Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The Captive Kingdom by Jennifer A. Nielsen, 2020

WARNING: This is the fourth book in the Ascendance Trilogy, and has major spoilers even in the description. If you haven't read at least The False Prince (one of the first books I ever reviewed), go away!

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In a peaceful Carthya, Jaron leads as the Ascendant King with Imogen beside him -- but the peace he fought so long for is not destined to last.

On a routine sea voyage, Jaron's ship is brutally attacked, and he is taken hostage. The mysterious captors and their leader, Jane Strick, accuse Jaron of unthinkable acts. They are also in possession of some shocking items -- including the crown and sword that belonged to Jaron's older brother, Darius. The items unearth a past Jaron thought he had put behind him.

Though it seems impossible, Jaron must consider: Could Darius be alive? And what does Strick want from Jaron? Against his will, Jaron will be pulled back into a fight for the throne -- and a battle to save his kingdom.
(384 pages)

    Let's start by getting the fangirling out of the way: I can't believe Nielsen brought this series back!! I was a massive fan of the original trilogy (especially, if not mostly, of The False Prince) and I have always missed reading about Jaron's escapades. Nielsen is great at putting her characters into seemingly impossible situations and then having them think their way out, but no one - no one - can top Jaron's sheer genius. Especially not anyone as charismatic and fun to read about. Also, on a lesser but still important note, I am yet again in love with a cover. The Ascendance series has such gorgeous covers that I often find myself staring at them, and I'm pleased to say that the rich purples of The Captive Kingdom joins the blue, green and red of the other books in being absolutely stunning. 

    Okay, now let's talk review. I thought the characters were well done here. Imogen isn't on-screen a lot, but she feels like a more fleshed-out person than she did in many of the earlier books. My main issue with her was, honestly, we already know how her piece of the story will end (they literally tell us before the book begins) so it is hard to get too invested in any drama involving her. Also, I didn't really agree with her (and everyone else's, to some extent) criticisms of Jaron's tendency to keep things close to his chest. Trust issues are understandable with his background, and also it makes sense not to give people information that they could be tortured for later! But anyway, Tobias is still a good side-kick, Amarinda is barely in it at all, and Fink (who I'm ashamed to admit I'd forgotten about until Jaron reminded me who he was) is super cute and very much a scene-stealer. I had a bone to pick with Roden's plotline, which seemed to echo a lot of stuff from the earlier books as he once more is pitted against Jaron, but Nielsen kept things fresh enough that I stopped grumbling about it by the end.

    As for the new characters, they're all pretty interesting and well-done. The women they meet - both allies and villains - are relatively complex and interesting characters, and I enjoyed trying to understand them. As for the "Darius" character (no spoilers on whether he's really Jaron's older brother!), that was such an interesting premise for Nielsen to go with. He doesn't enter until about halfway through the book, but the idea of him is already messing with Jaron's head much sooner than that. It's heartbreaking to see Jaron try to wrestle with the idea that his brother could be alive, and to face hard questions about what sort of king he is and whether he might need to hand over his crown to someone else and relinquish all of that power. To be honest, though, this plotline also was the one that frustrated me the most. Besides some rather blatant attempts at retconning, I also just found most of "Darius'" words and actions to be frustrating and, honestly, a bit unrealistic. The way he acts toward Jaron is just a bit strange. That's all I can say without spoilers. I thought that Jaron's actions were very true to his character, though, and just reaffirmed my love for him.

    I also remembered how much I love Jaron in the last few chapters of the book, when plot twist after plot twist went flying and they were all completely plausible and also took me completely by surprise. It's been a long time since a book really shook my expectations that much, and I had such a blast flipping through pages with literally no idea what would happen next. It's a real roller-coaster of a book, and I am 100% here for Jaron's unreliable narration keeping me on my toes.

The Captive Kingdom doesn't beat out The False Prince, but I'd say it's at least as good as the other two books in the series. It's still settling into my head at the moment, but I'm currently ranking it tied with The Runaway King (my second favourite in the series) and it may very well steal that second-place spot. The action is well-paced, never becoming boring or dizzyingly fast. The premise is a good - and very interesting! - one, and the execution is pretty good. Overall, a very solid book and several hours very pleasantly spent. Now if only I could get my hands on The Shattered Castle (expected publication 2021)!

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Autumn Fairy by Brittany Fichter, 2017

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Katrin knows little about her origins, but whatever she is, it's certainly not human.On an island where humans have banned magic and hunt all who possess it, the dark power within her has become too strong to hide. With each passing day, the threat grows. For if she cannot master her terrifying abilities soon, everyone around her will suffer. And that's something she cannot accept.

While Katrin is willing to sacrifice herself to save others, Peter, her childhood friend and protector, is not. But when he promises to save her at all costs, jeopardizing his own kingdom in return, he finds that his failure will mean either Katrin’s death or the isle’s doom.

And if unraveling the source of Katrin’s power isn’t difficult enough, a mysterious and powerful stranger from the forest reveals that he has plans of his own for Katrin…and the rest of the isle.

To protect their home, Katrin and Peter must face not only their worst fears about who and what they are but their true feelings for one another as well. For if they don't, everything they love will perish...
(538 pages)

    I'd give this a solid "meh". I was initially really excited about the premise, with the girl who doesn't know who/what she is and the boy who is incredibly loyal to her.

    And in many ways, it lived up to my expectations. I loved the way Katrin started the book in a terrible place, feeling abandoned and abused by everyone she'd ever known and horrified of her own abilities. It takes her a really long time to learn more about herself, and she is fully convinced that she is a monster just waiting to kill.

    I also loved her childhood relationship with Peter, and the way they clearly have such an incredibly deep bond. Childhood friends-to-lovers is one of my absolute favourite romance stories, and this one was particularly strong.

    However, as more and more pages went by, I wound up getting increasingly frustrated with it. For one thing, the eventual plot dump of Katrin's powers, and the characters who explained stuff to her, wasn't as exciting as it could have been. It was okay, though - mostly because I was at least curious about her powers. What I really got sick of was all of the side characters I had no investment in. Peter has like six knights he travels with, and we waste way too much time getting to know them. Plus Peter's quest in the later part of the book is pretty boring; every time I was reading about it, I really just wanted to go back to Katrin.

    I actually spent most of the book way more invested in Katrin than in Peter, and I think that's because I was just really frustrated with Peter. He may clearly be halfway in love with Katrin throughout the book, but he doesn't acknowledge it at all and instead spends most of the book seeing zero problems with his plans to have her just hang around him while he's married to another woman. A woman who is clearly a terrible, manipulative person. Which he doesn't see for way too long.

    Plus, the phrase "she's like a sister to me" is used way too many times in this book. It's one thing to say it once or twice toward the beginning of the story, to show how oblivious to their feelings their characters are about their feelings, but it's a bit gross to see Peter say stuff like that throughout most of the book. I guess the only redeeming factor is that he doesn't have any actual siblings, so he doesn't know how he'd feel toward one. Because reader, he definitely does not have familial feelings toward Katrin.

    Overall, it was an entertaining read which I enjoyed, but it could have been so much more. I think someone should have gone through and chopped out some of those 500 pages. They could have made a much leaner story which would have been a bit less frustrating. I enjoyed it enough, though, that I do plan to pick up the other two books in the series. Keep an eye out for those reviews.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Pearl of Magic: A Little Mermaid Romance by Emily Deady, 2020

Book Cover
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 Life in captivity is horrible.
 But pretending to be a prisoner is worse.

 Aizel is a Majis and, against her will, a spy. She is supposed to be uncovering secrets for a cruel king, but spends most of her time listening to the haughty, self-absorbed musings of her captor, Prince Erich.

 It would be much less frustrating if she could at least complain about it, but the king has silenced her, taking away her voice so that she cannot wield her magic.

 If she fails to gather information from Erich, her family will be killed. But if she reports back to the king, her people's only hope for freedom will be exterminated. Can she find a way to communicate with her captor and convince him of the truth about the Majis?
(259 pages)

    I've been on a huge fairytale retelling kick lately, and I really enjoyed Deady's take on Cinderella and Beauty & the Beast in the first two books in this series. I was excited for Pearl of Magic because it can be taken in so many interesting directions.

    The first couple pages were very confusing to get into, because there was no recap to bring us back up to speed. I actually had to flip back to the earlier books to remind myself of the countries and characters that have already been established, and to verify that Erich is a younger siblings of the two princes in the earlier books. I also got muddled between the two countries on the mainland.

    Once I got all that straightened out, though, I really enjoyed this interesting take on the Little Mermaid story. It was interesting to explore a scenario where the prince knows she's being forced not to talk, and her voice has been taken from her as a way to take away her magic. I'm also really glad Deady didn't go with the Ursula plotline of an imposter almost stealing the little mermaid's man, because you really have to bend over backward to make it plausible.

    Both Erich and Aizel are fun characters to follow. Erich sometimes felt a bit tropey to me, like a carefully selected collection of personality traits rather than a fully-fleshed person. I thought the shift in his attitude toward Aizel and the Majis was pretty realistic, as he spent more and more time learning who she was through daily interactions. Their growing relationship is a cute thing to watch, and I enjoyed their interactions and wished there were more of them. I did feel like the climax was a bit rushed, though.

    As for Aizel, her development was much more fleshed out than Erich's - which makes sense, since most of the book is told from her perspective. There is a decent amount of nuance to her, especially around her ethical struggles. The king is holding her little sister's life hostage, and says he'll only spare her if Aizel kills Erich. I liked watching her really wrestle with this challenge, questioning whether she's the sort of person who could kill anyone - even to save a loved one - but also desperate to do whatever it takes to save her sister. My only qualm about Aizel is that I didn't necessarily see how her personality was especially suited to Erich's; she spends most of the book stressed out, terrified, and/or furious. She doesn't have much of a chance to discuss hobbies or life philosophies or anything with him, because she's literally muted.

    Overall, this was a cute book which I enjoyed reading. I think my favorite book in the series must still be Thorn of Rose, the Beauty & the Beast retelling. And my all-time favorite Little Mermaid retelling is definitely still A.G. Marshall's Princess of Mermaids. But this is a fun read that I do recommend to anyone looking for a nice fairytale retelling.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Hippo at the End of the Hall by Helen Cooper, 2017

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The invitation was delivered by bees. It wasn’t addressed to anyone at all, but Ben knew it was for him. It would lead him to an old, shambolic museum, full of strange and bewitching creatures. A peculiar world of hidden mysteries and curious family secrets . . . and some really dangerous magic.

Filled with her own wonderful illustrations, The Hippo at the End of the Hall is Helen Cooper's debut novel.

(400 pages)

I have a love-hate relationship with whimsical, quirky books like this one. On one hand, I love the idea of them. On the other, the execution often falls a bit flat and either feels like the author is trying too hard to stand out or it's just predictable.

I feel like The Hippo at the End of the Hall manages to rise above the most forgettable of this type of book. It's not going on my list of favorites, and part of me kind of thinks the story is a bit boring/contrived, but I actually got really sucked in while I was reading it and enough genuinely bizarre things happened that I could never really predict where everything was going (even if I had an idea of the overarching destination).

I think this is the sort of book that kids maybe five years younger than me would really enjoy. It's an interesting premise and fun with lots of animals, etc.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Where the Heart Is by Jo Knowles, 2019

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If home is where the heart is, what would happen if you lost it? Compassion and humor infuse the story of a family caught in financial crisis and a girl struggling to form her own identity.

It’s the first day of summer and Rachel’s thirteenth birthday. She can’t wait to head to the lake with her best friend, Micah! But as summer unfolds, every day seems to get more complicated. Her “fun” new job taking care of the neighbors’ farm animals quickly becomes a challenge, whether she’s being pecked by chickens or having to dodge a charging pig at feeding time. At home, her parents are more worried about money than usual, and their arguments over bills intensify. Fortunately, Rachel can count on Micah to help her cope with all the stress. But Micah seems to want their relationship to go beyond friendship, and though Rachel almost wishes for that, too, she can’t force herself to feel “that way” about him. In fact, she isn’t sure she can feel that way about any boy — or what that means.

(304 pages)

I'll be honest: I read this book way too long ago to remember the details. All I do remember is that it wasn't as good as I thought it would be, and that the sexual identity stuff isn't very explicit but isn't something I would personally choose to have in a book for middle school kids. To each their own, though.

I do like the angle of a childhood romance where one side of the potential couple isn't actually interested but feels like she should be. I feel like there are so many stories about childhood sweethearts, which I don't complain about too hard because it's one of my favorite tropes, but the flip side of this where the guy thinks they're childhood sweethearts destined for more while the girl . . . well, doesn't? It's an interesting twist.

The animal angle is also fun, I always love animals in books. The parental fighting and the financial issues aren't as exciting to read about, but I guess they could be someone else's cup of tea more than they are mine.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.