Wizardmatch by Lauren Magaziner (ARC Review)

Wizardmatch

Information

Goodreads: Wizardmatch
Series: None
Source: Author
Publication Date: March 6, 2018

Official Summary

Twelve-year-old Lennie Mercado loves magic. She practices her invisibility powers all the time (she can now stay invisible for fifteen seconds!), and she dreams of the day that she can visit her grandfather, the Prime Wizard de Pomporromp, at his magical estate.

Now Lennie has her chance. Poppop has decided to retire, and his grandchildren are coming from all over to compete in Wizardmatch. The winner inherits his title, his castle, and every single one of his unlimited magical powers. The losers get nothing. Lennie is desperate to win, but when Poppop creates a new rule to quelch any sibling rivalry, her thoughts turn from winning Wizardmatch to sabotaging it…even if it means betraying her family.

Review

If you’ve read my reviews of The Only Thing Worse Than Witches and Pilfer Academy, you’ll know that Lauren Magaziner writes quirky, imaginative middle grade that takes readers to places it often seems like anything is possible. Wizardmatch features Magaziner’s trademark imagination and sense of humor, featuring things like a pudding pool and a stuffy talking cat.  However, it’s also a bit more serious than her previous work, exploring things like ambition, familial favoritism, and sexism.

The plot will be appealing to fans of witch stories like Which Witch? or Wizards of Waverly Place, since the protagonists must compete in a magic competition in order to determine who will become the family’s heir and inherit more magical powers than they can imagine. The first twist? Each character has only one magical ability, which they must use creatively in order to complete a varied array of tasks.  There’s no waving of magic wands to get options here; if your magical ability is that you can change the color of your hair at will, you’d better find a way to make that useful.  Watching the characters use their abilities in unexpected ways is a large part of the fun of the book.

But not everything is fun and games.  When Lennie begins to suspect that her grandfather only wants a boy to inherit and other family members are too afraid to call him out on it, she begins to take matters into her own hands to attempt to get some justice. The result is a timely story that will have readers question what they would do in such a situation and whether they would have the courage to speak out.

Wizardmatch is a great combination of entertaining magic and tough questions that will keep readers on the edges of their seats as they wait to find out what will happen next.

Disclaimer: I know the author.

4 stars Briana

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Reign of the Fallen by Sarah Glenn March

Reign of the Fallen

Information

Goodreads: Reign of the Fallen
Series: Reign of the Fallen #1
Source: Library
Published: January 23, 2018

Official Summary

Odessa is one of Karthia’s master necromancers, catering to the kingdom’s ruling Dead. Whenever a noble dies, it’s Odessa’s job to raise them by retrieving their souls from a dreamy and dangerous shadow world called the Deadlands. But there is a cost to being raised–the Dead must remain shrouded, or risk transforming into zombie-like monsters known as Shades. If even a hint of flesh is exposed, the grotesque transformation will begin.

A dramatic uptick in Shade attacks raises suspicions and fears among Odessa’s necromancer community. Soon a crushing loss of one of their own reveals a disturbing conspiracy: someone is intentionally creating Shades by tearing shrouds from the Dead–and training them to attack. Odessa is faced with a terrifying question: What if her necromancer’s magic is the weapon that brings Karthia to its knees?

Review

A book about necromancers and a world where the resurrected Dead dwell among the living like (nearly) ordinary citizens sounded fascinating. I was ready for Reign of the Fallen to be a  darkish epic fantasy about necromancy gone wrong and a team of plucky teenagers’ efforts to stop it (although I admit the light pink, bejeweled cover design doesn’t exactly scream “death, “”darkness,” or “epic adventure” in general.) Unfortunately, all I got was a boring story that doesn’t make much sense, which I couldn’t wait to end.

The problems start at the beginning of the novel, where it becomes immediately obvious the magic in this world isn’t well thought-out. Krysta has written about wanting more logic in fantasy, and the lack of logic is exactly the problem here.

1.) The Dead become monsters when someone sees their skin.  But…why?  I can accept magic in general, but it just seems ridiculous to me that somehow your skin would know that someone else’s eyeball saw it, and then you’d insta-transform into a raving monster.  Also, why do the Dead wear shrouds that can accidentally show their skin?  Why has no one invented a body suit?

2.) Wait…no one invented a body suit because the Dead king who has been ruling for centuries doesn’t allow “change.”  No widening the streets.  No new fashions.  No new medicines.  No new rules.  Except the castle itself is allowed to change because the nobles need more room as more of them are born but none of them leave because they keep getting resurrected.  Ok…

(Also, what magic you can perform or what talents you have is determined by your eye color, and all brown-eyed people are Inventors, but they are unilaterally not allowed to invent anything because that is change. I’m sure this large subset of the population loves this.)

3.) This is an inherently unstable political system even if people generally like this Dead king (“May he reign eternal”) because he has to be killed and re-resurrected every once in a while, meaning there are periods, even if only a day here and there, where someone else must be in charge of the country.  Also, it seems unrealistic that his family would keep raising him instead of going for their own shot at the throne.

So, really none of this book makes sense, and I could go on.  But did I enjoy other aspects of the novel?

Not really.

The plot is mildly interesting, once it gets going, but not all of that makes sense either. And the characterization is not a redeeming quality. First, the book opens with some deaths, which readers will struggle to care about because they didn’t know the characters.  This means the surviving characters’ grief isn’t particularly moving, and that’s a major theme and focus of the book.   Second, when the protagonist isn’t grieving, she seems to be thinking about hooking up with everyone near and far.  I can deal with a love triangle. I can’t take seriously a book where about five people are into the protagonist, and she’s kind of into them, too.  Besides the fact that it seems unlikely one would have this many love interest options at once, it also means that the romance isn’t really developed enough to get readers invested.

The only thing that sort of worked for me in Reign of the Fallen is that it tried to touch on questions of class (one has to pay to raise one’s relatives, and only the nobles can afford the services of a necromancer) and on questions of death and morality (should the dead be raised at all, particularly if doing so means they could become monsters and hurt others?).  There aren’t a lot of answers, though, so the book didn’t go as deep as it possibly could have.

I wanted to DNF this book the entire time I was reading it, but I kept going so I could give it a “fair” review based on the fact I’d read all of it. I kind of regret this, however, and wish I would have just stopped 100 pages in and spent less of my time on this.  This is a majorly disappointing read for me.

2 star review Briana

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by April Genevieve Tucholke

Halloween Books 2017


Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Information

Goodreads: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Series: Between #1
Source: Library
Published: August 15, 2013

Official Summary

You stop fearing the devil when you’re holding his hand…

Nothing much exciting rolls through Violet White’s sleepy, seaside town… until River West comes along. River rents the guest house behind Violet’s crumbling estate, and as eerie, grim things start to happen, Violet begins to wonder about the boy living in her backyard.

Is River just a crooked-smiling liar with pretty eyes and a mysterious past? Or could he be something more?

Violet’s grandmother always warned her about the Devil, but she never said he could be a dark-haired boy who takes naps in the sun, who likes coffee, who kisses you in a cemetery… who makes you want to kiss back.

Violet’s already so knee-deep in love, she can’t see straight. And that’s just how River likes it.

Review

I had been looking forward to Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea at the time of its release in 2013, due to its promise of a steamy romance combined with a Gothic horror plot.  However, the less-than-thrilled reviews I saw at the time convinced me to put my reading plans on hold.  Recently I’ve been on a mission to knock some books off my TBR list on Goodreads, so I decided to give it a chance anyway, armed with the knowledge that a lot of reviewers I trust noted that the book is heavy on the romance and light on the Gothic stuff.  However, even expecting an emphasis on romance, I was disappointed with what I got.

The short story is that Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is instalove X1000.  There’s attraction the second the two characters set eyes on each, and they’re taking naps cuddled together on the sofa the very same day, musing about how attracting they are to each other and don’t want to let each other day.  Without any actual build-up to the relationship, I was not invested. At all.

