High Fantasy

Review: Of Fire and Stars

Cover of "Of Fire and Stars," featuring silhouettes of two princesses on a blue background with gold calligraphy text
Image from Audrey Coulthurst

Title: Of Fire and Stars

Author: Audrey Coulthurst

Genre: High Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Death, burning alive, torture mention

Back Cover:

Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile nations. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire–a dangerous gift for the future queen of a kingdom where magic is forbidden.

Now Denna must learn the ways of her new home while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses–and her teacher is the person who intimidates her the most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine–called Mare–the sister of her betrothed.

When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two become closer, Mare is surprised by Denna’s intelligence and bravery, while Denna is drawn to Mare’s independent streak. And soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.

But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms–and each other.

Review:

I never used to be into books about court drama, but Of Fire and Stars completely changed my opinion.

Honestly, I wasn’t super excited about this book–yeah, it was queer and it looked good, but it wasn’t at the top of my list. I ended up picking it up because I needed another book and this one was easy to locate at the library. And it totally blew me away.

First, there was Denna. She was brilliant. She’d done a lot of studying in her preparation to become queen of Mynaria, but she was still “I’ve looked at this map twice and now I have it memorized” brilliant. I can’t find the words for what else I want to say about her–besides brilliant, there weren’t a lot of characteristics that stood out–but she was an absolutely fantastic character and the kind of person I’d hope to be if I were a princess.

Mare was, as it says on the back cover, an unconventional princess. She would rather wear riding breeches than ball gowns and valued independence above all else … and she also did quite a bit of sneaking out of the castle to gather information from spies, which was awesome. In retrospect, she was the kind of stereotypical tomboyish don’t-want-to-be-a-princess princess, but she didn’t feel like that while reading.

The cool part is the story is told in alternating perspectives, so you get both sides and the inner thoughts and feelings of both girls. And the romance between them is built slowly but the chemistry is undeniable.

It’s been a long, long time since I read a court drama book–which is a lot of what this is. Yeah, there’s some sneaking out of the castle and some “who’s behind this assassination?” but there’s also a lot of social niceties (and trying to do non-princess-y stuff without betraying all of the social niceties) and arguing with the council and “you have to do your duty because you’re a princess” stuff. And it was honestly fantastic.

Also, you know the trope of “main character is so much more powerful than other magic users”? This book uses that trope. But differently. It kinda turns the trope on its head and I love it.

I don’t have enough good things to say about this book. The characters were great, the plot was awesome, and even the setting, though a pretty standard high fantasy setting, was cool. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And though the ending wrapped things up nicely and a sequel isn’t necessary, I would enjoy one.

Post-Apocalyptic, Science Fiction

Review: The Edge of the Abyss

Cover of "The Edge of the Abyss," featuring a girl dressed in black standing on the seashore with massive read octopus tentacles rising from the surf
Image from Emily Skrutskie

Title: The Edge of the Abyss

Author: Emily Skrutskie

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic/Science Fiction

Trigger Warnings: Blood/gore, violence between sea monsters

WARNING: This book is a sequel and this review contains spoilers of The Abyss Surrounds Us!

Back Cover:

Three weeks have passed since Cassandra Leung pledged her allegiance to ruthless pirate-queen Santa Elena and set free Bao, the sea monster Reckoner she’d been forced to train. The days as a pirate trainee are long and grueling, but it’s not the physical pain that Case dreads most. It’s being forced to work with Swift, the pirate girl who broke her heart.

But Cas has even bigger problems when she discovers Bao is not the only monster swimming free. Other Reckoners illegally sold to pirates have escaped their captors and are taking the NeoPacific by storm, attacking ships at random and threatening the ocean’s ecosystem. As a Reckoner trainer, Cas might be the only one who can stop them. But how can she take up arms against creatures she used to care for and protect?

Will Cas embrace the murky morals that life as a pirate brings or perish in the dark waters of the NeoPacific?

Review:

This is one of the best emotional roller coasters I’ve been on in YEARS.

So I loved loved loved The Abyss Surrounds Us, and as soon as I finished reading it I immediately reserved this book at the library.

It never made it out of the library. I had a break between work and yoga, sat down in a chair, and devoured the entire book in a single 1.5 hour sitting. I couldn’t put it down and really didn’t want to.

You get more of the great characters in this book, including some backstories and more about Swift’s history. Also some of Cas’s family towards the end. But most of what you get is Cas and Swift and their relationship, which is a beautiful, complicated mess and a total emotional roller coaster. Ups, downs, love, hurt … so many emotions. It was so raw and real and vivid and I loved the way it wrenched my heart around.

We also get a lot more about pirates in this book. How they work, who they are … even meeting a lot more of them. And it’s interesting, because they’re all scheming and piratey, but none of them seem quite as ruthless as Santa Elena. (And as a bonus, you get to learn a lot about pirate politics, which there is apparently a lot of.)

There is a plot, and a really good one – other set-free Reckoners like Bao are destroying the ocean’s ecosystem – but it takes a bit of a backseat to Cas’s emotional turmoil and her messy relationship with Swift and the reoccurring ethical conundrum of working for and with pirates. But the emotional plot and the plot plot blend nicely, and even though emotions are the focus, it doesn’t overwhelm the sea monster plot.

The only thing I wasn’t 100% a fan of was the final battle. Yeah, it was epic and there were sea monsters and stuff, but in my opinion it wasn’t quite as epic as the ending of book one. Don’t take me the wrong way, it was still pretty darn epic. The Abyss Surrounds Us just set a really high bar that The Edge of the Abyss didn’t quite meet. The ending after the final battle, though, makes up for it.

Overall, this was a great book and an amazing series. This review really isn’t doing this book justice. I loved it. It pulled my heart out and played with it and it’s one of the best books overall I’ve read in a while. I’m just sad this is the end of the series. Logically, I know it’s a good ending, but still. I wish there was more!

The Abyss Surrounds Us Series:

Did Not Finish, Post-Apocalyptic

Review: Stung

Cover of "Stung," featuring red text on a black background and a translucent image of a honeybee superimposed with an image of a syringe
Image from Bethany Wiggins

Title: Stung

Author: Bethany Wiggins

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood/gore, alluded threat of rape

Back Cover:

Fiona doesn’t remember going to sleep. But when she opens her eyes, she discovers her entire world has been altered-her house is abandoned and broken, and the entire neighborhood is barren and dead. Even stranger is the tattoo on her right wrist-a black oval with five marks on either side-that she doesn’t remember getting but somehow knows she must cover at any cost. And she’s right. When the honeybee population collapsed, a worldwide pandemic occurred and the government tried to bio-engineer a cure. Only the solution was deadlier than the original problem-the vaccination turned people into ferocious, deadly beasts who were branded as a warning to un-vaccinated survivors. Key people needed to rebuild society are protected from disease and beasts inside a fortress-like wall. But Fiona has awakened branded, alone–and on the wrong side of the wall . . .

Read to: Page 72

Review:

I have mixed feelings about this book.

Okay, let’s back up. I wasn’t all that excited about reading this. I picked it up because I’d heard of it many, many years ago and it was on clearance for $1 at my local bookstore. Those are the only reasons. I finally started reading it because I ran out of library books a few days before my next library trip.

I really like the concept. You get quite a bit from the back cover, and even though I didn’t get too far into the book, the world was great. It was dark and gritty and violent and fascinating, the kind of place where even when you know it’s day you picture the sky full of black clouds. And I really like that kind of setting. It was shaping up to be a pretty solid post-apocalyptic world.

The part that I couldn’t get past was Fiona. And not really Fiona herself. It was that it’s made really clear that she’s in her late teens and has an obviously well-developed body, but she’s lost a big chunk of her memory and still thinks she’s 13. The first ally character she meets has her disguise her gender because “it’s unsafe to be a girl” – and the reader knows exactly why, especially when you see the rough and rowdy bands of men roaming around, but Fiona is still 13 in her head and has no idea. And even though her body is older, it felt really gross and creepy to me to hang rape threats over the head of a 13-year-old kid.

Also it felt kinda weird for me, a 20-year-old, to be inside the head of a 13-year-old. It never really bothered me when I read middle grade books, but for some reason this one felt like an invasion of privacy.

Honestly, that was my only problem with the book. Without that part, I don’t think I would have found it spectacular, but I think I would have enjoyed it. That one little detail just gave me an uneasy feeling, and I couldn’t keep reading.

The Stung series:

  1. Stung
  2. Cured
Post-Apocalyptic, Science Fiction

Review: The Abyss Surrounds Us

Cover of "The Abyss Surrounds Us," featuring an Asian girl standing on the deck of a ship with the giant eye of a sea monster behind her
Image from Emily Skrutskie

Title: The Abyss Surrounds Us

Author: Emily Skrutskie

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic/Science Fiction

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood/gore

Back Cover:

For Cassandra Leung, bossing around sea monsters is just the family business. Shes been a Reckoner trainer-in-training ever since she could walk, raising the giant, genetically engineered beasts to defend ships as they cross the pirate-infested NeoPacific. But when the pirate queen Santa Elena swoops in on Cas first solo mission and snatches her from the bloodstained decks, Cas dream of being a full-time trainer seems dead in the water. Waiting for her on the pirate ship is an unhatched Reckoner pup. Santa Elena wants to take back the seas with a monster of her own, and she needs a proper trainer to do it. She orders Cas to raise the pup and teach him to fight for the pirates. If Cas fails, her blood will be the next to paint the sea.

Review:

I first heard of this as a lesbian book recommendation on Tumblr and immediately reserved it at the library because heck yes scifi lesbians! I’m always complaining about there not being enough gays in speculative fiction. But anyway.

For some reason I thought this was set in space. Not sure how I got that idea. It was a little disorientating at first, because I’m expecting space and getting ocean, but once I got a couple chapters in I was hooked.

The Abyss Surrounds Us has everything I look for in a book.

The Characters: Fascinating! Cas is the protagonist, an East Asian girl from San Francisco who is just getting ready to take her place in the family business – which happens to be raising and training sea monsters. It’s pretty darn epic. Then there’s Swift, the pirate girl assigned to watch Cas while she’s training the pirate’s monster, who’s part badass and a tiny bit sweet and mostly just making the best of some crappy circumstances. Both girls have great character arcs, the romantic tension is obvious but built slowly, and you get cool minor characters in the pirates … it’s just awesome.

The Setting: So this is after a lot of global warming and stuff and the oceans have risen to ridiculous levels, countries have splintered into smaller countries, (hence why I put “post-apocalyptic” as a genre on this) and pirates run so rampant the only way legitimate ships could protect themselves is by genetically engineering sea monsters. It’s a great concept. The pirate ship that most of the story happens on is a combination of old-fashioned pirate-y stuff and modern technology, and there’s even a brief excursion to a floating pirate city which is also really cool. It’s just fantastic.

The Plot: The plot is really quickly paced, which I loved. It follows Cas, and starts with “what’s wrong with my Reckoner,” then moves into “survive the pirates/train the pirates’ monster enough that he looks trained/don’t actually train the monster because I don’t want to help the pirates because they’re evil.” But then she begins to wonder if they’re really so evil. And she starts getting to know (and kinda like) Swift. And what starts off so simply – survive the pirates, don’t help them, get home – suddenly gets super complicated with ethics and emotions and things.

The End: Holy crap, the end. An epic battle that made me feel Epic Battle Feelings that I haven’t gotten from a book in a long time. A twist I probably should have seen coming but didn’t. Romance that I did see coming but was still really happy about. And it wrapped up nicely while still leaving room for a sequel. There were no cliffhangers, just the confident knowledge that you’ll want to spend another book in this world with these characters. And I do.

One thing I will say about it, though, is it is pretty violent. (Hence the trigger warnings.) Some people do die, one death is described in somewhat graphic detail (even though Cas is disgusted by it), and there’s quite a bit of carnage in the final battle. So just be aware of that if that kind of thing bothers you.

If I have any complaints, it’s that the book was too short. (It’s less than 300 pages, which is short to me, and it feels shorter than it is.) But it’s paced perfectly, so I really shouldn’t complain. It was a fantastic book, and I’m super excited there’s a book two. Now, pardon me while I go reserve that one at the library …

(As a side note: If you’re a fan, you really should check out Emily Skrutskie on Tumblr.)

The Abyss Surrounds Us series:

  1. The Abyss Surrounds Us
  2. The Edge of the Abyss
Did Not Finish, Post-Apocalyptic

Review: Firefight

Cover of "Firefight," featuring glowing gold text on a background of dark red torn apart to reveal a golden sky
Image from Brandon Sanderson

Title: Firefight

Series: The Reckoners #2

Author: Brandon Sanderson

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood/gore

Note: This review contains spoilers of the first Reckoners book, SteelheartDon’t read this review if you want to avoid mild spoilers.

Back cover: 

They told David it was impossible – that even the Reckoners had never killed a High Epic. Yet Steelheart – invincible, immortal, unconquerable – is dead. And he died by David’s hand.

Eliminating Steelheart was supposed to make life simpler. Instead, it only made David realize he has questions. Big ones. And no one in Newcago can give him answers.

Babylon Restored, the city formerly known as the borough of Manhattan, has possibilities, though. Ruled by the mysterious High Epic Regalia, Babylon Restored is flooded and miserable, but David is sure it’s the path that will lead him to what he needs to find. Entering a city oppressed by a High Epic despot is risky, but David’s willing to take the gamble. Because killing Steelheart left a hole in David’s heart. A hole where his thirst for vengeance once lived. Somehow, he filled that hole with another Epic – Firefight. And he’s willing to go on a quest darker and even more dangerous than the fight against Steelheart to find her, and to get his answers.

Review:

I read the first book in this series, Steelheart, as an ARC in 2013 and loved it. So it’s been several years since I read it. I honestly remember it pretty well, though, so I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to get back into book two – especially with how fantastic of a writer Brandon Sanderson is. I was actually really excited to pick this up.

Unfortunately, it kinda lost me. (And currently holds the record for only Brandon Sanderson book to ever do that.)

I actually did have a pretty easy time getting back into the world. And what a fantastic world. That’s one of the things I love about Brandon Sanderson – his worlds are A M A Z I N G. This series’ world is a dark post-apocalyptic thing where the world is ruled by cruel super-powered people, and focuses on an underground group of guerrilla warriors who are fighting them. And it is great. This book goes to a different city, so you get to explore a new city ruled by a new Epic and following new rules, and I loved the world just as much in this book as I did in the first.

There were a few details from Steelheart that I missed, but Firefight did a good job getting me back up to speed. So if you pick this up a long time (*cough*several years*cough*) after you read the first book, don’t worry, you won’t miss much.

The main reason I just couldn’t get into Firefight was David. Like the back cover said, his motivation has changed from vengeance to finding Firefight and getting answers. Except it’s mostly finding Firefight. So much of his motivation had become “oh my gosh I love her” that I couldn’t deal with it. It wasn’t so much the romance angle that rubbed me the wrong way as David’s inability to even consider anything bad about her. I just got so frustrated with the whole “blinded by love” aspect.

That’s really the main things I have to say about Firefight. The plot was pretty much the same as the previous book – kill an Epic to save the city – just in a different city and with some new characters. The world was fantastic, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the characters this time around. (Although admittedly, this may have been a little different if I’d have read this directly after Steelheart.) It wasn’t a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, it just wasn’t for me.

The Reckoners Series:

  1. Steelheart
  2. Firefight
  3. Calamity
Did Not Finish, Fantasy

Did Not Finish: The Young Elites

Cover of "The Young Elites," featuring the title on a background of storm clouds. The "T" in the word "Elites" is replaced with a sword.
Image from Marie Lu

Title: The Young Elites

Author: Marie Lu

Genre: Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Parental abuse (physical and emotional)

Back cover: 

Adelina Amouteru is a survivor of the blood fever. A decade ago, the deadly illness swept through her nation. Most of the infected perished, while many of the children who survived were left with strange markings. Adelina’s black hair turned silver, her lashes went pale, and now she has only a jagged scar where her left eye once was. Her cruel father believes she is a malfetto, an abomination, ruining their family’s good name and standing in the way of their fortune. But some of the fever’s survivors are rumored to possess more than just scars—they are believed to have mysterious and powerful gifts, and though their identities remain secret, they have come to be called the Young Elites.

Teren Santoro works for the king. As Leader of the Inquisition Axis, it is his job to seek out the Young Elites, to destroy them before they destroy the nation. He believes the Young Elites to be dangerous and vengeful, but it’s Teren who may possess the darkest secret of all.

