Book Reviews: Part XIII

Four books to review in this installment, including a pair of books from personal favorites, a fantasy/sci-fi hybrid, and a new superhero entry that’s so damn readable.

Destroyed by Madeline Dyer

DestroyedI suppose with a title like Destroyed, an unhappy ending was inevitable.

And that’s all I’ll say about the ending, because to spoil the ending would be to deprive you of the satisfying yet heart-wrenching conclusion to one of the best, most intense, most well-written dystopian series I’ve read. Madeline Dyer is at her best in Destroyed, the fourth and final installment in the Seven Sarr series. The result is a fast-paced, action-packed, intellectually-fraught read where neither the characters nor the reader can relax and take a breath.

The pacing issues from previous installments are a thing of the past. Seven is at her strongest now, but she’s also stretched beyond her limits, she constantly questions herself… as Chosen One tales go, I feel like this series does a great job of balancing the certainty of action with the uncertainty of being human.

Being the Chosen One is a heady responsibility, one I feel most in this genre forget. Dyer makes sure her protagonist never feels relief from the weight that responsibility places on her. And with such a worthy antagonist in Raleigh, who is at his most devious (if not his most violent), and this is the satisfying build-up and payoff a series finale should be.

I did have to read the ending twice, because I’m so conditioned to expect a zig that any zag, of any degree, hits at first with a sense of “…Huh?” But it fits perfectly with Destroyed, and it fits perfectly with the series as a whole. The TV show Angel‘s finale was controversial in some circles because of how different it was, but it fit the overall philosophy of the show.

Such is also the case with Destroyed.

Dyer has become an author whose work I will support no matter what genre she tackles, and given how deft she showed her skills in Destroyed, I eagerly await her next narrative venture. If YA dystopias are your thing, and the Untamed series isn’t on your shelf, then you are seriously missing out.

Rating: *****

Buy Destroyed on Amazon

 

Order of the Lily by Cait Ashwood

Order of the LilyIf The Seekers was a coming-of-age tale, then its follow-up, Order of the Lily, is all about what it means to be of age — and the ugliness and beauty within. Whereas Audrey faced metaphorical adolescence in the first book, the second book is where she, in a sense, reaches adulthood, stepping up to make difficult decisions.

For much of the book, those decisions are the typical sort for dystopian fiction. There’s a coordinated rescue, uneasy alliances, and Audrey finally being honest with herself about who she loves. All this while she’s dealing with being a mother of twins and still handling the pressure of being what amounts to this timeline’s Chosen One.

But then there’s the end… and an impossible choice that goes far beyond genre convention of “will they/won’t they?” and “who will the heroine be with?”

Again, Cait Ashwood carries a deft pen. Her prose is simultaneously easy to read and powerful; so many in this genre go so overboard with the prose that reading becomes a chore, because they spend so much on the prose that they forget what really matters. But Ashwood continues to keep the characters, their feelings and thoughts and motivations, at the forefront. Epic does not have to mean hard to read, and Order of the Lily is a perfect example of that.

Order of the Lily is every bit a worthy follow-up to The Seekers, and one would be hard-pressed to finish this one and not immediately clamor for the next installment. Dystopia and fantasy readers alike need this series.

Rating: ****

Buy Order of the Lily on Amazon

 

Someday I’ll Be Redeemed by Kelly Blanchard

Someday I'll Be RedeemedI’ll readily admit that I’m not as familiar with high fantasy as some others, so I don’t know how frequently the genre is married with others, but I’m engrossed by the way Kelly Blanchard has married high fantasy with science fiction in her novel Someday I’ll Be Redeemed, the first installment in the Chronicles of Lorrek.

The sci-fi angle isn’t immediately apparent — much of the open is establishing the typical fantasy trappings: kingdoms occasionally at odds with each other, royalty and its relatives in various stages of trouble, magic, etc. But as Blanchard slowly introduces the sci-fi elements, she changes not only the world these characters inhabit, but the characters themselves.

