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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Review: Court of Fives

18068907Title: Court of Fives (Court of Fives #1)
Author: Kate Elliott
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 448
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Availability: August 18th, 2015

Summary: In this imaginative escape into an enthralling new world, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott begins a new trilogy with her debut young adult novel, weaving an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.

Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But at night she can be whomever she wants when she sneaks out to train for The Fives, an intricate, multi-level athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best competitors. Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an unlikely friendship between a girl of mixed race and a Patron boy causes heads to turn. When a scheming lord tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test Kal’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a powerful clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Little Women’s been on my mind, what with the recent announcement of a dystopian TV show adaptation of the classic novel. I know, sounds super weird. When I started reading Court of Fives, I immediately noticed that the four sisters had names that resembled the sisters in Little Women. The characters loosely match Little Women — especially Jessamy, the protagonist, who would totally jump fences with Jo.

That’s where the resemblance ends, to my mind. Court of Fives is set in a ‘Greco-Roman Egypt’ inspired world, where Jessamy yearns to escape her privileged Patron life (with a few catches) so that she can go run the competition known as the Fives. The Fives involves five sets of challenges and obstacles — and Jessamy is pretty good at it. When Jessamy meets Kalliarkos, a high-ranking member of the Patron class, the difference in their stations in life are starkly apparent.

When Kalliarkos was introduced, I was afraid this would become the usual story — less privileged girl falls in love with privileged boy who is somehow different from his peers. But just the opposite happened. Through subtle details and less subtle commentary from other Commoner class characters, Kalliarkos is shown to benefit from his privilege, while also being a sympathetic characters. I was pleasantly surprised at how well most of the race dynamics and class privilege handled in the book. (My grudge against Jessamy’s father will never cease, though.)

The story itself is incredibly compelling! After a slow start, the book picks up the pace — within a chapter, I was hooked and read the rest of the book in one sitting. The setting felt real, and the late reveal about the sins of the conquering nations (hello, imperialism!) was awesome. I’d love to gush about it more, but that would be spoiler city. Suffice it to say, that it’s magical and thought-provoking.

All in all, I’m really looking forward to reading the sequel. This was a solid book from start to finish, and Jessamy’s world is one I want to return to.

Recommendation: Buy it now!

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Review: Ink and Ashes

inkTitle: Ink and Ashes
Author: Valynne E. Maetani
Genres: Contemporary, Mystery, Romance, Action/Adventure/Thriller
Pages: 386
Publisher: Tu Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: Claire Takata has never known much about her father, who passed away when she was a little girl. But on the anniversary of his death, not long before her seventeenth birthday, she finds a mysterious letter from her deceased father, addressed to her stepfather. Claire never even knew that they had met.

Claire knows she should let it go, but she can’t shake the feeling that something’s been kept from her. In search of answers, Claire combs through anything that will give her information about her father . . . until she discovers he was a member of the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. The discovery opens a door that should have been left closed.

So begins the race to outrun his legacy as the secrets of her father’s past threaten Claire’s friends and family, newfound love, and ultimately her life. Ink and Ashes, winner of Tu Books’ New Visions Award, is a heart-stopping debut mystery that will keep readers on the edge of their seats until the very last page.

Review: I knew from the moment I read the summary that I needed to get my hands on Ink and Ashes, and I’m pleased to say that Valynne E. Maetani’s debut novel did not disappoint me.

For me, an integral part of a mystery is making me anxious for the characters, and Maetani did an excellent job keeping me on the edge of my seat. As Claire continued to dig deeper and deeper into the mysteries surrounding her father, the more the danger ramped up. Maetani used different types of suspense so the audience didn’t get bored with repetition: sneaking around places to pick locks, being followed, unnerving threats, car chases, etc. The different types of dangers made it hard to predict what kind of obstacles Claire, her friends, and her family would face, and that made the read all the more engaging.

The actual mysteries were complicated, and I loved watching Claire throw herself into solving them. It was great to see her brothers, friends, and eventually parents rally around her, but I particularly liked the glimpses we got into the less glamourous side of mystery solving, like painstakingly typing a letter written in Japanese into an internet translator or trying to figure out how to order an autopsy report.

The romance between Claire and Forrest was nicely interwoven with the main mystery plot. I’m always a sucker for best friends turning into something more, and Maetani generally did a great job of keeping me engaged in the romance without letting all of the tension out of the mystery. (I will note a bit of disappointment that it took so long for things to start getting dangerous—based on the summary, I was expecting potential deadly situations to show up sooner.) Claire and Forrest were a great team, and their concern for and support of each other made it easy to root for them.

While Ink and Ashes had a nicely fleshed out supporting cast (I was particularly fond of Claire’s stepfather and Fed), there were very few women in the book overall. Claire easily spent more time interacting with her stepfather than her mother, and her friends on the soccer team barely appeared in the story. Her core investigative team—five people in addition to herself—was entirely boys. I wish Claire had had a close girl friend to do some mystery solving with.

Recommendation: Get it soon, especially if you like stories about uncovering family secrets. While there are a few flaws in Maetani’s debut, Ink and Ashes is a fun, compelling mystery. The book balances its genres well and is anchored by an inquisitive and determined heroine. Tu Books has published some amazing novels, and Ink and Ashes is one of them.

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Review: An Ember in the Ashes

emberTitle: An Ember in the Ashes
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Genres: Fantasy, Action/Adventure
Pages: 443
Publisher: Razorbill
Review Copy: ARC received
Availability: Available now

Summary: Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

Review: An Ember in the Ashes got a lot of early buzz this year, and I’m thrilled to say that, for me, it lived up to its hype. Sabaa Tahir created an intricate world with a violent history, militaristic customs, and protagonists you want to root for.

This high-fantasy, Roman-esque world is a brutal one. Tahir doesn’t skirt around the nastier aspects of interactions between conquerors and their subjugated populations, and Blackcliff, the elite military academy, is sort of place that makes everyone watch while a ten-year-old gets whipped to death. Torture, mutilation, sexual assault, rape threats, battle, murder—An Ember in the Ashes isn’t a lighthearted read by any stretch of the imagination. But beyond the physical violence, there are other types of aggression—like forbidding a subjugated people to teach their children how to read—that paved the way for rebellion and treason in many forms.

What anchors this story and infuses it with hope are the two main characters: Laia and Elias. Laia’s desperation to save her brother drives her forward despite the escalating hardships and dangers she endures in her undercover position as a slave at Blackcliff. Her storyline was the most emotionally compelling one for me, particularly when it came to her slow-growing relationships with Izzi, Cook, and Keenan. Elias’s plotline was filled with more obvious peril (or at least, a much higher potential body count), but his desire to escape Blackcliff was just as engaging. His best friend, Helene, was one of the more intriguing characters in the book, and I enjoyed their increasingly tumultuous relationship.

There isn’t much that I can say about the plot without giving large chunks of it away; suffice it to say that Laia and Elias aren’t the only people in An Ember in the Ashes who have secret agendas. The continual upping of the stakes—emotional, physical, and imperial—made for a fast-paced read. While I had a few gripes about the villains—I felt they were terrifying without being especially interesting—this book avoided several potential pitfalls, particularly when it came to the tangled romances.

Recommendation: Buy it now, especially if you love fantasy with strong world-building and a fast-paced plot. An Ember in the Ashes is a solid debut, and I’m definitely looking forward to more of Tahir’s work. The compelling characters and complex plot easily make up for a few minor annoyances.

Extras: First two chapters of the book

Q&A with Sabaa Thir and Renee Ahdieh

Why ‘An Ember In The Ashes’ could launch Sabaa Tahir into JK Rowling territory

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Review: The Hunted

hunted
Title: The Hunted (The Living #2)
Author: Matt de la Peña
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Pages: 384
Genre: Science Fiction, Thriller, Action/Adventure
Availability: May 12, 2015
Review Copy: ARC from publisher

Summary: When the Big One hit, Shy was at sea in style. The Paradise Cruise luxury liner he worked on was a hulking specimen of the best money could buy. And now it’s at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, along with almost all of its passengers.

Shy wasn’t the only one to survive, though. Addie, the rich blond daughter of a mysterious businessman, was on the dinghy he pulled himself into. But as soon as they found the rest of the survivors, she disappeared.

The only thing that filled the strange void of losing her was finding Carmen, his hot coworker, and discovering a way to get back home. But Shy’s luck hasn’t turned. Not yet.

Back on the dinghy, Addie told him a secret. It’s a secret that people would kill for-have killed for-and she has the piece that could turn everything on its ear. The problem? Shy has no idea where Addie is. Back home in California seems logical, but there are more ways to die back home then Shy could ever have guessed.

And thanks to what Shy now knows, he’s a moving target.

Review: Sometimes series books can be read out of order. I would not recommend that in this case. A reader would likely understand most of the book, but there would be way too much backstory missing without the first book. If you haven’t read The Living yet, it’s probably best you stop reading this review and go do that first. It was one of my favorite books of 2013 (review here).

This second book picks up right where the first left off. Shy and his companions are on the run. They’re trying to get away from some people, but they are also running for another purpose. Because of the intrigue, it’s difficult to talk about plot without giving things away, but there are many life-threatening events and stressful circumstances that have to be faced as they move closer and closer to their intended destination.

The Hunted moves at an even faster pace than The Living. Chase scenes and violence are sprinkled throughout. This is definitely an action book, but the characters begin to gain more depth too. We find out that Shy’s friend Marcus isn’t what he seemed to be back on the cruise ship. Shy learns about himself and sees he’s capable of more than he expected. The characters also get a small glimpse into Shoeshine’s past.