Enzo Valenciano is a member of the Dagger Society. This secret sect of Young Elites seeks out others like them before the Inquisition Axis can. But when the Daggers find Adelina, they discover someone with powers like they’ve never seen.

Adelina wants to believe Enzo is on her side, and that Teren is the true enemy. But the lives of these three will collide in unexpected ways, as each fights a very different and personal battle. But of one thing they are all certain: Adelina has abilities that shouldn’t belong in this world. A vengeful blackness in her heart. And a desire to destroy all who dare to cross her.

Read to: CD 6 of 8 (I “read” this as an audiobook)

Review:

I really enjoyed Marie Lu’s Legend, and The Young Elites has been on my reading list for a while. I finally picked it up because I was looking for audiobooks to listen to on my commute to work and it was part of my library’s small selection. And also because special abilities + vengeance = a dark fantasy that should be right up my alley.

As you might have guessed, I wasn’t the hugest fan. But there were really a lot of good things about this book, and what made me give up on it was actually relatively minor. So let’s start with what was good about it.

  • The world was fantastic. It felt like a fantasy southern Europe (like Spain or Italy) with Renaissance elements, and it was just plain beautiful.
  • The minor characters were pretty cool. Each was unique and had their own personalities and quirks, and there were those great characters you love to hate. (And there was even a bisexual male sex worker who was a major member of the Dagger Society and no one looked down on him for his sex work, which I thought was the coolest thing.)
  • The plot is barely touched on in the back cover, but it was not at all what I expected and it was great. (I’m not giving away any spoilers.)

All the main elements were solid and I enjoyed them. But like I said, it was minor details that I took issue with. Such as the fact that Teren is mentioned in the back cover like he’s going to be a major character and he’s really glossed over. I think he got three (very short) chapters in the entirety of what I read, and there were some interesting things going on with him, but the book doesn’t spend enough time with him to flesh it out and make it anything more than a confusing distraction from Adelina.

The romance was another minor detail that bothered me. It started off slow enough that I could look past it, but it was starting to pick up when I stopped. It was just so aggressively … trope-y? I’m not really sure how to describe it, but there was a bit of a love triangle even though it was obvious which guy was the “real” love interest and it had the whole we-both-like-each-other-but-we’re-not-going-to-say-anything-and-pretend-nothing-is-happening-even-though-it’s-obvious thing going on

The beginning is also very flashback-heavy with Adelina remembering life with her abusive father, and that was … it was hard. It was hard to read and hard to think about, and if you’ve experienced any sort of abuse it’s probably not going to be good for you.

There was one main issue that finally made me stop, though. Adelina is put in a position where she has to choose between the Dagger Society and her sister (it’s more complicated, but I’m trying to avoid spoilers). And there’s a huge running theme of her moral dilemma – should she tell the Daggers and ask for their help or just betray them? Several times she gets close to telling Enzo and chickens out. But then she’s presented with a perfect opportunity where they wouldn’t even suspect she’s been dealing with this for a while and she STILL DOESN’T TAKE IT. And that’s where I stopped. Being put in a bad position is one thing, actively making your situation worse because you don’t take the opportunities that smack you over the head is a completely different (and endlessly frustrating) thing.

I looked at the Goodreads reviews for this book, and there’s a lot of them that have nothing but good things to say about The Young Elites. And I can see why. There’s a lot of good things in here. It’s dark and poetic and has a solid world and a great plot. It just wasn’t the book for me.

The Young Elites series:

  1. The Young Elites
  2. The Rose Society
  3. The Midnight Star
Did Not Finish, Steampunk

Review: The Friday Society

Cover of "The Friday Society," featuring three girls dressed in steampunk clothes and holding steampunk weapons
Image from Adrienne Kress

Title: The Friday Society

Author: Adrienne Kress

Genre: Steampunk

Trigger Warnings: Death, mild sexual harassment

Back Cover:

Set in London at the turn of the last century, the novel follows the stories of three intelligent and very talented young women, all of whom are assistants to very powerful men: Cora, lab assistant; Michiko, combat instruction assistant; and Nellie, a magician’s assistant. The three young women’s lives become inexorably intertwined after a chance meeting at a ball that ends with the discovery of a murdered mystery man.

It’s up to these three, in their own charming but bold way, to solve the murder – and the crimes they believe may be connected to it – without calling too much attention to themselves.

Told with Adrienne Kress’s sharp wit and a great deal of irreverence, this Steampunk whodunit introduces three unforgettable and very ladylike – well, relatively ladylike – heroines poised for more dangerous adventures.

Read to: Page 115

Review:

I grabbed this from the library mainly because steampunk, but also because of the badass girl trio. I wasn’t too enthused with the romance angle, but I hoped it would be overlook-able.

I honestly put it down because it was just plain boring.

The story alternates perspectives between the three girls, and the only girl I was really interested in was Michiko. She had a really cool backstory, and I think I would have enjoyed a book just about her. Cora and Nellie were practically interchangeable, their main difference being the skills they obtained by working for different men. And when the three girls got together, Michiko didn’t speak much English, so it was basically Cora and Nellie with a background Michiko.

(The irony to me here is that the back cover described the characters as “unforgettable,” and even after spending 115 pages with these girls, I still had to look up their names to write this review.)

I honesty could have forgiven all of that if the steampunk world was good. And honestly, the way the book is written, it seems to be trying to put quite a bit of emphasis on the world. But there wasn’t a world to speak of. It was set in London, and there were steam-powered carriages that didn’t need horses – and that’s all we get. When it’s set, or even that it’s steampunk at all, is completely left to the imagination, which is not what I want when I pick up a steampunk book.

I can’t even really comment on the plot, because I couldn’t find one. By page 115, there were two dead bodies, and instead of even really being bothered by this, the girls are in Nellie’s bedroom playing truth or dare.

I think one of the biggest things that bothered me, though, was the assistant aspect. These girls are supposed to be badass, but the only reason they’re even remotely interesting is because of their connection to different men. And the raging feminist in me got really, really upset about that because these girls (especially Michiko) had the potential to be great on their own, but there’s so much focus on their Important Male Benefactor that it seems like they’d be nothing without their men.

In short, I was disappointed and mildly irritated and The Friday Society was bland and boring.

Action/Adventure/Suspense/Thriller, Science Fiction

Review: Genius: The Game

Cover of "Genius: The Game" featuring an iridescent image of a brain above the word "Genius" spelled out in a connect-the-dots style
Image from Fierce Reads

Title: Genius: The Game

Author: Leopoldo Gout

Genre: Science Fiction/Thriller

Trigger warnings: None (I think)

Back cover:

Trust no one. Every camera is an eye. Every microphone an ear. Find me and we can stop him together.

The Game: Get ready for Zero Hour as 200 geniuses from around the world go head to head in a competition hand-devised by India’s youngest CEO and visionary.

The Players:
Rex – One of the best programmers/hackers in the world, this 16-year-old Mexican-American is determined to find his missing brother.
Tunde – This 14-year-old self-taught engineering genius has drawn the attention of a ruthless military warlord by single-handedly bringing electricity and internet to his small Nigerian village.
Painted Wolf – One of China’s most respected activist bloggers, this mysterious 16-year-old is being pulled into the spotlight by her father’s new deal with a corrupt Chinese official.

The Stakes: Are higher than you can imagine. Like life and death. Welcome to the revolution. And get ready to run.

Review:

I picked this up on a whim, partially because the characters looked interesting and partly because my boyfriend and I are thinking about moving into the tech industry and for some reason I was thinking about that while I was at the library. (Also the book feels satisfyingly heavy in your hands despite being not thick, so that was a nice bonus.)

For as much action as there was in here, the book really didn’t feel long. It took me probably 1.5 hours of reading, total, to finish. And it was good.

The characters are pretty much what you get from the back cover: Rex, son of illegal Mexican immigrants, excellent hacker looking for his missing brother Teo; Tunde, Nigerian engineering genius; and Painted Wolf/Cai, Chinese secret activist with epic spy skills. They all had their own “thing” (Rex’s coding, Tunde building things from junk, and Cai’s leadership and spy cameras that solve every problem), and were all so brilliant that I often forgot how young they were. (Although the series is literally called “Genius,” so I don’t know what I expected.) The only bad part was all three were narrators and occasionally I lost track of who was speaking. (The transitions weren’t always obvious.)

As much as The Game features in the back cover, it actually wasn’t as big of a plot point as I expected. It was more of a means to an end. Rex went because he needed access to a quantum computer to find his brother. Tunde went because a corrupt general told him to win or watch his village be wiped out. Cai went to help Tunde and foil the plan of the Indian CEO/visionary who created The Game. The Game was epic and awesome, but it was more of a backdrop for the other plots.

There was also some fantastic tension – every chapter starts with a countdown to “Zero Hour,” the end of The Game, and there’s so much of a time crunch going on that it feels super fast-paced, even though it isn’t.

This book was very unique. Take the Hunger Games but make them a technological competition, add a cup of Mission: Impossible, throw in a tablespoon of hacking, a teaspoon each of riddles, conspiracies, and engineering, and a pinch of death threats, and you’ll get something close to Genius: The Game.

The surprising thing about it is that it wrapped up pretty well. Sure, there’s a lot of loose threads left, leaving a lot of interesting stuff for the sequel (Genius: The Con, releasing in August) to cover. But it also isn’t a bad stopping point on its own and wrapped up pretty satisfyingly. If I happen to run across Genius: The Con in the library, I’ll probably pick it up. But I won’t go out of my way for it.

The Genius series:

  1. Genius: The Game
  2. Genius: The Con (August 1, 2017)
High Fantasy

Review: Huntress

The cover of Huntress, featuring a black-haired girl wearing a black dress holding a long staff in front of her.
Image from Malinda Lo

Title: Huntress

Author: Malinda Lo

Genre: High Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Violence/blood/gore

Back Cover:

Nature is out of balance in the human world. The sun hasn’t shone in years, and crops are failing. Worse yet, strange and hostile creatures have begun to appear. The people’s survival hangs in the balance.

To solve the crisis, the oracle stones are cast, and Kaede and Taisin, two seventeen-year-old girls, are picked to go on a dangerous and unheard-of journey to Taninli, the city of the Fairy Queen. Taisin is a sage, thrumming with magic, and Kaede is of the earth, without a speck of the otherworldly. And yet the two girls’ destinies are drawn together during the mission. As members of their party succumb to unearthly attacks and fairy tricks, the two come to rely on each other and even begin to fall in love. But the Kingdom needs only one huntress to save it, and what it takes could tear Kaede and Taisin apart forever.

Review:

I picked this up mainly because fantasy gays. (Seriously, I had been complaining to my boyfriend earlier that afternoon about how there weren’t enough fantasy books with gay people and discovered this on my trip to the library.) I’ve also heard good things about Malinda Lo, so that was also a plus.

Even though there are some chapters from Taisin’s perspective, most of the book focuses on Kaede (but then again, so does most of the action). At the beginning, she’s at a school for sages, but she’s not very good at the magic stuff and prefers to be out in the garden or throw knives with the groundskeeper – kinda the stereotypical tomboy misfit. She has a bit of angst going on, but she’s still a fun character.

Taisin is Kaede’s complete opposite, a quiet, studious, and extremely gifted sage. You don’t get to know her as well as Kaede throughout the book, but I got enough to feel almost protective of her – yeah, she’s crazy powerful, but she’s also just a sweet little innocent girl who’s not really cut out for all the dangerous adventuring. Her and Kaede are a classic case of “opposites attract” and it’s adorable.

As far as plot goes, it was actually a pretty creative one. Most of the story focuses on Kaede and Taisin’s journey to the land of the Fairies, and the adventures and mishaps that happen along the way.  …Put that way it sounds pretty tame, but it definitely was not. (In case you couldn’t tell from the trigger warning.) People die. Sometimes very violently. Our main characters also have to kill some things. It’s a lot darker than I expected, but in a good way.

Some things I’ve seen about this book (online and also on the back cover) talked about its “Asian flair,” but though I was excited about that, it really didn’t come through at all for me. There was nothing in the setting that I recognized as Asian, the fairy part felt very Western … if you stretch a little bit I suppose you could describe some of the settings as Asian, but I didn’t see any of the Asian flair it promised, which was disappointing.

One thing that was refreshing, though, was there didn’t seem to be any homophobia in this society. It’s made clear in the beginning that some students at Kaede and Taisin’s all-girls school had clandestine relationships, and no one seems to bat an eye when they discover Kaede is only into girls (except her father, but that seems to be only because he wants to marry her off to a man for political reasons). It was kinda nice that Kaede and Taisin could be awkwardly and adorably gay without dealing with disapproving people.

Also, if you’re looking for a happy ending, this is not your book. (But it’s still a good read despite that.)

The main plot wraps up really nicely, even if the very end seems a little rushed. But as I thought about it after I finished it, there were a lot of plot threads that were just left dangling and questions that are never answered. And as far as I know, there’s no sequel – you’re just left with the unanswered questions and wondering what happened to those subplots.

Overall, it was a good book. Not great, certainly, but solidly good. I probably wouldn’t read it again, but I don’t regret this read.

Superhero

Review: Dreadnought

Book cover of Dreadnought by April Daniels, featuring a silhouette of a superhero standing on a hill with a blue cape blowing out behind her.
Image from Booktopia

Title: Dreadnought

Series: Nemesis #1

Author: April Daniels

Genre: Superhero

Trigger warnings: Domestic abuse (verbal and emotional), transphobia

Back Cover:

Danny Tozer has a problem: she just inherited the powers of Dreadnought, the world’s greatest superhero.

Until Dreadnought fell out of the sky and died right in front of her, Danny was trying to keep people from finding out she’s transgender. But before he expired, Dreadnought passed his mantle to her, and those secondhand superpowers transformed Danny’s body into what she always thought it should be. Now there’s no hiding that she’s a girl.

It should be the happiest time of her life, but Danny’s first weeks finally living in a body that fits her are more difficult and complicated than she could have imagined. Between her father’s dangerous obsession with “curing” her girlhood, her best friend suddenly acting like he’s entitled to date her, and her fellow superheroes arguing over her place in their ranks, Danny feels like she’s in over her head.

She doesn’t have time to adjust. Dreadnought’s murderer – a cyborg named Utopia – still haunts the streets of New Port City, threatening destruction. If Danny can’t sort through the confusion of coming out, master her powers, and stop Utopia in time, humanity faces extinction.

Review:

I heard about this book on Tumblr somewhere when I was looking for some good novels with queer characters. And then I reserved it at the library because A) it was one of the only non-contemporary LGBT books I could find, and B) heck yeah trans girl superheroes!

I read the entire thing in one sitting. Which honestly surprised me because some parts were really difficult – but I just couldn’t put it down.

Not being transgender, I can’t say anything about the realistic-ness of Danny’s struggles, but holy hell were they heart-wrenching. Between her asshole “best friend,” her abusive father (just how abusive gets slowly revealed as the book goes on), and the rampant transphobia among the superhero league in the city, I just wanted to hug her and fix everything for her. And there were several times I found myself mentally screaming to her that none of it was her fault and she’s a wonderful person and … well, I got really, really attached to her.

(Side note: If you’re an abuse survivor, you may find some scenes difficult. I did, but for me it didn’t take away too much from the book – you might have a different experience, though, so proceed with caution.)

The other major character is Calamity, a “graycape” (vigilante) that Danny ends up doing superhero stuff with for a lot of the book. I really liked her – she was the kind of badass been-doing-this-my-whole-life type you’d expect from a book like this, and I liked how her and Danny’s relationship developed. My only problem was that Danny knows her as her alter ego, too, but we only get one (very, very short) scene with her non-superhero side so it felt like I knew a lot about Calamity but nothing about the girl under the mask.

The plot actually has a lot more going on than gets mentioned on the back cover. There’s a major question of “is the Legion Pacifica (the city’s superhero league) trustworthy or not?” There’s Danny and Calamity trying to find Utopia (because besides killing Dreadnought she doesn’t show up until the end). There’s Danny’s coming out to her family and standing up (or not) to her abusive father. And there’s figuring out her powers (which are pretty dang epic), and of course the obligatory rescues and fight scenes and giant mechas destroying the city …

Okay, maybe that last one isn’t obligatory. But it sure made for some awesome mecha-on-apparently-not-indestructible-girl battles.

Overall, some parts were really hard for me to read as an abuse survivor (and other parts would probably be hard for you if you’ve experienced transphobia). But it has a mostly happy ending, the potential for bit of romance in the next book (fingers crossed!) and I couldn’t put it down. I give it two hearty thumbs up and I’m really looking forward to book two!

The Nemesis series:

  1. Dreadnought
  2. Sovereign (July 25, 2017)