Book Review: The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones (and Ursula Jones)

10 Dec

IslandsofChaldeaAileen is the youngest in a magical family, so she always thought she was supposed to be magical too. But she seems to have failed her initiation–and that isn’t even the biggest of her problems. Soon she and her aunt are sent off to fulfill a prophecy to lift the magical barrier surrounding Logra, the largest of the Islands of Chaldea. But even though they’ve been told they’re fated to achieve their goal, everything seems to be going wrong. It remains up to Aileen to save the day, with the help of an ugly cat, a boy from Logra, a holy man, and a hot air balloon.

I was astounded to come across this in the library the other day. Diana Wynne Jones is one of my favourite authors, and when she passed away in 2011 I was heartbroken. She was hugely talented, weaving magical tales filled with intricate details that seemed to come alive and certainly enchanted my 10-year-old self. The Lives of Christopher Chant, Howl’s Moving Castle, and A Tale of Time City in particular are high on my “favourite books” list.

This one was left unfinished at the time of Diana’s death, and was finished up by her sister Ursula and published earlier this year. It is definitely one of her younger stories and I felt it didn’t contain as much depth of character as her other books, but the world was still richly magical and the plot was fast-paced and tied together nicely.

I admit I was reading with an eye for the place where Ursula took over. I’ll never know if I found it, of course, but I thought there was a bit of a shift around page 190 (would love to hear other guesses in the comments below! An earlier guess was page 118–I can’t remember why–but that seemed almost too early). Certainly by the very end I could tell that it wasn’t Diana writing anymore, but that was only because I was conscious of it–it’s a fairly seamless transition. Certainly younger readers won’t pick up on anything. I thought Ursula did an admirable job of wrapping up her sister’s final story and I would love to encourage her to write more of her own; the talent seems to run in the family.

All in all, a surprising, enchanting story that left me spellbound until the end.

Book Review: The Thief (Queen’s Thief #1) by Megan Whalen Turner

4 Dec

TheThiefGen is a thief, and as thieves so often are, he’s in prison. When he’s offered an opportunity to escape prison (at least for a little while) by stealing something for the King of Sounis, he’s forced into the chance. He spends his days traveling with the king’s magus, two useless boys, and a guard. No one will tell him where they’re going or what he’s meant to be stealing. But Gen has his own secrets, too, and it’s anyone’s guess what he’ll do next.

I rated this book a 4/5 on Goodreads. To be honest, I think that’s a bit high. I think I was intimidated by the silver Newbery Honor medal on the cover.

I’ll start with the good: it is quite an interesting story, and Gen is a fantastic narrator–smart, witty, sarcastic, full of fire–I loved him from the first few pages.

However.

This wasn’t great as a fantasy novel. The world was not developed enough. Things that were happening in these countries were not expounded upon, just mentioned in passing. The time period seemed a bit mixed up (the author notes in the “Extras” section that there’s not specific date in our world that correlates). Much as I loved Gen, he and the rest of the characters weren’t developed very much either. When a couple of characters died, I was like, “Well, that happened.” I’d prefer to feel a tug at my heartstrings, not apathy.

I think a lot of this development was sacrificed for the “big reveal” at the end (which I admittedly did see coming, but I’m rarely surprised!). Rather than risk telling too much, the author told too little. I might have been more impressed if I knew that it didn’t have to be this way. The more recent The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen had some similar elements and a similar “big reveal” and did it much better, in my opinion.

Still, this was an entertaining book and for all of my complaints I won’t hesitate to grab the sequels when I can.

Book Review: Storm Fall (Rebel Wing #2) by Tracy Banghart

30 Nov

To read my review of the first book in this series, Rebel Wing (formerly titled Shattered Veil), click here.

I received a free e-copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

stormfallThe Atalantan Army is beginning the slow process of integrating women into its ranks. No longer needing to hide behind the diatous veil, women soldiers find life among their male comrades even more difficult than it was before. Harassment is driving many of them away. That is, until a plan is hatched to make Aris Haan the face of female soldiers by making her efforts to save Ward Vadim public. Before Aris can be honored at a ceremony in Ruslana, though, her wingjet crashes in enemy territory. Injured, alone, and low on supplies, Aris must find her way to safety before the evil Elom catches up with her. Exciting battles, a young woman saving herself, and a dash of love makes for a brilliant second novel in a promising series.

Some of you might have read my review of Shattered Veil (now titled Rebel Wing) at the beginning of the year. I mentioned then that I was astounded it was independently published–it was so good that it seemed impossible. I’m happy to report that the author was very deservedly picked up by Alloy Entertainment earlier in the year, thus the new title, new cover, and hopefully some extra marketing throwing new fans her way.

I’m happy to say that Storm Fall lived up to my expectations. It was as fast-paced as the first, and I *almost* finished it in one sitting before the silly need to sleep got in the way. That’s how good it is! Well-written, the descriptions will immerse you in the world of Atalanta with the cool technology and glowing walkways and gorgeous buildings, and the action flows nicely–it really puts you in the middle of a busy battle scene without getting so technical that you can’t follow it.

