The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven Boys was chosen as December’s YAcker read. You can check out our discussion here.

The Raven Boys
Maggie Stiefvater

The Premise: Every psychic Blue Sargent has ever gone to tells her the same thing: if she kisses her true love, he will die. Other people might dismiss such claims, but Blue lives in a house with her mother Maura and a group of women who are in the business of telling fortunes, and she knows how accurate their readings can be.  Blue’s fate has hung over her head for much of her life, but when her aunt Neeve joins the household, she gives Blue a timeline. This is the year that Blue is going to fall in love.

If that isn’t a grave enough portent for the year, Blue also sees the spirit of a boy during St. Mark’s Eve, when the soon-to-dead march through the grounds of an abandoned church. The boy whispers that his name is Gansey. Blue has no psychic powers of her own (she only magnifies what others see), so seeing Gansey has one of two meanings: either she is responsible for his death, or he is her true love.

In the meantime, Richard “Dick” Campbell Gansey, III (Gansey to his friends) attends the nearby Aglionby Academy. Outwardly he has the ease and confidence of the rich and privileged and he leads a gaggle of Aglionby misfits: Adam, Ronan, and Noah. But inwardly, Gansey is more than he appears. He’s a finder of lost things, and he’s searching for something in particular, something ancient and magical: Glendower, a sleeping king who will grant a boon to whomever wakes him.

Read an excerpt of The Raven Boys here (pdf)

My Thoughts: 

“I should tell you,” Maura always advised her new clients, “that this reading will be accurate, but not specific.”
  It was easier that way.
  But this was not what Blue was told. Again and again, she had her fingers spread wide, her palm examined, her cards plucked from velvet-edged decks and spread across the fuzz of a family friend’s living room carpet. Thumbs were pressed to the mystical, invisible third eye that was said to lie between everyone’s eyebrows. Runes were cast and dreams interpreted, tea leaves scrutinized and séances conducted.
  All the women came to the same conclusion, blunt and inexplicably specific. What they all agreed on, in many different clairvoyant languages, was this:
  If Blue was to kiss her true love, he would die.

The Raven Boys
begins with a sense of anticipation. The first chapters follow Blue and Gansey separately, but because of fate, Blue’s curse, and St. Mark’s Eve, the reader knows these two characters are meant to cross paths. Blue sees a boy’s spirit whispering the name Gansey, and sitting on a ley line on the other side of town, Gansey picks up the very same conversation on his recorder. Obviously Blue and Gansey are part of a bigger mystery, a mystery that they can only see the edges of from different angles.

Blue was born into the strangeness in Henrietta. She is working class and lives surrounded by women who tell fortunes and are well aware of the ley lines that make her town special. Gansey couldn’t be more different. He was born into privilege and has never experienced life without the ease that money brings to it. Despite this, he leads a pack of misfit boys at Algionby academy and has an obsession with mystic phenomena and a king named Glendower. In spite of their differences, Blue and Gansey’s lives hold some parallels. Mystery swirls around them and they share their lives with people that hold secrets. While Blue lives with her mother and older women named Calla, Persephone, and Orla (in a set-up that doesn’t seem to be unlike what I imagine a coven to be like), Gansey lives in the husk of an old factory with a couple of boys that don’t fit anywhere else.  Her mother and her surrogate aunts warn Blue about kissing boys and avoid discussing Blue’s absent father. Gansey is is leader and support for his friends but there’s a line he can’t cross that keeps Noah elusive, Ronan surly, and Adam defensive.

I liked the way things were set up in this story: Blue’s world about to collide with Gansey’s. Wondering what would happen when these two finally meet had me turning the pages eagerly. Unfortunately, somewhere after the initial set up and the actual crossing of paths, something happened. I never felt fully captured by the story in the way I wanted. It took me a long time to parse out what happened there. My reaction was frustratingly in the middle-of-the-road, and I couldn’t help comparing it to my fellow YAckers who mostly loved the book. I know that reading is a personal experience, subject to mood and a myriad other factors, but while I knew what I liked, I couldn’t pinpoint what kept me from wholeheartedly loving The Raven Boys.

Cut to over a month later, some angst over separating my reading experience from the end of a stressful year, a reread of The Raven Boys, more angst, and I think I have a better idea of what my problem was. Technically, this should have been a winner: the writing is engaging and of good quality; there’s a mishmash of eccentric characters; and the main story centers on mysteries that reveal themselves in slow degrees. Individually each character had his or her own fascinating back story. But for me, some of these strengths also translated into weaknesses. Everyone had some personal albatross: Blue with her curse and her unknown father; Gansey and his obsession for which there is no explanation; Ronan’s father’s death and his subsequent broodiness; Adam with his poverty, pride, and miserable home-life. Even Noah, who is practically a non-entity at the start of the book turns out to be more than meets the eye. On top of that, the antagonist of this story has his crosses to bear. My problem was with so many complex/tragic/secret back stories, the focus felt fragmented. Blue and Gansey took the spotlight the most, but I felt like I was focusing on the other characters through them instead of focusing on them. I’m all for characters having depth, but when there’s a mystery or tragedy to everyone, it felt like too much to me.  You could argue it all links back to the phenomena surrounding Henrietta, but (for me) it created an imbalance. Every issue I had stemmed from this central one. The pacing in the first 150 to 200 pages feels meandering, and the narration hops between characters for some time before something vaguely plot-like appears. I think Gansey and Blue were the protagonists of this story, but I question if that assumption is correct. Then when the pace picks up and the story gathers focus, I felt like certain things like Blue’s acceptance into Gansey’s group didn’t get the attention I wanted. It took me longer than necessary to finish The Raven Boys because I felt adrift.

