ARC Review: Gods and Monsters: Mythbreaker – Stephen Blackmoore

21412497eARC provided by the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for fair review

Summary:

The follow-up to Chuck Wendig’s Unclean Sprits is a stand alone tale of new gods facing up to the old ones with humanity in the middle!

Growing up an orphan, Louie had conversations with “invisible friends,” could see patterns in the world that no one else could see. In other times he would have been a prophet – someone to make people believe in the gods. But he grew out of the visions, and then into crime as a drug runner.

Now thirty-five and burnt out, he’s had enough. With access to the mob’s money, he plans to go out in a big way. Only he can’t. A broken down car, a missed flight; it’s bad enough being hunted by the mob, but the gods – kicked out of the Heavens, stuck on Earth without worshippers – need someone who can tell their stories, and they aren’t letting him go.

And there are new gods on the scene, gods of finance and technology, who want him too. Caught between the mob and two sets of rival gods, Louie hatches a plan that will probably get him killed if it doesn’t get him out.

Review:

This was a great surprise. A Paranormal Urban Fantasy about a Chronicler (aka Prophet) named Fitz. As the only (relatively) sane Chronicler at a time when the old gods are dying due to a lack of followers, when word of him gets out, all of the gods want to use his voice to restore themselves to their former glory. Stories of gods dying as they become more obscure is hardly anything new, but I do like how he pairs it with the rise of new gods for the modern times: a trinity comprised of Money (goes by Big, changes forms the way most people change their gum), the Internet (represented by the Amandas, a series of clones that download information at will, she reminds me of Trinity from The Matrix)  and of course El Jefe or The Man (who uses Agents – not unlike Agent Smith) to do his dirty deeds. I’m especially fond of the Amandas, one of the few gods to not come off as a complete dick. The other Goddess that grows on me is Medeina, a minor Goddess of the Hunt who goes from antagonist to aiding our hero. There’s also some nice quieter moments between Medeina and the human Sam (a woman), one of Fitz’ friends from his drug running days that also give the story some needed humanity.

The action moves quickly, story is doled out at a good pace and is just a fun book. As an Angelino, I really love how he represents Los Angeles here – from hitting Thousand Oaks (and a nice joke from Medeina who mourns it looks nothing like the name implies) to Getty Villa, to downtown and Hawaiian Gardens. It’s always great to see Los Angeles as it is, and not just as we portray ourselves on television.

If I have any complaints, it’s that the ending feels a bit too neat, a bit too easy, but it’s so satisfying, that you’re willing it slide.

All in all, I enjoyed myself way more than I thought I would, and I can easily recommend checking this out.

Note: I recommend this book for the 17+ crowd. The violence, language and drug use would easily translate as a hard R or a TV MA rating. Those of you sensitive to such things might want to give it a pass.

Verdict: Buy Now

Available: December 2nd

Review: Cupcakes, Trinkets and Other Deadly Magic (The Dowser #1) – Meghan Ciana Doidge

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Summary:

If you’d asked me a week ago, I would have told you that the best cupcakes were dark chocolate with chocolate cream cheese icing, that dancing in a crowd of magic wielders — the Adept — was better than sex, and that my life was peaceful and uneventful. Just the way I liked it.

That’s what twenty-three years in the magical backwater of Vancouver will get you — a completely skewed sense of reality. Because when the dead werewolves started showing up, it all unraveled … except for the cupcake part. That’s a universal truth.

Note: 68,000 words

Review:

Cupcakes, Trinkets and Other Deadly Magic is a very short paranormal novel that’s fun to read while it lasts, but can leave you wanting for more due to its underdeveloped word.

Jade is half-human/half-witch cupcake baker who occasionally dabbles in magic by stringing together magical objects as a kind of found-object art project (the trinkets of the title). One day her trinket is found on the corpse of a dead vampire and she quickly finds herself drawn in to the world of vampires and wolves as she rushes to solve the mystery of who is killing these supes so that they can be stopped.

The brevity is important to mention here: the book barely clocks in at just over 200 pages (the remaining pages are taken up with a sample of the sequel) and I think the book suffers for it. This is a world inhabited by witches and wolves and vampires. We meet ONE vampire over the course of the book. We meet three wolves. We meet no other witches than her adopted sister, and at the very end, her mom and grandmother. Why not take some time to show us the rest of this world? At one point Jade mentions that witches don’t run with wolves. Why not? We don’t know. It’s just something Jade says. We don’t know what vampires can do: what we do learn is from Kitt negating myths that Jade has learned. Good paranormal books need ground rules if they’re going to succeed.

Better still: when Jade is examining one of the victims, Jade notes that she “could have loved him.” Their interaction to that point had been a smoothie date after a yoga class where he’d show up to play bodyguard, and that’s about it. Why not show them actually going on a date? Her feelings would have made actual sense then.

Most frustrating is that there’s a mystery surrounding what exactly she is: though we get some answers on her magic (albeit perhaps a bit dissatisfying because the book doesn’t properly explain about why said talent is dangerous) we don’t get answers on what she is (hint: the half-human part isn’t true) and what’s worse, it seems like others know what she is and just aren’t telling. It doesn’t feel like a mystery, it feels like information is being deliberately withheld so that you’ll pick up the next title. It’s especially frustrating because at one point she’s told that she could be strong enough for the a packmaster to help him hold his pack, but how? She’s no Anita Blake. We kind of need to know if this is going to make sense.

Finally, the overall mystery isn’t much of one. I literally found myself going “Oh, it’s going to be [character]” and was 100% spot on. There’s also a bit with some stools that sticks out like a sore thumb for how often they’re mentioned, only for it to have actually played a part in the mystery.

I had fun while reading this, but its underdeveloped nature makes it hard to recommend very strongly. Fans of the genre might enjoy this, if you’re looking for something quick and breezy, but newbies to the genre should look elsewhere.

Verdict: A weak Borrow It

Available: Now

Note: As of today (11/16) the first book is free for Kindle and Nook users. At that price, I’d say go ahead and check it out because you have nothing to lose. I just don’t know it’s worth paying the $3.99 to continue the series. I will say Skip It for the paperback: it’s not worth $11.00.

ARC Review: Arcana – Jessica Leake

20344642eARC provided in exchange for fair review

Summary:

Amid the sumptuous backdrop of the London season in 1905, headstrong Katherine Sinclair must join the ranks of debutantes vying for suitors. Unfortunately for Katherine, she cannot imagine anything more loathsome—or dangerous. To help ease her entrance into society, Katherine’s family has elicited the assistance of the Earl of Thornewood, a friend and London’s most eligible bachelor, to be her constant companion at the endless fetes and balls. But upon her arrival in London, Katherine realizes there will be more to this season than just white gowns and husband hunting.

Through her late mother’s enchanted diary, Katherine receives warning to keep hidden her otherworldly ability to perform arcana, a magic fueled by the power of the sun. Any misstep could mean ruin—and not just for her family name. The Order of the Eternal Sun is everywhere—hunting for those like her, able to feed on arcana with only a touch of the hand.

But society intrigue can be just as perilous as the Order. The machinations of the fashionable elite are a constant threat, and those who covet Katherine’s arcana, seeking the power of her birthright, could be hiding behind the façade of every suitor—even the darkly handsome Earl of Thornewood.

With so much danger and suspicion, can she give her heart to the one who captivates her, or is he just another after her power?

Review:

Arcana is a romantic historical fantasy, emphasis on the romance. I’m going to put it out here right now: if you don’t enjoy historical romance, then this isn’t going to be your cuppa. The fantasy aspects are woven in, but they’re honestly pretty light. It wouldn’t be so hard to remove them and with a bit of tweaking, have ourselves a very traditional historical romance.  Furthermore, the magic here is, as you might expect, a bit underdeveloped and what is there is wholly ordinary. Mostly it helps to provide some background flavor and tension. Even towards the very end when the action is most heated, you’ve seen before. This isn’t the book to look to for anything new on the historical fantasy front. I did like that her magic was powered by the sun though, I’ve been known to go basking on occasion to perk up. Artificial light just isn’t the same!

Anyway, as romance, it’s pretty good. The characters are solid, the Society intrigue on point and you have your two handsome roguish suitors. I will say that if you have experience with the genre, you’re likely to figure out which of the suitors is the good guy and which is the bad, and that’s even before the story drives the point home. I do wish there were a little more subtlety on the part of the “bad” one but your mileage may vary. I found it a light and breezy read.

