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DNF = Cruel Beauty

I know I haven’t posted in a while. I’ve read some less-than-amazing books recently. So now I’m going to go and rant about some of the books I’ve ditched.

Number one is Cruel Beauty, by Rosamund Hodge. I ditched Ms. Hodge’s book very early on due to, firstly, the unadulterated mess that constitutes the world-building and, secondly, the forced personalities of “characters.”

What the jacket-flap indicated:

A princess, Nyx, was promised at birth to wed the tyrant king who killed her mother. All her life, she has been trained to kill him, avenge her mother, and free her country. Her plan is to seduce him, disarm him, and kill him—thereby breaking the curse he has placed on her country.

But when she meets this tyrant king, “Ignifex,” she discovers that he’s pretty charming and not half bad and his castle’s pretty awesome to boot.

This I figured meant that she would hesitate to kill him just long enough to figure out something important about What’s really Going On. And then she would be forced to find a new way to save her world and Set Things Right.

But what I got (that is in the first couple chapters before I ditched the book) was definitely NOT that.

First off, Nyx’s screwed-up family. And not in a dysfunctional-family kind of way, but in a ‘the author didn’t quite think this through’ kind of way.

Nyx has a little sister, Astraia. It was implied, at least to me, that Astraia was just two or three years younger than Nyx. But she acted like she was around eight or ten years younger. Astraia has also been coddled and loved her entire life, and is not betrothed to anyone.

Nyx feels a little resentful of this because she has not been coddled or loved her entire life. In fact, quite the opposite. Nobody loves her whatsoever. Let me explain.

Nyx’s father vehemently wants revenge for the death of his wife (despite the fact that he’s now sleeping with his wife’s sister), and sees Nyx as nothing but a way to get this. He is hard and distant and pretty much without personality or emotion; he’s a flat cut-out onto which the author has pasted scripted lines to move the plot and scenes forward. He plans to train Nyx and send her into the tyrant king’s arms, knowing that whether she kills him or not she’ll never escape alive. It’s basically a death sentence.

In theory, it works: the grief-stricken father—who I assume is a displaced king, because why else would the tyrant consent to marrying his daughter?—forced to betroth one of his infant daughters to the tyrant, decides to train her as an assassin; someone who will avenge his wife’s death and set free their country. But because he knows she will eventually leave and most likely die, he tries to force himself not to love her and holds her at arms length. Meanwhile, he has no such boundary keeping him from his other, younger daughter.

But in practice, it’s not like that at all. There’s no evidence that Nyx’s father sees her as anything but a means to an end. In fact, there’s no evidence he has any personality at all. This lackingness is shared with Nyx’s aunt, Aunt Telomache, who (thus far) serves no purpose except to interact with Nyx so her father doesn’t have to. This is probably where he lack of personality derives from: she is nothing but a mouthpiece for Nyx’s cardboard father.

Then there’s this line: “You are the hope of our people.” Aunt Telomache says this to Nyx every evening, right after she’s finished telling an inspirational tale about a heroine who, in most cases, dies heroically at the end of the story.

And now we get to Nyx herself. I’d think that by this point she’d have internalized all this stuff people are telling her. She’d believe she really is the hope of her people, she is the blade that will bring vengeance, she is the heroine who will save her country.

I’d think she would fear for her future, that she would partially resent being forced into a suicide mission and partially resent her sister for not having that same weight or doom hanging over her.

But I also think she’d be determined, proud. I think she’d aspire to kill the tyrant and make it out alive. I think she’d love to come back afterwards and stand before her father, alive and successful, and she’d think that then, finally, her father would love and respect her.

But, in actuality, Nyx is not that complex or deep a character. She doesn’t seem to feel anything towards her father—though it’s true he has very little page-time. Mostly she interacts with her father’s stand-in, Aunt Telomache. Nyx doesn’t like Aunt Telomache, but she doesn’t seem to hate her.

While she does resent her sister a little, she keeps her resentment bottled up inside and wears a fake face to preserve her sister’s feelings. Which is admirable, I suppose. It’s also overly perfect (The author’s like, oh, I’ll give her a “flaw” and have her resent her sister, but I don’t actually want her to be anything less than unwaveringly kind and compassionate always, so she won’t actually act on this resentment in any permanent way). Nyx also seems to have a lot of trouble hiding her feelings, which is strange considering her plan to fake-seduce the tyrant king.

Nyx’s one other feeling thus far is her fear of the tyrant. But she hasn’t shown any of this supposed assassin-training. I mean, I’d think she’d try to reassure herself it will go okay by giving a brief self-assessment of her skills or something. But she doesn’t. The only indication that any training has taken place is telling us about how she’s expected to kill the tyrant and has been trained with that purpose in mind.

Now onto the world-building. The crappy, crappy world-building. Going in, I thought this was a fantasy, other-world book. So I wasn’t particularly surprised or jolted to learn that a) there are demons and b) the tyrant is the demon king (with the interesting title of “Gentle Lord”—I like that. It has that whole I-may-be-oppressing-you-but-it’s-for-your-own-good undertone).

I wasn’t pushed out of the experience to find out that this Gentle Lord took over the kingdom, Arcadia, and literally tore Arcadia out of the real world. The sky is not the real sky, and the land is flat and honest-to-goodness at some point it just STOPS and bam writhing demonic hellpit of doom.

Nor was I shocked to learn about the “Hermetic” arts—implied to be science but works like magic. It’s based on the four elements and works by writing certain runes.

HOWEVER, I am VERY VERY confused about the world Arcadia was torn out of. Like, was it in ancient Greece or something? They reference Greek myths, and their gods seem to be Greek gods (which in of itself is weird, because I don’t believe the Greeks were in the habit of naming themselves after gods and “Nyx” is a goddess), and they have names like Telomache and Thisbe and Astraia and Adamastos and Leonidas, which all sound like they could be Greek.

At the very beginning of chapter two, we get a history infodump that tells us before the demons came along and ripped Arcadia off to wherever-the-hell, it was a minor province in the Romana-Graecia empire. But then the empire fell when the “Athena Parthenos” (familiar to all of us Percy Jackson fans) was destroyed and suddenly the only unravaged place was Arcadia.

The prince of the Romana-Graecia empire, Claudius, fled to Arcadia, rallied the people—imperial soldiers and pagans—and “created a shining kingdom.” He was so awesome, in fact, that Hermes came down and showed him how to do the Hermetic arts stuff. But eventually the demons took over and “sundered” Arcadia from the rest of the world.

So is this land sundered from our, real-world ancient Greece or something? It doesn’t seem like it. They live in a castle. But they have wallpaper, claw-foot tubs, a library, and a grandfather clock. And their clothes seem to be Victorian; Nyx’s dad wears a red silk waistcoat, the women wear corsets, and the sister has a ruffled dress with five petticoats. Ancient Greeks didn’t wear that stuff. And the winding staircase on the cover looks anything but ancient medieval-era or pre-medieval-era.

Speaking of culture-clash, remember that list of names? They all sound kind of Greek, right? Well there’s also characters called Ivy, Elspeth, and Edwin. Presumably they are pagan-stock (remember, Arcadia is made of the descendants of imperial soldiers and pagans). They are referenced to believe in “hedge-gods,” which the other characters don’t believe are real. One of these is Brigit, another is her son Tom-a-Lone. The imperial-stock maintain that Brigit is Aphrodite by another name and Tom-a-Lone Adonis.

I know that Brigit is a Celtic goddess, but I don’t believe Tom-a-Lone is. And Elspeth is the Scottish version of Elizabeth, while Edwin comes from Old English. And I don’t remember any Romana-Graecia empire taking over the British isles. So is the “real world” that Arcadia was sundered from some sort of alternate history? Perhaps Romana-Graecia is based on Greco-Roman? I don’t know. I can’t tell. This book is a mish-mash of epic proportions. I mean, they even have teatime.

Plus, going back to the plot, I’m confused about where women stand in this society and what training Nyx has. Because she mentions longing to attend a university called Lyceum, which is in the capitol city (Sardis) and contains an organization of scholars called the Resurgandi who are secretly dedicated to defeating the Gentle Lord and undoing the Sundering. Nyx says she wants to go there because she wants to discover and achieve something besides the fate picked for her by her father.

Interestingly, she could be done at the academy before she would have to wed the Gentle Lord. The “explanation” for her not being allowed to go wasn’t really an explanation at all. Basically Aunt Telomache, in yet another father-stand-in moment, said it would be a waste of time. Nyx had better things to do.

Like what, exactly? Presumably being trained to fight, but we don’t really know. And her asking to go to Lyceum implies that women are allowed there, which is decidedly NOT Medieval/Pre-Medieval.

One last thing. About Nyx’s father: he’s not actually king and she isn’t a princess. Her father is the leader of their village, and who knows why or how this deal came to exist. Apparently he “bargained with the Gentle Lord like any common fool, and now, like any common fool, he must pay.” Still, seems a strange payment. If he was a king, it would make sense. Take Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker: king stops other nation from invading and crushing his people by offering up one of his daughter’s to wed the god-king. But he’s no king. He’s a high level Hermetic Arts guy, but nothing else.

Why, in a society implied to be monogamous, would the tyrant king ask for a wife as payment? Wouldn’t he then have many, many wives? And if not, and this is a special case, why isn’t anyone treating it like so?

Who knows. Certainly not me.

rating:

dnf

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#22 = Mind Games by Carolyn Crane

MIND GAMES by Carolyn Crane

jacket flap blurb

Justine knows she’s going to die. Any second now.

Justine Jones has a secret. A hardcore hypochondriac, she’s convinced a blood vessel is about to burst in her brain. Then, out of the blue, a startlingly handsome man named Packard peers into Justine’s soul and invites her to join his private crime-fighting team. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal. With a little of Packard’s hands-on training, Justine can weaponize her neurosis, turning it outward on Midcity’s worst criminals, and finally getting the freedom from fear she’s always craved. End of problem.

Or is it? In Midcity, a dashing police chief is fighting a unique breed of outlaw with more than human powers. And while Justine’s first missions, including one against a nymphomaniac husband-killer, and thrilling successes, there is more to Packard than meets the eye. Soon, while battling her attraction to two very different men, Justine is plunging deeper into a world of wizardry, eroticism, and cosmic secrets. With Packard’s help, Justine has freed herself from her madness—only to discover a reality more frightening than anyone’s worst fears.

 

thoughts

The characterization in this book is amazing. Basically, Packard runs this underground vigilante-type group not unlike the group in the TV show Leverage in way of operating. Clients come to them and pay them to “disillusion” criminals who have harmed them. This involves the group members using their neuroses to break down the target, and then allow them to build themselves back up as good people. Rehabilitation.

In this book, the first in a series, these jobs are their own subplots. And they make for some interesting character development. The main, overarching problem is Packard and his nemesis. That’s right, “nemesis.”

Eight years ago, Packard was running the criminal underground in Midcity.

Eight years ago, Packard’s nemesis—a powerful, force-field-wielding, kills-with-a-thought-ing “highcap” (X-men like mutant) named Henji—trapped Packard in a crappy restaurant called Mongolian Delites using a force-field. His signature, a weird-looking face, is carved on the door.

Eight years ago, a massive crime-wave hit Midcity following Packard’s imprisonment.

Eight years ago, Otto Sanchez was made police chief.

Sanchez is a minor character who is mentioned many times over the first half or possibly two-thirds of the book. Then he comes into the main storyline in an unexpected fashion.

Meanwhile, Justine, who’s falling in love with Packard, is determined to track down Henji and find away to free Packard. It’s a search she gets into with another of the group members, Shelby. It eventually involves a group member named Simon. While Justine gets along with Shelby, she doesn’t get along with Simon. But their relationship changes over the story. Simon is not evil and neither is Simon going down the love-interest-to-be road. But I think eventually, Justine and Simon will be friends. By the end of the book, they’ve gone from semi-enemies to willing associates.

Other important characters include Carter, Helmut, and Cubby. Carter and Helmut are with Packard’s group. Cubby is the other attraction referenced on the jacket-flap. Justine was with Cubby from before she met Packard, and her relationship with him was falling apart. He was increasingly unable or unwilling to accept Justine’s hypochondria, and Justine was not willing to let him go. She has a long-standing desire to be “normal.” She admires, longs for, a normal life with someone like Cubby.

While in some ways this book could be seen as a love-triangle, that wasn’t how I read it. I felt that Justine was clinging to Cubby in the hopes that she could eventually transform into the normal person she dreams about. The person she thinks would fit perfectly with Cubby. But eventually, she comes to realize that it’s not going to happen. She has no future with Cubby. And it’s not that there’s something wrong with Cubby (admittedly, I didn’t like him, but I didn’t hate him or even vehemently dislike him either), it’s just that he and Justine don’t fit.

There’s a lot of this characters-are-not-black-or-white in the book, which I really enjoyed. Even Henji isn’t completely evil, as Packard isn’t completely good. He has some selfishness in him, too. Just like all of them. They all have problems that go beyond their neuroses. Things they deal with that make them less than perfect in a realistic, relatable way.

My only real problem with the book was Justine’s relationship with Chief Sanchez. By the end of the book, there was a definite love-triangle playing out between Justine, Packard, and Sanchez. And while I think it has been well-written so far, I dislike love triangles and I’m worried about how the author will resolve it.

 

rating out of five stars

★★★★☆

 

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#21 = Asylum by Madeleine Roux

ASYLUM by Madeleine Roux

jacket flap blurb

Once you get in, there’s no getting out.
For sixteen-year-old Dan Crawford a summer program for gifted students is the chance of a lifetime. No one else at his high school gets his weird fascinations with history and science, but at the New Hampshire College Prep program, such quirks are all but required.
Dan arrives to find that the usual summer housing has been closed, forcing students to stay in the crumbling Brookline dorm—formally a psychiatric hospital. As Dan and his new friends Abby and Jordan start exploring Brookline’s twisty halls and hidden basement, they uncover disturbing secrets about what really went on here…secrets that link Dan and his friends to the asylum’s dark past. Because it turns out Brookline was no ordinary psych ward. And there are some secrets that refuse to stay buried.
Featuring haunting found photographs from real asylums, this mind-bending reading experience blurs the lines between past and present, friendship and obsession, genius and insanity.

thoughts
Let’s begin by setting the scene. Dan (short for Daniel) is the adopted son of some people with a different last name. He kept “Crawford” because that’s what he’s always had, and he was adopted as a teen (or possibly slightly before double-digits). He has never wondered about his birth parents.

And Dan has some sort of wacky mental issue where he suffers from semi-frequent dissociative episodes where he acts normal (presumably) but can’t remember anything about them later. He’s also an introvert, which brings up the first major problem with this book: characterization.
Dan’s “introversion”/“social shyness”/“social anxiety” or whatever it is he’s meant to have is pretty much a joke. There are some instances where he feels awkward in public forums of various kinds, such as with his new friends, in the lunch room, his classroom, etc etc. But mostly it serves no point, plot-wise, and it actually contradicted at times during the plot.

Like with his new friends, Abby and Jordan. Abby is his love interest, and Jordan is the “other friend.” He met and bonded with Abby on the bus they took to get to the College Prep program, and Abby closer to him than Dan is. But no worried, love-triangle-fearers, Jordan is gay.
And yes, there actually is a plot reason for this that is not guys-and-girls-cannot-be-friends angle. You see, Jordan’s parents don’t actually know he’s at this summer program. They think he’s at some other program, somewhere else in the country, getting de-gay-ified. So, quite naturally, Jordan is afraid of getting kicked out. But besides adding conversation fodder (again and again and again), this fear is never developed in any real way.

When Dan and Abby explore the Forbidden Zone (my name) of Brookline and Jordan doesn’t want to go—because he risks expulsion followed by parental tantrums —the three of them argue and Jordan eventually gives in and goes with them. This happens every time they go or talk about going to the Forbidden Zone. In fact, the vast majority of conversation in this book revolves around Abby and Jordan arguing about something and Dan trying to mediate while also not insulting Abby, because she’s his love interest.
The dialogue basically sucks.

Other characters that contradict Dan’s social phobia-ness = his roommate, Felix; Jordan’s roommate, Yi; one of his teachers, Professor Reyes; and various other individuals Dan talks to without any trouble whatsoever. No physical symptoms, no mental symptoms, no nothing. Basically, there is nothing wrong with Dan, but there is an overwhelming feeling that the author wants there to be something wrong with Dan—besides the dissociative episodes, I mean.

So, yeah, character-wise, it feels like it’s written for a younger audience than it’s actually targeting.

Then there’s the plot. The plot is confusing. Apparently, the last warden of Brookline was an ancestor of Dan Crawfords. This warden was also named Daniel Crawford, and he was a megalomaniac freak who did awful shit to his patients deep in the underground bowels of the asylum.
One of his patients was a little girl named Lucy. She happens to be Abby’s aunt, a fact neither Dan nor Jordan initially believe. I don’t know why they don’t believe it, because it seems perfectly reasonable; Abby had an aunt who was “sent away” as a child, Lucy’s date of birth and date of admission match up, and Lucy has Abby’s last name. Also, Abby’s middle name, Lucy, came from her aunt.

So there’s really no reason for Dan or Jordan to disbelieve her. But they do. I suppose because the author was tired of writing the same conversations over and over and decided that the three of them need to split up for a while. Or perhaps she split them up to show that insta-friendship is not without it’s hardships. Or something. I don’t know, but it felt forced.

Another patient was Dennis Heimline, a serial killer known as the Sculptor. Interestingly, when Dan, Abby, and Jordan go down into the Forbidden Zone and find a bunch of old patient notecards, Dennis’s is one of the ones they read. They also read Lucy’s, which is how Abby knows the dates match up for Lucy to be her aunt. But anyway, while most of the notecards list “Homicidal: Y” and “Recovered: N”, Dennis’s notecard lists “Homicidal: Y” and “Recovered: Y”.

This is an intriguing fact that is never elaborated on. In fact, quite the opposite. What happens is, Dan blacks out more and more. He keeps getting these semi-creepy letters written in Warden Crawford’s handwriting (side note: one of these letters said, I’m paraphrasing, How do you kill a hydra? / You cut out its heart. This is “scary” because one of the teachers called Dan, Abby, and Jordan “the Hydra” when they came in late to class one time. It’s never elaborated on). He also keeps having these weird hallucinations/dreams where he is Warden Crawford.

During one of Dan’s blackouts, a man named named Joe who is tasked with keeping kids out of the Forbidden Zone, something he is spectacularly bad at, is killed and posed. Almost like the Sculptor had come back and done it. Of course, the police don’t think a dead serial killer had anything to do with it.

And here is where we learn that Dennis’s body was never found! And some townspeople don’t believe he’s actually dead! More on this later.
The police then arrest some random dude who had, in his possession, a bloody garrote that matched as the murder weapon. We never find out how he got it, but he’s not actually the killer. Oh, no. Nothing so mundane. What’s actually going on is that Felix is being possessed by Dannis. Felix, Dan’s wacky roommate. This isn’t totally out of the blue. When we first meet Felix, he’s very organized and he has a stiff way of speaking. He’s not the sort of person you’d imagine has a lot of friends, and he’s not the sort of person you’re likely to want as a roommate.
But then, Dan notices Felix has been working out. He does various exercises in their room. He goes on runs. He advises Dan to take it up as well, because he says it makes him feel more energized. Now, this is odd, but not noteworthy, because it seems just like something Felix would do. But, in hindsight, I think it’s supposed to be foreshadowing.

Now, about the possession. We come to realize Dan’s being possessed, at times, by Warden Crawford. This is presumably because of the Warden’s connection to Dan. But why did Dennis pick Felix? Was Felix doomed because he was unfortunate enough to be Dan’s roommate? Did Felix have some relation to Dennis? Who knows. And why, in the end, was Dan able to shake off Warden Crawford and emerge unscathed while Felix went crazy after his possession by Dennis?

And why (coming back to Dennis) did the author bring up the idea that Dennis might not be dead if she wasn’t planning on doing anything with it? As a red herring, it was unnecessary. She was writing a horror story about an asylum that once housed a serial killer and now somebody’s died—obviously the reader’s gonna think, “oh, Dennis’s ghost?” or “oh, Dennis didn’t die?” Red herrings are supposed to be distractions. They aren’t supposed to feel like dangling plot lines that didn’t get cleaned up during revision.

Also regarding the end: the climax revolves around a historical scene in which Warden Crawford is preparing to cure (somehow) Dennis before an audience. Dennis is strapped down on the operating table. Various nurses and doctors are watching. And then the police come in and break it up and the Warden is arrested and Dennis goes missing. In the climax, Dennis!Felix reverses the scenario. He straps down Dan on the same operating table in the same room. Abby is also captured and strapped down near by. But before Dennis!Felix can go to work on Dan, Jordan saves the day by turning off the lights and unstrapping Dan and Abby. Then Dan and Abby manage to subdue Dennis!Felix.

My main issue with this scene is that card way back at the beginning of the book. It listed Dennis as “Recovered: Y”. But if Warden Crawford had already cured Dennis, then why was he about to cure him in front of the audience?

And then, and then, at the very end, Dan gets another note. At this point, he’s been assuming Felix gave him all the notes—something that Dennis!Felix somewhat confessed to. And at this precise moment we realize the book is not, in fact, a standalone. So I suppose the author put in all that weird stuff with Jordan (like the photograph of Jordan, Abby, and Dan in Jordan’s room where Jordan scratched out Dan’s face, and then Jordan’s increasing obsession with some unsolvable math problem) so she’d have something to do in the next book.

But when I was reading this book, I was expecting it to wrap up at the end. Until that note came, it was wrapping up at the end. It wasn’t the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone where he still has to defeat Voldemort and crap. The story was over. Besides Jordan’s weirdness, which felt more like crappy characterization than anything else, there’s nothing more to do.

The only truly good thing about this book is the setting. Brookline is so cool.

rating out of five stars
★☆☆☆☆

 

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#20 = Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci

TIN STAR by Cecil Castellucci

jacket flap blurb

I knew where I was. I was on a remote space station, sixteen light years from Earth. I knew where I was supposed to be —on the colony ship, heading for a new planet. And I knew what Brother Blue was thinking as his boot came toward me—that my body was no longer his problem.

