Friday, August 1, 2014

Review: Honor's Knight by Rachel Bach

Title: Honor's Knight (Paradox, #2) 

Author: Rachel Bach

Rating: 4.5 Stars

*This review is spoiler free for the Paradox Trilogy*

Honor's Knight presents a paradox to the typical trilogy; it defies Middle Book Syndrome. Having read far too many trilogies than I probably should have ever read, I can truthfully claim that MBS is real and it usually occurs when an author has a story to tell--only it's a duology, not a trilogy. Thus, that fated middle book is the source of dragging plot lines, new love interests, and lackluster characters. Bach, however, truly does have a story that needs to be told in three books. As a result, Honor's Knight is remarkable: fast-paced, thought-provoking, and most definitely mind-blowing.

Without giving away spoilers for Fortune's Pawn, all I will remark about the plot of this novel is that it begins in an unusual situation. Devi, our kick-ass, no-nonsense protagonist finds herself a stranger on her own ship, due to circumstance, and watching her battle those around her--but especially herself--in a quest for the truth is enlightening. It reveals even more facets to Devi than we thought existed. Fortune's Pawn does such a terrific job of presenting us strong Devi, weak Devi, fierce Devi, romantic Devi, ass-kicking Devi, etc. that to see her as more than those images is seemingly impossible. Yet, I loved her growth arc throughout the novel.

Honor's Knight moves forward through a series of multiple plot twists. Of course, for readers of Fortune's Pawn, there is an obvious reveal that needs to occur that the reader knows of but not Devi. Yet, even beyond that, Bach unveils the extent of her world-building and the secrets--answers, really--we've been yearning for since Fortune's Pawn are displayed in their full glory. Witnessing Devi react, process, and act on these new sources of information is the main motivation of the storyline. It works. Not only is Bach's world richly layered and morally ambiguous, keeping readers questioning their own set of standards and blurring that line between right and wrong, but it also keeps readers on the edge of their seat anticipating both the next unknown to fly at Devi and her consequent change as a result.

As with Fortune's Pawn, the secondary characters support and enhance Honor's Knight beautifully. All strong characters in their individual right, Devi's relationship with even the most minute of secondary characters carries weight. What's more, Honor's Knight is set up in such a manner that the nature of the relationships Devi has sustained from Fortune's Pawn change. In Honor's Knight there are many more layers to the seemingly two-dimensional and simplistic relationships Devi held in Fortune's Pawn and that evolution is a treat in and of itself.

Of course, the romance in this trilogy is note-worthy since it truly is hard-won. Honor's Knight is the least romantic of the trilogy, strife with conflict and the never-ending battle of inner conflict. Both the romantic leads, Devi and Rupert, must overcome their insecurities and pasts to be with one another and, even then, the unspeakable acts they've done hang in the air between them. While they're both fighters, they're also betrayers, and the bitterness that adds to their complex equation is entertaining, to say the least. Honor's Knight truly made me care for their relationship in a way I hadn't in Fortune's Pawn and the outcome of it is one I eagerly anticipate in Heaven's Queen.

Honor's Knight is not an easy novel to have written, I am sure. It sets up a dark, tragic problem at hand--one whose solution remains shrouded. Although this is Bach's debut trilogy, she is already a master at creating tension and forcing readers to think beyond their typical capabilities. Heaven's Queen will, undoubtedly, be a treat; I am sure of it.

You can read my review of Fortune's Pawn, the first book in the Paradox Trilogy, here.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Title: Half a King (Shattered Sea, #1) 

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Rating: 4 Stars

I find it distinctly odd that Half a King is Joe Abercrombie's young adult debut. Yarvi's tale, full of political strife and immense character growth, is far removed from the quintessential young adult fantasy novel. I love fantasy--high fantasy, romantic fantasy, young adult fantasy, adult fantasy--but I find that young adult fantasy marks a delicate balance between magic and romance. When you pick up a novel by Tolkien or George R. R. Martin, you know it's fantasy--obviously--because of the fictional setting. Both Tolkien and Martin imbibe magical elements into their work, whether it be in the form of other races of humans or fantastical creatures, but those characteristics are not at the cornerstone of their work. Instead, their novels focus on human nature, challenged to its utmost in foreign lands and situations, but somehow prevailing.

Now that is the type of novel Half a King is. Not only does it lack a romantic story arc, but it further lacks a protagonist who discovers their own magical ability--qualities evident in nearly every young adult fantasy novel. Yarvi, Abercrombie's surprising hero, is a cripple, constantly living in the shadow of his warrior father--the king--and his equally competent sword-wielding elder brother. Thus, Prince Yarvi, the youngest prince of the realm, trains to become a minister, forsaking marriage and status in a quest for knowledge. On the eve of his exam qualifying him to leave behind the manacle of Prince Yarvi and become Brother Yarvi, news arrives that both his father and his elder brother have been killed. Thus, Prince Yarvi becomes King Yarvi--half a king with only half of his hands. But Yarvi's reign as king is short-lived. Swearing an oath of vengeance to kill those who have murdered his father and eldest brother, Yarvi sails away to war. Naive, trusting Yarvi finds himself caught in the crossfire of political machinations, though, and is sold into slavery before fulfilling his oath. Now a slave instead of a king, Yarvi vows to complete his oath and seeks matter the cost.

Half a King is littered with unforeseen plot twists, some I predicted but most I did not. As such, it is nearly impossible to set down once picked up and Yarvi's tale is both moving and captivating. Abercrombie's secondary characters, alongside Yarvi, are infused with depth and as they travel with Yarvi through cold snows and roaring rivers, they begin to shed their layers, revealing their true personality beneath. While Yarvi is an endearing hero, both physically and emotionally weak at first despite his cunning, his story is impossible to prey away from his friends. We see him Before, as a lonely and cowering prince fervently praying to be made minister, and then we see him After, thrown into a game of survival and forced to rely on his wits to form alliances and escape the bonds of slavery which keep him from his rightful throne. Consequently, Yarvi's growth is steady and noticeable, a marked difference throughout multiple stages of the narrative. Ultimately, as he grows from boyhood to manhood by the end of the novel, we will have met a dozen different Yarvi's, all facets of his journey to acquire the strength he lacks as Prince Yarvi.

What I find fascinating about Half a King is that, despite the "typical" politics of usurping a king to overtake his throne, the politics of this world are heavily wrapped up in the mythology/religion of this universe as well. Moreover, the traditional genders we associate with ideas such as war or peace are reversed in Half a King. In Greek myth there is a God of War and a God of the Sea just as there is Mother Earth who symbolizes nurture, growth, and peace. Conversely, within these pages you will hear of Goddesses of War and the Sea just as you'll hear of Father Peace. While this isn't indicative of peaceful men and warring women in the societies of Yarvi's land, it does hint at stronger female roles and, what's more, I suspect that with such role models the women of this universe haven't grown up nearly as suppressed as the women in our universe. Abercrombie writes of fearless women, ones who aren't afraid to take on leadership roles and own their place in them effortlessly. Not all of his characters are good, but the feminist in me loved the dual-nature of both his men and women regardless.

Yet, perhaps what I appreciate most about this novel is its ending. I love an epic fantasy series but what I love even more is a novel that is both part of a series and able to stand on its own. Half a King ends remarkably, wrapping up the loose threads of this particular plot line but leaving readers anxious for more of this world and, of course, of Yarvi. From an underdog to a hero, Yarvi is a protagonist who is shockingly easy to relate to, despite his high-born status, and the conclusion of his tale is utterly perfect. I was kept guessing until the very end but the pay-off was more than worthwhile. Even if Half a King fails to shock readers with its plot twists, the level of character growth is certain to entice even the most heartless of readers. Yarvi's tale is an impossible one, full of courage and hope, and I loved every minute of it. Its sequel can simply not release fast enough.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Review: Shimmer by Paula Weston

Title: Shimmer (The Rephaim, #3) 

Author: Paula Weston

Rating: 4 Stars

Note: There are minor spoilers for Haze in this review, though if you are unfamiliar with the series as a whole you will be unable to discern the actual spoiler. If you have read Shadows but not Haze, however, there are a few spoilers below. 

You can read my spoiler-free reviews of both Shadows and Haze here and here respectively. 

Shimmer, I find, is my least favorite edition of this series to date. When the weakest link in a quartet still manages to pull off 4 Stars effortlessly, though, you've certainly found an undisputed winner among novels.

Weston's strength, as always, lies in her flawless execution of plot but, even more, in her mastery of characterization. With Rafa out of sight in 
Shimmer, it becomes all the more imperative to tie these characters together and define their relationships. Jude and Gaby, in particular, truly blossom as siblings and their united front, combined with the strange experiences they've shared, make for a memorable growth arc. I'm both anxious and eager to see its culmination in Blaze, the finale to this quartet, as the past finally catches up to these two.

Shimmer takes place predominantly in the Sanctuary, home to the Rephaim. Lines have already been drawn between Nathaniel's followers and the Outcasts but, when forced to work together, these allegiances gradually begin to shift. I found the first-half of Shimmer to fly by seamlessly but I also found it to be oddly repetitive in the argumentation between the secondary characters. Yet, I love how Weston uses this base to evolve her characters as the story wears on and the conversations, however minor or similar, all carry their weight.

Gaby certainly discovers more about her past, especially pertaining to how she came to lose her memory, but so many of the vital details are still shrouded from the reader. Once again, though, we never feel frustrated by the lack of answers since Weston keeps up a steady stream of action and tiny tid-bits to please fans. Where Shadows introduced us to this complex world and 
Haze began to answer our swirling doubts, Shimmer brings forth slightly unexpected plot lines and introduces even more questions into our minds even as we gain answers. I'm in awe of Weston's ability to do this; to introduce even more into the complicated mix-up of Gaby's past all while weaving these threads together. Unlike Laini Taylor's plot introductions towards the end of Dreams of Gods & Monsters, in Shimmer everything feels all-too natural thanks to the expert foreshadowing Weston has littered throughout the story. I'm curious to see, now, what Gaby and the gang make of these new developments in this sequel.

Many readers have promised that the romance in 
Shimmer is delightfully swoon-worthy--it is! While I'm all about the build-up, hence the reason I adored Haze as much as I did, Shimmer in no way disappoints and I'm more than a little curious to finally have all my romantic enquiries answered in Blaze. If you expected to find more about Rafa and Gabe's history in Shimmer you'll remain disappointed but at this point I'm just as curious about Jude's romantic past as I am about Gaby's so alongside the explosive revelations in Blaze and kick-ass action sequences, I'm expecting a full load of swoons, sighs, and kisses. 

Shimmer is a difficult novel to review mainly because it picks up directly where Haze leaves off and much of Shimmer's excellence stems from the plot twists in the second-half of the story. Yet, the political machinations between these Rephaim are just as intriguing and I'm glad we finally glimpsed the true personas of Nathaniel's followers unclouded by bias. It was all-too-easy in the past two novels to distinguish the "good" Rephaim from the "bad" but with Shimmer that line becomes blurred and I love that level of depth in a novel. Though Shimmer may not have provided all the answers I sought, fans of Weston will certainly not be disappointed--well, with the exception of that ending. Seriously, so cruel Ms. Weston. CRUEL. *pouts*

Friday, July 25, 2014

Rainy Day Re-Reads (#1): Amour et Chocolat by Laura Florand

I've had the idea to begin "Rainy Day Re-Reads" around the same time I decided to start "Just Another...Book Crush!" but it somehow took a longer amount of time to fully actualize in my mind than the latter did. "Rainy Day Re-Reads" is essentially a feature I created for myself and other bloggers in order to stave off re-reading guilt. I re-read a lot and I like re-reading books. But, I also want to keep up on blog content and oftentimes, it's difficult to write a brand-new review for a book if it's the second or third time you're reading it. Thus, you just feel guilty for having re-read a favorite instead of tackling a new ARC's a vicious cycle.

"Rainy Day Re-Reads" is a feature where I will be highlighting a few of my absolute favorite novels, the ones I really do sit down to re-read from cover to cover. It's going to be a sporadic, disorganized feature; one I'll use so that during months like this one where I haven't fallen in love with any new titles to invite authors on board for "Just Another...Book Crush!", I still have creative content to fall back on. 

I've been working on this post about my unique love for Laura Florand's romances for awhile, now, and seeing as Chachic is hosting her "Amour et Florand" week over on her blog, I figured this would be the perfect time to publish this live. (In case you don't know, "Amour et Florand" is a week celebrating Florand's work, so if you're even remotely interested in this series I'd highly suggest you check it out--it's amazing!) 

I began my review of Florand's The Chocolate Heart with the following paragraph:
Usually, after the initial honeymoon period wears off – generally around the third or fourth book in a series – I begin to become wary. Whether it be Kate Daniels or Mercy Thompson, there always comes a time when my stomach churns, my mind imagines all the worst case scenarios, and I settle down to read a book with crossed fingers, toes, and hair strands. When it comes to Laura Florand, however, whose Amour et Chocolat series is made up of companion novels, my trust is never shaken. It’s a comfort to know that even if – by some strange chance of fate – I don’t fall head-over-heels for the love stories Florand writes, I always walk away besotted and impressed by her languid, graceful prose. Of course the setting of Paris, the chocolate-making heroes, and deeply complex heroines draw me in – but Florand’s writing always, always, clinches the deal.
For readers who have yet to pick up a Florand novel, it may be difficult to imagine an author whose writing is poignant, beautiful, and evocative enough to carry forward an entire story, plot and characters be damned. Florand could publish her grocery lists, though, and they'd likely earn 5 Stars from me. Nevertheless, I don't re-read Florand's books solely for her prose. Granted, I inhale this series knowing I'll be transported to France in a matter of minutes, my senses overflowing with chocolate and a not-so-healthy dose of swoon--for that is the magic of Florand's words. But I find myself drawn to her books time and time again, not merely for the comfort of her languid phrases enveloping themselves around me or the steamy scenes I'm sure to melt at, but rather for the love stories she weaves. 

Oddly enough, I find myself talking of Florand's heart-stopping prose, delectable chocolate concoctions, or vivid Parisian setting far more than I discuss her actual romances. Florand writes love stories but they are of such an intense, gripping variety that to pull them apart and dissect them is to leave them a little less magical. Yet, the strength of her romances lie in their equality. It is a balance that many other contemporary romance authors manage to achieve, not just Florand, but Florand's brand of it is far more realistic than most. Usually, when faced with a love interest who is at the top of his field we find ourselves with heroines who are just as successful in their careers. Julie James repeatedly pulls this off with her FBI/U.S. Attorney Series and Jill Shalvis achieves the same results with her Lucky Harbor Series, only her characters have less glamorous professions. Florand, too, pairs characters--such as Cade Corey and Sylvain Marquis--who both share confidence, arrogance, and ego when it comes to their respective careers.

Yet, Florand strips her characters--whether it be Cade and Sylvain or Jaime and Dominique--of the labels they hide behind. And then, when left with just Cade Corey, heir to an American chocolate industry who dreams of living in Paris, and just Sylvain Marquis, an insecure young man who seeks love, their love story becomes both achingly simply and enchantingly complex in the space of a heartbeat. Florand does this with every single one of her novels. With her decadent prose she effortlessly introduces us to these seemingly simple characters, allowing our mouths to salivate with her descriptions of chocolate and our hearts to pound outrageously as the sexual tension is slowly, slooowly turned up but then--then she pulls the drape off of her leads, exposes their raw insecurities, and makes both them (and us!) fall in love.

It isn't easy. It isn't simple. And I don't know how she does it, time and time again. None of her characters, deep down, are the same. Sylvain and Dominique may both be master chocolatiers, but there is a reason Sylvain is perfectly suited for Cade as Dominique is for Jaime, despite any similarity their labels may share. Underneath, these two egotistical, highly motivated men are utterly changed individuals and it is only in the hands of their lovers that they reach their full potential. Somehow, Florand takes men who strive for perfection and enables them, with the strength of their love, to achieve that perfection even more effortlessly. It isn't an enigma reserved only for her heroes, though. Florand's heroines--emotionally strong, incredibly inspirational, and downright gorgeous--are kick-ass women even without man-candy on their arms. Yet, they truly bloom in the face of love. It is, perhaps, most evident in The Chocolate Touch and The Chocolate Heart, the two most grueling installments for the heartache they spread. In writing her love stories, however, Florand never loses sight of what it is to be human. Within the swirls of chocolate and spoonfuls of sugar, there is an incredibly raw amount of humanity too. 

It is for this, and this alone, that I find myself returning to Florand's novels not just when a new release is around the corner. For me, cracking open the spine of a Florand novel means discovering minute intricacies, delicate details, and subtle references I failed to catch the first, second, or third time I devoured her work. It is not only to fall even deeper in love with her romances, but also to understand even better the nature of true love. And perhaps, after all, it is for that simple reason why I hold--and will hold--these novels so close to my heart. Always.

You can use the following links to read my reviews of each individual novel in this series:

The Chocolate Thief (Amour et Chocolat, #1) by Laura Florand
The Chocolate Kiss (Amour et Chocolat, #2) by Laura Florand
The Chocolate Touch (Amour et Chocolat, #4) by Laura Florand
Just Another...Book Crush (#6): The Chocolate Touch by Laura Florand
The Chocolate Heart (Amour et Chocolat, #5) by Laura Florand
The Chocolate Temptation (Amour et Chocolat, #6) by Laura Florand
Snow-Kissed (Snow Queen, #1) by Laura Florand
Sun-Kissed (Amour et Chocolat, #7; Snow Queen, #2)

(Psst! If it isn't already obvious, feel free to join this feature whenever you happen to re-read a favorite and don't hesitate to grab the button!) 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Series Review: Sirantha Jax (#5-6) by Ann Aguirre

I did a series review of the first three books in this space opera last summer and, having finished the books at last, realized it was only fitting to review the last three novels as well. I couldn't find much to say about the fourth novel, Killbox--which was excellent with the exception of rather unnecessary relationship drama--but here are my thoughts on the conclusion to this series.

Note: The following reviews are spoiler free for the Sirantha Jax Series

Title: Aftermath (Sirantha Jax, #5) 
Author: Ann Aguirre
Rating: 3 Stars

Aftermath got off to a promising start, what with Jax on trial against the Conglomerate, but it quickly became apparent that Book 5 of the Sirantha Jax Series was very much a--and I hate to use this word--filler novel. Essentially, nothing much happens. Jax isn't acting as a diplomat to a foreign planet, she isn't off fighting a war, and nor is she doing much jumping. Aftermath fills in the gaps that we've forgotten about since Doublebind burst onto the page and, as such, it isn't a favorite of mine.

Yet, by no means is it forgettable. If anything, the emotional growth Jax undergoes throughout this novel--not to mention the palpable strength of her bond with both Vel and March--push this story onward. It's the most introspective novel of the series, oddly enough, and though there is plenty of action, it isn't the most memorable aspect of this tale. Instead, combing through Vel's past, facing the harsh realities of March and Jax's relationship, and labeling the differences between the bonds Vel and March share with Sirantha cause Aftermath to stand out. It's an emotional journey, from beginning to end, and though it falters in part plot-wise, it's still a valuable addition to the series.

Aftermath may have lacked much of a climax, what with every issue Jax tackling resolving itself far too easily, but I'm still on board with this crew. With Endgame up next, I should be feeling nostalgic but I think I'm ready to see Jax off, once and for all. I just hope it's as explosive of a conclusion as I'm gearing up for.

Title: Endgame (Sirantha Jax, #6) 
Author: Ann Aguirre
Rating: 4.5 Stars

I thought I was ready to say goodbye to Sirantha Jax after Aftermath, but Endgame is such a brilliantly plotted novel that I feel nostalgic, bittersweet, and ever-so-upset after all. Aguirre's Endgame weaves together everything I've loved about this series since Grimspace: excellent world-building, blooming character growth, and complex relationships.

Once again, Sirantha Jax is a solider, a fighter, a warrior. On La'heng now, she is determined to free an enslaved race of people--despite knowing the mission will keep her on ground for years to come. Endgame has no shortage of well-written battle scenes, devious schemes, and military plans ensuring its plot is set at a break-neck pace. Nevertheless, the strength of this novel stems from Sirantha herself; from the bond of friendship she sustains with Vel and the lengths she will go to aid him, from the relationship she shares with March and the difficulties they endure, from the new characters she meets and the sacrifices she makes even for them.

Endgame doesn't allow Sirantha to take the "easy" way out, charging in guns blazing and somehow saving the day. Instead, it pushes her to her limits testing her patience, her unselfish desires, and her loyalty to those around her. It compels her to both stay and to fight, though not always in combat. Where this novel suffers, in my eyes, is in the odd jumps of time. The war on La'heng takes years and for Sirantha to oddly mention that a year or six months have passed from the turn of a page is jarring, to say the least.

Yet, despite it all, I love her and her romance with March undergoes necessary strife in this novel. Unlike past novels where Sirantha and March have been thrown into dramatic situations, likely to prolong the story, in Endgame these two finally embrace the honesty of their relationship and unearth their hidden insecurities. It isn't always easy, between these two, but it's always strong and sure. Sirantha's relationship with Vel is of a different--and frankly easier--nature, but that in no way diminishes its strength. For me, this series is defined by the two men in Sirantha's life; both their respect for her and her respect for them. Aguirre never fails to create fascinating, equal-footed relationships and that isn't different even with this volume.

Endgame is, well and truly, the end. Aguirre has not left this world, thankfully, though Sirantha and her journeys are behind us now. Will I miss her? Yes, undoubtedly. Somewhere between all the psychological probing of Sirantha's mind, I fell in love with her, flaws and all. Nevertheless, all good things must come to an end and, as always, Sirantha goes out with a memorable bang, never a whimper.

In case you missed my reviews of the first three novels in this series last summer or just want a refresher, you can read them HERE

Needless to say, I'd highly recommend this series to fans of science-fiction romance and space operas. I gave Grimspace 4 Stars, Wanderlust 3 Stars (generously), Doublebind 5 Stars, Killbox 4 Stars, Aftermath 3 Stars (well-earned), and Endgame 4.5 Stars. It hasn't been a perfect journey and there have certainly been ups-and-downs, but if you're willing to meet flawed characters and be entertained no matter what, this is certainly the series for you! :)