Recent Reads: Short & Sweet Reviews of An Ember in the Ashes, The Winner’s Crime, A Darker Shade of Magic, Made You Up and More

An Ember in the Ashes
by Sabaa Tahir
April 28, 2015
464 pages
Source: ARC courtesy of publisher

Set in a terrifyingly brutal Rome-like world, An Ember in the Ashes is an epic fantasy debut about an orphan fighting for her family and a soldier fighting for his freedom. It’s a story that’s literally burning to be told.

LAIA is a Scholar living under the iron-fisted rule of the Martial Empire. When her brother is arrested for treason, Laia goes undercover as a slave at the empire’s greatest military academy in exchange for assistance from rebel Scholars who claim that they will help to save her brother from execution.

ELIAS is the academy’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias is considering deserting the military, but before he can, he’s ordered to participate in a ruthless contest to choose the next Martial emperor.

When Laia and Elias’s paths cross at the academy, they find that their destinies are more intertwined than either could have imagined and that their choices will change the future of the empire itself. (Goodreads Summary.)

An Ember in the Ashes is, without a doubt, one of my, and I’m betting yours, most anticipated debuts of 2015. I’m pretty sure it had me at “terrifyingly brutal Rome-like world.” And I am here to tell you that this book TOTALLY lives up to that and all the other hype surrounding it. I’m not going to give a play by play of this book–why ruin it for you?– but let’s just say that I’m about 90% sure it’s going to be a hit. A BIG one. 

First off its genre blending at its finest. Part fantasy, part dystopian, and part historical fantasy,  there really is a little bit for everyone when it comes to this book. Plus I see it being marketed as a crossover for the adult readers too–it’s brutality and examination of numerous moral issues pretty much insures that. 

Ember is told in dual narration– we meet Laia, the scholar girl (the lower, oft enslaved class) and Elias, a soon to be elite soldier in the ruling Martial Empire. Both of these characters are well formed and complex. Both grow and evolve as the book moves along–outwardly and inwardly. But there are a host of other characters that play important roles–Helene, Elias’s fellow soldier and best friend being the first in line. I absolutely adored Helene–just as much as the two main characters. In fact every character I encountered spoke to me in one way or another: from Laia’s fellow slaves to Elias’ fellow soldiers. 

There is an evil villain in the form of the Commandant who is, awesomely enough, a small-framed woman (!) and there is also a supernatural element in the form of a group of mystical augers, or seers of prophecies. 

The book is vividly written, its a dark, dark story, and a great example of a not so virtuous Resistance pitted against an evil kingdomEmber also features themes of slavery and oppression; power and its inherent good AND evil side; as well as destiny and fate vs. free will. 

I know some readers are a little miffed and wary about the mention of a love triangle–and I’m not going to sugarcoat it–it’s left open to the possibility. But I actually think that it falls more in the realm of the complicated  “love square” as there are four definite parties which may end up romantically involved in one way or another–should this move forward as a series. 

And that’s another question. I’ve seen indications online that this is a standalone and on the other side of the coin, that the author has envisioned this as a series but it will hinge, I’m guessing, on sales of this first book. Honestly I can’t see how Penguin or any other publisher could not pick this up as a series–there is just too much left unsaid, too many unresolved aspects of this story to warrant it ending here (See this? See what I’m doing here? This is me subtly begging and pleading for a sequel/ continuation of this as a series…) 

Basically I loved this book. I was completely swept up it as I read, and I really think it’s  one of those books that everyone will be talking about come this April when it publishes. Go ahead and pre-order your copy now. 

20443207The Winner’s Crime (The Winner’s Trilogy, #2)
by Marie Rutkoski
March 3, 2015
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
416 pages
Source: Won in publisher giveaway

Book two of the dazzling Winner’s Trilogy is a fight to the death as Kestrel risks betrayal of country for love.

The engagement of Lady Kestrel to Valoria’s crown prince means one celebration after another. But to Kestrel it means living in a cage of her own making. As the wedding approaches, she aches to tell Arin the truth about her engagement…if she could only trust him. Yet can she even trust herself? For—unknown to Arin—Kestrel is becoming a skilled practitioner of deceit: an anonymous spy passing information to Herran, and close to uncovering a shocking secret.

