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Book Review: The Guardian by A.J. Hartley

Guardian by A.J. Hartley

Title: Guardian

Author: A.J. Hartley

Series: Steeplejack #3

Genre: Either YA Fantasy or Adult Fantasy… it’s one ofthose that straddles both genres and I keep changing my mind on where to shelve it. It reads more YA, but the format of the books suggests it belongs in a different category. Perhaps even Mystery.

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: The city of Bar-Selehm is tossed into a whirlwind of scandal when the Prime Minister is found dead on the floors of Parliament: and Anglet Sutonga’s friend and employer, Josiah Willinghouse, is the one holding the knife. Determined to prove his innocence, Ang investigates leads throughout the city, only to discover even more chaos wherever she goes. A mysterious but fatal illness is infecting the poor. A fanatical politician seizes power, and rolls out his plans to make Bar-Selehm great again. Amidst these surrounding dangers, Anglet Sutonga must gather her friends from places high and low to form a resistance… and hopefully, protect everything she knows and loves. -Goodreads

The Review:

There are a lot of things I liked about about this series, but unfortunately The Guardian was just a bit too ridiculous for my tastes.

The author does a great job hanging a lantern on diversity, discrimination, and racism in this series. In fact, the whole plot of this book kind of hinges around those ideas. I just wish the story hadn’t gotten so far-fetched because it stole momentum from other really solid components.

For one, the writing. The author has a very sophisticated yet accessible writing style and I quite enjoyed it. Another great element is the cultural immersion through settings, dialogue, world-building, and plot. It has a 1920s vibe with some South African indigenous people and wildlife along with a subtle albeit weird fantasy twist. It’s such a unique atmosphere, I’ve never read anything like it, and that’s saying something these days. I’d also never heard of a steeplejack before but loved every single page describing the profession. It’s just now occurring to me that I don’t even know if it’s a real thing or just made up for the series. Whatever the case, it gave the main character some interesting background skills and knowledge that played an active part in the unfolding mystery of each book. I really loved that aspect, even when things got weird.

There were a few eye-rolling moments where I thought “okay, I know I’ve been pretty amiable about just going with all the weird ideas up to this point, but that was so completely far-fetched. I just can’t.” A few such scenes really cheapened a lot of the other fantastic things going on. I also thought the overall conflict was too oversimplified; resolved a bit too seamlessly. The idea behind it was great, it just needed a more realistic approach and a longer timeline to satisfy what I wanted out of it.

Recommendations: read this series if you want something fun, unique, and slightly odd.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Empire of Dreams by Rae Carson

Empire of Dreams by Rae Carson

Title: Empire of Dreams

Author: Rae Carson

Series: Girl of Fire and Thorns #4

Genre: YA Fantasy

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: Even though Red Sparkle Stone is a foundling orphan with an odd name and a veiled past, she’s about to be adopted into the royal family—by Empress Elisa herself. Sixteen-year-old Red can hardly believe her luck. Then, in a stunning political masterstroke, the empress’s greatest rival blocks the adoption, and Red is left with no family and no future. Grieving and lost, but determined to find her place, Red hatches a daring plan: she will prove herself as a recruit for the world’s most elite fighting force, the legendary Royal Guard—something no woman has done before. But it’s no coincidence that someone wanted her to fail as a princess, someone whose shadowy agenda puts everything she loves at risk. As danger closes in, it will be up to Red and her new friends—and maybe some new enemies—to save the empire. If they can survive recruitment year. -Goodreads

The Review:

The first book in the Fire and Thorns series happens to be my favorite YA book of all time. The first two Goldseer books also rank high up on the list. I love Carson’s writing, characters, and knack for storytelling. That said, I enjoyed Empire of Dreams (which felt more like a spin-off than a continuation – it follows a side character), but not quite as much as I thought I would.

The basic premise is a girl joining the royal military in the hopes of proving her worth. It offers a bunch of flashbacks to her rough childhood, which gave her a lot more depth than we got in the trilogy – I particularly enjoyed those passages. It balanced that with a plethora of interesting training sessions. I complain a lot about YA books that include training but don’t take time to let the reader experience any of it. This novel had sparing and practicing in abundance, which was the highlight of the novel for me.

