Category Archives: Novel Review

Novel Review: The Guinevere Deception

A lot of retellings recast females in much more active roles than they originally had. Kiersten White does this with the Arthurian legends in The Guinevere Deception. Read on for the review.

Back Cover Blurb

Princess Guinevere has come to Camelot to wed a stranger: the charismatic King Arthur. With magic clawing at the kingdom’s borders, the great wizard Merlin conjured a solution–send in Guinevere to be Arthur’s wife . . . and his protector from those who want to see the young king’s idyllic city fail. The catch? Guinevere’s real name–and her true identity–is a secret. She is a changeling, a girl who has given up everything to protect Camelot.

To keep Arthur safe, Guinevere must navigate a court in which the old–including Arthur’s own family–demand things continue as they have been, and the new–those drawn by the dream of Camelot–fight for a better way to live. And always, in the green hearts of forests and the black depths of lakes, magic lies in wait to reclaim the land.

Deadly jousts, duplicitous knights, and forbidden romances are nothing compared to the greatest threat of all: the girl with the long black hair, riding on horseback through the dark woods toward Arthur. Because when your whole existence is a lie, how can you trust even yourself?

The Review

The Guinevere Deception seems written for those looking for a feminist take on the Arthurian legends. Arthur’s queen isn’t your usual pretty trophy wife. She’s clever, she takes initiative, and her mission is to protect the king. But she’s not the only strong female in the cast. Most women boast backbone plus some power or ability, and the two greatest threats to our protagonist are female.

As to the main character, she’s called Guinevere, but the third person narrative initially only refers to her as “the girl,” which makes for a clunky opening chapter. It’s not until the middle of Chapter 2 that it settles on referring to her as Guinevere. That’s because “Guinevere” is a changeling and only recently assumed this particular form and identity (which was taken from a now-deceased princess). This is done at the behest of her father Merlin. Having convinced King Arthur to ban magic from his realm, the great wizard is obliged to stay out of Camelot. But so that Arthur’s not left completely vulnerable against dark magic, he sends his daughter to watch over the king in his stead, and their marriage is a ruse to allow her to keep close to Arthur.

It’s a complicated setup. It’s also complicated because our main character has big gaps in her memory, which makes it difficult to tell what kind of person she was before assuming her Guinevere identity. For instance, Merlin is her father, but she knows nothing about her mother, and it doesn’t strike her as strange until two thirds through the book. At the same time, she’s faking her way as queen without any real guidance on who the real Guinevere was. The only thing that is absolutely clear about her is that she is determined to protect King Arthur no matter what.

Her loyalty is admirable, but it is also baffling, given that she dedicates herself to the task before she’s met Arthur. Moreover, she’s a creature of magic who’s been isolated from people. Prior to becoming Guinevere, she lived in the wilds, and her only interactions were with Merlin. She doesn’t have any real investment or connection with human society, yet she’s ready to put herself on the line to make sure Arthur’s vision for Camelot succeeds.

However, if you can accept that elaborate setup, the plot that follows is interesting. Guinevere must use magic to detect and fight magic, but because it’s against the law, there are close calls and clandestine measures. Guinevere ends up behaving like the superhero who must wield her superpowers judiciously in order not to blow her cover. Arthur, who contrived the arrangement with Merlin, knows her secret, of course, but eventually she let others in on it, mainly because she holds an equally weighty secret of theirs.

Regarding Guinevere’s relationship with Arthur, this novel is YA, so they get around the issue of sex by agreeing that their marriage is just a cover and therefore does not need to be consummated. However, Guinevere, who devoted herself to Arthur even before laying eyes on him, pretty much falls for him once they actually do meet. Although that’s not too surprising because everyone in Camelot is in love with the king. While female characters have a fair amount of complexity, the male characters are flat. That includes Arthur, who’s invariably adored by his people and always does the right thing no matter what. The one exception to the banal male lineup is Arthur’s nephew Mordred, who forms a love triangle with Arthur and Guinevere. His interactions with Guinevere are much more interesting, although they have so many encounters that it’s a wonder it doesn’t trigger any malicious gossip in the court that Guinevere trying to navigate as queen.

The multifaceted aspects of this world are the novel’s strong suit. Guinevere’s acting sentinel against magical forces, so there are battles and investigations involving enchantment. At the same time, she’s queen at a castle, so there’s an element of royal pageantry. And Camelot doesn’t exist in a political void, so Arthur has human enemies in addition to the supernatural ones. Plus, a kingdom has more mundane problems, like poop disposal. This envisioning of Camelot is lively and fascinating, so even if our heroine is sometimes baffling as she sorts through the disconnected bits that comprise her identity, the activity swirling around her form an engaging backdrop.

In Summary

This Guinevere isn’t just a pretty face. She’s a magic-wielding, smart-sleuthing protectress of the kingdom. However, the fact that she doesn’t remember much of who she is while simultaneously impersonating a person she never knew makes her someone difficult to relate to. But if you like mysteries and enigmas with a cast of knights and various magic-wielding entities, give this book a shot.

First published at The Fandom Post.

 

Novel Review: House of Salt and Sorrows

Fairy tale adaptions are a popular subset of YA novels, but not many are based on The Twelve Dancing Princess. However, Erin Craig has taken that lesser known tale and combined it with gothic flavored horror in House of Salt and Sorrows.

Back Cover Blurb

Annaleigh lives a sheltered life at Highmoor with her sisters and their father and stepmother. Once there were twelve, but loneliness fills the grand halls now that four of the girls’ lives have been cut short. Each death was more tragic than the last–the plague, a plummeting fall, a drowning, a slippery plunge–and there are whispers throughout the surrounding villages that the family is cursed by the gods.

Disturbed by a series of ghostly visions, Annaleigh becomes increasingly suspicious that her sister’s deaths were no accidents. The girls have been sneaking out every night to attend glittering balls, dancing until dawn in silk gowns and shimmering slippers, and Annaleigh isn’t sure whether to try to stop them or to join their forbidden trysts. Because who–or what–are they really dancing with?

The Review

Erin Craig presents an interesting twist on The Twelve Dancing Princesses. There’s a mystery to be solved, but it’s styled less like a hero’s challenge and more like a gothic horror story. Although the puzzle of the worn dancing shoes comes into play, the primary enigma confronting our main character is the deaths of her older sisters.

Annaleigh is the sixth of the Duke of Salaan’s twelve daughters. However, four of the young women have met untimely ends. People whisper that the sisters are cursed, but Annaleigh suspects murder. As her family attempt to ignore the rumors and move on with their lives, Annaleigh investigates the deaths only to find herself increasingly beset by eerie visions and nightmares.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It got off to a fabulous start with Craig’s gorgeous world-building. Arcannia incorporates many Victorian-era elements in its setting and culture, and those who like descriptions of silk ball gowns and corsets and luxurious gaslit estates will have plenty to enjoy. Another Victorian element of the story is the gothic horror type atmosphere haunting Annaleigh. As she confronts one gruesome image after another, readers are left guessing whether her sisters’ ghosts are real or she’s losing her mind.

Then a third of the way through the story, the nighttime balls come into the story along with a magic/meddlesome deity aspect. From the get-go, Arcannia is depicted as a polytheistic society, with each area of the kingdom paying homage to a regional deity. These initial descriptions make it seem like these gods and their supernatural powers are rather removed from the mortal world. However, once the sisters start going to the family shrine, gods and magic are suddenly very active in the narrative.

This irked me. The initial chapters made it seem like the only possible actors in the sisters’ deaths were ghosts or humans. Annaleigh never considers that magic or immortals might be involved even though their existence is supposedly common knowledge. So when the mystery of Annaleigh’s ghoulish visions is revealed as the workings of a god, that was a letdown.

Another weakness of the story is the romance between Cassius and Annaleigh. It’s not insta-romance on her end; watching her figure out whether he’s friend or foe is actually intriguing. However, he walks into the story besotted with her before they’ve met. Considering how he learned about Annaleigh and the fact that she’s one of eight sisters, I’m left wondering why her and not one of the others.

The story also runs into the same quandary I noticed in another Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling, Princess of the Midnight Ball. Basically, twelve sisters is a lot of people to keep track of. Granted, the deaths in House of Salt and Sorrows reduces the number to eight, but that’s still a lot. Aside from the eldest, the youngest, and the main character, the sisters are a muddle of names without much to distinguish them.

However, a woman that does stand out in this female-heavy family is Morella, the Duke’s new young wife. As soon as I saw the word “stepmother,” I really hoped the novel would depict something beyond the hackneyed evil stepmother. Sadly, Morella winds up among the ranks of the wicked version although she puts on a pretty good nice-mom act for most of the book.

In Summary

This book starts off well and creates wonderful atmosphere in both its radiant and creepy scenes. (And if you want spooky descriptions, there’s plenty on these pages.) However, the deus ex machina resolution to the mystery of Annaleigh’s visions was disappointing, and for the life of me, I don’t see how the main character was so compelling that her love interest would go to such lengths for her.

First published at The Fandom Post.

 

Novel Review: Spin the Dawn

Fantasies often have wizards as central characters, but how about a tailor with a magical touch? Elizabeth Lim presents the tale of a girl tasked to create three mythical gowns in her debut novel Spin the Dawn.

Back Cover Blurb

Maia Tamarin dreams of becoming the greatest tailor in the land, but as a girl, the best she can hope for is to marry well. When a royal messenger summons her ailing father, once a tailor of renown, to court, Maia poses as a boy and takes his place. She knows her life is forfeit if her secret is discovered, but she’ll take that risk to achieve her dream and save her family from ruin. There’s just one catch: Maia is one of twelve tailors vying for the job.

Backstabbing and lies run rampant as the tailors compete in challenges to prove their artistry and skill. Maia’s task is further complicated when she draws the attention of the court magician, Edan, whose piercing eyes seem to see straight through her disguise. And nothing could have prepared her for the final challenge: to sew three magic gowns for the emperor’s reluctant bride-to-be, from the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of stars. With this impossible task before her, she embarks on a journey to the far reaches of the kingdom, seeking the sun, the moon, and the stars, and finding more than she ever could have imagined.

