briana

Honor Lost by Ann Aguirre and Rachel Caine

Honor Lost

Information

Goodreads: Honor Lost
Series: The Honors #3
Source: Library
Published: February 11, 2020

Official Summary

Space renegade Zara Cole may have finally met her match. Lifekiller—a creature that can devour entire planets is spreading terror throughout the universe, and it seems nothing can stand in the monstrous godking’s way.

Reeling from a series of battles, Zara and her wounded band of allies are going to need a strategy before they face Lifekiller again. Zara’s street smarts may not be enough when their enemy could be anywhere, destroying civilizations and picking his teeth with the bones.

And just when it feels like she’s reached a special place in her bond with Bea and Nadim, an ex from Earth with an ax to grind comes after her with nefarious intentions. With human enemies, alien creatures, and mechanical stalkers on her tail, it’s down to the wire for Zara to save the galaxy—and the people she calls home—before the godking consumes them all.

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Review

I’m a huge fan of the first two books in the Honors series, Honor Among Thieves and Honor Bound, and genuinely believe it’s a highly original story that hasn’t received nearly enough recognition in YA circles. It is with some disappointment, then, that I admit Honor Lost is the weakest installment of the series. While it continues with an exciting plot and a wonderfully diverse cast of characters, and it neatly ties up various plot lines, it feels rushed and choppy; there’s simply too much going on.

There are a couple different major plots that need to be resolved–one involving space adventures and one involving Zara’s past on Earth (I won’t be more specific because it would spoil books 1 and 2), and I spent much of the book wondering how everything was going to be wrapped up, particularly because the space-related plot is EPIC. The authors really had to ramp up the stakes to make book 3 more exciting than book 2, and I don’t think it really worked in the space allotted. I can almost see this being a four book series instead of a trilogy.

My other issue was that the book feels more episodic than the previous two. There are a bunch of mini battles as the characters track down their main prey for a final epic battle, and…I skimmed a lot of them. It seems as though every time the characters think they’re out of hot water, some new obstacle pops up, and it was a bit much. Some of this could probably have been edited out.

Lastly, I think I was finally weirded out by the human/alien relationship–something I actually praised in the first two books. In my review of book one, Honor Among Thieves, I wrote:

The alien-ship/human relationship is one of the more unique aspects of the book. I’m not 100% sure how I would classify it (But maybe that’s the point? There’s something new between humans and aliens that just isn’t in the human experience?). I’ve seen other reader’s call it “friendship,” which definitely fits, but it also seems pretty visceral and physical in ways I don’t think most friendships are

In my review of Honor Bound, I wrote:

I also still think the Leviathan/human relationship is one of the most unique parts of the book, but it does get a little weirder in book two for me.  I noted in my review of the first book that other people were calling it a “friendship” and that term didn’t feel right to me; it’s too intimate and physical.  Basically there are almost sexual undertones, and that comes out more strongly in Honor Bound, as Zara seems on the verge of contemplating a threesome with her Leviathan and their other crew member.  It’s not phrased that way, probably because this is YA, but the suggestion is definitely there, and I’m not 100% certain how I feel about it. I guess readers are supposed to say something to themselves like “It’s space and a new alien race; anything is possible and correct” and move on.

Things ramp up over the series because it is very clear in Honor Lost that the relationship is a polyamorous sexual one, shared by the Leviathan and his/her two bonded crew members. It’s still a unique take for YA but not really my thing in terms of reading about romances.

I like the series. I enjoyed this installment well enough since it has a great cast of characters and wonderfully sweeping view of the universe. I wish it had been a stronger ending for what was otherwise a strong series, though.

Briana
4 stars

Spellhacker by M. K. England

Information

Goodreads: Spellhacker
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: January 21, 2020

Official Summary

From the author of The Disasters, this genre-bending YA fantasy heist story is perfect for fans of Marie Lu and Amie Kaufman.

