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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: 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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Audiobook Review: The Original by Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: The Original

Authors: Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal

Series: N/A

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: In the near future, humans choose life – for a price. Injectable nanite technology is the lifeblood that flows through every individual wishing to experience the world through the lens of their own theme. While death from mortal wounds is still possible, life is made easier in a socially liberated society where automation and income equality allow passion pursuits to flourish over traditional work. Renewal stations are provided to every law-abiding citizen for weekly check-ins, which issue life-sustaining repairs in exchange for personal privacy. But what becomes of those who check out, of those who dare to resist immortality and risk being edited under the gaze of an identity-extracting government surveillance system? [The description was about as long as the book, so I only copied the first third of it] -Goodreads

The Review:

I was hooked from the very first sentence.

The story had a cool concept: a reborn clone of a murderer who’s sole purpose is to hunt and kill her “original.” It had a futuristic setting where a new “nanite” technology actively alters reality, tapping into your preferences and makes changes on everything you experience based on both conscious and unconscious data. I found it fascinating. It was easy to imagine how tech like that could make people lose touch with reality – highlighting the novelty of the tactile elements in a digitally-run world. The authors did a great job infusing this concept through every fiber of the story with fantastic use of sensory input description. It was total immersion. I found it especially poignant when dealing with the murder scene, as the description evoked a lot of uncomfortable and visceral feelings. All of this seamless infusion would make a great case study on world building for budding writers.

Julia Whelan was an awesome narrator. She was relatable and earnest in a way that really helped sell the story. Her POV was so perplexed… how could she possibly have committed a crime? The confusion and angst in her performance was palatable, making me think right from the start that there must be another explanation to what happened. She makes you feel the history and love between the main character and the victim. It spurred a lot of great questions and immediately hooked me for the rest of the story. I needed to find out what really happened. It was essential.

Recommendations: Overall, this was a fantastic audio production that will keep you on your toes. I especially recommend it if you’ve enjoyed some of Sanderson’s other mind-bending short stories like Snapshot and Legion. I haven’t read anything by Kowel yet, but after this, The Calculating Stars has definitely been bumped up my priority list.

I’d like to thank RB Media, Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal, and NetGalley for the chance to listen to and review an early copy of The Original.

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Ashes of the Sun by Django Wexler

Ashes of the Sun by Django Wexler

Title: Ashes of the Sun

Author: Django Wexler

Series: Burningblade & Silvereye #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: Long ago, a magical war destroyed an empire, and a new one was built in its ashes. But still the old grudges simmer, and two siblings will fight on opposite sides to save their world, in the start of Django Wexler’s new epic fantasy trilogy. Gyre hasn’t seen his beloved sister since their parents sold her to the mysterious Twilight Order. Now, twelve years after her disappearance, Gyre’s sole focus is revenge, and he’s willing to risk anything and anyone to claim enough power to destroy the Order. Chasing rumors of a fabled city protecting a powerful artifact, Gyre comes face-to-face with his lost sister. But she isn’t who she once was. Trained to be a warrior, Maya wields magic for the Twilight Order’s cause. Standing on opposite sides of a looming civil war, the two siblings will learn that not even the ties of blood will keep them from splitting the world in two.Goodreads

The Review:

Although there were a lot of things I really enjoyed about Ashes of the Sun, I didn’t like it as much as I think I should have… and I can’t quite pinpoint why. From an evaluation standpoint, it had all the elements I expect from a high fantasy: intriguing world-building, great characters, an interesting plot, good pacing, and a more than adept writing style. It had a good mix of exciting action scenes and slower character development moments. So what’s my malfunction?

I think part of the problem may have been the audiobook narrator. In some ways the characters felt over-performed, coming across as more caricatures than real people. On one hand it set the tone for cheeky characters who I think were supposed to bring a bit of lightheartedness and fun to the novel (which they did), but on the other hand it made a couple of them come across a bit juvenile even though on paper they were actually pretty badass. The final nail in the coffin in this regard may have been how recently I’ve read Wexler’s YA Ship of Smoke and Steel. Both female leads, Maya (AotS) and Isoka (SoSaS) were a bit more similar to each other than I’d have preferred.

Also, based on the name of the series and where the story culminated, it kind of read like a prequel.

Also, also, I don’t know who had the idea first, but the magical constructs in the book were very, very similar to the villain in season 3 of Stranger Things. It’s entirely possible both ideas originated organically (much like the monsters themselves, lol), but either way the timing is quite unfortunate. Had I read this a year ago I think it would’ve come across a tad more original.

Okay, so on to the things I liked, which were plentiful. The world-building. Perhaps not completely original, but the framework for the story – an empire still suffering the after-effects of a war for power fought hundreds of years ago – set a wicked cool atmosphere with a city divided into factions, underground vies for power (often literally underground), and ongoing biases of politics. I loved the expansive feel of some of the settings and felt completely satisfied at how much Wexler helped me explore in this first book. It also added another great dynamic that the main characters fought on opposite sides of the conflict.

Another thing I liked was the overall character construction and how the author treated them. The beginning had a lot of great camaraderie, which really connected me to the characters. I like that he gave some of the minor characters a bit of a spotlight here and there because the way he did it felt unconventional. I’m not sure I liked where the story headed for many of them because I’m trying to wrap my head around what to expect in the sequel, but for this novel alone it was great.

