Review: Awakening (Tankborn #2)

awakening Title: Awakening
Author: Karen Sandler
Genres: Dystopia/Post-Apocalyptic; Science Fiction, Hard
Pages: 400
Publisher: Lee and Low Books/Tu Books
Review Copy: Arc from NetGalley
Availability: April 9, 2013 (on shelves now!)

Summary: Once a Chadi sector GEN girl terrified of her first Assignment, Kayla is now a member of the Kinship, a secret organization of GENs, lowborns, and trueborns. Kayla travels on Kinship business, collecting information to further the cause of GEN freedom.

Despite Kayla’s relative freedom, she is still a slave to the trueborn ruling class. She rarely sees trueborn Devak, and any relationship between them is still strictly forbidden.

Kayla longs to be truly free, but other priorities have gotten in the way. A paradoxically deadly new virus has swept through GEN sectors—a disease only GENs catch. And GEN warrens and warehouses are being bombed, with only a scrawled clue: F.H.E. Freedom, Humanity, Equality.

With the virus and the bombings decimating the GEN community, freedom and love are put on the back burner as Kayla and her friends find a way to stop the killing . . . before it’s too late. Image from Amazon and summary from IndieBound.

Review: Last week in her review of Fragments, Audrey wrote, “Second books in a trilogy are always complicated.” I couldn’t agree more. Middle books often seem to wander a bit merely waiting for the final wrap up in the third. In this case, the first book, Tankborn, left quite a few strings untied and much open for speculation, but this second book raised even more questions and provided very few answers. A completely new storyline is introduced and only a smattering of clues come with it.

Karen Sandler certainly leaves the reader begging for more, since the book ends rather abruptly in the middle of some major action. The author has created characters that the reader can care about, so it can be a bit frustrating for the reader when faced with a cliff-hanger. You may want to wait until the third book is a bit closer to release so you can read them close together. Revolution is slated to be released in the spring of 2014 and that seems like a long time to wait to find out what will happen next.

The benefit of a trilogy though, is that the world is already created, the characters are in place and a lot more development can happen. In Tankborn, Kayla’s physical and emotional strength were demonstrated on many occasions and the reader could get to know her to a certain degree. In Awakening, Sandler takes that next step and  shines more of a light on her inner strength. Kayla has many choices to make and Sandler really takes the opportunity to flesh out who Kayla is and what she truly values.

This book also delves deeper into the caste system and the effects it has on the entire society. The ranking of GENs, lowborns, and trueborns is extremely rigid and even the privileged people who are “helping” still don’t always see how little respect they show those who are lower in the order. As the truth is exposed, characters come face to face with the ugliness in their society and must make the choice to let it remain or take steps to make a change. Fortunately, there is hope for a better future.

One of the cool things about this book is the wildlife on the planet Loka. I found the “pet” seycat to be pretty awesome. Kayla noted that, “Seycats like Nishi might be barely knee-high to the tall GEN boys, but they could slash even a full grown man to ribbons with those claws and teeth” (16). They generally eat rat-snakes (venomous spider creature with a rat-like head and long snake-like body) and sewer toads. Nice.

Once in a while it felt a bit like the vocabulary was forced in and a bit deliberate so the world would seem radically different than Earth, but for the most part it worked. Karen Sandler has a vivid imagination and she uses it to spin a tale complete with deadly meter-high spiders called bhimkays and Genetically Engineered Non-humans who often times appeared more humane than their human “superiors”.

Recommendation: If you cannot take suspense, I would say wait until the final book, Revolution, is closer to release. Otherwise, get it soon along with Tankborn if you haven’t already read it. You would miss a lot — particularly the backstory of Kayla’s relationship with Devak without reading that first. Both books are thought-provoking and entertaining with plenty of action, mystery, and a bit of romance.

Extras:
Booktalk with Karen Sandler Discussing Genetic Engineering and Caste Systems

Sketches from planet Loka (including the above mentioned seycat, bhimkay, and rat-snake)

Karen Sandler Discussing Tankborn

More videos about Tankborn

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Review: Fragments

Fragments
Title: Fragments
Author: Dan Wells
Genres: Dystopia/Post-Apocalyptic; Science Fiction, Hard
Pages: 564
Publisher: Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins
Review Copy: Received as a birthday gift
Availability: February 26, 2013 (on shelves now!)

