Monthly Archives: August 2016

Super Human (The New Heros #4)

Title: Super Human

Author: Michael Carroll

Series: The New Heros #4

Once there was a man who was more than a man, a warrior who single-handedly conquered the known world and whose death is still a mystery. In the present, though, superhumans are a bit more common, and when a virus starts taking out all of the adults, it’s up to a group of teenage heroes-to-be (and one teenage con artist) to figure out what’s going on and to stop the Fifth King from coming again.

Maybe I should’ve read The Quantum Prophecy first (I felt like I have, but I don’t see it marked), but in any case, what little I’ve read of that book convinces me this one is much stronger. And since this trilogy looks like a prequel to the other, it’s not even a problem to read them out of order. Basically, don’t be fooled by the #4 designation—this one reads fine by itself.

The choice of villain is interesting. Krodin is not exactly evil, but he’s about like a natural disaster. Powerful, amoral, and not something anyone wants around. But his abilities make him formidable even when other people with super powers are around. His chapters in the past alternate with the story in the present, until the two stories intersect. (I’m a little disappointed by how it ended for him, as reading the summary of the next book was enough to tell me my guess about what really happened was correct. Oh well.)

In the present, we begin with Lance, who is about as far from the model of “hero” as a kid can get. I really liked how Thunder confronts him. Thunder correctly deduces that Lance has zero regard for anyone outside himself, and devises a clever lesson to help drive the point home. (It was fun to see a budding sociopath get his due.) But what Lance lacks in empathy or heroics he makes up for with smarts and a knowledge of how a criminal’s mind works. And he has a big mouth.

The other characters that make up the teen hero team are more traditionally minded heros. I liked the little details, like Abby continually fumbling with introducing herself because she can’t think of a good hero name for herself, or Thunder’s absolute refusal to let anyone find out his secret identity (which drives Lance nuts), or Roz’s creativity with her powers.

The action is strong and fairly nonstop, which makes for a fast-paced book. And it’s not just the battles—Lance in particular has a way of walking right into interesting situations and making them worse.

All in all, this is a fun read, and a decent addition to the superhero genre. I rate this book Recommended.

Knightley Academy (Knightley Academy #1)

Title: Knightley Academy

Author: Violet Haberdasher

Series: Knightley Academy #1

Henry may only be a servant at the prestigious Midsummer School for Boys, but he’s not content to stay there for the rest of his life. So when a chance comes up to test for admittance to the prestigious Knightley Academy, he jumps at it. But not everyone is happy about the old class lines being broken down. Not everyone wants a commoner at the traditionally nobles-only Knightley Academy. And although Henry is in it for himself, he soon realizes he’s carrying much more than his own hopes and dreams.

I probably would’ve cared more about the overall class structure challenge part of the story (which is a large part) if the overall worldbuilding had been better. The focus stays on Henry and almost exclusively on the two schools he’s part of, as a servant and then a student. This was good for the schools, but not so great when trying to figure out how the world works. The Knights can function as detectives, policemen, and peacekeepers, but the only knight we ever see in action is just directing traffic at the train station. There’s no sense of the political landscape on the Knightley side, beyond the Knights themselves, but this becomes important when dealing with the neighboring country, the Nordlands. So I though the whole thing could’ve benefited from a bit more information on the rest of the setting. (I also didn’t buy that a treaty alone would convince multiple nations to basically disarm, but, well, I was reading a school story, so I let that one slide.)

The characters are well-done. I didn’t buy the ending twist about the ultimate villain, but I did appreciate how various characters—especially the unpleasant ones—were shown to be simply human. Even though the bullies can come across as rather one-dimensional in their defense of a system that mostly benefits them to the detriment of everyone else, they still aren’t entirely monsters. Henry does seem to blow off his earliest attempts to be friendly with the non-commoner students, which was a bit annoying, but understandable.

Overall this wasn’t a bad read, just one I thought could’ve used more worldbuilding to really ground the story in a country/place rather than just a building. I had trouble placing the existence of magic for a long time, since curses feature prominently in the beginning, but it appears this is more of an alternate-history than alternate-world. And despite the solid characters, not much grabbed me in the story overall. I rate this book Neutral.

Ambassador (Ambassador #1)

Title: Ambassador

Author: William Alexander

Series: Ambassador #1

Gabe isn’t planning much for his summer. Until Frankie, his best friend, is sent to California until school starts. Until the Envoy, an alien life form, asks Gabe to be Earth’s ambassador to the rest of the universe. Until his family life crumbles unexpectedly. Oh, and one of the aliens is trying to assassinate him. Can Gabe save his own life, his family, and the rest of planet Earth?

This was a pretty good sci-fi, although the way it ended left me somewhat disappointed. The Envoy is an interesting lifeform with some fun abilities, and I liked that it stayed to partner with Gabe rather than just granting him the role of ambassador and running off. This makes several later encounters with aliens clearer, as the Envoy can provide some of the detail Gabe has no way of knowing. They make a good team, and it would be interesting to see their further adventures.

I also liked the science, and how the ambassadors actually meet together (quantum entanglement, multiple dimensions, and basically videoconferencing rather than hauling everyone everywhere to some base that would struggle to keep the correct environment for multitudes of alien species). I liked the assassination subplot, and how that worked out. The Outlast was intriguing, and if there are future books I hope they go deeper into who these creatures are and why they changed their minds about conquering the universe.

I didn’t entirely buy the reason why all ambassadors had to be children (or childlike). This elevates one aspect of children while ignoring others—less maturity means less wisdom, less restraint, and in some cases LESS flexibility about others (because they haven’t lived long enough to see most of their assumptions challenged yet by life). I was willing to overlook that, though, since this is a kid’s book, and therefore the main character was going to be a kid, so it was for plot reasons as much as anything. And the Envoy (and presumably the other Envoys) was making an effort to select for actual character, as opposed to just picking a random kid off the street and elevating him to stand in for the planet.

I was also ambivalent about the whole juxtaposition of Gabe’s family being illegal aliens in America (sans Gabe and his twin siblings, who were born there). I do like how the book avoids outright judgement calls, despite the repeated references to the Underground Railroad. Gabe’s parents weren’t running away from horrible oppression and the meanie American government was throwing them out—it actually seems they had a relatively good life in Mexico, and his parents just wanted to avoid the hassle and possibly the expense of going through the paperwork to immigrate properly. Gabe, as a child, wants his family to stay together (though really they ought to be staying together in Mexico at this point… they’d be waiting a few months for Mom to join them, but she’d make it back). And the way the book ends leaves it unclear how and where his family is actually going to end up (rescued and then living inside their neighbor’s house would be my guess).

I get that this isn’t going to be an argument for or against illegal immigration. I appreciate that the story tries hard to stick to being a story. I was just bothered by the comparisons with Gabe’s family to the slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad. The story never says they were prevented from immigrating, just that they didn’t bother going through the official channels. I get that the system can suck. I get that his family is basically nice. But what they’re doing is undercutting legal immigrants and native workers, and taking advantage of things the country provides without playing the same role citizens do to support them. They get the benefits, but not the duties. For example, Gabe and his siblings go to school, but if his parents don’t have documentation, then they probably aren’t paying any taxes to support those schools. So I don’t feel much sympathy for the family getting found out, despite the story taking pains to try to cultivate that sympathy.

Regardless, the vague ending is more of a reason for me to hesitate on recommending this than the immigration. The last half page brings up a lot of questions, and it’s not clear what actually happens to Gabe or his family—did it work the way he was trying to set it up, or did something go wrong? So they can’t understand each other, which means what? (And for that matter, what did happen to the previous ambassador?) So, fun science, a generally good storyline, but a frustrating finish. I rate this book Neutral.

(Just noticed this book has a sequel, so maybe that helps, but I don’t know if I care to read it.)

Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard (Peter Nimble #2)

Title: Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard

Author: Jonathan Auxier

Series: Peter Nimble #2

Sophie Quire is a bookmender who loves books above everything else.  But when Peter Nimble drops a strange book off in her shop, her life dives into an unexpected adventure. Because this book contains powers Sophie never imagined, and it has mysterious ties to Sophie’s own life . . .

I liked the first book, but this sequel is a stronger story in just about every way. You don’t need to have read the first book, as Peter Nimble and Sir Tode introduce themselves well, and most of the previous book’s story doesn’t impact this one.

I loved the focus on wonder. From the quote at the beginning by Kenneth Grahame to the various twists in the plot (Bustleburgh, for example, is instituting a very strict No Nonsense policy that threatens many of the books Sophie holds dear), the story questions the all-too-common assumption that only focusing on what’s sensible makes sense. It’s a joyful argument for the existence of fantasy—and I was particularly amused when Sophie notes children are perfectly capable of telling the difference between fantasy and reality. (This is a book I badly wish I could have read as a child and quoted at the various people who held some of those same views of fiction.)

Aside from that, though, the plot is very good. Sophie has a lot of knowledge but no practical experience, whereas Peter has had a life full of adventures but, being blind, never read. The two of them irritate each other immensely, but they also complement each other’s weaknesses. I actually think Peter grows more in this book than he did in the first one, where he got most of the spotlight. This time, he’s got to deal with someone who is, in some ways, his peer, and has talents he could never hope to master (just as Sophie utterly fails at fighting or opening locks).

And there are so many great lines. I need to reread this and pull my favorite quotes. “Wanting more out of life isn’t something to apologize for,” Peter tells Sophie—and that’s a subtler idea that remains a tide beneath the story.  Or Sir Tode’s apt observation: “What’s the point of living forever if it’s in a world controlled by men like that?” (And I especially like the reaction that one got—NOT what I was expecting.)

All in all, this is a story not afraid to tangle with some weightier things, but it never gets dragged down by them. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes (Peter Nimble #1)

Title: Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes

Author: Jonathan Auxier

Series: Peter Nimble #1

Peter Nimble is a thief—and not just any thief, but the very best thief, even though he’s blind. Those skills will come in handy when a chance encounter leads him to a mysterious message and then an adventure. Someone sent out a riddle, and now that it’s in Peter’s hands, he’s trying to solve it, with the help of a rather mixed-up knight . . . horse . . . cat . . . creature. He also has a box of magical eyes, whose properties he has yet to discover . . .

This is a fun little adventure. In fairy-tale tradition, Peter is absurdly talented even as an infant, and develops his skills of thievery quite young. The story keeps toeing the line on such absurdities, which helps keep the tone light even in the midst of some dark things. The characters are a colorful bunch, too, starting with Sir Tode, who was a man before a hag cursed him, his horse, and a kitten into a diminutive conglomeration of those former selves. I would have liked more description of him, as I had a hard time mentally picturing him with the few clues given, but his blustering personality needs no embellishment.

The mystery of the hidden country unfolds slowly. Although readers can easily pick up on a few things going on right away, the greater plot still hides a few twists. I was hoping to see a bit more magic, as the eyes are pretty much the only active enchantment (there’s also the deal with the sea, but that’s more an environmental hazard). However, the eyes do provide a good deal of fun.

All in all, this was an enjoyable read, and it wraps up like a standalone (although I actually found this because I was browsing the sequel, so there are more books in which Peter plays a part). I rate this book Recommended.

This is Not a Werewolf Story

Title: This is Not a Werewolf Story

Author: Sandra Evans

Raul doesn’t like to talk too much. Not that there’s much he could talk about, even if he wanted to. During the week he lives at a boarding school for kids who have troubled home lives, and during the weekends, he goes deep into the mystery of White Deer Woods, which surrounds the school. When Vincent comes, Raul cautiously hopes he’s made his first real friend. But a cougar lurks in the woods, and Raul may not be able to hold all the parts of his life together anymore.

I really liked this. Raul’s personality shines through from the start: a thinker, who has a hard time saying what’s going on in his head. He also realizes a lot of what he thinks probably isn’t acceptable to say, like his mental commentary on the types of books English teachers think are good reading and how depressing they all are. In some ways his reticence goes deeper than a mere dislike of talking. He’s learned words are flimsy, easily broken things, and that the woods needs no words to communicate.

I liked the way the magic weaves so subtly through the story. Raul can’t think of himself as a werewolf, because he’s read about werewolves and what kind of monster they are. Instead, the power is as much a part of him as his thought life, though he tries to keep woods things for the woods. I liked the twists with light, and the various pieces that need to be in place for everything to work. The war he has against the cougar works on multiple fronts. Even when he starts to piece things together, there’s enough mystery unfolding to keep him off-balance.

And the end was perfect.

The style is more literary, so even though some exciting moments happen, it can feel slower-paced. It works well in the context, though, as Raul’s not trying to have adventures but to live out his life. The only area where I felt the book stumbled a little is that Raul speaks a fair amount even at the beginning, so it’s left to the other character’s reactions to showcase that this is unusual for him.

All in all, this is a wonderful tale (and has a happy ending!). It wraps up pretty much everything, but I wouldn’t be averse to a sequel to see how Raul’s getting along later in life (and if Vincent ever does muster the courage to face the woods himself). I rate this book Recommended.

Dreamwood

Title: Dreamwood

Author: Heather Mackey

Lucy is quite sure her father will forgive her for interpreting his note to mean he wants her to leave the boarding school she loathes and join him in Saarthe. Even if he hasn’t replied to the letter she sent warning him she was coming. But when she reaches the Northwest Territories, she discovers layers of mysteries—and her father’s whereabouts one of them. Still, she’s not about to back down, even if it means entering the most forbidden part of the area to find him . . .

The characters are the strongest part of the book. Lucy and Peter are each quite talented, in their own ways, but they need each other in order to get through the supernatural wilderness where they find themselves. For Lucy, who is used to being independent and always having the answers, working with another person is often hard and confusing. And Peter hardly appreciates her little digs or her air of superiority. They feel very solid, and it’s easy to see both the flaws and strengths in each of them.

I kind of expected the plot to go the way it did. I wish Niwa had more of a role, and that some of the odder things briefly mentioned—like men turning into wolves—got more than a nod. It was clear some forms of magic existed, but also easy to see that power is on the verge of extinction, or at least irrelevance.

So mostly this was more of a character journey than an adventure. Which is fine, as the characters were very well done, but does mean I probably won’t be rereading this. I rate this book Recommended.