On the other hand – did I like these characters? Did I want to know what was happening to them? I did. The characters that I loved most are the ones where veil is pulled back a little more in the narration. When that happened, oohh, that’s when I adored this book. That’s why I think I have more of a soft spot for Blue, Gansey, and Adam than the rest of this group. We’re shown Blue’s prickliness towards the raven boys, and Adam’s self-consciousness about being poor, and Gansey’s good intentions that never seem to go right when he deals with either of them. I was half-irritated with Adam’s pride until I came to a realization that his parents failed him when they instilled an us-versus-them mentality in him (which really covers their sins and did Adam no favors), and I was kind of blown away by that epiphany. And then there’s this sweet fledgling maybe between Adam and Blue. It made me hope, but also fear a little, because thrown into the mix is Blue’s curse that points at Gansey. Everything in this story is so fragile and so breakable, and there is no certainty. I’d very much like to find out what happens next.

Overall: There were things I really liked about The Raven Boys and things I really didn’t and they balanced each other out. If you are one who can sit back and enjoy a character-driven story with lovely prose and you don’t need to know where it’s all going, this will do quite well. I think that I needed more structure though. In the end I enjoyed the characters more than the plot. But now that the set up is done, I think I’ll react better to the second book, so I’m planning to continue the series and I’m really looking forward to The Dream Thieves.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Bunbury in the Stacks
Charlotte’s Library
Pirate Penguin Reads
Fantasy Literature
Debbie’s World of Books
The Book Nut

Other links:
The Raven Boys website

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

There has been much love in the book blogosphere for Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch,Three Times and I’ve been chomping at the bit to read her writing. Because of this, I made sure I grabbed a copy of Daughter of Smoke and Bonewhen I saw it at BEA this summer. It was one of my Must Haves based on reputation alone. This is a review of an ARC copy.
The Premise: Karou seems like your typical art student. She’s a pretty girl with bright blue hair and a vivid imagination. Every day she shows the other students at the Art Lyceum of Bohemia her sketches of extraordinary characters – Brimstone with his ram’s horns and strange shop where he sells wishes for teeth, Issa, a snake goddess who mans the door, and others with similar part-human, part-animal shapes. To the other students it looks like Karou has a colorful inner world, full of fantastical stories, but the truth is that Karou draws from real life. She was raised by the creatures in her sketches, and when she’s not going to class or working on her art in a small studio apartment in Prague, Karou has a secondary life steeped in magic and a job fetching teeth for Brimstone’s shop. Karou doesn’t really know who she is and why she was raised by Brimstone, but she is content, if not a little lonely. Then one day, handprints are found, burned onto doors around the world. At the same time, sightings of angels begin.  Karou’s life is changed forever when she meets one of these winged beings and discovers the truth.
Read an excerpt of Daughter of Smoke and Bone here
My Thoughts: The first thing to hit me about Daughter of Smoke and Bone was its setting. It is so refreshing to have a story that’s NOT set in the usual places, and Prague is described wonderfully. I’ve never been there, but I want to see its old streets that are “a fantasia scarcely touched by the twenty-first century […] it’s medieval cobbles once trod by golems, mystics, invading armies”. Adding to its character are Karou’s beautiful school, housed in a castle with a macabre history, her acquaintances with street performers that dress up as vampires, and her local hang out, a cafe on church grounds known for its goulash and roman statues. I hugely enjoyed reading about Karou’s charming day to day life as an art student and Prague local. There’s the drama of dealing with her weasel ex-boyfriend, Kaz, the busyness of art classes, and a friendship with the understanding Zuzana, who does not ask questions. Even if Karou wishes she could trust someone with her secrets, her life is pretty full, but her association with a place she calls Elsewhere takes it one step further.
One of the first indications that Karou is privy to a magical world beyond our own is her necklace of skuppies – tiny little wishes in physical form; they provide revenge when Karou needs it most. I loved this idea of tokens that may be used once to make a wish come true, and that there are denominations of them, from little scuppies, to shings, to lucknows, gavriels,  and bruxes.  The enigmatic Brimstone, a chimaera with the head of a ram makes them in his shop, but how he does so or why, or even why he needs teeth of all kinds is a mystery, as are a lot of things about Elsewhere.  Karou may have been raised by Brimstone and the other chimaera of his strange shop, but she was kept in the dark about a lot of things. All Karou knows is that she grew up within the shops walls, that she is never allowed in the back room, and that its front door opens to doors all over the world (a possible homage to Howl’s Moving Castle).
And then the angels show up. I shouldn’t have been surprised, (the back blurb of my ARC talks about “winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky”), but I was. The details to go by from the cover and the summary were sparse enough that I didn’t really have expectations, so it was a surprise when the seraphim Akiva, a inhumanly gorgeous creature who is tormented by his past, discovers Karou.  I’m not usually a fan of angels in fiction, particularly in YA. I don’t know why I have this prejudice against them, except maybe I start thinking I’m going to see a romance with the angel falling for a teen, and that is usually hard for me to swallow. I expect angels to have more important things to do. Thankfully, Akiva and the other angels of Daughter of Smoke and Bone are not angels we know. They are something very different, but the story cleverly makes what they are, and the demons that they fight against, just familiar enough to look like they are the genesis for what humans believe. I can’t tell you much more, but they are certainly not divine.
The strengths of this story are in its worldbuilding and the writing style. The writing is a unique mix of beautiful imagery and youthfulness. Maybe it’s the fresh dialogue between Karou and others that makes me think of this sense of the modern and young in the writing. There’s also something really romantic about it too. Unfortunately, the high level of romanticism in the story was a stumbling block for me in connecting to the actual romance. Karou’s love story felt rushed and melodramatic, and her youth and yearning for love did not help me feel better about it. On the other hand, there is a second romance that isn’t as rushed that I was able to connect to a lot better. This restored my faith, but I’m not sure it completely fixed the problems I had with the first romance.
Overall: This is a very well written, fantastical story about war and hope, and love and redemption, set in a beautiful European city and in a place that is Elsewhere. It centers around a teenage girl and her unique place in the world, and a seraphim who may or may not be her enemy. It is very romantic, but at times, the sheer romanticism of this story kept me from fully loving it. In the end I liked it, but not being able to initially connect to the romance kept me from really loving this one as much as I wanted to.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone comes out September 27th in the U.S.
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews:
Tempting Persephone – positive
Book Harbinger – positive
Fantasy Book Cafe – positive
Book trailer (two parter!):

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians
Lev Grossman
This is a book that has been on my radar for a couple of years. Actually, ever since I noticed a friend reading it. I’ve known this friend for over 15 years, so I trust his opinion and he was pretty enthusiastic about The Magicians. When Penguin contacted me about possibly reading The Magicians and The Magician King, I checked back with that friend, who was just as enthusiastic and had pre-ordered the second book.  That was good enough for me, and off I went to email Penguin with a “yes, please”.
The Premise: Quentin Coldwater is a mopey but brilliant seventeen year old, preparing to enter some Ivy League school and already a little depressed by how predictable his prosperous life is going to be. To escape, he obsesses over a series of children’s books, Fillory and Further, about five British children who cross over to a magical world called Fillory.  Then one day, Quentin crosses over himself – but not to Fillory. Instead he is on the grounds of Brakebills College of Magical Pedagogy, somewhere in upstate New York. So begins Quentin’s new life – one in which magic exists.
Read an excerpt of The Magicians here
My Thoughts: Quentin is a teen-aged “ridiculously brilliant” overachiever with a melancholy air, who lives in Brooklyn with his parents. His life seems set until an incident at a college interview derails him from his expected path and sends him wandering into the grounds of a school for magic, where Quentin is one of twenty students selected for the new freshman class. Suddenly, delightfully, everything Quentin knew has been turned on its head. Magic is real, but it’s also extremely difficult to do – requiring not only talent but the right circumstances and tedious repetitive study. But obsessive Quentin, a person who enjoys practicing a thing until he has a perfect grasp of it, and who rereads his favorite series of books, Fillory and Further every chance he gets, it is the perfect fit. So too are the other students, just as smart as Quentin and just as  dissatisfied, if not more, by the world they inhabit. Magic seems like just the right thing for these kids. Quentin finds himself happy for the first time in his life, and easily leaves his parents and old friends behind to spend as much time as Brakebills as possible.
The first 200 pages are a sugar high of the strange and unexpected, taking us through a series of vignettes that highlight the years at Brakebills. It was a lot of fun living vicariously through Quentin’s experiences – from the exam that he passes to get into school to the semester in fourth year that involves a never-talked-about rite of passage. This went by at a happy reading clip, but there are glimpses of a dark underbelly throughout the first pages, like a disturbing death at the school and ominous comments about whether humans were ever supposed to know magic.  Then I hit the midway point of the book, which is the start of Book II – after graduation from Brakebills. The sense of wonder and amusement that Quentin had becoming acquainted with Brakebills seems sucked away by the idea of trying to find a goal in life, and Quentin returns to that aimless unhappy state again. He and his friends have it all – youth, endless money, magic, and no responsibilities, but for the most part they act like over-privileged, miserable, jackasses. I felt a cold lump of disappointment in the characters, and I wasn’t sure I could continue. And I remembered that my friend’s favorite Harry Potter was my least favorite, because of the angst (Order of the Phoenix by the way). But a new distraction appears – the existence of Fillory and the possibility of actually getting to it.  The second half of the book brings the story back up from its downward trajectory, but with the reader and Quentin both wiser about the flaws in his character and the real danger of magic.
Throughout the book, the writing is absorbing. Even when things were dismal, they were dismal because the story had me so involved in the characters. And the story has the habit of taking unexpected little detours along the way to telling the whole story that I was always entertained. Many of these turned out to be important later on, but a lot of it seemed like the strange detail that makes up the world of magic. And what’s also fun about it is how much of the story references other books. Since this is a story in which a unhappy boy stumbles into a world that coexists with ours, but has real magic, Harry Potter is the first place the mind goes, which probably explains the “Harry Potter with college students” one-line summary, but that’s the most obvious comparision.  I saw more allusions to the Narnia series than Harry Potter, but it seems to nod at a lot of classic children’s fantasy books. Besides Narnia, I thought I saw whiffs of Alice In Wonderland, The Once And Future King, and Peter Pan, and I’m sure, many more. But this is not really a children’s book – it takes the warm memories of childhood that those books represent and then wipes away the innocence.
The Magicians is marketed under “fiction” but I think it crosses genre boundaries. It could be considered contemporary or urban fantasy, but with a literary, non-escapist feel. Sometimes I felt like it could be a candidate for the Horror shelves. I wouldn’t call it young adult (although Quentin is seventeen when the story begins), or New Adult Literature (although it spans Quentin’s years at college).  The portrayal of human nature in this tale makes it feel more “adult”.
Overall: This is a tough one. I’ve been telling everyone my personal reaction, which was: blown away by the beginning, dismayed by the middle, and a mixture of those two by the end, but I think The Magicians is a book where I’d find it hard to call who is going to like it and who won’t. I think most people will find this book really well-written and unique, and if you are a reader who enjoyed books where a child protagonist discovered real magic when you were growing up, you’ll appreciate all the allusions The Magicians makes to those stories. But! Along with the sense of wonder and amusement, there is also a very dark undertow, and this is not a comforting read.
P.S. Since Brakebills is mentioned as being on the Hudson, somewhere in the Poughkeepsie-West Point area (an area I know), I’ve been obsessing over its exact (theoretical) location this past week.
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews:
bogormen – 4/5
Fantasy Cafe – 8/10
Stefan Raets for – positive
fashion_piranha – 3.5 out of 5 stars
temporaryworlds – 3 stars (out of 5)
Interesting Links:
A Brief Guide to the Hidden Allusions in The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Spellcast by Barbara Ashford

Barbara Ashford

This is a review for a book I received from the publisher/author.

The Premise: When Maggie Graham is laid off and her apartment ceiling collapses into her bathroom on the same day, she has a good cry, then dusts herself off and decides she needs to figure out what to do next. So she packs up and drives. She finds herself in Dale, Vermont, next to a tiny theatre holding auditions for their summer program. On a whim Maggie tries out, and gets a small part. At the Crossroads Theatre, Maggie meets many people, including mysterious, otherworldly director, Rowan McKenzie, who chooses roles according to need rather than talent. As the summer at Dale continues, the more Maggie learns about Rowan and his special relationship with the theatre and the town.

Read an excerpt of Spellcast here

My Thoughts: It’s hard to categorize this book. I think it falls under contemporary fantasy, but it feels like it’s themes are more about the human condition than it is about the fantastic, although there is a definite otherworldly influence that permeates Maggie’s experiences in Dale. It also has romantic elements, it doesn’t follow the usual romantic conventions. I would say that the story has fantasy and romance elements but it also has a healthy dose of realism.

The story begins with Maggie’s introduction to the Crossroads Theatre and is integrated into it’s family-like atmosphere. I think that if you are a fan of musical theatre and if you’ve been part of the stage atmosphere yourself you will enjoy the camaraderie that quickly becomes part of Maggie’s life. It starts off as you would expect: meeting a lot of people in a short amount of time – the other out-of-towners who have stumbled upon the Crossroads and have auditioned, as well as the locals that keep the Crossroads running. There’s a  a dizzying number of characters introduced in a short time, particularly at the start of the book, which I found a little confusing at first, but once I got my bearings and was able to group characters into cast and locals I was good to go, and the large number of characters seems necessary to the theatre atmosphere.

There’s a friendliness and enthusiasm that Maggie feels, but she notices some strange things as well. The other actors found themselves in Dale much the way she did – they somehow stumbled upon it by chance, with no prior plans to be there. Then there is the theater director, Rowan, who makes some odd choices in who will play what roles. As Maggie gets to know the Crossroads, she realizes that there’s a reason for the plays beyond mere entertainment, and Rowan is at the center of why.  So Maggie watches the enigmatic Rowan, taking note of his Svengali-like appeal and influence over the cast and crew. The permanent theatre people are protective of his secrets, which only makes Maggie more curious.  As the summer continues, she finds out what he really is, and of course the more she discovers the more involved she becomes in Rowan’s life.

Compared to most of the other characters, Maggie is relatively level-headed, and most of the story is told in her first person point of view, so we get to see the Crossroads through her no-nonsense, slightly cynical gaze.  Maggie’s refusal to have the wool pulled over her eyes makes her the ideal character to explain the unreal goings on at the theatre and to uncover what is behind it. Interspersed with Maggie’s POV are small sections where Rowan’s feelings about Maggie are described in a sort of diary-entry format.

