Monthly Archives: December 2015

Draw One in the Dark (Shifters #1)

Title: Draw One in the Dark

Author: Sarah Hoyt

Series: Shifters #1

Kyrie Smith had carved out a nice, normal life for herself working at a diner. And then she heard the scream, and found Tom, her coworker, shifted to a dragon and standing over a corpse. She’d never suspected he was a shifter—or that her “hallucinations” about turning into a black panther were no dream at all. Now she’s in the middle of a spat between Tom and a criminal group of dragon-shifters, corpses are multiplying at an alarming rate, and a handsome police officer is complicating her life.

This book is a good introduction to a fascinating world of shifters who live alongside normal humans. And, in a rare twist, they’re actually born into normal families for the most part and only find out they can shift when they hit adolescence. This makes any “society” among shifters hard to come by, as most of them don’t even know there are others until much later, if at all. I liked the world, and how shifters weren’t limited to the usual and expected. Having the book start out with dragon shapeshifters is a nice touch.

The point of view shifts frequently, though the scene breaks help keep this straight. This helps flesh out Tom and Kyrie more, particularly when they both react to the same event with false assumptions. It’s nice to see both of them as they struggle to decide if they want to trust the other, because otherwise one or the other would come off as unreasonable. I liked Kyrie for being level-headed and practical even when she had a clear crush situation going on. She’s responsible enough to deny herself, or at least hold back enough to validate whether her feelings and reality were on the same page. I liked Tom for being understated—he gets things done without showing off, and Kyrie is mostly clever enough to notice those little gestures. I even liked Rafiel for being mostly true to his duty and trying to find the least-bad path through a murky situation (although when he gets slapped, he totally deserves it). And Keith was a pleasant surprise, even if he felt like a bit of a plot device in a few places because he hadn’t gotten the level of background the other characters do.

I sort of like the romance. There’s too much description around either Tom or Rafiel (particularly the latter) being attractive to Kyrie in some places, and I’m never a fan of love triangles, but this one doesn’t triangulate so badly I want to kill everyone involved (which is what usually happens). But it’s easy to want Kyrie and Tom to work out, even when all of their personal issues seem insurmountable.

The book can also be unexpectedly funny. My favorite moment, where I had to put the book down because I was laughing so hard, is when the dragon-shifters prove their beast-minds can’t tell the difference between a lion and a panther. (And that Tom ALSO falls for it makes it doubly good.)

Overall this was a fun little story, with a good setup for adventures to come. It’s also currently free on Amazon for Kindle, so it’s worth grabbing just to check out. I rate this book Recommended.

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The Apothecary

Title: The Apothecary

Author: Maile Meloy

Janie is a teenager when her parents suddenly uproot her from her comfortable California life to live in London. America at the start of the Cold War is paranoid about Communists and to even be suspected of sympathizing one draws unwanted government attention. But in London she runs across Benjamin Burrows, the son of an apothecary who might be more than ordinary. And when Janie befriends Benjamin, she ends up in the middle of an international conspiracy.

I’m not sure what exactly about this book turns me off. Perhaps the more literary flavor of it. As a period piece it works quite well painting the atmosphere and environment of America and England post-WWII, where things are better than they were but still suffering from the effects of the war. Janie’s awkwardness at being a transfer student is compounded by the rush with which her family moved and the accusation that they are tied to Communists. The sole Russian kid in her class gets it even worse than she does. And the book does a great job at pointing out the stupidity engendered by fear: “bomb drills” that have students hiding under tables for protection against nuclear bombs.

As a fantasy I have more problems with the worldbuilding. Why can a potion that turns someone into a bird include clothes but one that turns someone invisible not? (For the record I am more in favor of both not transforming clothes as it makes more sense, even though I really don’t care for “hey we’re both undressed and this is really awkward” scenes that result.) Also, the attempt to balance the “science” nature with the magic didn’t work that well for me. It felt like brewing a potion to turn someone into a bird ought to be harder than an overnight gig with the materials conveniently on hand. Basically the magic felt slapped together without much thought beyond “this would be cool.” There’s no sense of what rules govern it.

And I found the end—the ultimate purpose of stopping a nuclear bomb—a bit silly. Despite being told that Benjamin’s father and some cohorts have been working on this for years, the actual execution isn’t much. And after the relatively low-key adventures thus far (outwitting a total of two menacing probably-spies who show up more than once), to suddenly go to stopping a nuclear bomb . . . It didn’t work for me. It was too much a magic wand solution. It was too big a shift in tone. The buildup was like a low-angled incline and suddenly the fate of the world is in the balance? Not to mention the bad guys never change their focus—they’re still pursuing the bomb at the end even though they ought to have realized the secret of changing people into birds is far more valuable (for espionage, if nothing else).

Not to mention Janie should have known better than to drink that champagne after it was all settled. Especially after she tried exactly the same trick on someone previously.

So overall this one isn’t bad, but I had to force myself to finish. I rate this book Neutral.

The Lost Sun (The United States of Asgard #1)

Title: The Lost Sun

Author: Tessa Gratton

Series: The United States of Asgard #1

Soren Bearskin was born into a line with the berserker gift—a gift he would do anything to remove, after what it did to his father. He can’t afford to get close to anyone or anything that might set him off and wake the gift in him for good. But when Astrid, daughter of a great seer and seer herself, comes to his school, the calm he’s spent years cultivating threatens to crack. Then the unthinkable happens. Baldur’s fall pyre and spring resurrection are as regular a part of life as sunset and sunrise, until this year, when he doesn’t come back. Astrid is convinced she has a clue from her visions, and Soren feels drawn to help her. But can they find Baldur and return him? Can Soren keep control so close to someone who unbalances him?

The United States of Asgard has a lot of great worldbuilding, from the little details like days reverting to Tyrsday and Thorsday and bigger ones like disagreements being solved by lawyer or trial by combat. This is a blend of Norse myth and modern-day life, and it has a lot of great twists on the ordinary. I liked the roles played by the various gods. Some, like Odin, actually bother with human affairs, while others prefer to keep more distance. It was especially interesting to see Baldur, who is at the heart of the story. I was pleased at how the story showed how he could draw both men and women, without making it all about romantic relationships. Soren has particularly complicated ties, as he sees Baldur as a rival, a brother-in-arms, a god, and someone he needs to protect.

Soren’s struggles extend inward to his fear of his gift. I liked the whole struggle, but particularly the bit where he finally confesses what exactly happened with his father. I like what he doesn’t say. What’s there for the reader but not for Astrid. How much that one event has shaped his life and his determination to never, ever let the same thing happen to him. I liked that the berserk gift was something always present in him, something that affects how much he sleeps, and not just something that rouses when he’s angry. And I really liked that the world knows and expects the berserker gift, and has made various provisions around it—schools, jobs, tattoo, and the different rules Soren gets when he does a trial by combat, versus a more ordinary person like Astrid.

I was less fond of Soren’s instant attraction to Astrid (and her instant-like back, at least most of the time), but what balances it out is that the two actually do have a great deal in common, and a great deal holding them apart. And Baldur isn’t the only one causing the conflict.

All in all, this is a fascinating world, and I’m glad it’s the first book of a series so I know there will be more. It feels like this one only scratches the surface. The gods clearly have their own games going on, and I’d love to see more from both the human and the divine sides. I’m also curious how Soren’s allegiance at the end will play out—I would hope there are more consequences than just how one prays. I rate this book Recommended.

A Sliver of Stardust

Title: A Sliver of Stardust

Author: Marissa Burt

Wren is just trying to beat the annoying Simon Barker to secure her place as the Science Olympiad Trivia champion for the fifth year running. Then the bird shows up. And the rhymes. And suddenly Wren is in the thick of a mysterious group of magicians called the Fiddlers, who use twisted nursery rhymes to cast spells with stardust. But it doesn’t take long for her exciting new world to plunge into dark mysteries . . .

I liked this a lot, although it feels like a couple of different stories packed together. In the beginning, Wren discovers magic and is struggling to come to terms with it in the modern world. But the Crooked House is another thing entirely. Now we’re in an archaic world where apprentices can get flogged for mouthing off (read: saying anything) and technology has been slow to make an imprint. I think it does a good job underlining just how out of touch many of the Fiddlers are.

The story moves along pretty briskly. I like how much growing up Wren goes through, mostly at a level where she’s not aware of it herself. There’s a line near the end during one of her final fights that I love: “but he didn’t realize Wren had already decided to die.” She goes through a lot, but she comes out as such a strong character, one who can make hard decisions well.

If anything, I’m a little disappointed Simon doesn’t get more fleshed out. He gets plenty of time, but he doesn’t wrestle with problems the same way Wren does. I also liked his scene near the end, but it just felt more flat than hers, because there isn’t as much building up to it. And Jill seemed to have a lot of potential that never quite pulled through for me, so hopefully she’ll get a more central role in any future adventures.

Also twisted nursery rhymes do a lot to encourage a horror vibe which underscores the fantasy.

The world leaves plenty of things open for a sequel, but the main plot in this one resolves without any cliffhangers. I would be interested in the next book, whenever it arrives. I rate this book Recommended.

Omega City

Title: Omega City

Author: Diana Peterfreund

Gillian Seagret believes her father’s theories, even when the rest of the world has turned against him. After publishing a book on a Cold War scientist named Dr. Aloysius Underberg, her father lost his job, his reputation, and his marriage. Now Gillian gets the chance to prove her father was right all along—only she never expects the danger she’ll run into on the hunt.

This is a fun book. Older readers will recognize many of the conspiracy theories Gillian mentions, from Area 51 to JFK and more. She’s very willing to take her father’s side in all these matters, while her younger brother, Eric, is less trusting. That said, Nate is easily my favorite character. The lone high schooler in this pack of middle-graders, him doing his brother a favor quickly turns into him feeling responsible to protect the group from the danger they’ve brought upon themselves. Not to mention his humorous introduction and his interactions with Savannah.

All of the characters are well-drawn. Howard could’ve easily been a one-dimensional kid whose only interest is space, but he’s got layers, too. The villains are a bit too straightforward, but then again, this is a middle-grade book, and having the villain spell out her motivation helps give some context to the overall framework for the story. I particularly enjoyed Gillian calling her out on her double-talk.

Overall this is a quick read and full of laughs despite the scares. I rate this book Recommended.

Overpowered

Title: Overpowered

Author: Mark H. Kruger

Nica has grown up with her journalist mother, moving from country to country as her mother’s job moves them. But when her mom lands a spot in Antarctica, Nica is sent to Barrington, Colorodo—the “safest” town in the country. The most boring, old-town-America kind of place that even has a curfew. But something is going on in this town. Pulses of weird energy light up the night. And Nica and others find themselves reacting in strange ways . . .

I liked the idea, but the execution of this is terrible on multiple levels.

First, the science. The pulses are explained as EMPs which causes genetic mutations which gave some people powers (and a lot of people bad moods). Except aliens would have made a lot more sense, because the EMP is not behaving like an actual EMP. Electromagnetic pulses of the power level described would not only have knocked out the cell system in Barrington, they would have killed everything electronic. Computers. Cars. Televisions. Microwaves. Nothing would have worked at ALL. And it wouldn’t have come back after the pulse stopped because the nature of an EMP totally fries the circuitry. It should be the equivalent of an attack that throws everyone back into a pre-technological society (see books like Rick Yancy’s The Fifth Wave to get some idea how this would actually play out as an actual EMP is one of the waves).  Mystical green alien energy rays could have neatly avoided this. It also would have avoided the frankly painful explanation of how  electromagnetic light-bending can make someone invisible (because genetic powers apparently also work on the clothes you’re wearing).