Now, I realize the book is a YA and not meant to really be compared to robust adult fantasy novels, but even taking that in consideration, I thought the military training and Red’s relationships with the other initiates was rather juvenile. There was some good “us vs. them” dynamics at first, but then all the other characters got SUPER emotionally supportive and communicative about their feelings. It made the recruits come across much younger than they were. I think the story could’ve benefitted from a bit more grit. However (a big however), that sort of cooperation and teamwork wasn’t unpleasant to read about. It’s a feel-good story for sure, and I’m fighting some guilt at criticizing it for something I should probably be appreciating it for. So I’m splitting the difference by celebrating the expanded training sequences with the disclaimer that they’re not robust, they’re just fun.

I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I have a lot of patience for narrators in general and can usually work past ones I’m not particularly enjoying (heck, I even tolerate text to speech on my Kindle app). I’m sorry to say that the narrator for this book was one of my least favorite I’ve ever listened too. Literally every line and piece of dialogue was delivered with this sharp conviction that pierced my ears. There were no dynamics or variety in the performance, so the entire book was an endless experience of being snapped at. It was really unpleasant. I half wonder if my rating would’ve been higher had I physically read the whole thing rather than just part of it.

Recommendations: this is a YA fantasy for fans of the Fire and Thorns series. I don’t think it added anything to the experience as a whole, but I do think it was a lot of fun. Skip the audiobook for this one.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong

The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong

Title: The Summoning

Author: Kelley Armstrong

Series: Darkest Powers #1

Genre: YA Paranormal

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: Chloe Saunders used to have a relatively normal life. But now she finds herself in the middle of some really strange situations because:
~She suddenly starts seeing dead people.
~She gets locked up in a group home for unstable teens.
~The group home isn’t what it seems.

“My name is Chloe Saunders and my life will never be the same again. All I wanted was to make friends, meet boys, and keep on being ordinary. I don’t even know what that means anymore. It all started on the day that I saw my first ghost—and the ghost saw me. Now there are ghosts everywhere and they won’t leave me alone. To top it all off, I somehow got myself locked up in Lyle House, a “special home” for troubled teens. Yet the home isn’t what it seems. Don’t tell anyone, but I think there might be more to my housemates than meets the eye. The question is, whose side are they on? It’s up to me to figure out the dangerous secrets behind Lyle House… before its skeletons come back to haunt me.” –Goodreads

The Review:

Well, color me surprised, this book was great!

I’ve been such a grinch with YA over the last few years because they’re just not singing to me like they once did. A small part of that is poor title selection, but the bigger part is that I’m tired of all the repeating tropes and weak writing that gets forgiven as long as the book has a love story and a trendy theme. But hallelujah, The Summoning had some real substance and depth.

I went in with high expectations because Armstrong is an author I’ve read (Women of the Otherworld) and enjoyed (mostly… the series is hit or miss). My success rate with YAs written by adult-genred authors is much higher. But even here I was surprised at how off the beaten path the story took me.

For starters it’s dark, taking place in a group home / asylum for disturbed teens. The main character is young but seems to have a good grasp on common sense and how to take care of herself (a rarity), but still gets the benefit of the doubt for human error. Also, it contains some not so typical characters, including (gasps!) a few somewhat unattractive ones. In the spotlight!! Wow. That alone gets kudos.

And finally, what impressed me the most was how much the book creeped me out. I listen to most YA before bed to help me fall asleep (because I don’t have to pay as close attention as I’d need to for an adult fantasy), and there were a few scenes that had me staring at the dark ceiling in the middle of the night, trying to ground myself back into reality so I could sleep. Granted, I’m a total, unapologetic wimp when it comes to scary stuff (can’t do it. Nope.), so take my marveling with a grain of salt. However, it did ding my creep-o-meter a lot more than almost all of the adult urban fantasy / paranormal books I’ve read, so either it appealed to my personal scare triggers or it was just exceptionally done. Either way, for a YA, it blew expectations out of the water.

