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Book Review: Pure by Julianna Baggott

Title: Pure

Author: Julianna Baggott

Series: Pure #1

Genre: Dystopian (Too gritty for YA)

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: We know you are here, our brothers and sisters . . .
Pressia barely remembers the Detonations or much about life during the Before. In her sleeping cabinet behind the rubble of an old barbershop where she lives with her grandfather, she thinks about what is lost-how the world went from amusement parks, movie theaters, birthday parties, fathers and mothers . . . to ash and dust, scars, permanent burns, and fused, damaged bodies. And now, at an age when everyone is required to turn themselves over to the militia to either be trained as a soldier or, if they are too damaged and weak, to be used as live targets, Pressia can no longer pretend to be small. Pressia is on the run. Burn a Pure and Breathe the Ash . . . There are those who escaped the apocalypse unmarked. Pures. They are tucked safely inside the Dome that protects their healthy, superior bodies. Yet Partridge, whose father is one of the most influential men in the Dome, feels isolated and lonely. Different. He thinks about loss-maybe just because his family is broken; his father is emotionally distant; his brother killed himself; and his mother never made it inside their shelter. Or maybe it’s his claustrophobia: his feeling that this Dome has become a swaddling of intensely rigid order. So when a slipped phrase suggests his mother might still be alive, Partridge risks his life to leave the Dome to find her. When Pressia meets Partridge, their worlds shatter all over again. [Sheesh, read this and you wont need to read the book] -Goodreads

The Review:

Sick of typical YA Dystopia but still love those types of stories? I have a recommend for you…

According to Barnes and Noble shelving standards, this series is actually categorized in the adult fiction section rather than YA (this is the publisher’s call) most definitely because it’s much edgier than your typical post-apocalyptic story involving mostly teen POVs. There are a lot of gritty, visceral things that happen in this book. To the point where I had a hard time with it the first time I read it (this review is the product of a reread to continue the series), but I’ve grown a lot as a reader since then and was better prepared to handle it (it helps that I knew to brace for impact lol).

I’ve been consuming a lot of Grimdark novels over the last few years, and while I wouldn’t categorize Pure in that genre, it would help to have the stomach for that type of gritty, dark storytelling before diving in.

Worth noting: this book is weird.

Mostly within the story components. Fallout from mass weapon distruction has caused humans to become fused to whatever they were touching or near when the blasts hit. Which leaves some freaking odd results. Almost, almost to the point of hokey, but it just manages to pull it off with a serious edge. My advice: just go with it.

Overall, there are a lot of moving parts in this first book hinting at some deeper complexity I’m hopeful we’ll get to explore in future novels. Having read this one already but never initially making time to get back to it, my mind has lingered with the plot in a way that’s compelling me to start again to finally see what’s really going on in this world. I hope the eventual payoff is worth the effort.

My only criticism is a couple of too-convenient moments where the characters suddenly had the perfect answers without buildup or context. But as I was already in the “just go with it” mindset, I took it in stride… but it was still annoying.

Recommendations: for YA Dystopian readers who want something off the beaten path and significantly more mature than the norm.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Locklands by Robert Jackson Bennett

Title: Locklands

Author: Robert Jackson Bennett

Series: Founders #3

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: A god wages war—using all of humanity as its pawns—in the unforgettable conclusion to the Founders trilogy. Sancia, Clef, and Berenice have gone up against plenty of long odds in the past. But the war they’re fighting now is one even they can’t win. This time, they’re not facing robber-baron elites, or even an immortal hierophant, but an entity whose intelligence is spread over half the globe—a ghost in the machine that uses the magic of scriving to possess and control not just objects, but human minds. To fight it, they’ve used scriving technology to transform themselves and their allies into an army—a society—that’s like nothing humanity has seen before. With its strength at their backs, they’ve freed a handful of their enemy’s hosts from servitude, even brought down some of its fearsome, reality-altering dreadnaughts. Yet despite their efforts, their enemy marches on—implacable. Unstoppable. [It goes on, but really even if you don’t know a little of what it will be about by this point in the series, I doubt you’re paying much attention to lengthy overviews]. –Goodreads

The Review:

Locklands was a satisfying ending to a unique trilogy.

