Helga arrives on an island full of mad scientists, determined to rescue her imprisoned grandfather. But can she accomplish her mission before she is discovered or sent back to the Mainland?
While The Prisoner of Shiverstone has an interesting premise, the book largely fails to live up to it. The plot contains many gaps, the characterization is superficial, and the action sometimes happens too quickly for readers to feel any suspense or dramatic impact. Though I appreciate the focus on a girl interested in STEM, The Prisoner of Shiverstone really does not offer anything extraordinary or even particularly memorable.
The story opens with the young Helga arriving on an island–why is not explained until later and how never really explained at all. Her backstory is minimal; it would appear she likes to tinker with technology but this, for nebulous reasons, are frowned upon in the Mainland. The Mainland has, in fact, exiled all “mad” scientists to a specific island. I think it is supposed to be a prison–or was at one point. But now the scientists live there happily and just sell off their inventions to the Mainland (which is happy to use them even though they hate science). The whole premise is confusing.
This might be bearable, if the plot did not also contain many smaller gaps. At one point there was an attack and I honestly could not figure out where it was coming from, or why, though I reread several pages to try to figure it out. In another instance, I could not determine if a time gap had occurred or, if it had, what changes I was supposed to be inferring from the artwork. The book is simply confusing at parts.
The characters do not really stand out, and their characterization feels limited. I did not feel any particular connection to them–not even to a robot clearly meant to be lovable and humorous sidekick. The story, I think, relies too heavily on the “girls in STEM!” angle to really delve into why Helga likes STEM or what other attributes she might have.
Often, books with faulty premises or gaps in the plot are still enjoyed by younger readers I know, but I do not feel confident even in recommending this book to some of the more forgiving tweens in my life. It is just too confusing and not particularly strong in other areas to make up for it.
Goodreads: I’m Gonna Be a SMITH! Series: Clock Striker #1 Age Category: Young Adult Source: Library Published: 2023
The legendary Smiths, warriors who used technology in battle, are believed to be gone. But young Cast still dreams of joining their ranks–and receives the opportunity of a lifetime when one of last Smiths takes her on as an apprentice. Now Cast and her mentor Ms. Clock are embarked on a dangerous mission to protect lost Smith technology from falling into the wrong hands. But it is a mission that could be deadly.
I do not read a lot of manga which makes it difficult for me, I suppose, to really comment on how well a particular manga works in comparison to other, respected works. My perspective is that of the casual reader, one who sometimes dips their toes into the ocean of this storytelling form, and who may or may not continue in farther, depending on the experience. My non-expert opinion, then, is that the first volume of Clock Striker feels fun and enthusiastic–but also a bit unoriginal. It plays up a lot of tropes that perhaps fans really relish. But I was hoping for something that felt more exciting.
I’m Gonna Be a SMITH! is a book for readers that enjoy the good old standbys– legendary artifacts, secret organizations, gangster-style villains, a Cinderella-esque rise from obscurity to influence, and lots of girl power. I often enjoy tropes myself, so none of this is necessarily a flaw. I was just hoping that it would all combine into something that still felt fresh, and with characters that I could really care about. Mostly, however, I remember what seems to be a sort of standard, superhero-esque origin story combined with lots of confusing fight scenes and an overuse of, “Haha! You thought a mere girl couldn’t beat you! Eat dirt, sexists!” triumphs. The messaging is a bit heavy-handed, even if it is a message many readers will enjoy.
This foray into manga did not particularly leave me wanting more. However, I can see it being very popular with tweens and teens, who might be newer to some of the tropes and undoubtedly excited for all the girl power moments. While I will not be reading book two, I would recommend the series to other fans of manga.
Goodreads: Scarlet Series: Lunar Chronicles #2 Age Category: Young Adult Source: Library Publication Date: 2013
Cinder is on the run. The Lunar Queen, Levana, wants her dead, but she has no plans to wait around in prison to let that happen. Meanwhile, in France, Scarlet Benoit is searching for her grandmother. But so are the Lunars. Her grandmother, it seems, just might have information about the missing heir to the Lunar throne. Scarlet will have to team up with a mysterious stranger named Wolf if she wants to learn the truth. But she is not sure Wolf is a man she can trust.
After giving Cinder another chance, I jumped right into Scarlet, finally determined to find out what all the hype over the Lunar Chronicles was about. Sadly, however, Scarlet suffers quite a bit from second book syndrome. The ending of Cinder suggested that a high stakes political game was about the begin, probably culminating in some sort of epic battle. Scarlet, however, just spends a couple hundred pages working to get Cinder and Scarlet together. It is a bridge book, not a really interesting story of its own.
Strangely, even though Scarlet should, by rights, be Scarlet’s story, I quickly decided that Cinder was the more interesting character with the more interesting plotline. Had Cinder’s story not been intertwined with Scarlet’s, I do not know if I would have finished reading the book. Scarlet spends a lot of time simply traveling from point A to point B. And, even though she has a fiery spirit, and I initially thought she might be an equal for the strong, enigmatic Wolf, at the end of her journey, all Scarlet does is break down in tears and wait to be rescued. How disappointing.
Cinder takes a bit more agency in her part of the book, escaping from prison and teaming up with the foppish Thorn, who provides quite a bit of comic relief. I felt a bit of gratitude each time her chapters appeared. I enjoyed that she takes no nonsense from Thorn and that, even though she is on the run with no overall plan, she at least has a series of actionable steps to complete while she figures things out. Unlike Scarlet, who kept waiting for Wolf to protect her, Cinder has to take charge herself–and it looks like she will probably end up rescuing Kai, instead of the other way around.
In the end, I do not have really strong feelings about Scarlet because it really does seem like a bridge book. It is not a story of its own, but just a way to set up the next stage of Cinder’s journey. I hope that the set-up for action in book three will not disappoint.
Goodreads: Cinder Series: Lunar Chronicles #1 Age Category: Young Adult Source: Library Published: 2012
Cinder is the most gifted mechanic in New Beijing–but only because she has a secret. Cinder is a cyborg, and thus considered a second-class citizen. Her stepfamily mistreats her and she must live with the knowledge that society hates and fears her. Then Prince Kai shows up with a mysterious request. He needs the information hidden in a broken android. Suddenly, Cinder is involved in a most unexpected romance–but also embroiled in interplanetary politics.
I first read Cinder years ago, closer to when it was first released. Although Briana–and most of the bookish community–loved it, I was less impressed. While setting a “Cinderella retelling” in a sci-fi setting was original, the rest of the plot seemed more mediocre to me. I liked the book, but not enough to keep reading the series. Ten years later, however, I have given Cinder another chance. While I still do not find the story breathtaking, I did find it engaging enough to keep on reading.
The most interesting aspect of the book, for me, is Cinder’s identity as a cyborg since cyborgs are looked down upon by the rest of society, and even mandated to enter a draft for medical test subjects since their lives are seen as inherently less valuable. This gives the book plenty of room to interrogate societal injustices and civilians’ tacit involvement, while also making Cinder a relatable teen. Though readers may not know what it is to be a cyborg, plenty probably know how it feels to not fit in, to feel awkward in their bodies, and to long for a place where they will be truly accepted as they are. The intersection of Cinder’s identity with the empire’s politics lies at the heart of the story, raising the question of when or if Cinder will choose to start pushing back.
The bulk of the story, however, is really about the romance between the mechanic Cinder and the prince Kai. The prospect of a rags-to-riches story, with Cinder getting back at all those who treated her poorly by finding acceptance among the elite, is probably what has driven the popularity of the “Cinderella” tale over the years. It’s just so satisfying. Even so, I was glad to see that Marissa Meyer subverts this storyline. Though Cinder may have caught the eye of prince, it is not his favor that makes her special. Cinder is strong and remarkable all by herself–and the ending of the book promises to explore this theme more. I enjoyed the prospect the ending laid out of seeing the prince forced to see Cinder as an equal, one whose favor he might just have to earn in order to redeem himself.
Cinder works as a retelling for me because it takes a familiar storyline and does more than move it to a futuristic setting. Rather, it promises to interrogate social injustices and to subvert readers’ expectations from the original story. While I think that Meyer could do a little more to flesh out her world (all the nations seem kind of the same to me), the tech aspects at least give the story some grounding, while also providing a starting point for Meyer to add more original aspects to her retelling. Ultimately, Cinder is a satisfying YA read, and, this time, I will be checking out the sequel.
Goodreads:The Space Race of 1869 Series: Castle in the Stars #1 Age Category: Middle Grade Source: Library Published: 2017
In days past, Seraphin’s mother died looking for the fabled aether, a substance in the air that will allegedly be able to power vehicles through the sky. Then a message arrives saying that her logbook has been found, and Seraphin’s father is needed in Bavaria. Seraphin and his dad answer the call, only to find themselves in the middle of a political intrigue, with rival rulers seeking to control the air.
Initially, I was unsure I would enjoy the Castle in the Stars series; I nearly decided to return the two sequels I had also requested at the library. The drawings are incredibly detailed for a graphic novel and, while, beautiful, they felt so overwhelming to me that I often found myself wanting to skip them. Then, too, there is lot of technical talk, I guess to make the book more “realistic” or maybe just to get across the point that the main character really loves technology. Finally, the premise just did not feel original. A group of scientists want to prove that air travel is possible by collecting the mythical “aether,” but they are spied upon and sabotaged by members of a rival nation. Yawn. In the end, I have mixed feelings about this book, though it seems to have been generally well-received.
One might hope that other aspects of the book might improve the experience. However, the characters feel uninspired along with the plot. There is our young hero, traumatized by his mother’s death in the aether, and now desperate to prove her theories right. His professorial father. The spunky maid at the castle. The lovelorn king and the flame he missed out on. And…the kid who wears lederhosen around everywhere because…? I’m not sure if it’s because he has national pride or if it is supposed to be funny. I guess he is the humorous sidekick. But do any of the characters have a personality that extends beyond stock character status? Not really.
In the end, the best part of this book is probably the illustrations. They are gorgeous and detailed, and one could spend what feels like an infinite amount of time poring over them. The storyline feels more like an excuse to have all these illustrations, more than an actual, original plot. But, of course, the story is hampered by the fact that is just the beginning of the series and it serves mainly as a setup for whatever will follow.
Final verdict? Beautiful pictures. Read if you really, really love stories with a steampunky feel, where fantasy and technology intermix. But pass if you are looking for an original plot with well-developed characters.
Goodreads: Wakanda Forever Series: Shuri Source: Library Published: December 2020
The Black Panther’s techno-genius sister stars in her own incredible adventures! T’Challa has disappeared, and Wakanda expects Shuri to lead their great nation in his absence! But she’s happiest in a lab surrounded by her inventions. She’d rather be testing gauntlets than throwing them down! So it’s time for Shuri to rescue her brother yet again – with a little help from Storm, Rocket Raccoon and Groot! But what happens when her outer-space adventure puts Africa at risk from an energy-sapping alien threat? Then, Shuri heads to America to investigate a lead, with Ms. Marvel and Miles “Spider-Man” Morales along for the ride! But with her people in peril, will Shuri embrace her reluctant destiny and become the Black Panther once more? Prepare for a hero like you’ve never seen before! COLLECTING: SHURI (2018) 1-10
Shuri: Wakanda Forever focuses on Shuri as she attempts to find her place in the world. When her brother goes missing in space, everyone expects her to step in as the Black Panther once more. But…what if Shuri does not want to? She is comfortable working in her lab and she has been gaining mastery over her powers as the Ancient Future. Wakanda is grappling with new ideas about how to move forward as a nation, and Shuri wants to help. She just wants to do it on her own terms. Shuri: Wakanda Forever is a moving look at one young woman’s journey to balance her people’s expectations with her own.
In many ways, Shuri’s emotional journey stands at the heart of this volume, connecting what otherwise can seem like a disparate chain of stories, some of them more about fan service than service to the narrative. For instance, while seeing Shuri in space with Rocket and Groot is fun, it also seems random. And her team-up with Iron Man, while given a logical reason, also seems like it is more about the opportunity for well, yes, another superhero team-up. By the team she’s teaming up with Miles Morales and Ms. Marvel in the U.S., the plot has gone everywhere, with none of it really tying back to her ostensible quest to discover the whereabouts of her missing brother. The strongest parts are when Shuri is in Wakanda, talking to her people, conferring with the powerful women who are leading the country in T’Challa’s absence, and wondering what her role in the universe is.
