Tag Archives: books for boys

Nicole’s Review: THE WAY OF SHADOWS

Since the fourth book in Brent Weeks’ LIGHTBRINGER series is inching closer and closer to its planned 2016 release date, I thought it’d be fun to turn back the clock and share my review for the very first Brent Weeks book I read–the first in his Night Angel trilogy, THE WAY OF SHADOWS.

Way of ShadowsTitle: THE WAY OF SHADOWS

Author: Brent Weeks

Publisher: Orbit

Genre: Grimdark fantasy

Pages: 645

Synopsis: For Durzo Blint, assassination is an art-and he is the city’s most accomplished artist.

For Azoth, survival is precarious. Something you never take for granted. As a guild rat, he’s grown up in the slums, and learned to judge people quickly – and to take risks. Risks like apprenticing himself to Durzo Blint.

But to be accepted, Azoth must turn his back on his old life and embrace a new identity and name. As Kylar Stern, he must learn to navigate the assassins’ world of dangerous politics and strange magics – and cultivate a flair for death.

Review:

This book was flat out amazing! It tells the story of Azoth, a young street rat who sees his chance to get out by apprenticing himself to reknowned assassin (aka wetboy) Durzo Blint. Through his training, Azoth becomes Kylar Stern, a low-ranking aristocrat with new friends in high places…and the skills to kill. One problem – wetboys don’t have friends.

THE WAY OF SHADOWS is gritty, it’s action-packed (be prepared to read the last 200 pages in one sitting!), and it has twists that even I couldn’t see coming. Not many books can keep me guessing, but this one did. You know those moments when you’re reading a chapter and you realize you’re physically sitting up straighter because the story has just punched you in the gut? Well, you get a lot of those in this book.

I’m a character girl, no question, and THE WAY OF SHADOWS has one of the most fascinating characters mixes I’ve ever read. I fell in love with Azoth from the very first sentence.

These are real, flawed, hurting, wonderful people. There is a depth here that stole my breath several times. From Kylar and Durzo, all the way down to the secondary characters. There are only a handful of authors who can make me forever remember a secondary character who gets only one scene. Brent Weeks does it! He also comes up with one of the most awesomely horrible bad guys ever. I loved hating this guy!

One of the things I really enjoyed was the way Weeks writes from the periphery. Even at their best, Kylar and Durzo are, for the most part, in the shadows of the kingdom. They’re not in a position to make big bold moves. We never really see things from the POV of those in power, but we know them and love or hate them based on Kylar and Durzo’s reactions.

Weeks also writes so that the reader eventually pieces together all the details…but the characters never do. It created such a cool dynamic!

When I originally read this, it was the best book I’d read that year, and it remains near the top of my all time list. Brent Weeks is a master, and this is one of those rides that leaves you breathless and thinking “Holy crap, I wish I could write like that!”

Five stars.

5star

Find this book on Amazon.

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Nicole’s Review: PROMISE OF BLOOD & THE POWDER MAGE TRILOGY

Is this not the most gorgeous cover ever? I LOVE the excerpt lines on all three of the trilogy's covers. Brilliant!

Is this not the most gorgeous cover ever? I LOVE the excerpt lines on all three of the trilogy’s covers. Brilliant!

Title: Promise of Blood, The Crimson Campaign, The Autumn Republic

Author: Brian McClellan

Publisher: Orbit

Genre: Fantasy

Pages: 608

Synopsis: It’s a bloody business overthrowing a king…
Field Marshal Tamas’ coup against his king sent corrupt aristocrats to the guillotine and brought bread to the starving. But it also provoked war with the Nine Nations, internal attacks by royalist fanatics, and the greedy to scramble for money and power by Tamas’s supposed allies: the Church, workers unions, and mercenary forces.

It’s up to a few…
Stretched to his limit, Tamas is relying heavily on his few remaining powder mages, including the embittered Taniel, a brilliant marksman who also happens to be his estranged son, and Adamat, a retired police inspector whose loyalty is being tested by blackmail.

But when gods are involved…
Now, as attacks batter them from within and without, the credulous are whispering about omens of death and destruction. Just old peasant legends about the gods waking to walk the earth. No modern educated man believes that sort of thing. But they should…

Review:

I thoroughly enjoyed PROMISE OF BLOOD and the entire Powder Mage Trilogy! Brian McClellan pairs highly compelling characters with a gritty setting that seems an alt mix of the French and American Revolutions era. It’s one heck of a fun read!

While each of the POV characters is well written and engaging, it’s Tamas and Taniel (individually and in their dicey father-son dynamic) that kept pulling me on. They’re very different and intriguing each in his own way.

Taniel is young, already a frontier war hero, but a little anchorless and hot-headed. It’s a fun combination to read, especially when McClellan pairs him with a feisty mute frontier mage named Ka-Poel. Their chemistry is delightful, all the more so because it’s unspoken.

Tamas is the brilliant veteran Field Marshal who simultaneously rallies the country and seeks revenge for his murdered wife. He’s borderline arrogant, carries of a burden of responsibility that makes Atlas look like a lazy child, and somehow always seems to find the solution. He’s one of those leaders who does what needs doing no matter the cost and, even when I didn’t like or agree with him, I still admired him and wanted others to follow. I LOVE seeing characters like this done well!

McClellan also does an excellent job blending his magic system with the technology and weapons of the time–guns and guillotines, not the chivalrous longswords of traditional fantasy. Instead, soldiers known as powder mages can internalize gunpowder themselves and manipulate its effects in battle in a range of skills that unfold into incredible fight sequences. They’re just plain cool!

The world of PROMISE OF BLOOD includes a few other “magics” as well. Privileged are those who can touch an essence of magic known as the Else. They fill the role most familiar from other fantasy series, where characters can “tap into” the magic and wield it at will. Part of what I loved about the Powder Mage trilogy, however, was these traditionally high-power mages weren’t front and center. They’re side characters–important, to be sure–but they take a back seat to the far more fascinating military prowess of the Powder Mages.

I also enjoyed the “Knacked” class of magic users in the trilogy. These are everyday folks who happen to be very gifted in one specific area (i.e. having a knack). Not needing sleep. Having a perfect memory. McClellan takes full advantage of the Knackeds’ abilities, and it’s brilliant! Olem, Tamas’ right hand man who requires no sleep, is one of my favorite characters.

The presence of Knacks left me wondering why we fantasy authors have overlooked this simple trick in the past.

If I had one nit-pick it’s that I wanted a little more creativity in the naming of places and landmarks. Everything (and I mean everything) stems from the country’s name of Adro – the capital city of Adopest, the Adsea, the Addown River, etc.

But, beyond that niggle, McClellan’s world is beautifully and deeply crafted, anchored in detail. It has to be since so much of the stakes revolve around saving the nation of Adro. McClellan adds multiple high fantasy layers, with warring gods and prophecies, but at its heart, the Powder Mage trilogy is about soldiers’ love for their country and the lengths to which they’ll go to keep it free and alive.

And I absolutely loved it!!

5star

Five stars.

Find this book on Amazon

 

Nicole’s Review: MAGONIA

MagoniaTitle: MAGONIA

Author: Maria Dahvana Headley

Publisher: HarperCollins

Genre: YA Fantasy

Pages: 320

Synopsis: Aza Ray Boyle is drowning in thin air. Since she was a baby, Aza has suffered from a mysterious lung disease that makes it ever harder for her to breathe, to speak—to live. So when Aza catches a glimpse of a ship in the sky, her family chalks it up to a cruel side effect of her medication. But Aza doesn’t think this is a hallucination. She can hear someone on the ship calling her name.

Only her best friend, Jason, listens. Jason, who’s always been there. Jason, for whom she might have more-than-friendly feelings. But before Aza can consider that thrilling idea, something goes terribly wrong. Aza is lost to our world—and found, by another. Magonia.

Above the clouds, in a land of trading ships, Aza is not the weak and dying thing she was. In Magonia, she can breathe for the first time. Better, she has immense power—but as she navigates her new life, she discovers that war between Magonia and Earth is coming. In Aza’s hands lies fate of the whole of humanity—including the boy who loves her. Where do her loyalties lie?

Review:

I was a little surprised by how much I liked this book. A race of birds? Songbirds that fly in and out of people’s lungs? Sky vessels and squallwhales? There’s plenty of quirkiness to go around, and while it might catch some readers off guard, I found it utterly charming and entrancing!

The worldbuilding was fresh and delightful. I mean, sky vessels?! Maybe it’s a holdover from Disney’s Peter Pan or my love for Goonies and, more recently, Stardust, but I’ve always been captivated by the idea of tall ships sailing the skies. And squallwhales?! I love the idea of giant cloud-wreathed leviathans breathing our weather into being with their songs. MAGONIA fueled my imagination in that rare way that calls to mind childhood wonder and daydreaming just for the joy of it.

Speaking of songs, music lovers will enjoy how Dahvana Headley positions the magic of her music in MAGONIA. It literally has the power to create and destroy. Though this isn’t a new concept in fantasy, her approach feels unique and strangely subtle, given its importance in the book’s climax.

Yet, as much as I loved the worldbuilding, my favorite aspect of MAGONIA was its characters—especially Aza and Jason. They are quirkily perfect for each other and, unlike the insta-love of many YA books these days, readers get to see their deep friendship and love grow throughout the book without being hit over the head with it. Their commitment to each other feels real and extremely strong.

That’s thanks in large part to the fact that they’re both individually strong characters and hilariously funny at times in a dead-pan, inside-joke way that made their voices distinctive and fun to read. They’re each smart, sarcastic and clever. I laughed out loud more than once!
One caveat though: You’ll know by the end of the first chapter if Aza’s voice works for you or not. She can come close to being overpowering or too stream of consciousness-y. I enjoyed it, but it won’t work for everyone.

The first third of the book is almost entirely about battling Aza’s illness on Earth and has an almost “Bridge to Terabithia” feel to it, which I found endearing. The second third introduces readers more deeply to Magonia, the world in the sky, and its inhabitants, and the third wraps up a nice break-in / sky-singing battle climax.

Each of these sections carried a slightly different tone and pacing, and it’s Aza’s and Jason’s voices that anchor the reader and keep drawing us in. The plot does veer a little thin about half-way through the book, or at least I kept expecting more from it, given various hints along the way. The climax itself is very satisfactory, though without the personal stakes of Aza and Jason, I think the external stakes (stealing plants – albeit really rare and cool plants!) would have fallen short for me.

For all the time Aza spends in Magonia, I wish we could know a few of the characters better—especially Dai, Aza’s crewmate and singing partner with a tragic background and mysterious allegiances, and Zal and Ley, captains who played a big role in Aza’s time on Earth and who still have major scores to settle. But, part of my reason for wanting more is that Dahvana Headley paints beautiful descriptions and mysteries that make you want to dive in and learn ALL the reasons.

I did really love Caru, the heartbird. He is everything majestic, free and loyal that you could possibly imagine about a bird of prey. I also had a soft spot for the batsail, who is at once noble and sad. These are great examples of how MAGONIA moves beyond a typical YA to touch deeper heartstrings, deeper lessons of life. I love, love, love books that do this well!

Another element that made me tear up was Dahvana Headley’s lovely and loving portrayal of family. The simple yet ever-strong ties between Aza and her Earth-bound family are frankly breathtaking in several places, and Jason’s family too is close-knit and wonderful.

So, MAGONIA, a bit of quirk, a dash of wonder, and a whole lot of fun!

Four stars.

4star

Find this book on Amazon.

