The Red Labyrinth, by Meredith Tate (Review)

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The Red Labyrinth
by Meredith Tate

Genre: YA, Fantasy

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: June 4, 2019

Publisher: Flux

Synopsis: 

The massive labyrinth was built to protect Zadie Kalver’s isolated desert town. Unfortunately, living in the maze’s shadow makes her feel anything but safe. Even without its enchanted deathtraps and illusions, a mysterious killer named Dex lurks in its corridors, terrorizing anyone in his path.

But when Zadie’s best friend vanishes into the labyrinth-and everyone mysteriously forgets he exists- completing the maze becomes her only hope of saving him. In desperation, Zadie bribes the only person who knows the safe path through-Dex-into forming a tenuous alliance.

Navigating a deadly garden, a lethal blood-filled hourglass, and other traps-with an untrustworthy murderer for her guide-Zadie’s one wrong step from certain death. But with time running out before her friend (and secret crush) is lost forever, Zadie must reach the exit and find him. If Dex and the labyrinth don’t kill her first.

ratingtwo

My thanks to NetGalley and Flux for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

“People are more than the worst things they’ve ever done.”

Oh, gosh, this book had so much potential. There’s something so terribly frustrating about a fantasy novel with an interesting concept but paper-thin world-building. The world Zadie inhabits is intriguing, but seriously lacking in development. Zadie lives in a small town surrounded by a massive and ominous labyrinth. The town’s Leader lives in a remote mansion inside the labyrinth, seriously isolated from the people he’s meant to be leading and protecting, which doesn’t seem ominous at all to anyone, for some reason. Also, there’s Absolutely Nothing beyond the labyrinth beyond a total wasteland (according to Dear Leader), and no one really questions this much, either.

I’m not necessarily opposed to stories about brainwashed populations revering an undeserving leader; certainly this can be portrayed convincingly… but the dynamic here feels very odd. The Leader’s characterization of the outside world is accepted at face value despite the dismal conditions in Trinnea, but it doesn’t seem like there’s a cult-like level of devotion to the Leader which would make sense of this wholesale acceptance. Particularly among the “blanks” like Zadie, who are treated as second class citizens in every possible regard, one would expect more skepticism and resentment than is really seen in the story.

And, goodness, the character arcs. The two major male characters have painfully predictable developments from start to finish. (Minor spoilers ahead, I guess, but really it’s painfully obvious very early on that this is how things will develop.) Zadie has a huge crush on her best friend, Landon, and it’s obvious to everyone except the two of them that the feeling is mutual. (This is the friend the blurb mentions disappearing into the labyrinth.) Zadie has to rely on Dex, a ruthless killer and “devil of Trinnea,” to lead her to the center of the labyrinth if she has any hope of helping Landon.

Dex, of course, turns out to be a bad boy with a heart of gold who obviously just needed Zadie to bring out the good in him. (Ugh.) This leaves Landon on the outs, and since the good guy always has to get the girl, it turns out that Landon was a secret villain all along. Because of course he was.

The whole concept of the journey through the labyrinth was fun, but I wanted more from it. The trials felt a bit underwhelming and it always felt like the stakes could be a lot higher than they were. In one stage of the labyrinth, for example, Zadie has to give up her most treasured memory in order to get through. This could have been such a poignant moment were it not for the fact that Zadie feels rather under-developed as a protagonist.

Finally, the ending feels very rushed and abrupt, and the main focus there is clearly trying to set up a sequel. Unfortunately, given the lackluster opening of this story, I don’t think I’ll be able to stick around long enough to get a real conclusion.

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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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Review – The Gilded Wolves, by Roshani Chokshi


The Gilded Wolves
by Roshani Chokshi

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

Length: 400 Pages

Release date: January 15, 2019

Publisher: Wednesday Books

Synopsis: 

Set in a darkly glamorous world, The Gilded Wolves is full of mystery, decadence, and dangerous but thrilling adventure.

Paris, 1889: The world is on the cusp of industry and power, and the Exposition Universelle has breathed new life into the streets and dredged up ancient secrets. In this city, no one keeps tabs on secrets better than treasure-hunter and wealthy hotelier, Séverin Montagnet-Alarie. But when the all-powerful society, the Order of Babel, seeks him out for help, Séverin is offered a treasure that he never imagined: his true inheritance.

To find the ancient artifact the Order seeks, Séverin will need help from a band of experts: An engineer with a debt to pay. A historian who can’t yet go home. A dancer with a sinister past. And a brother in all but blood, who might care too much.

Together, they’ll have to use their wits and knowledge to hunt the artifact through the dark and glittering heart of Paris. What they find might change the world, but only if they can stay alive.

rating

four

My thanks to Wednesday Books for sending me an ARC of this book through a Goodreads giveaway. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

The Gilded Wolves is a richly atmospheric, dark, and magical adventure in Paris. The setting will appeal to fans of both fantasy and historical fiction, and the cast of characters will absolutely steal your heart.

Let’s start with the cast: each character feels well developed and real, and Chokshi pays real attention to diversity in a substantial way. By that I mean that the story doesn’t simply have, for example, an Indian character purely for the sake of diversifying the cast. Laila is Indian and it matters that she is Indian. Her heritage impacts the ways he views the world around her and her feelings about those who want the pretty, shiny bits of Indian culture with no real appreciation for Indian people.

I truly love stories that can weave social issues into the narrative without it feeling shoe-horned in or overly preachy, and Chokshi accomplishes this beautifully. I am using Laila as a specific example here, but I really feel that all of the major characters have something analogous to this with respect to their specific backgrounds and identities. Also, bonus points go to Chokshi for writing a young adult romance subplot that didn’t constantly make me cringe, because that’s a rarity.

I was also a big fan of Chokshi’s world building within this novel. It is set in an alternate version of Paris in 1889 filled with magic and secret societies. The world gives off a kind of steampunk vibe, and the line between magic and technology feels a little blurry at times. The magic system, referred to as Forging, often involves enhancing ordinary objects using one’s magical abilities, although the nature of one’s magical abilities varies from person to person.

The plot itself is probably the one thing keeping me from rating this a full five stars. While the central story, Séverin and his friends’ hunt for a magical artifact and quest to reclaim his rightful inheritance, is fun in concept, it sometimes felt like the plot was secondary to everything else Chokshi was trying to do within the novel. I found myself more invested in the character development and understanding the magic system than I was in the heist at the center of it all. All in all, The Gilded Wolves is definitely a fun read and a solid four stars!

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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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Review – Dear Evan Hansen, by Val Emmich


Dear Evan Hansen
by Val Emmich

Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary

Length: 368 Pages

Release date: October 9, 2018

Synopsis: 

Dear Evan Hansen,

Today’s going to be an amazing day and here’s why…

When a letter that was never meant to be seen by anyone draws high school senior Evan Hansen into a family’s grief over the loss of their son, he is given the chance of a lifetime: to belong. He just has to stick to a lie he never meant to tell, that the notoriously troubled Connor Murphy was his secret best friend.

Suddenly, Evan isn’t invisible anymore–even to the girl of his dreams. And Connor Murphy’s parents, with their beautiful home on the other side of town, have taken him in like he was their own, desperate to know more about their enigmatic son from his closest friend. As Evan gets pulled deeper into their swirl of anger, regret, and confusion, he knows that what he’s doing can’t be right, but if he’s helping people, how wrong can it be?

No longer tangled in his once-incapacitating anxiety, this new Evan has a purpose. And a website. He’s confident. He’s a viral phenomenon. Every day is amazing. Until everything is in danger of unraveling and he comes face to face with his greatest obstacle: himself.

A simple lie leads to complicated truths in this big-hearted coming-of-age story of grief, authenticity and the struggle to belong in an age of instant connectivity and profound isolation.

rating

three

Burning is the right way to paint it. You feel yourself getting so hot, day after day. Hotter and hotter. It gets to be too much. Even for stars. At some point they fizzle out or explode. Cease to be. But if you’re looking up at the sky, you don’t see it that way. You think those stars are still there. Some aren’t. Some are already gone. Long gone. I guess, now, so am I.

CW for teen suicide.

This is a difficult book for me to rate, because it’s impossible not to compare it to the musical rather than rating it solely on its own merit. The soundtrack of Dear Evan Hansen evokes emotion in a way I don’t think the novelization ever could. Overall, I do think the story itself works better as a musical, primarily due to who Evan is as a character.

If you’re familiar with the story, you already know that Evan engages in some… morally questionable behavior. Over the course of a couple of hours in a musical, it’s easy to see how Evan could get swept up in a misunderstanding and the sense of belonging he finds. Yes, it’s wrong, but it feels like he’s been swept up in a tide and sees no way out of it. Putting the story into the format of a novel really draws attention to just how long Evan allowed this ruse to go on, and has the consequence of alienating the reader from him.

That being said, I did like how the novelization didn’t strictly stick to what happens in the musical and leave it at that; Emmich puts his own spin on the story by giving Connor a bigger role, as he watches Evan and his family from beyond the grave. Emmich seeks to develop and understand Connor in a way that the stage musical never really does. While his angry outbursts aren’t excused, the story takes the time to humanize him and actually bothers to ask and answer the question of why he’s so angry in the first place.

The pacing in the story was good and I loved how Emmich took the time to develop characters who felt somewhat like an afterthought in the source material, but overall, I’d say the writing was just average. Dear Evan Hansen may be worth reading if you can’t make it to see the play, but fans of the source material may end up feeling like it falls short in comparison.

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Review – The Female of the Species, by Mindy McGinnis


The Female of the Species
by Mindy McGinnis

Genre: Young Adult

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: September 20, 2016

Synopsis: 

A contemporary YA novel that examines rape culture through alternating perspectives.

Alex Craft knows how to kill someone. And she doesn’t feel bad about it.

Three years ago, when her older sister, Anna, was murdered and the killer walked free, Alex uncaged the language she knows best—the language of violence. While her own crime goes unpunished, Alex knows she can’t be trusted among other people. Not with Jack, the star athlete who wants to really know her but still feels guilty over the role he played the night Anna’s body was discovered. And not with Peekay, the preacher’s kid with a defiant streak who befriends Alex while they volunteer at an animal shelter. Not anyone.

As their senior year unfolds, Alex’s darker nature breaks out, setting these three teens on a collision course that will change their lives forever.

rating

four

But boys will be boys, our favorite phrase that excuses so many things, while the only thing we have for the opposite gender is women, said with disdain and punctuated with an eye roll.

Alex Craft is filled with righteous anger in a way we don’t see in a lot of female protagonists. Another blogger suggested The Female of the Species to me after I reviewed Sadie, by Courtney Summers, and talked about how much I appreciated the way Sadie’s justified anger was portrayed in the narrative. Alex bears some similarities to Sadie; the violent death of a sister has triggered something dark in both girls.

In The Female of the Species, McGinnis attempts to examine rape culture. I think some of the aspects of the backdrop of this novel undermine this a bit. The major characters, while not totally one-dimensional, can be easily pigeon-holed into various high school stereotypes which have been done to death (daughter of the town preacher, popular jock, slutty cheerleader, etc). It’s difficult to make a serious point about slut shaming when a major plot line involves a rivalry between the “good girl” and the “slutty, boyfriend stealing cheerleader” without ever subverting our expectations about those characters in any major way.

