Book Review: The Plastic Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

The Plastic Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

This is Holmberg’s fourth entry into her Paper Magician universe. This is not a direct sequel, rather The Plastic Magician explores new themes and magics within the same universe as the Paper Magician Trilogy. This means you can read this book as a standalone without having read the others. But I’m going to say right now that if you haven’t read the original trilogy, then you are seriously missing out.

In this story, we leave magicians Ceony Twill and Emery Thane behind and instead follow Alvie Brechenmacher, an American girl with German parents who desperately wants to be a polymaker, that is- a magician who works with plastic. As polymaking is the newest and least understood magic, there is an entire world waiting for discovery, and Alvie, naturally brilliant and creative, wants to make her mark on the world. When she manages to apprentice to the world’s foremost polymaker, all of Alvie’s dreams seem to be coming true. But when she and her mentor develop a groundbreaking new invention, old rivalries emerge and Alvie learns that the world of magician can be a dangerous one.

This was a great addition to the Paper Magician world. Alvie is a fantastic protagonist–unapologetically brilliant, kind, creative, and more than a little socially awkward. I also enjoyed how, despite the book’s historical setting, everyone seems to take Alvie’s intellect as a given, and as an asset. Alvie occupies the brilliant inventor trope that is so often the territory of male characters, and she does it well. I always love a female protagonist who is comfortable with their own intelligence.

In fact, my biggest complaint would be that the antagonist of this book, while amoral and devious, exists more as a witless foil than a true challenge. While he certainly succeeds in disrupting things in the book (as he must), once his master plan was revealed, I felt a bit let down (really guy, that was your plan? And then what?!).

In all, this is a fun YA book that will appeal to a wide age range. Fans of the previous books will enjoy this one, and anyone who thinks this book looks good should check out the Paper Magician, like, yesterday.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Buried Symbol by Jeffery L. Kohanek

The Buried Symbol by Jeffery L. Kohanek

At birth, every child in the empire is branded with a rune, which determines the path their life will take. The chosen follow their assigned path and thrive in their life’s calling. Then there are the unchosen, those who, at birth, are not favored by the gods. These are the equivalent of an untouchable caste, occupying the lowest rungs of society. They have no prospects, and no hope to improve their lot in life. Brock is one of these unfortunates, but he is determined to be more than his birthright dictates. Obtaining a counterfeit rune, he sets off to become one of the Empire’s ruling class. At the academy, he uncovers a lost form of magic, and secrets that could bring the Empire itself to its knees.

This book has a lot of potential. As a debut offering, there are fantastic bones to this story. The magic and caste systems are original and nicely developed, the protagonist is interesting and sympathetic, and the world is fleshed out and full of wonder and danger. The writing and pacing are a bit rough, but the underlying talent is there. With a book or two more of experience under his belt, Kohanek could make quite a name for himself in the fantasy genre.

The book is certainly designed to appeal more to young adult audiences, but older readers enthusiastic about fantasy will probably enjoy themselves as well.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso

The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso

Fair warning: this is the second book in Caruso’s Swords and Fire Series. If you haven’t read The Tethered Mage, then there’s probably going to be spoilers in here for the first book. Of course, if you haven’t read Tethered Mage, then you’re missing out on a fantastic fantasy series and should go read it right now. I’ll wait.


Amalia Cornaro’s political star is on the rise. After averting disaster and civil war within the Raverran Empire, she has, however reluctantly, accepted her place as her mother’s heir. But the Witch Lords of Vaskandar, led by the sadistic skinwitch Ruven, are preparing for war with the Empire. These incredibly powerful mages, each more or less invincible in their own realms, could spell the end of Raverra itself. Amalia and her fire warlock falcon, Zaira, once again find themselves the first line of defense for their homeland.

The Tethered Mage was one of my favorite debut fantasy novels. Caruso created a world (based loosely on renaissance Venice) that was full of magic and people, a world that was vibrant, that had a feel of reality and history to it. In Defiant Heir, Caruso build on this strong foundation, and allows the world and her characters to grow.

This story takes us out of the now-familiar Raverra and into Vaskandar, of which we hear only vague rumors before. I enjoyed how the focus on the Witch Lords allowed for the magic system of the world to grow and evolve alongside the characters.

This book is ostensibly in the young adult genre, but is engaging and intelligent enough to appeal to a wide range of readers. Anyone looking for a fantastic fantasy series featuring a smart, resourceful, and relatable female lead need look no further.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove


The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove

At some unknown point in time, The Great Disruption fractured the world, sending different areas into different time periods. In the hundred years since, explorers have traveled the globe, trying to map the new world and make sense of this new reality. This story brings us to the New Occident, which roughly corresponds (geographically) to the original thirteen American colonies, in 1891. The government is run in a parliamentary system, where the right to speak can be purchased by the second. Our protagonist, Sophia Tims, comes from a long, distinguished line of explorers and mapmakers. Her uncle, Shadrack, is the preeminent cartologer in the world. When he is kidnapped, Sophia finds herself torn from her comfortable life in Boston as she sets off to rescue her uncle, travelling across countries and across times. But her uncle’s kidnappers are after something legendary, a map that can change the face–and fate–of the world.

This was, simply put, a fantastic YA adventure. It’s one of those stories at crosses age boundaries and can be enjoyed by just about anyone. Sophia is a great character, one who is able to grow and evolve as her world changes around her. Grove also provides us with a number of wonderful supporting characters and villains to flesh out the story. 

Importantly, the world these characters inhabit feels fully formed. The concept of different continents existing in different times is very fun, and Grove makes it work, to ing us insight into the relations between times, their politics, and their religions. 

The Glass Sentence is an adventure story along the lines of The Golden Compass. Anyone looking for a new YA series to try should add this book to their TBR.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: A Poison Dark and Drowning by Jessica Cluess

A Poison Dark and Drowning by Jessica Cluess

Spoiler Alert: This is the second book in the Kingdom of Fire Series (you can read my review of the first book, A Shadow Bright and Burning, here). There are definitely going to be spoilers for the first book in this review. 

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So after defeating Korozoth, The Shadow and Fog, Henrietta Howell finds herself more or less (increasingly less) accepted by the sorcerer community. The ward that protected London is gone, Rook is slowly turning into a monster, she’s still of magician stock, she’s not the chosen one, the remaining Ancient Ones continue to devastate the country, and oh yeah, R’hlem the Skinned Man is demanding she be turned over to him. And engraving that demand in the flesh and bones of her countrymen. So, things are not exactly going smoothly.

When Henrietta’s research uncovers a possible way to defeat the Ancient Ones, her fellow sorcerers are hesitant to jump, as it seems magician magic is needed to defeat the monsters. Henrietta must risk herself, her friends, and her country to uncover the secrets of the Ancient Ones and stop their reign of terror.

I really enjoyed the first book on this series. Cluess’ intelligent use of sexism and classism to construct her magical world was cannily done. Her use of lovecraftian imagery against a Jane Eyre background was excellent, and provided some truly creepy imagery.

Poison does neglect the sharp societal insight of the first book, and the shadow-haunted visuals of the previous story are toned down a bit here. The first was atmospheric and gothic, this book lends itself more to adventure. Less a Jane Eyre and more a Jane Austen.

That is not to say that I didn’t like the book. Cluess keeps the plot running at a frenetic pace (I finished the book in a single day). She also has provided her main characters room to grow and mature. Henrietta herself is a fantastic heroine, flawed and idealistic, traumatized and striving. It is easy for characters like this to become so involved in navel gazing that the reader loses interest, but Cluess manages to keep Henrietta in our hearts.

The requisite love triangle is still there (grumble, grumble, grumble), but the dynamics change throughout the book. In the interest of maintaining a spoiler-free review, I won’t go into detail. Suffice it to say that no one comes out smelling like a rose.

So, if you enjoyed the first book, you’re likely going to enjoy this one as well. Anyone seeking an intelligent YA fantasy series should certainly add this one to their TBR list (but definitely start with the first one).

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas


These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas

Evelyn is bored. Bored with dresses and balls, bored with her mother’s constant matchmaking schemes, bored with the petty gentlemen she is forced to be pleasant to.