Of course the combination of Maggie’s character with that of Rowan’s and the mutual interest, there is the set up for a romance, but while this story is romantic, i didn’t feel like it followed the rules of your usual Romance. Although I could feel Maggie’s excitement and growing feelings for Rowan, I found myself disconnected from it. It felt like there were too many obstacles and people involved, and that I didn’t know enough about Rowan to understand Maggie’s feelings, but this disconnect worked within this story, where it may not have worked elsewhere.  Ultimately Maggie and Rowan’s relationship in Spellcast is more about their individual growth through their knowing one another than it was about following the usual romantic path. I actually liked where their story went and how this book was resolved. There was something satisfying and hopeful about the ending of Spellcast even though it may not be the ending you expect (although it does try to warn you).

Spellcast felt self-contained but I found out that its the start of a series. The sequel comes out Spring 2012.

Overall: I liked this one. It has a unique mix of elements – real life with it’s human problems sharing space with the fantastic and fairytale, with a romantic, musical theatre twist. I’m not sure how to describe it, but it managed to convey love and life in a way that felt equal parts everyday and otherworldly. I like that it had elements that were a little uncomfortable and alien, and that things didn’t work out as they would in a fairytale, but it still had an ending that felt right. With a sequel in the works, I’m eager to discover where the story will go next.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Wicked Lil Pixie – 5 stars (out of 5)

Draw One in the Dark by Sarah A. Hoyt

Draw One in the Dark
Sarah A. Hoyt

As soon as I could, I picked up the first book in Sarah A. Hoyt’s urban fantasy duology, Draw One In the Dark, based on my enjoyment of Darkship Thieves and on the promising blurb on the Baen website. Yeach though, this is a book cover that screams “I probably also own a howling wolf t-shirt” do this on purpose Baen, you have to. 

The Premise: Kyrie Smith and Tom Ormson both work at a the Athens Diner, in Goldport, Colorado, but they don’t really interact with one another. Then one night Kyrie goes out to the back parking lot of the diner to investigate a noise. She discovers Tom in dragon form, standing over a corpse. When he changes back to human form, he has no idea what happened, and Kyrie decides to help him until she can figure out what is going on. Kyrie is a shape-shifter too (her other form is a panther), and she understands the turmoil and loss of memory sometimes caused by the inner beast. The two find out that this is not the only body in recent weeks, and that Tom’s past is catching up with him: people he stole something from are looking for him.

Read an excerpt of the first six chapters of Draw One in the Dark here

My Thoughts: Tom is confused about what’s going on at first, particularly since he can’t remember why he’s standing over a dead body and is covered in it’s blood. Kyrie is the one who has it together and tells him what to do so he’s not caught naked and covered in blood. When they realize that they’re both shifters, the whole situation creates a sort of tenous bond even though Kyrie’s initial impression of Tom hasn’t been favorable. They get to know each other along the way, although after the scene at the restaurant they find themselves leaving a dangerous situation only to find themselves in another one before they begin to figure out what’s going on.  Their two problems are the dead bodies that keep showing up, and the dangerous people chasing after Tom. Along the way, they are helped by other characters – Officer Trall, who is investigating the recent deaths, Keith, a college student who is Tom’s next door neighbor, and Tom’s father, who has connections to Tom’s pursuers.

This series has a completely different voice from the last Sarah Hoyt book I read, Darkship Thieves. Instead of first person, which is common in urban fantasy, Draw One in the Dark is in third person and jumps between Kyrie and Tom, and later, to a lesser extent, to Tom’s father, Edward Ormson. There is no kick-ass female heroine with special abilities. Instead we have a ragtag group of everyday, ordinary, people for which shifting has often been a burden. This book definitely does not romanticize the ability to shift or the shifters who can do so.

The ordinariness of the characters bring to mind the Kitty series by Carrie Vaughn so I think I’d recommend this book for readers who enjoyed that one. The world building here is much like that of Vaughn’s as well – it’s not necessarily a place where people understand magic and they react to it within what they can fathom. Kyrie and Tom for instance have no idea why they can change. It’s something that began to happen in puberty and upset their already-stressful teen lives. They’re still trying to figure out how it all works – how to tell other shifters, what affects their shifts, and how to have an ordinary life while keeping this side hidden.  I liked that there’s enough complexity in the lives of the characters (not just in Kyrie and Tom’s) that we see missteps and flaws in all of what they do, even though ultimately these are the good guys. This is particularly true of Tom’s father Edward, who comes to Goldport thinking he has to clean up after his screw-up son again, only to realize that he may have failed his son as a father in the first place.

Before Draw One in the Dark starts, Kyrie didn’t think much of Tom, and wrote him off as a junkie who will eventually disappoint everyone, even if she has never seen him act high in the six months he’s been working at Athens. When she spends more time with him, she realizes that this impression was a self-defense mechanism. She’s actually attracted to him, but years in the foster system has made her wary. As for Tom, he’s always thought Kyrie was pretty but way out of his league. These observations about each other are often peppered throughout the story, and there’s a sort of puppy-dog eying of each other throughout with neither really doing much about it. Their fledgling romance is further complicated by Rafiel Trall – police officer and lion shifter who has an interest in Kyrie, particularly since she’s another cat shifter.

Overall: Quite a solid contemporary/urban fantasy, with a rather thoughtful perspective on shape-shifting and how it may affect a person’s life. It puts to mind books by Charles de Lint or Carrie Vaughn, mostly because the characters are ordinary and unvarnished. I thought that Tom and Kyrie’s awkward steps towards a courtship was sweet but romance here is not really of the searing kind. It’s more of an everyday, two kids you like who end up liking each other kind. I’d read the next book, Gentleman Takes a Chance, to see these characters grow. It also makes me realize how versatile this author is because the voice in this story is so very different from the other book I’ve read that was written by her.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | Baen ebook

Other reviews:
I couldn’t find one through google’s social search, but I may have missed you. Let me know, and I’ll link the review!

The Rise of Renegade X by Chelsea M. Campbell

The Rise of Renegade X
Chelsea M. Campbell

This is a book that I picked up at BEA and got signed by the author 🙂 I love this cover!!

The Premise: In this young adult novel, the focus is on Damien Locke, a supervillian-in-training – or so he thought, until his 16th birthday when he discovers that he’s really half-superhero and his dad is one of the most moralistic Do Gooders out there. Disgusted and betrayed, Damien can’t believe that things can get worse – but they do. His father insists that Damien stay with him for six weeks so that Damien can learn about life among the Good Guys. His mom, a supervillian, agrees to the arrangement so that Damien can know the enemy and to get him out of the house while she works on her latest diabolical plan. There’s no way he would become a superhero, right? Except that Damien slowly begins to acclimatize to life with superheroes and when he finds out about a plan that could put his father and his step-family in danger, he’s strangely torn.  Damien’s always wanted to be a villian, but he also wants to protect his friends and family.

Read Chapter 1 of The Rise of Renegade X

My Thoughts: The story is told in the first person viewpoint of Damien and the setting is a fictional city – Golden City, where tourists flock hoping to run into a superhero or a supervillain. It is ultimately about the choices that people make in order to become who they are. In Damien’s case, his choices determine whether he will become a superhero or a supervillain. He has the genes for both, and the “X” that appeared on his thumb as a result can turn into an “H” (for hero) or a “V” (for villain) based on what he does.

This book made me laugh. Damien has a quick wit which he actively uses in surprising ways. He’s never got the lower hand for long, and when he’s annoyed at someone, he uses his smarts to get them. It was pretty funny how he kept needling his parents about their embarrassing hook-up at inopportune moments, or how he dealt with school bullies. I found myself looking forward to reading this book when I had to put it down because of the humor, especially in the first part of the book – Damien’s disbelief and how he handled the change in his life tickled me. Once he was more settled, the shenanigans Damien gets himself into with his sidekick (more about her later), were funny as well but didn’t entertain me as much as the first part of the book.

The humor is irreverent and not exactly a kid’s humor. Damien is less innocent than I was at sixteen (which I suppose isn’t hard). He’s comfortable with sexual situations and there’s a sort of love triangle in this book between Damien and two very different girls. The first is his ex-girlfriend, Kat, who is a supervillain who has the power to shapeshift. They broke up on his last birthday when he found her with another guy, but she seems sorry for that and they both have feelings for each other (they’ve gotten closer over the past year), although Damien can’t bring himself to forgive her. The second girl is Sarah – a strange girl in Damien’s new school who is a master inventor and wants to be his superhero sidekick.  One girl assumes he is a supervillain, one assumes he’s a superhero, and Damien plays the part each expects because he doesn’t want either to know about his half-hero, half-villain status.

These complex relationships with Damien and these girls, along with the relationship he develops with his father’s family (not an easy path), adds depth to the story that I wasn’t expecting but really liked. The sibling rivalry and fights that Damien has with his half-sibling closest to his age (Amelia, who is 15), was particularly endearing. They dislike each other at first sight but work their way through their differences. I thought the “teenage boy versus his younger sister” dynamics were cute and very much like how siblings work.  I also liked Damien’s commentary on how people have preconceptions of villians and heroes and how that influences how people respond to him.

Overall: An enjoyable read that blends humor, comic book tropes, and a teenage boy’s coming of age to produce a story with subtle depths. I liked it.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers – 7 (leaning towards an 8) – [I agreed with Ana’s review]
Steph Su Reads – 4 out of 5 (“The gem of this novel is Damien’s voice. A perfect balance of snark, sincerity, and your typical adolescent male stupidity”)
SciFi Chick – “pure fun from beginning to end.”

Book Trailer:

Norse Code by Greg van Eekhout

Norse Code
Greg Van Eekhout

I saw a few reviews of Norse Code when it came out a few months ago (in May), but I had a hard time deciding whether to pick it up based on them. To make my decision for me, the ever awesome calico-reaction sent me a copy and I finally read it this week. 🙂

The Premise:
This is an urban fantasy which takes it’s fantasy elements from Norse mythology. Mist is a once-grad student who was murdered and became a Valkyrie. Now she works on project NorseCODE to increase the number of warriors in Odin’s army for Ragnarok, the Norse version of Armageddon. Meanwhile, Odin’s wanderer son, the god Hermod is also working to prevent Ragnorak. Their two stories overlap in a series of odd adventures on Earth and elsewhere.

