Advance Review: Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

Mask of Shadows (Untitled, #1)Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that. But gender fluid Sal wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery of life as a highway robber and get closer to the upper-class—and the nobles who destroyed their home.

When Sal steals a flyer for an audition to become a member of The Left Hand—the Queen’s personal assassins, named after the rings she wears—Sal jumps at the chance to infiltrate the court and get revenge.

But the audition is a fight to the death filled with clever circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. And as Sal succeeds in the competition, and wins the heart of Elise, an intriguing scribe at court, they start to dream of a new life and a different future, but one that Sal can have only if they survive.

My short, to-the-point review is that Mask of Shadows was good, but it was trying too hard. Not in reference to the plot and writing, not at all! Linsey Miller cooked up an interesting world, an entertaining plot, and one of the most memorable, ultra immersive romances I’ve read in quite a long time. Unfortunately, what could be one of the most interesting aspects of this book, the gender fluidity of Sal, the, protagonist, is thrown into the mix in a strange way.

Sal’s nonbinary gender is almost nonchalant for a character who grew up in the streets. There’s a strange unreality to a character growing up with such an impoverished, desperate background not having experienced any discrimination for not conforming to a gender expectation, which would lead a reader to ask if the society in which the character lives has a general acceptance for nonconformists. This question isn’t addressed in Mask of Shadows; at least, not in a clear way. In addition to being sort of unscathed by society in regard to gender, Sal is remarkably well-spoken, to the point that Elise, the love interest, remarks upon it. Sal quickly puts Elise in her place, by calling out her assumption that Sal couldn’t be articulate, rather than addressing the unlikeliness of a street kid attaining an education while trying to stay alive and conduct a life of petty crime. I have to take a step back and acknowledge that yes, this is a fantasy world, therefore the society, from bottom to top, can operate any way the author dictates. The issue then is that it’s not clearly dictated. Miller is a good writer, and subtle, but the choices Miller made in choosing not to replicate the way human societies in reality work makes it difficult to relate to as a Eutopian goal. The reader is shown a great deal, but not told a whole lot, and in this one particular aspect it hinders the book. In every other sense, Miller’s style and writing are super.

The romance between Sal and Elise was really enjoyable to read. It’s difficult to really nail down the roiling emotions of a crush but Miller does it perfectly. The romance is also not a terribly huge part of the plot, not the entire focus of the protagonist’s arc. It’s just a nice, delightful little detour in the the otherwise action packed plot.

Very similar to Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass, Sal and a number of other hopefuls are competing to be the monarch’s assassin.The competition takes place at a royal estate and there is murder, intrigue, and mayhem. Sal is kind of disappointingly good at everything, having never done much of what she learns before. The other competitors are unfortunately not very likeable nor are they easy to get attached to. Miller does make it feasible that Sal might lose and not become one of The Left Hand, which was believable enough to me to make me want to find out how the plot ends.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of the competition plot, books that go light on the fantastical aspect while still incorporating elements of the genre, and strong, non-entirely-masculine characters. Disclosure: I received an ARC of Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller from the publisher via NetGalley.

Review: Star Witch by Helen Harper

Star Witch (The Lazy Girl's Guide To Magic #2)Star Witch by Helen Harper
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Helen Harper is a gem and a fantastic writer. That being said I’m not a huge fan of Ivy Wilde, which makes zero sense given how much we have in common, i.e. we are both quite lazy.

I think that three inconsistencies make her difficult to like. First, the way other characters react to her is all over the place, and this makes it difficult to determine much about what she is like, as if she were a real human. I appreciate that Harper didn’t spend paragraphs describing Ivy, but I am the sort of reader that needs a lot of context to form a solid picture of a character.

The second inconsistency is Ivy herself. Harper is funny, so it follows that Ivy might be funny. However, in this book it’s sometimes hard to tell if Ivy is making a joke or is just having a stupid moment. Is she clever? Is she of average intelligence? I couldn’t tell you.

The final inconsistency is that Ivy is supposed to be a talented witch, but in this book she doesn’t do anything particularly clever. In fact, at one point she nearly dies of exhaustion from doing spells. Is magic supposed to be like a muscle? Didn’t she just spend the entirety of the previous book working out/using magic? I’m confused.

Still going to read Spirit Witch. But confused.

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Review: The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman

The Dark Days Club (Lady Helen, #1)The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I saw The Dark Days Club title I was intrigued. That it was by Alison Goodman, who wrote Eon, probably the best damn YA fantasy book I’ve read in the past five years, I was over the moon excited.

