Book Review – Ash by Malinda Lo

ashAt the beginning of the year, you may recall my determination to read a wider variety of authors and protagonists in an effort to diversify my bookshelves and broaden my horizons. To that end, I picked up Ash by Malinda Lo, which is a lesbian retelling of the Cinderella story.

After the death of her father, Aisling (known as Ash) is put to work by her cruel stepmother in an effort to pay off her father’s debts. Trapped in an unfamiliar house in an unfamiliar city, Ash clings to the hope that one day she’ll be taken by the fairies on the slim chance she’ll get to see her mother again.

When she meets the King’s Huntress, Kaisa, Ash’s desires change, but it may already be too late. Because she’s made a bargain with a fairy prince, and he’s not so eager to let her go.

What I loved most about Ash was the writing. As I mentioned before, it had a very dreamlike, lyrical quality that fit perfectly with a fairy tale retelling. It drew me in immediately and kept a hold on me throughout the entire story.

Normally putting the history of a country in your second chapter is a guaranteed way to turn me off (see: Sword of Shannara), but Lo makes it work beautifully. I think it helps that she focuses on the changing role of magic in the world and how it ultimately ties into Ash’s life, rather than a complete history. It’s all important information and it all comes into play later in the story, with how different characters react to magic and fairy tales, and it adds an extra dimension to the world.

The entire story is third person limited, from Ash’s point of view, so we’re living inside Ash’s head and seeing everything through her eyes. We feel her pain and anger at everything that befalls her after the death of her father, her desperation to see her mother again.

It’s easy to see why she ignores the cautionary tales about the fairies: because she has nothing to tether her here. It’s not until she meets Kaisa that Ash starts to want something else.

I loved the slow build between Ash and Kaisa, and their relationship was very gentle in its progression. I wish they’d met sooner, or managed to have some more time together, because I loved their interactions and I desperately wanted more.

Rather than a fairy godmother, Ash has a fairy prince, Sidhean, who is not the bippity-boppity-bo type. He’ll help Ash, all right, but not for free, and her bargains with him are what drive a large part of the novel’s conflict.

Where Ash struggles is that there seems to be a lot of summary and narration and internal thoughts, and not as much dialogue, conflict, and actual character interaction. Because I liked the writing so much, this wasn’t something I noticed until I was well more than halfway through. However, I do wish it had been better balanced.

The ending was another weakness. It came across as abrupt, like the main problem was solved too easily, and I would have liked more of a denouement after the climax. It would have been nice to get a better sense of where the relationship was going and how they intended to make it work.

Overall, I really enjoyed Ash, and I look forward to reading some of Malinda Lo’s other work.

Book Review: Against the Tide by Elizabeth Camden

against-the-tideInspirational/Christian romances are not ones that I normally seek out for a number of reasons, but the biggest one is most definitely how freaking difficult it is to find GOOD ones. And by good ones, I mean stories that are actual STORIES, not thinly disguised moral lessons that sacrifice every element of good storytelling to get the author’s message across.

But the thing is, I want to find good ones. I like reading stories where faith plays a central role in the characters’ lives (see: Grave Mercy and Dark Triumph), and I have friends and family members constantly asking me for recommendations in this genre.

So when I saw Against the Tide nominated for a RITA (it ended up winning the RITA for Inspirational Romance), and read a glowing review for it on Smart Bitches (which is seriously my go-to site for romance novel reviews), and then saw it on sale for 99 cents, I bought it without a second thought.

Well, it fell solidly in the middle of the road for me. There were parts I liked and parts I didn’t, which ultimately culminated in a “meh” feeling for me overall. However, as far as Christian romances go, it was one of the better ones, in a large part because the author never forgot she was telling a story.

And really, it’s a good story. Lydia is a translator for the Navy in Boston in the late 1800s, a job she’s held for four years. After a childhood of uncertainty and fearfulness, she has job security and a home she loves, and she is not willing to let either go after she’s worked so hard for them. So when she must come up with several hundred dollars in order to purchase her apartment, she’s looking everywhere for translation work to supplement her income.