The changes are subtle, easy to miss at first, but just past the midway point, the tenor of the book changes — and without spoiling anything, the shift — while jarring — sucks in the reader. The pages really fly by at that point, and watching all the chess pieces move in both predictable and unexpected ways is a joy.

There are unanswered questions, but considering there are eight books to follow in the series, that’s to be expected. A small amount of patience is in order for just that reason, but the way Blanchard marries two genres together — to say nothing of the multi-layered protagonist at the heart of it all in Lorrek — makes me confident the wait will be worth it.

Someday I’ll Be Redeemed lays the foundation for what promises to be a great series, and while it’s neither truly high fantasy nor sci-fi, it’s a fascinating blending of the two, and fans of both will find plenty to enjoy here.

Rating: *****

Buy Someday I’ll Be Redeemed on Amazon (available in three-book box set)

 

Burden of Solace by Richard L. Wright

Burden of SolaceWith Burden of Solace, Richard L. Wright takes comic book-style superheroes from the panels to prose, and in the process, he gives the genre something it often lacks: a protagonist that doesn’t default to punching things.

The result? An engrossing, refreshing take on the genre.

My only qualm with this book was the villain; specifically, for a man with such grandiose plans (and they were grandiose; I wish they had been fleshed out more), he was too fixated on being a sexual predator toward Cassie, the protagonist. It’s an overdone trope that extends beyond the superhero genre — the threat of sexual violence against a female character — and I feel it merits discussion, should any potential readers be triggered by that sort of thing.

The rest of Burden of Solace is a tremendous read. Cassie is an easy protagonist to root for, in large part because Wright gets us to care about her before she becomes what she becomes. Along the way, Wright also introduces us to Guardian 175 — not only giving us a peak at the legacy-style superhero we often see from the likes of Superman, but also doing a good bit of worldbuilding.

Granted, politicians meddling in the affairs of superheroes is nothing new; even the bigwigs at Marvel and DC do it. But Wright handles it in such a way that feels grounded in reality, and the result is a superhero story that still feels grounded. No matter how big the action gets, we’re still rooted at the ground level, with Cassie and the Guardian.

In all, Burden of Solace is a great superhero story, a fun read, and the beginning of what I hope to be a great series. The superhero genre needs more love from the book world (and yeah, I’m a bit greedy in saying that), and books like this are a big reason why.

Rating: ****

Buy Burden of Solace on Amazon

BOOK REVIEWS: Part XI

In which I review a pair of fantastic debuts — from Cait Ashwood and Kerri Maniscalco — and a great sequel from Madeline Dyer.

The Seekers by Cait Ashwood

the-seekersI received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

In her debut novel The Seekers, author Cait Ashwood has shown that even in the far future, humanity is not as evolved as it probably should be — particularly with regard to how women are viewed by society. It’s a truth that is, at times, unveiled in an uncomfortable fashion (fair warning, there are a couple passages that are potentially hard to read) — but Ashwood navigates the subject matter without being heavy-handed and without letting us lose sight of what truly matters:

The characters.

Specifically, Audrey. While the book starts off with an ensemble cast, by the time The Seekers reaches the midway point, we’ve shed much of the cast in a variety of ways, leaving us focused mainly on Audrey, Ace, and Hound. While I almost reflexively revolt against anything even remotely resembling a love triangle, I had no such reaction here. I can’t quite account for that, other than the fact that Ashwood creates such vivid, memorable characters that I cared more about them individually — particularly Audrey — than any hint of who might eventually end up with whom.

In some ways, The Seekers is a coming-of-age story. In others, it reads like a future dystopia. But Audrey is at the heart of it all, from the moment we first meet her — fresh out of therapy — until we see her face both her greatest dream and her worst nightmare. The seeds of a vibrant futuristic world have been planted in this book, and there are questions therein, but to think of the world or the Seekers or the Order to be the focus would be a mistake.

