Did Not Finish: The Tattered Banner (Society of the Sword #1)

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Summary:

The Tattered Banner placed 8th on BuzzFeed’s 12 Greatest Fantasy Books Of The Year, 2013.

Unique talent always attracts attention…

In a world where magic is outlawed, ability with a sword is prized above all else. For Soren this means the chance to live out his dreams.

Plucked from a life of privation, he is given a coveted place at Ostenheim’s Academy of Swordsmanship, an opportunity beyond belief.

Opportunity is not always what it seems however, and gifts rarely come without conditions. Soren becomes an unwitting pawn in a game of intrigue and treachery that could cost him not just his dreams, but also his life.

Review:

If I have learned a lesson from starting this book, it is that I will probably skip the 2014 version of BuzzFeed’s 12 Greatest Fantasy Books. This place is not great fantasy. It isn’t even good fantasy. It’s so dull that I couldn’t even finish it. Why?

I feel nothing for Soren.

Nothing.

Soren faces no challenges in this book. A merchant tries to beat him for thieving. A noble who is witnessing the event doesn’t call for the security in the area, but instead decides to sponsor him to attend the Academy of Swordsmanship. Soren is years older than the average incoming student? No problem! The noble never sponsors anyone, so they just make an exception. Not only do they make an exception, but they go on ahead and skip him several years ahead just so he can be with kids his own age, letting him conveniently skip over a year so difficult it causes more than half the students to wipe out. He’s unnaturally gifted in swordsmanship, able to learn years of technique in a matter of months. He has some kind of gift that hasn’t been seen in ages. A challenge presents itself and it is neatly resolved, often in the same chapter. Meanwhile, the author has managed to make Soren devoid of personality. You don’t like him, you don’t hate him, he just exists.

Aside from this rather insurmountable issue, the book also needed another pass by an editor for both logic and grammar. For example, when he goes to this school, Soren is illiterate, as you might expect of a commoner from this pseudo-Renaissance world. He doesn’t want to get kicked out of the school so tries (and fails) to hide it. This school is open to all, and his past is known, shouldn’t the teachers have expected this? Furthermore, the stable master clearly has no issue teaching him the fundamentals of horsemanship because he knows that Soren wouldn’t have had an opportunity to ride thereby undermining this notion that his lack of literacy would have been enough to get him kicked out. Why didn’t one of the adults just sneer at him and go “I bet you can’t read, can you?” then they could have moved right along. Furthermore, this fundamental lack of skills makes his being skipped ahead that much more ridiculous. He hadn’t even shown any great talent when they did it, they did so just because. What academy of such a supposedly prestigious nature is going to matriculate a student that lacks the expected skills of their place of learning just because he started a little bit late?

On the grammar side we have some clunky sentence structures and descriptions and some poor word choices. I hereby ban authors from using the word “irony” or “ironic” if they don’t actually understand what it is. It isn’t ironic that a conquering people would use the facilities of the conquered. Generally speaking, at least half the point of taking over another country/kingdom/planet is that you want what they have. Why tear down a perfectly good training facility if you can use it?

All told we have a boring character in a book with prose so prosaic that you can’t get invested. Unfortunately there isn’t anything that is interesting enough or unique enough to try and keep fighting to go ahead. Save your $4 and find something else to read.

Soul Meaning (Seventeen #1) – by A.D. Starrling

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An e-ARC was provided through Net Galley in exchange for a fair review

Summary:

‘My name is Lucas Soul. Today, I died again. This is my fifteenth death in the last four hundred and fifty years.’

The Crovirs and the Bastians. Two races of immortals who have lived side by side with humans for millennia and been engaged in a bloody war since the very dawn of their existence. With the capacity to survive up to sixteen deaths, it was not until the late fourteenth century that they reached an uneasy truce, following a deadly plague that wiped out more than half of their numbers and made the majority of survivors infertile.

Soul is an outcast of both immortal societies. Born of a Bastian mother and a Crovir father, a half breed whose very existence is abhorred by the two races, he spends the first three hundred and fifty years of his life being chased and killed by the Hunters.

One fall night in Boston, the Hunt starts again, resulting in Soul’s fifteenth death and triggering a chain of events that sends him on the run with Reid Hasley, a former US Marine and his human business partner of ten years. When a lead takes them to Washington DC and a biotechnology company with affiliations to the Crovirs, they cross the Atlantic to Europe, on the trail of a French scientist whose research seems intrinsically linked to the reason why the Hunters are after Soul again.

