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Book Review: Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Title: Skyward

Author: Brandon Sanderson

Series: Skyward #1

Genre: YA Science Fiction

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: Defeated, crushed, and driven almost to extinction, the remnants of the human race are trapped on a planet that is constantly attacked by mysterious alien starfighters. Spensa, a teenage girl living among them, longs to be a pilot. When she discovers the wreckage of an ancient ship, she realizes this dream might be possible—assuming she can repair the ship, navigate flight school, and (perhaps most importantly) persuade the strange machine to help her. Because this ship, uniquely, appears to have a soul. -Goodreads

The Review:

Skyward is an easy book to recommend. It’s a YA sci-fi adventure filled with great characters, lots of action, and plenty of snark that will appeal to the masses.

Two things about this book made it stand out to me: the abundance of training and battle scenes involving many fun members of a flight team, and how much I liked Spensa. I love learning new things from books that you can’t actually learn in the real world. How to fly spaceships (okay, not totally out of the realm of possibilities, but still…) and how to engage alien fighters in combat. The characters were great – I especially appreciated all the animated profiles and how they worked together as a team. I loved Spensa as a main character. She has an interesting backstory that fuels her determination – a trait that’s really attractive to me. She’s the type of character you can always trust to make things happen, for better or worse (meaning there’s never a dull moment). And she’s also a character willing to grow through each experience despite being incredibly stubborn….

The story is especially good at unveiling mysteries as it progresses. The more you find out what’s going on, the more questions you have. But the trickle of information is just enough to keep you page turning, but not so tight that you get frustrated (Maze Runner series, I’m talking to you). I had a bunch of theories while reading (none of which panned out… so far), but I liked the fact that the book was engaging enough to get me thinking beyond the words right in front of me.

I remember reading that this series is Sanderson’s creative re-imagining of a classic dragonriding story (he didn’t think he could bring anything new to the idea, so he went another direction completely… a direction involving a young girl’s determination to become a fighter pilot, sassy AI spaceships, and lots of alien ship battles. I definitely could see the influence, but everything else was just pure Sanderson awesomeness.

Recommendation: Sanderson books are always easy to recommend – his baseline quality is incredibly high. Yet Skyward is even easier than most because of its wide age-range appeal. It’s very accessible, with a great balance of silly humor, heavier problems, and loads of action to keep most readers engaged. As long as you’re even mildly interested in sci-fi, this is a great pick. I wish it had been around back when I was a bookseller because it would’ve made hand-selling during the holidays a bit easier.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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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: 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: 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

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Book Review: Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler

Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler

Title: Ship of Smoke and Steel

Author: Django Wexler

Series: Wells of Sorcery #1

Genre: YA Fantasy

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: In the lower wards of Kahnzoka, the great port city of the Blessed Empire, eighteen-year-old ward boss Isoka comes to collect when there’s money owing. When her ability to access the Well of Combat is discovered by the Empire—an ability she should have declared and placed at His Imperial Majesty’s service—she’s sent on an impossible mission: steal Soliton, a legendary ghost ship—a ship from which no one has ever returned. If she fails, her sister’s life is forfeit. -Goodreads

The Review:

I love it when high fantasy authors transition to YA. Their stories are always much more robust than other books in the genre because they’re used to creating expansive worlds, complex characters, and detailed plots for their audience.

Wexler didn’t dumb things down, but he did pull a few punches to make the story more accessible… but not by much. There’s some grit here (older teen appropriate), and I appreciated how ruthless the main character was right out of the gate. She surprised me a few times, and that’s difficult to do these days.

The concept sold me right away. A “ghost” ship riddled with monsters that’s more or less a lifelong prison to anyone who boards it. It provided an eerie atmosphere, and was definitely memorable. I’ve read so many high-seas fantasy novels… it’s nice to find one with a unique twist. The swordplay was also a highlight – you can tell Wexler enjoys writing fight scenes because he does them well.

My least favorite aspect of the story was the sentimentality, oddly. Although it showed some meaningful character growth, the main character got a little too soft for my tastes, especially since there are more books to come in this series. That said, at least it was a gradual cracking of her hard demeanor. I also thought the magic system was vastly underplayed to the point where I don’t think I could even describe how it works.

This is my first Django Wexler, and it definitely won’t be my last. I’m interested in the sequel to this book, but I’m more excited about starting his Shadow Campaigns fantasy series, now that I know I like his writing style.

Recommendations: this is a gritty breath of fresh air for the YA fantasy market. I’d hand it to older teens and adults, especially ones who don’t want romance as the main focus (although it does contain some). Y’all will have to let me know how it compares to Wexler’s high fantasy works!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Heartwood Box by Ann Aguirre

Title: Heartwood Box

Author: Ann Aguirre

Series: N/A

Genre: YA Fiction

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: A dark, romantic YA suspense novel with an SF edge and plenty of drama, layering the secrets we keep and how appearances can deceive, from the New York Times bestselling author. In this tiny, terrifying town, the lost are never found. When Araceli Flores Harper is sent to live with her great-aunt Ottilie in her ramshackle Victorian home, the plan is simple. She’ll buckle down and get ready for college. Life won’t be exciting, but she’ll cope, right? Wrong. From the start, things are very, very wrong. Her great-aunt still leaves food for the husband who went missing twenty years ago, and local businesses are plastered with MISSING posters. There are unexplained lights in the woods and a mysterious lab just beyond the city limits that the locals don’t talk about. Ever. When she starts receiving mysterious letters that seem to be coming from the past, she suspects someone of pranking her or trying to drive her out of her mind. To solve these riddles and bring the lost home again, Araceli must delve into a truly diabolical conspiracy, but some secrets fight to stay buried… -Goodreads

The Review:

My first thought into this book was, “huh, it’s interesting, but I’m kind of picking up on some similarities with Stranger Things… is it a knockoff?” Then I got a promotional email from the author boasting “Stranger Things meets The Lake House” and had a good laugh. Who doesn’t love Stranger Things?! All that said, the story does stand pretty well on its own. You can definitely see the influence from the show, but overall it’s a very minor contribution to the overall plot.

Aguirre always has an x-factor that keeps me invested in her books. Heartwood Box had an interesting mystery, which really kept the pages turning. Considering my less than stellar track record with YA lately, it’s saying something that I enjoyed the book all the way through. Because of that alone, I’d recommend it as a good read.

I also liked the characters – Ann Aguirre is one of my favorite authors specifically because I think she’s brilliant at creating tangible connections between characters. I always find myself completely invested. My favorite connection in this one was a friendship, but every relationship had meaning.

This book is definitely unique among its peers for its mystery, contemporary, historical, sci-fi genre blend. However, I’m not totally sure all the elements fit together seamlessly. The Lake House element felt a little forced, and the Stranger Things component was kind of a stretch, but what it lost in believability it more than made up for in fun-factor. Overall, as this is the last YA Aguirre plans to write (according to that same newsletter), I think she went out with flair and I also appreciate that it’s a stand-alone.

Recommendations: For a light summer read with great characters and a compelling hodge-podge of genres, Heartwood Box is a great choice! Ever so slightly more robust than most YA, it was outside the box and a quick read. I’d hand it to teens (or us ageless wonders who will read the genre forever) who love a bit of “weird” in their books, but who aren’t looking to invest in a full series.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes