Category: YA

Review: ‘As I Descended’ by Robin Talley

Review: ‘As I Descended’ by Robin Talley

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten are their school’s ultimate power couple—even if no one knows it but them. Only one thing stands between them and their perfect future: campus superstar Delilah Dufrey.

Maria and Lily will stop at nothing to ensure their victory—including harnessing the dark power long rumored to be present on the former plantation that houses their school. But when feuds turn to fatalities, and madness begins to blur the distinction between what’s real and what is imagined, the girls must decide where they draw the line.

This was the first book that I finished in 2018 but I didn’t want to review it first because I thought that starting my reviewing off by grumbling would set a bit of a gloomy tone! Because disappointingly, grumble I will.

I was really excited about reading As I Descended. I saw it mentioned in a Book Riot article about YA hallowe’en reads and it sounded like just what I fancied at the time – something pacy and sinister. A little while later (after my library reservation had come in and it was stowed safely on my ‘To Read Soon’ pile at home), I discovered that it was a retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (one of my favourite Shakespeare plays) and I picked it up almost immediately.

To begin with, I enjoyed it. The novel is set in a school built in the grounds of an old plantation and the dark and violent history of the site is the perfect backdrop for a ghost story. It opens strongly, with Maria, Lily and Brandon using a ouija board, releasing malevolent spirits in tense scenes that played on the history of the school and really had me hooked. Maria’s hyspanic heritage, the ghost stories she was told as a child and the use of Spanish really add a different feel to the novel and it has a lot of promise.

As events escalated, I sadly became increasingly disengaged. Almost all of the characters come from rich and privileged backgrounds (and that’s not me making me assumptions, we’re actually told), which makes it feel a bit ridiculous that central events revolve around a competition with the prize of a scholarship to the college of their choice. It’s acknowledged more than once that most of the students could go wherever they wanted without the prize so I couldn’t believe that Maria and Lily would drive each other to the lengths that they do all for something that they could have had anyway. Delilah, their nemesis, is also a bit of a caricature of a prima donna teenager (twirling lipgloss and sharp tongue and all) and it’s frustrating. By the end, I pretty much hated all of the central characters and didn’t care what happened to them anyway. I sometimes think that it’s a little bit churlish to intentionally read YA and then complain about the characters being too childish but that’s precisely what I’m going to do! I don’t mind a degree of immaturity but the characters in this are so bloody whiny. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m older than the natural target market but I can’t be persuaded to think that not having the bestest of the best grades is worth killing for.

The subtlety of Macbeth and the main characters’ genuine struggles with guilt and their pain over the loss of control over the events they have set in motion is missing and everything just gets…well, silly if I’m honest. And there are far too many dream sequences! I lost count of the amount of characters relaying dreams of veiled women and horrors from their past. They became eye-rolling-inducingly frequent and I skim read a lot of them.

Ok, last thing, I promise – I just need to get some of this off my chest, unpopular though it might prove. I also struggled with the balance of characters. I obviously appreciate and want diversity in the books I read. I want to read about characters with backgrounds and cultures that are different to mine. What I don’t want is to feel as though an author is forcing diversity in. Of the 8 or so main characters, 5 are LGBT, 3 are people of colour and one is disabled (some have more than one!). In a novel of about 350 pages, it feels a bit much and almost as though the novel is trying too hard to fulfil some unwritten criteria (particularly when the characters don’t feel too distinct).

Overall: If you whip through this in a session or two and don’t pay too much attention, it’s not unentertaining and there are elements of it that are fun so you’ll stand a fair chance of enjoying it. Perhaps if you’re also a little more patient with teenagers being obviously teenage. All in all, though, let’s just say this wasn’t the novel for me. There’s real potential with some of the ghosts and history but it all ended up falling flat. Well, actually I suppose it falls the opposite of flat and spirals into bonkers melodrama but you know what I mean…

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Pictured Edition published by Mira INK in May 2014

Date finished: 04 January 2018

Source: Library

Review: ‘Three Dark Crowns’ by Kendare Blake

Review: ‘Three Dark Crowns’ by Kendare Blake

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Every generation on the island of Fennbirn, a set of triplets is born: three queens, all equal heirs to the crown and each possessor of a coveted magic. Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions.

But becoming the Queen Crowned isn’t solely a matter of royal birth. Each sister has to fight for it. And it’s not just a game of win or lose…it’s life or death. The night the sisters turn sixteen, the battle begins. The last queen standing gets the crown.
I was interested in picking up Three Dark Crowns from the moment that I first saw the plot description.  It sounded like the darker kind of fantasy that Crooked Kingdom had left me wanting more of.  I mean, really, a queen giving birth to three daughters with different but equally impressive sounding powers and a fight to the death between those sisters to see who gets to become queen?  Brutal sounding, maybe, but interesting.  Then the book cropped up on a whole host of favourites lists towards the end of 2016 and I was completely sold.  
I was disappointed.
Frankly, Three Dark Crowns is mostly boring.  I don’t use that word lightly but there’s just no other way to describe the overwhelming feeling that I had while reading; it was boredom.  The book opens with the bit of back story that you get from the blurb and introduces the three sisters: Katharine, a poisoner who is meant to be able to handle and consume the deadliest poisons without harm; Arsinoe, a naturist born to control living things; and, Mirabella, an elementalist who, you guessed it, can control the elements.  Chapters then shift between the sisters as they approach their sixteenth birthday and their respective communities gear up to help them win power by destroying their siblings. 
I think that maybe I expected something like The Hunger Games.  A bit of world building and some character development and then on with the action that people (or at least, I) came for.  The balance in Three Dark Crowns feels way off.  A solid three quarters of the book is build up, which I suppose makes it all the more insulting that the world still feels pretty flimsy.  
It turns out that not all of the sisters are as gifted as they’re expected to be and they moan about it constantly.  I get it, you’re supposed to be a badass princess with a power that will have your sisters quaking in their boots and instead, you’re powerless, styling it out and facing what you’re pretty sure is impending death.  That’s bound to be challenging.  What’s annoying (and dull) is that this applies to two out of the three sisters, making things pretty repetitive, and seemingly they and their friends have decided not to do a great deal about it.  Or at least, not to do anything constructive or sensible about it.  They could be training physically, for example, or developing a realistic alternative plan to “win”, rather than just sitting around waiting to see if they’ll develop their powers in time.  Don’t even get me started on the one who seems to adopt a strategy of “if I get it on with this strange man, maybe I can develop an allure that will make all of the men fall in love with me and protect me”.
Even the emotional side of being raised to kill your siblings that could have been interesting is dulled by the fact that only one out of the three even has memories of the others.  The other two have conveniently forgotten their early life with their sisters and so believe the spiels they’ve been given about how evil they are.  An easy dodge that just felt lazy.  And there’s insta-love.  Twice.
And THEN, infuriatingly, the last quarter or so of the book was actually good.  The princesses and their retinues all arrive at…somewhere I’ve forgotten and make the first moves in the festival that commences the year within which they’re supposed to be trying to kill each other.  The spark that’s been missing for most of the book finally turns up and the plot starts moving at a decent clip with some scheming, some posturing and some peril.  It’s interesting, appropriately gory and sinister and reveals the potential that was hiding behind the whining all along (although one “twist” was a bit obvious and underwhelming).  Despite having been utterly disinterested for most of the novel and been convinced that I’d put aside the first book and immediately scrub the series off my list as one to watch, I found myself intrigued and sure that with some fiercer editing and perhaps a wider shot at the overarching story, this story could have been something great.
Overall:  I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re particularly interested in the concept, you have a spare few hours (which is probably all this will take if you can get stuck in without being distracted…) and don’t already have a burgeoning list of series that you’re in the middle of, the last quarter makes it feel as though the series will be worth a read.  Otherwise, I’d probably wait until the next book comes out and see how the story pans out before committing…
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Date finished:  07 January 2017
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought
Genre: Fantasy fiction; YA
Pictured Edition Published: in September 2016 by Pan Macmillan
Buy your own copy (affiliate links):  Amazon  |  Wordery
Review: ‘Crooked Kingdom’ by Leigh Bardugo

Review: ‘Crooked Kingdom’ by Leigh Bardugo

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


**This is the second book in the Six of Crows duology – so that I can bleat about this to as many people as possible, there aren’t any spoilers in this review for either this or Six of Crows so unless you’re particularly cautious about that type of thing and don’t even want to know which characters are still around in Crooked Kingdom, you’re safe!  If you decide not to read on, please just know this: this is one of the best books I’ve read this year and a new favourite.  The series is a triumph and one that should be held up to the naysayers about how amazing YA fantasy can be when done really, really well.
I really enjoyed Six of Crows when I read it in September last year and it really stuck in my head after I’d finished it (something I find quite rare with YA fantasy).  I decided to make the most of the momentum, ignore the hefty page count of Crooked Kingdom and just read it.  It turned out to be one of my better decisions of the year and I’ve been banging on about it ever since.  Six of Crows is a great book; Crooked Kingdom is just something else.  Outstanding.  I don’t have the words to express just how much I adored this book (although that won’t stop me trying).
The plot carries on almost straight from where Six of Crows left off and the pace is relentless. In the best, dark and brooding kind of way.  The story continues to be told in multiple perspectives, with narratives shifting to keep readers wrong-footed and to disguise those parts of the plot that the reader isn’t privy to.  Not in a way that you notice at the time but in a way that means that when the twist comes, you’re just as stunned as everybody else.  The writing and plotting is so clever and I would absolutely never have guessed that it was written by the same author that penned the Grisha trilogy book that I was so underwhelmed by if I hadn’t known.  I have a lot of respect for Leigh Bardugo for writing a duology and not trying to drag the series out into a trilogy. Both books are tightly put together and nothing feels like filler.  Sure, I wish I’d been able to have more but only because I’m greedy and I loved the books so much.  I’d much rather be left wanting more than have had to tolerate a mediocre middle instalment that watered down this gut-wrenching finale.
And the characters! They’re some of my absolute favourites. Not “for this year” or “for YA”, my actual, all time, Hall of Favourites. Every single one of the main group is unique and is developed in a way that makes absolute perfect sense.  Their flaws are deeply rooted and they aren’t the kind to be cured by a well-timed kiss or a motivational pep-talk.  Kaz Brekker breaks my heart.  Jesper’s battle with a gambling addiction is so well written and his banter with Wylan makes me grin like an idiot.  Inej’s struggles with what she’s had to do to survive are quietly painful.  I hate when I start reading a book full of characters that have darker sides only to find that their quirks are ironed out over the course of the plot.  Not all of the characters got the ending that I so fervently hoped for while I was reading and yet I find that instead of being disappointed, I’m convinced that the endings that Bardugo chose are utter perfection.  I can’t think of a single thing that I would have done differently.  I read the last 150 pages or so in one evening and I must have looked like a complete barmpot clutching the pages ridiculously hard, gasping, laughing and crying to myself.
I didn’t start a new book properly for a good few days after I’d finished this one because I couldn’t shake it off. I didn’t want to read about new characters or fly straight into a new story.  I wanted to wallow in my feelings and cling to these characters. I still do, actually.  Every time I see the book in my living room (I haven’t had the heart to ditch it back onto my ‘Read’ pile upstairs), I’m reminded of how bloody brilliant the whole thing was and how sad it is that I’ll never get to read it for the first time again.  
Only one word of light warning on this one – if you haven’t read the Grisha trilogy yet and do plan to, this book does have a pretty significant spoiler for the ending of that trilogy so you might want to get that finished before you get to this duology. Weirdly, now that I’ve read the ending to the trilogy, I am now tempted to go back and give it another try! 
Overall: I really don’t think that I need to say anything here but honestly and really and truly, this book is so worth your money and your time.  It’s one of the extremely few books that I can genuinely say that I might re-read at some point in the future.  If Leigh Bardugo writes anything else, I’ll be pre-ordering it without a second thought.
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Date finished:  15 December 2016
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought
Genre: Fantasy fiction; YA
Pictured Edition Published: in September 2016 by Orion Children’s Books
Buy your own copy (affiliate links):  Amazon  |  Wordery

Review: ‘Hollow City’ by Ransom Riggs

Find a copy now
on SocialBookCo
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
This is the second novel featuring Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children.  This review doesn’t include spoilers for the first book or the second book so I’ve also hidden the synopsis for the second book – if you want to see it, highlight below 🙂  
This second novel begins in 1940, immediately after the first book ended. Having escaped Miss Peregrine’s island by the skin of their teeth, Jacob and his new friends must journey to London, the peculiar capital of the world. Along the way, they encounter new allies, a menagerie of peculiar animals, and other unexpected surprises.
I read the first book in this series not too long ago as part of the October Readathon, initially picking it up because I thought the pictures would help if my eyes got tired.  I really wasn’t expecting to like the book as much as I did and I’m so glad that I knew I had the second one on its way as I was finishing it!  The first book sees Jacob meeting Miss Peregrine and her peculiar children and learning more about the world that they live in and how he fits in that world.  This second one continues the story after some rather dramatic upheaval is inflicted upon the Home for Peculiar Children in the final pages of the first book.  I’m glad that I read the first and second books pretty close together.  Although there are a couple of sentences that recap main events from the end of the first book at the opening of the second one, there isn’t anything too detailed so if it’s been a while since you read the first one, you might want to have a quick flick through the final pages of it or search out a quick summary before you get started on the next instalment.
I can’t decide if I liked Hollow City more or Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  Both books are action-packed but where the first one had mostly quite a whimsical, fairytale feeling about it and was almost outside of any time, the second has a darker, more sinister edge to it and plays heavily on the uncertainty and chaos already prevalent in England in 1940.  The pictures obviously continue to be one of the most distinctive features of the series but in the first book, they’re creepier and more haunting than in the second; there are still some new characters to introduce and some eery pictures that accompany these but there are also a lot of pictures that aren’t quite as quirky on the whole even though they do still hold to the vintage theme.  (Incidentally, there are maybe some that I’d personally say weren’t quite suitable for younger readers (dead things, mostly…) so if you have a younger family member reading them, it might be worth vetting the pictures beforehand.)

The interview with Ransom Riggs in the back of my edition of Hollow City describes how with the first book, the pictures mostly came first but with this second book, because the story was already so well advanced, the process was often the other way round; the words leading and the pictures filling out the details so I guess that it makes sense that overall I think I prefer the second book as a story but I prefer the first one as a reading experience, if that makes sense.

One thing I’ve been impressed with in both books and really wasn’t expecting was just how good the writing is.  I wasn’t expecting it to be bad but I also wasn’t expecting it to be noticeably good.  It’s really easy to read and the pages absolutely fly by (helped along by the regular pictures!) but it’s also beautiful in its way.  It flows wonderfully and it has some really stand out moments that I actually skipped back half a page just to read again.  Something about the tone just sets off the peculiar subject matter to perfection.

Through a bombed cemetery, long-forgotten Londoners unearthed and flung into trees, grinning in rotted formal wear. A curlicued swing set in a cratered playground. The horrors piled up, incomprehensible, the bombers now and then dropping flares to light it all with the pure, shining white of a thousand camera flashes. As if to say: Look. Look what we made

It wasn’t quite a five star read for me because the plot was a little too…neat for me in places, even though that slightly twee feeling was thrown on its head towards the end.  (Seriously, though, that ending!)  I already have the next book, Library of Souls, ordered and I’m going to be picking it up as soon as I can, before I forget how much these characters tug on my heart strings and how badly I want to know how their stories turn out.
Overall:  This series has continued to surprise me, with this one throwing me completely off balance in the last few chapters.  The pictures don’t feel gimmicky in the slightest; it all just works.  I love how Riggs has taken some odd, discarded photos and built a world around them.  Hollow City takes that world and blows it apart and I can’t wait to see whether it gets put back together again.

If you do fancy picking up a copy, you can compare prices over at SocialBookCo, a nifty website that shows you the current price of the book you want at most popular online stores (including Amazon, Book Depository and Wordery).  Some of the books I’ve seen have varied in price by as much as £5 so it’s an easy way to save some cash on the run up to Christmas!  Find Hollow City HERE.
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Date finished:  19 November 2016
Format: Paperback
Source: Received from SocialBookCo in exchange for an honest review
Genre: Fantasy fiction; YA
Pictured Edition Published: in February 2015 by Quirk Books 

Review: ‘Empire of Storms’ by Sarah J. Maas (Spoiler Free!)



Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

As this is the fifth book in the Throne of Glass series, I won’t be pasting a synopsis here. If you’ve read the fourth book or just really don’t care about spoilers, you can find a synopsis on GoodReads HERE.

This post doesn’t include spoilers for this instalment but it does include some spoilers for earlier books in the series so if you haven’t read Queen of Shadows yet, look away now!

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First things first, I really enjoyed reading this book. There is something about this story and about Sarah J. Maas’ writing that is so readable and completely absorbing. With every instalment, it takes me a few chapters to get back into the world but after that, the story pulls me in and I fly through the pages.  Whatever criticisms I might have of this book, I still think that this series is one of the best YA high fantasy around at the moment (even though it is getting progressively less ‘YA’ as the series goes on…) and I will absolutely be reading the final book in the series as soon as possible.  The ending of Empire of Storms is a real sucker punch and I very much need to know how the story ends.
There are some characters that deserve particular mentions this time around. Lysandra is fabulous and easily my favourite character at this point in the series. Now that magic is back in the world, we get to see a lot more of her shifting abilities and it’s so, so good. If you liked her in the earlier books, you will love her in this one. She kicks arse. I was also a big fan of the development of Elide and Manon. Elide becomes more than the shy, quiet girl that she is in the earlier books but in a way that absolutely feels consistent with the back story we’ve been given.  Manon has always been one of my favourites and I loved her even more in Empire of Storms.  She’s one of the more unique and unpredictable characters and stops the story from becoming too ‘Vanilla Fae’. While we’re on Manon, oh my goodness, how adorable is Abraxos? If adorable is the right word for a giant, lethal wyvern…Writing this makes me realise that it’s the ladies who are the stand out characters in this series at the moment. There aren’t any characters that I actually dislike but the male characters are definitely left behind in this book. Aside from Dorian, who is still learning about his magic and still manages to be a lot more complex than the other brawny and slightly dull men otherwise filling up the cast.
So there’s a lot that’s great. My main gripe with this book, however, is the romance. Not so much the Aelin-Rowan romance (which I have some reservations about but that I’m actually quite a fan of generally) but the all-out romance offensive. I get that the main group of characters have been travelling together for a while by the time that we’ve got to this book and that maybe some of the relationship dynamics might have started to change into something more romantic but to have pretty much every single character hooking up with another in the space of a single book is a stretch.  I mean, sure, I’ve never been part of a royal court during a global war and maybesomething about the constant peril might drive a lot of people together but everybody?  I’m not sure I buy it.  It also gave rise to a series of raunchy scenes that were pretty repetitive and, honestly, became awkward. In principle, sex in books doesn’t bother me but it does need to be well-written. Not all of the scenes in this book are. At the very least, the frequency with which couples start getting together had me rolling my eyes in a ‘here we go again’ kind of way.
The plot is as twisty as previous instalments and keeps a solid pace for a book that’s pretty much 700 pages. I didn’t feel bored or as though the story was being laboured, which is no mean feat with such a hefty page count so far into a series.  One thing that I did notice in this book more than I have in others is how heavily the series continues to rely on diversions and twists. Characters are secretive and through neat handling of the multiple POVs, information is doled out often at the last minute and I did a lot of gawping at the pages. Generally, I quite like that about this series and always have. When I get to a Big Reveal, I don’t feel cheated or as though it’s a lazy way of shifting the direction of the story without having to write any build-up (which I have seen some reviewers raise as a complaint). I feel as though it fits with whoever was doing the plotting’s character or actions in preceding chapters. What I had a bit of a grumble about this time around is maybe a bit of an odd one but it bugged me that Aelin doesn’t even seem to trust the man who is apparently the love of her life with her plans. I don’t know…I guess it does make sense in some contexts but there are some things that I really think could be shared with someone with someone trusted, even if you aren’t sure if it’ll come off. Worrying about being embarrassed in front of your partner if something doesn’t work out doesn’t fit with the picture of the equal partnership of a relationship that we’re expected to buy into.
Overall:  If you’ve read and liked Queen of Shadows, the series really is worth carrying on with.  Ditto if you’re at any other point in the series but have a cavalier attitude to spoilers!  It’s clear that the series is going to keep on going with a similar tone to Queen of Shadows and that one hell of a finale is coming.  Each book is darker than the last and I’m excited (worried) to see where things end up.

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Date finished: 02 October 2016
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought
Genre: YA fantasy fiction
Pictured Edition Published: on 06 September 2016 by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
Buy your own copy (affiliate links):  Wordery  |  Amazon

Audiobook Mini Reviews: YA Dystopia and Fantasy

Legend by Marie Lu

I’d heard a lot of great things about this series so I was pretty keen when I saw the first in the series on my library’s audiobook list.  It was a disappointment.  If you’ve read any YA Dystopia in recent years, chances are you’ll be able to take a stab at make some pretty accurate guesses about the plot from the blurb.  Shining light in the Republic’s academy, June, is devastated when her brother is murdered.  The country’s most wanted criminal, Day, becomes the prime suspect and June launches off on a state-sponsored under-cover mission to track him down and exact some revenge.  When their paths cross, they realise that (shocker) everything with the Republic is not quite as it seems…
I struggled to find the story very compelling because I felt like I’d already read it.  I finished the book and felt as though all of the detail had been forgotten somewhere – there’s a great ramble about “the Colonies” and how the Republic hates them.  Problem is, it’s difficult for me to really get into this Republic v. Colonies struggle if it isn’t fully described.  What are the Colonies?  Why does the Republic hate them so much?  What’s the political position of the Colonies?  I haven’t a clue.  It felt a little bit as though it was relying on the atmosphere that pervades the genre rather than creating any of its own; you’re lead to believe that you hate the Republic not because you’re really shown why (at least at first) but because you know that’s who you’re supposed to hate.
The characters are also pretty two dimensional and if it hadn’t been for the fact that June and Day’s chapters were narrated by different actors in the audiobook, I’d have struggled to tell them apart.  The romance is shallow and uninspiring.  All in all, I felt like as a first book, it’s too light.  There isn’t enough time spent building the world or developing the characters and I don’t plan on picking up the next one to fill in the blanks because I kind of don’t care about them.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars for being a passable re-hash of the ‘Big Bad Republic Tramples Poor’ trope.  It doesn’t offer anything new or particularly interesting but it isn’t appalling enough to inspire any major ranting.  Just ok.
The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix

This is another series that I’d heard wonderful things about.  The concept of the series is pretty great – Sabriel is adopted as a baby by the Abhorsen, a bell-wielding necromancer, and sent off to Ancelstierre as a child to learn charter magic and grow up away from her death-walking father.  When her father goes missing, the first book sees Sabriel returning to the Old Kingdom and setting off to find him with a tremendously sarcastic talking cat.  The later books are set about 20 years after the first and follow younger, new characters as they face down an impending apocalypse.
One of my main problems with the series overall was that the books are quite repetitive, which gives it away as epic fantasy for slightly younger readers.  Nix has gone to the trouble of creating a wonderful magic system for the necromancers that is centred around bells, each of which has a different name and power.  What was frustrating was that every time a bell was used, I was treated to a run-down of its characteristics and abilities.  Which was fine the first couple of times but by the end of the third book, felt a bit worn.  The characters are also very much young adults.  They can be whiny and there’s a lot of growing into powers and learning about who they are and who they can be etc. etc.  It works well in the first book but is much less dexterously handled in the latter two.
 
I did like the series.  I might not sound like I did, but I did.  It’s quite gritty and focusses a lot on Death (which is a place with levels that the Abhorsen can walk through that I wish had been featured more) and the undead.  It’s dark in places and worth reading if you’re patient and the odd bout of self-pity/whining.  Maybe they’d be better read with a few books in between to break them up and give you chance to forget some of the facts that you’ll be reminded about later on.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars for having some great ideas and concepts that were just lacking in their execution for me.  It also loses stars for having a talking dog (“the Disreputable Dog”) feature heavily in the second and third books because it is a) is a talking dog, which is a bit insipid and didn’t appeal to me because I’m just not a dog person and b) has far too many hidden powers that conveniently manifest themselves when the going gets tough and the characters need an easy out.
Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Oof.  Sorry, friends.  This set of mini reviews isn’t the most positive I’ve ever written!  I think that maybe YA fantasy and I need to take a little break…
This offering is about Grace, a teenager living in Mercy Falls who has a frankly unhealthy preoccupation with a wolf with yellow eyes who lives in the woods behind her house.  One day she meets a boy, Sam, who has hauntingly familiar yellow eyes and…guessed where this is going yet?  Yep, this is another book that’s pretty predictable.  And a bit annoying.  
The twist on the usual werewolf day/night shifts was interesting – these werewolves get to be human while its warm and turn into wolves for the winter.  Eventually, they run out of summers and turn into wolves forever.  Unfortunately for Grace, this is Sam’s last summer as a human and so the lovers have to race to find a way to stay together.  Perhaps I’m a cynic but I really struggle to buy into a relationship that’s based on years of Grace having watched Sam as a wolf.  There are some minor moral quandaries along the way but the plot is really just Grace and Sam canoodling and trying to plan a life together in their second month together.
My sister loves this series so it could be just me but my overwhelming feelings is just a world of ‘meh’.  
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars for making me feel like I was wading through tropes.  Cross-species relationship, parents that are conveniently always busy and out of the main characters’ way, InstaLove (because I’m sorry but I will not believe that meaningful ‘getting to know each other’ time can happen while one of the parties is a wolf) and high school friendships straining under the weight of one person’s new obsession with The One.

Review: ‘The Forever Song’ by Julie Kagawa

**SPOILER ALERT – THE FOREVER SONG is the last book in the Blood of Eden trilogy.  If you haven’t read the first book, The Immortal Rules, you might want to head over to my review of that HERE instead.  This review won’t contain spoilers for The Forever Song but may contain spoilers for earlier books in the series**

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

(HIGHLIGHT BELOW FOR BLURB – it’s jam-packed full of spoilers for the second book, The Eternity Cure, so I’m keeping it hidden so that it doesn’t catch someone’s eye and ruin the whole series for them. That’s just how much I care)

Vengeance will be hers.

Allison Sekemoto once struggled with the question: human or monster? With the death of her love, Zeke, she has her answer.

Monster.

Allie will embrace her cold vampire side to hunt down and end Sarren, the psychopathic vampire who murdered Zeke. But the trail is bloody and long, and Sarren has left many surprises for Allie and her companions – her creator Kanin, and her blood brother, Jackal. The trail is leading straight to the one place they must protect at any cost – the last vampire-free zone on Earth, Eden. And Sarren has one final, brutal shock in store for Allie. 

In a ruined world where no life is sacred and former allies can turn on you in one heartbeat, Allie will face her darkest days. And if she succeeds, her triumph will be short-lived in the face of surviving forever alone.

THE FINAL HUNT IS ON

Review

One of the things that I loved about the first two books in the Blood of Eden series was that they managed to be both YA books about vampires and decent.  They were dark and had a satisfyingly threatening atmosphere, taking some of the best bits of the paranormal YA and dystopian genres and making something that felt a bit different.  There was romance but it wasn’t too much and it didn’t feel to me like it was the heart of the series, just another layer to Alison’s experience as a relatively new vampire.  And then along came The Forever Song.  I was really looking forward to seeing where Kagawa took the characters after the gut-wrenching bombshell of an ending to The Eternity Cure and I was really hoping that it would feature a lot more of Sarren, who I found almost unbearably creepy.
The sad fact is that The Forever Song just wasn’t as good as I’d hoped it would be.  Where the first two books had well-placed moments of angst amongst the action, this one had occasional action to detract from the angst.  And even when there was a bit of action, it was quite repetitive.  Alison and a combination of the other main characters are travelling.  Alison and her companion(s) smell (literally) something amiss.  Alison and friends get attacked by a bunch of rabids, prompting a fight during which Alison will whirl around with a katana while Jackal bashes at things with an axe and Kanin rips them apart with his bare hands or slashes at them with his knife.  Rinse and repeat for roughly half the novel.
I could have lived with that though (I think), if it hadn’t been for the labouring of Alison’s moral quandary that earlier in the series was reasonably well handled.  I don’t know if I’ve become less tolerant as the series has gone on or if this instalment really was more clumsy but I do know that I did an awful lot more sighing during The Forever Song.  Alison’s struggle to ‘contain’ her demon and Kanin’s constant judging/mentoring presence just got too much. If I’d had to read something like this one more time, I’d have rolled my eyes right out:

There is a difference between killing while in the throes of Hunger or Blood Frenzy, and giving in to the monster. Once you fall, once you willingly cross that line, it changes you. Forever“.

We get it, Kanin.  We get it.
By far, my favourite thing about The Forever Song was Jackal.  He was the only character that remained consistently interesting and entertaining to read about because he was the only one who didn’t become predictable.  
But I liked the ending and when some characters who shall remain nameless for spoiler avoidance reasons finally stopped feeling so bloody sorry for themselves and being so horrendously whiny, I enjoyed it.  The second half was far, far better than the first and felt a lot more like the rest of the Blood of Eden series that I’d enjoyed so much.  It saved the book from being a complete disaster and was more than a little responsible for the book getting a 3.5 star rating and not being a complete washout.  I still feel as though the series is a good one and I definitely think that it stands head and shoulders above some of the other more generic vampire stories that the urban fantasy/paranormal market seems to be saturated with but I’m not sad that it’s over, which is sort of sad in itself.

Overall:  A good ending to the series but getting there is a bit of a bumpy experience.  I still have generally positive feelings towards the series overall but can’t help wishing that the quality of the first two had been sustained to the very end.  Don’t abandon the series if you’ve made it this far but do open the book with a little bit of caution and a lot of patience.

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Date finished: 08 January 2015
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre: YA; Urban fantasy
Pictured Edition Published:  in May 2014 by MIRA Ink

Review: ‘Echo Boy’ by Matt Haig

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Audrey’s father taught her that to stay human in the modern world, she had to build a moat around herself; a moat of books and music, philosophy and dreams. A moat that makes Audrey different from the echoes: sophisticated, emotionless machines, built to resemble humans and to work for human masters. Daniel is an echo – but he’s not like the others. He feels a connection with Audrey; a feeling Daniel knows he was never designed to have, and cannot explain. And when Audrey is placed in terrible danger, he’s determined to save her. The Echo Boy is a powerful story about love, loss and what makes us truly human.

Review

At the end of 2013, I rambled and raved about how much I loved The Humans and then posted an adoring review of it earlier this year.  It was easily one of my favourite books last year so I was extremely excited to be approved for Haig’s first foray into the world of YA fiction on NetGalley.

When I read books like Echo Boy, I kind of wish that they’d been around when I was younger.  Maybe they were and I just missed them but my early teen years were populated by Point Horror, Sweet Valley High and a miscellany of random sleuthing novels.  Although I was as much of a sucker for the Point Horror novels as many other teens of the 90s, I sort of skipped “YA” and went from Goosebumps to the adult section.  What I think there seems to be much more of being done particularly well these days (over a decade later) are genre books that tackle more adult themes, such as grief, love that doesn’t revolve around the cutest boy in school and mental health issues in a more accessible way.  Echo Boy takes a version of the future (that is actually worryingly believable) where technology has been developed in sort of an I, Robot type way, with families relying on computers and robots for education, travel (or the virtual variety), as well as for housework and for generally tackling the grungier side of life.  Audrey’s father is out-spoken in his belief that humanity should be getting back to being more self-sufficient, warning of the dangers he sees in a world where robots are everywhere. 
It’s a tried and tested premise and I enjoyed Echo Boy. It was well-paced and kept me entertained on a good few nights while I was facing down a sleep-defying bout of sciatica earlier this year but it didn’t stack up against The Humans.  I was going to try to avoid the comparison but there were a lot of similarities in the themes.  Both have a non-human learning more about what humanity is and what it can mean and both have a pressing risk of danger borne out of a protaganist’s difference (weaving in a bit of dealing with prejudice for good measure).  Echo Boy was a perfectly adequate (good, even) sci-fi tale but it wasn’t outstanding.
I think that what my disappointment really came down to was that everything was just a little bit too predictable or a little bit too light (albeit with a couple of notable exceptions).  It’s tricky to explain because the blurb doesn’t give away a lot so I’m reluctant to either but Audrey deals with grief and depression; patches have been developed that can suppress negative emotions but the benefits (or otherwise) of using them is dealt with neatly and sensitively.  Much of Audrey’s decisions and actions, though, are either obvious or a bit…stupid.  She’s remarkably slow on the uptake, particularly when it comes to who she should or shouldn’t trust, and it’s more than a bit frustrating.

Daniel is a stronger character and much more interesting but isn’t exactly perfect.  I loved how he was an echo (the name used for robots) but so irrepressibly human, an individual experiment designed to imitate emotion.  It’s all well done; is it our feelings and desires and flaws that make us human or is it our flesh and bones?  The only point I wasn’t sold on was Daniel and Audrey’s relationship.  I know that Haig can write believable, meaningful love but this wasn’t it.  I was ready to buy into Daniel being more than a robot and I would have bought into his being able to love but, as ever, I just can’t get on board with InstaLove.

I sound like I’m moaning.  I’m not trying to, I’m just trying to say that this is a good book and that how much you enjoy it will probably depend upon what you’re expecting (i.e. whether or not you’ve read and loved that book that I’ll try not to mention again until I wrap up…).  I like the ideas and Haig is a great writer so they’re done well, just in a way that I felt lacked depth.  I wanted more of Daniel, more of his background and more on the world and the background.  There was a bit set in a zoo that featured creatures (including some Neanderthals) brought back from extinction that was both fascinating and kind of heart-breaking and it was over too soon.  So this is a good, light touch sort-of moral book with plenty of action and some classic bad guy behaviour but it wasn’t the tear-jerking, twisty science fiction tale that it I really felt like it could have been.

Overall:  Although Echo Boy won’t be one of the best books of the year for me, it is one of the considerably better shifts from adult to YA by an author that I’ve read.  I wouldn’t think twice about recommending it to young adults or to the more dedicated YA fans but if I were to be recommending a book that looks at inter-species relations, loss or really what it means to be a human, it would be The Humans every time.

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Date finished: 04 March 2014
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley – thanks, Bodley Head Children’s Books!
Genre: Science fiction; YA fiction
Pictured edition published: by Bodley Head Children’s Books in February 2014

Review: ‘Allegiant’ by Veronica Roth

**SPOILER ALERT – ALLEGIANT is the last in the Divergent series so there may be spoilers for earlier books in the series (although I have kept things spoiler free so far as this book goes).  If you haven’t read the first, Divergent, you might want to head over to my review of that HERE instead.  Up to the second book, Insurgent?  My review mini is HERE.

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Rating:  2.5 out of 5 stars

 
The faction-based society that Tris Prior once believed in is shattered – fractured by violence and power struggles and scarred by loss and betrayal.  So, when offered a chance to explore the world pat the limits she’s known, Tris is ready.  Perhaps beyond the fence, she and Tobias will find a simple new life together, free from complicated lies, tangled loyalties and painful memories.
 
But Tris’ new reality is even more alarming than the one she left behind.  Old discoveries are quickly rendered meaningless.  Explosive new truths change the hears of those she loves.  And once again, Tris must battle to comprehend the complexities of human nature – and of herself – while facing impossible choices about courage, allegiance, sacrifice and love.
 
Review
If you’ve even remotely followed this series as it’s flown around the blogosphere, I can’t imagine that you managed to avoid the furore that surrounded the release of the final instalment at the end of last year.  People’s reactions seemed to range from utter emotional devastation to out and out rage.   I’d gone into Allegiant expecting more of the same high drama, fast action and semi-political wranglings that graced the pages of the first two.  The hurtling pace was still there and there were times when I managed to stop rolling my eyes and sighing in a melodramatic manner long enough to be gripped by what was going on but, when it comes down it, I just wasn’t a big fan.  It was ok but not at all the life-suspending read I was looking forward to, was disappointing.

Perhaps surprisingly to those that have read it, it wasn’t the ending that made this a bit of a retrospective dud but the plot generally.  For me, the first two books were made great by the idea of society being divided into factions. People living according to one defining characteristic and balancing governance and responsibilities for the protection of that society according to those attributes was a great idea that was executed well.  As Tris, Four and her band of loyal friends go Beyond the Fence, they more or less leave behind the factions and instead step into a world with a far less engaging and considered conflict based on some flimsy history and some even more wobbly science.

I won’t go into too much detail about it all because I don’t want to spoil it for those of you that haven’t made it to this book yet but I will say categorically that the factions were better.  There was no need to completely shift the focus and try to set up and resolve a global conflict within one book and it just felt under-developed as a consequence.  Shelving pretty much everything that readers have come to love in the first two books of a trilogy and wandering off onto a tangent that just has no traction is brave in some ways and I suppose worthy of at least a small nod of praise.  But “genetically pure v. genetically damaged” backed up with some shaky explanations and some excellent glossing over of anything that might make it stand up to more thought?  As weak as it sounds.  I never bought into while I was reading and I haven’t bought into it on reflection.

We also have a split narrative this time around, with the story being told both from Tris and Tobias/Four’s perspectives.  Super.  I have no problem with having more than one narrator.  Actually, I’m quite a fan of the device in general.  Here, though, I found that I kept forgetting who was “speaking”.  Both characters are now at the stage where they are internally conflicted and are having family problems and are all but indistinguishable in tone.  Both also seemed to be all too happy to put aside their worries and feelings of grave betrayal/upset/general anger any time an opportunity to snog in a hallway/empty room presented itself.  Maybe I’m not enough of a romantic or maybe it’s been too long since I was a teenager but sporadic kissing in corridors does not a romantic sub-plot sustain.  The relationship that has been lauded generally as being realistic in its troubles just became silly for me.  Sorry.  Oh, and while I’m on the characters, pretty much all of the characters that you’ve come to know and love from the first couple of books will be put to one side so that you can spend some time with those that populate Beyond the Fence world. 

I suppose I couldn’t let the whole review go by without at least mentioning the thing that had people talking, sobbing and/or throwing things.  When I started reading Allegiant, I had no idea where The Incident occurred and I spent the whole time waiting for something to make me incandescent with fury.  It isn’t right until the end so if you’re planning on reading this and might be in the hyper-aware state that I was for the first half, you needn’t worry.  And The Incident?  It was a bit of a shock but not at all the trauma that I had come to expect and hasn’t really impacted on my feelings towards the series in any way.  By that point, I was too exasperated with the whole experience to really care a great deal what happened to any of the characters and I didn’t cry once.  Unusual for me and (you guessed it) disappointing.

In all honesty, I didn’t hate Allegiant as much as it sounds like I did.  Everything is wrapped up reasonably neatly (almost too neatly, really…) and the conclusions to the plots that existed at the end of Insurgent fairly satisfying.  Most of my frustration lies in the fact that I was looking forward to a weekend spent tucked up with a riveting read and was left wanting.  Would I recommend the series as a whole now that I know where it ends up?  Sadly, I’m not at all sure.
 

Overall:  If you’ve read Divergent and Insurgent, this isn’t a completely terrible end to the series and I wouldn’t warn you off completely because it does wrap everything up and give you that “Ah, series complete” feeling.  Just please don’t say that I didn’t warn you that it’s far from perfect and closure might be the best reward you’ll get. 

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Date finished: 26 January 2014
Format: Hardback
Source: Borrowed from my local library
Genre: YA fiction; Dystopian fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2013

Review: ‘The Bone Season’ by Samantha Shannon

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The year is 2059. Nineteen-year-old Paige Mahoney is working in the criminal underworld of Scion London, based at Seven Dials, employed by a man named Jaxon Hall. Her job: to scout for information by breaking into people’s minds. For Paige is a dreamwalker, a clairvoyant and, in the world of Scion, she commits treason simply by breathing.


It is raining the day her life changes for ever. Attacked, drugged and kidnapped, Paige is transported to Oxford – a city kept secret for two hundred years, controlled by a powerful, otherworldly race. Paige is assigned to Warden, a Rephaite with mysterious motives. He is her master. Her trainer. Her natural enemy. But if Paige wants to regain her freedom she must allow herself to be nurtured in this prison where she is meant to die.

 

Review

Sometimes I wonder how much of a bubble we book bloggers live in. When I was flicking through the reviews of this book on Goodreads, I was surprised to see that it wasn’t a sweep of four and five star reviews. Maybe I follow a group of bloggers with similar tastes to mine but I haven’t seen anything but glowing reviews, urging me to read The Bone Season as soon as I could. At an average of 3.66 out of 11,913 ratings (as at the time of writing), however, Goodreads tells a different story. So what is it that makes book bloggers crow with love and the wider reading population feel a little more than luke warm?
Maybe part of it is down to marketing. I haven’t seen the articles myself but apparently Samantha Shannon has been hailed as the “next J. K. Rowling”. Leaving aside the fact that J. K. Rowling is very much alive and well and might be a bit miffed to read that she was now being replaced by a fresh face in YA fantasy, I can see why readers might be a little disgruntled if they picked up The Bone Season expecting something akin to the tale of a young boy finding his place in a magical wizarding school, engaging in a bit of tom-foolery and ultimately fighting evil alongside a host of well-mannered and trust-worthy companions. I can vaguely see some similarities to the later Harry Potter books but only really in a (SPOILER FOR HARRY POTTER COMING UP!) “what would have happened if Voldemort won” sort of way.
Whatever the reason for the mixed reception, I really enjoyed it. It took a little bit of getting into but once I’d got my head around the types of clairvoyant and the slang, I was hooked. A lot of thought and imagination is clearly behind the creation of the worlds of Scion London and Sheol I.  Plenty of politics, a history that really seemed to fit with the current state of the world and with the characters’ memories and a huge range of types of clairvoyants that have their own skill sets and place in society. It actually took me most of this book to really feel as though I understood the different types of “voyant”, which was part of the reason I think it took me some time before I really felt as though I could focus on the story.  The detail is clever and is layered perfectly, without any clumsy information dumping or the like, but I found myself feeling a little as though I was behind on something and couldn’t quite work out what.  I’d read the name of a new type of voyant and think, “but I don’t know what you can do!” in the way that only a true control freak really can.  I did learn to shut that part of my brain off and trust Shannon to gradually dole out the relevant background and terms but it took some getting used to.  I was a much happier reader without that little part of my brain.  I probably would have been entirely happy had I not been reading an eBook copy that didn’t reveal it’s glorious glossary to me until I’d already finished the book…
I definitely liked Paige Mahoney well enough and was more than happy to spend some page time with her but it was the criminal underworld of Scion London and the hidden prison camp (effectively) of Sheol I that really pulled me in. There are some elements of Sheol I that stray a little close to the monstrosities of WWII concentration camps for comfort (take tattooing people with their identification number by way of an example) but it did make the setup seem worryingly realistic (if you ignore the fact that the subordinate class have some form of clairvoyance and the dominant class are aliens, obviously!) and much more morbidly engaging as a result.  If you wanted to read too much into it, I’m sure there are plenty more parallels that you could draw about the drone like, brainwashed voyants that serve in the Rephaite army, murdering on order but there’s an external threat in the form of the flesh-eating monsters to keep the action up and moral disquiet down as needed.
Credit also to Shannon for boldly going where not many YA authors appear to be prepared to go and killing characters off. There’s really nothing else for it if you’re going to write good dystopian fiction in my view and I respect it even when it’s making my heart hurt and my stomach clench.
For all of the positives about much of the book, though, I wasn’t totally convinced by some of the events towards the end of this book. I don’t want to spoil this book for anybody because I do absolutely recommend it as a marvellous mix of some of the best that YA fantasy and dystopian fiction have to offer but some things towards the end felt a little…easy. Not contrived, necessarily, but just as though they didn’t quite work with the society that I had immersed myself in, particularly when it comes to Paige’s interactions with Warden. There is some gradual development of their relationship and respective characters but most of the book seemed to be spent with Paige thinking and feeling one way, only to have quite the turn around later on. I don’t mind shifting friendships and I’m fine with a changing captor-prisoner dynamic in fantasy series but I like there to be enough in the way of development and reasons for me to really get behind the direction the characters are moving in.  In a way, I guess that it’s praise that I just wanted more of everything that was brilliant about the book.
Overall: Minor grumbles aside, The Bone Season is really very good so please don’t say that I didn’t warn you when you pick it up and find that 90 minute chunks of your time are disappearing in a blur of voyants. I will definitely be snaffling a copy of the next book in the series and am looking forward to seeing where the series goes.
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Date finished: 13 January 2014
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley – thank you, Bloomsbury!
Genre: Urban fantasy; dystopian fiction; YA fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Orbit in May 2011