Monthly Archives: January 2015

Jackal (The Five Ancestors: Out of the Ashes #3)

Title: Jackal

Author: Jeff Stone

Jake was happy to win the road bike race in California, but the win has come with complications: an offer to race again in China. Jake would much prefer the rest of his summer vacation to actually be, well, a vacation. Relaxing. But complications within their team eventually lead him overseas, and soon more than the race is at stake . . .

For being the only one of the four without any kung-fu training, Jake is also ironically the one who ends up killing people. It’s an amusing turn of events. He’s also the only one of the four without a vested interest in actually training all day, and for that I found him a lot more relatable. It’s certainly admirable that Phoenix and Ryan want to practice all day, but Jake’s desire to veg out and play games is more in line with most of us, I think.

Once again, a new facet of biking takes center stage. Jake’s passion is BMX. The technical terms do show up, but the story doesn’t get overwhelmed in them. It’s far too busy pitting Jake against the accumulated rage and rivalry of some old enemies the previous books left alone, as well as tying up the loose ends about the Five Ancestors and Cangzhen Temple. Because of all the action, the story flies.

It’s a satisfying conclusion to a solid series. Although not in the same vein exactly as the original Five Ancestors series, I think that was a good thing. It allowed this series to become its own story, not just something that would rely on the original seven books. I rate this book Recommended.

Lion (The Five Ancestors: Out of the Ashes #2)

Title: Lion

Author: Jeff Stone

Ryan is determined to beat his dependance on dragon bone, but the weather has other plans. When rain wipes out his usual mountain bike trails, an unexpected opportunity surfaces to learn road biking with his uncle in California. But road biking isn’t all that he and his friends find in California. Old enemies, new races, and unexpected ties to ancient China . . .

This book shifts the focus from the cyclocross and mountain bikes in Phoenix to road biking. And the sport is different enough to be an interesting change.

Ryan makes an interesting lead. He’s rich enough to not care about money, struggling to keep the friendship of Phoenix and the rest, and suffering from an insatiable need for dragon bone. But dragon bone, much as he hates it, is boosting him to astonishing physical levels. No one’s really sure if he can quit, given how much of the stuff he’s been taking, but he’s desperate for any chance to be free.

Like the first book, this is a fast-paced adventure and an enjoyable read. The only thing I didn’t care for was that this group of bad guys also wants to make Phoenix and his friends race for them (exactly like the last book), so that part felt a bit contrived. Overall, though, I rate this book Recommended.

Stormdancer (The Lotus Wars #1)

Title: Stormdancer

Author: Jay Kristoff

Yukiko’s father is the Shogan’s Master of the Hunt, so when the Shogun decides he wants a probably-died-out-decades-ago thunder tiger (arashitora), her father has no choice but to obey. But the arashitora is no legend, and soon Yukiko will be forced to choose where her loyalties lie.

The story takes place in a fantastical world drawing much from Japan (and a bit from some other Asian cultures), in a steampunk era where polluting machines that run on “chi” (lotus fuel) have clogged up so much that the world itself is dying. The Shogun and the Lotus Guild control everything, although they’re each other’s enemies as well as allies.

I liked the active language throughout the book, and the detailed descriptions. It does mean, though, that the beginning takes a long time to get to the actual events listed on the book description. The depictions of the smog and pollutants particularly felt a bit overdone, as it left me wondering how most of the city survives with apparently no fresh water.

I did very much enjoy Buruu, the thunder tiger (gryphon!). Once he showed up, the plot picks up, and he’s got an amusingly direct view on most of Yukiko’s problems (with typically short and violent solutions). I liked how the link between Yukiko and Buruu played out during battles, and how it begins affecting both of them more than they would have expected. I liked his body language, and his lightning-feathers. And I liked how both he and the oni point to the fact that the mythology Yukiko has heard about may be more truth than myth (with hopefully more fun creatures to come).

There were a few things that did bug me, though. The biggest was a scene where Yukiko is bathing, and the reader is invited to oogle her along with the boys who are spying on her, as her naked body gets far too much description. I would have much preferred her incriminating tattoo to have been revealed in some other way, as this scene has no purpose other than titillation. I was also puzzled why a particular samurai who is not stated to be a half-blood had green eyes, as everyone seems to be physically identical to Japanese people otherwise. And as other reviews have stated, the usage of some Japanese words was not correct (or ways English words were described when the context implies they should be speaking Japanese, when those English descriptions fail to line up with how the Japanese phrase would be said).

That said, I still enjoyed the story overall. I am curious to see where Yukiko and Buruu go next and will probably track down the sequel sooner or later. I rate this book Recommended.

Water Keep (Farworld #1)

Title: Water Keep

Author: J. Scott Savage

Marcus has always dreamed of a place he calls Farworld, where animals talk and amazing things happen. But he never expected to find Farworld was real, much less that an evil in that world wants very much to kill him. Or that, crippled as he is, he might have a part to play in saving that world. On the run with Kyja, a girl from Farworld, the two must somehow escape the Dark Circle and uncover their destinies.

This is in many ways a tired trope: an orphaned child is sent to another world, where he discovers he has power, enemies, and a destiny. But what makes it work well here is the unusual angle: Marcus has a nearly-useless arm and leg as a result of an injury when he was a baby. He can’t even walk. And it’s not like he’s got super special magical powers (at least not yet) that would make this any easier for him. His disability is highlighted against Kyja, who is the only magicless girl in a world where everyone can do some kind of magic. She’s gone through much the same cycle of ridicule and alienation, and each of them has cause to envy the other even as each of them can offer something the other desperately needs.

