Age of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

Book two in the Legends of the First Empire continues exactly where the previous book left off and moves on with the plot without wasting time reiterating events. Personally I like this approach in book series where the author is confident that readers are already familiar with what has happened.

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While the plot continues on as before, we do get a lot more characters and the concentration is on different view points than previous. On occasion this is a bit annoying; it feels like we only some get a full account of some while so many others are left to the wayside. Fortunately all the points of view are interesting save one – that of Mawyndulë the elven prince whose chapters of whining teenager idiocy were quite hard to get through. A few plot elements felt maybe a bit too Lord of the Rings-esque. And honestly, the main heroines inventing the writing, the wheel,AND the bow within what must be just weeks requires quite a bit of suspension of belief. Still, the main plot of the upcoming war feels solid, with the politics and logistics feeling even surprisingly realistic.

Writing is good as ever and pacing feels perfect (except, again, with the prince). I did miss a bit of the odd couple dry humor that exists in Sullivan’s Riyria books, and in the first volume of this series between Raithe and Malcolm.

All in all, I enjoyed this book a lot and am quite looking forward to the next installment.

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Anne of Green Gables by Mariah Marsden, Brenna Thummler

Anne of Green Gables was ripe for a contemporary graphic novel translation: the beloved story of a plucky young orphan growing up in Prince Edward Island in Canada is a beloved classic to many. Those watching the 2017 Netflex show likely believe Anne is a story of a young girl who is psychotic from mistreatment in her youth and having ‘episodes’ that fuel her imagination (AKA multiple personality disorder). But Montgomery’s book was not about the bad in life so much as the very good: it’s a story of hope and imagination – something this graphic novel gets right. Author and illustrator condense quite a bit to make the story fit and perhaps in doing so, lose quite a bit of the story. So I recommend this as a companion to the origin book rather than as a stand alone for those who have not read of Anne’s adventures.

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Story: When elderly siblings Mathew and Marilla Cuthberg request a boy from the orphanage to help with Mathew’s farming, they are surprised to find a scrawny, red haired, but very precocious Anne waiting at the train station. Mathew is taken with the young girl and her flights of fancy yet Marilla isn’t easily convinced. But chance affords them the opportunity to keep her anyway – and Anne’s life in the small Canadian town begins.

Most of the key Anne scenes are there: the locket, the green hair, Gilbert and the pier rescue, etc. But there really isn’t enough time in the translation to give us reasons why things happen as they do. When Anne brains Gilbert with the slate, for example, it feels very sudden if one didn’t understand Anne’s image problems. Similarly, the blow up with Rachel at the beginning is very abrupt. Character relationships outside of Diana are also similarly excluded – few of the girls at the school are mentioned at all. So we lose the conflict with Josie Pye and the bullying from the girls.

I hadn’t read the books recently so I had to jog my memory at several scenes to understand the context. If anything, Anne seems to be living a very happy and not very troubled life with all the small incidents cut out – I would have been wondering what all the fuss was about when Anne doesn’t do much in the graphic novel except talk with people. The translation is best described as vignettes – concentrating on certain scenes which don’t allow enough room for subtle context.

The art style reminded me a lot of the TV series Daria – circular eyes with no pupils, potato faces and bodies, and very odd squiggles for noses (all nostrils, oddly). I can’t say that I really liked the illustration work and I honestly felt it let down the story telling quite a bit. It lacked character emotion and nuances that would have helped fill in the greatly needed context. Prince Edward Island is very windswept and open but has a unique beauty that I just don’t believe the illustrations captured enough.

In all, this is a nice companion book – a way to see the story you just read illustrated (or to remind you of the great scenes in the book). But as a stand alone, I think many will be left wondering why Anne of Green Gables is so Beloved. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Zero Repeat Forever by G. S. Prendergast

I’ve seen some interesting comparisons for what you find in Zero Repeat Forever – from a “Canadian 5th Wave” to “Alien Warm Bodies.” And certainly, the plot does echo what is found in those stories: an alien invasion, a girl who has to survive, and a creature that has little control over itself but becomes obsessed with a girl anyway. But where this book shines is in the pathos: Prendergast tells a story that, although not necessarily surprising, is full of nuanced and non-cliche characters. There are no unique snowflakes or Hallmark moments to be found.

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Away at a remote Canadian forest camp awaiting the arrival of the students they have to watch, Raven and her teen counselor friends are horrified to learn that an alien invasion is occurring – and people are dying en masse. Trapped, unsure of where to go and what to do, with supplies dwindling, the teens are going to have to figure out what to do when survival is becoming increasingly difficult. Meanwhile, a member of the invasion force, Eighth, is killing humans as directed but increasingly realizing he is defective. Conflicted, Unsure, and unable to process and even hide his defectiveness, he will be driven to desperation when he allows a single human girl to escape – and realizes he no longer has the will to kill the humans.

