Review: Shadow&Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Thursday, May 31, 2012
Title: Shadow&Bone
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Genre: fantasy, young-adult, awesome
Series: The Grisha #1
Pages: 369 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: expected June 2012
Source: from publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 5/5
Alina Starkov doesn’t expect much from life. Orphaned by the Border Wars, all she’s ever been able to rely on is her best friend and fellow refugee, Mal. And lately not even that seems certain. Drafted into the army of their war-torn homeland, they’ve been sent on a dangerous mission into the Fold, a swath of darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh.

When their convoy is attacked, all seems lost until Alina reveals a dormant power that not even she knew existed. She is torn from everything she knows and whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling. He believes that she is the answer the people have been waiting for: the Sun Summoner. Only her power can destroy the Fold.

Overwhelmed by luxury, envied as the Darkling’s favorite, Alina struggles to keep her wits about her without Mal by her side. But nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her mastery of her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha—and the secrets of her heart.

Impressive. Epic. Beautiful. Heartbreaking. Unique and utterly captivating. Are the superlatives too much this early? But it's not hyperbole: his is the first book in well over a year to keep me up past not midnight, not one am, not two am but until two freaking forty-five in the morning (when I have to work at 7) racing through pages and chapters just because there's clearly no way I can sleep not knowing how things end. Well done, Leigh Bardugo, very well done indeed. This review will be hard for me on two fronts: #1. because I get very closely attached to things (read: books) I love and it's hard to view them objectively and judge merits when inside they (the books) make me feel all fangirly inside #2.  trying to be as comprehensive as I can be without revealing all the extremely well-hidden behind authorial sleight-of-hand plot twists that Shadow&Bone has in store for its lucky readers and soon-to-be fandom.

Alina Starkov is the main character of this Russian-inspired fantasy tale, and she bears the burden quite well. I liked a lot about Alina from the beginning, but I liked most her self-awareness and self-deprecation. Like many YA heroines Alina isn't too self-confident or possessing of a great self-image, but unlike many of her written counterparts, Alina doesn't long to to stand out from the crowd, but rather to belong, to something or someone. In a book of fully complex and realized characters, Alina especially profits from the author's generous characterization.  I can appreciate a heroine who isn't afraid or slow to defend herself and Alina is one of those. Even her predetermined reveal as the superspecial and rare Grisha she is didn't spoil my liking for this strident and grumpy young woman.

Shadow&Bone is a whirlwind of fun, magic, and emotion. Though here, in the obviously Russian-tinged fantasy land of Ravka, what the Grisha and its leader the Darkling (swoon) is not magic, but the "Small Science" - what the author says is the "manipulation of matter at its most fundamental level." But basically what the Grisha and Alina can do is magic. After all, this is a fantasy and what's a fantasy without magic? Though this isn't your typical fantasy, because magic isn't the most powerful. But even the magic feels Russian-tinged with the importance of animals and bones, not artifacts, rituals or incantations. In fact, magic/The Grisha of this novel are on the wane in influences and things like guns and muskets, modern inventions (tsarpunk?) are present, lending a further feel of individuality to this already standout debut high fantasy.

I loved the thoroughly Russian feel that this carries throughout (though as the eagle-eyed Tatiana pointed out, Alina's last name should be properly Starkova, not Starkov.) From kvass, to the exile-bound land of Tsibeya (Siberia, maybe?) to the mysterious and ominious Apparat, a mysterious priest I got definite ~Rasputin~ vibes from, this is clearly a love letter to the largest country, written in the form of a fantasy novel. Even the religion, with its emphasis on saints (aka normal people risen high through their deeds like Alina) as opposed to an unknowable, terrible God/god/gods has a distinctly Russian feel to it. Added to those the tactile and gorgeous descriptions that could be for real Russian palaces and Kremlins, and this is a novel with atmosphere and place-as-character. 

But good worldbuilding doesn't just begin and end with just the setting and location for events - it's in details and thought, in what supports the world that exists on those places created. Shadow and Bone doesn't neglect this important fact: the monarchist Ravka and the world outside it each have differences and an often-bloody history amongst them. The other nations mentioned in passing like Fjerda (reminiscent or influenced by Scandinavian countries), Shu Han (a fictionalized China) and a mostly unexplained place called Kerch complete the picture and engage in centuries-long warfare with the Grisha-backed Ravka. Ravka boasts a thoroughly regimented social pyramid, much like tsarist Russia, as well as a segregated army for defense under control of the Darkling.

This novel gave me severe emotional whiplash - I should sue the author for still not being able to figure out who I like more after finishing. <SPOILER> I love me a charismatic anti-hero with depth and a quirking half-smile, even after all that murder business and betrayal/manipulation. See also: Garald Tarrant from C.S. Friedman's excellent Coldfire trilogy. I should've seen it coming - even their titles are intrinsically opposed to one another, The Sun Summoner and The Darkling. Blinded by my affinity for half-smiles and figures in all black, I guess.</SPOILER> Leigh Bardugo would casually, subtly string me out on a line and then send my expectations and dreams and ships crashing back to a totally unforeseen circumstance, frequently. My sympathies and hopes were ricocheting all over the place/characters - just as she so carefully planned.  When when I thought I'dfigured out the endgame, I turned out to get ten percent accuracy and 90% surprise. Can we talk about an author than can write convincing chemistry and credible couples and intensely hot makeout scenes (..."but all I could think about was his hands on my hips, his lips on my neck, the lean, hard feel of him in the dark." p.236 ARC)? Cause this author is obviously one such. I wasn't struck by the beauty of Bardugo's prose like I am with Laini Taylor or Zoe Marriott, but this is a gifted storyteller who often hits upon just the right phrase/sentence for the moment. SPOILER WARNING: I thought the last sentence in particular was both beautiful and approrpriate. Do not read on if you don't want some minor spoilers that other can be inferred from:

"They are orphans again, with no true home but each other and whatever life they can make together on the other side of the sea."

Perfect ending - the events of book one have been resolved but there's an open-endedness left for the beginning book two. </spoiler>

I also love the paperback cover, its different title and its different blurb:

 Sweeping, glorious fantasy romance about an orphan who must save her kingdom from the seductive and terrifying Darkling. The most compelling romance since Twilight.

The Shadow Fold, a swathe of impenetrable darkness, crawling with monsters that feast on human flesh, is slowly destroying the once-great nation of Ravka.

Alina, a pale, lonely orphan, discovers a unique power that thrusts her into the lavish world of the kingdom’s magical elite—the Grisha. Could she be the key to unravelling the dark fabric of the Shadow Fold and setting Ravka free?

The Darkling, a creature of seductive charm and terrifying power, leader of the Grisha. If Alina is to fulfil her destiny, she must discover how to unlock her gift and face up to her dangerous attraction to him.

But what of Mal, Alina’s childhood best friend? As Alina contemplates her dazzling new future, why can’t she ever quite forget him?

(The ARC cover is neat, too.)

and so is this one:

Blog Watch Wednesday

Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Reviews Posted:

Winter's Dreams by Glen Cook - 5/5 stars - fantasy, short story collection

The Vampire Shrink by Lynda Hilburn - 2.5/5 stars - supernatural fiction, romance novel-ish

Fun Stuff:

This is the COOLEST chameleon. The coolest. Without doubt.

Game of Thrones is getting an extended season 2 finale!

J.K. Rowling was the first person to become a billionaire by writing books.

For the comic book fans: googly-eyed X-Men is hilarious!

Awesome author/blogger Libby Heily has her short story "She Floats" for free on Smashwords!

Top 10 Fantasy Novels by Women. (N.K. Jemisin is so, so good and I've fangirled alll over the loveliness that is Lips Touch)

The Man Who Had HIV and Now Does Not. (bit old, but good.)

Jennifer Egan to publish next novel.... on Twitter?

A recent study found that tv decreases self-esteem in children....except for white males. Raise your hand if this surprises you.

TUMBLR OF THE WEEK: Movie Simpsons. Awesomely pairs the homages of movies from the show with the real scene.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, publishers of such authors as Mark Twain and J.R.R. Tolkien, has filed for bankruptcy.

The sequel for my favorite YA fantasy of last year (Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor), titled Days of Blood and Starlight, has a new cover!

Two Minute Review: The Vampire Shrink by Lynda Hilburn

Friday, May 25, 2012
Author: Lynda Hilburn
Genre: supernatural fiction
Series: Kismet Knight, PhD., Vampire Psychologist #1
Pages: 336 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: first October 2007, reissued April 2012
Source: publishers via edelweiss
Rating: 2.5/5

A sizzlingly sexy urban fantasy sure to feed the hunger of ravenous, vampire-loving fans.

Kismet Knight, a brainy Denver-based psychologist with a stalled career and a nonexistent love life, is about to have her world rocked. Not only does her newest patient, Midnight, long to become a vampire, but the teenager insists that a coven of the undead hangs out at a local goth club. The always-rational Kismet dismisses Midnight's claims as the delusions of an attention-starved girl--until bodies start turning up drained of blood and the hottest self-proclaimed vampire ever to walk the face of the earth enters her office.

What's real? What's not? As inexplicable events and romantic opportunities pile up, along with the corpses, Kismet finds herself in a whirlwind of passion, mystery, and danger. But this tough and funny heroine--who doesn't do damsel in distress--is about to turn the vampire-meets-girl convention on its head.

I'll take half the credit for my disappointment with The Vampire Shrink. There's just nothing new here, when it had the potential to be one of  a kind. Unofortuantely, I got the same old story, the same old characters. I'm sadly disappointed - this had the potential to be like Interview With A Vampire, but, you, know, actually good. With narrative introspection into the state of vampirism without being so blindingly boring as Anne Rice's faux-journalistic endeavor was. Some readers, especially those with a voracious and appreciative appetite for all things fanglike (maybe the Twi-Moms that Kismet takes potshots at?), will read this and love it. I just could never get into the story being told; I never found the 'mystery' a t the heart of everything to be compelling, or really even a focus of the narration. In the end, I think reception for this is much like Royal Street, which has garnered high reviews from others but I personally fought to finish. I was lured to this particular novel by the unique idea of a human psychologist to the undead - and evil, murder-y vampires at that.  So it's easy to imagine my dismay when that idea is further and further abandoned in favor of a much less interesting and much more predictable urban fantasy plotline about sexy head vampire, Devereux. 

I was never really engaged in this novel - the first hundred pages are particularly difficult and layered with clunky dialogue and endless exposition. Details that could easily have been shown or subtly woven into casual conversation are blatantly - and oddly - stated. Kismet is so wooden as a narrator that it's hard to get a feel for her as a person, much less view her as a conflicted and engaging woman. Her prolonged refusal to accept Midnight's claims got old, fast and hurt her credibility when she so abruptly changes perspective a few chapters on. For a rewrite of a previously published novel, The Vampire Shrink Pt. II: This Time With More Feeling (or should that be "The Vampire Shrink: The Redux"? Or "The Revamped Vampire Shrink!") could still stand to do with some authorial and editorial work. I so much wanted to like this, but so much of it strains feels familiar, or done before: the main character is too perfect (especially in the looks department. A mix of Megan Fox and Angelina Jolie? Really? I am supposed to relate to this character?) and the plot is far too predictable and typical for the PNR/UF genres. As for nearly everyone else present and accounted for in the cast here, they all feel familiar and uniformly indistinct.

Maybe the main reason (after the fist listless and exposition-heavy introduction) I couldn't get into The Vampire Shrink was that I didn't buy the romance. When it was quickly apparent that the mystery element would take a backseat to the graphic lovin' between (yes, I'm calling it) the insta-loving protagonist and Dev, I pretty much mentally checked out. Sure I read along to see what would happen and how the chips would fall, but this human/vampire romantic relationship felt rehashed and lacked individuality from any other novel in the genre. I am still giving this nearly 3-stars because there are some amusing moments and I did find the magic-aspect to be somewhat clever. However, neither are enough to interest me in book two of this really-long-titled series, Blood Therapy. I'm sure this is purely a case of "it's not you, it's me" type of situation, but this book and I did not see eye to eye, so Kismet Knight will continue her nocturnal adventures without my readership.

Blog Watch Wednesday

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta - young adult, contemporary - 5/5 stars

Dead Reckoning by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill - horror, western, steampunk - 4/5 stars  

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers - post-apocalyptic, young-adult - 3.75/5 stars

A Night Like This by Julia Quinn - historical fiction, romance novel-ish - 4/5 stars

Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne - post-apocalyptic, horror young-adult - 3/5 stars

Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison - historical fiction - 4/5 stars

The Queen's Vow by C.W. Gortner - historical fiction - 4.5/5 stars

Red Glove by Holly Black - young adult, supernatural fiction - 4/5 stars

Gilt by Katherine Longshore - young adult, historical fiction - 4/5 stars

Fun Stuff:

The first line of Albert Camus's immortal existenialist novel  L'etranger has been lost in incorrect translation. Til now.

 Have you ever wondered how the universe will end? Not life, but the entire  universe? These people have figured it out for you. Bad news: it will End. Good news: "There are a few conflicting theories on what will happen to the universe in the long term, but the most likely theory — continued expansion until heat death occurs — is calculated to happen in 1010120 years. This is a vast, vast number that you or I can’t even begin to comprehend; it’s 1, followed by 10120 zeroes." So we'll all be long gone, missing the ominous-yet-awesomely named "Black Hole Era". Damn. Really fascinating article, though. wonders who would win between the Avengers Heliacarrier and the battleships of Battleship. (I vote Heliacarrier)

Detailed and comprehensive infographic breakdown of YA covers from 2011. Including: color distribution, minority representation, gender reprentation, etc.
See the Game of Thrones cast both in and out of character. Gwendoline Christine is a strikingly beautiful woman.

Ewa's RESPONSE to S2E8 ("The Prince of Winterfell") of Game of Thrones. My favorite bits: "This doesn’t fit her trajectory in the books, though, where she’s more a nascent ninja killer – less about the wider world, more about that secret little prayer of names she wants dead." If you read recaps of Game of Thrones, these are the ones not to miss.

The Most Mind-Bending, Surprise Endings in Sf/F. I've only read one of those mentioned (Ender's Game) and it completely caught me off when I read it. (I was 10)

Did you know that the movie Gladiator had a planned sequel? And that the plot was literally insane or high on meth? World: leave Gladiator (and Gladiator-era Russell Crowe) alone and never ever make that movie.

Handy website for all the time zones/knowing what time it is anywhere in the world.

Want to know how common your birthday is? Now you do.

Watch out: The FBI is being creepy again. "We need wire-tap ready websites now" for social networks, email providers, etc.

(Insane) woman in Manhattan lives in 90-square foot "microstudio". That's $700 for 12 x 7 living space. I feel claustrophobic from Arizona reading that.

8-year old Filipino girl kills Adele cover of Someone Like You. Kills. It.

A few months old, still awesome: Ryan Gosling reads aloud from the internet meme devoted to him, "Hey Girl."

Did you know people actually read more now, in the internet age, than in the 1940s and 1950s? It's true.

Amazing infographic devoted to 30 Rock's Liz Lemon's hair.

This helpfully outlines all the sci-fi and fantasy shows coming out this fall. I'll probably try 666 Park Avenue because I want to read the book and Revolution for Supernatural's Kripke, but otherwise, slim pickings.

Di you know a snake can still bite after it's been beheaded? SOMETIMES HOURS LATER. Here's a video in case you don't believe me.

Seattle library hides 1000 books in town for kids to find, read, re-hide for others.

Leigh Bardugo, author of the aaamaaazing Shadow and Bone, due out later this summer, has revealed the final two titles in her Grisha series as well as opening an international giveaway for book one!

One new study finds that Facebook was mentioned as a cause of 33% of all divorces in the UK during 2011.

The 3rd or 4th man (semantics!) ever to go over Niagra Falls without protection lived through the ordeal.

The end of the publishing world as we know it: Fifty Shades of Shit Grey has sold 10 million books in 6 weeks.

From Cracked:

Review: Dead Reckoning by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Genre: western, horror, steampunk
Series: N/A as of yet 
Pages: 336 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: expected June 5, 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

Jett is a girl disguised as a boy, living as a gambler in the old West as she searches for her long-lost brother. Honoria Gibbons is a smart, self-sufficient young woman who also happens to be a fabulous inventor. Both young women travel the prairie alone – until they are brought together by a zombie invasion! 

As Jett and Honoria investigate, they soon learn that these zombies aren’t rising from the dead of their own accord … but who would want an undead army? And why? This gunslinging, hair-raising, zombie western mashup is perfect for fans of Cowboys vs. Aliens and Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.

I had a lot of unexpected fun with this quick-moving tale of zombies in Texas - even when the steampunk aspect came in unexpectedly I was more than game for a late addition. I'm not one much for reading western novels in general; I grew up with a Louis L'Amour and Tony Hillerman-novel-guzzling dad and though he and I can find common ground on fantasy and science fiction (less so on contemporary YA romances, though I can't imagine why..), I rarely stray into his most beloved genre. I'm glad I took a chance here with Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill - sure, their version of the Wild Wild West has zombies and steampunk also going for it, but at the heart of it, Dead Reckoning is a darn good Western with gunslingers, smart women and barfights. I have read numerous other novels by Mercedes Lackey, though they are usually of the fantasy (Valdemar series, etc.) and fairytale retelling ilk (The Five Hundred Kingdoms series). This is a marked departure for her and I can't help but cast Ms. Rosemary Edghill as the beneficial influence - which is just a long-winded way of me saying that I enjoyed this novel of Lackey's far more than the previous eight by her I'd read.

In 1867 West Texas, "Jett Gallatin" is a gunslinger "someone who lives and died by the gun" working her his way further and further West. Most of what is surface about Jett is utterly false - he is a she, and not even an adult. What is real about her is her talent with her guns, her independence and her own brand of knowledge. Her stated goal is finding her missing brother "Jasper" but several other factors added up to the 17-year-olds exodus from her original home in Louisiana. In this alternate version of America, not only is steam-power the new technology and hope for advancement, but the victorious North of the Civil War is definitely an antagonistic force for Jett  personally. Fleeing the sack of her home and the razing of her town by the Union forces, Jett possesses some unfavorable views about "bluebellies" and "Union tyranny" but the strength of her personality overrides any distaste for her personal politics. Jett has a distinct dialect all her own ("Wonder if throwing my beer in his face will cool him down peaceable-like?") - on the whole, it might be a bit cliched but it fits for the persona Philippa Jett has created for her own safety. I appreciated the restraint the authors showed with regards to Jett's personal history. It isn't just handed out on a platter in an infodump, but is slowly revealed, piece by piece, memory by memory.

An immediate point in Dead Reckoning's favor is that it doesn't wait around and stall for action. There are zombies present and wreaking havoc by page thirteen of chapter one (in the ARC version at least) and there's an implicit promise for more zombies and death later on. The first fight is quick and bloody affair and one that leads to a chain of events stretching back two years, leading Jett into a deadly mystery and the two odd fellows she falls in with. While unfortunately the zombie action didn't stay as constant as the intial contact had me hoping and did drop off for a while during the mid-part of the novel, the different methods and ideas for the "zuvembie"/reanimated dead themselves were nicely thought out. The antagonist of the novel might suffer from the most extreme case of Syndrome Syndrome (a term I culled/created from The Incredibles to use whenever a villain conveniently explains his nefarious plans to the hero before killing them) I've ever read seen, but his methodology, reason and modus operandi were at least fun to try and unravel.

Honoria (any M*A*S*H fans out there? No? Just me? Ok) Verity Providentia Gibbons, she of that unholy mouthful of a name and a similarly perpetually running mouth, is a thoroughly clever and unusual young woman for the days and customs in which she lives. While this book is rather light on steampunk (and that's a relief after the mess that is The Steampunk Chronicles), the few additions shown in Dead Reckoning used are used sparsely and, most importantly, believably. As an independent investigator of all things paranormal, Honoria ventures alone into what some might call 'fool-hardy adventures' but girlfriend comes prepared with three Gatling guns. She's also the mind behind the slight steampunkery evident in the novel as the "Auto-Tachypode" comes across as a steam-powered, whirligigged "horseless wagon" or proto-car. Honoria is a multi-faceted character - she's smart ("Science first. Then vapors."), protective, and loyal above all. She also is a prime example of how brilliant people aren't above being occasionally, thoughtless brainless for Science! There are a lot of similarities between her and Jett, once they get past the outer, major discrepancies. They are both two women who have had to work hard and against all convention to get what they want, and be where they want. There's an easy rapport despite the occasional bickering - even third character White Fox doesn't detract from the camaraderie in the cast. He actually rounds the gunslinger and the talkative inventor both, in very different manners. In fact all three are fish out of water - White Fox, as a white man reared among a native tribe, feels that he doesn't belong to either world. The three characters complement each other well, all without adding an unnecessary romance, or heaven forbid, a love triangle into the fray.

Despite being a bit short on the murdery death I thought I would be getting, Dead Reckoning is a winner. Don't let any of the labels attached to it scare you off, be it "western", "steampunk" or "zombie" - this is a quick-moving and fantastic read for a few hours. The steampunk part of the novel doesn't come off as mere convenience for the plot but is nicely enveloped into the tale, adding a further level of atmosphere and interest to the world Jett, Honoria and White Fox live in. The ending is final for the main plot of the book, but there are hints that more in this vein/series could be coming. Several ideas are left open for further exploration, and I hope there is demand for such. I want sequels.

Review: Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne

Saturday, May 19, 2012
Title: Monument 14
Genre: science fiction, post-apocalyptic, young-adult, survival
Series: N/A as of yet, forthcoming
Pages: 320 (nook ARC edition)
Published: expected June 5 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3/5

Your mother hollers that you’re going to miss the bus. She can see it coming down the street. You don’t stop and hug her and tell her you love her. You don’t thank her for being a good, kind, patient mother. Of course not—you hurdle down the stairs and make a run for the corner.

Only, if it’s the last time you’ll ever see your mother, you sort of start to wish you’d stopped and did those things. Maybe even missed the bus.

But the bus was barreling down our street, so I ran.

Fourteen kids. One superstore. A million things that go wrong.

In Emmy Laybourne’s action-packed debut novel, six high school kids (some popular, some not), two eighth graders (one a tech genius), and six little kids trapped together in a chain superstore build a refuge for themselves inside. While outside, a series of escalating disasters, beginning with a monster hailstorm and ending with a chemical weapons spill, seems to be tearing the world—as they know it—apart.

Monument 14 seems to have a lot of things going for it: killing hailstorms, a bus explosion, death and abundant destruction... and all that's just within the three chapters of the novel. This sounds like an  action-packed read and like a thrill-ride from that promising initiation to main character Dean's survival story somewhere in the vague future. And it is all that, right? Right? Well....kinda, for a while. Monument 14 unfortunately falls prey to the trap of becoming mired in high school melodrama and love-triangles instead of focusing on the more original and striking aspects of the novel (things like the megatsunamis [not just regular ones, but megatsunamis], the kids abandoned on their own in a poor man's Walmart), which not only bummed me out but brought down the overall enjoyment I took away from the book. This one is going to get a bit spoilery, so DO NOT READ ON if you don't want to read some plot twists in the novel.

The 5- 17 year old cast of characters here are largely defined by their age, and their respective attitudes. None of them is particular defined outside stereotypical roles (The Jock [Jake], The Bully/Jerk [Brayden], The Perfect Girl [Astrid], The Mom [Josie], The Troubled Teen [Sahalia], The Brain [Alex], so on and so forth...) or experiences a whole lot of growth. Dean, the main character and the sole POV for Monument 14, is supposed to be the type of guy that's quiet and awkward, bookish, not quite mature but working for it, and overall, a likeable and relatable guy. But for me, he wasn't. I was iffy on his "voice" from the start as it didn't feel authentically male to me, but gave him the benefit of the doubt enough to keep reading past the first few pages of holy-shit-killer-hailer-oh-hey-there's-already-a-dead-kid. Several things added up to my overall dissatisfaction with Dean as the main character: though I didn't love him, it took time for my antipathy to set in. Now, young Dean has a crush on Astrid, a senior to his junior, and worships the ground she walks on. We get to hear about Dean's fervent love for a girl he doesn't really know often. It gets repeated ad nauseam. C'mon kid: the world as you know it is dead, surely you can ignore Astrid's perfect back for another twenty pages. Or until you've had a real conversation with her, jeez.

Another problem I had with the characters here in Monument 14 are their attitudes. Not necessarily the expected teenage 'tude, but the intelligence and self-awareness that takes years to acquire shown in 5, 8, and 13 year-olds. I had expected the older bunch of high schoolers to act wiser than their years in a survival story and definitely got that in spades (I don't buy that Niko's Scout Training was that comprehensive for all the skills/abiltiies he has. I'm not a Scout, but it's awfully convenient) but the younger kids were abnormally aware when the book needed them to be. I'm talking 5-year old twins correcting adults' traveling plans because "no one travels at night" - what child knows that? And there's Max, the way way wise-beyond-his-years elementary schooler who knows about guns and domestic violence, and also Batiste the 2nd grader obsessed with sin and taking the Lord's name in vain and creative chef. I'm not saying it's impossible for children to be and do these things, but all of them, together, so aware and smart? It strained my credulity for a book about a chemical leak that can attack people differently based on their blood type..     

Once the kids are in the store and safe from the killer hail and exploding bus, Monument 14 gets way too invested in teenage bullshit drama. Yes, this is a young-adult novel so I was expecting some form of romance to worm its way into my nice post-apocalyptic survival novel filled with murder machines. What I wasn't expecting was how much of the book is caught up in lovelife machinations, whining, and just overall drama. Why should I care if Niko harbors a secret love for Josie but Josie is with bad-boy Brayden if none of them have been developed into real characters? Why do I care about Dean getting with Astrid when he spies on her having sex with her boyfriend? (Also: is naming a girl's boobs a "thing" nowadays with young people? I'm only 24 but I find that: laughable, stupid and the opposite of arousing..) 

So much of this novel seemed distasteful (like Dean's spying), over-the-top (like Jake's journey from sobriety to druggie to recovered addict) or just plain silly (all the damn love-triangles) that what was awesome about it gets lost early on. Megatsunamis, people, think about the poor neglected megatsunamis. While I was interested in the life in the Greenway Superstore and the kid's self-government there, and recovery is a necessary part of any survival tale, I wanted more on what had forced them into the store and kept them there so long. With the chemicals affecting people with O-type blood with bloodlust and loss of all reason, this should have been a much more suspenseful and creepy tale. Three of the kids in the store have just that type and Hulk out into murder machines if exposed, but beyond one slight threat, the O-ffected (heh, puns) don't really factor into the novel at large. There's a teen offed in the first ten pages but the rest of the novel doesn't live up to that level of death - which as macabre as this sounds, I was disappointed by. In tragedies, people die. In cataclysms and natural disasters like on this scale, even some of the initial survivors would die. While the kids sadly don't devolve to Lord of the Flies status (there's only one real fight and it's pretty one-sided and deserved), I had hoped for a more cutthroat approach to the 'after' part of this.

The ending does redeem Monument 14 a bit because it went an entirely different direction than the previous 280 pages had seemingly lead to. The surprise alone helped his pull a higher rating that the one I had preemptively assigned to it. I actually liked the bait-and-switch and think it will lead to a hopefully better, less romantically-inclined sequel. With all that said, the best line of the book: "I can always spare a moment to delouse a friend."

An Unexpected Surprise!

Friday, May 18, 2012
My lovely boyfriend found an old Barnes and Noble giftcard when he was cleaning the room, so of course, I immediately went to the store to see if it had any money left. It did. It had roundabouts 3 books' worth left, but I am not known for self-restraint so here are my five purchases!

Sue Trinder is an orphan, left as an infant in the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a "baby farmer," who raised her with unusual tenderness, as if Sue were her own. Mrs. Sucksby’s household, with its fussy babies calmed with doses of gin, also hosts a transient family of petty thieves--fingersmiths--for whom this house in the heart of a mean London slum is home.

One day, the most beloved thief of all arrives--Gentleman, an elegant con man, who carries with him an enticing proposition for Sue: If she wins a position as the maid to Maud Lilly, a na├»ve gentlewoman, and aids Gentleman in her seduction, then they will all share in Maud’s vast inheritance. Once the inheritance is secured, Maud will be disposed of--passed off as mad, and made to live out the rest of her days in a lunatic asylum. With dreams of paying back the kindness of her adopted family, Sue agrees to the plan. Once in, however, Sue begins to pity her helpless mark and care for Maud Lilly in unexpected ways...

But no one and nothing is as it seems in this Dickensian novel of thrills and reversals.

Between the living and the dead is the Order of the Deacons, protectors of the Empire, guardians against possession, sentinels enlisted to ward off the malevolent haunting of the geists...

Among the most powerful of the Order is Sorcha, now thrust into partnership with the novice Deacon, Merrick Chambers. They have been dispatched to the isolated village of Ulrich to aide the Priory with a surge of violent geist activity. With them is Raed Rossin, Pretender to the throne that Sorcha is sworn to protect, and bearer of a terrible curse.

But what greets them in the strange settlement is something far more predatory and more horrifying than any mere haunting. And as she uncovers a tradition of twisted rituals passed down through the dark reaches of history, Sorcha will be forced to reconsider everything she thinks she knows.

And if she makes it out of Ulrich alive, what in Hell is she returning to?

The second novel in Ballantine's series. In a realm of mystics and magic, the Order of Deacons stands between the here and now and the Otherside. Its mission is to protect the citizens of the Empire from malevolent geists--no matter where or when...

Though one of the most powerful Deacons, Sorcha Faris has a tarnished reputation to overcome, which is why she jumps at the chance to investigate a string of murders in the exotic city of Orithal. But it is there that her lover, the shapeshifting rival to the throne, is targeted by a cruel and vengeful goddess, unwittingly unleashed by the Emperor's sister.

Before Briony's stepmother died, she made sure Briony blamed herself for all the family's hardships. Now Briony has worn her guilt for so long it's become a second skin. She often escapes to the swamp, where she tells stories to the Old Ones, the spirits who haunt the marshes. But only witches can see the Old Ones, and in her village, witches are sentenced to death. Briony lives in fear her secret will be found out, even as she believes she deserves the worst kind of punishment.

Then Eldric comes along with his golden lion eyes and mane of tawny hair. He's as natural as the sun, and treats her as if she's extraordinary. And everything starts to change. As many secrets as Briony has been holding, there are secrets even she doesn't know.

In a society where unwanted teens are salvaged for their body parts, three runaways fight the system that would "unwind" them.

Connor's parents want to be rid of him because he's a troublemaker. Risa has no parents and is being unwound to cut orphanage costs. Lev's unwinding has been planned since his birth, as part of his family's strict religion. Brought together by chance, and kept together by desperation, these three unlikely companions make a harrowing cross-country journey, knowing their lives hang in the balance. If they can survive until their eighteenth birthday, they can't be harmed -- but when every piece of them, from their hands to their hearts, are wanted by a world gone mad, eighteen seems far, far away. 

In Unwind, Boston Globe/Horn Book Award winner Neal Shusterman challenges readers' ideas about life -- not just where life begins, and where it ends, but what it truly means to be alive.

Review: Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

Thursday, May 17, 2012
Title: The Enchantments
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 311 (print ARC edition)
Published: March 6 2012
Source: ARC from (AMAZING) blogger/publisher
Rating: 4/5

St. Petersburg, 1917. After Rasputin’s body is pulled from the icy waters of the Neva River, his eighteen-year-old daughter, Masha, is sent to live at the imperial palace with Tsar Nikolay and his family—including the headstrong Prince Alyosha. Desperately hoping that Masha has inherited Rasputin’s miraculous healing powers, Tsarina Alexandra asks her to tend to Aloysha, who suffers from hemophilia, a blood disease that keeps the boy confined to his sickbed, lest a simple scrape or bump prove fatal.

Two months after Masha arrives at the palace, the tsar is forced to abdicate, and Bolsheviks place the royal family under house arrest. As Russia descends into civil war, Masha and Alyosha grieve the loss of their former lives, finding solace in each other’s company. To escape the confinement of the palace, they tell stories—some embellished and some entirely imagined—about Nikolay and Alexandra’s courtship, Rasputin’s many exploits, and the wild and wonderful country on the brink of an irrevocable transformation. In the worlds of their imagination, the weak become strong, legend becomes fact, and a future that will never come to pass feels close at hand.

Mesmerizing, haunting, and told in Kathryn Harrison’s signature crystalline prose, Enchantments is a love story about two people who come together as everything around them is falling apart.

You may not know Matryona Grigorievna by her first two names, but you will recognize her last, infamous name: Rasputina. The daughter of either Russia's most famous eccentric and healer or her most prolific sham, depending on who is asked, Masha's unique and by turns sad, very strange and moving story of life after her father's abrupt (and excessively violent) murder is a sure-to-please strong-female-character-powered novel. Enchantments was exactly what I wanted from another Russian historical fiction set about the same time (The Last Romanov) and didn't get: a fresh, compelling point of view, set during a popular and dangerous time period (the fall of the Romanov dynasty), a slight hint of romance that doesn't overpower character and/or plot development and (hopefully) amply furnished with enough accuracy to keep the tension high and the audiences interest consistently piqued. Veteran author Kathryn Harrison gracefully executes all these disparate parts to their utmost, with clear and tactile imagery and compelling prose. This is a darker novel in tone, for obvious and unavoidable reasons, but the intensity of the setting, the crackling tension and the characters desperation make for a moderately fast read.

I enjoyed almost everything there was to Enchantments. I did find the plot a bit lacking in some extended areas, but this is a novel that is carried by the strength of its cast. Harrison has a dab hand for foreshadowing ("There are those people who cannot be transplanted from one age to the next."), incrementally building up tension, and in setting up crucial, expected scenes without veering into predictability. Though the fate of the Romanov family is well known, Harrison makes their years-long journey to the House of Special Purpose compelling and touching. The unique POV perspective distinguishes this novel, as does the fact that Enchantments is more concerned about tsarevich Alexei's final days than either his brood of sisters or his parents. This is one of those historical fiction novels that makes a reader want to know more about the source material. As a ardent history major and freak, I was already well-versed in a lot of Romanov and Bolshevik Revolution lore, but Harrison's thoroughly developed and rounded versions of these real, flawed people reignited a previous cultural fascination with Russia and her Imperial family - I was Googling away on a vast array of subjects, people and events that had impact on this story.

As I intimated earlier, it really is the characters that make The Enchantment so compulsively readable. While Harrison sticks to facts for the bulk of her work, Masha's romantic entanglement with young Alexei provides a light spot in an overwhelming sad life. I appreciate the light hand used for the relationship - it felt natural and right for both characters, while not overpowering the more dramatic and worldly plotlines of the novel. The author also avoids the issue of characterizing Rasputin outside of his role as a doting father - while his life obviously impacts his daughters, Harrison never takes a side in the debate about his role as healer or heretic. Masha, obviously, believes in the power of her mystic father, and her belief is compelling but not convincing. Worshiped by some, reviled by others, but only truly understood by his devoted eldest daughter, Rasputin's magnetic pull is in evidence largely in absentia and its continued affect on Masha's life after his death.

To get a bit less positive about the novel, I will say that I found the shifts between the past and the present to be a bit disorientating. The flashbacks themselves are well-timed and chock full of historical detail and data without weighing down the overall plot and increasing intensity. Even when the expected end comes for Alexei, OTMA and the Imperial pair, Masha's dispassionate voice manages to convey her deep sorrow while keeping her emotional distance. I found the last part of the novel with Masha apart from the Romanovs —  lacked the dynamic of the previous chapters. I struggled slightly through the later, introspection-heavy pages devoid of interaction with the other players. But despite those few issues, there isn't much to malign here in Enchantments.

The unique, fresh approach of Rasputin's daughter, the finely and intricately drawn backdrop of Imperialist Russia, the wonderfully realized characters all made for a great historical fiction novel. People now tend to view Rasputin with the benefit of hindsight, often confusing the man with whatever he did or did not to to aid the downfall of the Tsars. Kathryn Harrison's Enchantments, through the eyes and ideas of his tale-spinning daughter, is singular in that it shows Russia's Mad Monk as a person, as a dad even, to great effect. Every choice Masha makes is influenced by her father and his desires for her and reading her life story as imagined by this author is a nice piece of historical escapism.

And this is the striking ebook cover (though I vastly prefer the more Russian-centric first one.)

Review: The Queen's Vow by C.W. Gortner

Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Author: C.W. Gortner
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 400 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: expected June 12 2012
Source: publishers via edelweiss
Rating: 4.5/5

No one believed I was destined for greatness.
So begins Isabella’s story, in this evocative, vividly imagined novel about one of history’s most famous and controversial queens—the warrior who united a fractured country, the champion of the faith whose reign gave rise to the Inquisition, and the visionary who sent Columbus to discover a New World. Acclaimed author C. W. Gortner envisages the turbulent early years of a woman whose mythic rise to power would go on to transform a monarchy, a nation, and the world.

Young Isabella is barely a teenager when she and her brother are taken from their mother’s home to live under the watchful eye of their half-brother, King Enrique, and his sultry, conniving queen. There, Isabella is thrust into danger when she becomes an unwitting pawn in a plot to dethrone Enrique. Suspected of treason and held captive, she treads a perilous path, torn between loyalties, until at age seventeen she suddenly finds herself heiress of Castile, the largest kingdom in Spain. Plunged into a deadly conflict to secure her crown, she is determined to wed the one man she loves yet who is forbidden to her—Fernando, prince of Aragon.

As they unite their two realms under “one crown, one country, one faith,” Isabella and Fernando face an impoverished Spain beset by enemies. With the future of her throne at stake, Isabella resists the zealous demands of the inquisitor Torquemada even as she is seduced by the dreams of an enigmatic navigator named Columbus. But when the Moors of the southern domain of Granada declare war, a violent, treacherous battle against an ancient adversary erupts, one that will test all of Isabella’s resolve, her courage, and her tenacious belief in her destiny.

From the glorious palaces of Segovia to the battlefields of Granada and the intrigue-laden gardens of Seville, The Queen’s Vow sweeps us into the tumultuous forging of a nation and the complex, fascinating heart of the woman who overcame all odds to become Isabella of Castile.

The Queen's Vow is a great first introduction to a well-known and well-recommended historical fiction author. I've heard and seen C.W. Gortner's name bandied about frequently as one of the best for compelling, researched and still original novels and every claim is only reinforced by my reading experience with this novel about Castile's complicated and dramatic queen. Without condescension or annoying repetition, this mostly-factual story of 15th-century hotbed of war, religious strife and rebellion in what is now known as simply Spain, is riveting from start to finish - once The Queen's Vow, and the formidable Isabella, hit their stride, it is nearly impossible to put down. Told with an even pace and a clear voice, this four-hundred page, multi-part novel pretty much guaranteed that I will be reading more by this author, and soon. In a genre that can often seem quite overbloated with English and French-situated books, this exploration into the fertile and sunbaked lands of Spain is a welcome and exciting change.

The most remarkable aspect of the entire endeavor is the main character of Isabella herself. With the advantage of perspective and history on our side, it's clear that the infanta of Castile is a woman of complicated nature; someone that is sadly often naive in her religious judgments, but one who is conversely amazingly progressive in terms of women's education and rights (see her intransigence on the rights of her daughters/Castile's and her own sovereignty from Aragon/Ferdinand until an heir is born). C.W. Gortner is a skilled writer that somehow manages to paint a fully-realized and wholly fallible version of the renowned and reviled monarch while still rendering the final character likeable and authentic in her determined role and behaviors. Accepting both good and bad facets of her personality and her reign, The Queen's Vow offers up possible reasons for the cruel decisions Isabella made for her realm without diverging too far from the roadmap of history. It's easy to both root for Isabella in her desperate times and to curse at her when she is so easily manipulated by the men in her life at different turns: Carrillo, Enrique, Torquemada, even Ferdinand. Throughout all her trials and even her mishaps, it cannot be denied that this Isabella has life and is never boring to read.

It's a credit to both the author and the novel itself that because Isabella is a historical figure largely ignored on her own noteworthy merits (maaaybe vaguely known to the general populace because of the connection Christopher Columbus) her story here is completely fresh and engaging. Unlike the Tudors/Borgias, who have been done over and over (with varying degrees of success), this view into the overlooked Trastamara royal family is happily unreminiscent of any other historical fiction I've read. The tertiary characters are a bit hard to keep track of initially due to my lack of experience with this setting, but the author eases the reader comfortably into the Castile he has reimagined. The endless wars and battles, the required Court intrigue, the drama - all were evenly and uniformly handled in The Queen's Vow. Despite the fact that war was pretty much the normal state of being for Isabella and her husband, the novel is careful to mix the battles between many other historical events so as not to sacrifice the principles' characterization or plot advancement. Time easily speeds by while turning the pages - for the real world as well as the pacing of the book. The novel can breeze over years at a time with a sentence, which didn't bother me so much as streamline the narrative of a real person.

The Queen's Vow is a going to a hit with historical fiction lovers. There's a lot to love - the sweet but imperfect marriage between the "Catholic Monarchs", the tried and true lure of Court intrigue and betrayal. The novel terminates before the end of Isabella's life, leaving it somewhat open-ended in regards to the main character, if not the final conflict. If you're looking for a well-written and engaging novel with a strong, fallible character, look no further.
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