Recommendations: I’m not sure where the story is headed, so I’m still reserving final judgement, but overall this is a strong read and I recommend it to paranormal fans who are tired of the same old YA tropes. It was well written, creepy, and a totally unexpected delight of a read.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Into the Bright Unknown by Rae Carson

Into the Bright Unknown by Rae Carson

Title: Into the Bright Unknown

Author: Rae Carson

Series: Goldseer Trilogy #3

Genre: YA Fantasy

Rating: 1/5 stars

The Overview: Leah is poised to have everything she ever dreamed of on the long, dangerous journey to California’s gold fields—wealth, love, the truest friends, and a home. Thanks to her magical ability to sense precious gold, Leah, her fiancé Jefferson, and her friends have claimed rich land in California Territory. But their fortune makes them a target, and when a dangerous billionaire sets out to destroy them, Leah and her friends must fight back with all of their power and talents.

Leah’s magic is continuing to strengthen and grow, but someone is on to her—someone who might have a bit of magic herself. The stakes are higher than ever as Lee and her friends hatch a daring scheme that could alter California’s history forever. -Goodreads

The Review:

I finished this book in October 2017. It’s October 2020 and I’m just now sure enough of my thoughts to write a small review.

I was very disappointed in this installment.

It didn’t add anything of value to the series. The first two books had so much substance and depth, it could’ve ended strongly at a duology. The plot here felt unnecessary and forced, as if it were written purely for the sake of publishing a third book (the main arc of the story was resolved completely in the second novel, so everything beyond that seemed contrived just to extend word count). Perhaps it added a bit of “where are they now?” but an epilogue could’ve covered the same ideas in a couple of pages had the same amount of substance.

I have the first two books prominently displayed in my library because they were awesome! I keep stalling on buying this one. I’m such a completionist, it bugs me not having the full set, but my disappointment in it was so strong, I almost think it would make me more unhappy having to designate shelf space to it. Harsh, I know. But Carson is such a good writer, I’d prefer to continue on pretending my precious duology is all she wrote for this series.

Recommendations: the first two books were top-notch – some of the best YA I’ve read to date. This third book did not add anything of value to the series. I’d recommend enjoying the first two, then pretending that everything worked out at the end of the second book. I don’t say this often, but skip this one.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

Title: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Author: Suzanne Collins

Series: Hunger Games #0

Genre: Teen Dystopia

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games. In the Capital, eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Games. The once-mighty house of Snow has fallen on hard times, its fate hanging on the slender chance that Coriolanus will be able to outcharm, outwit, and outmaneuver his fellow students to mentor the winning tribute.

The odds are against him. He’s been given the humiliating assignment of mentoring the female tribute from District 12, the lowest of the low. Their fates are now completely intertwined — every choice Coriolanus makes could lead to favor or failure, triumph or ruin. Inside the arena, it will be a fight to the death. Outside the arena, Coriolanus starts to feel for his doomed tribute… and must weigh his need to follow the rules against his desire to survive no matter what it takes.
-Goodreads

The Review: 

I’ll start with the burning question: is TBoSaS worth reading? The answer to that really depends on what you’re hoping to get out of it. If you’re looking for that same fast-paced, in-your-face, heart-stopping excitement from experiencing the games with Katness, you’re in for sever disappointment. Ballad is drawn-out, introspective, and 95% about the character, Snow. It does a decent job illustrating what life was like in the Capitol after the war ended, and provided some insight as to how the Hunger Games were shaped by influencers at the time. But it’s definitely not going to bring you the same feels as the trilogy. What it does do is show a mastery of craft and immersive character construction… but exciting it is not.

Call me a genius, but it wasn’t until the last 5% of the book where I figured out the main character is a sociopath (although in hindsight it was pretty evident from the start). Those few pages of insight were enough to rock me on my heels, putting in to new perspective everything I had just read. What was going to be a lackluster rating definitely improved, as I think what Collins did here was quite brilliant. It just won’t appeal to the masses.

I found it brilliant because of how precisely Collins stuck to her character design. Telling the whole story through the eyes of a sociopath takes a lot of subtlety and careful thought. She couldn’t emphasize her scenes with extreme emotions (which is how she appealed to me while I was in the games with Katniss), but instead had to convey the story through a creepy, impartial evaluation. Then she took it one step further by introducing a “love” interest. Only, nothing about it sat right. The relationship was just too weird. Snow viewed love as someone to be possessed. “She’s mine!” but not for any emotional appeal, but rather because possession equals power. He treated those around him with a “what can they do for me” mentality and eliminated them from his life when they could not longer offer him anything. One thing I’ve recognized about Collins is that she’s a very deliberate writer. Everything has a careful purpose and she’s brilliant at cutting the crap and getting right to the meaning of every event and scene. This stripped down story was a perfect exhibition for that skill, which I didn’t have a chance to pick up on during the main trilogy because I was too busy feeling things.

The Hunger Games themselves were a veritable shit show, and understandably so, considering the timeframe in which they were happening. However, as the competition aspect was my main draw to the series, I was disappointed it didn’t claim a little more of the page count. But I suppose it fit in with the theme and mood of the book anyway.

Recommendations: don’t pick this up for any of the action and excitement that made the HG trilogy so addicting. It’s a very introspective novel that displays exceptional writing and character construction, but it won’t leave you feeling great (not that HG was all roses (ahem…pun)), but this one’s even worse. It would be difficult to recommend, but not because I didn’t like it. Rather, because I don’t think it has what everyone’s expecting.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Eragon by Christopher Paolini

Eragon by Christopher Paolini

Title: Eragon

Author: Christopher Paolini

Series: Inheritance Cycle #1

Genre: YA Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: One boy…One dragon… A world of adventure. When Eragon finds a polished blue stone in the forest, he thinks it is the lucky discovery of a poor farm boy; perhaps it will buy his family meat for the winter. But when the stone brings a dragon hatchling, Eragon soon realizes he has stumbled upon a legacy nearly as old as the Empire itself. Overnight his simple life is shattered, and he is thrust into a perilous new world of destiny, magic, and power. With only an ancient sword and the advice of an old storyteller for guidance, Eragon and the fledgling dragon must navigate the dangerous terrain and dark enemies of an Empire ruled by a king whose evil knows no bounds. Can Eragon take up the mantle of the legendary Dragon Riders? The fate of the Empire may rest in his hands. -Goodreads

The Review:

I first picked up Eragon when I was 19 – two years after the book came out in 2003. I was reading it in anticipation for the second novel, which was one of my first ARCs as a bookseller. At the time, I’d been reading adult fantasy for a few years, but was by no means well-versed in the genre. Eragon satisfied all my basic expectations for a book of its type, and I was enamored with the fact that it was written by a teen (something I’d probably cringe away from now). I remember finding it inspiring – if he could do it, then I could too. I had a bit of trouble with pacing somewhere in the middle, but after cresting that hill I enjoyed it thoroughly until the end. My archaic, handwritten review at the time claimed, “Anyone who likes fantasy should read this. It would make a very entertaining movie one day (I should’ve specified: if done well, lol).”

Fast forward almost 10 years to 2014, I snagged an audio copy for a reread with the intention of making it beyond the second book to finish the series (…which I still haven’t done). Ten years of avid fantasy reading and a plethora of writing experiences under my belt, and I’ll admit all the things about Eragon that captured me when I was young just didn’t hold up to my aged scrutiny. The writing was clunky and, while massively impressive considering the author’s age, it was clear there were a lot of things that needed work (especially in the opening chapters). I also noted the story itself wasn’t all that original, and could name half a dozen dragon books I thought did the concept a bit better. However, I could still appreciate the appeal it had to me as a teen. It’s an inviting story for a younger audience, and great for easing them into the genre. Excitement for books like this is what drove my own reading ambitions, so I seldom discount them.

Series status: I have yet to finish the series, despite several copies in various formats at my disposal and plenty of opportunity. I finally had to admit the story just doesn’t sing to me like it did when I was younger. I really wish the wait between books hadn’t been so long because I think I’d have continued in earnest had they been published earlier.

Recommendations: Eragon provides a fun way to get the younger crowd engaged in the fantasy genre, but it probably won’t hold up to scrutiny to the more seasoned fantasy readers. Or writers. Even so, it’s now what I would consider a classic in the genre for how many kids it entertained (myself included), so I’d still mark it a good recommend.

Other (dragon) books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes