An Ember in the Ashes (Series) by Sabaa Tahir

This review will cover the first three books in the Ember series (An Ember in the Ashes, A Torch Against the Night and A Reaper at the Gates). The fourth and final book in the series is due in 2019.

This is the story of Laia, a young woman in a slave class that finds her world destroyed, and ends up in a band of resistors who are looking to finally free themselves of the Martials, who are the ruling class of the empire. There is also Elias, who is student at a military school, which trains the best and the brightest to become Masks, an elite fighting force that serves the empire. Eventually, Laia and Elias’s stories intertwine, and we begin our grand adventure to destroy the empire. But of course, the threat is much deeper and our “heroes” discover a threat that is bigger than anything they could have imagined. The fate of the world is at stake!

The story is full of the familiar tropes that we all know; the bastard of a powerful family who wants out; the unrequited love of a best friend; the conspiracy that is bigger than first thought, etc. It makes some plot developments predictable, but, there are enough plot twists that are not conventional, that really elevates the story from being typical fantasy cliches to an interesting story that doesn’t always go the way you’d think.

My one quibble with the novel is my utter lack of interest in the main protagonist, Laia. Especially in the first book, I constantly found myself getting annoyed with her. She was so indecisive, so naive and didn’t really seem to think things through. Granted, it can be just as frustrating when the main character seems to do everything perfectly, even when its something they have never done before, but this almost made me not want to finish the book. What saved me was the story of Elias. I found his character to be much more compelling. Sure, there are some major tropes going on with him as well, but I just found his journey to be the more intriguing of the two. His inner turmoil about being turned into this amoral fighting machine, fighting for an empire he really didn’t care for, while not groundbreaking, was just plain old interesting. The cast of characters surrounding Elias at the school helped as well, although I wish there was a bit more character development there. They weren’t quite distinctive enough for me to really tell them apart, but I think there would have been more time for that sort of development if the book was focused on Elias, and not Laia.

Another reason for me to continue with the series was the twisting and turning of the plot, which I found made up for my lack of interest in Laia. I won’t reveal those twists of course, but we also get some new point of view characters starting in the second book that really beings to round out the overall story.

I did find that once I finished the second book, I really thought that the third book would be the conclusion. Then I read that this was a quartet and not a trilogy. I really think the story could have been condensed to three books, since there were some plot shenanigans that were going on to stretch out.

I know I seem fairly critical, but I did come to enjoy the characters and the story, especially when the new point of view characters were introduced in book two. I am looking forward to the fourth installment, and discovering the ultimate fate of the characters.

Lilypad Rating:LilyPadLilyPad1/2 out of 5

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Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation is an alternate history set in the aftermath of the American Civil War. A civil war which ended in part because of zombies. Sounds like fun!

Well, not quite. Just because the dead aren’t staying dead, that doesn’t mean some form of subjugation and oppression of blacks and Native Americans would go away. It just takes a different form. In this timeline, slavery is abolished, but there are still shamblers to fight. So, former slaves and native peoples are forced into combat schools where they are trained to fight shamblers in order to protect the white population. Our main character, Jane, is a young black girl who has been trained at Miss Preston’s School of Combat to be a shambler fighter. It is supposed to be her greatest hope to be chosen by a white lady from high society to be her “Attendant”.  These “Attendants” are basically body guards for their lady, and are meant to protect them from shamblers. Of course, things go horribly wrong for our heroine, and our adventure begins.

I enjoyed the point of view of Jane, who is not only one of, if not the best fighter at the school, but she is rough around the edges to say the least. She is brash and somewhat unapologetic. Its refreshing to have her as the protagonist rather than being the sidekick.   She is reminiscent of the “charming roguish thief”, that you see in many fantasy series. I liked the characters themselves, but I’m not sure how I feel about the actual plot. I liked it when they were at the school, and when they were able to get out of the school and into the surrounding areas (Baltimore, to be exact), but once the location changes, then I began to lose a bit of the connection I had to the story. I still enjoyed it, but the story was expanding a little too quickly for my taste. I had just gotten into that particular corner of the world, and then I was taken out of it. This is the first book in a series, so if there were going to be other books, I felt more time could’ve been spent in their original location. (I’m being vague because I am avoiding spoilers).

I was also concerned about the timeline. I kept thinking it was closer to the end of the civil war than it was (the story takes place in 1880, the U.S. Civil War ended in 1865). I would read a story about what happened at the Battle of Gettysburg when the dead on both sides began to rise.  Maybe that can be a prequel!

The writing had a sharpness that was appealing, with an economy of words that I think worked well overall. Just enough description, but not too much.

Overall, I enjoyed the story and I encourage others to pick it up. The author also has a list of resources in her “Author’s Note” about the history of industrial schools, and how the United States government sent Native children there to be “civilized”. These schools were the basis for her “combat schools” in the novel.

Lilypad Rating:LilyPadLilyPadLilyPad1/2 out of 5

Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian

I think I heard about this book through io9’s monthly article about books they are anticipating. I’ll leave the link here. They have a really good list. I’m also interested in Dread Nation and Night Dahlia.

Ash Princess is about a princess, Thora/Theodosia, of the conquered nation of Astrea, who is held hostage by her nation’s conquerors, the Kalovaxians.  Thora is used as a tool to keep the Astreans in line. Step out of line, and the princess is beaten. She is the princess of ashes only, and is treated at times like an honored guest, and at other times like a criminal. Of course, rebellion is in the air, and Thora soon becomes involved in a plot to overthrow the Kalovaxians and take back her kingdom.

As I was reading along, I thought this was a stand alone novel. The plot moved along at a very brisk pace, with just enough information about the characters, culture and circumstances to advance the plot. There were breaks in the story for exposition about the use of gems in the Astrean religion, a little bit of background on the Kalovaxians, and the destruction they have wreaked not only on Astrea, but other nations in this world. But it all seemed pretty surface, no real depth. Which I expect when a story is a stand alone. More emphasis on plot and less on character development. This isn’t a criticism, it was just the impression I got while reading. As we get nearer to the end, it becomes obvious that this won’t get resolved by the end of the book. And I find that I don’t mind that. I am actually curious about what will happen next. I like a good story about the oppressed rising up against the oppressors!

That would be the main criticism I had. I wished that this felt like a first book in a series, rather than a stand alone novel. This may be my own fault for not researching more on this book, but I would like to have seen more world building. The Kalovaxians have a history of concurring and pillaging other countries, so I would like to know more about that. This will probably (hopefully) happen in the next book (or books), but more world building now would have made the story a bit richer, for me.

Lilypad Rating:LilyPadLilyPadLilyPad out of 5

Circe by Madeline Miller

I have always loved greek mythology. And if you love it too, you’ll really enjoy Circe.

The story is about Circe, the witch Odysseus meets on his journey home from the Trojan War. She is the child of Helios, one of the Titans- the gods who ruled before Zeus and the Olympians overthrew them. You meet some of the Olympians we are all familiar with, but we see them through Circe’s eyes. Circe has had a hand in almost all of them. The names should be familiar: Scylla, Glaucus, Daedelus, Jason, Medea, to name a few. Even a couple surprises! At least they were surprises to me. 🙂

Circe’s story is tragic. At times you root for her and at other times you become exasperated with her. She is a complicated figure. You really feel her loneliness, her sense of being “other”, and how her upbringing brought on many of her insecurities, and shaped the decisions she makes later in her life. In a small way this is a story about bullying, and the long term affects that can have on a person. Circe definitely lashes out in response to her treatment by her family, and usually to horrible consequences. Her story is always compelling, and you understand how she came to be who she is.

The writing is like a more accessible epic poem. (I would also suggest listening to the audio book). It is a good balance of modern and formal. There is a sense of age, yet its not impressed with itself.

I’m really not doing this book justice. Its a fantastic and captivating read. It makes the greek myths feel more vibrant and real. I’m definitely going to go back and re-visit these old myths, and I will certainly pick up Miller’s first book, Song of Achilles.

Lilypad rating: LilyPadLilyPadLilyPadLilyPad

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

This book showed up on several lists of anticipated books of 2018. I added it to my own list because I was in the mood for a Young Adult (YA) story. This is not a dystopian YA story, which is a good thing.

This is the story of a country in what appears to be an African-like continent, where magic has been eradicated (or has it??), and the people who used magic were almost wiped out. Their descendants are an oppressed people who are shunned, ostracized and brutalized by the current regime. They are often used as servants/slaves to the upper classes, including the royal family. This purging of magic took place about 11 years ago. Of course, our young heroine, Zelie, is descended from magic users, and the story focuses on her discovering her destiny to bring magic back.

You can definitely pick out the epic fantasy influences. There’s the hero’s journey, where Zelie denies her destiny, then accepts it. There’s the loss of the wise mentor. There is also the formation of the rag tag group of heroes who will help her on her journey. There are tales of gods, wars, magical objects, and of course romance. There are references to places with similar names to ours (Britaunis, Porltoganes, etc.) This is definitely the same way in which more traditional fantasy infuses medieval English or French cultural influences into the world building.  There is also the use of the Yoruba language that lends even more grounding in cultures here on our own earth.

What this story does so well, is dramatizing a real underlying sense of fear, hate and oppression. There is a heavy sense throughout the book of the depths of hate and intolerance and the lengths people will go to in order to oppress those who are different. The hate and animosity runs deep, and some characters are overcome by it, while others clearly struggle to rationalize what has been done to the magic users, all in the name of  protecting the people. The Author’s Note at the end of the book gives more insight into how this story reflects modern day issues.

I have a few nitpicks, but the one I will mention here is the setting, or timing of the current story.  I would’ve liked this story to take place maybe another generation or two from the eradication of magic. Seeing how wounded this society would be after so many years, would make the stakes a bit higher. How would the descendants of the magic users feel? Would they have sided with their oppressors and believed that magic was bad? Would they mostly be in hiding? Everything seemed so new and raw. I would like to have seen the toll this event has taken on the society, another generation or two later.

Overall, this is a very engaging story, with characters you can root for. There is so much more to this story, so I am looking forward to part two!

Lilypad rating: LilyPadLilyPadLilyPad1/2

2018 Reading Goals

Happy New Year!

New year, fresh start for reading. I’ve never  had any specific goals for reading, other than to read more. This year, I’ve decided to actually be more specific, and deliberate with my reading. In 2017 I exceeded my Goodreads goal, but it was a struggle at times. Part of the problem was that I was distracted by all the great television. Between Netflix, Hulu, HBO and everything else, it was, and still is, very easy to just plop down in front of the TV and binge a show. I’d like to change that, and plop down on the the couch and binge a book! There aren’t too many sows that I need or want to watch live, so there’s no reason why I can’t make reading my default, and fit TV in between those times when I’m not reading. So, here’s my plan for 2018:

  1. Goodreads Goal: 25 books
  2. At least 30 minutes to an hour each day reading. The TV will not be on, no other distractions. This can be a designated time before bed or right after work.
  3. Expand beyond traditional sci fi and fantasy. Maybe more young adult, urban fantasy, contemporary fiction, historical fiction etc. Expand those horizons! Its not like I’ve never read literary fiction before, so why not add that back into the rotation?
  4. Re-read Favorites. When in a rut, pull out an old favorite. I won’t necessarily finish the book, but use it as a time filler while deciding on a new book. It keeps up the habit of daily reading. And its always nice to re-visit old favorites!
  5. Second Chances. Be willing to give some books a second chance. Life is too short to read books you don’t like, but sometimes you just need to give it a go again, because it may turn out to be a new favorite.

We’ll see how this goes! What are your reading goals for 2018?

The Book of Swords, edited by Gardner Dozois

Let’s be real. The reason I picked up this anthology was because of the George R. R. Martin short story called The Sons of the Dragon. There were other authors that I was familiar with, but I read it for A Song of Ice and Fire purposes. And, yes, the story was great. The history of the Targaryens is completely fascinating to me, and its my favorite part of Westerosi history. This particular story is a tale of the sons of Aegon the Conqueror himself, Maegor the Cruel and Aenys I. The power struggle between them really sets the stage for the kind of kingdom Westeros would become. Not essential reading of course, but any fan of A Song of Ice and Fire would really enjoy this.

I did manage to read other stories in this anthology. I wanted to branch out and try some authors I hadn’t read before, including Elizabeth Bear, CJ Cherryh and Cecelia Holland. Daniel Abraham, and Robin Hobb are authors that I have read before, but haven’t gone back to in awhile.

I will highlight those stories. I’m not going to go into great detail about plot, but I will give my very brief impressions of the story and whether I would read something else by that author.

Her Father’s Sword by Robin Hobb- This story sees the brief appearance of a familiar character to fans of Robin Hobb- FitzChivalry Farseer. I have only read the Farseer Trilogy (actually, it may have only been the first book), but it was so long ago that I don’t remember much of the plot. It’s clear though that this story definitely ties in to one of the series that FitzChivalry appears in. Fans would get more out of his appearance than a casual reader like me. Needless to say, the story was enjoyable, with a memorable villain, great action and drama. I’ll definitely consider picking up the Farseer Trilogy.

The King’s Evil by Elizabeth Bear- This one was a bit weird to me. I really couldn’t get attached to the characters. The world building felt like it belonged to a much bigger story, and maybe it does. The big thing that turned me off was the use of a modern weapon. I wasn’t expecting it, and it felt out of place. But honestly, at that point, I had pretty much checked out of the story. I don’t like mixing my swords with modern stuff. I would still like to give the author’s other books a try. Leave some recommendations!

The Mocking Tower by Daniel Abraham- I really liked this one. It was the one story that I wanted to see expended into a full length novel. I would definitely like to get the full story on how the realm descended into the civil war it finds itself in now. This story gives an overview of it, but I’d really like to read it as it plays out. I want to know how we got to the events of this short story, and what happens afterwards. Great story. I’m reading the Expanse which is written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, under the pen name James S.A. Corey. Love that series. There are two other series by Abraham, that I have tried to start but couldn’t get into. I may give those a try. The first series is The Long Price Quartet and the other one is called The Dagger and The Coin.

The Sword Tyraste by Cecelia Holland- I had never heard of this author, and I do like some historical fantasies, so I gave it a try. Norse mythology and stories about Norse cultures are not always my cup of tea, but I found this story to be intriguing. I t caught my attention quickly, and I wanted to see where it ended. And its the ending that I found lacking. Its not really a cliff hanger, it just ends after a fight, and gives two sentences about the main character and thats it. Its hard to describe it here without spoiling it, but yeah, this one left me scratching my head.

These were the stories that stood out to me, and the ones I read first. The other ones were not necessarily genres that I like, so I skipped those for now.

Lilypad Rating: LilyPadLilyPadLilyPad1/2 out of 5