Category Archives: Reviews

Don’t Ask Questions, Just Read It: RED RISING by Pierce Brown – Review + Giveaway!

Red Rising 3DRed Rising (Red Rising Trilogy #1) by Pierce Brown
Genre: Adult science fiction
Publisher:  Del Rey Books
Release date: January 28 2014
Source: ARC from San Diego Comic Con & e-ARC via NetGalley
Pages: 382

five stars

The nitty-gritty: This book has it all: kick-ass action, mind-blowing world building, characters with depth, tear-inducing emotional moments, oh god just GET THIS BOOK AND READ IT RIGHT NOW!!!

On Mars there is not much gravity, so you have to pull the feet to break the neck. They let the loved ones do it.

Soon, there is no sound, not even the creaking of the rope.

My wife is too light.

She was only just a girl.

Then the thumping of the Fading Dirge begins. Fists on chests. Thousands. Fast, like a racing heartbeat. Slower. A beat a second. A beat every five. Every ten. Then never again, and the mournful mass fades away like dust held in the palm as the old tunnels wail with deep winds.

And the Golds, they fly away.

So I could just cut out 900 or so words from this review and reiterate what I said above. Simply put, this is my favorite book of the year so far. I’ve had this sitting in a pile of books since last July. July, people!! It sat there gathering dust as I read other, less worthy books. I told myself I might read it at some point, but since it wasn’t a review book, I may not have time to get to it. Then I saw it on NetGalley and requested it, thinking that a NetGalley approval might light a fire under my ass and get me to read it. And that worked. I read it, THANK GOD. Mr. Brown is quite the writer, and at the tender age of twenty-five he’s got a hell of a career ahead of him.

You may have heard about the comparisons this book is garnering, most notably to The Hunger Games and A Game of Thrones. I can’t vouch for the latter comparison, because I may be the only person on the planet who hasn’t read A Game of Thrones (or watched the TV show for that matter), but yes, there are similarities to The Hunger Games. I was also reminded of The Matrix and The Six Million Dollar Man while reading Red Rising. But you should not let these comparisons color your opinion of the story before you read it. Comparisons are simply handy tools that publishers use to entice a certain audience. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Pierce Brown may have incorporated some of these ideas, but he’s done so in a completely unique way, and the end product is like nothing I’ve read before.

I really don’t want to give too much of the story away, but here’s a quick synopsis: Darrow is a  sixteen-year old boy who is a Helldiver, someone who mines the deep tunnels of Mars to find helium-3, a precious substance that is necessary in order to terraform Mars, whose surface is uninhabitable.  He’s also a Red, the lowest color in an intricately devised social system. His entire life he’s been told that his job is a noble one, and that the hardships he and his family endure are for the greater good.

But one day Darrow discovers something terrible: the hardscrabble life he and his friends and family have been living down in the tunnels is all a lie. Mars has already been terraformed and is being ruled by the Golds, who have been enslaving Reds for hundreds of years. After several twists of fate, Darrow finds himself removed from the tunnels by a resistance group who wants to use him to topple the Golds from their lofty perch. But first Darrow will have to convince everyone that he’s a Gold himself. What follows is a series of tests to see just how convincing he can be.

Wow, where do I start? The first thing you should know about Red Rising is that there is a fair amount of graphic violence in its pages. Some of the most horrific passages occur not while the students are doing battle with each other, but before Darrow even gets to the command school. In order for him to become a weapon to take down the society, he must be transformed into a Gold, and when I say transformed, I’m not talking about magic. I’m talking about surgery. Lots of it, graphically described. (This is where my Six Million Dollar Man comparison comes in.) It also reminded me of another favorite book of mine, The Scar by China Miéville, where a character undergoes surgery that will give him gills so that he can live underwater. Just think about that for a moment, and you’ll have an idea of what’s in store for Darrow.

But violence aside, Red Rising has a surprising amount of humor and emotion in it as well. Darrow’s love for his wife Eo is a constant thread that pulls us through the book and ultimately keeps him going, even as his life is falling apart. Some passages even brought tears to my eyes. I grew to love so many of the characters in this book, and since not everyone makes it out alive, well, yes, I cried. Damn you Mr. Brown! You made me cry with your gorgeous prose and your heartfelt emotional moments and your lovably flawed characters.

And the humor, it came just at the right times, just when you think everything’s headed to hell, the author lightens the mood and throws in dialog like this:

Sevro shrugs. “We’ll take Minerva’s standard.”

“W-wait,” Cassius says. “You know how to do that?”

Sevro snorts. “What do you think I’ve been doing this whole time, you silky turd? Wanking off in the bushes?”

Cassius and I look at each other.

“Kind of,” I say.

“Yeah, actually,” Cassius agrees.

I’m also happy to have stumbled upon the Red Rising website, because it gives readers a chance to delve into the fantastic world that Brown has created, in an interactive way. The best thing I found there was this wonderful graphic that shows the hierarchy of the society:

pyramid-allcolors

Each piece of the pyramid is the symbol for a particular color. I encourage you to visit the site and learn more about it here. You can also figure out which color best describes you and download the symbol here.

Honestly, I could go on and on (and on and on…) about Red Rising, but wouldn’t you rather be reading the actual book yourself? If you love great storytelling, finely nuanced characters, and writing that pierces your heart and makes it bleed, then please don’t let this one slip past you. Go buy, borrow or steal it, or better yet, enter to win a copy right here!

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quotes were taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the finished book.

Find Red Rising here:

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And now, I’m happy to say I have an extra ARC of Red Rising to give away to one U.S. reader! All you have to do is fill out the form below to enter. I’ll give you extra points for tweeting about the giveaway and leaving a comment on this post. U.S. only this time, folks. Sorry! I have to mail it myself.

