Book Review: Heartwood by Freya Robertson

Heartwood by Freya Robertson

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 1 of Elemental Wars

Publisher: Angry Robot

Date of Publication: October 29, 2013

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars – “An ambitious novel that takes some time to build up, yet ultimately an impressive feat of storytelling featuring rich world-building and a story on an epically massive scale”

Featuring exotic lands, magic and adventure and warrior knights embarking on sacred quests, Heartwood had everything I like going for it. Now that I’ve finished this book, I’m still amazed at the sheer scope of the story; epic doesn’t even begin to describe it. Though as I soon found, “epicness” could also be something of a double-edged sword.

The book opens with a scene at the Congressus, a conference of peace talks in which representatives from all across Anguis come together in an attempt to negotiate and maintain stability between the many nations. Chonrad, Lord of Barle, joins the holy knights of Heartwood to oversee the talks in the fortified temple, where the great tree called the Arbor stands. Congressus does not go well, however, and then the gathering is ambushed by an army of warriors who seem to have materialized from the water of the river itself. In the ensuing battle many are killed, but it is the Arbor with its massive trunk split and its heart stolen away that is the worst blow of all.

Because the great tree is what binds the land and all its people, it must be saved. First, the Arbor’s heart must be retrieved, but five Nodes located in five different hallowed sites across the land must also be activated in order for the tree to heal. In addition, a powerful magician called the Virimage must also be found, brought back to Heartwood so he can lend his abilities to the mending. Thus it begins; we have seven different groups, each on their own journey, each tasked with a special Quest.

Like I said, the scope of this is massive. It’s what I loved best about this book, and the author Freya Robertson pulls off an impressive feat of storytelling by weaving no less than six or seven different plot threads together into a one big whole. She’s also done incredible things with world building, creating this land made up of many different nations, all with their own unique population and cultures. The characters featured in this book all have ties to their own homes and histories, which also reflects in their personalities, motivations and value systems. I liked this last point a lot too, reminding me very much of the worlds in the role-playing games I like to play.

Viewed as a whole, however, the massiveness of Heartwood — both its length and scale of the story — can also make things a little problematic for the reader. When you have so much going on, such as half a dozen quests occurring all at once, that’s a lot to take in. First, we have the introduction to the characters, of which there are many, and that shouldn’t be a surprise given the intricacies of the plot. Still, I like to see momentum build in the first quarter of a book, because that’s generally when I expect to be pulled in by the story as well. In Heartwood, much of the first 100-200 pages is given to establishing the characters and world, which made for a slower-paced beginning. It felt sometimes like I was encountering a new character and his or her long and detailed back-story every few pages, when what I wanted very much was for the story to move forward. Structurally, I think if some of the information could have been edited out or even just spread out more evenly, it might have improved the flow for the first part of the book.

These insertions of character history and moments of information dumping persist throughout the novel, but I think they are the heaviest in the first half. The good news is, I think the story picks up considerably in the second half, after we have the all the introductions and necessary details established. Though a little patience and determination was required of me to reach this point, I have to say it was worth it in the end. I’m still astounded by the way Freya Robertson was able to make all her quest stories come together. She manages to keep all the threads in line, never once letting any of them get away from her, and keeps up a steady level of suspense for each group throughout. With all the perspective changes and jumping around in places and time, I would have expected this book to be way more disjointed than it is, but surprisingly it wasn’t, at least not for me.

I didn’t get to connect to all the characters equally, since one of the downsides of this format is having to spread my attention between a whole bunch of different players. And some like Chonrad, for example, disappear for a chunk of time after Part I as the book shifts focus to the people on other quests. But over time, I did develop a few favorites. The writing is admittedly not very subtle when it comes to revealing their every thought or emotion, but regardless I came to enjoy Heartwood‘s female characters a lot. Their depth made them memorable, and the holy knights Procella and Beata stood out for me in particular. Both are strong leaders who are capable and competent, and yet also have their own personal battles between duty and love, what’s insides their heads versus what’s inside their hearts. On that note, I also want to say how much I appreciate a little romance in my epic fantasy. There’s definitely an element of love here, and Freya Robertson is so good at creating passion and sexual tension between couples. I was not surprised when I found out that she has also published a number of romance novels under a different name.

Ultimately, my overall feelings towards Heartwood are positive, though it did take a little time for me to get into the flow of the story. It is, after all, an ambitious novel, and despite a few hitches in its structure and pacing, for a first book in a series I think this one does an admirable job in establishing the world and characters. The way the story unfolded and came together in the end made me curious enough to want to read more from this series and author, and I’ll most likely be picking up the next book.

3.5 of 5 stars
A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Betrayal in the Highlands by Robert Evert

Betrayal in the Highlands by Robert Evert

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure
Series: Riddle in Stone #2
Publisher: Diversion Books
Publication Date: September 2013

…if there’s one fantastic thing about Evert’s atypical hero, its been Edmund’s journey from middle-aged, stuttering, self-doubting librarian to middle-aged, stuttering, one-eyed survivor…
3 of 5 stars

With goblins hot on their heels after escaping the Under King’s clutches, Edmund, his loyal friend Pond and the unruly puppy named Becky try to maintain their tenuous hold on freedom, only to come face-to-face with the troll Edmund met when he’d started his ill-fated search for Iliandor’s treasure. But if there’s one fantastic thing about Evert’s atypical hero, its been Edmund’s journey from middle-aged, stuttering, self-doubting librarian to middle-aged, stuttering, one-eyed survivor who’ll risk his life to keep even a troll from standing in his way or hurting those he cares about.

With the wealth Edmund and Pond abscond with after defeating the troll, they are able to find temporary lodgings as noble adventurers to the south. Not long after their arrival, a mysterious letter warns of great peril and soon, Edmund learns that Norb, now married to the love of Edmund’s life, has been spilling Edmund’s secrets back in the Highlands. One of those secrets is the fact that Edmund is a magic user, a group that continues to be persecuted.

Edmund, joined by a couple more companions, must make his way back to Rood to stop Norb, avoiding goblins and a deadly new enemy who wants the secret of the riddle in stone along the way.

The best part about the previous book, Riddle in Stone, was the goblins and Edmund’s struggles while in captivity. He had to learn to rely on his wits and his meager magical spells and he had to learn to make some very difficult life and death decisions without anyone but himself to rescue him.

Betrayal in the Highlands spends most of its time with Edmund hoping for a quiet life and deliberating this with his inner voice and with his companions. Unfortunately, for a book about adventurers, there is far too much time spent talking instead of adventuring.

Still, there is an excellent story hidden away in there if some of the conversations could be cut down. When we finally get to the meat of the story, we also get back to Edmund’s continued character development as he grows from survivor into leader and hero, leading into a third book that promises a lot more goblin time. And I do so love Evert’s goblins…

With thanks to NetGalley and Diversion Books for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.


YA Weekend: The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

Genre: Middle-Grade fantasy

Series: Book 1 of The School for Good and Evil

Publisher: HarperCollins

Date of Publication: May 14, 2013

Author Information: Website | Twitter  

 Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars – “An original and magical take on fairy tales that will enchant you and make you smile.”

Technically, this one is considered more Middle-Grade than Young Adult, but really, I don’t see why it can’t be enjoyed by all ages. I’m a strong believer in that fairy tales are not just for children, that the stories and characters in folkloric fantasy can appeal to a much wider audience — and it’s especially entertaining when familiar concepts like “fairy tale romance” or “happily ever after” are being parodied or turned on their heads.

That’s the idea behind this book; in a village called Gavaldon, two children are kidnapped every four years, never to be seen again. One was always beautiful and good, the other an outcast and strange. It didn’t take long for the village children to speculate where these missing boys and girls go. They say a mysterious schoolmaster takes them to the fabled School for Good and Evil, where storybook heroes and villains are made.

For as long as she can remember, Sophie has dreamed of being whisked away to the School of Good, imagining a magical world of pretty dresses and handsome princes. On the other hand, she figures her friend Agatha with her homely face and frumpy black clothes would be a perfect fit for the School of Evil. So it’s no surprise then when the two were the ones taken way this year. However, when they arrive at the Endless Woods, Sophie is dumped into the school for Evil, while Agatha ends up in the School for Good! This has to be just a terrible mix-up, right? Or is it?

How cool is this idea? Let’s face it, traditional fairy tales aren’t about character development; off the top of my head, Prince Charming and others like him are good examples of characters that don’t go beyond being a mere caricature. We don’t tend to think beyond what is presented, and that’s what makes this book so great. You know the kind of satire we see in Shrek? It’s similar here, poking fun at how shallow princesses must be for obsessing only about their beauty and who will take them to the formal ball. It also makes you wonder about the villains, like, do any of them have hopes and ambitions other than cooking up nefarious schemes? Who gets to determine what is good and evil, anyway?

Obviously, there also some good messages here. “Beauty is only skin deep” and “believe in yourself” are only a couple amongst many, but it’s presented very well in this original and magical tale, all wrapped up in a whimsical package. There are lovely illustrations scattered throughout the book as well, and I can’t help but feel grumpy now about the lack of pretty drawings in my adult fantasy novels. Is there a rule or something that pictures can only belong in children’s books?! Regardless, this book is so much fun. At once ridiculous and full of heart, I couldn’t help but melt for this story and its characters. Oh so cute at times, but sinister and dark at others, this book will enchant you and make you smile.

4 of 5 stars

Wendy’s Book Haul: Santa!

Parents who stress over Christmas like I did last year might be a little envious of this week’s book haul. This represents the the last of my Christmas shopping for my daughters. Six gorgeous hard cover books! My eight year old will love them, and while the five year old isn’t so big on reading, the Elements of Harmony My Little Pony book will give her lots to look over while she watches her favourite show.

Yeah okay… I did grab a few digital and audiobook titles for myself too… damn Amazon sales…

Graphic Novel Review: The Last of Us: American Dreams by Neil Druckmann

The Last of Us: American DreamsThe Last of Us: American Dreams by Neil Druckmann

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic, Zombies, Survivalist Adventure, Gaming
Series: Last of Us (video game tie-in)
Publisher: DarkHorse Comics
Date of Publication: July 2013

Great art, but a rather straightforward story without enough meat to be as powerful a tie-in to the game as it should be.
3 out of 5 stars

Nineteen years ago, a parasitic fungal outbreak killed or infected almost everyone. Those that remain are sequestered within military-run quarantine zones. Not everyone is pleased with the arrangements, and various groups have arisen with their own plans for survival.

Among them are the rebel group known as the Fireflies, led by Marlene, whom players of the game this graphic novel is based on should recognize. Players will also recognize Ellie, one of the main characters of the game. Here, she is 13 years old and unhappy in the orphanage. She meets fellow inmate Riley, who has dreams of joining the Fireflies. Ellie reluctantly joins her in tracking them down, a process which involves a few misadventures and dangers for the young teens.

When they do meet Marlene and the Fireflies, it is, unsurprisingly, not what they expected. Moreover, Marlene knows much about Ellie from her mother, adding a bit of mystery to an otherwise fairly straightforward story.

I considered whether the fact that I have not yet played the game would negatively impact my appreciation for this, but, as a prequel, I felt it ought to be able to stand on its own and entice me to get off my guns and go buy it. Having read other game tie-in books and comics, I don’t feel there was enough meat in this one.

The art was very gritty, despite its childlike appearance. I’m a fan of anime and manga, so I’m not at all opposed to the large-eyed style that lends itself well to younger characters. It still strongly conveys the necessary emotion.

With thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to read an advanced copy of this graphic novel in exchange for an honest review.

Manga Review: Attack on Titan, Volume 2 by Hajime Isayama

Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin), Volume 2 by Hajime Isayama

Genre: Dystopia, Horror

Publisher: Kodansha

Date of Publication: September 11, 2012

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Tiara’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars – “Eren may be at the center of it all, but a win won’t be possible without the people rallying around him and the strength and trust they’re placing in him […] To quote Aristotle: ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’ They group is beginning to understand this to be a fundamental truth for them as they begin to rely on one another and work together in Trost.”

