Invasive (Zer0es #2)

Invasive

This book showed up on a number of top science fiction lists, and so I requested it from the library. It is my first Chuck Wendig novel, and I feel bad because I did not realize that Invasive was #2 in his Zer0es series. To be honest it stands on its own well, and you don’t have to read the first book to enjoy the second (although the beginning of this book does spoil the first one, so if you’re a purist you might want to read the first book Zer0es first).

The plot is this: someone made a hybrid ant a la Jurassic Park that eats Candida (yeast) on people, basically skinning them alive, and Hannah Stander is an FBI consultant that is called in to research and discover who is behind their creation and distribution. Her search takes her to the secluded island of Kolohe, part of the Hawaiian islands, and she is caught on island when the culprit decides to release the ants and escape with more colonies, supposedly to bring about an ant apocalypse (think when Nedry steals the embryos and tries to escape but dies and the power on the entire island shuts down, and chaos ensues – it’s really similar to that but with more bodies).

This story is not character driven. The characters could be named with letters of the alphabet and this story would still be compelling. I kept reading because what was happening was horrifying and I had to know how it would all end. There were some points toward the end where I thought it might end with the ants actually taking over and destroying everything. I won’t spoil what actually happens; maybe they do take over and destroy everything. Ants are terrible creatures.

If you like mystery, thrillers, or science fiction, you should definitely give Invasive a go. It’s a quick read by virtue of its fantastic story – you won’t want to stop until you’re done. Go get you some.

Red, White & Royal Blue

Red, White, and Royal Blue

Red, White and Royal Blue was provided to me as a digital ARC by St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley in return for an honest review. Red, White and Blue is available for preorder now, and is scheduled for publication release on May 14, 2019.

I started hearing about this book around Valentine’s Day and when I saw some of the early reviews, the word JOY seemed to be in all of them. Casey McQuiston is an author who is new to me, and Red, White & Royal Blue appears to be her debut novel. It is an adult rom-com and honestly McQuiston grabbed me by the heart and the funny bone and refused to let go of either until the very end.

Alex is the first son of the first woman president and he has a long standing grudge against Prince Henry of England. They are about the same age, and he has always felt like they were compared to each other in the news and tabloids. Alex feels as though he could never measure up to Henry’s smooth, distant charisma, and the riches that he has access to don’t help either. So when the first family attends the royal wedding of Henry’s brother Philip and Alex gets drunk and trips into the table holding the $75,000 wedding cake, pulling Henry down with him, it creates a media firestorm that can only be quelled by a staged friendship between the two. The forced interactions become a close friendship, which eventually becomes more as Alex comes to realize that he is bisexual and Henry is definitely gay.

The physical interactions are good, but I think I enjoyed reading their emails and texts to each other more. The intimacy with which they talk to each other, even with an ocean between them, was just as powerful as their physical bond. If I’m being honest, I felt like I was eavesdropping and as their relationship continued, I became more and more worried about their information pinging around on the internet, given how high the stakes were: Alex’s mom running for re-election and Henry having been told that he would not embarrass the monarchy with his “depraved urges.” If even one text gets out, one email sent to the wrong person, someone overhears them, the world could absolutely explode. (That probably made everything that much hotter though, tbh, no regrets.) I won’t spoil the ending for you but WOW. It’s something.

My heart, you guys. My heart was in love with all the characters from the very first pages. This is one of those books where I don’t want to describe every detail to you, I just want to hold the book out to you until you take it and agree to read it. There is so little light and joy in this world right now and this book is a bright beacon in the darkness and you must let it wash over you and take you to a place that is pure and delightful, if even for the short amount of time that you will be reading this book. It’s a fast read by virtue of the fact that you won’t want to stop reading. Your eyes will race over the page, hungry for just one more chapter of these wonderful men. Go get you some.

 

Conspiracy of Ravens (The Shadow #2)

Conspiracy of Ravens

Wake of Vultures (The Shadow #1)

The first book of this series Wake of Vultures was so fantastic that I knew I was going to continue with the series. Book 2 seems to have the book two blues. The Book Two Blues is when an author had all the time in the world to write the first book, query it, pitch it, and sell it, but then book 2 is under a heckin’ deadline and sometimes quality suffers because of it. That’s just how publishing rolls.