Overall, I’d have to say that if you like historical romances, you’ll probably enjoy this. If you’re more of a pure fantasy kind of person who’d never indulge in that kind of thing, this isn’t going to be for you. The fantasy aspect, while not tacked on, isn’t much more developed than that and it just doesn’t satisfy on that front. I expected something more of a work touted as “genre-bending.”

Verdict: Borrow It

Available: Now

Review: Waistcoats and Weaponry (Finishing School #3)

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Summary:

Class is back in session…
Sophronia continues her second year at finishing school in style–with a steel-bladed fan secreted in the folds of her ball gown, of course. Such a fashionable choice of weapon comes in handy when Sophronia, her best friend Dimity, sweet sootie Soap, and the charming Lord Felix Mersey stowaway on a train to return their classmate Sidheag to her werewolf pack in Scotland. No one suspected what–or who–they would find aboard that suspiciously empty train. Sophronia uncovers a plot that threatens to throw all of London into chaos and she must decide where her loyalties lie, once and for all.

Gather your poison, steel tipped quill, and the rest of your school supplies and join Mademoiselle Geraldine’s proper young killing machines in the third rousing installment in the New York Times bestselling Finishing School Series by steampunk author, Gail Carriger

Review:

If the steampunk genre could have a beach novel series, Finishing School would be it – and I don’t mean it as an insult. Carriger has so nailed down her plotting, her pacing and her writing style so well that reading these books is like slipping into an old sweater that you wear when you just want to be cozy. The reader knows more or less what they’re going to get when they start a book and you’re pleased when you’re done reading.

Sophronia continues to be as charming, resourceful and likable as she’s always been. Carriger does a nice job of wrapping up a storyline between her and Soap  as well. It was respectful of both the characters desires and the realities of the world they live in. I also like the set-ups of the future for some of the characters as well. They show some good thought put into them.

I find this book a bit hard to review; to be honest. At this point you’re either a fan of Carriger or you’re not. Her books occupy a bit of an odd niche: lightly comedic paranormal steampunk (and steampunk was a niche genre as it was!) and if your sense of humor isn’t like hers this just might not be a cuppa. If you’ve tried to read her books before and weren’t convinced, this isn’t going to sway you.

That said, I got exactly what I wanted out of this book and I expect fans of hers will as well, and on that merit alone I recommend this book.

Verdict: Buy It

Available: Now

P.S.  if you’re thinking of giving this series a go, I highly recommend reading Soulless (the first of her adult series) first. While this series does standalone, the world does not. As the world was well established by the time she started this series, she doesn’t always go as deep into the world building in this book. You know what you need for the immediate situation, but you might be startled by the sudden appearance of a werewolf in a world where, prior to that point, gave no hints that they existed. Characters from that series also do crossover the deeper you get into this series. Basically, everything just makes that much more sense for having some kind of introduction to the world. Her style also remains very consistent across both books, so if you like that, you’ll probably enjoy this.

Review: Mortal Heart (His Fair Assassin #3) – Robin LaFevers

20522640book purchased by me

Summary:

Annith has watched her gifted sisters at the convent come and go, carrying out their dark dealings in the name of St. Mortain, patiently awaiting her own turn to serve Death. But her worst fears are realized when she discovers she is being groomed by the abbess as a Seeress, to be forever sequestered in the rock and stone womb of the convent. Feeling sorely betrayed, Annith decides to strike out on her own.

She has spent her whole life training to be an assassin. Just because the convent has changed its mind doesn’t mean she has…

Review:

For me at least, historical fantasy exists on a spectrum. On one end we have books that are pure fantasy that happen to exist in an established place and time. Think The Young Elites. On the other end we have books that genuinely embrace their setting and for the most part hew close to their source material and use a sprinkling of fantasy to spice up the plot. For the most part, if you took out the fantasy you’d have a pretty solid historical fiction novel. And that’s how I’d honestly describe the first two books of the His Fair Assassin series. The magic in those books was generally rather subtle and limited to things like invulnerability to poisons or the ability to see Mortain’s Marque, a kind of Death Seal of Approval that says it’s morally acceptable to kill the person because they’re awful. Even when Ismae and Sybella, the protagonists of those novels finally saw Mortain, it was presented more as a vision of sorts. The world clearly wasn’t fantastical and you could argue that there wasn’t much in the way of magic at all.

