Review: This Savage Song

Posted on July 22nd, 2016 @ 21:03
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This Savage Song (Monsters of Verity, #1)This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

My rating:

Blurb:

Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city—a city where the violence has begun to breed actual monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the humans pay for his protection. All August wants is to be human, as good-hearted as his own father, to play a bigger role in protecting the innocent—but he’s one of the monsters. One who can steal a soul with a simple strain of music. When the chance arises to keep an eye on Kate, who’s just been kicked out of her sixth boarding school and returned home, August jumps at it. But Kate discovers August’s secret, and after a failed assassination attempt the pair must flee for their lives.

Review:

[I received a copy of this book through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.]

Took me a while to get to this one, I don’t know why, so apologies to the publisher—I’ve had the ARC for a few months.

I guess it didn’t turn out like I thought, although I don’t know what I expected. Something more… intense? Savage, like the title? More action? Or maybe for the “failed assassination” part to happen sooner?

On the one hand, I really liked some of the concepts introduced here. First, the city divided between North and South, each side in the hands of “leaders” with their own ruthless ways—one a mobster-like crime lord who keeps the monsters in check by being a monster, too, and the other a benevolent military type who nevertheless has no qualms to associate with monsters as well. Second, the way those monsters are born: the shadowy Corsai from violence that doesn’t result in death, the Malchai from actual murder, and the Sunai for massacres, which contrasts in a terribly beautiful way with how they feed: born from the ugliest acts of violence, of dozens, hundreds, thousands of people killed in bombings and the likes, yet performing their killings through enchanting music. And let’s not forget the conundrum of the monster who wants to be human, who knows he cannot be, and who risks turning into an even worse monster if he denies his nature (not feeding basically means he’ll turn into a mass-murder predator, then will wake up having lost some bits of his hard-won personality… forever).

Also, no romance. Seriously. Not for one moment is it implied that Kate and August are meant to end up with each other in that way. As reluctant partners-in-crime? As friends at some point? Sure. But no twu wuv for these two, and that’s a breath of fresh air in a category (YA) where you know almost every main lead will meet one, potentially two (or more!) love interests.

Wonderful, wonderful ideas. The boy-monster who desperately wants to be human, even trying to believe in that dream when he gets to attend a school full of human beings, and the girl who’s ready to any length, including threatening her schoolmates and setting fire to a chapel at night, in order for her father to finally acknowledge her—meaning she needs to be as bad as him for that to happen, therefore turning into her own kind of monster.

And yet… Yet I couldn’t feel much of a pulse in the story. Maybe it went too slowly. Maybe it’s the kind of story where the characters need to be thrown in the action first, and then get to meet and to know each other, to discover their respective secrets and accept who they are (and who the other is). The Colton Academy part was perhaps too long, with August and Kate appearing like generic characters rather than real people (they remained a bit bland throughout the novel, in my opinion). And while I tend to like information about the world being given regularly, distilled between two events or two dialogues, instead of being chunked at the reader in huge blocks of info-dumping, in the end I still don’t know what that world is made of. Strangely enough, I may not have minded this if the story had been set in V-City only, with “The City” as a character itself; here, it was too much a “yet another USA turned dystopian for some unknown reason”.

Conclusion: loved the concepts, execution though was too weak compared to what could’ve been (and I know it definitely could’ve been, coming from this author!).

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Review: The Casquette Girls

Posted on July 13th, 2016 @ 22:19
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The Casquette Girls  (The Casquette Girls #1)The Casquette Girls by Alys Arden

My rating:

Blurb:

Seven girls tied by time.
Five powers that bind.
One curse to lock the horror away.
One attic to keep the monsters at bay.

After the storm of the century rips apart New Orleans, sixteen-year-old Adele Le Moyne wants nothing more than her now silent city to return to normal. But with home resembling a war zone, a parish-wide curfew, and mysterious new faces lurking in the abandoned French Quarter, normal needs a new definition.

As the city murder rate soars, Adele finds herself tangled in a web of magic that weaves back to her own ancestors. Caught in a hurricane of myths and monsters, who can she trust when everyone has a secret and keeping them can mean life or death? Unless . . . you’re immortal.

Review:

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

I’m not sure exactly how to rate this novel: I really liked the setting (New Orleans), but some of the characters’ features sometimes made me roll my eyes. To be fair, this may be in part due to my own jaded views on similar works: I’ve probably read one too many YA paranormal romance stories, so the usual love triangle and annoying guy attitudes has become old for me. I regret not liking this book more, at any rate.

