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

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Buzz Kill by Beth Fantaskey

Buzz KillAfter intrepid high-school reporter Millie Ostermeyer and the friendly janitor accidentally stumble across the recently murdered corpse of the unlikeable football coach, all clues point to Millie’s father being the murderer. Desperate to clear his name (and prevent her arch-nemesis Vivienne from getting the scoop), Millie begins to investigate with the help of mysteriously handsome classmate Chase and her local librarian, who are both struggling to hide their own secrets. 

Beth Fantaskey’s Buzz Kill was billed as a Nancy Drew meets “Clueless” kind of book, but both Nancy and Cher are far superior to Millie, who comes across as self-absorbed and slow-witted. She spends the book bumbling into near-death/illegal situations, far more concerned about her childish rivalry and blooming crush than her own father’s impending imprisonment. The real (unsung) hero of the story was Baxter, an adorable basset hound, who deserved far better than being adopted by Millie and does more detecting than she does. Chase wasn’t terrible, but he and all the other supporting cast, including Vivienne and the librarian, were basic high school caricatures.

The writing style also felt very young, with copious use of sanitized teenage slang and a plotline that meandered like a toddler. The story was neither funny nor fresh, more suited to a middle-grade than young adult audience. Overall, Buzz Kill quickly buzzkilled my enthusiasm for a light mystery. It wasn’t even mediocre, it was as actively annoying as a lingering fly.

2 Stars

We Were Liars by E. Lockheart

We Were LiarsBefore I start my review, I want to say that E. Lockheart’s We Were Liars was majorly trumpeted as one of The Reads of The Year when it came out last year, so if you’ve come this far without spoiling yourself – congrats! But also, stop reading now! I typically try to avoid major spoilers, and definitely warn people if I don’t, but it was too challenging for me to write this review without speculating on the twists that it’s all a lost cause down below. Hence,

READ AT YOUR OWN RISK! 

OR YOU’LL BE SO SPOILED THAT YOU’LL FEEL LIKE OLD MILK. 

[ hehe I think I’m funny 🙂 ]

Cadence is a Sinclair, an idolized, perfectionist Kennedy-like family that summers together on their own little island and experiences the struggles of the wealthy. Her closest friends are her cousins Johnny and Mirren and outsider Gat, the Indian-American nephew of her aunt’s boyfriend and Cadence’s first love. Only something happened two summers ago that caused Cadence to lose her memory and to lose touch with her friends. Now she’s determined to return to the idyllic island and regain what she has lost.

We Were Liars is incredibly difficult to describe, but it follows four friends, the titular Liars, whose friendship becomes destructive to everything they know and love. Told from Cadence’s point of view, we are as equally lost as she is at the beginning, having no knowledge of the events that led to her amnesia and subsequent ill-health. While it proved to be an ideal setup for mystery, it also resulted in the author’s use of oddly poetic prose that I presume was supposed to be a side-effect of Cadence’s theatrical, delusional mind. Emotions are personified, choppy rhymes are harshly punctuated – being in Cadence’s head often felt like a badly written melodrama.

Overall, I’m just not nearly as invested in Cadence the narrator as in the rest of the characters. Admittedly, I felt bad as she struggled to regain her memory but she seemed like such a dull person even pre-accident. Gat I liked mostly because he was half-Indian, but I hated that he was toying with two girls’ emotions and he came across as a pretentious blowhard. Mirren and Johnny were my favorites, so sweet and hopeful and under-appreciated. I loved the fragments of the group’s bond that were glimpsed through flashbacks, but I wish it was developed more.

One thing I don’t understand though is why the group is nicknamed “The Liars.” When Cadence mentions they’re called that, it’s before they’ve done any discernible lying. And she said that the family gave them that moniker. I get it in retrospect, since the whole plot was based on lies, but how can they have known that when they were younger? Mind-boggling. Also perplexing is how the Liars didn’t communicate outside the summer in an age of Facebook and cell phones. I feel like the island was a time warp.

Despite these plot potholes, the story unraveled beautifully, to the extent that I went back immediately and reread several sections to gain some clarity on plot points I didn’t pick up on, reveling in the shocking reveal. I admit that I did not guess the twist. I was thinking of some dark shit (abuse, incest, etc) but it turned out to be even darker than I would’ve thought as Cadence accidentally burnt her friends (and dogs!) alive in her grandfather’s house. I read some reviews that take it even a step more twisted, speculating that Cadence meant to kill the others so she could inherit, but I’m going to assume that wasn’t the author’s intent.

In spite of that, the atmosphere is figuratively and literally haunting from the beginning. Reviewers seem divided on the ghost versus hallucination debate (i.e. whether the Liars were spirits or figments of Cadence’s imagination/drug use), but I come down firmly on the side of ghosts. Why else would no one else see them and why would they stick around the same house? Also, one of the little siblings mentions hauntings and another has a new obsession with the paranormal, which makes me believe they can at least sense the presence if not see them. It makes the cover cooler with a fuzzy ghost-like picture of the deceased Liars, but also the whole story more tragic as the Liars hung around out of love to give Cadence closure.

I do highly recommend this book to lovers of mystery and family drama. Despite the elements of teen angst, I think this is a YA that even real adults could get into. Plus it’s a great, gripping beach read, one that I may even read again myself.

4 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 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.

Amy Zhang’s Falling Into Place

Falling into PlaceMy library’s website actually brought Amy Zhang’s Falling Into Place to my attention. It popped up on the homepage as a newly published must-read and, trusting the librarians, so I did.

Meridian High’s most popular junior Liz Emerson is a bitch. And she knows it but karma hasn’t quite caught up to her. So on the day they studied Newton’s Laws of Motion, she decides to put them into practice by running her Mercedes off the road. To others, it looks like an accident – they mourn and gossip at the hospital as Liz clings onto life. But the reader, by way of an unexpected narrator, is taken on a ride through the pieces of Liz’s life to discover how humans impact each other, how little incidents cause large effects, and how everyday actions can chip away at someone on the inside, even someone who seems like they have it all.

(Spoilers ahead)

At first I’m thinking, no way in hell am I going to feel bad for a girl like Liz. Knowing that she hates herself for everything that she has done, from enabling her best friend Julia’s drug addiction to humiliating her admirer Liam Carrie-like in front of the whole school at Homecoming, still didn’t redeem her to me. Even though she was depressed by her bullying, she kept making the same dumb mistakes. However, I did think she was fixable and apparently she had given up hope of that herself. The saddest part though was that despite her nastiness, people still loved her and I think she failed to completely take into account the even more harmful effect that her death would have on them than her life did. Seeing her mother, her friends, and her secret admirer react to the news of her crash and maintaining hope as she lingered in a coma was heart-wrenching.

The narration was odd, skipping around between people and from first-to-third person, though necessary for the disjointed vignettes and time-traveling plot to work cohesively together. I tried guessing at his identity and my guess (her dad) was incorrect, but I still maintain that would’ve been more poignant! I think it was a cop-out that it was an imaginary friend, yet the tragic fact that her playing with this imaginary friend inadvertently led to her father’s death was surprisingly insightful into Liz’s character, if inexcusable as a motive for her future mean-girl transformation.

But it’s the writing that really makes this book – raw and honest enough to feel authentic but not veering too far into teen dramatics, even though there was plenty of sex, alcohol, and rock’n’roll. I was so shocked to learn that Zhang wrote this in high school! She’s got a bright future ahead of her, brighter than her characters definitely.

What mostly kept this from being higher rated was the conclusion, where we’re left to wonder if Liz changes or continues living her life as bitchily as she had before the accident. I understand that perhaps the author wanted to keep it open-ended as life is, but for me that negates the whole point of us (and her) reexamining her life and choices. Although it is implied in her choice to live that she still has hope of redemption, that doesn’t suffice for me to be emotionally positive at the conclusion. It just left me with an unsatisfied feeling.

A cross between Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, which I liked, and Gayle Forman’s If I Stay, which I disliked, it also somewhat reminded me of Matthew Quick’s The Good Luck of Right Now in it’s focus on action/reaction and human inter-connectivity. I think this would be an inspiring read particularly for older teens, though I would recommend it to any fan of contemporary YA.

3.5 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