While treating us to beautiful twists of language, Ashwood gets us to care about Audrey — and for some other characters I hope to see in the next book. And anyone who knows me knows I’m a character-over-plot guy; get me to care about your characters, and I’ll go on virtually any journey with them. The Seekers accomplishes just that, as Ashwood turns in a remarkable debut effort that succeeds both as a character journey and a commentary on sexist cultures past, present, and future.

This book is highly recommended.

Buy The Seekers on Amazon

 

Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

stalking-jack-the-ripperAnyone who’s read my work knows I’m a sucker for genre mash-ups — specifically, mixing murder mystery with science fiction. But any cybernetic mumbo-jumbo I come up with pales in comparison to Kerri Maniscalco’s debut work Stalking Jack the Ripper, which is a fantastic romp that introduces us to the world of forensic science in 1880s London.

First and foremost, Maniscalco introduces us to the brilliant Audrey Rose (side note: two of the books I’ve read so far in 2017 feature protagonists named Audrey — and they’re both excellent). She’s a forensic understudy, despite what polite society wants for women in that day and age, yet she still maintains her femininity whenever possible. I love female heroes, especially when the simple reality of their presence flies in the face of convention.

Fortunately, this book is more than a period piece making a gender statement. Audrey’s brain takes readers on a thrilling journey as she tries to piece together who Jack the Ripper might be. There are plenty of candidates who make sense as the book goes along, and while I didn’t see the ultimate reveal coming, it makes sense with a healthy dose of hindsight.

The best mysteries don’t necessarily shock you; they simply keep you thinking as you flip through page after page. Stalking Jack the Ripper does just that.

The sci-fi aspect really doesn’t come into effect until the big reveal at the end, but it’s such a deliciously morbid reality that adds such depth to the world Audrey Rose and the other characters inhabit that it’s more satisfying than I had anticipated. I’ve read my share of mysteries that end with the thud, but this book builds to a crescendo.

A minor aside: I love that Maniscalco added a section at the end of the book, detailing the facts she kept from the real-life mystery of Jack the Ripper and where she took liberties. It was a nice little peek behind the curtain that I wish more writers would offer.

All in all, Maniscalco has created a fantastic heroine and a vibrant world that straddles the line of reality and fantasy — and I am thrilled another book is in the works. If you love mysteries, or historical stories, or just a damn good tale, you’d do well to give Stalking Jack the Ripper a read. There are a couple difficult passages for those weak of stomach, but that doesn’t deter from what is a clever, well-written tale.

Buy Stalking Jack the Ripper on Amazon

 

Fragmented by Madeline Dyer

fragmentedWhereas Untamed, Madeline Dyer’s debut novel, was a character-driven YA dystopia, the follow-up Fragmented feels more like a drug-induced mind trip — which is simultaneously frustrating and enthralling for the reader.

This book takes place in the immediate aftermath of Untamed, but before long, we’re left with protagonist Seven and Corin — on the run, on their own. They wind up with a band of people named the Zharat, but what starts as a simple case of finding refuge with potential like-minded allies turns into something else entirely… and for roughly 250 pages, you’ll find yourself thinking you know what’s going on, only to discover you’re nowhere near right.

Along the way, Seven is convinced she’s going mad, and I sometimes felt the same way as I navigated through all the twists. Going back and forth in trying to determine which characters can be trusted and which ones can’t, pushing through the occasional tough-to-read passage (there are a couple of them, fair warning), flipping pages through the ending in which the futility of everything becomes crystal clear… even as the answers became clear, more questions popped up.

Fragmented is an adrenaline-packed read, and Dyer once again establishes her ability to create vibrant, memorable characters. That ability is what makes this a great read, even if you find yourself flipping through pages on numerous occasions asking yourself “WTF?” — and you will be doing just that.

The lack of clarity is occasionally frustrating, and there is a cliffhanger (but it’s abundantly clear going forward that there are two more books to come in this series). Fragmented will keep you turning the pages, will keep you guessing.

And when it’s over, you’ll be asking yourself when the next one’s coming.

Buy Fragmented on Amazon