Review: Death Sworn – Leah Cypress

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Summary:

When Ileni lost her magic, she lost everything: her place in society, her purpose in life, and the man she had expected to spend her life with. So when the Elders sent her to be magic tutor to a secret sect of assassins, she went willingly, even though the last two tutors had died under mysterious circumstances.

But beneath the assassins’ caves, Ileni will discover a new place and a new purpose… and a new and dangerous love. She will struggle to keep her lost magic a secret while teaching it to her deadly students, and to find out what happened to the two tutors who preceded her. But what she discovers will change not only her future, but the future of her people, the assassins… and possibly the entire world

Review:

If there’s any trends for me in 2014 it’s that I’ve definitely lost a lot of love for genre YA – although I’m still reading roughly equal amounts of young adult to adult (albeit less so recently) when I look at my tentative list of best books of 2014, only a quarter of the titles there can be considered YA. So what’s with the disconnect?

Death Sworn is a great representation why attitude has shifted so much in this past year: there’s a glimmer of a great idea here, but it’s buried beneath slow (and weak) character development and it tries to push a romance upon us, even though there’s practically no chemistry between the intended couple. In other words: squandered potential.

The biggest weakness of the book is Ileni herself. On the one hand, she keeps walking around going “I can’t use my magic, lest I run out” and then two seconds later casting a spell that drains her even more. When she isn’t doing that, she’s complaining about how wrong it is for assassins to kill..never mind she’s in a camp full of them complaining to one of them. By the end of the book she does start to show some potential, but it’s a shame she spent so long in this state. Towards the end a plot of unraveled that is actually rather intriguing, especially the use of the kids in the plot. It’s the only reason to finish the duology.

Yep. Duology. Not a trilogy. Not an open ended series. Nice change! Anyway, there is a second and final book due out next March, and I do have an ARC of it – you’ll see a review of it much closer to publication.  Overall though, this book was eh. It was par for the YA course. Take that for what you will.

Verdict: Borrow it

ARC Review – The Curse Merchant – J.P. Sloan

22621765eARC received in exchange for fair review

Summary:

Dorian Lake spent years cornering the Baltimore hex-crafting market, using his skills at the hermetic arts to exact karmic justice for those whom the system has failed. He keeps his magic clean and free of soul-corrupting Netherwork, thus avoiding both the karmic blow-back of his practice and the notice of the Presidium, a powerful cabal of practitioners that polices the esoteric arts in America. However, when an unscrupulous Netherworker interferes with both his business and his personal life, Dorian’s disarming charisma and hermetic savvy may not be enough to keep his soul out of jeopardy.

His rival, a soul monger named Neil Osterhaus, wouldn’t be such a problem were it not for Carmen, Dorian’s captivating ex-lover. After two years’ absence Carmen arrives at Dorian’s doorstep with a problem: she sold her soul to Osterhaus, and has only two weeks to buy it back. Hoping to win back Carmen’s affections, Dorian must find a replacement soul without tainting his own. As Dorian descends into the shadows of Baltimore’s underworld, he must decide how low he is willing to stoop in order to save Carmen from eternal damnation… with the Presidium watching, waiting for him to cross the line.

Review:

Character counts.

If it sounds like I’ve been harping on this concept for my past few reviews, it’s because yet again, I have another book that proves just how important character development really is. When I started this book, it didn’t quite grab me, the story wasn’t quite there. I kept reading though, and then all of the sudden I was hooked. And I had Dorian to thank for it. Dorian is the heart and soul and glue that holds this book together. He’s a good guy, trying to keep his head above water. As it becomes harder and harder for him to do so, he does things he never thought he’d do before and sacrifices so much for something that he didn’t have to allow himself to get so vested in. You want to see him succeed, not because you care about who he’s acting on behalf of, but because you genuinely like him. He has his back up against a metaphorical wall by the end of the book and you finish it hoping that he can find a way out. Dorian’s voice here is key: he carries the air of a world-weary PI, without quite falling into the tropes. He can be confident and even a bit cocky, but Sloan manages to avoid making him too arrogant or smug or otherwise unlikable. It also helps that Dorian is surrounded by a cast of likable friends and enemies. The one shortfall I would say is his ex Carmen who toes the line of just being a flat out bitch and a twist regarding her story was predictable and kind of disappointing.

On the magic front, I do wish we saw a bit more. We do get some basics laid out for us, but given how important it winds up being to resolving the central resolution of the plot, it felt like a lot of done was off-page and that’s always a bit annoying to me since it does feel like a cheat and because I think he’s got something interesting going on there. I’d also like to see more of the Presidium. Thanks to his narration, we get the vibe that they’re supposed to be kind of a Big Bad – remind me of the Authority on True Blood: a group that not only rules the vampires, but gaining their attention is all but a death sentence – but they didn’t do enough to make me believe that. A bit too much tell over show.

Over all, I thought this felt like a solid introduction to a good Urban Fantasy series. There’s definitely plenty of room for a sequel based on how the story ended, and from what I can glean from his Twitter feed he is writing. That said, this was originally published in 2012, and re-released by Curiosity Quills in September 2014. The only other title I could find was a prequel short story published in 2013 by Smashwords and set to be re-released by Curiosity Quills “soon.” Goodreads doesn’t have the book listed under any kind of series (though the website does call it the “Dark Choir” series), and I find nothing that indicates the release of a sequel any time in the near future. If you’re the kind that likes to wait to have series be finished (or at least realistic expectations for when the next book will come out) you may want to keep waiting because it may be a long one. Shame too, because I’m definitely vested in Dorian’s future.

Edited to Add: Good news! The publisher has confirmed there is a sequel coming – tentative release date of Spring/Summer 2015. That’s not a bad wait after all! Read away, folks.

Verdict: Buy it

Available Now

Review: The Midnight Queen – Sylvia Izzo Hunter

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Summary:

In the hallowed halls of Oxford’s Merlin College, the most talented—and highest born—sons of the Kingdom of Britain are taught the intricacies of magickal theory. But what dazzles can also destroy, as Gray Marshall is about to discover…

Gray’s deep talent for magick has won him a place at Merlin College. But when he accompanies four fellow students on a mysterious midnight errand that ends in disaster and death, he is sent away in disgrace—and without a trace of his power. He must spend the summer under the watchful eye of his domineering professor, Appius Callender, working in the gardens of Callender’s country estate and hoping to recover his abilities. And it is there, toiling away on a summer afternoon, that he meets the professor’s daughter.

Even though she has no talent of her own, Sophie Callender longs to be educated in the lore of magick. Her father has kept her isolated at the estate and forbidden her interest; everyone knows that teaching arcane magickal theory to women is the height of impropriety. But against her father’s wishes, Sophie has studied his ancient volumes on the subject. And in the tall, stammering, yet oddly charming Gray, she finally finds someone who encourages her interest and awakens new ideas and feelings.

Sophie and Gray’s meeting touches off a series of events that begins to unravel secrets about each of them. And after the king’s closest advisor pays the professor a closed-door visit, they begin to wonder if what Gray witnessed in Oxford might be even more sinister than it seemed. They are determined to find out, no matter the cost…

Review:

There are light reads, and then there are light-weight reads. Light reads are your beach books. They are the kind of breezy books that, by their nature, aren’t really meant to hold any deeper meaning. They’re just meant to be fun and entertain you.

Then there are light-weight reads. Books that are meant to be more, but somehow don’t quite get there. I feel like The Midnight Queen is one of those books. It is meant to be a blending of magic and spycraft. There is magic and there is some spycraft, but they just don’t seem to amount to much, even though one gets the sense it was meant to add up to more.

This book takes place in kind of an alternate-history England, where magic has flourished. Izzo Hunter didn’t take much advantage of this though, and there’s no sense that things have changed much beyond the monarchs in power. Heck, we even still have a Henry the VIII, only now renamed Henry the Great. It’s the kind of reinventing that makes you wonder why the author bothered with the rebranding in the first place, though I suppose one could argue it’s because the Old Gods are still in favor, but eh. As for the magic, it’s a fairly typical system based on Latin spells and chants out of a book. You’ve seen it before. Ultimately, some thought did go into this world and its magic, but it’s still forgettable.

What about the espionage then? This is a book about Gray stumbling upon a plot against the King. Well…he stumbled upon it. And the other evidence. And that’s kind of it. There’s some work done with translating codices, but it’s the kind of plot that was entirely too dependent on luck and timing to fully believe. The evidence they gather is also kind of skimpy at best. You have no doubt that our protagonists believe themselves, but it’d be hard to convict based on what they provided. Fortunately for Gray and Sophie, there are plot-convenient priests of Apollo whose abilities to pull truths form prisoners also happens to serve as a convenient plot device that explains the scheme in full. Were it not for their existence, I feel like this novel might have ended <i>very</i> differently, with our heroes in jail for treason at best.

There is a plot twist regarding Sophie, but it’s kind of there. And convenient for our story.

