Havenfall – by Sara Holland (Review)

Havenfall #1

Fantasy, YA, Romance

Bloomsbury YA; March 3, 2020

320 pages (ebook) 12 hr 17 min (audio)

3.2 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Deep within the mountains of Colorado lies the Inn at Havenfall. Havenfall is a crossroads between worlds—and serves as a meeting place and sanctuary for the delegates from any number of worlds. Nowadays there are only two gates open: one to Fiordenkill, the other Byrn.

Maddie Morrow, the niece of the Innkeeper of Havenfall, has always spent her summers working at the Inn. She even has hopes of taking over for her Uncle, Marcus, someday. But soon after she arrives at the Inn for the summer of her 18th birthday, those dreams quickly become a reality.

Marcus has been attacked and survives in a coma. Maddie is in charge of the Inn. And the trouble doesn’t stop there.

For a being has slipped through one of the dormant gates—one to the world of Solaria. The Solarians are shapeshifting monsters that prey upon humans and have been banned from Earth for a generation. But now one is loose. And the Solarian door is stuck open.

Now Maddie, with little help and less clue of what to do, must take charge, run the Inn in place of her uncle, prevent any more Solarians from entering via the door while hunting down the one that has already come through. But it may already be too late.

So, at Colorado Mountain there is a door that opens to many worlds. This door is known as the Stargate, and through it… wait no. Um. Colorado, mountains, Havenfall. Right, right.

Havenfall is equal parts adventure, fantasy, romance, and mystery. While it’s a decent fantasy adventure, the romance within the story is actually what captured my interest. I mean, the fantasy is alright—an interesting enough premise and world-building, decent execution and plot, but with underwhelming extraplanar beings, magic system, and character development. The romance somehow drew my attention, which is usually not a good thing. But here it surprised me. Maddie is bi—having fallen in love with Fiorden soldier Brekken, whom she first met at the Inn, but also seasonal worker Taya, who is a mystery that Maddie just can’t seem to solve. Instead of the cringe-worthy, awkward teen romance I was expecting, Havenfall proves to be a soul-searching, confusing story of teenage attraction that—while still awkward—seemed more real than the faerie tale romance you’d expect. Now while Maddie isn’t the best gumshoe (we’ll get to that), she is young and naïve, but also skeptical, making her an excellent target for romance.

A detective, however, she is not. Maddie is young and (apparently) not very bright. She is continually pelted in the face by evidence that she somehow ignores. At first I chalked this up to her being young. Then not terribly smart. And at last… just because. Maddie doesn’t seem to learn from experience. Or make any deductive leaps. Or really even pay much attention to any kind of detail. Yeah, she’s 18, but throughout the story her character doesn’t develop and learn from experience. The mystery is rather basic, and it takes her over twelve hours of story-time to wrap her head around it.

Audio Note: Kate Handford was an excellent narrator that really brought Maddie Morrow to life. And while it didn’t do anything for her mystery-solving ability, I really enjoyed the angst and confusion and naïvety the narrator put into her performance that brought across Maddie as the awkward teenage outcast she truly was.

TL;DR

Havenfall represents (in my opinion) awkward teenage romance done right. While there are faerie tale elements, it’s not a storybook romance, and actually feels somewhat real, not ridiculous and cringe-worthy, if still awkward. In terms of plot, world-building, and adventure, the story is your run-of-the-mill YA fantasy—with an interesting premise and decent execution, but little more. The mystery is just pathetic, honestly. And Maddie isn’t the best narrator, despite being intensely romanceable. Havenfall is a decent enough series debut—though I expect better from its sequel.

The series will continue with Phoenix Flame, out March 4th, 2021.

Crownbreaker – by Sebastien de Castell (Review)

I continue to be obsessed with the Hot Key covers, designed by the very talented Sam Hadley.

Spellslinger #6

Fantasy, YA

Hot Key Books; October 17, 2019

519 pages (Hardcover)

4.9 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Beware Possible Spoilers for the Queenslayer, and the other previous Spellslinger books!

