The Buried Symbol by JeffreyL. Kohanek

Honestly, life would be easier if I could just give rainbows and unicorns to every book review and never have to have a conscience about the poor author who will have to fend off an attack on their ‘baby’. But then I wouldn’t have an honest review so I would leading some people to disappointment. So I will lay it out: I found the writing here to be problematic, the plot full of obvious holes, and the characters one-dimensional.

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Story: Brock wants more out of life – he wants a rune of the chosen to mark him as special. So he finds someone to give him a fake tattoo rune and then travels to a school of religion in order to better his life. Along the way, he takes his friend, who is also runeless.

Yes, the above is an oversimplification. But that’s how I felt when reading the story – it felt so much like a middle grade book or something dumbed down for a young audience. Motivations, world building, setting – it’s all distilled to a very shallow level and then written that way. I honestly thought it was middle grade until the main character got aroused by every pretty girl he saw along the way and sometimes fell into bed with them. I guess buxom barmaids is the medieval fanboy answer to green alien slave girls for sci fi nerds. At some point, it felt very Marty Stu.

The logic holes were the big problem – nothing was really thought out. E.g., in a society where everything is controlled by those with runes, why is it so easy to get a fake rune? And why does no one wonder when someone with a bandage over the forehead *right where a rune would be* is walking around? Why do the guys who do the illegal operation just walk our hero in to the guy doing it without any precautions or secrecy? Then let him loose in society when one word from him would lead the authorities right back to the guys doing it and their death? Heck, they don’t even put him on a boat immediately afterwards and instead let him walk around with a *big old bandage on his forehead!*. How can I take this society seriously if even the author doesn’t?

Despite what the book says about this being set in an academy, it takes 40% in before we even see the academy. Cue pointless travels and commentary on discrimination against the unchosen in various villages along the way (no, really? People discriminate in medieval societies, too??). Then add in ‘mysterious dream’ that foretells our main character is a unique magical snowflake – but then not include any reason or worldbuilding why. It just feels so lazy to create a unique snowflake this way.

The final insults, though were the characters. Of course, our main character is down on his luck so must resort to stealing to survive. But hey, he only steals from the evil and bad characters in society, so he’s a good guy, right? Seriously, we don’t need Disney princesses types as main characters in a book that is meant for adults. They can be nuanced and possess good and bad traits.

Those were the most egregious issues for me. But the underlying problem was a very simplistic and straightforward style of writing that made our main character seem like an 11 year old on a grand adventure rather than an older teen (arousals from bar maids aside). I kept expecting little birds to comb his hair in the morning as they sang cheerful songs about his new ‘strange’ powers that have suddenly manifested. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Limerance by Charlotte McConaghy

There are so many YA dystopian clones out there that it really is hard to find a decently told story. With The Cure, I was fascinated by book one, disappointed with book 2, and back in love with book 3. By this volume, the author clearly hit her stride with the characters, each of which is nuanced and often very antihero. The story has a natural arc that finishes neatly but not sweetly. It’s a fitting end to a really enjoyable tale.

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Story: As Josephine grows apart from Luke, things begin to unravel at the camp. When Jo refuses to kill the furies a division begins that could mean the end of the small group of rebels and lead to the entire City being ‘cured’.

With the first book, we were introduced to an intriguing set of characters – Josephine who becomes a monster with a blood moon, the doctor trying to understand/help her, and the Blood warrior sent to watch her and remove her. It made for a great story since so much was unexpected. With book 2, all of the tension and originality flew out the window for a story of cat fights and moodiness. With book 3, all the original thinking and action is back to conclude the story in a really satisfying manner. Honestly, I would have just excised all of book 2 since it didn’t further the story.

Writing an entire series in a non-linear fashion can be either intriguing or disastrous. Fortunately, the conceit not only works here but it makes the story even better. Hints, traps, unexpected changes in personalities all work to pull the reader in to find out what happened or what will happen. It makes for short chapters of several view points and small or large jumps in chronology. I should have hated it (and have hated that style in nearly every other book that I’ve read) but it is just so effective here.

Author McConaghy really hit her stride with this book 3, with each of the characters fully realized and heavily nuanced. This isn’t a sappy YA dystopian romance. And there are plenty of twists and turns along the way. If I had a nitpick, it’s that this is very Australian in places. I kind of wish it had been identified as taking place in Oz beforehand rather than made to seem like a random US city.

In all, I greatly enjoyed books one and two for presenting a vicious anti-hero as the heroine of a YA dystopian. And for giving us a strong character who doesn’t fall apart whenever the ‘hunky’ guy comes along. Yes, I’d prefer to forget book 2 completely but that doesn’t detract at all from book 3. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Black Magick Volume 1 by Greg Rucka, Nicola Scott

Black Magick is a hard as nails urban fantasy featuring a strong cast of intricately nuanced characters. The story begins strongly and continues to capture interest through all five of the collected issues. Author Rucka wisely holds back info dumps while slowly ratcheting up the tension and intrigue.

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Story: Rowan Black is a homicide detective by day and practicing witch by night. Alone with her small coven, she integrates seamlessly into normal life while keeping the more supernatural aspects of her job in check. But that is about to change as a kidnapping becomes very personal; someone – or something – is targeting her in particular. And the body count is going to rise until it gets her.

In this introduction to the series, Rowan is balancing her normal job while also dealing with the aspects of being a modern day witch. If it sounds fanciful, it really isn’t. This is a dark and very serious story with moments of light humor and a lot of snark. The main arc is about something evil targeting Rowan. The minor arcs are the murders that are all pointing directly at Rowan.

Rowan is a very capable and strong female character who avoids the cliche of being unlikable. Around her, she juggles her day job with partner detective while doing coven duties at night. Side characters are fascinatingly drawn – from an ambivalent fellow witch to a possessed assassin. But at its heart, this is Rowan’s story as she fights to uncover her nemesis.

In all, I greatly enjoyed this dark urban fantasy. A strong but likable female character is a welcome relief and there are enough hints at intriguing places where the story will go. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Stasis by Kim Fielding

I think perhaps the author did herself a disservice by telling us in the preface the book was written in a month . Because honestly, it very much feels that way. There’s a lot of sloppy worldbuilding, odd emphases, and a singular lack of character development. The ending is abruptly and we’re pretty much left with two milquetoast characters, a very stereotypical ‘cackling while revealing all his nefarious plans in a monologue’ villain, and a random pseudo fantasy setting.

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Story: Ennek is a throwaway younger son of the chief of a ‘polis’ (kingdom?). He takes on a job running the country’s prosperous port but catches the attention of the disturbing wizard. When he begins to dream of a prisoner trapped in stasis beneath the castle, he breaks that person out of his millennial sleep. The price Ennek has to pay to keep his ‘slave’ is to be apprenticed to the wizard.

Most of the story feels very contrived and not very well established. The setting is pseudo fantasy with magic and a wizard and ‘king’ – but with running water, showers, toilets. But no other modern trappings. The magic system is sort of elemental-based but we don’t really get much more than that. All the magic we see conveniently ties back to important plot points and therefore feels very ad hoc developed rather than organically grown.

The characters are bland and not much happens. Ennek is supposed to be rather listless yet gets up the gumption to do an act that will obviously be found out and with dire consequences. We’re supposed to believe that his dreams led him to do it – but I just didn’t buy it. The prisoner, Miner, spends most of the book frightened and cowering and completely subservient. We’re to believe he was completely traumatized by his experience in stasis; however, there should be some character aspects drawn out to make him interesting to readers. He just never really turns into anything other than Ennek’s puppy. Add in the villain wizard who randomly leers, patronizes, and gleefully reveals his nefarious plans and it can be eye rolling in its simplicity. He’s about as unremittingly evil as Ennek and Miner are one-dimensionally goody-two-shoes.

The writing is problematic. It’s easy enough to follow but there are really odd emphasis points everywhere. Very general descriptions suddenly focus on one narrow thing and it is really jarring. E.g., a loose description of Miner in stasis suddenly pinpoints on ‘full pink lips’. Or a paragraph loosely describing a dinner plate of vegetables and food will suddenly end with “I hate halibut.” There are a lot of obvious looks, innuendos, etc., that should all foretell plot points – yet many go mystifyingly nowhere. There just isn’t any flow and the story is mostly inert as Ennek wanders around his life.

About half way, I got bored of both main characters and went on auto-pilot to finish. It ends on a point where a second book can continue but I just won’t be following at this point. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Rebels by Brian Wood and Andrea Mutti

Rebels is an interesting mix of history and fiction; the illustrations are excellent and the storytelling crisp. The perspective is very much the author’s home area in Vermont; the first 6 chapters follow a young man from the area who is drafted into the rebellion through Ethan Allen. The last 4 chapters are single stories from various perspectives: a redcoat, an Indian, and two women. Yes, this is very jingoistic; the author makes no bones about it. But this is also grounded and a great way to explore the history of the time.

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The illustrations are well done though I admittedly had a hard time following the story at several points. But the look and feel of the era are well written and drawn. All the characters can be classified as simple decent folk; the hardships they leave behind in order to join the war are given as much time as the battles themselves.

The latter stories do feel a bit rushed – they are meant to be vignettes and so can feel far less personal than the earlier story of Seth Abbott. Certainly, Seth Abbott was modeled on the author’s father and therefore there is a lot of nuance to him as well as the rest of the Green Mountain Boys.

The book includes extras – author perspectives, covers, illustration notes, and the process to create the graphic novel. I would have loved more information about the history than what was given but do appreciate the extras all the same.

In all, a beautifully presented and subtle perspective on the American Revolution. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Railhead by Philip Reeve

Railhead is a very well written and intriguing YA themed science fiction tale. Although the appearance and description may seem like steampunk, this is very grounded in a cyberpunkish sci fi setting featuring androids, a sentient cybernet, and interstellar travel. Several twists and turns take the plot in places not expected and the pace is brisk.

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Story: Zen is a petty thief surviving on the fringes of a futuristic society advanced by trains with the capability of travelling to different worlds. Society is watched over by a benevolent AI structure, gifter of the Star gate travel and the sentient trains. When Zen becomes embroiled with a strange rebel who seemingly is everywhere and nowhere, he will uncover a web of lies that could undo everything upon which society is built.

The breadth of imagination is quite fantastic – from bugs who come together to form a ‘human’ in order to communicate and trains/androids with interesting personalities. Zen comes into contact with many people as he bounces from disaster to disaster. Always a pawn, his actions start small but soon his decisions have some have horrifying consequences with which he has to live. All the while, there is the mystery of his mentally deranged mother and tough-as-nails older sister.

I greatly enjoyed Railhead but still wish Reeve knew how to write female characters. Perhaps this is a pet peeve, but as with the Larklight series, it gets tiring when the women exist solely to cause the male characters confusion, annoyance, or frustration. In Railhead, once again the female characters’ motivations are purely selfish and shallow while the guys are all working on big-picture objectives to save the world.

In all, a good and surprising sci fi read with plenty of action to keep readers riveted. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Little Butterfly Volume 3 by Hinako Takanaga

Little Butterfly is the third and final volume in the series; as such, it closes the story of our two protagonists with a neat bow on top. As with the two previous volumes, this is a light and fluffy story that is missing so much of the depth and nuance to be found in this genre. There’s some generic angst in the family backgrounds but otherwise, I felt like I was reading a story about two fluffy bunnies that fall in love amidst some silly melodrama.

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Story: Nakahara is still having problems with his mother not recognizing him in her madness. Fortunately, Kojima is there to be his support. The two realize that yes, fluffy bunnies do fall in love and so are they – and they live happily every after.

The art is as generic as the story for me – with the usual boy-looking blonde paired with dark haired moody emo dude. I can’t really say that the story went anywhere or pushed any buttons – if not for some of the graphic scenes, I would have targeted this to Full Moon Wo Sagashite fans for its cutesy factor.

In all, probably not worth a purchase.

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