Book Review: Flame in the Mist

Title: Flame in the Mist
Author: Renee Ahdieh
Genres:  Fantasy
Pages: 368 pages
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: In bookstores now

Summary: The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she’d been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath.

So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko’s convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who’ve been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace.

The lone survivor, Mariko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.

Review: I loved Renee Ahdieh’s Wrath and the Dawn duology, so I was really excited to read Flame in the Mist. From the summary it looked like it would hit all the beats that I love about fantasy – smart heroine, dashing fight scenes, a bit of magic, and a plot where nothing is as it seems. Flame in the Mist does hit all those beats, but for some odd reason it took me a while to get into the story. I initially wasn’t feeling Mariko; I can’t truly figure out why it took me so long to warm up to her. Markio is an extremely intelligent young woman who is quite observant (a quality that I love in a character) and is not afraid to speak her mind. She is inquisitive, always asking questions which was a wonderful device Ahdieh used to get background information across. She’s decisive and is full of agency in this novel. When she learns that her parents had arranged her marriage, she rebelled in the most unique way – not that her parents know it, but Mariko feels like she has taken some control over her life with that one act. When the kiss comes between her and the mysterious Wolf, she is the one who initiates it. Clearly, as I describe her Mariko is a great character, but for some odd reason it took me a while to make a connection with her. I think it is because while Mariko is main character and we are in her head a good portion of the book, we are also in the heads of other characters fairly early in the book as it sets up the mystery. To me, it brought a sense of distance from Mariko that I didn’t fully connect with her until the plot became fully focused on her time with the Black Clan. I also feel like the pace of the novel changed from that point on as well and I was really able to dive into who the Black Clan truly were and what they stood for, as Mariko became comfortable with her abilities and becoming a member of the group.

On the other hand, Ahdieh did her due diligence in her research on feudal Japan. Granted, I am not an expert, but the world that Ahdieh created felt very real and believable, with the exception of the inclusion of magic, as if the events in the story could really have happen in history. The detail to which she describes the various locations bring to life Mariko’s world and all who inhabit it. Ahdieh weaves folklore into the story, such as the terrifying Jubokko tree that feeds off of human blood, as part of the every day world. Feudal life is accurately depicted as well as the tension between nobility and commoner when a call for change begins. Mariko is from the noble class and very quickly learns what life is like for those who are not. This is never more apparent than when Mariko and the Wolf have to run from a teahouse and visit an orphanage that the Black Clan gives money to. Ahdieh describes the teahouse with such glamor, from the motions the geikos use when performing dances, to the descriptions of the building itself, that when Mariko encounters the orphanage, the feeling of the book practically changes. The orphanage is the exact opposite of the teahouse and Ahdieh’s powerful prose juxtaposes the harshness of the orphanage to the teahouse beautifully. Ahdieh’s careful and accurate description of Mariko’s world is ultimately what makes Flame in the Mist so enjoyable. It’s so easy to get lost in the world Ahdieh created and imagine the time of the samurai.

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a good fantasy, buy this book.

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Book Review: A Crown of Wishes

Title: A Crown of Wishes (The Star-Touched Queen #2)
Author: Roshani Chokshi
Genres:  Fantasy
Pages: 369 pages
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available Now

Summary: She is the princess of Bharata—captured by her kingdom’s enemies, a prisoner of war. Now that she faces a future of exile and scorn, Gauri has nothing left to lose. But should she trust Vikram, the notoriously cunning prince of a neighboring land? He promises her freedom in exchange for her battle prowess. Together they can team up and win the Tournament of Wishes, a competition held in a mythical city where the Lord of Wealth promises a wish to the victor. It seems like a foolproof plan—until Gauri and Vikram arrive at the tournament and find that danger takes on new shapes: poisonous courtesans, mischievous story birds, a feast of fears, and twisted fairy revels. New trials will test their devotion, strength, and wits. But what Gauri and Vikram will soon discover is that there’s nothing more dangerous than what they most desire.

