Review: Madly

Arrows through a heart against a pink and purple background.
The cover art is gorgeous.

Details: Alward, Amy. (2015). Madly. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Keywords: young adult, alchemy, magical potions, The Amazing Race, The Wild Hunt, royalty

Madly occurs in an alternate contemporary universe where alchemy and magic co-exists with modern technology. When the princess of the realm poisons herself with a self-administered love potion, the royal family calls upon every alchemist in the land to develop a cure — which includes Samantha Kemi, the latest alchemist in the long line of the famous (but now disgraced) Kemi Alchemists. Gifted at her work and possessing a true affinity for alchemy, Sam is keen to participate… but encounters a few barriers:

  • Her grandfather resents the royal family for a long-ago betrayal of the Kemi Family, and because of this longstanding grudge, refuses to help the princess. This means Sam is unable (at first) to participate in Auden’s Hunt.
  • The Kemi Family lack the funds and many of the material resources to travel around the world in order to retrieve the ingredients for the remedial potion. This is in direct contrast with the most well-known competitors, the corporate magical alchemists (I can’t believe I just wrote that phrase…), ZoroAster Corporation.
  • Sam has a crush on her fiercest competitor… who was the intended object of the Royal Princess’ love potion.

Madly read like a fantastical version of the reality show The Amazing Race. But in this version, contestants race against time around the globe to retrieve magical ingredients for an alchemical concoction while the princess slowly – and then quickly – goes mad. Parts of the novel that pertain to the Auden’s Hunt were absolutely convincing and enjoyable: The reader has no doubt of the realm being in danger, or of Sam’s new found resourcefulness in retrieving magical items from remote locations.

However, the romance is really forced. And while the romance between Sam and her crush, Zain Aster, contains pivotal plot points (especially for the Princess’ eventual recovery), the supposed rapport between the two characters felt stilted and odd. At times, I found myself a) not believing the romance, and b) giving no cares at all for happy ending between these two. Overall, though, the premise of the novel was fresh and original, the pacing was strong, and the secondary characters are a delight to read.

Excitement Level: Three stars.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Review: Fortune’s Pawn

Woman in a space suit with a virtual dashboard.
Space Opera FTW

Details: Bach, Rachel. Fortune’s Pawn. New York, NY: Orbit.

Keywords: space opera, female mercenary, aliens, mystery

Fortune’s Pawn is a solid space opera that features a young and ambitious mercenary who signs on with a ship with the prescient name of The Glorious Fool. Deviana Morris quit the infamous Blackbirds mercenary band in order to pursue her eventual ambition to become one of her home world’s finest armored warriors, the King’s Devastators — and Devi discovers that a successful year upon the Fool can translate a successful entry into the Devastators. However, once Devi is on-board the Fool, she realizes that nearly every member of the ship has significant — and dangerous — secrets to hide.

I love a good space opera. The sheer escapism in this genre has always captured my imagination. Many of the operas I read have borrowed heavily from the themes associated with the Western genre, such as the lone lawman striving to do good, despite his / her own moral failings. Or space as the hostile and inhospitable backdrop against which the depravity of men (and aliens) are showcased. Or a simple old-fashioned revenge story. The author, Rachel Bach, has certainly conveyed these elements in this first novel of her trilogy. I enjoyed it so much that I plan to read the second two in this trilogy.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Deviana’s exploits, I did at times wish for a bit more inner conflict to develop her into a more nuanced character. Deviana is a mercenary heroine with speed, strength, experience, resilience, and smarts. In essence, she is a badass. If you like this character type, you certainly won’t lack for it in Fortune’s Pawn. However, in the post-Buffy era, tough female heroes who kick butt and save everyone is almost passe. Perhaps I’m selfish, but I’d like a little more of Deviana.

Excitement Level: Three and a half stars.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Review: Truthwitch

 

truthwitch

Details: Dennard, Susan. (2016). Truthwitch. New York: Tor Teen.

Keywords: Fantasy, Young Adult, Magic, Witches, Friendship

Review:

I have to admit that sometimes I am swayed by the opinions of others in regards to books. I try not to be but sometimes it just seems easier to not read something based on bad reviews. I usually don’t go out of my way to read reviews when making a decision about reading a book, but I do glance at them, and sometimes (I’m looking at you Tumblr) you come across them without meaning to. Truthwitch had decidedly mixed reviews, so when I checked out the book, I was expecting a meh read.

This expectation was turned around from page one. I found myself grinning as I was reading because I was totally in the genre I loved: true blue fantasy.

I’m going to forgo a summary here because it’s a little complicated, at least to fit into one paragraph, but basically this book follows the exploits of two young magic users Iseult and Safiya as they navigate the dangers of rare magic and political complications that they are mercilessly thrown in the middle of.

Things I loved: The characters! Iseult and Safiya were both unique enough so I didn’t feel like we were reading about the same person, but they also reflected the world in which they lived and their different upbringings. It was great to watch how they each played their roles in their friendship, but also how they each reacted to situations based on their personalities. There is also feisty Prince Merik and a healer monk lady whose name escapes me at the moment, but both were awesome, well rounded characters. My favorite, besides Safiya and Iseult has to be Aeduan, a bloodwitch who has conflicting motivations, so, helloooo moral ambiguity. My favorite!

