Review – Mirage, by Somaiya Daud


Mirage
by Somaiya Daud

Genre: YA, Fantasy

Length: 320 Pages

Release date: August 28, 2018

Synopsis: 

In a star system dominated by the brutal Vathek empire, eighteen-year-old Amani is a dreamer. She dreams of what life was like before the occupation; she dreams of writing poetry like the old-world poems she adores; she dreams of receiving a sign from Dihya that one day, she, too, will have adventure, and travel beyond her isolated moon.

But when adventure comes for Amani, it is not what she expects: she is kidnapped by the regime and taken in secret to the royal palace, where she discovers that she is nearly identical to the cruel half-Vathek Princess Maram. The princess is so hated by her conquered people that she requires a body double, someone to appear in public as Maram, ready to die in her place.

As Amani is forced into her new role, she can’t help but enjoy the palace’s beauty—and her time with the princess’ fiancé, Idris. But the glitter of the royal court belies a world of violence and fear. If Amani ever wishes to see her family again, she must play the princess to perfection…because one wrong move could lead to her death.

rating

three

“You do not kneel or bend, I told myself. To anyone. You continue.”

Can I just start by saying that I bought this book purely because of the beautiful cover. Seriously, look at it! I went into it totally blind without even reading the synopsis, so I had no idea what to expect. Mirage is part one of a three part series, and follows the story of Amani, a young woman who is kidnapped by royalty to serve as an expendable body double for the princess in potentially risky situations.

The book definitely feels like the first installment of a series in the worst possible way; it just feels very incomplete in a way that’s difficult to articulate, and I have to put that down to Daud working to set up the events of the next two novels. This actually wasn’t a huge issue for me, as I like some of the themes Daud is playing with, and I’m hoping that the payoff will be worth it in later books. This installment was super character-driven, which isn’t a huge issue in and of itself, but I’m hoping the sequel is a bit more plot-heavy.

It’s very obvious that the author is enamored with worldbuilding, and I do think the novel shines in that regard. Daud pulled from her own Moroccan heritage for inspiration in regards to establishing a culture in the novel, but she has set it in a science fiction environment, complete with imperial droids and colonies set up on moons. Mirage explores classism, colonization, and power dynamics in a really interesting and engaging way that meshes well with her worldbuilding. We see familiar political and cultural themes from the real world, and I think all the best science fiction does this. Lighthearted adventures in space are fun, but substance like this takes things up a notch.

Mirage also begins a romance subplot which will likely continue in the later books, and this was my least favorite aspect of the book. Like so many books in the young adult genre, Mirage seems to want to jump straight into the characters being totally enamored without much thought given to convincing the audience of this. Your mileage may vary here, but personally I was totally uninvested in this part of the story, and I was far more interested in exploring Amani’s fraught and complicated relationship with the princess.

I think more pages could have been devoted to showing the evolution of that relationship and Amani’s begrudging sense of sympathy for the princess, who she realizes has her own unique set of problems. Princess Maram is a deeply flawed person, and it never feels like Daud is trying to make us forget this, but her treatment of this character is nuanced, which I really appreciated. Maram is only half Vathek, a child of the Vathek king and the unwilling queen of the conquered people as a means to solidify his claim to her land. She is resented by her mother’s people as a symbol of the conquering class, and she is viewed with contempt by her father’s people for being an “impure” half-blood. Despite her position of privilege, she is without a place in the world (or entire star system, in this case) and she is in that sense a tragic character.

I wasn’t over the moon about this book, but I definitely enjoyed it enough to know I’ll pick up the next installment. My hopes for the next book: a bit less time in Amani’s head in favor of more plot development, make me buy into the romance or drop it altogether, and some kind of redemption arc for Maram. Amani and Maram should align their interests and take down the whole wretched system.

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Thank you for reading! If you’ve read Mirage, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

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Review – Warcross, by Marie Lu


Warcross
by Marie Lu

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction

Length: 353 Pages

Release date: September 12, 2017

Publisher:Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers

Synopsis: 

For the millions who log in every day, Warcross isn’t just a game—it’s a way of life.

The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down Warcross players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. To make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships—only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight sensation.

Convinced she’s going to be arrested, Emika is shocked when instead she gets a call from the game’s creator, the elusive young billionaire Hideo Tanaka, with an irresistible offer. He needs a spy on the inside of this year’s tournament in order to uncover a security problem . . . and he wants Emika for the job. With no time to lose, Emika’s whisked off to Tokyo and thrust into a world of fame and fortune that she’s only dreamed of. But soon her investigation uncovers a sinister plot, with major consequences for the entire Warcross empire.

rating

three

Warcross was kind of a frustrating read for me, because I like a lot of what Lu was trying to do, but some of her narrative choices and her writing style got under my skin. (This is nit-picky, but as an example, this book contains the ridiculously cliché phrase “I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding” at least twice. Emika also mentions her “rainbow-colored hair” more times than I could count.) Maybe I should go easier on the writing style when it comes to YA novels, but I feel like one can write simply enough for the genre while still writing well, and this novel did not accomplish that.

The worldbuilding also felt somewhat sloppy in some respects. There was a lot of interesting stuff going on in regards to the virtual reality technology, but the descriptions felt inconsistent. For example, Warcross is a specific game that comes with the VR glasses that exist in this novel, but there seems to be no distinction drawn between playing that specific game and using the glasses in any other manner; it’s all “playing Warcross.” This feels like an intentional narrative choice rather than a slip-up (maybe to emphasize how integral the game has become in everyday life) but it just ended up feeling muddled to me.

The romance subplot was exhausting to read. Hideo Tanaka enters the story like a YA-appropriate Christian Grey; none of the BDSM, but all of the brooding, lack of boundaries, and super hefty power imbalance. I can’t talk about my feelings about him in any depth without getting into spoiler territory, but I will say I liked where Tanaka’s story seems to be leading for the second book and lot more than I liked slogging through the shallow romance in this one.

Time for the obligatory Ready Player One comparisons. I’m of the unpopular opinion that Ready Player One is terrible (sorry, guys) and despite my issues with Warcross, I think I preferred it to Ready Player One. There is one thing I think Ready Player One does better, and that is in developing the real world well enough that it becomes obvious to the reader why a lot of people would prefer to spend their time in the Oasis. After finishing Warcross, I feel like I don’t know much about the real world in that novel outside of “there’s, like, a lot of crime.” However, Warcross makes a lot more of an effort for diversity and also doesn’t commit the crime of spending pages at a time on pop culture references that are clearly only for the author’s own amusement. Warcross also feels like it’s going to articulate a much more coherent moral message than Ready Player One ever managed to do, although that remains to be seen in Wildcard. 

Warcross is an engaging and fast-paced novel with a likable protagonist, an interesting (if somewhat underdeveloped) setting, and a plot twist that will have you reaching for the second book. So while I didn’t love this, I’ll definitely be reading Wildcard soon.

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Thank you for reading! Have you read Warcross? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
What’s your favorite novel where video games play an important role?

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Review – An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, by Hank Green


An Absolutely Remarkable Thing
by Hank Green

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: September 25, 2018

Publisher: Dutton

Synopsis: 

The Carls just appeared. Coming home from work at three a.m., twenty-three-year-old April May stumbles across a giant sculpture. Delighted by its appearance and craftsmanship–like a ten-foot-tall Transformer wearing a suit of samurai armor–April and her friend Andy make a video with it, which Andy uploads to YouTube. The next day April wakes up to a viral video and a new life. News quickly spreads that there are Carls in dozens of cities around the world–everywhere from Beijing to Buenos Aires–and April, as their first documentarian, finds herself at the center of an intense international media spotlight.

Now April has to deal with the pressure on her relationships, her identity, and her safety that this new position brings, all while being on the front lines of the quest to find out not just what the Carls are, but what they want from us.

rating

four

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is seriously… remarkable. This book was ridiculously fun and I got through it in a day. It’s one of those books where you’re ready for a sequel the moment you finish it.

Let me start with the negative; this was a debut novel and, of course, has some flaws. For starters, holy heavy-handed delivery of the moral, Batman. This book is not subtle in how it deals with the concepts of xenophobia, partisanship, and extremism. These themes were woven pretty seamlessly into the narrative itself, and they weren’t helped by the main character monologuing  about them straight to the reader. Hank Green, please realize that your audience can get your message loud and clear without you beating them over the head with it.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is also heavily imbued with modern “internet culture,” and while it was fun, I do think it will suffer for it and feel very dated not terribly far into the future. I think readers 15 years from now will pick this up and have the same general type of reaction that I had to Ready Player One, which was more or less “Good Lord, I get it, you like the 80’s, dude. Enough.”

That being said, I loved this book. The protagonist, April May, was quirky and intensely likable, despite being kind of a hot mess. (Side rant: I saw another reviewer on GoodReads label her a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. PSA: this is a very specific term; can people please stop slapping that label on any quirky female character they happen to dislike? A crucial part of the MPDG definition is that the character exists solely to inspire the broody, male MC to find a new appreciation for life. You can’t label a main character whose only romantic relationships in the narrative are with other women a MPDG. It doesn’t fit.)

April is 23 years old and a recent college graduate at the start of the story. She is thrown into the spotlight accidentally and isn’t really equipped to deal with it. While the specifics of her situation are extraordinary, I feel like a lot of younger Millennials and older Gen Z kids will relate to her. April’s struggles mirror the way a lot of us feel about adulthood in general.

I also really liked the way Green used April’s character to tackle the issue of biphobia, which is something rarely addressed in fiction; more often than not, it is simply lumped in with homophobia if it’s directly addressed at all. But the fact is that biphobia often manifests in different ways than homophobia does in real life, and it was refreshing to see a writer acknowledge that.

While it’s awesome to see a novel tackle important social issues, it’s also important that they’re woven into an interesting story, and Hank Green definitely delivers on that front. The novel felt very well-paced, and the mystery surrounding the “Carls” was really engaging and hinges on interesting puzzles and attention to detail. April’s emotional journey and struggle to maintain a sense of identity in the face of crafting a public persona were executed really well, and April came across as flawed and stumbling without ever being alienating. Such a strong debut has me dying to see what Hank Green writes next.

“Even on this most terrible days, even when the worst of us are all we can think of, I am proud to be a human.” 

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Thank you for reading! Have you read An Absolutely Remarkable Thing? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
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Review – The Rule of One, by Ashley Saunders & Leslie Saunders

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The Rule of One by Ashley Saunders & Leslie Saunders

Genre: YA, Dystopia

Length: 258 Pages

Release date: October 1, 2018

Publisher: Skyscrape

Synopsis: 

In their world, telling the truth has become the most dangerous crime of all.

In the near-future United States, a one-child policy is ruthlessly enforced. Everyone follows the Rule of One. But Ava Goodwin, daughter of the head of the Texas Family Planning Division, has a secret—one her mother died to keep and her father has helped to hide for her entire life.

She has an identical twin sister, Mira.

For eighteen years Ava and Mira have lived as one, trading places day after day, maintaining an interchangeable existence down to the most telling detail. But when their charade is exposed, their worst nightmare begins. Now they must leave behind the father they love and fight for their lives.

Branded as traitors, hunted as fugitives, and pushed to discover just how far they’ll go in order to stay alive, Ava and Mira rush headlong into a terrifying unknown.

rating

fourI received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher.

I was immediately intrigued by the concept of this book: identical twin sisters written by identical twin sisters. Ava and Mira are closer than most twins are, though not entirely by choice. The one child rule in this dystopian, near-future America means that they take turns going out into the world each day, and their struggle to maintain the facade of being a single person requires that they keep each other informed about every detail of their lives.

The lack of an ability to obtain a sense of individuality takes a toll on each of them, and the mixture of love and resentment between the sisters was a highlight of the novel. What must it be like when the person you love the most is also the reason you’re unable to live a full live, the reason you’re in constant danger? The Saunders sisters explore that ambivalence in this novel. On a similar note, I loved that this was a YA dystopian novel with no romance or (God forbid) a love triangle shoe-horned in for no discernible reason. The primary relationship in this book was between two sisters, which I found really refreshing.

That being said, some of the plot twists felt a bit too predictable, though maybe this is a product of reading a young adult novel as an adult. A lot of YA novels feel like they have the ability to appeal to a broader audience, but this one felt very YA. Teenagers will probably find this super compelling; older readers who have read more than a few dystopian novels will recognize the tropes and perhaps wish for something a bit more original.

The Rule of One was good for what it was: a novel that will hold a lot of appeal for teens. It was fast-paced with just enough twists to keep the reader engaged. I loved the concept of identical twins living as one person by necessity and the emotional consequences of that. The parts of the novel that addressed this issue were very strong, but I do wish there was more time devoted to it. Although it looks like there will be a book two; perhaps there will be more time to reflect on this in the second installment.

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Review – Nightingale, by Amy Lukavics

36982587
Nightingale
by Amy Lukavics

Genre: YA, Horror

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: Sept. 25, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

At seventeen, June Hardie is everything a young woman in 1951 shouldn’t be—independent, rebellious, a dreamer. June longs to travel, to attend college and to write the dark science fiction stories that consume her waking hours. But her parents only care about making June a better young woman. Her mother grooms her to be a perfect little homemaker while her father pushes her to marry his business partner’s domineering son. When June resists, her whole world is shattered—suburbia isn’t the only prison for different women…

June’s parents commit her to Burrow Place Asylum, aka the Institution. With its sickening conditions, terrifying staff and brutal “medical treatments,” the Institution preys on June’s darkest secrets and deepest fears. And she’s not alone. The Institution terrorizes June’s fragile roommate, Eleanor, and the other women locked away within its crumbling walls. Those who dare speak up disappear…or worse. Trapped between a gruesome reality and increasingly sinister hallucinations, June isn’t sure where her nightmares end and real life begins. But she does know one thing: in order to survive, she must destroy the Institution before it finally claims them all.

ratingtwo

Well, this book was certainly… an adventure. What started out looking like a book about a young woman suffering from Capgras delusion (a belief that someone close to you has been replaced with an identical impostor) slowly delved into weirder and weirder science fiction territory. (Or perhaps not; June is an unreliable narrator and it’s possible that the science fiction elements are all the result of a broken mind. Who can say?) I don’t want to give too much away in terms of plot, but rest assured that what you might expect from the blurb for this book bears little resemblance to the book itself.

While the unexpected is certainly not in itself a reason for a negative review, the plot twists in this book simply were not well executed. It felt like there was insufficient buildup and too many questions left unanswered. The overall result was a flimsy plot with horror elements that were far from horrifying. For example, Lukavics seemed to rely too much on gore and body horror to make the reader squirm. There was a lot of “ick” factor that simply wasn’t scary, with repeated mentions of worms crawling around in the brains of live people and the detailed description of a mangled corpse.

June had some potential to be a good protagonist, and she definitely had some elements which made her sympathetic. She bristles at the rigid expectations of her gender in the 1950’s, but it seems that Lukavics takes this trait too far in trying to drive the point home. June expresses irritation at one point that her mother expects her to wear clean clothes; hygiene is not a gendered issue, June. She is extremely resistant to learning to cook, and while this is something disproportionately thrust onto women, June honestly just seems disgruntled at the thought of being asked to do anything at all.

Her desire to be a writer when her family wants to turn her into a housewife was an engaging element of her character. She has no desire to marry the boy they’ve selected for her, for reasons which become more and more obvious as the plot moves along. I wish Lukavics had spent more time focusing on these issues rather than June’s disdain at being asked to do so much as clean up after herself. Flawed protagonists are fine, but whiny protagonists are generally unbearable. June has some internal struggles going on that would have made for really intriguing character development, but they were very shallowly explored. All in all, this book felt like a first draft; there’s a good story hiding under a bit of a mess.

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and not influenced by the publisher. 

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Review – The Things We Learn When We’re Dead, by Charlie Laidlaw

33142013
The Things We Learn When We’re Dead
by Charlie Laidlaw

Genre: Science Fiction / Fantasy

Length: 501 Pages

Release date: January 26, 2017

Publisher: Accent Press Ltd.

Synopsis: 

The Things We Learn When We’re Dead is about how small decisions can have profound and unintended consequences, but how we can sometimes get a second chance.

On the way home from a dinner party, Lorna Love steps into the path of an oncoming car. When she wakes up she is in what appears to be a hospital – but a hospital in which her nurse looks like a young Sean Connery, she is served wine for supper, and everyone avoids her questions.
It soon transpires that she is in Heaven, or on HVN, because HVN is a lost, dysfunctional spaceship, and God the aging hippy captain. She seems to be there by accident… or does God have a higher purpose after all?
Despite that, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead is neither sci-fi nor fantasy. It is a book about memory and how, if we could remember things slightly differently, would we also be changed?

In HVN, Lorna can at first remember nothing. But as her memories return – some good, some bad – she realises that she has decisions to make and that, maybe, she can find a way back home.

rating

four

I received an ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Charlie Laidlaw for sending me this lovely book. All opinions are my own. 

What a charming book, with a delightful mixture of the familiar and the strange!  It took me a little while to get into this story, but once I did, it was clear it was well worth the time invested. The Things We Learn When We’re Dead is all about choices, memories, and love.

Is that what love is? Discovering a missing jigsaw piece and finding that it fits? Are we all born incomplete, compelled to search for the lost bits of us?

Lorna Love is rather untethered when she wakes up in a mysterious, hamster-infested “hospital” remembering next to nothing. Amnesia can sometimes seem terribly overdone as a plot device, but it worked quite well here and the in-universe explanation held up. Lorna finds that she is in a sort of afterlife, brought to Heaven, or HVN, by a group of aliens, and her memories will take some time to come back. The end result is that the reader discovers bits of Lorna’s life along with her as she remembers them, making it easy to step into her shoes and empathize.

The Wizard of Oz references help to keep us grounded in the familiar in the face of an unfamiliar setting, while also hinting at parallels between Lorna and Dorothy. With chapter titles such as “Tin Man,” “Scarecrow,” and “Rainbow,” the references are fun and hard to miss. Also similar to The Wizard of Oz, readers may spot similarities between the people Lorna encounters in HVN and those she’s left behind on earth. The overall effect is whimsical and dreamy.

Death had always seemed the ultimate full stop and, if an afterlife existed, it would be a place beyond understanding; a spirit domain of ascended souls, where nothing would resemble the mortal world.

There were only a few drawbacks to this book for me. As stated above, it did take me a while to get into it, but perhaps you’ll find yourself captivated from page one, and this was just me. The second was that there were frankly distracting number of comments about various characters’ weights throughout the story. Lorna Love apparently has no love for fat people.

This was a lovely retelling of The Wizard of Oz with a modern, science fiction twist. Laidlaw has written an engaging story about choices – what kind of person to be, what kind of person to love, and whether or not to go on in the face of the unknown.

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Thank you for reading! Have you read The Things We Learn When We’re Dead? Do you have a favorite novel that’s a retelling of another story? Please discuss in the comments!

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Coming Soon – Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds by Brandon Sanderson

legion.png
Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds
by Brandon Sanderson

Genre: Science Fiction

Length: 400 Pages

Release date: September 18, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

Stephen Leeds is perfectly sane. It’s his hallucinations who are mad.

A genius of unrivaled aptitude, Stephen can learn any new skill, vocation, or art in a matter of hours. However, to contain all of this, his mind creates hallucinatory people—Stephen calls them aspects—to hold and manifest the information. Wherever he goes, he is joined by a team of imaginary experts to give advice, interpretation, and explanation. He uses them to solve problems… for a price.

Stephen’s brain is getting a little crowded and the aspects have a tendency of taking on lives of their own. When a company hires him to recover stolen property—a camera that can allegedly take pictures of the past—Stephen finds himself in an adventure crossing oceans and fighting terrorists. What he discovers may upend the foundation of three major world religions—and, perhaps, give him a vital clue into the true nature of his aspects.

This fall, Tor Books will publish Brandon Sanderson’s Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds. The collection will include the science fiction novellas Legion and Legion: Skin Deep, published together for the first time, as well as a brand new Stephen Leeds novella, Lies of the Beholder. This never-been-published novella will complete the series.

ratingfour

I received an partial preview of this book (in the form of the first of the three included novellas) in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and not influenced by the publisher. 

I’ve been a fan of Brandon Sanderson for several years now, but have somehow managed not to stumble across his Stephen Leeds novellas until now. While this was a fun read, I didn’t find it quite as strong as some of his other works. I’d rate it at about a 3.5/5, which I’ve rounded up to a 4/5 here. So while it was definitely  worth reading, it felt a bit lacking coming on the tail of so many novels by Sanderson which felt like solid fives.

The mental health angle was definitely one of the most interesting parts of the story; Sanderson has crafted a character with schizophrenia who is not simply coping, but thriving. Stephen Leeds has hallucinations who have skills and knowledge which he does not; these are treated as their own characters and Leeds uses them to his advantage throughout the story. It was refreshing to see a story with a character dealing with a mental health issue where the entire story wasn’t about how much he suffers from it.

Several parts of the story didn’t flow particularly well; it felt like Sanderson was forcing his own musings into the characters’ mouths in a way that didn’t feel natural. One such example is when the logical problems surrounding the functioning of a piece of technology are brought up briefly, only to be dismissed and never addressed again. Logical problems aside, the fictional piece of technology does function within the parameters of the story, and there seemed to be little narrative purpose to bringing up all the reasons it shouldn’t work without offering any theories as to how it does so. Several exchanges surrounding religious matters, specifically on the concept of faith, felt similarly awkward and forced.

There was a lot to this story: the many hallucinations of Stephen Leeds provide a distinct cast of characters, and Leeds’ ability to rely on them to perform above his own abilities makes for an interesting twist. The science fiction tech is intriguing and provokes seemingly infinite hypothetical questions to mull over. A mysterious woman who Leeds wishes to track down provides intrigue. This all feels like a lot to try to develop over the course of a novella, but one thing is certain: the reader will definitely not be bored.

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