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Book Review: Honor Among Thieves by Rachel Caine and Ann Aguirre

Title: Honor Among Thieves

Authors: Rachel Caine & Ann Aguirre

Series: The Honors #2

Genre: YA Sci-fi

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Petty criminal Zara Cole has a painful past that’s made her stronger than most, which is why she chose life in New Detroit instead of moving with her family to Mars. In her eyes, living inside a dome isn’t much better than a prison cell. Still, when Zara commits a crime that has her running scared, jail might be exactly where she’s headed. Instead Zara is recruited into the Honors, an elite team of humans selected by the Leviathan—a race of sentient alien ships—to explore the outer reaches of the universe as their passengers. Zara seizes the chance to flee Earth’s dangers, but when she meets Nadim, the alien ship she’s assigned, Zara starts to feel at home for the first time. But nothing could have prepared her for the dark, ominous truths that lurk behind the alluring glitter of starlight. -Goodreads

The Review:

Honor Among Thieves started brilliantly, but eventually derailed into a very familiar YA relationship-focused story… I really wish I’d liked it more.

I’ve had good experiences with Caine’s Morganville Vampires and Weather Wardens series, but Ann Aguirre is one of my all-time favorite authors, so to say my expectations were high is an understatement.

The book is separated into three parts, and I had vastly different experiences with each one. Here was my progressive thought process, followed by some positive notes.

Part 1: [4.5/5 stars] Wow!! I was hooked from the first page. It set the framework for a fantastic training-driven plot. And it included one of the first female MCs I’ve liked in ages. Her story wasn’t typical, and reading about her struggles before being pulled into the Honors was gripping. I thought for the first time in as long as I can remember that I was going to passionately enjoy a YA novel.

And then Part 2 happened.

Part 2: [1.5/5 stars] The story devolved into a dialogue-heavy exploration of a relationship between the main character and the alien. It was page after page of endless conversations of the characters explaining things to each other with absolutely nothing to break it up. You know those YA books where the girl meets a boy and the entire book shifts gears to focus on only their love story? Yeah, replace the boy with the Leviathan, and you have a book that was, in essence, a cookie-cutter YA romance trope. Ugh. I think the authors did themselves a huge disservice isolating these characters, especially when considering how many other cool elements introduced in the first part could’ve been expanded on. Overall, it was a huge disappointment for me. I expected so much more with the premise – I wanted a sci-fi adventure novel. What I got was a non-sexually driven love story. The connection between the characters was done really well, so I can see why readers who rate higher on character development were pleased with the book, it just missed the mark for me.

Part 3: [2.5/5 stars] This is where they pulled back in some other characters and briefly yanked the story out of its laser-focus on the relationship. Some cool stuff happened, and it happened with a lot of energy and excitement. Had I not just suffered through part 2, I probably would’ve rated this section higher. However, I still think the plot went in a weirder direction than it needed to. While reading part 1, I quickly reserved the next two books in the series, but after finishing the book I’m not sure I liked the direction of the story enough to invest time in the sequel anytime soon (if at all).

Some positives: Here’s the thing, a lot of the things I love about these authors made an appearance here. They’re both good at creating characters with compelling personalities and difficult back-stories (Aguirre being a bit grittier of the two). They’re also proficient at dialogue (Caine being the most adept, IMO). And Aguirre has written some of my favorite relationships to date – some of which were between aliens and humans (it’s always about the CONNECTION and chemistry rather than the romantic aspect). All of these things were present here, so I think my overall issue with the story has more to do with plot decisions and the general focus of the novel (as it differed from my expectations) rather than any lack of craft or execution.

Recommendation: if you like character-driven stories and don’t mind a disproportionate focus on a relationship, you’ll probably like the sci-fi twist the book adds to that plot structure. If, like me, you were cravings something more akin to Sanderson’s Skyward, it’s a bit of a letdown. I had conflicting thoughts between every section of this book, mostly based on plot decisions, but still recognize the quality of what was presented (it’s coffee. I wanted tea). I think most YA fans will love it.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Smoke and Stone by Michael R. Fletcher

