Entry 25: Of Fire and Stars (Of Fire and Stars #1)

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Author: Audrey Coulthurst
Genre:
Fiction > Young Adult > Fantasy
Fiction > Young Adult > Romance > LGBTQA+
Published/Publisher: November 22nd 2016 by Balzer + Bray
Pages: 389
Format Read In: Audiobook

Summary from Goodreads

Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile lands. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire—a dangerous gift for the future queen of a kingdom where magic is forbidden.

Now, Denna must learn the ways of her new home while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses—and her teacher is the person who intimidates her most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine—called Mare—the sister of her betrothed.

When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two become closer, Mare is surprised by Denna’s intelligence and bravery, while Denna is drawn to Mare’s independent streak. And soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.

But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms—and each other.

My Review

I’m not a huge fan of the cover; I like the pretty font but the paper puppets make it feel cluttered. I can’t quite remember where I found out about this book or if someone had recommended it to me, but it was in my TBR.

Plot and Writing

The story follows two main leads. Princess Dennaleia (Denna) has arrived in Mynaria to meet the prince who is her betrothed, while struggling to hide her magical affinity for fire in a country that severely oppresses magic users. Princess Amaranthine (Mare), the sister of Denna’s betrothed and the princess of Mynaria, is an unorthodox royal who would rather tend horses and roam around the city than gossip with nobles and discuss trivial matters. The two come together when Denna begins taking horse-riding lessons with Mare, sparking a friendship that ignites into love. Meanwhile, political moves have been made to antagonize the magic users in Mynaria and the land of Zumorda, setting of terrorist attacks by a group of magic users. When one attack leads to the death of Mare’s beloved uncle, she begins investigating alongside Denna, who has her personal reasons for trying to quel the demonization of magic users, as her own magic is beginning to morph and grow too strong for her to control.

I’ve seen other reviewers talk about how slow the plot is and how it took a backseat to the horse-riding lessons, but I would disagree with that. I believe the pacing was understandably somewhat slow, although not too slow that it was slogging on, as both characters were in positions were they needed to work up to caring enough to risk a lot to investigate the matter. Plus, the horse-riding did not take up nearly as much page time as reviewers have stated. I liked the story personally as there was a good balance of political play and raised stakes, though overall at a very simple level; don’t expect GoT levels of political intrigue here. Still, I like that kind of trope in my fantasy. The writing itself was also pretty simple, and not too flowery. Thankfully, it wasn’t bogged down by catchy one-liners, but I would have liked a bit more advanced language. But since I consumed this in an audiobook format, the simpler language was better suited.

Characters

Denna and Mare of the opposites attract kind of romance. Denna is very much a princess–polite, well-mannered, well-tempered. Mare is the rough and tumble counter-part–rude, temperamental, unbothered. When Denna spends the majority of the beginning trying to get Mare to like her, Mare tries to ignore her, convinced that she is just an air-headed noble. Its only when Denna steps out of her role as a queen-to-be and showcases her intelligence and fierceness that Mare gets to see the truth underneath the training and finds respect and admiration for Denna. As she warms up to her, Denna begins to see the loyalty and kindness Mare tries to hide behind a wall of gruffness–a bad attitude that convinced her brother and father that she was a useless piece in their puzzle. Of course, this bits Mare in the butt later on in a way that is both frustrating and understandable.

Strangely, I preferred seeing Denna’s side of the story more than Mare’s which is usually the opposite. I tend to like the rougher characters rather than the daintier ones but Denna had levels to her arc, from her struggles in understanding and possibly getting rid of her powers to her struggles to be heard as a serious political advisor to her struggles being so far from home and all of her support systems. I found Mare at the beginning to be a little too mean with Denna, less sympathetic to her position and quick to judge. But I’m happy to say that their romance is not insta-love and develops genuinely as everything falls apart around them.

Besides them, there is Prince Thandi, Denna’s betrothed and Mare’s brother–making the romance more “forbidden” besides the WLW aspect. I found Casmiel‘s character to be very flip-floppy: on one hand, he’s respectful of Denna and actually hopes that their political marriage will become one of true love but on the other hand, he does not take her advice or respect that she may be smarter than he thinks. He lack of love towards his sisters tipped me more towards disliking him than liking him, but I still felt sorry for the guy a little. The king acted the same way as his son but with even less positive points. Then there is Mare’s best friend (can’t remember his name), a guard and former lover, who is more loyal than I would expect from someone trained to serve the royal family first. I liked him as a person and wish we got to know more about him; he was mostly used as a guide so Mare wouldn’t be lost in the city.

Besides all of them, there was some unimportant characters like members of the council who all seemed to be hiding stuff from each other, even in the wake of tragedy and major clashes between fundamentalists who hate magic users and the magic users trying to survive their oppression; there was guards who act like dumb jocks and were as unmemorable as they were unlikable; there were noblewomen trying to drag Denna into their circle of useless gossip, one of whom Denna actually befriends and who’s backstory will likely become more relevant in the sequel. Overall, the cast is not very strong and there was not a particularly vibrant side character.

Trying to discover the real villain of the story was the more boring part of the plot, ironically. I basically did not trust anyone, knowing the violence committed had to be an inside job. I didn’t even really believe the uncle was dead. Everyone was acting pretty suspicious, so when the villain was revealed, I wasn’t surprised and the plot moved so fast after the reveal that I was like ‘um…okay’. Basically, the villain was definitely the weakest part and that’s a shame for someone like me who likes a good villain.

Conclusion

I tried to stay as positive as I could in my review in general but there were a few things that will probably keep me from picking up the prequel or sequel. The ending was so improbable and the explanations on the magic system were too vague that I stopped caring about how it all works. The reason for the oppression of magic users was also not very clear to me; it just seemed like a random addition. Despite saying the plot moves at an understandable pace, I ended up finding myself attracted to the other stories I was reading at the same time as Of Fire and Stars which is not a good sign for the rest of the series. Its only a duology so maybe in the future, I’ll find sometime between other stories to look at the others, but for now, I do not intend to continue.

My Rating: 3/5

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Entry 24: Lirael (Old Kingdom #2)

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Author: Garth Nix
Genre: Fiction > Fantasy, Magic
Published/Publisher: 2003 by Eos (first published April 21st 2001)
Pages: 705
Format Read In: Audiobook

Summary from Goodreads

WHO IS LIRAEL?

Lirael has never felt like a true daughter of the Clayr. Now, two years past the time when she should have received the Sight that is the Clayr’s birthright, she feels alone, abandoned, unsure of who she is. Nevertheless, the fate of the Old Kingdom lies in her hands. With only her faithful companion, the Disreputable Dog, Lirael must undertake a desperate mission under the growing shadow of an ancient evil.

In this sequel to SABRIEL, winner of the Aurealis Award for Excellence in Australian Science Fiction, Garth Nix weaves a spellbinding tale of discovery, destiny, and danger.

My Review

TW: suicidal thoughts, mistreatment of refugees

I pretty much jumped right into Lirael right after Sabriel, and again I definitely like the cover with Lirael than the one with the Charter mark! It looks a little more haunting than Sabriel‘s cover but the dots of snow is a nice touch.

Plot and Writing

This time around we are following Lirael, who has been raised by the Clayr, a group of seers who can utilize the Charter magic in their magical bloodlines and who live in a glacier away from the rest of the Old Kingdom. At some point in a Clayr’s life, she will develop ‘the sight’, which allows her to see different futures; this is also a form of transition from childhood to adulthood. But it seems Lirael, who’s Clayr mother passed away before she got to know her and who has been raised by her aunt, is out of luck in this regard as the sight never comes to her and she has to continue being seen as a child even by those younger than her.

At the same time, we are also following Sameth, Sabriel and Touchstone’s son, who is destined to be the next Abhorsen after Sabriel. In this new world, Touchstone has taken back the regency and he and Sabriel have established more order in the Old Kingdom. But it seems Sameth is facing a different and yet similar problem from Lirael; the skill to be the Abhorsen never comes to him–in fact, he is incredibly afraid of death–despite it being what is promised to him, as being a Clayr with the sight is promised to Lirael. The difference is that Lirael desperately desires the sight while Sameth desperately does not want to be the Abhorsen.

Their storylines converge as Lirael follows the vision of the Clayr and Sameth goes looking for his friend Nick, who has crossed the wall into the Old Kingdom and appears to have found himself mingled with dangerous, dark forces.

While the first book explored finding your destiny, this book gives us a chance to explore what happens when your destiny never comes; do you forge your own?

The novel is split into three parts, with a 14 year time gap between part 1 and parts 2+3. It was strange to go from a moving (in terms of the characters constant motion) story to one that splits up different POVs and different times. It made listening to it slow, but it never made me feel bored. So much was going on in both Lirael and Sam’s lives that the breaks in the story didn’t bother me too much, although it is pretty jilting when you’re at an exciting part of one’s story and then you are placed in front of the other’s in the next chapter. I found Lirael’s parts more interesting than Sam’s in the end, but things got really exciting when they finally come together on their shared mission!

Unlike the first book, this one sets up to be more of a piece of a series rather than an encapsulating story. We get a cliffhanger that did not make me feel frustrated and made me instead worried for our heroes.

We also got to see more of the world, and gotten to see more of the magic and learned more about Charter origins, but the Old Kingdom has changed drastically since Sabriel now that a king is back on the throne. Still, it felt like the world I grew to love in the previous book. The writing, I would say, is still consistent.

Characters

Lirael is a daughter of the Clayr, raised by the seers in the glaciers after her mother passes away. A Clayr can eventually develop ‘the sight’–the ability to see into the future–but this gift never comes to Lirael and without it, she feels lost, untethered to the only family she’s ever known, and incredibly depressed. But instead of wallowing in her sorrows for long, she instead begins to develop her skills in Charter magic and utilizes her strength in other ways around the glacier, including fighting off monsters trapped in the deepest parts of the library and exploring the unexplored corners of the glacier. I think at the end I ended up like Lirael more than I liked Sabriel; her despair was so palpable, I could feel it, and the pressure she was feeling to become a seer like everyone else and to join the ranks of adulthood made me just as anxious as she was. I loved how she fought through her depression to become a powerful mage and find the path she was always meant to take. As someone who’s dealt with depression before, there was inspiration to be had in Lirael’s choices.

Sameth, on the other hand, unfortunately acted like as spoiled brat for most of the book. After a bad run-in with a powerful necromancer 14 years before he ends up meeting Lirael, he develops such a ferocious fear of death that he can barely look at the Book of Death, which is not a good sign when everyone around him expects him to be the next Abhorsen. It doesn’t help that his personality is sullen and quiet; he doesn’t like talking to most people and would rather tinker away in his workshop than entertain. I did feel sympathy for his plight, like I did for Lirael, but his attitude rubbed me the wrong way. Still, I felt bad for him and despite my annoyance, I grew to care about this not-so-cowardly prince, especially after his daring journey into the Old Kingdom in search of his only friend. I hope he gets to develop more into a proper hero in the next book.

Mogget returns in all his glory, huzzah! But he’s not the only animal companion who shines this time. We also meet the Disreputable Dog, an apparently powerful creature of pure Free Magic, who Lirael summons in her attempt to create a Charter-based animal companion. This Dog is clearly old and wise but basically acts like any other dog would; demanding cuddles, attention and food. She is also incredibly loyal and always encourages and supports Lirael, especially when she spirals into her depressive episodes. She’s really like a service dog, if service dogs talked and bit you when they felt you were getting too sad. The Dog and Mogget clearly have some history but we don’t get to really know what that’s about.

Nicholas Sayre is the character that ties Lirael and Sam together. He is a scientist who rejects magic but is fascinated by what technology he could muster from the Old Kingdom. With a mysterious influence beckoning him, he crosses the Wall and ends up tangled with dangerous magic. When Sam gets suspicious of his friend’s sudden interest in the Old Kingdom, he ventures out to save him. In the meantime, the Clayrs see a vision of Lirael saving Nick from a mysterious dark force which kick starts her own journey.

Our villains this time around are Hedge, a dangerous necromancer who attempts to lure Sam but ends up luring Nick, and Chlorr of the Mask, a necromancer defeated by Sabriel and then raised from the dead by Hedge to become a Greater Dead Adept. They both work for a truly evil force that has taken root inside of Nick and seeks a way out of its imprisonment. Their forces hunt down both Lirael and Nick, but the one time I was truly terrified was when the mysterious Big Bad spoke through Nick; I am NOT about that horror movie demon possessing BS.

Conclusion

I look forward to seeing where Sam and Lirael go now that they have more of a goal and after the bombshell revelations at the end! For those of you who enjoy a good old-fashioned fantasy quest, this is the novel for you.

My Rating: 4/5

Entry 23: Sabriel (Old Kingdom #1)

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Author: Garth Nix
Genre: Fiction > Fantasy, Magic
Published/Publisher: September 30th 1996 by Harper Collins
Pages: 491
Format Read In: Audiobook

Summary from Goodreads

Sent to a boarding school in Ancelstierre as a young child, Sabriel has had little experience with the random power of Free Magic or the Dead who refuse to stay dead in the Old Kingdom. But during her final semester, her father, the Abhorsen, goes missing, and Sabriel knows she must enter the Old Kingdom to find him.

With Sabriel, the first installment in the Abhorsen series, Garth Nix exploded onto the fantasy scene as a rising star, in a novel that takes readers to a world where the line between the living and the dead isn’t always clear—and sometimes disappears altogether.

My Review:

Sabriel is one of those books in my elementary and high school libraries that I always felt my eyes wander to. I hadn’t even remembered Sabriel until I saw it in a list of available audiobooks through OverDrive. I knew it was old but I hadn’t realized it was a 90’s book! The girl on the cover always intrigued me and it wasn’t until I picked it up to read that I noticed the black creature behind her. I definitely like that version over the one with the mark.

Plot and Writing

The writing is really interesting; it’s hard to describe but the word that pops up in my head is “old-school”. It’s omnipresent which I prefer over first person POVs. The pace is slower than what you see nowadays in YA literature. A lot of people seem to prefer writing action scene after action scene, especially in fantasy YAs, but I found that I really liked the slow-moving language and the appropriately long pauses at certain places, even though the characters spend most of the book being chased.

Sabriel is a student at an all-girls school in Ancelstierre and the daughter of the Abhorsen, a necromancer who puts the dead to bed rather than raising them up. When he doesn’t come to visit her one day, she goes in search of him across the wall separating Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom, a land besieged with undead creatures, free magic users and no actual leading body. The book is ultimately about Sabriel coming into her own as both a magic user and as the next Abhorsen, a position passed down throughout her family. I enjoyed the story and enjoyed following Sabriel as she learned about the Old Kingdom and about the real nature of her father’s work. Overall, the novel is more character driven than plot driven but the story itself lent insight into the fascinating world she occupies! It is really interesting place where magic is referred to as “Charter magic” that can be heightened by powerful objects or if you come from a certain bloodline.

Characters

Sabriel is our protagonist, an intelligent young woman with a great respect for death and great skill in magic. I really liked her drive to save her father and the fear she had with losing her last family member, someone who could help her determine what she really wants to be as she grows older. I actually cared a lot about her and how her journey would end and the length she went to protect strangers. Touchstone, the boy she finds cursed to be a wooden figure and frees, is her love interest, a young man with his own shameful secrets but who is willing to do what it takes to free the Old Kingdom from the dead and the evil necromancers around, and to restore order. I liked him as a supporting character but I wasn’t particularly invested in him. I liked the relationship between them, as it felt like a nice slow burn, but then they were suddenly confessing their love to each other right at the end after knowing each other for a few days and that basically soured it to me. Mogget, the talking cat Sabriel finds in her father’s castle who has served the Abhorsens for centuries, is probably the best character in the book; his attitude is hilarious and the way Tim Curry (who narrates the audiobook…yeah, that Tim Curry) plays him made him all the more charming!

Kerrigor is the main villain, a Greater Dead necromancer who is the sworn enemy of the Abhorsen and who hunts down Sabriel across the Old Kingdom to stop her from finding and saving her father. He was quite terrifying but I didn’t feel entirely threatened until the final face off at the end, and I genuinely did not see the twist regarding his past coming so that was a fun surprise.

Conclusion

The world of this book really plucked the nostalgic fantasy threads in me. It was enjoyable, fun and I liked the characters a lot! The magic was a little hard to understand and took me awhile, but I liked how I was taught through the narrative how it worked and where it came from. Hopefully, more about Charter versus Free magic will be explored in the future. It’s my understanding that the next books in the series follow other characters but is set in the same world with cameos from past characters, so I’m excited to get back into it in the next book!

My Rating: 4/5

Entry 22: The Ocean at the End of the Lane [RECOMMENDED]

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Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Fiction > Fantasy, Horror, Magical Realism
Published/Publisher: June 18th 2013 by William Morrow Books
Pages: 181
Format Read In: Audiobook

Summary from Goodreads

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

My Review [SPOILERS AHEAD]

So this is not my first Gaiman novel; I’ve read Good Omens and Coraline, both of which were awesome. But I don’t feel like I was quite ready for this book to go the way it went. I have a physical copy of this book which was offered by a friend who was cleaning out her bookcase, but the audiobook version helped me get to it much quicker. It’s a small book but the amount of things that went down within it’s pages makes it feel like a much bigger novel. I think the cover is so pretty, but I think the German edition’s cover is my favourite (the Estonian one is quite creepy which I think helps reflect the horror this book reaches at times).

Plot and Writing

The writing is really great! The story is told from the POV of a seven-year-old boy for the most part and it actually feels like it. It was paced very well for a disjointed story and few scenes felt like they dragged on. Some scenes genuinely terrified me enough for me to skip ahead on the audiobook.

The novel starts off with the protagonist returning to his childhood town for a funeral and after visiting the site of his old home, he takes a detour to visit the Hempstock farm at the end of the lane where an old childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock, used to live with her mother and grandmother. As he sits on a bench overlooking a lake that Lettie swore was an ocean, his memories unlock and he remembers all of the wonderful and terrible things that happened when he was a young boy the summer a man, who’d been living as a guest at the protag’s home, committed suicide in his neighbourhood. From then on, we get several different memories strung together, starting with how he met Lettie and ending with how he lost her, and there is almost no time to breathe in between. In the hands of other writers, this would be a confusing, nonsense of a plot but in my experience, those who set out to write magical realism do a pretty good job of connecting seemingly unconnected occurrences, and being familiar with Gaiman’s style and reputation, he is, of course, no exception.

Characters

Confession time: I didn’t even realize that we never learn the protagonist’s actual name until I sat down to write this review. Awkward. But yes, our seven-year-old protagonist has no name (or he does, but we never learn it), and maybe that does well to put us in his shoes as his actions and interests aren’t particularly gendered, in my opinion. He is curious and smart, which lends him well to a story filled with unusual happenings.

Lettie Hempstock is the magical girl he befriends after he and his father find the man who committed suicide, and she opens his eyes to a world that had always been in front of him. I loved Lettie’s character; she was infinitely brave, curious (despite her agelessness) and carried an astonishing level of wisdom in a way less like an adult and more like when children can sometimes be eerily wise. The way she is essentially willing to throw down and protect the protag whom she’s just met so quickly makes her, in my opinion, the true hero of the story. Hats off to you, Lettie.

Her mother, Ginnie Hemstock, and her grandmother, Old Mrs. Hempstock, also managed to shine in their own ways. I love the relationship between the three women; there is something comforting about the warmth and love they share despite their immortality and power. The way they matter-of-factually go about stripping at time and summoning demon birds can make you feel like you could do what they do just as easily if you had an afternoon free. Old Mrs. Hempstock in particular is one you definitely do not want to mess with.

Skarthach, who goes by Ursula Monkton, is our villain, a bizarre tent-like creature that can take on the form of a human and who we learn isn’t really all that scary. But that doesn’t dampen the horror surrounding her. Much like the fake mom in Coraline, Ursula is a terrifying adult figure in the protag’s life, who blows in and tries to rip apart his world for fun and for sustenance. I really disliked her as a “person” but as a villain, she does a great job of revealing the flaws in adults and adulthood that children eventually learn about on their own.

The rest of the cast include the protag’s family–his obnoxious sister, his absent mother, his irresponsible father. Luckily, the story was not bogged down but too many useless characters.

Conclusion

Overall, I had a lot of fun listening to this book! If I had the choice, though, I would recommend reading it rather than listening to it; I think the scarier scenes would hit harder and the style is a little easier to follow.

My Rating: 4/5

Entry 21: Scarlet (The Lunar Chronicles #2)

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Authors: Marissa Meyer
Genre:
Fiction > Young Adult > Fantasy
Fiction > Young Adult > Science Fiction
Published/Publisher: February 5th 2013 by Feiwel & Friends
Pages: 454
Format Read In: Audiobook

Summary from Goodreads

Cinder, the cyborg mechanic, returns in the second thrilling installment of the bestselling Lunar Chronicles. She’s trying to break out of prison—even though if she succeeds, she’ll be the Commonwealth’s most wanted fugitive.

Halfway around the world, Scarlet Benoit’s grandmother is missing. When Scarlet encounters Wolf, a street fighter who may have information as to her grandmother’s whereabouts, she is loath to trust this stranger, but is inexplicably drawn to him, and he to her. As Scarlet and Wolf unravel one mystery, they encounter another when they meet Cinder. Now, all of them must stay one step ahead of the vicious Lunar Queen Levana, who will do anything for the handsome Prince Kai to become her husband, her king, her prisoner.

My Review [SPOILERS AHEAD]

As promised in my Cinder review, I have picked up the second book in the Lunar Chronicles series to see how things have progressed. Honestly, I should just make a habit out of waiting for a whole series to just finish before picking it up ’cause it really helps stick a story better in my head if I just jump from one to another swiftly.

The cover of this book doesn’t quite call to me as Cinder‘s did and it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize it was a red hood attached to a person; I think I thought it was just a piece of cloth or something which makes no sense.

Plot and Writing

Maybe because the audiobook format is the way it is, I couldn’t determine if the writing had changed in anyway. It seemed to be similar to how Cinder was written, not better nor worse. Any changes to the style may become more evident later, but since the current style doesn’t bug me, I have not complaints regarding it.

In this book, we mainly follow Scarlet Benoit, who’s grandmother, Michelle Benoit, has gone missing for a few days and when the authorities won’t do anything about it, she decides to take matters into her own hands to track her down, with the help of the mysterious Wolf. We also return to Cinder as she breaks out of jail and goes looking for Michelle who may have  more information on Cinder’s past. Overall, this book moved a lot faster than the first and had more action-y sequences which helped move it along. I think the story was pretty great and reflected a sci-fi version of the original tale in interesting ways, just as Cinder did. Instead of being escorted to grandma’s house by the Big Bad Wolf, Scarlet is being escorted by Wolf to the HQ of the gang members who kidnapped grandma. If you know the old fairytale, you can pretty much guess what happens when they reach HQ.

Still not entirely seeing the point of letumosis other than as leverage for Cinder and Kai. Oh well; it doesn’t play a major role except for one scene in this book.

Characters

Scarlet Benoit–our Little Red Riding Hood with sprinkles of elements from Beauty and the Beast, named after her red hair–is the fierce, smart, temperamental and confrontational protagonist. I think, overall, I like Scarlet a little more than Cinder because she has that stronger backbone but that’s basically just because she was raised in an environment where she was allowed to explore her own independence, unlike Cinder. Still, there were times where I wished she’d reeled her stubbornness in for her own sake, because then half the ways her plans had gone wrong probably wouldn’t have been as drastic. I found her at times to be unnecessarily judgemental, too, but I suspect that will mellow out in the coming books thanks to what happened by the end of the book. I do love how aggressively loyal she is and that’ll make her quite important as Cinder’s ally. I also found the fact that she was French a nice little nod to the fact that one of the earliest versions of LRRH was one shared by French peasants.

Wolf is Scarlet’s love interest–our Big Bad Wolf–and wow, I do not like this name he goes by for most of the book. If he needed a stage name, then that’s fine, but why not have just a regular name outside of the ring? Why let everyone just call you by your fighting name? Outside of the ring, it just sounds really silly. With names like Scarlet and Wolf, Meyers seems to be really not trust us to understand who these characters are based off, I guess, which is a strange change of tactic from Cinder and looking at the names of the next characters we will be meeting, not a tactic she reuses. Anyways, as a character, I liked his soft attitude and composure, a contrast to both his name and his fighting style, and while the ‘twist’ at the end didn’t really surprise me (it has been heavily hinted at), how he came to be is super interesting and gives us a better look at what the rebellion is up against if they want to face down Levana.

I really like how his calmness balances Scarlet’s ferocity. His rationality in the face of her occasional irrationality at least brings something interesting to their dynamic. That only means that I found their romance to be only a little less boring than Kai and Cinder’s. At least Kai and Cinder mainly started of by openly admiring the other’s traits and skills, and really, Scarlet falling for Wolf made a lot more sense than Wolf falling for her. Until the ‘twist’ half-way through the book, she’d been moved by his generosity in helping a total stranger and his dedication to protecting her, and it was convincing that that charmed her. But Wolf really didn’t give any reason why he in turn fell for her, even when we finally got his POV in one chapter. Their final scene together was definitely one of the most awkward ‘love’ scenes I’d ever heard, and that’s saying something as a fan of YA.

I wish we had gotten to know Michelle Benoit. What a boss! All the things we’d heard about her and her connection to Luna was so interesting; I could see myself listening to all the stories she could tell about her experiences. We have also now been introduced to a new player: Carswell Thorne (I don’t even know what is going on with the names in this book…it’s rough). Carswell is an American pilot who’d apparently went rouge, stole a ship and eventually found his way to New Beijing prison, where he eventually meets and breaks out with Cinder. When he was being introduced, I honestly thought he was a much older man, like in his 40s for some reason. I don’t have any idea why I thought this but in any case, I didn’t really like his character for most of the book. He was such a stereotypical good-looking charmer who may or may not actually be a ladies’ man and who thinks quite highly of himself for no particular reason. But what kind of changed my mind a little was how much he was just going along with Cinder’s plans, even when he found out she was a cyborg, even when he found out she was Lunar, and even when he found out that she was the missing Princess Selene. Like nothing phased this guy; he was like “cool :)))” and continued taking orders and flirting and actually being a good friend, ally and pilot. He was so unusually not freaking out about anything that it intrigued me and now I actually look forward to getting to know him more.

I also had the very real fear that he would form the dreaded Love Triangle(TM) with Cinder and Kai, but taking a peek at the summary of the next book has somewhat quelled that fear.

So those are basically our memorable new characters. Back to our old friends, Cinder has taken more agency now, which was got a hint from at the end of the first book. She is finally literally and figuratively moving as she goes in search of Michelle who she learns has more information on how Cinder ended up on Earth and in New Beijing. I’m starting to warm up more to Cinder, not that I didn’t like her before, and felt the weight of the world on her shoulders–Scarlet doesn’t help in this regard, and I hope she doesn’t make Cinder feel guilty for everything that has happened with Levana in the coming books. Kai also appears to be in quite the pickle as he tries to fend of Levana as much as he can. With his role as Emperor, I could see more of what his duties will entail and felt for him, as well. These kids are just not having a great year, huh? I genuinely felt so frustrated when he eventually ‘proposed’ to Levana; can’t wait for the crashing of that wedding. Iko returns, too, and this time she’s the ship that will be navigating our heroes for the coming books, no doubt. Somehow, I like her more in this form than as a relatively useless android, but she isn’t any less obnoxious. In terms of Levana herself, we still get no dimension to her character but we did get a POV at the every end and that was exciting! Mainly our villains were a forgettable thaumaturge and his pack of genetically engineered werewolves, whom I felt very *shrug* about.

World

Well, the world isn’t any different from Cinder’s. Scarlet was raised in a village where the people find her and her grandmother to be too weird and crazy (these are the sprinkles of elements from Beauty and the Beast) but even this backwaters town has pretty advanced technologies, even if their ideals and opinions are not as advanced. We didn’t get to learn more about the Lunars and that disappointed me but I get the sense that we may get to see more about them now that the crew is heading to Luna in the next book.

Conclusion

This was a pretty good follow-up to Cinder, fun and fast-paced and attention-grabbing though nothing special again. Since the actual story continues to grip me, I will be picking up the third book.

My Rating: 3/5

Entry 20: The Summer of Jordi Perez (And the Best Burger in Los Angeles) [RECOMMENDED]

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Author: Amy Spalding
Genre: Fiction > Young Adult > Contemporary > LGBTQA+ > Romance
Published/Publisher: April 3rd 2018 by Sky Pony Press
Pages: 285
Format Read In: Audiobook

Summary from Goodreads
Seventeen, fashion-obsessed, and gay, Abby Ives has always been content playing the sidekick in other people’s lives. While her friends and sister have plunged headfirst into the world of dating and romances, Abby has stayed focused on her plus-size style blog and her dreams of taking the fashion industry by storm. When she lands a prized internship at her favorite local boutique, she’s thrilled to take her first step into her dream career. She doesn’t expect to fall for her fellow intern, Jordi Perez. Abby knows it’s a big no-no to fall for a colleague. She also knows that Jordi documents her whole life in photographs, while Abby would prefer to stay behind the scenes.

Then again, nothing is going as expected this summer. She’s competing against the girl she’s kissing to win a paid job at the boutique. She’s somehow managed to befriend Jax, a lacrosse-playing bro type who needs help in a project that involves eating burgers across L.A.’s eastside. Suddenly, she doesn’t feel like a sidekick. Is it possible Abby’s finally in her own story?

But when Jordi’s photography puts Abby in the spotlight, it feels like a betrayal, rather than a starring role. Can Abby find a way to reconcile her positive yet private sense of self with the image that other people have of her?

Is this just Abby’s summer of fashion? Or will it truly be The Summer of Jordi Perez (and the Best Burger in Los Angeles)?

My Review
Honestly, I’m proud of myself for picking up this book because I do not like the cover at all. I feel like it’s way too cluttered and the font just doesn’t flow. I’m pretty book-vain, in that I am 90% time instantly drawn to one book over another because of the cover, but I’m also not a graphic designer so what do I know?

am happy that I picked up this book and didn’t let my vanity deter me! I’ve realized that audiobooks lend themselves so well to contemporary novels since they don’t tend to contain complicated names or intricate descriptions of settings. It’s helped me pick up more contemporary novels I would normally bypass.

Plot and Writing
This is a pretty simple novel; short and sweeter than honey. After being used to reading through countless fantasy and sci-fi worldbuilding, it was nice to have a break and enjoy something easy-going. The story follows Abby as she deals with her adorable crush on Jordi Perez, her fight to win the internship at her favourite boutique, her jealousy over possibly losing her best friend to a boy, and her side quest to help a newfound friend, Jax, discover the best burger in LA in order to help test-run his dad’s new food app. Sprinkled in are Abby’s dealings with her family, particularly her mother, in a manner that felt so simple and yet so real. There really wasn’t a piece in this hodgepodge of stories that I didn’t like and as someone who doesn’t typically read romance of any kind, I was delighted by how much I enjoyed watching Abby fall in love (as much as you could fall in love as a teenager) and begin dating Jordi, even when they hit their rough patch.

While I did like the slight family drama, I found that it too often took a back-seat to the other issues Abby was dealing with. It felt like the other knots in her life had been tied up nicely at the end except for her relationship with her mother which may have lessened but still felt pretty strained. Maybe because every other plot point had a “happy ending”, I was hoping this one would, too, but this is a contemporary which means it deals with real life masterfully and so I can’t really complain about this “loose end”.

I’m no authority on the matter but I thought the handling of Abby’s issues with her weight were really well done. I loved that her main problem was never that she didn’t like her body but that she didn’t want to lose control over how people perceived her. I honestly think the moral of the story in that regard was not “love yourself, no matter your body type” but was actually “learn to be okay with the fact that you cannot change how people perceive you”. In that way, it’s more of a universal coming out story than a body acceptance story; Abby has, by the time we meet her, already accepted her body and is happy with herself and that’s really refreshing in a fat protagonist. I also loved how there was never really a major issue with her being a lesbian, either, besides a few cringy comments from Jax, and that is just as refreshing; again, it’s not because she’s gay that she believe she will never find love but it’s because she thinks she is the ‘quirky, best friend archetype’ side character, not the main character, that she will never find love. Who in their lives hasn’t at one moment felt like they were just the side character to someone else’s life?

My last issue, though, was how the plot line regarding Jordi showcasing photos of Abby at her photography show was wrapped up. I think it was handled pretty well, and I was more than happy to see them get back together, but I wish there had been more emphasis on the fact that Jordi had done something because she believed she knew what was best for Abby and took Abby’s choice of displaying herself away from her, essentially. We all make mistakes but I think the narrative didn’t drive home the message; Abby’s friends thought she’d blown the whole thing out of proportion and thought what Jordi did was good for Abby, Jordi herself kind of made Abby guilty for her heartbreak, and Abby herself just ended up doubting her very valid feelings. It’s a little thing but it still bugged me that Jordi was somewhat let off the hook for the most part, especially when she was rewarded with Abby accepting to have her photos posted at the end of the novel. It just felt too much like she’d been pushed into letting people see pictures of her based on other people’s choices.

The pacing is pretty slow as not much action actually happens, but I expected that going in so I believe the pacing was appropriate. I think the writing was also pretty simple, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea but as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, it let me skim through the audiobook with no problem. The plain language also felt more realistic since the book is in 1st person POV and we’re inside the head of a teenage girl falling in love for the first time.

Characters
Abby is our fat, gay protagonist, and such a delight! Her bubbly personality and self-love are genuinely inspirational and I found her especially adorable when she got panic-y and flustered. Her dialogue is about as jilted as you could expect from a teen fashionista and while it would normally cringe me out, instead I was surprised to find myself enjoying her awkward vocabulary (it also helps that the narrator did a great job not making her sound whiny). Also, her style of clothing is my new favourite thing!

Jordi is our love interest, and wow, she is so swoon-worthy! Totally cool and super passionate. Or maybe I feel that way because we are looking through Abby’s eyes. But I actually liked Jordi a lot; she is interestingly awkward, just like Abby, but in a totally different way and I kind of love that. I’m still not a huge fan of what she did and how she handled Abby’s cold shoulder, but, well, she’s a love-stricken teen, too, stumbling her way through her apparently first relationship. I realized about half way through the book that I would have not liked Jordi half as much as I do if she were a guy…I’m not sure what that says about me.

Also can’t forget that these two are the artsy type so of course they have to be dramatic!

I wish I could remember Abby’s best friend’s name, but in general, I love how supportive Abby’s whole group of friends are! They really reminded me of my own friend group in high school; different, loyal and relatively normal. I wish we had seen more of Abby’s sister, too. What little we saw was cute and I imagine she would have pushed Abby a little more while still taking care to not force her into anything. Jax is the new friend on the block and despite being a super jock bro type, he was actually funny, genuine and helpful! It would have been great if he’d stopped trying to hide his emotions behind the “I’m a guy, I can’t do that” thing ’cause it was really sweet to see him fully admit that he had just wanted Abby to be his friend and he didn’t know a good way of doing that. I love how much they bond over complicated family issues. My memory fails me again when I try to remember the name of the woman who runs Abby’s favourite boutique but I found her to be super cute, too, and pretty understanding when it came to an office romance!

Conclusion
This book has cleared my skin and watered my crops, what can I say? It’s the kind of saccharine joy I didn’t know I wanted until I had it!

My Rating: 4/5

Entry 19: Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles #1)

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Authors: Marissa Meyer
Genre:
Fiction > Young Adult > Fantasy
Fiction > Young Adult > Science Fiction
Published/Publisher: January 3rd 2012 by Feiwel and Friends
Pages: 390
Format Read In: Audiobook

Summary from Goodreads
Sixteen-year-old Cinder is considered a technological mistake by most of society and a burden by her stepmother. Being cyborg does have its benefits, though: Cinder’s brain interference has given her an uncanny ability to fix things (robots, hovers, her own malfunctioning parts), making her the best mechanic in New Beijing. This reputation brings Prince Kai himself to her weekly market booth, needing her to repair a broken android before the annual ball. He jokingly calls it “a matter of national security,” but Cinder suspects it’s more serious than he’s letting on.

Although eager to impress the prince, Cinder’s intentions are derailed when her younger stepsister, and only human friend, is infected with the fatal plague that’s been devastating Earth for a decade. Blaming Cinder for her daughter’s illness, Cinder’s stepmother volunteers her body for plague research, an “honor” that no one has survived.

But it doesn’t take long for the scientists to discover something unusual about their new guinea pig. Something others would kill for.

My Review [SPOILERS AHEAD]
A new thing I’ve been doing since half-way through 2018 was listening to audiobooks during my long commute to and from work. I used to not want to listen to audiobooks because I tend to space out sometimes and if I space out during a reading, I may miss important information. I guess it’s easier for me to reread a paragraph than hit the back button, apparently. I also didn’t know of any good places to listen to audiobooks until I learned about OverDrive and saw how easy it was to borrow from my library’s audiobook collection! This is not an advert for OverDrive, by the way, just a fun little update from me. In any case, I’m pretty sure listening to audiobooks got me to reach my GoodReads reading challenge goal last year and also helped me experience books in a whole new way. I may make a list of the best audiobooks I’ve listened to later on in the year.

Another thing I had started doing around the time I picked up audiobooks was to start working through my TBR list. Cinder has been on the list for about three years now and so I’m glad to have finally picked it up in order to see what all the hype was about! I remember distinctly one of the first times I’d visited a Chapters store, I saw Cinder everywhere, and thought the cover looked really cool and eye-catching.

Plot and Writing
So I would argue that there really isn’t a “plot” to this novel; it felt more like a set up for the rest of the series and less like a contained story, which is fine by me but I wish I had known that going in. The mini mysteries throughout the book somehow miraculously kept my attention since they weren’t exactly surprising and the “major reveal” at the end was incredibly predictable. As a retelling of Cinderella, it diverges in many ways; some ways were interesting and some ways were just very random, like introducing a fatal disease called letumosis that didn’t really seem to have a place in the story other than as a tool to reveal parts of Cinder’s true identity. I hope the later books gives better reason for why that disease is a necessary plot point.

Still, the essential skeleton was there: an evil stepmother, an evil stepsister (not both, just one), a ball, a prince, a hidden identity. The one thing missing was a fairy godmother, although arguably Cinder’s saviour and adoptive father, Linh Garan, could fit the bill. From what little we know about him, he seems like an incredibly interesting character and we were left with little information on how he crossed paths with Cinder in the first place so hopefully that gets explored more in the story.

The pacing was decent, not too fast nor too slow but the romantic scenes dragged for me. Then again, I wasn’t at all invested in the couple so that’s a biased opinion.

Overall, I think the story did a good job setting up for the rest of the series but if this was a stand alone or even a part of a duology, I would be less gracious. The writing itself was simple and easy to follow which, I’m realizing, is something that I do not like when I’m reading but something that I appreciate wholeheartedly when I’m listening; it makes it much easier to follow.

Characters
Linh Cinder is our protagonist, a cyborg mechanic who lives under the rule of her stepmother, Linh Adri, after her husband, who saved Cinder’s life, passes away. Cinder is the best mechanic in New Beijing, which is hard to believe given that she is only 16 years old, and this leads her to meet Prince Kaito–Kai–who is seeking out her expertise in order to fix his nanny android. I found Cinder to be cool and interesting, someone who has taken the brunt of anti-cyborg discrimination and the nastiness of Adri and her cruel stepsister, Linh Pearl, and come out not so bitter and unloving–much like the original Cinderella. The one thing that bothered me about her writing was how much of a missed opportunity Meyer had to explore ableism in her world. Cinder’s leg, and I believe part of or one whole arm, is missing and this becomes a plot point later on, but the shame she feels towards the missing parts of her human body–not just the outward but parts of her organs were replaced, too–would have been a great jumping off point to talk about the mistreatment of disabled people and how it links to the anti-cyborg sentiment. Additionally, I wasn’t a huge fan of how much she wanted to be someone else to get Kai to like her, but it’s a pretty realistic reaction when you’re told your whole life how ugly you are for being only partially human. My favourite moments with her were her interactions with Linh Peony, her other stepsister whom she is close to, and Iko, her android friend. Her interactions with Kai bored me; unfortunately, being together doesn’t bring out anything interesting in either of their personalities so their scenes felt pointless. I found her learning about who she really is from Dr. Erland far more exciting, though now I’m curious about how her identity will shift with the knowledge that she is the heir to a whole planet.

Kai is our other protagonist and Cinder’s love interest, the prince-turned-Emperor of New Beijing who is struggling to combat Queen Levana, the manipulative and cruel ruler of Luna. I felt bad for Kai for most of the novel and I found him to be both brave and brash, but foolish. He was incredibly naive a lot of the time, no time more glaring than when he admitted to be searching for the true heir to the throne of Luna in order to overthrow Levana while Levana’s trusted advisory was sleeping under the same roof as him. Like what? Come on, my dude. Still, his perpetual snark towards Levana was awesome though ill-conceived. It also honestly surprised me that apparently no one had been training him to deal with politics and how to present himself to hostile ambassadors and royals; you would thing it would be the first thing his advisors would do when Kai’s father became sick. The other thing that really bugged me about him was how much he pestered Cinder to come to the ball with him. One of those advisors should have also thrown in a lesson about understanding the word ‘no’. Still, I do feel pretty bad for him, especially after that rough ending.

Adri and Pearl are the secondary antagonists to Cinder, and the buck stops there for them in terms of characterization. There is a glimmer of humanity in their grief over Peony’s death, but it’s always quelled by their relatively inexplicable hatred of Cinder. Really, I didn’t feel bad for them at all and wished Cinder stood up for herself more. Iko and Peony were also one-note characters, as they didn’t have a lot of scenes in the novel, but they had their charms though I know I won’t be missing Peony and wouldn’t miss Iko, either, if she just wasn’t there anymore. Dr. Erland was the one interesting side character–a fugitive Lunar turned royal doctor bent on taking Levana down and freeing his people. But there were parts of his personality, too, that I didn’t like and I kind of wish we had a more likeable mentor-type character–he was just too obsessive, too mad scientist-like and too insensitive.

Queen Levana is our main antagonist. She is the ruler of Luna–a colony of superhumans who live on the moon and who can naturally manipulate people’s brain chemicals to make them feel things and do things they would normally not feel or do–and she did not get to be in that position through honest means. She famously uses her natural ability to subjugate the people of Luna into being obedient towards her and to appear beautiful to anyone who looked at her. She is vain, murderous, genocidal, and is holding the entire nation of New Beijing hostage with a cure for letumosis until Kai agrees to marry her. Despite my undying love for bloodthirsty villains, Levana as a character was really my major disappointment with the novel. She was too simple of an adversary and I do get tired of ambitious, power-hungry women being depicted as evil. Villains who exist just to be hated bug me to no end, but I am letting this novel off the hook in this one instance because while I love sinking my teeth into interesting villains from the get go, this is the first book of, like, five, and as I mentioned, ‘Cinder’ felt more like a set up for the series rather than the actual story, so I’m well aware that we will get to see Levana more. Hopefully, this will mean we’ll get to know her more, as well.

World
What attracted me to this novel in the first place was that it was a sci-fi set in China, which is a nice change of pace. I liked that we got to see a Beijing far into the future and was glad to see a non-Western culture displayed in a popular novel. I had thought going in that Cinder was Chinese, but she isn’t which was a disappointment. Most other prominent characters are Chinese, including Kai, which was great to see. I also found the advanced technology to be compelling but nothing unique.

The Lunars were the one element that constantly distracted me about the world. It really wasn’t made clear when humans had migrated to the moon, why they had done so in the first place and how they had developed this ability to manipulate others. I am more interested in getting to know about them, about Luna and about the renegades that have escaped Levana’s eye than anything else going on with the plot at this point.

Conclusion
Overall, the novel was a fun listen but nothing special. It would have probably blown my mind had I read it when it came out and at a younger age but taking those factors into account, I enjoyed the ride and will be picking up the next book in the series to see if I continue to feel invested in the plot or the new characters.

My Rating: 3/5