Review: Not Your Sidekick

29904219Title:  Not Your Sidekick
Author: C.B. Lee
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 262
Publisher: Duet Books
Availability: September 8th, 2016

Summary: Welcome to Andover… where superpowers are common, but internships are complicated. Just ask high school nobody, Jessica Tran. Despite her heroic lineage, Jess is resigned to a life without superpowers and is merely looking to beef-up her college applications when she stumbles upon the perfect (paid!) internship—only it turns out to be for the town’s most heinous supervillain. On the upside, she gets to work with her longtime secret crush, Abby, who Jess thinks may have a secret of her own. Then there’s the budding attraction to her fellow intern, the mysterious “M,” who never seems to be in the same place as Abby. But what starts as a fun way to spite her superhero parents takes a sudden and dangerous turn when she uncovers a plot larger than heroes and villains altogether. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: The moment I heard about Not Your Sidekick, I bought it — and waited. I waited for months (months!) until its release date, and then happily read the whole thing in one go, as one does when there’s work tomorrow but consequences and sleep debt are for other people. The moment my brain registered “superhero intern” and “that’s an Asian girl!” all those months ago, I knew I had to get the book.

In the world of Not Your Sidekick, Jessica Tran is the daughter of two small town superheroes. In an all too relatable twist, Jess struggles to figure out who she is as a powerless daughter of superpowered parents and ends up in the first paid internship she trips upon. Her internship is for the supervillains who regularly keep her parents busy with their criminal doings. Conspiracies and crushes continue from there.

The mix of superhero intrigue and adorable blossoming romance was just perfect. I shipped Jess and Abby — and, well, you’ll just have to read the rest. Basically, the adorable romance was my favorite thing about the book. A close second was the set-up and worldbuilding of a superhero populated future world not too different from our current one. I would love to read more in this world, and fortunately, the ending left plenty of room for a sequel.

There are quite a few LGBTQIA young adult novels coming out this fall. Of that number, a tiny but awesome fraction center around/are written by PoC. This is one of those books, and I was happy to discover that it lived up to, and exceeded, my expectations.

Catch this book, for sure. It’s got Asian and LGBTQIA representation, superheroes, and the struggles of a first internship. What’s not to love?

Recommendation: Buy it now! Especially if superhero YA is your thing.

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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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Book Review: Shadowshaper

shadowTitle: Shadowshaper
Author: Daniel Jose Older
Genres:  Urban Fantasy
Pages: 297
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: Available June 30

Summary: Sierra Santiago was looking forward to a fun summer of making art, hanging out with her friends, and skating around Brooklyn. But then a weird zombie guy crashes the first party of the season. Sierra’s near-comatose abuelo begins to say “No importa” over and over. And when the graffiti murals in Bed-Stuy start to weep…. Well, something stranger than the usual New York mayhem is going on.

Sierra soon discovers a supernatural order called the Shadowshapers, who connect with spirits via paintings, music, and stories. Her grandfather once shared the order’s secrets with an anthropologist, Dr. Jonathan Wick, who turned the Caribbean magic to his own foul ends. Now Wick wants to become the ultimate Shadowshaper by killing all the others, one by one. With the help of her friends and the hot graffiti artist Robbie, Sierra must dodge Wick’s supernatural creations, harness her own Shadowshaping abilities, and save her family’s past, present, and future. — Cover image and summary via Goodreads

Review: It’s been a while since I’ve last read an urban fantasy novel, so I was looking forward to reading Daniel Jose Older’s debut YA novel. Older also attended the same MFA program as I did, so I expected the writing to be top notch. I had high expectations for Shadowshaper and I have to say that they were met. You all know that I have a bad habit of sacrificing sleep in order to finish a novel and well, I sacrificed sleep because Shadowshaper was just that intense.

Most urban fantasy novels that I’ve read dealt with vampires, werewolves and ghosts, so the mythology that Older creates in Shadowshaper is fresh and unique. The magic that Sierra learns, and eventually uses, is rooted in spiritual magic which is an aspect of Afro-American & Afro-Caribbean culture. The Shadowshapers are essentially conduits for the spirits to enter and bring to life the artwork that Sierra creates. This creates a more cooperative relationship with the sprits instead of an adversarial one. However, depending on what the Shadowshaper wishes the spirit to do, the spirit could be malicious, such as the creepy zombie creatures that the antagonist Dr. Wick creates. Really, those things are scary.

While the mythology Older created was a highlight of the novel, Sierra Santiago was the absolute best part. I loved her! Sierra is a terrific artist who has been tasked with creating a mural on a mysterious tower. The way Older describes her artwork, I could picture in my head and what I imagined is amazing. While her artwork is how her Shadowshaper magic works, Sierra is curious and unafraid to take risks as she attempts to discover why elder members of her community are disappearing. She is the one who takes charge of solving the mystery, instead of “falling” into the mystery as many protagonists of urban fantasy stories do. Sierra is the one who is deciding of her fate, even as she learns of her importance to the Shadowshapers. Sierra is truly a leader among her friends, and even when she meets Robbie, who helps her learn her Shadowshaping abilities, he doesn’t overpower her and follows her lead.  She is a character that a reader can instantly connect to and root for, even when she makes some not so smart decisions (as a teenager is apt to do).  Sierra Santiago is a character that has been badly needed on the YA/Urban Fantasy scene.

The writing in Shadowshaper is full of Brooklyn flavor that gave this California girl a real sense of what life in New York is like. The story moves at a good pace, revealing its secrets slowly (almost too slowly for this impatient reader) that when a lovely plot twist is revealed, it turns Sierra and the book in a wonderful new direction. I greatly enjoyed the mystery of tracking down Dr. Wick and his unnatural creations as well as learning about the Shadowshapers and the impact they have had on Sierra’s life. My only wish is that I was able to spend more time with Sierra and the world of the Shadowshapers, but hopefully there will be a sequel as Older created a fun, unique world that readers will want to revisit again and again.

Recommendation: If you want to be in the know, you better get this book.

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Review: The Girl at Midnight

20345202Title:  The Girl at Midnight
Author: Melissa Grey
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 368
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Availability: April 28th, 2015

Summary: Beneath the streets of New York City live the Avicen, an ancient race of people with feathers for hair and magic running through their veins. Age-old enchantments keep them hidden from humans. All but one. Echo is a runaway pickpocket who survives by selling stolen treasures on the black market, and the Avicen are the only family she’s ever known. Echo is clever and daring, and at times she can be brash, but above all else she’s fiercely loyal. So when a centuries-old war crests on the borders of her home, she decides it’s time to act.

Legend has it that there is a way to end the conflict once and for all: find the Firebird, a mythical entity believed to possess power the likes of which the world has never seen. It will be no easy task, though if life as a thief has taught Echo anything, it’s how to hunt down what she wants . . . and how to take it. But some jobs aren’t as straightforward as they seem. And this one might just set the world on fire. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review:  The fact that the beginning of the first chapter takes place in Taipei was the moment I fell in love with this book. The Girl at Midnight‘s heroine, Echo, is a city-hopping thief who uses the magic of her adopted family to get around. Her adopted family is the Avicen, an ageless people with feather hair and magic. When she stumbles upon the secret of the Firebird, which is prophesied to end the war between the Avicen and the Firedrakes (basically the dragon people), she begins her adventures.

The way the Avicen and Firedrakes are incorporated into the modern world was incredibly well done. I enjoyed the way that some Avicen and Firedrakes talked like everyday teenagers, while others spoke like the wise and the ancient. And Echo’s interaction with both the outside world and her adopted family was fascinating. Found families are, in my opinion, the best kind to read about.

The story itself is one of familiar fantasy adventure — Echo must find the Firebird by uncovering clues around the world. Echo’s spunky thief character and the motley crew she gathers to her, are what makes this adventure worth reading. Unfortunately, the resolution to Echo’s quest felt a little bit rushed, but the fact that there will be a sequel is a good sign. Hopefully, the sequel will flesh out the story even more. I’m absolutely looking forward to reading it!

If you’re looking for an awesome urban fantasy, definitely check out The Girl at Midnight! (Also, if you read the main villain character as Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender, it’s that much more fun.)

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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Review: Frozen (Heart of Dread #1)

frozenTitle: Frozen (Heart of Dread #1)
Author: Melissa de la Cruz, Michael Johnston
Genres: fantasy, dystopian
Pages: 336
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Review Copy: the library
Availability: September 17th 2013

Summary:
Welcome to New Vegas, a city once covered in bling, now blanketed in ice. Like much of the destroyed planet, the place knows only one temperature—freezing. But some things never change. The diamond in the ice desert is still a 24-hour hedonistic playground and nothing keeps the crowds away from the casino floors, never mind the rumors about sinister sorcery in its shadows.

At the heart of this city is Natasha Kestal, a young blackjack dealer looking for a way out. Like many, she’s heard of a mythical land simply called “the Blue.” They say it’s a paradise, where the sun still shines and the waters are turquoise. More importantly, it’s a place where Nat won’t be persecuted, even if her darkest secret comes to light.

But passage to the Blue is treacherous, if not impossible, and her only shot is to bet on a ragtag crew of mercenaries led by a cocky runner named Ryan Wesson to take her there. Danger and deceit await on every corner, even as Nat and Wes find themselves inexorably drawn to each other. But can true love survive the lies? Fiery hearts collide in this fantastic tale of the evil men do and the awesome power within us all. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Frozen felt like a story of adventure — you know, a ragtag band of youths go travelling. That sort of adventure. Natasha, a blackjack dealer with a past that is a mystery even to herself, wants out of New Vegas. Everywhere is covered in ice and is, essentially, a frozen wasteland — save for the legendary place called “the Blue,” where the tropical waters are (surprise) blue and not frozen.

Natasha has a magical secret and dark voices in her head — a few of the many things about herself that she doesn’t understand. What she does know is that her secrets — betrayed by her colorful eyes — are dangerous to her. To avoid persecution and gain her freedom, she must flee New Vegas and search out the mythical Blue with the help of a band of boys lead by the oh-so-mysterious-and-hot Ryan Wesson, he of the tragic backstory.

While the worldbuilding and characters had a lot of potential, there was little to no follow through. The imagery of the frozen world was vivid and fascinating, but there was barely any explanation as to how the world had ended up frozen. There was only a cursory explanation about why magical beings were hated and hunted. Aside from the prologue, there is very little set-up or foundation for a lot of the elements in the story — magical marks, colorful eyes, frozen lands, and so on.

The romantic subplot was, unfortunately, the usual fare… dangerous, heterosexual longing, overlaid with a heavy sense of doom. Similarly, the ‘colorful eyes equals special and different’ device was also one that was all too familiar. Though Frozen is set in a frozen world vastly different from the settings of most YA lit, I still felt like this book was treading very, very familiar ground.

While the book was a fun read, it was hard to get away from the feeling that I had dropped into the middle of a book series by accident… even though I was reading the first book in a series. While the world and characters of Frozen are intriguing, the lack of explanation or follow-through made it difficult to fully enjoy the book.

Frozen is a great book for anyone who is looking for an adventure story with an interesting post-apocalyptic frozen wasteland setting.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday

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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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