Review: Heart of Iron

Heart of IronAshley Poston, Heart of Iron

Ana was raised an outlaw on the spaceship Dossier, under the rough but loving care of the infamous Captain Siege and her crew. She remembers nothing of her life before the Dossier found her; the only connection to her past is her Metal (robot), D09, who also happens to be her best friend. When D09 starts to malfunction, Ana is so desperate to save him that she’ll even steal the coordinates for the long-lost spaceship Tsarina, which is rumored to have the information she’ll need to repair D09. But her plan goes wrong when Robb, an Ironblood (upper class) boy who has his own reasons for seeking the Tsarina, gets the coordinates first. Now Ana and Robb find themselves on the same side as they search for answers. Meanwhile, the Iron Kingdom needs a new leader, since a rebellion several years ago killed the entire royal family. Robb’s corrupt brother Erik is next in line, but legend has it that one of the murdered emperor’s children may have survived after all. . . .

This book was originally pitched as “Anastasia meets Firefly,” and since I love both of those things, I figured I’d be the ideal reader for this novel! Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the case, but I want to emphasize that my problems with the book are very specific and may not be problems for another reader! It’s certainly a fun read overall, with a nice blend of outer space action and political intrigue. But for me, the book is missing the elements I was hoping for based on the premise. My favorite aspects of Anastasia are the con angle and the enemies-to-lovers romance, neither of which are present in this book. Instead, one of the main plot lines is a romance between a human and a robot, and I just couldn’t get past it. I think the discussion about artificial intelligence and consciousness is absolutely fascinating, but there’s not much debate about it in the novel; rather, all the “good” characters simply accept D09’s humanity, which just left me with a lot of questions and frustration. Also, I found the Firefly elements to be a little superficial: yes, there’s a ragtag crew of space pirates/adventurers, but only a few of them get any significant characterization. In short, all I can say is that this book didn’t deliver what I was hoping for based on the premise. But again, that has a lot to do with my own subjective expectations, and I expect that many other readers will love it!

Review: A Gathering of Shadows

Gathering of ShadowsV.E. Schwab, A Gathering of Shadows

***Warning: SPOILERS for A Darker Shade of Magic***

Four months after the events of A Darker Shade of Magic, Delilah Bard is living her dream of being a pirate — well, privateer, technically — on the ship Night Spire under Captain Alucard Emery. She is also exploring her magical abilities under Alucard’s tutelage, while keeping her thieving skills as sharp as her knives. Meanwhile, Kell and Rhy are struggling with the aftermath of Kell’s decision to bind their lives together. The upcoming Essen Tasch — a competition between the best magicians of Arnes and its neighboring lands — provides an outlet for Kell’s frustration and also draws hordes of people to Red London, including a certain pirate-thief and her swashbuckling captain. But unforeseen dangers threaten Kell, Rhy, and Lila, and strange things are afoot in White London. . . .

I really enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic, but for some reason it took me a really long time to pick up the second book in the series. I don’t know what I was waiting for, because this book definitely lives up to its predecessor! I love the world of this series, and  the plot — especially once everyone starts to converge on Red London for the Essen Tasch — kept me riveted. I also enjoyed watching the three main characters grow and change; it was particularly nice to get inside Rhy’s head for a bit and see that he’s more than just a pleasure-loving wastrel. I also liked seeing Lila get what she’s always wanted, only to discover that maybe she wants something different now. Fair warning, this book does end on a cliffhanger, so I’m glad I already have A Conjuring of Light on my shelves! I can’t wait to see what happens next and how everything turns out. I’d definitely recommend this series to fantasy lovers!

 

Mini-reviews: Inevitable, Ready, Loving, Duke

That Inevitable Victorian ThingReady Player One

E.K. Johnston, That Inevitable Victorian Thing — This alt-historical novel is set in a version of the Victorian era in which technology has greatly advanced, leading to innovations such as a computer that predicts a person’s optimal spouse based on his or her genetic code. In this world, heir to the throne Margaret travels to Canada, posing as a commoner to have one last hurrah before she must submit to a computer-arranged marriage. There she meets Helena and August, who have been unofficially promised to each other for years but who both harbor shocking secrets.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I think it succeeds best when it focuses on the changing relationships among the three main characters (if you’re wondering whether there’s a queer love triangle, the answer is yes). On the other hand, I found myself in a situation where I actually wanted more world-building! The book contains some fascinating ideas about how the world might have been different if things had gone differently in the actual Victorian era, but I wish those ideas had been developed more. Also, I think there’s one significant plot weakness: about halfway through the novel, a big secret is revealed about Helena, but the implications of that secret are never really addressed. Not a bad book, by any means, but I didn’t like it nearly as much as I wanted to.

