Category Archives: Young Adult

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.

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.

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.

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.

The White Widow’s Revenge (Ferals #3)

Title: The White Widow’s Revenge

Author: Jacob Grey

Series: Ferals #3

Caw’s problems have only multiplied. Selina is still hospitalized in a coma, the escaped convicts-turned-ferals have sparked off a crime wave, and Caw’s possession of the Midnight Stone continues to attract trouble. Can Caw save himself, much less his friends?

I really liked the first two books, so I went into this one hopeful for a strong cap to the series, but wound up not liking most of what happens here. The conflict between Caw and the well-meaning adult ferals isn’t unexpected, but it is disappointing even those like Pip who would probably side with him get pushed offstage. The humor with the crows isn’t really there anymore, and the whole thing with the crows deciding someone is worthy really needed to be brought up well before now, as that’s not the impression the entire series has given for how these powers work. Come to that, I didn’t get why certain actions would offend all of crowdom, and not just those involved. And why would this caveat apply solely to crows? Given the usage the convicts have been putting their animals through, I would expect those animals to have a few opinions.

So the humor wasn’t really there, the plot takes several bizarre twists that don’t feel all that well set up, and the conflict between the past and the present just happened so fast it was hard to feel any weight behind it.

That said, I did still enjoy some of the weirder sequences, like how a bison is set to robbing a bank. And the story does tie up some loose threads (pun intended) dangling from the first and second book. And although the end cleans up most of it, the world remains an inviting place that I hope will host more stories later on.

Overall, if you read and enjoyed the first two books, you might as well finish the series. I just don’t find this one up to the same level as the earlier books. I rate this book Neutral.

 

The Red Winter (The Tapestry #5)

Title: The Red Winter

Author: Henry H. Neff

Series: The Tapestry #5

Having successfully defended Rowan from Prusias, the alliance is now ready to go on the offensive. Prusias, the seven-headed dragon/demon who claims rule of the world, must be defeated. Worse, the victory must come at the place that is the seat of his power. And always, in addition to Prusais’s menace, David, Max, and Mina must grapple with the mysterious Astaroth before his plans can come to fruition.

I can’t think of a more perfect cap to this startling and excellent series. Max, the Hound of Rowan, the son of the Celtic sun-god Lugh, is still discovering what his heritage means. Pursued by ruthless assassins that are actually his own clones, discovering new aspects to his power, and faced with impossible decisions, he may be Rowan’s great savior . . . or its destruction. David and Mia similarly uncover new depths of character, but my favorite has always been Max. Demigods that actually portray some fragment of the vastness and horror that an actual god might possess are rare in fiction, and Max has the unique challenge of integrating his humanity into his divinity, lest he become something worse than Prusias. “Never summon a god into the world,” he’s warned. And that warning is accurate.

I do wish I had reread the previous books before this one, because the story is both vast and sweeping as well as close, tying up a lot of the little hints and threads from previous books, allowing most everyone who survived this far to have their own little piece of the story (Bob and Mum are particularly touching). Connor surprised me, more than once. So did the vyes. The emotional highs and lows struck all the right notes, and there’s plenty of action and intrigue to move things along.

This has been a long journey that changed drastically along the way. From the humble beginnings of a boy attending a magical school, to the world-altering disaster that followed, to the covert rebellions, then open war, then beyond, this has been an absolutely amazing ride and cemented its place among the best of the best. Read them all in order (preferably in a row) to better appreciate the little clues and subtle details. I can’t wait to see what Henry H. Neff writes in the future. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Dragon Trials (Return of the Darkening #1)

Title: Dragon Trials

Author: Ava Richardson

Series: Return of the Darkening #1

Agathea Flamme (Thea) is a noble who dreams of being chosen to be a dragon’s rider. She’d rather be like her brothers in the Dragon Riders than married off to help carry on the family name through her children. Sebastian is the son of a drunken blacksmith who never even thought he’d qualify for such an honor. But when the same dragon chooses both of them, they’ll need to learn to work together. Because a greater danger is stirring . . .

I’ll say up front these do not read like 17 year olds. I read them about twelve. I enjoy middle-grade fiction as well as YA, so I still enjoyed the story, but I do want to note that the way the characters think and act in no way speaks “teenager” to me. Thea’s blind hatred of Sebastian for being a commoner is a grade-school level grudge.

Sebastian is easily the best part of the book (well, him and the dragons). He’s insecure due to his background but is willing to do what he can not only for himself but to help those around him. He’s thrilled with his dragon, and his interactions with her are sweet and a lot of fun.

Thea is also insecure, but unlike Sebastian, the story doesn’t flesh out her family beyond the extreme sense of duty she feels to live up to what she believes is their high expectations for her. So she comes off as an insensitive jerk for most of the book. I would actually have less of a problem with this if the story had included a few scenes showing her interacting with her parents, losing arguments, being weak, or otherwise humiliated, and then taking that pain out on Sebastian as a way to cope. As it is she’s going to be the make-or-break part of the book, because she’s mostly needlessly cruel. If you can’t stomach reading about her until she softens up, then you might as well just put the book down and go do something else.

Overall, though, I liked the dragons, and since Thea does get better by the end, that leaves me feeling more positively about the sequel. I just hope it takes more time to flesh out the characters and motivations through scene. I rate this book Neutral.