From Paris to Prague, their search for answers will lead them deep into the immortal societies and bring them face to face with someone from Soul’s past. Shocking secrets are uncovered and fresh allies come to the fore as they attempt to put a stop to a new and terrifying threat to both immortals and humans.

Time is running out for Soul. Can he get to the truth before his seventeenth death, protect the ones he loves, and prevent another immortal war?

Review:

If The Wizard and the Rat typifies the kinds of problems that make people wary of self-published titles, than Soul Meaning is a good example of how self-published fare can and should be given a look by the broader reading audience.

Soul Meaning is an action-thriller with urban fantasy elements. Lucas Soul is immortal, and his fellow immortal brethren are trying to kill him and the central mystery of this book is why. As the summary implies, there are terms and conditions to this immortality. In this case, the first sixteen deaths are free; but number seventeen is permanent. I think the author does a good job not over-explaining how the immortality works. We know what we need to know to follow the plot and to tell that she put some thought into it, but no so much that it causes it to fall apart. Likewise, when the story does bring some science into it, she goes just far enough that you can buy into it, but not so far as to want to yell at your book/reader that science doesn’t work that way.

This book isn’t trying to be transcendent. It knows what it wants to do and does it well. The author clearly knows her tropes: an early scene has the broke private detective taking on a missing cat case. The author is also clever enough to find a way to weave that scene into the larger plot so it doesn’t feel tacked on and instead it makes sense. Plus, it’s well written enough that it gives us some insight into Soul’s personality and makes us invested in the character. It’s what establishing scenes like this should be doing.

On a technical level, this book is polished and the author is dedicated to cleaning up errant errors (I believe the copy I read was a 2nd edition.) I still found one or two tiny errors in this version of the text, but nothing outside of what even slips by traditionally published authors. She cared enough about her text to get a real editor and you can see the quality in the text.

Overall, this book isn’t trying to be the next big thing, it’s trying to be the best damn version of this genre that it can be and I think it largely succeeds. It may not have a ton of originality to it, but it’s likable, it’s fun and if I get a chance, I may even check out the sequel that is due out shortly. Fans of the genre should definitely give it a look.

Verdict: Borrow It

3:59 by Gretchen McNeil

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Summary:

Josie Byrne’s life is spiraling out of control. Her parents are divorcing, her boyfriend Nick has grown distant, and her physics teacher has it in for her. When she’s betrayed by the two people she trusts most, Josie thinks things can’t get worse.

Until she starts having dreams about a girl named Jo. Every night at the same time—3:59 a.m.

Jo’s life is everything Josie wants: she’s popular, her parents are happily married, and Nick adores her. It all seems real, but they’re just dreams, right? Josie thinks so, until she wakes one night to a shadowy image of herself in the bedroom mirror – Jo.

Josie and Jo realize that they are doppelgängers living in parallel universes that overlap every twelve hours at exactly 3:59. Fascinated by Jo’s perfect world, Josie jumps at the chance to jump through the portal and switch places for a day.

But Jo’s world is far from perfect. Not only is Nick not Jo’s boyfriend, he hates her. Jo’s mom is missing, possibly insane. And at night, shadowy creatures feed on human flesh.

By the end of the day, Josie is desperate to return to her own life. But there’s a problem: Jo has sealed the portal, trapping Josie in this dangerous world. Can she figure out a way home before it’s too late?

From master of suspense Gretchen McNeil comes a riveting and deliciously eerie story about the lives we wish we had – and how they just might kill you.

Review:

This is one of the books I wanted to like more than I actually did.

About a week ago, I had the fortune of seeing her at a panel of Young Adult authors held at a local library. I hadn’t planned to pick up this book before the panel, but I found the author to be so likable that I wanted to support her and give her books a chance, even though teen thriller isn’t really my thing. Although this book didn’t really change my mind, I do think that there is enough here that that it’s worth a look for the right audience.

The most important thing is that McNeil does make Josie a likeable protagonist. Although her decision to jump through the portal is ultimately selfish and perhaps a bit stupid, McNeil took enough time to make Josie sympathetic that you at least understand why she did it. It goes a long way to making the story work.

The story itself is all right. Like Ultraviolet Catastrophe, it’s central plot does revolve around experimental physics. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work quite as well here as it did in that book. On the one hand, the science is decent; clearly the author spent some time doing research and shouldn’t strike fellow non-physicists as anything particularly off. On the other hand, it worked in Ultraviolet Catastrophe because it was set at a school full of actual geniuses. This is set in a normal high school. A girl with Josie’s level of physics knowledge would in no way still be in AP Psychics. She’d be at the local four year, probably taking upper division classes. That her friend is almost equally as advanced? How? I know it’s not something that we’re supposed to ponder, but logic breaks like that are forever a pet peeve and a bit more problematic when the thrust of your story is centered around this conceit.

There is a romantic element (but at least no real threesome) that’s decent and the Nox (which need a better name, calling night-dwelling creatures “Night” always strikes me as lazy) are sufficiently creepy and play into the physics theme well and the whole thing moves along briskly. There’s a nice message in here about trying to make the best of your life because you can never know what lies behind another’s “perfect” one, but I don’t know, this book just lacks that hook, that je ne sais quoi, to reel that general audience in. Ultimately, I don’t see this book truly appealing to those beyond its intended fanbase.

Verdict: Borrow it.

Available Now

Incarnate (Newsoul #1) – Jodi Meadows

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Summary:

NEWSOUL
Ana is new. For thousands of years in Range, a million souls have been reincarnated over and over, keeping their memories and experiences from previous lifetimes. When Ana was born, another soul vanished, and no one knows why.

NOSOUL
Even Ana’s own mother thinks she’s a nosoul, an omen of worse things to come, and has kept her away from society. To escape her seclusion and learn whether she’ll be reincarnated, Ana travels to the city of Heart, but its citizens are afraid of what her presence means. When dragons and sylph attack the city, is Ana to blame?

HEART
Sam believes Ana’s new soul is good and worthwhile. When he stands up for her, their relationship blooms. But can he love someone who may live only once, and will Ana’s enemies—human and creature alike—let them be together? Ana needs to uncover the mistake that gave her someone else’s life, but will her quest threaten the peace of Heart and destroy the promise of reincarnation for all?

Jodi Meadows expertly weaves soul-deep romance, fantasy, and danger into an extraordinary tale of new life.

Review:

I bought this book back over the holidays and genuinely had plans to read it in the early part of the year. Then, I got my hands on The Waking Engine and decided that it would be unfair to review this after that because the odds were way too high that I’d judge it too harshly. I am glad I delayed this review: though this definitely isn’t as good as the former book, it’s still a fun book in its own right, enjoyable enough to become the first book I both binge-read and stayed up much later than normal to finish this year.

As far as the plot goes, it’s really fairly straight forward: Ana (the NewSoul) leaves her emotionally abusive mother to go to Heart to try and discover who she is and how she came to be. Sam, one of the reincarnated souls, agrees to take her in and teach her the skills she needs to become a productive member of society while she looks for answers for how she comes to be. It’s straightforward, but it works. There is a major flaw in this plot. The Council agrees to let her stay in Heart so long as she gets properly educated and passes certain achievement tests on the theory that she might be reincarnated herself and therefore this would ensure she will be a productive member of society going forward. If this is the case, why did there not seem to be such a deal place from when Ana was still with her mother Li? Given that adulthood in this society is generally reached between 13-15 (because they remember the skills they had from previous lives) wouldn’t they have done something sooner? This is a society where everyone is reborn. They wouldn’t just wait until 18 because although that is our norm for the beginning steps of adulthood, it isn’t their norm. It isn’t something that struck me until after I finished reading, so it shouldn’t be a deal breaker, but it is something that stands out in a negative light.

The real drive of this book is the characters and whether or not you like the characters will probably be key to whether or not you like the book. Ana is likeable, but she’s also all but broken when we meet her, the years of emotional neglect having left their toll on her: she doesn’t believe she’s worthy of positive emotions, she trusts no one and so forth. She does not finish the story whole, but she is way stronger by the end of the book than perhaps she should be, but again, there is something about this book that sweeps you up so you don’t necessarily think about it as you’re going. Sam and his friends all come across as warm and friendly and you can see how someone could heal in his presence. He’s not the most complex character, but he doesn’t need to be.

My major complaint in the book is that those who hate Ana for merely existing (such as her mother Li) feel a bit one note. They hate the NewSoul and that’s that. We’re given the explanation that they blame Ana for the lack of reincarnation of Ciana, but that is literally blaming the child for the sins of the father. She’s hated for simply having been born with the wrong soul. I wish that Jodi had taken more time to give insight into just how her death impacted this community. If I remember correct there were only 5,000 people in this society and everyone knew each other. Maybe Ciana had a talent that no one else had, so now something is lost for good to them. Maybe Ciana helped shaped society in some form. Maybe there was some kind of prophecy that spoke of the end of their time when the NewSoul started to arrive. Just something, anything beyond “we knew her and don’t know you.” It’s a little too simplistic for my taste and makes for a convenient suspected villain in her mother.

This book isn’t deep and it isn’t perfect, but it is a fun and light read that as much romance as it is fantasy. If that’s all you’re looking for you’ll probably enjoy it. If you’re looking for something deeper or having any real sense of philosophy or religion, skip this and check out the The Waking Engine instead.

Verdict: Borrow It. Some may be disappointed by how shallow it is, but if you’re a fan of young adult and you’re looking for something a bit different, this might do the trick.

Available: Now

Dreamwalker (Dreamwalker 1) – C.S. Friedman

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All her life Jessica Drake has dreamed of other worlds, some of them similar to her own, others disturbingly alien. She never shares the details with anyone, save her younger brother Tommy, a compulsive gamer who incorporates some aspects of Jessica’s dreams into his games. But now someone is asking about those dreams…and about her. A strange woman has been watching her house. A visitor to her school attempts to take possession of her dream-inspired artwork.

Why?

As she begins to search for answers it becomes clear that whoever is watching her does not want her to learn the truth. One night her house catches on fire, and when the smoke clears she discovers that her brother has been kidnapped. She must figure out what is going on, and quickly, if she and her family are to be safe.

Following clues left behind on Tommy’s computer, determined to find her brother and bring him home safely, Jessica and two of her friends are about to embark on a journey that will test their spirits and their courage to the breaking point, as they must leave their own world behind and confront the source of Earth’s darkest legends – as well as the terrifying truth of their own secret heritage.

Review:

Way back when I reviewed Friedman’s Feast of Souls I mostly focused on how I felt that inviting comparison of that series as a “spiritual successor” to her Coldfire Trilogy wasn’t the best idea. What I didn’t mention was just how influential that former series really was me. I would go so far as to say that reading that book was a transformative experience. I can point to those books and tell you with all sincerity that that book had what I look for in my fantasy now: a fantasy world that isn’t just medieval earth, a plot that isn’t just save Kingdom X from Threat Y, magic that isn’t just another form of wand waving and characters that can’t be easily defined as good because their journey makes them make tough decisions that not all would agree with. I read those books when I was a young teen, when Young Adult really meant Middle Grade books like the Babysitter’s Club. These books really helped to shape who I am as a reader today so when I found out that Friedman was dipping her toes in Young Adult fare I wanted to see. If I had been a teen today, would her new book have made as much an impact on me now as those books did then? While the answer to that is “probably not,” that doesn’t mean that this is a bad book. Far be it, it’s actually one of the more enjoyable Young Adult titles I’ve read in a while and I think it has a great message about what family and how it ultimately runs deeper than simple blood.

Jessica (Jesse) Drake is a likable protagonist. She’s an artist with unique dreams that she translates into unique paintings. And although she is forced to question who she is when she discovers that she is literally not the child of her parents through a paternity test, but that there is no explanation for it, when malevolent forces kidnap her brother and burn down their house, she doesn’t think twice about going after to try and rescue her brother, even though she knows it’s most likely a suicide mission.

The plot here is a simple science-fiction tale of aliens and alternate worlds. Jesse makes friends with others like her and they join her because they know it’s only a matter of time before they’re next. The parallel world that Friedman creates is both recognizable and foreign at once, putting you at a slight disease because you the reader are as thrown off as Jesse and her friends are. There’s some good action here and the exposition as to the truth of her being is enough to catch your eye, but not slow you down. You do get the sense that this book is really meant to be the set up for a grander tale to come, but the experience does feel complete in and of itself, which I do like to see in books that are meant to a series.

The weakest point of the book is in the characterization. All suffer from it, but the biggest offenders are the friends Devon and Rita. They join Jesse on her trip – and aren’t very well developed. Rita is the Foster Child, bounced from indifferent house to indifferent house and would probably end up in jail one day if she hadn’t met up with Jesse. Devon, a potential love interest that doesn’t seem to go anywhere, is a nice Rich Kid whose money finances the trip and feels awkward on Virginia Prime because he is African American in an America where few exist and feels bad for the slaves because he imagines the plight of his people in their position and not much else. They’re cardboard characters. Jesse is fleshed out enough to avoid that, though this book will never be considered to be character driven. It’s far from a fatal flaw, but it is something to note.

So all said, I still recommend this book. It’s science fiction in a time when Young Adult genre fare is dominated by fantasy, the parallel worlds are a cool concept and there’s some interesting set up for later books. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is a breath of fresh air and a fun read for those looking for something a little different and it’s worth a look.

Verdict: Buy It

Available: Now

Moth and Spark – Anne Leonard

16239655e-ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for fair review

Summary:

Prince Corin has been chosen to free the dragons from their bondage to the Empire, but dragons aren’t big on directions. They have given him some of their power, but none of their knowledge. No one, not the dragons nor their riders, is even sure what keeps the dragons in the Empire’s control.

Tam, sensible daughter of a well-respected doctor, had no idea before she arrived in the capital that she is a Seer, gifted with visions. When the two run into each other (quite literally) in the library, sparks fly and Corin impulsively asks Tam to dinner. But it’s not all happily ever after. Never mind that the prince isn’t allowed to marry a commoner: war is coming to Caithen.

Torn between Corin’s quest to free the dragons and his duty to his country, the lovers must both figure out how to master their powers in order to save Caithen. With a little help from a village of secret wizards and a rogue dragonrider, they just might pull it off.

Review:

The prologue of this book has the dragons charging the Prince with freeing them. So between this summary and that prologue, you’d reasonably expect that dragons would have a place of prominence in this book, like they do in say, Naomi Novak’s Temeraire series. If that is what is looking for (I was) you might be disappointed. For all the interesting moments with dragons, the dragons themselves are truly secondary characters, and I don’t think it unfair to say that less than a third of the novel actually contains them. Instead, we get a pretty standard fantasy tale of a small kingdom threatened by war. The dragons play a part in how Caithen came to be in this position and in the battle between them, but this is ultimately the story of Corin and Tam.

Anyone who has read my blog for any length of time knows that world building is very important to me, so much so that even an uninspired plot can be greatly elevated if great care was taken in crafting the character’s surroundings. Sadly, I cannot make such claims here. This is very much your basic Western European inspired Kingdom, to the point where the author only changed the name of the regions where the wine is from. It is so literally ripped off that there are straight on references to both Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty- Leonard did absolutely nothing to try and make them her own. It’s unforgivably lazy. There are some interesting bits to the dragon’s backstory, but it’s nothing out of the norm and not quite enough to make up for the lack of interesting worldbuilding elsewhere.

Without an interesting world, the next best bet are interesting characters. Things are kind of shaky here too. Corin is your Good Prince, who is noble and wants to do right by his family, by Tam, by the dragons and by his people. Aside from seeing a tad naive in places (it’s murder to kill the attacker that he disarmed after the attacker tried to kill him!) he’s mostly inoffensive and safe. He has a few moments of rage, and while they almost feel out of place, at least he feels the most human here. My bigger problem is with Tam. On the one hand, she is the slightly more interesting of the two characters. On the other hand she is (and I hate having to say this) a Mary Sue. She’s so beautiful that it was love at first sight for Corin and all of the highest nobles at Court asked to dance with her at a ball despite having no clue who she was. She’s way more educated than most nobles, despite being the daughter of a commoner. She has impeccable manners that no commoner really has reason to develop. When she speaks impertinently to both nobles and even Corin before they got together, no one is mad, they find it charming and refreshing. She’s uncommonly cool and collected – when fleeing Caithen she tries to go back for her sister-in-law and is told that the King sent men and there is nothing else to be done. She accepts this without fight and moves on. She has practically no moments of weakness, and her power to See is what ultimately drives the end game. The King and the Queen have zero objects to their son dating (and marrying!) her. Heck, she’s even a virgin and resists the temptation of the Prince’s bed for several occasions until it seems assured that he both loves her and will be discreet. She is simply too good, too perfect. The book ultimately becomes her tale, for better or for worse.