Worse, love interest River is not exactly attractive, at least in my personal opinion.  He’s apparently physically attractive, but his personality leaves a lot to be desired.  The protagonist even frequently reflects on how he’s a jerk and a liar and possibly a sociopath…but she just can’t bring herself to stop making out with him or loving him.  I just can’t bring myself to root for a romance where the girl is so clearly hooked on someone she shouldn’t be, someone who is big trouble, and not in a sexy “bad boy” kind of way.  (Because, seriously, this guy has issues he needs to work out.)

As for the plot, which is supposed to be part mystery and have a Gothic horror vibe, it doesn’t start until over halfway through the novel, and once it does, it doesn’t make any sense.  Sometime after page 100, I started asking myself when the main plot was going to start because, for all intents and purposes, it simply hadn’t yet.  Our heroes were too busy mooning over each other.  However, I wasn’t impressed once it started anyway.  Things happen quite suddenly, and not many of them are logical.  Certainly I wasn’t getting any deliciously creepy Gothic vibes.

Unfortunately, my general impression of this book was that it wasted my time.  I didn’t care for the romance, the plot, the characters, or really anything about it.  I suppose I can say the premise was good, enough that I gave it a shot even after reading a bunch of low-rated reviews, but I certainly won’t be recommending this to anyone.

Briana

Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore

Jane Unlimited by Kristin Cashore

Information

Goodreads: Jane, Unlimited
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: September 19, 2017

Official Summary

If you could change your story, would you?

Jane has lived a mostly ordinary life, raised by her recently deceased aunt Magnolia, whom she counted on to turn life into an adventure. Without Aunt Magnolia, Jane is directionless. Then an old acquaintance, the glamorous and capricious Kiran Thrash, blows back into Jane’s life and invites her to a gala at the Thrashes’ extravagant island mansion called Tu Reviens. Jane remembers her aunt telling her: “If anyone ever invites you to Tu Reviens, promise me that you’ll go.”

What Jane doesn’t know is that at Tu Reviens her story will change; the house will offer her five choices that could ultimately determine the course of her untethered life. But every choice comes with a price. She might fall in love, she might lose her life, she might come face-to-face with herself. At Tu Reviens, anything is possible.

Review

Note: There are no plot spoilers in this book, but I do talk about the structure and various genres of the book, so if you are the type of reader who likes to go into novels completely blind and surprised, you may wish to skip this review.

I’m a big fan of Graceling, so I’ve been looking forward to Cashore’s first novel in five years with some excitement.  I knew it would be a different type of book for her, since it’s not high fantasy; however, I was fully prepared for the unique structure and blend of genres in the book.  In the end, I think Cashore has attempted something beautifully ambitious with the structure, but I’m not fully convinced that the final product melds together in quite the way I want.

The first important point to note about the book is that it begins linearly, but after Part II, it breaks off into different narratives. The idea is that protagonist Jane is faced with the option of following five different people, and whichever choice she makes will lead her path in a different direction.  It’s basically inspired by the idea of the multiverse—that there are infinite versions of us/the universe out there, all which split off when we make different decisions in our lives.

Honestly, I quite like this idea.  We probably all have the sense that the “big” decisions we make in life matter, that our lives would have gone differently if we had gone to College B instead of College A, or that everything would be different if we had chosen to study engineering instead of art history.  However, Jane, Unlimited explores the idea that even the “small” decisions can have large impacts, that it matters whether, right now, you choose to walk down your driveway to get your mail or to stay in your house for another thirty minutes and call your mother.

My issue is that the different narratives Jane experiences got a lot weirder than I was anticipating.  The first two options are realistic (if a bit sensational), so I was not expecting the last three narratives to go hardcore horror and sci-fi.  One minute I was in the real world; the next I was in the Twilight Zone.  All of these stories are interesting, but I didn’t think the book felt as though it went together as a whole, and I actually thought the first two stories were the strongest.  I personally would have liked the book better if all five narrative options veered towards realistic contemporary fiction.