And now we have Mortal Heart.

Not long after Annith runs away, we meet the hellequin, a group of souls trying to obtain redemption for their sins by hunting the souls of the lost and the stubborn and bringing them to cross into the afterlife. Mortain himself plays a good sized role in the last bit of the story and a magical object literally resolves the three book conflict between Brittany and France. It feels quite like LaFevers has changed the rules on us at a very late point in the game.  That spectrum I mentioned? Look at it this way:

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Grave Mercy was undoubtedly the most grounded of the three. Dark Triumph had a bit more more magic at the very end, but was still pretty well grounded overall. Mortal Heart however has taken us almost into full on fantasy mode. If this hadn’t been the third book in a trilogy, I’d called this a fantasy first and historical fiction second. It may feel like I’m hammering this book for what may be a non-issue, but I couldn’t help but find it a jarring turn of affairs. Had this book come first, I don’t know if I’d kept reading. This book’s ending was so dependent on magic it almost felt like LaFevers didn’t know how to end the book otherwise with a happy-ish YA appropriate ending with what she had going, so turned to fantasy to get there. It felt cheap.

It’s a shame too, because there is a lot to like here. It’s great seeing Ismae and Sybella again, and a lot of the stories set up in the past two books were resolved here in generally satisfying ways. I think LaFevers fans will genuinely enjoy themselves. I know I  did, I all but devoured it except for the very end where I admit to groaning some.

Ultimately can’t help but wish LaFevers had stayed true to the feel of the first two books. Historical fiction in YA isn’t the most common to begin with, and to find some that is genuinely well researched and the girls don’t feel too modern is rarer still. This book was definitely on the historical side of historical fantasy and was the more interesting for it. I just can’t shake the feeling that by dipping heavily into the fantastic when she’d shown such restraint in the prior books it’s lost something and that feeling that something wasn’t quite right was a bit difficult to shake off.

It’s still a pretty easy recommendation, but that shift to more of an overt fantasy world kept this great book from being Best of 2014 material.

Verdict: Buy It

Available: Today

Review: Murder of Crows – Anne Bishop

17563080book purchased by me

Summary:

After winning the trust of the terra indigene residing in the Lakeside Courtyard, Meg Corbyn has had trouble figuring out what it means to live among them. As a human, Meg should be barely tolerated prey, but her abilities as a cassandra sangue make her something more.

The appearance of two addictive drugs has sparked violence between the humans and the Others, resulting in the murders of both species in nearby cities. So when Meg has a dream about blood and black feathers in the snow, Simon Wolfgard—Lakeside’s shape-shifting leader—wonders whether their blood prophet dreamed of a past attack or of a future threat.

As the urge to speak prophecies strikes Meg more frequently, trouble finds its way inside the Courtyard. Now the Others and the handful of humans residing there must work together to stop the man bent on reclaiming their blood prophet—and stop the danger that threatens to destroy them all.

Review:

I hadn’t actually had plans to finish this book today when I posted my Stacking the Shelves post, but here we are.

After such a stunning first book, it was going to be almost impossible for Murder of Crows to live up to Written in Red. And it kind of was in a way. The thing that I absolutely loved about the first book – the slow reveal of The Others and the life in the Courtyard – that’s all been done. This book is decidedly more plot-focused. One can even argue that as much as Meg is on the cover, and as much as Meg helps drive the plot forward, that this isn’t really her story anymore: it’s Simon’s and by extension, it’s truly a story of The Others this time as, with Meg’s help, they combat a rather nasty (and it is actually gross once you know the details behind the drugs) plot against the terre indigene as a whole.

Thankfully, the plot is stronger than Asia’s was last book and we do get some resolution on The Controller front – I really couldn’t imagine sitting through another book of him looking for Meg to recapture. The plot is still the weakest part of the book, because for all that it’s there it kind of feels like there just isn’t much there there. It worked before because we were exploring the world and getting to know all these people. Here it’s a bit more obvious and characters that were so fascinating last time – like Winter and Spring and the like – get very brief appearances. It’s not necessarily slow, but it is shallow and at some point that’s going to become a problem.