Shoeshine is an interesting part of both books. He is inscrutable and also has amazing strength, wisdom and prescience. Even in seemingly impossible situations, he is likely to save the day often at great risk to himself. The phrase magical negro kept popping into my mind. Usually that trope has the character subordinate to a white person, but here Shoeshine is saving and guiding a Latino protagonist so it’s not exactly the same.

Lest you think it is all seriousness, there are still moments of lightness. Shy, Marcus and Carmen joke and jab at each other once in a while and there is good news on occasion. Readers get to smile sometimes. I especially liked the scenes with a young brother and sister they meet along the way. The playful wrestling and teasing were a lot of fun.

I enjoyed both of the books in this series, but they had quite different textures. This first book was more about the intrigue and the second felt like a race. Thankfully, the second one wasn’t just a revamping of the first. It was something new. I don’t know when the next book is scheduled to be published, but I’m eager to get it into my hands.

Recommendation: Buy it soon if you enjoyed the first installment. This second book is another wild ride. If you haven’t read The Living, get it now.

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Review: Shutter

Shutter
Title: Shutter
Author: Courtney Alameda
Genres: Horror, Action/Adventure, Thriller, Contemporary
Pages: 367
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: Micheline Helsing is a tetrachromat—a girl who sees the auras of the undead in a prismatic spectrum. As one of the last descendants of the Van Helsing lineage, she has trained since childhood to destroy monsters both corporeal and spiritual: the corporeal undead go down by the bullet, the spiritual undead by the lens. With an analog SLR camera as her best weapon, Micheline exorcises ghosts by capturing their spiritual energy on film. She’s aided by her crew: Oliver, a techno-whiz and the boy who developed her camera’s technology; Jude, who can predict death; and Ryder, the boy Micheline has known and loved forever.

When a routine ghost hunt goes awry, Micheline and the boys are infected with a curse known as a soulchain. As the ghostly chains spread through their bodies, Micheline learns that if she doesn’t exorcise her entity in seven days or less, she and her friends will die. Now pursued as a renegade agent by her monster-hunting father, Leonard Helsing, she must track and destroy an entity more powerful than anything she’s faced before . . . or die trying.

Lock, stock, and lens, she’s in for one hell of a week.

Review: I walked into Shutter expecting Fatal Frame and got something much closer to Resident Evil—all sorts of terrifying monsters, lots of guns, paramilitary organizations, and highly trained teams to deal with the undead. I recalibrated my expectations by the end of the second chapter and ended up thoroughly enjoying this fast-paced monster hunt.

Courtney Alameda doesn’t scrimp on the horror, gore, and action, which made the book an exciting read. Long-running action scenes in novels can be tricky in that they can get boring if they’re too similar and too frequent, but Alameda made sure each of the fights were unique, either in location, monsters, tactics, and/or stakes. More importantly, each battle—whether or not it was a win—felt like Micheline and her team had to struggle just to survive. The world of Shutter is a fun one: the undead/ghosts/etc., while not commonplace, are well-known and acknowledged. The Helsing Corps works openly with local authorities, and Alameda peppers the book with references that give the world extra depth. (As a side note, I wish we had gotten a closer look at religion in this world.)

While the monster hunting is engaging enough on its own, the characters in Shutter are what really make the book interesting. Between her bloodline, her special ability, and her training, Micheline has the skills to lead her team, and they respect her hard-earned abilities just as much as she depends on them. Their comradery and banter allow the reader some space to breathe between set pieces—breaks that are sorely needed—and flesh out the characters so that they are more than just Micheline’s backup. Micheline and Ryder’s relationship was particularly well done—despite the seven day timeline, it felt like their UST had been simmering between them for years.

However, my greatest disappointment in Shutter is front and center in the summary: Micheline is the only girl on her team. I’m wary of action/adventure stories that only feature one girl because I believe that there’s plenty of room for more than one girl in any team of badasses. The timeline—just seven days—and hyper-focused goal—get rid of the soulchain by hunting down the creature that cursed them—mean that for the vast stretches of the book, Micheline is the only girl on the page. I would have loved it if Oliver, Jude, and/or Ryder had been female as well, especially since Micheline’s mother’s and younger brothers’ deaths still weigh upon Micheline.

Micheline’s father, unfortunately, was one of the more important characters in the book. I found him to be of the predictable, authoritarian, will-hit-his-daughter-so-hard-he-knocks-her-off-her-feet, will-go-on-a-rampage-and-destroy-her-most-valuable-possessions sort, so his resolution displeased me greatly, especially since it seemed far too easy in comparison to his actions throughout the book.

Recommendation: Get it soon if you like your horror stories filled with all sorts of monstrosities. While Shutter could have benefitted from another main female character and a less obvious big reveal, the book was a solid action/adventure story with high stakes. Alameda created a rich world—one that could easily have room for another book or two—and I’ll be on the lookout for her future works.

Extras: “The Big Idea” on John Scalzi’s WHATEVER Blog

“Everything I Needed to Know About Monster Horror I Learned from ALIEN” at Tor.com

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