The writing here is okay, if a bit too reliant on telling, over showing. It’s mostly unremarkable, like the rest of the book really.

This book was a bit of a slog for me. The premise was intriguing enough to make me keep pushing to finish, but it simply didn’t live up to the excitement that the summary promised. The good guys were too bland and too good (especially Tam) to get emotionally invested in and a dearth of dragons was just that added bit of disappointment. Die hard fans of traditional fantasy unable to find anything else to read might like it, but it’s hard to really recommend to anyone else.

Verdict: Skip it

Available: February 20th

Vampire Academy (2014 Movie)

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Tagline:

Rose Hathaway (Deutch) is a Dhampir: half human/vampire, guardians of the Moroi, peaceful, mortal vampires living discretely within our world. Her legacy is to protect the Moroi from bloodthirsty, immortal Vampires, the Strigoi. This is her story.

Review:

The movies have not always been kind when they have adapted Young Adult novels.

Harry Potter is generally seen as a good series, The Twlight movies were generally seen as terrible to anyone that wasn’t already a Twilight fan. Even the first Hunger Games movie was seen as a solid adaptation that had some issues.

Fast forward to 2013. Last year gave us Beautiful Creatures (terrible if you’ve read the books, terribly confusing if you hadn’t), The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (terrible if you’ve read the books, generic bland and boring fantasy movie if you haven’t) and one of the few truly excellent adaptations of any genre Catching Fire.

I went into this movie rather concerned. The trailers didn’t feel right (and all the reassurances from Richelle Mead that the movie wasn’t funny, they just edited the trailor to make it look funny couldn’t alleviate that), the premiere date was abruptly bumped up a week after promotional materials had been sent to theaters and the studio didn’t screen the film for critics. None of these things gave me confidence in this film.

So was I wrong to be skeptical?

Surprisingly…yes.

I will give credit where credit is due: Vampire Academy is probably the most faithful book-to-film adaptation of any YA genre series since The Hunger Games. It was really solid and felt quite faithful to the source material. Another point on the plus side is that I believe that you could go into this film without having read the books and not get lost. The pertinent aspects of the mythology were explained and explained in a way that it didn’t feel like an information dump and the plot was left intact so the movie went from point A to point B in a logical manner.

On the downside, I do think there was a slight miscast when they picked the actor who played Dmitri. He didn’t do anything wrong, but he looks at least ten years older than Rose, and seeing a man who appears to be in his late twenties hitting on a girl whose is supposed to be in her late teens? Kinda creepy. The pop culture references felt shoe-horned in and there was a truly eye-roll inducing speech by Lissa at the end of the film that was literally “stop the bullying and stop the slut shaming, the Moroi are better than this!” that was out of place, but thankfully, this wasn’t turned into a comedy like the trailer led some of us to believe.

Overall though, I came out of this moving feeling exactly as I felt about the book: it’s solidly done, if unremarkable movie about vampires in high school. I will say that I’m in the camp that agrees that the series does get better (at least Frostbite does) in later books and I would go see Frostbite if it were made, which is a testament to the respect and care the director and writer gave to the source material.

So should you see it?

My answer to this is really going to come down to where you stand before the film. Fans of the books should (and seem to be) enjoying the movie. If you’re middling on the books, or didn’t care for the books, this movie won’t change your mind. If the trailers made you curious about this or the books, then yeah, go see it. The movie reflects the book well enough that it should tell you whether you should pick up the books. As for the rest of the public, you can probably skip it. It’s not a bad movie, but it isn’t so good that you need to seek it out either.

Verdict: Wait for Netflix/RedBox. If you were making plans to see it in the theater, you should probably try to do so quickly. Realistically, it probably won’t last beyond a second week.

In Theaters: Now

Winner’s Curse – Marie Rutkoski

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An ARC was received from Net Galley in exchange for fair review.

Summary:

As a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions.

One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him—with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin.

But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined.

Set in a richly imagined new world, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is a story of deadly games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.