Ernest Cline, Ready Player One — I have to say, I did not enjoy this book at all! I know it’s very popular, and I can see how it would appeal to lovers of ’80s geek culture, but it is emphatically not the book for me. The protagonist, Wade, is a smug know-it-all who thinks he’s better than everyone else because of his dedication to memorizing the minutia of ’80s movies, music, and video games. He’s the kind of guy who will judge you for not knowing some obscure piece of trivia and claim that you’re not a “true fan” of whatever thing. I honestly can’t remember the last book I read whose protagonist annoyed me so much! That said, the overall concept — sort of The Matrix meets The Westing Game — is fun; it just doesn’t make up for the insufferable “hero,” in my opinion.

Loving Cup, TheDuke and I, The

Winston Graham, The Loving Cup — In the 10th Poldark book, Clowance makes a decision about her future; Jeremy struggles with his obsessive, unrequited love for Cuby; and tensions between Valentine and George finally come to a head. I’m so behind on reviews that I’ve actually finished the series now, so I can’t quite remember which events happened in this book versus others. I do remember Jeremy’s ultimate decision regarding Cuby, which was based on TERRIBLE advice from Ross! I also didn’t love the continued presence of Stephen Carrington, who starts to rehabilitate himself only to fall even more spectacularly. Still, I really enjoyed the series overall, and this installment did some important place-setting for the final two books.

Julia Quinn, The Duke and I — I’d read one Julia Quinn book previously (Just Like Heaven) and enjoyed it, so I decided to try this first book in her famous Bridgerton series. It’s a fun, quick read, but for me it never rose above somewhat mindless entertainment. For one thing, I’m not a huge fan of the “notorious rake is reformed by the love of a good woman” plotline. For another, I didn’t quite know what to make of the hero’s personal history, which basically amounts to serious verbal and emotional abuse from his father. Clearly this backstory is meant to make the hero more interesting and to create an obstacle in the plot; but the book generally has such a lighthearted tone that the backstory seems incongruous and almost inappropriate. All that said, I do enjoy some nice Regency fluff every now and then, so I’ll probably read more by this author…but maybe I’ll try one of her other series!

Review: Nimona

NimonaNoelle Stevenson, Nimona

Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren’t the heroes everyone thinks they are.

But as small acts of mischief escalate into a vicious battle, Lord Blackheart realizes that Nimona’s powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he is willing to admit. (Summary from Amazon.com.)

I don’t read a lot of graphic novels but had heard great things about Nimona, so I decided to give it a try. Overall, I really enjoyed it! The artwork is very appealing, and because Nimona is a shapeshifter, it makes sense that the story would be told in this format. I also personally loved the character of Ballister Blackheart, supposed supervillain, who actually has a conscience and some well-founded suspicions about the Institution. The turns of the plot are rather predictable, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially with this type of story. I also found Nimona to be an interesting and complex character; she does some truly awful things in the course of the story, but she’s given enough depth and humanity that she remains sympathetic. Overall, I would definitely recommend this for graphic novel fans or for people who are interested in exploring the genre.

Review: Carry On

Carry OnRainbow Rowell, Carry On

Simon Snow is the worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen.

That’s what his roommate, Baz, says. And Baz might be evil and a vampire and a complete git, but he’s probably right.

Half the time, Simon can’t even make his wand work, and the other half, he starts something on fire. His mentor’s avoiding him, his girlfriend broke up with him, and there’s a magic-eating monster running around, wearing Simon’s face. Baz would be having a field day with all this, if he were here–it’s their last year at the Watford School of Magicks, and Simon’s infuriating nemesis didn’t even bother to show up. (Summary from Amazon.com.)

As you can see, I had A LOT of feelings about this book! So if you just want the short version, skip to the last paragraph!*

Fellow lovers of Rainbow Rowell will remember her novel Fangirl, in which protagonist Cath is obsessed with the Simon Snow series and is writing fanfiction about two of its principal characters, Simon and Baz. While I really liked Fangirl overall, I noted that the “excerpts” from the Simon Snow books and from Cath’s fanfic were my least favorite parts of that novel. So, I was less than enthused when I learned that Carry On would be Rowell’s own version of the Simon/Baz romance.

