Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina and Shadow Scale

For forty years, peace has prevailed between the kingdom of Goredd and the dragons, whom have taken human shape to serve as ambassadors, scholars, and teachers. Gifted musician Seraphina Dombegh has benefited from their knowledge, and was recently hired to be assistant to the court composer when a member of the royal family is found murdered. All signs point to a dragon as killer and tensions run high as the anniversary of the treaty approaches. Seraphina finds herself at the center of the investigation, under the watchful eyes of Prince Lucian Kiggs, and must struggle to uncover the truth even while hiding her own deadly secret.

Seraphina (Seraphina, #1)Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina was one of the best books I’d read in 2013, well before I started this blog, and one of my favorite fantasy books of all time. Seraphina proved to be a bold and intelligent, yet relatably vulnerable heroine – so very human despite her hidden part-dragon nature. Her supporting cast, from the menagerie of “grotesques” to the swoon-worthy Kiggs to the charming Princess Glisselda, were all equally compelling as was the surprising villain. And the dragons are like no other dragons in print. This book had it all – politics, art, religion, all wrapped up in strong writing that ended with me begging for more.

Shadow Scale (Seraphina, #2)So I obviously picked up Shadow Scale as soon as I could get my hands on a copy from the library. In the sequel, Seraphina has exposed herself as half human, half dragon and must search for more of her kind to halt the deadly war between dragons and humans. I was thrilled to widen the world she inhabits, especially as Hartman increased the character diversity and was respectful of race and sexuality, but sadly many of my favorite parts of the first book were shafted. We barely glimpse Kiggs and Glisselda, and the resolution to their love triangle was frustrating. Most of the book follows Seraphina slowly meandering to find her kind, but there’s too many found to keep track of or develop well. The villain of this piece is disappointing, and is vanquished in an even more dispiriting deus ex machina. Worst of all, Seraphina lacked her character spark and agency – she doesn’t play music or hunt down murderers, she just sulks and twiddles her thumbs for 2/3rds of this lengthy volume.

I’d still take another glimpse into this world, though it seems like this is Hartman’s last, at least focusing on Seraphina. But I was incredibly disappointed by how the duology wrapped up since my expectations were so high following the first book. I’d still highly encourage fans of music or dragons to pick up Seraphina as it’s a truly magical, well-constructed YA fantasy but continue on to Shadow Scale at your own risk.

5 Stars to Seraphina & 3 Stars to Shadow Scale

The Necromancer by Jonathan Howard

The Necromancer (Johannes Cabal, #1)Several months ago, I read The Brothers Cabal (Johannes Cabal #4), and really enjoyed its tantalizing blend of humor and horror. So of course I had to go back to the beginning with Jonathan Howard’s The Necromancer, the first book in his series (of which The Brothers Cabal is most recent) about the dread, slightly dreary necromancer Johannes Cabal.

Brilliant scientist Johannes Cabal was so devoted to his work that he sold his soul to the devil years ago in order to gain greater knowledge of necromancy. Satisfied at his master of the subject, he now decides he’d like to get it back. Journeying deep in hell, he finds the Devil, who is fiendishly amused by the idea and proposes a wager: Johannes has one calendar year to harvest 100 souls for Satan or his own is damned forever. With the help of one of Satan’s traveling carnivals, a crew of zombies and his charmingly persuasive vampire brother, Johannes sets off on his macabre road show, and hopefully his redemption.

I was hopeful after reading this description of an adventure that was alluded to in the fourth book, but the carnival is less fun and more tragic than expected. Among the souls that Johannes tries to collect are distraught mothers, abused women, elderly fathers, and young children. I found Johannes cruel at time and (worse!) dreadfully dull, plus there isn’t nearly enough of my favorite adorable brotherly vampire, Horst. Admittedly, the various odd denizens of Hell are delightful as are the hapless zombie minions, but the human soul of the book is close to nonexistent, except ironically in the undead.

Normally I would never advocate to read a series out of order, as I think you lose a sense of the universe it’s in besides spoiling yourself silly, but for this one I will. The Brothers Cabal was way superior a book to The Necromancer in both plot and entertainment, so skip right on ahead past this sagging story to its quirkier sibling.

3 Stars

The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter

The Midnight Queen (Noctis Magicae, #1)Gangly and geeky Gray Marshall studies magic at Oxford’s Merlin College, where a mysterious errand with four fellow students ends with a friend’s death, difficulties using his considerable powers, and a summer of confinement at the country estate of his domineering professor Appius Callender. There he meets the professor’s daughter Sophie, whose supposed lack of skill in magic doesn’t deter her from secretly devouring magical lore from her father’s library. Sophie and Gray’s instant camaraderie is tested when they uncover the professor’s sinister conspiracy with the king’s closest advisor, dragging them into an adventure that will uncover the hidden secrets of both their pasts.

(Spoilers ahead)

The Midnight Queen is the first book in Sylvia Izzo Hunter’s Noctis Magicae series, which takes place in a magical England in a Regency-like era. Naturally that includes a patriarchal disdain for women studying magic, but thankfully Sophie defies those rules and proves to be a likeable heroine, intelligent and quick-witted without being irritably rebellious for the sake of rebellion. Meanwhile, Gray is not the typical macho man, instead lovably dorky and supportive of Sophie to the extent that he’s relagated a bit to the sidekick position once he arrives in the country as her character and magical ability are developed strongly. In fact, it’s mostly the women, including the mysterious housekeeper Mrs. Wallis and Sophie’s spunky younger sister Joanna, who drive the plot thereafter while Gray bumbles about.

The plot itself is engaging at the beginning as Gray and Sophie uncover the truth about the events that have led them to that point in their lives, but dithers after Sophie and Gray escape the Callender household to London in order to save the day. Mostly nothing happens for 100 or so pages as they lounge around Gray’s sister’s house, except their slow-burning romance that mirrors a Shakespearean comedy in their ineptitude to recognize each other’s obvious feelings. Although I enjoyed the action-packed conclusion, I felt like many of my questions about the conspiracy remained unanswered. As well-sketched as Sophie and Gray were, the villains came across as caricatures because of the lack of information about their motives.

Hunter’s writing style truly is gorgeous, and weaves an appropriately magical atmosphere; however, her written content can become clunky, such as the heavily hinted prophecy of “The One” and the tale of the hidden princess. I also felt like she failed to provide adequate backstory to parts of the world that weren’t Sophie&Gray, including Merlin College, the history and politics of their society, and the truth-seeing priests of Apollo who briefly appeared as deus ex machina saviors. Since it’s the first in a series despite its definitive conclusion, perhaps we’ll learn more but that’s no excuse for poor exposition in such a lengthy book.

I was charmed and hooked while reading/devouring this story, but (since I suck) I’ve delayed this review a few weeks and whatever alluring magic I felt then has mostly faded now. Recommended for fans of Sorcery & Cecilia or the Glamourist Histories series, both of which also remind me of fantasy Jane Austen novels, but I would say its not as good as the former if slightly better than the latter.

3.5 Stars

Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen

Red Queen (Red Queen, #1)Finally, I got my hands on the much-hyped Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, one of the most heralded YA books of 2015 thusfar…and it sat on my shelf for weeks. In my defense, I was plodding through The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a much different sort of book. After that, I gave my eyes a well-earned break and stuck to television for a few days. Anyways, onto the review!

Mare Barrow is a skilled thief. As a common Red, its the only way she can help keep her family from hunger and poverty, at least until she turns 18 and is conscripted into the army. She expects her life of slavery under the elite powerful Silvers will continue until she dies, but her world is shaken up when she is hired by the palace as a servant and then discovers that she wields power over electricity despite her lowly blood. Disguised by the royal family as a long-lost Silver to prevent rebellion from both the Silvers and Reds should the truth be discovered, Mare enters into a dangerous game hoping to spark change, but both Red and Silver blood will be shed to achieve it.

(Spoilers ahead)

Mare, oh Mare. You know that saying, “You can lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink”? Mare is not that horse. She’s pretty easily lead around by her nose and plunges herself over her vacant little head into any water, especially if a guy bats his eyes at her. She has not one, not two, but THREE! love interests whom she does a myriad of idiotic things for, from getting caught in a riot to pickpocketing a prince to joining a rebellion. She doesn’t have a strong conviction about any of these decisions, which I would admire, but rather she acts impulsively and then vacillates before allowing a man to bail her out of her troubles. Also, despite being a stranger in a strange land, she trusts way to easily, both the people who are hiding her secret for a high price (the Silvers) and the people who want to use her secret in a deadly way (the Reds of the terrorist Scarlet Guard).

The thing I liked the most about Mare is that she did see the repercussions of her actions, in that she regretted killing innocents in some instances, though she forgot about them quickly when faced with her own problems. This realistic impact of terrorism and war is unfortunately lost in many fantasy books. I do wish that the supporting cast was given more depth because it was less poignant when characters like Lucas, Julian, and Walsh die for Mare’s mistakes.

Likewise, the “bad guy” of the piece, Maven, had weak motives in my opinion and came across as a caricature, as did his evil stepmother-ish mother Queen Elara. I enjoyed Maven at first, even though I quickly suspected him of duplicity, but being jealous of your older brother and his crown is the oldest excuse in the book of villainy. And honestly, despite murdering the king and wanting to kill Cal and Mare, I don’t necessarily know if he’d be a worse king than Cal, who also wanted to keep the slavery status quo going. Plus this whole coup exposed a rather obvious lapse in Silver security – if you have individuals with mind control abilities, how have they not already seized power? It was bound to happen since there doesn’t seem to be any Occlumency.

One of my biggest issues about the book was how similar it was to other YA fantasies I’ve read and even to other pieces of pop culture. For example, the blood prejudice reminded me of Harry Potter (and I’ve heard it’s even more like Red Rising, which I haven’t gotten to yet), the superpowers reminded me of The Young Elites or X-Men, the Queenstrial was a deadlier version of The Selection with a tinge of The Hunger Games and Mean Girls in its aftermath. And that’s just a small sampling of the parallels I spotted. It just felt very unoriginal, even in a genre than tends to be repetitive. However, it was an easy, engaging read that I finished in a few hours and the writing was (mostly) solid. The phrase “Rise, red like the dawn” gave me the chills every time it came up.

Sadly, Red Queen did not live up to the hype for me. But I still may pick up the next book in the interest of seeing where things go. I was pleased that romance fell by the wayside at the end, with Mare literally announcing that she’s not picking either suitor, but I don’t expect that to remain the same. Nevertheless, I am hoping to see some fire and blood (whoops, wrong book!) before the inevitable happy ending.

3 Stars

The Brothers Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard

The Brothers Cabal (Johannes Cabal, #4)I thought I had reviewed Jonathan L. Howard’s The Brothers Cabal (Johannes Cabal #4) already and was horrified to realize that I’d neglected to for nearly 4 months! For although it was a random pick off the shelves because of it’s ridiculously amazing cover, it definitely deserves more attention than I think it’s gotten, given that I’d never heard of the series before. And while I hate reviewing a series in improper order (this is the 4th!), I simply can’t wait until I start from the beginning. Plus, it wasn’t too confusing to start with this book – if anything, it made me even more eager to go back and read about the Cabal brothers’ prior alluded-to adventures!

Horst Cabal has arose from the dead. Again, and against his intentions. A occult conspiracy needs a general to lead their monstrous army and Horst, despite being a generally affable and gentlemanly vampire, is the one they picked for the job. When Horst realizes the extent of their ambitions to create a supernatural homeland, he escapes their clutches and searches for his brother, the amoral but effective necromancer Johannes. Despite parting on uncertain terms, they must now band together to save the world.

The book is jam-packed with action and adventure, not to mention comedy courtesy of the adorably hilarious Horst and his interactions with the cynical Johannes. Peppered with snarky footnotes to the readers, I honestly laughed out loud multiple times, and the rest of the time I was on the edge of my seat. It’s tough to describe the plot because it weaves around a fair bit and the first half is told almost entirely in flashback, but it includes a nomadic band of female aviators, moldering castles, too many explosives to count, and even a werebadger! If you think honey badgers don’t give a shit, werebadgers give even less.

This book is unlike anything I’ve read before, though the dark humor calls to mind The Reformed Vampire Support Group while the supernatural steampunkery falls in line with Gail Carringer’s works. The writing style veers towards the 19th century Gothic, adding to the delightful atmosphere, while the plot wasn’t perfect with its decidedly anti-climactic ending. Overall, the charms of The Brothers Cabal far outweigh its flaws.

4 Stars

Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles #1) by Marissa Meyer

Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles, #1)In Marissa Meyer’s reimagination of the Cinderella story, a deadly plague ravages the human population of New Beijing while the conniving alien race of Lunars watch indifferently. Linh Cinder, part cyborg and full-fledged mechanic, is scorned for her mixed makeup by her stepmother, even more so when it seems like her beloved stepsister caught the plague and Cinder remains healthy. To save her stepsister’s life, Cinder reluctantly agrees to serve as a guinea pig for Dr. Erland’s search for a cure. Meanwhile, she has caught the attention of handsome Prince Kai, who doesn’t know she’s a cyborg and who is considering a marriage alliance with the ruthless Lunar Queen Ravenna in order to save his people from the plague. Unfortunately his growing relationship with Cinder brings them both into danger under the Queen’s cruel eye as the destruction of Earth seems imminent.

Honestly, I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to jump on The Lunar Chronicles bandwagon because it appears to have everything I loved – retold fairy tale in a cyberpunk dystopia with shady aliens AND sassy robots. Plus, I adore the cover art of Cinder’s mechanical leg, though I do wonder why it’s a ruby slipper rather than a glass one.

Since books, particularly in fantasy and even more particularly in YA, are seldom set in Asia, I was initially excited about the “New” Beijing setting; however, with the exception of the market scenes at the beginning and the naming conventions, this world was too disparate from ours for me to even understand the point of tying it to a modern locale, much less one as richly historical as China. The more general world-building, from the interplanetary struggles to the tense political connections between the remaining Earthen nation-states, appeared quite intriguing, but again I needed to know more that what Meyer has thus far exposed. I trust that she will thrown in additional details in the sequels, including fleshing out the circumstances of cyborgs and their second-class citizenship in the Eastern Commonwealth.

32% cyborg Cinder was a well-developed protagonist, a sharp and resourceful planner with a loving heart but a skeptical nature. I am impressed by her out-of-the-box hobbies and talents, like remodeling cars and fixing machines, and sympathized with her about her shame and oppression for not being fully human. She made some rash decisions, but at least understood there are consequences to her actions. I also liked Kai, who was considerate towards and respectful of Cinder but also believably worried about compromising his duty. There was no easy path for either of them and the abruptness of the ending caused absolute devastation in my heart, but I’m sure I’ll eventually get my happy ending – they well deserve it. And it’s so rare that I find a literary romance that I root for.

While the foreshadowing became a bit obvious to the reader, Meyer did an excellent job of blending familiar elements of the fairy tale with a few surprising twists. I’m actually waiting for the last book to come out before I venture onwards in the series as I can’t stand waiting. I know they’ll be entertaining in spite of these few mentioned imperfections.

4 Stars

Atlantia by Ally Condie

AtlantiaAs I discussed in my post of Mermaids in ParadiseI think that mermaids are one of the hot new trends in fiction and I’ve had Ally Condie’s Atlantia awaiting on my shelves for a suitable time to read it (i.e. one a sufficient distance away from my past mermaid reads so y’all didn’t think I was weirdly obsessive AND so that I gave this book a clean slate).  But unlike my expectations, this book wasn’t exactly about mermaids, more like humans living under the sea, under da sea (sing it with me!), down where it’s greener, down where it’s cleaner, take it from meeee!

Well, Rio and her family are living in the underwater city of Atlantia because the Above became too overpopulated and polluted. Solution: her forefathers established a colony in the ocean. But Atlantians can make a choice on their eighteenth birthday – stay in the below forever, or go up to land. Rio has always wanted to see the sun and walk/run/dance in the sand, but after the death of their mother, her twin sister Bay betrays her and strands her alone in Atlantia. With the help of her only remaining relative, the mysterious and estranged Aunt Maire, Rio tries to find a way to escape, discovering terrifying truths about her mother’s death and the nature of their city along the way.

(Spoilers ahead)

Poor Rio. I really felt for her in the confusion that ensued from her mother’s death and her sister’s abandonment. Add that to the reveal that she is a feared siren, capable of swaying people’s thoughts and emotions, a huge secret that could lead to her imprisonment and death if it got out. With no allies, she stays pretty resilient at first; unfortunately, soon after she begins to make snap decisions and estrange potential allies so it’s kind of a miracle she wasn’t outed sooner.

That’s my main issue with this book – the beginning is mysterious and as seductive as a siren call, but then it’s like hearing the same song over and over again. You get bored as Rio wavers and no danger seems more imminent than her stupidity. And the boredom continues until near the end, and becomes tinged with irritation the more you realize that communication and trust would’ve solved 99% of Rio’s problems. Though to be fair, it’s more Bay’s fault than Rio’s and, as a result, I was unable to connect with Bay as Rio does because I fully believed she was a selfish she-witch until the end.

Bay supposedly had a well-intentioned reason for departing into the Above, and that is her man. As semi-appalling as I find that, her other motivation was keeping her sister safe though that didn’t work out too well. At the very least, there wasn’t terrible love triangles with Bay or Rio. Rio’s interest, True Beck, was friends with Bay’s lover and, although amazingly  attracted to her within minutes of their meeting, is quite supportive of her rash choices and comes across as a generally upright guy. Still neither romance tugged my heartstrings any more than the sibling relationships did.

The element I loved best though was the dystopian essence. Our world had devolved due to resource scarcity and overpopulation, though still existed in a form, so some people are forced into underwater cities by their ancestors. But that doesn’t solve their problems because humans are still human and greedy power-graspers are as common Below as Above. The depictions of the Venice-like city that paralleled the lost Above were haunting and I was intrigued by the religious system that had been developed by those Below, including the carvings of gods and miracles of the bats. While finding out how Atlantia appears and exists was most fascinating, not all my questions were answered about how the Divide came into being and the whole political relationship between Above and Below.

Thank the heavens Above that this wasn’t a series though, because for the most part, we did get a nice, happy(ish) ending all wrapped up in a bow with all plot-points concluded if not as thoroughly as I hoped. While it was a bit cliche, at the very least it was realistic…or as realistic as underwater cities go (which is fairly because apparently the UAE and Japan have one in the works).

3 Stars