I like the little magical touches in Farworld, from the dawn chimes to the original creatures like Riph Raph. I liked how traveling between the worlds worked, and the curious link between the two that allows Kyja and Marcus to help each other. And Water Keep itself was a lot of fun. It managed to avoid a lot of the usual assumptions about where water elementals might reside, and the atmosphere was intriguing (Water or air? Yes. Hah).  And the snake shapeshifters were excellent villains.

Although I don’t have problems with the pacing, it did seem odd that the elementals and Water Keep weren’t even mentioned until a good way into the book. So in that sense it might feel a little slow, as the cover description talks about some things that take a long time to emerge.

This is a decently strong start to the series, and I’m hoping the later books get better as more of the history and geography of Farworld and the intrigues of the Dark Circle get a chance to show up. Marcus and Kyja are an engaging set of heros and it will be fun to see just where this adventure takes them. I rate this book Recommended.

Secret of the Sirens (The Companions Quartet #1)

Title: Secret of the Sirens

Author: Julia Golding

Connie Lionheart has always had a hard time fitting in due to her relationship with animals. Sooner or later, some creature will do something that gets her into trouble. But when she moves in with her aunt, she learns she may have a greater gift than she suspected. Her aunt is a member of a Society dedicated to protecting mythological creatures, and right now the local sirens are angry about the new oil company who’s setting up in their harbor . . .

I liked several things in this book. Although Connie’s bond with all creatures can feel a little overpowered, it also allows her to get to know several of them rather deeply. I liked the sirens and the rock dwarfs for being different, and I also had fun with the dragons. Additionally, the fact that Connie has enemies both mundane and mythical keeps the story from bogging down in a “humanity is evil” kind of plot.

Downsides were mostly minor. I just shrugged that an oil company was painted as the villains yet again; there’s at least more dimension to the mythical evil, though not much at present. And it bugged me that Connie immediately pegs Colin as cool mostly because of his clothing and is just as quick to stereotype geeks away (I don’t discount that it’s a valid reaction for someone her age, just that it was annoying that such surface evaluations go unchallenged).

Overall I enjoyed the read, and will be hunting down the sequels shortly. I rate this book Recommended.

Guardian of the Darkness (Moribito #2)

Title: Guardian of the Darkness

Author: Nahoko Uehashi

Balsa is finally going home.

When she was six, she fled the country with her father’s closest friend, Jiguro. Assassins followed. Jiguro killed them all, even though they were his friends, to protect her. Now Balsa is hoping to repay her debt somehow, to tell those who knew him the true story of his life and death. But Kanbal is not entirely at peace, even though the evil king who murdered her father and sent assassins after Jiguro has long since perished. Balsa’s homecoming may be far more than she expected . . .

I had enjoyed the anime, so when I saw that the novels (at least the first two) had been published, I knew I’d have to get around to them. These are a real treat. Balsa is not at all typical—a middle-aged women who fights with a spear, who works as a bodyguard to earn money. But this book is less about a job and more about her finally getting the chance to deal with some old demons in her heart. The tragic life and death of the man who gave up everything for her has inspired her to make this journey home.

Although this is a sequel, it stands perfectly well alone. Balsa is a stranger in her native land, and much about Kanbal is new to her, or at least seen much differently at thirty than it was at six. And her story weaves into Kassa’s, a boy she inadvertently rescues, a native of Kanbal who accidentally makes her life so much more difficult.

I hesitate to spoil too much, so I’ll just say read it. With or without the first book, read it. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Phoenix (The Five Ancestors: Out of the Ashes #1)

Title: Phoenix

Author: Jeff Stone

Phoenix’s life is exciting, but in normal ways. Mountain biking. Competing in races. Training in kung-fu with his grandfather. But when a disaster leaves his grandfather’s life on the line, Phoenix finds himself racing the clock to find a mysterious substance known as dragon bone. Only it appears he isn’t the only one after what little remains in the world . . .

This is connected to the Five Ancestors series, but only loosely. Although there are some nods to the original story, this one takes place in modern day, and has plenty of time in Indiana and Texas as well as China. Like the other books, though, there’s some well-written kung fu alongside solid characters.

I like biking myself, and it was a lot of fun to read such a loving depiction of the sport, but the story is good not to assume too much outside knowledge. Everything complex gets explained.

I was also impressed with how the story handled Ryan. One thing I appreciate about these books is how they show the spectrum of good and evil: there is a clear villain, to be sure, and then people like Ryan who are caught in the middle. Ryan’s criticism of Phoenix is dead on, and it’s easy to see how the awkwardness of Ryan’s father’s death led others to shun him.

The only thing that puzzled me had more to do with the previous series. Long was supposed to receive money from the Emperor to rebuild the temple, but it appears the ruins are the same as they ever were (or did they get re-destroyed? It was hard to tell). Long said he would explain, but never got a chance, so it will be interesting to see if the rest of this series delves deeper into what happened between then and now.

Overall this is a very solid read. It’s easy to get into even if you have no knowledge of the previous series (though this may make you want to pick that one up). I rate this book Recommended.