Skyhunter: A Review

Skyhunter by Marie LuThe country of Mara is fighting a losing war against the Karensa Federation and its superior technology harnessed from the Early Ones–a fallen civilization readers will readily recognize in our present one.

Mara was supposed to be a safe haven for Talin and her mother. Instead refugees are kept outside the city walls and Talin’s status as an elite Striker can’t make some see her as anything more than a “Basean rat” who Marans look down on for little more than her skin color and the shape of her eyes.

As a Striker on the warfront Talin fights Ghosts–humans who have been horrifically re-engineered by the Federation to become monsters intent only on killing. When Talin saves a mysterious prisoner of war she may have also found the key to beating the Federation–but first she has to decide if the prisoner is a potential weapon or an ally in Skyhunter (2020) by Marie Lu.

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This post-apocalyptic, sci-fi adventure is a visceral exploration of the emotional and physical costs of war. Poison gas scarred Talin’s vocal chords leaving her unable to speak as much from the trauma as the injury; she instead communicates with the sign language used by Strikers.

Talin’s narration is caustic as questions of allegiance and loyalty move the plot forward with Talin and her friends struggling to save a country that offered Talin refuge while withholding common decency–a dichotomy she again has to struggle with while deciding if the enemy prisoner she has rescued is someone to be saved or something to be exploited.

At the cliffhanger end of Skyhunter Mara’s fate is far from secure leaving readers to wait for answers in the conclusion to this duology. Suspense and high-action fights make this plot-driven story both fast-paced and brutal.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in an issue of School Library Journal*

The Nemesis: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*The Nemesis is the final book in Kincaid’s Diabolic trilogy. This review contains spoilers for books one and two. Start at the beginning with The Diabolic*

The Nemesis by S. J. KincaidNemesis has lived as a Diabolic bound to the young elite Sidonia. She has forged alliances and friendships as often as she has watched them crumble. She has been an empress and traveled across the space and time to earn her personhood.

But at her core Nemesis wonders if she is still merely a Diabolic–a creature whose love is possessive, ferocious, and all-consuming; a creature crafted for violence.

Three years ago Tyrus shocked the galaxy when he killed Nemesis and set himself on a path of destruction and debauchery poised to bring the entire empire to its knees.

Very few people know that Nemesis survived her would-be assassination and all of them want to use her. Blinded by rage at her own betrayal, Nemesis is determined to exact revenge against those who have wronged her.

In her hunt for vengeance, Nemesis may also find her humanity but only if she’s willing to truly look at everything that has transpired to bring her to this point in The Nemesis (2020) by S. J. Kincaid.

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The Nemesis is the final book in Kincaid’s Diabolic trilogy. This review contains spoilers for books one and two. Start at the beginning with The Diabolic and The Empress.

It’s always hard to review the end of a series without revealing too much. Kincaid does an excellent job of tying things together while continuing to expand the world both as Nemesis travels through the system and as she learns more about the history of the empire.

The Nemesis covers a surprisingly long span of time given the book’s fast pacing as Nemesis works with friends and unlikely allies to try and save the empire from itself as Tyrus continues to debase both himself and the ruling elite.

The Nemesis is everything I wanted for this series conclusion. Touching on politics, social norms, and public perception versus reality, this book is truly a book of our times. The Nemesis is the perfect conclusion to a favorite series. A must read for anyone looking for a splashy space opera that will leave them picking their jaw up off the floor.

Possible Pairings: Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Mirage by Somaiya Daud, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston, Proxy by Alex London, Legend by Marie Lu, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 by Marissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, Birthmarked by Caragh M.O’Brien, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Impostors by Scott Westerfeld, And I Darken by Kiersten White, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Scythe: A Review

Scythe by Neal ShustermanIn a post-death world, everything should be perfect. And maybe it is. There is no hunger, no disease, no poverty. Even aging is optional.

Sure, some things are boring–maybe even stagnant–but when you can literally go splat to shake things up without any consequences, does that matter?

Even a perfect world is still only so big. The population still needs to be controlled.

That’s where the scythes come in.

As the only agency who operates outside of the control of the Thunderhead–the AI that helped make this utopia a reality–scythes are tasked with culling the population. Each scythe has full freedom to choose their own methods, their own victims, and their apprentices.

Neither Rowan nor Citra expect to attract a scythe’s attention before turning their first corner. They are even more surprised when, instead of being gleaned, they are told that Scythe Faraday has chosen both of them to be his apprentices.

The problem: Only one of them will become a scythe at the end of the year. In fact, only one of them may survive in Scythe (2016) by Neal Shusterman.

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Do you ever read a book and just not get it? That was me with this one.

I’ve read Scythe twice and, honestly, I still don’t understand a lot of the appeal. The story alternates between third person narration following key players–primarily Rowan and Citra–as the story unfolds. Excerpts from scythes’ journals add another layer exposing some of this world’s inner-workings as well as its steady decay.

Shusterman has created a compelling and fully realized distant future world with a sprawling story exploring corruption, stagnation, and what living in a utopia really means. Unfortunately most of the characters fail to live up to this setting often feeling one dimensional and flat. One could argue that is the natural result of living in a world free of conflict and challenge, but that caveat doesn’t make them any more interesting to read about.

The final act of Scythe picks up a lot with increased tension, better pacing, and numerous twists even if the characters, in a lot of ways, fail to make truly key changes. I’m still not sure if I’ll knuckle through the rest of the trilogy. Recommended for readers who prefer  dystopias in utopian clothing and plot driven novels with a heavy dose of philosophical posturing.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Skyhunter by Marie Lu, Amber & Dusk by Lyra Selene, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

The Light at the Bottom of the World: A Review

The Light at the Bottom of the World by London ShahThousands of feet underwater, humanity tries to find a way forward on a planet that changed forever sixty-five years ago when the water levels started to rise and never stopped. Strange as it may be, it’s the only world Leyla McQueen has ever known.

When her father is accused of the worst possible crime and arrested with no chance to defend himself, Leyla knows she has to get him out. Even if her best chance to do that is trying to win the ultra competitive, ultra dangerous London Submersible Marathon.

When the race doesn’t go to plan, Leyla realizes her father’s arrest is tied to much bigger secrets in London. With no other options and no help in sight, Leyla has to leave the only home she has ever known and confront dangerous truths to save her father before it’s too late in The Light at the Bottom of the World (2019) by London Shah.

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The Light at the Bottom of the World is Shah’s debut novel and the start of her Light the Abyss duology.

Leyla is a great narrator who has obvious affection for her small corner of this underwater world while acknowledging the devastation that led humanity to it. Despite a strong premise and evocative setting, the stakes of Leyla’s mission never translates to an actual sense of urgency even as she is caught in a race against time to save her father before she is detained by the authorities herself.

The story and its slang remains very grounded in modern cultural references and terminology even though the story is set decades in the future. The varied cast of secondary characters are unfortunately under-utilized for a lot of this plot-driven novel.

The Light at the Bottom of the World is a classic dystopian featuring a kickass Muslim girl, lots of submarines, lots of water, and lots of action. Recommended for readers seeking any or all of the above in their science fiction.

Possible Pairings: The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron, The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau, A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen, Matched by Ally Condie, Crown of Oblivion by Julie Eshbaugh, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Warcross by Marie Lu, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, The Program by Suzanne Young

A Beginning At the End: A Review

A Beginning at the End by Mike ChenA global pandemic has changed the societal landscape and devastated the population. In the wake of the End of the World, while many people are waiting for life to return to normal, four people are trying to move forward as best they can.

Moira, a former pop star, used the initial outbreak as a chance to break away from her controlling father and start a new life. Six years later, Moira is living as normal a life as anyone can now. At least until her father begins a public campaign to try and find her.

