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

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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:
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Book Review: Science Fiction: Lightless by C.A. Higgins

lightless cover

The deeply moving human drama of Gravity meets the nail-biting suspense of Alien in this riveting science fiction debut. With bold speculation informed by a degree in astrophysics, C. A. Higgins spins an unforgettable “locked spaceship” mystery guaranteed to catapult readers beyond their expectations—and into brilliantly thrilling new territory.

Serving aboard the Ananke, an experimental military spacecraft launched by the ruthless organization that rules Earth and its solar system, computer scientist Althea has established an intense emotional bond—not with any of her crewmates, but with the ship’s electronic systems, which speak more deeply to her analytical mind than human feelings do. But when a pair of fugitive terrorists gain access to the Ananke, Althea must draw upon her heart and soul for the strength to defend her beloved ship.

While one of the saboteurs remains at large somewhere on board, his captured partner—the enigmatic Ivan—may prove to be more dangerous. The perversely fascinating criminal whose silver tongue is his most effective weapon has long evaded the authorities’ most relentless surveillance—and kept the truth about his methods and motives well hidden.

As the ship’s systems begin to malfunction and the claustrophobic atmosphere is increasingly poisoned by distrust and suspicion, it falls to Althea to penetrate the prisoner’s layers of intrigue and deception before all is lost. But when the true nature of Ivan’s mission is exposed, it will change Althea forever—if it doesn’t kill her first.

Title: Lightless
Author: C.A. Higgins
Category: Adult Fiction
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Del Rey Spectra
Publication Date: September 29, 2015
Format: eARC from NetGalley
Length: 239 pages
ISBN-10: 0553394428
ISBN-13: 9780553394429

Series or Standalone: Lightless #1

Literary Awards: N/A

Themes: Machine Intelligence, Dystopia, Autocracy, Betrayal, Rebellion
POV: 3rd Person Limited
Tense: Past

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

Where I Got It:  Stumbled across it on NetGalley, seemed interesting.

Review:  While the book was readable and interesting with nothing else on my plate, it failed to make a strong showing in three major areas:

1. Characters:

The characters were all fairly standard science fiction archetypes in my mind–the tech nerd in love with her machine; the autocratic, sociopathic interrogator; the loyal captain lacking in agency; the wacky computer;  the wily rogue.  I didn’t particularly care for any of these characters, and while I liked the conflict between their internal motivations on paper, the characters don’t quite seem to make them 3d.  They didn’t stand out from their archetypes, or from the page.

2. Science:

The scientific principles involved, especially the use of entropy, had the potential to be very interesting.  However, the execution was lacking.  What could have been neat and exciting came across as either dull or science babble, and wasn’t as deeply exploded as I would have liked.

3. Plot:

A very standard plot, borrowing a bit from police procedurals.  There’s just not a lot of excitement here, and the plot twists are not foreshadowed in such as way as to give the reader any hope of predicting them.  We were not deep enough into any individual’s perspective to justify these sudden twists, and the author could easily have given the reader more clues without making the characters look dumb.

 

Overall, I found the book readable, but I’m glad I got an ARC instead of buying the book.  It’s not something I’d keep in my collection long-term, and while it’s quite good enough to be published, it’s nothing new or amazing.

 

Conclusion: 62/100 (Competent but uninspiring)
Premise: 6/10 (Seen it before, and better, but reasonably-handled and a unique spin)
Plot: 7/10 (Few plotholes, but been done many times before)
Setting: 6/10 (Poorly-explored, but could have been interesting with more elaboration)
Main Character: 6/10 (All characters are standard SFF cliches)
World-building: 7/10 (Interesting, though not thoroughly explored)
Antagonist: 7/10 (Well-constructed, don’t see nearly enough of them)
Supporting Characters: 6/10 (All characters are standard SFF cliches)
Writing: 7/10 (Well-written in some places, poorly in others)
Themes: 5/10 (Interesting in some cases, but poorly explored and cliche)
Resolution: 5/10 (Un-creative and poorly-constructed)

Buy Or Borrow: Definitely get this one from the library if it’s your kind of story.

Similar Books:

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
New York Times
Tech Times
Dark Futures
RT Book Reviews
YA Books Central

Buy Links:
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Kindle US
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Book Review: Young Adult: The Harvest by Chuck Wendig

The Harvest cover

It’s been a year since the Saranyu flotilla fell from the sky, and life in the Heartland has changed. Gone are the Obligations and the Harvest Home festivals. In their place is a spate of dead towns, the former inhabitants forced into mechanical bodies to serve the Empyrean—and crush the Heartland.

When Cael awakens from a Blightborn sleep, miles away from the world he remembers, he sets out across the Heartland to gather his friends for one last mission. As the mechanicals, a war flotilla, and a pack of feral Empyrean girls begin to close in on the Heartland, there isn’t much time to make their next move. But if they can uncover a secret weapon in time, Cael and his friends might just find themselves with the power to save the world—or destroy it—resting in their hands.

Title: The Harvest
Author: Chuck Wendig
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Dystopian/Near-future SF
Publisher: Skyscape
Publication Date: July 14, 2015
Format: DRC
Length: 437 pages
ISBN-10: 1477830022
ISBN-13: 9781477830024

Series or Standalone: The Heartland Trilogy #3

Literary Awards: N/A

Themes: Power Corrupts, Evil for Evil, Family
POV: Third Person, Multiple POVs
Tense: Present

Reviewer: Nick Morgan

Where I Got It: A digital ARC from NetGalley.  Since I reviewed the second book, I figured I might as well see what’s changed.

Review:

(The first thing I want to say is, normally I leave cover commentary to Marisa, but the whole set of covers for this series were fantastic.  The whole design, even.  I really enjoyed the visual look of the series.)

There were a lot of things to love about this book.  The supporting cast is complex and well-drawn.  They have goals beyond helping the protag do whatever he’s doing.  The villain was lovely.  Sort of a secret, but worked brilliantly with the themes of the book without sacrificing narrative consistency.  You can totally believe all the characters’ motivations while simultaneously seeing the trainwreck they are leading up to.  Cael’s opponent and allies all have their own goals, and are often blind to each other’s understanding of the world.  The Empyrean are more than just villains or dupes.  They may not care much about the Heartlanders, but they care a lot about each other.  It’s rare to see characters reflect the way that everyone is the hero of their own story and has their own narrative through which they view the world.

You learn a great deal about the world of the story that was always in the background but unknown to the readers and characters.  As usual, Wendig’s world-building is beautiful.  Not only is it rich without info-dumping, but it really draws you into the setting.  In so many ways, it seems like it could be real.  Many fantasy and science fiction authors don’t and will probably never have the ability to create a world that seems like it exists beyond the confines of the story.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a MacGuffin in the book.  But it’s a beautiful one.  It does so much more than just provide a quest object for Cael and his enemies to fight over. It reveals things about many of the supporting characters, the way the world of the Heartland is built and functions, and to what lengths the main characters are willing to go to achieve their goals.

The book also has another SFF staple: the Epilogue.  Personally, I felt this one was a bit more of an easy hook to leave space for writing other stories set in Wendig’s world.  I don’t think it was necessary for the story told in this novel.

The themes of the novel, and the series, are both clear but not ham-fisted.  The events of the story just naturally seem to support them.  The structure of the novel just fits these things in so well.

But, as a book, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have.  I was constantly putting the book down at the slightest opportunity.  And it was often hard to make myself pick it back up.  I admire Wendig’s skills as a writer in a lot of areas.  But novel pacing is not very high among them.  There was far too much down-time, often unnecessary.  Then all the action would be packed into tiny little bits of the book.  Perhaps that lack of focus was the thing that allowed Wendig to do all the things I loved in this book.  But as strictly a reader, it made it hard to keep reading.

I’m just waiting for Wendig to take all the things he does so well and tie them in with a well-paced story that keeps me reading.  From a writer’s standpoint, this book was incredibly interesting as something to analyze for craft, but as a novel, it was eminently put-down-able.  That may seem odd given the score I gave it.  But I know I have a bit of an odd view on what makes a good book, and I think many readers will have an easier time keeping their eyes on the page than I.

Conclusion: 80/100 (Lovely in its parts, quite flawed as a whole)
Premise: 9/10 (As nifty as it was in the first book)
Plot: 7/10 (Some cool twists, but nothing brilliant)
Setting: 10/10 (As usual, Wendig delivers)
Main Character: 6/10 (Kinda dull, also a douche)
The Villain: 8/10 (Worked brilliantly with the theme)
The Weapon: 8/10 (Loved it)
Supporting Characters: 8/10 (Well-drawn and interesting)
Writing: 8/10 (Well above competent)
Themes: 9/10 (Favorites well-executed)
Resolution: 7/10 (Cool, but coulda been better)

Buy Or Borrow:  If you liked the rest of the series, you’ll probably love this.  If not, it might be better to borrow from a friend.

About the Author:

Chuck Wendig is a novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. He’s the author of BLACKBIRDS, DOUBLE DEAD and DINOCALYPSE NOW, and is co-writer of the short film PANDEMIC, the feature film HiM, and the Emmy-nominated digital narrative COLLAPSUS. He lives in Pennsylvania with wife, taco terrier, and tiny human.

Similar Books:

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Michael Patrick Hicks – Author Website
Article 94
Froggy Chemist
Dantastic Book Reviews

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Book Review: Young Adult: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Red Queen cover

The poverty stricken Reds are commoners, living under the rule of the Silvers, elite warriors with god-like powers.

To Mare Barrow, a 17-year-old Red girl from The Stilts, it looks like nothing will ever change.

Mare finds herself working in the Silver Palace, at the centre of
those she hates the most. She quickly discovers that, despite her red blood, she possesses a deadly power of her own. One that threatens to destroy Silver control.

But power is a dangerous game. And in this world divided by blood, who will win?

Title: Red Queen
Author: Victoria Aveyard
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Dystopian, Science Fantasy
Publisher: HarperTeen
Publication Date: February 10, 2015
Format: ARC
Length: pages
ISBN-10: 0062310631
ISBN-13: 9780062310637

Series or Standalone: Red Queen #1

Literary Awards: N/A

Themes: Loyalty, Betrayal, Class Warfare
POV: First Person, Singular POV
Tense: Present Tense

Reviewer: Marisa Greene

How I Found It: Happened across an ARC by way of a friend.

Cover Notes: Normally I prefer a bit more of a visual, but this cover was minimalist and surprisingly effective.  I like to think the Red blood on the Silver crown has a certain thematic resonance.  Plus the font is not horribly gimmicky, and the background color is soothing.

Soundtrack:  Hard to decide between Baroque music or more martial tunes for this one.  Or some angsty emo pop.  Because, damn there’s some whining in this book.  I like to think I was a bit more mature as a teenager–probably not.

Review:

I’ve seen a lot of comparisons in other reviews to either Red Rising by Pierce Brown.  There are some shocking similarities.  You can find plenty of examples on Goodreads.  It’s almost the female version, really.  The marketing hype played it up as The Selection by Kiera Cass meets Graceling by Kristen Cashore.  I fail to see any Graceling here, but the first few chapters are almost a novelette length version of “Selection”.

Let’s talk about that, for a bit.  It was boring.  A huge info-dump to display various Silver powers and introduce the Silver aristocrats who played a major part in the cast of the story.  Perhaps if Aveyard had gone into a bit more detail it could have been interesting.  As-is, it felt rushed, and the transition was poor.  I really liked the first couple chapters.  The Roman Empire with electricity thing was a bit heavy-handed.  The book starts out with literal bread and circuses in the form of a gladiatorial match.  Aveyard shoved quite a bit of info-dumping into that, too.  I understand her desire for a quick hook, in the form of threat of conscription for the main characters.  But she pushed too hard, and the set-up of the novel suffered for it.  It also relied on too many cliches.  I would have loved for Mare to steal her way into transport with the Scarlet Guard.  See how things go from there.  But of course, we had to go the sudden awakening of secret powers route.

Now for the steamy bits!  Or rather, the lack thereof.  There’s the requisite love triangle.  Or a square, in this case.  We have the childhood friend, in the form of Kilorn.  And then we have the two Princes of the Realm.  Because what’s a female MC without attracting every eligible bachelor for kingdoms around?  Honestly, I have no idea what the Princes see in Mare, whose a work-a-day Mary Sue character at best, and the speshulist of snowflakes.  I don’t think it’s a spoiler to admit that she naturally has a power no-one else does, having done nothing to earn it, and makes zero use of her pre-awakening skills once she learns to control that power.  There’s nothing but that undeserved power to distinguish her from every other angsty, helpless YA heroine.  I loved Mare the pickpocket, cliche or not, but Mareen the lightning-flinger has little to recommend her.

I’d also like to talk about the portrayal of women in the novel.  They’re all mean and conniving, except for out heroine who is selfish and whiny.  We even have a bona fide Evil Stepmother(TM), and a jealous rival for the heroines main princely love interest.  Some of the Goodreads reviews go into a lot more detail here, with quotes, even.  But practically every silver woman hates Mare on sight, despite plenty of male Silvers who like her, and more nuanced reactions from those who don’t.  Even to the point of being ridiculous.  Cal her no apparent reason to care for the MC, and his throwaway kindness at the beginning could have managed perfectly fine as just that, a throwaway that gets the heroine’s story going.  There are even the standard mean girls.  I would have liked more depth to most of the characters in the novel.

Finally, I need to talk about the conclusion.  No spoilers, but it was horribly predictable.  There’s a huge plothole involving the Queen’s powers.  She’s so powerful, and yet she seemed almost incompetent given how easily a couple of teenagers outwitted her.  So the end of the book did not come as a huge shock to me.  Perhaps the reader is supposed to be a bit sharper than Mare, but the difference between what the readr could figure out and what Mare could was way too large.

I thought I was prepared for this book when I saw the comp titles.  Not really my favorite area, though I’ve enjoyed other dystopians well enough.  But the massive hype left me quite disappointed when I flipped the last page of this book.  Though to be fair, I’m not quite the target audience.

Conclusion: 60/100 (I enjoyed it a bit, but it could have been a lot better)
Premise: 5/10 (Nothing new or exciting here)
Plot: 5/10 (Too many characters passing around the idiot ball)
Setting: 7/10 (Could have been better developed)
Main Character: 4/10 (Selfish and whiny)
Love Interest(s): 5/10 (Lots of boys, little variety)
Powers: 8/10 (Standard, but with great presentation)
Supporting Characters: 7/10 (Far better than the main characters, really.  Loved Julien and the King)
Writing: 6/10 (The mechanical aspect was quite good.  The meaning, rather pedestrian)
Themes: 6/10 (Some of my favorite themes, but poorly handled)
Resolution: 7/10 (Would have been cool if it wasn’t so obvious)

Buy Or Borrow: Borrow, unless this is your genre.

Similar Books:

The Hunger Games bu Suzanne Collins

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

The Selection by Kiera Cass

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Publishers Weekly
Kirkus Reviews
Muggle Net
USA Today
The Guardian
The Book Smugglers

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

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

Book Review: Fantasy: The Dark Defiles by Richard K. Morgan

thedarkdefilescover

Ringil Eskiath, a reluctant hero viewed as a corrupt degenerate by the very people who demand his help, has traveled far in search of the Illwrack Changeling, a deathless human sorcerer-warrior raised by the bloodthirsty Aldrain, former rulers of the world. Separated from his companions—Egar the Dragonbane and Archeth—Ringil risks his soul to master a deadly magic that alone can challenge the might of the Changeling. While Archeth and the Dragonbane embark on a trail of blood and tears that ends up exposing long-buried secrets, Ringil finds himself tested as never before, with his life and all existence hanging in the balance.

Title: The Dark Defiles
Author: Richard K. Morgan
Category: Adult Fiction
Genre: Science Fantasy
Publisher: Del Ray Spectra
Publication Date: October 7, 2014
Format: Netgalley DRC
Length: 692 pages
ISBN-10: 0575077948
ISBN-13: 9780345493101

Series or Standalone: A Land Fit for Heroes #3

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: The Creation of a Myth, What is a Hero?
POV: Third Person, Multiple POVs
Tense: Past

Reviewer: Atsiko

Why I Read It: I’d heard a lot about Richard K. Morgan’s foray into the fantasy genre, how ground-breaking it was. There was a lot of hype, and I’d never read any of his
science fiction books before. Sounded over-hyped, so I read other things instead. Then Nick managed to score an ARC of the third book in the series. I figured I might as well give it a shot, and it was outside my normal reading, so why not?

Review:

There’s a lot of talk about Richard Morgan breaking new ground in the fantasy genre with this series. First, to get things straight, this series is the bastard child of sword and sorcery and science fantasy, with the Grimdark aesthetic so popular in fantasy right now being the icing on the cake. In that sense, it’s not even part of the high or epic fantasy genres. Now that we have that out of the way, the book on its actual merits.

1. World-building: This is one of the major points of fantasy or speculative fiction in general. Morgan shows himself to be a very competent world-builder in this book. Although he makes use of a lot of subverted cliches, or even cliches played straight, there aren’t any major wholes in the world-building. What he does best is history and the other-world part of the setting. Quite interesting, lots of cool takes on older fantasy staples. The main world of the story, though, doesn’t fare so well. There’s an Empire, a “League of Free Cities”, and some barbarians in the form of “steppe nomads”, but with the steppe replaced by the Great Plains of middle America. Nothing new or even particularly interesting here. Although, he has improved a great deal on the previous novels.

2. Characters: The characters have much improved in this book. They are more developed, and make more interesting decisions. Ringil in particular develops his anti-hero personality, much more. Especially vis-a-vis his family. And yet without any of the over-indulgence that was present in the last book. Further, he comes more into his powers, and Morgan shows more of the process.

Archeth, too gets a boost in ability, and her relationship to the absent Kiriath and the Helmsmen they left behind is greatly expanded upon.

Egar Dragonbane also receives much more development. A good thing considering he was the weakest character in the previous two books.

3. Story: The threads of the story are much better balanced than in the preivious two books. A great deal of info-dumping occurs, as Morgan attempts to set up for the climax and resolution of the story. A climax that could have been very interesting if handled better, but here fell rather flat and felt rushed. There were several interesting scenes, and the book recovers incredibly well from the second-book-slump of The Cold Commands. In fact, the middle two-thirds of the story is perhaps the best part of the entire trilogy.

In the end, as much as it does to counteract the weaknesses of the rest of the trilogy, it can’t quite manage to bring the trilogy from your average mid-list fantasy series to the heights promised by the initial hype leading up to the release of The Steel Remains.

Conclusion: 69/100 (Readable but not the brilliance it’s made out to be)
Premise: 6/10 (Meant to be ground-breaking, isn’t)
Plot: 8/10 (Coherent and interesting)
Setting: 6/10 (Fairly standard fantasy cliches)
Main Character(s): 8/10 (Standard tropes, well executed)
World-building 8/10 (Some very interesting points but not brilliant)
Magic system 7/10 (Fairly standard)
Supporting Characters: 4/10 (Very cliche)
Writing: 4/5 (More than competent, not brilliant)
Voice: 5/5 (Very strong voice, easy to distinguish between characters)
Themes: 7/10 (Good, poorly expressed)
Resolution: 6/10 (Predictable and boring)

Buy Or Borrow: Worth buying if this review intrigues you.

Similar Books:
The Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman
The Corean Chronicles by L. E. Modesitt
The Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock
The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
_
_
_
_
_

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

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

Book Review: Young Adult: Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Afterworlds Cover

Darcy Patel has put college and everything else on hold to publish her teen novel, Afterworlds. Arriving in New York with no apartment or friends she wonders whether she’s made the right decision until she falls in with a crowd of other seasoned and fledgling writers who take her under their wings…

Told in alternating chapters is Darcy’s novel, a suspenseful thriller about Lizzie, a teen who slips into the ‘Afterworld’ to survive a terrorist attack. But the Afterworld is a place between the living and the dead and as Lizzie drifts between our world and that of the Afterworld, she discovers that many unsolved – and terrifying – stories need to be reconciled. And when a new threat resurfaces, Lizzie learns her special gifts may not be enough to protect those she loves and cares about most.

Title: Afterworlds
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Category: Young Adult/New Adult
Genre: Literary Fiction/Paranormal
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication Date: September 23, 2014
Format: Paperback ARC
Length: 599 pages
ISBN-10: 1481422340
ISBN-13: 9781481422345

Series or Standalone: Standalone

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: GLBTQ
POV: Alternating 3rd and 1st person
Tense: Past

Reviewer(s): Atsiko and Marisa

Where I Got It: Anyone who’s been following this blog for awhile may be wondering what I’m doing reviewing a Young Adult title. That’s supposed to be Nick and Marisa’s job. There happen to be some extenuating circumstances for this one. First, the only version of this book available on NetGalley is the UK edition from Simon and Schuster UK Children’s. I’m a huge Westerfeld fan, so I was very disappointed when Nick told me that. But then, conveniently, another friend of mine happened to stumble across a cache of ARCs for 2013-2015, and this was one of them. I asked Nick and Marisa if I could review this, and they said yes. I am a huge Westerfeld fan, so this made my year.

Review:

Atsiko

Another major reason I’m reviewing this book is that technically speaking, we agreed it’s a New Adult book. No offense to Westerfeld and his marketing campaign. Plenty of gap year books exist in YA. Plenty of teenagers hang out with older folks. And it does have a first love. However, the plot and themes of one of the two interlocking stories felt strongly NA to us. Again, that would still be in Marisa’s ballpark normally, especially as the other half is somewhat of a paranormal romance. But for scheduling reasons and because it there’s a strong fantasy element to the main character’s novel, so much so that it really blurs the line between PR and Urban Fantasy. I promise all this is actually relevant to my review.

How? Because this book was something of a disappointment to me. And also to Marisa. You may have noticed we’re sharing the “Reviewer” spot here. This will be a joint review, something we figured we might as well try, since it’s a group blog anyway.

Marisa

Hey, guys. Welcome to the first joint review on Notes from the Dark! As you may know, I’ve been looking for some NA books that aren’t pure romance. I don’t mind romance sometimes, but as a college student and thus a New Adult, I think the category has so much more to offer than just a hot steamy romance. I had high hopes for this book. As Atsiko mentioned, we agreed it had many elements of NA in our opinion. And despite having romance as a major element in both stories lines, that wasn’t the only part of part of it. I wouldn’t call it a true romance novel. To me, it’s literary fiction, one of my other loves in literature. I found a lot to like in this book, but there was a lot I think could have been better. Since Atsiko has previously blogged about cultural appropriation in YA fantasy and literature in general, I’m going to let him handle the story-within-a-story part, while I deal with Darcy’s part of the book. Then at the end, we’ll both share our conclusions together.

Atsiko

Despite being billed a single novel, this book is really two books in one. There’s not a great deal of interaction between the two story-lines. I’m rather disappointed, since there could have been quite a bit. I kind of wish we had been treated to Lizzie’s story in draft(s) form, rather than as a final copy, since it removes some of the suspense in Darcy’s story, and takes out some really cool narrative and thematic possibilities. If you separated the two stories, there wouldn’t be many clues to show you had done so. For something as much of a trope as a writer writing about a writer, I was hoping for something more from a writer of Westerfeld’s caliber.

Lizzie’s story, about a girl who survives a terrorist attack by fleeing to the afterlife and becoming something of a reaper/psychopomp(guide to the afterlife), is actually a fairly decent paranormal romance/urban fantasy on its own. It’s got a fun premise, contains some lovely and uncommon (in PR and much UF) horror elements, and is fairly dark in some ways. I would have loved to read that book, written as a standalone and self-contained novel by Westerfeld. I won’t spoil it, but the villain was cool, the love interest more original than your average vampire, and the paranormal aspects an old trope with a new twist.

I wouldn’t read Lizzie’s half as a true paranormal romance. Romance readers will understand that warning once they finish the book. But it had some decent tension even if it wasn’t as “swoon-worthy” as something by Stephanie Perkins.

Marisa

I really loved Darcy’s part of this story. Aside from our concerns about target audience appropriateness, I thought it was a nice light YA/NA romance. There were some interesting issues with Darcy’s relationship. Some people might find certain elements uncomfortable. Obviously some people don’t like same-sex or interracial relationships. There are some other factors I won’t spoil. I know other reviewers have felt Darcy was a bit clingy, but I don’t think it was gratuitous. There was decent reasoning behind her behavior, and it never descended into an unhealthy relationship. Especially for a first love kind of story, it felt pretty realistic. Darcy’s romance isn’t sweep you off your feet, either. It was more of a sweet, awkward style of love. I really liked it. When I do read romance, I tend not to prefer the insta-love type, or the aggressive partner type. If you do, just be warned. I think there’s still plenty to enjoy, even if it takes a more gen/lit fic approach to romance than a true romance novel.

I think Darcy was a good every-girl character, without being totally bland. She definitely reminds me of me and my friends at that age (four years ago), and how we approached our writing, although there’s some fun wish-fulfillment in that she actually has a publishing contract.

Atsiko

Stepping on Marisa’s toes a bit–with permission!–one of the themes of the book is literary inclusiveness and cultural appropriation. Several of Darcy’s writer friends make use of mythos outside their own ethnic heritages, including native Australian mythology. Darcy herself writes within her own Indian heritage, using a character from Vedic mythology. In one scene she asks her family about whether they feel she has done justice to the mythology or stepped on it. There were some insightful and pragmatic answers. Not everyone may agree with them. Personally, there were parts I liked, and parts I didn’t, but rather than spoil those scenes, I think readers should make up their own minds.

There’s also the fact that Westerfeld, a straight, white, cis male author wrote Darcy’s story itself, the story of a lesbian Indian girl. As someone who is not Indian either, I thought Westerfeld managed a respectful balance, getting his facts mostly straight and making some good points on the issue of cultural appropriation. I can’t give him a 100% pass, of course, since I’m sure he did more research and fact-checking than I could do for this review. But I’ve seen no complaints from readers about his handling of the issue, either. If there are problems, I’d love to hear about them. There were a few small connections between the the writing of Lizzie’s story and Darcy’s story, and I thought they were interesting twists. One of the medium twists in the novel involves an incident that both stories shared versions of, and I think Westerfeld made some cool comments about being a writer with it. But I still wish there had been more of an interplay.

Marisa

I happen to be a white cis straight girl, so while I try to keep up with the latest in diversity in literature and respecting other cultures, I can’t verify the accuracy of Westerfeld’s portrayal of Darcy. I can say that I found Lizzie quite realistic and relatable. Darcy seemed like a pretty reasonable character outside of my previous caveat. I liked her and felt I could relate to her.

Atsiko

There are elements of a send-up or satire of the life of a writer in this book. I wonder if most readers would catch these, since they revolve around in-jokes and self-deprecation on the part of Darcy and her writer friends. I think that sharing the writing life with YA readers might have been better accomplished if the book hadn’t split it’s focus so much. I’m sure others will disagree. A variety of tastes is what keeps the fiction market interesting.

Marisa

Much like Atsiko, (and Nick), I’m something of an aspiring writer. I’m an English major, and I read… a lot. So I really enjoyed Westerfeld’s scenes on the issues of writing. I don’t know what the average YA reader’s experience with writing and publishing is. Maybe they’ll totally get all the jokes. “Publishers Brunch”, for example. Revisions. Writer parties. I’m not a hundred percent sure I agree it’s satire of publishing, and with that in mind I did find what I felt were some annoying cliches. Again, that’s to the individual reader’s taste.

There is something we talked about among ourselves that I’m going to take the lead on. There are obviously drinks at these parties, since the majority of authors are of age. Both Atsiko and I were a little uncomfortable with the characters’ willingness to flout the law with regards to alcohol consumption. Casually handing a beer to a minor, no matter how you feel about drinking laws or the idea that teens drink anyway, why be so uptight? It bothers me. Other readers may disagree. I don’t believe YA writers have some sort of moral responsibility to their readers, or to support the law as written with no room for disagreement. But still.

Together

Overall, we both felt it was a decent book. Certainly no complaints that it got published. There were some issues we had, and to an extent they did detract from our enjoyment of the book. And it’s quite a long book. Our ARC was 599 pages, and the published version is listed as 608. That’s a lot for a YA novel. But we don’t regret reading it. We didn’t struggle to get through it. It didn’t blow us away, but we liked it. Perhaps that’s not a ringing endorsement. But no book is perfect. We’re still giving this book the equivalent of 3 and a half stars.

Marisa

Conclusion: 77/100 (A solid piece, but not fantastic)
Premise: 7/10 (Fun, but could have been done better)
Plot: 8/10 (No major issues for me)
Setting: 9/10 (Felt like I was there)
Main Character(s): 8/10 (Loved Darcy, Lizze made sense in context)
World-building 7/10 (Good, but could have been better)
Romance Plot(s): 8/10 (Fun but not very original)
Supporting Characters: 6/10 (Nothing great)
Writing: 8/10 (Well-written)
Themes: 8/10 (Thoroughly addressed)
Resolution: 8/10 (I like this kind of ending)

Atsiko

Conclusion: 70/100 (Needed more editing)
Premise: 6/10 (Writers writing about writers/writing is not my thing)
Plot: 7/10 (Like Lizzie’s, Darcy’s could have been better)
Setting: 8/10 (Well-depicted)
Main Character(s): 7/10 (Mostly liked ’em)
World-building: 7/10 (Not bad)
Romance Plot(s): 7/10 (Standard issue)
Supporting Characters: 5/10 (Needed more)
Writing: 8/10 (Good, not brilliant)
Themes: 8/10 (With 600 pages, could have been better examined)
Resolution: 7/10 (Didn’t hate it)

Buy Or Borrow: If you’re looking for NA without a primary romantic element, buy this. If you like litfic and stories about writers, buy it. Otherwise, it might be better to borrow.

Similar Books:
There aren’t any, but we wish there were.

Nick

An administrative note! Due to school issues, Marisa’s review of Love is the Drug will be slightly delayed. This review, being a joint review, was written well in advance. We apologize for this. It shouldn’t be a common occurrence.

Further, to avoid over-posting, my review of Dead Zone may also be a bit late. However, all late reviews will be out by Sunday, and then we will be back to our regular review schedule.

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Publishers Weekly
Kirkus Reviews
Good Books and Good Wine
Proud Book Nerd
Reading Lark
cuddlebuggery

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

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