Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Book Review: Icefall by Gillian Philip

Series: #4 in the Rebel Angels series
Pages: 448
Released: March 24, 2015
Publisher: Tor
Received: ARC from publisher
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

For new readers: 
Here's what you can expect with the Rebel Angels series  

  • Characters that feel absolutely real. These don't feel like fictional characters at all. It feels like I'm reading an account of real people and real events. Which is, you know, saying something considering they're fairies and all. 
  • Strong emotions. Rage against the villains with the kind hate where your entire being takes part in the visceral hatefest. Inexplicable but all consuming love for the heroes. Elation when things go right for them. Absolute devastation when things don't (which is frequent). These characters go all in with everything, and I was swept up along with them.
  • Stellar world building. There's world building that's interesting because of the creatures or new ideas it brings. There's world building that's fun because it makes you want to live in it. There's world building that's complex because of the depth and scope of the details and rules. Then there's world building that combines all those things and feels absolutely real. Gillian Philip's world is the last type of world and I wouldn't be at all shocked to discover it exists parallel to our own world.

For established readers: 
Here's what you can expect in Icefall 
(Spoilers for newbies!)

  • Major characters die, and it ripped my bleeding heart out. 
  • Dead characters come back (briefly) in an awesome, awesome scene. 
  • A resolution to all the dangling story threads. 
  • A slower, wandering first three-quarters of the book (much like in the other books) but with memorable scenes throughout. 
  • Also, much like the other books, an explosive final quarter that makes the entire book worthwhile. 
  • Sobbing. Of both the happy and sad variety.

Bottom line (NO SPOILERS)

Gillian Philip's Rebel Angels series is a powerhouse from start to finish. Dip your toes into the first book, and if you like that, then you'll like the rest of the books.

By all rights, I should actually hate this series. The books are confusing, the characters can be infuriating, the pacing is all kinds of off, they're all fairies, and none of the rules of conventional storytelling are followed. I should absolutely hate it.

I absolutely love it.

There's something otherworldly and special about these books that defies what should be. I can't fully describe why I recommend them, but I wholeheartedly do.

This is an adult/upper YA fantasy/urban-ish fantasy series.

 Click on the covers to go to my reviews of books 1-3

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Tiny Reviews: Maid of Secrets and A Darkness Strange & Lovely

Maid of Secrets by Jennifer McGowan
#1 in the Maids of Honor series

This is the book I wanted the Palace of Spies series to be. Both series follow a maid of honor/ladies in waiting type of group and involves courtly mysteries and an interesting historical backdrop (with minor appearances by real people). However, of the two, I much prefer the Maids of Honor series.

While the series isn't amazing, it does have likable characters (and nice camaraderie between them) and a mystery that did keep me engaged. It's fun. The stakes felt higher, and I was definitely considering nail-biting during the torture scene. Best endorsement? It grabbed me quickly and got me out of a reading slump.

This is the first in a series, but it ended well enough as a standalone. I didn't feel the need to immediately read the sequel (I read Maid of Secrets in May 2014), but I do intend to read Maid of Deception soon (I actually took it out of the library the day before I was approved for Dangerous Deceptions, the sequel to Palace of Spies, but they were just too similar to read so close together).

Recommended, especially to readers who like light historical mysteries.

4 out of 5 stars

A Darkness Strange and Lovely by Susan Dennard
#2 in the Something Strange and Deadly series

I put off reading this book for a while, because while I liked Something Strange and Deadly well enough, I didn't love it. It was fluffy and fun enough and it moved pretty quickly (which is always a plus), but it lacked pretty hard on the character front.

Those characters only got worse in the sequel, which is why I ultimately DNF-ed. The story of A Darkness Strange and Lovely was good-ish, if kind of slow (halfway through the book and NOTHING  has happened). Still, I was having a pleasant enough time.

But then Eleanor meets this guy Oliver who seems to be a pretty nice guy (if suffering from the same "gosh you're young" personality as Eleanor's love interest). And she proceeds to treat him like absolute, total crap. What gives, Eleanor??

Then she met up with her Spirit Hunter friends (I can't help but inwardly groan every time that cutesy-quirky stereotypical band of do-nothing, lame slayer wannabes come on the page. Harsh, I know, I'm sorry!) and she decides to LIE TO HER FRIENDS. For no good reason (except dragging out contrived drama).

Aaaand, DNF.

DNF on page 150 of 295 (e-book pages. The print book has 400ish pages)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Book Review: The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

ARC from the publisher
3.5 out of 5 stars

I already read the Royal Diaries installment on Empress Sisi, so I knew all about her early romance with Franz and how she became the "accidental" empress.

Sadly, the Royal Diaries book ended right when things were starting to get good (as they so often do) and so I was hoping Allison Pataki's book would dive deep into all the post-wedding drama.

Because, oh boy, Sisi's life is PACKED with drama! She had an evil scheming mother-in-law. She dealt with wars, revolts, and a divided empire. Affairs were had, along with grand swoony romances.

Not to mention all of Sisi's issues (think eating disorders and lots of beauty rituals), which I was really hoping to understand WHY she developed as well as all the details (crazy beauty concoctions! elaborate hair styles!).

Oh, and did I mention murder? Suicide? Assassination?

Yeah, Sisi's story is filled with drama.

Unfortunately, Allison Pataki's story is filled with a lot less drama.

Sure, most of these things are addressed (though nothing of the murder, suicide, or assassination), but there was a disappointing amount of glossing over going on. 

About a quarter of the book is spent going over Sisi's introduction to Franz and her accidental empressing until it finally culminates in her wedding. Nice, but too drawn out and kinda yawny since I read all that in the Royal Diaries book (which took slightly less page time to go over, but didn't really contain fewer details).

So, not really Allison Pataki's fault that I had read another book on the topic, but it did make the book feel unbalanced when we spent so much time on early fluff and then completely left out the later dramas. Now, if she plans on writing a Part II, then I withdraw my comment about balance. As of now though, Goodreads is showing this as a standalone.

Allison Pataki did really shine in showing the power struggle between Sisi and her mother-in-law. I was so frustrated on Sisi's behalf and utterly devastated alongside Sisi at her husband's response. I was super emotionally invested, even if the emotions were kinda sad and draggy.

As much as I loved the depth of emotion around this, I wish The Accidental Empress had explored the political landscape at the time more. The Austrian Empire suffers a pretty significant blow and I wish that had been explored more. Ditto all the stuff surrounding Hungary, in which real life Sisi played a big role (and not just a romantic one).

I also wanted to delve deeper into Sisi's emotional issues. Although it was mentioned, I felt like Allison Pataki skirted around the issue and, as a result, downplayed the severity of Sisi's illness. I'll toss in the benefit of the doubt, as this may be in part a symptom of a first-person narrative and Sisi herself is unlikely to recognize the extent of the problem. Still, I wanted more.

Instead, the main focus of the story is on Sisi's romances (one of which isn't even 100% confirmed by history as even existing) and that makes this a pretty fluffy book. That's fine, but I was hoping for heavier historical fiction to really get into the politics and the psychological explanations for why Sisi ended up doing what she did. 

*Side note, I really did not like the way Franz was portrayed. In regard to his mother, yes, that seemed fine, but in regard to his relationship with Sisi and his mistresses, no this did not ring true at all. I am no expert on them, but from everything I have read, Franz seems like a pretty decent husband who (with the exception of his mother), treated Sisi extremely well.

Allison Pataki's portrayal made him seem like a philandering lech and that didn't sit well with me, especially since it seemed to be a twisting of history solely to justify Sisi's actions, both real and likely fictional. This also seems to be one of the bigger reasons given for Sisi's behavior, which, again, doesn't seem right and as a result glosses over, diminishes, or omits the actual reasons. I guess this could also be chalked up to the first person narrative, and that's fine, but I've seen other authors do a much better job of balancing reality and their first person narrative with all its required biases.  

Bottom line

Sisi is a historical figure shrouded in mystery, and I was hoping The Accidental Empress would help bring her from an enigmatic empress to a person I could feel for and understand. That didn't happen. I don't feel like I know her any better than I did prior to reading this book and I don't feel like Allison Pataki's presentation of her (and others) did anything but scratch at the surface of these very complex people. 

Still, The Accidental Empress may not have been everything I wanted it to be, but it is a decent book that should appeal to fans of medium historical fiction (somewhere between "lite" historical fiction and tons-of-details "heavy" historical fiction). Though recommended more for readers who want to learn more about historical relationships than historical facts and events.

Readers who like books about Catherine the Great's pre-empress years would probably also like Sisi's story. They could have totally bonded over their mother-in-law battles, though Catherine proved to be more of a fighter in the end.

I would definitely read another book by Allison Pataki, but only if the subject interested me (some authors I love so much I'd read anything they wrote), and sadly I'm less interested in her traitorous Mrs. Benedict Arnold book (told from the perspective of her non-traitorous maid), despite the excellent reviews. If she wrote a Part II about Sisi's life, I would read that as well. 


