Tag Archives: neutral

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

Spartan Gold (Fargo Adventure #1)

Title: Spartan Gold

Author: Clive Cussler with Grant Blackwood

Series: Fargo Adventure #1

A lost mystery discovered by Napoleon Bonaparte leads to a treasure hunt two hundred years later. Sam and Remi Fargo were tracking down a different mystery when a glass bottle and an old German U-Boat give them their first lead to something much bigger than they anticipated. Because Napoleon’s secrets have also captured the attention of a much more dangerous man, who will stop at nothing to get there first.

This isn’t typically my genre, but I read this for a book club.

The book as a whole made for a somewhat frustrating read because most of the strong parts are balanced out by weaker parts. The history, the clues, the treasure, and the various links to locations around the world were well thought-out, and the various exotic locales helped with the sense of adventure. The plot never flags, and the occasional switch to the villain’s point of view helps to heighten the tension. It’s easy to visualize the whole thing as a movie.

On the other hand, I found the characters only believable about half the time. I usually like competence, but this is the first book I can remember where I kept thinking they pushed it too far. In the first half of the book especially, it felt like every time they came up against another situation, either Sam or Remi had a degree/hobby in exactly that area, and of course they were experts in various wildly diverging fields. Their extreme abilities took a lot of the fun out of most of the situations they got into, as I didn’t really feel the tension until the scope got much further out of their control.

The beginning also felt like it pushed very hard to make them “good guys” which to my mind the story as a whole doesn’t support. Technically, Sam and Remi go a step farther than the actual villain in several areas, particularly in how they acquired one bottle’s riddle and what they ultimately did in the caves at the end. I fully support that kind of ending for most bad guys, but the way it happened left me wondering why I was supposed to cheer for this. In a way it was almost amusing to compare the way both sides were breaking a lot of the same laws. For more amoral characters this would be less problematic, but again, it felt like the story was setting them up as complete contrasts to the villain, when in reality they’re not all that different.

I also didn’t buy the fact that the home base was secure enough to make even a man with those kinds of connections back off. Unless they’ve physically fortified the structure, all an alarm system is going to do is ensure the police arrive in time to take people to the hospital. If they did fortify the structure, why not just bomb it? A quick and dirty bomb is ridiculously easy to rig together (as events like the Boston Marathon unfortunately proved). Even just as a warning, perhaps with the aim of taking out a bodyguard or two, if he really needs them to keep hunting down the treasure he can’t quite get to himself.

I did like the fact that the lead couple being married meant a complete lack of romantic shenanigans to distract from the action. This left the focus on the action and not on some flimsy relationship likely to be completely discarded by a sequel. Having other people back home to help with the research also eased a lot of the logistical problems.

All in all, I suppose it was a good choice for a book club since there will be a lot to talk about, but I’m not convinced I want to read another one. As a historical mystery it works just fine, but I had a lot more problems with the present-day side of things. I rate this book Neutral.

Storm Front (Dresden Files #1)

Title: Storm Front

Author: Jim Butcher

Series: Dresden Files #1

Harry Dresden is a wizard and PI in Chicago. When a pair of people are found dead—and the method looks like magic—he’s pulled into the case. But even figuring out that kind of black magic is going to get him on the bad side of the White Council, if not outright pegged for the murder himself. Still, he’s the only one who could help. Except now everyone seems to want him dead too . . .

I generally like urban fantasy like this, but Dresden Files never clicked for me. Frankly, I found Harry’s bits of backstory more compelling than the present-day story. The magic and creatures tends to only get introduced as they comes up, which makes for a better story, perhaps, but a rather haphazard magic system. I would’ve much rather read a book about Harry’s younger days, when he was first introduced to real magic, and the sequence of events that led to him having all the baggage he starts this story with.

The murder mystery isn’t the strongest. It was fairly easy to guess early on who would be involved, and Harry burns a lot of bridges with people he should be respectful of as contacts (or employers). I also wasn’t a fan of the sheer volume of nasty stuff that worked its way into this. Blowing up hearts, fine. Demons, fine. But I’d rather skip the people blown up in the middle of sex, and the orgies, and all the naked bodies (including, actually, Harry, who has a shower scene that goes bad). It just felt like mystery by shock factor rather than actual puzzle.

Overall, even though I’ve been told the series gets stronger, this book confirmed my disinterest in reading the rest of it. (Sorry, friends-who-recommended; I gave it a shot but I’m not going to keep going.) I rate this book Neutral.

Tiassa (Vlad Taltos #13)

Title: Tiassa

Author: Steven Brust

Series: Vlad Taltos #13

This is less of a novel and more like three novellas grouped together in a collection. They all feature a silver tiassa statue, but otherwise they’re very different stories.

The first follows Vlad as he attempts to collect from a bad debtor and becomes embroiled in his usual type of twisty, backstabbing scheme to get something far bigger.

The second is more about Cawti. Vlad is now on the run, and Cawti is trying to raise their son and keep out of trouble. She’s not sure how she feels about Vlad anymore, but when others start stirring up trouble, she’s willing to pitch in her efforts to handle things.

The third follows Khaavern, and is told in the same historical style as The Phoenix Guards (and sequels). Khaavren knows his duty, and when he finds Vlad victim of attempted murder, he’s determined to get to the bottom of things. Of course, Vlad is on the run and doesn’t want the help of the Phoenix Guards . . .

I enjoyed the stories well enough as separate tales, but I think it’s a mistake to try to treat them as a novel. The tiassa connection feels particularly forced in the third story, and the changing style of narration works against feeling like a cohesive whole. Add to that I’m just less fond of the overly wordy style of the Khaavren pieces, and for me the book got less enjoyable as I progressed.

Still, it was good to see some questions answered, and I liked seeing what Cawti’s been up to (her calling her son “Boulder” definitely got a laugh out of me).

Overall, this is probably my least favorite of the novels in the series, but most of that is due to the structure. If taken as a collection of shorter stories I think it works better. I rate this book Neutral.