Excerpts: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3

My Thoughts: The book begins with an event amongst the gods which was believed to be the first sign that Ragnarok will come to pass, and then thousands of years later, we’re in modern day United States and it looks like Ragnarok is right around the corner. At first I had a hard time figuring out where things were going (Mist suddenly decides she’s going to rescue her sister from Hel, Hermod is off in California looking for wolf pups who will swallow the the moon), but once a mutual objective was decided, things got more interesting. Actually – I had no clue what Ragnorak was, Norse mythology is something I know very little about so that’s probably why I was semi-mystified. I think I only know some of the big names like Thor, Odin, and Frigg, and most of those is from learning where the names for the days of the week came from sometime in middle school. Looking at wikipedia, the basic story of Hermod and his brothers, Höd and Balr used in Norse Code is taken directly from Norse mythology, so those more familiar with it would probably pick up the story faster than me, but I had no problems following once I did.

The other bit of confusion on the book may be the shifting points of view. Most of the book is told from the third person, focusing on first Hermod, then Mist and vice versa, but there are also chapters told in the first person from one of Odin’s two ravens, who constantly fly everywhere and take note of what is going on. This gives the reader an opportunity to find out what other characters are up to while Mist and Hermod do their thing, and it does fill in the blanks which would otherwise be there, so I had no issues with this, but I can see other readers not particularly liking the multiple POVs.

There’s a lot going on in this book. As soon as the adventurers jump out of the frying pan, they’re into the fire, and no matter what they try, the next step towards Ragnarok happens. Yet Mist and Hermod keep trying because if they didn’t, the world of humans, Midgard, would be lost forever. Because of this, the book is primarily an action-adventure as our heroes scramble to prevent the inevitable, and character development is produced in quick, hurried strokes. A look or sentence here and there throughout the story. If you don’t pay attention, you’d miss the smidgen of romance or the nature of relationships between siblings. I found this OK, since the story itself was interesting enough, I didn’t need to focus on the characters, but it would have been nice to get into the character’s heads more. I thought that Hermod was the best-written character in the book, perhaps because he had the best lines. The humor in this book sneaks up on you. There’s one particularly brilliant scene where Hermod reads a note from his father aloud, and rather than reading what it really said, he inserts his own version which made me want to laugh and cry at the same time.

This book is categorized as “urban fantasy”, though I would nitpick a bit there and call it “contemporary fantasy”, just because so much of the book doesn’t even happen on Earth as we know it. There are a couple of books that it reminded me of, in a very cursory way: Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark series, just because of the Valkyries, and Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series just because of the use of interconnected worlds with some similarities (lots of ‘heim’s). Yes, people who have read these books, they are NOTHING like Norse Code whatsoever, but I like pondering how authors take a concept in very different ways.

Overall: I liked it in a “Oh, that’s a clever idea” kind of way. I probably would enjoy it more if I knew more of Norse mythology so I could have fun identifying myths and gods, but I wasn’t so confused I couldn’t follow the story. There’s a very readable writing style, and the moments of wry humor tickled me. I’d recommend reading excerpts to get a feel for the book before you buy.

P.S I think this is a standalone.

Buy it: Amazon | B&N

Other reviews:
Calico reaction rated it as give it away.
Scooper Speaks “interesting, but [..] a tad bit choppy”

Ariel by Steven R. Boyett

Steven R. Boyett

I heard of this book through the Hidden Gems Forum of paperbackswap. Someone had posted about this book as a Gem from their childhood and said it was a story about a boy and his unicorn in a post apocalyptic landscape. I was intrigued. This excellent review at Lost Books cinched my wanting to read it. Unfortunately this book was hard to find because it was last published in 1984, and I had to set up an alert for it to find it at a decent price used. That’s why I’m glad it’s being republished this year, August 25th.

This review is based on what I recall from reading it last year.

The Premise: Pete is a high school student in Florida when suddenly technology stops. Planes fall out of the sky, cars and electricity stop working. Riots begin, and Pete is cut off from his parents who work too far away from his home or school to easily walk. Civilization tumbles into its lowest form – pure chaos and everyone for themselves. Mythical creatures begin to appear, such as Ariel, a unicorn who befriends Pete. To survive Pete and Ariel journey from town to town, and living off the land for food and shelter.

My Thoughts: The narrator of the book is Pete, but the title of the book is Ariel. This is significant, because the relationship between the two of them is the driving force behind the book. In the first part of the book we see how they met and then how the two of them learn how to live off the land by going to libraries and reading. At first things are fine, but Pete is human and fallible. He wants to show off about Ariel. While there are other relationships between man and mystical beast, it isn’t at the same level where they are equals.  So things change when other people learn of their relationship, which a now self-serving society wants to exploit.

Pete has to grow up in order to protect himself and Ariel. But he’s also growing up in other ways, which affect Ariel.  I found him an imperfect character, not always saying or doing the smart or right thing. Sometimes he was meaner than he needed to be. This went along with the sometimes harsh nature of the book. There’s violence, bad people, terrible things happen. But good things happen too. Ariel is a good thing. There are also people willing to help them out, and Pete makes a few friends and learns some self defense and other skills from them.