Summary: Kira Walker has found the cure for RM, but the battle for the survival of humans and Partials is just beginning. Kira has left East Meadow in a desperate search for clues to who she is. That the Partials themselves hold the cure for RM in their blood cannot be a coincidence—it must be part of a larger plan, a plan that involves Kira, a plan that could save both races. Her companions are Afa Demoux, an unhinged drifter and former employee of ParaGen, and Samm and Heron, the Partials who betrayed her and saved her life, the only ones who know her secret. But can she trust them?

Meanwhile, back on Long Island, what’s left of humanity is gearing up for war with the Partials, and Marcus knows his only hope is to delay them until Kira returns. But Kira’s journey will take her deep into the overgrown wasteland of postapocalyptic America, and Kira and Marcus both will discover that their greatest enemy may be one they didn’t even know existed.

The second installment in the pulse-pounding Partials saga is the story of the eleventh hour of humanity’s time on Earth, a journey deep into places unknown to discover the means—and even more important, a reason—for our survival. —(Summary and image via Goodreads)

Review: Second books in a trilogy are always complicated. They’re rarely satisfactory on their own since their primary purpose seems to be setting everything up for the final book. Even if you do get answers to questions, you’re immediately peppered with more questions.

My feelings about Fragments are equally complicated. On the one hand, yes, Kira finds out who and what she is in this book and what the Trust is—that is awesome. (And this is the point where I highly recommend that you re-read Partials before you launch into Fragments. The science-y plotlines will be much easier to follow if you do.) On the other hand, very little else in this book gets resolved. All the other movements, particularly with the other POVs, seem specifically designed to position all the pieces for book three. As a reader, that’s frustrating, but it also has become standard for the trilogy format. (I had a higher standard for Wells as Mr. Monster was an amazing and satisfying second book, and I’d hoped that magic would extend to Fragments.)

One of the greatest weaknesses of this book is the other points of view. From a story standpoint, these POVs are crucial as they develop plotlines that Kira can’t (since she spends the entirety of the book away from Long Island). However, these other POVs weren’t as “in character” as Kira’s were—most weren’t distinctive enough for me to tell them apart easily. This was particularly disappointing with Marcus as the summary made it sound as if he would have a heftier amount of the book devoted to him. While he had more POVs than anyone other than Kira (and I enjoyed his sense of humor most of the time), I wish we had seen more from him as I felt that the events on Long Island could have merited additional screen-time.

What Wells excels at in this book is the ongoing discussion between Kira and other characters (especially Samm) about morality. What extremes do you go to for survival when the human population has been reduced to 35,000 people and there are 500,000 enemy super-soldiers still around? Fragments spends a lot of time exploring this theme, and it is done superbly. I’d talk about it more, but my favorite conversation involves major spoilers for the book.

I especially enjoyed the wider look at the ruined world. Wells clearly spent a lot of time figuring out what would happen to various cities after twelve years of neglect, and the results were stunning (and a bit terrifying and depressing, honestly). The more we got to know about ParaGen and its creations, the more fascinating (and repulsive) the world got. As a character, Afa also helped widen the scope of the world (and raise the possibility of other humans surviving outside Long Island), though he was emotionally taxing most of the time.

The romance that developed in this book was delightfully un-dramatic, and the action scenes were superb. I have a deep fondness for action scenes that rely on the character’s intelligence (and not necessarily skill) in order to win, and Kira’s smarts are often the key to her survival, especially as she learns to use the link. Give me brainy characters over brawny characters any day. (That said, there were some moments where I thought the characters needed to put the dots together sooner, like what the use of “control” meant. Come on, Marcus, you worked in the hospital. Even I figured it out, and I haven’t had a science class since 2005.)

Recommendation: Get it soon if you’re already invested in the trilogy and are willing to put up with all the frustrations inherent in second books. Wells does an amazing job of expanding the world in many ways, but in the end, the book isn’t as satisfying as Partials was. If you’re not already invested, I’d say wait until book three is out and read the series in one go. I have confidence that Wells will give us a fantastic and satisfying ending, especially now that all of the pieces are in the right place. You’ll just have to wait until next year for that to happen.

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Review: Hammer of Witches

hammer

Title: Hammer of Witches
Author: Shana Mlawski
Genre: Historical Fiction/Fantasy
Pages: 400
Publisher: Lee and Low Books/Tu Books
Review Copy: NetGalley Digital Arc
Availability: April 9, 2013 (but may already be on shelves since the hardcover arrived early)

Summary: Baltasar Infante, a bookmaker’s apprentice living in 1492 Spain, can weasel out of any problem with a good story. But when he awakes one night to find a monster straight out of the stories peering at him through his window, he’s in trouble that even he can’t talk his way out of. Soon Baltasar is captured by a mysterious arm of the Spanish Inquisition, the Malleus Malificarum, that demands he reveal the whereabouts of Amir al-Katib, a legendary Moorish sorcerer who can bring myths and the creatures within them to life. Baltasar, of course, doesn’t know where the man is—or that Bal himself has the power to summon genies and golems.

Now Baltasar must escape the Malleus Malificarum so he can find al-Katib and help him defeat a dreadful power that may destroy the world as they know it. As Bal’s journey leads him into uncharted lands on Columbus’s voyage westward, Baltasar learns that stories are much more powerful than he once believed them to be—and much more dangerous. (Image and Summary via IndieBound)

Review:  “My uncle Diego always said there was magic in a story. Of course, I never really believed him when he said it.” So begins this tale filled to the brim with stories. They are most often magical and overflowing with mystical creatures, adventure, and hidden, but simple truths.

Baltasar has grown up with amazing stories swirling around him. Fortunately, the stories continue throughout his adventures. They are the jewels that bring sparkle and life to this book. The plot line runs in a relatively straight line, but is peppered with all kinds of tales. The stories feature murder, revenge, demons, golems, a unicorn, and quite a few ferocious creatures that are the stuff of nightmares. Stories are powerful here regardless of their truthfulness. As Baltasar learns to his surprise– perception is often more important than fact.

Characters were also a bright spot in this tale. Baltasar, our storyteller extraordinaire, meets many friends along his journey. A few of them are female  characters who definitely add depth to the story. One in particular refuses to be locked into the roles other people choose for her and she schools Baltasar quite thoroughly.

From the title and cover, I was expecting a fantasy and possibly some history, but had no idea how MUCH history. I appreciated learning about this time period and came to the realization that I have not read much about the Spanish Inquisition in the past.

The title had me puzzled initially, but that is because I had never heard of the document before. The Malleus Malificarum, or Hammer of Witches, was written in the 1400s and led to the persecution of witches or people thought to be witches. Without that base of historical knowledge, I had to read and re-read some things, but most readers will likely be able to follow the events regardless. In addition, Shana provides a great author’s note at the conclusion which points out the relative historical accuracy of the book and where she took artistic license. She also offers many links to primary and secondary sources on her website. I find that I am always craving a bit of non-fiction with historical fiction, so this fit the bill perfectly.

Recommendation: Get it soon particularly if historical fiction is one of your favorites. This is a unique book blending fantasy and history with a diverse cast of characters.

Extras:

Sneak Peek of Hammer of Witches

National Geographic Channel video about the original Malleus Malificarum

 

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Review: Vessel

VesselTitle: Vessel
Author: Sarah Beth Durst
Genres: Fantasy, Heroic
Pages: 424
Publisher: Simon & Schuster/McElderry Books
Review Copy: Received as a birthday gift
Availability: September 11, 2012 (on shelves now!)

Summary: Liyana has trained her entire life to be the vessel of a goddess. The goddess will inhabit Liyana’s body and use magic to bring rain to the desert. But Liyana’s goddess never comes. Abandoned by her angry tribe, Liyana expects to die in the desert. Until a boy walks out of the dust in search of her.

Korbyn is a god inside his vessel, and a trickster god at that. He tells Liyana that five other gods are missing, and they set off across the desert in search of the other vessels. For the desert tribes cannot survive without the magic of their gods. But the journey is dangerous, even with a god’s help. And not everyone is willing to believe the trickster god’s tale.

The closer she grows to Korbyn, the less Liyana wants to disappear to make way for her goddess. But she has no choice: She must die for her tribe to live. Unless a trickster god can help her to trick fate — or a human girl can muster some magic of her own. –(Summary and image via the author’s site)

Review: I thoroughly enjoyed Vessel, and that was largely due to the world building and Liyana. Durst did an excellent job of creating a desert-dwelling culture, and the book was sprinkled with fun details about the tents, clothing, animals, critters, and food. (I will admit that the food wasn’t always fun, but I suppose eating snakes is a better alternative to starving.) This attention to detail—from the embroidery on Liyana’s dress to the preparations our heroes take for incoming sandstorms—grounds the world and makes it feel lived in. This is especially helpful since there’s a bunch of mystical stuff going on. In addition to Korbyn, the tribes have magicians of their own, and this world is one filled with wolves made of sand, dragons made of not-actually-glass, monstrous silkworms, and the Dreaming (afterlife/world of gods). Some of these mystical elements and their impact on the plot are more fuzzy/arbitrary than I’d like, but I could accept them.

Liyana and Korbyn, and even the Emperor to some extent, make the world even richer through the sharing of fairytale-esque stories (which, since this is a fantasy book, are not entirely made up). Many of the stories are about the desert gods, but some are about the empire’s gods or even mortals. Some of them were pure indulgence; others revealed characters, world building, or history; and yet others were used by the characters to teach or debate within the book. I loved these stories.

Durst spends a lot of time on the nature of the vessels and their sacrifice, and these moments are particularly poignant. Some vessels are fanatically devoted to their god and their tribe; others are terrified and don’t want to die. Liyana falls along “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” line—she’s not thrilled to die, but she knows that her tribe needs her goddess, Beyla, in order to survive the Great Drought. It’s particularly wrenching when Liyana says goodbye to her family or whenever she thinks about the extra time she’s been given only because her goddess has disappeared.

I have one major complaint about the book, and that would be the last moment romantic rival—and it’s not even really a rivalry as Durst avoids any competition/jealousy between the boys. Much of the book is devoted to the kind-of-sort-of-not-vocalized romance between Liyana and Korbyn. (Things are complicated—Korbyn is Beyla’s lover, but a mutual attraction between him and Liyana grows over the course of the book.) I was taken by surprise when a certain character expressed interest in Liyana, though that plotline won me over by the end due to a combination of 1) already enjoying that character and 2) the sheer practicality of it all.

Recommendation: Get it soon. Liyana, Korbyn, and the other main characters are an enjoyable and complicated ensemble, and the world they inhabit is as magical as it is dangerous. I loved the world, and the story was a solid quest with fun characters, lots of peril, a not-too-angsty romance, and occasional armies.

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Review: Orleans

Orleans
Title: Orleans
Author: Sherri L. Smith
Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopia
Pages: 324
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Review Copy: Purchased
Available: March 7, 2013 (On Shelves Now!)

Summary: After a string of devastating hurricanes and a severe outbreak of Delta Fever, the Gulf Coast has been quarantined. Years later, residents of the Outer States are under the assumption that life in the Delta is all but extinct… but in reality, a new primitive society has been born.

Fen de la Guerre is living with the O-Positive blood tribe in the Delta when they are ambushed. Left with her tribe leader’s newborn, Fen is determined to get the baby to a better life over the wall before her blood becomes tainted. Fen meets Daniel, a scientist from the Outer States who has snuck into the Delta illegally. Brought together by chance, kept together by danger, Fen and Daniel navigate the wasteland of Orleans. In the end, they are each other’s last hope for survival.

Sherri L. Smith delivers an expertly crafted story about a fierce heroine whose powerful voice and firm determination will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. –summary and cover image from Goodreads.

Review: “In the early days, before the sky got so angry at the sea and went to war, there was a piece of land between them, and they called her New Orleans. She was a beautiful place, a city that sparkled like diamonds, sang like songbirds, and danced a two-step to stop men’s hearts” (p 35). Through a storyteller, Sherrie L. Smith gives us a glimpse of the past beauty of New Orleans. Then, with exquisite skill, she proceeds to show us what time, floods, sickness and nature has wrought on this city. The world-building in this novel is amazing. We see “…the Garden District, where the city, had gone to seed, a cancerous jungle. Lush garden courtyards had burst like tumors, swallowing their outer buildings whole” (p 162). Debris from floods rests  high in the trees or under the mud, mold creeps up on buildings throughout the city and the forest seems to be a living breathing creature. There is more to this world than the surroundings though.

Smith also slowly reveals the new rules and ways people have learned to survive within their new world. Survival is seldom anything but gritty, messy, and dangerous and that is definitely the case here. Fen, the main character, has led a hard life and it has left its mark on her in more ways than one. She is described as the fierce one and there is no doubt she has learned to fight and protect herself and those she loves. As part of her protection, she keeps herself closed off from most people. This is one of the only drawbacks to this book. It is easy to admire Fen for her intelligence, strength and courage, but it is also very hard to get to know her personally. In spite of this, Smith manages to allow the reader just close enough to care for Fen through the use of her first person accounts. Fen’s voice is clear and almost poetic. Her dialect may be distracting initially, but most readers will likely adjust to it fairly quickly.