Unfortunately I ended up being disappointed somewhat. First of all the setting, Regency London, is so t i r e d. Enjoyable still? Yes, but I have read so many books set in this time period and social sphere that even Goodman’s carefully researched 1812 fell flat. Not to mention she emulated the writing style of so many contemporary authors writing in this time period that I often forgot it was freaking Alison Goodman writing these characters, this plot. It read a lot like something Libba Bray wrote.

Don’t mistake me, the book is good. The plot is a bit thin and the characters a bit flat. Even the Reclaimer/Deceiver premise and the mention of alchemy didn’t draw me in. But I look forward to reading the sequel. If you start this book and hate it, I suggest the Gardella vampire series. Similar setting and plot, but much more complex and riveting.

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Advance review: Elysian Fields (Sentinels of New Orleans #3) by Suzanne Johnson

Elysian Fields (Sentinels of New Orleans, #3)Elysian Fields
by Suzanne Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Expected publication: August 13th 2013 by Tor Books 


An undead serial killer comes for DJ in this thrilling third installment of Suzanne Johnson’s Sentinels of New Orleans series.

The mer feud has been settled, but life in South Louisiana still has more twists and turns than the muddy Mississippi.

New Orleanians are under attack from a copycat killer mimicking the crimes of a 1918 serial murderer known as the Axeman of New Orleans. Thanks to a tip from the undead pirate Jean Lafitte, DJ Jaco knows the attacks aren’t random—an unknown necromancer has resurrected the original Axeman of New Orleans, and his ultimate target is a certain blonde wizard. Namely, DJ.

Combatting an undead serial killer as troubles pile up around her isn’t easy. Jake Warin’s loup-garou nature is spiraling downward, enigmatic neighbor Quince Randolph is acting weirder than ever, the Elders are insisting on lessons in elven magic from the world’s most annoying wizard, and former partner Alex Warin just turned up on DJ’s to-do list. Not to mention big maneuvers are afoot in the halls of preternatural power.

Suddenly, moving to the Beyond as Jean Lafitte’s pirate wench could be DJ’s best option.

I started reading the Sentinels of New Orleans series in my desperate quest to tide myself over before the new Alex Craft and Kate Daniels books come out at the beginning of August and end of July, respectively. I’ve mentioned before that the southern setting is a big draw for me, and N’awlins seemed like a great place for a paranormal urban fantasy. It is really fun to get to know the city and its legends and night spots through these books.

Royal Street, the first book in the series, introduces the heroine, deputy Sentinel Drusilla Jaco (call her DJ or she will pummel you), a minor wizard living in New Orleans right before Hurricane Katrina hits. Her mentor, Gerry, goes missing, her city is devastated, and it’s up to her to make it right. With a new partner foisted on her – one who just happens to be extremely hot, the story and setting are interesting. The second book is even better, even though the narrative jumps forward two years and all of the characters’ relationships…don’t.

Now we skip to THIS book, which albeit is an ARC (I love NetGalley), so there might still be some changes that show up in the finished copy, but from what I read, either my memory is awful or Suzanne Johnson’s writing style and editor changed. Dramatically.

Don’t get me wrong, the story is still great. You’ll be hooked. It’s a page turner, and that’s exactly why I have a problem with it. The chapters feel truncated and stilted. DJ ends the narration of a chapter in a punchy, dramatic way, and then picks up at the start of the next chapter with an entirely different temporal subject. It’s hours or days later, and the cliff-hanger of the previous chapter gets resolved in a quick, past-tense aside. Not gonna lie, I felt cheated. I would almost ALWAYS rather “see” how an altercation or issue gets resolved than be told. It starts to be less jarring toward the middle of the book, but that also may be because I became accustomed to it.

All in all, decent read, I will definitely pick up the next in the series when it comes out next year, and I will go down with my ‘ship. There are like a bajillion (3) absurdly attractive guys in this series vying for DJ’s attention and Johnson is being VERY clever with these relationship plot twists, that clever boots. Pirates and shifters and elves, oh my. Though it’s kind of a dead giveaway which one is meant to win out, he’s the only one who hasn’t done something jaw droppingly awful to DJ in the past two books, so it’s hard to root for anyone else.

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The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper (finally) reviewed.

The DemonologistThe Demonologist
by Andrew Pyper
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Published March 5th 2013 by Simon & Schuster

ISBN: 1451697414

Professor David Ullman’s expertise in the literature of the demonic—notably Milton’s Paradise Lost—has won him wide acclaim. But David is not a believer.

One afternoon he receives a visitor at his campus office, a strikingly thin woman who offers him an invitation: travel to Venice, Italy, witness a “phenomenon,” and offer his professional opinion, in return for an extravagant sum of money. Needing a fresh start, David accepts and heads to Italy with his beloved twelve-year-old daughter Tess.

What happens in Venice will send David on an unimaginable journey from skeptic to true believer, as he opens himself up to the possibility that demons really do exist. In a terrifying quest guided by symbols and riddles from the pages of Paradise Lost, David attempts to rescue his daughter from the Unnamed—a demonic entity that has chosen him as its messenger. –from Goodreads

The UK cover. Much prettier, non?

I want to clarify that though I gave this book 3 stars I didn’t like it. It was just written well enough that to rate it lower would have been spiteful.

David Ullman is a professor at Columbia University. He has a strong friendship with colleague and psychologist Elaine O’Brien, but is otherwise a solitary man. His marriage is ending, and his wife has been cheating on him with yet another Columbia prof. His relationship with his preteen daughter Tess is the best thing he’s got at the opening of the novel. Unfortunately, through a series of uncanny events that lead to an impromptu trip to Venice sponsored by a mysterious employer, Tess is taken from him. David is willing to do anything to get her back, up to and including striding into Hell.

Now, the first thing that must be said is that The Demonologist takes itself pretty seriously. It is written about a university professor of literature by what sounds like an academic, probably a university professor of literature — or a writer trying very hard to sound like one. Pyper gets points there.

The story has thrilling, introspective and scary moments. On two separate occasions I was chilled, though this is not saying much, I am easily scared. I can’t even read the Bible without getting freaked out. Unfortunately for me, quotes from Milton and Revelations make up a substantial amount of the dialogue, and are the fulcrums on which the plot turns. This is both positive, as it fits in the academic narrator framework, and negative, as the relation between the quotation-clues seems arbitrary, though the quotations themselves are familiar.

Despite that, in a way, it all does work. The basis of the supernatural element of this work is that maybe all of the stories of angels and demons and denizens of hell are true, and the mind is a space — the ultimate battleground for humanity. What separates the sane and good from the morally compromised and possessed is the belief. Once you’ve gotten this and suspended reality, you are taken on quite a ride. Pyper’s David Ullman totally pulls this off.

Unfortunately for my opinion of the book, and this review, this wasn’t enough to win me over. For a book that takes itself as seriously as The Demonologist does, the number of tired tropes motivating the narration are just lazy. A cuckolded academic chosen to be the cosmic harbinger of demonic existence? A damsel in distress, and not only that, but also a child-like Eurydice? (The Orpheus/Eurydice trope is referenced in the text, but STILL). A terminally ill woman who has nothing more important to her in her final weeks than to join a seemingly insane friend on a cross country wild goose chase?

The jacket of the ARC I was reading (won through a FirstReads giveaway) said the book is in development for a movie. Well, it did read a lot like a screenplay at times. Not in a bad way. It was what it was.

Altogether, I think this is a book most readers will enjoy. I can’t say it wasn’t an engrossing read. If you’re not nitpicky, and can stomach the description of women (albeit dead women) being beaten, and a general lack of character development for them, well, have at it. Just read it during the day.

p.s. Click here to see the spoilers I removed in the full review on Goodreads, if you’re into that.

Review: Dead Man Rising (Dante Valentine, #2) by Lilith Saintcrow

Dead Man Rising (Dante Valentine, #2)Dead Man Rising by Lilith Saintcrow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m sure if I’d been having a better day I would be darkly amused by the glossary at the end of this book. The glossary which should have been at the end of the first book and also integrated into the story. But whatever.

I think what sets my teeth on edge so much about this series is how fundamentally damaged Dante Valentine is/is supposed to be, yet she doesn’t function like the fundamentally damaged, per se. I’m no expert and everyone is different, but there seem to be a good deal of psychological missteps here. Paired with unreliable narration, stingy exposition, and unusual pacing, I can’t love these books. I am not even sure if I can like them. Yet I seem to keep reading them?

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Review: Working for the Devil (Dante Valentine, #1) by Lilith Saintcrow

Working for the Devil (Dante Valentine, #1)Working for the Devil by Lilith Saintcrow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Okay, the long and short of it is that up until the last probably twenty pages I disliked this book, to a degree. No. Not true. I loathed it. Fiercely. The character development was not going very well and I was annoyed at how opaque the world-building and backstory were.

At 9% I was like “Ugh hope this gets better.” At 40% I was like “WHY WON’T SHE EXPLAIN ANYTHING OR LIKE, BE NICE TO HER FRIENDS?????” and now, at 69% I am just ultra baffled at why anyone would say this book is paced well and isn’t harboring a grudge against the editor that could have made it SO SO GOOD with very few well chosen suggestions. I will never again criticize info dumps. I will cherish them.

But then love story and glorious action. Stakes high enough. Realistic consequences. Tragedy.

This book still had a lot of flaws, but I was won over at the last minute. I guess all it takes to book-seduce me is to write me an unlikely romance and then kill off my favorite character. I have issues.

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Review: The House on Tradd Street (Tradd Street, #1) by Karen White

The House on Tradd Street (Tradd Street, #1)The House on Tradd Street by Karen White
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am not really big on mystery novels. This is not to say I can’t enjoy a good mystery in a novel. I just cannot handle it when the entire plot of a novel revolves around not knowing a bunch of very important things. I also loathe really obvious foreshadowing and poorly dealt out clues. Of course, these things can all be present in non -genre novels too. What was I saying? Oh yeah, this book had a lot of issues, but I liked it. I’m a huge sucker for the Southern small town secretsy society old buildings charming culturey setting. Like, big time. Even though I would probably hate living in any of these places.

Despite the Southern charm; this book is rife with plot holes and grammatical issues that an editor shouldn’t have missed. The protagonist, Melanie Middleton, is not sympathetic. She is a prickly bitch who has a number of really good friends for no discernible reason. She is 39 and clearly has severe Obsessive Compulsive issues as a result of childhood trauma, but doesn’t seek professional help despite being accurately diagnosed by multiple people in her life. I actually respected that she didn’t own casual clothing. But the way she kept fobbing the dog off on other people was the kiss of death for her in my eyes. The fact that I am interested in reading the sequel defies as much logic as she does but whatever I do what I want.

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Review: Divergent (Divergent, #1) by Veronica Roth

Divergent (Divergent, #1)Divergent by Veronica Roth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had a moment about midway into reading this book where I looked up and remarked aloud (I wasn’t alone in the room, not that that would have stopped me) that all authors steal, you know? They all have and they all do, and the difference between my noticing Veronica Roth “stealing” where I generally haven’t often noticed other authors before is that probably I’m just not as well read in their influences, predecessors, competitors, what have you.

It’s weird and feels wrong to admit, but I like dystopian fiction. I only say that it’s weird and feels wrong because I don’t particularly want to like it, as the idea of a dystopian future has haunted my nightmares since I was forced to watch the movie The Road two years ago. It was an awful experience, I was terrified and disgusted. However, I have to admit I like it because I’ve read so much of it. Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, The Hunger Games, The Host (yes, even Stephenie Meyer), Ender’s Game, Margaret Petersen Haddix’s Among the Hidden. To name a few.

Throughout Roth’s attempt to amalgamate these elements and visuals I was forcibly reminded of elements of all of these other works. It made me feel both kind of bored and also ridiculously well-read in this genre. But let’s focus on the boredom.

I couldn’t care too much about Tris because it became clear very early that our tiny, non-pretty, speshul snowflake wasn’t really going to come to harm. I liked her, but I’ve read book after book about small white blonde girls against the world, and it’s really tired. I only say this having read all of Tamora Pierce’s Alanna novels, plus other short authors like Laurell K. Hamilton (who I manage to mention in every. single. review. How??? I’m obsessed, clearly). We get it. Fighting people bigger than you is hard and takes more work. Geez. I should write a book where the protagonist faces the perils of bumping her head, can’t ever find long enough pants, tall enough dates, and consistently knocks things over in close quarters. Because normal to tall people seem to be an underrepresented minority in fiction. Or maybe I’m just being silly. Who knows.

But let’s not get me started about the feasibility of the entire plot. Getting through this novel required a huge suspension of not only disbelief, but also, you know, reality. Physics. Psychology. You know. Stuff.

It’s just so unlikely that the response to world disorder is a big ol’ personality quiz segregation. I mean, people are stupid, but it just doesn’t stand up to logic. Virtue ethics are great measures of character, but they don’t dictate behavior the way Roth designed the society to work.

All in all it just didn’t live up to the hype. Roth is a great writer, but I’ll hold out until a different series/novel appears to give her another go.

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