Review:

Every now and then a book catches you completely off guard. Unlike a book like say The Waking Engine which I knew was going to be something special off the bat, this was a slow burn. The first couple of chapters are really nothing that spectacular. If anything, if you’re cynical like me it sets you up to expect an insta-love star-crossed-lovers kind of plot. Thankfully, and surprisingly, it never goes there. Instead, Rutkoski gives us a thoughtfully crafted novel, a tale of head fighting the heart and a surprisingly deft handling of slavery.

A lot of this book’s success comes down to its characters. Kestrel is smart, but not too clever. She uses her brain to get her out a lot of tricky situations. She doesn’t come off as action star or a super hero. She’s put off making decisions until her hand is forced and she must. She doesn’t fall in love quickly and the love doesn’t change her either, which is always nice to see. Her decision at the end of the book is one that speaks of great maturity. Arin, the slave, is also an interesting character too. Even as he falls for her, he doggedly pursues his goals and doesn’t really let her distract him from what he’s setting out to to which I really admire. This isn’t some tale where the characters swoon and run off into the sunset, which I really like.

As I said, another really successful element of this book is the way it handles slavery. Although it admittedly does feel a bit whitewashed (violence is rarely inferred and when it does happen it is off screen) there’s a real sense of oppression in this world and it really does look at what it’s like when you’re enslaved not far away from your home, but in a place that quite literally could have been your own home. And as a result, as the story plays out you don’t want Kestrel hurt, but at the same point in time, you completely feel for Arin and his people too and you have complete sympathy for his actions. You feel for both sides. It really is impressive.

I will say though, that this book does feel more like a romance than it does a fantasy. The world is not our own, but this is no epic either. For the action of the second half, it’s actually a fairly quiet book, using its time to be introspective and get into the characters heads. This is not at all a criticism, just more of a heads up for those looking for something more traditional feeling.

If you’re looking for something a bit different that is very intelligent and contains pretty much none of the standard YA tropes that you’d expect to find in a title like this, I highly recommend checking it out.

Verdict: Buy it.

Available: March 4, 2014

Did Not Finish: The Wizard and the Rat

Note: Normally when I make these posts, I try to read about 25% of the book. I feel that by this point I have given a book the best possible chance at winning me over. As I did not reach my own threshold, I had decided to reach out to the author who contacted me by e-mail instead so I could still provide him feedback. He expressed interest in sharing the e-mail with others to discuss. In light of this, I am posting what I sent so that he may share this with those he thinks may find it of interest. The original e-mail has been edited for clarity and I am adding some annotations to better suit a blog post and to provide the author with some additional thoughts, but the heart of the content remains unchanged.

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Summary:

Wizard Master Thed Hyral Clearwater has been rendered temporarily powerless by the very tools he needs to complete his assigned task: to defeat a powerful ex-protege who is practicing the forbidden craft of necromancy.

He travels to the ironically named city of Haven, where a broad class divide, corruption,and systemic violence leave the underclass fighting for scraps – and they’re the lucky ones. There, a young thief called Rat sees an easy mark. Or so he thinks.

Rat needs one big score to pay back an enormous debt. Failure means living as a slave and prisoner of Haven, a fate Rat considers worse than death. So when Thed invites Rat on his mission, the boy accepts. But they are falling into old patterns that may doom them both.

Review/E-mail to the Author:[For a bit of context: before starting the book, I had a discussion with the author. He mentioned to me that he has had other people mark his book as Did Not Finish.]

….So you know (and what you may not be surprised at) is that my breaking point was the relationship between Cat and Rat. At best it’s emotionally abusive. At worst it’s emotionally and physically abusive. It’s utterly painful to see Rat swear to his love to a man who uses sex as a punishment and that may well be a breaking point for a lot of potential readers. I will say that I like the idea of a homosexual narrator, as it isn’t something seen in more epic/traditional fantasy and because fantasy does often deal with these kind of issues in sublimated ways (like the homoerotic nature of vampires). The thing is, if you’re going to go there, you need more subtlety. This is not a contemporary piece and a character that that openly muses on why society doesn’t like the “butterflies” feels way too modern and can be a bit jarring.

I stand by word here: I do think that the LGBT community is underrepresented in modern, mainstream fantasy fare and I would love to see a more traditional fantasy story have characters with a non-heterosexual orientation and I hope someone will make the attempt. Still, as with any other element of fantasy, it needs to be incorporated carefully so that it feels natural within the context of the story and that simply isn’t the case here. 