 

In the previous volume, the walls that separated humanity from the titan were breached by a colossal titan standing more than 50 meters in height. Five years after that breach, Eren, Mikasa, and Armin have just graduated training to become full-fledged soldiers. During that time, Eren is even more resolved to join the scouting team, especially after the huge loss he suffered with the attack. Humans now live within two of the three walls after abandoning Wall Maria (Wall Rose and Wall Sina are the two remaining walls standing) to the titans. Humans lost 20% of their population and a massive amount of land in that attack, but they are still packed together behind the smaller walls.

Not even a full day past their graduation, Wall Rose is breached by the colossal titan. When faced with this threat again, Eren responds in kind, trying to stay true to his vow to kill all the titans. While his companions are taken aback by the reappearance of the colossal titan, Eren takes the helm and attacks, hoping to end the aberrant once and for all. However, things can’t go that easily, and just as Eren is about to make his fatal strike, the titan vanishes–just as it did five years earlier.

The fight isn’t over, though, as titans once again begin to terrorize the people within the walls. Here we witness an astounding transformation in Eren as the energy he’s fueled with all his anger and desperation come back to aid him and his comrades in an astonishing way. Even though these books and the anime pretty much mirror one another (with the anime adding just a bit more padding, naturally), I was just as caught up in the story and the plight of Eren and his comrades, even though I already knew the outcome of this particular battle.

Mikasa Ackerman, Queen of Everything

Eren may be at the center of it all, but a win won’t be possible without the people rallying around him and the strength and trust they’re placing in him. Part of me believes, and I could be wrong since this is on-going, that even once this is all said and done another character will probably have a bigger impact on the outcome. Even though this is largely Eren’s story, there seems to be another important story playing along beneath it in more subtle ways. More characters are coming into play who display characteristics that will be necessary for humans to win this fight.

Isayama seems to be setting up the story in a way that Eren will need the support of these characters to be successful.They’re not given these talents just for show. Their talents round them out for sure, but they also play an integral part in the story, as well. Eren will need Mikasa’s strength and faith in him. He’ll need Armin’s strategic intelligence. He’ll need Jean’s ability to command, even if Jean still isn’t sure of himself. This has already been proven. I know all these characters will not make it out of this alive, but they will still contribute in their own way.

Many of these characters are coming into their strengths during this battle. They’re learning things about themselves in the urgency of the moment that they might not have been aware of before the latest attack. Many of them joined the military to live a comfortable life, especially those who were refugees. They were tired of doing without and being treated like second class citizens because their arrival behind Wall Rose made things more difficult for everyone due to things like food shortages. However, they’re more capable and resourceful than they could’ve ever imagined despite their youth and inexperience.

They understand that they’re going to have to rely on unconventional methods to get through that hell. To quote Aristotle: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” They group is beginning to understand this to be a fundamental truth for them as they begin to rely on one another and work together in Trost. I really like that brute strength and Eren screaming he’ll kill all the titans will not be the only thing to win this war. This volume stirred up all the proud feelings that I remember having the first time I watched the anime as these characters start to evolve.

4 of 5 stars

 

An Interview with Wesley Chu, Author of The Deaths of Tao

Following the success of his debut novel The Lives of Tao, Wesley Chu is back with the highly anticipated sequel. Be sure to check out our review of The Deaths of Tao, which was everything I could have hoped for and more!

And yet, I still couldn’t get enough. Thankfully, it was Wes to the rescue! He was awesome enough to stop by here at The BiblioSanctum for a nice chat, and I got to geek out about Roen, Tao, the Prophus and the Genjix for a little while longer. I had so much fun doing this interview, and I really hope you’ll enjoy it too!


Mogsy: Hi Wesley! First, welcome to The BiblioSanctum and thank you for this interview!

Wesley Chu: Thanks for having me over. Let’s get the party started.

Mogsy: Yes, let’s! By the way, congratulations on the success of The Lives of Tao, and now the upcoming sequel The Deaths of Tao is to be released pretty soon. I’m just going to dive right in with this: How would you introduce this series to readers new to your work?

Wesley Chu: The Lives of Tao is a modern day science fiction novel about an alien who inhabits an out-of-shape loser and convinces him to train and fight in a civil war over humanity’s evolution.

It’s been compared to Chuck, The Odd Couple, and every single play ever written by Euripides. There’s love, Kung Fu, cats, and pizza; everything anyone ever needs if they get stranded on a deserted island.

Mogsy: See? Everyone needs to go read The Lives of Tao right now. And move over, Chuck, The Odd Couple and Euripides, because in my review of the book I also said that in some ways the book reminded me of a “Cinderella Story”. Roen starts out being a dejected and miserable protagonist but ends up a much happier and healthier man (and I suppose that makes Tao his kickass fairy godmother). Anyway, what draws you to the underdog and what was it like writing Roen’s transformation from overweight loser to super secret agent?

Wesley Chu: I think many people identify and root for the underdog. I’m what you call a late bloomer, as in I don’t think I bloomed until my mid-thirties, so I feel like I’ve been an underdog for much of my life.

A person’s “coming-of-age” transformation fascinates me because at the end of the day, I think it’s 90% mental. When I wrote The Lives of Tao, I was going through an early mid-life crisis where I was unhappy with my soul-sucking job and the direction my life was going. In a way, writing the book was very therapeutic. I’d like to think I found myself in publishing that book.

Mogsy: I have to say I love the idea of Quasings, and yours is probably one of the most entertaining and original alien stories I’ve ever come across. I’m really curious, what are some of your favorite alien movies or books?

Wesley Chu: This is a tough question. I’m going to cheat a little bit and say Star Control II. Bonus geek points if the reader gets it. Best. Aliens. Ever.

However, if I’m going to answer the question, and assuming I don’t use the obvious answers—Aliens, Predator, Star Trek, Star Wars, etc… I’m going to have to say The Last Starfighter, Dark City, or Starship Troopers.

Mogsy: Sweet, someone else who liked the Starship Troopers movie. Back to Roen and Tao, I love the dynamics in their relationship; one moment they can be joking around and the next they’d be bickering, but it’s always amusing to watch their dialogue play out. How do you think you’d personally get along with a Quasing, if you woke up tomorrow morning to find one like Tao in your head? 

Wesley Chu: It’s funny because I kind of already do that with Eva, my Airedale Terrier. As a writer, I’m alone for hours on end, so I’ve started talking to her. That’s normal right? I gotta say; if Eva is like my Quasing, he’s definitely Genjix and very surly. And is destructive and likes to eat a lot.

Hmm, now that you mention it, maybe he is in my head after all, and this is just my Quasing’s way of having me cope with an alien in my head. You know, by projecting his voice into my dog so that I don’t think I’m going crazy. Sneaky bastard that alien.

Mogsy: Pretty sure I’d be the wrong person to ask because I think speaking to my dogs is the most normal thing in the world, thank you very much. Anyway, The Deaths of Tao takes Roen and his team on a secret mission to Taiwan, which was where you were born before you immigrated to the States at a young age. You recently traveled back there to do research for the book, so what was that experience like? Did you get to see or do anything cool? (THANK YOU by the way for spreading the word about the awesomeness of stinky tofu! For those who don’t know what that is, it’s really much better tasting than it sounds…or smells.)

Wesley Chu: Taiwan was a surreal moment. I primarily went back to visit my ninety-four-year-old grandfather. Still smart and still a damn good looking dude, but he watches shows all day on a twenty-five inch television. The first thing I did was buy him a 42-inch plasma.

Other than that, I did a lot of book research during my visit, visiting the markets, taking the train (that’s a damn fine commuting system they have there), shopping, and eating (that’s some damn fine food they have there).

I had already written a lot of the Taiwan scenes by the time I visited, but they were all based off of twenty year-old memories. And wow, the island really cleaned up nicely since then. I had to rewrite a lot of those scenes to portray the island correctly.

Mogsy: Damn straight about the food, reading your book made me so hungry. Another thing I really like is the idea that Quasings have helped shape humankind since the beginning of time, and that many famous figures in history have been hosts in the past. It was a nice touch, and I’m just wondering if you have an interest in history which led you to include this, and if there’s a particular historical era, period or event that’s your favorite?

Wesley Chu: I love history. It was my favorite class in high school, and probably the only education material I read for fun as a kid. My favorite time periods and places were Ancient Greece and US history up to the 1700. More recently, I’ve become fascinated with the history of furniture from the 1940s to the 1960s. To be honest, I’m not sure how that happened, but it did. My brain sometimes runs on tangents and veers into strange pockets of the past.

Next up, I want to know the history of hats. Again, this damn brain is dragging me to weird places.

Mogsy: Speaking of your brain and the weird places it takes you, your new villain Enzo scares the hell out of me. There were so many points in The Deaths of Tao where I seriously wanted to jump in and yell at him to “Stop hurting the Prophus, you big meanie!” but he’d probably crush me like a gnat. As the author, do you ever have strong reactions like that towards any of your characters, and do they ever evolve in ways that surprise you?

Wesley Chu: I think most of my characters surprise me in one way or another. There are scenes when I had plotted for a certain character to act in such a way, and then when I’m writing it out, he/she pulls me in another direction. When that happens, I usually shrug and let them steer me wherever they feel is natural.

Enzo is a character that evolved a lot from his original conception. He used to be a f**king batsh*t crazy bastard. He still is but he’s more of an onion bastard now. He’s got layers. For me, he’s kind of that cool guy that you know is an asshole but still can’t help but want to like. Well, that’s how he is for me. He has a method to his madness and as for most of the Genjixs’ philosophies, it makes sense if you view it from a coldly objective standpoint.

Mogsy: So we’re all pretty big geeks and gamers here at the BiblioSanctum, and my personal interests are in MMORPGs in particular. I hear you were a pretty big raider in WoW back in the day (just please don’t tell me you were a Warlock or we’re going to have words). Now that you write full time, do you still do much gaming, or what are some of your hobbies holding your interest these days?

Wesley Chu: No more MMOs for me. Back in Vanilla, I was a Tauren Shaman (For the Horde baby!). In Outlands, I was a Blood Elf Paladin, and then Orc Death Knight after that in Northrend. I do miss raiding in WoW.

My guild back in the Outlands was the #1 raiding guild on the server, and I was the recruiting officer. On that server, that basically made me the UN Secretary and Ms. Universe all wrapped into one. People who wanted fat loots had to go through me, the gatekeeper. The power at my fingertips; it was intoxicating.

These days, writing takes up all my time. I still try to work out on a regular basis but that’s usually relegated to running Eva ragged. I also play a little Heroes of Newerth, and before anyone asks, I suck, so please don’t challenge me. You will kick my ass and will laugh.

Mogsy: Gah, you’re a Hordie. I guess I won’t hold that against you though, since your books rock 😉 The Deaths of Tao pretty much raised the stakes – the story got bigger and so did the scope of the Prophus and Genjix war. I couldn’t believe that explosive ending! At the same time, it leaves room for so much more to come. Is there anything you can tell us about the next book at this point?

Wesley Chu: I have a synopsis for The Rebirth of Tao fleshed out. At the risk of not giving too much of Deaths away, the survivors of The Deaths of Tao struggle with the consequences at the end of the book. There will be another new main character joining the fight (kind of a family affair), as well as a few returning players that the reader thought were gone. And yes, hell in a hand basket and things are coming to a head. Oh yeah, and a new interested faction is joining in on the festivities. That’s all I can say about that.

Sorry if I sound a little cryptic. =)

Mogsy: Oh awesome, “The Rebirth of Tao”! So what else is next for Wesley Chu? Are there any projects on your plate currently or in the near future, either writing or non-writing related?

Wesley Chu: Besides The Rebirth of Tao which hasn’t been green lighted yet by my agent or the robot overlords, I also just recently signed a deal with Tor Books and hope to have my current work-in-progress Time Salvager out in bookstores by 2015. It’s about a time traveler who scavenges for resources and technology from dead-end time lines to sustain a dying future.

Mogsy: Okay, that seriously sounds like a book I want to read. Can’t wait! And that’s it, folks, we’ve come to the end of the interview. I admit I was very excited when I found out I would be getting the chance to interview you, so thanks so much again for taking the time to answer my questions, Wes!

Wesley Chu: Any time. Thanks for having me over!

Book Review: Copperhead by Tina Connolly

Copperhead byTina Connolly

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 2 of Ironskin

Publisher: Tor

Date of Publication: October 15, 2013

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars – “The story and world were both interesting, but I loved the characters most of all in this book about using one’s wits and power to take a stand against the enemy and oppression.”

Our book club came very close to reading Tina Connolly’s Ironskin earlier this year, back when it was one of the choices in our theme for July, which was “2012 Nebula Awards Nominees”. We ended up reading another book, but the description of Ironskin had stuck with me ever since. The idea of a gothic fantasy re-imagining of Jane Eyre was just too intriguing to ignore.

So when I received the sequel Copperhead for review, I saw it as the perfect opportunity to check out this author and series, especially after finding out it continues the story in Ironskin but shifts its focus to the protagonist’s sister. This means a brand new chapter to this tale, told from the perspective of Helen Huntingdon. It has been six months since her sister Jane uncovered a nefarious fey plot to take over the city, and society is still recovering from the aftermath. It is too late for Helen, who has already traded her old face in for a beautiful fey-charmed one, and now has to wear an iron mask to protect herself and her identity from being possessed and erased by the bodiless fey.
Jane, however, is determined to help Helen and the other women of The Hundred (society’s richest and most priviliged who have opted for fey faces) get their old faces back. As it turns out though, not everyone is so eager to give up their new beauty, and it is up to Helen to try to convince everyone to accept her sister’s help. But then Jane goes missing during one of the face-switching procedures, and becomes implicated in a murder to boot. Helen begins her search for answers, leading her down the path towards a confrontation with Copperhead, a group that has risen in recent months with their aims to rid the world of everyone but humans — even if it means destroying their allies the dwarvven.
What I liked most about this book are the characters. Helen’s narration was perhaps the strongest point of the story, and I was sorry not to have gotten to know her before this in Ironskin, because it would have been interesting to see the growth and development of her character over the course of the two novels. Mind you, not that I was disappointed with what I got to see in this book; Helen is an impressive example of female strength, though she is not without her foibles, such as her impulsive nature and her streak of vanity. Reading about her led me to many questions — the good kind, which reflected my desire to find out more. It made me think that perhaps I should pick up the first book to see how she ended up with her fey face in the first place, or to find out more about the events which led her to marry the aloof and temperamental Alistair. It was clear based on Helen’s personality that she was never meant to be with a controlling husband like him, and I liked how she stood up to him in her own various ways, even when she couldn’t defy him openly.
Beyond Helen, I also really liked a couple of the other characters. Jane, for example, takes on a supporting role in Copperhead, letting her sister shine instead. But she and Helen are so different, and once again I am curious to go back to the first book and find out more about their relationship. Jane spends much of this book in the background, but it was enough to make me want to get to know her better. Another character who stood out for me was Frye, the forward-thinking actress who is so funny, full of life and unbeholden to societal conventions. She wasn’t featured in the book as much as Helen or Jane, but she quickly became a favorite.
On the downside, with so much context built around the characters, I did feel it overshadowed the setting and the world behind these books somewhat. The world building was admittedly a bit on the lighter side, not as robust as I would have liked. It took me a while to get a good feel for the fey threat, and I couldn’t grasp the full extent of their impact with the limited information I was given about them and their origins. Despite including flashbacks and explanations, the world also never felt truly fleshed out for me. I was aware that the setting is that of a magical alternate Victorian-era England, but details about it were sparse, making it almost feel removed from everything else while events played out on the page. Perhaps the world building simply felt so much lighter because I’m comparing it to the character development, which I thought was given a lot more attention.
In the end though, this was a great story about an individual taking a stand, of using one’s own wits and power to rally support against both a supernatural enemy in the form of the fey, as well as battle a more societal concern, that of oppression and control. I love these characters, and I look forward to checking out Ironskin at a later date so I can fill myself in on rest of the story.
 3.5 of 5 starsA review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Waiting on Wenesday 10/23/13

“Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly meme hosted by Breaking the Spine that lets us feature upcoming releases that we can’t wait to get our hands on!

Mogsy’s Pick

Starhawk by Jack McDevitt: November 5, 2013 (Ace)
I haven’t read any of The Academy books by Jack McDevitt, but from its blurb this one seems to go back to the character’s “first unforgettable adventure.” This sci-fi novel sounds fantastic and looks to be a good place to start if I want to check out the author and the series. 
“Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins has finally realized her lifelong dream: She’s completed a nerve-bending qualification flight for a pilot’s license.