Smoke and Stone by Michael R. Fletcher

Title: Smoke and Stone

Author: Michael R. Fletcher

Series: City of Sacrifice #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: After a cataclysmic war of the gods, the last of humanity huddles in Bastion, a colossal ringed city. Beyond the outermost wall lies endless desert haunted by the souls of all the world’s dead. Trapped in a rigid caste system, Nuru, a young street sorcerer, lives in the outer ring. She dreams of escape and freedom. When something contacts her from beyond the wall, she risks everything and leaps at the opportunity. Mother Death, a banished god seeking to reclaim her place in Bastion’s patchwork pantheon, has found her way back into the city. Akachi, born to the wealth and splendour of Bastion’s inner rings, is a priest of Cloud Serpent, Lord of the Hunt. A temple-trained sorcerer, he is tasked with bringing peace to the troublesome outer ring. Drawn into a dark and violent world of assassins, gangs, and street sorcerers, he battles the spreading influence of Mother Death in a desperate attempt to save Bastion. The gods are once again at war. -Goodreads

The Review:

I’ve been hearing great things about Michael R. Fletcher for years. Several people in my Goodreads group (Fantasy Buddy Reads) have been raving about his Manifest Delusions series, and he’s even stopped by to do some Q&As (gracious authors rock). When offered a review audiobook of his latest novel, Smoke and Stone, I jumped at the opportunity to give him a try.

The book was definitely grimdark, and I liked how true to the genre it stayed – abundant violence, bleak outlooks, dry humor. It’s usually in these dark reads where you find the most beautiful glimmer of humanity by contrast. Smoke and Stone was no exception on that regard. Subjectively, I think it may have leaned too dark without as much glimmer for my personal taste, but I still enjoyed it.

When venturing in, I expected the dark elements and the dry humor based on FBR feedback about his writing. What I didn’t expect was the personable nature of the characters. They were downright charming, and easily my favorite aspect of the book. There were moments where it dipped its toe into providing more depth – inner motivations and driving forces behind the characters – but it didn’t get below surface-level very often and I think that’s part of the reason why I finished the book not feeling particularly connected to the characters, nor torn up about some of the awful things that happened to some of them.

The concept for the story was interesting, but I felt the culture needed a bit more development. The strict framework of the priests of the Cloud Serpent kind of contradicted the somewhat casual enforcement of their practices. The fact that a lesser sorcerer could even be allowed to question the morality of sacrifices without sever punishment (or at least crippling fear of sever punishment from all the brainwashing) was a bit of a contradiction. If nothing else, hanging a prominent lantern on the discrepancy would’ve helped.

All that said, the main story arc was action-packed and generally badass. I loved the pacing through the whole thing and the quiet moments with the characters were golden – where you learn more about them based on decisions and reactions. It’s a good start to a series with potential to grow.

Recommendations: I’ve heard rave reviews about the Manifest Delusions series and still hope to pick those up soon, regardless of my conservative rating here. Many of my GR buddies (who’s opinions I highly respect) really love this author, so I’m definitely not finished exploring his work. Pick it up for a creative grimdark experience and some interesting characters.

I’d like to thank Michael R. Fletcher for kindly providing a review copy. And thank you, Jon, for orchestrating it. :)

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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The Obsessive Bookseller’s Mini Book Review Blitz! [5]

Mini Book Review Blitz!


Wrath of Empire by Brian McClellan

Book Info: Wrath of Empire by Brian McClellan (Gods of Blood and Powder #2) [4.5/5 stars]

I’m not going to gush again. Okay, I’m not going to gush more than a paragraph. Wrath of Empire continued to solidify this saga as one of my new all-time favorites. I elaborate quite a bit in my reviews of Promise of Blood (where it all starts) and Sins of Empire (where it all continues), so suffice to say here that the level of quality in these books never diminishes. It has phenomenal characters, excellent relationship dynamics (non-romantic, just great human connections), on-point pacing, rounded world-building, and brilliant dry humor. It’s my favorite series to recommend at the moment, and I can only hope the final book in this second trilogy knocks my socks off too. :)


Bitter Blood by Rachel Caine

Book Info: Bitter Blood by Rachel Caine (Morganville Vampires #13) [3/5 stars]

Word vomit review headed your way:

I swear this series could be tightened up considerably if the characters didn’t spend so much time rehashing things. I’d also prefer more focus on advancing external plot points. However, that’s not really the point of the story. The point is to spend time with the characters and really immerse in their thoughts and feelings. The bad guys are secondary. I like these characters well enough. I’ve read enough of Rachel Caine to note that we’d be compatible friends because we definitely don’t have the same taste in boys. I’ve been working my way through this series gradually for about ten years, and it’s interesting to me how much more often I notice relationship dynamics between the main characters that are really unhealthy. It certainly adds to the drama and perpetuates the series. But at the same time I now find it harder to read. A lot of the arguments seem senseless. But that kind of makes them the most realistic, which is oddly compelling. It’s probably why I keep coming back to the series – to see where everyone ends up in the end. I am getting tired of the “scary” vampires doing “scary” things but never actually hurting anybody thing that’s going on. It lowers any stakes (pun) I might feel because everything is so vanilla. However, that also means the violence is age-appropriate and I should probably stick to adult urban fantasy after this (I won’t) if I want something substantial. Overall, it’s a staple YA vampire series that I’ve mostly enjoyed. I’d have a hard time feeling good about recommending it to teens because of the toxic relationships and sexual content (nothing explicit, just promotion of underaged sex. The main character is quite young with a much older boyfriend), but I’d also feel off recommending it to adults because it doesn’t give a lot to sink your teeth into (another pun) other than teenage angst (which apparently is entertaining enough to keep me reading). The overall story arcs are a lot of fun, it just draws them out a bit too long. On the flipside, the novels are short, so if you can breeze through them your experience might be a lot better than mine. Haha how about that for a review? Happy reading, peeps!


Sweep in Peace by Ilona Andrews

Book Info: Sweep in Peace by Ilona Andrews (Innkeeper Chronicles #2) [3.5/5 stars]

I liked the first book (everything by these authors is enjoyable), but the Sweep in Peace was better on all accounts. It took advantage of the excellent premise by actually highlighting different alien species (which is never a given in sci-fi… I’m so glad it wasn’t an opportunity wasted here ). It gave more depth to the relationships. And it even brought in a few familiar faces from other IA series, which was a total delight. This is another series that functions as a perfect palate-cleansers between heavier spec-fic reads. I devoured it in a single day, and it was a complete abundance of fun. This is a very genre-hybrid series. It reads like an urban fantasy in both writing style and supernatural content, has magical components usually reserved for high fantasy, but leans sci-fi because of how this universe functions and the inclusion of multiple extraterrestrials. I love it when books break the rules. This is a fun breath of fresh air, but it’s nowhere near my favorite work from IA. If you’re new to these authors, I’d say start with either Kate Daniels (the first book is so “meh” but the series rapidly improves from there and becomes amazing) or Hidden Legacy (please ignore the cheesy covers, lol) to see what these authors can really do.


by Niki Hawkes

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Tackling the TBR [56]: April 2020

tackling the TBR

It’s once again time for my favorite feature: Tackling the TBR! There’s nothing I love more than picking out which books to read next, and this slightly organized method of reading has really amped my enjoyment to the next level. Bring on the mantras!

Read the best books first.
&
Life is too short to read books you’re not enjoying.

However you put together your TBR for the next month, the goal is to reduce the amount of obligation in reading and increase the fun.


Here’s a look at how the system works:

1. Identify the titles that take top priority in your TBR.
2. Combine them all in your own Tackling the TBR post.
3. Throughout the month pick from that pile as the mood strikes you.

Here’s what mine looks like:

April 2020 TBR Tackler Shelf:

Physical Copies:

Audiobooks:

My TTTBR post is a little early this month, but I finished all the titles on last month’s list and found myself needing to get organized. I’ve been much more active in the book community since the end of January and have started requesting and accepting review copies from publishers again… and I’m a bit overwhelmed (and very excited!). I should be reading the ARCs in order of pending publication, but I couldn’t help but start the new Dresden book asap. :)


Have a great month in reading!

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Anya and the Dragon by Sofiya Pasternack

Title: Anya and the Dragon

Author: Sofiya Pasternack

Series: Anya #1

Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Anya and the Dragon is the story of fantasy and mayhem in tenth century Eastern Europe, where headstrong eleven-year-old Anya is a daughter of the only Jewish family in her village. When her family’s livelihood is threatened by a bigoted magistrate, Anya is lured in by a friendly family of fools, who promise her money in exchange for helping them capture the last dragon in Kievan Rus. This seems easy enough, until she finds out that the scary old dragon isn’t as old—or as scary—as everyone thought. Now Anya is faced with a choice: save the dragon, or save her family. -Goodreads

The Review:

Anya and the Dragon was a lovely middle grade story with enough interesting elements to make it a great pick for kids to read with their parents.

I haven’t had a lot of patience for middle grade novels lately, but considering the premise and the fact that it got recognized at the ALA Media Awards, I decided to accept a review copy…

And I liked it. ^_^

It’s always fun to see different cultures represented in fantasy books, and I thought the author did an especially good job at immersing the reader in the “Tenth century Eastern Europe” lifestyle (insofar as is appropriate for a middle grade book). It also covered a few more serious topics dealing with prejudice and oppression of Jewish families at that time, which was nice to see. Both of these factors are why I think the book has so much hype.

Anya was a great main character. Faced with a moral dilemma, she showcased her ability to make hard decisions, and I appreciate that she was so humble even when she was being most brave. A lot of MG heroes seem to have to put on over-dramatic airs and make a lot of stupid decisions to prove they’re worthy, but Anya’s demeanor was subtle and lovely. The positive takeaway was that actions driven by kindness can be powerful too.

Here’s the caveat: there weren’t a lot of fantasy elements through most of the novel (well, that’s not strictly true – they were there in the background, but never really felt like the focus). The selling point was the relatable main character and the cultural immersion. The dragon doesn’t come into play until much later in the book, and when it does, it’s vastly different than I think most fantasy readers will expect. Mostly because it’s geared to be more accessible to kids. It’s friendlier storytelling, if that makes sense. I didn’t dislike it – it was actually kind of fun to be surprised a bit, but when I became apparent that the fantasy elements were secondary, I felt my enthusiasm and attention waning. That aside, it was still a fun story.

Recommendations: this is a lovely, culturally-infused middle grade book that would be fun to read with a child (or to have them read on their own). I think it may be a tad too accessible for adult fantasy enthusiasts, but it’s entertaining nonetheless if you’re in the mood for something light. It’s definitely better than most middle grade novels I’ve tried lately, so we’ll give it big kudos for that. :)

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Smoke Bitten by Patricia Briggs

Smoke Bitten by Patricia Briggs [March 10, 2020]

Title: Smoke Bitten

Author: Patricia Briggs

Series: Mercy Thompson #12

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: I am Mercedes Athena Thompson Hauptman. My only “superpowers” are that I turn into a thirty-five pound coyote and fix Volkswagens. But I have friends in odd places and a pack of werewolves at my back. It looks like I’m going to need them. Centuries ago, the fae dwelt in Underhill–until she locked her doors against them. They left behind their great castles and troves of magical artifacts. They abandoned their prisoners and their pets. Without the fae to mind them, those creatures who remained behind roamed freely through Underhill wreaking havoc. Only the deadliest survived. Now one of those prisoners has escaped. It can look like anyone, any creature it chooses. But if it bites you, it controls you. It lives for chaos and destruction. It can make you do anything–even kill the person you love the most. Now it is here, in the Tri-Cities. In my territory. It won’t, can’t, remain. Not if I have anything to say about it. -Goodreads

The Review

Smoke Bitten was superb!

The plot was very engaging, involving the mystery of a body-snatching Smoke Creature, who’s identity I actually figured out around the same time as the main character. Go me!! But more importantly, I love it when books can get you involved in solving things out of your own volition. I’m a huge fan of Patricia Briggs. I’ve been following the Mercy Thompson/Alpha & Omega books almost from the start, and the saga is a strong favorite. That said, I was let down by book #11 and said as much in my (somewhat) critical review. That book didn’t have the same spark as the books before it and I started questioning whether the series was being drawn out past it’s prime. My main criticism was that Mercy wasn’t as pivotal a role-player in advancing plot as I thought she should’ve been (instead seemed more focused on the mundane). Soooo not the case here – she was central to all the happenings, and back to being that beautiful instigator of change I’ve loved her for. Smoke Bitten was easily one of the strongest in the series. It had an excellent combination of action, humor, sentiment, and world-building. This is a showcase of Briggs at her finest, and I can’t wait to read what she comes out with next!

The story is full of amazing characters, and the depth we have with each of them at this point is remarkable. This novel was a success for me partially because Briggs managed to take the deep connections between a few of the characters and forge them even closer. The way Mercy related to specific characters in Smoke Bitten was my favorite aspect of the story. As a whole, I love the pack dynamics. I love the relationships with magical beings. And I love the number of players involved that make future books so compelling with their boundless possibilities. Excuse me while I fangirl a minute…

Recommendations: I consider Mercy Thompson a staple of the urban fantasy genre. It’s also one of the easiest to recommend (most of the urban fantasy series I geek out about usually come with disclaimers… this one is just straight-forward awesome). It’s a top 5 (uf) for me. I’d especially recommend it to anyone wanting to get into the genre. I’d strongly suggest reading both the Mercy Thompson and Alpha & Omega books in order of publication. The crossover is incredibly high, and you won’t get the full experience in later Mercy books if you don’t read both.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes