Monday, 20 August 2018

Ash Princess

Theodosia was six when her country was invaded and her mother, the Fire Queen, was murdered before her eyes. On that day, the Kaiser took Theodosia's family, her land, and her name. Theo was crowned Ash Princess--a title of shame to bear in her new life as a prisoner.

For ten years Theo has been a captive in her own palace. She's endured the relentless abuse and ridicule of the Kaiser and his court. She is powerless, surviving in her new world only by burying the girl she was deep inside.

Then, one night, the Kaiser forces her to do the unthinkable. With blood on her hands and all hope of reclaiming her throne lost, she realizes that surviving is no longer enough. But she does have a weapon: her mind is sharper than any sword. And power isn't always won on the battlefield.

For ten years, the Ash Princess has seen her land pillaged and her people enslaved. That all ends here.

I’ve read this book before. So have you. It may have been called something else but the pieces are all here. The heir to a fallen throne, her people in hiding/slavery. The evil overlord king who took said throne. A secret rebel in the heart of her enemy’s stronghold. The childhood friend and hot newcomer/prince love triangle. Vague magic. 

I had the exact same problem with Frostblood, Snow Like Ashes and Red Queen. The author seemed so busy trying to cram every cliche in the YA playbook into her story that the story itself fell short. Every box is ticked but it all feels obligatory, not organic. The characters do the "right" things and spout the "right" dialogue, but they're dull and lifeless. The world and history is standard fantasy fare, but it feels sketched not shaded. The plot takes you from A to B, but there are no surprises along the way. I guess I can't lambast an author writing in a genre for sticking to the "rules" of that genre too closely, but it would be nice to read something new.

The story wasn’t engaging. There was some potential in the Kaiser keeping Thora as a political prisoner and taking her people’s rebellions out her, but aside from a few mentions this was pretty much glossed over. I’m not saying I wanted to read torture scenes reminiscent of a Saw movie, but this thread was one of the few things this book had going for it to differentiate it from the YA pack, so I was disappointed that it only garnered a few mentions and a fade to black. I mean, if the point was to show Thora’s people that their rightful queen has been reduced to nothing more than a subservient slave, being punished every time they stepped out of line, why do her punishments all seem to take place behind closed doors? Why were her scars only displayed at the Kaiser’s dinners which were, presumably, occasions where his allies would be present? It felt like a suitably twisted idea, but the execution was fumbled when that idea ended up on the pages.

Thora herself was a hard character to read, which didn’t help the story click with me. The author flits her between a Stockholm syndrome afflicted victim to quietly calculating rebel on a whim, which makes it hard to see her as a believable character. One moment we’re supposed to believe she’s been conditioned to keep her head down to stay alive, the next we’re being asked to swallow the idea that she’d plot political assassination behind her jailor’s back with nothing more than a little prompting from three new guards who claim to be rebels. It didn’t feel like Thora had much of a character arc if that side of her had been present, albeit hidden, from page one. Her painfully telegraphed relationship with the Prince (or Prinz as its spelled in this book for some reason) Soren lacked any sort of chemistry, and no real reason is ever given for him being willing to betray his father and his kingdom for her. Professing love doesn’t cut it for me. I want to hear the banter, see the sparks and feel the heat, and I got none of those things. 

The writing style felt oddly flat to me. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but it never drew me in. It never swept me away into the story. Things happen and people say things, but I always felt like I was watching from a distance. The best books put you right there with the characters, in that world. Ash Princess didn’t do that for a single moment. 

Overall, Ash Princess is fine, and that pretty much sums up my issue with it. There’s nothing new here, nothing unique or particularly enthralling. It’s just … ok. It offers everything you’d expect a YA to offer and nothing more. If you’re looking for a quick and easy read that’s not going to turn your world upside down then give it a go, but if you want anything more than that you’d best look elsewhere.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

The Azrael Initiative

Best friends Kayla Falk, an engineering student, and Olivia Bellamy, who is studying nursing, are nearing the end of their college career when terrorists attack their university. Through a combination of cleverness, bravery, and luck, the two manage to foil the deadly plot. A mysterious man from the United States government, Mr. Hightower, sees their potential and attempts to recruit Kayla and Olivia for a program to take on ISIS. They initially refuse, but another terrorist attack that strikes close to home pushes them to change their minds and join the Azrael Initiative.

After several months of hard training, the two women are dropped into Al-Raqqah, the capital of ISIS, in Syria. Once there, they must blend in with the locals as they strike from the shadows to kill ISIS leaders, destroy their facilities, and free captives. As Americans deep within enemy territory, they know that they will be killed if discovered. As women, they also know that they would suffer before death. Walking the line between vengeance and justice strains their relationship. As they work to resolve their differences, the symphony of brutality around them ultimately pushes them closer together and forges them into the warriors that they were meant to become.

Read the first three chapters of The Azrael Initiative.

The Azrael Initiative isn't my usual read. I like a bit of fantasy YA and a bit of contemporary YA, but this book falls somewhere in between. It's certainly not fantasy, but it's not exactly contemporary either. Even so, I ended up really enjoying it. The writing style and overly simplistic plot weren't to my tastes (more on that below!) but I loved the strong friendship between Kayla and Olivia that was at the heart of this novel. After a bit of a slow start, the story gets its hooks into you. There are some sections (no spoilers here!) that really hit hard. Both girls are well written and their friendship was the bedrock of the story. Families don't get enough of a look in in a lot of YA books, so the girls' close bond with their families and each others was touching. The book also correctly (imo) posits that family isn't always blood and real family is the people you choose to surround yourself with.

The author deserves kudos for having the nerve to tackle such a thorny subject. It would have been easier to set the book in an alternate world or create a fictional enemy but he didn't take the easy road and I do admire that. However this caused a bit of an issue for me. Kayla and Olivia are basically recruited as child soliders and trained/brainwashed to blindly attack the enemy they're pointed at. Kind of like ISIS then? The problem is, they're guilty of exactly the same thing they're trying to prevent. Their own overseer outright states that "our agents will work to instill fear in ISIS using any means necessary." So, become terrorsits themselves? Kayla deals with terrorists killing her family by going out and killing terrorists, who presumably have families of their own. It's all very black and white, but this story really would have benefited from some shades of grey. One particular scene in which Kayla brutally stabs a suspected terrorist to death before remarking that people "like him" remind her of the people that killed her family, while straddling his still warm corpse, is staggeringly tone deaf.

This book definitely would have benefited from a stricter edit. There are countless surplus paragraphs and information that add nothing to the story that really should have been cut. On the whole though, this book was an entertaining read. Although the execution of the morally complex story wasn't faultless, I admire the author for not taking the easy road and I absolutely loved the strong female friendship between Kayla and Olivia.

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About the Author

K lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he works as a software developer. In his spare time, when he isn’t writing, he enjoys reading, working out, playing video games, and spending time with his wonderful fiancee, Bobbi. Some of his favorite authors are Tom Clancy, George R. R. Martin, and Sarah Maas.

Author Links:


Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Reign of Mist

The realm’s darkest secret is out. 

The cruelty of the capital and the power-hungry King Arden have scattered Bleak and her companions across the continents.

On the run in a foreign land, Bleak finds herself tied to some unexpected strangers. When the answers she yearns for are finally within reach, she must face the hard truths of her past, and take her fate into her own hands before it’s too late.

Meanwhile, secrets and magic unravel as a dark power corrupts the realm. Bleak’s friends are forced to decide where their loyalties lie, and who, if anyone, they can trust.

But one thing is certain: war is coming, and they must all be ready when it does.

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I read a lot of YA fantasy debuts last year, but Heart of Mist was easily one of the best. Would Reign of Mist live up to its predecessor? Or would it suffer the dreaded sophomore slump? Reign doesn’t meet the high bar set by Heart, it hurtles over it with room to spare. It has everything I want in a book. I like believably-written, badass female characters, I like despicable villains (don't try to change me), I like political intrigue and natural world-building, and this book has all of those things turned up to 11.

After the events of the last book, Bleak and her allies are scattered. Hanging plot threads need to be tied up and new ones woven in, all the while establishing history, powers and alliances that would rival an episode of Game of Thrones. Helen Scheurer weaves together multiple povs and casts her storytelling net wide, bringing together characters and history from all over the realm. Just like Heart of Mist, she gets the showing and telling balance absolutely perfect. With new characters introduced, history to be revealed and secrets brought to light, a less skilled author might have resorted to pages of exposition or characters sat around reciting the plot, but not so here. I couldn’t even pinpoint where I found out about certain characters or events. They were woven so naturally into the story that when they became relevant to the plot, I already knew everything I needed to without the action screeching to a halt so one of the characters could exposit key informaton. The best books do this, and Reign of Mist does it well.

Henri, my favourite character from book one, gets an even meatier role this time around. She’s a total badass, complete with leathers and knives, but the vulnerable side we saw glimpses of in the last book comes to the fore. I’ll keep this review spoiler free but suffice to say we see plenty of emotion alongside the bloodletting. In a book of so many fierce women it would have been easy for some of them to read like clones of each other, but everyone had their own voice. Each character was clearly shaped by their past and it showed in every line of dialogue.

Bleak’s path in the story may be a tad predictable, but the author still manages to put a different spin on it thanks to the unique structure of Oremere’s rulers. Her battle with her addiction to alcohol was one of the best parts of the last book. Not because I particularly like reading character’s suffering, but because it was a refreshingly honest look at the harsh and unpretty reality of drinking yourself into oblivion on a daily basis. 
It would be easy for this plot point to have been discarded after it served its purpose in HoM, but that doesn’t happen here. I loved Bleak’s character development and how she fought tooth and nail to stay alive even when she’d been absolutely battered. Her "will they, won't they" relationship with Bren was superbly handled too. One of the things I love most about Helen Scheurer's stories is that she puts a fresh spin on all the YA tropes she uses and Bleak's complicated back and forth with her salt-of-the-earth childhood friend is no exception. I'll admit, I wasn't sold on these two in book one, but the way they work out in this book is note perfect. Believable and bittersweet.

As with any book that deals in multiple povs, there were a couple I found less than enthralling. Captain Swinton’s were easily my least favourite. Perhaps because the character is such an uptight buzzkill I didn’t find much to enjoy in his chapters outside of the plot developments. Although his chapters did give a glimpse of the adorable couple Olena and Nazuri. Theirs may have been a political match rather than a romantic one, but they were a pairing to rival even my OTP of this series, Henri and Athene.

I won’t spoil the ending except for to say; really Helen Scherer? You’re going to leave me like this?! HoM ended on one hell of a cliff hanger and after some breakneck-paced chapters, RoM does the same thing. That ending though! Just like last time, there are new players in the game, new threats and whole new worlds that need to be explored. And, just like last time, I have to wait for them!

Friday, 27 July 2018

Glass Sword

Mare Barrow’s blood is red—the color of common folk—but her Silver ability, the power to control lightning, has turned her into a weapon that the royal court tries to control. The crown calls her an impossibility, a fake, but as she makes her escape from Maven, the prince—the friend—who betrayed her, Mare uncovers something startling: she is not the only one of her kind.

Pursued by Maven, now a vindictive king, Mare sets out to find and recruit other Red-and-Silver fighters to join in the struggle against her oppressors. But Mare finds herself on a deadly path, at risk of becoming exactly the kind of monster she is trying to defeat. Will she shatter under the weight of the lives that are the cost of rebellion? Or have treachery and betrayal hardened her forever?

The electrifying next installment in the Red Queen series escalates the struggle between the growing rebel army and the blood-segregated world they’ve always known—and pits Mare against the darkness that has grown in her soul.

DNF 40%

After Red Queen left me equal parts disappointed (by the lack of originality) and incredulous (also at the lack of originality), I should have handed this series back to the person who passed it to me like some sort of ancient curse. However, needs must when you’re staying in a remote cabin with no wi-fi and five tv channels, so I decided to give book two a crack. Hey, it could only be up from the bottom, right?


Christ on a bike, where to start with this book? I – and I’m sure many others – noted the … *ahem* similarities to The Hunger Games in Red Queen. Perhaps I was just still in that mindset, but opening this book with our recently rescued heroine and the rebellion fleeing from the powers that be, complete with bomb-dropping fighter jets and a desperate flee through a city that was long thought abandoned due to nuclear radiation? Seriously!? Just like the fact there are only so many chords some songs are going to sound the same, I get that there only so many plot points and some books are going to have similar elements. But when there are so many scenes that feel like they were cut and pasted from one book to another I can’t get then get fully engaged with a story because half my mind is thinking about another one.

What I read of the plot of Glass Sword was all but non-existent. Mare and her allies search Norta etc for other so-called New Bloods. They find one, we get a brief intro of their powers like that god-awful scene in X-Men 3 where Mystique literally reads character bios to Magneto, then they move on while trying to avoid Maven’s forces. That … seemed to be it. Oh, aside from Mare’s constant sulking and brooding of course. And her painfully contrived insistence on referring to herself as the Lightning Girl every five seconds. If Red Queen’s drinking games – Hunger Games rip-offs and YA tropes – could have killed you through alcohol poisoning, just imagine taking a drink every time the words “Lightning Girl” cursed the pages.
As with Red Queen, this book may be derivative and predictable but it also incredibly well written. I don’t care for the story or the characters (in case my reviews didn’t make that clear!) but I’d be tempted to pick up something else written by this author because, if the plot was more original, I imagine she can tell one hell of a story.
Eventually though, when it became clear that all my issues with Red Queen were still present and correct in the sequel, I gave up and binned off books three and four. I don’t know why I expected this one to be any better than its predecessor, but I have no one to blame but myself for wasting my time on it.