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


Review: The 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.


Review: 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


Review: Under a Painted Sky

under a painted sky

Title: Under a Painted Sky
Author: Stacey Lee
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Pages: 367
Genres: Action/Adventure, Historical, Romance
Review copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: March 17, 2015

Summary: Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician—not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush.

Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.

This debut is an exciting adventure and heart-wrenching survival tale. But above all else, it’s a story about perseverance and trust that will restore your faith in the power of friendship.

Review: Two girls running to the west in the mid 1800s seemed like an unusual story. Add in that they are pretending to be boys and I knew it was bound to be interesting. The story begins with a bang or rather a smash. The action ebbed at times, but things never got dull. Just when the pace slowed a little, some new calamity would pop up. Strangely, even in the midst of tragedy and difficulty, the book had a positive feel to it. In spite of the death, violence, fear, and tragic circumstances of the characters, there was hope and as the summary indicates, there was “the power of friendship.”

The friendship between Sammy and Andy begins as they rely on each other for survival, but deepens as they share about themselves. I appreciated that the romance aspect of the book didn’t completely overwhelm the friendship narrative. I enjoy romance, but am happy when a book can be more than that.

Under a Painted Sky often has a lighthearted feeling, yet still deals with serious issues like racism, family loyalties, and gender roles. Stacey Lee has delivered a story that entertains yet also provides food for thought.

One more thing — the cover had me immediately. I don’t even think I cared what the book was about at that point. The sky is gorgeous and the silhouettes caught my eye. Eventually, I noticed the dragons, but it took me a lot longer to realize that the other squiggles weren’t just designs. I only understood when I closed the book at the end. Theresa Evangelista did a fabulous job on that cover design.

Recommendation: Get it soon especially if you enjoy historical fiction with plenty of action and a nice dose of humor. While not everything in the book is completely believable, I was totally willing to go along for the ride. Under a Painted Sky is a highly entertaining novel.

— Cover image and summary via author’s website


New Releases

Here are a few diverse new releases hitting the shelves this week.

bettingBetting Blind by Stephanie Guerra

The cards are stacking up against Gabriel James: first there’s Phil, the guy paying the bills for Gabe’s mom (but not leaving his wife). Then there’s Gabe’s new school, filled with kids competing for the Ivies, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street—while Gabe’s just trying to swing enough Cs to graduate.

Gabe’s luck seems ready to change when he meets Irina Petrova: a hot violinist who is home-schooled by her strict Russian parents. When Gabe gets her number, he impresses the top guys at his school. When he becomes the drug connection for parties, his reputation is solidified. How else is he going to afford hanging with his new crew and impressing Irina? Anyway, it’s not really dealing if you’re just hooking up friends…right?

Gabe’s never been loyal to a girl before, but he finds himself falling for Irina hard. As the stakes are raised, Gabe will have to decide how high he’s willing to bet on school, on friends, on Irina—but most of all, on himself.

Mature content, ages 14 and up. – Cover image and summary via Goodreads

sixThe Silence of Six by E.C. Myers
Adaptive Books

“What is the silence of six, and what are you going to do about it?”

These are the last words uttered by 17-year-old Max Stein’s best friend, Evan: Just moments after hacking into the live-streaming Presidential debate at their high school, he kills himself.

Haunted by the image of Evan’s death, Max’s entire world turns upside down as he suddenly finds himself the target of a corporate-government witch-hunt. Fearing for his life and fighting to prove his own innocence, Max goes on the run with no one to trust and too many unanswered questions.

Max must dust off his own hacking skills and maneuver the dangerous labyrinth of underground hacktivist networks, ever-shifting alliances, and virtual identities — all while hoping to find the truth behind the “Silence of Six” before it’s too late. – Cover image and summary via Goodreads
the walled cityThe Walled City by Ryan Graudin

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

There are three rules in the Walled City: Run fast. Trust no one. Always carry your knife. Right now, my life depends completely on the first. Run, run, run.