If I’m honest, I had a weird reading experience with this series. I read the first book, Foundryside, on a complete whim and absolutely loved it. Within days of finishing, an eARC of Locklands became available and I pounced on it without a second thought.

And then I read Shorefall (book 2) and did not enjoy my experience with it at all (in hindsight I’m thinking it was at least partially due to the lack of voice variation in the audio – everything was delivered in full voice and I felt like the book was screaming at me the whole time).

So there I was, clutching my ereader loaded with the final book in the trilogy and feeling absolutely no motivation to pick it up. But I’d committed. So I read it. And I’m happy to report that I enjoyed my experience with it a lot more than I thought I would.

I don’t normally preface my reviews with so much backstory, but it’s important to note that I went into Locklands almost begrudgingly, so my experience was skewed right from the beginning. In evaluating all three books as objectively as I can, I think Locklands will provide a better than 3-star rating for most readers who have loved the series up to this point. I, however, thought it was a good installment, but not quite on the same wow-scale as the first book.

Locklands brought back more of that awesome magic system involving infusing objects with predetermined commands. It’s such a cool combination of magic systems and I think what I liked most about this final book was seeing how all of the technology evolved over the series and the types of things the characters are able to do with it now by contrast. It’s a very satisfying growth arc, and readers who eat up books where smart characters get more adept at cool systems as the story progresses will likely enjoy this series too.

The book was also a great mix of high and low moments, with a culminating arc at the end which was a complete snowball of events. The book had more dynamics than the second one, and I appreciated that it at least gave me a few moments to breathe between hitting me over the head with action scenes.

Another thing I loved about the first book was finding out more about the lore of the world and all of the magic predecessors. Locklands did a great job answering some burning questions and giving more depth to characters we’ve been curious about since the beginning.

It also avoided excessive evil monologuing, which I appreciate tremendously.

So, while reading this when I wasn’t in the mood was a weird experience, one I’ll take more care to avoid in the future when ARC requesting, ultimately I’m glad I got to see how the trilogy ended. I think readers who are less cranky than me about the whole thing will enjoy it immensely.

Recommendations: if you like cheeky characters, cool & intricate magic systems, and loads of action and excitement, this series is a great pick. The audio worked well for the first book but I’d skip it on the second two.

I want to thank Random House Publishing Group, Robert Jackson Bennett, and Netgalley for the chance to read and review an early copy of Locklands.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Trouble with the Cursed by Kim Harrison

Title: Trouble with the Cursed

Author: Kim Harrison

Series: Hollows #14

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: Rachel Morgan, witch-born demon, has one unspoken rule: take chances, but pay for them yourself. With it, she has turned enemies into allies, found her place with her demon kin, and stepped up as the subrosa of Cincinnati—responsible for keeping the paranormal community at peace and in line. Life is . . . good? Even better, her best friend, Ivy Tamwood, is returning home. Nothing’s simple, though, and Ivy’s not coming alone. The vampires’ ruling council insists she escort one of the long undead, hell-bent on proving that Rachel killed Cincy’s master vampire to take over the city. Which, of course, Rachel totally did not do. She only transformed her a little. With Rachel’s friends distracted by their own lives and problems, she reaches out to a new ally for help—the demon Hodin. But this trickster has his own agenda. In the end, the only way for Rachel to save herself and the city may be to forge a new understanding with her estranged demon teacher, Al. There’s just one problem: Al would sell his own soul to be rid of her. . . . -Goodreads

The Review:

I love spending time with Rachel Morgan.

As the series initially ended at book 13, these latest three novels have felt like bonus books (continuing the storyline before book 13’s epilogue). It’s always a joy to read more in a series you thought ended. And I have to say, these revamped (pun) books are every bit as good as the rest of the series.

Anything to do with the demons in this world, and I’m so there. I love their unpredictability and enigma quality that always has me guessing who’s side they’re on (well, they’re probably always on their own side, it’s just a matter of whether or not Rachel’s agenda lines up with theirs… it’s an ongoing conflict I just can’t get enough of). In these recent novels we’ve explored them more than ever before, and it’s highly satisfying.

Million Dollar Demon (#15) was awesome, but the ending was a bit lackluster compared to others in the series. This one, however, was a grand slam of events that had me up into the wee hours finishing. I love it when books careen to the end. The book also introduced a few new plot points throughout that I can’t wait to see expanded on later. Harrison really knows how to keep hooking my interest with new elements.

There’s a writing tool some storytellers use to perpetuate the plot that drives me crazy. The whole “I’m too emotionally distraught to have a two minute conversation with you… one that could save everyone a lot of trouble” is one I’ve always found unrealistic. Most people tend to WANT to talk about the major things that have affected them in life, given the proper opportunity and safety of expression. Especially if said information is critical in someone else’s decision-making. But in this case, that would’ve cut out almost two books of conflict and we wouldn’t have had a story. So, while I wish things had been presented in a different way, I can begrudgingly admit that I still enjoyed the time we spent getting to the point of revelation. There were enough other good things going on, so I can overlook its use… but I still hate it lol.

At this point I’m committed to reading any new Harrison book that pops up and hope we’re not quite finished with this series yet (some research shows there will be at least two more books). I’ve no idea what direction those new books will take, but the groundwork laid to this point in the series assures that I’ll enjoy the ride.

Recommendation: if you want an urban fantasy with slower pacing, great characters, intricate spell work, and a story that only gets better with time, this is a great pick. While this isn’t quite my favorite series in the genre, I can say with confidence that it contains my single favorite moments within the genre. Good stuff. :)

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Title: She Who Became the Sun

Author: Shelley Parker-Chan

Series: Radiant Emperor #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness… In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected. When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate. After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu uses takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness. -Goodreads

The Review:

She Who Became the Sun felt like two books in one.

The first book (i.e. Part 1) was one of my favorite things I’ve read this year. It was a rich, immersive character study with a single POV that was frankly one of the most poignant things I’ve ever read. I felt for this character, I cared about her motives, and I was completely absorbed and 100% there for the journey. Brilliant.

And then Parts 2&3 happened.

It felt like the last two thirds of the book were written by a much less developed writer who went back years later to compose Part 1 (kind of like how Salvatore’s Dark Elf trilogy was a clear showcase of the author’s growth and gives a much stronger intro to the series than his earlier Icewind Dale trilogy). As much as I really wanted to love the rest of the book, it soon degraded into a huge struggle to finish.

Here are some of my objections:

1. The expansion to include multiple POVs. As the brilliance of the story so far was in the connection carefully garnered between the reader and the one main character, branching out to include more POVs without also taking the same time to develop those characters made them come across very, very thin by comparison. And from what I can recall, very little of the page count was given back to that first POV and a lot of what happened to her was viewed from someone else, thereby pushing the reader even further from that original connection.

What’s more, I didn’t think the perspectives that were added were very valuable. One in particular had next to no growth the entire story and basically just spent endless pages hashing and rehashing the exact same conflict with other characters without any action on it. Another character, one I at least appreciated for the unconventionality, felt included solely as a vehicle for delivering a standard of morality, which could’ve been just as effective (perhaps more so) experienced within the main character’s POV. This character’s POVs also felt like a huge tangent.

2. Parts 2&3 didn’t even come close to delivering on the promises made in Part 1. The premise of the book was this girl building an inspiring conviction of who she wants to become and how much pain she’s willing to endure to get there. That’s the type of character who, in my mind, will relentlessly pursue what she wants, regardless of the cost (Rin from Poppy War comes to mind). The trouble is, after that first part, the character did absolutely nothing to help ensure her own success. You want to become a warrior? Great! But… wouldn’t you at least consider learning how to fight? You want to be a leader? Great! But… might it be helpful to get into some academics and study battle tactics and strategies? Oooh!! Or even politics so you can be as successful on the field as off?! Those seem like good ideas. Oh.. you’re going to rely on dumb luck, happenstance, and being considered not a threat? M’kay, good luck. I’m out.

