Book Review: Young Adult Fantasy: These Rebel Waves by Sara Raasch

a large R, wrapped in herbs over two crossed swords floating on water
These Rebel Waves cover

Adeluna is a soldier. Five years ago, she helped the magic-rich island of Grace Loray overthrow its oppressor, Argrid, a country ruled by religion. But adjusting to postwar life has not been easy. When an Argridian delegate vanishes during peace talks with Grace Loray’s new Council, Argrid demands brutal justice—but Lu suspects something more dangerous is at work.

Devereux is a pirate. As one of the outlaws called stream raiders who run rampant on Grace Loray, he pirates the island’s magic plants and sells them on the black market. But after Argrid accuses raiders of the diplomat’s abduction, Vex becomes a target. An expert navigator, he agrees to help Lu find the Argridian—but the truth they uncover could be deadlier than any war.

Benat is a heretic. The crown prince of Argrid, he harbors a secret obsession with Grace Loray’s forbidden magic. When Ben’s father, the king, gives him the shocking task of reversing Argrid’s fear of magic, Ben has to decide if one prince can change a devout country—or if he’s building his own pyre.

As conspiracies arise, Lu, Vex, and Ben will have to decide who they really are . . . and what they are willing to become for peace.

Title: These Rebel Waves
Author: Sara Raasch
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication Date: August 7, 2018
Format: Print ARC
Length:  468 pages
ISBN-10: 0062471503
ISBN-13: 9780062471505

Series or Standalone: Series (Stream Raiders #1)

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Aftermath of war, family, national identity
POV: Multiple third-person
Tense: Past

Why I Read It: The title and description sounded cool, and a friend happened upon a cache of print ARCs he shared with the Notes crew.

Reviewer: Atsiko

Review:

I’ll start with the obvious:  “These Rebel Waves” involves very little in terms of waves or rebellion.  The “stream raiders” do very little raiding and you don’t see a stream once in the entire book.  And no, no gay pirates, although I’m reviewing this having known that going in.  It’s been popular lately to do “aftermath” books in fantasy.  Instead of showing the war, these stories look at what happens once the war has been “won”.  It’s actually one of my current favorite premises.  But it’s hard to do well, and very few have.  These Rebel Waves succeeds no better.  It felt like the author tried to a cram a whole bunch of different tropes/genres into one book.  There was political maneuvering, sort of, but the main characters have no real effect on it.  There’s “raiding” and smuggling in the background, but we never see it.  There’s an evil monotheistic religion, but we know very little about it, and what little we do know makes no sense.  The “Pious” God cannot be pious, because that means “devout” or god-fearing.  He can’t very well be devoted to himself or fear himself.

And that shallow and crooked world-building is characteristic of everything in the novel.  We know next to nothing about the stream raiders, except for the general idea that they smuggle magical plants out of the country.  We never see them gathering or smuggling anything, except for one time, and that one times is an important plot-point that has nothing to do with the black market.  They sort of kidnap some people, but they don’t do any regular raiding, or at least not where we can see it.  The Grace Lorayan Council is some sort of legislative body, but we barely see them do any legislating, and despite having “won” the war and kicked out Argrid, they seem deathly afraid of them and more than willing to believe anything they say.

It feels like the best part of the story really would have been the war itself, instead of this jerky epilogue.  The characters too suffer from being shallow and ill-formed.  The clever independent raider acts stupidly and achieves very little.  The troubled prince seems to have zero interest in the all-pervasive religion that’s supposed to run his country.  Perhaps if we’d had a book all abut Benat and seen more of the details of his life and the lead-up to the current book, we could have had a very interesting take on the upper crust of a ruling caste not taking their own propaganda very seriously.  Similarly, we could have had a great look at Vex the raider and his life and troubles in the wake of the war, and the official formation of the country of Grace Loray.  Or, a fun look at Lu’s herbalist magic.  But by stuffing three stories into one book, Raasch has over-strained her narrative foundation.

Finally, the interaction between the characters was rather disappointing.  I didn’t really buy Lu’s relationships to Vex or the rest of his crew.  There wasn’t a chance to compare and contrast their personalities in a way that would lead to any sort of character development, and Lu’s naivete was a constant irritant.  Again, perhaps if there had been more time to explore it and how it related to her past experiences, it could have been a more interesting plot point.  But as it was, it again felt like trying to dive into a two-foot deep pool.

In the end, the book was a huge disappointment.  Perhaps that was my fault for believing the hype, but I’d genuinely enjoyed Raasch’s previous series, and I’d hoped she’d improved upon her flaws with this new one.  I probably won’t be reading the sequel to These Rebel Waves, unless I get an ARC from NetGalley, or something.

 

Conclusion: 47/100 (A big disappointment)
Premise:  7/10 (Interesting but fails to deliver)
Plot:  5/10 (Rough pacing, very predictable)
Setting:  5/10 (Good idea, poor execution)
Main Character:  7/10 (Interesting, lots to work with)
World-building  3/10 (Is there any, really?)
Title 1/10 (It’s a lie!)
Supporting Characters:  5/10 (Cardboard cutouts, mostly)
Writing:  5/10 (Lots of odd/purple phrasings trying but failing to be evocative)
Themes:  4/10 (Interesting but un-explored)
Resolution:  5/10 (Major cliffhanger)

Buy Or Borrow:  I would say borrow.

Similar Books:

Any generic YA fantasy with a magical heroine and an enemies to friends/lovers.

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
Pretty Little Memoirs (5 stars)
YA Books Central (4.7 stars)
Reader, Writer, Fanboy (4 stars)
Overflowing Bookshelves (4 stars)
Book Reviews by Di (4 stars)
Gizmo’s Reviews (3.5 stars)
Vicky Who Reads (3 stars)
Delicate Eternity (2 stars)

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
nook

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Book Review: Science Fiction: The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

She believed in the mission with all her heart.
But that was sixty million years ago.

How do you stage a mutiny when you’re only awake one day in a million? How do you conspire when your tiny handful of potential allies changes with each shift? How do you engage an enemy that never sleeps, that sees through your eyes and hears through your ears and relentlessly, honestly, only wants what best for you?

Sunday Ahzmundin is about to find out.

Note from the publisher: The red letters in the print edition (and highlighted letters in the e-book) indicate special bonus content from the author.

Title: The Freeze-Frame Revolution.
Author: Peter Watts
Category: Adult fiction
Genre: Hard Science Fiction
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Publication Date: June 12th, 2018
Format: Paperback
Length: 192 pages
ISBN-10: 1616962526
ISBN-13: 9781616962524

Series or Standalone: Sunflower Cycle #4

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Autonomy, Consciousness, Evolution, Obsolescence
POV: First-person
Tense: Past

Reviewer: Atsiko

Why I Read It: Because Peter Watts.  No further explanation needed. (I guess the blurb sounded cool, too.)

Review:

Like most Peter Watts works, I loved this one.  It had some flaws I’ll get to in the body of the review, but overall it was great.  Would have bought it if I didn’t get an ARC.

Several other reviews I read while prepping for my own review talked about confusion and opaqueness as far as the plot and premise.  I didn’t see that personally, but I’ve read a lot more SF than most people.  It should be mentioned this is the fourth work in a “series” of short fiction pieces. which can be found on the author’s website linked above under the series title “Sunflowers”.  However, I disagree with most other reviewers in that I don’t feel that they must be read in order to really understand this novella/novel.

To save you all some trouble, the basic premise of the story is that a crew of people born and bred for the purpose have set out on a journey around the galaxy to see it with stargates between worlds.  Although they are travelling in a relativistic spacecraft limited by the speed of light, those following after them through the gate network will not be.  In order to live through what will be a multi-million year journey, they are put in cryo-sleep for most of the trip.  A-less-than-human-level AI runs most of the voyage, only waking up humans when there are too many variables for it to work out a problem computer style.  The majority of the story takes place some 69 millions years after they set out from 22nd century Earth.

The characters must figure out how to stage a revolution against their AI overlord while only being awake a few days in a million, compared to a machine that’s always on and runs far faster than the human brain, including running the functions of the entire ship such as engines, computers, the “internet”, and life support.

Something that you don’t find in much science fiction or science news these days is a writer who really understands how AI works and how it’s different than human intelligence.  But Peter Watts is that rare gem, and it was wonderful to read a story that really captures a realistic-seeming artificial intelligence, both in the ways its sees the world and the mission, and in its interactions with the human crew members.  The second part of what makes Watts brilliant here is his ability to recognize the blindspots of both his characters and his readers towards AI and weave them into a suspenseful if not exactly rollicking techno-thriller.  Recent sci-fi blockbusters along similar themes may be more exciting, but can’t at all compare to the realism and humanity of Watts’ AI. On that along, science and especially AI buffs will find this book worth a read.

I should warn you that it’s a quintessential hard SF story, in that it expects you to know how to process the tropes and conventions of the genre, both tech wise and in the narrative.  More casual SFF or general fiction readers may find some of the science and its presentation in the book either intimidating or tedious, and the tricks the characters use to keep their revolution a secret are not blindingly unique nor particularly entertaining.

Both the setting and the characters lack the level development one would get in a longer work.  Certainly the length limits the story quality in that regard.  Reading some of the other stories could remedy that to an extent, but they too suffer from some of the shortcomings of short fiction compared to the novel.

Finally, I need to address one of the main themes of this series as well as Watts’ work in general: free will.  What is it and do humans really have it?  Especially if you read the other stories in the series you’ll see this theme running through the novel.  Some people might enjoy the exploration, and others might find it off-putting.  I like the concept, but I felt the execution was a bit ham-handed.

But, there’s another more interesting, far more relatable theme in the novel: your place in the world.  Many of the characters struggle mightily with the meaning of their existence in a world where there’s a good chance the rest of humanity has died out or evolved into something else.  Especially given that there seems a strong chance that their intermittent existence will be prolonged far beyond and interest they might have in it by the ship AIs commitment to their mission.  Because the characters have been removed so far out from the normal context of human society, they question not only the purpose of continuing their mission, but even of continuing to live.  It’s on a bigger stage than most of us will ever experience, but the question of what gives life meaning is a universal one.

It probably sounds like I have a lot of criticism for this book.  But that’s more a function of the review genre.  I can’t tell you the details on the things that most excite me about the book because *spoilers*.  But if nothing else, the on-again/off-again platonic relationship between the main character and the ship AI will give you reason enough to keep turning pages.  Especially with the book only being about 140 pages long.

All that’s left to say is grab your copy and enjoy!

 

Conclusion: 77/100 ()
Premise:  8/10 (Not new, but a very new spin)
Plot: 7 /10 (Some holes)
Setting:  9/10 (Amazing and well-researched)
Main Character:  6/10 (Could have used more development)
World-building  9/10 (Well-structured and executed)
Technology 8/10 (Some handwavium, but on a hard science foundation)
Supporting Characters:  6/10 (Needed more development)
Writing:  8/10 (More than competent)
Themes:  8/10 (Great concepts, needed a bit more exploration)
Resolution:  8/10 (Brilliant twist, no “resolution” as such)

Buy Or Borrow: Definitely worth the cost if you like hard sf with really solid philosophical/ethical commentary, especially as you can get the other three stories in the series for free on the author’s website.

Similar Books:

There aren’t really any similar books.  Some reviews I read cited generation ship novels, but that’s not really what this is.  If you liked it, you might like Heechee Saga, but that’s about all I’ve got that feels really similar, and it’s an old, old series.  Maybe the Rama series by Clarke.  Still not really “similar”, but the network of travel routes and the time span are close.

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Publishers Weekly
Medium
Foreward Reviews
File 770
Teleread.org
Little Red Reviewer

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
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Book Review: Young Adult: My Whole Truth by Mischa Thrace

My WholeTruth

Title: My Whole Truth
Author: Mischa Thrace
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Contemporary/Thriller(?)
Publisher: Flux
Publication Date: October 2, 2018
Format: eARC
Length:  242 pages
ISBN-10: 1635830249
ISBN-13: 9781635830248

Series or Standalone: Standalone

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: LGBTQ+?, Friendship, Parental Relationships
POV: Single 1st person
Tense: Present

Reviewer: Nick Morgan

Why I Read It: Provided for free through netgalley, saw the blurb and requested.

Review:

So, I was really excited for this book.  The whole alleged murderer who definitely killed the guy premise is really interesting, if not unique.  There’s a lot of interesting psychological stuff to explore there, besides the whole trial and community reaction thing.

But the book fails to deliver.  Not only does that cover copy give away basically all the twists in the story, but the community reaction, and the behavior of the cops, and the character’s way out are cliché and cheaply handled.  There’s pretty much no effort on the character’s part, or internal drive.  She’s a main character, but not a protagonist in the sense of driving the story in any way.  Her only two major decisions are both stupid and have no consequences.

The book does a terrible job handling the police aspects and the courtroom drama.  The way the authorities act is nonsensical and probably even against procedure in most police departments and courts.  They seem to be playing hack-sack with the idiot ball in order to allow for *stunning “reveals”.  The first major reveal is clearly spoiled in the teaser and would be incredibly obvious even if it hadn’t been, and it’s very unbelievable that none of the authorities even suspected that it happened given the nature of the crime she is accused of and her behavior after.

The character’s friends are implied to be the most important aspect of the story, but their actions make no sense and are often very clearly rigged by the author for cheap melodrama.  There was absolutely zero interesting stuff going on there, and that includes the so-called “crush” mentioned in the teaser.

In other reviews I saw a lot of criticisms about how the story handled the character’s relationship with her mother.  I actually thought that this was not an issue, excepting only that like every other part of the story it was criminally-underdeveloped.  The broad strokes were perfectly believable given the situation, but the author failed to add the detail work that makes it interesting.

There are two betrayals in the book, and both of them were bring because the author again failed to move beyond broad strokes.  The first was out of nowhere and also forgiven waaaaaay to easily, in my opinion.  I couldn’t believe the MC would get over it so quickly if at all.  The second was not particularly surprising, but again, it felt like a massive authorial intrusion because the author did no build-up or support ahead of time, and in fact implied the character would feel almost the exact opposite way.  Without going into spoilers, this part of the plot had a great deal of potential for very interesting character drama and some incredible nuance around friendship and also around the betraying character’s personal beliefs.  It would have been not only very topical, which seemed to be the author’s goal with this story in general, but also very interesting to read and illustrative of a lot of the themes and issues around friendship in our society.  An opportunity to actually show that the characters were as close as the author was obviously trying to portray them as.  Both these plot points could have been masterfully-carved gems in the crown of this story, but instead were more likely really shitty repair welds in damaged antique jewelry that end up lowering the value significantly.

The depiction of the community response to the attack and subsequent killing was also disappointing.  Very bare bones, and some incredibly odd behavior on the part of the school the character went to.  Especially a particular teacher who says one thing and acts very differently.  The one realistic aspect was how badly the administration was out of its depth in responding to having an accused murderer at school.  That would have been a really cool thing to explore in the novel, but like everything else it felt under-utilized.

Overall, the greatest flaw of My Whole Truth was that the author failed to provide any depth to any aspect of the novel whatsoever, and that’s why its getting one of my very rare 1 1/2 star equivalent ratings.  There are so many better novels touching on this subject matter out there, and no point in wasting your time on such a disappointing entry to the category.

Conclusion: 48/100 (More like an outline than a novel)
Premise:  7/10 (Interesting idea poorly executed)
Plot:  4/10 (Lots of plot holes, too predictable)
Setting:  6/10 (Well-drawn)
Main Character:  5/10 (Shallowly depicted and boring)
Technical 5/10 (Lots of technical mistakes in police and hospital procedure)
Suspense 4/10 ()
Supporting Characters:  5/10 (Shallowly drawn and no enjoyable)
Writing:  6/10 (Competent from a technical perspective)
Themes:  4/10 (Under-served and in your face)
Resolution:  5/10 (Boring and nonsensical)

Buy Or Borrow: Borrow if you plan to read it at all.  It just didn’t feel good enough to be worth paying for.

Similar Books:

 

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
Pinot and Pages
26 Cups of Tea
Books & Blogging
That’s Nida
Lectus

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
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Google Play
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Book Review: Fantasy: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

thepoppywar

Title: The Poppy War
Author: R.F. Kuang
Category: Adult
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication Date: May 1, 2018
Format: Hardcover
Length:  544 pages
ISBN-10: 0062662597
ISBN-13: 9780062662590

Series or Standalone: Series (The Poppy War #1)

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Revenge, Anger, Genocide, War
POV: 3rd Person
Tense: Past

Why I Read It: Because there was tons of hype and the setting and premise sounded really interesting.  I managed to borrow a review copy from a friend, but I also bought the book in hardcover.  Drug-induced magic?  Obviously.

Reviewer: Atsiko

Disclaimer:  I want to be very clear from the beginning that I am a white dude from the Midwest, in case there was any confusion.  See how this figure into the review blow.

