ARC Review: The Bone Witch

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this novel from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my thoughts, feelings, or anything of that nature regarding it. You have been advised.

The Bone Witch

From Goodreads:

Tea is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy makes her a bone witch, who are feared and ostracized in the kingdom. For theirs is a powerful, elemental magic that can reach beyond the boundaries of the living—and of the human.

Great power comes at a price, forcing Tea to leave her homeland to train under the guidance of an older, wiser bone witch. There, Tea puts all of her energy into becoming an asha, learning to control her elemental magic and those beasts who will submit by no other force. And Tea must be strong—stronger than she even believes possible. Because war is brewing in the eight kingdoms, war that will threaten the sovereignty of her homeland…and threaten the very survival of those she loves.

The cover of this book captivated me and was the original reason I chose to request the novel. It is beautifully dark, with purple hues and the skull right in the center, like a warning to anyone entering. Unfortunately, though the contents inside do oftentimes match the atmosphere given off by the cover, I found myself bored throughout the middle of the book. While there are parts that certainly make reading the middle worth it for the end, much of it felt easily skipped. The descriptions of daily life, while good in moderation, seem like the majority of the novel and cause it to drag. I wanted more action, more daeva fighting, but these were much smaller sections of the book than I had thought would be the case. The comparison to Memoirs of a Geisha is warranted with the descriptions of becoming an asha, but it is not nearly as captivating as Golden’s work.

In addition, the characters did not feel as well fleshed out as I would have liked. Many of them feel one-dimensional, or had character traits described but not shown nearly as much in their actions. While Tea was definitely rebellious and strong-willed, I had a hard time connecting to her even though she is the narrator of her own story. Oftentimes, she felt almost bland to me, even though she has the coolest magical skill set and could raise people from the dead. I had an easier time connecting to her protective, yet stoic older brother. And her love interests? Flat throughout the majority of the novel.

However, the strength of The Bone Witch falls in its worldbuilding. I loved the descriptions of the heartsglass, the drawing of the runes for the magic system, and the demonic daeva. While the countries fall on real-world examples to help flesh them out, they still feel alive from the information we are given about them and seeing their people populate the novel. There are even old myths and an age-old conflict that help make this world feel vibrant. I especially enjoyed how most of the countries did not have much in the way of Western influences, and how the asha are like fighting geisha. Even the description of the food veers away from fantasy norms. Chupeco does a wonderful job at making her world, while familiar in many ways, feel atypical in a Western fantasy dominated market.

Due to the middle of the novel’s slowness and the flat characters, even though the worldbuilding was strong I give The Bone Witch three out of five stars. While it does end on a cliffhanger of sorts, because I did not connect with Tea as much as I would have liked, I will not likely be reading the next book in the series. With characterization being so important to me, I wish she had as much life to her as the world around her does.

Book Review: Magonia

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From Goodreads:

Aza Ray is drowning in thin air.

Since she was a baby, Aza has suffered from a mysterious lung disease that makes it ever harder for her to breathe, to speak—to live.

So when Aza catches a glimpse of a ship in the sky, her family chalks it up to a cruel side effect of her medication. But Aza doesn’t think this is a hallucination. She can hear someone on the ship calling her name.

Only her best friend, Jason, listens. Jason, who’s always been there. Jason, for whom she might have more-than-friendly feelings. But before Aza can consider that thrilling idea, something goes terribly wrong. Aza is lost to our world—and found, by another. Magonia.

Above the clouds, in a land of trading ships, Aza is not the weak and dying thing she was. In Magonia, she can breathe for the first time. Better, she has immense power—and as she navigates her new life, she discovers that war is coming. Magonia and Earth are on the cusp of a reckoning. And in Aza’s hands lies the fate of the whole of humanity—including the boy who loves her. Where do her loyalties lie?

I honestly was not sure if I would like this book in the beginning. It begins with stream of consciousness writing, with a slice of life focus. While fascinating and beautifully written in its own right, I could not help but feel that Aza Ray was a special snowflake. Nerdier than the rest of the class? Check. Only one friend who understands her, and is just as nerdy? Check. Nerdiness is almost to the point of being beyond belief? Check. A mysterious illness that not even doctors understand? Needless to say, I had a hard time initially with the novel. However, as I continued reading, these facets added to the fantastic and dream-like atmosphere of the story. While we see a typical YA heroine with special powers and coming to terms with her destiny, the world building and mythos make up for these tropes and others throughout the story.

Maybe I have not read enough, but I have never read something quite like this novel. Ships in the sky? Sure, I’ve seen that plenty of times. Birds that roost in your lungs to amplify your singing voice, however? That as well as plenty of other facets, from the Magonian race to the Rostrae, were unique and refreshing. I fell in love with this world, even if there were plot holes abound and a lack of believable characters.

Even if they were unbelievable, however, I still could not help but empathize with them all. They all had clear goals, clear motivations, and were never black and white. It was also nice to see Aza and Jason’s parents play such a strong role in the story as well. I could not help but root for everyone, cry with them, and laugh with them, especially with how strong the audiobook performance was. Even once I had to turn in the audiobook and read the physical book, their voices stayed with me.

Although there was a romance triangle, it made sense within the context of the novel and did not bother me as much as they normally tend to do. Jason and Aza together, in particular, were adorable, and I could not get enough of them. From the alligator costume in their beginning years to watching giant squid together, the entire time I wanted to both hug them and push them together at every moment.

Factoring in the improbable characters and plot holes (seriously, Jason, using the dark web as an excuse for all the shenanigans you manage to get up to??), I give this novel four out of five stars for wonderful world building, emotional and poetic writing, and for making me cry on the bus home of all places. I will definitely be giving the second book a try, as Aza Ray’s story will stick with me for a long time.  Thank you, Maria Dahvana Headley, for writing such a poignant and amazing novel.

Book Review: Seveneves

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I read this book because it was one of last year’s Hugo Nominees.

This book was very much hard sci-fi. Much harder than most of the other books I’ve read, and probably too hard for a lot of people. If you want a story about just characters, Seveneves is probably not the book for you, though that doesn’t mean those stories aren’t there. I would personally have to say that I enjoyed it, in part, because of the science, rather than in spite of it. It is explained so well, and in a way that is so relevant to the plot, that it never bored me. I’m generally much more of a fantasy geek than a sci-fi nerd, and will happily read pages on invented magic systems. Stevenson managed to turn the science here into a fascinating story, even without extrapolating very far into the future for most of the ideas.

That being said, this book had one major problem, one jarring element, that kept it from being amazing for me. WARNING: If you highlight the next paragraph, there are MAJOR SPOILERS for part of the plot.

The first 2/3 of the book are an intense, brutal, amazing survival novel. Then, once we have survived as a species, it jumps thousands of years into the future, starts over with a completely new set of characters, and follows an entirely different plot—that of our return to Earth. I found this jump to be jarring, unnecessary, and it darn near ruined the book for me. It didn’t feel like the same book at all. Honestly, if I could just go read the first 2/3 of the book, and consider it a complete novel, I would be perfectly happy and I would have enjoyed the book a lot more. Then the last 1/3 can be a companion novel, released a few years later. They should not be called the same book, at all.

The book did not move quickly at any point. There was no overwhelming sense of urgency to the plot, no need to get things over with and get to the next exciting bit. Rather, it took its time and it did it incredibly well. It still managed to have a rising tension that permeated basically every page, and somehow drew me through the entire thing. I’m not sure how well it would hold up to a reread—and I don’t honestly intend to find out—but it gripped me on my entire first reading.

The premise of the book is very simple, and it’s laid out on the first few pages. It’s a simple “What if?” question that I’m sure many people have contemplated before. I didn’t even feel that any of the results or reactions to the inciting event were outlandish—every decision felt realistic, every happening totally possible. It scares me a little bit, sometimes, how easily our modern society could fall into chaos and disappear. The progression of ideas, and the level of intriguing plot and tension that Stevenson was able to create with such a simple idea shows off his skill—you don’t need a list of “WOW!” ideas to make a great book, you just need everything to be solid, and be a good writer.

Not only did I feel that all of the scientific extrapolations in the book were solid and believable, but also the character actions and reactions. People made some bad decisions, and I sometimes wanted to bash their heads together and just yell at them to cooperate. I was able to get inside the heads of several of the characters from the book, and in many cases, I cannot deny that I would also have made some very bad decisions had I been in their places.

The title of the book makes no sense before you read it—I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce it until I figured out what it meant. Once I did figure that out. . . I think it’s genius. But I won’t spoil it here.

