Corinne Duyvis, Otherbound

This is a story of two worlds: Amara’s world, and Nolan’s.

In Nolan’s world, which is also our world, Nolan has epilepsy (as far as his doctors can tell), but none of the medicines seem to work. What they don’t know is that every time he blinks, he’s transported to another world. Amara’s world, where he sees life through Amara’s eyes.

Amara is a servant – pretty much a slave, and she is cursed with the gift of self-healing. Cursed, because she has to endure attacks meant to injure Cilla, her mistress, a princess on the run, who is being dogged by a powerful spell.

Nolan has been keeping a journal secretly for years, recording all of his experiences in Amara’s body. But he is an onlooker, unable to affect what happens in Amara’s world, until one day he learns how to move in, take control, and act on his own volition.

Now, from Amara’s point of view, he is an evil spirit, possessing her.

I thought I had seen every kind of portal fantasy that there is, but Corinne Duyvis has come up with a new one. The effect is very original – we have split perspectives, a constant shift back and forth between worlds, and an unusual dynamic between the paired protagonists. The fantasy world is a pretty original one in its own right, very well-thought-out, but what’s really striking is the fundamental premise once it fully emerges. People from our world are invading the fantasy world, seeking to take it over by possessing its most powerful magicians, and only Nolan and Amara can stop them, if only they can figure out how to work together.

This is a very strong work, dealing with themes that resonated strongly for me and may, I think, resonate just as strongly for a wide range of readers.

Note: I checked this book out from my local public library. I have no connection with the author or publisher.

Lucy Saxon, Take Back the Skies

What’s steampunk without airships and mechanical men? Not to worry, Lucy Saxon gives those to you in spades.

Catherine, the tomboy daughter of a well-connected, powerful lord decides that an arranged marriage is not for her. So she stows away on an airship, gets adopted by the crew, and then helps to uncover a horrible scheme in which her own father is the master-mind. Having lost a war, rather than admit defeat, the aristocracy overthrew the monarchy, instituted a totalitarian state, and started a secret project to build an army of half-mechanical soldiers, but Catherine’s inside knowledge enables the crew of the airship to infiltrate government headquarters and reveal the truth to the rest of the world. Along the way, she pretends to be a boy, falls in love, gets unmasked, and has to prove where her loyalties really lie.

This is a very standard steampunk world, and a very standard adventure plot. The distinctive elements can be described as follows: Take Cromwell’s England, add steampunk, mix in successfully rebellious colonies, then add a dash of dastardly experimentation involving lots of vivisection.

Catherine has spunk. She’s a lively character, and the book’s a fast read. I give the novel a thumbs up, though with the reservations I’ve already noted. This is not a book that will wow anyone as The Next Big Thing, but teen readers who’re turned on to steampunk and are looking for more will definitely enjoy this book.

Note: I checked this book out from my local public library. I have no connection with the author or publisher.

Lenore Appelhans, The Memory of After

It isn’t all that often that we encounter a YA fantasy where the heroine and one of the male love interests belong to a church youth group and the other love interest is a fallen angel. It’s even rarer to have a novel that starts in the afterlife. But that’s what we have here, and it’s a pretty neat ride.

Who would have thought that the afterlife would be a series of endless replays (unless you manage to borrow someone else’s memories?) But that’s what Felicia’s stuck in, until an old boyfriend named Julian bursts into the hive and engineers her escape into an afterworld in which fallen angels called the Morati are holding up everyone’s progress toward heaven (or hell) in order to collect enough power from the waylaid spirits to mount an assault on heaven itself. The plot unfolds with plenty of unexpected twists and turns to a satisfying conclusion, and it sets up possible sequels with a premise that could prove very interesting.

I have to point out that the world-building is a bit on the light side. Exactly why spirits’ memories provide power to the fallen angels remains a bit vague, and it’s even vaguer why Felicia is special – explanations are offered, but to my ear they’re not fully convincing. However, that’s no obstacle to getting a fun read (unless, like me, you’re super-critical about things like that.). It’s also worth noting that this is a book you can easily give to a younger teen – it’s quick-paced, easy to read, and pretty clean (though well-stocked with kisses, so it’s most distinctly not hormone-neutral!)

It’s fun. So enjoy! I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.

Note: I got a signed copy of this book for free at Book Expo America. I have no other connection with the publisher.

Kresley Cole, Poison Princess

The themes this novel is playing with are going to sound familiar –

She wants desperately to be a normal girl, though she is troubled by bad dreams. When she was young, her grandmother first kidnapped her and then was sent to the insane asylum. But when the apocalypse comes, she discovers that her dreams were prophetic. And she has other powers – the ability to make plants grow, in what is now a dry and hungry land. She needs to find her grandmother, who may be able to tell her what is going on, but the trip from Louisiana to North Carolina is now as good as suicidal. But a boy she felt an attraction to (but couldn’t really have much to do with, in her old high school) shows up unexpectedly and offers to help, so she sets forth on a journey that will reveal who – and what – she really is. Though judging by her nightmares, she really doesn’t want to know.

Here we have the typical elements of YA dystopian fiction – a world gone awry, a heroine with special gifts, a male sidekick/love interest, and a mystery that rapidly turns into a deadly dangerous quest. We even have another common theme – a winner-takes-all competition that can have only one survivor. However, Kresley Cole instantiates all these elements in a rather distinctive way, starting with the initial setting of the book (rural Louisiana, complete with Anglo prejudice against Cajuns) and continuing as she develops her world’s distinctive elements – a hidden society in which the gifted few instantiate a mythic image from the Tarot deck and have matching magical abilities. It’s also rather interesting to have a protagonist who is very, very, relatable, but who will almost certainly die unless she embraces a monstrous power.

I liked it. However, it’s the first book in a series, so it has some of the attendant limitations. The main character’s journey has only just begun by the end of the book, and her fate is still very much undecided, so my reaction to the whole will really depend on how the later volumes play out. But it’s a very solid start to what may turn out to be an interesting take on the YA dystopian heroine.

Note: I got a signed copy of this book for free at Book Expo America. I have no other connection with the publisher.

Erika Johansen, Queen of the Tearling

It’s a good thing that this book is going to be made into a movie (with Emma Watson, no less, directing it AND starring in it), because it will almost certainly function better as a movie. The novel, as it stands, is deeply flawed, although it’s possible that the SERIES will redeem itself, much as the simplistic, moralistic world of Star Wars was redeemed rather nicely by The Empire Strikes Back. Let’s hope so, as otherwise the exercise of wading through all 434 pages of this book will turn out to have been quite a waste of time. It works nicely as setup; but almost everything that would make that setup worthwhile or interesting has been reserved for future books.

I’m not happy to say this, and I know there are people out there who will disagree with me. I see real promise scattered throughout the novel, but it’s overwhelmed by things that smothered my enthusiasm every moment it started to catch fire for me.

But the good things first. There is a very interesting premise — future medieval, with a cataclysm in between — that plays out in very interesting ways. There are some incredible cinematic sequences in this story, very sharply described and choreographed. There are key characters who are very briefly sketched, yet come vividly to life, like Lazarus and the Fetch. And I have to admit, I’m a sucker for the basic concept — the Hidden Princess trope, with its corollary issues — a protagonist who must confront a world not of her making, in which her choices will have over-sized consequences. That makes it kind of tricky to review a work like this, because on the one hand, I’m hyper sensitive to the pitfalls involved. On the other hand, my personal interest could make this review something of an overreaction. I hope it doesn’t come across as too negative, because I really do think there’s an incredible story in this novel. My criticisms are the sharper for that precise reason.

Let me work my way backward through the faults I see. For some readers, these faults might not spoil the read; but they did for me.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. Read on only if you’re ok with that.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.

1. Deus ex machina (in this case, Demon ex Machina) isn’t the best way to get your character out of a hole they’ve dug.
When your protagonist makes what should be a fatal, utterly disastrous decision, heedless of the consequences, it’s really a bit much to save her from her own stubborn commitment to Doing the Right Thing by having the ultimate bad guy tell the villain to back off. That’s what you do to set up a mystery in the opening of a novel and gradually account for along the way, not something you do when you have a huge plot thread hanging in midair and only forty pages before your novel gets way too long.

And hey, if you start the story by gifting your protagonist with not one, but TWO magic jewels, it’s a bit much that nobody but nobody has a clue that they’re magic, even though they’ve been the talisman of the royal house for generations. And then their magic shows up just when the protagonist is about to get her throat slit, to conveniently kill an assassin when she hasn’t the faintest idea that it even is magic, much less have a clue how to use it. Just-in-time inventory is the blessing of modern management; but as a reader of fantasy, just-in-time magic doesn’t exactly make me feel warm and fuzzy.

2. Internal point of view is a great thing, but it’s not the Universal Solvent.
Boy, does Kelsea, the Queen-to-be-of-the-Tearling, spend a lot of time musing about anything and everything going on around her. OK, I get it, she’s that kind of character, but when you start overusing internal point of view for all the other functions of story-telling — exposition, character development, world-building, you name it — well, I stop believing it’s really her voice any more.

3. It takes more to build a world than to describe the bare facts. Readers want to know why.
Just how do we get from the 21st century to Kelsea’s world via the fabled Crossing? (Or, what kind of ocean can you set sail on from both Europe AND America?). How do we get from a world without magic to a world in which magic is central? We have a stark before and after, but it’s left a total mystery how we got there from here.

It’s quite possible that the author has very reasonable explanations for all of these things — this novel feels very much like the introduction to the story, not the story itself. That’s not necessarily a fault — that’s one of the functions of the first book in a series. But as a fantasy reader, I expect the world building and the plot to make sense when you ask hard, critical questions, and I would really have liked to have had much more time with interesting characters like the Fetch, rather than having him show up only when he’s necessary to the machinery of the plot. I don’t think that’s too much to ask; and maybe in the movie, and in subsequent books in this series, I’ll see those desires fulfilled.

Karen Miller, The Falcon Throne

In case there was any doubt, the cover of my ARC of this book spells it out for you:

When kingdoms clash, every crown will be tarnished by the bloody price of ambition.

This book is solidly set in the same space as Game of Thrones, and if that’s what you’re looking for, it delivers: many characters in intersecting plot-lines, evil schemers, court intrigue, bloody tyranny gone mad. I’ve been following Karen Miller’s works for some time, and she also delivers on the necessities for this kind of plot — strong characterization, plenty of dramatic tension, unexpected twists and interactions between the plot-lines.

And yet I’m dissatisfied. Some of it may not really be Miller’s fault; she’s delivered what the cover promises, and maybe I shouldn’t complain. But in the end, I have a problem with a narrative that ends up telling you the whole thing has been the work of a puppet-master behind the scenes, and gives you no clue how or when in the series any of the main characters will get a clue. And I have a problem with the heavy dosage of amorality embodied by most of the characters. I don’t think that’s how evil works, and while Karen Miller has given us two more characters we can believe in than George R.R. Martin, it’s hard to stay with them when the whole narrative sets them up as the patsies.

I strongly suspect I’ll like the later books in this series better, once some of the machinations of evil come out into the open, and there’s a chance for the probable intended hero and heroine to come into their own more. But this book is all about creating a really messy situation that can be the fodder of those later books, and that puts limits on how satisfying the plot can be on its own, without the rest of the series.

Worth reading. But if you’re not a fan of Gerrge R.R. Martin, go in with your eyes open.

Maggie Stiefvater, Sinner

Cole St. Clair is a rock star. Was a rock star – is about to be a rock star again. No one knows why he disappeared from public view, or exactly why his band dissolved (though the death of the bassist might have something to do with it). But he’s coming back, by starring in Baby North’s reality TV show – as himself. People expect to see yet another of Baby North’s trademark celebrity melt-downs, but that’s not what he really wants. Los Angeles also happens to be where Isabel Culpepper, his former girlfriend, lives, and he wants her back.

But she knows his secret. He is now a werewolf. A werewolf in LA.

It is odd, sometimes, what makes a story tick. On one level, this is another urban fantasy set in the world of Maggie Stiefvater’s Mercy Falls werewolf series, and in that context it serves to tie up a couple of loose ends, and give a two characters a chance to shine on their own. But there’s a deeper sense in which this novel is not a fantasy novel at all.

The only genre fantasy element at work in this story is the fact that Cole St. Clair is a werewolf. But turning into a werewolf only has one role in this story. It’s just another drug — a better drug than heroin or crack, but still fundamentally an addiction. What this story is really about is fame, or at least celebrity, and the point at which a performer starts wondering how much of his self is constructed – essentially, performance art – and whether there is anything authentic left that he can call his own.

In a sense, you could almost call this novel Vampires in LA — because the real theme is the parasitic nature of the entire culture.

This is a very good book and will be enjoyable both to general readers, who will enjoy its exploration of the pathologies of fame, not just to fans of the Mercy Falls series.

Rosamund Hodge, Cruel Beauty

Her father has promised her in marriage to a monster, and trained her all her life to kill him. Nyx resents her father, but means to do her duty anyway. Until she’s actually married to the Gentle Lord. Then, things get complicated.

Here’s the fastest way to describe this story: Cupid and Psyche meets Tam Lin.

If you like versions of Beauty and the Beast, or C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, you should start drooling.

This is a really well-told story. The coolest fact about Nyx is that she’s the best example I’ve seen in a long while of a protagonist who doesn’t try to be likeable. Who knows she ISN’T good, but soldiers on anyway.

Scary moment, when she unloads a lifetime of frustrations on her sister early in the book, for instance. But it makes it easier to see her as real. This is a character that comes to life from the start.

Well worth reading. Don’t miss. I’m putting it in my list of classic must-reads.

Holly Black, The Darkest Part of the Forest

Tropes have staying power because they bring up something primal in us. The concept of Faerie depends utterly on a vision of beauty and power unattached to any code of morality. The fairy folk belong neither to heaven nor hell, but they pay a tithe to hell, and it is perilous to know them or to see their beauty.

Of course, one of the problems with a trope is that writers love to blur their edges. After a hundred urban fantasies featuring the Fair Folk, they start to seem pretty tame; kind of like glittery vampires who only eat Bambi.

So that makes Holly Black’s forthcoming novel a welcome change. She’s gone back to the root of the trope — a world in which Fairies are mad, bad, dangerous to know, and beautiful beyond imagining, and only an idiot or a fool tries to bargain with them.

So there is a town where people know how to protect themselves from the Fair Folk (though tourists are often not so lucky), a town that has its own Sleeping Beauty, a fairy prince encased in glass, a place where a girl who dreams of being a knight may just find her wish fulfilled. A place where you need to be careful what you wish for.

That is the world of The Darkest Part of the Forest, and it’s well worth a visit, if only because in this book the primal trope wakes up and gives a Tarzan yell.

I got the advance review copy of this book at Book Expo America, and have no other connection with the author. The Darkest Part of the Forest will be published in January, 2015.

Wendy Tyson, Killer Image

Allison Campbell is an image consultant. Which mostly means teaching people how to be what they want to seem. But then a congressman wants him to help his teenage daughter — which brings back memories of another life, in which she tried, and failed, to help a troubled teen. Every time she tries to help the girl, things get worse. Before long, the congressman’s daughter is the prime suspect in a murder investigation, and if Allison isn’t careful, she’ll be the next victim.

It’s important to note that I am not a mystery reader normally. But this sounded interesting, and so I wanted to see what Wendy Tyson was up to.

The short answer? Having fun.

This is a tightly-plotted book with very believable characters, and the villain of the whodunnit was not obvious except in retrospect, as should be in a well-written mystery. But for me, the psychological tensions were what made the book. We’re talking about a seriously believable main course of teen angst, with a side of powerfully portrayed adult guilt complexes, stirred together with a dollop of love triangle sauce.

A fun read, and one I’d recommend to anyone, not just to mystery fans.

An explorer's reports from worlds of the imagination …