Monday, December 5, 2016

Book Review - Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

In her New York Times bestselling and Morris Award-winning debut, Rachel Hartman introduces mathematical dragons in an alternative-medieval world to fantasy and science-fiction readers of all ages. Eragon-author Christopher Paolini calls them, "Some of the most interesting dragons I've read in fantasy."

Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty's anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen's Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.

Seraphina boasts perhaps the most uniquely fleshed-out take on dragons that I've ever read.   It is a beautifully written novel with some wonderful characters and breathtaking scope for its genre.  It's the type of book that I ardently wish I hadn't been bogged down in a stubborn reading slump for the majority of, because I certainly would have devoured it greedily under normal circumstances.

Seraphina herself, despite being a half-dragon, half-human hybrid, is a hugely relatable character.  Though dragons and humans hold a tentative peace, both species harbor animosity toward the other.  Seraphina's very existence is something that shouldn't be possible, and something she is forced to hide diligently from everyone but her human father and dragon uncle.  This is made somewhat difficult by the presence of a band of scales across her arm and abdomen, and Seraphina has all but given up on living any kind of normal life or harboring any hopes for taking a lover.  A resignation that is made all the more complicated by her budding feelings for Lucian Kiggs, the bastard-born Prince engaged to her friend and princess, Glisselda.

As I said, the writing is beautiful in this novel.  Rachel Hartman has a gift with words, turning them into art and drawing her readers in with every sentence.  She gives us characters with amazing depth, and scenes charged with emotion.  One of her best creations has to be the dragon Orma, Seraphina's uncle.  Orma has been living inside of a human body, and battles with all the unwanted human emotions his species scorns so.  His relationship with his hybrid  niece is sweet and touching, and quite possibly the most sincere relationship of the entire novel.

So far, this sounds amazing, right?  Well, it is, but I couldn't call it a favorite.  My absolute favorite books are the ones I find during a reading slump, and force me out of it.  Seraphina didn't do that.  Since it's technically and critically so sound, and checks off almost every one of my boxes for what makes a great story, I spent a lot of time pondering why this is, and here's what I realized.  There are very few big moments.  There aren't very many of those chapters that left me gasping, physically and mentally unable or unwilling to do anything but keep turning pages.  The pace is nice and steady, the writing even and beautiful, and ultimately I think that ended up being Seraphina's biggest flaw.  As a whole, it was an amazing reading experience.  But actually reading it could, at times, be somewhat boring.  The biggest and most notable exception to this, however, is the end.  I found my inner bookworm in those last 50 or so pages, and raced through them with the greed and fervor I honestly think the rest of the novel deserved.

So, will I read the next?  Yes, definitely.  But will I proudly display this series debut on my prize shelf, with the other bookish elite?  Probably not, though it is arguably deserving of the spot.

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Book Review - Heatless by Marissa Meyer

Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland and a favorite of the unmarried King, but her interests lie elsewhere. A talented baker, she wants to open a shop and create delectable pastries. But for her mother, such a goal is unthinkable for a woman who could be a queen.

At a royal ball where Cath is expected to receive the King’s marriage proposal, she meets handsome and mysterious Jest. For the first time, she feels the pull of true attraction. At the risk of offending the King and infuriating her parents, she and Jest enter into a secret courtship.

Cath is determined to choose her own destiny. But in a land thriving with magic, madness, and monsters, fate has other plans.

When I first heard about this release months ago, my face lit up.  My grin matched Cheshire the cat's toothiest, and my eyes glinted like the Mad Hatter at one of his fantastic tea parties.  Every one of my childhood Wonderland-inspired fantasies danced in my mind.  Hands itching to get ahold Heartless as soon as possible, I pre-ordered it and waited with bated breath to finally, finally have this treasure in my life.

The idea of a prequel starring none other than the execution-happy Queen Of Hearts back when she was nothing but a hopeless romantic piqued my interest in a big way.  I am a sucker for villains with depth.  To get to follow Cath and see just how she went from the relatively happy daughter of a Marquess with dreams of opening a bakery to Mrs. "Off with his head!" herself was a pleasure, a rare bookish treat.  One I would highly recommend to any fan of Wonderland, fan of villainous backstories, or fan of just a really good book.

When we first meet Lady Catherine Pinkerton, she is baking lemon tarts for the King.  Her enthusiasm for crafting the most delightful of confections is instantly contagious, and it's difficult to reconcile the passionate young baker with the Evil Queen we know she is to become.  When she first meets Jest at a party, having just escaped the King's unwanted proposal with a well-timed distraction, it's easy to fall for his charms right along with her.  Especially when he takes her to a tea party hosted by a certain maker of marvelous hats.  Even knowing the inevitable outcome, I was still hoping against hope for a happy ending for these two.

What I love most about Heartless is how gradual and believable Cath's transition really is.  Before long, we start seeing small nuggets of her self-centered nature.  Even while people are being hurt - often directly though unintentionally because of her - she spares no more than a few moments' sympathy and remorse before going right back to daydreaming about her elusive future with Jest and the even more elusive bakery with her maid, Mary Ann.  For the most part, those self-centered moments are easy to ignore, easy to chalk up to her nobility and circumstance.  A few times, however, you just want to shake some sense and compassion into her, and these rare instances do a fantastic job of showing readers how she could ever go from a young woman in love to a bitter, wrathful Queen.  Her whirlwind romance with Jest even amid the King's courting - attention which Cath deserately does not want, but which she fears to discourage - is delightful and whimsical, at least in the first half of the novel.  While it admittedly drags a bit toward the middle, the writing never feels forced or rushed, and I appreciate that greatly.

Heartless' last quarter, though, is where it truly shines.  Things go from whimsical with a splash of danger to dangerous with a splash of creepy.  New Wonderland creatures are introduced.  The tone steadily darkens.  We witness firsthand how a slightly self-centered but overall harmless girl becomes an evil Queen, and almost can't fault her for it.  The novel's very last line is so perfect and fitting, it sent chills up my spine.

After reading and adoring Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles, and now having had the same satisfying experience with her stand alone Heartless, I'm in awe at the creativity of her writing.  Meyer manages to take established, beloved fairy tales and make them her own.  She makes us feel for characters we never would have thought to sympathize with.  She crafts unique stories within age-old worlds, and gives her readers a breathless whirlwind of an adventure with each and every new book.  It's safe to say I'll be buying whatever she releases in the coming years.

4 of 5 Stars

Monday, November 28, 2016

Empire Of Storms by Sarah J. Maas - Book Review

The long path to the throne has only just begun for Aelin Galathynius. Loyalties have been broken and bought, friends have been lost and gained, and those who possess magic find themselves at odds with those who don't.

As the kingdoms of Erilea fracture around her, enemies must become allies if Aelin is to keep those she loves from falling to the dark forces poised to claim her world. With war looming on all horizons, the only chance for salvation lies in a desperate quest that may mark the end of everything Aelin holds dear.

Aelin's journey from assassin to queen has entranced millions across the globe, and this fifth installment will leave fans breathless. Will Aelin succeed in keeping her world from splintering, or will it all come crashing down?

2016 hasn't exactly been the best for me, reading wise.  I've spent the entire year going through short spurts of reading frenzy, only to fall back into a debilitating slump immediately after.  The Throne Of Glass series has a soft spot in my heart for successfully kicking me into a frenzy with each new installment, so it was with much anticipation that I picked up Empire Of Storms.

I don't want to say that I disliked the latest ToG book, because it still managed to get me reading again.  But I definitely wasn't as enthused with it as I had been hoping.  I attribute that to repetitive scenes and phrases, unecessarily graphic sex scenes, and the complete absence of my favorite character of the entire series.

I think my  biggest issue with this book was how forced character interactions seemed that were so natural in the previous novels, two in particular.  While I make no secret that I love Chaol with every ounce of bookishness I possess, I was just starting to accept the idea of Rowan as the main romantic interest in Queen Of Shadows.  They had this undeniable chemistry, this closeness, this weight of responsibility and a shadowed past.  While I would personally choose the former head of the King's Guard a million times over, Rowan made sense for Aelin.  After beating my inner Chaol fangirl into submission with assurances that this didn't mean we loved him any less, I let myself enjoy this change of ship, and started to look forward to their sexy, witty banter.  We still get that in Empire Of Storms, but it didn't seem as effortless to me.  Their scenes together stopped stealing my breath, and by the time we got to the most...detailed of their encounters, I was forced to admit that I just didn't care any more.  I still like Aelin and I still like Rowan, but my ship has sailed for those two, and I resign myself to at least one more book of forced interactions and grossly over-the-top love scenes between them.

Another character who felt off to me was Dorian.  I never jumped on the Dorian/Celeana bandwagon that so many seem to have joined in the earlier books, but I still really liked the lovable Prince.  I wanted nothing but for him to get his Happy Ending, so when that was snatched away and replaced with something so much more cruel in Queen Of Shadows, my heart broke for him.  I rejoiced when he was released from that, and couldn't wait to get back to our old Dorian in Empire Of Storms.  When what we got was an overly confident yet somehow submissive shadow of the Dorian I love, I felt cheated.  Even his romantic developments, which I had been really hoping for in QoS, rang false to me here.

The only thing more disappointing to me than the change in three of our main characters is the complete absence of the fourth.  Chaol is nowhere to be found in any of these pages, and the only sign of his continued existence in this universe is a few very brief mentions of him and Nesryn, and what they're doing in another part of the world.  And to put it simply, I missed him.  I missed the bromance between him and Dorian.  I missed his stoic demeaner and dry wit.  I missed his loyalty and his inner demons.  I just...I missed him, and there wasn't a single chapter featuring our main characters in which I didn't feel his absence.

Now, with all the things I didn't like out of the way, I can get to what I really did love.  Aedion and Lysandra remain bright spots of entertainment and banter amid the Aelin/Rowan lovefest, though I didn't expect anything less from my favorite fae cousin to our Queen and his shape-shifter love interest.  A few of the side characters got much more face time in this one, and Maas fleshed them out wonderfully.  I'm talking about Elide and Manon.  While we got plenty of Manon in earlier books, here her story arc truly shines.  I love her fierceness, her struggles with who she is.  She has by no means been a good person, but she has her own code of honor, and makes so many sacrifices for those she cares for.  Upon her introduction, I never would have thought I'd be sitting here today, hailing her as one of my favorite characters.  I just love it when that happens.

Elide owned the other half of the best chapters.  This girl has been through so much, and walked out of it all with such an inspiring strength and resolve.  And for someone who spends so much time lamenting her lack of any formal education, the girl is smart.  She is so resourceful and quick-witted and easy to root for.  It's no suprise a certain fae warrior was unable to resist her charms, and while it may seem a bit shocking who Maas chose for our poor, sweet Elide, by the end I was shipping them harder than any couple left in the series.  I can't wait to see what becomes of them in the next book.

Finally, the ending.  Sarah J. Mass managed to pull everything together in that almost magical way of hers and leave us with a seriously satisfying but seriously torturous cliffhanger.  I can't get into anything specific for obvious reasons, but suffice it to say that I could have hated everything about the first ninety percent of this book, and that last ten percent would have reeled me back in instantly.  It was unexpected and action-packed and heartbreaking, and it offers only the tiniest spot of hope among a whole lot of bleakness.

In every series as long as this one, there are bound to be one or two that just don't live up to the rest.  Middle-book syndrome is a very real thing.  I'm just going to chalk Empire Of Storms up to this, and keep my hope for a stellar finale alive and well.  Besides, there really was enough good in this one to combat the bad, and give me an ultimately worthwhile reading experience.

I'd just better get my Chaol back in the next book.

3 out of 5 stars
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