Like this book? You might also like:

Click on the covers to go to my reviews

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Book Review & Giveaway (US/CA): Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Review copy from publisher
3.5 out of 5 stars

I was told there would be amazing world building

I thought it was pretty good, but nothing special. It's a neat, though not really unique, world where dragons transform into human form and live in a tense alliance with humans. There's all sorts of heavy handed shades of prejudice, fear, and related racial issues. There was a prior war. There is an impending war.

See? None of that is very unique or amazing, so I definitely am not in the camp that hails the world building as something uniquely special.

That said, I liked the world. I could have done with a lighter touch on the "racism is bad" front (this made some characters ring less true—the princess in particular), but overall I liked reading about the less preachy parts of dragon-human interactions. I'm a sucker for the medieval-ish fantasy world with warring kingdoms and pretty princesses, so Seraphina's world was a good fit for me.

My biggest gripe about the world building though is that there are a lot of holes. I understand this is part I of II, but I don't think there should be this many holes. I have a ton of questions, and they're not of the "Just wait, that will be revealed" variety. This is the kind of world that looks really nice at first glance, but does not hold up under scrutiny. 

I was told the writing is beautiful

It is very nice. Even though the book is massive, and even though the plot is slow (very!), and even though I hate both of those things, I still loved reading Seraphina.

The writing totally drew me in and I barely noticed that I had read a lot and not much had actually happened or that I had barely made a dent in the pasta-bowl page count. I was just really enjoying reading.

But, there's also a whole lot of telling going on. I felt like I had a very unclear picture of who Seraphina was as a character until Kiggs was introduced and started telling me. Seraphina felt like one of those wallflower characters: likable and nothing to complain about, but also nothing to remember once the story is over.

Enter Kiggs, and suddenly Seraphina is bold and daring and other This Is A Memorable Character descriptors. And, yeah, he had a point I guess, and I understand he was telling Seraphina as much as he was telling me, but it still felt very forced. The same thing happened with other characters, too (I was reminded frequently of how regally the princess was acting).

I was told the politics were twisty

Yes-ish? A little? I like political fantasy stories, and Seraphina can definitely fall into that category. I'd fit it somewhere in the middle to low end though as far as twisty-ness is concerned. It's no Megan Whalen Turner, that's for sure.

The politics are more straight forward and while there is a dastardly plot, this is not the kind of political book with lots of subtle maneuvering. There's nothing wrong with that, and I enjoyed the story for what it was, but my expectations bar had been set for the latter and so I was a little disappointed.

I was told the romance was swoony

It's slow burn and built on friendship first, which I like. Her romantic interest is a good guy with solid morals and good character development. He's not a charmer or a bad boy. Their romance was very nice and I was happy to see it included in the book. Their conversations were engaging and reminded me of those rare special friendships where you just click with a person.

I loved reading the romance, but I did not swoon. 

I was told the characters were great

This is the shining part of the book for me. I'm a character girl, and I totally connected with these characters. Or, less the actual characters (because I don't feel compelled to start handing out sleepover party invites, even though they were nice) but more the relationships.

Seraphina's relationships with the various characters truly touched me. I almost cried at various points, both in sadness and in pure joy. I looked forward to seeing her in scenes with the different characters, less for plot progression and more just because I liked seeing them together. I think this is what really hooked me, kept me reading, and will keep me coming back for the sequel. 

But, this wasn't entirely solid, either. Characterizations were shifted in order to fit the narrative. People would change or make decisions that just didn't make sense. Why now? Why this way? I guess they could happen that way, but I wasn't convinced and that doubt interfered with my enjoyment and immersion in the story.

Bottom line

Rachel Hartman is an author I'm going to follow. Seraphina is her debut, and in a lot of ways it reads like a debut. There are things that can be improved, and that is to be expected with a debut. But there is also a lot of promise and a strong foundation, and I'm excited to see how she builds on that.

I wish I hadn't been exposed to so much hype for this book. I'm not sure if it would have changed my enjoyment level, but it may have had an effect. Expectations are a powerful factor.  

The ending actually wraps up a lot better than I was expecting it would, but of course there's all that impending doom stuff that will happen in the sequel. I'm pretty sure this is a duology and not a trilogy, and I am extremely happy to hear that. I'm looking forward to reading the sequel, and while I don't feel like I need it RIGHT NOW, I am glad I won't have to wait long to find out what happens next.


Like this book? You might also like:

Click on the covers to go to my reviews

Info for the giveaway:

  • What you can win: A finished copy of Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
  • As always, you do NOT have to be a follower
  • This giveaway is US/CA 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 March 14th 

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