ARC Review – Under My Skin (Immortality Strain #1) by Shawntell Madison

23382840eARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for fair review

Summary:

Everyone wants to either be a member of the Guild or work for them. Little does the populace know that the Guild hides sinister secrets…

For Tate Sullivan, life in her small, coastal town is far from glamorous. The affluent lives of the Guild members and their servants isn’t something she has ever wanted. But all sixteen year-olds must take a simple test, and Tate’s result thrusts her into the Guild’s world, one where they hide horrible plans for those they select. Tate must fight the relentless General Dagon for control of her mind, body, and soul to keep the one precious thing she has always taken for granted: herself.

Her only ally is the same handsome boy she is pitted against in General Dagon’s deadly game. Quinn desires nothing more than to end the life of General Dagon who has taken over Tate’s mind. While romance blooms between Tate and Quinn, General Dagon plots to eventually take over Tate’s body, and love might end before it even begins.

Review:

Oh book, I wanted to like you. You easily have the most interesting idea I’ve seen for a YA dystopian in ages, and for a self-published title, you are polished to a T and proof that self-published titles can easily sit side-by-side with books from the big publishers.

On the other hand, you squander your idea by completely and utterly under-developing it. This book raises so many questions: if everyone wants to at least work for the Guild, then shouldn’t it be common knowledge that your family gets a stipend if you get chosen? Whatever happened to the people we met at the facility who got chosen, but who weren’t bid upon? Did they get to put to work as janitors or were they killed? The Guild’s secret to immortality is body hopping in vessels like Tates, but it seems like Tate was wearing out pretty damn fast. If a body only lasted a year or two at most before they had to jump again, what kind of system is that? And if bodies last longer than that, why wasn’t it made clear that she was an exception, not a rule? I get that it’s set-up for future books, but it’s kind of important for understanding how this whole thing works. Speaking of body jumping, wouldn’t people notice? Like how did no one question that General Dagon suddenly has a daughter named Elsie or is the conspiracy so vast that the common person just doesn’t even know that it’s going on? How does Tate protect herself so damn well when the other vessels fell so quick? She have partial immunity to the virus or is it just because the plot demands? How does getting shocked by a machine once suddenly let you be able to “feel” who would make a good host? If Dagon is so good at controlling bodies he’s taken over, shouldn’t they have assumed that he was letting her do whatever she wanted? Why is there a Resistance any way? They seem to serve little purpose in this world other than to help explain things to Tate, we certainly see no other impact on the world at large.

You see how this is problematic.

Aside from the sense that all of this happening because the author wants it to happen this way, there isn’t much else to talk about. Tate is your generic YA heroine: loves her parents, loves her cousin, intelligent and plucky, determined to stand up to The Man. Her relationship to Quinn is less love and more Stockholm Syndrome. There’s nothing between them that can ever be constituted as romance; it’s all business between them. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that any emotions she develops for him are out of the fact that a) he’s handsome b) not a creep and c) the only guy even close to her age in the compound.

Overall, I feel like there’s promise here, but the premise just proved too elusive for the author to wrap her head around in a way that doesn’t eventually make you start questioning it – and considering this is only the first book in a series, you have to have a more solid foundation to work on.

This was a fun book, until things completely fell apart for me, and ultimately my enjoyment of much of book wasn’t enough to overcome the rather series problems with it later on.

Verdict: Skip it

Available: Today.

ARC Review: Night of Pan (Oracle of Dephi #1) – Gail Strickland

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eARC provided by the publisher in exchange for fair review

Summary:

The slaughter of the Spartan Three Hundred at Thermopylae, Greece 480 BCE—when King Leonidas tried to stop the Persian army with only his elite guard—is well known. But just what did King Xerxes do after he defeated the Greeks?

Fifteen-year-old Thaleia is haunted by visions: roofs dripping blood, Athens burning. She tries to convince her best friend and all the villagers that she’s not crazy. The gods do speak to her.

And the gods have plans for this girl.

When Xerxes’ army of a million Persians marches straight to the mountain village Delphi to claim the Temple of Apollo’s treasures and sacred power, Thaleia’s gift may be her people’s last line of defense.

Her destiny may be to save Greece…but is one girl strong enough to stop an entire army?

Review:

Grumble.

That doesn’t count as a review, does it? I mean, it should because it more or less sums up how I feel and is a no-so-subtle hint as to what the final outcome of this review will be. But it’d make me a bad reviewer if I simply left it there, and if nothing else, I want to say I did my best, so let’s take a look a look at this further.

On the plus side, I love the setting and concept: while Greek deities occasionally appear in modern books that touch on old pantheons, you simply don’t see much fiction (let alone fantasy) set in this era. It’s also neat to see some of the rituals of the time and the author clearly did her homework. It feels authentic.

But that’s about all I can say that is genuinely positive.

First and foremost, while I do applaud the research that clearly went into this, the book seems so eager to show off that the author did her homework that it feels like a cross being a fantasy and a bit of a history lesson. Characters speak lines like

“He will never conquer us! Representatives of each city-state – from Athens, Milas, even might Sparta came together last autumn in Corinth to form the Hellenic League!” and “Xerxes’ empire is vast – Asia Minor, Egypt, Judah, Lydia, Mesopotaia!”

People don’t talk like that and so it doesn’t sound like dialogue, but instead it sounds like recitation of fact. Adding to this sense is that there is an entire glossary in the back of the book. While that can be handy, what’s not so handy is that each word in the glossary is both italicized and underlined. It breaks immersion and is cumbersome to use, and ultimately detracts from the experience, more than enhances. It’s nice to have the reference, but it doesn’t need to be so front and center.

My next complaint is that the book feels cold. I really, really wish Strickland had given us more time with Thaleia before she had her first meeting with Pan. Our introduction to her is basically a girl that feels ridiculously modern with her “girls can be more than wives and mothers/we’re just property of men!” spiel and then the mystical aspects of the book take over. Ultimately, I never connected with Thaleia because she never felt real, never felt human and Strickland went to great lengths to point out that she was human, and not semi-divine. She is the heart of the story, both in terms of plot and emotion, so having some more closeness to her would have done wonders for me.

Finally, this book has less an ending, and more a cliff-hanger. She has another vision and then boom, you’re looking at the tease for book two. It is an ever-present annoyance of mine, especially in books this short.

Overall, the word I’d use for this is disappointing. There was a lot of promise, but it never quite came together for me. It is definitely fantasy, and it’s interesting positing what powers a Pythia might have been able to have, but to give her powers and have her help save Greece before we even know her is to put her a bit on a pedestal and readers should never be kept at such distance.

Verdict: Skip 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

 

ARC Review: The Last Changeling – Chelsea Pitcher

cover48549-mediumeARC provided through NetGalley in exchange for fair review

Summary:

Elora, the young princess of the Dark Faeries, plans to overthrow her tyrannical mother, the Dark Queen, and bring equality to faeriekind. All she has to do is convince her mother’s loathed enemy, the Bright Queen, to join her cause. But the Bright Queen demands an offering first: a human boy who is a “young leader of men.”

A Dark Princess In Disguise . . .

To steal a mortal, Elora must become a mortal—at least, by all appearances. And infiltrating a high school is surprisingly easy. When Elora meets Taylor, the seventeen-year-old who’s plotting to overthrow a ruthless bully, she thinks she’s found her offering . . . until she starts to fall in love.

Review:

I don’t know how else to break this to you, so I shall be blunt.

The Last Changeling is not a faerie tale.

Oh, certainly Elora is a faerie (though, I would note that she is not a changeling – a glamor is not the same thing. For changelings and faery see Cargill’s Dreams and Shadows) and she does tell a tale of the faery in this story, but only in the last 20% of the book does anything related to the faery become relevant at all. As the book starts with Elora already out in the mortal world, we never spend time with the fae proper. Heck, when the fae do come to play in the last bit of the book, it’s in the mortal realm. Someone looking for a YA story about the Dark Court is going to be disappointed, because everything we learn about the courts are told in long exposition sequences, in the form of a story that Elora is telling Taylor. It’s the very definition of tell, not show and the book would have benefited tremendously from starting the book in the faery realm and then moving it to the mortal. By doing so, Elora’s fight would have picked up a much greater sense of urgency and you’d been more vested in the fight. By having it all explained as a story, the reader remains detached. All told, with not a lot of editing, you could excise the the faery elements and be left with a contemporary story.

So how does the contemporary story hold up?

Not that well.

Everyone at this school comes off as one dimensional. The bully is Evil. The outcast girl is a vegan goth. There’s heavy handedness surrounding discrimination towards the LGBT community – the bully gets his parents and the parents of the rich kids to call and convince the principal that the prom should be for “traditional” couples only because Taylor joined the Gay-Straight alliance. This is after the bully more or less forced Taylor to resign by having him and the other kids insinuate that he was touching them – and the obviously homophobic coach buying into it. It already feels dated and lacks any subtlety, especially for a book coming out in a time when gay marriage bans are falling left and right. Things are far from perfect for LGBT kids in high school, it’d been nice if a more delicate hand had been taken and some nuance let into the story.

As for Taylor and Elora? Eh. They’re there. There are hints of an interesting backstory with Taylor – but they’re never fully developed. Elora’s backstory, as I mentioned, is all told in flashback, and she never comes off as strange enough to believe that she never lived amongst humans. She just comes off as a little strange, but not alien, which is what she should have.

All told, while the book is technically proficient, there’s just not much there to recommend it. It’s clear that this book wanted to be a YA romance with some fantastic elements. But with the fantasy elements lacking and the romance not feeling that romantic, the whole book just feels disappointing. I’m sure there’s some good faery-centric stories for the YA crowd, but unfortunately, this isn’t it.

Verdict: Skip It

Available: November 8th

Review: The Midnight Queen – Sylvia Izzo Hunter

20821047ebook purchased by me

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

DNF The Thief’s Gamble – Juliet E. McKenna

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Summary:

Magic? It’s for the rich, the powerful…the Archmage and his elite wizards and cloud-masters.

Livak is not among them. She haunts the back taverns of the realm, careful to appear neither rich nor poor, neither tall nor short… neither man nor woman. Obscurity is her protection, thievery her livelihood, and gambling her weakness.

Alas, some bets are hard to resist. Particularly when they offer a chance to board a ship for Hadrumal, the fabled city of the Archmage. So Livak follows a minor wizard, Shiv, in an attempt to turn a rune or two, never dreaming that the stolen tankard she wants to sell contains the secrets of an ancient magic far more powerful, and infinitely darker, than any mortal mage’s spells

Review:

I tried folks, I really did. This is an oldie – 1999 to be precise – and side from a female protagonist and a primary male character who casually admits to having a boyfriend (progressive for the year, to be sure) there just isn’t much here here. I have trouble keeping characters apart. The book has a tendency to jump POV in a single chapter (with each chapter being rather long and divisions of time, rather than narrator)  made the more confusing when Livak’s story is told in first person, and everyone else is told in the third person. There’s no good reason for that division either, at least not from a  narrative point of view. I have to wonder if it was a short-cut way to try and draw the reader in? Dunno.

For epic fantasy, the quest is pretty tame and the magic is woefully underdeveloped for a story about wizards and practically not used beyond some parlor tricks – it almost seems more theoretical than real.

Ultimately, this book is worse than bad: it’s boring and doesn’t have enough story to justify the almost 500 pages that it fills, making it impossible to recommend. There are too many other, better, traditional fantasies out there to recommend in its place.

Review: The Eigth Guardian (Annum Guard #1) by Meredith McCardle

17357347Title purchased by me

Summary:

It’s Testing Day. The day that comes without warning, the day when all juniors and seniors at The Peel Academy undergo a series of intense physical and psychological tests to see if they’re ready to graduate and become government operatives. Amanda and her boyfriend Abe are top students, and they’ve just endured thirty-six hours of testing. But they’re juniors and don’t expect to graduate. That’ll happen next year, when they plan to join the CIA—together.

But when the graduates are announced, the results are shocking. Amanda has been chosen—the first junior in decades. And she receives the opportunity of a lifetime: to join a secret government organization called the Annum Guard and travel through time to change the course of history. But in order to become the Eighth Guardian in this exclusive group, Amanda must say good-bye to everything—her name, her family, and even Abe—forever.

Who is really behind the Annum Guard? And can she trust them with her life?

Review:

Okay, if your review is going to talk about your main character having to part with her love forever, maybe you shouldn’t dispatch of the entire school experience in the first 10% of the book. Literally, we get one scene with Amanda and Abe before she’s whisked off to join the Annum Guard. It doesn’t allow us to connect with the characters or their relationship, and just doesn’t form a great first impression. That sense of incomplete development extends to hook of the story. McCardle goes to great pains to make it clear that no one graduates as a junior, but then Amanda does. Why? Umm…Reasons? The guy who did the best on Testing Day in like, ever, got chosen as a Senior. Amanda failed her test, and apparently being (to use Alpha’s own words) “proactive” in the second test is enough to give her the pass through as a junior. I kept waiting for a legitimate plot related reason to bring her into the fold early, but if it was ever put in there, I must have missed. As it stands, it just gives the character a faint whiff of Mary Sue, and that’s a shame because she really isn’t. And we know she really isn’t because she commits a rather large sin in my eyes to make her seem more capable:

She dumbs down other characters.

When we first meet Yellow, she’s presented as your basic snotty bitch. But, this bitch has a solid year and a half of experience, and these kids all seemed to have been trained at the same CIA prep academy that Amanda did, and so when she goes on her first solo mission, it feels like Yellow gets all vapid so we can see how clever Amanda is. It feels that much more obvious when in the rest of the book Yellow actively helps Amanda and proves that she is, in fact, quite smart and shows that she thinks much further ahead than she did in that mission.

Anyways there’s a big conspiracy and it’s up to Amanda (and Yellow, who joins her cause) to help unravel it. It honestly felt kind of silly and the use of the time travel mechanic never was impressive as it could have been, with so much of the story getting tied up in the conspiracy plot.

Overall, we have a book with weak character development and a plot that could have done so much more with its hook than it did. It’s a disappointment.

Verdict: Skip it

Available: Now