Category Archives: Novel Review

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.

 

Advertisements

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.