Breath of Earth by Beth Cato

Here’s the thing about Beth Cato’s books: there is insta luv romance, they are well written, the ‘magic’ portions are interesting, historical aspects well researched, there is plenty of action, and the plot is creative. And yet, I’ve found that for me personally, I never like any of the preachy and uptight characters. They almost veer into the author’s idea of a Mary Sue. Certainly, I appreciate that authors put their own soul into a work but at the same time, perhaps I just don’t find that I like her view of a good romance or character. So I am starting this review with that caveat; most will love Cato’s books and deservedly so.

Story: Ingrid has very strong and very rare geomancy skills. In the San Francisco of 1906, she is not allowed to use those skills since she is a female. But in this ‘Victorian’ setting, Japan and the “US” are working to completely eradicate China, Britain is subjugating India, and San Francisco’s Chinatown inhabitants are in a dangerous position, caught between two worlds. Politics, magic, and cultures collide in a world where geomancers can destroy whole cities and the world is a warground. Ingrid, with the help of a skilled engineer, will become embroiled in a plot that may involve her mysterious missing father – and endanger the lives of the entire city of San Francisco.

Those with a bit of history under their belt will likely recognize the importance of the April 1906 setting. Cato does an excellent job of weaving the facts into a plausible and intricate alternate universe world. More importantly, she also deftly incorporates Japanese, Chinese, American, and even British cultures into a melange that is appropriate and makes sense.

It’s in the characters and their interactions that it all falls apart for me. From a repressed Victorian girl immediately thinking about kissing her insta luv in a brash way to her own rather contrary nature. What others will find nuanced I find rather ‘holier than though’. Again, that is likely just me but I didn’t like Ingrid and I found her love interest to be bland, underdeveloped, and overidealized. As well, both Ingrid and her love interest are speshul snowflakes who save the world through that specialness and deus ex machina plot devices (ah, the trite and overused ‘overheard nefarious confession due to our heroine being in the perfect place at the perfect time). With all the work gone into the worldbuilding, the plot itself was underwhelming.

The writing is brisk and there is plenty of adventure to keep readers intrigued. Yes, twists and turns are fairly well telegraphed or guessable but the fast pace of the plot makes up for the predictability. In all, it is a good read and likely I’m one of the few who just can’t get invested in Cato’s characters. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Into Aether by L.M. Fry

Sometimes, YA books can really hit a low by smacking every cliche on the cliche tree. With Into Aether, unfortunately, we have a really unpleasant book. Insta luv, bratty and unlikable main character, super perfect boy who inexplicably thinks poor behavior is attractive, ill defined world, and logic holes you could pilot a blimp through. This isn’t even steampunk!

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Story: Theo is your average every day raging hormone obnoxious teen – a little speshul princess who spends all day on the cellphone gossiping with her bestie and who thinks the world owes her everything. When her mother doesn’t return from a business trip overseas, she decides to take a mysterious and unknown person’s offer to fly across the world to ‘get’ her mother. She brings along her clueless Aunt, who is also raging with hormones and hitting on a hot chauffeur. But lo and behold, they are taken to a mysterious island with Irish fae trappings. Because Theo is speshul – fortunately, there is a hot emerald eyed Irish ‘prince’ to gawk at and be rude to while expecting to be fawned upon.

Early in the book, when Theo is flying to a foreign country and should be worried about her mother, she is instead wandering what it would be like to kiss the hot guy who randomly showed up at her door. That pretty much was the rest of the book – a middle grade level ‘adventure’ that makes no sense and demonstrates really poor character building. Granted, we all expect teens to be contrary. But we should also be able to respect their decisions and at least see creative writing to explain speshulness or attraction. None of that was to be found here – it was like reading a story glorifying the most obnoxious, annoying, and mean popular girls in high school. Because hey, let’s make them unique snowflakes by giving them a random history in generic Irish mythology.

The ‘aether’ in the title and the blimp cover are misleading. This really isn’t steampunk and I don’t believe the author has a grasp of the concept or the milieu. Setting a ‘hidden’ steampunkish island in modern trapping is egregious and makes little sense. The allure of steampunk is its historical basis and that the modern world never developed as it did with gas engines and electricity. So I was left wholly unimpressed with the randomness of the world building.

About half way through, I began to skim just to get to the end. I disliked all the characters, the smarmy plot, and unimaginative writing. The characters were so two dimensional as to be paper thin. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Ghostly Echoes (Jackaby 3) by William Ritter

f the first two Jackaby books felt like ‘case of the week’ mini arcs, it is in this third book that the sinister main arc reveals itself. Returning to the atmosphere of the first book, little things now become tantalizing clues to a large conspiracy – one that our crew of detective, assistant, and ghost will have to solve. But first, Abigail will need to uncover the shrouded truth of Jenny Cavanaugh’s death.

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Story: Abigail is working with Jenny – trying to get her to remember the circumstances of her murder and get her to affect the living world with more efficiency. But there’s a reason Abigail has forgotten and Jackaby warns that Abigail may cause more harm than good. But in investigating Jenny’s murder, Abigail will come to recognize that the cases she has worked on with Jackaby in the past are all mysteriously connected – and Jackaby is the epicenter of something very evil in New Fiddleham.

The story continues to have a strong Dickensian feel though this is set in New England. The writing is just as crisp as in previous books, with sharp bon mots and witty misunderstandings. So many are about context, so sharing them here would be pointless, by they are so nicely written as to be a real treat and put a smile on my face often as I progressed through the novel.

We’re given quite a bit of Jackaby’s history – though there is still quite enough mystery to be found in future books in the series. But it was nice to know a bit more about the character since we’ve been given so little in the previous two book. As well, Jenny’s history and how it all interconnects to the series-arc was definitely worth the wait.

If I have one quibble – and this is minor considering this is definitely a 5 star book for me – it’s that we’re going into familiar faerie lore here – unseelie/seelie etc as the main problematic bad guys. I would have liked for something a bit more obscure and inventive (as Maggie Stiefvater did with Scorpio Races). I’m kind of over the whole fae thing in urban fantasy; like werewolves, zombies, and vampires, it’s overdone.

But that said, this is so beautifully written – easy to follow, crisp, no fluff, and definitely free of purple prose. It’s a satisfying book on all levels, with characters we love to follow despite (or perhaps because of) their eccentricities and quirks. Highly recommended and even better than the second novel. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Orange Planet 1 by Haruka Fukushima

There’s bland – and then there’s confusing, pointless, unrealistic, and boringly bland. This falls squarely into the latter category: a complete waste of time with an idiot protagonist, stupid boys, and plot-by-numbers harem romance. Perhaps 8 year old girls love this kind of Mary Sue – plucky young girl and all the guys inexplicably falling all over her. For me, I want more maturity, depth, nuance, and likeable (if not relatable) characters.

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Story: Middle School Rui has boy problems. Too many cute guys are in love with her and fighting over her. But hey, she’s cute and cheerful, so there are worse problems to have, right?

The drawings are uninspired and all the boys look alike. The panels are VERY difficult to figure out what is happening (which isn’t much, too!) and after awhile, it was just easier to give up. Life is too short to waste even 10 minutes on this manga. I could feel my brain melting into idiocracy after 10 pages.

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Tokyo Ghoul 8 by Sui Ishida

With Tokyo Ghoul 8, we get the full backstory on Touka and Ayato, the renewed Kaneki, and boss fights with Owl. Ishida carefully weaves pathos into his story of the siblings and their tragic upbringing. Love, betrayal, and conflict are the hallmarks of this important volume in the series; shifting our protagonist Kaneki from passive to active as he seeks to protect what is important to him.

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Story: As Ayato systematically destroys Touka, she flashes back to their childhood as outcasts – ghouls hiding in mainstream society by a gentle father. He tries his best to keep them safe and blending in with the neighbors. But when their peculiar habits are suspected and their father goes missing, those they counted on will turn on them. While Touka remains true to her father’s ideals, Ayato is resentful and hateful to the humans. Meanwhile, white haired Kaneki has awakened and he is fearsome in his determination. When he arrives and sees what Ayato is doing to Touka, true vengeance will be unleashed.

Another interesting volume in this graphically violent but well constructed series. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

Posted in manga, urban fantasy | 1 Comment

Wanderer by Roger Davenport

I wish I could say that Wanderer added something new to the dystopian YA genre; but I have to admit that I felt that I had read variations of this story several times now. Sheltered but rebellious girl in safe utopian society meets rough and tumble dystopian apocalypse survivor and they fight corruption inside and out. I could create a list of novels that meet that criteria in the last five years alone (e.g., Under the Never Sky series by Veronica Rossi and the Dust Chronicles by Maureen McGowan). Even the name and the cover are bland and generic.

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Story: the world is dry and devastated except in a pyramid city where water is carefully welled. Essa lives in the pyramid and its tightly controlled society. Kean scrapes a living with the Wanderers who move between watering holes. When a ‘season’ occurs – heavy rain and hurricane-like winds – the rebellious Essa and valiant Kean will meet and have to work together to survive.

The writing is straightforward and the plot moves decently, though it takes too long for the characters’ backstories to develop and the situation finally causes them to cross paths. Unfortunately, this hits too many tropes: Essa being rebellious against society (for no reason), the utopian society being as rotten as the outside lawlessness, heavily constricted/ruled citizens to induce ignorance (for no apparent reason), a dustbowl outside (I’d like a dystopian where the plants take over!), girl/boy saving each other and enacting revolution together despite not really being very effective/knowledgeable/useful other than having a special gift suitable for saving the world, and the bad guy pouring out all his nefarious plans and/or protagonists sneaking around and chancing upon the perfect conversation to reveal the dastardly plot. About the only good thing here is that at least one of the ‘bad guys’ didn’t appear to be evil or bear any malice. But yeah, the other bad guys were stinky, evil, greedy, ugly – because inside ugliness has to be on the outside too.

Something just didn’t connect with Wanderer. Not the terrible covers, not the tired plot, and not the rehashed characters. But that isn’t to say this is terribly written or can’t be enjoyed. Those that have read the aforementioned Rossi or McGowan books will likely find Wanderer a decent read as well. For me, I want something more original and distinct. Reviewed as an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Dragon Age: Magekiller by Greg Rucka

Dragon Age: Mage Killer remains very true to the Dragon Age world. In fact, it takes place during the entirety of the Inquisition game. The illustrations are well done and likenesses are true to the game. But the story is rather pointless and seems more like a way to introduce/give backstory on characters that may be the leads in the next game. Nothing much happens and it jumps around everywhere.

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Tessa is a friendly rogue and Marius is a deadly serious warrior/mage killer. He was once a Tevinter slave but claims he bears no special ill will to all Tevinter. When they are lured to a job, they become embroiled in Tevinter politics – and eventually become part of the Inquisition. After excursions to Inquisition locations with Dorian and the Chargers (minus Bull), they take assignments from Charter as the Inquisition deals with the hole the sky.

I appreciated seeing cameos of many characters – from the Chargers, of course, to Leliana and Dorian. But it was also great to see Charter in action; she is Leliana’s main spy and responsible for recruiting Scout Harding. Tessa and Charter have a little romance but we don’t see any of it – it’s only hinted at as off-jokes to oblivious Marius. And Marius himself seems like a mixture of Alistair’s obtuseness with Hawke’s gritty determination.

I wish the stories went somewhere. There really isn’t much of a story here yet it seems so obvious that one could have been built upon instead of throwing character and game vignettes around willy-nilly. I like a cameo as much as the next person (Hi Dorian!) but I have already completely forgotten what this graphic novel was about. That certainly never happened after playing the Dragon Age games.

So yes, I’d say a graphic novel for fans and hope this is a sneak of the characters we will get with the next Dragon Age game. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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