Enter Alexander “Bane” Banebridge, a young man who’s friends with the admiral that employs Lydia. He’s a bit of a scoundrel and he drives Lydia nuts, but it just so happens that Bane needs a translator for a number of documents, and he’s more than willing to pay for it.

As Lydia translates more and more of his odd requests, though, she starts to get suspicious as to what Bane really wants. And when she finds out, Lydia gets pulled into a fight she never expected, one that ends up testing every one of her personal limits.

Lydia’s personal arc was easily my favorite part of the entire story. I loved how she was forced to choose between what was legal and what was morally right, how she handled herself in the face of losing everything.

She had a tremendous amount of courage, something that wasn’t apparent even to her at the very beginning of the story, and watching her discover just how deep that ran was a joy to read.

I adored her as a character, and I loved seeing everything she overcame during the course of the story.

It was also nice to read a Christian romance that didn’t hammer you over the head with the religious aspect. Overall, I thought it was handled very well and very naturally.

My one real complaint on that front was that there was only one line near the end where Lydia mentioned she’d been reading the Bible. Given everything that had happened to her over the previous half of the book, I wished we’d been shown a little more of that: another mention of her reading or her thinking about the Bible or something, just to give the hint that it truly was something she was interested in.

However, I ran into problems with the romance itself. Bane came across as a bit too “the ends justify the means” for me, especially at the beginning and especially as a Christian character. He was trying to make up for his past, certainly, but at times it felt like he had just swung from one end of the spectrum to the other, and I didn’t care for the extremism.

He WAS fun to watch with Lydia, how he taunted her and teased her and ultimately opened up to her. I just wish we’d had a better sense of his limits in other things.

It also didn’t help that the pivotal moment in their romance–the moment when Lydia decides that she’s going to pursue Bane in a romantic way–was in Bane’s point of view. We don’t find out what Lydia’s decided until the next scene, so it’s only a brief few lines about her decision instead of the thought process that LED to that decision. It frustrated me, because that’s such an important moment to see in a relationship.

There was one other things that grated on me, but as it was near the end, I’ll mark it for spoilers. Highlight to read:

One of the major differences in Christian romances and regular romances is that in Christian romances, one of the characters is typically building a relationship with God as well, and that has to be just as believable as the romantic relationship.

What I disliked here was that, at the end, Bane set himself up as the one Lydia needed to have faith in: the one who would be her lighthouse, who would never let her down, etc. And…no. He’s human, humans screw up, and one of the points of Christian romances is that faith in God is vital and should be number one for both parties. That’s not what I got from this, and that annoyed me.

So in the end, Against the Tide was all right, but didn’t have the emotional connection I was looking for to make it great. A decent read, if you’re looking for an inspirational romance, and I loved the heroine’s journey, but as a romance itself, it just felt squarely mediocre to me.

Book Review: Curtsies & Conspiracies by Gail Carriger

Author’s note: I won an ARC for this book earlier this year. The book itself comes out in hardback tomorrow, November 5.

Also, if you’re here for the #WriteMotivation update, I’ll be posting mine on Thursday this week.

curtises-and-conspiracesI’ve mentioned before that I kind of adore Gail Carriger’s novels, and while I’m patiently (okay, not so patiently) awaiting the Parasol Protectorate Abroad, I’ve been happily enjoying her venture into YA with the Finishing School series.

Curtsies & Conspiracies is the sequel to Etiquette & Espionage, about Sophronia Temminick and her stay at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. For the first time in recent memory, the dirigible school is making its way to London, which is very exciting. However, the trip itself is more than what it seems, and Sophronia is just the person to get to the bottom of it.

Sophronia was, once again, a delight to read about, and in this book we really get a chance to see her character grow in unexpected ways. That was easily my favorite part of the book: not the plot itself, but seeing how Sophronia faced the challenges the new semester threw at her, and more importantly, seeing how she dealt with the consequences of her actions.

I wish I could say more about it, but so much of that is near the end of the book and tied up in the story that it would be a major spoiler to discuss, and it was so, so wonderful to discover it along the way. I loved how it brought home that all these characters operate in the varying grey areas of morality. They make decisions and make mistakes and they have very good reasons for doing what they do, even if what they do isn’t the right thing by any stretch of the imagination.

Plus, there was this bit, near the end, that sums up Sophronia so succinctly I might have hugged the book:

“Why is it always your problem to fix?”
“Because I see that there is a problem when no one else does.”

That, I believe, is why Sophronia will be my favorite character forever: because of how much she sees and how willing she is to actually get involved. She’s brilliant, and I’m so excited to see how she’ll continue to grow over the course of this series.

For fans of the Parasol Protectorate series, going to London means getting the chance to see some of the other characters we already know and love. The roles they play within this story are important, so they’re not just tossed in as Easter eggs for fans, but it still made me squeal with glee.

I enjoyed the plot, though not quite as much as the character development we see from Sophronia, and a sort-of love triangle was introduced, which I still haven’t decided how I feel about it. I did like getting to see a little more from Vieve, and I loved the friendship that’s building up between Sophronia and the other girls in her age group, but particularly Dimity.

Curtsies & Conspiracies is a great follow-up to Etiquette & Espionage, and I really can’t wait to follow this group of characters into book three.

Reading List Check-in

It’s 3/4 of the way through the year (HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?!?), so here’s a reading list update!

I’m moving a little slower this year than I was last year, but maybe I can still read nearly 30 books before December 31…right?

Endymion by Dan Simmons
Long Lost by David Morrell
If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino
The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis
Shadows in Bronze by Lindsey Davis
The Course of Honor by Lindsey Davis
Young Men in Spats by P.G. Wodehouse
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Kushiel’s Avatar by Jacqueline Carey
Kushiel’s Chosen by Jacqueline Carey
Shada by Douglas Adams
The Street Lawyer by John Grisham
The Honor of Spies by W.E.B. Griffin
Foreign Influence by Brad Thor
True Blue by David Baldacci
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold
A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold
Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Gone by Michael Grant
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
The Ancient by R.A. Salvatore
The Demon Awakens by R.A. Salvatore
The Demon Spirit by R.A. Salvatore
The Demon Apostle by R.A. Salvatore
The Wind Merchant by Ryan Dunlap
Triple Play by Abigail Barnette
Long Relief by Abigail Barnette

Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger
Curtsies & Conspiracies by Gail Carriger

Winterblaze by Kristen Callihan
The Strange Case of Finley Jayne/The Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross
Beyond Shame by Kit Rocha
Lamb by Christopher Moore
Exclusively Yours by Shannon Stacey
Yours to Keep by Shannon Stacey

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett
Mort by Terry Pratchett
Men-at-Arms by Terry Pratchett
Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett
Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett

Jingo by Terry Pratchett
Queen of Shadows by Dianne Sylvan
The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan
Against the Tide by Elizabeth Camden
The Marrying Kind by Ken O’Neill
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress
Mine to Possess by Nalini Singh
Hostage to Pleasure by Nalini Singh
His Bride by Design by Teresa Hill

The Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire by Susan Ronald
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain
Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
Story by Robert McKee
Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin
Creating Characters: How to Build Story People by Dwight V. Swain
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Book Review: Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers

As you might recall, I kind of fell in love with Grave Mercy, the first book in the His Fair Assassin series, earlier this year. So you can just imagine how excited I was to read Dark Triumph, the sequel and Sybella’s story.

I started and finished Dark Triumph in one day. If possible, I might have liked it even more than the first one, and that’s saying something, because I freaking loved the first one.

dark-triumphSynopsis courtesy Goodreads:

Sybella arrives at the convent’s doorstep half mad with grief and despair. Those that serve Death are only too happy to offer her refuge—but at a price. The convent views Sybella, naturally skilled in the arts of both death and seduction, as one of their most dangerous weapons. But those assassin’s skills are little comfort when the convent returns her to a life that nearly drove her mad. And while Sybella is a weapon of justice wrought by the god of Death himself, He must give her a reason to live. When she discovers an unexpected ally imprisoned in the dungeons, will a daughter of Death find something other than vengeance to live for?

Essentially this is a Beauty and the Beast story (and you guys know what a sucker I am for those stories), only it’s Beauty that’s broken on the inside. Beast may have a fearsome appearance, but his kindness and loyalty are never in question.

I absolutely adored Sybella. She’s harsher than Ismae, both in her actions and her narration, and she comes across as cold to other characters. However, that’s almost as much a mask as the seductress one she wears. She’s built up a number of walls and defenses for very, very good reasons.

Her background is absolutely heartbreaking, and it’s amazing that Sybella has put herself back together as well as she has. The scenes where she was at her home were tense and sickening, and an understandable desire for vengeance drives her for a large part of the book.

I loved seeing how she grew both on her own and through her developing relationship with Beast, and Beast himself was just as much fun in this book as he was in Grave Mercy. I loved that we got to spend more time with him here and learn more about him, because I enjoyed the hell out of his character in the previous story.

Sybella’s faith was also an important part of this story, but her relationship with Saint Mortain was different from Ismae’s because her role as one of his handmaidens is different, and I liked seeing her struggles and questioning.

If there was one thing that I didn’t like, it was the very end. It came about really abruptly, and I was frankly shocked to turn the page and realize there wasn’t any more. I wish it had been a little more fleshed out.

But really, that was my only complaint about this story. It was well-paced and well-written, and such a fantastic follow-up to another excellent book. I really, really can’t wait for book three in this series.

Book Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

leviathanAs a steampunk fan, I’ve been looking forward to reading Leviathan for some time. I knew a very little bit about the world, which sounded cool, and I’m always interested to see what different authors come up with for steamupunk worldbuilding.

What I got with this one was a really fun, briskly paced YA novel that kicks off a trilogy I absolutely can’t wait to finish.

Alek is a prince who cannot inherit his father’s throne, but his mere existence upsets a very delicate balance that’s thrown off when his parents are killed. He’s spirited away from his house one night by a small band of loyal men, and now he’s on the run from his own people.

Deryn is a soldier in the British Air Service, serving aboard the massive airbeast Leviathan, with one tiny secret: she’s a girl, not a guy, and she’ll be kicked out if anybody discovers her secret.

With war threatening, the Leviathan is sent on a special urgent mission to the Ottoman Empire. Soon, Deryn and Alek will cross paths, and they’ll both be swept up in an effort to stem the advancing tide of war.

Most steampunk novels I’ve read tend to take place in the mid-to-late 1800s, but Leviathan offers us an alternate take on the beginning of World War I. If you remember history class, you probably remember the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, which kicked off the Great War in 1914. In Leviathan, though, their deaths have a bit more sinister and personal cause, though the ultimate effect—international war—is the same.

I loved the way Westerfeld wove actual history with fantasy and slightly futuristic technology, particularly in regards to the technology on both sides: fabricated beasts for the British, walking war machines for the Germans. The descriptions of both are fascinating, and I especially enjoyed Alek’s and Deryn’s reactions to the other’s chosen technology.

The beasties, in particular, are really cool in how they’re all created for different, specific purposes: the hydrogen sniffers that search the Leviathan for leaks, the flechette bats used in aerial combat, and even the Leviathan itself.

Westerfeld’s technique itself is brilliant, switching viewpoints every two chapters. After the first few, you know exactly whose head you’ll be in when. It’s refreshing, and it gives you a chance to really get the most out of each storyline before jumping to the other one.

Plus, there are subtle differences (and not-so-subtle ones) in the way he writes in Alek’s viewpoint versus Deryn’s. Even though he does a good job of letting the reader know whose head we’re in, you can tell the viewpoint character from the dialogue and internal cadence. Deryn’s voice is spotted with slang and cursing, while Alek sounds very much like the noble he is. It’s glorious.

I adored Deryn. She’s a very quick thinker, courageous and bold, loves to fly and loves being on an airship. She’s very bound to her duty as a soldier, but doesn’t let her pledge to king and country keep her from thinking for herself. I liked Alek as well, but he’s a bit stiffer initially, considering his background. However, he definitely grows on you over the course of the story.

The illustrations littered throughout the book are absolutely gorgeous. I actually paused in reading to soak up the goodness of the art.

If you’re into steampunk already, I think you’ll definitely enjoy Leviathan. If you aren’t, then Leviathan is, honestly, a great introduction to the genre. The characters are great, the worldbuilding is phenomenal, and I really, really can’t wait to read more.