Early on, Daniel, a scientist from the Outer States, gets pushed into Fen’s life. The author used third person for his storyline and this seemed to help keep the focus solidly on Fen. Her story remains the main thread though there are many throughout. Smith stopped just short of having too many threads going, but they do weave together well.

There were many layers to the story including trust, racial issues, economic inequality and respect for life. After devastating floods and illness, society has adjusted, but there are still people who do not have what they need and others who have more than their fair share. In Orleans, Smith has created a frighteningly believable world where people must fight for their lives every single day.

Recommendation: Get it soon. The world-building in this novel lifts it above many others in the genre and Fen will be a character you won’t soon forget.

Extras: Blog interview with the author and giveaway
Blog Tour post on Author’s blog
Orleans: Carnivale – a short story prequel to Orleans

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Review: City of a Thousand Dolls

DollsTitle: City of a Thousand Dolls (Bhinian Empire #1)
Author: Miriam Forster
Genres: Fantasy, Mystery
Pages: 359
Publisher: HarperTeen
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: February 5, 2013 (on shelves now!)

Summary: Nisha was abandoned at the gates of the City of a Thousand Dolls when she was just a child. Now sixteen, she lives on the grounds of the isolated estate, where orphan girls apprentice as musicians, healers, courtesans, and, if the rumors are true, assassins. Nisha makes her way as Matron’s assistant, her closest companions the mysterious cats that trail her shadow. Only when she begins a forbidden flirtation with the city’s handsome young courier does she let herself imagine a life outside the walls. Until one by one, girls around her start to die.

Before she becomes the next victim, Nisha decides to uncover the secrets that surround the girls’ deaths. But by getting involved, Nisha jeopardizes not only her own future in the City of a Thousand Dolls—but her own life. –(Summary and image via Goodreads.com)

Review: City of a Thousand Dolls was a fun read, once I got over the telepathic cats. (The dust jacket does not mention that the cats can talk. I actually stopped reading so I could reread the dust jacket in case I had missed something.) The world of the Bhinian Empire is a fascinating mixture of Indian culture (with a Chinese-style two-child policy and some isolationist Japan vibes) and fantasy.

The City itself—established so parents could drop off their unwanted girl children instead of killing them—is very much a lesser-of-two-evils establishment. While many of its inhabitants don’t fret much about the City’s purpose, Nisha and some of the other characters will at least acknowledge that training girls from infancy so they can be sold as courtesans, rich men’s wives, soldiers, etc., has definite skeeve potential. One minor critique (which could easily be leveled at books like Divergent or even the Harry Potter series), is that I think there are more available slots to humanity than just the seven presented in the novel via the Houses of Combat, Flowers, Beauty, Jade, Music, Pleasure, and Shadows (or Abnegation/Erudite/Amity/Candor/Dauntless or Gryffindor/Ravenclaw/Hufflepuff/Slytherin). Then again, Forster does offer some condemnation of both the City and the Houses through characters like Zann and Tanaya.

One of the biggest flaws in this book is that there is a lot of infodumping. Sometimes the infodumping is strictly for the readers, but oftentimes Nisha gets a secret history lecture. While the latter is important for the plot, both forms are awkward and occasionally difficult to get through. Whenever the Bhinian Empire comes up as a discussion topic, be prepared to learn.

The mystery itself is fairly good. While Nisha is not the kind of detective who would fit into a procedural or noir, she does the best she can with her limited skill set and resources. I was wrong about the murderer and the murderer’s motives, but I easily guessed several other important plot twists. (Protip: You ruin the mystery of whether or not the City trains assassins when they’re listed in the cast of characters.) I also felt that Forster cheated in a big way in the deaths of one of the girls—her death only happened in order to keep the mystery going. Honestly, almost all of the characters in this book are hiding something from Nisha. It didn’t vex me too much, but it will probably be infuriating for some people.

Nisha’s romance with Devan is cute but is undercut by a lot of the City’s skeeviness. Much to my delight, this is explicitly acknowledged in-world (and gets contrasted with another relationship later on). Nisha is often competent and typically knows when she’s about to go in over her head. Of course, since she’s the heroine, sometimes she has far more bravery than caution, but that is far from atypical in a fantasy novel.

Recommendation: Get it soon if you want a fun, quick read set in an India-inspired fantasy. There were a few too many missteps, particularly with the mystery, for me to recommend it whole-heartedly. However, there is a lot of potential in the world, and that means I’ll be back for the companion novel in 2014.

What did you guys think about City of a Thousand Dolls? Do you have any similar novels you’d like to recommend?

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