Severely beaten and left for dead, Tula Bane finds herself abandoned on an alien space station far from Earth. Here, she must adapt to the extraterrestrial way of life—by outsmarting and trading with the natives. Luckily, she befriends Heckleck, an alien who helps her survive in the deep underbelly of the station As Tula gets back on her feet, she thirsts for revenge, and when the perfect opportunity presents itself—in the form of three humans crash landing on the station—the itch to escape is irresistible. But as the maps of the galaxy change, Tula discovers that things are much more interconnected than she thought. Vengeance will not be easy.

thoughts

Everything works together so well in this book. All the pieces fit perfectly, like the walls of an Inca palace. The tone is part wistful, part nostalgic, and part hopeful. It’s about a human girl named Tula. She was born on isolationist Earth in a universe that is full of different species. Most are Minor Species. But those with a certain number of successful colonies are Major Species.

The problem is, there aren’t very many hospitable planets and colonizing them is an arduous process. Many colonies fail, and teleporting from one spot in the universe to another is not always successful, meaning some ships never even make it to their destination.

Unlike most sci-fi books, in Tin Star humans are not a major power. Quite the opposite. They are new to the galactic playing field, and barely qualify as a Minor Species.

Tula’s mother became involved with a cult called the Children of Earth. It was led by a man named Brother Blue—those high up within the cult organization are “Brothers” and “Sisters.” The Children of Earth send out colonies. Tula is taken with her mother and her sister to be one such colony on the colony ship called Prairie Rose. If successful, it would be the fifth human colony among the stars.

Or so they think. In actuality, there are no colonies. There are simply skeleton crews on the supposedly-inhabited planet who keep the ruse going. A force called the Imperium, made of the five Major Species and a variety of Minor Species supporters, is gaining power. Brother Blue wants Earth to be in a position to ally with the Imperium once they gain full control. But to be in that position, they have to have colonies.

And that’s where his elaborate ruse comes in. The Prairie Rose is forced to make a detour to a space station called Yertina Feray, supposedly for repairs after a malfunction. In reality, Brother Blue plans to a) sell the grain the colonists are taking to start their colony and b) provide an area where he can split off from the colony, claiming there are issues he must deal with back on Earth and they will no doubt be successful without him.

Yertina Feray is pretty awesome setting. It is a space station that orbits the planet Quint. Quint, and thus Yertina Feray, were once a major figure on the galactic scene. But eventually Quint was mined to the bone, and with the mining boom over, the planet was barely inhabitable and essentially useless. Yertina Feray clings to life only as a way station, a place where ships from the center areas can stop before teleporting on to elsewhere in the galaxy (or vice-versa). Yertina Feray is almost completely ignored by the major galactic powers.

When Tula notices the grain is not on the Prairie Rose when it is time to leave, she points it out. At first to other colonists. And then, because she speaks halting, but passable Universal Galactic, to the aliens in charge of putting everything on the ship. But they say there weren’t instructed to put the grain on. Eventually, Brother Blue hears what’s going on. He takes her to a secluded location and beats her until he’s convinced she’s dead. Then he tells her family she’s going with him, not onwards with the colonists.

And this is how Tula Bane ends up stranded on Yertina Feray. Because humans are so rare, and the ones that exist are nomads, going from one place to another with no colony or purpose and forbidden from returning to Earth (because of Earth Gov’s isolationist stance, all who leave are forbidden from returning), aliens have a bad opinion of them. For many of them, Tula is the only human they’ve ever encountered.

The doctors on the station patch Tula back up and send her to Constable Tournour. Constable Tournour says they are not responsible for her. He advises her to stay out of trouble and disappear. But then, in a moment of mercy, he allows her to steal some objects from his office. She uses the money to go the Ministry of Colonies and Travel office, where she hears that the Prairie Rose never made it to its destination. It was destroyed during a faulty teleportation.

By chance, she ends up befriending and working for/with an alien called Heckleck. She comes to understand the body language of the aliens (at least the species that live on Yartina Feray and pass through) and their ways. She learns to live like Heckleck and so many others in the underguts, by bargaining one thing for another. Learning who can be bought, who needs what, what prices to ask and what prices to refuse.

But through it all, she wants revenge on Brother Blue. She wants to go home, even if she doesn’t know where that would be, seeing as she can’t go back to Earth. She tries to contact other human colonies, but receives no answer and doesn’t know that the colonies don’t truly exist. And then, as Heckleck says, the map of the galaxy changes.

The Imperium gains control. Earth allies with them. And Imperium ship comes to Yartina Feray and offers work and free passage to residents. Many go. All of them are Minor Species which are not allied with the Imperium. Why? Well, the Imperium is racist. They believe some species are good and deserve good work, and those that don’t meet up with their standards end up with the bad work.

When three humans crash land on Yartina Feray, that’s when things really get changed up for Tula. On one hand, they are human and she wants to go to them and get to know them. But on the other hand, she’s been the only human for three years now, and she doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with her own kind. Not to mention, her experiences with humans (*cough* Brother Blue *cough*) haven’t exactly been positive. And in addition, the other aliens don’t like the new humans, and Tula isn’t sure about them either.

This is getting long so I’ll try to wrap it up before I just tell you the entire story. Tula, Heckleck, Tournour, and Thado feel very real. I understood the psychology and emotions behind their actions, especially Tula’s internal conflicts. I also liked the characterization of the three humans, Els, Reza, and Caleb, and how it was revealed bit by bit, slowly, and realistically. And I was quite thrilled when, at the end, my Tula/Tournour ship turned into canon.

