Stolen Songbird and Hidden Huntress by Danielle L. Jensen

stolen songbirdhidden huntress

4 out of 5 stars

This review may contain spoilers for the first book.

I received an ARC of the second book.

This as yet unfinished trilogy really hit a lot of the right notes for me. Cecile is a normal girl, ready to join her mother in the big city and sing at the opera, when she is sold to the trolls. They believe she is part of a prophecy which will break the curse set on them that traps them in their kingdom beneath a mountain. Cecile is quickly bonded to their Prince Tristan, but the politics of the kingdom go to hell when the curse remains unbroken. The elite aristocracy, inbred to the point of deformity but still magically powerful, are furious that one of their own has had to defile himself by bonding to a human for nothing. The half-bloods, made weak by the mixing of troll and human blood and made slaves to the aristocrats, are pushing closer and closer to rebellion. The king, knowing that any harm to Cecile will hurt his heir, uses her to control Tristan and Tristan’s insane but powerful brother can see openings to take the crown and rule.

The politics are done very well in these two books. There are enough characters and factions to keep you on your toes, but not enough to get seriously confusing. The plots play out with thought and intricacy and keep you interested and engaged trying to figure out all the angles and anticipating the character’s actions.

Cecile and Tristan are a great couple. They are both bonded to each other against their wills but end up making a great team. Tristan is a complicated character who has to weigh the pros and cons of his actions very carefully. Breaking the curse will mean unleashing his father, brother, and other powerful and evil creatures onto mankind, possibly returning the earth to the state of bloodshed it existed in before the curse. Leaving the curse in place will continue to subject the half-bloods to slavery at the hands of their full-blooded brethren. Either way, blood will be spilled. Cecile is not politically savvy, but is brave and has some unusual magic of her own. She quickly comes to feel sympathy for the half-bloods, and even some of the full-blooded trolls as they languish beneath the foot of a tyrant.

The first book takes place mainly in the troll kingdom, and the second takes place mainly in the human world. To break the curse, the witch who cast it must be tracked down and either persuaded to undo it or killed. Cecile is able to escape the king and the troll kingdom itself, but since Tristan cannot, the King uses him as leverage to force Cecile to track down and kill the witch. Cecile goes undercover as an opera singer following in her mother’s footsteps and must try and master her magic enough to track down and kill someone who has escaped detection for generations all the while trying to deal with her controlling mother attempting to mould her into the next stage sensation.

The contrast between the two settings was great. There are politics going on in both the human and troll realms, but Cecile’s roles are so different you really get to see two sides of here character. She and Tristan also make progressively more and more difficult decisions as tensions rise in the troll kingdom and they get closer to having to decide the fate of two peoples.

The thought put into all the characters reflects very well on the author. Some of them make decisions we might not have made ourselves, but you can always see the internal justification for it. This is not a pure good-against-evil book, where everything is black and white. Characters think and act rationally according to their own logic and circumstances, and even as you root for one side, it is possible to see where the other side is coming from.

The writing flows well and never interrupts the narrative, and the story is not overloaded with too much sappy romance. The characters feel like people and the narrative voices are clear and distinct. I would definitely suggest this to anyone who loves fantasy.

Advertisements

Exquisite Captive by Heather Demetrios

exquisite captive

3 out of 5 stars.

Spoiler alert!

Nalia is a Jinni being held captive by a wealthy, powerful, Los Angeles man. After a Jinni revolution on their home world, many innocents are being sold in the slave trade to humans. Nalia is only one of many slaves, but she is the last of her type of Jinni. This has the consequence of placing her as the heir to the now defunct throne. Her brother is suffering under the tyrannical rule of the new empire and she is desperate to escape her master (Malek) to rush to his aid. She may even be willing to team up with a member of the rebellion that killed her family (Raif, their leader).

I found the premise of a modern day gangster/ creep owning a Jinni to be a really neat one. There aren’t very many books with the classical granting 3 wishes style Jinni, and even fewer that place it in a modern-day North America. Hooray for imaginative premises!

I found the system of wishes to be a little confusing. Malek can only ask Nalia for 3 wishes, and once she has granted the third, she is free. He can, however, ask for an unlimited number of requests in between wishes, and force Nalia to grant wishes for other clients. It is never clearly explained how this system works. The only difference mentioned is that one includes the phrase “I wish” and the requests do not. So why would he have made a second wish instead of more requests?