Steeped in Chinese culture, sizzling with forbidden romance, and shimmering with magic, this young adult fantasy is pitch-perfect for fans of Sarah J. Maas or Renée Ahdieh.

The Review

This fantasy is a delightful change of pace. Unlike most English language novels in this genre, which tend to have European-style settings, this story takes place in A’landi, an East Asian inspired empire. And instead of having a royal or adventurer protagonist, the main character Maia Tamarin is a tailor.

Not to say there aren’t royals or a dangerous quest in the plot. Following a five year civil war between the emperor and a powerful warlord, the master tailor Kalsang Tamarin is summoned to the emperor’s court. However, the recent war, which claimed two of his sons and maimed the third son, has left him so broken he cannot sew. Unfortunately, the summons cannot be ignored, so his daughter Maia disguises herself, taking her remaining brother’s identity, to go in his place. Soon thereafter, Maia discovers she’s merely one of twelve tailors that will vie to become the emperor’s master tailor, and the judge is none other than the warlord’s daughter Sarnai, whose impending marriage to the emperor is critical to A’landi’s newfound peace.

The primary thread of this book is Maia rising up to each of Sarnai’s challenges. The demands of those challenges changes drastically as the story progresses, and the novel winds up in three distinct acts. The first is the competition between the twelve tailors at the Summer Palace. It resembles a TV elimination-type competition with plenty of girls-are-capable-as-boys gumption and a thick layer of court intrigue. The second part is the quest for the mythical components of Sarnai’s three wedding dresses. These chapters are reminiscent of impossible task folktales where heroes venture into forbidden territories with the aid of magical helpers. In Maia’s case, her magical helper is the emperor’s enchanter Edan, and in addition to being an adventure-style quest, this section also ends up a romance between the two. In the final section, Maia must reckon with the costs and gains of her efforts and determine whether she can return to normalcy.

It’s a lot of territory for one book, but despite roaming over a bunch of genres, it forms a solid, cohesive, and engaging story. The strength of Maia’s character has a lot to do with it. The novel gets off to a slower start than some, but the family history in the initial chapter forms the core of what makes Maia compelling and relatable.

Actually, the multifaceted nature of the cast is among its greatest strengths. Edan carries centuries of baggage behind his teasing, and although Sarnai doesn’t hesitate to torment others, she’s to be pitied as a woman forced into an arranged marriage. Most characters fall into shades of gray, which makes Maia’s dilemma of whom to believe and trust as pressing as the sewing challenges she must win.

Regarding the love that blossoms between Maia and Edan, I’m happy to say that it is not a case of insta-romance. Maia meets him amid the intrigue of the Summer Palace, where Edan is only one of a number of enigmatic figures she’s trying to figure out. Although the connection between Edan and the palace’s black hawk is kind of obvious, it’s not obvious from the get-go how their relationship will progress, which makes it fun to watch. However, it is odd she refers to him as a “boy.” His actual age aside, Edan has the appearance of a young man of about twenty.

Another interesting facet of this story is the descriptions of the materials, tools, and techniques the tailors use. If you like fashion, this may be a selling point for you. However, I found some aspects of Maia’s abilities jarringly unbelievable. Not only does Maia work so fast that she knits two complete sweaters during her five-day ride to the Summer Palace, she sews the silk portions of Sarnai’s three gowns while she journeying to the desert and a frozen mountaintop. I’ve sewn dresses and shirts myself, and I can’t imagine keeping all those pieces clean and in order while camping, let alone through the sand and rain she supposedly traveled through.

The journey’s pace was also puzzling at times. Maia has a mere three months to travel to the three corners of the continent to gather the magical materials for Sarnai’s gowns. As such, Maia’s constantly under the pressure of this looming deadline. However, there are parts, such as their encounter with Orksan’s caravan and their visit to the monastery, where they stop a couple days as if time is of no consequence.

Those are minor nitpicks though. Overall, I enjoyed this story and its cast, and unlike most recent novel series I’ve read, I’m actually eager to see what happens in the second book of this duology.

In Summary

Spin the Dawn is one girl’s journey from obscurity to fame, from the mundane to the magical, and from loss to love and back again. Combined with a complex cast, an intricate Asian-inspired setting, and plenty of unexpected twists and turns, this novel is a delightful read with wide appeal.

First published at The Fandom Post.

 

Novel Review: Eve of Man

A recurring theme in sci-fi is humanity’s existence pushed to the brink by everything from monsters to global catastrophes. Now Giovanna and Tom Fletcher adds a worldwide dearth of baby girls as a species-ending dilemma in their novel Eve of Man.

Back Cover Blurb

On the first day, no one really noticed. All those babies wrapped in blue blankets–not a pink one in sight. On the third day, people were scared–a statistic-defying abundance of blue. Not just entire hospitals, not only entire countries, but the entire world. Boys. Only boys.

Until Eve. The only girl born in fifty years. The savior of mankind. Kept protected, towering above a ruined world under a glass dome of safety until she is ready to renew the human race.

But when the time comes to find a suitor, Eve and Bram–a young man whose job is to prepare Eve for this moment–begin to question the plan they’ve known all along. Eve doesn’t only want safety, and she doesn’t only want protection. She wants the truth. She wants freedom.

