#16 = Perfect Ruin by Lauren DeStefano

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PERFECT RUIN by Lauren DeStefano

jacket flap blurb

On Internment, you can be anything you dream—a novelist or a singer, a florist or a factory worker….Your life is yours to embrace or to squander. There’s only one rule: you don’t approach the edge. If you do, it’s already over.

thoughts

This book put me in such a bad mood. The writing style was so engaging, and there were so many great moments and details and talking about the sky and the edge and the festival…but I ended up disliking it. The protagonist is Blandy McBlandbland big time. She’s so incredibly Disney princess perfect, it drove me nuts.

I don’t want flawless honor and moral perfection, this utopia girl. I don’t want this girl that looks on her parent’s murderer and doesn’t want to cause him any pain, doesn’t want to see him pay. I don’t want this girl who doesn’t feel anger, who’s always kind and good and considerate.

I want a protagonist who’s real. I want a gritty girl, I want a flawed girl. I want a girl who chafes at the limitations of her world and herself. I want a girl who needs, who wants, who yearns. I want reality, in all the shades-of-gray and ruthless passion, that it is.

Morgan is not that girl. She is the faultless one, the fake one. The one who is endlessly forgiving when any rational person would be howling for blood. Her best friend, Pen, feels, breathes, lives. Morgan does not. Pen’s betrothed, Thomas, does not. Morgan’s betrothed, Basil, does not. So many characters are flat, existing to power on a plot that was lost long before their world fell apart.

And that brings me to the plot. It is forced. I read it and I see in my head the author, plodding along in their vision, forcing their characters to act in order to further that vision, and loosing sight of who they are what she has made them.

Internment is a floating island bordered by a globe-wall of wind. Get to close to the edge, and for no reason that is ever explained, you go just a little bit crazy. Oh, and you end up with some physical disability. Internment is presented as a utopia, or at least a near-utopia.

So what happens? A girl is murdered. A boy named Judas is blamed. Morgan’s dad is a patrolman (police officer). Morgan runs into Judas, who has escaped custody, and hides him. For no particular reason, she doesn’t think he murdered the girl, despite the fact that her dad is a police officer and you’d think she’d trust his judgement. She seems to trust her world, trust Internment. Believe in it. And yet she hides Judas.

As it turns out, Judas did not kill the girl. The king had her killed because she was speaking against the accepted religion, challenging the way things are in Internment, and planning to fly a “bird” (some sort of plane thing) to the highly-forbidden ground. We learn that the king has had many rebels killed in the past (something which caused Morgan’s father great angst, which he never acted on)—however, most of those were made to look like accidents.

We’re given a reason why the girl, Daphne, was made to be murder, but it doesn’t really make sense. Supposedly, it was to help quell any rebellious thoughts among the populace. Because making people realize the city they thought was safe and perfect actually has a murderer running around is the best way to get them in line.

Anyway, Morgan, her father, her older brother and her older brother’s wife, and her mother are all poisoned via medication that they’ve been taking. The brother, Lex, and his wife, Alice, escape death because they actually just pretend to take the medication. Morgan escapes death by apparently magical means. Her father and her mother—who is completely irrelevant to the story, anyway—are killed.

After this, Morgan, Lex, Alice, Basil, Judas, and a couple others hide out underground in the bird/plane. Lex, Alice, Judas, and the others because they were all rebels. Basil because he goes with Morgan. Then Morgan decides to sneak away during the night to see Pen and to murder the king (she is, as per usual, quite serene through this rash decision). She meets with Pen, and they are promptly captured by the prince and princess, who take them to the castle and lock them up without anyone else knowing (namely, the king). Their goal, find the bird/plane. It’s not clear why.

Morgan and Pen escape, and during the escape Pen thwacks the prince over the head with a brick. They run back to the safety of the bird/plane. Not long after, the bird/plane starts burrowing down, because the bird/plane is also part mole. The plan is to dig to the bottom of Internment and then just fly off to the ground. Only, they don’t have to dig the entire way, because of this wacky, unexplained vortex inside part of Internment called “the swallows.” It sucks them down, and then they’re spat out into the sky. How convenient. How inexplicable.

And then, mid-flight, guess who appears? Yes, the princess. She somehow stole aboard, with a hostage. And this hostage is (wait for it) Thomas, Pen’s betrothed. Aw. Morgan, ever the diplomat, convinces the princess to let Thomas go and give up her weapons (and not once during the conversation does she want to throttle the princess. Oh-so-virtuous Morgan does think of such things like violence, or anger).

The bizarre party manages to land their contraption and step out just in time to be surrounded by ground-dweller vehicles. End of book one.

Oh, and did I mention the author is clearly trying to set Judas, Morgan, and Basil up for a love-triangle? Kill me now. Or better yet, kill them.

All in all, a plot that acts like all the ridiculous elements (I’m looking at you, swallows, and you, wind-barrier) are actually totally plausible and realistic and this is just another alternate-reality/dystopia novel, and a main character less interesting that tepid oatmeal. Which especially sucked, because the premise is so fascinatingly wonderful and the writing so elegant and beautiful.

rating out of five stars

★☆☆☆☆

is it worth reading?

Only for the writing.

want to read it for yourself?

Buy at Amazon Buy at Powell’s

#15 = The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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THE FALSE PRINCE by Jennifer A. Nielsen

jacket flap blurb

Four boys.

One treacherous plan.

An entire kingdom to fool.

In a faraway land, civil war is brewing. To unify his kingdom’s divided people, a nobleman named Conner devises a cunning plan to find an impersonator of the king’s long-lost son and install him on the throne. Four orphans are forced to compete for the role, including a defiant and clever boy named Sage. Sage knows that Conner’s motives are more than questionable, yet his life balances on a sword’s point—he must be chosen to play the prince of he will certainly be killed. His rivals will be devising their own plots as well, so Sage must trust no one and keep his thoughts hidden.

As Sage moves from a rundown orphanage to Conner’s sumptuous palace, layer upon layer of deceit unfolds, until finally, a truth is revealed that may very well prove more dangerous than all of the lies taken together.

Jennifer A. Nielsen has woven a heart-racing tale full of danger and bold adventure, lies and deadly truths that will keep readers on the edge of their seats.

thoughts

This is an excellent book. The characters were interesting and complex—surprisingly so. The book starts out fairly shallow, with only clever dialogue and an engaging premise to drag people in. But the further you go, the more the characters are fleshed out. It doesn’t lose it’s snappy wit, but it gains depth.

There are a number of small twists throughout the story that keep you guessing who can be trusted and who can’t, but the biggest surprise comes near the end. See, Sage really is the long-lost Prince Jaron. It was something I starting asking myself about halfway through or so; if Sage could actually be Jaron. But by the time the reveal rolled around, I’d convinced myself it wasn’t possible—after all, the book is written in first person, if Sage was Jaron, wouldn’t it be pretty clear?