Second, Nica might as well have come from Pennsylvania or Wyoming for all the difference her world-hopping makes to her character. She thinks, talks, and acts like an American. There’s one nice moment when she reflects on the oddity of throwing a birthday party, because everyone else in the world tends to be a lot poorer, but who she says she is doesn’t match who she actually is. She doesn’t have any weird habits picked up from other cultures (no, the kickboxing breathing-exercise doesn’t count…. she could’ve learned kickboxing in America and gotten the same result). She doesn’t have an accent or any odd turns of phrase. She doesn’t even appear to be multilingual to the slightest degree. She isn’t comparing her new school to the other schools she’s been in except for a few slight nods to Thailand. I could go on, but Nica comes across as someone who tells you one thing but behaves totally differently.

Third, the relationships (most especially the romance) is pretty painful to watch. I’m already not a fan of the instant attraction Nica has to Jackson, the resident bad boy. Or the way Nica tends to describe every character by how physically attractive they are. I liked her friendship with Oliver best because it was simply a friendship and not her constantly rating him on his boyfriend potential. Although this also goes back to the whole not-matching-her-history problem, as Nica has supposedly jumped around to 19 different schools, yet has no problems forming friendships. Even losing her old friend in Thailand minimally affects her because they can text a bit. Frankly, I would expect Nica to be at least a little emotionally scarred by those kinds of experiences and either reluctant to try to make new friends or reluctant to throw herself wholeheartedly into relationships, because she ought to think given her life that nothing is stable. (And I’d prefer to forget about the spying-on-you-naked-in-the-shower scene. Peeping is peeping no matter who’s doing it; not to mention the scene only appears to exist to further allow Nica to expand on Jackson’s physical attractiveness).

The mystery plays out okay, although to anyone who’s half-awake it should be obvious who’s driving the conspiracy within the first few chapters. I still wish it had been aliens. Aliens could’ve given this a much-needed boost, although it still wouldn’t have saved Nica’s character. This is clearly setting up to be a series but I have no interest in any further books. I rate this book Not Recommended.

The Girl with Borrowed Wings

Title: The Girl with Borrowed Wings

Author: Rinsai Rossetti

Frenenqer Paje feels utterly constrained by her father’s rules. He is determined to have the perfect daughter, but no amount of training can drive out her imperfections. Then a tiny act of rebellion opens the door to incredible adventure. Frenenqer accidentally rescues a Free person, someone to whom the rules do not apply—a shapeshifter, a worldwalker, an adventurer. And at night he shows her a little of what it would be like to live without her rules. But which world will define her?

I generally avoid romances, but I picked this one up because of Sangris. His shapeshifting spans a fascinating range, from a grumpy cat to gargoyle to feathered dragon and more. As a Free person, he’s free of all kinds of rules, including what shape he ought to inhabit at any given moment. Or what world he ought to be in. Yet for all that, he’s amazingly restrained around Frenenqer, especially when it’s clear he’s fallen in love.

Frenenqer, for her part, is a perfect foil. Although both of them share a wandering, rootless past, her life is dominated by her father. His subtle humiliations and manipulations drive her back in line whenever she tries to break the mold he lays on her. In response to him, to her family’s inability to put down ties, she’s grown detached.  Unable to process her own feelings. Unable to recognize that she has any. I like her as a narrator because it’s so easy to see what she can’t see herself—and easy to see why she can’t see it.

I’m also enormously impressed that the author not only dared write a girl with detachment issues, but she nails it. Having gone through much the same myself, I recognize the thought process Frenenqer engages in. And near the end, the trip to the grocery store, was the best scene in the book, as Frenenqer finally realizes what made her father who he is, and how much she’s in danger of becoming exactly the same way. And how the solution she’s been given is actually how this works, as hard as it is to do.

So, a brilliant execution overall. Both the real and fantasy life will be somewhat strange to the typical reader, as the non-fantasy bits are set in an oasis. The characters have so much depth, and the romance blossoms naturally as well as nearly runs itself aground on Frenenqer’s issues. (Don’t worry—HAPPY ENDING. I got so mad at one point wondering if it had just thrown away the chance, even though I completely agree with how Frenenqer saw herself. See again her general lack of awareness of her own internal being.) I rate this book Highly Recommended.