Shuri: Wakanda Forever by Nnedi Okorafor, et al

Shuri: Wakanda Forever

Information

Goodreads: Wakanda Forever
Series: Shuri
Source: Library
Published: December 2020

Official Summary

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

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Review

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.

4 stars

Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline

Ready Player Two

Information

Goodreads: Ready Player Two
Series: Ready Player #2
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Official Summary

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.

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Review

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.

2 star review

House of El: The Shadow Threat by Claudia Gray

House of El

Information

Goodreads: The Shadow Threat
Series: House of El #1
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

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.

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Review

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.

3 Stars

Cleopatra in Space: Target Practice by Mike Maihack

Information

Goodreads: Cleopatra in Space
Series: Cleopatra in Space #1
Source: Library
Published: 2014

Summary

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.

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Review

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.

3 Stars

Rogue Princess by B.R. Myers

Rogue Princess

Information

Goodreads: Rogue Princess
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: January 21, 2020

Official Summary

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. 

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Review

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.

Add to this the fact that the construction of the book is a bit clunky (For example, Aidan apparently “doesn’t know” the creation story of his OWN PLANET, so people sit down explicitly to tell it to him, er, the reader, er, him), and Myers seriously included a set of creepy twins who are never apart and seem to be actually one person, one of my major literary pet peeves, and I just don’t have much positive to say about this book. I love fairy tale retellings, but this did not work for me at all.

Briana
2 star review

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

Science! The Elements of Dark Energy by by Ashley Victoria Robinson, Jason Inman, Desiree’ Pittman (Illustrator), Becka Kinzie (Colorist), Taylor Esposito (Letterer)

Science The Elements of Dark Energy

Information

Goodreads: Science! The Elements of Dark Energy
Series: None so far
Source: Library
Published: 2019

Summary

Tamsin Kuhn Trakroo is dedicated to destroying the Prometheus Institute, which she attends. Her late father, now a hologram in her glasses, demands revenge on the headmaster, the man he says killed him. But Tamsin has other worries on her mind, too. Her roommate Garyn has discovered a secret lab and a new energy source that could endanger her life. Is her father’s death linked to the lab?

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Review

Science! The Elements of Dark Energy has an intriguing premise–a teenage girl at a prestigious institute full of genius students and robot staff–speaks with her late father’s uploaded consciousness, now stored in her glasses. He wants her to destroy the very school she attends. However, I almost DNFed the book as soon as I began. The bland color palette and the artwork were not to my taste, and the random asides to provide science facts were off putting; I wanted a story, not a science lesson. Still, the volume is fairly short, so I struggled onward. In the end, Science! The Elements of Dark Energy does not distinguish itself from the myriad stories set in schools for prodigies and I actually liked it less than I have others, as I failed to connect emotionally with any of the characters.

I tend to like bright, colorful illustrations in my graphic novels, ones that seem upbeat, or perhaps dreamlike. Science! The Elements of Dark Energy, however, has a more subdued color palette that, combined with the detailed illustrations and the robots popping up periodically with science factoid speech bubbles, made the book feel simultaneously like a slog and a challenge. I was not initially sure I wanted to spend time trying to get through the story.

The story itself is not particularly original. Graphic novels set in special schools for geniuses or otherwise unusual students are common. Perhaps one could argue Science! The Elements of Dark Energy is unique in that the school is not for superheroes, but science geeks. However, I wanted something a little more than the old “special school holds a dark secret” plot line. It did not manage to feel fresh here.

The strong point of Science! The Elements of Dark Energy is its representation. Many strong women of color appear–including our smart and fearless protagonist–and the protagonist is into women. I think many readers will appreciate seeing characters of color depicted as knowledgeable about science. This will be especially appreciated as readers look for role models to encourage more students to become interested in STEM fields.

Science! The Elements of Dark Energy simply did not appeal to me with its bland color scheme, overly detailed illustrations, science fact insertions, and stale plot line. I wanted to be excited for science, but was mostly excited to finish the book.

2 star review

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

The Toll by Neal Shusterman

Information

Goodreads: The Toll
Series: Arc of a Scythe #3
Source: Library
Published: November 5, 2019

Summary

Three years have passed since Ronan and Citra drowned and Scythe Goddard came to power. Grayson Tolliver is still the only person whom the Toll will talk to. Faraday is attempting to find a way to end the scythedom for good. Only together will they be able to stop Goddard’s reign of terror.

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Review

The Toll is a thrilling conclusion to a thrilling trilogy.  Neal Shusterman’s work sets itself apart from the competition as it asks readers to grapple with philosophical questions about the nature of life and death, and how far a person can go to accomplish “the greater good.”  Fans of the first two books will find themselves rewarded for the wait with this final installment, which provides all the drama and action of the prior installments, along with a satisfying conclusion.

The stakes have been raised substantially as this book opens with Scythe Goddard’s rise to power.  Though his methods are cruel, they seem just reasonable enough that a large number of scythes follow his lead.  Stopping him proves increasingly difficult as his allies grow, adding for increased danger and excitement as his opponents seek to undermine him, without getting gleaned.

Perhaps the most satisfying part of the book, however, is finally seeing all the threads come together.  Old friends reunite and foreshadowed plot points come to fruition.  There is something rewarding about seeing guessed-at plot points come true, and The Toll balances that feeling with just enough twists to keep things interesting.

It is not hard to see why the Arc of Scythe trilogy has won a Printz Honor (Scythe), earned a movie deal, and been a bestseller.  The trilogy has been consistently moving, gripping, and thought-provoking, and The Toll continues that tradition.  Those who have waited for this release will not be disappointed.

4 stars

ARC Review: The Battle by Karuna Riazi

Information

Goodreads: The Battle
Series: The Gauntlet #2
Source: ARC from BookCon
Publication Date: Aug. 27, 2019

SummarY

Ahmed has never quite fit in at school.  He’s known mostly for always getting into trouble.  So he’s shocked when star student Winnie hands him a package in the hall and decides she wants to be his friend.  The package contains a video game, but neither Ahmed nor Winnie expected it to become real.  Now they’re trapped in the game while NYC is frozen–and the only way out is to win.  But the MastermInd never plays fair.

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Review

I was unaware that this book was a sequel to The Gaunlet; perhaps knowing would have made the experience less confusing.  As it was, I felt that the story was choppy, that I kept waiting for a big reveal about Ahmed’s past that came far too late to be exciting, and that I was reading a book that ultimately made no sense.  But I don’t think much of this had anything to do with the book being a sequel.  I think the real problem is that the elements of the book are disconnected and that the premise–that of children entering a video game to save the world– was meant to make the story exciting enough that readers would overlook the shoddy construction.

Unfortunately for The Battle, however, the video game plot has been done before and far better–notably in Ready Player One, which the cover references.  Comparing a book to a similar book that has  a more developed story line, more developed characters, and a more developed world, seems to be setting up the book for failure from the start.  (It’s also, frankly, a little confusing since The Battle is MG and its target audience presumably hasn’t read the adult Ready Player One, but I digress.)  Ready Player One has a specific end goal with related challenges leading up to it, and some nuanced glimpses of the characters’ personal lives as they find themselves changing as they play the game.  In contrast, The Battle has an end goal–win–but no specific instructions on how to do this, aside from completing three challenges that appear at random with no explicit directions and no clear way they relate to or build upon each other.  The result is that Ahmed and Winne spend most of their time wandering around hoping something will happen.  When it does, their victories seem easy and hollow as they often seem to be guessing at how to play–and conveniently getting it right.

Ahmed and Winnie also never really feel like three-dimensional characters.  Readers are told at the start that Ahmed is known as a troublemaker at school and has no friends.  Winnie is the star student.  Their friendship begins randomly when Winnie hands him a package–why is never explained–and decides to be his friend–why is never explained.  The rest of the book does little to develop them as people or friends.  The book occasionally tells readers that Ahmed is unused to having friends, but it does not feel genuine.  A book should not need to tell readers about a character in lieu of showing the character actually being a certain way.  As a result, I never connected with the characters and never really cared if they won the game or not.

The worldbuilding is also lackluster, though it is obviously meant to be cool.  Ahmed and Winnie enter a futuristic city built on the foundations of an older, beautiful city.  Flying carpets used to be sold.  Now there are flying rickshaws and more.  But I never got a real feel for the geography, the people, or the city.  Ahmed waxes on and on about its familiarity–something finally explained maybe two-thirds of the way through the book (at which point I no longer cared; the “mystery” was just annoying)–but it would have been nice if it could have felt familiar to me.  As it was, it felt like randomly connected segments that Ahmed and Winnie could wander through just for variety.  A city!  A sand city!  A jungle!  None of it seems to go together.

The ending of the book is, disappointingly, perhaps the weakest part of the story.  Instead of wrapping up the plot, it introduces new complications and new villains–some of whose motivations are never explained.  This is perhaps the most confusing part of the book, with allies becoming enemies and enemies becoming allies, none of it making much sense.  Ahmed continues to feel mysterious feelings and memories that ought to be relevant, but manage not to be.  It’s a complete jumble and I’m still not sure what I was supposed to make of it.

I was excited to read The Battle and enter an immersive video game adventure.  Instead, I was confronted with a poorly-constructed plot, under-developed characters, and a lackluster world. The Battle, in the end, could never live up to its exciting summary.

2 star review