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Book Review: Ashlords by Scott Reintgen

Title: Ashlords

Author: Scott Reintgen

Series: “Untitled Duology” #1 lol

Genre: YA Fantasy

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: Every year since the Ashlords were gifted phoenix horses by their gods, they’ve raced them. First into battle, then on great hunts, and finally for the pure sport of seeing who rode the fastest. Centuries of blood and fire carved their competition into a more modern spectacle: The Races. Over the course of a multi-day event, elite riders from clashing cultures vie to be crowned champion. But the modern version of the sport requires more than good riding. Competitors must be skilled at creating and controlling phoenix horses made of ash and alchemy, which are summoned back to life each sunrise with uniquely crafted powers to cover impossible distances and challenges before bursting into flames at sunset. But good alchemy only matters if a rider knows how to defend their phoenix horse at night. Murder is outlawed, but breaking bones and poisoning ashes? That’s all legal and encouraged. In this year’s Races, eleven riders will compete, but three of them have more to lose than the rest–a champion’s daughter, a scholarship entrant, and a revolutionary’s son. Who will attain their own dream of glory? Or will they all flame out in defeat? -Goodreads

The Review: 

Scott Reintgen’s creativity always sparks my interest. I loved his Nyxia Triad enough to be sold on a new novel from him before even knowing what it was about.

As it turns out, it’s about racing phoenix horses across the desert. Um, hell yeah, sign me up!

A really cool concept and some great characters drove this story when other things like pacing and idea overload threatened to become issues. There are some well-thought out mechanics on the magic surrounding the breeding and care of these phoenix horses, and I loved learning about their different ash compositions and how riders use them strategically for the races. Good stuff.

The story contained three dominant POVs, and I’m happy to say I found each of them equally appealing. My favorite perspective, Pippa, was told using second person format, which I’m really, really hoping was done for a greater, as of yet unrevealed purpose and not just a stylistic choice added solely for variety. I’m specifically channeling Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, where the reveal of the odd POV was my favorite aspect of the whole series… high stakes there, so I’m hoping this one lives up to expectation. :)

The whole book is focused around this race, yet it was well past 50% of the novel before the race actually started. That first half was used to establish character and set up rivalries, but I don’t think it needed quite that much time. Especially when a lot of that could’ve been experienced on the course itself (much like what Collins did in the Hunger Games Trilogy). And I also would’ve like more expansion on the race itself (more obstacles and more time to really immerse in the experience… it went by too fast). After all, it’s the selling point of the novel – savor it!

At the beginning of the book, there’s an author’s note I’d recommend reading before diving in. It explains how he came up with the concept for the story… and the fact that it was originally intended to be a race across four dimensions instead of just one. I’ve no idea what his writing peers read from him that caused them to shut down the idea and have him focus on just this world, but personally I would’ve been more inclined to encourage him to rewrite and re-devise and keep the original vision – it seems an excellent one!

Additionally, there were a lot of jumbled concepts in this book that I think were leftovers from a much broader original outline that felt very out of place if this series is going to be primarily focused on one world (most notably, the “gods” dynamic). If I hadn’t read the authors note, my biggest criticism would have been that the story suffered from too many ideas that didn’t really come together. The insight was needed. But it also makes me yearn for the series he actually wanted to write. I trust the vision. Maybe it needed major reworking, but this almost felt like the plan B project instead of the golden idea project. I could be reading too much into this though haha.

Overall, it’s a fun, creative introduction to this new series, and I’m already eager to see what happens next.

Recommendations: this is an excellent recommend for YA Fantasy Readers who like books with competition. It would also be a great one to hand teens who have trouble getting into books – it provides a really accessible storyline that I think keeps attention really well (worth a shot, right?). I have a few personal reservations from a hyper-analytical standpoint, but I’m holding out to see how the series comes together in future books. The basic takeaway is: it’s a fun book! I think most will enjoy it. :)

I’d like to thank Random House Children’s, Scott Reintgen, and Netgalley for the chance to read an early copy of Ashlords!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Dragonwatch: Master of the Phantom Isle by Brandon Mull

Dragonwatch: Master of Phantom Isle by Brandon Mull

Title: Dragonwatch: Master of the Phantom Isle

Author: Brandon Mull

Series: Dragonwatch #3 [Fablehaven #8]

Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: Cursed by the Key of Forgetting, Seth has lost all memory of his past—his relationships, his experiences, and who he really is. For now he will align with his new mentor, Ronodin, the dark unicorn, who takes him to the Phantom Isle, the secret gateway to the Under Realm. Though Seth is not formally a prisoner, Ronodin wants to use him and his shadow charmer powers for his own dark ends. Kendra is frantic to find her missing brother, but the quest will take her and her companions, including Warren, Tanu, and Vanessa, far from Wyrmroost to Crescent Lagoon—a recently fallen dragon sanctuary made up of many islands and underwater domains. Its caretaker has regained a foothold on one of the islands. If Kendra and her friends can save that sanctuary, they might uncover the answers they need to rescue Seth. With each sanctuary the dragons overthrow, Celebrant, the Dragon King, comes closer to the dawn of a new Age of Dragons. With the forces of darkness on the march, can Kendra and her allies gather enough power to win the epic dragon war? -Goodreads

The Review:

… I think I’m becoming disenchanted with this series.

Something has changed. I can’t put my finger on precisely what that is (or can I?) but the exciting, evoking sense of wonder this author dazzled me with in his first five books has diminished.

I have a few theories.

1. Plot. Or rather, a lack thereof. It seems to me like there isn’t enough meaningful forward-progression of story to sustain the page count so far. It’s an endless stream of practically identical encounters and hollow “choose your own adventure” formulas that just isn’t giving me enough to sink my teeth into.

2. Telling vs Showing. This book was a strong example of explaining to a reader why this magical island is so cool… why that plant over there is dangerous. Instead of taking a moment to actually explore the island… and letting someone get eaten by that plant, lol. Everything seemed more a means to an end rather than something to be enjoyed for itself.

3. Am I too old? Does this repetitive, surface-level formula appeal to middle grade readers, and I simply cannot appreciate it anymore? I had the same exact issues with Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series. And yet, I didn’t with the original Percy Jackson books. Which is interesting because both series I’m questioning are continuations. Like the authors needed to keep producing because of demand, but the initial spark and creative vision had already been exhausted, so they’re relying on storytelling formulas instead of passion…

4. Too much explanation!! This goes along with #2. My assessment of this story was that it was about 75% one character explaining how things work to another character, 15% one character negotiating and making specific deals with every monster they come across, and only 10% of exciting plot-advancement. And I’m not even trying to be dramatic with those figures – it’s really how the story read to me.

I’m torn! I love the whole concept of the dragon sanctuary! It was my favorite setting from the original five books. However, the drama between the sanctuary masters and the dragons is losing steam with each encounter and narrow escape. I want to be into this series so much, but I have to admit that something just isn’t clicking for me anymore. I will probably still finish the series because I want to see how it resolves, but I’m not as excited to.

Recommendations: um… okay, so I can’t recommend these at this point. I haven’t found any real sustainable value in continuing on from the original five books. The plot has become too drawn out and formulaic for my tastes. I’d say if you haven’t read the author – read books 1-5 (amazing!), but if you’ve been wondering whether to continue… I can’t recommend these with confidence other than for nostalgia purposes.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Queen of the Blood by Sarah Beth Durst

The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst

Title: Queen if the Blood

Author: Sarah Beth Durst

Series: The Queens of Renthia #1

Genre: YA Fantasy

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: An idealistic young student and a banished warrior become allies in a battle to save their realm in this first book of a mesmerizing epic fantasy series, filled with political intrigue, violent magic, malevolent spirits, and thrilling adventure. Everything has a spirit: the willow tree with leaves that kiss the pond, the stream that feeds the river, the wind that exhales fresh snow . . . But the spirits that reside within this land want to rid it of all humans. One woman stands between these malevolent spirits and the end of humankind: the queen. She alone has the magical power to prevent the spirits from destroying every man, woman, and child. But queens are still just human, and no matter how strong or good, the threat of danger always looms. With the position so precarious, young women are chosen to train as heirs. Daleina, a seemingly quiet academy student, is under no illusions as to her claim to the throne, but simply wants to right the wrongs that have befallen the land. Ven, a disgraced champion, has spent his exile secretly fighting against the growing number of spirit attacks. Joining forces, these daring partners embark on a treacherous quest to find the source of the spirits’ restlessness—a journey that will test their courage and trust, and force them to stand against both enemies and friends to save their land . . . before it’s bathed in blood. -Goodreads

The Review:

Queen of the Blood hooked me from the first page. Which is saying something, considering how hard I’ve been on YA lately.

It had an excellent start – surprising me right out of the gate with a few plot decisions that I really appreciated because I’m well past the point of feeling most YA novels are repetitive. It has been many moons since one defied my straightforward predictions so well. It maintained a level of distinction from other books in the genre the whole way through. Nice.

Although not expanded on, there were some really neat world-building attributes to the story that gave it a unique flair. Setting: settlements and towns nestled in rich, forested areas. Atmosphere: the ever-present threat from looming spirits. Leadership structure: one woman selected by the spirits to control them (what could go wrong here?). School systems: fun training exercises to teach young women how to harness spirits (in case they become queen). All of these components are what made the novel so successful for me.

What knocked it back down a notch or two was that I don’t think some of these things were expanded on enough… most specifically the school system. It’s the main selling point of the story, but I think there were many missed opportunities to provide a true moment of training for the reader. Obstacle course tests were really brief and lacked detail. Coursework was mentioned, but the reader rarely got to learn anything from it. At least it did incorporate a lot of spirit-harnessing work outside of the academy, so that saved it to a degree. Even so, I wish there had been more.

The characters were good. They reminded me a bit of those in the Lunar Chronicles from a dynamic standpoint. There could’ve been more connection with the side characters, however. They all blended together to the point where, when something happened to one of them, it didn’t have an impact because they were interchangeable. A huge gripe of mine (the biggest hit to my rating) was how ignorant the main characters remained to what was really going on, despite having clues that a grade schooler could pick up on (the reader knows all along… I’m not a fan of dramatic irony, either). You could rationalize a few explanations, but it came off to me as a craft issue – the author needed the characters not to know something to keep the story going, so she lessened their ability to reason through evidence instead of reworking how it was presented. It drove me crazy because it was an inconsistency of character (beings who were capable, careful, thoughtful, intuitive… all thrown out for convenience). I don’t normally rant in my reviews, but this issue tested my patience. Queen of Blood was still a fun read… just be prepared to “go with it” to a degree.

Overall, I’m thrilled at how often the book surprised me. The writing was engaging and fluid, making it easy to devour. There were a few things I thought could’ve been developed more, but hopefully they’ll get expanded on in the next book.

Recommendations: this YA fantasy offers a lot of fun and creativity. It would be a great rec for people who liked the feel of the fae in the “Wicked Lovely” series, and those who appreciated the unique atmosphere of the “Lunar Chronicles.” I had some minor personal gripes with it, but comparably it’s still a very strong recommend if you like the genre. :)

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Sins of Empire by Brian McClellan

Sins of Empire by Brian McClellan

Title: Sins of Empire

Author: Brian McClellan

Series: Gods of Blood and Powder #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 5/5 stars!

The Overview: An epic new fantasy series from Brian McClellan, set in the world of his wildly popular Powder Mage trilogy. A world on the cusp of a new age…The young nation of Fatrasta is a turbulent place — a frontier destination for criminals, fortune-hunters, brave settlers, and sorcerers seeking relics of the past. Only the iron will of the lady chancellor and her secret police holds the capital city of Landfall together against the unrest of an oppressed population and the machinations of powerful empires. Sedition is a dangerous word… The insurrection that threatens Landfall must be purged with guile and force, a task which falls on the shoulders of a spy named Michel Bravis, convicted war hero Mad Ben Styke, and Lady Vlora Flint, a mercenary general with a past as turbulent as Landfall’s present. The past haunts us all… As loyalties are tested, revealed, and destroyed, a grim specter as old as time has been unearthed in this wild land, and the people of Landfall will soon discover that rebellion is the least of their worries. -Goodreads

The Review:

So damn good! McClellan is now definitely among my conservative list of favorite authors, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for me next!

Just like the entirety of the Powder Mage Trilogy, Sins of Empire absorbed me completely from start to finish. It’s a slow-burn story that built beautifully to a snowball ending that had me on the edge of my seat!

External conflicts aside, the true beauty of this author is his ability to develop characters. They feel like real people, which might be the magic X-factor that pushes books over the edge into “phenomenal” for me. These characters have so much depth, and he doesn’t even bother telling you outright some of their quirks and tendencies, but chooses instead to reveal them casually so you can make your own assumptions. It’s brilliant. But what’s even more impressive to me, and what makes these stories so damn good, is how these amazing characters relate to one another. The bonds between them are magic. And because of that, every single scene has meaning and relatability. Of all the novels I’ve read, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it done better. Add to that situational humor that delights me to no end, and we have a winner.

After finishing the book, I checked out a bunch of other reviews and was surprised to discover how many people don’t like Vlora (not as a side character, not as a main character, not in a house, not with a mouse). I guess I can understand to a degree their objections, because she’s a little more understated (not underdeveloped, imo) than the other characters in the series. But… that’s kind of what I liked most about her. She has this calm, unfaltering conviction that I loved seeing played out in different situations. I like that she’s had to put personal needs and wants aside to maintain her high-ranking position, but she still has a few soft spots that come out during more vulnerable moments (which I personally found the most endearing). And I love that her success is often based on the good relationships she builds with others. So, zero objections here on that front – I’m excited to see where her story goes next.

Recommendations: It is truly few and far between that a book can hook me as wonderfully as this one did, and I’m grateful it’s only the first book of a continuation trilogy. I don’t hand out 5 starts very often anymore these days (perhaps 2 or 3 per year), so take this as an endorsement of a series I really stand behind as a solid recommendation. Start with Promise of Blood (which incidentally got one of my precious 5-stars last year). Amazing characters, great story, good magic system, brilliant writing… all the things! :)

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews

Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews

Title: Clean Sweep

Authors: Ilona Andrews

Series: Innkeeper Chronicles #1

Genre: Urban Fantasy (kinda)

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: On the outside, Dina Demille is the epitome of normal. She runs a quaint Victorian Bed and Breakfast in a small Texas town, owns a Shih Tzu named Beast, and is a perfect neighbor, whose biggest problem should be what to serve her guests for breakfast. But Dina is…different: Her broom is a deadly weapon; her Inn is magic and thinks for itself. Meant to be a lodging for otherworldly visitors, the only permanent guest is a retired Galactic aristocrat who can’t leave the grounds because she’s responsible for the deaths of millions and someone might shoot her on sight. Under the circumstances, “normal” is a bit of a stretch for Dina. And now, something with wicked claws and deepwater teeth has begun to hunt at night….Feeling responsible for her neighbors, Dina decides to get involved. Before long, she has to juggle dealing with the annoyingly attractive, ex-military, new neighbor, Sean Evans—an alpha-strain werewolf—and the equally arresting cosmic vampire soldier, Arland, while trying to keep her inn and its guests safe. But the enemy she’s facing is unlike anything she’s ever encountered. It’s smart, vicious, and lethal, and putting herself between this creature and her neighbors might just cost her everything. -Goodreads

The Review:

Ilona Andrews are my feel-good authors.

It’s pretty much a guarantee at this point that I’m going to enjoy everything they produce. And they’re only getting better with time. Innkeeper happens to be my last unexplored series from them, and I plan to savor it.

Clean Sweep was delightful. One of the funniest I’ve read from them, it’s biggest selling point was how much fun they clearly had with it. The world building is wildly random compared to other books in the genre (low fantasy setting and feel, urban fantasy beings, and a slight science fiction influence) but somehow it worked. There’s a lot of unexplored territory that bodes well for an interesting expansion in future books… I can’t wait. :)

The characters were also 100% Ilona Andrews trademarks, meaning they were strong-willed, capable, cheeky, and a complete pleasure to read. Dina might be one of my favorites because she’s a little more understated and I like the depth of the backstory driving her actions. The male lead fits the carbon copy, but he’s just different enough that I didn’t mind it.

For such a quick read, the book did have a few small pacing issues. Everything was engaging and interesting, but I think there were too many info-drop scenes. It is a slightly more complicated world and setting than usual, but hopefully it will go more smoothly in the next novel. My rating also reflects comparisons to other books they’ve written, some of which have completely knocked my socks off! Clean Sweep was just a solid, entertaining story by comparison.

Recommendations: these authors (it’s a duo writing under one name) are among my favorites for a reason – they always produce fun, creative, and exciting stories. Clean sweep was an excellent start to this ongoing series, and I’d recommend it as a good starter if you haven’t tried an IA yet. I’m going to start calling Ilona Andrews my “instant mood-boosters.” :)

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Rebel by Marie Lu

Title: Rebel

Author: Marie Lu

Series: Legend #4

Genre: YA Dystopian

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: With unmatched suspense and her signature cinematic storytelling, #1 New York Times–bestselling author Marie Lu plunges readers back into the unforgettable world of Legend for a truly grand finale. Eden Wing has been living in his brother’s shadow for years. Even though he’s a top student at his academy in Ross City, Antarctica, and a brilliant inventor, most people know him only as Daniel Wing’s little brother. A decade ago, Daniel was known as Day, the boy from the streets who led a revolution that saved the Republic of America. But Day is no longer the same young man who was once a national hero. These days he’d rather hide out from the world and leave his past behind. All that matters to him now is keeping Eden safe―even if that also means giving up June, the great love of Daniel’s life. As the two brothers struggle to accept who they’ve each become since their time in the Republic, a new danger creeps into the distance that’s grown between them. Eden soon finds himself drawn so far into Ross City’s dark side, even his legendary brother can’t save him. At least not on his own . . . -Goodreads

The Review:

I remember loving the original Legend Trilogy. In hindsight, however, I think I rated it so highly because I was only comparing it to other YA dystopians. Of the dozens I tried at the time, Legend ranked close to the top of my list. I don’t know that I would have been so generous with my ratings had I honesty compared them to all books I enjoyed and not just that very specific branch of the YA market.

Rebel was just okay. The plot was cute, extending the romance between June and Day. Actually it’s biggest selling point was how much better this ending wrapped up their love story. Unfortunately, everything else was really surface-level. The plot didn’t get complex, the characters didn’t have a lot of depth, and the concept for the story wasn’t really that compelling. In my review for earlier books, I mentioned that I loved the point-system hierarchy (where you rise in rank and status based on how much you contribute) of the society she created in Antarctica, and since Rebel takes place there, it should’ve provided a much more in-depth exploration of it. It did not. I suppose world building is not usually the main focus of a straightforward YA, but even so, I let my expectations drive my experience a bit, and my overall rating reflects that. At the end of the day, I wish this resolution had come out much closer to when I’d read the first three books because it does do a good job at wrapping things up. It’s highly recommendable for Marie Lu’s Legend fans. But for my reading tastes these days, it was a decently entertaining bit of fluff and not much more.

Other books you might like*:

*I decided to go with less-typical recommends because, let’s face it, if you like the genre you’ve most definitely already read the mainstream ones like Divergent and Hunger Games. I recommended these books for similar vibes, setting, and character motive. :)

by Niki Hawkes