Review:  I really enjoyed The Star-Touched Queen so I was really looking forward to A Crown of Wishes. Initially I was hoping it would be more of Amar and Maya’s story, so I was a bit sad that it was not. However, I do love “sequels” that are not really sequels to a story, but rather the story of a peripheral character from the first book. I do like when authors do that because it gives us more of the world but from a different perspective. We get a sense of the young woman Gauri has become from her and Maya’s brief interaction in the first book. We learn she has become a fierce warrior and is willing to take risks her brother won’t. Outside of that we don’t know much about her, so A Crown of Wishes allows us to learn more about Gauri and so much more. We also learn more about Vikram, the soul whose thread Maya has to make a decision about in the first book. In Crown of Wishes, we ultimately learn what her decision was and how it has affected his life. All that being said, I totally and completely loved the book!

One critique of The Star-Touched Queen”that I had was there was so much description that it sometimes slowed down the story a bit. With A Crown of Wishes, while Chokshi’s signature lyrical descriptions of the Otherworld are there, the strength of this novel comes from the character interactions between Gauri and Vikram. In this novel, Gauri and Vikram both narrate so we get to spend time in each of their heads as they go on the journey to the Tournament of Wishes, and their time in Alaka, where the tournament is held. They begin their relationship as enemies, barely trusting each other. In fact, their first interaction was a delight to read as their chemistry practically flew off the page. Both are equals to each other and treat each other as such, which is refreshing as Vikram doesn’t see Gauri as a “female warrior” but just as a warrior. Both also have emotional walls surrounding them due to the way they were raised, and through their experiences, they eventually learn to open up and trust one another. As they do, the sarcastic barbs between them become less and less, and they become more honest with each other. Again, refreshing as there was none of the “noble idiocy” trope in this novel at all. They truly become a team who works together to solve problems and survive the tournament. Of course they fall in love too, but the development of their relationship is a healthy one full of mutual respect for the other’s skills and their flaws. And as they came to love each other, they were able to grow as individuals as well. Gauri and Vikram’s personal growth and relationship growth is what made this book so wonderful.

Chokshi also added a new character to the narrative who reflects the main theme of the story – personal choice. While the premise of the tournament is to gain wishes, through their experiences Gauri and Vikram learn that wishes cannot solve all problems, and that it’s our choices and how we use them that do. The character, Aasha, is a vishakanya who was taken from her family at the age of 4 and raised to be an assassin. She longs for a different life, however, and her attendance at the tournament allows her that opportunity as everyone, both human and non-humans, are all contestants in the tournament. For her, all she wants is to have choices in life, and through her actions, befriending Gauri and Vikram when it is dangerous to do so, is an example of how our choices matter in who we become, who we believe ourselves to be. I loved her character and I’m hoping that if there is a third book, we’ll have more of Aasha’s experiences.

Recommendation: I was planning on reading this novel slowly, but got so caught up that I did a marathon session. You know what that means, you have to get A Crown of Wishes now!

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Mini-review: America

Title: America
Author: Gabby Rivera
Artist: Joe Quinones
Publisher: Marvel
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: 
At last! Everyone’s favorite no-nonsense powerhouse, America Chavez, gets her own series! Written by critically-acclaimed YA novelist Gabby Rivera (Juliet Takes A Breath) and drawn by all-star artist Joe Quinones (HOWARD THE DUCK), Marvel Comics’ brand new AMERICA series shines a solo spotlight on the high-octane and hard-hitting adventures of the one and only America Chavez! America has always been uncontestably awesome, and as the newly appointed leader of the Ultimates, she’s now officially claimed her place as the preeminent butt-kicker of the Marvel Universe! But while leading a team of heroes and punching out big bads is great and all, it doesn’t really leave much time for self-discovery… So what’s a super-powered teenager do when she’s looking for a little fulfillment? She goes to college!

Review: 
Last year I kept hearing about the fantastic debut novel Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera. I finally read it earlier this year and loved Juliet. When I heard Marvel had asked Rivera to write about America Chavez, I knew I’d have to read it even though I didn’t grow up immersed in all things Marvel. A queer Latina with superpowers sounded beyond amazing.

With very little background knowledge, I expected to be confused, but since it was the first issue, readers get a brief explanation of America’s backstory. There’s a nice bit of superhero action in the beginning where we see America’s power and then some more intimate scenes to get a feel for America as a person before she heads off to college. I loved the campus map and the highlight of Sonia Sotomayor. What a college! A standout is the Department of Radical Women and Intergalactic Indigenous Peoples.

The artwork is fantastic and it was fun to get to know a bit about America’s personality in this first installment. As a newbie to comics, I’m not sure if they always leave you wanting more, but this one did. The first issue came off as an appetizer so I am definitely looking forward to the next issue which comes out next week.

Recommendation: Get it soon!

Extras:
Click here to see cool twitter video

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Review: Ms. Marvel, Volumes 2–4

Title: Ms. Marvel, volumes 2–4
Author: G. Willow Wilson with Jacob Wyatt, Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa, and Elmo Bondoc as illustrators
Genres: Graphic Novel
Pages: 112 to 136 pages each
Publisher: Marvel
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary (for volume 2): Who is the Inventor, and what does he want with the all-new Ms. Marvel and all her friends? Maybe Wolverine can help! Kamala may be fan-girling out when her favorite (okay maybe Top Five) super hero shows up, but that won’t stop her from protecting her hometown. Then, Kamala crosses paths with Inhumanity for the first time – by meeting the royal dog, Lockjaw! Every girl wants a puppy, but this one may be too much of a handful, even for a super hero with embiggening powers. But why is Lockjaw really with Kamala? As Ms. Marvel discovers more about her past, the Inventor continues to threaten her future. The fan-favorite, critically acclaimed, amazing new series continues as Kamala Khan proves why she’s the best (and most adorable) new super hero there is!

Review: I reviewed the first volume of Ms. Marvel about a year and a half ago, then got distracted and didn’t read the next three volumes even though I’d already bought them. I’m pleased to say that coming back to Kamala Khan’s world was just as fun as my first plunge into it.

Kamala’s story expanded nicely through these volumes. Her progression through obstacles (and villains) was peppered with a lot of cute, geeky moments. While there were a couple scenes were I think things got too preachy, I didn’t mind too much since I agreed with the messages. Kamala is a great example of a heroine who struggles to handle two different lives she is living but refuses to give up on either.

One of the ways that Ms. Marvel shines is that Kamala has so many important people in her life who she loves. Sure, her superhero moments are grand, but the character beats with her family, friends, and even idols are some of the best scenes. I was particularly fond of a scene with her mother in the fourth volume—you’ll know it when you see it—because I adore un-fridged mothers who love their daughters wholeheartedly. Other side characters got more development and screen time throughout these volumes, which helped give Kamala’s determination to protect her city more weight.

An unexpected downfalls of reading all three volumes back-to-back was that the change in art style between (and even within) volumes was glaring. The lack of a consistent illustrator was very distracting, and it tossed me out of the story every time the switch was made. Some of the artists were better at showing movement and action than others, and on occasion I had difficulty identifying minor characters because they looked so different from artist to artist.

Recommendation: Get them (and the first volume) soon if you’re into comic books. These three volumes are great sequels to the first Ms. Marvel volume. Readers who loved the first volume will be sure to like these, and this series is a good starting point for comic book newbies. I’ve added the next two published volumes to my TBR pile, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Kamala Khan’s adventures.

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Review: A Torch Against the Night

torchTitle: A Torch Against the Night
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Genres: Fantasy, Action/Adventure
Pages: 452
Publisher: Razorbill
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: A Torch Against the Night takes readers into the heart of the Empire as Laia and Elias fight their way north to liberate Laia’s brother from the horrors of Kauf Prison. Hunted by Empire soldiers, manipulated by the Commandant, and haunted by their pasts, Laia and Elias must outfox their enemies and confront the treacherousness of their own hearts.

In the city of Serra, Helene Aquilla finds herself bound to the will of the Empire’s twisted new leader, Marcus. When her loyalty is questioned, Helene finds herself taking on a mission to prove herself—a mission that might destroy her, instead.

Review: I was a little worried going into A Torch Against the Night just based on the summary—how could planning and executing a prison break while someone chased the planners possibly fill an entire 452-page book without everything feeling drawn out and bloated? Luckily, it didn’t take long at all for Sabaa Tahir to gain my confidence. Tahir is wonderful at raising the stakes repeatedly for the main characters while simultaneously planting hints for future plot twists and, undoubtedly, books three and four. More often than not I found myself with a nagging sense of worry as I realized I had picked up on something but didn’t know exactly what it was or how it would be used later on. As a reader, it was a lot of fun to be surprised so frequently.

