War Girls: A Review

cover art for War Girls by Tochi OnyebuchiSisters Onyii and Ify find themselves on opposing sides in a brutal civil war in this Afrofuturist adventure set in 2172 Nigeria that draws on the history of the Biafran War (also known as the Nigerian Civil War) of the 1960s which began when the Eastern Region of Nigeria declared itself the Republic of Biafra.

Onyebuchi sets this story against the backdrop of a futuristic world filled with sleek technology and brutal war machinery including bionic modifications for child soldiers and mechanized battle suits as both Onyii and Ify are pushed far beyond their limits as their loyalties are tested and they are forced to determine the value of their personal integrity in War Girls (2019) by Tochi Onyebuchi.

The shifting narration follows Onyii and Ify as well as other characters they both meet as they try to find their way back to each other, and themselves, during the war and in the tenuous peace that follows. The sense of happenstance or destiny that continues to bring Onyii and Ify together underscores the arbitrary nature of war and the costs that are paid by everyone in the line of fire.

Intense action scenes contrast sharply against an incisive criticism of the costs of senseless battle and the story’s commentary on the powerful bonds that tie family together for better or worse. Onyebuchi’s stark, close third person narrative further emphasizes this story’s brutal setting.

War Girls is bleak but compulsively readable story with high action and high drama in equal measure. Onyebuchi’s world building and characterization are top notch in this completely immersive but deeply unsettling story. I’ve been describing War Girls as exemplary Afrofuturism for readers who also want to ugly cry and be sad forever—with high speed chases. Make of that what you will.

Possible Pairings: The Weight of Stars by K. Ancrum, Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, Invictus by Ryan Graudin, Ignite the Stars by Maura Milan, Metaltown by Kristen Simmons, Hullmetal Girls by Emily Skrutskie, Pacific Rim

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

Space Opera: A Review

“Life is beautiful and life is stupid. As long as you keep that in mind, and never give more weight to one than the other, the history of the galaxy, the history of the planet, the history of a person is a simple tune with lyrics flashed on-screen and a helpful, friendly bouncing disco ball of glittering, occasionally peaceful light to help you follow along.”

When the end of the world arrives, no one expects it to be announced by a giant blue half-flamingo, half-anglerfish creature with the voice of an angel, or the person you love most in the world, or a non-threatening American waitress in Cleveland depending on who you ask.

Humanity is even less prepared to learn that Earth’s very last hope is the washed out, broken up, and decidedly no-longer-good former glam rock sensation Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes.

But that’s jumping ahead. Really, it all started a hundred years ago when the Sentience Wars almost destroyed the galaxy.

While everyone is always pretty clear on if they, themselves, are sentient it turns out that’s a harder decision to make about your neighbors–especially neighbors who may or may not be parasitic zombie maggots, clouds of intelligence known collectively as Lola, or a race of beings who spend all of their time participating in a planetary Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game while building up their corner of the universe.

In the peace following the Sentience Wars, everyone involved felt like it was time to celebrate while also expressing their sentience. And, you know, also imposing a non-negotiable hierarchy on civilization while distributing galactic resources. Also there’s the matter of seeing if the continued existence of newcomers is a sure thing. Or . . . not.

Thus began the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a combination talent show, beauty pageant. fight for supremacy where all participating species can demonstrate their sentience along with as many special effects and as much stagecraft as they can manage.

Now all we have to do is put all of our faith in two thirds of what used to be the greatest glam rock band ever and hope that they can sing their hearts out to prove our entire species’ sentience, our ability to rock, and how very much we should not be summarily vaporized in Space Opera (2018) by Catherynne M. Valente.

Have you ever asked yourself what The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would have been like with ninety-nine percent more singing? If the answer is yes, then Space Opera is the Douglas Adams inspired homage to Eurovision that you’ve been waiting for.

Space Opera is so much better and funnier and crazier than I ever could have imagined. This is a story about friendship, hope, and what makes us human. But with singing, glitter, and time paradoxes aplenty.

Highly recommended for readers in need of funny, escapist sci-fi, fans of training montages, and anyone who is always ready to root for the underdog.

Possible Pairings: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Sci-Fu by Yuhi Mercado, Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett, The Boy and Girl Who Broke the World by Amy Reed, Space Battle Lunchtime by Natalie Riess, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Empress of a Thousand Skies: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda BellezaRhiannon Ta’an is the last surviving heir to the Kalusian dynasty. On the eve of her coronation as a puppet monarch, Rhee is ready to get revenge against the man who killed her family and reclaim everything he has tried to steal from her.

But then everything goes wrong.

Aloysha is a Wraetan refugee. He is also one of the stars of a popular reality DroneVision show about his ship’s exploits as soldiers of the fleet. But that deosn’t make people any less suspicious of Aly thanks to anti-Wraetan prejudices. Still, if he can stay on the straight and narrow and keep the show popular, it might be enough.

Except everything goes wrong.

Rhee and Aly are pushed onto the same unavoidable path when Aly is framed for an attack that supposedly leaves Rhee dead. Now Rhee is on the run, with even less hope of reclaiming her throne than she had before while Aly is forced to flee while he tries to clear his name in Empress of a Thousand Skies (2017) by Rhoda Belleza.

Empress of a Thousand Skies is Belleza’s debut novel and the first book in a duology which concludes in Blood of a Thousand Stars. The story alternates between Rhee and Aly’s perspectives.

Belleza’s story is populated with unique characters in a carefully detailed world. Epigraphs accompany each section of the story to help further expand the world and situate Rhee’s bid for the throne within this larger context. Aly’s position as a glorified reality TV star is also a fun twist on the idea of space pirates.

Unfortunately the structure of the novel detracts from what should be a plot filled with action and urgency by splitting the story in half between Rhee and Aly who, although their paths are connected, do not actually meet for most of the novel.

Empress of a Thousand Skies is an exciting read filled with action and intrigue. Recommended for readers in search of another space opera to devour.

Possible Pairings: Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Last of Her Name by Jessica Khoury, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Warcross by Marie Lu, Ignite the Stars by Maura Milan, Heart of Iron by Ashley Poston

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, 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.

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, 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

Impostors: A Review

“Freedom has a way of destroying things.”

cover art for Impostors by Scott WesterfeldFrey and Rafi are inseparable. They are sisters. They are a secret.

Raised by her father in the shadows, hidden from everyone, Frey is Rafi’s double–a decoy who stands in whenever her twin sister has to appear in public where she is vulnerable to threats. While Rafi is raised to be charming and poised, Frey is raised to be an assassin, a weapon.

Sent in her sister’s place as collateral for one of her father’s deals, Frey tries her best to inhabit a vapid world that is completely alien to her. Frey has never had to pretend for this long and she knows that Col, the son of her captor, is starting to catch on.

As her assignment drags on and the stakes climb higher, Frey realizes that her place in her family and in the larger world is changing. After living for so long in the shadows, Frey will have to step into the public eye if she wants to save her sister and herself in Impostors (2018) by Scott Westerfeld.

Impostors is the first book in Westerfeld’s new series which is set in the world of his Uglies trilogy.

This series starts twenty-five years after Tally Youngblood changed the world forever but it’s been years since anyone has actually seen her. In the aftermath new leaders have stepped into the power vacuum creating their own mega cities and, in the case of Frey and Rafi’s father, their own dictatorships where advanced tech is used to police the population.

With no other frame of reference, Frey and Rafi can barely articulate the restrictions and horrors of their upbringing–something that becomes clearer to Frey only when she is left untethered with no way to return home to her sister.

Impostors is a high octane adventured filled with cool tech, calculating villains, and a ruthless protagonist prepared to do whatever it takes to protect the only person she’s ever cared about. Frey and Col’s reluctant alliance and evolving relationship remains compelling despite an initial lack of chemistry.

Although Impostors is stronger and faster, it falls short of being better than the original series instead often feeling like a story retold. Recommended for readers who like their science fiction filled with high speed chases and rich world building. Ideal for diehard fans of the series as well as those looking to enter the Ugliesverse for the first time.

Possible Pairings: Mirage by Somaiya Daud, The Tomorrow Code by Brian Falkner, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, This Mortal Coil by Emily Suvada

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

Mirage: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“On a small moon orbiting a large planet, in a small farmhouse in a small village, there was a box, and in this box was a feather.”

cover art for Mirage by Somaiya DaudThe feather is an heirloom, a reminder of when Amani’s grandfather saw a tesleet–a bird sent by the old god Dihya to point his followers toward a sacred calling.

There are no tesleet birds left on the moon called Cadiz or on Amani’s home planet, Andala. The old ways are only memories.

It’s still possible, sometimes, to find small moments of joy even amidst the fear and the bloodshed of the Vathek regime. One such moment comes when Amani receives her daan during a celebration of all the Andalan women turning eighteen. But after her daan is applied, things go horribly wrong.

Amani is whisked away from her friends, her family, and her planet. Taken to the royal palace in secret Amani soon discovers she shares a dangerous connection with the half-Vathek princess and heir to empire Maram: they have the same face. When her family is threatened, Amani has no choice but to agree to act as the princess’s body double–a decoy to appear in public when the princess is most likely to be harmed.

It’s impossible to ignore the luxury and beauty of the palace, or the charm of Maram’s fiance. But beneath that shine there is still violence and danger. Amani will have to navigate both sides of life in the palace if she ever wants to see her family again in Mirage (2018) by Somaiya Daud.

Mirage is Daud’s debut novel and the start of a trilogy.

Daud introduces readers to a rich and brutal world inspired by her own Moroccan heritage. Amani’s affection for her home is infectious and immediately obvious with evocative, deliberate descriptions that bring Cadiz to life. The abrupt contrast and tonal shift as Amani is forced into her new life in the palace is jarring and brutal in comparison.

Amani’s first person narration is empowering and heartening as she refuses to be broken down or diminished even as she is held captive. With no one to trust and only herself to rely on, Amani is determined to rescue herself and her family–all while trying to save her people.

Mirage is the nail-biting start to a trilogy that promises even more twists and surprises to come. Recommended for readers looking for a truly unique sci-fi adventure with a fiery heroine who just might change her world.

Possible Pairings: The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, Impostors by Scott Westerfeld

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