In all seriousness, I didn’t like a single thing about how the main character got from point A to point B. Nowhere in that character mock-up in Part 1 did I see someone who was passive and willing to just sit back to see how things go. I prefer characters who are catalysts of their own destiny and the sheer lack of personal initiative shown by the MC throughout most of the book was maddening.

Had her story continued to develop in a way I found meaningful, I may have been more forgiving about the additional POVs. But as it stands, the book offered me nothing of substance to cling to. Had I not experience this author at the height of brilliance in Part 1, I would’ve definitely called a DNF for the rest of the book. But I kept holding out hope she would come full-circle and dazzle me again.

Even though I remained annoyed at the rest of the book because it didn’t go the way I I expected it to, I’m ironically still sitting here appreciating some of the unconventionally in what I read. The author has some cool ideas for storyline, most of which I hadn’t seen before. Where she lost me was in execution. If we’re going somewhere new, I need to see the plausibility and continue feeling something for the characters (which I didn’t). At the moment, I don’t see myself picking up the second one anytime soon, if at all (not that it’s out yet).

I’d like to add (more positively) that the book was more accessible than I thought it would be. Anytime I see something labeled “Asian fantasy” I go in braced for graphic violence. Even though the subject matter was occasionally tough to read, it was never overly explicit in execution. You knew someone was dying horribly, but you didn’t have to experience it. I remember thinking it was nice to have an option to recommend to readers who don’t enjoy a lot of graphic violence in their books. So it’s a win on that regard, but the book does have a couple of descriptive sex scenes to compensate. As a bookseller I usually had to be aware of both of those things, else customers come back angry with me lol.

Overall, with the amazing 5 star first half and the 1-2 star second half of with some kudos for originality thrown in, I’m landing at a final 3 star rating. I think the first bit was good enough to make it worth your time regardless, but I’m still feeling a little let down.

Recommendations: pick this up for an unconventional Asian fantasy with one of the strongest beginnings on the market. Be aware, though, that the story changes significantly in Part 2.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Thief Queen’s Daughter by Elizabeth Haydon

Title: The Thief Queen’s Daughter

Author: Elizabeth Haydon

Series: Lost Journals of Ven Polyphene

Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: On his first day on the job as Royal Reporter of the land of Serendair, King Vandemere sends young Charles Magnus Ven Polypheme–known as Ven–on a secret mission within the walls of the Gated City. His quest? To discover the origin of a mysterious artifact given to the king’s father. The king warns Ven to take care–because once you enter the Gated City, you might never be allowed to leave. Within its walls, all sorts of exotic merchandise not found anywhere else in the world can be bought or sold. But not only merchandise. Dreams, wishes, memories…even childhood…can be sold–or stolen. The Gated City is ruled by the powerful Raven’s Guild, and the guild is ruled by the Queen of Thieves. Ven and his friends enter the Gated City ready for adventure. But when one friend is kidnapped and it is revealed that they are traveling in the company of the runaway daughter of the Queen of Thieves herself, their adventure turns deadly. For the ruthless Thief Queen will stop at nothing to get her daughter back! -Goodreads

The Review:

I love when robust fantasy authors tackle Middle Grade and YA.

Responsible for one of the most poignant fantasy series I’ve ever read – Symphony of Ages, Haydon continues to dazzle me with with her rich world-building, magical adventure, and interesting characters in this MG series set in the same world.

The first book, The Floating Island, was an experience. Easily one of the strongest books I’ve read in the MG market. And what made it fun was the traveling/adventure, fun companions, all the riddles and puzzles, and the unique composition of the book itself. Told as a reconstruction of recovered journals, it is a mix of journal entries, illustrations, and fill-in text to complete the story between the first-hand accounts. I loved every moment, and was especially eager to dive into this second book.

I didn’t find The Thief Queen’s Daughter quite as strong as the first book. It had a really interesting setting – a thief market, where the bulk of the story took place. While this cool new place was explored to my satisfaction, I missed the expansive settings from the first book a bit. The novelty of the place was awesome – so many cool magical shops and items. I think my younger self would be marveled at all the discoveries.

