We all wear masks…

Title: The Iron TrialIronTrial

Author: Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

Publisher & Release Date: Scholastic Press, September 9

The Hook:  Holly Black doing another middle grade series. ‘Nuff said. (No disrespect to Clare, but I would have read this regardless of the co-author.)

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Most kids would do anything to pass the Iron Trial. Not Callum Hunt. He wants to fail. All his life, Call has been warned by his father to stay away from magic. If he succeeds at the Iron Trial and is admitted into the Magisterium, he is sure it can only mean bad things for him.
So he tries his best to do his worst – and fails at failing.
Now the Magisterium awaits him. It’s a place that’s both sensational and sinister, with dark ties to his past and a twisty path to his future. The Iron Trial is just the beginning, for the biggest test is still to come…”

Overall Impressions: So right from the prologue, his murdered mother’s cryptic message to “KILL THE CHILD” doesn’t bode well for infant Callum Hunt. At twelve years old, father Alastair’s ambivalence toward his child – protectiveness mingled with fear – come out in erratic ways through his attempts to prevent Call’s inclusion into the Magesterium, the magical ruling faction that is waging battle against the Chaos-obsessed Constantine and his minions. Unfortunately for Alastair, Call’s magic is strong enough that his attempts to conceal it backfire spectacularly.

Training at the mountainous Magesterium focuses on controlling and using elemental forces, including deadly elemental spirits.  Of the Mages of the Magesterium, we get the clearest sense of Rufus, Call’s master; the other masters are minimally involved in this first story. The students are drawn in broad strokes – the Friendly Classmate, the Surly Competition, the Bullied One – except for the two fellow students under Rufus, Aaron and Tamara. Their interactions with Callum and each other with the best detail in the book – the three of them navigate rocky personal issues and misunderstandings, as well as dealing with the frustrating and sometimes scary training, with cautious hope in their growing friendship. That more than anything is what I am interested in watching in the rest of the series.

Mind you, the Chaos-Ridden, with the very really possibility of them blending in like  normal, make for an excellent Big Bad; the twist at the end isn’t quite what you think it will be, I will tell you (without further spoilers).

The Highs: A new world of magic to explore, with dangerous elemental spirits! A exploration of destiny, inborn “goodness”, and the circumstances of birth! Secrets and friendship! I’m looking forward to seeing where the rest of the series goes; Black and Clare clearly have a thoughtful trajectory for their trio of student wizards.

Buzzkills:  Sneaking a wolf pup outside several times a day for walkies without being caught was, in a weird way, the most unbelievable part of the book. Dogs are loud and noticeable, and every other time they walked around it seemed like the halls are full of people.

Since any story written with the “boy wizard joins secret magic school” is going to beg comparison to Harry Potter, I was mentally comparing plot and character development the whole time I was reading. Rowling’s superb skill in characterization casts a long shadow, though the Iron Trial does do well in pulling you along quickly and building a unique mythology. I’d like to see more of the backstory of Tamara and Aaron – clearly, they have a great deal of their own baggage to deal with. Tamara’s family angst and her parents’ politics, and Aaron’s lack-of-family angst, speak to deeper issues than the characters can deal with in a single book.

The Source: Galleys from my fellow librarians.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a wolf pup was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

What if winning means losing?

Cover art for The Winner's CurseTitle: The Winner’s Curse

Author: Marie Rutkoski

Publisher & Release Date: Farrar Strauss Giroux, March 4, 2014

The Hook: Shifting power dynamics, forbidden love and revolution. Gorgeous cover. (I’m a sucker for those.)

The Lowdown (from galley): “Seventeen-year-old Kestrel is an aristocratic citizen of Valoria, a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers. Here, a girl like Kestrel has two choices: to join the military or to get married. Despite her skills in military strategy, Kestrel’s real passion is music. Which is why she feels compelled to buy Arin, a slave sold as a singer, at auction. It’s not long before he begins to change the way she sees everything… but he himself is not what he seems. Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for him is much higher than she ever could have imagined.”

Overall Impressions:  My initial reaction when I finished (recorded in texts to Emily): “The Winner’s Curse is very, very, very good.” “Emotionally intense and thought-provoking and dang there better be a sequel.”