The first book, An Ember in the Ashes, alternated between Laia and Elias’s POVs. Torch added a new POV character: Helene, who was one of my favorite characters in Ember. I loved seeing things from her perspective as her vow to be loyal to the Empire brought her into conflict with her repulsive Emperor and his orders. Helene’s struggle to gain respect as the new Blood Shrike and deal with a spy in her midst while being antagonized and outsmarted by the Commandant earned her a lot of sympathy from me. I’m looking forward to what she does in the future. There were many other new characters who made memorable impressions, and I hope the ones that survived will be back in the next two books.

Elias and Laia returned as viewpoint characters, and it was great to be back with them. I particularly enjoyed the first half with them, but I felt as if Laia got shoved to the side a little as Elias took the forefront. Laia wasn’t entirely ignored, but it felt like there was a long stretch where we didn’t get as much from her as I would have liked. Still, Laia set the groundwork for things that I’m certain will be important later, and I’m hoping we will get a lot more of her to compensate.

There was really only one thing that annoyed me about Torch, and it was how many female characters were killed. This is, perhaps, a petty complaint considering actual genocide is committed (and called out as such) and dozens of characters are killed “on screen” in gory detail, but it still bothered me how many significant women died, especially in light of plot twists centering on two of the male characters. Torch manages to avoid fridging since the women who die do so mostly for either Laia’s or Helene’s character arcs, but it still made me tired enough to put down the book and take a break.

Recommendation: Buy it now. A Torch Against the Night is a worthy successor to Ember in the Ashes. An additional viewpoint character and an increasingly compelling—and brutal—plot keep the story moving despite the book’s length. There are some promising plot points that make me look forward to the rest of the series.

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Review: The Smoking Mirror

The Smoking MirrorTitle: The Smoking Mirror (Garza Twins, Book 1)
Author: David Bowles
Genres: Fantasy, Action/Adventure
Pages: 220
Publisher: IFWG Publishing, Inc.
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: Carol and Johnny Garza are 12-year-old twins whose lives in a small Texas town are forever changed by their mother’s unexplained disappearance. Shipped off to relatives in Mexico by their grieving father, the twins soon learn that their mother is a nagual, a shapeshifter, and that they have inherited her powers. In order to rescue her, they will have to descend into the Aztec underworld and face the dangers that await them.

Review: The Smoking Mirror is exactly the kind of book I wish I’d been able to stumble across when I was in the target audience’s age range. Protagonists of Mexican descent as heroes in a fantasy book? Facing trials in nine levels of a hellish underworld to save their mom? That would have meant the world to me when I was twelve, and as an adult, it still makes me really happy. It also made a lot of other people happy—The Smoking Mirror was named a 2016 Pura Belpré Honor book.

Author David Bowles straddles the line between middle grade and young adult with The Smoking Mirror. It is a great action/adventure story—the nine levels of the Mictlan prove to be a harrowing (and gruesome) checklist for the Garza twins to get through. Each section is distinct (and terrifying), populated by gods and monsters who get in their way, and thereby keep the pace from lagging by providing ever-new challenges for the twins. Each time they made it through a level of the underworld, I was eager to see what they would be up against next. Occasionally, it felt as if their victories weren’t as difficult as I wished they were, but there were many other, more satisfying encounters.

While I felt that some of the writing was weak in places (or distracting—my taste in humor didn’t always line up with the author’s) and wished that there had been more space to explore the world (including their relationship with their grandmother and their family’s grief), Bowles made up for it by creating a pair of protagonists I enjoyed rooting for. Carol and Johnny are engaging heroes, and I enjoyed the back and forth of their distinct POVs. Despite their not-infrequent clashing, watching the twins come back together and depend on each other during the story was a rewarding journey. The descriptions of the Mictlan and the frequent use of Spanish are also some of my favorite parts of the book.

Recommendation: Get it soon! The Smoking Mirror is an entertaining adventure story that moves at a quick pace and features a memorable and underrepresented mythology. While the book isn’t without its flaws, it nevertheless kept my attention on the story it was trying to tell. I’m happy to learn that the next book was recently released—I think this series would be a great addition to one of my younger sibling’s bookcase.

Extras
“Author David Bowles on his Garza Twins Series and the Pura Belpré Honor”

“Twins battle Aztec gods in ‘Smoking Mirror’”

“Castle Horror Podcast: Interview: David Bowles, author of ‘A Kingdom Beneath the Waves’”

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