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 Shadow Hour

the shadow hourTitle: The Shadow Hour
Author: Melissa Grey
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 432
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Review copy: Library
Availability: July 12th, 2016

Summary: A battle has been won. But the war has only just begun. Everything in Echo’s life changed in a blinding flash when she learned the startling truth: she is the firebird, the creature of light that is said to bring peace.The firebird has come into the world, but it has not come alone. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and Echo can feel a great and terrible darkness rising in the distance. Cosmic forces threaten to tear the world apart.

Echo has already lost her home, her family, and her boyfriend. Now, as the firebird, her path is filled with even greater dangers than the ones she’s already overcome.She knows the Dragon Prince will not fall without a fight.Echo must decide: can she wield the power of her true nature—or will it prove too strong for her, and burn what’s left of her world to the ground?

Welcome to the shadow hour. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: As the sequel to The Girl At Midnight, Melissa Grey’s The Shadow Hour definitely doesn’t function as a standalone. And why would you want it to? The Girl at Midnight is a fun urban fantasy read. Once you’ve read (or, in my case, gobbled up in two hours) that, then you’re good to go.

The Shadow Hour continues in the aftermath of The Girl at Midnight after Echo (spoiler alert!) becomes the Firebird. Echo’s motley crew of enemies-turned-allies are hiding out, keeping especially Echo from the rest of the world. But Echo’s new status as the chosen one has consequences. Eventually, a new threat forces the group out of hiding and brings Echo back into the action to defend her feathered avicen people.

Like with the first book in the series, The Shadow Hour has daring exploits and heists a-plenty. The fast-paced globe-trotting adventures mingle with interludes of romance and slice-of-life moments. Cold-hearted as I am, I did feel that some of the heavy emotional moments went on for a little too long, but other people may enjoy that.

If you liked The Girl at Midnight, you definitely should read its sequel. And if you haven’t tried out the first book in the series, that should be on your to-do list. Anyone fond of libraries, magical beings, and solid urban fantasy would love this series. I’m looking forward to the final book in the trilogy!

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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Review: Labyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas #1)

lostTitle: Labyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas #1)
Author: Zoraida Córdova
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Pages: 336
Genre: Fantasy
Review copy: Digital ARC via Netgalley
Availability: September 6, 2016

Summary: Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.

Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange marks on his skin.

The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…

Review: Portals, cantos, ghosts, love, blood, monsters, death and more are swirling around in Alejandra’s life. In spite of this, Alejandra, or Alex as she’s also called, is reluctant to take on the role of bruja. She’s holding onto secrets that have convinced her to avoid awaking her powers.

Alex comes from a long line of magic. Everyone else in her family seems to see magic as a blessing rather than the curse Alex feels. Most of them are busy trying to change Alex’s mind, but even so, there is a feeling of love and support as they prepare for her Deathday celebration. When it all goes horribly wrong, Alex is determined to fix everything. Family bonds of love are what keep her going through nightmarish conditions as she attempts to find and rescue her family.

Speaking of nightmares, there are some seriously creepy creatures and beings along Alex’s journey. One animal Alex and her guide Nova encounter is described this way, “it’s what you get if a saber-toothed tiger and a snake demon had a baby.” Of course those horrific monsters are stalking and attacking Nova and Alex which is more than a little unpleasant for them. It’s not a terror-filled book, but has a nice dose of chills throughout that keeps things interesting.

I enjoyed the land of Los Lagos with it’s many different landscapes and inhabitants. The journey itself seemed a bit like an obstacle course with one trial after another through many types of terrains. This is a fairly traditional type of fantasy journey, but still managed to seem somewhat unique.

As for the characters, Alex is coming to grips with who she is and deciding who she wants to be. I appreciated her attempts to be true to herself. She only has one close friend in the beginning, Rishi. Readers get to know Rishi, but not as well as I would have liked. Alex describes her as a calming presence and they are close, or at least as close as they can be with all of Alex’s secrets. Nova is a newer addition to Alex’s life. He’s obviously attractive, but Alex has trouble determining whether he’s trustworthy. In addition to these three, Alex’s family members play roles intermittently in the book. With three central characters you may be wondering about a love triangle. Yes, that happens here to a certain extent, but the shape of their relationships made sense in my mind and didn’t detract from the story.

The author provides an author’s note about brujas and some of the other terms she used in the book. Bruja is a Spanish word meaning witch. She was not basing the story on the brujeria faith, but she did chose to use the word bruja rather than witch because “Alex’s ancestors come from Ecuador, Spain, Africa, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Her magic is like Latin America–a combination of the old world and new.” Córdova explains how she created some of the elements of this book like the Deathday ceremony with inspiration from the Day of the Dead and Santeria. I appreciated learning about the many influences and some of the factors in her creative decisions.

Recommendation: If you want a quick and action packed fantasy, get it as soon as you can. Labyrinth Lost satisfies a hunger for magic and wonder.

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Review: A Fierce and Subtle Poison

25810644Title: A Fierce and Subtle Poison
Author: Samantha Mabry
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 288
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Review copy: Library
Availability: April 12th, 2016

Summary: Everyone knows the legends about the cursed girl–Isabel, the one the señoras whisper about. They say she has green skin and grass for hair, and she feeds on the poisonous plants that fill her family’s Caribbean island garden. Some say she can grant wishes; some say her touch can kill.

Seventeen-year-old Lucas lives on the mainland most of the year but spends summers with his hotel-developer father in Puerto Rico. He’s grown up hearing stories about the cursed girl, and he wants to believe in Isabel and her magic. When letters from Isabel begin mysteriously appearing in his room the same day his new girlfriend disappears, Lucas turns to Isabel for answers–and finds himself lured into her strange and enchanted world. But time is running out for the girl filled with poison, and the more entangled Lucas becomes with Isabel, the less certain he is of escaping with his own life. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: “The house at the end of the street is full of bad air.” Look, I don’t know about you, but any book starts out with a sentence like that is one I have to read. The beginning, with its gorgeous language and vivid storytelling, had me hooked.

A Fierce and Subtle Poison is told from the point-of-view of Lucas, who wiles away his summers in Old San Juan with flings, hanging out at the beach, and vaguely resenting his father, who everyone in the area knows as a developer who’s either saving the island, or ruining it. When his girlfriend disappears, his life ends up colliding with that of the magical Isabel, and the mysteries surrounding the house at the end of Calle Sol only grow.

Lucas is believable as a teenage boy — to the point of frustration, at times. Throughout the book, Lucas remains buried in his romanticization of the girls around him and how grand his love is. I had to fight to not roll my eyes at several points. The women, both the central ones and those along the periphery, were far more fascinating.

Nevertheless, I loved reading A Fierce and Subtle Poison on the strength of the beautiful language and magical realism alone. The story flourished, in spite of Lucas, solely on the writing itself. I wish there had been more time devoted to exploring the magical aspects of the story, which was more murder mystery focused, but that was not to be. Also, I’m a sucker for plants, and a story centered around a house with an incredible garden… um, yes please.

A Fierce and Subtle Poison is definitely worth a read. I’m looking forward to whatever Samantha Mabry writes next!

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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Book Review: The Rose & The Dagger

The Rose and the DaggerTitle: The Rose & The Dagger
Author: Renee Ahdieh
Genres:  Fantasy
Pages: 420
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Review Copy: It was a Teacher Appreciation Gift!
Availability: Available Now

Summary: I am surrounded on all sides by a desert. A guest, in a prison of sand and sun. My family is here. And I do not know whom I can trust.

In a land on the brink of war, Shahrzad has been torn from the love of her husband Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan. She once believed him a monster, but his secrets revealed a man tormented by guilt and a powerful curse—one that might keep them apart forever. Reunited with her family, who have taken refuge with enemies of Khalid, and Tariq, her childhood sweetheart, she should be happy. But Tariq now commands forces set on destroying Khalid’s empire. Shahrzad is almost a prisoner caught between loyalties to people she loves. But she refuses to be a pawn and devises a plan.

While her father, Jahandar, continues to play with magical forces he doesn’t yet understand, Shahrzad tries to uncover powers that may lie dormant within her. With the help of a tattered old carpet and a tempestuous but sage young man, Shahrzad will attempt to break the curse and reunite with her one true love.

Review: I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the sequel to Ahdieh’s amazing debut, The Wrath & the Dawn. I feel in love with that novel, inhaling her words, getting lost in the world building and the characters, specifically Shahrzad and Khalid. I loved their individual character arcs in the story and their arc as a couple. When I finished the first book, I was so ready to continue with Shahrzad’s & Khalid’s story that I had high expectations for The Rose & The Dagger. However, I feel a bit let down by it and I’m not entirely too sure why.

