Book Reviews

Book Review: SERAFINA AND THE BLACK CLOAK

serafinaTitle: SERAFINA AND THE BLACK CLOAK
Author: Robert Beatty
Series: Serafina, #1
Publication Information: Disney*Hyperion, 2015
Pages: 293
Genre: Middle Grade – Historical Fantasy, Mystery
Warnings: Some scary images, mild violence
Rating: 3.5 stars
Recommended For: Readers who love atmospheric settings and don’t mind being scared a little.

Serafina has never had a reason to disobey her pa and venture beyond the grounds of the Biltmore estate. There’s plenty to explore in her grand home, although she must take care to never be seen. None of the rich folk upstairs know that Serafina exists; she and her pa, the estate’s maintenance man, have secretly lived in the basement for as long as Serafina can remember.

But when children at the estate start disappearing, only Serafina knows who the culprit is: a terrifying man in a black cloak who stalks Biltmore’s corridors at night. Following her own harrowing escape, Serafina risks everything by joining forces with Braeden Vanderbilt, the young nephew of the Biltmore’s owners. Braeden and Serafina must uncover the Man in the Black Cloak’s true identity . . . before all of the children vanish one by one.

Serafina’s hunt leads her into the very forest that she has been taught to fear. There she discovers a forgotten legacy of magic, one that is bound to her own identity. In order to save the children of Biltmore, Serafina must seek the answers that will unlock the puzzle of her past.

(Summary from Goodreads)

SERAFINA AND THE BLACK CLOAK was a nice fusion of historical fantasy and mystery elements, all revolving around the mysterious forest surrounding the Biltmore estate and twelve-year-old Serafina, who ventures into the forest to save the children kidnapped from the estate by an evil man wearing a black cloak.

My favorite part of this book was the setting. It’s set in North Carolina in the late 1800s, and the Biltmore estate – and the surrounding forest – really came to life in an atmospheric way that was deliciously creepy.

Another thing that kept me reading were the dual mysteries at the heart of the plot. The main mystery is the identity of the man in the black cloak – Serafina is sure it’s someone from the estate, but she has to figure out who it is. There’s also the mystery of who her mother is; Serafina was raised in the basement of the main house by her father, and she’s always wondered about her mother. I think both mysteries were woven together really well and the pacing was just right.

I also loved how much of this book was a story about friendship. In the course of unraveling the mystery of the man in the black cloak, Serafina befriends Braeden, the nephew of the estate’s owner. Neither of them has had a real friend before and it was lovely to watch them figure out what it means to be a true friend in a way that wasn’t overly sappy.

TL;DR: An atmospheric + deliciously creepy story about saving kidnapped children and what it means to be a friend.

Book Reviews

Mini-Reviews: QUEEN SONG & STEEL SCARS

Titles: QUEEN SONG and STEEL SCARS
Author: Victoria Aveyard
Series: Red Queen, #0.1 and #0.2, respectively
Genre: Young Adult – Epic Fantasy, Dystopian, Novella
Publication Information: HarperTeen, 2015 and 2016, respectively
Rating: 4 Stars and 3 Stars, respectively
Recommended For: Fans of the Red Queen series.
Watch Out For: Violence

QSQueen Coriane, first wife of King Tiberias, keeps a secret diary—how else can she ensure that no one at the palace will use her thoughts against her? Coriane recounts her heady courtship with the crown prince, the birth of a new prince, Cal, and the potentially deadly challenges that lay ahead for her in royal life.

(Summary from Goodreads)

This was my favorite of the two novellas because I liked reading more about the inner workings of the Nortan court, plus Coriane seemed like a genuinely lovely person who met an unfortunate end. This one was also particularly interesting because of the insight it gives us into Elara’s character, and Elara is my queen, so. (Idk, what does that say about me?)

SSFarley was raised to be strong, but being tasked with planting the seeds of rebellion in Norta is a tougher job than expected. As she travels the land recruiting black market traders, smugglers, and extremists for her first attempt at an attack on the capital, she stumbles upon a connection that may prove to be the key to the entire operation—Mare Barrow.

(Summary from Goodreads)

I actually could’ve just read an entire book about Farley infiltrating Norta because that part was interesting. I didn’t connect with her as much as I did with Coriane, but it was nice to get a look at how the Scarlet Guard came to be such a force in Norta and to learn about its inner workings.

TL;DR: You don’t have to read these novellas to follow the story in the main books, but it does add an extra layer to some of the character motivations if you do read them.

Book Reviews

Book Review: SOUNDLESS

SoundlessTitle: SOUNDLESS
Author: Richelle Mead
Genre: Young Adult – Fantasy
Publication Information: Razorbill, 2015
Rating: 2 Stars
Recommended For: People who enjoy books that read like fairytales.
Warnings: Some kissing, but nothing that wouldn’t be appropriate for a middle school audience.

For as long as Fei can remember, no one in her village has been able to hear. Rocky terrain and frequent avalanches make it impossible to leave the village, so Fei and her people are at the mercy of a zipline that carries food up the treacherous cliffs from Beiguo, a mysterious faraway kingdom.

When villagers begin to lose their sight, deliveries from the zipline shrink. Many go hungry. Fei and all the people she loves are plunged into crisis, with nothing to look forward to but darkness and starvation.

Until one night, Fei is awoken by a searing noise. Sound becomes her weapon.

She sets out to uncover what’s happened to her and to fight the dangers threatening her village. A handsome miner with a revolutionary spirit accompanies Fei on her quest, bringing with him new risks and the possibility of romance. They embark on a majestic journey from the peak of their jagged mountain village to the valley of Beiguo, where a startling truth will change their lives forever…

(Summary from Goodreads

The premise to this one sounded really interesting, which is why I’d initially picked it up, but unfortunately, the execution didn’t really work for me.

I seem to recall that this was based in Chinese folklore, but I honestly wouldn’t have been able to tell if I hadn’t been told — which was disappointing because that was part of what interested me about the book. Aside from the names, the world felt really Generic Fantasy to me. Which isn’t to say the world building was necessarily bad — Mead made good use of details, especially as Fei starts to hear. (Actually, those scenes where Fei hears things for the first time were my favorite ones.) But I definitely wouldn’t have sold it as Asian fantasy since it really wasn’t.

That being said, though: the cover? YES. SO HERE FOR IT.

I also had a hard time with the characters. Aside from the scenes where Fei is describing different sounds for the first time, or talking about her painting, she really didn’t interest me, and her romance with the miner (whose name I can’t even remember, tbh) fell so flat for me that it might as well not have been there at all. And to be totally honest, this book really didn’t need the romance at all. Fei saving Beiguo easily could’ve been interesting enough on its own and the romance actually took away from that for me.

TL;DR: Good world building but not much else going on for me.

Book Reviews

Book Review: THE GUNSLINGER

43615Title: THE GUNSLINGER
Author: Stephen King
Series: The Dark Tower, #1
Genre: Adult – Fantasy/Horror/Western/Post-Apocalyptic
Publication Information: NAL, 2003 (originally published in 1982)
Rating: 3 Stars
Recommended For: People who enjoy genre bending and constant confusion.
Watch Out For: Violence, sexual content, sexual violence

In The Gunslinger (originally published in 1982), King introduces his most enigmatic hero, Roland Deschain of Gilead, the Last Gunslinger. He is a haunting, solitary figure at first, on a mysterious quest through a desolate world that eerily mirrors our own. Pursuing the man in black, an evil being who can bring the dead back to life, Roland is a good man who seems to leave nothing but death in his wake.

(Summary from Goodreads)

I’ve had several people recommend The Dark Tower series to me, so I figured that since there’s an adaptation in the works, it’s time to finally read it. While it’s not what I normally read, there were certain aspects of it that I enjoyed, and I plan to continue reading the rest of the series.

I spent a lot of time being confused about what was happening in the story – my usual response to thrillers, admittedly. This threw me off a bit. I also had a hard time because so much of it is spent in Roland’s head – there are occasional appearances from other characters, but mostly it’s all Roland.

I did enjoy how atmospheric the book was, though. King did an excellent job immersing us in Roland’s world from the start. I was actually in awe of this aspect of the book, since he constructs the setting so effortlessly. He doesn’t spend a ton of time describing it like in some of the other fantasy series I’ve read – instead it unfolds in front of us as we follow Roland on his journey through the desert without us even realizing what’s happening. The writing is really what kept me going here.

TL;DR: Here for the writing, lukewarm about everything else.

Book Reviews

Book Review: THE EYE OF THE WORLD

228665Title: THE EYE OF THE WORLD
Author: Robert Jordan
Series: The Wheel of Time, #1
Genre: Adult – Epic Fantasy
Publication Information: Tor Books, 1990
Rating: 5 Stars
Recommended For: Fantasy fans willing to make a long-term time investment.
Watch Out For: Violence – probably appropriate for mature middle schoolers.

The Wheel of Time turns and Ages come and go, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth returns again. In the Third Age, an Age of Prophecy, the World and Time themselves hang in the balance. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow.

(Summary from Goodreads)

I started reading The Wheel of Time series in high school, read the first five or six books, and stopped. Now I’m ready to give it another try, but it’s been so long, and there’s so much going on, that I decided to start back over at the beginning. As such, reading THE EYE OF THE WORLD was a nostalgic experience.

One thing I always appreciated about these books is the world building. As someone who writes high fantasy, it honestly exhausts me to think about how much work went into building a world with so many different layers – especially in the later books, when it expands. (This one, for all its questing, is relatively small-scale compared to what I’ve read of the series so far.) The world building is extremely detailed and while this does have a tendency to make the story drag sometimes, nerds like me will probably enjoy that aspect.

I have a complicated relationship with the characters, particularly the female characters. They have a lot of power in this world, which is fantastic because that’s not always the case in fantasy novels. On the other hand, they spend a very large portion of their time talking about the men around them. I wanted to see a lot more of Nynaeve and Egwene figuring out how to navigate their newfound Ayes Sedai powers than we actually did, for example.

I think this one would be good for people who are already fantasy fans, because there are a lot of names and terminology to sift through that can get confusing for people who are used to books like this – I referenced the glossary in the back multiple times throughout the book. (Glossaries: another thing that makes my nerdy heart sing.)

TL;DR: The most critical 5 Star review I’ve ever written.

Book Reviews

Book Review: ALL WE HAVE IS NOW

22840148Title: ALL WE HAVE IS NOW
Author: Lisa Schroeder
Genre: Young Adult – Apocalyptic, Verse
Publication Information: Scholastic, 2015
Rating: 3 Stars
Recommended For: People looking for lyrical writing or something a little different.
Watch Out For: Language – probably appropriate for middle school.

What do you do with your last day on earth?

Just over twenty-four hours are left until an asteroid strikes North America, and for Emerson and everyone else who didn’t leave, the world will end. But Emerson’s world already ended when she ran away from home. Since then, she has lived on the streets, relying on her wits and on her friend Vince to help her find places to sleep and food to eat.

The city’s quieter now that most people are gone, and no one seems to know what to do as the end approaches. But then Emerson and Vince meet Carl, who tells them he has been granting people’s wishes—and gives them his wallet full of money.

Suddenly, this last day seems full of possibility. Emerson and Vince can grant a lot of wishes in one last day—maybe even their own.

(Summary from Goodreads)

I loved the writing in ALL WE HAVE IS NOW. It was lyrical, not to mention the fact that using third person present tense felt very natural and the poems also fit well into the overall story. I think, if you want to read a book in verse but are too intimidated, this would be a good one to start with because it was a good balance of poetry and prose.

One of the things I loved about the writing – the tense – was also a drawback for me, character-wise. I felt like I had a hard time getting to know any of the characters, and I think that was because telling the story in third person present made me feel more like a spectator and ended up distancing me from the story. That being said, I did still enjoy watching Emerson, Vince, and Carl on their journeys to help people and to get home.

I loved the premise – that there’s an asteroid about to hit Earth and wipe out most of North America. The story easily could’ve gone a different, darker direction – as most apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels do – but this one had a lighter tone, instead choosing to focus on the positive aspects of humanity, and I appreciated that. I also felt like the almost whimsical feel was appropriate given that the setting was Portland, Oregon, since that’s basically Portland in a nutshell.

TL;DR: A whimsical story with beautiful writing, but I felt too much like a spectator.

Book Reviews

Book Review: LAST SONG BEFORE NIGHT

23848103Title: LAST SONG BEFORE NIGHT
Author: Ilana C. Myer
Genre: Adult – High Fantasy
Publication Information: Tor Books, 2015
Rating: 3 Stars
Recommended For: People who like the life and death nature of epic fantasy, but want something more character-driven.
Watch Out For: Violence, sexual content – probably appropriate for high schoolers

A high fantasy following a young woman’s defiance of her culture as she undertakes a dangerous quest to restore her world’s lost magic

Her name was Kimbralin Amaristoth: sister to a cruel brother, daughter of a hateful family. But that name she has forsworn, and now she is simply Lin, a musician and lyricist of uncommon ability in a land where women are forbidden to answer such callings—a fugitive who must conceal her identity or risk imprisonment and even death.

On the eve of a great festival, Lin learns that an ancient scourge has returned to the land of Eivar, a pandemic both deadly and unnatural. Its resurgence brings with it the memory of an apocalypse that transformed half a continent. Long ago, magic was everywhere, rising from artistic expression—from song, from verse, from stories. But in Eivar, where poets once wove enchantments from their words and harps, the power was lost. Forbidden experiments in blood divination unleashed the plague that is remembered as the Red Death, killing thousands before it was stopped, and Eivar’s connection to the Otherworld from which all enchantment flowed, broken.

The Red Death’s return can mean only one thing: someone is spilling innocent blood in order to master dark magic. Now poets who thought only to gain fame for their songs face a challenge much greater: galvanized by Valanir Ocune, greatest Seer of the age, Lin and several others set out to reclaim their legacy and reopen the way to the Otherworld—a quest that will test their deepest desires, imperil their lives, and decide the future.

(Summary from Goodreads)

I absolutely loved the premise for this book, which is what made me read it to begin with. In just the summary, there are mentions of many of my favorite things: music, lost magic, pestilence, women sticking it to the man. I think Myer did a great job setting up this world, and that was really the thing that kept me reading, more than anything else. I could easily read another book set in this world.

There were two places where this book fell a little flat for me. The first was what was motivating the characters to go off on this grand quest of theirs. There were many personal dramas throughout the book for the multiple POV characters we had, and those were handled well – I was able to understand the characters’ actions in that respect. But, the bigger question of trying to reopen the Otherworld – I understood why it needed to be done (to save everyone from the plague and also other things), but not why it was these characters SPECIFICALLY doing it. We never really get a clear sense of why they all decided to risk their lives to complete this task.

The other place it fell flat was in the urgency of this quest. We’re told multiple times the consequences of the characters being captured, and shown these consequences, as well, but it never really FEELS life and death. I think it’s probably because of the slower pace of the book – which worked well for the character development generally, but not for making us believe in the stakes.

TL;DR: Fantastic world building and character development, but the stakes never feel as high as we’re told they are.