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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. :)

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Tackling the TBR [62]: October 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:

October 2020 TBR Tackler Shelf:

My new conservative system worked great in September – I finished all of my titles but one (Best Served Cold never became available from the library, so I read a different book instead). I even had time for a few extras.

But the best part is that I didn’t feel stressed about reading for the first time in recent memory, and that’s a huge win.

October got away from me a bit – it was only yesterday I realized I hadn’t composed a TTT post yet. I’m gearing up for Rhythm of War with a reread of Oathbringer (so good). My AF review title is Deadly Education (which I’ve already finished and it was awesome!). And my ARC for the month is Fugitive Telemetry which, omg, I can’t believe I snagged so early. Waiting for the next one beyond that is going to be agonizing (I know, shut up, lol).  With the Abercrombie finishing out my adult reads for the month, I threw in a YA to break things up a bit. I liked Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series (well… most of them), so I’m hoping this is a YA with a bit more substance.


Have a great month in reading!

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire

A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire

Title: A Local Habitation

Author: Seanan McGuire

Series: October Daye #2

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: October “Toby” Daye is a changeling, the daughter of Amandine of the fae and a mortal man. Like her mother, she is gifted in blood magic, able to read what has happened to a person through a mere taste of blood. Toby is the only changeling who has earned knighthood, and she re-earns that position every day, undertaking assignments for her liege, Sylvester, the Duke of the Shadowed Hills. Now Sylvester has asked her to go to the County of Tamed Lightning—otherwise known as Fremont, CA—to make sure that all is well with his niece, Countess January O’Leary, whom he has not been able to contact. It seems like a simple enough assignment—but when dealing with the realm of Faerie nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Toby soon discovers that someone has begun murdering people close to January, whose domain is a buffer between Sylvester’s realm and a scheming rival duchy. If Toby can’t find the killer soon, she may well become the next victim. -Goodreads

The Review:

I’m going to need some encouragement to keep reading this series.

I really want to like it, but I’m struggling. The first book was a bit mediocre (something I don’t hold against introductory UF novels), but had a lot of promise. I was expecting this second book to show some improvements, but ended up liking it less.

First off, the storyline didn’t have anything to do with what happened in the first novel. October was sent off on a tangent mission that, from my initial impression, had absolutely nothing to do with the main trajectory of the series. It lost the sense of momentum I was hoping it would nurture.

A tangent in itself wouldn’t have necessarily been a bad thing, but unfortunately I thought it was an incredibly boring tangent. Mostly due to its predictability.

If I, as the reader, have exactly the same amount of information as the main POV character, I should NOT be able to reason out who the killer is almost half a novel before said character figures it out for herself. The mystery was excruciating long-winded. I even accidentally skipped ahead several chapters and, after flipping back, realized I hadn’t missed much at all. And to make matters worse, there were multiple things the character remained oblivious about for the sake of plot extension, which did not endear me to her sustainability as a leading lady.

BUT… I still don’t absolutely hate it. I like October’s general personality and am really interested in all of the side characters. I like the framework for the world. And I like the small ideas throughout that set this series slightly apart from all the other UFs I’ve read. I think that’s why I’m willing to field conversations to convince me to keep reading. After all, I almost abandoned Kate Daniels at the first book, and now I’m an IA superfan. Series turnarounds happen, especially within the first few books.

Series status: I have the third book already and am planning to read it. However, I don’t have access to free copies from my library for the rest of the series, so it’s going to take some serious persuasion to get me to invest almost $10 per book going forward. I’m hoping for some spoiler-free endorsements from all my fellow UF addicts. :)

Recommendations: at this point, I’m the one looking for recommendations on whether or not this series is worth continuing. So far the first book was mediocre and this one was an even bigger let down… but both offer enough promise to keep me from abandoning it outright. Please help. :)

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: Battle Ground by Jim Butcher

Battle Ground by Jim Butcher

Title: Battle Ground

Author: Jim Butcher

Series: Dresden Files #17

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: Harry has faced terrible odds before. He has a long history of fighting enemies above his weight class. The Red Court of vampires. The fallen angels of the Order of the Blackened Denarius. The Outsiders. But this time it’s different. A being more powerful and dangerous on an order of magnitude beyond what the world has seen in a millennium is coming. And she’s bringing an army. The Last Titan has declared war on the city of Chicago, and has come to subjugate humanity, obliterating any who stand in her way. Harry’s mission is simple but impossible: Save the city by killing a Titan. And the attempt will change Harry’s life, Chicago, and the mortal world forever. -Goodreads

The Review:

A miraculous, all-encompassing, book-long battle which involved almost every single side character we’ve met to date. It was expansive. It was action-packed. And it was well written. A truly cinematic novel of epic proportion!

You know, if you’re into that sort of thing.

I almost always enjoy Dresden novels, but I have to admit that this one required a bit more effort to get through than I’d hoped it would. As all-encompassing as the story was, in execution it was more an endless series of mini battles. The heavy hitters of this world all converged to save Chicago… one after another. You’d think with all of that constant action and excitement that I would be page flipping like mad to see what happened next. But instead I found the conflicts too repetitive to hold my focus. Reconnect with an ally; kill something. Rinse; Repeat. It didn’t offer a lot of plot variety. For me, anyway. I usually have trouble with battle scenes unless the focus is more on the overall tactics and strategy than the individual clashing of swords (or wizard staffs). This was very much the latter.

I did like the voice of the story – it’s comforting to “come home” to a Dresden novel, especially after all this time. I will say there was a very noticeable overuse of the word “freaking.” It was funny the first two times it was used, but then it got distracting from there. Even so, Harry’s a great character, made even better by the plethora of secondary personalities. Oddly, how engaged I was during any particular scene had more to do with how interested I was in the side characters within it (as it turns out, there were only three that had me completely enthralled). Butcher dramatically changed a few of the characters’ overall trajectories, which I appreciated because of the variety it added, but I’m not sure I’m on board with the direction some of them are now headed… we shall see.

Overall, for my personal tastes and expectations, I did not enjoy Battle Ground as much as I wanted to. I think the repetitive nature of it gave my brain a lot of free time to pick apart other aspects of the story I may not have noticed otherwise. I will still be continuing on in the series because when one of the books works for me, it REALLY works for me. As it stands, this one is just middle of the road in the whole scheme of the series.

Recommendations: if you’re already a Dresden fan, how could you NOT pick up this novel? My conservative rating is probably going to be in the minority, so keep that in mind. If you haven’t started the series yet, it’s a staple in the genre for a reason, but it does take a few books in before it really finds its “magic.”

I’d like to thank Berkley Publishing Group, Jim Butcher, and NetGalley for the chance to read and review an early copy of Battle Ground.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: To Sleep in a Sea if Stars by Christopher Paolini

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christoper Paolini

Title: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Author: Christopher Paolini

Series: N/A

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Kira Navárez dreamed of life on new worlds. Now she’s awakened a nightmare. During a routine survey mission on an uncolonized planet, Kira finds an alien relic. At first she’s delighted, but elation turns to terror when the ancient dust around her begins to move. As war erupts among the stars, Kira is launched into a galaxy-spanning odyssey of discovery and transformation. First contact isn’t at all what she imagined, and events push her to the very limits of what it means to be human. While Kira faces her own horrors, Earth and its colonies stand upon the brink of annihilation. Now, Kira might be humanity’s greatest and final hope . . . -Goodreads

The Review:

A decent sci-fi. I didn’t hate it. But I do have some thoughts.

Paolini has definitely blossomed as a writer. He always had the storytelling basics, but time and experience has done his craft well. I particularly liked his character construction. So many different personalities and a great dynamic between all of them. I’d be hard-presses to pick a favorite, and I love that.

I wouldn’t say the book was particularly original – I feel like I’ve read many different versions of at least the first 25%. But as the story progressed it started to get more and more creative. It eventually presented enough fun ideas and characters to keep my interest, and soon I was on board. There were one or two plot decisions that surprised me, which is always a bonus.

It is a bit of a drawback for me that it took so long to get going. While many of the scenes boasted action and a fast-paced momentum, the overall plot progression of the book was sluggish. If the scenes themselves hadn’t been so interesting, I could’ve easily gotten bored, and even wondered if I was starting to several times. There was an entire plot point (involving a blue staff) that caused a lot of story repetition. I thought it could’ve been removed completely without any negative effects (or at least merged with other sections). As it stands, I feel it drew the book out a lot longer than it needed to be.

Another criticism is the required “just go with it” attitude I needed to adopt while reading it. Particularly regarding the decisions and reactions of authority figures along Kira’s journey. A lot of what went on felt rather implausible considering what was at stake, even with the concession that most of it happened on the fringes of human-settled space. But still, a lot of things seemed too convenient and narrowly-focused to actually work. That said, it does take place during an alien invasion, so perhaps a lot can be chalked up to everyone being too busy with that to deal with this one aspect. I did appreciate that Paolini at least attempted to incorporate the on-goings in the highly populated worlds to keep me connected to the large-scale stakes of the conflict.

Recommendations: fans of Paolini’s work will likely enjoy this book for similar writing styles and voice. As far as sci-fi recommends go, it ranks somewhere in the middle for me – not the most original I’ve read, but better than many of them because of the fun characters. After compiling my “other books you might like” section, it occurred to me that despite the light adult content, the book still reads more YA (minus the romance) and would probably appeal to fans of that genre more so than scifi lovers. 

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes