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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: Nyxia Uprising by Scott Reintgen

Nyxia Uprising by Scott Reintgen

Title: Nyxia Uprising

Author: Scott Reintgen

Series: Nyxia Triad #3

Genre: Teen Science Fiction

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Desperate to return home to Earth and claim the reward Babel promised, Emmett and the Genesis team join forces with the Imago. Babel’s initial attack left their home city in ruins, but that was just part of the Imago’s plan. They knew one thing Babel didn’t. This world is coming to an end. Eden’s two moons are on a collision course no one can prevent. After building eight secret launch stations, the Imago hoped to lure Babel down to their doomed planet as they left it behind. A perfect plan until the Genesis team’s escape route was destroyed. Now the group must split up to survive the hostile terrain and reach another launch station. As both sides struggle for the upper hand, the fight leads inevitably back into space, where Emmett, his crewmates, and their new allies will fight one final battle for control of the Genesis ships. Win this time, and they’ll survive Babel’s twisted game once and for all. As the Imago world falls, this is the last chance to rise. -Goodreads

The Review:

Even though Nyxia Uprising wrapped up one of the better YA trilogies I’ve read lately, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as the first two books.

I just couldn’t get into it with the same gusto. Part of that was because of the lack of stimulating story components. Book 1 included a ton of engaging training sequences and compelling unknowns to discover. Not to mention exciting interpersonal conflicts and rivalries. Book 2 had a lot of dazzling world exploration, “magic” training as they learned how to use Nyxia, and some fantastic alien culture immersion.

… whereas book 3 was kindly just one long drawn out fight with few dynamics (and practically zero fun-factor elements). From a construction standpoint, I think it would’ve made for a stronger finish had the series been a duology, and final conflict shortened to wrap up the second book. As a stand alone installment, it was quite weak by comparison.

Another problem was my lack of investment in the characters. The main character, Emmett, didn’t get a lot of page-time, which I missed because it was his unique view on the world that helped hook me into the story in the first place. My issue was compounded because of how long it had been since I’d read the second book – it loses a little of the impact when you can’t remember much about the side characters. The story did eventually provide enough recap for me to recall everything, but it took a while, but even then the deaths and victories felt very distant.

Overall, I’m glad to have read this series – I enjoyed the first two books immensely. This one just didn’t tickle my fancy the same, but I still liked the resolution.

Recommendations: the Nyxia Triad is one of the better YA series I’ve read, and I enjoyed it mostly for its competition and world-building elements. It’s a watered down version of Red Rising with a very distinctive main character. I’d definitely recommend it to fans of the genre.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Cerulean by Amy Ewing

Title: The Cerulean

Author: Amy Ewing

Series: “Untitled Duology” #1

Genre: Teen Fantasy

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: Sera has always felt as if she didn’t belong among her people, the Cerulean. She is curious about everything and can’t stop questioning her three mothers, her best friend, Leela, and even the High Priestess. Sera has longed for the day when the tether that connects her City Above the Sky to the earthly world below finally severs and sends the Cerulean to a new planet. But when Sera is chosen as the sacrifice to break the tether, she doesn’t know what to feel. To save her City, Sera must throw herself from its edge and end her own life. But something goes wrong and she survives the fall, landing in a place called Kaolin. She has heard tales about the humans there, and soon learns that the dangers her mothers warned her of are real. If Sera has any hope to return to her City, she’ll have to find the magic within herself to survive. -Goodreads

The Review:

What I appreciate most about Ewing is her abundance of cool concepts. I loved the society she created in her Lone City trilogy, and the one conceived here was just as interesting (and even more outside the box). Concept was definitely the biggest draw here for me and easily the main reason I kept reading until the end.

Unfortunately, with that cool concept came not a whole lot of substance as far as plot was concerned. Most of the scenes featured extensive explanations about the world (which I didn’t totally mind) and a ton of dialogue. .. but not a whole lot else. There were a few great moments between characters where I felt invested, but for the most part it didn’t give me much to talk about.

One thing I did appreciate – the book is LGBT friendly. And not in that “token” inclusion I’ve seen in YA books historically, but integrated in ways that felt more authentic (to be fair, I’m no sure how well it represented the community, but I still appreciate the diversity). In a book with very few external happenings, it really is all about the characters and how they relate to one another.

Overall, I liked the concept and general character profiles. However I didn’t think there were enough moving parts or overall plot points to warrant such a long book. I personally craved more substance and depth. And maybe a little grit to make me feel something rather than just read about it.

Series status: this is a duology and I’m not sure yet if I’ll pick up the sequel. I have an affection for Ewing’s stories and appreciate her concepts and style of writing, but this book did not give me anything to sink my teeth into.

Recommendations: if you’re looking for a unique YA tale that’s highly character-driven, The Cerulean is a great pick. It was a bit tame for my tastes and needed more external conflicts, but it was still a lovely read that I think will appeal more to readers who prefer YA as their main genre.

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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Trilogy Review: Madison Avery by Kim Harrison

The Madison Avery Trilogy
by Kim Harrison
Rating: 2/5 stars

If you can overlook a few flaws, the Madison Avery trilogy is a fun, light YA read.

However, I had a difficult time following my own advice. I have a lot of nitpicky things to talk about in this review and unfortunately, not a lot of positive takeaways.

Once Dead, Twice Shy, the first book, had a few glaring weaknesses – the most prominent being the main character’s propensity for making bad decisions. I don’t mind it when characters make mistakes – flaws and an occasional lax in judgement can go a long way in making a story feel authentic. However, I take exception when every single decision the character makes goes against common sense (and against advice from other characters actively stating it’s a bad idea). Thus the pattern would go: 1. Bad decision made 2. Fallout from the bad decision made 3. The character saying “I’m sorry” and then moving on to the next bad decision.

I lost count of the number of times the character said “I’m sorry” throughout the first book and got really tired of the same spiel over and over again. And what’s worse, those tendencies and attitudes were evident in all of the other characters as well… which I think equals out to a story cluster-you-know-what where perhaps if the characters weren’t getting in their own way, they could’ve focused on adding substance. I think had the book been longer (allowing me more time to get irritated), my rating would’ve dropped proportionately. As it was, the short length actually worked in its favor.

Here’s what bothered me most about that, though: the character never used those failures to grow. There was no reflection on what she could’ve done better (other than the self-blame and apologizing), and I see that as a missed opportunity for more depth. She did use those moments to solidify some convictions, so I guess that’s something, but overall I kept craving more introspection. Incidentally, my biggest negative takeaway from the entire series is that Madison Avery’s character was a flat-lined consistency through the whole thing (and not just because she was dead) and all the focus was on the external conflicts. I should lighten the blow a bit by saying I did actually like her character profile, I just wish she’d given me an opportunity to feel something for her.

The external conflict/focus of the series took a while to become clear. There were moments in the second book where it started budding into something really satisfying, but every time it gained momentum, the focus would shift and it would get ignored for a while. I wonder if part of that was to save the “big profound moment” for the end of the series, but for me, by the time it got there I found my enthusiasm in the pits because it danced around it for so long.

This is one of those cases where my initial rating was going to be a 3 stars (I liked it), but after writing my review and really analyzing how I felt about it, I downgraded to a 2 stars (it was just okay) rating. Does anyone else let their word vomit help solidify their opinions? It doesn’t happen often to me, but when it does, I run with it. Keep in mind that I’ve been unusually harsh on YA lately and had I read these when they first came out, I likely would not have been so critical.

Recommendations: this YA paranormal story is definitely more suited towards younger readers. It doesn’t have a very strong romance angle, which might be perfect for a few readers tired of the same old tropes.

Other books you might like (…better?):

by Niki Hawkes