In Kyrkarta, magic—known as maz—was once a freely available natural resource. Then an earthquake released a magical plague, killing thousands and opening the door for a greedy corporation to make maz a commodity that’s tightly controlled—and, of course, outrageously expensive.

Which is why Diz and her three best friends run a highly lucrative, highly illegal maz siphoning gig on the side. Their next job is supposed to be their last heist ever.

But when their plan turns up a powerful new strain of maz that (literally) blows up in their faces, they’re driven to unravel a conspiracy at the very center of the spellplague—and possibly save the world.

No pressure.

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Review

Spellhacker brings readers to a futuristic world with a unique magic system, where the raw material for magic performance is regulated by a giant corporation and transferred through the city by pipes.  While I appreciated the unique world building and a plot focused on magic, hacking, and action in general, however, I never connected with the characters of Spellhacker, which made the novel fall flat for me.

Heist novels are still very much “in” after the success of Leigh Bargudo’s Six of Crows (though when didn’t readers enjoy a good heist, really?), and I thought this was a unique take on it.  It’s not a high fantasy novel, and it’s not a space opera; it’s basically an alternate version of our world where magic and tech collide to make something familiar yet different.  It’s just all the atmosphere in the world can’t make me care about the team actually committing the heist.

All members of the team do come across as skilled and competent, which is a plus; I believed they were people who would be capable of pulling off something wildly impressive.  However, their backstories and individual personalities never resonated with me, and unfortunately I found the protagonist mostly annoying.  She’s actually smart and gritty and wants to do the right thing (despite being a criminal), but she fixates on herself a lot throughout the novel—something I think might actually be a flaw of how her thoughts are presented in the novel rather than the thoughts themselves.  That is, she is incredibly upset that her team all are planning to move to a different city to pursue non-criminal futures, and she states this again.  And again.  And again.  It feels like every three paragraphs she’s pouting about being abandoned and unwanted and generally complaining about this, and I think the author could have accomplished the same thing without making her character think/talk about it incessantly.  A little can go a long way.

I had a similar issue with her romantic relationship, in that she fixates on what she used to have, how it went wrong, how it can never be, etc., and thought that this could have also been conveyed effectively without the character griping about it every few pages.  (Interestingly, however, what exactly went on in the past relationship remains a bit unclear, in spite of how frequently it’s mentioned.)

The other characters mainly just felt flat to me.  One’s rich and talented with tech magic, but the protagonist often just focuses on the fact she’s rich, which obviously isn’t a personality trait.  One’s the brawn of the group and supposed to be kind of fatherly.  One is very skilled with magic but also sick.  I know things about the characters, but I didn’t sympathize with them or particularly care, that’s all.

The book is fine, and I think a lot of people will like it for its fast-paced action, its diversity, and its anti-corporation message, but I wanted a bit more.

Briana
3 Stars

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks

From the Desk of Zoe Washington book cover

Information

Goodreads: From the Desk of Zoe Washington
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: January 14, 2020

Official Summary

Zoe Washington isn’t sure what to write. What does a girl say to the father she’s never met, hadn’t heard from until his letter arrived on her twelfth birthday, and who’s been in prison for a terrible crime?

A crime he says he never committed.

Could Marcus really be innocent? Zoe is determined to uncover the truth. Even if it means hiding his letters and her investigation from the rest of her family. Everyone else thinks Zoe’s worrying about doing a good job at her bakery internship and proving to her parents that she’s worthy of auditioning for Food Network’s Kids Bake Challenge.

But with bakery confections on one part of her mind, and Marcus’s conviction weighing heavily on the other, this is one recipe Zoe doesn’t know how to balance. The only thing she knows to be true: Everyone lies.

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Review

From the Desk of Zoe Washington is an engaging story about a daughter connecting with a father accused of a terrible crime, and a story that manages to remain hopeful even as the protagonist deals with complicated family relationships and becomes more aware of the systemic racism that can lead to the imprisonment of innocent people.