As for Gray and Sophie, they were both likable and they made a cute couple, but that’s not really enough. Maybe if the romance aspect had been amped up then you could call this a romance and the other sins could be forgiven, but this isn’t being marketed as a romance, and given the couple don’t get together til the last quarter of the novel you can’t sell it as such.

I didn’t mind the time I spent reading this, but I have to say, the second you start thinking about it, the second it begins to leave you feeling a bit underwhelmed.

It’s a competent book and I think there are those who will definitely enjoy it, but as far as fantasy goes, there’s just so much good stuff out there right now that it makes it difficult to recommend this.

Verdict: Skip It

Available: Now

Review: Mortal Enchantment (Mortal Enchantment #1) – Stacey O’Neale

20740634eBook purchased by me; signed physical copy won in giveaway from author

Summary:

In Kalin Matthew’s world, elementals control the forces of nature. They are divided into four courts: air, woodland, fire, and water. At sixteen she will leave the life she’s built with her mortal mother. Kalin will move to Avalon to rule with her father—the elemental king of the air court. Along the way, she’s attacked by a fire court assassin and saved by Rowan, a swoon-worthy elemental with a questionable past.

Worst of all, she learns her father is missing.

To rescue him, Kalin will have to work with a judgmental council and a system of courts too busy accusing each other of deceit to actually be able to help her. But, they aren’t her biggest challenge. With the Midwinter’s Ball only five days away, Kalin must take over her father’s duties, which includes shifting control of the elements—power Kalin has yet to realize.

As Rowan attempts to train her, a war looms between the four courts. If Kalin fails, her father will die and the courts will fall, but the betrayal she’s about to uncover may cost her even more…

Review:

Mortal Enchantment is an indie-published young adult fantasy title that, while technically the first in the series, is the second title published by the author. The first story, The Shadow Prince, was a free novella released ahead of this book. I was rather a fan of it at the time. Not only was it a true novella (so many YA novellas charged for by publishers are really short stories), but I thought it did a great job of introducing the world and set up the rules for that world. Theoretically, you shouldn’t need to read that, to read this, but I strongly recommend that you do so. Although it does take away the mystery of Rowan, I can’t help but shake the feeling that this short novel was written assuming that you’d read the other title. I feel like O’Neale didn’t take the time to really set up the world of the Elementals for us in this book the way she did her novella. If you haven’t read it, it wouldn’t surprise me if you got lost. This lack of build up comes off a little worse because this novel is so short at barely 230 pages.

That (somewhat significant) gripe aside, how does it hold up to The Shadow Prince?

I liked the novella better.

As mentioned, you get the meat of the world building in the novella, and I think the characters we met there are just plain more interesting. Kalin is nice enough, but she’s kind of a bland and doesn’t leave much of an impression one way or another. Her handler, Ariel, also comes off as a rather generic teen as well. For a teenager who moves to a palace in a whole new realm, I don’t feel like there’s enough different between the two locales as perhaps they should be.

Unfortunately, the plot is also weaker than that of The Shadow Prince. There is intrigue, but it doesn’t feel as significant as it did in the novella, and we don’t get to know the players of this novel well enough, so that when you find out who is betraying whom it kind of leaves you shrugging your shoulders, instead of feeling anger or shock or any stronger emotion at the revelation.

Overall, I don’t think that Mortal Enchantment is bad. It’s just that The Shadow Prince was so good that I had heightened expectations for it. What we got though, was a pretty conventional young adult fantasy title that doesn’t really do anything too unique or different. It’s not bad, it’s just not as fresh. I think this book will hit the spot for the main audience, but for everyone else, I recommend The Shadow Prince instead.

Verdict: Borrow It

Review: Libriomancer (Magic Ex Libris Book 1) – Jim C. Hines

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Summary:

Isaac Vainio is a Libriomancer, a member of the secret organization founded five centuries ago by Johannes Gutenberg. Libriomancers are gifted with the ability to magically reach into books and draw forth objects. When Isaac is attacked by vampires that leaked from the pages of books into our world, he barely manages to escape. To his horror he discovers that vampires have been attacking other magic-users as well, and Gutenberg has been kidnapped.

With the help of a motorcycle-riding dryad who packs a pair of oak cudgels, Isaac finds himself hunting the unknown dark power that has been manipulating humans and vampires alike. And his search will uncover dangerous secrets about Libriomancy, Gutenberg, and the history of magic. . .

Review:

– Awesome magic system? Check

– References to over 40 books, either directly or indirectly? Check

– Great characters? Check

– A genuine love of books permeating throughout the book? Check

You’re still here? Hmph. Okay. Fine. Let’s take a deeper look at these, shall we?

The Magic.

The magic system is fucking brilliant. Books exist. The collective belief in the world generated by the tens/hundreds/thousands of readers over time allow magicians known as Libriomancers to reach into the book and pull objects out. Awesome, right? Hines spent his time thinking about it. There are plenty of limitations on the system: it has to fit through the book (so you know, no T-Rex), over use a book and you’ll burn it to ash. Life doesn’t come through too well either. The Libriomancers have also taken it upon themselves to “seal” books that could be dangerous to our world (no One Ring for you, and there’s an amusing passage about Libriomancers tryingt to beg J.K. Rowling to stop writing about Time Turners). A side effect of this magic: book monsters exist. Most notably vampires. Everything from Meyerii (yes, Twilight) and  Sanguinarius Henricus (Southern Vampire Mysteries) even real-world mythological equivalent like the manananggal and of course, Sanguinarius Stokerus (if I have to tell you, I can’t speak to you anymore). It’s one of the most clever systems I’ve seen in ages.

The Books.

This is a book that is entertaining all on its own merits, but geeks will love this book so much more. There are book references everywhere, some subtle, some more overt – the book even comes with a bibliography of titles mentioned in the text! It never feels pretentious, but rather it fits into the world beautifully and the references made me smile.

The Characters.

Isaac is a great protagonist. He’s by no means a cipher, but it’s so easy to relate to him. That sense of joy, that desire to reach into a book and pull out the Harry Potter’s wand that actually works. He’s not perfect by any mean. He rushes in, he causes as many problems as he solves, and he’s a fucking fantastic librarian. He has a pet fire spider (I want one!) that he pulled from a novel. Lena is an interesting female protagonist. Her backstory is both interesting and kind of tragic. I think Hines did a good job of trying to define her, especially since it could have gone so horribly wrong.

A love of books.

Hines is no fake geek. His love of books and of reading and of imagination just permeates every page. He was happy writing it and it made me happy reading it. Books that genuinely make me happy when I read it are far and few between and will almost always make me inclined to recommend it.

Finally, the story is well constructed with a clever plot that moves along briskly and feels like just the right length. All in all, this book is just solid all the way around. This is a no brainer.

Verdict: Buy It

Available: Now

The Magicians (The Magicians #1) – Lev Grossman

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Summary:

Quentin Coldwater is brillant but miserable. He’s a senior in high school, and a certifiable genius, but he’s still secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels he read as a kid, about the adventures of five children in a magical land called Fillory. Compared to that, anything in his real life just seems gray and colorless.

Everything changes when Quentin finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the practice of modern sorcery. He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. But something is still missing. Magic doesn’t bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he though it would.

Then, after graduation, he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real.

Review:

Every now and then you’ll see a meme float around: describe a book in one sentence. I’ve never been a huge fan of it, and I think this book is a good example of why. On the one hand, it’s easy to summarize: “Depressed Quentin Coldwater matriculates early to attend Hogwarts University and then discovers Narnia.” It’s accurate enough: Breakbills is Hogwarts, if magic was taught to older children and was more rigourous. Fillory is Narnia, less much of the Christian mythology and Quentin is depressed. The thing is, this book is less about magic and more about how elusive happiness can be. There is plenty of magic and there is a fair amount of adventure (the last section of the book in Fillory proper gets pretty dark), but it’s really a story about how Quentin is never happy because he never lets himself be happy because he thinks the grass will always be greener elsewhere. There’s actually a rather sharp edge of melancholy to this tale and even though he has all the elements he needs to be happy, he only realizes that when he’s practically lost everything.

I can see why this is divisive: though the ending is optimistic, it is not happy and some find Quentin’s relentless negativity (especially after graduation) to be a bit much. And I can absolutely understand that. On the other hand…I kind of like it that he went there. There are people like Quentin in this world and when you’ve had a rough life and read it can be easy to think “If only I could run away to [insert land of choice here] I would be happy” like he does and it’s nice to see a book reflect that once in a while. And I like that Grossman isn’t actually advocating for that kind of thinking.

This book may not to be to your liking, but I still think it worth a look because it almost feels like a contemporary novel of a young adult searching for himself with the trappings of fantasy in it, and you don’t find too much fantasy like that today.

Verdict: Borrow It – the bleak outlook may be a turn off for some, but it’s still worth a look.

Available: Now. The final book in the triology, The Magician’s Land, comes out this August.