I’m kind of weird (as we’ve no doubt established) in that if I know anything about a story from diving in, I’m less likely to feel invested. The process of discovery is my main draw to reading, so if I come across any spoilers, it can completely wreck the experience for me. This is the reason why I don’t read book overviews. And why I’m no fun to buddy read things with. But no matter how careful I am, I can’t avoid seeing the freaking title of the book. So it’s exciting main reveal? Oooooohhhh, yeah I knew that already. This is a case where someone should’ve thought it through more. Rant over.

Recommendations: this is such a magical MG series that would be my pick to hand-sell to families looking for great, accessible stories to read together. It has something for everyone, and as an adult I’m enjoying every moment.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Thousand Names by Django Wexler

Title: The Thousand Names

Author: Django Wexler

Series: Shadow Campaigns #1

Genre: Flintlock Fantasy

The Overview: Enter an epic fantasy world that echoes with the thunder of muskets and the clang of steel—but where the real battle is against a subtle and sinister magic…. Captain Marcus d’Ivoire, commander of one of the Vordanai empire’s colonial garrisons, was resigned to serving out his days in a sleepy, remote outpost. But that was before a rebellion upended his life. And once the powder smoke settled, he was left in charge of a demoralized force clinging tenuously to a small fortress at the edge of the desert. To flee from her past, Winter Ihernglass masqueraded as a man and enlisted as a ranker in the Vordanai Colonials, hoping only to avoid notice. But when chance sees her promoted to command, she must win the hearts of her men and lead them into battle against impossible odds. The fates of both these soldiers and all the men they lead depend on the newly arrived Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich, who has been sent by the ailing king to restore order. His military genius seems to know no bounds, and under his command, Marcus and Winter can feel the tide turning. But their allegiance will be tested as they begin to suspect that the enigmatic Janus’s ambitions extend beyond the battlefield and into the realm of the supernatural—a realm with the power to ignite a meteoric rise, reshape the known world, and change the lives of everyone in its path. -Goodreads

The Review:

Thousand Names was an unusual military fantasy, but I quite liked it.

First off, it’s clear that magic is going to be an integral part to the overall mechanisms of the series and the conflicts within, but it’s presence in this first book was next to nil. If you pick this up, go in expecting a bonafide flintlock military story set in a fantasy world, and NOT expecting battles with mages flinging spells left and right (as I’d been).

I especially enjoyed the beginning where this army’s leaders were trying to shape a ragtag group into something reputable. That was my favorite aspect of the story, and unfortunately it was dropped a bit soon in favor of focusing on the characters and their wide array of strange conflicts. I enjoyed the transition to the characters and the journey with them, but missed that initial selling point throughout the rest of the novel. This gradual transition of story (which happened at a couple of junctures throughout the book) is part of the reason why I called it “unusual.” Nothing quite panned out as expected, but it was written well, so in this case it still managed to create a satisfying story.

I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about the military aspect of this book. My knee-jerk reaction was that the battle scenes were meh, just okay. They didn’t have a lot of human connection during, but rather seemed an endless barrage of logistics descriptions. This unit moved here, this person got shot, etc. and what was missing for me were honed-in perspectives to really make me feel something for what was happening. I think part of my disconnection was because I had just finished Abercrombie’s Age of Madness trilogy, which is riddled with some of the best battle scenes I’ve ever read. By comparison, these lacked the same spark. However, had I read them further apart, I may have enjoyed this more. The feedback I’ve gotten since first discussing my experience with this book is that most people generally liked the battles and thought them done well. I will say at least that they were quite easy to visualize, but the level of detail required for that could be both a good and a bad thing… my jury is still out.

It’s an oddly character-driven novel, and for the most part I enjoyed my experience with them. They weren’t quite as in-depth or introspective as I’d wanted, but are still the types of profiles I think I’m going to have fun rooting for while reading the rest of the series.

Overall, I’m glad I finally got around to reading this and look forward to continuing on in the series.

Recommendations: pick Thousand Names up aware that this first book is more “military” than “fantasy” and enjoy Wexler’s unconventional approach to the genre. I can see why it’s hailed as a staple flintlock fantasy.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes