Review: Black Dog

Black Dog Title: Black Dog
Author: Rachel Neumeier
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 443
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Review Copy: Borrowed from roommate
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Natividad is Pure, one of the rare girls born able to wield magic and protect humans against the supernatural evils they only half-acknowledge – the blood kin or the black dogs.

Before Natividad’s mother can finish teaching her magic their enemies find them and their entire village in the remote hills of Mexico is slaughtered. Natividad and her brothers must flee across a strange country to the only possible shelter: the infamous black dogs of Dimilioc, who have sworn to protect the Pure.

They must pass the tests of the Dimilioc Master. But, first, they must all survive the looming battle.

Review: This book left me with a lot of conflicting feelings.

Rachel Neumeier does an excellent job with the black dogs, though I’ll be the first to admit that my familiarity with werewolves in fiction is strictly on the broad pop culture level. Still, having the black dogs’ shadows be…almost demonic was fascinating for me. There is a lot of fire and smoke and “fell”-ness lurking around the black dogs, and the descriptions of how Alejandro loses his ability to understand either Spanish or English or humanity in general when his shadow rises up is delightfully disturbing. The black dogs are terrifying in their violence and their rage—this is a book filled with a lot of vicious battles and gore. When the black dogs fight, everyone else had better be far away, or they’ll be dead. (They still might end up dead.)

I also loved that Neumeier left a lot of the history of this world for us to fill in on our own. There are a few references to a previous supernatural war and how with the vampire magic gone, “normal” humans have started to figure stuff out about the black dogs, but by and large this world is one you have to piece together on your own. This is quite the feat, considering the primary action of the book takes place roughly within a single week in a very small geographical area (memories of Mexico and a quick side-trip to Chicago aside).

Neumeier makes good use of her dual narrators: Natividad, and Alejandro. By giving us POVs from both of them, the reader gets a better grasp on what it’s like to associate with or be a black dog, which is essential to understanding some of the subtler pieces of storytelling. They both spend a lot of time thinking about what their body language conveys on the not-a-threat to definitely-a-threat spectrum, and the small details of whom sits/stands next to whom are important for understanding what’s going on.

(I had one minor annoyance with the narration, and that was how often Natividad or Alejandro explained to the reader—not to another character—what a Spanish word meant. Every time that happened, it yanked me out of the narrative. It even happened sometimes with words I thought were easy cognates or things that could be inferred from context.)

So far as the characters go, there’s a pretty good ensemble cast. There are standouts and there are bit players, but most of the characters are unique enough to be remembered. The three siblings are great, though I wish we had gotten more of Miguel. Grayson and Keziah were also favorites of mine. My one significant complaint in this department was Vonhausel, who despite being the major antagonist, gets very little screen time. So little screen time, in fact, that the only thing I remember about him aside from an end-of-the-book spoiler is that he really likes having his black dogs and shifters kill people.

There were two major things about this book that gave me pause. The first item is 15-year-old Natividad’s status as breeding stock. This is acknowledged frankly in the book—the fact that she is Pure (and oh, how I cringe at that title, even though I know it has nothing to do with virginity) and likely to give birth to black dog sons and Pure daughters is one of the kids’ main bargaining chips to being allowed to enter Dimilioc. And while she’s allowed to pick whichever black dog she wants as a mate once she turns 16, 1) all of them are older than her and 2) one of them outright says that if she picks someone who is not him, he will kill that other person. That squicks me on so many levels that I could probably write an entire essay on that topic alone. The end of the book was probably intended to mollify me a little, but it didn’t do a good enough job at persuading me that this set up could truly be 100% consensual. (Which means it is not.)

The second item is one that I’m not sure was intentional, and that bothers me more. One of the main plotlines of the book is essentially “people of color seek out stronger white people for help (and/or are pressganged into joining them).” Granted, said white people are nowhere near as strong as they used to be, and by the end Dimilioc only survives because of those people of color, but there are some seriously unfortunately implications when it comes to race in this book. Especially considering Thaddeus, one of the black dogs, falls very neatly into the Scary Black Man trope, complete with being the only black dog to fight in half-man form, being huge and rather violent, and being forced into joining Dimilioc (with a bonus of being dragged there in what are essentially chains with his wife and son as hostages).

Recommendation: Borrow it someday or just skip it. If it weren’t for the last two items (and a few small disappointments in the resolution), this would be a book I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. The prose is great, the action gets your heart going, and Natividad and Alejandro are fun characters, but the unfortunate implications left me with an awful aftertaste.

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Book Review: Warrior by Ellen Oh

warriorTitle: Warrior
Author: Ellen Oh
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 327
Publisher: Harper Teen
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On Shelves now

Summary: Kira, the yellow-eyed demon slayer who protected her kingdom in Prophecy, is back . . . and her dramatic quest is far from over. After finishing Ellen’s first novel, Prophecy, School Library Journal said they were “ready for a sequel.” Well, here it is Filled with ancient lore and fast-paced excitement, this page-turning series is perfect for fantasy and action fans.
Kira has valiantly protected her kingdom–and the crown prince–and is certain she will find the second treasure needed to fulfill the Dragon King’s prophecy. Warrior boasts a strong female hero, romantic intrigue, and mythical creatures such as a nine-tailed fox demon, a goblin army, and a hungry dragon with a snarky attitude. – cover and summary via Indiebound

 
Review: First Julie Kagawa ends The Eternity Cure with a cliffhanger and then Ellen Oh does the same thing with Warrior! Really, ladies?! Why must you be so cruel? Why must you break my heart so? I will say, based on the ending of Warrior, the third book will probably be amazing and I can’t wait to get it into my eagerly awaiting hands. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 
Warrior picks up just days after Prophecy leaves off,  the events of the first book still very fresh in the hearts of Kira and her family. The book also deals with the political fallout of the events and Oh spends some time dealing with the issue of what would happen to a kingdom that has lost both its King & Queen and is now ruled by another. I greatly enjoyed this aspect, exploring the after effects of war both from a psychological and political perspective. The reprieve is short lived when the new King is assassinated, and Kira’s life and that of her cousin Taejo is put in jeopardy. In Prophecy, Kira was tasked to find the first of three magical objects signifying the fulfillment of the Dragon King prophecy and this new threat to Kira and Teajo’s lives is the catalyst for them to go in search for the jeweled dagger. Off their troupe travels, this time meeting new mythical helpers as well as fighting an even creepier demon army than before. Seriously, this demon army that the Demon Lord creates is effective and deadly. There were times when I seriously wondered who would get out alive in the battles and was praying for some of my favorite characters.

 
One of the treats of this novel, for me, is that Oh explores more of the world of the Seven Kingdoms. This time we head north, via an adventure at sea and then traveling through the snow to the mountains. I love watching Korean Dramas, and after watching so many, I have a visual picture in my mind of the landscapes that Oh describes so beautifully. I imagine the world that I’m familiar with layered with the fantastical elements Oh adds. The strength of the novel lies in Oh’s descriptions of her world and having us truly feel what the characters are feeling. The cold that Kira and her group experience as they travel towards the mountains, I could feel in my bones. Many times I curled up tighter in my blankets because I could clearly imagine the chill that Kira felt.

 
While I’m angry that Oh just ended the story on a cliffhanger, I know that the next novel will be a thrilling conclusion to the series and I can’t wait.

 
Recommendation: Go buy it now!

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Book Review: The Living

the livingTitle: The Living
Author: Matt de la Peña
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Genres: Dystopian, Action/Adventure
Pages: 320
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Shy took the summer job to make some money. In a few months on a luxury cruise liner, he’ll rake in the tips and be able to help his mom and sister out with the bills. And how bad can it be? Bikinis, free food, maybe even a girl or two—every cruise has different passengers, after all.

But everything changes when the Big One hits. Shy’s  only weeks out at sea when an earthquake more massive than ever before recorded hits California, and his life is forever changed.

The earthquake is only the first disaster. Suddenly it’s a fight to survive for those left living. — Cover image and summary via IndieBound

Review: On the surface, The Living appears to be a typical survival story with the possibility of a romance, but there are intriguing layers to this story that the reader can catch glimpses of along the way. Matt de la Peña is an excellent storyteller, but aside from the action and suspence, he is also tackling both race and class issues. Yes, there is an earthquake and shark infested waters, but those aren’t the only things Shy will need to navigate.

A summer job on a cruise ship sounds glamorous, but for Shy it’s like any other summer job. Shy is a Mexican American from a working class single parent home. He is trying to earn enough money to help out his mom and grandma and have a little left over for himself. He has fun with his co-workers and has fairly light  responsibilities. Occasionally he must deal with obnoxious wealthy people, but it’s not a hard job. Life gets complicated very quickly though. On his first cruise out, Shy witnesses something that inspires nightmares and brings a man in black to follow him around.

This mystery takes second place though when a huge earthquake and the subsequent chain reaction of disasters hit. Shy is in a fight for his life and for those around him. The man against nature portion of this book is excellent and Matt de la Peña really created a believable character in Shy. He is a good kid and tries to follow the disaster procedures for his job, but he is in over his head in more ways than one. I felt like I was right there witnessing the disaster first-hand through his eyes feeling all of his fear and frustration.

Beyond the fight with nature, there are dangers among the people around him too. It’s difficult to discuss without revealing too much, but this book deals with race, class, and ethics on a scale that I was not anticipating. Matt de la Peña discussed a little bit about this in his interview with NPR.

Recommendation: Buy it now. This is a fantastic read for entertainment purposes, but it also provides a lot to think about. I am very eager to see what de la Peña has in store for us in the sequel.

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New Releases

Here are two exciting books being released this week. As always, if we have missed any diverse releases, please let us know.

angel

Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery by M Evelina Galang (Coffee House Press)

Angel has just lost her father, and her mother’s grief means she might as well be gone too. She’s got a sister and a grandmother to look out for, and a burgeoning consciousness of the unfairness in the world—in her family, her community, and her country.

Set against the backdrop of the second Philippine People Power Revolution in 2001, the contemporary struggles of surviving Filipina Comfort Women of WWII, and a cold winter’s season in the city of Chicago is the story of a daughter coming of age, coming to forgiveness, and learning to move past the chaos of grief to survive.

the livingThe Living by Matt De La Peña (Delacourt Press)

Shy took the summer job to make some money. In a few months on a luxury cruise liner, he’ll rake in the tips and be able to help his mom and sister out with the bills. And how bad can it be? Bikinis, free food, maybe even a girl or two—every cruise has different passengers, after all.

But everything changes when the Big One hits. Shy’s only weeks out at sea when an earthquake more massive than ever before recorded hits California, and his life is forever changed.

The earthquake is only the first disaster. Suddenly it’s a fight to survive for those left living.

You may read a sample of The Living here.

— Cover images and summaries via Goodreads

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Review: Proxy

proxy

Title: Proxy
Author: Alex London
Genre: Action and Adventure, Dystopia
Pages: 379
Publisher: Philomel Books
Review Copy: ARC from publisher & final copy from library
Available: On shelves now
Cover image via Amazon

Review: Syd is an orphan and a proxy. He is the one to bear the physical punishment whenever Knox, his patron, breaks a rule. Unfortunately for Syd, Knox is not all that fond of following the rules.

In a nod to the middle grade novel The Whipping Boy and A Tale of Two Cities, Alex London pulls readers along on an exciting and dangerous ride in the future.

This future world is filled with greed, extreme poverty, and corruption. Knox and Syd are both used to the way their world works and have not been trying to change the system, but over the course of a few hours, they start re-evaluating their beliefs.

After Knox crashes a car and kills a girl, Syd is beaten and imprisoned. This sets in motion a chain of events that will radically change both of their lives. The pages of this book are packed with action and suspense and I did not want to put it down.

In addition to being a proxy, Syd also happens to be a gay person who describes himself as brown. These things are not the main point of the story though. This is not an issue book, but a dystopian novel that happens to have a gay main character who isn’t white. We need more stories like this.

All of this may seem very serious, but London does scatter a few doses of humor on the way. I appreciated those light moments.

Recommendation: Buy it now if you are a fan of dystopia and especially if you are a fan of The Whipping Boy with it’s humor and fast pace. If you would like to get a taste, preview the first three chapters below.

Extras:

First three chapters of Proxy

Cover reveal and first three chapters of the sequel Guardian due out May 19, 2014

Post on Diversity in YA: 4 Things I Learned (and 1 thing I didn’t) While Writing Proxy

 

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Review: Killer of Enemies

killer of enemiesTitle: Killer of Enemies
Author: Joseph Bruchac
Genres: Dystopia/Post-apocalypse, Steampunk, Action/Adventure
Pages: 358
Publisher: Tu Books
Review Copy: Received ARC from publisher
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Years ago, seventeen-year-old Apache hunter Lozen and her family lived in a world of haves and have-nots. There were the Ones—people so augmented with technology and genetic enhancements that they were barely human—and there was everyone else who served them.

Then the Cloud came, and everything changed. Tech stopped working. The world plunged back into a new steam age. The Ones’ pets—genetically engineered monsters—turned on them and are now loose on the world.

Lozen was not one of the lucky ones pre-C, but fate has given her a unique set of survival skills and magical abilities. She hunts monsters for the Ones who survived the apocalyptic events of the Cloud, which ensures the safety of her kidnapped family. But with every monster she takes down, Lozen’s powers grow, and she connects those powers to an ancient legend of her people. It soon becomes clear to Lozen that she is not just a hired gun.

As the legendary Killer of Enemies was in the ancient days of the Apache people, Lozen is meant to be a more than a hunter. Lozen is meant to be a hero. —(Summary and image provided by publisher)

Review: There are few things I find as sexy as competence in fictional characters, and Lozen has an abundance of competence. It was ridiculously enjoyable to read about Lozen hunting and taking down genetically engineered monsters—each one more dangerous than the one before—and so utterly satisfying. The monsters were mad-scientist worthy creations, and Lozen had to put her intelligence as well as her physical (and magical!) abilities to the test in order to survive. Every time she took one of the monsters down, I cheered.

The post-apocalyptic/dystopian world Lozen inhabits is a mishmash of high- and low-tech that took a while for me to get used to. For example, Kevlar still exists (and Lozen gets to wear it), but they no longer have the ability to manufacture it, and Haven (Lozen’s community) is essentially stripped back to a walking-only society thanks to lack of tech/fuel, a superbug that wiped out horses several years ago, and a local population of giant birds that enjoy snacking on bicyclists. It is a fascinating world, especially when you throw in hints of magic and elements from Apache folklore. (Of particular note is the unknown figure whose voice Lozen can “hear” in her mind but hasn’t seen.)

Lozen’s commentary on the pre-Cloud world is interesting from a “look how far we’ve fallen” point, and there are some great passages where she clinically lays out some of the more terrible ways people died as the world fell apart. I really enjoyed that aspect of Lozen—she’s a complicated character who has constructed an unlikeable (or at least unapproachable) façade out of the twin desires not to be seen as a threat to the Ones and to keep others at bay so they can’t be used against her like her family is. I’m not sure I would be friends with Lozen if she were real, but I loved reading about her.

I’d estimate a good 50% of the book is Lozen on her own, either hunting down monsters or making preparations for breaking her family out of Haven. Aside from her family, one sort-of-friend/mentor, and one sort-of-love-interest, Lozen’s interactions with the survivors in Haven are decidedly negative. There are some pretty despicable people who survived the end of the world, and that’s not even counting the half-mad Ones (who are delightfully evil and unhinged) who run Haven and are holding Lozen’s family hostage against her good behavior/monster killing.

I didn’t have any major complaints about the book, though this is one of the few times I wished that the romance got more screen time. As it is, I didn’t root for Lozen’s sort-of-relationship with Hussein as much as I wanted to, even if I do think they had a good foundation for the start of a romance. (Who can resist a gardener with a gentle disposition and a penchant for playing subversive songs on his guitar?) I also wished the book had spent more time developing Lozen’s magical abilities. Sometimes I was rather confused about how her skills were supposed to fit into the mythology of the world or the extent of her skill with them. However, I fully acknowledge that this lack of detail didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the book.

Recommendation: Get it soon, especially if the idea of a monster hunt through a post-apocalyptic landscape makes you giddy. The book is a fun, quick read, and the unique world-building makes it a distinctive addition to the dystopian genre.

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