(FYI: There are more books coming. Sadly, they are not published yet.)

I have raved about this book in every book-related conversation for the last week. I love Kestrel and Arin and the complicated choices they face, how strongly they are drawn to one another and how they struggle to resist that pull. The storytelling shifts back and forth between the two so effectively, giving the reader glimpses into the bigger story of each of their lives and allowing you to see more of the whole picture. And thus you can cringe in advance, because this book is painful in its beauty.

Okay, from here on out, there will be spoilers.

Arin, like all his countrymen, was made a slave when the Herrani surrendered to the Valorians. He is also a spy for for a festering slave rebellion – and a good chunk of the brains for that – and he has made everything within him subsumed to that goal. Getting to know Kestrel brings him to the point where he wants two things he doesn’t know how to make co-exist.

Kestrel’s trying to walk a different balance. Her father is a brilliant general. He loves her and is proud of her, and he wants her to serve their country. But she desires neither the military or marriage to anyone she has thus far met. She wants a third option but cannot imagine it. Arin loves music and can match her intellectually but he cannot be an option. And none of this gets easier after the rebellion, when she struggles bitterly between caring for him and what she must do for her empire and friends.

The Highs: The scene where Arin helps Kestrel style her hair for a party. Oh my word. Restraint and tension and so sensual.

The characters’ internal struggles. Love and loyalty for their countries but also the desire for each other. The scene at the docks near the end of the book, the final scene. I mean, I want the next book, (yesterday would be good) but I would also so admire Ms. Rutkoski’s guts for ending it where she did if this was a stand-alone.

How being interested in Arin as a person slowly challenges Kestrel’s beliefs about empire and slavery in a way that hadn’t happened before.

The love Kestrel and her father have for each other, even as they attempt to out-strategize one another to achieve their own goals for Kestrel’s future.

Fantastic world-building shown by the differences in cultures and how one culture has appropriated all the works of the conquered. The personal libraries of Herrani nobles that the Valorians who now live in those houses never read but would never dismantle either.

Buzzkills:  Spoiler for a big emotional scene, so highlight the following – attempted sexual assault. Cheat as the leader of a complex rebellion seemed … increasingly focused on his hatred of / desire to master Kestrel, which in some ways I felt made him a weaker character.

The Source: Advance reading copy from publisher, obtained at conference Emily attended.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor fighting lessons were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

This Beauty is kicking ass and taking names

Cover art for Cruel BeautyTitle: Cruel Beauty

Author: Rosamund Hodge

Publisher & Release Date: Balzer and Bray/HarperTeen, January 28th, 2014

The Hook: Taking Beauty and the Beast back to the myth of Cupid and Psyche, this thrilling fantasy features a kick-ass heroine, an intriguingly constructed world, and some sizzling romance.

The Lowdown (from Goodreads, because I hate the jacket description SO MUCH): Based on the classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, Cruel Beauty is a dazzling love story about our deepest desires and their power to change our destiny.

Since birth, Nyx has been betrothed to the evil ruler of her kingdom-all because of a foolish bargain struck by her father. And since birth, she has been in training to kill him.

With no choice but to fulfill her duty, Nyx resents her family for never trying to save her and hates herself for wanting to escape her fate. Still, on her seventeenth birthday, Nyx abandons everything she’s ever known to marry the all-powerful, immortal Ignifex. Her plan? Seduce him, destroy his enchanted castle, and break the nine-hundred-year-old curse he put on her people.

But Ignifex is not at all what Nyx expected. The strangely charming lord beguiles her, and his castle -a shifting maze of magical rooms- enthralls her.

As Nyx searches for a way to free her homeland by uncovering Ignifex’s secrets, she finds herself unwillingly drawn to him. Even if she could bring herself to love her sworn enemy, how can she refuse her duty to kill him? With time running out, Nyx must decide what is more important: the future of her kingdom, or the man she was never supposed to love.

Overall Impressions:  I was prepared to hate this book.  The jacket text and illustration screamed “TWILIGHT KNOCKOFF”.  But I got sucked in so quickly.  I liked Nyx almost instantly, even though she’s angry and bitter, and makes a lot of bad decisions.  It was the amazing world-building, though, that really won me over.  Hodge creates a world where Great Britain was magically cut off from the rest of the world during the age of the Roman occupation.  Magic clashes with science, and the author offers a fascinating look at what 19th-century British society might look like if the Romans had never left and Continental politics hadn’t influenced British culture.

The Highs: As I said, I liked Nyx a lot. She’s impulsive, and deeply pissed off (and who wouldn’t be, in her shoes?), but she’s likable nonetheless.  And Ignifex is your classic sexy, misunderstood “bad boy” love interest, with a lot of fun twists.  I also loved the elaborately-crafted world that the characters lived in.  It felt as detailed as a Bruegel painting to me, with lots of surprises and hidden corners, and pieces of a puzzle that all come together at the end.  But my favorite thing about the book might have been the mythology that Hodge worked with.  If you’re not familiar with the myth of Cupid and Psyche (and Pandora, as well), read up on them first in order to fully appreciate the story.  Cupid and Pysche form the basis for Beauty and the Beast, and Hodge did a wonderful job of weaving the myth and the fairy tale together to make something original and new.

Buzzkills:  This buzzkill is less of a problem with the story itself than a problem of different perceptions, but here goes: I discussed the story with another early reader, who complained that she was uncomfortable with the book because it was, and I quote, “rape-y”.  Not because there’s any actual rape in the book (there absolutely isn’t), but because Nyx is not initially a completely willing participant in the marriage, even though there is no actual consummation of said marriage until much later, after her feelings have changed.  Now, I think the argument can be made for being uncomfortable with situations where a captive is brainwashed into feeling sympathy and even love for her captor, because that is a pretty screwed-up scenario, but that’s not the case here.  If you’re at all familiar with the Beauty and the Beast storyline, you know that already.  What I really objected to was the use of the term “rape-y”.  Because rape either is or isn’t.  Rape is someone being forced into sexual contact against their will, or in a situation where they can’t willingly and knowingly give consent.  Rape happens, and it’s awful, and using words like “rape-y” to describe situations that make us uncomfortable does nothing to help people who are actually dealing with the impact of rape. And using it describe a book is just plain silly.  But, that being said, if you’re uncomfortable with books that include a shifting balance of power between two people sharing a sexual relationship, avoid this story.

The Source:  Advance Reading Copy from the publisher

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor the tools of assassination were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

She can see emotions but she can’t feel them.

Cover artwork for Some Quiet Place

Title: Some Quiet Place

Author: Kelsey Sutton

Publisher & Release Date: Flux, July 2013

The Hook: Eye-catching cover art, a heroine who feels no emotion, and a stellar review from Kirkus, which listed it as one of the best teen novels of 2013.

The Lowdown (from author’s webpage): “Elizabeth Caldwell doesn’t feel emotions . . . she sees them. Longing, Shame, and Courage materialize around her classmates. Fury and Resentment appear in her dysfunctional home. They’ve all given up on Elizabeth because she doesn’t succumb to their touch. All, that is, save one—Fear. He’s intrigued by her, as desperate to understand the accident that changed Elizabeth’s life as she is herself.

“Elizabeth and Fear both sense that the key to her past is hidden in the dream paintings she hides in the family barn. But a shadowy menace has begun to stalk her, and try as she might, Elizabeth can barely avoid the brutality of her life long enough to uncover the truth about herself. When it matters most, will she be able to rely on Fear to save her?”

Overall Impressions:  An impressive debut! Sutton created a story that feels both dreamy and gritty – beautiful imagery of Emotions and Elements in human form, invisible to our eyes, an Other World twisted around being trapped in a small farming town in an abusive home. Elizabeth is a compelling character, and I became thoroughly wrapped up in the mystery of her and her quest to solve herself.

That said, I also have some qualms about the ways in which violence was used in this story. For example, in trying to make Elizabeth feel emotion, Fear puts in her scenarios that, if they took place on a TV show (and weren’t happening to the main character), it would be the teaser before the opening wherein some attractive nameless young woman dies horribly. But on the other hand, Fear is trying to make Elizabeth feel afraid and she always quickly realizes it’s him and not entirely real. It would be fascinating to have a conversation with the author about what she’s trying to say in these layers.

I remain wary of love triangles. I’m not sure if I can really say this book has one, because Elizabeth is kind of a non-participant, given her walled-off emotions, and Fear and Joshua can’t really interact. Either way, I respect the choices Elizabeth made.

The storyline about the dying friend was touching and I understood its purpose in the book, but it also felt the least … organic. I think that’s because while you see Elizabeth making the deliberate choice to interact with Joshua and in small ways with her family, Maggie and Elizabeth’s friendship dates back to when they were little girls and you don’t know why Elizabeth chose to keep interacting with Maggie.

Toward the end of the book one of the characters tells Elizabeth that people are drawn to her, yet the book shows her primarily as an outcast. She involves herself in very few people’s lives – everything is a pretend, she must always act the part of normal and her efforts to do so make many people uncomfortable, including her parents. They actually fear her.

The Highs: I really love the cover art – gorgeous and creepy. The story itself balanced dreamy and real and scary so well.

The mystery of Elizabeth and how it resolves, who she grows into in the course of the story. The gradual deepening of the Other World. That Elizabeth is the one who ultimately has to save herself.

Buzzkills: Everything’s handled really well, but this story does deal with a physically and verbally abusive father, nasty school bullying that turns vicious, and some very disturbing violence from the shadowy menace. The first real encounter with the SM happens right after the vicious bully attack and there were elements that made the power imbalance even more uncomfortable for me.

The Source: Ebook from awesome public library!

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a gorgeous ballgown that looks like leaves was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Looking for that one good man…

Cover art for Charming by Elliott JamesTitle: Charming

Author: Elliott James

Publisher & Release Date: Orbit, September 2013

The Hook: An order of Charmings -how could so many princes have the same name?- protecting the world from paranormal and supernatural danger.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “John Charming isn’t your average Prince…

 “He comes from a line of Charmings — an illustrious family of dragon slayers, witch-finders and killers dating back to before the fall of Rome. Trained by a modern day version of the Knights Templar, monster hunters who have updated their methods from chain mail and crossbows to Kevlar and shotguns, John Charming was one of the best–until a curse made him one of the abominations the Knights were sworn to hunt.
“That was a lifetime ago. Now, John tends bar under an assumed name in rural Virginia and leads a peaceful, quiet life. That is, until a vampire and a blonde walked into his bar…”
Overall Impressions: Awesome premise, fast-paced and interesting plot, unexpected twists, compelling world-building and main character, but the in-your-faceness of the love interest got on my nerves.
The world-building is fascinating – all the pieces of different mythologies getting pulled together under the umbrella of the Pax Arcana. In a nutshell, elves and fairies are/were real, and when they decided to leave this world, they made a superspell (the Pax Arcana) that makes it very, very, very hard for normal people to notice supernatural things (such as their descendants) and strong-armed a bunch of secret organizations (such as the Charmings) with a geas to keep supernatural beings from doing anything that pushed past the notice of the spell. And if death is required to stop said supernatural beings, so be it.

John’s a likable character and enjoyable narrator, with a layer of snark covering his inner pain, as per urban fantasy rules. He definitely has reasons for that pain – he’s been marked for death by his speciest knight family because he’s part werewolf and in their pursuit they killed the woman he loved. He’s been on the run and laying low when he gets inadvertently pulled into an unofficial investigation: Some vampires are up to something *very* bad, and really, rather clever.

Sig (the “blonde” from the jacket copy) is portrayed as a smart, strong, extremely capable individual with her own issues but she’s put together an eclectic team to deal with certain supernatural threats and she’s very obviously a good leader who sees people’s potential and directs them well. She has strong beliefs about men taking advantage of women and acts on them. But she’s also very obviously the love interest, to the extent that practically every member of the team tells John he should pursue her because her current long-term lover (decades) is no-good and she’ll never leave him on her own because loyalty, but she is interested in John. Balancing the Sig as person and Sig as love interest is tricky, and I don’t know that’s always achieved. At times I was tempted to just walk away.

But then I’d get sucked back into the story, and the ending is earned. Not a happily ever after, but honest and a good set-up for the series.

I think this would appeal to fans of the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher and Patricia Briggs’ books. I’d like to read the sequel and see how the balance and pacing matures.

The Highs: These are not undeniably attractive and sexually magnetic vampires. Well, there’s a glamour but since John sees through it, and he’s telling the story, so do we. And the book has some fun poking at the trope. However, they are darn effective vampires as bad guys and some of them as smart bad guys.

Molly, Molly, Molly. She was the reason I kept reading when I got annoyed. Her worldview got turned on her head when she accompanied Chauncey (another team member, originally an exterminator) to a haunted house for an exorcism and she struggled with that before coming to the decision to express her faith in a different way. She’s reasonably terrified by things such as vampires and has her own ways of coping. Including playing Christmas music in April because Christmas makes her happy. She instantly became my favorite with that scene.

Sig wears practical clothing for fighting! Who knows how she would be rendered on the cover, but in the first fight with vampires she’s described as wearing cargo pants and a military commando-style dark sweater. That paragraph is my favorite description of her physical appearance in the book.

That the characters respect what each other bring to the battlefield. Even when they don’t like each other.

Buzzkills:  There were a lot of fighting scenes, which I often skim. (Did a major character die / suffer great injury / reveal new power and/or ability? Okay, moving on.)  One sequence in particular seemed unnecessary other than to have an action scene before important exposition.

In John’s second meeting with Sig, he strips naked after the fight so she can burn his blood from the scene and his clothing. Parts of the discussion felt as it their purpose was to say “Look! Sexual attraction! Notice it! Don’t you want them to get together?”

The Source: e-galley from publisher through NetGalley

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate or a hand-crafted sword was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Lovecraftian Old Ones and teen angst: the horror!

Title: The Mirrored ShardMirrored Shard cover

Author: Caitlin Kittredge

Publisher & Release Date: Delacorte, Feb 2013

The Hook: I read the first two, and was fascinated at the twists in mythology that Kittredge builds into her stories. The very personal is pitted against the good of the universe in Aoife’s choices – and I had to see if where the decision would finally fall.

The Lowdown: Aoife Grayson must face death to win back Dean, shot in the arctic north while trying to save her. But her path to the Deadlands will set her up against enemies new and old, force her to cross worlds and come face-to-face with an ancient being that knows only hatred.

Overall Impressions: A fast-paced quest to find a way to access the Deadlands, Aoife, her ghoul friend Cal and brother Conrad leap from peril to peril. There’s a distinctly creepy vibe to this book, between the villains and the dead – Dean is definitely not frolicking in the Elysian Fields. From we see of the worlds, the current structure is rotten and about to break, and the looming presence of the Old Ones makes for an interesting subtext.

The Highs: Kittredge’s world-building is excellent! I loved seeing more of the country of the Iron Lands, and the Deadlands was a creepy and intriguing version of Hell.  Great visuals and the awesome mix of magic, technology and lore that sucked me into the first book continues to intrigue. Aoife more often stood her ground in this book, or came up with clever ways to find solutions, rather than being fooled or blackmailed into disastrous decisions.

Buzzkills: Aoife’s short-sighted focus on saving those she loves at any cost have made me cringe through the entire series, especially when she should have started recognizing the danger of this around the seventh time it backfired.

Excepting the last, they bounce so quickly from enemy to enemy that there isn’t much of a build-up of tension.

Personal peeve: Dean’s nicknames for Aoife, “princess” and “darlin’.”

The Source: Public library

Disclaimer: No chocolate or other faerie ambrosia was provided by the publisher for this review.

Shh… we’re going on a dragon hunt

Cover art for A Natural History of Dragons

Title: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent

Author: Marie Brennan

Publisher & Release Date: Tor Books (Macmillan), 2013

The Hook: A memoir by “the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist.” Or a fantasy novel. Your call.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

“Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.”

Overall Impressions:  For some reason, I had it in my head that this was an alternative history fantasy and the main character found dragon bones in a cliff like Mary Anning did with dinosaur bones. So wrong. Instead, it’s the story of a young woman struggling to navigate society expectations and her passion to know more and her scientist’s heart. And because Isabella tells the story as an older woman looking back, she acknowledges her at times impulsive behavior (yes, follow a strange man out of the village at night time) and lack of patience for and understanding of other cultures. And it is an impressive tale of a person not so much coming of age as coming into herself.

At 14, she disguises herself as a boy to go on a wolfdrake hunt because she wants so badly to see a dragon; she meets her husband Jacob Camherst because of their joint interest in natural history, especially dragons. When she miscarries, studying sparklings (a kind of miniature dragon) is what ultimately pulls her from her depression. When given the opportunity to meet Lord Hilford, a noted explorer and naturalist, she introduces her husband to him and encourages their friendship, eventually talking the two of them into allowing her to accompany them on his forthcoming expedition.

Brennan creates an amazing world. I kept trying to correlate it to ours – it felt like it should be, except that dragons are real. They’re not great and magical beings, but creatures her society doesn’t know that much about – curiosities to some, fascinations to others – somewhat like the great mammals of Africa to Europeans in the 19th century.

The expedition – a mix of scientific study combined with unexpected mystery and adventure – is where Isabella really starts her journey into the renowned scientist she will become. She has the opportunity to first-hand study dragons and her eyes open to other cultures. Her slow-growing friendship with Dagmira will influence how Isabella interacts with every other society she will visit.

The Highs: Brennen injected a hint of Georgette Heyer‘s writing flavor into Isabella’s story, particularly her relationship with Jacob. They like and respect each other when they marry, but they don’t really know each other, and it’s fascinating and rather beautiful to watch their relationship develop.

Isabella’s father, who may expect her to behave in a way befitting her place in society (think 1800s England) but also understands and loves her enough to give her a list of eligible men with excellent libraries and a willingness to share said library with a wife. There’s also a shorter list of those men who own Sir Richard Edgeworth’s “A Natural History of Dragons” – the book that fastened her on dragons. He tells her she doesn’t have to choose from that list but he thinks she might find those men good candidates.

I see from the publisher’s website that this will be a trilogy! I look forward to reading more of Lady Trent’s story.

Buzzkills: Spoiler [highlight to see- – Major character death].

The Source: Borrowed from public library.

No chocolate or dragon rides were exchanged for this review.

Death comes calling… and then death is gone

Cobweb Bride coverTitle: Cobweb Bride

Author: Vera Nazarian

Publisher & Release Date: Norilana Books, July 2013

The Hook: The premise of Death seeking his bride.

The Lowdown: Death waits for his bride and until she presents herself, no one and nothing shall die. And so people are trapped on the edge of death or beyond it and young women begin struggling through winter to reach Death’s keep as possible brides.

Overall Impressions: The premise – Death essentially holding death hostage – intrigued me so much that I just jumped in and missed that this is the first of a trilogy. So the internal and external political intrigue in this book really just lays the groundwork for the rest of the story.

Nazarian very effectively explores what it could mean for death to go absent, and it does not mean living happily ever after forever. People in pain, people who should be dead, the food supply…

The story itself is tragedy piled on tragedy with characters resolving to overcome or press through the tragedy. Betrayals. Which would generally not appeal to me, but it’s so beautifully told through such fascinating characters that I needed to know what would happen next. And in the end (of this part of the story), there is hope.

It felt Russian* to me with a slightly otherworldly flavor reminiscent of Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt and Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo. (Both of which are excellent books.)

The Highs: Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous, lush language. Perfect for a fairy tale.

Meeting the young women trudging to the forest looking for the Keep and seeing their journeys. The undistinguished, fat, plain middle daughter (Percy) becoming a hero. The sickly emperor’s daughter and heir growing into a strong, capable person. The complexity of relationships and loyalties.

Buzzkills: It’s the nature of the story, but as Matilda said about The Chronicles of Narnia: There are no funny bits. Or at least very few. I think I cracked a smile once.

More of a consideration than a buzzkill, but Nazarian made me feel the snow coming down until I felt blanketed, and this was in spring. I don’t know that I would want to read this book in the cold of winter.

Another consideration: When Death says there will be no death, he’s serious. And that impacts the food supply in a way that may make a person consider vegetarianism.

The Source: eGalley from the publisher via NetGalley.

*Personal bias: Fairy-tale like stories set in wintertime in a pre-industrial time often feel Russian to me. Especially when they’re sad.

Disclaimer: No chocolate or promise of chocolate (hot, cold or room temperature) was provided by the publisher for this review.

No one here has even heard of Kansas…

Cover art for The ArrivalsTitle: The Arrivals

Author: Melissa Marr

Publisher & Release Date: William Morrow (imprint of HarperCollins), July 2, 2013

The Hook: A small band of people pulled from throughout time struggles to fight for justice in a strange land.

The Lowdown (from GoodReads): “Chloe walks into a bar and blows five years of sobriety. When she wakes, she finds herself in an unfamiliar world, The Wasteland. She discovers people from all times and places have also arrived there: Kitty and Jack, a brother and sister from the Wild West; Edgar, a prohibition bootlegger; Francis, a one-time hippie; Melody, a mentally unbalanced 1950s housewife; and Hector, a former carnival artist.

None know why they arrived there–or if there is way out of a world populated by monsters and filled with corruption.”

Overall Impressions: I love the premise – people from Earth pulled from different time periods into a mystery land. There’s a definite Western flavor to it all, partially due to the leaders of the band being from the American West; he’s a cowboy, she’s a jill-of-all-trades, but also due to the desert setting, the small towns, the mining resources, the weaponry, etc. Combine it with magic, monsters, demon-summoning monks and sort-of-vampires, and you get a fantasy western!

There’s also the matter of how people from Earth don’t always stay dead; they die and then they “wake up” again within a week. Unless they don’t, in which case someone else from Earth shows up.

The story description gives the impression that the book is Chloe-centric, and Chloe’s important, but the book opens with Kitty and Jack – Chloe doesn’t arrive until the fifth chapter. Jack and Kitty have been in the Wasteland for 26 years and tried their best to make sense of it. They’ve formed a band that fights corruption, most often traced back to the villainous Ajani, who also recruits newly arrived humans to join him. They’re about to find out they missed some really important information. In a way, Chloe really serves as the catalyst to resolve the uneven détente between Jack and Kitty’s group and Ajani.

Marr builds strong and engaging main characters – Kitty, Jack, Edgar, Chloe and Garuda are well-fleshed out. However, secondary characters were not always so well done, though Marr does a nice job with the team dynamics. Garuda is a bloedzuiger and really the only native being important as an individual to the story. (Bloedzuigers share some characteristics of what we would describe as vampires, but they’re not undead. They do live a very long time and their blood has restorative powers. The glimpses of bloedzuiger pack culture are fascinating.)

I have mixed feelings about the climatic clash between Our Heroes and The Villain. The lead up to it was engaging, but there were some unexpected twists in the big showdown that felt overly tidy. It does set up a new power balance, one that invites readers to tell their own stories on the canvas Marr creates.

The Highs: Fantastic world-building and intriguing characters. Part of me wishes we had gotten more of Melody and her backstory, but her character’s focused bloodthirstiness -so incongruous in a 1950s housewife-  might be a case of a little goes a long way.

I really rooted for Kitty and Edgar.

Buzzkills: The villain is from Victorian era and fully believes in imperialism – the Wasteland is just another place to claim for the Queen and exploit. He is thoroughly icky, generally believes in having his dirty work done for him, and has some now-repugnant views about native races and women. Really, about everyone else in general. So, he’s a very effective villain. However, I don’t really understand how he first rose to a position of power in the Wasteland.

More of the Wasteland and the different races and how they interact could have been explored.

The relationship between Jack and Chloe seems a little fast-placed as Jack has kept himself fairly closed off for 26 years and Chloe is aware of her tendency to make bad relationship choices; of course, the first time they begin acting on their mutual attraction, they’re both hyped up on Verrot, which gives a drinker enhanced speed, strength and healing but doesn’t necessarily do a lot for higher reasoning skills. (For the record, they do stop themselves.)

The Source: Galley from publisher, obtained at BEA.

Disclaimer: No chocolate or trips through space and time were provided by the publisher for this review.