So what didn’t I like? Well, I thought the beginning could have been better. At times, in the beginning, Tula seemed disgruntled with the Children of Earth and Brother Blue. It seemed she was only there to be with her family. But at other times, she talks about how handsome Brother Blue is, and how much she trusts him and thinks he’s worthy of trust. She daydreams about one day getting called “Sister + color.” She comes up with colors in her head. Gray. Lilac. Teal.

I think it could have been better clarified how she felt about the Children of Earth when she was with them. I got the feeling she did believe in the Children of Earth, and in Brother Blue, but then she saw the grain, suspicions she’d been pushing back started to come to the surface. And then they realized fully when Brother Blue beat her, and she saw how he’d manipulated them.

But other than that, I loved the book. I loved how nothing was wasted. Nothing was brought up without a reason (hochts, for instance, and the miner robots). And I liked how it ended. It was sort of open-ended, in a way. Brother Blue is still out, making an increasing name for himself, and Tula misses her chance to kill him. But the end still feels like a success, because of other reasons. It ends on a hopeful, determined note, with a plan in Tula and Tournour’s minds to bring Brother Blue and the Imperium down.

It feels like there could be a sequel, but not like there has to be a sequel. In fact, I don’t think there should be a sequel. It might ruin it.

rating out of five stars

★★★★★

 

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#19 = The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason

THE CLOCKWORK SCARAB : A Stoker & Holmes novel by Colleen Gleason

jacket flap blurb

“Tonight, I ask, on behalf of her Royal Highness, the Princess of Wales: will you do what no other young women are called to do, and place your lives and honor at the feet of your country?”

Evaline Stoker and Mina Holmes never meant to get into the family business. But when you’re the sister of Bram and the niece of Sherlock, vampire hunting and mystery solving are in your blood, so to speak. And when two young society girls disappear—one dead, one missing—there’s no one more qualified to investigate. Now fierce Evaline and logical Mina must resolve their rivalry, navigate the advances of not just one but three mysterious gentlemen, and solve a murder with only one clue: a strange Egyptian scarab. The pressure is on and the stakes are high—if Stoker and Holmes don’t figure out why London’s finest sixteen-year-old women are in danger, they’ll become the next victims.

thoughts

Despite saying “a Stoker & Holmes” novel on the front, this is, in fact, the first of a series. A series which I will not be continuing with, for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, I should go over what works. The world is this steampunk alternate history thing with a lot of a really cool world-building touches, such as the steam gun. It was interesting and neither overshadowed the plot nor got lost within it.

Of course, part of this is because the plot is so iffy. There are a lot of characters who seem to serve precisely two functions. One for plot and one for love interest. For instance, Inspector Grayling. He is, essentially, Lestrade for Sherlock Holmes, representing the Scotland Yard end of things. His other purpose? To be Mina Holmes’ love interest. Well, one of them.

The other live interest is Dylan, who mysteriously time traveled from the future. Or possibly an alternate reality future, which is identical to our own (he has an iPhone, for instance). Besides being a love interest, he exists to provide mystery. He was transported via Sekhmet statue—the same Sekhmet statue that the Society of Sekhmet is using to, supposedly, raise Sekhmet herself (this Society is headed by an androgynous figure known as the Ankh).

I didn’t find Grayling very interesting, and to be honest neither was Dylan. The only love interest who seemed to have an ounce of depth was Pix, Evaline Stoker’s love interest. He is also a mystery figure who speaks with a fake Cockney accent (we know it’s fake because at one point he accidentally drops it in surprise). He appears in all sorts of strange places and seems to have a personality and life outside of Stoker, Holmes, and the Society of Sekhmet plot.

Other, less important characters include Irene Adler, Sherlock Holmes, and Mycroft Holmes. Mycroft doesn’t appear in the story, but he is mentioned. He’s Mina Holmes’s dad. Her mother apparently walked out of their life when Mina was a child and she isn’t given a name.

Sherlock appears entirely for the purpose of fanservice. He gets one scene that takes place over one page worth of text. He is shown with a group of police, but I guess he must be working on another mystery that isn’t mentioned because he vanishes from the story thereafter. You’d think, if he was working on the Society of Sekhmet mystery, he’d come up again. And possibly solve it before Mina. But no.

It leads to the question, why is he even in the story? Why wouldn’t the author have had him die before the story begins, thus cutting out his potential to usurp Mina or otherwise get involved in her dealings?

And then there’s Irene Adler. She’s mentioned as being just as intelligent as Sherlock, and just as crafty, yet she displays none of this supposed skill. She is the one who recruits Mina Holmes and Evaline Stoker to work on the Society of Sekhmet mystery, and she is essentially their handler. But her part in the story is so small it’s practically inconsequential. You could cut her out and leave an astonishingly small number of loose ends.

If I were writing this story, I would cut her. I would have Mycroft take her place. It brings him into the story, gives a new angle and tension between Mina and Mycroft. Mycroft (to my knowledge) is a manipulator, but he’s also very nationalistic. He would put the needs of the country above Mina’s, and use her desire to please him to get her to do what he wants (like teaming up with Evaline Stoker, who Mina initially dislikes).

And Mina would enjoy the fact that she’s allowed to do all this “male” stuff like science and investigating, but she’d also want Mycroft to be at least a little concerned for her, because he is her father and she’d want some proof that he cared about her as his daughter.

In addition, if Irene Adler were Mycroft, her absence in parts of the story could be explained by Mycroft’s numerous other duties.

Now, onto Evaline Stoker. On the surface, she sounds interesting. A vampire hunter from an illustrious family. Desperate to prove herself as a vampire hunter in a world where vampires are nearly extinct. Afraid of blood, but can still kick just about anyone’s ass with her combat skills and super-senses.

