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.

 

 

 

 

Royal Bastards by Andrew Shvarts

royal bastards

3 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this work.

Tilla is a bastard, a child born outside of a marriage. Her father has not acknowledged her as a legitimate heir, so her life is stuck in a holding pattern between daughter of a Lord and servant. She spends most of her time with her half-brother as well as some other bastards of other houses in their corner of the kingdom.

Her somewhat peaceful existence comes to a grinding halt when her father is part of a rebellion against the crown, slaughtering the King’s brother when he is visiting. Tilla, her half-brother (Jax) and 2 other bastards (Miles and Zell) manage to save the princess, but her father sends soldiers after them all and puts out a reward on their heads. Tilla must decide where her loyalties and love lies.

The one huge, glaring mistake in this book is the use of modern slang and idioms in a book that is set in another universe and has a decidedly medieval feel to it. Having the characters say “cool” and “oh, shit” really changed the tone of the book and felt completely out of place in an otherwise foreign landscape. The setting and plot all felt like a standard fantasy novel. There were swords, barbarians and Lords and Ladies. There were castles and politics and magic. And then the characters went and sounded like modern teens. It pulled me out of the flow of the novel every single time it happened in the dialogue, and it happened quite a bit. It was a poor decision on the part of the author.

Otherwise, the main theme of the book were about relationships with parents and the use of conflict and violence in politics. Tilla has a strained relationship with her dad, even before he put money on her head. During her childhood he was a fairly caring parent. They spent time together and Tilla was assured of his love. When he married and produced 2 legitimate heirs, he started drawing away and she was left feeling abandoned and unloved. Miles is more accepted and may even be recognized one day, but still does not have full family acceptance. Jax does not have any parents and Zell’s father has practically disowned him. Since most YA books focus so heavily on romantic relationships, it is refreshing to see parents come us as a focal point of a book.

The other major question the books bring up is the appropriateness of violence in political situations. The part of the kingdom Tilla’s father rules used to be independent, but is now under the thumb of another pair of rulers (the princess’s parents). His assassination of the king’s brother and attempted assassination of the heir were payback for the conquest of his kingdom generations ago and some oppression since. His method of rebellion, though, does not just include fighting between rebels and soldiers, it has innocents getting hurt and killed. How many noncombatants can you kill before rebelling just isn’t worth it anymore? How oppressive does a government need to be before involving innocents is okay?

This was a fairly decent novel, apart from the obvious dialogue error. There was action, magic and romance, the usual ingredients for YA fantasy. Given how saturated the genre is, though, I am not sure I can overlook the error enough to read another.

 

A Face Like Glass by Frances Harding

face like glass

4 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this work.

This is a super-fun, middle grade fantasy novel. Neverfell is a child in an underground world where artisans create the most magical, weirdest things we would ever have here on the surface.

In their world, no one has natural facial expressions. Instead, the poor and slaves in their society are allowed only a few expressions, ones of obedience and subservience. Richer people pay to learn new expressions: maybe haughty disdain or luxurious enjoyment of treats. Neverfell finds her place with cheese maker, but is told to hide her face from everyone she may encounter. She has every emotion plainly on her face and it will frighten everyone else. When her mask is ripped away, Neverfell becomes an oddity and a pawn in the underground political system.

My absolute favourite part of this novel was the world-building. The author came up with a  magical society that creates marvels that are beautiful as well as manipulative. Instead of normal cheese, you have cheeses that make you hallucinate wonders, or can disarm an enemy merely with its smell. They need to be talked to and regularly bathed and turned. It produces wines that can make you forget or remember but have to be corralled from each other lest they fight, and has a cavern full of crystal trees. Harding pumped this book full of weird imaginative things that are wonderful but also dangerous. The creators get luxuries that those of use live on the surface cannot imagine, but access creates infighting between houses that produce the wonders, and someone might get murdered just to get a piece of cheese or a whiff of perfume. I love the strange things in this book.

The piece around Neverfell’s mask and a society full of people unable to express their emotions through their faces will make this an interesting read for young people and might bring up some neat discussion points. What are the advantages and disadvantages to expressing emotions through your body? Does it give people useful information? Does it make someone feel better to be able to scowl when they are angry and cry when they are sad? Servants and slaves are not allowed to show their discontent, so Neverfell teaches them how to scowl angrily and this gives them power and control over their own bodies. On the other hand, being the only one who displays emotions lets everyone know how she feels and what she is thinking. This gives them power over her. Bringing up these kinds of questions in a children’s book was a neat idea and I hope it makes some kids think.

This work also has really strong friendship themes, another bonus for me because everything I have read lately has focused on romance and little else. I want books that explore every type of relationship humans can have, not just teens kissing. This one has friendship, loyalty, and motherhood. Neverfell had to figure out who is a friend and who is just faking. She must learn to read people who are hiding behind masks like she once had to.

This series is clever and fun. It should make kids think about what self expression really means and spark their imagination. A must-read for anyone who loves the mental picture of grump cheeses needing pampering or else they will attack.

Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

flame in the mist

3 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC of this book.

I put this on my to-read list looking exclusively at the cover because it was pretty. Because of the author and the cover, I was just assuming it was going to be another one set in the Middle East. It was not. It is set in a historical Japanese setting. If you are an adult and have read some James Clavell and want to pass on something with a similar feel, but that reads like a teen novel, this will be a good fit.

Mariko is the daughter of a noble and is being married off to a prince. En route to the wedding, she is attacked by a group of thieves (the Black Clan) who slaughter the rest of her escort. She manages to escape (barely), but instead of heading home, decides to enact revenge. Dressed as a boy she gets into the gang and starts to plot. As her relationships with the guys start to develop, though, she realizes her perception of the events might not be completely accurate.

It seems to be all over the reviews that this is a rewrite of Mulan, but I cannot see it. It is a story set in the Orient and has a girl disguised as boy and those are the only two similarities. Her father is not called into army service and she does not take his place. This is set in Japan and that was set in China. In that one the protagonist saves a country, in this one she has saved her own life and nothing else so far. The similarities are incredibly few and far between.

This one fell flat for me. The book was too focused on characters and did not give me enough culture and plot. I do not know a ton about Japanese culture, neither historically nor modern, so I would have loved this book to have given me a glimpse into their food, clothing, literature, etc. (that is part of what I really liked about Evelyn Skye’s The Crown’s Game and The Crown’s Fate. Those really gives you a feel for Russian culture). It was so busy with burgeoning romance and relationships that they rarely go into descriptions of the culture that I am craving.

Similarly, there does not seem to be a lot of plot once you get to the end of the book and reflect. Mariko is attacked, manages to escape and join a gang, then finds out she might be wrong. For this having some politics in it, it should be more complicated. It should have more twists and turns and surprises. It has one. That is not enough.

This reads like a very standard YA book that is mostly about feelings. If you like teens making kissy faces at each other, go ahead. If you are looking for something special, maybe look elsewhere.