I think McGinnis felt the need to include these other POV characters in part create breaks from Alex’s somewhat flat emotional state. The drama between the preacher’s daughter, the cheerleader, and jealousy over boys creates for a very different tone from Alex’s chapters, which are (for the most part) dominated by frustration over what happened to her sister and countless other girls and women and a thirst for vengeance. (I think Courtney Summers’ novel, Sadie, proved that one can devote a lot of time to a character like that and still make for a really interesting novel, but I don’t want to beat this book to death with comparisons to Sadie.)

For me, Alex’s chapters were the most engaging, with the rest of the characters falling too cleanly into stereotypes for me to really connect. Alex is the primary reason for my four star rating. Alex’s emotional journey was very well written, from memories of her childhood that hinted at a dark side to her even before her sister’s death, to the simmering rage of much of her life, and finally to a hint at a possibility of healing when she begins to learn to let others in. (Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those “teen romance can heal all wounds” books. Alex gets a boyfriend, yes, but her friendship with Peekay is also a huge turning point for her.)

I won’t get into spoilers, but I will say I wasn’t the biggest fan of how  McGinnis wrapped up the ending. It felt to me like she went for something dramatic and final simply because she didn’t know where else to leave off with this story. McGinnis ends the story with a bang when I feel like the subject matter might have been better served by a bit more subtlety.

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Review – My Plain Jane


My Plain Jane
by Cynthia Hand,
Brodi Ashton,
& Jodi Meadows

Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Retellings

Length: 464 Pages

Release date: June 26, 2018

Synopsis: 

You may think you know the story. After a miserable childhood, penniless orphan Jane Eyre embarks on a new life as a governess at Thornfield Hall. There, she meets one dark, brooding Mr. Rochester. Despite their significant age gap (!) and his uneven temper (!!), they fall in love—and, Reader, she marries him. (!!!)

Or does she?

Prepare for an adventure of Gothic proportions, in which all is not as it seems, a certain gentleman is hiding more than skeletons in his closets, and one orphan Jane Eyre, aspiring author Charlotte Brontë, and supernatural investigator Alexander Blackwood are about to be drawn together on the most epic ghost hunt this side of Wuthering Heights.

rating

two

Let me preface this by saying that I thought My Lady Jane was loads of fun, and I went into this book with high hopes. My Plain Jane, like the prior installment of “The Lady Janies,” relies heavily on the reader connecting with the humor of the narrators. While My Lady Jane was good for more than a few chuckles, My Plain Jane fell rather flat. I was left with the overall impression that it was simply too ridiculous, which is really saying something, considering the prior book had a main character who frequently transformed into a horse.

But aside from the issues with the humor, I think I failed to connect with this book because the titular character simply did not feel like Jane Eyre to me. The narrators’ Jane is boy-crazy, unambitious, and bland. Her ability to see spirits should have been an easy route to make her more interesting, but her character simply never clicked with me. On a similar note, I was never cared much for Mr. Rochester in the original source material, but if you were, be forewarned that you will not be a fan of his characterization in this retelling. Despite Jane’s doe-eyed adoration, Mr. Rochester is not presented in flattering terms, to say the least.

Charlotte Brontë herself has also been inserted into the narrative; she was at Lowood with Jane and follows her after she leaves. She considers Jane to be her very best friend, and she is (of course) writing a novel with a protagonist inspired by Jane. The problem with the insertion of Charlotte is that she draws the focus away from Jane in a big way. While Charlotte is deeply attached to Jane, her story is also largely dominated by a desire to work with The Society (essentially, to become a ghost hunter) and a love interest. Jane has become almost a secondary character in the retelling of her own story. This is not necessarily a problem, but the plot lines pushing Jane out of the story must be sufficiently interesting to justify it. They were… not.

Perhaps My Lady Jane was too tough an act to follow. It was a weird, hilarious delight. My Plain Jane unfortunately fell short in comparison. I’m still curious to see what comes next in The Lady Janies series, but I’d recommend skipping this installment.

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