The beginning of this book feels a lot like the middle of the first book: Nettie Lonesome wandering through the desert, only this time she’s doing it as Rhett Hennessy and it soaring through the desert in her new gigantic bird form, eating dead things and scaring other predators off. She comes across a donkey/Irishman skinwalker who is searching for the Rangers to help with a problem back East, so they team up and travel to reunite with the Rangers. This mirrored her experience with Coyote Dan almost to a T, which made the first third of the book a little bit draggy and repetitive for me.

Luckily at about page 100 we’re off to the East to take on a crooked private railroad owner who employs a doctor who can cut off monster limbs to fuel the railroad’s progression, and then heal them back, something that Nettie/Rhett and others like her have never seen done. There is some dark magic afoot and Nettie, her friend Sam, Coyote Dan, his sister Winnifred, and Earl the donkey go to meet it and hopefully defeat it. The Shadow is pulled to trouble and her destiny once more.

But then we get sidetracked by other “monsters” that are different than the one we are actually setting out to deal with, and so you’ll be at about page 200 or so (out of 350!) before you even get to the main objective of the book – the railroad tycoon who experiments on monsters. It just got to be too much description and banter and not enough action so I decided to stop reading.

***

On a side note, this series seems to be playing with the idea of what it means to be trans or maybe gender fluid and definitely bisexual. At the start of the series we see Nettie identifying as a woman who uses the guise of a man to survive and find purpose in a world that is not kind to women. But then, in this second book, she continues using the male name but then the pronoun changes, but she/he still views him/herself as a girl and wishes she was a man. It’s unclear though whether this wish is due to existing as a black/Native American woman or because psychologically Nettie is a man in a woman’s body.

This book was published in 2016, and so I’m not sure how it escaped the ‘woke af’ discussions that I am sure would have swarmed around it concerning trans/bisexual representation. The maleness Nettie puts on feels like a costume and not her real identity. She seems tired of being a woman (see: 10 pages straight on how she’s having her period out on the journey) and wants to escape into being a man, which is very different from gender fluidity or trans identity as we have come to understand it. Not that I fault Nettie for this instinct at all – if I was a woman in the Wild West I would want to try to pass as a man myself. It’s just an odd story to tell and to read. I came in with the understanding that it was a girl power type story – breaking boundaries and things like that. It is not that at all anymore, and I found myself frustrated with a story that was about this asshole dude and that I definitely didn’t sign up to read.

Between being bored and confused and disappointed, I just stopped reading and I’ll be skipping the rest of the series.

 

The Raven Tower

The Raven Tower

I want to be up front about the fact that I did not finish this book. When I don’t finish a book it’s for one of three reasons: (1) I’m bored, (2) I don’t care about the characters, or (3) It’s due back at the library and I can’t renew it. In this particular case my boredom was so strong as to make me reread the same page for five minutes without realizing it because my brain was entertaining me with other thoughts because the book was so boring.

The idea is interesting. There are many gods – big gods, little gods, strong gods, weak gods, traveling gods, stationary gods, gods that speak through animals, gods that communicate with stones, gods that have gone silent but are still terrifying – I got bored just making that list.

And you get endless descriptions of these gods and how they came to be since before the Ice Age. Oh and in between the descriptions of the evolution of gods we get glimpses of the story we are supposed to be interested in that takes place in the present, but it’s not told from the point of view of any of those characters. The narrator of the story is a god we are not familiar with, speaking to the aide to the prince we are supposed to be invested in, but she can’t hear it (or it might be a he, it’s implied that there are bindings which I assumed are being used to hide breasts). It speaks to her using “you” and I was not a big fan of this storytelling style. I can’t get into the head of a narrator I don’t even know.

We are introduced to a society that sacrifices a king called the Raven’s Lease to the raven god once a generation. The Lease’s heir takes over and speaks with the newly born god once it hatches from an egg until it dies, and the system repeats. But the Lease’s heir, to whom our MC is an aide, is away defending the borders when his father supposedly runs out on his responsibility to sacrifice himself, and his uncle steps into the Lease’s job in his place. When they return from war and find this, the current Raven speaks and says that there will be a reckoning for what has happened, but all they can do is wait for the new bird to hatch to hear what comes next.

This would be a pretty intense story if it wasn’t nested in pages and pages of history description. I got 30% of the way through this book, so it was interesting enough to hold me that far, but I got to the point where I was reading it out of some sense of obligation and not a spirit of enjoyment so I gave myself permission to stop. I have so many other books to read.

Under the Table

Under the Table

I have to be honest with everyone here. I may have confused Stephanie Evanovich with Janet Evanovich, writer of the Stephanie Plum series where she becomes a bounty hunter. When I was perusing Edelweiss+ for ARCs I saw this book and went “I remember liking those bounty hunter books, it’s cool she wrote some standalones! I’ll try it!” but my subconscious just combined the Stephanie from Stephanie Plum and Evanovich from Janet Evanovich and I got stuck with this turd of a book.

Zoey is on a one year legal separation from her husband and leaves his verbally abusive ass behind in Cleveland, Ohio to live with her sister Ruth in New York City. She starts a cooking service for small groups and personal chef needs, and is doing pretty well about 3 months into her New York separation. She puts a Craiglist ad up for her services as a personal chef, and a man answers it asking for a Creole-themed meal for a small business gathering at his home.

Tristan turns out to be a grown man-child who grew up with his grandparents in the US Virgin Islands after his parents died when he was 3. He was homeschooled until he was 16 and was completely sheltered from all things pop culture and also how to take care of himself apparently. His home is spotless but he doesn’t know how to dress himself and he doesn’t own a tv. Zoey focuses in on his “cute buns” but I couldn’t quite get over the descriptions of this man who came into great wealth by writing a governmental computer spying program who dresses himself like a golf champion all the time because that’s all he ever saw his grandfather do.

I want to be very clear about something. I have been close to men who are assholes and men who are babies and while the former might be more immediately dangerous, the latter is like a parasite who will suck out your will to live from the inside until you don’t have the strength to leave and you feel the obligation to take care of them forever. Zoey jumps from the frying pan into the fire when she falls for Tristan in New York – she buys him a Playstation 3 for crying out loud. The “I’ll take care of you/Mom”-vibes should be a cautionary tale and not something to aspire to.

The one good thing I can say about this book is that the brief sex scenes are pretty good, but not anything to write home about when there are so many better options out there. One of the two scenes involves Tristan letting Zoey buy an outfit at the golf store and she giggles through buying an outfit that she describes as “Catholic schoolgirl – golf edition.”

All of this happens over the course of like, a week. As I’ve written before, I have a real problem with fast love stories. Fast sex, sure. But “change my life for this guy I just met and basically had a fling with instead of staying single and figuring my life out post-divorce from this asshole I left” is a story I just do not find compelling in the year 2019.

Please just go read Jasmine Guillory. She’s new and fabulous and her stories are based on real relationship struggles over real-world timelines with believable attraction and conflict that make you interested in the story and invested in the characters. Under the Table was not believable and kind of cringey. Skip it.

Note: I need to remember to avoid books set in New York. I don’t know why, but I never like them and they tend to frustrate me.

Descendant of the Crane

Descendant of the Crane

Descendant of the Crane by Joan He was provided to me as an advanced digital reader copy by Albert Whitman and Company via NetGalley in return for an honest review. Descendant of the Crane is available for purchase as of April 9, 2019.

Something that I have become a little tired of is reading story that could be a full, adult fantasy novel, or even just a murder mystery novel like this one is (with fantasy elements) but someone along the way said it might survive better in YA. This isn’t to downtalk YA, keep in mind that much like ‘millennial’ is misused to describe teenagers, people assume YA is meant for teenagers too, and it is, but it is also for young adults such as people in their early to mid twenties. So I get that YA can be adult, I expect that. The elements that tire me about YA is that the main characters have to be 16-18 years old. I’ve mentioned before that the kind of YA I like the best is when the story is compelling and interesting and I forget all about how old the main characters are – it’s mentioned so infrequently and everyone acts so maturely that the story and characters stand on their own independent of the YA indicator. I haven’t been requesting many YA ARCs because of this. I’m tired of reading the same beginning of every book: “She was only 16 when she faced this terrible choice/journey/job” or “She had just turned 18 with her whole life ahead of her when…” and now that I’ve read too many, I see it everywhere and I can’t get past it.

This story escapes this particular criticism through the clever use of royal succession. Hasima’s father the king dies, and the royal doctress rules it a natural death and sends a decree out to the people of this, but Hasima discovers poison during his autopsy and decides to use her new powers as queen to call for an investigation into his death. Only problem is that her kingdom works under strange rules based on a history of fearing soothsayers and magic wielders. In an attempt to make society safer and more just, her kingdom is ripe for misuse and corruption, especially after the king’s death. Many people have knowledge of how the system works, and can therefore take advantage of its loopholes and dark places.

Many of the decisions made in this book are based on a set of Tenets written by the Eleven, a group of revolutionaries that overthrew the soothsayer Emperor and “freed” the people from the “evil” influence and oppression of magic. The philosophy behind these tenets is questioned, discussed, and sometimes ignored, but I really enjoyed thinking about how such clear teachings could be used to oppress and scapegoat a people in favor of saving a separate people. I like to think about how people can take advantage of things and about whether or not those actions are justified.

The major reveal, which I won’t spoil here, comes in several parts. More people are involved than you think, and the truth isn’t anything you could possibly have guessed until it happens and you’ll be like “oh right, duh, of course.” I was very sick for the past week and a half or so, and it’s possible that my usual instincts weren’t up to snuff here, but Joan He did a great job keeping me interested and reading, and unfurling the truth slowly enough that reading the entire book was worthwhile and rewarding.

I am confused about how a sequel might address the ending. There is a lot left undone, and only vague indications of how it’s going to get dealt with. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything because most of the charm of this book is its mysteries, but I’m not aching for a sequel. Honestly the way this book ends just made me say “yeah, that’s what happens. Now everyone can get what they want and live their lives.” Maybe I feel this way because this story was more plot-driven than character-driven, and I feel less connected to the characters so I don’t care as much about what happens to them. My only loyalty was to the mystery, and now that I know the answers, the characters don’t seem to mean as much.

You should definitely pick this one up if you like murder mysteries. The magic that would make this a fantasy novel is ancillary, the real action is in the whodunnit and overall it is masterfully done. Go get you some.

Seven Blades in Black (The Grave of Empires #1)

Seven Blades

Once in awhile I read a book that I identify with so deeply and so completely that I wish I could live within the pages and be the main character. The feelings of regret and suffering, of revenge and perseverance just emanate from the pages and make me drool and moan with pleasure like the smell of freshly baked bread or maybe Calvin Klein Infinity cologne (I’m SO CLASSY). I live vicariously through the main character and find satisfaction in ways I could never find in real life. *slaps faces of enemies with a pure, white glove*

Salazanca a.k.a. Sal the Cacophony is brash, ferocious, and a woman on a mission. She has made a deal with the spirit of her gun (named the Cacophony) that she would kill everyone on her list, everyone who attempted to sacrifice her to meet their own magical ends. Her own history with the individuals on her list is slowly revealed as she tells her story to her captors, Revolutionaries who seek to upend the Imperium and its Empress in favor of a human-run government.

The political backdrop to the story is just as compelling as Sal’s own vendetta. The Imperium has always had mages as Emperors and Empresses. The Revolution is made up of “nuls” – humans with no magical abilities, who seek to make their own government where mages are not in control. In the middle are mages gone Vagrant, mad that the Empress has given birth to one heir, a nul who will one day become emperor. They refuse to support a nul emperor after giving everything to set up and support the current Imperium, so they are fighting to bring about their own future separate from the Imperium and the Revolution.

It’s important to note that this is not your typical revenge story. Along the way it’s made apparent that Sal has her own choices to atone for, and has made some shady deals that she may not walk away from in pursuit of her goals. The realness with which Sykes presents this anti-heroine is so welcome and refreshing that I am already ready to accept her past if it means I get to follow her into the future. She is an unreliable narrator, and she leaves details out of her story as she tells it to her executioner because she sees them as unnecessary, but you will discover that she’s lying by omission, and there are some very disturbing actions she’s taken/taking that we only hear a whisper of before the story ends, leaving you begging for more.

It would be difficult for me to express to you how much I loved this book. When I initially opened it on my Kindle (I received it for free as the winner of a Goodreads giveaway) it said it would take me 12 hours to read it. This was daunting, but from the very first page I was in love with Sal the Cacophony and wanted nothing more than to see her succeed and get revenge on those who had wronged her. I gave what little mental energy I had left over in the past 3 weeks to moving forward inch by inch in the 30 minutes before I fell asleep each night, and every moment was worth it.

My only criticism? I hate the cover art.

You absolutely must read this book. While I wait for the next installment to this series, I’ll be seeking out the rest of Sam Sykes’ works. If his writing is this amazing, I cannot miss out on anything else written by him up to this point. GO GET IT QUICK WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR???