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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Review: Outrun the Moon

moonTitle: Outrun the Moon
Author: Stacey Lee
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Genre: Historical
Review copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: May 24, 2016

Summary: San Francisco, 1906: Fifteen-year-old Mercy Wong is determined to break from the poverty in Chinatown, and an education at St. Clare’s School for Girls is her best hope. Although St. Clare’s is off-limits to all but the wealthiest white girls, Mercy gains admittance through a mix of cunning and a little bribery, only to discover that getting in was the easiest part. Not to be undone by a bunch of spoiled heiresses, Mercy stands strong—until disaster strikes.

On April 18, an historic earthquake rocks San Francisco, destroying Mercy’s home and school. With martial law in effect, she is forced to wait with her classmates for their families in a temporary park encampment. Mercy can’t sit by while they wait for the Army to bring help. Fires might rage, and the city may be in shambles, yet Mercy still has the ‘bossy’ cheeks that mark her as someone who gets things done. But what can one teenaged girl do to heal so many suffering in her broken city?

Review: Mercy Wong always has a plan. Once she knows what she wants, she figures out the steps she’ll need to take to get there and she’s off like a shot. Mercy doesn’t seem to know the word impossible. She’s strong willed and has “bossy cheeks” like her mother. Some people say this about her as a put-down, but Mercy takes it as a compliment. Her mother says those bossy cheeks mean Mercy can “…row your own boat, even when there is no wind to help you.”

Mercy has ambitions and the know-how. She has thoroughly studied The Book for Business-Minded Women by a woman named Mrs. Lowry who has achieved hero status in Mercy’s eyes. Mercy’s prepared to work hard and make sacrifices to achieve her goal, but her ambitions are not only for herself. She wants to succeed so her father won’t have to work sixteen hour days and her little brother, who has health issues, won’t have to follow in his father’s difficult footsteps. Her dreams are big, but her family’s comfort and health is what inspires her and keeps her moving forward.

Mercy has a long way to go make her dreams come true though. She realizes that the key to becoming wealthy is opportunity. Having been born into poverty in Chinatown, Mercy has a short supply in the area of opportunities. “And if opportunity didn’t come knocking, then Mrs. Lowry says you must build your own door.” Mercy sets about building those doors which involves much scheming, plotting and more than a few adventures. I loved the adventures. There are even hot-air balloon rides. Along the way, Mercy makes connections with people from many different backgrounds. I loved meeting the unique characters and didn’t want to say good-bye. I’m hoping there will be a companion novel or even a sequel so we can meet them again.

Another aspect I truly enjoyed about this novel was the sayings. Throughout the book, Mercy quotes Mrs. Lowry, her mother, her father and many other people she respects. She also has some wise statements of her own. It makes the book very quotable. Here are a few sayings I especially appreciated:

“It amazes me that even when the world is going to hell in a handcart, there’s still beauty in the fringes.”

“Our success is determined not by external forces, but how we react to them.”

“As Ma likes to say, you cannot control the wind, but you can control your sails.”

“Your circumstances don’t determine where you can go, only your starting point.”

In addition to the many young women in the story, there is a love interest. Mercy has loved Tom for quite some time, but there are complications and he is moving far away. I appreciated that there’s a romance in the story, but it’s not the main focus of the novel. Mercy has many different things going on in her life and he is important, but is just one of her concerns.

I also found the history interesting. Because I went to school in California, I had a basic understanding that many Chinese people came to California in the 1800s and understood that there was racism, but either didn’t know or didn’t remember the many restrictions placed upon the immigrants and their children even when they were born in the U.S. One of those restrictions was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which severely limited Chinese immigration and made it virtually impossible for men to bring over their wives and children. Mercy experiences racism over and over again. At one point she notes that “people will never stop seeing my color first, before me.”

Recommendation: Get this one as soon as you can especially if historical fiction is your thing. Stacey Lee is a wonderful storyteller. She does a fabulous job bringing the setting to life and she creates memorable characters that are sure to steal hearts. Oh, and you might need a tissue once in a while.

Extra: Pre-order special

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Book Review: Darkness Hidden

darkness hiddenTitle: Darkness Hidden (Name of the Blade #2)
Author: Zoe Marriott
Genres:  Adventure, Urban Fantasy, Supernatural
Pages: 352
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: Available Nov. 10

Summary: Zoë Marriott’s inventive, Japanese-inflected urban fantasy raises the stakes in a sweeping second installment.

Against all odds, Mio has defeated the evil Nekomata and seen her love, Shinobu, restored to life. But in the wake of the battle, Mio’s unsettling connection to the katana—an ancient sword her family has been compelled to guard for generations—has grown more frightening. And now the Underworld has sent the Shikome—foul women whose feathers carry death—to spread a supernatural plague through London. With her best friend in the hospital, Shinobu’s very existence at risk, and the city in chaos, Mio realizes there is no way she can keep everyone she loves alive. What terrible sacrifice must she make to save the world?

Review: With so many fantasy novels set in European mythology, having a book that breaks the “status quo” is refreshing and Zoe Marriott’s Name of the Blade series is the perfect fit. Candlewick Press was kind enough to send me both books from the series, so I was able to enjoy Name of the Blade and Darkness Hidden back to back. To say I enjoyed both novels is an understatement. When I finished Darkness Hidden, I was ready to read the final installment, because like many authors before her, Marriott left a main character “in peril”, so to speak, and I was not happy. I need to find out what happens to…ha, not going to tell! You have to read to find out. Anyway, onto why Darkness Hidden was such a fun read.

