Book Review: The Winter of the Witch

The worst thing about The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden  is that it means the series is over. I could read another trilogy about Vasya and Morozko even though this book clearly wraps up the conflicts that began in the Bear and the Nightingale.  Now, before I wind up spoiling something, I’ll get on with my review.

The strongest features of The Winter of the Witch are definitely the characters and world building.

I love how Vasya resists the gender roles of her time, how she grows into herself and figures out who she really is. Her persistence, pain, wildness, courage, and dedication are tangible things. I loved struggling and succeeding and navigating a myriad of complicated relationships through her point of view. Morozko was my second favorite character, perhaps made more intriguing by the fact that readers really did not get to see much from his point of view. The others were okay, but every time the narrative shifted to them, I just wanted to get back to Vasya.

I did find myself annoyed at the way the book shifted point of view. This varies from reader to reader, but I prefer to read from one point of view for a whole chapter and get annoyed when scene breaks indicate a switch in point of view. On more than one occasion, I found myself rereading to remind myself which character’s eyes the world was being filtered through.

The world building was fantastic. I was smelling, tasting, touching, seeing, and hearing right along with the characters. And it wasn’t boring or overwhelming. Every detail Arden chose to focus on was relevant and added to the tone or mood of the scene. I loved that the magic system and creatures were based off of actual myths, and that some of the characters were named after people who actually existed and fought in a battle the one in the book was based off of.

One downside of historically accurate fiction is that it is often loaded with sexism and misogyny the contemporary world is struggling to shake. Throughout this trilogy, were there was no shortage of sexist men treating woman like inferior beings or objects. However, I was happy  that there were less of those in this book and that Vasya had earned the respect of men who previously looked down on her.

As much as I enjoy escaping to worlds without sexism, to worlds where gender isn’t a rigid binary thing people are judged by, I do believe there is plenty of room for those books to co-exist with novels like this that don’t censor the shitty parts of history. Historical fantasy has it’s value too. It makes me appreciate how far society has come.I’ll certainly miss Vasya, Morozko, and their complex, slow burn romance, but I’ll look forward to reading whatever Arden writes next.

Click here to buy The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

Book Review: Given To the Earth by Mindy McGinnis

Given To the Earth (Given Duet, #2)Given To the Earth by Mindy McGinnis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Given to the Earth is a continuation of the events in Given to the Earth. I’ll refrain from describing the plot in this review because I’m not sure I can do so without spoilers or copying too much for the blurb.

On the sentence level, the writing was lovely. I never had trouble picturing anything, and felt every time the writer stopped to describe something in detail, it was relevant and layered with meaning. However, that wasn’t enough for me to be drawn in the book like I expected to be.

As much as I loved the cast of the Given Duet, I had a hard time getting into Given to the Earth. I wanted to spend more time with the characters and to find out what happened to them, but the short chapters quickly jumping from one character to the next made it hard for to settle into a rhythm and engage with the story.

I also found I had a hard time keeping track of who was narrating when and found myself flipping back to the beginning of chapters (at least with the first half of the book) to remind myself who was narrating. I always knew when Khosa or Dara was narrating, but there were a few instances where I thought I was reading Vincent but after a couple paragraphs, realized it was Donil when he said Vincent’s name or thought about his sister, Dara.

However, when I was a little over half-way through the book, that problem stopped. I found the rhythm of each characters voice and the rapid fire switching from one narrator to the next became a good thing because I wanted to know how everyone’s narratives fit together and how a string of good and bad decisions were going to play out in the end. I was engaged with the narrative that couldn’t fall asleep and got up to finish the book.

As I got closer to the end, I realized that this book was doing something that I love and hate: showing how dozens of decisions each characters make turn into mistakes because of their timing and a lack of communication, bring the characters so close to what could’ve been a peaceful or happy ending (for most of them) only to have it completely turned over by one thing that they overlooked.

There were a few surprises along the way, mostly, the narrative ended exactly how I knew it would and hoped it wouldn’t. It became too familiar. There were a few moments where I was thinking things like “ok I guess ___ had to ___ in order for ___ and ___ to have a happy ending” but after a good night’s sleep and reflection on how this compared to the book I read before it, I realized it didn’t have to end that way. The author could’ve broken the trope and come up with a more creative ending were more people live happily with each other. I know this is vague, but being any more specific would mean spoilers, which I don’t want to include.

Given to the Earth may not be the best sequel I’ve ever read, but if you read Given to the Sea and enjoyed it, this is still worth reading. It’s well written and well paced once you get into the rhythm of the narrators and their voices. And if you’re okay with teary traditional endings to fantasy novels with almost Arthurian love triangles, them maybe you won’t have the same problem with this that I did.

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Book Review: Our Dark Stars by  Audrey Grey and Krystal Wade

Click the image to find Our Dark Stars on Amazon.

I received a copy of “Our Dark Stars by  Audrey Grey and Krystal Wade on NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. A combination of the cover, the pitch “Firefly meets Sleeping Beauty” caught my attention, so I requested the book. I enjoyed reading it, though I don’t think it lived up to being compared to Firefly.

The chapters alternate between Will and Talia’s points of view. Will is captain of a scavenger ship trying to regain his place in the military after letting a rebel ship getaway. Talia is an exiled princess who spend 100 years in a cryo-pod after her family was defeated by rebel mocks. The mocks are androids whose artificial intelligence evolved until they were sentient, human-like beings.

As Will decides what to do with Talia and she comes to realize that the roles of humans and mocks have reversed in the past 100 years, the book did raise some interesting questions about AI and ethics, contributing to a conversation science fiction novels have engaged in for decades. While I enjoyed that aspect of the book, I was a little let down by plot and character.

Talia was too much of a cliche modern princess — arrogant and tough. Will was also a stereotype captain who didn’t quite have the same vibrant personality as someone like Mal or Han Solo or Peter Quill. His crew was interesting, though I wished the narrative had focused on them a little more. At first, the two main characters seemed to much like science fiction archetypes, but they did grow on me as the book went on.

The plot, while not bad, was also a let down. After two or three chapters, I knew exactly how it was going to play out. There were a few things that seemed like they were meant to be surprises, but set up made them way too obvious.

The ending was exactly what I expected, though it came a little too easy so I was pulled out of the narrative wishing Talia had to work a little harder in that last chapter.

Despite its flaws, I did enjoy reading it, and like always, as a writer, I learned from reading and reviewing it. Finding the right balance between making twists too obvious or too shocking is tough. This book is a good example of leaning a little too much to the obvious. It is also a warning of the dangers of comparing a story to something it won’t quite live up to.

Had it been advertised as “Sleeping Beauty in Space with Salvagers Instead of Dwarfs” I might not have been so critical of the cast.

Check out a preview of Our Dark Stars here.

https://read.amazon.com/kp/card?asin=B0795VWGDC&preview=inline&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_Lz4pBbWXRSF96&tag=shatteredsmoo-20

Book Review: Salt

SaltSalt by Hannah Moskowitz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Salt is an odd little book. I love the characters, but the plot and the world-building left me feeling a little cheated.

Indi is an orphan and a monster hunter, sailing with his older sister and two younger siblings, looking for the monster that killed their parents.

He is a well developed character with a lot of conflict and emotion depth. I enjoyed seeing the world through his eyes, courtesy of a first-person, present-tense narration, as he grappled with wanting to take care of his siblings and wanting to be free of them.

The siblings were also well developed. They seemed exactly how I would expect a group of kids who grew up hunting monsters at sea to seem. Their dynamics and banter were entertaining, and no matter how much they fought, they had an immense bond with each other.

The plot — the hunt for the monster and Indi learning his role with his siblings — started out okay but let me down in the end. At first, it was just little things.

The kids were sailing around Europe in an age where everywhere on Earth seems to have issues with undocumented immigrants and refugees, and no one caught or stopped them to ask for papers. Eventually, there was one mention of fake ID’s, and even later, fake passports. After that, maybe there was a mention or two of being undocumented and not wanting countries to know they are there. By the time these issues were minimally addressed, I’d already been pulled out of the story by them a few times. It was really too little too late, and since the book was so short, adding a layer of not being caught only would’ve helped.

How sex, alcohol, and smoking are portrayed in YA is important. I had no problem with the fade to black casual sex, but they could’ve mentioned a condom the first time and not waited until the second. Then there was an instance where Indi and his sister light up cigarettes and smoke. There is no apparent reason for it and it adds nothing to plot. All it seems to do is glorify smoking, which is something a YA book shouldn’t do. Alcohol, while mentioned casually, made sense. Sailors drink. They’re in Europe. They’re drinking sparingly. It’s minor and cultural — its well handled. The end of the book was not.

I love happy endings. I love it when the mc gets everything want and has potential for a happily every after, but those endings have to be earned. This book was working towards that, until the last 80% or 85%. The last sequence of events was too quick, too random, and too easy, so that the happy ending didn’t feel earned or real.

In spite of all that, I did enjoy the book. The prose, voice, physical setting and characters were beautifully written. I just got pulled out of the story a few more times than I would’ve liked, and felt let down by the end.

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Book Review: Roberto to the Dark Tower Came

Roberto to the Dark Tower CameRoberto to the Dark Tower Came by Tom Epperson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Roberto to the Dark Tower Came needs ALL the trigger warnings: Gore, death, torture, sexual assault, rape, cruelty to animals, death of animals, language, whatever you can think of. If that is enough for you to not read it, then you probably don’t need to read the rest of my review.

If your still reading my review, then maybe you will consider picking up this novel. It was disturbing and dark, but I couldn’t make myself stop reading it. I became invested in the characters, and I wanted so bad for them to triumph, but this isn’t that kind of book. It’s the type that juxtaposes flawed characters who want to make a difference with the cruelty of those are resisting. It’s the kind of gritty realism where no one wins.

Roberto to the Dark Tower Came is written in third person present tense that gives an immediacy to the prose as Roberto, a left-wing journalist, receives death threats, makes plans to leave the country, gets pulled into reporting on one last story, and witnesses all manners of atrocities. The narrative builds suspense like a thriller, but it is layered with literary symbolism and imagery.

The most terrifying aspect of it was the realism. The story has a contemporary setting. The little details about daily life ground in it a place that may or probably does exist somewhere. Even though the country the book was set in was never directly named, at least not that I noticed, other real countries were.

It’s one thing to read about a character who witnessed someone get flayed in an epic fantasy like Game of Thrones that is set in a secondary world. It is far more disturbing in a book like this, but also probably more worth reading. Because somewhere in the world, people are living in fear of getting killed for disagreeing with governments or living on land people in power want to exploit. I can tell myself “It’s fiction, don’t let it get to you,” and it almost works with a secondary world fantasy, but with a book like this, my brain responds, “yes, fiction, these people aren’t real, but someone else might be living an equally hellish story.”

This story made me think about more social, political, and humans rights problems than I can count, but ones that stood out to me were the relationship between people and land, between those in power and those indigenous to the land, and how it’s not just things diamonds or gold, but some kind of metal or element used to make everyday things like cell phones, that directs greedy monsters to the places they destroy. How many everyday items that I take for granted are made with materials that were obtained by exploiting land and murdering those who love it?

After reading Roberto to the Dark Tower Came, I appreciate what I have and where I live ten times more than I did before, but it also makes me sick about what my privileges, safety and conveniences have cost someone else. Maybe it will drive me to research things and be more careful about what products I buy. Maybe because this book was so damned disturbing, I’ll lose myself in another story and I try to forget about.

I came away from this novel appreciating how precious my freedom is and terrified the current American leadership could make my world more like Robertos.

Overall, if you want a book that will take you out of your comfort zone, keep you up at night, engage you with a blend of literary realism and a political thriller plot, and make you think a lot, then this is the book for you.

But be warned, this book is loaded with triggers.

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Book Review: Mask of Shadows

Mask of ShadowsMask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mask of Shadows has been on my TBR list for a while, but it took being on a vacation in a cabin with no internet and inconsistent, minimal phone service for me to finally pick it up and dig in.

Why did I wait so long to read this? I have no clue.

Mask of Shadows has a well-executed gender-fluid character, a fascinating cast excellent world building, and a steady plot.

Most of the non-romance books I’ve read with this much LGBTQ+ rep have been from smaller publishers that specialize in queer fiction, and because they are small, have a limited reach. It was refreshing to read something like this from a somewhat larger publishing house.

The best part about the book are the characters. Sal had a fascinating backstory, and I enjoyed seeing the story’s world developed through the eyes of survivor and their who had their own set of morals — one that was different from mainstream society, but a code of morals nevertheless. I also loved that Sal’s fluid gender identity was what it was and didn’t have any major impact on the plot. The book was about a thief becoming an assassin. Not about being gender fluid. And it was refreshing to see that most of the other characters were so accepting.

Even though I didn’t get to see the world through their eyes, they other characters also had well-developed back stories. I knew just enough about them by the end to understand their motivations, complications, and why they did what they did, but not so much that it distracted from Sal and the plot.

The plot was decent, but not as good as the characters. I’m getting a little tired of reading books where the plots seem like lethal versions of reality TV shows: everyone is competing for ___, only one can get it, and either everyone else, or a lot of the other competitors, die. Hunger Games, Throne of Glass, and Ink and Bone are a few that follow this plot line.

While the tone and characters were very different, the concept of people competing to be a monarch’s assassin was extremely similar to that of Throne of Glass. However, there were some problems I had with Throne of Glass, that I didn’t have with this book. Explaining them would have some potential spoilers, so I’ll refrain. However, if you haven’t read either and only want to read one, Mask of Shadows is definitely the fresher take on the many competing in deadly game for one title trope. It has less cliches and more interesting characters.

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Book Review: Run in the Blood

Run in the BloodRun in the Blood by A.E. Ross

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Run in the Blood is like a breath of crisp, salty air proving you can have sword and sorcery fantasy set in a medieval-ish world without loading it up with sexism and misogyny. And you know what makes this book even better? Quite a bit of the rainbow was represented in a positive light with no one picking on them for being themselves.

I received a free copy from NineStar Press in exchange for a fair and honest review. I want to give it ALL THE STARS.

It had dragons AND pirates!

I was hooked from the first page watching in close third person as Aela engaged in a classic pirate battle and after a sweeping victory, was sold out to a king of a cold, snowy mountain nation.

Instead of forcing the reader to keep track of way too many characters, Ross alternated between three whose actions were closely intertwined, making the plot easy to follow and allowing me bond with and root for all three of them without being a strung along by some other random person’s story.

While a little predictable, the plot was full of fun twists and turns, all narrated by three very distinct voices, though my favorite is definitely Aela’s. The descriptions were detailed but not overdone, and little details, butter tea and spear guns, really brought the world to life.

The end wrapped up the plot’s important threads, but I really really hope there is a sequel because this book was so fun to read.

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A Review of Love, Hate & Other Filters

Love, Hate & Other FiltersLove, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

I received a free copy of Love, Hate, and Other Filters from NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. I rarely read contemporary YA, but thought this might be a good book to use in one of the classes I teach at community college. Reading this book did not feel like work. It felt like “I don’t want to go to work because I don’t want to stop reading this book.”

At first, as the narrator pointed out in a well crafted, self-aware manner, it felt like Rom-Con, where the geeky girl has to choose between two boys. However, things got more serious as tension grew between her and her parents, and they got a lot more serious when a terrorist attack happened in their state. Here, the book ceased to feel like rom-com and became more literary. Then there was a twist that I absolutely loved and made me think, “yes, this is a book for today, and it is a book so many people need to read!” The end was bittersweet, giving choky feels that only a good book can give.

I love that this book made think while it kept me turning pages. How the excerpts at the beginning of the chapters left bread crumbs for the twist but didn’t fully give it away. I enjoyed how the narrator was a little self-aware, but it didn’t really break the fourth wall because she was a filmmaker and it just felt like how she thought.

My only complaint is that there was one scene when a girl was being attacked by a boy, and another boy saved her. From a romance plot point of view, I can see why the writer chose this. It doesn’t stop me from wishing either the girl saved herself, or her female friend kicked the assaulter’s ass.

I learned a lot from reading this, and I had a lot of fun while doing it. I hope it becomes a bestseller, because it is a perspective so many American’s need to learn to see from.

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Book Review – Ardulum: Second Don

Ardulum: Second DonArdulum: Second Don by J.S. Fields

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The second book was just as good as the first, and I am very thankful I was able to get a free digital ARC.

The characters were constantly growing and being pushed to evolve. They were all flawed in ways that made me want to root for them. The obstacles thrown at them were believable enough to accept but big enough to pose a significant challenged.

The romance subplot is is picking up a bit, though it is still going at an incredibly slow, frustrating pace. This really puts the slow in slow burn. However, the romance really is a subplot, and there is so much more to this book.

The main plot was faster than the romance. I was reading on my kindle. One minute I was at 54%. The next time I looked at my progress, I was 77%, 95% and then I was done. It flew by, and I really wish book 3 was already out. The little teaser at the end of this made me want to read it now!

I may have already said this in the first review, but I loved how different pronouns were used for different species who had members that were neither male nor female, but while the idea of a true third gender was awesome, it wasn’t with the humans.

I have no complaints about this book. I had been reading more fantasy than science fiction, but the authors and editors at NineStar press, with books like the Ardulum series, Dalí, and Trans Liberty Riot Brigade, are reminding me how powerful science fiction can be when it involves complex characters and issues.

Ardulum was entertaining. It kept me on the edge of my seat trying to figure out what was going to happen next, and got me through a bad day, but it also made me think. It made me think about gender and sexuality, about human rights, religion, faith, diversity and where technology and advancement can build society up and break it down. Second Don was a little darker than First Don, but it wasn’t bleak and hopeless. Yes, it exposed some nasty flaws, but also offered hope that they might begin to heal in Third Don.

I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

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Book Review: Phaethon

PhaethonPhaethon by Rachel Sharp

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From Holly Black to Jim Butcher, I read a lot of books that involve Faeries of one kind or another. Still, this one felt fresh. It had the folklore grounding of a Holly Black novel, but a tone and humor more likely to appeal to Butcher fan’s.

The characters were cute and believable – people I could picture myself being friends with.

The plot was fast paced, and for the most part, I was able to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the ride.

As far as flaws go, sometimes things seemed a little too easy. I laughed a little when one of the characters said humans were fixing Earth, but reminded myself that the political climate may have been more…optimistic…when this book began.

The rest of the story was fun and well thought out, so I can forgive those flaws.

If you like a good blend of science and fantasy, then you will enjoy Phaethon.

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