Otherwise, however, the book is strong.  I have always thought Cashore has strong prose, and she is great at characterization.  I enjoyed reading about Jane, as well as the decently large case of secondary characters.  To make things even better, there’s an adorably loyal (and intelligent) dog who sticks to Jane’s side throughout her adventures.  Add the glamourous setting of a mansion on a private island, where half the residents are art experts, and this book is really great.

I connected with the characters and wanted to know what happened next in the book; I whipped through this story much faster than others I have been reading recently.  I just hesitate to give it a higher star rating because the second half of the book seems so disconnected from the first half.

3 Stars Briana

Book Vs. Movie: NERVE by Jeanne Ryan

Nerve Jeanne Ryan

I’ve been talking about Nerve by Jeanne Ryan since the book was published in 2012.  (I’ve written a review, a personality quiz, and a list of reasons you should read the book.)  So I’m a bit surprised myself that I’ve only now gotten around to watching the movie adaptation that was released in 2016.  My primary reaction, now that I have is “Wow, this is different from the book.”

Certainly the overarching premise is the same: A normally introverted high school student named Vee feels like she needs to shake up her life by being more spontaneous, so she signs up to be a Player in a new virtual game of dares (which are proposed by paying spectators called Watchers).  But things start to go horribly wrong and the game begins dangerously taking over her life.

The first half of the movie keeps this premise from the book, with some changes to what dares the Players must complete (and I think Vee is a little older, 18, in the movie to make some of the dares less clearly an issue for minors).  However, the major themes are different between book and movie.

The book is really about character development and Vee’s shyness.  Vee becomes worried her introversion and caution are keeping her back from living life to the fullest, so she enters the game in a attempt to be more spontaneous and, well, daring.  I’ve seen some readers critique this and suggest that the overall message of the book is “Being shy is bad,” but I’d argue the opposite; the game gets dangerous enough that Vee can begin to see that the way she’d been living life might have been just fine after all.  The book also explores the character development of some of Vee’s friends who get sucked into the game as either Watchers or Players themselves.

The movie is less concerned about the individual.  Though Vee is still the focus, the message of the movie seems to be not about her but about the Watchers in general. The film takes on questions of mob mentality and how people’s behavior changes when they’re anonymous. (And actual scientific studies have shown that being anonymous frequently equates to being a much more horrible person than you would normally be.  Even having a pseudonym online will encourage people to behave better than it they are 100% anonymous.)  These are interesting, relevant questions, and I can see why the movie makers thought it was worth bringing them to the forefront.  It simply isn’t what I would have expected to see happen in the movie, based on what I’d read in the book.

I don’t necessarily think one was “better” than the other, but I did find the differences between the book and the movie quite interesting.

Briana

Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

Information

Goodreads: Flame in the Mist
Series: Flame in the Mist #1
Source: Library
Published: May 16, 2017

Official Summary

The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she’d been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath.

So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko’s convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who’ve been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace.

The lone survivor, Mariko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.

Review

I know Ahdieh has a great reputation as an author and a strong fan base, but I actually DNF’ed The Wrath and the Dawn a couple chapters in simply because I couldn’t get into the story. The summary of Flame in the Mist sounded like so much fun, however, (a girl defying her destiny and falling in with a band of thieves?!) that I wanted to give Ahdieh another shot. Ultimately, I did enjoy the plot, but I’m not sure I’m invested enough in the characters to continue reading the series.

The story really does deliver all that it promises. In feudal Japan, a spirited young noblewoman bound in duty to marry whomever her parents decree suddenly finds her life uprooted; she is the victim of an attempted assassination and determined to infiltrate the criminal group responsible to find out why. Admittedly, this is not an entirely unique plot in young adult literature, but it’s always one I love to read, and this is no exception. Ahdieh does a fabulous job laying out the intricacies of the tensions between criminals, common people, and nobility, and protagonist Mariko quickly comes to learn that the world may not be exactly as she believed.