The story is not a soppy sci fi romance nor is it silly YA instalove. What we have is a bleak but also character driven survival tale with a very beating heart at the center. Raven, the female protagonist, has a checkered past and is stuck at a Summer camp to make up for her misdeeds. She’s there with her boyfriend Tucker and his twin Topher. Eight, meanwhile, wants only to follow his Sixth – the female who gives him orders – but she despises him for his weaknesses and ‘defectiveness’ in not following the directive completely. She is lethal, unequivocal, and he knows only that she is the most important thing in his life. His agonizing over the free will thoughts that make him ‘defective’ are what drive most of his narrative. Eighth’s POVs are brief but poignant; full of self loathing and confusion. Raven’s are also conflicted: surviving, dealing with the death of her friends and family, yet full of fire and desire to live.

By the end, these very flawed characters will have gone through great trials but also great growth. Both Raven and Eighth have much to learn about themselves; through their interactions with each other, they come to individual catharsis that are quite grounded yet also very emotional.

There is a lot of action but also a lot of harshness. Prendergast doesn’t spare the readers and so for that reason, I reminded a lot of what made Hunger Games so good – there’s so many small moments but also heartbreak and triumph. It’s always a mixed bag. Since this is the first in the series, we are given some ideas of where the story will go but there is still a lot to be answered. The ‘twist’ at the end certainly wasn’t a surprise, especially how the aliens kill the humans. But the book was very well written and kept me reading well into the night. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Wicked Like A Wildfire by Lana Popovic

The appeal of Wicked Like a Wildfire will likely depend on your reading preferences – it is a technically solid YA book featuring a strong main protagonist. But it also suffers from the same issues that we find in so many debut authors: the writing is overly flowery, the plot a slow burn that can be hard to slog through, and the protagonist completely unlikable. Ironically, the things that should help make this a unique read instead feel like an anti trope – the more that was revealed, the more familiar the ground felt and the less impressed I became with the story. That said, I also did not like Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series – of which this book shares many of the same elements (interesting old European flavor, witches/magic, demons and good/bad characters, and a character who is stubborn and disenfranchised from her society).

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Story: Iris and Malina, twins, live in a quiet and quaint Montenegro village with their mother. Each girl has a unique ability – they can do a bit of magic. But their mother has warned them about doing it and the girls have hidden their abilities, even to the point of almost losing them. But then a strange woman appears, their mother is attacked and left in a mysterious coma, and with the help of their best friends, a brother and sister of Romany descent, they begin to uncover the mystery surrounding their hidden heritage.

The magic system here is based on the senses and so a LOT of time is spent on very flowery and specific descriptions of each of the senses and how the magic affects it. Whether it be taste, or sight, or song, it gets to be a bit much at times. I can appreciate that it helps to understand how the magic works on a person – but it also greatly slowed the pace of the book.

Our protagonist, Iris, is one of the most unlikable heroines I’ve come across in a long time. She smokes, she gets horribly drunk, isn’t too picky about one night stands with strange boys, and she is nasty to everyone around her. She also isn’t very bright. Of course, by the end of the book there will be a reason she’s been driven that way – but it doesn’t justify it or make me like her any more by that time. I found I was kind of hoping she was the one who got offed instead of her mother since her mother seemed much more interesting than she did (or her juxtapositionally perfect and sweet sister). Since it is only Iris’ viewpoint, we don’t get much on the other sister, Malina, who often feels very one-dimensional. Again, this is on purpose since Malina will have some surprises for her self absorbed sister but by then, I just didn’t care about either.

Side characters fared much worse. Best friends and fellow outcasts Luka and Nick feel like caricatures. Of course, Luka’s interest in Iris is obviously written but we’re not given much reason for him to be so stricken with Iris other than that her witchiness makes her bewitching to all. If anything, from the way she treats/ignores him, it’s hard to like or respect him as a love interest when he’s that stupid. Iris is nasty to everyone, constantly, and it’s like being around a self obsessed, hormone addled, over-indulged 13 year old. There’s no depth to her at all and turning her into the victim in the end felt disingenuous.

There are the usual YA urban fantasy cliches here: ‘speshul snowflake’ who doesn’t know she’s a super power, a parent who think protecting her children means not telling them anything of the dangers they are facing and then who gets summarily offed before doing so, love interest who thinks someone’s nastiness means they are ‘spirited’ and strong (when in fact they are just jerks), and the usual round of eeeevil characters whose motivations are always purely self interest and greed. There’s not a lot of nuance here.