I also want to say that unbalanced relationships like Cat and Rat can be an interesting read but it takes very deft handling to pull it off. I’m honestly still not sure whether the author even sees the relationship between those characters the way that I did, but I do think that a LOT of readers are going to be turned off at the thought of Rat worshiping Cat (who openly admits to another character, Knife, that he sleeps with Rat (and I’m paraphrasing here) “because Rat looks like a girl from behind” to be more than a little creepy. The set up of this story is one that clearly indicates that Cat is not going to a central character to the plot. If you aren’t going to commit to it and really explore this, you probably just shouldn’t go there in the first place.

That said, it is your story and you can write your characters however you like. I will say that if there is anything you do take to heart: if you can, I highly recommend investing in an editor, because this book (like my e-mail in hindsight) really needed some editing. There are some fundamental formatting errors here. For example, in location 336,

Rat was relieved when she spoke again. “I knew of a girl from one of the neighborhoods who was grabbed by a crew…” Kelli looked at the street.

All of this is in a single paragraph. Basic formatting demands a new paragraph when you change speakers so your reader can keep track of who’s talking. I honestly thought it was Rat talking when I first read it.
These kind of errors aren’t game-breaking, but it does make a book more difficult to read and ultimately gives off an air that a book isn’t polished. These are the kinds of errors that are simple enough to catch in a re-read and really shouldn’t make it a final edition.
I also feel like there’s a super-quick, almost staccato nature to your writing style. It almost comes off as breathless and it made me want to tell Rat to take a deep breath and slow down. I think an editor might help you to better group your thoughts so you can scale that back some.
This is more of a “your mileage may vary” gripe, but ultimately too many short paragraphs can be just as hard on a reader as too many long ones.
You also have some errant sentences that just don’t belong. For example:
“The other three crews and their leaders numbered twenty-two.
One per coin.”

Honestly, who cares? And more importantly, who counts when a mob is forming on your door step? I’m going to guess it might have been an attempt at foreshadowing, but it was just awkward.

I know I can nitpick more than most, but this still came off to me as something that meant to be profound but really just left me scratching my head. Small things like this are what can take a person out of a book especially if nothing before or nothing after points to those lines having significance.
On a less technical level, I do think your world needed a bit more cohesion. The names were driving me insane. You have characters named Bahsa, Erit and Solvar which sound like plausible fantasy names. Then you have Kelli, the only modern name of the group, and then you also have Cat, Rat, Knife, and all the one-word animal named constellations. Pick a naming convention and stick with it so characters feel like they belong in the same world.
I don’t believe all authors need to go to extremes such as creating languages for their worlds or anything like that, but you do need to go with fantasy-ish or all objects or go for broke and use all normal/modern names. Every society has a convention that they more or less stick to. Yes, the US has kids named Apple and Inspektor Pilot, but the parents are generally ridiculed and considered self-indulgent for giving them such names. Consistency needs to be there mainly for the sake of flow, but because it shows some thought went into it. The randomness of the names again gives the book an unpolished feel.
Two of your characters – Rat and Bahsa I felt like you didn’t know what you were doing with them. Rat goes from being VERY meek to being VERY smart-mouthed and back again faster than you can blink in a way that doesn’t feel like it makes sense. Rat knows how dangerous Solvar is, yet sasses off at him while throwing himself at Cat’s feet when Cat is equally angry at him? Bahsa is supposed to be “playing” slow but acts like someone who isn’t all there. Which is it?
Characterization. This is the first thing that will make or break a book for me. If you don’t know understand what you are trying to accomplish with your characters, your audience won’t either.
Ultimately It just feels like this book wasn’t ready to be published yet.

I wish you the best of luck going forward.

I feel like the author was always in for an uphill battle for this book for a number of reasons: the plot is extremely basic fantasy, the main character is gay  and it is self-published at a time when self-published books tend to have a negative reputation. If a book like this is going to have a chance to stand out in the right light, the execution needs to be flawless and it just wasn’t. A professional editor isn’t within the reach of all aspiring authors, but so much can still be caught and corrected without spending a dime, if you’re willing to take the time and go through it. I hope that this was of at least a little help to the author.