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.

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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.

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???

The Near Witch

You all know that I have tried books by V.E. Schwab before. A Darker Shade of Magic and Vicious have both made their way across my desk as gateways into her writing. She is dynamic online, I love her personality, and I desperately want to like her books and her writing.

A call came across the Twitterverse that if any bloggers wished to have a copy of Schwab’s debut novel THE NEAR WITCH, they could email the publisher and request once. Apparently it had gone out of print, but now that Schwab has a following and a wide enough audience, the decision had been made to re-release it in hopes that it would find an audience now when before it seemed to miss them.

My physical copy of The Near Witch was provided to me by Titan Books in return for an honest review. It’s also worth noting that I have not read any other reviews of this book before writing my own, only the synopsis to see if I wanted to request it.

I can see why this book might have missed people the first time around. It seems too familiar, like a story you’ve heard before and so your brain can take you through to the ending without you ever having to read the book. I have to admit that I almost put the book down halfway through, because it was too obvious what would come to pass. Even with the one or two twists thrown in for good measure, it ended right where I figured it would, lessons learned all around.

As always with this kind of critique though, I have to come back to the fact that this book is YA – meant for people in their late teens/early twenties who haven’t read as extensively as I have, or haven’t seen as much of the world as I have. I wouldn’t want someone to skip this book based on that feeling alone, because something I always love about Schwab’s writing is the vivid imagery and her ability to make you feel like you are there.

The Near Witch seems to be more concerned with the story than the characters. The sweet kisses and dedication that Lexi feels for Cole after only 24 hours of interacting falls flat for me when I am not sure why I care about any of the characters. In her novel Vicious, I feel invested in Victor Vale and the other characters because I see what they have invested in their own stories. What happens to them matters to me because I care about them. In The Near Witch the stranger (Cole) arrives on the moor wind and we are off on a story full of scapegoating, prejudices, and hatred as children begin disappearing from their beds at night. You don’t get to know the characters deeply enough to care, you just get swept away by the race to save the kidnapped children and we hope you don’t ask for more.

Despite the reasons it fell flat for me in particular, I still think that this story is valuable because it warns that we always seem to need someone to blame, and often we are too quick to blame to assuage our own grief, thereby ending up hurting more people in the process. Long debts come due sooner or later when we rush to judgment or act without thinking, and the ones to pay those debts are often not the ones who incurred them in the first place. They are the young, the vulnerable, and the future of a society. In this way I feel like The Near Witch is coming back into publication at a time when it is beneficial to hear this kind of story told as much as possible. It is applicable to all of the racial, ethnic, class, and climate discussions that the global society is grappling with, and I believe that there is no better source of lessons and morals than children’s fairy tales and stories. Schwab lends her voice to this struggle in many ways, and most recently with this re-publication of her debut.

If you have a young person in your life who loves witches, magic, mystery, and love at first sight, you should definitely consider picking this one up for them. Give it a go.

The Wicked King (The Folk of the Air #2)

The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)

It had been quite a while since I had read The Cruel Prince, but Holly Black did an excellent job of summarizing the main points in her first few chapters of The Wicked King. There was an absolute bloodbath at the end of the last book where many factions made a play for the throne. Jude Duarte, the mortal ward of the Grand General Madoc outsmarted them all by having her foster brother Oak, revealed to be of royal blood, place the blood crown on Cardan’s head, making him High King of Elfhame. Oak is sent away to the mortal world until he comes of age, when Cardan has agreed to abdicate and place the crown on Oak’s head instead.

The Wicked King picks up with Jude playing puppeteer to Cardan’s rule, trying to make everything run smoothly after the attempts on the throne and his agreement to allow her to command him for a year and a day. The Undersea and its queen begin to make an attempt to overthrow the land using Cardan’s only living brother Baeliken, and that sets up this next stage in our journey.

One of the main enjoyments that I get from these books is that we are always operating at a medium level of danger. As we follow Jude through Elfhame the very plants can poison her, any agreement she makes can come back to bite her, and even accepting a gift from someone can place her in their service or at their bidding. She has to be on her guard all the time, and as you read this book you will find that you are holding your breath while you wait for the next danger to jump out of the bushes.

I love how Jude becomes a part of Elfhame. She thinks she has it all figured out. She’s a great fighter, strategist, and bargainer. The Wicked King shows us a Jude that has almost lost all connection with her humanity and uses her knowledge and power as a kind of armor/cloak that she thinks makes her belong. Despite all her scheming though, her humanity cannot be denied, and she must remember that part of herself or be forced to by others who may or may not care for her. (Honestly I’m still confused about who actually has her best interests at heart and whether she’s always been alone, pinging around Elfhame like a lonely pinball.)

I still am not sure if Cardan truly cares for Jude. I don’t know if Cardan is an idiot or a genius. I’m not sure if he wants to be High King or if he actually is going along with Jude’s plan for Oak to become king. Is he a trickster of the highest order or is he flying by the seat of his elven pants? I DON’T KNOW AND IT’S KILLING ME NOT TO KNOW. I hated him in the first book and now I can’t decide if I love him or hate him.

Holly Black is the most devious and wonderful author I think I have ever encountered. The world is lush and complex, the magic is terrifying and tricky, and the people are not to be trusted. You’ll want to trust, you’ll want to believe, but that’s what makes you mortal. So be careful when you venture into this series, because it’s easy to be trapped and in trouble in Elfhame. After this second book my heart is in trouble, because I’m not sure it can survive until the next book arrives.

If you enjoy magic, elves, intrigue, dangerous bargains, and roller coaster ride that comes with the pursuit of power, you will love this series. Go get you some.

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The Everlasting Rose (The Belles #2)

The Belles (The Belles #1)

The Everlasting Rose was provided to me as a free eARC by Disney Book Group and Freeform Books via NetGalley in return for an honest review. The Everlasting Rose will be released March 5, 2019.

Second books often find themselves in a slump. I’ve learned that this is because the first book is often written without a deadline, put through multiple drafts, and given the chance to become perfect. Second books in a series tend to be under a deadline and under the scrutiny of many, which explains why they often feel bland, rushed, and a bridge to something better.

Not so with The Everlasting Rose.

Camille has escaped the palace and is on the run with the intention of finding the Princess Charlotte and foiling Princess Sophia’s plans to become queen. She runs into the rebel force of Iron Ladies who have chosen to live without beauty treatments and want to help the kingdom move away from them as well. They agree to help Camille and she makes arrangements to crash the coronation and bring Charlotte back to take her rightful place.

This book was everything The Belles wasn’t. People died, there were very real consequences, you can feel that the kingdom is under a cruel (yet beautiful) dictatorship. Camille has to explore what matters most to her so that she can make the right choices and keep her eyes on the top priority, which moves from her new love for Remy, keeping her Belle sisters safe, and murdering the ever-loving daylights out of Sophia. Every time her arcana woke up and she started to choke the life out of someone because she was so angry my vengeful heart just purred (although RIP to a sweet bebe no spoilers).

I enjoyed the read from start to finish. There aren’t a whole lot of surprises, you’re basically getting what you would expect even in the “twists,” but the story is told so well that you won’t mind the predictability. I was unable to unearth whether or not there will be a third book or if this was simply a duology, but The Everlasting Rose ties up nicely at the end while leaving just a few threads out there that another book could build on. If that next book should materialize I think I will be there to read it.

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