Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Gathering - Kelley Armstrong

This is the first book in a second YA trilogy. There are links between the two and some information pertaining to the first trilogy (Darkest Powers) will appear in this review.

Author: Kelley Armstrong is a well known Canadian author. She started out writing for adults (Women of the Other World) before releasing her first YA book in 2008. She is a Candian author and uses some Canadian slang in this book.

Presentation: Quite a large paperback with good quality paper. There are 359 pages broken down into 37 chapters.The type is quite large and well spaced.

Story: Maya lives with her adoptive parents in a small (200 people small) town on Vancouver Island in Canada. When her best friend, captain of the swim team, mysteriously drowns, Maya vows to find out the cause of her death. But strange things are starting to happen around town. An outsider, pretending to be a reporter, is asking questions; there are more cougar sightings than should be normal; and Rafe, the new bad boy, has taken a sudden interest in Maya. Add to that that a crazy old woman insists that she in a witch, and Maya's got enough to deal with.

Thoughts and impressions: As with in Armstrong's first YA trilogy, this book is just laying the ground work. It reads more like an extended prologue than anything else. There's no real conflict, there is no antagonist, there's really not very much happening at all. Maya figures out that she's not "normal", sure, and we get hints that some of the other kids have powers too, but we have no idea what they really are. It's not even really clear what Maya's are. They're certainly more attuned to nature than Chloe's necromancy in DP. However, I felt that The Summoning was a better stepping stone than The Gathering simply because of the fact that in The Summoning things actually happen: there is an antagonist and the kids try to escape. In The Gathering they just wander around town or the woods a lot and do a lot of snooping about. It was a different sort of introduction to the trilogy but I feel that I need to have at least the second book to read back to back with it due to the lack of action.
I really liked the setting, middle of nowhere, forest all around, a town where everyone knows everyone and everyone knows what everyone else has done within a day of their doing it. The isolation of the town fairly oozed from the pages so I felt that that was very well written.
As for the characters, they're all intriguing, though I am as of yet unsure about how I feel about some of them. 
- Maya is headstrong and her narrative voice draws you in. She is assertive in her thoughts and decisions, which leaves the reader no room to question them. She's also funny and I loved how she would joke about with her father.
- I liked the parents being there and being such supportive figures. In YA these days the parents are usually either absent or don't fulfill their parental role. It was refreshing to see parents who acted like concerned parents for once. I also liked their interactions with Maya.
- Rafe, the romantic interest in this book. I'm not sure how I feel about him. He never really grabbed my attention. It's not because he's bland or boring - he isn't. But he just isn't a character that I can feel strongly about either way. I know he was honest with Maya and he did a lot to introduce her to who he is. I know he mucked up along the way. I know he's a very human character. But he just wasn't relateable for me.
- Daniel, Maya's best friend, was one of my favourite characters. He's living with his father and their family relations have more or less broken down. He's very in control of himself and he fights to be the stronger one. He's taken on a parental role before his time. He's always very protective of Maya and maybe a little controlling at times, but he was obviously worried about her safety. I could sense some subtle hints that he was interested in her that she didn't pick up on and I hope these get explored in the other two books. I found him to be a much more interesting character than Rafe.
- The other kids. A handful of other children, some of whom seem to be exhibiting the first hints of paranormal powers. I'm looking forward to seeing where Armstrong will take them all the next book.

Style: I have nothing in particular to say about the style. It is well written, the characters are engaging. Maya's is a strong voice, different from and yet similar to Chloe's.

Final verdict: I'm a bit torn with this one. On its own it'd only be 3 stars and I feel a bit frustrated that there wasn't a better story arc in this novel and I have to wait till next year to even get a real arc. However, I'm going to give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that once paired with the other two books in the trilogy it'll be considered a great read. 4 stars.

Extra notes: There is some kissing in this book, no sex. There may have been some mild language, it didn't stand out to me. The protagonist is a 15 - 16 year old girl so I would recommend this book as of about 14.

Monday, 30 May 2011

The Doomspell by Cliff McNish

This is the first book in a trilogy written for children between the ages of 9 and 12.

Author: Cliff McNish is now a fairly well established children's author. The Doomspell was his first book. He is British and writes in British English.

Presentation: Quite a large paperback. The writing is relatively small for a children's book with quite a lot of it on each page. There are 21 chapters of roughly the same length.

Story: Rachel and her brother Eric get pulled through a gate between dimensions. They arrive on a planet where the Witch Dragwena has been exiled. For many years she has been looking for a child with enough magical potential to help her to return to Earth. Rachel immediately proves to be a wielder of powerful magic but her brother does not seem to have any magic at all, which is odd on Dragwena's planet where all of Earth's children usually have at least some magic. Dragwena forgets about Eric and hopes to make Rachel a Witch like herself. Dragwena's servants, children she brought to her perpertually grey planet many years before, hope that Rachel will be their salvation, that Rachel will be the child to bring Dragwena's rule to an end.

Thoughts and impressions: For a children's book this is a very interesting read with a lot of ideas set in place for the other two books in the trilogy. As a child (reading it around the age of 12) I adored the book, as an adult I was not drawn into the world quite so much but it was still an engrossing read. McNish describes his world, I think the name was Ithrea, very well and I found it very easy to envision the grey skies, endless snowfall and dreary atmosphere - conditions that some of the characters have been living in for hundreds and hundreds of years.
It has to be said that the Witch is a very powerful antagonist and the descriptions of her may be upsetting for some. Personally, I found it quite hard to imagine some of her physical features: for example, she is described as having slitted eyes that reach to the back of her head. I, however, found her an interesting antagonist. She has no redeeming qualities, but that is often the case with evil characters in books aimed at a younger audience. 
I am not entirely sure how old the two children are supposed to be. I get the impression that Eric is about 8 and Rachel closer to 10 or 11 but I may be a bit off on this. Both of them are well-drawn characters. Eric takes a bit of a backseat but I think that his intriguing powers will play a more vital role in the other two books in the series.

Final Verdict: Certainly a recommended read for younger readers who are not daunted by evil characters and like a good fantasy. 4 stars.

Extra notes: No content that would not be appropriate for children. As mentioned, the antagonist may be a little too evil for some. For younger children it may be better if the parent reads the book outloud.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Vicious Grace by M.L.N. Hanover

This is the third book in urban fantasy series The Black Sun's Daughter. There may be some spoilers concerning events in previous books.

Author: M.L.N. Hanover is a pseudonym used by author Daniel Abraham, who writes in the SF / fantasy genre. He is an American author and writes in American English.

Presentation: Mass market paperback. The cover, red this time, sports our ever leather-clad heroine holding a rifle. If you look closely you can even see the scars of some of the wounds she suffered in previous books. Although not really necessary, I thought it was a very good idea to include them and delighted in finding them. The story itself is broken down into 25 chapters of roughly the same length. The text is 1.5 spaced, making it clear and giving it a neat look.

Story: Jayné, having realised that both she and her crew need to be better prepared for what riders (riders are beings from an alternate dimension that possess humans) may throw at them, has dragged everyone off to a mountain retreat where they will be trained in various styles of combat. While there they receive a call from Kim requesting their help with a case in Chicago where something is affecting an experiment on sleep patterns. (Kim is Aubrey's ex-wife. Aubrey is Jayné's boyfriend. Kim divorced him after cheating on him multiple times with Jayné's uncle Eric, who died at the start of book one, kicking-starting the events of the series.) So everyone packs up and sets off for Chicago where a monster, entomed under Grace Memorial Hospital, is starting to wake up. The team find evidence that Uncle Eric may have been negociating with this particular rider, leaving them all with many questions about Eric's plans, motives and sanity. But, more importantly, they need to figure out what they're facing - and how to get it to shut up.

Thoughts and impressions: I really like Jayné's as a character. She's tough but she's weak, she's happy in her realtionship but she's insecure about her boyfriend's feelings towards his ex-wife. She's a character that you can relate to. With each book we learn slightly more about her background, her over-zealous father, her meek mother, her older brother who's got his girlfriend pregnant outside of marriage, and her younger brother whom she wishes she could have more contact with.
There's a dip towards the middle of the story where my interest waned. I even stopped reading for a little while and read a couple of other books instead. I'm not sure whether this is my fault or the author's. I know that urban fantasy is not the genre for me, The Black Sun's Daughter is one of only two urban fantasy series that I follow. This could mean that it's just an issue of personal taste and I'm quite happy to stick by that verdict because I know that the book is well-written and engaging.
I was hoping to get a few more answers about Erid in this book as it left the story for this particular book in the series with an unfinished feeling. I'll wait for them until book 4, though.
I've always preferred the mysterious Ex to the safe Aubrey but I'm not entirely sure I'm happy with the way he was written out of the series. I wonder whether he'll be replaced? Maybe by her younger brother? I'd like to get to know him better.

