Thursday, February 24, 2022

Review: AND I DARKEN by Kiersten White


Rating: 2.5/5 stars

I’ve had this series sitting on my shelf for years, and it sounded like exactly the kind of story that I love: a Vlad the Impaler retelling but with a female lead, a princess who knows that brutality equals survival and ruthlessness means getting what she wants. Unfortunately, even though I loved our protagonist Lada, I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I had hoped to. 

To start with, a huge portion of this book was telling versus showing. Like someone was just recounting Lara’s childhood years and telling us what happened in her life, but we weren’t actually living those years with her. It felt like the narrator was just trying to get the readers up to speed with who Lada and Radu were, and this immediately made me feel very distanced from every single character. The first half of the book was written like this until we got to the "present day" that the story takes place in. 

I liked Lada as a character and loved her personality, and I appreciated the fact that she put herself before anyone else, including her own family and her own empire. I didn’t really care about any other characters though. Even Radu and Mehmed; they were forgettable to me.

One major thing that disappointed me was that this book is a fictionalized historical story. I expected this to be more of a fantasy, though I am not sure why now that I think about it. But I do not tend to like historical fiction, which I think is what primarily led to me not really liking this book. There was lots of talk about the Ottoman Empire and about Islam and about all the politics involved in that time, and I was just not interested whatsoever. It’s funny because I love fantasy politics, but as soon as they’re real-world politics involving real places and real people, even when they’re fictionalized, I completely lose interest. 

I think I would have enjoyed this story a lot more if Lada was a character based on Vlad the Impaler and the story was set in its own entirely fictitious world, instead of a historical account of Vlad the Impaler in 1400s Romania with Vlad being a female, which is what this book is. Those are two similar yet entirely different scenarios that would have resulted in a totally different reading experience. 

Overall, And I Darken was sadly not for me. I liked Lada, but she was not enough to make me care about any other aspect of this book. I spent most of the story being bored and uninterested, but I also think that’s partially my own fault since I didn’t realize how heavily this book focused on history. If you like historical fiction, or fictionalized historical retellings, you will likely have better luck with this series than I did. I also wonder if maybe Kiersten White isn’t the author for me, because this is the second book I’ve read by her that I haven’t cared for, and the second series of hers that I’m choosing not to continue past the first book. Either way, I’m sad I didn’t like this book, but I encourage you to check it out if it sounds like something you’ll enjoy because this was mostly a case of it’s not you, it’s me. 

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Review: UNTETHERED by KayLynn Flanders

 Rating: 3/5 stars

I really enjoyed Shielded and jumped right into Untethered as soon as I finished it. This is a fast-paced political high fantasy series with high stakes and lots of political intrigue, scheming, and machinations, plus a touch of romance.

Warning: Reading the synopsis of Untethered and even knowing who the POV characters are in this book will spoil you for the ending of Shielded. I will be talking about both POV characters, so if you don’t want to be spoiled for Shielded then don’t continue reading this review. There are no spoilers ahead for Untethered though.

While Jenna was our protagonist in the first book, Untethered follows two new POV characters: Chiara, Princess of Turia; and Ren, king of Halendi. Jenna isn’t a POV character anymore but we do still get to see cameos of her in this story. I liked the switch of character viewpoints because I feel like I got to know the cast of characters in a whole different way in this book. I also liked having another love story with romantic tension, and we wouldn’t have gotten that if Jenna was this book’s POV character again. One small problem, however, was that at times Chiara and Ren had the same character voice, so it was hard to tell them apart. This was especially the case in the latter half of the book when the two are together and doing, thinking, and worrying about the same things. Sometimes I had to flip back to the chapter’s start to remember whose mind I was in. 

We also got to see a lot more of Mari in this book, who I loved in the first book. The problem, though, is that Mari is eight years old but she’s written as if she were only four or five. Eight-year-olds are not dumb, but everyone acts like Mari’s so ignorant about all the danger going on around them, and she herself talks as if she’s just on some fun adventure and isn’t in actual mortal peril. That seemed quite unrealistic to me. I know many eight-year-olds who are wise for their age and can understand what danger is and know when they’re in an unsafe situation. I wish either Mari was written as being younger or was written as being more aware of her situation. 

Both Shielded and Untethered are journey books, where the characters spend a good portion of the novel going on a physical journey across the land to reach a specific destination for a purpose that progresses the overall plot. Untethered actually has two separate journeys in it. The stories don’t necessarily fall into the hero’s journey archetype, but people who enjoy those kinds of stories will probably enjoy this duology. Aside from the journey, both books also have a good amount of court politics taking place, so these books feel like a mix of a couple different types of fantasy stories, which I thought was nice. Usually, we get one or the other but not both so prominently in one story. Journey books typically end with the characters reaching the destination and that’s the resolution, but in these books, the journey ends mid-book while the plot is still in high gear. It was a technique I feel like I haven’t seen a lot of, so it was refreshing to me.

I really wish this series had a map. I feel like it’s a detriment to these books that there’s no map to accompany them, especially since so much of the plot relies on traversing the land and knowing about specific locations and which routes to take to get there and which lands border each other. A series that talks about geography as much as this one does should definitely have a map, but it doesn’t, and that makes me sad. 

My opinions on this second installment seem fairly split. There were a lot of facets of the story that I enjoyed: getting to both see old characters and get to know new characters; there being lots of adventure; lots of political intrigue, including disguises and betrayals and twists; discussions about trust, both in trusting someone to not be two-faced but also trusting someone to take care of your heart; a very slow-burn but satisfying romance; and the character arc of Chiara, a protagonist who is often viewed as weak and dismissed by the people around her but who wanted to find her strength and purpose and set out to do so without letting anyone’s expectations or opinions get in her way. 

However, there were also a lot of aspects about this book that didn’t work for me: the two POV characters having similar voices; characterization traits that didn’t match the characters; the lack of a map; the fact that while this story started out fast-paced, the last 100 pages were very slow-moving and were hard for me to get through, making the pacing of the whole book feel uneven; and the book being longer than it needed to be. 

Overall, I would still recommend this duology, especially the first book, Shielded, which I thought was the stronger of the two. I enjoyed the overall story and the characters, and I appreciated seeing a clean book in YA fantasy. I think KayLynn Flanders is a good writer, and I look forward to seeing what she comes out with next. 

Monday, February 14, 2022

Review: BOOK LOVERS by Emily Henry


Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Full of laugh-out-loud humor, snark, and incredible banter, Book Lovers is the compulsively readable enemies-to-lovers romance you’ve been waiting for. It's heartwarming and just plain fun to read with a fantastic story and fantastic characters to match. 

I loved this. Book Lovers got me out of a reading slump and I stayed up until 2 a.m. trying to fit in just one more chapter, for real just one more, until I had read over a hundred pages and wanted to keep going. 

Nora is a literary agent known as “the Shark” for how cutthroat she is; all the editors are afraid of her. Charlie is a top-notch editor who only takes on books that will be mega successes. When the two clash over lunch one day, Nora thinks she’s done working with him for good. 

But then Nora’s sister takes the two of them on a girls' trip to a small town in the South for a month-long relaxing vacation, and Nora (literally) runs into Charlie at a local restaurant.

I love books and the publishing world, and I myself am an editor, so this book just suited me so well. It also has so many literary references that I can’t help but smile at how aptly named this book is: Book Lovers is the book for book lovers. It gets pretty meta at times but I think that’s the point and only added to its strengths.

It’s ironic because the prologue talks about the classic small-town romance and all the tropes and pitfalls associated with that kind of story, and Emily Henry takes that concept and totally subverts it. Book Lovers is a small-town romance, but the love interest isn’t a sexy farmer or a buff lumberjack or a nice fisherman; he’s a rich and snarky professional at the top of his game who’s also from the big city. The heroine isn’t into pigtails and flannel, nor is ready to give up her city life to move to the small town for the man; she’s a ruthless and semi-emotionless career woman with a string of failed relationships who intimidates her peers. I love how Emily Henry gave us totally unconventional characters but still made them lovable and fun to be around. I loved being in Nora’s head. 

I was truly impressed with this novel, and I loved all my time spent reading it. After reading so much epic fantasy lately, this contemporary romance was the perfect palate cleanser for me. I loved the characters, and I loved their relationships. I absolutely flew through its pages, reading more in one sitting than is normal for me. I loved it, and it was so easy to read and get lost in. As with any good romance, the book delves into some deeper topics as well, which I appreciated. Nothing too heavy, but it gave the characters some depth and believable backstories. 

That’s the thing about women. There’s no good way to be one. Wear your emotions on your sleeves and you’re hysterical. Keep them tucked away where your boyfriend doesn’t have to tend to them, and you’re a heartless bitch.

I would say Book Lovers is much more of a contemporary fiction story than it is a romance. Yes, of course, there's romance and it plays a big role, but this story is primarily about Nora. It's about her life and her dreams and her desires. We learn so much about Nora's past and her childhood and that she misses her late mother so intensely. We learn about her job as an agent and about her top client and the project she's currently working on. The majority of the plot of this novel, however, revolves around Nora's relationship and adventures with her sister, Libby, and we spend more of the book with the two of them together than we do with Nora and Charlie. It's a beautiful portrayal of a realistic sibling relationship (I'm guessing; I'm an only child, but it seemed very genuine to me). 

That said, I do love Nora and Charlie together. They're both slightly unlikeable people who are just a little quirky but who work so well together because of that. They just get each other. They're both career people who are known to be ruthless in their jobs, but I love that we get to see a softer side of each of them that most of their acquaintances don't get to see. They also have some of the funniest banter I've ever read, and I was legitimately laughing out loud throughout the whole book. 

“What did this phone do to you?”
“It’s not the phone so much as the sociopathic super-bitch who lives inside it.”
“Most people just call her Siri.”

Book Lovers was my first Emily Henry book but I know it won't be my last. I already own Beach Read and I’m planning on buying People We Meet on Vacation soon because I want more of this—more of her easy and engaging writing style, more of her witty banter, and more of her realistic but lovable characters. This romance is untraditional but still so swoon-worthy and I definitely recommend it. 

This, I think, is what it is to dream, and I finally understand why Mom could never give it up, why my authors can't give it up, and I'm happy for them, because this wanting, it feels good, like a bruise you need to press on, a reminder that there are things in life so valuable that you must risk the pain of losing them for the joy of briefly having them. 

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Review: KINDRED by Octavia E. Butler


Rating: 4/5 stars

This book was so interesting, and I immediately want to check out more works from Octavia Butler now. 

Kindred follows Dana, a Black woman who lives in 1976, as she inexplicably gets teleported back to the early 1800s in the South. She learns that she is being sent back to help her distant ancestor, the white son of a slave owner, whenever he is in trouble, but she doesn't know why or how it's happening. 

The concept of putting a person from the modern-day back into the time of slavery was fascinating to me. It feels like Octavia Butler did a lot of research for this book on the life of slaves and how they were treated. It felt genuine to me, at least. It was really interesting to see the juxtaposition of Dana, who is educated, with both the slaves and the white people in the 1800s, who all seem to know less than her. She gradually imparts her knowledge of historical events that take place in their future and some modern medical practices, as well as uses her reading and writing skills to help and teach others. 

Dana is a wonderful and strong protagonist. She stands up for herself and for other slaves, even to white men who are treating them wrong. She refuses to let anyone do anything to her that she does not consent to. I really enjoyed seeing her educate her ancestor when he was in the wrong. Dana does a lot to help the slaves in the past. 

Reading about slavery, even in fiction, is hard and not particularly enjoyable because it's horrible to think about people being treated in such a way and grappling with the fact that it really happened. That said, this book was still a good book and I would recommend it, and I think it's an important book too. Butler is an excellent writer. 

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Review: SHIELDED by KayLynn Flanders


Rating: 4.5/5 stars

I’d originally heard that Shielded was similar to Graceling as well as The Kiss of Deception, which are two of my all-time favorite young adult fantasies, so that alone was enough to get me to pick this up. Also, the author graduated from the same university as me with the same degree as me, so I felt this immediate connection to her and wanted to read her books as soon as I learned that.

Shielded feels like a classic young adult epic fantasy but in all the best ways. It’s set in its own world, and the female protagonist, Jenna, has inherent magic within her. She wants to fight but isn’t allowed to, so she trains in secret to use a sword. Her father, the king, needs more troops to fight the war at their country’s border, so he decides to send her off to be married to the prince of the next kingdom over in exchange for military aid from them (that part reminded me of The Bridge Kingdom, which is also a book I love). 

The magic here does remind me of the magic in The Kiss of Deception, and the court politics are similar to those in Bitterblue, the third Graceling book. Plus the romance was similar to those found in both series. I was so excited to see that this book’s comparisons were not untrue. I can safely add Shielded to my list of favorite young adult fantasies. I don’t know what it is about these three series but they all have a similar feel to them, which must be why I like them all so much. 

Shielded has a lot of political intrigue, which is one of my favorite plot devices in epic fantasies. There is misplaced trust, hesitant alliances, and betrayals, and I loved it all. 

This book also features a strong brother-sister relationship between Jenna and her brother, Ren. I loved seeing them together and it made me wish I had my own older brother. I also loved seeing Jenna with Mari and Chiara, the princesses of Turia. They were fast friends, and it was so much fun to see them playing together and acting like sisters and hiding from the guards. All of the character relationships in this book were done well, in my opinion. 

Of course, I also loved Prince Enzo. It took a while for him to show up in the book, which I appreciated because the love interest usually shows up right away in young adult stories. But in Shielded, Jenna gets to be herself and learn to fight and survive on her own before she ever meets Enzo, which was a nice change of pace. 

There were a couple things about the book that I didn’t prefer, such as the pacing when Jenna was alone in the Wilds felt a little too slow compared to the faster pacing of the rest of the book, and also the fact that there is a moment when the king and queen know a killer and traitor is in their midst inside the castle, yet they still leave their two young daughters alone in the castle while they go away on political business. That specific moment felt like it was included as a plot device, but it was minor enough that it didn’t bother me too much. 

Overall, Shielded was a great book, and I’m so happy I ended up loving it. It was adventurous and fun with just the right amount of action scenes. The character relationships were one of my favorite things about the story, as well as all of the unexpected turns the plot took. I definitely recommend this one to any YA fantasy fans out there. 

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Review: SHE WHO RIDES THE STORM by Caitlin Sangster

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

I was so excited to read this book when I first heard about it. That gorgeous cover + a blurb by Brandon Sanderson + my book club’s monthly pick + a fantasy heist with magic and two romances? Hook, line, and sinker. Unfortunately, I really really struggled with all aspects of this book and had to DNF on page 84 (14%) because I noticed myself actively avoiding the book by choosing to do anything else other than reading, which is always a bad sign. 

To start with, She Who Rides the Storm is marketed as a young adult fantasy because the characters are all teens, but this should really be marketed as an adult fantasy instead. It reads like an adult fantasy and has intricate magic like an adult fantasy and drops you into the world mid-story without explaining anything like an adult fantasy. Initially, this made me more excited to read it because I tend to prefer adult fantasy over young adult fantasy, but I actually think the way this was handled here was to this book’s detriment. 

This book has lots of POVs. I think maybe four or six? I’m not sure because it was hard to keep them all straight or figure out whose perspective I was reading from. Sometimes I was even convinced I was reading from a third-person omniscient POV, which just wasn’t working for me. We’re introduced to a ton of characters right at the beginning, and each person has something special about them. I was not able to connect with or care about any of the characters, however. I’m also not sure which character is supposed to be represented on the cover because she doesn’t seem to resemble any of the ones I met. 

I cannot pinpoint a specific reason why, but I just could not focus on the story. Nothing was drawing me in and it was very slow-moving. There were lots of new terminologies that weren’t being explained that I could never intuit what they meant. That combined with a brand new world that also wasn’t being explained and the huge cast of characters I couldn’t connect to and a plot that was hard to follow was all too much for me. Often it took me an hour to read only ten pages. Like I said, I struggled

I’m very sad She Who Rides the Storm did not work for me because I genuinely wanted to love this book. The synopsis sounded so good, plus there are the reasons I listed above for why I was so excited fo it. But then I had to ask myself if this book didn’t have a pretty cover and it wasn’t blurbed by Brandon Sanderson would I feel bad about DNFing it? And I concluded no, I wouldn’t. Those are superficial reasons to continue reading a book when I’m struggling so intensely and actively finding other things to do so I don’t have to read it. That’s a sign I need to put it down. However, if I am able to find an audiobook in the future I would consider finishing it because it is so much easier to finish difficult books when I’m effortlessly listening to someone read them to me versus me reading them to myself. 

Overall, I am disappointed with this book. I expected to love it; I expected it to be a new favorite novel. But it just wasn’t working for me. Every time I read a new page my brain couldn’t absorb any information about the story and I was constantly confused about what was happening. This book could have greatly benefitted from a glossary because of all the new terminology and the types of magic and the gods, etc. From the first chapter we are introduced to these new fantastical concepts, but there were never any explanations, so I felt distanced from the story and confused the entire time I was reading it. There were lots of elements of this story that I should have loved: fantasy heist, Indiana Jones vibes, ancient tomb setting (supposedly; never got that far), revenge, fantasy religions, different types of magic, forbidden love, fake dating, and multiple POVs. But I honestly didn’t like anything about this book. I really really hate to say it but She Who Rides the Storm was nothing but a struggle for me and I cannot in good conscience recommend it.