Tied into this, some of the characterization in the novel is strong. The bandit gang is represented as deep and complex; they all have shadowed pasts and clear motivations for how they ended up in a criminal life. Ahdieh is careful to portray them as people, not simply as villains, and they have layer upon layer that Mariko slowly uncovers. I wish Ahdieh had done the same for some other characters in the novel; some choices that ought to be more difficult for Mariko suddenly become easy as the lines between “good guy” and “bad guy” are made needlessly clear cut near the end of the story.

I wanted to care more about what’s going to happen in book two because I enjoyed the storyline of book one, and I was invested in the slow burn romance. However, the ending here makes it pretty clear what’s going to transpire next, and I have definitely seen this ending in multiple YA novels. (I’ll refrain from naming any to avoid needless spoilers.) This book was enjoyable while I was reading it, but it’s just not original enough or complex enough for me to want to continue investing time in Mariko and her friends.

3 Stars Briana

Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton

Traitor to the Throne

Information

Goodreads: Traitor to the Throne
Series: Rebel of the Sands #2
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Official Summary

Rebel by chance. Traitor by choice.

Gunslinger Amani al’Hiza fled her dead-end hometown on the back of a mythical horse with the mysterious foreigner Jin, seeking only her own freedom. Now she’s fighting to liberate the entire desert nation of Miraji from a bloodthirsty sultan who slew his own father to capture the throne.

When Amani finds herself thrust into the epicenter of the regime—the Sultan’s palace—she’s determined to bring the tyrant down. Desperate to uncover the Sultan’s secrets by spying on his court, she tries to forget that Jin disappeared just as she was getting closest to him, and that she’s a prisoner of the enemy. But the longer she remains, the more she questions whether the Sultan is really the villain she’s been told he is, and who’s the real traitor to her sun-bleached, magic-filled homeland.

Forget everything you thought you knew about Miraji, about the rebellion, about Djinn and Jin and the Blue-Eyed Bandit. In Traitor to the Throne, the only certainty is that everything will change.

Review

Traitor to the Throne brings readers right back into the action-packed rebellion with Amani, her Rebel Prince, and their talented crew.  Though it has been awhile since I read Rebel of the Sands, the plot begins basically where it left off, and I was able to pick up the strands quickly.  The story is filled with all the good things that made the first book come to life: magic, romance, danger, and the weight of history.

There is a setting shift in this novel, and I understand why some readers who fell in love with the desert and Old West town feel of the first novel were disappointed to see it go in the sequel; I was a bit sad myself.  However, Hamilton makes the transition to palace harem and court intrigue incredibly well and proves that she is a master of the fantasy genre.

I like court intrigue in general, but Traitor to the Throne gives a very compelling look at the Sultan’s harem and what women do to survive in such a tenuous position and cutthroat environment.  Amani and her rebel friends show one type of strength, wielding knives and guns and magical powers, but the women in the harem work with something else: beauty and cunning and the will to survive.  The treatment of women, their apparently disposable nature, is not pretty in this world, but Hamilton shows that strength comes in many different shapes, and I adored it.

Favorite characters from Rebel of the Sands come back in Traitor to the Throne, and it is wonderful to see them continue to grow.  There are some new ones, as well, and they are all crafted with finesse and attention to making them multi-faceted.  The Sultan in particular is interesting, and readers finally get to see situation from his point of view—why he has made the decisions he has while ruling the country, and whether he thinks they were right or would go back if he could.  Hamilton delves into the complexity of politics and shows that there are not always black and white, easy answers.

The prose is still choppy in a way I cannot quite describe, an issue I had with Rebel of the Sands, as well, but overall the plot, characters, and world building carry the book enough that this is just a minor irritation rather than a deal-breaker.

Traitor to the Throne is a strong installment in what I can only assume will be a strong series through to the end.  I look forward to reading Amani’s next adventure and to seeing more writing from Hamilton.

4 stars Briana