I had other issues with the concept of Carry On as well. In Fangirl, it’s obvious that Simon Snow is meant to be a stand-in for Harry Potter (which makes the single HP reference in Fangirl extremely jarring!), so Carry On is, in a sense, HP fanfic. That made me feel apprehensive and a little icky, like Rowell was essentially ripping off J.K. Rowling and taking advantage of the devotion of the HP fandom. I don’t attribute any malicious motives to Rowell — I’m sure she would view Carry On as more of an homage than a copy — but the world of Simon Snow is uncomfortably similar to the world of HP.

Then there’s my own stance on fanfiction, which is that I don’t really get it. Not to take away from anyone else’s pleasure in reading or writing it, but I’ve never personally been that interested in it. I do understand the desire to remain in a beloved world and explore it further, especially if the original author left certain stories hanging and you need some closure for them. But I tend to believe the author wrote the stories s/he intended to write, and it’s not my job as a reader to “fix” storylines that didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to. So, to take the most relevant example, I know there’s a lot of Harry/Draco fanfic out there. But in the actual HP series, it’s obvious that Harry is heterosexual, and (spoilers) he eventually marries and procreates with Ginny. So I honestly don’t understand the impulse to pair Harry and Draco in fanfiction. I don’t mean to insult anyone who enjoys fanfic or who ships Harry/Draco, but I would not personally be interested in reading a slash fanfic about those characters — which is essentially the plot of Carry On, just with different character names.

AND YET.

I actually ended up liking Carry On a lot more than I expected to! Yes, the setting and principal characters are all very reminiscent of HP, and that still does bother me. I also wasn’t particularly invested in the monster plot and all the backstory about where the monster came from and all of that. It was predictable and rather generic for a fantasy novel. But one of Jenny’s (of Reading the End) comments really resonated with me: “I think Rainbow Rowell maybe just is not that good at plot.” YES. This is true of all her novels, which generally don’t have much plot to speak of. Where Rowell shines is her characters, who are flawed and struggling but also hopeful and determined to find a happy ending. I sympathized with Simon, who feels crushed by the weight of his “chosen” status and his inability to live up to everyone’s expectations. Penelope was a great friend, practical and loyal, even though she was a bit too Hermione-ish. And I adored Baz, as I always adore disdainful, elitist, painfully elegant antagonists who turn out to be not-so-secret heroes.

*The short version: I was nervous about Carry On, and if anyone other than Rainbow Rowell had written it, I definitely wouldn’t have read it. But I decided to trust Rowell, and I’m glad I did. For me, the positives (great characters and dialogue) outweighed the negatives (most notably, the extensive similarities to HP). If you’re on the fence about this book, I would encourage you to give it a try! And I’ll note that you definitely do NOT have to read Fangirl first, although you should read it anyway because it’s really good. 🙂

Review: I’ll Give You the Sun

I'll Give You the SunJandy Nelson, I’ll Give You the Sun

This novel is the story of a family tragedy and its aftermath, narrated in alternating chapters by twins Noah and Jude. Noah’s narrative begins when the twins are 13. He’s the quiet one who dodges school bullies and spends all his time painting; Jude’s the outgoing one who is popular and daring. Despite their very different personalities, Noah and Jude are incredibly close. But Jude’s story, which takes place three years later, reveals that something terrible has happened, and she and Noah are no longer speaking. Noah is living in denial, trying to act like a “normal” teenager, and Jude is trying as hard as possible to be invisible. As the novel alternates between Noah’s story and Jude’s, the nature of their tragedy is revealed, and it becomes obvious that each twin only has half the story. In order to move past their family’s secrets, both twins will have to forgive themselves as well as each other. Meanwhile, Noah falls in love with the boy next door and must come to terms with his sexuality, while Jude searches for redemption through art.

You may not be able to tell from my woefully inadequate summary, but I loved, loved, LOVED this book! And I honestly wasn’t expecting to…YA contemporary is a genre that varies widely in quality, and I hadn’t heard much about this author, so I was quite wary going in. But I was almost immediately captivated by the energetic, vivid writing style and unexpected imagery. I usually think that the best writing style is the least obtrusive, but this book made me sit up and take notice, in a good way! I also felt deep sympathy for both Noah and Jude, who are each trying to figure out who they are, while being burdened with a huge weight of guilt. Despite their overly precocious voices, they felt like real human beings to me. I loved the book’s focus on visual art and was fascinated by Jude’s quest to make a sculpture out of stone, something that is apparently a dying art nowadays. There’s even a touch of magical realism, as Jude often talks to her Grandma Sweetwine’s ghost. In short, if the premise of this book seems at all appealing to you, I HIGHLY recommend it!