The colorful, quirky cover of From the Desk of Zoe Washington, as well as a sideplot about Zoe’s aspirations to become a kid baker on one of her favorite television shows might lead readers to believe this is a “fun” book.  In many ways it is.  The baking, and the music playlists Zoe receives from her father, and the adventures Zoe gets into with her grandmother and her best friend all help to balance the narrative and make it fairly light and optimistic. 

Yet there are also some heavy themes here.  Zoe goes from having no communication with her father at all (fair, considering what he has been convicted of) to communicating with him in secret to wondering if his attestations that he’s innocent can possibly be true.  She discovers the Innocence Project and talks with her grandmother about the injustices of the judicial system and attempts to uncover the truth for herself.  So there’s some “normal” kid stuff like sneaking behind her mother’s back to post letters to her father mixed with hard truths about racism and failures of systems that are supposed to protect everyone, as well as an undercurrent of doubt.  Some people in prison are innocent—but is Zoe’s father?

I enjoyed this look at a topic I haven’t seen addressed in middle grade (or YA) before, and I do think the author does a good job of not letting the hard stuff overwhelm the book or Zoe’s life.  The ending is a bit rushed and a bit neat, in my opinion, but the overall narrative is approachable, compelling, and informative.

Briana
4 stars

A Treason of Thorns by Laura E. Weyworth

Information

Goodreads: A Treason of Thorns
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: September 10, 2019

Official Summary

Violet Sterling has spent the last seven years in exile, longing to return to Burleigh House. One of the six great houses of England, Burleigh’s magic always kept the countryside well. And as a child, this magic kept Violet happy, draping her in flowers while she slept, fashioning secret hiding places for her, and lighting fires on the coldest nights to keep her warm.

Everything shattered, though, when her father committed high treason trying to free Burleigh from the king’s oppressive control. He was killed, and Vi was forced into hiding.

When she’s given a chance to go back, she discovers Burleigh has run wild with grief. Vines and briars are crumbling the walls. Magic that once enriched the surrounding countryside has turned dark and deadly, twisting lush blooms into thorns, poisoning livestock and destroying crops. Burleigh’s very soul is crying out in pain.

Vi would do anything to help, and soon she finds herself walking the same deadly path as her father all those years before. Vi must decide how far she’s willing to go to save her house—before her house destroys everything she’s ever known.

Star Divider

Review

A Treason of Thorns is a beautifully written book that explores the relationship between a young woman and the magical Great House she grew up in.  However, the premise of the novel often overshadows the plot and character development, as if the author never fully moved past the “idea” for the book to truly turn it into a story.

The first half of the novel felt incredibly slow to me, as the protagonist fixates on a few simple ideas that get repeated over and over: she grew up in a Great House she expected to be Caretaker of when she was an adult, she loves her Great House, she wants her Great House to be happy and well, etc. and so forth.  I think this portion of the novel could have been cut down considerably to help get to the heart of the story.

Strangely, however, what exactly a Great House is is never fully explained.  There is a scholar in the novel whose area of expertise is Great Houses, both the ones in England and ones in other countries, so readers do get glimpses of their history, but the whole matter remains incredibly vague.  They’re just…magical houses (and grounds) that seem to have always been around and that somehow work their magic on the surrounding land.  If the House is doing well, the land and people flourish.  If not, crops fail, animals die, people get sick.  That’s basically all readers know.  Why the Houses exist, what powers or motivates them, what their investment is in the surrounding land, and a number of other questions are left unanswered.  And while I can normally appreciate some ambiguity in fantasy to create a sense of mystique, the vagueness feels off in A Treason of Thorns because the author seems to have settled on “I am writing about a magical house!” as the crux of the book.  If the answer to the question of, “What is the book about?” is “a magical house,” then I expect to have a fuller understanding of said house.