Where Wicked Like a Wildfire succeeds is in giving us an idealized version of the author’s home of Montenegro. The author is careful to eschew modern technology, making the village feel more like it housed Gepetto’s hut in Pinocchio than a real place. No internet, not much cell phones or other modern conveniences are in the book purposely, even the cars feel 1920s. It’s a place out of time where it is suitable for an urban fantasy of witches to be able to exist in modern times. Perhaps that is why Iris sneaking out to get stoned and drunk, coming back reeking of alcohol and hangover, and then fighting with her mother, who just shrugs and says she dresses and acts like a whore, feels very jarring.

I read Wicked Like A Wildfire through to the end but honestly didn’t enjoy it. There wasn’t anything new here, I didn’t like the characters, and the anachronistic setting didn’t work with such a thoroughly and modernly unpleasant teen main character like Iris. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh

I’m gong to start by saying that this is one of my favorite books this year. I’ve seen quite a few references to the movie Pacific Rim and I can understand why: what Pacific Rim did for Japanese Godzilla movies, this book does for mecha anime. That should be a disclaimer but it is actually the highest praise I can give and why I loved this book so much. It feels like a superior novelization of one of the really good late night mecha anime series that we’ve seen come out of Japan over the years. But the setting is Korea and the South Korean culture is so well represented here in our engaging hero and interesting storyline. The appeal is broad – more than for just action, sci fi, anime, or Pacific Rim fans. And I really look forward to more from this author in the future.

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Story: After several great wars, the Eastern Pacific Asian states have been united; individual cultures are suppressed in an attempt to wipe out the nationalism that breeds war. But it also makes for a dictatorship and many want their cultures back. Seoul is a city divided: the slums of “old Seoul” litter the area outside the pristine and wealthy domed city of “Neo Seoul”. Slumboy Lee Jaewon has managed to escape his past of gang warfare in the mean streets and squeaked into the great academy in Neo Seoul. His schoolmates are all children of prominent citizens and Alex, the Director’s son, has taken an interest in Lee Jaewon’s war skills. But Lee Jaewon’s association with Alex will pull him into a secret program to augment humans – and two young girls who have been ‘enhanced’ but are unstable. Jaewon and Alex will be enlisted to be caretakes of the girls and keep them stable – but Jaewon will soon discover that there is a sinister secret tied to his mean streets past and his rebel father’s failed attempt to overthrow the united government.

Although mecha was used quite frequently in the description/blurbs about the book, that isn’t the crux of the story and there are actually very few mecha scenes. Most of the story is about Jaewon at the school, dealing with his past/betrayal of his best friend, and being manipulated by the Director’s son, Alex. Through it all, is the conflict of straddling two worlds and ideologies: not only is he a ‘street rat’ in a prestigious academy but he is also, unknown to all, the son of the rebel leader who died by a terrorist attack taking innocent lives. Jaewon was thrown into the street at the age of eight and has survived since.

The book can be broken down into three sections: Jaewon moving between the two worlds of the academy/Neo Seoul and his home in old Seoul, Jaewon and Alex working with the test girls, and then the culmination of the rebellion’s long dormant plans. Each is exciting and certainly the book was very different from the description of what appeared to be boys fighting in giant mecha suits.

Axie Oh is clearly an anime fan – this book has all the elements of one of the better mecha series that entrance millions with their complex and nuanced storylines and high action. Careful consideration is always to keep the focus on the humanity and not the mecha aspects – ensuring readers have empathy with the characters and want to see how their stories turn out. There is a nice romance in Rebel Seoul and I appreciated that, unlike anime, the girls aren’t too cutsey or overidealized versions of youth-oriented femininity. As well, the story has many aspects and threads but remains fully focused on Jaewon.

There is a nice dictionary in back of the Korean terms so this isn’t too confusing. But for me, as much as I do love Japanese anime, I have to really respect this glimpse into Korean culture. The book is solidly written, a mature science fiction that will appeal to more than just anime fans for its depth and nuances. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Horizon Volume 1 by Brandon Thomas,

What Horizon Volume 1 wanted to be was a high stakes, high octane sci fi actioner. But something was lost in the application – a concept that was never fleshed out enough to be anything more than nebulous and disenfranchising. The plot meanders, the story somewhat inscrutable, and the protagonists cyphers that baffle rather than entice. By the middle of this first volume, collecting issues 1-6, I was reading just to finish and not because I enjoyed it.

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Story: Zhia Malen has come to a polluted and dying Earth for one reason: to ensure that the humans do not come to do the same to her planet. For the humans need a new home and they are not too picky about what happens to those already occupying that new planet.

The story features quite a bit of cloak and dagger action – Zhia and her small band have superior weapons but only a small group to take on the Earth power bases. It was never explained (that I can recall) how her people knew Earth was going there, what they had done in the past so far, or even what Zhia hoped to accomplish specifically to stop the invasion. There’s a lot of assaults, killing, and evil hoomans, and of course our heroes are the good guys and conflicted about what they have to do to save their planet from invasion.

This feels like a book that someone tried to write around the idea that the humans are the invaders, instead of the other way around. This time, the aliens are the defenders and the heroes. But we don’t get a lot of information or backgrounds on them, their personalities are missing (other than cackling evil bad and determined good), and even then, the aliens don’t even feel very alien at all. It felt like two different humans fighting each other, just one was colored blue.

There are the usual dystopian future tropes here: corporations have taken over, mankind is inherently greedy and evil, and man has destroyed the world. I imagine there was also an attempt to tie in to what European settlers did to North and South America natives over the last millennium – assimilation and destruction of their cultures. But the parallel – exploration and expansion through choice (rather than because the Europeans had destroyed Europe and made it unlivable) – didn’t really apply. So there was opportunity to do a bit more with this story that just wasn’t explored, or at least not in a way that was meaningful.

The art did not help bring definition to Horizon either, to be honest. As nebulous and head scratching as the plot was, the graphics were also rather stylized and conceptual rather than enhancing the story. If the story is not gelling, then the graphics really should. But the illustration work was imprecise where it should have been emotive and evocative. If the plot didn’t lose me, the graphics did.

In the end, I didn’t feel for the characters or their motivations. I didn’t really care if they succeeded or if they failed. The villains were once again overly hubristic and prone to pontification about their nefarious plans. And the humans had technology that should have been surprising only to the reader, not the aliens who were sent to infiltrate and assassinate – especially with their information gathering abilities. And please – can we not have the trope where characters completely miss the obvious that every reader figures out and rolls their eyes when the villains reveal a dramatic ‘twist’ ability? Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Water Memory by Mathieu Reynès

Water Memory feels like a title in search of a good story. We have a girl whose age isn’t stated, in a sea town that isn’t identified, with folklore that isn’t culture-oriented, and a lot of clues/mystery that never seem to go anywhere. The authors stated they wanted to keep this without references – but in doing so this maritime story floats aimlessly and without a firm anchor (no pun intended). I was expecting something a bit more original or distinct in some way; there were no surprises and the twist at the end was pretty obvious, even for young readers.

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Story: Young Marion’s mother, newly divorced, returns to her ancestral home after being away from it since she was four years old. While she quickly finds a job in the new town, Marion is left to explore the seaside. When she comes across mysterious carved stones, all of which point to the odd lighthouse on the island, she becomes curious – especially about the old recluse who lives in the lighthouse. But the sea can be dangerous and Marion is about to find out that there is much more to it than she realized.

While I recognize this is a book that is ideally targeted at a younger audience, several things really bothered me about the grounding of the story. For example, we have a young girl, clearly in elementary school, left to wander around a dangerous crumbly cliff and a treacherous sea by herself after only just arriving. This is the day after she moves in – she’s even allowed to go swimming in the very cold ocean by herself while her mother unpacks in the house (which is far from the beach). It makes no logical sense.

Marion, of course, gets in many scrapes that could easily have killed her – from getting trapped in a cave with a rising tide to falling off the cliff. Let’s not also forget that she breaks and enters a private person’s home and then tries to once again kill herself by sneaking out into the high tide again. It’s hard to root for a character that does such stupid things – nor would I really want to give that example to my kids. The authors seem to have confused foolhardy with spirited.

The story is slow and takes a long time to get going. Mostly, it’s about Marion seeing items as clues throughout the area – but do we need so many of them to understand the supernatural element of the local story? The authors drop clues like candy, willy nilly and far too obviously. More care could have been taken with pacing and plotting to make for a tighter and more engaging story.

The illustration work serves the story well, though Marion kept reminding me of Lilo, from Disney’s Lilo and Stitch. But again, the visual cues were far too obvious and even in a book for younger children, subtlety would have been more rewarding for rereads.

I think the key here is that the book is missing a bit of sophistication. It stays very general – from the plot to the small twist at the end. I kept expecting something more but was disappointed that nothing more came of the ending. But it is an easy read and uncomplicated. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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