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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

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Book Review: The Disasters by M.K. England

The Disasters by M.K. England

Title: The Disasters

Author: M.K. England

Series: N/A

Genre: Teen Science Fiction (kind of)

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

The Overview: Hotshot pilot Nax Hall has a history of making poor life choices. So it’s not exactly a surprise when he’s kicked out of the elite Ellis Station Academy in less than twenty-four hours. But Nax’s one-way trip back to Earth is cut short when a terrorist group attacks the Academy. Nax and three other washouts escape—barely—but they’re also the sole witnesses to the biggest crime in the history of space colonization. And the perfect scapegoats. On the run and framed for atrocities they didn’t commit, Nax and his fellow failures execute a dangerous heist to spread the truth about what happened at the Academy. They may not be “Academy material,” and they may not get along, but they’re the only ones left to step up and fight. -Goodreads

The Review:

I feel a little mislead by this book.

“Space is hard. Grab a helmet.” <-I don’t know about you, but to me this tagline suggests the Disasters is going to contain a lot of off-planet action scenes. This was very much not the case…

In fact, other than the first chapter, at least 80% of the book takes place on an urban colony practically indistinguishable from a city on earth. There was a lot of running from the authorities and grand schemings for a massive organization takedown, but very little space. This is not a bad thing, per se, but it’s definitely not what I signed up for, and y’all know how much expectations play into my assessment of books.

And that’s not even the whole of it. One cover quote says “a clever, comic thrill ride packed with non-stop action and starring a motley crew that won me over from page 1.” … A motley crew?? These kids were practically prodigy students – highly skilled, brilliant, some clearly hailing from wealthy families…. yeah not exactly what I would consider a motley crew. I spent most of the book wondering at how such preppy students got kicked out of the school in the first place. It just didn’t make any sense.

The final nail in the coffin was that I found most of the book kind of boring. There were a lot of “running from the enemy” scenes, but even then I could feel my interest waning with each chapter. There wasn’t a lot of character exploration, and they all came across a bit superficial.

Perhaps had I not been mislead by this book’s marketing, I would’ve enjoyed it more, but when you sign up for a space book with a motley crew and you end up with a planetside conspiracy story staring last year’s honor students, you feel a little swindled. I genuinely wish I had liked it more.

Recommendations: this book is more for those who like YA conspiracy stories than fans of YA sci-fi. It did not meet my personal expectations enough to endorse, but hopefully I’ll find myself in the minority.

Other books you might like (…better):

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Little White Lies by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Title: Little White Lies

Author: Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Series: Debutantes

Genre: Teen Fiction

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: Eighteen-year-old auto mechanic Sawyer Taft did not expect her estranged grandmother to show up at her apartment door and offer her a six-figure contract to participate in debutante season. And she definitely never imagined she would accept. But when she realizes that immersing herself in her grandmother’s “society” might mean discovering the answer to the biggest mystery of her life-her father’s identity-she signs on the dotted line and braces herself for a year of makeovers, big dresses, bigger egos, and a whole lot of bless your heart. The one thing she doesn’t expect to find is friendship, but as she’s drawn into a group of debutantes with scandalous, dangerous secrets of their own, Sawyer quickly discovers that her family isn’t the only mainstay of high society with skeletons in their closet. There are people in her grandmother’s glittering world who are not what they appear, and no one wants Sawyer poking her nose into the past. As she navigates the twisted relationships between her new friends and their powerful parents, Sawyer’s search for the truth about her own origins is just the beginning. Set in the world of debutante balls, grand estates and rolling green hills, Little White Lies combines a charming setting, a classic fish-out-of-water story, and the sort of layered mystery only author Jennifer Lynn Barnes can pull off. -Goodreads

The Reviews:

Jennifer Lynn Barnes is one of my favorite writers for her intelligent, almost interactive writing style. She’s an author I trust to take me on a wild ride and keep me guessing the entire way. Little White Lies had all of those great components (even if it was a little more lighthearted than I’m used to reading from her) topped off with some good old southern charm… and snark.

I have to say, the story took a while to get going. I never read more than the first one or two sentences of an overview (mostly to avoid what I consider spoilers), relying on author familiarity and friends’ endorsements to choose titles. As a result, I leave it up to the book to provide an inciting moment to kick things off… however, it took reading almost 20% of Little White Lies before I felt I had a grasp on what the story was supposed to be working towards (which is passable, but still a tad to long for my tastes).

