Monday, July 25, 2016

ARC Review: Vicarious by Paula Stokes

Title: Vicarious (Vicarious, #1)

Author: Paula Stokes

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: August 16th, 2016

Paula Stokes is full of surprises. When her debut, The Art of Lainey, burst onto the scene, ticking off all the right boxes for Contemporary YA, I thought for sure that I had discovered a new go-to author for the genre. Imagine my surprise when her sophomore novel, Liars, Inc. was full of mystery; a thriller featuring diversity in multiple ways. I knew her next contemporary novel would be stellar, but Girl Against the Universe surpassed my wildest expectations. So, when Vicarious fell into my lap, I knew only one thing: I would not be disappointed. And I was absolutely right.

Stokes's latest is a far cry from any of her previous novels. And, I suspect, to a large degree it's wildly different from most other YA novels out there, even within its genre. Winter, our heroine, owes everything to her older sister, Rose, and foster brother, Gideon, who helped her escape North Korea and, later, trafficking in California. Now, Winter works for Gideon, recording dangerous activities to create ViSEs. With a ViSE, not only can you see from the eyes of the recorder, watching as they bungee jump or escape the cops, but you can feel their neural impulses--the adrenaline, the fear, the excitement. While Rose spends her time in clubs, dealing with her past the only way she knows, Winter trains, making herself impenetrable and working her body to withstand even the most deadly of actions. But when a ViSE of Rose's murder turns up in Gideon's office, Winter is determined to find and avenge her sister's death--no matter the cost.

Winter is a completely bad-ass protagonist. She's focused and no-nonsense, so while some may dislike her serious nature, I appreciated her upfront honesty about her own personality. Her past is a vicious monster--and not just the fact that she escaped from North Korea. There's also the immense debt she feels she owes to both Rose and Gideon for making sure she escaped the trafficking situation they were caught up in in California. The combination of these two make Winter's past a depressing part of the novel. But, Stokes is careful to accompany Winter's darkness alongside plenty of action, not to mention lighter scenes and even humor from other, secondary, characters. Winter's relationship with her sister isn't perfect--after all, Winter doesn't understand why Rose uses her sexuality and is constantly seen with different men--but she adores her older sister as well. Even though Rose dies early in the novel, I still felt as if I knew her character, and most importantly her relationship with Winter, very well.

One of my favorite aspects to this story, though, is the romance. It takes a backseat throughout the novel but it's a slow-burn that utterly won me over and had me swooning from the beginning. Jesse is a friend of Winter's, someone who also works for Gideon and has had a tough past of his own. But he genuinely cares for Winter and watching as he breaks down her barriers and convinces her of his affection, despite her past and the demons she carries, is a highlight of the story. Their friendship is rock-solid, the trust between them a pillar for Winter to find support upon in the face of her sister's death. I also love that their relationship isn't always easy--not for Winter and certainly not for Jesse. But it's so rewarding and I'm really looking forward to seeing how it develops in the sequel.

Vicarious is a thriller from start to finish. I found myself flipping these pages, wondering at who could have killed Rose, where she was at the time of her death, and the people she spoke to. As Winter interrogates those in her life, she uncovers secrets about her sister that she never even suspected and the influx of clues and leads, not to mention dead-ends, makes for an exciting read. Add in the complex personalities of Winter--and Jesse's utter charm--and I'd have been sold. But Stokes also has another trick up her sleeve--the ViSEs. And, damn, they are cool. I love how the ViSEs were an integral aspect to Rose's death but, also, we get to see them filmed and in action later in the novel. Clearly, they're going to be playing an even bigger role in the sequel and I loved the futuristic tint that the ViSEs provided to this world, which is otherwise identical to ours.

The best part about Vicarious are all the twists and turns that you won't see coming. I was shocked and reeling by the end of this novel and though it is a part of a duology, with this portion of the story wrapped up, I want the sequel--now. Yet, for all its seeming perfection, I will say that I had a few sliiight issues with Vicarious. Namely, that I found it to drag a little in the middle. There are a lot of back-to-back sequences with lots of action, whether it be Winter tracking down her sister's body or haunting the places she frequented or visiting people that only Rose knew. There are also a lot of really intriguing ViSEs that we get to see--ViSEs that Winter finds of Rose and her adventures. But then, somewhere in the middle, I found myself flipping the pages and wondering when the action would pick up again. I think that with so many fast-paced scenes, the slower moments feel a little too slow. Thankfully, it doesn't seem that way for too long and Stokes regains her momentum, stunning readers with more action-shots, ViSEs, and plot twists.

Thus, all-in-all, I'm totally impressed and utterly in love with this book. It is clear that Stokes's research is impeccable and her incorporation of diverse characters, their heritage and their struggles, is admirable. Even if you're not looking for more diversity in YA, the mystery, the plot twists, and the thrills will keep you glued to your seat. And for fans of deeper connections, complex personalities, and tough relationships--Stokes delivers on that as well. Vicarious has something in it for everyone--read it, at least so that I'm not counting down the days to its sequel by myself. ;)

If you're interested in my GIF-ridden pre-review of the novel, you can find it here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review: The Young Elites by Marie Lu

Title: The Young Elites (The Young Elites, #1)

Author: Marie Lu

Rating: 4 Stars

In the back copy of this novel, Marie Lu writes that her protagonist is a villain, not a hero. It is this fact that makes The Young Elites stand out from a sea of fantasy-lite YA fiction. When we first meet her, Adelina is in prison for the murder of her father. Right off the bat, our heroine is not a good person--and I loved this. Lu wrote Adelina as a flawed, deeply dark individual and though she's not usually correct, I found that I could understand and relate to her, on some human level, and that has made all the difference.

The world of The Young Elites isn't wholly unique--after all, the main conflict of this book lies in the fact that a fraction of the community is gifted and a group of them rebel against the government to end discrimination against their kind--but the surrounding backstory to this set-up certainly is. When a blood fever sweeps across the entire nation, killing off all inflicted adults, the children who survive are changed. They return alive, but with certain features marking them out to be malfetto, some of whom even have magical abilities which make them Elite. Thus, the Young Elites. When the crown prince, Enzo, also survived the blood fever, the kingdom decides that he is unfit to rule. Enzo, however, is determined to have his throne and forms The Dagger Society, consisting of Elites who use their powers with the intent of saving others like them. When he saves Adelina from her execution in the brink of time, Adelina joins their cause, training her powers for the first time in her life. But Adelina's magic is dark--she is an illusion-weaver--and the Inquisition who captured her still holds her younger sister, turning her a spy for the only organization that has ever taken her in and treated her like family.

The Young Elites is so well-crafted. This entire narrative is sprinkled with Adelina's childhood memories; growing up in a household where her beauty was deformed by her missing eye and changed appearance; where her father resented her and loved her beautiful, unmarked younger sister; where at times Adelina resented her sweet younger sister for escaping the fever unscathed and for currying her father's favor in the wake of their mother's death. It's a painful past, but one that gives Adelina purpose and for all her swirling darkness, I found her to be instantly relatable. I was caught between her loyalty for her sister and her devotion to the Daggers just as she was and, truly, cannot say that I would have acted any differently had I been in her shoes, with her past. Lu makes us understand Adelina on a deep, nearly psychological, level and I appreciated those glimpses into who she truly was.

What makes The Young Elites such an impressive novel is its development of Adelina's powers. Training sessions in Fantasy novels can be a chore, at times, but watching Adelina hone her abilities, which remained hidden throughout her childhood, was a highlight of the novel. Further, the schemes of The Young Elites and their plans to put Enzo on the throne, alongside their flaws in only rescuing Elites and ignoring the plight of non-Elites, drew me into the politics of the world. Further, ever small tidbit of information that Lu gives us in the first three-quarters of the novel all comes back, tying together this piece and ending it all with a series of plot twists and conclusions I could never predict. It's been so long since I read a YA novel whose ending I didn't see from a mile away so I applaud Lu on her superb plot-crafted with this novel. It's just remarkable.

The secondary characters, consisting of Adelina's sister and father and Enzo and the Daggers, not to mention the Head Inquisitor Teren, are all so well-developed. I knew nearly all of them just as well as I knew Adelina and that is no easy task. The romance, which feels more like a character development choice than a true romance, was unique and intriguing in a way I haven't seen too often. There's a spark between Enzo and Adelina from the beginning but the complications that exist in their relationship are too great for anything to truly blossom between them. But, Enzo's affection is a huge turning point for Adelina's own growth and I loved watching as her attachment to the Daggers changed her, fundamentally.

This sophomore series from Lu impressed me immensely. I thought her debut was a little too familiar--similar enough in plot and characters to so many other dystopians that I lost interest--but I dare you not to be wholly entranced by this world and characters. I have no idea what will happen in the sequels--this is one of those series!--but I am confident that it will surprise me at every turn.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Review: And I Darken by Kiersten White

Title: And I Darken (The Conquerors Saga, #1)

Author: Kiersten White

Rating: 4 Stars

I've never disliked White's novels. I thought her Paranormalcy trilogy was unique in defying the kick-ass heroine trend by presenting a protagonist who cared about her appearance, dresses, and the color pink. The plot itself never stood out, but it wasn't a BAD debut. Her more recent endeavor, Illusions of Fate, proved that she could write a well-developed fantasy and I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed it. But all of those novels had some distinct characteristics that were classic White. In comparison, And I Darken feels as if it was written by someone else entirely. Needless to say, I am thoroughly impressed by just how far White has come in her writing career and this book--this book!--is absolutely stunning.

In truth, And I Darken is a simple story. It is a historical fiction novel set during the time of the Ottoman Empire. Lada, the second legitimate child born to Vlad Dracul and his only daughter, loves her country Wallachia. Growing up alongside her younger brother Radu, Lada idolizes her father and does everything she can to be indispensable to him. It is Lada, not Radu, who learns to fight and hold her own. It is Lada who rides like a man and swears like a sailor. Radu, gentle and sweet with the face of an angel, grows up in the shadow of his older sister, ignored by his father and bullied by Lada who tries to toughen him up in a world where he sobs for every difficulty. Theirs is an interesting relationship for Radu and Lada love each other very much but the way in which they express that love is defeated by one another. When the two siblings are roughly thirteen, they travel to the capital of the Ottoman Empire and are kept there as collateral, their lives dependent on their father obeying the sultan. While Radu embraces his new home, turning to Islam and finding his place in a way he never found before, Lada never forgets Wallachia and swears she will return, no matter the cost.

And I Darken alternates between Lada and Radu's third person PoV from their birth roughly to the age of thirteen. Their childhood relationships with each other, their father, their friends and Wallachia itself are important to understanding these two protagonists and their vastly different natures. Once they arrive in Edirne, Lada and Radu begin to change over the course of the next three years into people they can barely recognize. Radu learns to fight, not with his hands and fists but with his cunning. His handsome face is trusting and allows him to enter circles that Lada cannot, making him indispensable as a spy. Of the two, it is Radu who understands human nature; who can watch and learn from body language the truth of what is being said. Lada, meanwhile, continues her studies, both educationally and physically, training day and night. The evolving relationship between these two siblings broke my heart time and time again because there is a great deal and love and affection between them but there are also misunderstandings--a pattern that anyone with siblings will understand (I know I did).

What I love most about Lada and Radu, though, is that they don't take on traditional gender-roles. In fact, you could argue that Lada is more of a man than Radu because of her brute strength and Radu uses his appearance to his advantage in a way that Lada perhaps should have learnt. Watching Lada, especially, navigate the different types of power structures that her gender can take on--whether it be the power that comes from being a woman in the harem or that of a servant girl rising the ranks--she is shocked and surprised to learn that she can use her body and men to her advantage instead of constantly trying to imitate them. There's also a fascinating discussion, here, of privilege--of the fact that Radu can be soft and gentle but is still afforded an education and can chose to marry whomever he wishes because he is a man. Had Lada acted the way he does, she would not have been given the education she possesses and, what's more, she would have been married off at the first opportunity. It's a really subtle, but important, message of gender roles that White imbibes throughout this narrative and I must applaud her for it.

I cannot lie--there is a love triangle to be found within these pages--but before you run away from this novel, let me tell you that I absolutely loved this love triangle. In a masochistic kind of way because it hurt, but it also hurt so good! I've been waiting for YA to get off its heteronormative high horse and embrace love triangles where not all members are necessarily straight and nor do all members put their love above all else. And that's exactly what we get here. Lada and Radu befriend Mehmed, the third in line for the throne, and their friendship grows and develops into something much more. But it's so much more than a simple romance. It's an affection that changes Lada and Radu's relationship and, further, it makes Lada question what she truly wants from life. Mehmed, as a sultan, will own a harem and have many wives--a concept that Lada rejects entirely. There are so many intricacies to the relationship between these three--their friendship and romance and reliance on one another for Mehmed trusts few others the way he trusts these two siblings--and I love that their story arc is intertwined with politics and passion, equally.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect, though, about this novel is its discussion of Islam. Radu embraces Islam and eventually converts, an action that Lada, who has little love in her heart for God, condemns. But White writes about Islam in a positive light, never preaching but rather teaching a few of the basic principles and how they bring Radu and Mehmed peace. It's a bold move, especially in a time period that is fraught with anti-Muslim sentiment, but she couldn't have done justice to the Ottoman Empire without writing about Islam. Moreover, the Ottoman Empire spans many different nations and I enjoyed getting to meet characters from all parts of the world with allegiances that didn't always lie with the Ottoman Empire or the sultan himself. White's world-building in this historical fiction piece is well-researched and flawless. I don't know how accurate it truly is, but it certainly felt extremely authentic.

I'm curious to see how this narrative progresses and am terrified for the future of these characters. White has made me care about Lada, Radu, and Mehmed immensely and to see them get pieces of what they've always wanted is going to be an interesting journey. Lada's story arc, especially, is inspirational and touches so close to home for it is the journey of a girl who is struggling to find her place in a world of men. For me, the only downfall of this novel is that I didn't love Mehmed with the passion that Lada and Radu did. I understood why they loved him, but I didn't share their sentiments and that distance made it slightly difficult for me to root for Mehmed, in this narrative. But perhaps I am not meant to cheer on the sultan who has nearly everything. Lada and Radu, the two royal siblings of Wallachia who, against all odds, are thriving in the Ottoman Empire, are my heroine and hero. I will follow them to the ends of the earth.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

ARC Review: A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet

Title: A Promise of Fire (Kingmaker Chronicles, #1)

Author: Amanda Bouchet

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: August 2nd, 2016

A Promise of Fire fell just short of being truly remarkable. This debut romantic fantasy, straddling the line between New Adult and Adult more than anything else, is impossible to set down. I read it in a single setting and am thoroughly impressed by Bouchet's writing, world-building, and characters. Are we sure she's a debut author? I've been burned far too often by new-to-me authors this year, so color me surprised that Bouchet lived up to my expectations--and then some. But, as most of you will know, fantasy is my favorite genre. I am nearly impossible to please when it comes to a fantasy novel--everything has to be just perfect in a way it doesn't with nearly every other genre--and in that regard, A Promise of Fire fails. Yet, though it may not be a favorite, or even close to one of the best fantasy (and even romantic fantasy) novels out there, it's still really damn good.

Cat, the protagonist of our novel, hails from Fisa, the northernmost kingdom, home to powerful magicians and a bloodthirsty monarchy. She is a Kingmaker, a rare breed born only once every hundred or so years, and has spent much of her life regretting her powers. Tortured as a child, escaping with only her life, and now living with a circus troupe in the southernmost kingdom of Sinta--safe--for eight years, Cat has learned to let down her guard and, grudgingly, allow other people in. Until, that is, she is kidnapped by Griffin and his crew of three other men. Griffin and the majority of his people are non-magical and, against all odds, Griffin has placed his sister on the throne of Sinta. But he needs magical aid to keep her there and there is no one more powerful than Cat to help him. Cat, however, is stubborn and dangerous--a deadly combination--and there are people and forces scarier than Griffin after her blood. If she can escape unscathed, it will be a miracle. If she falls for Griffin and drags him down with her...there might be war.

The sparks between Cat and Griffin are flying off the page from their first encounter. Cat has grown up tortured and terrified and, as such, she's skeptical of love, trust, and friendship. Griffin slowly, but surely, gains all three from her over the course of the novel. Their constant verbal sparring, false barbs, and hate-to-love story arc makes up the majority of this novel--and I loved it. Both Cat and Griffin are perhaps a little too similar to work well together, but they match one another and challenge each other in a way that few others are able to. Without a doubt, their romance is the highlight of this novel and though this slow-burn is painful, at times, the pay-off is completely worth it.

The world-building of this realm, ruled by three kingdoms, is also expertly written by Bouchet. While it takes awhile for the full extent of the world-building to come to light, it all eventually does. Everything from tales of the lost princess of Fisa to the manner in which royals murder one another for power, not to mention the worship of Greek Gods and Goddesses, is fascinating and unique. I'm not completely certain why these people worship Zeus, Hades, Poseidon and the likes, but seeing as they're a violent and warring people, perhaps it makes sense. All this, alongside two factions of people--those who can perform magic and those who can't--with some tid-bits of Greek mythology, such as an Oracle, make this a fascinating realm. The politics, in particular, between these three realms are well-done but I definitely believe that Bouchet has a ways to go in expanding this world and making certain distinctions--or blendings, rather--of Greek mythology and magic a little clearer. Yet, with the romance as the central aspect to this novel, not to mention the character relationships between Cat and Griffin, plus his close friends and teammates, the world-building was satisfactory, to say the least.

Where this novel falters, for me, is in its--rather unnecessary--prolongation of events. Cat isn't the most mature 23-year-old in the world and her stubborn nature causes her and Griffin to want very different paths for their future, mostly because Griffin doesn't know the whole truth about Cat's past. It's a harmless and rather easy-to-guess plot twist that is heavily hinted at, roughly half-way through the novel, but Bouchet keeps her lips sealed and is sitting on this "reveal", probably for the sequels. I get rather easily irritated when characters fail to communicate or can't guess at obvious secrets, so I found myself exasperated with Cat and Griffin towards the end of this novel. It doesn't help that Bouchet could have easily turned this novel in a more political direction and rather fails to, opting instead for more near-death experiences and romantic moments.

Like I said, this novel thrives on the romance. And it's a well-written, remarkable love story--don't get me wrong--but by the conclusion of this story, I wanted more politics and plot twists and something more to prove that this trilogy had a backbone of fantasy alongside the romance. It is inevitable that the sequels will have to bring on the politics at the heart of this story--I hope--and Cat is a strong, capable heroine--one who is powerful and can hold her own, as shown multiple times throughout this story--so I will, without a doubt, be picking up Bouchet's sophomore novel. A Promise of Fire is at its best when the sexual tension between Cat and Griffin sizzles, the slow-burn romance dominates, and the world-building is developing. It's un-put-down-able as Cat conquers her inner fears and her past, learning to love and trust and find her own family. Only towards the very end, when it explodes in romance did it let me down, slightly. For lovers of YA Fantasy, A Promise of Fire is better than fantasy-lite, and for those who adore a healthy dose of romance, Bouchet's debut can't disappoint. For those hard-core fantasy lovers like me, I think this novel will strike a cord--and definitely prove read-able. And, who knows, perhaps the sequels will have even have my heart.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Review: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Title: A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic, #1)

Author: V. E. Schwab

Rating: 4 Stars

I'm obsessed. I'll admit that I avoided picking up A Darker Shade of Magic when it first released because of its minimalist, and rather unappealing, U.S. cover (I cheated and am using the UK cover on the blog--I'm sorry, okay? I just want my blog to look pretty!). But, damn, what a remarkable story. Schwab's debut, The Near Witch, was a novel I found to be entirely dull and, consequently, I've largely ignored her other novels. Until, that is, an ARC of This Savage Song arrived on my doorstep and I proceeded to be enraged, enthralled, and all-too-emotionally-unstable on a train ride back to college. I've since wanted to read her entire backlog but, having started with A Darker Shade of Magic, I wonder now how I will manage to read anything else, forget another one of Schwab's novels. I want to live, breath, and die in this world with Kell, Lila, and Rhy. I want to forget that I live in America, not London--not even Grey London--and escape back into this beautiful, wonderful book. Like I said, I'm obsessed.

A Darker Shade of Magic is one of the most innovative fantasy novels I've come across. Kell is one of two people in the universe who can travel between worlds--Grey, or normal; Red, or magical; White, or caught in-between magic and its evil counterparts; and Black, or a world consumed by dark magic and now simply a wasteland. As an Antari, or blood magician, Kell is revered in his land and has grown up as the adopted prince of the realm. Truly, though, Kell feels as if he is little more than a puppet to the crown, sworn to deliver messages to the rulers of the Grey and White worlds. While Kell finds family in Rhy, his brother and the true prince, there is a restlessness in him--a yearning, if you will--for something of his own. It is this that fuels his life as a smuggler, bringing objects from different worlds back to Red and vice-versa. It doesn't matter that this is treason--is illegal--because either than Kell, there is only one other known Antari, Holland, and he is being held captive by the twins who rule White. When Kell's smuggling lands him with a dark and dangerous object, it throws Kell's life and the stability of his world into chaos. Into this enters Lila, a thief who has lived on her own for far too long. When she steals this object--a stone--from Kell, their lives become inexplicably intertwined and, surprisingly, Kell finds that he needs Lila's help to destroy the object and restore peace to the lands.

From early on, Schwab makes this tale irresistible. Whether it be her descriptions of these worlds--each similar, but eerily different in their politics and the manner in which magic works within them--or even just a description of Kell's magical coat, her world-building is spot-on and impeccable. Her characterization, too, is mesmerizing for I am in love with Kell, Lila, and Rhy even after having spent such little time in their world. Rhy and Lila are easy to root for and connect with--after all, Rhy is a prince of a magical kingdom with no magical ability of his own but he is charming and sweet, the type of royal who is loved by his people and will do everything in his power for them. Lila, on the other hand, is stubborn and hesitant to trust, yearning for a place to belong but relishing the thrill of adventure. I admired her strong will and her fearlessness in traveling to worlds she only barely knew about. If there is a definition of "kick-ass" then, surely, her name is beside it for she can wield her knife and fend for herself, saving even Kell multiple times, but she's also emotionally strong for surviving the hard hand she drew in life and still persisting despite it all.

Kell, on the other hand, is tough to read; his serious nature makes him a hero who isn't likely to win our hearts with a joke or smile--those are rare, and far between--but his loyalty, his innate sense of good, and his all-too-human penchant for making mistakes is charming. There is so much more to his character than we are able to uncover in this novel but I loved being inside his head and, most of all, watching his interactions with Lila. They irritate each other, but they also challenge one another and their adventure allows them to understand one another in a way that only the best hate-to-friendship arc can achieve--I loved them. Together, apart, you name it; I am wholly enthralled by this world and its characters. The villains are terrifying, the stakes are high, and the ending is not easy or wrapped up with a bow--at least, not for these characters since the repercussions of these events will, I am sure, be felt for a long time to come.

A Darker Shade of Magic can be read as a stand-alone, though--BUT, I must say that I am so very glad it is not. I want more of this world and characters and I am confident Schwab will deliver in the sequel. The politics of this universe leave much more to be explored and even these characters, as deeply as we know them now, have many more layers to peel behind--of that I am sure. I don't care, truly, if no one else ever picks up this book. I am selfish about my favorite books--I like to keep them close to my heart where few others can peer closely enough to see their titles. So, read this--if you want--but know that I loved it. And I so rarely love a book.