Review:

I struggled a bit on whether to review this book or not.  There was a lot of hype I didn’t feel the book lived up to it.  Also the Twitter controversy in which I was partially involved.

However, I realized I was being unfair to the book.  The Poppy War is a very solid debut, and I’m really looking forward to what the author does with the sequels and especially with her next step after this series is complete.

I want to start off by saying that the book is certainly grimdark, though not your traditional such novel.  And it’s not nearly as “brutal” as advertised.  There were only one or two scenes I would describe with that adjective, and most of the brutality in the novel takes place off the page, often relayed to the character after the fact by acquaintances.

But, where the brutality is written, it is very effective, creating in the characters exactly what I would expect to see their reactions be given the situation.  Major points for that, even if it was a bit heavy-handed.

The magic system was a delight.  I’ve always loved the idea of mixing drugs and addiction with magic, and Kuang has done so extremely well in this book.  I would also cite it as a shining example of how you can construct and interesting and useful magic “system” without getting bogged down in the rules and mechanics.  Now, you all probably know from here and my blog that I love getting bogged down in the inner workings of magic systems.  But when a writer shows how you can add enormous tension and excitement to a story without digging into the gears and shafts, I sit up and take notice.

The main character was interesting.  I loved how she was willing to take any measure to succeed at her goals and that she was willing and able to be a pro-active instead of reactive character.  A lot of books, fantasy and otherwise, are plagued by reactive characters whose enemies and circumstances drive the plot, but not so with Rin.

Now, although the magic system was top tier, the world-building was a bit shallow and shaky for me.  I confess I may just not have the right culture context to really appreciate everything going on in the book.  Perhaps someone more immersed in Chinese history and culture would have appreciated Kuang’s work more knowledgably.  I do know the history Kuang is referencing in the book, although I learned it mostly from the Japanese perspective in college.  And I’ve also read primary sources of the atrocities committed by the Japanese in the Rape of Nanking.  But that’s not the same as being raised with the spectre of these atrocities ever in the background of your mind.

That said, I felt that the author maybe relied a little too heavily on the reader knowing the real-world history the novel is based on.  There were lots of names and concepts thrown around, but not a lot of meet for the reader to bite into.  I did like how the information on all three powers was introduced in political context, almost being war propaganda by default.  But I would have liked a bit more detail.

The plot of the novel and the pacing were both problem points for me.  I didn’t feel like the military boarding school parts were very fleshed out.  They felt like the author leaned heavily on the tropes of that genre to carry the plot.  The legacy/aristocratic bully, the harsh teacher, the goofy teacher who teaches the protag how they are special.  Etc.  I also felt it passed fairly quickly.  Then, the war aspects also felt rushed.  Although there were some powerful climaxes, they didn’t have the build-up to really make them shine.  Which is too bad, because there were the seeds of some great story in here.

Finally, the writing itself was lacking for me.  There were some odd repetitions, sometimes in the same paragraph.  There were good parts, too.  I was invested enough to read the book all in one five-hour sitting.  The writing is obviously good enough to be published.  I think the book is overall quite competently constructed.  But the small holes nonetheless exposed some of the thinness of the frame, and on occasion it threw me out of the story for a bit.

Overall, this was a solid debut.  I do look forward both to the sequels and to future work from R.F. Kuang.  I sincerely hope the hype drives enough sales to keep her interested in publishing.

 

ETA:  There’s been a lot of conversation on Twitter about the issue of tired tropes and how they may be tired for white cishet people but not for LGBTQIUA or non-white folks.  As a cishet white person, I can’t always speak to that issue in my reviews.  While I don’t retract my opinion on the novel on that basis, people should take it with a sack of salt when I’m discussing a book by a marginalized author or a marginalized character.

 

Conclusion: 72/100 (A solid debut, author is one to watch)
Premise:  8/10 (I’m a sucker for magic and drugs mixed)
Plot:  6/10 (A bit formulaic)
Setting:  6/10 (Clear influences, no real originality)
Main Character:  7/10 (Interesting but shallowly drawn and a bit plot-driven)
World-building  7/10 (The concepts rocked, the execution was a bit lackluster)
Magic System 10/10 (Fantastic examples of a rule-less magic system)
Supporting Characters:  6/10 (A few interesting ones, little real development)
Writing:  7/10 (Readable but with some odd flaws)
Themes:  7/10 (Straight-forward, cool ending)
Resolution:  8/10 (Dramatic, but not really explored)

Buy Or Borrow: Definitely worth buying if you’re looking for non-European fantasy or fantasy with a good female protagonist.

Similar Books:

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Publishers Weekly
The Skiffy and Fanty Show
Tor.com
Reddit
The Quill To Live
Fantasy-Faction
Huntress of Diverse Books
The Illustrated Page

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
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Book Review: Young Adult: Warcross by Marie Lu

 

Player, Hunter, Hacker, Pawn
a 3D Warcross logo of raindow letters in a cube

For the millions who log in every day, Warcross isn’t just a game—it’s a way of life. The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. Needing to make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships—only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight sensation.

Convinced she’s going to be arrested, Emika is shocked when instead she gets a call from the game’s creator, the elusive young billionaire Hideo Tanaka, with an irresistible offer. He needs a spy on the inside of this year’s tournament in order to uncover a security problem . . . and he wants Emika for the job. With no time to lose, Emika’s whisked off to Tokyo and thrust into a world of fame and fortune that she’s only dreamed of. But soon her investigation uncovers a sinister plot, with major consequences for the entire Warcross empire.

Title: Warcross
Author: Marie Lu
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Near-future Science Fiction (Dystopia?)
Publisher: G.P Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: September 12th, 2017
Format: Hardcover
Length: 368 pages
ISBN-10: 0399547967
ISBN-13: 9780399547966

Series or Standalone: Warcross #1

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Augmented reality, virtual reality, revenge, poverty, hacking, esports, mmos
POV: First person
Tense: Present

Why I Read It: I mean, duh.  Virtual reality gaming tournaments?  Hacking?  Augmented reality?  Diverse cast?  Yeah.

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

Review:

Y’all, I’m about to drop some harsh news.  This was one of my most anticipated reads of 2017.  I even shelled out for the hardcover when Nick couldn’t score us an ARC, where normally I wait for the paperback.  And I’m not sure I got my money’s worth.

If you’ve read the other reviews of Warcross, especially by the book blogging community, you’ve seen pretty much only four- and five-star reviews.  There are a few one and two star reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.  And they tell the most accurate tale.

 

First, let’s touch on the world-building.  This is a near-future Earth, and the action takes place primary in New York and Tokyo.  There should be some world-building to support our premise: brain-computer interfaces plus Google Glass, and the popularity of Warcross.  But the world-building here is sparse and insubstantial.  And the description of the tech is lackluster.  Especially if you read manga, watch anime, or read adult SF, there’s very little new here, and no neat details to make the tech stick out.  Something that even a smidgin of world-building could have accomplished easily.  Although New York and Tokyo are beautiful and diverse cities, we barely see any of them, and what we do see is very generic and cliche.  We hear about the mass poverty and decline of world culture, but a couple college girls living in a shitty apartment about to be evicted is not a convincing interpretation.  Showing a bit more of Em’s roommate Keira could have done a lot to shore up this world-building claim.

Now let’s talk tech.  Our main character is a skilled gamer and talented hacker.  But do Lu’s descriptions live up to the hype?  Not really.  It didn’t seem like Lu knew very much about hacking, and her portrayal of hacking, VR, and the dark pits of the Internet is very old school Neuromancer.  And a pale imitation at that.  Her descriptions of how the tech works are jumbled and confusing, discounting the whole “your brain fills in the gaps”.  If brains could fill in the gaps in VR/AR tech, we’d be at Warcross levels of it right now, much less decades in the future.  Like, that’s even harder to manage than just coding it yourself.  Lu has a history as an artist in the game industry and a rep for being an avid gamer herself.  But it doesn’t feel like she learned much about coding from those experience.  Her security vulnerabilities, which shift major tonnage for the plot, are not particularly believable, much like the hacking sequences.  if you want me to believe a character is a genius hacker, you can’t gloss over her skills to focus on the thriller aspects of your storyline.

Which brings u to my next gripe.  The book is a bit of a page-turner.  The pacing moves very fast.  And that’s not an asset.  The gaming aspect is unconvincing laid over a technological thriller skeleton, kind of like a poor man’s version of the Bourne plot.  And we get barely any time to rest.  This plot and the book in general would have been well-served by another hundred pages or so of development.  Both for the plot and the characters.  On the plot side, the esports aspect is very unrealistic.  Why in the world would a company sponsor a pro sports team in a make-it-or-break-it single tournament?  The way esports and related offline gaming competitions tend to work is with a season very much like a traditional sports season, where players climb up the rankings, build their team, and fine-tune their coordination.  Not going from taking apart last years teams, throwing in newbies in a draft, and hurling them straight into combat.  Not buying it.

And speaking of character development, we get basically zero.  A bit for Em, some standard billionaire playboy for Hideo Tanaka, tinged with stereotypical Asion-dude reticence to engage.  I hated the whole romance plotline, which was boring, insta-lovey, and followed every YA romance trope known to man or woman or alien.  There’s was no excitement and zero chemistry.  And a boss-employee relationship with the man having age, power, and money on his side?  Gross.  I wanted to see “Brought another boy home with you tonight?” Em as hinted at by her roommate in the opening scenes.  Perhaps a fling or romance with a Warcross teammate or opponent.  Maybe she met a cool hacker dude in her claimed deep exploration of the Dark Net.  Look, I loved the childhood crush element present at the beginning.  But the development came nowhere near to my expectations from the dozens of solid YA romance plotlines available these days.

And what did we learn about her team?  A bit of interesting backstory for Roshan, some tidbits of Asher, and zero development from when they met her to when they put everything on the line for a goal she wouldn’t even tell them about for most of the book.  Nuh-uh.  You gotta do better than that.

Now, the last major issue I had was the description.  The world-building was shallow and the character interactions marginal, but what really killed it was the dearth of actual gaming scenes and the bad play-by-play description.  Much like Hideo’s NeuroLink, Lu gave us the barest of suggestions and left most of the work to our brains.  Normally fine in a book, but definitely not when we’re trying to visualize a very poorly-described and unfamiliar video game with supposedly fantastic settings and terrain.

Which is sad, because the game itself had some of the parts I most enjoyed.  Totally dug the random power-ups on the map, which created strategic dilemmas for the players.  Leave yourself open to send someone after permanent flight or go all in on charging your opponent?  Tough decision that makes sense even without vast knowledge of video game mechanics.  I wasn’t so much in love with the whole keeping power-ups between matches and cash money purchases of same.  Definitely overbalances the chances of winning in favor of the wealthy and takes a lot of the skill out of the game.  And you can enter them into official tournaments?  No way.  I could see if they were restricted to ones you got in the actual tournament.  But from regular matches you could grind for special abilities?  Hell no.  I also loved the idea of Emika’s Architect class in between the more traditional Fighters and Thieves.  But we weren’t really given a good idea of the role of any of the classes, what their abilities were, or what Captain Asher’s class was.  It’s difficult to build tension describing a game when you don’t know the rules.  Everyone knows the rules of baseball, which lets the author ratchet up the tension, even when using cliche set-ups like bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, three runs down.  When you invent a game, or use a little-known game as a story element, one of the toughest tasks as a writer is to teach the reader enough about the game so that the action creates tension for them.  The second toughest task is inventing a good game.  It’s unclear if Lu accomplished this because we just don’t know that much about how Warcross works.  J.K. Rowling’s Quidditch is the archetypal examples of an invented game being used as a plot point in fiction.  Lu comes nowhere close to that level of success.

Thus, the two twists at the end are simultaneously predictable and come out of left field, leaving you with a nasty cliffhang-nail.  And all the final pieces seemed to just fall into her hands like magic.

If you take anything away from this review, let it be this:  The idea was great, but the author didn’t give the story, the world, or the characters enough time to fully develop into the fantastic book this could have been.  And you have no idea how much I wanted that to happen.

 

Conclusion: 59 /100 (I was had!!!)
Premise: 9 /10 (So much potential)
Plot: 5 /10 (Serviceable but unoriginal thriller plot)
Setting: 5 /10 (Under-utilized)
Main Character: 5 /10 (Show, don’t tell)
World-building: 4 /10 (Was there any?!)
Romance 3 /10 (No shocks, no butterflies)
Supporting Characters: 6 /10 (Cool, but underdeveloped)
Writing: 5 /10 (Description needs work)
Themes: 8 /10 (So much potential!!!!)
Resolution: 4 /10 (Cliffhanger!)

Buy Or Borrow:  Borrow unless you are already a Marie Lu fan.

Similar Books:

Arena by Holly Jennings
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
Chicago Review of Books
The Book Smugglers
Broadway World
The Young Folks
Publishers Weekly Children’s Book Review
School Library Journal
A Page with a View

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
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Kindle UK
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Kobo
Google Play
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Book Review: Young Adult Fantasy: Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

two crossed daggers on a blue background
two crossed daggers

Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that. But gender fluid Sal wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery of life as a highway robber and get closer to the upper-class—and the nobles who destroyed their home.

When Sal steals a flyer for an audition to become a member of The Left Hand—the Queen’s personal assassins, named after the rings she wears—Sal jumps at the chance to infiltrate the court and get revenge.

But the audition is a fight to the death filled with clever circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. And as Sal succeeds in the competition, and wins the heart of Elise, an intriguing scribe at court, they start to dream of a new life and a different future, but one that Sal can have only if they survive.

Title: Mask of Shadows
Author: Linsey Miller
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication Date: August 29th, 2107
Format: Netgalley eARC
Length: 384 pages
ISBN-10: N/A
ISBN-13: N/A

Series or Standalone: Untitled Duology?

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Revenge, intrigue
POV: First person
Tense: Past

Why I Read It: Saw it on a Goodreads list of 2017 books, liked the description.

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

Review:

There was a lot to like about this book, based on the blurb.  Non-cishet, non-binary main character?  Sweet.  Crazy assassin battles?  Check.  Tale of revenge against heartless political monsters?  Got it.

Now look at that blurb again.  “But gender fluid Sal…”  Neither preceded nor followed by any possible related information.  And that’s exactly how the gender-fluidity was played in the book.  Had basically zero effect on the story or how the character was treated.  There were a couple cliche scenes noting that Sal was gender-fluid, and some prejudice.  But it was marginal and flattened early.  Despite the sparse world-building and Sal’s own comments suggesting that their gender role or lack thereof was not common.  There’s a sop made to the idea that perhaps Sal’s old country was a bit more gender-balanced because of their naming conventions.  But on the whole there’s only gender politics when it could score the author cheap points with the reader, and it is not well-done.  If you click on the Perpetual Pages review, there’s something of an own voices criticism of the gender rep in the book, which was mirrored by my own primarily cis-het opinion, and which also squares with my experience of the way gender-fluidity is treated in our world.

And the presentation of gender fluidity in the book was very odd.  “I dress how I feel” but it only really works if we bring in all our context for gender-presentation from our world.  There was no real look or even hint of if and how gender presentation in Sal’s world compares with ours.

So already we’ve lost one of the main selling points for the book, which appears to be just that: a selling point and not a particularly good-faith attempt to create representation in the YA MC community.  I’m not saying the author didn’t have good intentions.  But the outcome was less than stellar.

Sal’s character in general suffers from skin-deep syndrome.  Though there are references to her minority heritage, they are almost entirely related to the politics between the nations’ nobility.  And the regular citizens never comment at all on issues of race or class or ethnicity.  It could be argued this is a good thing.  But in the book, it just seemed like lack of characterization and world-building.  We hear a lot about political conflict, but it’s all rare air plots between royals.  The citizen on the ground never really gets a view of it, and if weren’t for Sal’s convenient placement at the side of the great powers, you might never have noticed.  The world-building manages to be both info-dumpy and distressingly minimalist.  We don’t learn a lot about the history or culture of Sal’s world, but when it comes up, it drops like the dreaded wall of text in an internet forum argument.  We get only the highest-level hints of the world.  And it’s boring.

Which leads us to the plot.  Which is nothing you haven’t seen before and exactly what it says on the tin.  It’s very predictable, and the universe seems to be conspiring to makes Sal’s life as easy as possible.  There are lots of, “I know it was you, but I can’t prove it in court” moments, and a lot of the tension was from convenient misunderstandings.  We get a huge training montage, but it manages to be simultaneously tedious and shallow.  Also, everyone is waaaaaaaay too okay with this whole, murder each other to death and then we give the last one standing a high-paid government job shtick.  There were so many ways to keep the same level of tension while not making every single character except the Designated Love Interest both unlikable and reprehensible.  And, just imagine Gandolf or Ben Kenobi overseeing this murder-fest, and that’s how the Left Hand characters are played.  Half-mentor, half executioner.  You could certainly be a government assassin and a nice person or even admirable person.  But nobody in this book is, except Sal by authorial fiat.

And speaking of the designated love interest!  The idea seems to be that she is bisexual or pansexual, although she mostly just comes across as Sal-sexual.  She’s way too perfect.  Their meet-cute is far too coincidental.  And her role i the climax is honestly one of the most teeth-grinding tension through stupidity moves I’ve ever seen.  Why can no fantasy protag ever do the obvious safe thing?  Because guess what!  Doing the dumb thing has never, and will never, save the stain on your soul.  Make the damn tough choice and live with it.  You got here through the deaths of dozens of people.  But this last deal is just conveniently too emotionally tough for you?  No.  Despite all the ways this book could have taken to save itself, the climax put fifty-two nails in the coffin on it being either believable or enjoyable.  Literally the only reason I can think of to be curious about the sequel is that this book cliff-hangers you soooooo hard.  And not even a “we’ve solved the immediate problem, and can take a break” cliffhanger.  It’s a fuck-you-too-bad-its-forever-til-the-next-book cliffhanger ending that provides zero resolution.  Bad author!  Bad!

(I do disagree with many, many reviews about the other candidates being to concealed by their masks and numbers.  I found them all identifiable, and even if they had names, the ones who were obviously just bit parts to show candidates dying were never going to be more than their role as redshirts, anyway.)

So yeah, was not a fan of this book.  Any book decent enough to get through and agent and an editorial acquisitions board basically ends up with a 50/100 by default.  If that tells you anything about what it means that I could only scrounge up five further points for this book.  It disappointed me on every single one of the promises in the blurb.

And it’s got a GR rating to support my feelings on this.  But enough people gave it good ratings to stay about 2 stars, so there’s an off chance that some readers may really enjoy it.  I wish them well.

Conclusion: 55 /100 (Readable but boring and predictable)
Premise: 6 /10 (Standard fare)
Plot: 5 /10 (Lots of idiot ball)
Setting: 5 /10 (Very under-developed)
Main Character: 6 /10 (Nice idea, bad execution)
World-building 5 /10 (Lots of info-dumps, no depth)
Genderfluid Rep 5/10 (Tolerable)
Supporting Characters: 6 /10 (Cliche but competent)
Writing: 7 /10 (Decent prose)
Themes: 6 /10 (Interesting, but poorly-handled)
Resolution: 4 /10 (Gross/lame)

Buy Or Borrow: Borrow unless you really love assassin books in YA

Similar Books:
Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
PerpetualPages
The Illustrated Page
GeeklyInc
The YA Kitten
YA Books Central
Kissin Blue Karen
A Backwards Story

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
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Counter Review: Young Adult: Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard

Beautiful Broken Things cover

I was brave
She was reckless
We were trouble

Best friends Caddy and Rosie are inseparable. Their differences have brought them closer, but as she turns sixteen Caddy begins to wish she could be a bit more like Rosie – confident, funny and interesting. Then Suzanne comes into their lives: beautiful, damaged, exciting and mysterious, and things get a whole lot more complicated. As Suzanne’s past is revealed and her present begins to unravel, Caddy begins to see how much fun a little trouble can be. But the course of both friendship and recovery is rougher than either girl realizes, and Caddy is about to learn that downward spirals have a momentum of their own.

Title: Beautiful Broken Things(Fragile Like Us[US])
Author: Sara Barnard
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Contemporary
Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books (UK) / Simon Pulse
Publication Date: February 25th 2016 / July 18th 2017
Format: Ebook
Length: 322 pages
ISBN-10: 150980353X
ISBN-13: 9781509803538

Series or Standalone: Standalone

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: MPDG?, friendship, female friendship, mental illness
POV: First person
Tense: Past tense

Why I Read It: I’ve been struggling to find good YA to read, so I just looked at the Goodreads lists for all YA published in 2016/2017 and got a few that looked interest based on synopsis and reviews.  This was one of them.  I tend to think negative reviews give me more info about whether I’ll like a book than positive ones, and the negative reviews here made this seem interesting.  Plus I have a hard time finding YA to read set outside the US, so…  yeah.

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

Review Notes:  Spoiler warnings?  I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, but there might be a few minor things from the beginning of the book.  No major spoilers, though.

Review:  I’ve called this a “counter-review” for a few reasons.  Not because I think people shouldn’t be allowed differing opinions, but because I think one side of the argument hasn’t been heard as loudly as it deserves.  And because reviews are personal opinion, so what works for one reader might not work for another.

One of the prime criticisms of the book is that the main character is unlikeable.  Selfish, self-centered, jealous, and privileged.  Now, it seems to be that last adjective that drives so many people crazy about our MC Caddy.  After all, she complains she’s never had anything bad happen to her.  And nothing exciting or a combination thereof, either.  And to this, I say, have y’all met a teenager before?  We’re y’all ever teenagers?  ‘Cause this ain’t some odd, gross quirk.  All teenagers, and most people really, are selfish, and self-centered, and get jealous.  And so so many teens think they are dull and boring.

But, you say, why does she envy the tragedies of her friends and family?  Again, have y’all met teenagers?  Have you read YA with its dark and brooding and tragic love interests?  Tragedy is gossip, it is mystery, it can be all the things that teenagers find interesting in others.  Caddy is damn right the bad things that happened to her friend and her sister make them more interesting.  Now, it might be privileged for her to wish something had happened to her instead; her friend and her sister might wish they’d lived a normal and boring life.  But the grass is always greener on the other side exactly because all sides suck.  Not equally, and not in the same way, but Caddy’s feelings and behavior are realistic.  Teens (and adults and kids) feel these things.  They are not rare and do not make Caddy a horrible person.  I’m not saying they aren’t flaws.