Her timing is far from optimal, however. Faster-than-light travel has only recently become a reality, and the World Space Authority is still learning how to manage long-range missions safely. To make matters worse, efforts to prepare two planets for colonization are killing off native life-forms, outraging people on Earth.

So there’s not a lot of demand for space pilots. Priscilla thinks her career may be over before it has begun. But her ambition won’t be denied, and soon she is on the bridge of an interstellar ship, working for the corporation that is responsible for the terraforming.

Her working conditions include bomb threats, sabotage, clashes with her employers—and a mission to a world, adrift between the stars, that harbors a life-form unlike anything humanity has ever seen. Ultimately, she will be part of a life-and-death struggle that will test both her capabilities and her character…”

Book Review: The Osiris Curse by Paul Crilley

The Osiris Curse by Paul Crilley

Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

Series: Book 2 of Tweed and Nightingale Adventures

Publisher: Pyr

Date of Publication: October 15, 2013

Author Information: Website | Twitter
 

Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars – “The fast-paced action and brave protagonists 
in this fun fantasy adventure novel would hold great appeal 
to middle-grade or early-teen readers”

The Osiris Curse is an interesting novel. I think reading this one has made me develop a new appreciation for Pyr’s Young Adult titles, as I’ve noticed they are typically more offbeat and original. Which is great for me, since I’m always on the lookout for YA books that do things a little differently!

I was also drawn to this book immediately because of its tagline: “Steampunk Sherlock Holmes meets The X-Files“, with plenty of action-adventure and ancient Egypt to boot. The Osiris Curse is actually the second book of the Tweed and Nightingale Adventures series, but nothing prevents it from being a good starting point even if you are new to these books, like I was.

The story is set in an alternate Victorian England, starring two teenagers who work for the secretive government agency called the Ministry in the Queen’s service. Sebastian Tweed, whose history is a conundrum which I won’t go into for fear of giving away any revelations from the first book, is dealing with some issues from his past, and his friend Octavia Nightingale is on the trail to find her missing mother.

This case ultimately leads them to something much bigger, when their investigations reveal that the brilliant scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla has been murdered, his blueprints for super weapons stolen. Tweed and Nightingale’s hunt for the killers is just the beginning to an adventure of epic proportions, involving secret cults, travel to exotic places, and the discovery of a threat that could change the face of the world.

The plot is actually quite enjoyable in its simplicity and straight-forward nature, making me feel that in some ways The Osiris Curse reads like a middle-grade or early-teens novel. Nevertheless, I had a hard time trying to pin down the perfect target audience. The story itself is pure fun and fantastical adventure, which should appeal to younger readers who will like a fast-paced, action-filled journey across the globe and beyond. But at the same time, I was a little surprised to discover that the main characters are in their late teens, practically considered adults in that particular era, and their dialogue and mannerisms seem skewed towards the older side. Overcoming and resolving this disparity in my mind was perhaps the biggest challenge for me, and I think overall this might make it tougher for the book to “click” with everyone.

Still, Tweed and Nightingale themselves are very charming and likeable, their back-and-forth dialogue witty and fun to follow. There’s also a hint of a budding romance forming between them, which is starting off on the right foot, very sweet and cute! The two of them are a good fit, their personalities playing off each other perfectly, creating interesting situations and dynamics.

What’s interesting though, is that I didn’t find out until after finishing the book that the author Paul Crilley spent a year writing for one of my favorite video games, the massively multiplayer online role-playing game Star Wars: The Old Republic, and it made me see a couple aspects of the book in a whole different light. One of the main features in SWTOR involves your character’s “light” or “dark” side alignment, determined based on your moral choices in game. These choices in turn add new dimensions to your personal class story, and I have to wonder if Crilley aimed for a similar effect in The Osiris Curse by making Tweed ponder some rather difficult moral questions. Regardless, they should make for some good discussion points for young readers.

If you ask me, this would probably be best enjoyed by children in the ages 10-12 range. Though it may occupy a narrow niche, I really do hope this book finds its audience; it’s entertaining and good fun, with the promise of much more excitement to come for our two brave protagonists.

3 of 5 stars
A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.