The novel picks up moments after “Name of the Blade” leaves off, and I actually like that bit of storytelling. Darkness Hidden starts out with a sense of urgency right away and doesn’t let up until, well…never. The “big bad” in this novel is truly terrifying and at times it seems like our heroes won’t win. Unlike the first book where only a few people in the “normal” world were affected by the events in the book, with the Shikome, the terror is city wide, which really ups the stake for Mio and her friends. In many urban fantasy novels, it seems like the “normal” world really isn’t effected that much, but in Darkness Hidden, London definitely is. The plague that the Shikome spread through the city has real world effects and London basically shuts down. I greatly enjoyed that Marriott decided to involve more of London in the story because it made her world much more richer than it already was. Milo is learning about the supernatural world that she is a part of, but she still is living in the mortal world and her decisions are effecting not just those whom she is close to, but the larger society. This allows for Mio to truly grow and become more responsible in the book. She realizes the extent that her one moment of curiosity and/or selfishness has brought.

Speaking of Mio, aside from the tremendous world building that Marriott has brought to the series, Mio is a character that we can really relate to. She is a typical teen who sometimes doesn’t make the best decisions, but her intentions are always good. She is doing her best to make sense of a world that in practically the blink of an eye, is one that is so much bigger than she ever thought. And then, Mio receives some news that truly rocks her world, in a perfect plot twist moment. It is one that no one will see coming and I love this book for it. With the twist comes some clarity for Mio, but it isn’t easy. And that is also what makes Mio such a great character and the novel so interesting. Aside from the action and supernatural baddies, Darkness Hidden gives us some deep themes to have us consider as we travel with Mio on this journey to right a wrong. I am very interested to see how the trilogy ends, especially with that ending!

Recommendation: I greatly enjoyed this series as it was a lot of fun. I can’t wait for the third book in the series and so will you. Get it soon!

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Review: Trail of the Dead (Killer of Enemies #2)

trail
Title: Trail of the Dead (Killer of Enemies #2)
Author: Joseph Bruchac
Publisher: Tu Books
Genres: Action/Adventure, Dystopia/Post-Apocalyptic
Pages: 400
Review Copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: October 1, 2015

Summary: In the sequel to the award-winning Killer of Enemies, Apache teen Lozen and her family are looking for a place of refuge from the despotic Ones who once held them captive and forced Lozen to hunt genetically engineered monsters.

Lozen and her allies travel in search of a valley where she and her family once found refuge. But life is never easy in this post-apocalyptic world. When they finally reach the valley, they discover an unpleasant surprise awaiting them―and a merciless hunter following close behind.

Hally, their enigmatic Bigfoot friend, points them to another destination―a possible refuge. But can Lozen trust Hally? Relying on her wits and the growing powers that warn her when enemies are near, Lozen fights internal sickness to lead her band of refugees to freedom and safety. Alongside family, new friends, and Hussein, the handsome young man whose life she saved, Lozen forges a path through a barren land where new recombinant monsters lurk and the secrets of this new world will reveal themselves to her… whether she wants them to or not.

Review: Bruchac is a master storyteller. From the beginning to the end, he weaves a tapestry made of many intriguing stories. They come from many sources. Much of the book is told from Lozen’s point of view. She shares stories told by her father, uncle and mother. Some of my favorite stories revolve around Coyote. The video below is Bruchac reading a portion of the book involving Coyote if you’d like a sample.

Other parts of the book are delivered through the eyes of her enemy. That adds a rather disturbing twist to the tale. Her enemy’s mind is not a pleasant place to visit and his world view is horrifying. His complete lack of empathy and his pure enjoyment of other people’s misery can be unsettling and more than a little creepy. Once in a while it was unclear who was narrating at the beginning of a chapter. That could be a little confusing for readers, but it becomes clear eventually. I couldn’t tell if that was a deliberate tactic on Bruchac’s part or not, but he did have me puzzled a few times.

I appreciated the inner conflict that Lozen was facing in addition to the monsters outside. Her phenomenal skills would have been unbelievable if she didn’t have weaknesses somewhere. All of the killing she has done begins to take a toll on her mentally and spiritually. She realizes that there is a dark side to what she’s been doing even though she has only been killing to protect herself and her family.

I also appreciated getting to know some of the other characters. Killer of Enemies focused in on Lozen, but in this second book, Lozen is grappling with her inner turmoil and is forced to rely on others. As she allows more people to get past her defenses, readers get to learn more about them. If you were wondering, yes, the love interest does become more interesting. This aspect of the book doesn’t overwhelm or become the sole focus of the story, but it does add another intriguing layer.

Even with all of the developing relationships and internal conflict, there is still plenty of action in the story. Bruchac doesn’t spare us the details either. We see the monsters up close along with weapons, blood, guts and gruesomeness often at top speed.

When I finished reading, one of the first things that popped into my head was this is a very entertaining book. There was plenty of action, introspection and even humor. I had to smile then when I read the author’s note. Bruchac explained that while there are certainly important lessons to be learned in this series, “My first aim is to entertain you.” I would say that his goal was met.

Recommendation: Get it soon especially if you read and enjoyed Killer of Enemies. This is one of those books that will keep you on the edge of your seat and will even get a laugh or two out of you along the way.

Extras:

Goodreads Book Giveaway (through September 28, 2015)

Joseph Bruchac reads from Chapter 15

Audrey’s review of Killer of Enemies

My mini-review of Rose Eagle (prequel e-novella to Killer of Enemies)

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