And the same goes for her complaints about her parents and her life with them.  Caddy is very lucky in many ways, but that doesn’t mean she’s not allowed to have her own problems that matter to her.

Now, Caddy takes these idle thoughts and puts them into practice.  She makes a mistake.  A big one.  But again, not uncommon.  She hurts someone with her petty jealousy.  But so have most people.

I liked that Barnard was willing to portray the characters realistically, even in their worst moments, because that’s what makes them interesting as characters.  I liked that the book almost entirely left out romance.  Romance and the pursuit of romance are going to be serious focuses for many teenagers.  But they aren’t all there is.  The fact that the books focuses on female friendship was one of the things that most recommended it to me.  And that Barnard was willing to show that friendship can be a complex relationship with good and bad intentions and good and bad outcomes is something you don’t see in a lot of YA.  Sure, you see frenemies and toxic, abusive friendships.  But to me, this wasn’t that.  It was toxic, but it was also earnest, and it wasn’t based on total lack of other choices for the characters becoming friends.

Caddy’s friendship with Suzanne was based on misunderstandings of who Suzanne really was, what friendship is supposed to achieve, and what the proper way to help someone is.  And those are issues that teenagers everywhere face every day.  The answers aren’t always easy to find.  Teenagers often don’t know them.  Adults don’t know them.

And comparing herself to her friends is also a reality of many teenagers, especially with social media allowing us to curate our lives and present a false front even to people who may feel close to us.  When you’re trying to figure out who you are, trying to figure out how you fit together with others, shorthand and labels are a convenient and tempting way to approach the issue.  The girl whose sister died.  The bipolar kid.  Those are simplistic, but humans are all about simplifying.  Something, even something tragic, is better than nothing.  That’s why you get cliques, though they’re over-played in the media.  That’s why people so jealously guard their obscure fandoms and interests from the mainstream.  I’m not saying that’s the right response or the best response, and neither is this book.  In fact, I’d argue the books exposes those reactions, Caddy’s reactions, as flawed approaches that one should try to avoid.

And, getting to the heart of what drives the plot, the book’s depiction of mental illness and how it scares you into hiding from people, even from friends and family, and how people try to pass the blame to the ill person was a major positive for me.  You think you understand people, but there’s a good chance that you don’t.  Just like Caddy misunderstood the impact of the bad things that happened to those around her, leaving her envious, she misunderstood the motivations for her two friends’ actions, leading her into making poor choices.

In one scene(this is not a major spoiler), she leaves her friend at a party alone with a guy to care for another friend.  There’s been a lot of pushback in reviews about this scene, but personally, I thought it was very well done.  Caddy thought she understood what her friend wanted, and because she didn’t, she made a mistake that damaged their friendship.  People make mistakes like this all the time.  It’s what’s used to cause tension in many romantic relationships or romantic pursuits, where one side thinks they know what the other wants, but they don’t.  Characters in YA novels get held to a very high standard for proper behavior.  Especially female characters.

And I think that’s valuable, both for creating good stories, and for any moral imperative folks might think YA books should support.  But sometimes, the standard is too high, and just like in real life, people pick and choose based on their subjective personal feelings whether to hold a character to account.  Have you as a reader or a person ever seen a guy criticized for leaving a friend alone at a party with a girl?  Maybe.  But it’s pretty uncommon in my experience.  And perhaps it shouldn’t be.

Neither Caddy nor the novel surrounding her are perfect.  But just as Caddy believes no one will be interested in her if her life is perfect and grief-less, neither is a novel where nothing bad happens and the character never makes any mistakes likely to be popular with readers.  We treat real-life human lives as narratives as much as we do fictional ones, and if there’s one thing Caddy gets perfectly right in this book, it’s understanding that, even if subconsciously, even if she doesn’t necessarily draw the best conclusions from that premise.

You can probably guess from the jacket copy and the reveiws, and the existence of a trade published novel, that Caddy gets her significant life event, and that it stems from her flawed way of inserting herself into the world.  Whether or not it makes her cool and interesting, or teaches her any valuable lessons is something you’ll have to find out from actually reading this book.

There’s nothing spectacularly original or thrilling about the individual pieces Sara Barnard has put together to build this book.  But the way she has put them together is something you don’t get to see too often in YA, even if the execution is lacking in a few places.  (Particularly, the way the supporting characters had drives of their own rather than being props for the MC to explore her world.)  And the ending–though it gave a bit at the end, blunting the force of the lesson for the MC–was exactly the sort of bittersweetness I enjoy from a good contempary YA.

Conclusion: 77/100 (A strong showing, though not without flaws)
Premise: 7/10 (Seen it before, but not this well-explored)
Plot: 7/10 (Nothing new, but supports some really interesting themes)
Setting: 8/10 (Well-described)
Main Character: 8/10 (Can be a tad annoying, but interesting complex)
Friendship: 8/10 (Shows a contemp novel can stand without a romance b-plot)
Mental Illness: 8/10 (Well-explored)
Supporting Characters: 8/10 (Well-portrayed, clearly had their own agendas)
Writing: 7/10 (Competent)
Themes: 8/10 (Well-developed)
Resolution: 8/10 (Not perfect, but striking)

Buy Or Borrow:  If you’re worried that Caddy isn’t the kind of flawed character that really interests you, you should probably borrow a copy of Beautiful Broken Things;  But if you’re curious to find out why exactly I differ so strongly from the many critical reviews of the book and its main character, I think it’s worth your money to purchase a copy.

Similar Books:

N/A

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
The Guardian –  Childrens’ Books
The Bibliomaniac
Queen of Contemporary
Happy Indulgence Books
Debbish.com
The Books Are Everywhere

Buy Links:
Amazon (US)
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
nook