But it’s not. It’s written so that you can’t tell, can’t be sure one way or another. There are hints—they’re just sentences really, and they are initially confusing. But once you find out Sage is Jaron, it suddenly makes a lot more sense.

The one thing that bugs me, though, is how much more of Sage/Jaron’s thoughts we get after the reveal. Stuff to clarify what has happened up to that point, what went through Sage/Jaron’s head that we weren’t privy to. I wonder if there was a better way to get that information across. For one thing, I think it would have been okay for us to learn where Sage/Jaron hid the “gold” rock at Conner’s house. I don’t think it would have made his status as prince any more or less clear.

My favorite character, besides Sage/Jaron, was probably Mott. And after him Tobias. The one character I wasn’t sure about was Imogen. I couldn’t understand why Sage/Jaron was so interested in her. Was he attracted to her? Did he just pity her? Did she remind him of someone? I don’t know. I suspect he was attracted to her, but it’s really unclear. A lot of Sage/Jaron’s actions are written in a way that leans towards the third person objective style (observe actions and dialogue without thoughts—like a movie, essentially, but just following one character), except it’s in first person. So it’s hard to say how Sage/Jaron really felt about Imogen.

And, actually, it’s hard to say what he really felt about a lot of things. I’m not a fan of the objective style (I’ve never actually read a book in it, but I have read numerous short stories). It works for movies because viewers can see the actor’s faces and body language, which can communicate subtleties. But in a book, all of that is missing. Which is normally just fine, because books can do something movies can’t: get directly inside a character’s head and head what they’re thinking, witness the inner workings of their personality.

But with the style this book is written in, most of that is cut out. I think the author could have included more of it in the same slightly-confusing, make-the-readers-guess way she did for a lot of the hints that Sage was Jaron. And she could have included a lot more about how Sage/Jaron felt about Mott, Tobias, Roden, Imogen, Conner, and other characters. That’s pretty much the reason why this book gets four stars and not five.

And yes, this is the first of a series. A trilogy, it looks like. But no, thankfully it does not end on a cliff-hanger.

rating out of five stars

★★★★☆

is it worth reading?

Absolutely.

want to read it for yourself?

Buy at Amazon Buy at Powell’s

#14 = Reboot by Amy Tintera

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REBOOT by Amy Tintera

jacket flap blurb

Five years ago, Wren Connolly was shot three times in the chest. After 178 minutes, she came back as a Reboot: stronger, faster, able to heal, and less emotional. The longer Reboots are dead, the less human they are when they return. Wren 178 is the deadliest Reboot in the Republic of Texas. Now seventeen years old, she serves as a soldier for HARC (Human Advancement and Repopulation Corporation).

Wren’s favorite part of the job is training new Reboots, but her latest newbie—Callum Reyes—is the worst she’s ever seen. As a 22, Callum is practically human. His reflexes are too slow, he’s always asking questions, and his ever-present smile is freaking her out. Yet he’s still her newbie. When Callum refuses to follow an order, Wren is given one last chance to get him in line—or she’ll have to eliminate him. Wren has never disobeyed an order before and knows that if she does, she’ll be eliminated, too. But she has also never felt as alive as she does around Callum.

The perfect soldier is done taking orders.

thoughts

I suppose I’m biased against this novel. I went in expecting, essentially, a Vulcan-style main character (from Star Trek, in case that wasn’t obvious). Instead, I got a she’s-not-as-emotionless-as-she-seems-because-underneath-it-all-she’s-just-like-everyone-else. And there’s nothing wrong with that sort of storyline, I just went in hoping for something different. It wasn’t what I wanted.

Not to mention, I was disappointed when the anti-kissing/personal-contact Wren started desiring to kiss and possibly have sex with Callum. I was thinking, before then, oh, look, an asexual YA character, that’s interesting. But no. Instead I get this whole if you don’t want to have sex, there’s something wrong with you / any asexual character can be converted into a “normal” person. And that kind of pissed me off.

But all-in-all, I still enjoyed the book. There were a few parts where Wren seemed overly emotional, and by the end, I was left confused whether the higher numbers were actually less human than the lower numbers. I sort of thought they were, or at least they were supposed to be and it was only logical that they would be, but at the same time Wren didn’t feel like a high number. Not after about the first third of the story, anyway.

Besides Wren, I liked most of the characters. Leb was cool, Callum was okay, and the rebels were interesting (especially Desmond). I liked Addie, too. I liked the interactions between the Reboots and the humans. I thought it was kind of odd for Wren to believe HARC was actually trying to help people, considering they had food and medicine aplenty and didn’t offer it to the many starving people in the slums.

Plot-wise, it was okay. It was fast-paced, but it wasn’t especially surprising. It was hard to celebrate at the end, though. It should have been exciting, but it wasn’t because it just felt dull, predictable. The writing was good, and I liked that it ended with the REBOOT TERRITORY sign, but I felt like something was missing.

For one thing, I think the second line of the sign: ALL HUMANS TURN BACK, was…odd. I mean, it made sense, but at the same time there seemed to be an subplot about the Reboot/human relationship that wasn’t wrapped up and didn’t quite correlate with the sign. I mean, there was some indication that the Reboots would help the rebel humans fight HARC, but that sign doesn’t represent it.

Of course, there is a sequel and perhaps this has something to do with that. But I’m not sure there’s anything about this book that makes me feel compelled to read the next one. There was nothing glaringly wrong with the book, but it just wasn’t…enough. The characters weren’t vibrant enough, the plot wasn’t fascinating enough, and the twists were non-existent. There was a dissonance between the rules set up at the beginning (higher number = less humanity/emotion) and the characters and actions portrayed in the story.

On a final note I thought it was strange that off all the curses the humans would use, they wouldn’t use the obvious: “zombie.” Maybe the author just didn’t want it to be an overtly zombie book? I don’t know. It seemed pretty obvious.

rating out of five stars

★★☆☆☆

is it worth reading?

Meh.

want to read it for yourself?

Buy at Amazon Buy at Powell’s

#13 = The Unidentified by Rae Mariz

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THE UNIDENTIFIED by Rae Mariz

jacket flap blurb

Fifteen-year-old Katey (aka Kid) goes to school in the Game—a mall converted into a “school” run by corporate sponsors. As the students play their way through the levels, they are also creating products and being used for market research by the sponsors, who are watching them 24/7 on video cameras.

