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

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The Spiritglass Charade (Stoker & Holmes #2) by Colleen Gleason

The Spiritglass Charade (Stoker & Holmes, #2)Colleen Gleason’s The Spiritglass Charade is the second book in her steampunk mystery series featuring Evaline Stoker (Bram’s sister) and Mina Holmes (Sherlock’s neice/Mycroft’s daughter), and it has benefited from the groundwork laid in the first book, The Clockwork Scarab*.

(Spoilers ahead for both books)

Despite the disastrous ending of the Affair of the Clockwork Scarab in which they let the arch-villain The Ankh escape, Evaline and Mina are eager to begin their next case. When Princess Alix herself requests their aid in exposing a fraud, they vow to do better this time. Alix’s friend Willa Aston has been obsessing over spiritual mediums, convinced they can help her speak with her deceased mother or missing brother. But Evaline and Mina soon discover that someone is using her misguided belief in the power of a spiritglass to make her appear to be a lunatic. With the addition of unexpected murders and the return of vampires to town, Evaline and Mina must figure out the connection between all these events, especially if it leads back to the mysterious and still-at large Ankh.

While the book alternates chapters between Evaline and Mina, I must confess to an affinity towards one protagonist more than the other. Despite my sympathy towards Mina’s  general geek awkwardness, I find her too smug and judgmental. Evaline, on the other hand, may act rashly but at least has an empathetic and warm nature. Both of them (sadly) showed little growth from the previous text, often working  independently instead of jointly and wasting more time with pointless swooning than actual detecting.

Relatedly to the amorous entanglements, the worst part of the series is definitely the time-traveling subplot. I find Dylan to be useless, with little role to play besides being one of Mina’s romantic interests (nevermind the fact that she has the perfectly adorable Scotland Yard Inspector Grayling as a potential beau). Dylan’s modern electronics and scientific/historical information from the future didn’t bring much to their investigations or jive with the technological innovations of the setting, even though he eventually uses his medical knowledge of blood transfusions to save lives in this book.  At least Evaline’s potential partner Pix, while overly secretive and sketchy, has a useful deeper connection to the seedy characters of the London underground.

The mystery itself was smarter than I expected, including a few unpredictable turns and a particularly thrilling scene set in the fantastic-sounding Vauxhall Gardens. Plus it features a part-cyborg beagle, deliciously decadent-sounding creme mandarins, and the opportunity to mock Twilight! It ends with an intriguing twist that will strongly impact Evaline’s and Mina’s relationship and responsibilities in the next book, and I’m eager to see how it unfolds.

Teen steampunk enthusiasts will enjoy having two intelligent female protagonists and the intersection of mystery with some unusual sci-fi/fantasy elements. I recommend this to fans of Gail Carringer’s Parasol Protectorate or Patricia Wrede/Caroline Stevermer’s Cecilia & Kate (The Enchanted Chocolate Pot) series.

3 Stars

*Forgive me for not having reviewed The Clockwork Scarab on this blog as I read it before the times. By my Goodreads, I attested it was “fun and light with two flawed, but engaging heroines. Plenty of ludicrous plots, but more amusing than frustrating.” So there you have it, though I will admit to liking the sequel more.

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

The Bees by Laline Paull

The BeesI began Laline Paull’s The Bees with good feelings towards bees. I mean, I wasn’t ready to be snuggle buddies with a hive, but I adore honey so I was willing to spread the love to the honey-makers. Now? Well, I’ve probably developed apiphobia.

Let’s start at the literal beginning – Flora 717 being born, grotesquely large and deformed, into the lowest caste in the hive, the sanitation bees. Sanitation is responsible for removing the dead and other waste and its members are considered to be dumb in both senses of the term. All bees are expected above all to be dutiful and obedient to their hive, including by following the cardinal rule that no one but the queen bee may breed.

Because of Flora’s biological differences and innate curiosity, a Sage priestess decides to use her for a series of experiments, elevating Flora first to the nursery where she demonstrates the rare ability to feed the offspring and then to forager status, allowing her to fly free and gather food for the family. However, her actions soon stray into sedition as she inadvertently challenges the status quo by proving to be more fertile than the queen. Her growing maternal instincts battle with her socialized desire to serve her society, as she struggles to discover how to protect both her child and her hive from the evil within and without.

Flora is the worst, and therefore I frequently amused my roommate with vehement exclamations wishing for her imminent demise. She possesses the simultaneous and awkward mix of too much intelligence and too little, questioning everything and not exactly knowing when to shut up, though thankfully her judgement improves over the course of the book.  Sadly, without her, there would be no plot because she was the one exploring the hive and overthrowing the rigidly hierarchical system – what can I say, guess I’m not a rebel. Her short-sighted ignorance frustrated rather than incited sympathy from me, especially as her ill-conceived actions kept endangering her fellow bees, including that of her own caste whom she behaved snobbishly toward. She was generally one selfish little bee-otch.

Most of the supporting cast were only vaguely sketched out, so it was difficult to know them as individuals rather than the collective. My favorite characters appeared on page only briefly, including a sweet fly that sacrificed himself for Flora, the devious fortune-telling spiders, and the elderly gentleman who “owns” the hive and serves as a rare human intrusion into hive world. The drones were (debatably) the highlight, adding a welcomed humorous element with their narcissistic affectations and dialogue dripping with sexual innuendo – at least until their macabre death sequence. (May they rest in…pieces…)

I’m still unsure what was truth and what was fiction about bees, which could be considered the mark of a good writer, but in actuality annoyed me. For example, how badly are the bees affected by the removal of honey? Does bee mating work as she posited? (A question I never thought I’d ask.) In general, while Paull’s plot was wildly innovative, her world-building was imbalanced. Pivotal points went unexplained, from the Sages’ schemes and religious authority to the queen’s communication and memory retention capabilities and, most irritatingly, Flora’s pregnancy. The writing overall tended towards the poetic, favoring style over substance.

This book is billed as The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Hunger Games, but perhaps more accurately can be considered the end result of Quentin Tarentino and George Orwell teaming up to revamp Charlotte’s Web.  As I mentioned initially, I’m currently still traumatized from the experience of reading this. I’ll certainly never forget this book as it is one of the scariest tales I’ve read, perhaps ever. I’m torn on the rating because it was memorable and creative, but I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience of reading it.

2.5 Stars

Take Me Tomorrow by Shannon A. Thompson

Take Me TomorrowNote: I received a free copy of the e-book from the author, Shannon A. Thompson, who contacted me to request a review – my thanks to her! Regardless, my opinion was not influenced by this exchange and what follows is an honest critique of the book. 

It’s been awhile since I’ve read a good dystopia, or really any dystopia, despite the over-saturation of them in recent YA fiction. So when Shannon reached out to me, I jumped at the chance to switch genres from the heftier classics (see my reviews for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Dracula) to a compulsively readable sci-fi story.

In Take Me Tomorrow, only several towns remain populated with the United States as we know it having collapsed. Sophia Gray lives in the capital city, known as Topeka, one of the more stable parts of the country. With the proliferation of the clairvoyant drug tomo sparking rebellions, the government remains authoritarian and the people uneasy in the wake of the state’s massacre of the rebels two years prior.

Under her single father’s influence, Sophia has learned to skirt the restrictions and rules where she can – until her father’s illegal forgeries and her friends’ increasing recklessness leads to trouble in the form of Noah, a handsome stranger who sneaked across the border armed with tomo and intent on causing problems for the government. His presence and mysterious past connection to her loved ones causes Sophia to question her life and society she lives in.

(Mild spoilers ahead)

The primary reason I was drawn in by this description is that it’s a very innovative premise, like nothing I’ve read before. Usually in future dystopias, the major cities still exist in some form, whereas here the center of the new State is Topeka, Kansas – about as middle-of-nowhere as you can get (if that’s where it actually is since the geography is intentionally a bit sketchy). Various references to the Brooklyn Bridge pepper the novel, but it’s clear that Manhattan is destroyed and the rest of New York, particularly Albany, is also falling quickly into disarray. But honestly, how sad would it be for Topeka to be the future remnant of America?

Another creative element is the drug angle in the plot, highlighted by the Rx in “tomorrow” on the cover. Tomo is a hallucinogenic that may (or may not) give the user visions of the future. With tomo, the novel develops an added layer that links it to actual American history via our past and present war on drugs. Unlike cocaine and more similar to medical marijuana, tomo is considered to be a symbol of hope among a certain contingent. Yet, numerous characters express skepticism about it given the obvious and numerous negative side effects. Although I still don’t quite understand how tomo works, the author deftly presents both sides of the argument through the characters without imposing her personal viewpoint about drugs onto the narrative.

As for the characters themselves, I adored the protagonist Sophia most because she does what YA heroines almost never do – questioning the crazy in their lives and taking decisive action. She starts off pretty naive, but upon realizing her lack of information and the web of lies surrounding her, immediately starts interrogating her friends and family to try to make sense of the world again. And that’s totally understandable because I would do the same in her shoes, whereas certain female characters (no naming names here) just docilely follow whatever their hero says. Also laudable is the author’s lack of emphasis on Sophia’s appearance – I loved that I wasn’t treated to repeated references to her flowing locks or striking eyes, though she does have a (thankfully brief) obligatory beautiful gown/romantic dance interlude with her leading man.

Speaking of, I didn’t feel the same adoration towards Noah, most likely because he was a majorly unstable drug addict. Despite his infrequent attempts to do the right thing, he was largely self-serving and reckless with the safety of his supposed allies, which his friends even call him out on. Maybe some readers find this type of hero enthralling, but overall I felt like he was a negative influence on everyone’s life and that Sophia deserved better (personally, I was rooting for her slightly nerdy friend Miles or even broody Broden over Noah).

My distaste for the romance definitely dropped the book a half star as did the abrupt ending, which frustratingly leaves a few threads unresolved. I want all the answers, but I haven’t heard or read anything about a possible sequel. I’m invested enough in Sophia and curious enough about tomo that I’d definitely read it. In the meantime, fans of YA dystopias should give this a read as they await the next film installment of The Hunger Games.

3.5 Stars