And so begins just about every Victorian-era book, no matter the genre. This one does branch out a bit more: Evelyn’s sister Rose disappears, and her trail follows a mysterious (and huge) Frenchman into London. With her parents concerned more for their reputation than Rose’s safety, Evelyn runs off to find Rose herself. Enlisting the help of dashing Mr. Kent, Evelyn is also forced to work with the infuriating Mr. Braddock, who has a game changing revelation for her: she and her sister may have special powers.

I’m not one of those people who automatically dismiss YA books as beneath my notice. There’s some fantastic work out there and some great stories being told. However, this is one of those genres where it is all too easy to fall into a formulaic trap. Like many recent psychological thrillers have been diminished by trying too hard to be the next Gone Girl, a lot of YA (especially the fantasy genre, which tends to be one of my favorites) suffers by trying to be the next Twilight or Hunger Games. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A young, headstrong girl is dissatisfied with her life, but unsure what she wants to do to improve it. After a calamitous event, she is forced to engage a wider, crueler world at its own level, discovering herself in the process. Oh, and you naturally need two potential romantic interests for her, one is “safe,” and has been around forever, the other someone she will never ever like, someone just so infuriating. . .

It sometimes seems like the same song set to different music. That’s not to say that books that follow the formula are all bad, but you need great characters, strong writing, and something special to set your story apart. Unfortunately, These Vicious Masks falls a bit short. Evelyn is intelligent and willing to defy convention if she can help others, but never becomes a truly sympathetic character. The love triangle is of the dimensions expected from the genre, and doesn’t deviate from the pattern.

Still, YA fantasy enthusiasts may want to give the book a go. I’ve always said that I am picky about the genre.

An audio book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

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The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

Fair warning: this is the second book in the Winternight trilogy. There’s definitely going to be spoilers ahead for the first book in the series, The Bear and the Nightingale. If you want, you can read my review of that book here.

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Vasya has been driven from her village after the deaths of her father and stepmother. The options are slim for a young woman in medieval Russia — convent or marriage. Vasya, ever seeking to be her own master, decides to create a third option: to wander the vast expanses of Rus’ disguised as a boy, and explore the wide world now open to her. But the road and the places upon it are dangerous. Unnatural and vicious bandits are plundering remote towns in northern Rus’, and political intrigue and betrayal surround the residents of Moscow. Pulled into the events of the larger world, Vasya finds herself walking on a knife’s edge to help her family and her country, and to safeguard her precious freedom.

I simply adore this series. The Bear and the Nightingale was one of those delightful little surprises you come across occasionally. Expecting a typical historical fantasy, I found myself enveloped in a fairy tale story richly woven through with historical detail and living, breathing characters. The Girl in the Tower stays true to form. Arden’s careful attention to detail, and phenomenal gift for bringing fully-fleshed characters to her tales are undiminished in the second book.

Vasya has become a bit older and harder than last we saw her, but still retains her close ties with the many spirits who inhabit her world. Her choices and their consequences are rarely easy, and we get to see her grow and change as the plot moves along. Her relationship with Morozko, the winter demon is well done. No sappy love story here, but a subtler, bittersweet rapport that feels much more real.

If you enjoyed The Bear and the Nightingale, then you’ll most likely love the continuation to the story. Fans of fantasy, fairy tales, and magic should definitely check out this phenomenal and original series.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

Book Review: The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso


The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso

Amalia Cornaro is heir to a great family name, wealth, and untold political influence within the Raverran Empire. However, she has been content to leave most of the political machinations to her brilliant and ruthless mother, and concentrate on her studies of arcane magic. However, when a powerful fire warlock threatens the city of Raverra, Amalia finds herself drafted into containing the warlock’s magic, and in so doing inadvertently becomes a “Falconer”, tethered to the fire warlock and responsible for controlling her powers. Thrown into the middle of a political firestorm (couldn’t help myself), Amalia must use everything her mother ever taught her to prevent a civil war within the empire she loves.

This was an enormously fun fantasy novel, and is the first in the new series. Surprisingly, this is also Melissa Caruso’s debut novel. The story, while ostensibly YA, manages to avoid the pitfalls so common in the genre, and delivers an entertaining and suspenseful read. Caruso has built up an interesting and complex world, and her characters are lovingly crafted and more complex than one usually sees in the Young Adult genre. The book reminded me very much of Dragon Age, the Bioware RPG game (which from me is a huge compliment). I especially enjoyed the way magic is dealt with in Caruso’s world, and the push and pull between Amalia, and her “Falcon”, Zaira.

Fans of YA or the fantasy genre looking for a bright new talent should definitely pick up this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine

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Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine

The Great Library was started to ensure that the wisdom of mankind was safeguarded. However, since its advent during the reign of the Egyptian Pharaohs, the Library has stagnated, hoarding its knowledge, and stifling any dissent.

Jess is the son of a book smuggler. Printed books outside the Library’s control are contraband, and the penalty for owning these forbidden tomes is death. Though he has lived his life defying the Library’s hold on the printed word, he understands the value of protecting knowledge. When his family is able to get him a coveted position to train as a Library Scholar, he is secretly excited for the opportunity. Once his training starts, however, he discovers he may have been safer as a smuggler.

First of all, I can’t believe I waited this long to read this book, it has been filling up my feed for ages now, and the third book in the series is due out soon.

The world building in this book is fantastic. Caine manages to combine steampunk with dystopian near-future, and it works. This is a world built on steam, alchemy, and high technology. It manages to feel both nostalgic and futuristic at the same time. The characters that inhabit the book are similarly complex and well-crafted.

As Jess starts out his training with the Library, we begin to hope that we can stay with the “Hogwarts with Books” aspect. Alas, soon any illusions about the Library are tugged away and we find ourselves in a dystopian world where knowledge is a coveted resource, and this supreme entity will go to any lengths to keep their monopoly.

Honestly, it’s a bit like Amazon took over the world. The Library is a repository of knowledge, and the information deemed “acceptable” to be released to the public is done via “blanks,” electronic books to which the texts can be sent via alchemy. In a world where increasing digitization has vastly changed the concept of ownership, Ink and Bone feels like a cautionary tale. It certainly made me look at my kindle in a new light.

This book is a great adventure story, and fans of books like the Hunger Games will enjoy this series. Though I’m sure this book is considered YA, the subjects being dealt with are mature and complex, and there is a lot here for older readers (like me). Now I’m off to get the next book in the series (hard copy, not in kindle format).

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

Hollow City

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

All-too-familiar Caveat: This is a review for the second book in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series. That means there will almost certainly be spoilers here for the first book. Rather unavoidable, really.

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Now, then. I have finally gotten around to the the second book in the Miss Peregrine series (Yay!). If you’re interested, you can read my review of the first book here.

So the kids, led by Jacob and Emma, have escaped Cairnholm Island with a severely injured (and unable to transform) Miss Peregrine in tow. On their own in 1940, the children, already exhausted from their battle with the wights, must journey through the bomb-scarred British countryside to find someone capable of healing Miss Peregrine. The war-torn landscape gives perfect cover for hunting wights, and the children must race both time and their enemies in order to save their ymbyrne.

Okay I’m going to come right out an say it: this book wasn’t nearly as much fun as the first one. The first book gave us the joy of experiencing new worlds, new folks to meet, and while we got a good dose of creepiness, it was still fun. Hollow City is, in a word, grim. Traipsing through the wartime English countryside is not really an enjoyable pastime. The antique photos, used to such great effect in the first book, take on a new cast here, sometimes seeming like the sole factor driving the story at points. And be warned, some of the photos in the book are of dead bodies. I don’t have a problem with this in and of itself (after all, dead folks are my field), but photos of actual dead people in a young adult book is a bit surprising. Maybe I’m being too delicate. After all, I’m old, and don’t know what the young people are into these days (presumably dead folks. Good for you, young people).

So bottom line: Hollow City isn’t nearly as good as Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, but it’s still a fine example of the young adult genre. I’ll hold off on judging the series as a whole until I’ve read the third book.