Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

unearthed

3 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this work.

Boy does this one have me pretty torn.

Earth has received our first alien signal and, as a species that tends to want to poke every bear and press every large red destruction button we can find, there is some conflict over what we should do, but most of it involves going to check out the source before properly understanding what the signal is saying. The government is blockading the planet the signal is coming from, trying to be cautious, but there are plenty of scavengers and explorers leaking through.

Mia is one of those, a scavenger who is hoping to make enough off of this trip to save her sister. Jules is on the side of the UN. He is part of a cautious segment that wants to move slowly and carefully around a new planet strewn with alien tech and buildings. Jules and Mia are thrown together when both their separate missions go bad. Jules has a set of new coordinates that should lead them to a bigger treasure than anyone has ever found. Mia has the necessary skills to get them there. But other scavengers want a piece of the pie and we still aren’t sure the aliens want us poking around in their stuff.

This book is a very strange mashup of Indiana Jones temple robbing and science fiction. The first half has Jules and Mia puzzling their way through an abandoned temple, looking for invisible bridges, avoiding spike traps and reading glyphs off of walls. The second half is pure science fiction, with ships, teleporting and your brain filling in the sound of gun shots as the distinct “pew pew” from Star Wars. Some books really smoothly stitch together various genres (James S.A. Corey somehow perfectly melds science fiction, horror, and film noir detectives together). Others just slap something together and call it a novel. This book was somewhere in between. It is not a huge jolt going from one genre into another, but it is definitely not completely smooth.

The relationship of the two major characters takes the easiest and most obvious track towards romance. I thought too much of the book was about their relationship and not enough attention paid to the reaction and fallout of humanity discovering another alien species. Are teens really that obsessed with themselves and their crushes that they cannot put off falling in love when their lives are being threatened or humanity is having to complete rework itself and its place in the universe? Can we have less giggling and fluttering eyelashes and maybe more attention paid to something that is going to redefine every one of us? This is one of the things that really separates the standard teen novel from the incredible ones. Having realistic reactions to world-shattering events.

This slightly amused me but did not wow me.

 

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Godsgrave by Jay Kristof

godsgrave

5/5

I received an ARC of this work.

Wow, am I enjoying this series. It is an amazing fantasy read with a fantastic sense of humour and a gritty realism that is borderline impossible to ignore. I cannot add it to my library which is exclusively for junior high students (and this is definitely an adult read), but I am going to bully all of my friends into reading this.

Mia Corvere is the daughter of a rebel and the rest of her family was slaughtered during the attempted coup. She was rightfully upset and decided to spend the rest of her life getting revenge on the main figures in charge of the executions of her mother, father and brother. Since they are all very highly placed in the government, it will not be a simple job, but there is a group of highly trained assassins who do take on apprentices. In the first book, Mia manages to make it through the training and become accepted into the ranks of killers. The second book begins with her starting on her final path to retribution.

The winner of a gladiatorial contest is congratulated, in person and unarmed, by one of her targets. To enter, Mia must sell herself into slavery and be purchased by a noble house that wants to compete. Then she just has to kill every other contestant in an Ancient Romanesque bloodbath. Being a trained combat expert will help, but she will not be given her choice of weapon and is still just one girl.

For those who loved Hunger Games and Red Rising for their life or death combat scenes and action, this reads quite similarly. You have a smaller crew of distinct characters that form relationships and temporary alliances, knowing that all friendships and bonds are going to end by having to kill each other later. As a reader you are always on your toes, never really knowing who is going to die next and who is going to stab whom in the back.

What really sells this series, though, is how funny life and death, betrayal and blood can get in the imagination of a skilled author. The text is peppered with hilarious footnotes that have a Terry Pratchett/ Jonathan Stroud sarcasm and wit to them. It gives you a breath of fresh air between battles and eviscerations.

The book reads a lot like Scott Lynch, in that you have a great combination of funny and serious fantasy without the character having to save the world. So much of our science fiction and fantasy has the plot revolving around saving the entire planet/universe/species. It is rarer to find one where the protagonist is trying to do something personal. It may have larger political implications (in this case murdering the head of a country), but that is not the main focus. Mia just wants his head. The collapse of the state thanks to her actions is not a concern of hers. She is self-absorbed enough to not care about the wider fallout of her plans. She wants what she wants and that is as far as her attention really goes.

It is also very refreshing to see such a bloodthirsty character. Too much of YA has characters that want to do what is right and make sacrifices for love/saving something. Mia is just ignoring friendships and people and love and cutting down everything in her path. It makes it a more interesting read to not be guaranteed the actions that other characters might make. Mia might choose to kill a friend or screw somebody over or she may not. Her vicious nature makes her harder to predict.

I adore this series. It was really hard to put down and I was alternatively giggling and close to tears. A must-read.

 

Tarnished City by James Vic

tarnished city

4 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this work.

This review will contain spoilers for the first book, the Gilded Cage.

This book is just as good as the first in the series, which is fantastic since so many series have a notedly not very strong second book. This one reads very well.

The rebellion fomenting against the skilled upper class is growing and all of the main characters are connected to it in some way or another. Luke, placed in a slave camp, is a member helping with regular protests. His sisters Abi and Daisy are slaves in the manor house of one of the old ruling families where one of the sons (Gavar) has been tasked with squashing the rebellion. The eldest brother of the family has unparalleled powers and his goals and alliances are completely unknown, and the youngest is definitely sympathetic to the unskilled, but since he has no powers, he does not count for anything. The father of the noble family wants complete power, but so does Gavar’s fiancé.

The whole plot is a web of alliances and interests that it is difficult to find in other YA books. Most books for teens tend towards simplified plots with clear and straightforward lines, keeping the twists and turns down to one or two large ones at the end. To find the intricacy that this book offers you usually have to go to adult fantasy or science fiction, like Game of Thrones. I loved what it offers young readers in terms of complexity.

The family is thrown back together, which means the relationships grow and change. The characters evolve in ways that does not always happen in YA fantasy and I love how familial relationships are emphasized in these books. It is not just romance. It is parent and child, father and nanny, brother and sister. The characters are complex and their motives get explored well.

While not revealing too much of the plot, this was a great and solid addition to the series. We get to know the characters even better and start to question some of the stuff about them that we learned in the first book. Definitely read this.

Ringer by Lauren Oliver

ringer

4 out of 5 stars.

This review will contain spoilers for the first book.

I received an ARC of this work.

This is a conclusion to Replica, by the same author. Gemma finds out that her father was involved in a human cloning project that is exploring diseases by breeding and infecting human clones. Lyra is one of the clones being experimented on. Lyra escapes and runs into Gemma and they both start exploring the history of the experiment and what it will take to shut it down.

The first neat thing about these books is the weird formatting found in both. Half of the book is the story told by one character, the other half (turn the book upside down and over) is told by the other. Both stories cover the exact same time period, and often share the exact same scenes, but from different perspectives. Most multiple-perspective stories run one story, with the different characters describing what they are experiencing in sequence. This book takes it parallel. You can either read one side completely then switch to the other, or read one chapter, then read the same chapter on the other side, then do the same for the second, third, etc. I used the second method, wanting the exact same scene from both narrators really close together to compare.

This book was almost more engaging than the first one because the stories start to diverge quite a bit. In Replica, most of the scenes were duplicates because the girls’ spent a lot of time together. In this sequel, their paths are not crossing nearly as much so you are getting less duplication and more action in different places.

As someone with two university degrees in philosophy, I love books like these that really explore what makes someone human or worthy of moral consideration. Having discovered that cancer cells have human DNA, just looking at genetics is out. So, what is the criteria?

Gemma is very sure of herself as human because she was raised by parents, is loved and accepted, and shows the same self-reflexive intelligence that characterizes most of our species. Lyra, a clone, is also loved and valued by other clones and a couple of staff members, and is very intelligent. She is missing being raised by parents, but I am assuming we are past the point of not caring for orphaned or abandoned children, so that should not put her out of the race for human-hood. We cannot use intelligence as the criteria because Lyra cares for those other clones who are not as clever and we have (largely) stopped abusing people with learning disabilities. Being a clone is a stupid criteria because Lyra thinks, looks and sounds human. If we cared about how people are brought about, we might draw lines between people delivered through c-section and those through a natural birth and I can’t see anyone getting behind that.

In the end *spoiler alert*, the only human Lyra seems comfortable with killing (mostly in self defence) is one who is insane to the point of being comfortable with killing others. Lauren Oliver’s criteria for human-ness seems to be the ability to be empathetic towards others and forming meaningful relationships that are not just based on self-interest. I think this is something that most people would agree with. Nowadays, the only people we seem somewhat comfortable in killing are those we have to kill in self-defence or defence of others. They are usually people who have a history of refusing to treat others with anything like respect or consideration of their lives or comfort. Of course the neat thing about that being the criteria is that we have some of the higher species displaying these traits. Some species of apes appear to display moral behaviour and empathy, so maybe Oliver would count them as being worthy of moral consideration. Who knows?

One Dark Throne by Kendare Blake

one dark throne

3 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this book.

This is the second book in a series debuting with Three Dark Crowns. This review contains spoilers for the first book.

So this is the second in a quartet. We have now reached the meat of the story: the combat between the three sister/queens that will leave one of them alive to be crowned. Katherine can strike with poison, Arsinoe with her bear (kinda) and Mirabella with her elements.

Throughout the first book we saw the strongest queen, Mirabella, growing reluctant to kill her sisters, but now that she bears scars from Arsinoe’s bear, all bets might be off. Katherine managed to come back from being thrown to her death down a bottomless pit and has grown weirdly ruthless and Arsinoe has now discovered she is also immune to poisons, so they might have been mixed up at birth.

My biggest complaint is still the one from the first book: I cannot seem to keep all the characters straight. There are a bunch of love interests and political figures and relations and for some reason I struggle to identify them all. This book would REALLY benefit from a character guide/family tree in the back. Who is courting who again? How is Jules’ family structured?

This book definitely leaves a lot of ends dangling, so I am very glad they decided to make this a quartet instead of leaving it here. The queens getting mixed up at birth still remains quite unresolved and I want some more exploration into the relationships between the three. This book has Mirabella and Arsinoe getting more entwined, which I appreciated, but Katherine still needs to be explored. She has gotten a lot darker and more confusing in this one and I want to see that resolved.

I also thought more of the fighting between the queens would be direct combat, but, like the first book, there is still tons of political maneuvering. Different sections of the kingdom definitely have reasons to back one queen over another, so some of the higher-ups of various organizations all have their plans and plots about how things should play out. The queens are also being courted by various mainlanders looking to be king-consort, so they have maneuvering to do as well. There is some face-to-face fighting, just not as much as I expected.

This books is a solid second in a series. It just REALLY needs a character index.

Before She Ignites by Jodi Meadows

before she ignites

3 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this work.

This is a dragon book, but it has a very tropical island feel to it instead of the usual European middle ages background.

Mira is the Hopebearer for her people, the inhabitants of one of seven islands. She is expected to be nothing but a beautiful puppet and a symbol for the ruling class, always being insulted by her overbearing mother and being told all of her worth is in her face. Her greatest love is the dragons in the sanctuary on her island, but when she finds a dark secret relating to them, she is thrown in jail to silence her.

This book is written so you don’t find out what she discovered until the very end. She is manipulated and tortured by people who want to know what she knows, but it is concealed from the readers almost as long as it is hidden from the government. This really adds an extra tension to the book since we know what she is going through, but we do not know why. It could have slightly ticked off a couple of higher-ups, or it could be in place to completely topple the entire ruling structure.

Most of the novel takes place inside of a filthy jail where Mira is denied luxuries and even some essentials. Her jailer is definitely trying to pressure information out of her, but all of the other folks in the jail may be planted there to do the same. Mira does not know how safe it is to try and make friends and allies and she has to assume her imprisonment if permanent. The conditions are intolerable, but she still wants to live, so much of her energy goes towards adapting to the new conditions.

The one standout feature of the main character is her use of counting to calm herself down when she is panicking. It comes across as the author sneaking a mental illness onto a character in a fantasy novel, which is a pretty unusual move. It reads a lot like a panic disorder crossed with some obsessive compulsion but I have no idea why it is in here. Is it trying to normalize mental illness by putting it into characters outside of issue novels? If that is the case, I appreciate the author going to these lengths to present mental illness as something that is present in many people and does not mean they cannot be brave. I just wish it was blended a bit more smoothly into the book. It read as a very 21st century thing in a fantasy world completely apart from ours.

Thanks to the setting and the mystery of the cause of the conflict, this is a pretty non-standard fantasy book. It just seems a little disjointed in places and the vast majority takes places in a very boring dungeon instead of a glittering fantasy world. Give it a read if you completely love dragons, but there is some more interesting stuff out there.

The Crown’s Fate by Evelyn Skye

crown's fate

4 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC of this work.

This review will contain spoilers for The Crown’s Game and a few very early book spoilers for this one (though they are also found in the book description).

This is the second in the duology written by Evelyn Skye. There is currently a small niche of fantasy books that take place in a tsarist Russia. This is the only series, so far at least, that has attempted to place itself against an actual historic backdrop instead of just a fairly believable facade. It is set in Russia, 1825 during the Decembrist revolt. Tsar Alexander has passed away in the first book and his son Pasha (Nicholas I) is on his way to being crowned (though his bossy sister Yuliana does interfere a LOT).

Vika won the Crown’s game in the first book and is the Imperial Enchanter. While this does come with a luxurious lifestyle, it also comes with an oath of obedience and an enchanted bracelet that threatens to burn her if she disobeys. Given her fiery nature,  this will not work well. Nikolai, the other contender, having sacrificed himself to save her, is now trapped between life and death in his enchanted bench on Vika’s island. Since his mother managed to pull herself back from death by leeching life from worms and, later, from slaughtering people, it is do-able, but his preference would be a much gentler way. His undead mother might try to persuade him otherwise though.

While the first book really saw Vika and Nikolai falling in love while competing, this one has Nikolai slowly going evil and Vika having to fight him because Pasha and Yuliana compel her to. Both Pasha and Vika are torn between their loyalty to Nikolai and their fear of him trying to take over Russia. He slowly turns from a very gentle character into something more sinister. Vika, if she wants to try and save Nikolai, has to find a way to

What I did not enjoy about this book was that they did not have the displays of beautiful magic that I enjoyed so much in the first book. Part of the Crown Game was celebrating Pasha’s birthday and having beautiful and creative shows of magic. In this book it has changed mostly to combat, which is the way most fantasy books work. I wanted what was unique, not what tends to be standard.

This is a solid second book in a series. It is not quite as enjoyable, but does not have the bigger dip in quality that you tend to find in second books.