Style: This is written in the first person in Jayné's voice. It is important to keep in mind that she is as such an unreliable narrator. A style that will appeal to some but may not to others.

Final Verdict: Vicious Grace gets a solid 4 stars. I'm looking forward to reading the fourth book in the series.

Extra notes: This book contains sex, foul language and violence. I would not recommend to younger teens due to content.

Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley

I've been on a bit of a Beauty and the Beast retellings spree lately, this being one of the retellings I decided to purchase.

About the author: Robin McKinley is a name I've heard thrown around quite a lot in recent in years, though this is the first time that I've read anything by her. She is an American author, currently living in Britain, and writes in British English in this book.

Presentation: This is a run of the mill mass market paperback.The cover is simple, yet attractive. It is a pretty shade of purple with the cottage where Beauty lives connected to the palace where the Beast lives by rose vines and pettles. The story itself is broken down into 14 chapters, each rougly the same length. The type is with no spacing between the lines, so it looks a bit like a wall of text at times.

Story: Lionheart, Jeweltongue and Beauty are the daughters of the wealthiest merchant in the city. When their mother dies in a riding accident, their father slowly loses everything he worked for until, ruined, the whole family is forced to leave the city. Beauty discovers that the three girls were willed a cottage on the outskirts of a small town a significant distance from the city. They set out to build a new life for themselves there.
All of the girls make themselves useful: Lionheart, posing as a boy, gets a job as a stablehand; Jeweltongue is talented with a needle and thread and tailors dresses for the women of the town; and Beauty tends the garden, growing vegetable and tempting the roses that cover the house and garden to flower again. The flowering roses are some feat as they will only flower for magic practitioners, and Beauty is no greenwitch.
Several years after they leave the city, one of their father's previously presumed lost cargo ships reappears and their father is forced to return to the city to deal with it. Upon the return trip, he becomes caught up in a snowstorm. Close to exhaustion, he stumbles across an enchanted palace - free from snow - that caters to his every whim. Upon taking his leave he pockets the rose that he found with his breakfast, meaning to give it to Beauty. A Beast stops him from leaving the palace, assucing him of stealing his rose. Their father is permitted to leave on the condition that Beauty take his place.

Thoughts and impressions: The first quarter of this story was pretty tough-going. The style is very detached, jumping around from scene to scene seemingly at random. The first chapter in particular is so disointed that it took me two days to read and I was fleetingly tempted to give up on the book. It improved vastly after that point but it was still a tough slog at times to get that far. I frequently got the impression throughout the book that even the author herself didn't really know where she was going with the story.
It was blatantly obvious that she was writing about something that she feels very passionate about: gardening. Unfortunately, the story needed more to it than just gardening. It did, of course, have other aspects as well, but many of them were not adequately explored and explained. The magic system of the land received no explanation at all ; the story of how the Beast became a beast is confusing (it's explained three times in three different stories that all have some parts of the truth, but they don't come together very well) ; the machinations of the magic around the castle are not explained.
Why does Master Jack have so much influence over the townspeople? Who is Fourpaws really? Why does Beauty see visions of her sisters some nights but not others? Who was the girls' mother really? And most importantly, what is the significance of the Beast asking Beauty to marry him every evening? I'd thought that this last one might have been part of the curse, but that doesn't seem to have been the case. The story felt unfinished, like the author had said all she had to say about gardening, so she ended it all.
Despite all this, the story was enjoyable and I spent a happy evening with it. It is entirely possible that the answers to some of these questions can be found in the text and would become obvious upon a second reading.

Style: The author has a tendency to write in long, sprawling sentences, using a multitude of commas. This meant that sometimes I had to go back and reread certain parts in order to understand what was being said.

Final Verdict: Rose Daughter falls short of 4 stars for the reasons mentioned. 3 stars.

Extra notes: This book contains no content that I would deem inappropriate for young adults. There are no sexual themes and no strong language is used.