Aside from the slow beginning, most of the book provided that addictive, engaging plot full of twists and turns. The basic idea behind the story was perhaps not as compelling as that found in her Naturals series (it’s a bit easier to feel suspense when you’re dealing with a multiple homicide story as opposed to a reluctant debutant playing a game of “who’s your daddy”), but as always, she found a way to make it fun..

The characters in this book were wildly entertaining, but I never really felt a connection with any of them. Their profiles were animated enough that they almost came across as caricatures than actual people (which upped the fun but lowered the substance). The main character had a good inner story, but she never really let down her tough exterior front to let the reader in. The Naturals series had several instances of deep character explorations dealing with motive (frighteningly poignant at times), so I think my expectations were inflated by how wicked cool I’ve seen her present characters in the past. Overall, they were good, but I think me wanting a little more was the biggest factor against my rating.

Series status: the Debutantes series is currently slotted for two books, and I’ll definitely be picking up the second one when it comes out (fall 2019?).

Recommendations: Little White Lies is a fun (I’ve said that word a lot this review) YA story about debutants getting up to no good. The shenanigans will give you a few laughs and the mysteries will keep you turning pages. It’s not the most profound thing I’ve read from this author, but it’s still worth noting if you like these types of books. :)

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Nyxia Unleashed by Scott Reintgen

[July 17, 2018] Nyxia Unleashed by Scott Reintgen

Title: Nyxia Unleashed

Author: Scott Reintgen

Series: Nyxia Triad #2

Genre: Teen Science Fiction

Release Date: July 17, 2018

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: Emmett Atwater thought Babel’s game sounded easy. Get points. Get paid. Go home. But it didn’t take long for him to learn that Babel’s competition was full of broken promises, none darker or more damaging than the last one. Now Emmett and the rest of the Genesis survivors must rally and forge their own path through a new world. Their mission from Babel is simple: extract nyxia, the most valuable material in the universe, and play nice with the indigenous Adamite population. But Emmett and the others quickly realize they are caught between two powerful forces—Babel and the Adamites—with clashing desires. Will the Genesis team make it out alive before it’s too late? -Goodreads

The Review:

I’m really pleased with this sequel. The story seems more in line with what I think people were expecting from the first book: highly-trained teens dropped on an alien planet to mine Nyxia. There was less competition in this book than the first, and I missed a bit of that head-to-head drama, but the good character dynamics remained strong. What it offered instead was a new world to explore – complete with diverse flora and fauna, a fascinating planetary history, and indigenous beings with a breathtaking culture. Nyxia Unleashed was filled with countless moments of wonder and awe.

The world-building was superbly done and by far my favorite element of the book. There was so much creative and beautiful imagery throughout that I’m left with a solid vision of this alien world. Very well done. The natives were a lot of fun to learn about, especially when their culture clashed with our earthen norms. It was an experience for sure, and one that truly transported me.

So, while the world-building and diverse cast of characters were enough to satisfy this harsh critic, I admit the logistics of the plot – primarily the “grand scheme” on all three sides of the conflict, were a little thin. It required a “just go with it” attitude at times and made me nervous that the final book isn’t going to culminate to the satisfying ending I’m craving. It doesn’t lessen how I feel about the wonders this book showed me (truly awesome), but it might play into how I feel about the series as a whole depending on how the complexities of plot are handled in the final book. Fingers crossed.

It’s also worth noting that I really like the narration of the main character. He has a lot of depth that comes from good backstory and continues to get better as he’s shaped by these experiences. I especially love the whole “file this under C – for creative” thing he’s got going on because it speaks to a deeper coping mechanism that allows him to compartmentalize trauma and just get things done. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and I love it.

Series status: Going strong. It has the potential to end up among my all-time favorites. You’d better believe I’ll be hounding for a copy of the final book, asap. :)

Recommendations: As I said with the first book, this is an awesome recommend for Red Rising fans who don’t mind all of those gritty components watered down to fit a YA market. It has the same competitive edge, interesting characters and camaraderie, and overall atmosphere. I’m a fan.

I’d like to thank Random House Children’s, Scott Reintgen, and Netgalley for the chance to read and review an early copy of Nyxia Unleashed. Approval for this title made my day!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes