Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Book Review: The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy + Giveaway (US)

Release Date: April 29, 2014
Publisher: Walden Pond Press 
Pages: 516
Received: ARC from publisher
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars, Special Shelf

Crossing my fingers

After being burned by so many disappointing series enders, I was starting to fear even Christopher Healy would let me down. Thankfully, The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw delivered and I got (almost) everything I wanted.

I read a little bit each night, trying to spread it out over the longest possible amount of time. But that didn't work very well. Mostly I just went to sleep later than I intended each night. But happy, because this book is a downright joy to read. 

For those who haven't started the series yet

You have no more excuses. The final book is out, it's fantastic, and the entire series is well worth reading. Also, you need to read these books in order.

Here's what you can expect:

  • Humor! Nearly every sentence is funny. Seriously.
  • Memorable characters. Not just the main characters, or even the secondary characters. EVERYONE. If someone is present, they're memorable.
  • Conversations with fellow readers that go something like, "And that scene?! Gah, too funny!" "But wait, that OTHER scene! Even better!" "And what about when they..."
  • Don't even try to engage in a "Who is your favorite character" conversation unless you have a few days to spare, comfortable seating arrangements, and snacks. This could take a while.
  • Totally fractured fairy tales
  • Sweet romances
  • Disaster, mayhem, and unexpected consequences
  • Adventure
  • Non-stop action. Sure they're long books, but they're easy to fly through. Also, there's pictures. 
  • Camaraderie and relationships that are totally aw-inducing
  • Grudges, feuds, magical objects, and tongue twisters
  • Puns
Also, there's my reviews for The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom (book 1) and The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle (book 2). 

For those who have started the series

Here's what you can expect: 

  • A resolution to the romance questions (I'm almost 100% on board. There is one romantic pair I wish was handled differently)
  • Appearances made by every single character ever from the previous books
  • New characters, including a genie (wishes!!) and a cadre of colorful bounty hunters
  • Pirates and high seas adventuring (also, marooning)
  • A questionably-stylish hat
  • Quests, chases, escapades, and escapes
  • Coup d'etats, battle, torture, and rousing speeches in every kingdom
  • Bards
Bottom line


  • Christopher Healy is an auto-buy author and his books are a must-have staple in any library
  • I need to find a way to bribe, convince, cajole or otherwise make him write more books in this series because I'm so not ready for this to be over
  • I don't even have words to explain how much I loved the end of the Stumpy Boarhound scene. And the bard scene. And the...
  • Franchise this. I'm talking movies, action figures, sticker books, theme parks. Let's make it happen.

Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

Info for the giveaway:
  • What you can win: An autographed (!) hardcover of The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy
  • As always, you do NOT have to be a follower
  • This giveaway is US only
  • You must be 13 years of age or older
  • One entry per person
  • I will contact the winner through email and the winner will have 24 hours to reply before a new winner is chosen 
  • This giveaway closes on June 14th  

Do you have any questions about The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw that I haven't addressed?
Feel free to ask in the comments!

Looking for another book like this?
You might like:

 Click on the pictures to go to my reviews.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Book Review: Death Sworn by Leah Cypess

#1 of the Death Sworn duology
Release Date: March 4, 2014
Publisher: Greenwillow 
Pages: 352
Received: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars 

I will always compare

Mistwood was one of those middle of the road books for me that didn't quite cut it in a lot of ways, but still managed to linger in my mind years later.

So, I was curious to see what Leah Cypess would do next, and when I discovered that what she was doing next involved assassins and magic, well, I was pretty much convinced I needed to read this.

Fair or not, I couldn't help but compare Death Sworn to Mistwood, but lucky for Death Sworn, the comparisons were definitely weighted in its favor. Mistwood was very much a debut book with its exciting premise but shaky execution. Death Sworn feels a lot more polished, with the richness and depth I sensed Leah Cypess could deliver, but didn't quite manage in Mistwood.

I don't know if we could be friends, but I'm sending the invite

Like Mistwood, Death Sworn features a main character who is hard to like. Ileni is cold, distant, and keeps herself to herself. Luckily, this is a first person book, so I got to spend a ton of time in Ileni's head getting to know all her thoughts and feelings.

Ileni was handed a bag of total suckage she right before the book started. Her magic, the thing she had defined herself by her entire life, was fading and, oh yeah, she was going to be exiled as a result. Friends, family, teachers, boyfriend, they were all, "Here's your bag. See ya." Nice, right?

Ileni is justifiably ticked off, confused, frustrated, and despairing. But she does it with steel and grit and a pissed off determination. I liked that she chose to embrace a simmering anger (though her feelings of loss were also so heart-rendering), because I was fuming on her behalf. Some characters take a little while for me to warm up to, but not Ileni. I was ready to fiercely back her up from page one.

Thankfully, instead of moping she channels all those feelings into a devil-may-care approach to life and volunteers to train a bunch of assassins, because what does it matter if they kill her?


The assassins Ileni meets aren't nice fluffy assassins. They're not even allies. Ileni's teaching them is part of some tensely grudging pact made between the two groups and no amount of gritting teeth and playing nice hides the fact that they don't like or trust one another.

I loved that Leah Cypess took this approach. Sure, I'm a reader who likes the whole "let's get along" rag-tag friendship thing, but that's also pretty been-there-done-that. The tension, distrust, and prejudice Leah Cypess had her characters maintain throughout the whole book was refreshing and realistic. I totally bought into these characters because their actions and thoughts made sense, which in turn added depth and realism to the world she created. 

Plus, those were some SCARY assassins! I know I was looking at them through Ileni's definitely not trusting eyes, but, yikes. It was fascinating reading about them and their skills are believably assassin-grade, but I can't say I like or trust them.

Readers who have trouble getting cozy with assassins because they kill people might appreciate Death Sworn. There's no tip-toeing around what they are, that they kill on command, and that their way of thinking is not comprehensible to someone who is not an assassin. To Ileni (and me) they seemed like the kind of people where you'd tap your head and mouth "They're not quite right" (except of course you wouldn't actually do that because they'd freaking kill you).  


Of course there's romance!

Think of it more like the season six Buffy/Spike romance where she's with him for all the wrong reasons. She's broken and hurting and he's serving a purpose, but somewhere along the way numbing escape leads to healing.

It's not the rainbows and That Kiss kind of romance. In a lot of ways, it's not satisfying. It's messy and a little uncomfortable, and I'm still not convinced I can trust him.

There's a lot of back and forth and uncertainty in their relationship, but that makes sense. When are emotions ever logical and consistent? Especially when they're unexpected emotions that go against everything you've ever been taught in life. It might have been less confusing and unsettling had they just went with their feelings and declared their love cultural teachings be damned, but that's what we call insta-love.

So, the romantic in me is still holding out hope, but I'm glad they haven't eloped just yet. Both of these characters are still developing and this is only the beginning of their story. Their relationship so far was less a romance and more an important part of their growth as individuals—a growth that is not yet complete, and in that regard it was written very well.

Mystery! Politics! Intrigue!

I'm a character girl, so watching all the character nuances unfold and shift probably would have been enough to sustain my interest. But, there's also the mystery, which was more than enough to hook me.

Ileni's driving force and the only thing she really cares to live for is solving the mystery of who killed the previous two teachers...and who therefore might be trying to kill her (and as much as Ileni doesn't really care about living, she also doesn't actually want to die).

What at first seems like a simple murder unravels into something MUCH more. I can't give details, but the reveals totally satisfied my political intrigue loving heart. Each layer Ileni uncovers leads to greater peril, ups the ante, and exposes things about her world. I cannot wait until the next book comes out to see how this is all going to unfold.

Also about that world—it's beautifully written. Ileni starts her story entering the dark, claustrophobic, labyrinthine caves the assassin's call home. It's foreign and stifling and made the world seem extremely small.

But, slowly (mirroring Ileni's internal re-birth), as the story unfolds and Ileni learns more, the world opens itself up and my pin-prick focus dilated to reveal a richly developed world with political structures, cultures, and history of which I feel I have only scratched the surface but definitely want to learn more.

Bottom line

This wasn't the easiest book in a lot of ways because of how alien the assassins feel and how terrified and angry Ileni is throughout pretty much the whole book. But it was fascinating. I could not get enough of it. Death Sworn gripped me and would not let me do anything but read until I had finished the book, and then it left me desperate for the sequel.

Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

Looking for another book like this?
You might like:

 Click on the pictures to go to my review/Goodreads.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Book Review: The Queen of Last Hopes by Susan Higginbotham

Release Date: January 28, 2011
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark 
Pages: 345
Received: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars 

The War of the Roses seems to be The Next Big Thing for historical fiction fans who are all Tudor-ed out. And with good reason! While Henry VIII might be known for his many wives and religious turmoil, the War of the Roses is a period of, well, WAR.

And I love a good war.

With all the feuding sides, crownings and dethrownings, intrigue, and romance, the War of the Roses is definitely worth checking out. But where to begin?

I've started my fictional foray with Susan Higginbotham's The Queen of Last Hopes, a book I've long pined for (mostly because of the cover, which I apparently didn't even look at all that closely because what is with that flower?!). Starting here was an excellent choice.

The Queen of Last Hopes follows Margaret of Anjou's perspective, though it dives off here and there to look through the eyes of several men when Margaret wasn't present for the action. Normally I hate this willy nilly narrative style, but I hate missing battle scenes even more, so I was more okay than not with the author's choice.

Margaret makes a good narrator, but it's also her voice that made me knock off half a star. I don't know what it was, but something kept me from truly connecting with her and becoming invested in her, despite being totally invested in the events surrounding her. While there were some aspects of her I felt I knew very well, I couldn't shake the feeling that a part of her was hidden from me and I didn't fully know her. She was more of a C. W. Gortner's Isabella for me than a Juliet Grey's Marie Antoinette. Still, that's pretty high praise.

But those events, oh my gosh those events! This is a crazy war and Margaret's story follows major battles, desperate flights to safety, bargaining with the enemy, and so many coup d'etats my head was spinning. I never felt like I was reading a dry history lesson.

Though I almost wish I did feel that a little more. The peripheral details could have been more prominent, though I'm the kind of reader who wants to be lectured on stuff like the type of material used to make flatware during the time period. This lack made me feel a little less "living and breathing" in the actual time period, so that's the other reason for a half a star off.

But I can live with that. This is more a people and events kind of book, and Susan Higginbotham excels in those areas. While Margaret felt a little reserved, she wasn't a total blank slate. I was totally invested in her relationship with her husband and the way she grappled with his madness and frailties and her feelings for him. I have to admit, I sobbed a few times.

Her relationships with other characters were also emotional, but I had a harder time getting involved with them. This was partially because they were less developed (except for one, which, yeah, I was definitely into that one), but also partly because half of them went by the same name. When one died, his heir inherited his titled and thenceforth was referred to by the title.

So, you'd have the Duke of Somerset, until he died, and then we follow his heir...the Duke of Somerset! It got a little confusing and I guess names matter, because I think this carrying on of the same name made me have a harder time connecting with the different men.

Major players on both sides make an appearance and, while it could be because this is my first fictional taste of these people, I liked Susan Higginbotham's take on them very much. Margaret was given a fair shake (unlike the she-devil interpretations that seem to abound) and though this is obviously a Team Lancaster book, I thought the author's portrayals of the Big Bads of the House of York were balanced.

The author does take artistic license in a few instances, but they do derive from historical rumor at least and she has a very nice author's note at the end clarifying fact from fiction. I'm usually a huge stickler for REAL OR GO HOME, but these changes didn't bother me much because they could have happened.

Bottom line: I went out and bought two more of her books soon after finishing The Queen of Last Hopes, so there you go. I'm a fan. 

FYI, this is an adult book. Margaret has relations and there's a boatload of violence (which, obviously! This is a War of the Roses book!)

Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

Have you read any sympathetic books about the House of Lancaster?

Looking for another book like this?
You might like:

 Click on the pictures to go to my reviews.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Book Review: The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan + Giveaway (US/CA)

#2 in the Memoir by Lady Trent series 
Release Date: March 4, 2014
Publisher: Tor 
Pages: 331
Received: Finished copy from publisher
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars, Special Shelf

I was lost in the depths of despair

I've been having a serious streak of bad luck when it comes to books this year. I haven't even reviewed all of them because I've just felt so meh and disappointed about them.

But that all ends now with the latest installment in the Memoir by Lady Trent series.

Until I found a bosom friend in Lady Trent

I was shocked last year at how much I adored the first book A Natural History of Dragons, and while it ended just fine as a standalone, I desperately hoped it would not remain so.

Thankfully, there's a sequel (and now a third book announced!), and I think Tropic of Serpents might be even better than the first.

Isabella is a significant part of why I can't get enough of this series. She's a character trope for sure, but I love this type of character, so I don't mind at all.

Think of her as a dragon-loving Amelia Peabody or a grown up Theodosia. She has an insatiable thirst for knowledge and she isn't afraid to take risks if it means satisfying her curiosity.

But she isn't just a character of action, as so many Strong Female Characters tend to be. Nor is she damaged, thank goodness, which seems to be the other prevailing feature of insufferable SFCs.

Isabella examines her own motives and feelings with the same studious eye she applies to dragon anatomy, and while she finds this thoroughly uncomfortable, she forces herself to confront them anyway. She totally earned my admiration with her fortitude and courage.

Like the Strong Female Character trope, we also have the Strong Feminist, and I guess you could put Isabella into that category too because she thoroughly bucks society's expectations of what is proper behavior for a woman. But, she doesn't do it for a Cause, again, thankfully! because I'm sorry to say but I find that so tiresome.

She does it because it is what she must do. Isabella knows what makes her happy in life, and she doesn't let anyone or any expectation stand in her way. This doesn't come easy, though, and I appreciated that Marie Brennan took the time to examine the conflict Isabella inevitably feels between following her duty and giving in to her desire.

She grew a lot over the course of this book and I was absolutely cheering her by the end!    

If only she'd break her slate over his head

If you've read the first book, then you know what happens in the end. So you know, the door is open for, let's say, possibilities.

(Also, if you've been keeping track of the names, Trent is neither Isabella's maiden name nor Jacob's surname. Just saying.)

(And, yeah, I know it's also NOT the last name of a certain combative other character who appeared in the first book and plays an even larger role Tropic of Serpents, but that did not in any way stop me from wishing for something more).

But, all the parentheticals aside, this is not a kissing book. There isn't any romance (despite society's gossip and my desire to believe it) and, honestly, given the events of the previous book and all the growth Isabella needed to accomplish I (grudgingly) guess that's ok.

Still, they make for a very entertaining and mutually respectful friendship. And, as a woman and a man of low birth, I have high hopes that I will get to see them take down society's stodgy Rules for who can and who cannot conduct scientific research.

"Because if you are imagining, you might as well imagine something worth while"

Isabella is half the reason I love these books, but her adventures make up the other half.

While the world is a totally fictional place made up of overly-complicated yet typically fantasyish names, it is basically our world circa 1800s-ish. Scriland is England, and Eriga (the setting of this installment) is Africa.

If I didn't enjoy saying Scriland so much (it really rolls off the tongue) I'd say my one complaint is that I wish Marie Brennan had just made this a historical fantasy series and set everything in our own real countries. I mean, who are we fooling here?

(Then again, had she done that I'd probably complain about her changing history, which is something I usually take issue with.)

But, the only part where I really started to zone out and lose interest was when Isabella started talking about the politics between the various countries. Now, you know me, I LIVE for fictional politics! Especially when there's shady dealings and imminent war, which was the case here (between not just two, but THREE nations!)

So why wasn't I stoked? Because I had a hard time keeping track of the nations. Between the weird pronunciations and the This-fictional-country-is-really-That-real-country mental match ups I spent more time puzzling out the Who when I should have been indulging my penchant for political intrigue focusing on the What. I got it all sorted, but the way it was presented really pulled me out of the story.

But that was the only time that happened, because Marie Brennan NAILS it when it comes to immersion. After a fun jaunt across the (basically) African savannah where I got to indulge all my childhood Nature-watching dreams and go on a safari hunt (!!!), we trekked through a place called the Green Hell, and oh my gosh, a place was never named more appropriately.

The Green Hell was miserable, which is to say, it was AWESOME! I felt like I was right there with Isabella with the humidity and the bugs and the diseases and the wonderland of natural and cultural discoveries! There's also a Secret To Unravel relating to the dragons living there and the answer was totally unexpected yet fit very nicely.

Bottom line

I can't rave about the Memoir by Lady Trent series enough! I haven't read anything quite like it, and when I'm not reading this series a part of my brain is always wishing I had the next book in my hands. I can't wait to follow Isabella on her next adventure.

Perhaps the best compliment I can give is that I got so completely sucked into Tropic of Serpents that it felt like I was living and breathing the experiences right next to Isabella, who I'm half convinced is actually a real live person living off in in the world somewhere (along with Sherlock Holmes).

Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

Do you have any questions about Tropic of Serpents that I haven't addressed?
Feel free to ask in the comments!

Do you know any other books like this?


Info for the giveaway:
  • What you can win: Three winners will each get a  finished copy of Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan
  • As always, you do NOT have to be a follower
  • This giveaway is for US/CA addresses only
  • You must be 13 years of age or older
  • One entry per person
  • I will contact the winner through email and the winner will have 24 hours to reply before a new winner is chosen 
  • This giveaway closes on May 31st 

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