To me, the novel started out really slow. It begins just days after the ending of Wrath & the Dawn, with Shahrzad in the Badawi camp with Tariq and Rahim after fleeing the castle in Rey. Along the way, the trio picked up Shahrzad’s father who is in a coma-like state after using such intense magic. She meets Omar al-Sadiq, the Sheikh of the Badawi people and reunites with her Uncle Reza, who is both relieved to see her and upset at her survival at the same time.  I felt like the urgency of the situation was misplaced, focusing instead on Tariq & Shahrzad’s relationship instead of the tension that should come as Tariq prepares for war. Thankfully, this lack of tension doesn’t last long and the story really starts to move when Shahrzad figures out how to make the carpet fly and begins to put her plan into motion. However, some of the plan seems to be too easy, but I knew that it would fall apart at some point as I was only halfway through the book, and fall apart her plan did, but not in the way that one would expect, which I enjoyed. I like being surprised in a novel and there were some surprises in the sequel that I I liked and some that broke my heart.

Ahdieh introduces new characters in the sequel, such as Shahrzad’s sister Irsa, and we get to know characters that we were only briefly introduced to in the first novel. She expands on the magic that seemed to be only hinted at in Wrath & the Dawn. And I think this is where my “meh” feelings toward the novel stem from. Shahrzad learns a bit more about her magical abilities, but I feel Ahdieh could have spent more time exploring Shahrzad’s lessons with new magical character Artan, but the development of her magical talents appears off screen. I would have loved how the development of Shahrzad’s magic would have helped shaped who she is and added more depth to her character growth. Instead, there is no real payoff to the magical element in the story and after one point Shahrzad never mentions her magic again; it doesn’t even register as part of her identity.

At I think that is what is at the crux with my ambivalence to the novel.  I feel like the novel wrapped up to quickly and that plot points that seemed interesting really went no where. I feel like there was so much more to explore with the world that Ahdieh created and that this series really could have been a trilogy, or maybe even more (though I did learn there are 3 novellas, so there is that). I really wanted more out of this novel, and I was left wanting. Hopefully Ahdieh will return to Shahrzad’s world sometime in the future.

Recommendation: If you are dying to know what happens with Shahrzad and Khalid, then buy it now. If you are willing to wait a bit, then get it soon.

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Review: Serpentine

serpentineTitle: Serpentine
Author: Cindy Pon
Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Pages: 300
Publisher: Month9Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: Serpentine is a sweeping fantasy set in the ancient Kingdom of Xia and inspired by the rich history of Chinese mythology.

Lush with details from Chinese folklore, Serpentine tells the coming of age story of Skybright, a young girl who worries about her growing otherness. As she turns sixteen, Skybright notices troubling changes. By day, she is a companion and handmaid to the youngest daughter of a very wealthy family. But nighttime brings with it a darkness that not even daybreak can quell.

When her plight can no longer be denied, Skybright learns that despite a dark destiny, she must struggle to retain her sense of self – even as she falls in love for the first time.

Review: It is a pleasure to relax into a world that I trust an author to handle, and I’m happy to report that my trust was rewarded with Cindy Pon’s Serpentine. One of my favorite things about fantasy is well-crafted worlds, and Pon paints the Kingdom of Xia vividly, from clothing to hairstyles to cultural norms and expectations. And of course, the mythology, with its demons and undead creatures and immortals and secrets. I can’t go too deeply into the my appreciation for the world-building without having to resort to spoilers, so I’ll simply say I wish more authors took as much care with making a world that felt lived-in. The little details can be just as important in setting a scene as the broader ones, and Pon did a fantastic job.

Skybright is a wonderful protagonist who faces challenges both mundane and supernatural. Her struggles to figure out what was going on with herself and the supernatural world were equally compelling. I was particularly drawn to her friendship/sisterhood with Zhen Ni and how their bond was tested in a host of different ways throughout the story. Skybright and Zhen Ni’s relationship was easily my favorite in the book, especially in the second half, when things got rather complicated.

I have a few minor complaints about the romance between Skybright and Kai Sen (mostly at how quickly it moved at the beginning), but it was mostly satisfying. I appreciated that Pon did not let their romance overshadow the bond between Skybright and Zhen Ni. Kai Sen was an interesting character, though I think a significant portion of that interest for me was in the potential for deadly conflict between him and Skybright. Once that was largely settled, my interest in Kai Sen waned.

Stone was a character that I didn’t appreciate much at the outset, but he grew more intriguing as the story turned toward the greater supernatural conflict. I’m curious to see more of him even though I don’t particularly like him—his character has the potential to deepen the scope of the story in the next book.

Recommendation: Get it soon! The fantasy world of Serpentine is well crafted. Cindy Pon has populated the world with interesting characters and a high-stakes plot that steadily ramps up to a solid climax. While there are a few points that didn’t work for me as much as I wanted them to, this was a satisfying read.

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