Kid has a vague sense of unease but doesn’t question this existence until one day she witnesses a shocking anticorporate prank. She follows the clues to uncover the identities of the people behind it and discovers an anonymous group that calls itself the Unidentified. Intrigued by their counterculture ideas and enigmatic leader, Kid is drawn into the group. But when the Unidentified’s pranks and even Kid’s own identity are co-opted by the sponsors, Kid decides to do something bigger—something that could change the Game forever.

This funny, sharp, and thought-provoking novel heralds the arrival of a stunning new voice in teen fiction.

thoughts

The world-building took center stage, but it was definitely not the only good aspect of this book. I really enjoyed how the Game started off seeming like a good thing—or at least a giant step up from our current education system—and then, bit by bit, we and Kid discover that it’s anything but. And we don’t just realize a lot of new information. Some stuff is new, and we know more and more about the world as the book goes on, but mostly, its just looking at the situation from a different angle and recognizing how controlling and manipulating the Game truly is.

The characters were interesting and complex, too. I liked how the romance took back stage to the more important things that were going on. I liked Ari’s character and how, like the Game itself, it was revealed that she wasn’t the friend Kid thought she was. I liked Tesla’s development from just somebody Kid kind of knew into someone she could trust. I liked Kid’s relationship with Mrs. Winterson. I liked the Unidentified (naturally), and how their hatred of the system is used by an aspect of the system to get something that aspect wants. I liked Mikey.

But despite all this, there was something missing. And I’m not quite sure what it was. Perhaps it was the fact that Kid is not that interesting of a viewpoint character to follow, and while I supported her, I didn’t feel all that angry when she was wronged or panicked when she was in trouble or happy when she succeeded. Perhaps it was the fact that it didn’t feel quite finished; despite the way it’s written to feel like a stand-alone, the ending left something to be desired—something hard to pinpoint.

All in all, it was good but it felt like it was missing something. Some core, something that pulled it along, some need or longing in the main character that would make the whole thing more vibrant, more alive, more immediate. It needed, I suppose, passion. Both more of it in Kid and more of it in the writing itself.

And, on one last note, the prologue is pointless.

rating out of five stars

★★★★☆

is it worth reading?

Yeah.

want to read it for yourself?

Buy at Amazon Buy at Powell’s

#12 = Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

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ATTACHMENTS a novel by Rainbow Rowell

jacket flap blurb

A strikingly clever and deeply moving story about falling in love with the person who makes you feel like the best version of yourself. Even if it’s someone you’ve never met.

Beth Fremont and Jennifer Scribner-Snyder, coworkers at the Courier, know the newspaper monitors their office e-mail. But they still spend all day sending each other messages, gossiping about their coworkers, and baring their personal lives like an open book. Jennifer tells Beth everything she can’t seem to tell her husband about her anxieties over starting a family. And Beth tells Jennifer everything, period.

Meanwhile, Lincoln O’Neill still can’t believe that it’s his job to monitor other people’s e-mail. When he applied to be an Internet security officer, he pictured himself protecting the newspaper from dangerous hackers—not sending out memos every time somebody in Accounting forwarded an off-color joke to the person in the next cubicle.

Lincoln is supposed to turn people in for misusing company e-mail, but he can’t quite bring himself to crack down on Beth and Jennifer. He can’t help being entertained—and captivated—by their stories. But by the time Lincoln realizes he’s falling for Beth, it’s way too late for him to ever introduce himself. What would he say to her? “Hi, I’m the guy who reads your e-mail, and also, I love you”?

With snapping dialogue and irresistible charm, Rainbow Rowell transforms and ordinary IT guy into a lovable and endearing romantic hero and proves that falling in love never happens the way you plan it. Written with whip-smart precision and charm, Attachments is a fresh and energetic debut that marks the arrival of an exciting new voice in fiction.

thoughts

I don’t normally read books about adults. They tend to be kind of…thick. Not dense, but thick. And slower, too. Like YA is fast so teens don’t get bored by for some reason the people who write adult fiction think if you’re grown-up, you have all the time in the world to spend dilly-dallying your way through one of their novels.

But anyway. This book was not thick. At all. It was tense and wonderful, with a host of realistic, quirky characters and witty narration and unexpected twists. And even though it’s a romance from chapter one (from the jacket-flap, actually), you can’t say for certain that they’re going to end up together. Right up until the very end, I was guessing. I was wondering, is this going to be one of those bittersweet we-were-almost-together-but-we-ended-up-with-different-people books?

And sometimes I was thinking, this is all going to work out for them somehow. And other times I was convinced it was never going to happen between and there was no possible way for it to work out to be a happy ending. But it did. And it was wonderful and surprising and believable.

As for the characters, there are a quite a lot of them. There’s Lincoln, of course. And then there’s the friends Beth and Jennifer, and Beth’s boyfriend Chris and Jennifer’s husband Mitch. There’s Lincoln’s mom, his sister Eve (and her husband Jake), his Dungeons & Dragons friends—the main ones being Christine and Dave—his friend Justin, and his boss Greg. And then there’s his other friend, Doris. And Eve has two kids. And Justin ends up with a girlfriend. And there’s this girl Emilie who’s hitting on Lincoln. Oh, and Sam, Lincoln’s ex-girlfriend from high school. And I think that’s it.

But this isn’t exactly an action movie-style book, where a cast of like three and the bad guys are going to cut it. I never found myself confused over who was who, or trying to place where we heard a certain name before. So even though it seems like a lot of characters, it works really well, and they all add something to the story and the plot. And that’s really the question: would something be lost if you took _____ out? And yes, something would be lot if any of the characters were cut or combined.

But it’s not perfect. It’s almost perfect. It’s close enough to go on my wish list. But it could be better. For one thing, chapter 87 and the last bit of chapter 86 seem rushed and wrap-up-y, like knots are being tied off. And that sort of writing makes the momentum take an immediate downward leap. Right off a cliff. A cliff with no bottom, no resolution, no ending to the nebulous limbo of dulled interest. There was chapter I had to go back and re-read twice because I kept skimming it.

I only had one other issue with the book, and that what Lincoln looked like. He’s tall and muscular. But until like halfway through the book, I was picturing him as Mr. Ordinary. Someone you could pass on the street and not notice. In fact, when Beth started describing one of their encounters in one of her emails to Jennifer, I had to double-check the original scene to make sure it was actually him she was referencing. Just some mention of how tall he was compared to Sam earlier would be nice. We have something about that, when Lincoln’s thinking about what it would be like to hug Beth and then comparing it to hugging Sam. But that’s practically at the end of the book. Something in the first quarter would be good.

But overall, I left the book feeling good. But I also left the book feeling like if chapter 87 had been drawn out into multiple chapters, the momentum from Lincoln’s quitting, and the suspense of not knowing if this is it for him and Beth, would have carried longer and it wouldn’t have felt like the end before the end actually happened. Especially since the end was so incredibly fantastic.

rating out of five stars

★★★★★

is it worth reading?

Hell yes. It’s worth buying.

want to read it for yourself?

Buy at Amazon Buy at Powell’s

#11 = Wrapped by Jennifer Bradbury

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WRAPPED by Jennifer Bradbury

jacket flap blurb

Agnes Wilkins makes a lovely debutante. She’s stunning, poised, and always wrapped in stylish, one-of-a-kind gowns. But her well-plotted future—filled with husband, home, and high society—is about to come unraveled…and she couldn’t be more pleased.

For a girl like Agnes, 1815 London doesn’t offer many options…until she uncovers a secret. A misplaced mummy holds a mystery that could be her way out of stuffy parties and strained elegance…but it also sets off a string of catastrophes that could become someone else’s undoing. A chance accident? Her true destiny? It’s hard to say. But for Agnes there’s no turning back.

thoughts

While all in all enjoyable, I thought the romance between Agnes and Caedmon was too prominent in the story. The jacket-flap is extremely vague, so I’ll have to give a (sort of) quick summary for anything to make any sense at all.

So, Agnes goes to a party of sorts hosted by her highly sought-after suitor, Lord Showalter. It is a “unwrapping” wherein Showalter presents them with a wrapped mummy, and various people take turns cutting into the wrappings in the hopes of finding little trinkets and other valuables. Because Showalter is courting her, Agnes is naturally one of the first to have a (reluctant) go. Agnes is one of those people who dislikes this idea of essentially stealing Egypt’s (and other “exotic” countries’) priceless artifacts and treating them as nothing but a game. Which, of course, I found immensely likable. I’ll talk more about it later.

So, unsurprisingly, Agnes finds an artifact, a little metal jackal head. Because someone else had just found something, she was able to slip into her bodice. She reasons that it isn’t really stealing because Showalter already said the could keep whatever they found. And then the museum calls: this is actually a very important mummy, and it was mixed up with the one that was intended to be sent to Showalter. So all the trinkets are returned. All except the one Agnes has.

She doesn’t particularly know what to do with it. She knows it’s important, because at the party, she was walking in the garden and someone suspicious followed her. She evaded him, but that, combined with the museum’s call, has her convinced this is a very important artifact. Eventually she ends up at the museum to ask about it, claiming that she found it a year or so ago. This is where she meets Caedmon, who works at the museum. They discover invisible ink writing on the artifact with a message intended for Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who recently escaped exile on Elis island and now, once again, threatens England. The message speaks of “W’s standard.” They piece together that “W” stands for Wepwawet, an important Egyptian deity. And his standard supposedly has the power to make the bearer invincible and give the ability to raise an army of the dead to fight for them. Even if it can’t do this supposed feat, it will still be able to boost moral and turn the tide of war firmly to Napoleon’s side.

They do eventually find the standard, all the while sneaking about at the same time that Agnes is forced to court Showalter. One of her servants, Clarisse, helps her because she’s something of a romantic and thinks Agnes is sneaking off to be with her “beau.” The standard is hidden on Showalter’s property, unbeknownst to Showalter himself. However, it does turn out that Showalter is a French spy, and it was him that the message was originally supposed to reach. Agnes and Caedmon beat him, and get the standard to Agnes’s father, who’s fairly high-ranking, and save the day.

Now, I liked how Showalter was written. It was believable and realistic. At the beginning, he was convincingly dislikable in that way some supposedly “magnetic” people are dislikable, for no particular feeling. Just a gut instinct sort of thing. And further on, he was decent, but neither threatening, hatable, or lovable. He was just sort amiable—which was perfect. I admit, I didn’t see it coming that he was a spy (all though how Agnes ended up besting him was rather obvious).

Caedmon was pretty awesome. He wasn’t super-annoying, like some love interests are, but neither was he without any flaws whatsoever perfect little angel. There were things I liked about him, and there were things I didn’t. I liked his personality, I liked how he fit with Agnes, and I liked the way he got when he talked about his passion (Egyptology, obviously).

I didn’t like how he could be kind of…I’m not sure what the word is. Eurocentric? Anglophile-ish? Disdainful of other nations? I don’t know, but I didn’t like it. I also didn’t like how he seemed to fall in love with Agnes after like two seconds. I’m not a fan of insta-love/love at first sight, especially when it’s only in one of the halves of the relationship. But his eurocentricity/anglophiliness/whatever wasn’t a big issue. I wouldn’t even bring it up if it wasn’t for one particular scene that I really hate. So my only real issue with Caedmon is how he falls so fast for Agnes, and then he just has to kind of wait, pathetically, to see if she returns it. I don’t know if it’s realistic or not—it probably is—but it doesn’t seem quite in line with his character, or some of his other actions.

Agnes’s brothers were also well-written. They didn’t have very large parts, but what we saw of them was good. I especially liked Rupert. Agnes isn’t Rupert’s biggest fan, and neither is he hers. They are those kinds of siblings. But Rupert’s not a villain, he isn’t there just so Agnes can have a slightly-annoying brother. He is, actually, complex and fleshed-out. We saw even less of Agnes’s other brother, Daniel, and he was likable in that bland, pleasant way nice characters without a lot of screen time are. But Agnes looks up to him, and that was written nicely; I could look up to him, too.

Agnes’s parents are kind of like that, with her father as Rupert and her mother as Daniel. Her father is far more fleshed out that her mother, and it shows. But her mother is so unimportant, all things considered, to the story it doesn’t matter all that much. It wasn’t a major detractor.

Guess what was a major detractor? As I started off with, the prominence of the romance between Agnes and Caedmon. Now, I have nothing against romance. I like a good romance. But there are books that should be mainly about the romance and there are books where the romance should be secondary to the rest of the plot. This was one of those books where it should have been secondary to the rest of the plot.

I mean here you have Agnes, and part of her personality is this stubborn, I-don’t-need-no-man, independent streak. I mean the whole book is this spy/espionage thing about saving England! And it’s clear, right from the get-go, that Agnes loves it. She loves the action, and the mystery, and the fact that it means something. She hates how being a woman means she’s automatically considered second-class, weak, the lesser sex. She has a bone to pick with her society, something to prove.

But instead of this story being all about her, a lot of the plot is devoted to her and Caedmon, and how she feels about Caedmon, and whether she loves Caedmon, and if he loves her back, and blah blah blah. It seems to opposite to this enormous chunk of who she is that she would spend so much time obsessing over a guy when she’s basically living this life she never dreamed could happen. And I’m just really angry that the author chose to bury this part of her in favor of having the romance be so central to a story whose plot really has nothing to do with it.

And by now, you’re probably wondering about that scene I mentioned. The one where Caedmon bothered me. But first, some more about Agnes, who’s an awesome protagonist. Agnes really believes that artifacts belong where they were made. That there is something inherently wrong in taking things from their mother country, frequently damaging them (often purposefully) on their trip, for the entertainment of people who don’t understand, and never will, their immense significance to their culture of origin.

She feels this at the very beginning, when she’s bothered by, and faintly disgusted by, the “unwrapping” at Showalter’s. And it comes up again on several other occasions, but one especially. Showalter takes Agnes, and her mother as chaperone, to the museum perhaps two-thirds or so through the book. Naturally, Caedmon is there. But Showalter’s just there because he noticed Agnes was interested in Egyptian artifacts and he’s courting her, so two-plus-two is four and he takes her on an outing to see the Egyptian artifacts at the museum.

They are looking at heart scarabs, and Agnes makes the internal comment, “I felt sorry that these objects, which were so dear to the people who’d counted on them so long ago, were now under glass, dismissed by the likes of us who didn’t know their real worth” (Bradbury 225). This is quickly followed by the following conversation:

“‘We are very fortunate that we established such a collection,’ Caedmon said softly.

I surprised myself by speaking. ‘They don’t belong here.’

Showalter leaned in. ‘What’s that?’

I looked quickly between him and Caedmon. ‘They don’t belong here,’ I repeated. ‘They ought to be back with the bodies, or at least back in Egypt where the scarab is understood.’

Caedmon spoke without looking at me. In fact, he’d so far been able to avoid giving any indication of our association. And it bothered me more than I could say. Bothered me that he could see me with Showalter and carry on as if he didn’t even know me. As if he hadn’t been as rattled as I was by how close we’d found ourselves last night.

‘Perhaps the work the museum does to help people understand outweighs—’

‘No,’ I said firmly. ‘We don’t want to understand them. We want to gawk at them and congratulate ourselves for having such precious things. Things we’ve rescued from ignorant savages around the world—’

Caedmon set his jaw, nostrils flaring, finally angry, finally showing something for me other than polite deference. ‘You presume too much,’ he said. ‘You’re dead wrong to paint every person interested in antiquities or other lands with the same brush.’

‘But they belong in Egypt!’ I said, pleased that some of his true speech was slipping out, that the mask of the academic was failing him.

‘They belong where they can best be understood,’ Caedmon said evenly. ‘And perhaps the greatest gift we can give the people of Egypt in return is the benefit of our research. So that they might better understand their own history—’

‘Now who presumes?’ I said heatedly. ‘British citizens a thousand miles away know better what it meant to be a subject of the pharaoh?’” (Bradbury 226-227)

What I like about this scene is, of course, Agnes’s comments. What I don’t like is how some of the things Caedmon says seem to exist solely so Agnes can tell him how he’s wrong, and challenge the way of thinking about it all that was so prevalent at the time, and is still an issue today. But I could get over that. I could.

If the author hadn’t reduced every word that came out of Agnes’s mouth to baiting. According to the author, I’m supposed to believe that Agnes says things things not because she believes them—though there’s more than ample proof that she does—but simply because she wants a reaction from Caedmon. In this, the author is lowering something important to have a lesser value than it should.

Just like she’s doing with the whole story by forcing Agnes and Caedmon’s romance to take center stage.

rating out of five stars

★★★☆☆

is it worth reading?

It’s decent. Not spectacular.

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#10 = The Breakaway by Michelle Davidson Argyle

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THE BREAKAWAY
by Michelle Davidson Argyle

jacket flap blurb

When Naomi Jensen is kidnapped, it takes her parents two days to realize she’s missing. Escape isn’t high on her list of priorities when all she has to return to is an abusive boyfriend and parents who never paid much attention to her. For the first time in her life she’s part of a family—even if it is a family of criminals. But she’s still a captive. In a desperate attempt to regain some control in her life, Naomi embarks on a dangerous plan to make one of her kidnappers think she’s falling in love with him. The plan works too well, and when faced with the chance to escape, Naomi isn’t sure she wants to take it.

thoughts

The first thing I should say is that I devoured this book. It was supremely engaging, and there was never a point where I wanted to put it down. I liked it. But, objectively, it doesn’t work. The author was clearly trying to write a shades-of-gray story where no characters can be called truly evil or completely good. A lot like the book I previously reviewed, actually, Conjured. But Conjured succeeded and The Breakaway did not.

There are only a handful of characters, which works well for this story. There’s Naomi, the protagonist and third-person viewpoint character. There’s her mother, Karen, and her father, Jason. Jason has a very small part; he’s one of the background characters. Elizabeth, Karen’s sister, is another.

Then there’s Brad, Naomi’s emotionally-manipulative douche-bag boyfriend. She doesn’t realize she’s in that kind of relationship until later, when she learns, with Jesse, what relationships are supposed to be like.

The kidnappers comprise of Evelyn, her husband Steve, her brother Eric, and a man named Jesse. For most of the book, we don’t know how Jesse’s connected to the others, except for the fact that he is an intern at Steve’s architecture business. At first, this is fine, because his connection doesn’t seem to be at all pertinent. But then, suddenly, near the end, he announces what happened:

Jesse is a thief. Low on cash, he agrees to steal jewelry for him and a friend. The target jewelry store is where Evelyn works. Unbeknownst to Jesse, Evelyn is Steve’s wife—Steve is Jesse’s boss. And they’re close. So, Jesse plans to get his friend to rob Evelyn; taking her keys and replacing them with a false set. Then he will take the real keys, get into the jewelry store, steal some stuff, and get down. And presumably dump the keys somewhere.

But Evelyn fights back and the friend ends up stabbing her and taking the keys. Jesse finds out her relationship to Steve when Steve tells him his wife’s in the hospital and he has to go be with her. Jesse feels awful. A stabbing was never supposed to be a part of the equation, and now he’s done it to Steve’s wife. To make matters worse, Jesse says to Steve that he couldn’t believe Evelyn had been stabbed. Of course, Steve never mentioned the stabbed bit, just that she was in the hospital.

Well, he decides he still has to go through with the robbery. But Steve, after making sure Eric was with Evelyn, followed Jesse and threatened to turn him in. In the end, though, they struck a deal: Jesse would help them pull of robberies, and in return he’d get to live with them and keep a percentage of what they made. And, you know, Eric wouldn’t kill him.

So, why does any of this matter? Because Jesse decides to take Naomi, drive her to the police station, and let her free. At this point, that’s pretty much the last thing Naomi wants, but he forces her and then drives off. And Jesse does this partially because he feels shitty for kidnapping Naomi in the first place (they thought she saw them robbing a jewelry store, had to find out what she knew, and then realized even if she knew nothing like she claimed, she had still seen them and could identify them. Plus, Evelyn really wanted to keep her and have her like a daughter) and partially because he isn’t Eric’s biggest fan and he dislikes the situation he’s been put into.

It’s not really all that clear, actually. For the first three-fourths of the book, Jesse, Eric, Steve, and Evelyn seem to get along. They act like a family, and treat each other like family. But then suddenly after Jesse spills this story, he’s talking about turning them in himself and how they need to pay for what they’ve done and eventually how he needs to pay and blah blah blah.

It’s just not consistent with the entire rest of the book. It feels like a rushed ending, trying to get Naomi back to her parents. See, at the beginning, Naomi’s parents are pretty much the definition of “absent.” They don’t spend any time with her. They don’t seem to care for her at all. But over the course of the story, there are a few chapters in Karen’s (Naomi’s mom) point of view.

For Karen, it’s something of a don’t-know-what-you-have-‘till-it’s-gone situation. Or, at least, that’s what we’re supposed to believe. I, personally, did not find Karen very believable in that role. I think her husband Jason is supposed to have had a change of heart, too, but we don’t see much of him. He has a minor role.

I can see what the author was trying to do. She wanted a life-is-complicated book and she didn’t want Naomi to stay with her kidnappers because hey, there’s the whole abusive emotional bonding thing that could mean Naomi’s just being manipulated and she’s still and victim and yadda yadda yadda. This was the goal. It didn’t work.

The book would have been far better if the kidnappers were truly good people and Karen and Jason were really kind of crappy parents. Crappy parents exist. Good criminals probably exist. After all, they’re only criminals because they want to buy back Evelyn and Eric’s grandmother’s house in Italy and live there: the one place they were ever truly happy. If the criminals were more like the two kidnappers in the movie, Ruthless People.

In Ruthless People, a millionaire intends to murder his wife and run off with his mistress. But then Ken and Sandy Kessler kidnap the wife. They want revenge on the millionaire because he stole Sandy’s fashion design and got super-rich off it. Eventually, the wife, Barbara, bonds with Ken and Sandy. She falls in love with Sandy’s designs, and agrees to go into business with her. She is released, only to come right back after she finds a newspaper with an article about the millionaire’s mistress. Through a bizarre series of events, Ken, Sandy, and Barbara are able to rob the millionaire and get away clean.

So in the movie, Ken and Sandy are, in fact, good people. They never hurt Barbara or anything. They chain her to a bed, but other than that they try and make her happy because they don’t have anything against her, just her husband.

I’d have liked this book a lot more, and I think it would have worked a lot better, if Evelyn, Steve, Eric, and Jesse were good people in a bad situation as well. They kidnap Naomi after a mistake, but try and keep her happy and make her comfortable because they’re really not bad and they don’t want to hurt anybody. Of course, for this to work, Eric would have to change.

In the book, Eric has a weird-ass personality. He’s mostly nice, but then he’ll suddenly snap when Naomi disobeys him or yells at him and slap her and threaten to kill her if she runs. I found it difficult to reconcile the two halves of Eric, especially considering how the other characters treat him. It’s like his evil side only exists for Naomi, for plot purposes. He would be a lot more believable if he was a little more like Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly, or Leroy Jethro Gibbs from NCIS. Someone strict and intimidating, but a good person at their core.

I did like her final confrontation with Brad, and I think that should be kept, but it could go a different way. If, on her way with the kidnappers out of the country, she runs into Brad and he tries to “free” her, she could confront him about his manipulative, abusive behavior and escape back to the kidnappers, who are more like a family to her than Karen and Jason ever were.

rating out of five stars

★★☆☆☆

is it worth reading?

Yes, because it’s very engaging even though it could be far, far better.

PS

There is, apparently, a sequel. Something I did not know going in to The Breakaway, and have not yet read. I believe I will. You might think: oh, a sequel, that might change how you feel about this book. But I really don’t think it will. From the jacket-flap blurb of the sequel, it sounds like the story is mostly a love triangle between Naomi, Jesse, and a new boy with no connections to her kidnapping or anything.

It sounds like a decent continuation of Naomi’s “recovery” from the kidnapping, but it’s still stained by the fact that this first book didn’t seem to work very well. If the author is trying to show the danger of abusive emotional bonding and the long recovery or whatever, than the kidnappers were far too nice. If it was just Eric, and Jesse was his son or something, then maybe it would work. But as it is, it doesn’t.

So I don’t think it’s possible for something to happen in the sequel to make the first book’s pitfalls work.

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#9 = Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst

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CONJURED by Sarah Beth Durst

jacket flap blurb

There are three things that Eve knows.

One. She can’t remember who she is—but she has someone else’s face and name.

Two. She is the only survivor of a notorious serial killer—who will never stop hunting her.

Three. There is something horrifying buried in her memories that her protectors want to access—and there is nothing they won’t do to get her to remember.

At night, Eve dreams of a tattered carnival tent and of buttons being sewn into her skin, the only clues she can provide about the killer who stalks her. By day, she shelves books at the local library alongside Zach, whose blatant flirting and cheerful optimism lend a sense of normality to her life. But, as the serial killer who pursues her and the people who claim to be protecting her know, there is nothing normal about Eve. And once she remembers who and what she is, no one’s life will remain untouched.

From the acclaimed author of Vessel and Ice comes a mind-bending, haunting thriller that illustrates why who we are born does not dictate who we choose to become.

thoughts

I loved this book. It had me hooked from page one, and I never lost interest. The characters are fascinating and complex and unforgettably real. All of them, Eve and Malcolm and “Aunt” Nicki and Zach and Aiden and Topher and Victoria and Lou and Patti and, yes, the Magician and the Storyteller. I loved them all. They were all unique, they were all complete, they were all believable, and, in a strange way, they were all good guys. Sure, some were good guys only in their own minds, in their own stories, but there was never a character you could point to and say, yes, them, they are the villain, the antagonist, the bad guy.

In fact, the only thing I didn’t love was the fact that the tense and first/second/third person changes. Eve, has visions of her past (she has forgotten all of it), and these visions are written in first person + present tense. But the first part of the book is written in third person + past tense. The second half is mostly first person + present tense, except for one part, which is third person + present tense.

It actually works. Almost. The first/third person changes felt natural, and they worked. It fit the story, and I think something would be lost if the whole story was in either third- or first-person. But I think the tense changes didn’t work. The second half, which is all present tense, flowed much better than the first half, which is part present and part past. The changing between tenses made the transitions in and out of visions awkward and jerky.

So if I was writing this book, I would change it to be all in present tense. I would also change the title. If I had to go with a one-word title, I think I’d call it Becoming. But I could pick any title, I’d go with: Breathing Green.

rating out of five stars

★★★★★

conclusion

I loved it.

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#8 = Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

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BELLE EPOQUE by Elizabeth Ross

jacket flap blurb

When Maude Pichon runs away from provincial Brittany to paris, her romantic dreams vanish as quickly as her savings. Desperate for work, she answers an unusual ad. The Durandeau Agency provides its clients with a unique service—the beauty foil. Hire a plain friend and become instantly more attractive.

Monsieur Durandeau had made a fortune from wealthy socialites, and when the Countess Dubern needs a companion for her headstrong daughter, Isabelle, Maude is deemed the perfect foil.

Isabelle has no idea her new “friend” is the hired help, and Maude’s very existence among the aristocracy hinges on her keeping the truth a secret. Yet the more she learns about Isabelle, the more her loyalty is tested. And the longer her deception continues, the more she has to lose.

thoughts

An engaging story that hovers between fantasy and historical fiction, with the fantasy element being the existence of the “Durandeau Agency. I found the beginning a bit hard to get into, mainly because I didn’t quite understand the protagonist’s, Maude’s, motivations as clearly as I did later on. In the beginning, she answers the Durandeau ad without knowing what the work is. She assumes it will be like any other poor, working-class job. Instead, she finds the Agency head and recruit scrutinizing her physical flaws before offering her the job. She learns that the Agency looks for girls who are ugly or plain (like her) so that they may be sold as companions to the rich in order to make those rich clients look better by comparison.

Despite the fact that the pay is much more than she was making beforehand, and despite that the work is less physically demanding, Maude almost doesn’t take the job. Why? Because she can’t stand being seen as ugly. She doesn’t want people searching out her flaws, picking over her like she’s the ugly duckling they want to adopt to turn themselves into a beautiful swan. At first I thought Maude was being very superficial. I mean, in her previous job, she didn’t make enough money for decent meals (or any meals, at times) and could barely scrape enough together to pay rent in the cheapest part of Paris. Why would she take that life over having enough money to buy meals and pay rent, if the only issue is they criticize her appearance?

But the more I moved forward, the more Maude’s reactions made sense, and the likable she became. Maude fled an awful arranged marriage (old, cruel butcher) and a nasty father to go for her and her mother’s dreams of living in Paris. In her old home town, she overheard the other citizens talking about her, about how plain she was and too bad she didn’t inherit her mother’s looks and that butcher’s a piece of work but really she should be thankful ‘cause it’s the best she’s gonna be able to do. Maude’s objection is not being labeled ugly in of itself, but the worthlessness implied from the label. For her, someone pointing out her flaws is near equivalent to them questioning her reason to exist.

There were other characters I liked as well, such as Marie-Josée and Isabelle and Paul. Particularly Marie-Josée (another worker at the Durandeau Agency), who’s as charismatic on the page as she is the story. Maude and Isabelle are the best characters, of course. They are complex and realistic and despite occasionally doing dislikable things, understandable and relatable. The two main good-guy side characters, Marie-Josée and Paul, they were less fleshed-out, as was the Countess Dubern (Isabelle’s mother, one of two main antagonists) and Cécile (worker at the Durandeau Agency, dislikes Maude).

I would have liked to see more of Paul, as he is Maude’s love interest and we learn very little about him. At some points he didn’t even feel necessary to the story, even though he really was as it’s his influence that allows Maude to realize what she finds desirable about the world of the rich is not the money or multitude of things, it’s their access and ability to purchase and surround themselves with art. This revelation is caused in a large part by Paul’s art, and his thoughts on the interconnectedness of art. Isabelle is interested in photography, yes, but she’s interested in the logical, scientific side of it. Paul and Maude both lean towards the artistic, creative side to it. They are less about the magic of the process and more about how the result impacts the viewer.

Considering he’s so important, we see very little of him and obtain even less knowledge. He has a personality, but that’s real all. Either he needs to have more “screentime” (so to speak) or he needs to have less—his role as a love interest needs to be dissolved and his other roles taken over by one- or two-scene background characters. So that Maude’s revelation is not connected to a specific person, and, instead, comes together because of her personal experiences and a few choice words from a random passerby.

I mean, the biggest impact he has on the story his the scene in the museum, where he connects music to painting and talks about the muse. This does not have to be done by the same man she meets earlier, and then later on. Her reason for instigating the talk is that she knows Paul, yes, but it doesn’t have to be that way. He could instigate the talk with her. He could be rambling for herself and she accidentally inserts herself into the conversation because she thinks he’s talking to her. Or something completely different. The point is, Paul’s character is bland. Either he needs some spices, or the size of his portion needs to be cut down.

Marie-Josée felt real despite the limited knowledge shared about her, so even though she isn’t as complete as Maude or Isabelle, I think she fulfills her role in the story in a believable way; she doesn’t seem like a cardboard character.

The plot itself is engaging and complex without being overly complicated. Despite a large portion of the book being about political marriage matches, there is almost no politicking whatsoever. There is some French used, but it’s not distracting and the meaning is generally clear. The climax comes very near to the end of the book, but the resolution was satisfying and well-written, and I can’t think of any subplots that were left hanging.

rating out of five stars

★★★★☆

conclusion

The multi-layered characters and plot make this a book to put on the to-read shelf.

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#7 = Masks by E. C. Blake

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MASKS by E. C. Blake

jacket flap blurb

Masks, the first novel in a mesmerizing new fantasy series, draws readers into a world in which cataclysmic events have left the Autarchy of Aygrima—the one land blessed with magical resources—cut off from its former trading partners across the waters, not knowing if any of those distant peoples still live.

Yet under the rule of the Autarch, Aygrima survives. And thanks to the creation of the Masks and the vigilance of the Autarch’s Watchers, no one can threaten the security of the empire.

In Aygrima, magic is a Gift possessed from birth by a very small percentage of the population, with the Autarch himself the most powerful magic worker of all. Only the long-vanquished Lady of Pain and Fire had been able to challenge his rule.

At the age of fifteen, citizens are recognized as adults and must don the spell-infused Masks—which denote both status and profession‚ whenever they are in public. To maintain the secure rule of the kingdom, the Masks are magically crafted to reveal any treasonous thoughts of actions. And once such betrayals are exposed, the Watchers are there to enforce the law.

Mara Holdfast, daughter of the Autarch’s Master Maskmaker, is fast approaching her fifteenth birthday and her all0important Masking ceremony. Her father himself has been working behind closed doors to create Mara’s Mask. Once the ceremony is done, she will take her place as an adult, and Gifted with the same magical abilities as her father, she will also claim her rightful place as his apprentice.

But on the day of her Masking something goes horribly wrong, and instead of celebrating, Mara is torn away from her parents, imprisoned, and consigned to a wagon bound for the mines. It is because she didn’t turn in the unMasked boy she discovered over to the Night Watchers? Or is it because she’s lied about her Gift, claiming she can only see one color of magic, when in truth she can see them all, just as she could when she was a young child?

Whatever the reason, her Mask has labeled her a traitor and now she has lost everything, doomed to slavering in the mines until she dies. Not even Mara’s Gift can show her the future that awaits her—a future that may see her freed to aid a rebel cause, forced to become a puppet of the Autarch, or transformed into a force as dangerous to her world as the legendary Lady of Pain and Fire.

thoughts

The idea of magic as a natural resource rather than an all-present force is interesting, and so are the Masks, which is the main reason I picked up the book. Unfortunately, the book is, in a word, predictable. I’m not sure if there was just too much foreshadowing or something, but the book never had me wondering what would happen next. I felt like I already knew. The addictiveness of magic is very interesting, and the only non-predicable part of the book. If I were going to continue with the series, it would be the reason why.

Predictability aside, there were other issues. Mara is a fairly naïve protagonist, and that could have been played up more. The prologue is unnecessary, pointless, and dull, and should definitely be cut. Mara and Katia’s names don’t fit with the established theme. The love triangle was a tiny part, but still too large. I think it would be better of if that particular subplot was cut. The characters can be kept, of course, but the love triangle was aggravating and mundane.

I didn’t understand Mara’s need to save Katia. I felt like I could almost understand, but then the fact that it was overwhelmingly for plot reasons pulled me back out. This could be fixed if Mara is shown to be even more dependent on Katia’s kindness, perhaps even feeling like she owes Katia her life, or sanity, or both. Or it could go another way, where Mara develops a crush on Katia, and thinks that saving her from the situation will save her from herself. Either way would strengthen the story.

Another thing that would improve the book was if the Autarch was less obviously the bad guy. Especially at the beginning, when Mara believes the Autarch is a good guy. One thing that would help, of course, if cutting the prologue, which shows the Autarch as bad and the Lady of Pain and Fire as good. Since I know the Lady of Pain and Fire is good, Mara’s fears of turning into a monster like the Lady of Pain and Fire seem unfounded, pointless, and eye-rolling. It defeats the fear of turning into a monster at all.

If the Autarch did things that were quite clearly benevolent, that would help, too. No one is pure evil or pure good. Yes, the Autarch is an addict, but so what? In his own mind, maybe he realizes he’s doing something bad, and thinks that doing good things will balance it out.

If I were writing the book, I’d start it out with someone Mara knows, such as Sala’s mother or father, being accused of a crime. I say Sala’s parents because if Mara had more connection to her current world in the capitol beyond her own family, that would be a plus. It would make her eventual ties to the rebellion that much more nerve-racking.

But anyway, the crime. Obviously, Sala’s parent is innocent (I’m going to say her father, just because). But the trial is overflowing with circumstantial evidence, and Sala’s father has no real alibi, and its looking like he might be unMasked and thrown to the criminal work camps despite his innocence. Mara and Sala are desperate to find a way to keep Sala’s father from being unjustly unMasked, and eventually Mara decides to write a letter straight to the Autarch (in this story, Mara knows that the Autarch is not all-seeing, but more like the Pharaoh in ancient Egypt—all-powerful and all-important, but someone who leaves day to day comings and goings in the hands of underlings).

The Autarch, being the benevolent individual that he likes to believe he is, replies by sending a High Justice or something (however the system in Aygrima works. Something like a Head Healer but for judges) to inspect and oversee the trial. The High Justice evaluates the evidence and pronounces it circumstantial and thus not solid proof. He writes back to the Autarch and launches his own investigation, which quickly uncovers the truth with the aid of Gifted Watchers. And with that, Sala’s father is saved by the kindness of the Autarch himself, who possibly even attends the trial.

Something like this would, of course, extend the period of time before Mara’s Masking. But I think it would be worth it. Clear cut black and white is bland, particularly when the protagonist doesn’t see it. If Mara initially believes in the Autarch’s goodness, than the audience needs to, as well. And that means something has to happen to prove to Mara, and the audience, that the Autarch is, indeed, good.

It would also be beneficial if the non-rebel bandit groups played a bigger part, and if they were played up as an enemy. If they attacked outlaying towns, or attempted to attack, and were fought off by the Watchers. Another thing that would be good is if there were other cities, and Mara did not live in the capitol. See, in the book, there is one city, which is the capitol, and the rest of Aygrima is towns. While this is not in-of-itself believable, it means Mara lives in close proximity to the Autarch. His kindness in the case of my imaginary trial and his attendance of Gifted Maskings in the book would be more interesting if he were father away and some travel was involved.

More cities is not the only answer. If the capitol had two sections, a walled-off center and the area where the common citizens live, that would possibly work as well. In the book, this is what may be the case, but I’m not sure. There wasn’t very much about it, perhaps a line somewhere, and I didn’t understand if the center was walled off or if there was just a palace or castle there. It sort of sounded like a castle/palace.

Other changes I would make: Mara and Ethelda. In the end, I never understood why Ethelda was present at Mara’s Masking, if she never attended Maskings. I could understand, in the end, why the Autarch didn’t show up, but why was Ethelda there instead of the Healer that was usually present? In my understanding, it was for plot reasons—which is the rationale for a lot of things that happen. Ethelda is there because she’s a main character that needs to have some connection to Mara. Ethelda is there because Mara has to have an unscarred face in order for A) Grute’s plan and B) the continuous fear that she will be raped because of her rare, unscarred face.

If my trial changes were put into place, than perhaps Sala’s father is beaten by angry citizens who believe he committed the crime (something like child murder or something that would rile people up). Because Mara’s father is friends with Ethelda, she comes in to heal Sala’s father from the injuries, and this is where Mara and Ethelda initially meet.

But if Ethelda is not at Mara’s Masking, then she would scarred. Unless she still has one of the rare Healers who can actually heal her face completely. The thing is, while characters say an unscarred face is rare rather than unheard of, there is absolutely no evidence of any other unscarred unMasked whatsoever. Which leaves me to believe that an unscarred face is said to be rare to make it less protagonist-luck-y that Mara ends up unscarred.

There are a couple ways to fix this. One, show other unscarred unMasked in the camps. Or two, make Mara special. Go full out. Maybe her father, the Maskmaker who made her Mask, designed it to fail without badly injuring Mara, and thus even a substandard Healer would be enough to leave Mara scarless. Or, even better, Mara’s father designed it to fail without the subsequent injuring leaving an ugly scar. If Mara was described as very beautiful to begin with, than a faint, flower/snowflake-shaped scar would still leave her exceptional and desirable. If I was writing it, I’d probably go with the interesting-scar angle rather than the unscarred one.

rating out of five stars

★★☆☆☆

conclusion

Lots of potential, but currently disappointing.

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