As Arin enlists dangerous allies in the struggle to keep his country’s freedom, he can’t fight the suspicion that Kestrel knows more than she shows. In the end, it might not be a dagger in the dark that cuts him open, but the truth. And when that happens, Kestrel and Arin learn just how much their crimes will cost them. (Goodreads Summary.)

What an intense read! Especially the last few chapters which barreled toward a monster cliffie I had already been forewarned about! Still, this is another winner (pun definitely intended.) It’s a different book in many ways when compared to The Winner’s Curse but I have to say, the fact that it shifted dramatically in tone (this one feels darker, more menacing, and yes, more heartbreaking) and focused even more on the alliances, secrets and betrayals between Kestrel, Arin and the rest of the cast made it a seriously strong follow up and, dare I say, even a better book than it’s predecessor? 

Yes, I do dare say it and say it loudly– it’s got decidedly less kissing (though still brings the swoon) but boy do we get DEEP inside Arin and Kestrel– and sometimes it’s not a fun place to be. Both are complex characters, sharing admirable and not so admirable traits. It’s hard watching these two dance around each other and their feelings, it’s hard witnessing their bad decisions and poor judgement. It’s hard to bear witness to some of their actions and the guilt that follows. It’s hard to watch them let their pride, loyalties, and self righteousness blind them to what is so obvious to us. 

But even though watching all this play out is hard it never once made me lose my sympathy for these characters. It never once made me change my mind about them, even if it sometimes made me think less of them. Does that make sense? There were times I REALLY disliked what Kestrel was doing or saying but damn if I don’t feel I understand her reasons– and even admire her more in the end because of them. Pretty amazing that the author has been able to do this– it’s not easy taking your mc’s and showing them in a rather unpleasant light but still have the reader’s full support by book’s end. Brava, Marie Rutkoski.

I loved the conflict, I was shocked by the betrayals, I loved the new setting(s), I loved the new characters, I loved the direction it’s taking, I loved the clever plotting, awesome surprises, and the masterful writing.

Yes, it will be a long wait for Winner’s Kiss but I’m not sorry I got to experience The Winner’s Crime a little early. It’s definitely one of the best I’ve read in a long while. 

A Darker Shade final for IreneA Darker Shade of Magic (A Darker Shade of Magic, #1)
by V.E. Schwab
February 24, 2015
Tor Books
400 pages
Source: Finished copy courtesy of publisher for blog tour purposes

Kell is one of the last Travelers—rare magicians who choose a parallel universe to visit.

Grey London is dirty, boring, lacks magic, ruled by mad King George. Red London is where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire. White London is ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne. People fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. Once there was Black London – but no one speaks of that now.

Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler, personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, carrying the monthly correspondences between royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell smuggles for those willing to pay for even a glimpse of a world they’ll never see. This dangerous hobby sets him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a dangerous enemy, then forces him to another world for her ‘proper adventure’.

But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive — trickier than they hoped. (Goodreads Summary.)

Guys there is a LOT to love about this book. It’s an epic fantasy set in a magical world with not one but three alternate London’s: Grey, Red, and White. And then there is that mysterious fourth London, Black, that isn’t spoken about too much…The hero is Kell who is AMAZING. He’s that incredible mix of good yet is also slightly immoral. Thoughts on Kell: as an Antari (or Traveler) a person able to travel through all the alternate London’s by way of blood magic, he’s revered yet feared, loyal and duty-bound but also manipulated and used as both a tool and weapon. Most of all he is the quintessential Man of Mystery and I think I’m kinda in love with him. 

But wait! There’s MORE. Because alongside Kell there is Delilah Bard, and holy shit, I KNOW that I’m in love with her. If I could switch places with ANY character for a day it would totally be Lila. She’s a wannabe pirate, a pickpocket and a cutthroat but she’s also unbelievably clever, brave and not afraid to get her hands dirty in order to get what she wants. Is she a little on the immoral side? You bet she is.  She’d much rather steal what she wants than pay but I love her tenacious spirit, her will to survive, and her overriding belief in justice. Lila is fierce and a force to be reckoned with. Favorite character I’ve read this year, hands down. 

