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Book Review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Title: The Poppy War

Author: R.F. Kuang

Series: The Poppy War #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: When Rin aced the Keju — the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies — it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard — the most elite military school in Nikan — was even more surprising. But surprises aren’t always good. Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power — an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive — and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school. -Goodreads

The Review:

What a cool book! I’d been saving this one for a rainy day. Which in hindsight wasn’t the best idea because parts of it were downright depressing, but it sure did give me a wonderful new POV to experience.

The main character was brilliantly done. She’s exceptionally talented, but deeply flawed. Obsession ruled her life and it was clear from the start she was willing to sacrifice anything needed to get where she wanted to go. There just so much nuance of psychology to her behavior. I remember hearing about some controversy over her decisions early on in the book, and while her actions triggered a bigger response from me than usual, the shock of it was far outweighed by how well I thought her choices established character and set the framework for her short-term rationalization going forward.

I also loved the book because it contained a satisfying school setting!!! With plenty of student dynamics, tests, and learning. It somehow managed to be both a grimdark tale and a delightfully fun adventure at the same time. Through most of the book, anyway.

I’ve been reading a lot of grimdark lately, and I have to say parts of this book were among the most graphically described that I’ve ever read. I skipped a paragraph or two, and I’m usually pretty numb to graphic writing. At the time, it struck me as unnecessarily vivid, perhaps taken too far for shock-value alone. After finishing the book, however, I can grudgingly see the need for its inclusion to justify all the things that came after… I just didn’t particular enjoy experiencing it in drawn-out detail. It soured my overall experience with the story just a bit. This is a personal preference thing, but I will say it has me nervous to continue on in the series (but how can I not?!). I don’t trust this author to nurture my sensibilities, but there’s kind of a masochistic thrill in that, I suppose.

Recommendations: I knew from the first chapter this was going to be an excellent fantasy novel. And it was!! Even if it contained more graphical content than I was expecting. The squeamish be warned, and everyone else hop aboard for a brilliant newcomer(ish) to the genre.

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By Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Dime a Demon by Devon Monk

Dime a Demon by Devon Monk

Title: Dime a Demon

Author: Devon Monk

Series: Ordinary Magic #5

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: Being a cop is great. Guarding the library of arcane secrets is great. Even dealing with the monsters and gods vacationing in the little beach town of Ordinary, Oregon is great. Then the demon, Bathin, strolls into town and steals Myra’s sister’s soul. So much for great. Luckily, Myra has a plan to evict the demon and save her sister’s soul.
* Step one: shut down the portals to hell popping up in town.
* Step two: get rid of the pink know-it-all unicorn.
* Step three: don’t die while teaching Death how to be a cop.

Oh, and there’s a step four. Absolutely, positively, no matter what, do not fall in love with the handsome, charming, jerk of a demon she’s trying to kick out of town. Logically, it’s a good plan. But when it comes to Bathin, Myra’s very illogical heart has some plans of its own. -Goodreads

The Review:

I’m more than a bit disenchanted with the series.

It has a lot of good components, but just enough glaring oddities that I’m only enjoying it about half as much as I should be. It’s frustrating because the first couple of works were strong. I go into ranty detail in my review of book 3, so I won’t reiterate those issues. And while this book pulled things back closer to where we started, it came with a whole new batch of problems. Most notably: the love story.

Up to this point, the series has had a good balance between all the elements and the romance. There was just enough for some good old fashioned sexual tension, but it didn’t overwhelm all of the other really interesting happenings in Ordinary. That balance was not present in Dime a Demon. I didn’t mind the switch to a different POV (another Reed sister) because it was a good way to reinvigorate the story. However (a big however), if you’re going to make the entire focus of the novel a romance, then it had better be a good one… which this was not.

For starters, there was no real courtship. There was an attempt at courtship that always got shot down, and some flashy moments of shared chemistry, but that critical component where the characters grow closer through shared experiences and a series of meaningful moments was non-existent. It wasn’t romance, with emotion and connection, it was a purely physical connection between two horny characters (at least, that’s how it came across). It was very unsatisfying (I mean, even if it was meant to be a purely physical relationship, it needed way more tension, positive interaction, and foreplay).

Sigh… I think this is the last I’m reading for the series unless I can snag a free copy from the library for future publications. It’s not the worst I’ve read, but it has not lived up to any of my expectations and I’ve already invested way more than usual into it.

Recommendations: the #.5 novella and first book were fantastic, but the series has since taken a drastic decline. The compilation of novellas (which counted as book 4) were dazzling examples of the best the series has to offer, but then book 5 tanked again for a whole new host of reasons. The series has some truly great components, and I don’t regret the time I spent reading it, however there are a lot of series I’d recommend first.

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Into the Bright Unknown by Rae Carson

Into the Bright Unknown by Rae Carson

Title: Into the Bright Unknown

Author: Rae Carson

Series: Goldseer Trilogy #3

Genre: YA Fantasy

Rating: 1/5 stars

The Overview: Leah is poised to have everything she ever dreamed of on the long, dangerous journey to California’s gold fields—wealth, love, the truest friends, and a home. Thanks to her magical ability to sense precious gold, Leah, her fiancé Jefferson, and her friends have claimed rich land in California Territory. But their fortune makes them a target, and when a dangerous billionaire sets out to destroy them, Leah and her friends must fight back with all of their power and talents.

Leah’s magic is continuing to strengthen and grow, but someone is on to her—someone who might have a bit of magic herself. The stakes are higher than ever as Lee and her friends hatch a daring scheme that could alter California’s history forever. -Goodreads

The Review:

I finished this book in October 2017. It’s October 2020 and I’m just now sure enough of my thoughts to write a small review.

I was very disappointed in this installment.

It didn’t add anything of value to the series. The first two books had so much substance and depth, it could’ve ended strongly at a duology. The plot here felt unnecessary and forced, as if it were written purely for the sake of publishing a third book (the main arc of the story was resolved completely in the second novel, so everything beyond that seemed contrived just to extend word count). Perhaps it added a bit of “where are they now?” but an epilogue could’ve covered the same ideas in a couple of pages had the same amount of substance.

I have the first two books prominently displayed in my library because they were awesome! I keep stalling on buying this one. I’m such a completionist, it bugs me not having the full set, but my disappointment in it was so strong, I almost think it would make me more unhappy having to designate shelf space to it. Harsh, I know. But Carson is such a good writer, I’d prefer to continue on pretending my precious duology is all she wrote for this series.

Recommendations: the first two books were top-notch – some of the best YA I’ve read to date. This third book did not add anything of value to the series. I’d recommend enjoying the first two, then pretending that everything worked out at the end of the second book. I don’t say this often, but skip this one.

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Title: A Deadly Education

Author: Naomi Novik

Series: Scholomance #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: Lesson One of the Scholomance: Learning has never been this deadly. A Deadly Education is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets. There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere. El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students. -Goodreads

The Review:

I wasn’t sure about A Deadly Education at first, but it soon shaped itself into one of my top reads of 2020.

I loved the setting (Scholomance – the place gifted teenagers go to learn how to survive against magic-seeking monsters). Of all the magical schools I’ve read about (pretty much everything I can get my hands on… it’s an auto-add subject), this is one of the most unique. There are no teachers. And really there are no rules. But the stakes are deadly, which is the only way I think a place like this works. Teens need the ultimate incentive to do well in school and make good connections. If they don’t, they die. Even the ones who work hard and play it right sometimes die. Novik, you have my full attention. And not only because I love learning about magical stuff. It provided all the school setting feels with a dystopian high-stakes attitude. Definitely a unique combination.

The source of my hesitation was the main character. She came across incredibly unlikable from the start with this “poor me” attitude that frankly seemed to me to be the biggest cause of her problems. Sure, she had a lot of obstacles to overcome, but I saw her as mostly in her own way and those obstacles a minor secondary issue. That said, the more I read the more I realized I actually liked reading about an atypical heroine. Her choices were interesting and her motives were unusual. I wouldn’t call her an anti-hero, per se, but maybe one in training. It’s also incredibly nice to read about flawed characters because, whether I like them or not, I always find them relatable to one degree or another. This gifted, ornery, always exasperated girl won me over, and I now find myself eager to read what she’ll do next – the unexpected is exciting!

And finally, a book with a school setting that’s not riddled with YA angst.

Oh, sure, the main character is put-upon and angsty, but it’s in a much different vein than the troppy YA stuff I’m referring to. For starters, the POV isn’t consumed by a love interest, and so was able to focus on the many other interesting problems prevalent throughout the book. The change of pace was wonderful. I realize this was not written for the YA market, so obviously it’s bound to be different. But it’s hard to find a magic school setting with a teenaged female character in anything other than that market (recs welcome). I hope after this, we’ll see a few more.

I also came to really appreciate the writing style. Incredibly conversational, it was infused with countless strategic tirades of information. It had such a strong voice, the plethora of info dumps didn’t bother me even though I think my critiquing radar should’ve been beeping off the charts. I’ve never been quite as bothered by info dumps as other readers. In fact, I had to practice recognizing them so I could avoid them in my own writing. For me it has always been more an issue of subject matter – if I’m interested in learning about whatever is being dumped, bring it on. There were a lot of explanation passages in this book – some of them mayhaps more long-winded than they needed to be – but most of them fit within the voice of the POV and served to reveal character, as her opinions overshadowed everything she was sharing. I didn’t mind it, but I can see how others might.

Recommendations: a huge win for the year! It took a few chapters to get going, but the setting, writing style, and ornery main character eventually won me over. It managed to incorporate all the things I love about magic school stories without the overdone tropes. Novik brought a unique spin to the idea, and I’m hopeful others will love it as much as I did. :)

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire

A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire

Title: A Local Habitation

Author: Seanan McGuire

Series: October Daye #2

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: October “Toby” Daye is a changeling, the daughter of Amandine of the fae and a mortal man. Like her mother, she is gifted in blood magic, able to read what has happened to a person through a mere taste of blood. Toby is the only changeling who has earned knighthood, and she re-earns that position every day, undertaking assignments for her liege, Sylvester, the Duke of the Shadowed Hills. Now Sylvester has asked her to go to the County of Tamed Lightning—otherwise known as Fremont, CA—to make sure that all is well with his niece, Countess January O’Leary, whom he has not been able to contact. It seems like a simple enough assignment—but when dealing with the realm of Faerie nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Toby soon discovers that someone has begun murdering people close to January, whose domain is a buffer between Sylvester’s realm and a scheming rival duchy. If Toby can’t find the killer soon, she may well become the next victim. -Goodreads

The Review:

I’m going to need some encouragement to keep reading this series.

I really want to like it, but I’m struggling. The first book was a bit mediocre (something I don’t hold against introductory UF novels), but had a lot of promise. I was expecting this second book to show some improvements, but ended up liking it less.

First off, the storyline didn’t have anything to do with what happened in the first novel. October was sent off on a tangent mission that, from my initial impression, had absolutely nothing to do with the main trajectory of the series. It lost the sense of momentum I was hoping it would nurture.

A tangent in itself wouldn’t have necessarily been a bad thing, but unfortunately I thought it was an incredibly boring tangent. Mostly due to its predictability.

If I, as the reader, have exactly the same amount of information as the main POV character, I should NOT be able to reason out who the killer is almost half a novel before said character figures it out for herself. The mystery was excruciating long-winded. I even accidentally skipped ahead several chapters and, after flipping back, realized I hadn’t missed much at all. And to make matters worse, there were multiple things the character remained oblivious about for the sake of plot extension, which did not endear me to her sustainability as a leading lady.

BUT… I still don’t absolutely hate it. I like October’s general personality and am really interested in all of the side characters. I like the framework for the world. And I like the small ideas throughout that set this series slightly apart from all the other UFs I’ve read. I think that’s why I’m willing to field conversations to convince me to keep reading. After all, I almost abandoned Kate Daniels at the first book, and now I’m an IA superfan. Series turnarounds happen, especially within the first few books.

Series status: I have the third book already and am planning to read it. However, I don’t have access to free copies from my library for the rest of the series, so it’s going to take some serious persuasion to get me to invest almost $10 per book going forward. I’m hoping for some spoiler-free endorsements from all my fellow UF addicts. :)

Recommendations: at this point, I’m the one looking for recommendations on whether or not this series is worth continuing. So far the first book was mediocre and this one was an even bigger let down… but both offer enough promise to keep me from abandoning it outright. Please help. :)

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

Title: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Author: Suzanne Collins

Series: Hunger Games #0

Genre: Teen Dystopia

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games. In the Capital, eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Games. The once-mighty house of Snow has fallen on hard times, its fate hanging on the slender chance that Coriolanus will be able to outcharm, outwit, and outmaneuver his fellow students to mentor the winning tribute.

The odds are against him. He’s been given the humiliating assignment of mentoring the female tribute from District 12, the lowest of the low. Their fates are now completely intertwined — every choice Coriolanus makes could lead to favor or failure, triumph or ruin. Inside the arena, it will be a fight to the death. Outside the arena, Coriolanus starts to feel for his doomed tribute… and must weigh his need to follow the rules against his desire to survive no matter what it takes.
-Goodreads

The Review: 

I’ll start with the burning question: is TBoSaS worth reading? The answer to that really depends on what you’re hoping to get out of it. If you’re looking for that same fast-paced, in-your-face, heart-stopping excitement from experiencing the games with Katness, you’re in for sever disappointment. Ballad is drawn-out, introspective, and 95% about the character, Snow. It does a decent job illustrating what life was like in the Capitol after the war ended, and provided some insight as to how the Hunger Games were shaped by influencers at the time. But it’s definitely not going to bring you the same feels as the trilogy. What it does do is show a mastery of craft and immersive character construction… but exciting it is not.

Call me a genius, but it wasn’t until the last 5% of the book where I figured out the main character is a sociopath (although in hindsight it was pretty evident from the start). Those few pages of insight were enough to rock me on my heels, putting in to new perspective everything I had just read. What was going to be a lackluster rating definitely improved, as I think what Collins did here was quite brilliant. It just won’t appeal to the masses.

I found it brilliant because of how precisely Collins stuck to her character design. Telling the whole story through the eyes of a sociopath takes a lot of subtlety and careful thought. She couldn’t emphasize her scenes with extreme emotions (which is how she appealed to me while I was in the games with Katniss), but instead had to convey the story through a creepy, impartial evaluation. Then she took it one step further by introducing a “love” interest. Only, nothing about it sat right. The relationship was just too weird. Snow viewed love as someone to be possessed. “She’s mine!” but not for any emotional appeal, but rather because possession equals power. He treated those around him with a “what can they do for me” mentality and eliminated them from his life when they could not longer offer him anything. One thing I’ve recognized about Collins is that she’s a very deliberate writer. Everything has a careful purpose and she’s brilliant at cutting the crap and getting right to the meaning of every event and scene. This stripped down story was a perfect exhibition for that skill, which I didn’t have a chance to pick up on during the main trilogy because I was too busy feeling things.

The Hunger Games themselves were a veritable shit show, and understandably so, considering the timeframe in which they were happening. However, as the competition aspect was my main draw to the series, I was disappointed it didn’t claim a little more of the page count. But I suppose it fit in with the theme and mood of the book anyway.

Recommendations: don’t pick this up for any of the action and excitement that made the HG trilogy so addicting. It’s a very introspective novel that displays exceptional writing and character construction, but it won’t leave you feeling great (not that HG was all roses (ahem…pun)), but this one’s even worse. It would be difficult to recommend, but not because I didn’t like it. Rather, because I don’t think it has what everyone’s expecting.

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by Niki Hawkes