One thing that really, really bugged me was the attraction Nalia felt for Malek at times. He is portrayed as being someone who purchased her, ordered her to do whatever he wanted (except for sleeping with him, but pretty much everything else) and tortured her when she refused. This makes me squeamish. I do not want to pass judgment on those who like domination play in the bedroom because that is still consensual, but I get weird when someone portrays a woman as being attracted when actually being subjected to psychological and physical torture. It it probably just a personality quirk of mine, but it ruined a big part of this book for me. I don’t like abusive relationships.

I did like the system where there are different classes of Jinnis that draw their strength from the classical 4 elements (if you don’t know what this means, you need to read more fantasy) and get their powers replenished by being in contact with those elements. I enjoyed trying to figure out who is behind the slave trade and I really enjoyed the couple of snippets we got of Nalia trying to logically outmanoeuvre someone so their wish turns out rotten despite their intentions. There was some interesting tension building up as a Jinni assassin creeps ever closer to Nalia and a lot of the emotions throughout the book were very compelling.

I did enjoy this book overall. The setting and premise were well imagined and unique, and I really empathized with Nalia throughout most of the narrative. I just have a really hard time getting over her willingness to, at the drop of the hat, come close to forgiving Malek for buying and torturing her. The line between her seducing him for her own gains and her actually getting into it was fuzzy and I found that unpleasant. I don’t want any teen girls in abusive relationships to find that behaviour normal because of what they read, but I am probably just over thinking things. She did choose Raif and she did acknowledge that what Malek had done was wrong (you know, the whole “owning a sapient being thing”).

I will read the second one, in the hopes that Nalia punches Malek in his super-stupid face. It would be very satisfying.

The Paper Magician and The Glass Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

paper magician  glass magician

4 out of 5 stars.

This review contains spoilers.

This one is intensely cool if only because of the system of magic that has been set up. Those who have read Tamora Pierce’s “Circle of Magic” books will partially recognize a craft / materials based magic system. The main one focused on in this book is, as the title would suggest, paper magic, though other magicians can use plastic, rubber, metal or glass. Magicians are trained at a college and are bonded to one material after graduation. That material will be theirs to manipulate and work their magic through. You cannot switch and you cannot have more than one. Anyone unsatisfied with those choices can always use blood/ flesh magic, but those people tend to turn evil.

Ceony has just graduated and has been told that, instead of getting to choose her own material, she is being shipped off to be taught paper magic, since no one else wants to. Convinced this is the most boring possible path but unwilling to give up magic altogether, she goes along with a heavy heart. She meets her teacher, a 30-something weirdo named Thane, and starts to discover that paper magic (basically origami that comes alive and other neat tricks) may not be as horrible as she was led to believe. Before they get very far, one of those evil magicians I mentioned before appears and steals Thane’s heart. This is not metaphorical, she goes into his chest and rips it out. Think Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Ceony decides to give chase and ends up wandering through Thane’s heart (this time metaphorically, I think). She sees his memories, hopes, and dreams and ends up saving him after confessing her love for him.

This was the huge flaw in the book that would have ruined it had the premise not been so cool. The 19-year old student has only known her 30+ teacher for a couple of weeks and it is never hinted that there will be a romantic relationship. We get the feeling they are becoming friends, but then love is sprung on us out of the blue at the very end. Completely unexpected and unrealistic. There time together had been so brief and she had come into it so snarky and unhappy that it grates to have the author try and convince us this is at all believable. It would have worked so much better if the timeline of the story was extended a couple of months or if they had just stayed friends. The romance was way too much too soon for a novel of this length.

The second book I enjoyed more than the first. It was less abstract than the first, none of it taking part in a manifestation of someone’s soul. Ceony and Thane are now facing a more practical attack by a blood magician on English soil. A psychopath is on the loose and targeting Ceony, and another psychopath is on the loose and wants to become a blood magician. Ceony and Thane’s relationship is now a little undetermined, and less of a focus of the book. Most of the book is awesome magical action and it really showcases the unique magical system of this world. One of Ceony’s friends is a more central character and since she is a glass magician we get a good view of another type of magic. It is a bit longer, has more characters, and leads us deeper into the world Holmberg has created.

The writing was lyrical and, except for that one flaw, this was a great read. I really love the idea of magic based around materials and crafting, instead of the classic 4 elements or spells and potions.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

ember in the ashes

4 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this work.

This was a really neat read for a couple of reasons. Number one: the setting is unusual. Dystopians tend to take place in either an advanced technological setting, or the ruins of a once-technological society. It is rare to get one alluding back to early Rome/ Sparta/ Greece. It is not explicit (no mention is made of togas) but between the jacket blurb, the frequent use of slaves, and the militaristic empire bent on conquering everything, I can see where they are coming from.

Number two: it is a mix of science fiction and fantasy. They have some futuristic technology (awesome, unbreakable steel) with fantasy elements, like Jinn and other creatures, as well as some mind-reading abilities. The science fiction element is very subtle, but I still found it present enough to mention it. I love it when authors skillfully combine genres and that has definitely happened here.

Number three: while it does have the game/ contest elements of books like The Hunger Games, it does not overshadow the rest of the plot. The contest is an element to drive the story forward, but not the entire reason for the story itself. If was a skillful addition of elements that have a tendency to completely overtake stories.

Both of the main characters, Laia and Elias, are strong but complicated people living in surprisingly similar situations. Laia is a member of the conquered people (the Scholars) whose family has been slaughtered by the empire. She and her brother managed to survive, but he has now been taken, accused of being a member of the Scholar rebellion.

Elias is the son of the head of a prestigious school for elite soldiers (Masks) who is about to graduate and take his place as a member of the armed forces of the empire, when he is one of four students chosen to compete to be the next Emperor.

Laia is sent to Elias’ school as a spy for the rebellion. If she can give them enough information on the contest, they will free her brother. She is placed as a slave to Elias’ mother, who is brutal and vicious, but she has to survive if she ever wants to see her brother alive. Elias must survive a ruthless contest that pits him against his friends, and hope that what he must do will not rob him of his soul. They are both trapped in intolerable roles within a violent society and must try to survive without being monsters themselves.

The writing is skillful and the plot has enough action to really drag you through the pages. The world is well-constructed and interesting and the romance is sweet and not heavy-handed. I found myself relating to the characters easily and really caring about what happened to them. I think this is going to be a very popular novel, and I am prepared to be very angry if a second is not published (especially since they left the story unfinished).

The Kanin Chronicles by Amanda Hocking

frostfireice kissed

I received an ARC of the second book in this series.

2 out of 5 stars.

Bryn is a troll and works as a tracker, a special agent of the troll kingdom tasked with tracking down changelings left with humans and bringing them back to their real parents and people. Everything is going well until someone starts targeting changelings still in the human world. Even worse, it looks like the same criminal who tried to assassinate Bryn’s father years ago and has been on the run ever since. As the plot thickens, it looks like what they hoped was a few random attacks is a mysterious political plot spanning several kingdoms.

These two books are essentially political thrillers masquerading as fantasy. The troll people are not portrayed as otherworldly beings like faeries usually are. Instead, they are completely human, just with weird skin, hair, and occasional powers. They send their children out as changelings for financial reasons, drive Hummers and Jeeps, and wear designer clothing. It sounds like a neat way to go, but for me it spoiled most of the reasons I read fantasy. The characters rarely use their abilities and personality-wise, they are too human-like. If I wanted to read about tracking down criminals and uncovering political intrigue and plots I would read those genres. I don’t, so it is disappointing to find something in one of my preferred genres that is almost completely focused on those plot elements.

Bryn’s job is to uncover a plot against the elite and track down a fairy terrorist. This might have been an interesting crossover, but not enough attention was paid to the fairy elements. I read like someone had taken a Robert Ludlum book and given the characters fake spock ears. It did not integrate enough to be compelling or convincing.

The books make some interesting points about loyalty to superior officers coming up against personal ethics that could lead to some fruitful discussion, but since it is done in the context of monarchies, it loses a lot of its relevance. It would be interesting to talk about whether soldiers in the Middle East should be able to ignore their commanding officer’s orders if it means avoiding war crimes without being charged with treason. It is less interesting to talk about what loyalty we owe to a monarch, since most North American and European countries (whom I presume are the intended audiences) have decided that we owe monarchies who order us to do stupid or criminal things no loyalty, and maybe we should take away most, if not all, of their power altogether.

Bryn is an adequate character, but we do not really see much of her thought patterns or emotions. Her two personality traits are her obsession with her job and her crush on her boss. I did not really get to know her that well and she does not have any of the quirks or rich inner life that makes characters real.

The system built around changelings, as it was represented in these books, is completely unconvincing. The one changeling we see closely is immediately convinced to leave his parents and takes quite happily to his new life, despite not being ill treated by his human family at all. The troll world is built up on the premise that many of their most important children spend their entire childhoods in one world, but then are expected to effortlessly transition into being royalty in a troll kingdom, knowing that their parents abandoned them for monetary gain. It is an interesting, even great premise, but the ramifications are not explored at all. There is no resentment or massive emotional scars crippling this society, and there really should be.

These books fell flat for me. Neither the characters nor the world captured my attention enough to make up for a plot I really did not find interesting. There is going to be a third published, but I do not think I will be reading it.

The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd

madman's daughterher dark curiositycold legacy

4 out of 5 stars.

This trilogy is a rewrite of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and, later, “Frankenstein”. It answers the age-old question that seems to be on every YA writer’s mind. What if a famous character had a teenage daughter? In this case, what if the insane scientist Dr. Moreau had a daughter, Juliet, who loved science as much as he did?

While I did not love the original by H.G. Wells, though it was interesting, Shepherd did a great job preserving the mystery and tension of the original. Even if you already know the ending from reading the classic, you are still caught up in the story and want to know how it happens in this version. The character of the novel is transferred very accurately for a teen rewrite of an older book. The language is not totally accurate for the late 19th century, but it is close enough, and the prose is accessible to a teen audience.

Juliet Moreau and her mother were abandoned by Dr. Moreau when he was run out of England for illegal experiments. After running into her father’s servant (Montgomery), she bullies him into taking her to the infamous island from the Well’s novel. They run into another handsome young man (there tend to be a lot of those in YA novels) adrift in the ocean (Edward) and he also accompanies them to the mysterious, spooky island where mysterious spooky things are happening. For those of you who are familiar with Wells, you know what the island’s secret is. For the rest, go Wikipedia it or watch the Simpson’s episode.

The second book deals with the aftermath of the island and some health problems of various characters, which Juliet has to struggle to solve. The third ties in the “Frankenstein” plot from Shelley.

Juliet Moreau is caught in between her love of science and her fear that her father’s madness will lead her down the same dark path. She sees the potential for good in her father’s research, but also the huge destructive power. In many points in the books, she has to decide whether to attempt to duplicate Moreau’s procedures to try to do good, or if all of his work is tainted and will lead to nothing but sorrow.

There is romance in the books. It starts out as a very predictable love triangle but actually turns into something sweeter and more realistic as the trilogy wears on. I found this was true of many of the elements of these books. They got even better as the series went on.

These are great for lovers of classics being revisited, or historical science fiction. They are suspenseful and atmospheric and the ending is so well done.

Also, if you enjoy these, go ahead and check out Kenneth Oppel’s The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein series. Very similar feel.

Psi Chronicles by Lana Krumwiede

freaklingarchontrue son

4 out of 5 stars.

This series has a really cool premise. Everyone in the society has telekinesis (or even cooler powers! They are all called psi), so everyone without mental abilities are considered impaired and exiled to a small community where everyone *gasp* has to use their hands for things!! It is taken as such a given that people can move stuff with their minds that the normal buildings do not have doorknobs. Taemon has powers, but locks them away when he almost kills his (admittedly horrible and evil) older brother. Suddenly he is trying to hide his lack of psi from everyone including his older brother (because of the afore-mentioned evilness).

Taemon, between all three of the books, manages to experience all levels of society and ability. This manages to give us a really good look at the world the author has created. This includes the religion, the society and its unpowered counterpart, and their neighbouring kingdoms and foreign relations. Krumwiede has created a very detailed and convincing world and it was great to explore it.

Taemon’s brother is a pretty convincing villain (though he is not the only one), but was the annoying evil/ arrogant type of villain that, because of their relationship, the protagonist is too lenient with. Seriously, he deserved one hell of a punching.

My own morals were in pretty severe conflict with the protagonist’s for quite a bit of these books. Taemon tries to stick to more absolute rules, but since I am a consequentialist, I disagree with quite a few of his decisions (like not punching his stupid brother in his stupid face). It is a tough go when you think the protagonist is being a purist idiot, but it was an enjoyable read nonetheless.

The first book ends up being fairly simple plot-wise. It is the second and third that really introduce us to the nuances Krumwiede is capable of. You get quite a few new characters and an introduction to two new kingdoms, both with varying degrees of psi and technology. The plot gets a lot more political and a lot more interesting.

The best part of the books was probably reading about the differences between psi and unpowered life. Taemon’s transition from powered to unpowered to powered, and learning all of the accompanying skills, was a neat detail to add to the story. The most frustrating part of the series was the way Krumwiede portrays humanity as a whole. He has people reacting to disaster like stubborn, panicky, gullible idiots. This may be completely accurate, but I find it disheartening. I want to believe we are also flexible, adaptable and occasionally thoughtful. In my mind, the books leaned more towards portraying the worst humanity has to offer as a group, with individualism as the only way we are able to behave rationally.

I would recommend this to any science fiction fans, and anyone who likes stories in which our realities are reversed. Finding out what one person thinks society would be like if most of us were telekinetic made this a really interesting and compelling read.