So overall I’m battling between a rating based on comparable merit (solid 4 stars) and my own personal enjoyment of the book (3 stars). There were parts that had me glued to it mixed with others that had me wondering if I should consider a DNF. I’m going to split the difference with a 3.5 rating with the disclaimer that I think others will enjoy it a lot more than I did. It has a lot of things going for it.

Recommendations: this is a great high fantasy novel for fans of Wexler’s work. Dive in if you’re looking for great character dynamics, a cool world, and good action scenes. Maybe, just maybe, consider skipping the audio version.

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

Title: The Stone Sky

Author: N.K. Jemisin

Series: Broken Earth #3

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: This is the way the world ends… for the last time. The Moon will soon return. Whether this heralds the destruction of humankind or something worse will depend on two women. Essun has inherited the power of Alabaster Tenring. With it, she hopes to find her daughter Nassun and forge a world in which every orogene child can grow up safe. For Nassun, her mother’s mastery of the Obelisk Gate comes too late. She has seen the evil of the world, and accepted what her mother will not admit: that sometimes what is corrupt cannot be cleansed, only destroyed. -Goodreads

The Review:

The Stone Sky left me shook.

I had so many mixed feelings after finishing it (…in 2017. I’ll explain). On one hand, there had been a lot of buildup in the previous two books and I wasn’t totally convinced I liked the direction the story headed for about the first 75%. I was worried it wasn’t going to live up to my incredibly high expectations. And then some of the most truly profound scenes played out and I can still feel the emotional reverberation every time I think about it even years later. This trilogy is brilliant.

I held off on writing a review for two reasons: 1. When I finished it, my feed was filled with countless solid 5-star reviews and I didn’t feel strongly enough about my criticisms to become a rallying counterpoint to all of that positivity (and didn’t really want to because of how special the series had been for me overall). And 2. It left me so confused that I didn’t know how to express my slight disappointment at the direction but at the same time emphasize the 10+ star scenes that still kind of haunt me to this day. Do I dock my rating for what I didn’t like? Or keep it a solid 5 because the amazing parts were strong enough to overpower everything else? I think with time and perspective, I can finally land on 4 as a rating for this specific book with the disclaimer that the series still feels like a solid 5-stars as a whole. There are so many things I loved about it, but my favorite element by far is the basis for why parts of the books are written with different POV styles (specifically the controversial second-person present-tense passages). It’s brilliant. Or did I say that already? 

Ultimately, even though the story didn’t go along with any of my theories, it still shattered me. It’s also my emphatic, quintessential recommendation whenever someone mentions “unique” or “cool writing styles” or “unconventional.” It’s truly a masterpiece. My only recommendation: experience it for yourself.

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review Addendum: The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington

The Shadow of What was Lost by James Islington

Title: The Shadow of What Was Lost

Author: James Islington

Series: Licanius Trilogy #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 5/5 stars!

The Overview: As a student of the Gifted, Davian suffers the consequences of a war fought—and lost—before he was born. Despised by most beyond the school walls, he and those around him are all but prisoners as they attempt to learn control of the Gift. Worse, as Davian struggles with his lessons, he knows that there is further to fall if he cannot pass his final tests. But when Davian discovers he has the ability to wield the forbidden power of the Augurs, he sets into motion a chain of events that will change everything. To the north, an ancient enemy long thought defeated begins to stir. And to the west, a young man whose fate is intertwined with Davian’s wakes up in the forest, covered in blood and with no memory of who he is… -Goodreads

The (Updated) Review:

Responsible for one of my favorite reading experiences in 2017, I originally reviewed the first two books for a newspaper. I addressed the series as a whole and didn’t have the word count to really delve into specifics of each book. I also averaged my ratings of the two into a 4.5. Not a bad rating, but it didn’t accurately reflect my experience with each book. After finishing my reread in preparation to finish the series, now seems like a great time to update my review.

I loved The Shadow of What was Lost my first time through, but somehow it was even better the second time. I think I mentioned an issue with repetitive word choice near the end to justify the docking of .5 stars, but whatever pedantic mindset made me focus on that must have vanished because I didn’t notice it this time around (and I was looking). I completely loved every single moment. So much so that my re-evaluation places it with a solid 5 stars and a spot on my very conservative all-time favorites shelf.

The book does an amazing job providing that nostalgic classic fantasy/adventure feel. Between the likable nature of all the characters, the lightheartedness of the beginning chapters, and that exciting first spark leading to adventure, it reminded me of the likes of Brooks, Eddings, and Jordan. But it only got better from there as Islington used some cool concepts and concise writing to modernize the story. I love classic fantasy, but find its simplicity something I have to be in a specific mood for. Islington managed to provide the best of new and old. Combine all of that with with a quality Michael Kramer audio production, and we have a winner.

I loved the pacing, the characters, the adventure, the carefully parceled-out information, the twists, the world-building, all of it. The only thing that made it difficult on the first go-round was the similarity of many of the names. It made it difficult and slightly stressful to keep track of everyone. But this time I just kind of sat back and trusted that it would all come together, and that helped a lot. I’m sure these issues would’ve been nil had I been reading the physical copy, but for obvious reasons (Michael Kramer), I sacrificed some clarity for the experience.

Recommendations: this is a phenomenal start to a series that only gained momentum on the reread. I’d hand it to fantasy readers who love that classic fantasy feel, but crave something more complex. I’m reserving final recommendations until I read the last book, but consider The Shadow of What Was Lost an official Obsessive Bookseller favorite!

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by Niki Hawkes