Image

Book Review: The Decoy Princess by Dawn Cook

Decoy Princess by Dawn Cook

Title: The Decoy Princess

Author: Dawn Cook (aka Kim Harrison)

Series: Decoy Princess #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Princess Contessa of Costenopolie knows everything a royal should about diplomacy, self-defense, politics… and shopping. She ought to. She had every reason to believe that she was groomed to rule. But her next lessonis in betrayal… The sudden arrival of her betrothed, a prince from the kingdom of Misdev, has forced Tess’s parents to come clean: She’s no princess. Their real daughter was raised in a nunnery for fear of assassins. Tess is nothing but a beggar’s child bought off the streets as an infant and reared as a decoy. So what’s a royal highness to do when she discovers she’s a royal target? Ditch the Misdev soldiers occupying the palace, use magical abilities she didn’t even know she had, restore the real princess to the throne, and save her own neck. But first, Tess has to deal with the scoundrel who’s urging her to run away from it all, and the Misdev captain who’s determined to thwart her plans… -Goodreads

The Review:

Dawn Cook (aka Kim Harrison) is one of my favorite authors. There was a point in my life when her Truth series (written as Cook) was my favorite fantasy and The Hollows was my favorite urban fantasy. And this was BEFORE I discovered they were one and the same person. Talk about mind blown. In any case, while my tastes have evolved, I’ll still always love her works. This little duology was the only thing I hadn’t yet devoured…

And it was fun. :)

It’s one of those fantasy books that would be a great transition novel from YA to adult fantasy. It didn’t take itself too seriously and all the characters were fun and animated. I especially liked the hidden plot (involving a secret society) and hope she expands on that in the next novel. 

Even so, a couple of things kept me from really loving it. For one, the main conflict of the story. I’ve read a lot of fantasy novels recently with dynamic court politics and somewhat ruthless rulers. The situation in this book involving the King and Queen was just so bubble gum and unrealistic, it made me stop taking the story seriously early on. It’s hard to describe without spoilers, but suffice to say they got themselves in a situation I don’t think would’ve ever happened if the castle was manned by guards and if the rulers actually had any common sense. They came across very naive and ignorant, and those aren’t usually characteristics I associate with kingdom rulers.

The only other bother was the love interest. Grown men don’t usually drop everything to blindly follow a stranger around indefinitely, even if she’s pretty. It made his character profile feel rather thin, as if he didn’t have anything going on before she became his whole focus. It was unrealistic, speeding up the relationship development for the sake of advancing plot more quickly, and I think the story suffered because of it.

It sounds like I’m majorly knocking the book, but really, I liked it overall and plan to continue. The issues were just too prominent not to mention, but didn’t really affect the story much more than in plausibility. I was able to just go with it and enjoy it for what it was. It definitely wasn’t bad, by any means. It just wasn’t as gritty as some of the books I’ve been preferring lately.

Recommendations: this is a light, fun read perfect for those wanting a transition between YA and adult fantasy.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

Image

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

Image

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

Image

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

Image

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

Image

Book Review: Ashlords by Scott Reintgen

Title: Ashlords

Author: Scott Reintgen

Series: “Untitled Duology” #1 lol

Genre: YA Fantasy

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: Every year since the Ashlords were gifted phoenix horses by their gods, they’ve raced them. First into battle, then on great hunts, and finally for the pure sport of seeing who rode the fastest. Centuries of blood and fire carved their competition into a more modern spectacle: The Races. Over the course of a multi-day event, elite riders from clashing cultures vie to be crowned champion. But the modern version of the sport requires more than good riding. Competitors must be skilled at creating and controlling phoenix horses made of ash and alchemy, which are summoned back to life each sunrise with uniquely crafted powers to cover impossible distances and challenges before bursting into flames at sunset. But good alchemy only matters if a rider knows how to defend their phoenix horse at night. Murder is outlawed, but breaking bones and poisoning ashes? That’s all legal and encouraged. In this year’s Races, eleven riders will compete, but three of them have more to lose than the rest–a champion’s daughter, a scholarship entrant, and a revolutionary’s son. Who will attain their own dream of glory? Or will they all flame out in defeat? -Goodreads

The Review: 

Scott Reintgen’s creativity always sparks my interest. I loved his Nyxia Triad enough to be sold on a new novel from him before even knowing what it was about.

As it turns out, it’s about racing phoenix horses across the desert. Um, hell yeah, sign me up!

A really cool concept and some great characters drove this story when other things like pacing and idea overload threatened to become issues. There are some well-thought out mechanics on the magic surrounding the breeding and care of these phoenix horses, and I loved learning about their different ash compositions and how riders use them strategically for the races. Good stuff.

The story contained three dominant POVs, and I’m happy to say I found each of them equally appealing. My favorite perspective, Pippa, was told using second person format, which I’m really, really hoping was done for a greater, as of yet unrevealed purpose and not just a stylistic choice added solely for variety. I’m specifically channeling Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, where the reveal of the odd POV was my favorite aspect of the whole series… high stakes there, so I’m hoping this one lives up to expectation. :)

The whole book is focused around this race, yet it was well past 50% of the novel before the race actually started. That first half was used to establish character and set up rivalries, but I don’t think it needed quite that much time. Especially when a lot of that could’ve been experienced on the course itself (much like what Collins did in the Hunger Games Trilogy). And I also would’ve like more expansion on the race itself (more obstacles and more time to really immerse in the experience… it went by too fast). After all, it’s the selling point of the novel – savor it!

At the beginning of the book, there’s an author’s note I’d recommend reading before diving in. It explains how he came up with the concept for the story… and the fact that it was originally intended to be a race across four dimensions instead of just one. I’ve no idea what his writing peers read from him that caused them to shut down the idea and have him focus on just this world, but personally I would’ve been more inclined to encourage him to rewrite and re-devise and keep the original vision – it seems an excellent one!

Additionally, there were a lot of jumbled concepts in this book that I think were leftovers from a much broader original outline that felt very out of place if this series is going to be primarily focused on one world (most notably, the “gods” dynamic). If I hadn’t read the authors note, my biggest criticism would have been that the story suffered from too many ideas that didn’t really come together. The insight was needed. But it also makes me yearn for the series he actually wanted to write. I trust the vision. Maybe it needed major reworking, but this almost felt like the plan B project instead of the golden idea project. I could be reading too much into this though haha.

Overall, it’s a fun, creative introduction to this new series, and I’m already eager to see what happens next.

Recommendations: this is an excellent recommend for YA Fantasy Readers who like books with competition. It would also be a great one to hand teens who have trouble getting into books – it provides a really accessible storyline that I think keeps attention really well (worth a shot, right?). I have a few personal reservations from a hyper-analytical standpoint, but I’m holding out to see how the series comes together in future books. The basic takeaway is: it’s a fun book! I think most will enjoy it. :)

I’d like to thank Random House Children’s, Scott Reintgen, and Netgalley for the chance to read an early copy of Ashlords!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes