Review: Smoke in the Sun by Renée Ahdieh

Review: Smoke in the Sun by Renée Ahdieh

Smoke in the Sun

By Renée Ahdieh

YA, Historical Fantasy

For weeks, seventeen-year-old Mariko pretended to be a boy to infiltrate the notorious Black Clan and bring her bould-be murderer to justice. She didn’t expect to find a place for herself among the group of fighters—a life of usefulness—and she certainly didn’t expect to fall in love. Now she heads to the imperial castle to resume a life she never wanted to save the boy she loves.

Ōkami has been captured, and his execution is a certainty. Mariko will do what she must to ensure his survival—even marry the soverign’s brother, saying goodby to a life with Ōkami forever.

As Mariko settles into her days at court—making both friends and enemies—and attempting Ōkami’s rescue at night, the secrets of the royal court begin to unravel as competing agendas collide. One arrow sets into motion a series of deadly events even the most poerful magic cannot contain. Mariko and Ōkami risk everything to right past wrongs and restore the honor of a kingdom thrown into chaos by a sudden war, hoping against hope that when the dust settles, they will find a way to be together.

oOo

This is a really good follow up to Flame in the Mist, but it focuses more on the love story between Mariko and Ōkami so I wasn’t quite as riveted as I was with the first book. Still lots of ninjas, though. There’s more political drama in this one as well. Mariko is in the imperial city and everyone; the emperor, empress, concubines, heirs, and ladies-in-waiting all have an agenda and are all maneuvering to get more power. That definitely keeps the pages turning. There’s a sorceress in the palace as well, so we keep that thread of fantasy going throughout the book.

Mariko is still the fierce and adaptable character we had in the last book, but Smoke in the Sun is more love story than adventure story. To me, it sometimes feels like Mariko’s interactions with Ōkami are a little too HOW DO I LIIIIVE WITHOUT YOUUUUUU. Sure, Ōkami is set to be executed literally any day, but, they’ve known each other all of three months or so.

Calm down.

Or maybe that’s a solid reaction. I don’t know. I’m aro/ace, my gauge on appropriate romantic reactions didn’t even get installed.

Anyway, we’re given better introductions to Roku and Raiden who we meet in Flame in the Mist. Roku is the heir apparent and his brother, Raiden, is Mariko’s betrothed. They’re brothers and thick as thieves even though their mothers hate each other. As Roku gains more and more power though we begin to see that he’s not just a cunning and spoiled little prince, he’s also a genuine sociopath.

Raiden is little better, constantly following his brother’s orders and whims, but as the story continues we see the two begin to diverge. As Roku becomes more and more depraved, Raiden becomes more and more uncomfortable and begins to question his blind loyalty.

Meanwhile, Mariko and Ōkami are in the background with “I Will Always Love You” playing on repeat and the rest of the Black Clan waving their lighters in the air.

But, even with this being more a love story than anything else, I will happily read this again because it is a wonderful conclusion to Flame in the Mist. And I still love Takeda.

 

You can find Smoke in the Sun by Renée Ahdieh at:

Barnes and Noble

Amazon

And learn more about the author here.

 

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Review: Flame in the Mist by Renée Ahdieh

Review: Flame in the Mist by Renée Ahdieh

Flame in the Mist

By Renée Ahdieh

YA, Historical Fantasy

The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she’d been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath.

So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko’s convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who’ve been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace.

The lone survivor, Mariko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.

oOo

Oh boy, you know I love me some ninjas. I had this book at the checkout counter before conscious thought caught up to me. It’s hard to find good fantasy with ninjas. I don’t know why; their mythology is ripe for excellent stories. But Ahdieh has made an incredible story with a smattering of supernatural elements that elevate this Finding Yourself/Love story from good to great.

Mariko is a wonderful protagonist. She comes from wealth and has lived a life of luxury, but she doesn’t fall into that floundering fish out of water trope we often see with wealthy characters suddenly thrust among People. She’s smart, adaptable, resourceful, and fierce. But she still has her blind spots. She’s the daughter of a well known samurai and as such she’s never known cold or hunger and this book takes the time to show her that the lovely bubble she grew up in doesn’t apply to the peasants working the fields. This is as much a political drama as it is an adventure and love story.

The Black Clan speaks true to the workings of ninja clans in feudal Japan. They’re ronin and peasants who have banded together for revenge against the ruling class. But we get a little bit of the mythos with our Black Clan leaders, Takeda and Ōkami, who have made a deal with a demon to get supernatural powers.

My favorite of the boys is Takeda, he’s a cheeky little jackass and I just adore him. Ōkami swings between apathy and agitation, depending on how much Takeda is teasing him. The two are best friends and have been through hell together and it shows. There’s a lot of friendship on the page, but so much subtext in all of their interactions you know the author has taken the time to think through the entirety of their lives, not just what’s written down.

I say this with pretty much every book I read, but I don’t care about romance or love because so often those stories follow the same formula over and over again. It’s tedious. But Ahdieh throws a nice little twist into things. When Mariko meets Takeda and Ōkami, she’s dressed as a boy. No one knows she’s a girl in disguise and they treat her like they would any other boy.

Which makes things delightful when Ōkami starts catching feelings. So much fun. I’ve read other books where a character poses as a boy but the love story doesn’t start its arc until they’re revealed as a girl, because gods help us if a someone finds themselves attracted to what they think is the same sex. So a round of applause to Ahdieh for breaking the trend and making this fledgling romance funny and true to life.

The story ends on a cliffhanger. While Mariko is out searching for the people who want her dead, her twin brother, Kenshin, is searching for her. He, like everyone else in Mariko’s previous life, think she’s meek and fragile and likely being horribly traumatized and brutalized by being captured by bandits. So when he finally finds the Black Clan stronghold there’s an intense battle and we get to see Mariko, once again show off her intellect not only in the weapons she designs but also in how she figures out how to end the confrontation when the Black Clan begins losing ground.

This is definitely a book I will read again, not only because I love all things ninja, but because Ahdieh has written a great character with Mariko and a compelling story. Even if you take out the ninjas (but why would you?) you’d still have a page turner on your hands.

There is of course a sequel, Smoke in the Sun, where we see Mariko heading to the imperial city and the nest of vipers that awaits her there.

 

If you’d like to pick up Flame in the Mist, you can find it at:

Barnes and Noble

Amazon

And learn more about the author, Renée Ahdieh

 

Review: Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee

Review: Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo

By F.C. Yee

YA, Fantasy

Genie Lo is one among droves of Ivy-hopeful overachievers in her sleepy Bay Area suburb. You know, the type who wins. When she’s not crushing it at volleyball or hitting the books, Genie is typically working on how to crack the elusive Harvard entry code.

But when her hometown comes under siege from Hell-spawn straight out of Chinese folklore, her priorities are suddenly and forcefully rearranged. Enter Quintin Sun, a mysterious new kid in class who becomes Genie’s self-appointed guide to battling demons. While Genie knows Quintin only as an attractive transfer student with an oddly formal command of the English language, in another reality he is Sun Wukon, the mythological Monkey King incarnate—right down to the furry tail and penchant for peaches.

Suddenly, acing the SATs is the last of Genie’s worries. The fates of her friends, family, and the entire Bay Area all depend on her summoning an inner power that Quentin assures her is strong enough to level the very gates of Heaven. But every second Genie spends tapping into the secret of her true nature is a second in which the lives of her loved ones hang in the balance.

oOo

I feel that anyone out there flogging themselves about less than perfect scores on tests and worried about future career paths will relate to Genie. Genie is a hyper-rational sixteen year old girl and it takes quite a bit for Quentin to get her to finally believe the fantastic and otherworldly things that are happening. It’s nice to have a character who translates their fear of the unknown into concrete mathematical equations and proven scientific theories. Even if all that rationale doesn’t work on magic and gods.

Quentin is…well, he’s a god in mortal form. So if you’ve seen Thor, I’d say Quentin follows that character arc really well. He’s kind of a jackass when Genie first meets him and she does everything she can to tell him to piss off. It’s great to have a protagonist that doesn’t immediately swoon over the cute new weird kid in class. It’s not until halfway through the book or more that attraction is even brought up. Again, it’s really nice to have that. So often in YA books we’re introduced to our protagonist and then two possible love interests within the first two chapters and it’s. so. Boring.

Not here! And the relationship between Genie and Quentin is so wonderfully organic. It’s not like all at once they’re BFFs and then dating. Genie still routinely butts heads with Quentin and resists all the weird things happening in her ordered life. Their personality clashes are consistent but not extreme enough to make their attraction to each other feel forced. It’s so much fun to read their interactions even while they’re not battling demon hordes.

I hope to see more adventures from Genie and Quentin. The way the book ends it could either work as a standalone or as a series. I really like all the characters introduced in this book, not just Quentin and Genie, but our secondary characters as well. So get out there a buy this book, so we can see more from F.C. Yee!

 

You can find The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee at:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

And learn more about the author here.

Review: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Review: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone

By Tomi Adeyemi

YA, Fantasy

Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie Reaper mother summoned forth souls.

But everything changed once magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, the maji were targeted and killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.

Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.

Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leopanaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest threat may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers—and her growing feeling for an enemy.

oOo

Oh. My. Gods. Not only is the cover of this book absolutely stunning the writing is for sure swoon worthy. I have tried for three days to write this review and honestly, all I can say is READ THIS BOOK!

The writing is lyrical, the world building is gorgeous (I want a leopanaire), and the story itself is heartwrenching and empowering. This book is an experience that is made all the more powerful if you’ve spent any time whatsoever listening and learning about the struggles of Black Americans.

This is one of my favorite books this year and I can’t wait to see the rest of this trilogy.

BUY THIS BOOK!

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

Learn more about Tomi Adeyemi at her website: http://www.tomiadeyemi.com/books/

 

Review: Weregirl by C. D. Bell

Review: Weregirl by C. D. Bell

Weregirl (Book #1)

By C.D. Bell

YA, Fantasy

Nessa Kurland is running for her life.

High school junior Nessa Kurland is a cross-country runner with her eyes set on one thing: a college scholarship as her one-way ticket out of Tether, Michigan, a town on the brink of shutdown since it was devastated by corporate polluter Dutch Chemical.

Talented teammate, Cynthia, invites Nessa on a nighttime run through Tether’s overgrown forest trails. But she speeds ahead, leaving Nessa alone to discover a trapped wolf. Nessa tries to free the animal but is badly bitten, seemingly ruining her hopes for a strong fall season.

Instead, Nessa’s freakishly quick recovery is followed by improved running times. All her senses are heightened. Nessa has transformed.

She has become a werewolf.

In her new state, Nessa learns that Tether has many secrets. What is really going on at the small-town clinic? Can she decipher what the wolf pack she’s been running with is trying to tell her?

Nessa must navigate true human darkness and the uncertainty of young love, while making peace with her new, wild nature.

oOo

The cover for this book is what drew me in. It’s gorgeous. Get into the pages and it’s a good read, too. I like Nessa, she’s an active character that makes things happen in the book. The initial bite is the most passive thing she does. After that, though, she dives straight in to figuring out what secrets are hiding in the woods and the clinic. Nessa is pretty generic in her looks—blonde hair and blue eyes—but at least she’s fit because she runs cross country and not just because.

Nessa’s little brother, Nate, is autistic. I wasn’t able to find any reviews that noted how this representation shook out, but as an allistic person I thought Nate’s character was well done. He was well rounded, he’s not treated as a burden or a plot device. Nessa often comments on how she reads his body language to know how much physical contact he’s familiar with at any given time. I think he was a positive representation for autism, but, again, this is coming from an allistic person. If anyone finds or writes a review about Nate and his representation I would be really interested in reading it.

We do have a “Magical Native American” in the book, sort of like the “Magical Negro” trope in a lot of fantasy movies. This character exists solely as a way to convey information and pops up in some cringe worthy deus ex machina ways. So I wasn’t thrilled about that and it takes some of the luster away from this otherwise tightly written story.

There’s one other Native American character, his name is Luc, but he reads like a white character slipped into brown skin. He’s also portrayed as mysterious and standoffish for the first half of the book.

This story starts off sounding like it’s going to be a Chosen One trope, but in a nice twist, while Nessa is important to the story, it’s teamwork that solves the mystery and brings down the baddies. Nessa’s best friend, Bree, is a great character. And the two never fight. Even when they’re both crushing on the same guy, there’s no girl-hate or catty behavior between the two of them or any other girls they interact with. I was really excited about that because it’s all too easy in YA books to have girl besties turn on each other for dramatic tension. Even if they make up at the end, it’s still tiring to read.

Speaking of tiring things to read: There’s no love triangle! I thought for sure one was being set up, but NO! And I am thrilled. It was so nice to read a book and not have to slog through a seventeen year old try to decide if she wants to go with tall, golden, and handsome or tall, mysterious, and dark.

Honestly, for that alone I would recommend this book. But the story is very good and the mystery isn’t resolved until the final ten pages which will keep you up. So our Native American representation is…nonexistent, but I think we have a great character with positive autistic representation. Nessa is a take charge character that doesn’t have all the answers and her becoming a werewolf doesn’t make her all powerful or The One.

You can pick up Weregirl by CD Bell at:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

 

Also, check out Book 2 Chimera

 

Wolves and Roses by Christina Bauer

Wolves and Roses by Christina Bauer

Wolves and Roses (Fairy Tales of the Magicorum Book 1)

By Christina Bauer

Seventeen year old Bryar Rose has a problem. She’s descended from one of the three magical races—shifters, fairies, or witches. That makes her one of the Magicorum and Mgicorum always follow a fairy tale life template. In Bryar’s case, that template should be Sleeping Beauty.

“Should” being the key word.

Trouble is, Bryar is nowhere near the sleeping beauty life template. Not even close. She doesn’t like birds or woodland creatures. She can’t sing. And she certainly can’t stand Prince Philpot, the so-called “His Highness of Hedge Funds,” that her aunties want her to marry. Even worse, Bryar’s having recurring dreams of a bad boy hottie and is obsessed with finding papyri from ancient Egypt. What’s up with that?

All Bryar wants is to attend a regular high school with normal humans and forget all about shifters, fairies, witches, and the curse that Colonel Mallory the Magnificent placed on her. And she might be able to do just that—if only she can just keep her head down until her eighteenth birthday when the spell that’s ruined her life goes buh-bye.

But that plan gets turned upside down when Bryar rose meets Knox, the bad boy who’s literally from her dreams. Knox is a powerful werewolf, and his presence in her life changes everything, and not just because he makes her knees turn into Jell-O. If Bryar can’t figure out who—or what—she really is, it might cost both her and Knox their lives…as well as jeopardize the very nature of magic itself.

*~*~*~*

I like modern fairy tale retellings and Wolves and Roses looked promising when I picked it up. Bryar’s defining characteristic is that she’s sarcastic, otherwise, she falls squarely into the YA heroine template of “Beautiful with big blue eyes and long gorgeous locks of brown hair, athletic, and handy with a weapon.”

Three of the five characters in this book have big blue eyes.

She’s also good with computers, but that’s only relevant because of her obsession with the papyri and how she’s slowly breaking an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic code. Which…how she’s breaking a code Egyptian scholars have been trying to crack for a hundred years is never really explained. There’s a quick line about long nights of research over the last five years. But that puts here at twelve years old learning ancient Egyptian well enough to find a touchstone with this Code of Isis that she can now piece it together. Also, the papyri are in pieces, so she has to put them in order as she finds them and then translate them.

The love interest in here, Knox, is supposed to be seventeen as well, but reads more like someone in their early twenties. I would even say that’s initially how his character was written, but at some point someone said, “You can’t have a twenty-five year old getting frisky with a seventeen year old, people will riot.” So a passing line of why Knox doesn’t like going to high school was added in.

Knox is a werewolf and he is massive. He’s about 6’5” as a human, I assume, but when he changes into a wolf? He’s twelve feet long. And as tall as a horse. He is literally the size of a sedan. Where did all that extra mass come from? He has to weigh a literal ton. Just…how? “Magic” can only explain so much. How does he fit through the average doorway without bruising his shoulders or smacking his ears? Look at your doorway right now and ask yourself, “Could a quarter horse walk through there?” Or maybe a Clydesdale. It never specifies what kind of horse he is as big as.

Also, Knox’s wolf decides as soon as they meet Bryar Rose that she is their mate and it is now his job to protect her at all costs because she is his.

Cue side-eye.

But it’s totally fine, because Bryar Rose also comes to think of Knox as hers.

Side-eye, part two.

If you’re looking for a quick read, this book will work. I read it all in an evening. There are a couple of unresolved questions that I assume the next book will begin to answer, but if you’ve read enough YA fantasy you can pretty well guess what will be in the second book. So, Wolves and Roses was a decent read, but follows the template of YA fantasy better than Bryar Rose does the Sleeping Beauty.

Book Review: Shadowhouse Fall (Shadowshaper Cypher #2)

Book Review: Shadowhouse Fall (Shadowshaper Cypher #2)

Shadowhouse Fall (The Shadowshaper Cyper, Book #2)

by Daniel José Older

YA, urban fantasy

Sierra and her friends love their new lives and shadowshapers, making art and creating change with the spirits of Brooklyn. Then Sierra receives a strange card depicting a beast call the Hound of Light—an image from the enigmatic, influential Deck of Worlds. The shadowshapers know their next battle has arrived.

Thrust into an ancient struggle with enemies old and new, Sierra and Shadowhouse are determined to win. Revolution is brewing in the real world as well, as the shadowshapers lead the fight against systems that oppress their community. To protect her family and friends in every sphere, Sierra must take down the Hound and master the Deck of Worlds…or risk losing them all.

*~*~*

This is the second book of Older’s YA series, the first is Shadowshaper, so if you haven’t read that one, skip over to a bookstore and pick it up or you’re going to be confused in the next few paragraphs.

Daniel José Older is one of my favorite authors. I thoroughly enjoyed his Bone Street Rumba trilogy, but I love his YA. We’re still following Sierra in this book and she’s tiptoeing into her role and Lucera. The crew is still with her and they’re growing with her as they all figure out their new abilities. The book starts right off though with hinky hijinks unsettling the tentative equilibrium Sierra picked up at the end of Shadowshaper.

On top of one of her classmates telling her the Sorrows haven’t given up on annihilating her and Shadowhouse, personal tragedy also strikes, shady cops seem to pop up at the worst times, and there’s also boy trouble. It’s a lot for one young girl with the ancient powers of ancestors to handle, but she’s got a cadre of ride or die friends helping her out.

The writing throughout the book feels like the breathless, breakneck, tumble Sierra is in as she tries to find answers to what the Deck of Worlds is and what it means for her and those she loves. Sierra is just trying to keep her head above water with everything happening in the spirit world and in the physical world. It’s not until you get to the final twenty or so pages that you feel like you can breathe. Finally, things start falling in to place, characters reveal their true motives and Sierra can go on the offensive.

All of Older’s books are rapid page turners and Shadowhouse Fall is no exception. Answers are always juuuuust out of reach and you’ll find the whole night gone as you tell yourself, “One more chapter, then I’ll go to bed.” But by then you should be at the end and you’ll have all the answers and you won’t be tossing and turning thinking about How’s the Scooby gang gonna get out of this one?

Let’s take a moment to talk about dialogue. If you’re a writer, take notes of Older’s dialogue. These characters come alive on the page because it’s not just the world of NYC that is fully realized it’s in how characters talk to each other, it’s in their nonverbal interactions, it’s in their silences. Take a page, any page from Shadowhouse Fall or any of Older’s book and read the dialogue out loud. Even when talking about spirits and otherworldly creatures it still sounds like a conversation you’d hear in the gas station or at a bus stop. I can’t get enough of Older’s dialogue. That’s the realness at the heart of Older’s work.

The stakes in Shadowhouse Fall in the spirit world are up a notch, because while her family and friends were in danger in Shadowshaper just for associating with her, now they’re targets themselves. In the physical world, Older keeps things true to a group of young POC running the streets of NYC. Illegal arrests and abuse from police and white teachers in primarily black classrooms tiptoeing through lessons on slavery and Civil Rights. And if that makes you uncomfortable then it’s time to have a good long conversation with yourself about why that is.

Anyway, I’m not here to get on a soapbox. Yet.

I really enjoyed this book as I did Shadowshaper. Sierra is a well rounded and conflicted character. It does seem to me though that she keeps making the same mistakes that she made in Shadowshaper of keeping secrets from people closest to her. The threat of a spy in this book makes it understandable, but there are a few chapters I wanted to knock my head against the wall. The goal though is to get Sierra to the point that she realizes she doesn’t have to shoulder this burden alone, that she has people who have her back and will step up next to her no matter what.

Still.

But if an MC doesn’t make you want to bang your head against a wall a couple times, are they really a good MC? People make the same mistakes all the time in real life and they, too, will make you want to jump out a window.

Shadowhouse Fall is an excellent follow up to Shadowshaper. You can read the first book and immediately pick up this one and feel like you’ve just turned to the next chapter. While I highly recommend all of Daniel José Older’s work, Shadowshaper Cypher series is at the top of the list.

 

As always, you can find Shadowshaper, and Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older at:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

Read more about the author on his website: http://ghoststar.net/