The Review

What would happen to humankind if the gender balance tipped completely toward males? This book’s premise is an interesting one, especially since societies like China’s are dealing with the fallout from sex-selective abortions. Unfortunately, Eve of Man doesn’t so much delve into social change as it uses the scenario as the basis for a futuristic princess-locked-in-a-tower tale.

And main character Eve is literally confined at the top of Extinction Prevention Organization’s 2.5-mile high tower. Because the youngest women other than her are in their mid-sixties, Eve is the one hot commodity, and the EPO has made it their business to shield her from the opposite sex until she’s mature enough to take a shot at another generation. But now that Eve is sixteen she gets to choose her future mate from three potential males. As you might guess, Eve ends up falling for someone outside of this preselected pool.

The cover flap blurb teases, “But how do you choose between love and the future of the human race?” The question insinuates that Eve’s choice (Bram) is lacking somehow, like he has a genetic disorder or is infertile. That would make for interesting drama. However, the story boils down to revealing EPO as the big bad out to maintain worldwide domination by controlling Eve’s reproductive bits while Bram is the rebel in the organization trying to break her out.

The world-building in this novel is weak, which makes for confusing storytelling. Perhaps this is because it was written by two authors, but important elements don’t get clarified as soon as they should for a sci-fi title. For instance, Bram mentions that the EPO tower is located in a place called Central in Chapter 3, but it isn’t until Chapter 37 that we learn Central was once called London. Chapter 3 also talks about an apocalyptic combination of pollution clouds, global warming sea rise, and extreme weather, which gives the impression that the outside environment is borderline uninhabitable. Two-thirds of the story later, Bram is watching all sorts of mundane activity take place out of doors. The most confusing moment for me was the introduction of Holly in Chapter 1. The prologue had already hammered home the point that Eve is the ONLY! girl on the planet, so when another “girl” shows up in Eve’s penthouse quarters, I was stuck wondering what she was. After a couple of pages without an explanation, I assumed she was a kind of AI. Then in Chapter 2 (after 11 pages of Eve /Holly chatting) they FINALLY reveal that Holly is a hologram.

And not just any hologram. She’s controlled by “pilots,” young men close to Eve’s age, and Bram is one of these pilots. While it is an interesting way for the characters to meet and fall in love, the rationale behind “Holly” is shaky. She’s an extremely expensive technology whose only purpose is to manipulate Eve. However, manipulating Eve is only valuable if Eve has any real power, and she doesn’t. Whenever she shows a hint of disagreeing, the EPO tosses out Holly and reverts to force. So if they don’t really need her permission, why waste the effort and resources to persuade her? Not to mention, their pilot standards are pretty shoddy. Bram and his cohorts are supposed to act the role of a best girlfriend, but when the jerk character pilots Holly, his jerk personality bleeds through. And when the boring guy pilots her, the boringness comes out loud and clear.

The story’s one-dimensional characters, unfortunately, are not limited to these two. The primary villains Vivian Silva and Dr. Wells are especially egregious in their respective roles of unscrupulous, arrogant corporation head and evil scientist/abusive father, but it expands to include the entire male gender. Without the kindler, gentler sex, men apparently unleashed World War III and devastated the environment. Moreover, the book asserts that men possess zero self-control and, if they see a woman, are helpless to stop themselves from raping her. It’s a narrative I find appalling and rather shocking, considering a man co-authored it.

Regarding cast diversity, the main couple is white (and gorgeous), and the other key players are also white. There are side characters who might possibly be non-white, but the physical descriptions on them are so sparse that it’s difficult to tell for certain. The single character who is definitively non-white is Diego, one of Eve’s potential mates. However, he is described in unflattering terms. (“In appearance Diego is small and uninteresting…” “His skin is rough and dark, his eyes small and beady.”) Oh, and within fifteen minutes of meeting Eve, he murders someone and gets blasted to pieces. End Diego.

I suppose it’s up to the authors to decide how to design their characters, but given that they’re depicting a worldwide problem and the setting is London, a city with a diverse population, it would’ve been nice to reflect that in their cast. For instance, the narrative mentions at least three times that Eve is struggling to learn Mandarin, so why not include a Chinese person among her attendants?

The novel isn’t without its strong points. The action and escape scenes are fast-paced and have unexpected twists. However, most of those don’t show up till the second half of the book, and by then I’m already disinterested in the fate of this couple and their world.

In Summary

The book has an interesting premise but doesn’t quite deliver. Problematic storytelling aside, the story takes what could have been an interesting commentary on gender balance, power, and traditional roles and simplifies it into a hero-must rescue-princess-from-the-evil-totalitarian-power tale. Add to that some convoluted world-building and flat characters, and it makes for a less than engaging read.

First published at The Fandom Post.

 

Novel Review: Ash Princess

YA novels often involve a search for identity. If you’re looking for a tale about identity that involves royalty, magic, and a rebellion, Laura Sebastian’s Ash Princess might fit the bill. Please read on for the review.