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Filed under Bones & Buffy Hall of Fame, Five stars, Giveaways, Reviews

Utterly Original World-Building: BLACK DOG by Rachel Neumeier – Review

Black Dog 3D

Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier
Genre: Young adult paranormal
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Release date: February 4 2014
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Pages: 448

four stars

The nitty-gritty: A fascinating take on the werewolf tale, wrapped up in an emotional story about complex family relationships, with some much-needed character diversity and lots of cool magic!

Natividad thought the girl couldn’t be more than thirteen or fourteen years old. Her father’s elegant features were, in her, a fragile delicacy. She didn’t look like a girl who could survive disasters. She looked stunned and blank, like she had not yet figured out whether she ought to feel grief or rage or despair or terror. All those emotions would crash in on her at once, Natividad knew. Soon. Probably as soon as Harrison locked her in the cage downstairs to wait, alone, for her corrupted shadow to rise.

Whatever you do, don’t call black dogs “werewolves,” because they’re not. But it’s hard not to think of these creatures this way, because black dogs and werewolves are similar: they look human until they shift into their wolf form, and they are driven to kill. Neumeier has taken this idea and created something unique. Her black dogs not only shift into wolf form in a new way, but they live in complex packs that seem to closely resemble those of dogs and wolves. Neumeier has gorgeous writing skills and uses them to her advantage, creating a story that flows beautifully and is equal parts violent action and focused family drama.

When the story opens, fifteen-year-old Natividad and her two brothers, Miguel and Alejandro, are on the run. They have left their beloved Mexico after their parents were brutally murdered, and are on their way to Vermont to look for the Dimilioc tribe of black dogs, where they hope to be granted refuge from the enemy who killed their parents. But finding the Dimilioc black dogs could be more dangerous than they realize, because pack leader Grayson Lanning is wary of any black dog who isn’t already part of his pack.

With the Dimilioc’s acceptance comes great responsibility, as Natividad and her brothers are about to find out. Because their nemesis, a cruel and dangerous black dog named Vonhausel, is about to make his presence known in the worst way possible. As Grayson’s black dogs and the newcomers slowly start to trust one another, they must join together to destroy Vonhausel once and for all.

I think my favorite part of Black Dog was the incredibly detailed world-building. I loved the idea of the black dogs, who are born that way (not changed by a bite). When a black dog changes to wolf form, it’s their shadow that creates the change. It takes over the human body, much like a storm cloud passing over the sun. A black dog can control his shadow and keep it back if he doesn’t want to change, but this skill requires great strength. Just like the classic werewolf, a black dog is constantly at war with his alter ego.

When I said the family relationships are complex, I wasn’t kidding. Alejandro is a black dog, but his brother Miguel is human and Natividad is something else entirely, a “Pure.” Pures are always female and have magical abilities that can calm a black dog and keep his shadow from rising. Pures are highly valued in the black dog world for this ability, but unfortunately, they are also desired for breeding purposes. This was the one part of the world-building I wasn’t crazy about. My feminist side couldn’t help but protest the fact that all of these tough and dangerous black dogs were salivating over Natividad, even the gray-haired leader, Grayson. Some of Natividad’s interactions with him had me raising my eyebrows, and at one point I was worried Neumeier was about to have them hook up romantically (and yuck!). But when I stepped back and simply observed the reactions of the black dogs, it made sense in a way. The author has set up a realistic “pack” that behaves like domestic dogs do. Even as I was wincing as the males started literally sniffing around Natividad, I tried my best to distance myself and just go with it.

Natividad has a potential romantic love interest (and yes, he wants her just as much as the other males!), but the author wisely puts the romance on the back burner. One of the strongest black dogs is a man named Ezekiel who practically stamps his name on Natividad’s forehead when he meets her. But as the story progressed I grew to really like him, and he never went beyond a stolen kiss or two with her, which I thought was appropriate, especially because of her age.

Neumeier did a great job of showing just how hard the life of black dogs and Pures are. Pack life is always uncertain at best, and downright deadly when someone gets out of control. Everyone must obey and look up to Grayson, which was hard to read about at times. The Dimiliocs in particular have hard and violent lives, because Vonhausel wants to kill them all. A thrilling climactic scene reveals some interesting things about evil Vonhausel, but before things are resolved, get ready for lots of bloodshed.

What didn’t work for me were the scenes between all the action, when the characters were sitting around talking about what they were going to do next. There seemed to be way too many of these talky scenes, at least for me. They served the purpose of conveying information about the world of the black dogs and their customs, but after a while I felt they were just repeating themselves.

But other than that, I found Black Dog to be a fascinating and utterly original story. Amidst the violence of pack life, Neumeier shows us beauty in the smallest details: Natividad’s protective magic, the times when the characters comfort each other, and the joy Natividad and her brothers feel when they see snow for the first time. These moments balance out the blood and grief, and make this a story of hope.

Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.

I interviewed Rachel recently, and you can read the interview here!

Find Black Dog:

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Filed under 4 stars, Reviews

Funny but Frustrating: ALIENATED by Melissa Landers – Review

Alienated 3D

Alienated (Alienated #1) by Melissa Landers
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Release date: February 4 2014
Source: e-ARC via NetGalley
Pages: 352

three stars

The nitty-gritty: A funny and sometimes charming story that shines a light on some important issues, but ultimately felt more like a middle grade book to me.

From the moment I spotted the intriguing cover for Alienated, I started counting the days until I could read it. The idea of a student exchange program with an alien from another planet had me hooked. And while there were parts of Alienated I really enjoyed, my overall reaction to the book was mostly puzzlement. Maybe I’m just too old for this book, because between the unappealing slang and the sometimes silly dialog I felt as if I had stumbled upon a middle grade story that was disguised as young adult. Yes, the characters are seventeen and eighteen, and yes, they face some very important issues that are perfect story fodder for teens. But for me, the characters acted younger than their ages, which affected my enjoyment of the story. Add to these issues the sketchy scientific reasoning behind the world Landers has created, and you have a book that left me frustrated.

Cara Sweeney has just been selected as an ambassador for an alien exchange program. In exchange for hosting a L’eihr student and later visiting his planet herself, Cara will receive an ungodly amount of scholarship money to attend the college of her choice.  Tempting, yes? What Cara doesn’t realize is that many people in her hometown hate the L’eihrs and the idea of sharing planet Earth with aliens. Cara reluctantly welcomes L’eihr hotty Aelyx into her home, but she’s determined to make this odd exchange work. She tirelessly tries to find food that Aelyx will like and shows him the ropes at school, even as her classmates start to turn ugly and protest Aelyx’s presence in town. Lines are clearly drawn as more and more townspeople cross over and join HALO: Humans Against L’eihr Occupation.

As Cara and Aelyx become closer, the dangers of being a L’eihr supporter increase. And is Aelyx hiding something from Cara? How will this mission of peace turn out? And who exactly can be trusted?

I want to start with the things I really liked about Alienated. One of my favorite parts was the blog that Cara starts to document her experiences with hosting an alien. She calls her blog, appropriately enough, “Alienated”, which I loved! Blog entries are interspersed with the rest of the third-person story, and although they don’t make or break the story, it was fun to see how many hits and followers she had (millions!), and I enjoyed the change of tone as her life with Aelyx started to get complicated (and dangerous).

The author sends a clear message about tolerance and acceptance and shines a light on just how damaging xenophobia is and how it can spiral out of control. I think including this theme was a particularly smart idea, although honestly, the story could have been about an exchange student from, say, the Middle East, and it would have been just as effective.

What caught me off-guard with Alienated was the voice of Cara. The POV was strange for me. It’s told in third person and alternates between Cara’s and Aelyx’s points-of-view, but this third person “narrator” uses lots of slang, and so I felt as if I were reading a first person story. Cara’s vocabulary includes such lovely words as “skeeved,” “jerkwagon,” “blow chunks,” and “full-on banana sandwich.” (WTF?) Like I mentioned before, I may just be too old for this book, but the constant use of this type of slang was off-putting to me.

In general, the characters felt clichéd, and I was especially disappointed that I didn’t like the character of Aelyx more. The L’eihrs are described as a race of people who have had all emotions bred out of them over thousands of years. They live in a dull brown and gray environment, wear dull beige clothing that matches their dull skin tone, and basically have had the life sucked out of them so that they’re all the same. When Aelyx comes to Earth, he’s blinded by the variety of colors, smells and tastes, and he has a hard time adjusting. Basically, he’s an uptight, unemotional guy who I found extremely unattractive.

Two other male characters completely offended me. Cara’s boyfriend Eric was a stereotypical horny teen who was constantly trying to get Cara to have sex with him. (Thankfully that relationship didn’t last long). I also hated Cara’s brother Troy, who isn’t in the story much, but when he is he’s constantly insulting his sister. Worse, Cara sees his insults as an act of brotherly love, which I just didn’t understand. Even Cara’s best friend Tori wasn’t likeable. Not only does she start going out with Eric after he breaks up with Cara, but she deserts Cara just when she needs a friend the most, by joining HALO and trying to get Aelyx to go home.

I won’t say much about the “science” in this science fiction story, except to say that it felt as if Landers was just throwing out random ideas. Things like L’eihrs having only four toes on each foot, and the idea that humans all started with brown eyes just felt, well, random! Let’s just say the science wasn’t cohesive enough for me to buy into this alien society.

What I did like was the transformation of the L’eihr exchange students, as they acclimate to Earth’s peculiarities and start to feel at home. Aelyx and his fellow L’eihrians Eron and Syrine are clearly up to something sneaky when the story begins, but little by little they mostly change their minds as they begin to like the humans they’re hanging with. I especially loved Eron’s story (although brief) as he bonds with his little human “brother” and comes to love him.

The story gets violent near the end, which I found a bit jarring, and although the author ties most things up, she does leave us with a clear picture of what will happen in the next book. Will I go along for that ride? I’m not sure. If you’re going to read Alienated, my best advice is to not take the book too seriously.

Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.

You can find Alienated here:

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Filed under 3 stars, Reviews

Short but Powerful: POISON DANCE by Livia Blackburne – Review

Poison Dance 3D

Poison Dance: A Novella (Midnight Thief 0.5) by Livia Blackburne
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy/Historical
Publisher: Lion’s Quill Press
Release date: September 24 2013
Source: eBook from author
Pages: 86

five stars

The nitty-gritty: A short but powerful introduction to Midnight Thief, with a compelling and very focused story that made me ache for more of this world.

He handed her a stiletto the length of her hand and molded her fingers around the handle. Her hands were slender and her nails were delicately rounded, though her palms were calloused. The two of them stood in the cramped space between his bed and the window, holding the blade between them.

Poison Dance is a prequel novella to Blackburne’s upcoming Midnight Thief, which will be released in July by Disney Hyperion. I was thrilled when Livia contacted me and asked if I would review it, and I’m happy to say it exceeded my expectations. Not only does the author quickly suck us into her world (and at eighty-six pages, that’s a difficult feat to pull off), but she has written a short story that has so many elements that you will walk away thinking you’ve just read a full-fledged novel. Saying I’m salivating to read Midnight Thief is no exaggeration. I can’t believe July is so far away!

Obviously I don’t want to give any spoilers for this story, but I will attempt to briefly give you a synopsis. The story revolves around two main characters. James is a hired assassin and a member of the Assassin’s Guild. Thalia is a “dancing girl” who performs at a local tavern. One night after her performance, she corners James and asks him to help her kill a rich nobleman, and offers him a way out of his dangerous life as an assassin in return. James agrees to help her, and the ensuing story explains what happens as James and Thalia prepare for this perilous mission.