One thing I wanted to note is that the writing is really well done. One of those authors where you just forget you’re reading, you’re so caught up in the story that you don’t even notice the words, you’re too busy watching what’s going on in your mind’s eye. I had visions of endless walking and desolation but with the company of friends. Even Ilona Andrews (who has her own version of our world without technology in the Kate Daniels series) is a fan.

Overall: The book really leaves an impact, even a year later I feel a bit haunted. It’s not really young adult although Pete starts off as a teen when the book begins; there are some violent and sad things that happen here which are described rather matter-of-factly. There’s a mixture of both hope and loss after reading Ariel. I plan to read Elegy which is the sequel to Ariel, thirty years later. Elegy comes out November 3rd.


Nightwalker by Jocelynn Drake

I got this ARC of Nightwalker from EOS Books just last week and I already finished it. I love long weekends.

The book came in unbound manuscript format so I walked over to Kinko's to bind it after I finished reading it. This was a trial. It was $2.66 to bind (cheap), but I had to deal with some VERY grumpy Kinko employees! This skinny european dude with a french or russian accent was annoyed that the machine wasn't warmed up yet and kept telling me: 'You have to wait 10 minutes, OK'?! He repeated this 3 times, even though I was telling him that's fine, I can wait. Why was he so upset? I'll never know. I swear I did nothing to provoke this. Meanwhile another girl was bitching at a customer and he was laughing nervously and turning around to look at me, but I kept a completely blank face – not joining in on conversations with crazy people.

On to the review.


Nightwalker is a debut novel by Jocelynn Drake, and the first book of the Dark Days series. This urban fantasy has vampires, or nightwalkers as they call themselves, as the main supernatural creature. Our protagonist Mira is an over 600 year old nightwalker, not a newbie to the scene, the guardian of the city of Savannah, with the special ability with fire that no other nightwalker has. Although the descriptions of scenery sometimes tends towards dramatic metaphor, the book has a great, suck-the-reader-in beginning, and the action just keeps coming. I felt like the book shines during the action, and there is a lot of action here. At the start of the book Mira is following a vampire hunter who has been killing off some of the younger vampires in her domain, but that doesn't seem to be the whole story. After facing and fighting Danaus, the hunter, she learns about the possible return of the naturi, creatures the nightwalkers banished from the world about 500 years ago in a face off that still gives Mira nightmares. The naturi are a race of beings described as the root of myths about elves and pixies, but much darker and bent on exterminating both humans and nightwalkers. Danaus and Mira have an uneasy alliance as they work together towards fighting the naturi. Both are bent on killing the other once this task is done.

This is an urban fantasy and most of the focus is on action, so there is a lot of fighting and swordplay; but there is also an underlying something between the two main characters. This relationship seems to be the slowly-growing kind because they are natural enemies, with Danaus believing all nightwalkers are evil and kill humans despite what Mira says. There are also beyond just professional shades in the relationship between Mira and her two human bodyguards (who protect her during daylight hours). So some interesting interactions going on between all the fighting, but still I would say although there is sex, there is no romance. At least in book one.

The main focus is on the problem of the naturi, but there is some emphasis on the mystery of Mira's powers, on what Darius really is, and Mira's place amongst the older, more powerful vampires who oversee all their kind. Mira has an old child-like relationship with a couple of them, Jabari and Sadira, where Mira goes back and forth between being an estranged, rebeling daughter, to running to them for comfort and help. I wasn't sure what to make of it since she's supposed to be 600 years old and is Keeper of her own city, but the other vampires are older than that by hundreds more. Theirs is not a human viewpoint of time, and not a human relationship. I felt like the older nightwalkers had hundreds of year old mechanisms going on which involved Mira and I need to find out what that is about. I hope more is revealed.

I found the book quite a page turner and I expect it to do very well. There are a lot of interesting characters and factions involved with the story, plus some dark creatures to battle, so I think the author has plenty more to write about. The book was enjoyable and I'm looking forward to the rest.  

This book comes out July 29th, 2008.

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Once Upon Stilettos by Shanna Swendson

Once Upon Stilettos is the second book in the Katie Chandler series by Shanna Swendson. Katie is a nice Texas girl in New York City who discovers that she has a very rare ability – an immunity to magic. This means she can see through enchantment and illusions and she's offered a job at Magic, Spells, and Illusions.

Book 2 continues where book 1 left off – the company is still dealing with the same villian – an underhanded ex-employee bent on sabotage. Katie is tasked to discover the identity of a suspected spy in MDI's midst, while dealing with her own relationship issues.

As with book 1 I found the series charming and light, but I'm beginning to want some more depth to some of the periphery characters other than Katie and a few main players. The villains are cartoonish, and while there are some darker parts to this book, for the most part things are kept fun and light. Which is fine if that's what you are in the mood for. Probably the best part of this book was the developing romance. I think that it was more fully featured here than in the first book. I found the ending satisfying and a good stopping point. While there is a wide opening for the series to continue, we aren't left with a cliffhanger.

(my review of book 1)

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