Back Cover Blurb

Theodosia was six when her country was invaded and her mother, the Fire Queen, was murdered before her eyes. On that day, the Kaiser took Theodosia’s family, her land, and her name. Theo was crowned Ash Princess–a title of shame to bear in her new life as a prisoner.

The Review

Ash Princess seems targeted toward the YA audience who wants a royal teenage rebel but prefers reading about palace scenes rather than combat maneuvers. Even though the book includes a map of the country of Astrea, it’s not that helpful because almost everything takes place at the Astrean palace, and the primary battlefield is the web of lies and intrigue surrounding the court.

Our main character is Theodosia, Princess of Astrea, a land blessed with magical gems. When she was six, the Kalovaxians, a warlike people who are like a cross between Vikings and Nazis, invaded her country, killed her mother the Queen, and enslaved the Astreans. However, instead of sending Theodosia to the Spiritgem mines like the rest of her populace, the Kalovaxian Kaiser changed her name to Thora and kept her in the palace, where she is beaten whenever the Astreans cause trouble.

Ten years later, the last Astrean rebel leader is captured. Thora is forced to execute him, but before he dies, Thora learns her true relationship to him. The incident forces her to remember her duty to her people, and when the remaining rebels make contact with her, she gives up a chance to escape, choosing instead to spy on the people who imprisoned her.

There’s a lot going on in this story: magic, oppressed slaves, a castle with secret passageways, ruthless conquerors, an ambush against another country, romance, murmurs of a new military weapon. However, the main focus is the identity of our main character. Who is she really? The narrative uses three names (Theodosia/Thora/Theo) that highlight how she views herself, the roles she’s trying to play, and what she strives to become. This plays out primarily on two interweaving fronts: the spy game and the love triangle.

Despite getting beaten and humiliated at king’s orders on a regular basis, Theodosia not only gets to occupy the same space as the most powerful Kalovaxians in the land, she’s even endeared herself to one of them: Crescentia, the daughter of the Kaiser’s general. Even though Crescentia’s father killed Theodosia’s mother, the girls are best friends, and Crescentia trusts Thora wholeheartedly. As improbable as that relationship sounds, it does make for interesting internal turmoil when Theodosia starts deceiving her unwitting friend for the rebel cause.

That internal turmoil is matched by that caused by the Kaiser’s son Soren. The polar opposite of his self-absorbed, underhanded, ignoble father, the handsome prince falls in love with Theodosia. (Conveniently, she only carries scars on her back so that she’s still a pretty princess despite all her beatings.) What results is a surprisingly compelling star-crossed lovers scenario that only intensifies when we discover that Soren’s feelings toward Theodosia are more complex than she first realizes.

Unfortunately, the chemistry between Theodosia and the other leg of the love triangle doesn’t quite work. Blaise is an escaped slave and the equivalent of the “boy next door” from Theodosia’s childhood. He and the other two Astreans who have managed to infiltrate the palace are initially distrustful toward Theodosia, partly because they’re unsure where her loyalties lie, partly because they question her abilities. The fact that she’s been well fed in a palace while her people are starving in mines doesn’t help. As such, there’s a lot of initial squabbling between Theodosia and Blaise. However, when they plot to have Theodosia seduce Soren, the subsequent conversation about Theodosia’s first kiss seems way out of character for former slaves who’ve supposedly suffered rape and other unspeakable atrocities. So when Blaise kisses Theodosia, it feels forced, like it’s only there to achieve a plot point. And when Theodosia’s feelings go back and forth between Soren and Blaise, she just comes off as fickle.

Another weakness of the story is backstory of the Kalovaxian invasion. Supposedly, Astrea was an idyllic country where everyone was unified under their strong, beautiful Queen. In addition, it was the only place where people wielded magic. Theodosia remarks at the opening about the astounding superhuman powers Astrean magic users possessed that the Kalovaxians have never been able to imitate. And despite this great advantage, they fell—in fairly short order—before their magicless conquerors, and it’s never made clear how.

The strategies of Theodosia’s rebel companions are equally baffling. At one point, Theodosia steals Spiritgems, making it possible for one of the rebels to cast illusions and another to become invisible. Yet they shove the job of poisoning the Kalovaxian general and his daughter onto Theodosia. While it does provide more for Theodosia to agonize over, strategically it makes a lot more sense for the invisible guy to do it. Instead, they use their powers to hover over Theodosia when she goes to a masquerade ball.

As for the end of the story, it’s not really the end of the story. Like so many books in this genre, it concludes with the end of a battle and the beginnings of an uprising. While the final chapters reveal some intriguing connections between the cast, I don’t feel sufficiently invested the world of Astrea to read on about its ultimate fate.

In Summary

Ash Princess presents a tale in which a captive princess must cast off her slave persona and find the inner fortitude to become the queen her people need. While it takes us on an interesting internal journey about self-identity, the novel’s external conflicts left me scratching my head at times. However, if you aren’t as interested in those kinds of details and just want a story where a beautiful princess defies an unquestionably evil enemy while wearing pretty gowns and having two boys fall in love with her, then give this book a try.

First published at The Fandom Post.

 

Novel Review: Tempests and Slaughter

Tamora Pierce is the author of several fantasy novels, and I recently had the opportunity to review the first book in her latest series, Tempests and Slaughter. Please read on for the review.

Back Cover Blurb

Arram Draper is on the path to becoming one of the realm’s most powerful mages. The youngest student in his class at the Imperial University of Carthak, he has a Gift with unlimited potential for greatness–and for attracting trouble. At his side are his two best friends: Varice, a clever girl with an often-overlooked talent, and Ozorne, the “leftover prince” with secret ambitions. Together, these three friends forge a bond that will one day shape kingdoms. And as Ozorne gets closer to the throne and Varice gets closer to Arram’s heart, Arram realizes that one day–soon–he will have to decide where his loyalties truly lie.

The Review

I’ve no previous exposure to Tamora Pierce’s work, but judging from the information on the dust cover, she’s written a number of series set in the Tortall fantasy realm, and Tempests and Slaughter is the first book of another Tortall series. However, Tempests and Slaughter doesn’t provide a particularly engaging introduction to the Tortall realm and falls short as a standalone novel.

At the very beginning of the book is a map of “Tortall and Neighboring Realms,” which displays the kingdom of Tortall smack in the middle. However, the setting for Tempests and Slaughter is the Carthak Empire, which the map doesn’t even show in its entirety. Actually, a map of the University of Carthak would’ve been more helpful because the vast majority of action takes place at the school, and even when characters leave its grounds, they never go far from it.

Our main character is Arram Draper. The dust cover describes him as “a talented young man with a knack for making enemies.” Talented, yes. Knack for making enemies, not really. Basically, he’s a ten-year old genius, and at the university, he’s the mage version of the whiz kid taking college level math while his agemates are still learning fractions. So he encounters occasional classmate bullying because he doesn’t fit in, but he also becomes the pet of every instructor who takes him on (and there are at least eight of them). Plus, he also wins over gladiators, clinic patients, various animals, and two deities, and by the end of the book, he’s been romantically involved with three girls, all of whom pursued HIM. That’s quite the opposite of “a knack for making enemies.”

His two best friends are Varice and Prince Ozorne, who are also prodigies, although not nearly as young or talented as Arram. Ozorne is interesting in that he’s in line for the Carthak throne and must contend with a certain political reality. Varice, on the other hand, is rather bland. Her most distinguishing characteristics are that she’s a gorgeous blonde and likes to cook so she’s always feeding the two boys.

Between the school for magic and the three-friend aspect, Tempests and Slaughter seems a not so subtle attempt at a Harry Potter type of story. Unfortunately, it falls flat. It’s not that the magical elements aren’t fleshed out; Pierce puts in plenty of detail about the workings of Gifts as Arram goes from one teacher to the next. The problem is that there’s no strong plot to carry the novel from a beginning to an end.

The book shows Arram getting an education—and that’s about it. He hasn’t come to the university to fulfill a specific purpose. He doesn’t have to worry about the practical aspects of financing his very expensive education became his instructors arrange for a scholarship plus stipend. (Not to mention, he’s always receiving special gifts from them.) He has no rival he’s competing against. His bully encounters are brief and never escalate to anything serious. He’s not seeking revenge or redemption. He has such amazing talent his teachers come to HIM for help. The threesome never turns to a love triangle, and Arram gets the girl he’s always wanted without even trying.

The story does contain a number of elements with the potential to become the backbone of an arc (i.e. the murdered mage). However, they are simply introduced and not fleshed out. It seems like the purpose of this book is to lay the groundwork for the real conflict that is to come later in the series, but I feel cheated that so little is resolved after 455 pages.

The other issue with this book is that I’m not sure what its intended audience is. Arram is ten at the beginning of the story and can’t be more than fourteen by the end of the novel. I associate that protagonist age range with middle grade readers. However, the content includes graphic gladiator-type violence and a typhoid plague that has Arram puking his guts out as well as various sexual references. These elements I associate with young adult stories. So Tempests and Slaughter creates a weird combination of YA content and a childish mindset. In addition, that childish mindset doesn’t get jaded, despite all the awful things Arran sees and experiences.

In Summary

Existing fans of Tamora Pierce’s fantasy books may feel differently, but as a newcomer to her Tortall fantasy world, I’m not inclined to explore it further after reading Tempests and Slaughter. There’s certainly a lot of magic and magic lessons, but they serve no purpose other than making prodigy Arram an even more advanced student. While some interesting events do arise, they never fully develop into a real plot, and overall, Tempests and Slaughter fails to generate enough anticipation for me to be interested in the series’ next book.

First published at The Fandom Post.

 

Novel Review: Nyxia

The success of The Hunger Games has spawned a surge of YA titles where teens get thrown in to fight each other. Now Scott Reintger adds his version Nyxia, where the battle takes place in space.

Back Cover Blurb

Emmett Atwater isn’t just leaving Detroit; he’s leaving Earth. Why the Babel Corporation recruited him is a mystery, but the number of zeroes on their contract has him boarding their lightship and hoping to return to Earth with enough money to take care of his family.

Forever.

Before long, Emmett discovers that he is one of ten recruits, all of whom have troubled pasts and are a long way from home. Now each recruit must earn the right to travel down to the planet of Eden—a planet that Babel has kept hidden—where they will mine a substance called Nyxia that has quietly become the most valuable material in the universe.

But Babel’s ship is full of secrets. And Emmett will face the ultimate choice: win the fortune at any cost, or find a way to fight that won’t forever compromise what it means to be human.

The Review

The teaser on the Nyxia dustcover is misleading. It reads: “The ultimate weapon. The ultimate prize. Winner takes all.” Actually, it would be more accurate to say: “The top eight out of ten win.”

As such, the stakes aren’t nearly as dire for Nyxia’s lead character Emmett Atwater as they were for The Hunger Games‘ Katniss. However, a number of the competitive aspects of Nyxia make it feel a whole lot like Hunger Games training sessions in space. As for the prize everyone is after? The right to go to planet Eden on behalf of Babel Communications to mine nyxia, a miracle substance that can be manipulated by thought.

Due to certain circumstances, the Adamites, Eden’s native humanoids, have forbidden adult Earthlings from visiting the planet. Babel works around this rule by handpicking ten teens to retrieve the nyxia for them. Because Babel has more power and resources than most countries, the compensation they offer is staggering, and for Emmett, this is his chance to get his mom the kidney transplant she needs.

There is, however, a catch. En route to Eden, a range of training sessions and competitions take place in their spacecraft. The recruits’ efforts are ranked, and only the top eight get to go to Eden. As such, even though the setting is space, there’s precious little about the space travel experience or the planet they are going to. It’s all about the teenagers’ rivalries and contests which mostly take place in simulation modules. As in The Hunger Games, there is a ridiculous amount of tech so the kids are able to operate massive mining equipment with minimal instruction and their boating training site might as well be an actual river. And of course, there is hand to hand combat with nifty nyxia weapons. So fans of competition narratives where ranks are constantly shifting on the scoreboard potentially have a lot to like.

The cast, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired. To ensure their recruits are sufficiently motivated, Babel chose poor kids, several of whom have an additional need that only Babel can provide. However, for some reason, Babel recruited kids not just from one place but all over the Earth. As such, Nyxia has an international cast, able to communicate thanks to nyxia translator masks. Unfortunately, the international quality doesn’t ring true for me. For instance, a Brazilian girl receives a Spanish-language contract (Portuguese is Brazil’s national language). In another scene, the translator masks are unable to convey the slang meaning of “cool” to a Palestinian, but a page later, a character who only speaks Japanese makes a pun that only works in English. Honesty, it feels as if the author began with a white bread cast and later diversified it to add appeal but didn’t bother to account for the nuances of different cultural outlooks and values.

The story might have worked better if the kids were Americans with different ethnic backgrounds, but other shortfalls remain. Emmett is a poor black kid from Detroit, and the book spends a couple pages laying out how no one in his family has ever truly been free. However, in a later scene, Emmett gets psychoanalyzed after accidentally injuring another recruit in their first hand-to-hand matchup. The doctor, a white man, strongly insinuates that Emmett had no empathy for the boy he injured because “it didn’t show on his face.” As far as I’m concerned, that remark should trigger some kind of frustration or indignation over racial bias, especially since Emmett is the only black male in the competition, he had been following instructions when the accident occurred, and he actually does feel bad about hurting to other kid. But there’s nothing, not even in Emmett’s internal thoughts. Perhaps several decades into the future, racial prejudices and social injustice no longer exist, but that portrayal of the world doesn’t work when Detroit is still characterized as a place where urban African-Americans can’t break the cycle of poverty.

In Summary

Ten kids get sent on an expedition to another planet, but rather than learning about how to interact with the planet’s native humanoid population, they spend their time and effort focusing on how to beat other humans. If you like reading about competitions where points get tallied on a scoreboard, Nyxia may have appeal for you. However, the basis of the competition is farfetched, and the international cast is international in name only.

First published at The Fandom Post.

 

Novel Review: Noah: Ila’s Story

The Bible has provided the inspiration for many a Hollywood movie, and the latest of these is Paramount’s Noah. I had the opportunity to review the book Noah: Ila’s Story, which is based off the movie, and you can read on for my thoughts about it.

Back Cover Blurb

The ancient world. A young girl, Ila, is found, injured after a violent raid. She is taken in by Noah and his family and grows up strong and happy – she even finds love with her soulmate, Shem, Noah’s son. But when devastation comes to the world in the form of a huge flood, Ila and her new family are responsible for saving not only themselves but all life on earth. Against all odds they set off in the Ark, but all is not as it seems…

As events unfold, Ila has to find the power within her to help Noah in his epic quest, and ultimately save humanity.

The Review

The front cover touts Noah: Ila’s Story as a novel, but it’s sparse for a novel. The book is only 108 pages long. In addition, the storytelling style and vocabulary seem more suited for a middle grade audience, and I found punctuation and formatting errors scattered in the text, which give it the feel of a rush job.

Noah: Ila’s Story, like the Mark Morris Noah novel, is based off the Aronofsky film and covers the same plot, beginning with Ila’s adoption and concluding with the rainbow blessing upon Noah’s family. Unlike Morris’ book, Ila’s Story stands poorly on its own. Unless you’ve seen the movie or read Morris’ novelization, following the plot in Ila’s Story would be difficult. This is due to the fact that the book follows the events of the Noah movie from Ila’s point of view only. As such, several pivotal moments, including the trips to Methuselah’s cave, Noah’s horrific visit to the refugee camp, and the battle with Tubal-Cain within the ark get recounted secondhand, sometimes long after the fact.

To be honest, the book reads like a weak fanfiction. Korman doesn’t go nearly as deep into Ila’s thoughts as she could. We only get a little bit of extra details on Ila’s birth family and some of her reflections after the flood recedes. I had expected more about her relationship with Shem, like the how and why of them falling in love, but the descriptions of their romance remain on a very shallow level. The pair are in love just because they are, and Korman spends most of her efforts trying to relate all the major events of the movie, a task the Morris novelization does a much better job at.

The book includes eight full-color stills from the movie as extras.

In Summary

With Emma Watson’s face gracing the cover and her character’s name in the title, Noah: Ila’s Story seems a not-so-subtle effort to capitalize on Emma Watson fans. If what you want is a brief retelling of the Noah film from Ila’s point of view along with five color stills showcasing or including Watson, you’ll get that but not much else. Restricting the story to Ila’s point of view results in a weak and oftentimes confusing narrative, and if you haven’t seen the film or read the Morris novelization, I’d caution against picking up this title.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Novel Review: Noah: The Official Movie Novelization

The Bible has provided the inspiration for many a Hollywood movie, and the latest of these is Paramount’s Noah, which was released last month. I had the opportunity to review the movie novelization, and you can read on for my thoughts about the book.

back cover blurb

When he has a vision about a flood sent to destroy all life on earth, Noah knows what he must do. Together with his family, he must save two of every living animal. He must build an ark. Noah has to evade the many dangers that would see him fail and leave the world to ruin, and overcome his own struggles to fulfill his mission. This is the epic story of one man’s attempt to preserve life for a new world.

The review

The story of Noah’s ark is often showcased in Children’s Bibles and storybooks, but when you really think about it, it’s not a G rated story. Mankind so corrupt and evil as to induce its Creator to wipe it out? Destruction so absolute the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami look like nothing in comparison? That’s hardly kiddie fare.

Indeed it’s a bleak world Morris lays out in his novel adaption of the recently released Noah movie (which, by the way, I have not yet seen). With the exception of Noah’s family and bad guy Tubal-Cain, humanity seems incapable of rational thought, let alone compassion. Their squalor, desperation, and hopelessness make this antediluvian past look more like an apocalyptic future. That atmosphere is heightened by environmental destruction on a massive scale. For Noah’s contemporaries, tzohar is the all-purpose energy source. It sparks fire, blows apart rocks, put animals into hibernation, and comprises the bodies of fallen heavenly beings. Of course, extracting it comes at a price, and the descriptions of polluted lands and denuded forests are a not so subtle commentary on our present-day efforts to secure energy.

Of course, our leading man Noah stands for everything corrupt humanity is not. Unfortunately, he comes off more as an uber-militant vegan than God’s agent of change. In the second chapter, he defends an animal from three starving hunters. He kills the men without compunction but gives the mortally wounded animal a funeral. For Noah, killing and eating animals is a worse crime than murder. It’s ironic that the back cover touts the story as “One man’s quest to save mankind.” When he realizes that a flood is coming, his concern is solely for the animals, forget about his fellow man.

Noah’s point of view is somewhat understandable at first given his father’s tragic end, but he becomes increasingly unsympathetic as the story progresses. In the biblical account, God speaks to Noah in almost painfully detailed terms, but in this novel he’s silent. The only communications Noah receives are nightmarish prophetic visions. However, none of these visions are so specific as to say, “The ark must have these dimensions,” or “Bring two of each animal,” and Noah’s inclination is to use the harshest interpretation possible. He’s all divine wrath and judgment, and while he goes on (and on and on) about humanity’s evils, he hypocritically withholds mercy from even the members of his family.

As for those family members, they’re a rather flat bunch. Ham is the strongest personality, but he acts and speaks more like an eight-year-old than a fifteen-year-old. Japheth has hardly any presence, and Shem’s only purpose is to be Ila’s husband. As for Ila, she, not Noah, seems to be the remaining righteous person in the world, but she’s too much a victim, just as Ham is too overtly the family’s rebel.

Perhaps to make up for its less than compelling character development, the novel’s packed with action. As if a planetwide flood wasn’t epic enough, the story includes a battle for the ark, followed by fistfights at sea. Unfortunately, while ruthless warlords, tzohar pipe guns, six-armed stone giants, and the worst storm ever probably serve up a visual feast when rendered in CG, it gets a bit tedious and repetitive in print.

In summary

Not surprisingly, Noah takes liberties with the original biblical account. The addition of gross environmental destruction to mankind’s corruption provides an interesting vision of the antediluvian world, but the underlying premise that violence against animals and ecosystem is man’s greatest evil is a bit harder to swallow. While Noah does stand apart from the rest of fallen humanity, his own misanthropic self-righteousness make him a less than inspiring figure.

First published at The Fandom Post.