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.

Review: The Emperor’s Blades

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I have been incredibly lucky this year in the books I’ve been able to read. So much so, in fact, that my luck has spilled over into next year. The Emperor’s Blades, which I’ve had the chance to read, by Brian Staveley, will be released January 14, 2014.

This book tells the story of three siblings, Adare, Valyn, and Kaden, the children of the Emperor of Annur.

Well, they were his children. The Emperor has been assassinated. The Emperor’s Blades, the first book in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne trilogy, investigates what happens to each of them immediately after his death.

Adare, living in the capital, has to deal with the most immediate effects of her father’s death, and attempt to hold the empire together until the heir to the throne can return and become emperor. At the same time, she attempts to hunt down her father’s murderer.

Kaden, Adare’s brother, is the heir to the throne. He has spent the past eight years in a remote monastery on the edge of the empire, training in the ways of the monks, yet never understanding why. He must now try to figure out what he was sent to learn before it is too late–it will be crucial to his success as emperor.

Vayln, separated from his siblings by an ocean, is learning to be a Kettral; an elite soldier who, working with a team, flies into battle on the back of giant hawks. But before he can return home and grieve for his father, Vayln must pass the grueling but mysterious test to become a full Kettral, as well as avoid possible attempts on his life.

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There are a lot of decent books being published these days. I have read, and enjoy a large number of these, even if they don’t make me incredibly excited.

There are even a good number of good books being published, ones that I truly enjoy and would recommend to my friends, and give high ratings to. These are not as common, but they are not too hard to find if you look through the reviews.

And then there are great books. Books that will blow your shoes off and leave you stunned because the author has done such a magnificent job in their craft. These are the books that you recommend to all of your friends, and are often annoyed if they haven’t read them.

The Emperor’s Blades falls firmly into the third category. I read the book during the semester, with my full load of classes. My copy comes in at 476 pages, and it’s certainly not a short book by any means. I have been rationing myself this semester, forcing myself to read slowly so that I have time for schoolwork and other activities that I need to finish.

I read The Emperor’s Blades in 4 days. Once I started, I could not put the book down. The pacing and tension that Staveley builds throughout is incredibly well done. The chapter switches, from viewpoint to viewpoint, quickly reached the part where, at every single viewpoint switch, I thought “No! I want to stay with this character!” even though I had thought the same thing when I left the character I was returning to. It takes a skilled writer to make you feel this way about all of the characters in a book, and Staveley has done it magnificently well. The pacing will leave you breathless as you tear through the book, so be warned.

The book was not perfect. I would have preferred to see more from Adare’s viewpoint (She definitely did not have 1/3 of the screen time.), and some of the plot devices and world-building (the monks in particular) felt well worn.

However, those shortcomings are greatly outshone by the rest of the book. In addition to the pacing, the characters were compelling. While I would not classify any of them as “lovable”, they are relatable, and that, perhaps more than anything, is the most important thing. Vayln, in particular, seems to just want to leave his island and get back to the kingdom, but must struggle through various trials first. Because I, too, wanted him to be able to leave, I sympathized with him.

The ending was well executed, bringing various threads together into a satisfying and brutal climax, which left a lot open for the next two books. This book is not a “fun” book, the amount of death and other brutality is high, but it gives a very realistic sense to the world, and I wouldn’t want it even a notch lower.

The world-building was interesting. There is, obviously, a lot going on behind the scenes here that we don’t know about yet, which I assume we will find out a lot more about in the next two books. I am going to with-hold judgement on the full extent of the world-building until more of the world is revealed, but what I have seen–including the chilling prologue–is excellent.

And on that note… Ninja assassins on giant flying hawks? Why has no-one written that before? The Kettral are flat out awesome. I can’t even begin to describe how totally cool they are; you have to read yourself to get the full impact. And I highly recommend that you do so.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and recommend it to everyone. Brian Staveley is an author to watch, and I predict this will be one of the best debuts, if not the best, of 2014. You can actually read the first seven chapters right now, here. If you want to pre-order your copy, you can do so from Amazon, here. I know I’ll be getting another copy when it is released. This is an incredible book, and the author deserves my money.

Without question, I give The Emperor’s Blades five stars, and a high recommendation. Go read it!

You can find Brian Staveley’s website here.