The themes of the story are also quite satisfying. Safiya comes from a noble background that she eschews and Iseult comes from a group that is racially looked down upon so we get discussions of class and race. Many other reviewers (see, I am affected by them!) also pointed out that the main relationship in the book is the friendship between two women, and it is true. It is the friendship that drives the story, even when the characters are separated. It is always great to see female relationships portrayed in any story, but especially when it feels so genuine. The author never had the women fall into pettiness or jealousy, as is often how female friendships devolve in media.

My only real issue with the book is that the magic system was slightly confusing. There are a million different kinds of witches and each has distinct magic even within their own kind. There were also relationships that were defined by magic, which was not explained very clearly. But this is easy to ignore and you kind of get the point as you read further. It does not take away from the story very much. Also, there was slight insta-love, but I could ignore it for the way the relationship developed through the rest of the book.

Now I will say, I can see how this book isn’t for everyone. If you are not into fantasy or YA, it would be kind of disappointing (although, why you would then read a YA fantasy and then get whiney about it is beyond me). But for me, Truthwitch was the perfect blend of swashbuckling fantasy, with political intrigue, badass ladies, and romance. Sign me up!

Excitement Level: Five truthful stars

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

 

Review: The Walled City

Details: Graudin, Ryan. The Walled City. New York, NY: Little Brown.Walled City

Keywords: China, Kowloon, young adult, thriller, prostitution, drugs, Triads

The Walled City is a young adult novel inspired by Kowloon’s Walled City. Written by Ryan Graudin, this novel focuses on three characters who are either trapped, or have chosen to stay, within the infamous, dangerous, and anarchic shanty town outside of Kowloon City, Hong Kong. The Walled City is governed by triads, with little influence over affairs by external police or governmental forces.

The three characters — Jin Ling, Mei Yee, and Dai — come together to complete a dangerous task that, should they fail, will likely result in their painful deaths. In addition to having to survive the treacherous environs of the City, each character quests for a resolution to their own burdens and moral quandaries:

  • Jin Ling, who disguises her female identity by dressing as a boy, must rely upon a stranger for assistance in finding her sister, who was sold into prostitution by their father. But first she must learn to trust the stranger with her burdens.
  • Mei Yee, as the sister sold into prostitution, must decide whether the risks of angering the Triad leaders at her brothel are worth the possibility of freedom. But first she must find bravery within herself to do so.
  • Dai, with a mysterious past that involves considerable personal wealth and no known reason for living in the Walled City, attempts to bring down the Triad leaders at Mei Yee’s brothel. The reader then discovers that he is seeking redemption for his role in his brother’s premature death.

If you have ever seen the film Run, Lola, Run with Franka Potente, then you already have a sense of the pacing within this novel. The breakneck velocity of this story superbly underscores just how dire the situation is for Jin Ling, Mei Yee, and Dai. Furthermore, Graudin spends a great deal of effort on the nuanced depictions of both internal and external conflicts for all of the characters, and this attention to character development really pays off.

Excitement Level: Four Stars.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Review: A Criminal Magic

a criminal magicDetails: Kelly, Lee. (2016) A Criminal Magic. New York: Saga Press

Keywords: Sorcery, Magic, 1920’s, Mob. Fantasy

Review:

I have to admit this book left me feeling a little bit stumped. The concept is amazing: prohibition era, but instead of alcohol being illegal, magic is what has been forbidden. I mean, come on. That is genius right there. And it was a really fun read for sure, but after finishing I felt like it wasn’t as memorable as it could have been.

The story follows two characters: Joan, a young woman with a dark past who finally embraces her magical powers in order to help her poor family; and Alex, whose father was arrested for a magic racket in which Alex was the key sorcerer. He has since joined the Federal Prohibition Unit, the force dedicated to taking down magic. Both end up working for the mob (Alex as an undercover agent), and the stakes get increasingly high as Joan’s dark past comes back to haunt her.

Again, I loved the concept of this book. And I think that Lee Kelly did a great job of building her own unique style of magic. It was both something that could be beautiful and really scary, which lead to some fascinating great scenes. The use of magic as a drug, the so-called “shine,” was also a brilliant plot point. The draw to using magic and the danger that it posed was a perfect juxtaposition, mirrored especially in Joan’s character. She was both naive and worldly and this comes through in the choices she makes surrounding her magic.

I can understand that Joan might be a frustrating character for some people. She makes some pretty poor choices and continues to justify them to herself throughout the novel. But I found that her choices, though bad, made sense in the context of how broken she was in some ways, so I thought it lent credence to the character that she wasn’t always on the straight and narrow. Besides, there wouldn’t be much of a story without those decisions.

Alex was also an interesting study in juxtapositions. In some cases he could be quite self-destructive, but his drive to do well by his family and escape his past put him in positions where he had to be more careful. When Joan and Alex finally meet, it makes sense that they would be drawn to each other based not only on their pasts, but also on this inherent tension in what they want and need versus the actual reality of their lives at the moment.

So this book has a lot going for it, and the story and characters were definitely intriguing. I’m not sure what it is that is missing that made me want more from the story. Another review I read mentioned that they thought Kelly did not use the setting of the 1920’s enough, which I can see. To add to that, I also think it could have been a little grittier, what with the mob playing a pretty big role in the story. Sometimes it just felt too clean.

But I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. The danger felt real and I was invested in the characters and their relationships. Based on the writing, I am curious to read Kelly’s other novel City of Savages.

Excitement Level: Four “Shine” induced stars

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.