The setting was definitely enchanting, in a sort of twisted way—twisted because this New Orleans is one slowly getting back on its feet after one of the most devastating hurricanes it’s ever seen (possibly Katrina, or at the least inspired by it). Infrastructures are in shambles, crime’s on the rise, there’s a curfew the police can barely enforce… And while I have no idea if this is an accurate depiction of a post-hurricane city, whether it would’ve been thus left to fend for itself by the government, I still liked that NOLA, for its blend of “post-ap” and people trying to go back to, and go on with, their lives there, keep smiling, keep the businesses running, and so on. Somehow, I could understand Adele’s desire to stay there, and not be shipped off to Paris or somewhere else, all the more since it’d mean being in a boarding school and not with her family. It was still magic.

I also liked the parts about Adeline: a bit awkward in the way it was introduced, maybe (a journal), but her journey, the people she met, the stifling stay in a ship for weeks, knowing a threat was lurking and nobody could just walk away to escape it, those were interesting.

On the downside, the novel relies on quite a few YA tropes that I couldn’t care less about—love triangles, good boy vs. bad boy love interest, female characters being talked about as if they weren’t there and generally being a bit… passive, Queen Bee and Mean Girls at school, and so on. Granted, Adele was not passive for the whole story so I won’t fault her too much for that, and the school part wasn’t the main part; it just felt like the “mandatory YA dynamics being inserted here”, when the actual plot itself could’ve done without that. Mysterious murders, predators waking up, Adeline’s story shedding light on what happened and hinting at what to be done: all those would’ve been fine, no need for a romance subplot (which didn’t have anything special going for it), that slowed down the pace to a crawl in places: I could do with the “slower” chapters used to describe the city and its atmosphere, I could do less with lulls caused by romantic scenes.

Some of the descriptions (told in 1st person) were a bit odd, too—on the purple prose side, and not very believable coming from a 16-year-old girl. I found this happened mostly in the beginning (darkness being described as “the obsidian”, or “espresso-coloured hair”?), and less afterwards. I’m not sure either about the French words and sentences used here and there; some were alright, others sounded grammatically weird. No idea if this is how people in New Orleans do speak, but as a native French reader, it’s strange.

Finally, I felt some subplots and threads were left somehow dangling. For instance, Adele’s mother was thrown in here a bit at random, too close to the end. And I would’ve liked to know a bit more about Cosette and the native girl; did they have offspring or not, and if not, was it to keep the number of characters down? Sometimes it seemed like things happened by coincidence, as plot devices, and not naturally enough to be really believable.

Conclusion: The main plot (monsters and witchcraft, with events originating in the past) was good, even though not the most original ever—it’s less about “being original” and more about “what you make of it” anyway. Yet I didn’t really care about the main characters, nor about the romance.

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Review: And I Darken

Posted on July 7th, 2016 @ 20:25
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And I Darken (The Conquerors Saga #1)And I Darken by Kiersten White

My rating:

Blurb:

No one expects a princess to be brutal. And Lada Dragwyla likes it that way.

Ever since she and her brother were abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman sultan’s courts, Lada has known that ruthlessness is the key to survival. For the lineage that makes her and her brother special also makes them targets.

Lada hones her skills as a warrior as she nurtures plans to wreak revenge on the empire that holds her captive. Then she and Radu meet the sultan’s son, Mehmed, and everything changes. Now Mehmed unwittingly stands between Lada and Radu as they transform from siblings to rivals, and the ties of love and loyalty that bind them together are stretched to breaking point.

The first of an epic new trilogy starring the ultimate anti-princess who does not have a gentle heart. Lada knows how to wield a sword, and she’ll stop at nothing to keep herself and her brother alive.

Review:

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

That was an interesting “retelling”—or perhaps introduction to a retelling?—in that it follows Vlad Dracul, with a “what if he had been a girl?” approach. A princess, in a way, provided the daughter of a voivod without that much power can be considered privileged and powerful. Lada isn’t so much that as decided to make her own life, and prove to her father that she can do just as well as any boy. Perhaps even more. More ruthless, more brutal, more focused on honing her fighting skills. Everything that is unexpected from a woman in that place and time… unexpected, and not really welcomed either.

