Monthly Archives: February 2017

The Shadow of Black Wings (The Year of the Dragon #1)

Title: The Shadow of Black Wings

Author: James Calbraith

Series: The Year of the Dragon #1

Bran is a young dragon rider eager to graduate from the Academy and go on with the rest of his life—even if he’s not too sure what he wants to do. A journey taken with his father on a ship bound for places he’s never heard of sounds like a good start. But destiny has some marked him for something else . . .

The land of Yamato is more isolated than the Qin behind their barrier. An island unreachable by most sailors, it nonetheless contains a civilization to rival the rest of the world. But strange divinations foretell great changes. A shrine maiden and her best friend, a female samurai, are more involved than they suspect in the turmoil to come.

I really liked this, but the book suffers greatly from a lack of cohesion. The worldbuilding is excellent, picturing an alternate-history where Bran, who is from either Scotland or Wales (I never looked up what the new names referred to), finds himself on a sea voyage that takes him all the way to China and Japan. Along the way we see various kinds of dragons and magic, and the ways different cultures approach them both. The majority of the beginning and middle is devoted to this, with the greater plot only picking up at the end.

The biggest flaw is that the narrative doesn’t flow well at all. The initial scenes put a great deal of emphasis on Bran’s time at school and the bully that torments him. Both of these things drop out of the story after he graduates (hopefully they’ll surface in a future book so the time spent developing them wasn’t wasted). Then the sea voyage is less of a journey and more of a series of vignettes about various places Bran sees along the way (and the frequent switches from Bran’s point of view to his father’s don’t help much). Then we switch to Yamato and spend a good amount of time setting things up there before the story ever circles back around and connects the two threads. And the story cuts off in the middle of rising action, with nothing resembling a climax, even a minor one.

The ending may be less of a problem if you read the bundle, since I presume the second book will pick up immediately after this one left off. But whether or not you enjoy the book is probably going to come down to how much you like exploring the world, as the rest of the story feels like it needed another draft. I would have preferred alternating chapters between Bran and the girls, as it would have allowed the moment their stories merge to come much closer to the event that caused it.

Overall, I suspect I’ll keep going with this, because I do like it, but you’re probably better off getting the first book while it’s free and sampling it that way. I rate this book Neutral.

Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate

Title: Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate

Author: Richard Parks

Series: Yamada Monogatari (technically there are more about the same character but I was unable to track down what order they are supposed to go)

Yamada no Goji is a minor nobleman with a keen mind and a tolerable blade, but he has little influence at court. So when the conspiracies of the nobility reach out to ensnare him again, he’s reluctant to get involved. But for the sake of an old friend, he agrees—and finds himself confronted by a silent killer who is leaving dead bodies around the city. If he can’t solve the mystery fast enough, he’s bound to lose more of the few people dear to him.

I’m reading these incredibly out of order, I suppose, but it didn’t make much difference as far as I could tell. The story is good about introducing characters, places, customs and so on as needed, without assuming too much knowledge beforehand. I liked the historical Japanese setting, and how naturally the supernatural intersects everyone’s lives. Yamada is smart but not impossible to follow, and the layers of mystery generally work well.

I wasn’t as fond of the alcoholism, or the way the story breaks between its first segment and everything that comes after (largely because Yamada spends four months drinking his life away). It’s a little harder to sympathize with his poverty when he’s wasting multiple opportunities to stay farther out of it.

All in all, though, it worked far more than it didn’t, and I would be interested to read more in this series. This story is fairly self-contained, so it doesn’t hurt to read out of order or as a standalone. I rate this book Recommended.

Elizabeth’s Legacy (Royal Institute of Magic #1)

Title: Elizabeth’s Legacy

Author: Victor Kloss

Series: Royal Institute of Magic #1

Ben Greenwood was devastated the day his parents vanished. With his house wrecked, and no clues to where they’d gone, he has nothing but his own stubbornness and a fragment of shimmering cloth leading him to believe they haven’t just abandoned him. But when an unexpected legacy leads to a place he never suspected existed, he realizes his parents were involved in far more than he knew . . .

If there’s one major complaint I have about this, it’s that the prologue is too good to then drop Michael for the rest of the book. I had expected alternating chapters exploring what Michael saw in the past with what Ben was discovering in the present, but it appears the prologue is there mostly to provide that long letter of introduction to the Royal Institute of Magic (and so Michael’s name will be vaguely familiar the next time you encounter him as a historical footnote).

That aside, this was a lot of fun. I liked how overweight and unmagical Charlie wasn’t ignored or belittled, but has his own critical part to play at several points. And I especially appreciated that the end wasn’t looking to write him out of Ben’s life. Similarly, I liked Ben. His parents clearly have something weird going on, which they tried to keep him out of, but he’s mostly normal, although he’s got more of a gift of magic. He’s desperate to find his parents and clear their names, but he can’t do it alone.

The worldbuilding was also interesting. Various races and types of magic show up, although they do tend towards certain class stereotypes for the most part (with the hotel being an amusing exception). Then again, Ben doesn’t really get the chance to know any of them for longer than a few moments, so that could easily change.

All in all, this is a solid start to a series, with the hook at the end indicating what direction future books will take. I still wish Michael’s story got a chance to fully come out, but maybe he’ll get additional scenes in the future. I rate this book Recommended.

In Arcadia (Touchstone #5)

Title: In Arcadia

Author: Andrea K. Höst

Series: Touchstone #5

Laura never second-guessed her decision to walk through the gate to Munia to live with her daughter. But now that she’s on the other side, living in another world is settling into a directionless, mundane existence. Then comes the complication of possible romance. Having been divorced, Laura isn’t sure she wants to go through a relationship again.

I was expecting something closer to the Gratuitous Epilogue than the first three Touchstone books, but this isn’t even much like that. Although the idea of a story focusing on Cassandra’s mother was interesting, I thought the execution fell rather flat in several places.

I liked being able to see the impact Cassandra’s disappearance had on everyone at home, and what happened to the family as a result. Even though this was more of a summary backstory, it still filled in some holes and helped to explain why everyone who came with had decided that way. I liked the general story about Laura and her wanting to be close to her daughter but not be some kind of helicopter mom, understanding her daughter now has a family and a life.

The problem is I never really bought the romance, and unlike the other books, where there’s plenty going on outside that, here the romance is basically the story. I don’t mind the story being sex-positive, but I still find it bizarre Laura has no inkling this man even likes her, then a week later decides to sleep with him as the FIRST step in a relationship. And then half the reason she decides to continue it seems to be nothing more than “we had really good sex.” It would’ve made a lot more sense to me to have them start building the relationship on some common foundations before getting to that point. As it is, she’s known the man for mere hours before offering him that much intimacy.

It would have been nice to see more of her struggle with being a divorced person in a new relationship (and frankly, his struggle with the same; Tsur Selkie’s backstory is interesting, but he’s a rather flat character compared to Kaoren).

At least the twist at the very end leaves me hopeful some future book might explore the impact of that. But even if it does, it’s unlikely this one will need to be read to augment the story. I rate this book Neutral.

A Legend of Starfire (A Sliver of Stardust #2)

Title: A Legend of Starfire

Author: Marissa Burt

Series: A Sliver of Stardust #2

Wren still has nightmares about the land of Nod, the evil Boggin she so narrowly stopped, and the horrors at the gate between worlds. Unfortunately, it looks like her contributions to the peace aren’t over yet. When some work on the gate goes wrong, she ends up on another adventure, one that will determine the fate of both worlds.

I wasn’t as engaged by this one as the first book. Wren’s still struggling with the aftermath of her actions in the previous book, which was nice. But the plot tries really hard to introduce a lot of content, particularly in the latter half, and it feels like a lot just got skimmed. Take the mechanical animal hybrids. There’s certain twist, but there’s almost no time in the story to actually dig into that or what happens as a result. So it ends up feeling really rushed. Or Wren suddenly having a crush on a certain guy, which seems to consist of finding him cute but not much else, and no time at all to act on that. Not that I mind as much on that, since one thing that aggravates me is breakneck pace adventures slowing down for a lot of romance. But I do mention it because it was another area that felt underdeveloped.

That said, I did like the end. The Ashes and the Crooked Man were interesting, particularly with the conflicting information Wren has about them. Jack, particularly, was a star of the book for me. He’s not at all who he was in the first book, but he’s not entirely free of his old self either. I wish we’d had more of a chance to see how he’s changed and how he hasn’t, and walk with him through the major decisions he makes and the way they impact him.

Overall, this is still a good cap to the duology, although not one I liked as much as the predecessor. If you have more of a liking for dystopias some of what goes on probably won’t sit as badly. I rate this book Recommended.

Tokyo Ghoul (anime)

Tokyo Ghoul

Episodes 1-12

WARNING: MATURE CONTENT
– minor amounts of nudity, ghouls eating human flesh (mostly not shown), and an intense torture scene (the main reason to stay away if this will bother you)

Ken Kaneki is an ordinary human in a city where ghouls lurk. Ghouls eat people, and a special task force hunts them down. But it’s all distant from his everyday life—until a date gone bad leaves him no longer quite human himself. And even if he wants to live a quiet life, people from both sides have taken an interest in him . . .

This was far less of a horror story than I initially expected, although by the end it does go quite deeply into some hard things. I doubt I’ll watch the last episode or two again, as sitting through someone being tortured while chained to a chair was bad enough the first time. So I want to reiterate up front that this is NOT a children’s show and the Mature rating is for a reason.

On the more positive side, though, the characters are really strong. Although the whole “must eat people” bit would make it easy to characterize ghouls as monsters, both sides have a lot of gradations. There are members of the CCG (the anti-ghoul force) that have far crossed the line with their obsession to wipe out all ghouls. Similarly, some ghouls don’t see the point of giving humans any dignity, or restraining their own excesses. Ken isn’t the only character caught in between those two sides. He falls in with a group of ghouls who only want to be left alone, and try to exist in ways that minimally impact the general human population.

This comes to a head in tragic scenes like the confrontation in episode 8, where the person giving the speech about ghouls having the same right to live as any ordinary person is telling the one person who can’t be convinced, and the one who might be convinced is fighting someone who can’t figure out how to say the same thing. And it probably wouldn’t be as easy as winning that one man over to the ghoul’s side, but that would have been a start. A start that never happened, and might never happen, which leaves the world stuck in the same struggle it’s always been, where ghouls and humans mischaracterize and kill each other.

Some threads might be better in the manga, as, for instance, Ken’s best human friend, who is a major character early on, disappears from the story for no obvious reason. It would have been interesting seeing the two of them interact more after Ken was turned. However, the heart of the story is Ken and his relationship to the group of oddball ghouls who dare to believe they can coexist quietly with humans, and find ways to take the nourishment they need without becoming monsters.

Oh, and although this can be a dark and serious show, the space after the credits where the preview would normally go tend to be lighthearted side stories told in about 30 seconds, and are well worth watching.

Overall this is nothing like what I expected, and I enjoyed it a lot. I watched it in Japanese because I streamed most of it, so I’m not really sure how the English cast performed. I haven’t read the manga yet so I can’t say how faithful or not it was as an adaptation, but I understand a great deal of manga was condensed into these episodes, which may explain why some characters don’t get as much time as I thought they should. I rate this show Recommended.

(As a side note, regardless of what you think about the second season, episode 13 does make a much better ending than episode 12, as it finishes that fight and gives a better sense of an ending. But the box set will only come with episodes 1-12.)

The Red Sun (Legends of Orkney #1)

Title: The Red Sun

Author: Alane Adams

Series: Legends of Orkney #1

Sam knows there’s something creepy about his new English teacher. She’s too interested in him, and weird things happen around her. But he never imagined the truth: he’s a Son of Odin, his parents are refugees from another world, and the birthplace he never knew needs him to break a terrible curse afflicting its sun. And his substitute English teacher is a powerful witch who wants to take over the world . . .

I never thought stupid protagonists were a dealbreaker until I read this book. Because Sam isn’t just ignorant and making bad choices based on lack of understanding. He’s walking into bad choices with both eyes open. The plot can unfortunately be summed up as: if someone is shifty, untrustworthy, outright evil, or wants him dead, he will do whatever they say. If someone has actually cared about him and put his best interests at heart, he will hide things from them and cut them out of his life.

*cue book bashing against wall*

It doesn’t even start that badly. Sam is a normal kid with a bit of a temper (and some interesting things that happen when he loses that temper). A weird new teacher shows up who has an evil interest in him, and shortly thereafter Sam finds himself in another world that requires his efforts to save. So far so good—all the bad decisions, like not telling his mom about the magical mishaps he’s run into, or trying to convince himself things aren’t really as bad as they seem, are well within reason.

Then we get to the alternate world. At that point, through the end of the book, it’s almost a comedy of “how stupid can you get?” Witches with magical powers have kidnapped his friends, so Sam wants to blaze after them—despite the fact that the few people who care about him warn him the witches are powerful, the ones eager to help him are the really shifty lot, and everyone else who depends on him to do this other quest is going to die if he doesn’t do that one eventually. So Sam goes after the witches. This goes about as well as you might expect.

And why are the witches evil? It seems to be something with their magic being intrinsically evil, which is never explained—Sam is assumed corrupted because he has witch magic, not because he’s done anything with it. But it’s not like he’s sacrificing babies to get power. It’s a combination of some internal force plus mystic words. I could write this off as prejudice against witches, except the plot enforces this by making Sam experience corruption the more he uses his power.

Moving beyond the characters, the general situation with the world didn’t make a lot of sense to me either. The sun is poisoned, which is fine, but the rate of everything dying and people starving seemed vastly accelerated to me. Crops wither and instantly there are people starving. This ignores the obvious problem that if crops were still growing, they were probably not being eaten just yet. No one kept any food? No one had dried/preserved anything in case of a drought or insects or a poor harvest? And with the threat to the animals known, no one is making any effort to keep their herds/flocks indoors during the day to graze or forage by night?

If the stupid overload hasn’t driven you off yet, the characters might. Sam has very little struggles with doing the wrong thing–he just does it anyway. The bad guys (with the High Council as the worst offenders) are ludicrously one-dimensional, with any depth sacrificed for the “everyone hates Sam” angle. Nearly every character treats him like an object and not a person, whether it’s the good guys who have voluntold him to go on this quest or the bad guys who voluntold him for a different quest. Mavery is supposed to have redeeming qualities but mostly comes off as really annoying, and Keely and Howie are almost comically helpless and unable to contribute to the plot other than being used as hostages (the final battle . . . I think I was almost laughing, which is not the effect the plot was going for).

I regret picking up this book. It looked good, started decently, but my desperate hope that it would eventually get better was completely wasted. I rate this book Not Recommended.