Aris was just as lovable as ever. She’s really come into her own and knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to go for it. Her love story is so believable and real–not like some books where it’s plunked in for the sake of things. And I like how Aris handles herself at the end, too. Like I said, she isn’t afraid to go for what she wants, even at the expense of romance.

I enjoyed exploring the other characters more thoroughly as well, and was particularly drawn in by Galena’s POV. Let’s just say I was really rooting for something to happen at the end, and when it got interrupted I couldn’t help but laugh (in the saddest sort of way)… of course it got interrupted.

But enough of these almost-spoilers. I highly recommend this series to anyone who likes a fast-paced, well-written sci-fi book with a main character who isn’t afraid to be herself. My only complaint is that it wasn’t longer!

Book Review: His Majesty’s Dragon (Temeraire #1) by Naomi Novik

29 Nov

Temeraire1The Napoleonic Wars are in full swing, with a twist: warriors on valiant dragons patrol the skies, engaging in aerial battles that could determine the outcome of the war. Captain Laurence of the Reliant, one of the ships of the British Royal Navy, never expected the direction his life would take after capturing a French vessel. On board was a dragon egg, and it was ready to hatch. Laurence manages to harness the dragon, which he names Temeraire, and together they must train to fight against the French troops. But training isn’t easy when Napoleon will do anything to make sure his dragon egg returns to him–even if it’s already hatched!

I had seen this book (and the rest of the series) around for several years and never thought to read it because it was an “adult book” and I tend to prefer YA for its typically quick and to-the-point style. But my husband started reading this series shortly before we left for Europe and raved about it, so I thought I’d give it a go and I wasn’t disappointed. Honestly, I’m surprised more of my friends haven’t read this and I highly recommend that they do!

First of all, Napoleonic Wars with dragons? Yes, please. The book does contain quite a bit of history and I feel like the voice was spot-on for the time period. The reader is immersed in the life of the very respectable Captain Laurence and his views will likely make you chuckle from time-to-time with how much he stands on ceremony. The battles are a mix of real and imagined (I mean, some of them kind of have to be–dragons and all that!). Loved how different areas of the world had different breeds of dragons.

Temeraire was easily my favorite character. Dragons in this world can speak straight out of the shell, but that doesn’t mean they have all the answers. Temeraire is a hugely intelligent dragon with the curiosity of a cat, and while some of the topics he chooses to question are rather deep or technical–mathematics, why the sea is not owned by man but land is–others become downright hysterical when posed to upright Laurence. After all, why DO men enjoy whores?

Temeraire and Laurence are explored most thoroughly in this first book, with a wide cast of characters circling around them who I hope are developed more in subsequent books. I’m particularly intrigued by Catherine and the Rolands (because yes, women can ride dragons, too!).

I will admit that I was a bit bored by the battle scenes, not because they weren’t well-written, but because that’s my reading style–I love character interaction, not necessarily action. My husband LOVED the battle scenes because that’s what he enjoys. Either way, the battle scenes don’t make up the bulk of the book and it was still thoroughly enjoyable to me.

This was a really excellent start to a series and I can’t wait to read the rest. Cal assures me that each one is just as good as the last! Highly recommend to all who enjoy fantasy, and particularly to Dragonriders of Pern fans as there were some similarities.

Book Review: Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier

22 Nov

Wildwood DancingJena and her sisters have been visiting the Wildwood at full moon for years, escaping there through a portal in their bedroom. For one night every month, they dance with the likes of dwarves and fairies. But when their father sickens and goes on an extended business trip somewhere warm one winter, things begin to go downhill: their cousin takes charge of their finances and becomes bent on destroying the Wildwood and everything in it as retribution for a witch killing his brother some years before. Worse, he knows that the girls know something they aren’t letting on, and he will do anything to find out what it is.

So I finally, FINALLY got around to reading this book. I couldn’t tell you how many years this has been sitting on my “to be read” list. As you’ve likely noticed, I’ve gone through tons of Marillier’s other books in recent months. I even read the “sequel” to Wildwood a few years ago without realizing that it was a sequel. Luckily, I didn’t remember much from that book, so nothing was ruined for this one.

I actually liked Wildwood Dancing much better than Cybele’s Secret. I think there was much more worldbuilding that went into this one; the Wildwood was just as enchanting as it should have been, and I was immediately placed in the time period in which the story was set. What I wouldn’t give to live at that house in Transylvania!

The characters were intriguing, though I shook my head at some of Jena’s decisions later on in the book. They didn’t seem true to her character at first, though I suppose as the story continued I understood her motives even if I didn’t agree with them. I liked learning more about the sisters who don’t have quite as big of a role in the sequel. All of them have their own charms.

The plot, I will admit, was a bit predictable. Without giving too much away, one of the big surprises toward the end wasn’t much of a surprise to me at all (I can’t remember if his name was mentioned at the end of Cybele… if so, perhaps I just retained some subconscious knowledge!). Even so, I found the book enjoyable and it definitely kept me turning pages.

Well worth the read!

Book Review: Promised (Birthmarked #3) by Caragh M. O’Brien

1 Nov

PromisedGaia Stone escaped the enclave–only to head willingly back in. When she and the people of New Sylum arrive at Wharfton to settle, she doesn’t expect the changes that have happened in her absence, and not all of them are good. Her best friend, Emily, was taken into custody and now leads the Vessel Institute, a “baby factory” of surrogate mothers providing hemophilia-free babies to the wealthy elite. Meanwhile, the Protectorat refuses to provide the people of New Sylum with water unless Gaia does the unthinkable–and the people of New Sylum are becoming restless.

I read the first two books in this series several years ago and, to be honest, I probably should have reread them before reading this! My only read of Birthmarked happened back in 2011, as you can see by the old format of this review, and I didn’t even review Prized, which must mean I read it sometime in 2012 before I started getting more serious about this blog. So, apologies if I am misremembering things.

To be honest, I wasn’t hugely impressed with Promised. I remember quite liking Birthmarked, liking Prized a bit less, and Promised was just sort of strange to me.

First, the plot was a bit non-existent, or perhaps slow-moving and fast-moving all at once. See what I mean about strange? Everything in this book happened within days, and a rather large goal was accomplished, yet at the same time it seemed like nothing much happened at all. I was sort of just going with the flow for the entire read wondering if I was missing something.

This time around, the characters — particularly the rather forced love triangle — just got on my nerves. After reading my review of Birthmarked, it looks like Gaia has always been this way a little. I just don’t know how to read her, and she does some unpredictable things, but this time around I wasn’t charmed by that; it just made her seem inconsistent. I also felt as though she’d risen a bit to Mary Sue-dom; for some inexplicable reason, she has to be the one to fix everything, and she has to be the only one who can “save the population” because of her special blood, and she has this sob story at the end but it seems to barely bother her… I don’t know, I just didn’t like her.

What I thought would have been much more interesting were these women who joined the Vessel Institute and the children who were leaving the Enclave to find their birth families. It would have been interesting to see these people more directly involved in the downfall of the Enclave (much more than bombs!). Unfortunately, this one fell a bit flat for me.

Book Review: Cattra’s Legacy by Anna Mackenzie

21 Oct

Cattra's LegacyWhen Risha’s father dies and her holding is taken from her by the village leader, she decides to travel with the traders and find one of her father’s old friends. She doesn’t realize that the journey will bring her much more than she bargained for and turn her life on its head in ways she couldn’t imagine.

This was an excellent find at the library and I plan on purchasing my own copy soon. It had everything I like in a book: fiery female lead, politics galore, a hint of magic, an array of supporting characters, and a page-turning plot. It was well-written, too, with words and sentences that seemed to flow effortlessly, painting a beautiful picture of this world and the people who live in it.

That said, I knocked a star off my Goodreads review because it was a bit too much plot in too small a space. I felt like the information and events we were presented in this book could easily have been expanded to suit a trilogy rather than just one book. It was just 350 pages long, and covered over a year of important events that helped to develop the main character. I just think that some things could have been slowed down and explained more thoroughly if the author had been given more space to do so. I was often confused by the names of places and the people leading them and their place in this world. The politics were complex, which is excellent, but not enough time was given to explain them, and I was often confused by that as well.

There were also too many characters which I call “characters of convenience”–those that pop up to serve a purpose but are then discarded. Honestly, the “characters of convenience” in this book were realistic. If Risha were to experience what she experienced in the “real world” she probably wouldn’t see half the people she met along the way again… but as a reader, those characters take up space in my mind, not to mention space on the page, that would be better used by explanations of the things I named above. When the author has but so many words and pages to work with, it doesn’t make sense to waste them on characters that we will never see again. I’m talking Sulba’s family, Fenn, Clik… I just think the book could have been reworked to avoid these characters.

I was also confused by some of Risha’s actions and lack of action. For instance, when she decides to go along with a bunch of strange men and they’re just riding along and it’s ages until she asks who they are and where they’re going and what they intend to do with her. And when she realizes she’s safe, she doesn’t ask any questions at all–which just isn’t what I’d expect from her character at the time. Yes, she was a bit meek at the start, but she grows into herself pretty quickly and I’d expect her to expect more answers. She gets a lot of them in the end, it’s true, but they took forever to be revealed.

Lastly, the voice in her head. We never get a clear explanation of who this voice is, and though we’re given a pretty big hint, we aren’t told why this happens to her or what is causing it or how it works. Then suddenly she was able to talk to her cousin through her mind? And they don’t hash it out until ages after? I assume we’ll get these answers in the sequel, but I really would have liked to have them in this book. Perhaps I was missing something? I don’t know. But this is a prime example of what I mean when I said there wasn’t enough space for all of the elements of this story.

I know I’ve been pretty critical here, but like I said, I only knocked one star off for all this–this book was really, really excellent and engaging and page-turning, and you can bet I’ll be reading the sequel as soon as I can! I highly recommend this book despite these few issues that I had with it. And you should know I’m only super critical of books that I loved. Can’t wait for the next one!

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