What I loved about Poison Dance was the emotional depth that Blackburne was able to achieve in such a short piece of work. She immediately puts her characters in danger and gives them a near-impossible task to complete, which pulls the reader into the story and keeps us there until the end. It didn’t take long to read this novella, but the emotional impact stayed with me for a long time.

Both James and Thalia are strong, independent people with tragic pasts, and I immediately connected with them. Their time together is agonizingly brief, but they make the most of that time. And despite its length, the author still manages to flesh out the secondary characters really well, and I thought each one added something important to the story.

Poison Dance didn’t have any overt fantasy elements to it (except for the poison of the title, which is not a real type of poison), although I think Midnight Thief is categorized as fantasy. But the world-building suggests a time and place that could be magical, so I’ll be interested to see how it’s developed in a longer piece.

This short glimpse into Livia Blackburne’s world is so tantalizing, you’ll probably be as anxious to read Midnight Thief as I am. Don’t hesitate. Grab your copy today and see what I’m talking about. If the author can create such a vivid world in only eighty-six pages, imagine what she can do with three hundred and sixty-eight. Highly recommended!

Big thanks to the author for supplying a review copy. Poison Dance is available now in ebook format for only $1.99 from these online retailers:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Goodreads

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Filed under Five stars, Reviews

Creepy & Creative: HANG WIRE by Adam Christopher – Review

Hang Wire 3d

Hang Wire by Adam Christopher
Genre: Adult Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Angry Robot
Release date: January 29 2014
Source: ARC from publisher
Pages: 384

four stars

The nitty-gritty:  A three-ring circus of craziness and complex world-building with a mystery that reveals itself gradually.

Highwire belongs to the circus, is part of it. That Highwire knows nothing of his life before the circus, that he has no memory of anything but the circus, is inconsequential. The circus is his home, but his real work lies elsewhere, after the crowds have gone, after the carnival machines go to sleep. Out there, in the city, Highwire has a job to do.

This was my first Adam Christopher book, and from what I’ve heard from other reviewers, it’s a bit of a departure from the author’s other books. Hang Wire was one of the craziest and most maddening book I’ve read in some time. It also had some of the coolest world-building I’ve encountered in a while, but that world-building was complicated. What is this story all about, you ask? Good question! I’ll bet that five different readers could give you five different answers. Hang Wire has all these things between its pages: a serial killer, a killer circus, earthquakes, golems, exploding fortune cookies, a ballroom-dancing beach bum, Hawaiian and Korean gods, Celtic Dancers, a mysterious coin, and burnt dead people who come back to life—sort of. Somehow, Christopher brings all these disparate things together to create a story that spans decades. This isn’t a high-speed plot, but rather a slowly unfolding mystery that makes the reader work to piece things together.

Although the plot is a bit complicated, I’ll try to break it down for you. Our main character Ted, just an ordinary guy living in San Francisco, gets a surprise on his birthday. At a Chinese restaurant, Ted cracks open a fortune cookie, only to have it explode in his face. The cookie spews out hundreds of fortunes (just go with it, OK?) that all say the same thing: You are the master of every situation. Ted passes out, and when he finally comes to, something strange has happened. Ted starts to fall asleep all the time for no reason, and he begins to hear someone whispering—but when he turns around, no one is there. One day he wakes up with blood on his hands and no memory of where he’s been, and then things really start to get weird.

Parallel to Ted’s story is the tale of a circus performer named Highwire who seems to have a secret agenda; a serial killer that the city has dubbed Hang Wire, due to way he kills his victims; and a dance teacher named Bob who seems to know a lot more than he should. When these plot threads finally start to twist together, it’s a race against time to save not only Ted’s girlfriend Alison, but the city of San Francisco itself.

I want to talk about the characters first, because I found them fascinating. I think my favorites were Benny, a co-worker of Ted’s, and Bob, the beach bum/dance teacher who teaches women ballroom dancing on the beach. Both Benny and Bob turn out to be, well, let’s just say they aren’t who you think they are. It was also hard to tell which side of good and evil they fell on, since the story is so twisty, but rest assured, I really enjoyed their characters.

The character of Joel was interesting because he is very pivotal to the story. Christopher tells his tale by inserting short chapters throughout the book that eventually explain who Joel is, and what he’s trying to do. Each chapter is set in a different time and place, and often the chapters revolve around historical events, like the disastrous San Francisco earthquake of 1906. I didn’t like Joel at all, because well, he’s the bad guy, but I could appreciate his role in the story, which gives Hang Wire an interesting framework and explains much of what’s happening in the present.

If I had any issues with this story, it would have to be the overcrowding of events. So much happens and there are so many characters (for example, there is a character named “Hang Wire” and another one named “Highwire”), that I sometimes felt as if Christopher had three or four separate story ideas that he was trying to meld into one. It does take a while before things come together, and I think it was somewhere around page 159 that I finally had an “ah ha!” moment and the pieces started to fall into place. For patient readers, Hang Wire will be a delight. The author is like a pointillist painter, dabbing one dot of paint on his story at a time, and slowly illuminating the evil that is threatening to take over the city, and the consequences if that evil isn’t stopped.

But despite the plot overload, there are so many cool moments that show off the author’s imagination: the unsettling and creepy atmosphere of the circus, the increasing terror of the Hang Wire killer, and the overall feeling that even in the mundane moments of the story, something bad might happen at any moment. The author smartly adds some comic relief in the form of several characters, which was a welcome change of pace, but even as I laughed at these parts, I did so hesitantly. Bad things are happening in San Francisco, and no one in the story is ever really safe. If you are looking for atmospheric and creative storytelling, Hang Wire could be just the ticket.

Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.

You can find Hang Wire here:

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Weird & Wonderful: CRUEL BEAUTY by Rosamund Hodge – Review

Cruel Beauty 3D

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release date: January 28 2014
Source: e-ARC from publisher via Edelweiss
Pages: 352

five stars

The nitty-gritty:  A strange, lovely, odd, scary, violent, magical, romantic and bizarre re-imaging of Beauty and the Beast.

Day and night, I was free to explore the house—and I went everywhere that I could, for my key opened almost half the doors. I found a rose garden under a glass dome; the roses formed a labyrinth in which I always got lost, and yet—according to the cuckoo clock at the door—I would always stumble out again in exactly twenty-three minutes. I found a greenhouse full of potted ferns and orange trees. The air was thick with the warm, wet smell of earth. Bees hummed through the air; the glass walls were frosted with condensation. I found a round room whose walls were covered in mosaics of naiads and tossing waves, and the air always smelled of salt, and no matter which way I turned, the door was always directly behind me.

Sorry for such a long quote, but I wanted to give you an idea of what this surreal and beautiful story is like. So, I adored this book! Yes, it was weird indeed, and I’m sure some readers will have trouble getting into the story for that reason. But since “weird” is my middle name, I had no problem at all. Cruel Beauty is a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, and I was delighted to see many references to the original story. (If you aren’t up on those details, check out this Wikipedia page.) But Rosamund Hodge’s version delves into mind-f*ck territory, as you will discover for yourself when several mysteries are revealed near the end. The writing is gorgeous, the characters are unexpectedly complex and yes, sometimes unlikable, and the world building is unique, to say the least. If I haven’t convinced you yet to read this book, well, let me keep trying:-)

The story goes like this: Nyx has been told her entire life that she will someday be sent to marry and live with the Gentle Lord, a demon who lives in the castle on the hill overlooking the village of Arcadia. Nyx’s life has been bargained away by her father, who made a deal with the demon to save the life of his wife. But her father has also planned and schemed that Nyx will find a way to destroy the Gentle Lord once she gets there and free Arcadia from his terrible rule.

Nyx fulfills her duty and arrives at the castle as planned, only to discover that the Gentle Lord, or Ignifex as he calls himself, is not the demon she imagined him to be. Nor did she expect the castle itself, an enchanted maze of rooms, gardens and nooks that endlessly move around, to be so bewildering. Armed only with the knife her sister gave her before she left, and a silver key from Ignifex that opens only some of the doors in the castle, Nyx must find a way to complete the task her father expects her to do. But can she kill Ignifex? As time goes on, that question becomes more and more difficult to answer.

Hodge uses Greek mythology in her story, and she’s created a magical system called Hermetic magic (based on the God Hermes) that I absolutely loved, which reminded me of alchemy. The Greek myth of Pandora’s box also plays an important part in the story. But my favorite part of Cruel Beauty was Ignifex’s fantastical castle. There are endless doors leading to endless rooms, but they move around and change. This manipulation of space lent a dream-like quality to the story and really made it feel like a fairy tale.

And wow, the characters. I loved Ignifex the most, and he definitely reminded me of the Beast in Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast. He seems scary on the outside, but once you get a peek behind his hard exterior, you find a complex and vulnerable man. Everyone fears Ignifex because of the terrible bargains that he makes with the townspeople. But Nyx soon learns that although he can be harsh, he is kind and has flaws just like humans do.

Nyx, however, is even more complex than Ignifex. At times I despised her. She says exactly what’s on her mind, and the things that come out of her mouth are often downright mean. But even as she’s spouting hateful words, she realizes what she’s doing. She’s a very self-aware character, which you don’t see much of these days. And when Nyx and Ignifex are together, get ready for sparks to fly, and I don’t necessarily mean romantic ones! I loved their interactions with each other, and I never felt as if I could predict what was happening with their relationship. One of the running jokes between them is that she is always trying to steal keys from him. Ignifex wears dozens of keys around his neck, keys that can open every door in the castle. But because Nyx is only allowed to open certain doors, she must use her wiles and ingenuity to take the keys away from him. These playful moments made me love their characters even more.

The third main character in the story is an odd one: Ignifex’s shadow. Shade can move independently from Ignifex, but only at night does he manifest as a real person. There’s clearly magic at work when it comes to Shade, and Hodge surprises us yet again when she finally reveals the nature and relationship between Shade and Ignifex. Several other characters are important to the story, in particular Nyx’s cruel father and her sister Astraia.

Reading Cruel Beauty was like being in a dream where you aren’t certain whether you’re dreaming or not. Honestly, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s hidden behind this book’s beautiful cover. There is a lot going on here, but Hodge brings all the elements together flawlessly. Cruel Beauty is a treat for readers who love well-done imagery, mysteries, and the delicate craft of storytelling. Highly recommended!

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.

Gilded AshesAnd coming in April, Hodge has written a novella that takes place in the world of Cruel Beauty called Gilded Ashes. I’m pretty damn excited about that!

Cruel Beauty is available today and you can find it here:

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Thieves, Knives & Secrets: SCARLET by A.C. Gaughen – Review

Scarlet 3D

Scarlet (Scarlet #1) by A.C. Gaughen
Genre: Young Adult Historical/Adventure
Publisher: Walker Childrens
Release date: 2012
Source: Purchased copy
Pages: 292

four stars

The nitty-gritty: A feisty heroine, a noble cause, and sometimes violent action, all wrapped up in beautiful writing.

He stopped in the center of the market square, stepping up on a small fountain. “Perhaps I should introduce myself,” he called. People stopped to look at him. He were wrapped in violence as if it were clothes, his cloak like death, his armor like blades. His hair were shaggy as an animal’s and it looked like the Devil were trapped in his head.

I, like many of my fellow bloggers, am playing catch-up and decided to finally read Scarlet in preparation for book two in the series, Lady Thief, which releases in a couple of weeks. I had heard amazing things about this book, and so I went into it with certain expectations. I’m happy to report that I did indeed love Scarlet, but I also had a few issues with it, and I’m not sure if those of you who loved it more than I did will agree with me.

Gaughen has taken a classic tale (which is based in truth) and made it feel fresh. In her version of Robin Hood, the character of Will Scarlet is female, but she’s disguising herself as a male, and only her closest friends know the truth. The author talks about the research she did for this book in her Author’s Note at the back, which I highly recommend reading. (I feel there aren’t enough authors out there who bother to write notes at the end of their books. Oftentimes it’s one of my favorite things!) Our girl Scarlet is a wonderful character. She’s a thief, a knife-thrower, a tree-climber, and she has a heart of gold. She’s living in a time when girls aren’t supposed to do any of these things, which is part of the appeal of this story. Scarlet knows she’s not supposed to steal, but she does it anyway to save the poor in the village, and to atone for her past.

And then there’s the wonderful character of Rob. He’s a thief as well, but he’s polite when he holds a knife to someone’s throat and asks for their money. He cares deeply for the members of his “band,” especially Scarlet, who has no idea how he feels about her. I also loved Much, a boy who had one hand chopped off when he was caught stealing.

And then there is John, the third side of the unfortunate love triangle about which I must speak. John was my least favorite character in the book and fell even lower on my scale than the bad guys, the Sheriff of Nottingham and Gisbourne, the man who has come to hunt and kill Rob. Many readers loved the relationship between Scarlet and Rob, and I did too. But the addition of John into the mix turned things slightly sour for me. John is a womanizer and does all sorts of things with the girls in the village. But he mostly wants Scarlet, and he whines and carries on about her throughout most of the story. Scarlet tries to fend him off, but he seems pretty stupid and just never gets the hint. And Scarlet doesn’t help things, because she has no idea who she wants, and she manages to send mixed messages to both boys. One moment she’s pushing John away, and the next she’s cuddled up next to him as he strokes her hair (with Rob glaring at them from the side, of course). And all the while she’s trying to keep her femininity under wraps, dressing like a boy and stuffing her hair under a cap. So no, I didn’t care much for the love triangle.

I also was slightly baffled by the characters’ ages, and each one felt much younger than they were supposed to be. Perhaps I was trying to shove them into the typical YA box of fourteen-to-seventeen years old, and they were all eighteen or older. Trying to envision eighteen-year-old Scarlet climbing trees and swinging by branches like a monkey just didn’t work for me.  Now I realize in other versions of Robin Hood all the characters are adults, so I’m not sure why this bothered me. Did anyone else feel this way?

But aside from these things, I loved Scarlet for so many reasons. I loved that Scarlet narrates and speaks in a dialect that is most likely true to the place and time of the story. (Although I did stumble at first over the constant use of the word “were” in place of “was” (see above quote), my brain eventually accepted it and it became second nature.) I loved the sense of tension that never eases up:  tension between the thieves and the townspeople, tension as we wonder whether or not Rob will be able to help everyone before tax day, and of course, the romantic tension between Scarlet and Rob. I loved that Scarlet has a mysterious past and won’t share it with Rob. And I loved the bloody fights and battles between the band and Gisbourne and the sheriff.

But most of all I loved Gaughen’s perfect writing. Every single word was necessary in this story, and every sentence was beautifully constructed. She’s one of those writers who knows how to end paragraphs on the right beat. It almost feels as if she’s writing a song.

Lady Thief’s release is mere weeks away, and I’m so excited to immerse myself again in the lush and dangerous world that A.C. Gaughen has created.

You can find Scarlet here:

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Secrets, Spells & Savannah: THE LINE by J.D. Horn – Review

The Line 3DThe Line (Witching Savannah #1) by J.D. Horn
Genre:  Adult Paranormal
Publisher: 47North
Release date: January 7 2014
Source: e-ARC from author
Pages: 296

five stars

The nitty-gritty: Twisted family ties, complex relationships, lies and betrayals, and oh yeah. Witches and magic!

Liquid fire coursed through my veins. I slid my hand over the pendant and looked at myself in the mirror, amazed at the self-assured face that was reflected back at me. I felt like a fish that had been tossed into water for the first time after somehow managing to survive its entire life on dry land. I had been waiting for this feeling my entire life. For once, I felt like I could truly breathe.

If I had to describe The Line in one word, it would be readable. This was a tough book to put down once I picked it up. If there are any Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans out there, this book is for you. Some of the plot points in The Line reminded me of Buffy Season Six, when Willow’s magic starts to get out of control, until, you know, she starts killing everyone. Not that there’s killing in this book! *cackles* Horn’s combination of several elements all came together perfectly for me: the setting of Savannah, Georgia; the family of witches who live there; the incorporation of hoodoo magic and root medicine; and best of all, the engaging voice of Mercy Taylor who narrates. This story is almost like a soap opera on steroids. It’s full of secrets, blood pacts, prophecies, a love triangle (yes, I know! But this one isn’t what you expect…) and sibling rivalry.  But it’s also got sisterly love, a jar full of magic memories, and a bunch of kick-ass women characters. And lots of magic!

Mercy has lived in Savannah all of her life (almost twenty-one years) and is part of a family of witches whose lineage goes back to the Civil War era. Unfortunately, she is the one member of the family who has absolutely no powers. Mercy has spent her whole unhappy life being treated as the runt of the family, and watching as her twin sister Maisie is coddled and taught the family secrets by her great-aunt Ginny, while Mercy is shut out. Maisie’s power is strong enough to secure her spot in line as the next “anchor,” a powerful witch who helps maintain “the line” that separates the demon realm from our own.

But when Ginny, the family’s current anchor, is found brutally murdered, the family erupts in accusations and lies, and without an anchor in place to stop the demons from coming over, Mercy finds herself right in the middle of chaos. Will Maisie be chosen as the next anchor and take over in time to stop the trouble brewing, or will the many secrets the family has been hiding be the destruction of the line itself?

OK, I’m going to get this out of the way first. Yes, there is a love triangle (or technically, a quadrangle), but Horn has given this dreaded trope a spin that even I didn’t see coming. So don’t let that stop you from jumping head first into this story! Here’s the deal: Mercy is in love—with Maisie’s boyfriend, Jackson. She’s suffering so much from the guilt of this that one night she goes to the crossroads (you know, where all the worst evil spells are cast) to find Mother Jilo, a root doctor who does hoodoo magic. She wants Jilo to cast a spell so that she will fall in love with Peter, her best friend, which will hopefully erase her feelings for Jackson. Without going into detail, let’s just say that when magic is involved, things tend to go…wrong. And boy, does Horn know how to make things go wrong in so many delightful ways!

One of the best things about the characters in The Line is that you can’t really count on any of them to be trustworthy. A character that you love in the beginning of the story might turn evil, and likewise a hateful one may turn out to be one of your favorites by the end of the story. It’s that type of uncertainty that kept me turning the pages as fast as possible. And yes, there are certain characters that are truly good through and through, like Mercy’s uncle Oliver, who reads minds and always has kind things to say to Mercy.

Mother Jilo turned out to be one of my favorite characters, which I was not expecting. Even though she comes across as mean and dangerous, I loved the way Mercy got under her skin, and by the end of the book she’s become one of the few people in her life that Mercy can trust.

The magic in The Line was a lot of fun, especially cool ideas like the jar of magical memories that Maisie gives to Mercy, and Oliver’s imaginary friend Wren, who haunts the house and hasn’t aged a day since Oliver was a boy. There are doorways that magically transport you to other locations, a golem, and blood magic as well. And underneath it all, the complex relationships among members of the Taylor family play out amidst all the magic.

The city of Savannah is the perfect setting for this Southern gothic tale, and I loved the author’s descriptions of the old creepy cemeteries, the bad parts of town where Jilo practices her hoodoo magic, and even the heat-laden air of summer that made me feel as if I were right there. As the story progresses, and horrible family secrets begin to emerge, you’ll feel like you’re right there too, right in the middle of the Taylor family drama. Luckily for us readers, there are two more books in this series to look forward to. And I for one will be dropping everything as soon as book two comes out!

Big thanks to the author for supplying a review copy. I’ll be interviewing J.D. later this week, so don’t forget to check back!

The Line is a Kindle First pick this month, and you can get it for your Kindle for only $1.99! Click the Amazon button for more info:

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A Horrific Tale Skillfully Written: BARCELONA SHADOWS by Marc Pastor – Review

Barcelona Shadows 3D

Barcelona Shadows by Marc Pastor
Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem
Genre: Adult Thriller
Publisher: Pushkin Press
Release date (U.S.): January 16 2014
Source: e-book from publisher
Pages: 272

four stars

The nitty-gritty: Violent and sometimes shocking, with an unusual narrator, a brutal main character, but ultimately, a skillfully constructed story.

Barcelona is an old lady with a battered soul, who has been left by a thousand lovers but refuses to admit it. Every time she grows, she looks in the mirror, sees herself changed and renews all her blood until it’s almost at boiling point. Like a butterfly’s cocoon, she finally bursts. Distrust becomes the first phase of gestation: no one is sure that he whom they’ve lived with for years, whom they’ve considered a neighbor, isn’t now an enemy.

At first I thought it was going to be nearly impossible to review this book. When I started reading it, I didn’t like it at all. I hated the characters, I hated the violence, but most of all I hated the subject matter. It was almost a DNF for me, which is something I never do. But I kept reading, and at about the half-way point, I began to realize that even though the characters were still horrible and the subject matter hadn’t changed, Marc Pastor is an extremely talented writer.

So when I had to give a star rating to this book, I decided I could either base my rating on how much I enjoyed the story and characters, or I could give this book extra points for the sheer brilliance of the writing. I decided to do the latter, and Barcelona Shadows ended up with four stars. I also remembered one other thing, that the violent story depicted in these pages is based on the true story of the early twentieth-century child abductor Enriqueta Marti, a woman who was brought frighteningly to life in these pages. Looking at it from that perspective, I now appreciate the story for what it is: an honest portrayal of a brutal time, when many people are living a hard-scrabble life and doing whatever they can to survive, in a place with clear lines drawn between social classes, disease, and a corrupt government. I don’t have to like reading about these things, but in this case Pastor has done his job, which is to bring a horrible event to life with the skill of a seasoned writer.

The story takes place in 1911 Barcelona.  Children are disappearing, but no one seems to know what to do about it. The whispers on the street suggest that the child abductor is a “monster” who kills and eats the children. Moisès Corvo is a hardened police detective with a grim past who is investigating the disappearances. With his partner Juan Malsano, they begin questioning the more suspicious people in the neighborhood, and despite Corvo’s “persuasive” methods of interrogation, they turn up little information. When the police chief insists that there is no “monster” and no child abduction cases to investigate, Corvo and Malsano know they’ll have to discover the truth on their own, even if it means coming face to face with unspeakable terror.

Barcelona Shadows is (appropriately) narrated by Death, and I have to admit it took me a while to get into the groove of this unusual narrative style. Many of us have read The Book Thief, another story that uses this device, but this time I felt the transitions were too jarring and not as seamlessly incorporated. At times, Death is simply looking down at the unfolding events and describing what’s happening, but at other times he actually takes over the bodies of characters and speaks through them. This confused me at first, but I did see what the author was trying to do, although it wasn’t until the end of the book that it all came together for me.

Lots of things in this story were very hard for me to read, which is strange because I don’t shy away from violent stories. But this one hit too close to home: it’s about children being abducted, hurt and worse. There are child prostitution rings in this story (and I’m thankful the author didn’t go into any detail here). And maybe even more shocking, the person behind all these crimes is a woman. (And that isn’t a spoiler, folks. The reader knows right from the beginning who the “monster” is.)

The characters in Barcelona Shadows aren’t the sort of touchy-feely characters I’m used to. Our main character Corvo beats up suspects to get them to talk, cheats on his wife, and drinks and smokes a lot. Some of the characters are grave robbers. Most of the women are prostitutes, drunks, or drug addicts. And then there is Enriqueta, one of the most monstrous characters I’ve ever met. When I reached the end of the book, I realized that I didn’t really like any of the them.

And yet I gave this book four stars. Pastor drew me in slowly with such skill that I didn’t even realize I was enjoying myself until I reached the last third of the story. I began to see what a very talented writer can do to make a story mesmerizing, even when his subject matter is so disturbing that it will mostly likely turn many readers off. In the end, which was horrific in another way entirely, I was glad that I made myself finish this book. The subject matter is grim and the characters abhorrent, but the writing is brilliant, a thing of beauty even, in a story without any beauty at all.

Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.

You can find Barcelona Shadows here:

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Mystery, Magic & Mayhem: SHADOWPLAY by Laura Lam – Review

Shadowplay 3DShadowplay (Pantomime #2) by Laura Lam
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Release date: January 7 2014
Source: e-ARC from publisher via NetGalley
Pages: 400

four and a half

The nitty-gritty: A beautifully realized world, a story filled with magic and illusion, and a unique main character on a journey of self-discovery.

“In all these many years, we have found no archaeological evidence of either Alder or Chimaera bodies. No graveyards. No mummies found in ice. No bones. Only Vestige, as if one day they all left. It is a small wonder that many believe the Chimaera never existed at all. Sometimes, in a darker mood, I wonder that, myself.”

                                                             Unpublished article by Professor Caed Cedar

**Minor spoilers ahead if you haven’t read Pantomime. Sorry, but I just can’t do a complete review without them!

Imagine a world where an alien race once lived long ago, but has vanished, leaving behind magical artifacts called Vestige and odd and impenetrable blue glass structures called Penglass. This is the magical backdrop for Laura Lam’s Pantomime and Shadowplay, the latter of which has just been released. This time, Lam sets her characters amidst the magical world of illusion, when Micah and Drystan become magician’s apprentices. I was entranced by the world of the circus in Pantomime, but I have to admit I adored the change of setting in Shadowplay. There’s just something about magic that makes me feel as if anything is possible, and a feeling of breathless anticipation and awe permeates this story and will make you believe in magic, even if that magic is only illusion.

But the world-building alone isn’t what makes this book so special. Lam’s characters are truly unique, in particular the character of Micah, who is intersexual (meaning that he has both male and female physical characteristics). In the second installment, Micah is getting closer to accepting his differences, and some of the confusion he felt at the end of the last book has dropped away. Lam combines this journey of self-discovery with a rip-roaring plot full of action, mystery and danger, and if you’re like me, you’ll hang on every word as the story unfolds.

Sixteen-year-old Micah and former circus clown Drystan are on the run, after violent events at the circus forced them to flee for their lives. In the city of Imachara they seek assistance from a man named Jasper Maske, a once-great magician. He agrees to let them stay with him, provided they agree to become apprentices and learn the art of magic. When Maske is challenged to a “magic duel” by his rival Pen Taliesin, the two make a terrible pact, and suddenly Micah and Drystan must learn Maske’s routines flawlessly in order to help him win.

But someone called a Shadow is looking for Micah, a mysterious man who has been hired by Micah’s parents, and it’s getting harder and harder to stay hidden. Micah will do anything to stay with Drystan and Maske, because the last thing he wants is to go back to his old life.

Pantomime-144dpi-e1348143087852Once again, we get bits and pieces of information about the world of the Alder and the things they left behind, Vestige and Penglass, but no clear answers about how Micah fits in with all of these things. I know I’m being sort of vague, but if you haven’t read Pantomime, I don’t want to spoil this part for you. There are several dream sequences when Micah gets to see through the eyes of a creature called the Damselfly, dreams that show past events which suggest that Micah is part of something much bigger than just being part of a magic act. But these scenes, while revealing, only frustrated me in the end, because we still don’t get all the answers.

By far the most satisfying part of the book, though, are the relationships between the characters, and watching each character grow by leaps and bounds. Micah has been leading a dual life, first living as a girl named Iphigenia, and then embracing his male side as Micah after running away to the circus. Although he hides his female attributes and presents himself as a boy, Micah is growing to accept both sides of himself, although you can still see his struggle during some scenes in the book. He’s also learning more about where he came from (he was adopted as a baby) by way of a nifty little Vestige device that projects a creature known as the Damselfly, who helps explain some of the mythology of their world to Micah.  Micah and Drystan are becoming closer as well, and begin an innocent romance in Shadowplay. Drystan knows all about Micah’s sexuality and accepts him just the way he is, which I thought was a wonderful part of their relationship.

I also loved the character of Cyan, a girl who can read minds and joins the boys in Maske’s magic act. Cyan also has a mysterious past, just like Micah, and I loved the way they both discover parts of those pasts together. Jasper Maske was a wonderfully drawn character as well. He too has secrets, and he has to learn to trust his friends before he can share them.

The story is fast-paced and exciting, and Lam plants lots of clues as to what the next book will have in store for readers. It was sad getting to the end, but satisfying as well. I’ve grown to love Micah and Drystan over the past two books, and I can’t wait to see what’s next. If you appreciate stories with true originality and diversity, Laura Lam’s series is a must-read.

Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. The above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ from the finished version.

You can find Shadowplay here:

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Filed under 4 1/2 stars, Reviews