Wanting nothing more than to earn the love and esteem of her father, Lada is unearthed, along with her younger brother Radu, and sent as hostage to the sultan’s court. Not only does she have to live among the Ottomans she despises, she also has to come to terms with the fact her father basically sold his own children, leaving them at the mercy of his only goodwill: if he doesn’t behave, they are to be killed, plain and simple. What can—and should—a girl do in such circumstances? Thirteen, not fitting with the girls, not considered by the men around her, not even pretty (there are a few “beautiful ladies” in the sultan’s harem who use their looks as a way of gathering their own threads of power: after all, not all wars are fought on a physical battlefield).

This may not be much, but for once, it was good to find a story in which the heroine is presented as “ugly” and it’s all left at that, with only briefs mentions of her tangled hair and such, instead of droning on her eyes and curves and “ugly” features that are actually beautiful when you just pause to think about it. Too many books do that. Well, Lada doesn’t care. She’s not really described, anyway. And even though she’s just as lost as her brother, in a different way hidden behind her fierce attitude, even though she doesn’t know how to raise to her own power, she does come to realise that being a concubine is not how she wants to become powerful. She may have been too fierce at times; however, I didn’t mind that much.

I didn’t care much for Radu in the beginning, as he was quite a crybaby. However, growing up, he evolved into an interesting character when it came to his political shrewdness. While I admit I was a bit tired of his longing after the one person he could never have (because it didn’t seem it’d lead to much anyway), he did realise he also had means at his disposal that could make him useful, and help him find a place among the Ottomans. The reversal of roles between brother and sister, man and woman, “the physically weaker but scheming one” and “the fierce warrior who envisions different ways of doing what needs to be done”, caught in a love-hate relationship with no sibling exactly knowing until the very end who they’re going to choose… that was satisfying.

The romance was… okay-ish. I’m not a fan of love triangles, for starters, so meh. The bond between Lada and Mehmed seemed to be forged more out of friendship and trust than pure lust and swoony “I’ll love you forever” clichés; Lada knows from the beginning she doesn’t want to be part of a harem or even become a queen, as in such a context it would mean her only value is that of an object, like a treaty. However, it did fall into the usual trap of leading the characters to neglect their own goals at some point (staying for the guy, doing everything for the guy…), and this put a hamper on some of their skills: for instance, Radu’s developing ability to play the threads of courtly power gets obfuscated when he thinks and mopes so much about his love interest that he fails to realise who’s in the process of betraying him.

Sometimes I also found the story a bit too slow-paced. This may have been because of the romance and angsting, though: since I don’t care much for that, I naturally tend to find it a bit boring.

Conclusion: While it’s more a 3 to 3.5 stars for me, mostly owing to the love triangle, I still enjoyed the ending and where it seems to lead, and I wouldn’t mind reading the next volume—and see how this part of Lada’s life is going to play out.

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Review: Much of Madness

Posted on July 2nd, 2016 @ 23:51
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Much of Madness (Conexus Chronicles, #1)Much of Madness by S.E. Summa

My rating:

Blurb:

Seraphina Pearce doesn’t know what’s more frustrating: her magic’s affinity for death, her best friend’s transformation into an albino Sin Eater, or that simply touching a guy she loves means someone’s headed to the morgue.

After a sin-eating job goes awry, she casts a risky spell and butts heads with a handsome stranger in order to win an infamous grimoire.

Marceau L’Argent is the last person she should confide in because the occult cat burglar has a mysterious past, and he’s made it no secret he also wants the grimoire. He recognizes her dark magic and offers his unique help as a rare curse breaker. If all that weren’t enough, Marceau causes butterflies in her stomach—a feeling she’d long thought dead.

Seraphina was only trying to break her curse—not piss off Death himself.

Review:

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Quite a few original ideas in this one. Ultimately, though, I found it too disjointed, in plot as well as in writing, and while I shall acknowledge its premise as definitely interesting, it wasn’t a novel I really enjoyed.

To be fair, some background information is delivered little by little, not as huge info-dumps. The problem was mostly the order in which everything was disclosed: more than once, I felt that “this information should have come sooner”, or “that revelation deserved being held for just a little longer”. I could feel that in the characters, for instance; in the nature of Seraphina’s powers, her relation with Rolf, the way she wove her spell to get the book; in the way Kath’s background was introduced (kind of “oh yes, by the way, I’m this species and I come from that family”); or Max’s nature—it looked like Marceau was the one doing all the work from beginning to end? Had such tidbits been handled differently, I suspect I would’ve enjoyed them more.

(And what exactly is the Conexus? Some kind of supernatural government or body, obviously, but it seemed oddly absent, only mentioned in passing in the beginning and at the end.)

In general, I didn’t really connect with the characters. Partly because their presence wasn’t always justified—I’m still wondering what was the point in having Vespa hang around. And partly because of the book’s “tell not show” tendency and stilted dialogues; the way Marceau address Seraphina was often pretty unnatural, which easily turns into suspension of disbelief as far as I’m concerned. (As a side note: the names. Sera, Finn and Khat are amlrights, but “Marceau” immediately conjures images of old French mimes, and “Vespa” that of Italian scooters. I couldn’t get that out of my mind. It was… distracting.)

As for the plot, well, for me (again) it was shadowed by the romance. The latter was of course important when it came to the curse, I won’t deny that; only the “telling” and dialogues didn’t spoke of chemistry between Sera and Marc. And the “daily life snippets” were too long and several too many—as in, they eclipsed the Big Bad of the story, and the threat he was supposed to pose, in such a way that all feeling of urgency was lost. I could almost picture him popping out of a box at times, saying “muhaha, wait, I’m still here, let’s not forget me.”

Conclusion: Interesting types of supernaturals and magic (Sin Eaters, magic boosts, necromancy…) but plot- and character-wise, it just didn’t work for me. Not so much madness in there…

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Review: Street Magicks

Posted on June 26th, 2016 @ 18:24
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Street MagicksStreet Magicks by Paula Guran

My rating:

Blurb:

Streets are more than thoroughfares. Cobblestone or concrete, state of mind or situation streets are catalysts for culture; sources of knowledge and connection, invisible routes to hidden levels of influence. In worlds where magic is real, streets can be full of dangerous shadows or paths to salvation. Wizards walk such streets, monsters lurk in their alleys, demons prowl or strut, doors open to places full of delightful enchantment or seething with sorcery, and truly dead ends abound. This selection of stories some tales may be rediscoveries, others never encountered on your fictional map will take you for a wild ride through many realms of imagination.”

Review:

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

In the past, I read a couple of other anthologies edited by Paula Guran, and I remember liking them overall, due to the choice of stories: they may not all have been breathtaking, but they also weren abysmal, and as far as anthologies go, I think I do tend to appreciate that a little more than reading excellency pitched against really bad writing.

The stories here deal mostly with magical happenings and encountering in cities–a theme I especially like. Most are modern fantasy, but more traditional fantasy also has its place here.

“Freewheeling” – 2/5
A young woman tries to help a kid whose very special take on life may be madness… or a real touch of magic? And the question is, will mundane life keep interfering until something tragic happens, or will magic happen instead?
Not my favourite. I could see the ending coming almost from the beginning.

“A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” – 4/5
A band of retired thieves find themselves back in their ¨line of duty¨ to perform the theft of their lives: steal a whole street. Humour, magic, blackmail, backstabbing, an urban setting, and a cast of mostly women (and an automaton) whoŕe not afraid to be who they are. Whatś not to like?

“Caligo Lane” – 3/5
Read in another anthology “The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Nine” so I guess the novelty wasn exactly there. Still, it remains a touching story, of a mage who uses maps to bend space and save people trapped in parts of the world where every other means of escape have failed.

“Socks” – 3/5
A Bordertown story. I don´t know that setting, except through another story in another anthology; however, I still think it´s not such a problem, as mood and theme are easy enough to ¨get¨ even without knowing the whole context. Here, Socks, a young girl, is taken in by a family of strays. Soon after, Perdita joins the crew, Perdita whose mysterious mother taught her many a tale…
Interesting, but I found myself wanting to know more about Socks at the end–it was never clear whereas the whole thing about her feet was merely illness, or a symptom of something else. I kept expecting that something else to happen, and… nothing?

“Painted Birds and Shivered Bones” – 3.5/5
A poetic tale of a man cursed to turn into a bird, going through centuries without respite, until a kind of magic apt to break his curse surfaces in the painting of artist Maeve. A bittersweet tale, perhaps a bit too focused at times on the artist-chic cliche? I may be a little jaded with that one at the moment — it itself, it doesn´t make the story bad, at any rate.

“The Goldfish Pond and Other Stories” – 2/5
Originally read in “Smoke and Mirrors”. This one relates a writer’s experience as he flies to Hollywood, where his novel is to be adapted into a movie, only to see said novel stripped to the bone and reworked every time. A tale of being dispossessed on one’s soul, maybe, and of having to let go. Or perhaps a tale of former Holywood legends fallen back into the mist of times, unremembered by all but the humblest?
Not my favourite Gaiman story, to be honest. It’s a bit… bland compared to some of his other works.

“One-Eyed Jack and the Suicide King” – 2/5
A good beginning, of a struggle between spirits/local gods fighting for their turf. The story was wanting, though, as it feels like it should be expanded into something more. It’s a beginning, indeed, and not a full-fledged plot.

“Street Worm” – 4/5
Rather scary when you come to think of it. A teenage girl runs away from a privileged home, for her parents believe her going on slightly crazy and want to send her to a shrink (probably not for all the good reasons either — a family has standards to uphold within the community…). But is this girl just mad, or does she really see things, things of another kind, worms danglings from buildings like a threat lingering above the city? And the man who tells her sheś magic, is he meaning well, or is he just a creep?
I wanted a bit more at the end, to be honest. Like a lot of stories, this one feels like unfinished business in some parts. Still, a good read.

“A Water Matter” – 2/5
The Duke is dead, may he stay dead! Only a mysterious and potentially malevolent shaman wants the power released upon that death, so the Dancing Mistress, a shapeshifter (…I think?) takes it upon herself to prevent this from happening.
More than with the Bordertown stories, I think I was missing something here—the action is set in a world with its own backstory, and I constantly felt it was part of something bigger, something that deserved more. The actual plot didn’t impact me as it could have, had things been otherwise.

“Last Call” – 3/5
A Harry Dresden short story. On principle, I tend to like those, because I’m fond of the world and character Butcher developed (they’re part of the works I’d quote first if someone asked me for examples of “urban fantasy”). On the other hand, this one is a bit spoilerish if you haven’t read at least the first 8-9 books of the series…

“Bridle” – 1/5
A kelpie story, with a dark fantasy approach that had its poetic moments. Still, it didn’t grab me much.

“The Last Triangle” – 4,5/5
A junkie finds shelter at an old woman’s who happens to realise a dark magic ritual is about to take place. Together, they do everything they can to stop it, as well as the person casting it.
This one had the kind of plot and ending I’d deem as “definite”. You can see it going somewhere, with a beginning, middle and end, and even though the latter is “open” as far as the main character’s future is concerned, it nonetheless brings resolution to the “dark spell” plot.

“Working for the God of the Love of Money” – 2/5
Again, an interesting beginning, but the end was very abrupt (in an expected-yet-not-waited-for way).

“Hello, Moto” – 4/5
Three witches with enchanted wigs let themselves be devoured by their magic… or not? For Rain, taking upon herself once again to mix up magic with technology, wants to stop her “sisters” gone on a rampage of take-never-give in Lagos. One may wonder, though, if using precisely what went wrong the first time can right that wrong… or not.
Original and entertaining. I just regret the ending, again too abrupt, with no true resolution per se. “Leaving things to the reader’s imagination” can only go so far…

“The Spirit of the Thing: A Nightside Story” – 3/5
A detective doing his job, a shady bar with an even shadier owner, and angry water spirit, the ghost of a murdered young woman, and a twist to try and make things right no matter what.

“A Night in Electric Squidland” – 3/5
Paranormal investigators working on a murder case end up in a night club whose practices may not be what they seem.
I liked the atmosphere (the dark and somewhat perverted rituals going on, while the club also offered “nicer” attractions like a stage magician). I didn’t connect much with the characters, though.

“Speechless in Seattle” – 3/5
A.k.a “pay attention to the exact wording of your spells”, which is something a lot of mages should do. ;)
A cute story, with likeable characters. Only, as usual in such cases, the grounds for budding romance were kind of wasted on me.

“Palimpsest” – 2/5
Pretty, I guess, and evoking strange places in a strange city whose elusive map can only be found in some very special places. However, it was rather confusing, without much of a plot to speak of.

“Ash” – 4/5
Laid off from his job with minimum benefits, a man decides to commit a robbery, but one decision made while running away from the security guard has dire consequences.
A story of guilt and revenge, of a dying curse, of the city turning stranger and stranger, darker and darker, until it closes over you and never lets you go.

“In Our Block” – 3/5
Or “two blokes find themselves wondering why the area they’re in is so intriguing”, full of strange little shops and sellers/peddlers of unusual talents, like the typewriter girl. Although it was more a slice-of-life story than one with a real plot, it was enough for me, for once.

Conclusion: 3/5. I kind of expected this, as a lot of stories were of the “I liked” kind but not “great/I loved it”. Still, more good than bad in there. Though not a “to buy” recommendation, maybe a “borrow it” one?

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