Weyworth does attempt to give readers an interesting protagonist to live in and deal with the house.  Her loyalty to it is ferocious, as is her loyalty to the boy she grew up with—now an attractive young man she has not seen for the past several years.  Readers will likely admire her dedication and generous spirit.  They, like the people in the character’s life, simply have to come to terms with the idea that she has an obsession with the House that will always come first.

The plot, then, is straightforward enough.  She loves the House.  The House is in danger.  The only way to save the House is to locate its deed.  Thus, she goes on a quest to do exactly that.  The pleasure of the book is not in being surprised by plot twists or unexpected happenings, just in watching the characters go about their tasks in various states of determination and reluctance.

I liked that the idea of A Treason of Thorns is fairly original; I can’t think of a book I’ve read that was quite like this.  However, I do think that the idea itself could have been developed and then…moved past, so to speak, so that the characters and plot could equally shine.

Briana
3 Stars

Honor Bound by Rachel Caine and Ann Aguirre

Honor Bound Book Photo

Information

Goodreads: Honor Bound
Series: The Honors #2
Source: Library
Published: February 19, 2019

Official Summary

Zara Cole was a thief back on Earth, but she’s been recently upgraded to intergalactic fugitive. On the run after a bloody battle in a covert war that she never expected to be fighting, Zara, her co-pilot Beatriz, and their Leviathan ship Nadim barely escaped the carnage with their lives. Now Zara and her crew of Honors need a safe haven, far from the creatures who want to annihilate them. But with two wounded Leviathan to treat, plus human and non-human refugees to help, they’ll have to settle for the nearest outpost, called the Sliver: a wild, dangerous warren of alien criminals. Zara’s skills from the Zone may be invaluable. However, Zara discovers that the secrets of the Sliver may have the power to turn the tide of the war they left behind—but in the wrong direction. Soon Zara will have to make a choice: stand against the ultimate evil or run from it. But she’s never walked away from a fight.

Honor Bound is the second installment in Rachel Caine and Ann Aguirre’s thrilling and fresh space saga.

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Review

Honor Bound is an irresistibly gripping follow up to Honor Among Thieves, a rare sequel that might, in fact, be even better than the first book.  Caine and Aguirre bring back an amazing cast of characters, while introducing a few that are likely to become new fan favorites, and send them all on a wild space adventure that takes them to a seedy space outpost and on a suicide mission heist that other teams have tried and failed.  Honor Bound is a great space book, with a thoughtful look at space travel, technology, and alien races, but it will also be a compulsive read for anyone who likes books  like Six of Crows that feature teams putting all their strengths together to do the impossible or that give readers a look into a criminal world.

The short review, then, is that I liked basically everything about this book.  When I reviewed Honor Among Thieves I wrote:

Zara is a character who could have been hit-or-miss for me. She has an issue with authority and tends to make snarky comments that could have just come across as annoying or try-hard, but the authors actually sold me on her tough attitude and hard exterior. Possibly this is because she quickly develops a close relationship with her Leviathon ship and her new crewmate, so readers can see she does have a gritty past and the toughness to go with it, but she’s also not heartless.

This continues to be true, and it’s one of the driving factors of the book.  Zara is tough.  She lived on the streets.  She knows how to deal with criminal elements.  But she also fundamentally a good person, so readers get to cheer for her.  Honor Among Thieves basically puts Zara in her element, as the crew goes to an outpost called the Sliver where there are no rules and no free rides, but Zara knows how to deal with people to get what she wants.  People didn’t think she was a good fit for the Honors Program, but here she turns out to be exactly what is needed.

I also still think the Leviathan/human relationship is one of the most unique parts of the book, but it does get a little weirder in book two for me.  I noted in my review of the first book that other people were calling it a “friendship” and that term didn’t feel right to me; it’s too intimate and physical.  Basically there are almost sexual undertones, and that comes out more strongly in Honor Bound, as Zara seems on the verge of contemplating a threesome with her Leviathan and their other crew member.  It’s not phrased that way, probably because this is YA, but the suggestion is definitely there, and I’m not 100% certain how I feel about it. I guess readers are supposed to say something to themselves like “It’s space and a new alien race; anything is possible and correct” and move on.

Unless, however, this is a metaphor for something that I haven’t quite figured out.  The book definitely uses alien races to send messages to readers about using correct gender pronouns and respecting different cultures that are obviously supposed to then be applied to humans, so it’s possible the book is sending some sort of sex-positive message about polyamory using aliens and intimate-bonding-that-is-not-sex as the means to deliver that message.  I haven’t really seen other people talk about this, but it’s there.

Plotwise, the book is utterly engaging.  A lot of books get called “unputdownable,” but this is one where I truly just wanted to know what would happen next because it was always high-stakes and always interesting.  There are a lot of space books and a lot of them have criminal outposts (it’s almost a cliche), but the way Caine and Aguirre use the elements feel really unique here, and though the general arc of the plot is predictable (for example: will they complete the heist?), individual elements are not, and that’s what makes the book so strong.

This is likely to be on my list of best books I read in 2019 at the end of the year, and I hope more people will pick it up.

5 stars Briana

Honor Among Thieves by Rachel Caine and Ann Aguirre

honor among thieves

Information

Goodreads: Honor Among Thieves
Series: The Honors #1
Source: Library
Published: February 13, 2018

Official Summary

Petty criminal Zara Cole has a painful past that’s made her stronger than most, which is why she chose life in New Detroit instead of moving with her family to Mars. In her eyes, living inside a dome isn’t much better than a prison cell.

Still, when Zara commits a crime that has her running scared, jail might be exactly where she’s headed. Instead Zara is recruited into the Honors, an elite team of humans selected by the Leviathan—a race of sentient alien ships—to explore the outer reaches of the universe as their passengers.

Zara seizes the chance to flee Earth’s dangers, but when she meets Nadim, the alien ship she’s assigned, Zara starts to feel at home for the first time. But nothing could have prepared her for the dark, ominous truths that lurk behind the alluring glitter of starlight.

Review

If I had read this book a little sooner, it would have been book #8 on my list of the best books I’ve read in 2018 so far. I talk a lot about how I don’t really like space books–but since I enjoyed the Illumniae series and Honor Among Thieves maybe I do really like space books. This novel avoids the claustrophobic setting of just a single spaceship, as it starts on Earth and then moves towards into the space scenes, but it also has a lot of other great things going for it: strong characters, a bit of a mystery, and a unique relationship between the protagonist and her alien ship.

Zara is a character who could have been hit-or-miss for me. She has an issue with authority and tends to make snarky comments that could have just come across as annoying or try-hard, but the authors actually sold me on her tough attitude and hard exterior. Possibly this is because she quickly develops a close relationship with her Leviathon ship and her new crewmate, so readers can see she does have a gritty past and the toughness to go with it, but she’s also not heartless.

The alien-ship/human relationship is one of the more unique aspects of the book. I’m not 100% sure how I would classify it (But maybe that’s the point? There’s something new between humans and aliens that just isn’t in the human experience?). I’ve seen other reader’s call it “friendship,” which definitely fits, but it also seems pretty visceral and physical in ways I don’t think most friendships are.

The plot is also interesting, spanning from Zara’s time on Earth to her Honors training (this is really short, honestly, and seems not really like training–just a week to figure out how to live in space?) to her stint on the year-long “Tour.” The great mystery is what “the Journey” is. Some Honors are asked to go on the Journey after the tour.  Some are not.  The people who do are never heard from again.  The people who return to Earth imply it’s horrible.  I spent a lot of the book pondering what the Journey might be.

However, I took off one star because I was really hoping that the answer to the mystery of what the Journey is would be really creative–and it is not.  It is more or less what I predicted it would be if it were not creative (if that makes any sense).   This is really the great disappointment of the novel for me, though I am still really excited about getting my hands on the sequel when it comes out.

4 stars Briana