But, in reality, she’s just not as engaging as Mina Holmes. The way she narrates isn’t as interesting (though the author gets points for trying to make them distinct voices) and, generally, the things she picks up on aren’t as relevant to the story. She seems fixated on Pix. Besides giving an outsider’s view on Mina and trying to figure out what’s up with Pix, Evaline doesn’t seem to do much.

Possibly, though, this is because I couldn’t attach to her as well as I attached to Mina. The first couple chapters are all in Mina’s perspective. By the time we get to Evaline, the stage has already been set. Not to mention, her first portion consists entirely of internal monologue and a meeting with Pix.

But on to the plot.

Ah, the plot.

Where do I begin? How about the fact that from around the halfway point to the end of the book, absolutely nothing changes. Not our understanding of the characters, not the power position of the villain, nothing. The only change is that Mina and Evaline grow a tiny bit closer—or, rather, they realize they don’t hate each other anymore. It’s pretty clear to us readers by the halfway point.

Mysteries at the halfway point: Who is the Ankh? How did Dylan time travel? Who is Pix? What happened with Mina’s mom?

Mysteries at the end of the book: Who is the Ankh? How did Dylan time travel? Who is Pix? What happened with Mina’s mom?

Not to mention the lesser mystery of Jack the Ripper. He is mentioned several times. Is he going to end up part of the plot? Are these just throwaway comments to help with world-building?

The only thing that happened at the end was that one girl was saved. That’s it. That’s all. After half a book of buildup, not a single major mystery has been revealed. I felt cheated. I mean, I read this whole book and I don’t even get a single answer? What was the point of the last half of the book?

I have no problem with book series where the entire series is all about one major problem. Like the Lynburn Legacy by Sarah Rees Brennan, and the Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. Or how about Broadchurch, the TV show detailing one investigation? Those were all good (well, the Lynburn Legacy isn’t over, but the first two have been good).

But this, this is not good. It’s like the author took their story and stretched it out too far. There’s no sense of accomplishment at the end of the book, but nor is there any sense that things have gotten any worse.

rating out of five stars

★☆☆☆☆

 

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#18 = Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

FANGIRL by Rainbow Rowell

jacket flap blurb

Cath is a Simon Snow fan. Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan, but for Cath, being a fan is her life—and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving.

Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fan fiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere.

Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to.

Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words . . . And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.

For Cath, the question is: Can she do this? Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?

thoughts

Rainbow Rowell, I have only read two of your books (Attachments and Fangirl) but I have adored both of them. I will forgive your ridiculous first name (I will admit, I did hesitate to read a book by Rainbow somebody. But I’m glad I did).

I’m not sure there’s much to say about this book. The characters are fantastic. Cath (short for Cather), Wren, their father, Levi (Levi), Reagan, Professor Piper, Jandro (short for Alejandro), Laura, and even Nick. Oh, and, of course, Baz and Simon. They all felt so real. And the writing was gorgeous. It was funny sometimes and serious sometimes and always engaging.

But there’s only so long you can write about how great something is before you dissolve into a puddle of loving adjectives. So I’ll skip to the one thing I didn’t like. I didn’t like not knowing whether Cath finished Carry On before the eighth Simon Snow book came out or not. Maybe I just missed it, or something, but I don’t think it was said.

And perhaps that was intended to be meaningful, a show of Cath putting real Levi before fictional Baz and Simon. But I completely understood why Cath felt she needed to finish Carry On (her fanfiction novel of the eighth book) before book eight came out. I totally got that part about if book eight came out first, it wouldn’t be the same. Cath’s say wouldn’t matter. The real author of the Simon Snow books would close the cover, roll the credits, end the story. No more imagining what might happen, because all the lines have been said, all the plot threads tied off.

And yeah, you can keep imagining what could have happened (plenty of people do with Harry Potter), but it’s not the same. Someone, it’s not as real of a story after the real author cuts in and says no, this is what happens. This is canon.

So I really wanted to know if Cath finished Carry On before the deadline. Yes, we got our, does the author see Baz as Cath and so many others see Baz? Or is she going to close his story with so much of him unfulfilled, unwritten? moment where Baz switches sides. And yes, that was part of Cath’s fear of what the real author would say in the final book and how it would compare to what she so desperately hoped would happen, but still. I would have liked to know.

But other that that one thing, it was brilliant. All the relationships were fantastically written and well thought out. I loved how no, Cath was not forced into reuniting with her mother in a painfully wishful, sappy scene. I loved her relationship with her sister, Wren, with Levi, with her father, with Reagan, with Nick. I loved everything about Cath, really. As a writer (though not of fanfiction) with social anxiety, I really connected. I loved how she kept wanting to say no to Professor Piper, but just couldn’t do it because she got so nervous. The social anxiety was done marvelously (you see what I mean about puddle of loving adjectives?), and the plot felt very realistic. Very…human, I guess.

rating out of five stars

★★★★★

 

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#17 = Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan

UNSPOKEN by Sarah Rees Brennan

jacket flap blurb

Kami Glass loves someone she’s never met…a boy she’s talked to in her head ever since she was born. She wasn’t silent about her imaginary friend during her childhood, and is thus a bit of an outsider in her sleepy English town of Sorry-in-the-Vale. Still, Kami hasn’t suffered too much from not fitting in. She has a best friend,runs the school newspaper, and is only occasionally caught talking to herself. Her life is in order, just the way she likes it, despite the voice in her head.

But all that changes when the Lynburns return.

The Lynburn family has owned the spectacular and sinister manor that overlooks Sorry-in-the-Vale for centuries. The mysterious twin sisters who abandoned their ancestral home a generation ago are back, along with their teenage sons, Jared and Ash, one of whom is eerily familiar to Kami. Kami is not one to shy away from the unknown—in fact, she’s determined t find answers for all the questions Sorry-in-the-Vale is suddenly posing. Who is responsible for the bloody deeds in the depths of the woods? What is her own mother hiding? And now that her imaginary friend has become a real boy, does she still love him? Does she hate him? Can she trust him?

Sarah Rees Brennan brings Gothic romance kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century with a heroine who can take care of herself, a boy who needs to be saved, and the magical forces that bring them together and tear them apart.

thoughts

I loved Kami’s narration. She’s witty and clever and logical. No matter what, she always tries to stay grounded, look at things objectively. But at the same time, she’s a reporter to the bone. She can’t stay away from a mystery. She has to know. She the definition of an assertive narrator—as opposed to a passive one, who only responds to situations and doesn’t take the lead. Kami’s all about taking the lead, taking control, making things happen. She’s very enjoyable to read. She has a lot of determination, a lot of spunk.

I didn’t like Jared quite as much. Compared to Kami, compared to Angela, to Holly, to Ash, Jared is a bit flat. He’s a thrill-seeker, to a certain extent (he likes to fight, he likes to make a scene, to ride his motorcycle dangerously fast). But he’s also obsessively in love with Kami, and wants to keep her safe and keep her out of danger. I feel like his love for Kami defines his character. And yes, yes, he has this horrible backstory: his mother hates him, his father beat him, he accidentally killed his father, blah blah blah.

But still. Who is he? He loves Kami. He likes his motorcycle. He’s a moody, delinquent, bad-boy. He wears a leather jacket and hates his cousin. He sees the world in black-and-white. He feels guilty when he gets pissed and someone gets hurt/something gets broken (hurt people’s feelings, damage physical property). But it just seems like without Kami, there isn’t much left to drive his character. What does he want? What does he care about, besides Kami? I don’t know. And I feel like I only care about him because Kami cares about him, and I care about her.

Another thing: I think there was supposed to be some sort of love triangle going on between Ash, Kami, and Jared. But I’m not totally sure if I, the reader, was supposed to be wondering if Kami would go for Ash over Jared or vice-versa. Because, frankly, I didn’t think Ash fit well with Kami.

I like Ash’s character (plot spill = his evil dad family-first/I-will-finally-be-proud-of-you-style guilts him into being a bad guy, but in the end he can’t go through with it). He’s complex and sympathetic, wavering along the line of morality. He’s kind of like Draco Malfoy, actually, but less of a douche bag. But I don’t think Kami would ever he happy with him. He’s not…enough. He’s not passionate enough, he’s not curious enough, he’s not enough.

So If I had any advice for revising this story, I’d probably tell the author to sort out Kami’s feelings about Ash. Does she like him, or does she like the idea of him (i.e.: someone nice who she’s not mentally linked with)?

And now for other characters. One is Angela. She is Kami’s best friend, and she kicks ass. She’s also a (spoiler) lesbian, and has a crush on Holly. Holly is another friend of Kami. She’s someone Kami wasn’t especially friendly with until recently, and after they started talking, Kami had this sort of realization that she’d been avoiding Holly’s attempts at friendship really for no reason, because Holly’s great. But Holly also…ahem…developed (aka got boobs and curves) earlier than the other girls in their small town.

Kami is already insecure about her appearance. For one thing, she’s part-Asian in an all-white town. For another, Angela is super-pretty. Like, Twilight vampire-level beautiful. So I think part of the reason Kami stays away from Holly is because Holly is a boy-magnet, and known for it (unlike Angela, who basically hates people). So she feels a jealous. But she gets over it. Probably because Holly is so wonderful (and bisexual, I think. I know that she likes Angela back, so she does like girls. It’s unclear on the boys. Personally I think she’s bisexual).

And then there is Rusty. Rusty is Angela’s brother. He’s kind of a side character. But he’s great. I would have liked to see more of him, actually. He’s a cross between friend and big brother to Kami—which is cool, because you don’t see boy-girl friendships very often.

Oh, and then there’s the Lynburns. Rob, husband of the sisters Lillian and Rosalind (and thus not actually born a Lynburn). Everyone thought he would marry Rosalind, but he ended up going for Lillian. So for, Rob doesn’t have a very deep character. He wants revenge for the previous Lynburns killing his parents (why? well, Rob’s oh-so-lovely mom and pop were killing townspeople in their basement for power) but that seems to be his only motivation at this point. Maybe he’s just a power-hungry murderer. Apple-doesn’t-fall-far-from-the-tree and all that.

Rosalind’s much the same. She was pissed and heartbroken when Rob picked Lillian over her. She dislikes her sister. Beneath it all, she actually does care whether Jared lives or dies. So there is depth, there, but I think it could have been done better.

Lillian, however, is another story. She’s arrogant. She sees the town as her kingdom, and herself as a queen—but not in a Louis the Sun King kind of way. She takes her family’s ancient role as protector of Sorry-in-the-Vale very seriously. She’s a very interesting character. An interesting blend of likable traits and unlikable traits.

As for the plot…I loved it. Murder and mystery and magic and action. The end left me wanting more and wasn’t a cliff-hanger. The ending was surprising, but believable. I guessed that Kami and Jared’s connection would have to be cut, but I didn’t see their conversation at the very end coming. I have the second book on hold at the library already.

On a final note, there are a few parts written from Jared’s point of view. While I wasn’t sure if they were necessary in this book or not, I feel like it’s setting something more necessary up for the second book. It didn’t bug me, but I think if the second book’s going to have a more even Kami-Jared distribution, Jared really does need to be a more complex, engaging character.

rating out of five stars

★★★★★