Monday, December 26, 2016

Catalyst Moon: Incursion by Lauren L. Garcia

The first ever winner of the writing contest on Inkitt, a website that allows you to read and write fresh new stories from new authors, brings us Catalyst Moon: Incursion. As a member of Inkitt, I was granted a free copy of the story and decided to give it a shot. I've read a lot of good stories on the site and so, as the first ever book from the site to receive publication based on the site's database, I just had to give it a read. Sadly, I'm not impressed. Let me explain.

The story is of a mage named Kalinda "Kali" Halcyon, who is being escorted from one mage stronghold to another by a group of sentinels, soldiers whose job is expressly to keep the mages in line. But when their group is attacked, Kali manages to escape with a sentinel named Stonewall to make it to the stronghold in peace. Meanwhile more strange attacks take place, plots for mages to escape their captors, and emotions and things just all kind of happen at the same time.

Yeah, I can't summon a lot of energy for this one. For as long as this book is very little actually happens in it. Aside from fight scenes that take way too long and plot lines so barely explored you don't really know what the point of them is, the story is just a romantic road trip story trying to take place along side a recycled rebellion plot dripping with soap opera drama. The first problem is that there are way, way too many characters in this book. That's fine and all, but you're supposed to remember each and every one of them and what they're doing in the story and how it adds to the grand scheme. This is a problem because these characters are just not memorable! Too many names and not nearly enough details left me struggling to remember who they were, why we're supposed to care about them, what they contribute, whether they are male or female, etc.

The main character, Kali, has a wealth of potential for a character; a magic user whose hasn't seen much of the world that's been crippled since birth. But she never does anything! Her journey with her potential boyfriend is a side quest in her own story. It's the generic "girl unlike any he's seen before" who attempts to "get him to lower his defenses" (geddit? His name is Stone-Wall. He's guarded!) that we've seen over and over again. Only one time does something legitimately interesting happen to them, a fight with some possessed barbarians, but it goes on for so long even that got boring. For her to be the star of this show, her path is way too easy and much too uninteresting and I just couldn't get into it.

The only other characters I remember at all are this pair of twin sentinels that we follow for reasons that I still can't figure out. I mean it! I don't think they contributed anything to the story. They could be cut out entirely and the plot wouldn't miss them. At all. I only remember them because they made me so angry that if I was reading this on anything other than my expensive Kindle, I'd have thrown it across the room. The brother is seriously overly keen on his sister, to the point where it's almost a bit uncomfortable. Brothers don't think about their sisters nearly as much as this guy does. It's unhealthy. It's even more unhealthy when the sister is a horrible piece of human filth that deserves to die! I'm serious, this woman is just despicable! The guy she's sleeping with gets killed and she so she tells her brother, the only family she has left in the world mind you, and says she wishes that he was the one who died and wishes all manner of cruel and horrible fates upon him for having the gall to not have died. And she's all like, "Oh, gee, I'm sorr-well, not really sorry but I was hurting at the time so we're cool, right?" No! No, you're not cool! I don't care if you apologize! I don't care if you cure cancer! Saying horrible things like that is never going to make people relate to or like you! I couldn't stand her and it just left me angry for the wrong reasons.

Also when this plot isn't going at a snail's pace, it's jumping around all over, making the story hard to keep track of and making it even harder to remember already unmemorable characters! One minute we're over here with Kali, next we're with these mages trying to escape, next we're with these fifteen sentinels whose names we're all supposed to remember. The mages are so bland that I can't get behind their cause, and how are we supposed to get behind them when we're also supposed to want the sentinel's to win. That and some borrowed details were really distracting. For example, there's an offensive name for a mage in this world and that's "moon-blood". Hmm, does that sound familiar at all to you? Well, it should. Also, there's this one deity that they keep swearing on, but the swears come in the forms of "Ea's tits" and "Ea's balls". Okay, either A. this is some kind of transgender deity or B. this is just inconsistent. I'm betting on B. Lastly, this book has no climax. None. At all. It just builds and builds and...ends. They want to get to the place and they get to the place. The end. Not twist, no conclusions, no cliffhangers, no answers, no...nothing! There's nothing that makes me want to continue the story, nothing that makes me long for the next installment. It's just...done. Whatever, at least I can be done.

Final Verdict
I'm sorry but I can't see how this won any kind of contest. I was bored and then I was mad and then I was mad because I was bored. I've read some great stories on Inkitt that deserve a chance to be read and looked at! There really are some good things to be found on the site and how this is the one that got selected for publication just baffles me. There are some other books from the site that were published that I intend to check out in the future, but this one? For me, this book belongs in the Wastebin of Despair.

Have you read the book? What did you think? Comment below and share your thoughts.

Next time: The New Year is upon us and I've decided it's time to delve into new territory: sequels!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Stealing Snow by Danielle Paige

I reviewed Danielle Paige's other big hit, Dorothy Must Die a long time ago as my second ever review and I really liked it. It had great voice, great characters, and a gripping story. So when I saw she had started a new series based around the Snow Queen fairy tale, I got really excited. It had a good premise and promised to be a really good story. How'd it do? Well, let's dive right in.

The story is that of a young girl appropriately named Snow who has spent the vast majority of her life locked up in an insane asylum. Yet that hasn't prevented her from finding some happiness in a fellow inmate named Bale. However, when Snow shares her first kiss with Bale, he goes off the rails and breaks her wrist. Then Bale is kidnapped and taken away to a strange and magical world cursed with an eternal winter. Snow must follow Bale and get him back, but little does she know she might be the only one who has the power to stop the evil Snow King once and for all.

This book has no shortage of creativity. I knew right away when Snow is in the asylum and has named all of her medications after the Seven Dwarves. That's really clever and kinda sad. There are also some really visually interesting characters such as a River Witch made entirely out of water and a gang of female robbers who have a bottle of magic for everything you can possibly require. The descriptions of the icy cold world are very well done and Paige's voice does come out and shine as it did in her other series.

However, the book also has a few downsides. Firstly, Snow herself is not a very good main character. I stated before in my Dorothy Must Die review that the main character, Amy Gumm, starts off whiny but gradually gets better. Here, on the other hand, things take an opposite approach. Snow starts off interesting enough but as the story moves forward, she starts complaining a lot! She's selfish and uncaring and cruel and, once again, every single male character has a crush on her. Unbelievable! At least Amy cared about Oz and wanted to help the people there. Snow can't care less that she's supposed to save people and just runs away selfishly. A whole world of people is relying on her to save them and she's all like "Screw you all! I just want my boyfriend back! You all can freeze for all I care!" It's very off-putting and I just couldn't get around it. I just didn't like her at all.

The plot also is slightly similar to that of Dorothy Must Die. I don't meant to keep going back to that book, but I just can't help it. If you've read both books, you'll find a startling amount of similarities. Young girl gets sucked into magical world. Evil ruler wants to destroy her. Group of rebellious females that include one male member for her to have a crush on. It's kind of scary. However, things start to improve, plot-wise, towards the climax of the book. The ending, without giving away spoilers, was a massive roller coaster that had turns when you expected it and loops when you didn't. The whole time I was like "I saw that coming. I didn't see that coming! Saw that coming. Didn't see that coming! Ugh! I saw that coming. I did NOT see THAT coming!" It was pretty crazy and a good way to get readers psyched for the next installment.

Final Verdict
As I said, there were a lot of ups and downs with this one. Some things I liked and somethings I really didn't. Over all, I like Paige's other works a bit better than this one. However, if you still want to check it out, then check it out at your local library!

Have you read the book? What did you think? Comment below and share your thoughts.

Next Time: Can a computer choose the next bestseller? Should it?

Friday, December 16, 2016

Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn

In honor of the release of Star Wars: Rogue One, I felt it was only fitting to review something Star Wars related. Last year, after The Force Awakens hit theaters, I was on a Star Wars high. I was eager to see more of the story and that's when I remembered the Star Wars EU. I've never really looked into it until now and I'm so glad I started here. If anyone is looking to dip there toes into the EU, this is definitely the place to start.

This trilogy takes place a couple years after the events of Return of the Jedi. The New Republic has been formed, Han and Leia are married and are expecting twins, and Luke is just starting to take steps to rebuilding the Jedi Order by training Leia in the ways of the Force. But the remnants of the Empire still linger and are causing problems for the delicately established New Republic. Among them is one of the Empire's last surviving Grand Admirals, Thrawn. Our three favorite heroes must band together to stop the menace that Thrawn brings to the Republic before the world they worked and sacrificed so much to build falls to ruin.

It didn't take long for me to realize that Mr. Zahn here is a darn good writer and that he really does care about the Star Wars movies and the mythos that surrounds it. He captures the personalities of all these characters just perfectly and it's incredible. Back in my fan fiction days, I read many stories where people try to capture the exact personalities of already existing characters. It's hard to do and not easily done. It's too easy for a writer to take a character that isn't their own creation and make them do things they want to do as opposed to what they really would do. Here, however, the characters really feel like the original characters. Luke seems like Luke, Han seems like Han, heck, even R2D2 and C3PO (whose names are spelled out as Artoo and Threepio in the book, I never realized that) are perfectly in character. It really contributes to the feeling that this is, indeed, another Star Wars story and it's just great.

While the preexisting characters are done perfectly, they're complimented by some really awesome original characters of Zahn's own design. Grand Admiral Thrawn is an amazing villain. He's utterly brilliant and has a love for high art. By studying the art of an existing race or even the artist themselves, he can perfectly predict their movements and foresee his opponent's strategies. The interesting thing about Thrawn is that he's an alien, a Chiss to be exact. If you go back to the movies and take a close look at the Imperials, you'll notice that they are predominately human. That's because our old friend Palpatine, on top of being a genocidal maniac, was also a bit of a racist. For an alien like Thrawn to rise to the highest possible rank in the Empire despite the fact that almost no other aliens have gotten close, really speaks to Thrawn's talents. He's also a really good leader. His men have a lot of respect for him and he puts up a dang good fight against our heroes, bringing a real sense of threat to the plot whenever he shows up, he's fantastic.

The other noticeable addition to the story is that of Mara Jade. She's got to be one of the best female characters I've read in a long time, and seeing as a lot of the books I've read over the past few months have had "strong female protagonists", that's saying something. She also has a very interesting backstory with strong ties to the Empire, but Thrawn leaves her rather cold. Her life is made no easier when she spends most of the trilogy in close proximity to Luke, whom she's sworn to kill but can't seem to manage it. She's smart and cunning and just a ton of fun to read about, I liked her a lot. Throw in some other great additions like the smuggler Talon Karrde, the treacherous Bothan Borsk Fey'lya, an unstable Dark Jedi, and a clan of Vadar-worshiping aliens called the Noghri and the book just comes alive. The entire cast is just phenomenal, a perfect blend of old favorites and new stand outs.

If I had to find any problem with these, and I'm really digging to find anything wrong with them at all, is that the tech descriptions and battle strategy scenes can drag on. For a true sci-fi fan, this won't be a problem at all, but for the "D in high school science class" readers like myself, it kind of went over my head. Then again, that's not really a flaw either, as it speaks to Zahn's intelligence and how much time and energy went into making sure every detail to these was handled perfectly. Then again, there is the fact that most of the scenes with the Imperials are written from the perspective of Captain Gilad Pellaeon, when I'd much rather read from Thrawn himself. Pellaeon just kind of stands by and admire's Thrawn's work to the point where I'd swear he was gathering up the courage to ask Thrawn out. Again, this is nitpicking to the highest degree so take it for what it's worth.

Final Verdict
If you're a Star Wars fan looking for something that perfectly embodies the spirit of the original movies, these books are for you, no question. There's action, intrigue, adventure, danger, escapes, everything that we've come to expect with Star Wars. Therefore it is with great honor that I announce that the Thrawn Trilogy is going straight onto the Shelf of Recommendation! The Force is definitely strong with this one.

Have you read the books? What did you think? Anything else in the Star Wars EU that I should check out? Comment below and share your thoughts.

Next Time: You won't catch this Snow Queen singing "Let It Go"....

Monday, December 12, 2016

This House is Empty Now by Joseph Iorillo

Seeing how much I enjoyed The Legend of Darklore Manor anthology book, I jumped at the chance to read this other work by one of the authors that worked on it. Joseph Iorillo's short stories that I've looked at before are usually the more realistic with the supernatural twist coming near the end of it. This book is a good reflection of his personal style coming to life, a subtle look into the life of a haunted man and just whoever, or whatever, his haunting him.

Ray Strickland is having a rough go. His mother has died, his girlfriend left him, he has to deal with people he hates at work, and now he seems to be haunted by his dead mother's ghost. The haunting starts off small, things moving around and strange noises at night and that kind of thing. But it soon becomes aggressive and very intrusive into Ray's personal affairs. He tries everything from having a priest bless his house to joining a paranormal support group, but it seems his mother's ghost is determined to stay in control of Ray's life, dead or not.

The first thing you've got to realize when reading this book is that it is definitely more of a character story that it is a horror story. While the things that happen in the book are threatening and people do get hurt or worse, it's more the course of nature than it is a bloodbath. The cause of the strange occurrences in the house are mysterious but our main character is rational enough that he does think of possible solutions without just jumping to supernatural conclusions. Could it be in his head? But there's physical evidence to prove it isn't. Is someone tricking him? But everyone has an alibi. It's all handled very smartly and I admire that about this book.

The characters in this book are wonderfully colorful. There's a foul-mouthed priest, a TV psychic who wears a cape, and even Ray's best friend Dante have a lot of personality and flare and they're all a ton of fun to read about. The people you're meant to like, you automatically like. The people you're meant to hate, you despise. Yet everyone has layers to their personalities that nobody comes off as one-dimensional. Everyone does things for a reason.  The paranormal support group is also an interesting batch of characters as you wonder what kind of people would show up to such an event. Most of all, Ray stands out as the main character. His struggles and feelings are all on the line for us to see. A normal guy with real-world problems dealing with forces beyond his control, yet he never seems to break character. Always level-headed, always nice, even as he deals with the crazy characters and the horrible people he deals with on a daily basis. You really feel for the guy and you want him to be happy and to pull through the experience. It's all really well done.

That being said, it is a slow book. While most scary stories like to end with an impressive shock-scare at the end of each chapter, this one goes at a slower pace. There are whole stretches of time where it's just Ray living his life to where you almost forget about the paranormal stuff. When the paranormal stuff does happen, however, it jumps out at you just when you let your guard down. Sometimes that's a good thing, other times it kinda feels like it came out of nowhere. It never goes too far, but it does mess with the pacing just a bit. A minor flaw, but one there nevertheless.

Final Verdict
If you're looking for a horror story that involves a lot of scantily clad teenagers getting slaughtered, this isn't it. A slow, careful, intricately constructed story that's smarter than your average ghost story and definitely worth your money at your local bookstore!

Have you read the book? What did you think? Comment below and share your thoughts.

Next time: A long time ago, in a galaxy that Disney no longer considers canon....

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

This is another series I've had my eye on for a long time. For many the His Dark Materials trilogy is as much a part of their reading lives as Harry Potter. While it is loved by many, I have been warned of it's heavy message and the fact that it's been banned from many schools. But, as human nature says, the perfect way to get someone to do something is tell them not to do it. That's me in this case. Banned books have this allure to them and I just want to know their dark secrets that frightens the world into pushing them aside. So, let's dive right into it!

The story is that of a young girl named Lyra, who lives in a world similar to ours but filled with a unique magic of its own. In this world, every human being has their soul walking around with them as an animal companion called a daemon, which has a personality all its own. Lyra lives in Jordan College, where she mostly runs wild but under the supervision of her uncle, Lord Asriel. One day, when she hears of her uncle going away on a mission involving some strange substance simply called Dust, Lyra is given a mysterious gift: an alethiometer. This devise channels Dust and uses it to answer any question Lyra has: past, present or future. When the devious Mrs. Coulter tries to take the alethiometer and Lyra discovers she may have something to do with a series of child abductions, Lyra flees and begins her epic journey to save the children, solve the mystery behind the Dust, and find her uncle.

Much like the main protagonist, this book is lively and wild. The adventure is rich and full of all kinds of wonderful ideas that writers everywhere are kicking themselves for not thinking of first. The concept of daemons is just wonderful. The whole time I wondered what mine would be like, what animal would it become, and so forth. Also, the alethiometer is a really cool devise. While it never really gives a straight answer, Lyra's opportunities to study the devise and learn what the symbols on it mean is very fascinating. The concept of Dust and what it is and what it means is also interesting too. It's such a heavy matter, like every time someone brings it up things quiet down and get serious. What is this strange thing that people would kill to either avoid or find. The lengths to which the adults in the story go to in order to solve the mysteries of this substance are shocking and leave you breathless.

While I'm on that topic, this is a heavy book. There's some really dark and somewhat unsettling aspects of this book that left me picking my jaw up off the floor. This book is very clear in regards to its rules and the borders of this magical world. When those lines are crossed, you feel the intensity of the shattered boundary and you're left feeling uncomfortable. For example, touching your own daemon is fine and a daemon touching another daemon is also perfectly acceptable. However, a human touching a daemon that's not their own is practically molestation. When stuff like that happens, you feel the disgust that you might feel in any adult book when they cover distressing topics like this. And this is for kids!?! I found myself asking that question at least twice...three times...okay maybe four times while reading this book.

That being said, it does read like a kid's adventure story but on a much more epic scale. The objective is the simple "get from point A to point B and find the thing", which is fine. This book just makes it massive. I feel the scale of this world and the length of the journey. You feel the rocking of the boat and the constant roar of the ocean when you're at sea. You feel the bone jarring cold as you trudge through the frozen north. Everything is described in wonderful detail and it's the best example of world building that I've seen in a long time.

Final Verdict:
This book is a classic for a reason. Great characters, a fantastic world, and clever ideas make for an epic story that any reader would be happy to find themselves in. While the word "dark" is definitely in the title for a reason, I'd still say that this book is worth your money at your local bookstore!

Have you read the book? What did you think? Comment below and share your thoughts.

Next Time: Not all ghosts are dead....

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Palace Job by Patrick Weekes

A week ago, I mentioned in my review of The Gender Game that the best way to know if a plan will go right is to keep it a mystery and not mention exactly what is about to go down. While that book didn't do this very well, this one makes up for it in spades. This layered, clever, fun, and thrilling story filled with magic and mystery, politics and prisoners, is just the kind of thing I've been looking for and a great way to start off a new month.

This story takes place in the Republic, where magic and creatures exist. Though, unfortunately, so does racism and political corruption. We meet Prisoner Loch, a woman of the Urujar race and a skilled thief. After a daring prison escape, Loch seeks the biggest job of her career, stealing an elvish manuscript that the elves would pay several fortunes to get. To do this, Loch assembles a team consisting of her right-hand man, a tinker, an acrobat, a unicorn, a wizard, a death priestess with a talking war hammer, and a young kid who may be more than he seems (or knows). Pursued by the honorable Justicar Pyvic and the not so honorable Warden Orris and Archvoyant Silisten, the rogues work together to score the biggest bounty of their lives.

This is just the kind of heist story that I love. Much of the plans are shrouded in mystery that you appreciate unravelling as you go. It's never clear exactly what Loch has in store and how much of what the characters undertake is planned or improvised. The villains also are brilliant schemers and so there's genuine interest in who is going to win this fight. It's brilliant strategy against brilliant strategy; two great minds at war and you never know what to expect. It's just wonderfully done and very well thought out.

Also, these characters are just a blast to be with. Each has his or her own unique personality and you just want to hang out with this group. Everyone pulls their weight in the story and nobody feels underused or useless, as can happen with too many characters. They also, for a group of people who pretty much just met, everyone works together wonderfully. There's great humor among them and clever banter and even some flirting, but it never overrides the main objective of the story; that being the heist. Even when those with clashing ideologies have to work together, they never hesitate in their mission and combine their skills well. While the humor can be slightly more risqué than one might find in most YA books (such as Kail's "your mother" jokes and a unicorn whose life goal seems to be deflowering young men) it never goes too far.

The world in which the story takes place is amazing as well. While its overall design is that of a medieval world, the use of magic crystals gives it an almost modern feel to it. Many times the use of magic crystals is there to replace the computers and security alarms that you'd find in current times, right down to being hackable. Yet it never loses that feel of fantasy with floating cities, news reports given by puppets, castles and creatures. There are so many elements of the world to enjoy. Gylspwer, the talking war hammer, speaks in an ancient language so you never really know what he's saying but he still manages to interact with the group almost R2-D2 style. Oh, and only the coolest...zombie...ever! Won't say more. Read it and find out.

Final Verdict
This just reminds me how much I enjoy heist stories. It's fun, it's fast-paced, it's thrilling and has a wonderful cast of so many great characters. I'm happy to say that this book is going straight onto the Self of Recommendation. Check it out and see it for yourself!

Have you read the book? What did you think? Comment below and share your thoughts.

Next Time: Never judge a book by it's movie...especially if Dakota Blue Richards is playing the lead.