Jin, Mei Yee, and Dai all live in the Walled City, a lawless labyrinth run by crime lords and overrun by street gangs. Teens there run drugs or work in brothels—or, like Jin, hide under the radar. But when Dai offers Jin a chance to find her lost sister, Mei Yee, she begins a breathtaking race against the clock to escape the Walled City itself. — Cover image and summary via Goodreads


Review: Midnight Thief

midnightTitle: Midnight Thief
Author: Livia Blackburne
Genres: Fantasy, Action/Adventure
Pages: 376
Publisher: Hyperion
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: Growing up on Forge’s streets has taught Kyra how to stretch a coin. And when that’s not enough, her uncanny ability to scale walls and bypass guards helps her take what she needs.

But when the leader of the Assassins Guild offers Kyra a lucrative job, she hesitates. She knows how to get by on her own, and she’s not sure she wants to play by his rules. But he’s persistent—and darkly attractive—and Kyra can’t quite resist his pull.

Tristam of Brancel is a young Palace knight on a mission. After his best friend is brutally murdered by Demon Riders, a clan of vicious warriors who ride bloodthirsty wildcats, Tristam vows to take them down. But as his investigation deepens, he finds his efforts thwarted by a talented thief, one who sneaks past Palace defenses with uncanny ease.

When a fateful raid throws Kyra and Tristam together, the two enemies realize that their best chance at survival—and vengeance—might be to join forces. And as their loyalties are tested to the breaking point, they learn a startling secret about Kyra’s past that threatens to reshape both their lives.

In her arresting debut novel, Livia Blackburne creates a captivating world where intrigue prowls around every corner—and danger is a way of life.

Review: Midnight Thief is an entertaining action/adventure fantasy that delves into unjust power structures and moral dilemmas. Kyra is a compelling heroine, one who grew up in the streets and eventually managed to make her way off of them with her thieving skills. I’m always pleased when a heroine starts off a story competent because it means the reader spends less time watching her level up and more time watching her get to have adventures. While Kyra does have a few training scenes/montages under the Assassin’s Guild—notably in fighting—most of the other characters respect her and her abilities. The skills she had before getting caught up in the guild (both physical and mental) are also the ones that she relies on most during the book. I was a little annoyed that Kyra spent the latter part of the book forced into working for one power or another, but I will admit that the tactics employed were a great way to raise the stakes for her, even if they were predicable for me.

Tristam was not as interesting a narrator, but I appreciated that his presence was a good contrast to Kyra. Through him, we got to see the effects of other people’s actions: the Demon Riders, Kyra, and the Assassin’s Guild. He was as his best while he was trying to figure out how the Palace’s intelligence was being leaked and his interactions with Kyra when he still saw her as an enemy. He was clever, persistent, and a skilled manipulator, which are always fun traits in a character.

But James was the master manipulator of Midnight Thief. If you like your antagonists as well-intentioned extremists with a liberal helping of the ends-justify-the-means methodology and more than a fair share of terrifying, James will be perfect for you. James wasn’t the only interesting non-point-of-view character; Livia Blackburn populated this world with several standouts, such as Pashla, Malikel, and Flick.

Blackburn did a good job of differentiating between Kyra’s and Tristam’s points of view. Some authors might have succumbed to the temptation to give them equal screentime (in order to further the romance), but Midnight Thief is Kyra’s story at heart. Blackburn only jumps to Tristam when there are parts of the story we can only get from him or when he is the better narrator for particular events (the chase in the Palace, for instance). Some of my favorite parts of the book were when Kyra or Tristam were able to question what they were doing, the loyalties they had, the society they lived in, and the repercussions of their actions. I also appreciated that both characters had to deal with death and violence, either that they caused or that they witnessed.

Perhaps my greatest complaint about the book is that I felt it contained few big surprises. With a couple exceptions (the one about the Demon Riders, for instance), either my familiarity with certain tropes or the hints dropped by Blackburn meant I often spent several pages just waiting for the book to catch up to my predictions. While it’s fun to guess right every now and then, I wish that I had been blown away more often or hadn’t figured out what direction things were headed so early.

Recommendation: Get it soon. Midnight Thief is a fun, fast read that will appeal to people who like prefer that their fantasy be less like a travelogue and more like a thriller. While I wish the book had felt less episodic and held more surprises than it did, it is a solid debut.