So I’m torn. I enjoyed reading it and I still love the scenes between Meg and the Others, but as the story takes over, it becomes more and more apparent at how this isn’t Bishop’s strong suit. A wonderful world and characters will get you a very long way with me, but at some point the story itself has to pull its weight. It really didn’t in the first book and only kind of did in this one. Vision in Silver comes out March 2015. Let’s hope that it’s put some meat on its bones before then.

Back in the day I read the first several books in the The Black Jewel series before she lost me. Like this series, that series grabbed me with a super-strong opening, but lost me over time as the story failed to hold my attention. I really hope the same doesn’t happen here, especially since it looks like this series will at be at least five books. Open-ended series are always risky propositions, I hope she proves me wrong and that there is enough depth to keep it running for that long.

Verdict: Buy It

Available Now

Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns – Rae Carson

10429092eBook purchased by me.

Summary:

Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness.
Elisa is the chosen one.

But she is also the younger of two princesses, the one who has never done anything remarkable. She can’t see how she ever will.

Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king whose country is in turmoil. A king who needs the chosen one, not a failure of a princess.

And he’s not the only one who seeks her. Savage enemies seething with dark magic are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could be his people’s savior. And he looks at her in a way that no man has ever looked at her before. Soon it is not just her life, but her very heart that is at stake.

Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn’t die young.

Most of the chosen do.

Review:

I suppose the easiest way to start this review is to look at one of this books most divisive elements: her weight and her weight loss.

On the one hand, it’s nice to see plus-sized protagonists. They just don’t happen in YA. It’s also nice to see what she does lose weight, it’s because she marched three weeks in the desert, and not due to any kind of magic – paranormal romance is particularly guilty of weight-loss via wishes/deals with devils.

On the other hand, while she’s heavy, she’s painted as an unhappy girl with an emotional eating problem. But when she loses the weight all those problems (and her emotional eating) just poof…disappear. Like, Carson goes out of her way to point out she’s not eating past the point when she’s full now. I’m sorry, but that’s not how it works. Increased confidence is fine, but struggles with emotional eating tend to STAY struggles. They really don’t disappear like that and it ultimately makes the book feel like it has a bit of a “just lose weight and all your problems go away” message that not only isn’t true, but also be hurtful to teen girls who are struggling with weight issues. I haven’t even mentioned how in her post-weight-loss state she’s also suddenly completely pro-exercise, at one point jogging outside her carriage and wondering how she ever preferred a carriage to just walking/jogging which is also kind of eye-roll inducing.

Finally, my biggest problem is: why does she bother in the first place? After she loses the weight, almost all of these issues are dropped, leaving it as a kind of Princess Diaries-esque transformation and begins her transition to a fairly typical and trope-y YA fantasy heroine. I don’t feel this was handled well enough to have been included, and would have rather seen it left out.

So yeah. Props for not making her super skinny, but no one should be holding up this book as an example of a pro-size-acceptance book either.

Even outside of that – and I will say that I didn’t find it a book breaker as just something generally problematic – there are other issues with the character. Elisa is another YA heroine in the long line of girls who are completely unprepared to step up and take control do so in ways that are hard to buy into. She’s had no military training outside of a single book (think of the Art of War) she is thinking of all these ways to lead an insurgency. At the beginning of the book she’s sickened by the thought of killing a man, and by the end of the book she’s literally can’t wait to do so. It’s the usual questionably believable stuff.

From a world-building perspective, I like that this is a Spanish-influenced secondary world because it’s not something seen that often in fantasy. On the flip side, the religion is VERY vague, and if she didn’t lean enough of Catholic influences we probably wouldn’t know much of anything. Like, why does this God choose a bearer and why exactly do they have such direct links to their God – the Godstone seems to react to every prayer of hers. Why can the enemy do magic with these stones and no one else can. Is everyone else so God-fearing that they never even tried? These questions make the ending pretty ludicrous, with her literally praying to save the day. I admit it, the actions leading up to that prayer actually made me laugh out loud (seriously visualize it and it tell me you took it seriously) and the amount of power she was able to produce made me wonder if she’s mean to be this God reborn.

Let’s be clear, it’s still a quick and easy read and is hardly the worst YA fantasy I’ve ever read. That said, the underdevelopment of the religious aspects are a detriment to this book and if someone is going to read a more generic YA title, I’d rather read one where things like weight issues are handled with more delicacy and not just a stopover on the way to the Pretty YA Heroine station.

Verdict: Skip It