Complicating matters is that Shuri has been losing some of her powers as the Ancient Future. Of course, Shuri’s mind and her amazing technology can help her solve just about any problem–she does not really need super powers. But it is concerning to see her losing connections with her ancestors, a sort of tangible representation that Shuri is feeling a little lost at the moment as she tries to navigate the competing interests of her country. Fortunately, Shuri is strong, smart, and capable–readers know that she will always manage to save the day.
Shuri: Wakanda Forever is both a thrilling superhero comic and an emotional look at Shuri’s journey of self-discovery. Fans of Shuri and of Marvel will not want to miss this latest installment in her story.
Goodreads: Ready Player Two Series: Ready Player #2 Source: Library Published: 2020
An unexpected quest. Two worlds at stake. Are you ready?
Days after Oasis founder James Halliday’s contest, Wade Watts makes a discovery that changes everything. Hidden within Halliday’s vault, waiting for his heir to find, lies a technological advancement that will once again change the world and make the Oasis a thousand times more wondrous, and addictive, than even Wade dreamed possible. With it comes a new riddle and a new quest. A last Easter egg from Halliday, hinting at a mysterious prize. And an unexpected, impossibly powerful, and dangerous new rival awaits, one who will kill millions to get what he wants. Wade’s life and the future of the Oasis are again at stake, but this time the fate of humanity also hangs in the balance.
Ready Player Two feels like Cline’s response to critiques of Ready Player One, about how the book may play into toxic nerd culture. Possibly if Cline had focused more on delivering another fun romp through nostalgic pop culture references, the book wouldn’t come across as badly as it does. As it stands, however, the book is slow and poorly written, and the attempts to appear more sensitive only highlight how much work still needs to be done in making nerd culture more accessible and welcoming.
The book starts with about 100 pages of worlbuilding and plot recap, which should serve to orient readers who forget the events of Ready Player One. Far from being helpful, however, this bogs down the story, creating the perfect opportunity for bored readers to DNF. The book then bizarrely launches into a lengthy discussion of all the new technology available, with Wade blithely disregarding all the possible negative effects and the ethical implications of plugging one’s brain into the internet and having a corporation secretly back up a scan of everyone’s brain as they do so. Wade is seemingly the villain of this piece, the underdog who has transformed into the evil corporation head he used to fight. But the book does not worry overmuch about that, instead choosing to focus most of its attention on providing recaps of various movies, books, and video games–usually through extended dialogue provided by Wade who, yes, does apparently feel the need to do things like retell the entire story of Beren and Lúthien for readers who may not be in the know.
The book also immediately launches into a pages-long explanation of how new technology can help people with disabilities–an aside that feels more like an effort to try to appear sensitive for brownie points than it feels like a real acknowledgment of differences. Wade’s reference to deaf people as “hearing impaired,” a term which I understand is considered highly offensive, just drives home the sense that Cline isn’t really sure what he’s talking about here, but is attempting nonetheless to make it look like his book can move beyond white fanboy wish fulfillment. It never works.
Ready Player Two is full of awkward attempts to appear more sensitive, attempts that usually only end up highlighting how badly the story fails in this regard. For example, there is Aech’s protest at the whiteness of an 80s-movie planet and LotR, which don’t exactly feel genuine, especially when Wade cuts off Aech’s critiques with the directive to table the literary criticism for later, when they aren’t on a life-or-death quest. But what’s the point of the book bringing up these critiques if it fails to engage with them? It just feels like something thrown out there to appease any readers who might start to get miffed by the pop culture moments the book chooses to focus on.
[SPOILER ALERT!] One might argue that the entire plot is an attempt to engage with toxic nerd culture, as Wade begins to realize that his idol Halliday had a dark side–one that made him unhealthily obsessed with his best friend’s wife Kira, and that lead him to take the credit for designs and games that Kira was largely responsible for. But…the whole premise of going on a quest to try to rediscover Kira doesn’t feel like quite the answer. Kira was a real person, not a puzzle to be pieced together. And the High Five COULD try to figure out what Kira herself would have wanted in regards to her legacy, without trying to guess or to get her husband to answer for her. But the idea that Kira might have her own thoughts and desires turns out to be, not an obvious solution, but some sort of last-minute revelation apparently meant to give the book meaning. It doesn’t.
[SPOILER ALERT!] And, despite the obvious effort, I am not convinced Wade–or the book–ever has a real breakthrough moment in regards to the treatment of women. Wade still ends up with Samantha as some sort of “prize,” even though he’s presented as mean, selfish, and uncaring. And the bulk of Kira’s memories that Wade accesses still seem to revolve around her relationship with Og (and Halliday), when there could have been so much more about her career and other aspects of her life. Finally, if Wade has to access Kira’s memories and relive her experiences in order to understand that she’s a person, what hope is there for the rest of us, who don’t have access to Wade’s technology? What is the book ultimately saying about our ability to listen to and empathize with one another?
The big question Ready Player Two leaves me with, however, is whether we needed a whole book about a man, Wade, learning that other men sometimes treat women badly and that women are people, too. I’m not sure that we did.
On the planet of Krypton, citizens are genetically modified to be the best at what they do. Zahn is one of the privileged elite, born to lead. Sera is a soldier, trained to give her life for her people, without even caring that they ask of her the ultimate sacrifice. Living in two different worlds, the two should never meet. But groundquakes are threatening the stability of Krypton, and the leaders do nothing but deny it. Now, Zahn and Sera must work together to uncover the web of lies that will doom their planet.
The first book in the House of El trilogy provides a background story for the destruction of Superman’s home planet Krypton. Set in the planet’s final days, the book follows two teens: Zahn, born to be a leader chosen from the elites, and Sera, born to give her life as a soldier. Most Kryptonians are genetically modified to be “perfect” at what they do, meaning most never question their lifestyles or the choices of the tribunes who lead them. But Zahn and Sera have noticed that the groundquakes are becoming worse, that the terraforming experiments on neighboring planets have failed, and that the tribunes are lying about it all. So begins a story full of action, danger, and intrigue.
The choice to explore Krypton before Superman is a very compelling one. I imagine that generations of readers have wondered about the planet’s destruction. What was it like? Did people know? Did they try to stop it? Why did they fail? The answer here presents Krypton as a utopia gone wrong, a planet so dedicated to being perfect that they can longer admit to having made mistakes. The effect is chilling, the realization that, not only will the leaders fail to act to save Krypton, but they will do everything in their power to ensure its destruction.
At the heart of this story are Zahn and Sera, two teens who transcend their genetic programming to realize something has gone badly wrong. The back cover presents the two as sort of star-crossed lovers, but, aside from a page or two awkward flirting, the story itself steers away from the romance its cover so boldly advertises. Instead, readers get to know Zahn and Sera separately, the one attempting to join a clandestine group dedicated to warning the people of Krypton, the other going on a series of failed missions to salvage equipment from disastrous terraforming attempts. Only in the final pages do the two inadvertently team up, promising future drama to come as they do not yet trust each other.
The book is far from perfect. I did not ever feel like I truly go to now Zahn or Sera, and I still have many questions about the world of Krypton itself. However, the story does do a great job at raising interesting questions. How much do genetics determine who we are? Can we ever overcome our genetics to be our own person? What qualities should we look for in people? Do we sometimes overlook the qualities one should have–such as a scientist who needs creativity as well as logic? These questions will likely inspire much reflection on the part of readers. And that, I imagine, would make the author proud.
Goodreads:Cleopatra in Space Series: Cleopatra in Space #1 Source: Library Published: 2014
Teenage Cleopatra, destined one day to be queen of Egypt, accidentally touches an artifact that sends her into the future! There, a prophecy states that she will save the galaxy from the evil Xaius Octavian. For now however, she just needs to pass algebra.
Target Practice, the first volume in the Cleopatra in Space graphic novel series, follows fifteen-year-old Cleo as she is transported into the future from ancient Egypt. Hailed as the savior of the galaxy, Cleo is unimpressed; she just wants to return home. With that being impossible, however, she has to acclimate herself to her new school. Although she pretty much hates all her subjects except PE, she just might start to like her new home. This first installment functions mainly as a set-up to the rest of the series. Though some readers may be disappointed there is no clear plot, others may find Cleo and her fantastic world entertaining enough to cover any lack of structure.
Deciding how to summarize Target Practice proved a bit of a knotty problem. Initially, I thought I would talk about Cleo’s role as supposed savior and the test she must undergo to prove herself. Upon reflection, however, I realized that is not really what the book is about. The book is really about Cleo’s immersion in a futuristic boarding school filled with alien creatures and technology she could have never imagined. Even so, the book does not dwell on how strange this must all be, how uncomfortable. Cleo barely seems to miss her home or her family, and she seems rather unimpressed by all the tech, instead adjusting almost immediately. Her real problems are ones she might have in any time period: making friends and trying to pass her classes.
This emphasis makes Cleo feel pretty relatable, even if she is a famous Egyptian queen and, now, future savior of a galaxy. Perhaps it is this feeling of familiarity, the emphasis on the school experience, that has made the series so popular with middle grade readers. Or perhaps it is Cleo’s strong personality. Or the bright illustrations. Or the talking cats. There is actually much to recommend about the series even if, ultimately, I felt like the book was a bit unstructured and somewhat unmemorable.
And that’s my major conclusion about Target Practice: it just does not feel special. It’s fun. It’s action-packed. It has space cats! I will probably continue with the series just to see if it improves. But I don’t see it becoming a personal favorite, not based on this book.
A princess fleeing an arranged marriage teams up with a snarky commoner to foil a rebel plot in B. R. Myers’ Rogue Princess, a gender-swapped sci-fi YA retelling of Cinderella.
Princess Delia knows her duty: She must choose a prince to marry in order to secure an alliance and save her failing planet. Yet she secretly dreams of true love, and feels there must be a better way. Determined to chart her own course, she steals a spaceship to avoid the marriage, only to discover a handsome stowaway.
All Aidan wanted was to “borrow” a few palace trinkets to help him get off the planet. Okay, so maybe escaping on a royal ship wasn’t the smartest plan, but he never expected to be kidnapped by a runaway princess!
Sparks fly as this headstrong princess and clever thief battle wits, but everything changes when they inadvertently uncover a rebel conspiracy that could destroy their planet forever.
Rogue Princess, a gender-swapped sci-fi retelling of “Cinderella,” was one of my most anticipated reads of 2020, so it was with a heavy heart I realized halfway through the novel that I simply was never going to connect with the characters or the plot. The book attempts to do two different things at once–be a romantic reimagining of “Cinderella” and offer readers a high stakes rebellion story–but it fails to meld the two strands together, and ultimately falls apart almost completely at the end.
On the surface, there’s a lot I could like about Rogue Princess: a spunky princess, an awkward but also kind of dashing love interest, space pirates, sandworms, legends, handsome princes coming to compete for Princess Delia’s hand. I could go on. Yet most of the elements are never fully fleshed out; they’re good ideas that lack a masterful execution. I want to know more about why Princess Delia is a badass warrior (besides plot convenience). I want to know more about the pirates and what they do and what they steal. I want to know why the monarchy thinks “Pirates were outlawed” means…everyone stopped being a pirate. I want to know more about the various planets in this solar system and how Princess Delia’s planet can be so intertwined with them yet…she doesn’t seem to know much about their royal families before being set the task of marrying someone from one.
Essentially, the book has what for me is always a fatal flaw: a lot of it simply does not make sense. It might be exciting and interesting if you’re willing to throw any logic out the window, but I’m not. And while I was somewhat able to deal with it during the first half of the book, the final chapters completely threw logic and various character motivations out the window and dropped this from a potential three star read to two stars for me.
Something might have been saved for me if I had become invested in the romance, the “Cinderella” aspect of the novel, but I never did. Princess Delia and Aidan have some fun adventures together, and they exchange some romantic lines about being unable to live without one another and whatnot, but I never felt the chemistry–something it’s always difficult for me to fully explain in a review. I don’t really know why I didn’t care about their romance, only that I didn’t and it didn’t feel fully real to me, even though its realness is a major theme of the story.
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