LEGEND Trilogy: Nicole’s Review

Legend TrilogyTitle: LEGEND, PRODIGY, CHAMPION

Author: Marie Lu

Publisher: Speak (Penguin Group)

Genre: YA Fantasy

Release Date: Various

Pages: Various

Synopsis: Since this review covers all three books in the trilogy, I’ll stick with high level plot recaps for books 2 and 3:

LEGEND: What was once the western United States is now home to the Republic, a nation perpetually at war with its neighbors. Born into an elite family in one of the Republic’s wealthiest districts, fifteen-year-old June is a prodigy being groomed for success in the Republic’s highest military circles. Born into the slums, fifteen-year-old Day is the country’s most wanted criminal. But his motives may not be as malicious as they seem.

From very different worlds, June and Day have no reason to cross paths – until the day June’s brother, Metias, is murdered and Day becomes the prime suspect. Caught in the ultimate game of cat and mouse, Day is in a race for his family’s survival, while June seeks to avenge Metias’s death. But in a shocking turn of events, the two uncover the truth of what has really brought them together, and the sinister lengths their country will go to keep its secrets.

PRODIGY: June and Day join the Patriot rebels to win help and passage to the Colonies just as a new Elector Primo ascends. The only catch is they have to assassinate the new Elector. And what if they’re wrong?

CHAMPION: June and Day have sacrificed so much for the people of the Republic—and each other—and now their country is on the brink of a new existence. But just when a peace treaty is imminent, a plague outbreak causes panic in the Colonies, and war threatens the Republic’s border cities once more.

Review:

Okay, I admit it, Marie Lu’s LEGEND series was one I put off reading because I was burned out on dystopian and thought it was overhyped. Newsflash: It pleasantly turns several dystopian tropes on their heads and deserves all the hype it got.

The trilogy is written in first person, dual POV, but unlike some alternating YA, readers can instantly tell which character is narrating by their personality and voice. June’s logic and military training shine through, and her chapters often include a report of time and place, and fact checking reconnaissance throughout. Day, on the other hand, is far more informal and emotional. Each is equally endearing and refreshing, and Marie Lu deserves applause for pulling it off. (Sidenote: June and Day each have their own chapter font and color. Cannot explain how much I loved this! Kudos to the publisher for investing in these books at that level!)

As main characters, June and Day balance each other nicely and neither veers into an all-consuming love fest where the other person is THE ONLY THING that matters. June is worried about her brother’s memory, her old contacts and friends, and the Republic at its highest levels of structure and government. Day, meanwhile, is focused on protecting his little brother, Eden, his best friend, Tess, and in somehow getting them all out of this mess, Republic-be-damned.

The plot succeeds in large part because the characters’ values so often conflict that “love” and “helping the other” becomes a choice both Day and June must make over and over and over again. It’s never easy, and sometimes it’s not even clear that it’s right. I really enjoyed seeing a YA that drew upon these sacrifices and decisions. It made me root for June and Day’s love all the more!

The trilogy unfolds in an impressive plot arc. I’d rank LEGEND and the first half of PRODIGY as superb YA dystopian, yet Lu then takes it into whole new territory for the end of PRODIGY and CHAMPION. More adult-like in themes and complexities. Readers are kept guessing as to whether the MCs will survive or be able to be together. That’s a rarity for me, and it was delightful to sit back and wonder how CHAMPION would end. I loved how Lu pushed this!

One key plot thread emerges at the end of PRODIGY, and it literally stole my breath because I couldn’t believe the author would go there. But she didn’t shirk from it as too many YAs tend to do, and carried it through all the way. It speaks strongly of the series that my favorite of the three is CHAMPION – each gets increasingly better!

Lu also weaves in fantastic worldbuilding that feels particularly genuine and scary because you can see shades of a future that COULD happen: a country divided (Civil War, anyone?), the themes of dictatorship and corporate state, the issues of right and wrong, the question of human rights overall, what constitutes freedom, and what will you fight for?

In the end, Lu’s answer, as well as June’s and Day’s, is family and people. It’s this belief that gives such a strong personal focal point to what could otherwise have felt like a political war between two distant and corrupt states. Lu mixes the personal and worldwide stakes with exceptional talent.

There are many gray answers in this world, but I like that it didn’t become an excuse to view everything as gray—the trilogy definitely sets up clear right and wrong. And then it enjoys making its characters toe that line!

If the series has a fault, it’s that 15 year olds would not have been put in charge of half the stuff June and Day were. This made me chuckle in a few places, but strangely it’s also part of what made LEGEND great because the series easily reads with the subtle complexities and emotional nuances of an adult book, simply with younger MCs. If you can handle the extended suspension of disbelief, it’s well worth your time!

While LEGEND has the pacing and action of a typical dystopian, it has a twistier plot and a LOT more heart. I felt for these characters – Day in particular – and they became “real” in a way not many others do. Can’t wait for the planned movie!! Crossing my fingers for 2016!

5 Stars

5star

-Nicole

Find this trilogy on Amazon.

SECOND OLYMPUS: Nicole’s Review

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000035_00025]Title: SECOND OLYMPUS

Author: K.A. Stewart

Publisher(s): Pirate Ninja Press

Format: Paperback

Genre(s): Fantasy/Steampunk

Release Date: April 21, 2015

Synopsis:

I loved this book! It felt like a breath of fresh air among the sometimes stale mix of Greek gods-themed storylines.

In case you haven’t guessed from the cover, SECOND OLYMPUS has steampunk overtones, and that’s part of what makes it great. K.A. Stewart opts to mash up Greek mythology with air ships and the gas-light street-born grittiness of a WWI-esque era.

As a result of Apollo dying in the long-ago war between the gods, the world has been left without a sun, so all light comes from Artemis’ tower and the lamps flickering in the streets. Stewart does an excellent job conveying the consequences of living for centuries within a crowded, walled city with no natural light: deep mining projects that cause the very ground to become unstable, tenement housing built and rebuilt on top of itself year after year, the challenge of growing and cultivating enough food for people.

Review:

I quickly found myself steeped in the world. It’s a haunting take on our own industrial revolution and shows a world on the brink without veering into the stereotypes of true dystopian territory.

The book also shines in Stewart’s portrayal of the gods themselves, mainly Artemis (we’ll get back to her in a moment), Persephone, Demeter, Hades and Hephaestus. Yes, these characters are still gods, but they are gods brought to their KNEES in a way that flips our old assumptions of power on their heads and gives even the most powerful very human-seeming flaws, vulnerabilities, and redeeming qualities.

The story is driven largely by two pairs of characters.

On the mortal side, we have Geoff and Lia, who have grown up together in the dirty wards of Elysia and have managed to steal a good bit of happiness from rather terrible circumstances. I loved the normalness and everyday love of their relationship!

Geoff has been crippled from birth by bad knees, not that he ever lets it stop him (he navigates mine tunnels and freehand climbs a rope to an airship), and he’s been gifted with a unique power to influence those around him as a muse. Most often, I’ve seen the muses used as a convenient nudge for a heroic MC. Stewart takes a broader approach that captures the true power of inspiration and imagination inherent in the muses. I really liked that switch.

Geoff is an unassuming and very grounded MC, which is a brilliant contrast to his antagonist in Artemis. He carefully guards his power, understanding full well the level of influence and control he could have over others should he so choose.

On the more-than-mortal side of the board, we have Artemis and Heracles. I loved these two! There is so much dark backstory hinted at here…it’s incredibly compelling. Let’s tackle them one at a time.

Artemis might take the prize for most intriguing and well-crafted crazy villainess of the year. Stewart expertly gives us revealing glimpses of the once great, noble and innocent huntress, while also making it painfully clear that by the book’s opening the virgin goddess has fallen to near-total insanity. Artemis is clever, strong…and lives in complete fear (and occasional regret) of what she’s done in the past and of losing what she’s wrought for the future. I alternated between wanting her to die a drawn-out painful death and wanting to see her redeem herself because she’s just so darn fun to read.

Heracles, then, is the perfect foil for Artemis. We learn that the former hero teamed with Artemis for good reason at the war’s beginnings, but over the millennia he’s become aware that he’s now playing bodyguard for the evil side. His reactions and actions in light of that realization drive the heart of the plot. Stewart’s Heracles is neither the plucky hero nor the annoying too-perfect rival—roles all too commonly assigned to him in other tales. Instead, he’s more remorseful, jaded. A man searching for a way to earn redemption while keeping his word, and that makes him altogether FAR more interesting.

One other aspect worth mentioning is Stewart’s clever interpretation of Artemis’ “hunt.” The hunt is another Greek element that’s been done in several ways. For SECOND OLYMPUS, Stewart puts a paranormal twist on the goddess’ ability to create and manipulate the hounds of her hunt, formerly men in their own rights. It’s eerie and telling, and strikes the perfect tone for this epic Greek tale.

Needless to say, I enjoyed this one immensely!

5 Stars

-Nicole

(Originally posted on FantasyFaction.com)

Find this book on Amazon.

CODEX ALERA: Nicole’s Series Review

Furies of Calderon

Title: FURIES OF CALDERON, ACADEM’S FURY, CURSOR’S FURY, CAPTAIN’S FURY, PRINCEPS’ FURY, FIRST LORD’S FURY

Author: Jim Butcher

Publisher: Ace

Genre: Epic Fantasy

Release Date: Various

Review:

I loved this series so much! Jim Butcher is one of those authors people have always told me to read, but I was hesitant for so many years. Then, I fell in love with his DRESDEN FILES and CODEX ALERA now ranks among my top 5 beloved series of all time.

It’s an excellent mix of epic and military fantasy, with an incredibly deep cast of characters. With each book, I found myself cheering for Butcher’s MC, Tavi, more and more. He IS what fantasy heroes are made of. And the villain!! Ooh, guys, chills. One of the best written, truly creepy villains ever.

Let’s all agree—battle scenes are awesome! And part of what makes them great, in my mind, is when the author pays attention to the level of detail found in history. From an army’s structure to camp logistics, to weaponry and strategies, history provides a good template. I love it when authors honor the limits of history and force characters to work only with the tools and knowledge that would have been available to them in that era.

CODEX ALERA is one of the best examples of this. Butcher has created an amazing, intricate world with elemental furies, non-human allies and enemies, and other strong fantasy elements, but the heart of the story is wrapped in the military trappings of the Roman Legion. It’s the best of both worlds, and I can’t get enough!

The series is everything I love about fantasy: great characters, a beautifully developed world, gritty action and hard choices, epic good vs. evil battles where the stakes keep rising and the heroes keep paying the price, and a plot that kept even me guessing (seriously brilliant military strategy and applications of magic).

Like a little history in your fantasy? Check out these reads too.

5 Stars

-Nicole

Find the series on Amazon.

HEROES OF OLYMPUS: Nicole’s Series Mini Review

Heroes of Olympus

Title: THE LOST HERO, THE SON OF NEPTUNE, THE MARK OF ATHENA, THE HOUSE OF HADES, THE BLOOD OF OLYMPUS

Author: Rick Riordan

Publisher(s): Disney/Hyperion

Format: Various

Genre(s): MG Fantasy

Release Date: Various

Review:

So far, I’ve loved every Rick Riordan book I’ve read. THE LOST HERO was no exception! I came into it with high expectations because I loved the Percy Jackson series, and the book did an excellent job balancing familiar characters with a new team of fun, believable heroes. It didn’t take long to start cheering for Jason, Leo and Piper! Riordan’s ability to intertwine humor, heart and action shines through.

The expanded cast of characters is a lot of fun—Leo is my favorite (If he and Sadie Kane got together, I’d never stop laughing. Those two!)—and I always admire Riordan’s ability to fit so much action, info and humor on the page. He makes me ignore my “one more chapter” rule all the time.

I read MARK OF ATHENA and HOUSE OF HADES back-to-back, and I’m starting Blood of Olympus now. These last couple books have really brought the nail-biting stakes! This series is one of those where I don’t want to finish because I can’t bear to leave the characters behind.

4 Stars

-Nicole

Find the series on Amazon.