In summary, Seveneves was a very good book, with understandable character decisions and a believable sci-fi plot, that, despite it’s slow pacing and simple premise, entranced me and drew me through. Unfortunately, there’s then another book that is half the length of the first one, tacked on to the end, and it didn’t fit at all, though it was good in its own right. I’m going to give it three of five stars, and recommend that you at least read the first two parts—but if you don’t read the third part, you’re doing just fine.

Book Review: Sleeping Giants

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This book has been compared to World War Z (which I have not yet read), in part for its format. It’s a very interesting format. I wouldn’t quite classify it as found footage, but it’s not really an epistolary either. It’s told through interviews, occasional surveillance videos, and other such things. Mostly the interviews, though. Perhaps the most similar book that I’ve seen recently is Illuminae. (This one doesn’t have any illustrations, though.) The format is done really well, though there are times I could tell that the author was forcing himself to use the format, and it doesn’t really fit. Overall, though, it works really well, and brought a fresh feeling after reading so many books told in the same limited 3rd person viewpoint.

One trick that Neuvel tries to pull with this format is an unknown narrator. The person who conducts most of the interviews attempts to keep himself a mystery during the book—and this element really didn’t work for me. Because we only get to know a few characters in the book, and most all of them have met and been interviewed by the narrator, I feel like the narrator will end up being someone we don’t actually know, and therefore the reveal won’t be a shock.

The overall story is very intriguing. It’s a mix of a conspiracy story, mystery, military tale, and HOVER FOR SPOILER. The interweaving of so many layers makes it really gripping, and I enjoyed the story the whole time I was reading. It was a very quick read, despite the plot sometimes not moving super quickly (and sometimes jumping over months at a time), so I felt the plot was overall well written.

Two elements in particular that the book excelled at were the mythological aspect underlying many of the discoveries that were made, and the linguistics applied while deciphering the “foreign” texts. While both of these were done with very few actual details, and much of the story was implied, the parts that were there were done very well, and I loved the depth they added to the story.

My biggest complaint with the story is the ending—or lack thereof. I didn’t feel like there was actually any climax or resolution to the story. It doesn’t feel like the first book of a story—it feels like the first part of of a larger book. This really disappointed me, and I honestly don’t recommend reading it until you can read the second, and maybe third, parts. This really ruined my sense of enjoyment, as the book didn’t give me any closure, or really even that much indication that the end was coming, until I turned the last page and there simply wasn’t another page.

In summary, Sleeping Giants was a really interesting read that pulled me through, layering multiple plots very well with a cool storytelling style that only occasionally felt stretched, but let me down significantly at the end when there was no real climax or conclusion to the book. I give it 3 of 5 stars, and recommend it as part of the series, perhaps to be read once the other books have been released.

Book Review: The Amber Project

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From Goodreads:

In 2157, a mysterious gas known as Variant spreads across the globe, killing or mutating most organic life. The surviving humans take refuge in an underground city, determined to return home. But after generations of failures and botched attempts, hope is beginning to dwindle. That is, until a young scientist makes a unique discovery—and everything changes. Suddenly, there’s reason to hope again, and it rests within a group of genetically engineered children that are both human and Variant.

Terry is one of these children, modified and trained to endure the harsh conditions of a planet he cannot begin to understand. After years of preparation, Terry thinks he knows what to expect. But the reality is far stranger than anything he can imagine—and what he will become is far more dangerous.

I often do not pick up self-published novels.  I don’t have anything particularly against them, but oftentimes they suffer from needing more editing passes and beta/gamma readers.  This doesn’t mean the novels are always bad, of course – they just need more tender loving care.  This is how I can describe most of my experience with The Amber Project, which was December’s read for a book club I am a part of.  Riddled with continuity errors, scenes that seem out of place, and flat characters, this novel could have been so much more.

To me, J.N. Chaney’s book felt like a typical dystopian/post-apocalyptic novel.  With so many of those released within the last ten years, I felt like each scene I had seen before in some sense.  A breeding system?  Check.  Government falling apart slowly?  Check.  Some sort of deadly outside agent?  Check.  With generally cut and dry prose and only a couple really interesting action sequences, oftentimes I just felt bored.  It did not help that every once in a while there would be an error here or there with the year the scene was taking place, and sometimes contradictory information was given.  It could be jarring at times and brought me out of the story.

The Amber Project focuses on two sets of characters – the genetically modified children who are created to be able to traverse the Variant-ridden surface without special equipment, and the adults in power, such as the main character’s mother, Mara.  I will be honest, the main storyline with the children was not nearly as interesting as the politics going on in the background with the Mothers, the Scientists, and the Military.  Politics are often my favorite part of dystopian fiction.  Transition of power, the breakdown of a checks and balances system, and how the separation of the sexes is handled are all topics covered within this novel.  Especially as Ender’s Game-like schooling was happening with the children, the adults were just so much more interesting to read about and generally better fleshed out as people.

My other favorite part of dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels is the explanation as to why society broke down.  While the Variant gas is covered and explained in detail (though the science felt off), how the city initially came to be before the Jolt and why there are a myriad of types of plants, farms, and a general higher standard of living is glossed over, if it was really touched on at all.  A subplot about the slums was hinted at as well, but also was barely mentioned outside of two or three scenes.  There seemed to be a lot this book wanted to do, and perhaps the author does in the following two novels, but as a first book in a series I felt there was so much left to be desired.

If there was any one word to describe what I read, it would be this: mediocrity.  The main character Terry felt inconsistent and I had trouble empathizing with any of the cast.  There were recycled topics.  Shaky science.  I felt this book had the foundation for something great, but fell below that on so many levels.  For the interesting politics and premise, I give it three stars, but I likely will not continue with the series as I never got the emotional connection I wanted.  Someone at least let me know how Mara does, though!

Book Review: The Dinosaur Knights

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Disclaimer: I was sent a copy of this book by the publisher for review (Which is rather late. I’m sorry.). This has in no way affected my review of the book.

Before I get into my review, I’m just going to pause for a moment and admire that cover some more. Richard Anderson continues to be my favorite cover artist.

If all you want is dinosaurs beating things up, and you really enjoyed the first book in this series, The Dinosaur Lords, then there’s a decent chance you’ll enjoy this one as well.

Though there’s also a chance you might not. The pacing feels much worse in this one, dealing with lots of random events off in odd corners of the empire, interspersed with random tense scenes, before it really gets going in the second half of the book. I had a lot of trouble getting into this one, in part because of the pacing, and that’s why this review has been delayed by so much, and also part of why I’ve not been reading as much for the past few months. (Yes, it took me a few months to get through the entire book.)

I don’t know if I glazed over the descriptions in the first book because dinosaurs (I know I was rather enchanted by the dinosaurs), or if they’re simply worse in this book, but I was appalled by the prose in many places, from HOVER FOR NSFW to a character “lustily puking” into a bush. I was simply thrown out of the story way too often by awkward lines such as these, and honestly felt the book would have been much better for another line editing pass.

Part of the descriptions that wasn’t necessarily badly done (with a few exceptions like the one above) were the unnecessary oversexualization of everything. Many characters show up naked, arbitrarily, or are old lovers, and so on, and it honestly became rather tiring after a while. It didn’t drive the plot forward, most of the time, and I really wish some of it had been trimmed.

Another part that I may have brushed aside in the first novel were the typos. However, I read an ARC of The Dinosaur Lords, so I expected that any typos I saw would be caught during the copyediting and proofreading stages, and so ignored them. Since then, I’ve done several gamma reads (proofreading, essentially) for other books, and I noticed a lot of typos in this one–more than I typically expect to see even in a first pass proof. And I was reading the final book this time. It took me out of the story every time I saw one, and I had to resist marking up my book to correct them all.

On a more subjective level, I also felt that some of the characters were rather inconsistent. Many of them semi-magically develop talents for new skills, especially fighting, and with one character in particular, this abrupt reversal from how she was before, stretched the limits of my belief. I would have preferred a smoother transition for several of the characters.

I also would have preferred a smoother transition between chapters – oftentimes a large amount of time would pass between chapters, but reading them back to back I didn’t pick up on this until later in the chapter, oftentimes leaving me a bit confused and disoriented. Again, I feel this is an issue that could have been fixed with another editorial pass or two.

If there’s anything the book is good at, though, it’s dinosaurs. And, like the first book, it delivers. Tense moments abound, and the climax is epic. Despite my many qualms with the book, the combination of the massive battle near the end and the reveal in the last pages make me almost want to read the last book. Almost.

In summary, the book could have used another 3 editing passes: One to fix chapter transitions, remove unnecessary sexualization, and clean up the pacing; a second to clean up the prose and descriptions; and a third for copyediting and proofreading, to clean up the multitude of typos. If you can get through all of those things, and you really want to read about your dinosaurs, you might want to go ahead and read this book, but although I have to give it 2 of 5 stars because the ending was pretty good, I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this book.

Book Review: Of Metal and Wishes

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From Goodreads:

There are whispers of a ghost in the slaughterhouse where sixteen-year-old Wen assists her father in his medical clinic—a ghost who grants wishes to those who need them most. When one of the Noor, men hired as cheap factory labor, humiliates Wen, she makes an impulsive wish of her own, and the Ghost grants it. Brutally.

Guilt-ridden, Wen befriends the Noor, including their outspoken leader, a young man named Melik. At the same time, she is lured by the mystery of the Ghost and learns he has been watching her… for a very long time.

As deadly accidents fuel tensions within the factory, Wen must confront her growing feelings for Melik, who is enraged at the sadistic factory bosses and the prejudice faced by his people at the hand of Wen’s, and her need to appease the Ghost, who is determined to protect her against any threat—real or imagined. She must decide whom she can trust, because as her heart is torn, the factory is exploding around her… and she might go down with it.

Disclaimer: I’m a huge fan of the source material of this book.  Back in middle school, I lived, breathed, loved The Phantom of the Opera after a good friend introduced me to it.  Hell, I still love the heck out of it today.  It’s close to my heart.  Once I heard via the blogosphere that there was a YA retelling being published of it, I knew I had to snatch it up.  And while it sat on my bookshelf for a year before getting to it, I unfortunately don’t really regret the wait.  For while I did enjoy the book, I just did not feel the connection to the protagonist that I would have liked to.  Perhaps my expectations were too high because of my passion for the book and musical.

I keep wondering if it was the mood I was in while reading this book that made me ultimately feel rather meh about most of the characters, since plot-wise there was absolutely nothing wrong with the novel.  I loved the story, the setting, the atmosphere of the slaughterhouse… It was brutal and terrifying and so very satisfying.  I warn you now, if you do not like reading in graphic detail violence and slaughterhouse everyday life, you WILL have a rough time with this book.  I feel like the setting really captured many of the more violent aspects of The Phantom of the Opera, and the Ghost’s preoccupations with mechanical devices replaces that of Erik’s obsession with music.  Still, I felt a lot of the beauty of Phantom was missed in this book at times due to the new setting.

My biggest issue was that I did not feel connected to the romance between Melik and Wen.  Though I’ve always been most interested by the character of Erik (and subsequently the Ghost in this book), even in Phantom I could feel how right the connection between Christine and Raoul was.  I just was not able to really swoon over Fine’s characters, and I don’t know if it’s necessarily anything she did wrong.  I was more invested in the growing turmoil within the factory.  More than anything, I felt myself focusing on the Ghost and his behavior and actions more than any other character in the book.  He was just the most fascinating, even though Wen and Melik had their own clear motivations.  If I read the second book in the duology, which I’m still debating on, it will be to see what happens with the Ghost.

I believe, overall, it may have been my interest in the Ghost over the other characters which made Wen and Melik feel more flat to me.  While the other characters were fascinating in their own right, no one really compared to how interesting the Ghost is as a sort of anti-hero.  I think, in many respects, this happens in the source material for me as well.  I am incredibly happy that the Ghost has many of the same character traits as Erik and Fine pulls him off wonderfully as a character.  He’s childlike in his cruelty and manner, but a genius nonetheless.

Of Metal and Wishes, then, does not capture all of the elements that made me love the source material so much.  The Ghost’s mechanical creations do not quite capture the beauty in the horror that I fell for.  But this book stands up well on its own merit and plot.  The setting of the slaughterhouse was a unique one for me and it was nice to read about PoC characters, even if I did not get quite as much of their culture in this book as I would have liked – it was difficult to really place them as I believe they were of fictional ethnicities that corresponded to real life ones.  I think in many ways some of the characters suffer while the plot shines golden, and I give it three and a half stars.