While everyone else hides inside or behind surgical masks offering flimsy protection, Krista throws herself into the world planning events for people unwilling to risk the physical interactions themselves. But not many people are planning parties with the threat of a new outbreak looming and Krista is one cancelled event away from losing everything.

Rob survived. His wife didn’t. All Rob wants is to bring up his daughter, Sunny, as best he can. The only problem is new government regulations threaten to take Sunny away to place her in a more stable family environment.

In a world waiting to return to a normal that might never come Moira, Krista, Rob, and Sunny will need each other more than anything if they want to survive in A Beginning At the End (2020) by Mike Chen.

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Chen’s sophomore novel explores themes of connection and survival against a post-apocalyptic San Francisco setting with chapters alternating between Moira, Krista, and Rob’s perspectives.

Evocative descriptions and thorough world building make this story of a global pandemic eerily timely although a slow start fails to build the momentum needed for later plot points and twists.

A Beginning at the End is a character driven, post-apocalyptic novel that offers hope for the current situation we are in with the Covid-19 global pandemic. In short come for the post-apocalyptic landscape, stay for the feels.

Possible Pairings: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders; Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton; The Salt Line by Sally Goddard-Jones; In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen; The Fireman by Joe Hill; The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin; Severance by Ling Ma; Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel; The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

The Grace Year: A Review

“Trust no one. Not even yourself.”

Tierney James lives in a grim world where nothing is more dangerous than a woman left unchecked–especially a young woman about to come into her power.

That’s why girls are sent away for their grace year–their sixteenth year–to live in isolation in the wilderness. No one speaks of the grace year. But everyone knows the purpose: to exorcise a girl’s magic before she returns to civilization either to marry or become a laborer.

Tierney has spent her life searching for scraps of information about what happens out in the woods. All she knows is that not all of the girls come back whole, not all of them come back at all, and this year she’ll be one of them in The Grace Year (2019) by Kim Liggett.

Part dystopia, part thriller, The Grace Year follows Tierney on her grace year as she journeys with the other grace year girls into the wilderness. Haunted by dreams of a girl she cannot identify and promises of change, Tierney chafes under the constraints placed on her in a society intent on subjugating women before they become dangerous.

Tierney’s first person narration is filled with vitriol and righteous frustration as she realizes that the biggest challenge won’t be surviving the wilderness, it will be surviving the other girls. Horror and suspense blend well with Tierney’s journey as she comes closer to the truth surrounding the grace year.

The Grace Year is the angry feminist survival story of your dreams. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, Gravemaidens by Kelly Coon, The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

Queen of Ruin: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Women like Serina and Nomi have never had power in Viridia. At least, that’s what both girls had always been taught as their country’s history and their own legacy in it.

The sisters know better now.

After accidentally helping to stage an assassination and a coup, Nomi’s life is in shambles. Viridia’s Superior is dead, the rightful Heir Malachi might be dying, and Asa–Nomi’s betrayer–has taken the throne for himself and is determined to keep it at any cost.

After accidentally inciting a rebellion on Mount Ruin, Serina has become the unlikely leader of the women prisoners trapped there. No longer cowed by the prison guards who forced them to fight each other to survive, the former prisoners dare to imagine different lives for themselves. But how can any of them hope for change when their country is still fundamentally broken?

In their efforts to try and rescue each other Serina and Nomi soon discover that they may be the only ones who can ever hope to bring change to Viridia in Queen of Ruin (2019) by Tracy Banghart.

Queen of Ruin is the sequel to Banghart’s debut novel Grace and Fury and concludes the duology series.

Like its predecessor, Queen of Ruin often suffers from flat characterization and uneven pacing. Most of the novel builds toward a dramatic confrontation that is ultimately brief and surprisingly anticlimactic.

Serina and Nomi form the backbone of this story with character arcs that, particularly in this installment, demonstrate how dramatically both sisters have transformed from the start of the series. Moments of romance and suspense temper what would otherwise have become an exercise in prolonged feminist rage. Discussions of agency and power dynamics fit in well with the plot as both sisters are forced to consider how best to once again give women equal space in a country that has worked so hard to erase them.

Queen of Ruin is a high action, plot driven story and the conclusion this series deserves. Recommended for angry feminists everywhere.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin, The Selection by Kiera Cass, The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis, The Jewel by Amy Ewing, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, For A Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Everless by Sara Holland, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, The Grace Year by Kim Liggett, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen, The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg, Ash Princess by Laura K. Sebastian

There Will Come a Darkness: A Review

“An impossible beginning and an inevitable end.”

The Seven Prophets guided humanity for generations building the fated cities and ending wars. Their visions–gifts from the Grace of Mind each possessed–predicted the ruin of dynasties and united countries. Until one hundred years ago when they disappeared leaving behind one final prophecy, a secret vision predicting an Age of Darkness and the arrival of the Last Prophet–the only person who might be able to stop it.

Hassan, Prince of Herat, was forced to flee his country when a strange zealot known as the Hierophant staged a coup in his bid to eliminate all of the Graced and pave the way for a new age. Hassan left everything and everyone he loved behind. Now he’s willing to do almost anything to get it all back.

Ephyra should be able to heal with her Grace of Blood but she has no training and no matter how hard she tries, it’s not enough. She has become a vigilante known as the Pale Hand to try and keep her sister alive, but the lines between right and wrong are getting thinner every day.

Anton has never met a game he couldn’t win. But even his luck isn’t enough to outrun the nightmares that plague him whenever he tries to use his Grace. With his past chasing at his heels, Anton will have to confront the truth of his nightmares if he wants to escape.

Jude is a leader in charge of an elite guard meant to find and protect the Last Prophet at all costs. But how can he stay true to his duty when his heart keeps pulling him away from his chosen path?

Beru knows she is dying even if her sister can’t admit it. After fighting the inevitable for so long, she’s starting to wonder if giving up is really the worst thing that can happen to her.

One prophecy, one common enemy, and five souls who all have the potential to save the world–or destroy it in There Will Come a Darkness (2019) by Katy Rose Pool.

There Will Come a Darkness is Pool’s debut novel and the start of her Age of Darkness trilogy. The novel alternates close third person point of view between the five main characters.

Pool creates a lush world where magic is seen as a gods-given gift and, instead of haves and have nots, the social order is divided between the Graced and those without magic. The action of the story plays out against this sprawling world framed by a complex magic system and polytheistic society where Prophecy has shaped civilization for generations. Lush and vividly described settings help bring this story to life.

Every character in There Will Come a Darkness is driven by fear or desperation–all five are running away, or in some cases running towards, something. The choices they make while pursuing these goals underscore the question of predestination versus free will that permeates the story as it builds quickly, and sometimes unevenly, to a conclusion filled with sudden twists and betrayals.

There Will Come a Darkness is a fantasy filled with suspense and action as each character is forced to ask themselves how far they will go to protect everything they love. Recommended for readers looking for a fast-paced fantasy with a large ensemble cast and anyone who has ever asked themselves what they’d do at the end of the world.

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Black Wings Beating by Alex London, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

The Kingdom: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Kingdom by Jess RothenbergThe Kingdom™ is more than a theme park. Filled with rides, augmented reality shows, and much more, The Kingdom™ is a completely immersive experience where visitors dreams come true.

Ana is one of seven fantasists. Like the formerly extinct species that roam The Kingdom™’s parks, Ana is genetically engineered–partly biological and part machine. She and the other fantasists reign over the park as imagined princesses greeting visitors, performing, and helping park visitors’ dreams come true.

Fantasists can understand and identify emotions. But they aren’t supposed to experience them. Except Ana is fairly certain she feels something when she befriends Owen Chen, one of the park’s employees.

Ana isn’t the only thing malfunctioning in the park. Engineered animals keep dying, her sisters are scared. Then there are the nightmares. When Ana is accused of murdering Owen, she knows she is innocent. But it’s all too easy for the public to believe the worst.

After spending her whole life catering to the whims of others, Ana will have to learn to speak for herself if she wants to survive in The Kingdom (2019) by Jess Rothenberg.

The Kingdom is a sleek blend of mystery and sci-fi elements in a dystopian world where resources are limited and escapism is worth any price. Ana’s story unfolds in a non-linear narrative including Ana’s first person narration, trial transcripts, and interviews.

While the non-linear narrative lends an element of suspense to this story, it never builds tension instead making for slow pacing and the sense that Ana is deliberately withholding information.

Questions of sentience, humanity, and mercy are interrogated throughout the narrative as Ana and her sisters are dehumanized and subjugated as part of their lives as Fantasists. Gory scenes with animal deaths further emphasize the theme park’s grim inner workings.

The Kingdom is a stark story set in an eerily plausible world. Recommended for readers who like their speculative fiction, and their heroines, to have a little grit.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin, Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton, The Similars by Rebecca Hanover, The Grace Year by Kim Liggett, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

Devils Unto Dust: A Review

“Life doesn’t care how hard you’re trying, doesn’t care how much you’ve already lost, it will still break in and crush you and leave you bruised and bloody. And still expect you to keep going, because what else can you do?”

Devils Unto Dust by Emma BerquistTen years ago, the sickness started spreading across West Texas. It had a name back then. Now, it doesn’t need one; it’s everywhere. No one survives the infection. It’s only a matter of time before the infected become shakes, mindless creatures intent on attacking the living and nothing else.

Daisy “Willie” Wilcox is used to scraping by in Glory, Texas. Ever since her mother died, it’s been Willie making sure food gets on the table and taking care of her younger brother, Micah, and the twins. It’s never been easy, and Willie knows it’s unlikely to get easier, but she keeps going.

When her good-for-nothing drunk father disappears with four hundred dollars, it’s Willie who is expected to repay the debt. Seeing no other options, she hires the Garrett brothers to help her cross the desert and track her father down. They’re young for hunters, inexperienced, but that also means they still have something to prove. It means they don’t worry too hard about proof that she can pay her entire way.

The desert is an unforgiving place. With no towns, no shelter, and shakes everywhere even the smallest misstep can leave you dead–or worse. Chasing her father’s trail Willie learns how far she is willing to go for her family and who she can trust. But she’ll need even more than that to survive in Devils Unto Dust (2018) by Emma Berquist.

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Devils Unto Dust is Berquist’s debut novel. (Be sure to also check out the audiobook as read by Devon Sorvari who brings Willie’s narration to life.)

Willie is razor sharp and, when she has to be, incredibly calculating. Determined to save herself and her family at any cost, she pushes herself well past her limits with consequences that will change her life–and her world–forever.

Berquist contrasts a bleak landscape and Willie’s stark narration with a suspenseful plot and high action. Willie’s life is very small in Glory–a reality that she resents even as she resigns herself to it. Like the desert unfolding at the start of her journey, Willie’s world also starts to expand as she realizes there might be more to life than just surviving in a world ravaged by the zombie-like shakes.

Devils Unto Dust blends a dystopian world and a western sensibility to great effect. The novel’s gritty setting and violent shake attacks are countered by a surprising sweetness as Willie allows herself to begin to trust both in a future for herself and in new allies. Devils Unto Dust is a searing story about choices, survival, and learning who you are. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis, Dread Nation by Justina Ireland, Daughters Unto Devils by Amy Lukavics, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry, The Demon Trapper’s Daughter by Jana Oliver, This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers, Generation Dead by Dan Waters