All the characters are stand outs: Holland and Barron, Rhy and the psychotic Astrid and Athos. There are just so many more wonderful things about this book–the story’s awesome, the world-building magnificent, the action is gritty and at times VERY dark. In short it is JUST the kind of story I love and I can’t recommend it enough. GO READ IT PEOPLE. 🙂 

**FYI: I’m giving away a copy of A Darker Shade of Magic! More info on that HERE :)** 

20911450Seeker (Seeker #1)
by Arwen Elys Dayton
February 10, 2015
Delacorte BYR
448 pages
Source: ARC courtesy of publisher

Quin Kincaid has been put through years of brutal training for what she thinks is the noble purpose of becoming a revered ‘Seeker’.

Only when it’s too late does she discover she will be using her new-found knowledge and training to become an assassin. Quin’s new role will take her around the globe, from a remote estate in Scotland to a bustling, futuristic Hong Kong where the past she thought she had escaped will finally catch up with her. (Gooodreads Summary.)

This is one of those books that has gotten some bad press at Goodreads– when I first was introduced to this title a few months back it’s summary had one of those dreaded, sure-to-crush-your expectations book comparison’s written in. I think it  was compared to Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games. Wow. That’s not a lot of pressure for a book to live up to, is it? (Game of Thrones?! Really? That’s like being compared to The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, for God’s sake!) Well, if you check out Seeker now on GR you’ll see that that the comparison is nowhere in sight. Smart move, publishers. But I’m not one of those readers that lets those comparisons make or break a book for me. I ended up really enjoying this book. Is it perfect? No. There are weaknesses like the pacing and the disjointed, oftentimes jerky structure. But do those things spell the kiss of death? Not even close. This book has oodles and oodles of good things and even more potential for great things as the series progresses. 

What I loved: The story. It’s a fantasy but not like every other YA fantasy out there. It’s pretty dark and horrific at times–and I DIG that in a book. It’s got some fabulous, complex characters and is told from multiple points of view. I enjoyed Quin, John and ESPECIALLY Shinobu–the three main characters. But there are surprises in this book: both in plot and in characters. In particular I’d say watch for the Young Dread because guys, she is a TOTAL SCENE STEALER. I would seriously continue this story just to get more info on her–she’s that mysterious and compelling a character. 

The setting is awesome–globe hopping from from Scotland to Hong Kong (which was my favorite) and England. And then there is the romance. A lot has been said about a love triangle–and I’ll admit, in the beginning it looked like it was definitely heading in that direction. But I am happy to tell you that it never materializes and by book’s end it’s just one boy and one girl. And there is no serious cliffie either–it ends in a good place with a lot of unresolved plot strings that will surely be expanded on in the sequel.

I feel like I’ve done nothing here but try to convince readers to give this book a chance–to try it and stick with it most of all–it really does end on a strong, strong note– but guys, I really did enjoy this one. The characters and story have stuck with me months after finishing, and that is always a great sign in my opinion. 

17661416Made You Up
by Francesca Zappia
May 19, 2015
Greenwillow Books
448 pages
Source: ARC courtesy of publisher

Reality, it turns out, is often not what you perceive it to be—sometimes, there really is someone out to get you. Made You Up tells the story of Alex, a high school senior unable to tell the difference between real life and delusion. This is a compelling and provoking literary debut that will appeal to fans of Wes Anderson, Silver Linings Playbook, and Liar.

Alex fights a daily battle to figure out the difference between reality and delusion. Armed with a take-no-prisoners attitude, her camera, a Magic 8-Ball, and her only ally (her little sister), Alex wages a war against her schizophrenia, determined to stay sane long enough to get into college. She’s pretty optimistic about her chances until classes begin, and she runs into Miles. Didn’t she imagine him? Before she knows it, Alex is making friends, going to parties, falling in love, and experiencing all the usual rites of passage for teenagers. But Alex is used to being crazy. She’s not prepared for normal.

Funny, provoking, and ultimately moving, this debut novel featuring the quintessential unreliable narrator will have readers turning the pages and trying to figure out what is real and what is made up. (Goodreads Summary.)

Made You Up absolutely hooked me from page one. Narrator Alex has a very engaging, quirky voice–and Zappia’s writing style felt realistic and true to heart. It’s definitely got that it factor–the thing that makes a book extremely readable (maybe that’s not a real term but you readers KNOW what I mean.) So this is a book about a girl struggling with mental illness–schizophrenia in this case. And you will spend the majority of the book right along with Alex wondering what is real and what is just in her mind. Mental illness themed books are touch and go with me–on the one hand I’m deeply curious but on the other I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the illness–obsessive compulsive disorder books in particular affect me this way. But I felt quite the opposite while reading Made You Up. I certainly sympathize with Alex but her illness didn’t overwhelm me at all. I never had to take a break from the reading–I read this book from start to finish in just a couple of days. The characters really stand out. Alex is amazing–she’ll garner your sympathy, but her attitude about life and her illness will make you want to high five her, and to top it all off she’ll make you laugh at the same time. 

But I think it’s Miles that really stole my heart. Miles is a most unusual character–and love interest. He and Alex have a tempestuous romance–the kind that starts off nearer to the hate than love end of the spectrum–and then it slowly turns around (don’t you love those types of romances?) By book’s end they are the perfect complement to each other in every way. 

Made You Up isn’t without it’s hiccups. There is a plot line involving another student and school administrator that wasn’t my favorite but its a minor distraction. There are some surprises in this book, and one big twist. But what I loved the most was the ending. I won’t spoil but I will say that it was, in my opinion, the most perfect ending for this book. Love good contemps with unusual characters? Love books that feature a mental illness storyline? Love books that make you laugh out loud? Made You Up is all of those things. 

22489107Fairest (The Lunar Chronicles #3.5)
by Marissa Meyer
January 27, 2015
222 pages
Source: Purchased

In this stunning bridge book between Cress and Winter in the bestselling Lunar Chronicles, Queen Levana’s story is finally told.

Mirror, mirror on the wall,
Who is the fairest of them all?

Fans of the Lunar Chronicles know Queen Levana as a ruler who uses her “glamour” to gain power. But long before she crossed paths with Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress, Levana lived a very different story – a story that has never been told . . . until now.

Marissa Meyer spins yet another unforgettable tale about love and war, deceit and death. This extraordinary book includes full-color art and an excerpt from Winter, the next book in the Lunar Chronicles series. (Goodreads Summary.)

If I had to describe Fairest in a single word  it would be DISTURBING. As in, that Levana is one disturbing chick. You thought she was a whack job in Cinder, Scarlet or Cress? Well in Fairest you get to see WHY she became a whack job. And you get to meet her extended family of whack jobs. And friends, it is one DISTURBING picture, trust me.

In Fairest we meet Channary, Levana’s older sister and heir to the Lunar throne. We also get a peek at the politics of the Lunar court, we meet Everet the man that Levana is obsessed in love with, and we are introduced to Winter, who is of course, the star of the final book in the Lunar Chronicles.

Fairest is more like a mini-novel than novella–its 200 pages and is exactly the right length in my opinion. It’s got meat to it–it’s not some flighty little glimpse at some of the side characters leading up to the final book in the series. People have asked me if it’s necessary to read Fairest before Winter and I have to say…yeah, I think it is.  And not just for readers like me who have been dying to learn more about the Lunar people, their gifts,  and its deranged queen. And it’s not just because you get a sneak peek at the first 3 or 4 chapters of Winter. You should read Fairest because it will forever change your view of  the Lunar Chronicles uber villain. 

We all know that Levana is one hell of a bad guy.  But it’s not until you discover what her upbringing was like, what it was like to grow up as the sister of Channary *shivers* that you can completely understand why Levana is as she is. And just when you think you might actually be developing– GASP!– sympathy for this woman, BAM! Meyers swings the story, and your emotions, in the opposite direction. And what you are left with at book’s end is this truly horrific and, yes, I’m using that word again, DISTURBING insight into what might be one of the scariest, evil villains to hit YA since he who shall not be named… (Oh no! I just made one of those dreaded  book COMPARISONS! My bad…:) 

So. Should you read it before picking up Winter this fall? A resounding YES my friends. Yes.