Crownbreaker is the sixth and (for now, at least) final book in the Spellslinger series, wrapping up this tremendously entertaining series in a tidy manner. I put off reading it for a number of months for a number of reasons. First off, Queenslayer was a heck of a book, and I needed to take some time to digest its ending. Secondly, I wasn’t ready to reach the end of the road. I’m a firm believer that all stories must end, but that doesn’t mean I hadn’t grown to love the characters in this series—particularly Kellen and Reichis. I just wasn’t ready to say goodbye yet. The third reason, was the anticipation that was building for the final book. I’d heard a few things about Crownbreaker (including from a few of my friends who loved it), mostly good, but I was still somewhat dreading the conclusion. Would the author kill everyone off? Would he end the series in a cliffhanger? Would there be a Game of Thrones or Queen of Fire ending that worked to end the series, but sucked in every other way imaginable? I doubted de Castell would do any of these, honestly. My respect for him has grown greatly throughout the series. But while he’d provided some people with the ending they wanted, would he also give the characters the ending they deserved?

Something heavy thumped onto my chest, and a fuzzy face with beady eyes stared down at me. “You done lyin’ there yet? I’m hungry.”

After spending most of his adult life on the run, Kellen is slowly settling into his role as adviser to the Queen of Darome. Reichis, for his part, was born for courtly life. Bathing while being fed butter biscuits, being pampered by servants and royalty, and being constantly surrounded by an overwhelming variety of stealables is pretty much a dream come true. Plus, every now and then he gets to kill someone. Kellen is having a slightly harder time adapting. Getting arrested on a daily basis isn’t helping. The head of the Marshals—a striking, attractive young woman, Torian—wants him somewhere close where she can keep on eye on him. Somewhere like her quarters, or the oubliette.

My personal favorite butter biscuits, I ate them and thought of Reichis. Sadly, not in the bath.

But Kellen’s family is aware of his status at court. And they have plans for him. So when his father drops in, Kellen is less than surprised. The one man that he has spent his entire life running from stands before him, and demands a favor of him, Kellen is unimpressed. But Ke’heops is willing to welcome his son home—with a clean slate, a place within the clan, a proper mage name, and the pardoning of a certain Charmcaster as well—Kellen is entirely tempted. Until he hears what his father wants of him.

For a war is brewing on the continent. A child has been born in Berabesq, a child unlike any other. For this child is a living god. One that is sure to unite the nation beneath one flag. And when the country is one, they will roll over the continent, endangering Darome, Gitabaria and the Jan’Tep all equally. And so Kellen’s path is clear. To prevent this war—he must kill a god.

Just another reason I love the Hot Key books. This (and more) lovely picture adorns the page beginning each new section, courtesy of the equally talented Sally Taylor. Anyone know, are these also in the other versions?

This was actually my favorite installment in the series. Quite fitting that it comes at the end (But then—is it the end? I guess you’ll have to read it to find out!). Everything comes together in this final adventure. Now, it’s not perfect, but pretty much as close as anything that I’ve read this year. I don’t have anything to complain about, really. Heck, I read the last three hundred pages in one sitting. The beginning was just a bit slow, but that’s about all.

By this point in the series, there exist so many threads and potential guest stars that the author pretty much could’ve pulled one out of his hat every few chapters and still had enough left for the end. But, those that he did use, combined with the new characters he introduced in this book added up to create quite the ending, one that I’m not sure if he could’ve outdone even if he’d tried (I mean, I assume he tried. A little. But writing is pretty straightforward, right? Yup, pretty sure). In addition to all these guest stars and blindsides, there were still enough twists and turns that I kept genuinely being surprised throughout the second half (in a good way, btw) and where we ended up. Props to Sebastien de Castell for this!

Even more props for the emotional ride. I teared up more than once, and went back to reread my favorite sections before I’d even finished the book. I’m sad to see Kellen and Reichis go, along with so many more: Nephenia, Ferius, Shallan, Pan, the Queen, even Torian—but I’m happy that they all got the ending they deserved. An ending that the author even continued on in the post-script (which just isn’t done enough nowadays, and served as a pleasant surprise (which apparently I’ve just ruined for you, but), so I won’t give you any more details on it), and one that—while it didn’t tie everything together—did more than enough to reach a satisfying conclusion.

As always, nothing is stronger than the world and its characters. Leads that develop are a rare thing. Supporting characters that show depth are even rarer. But the author here has shown depth and development on a larger scale; all the characters within Spellslinger are capable of complex, even drastic change. Some progress in their development. Others regress. More do both. Kellen continues to shoot for the “man that Nephenia loves” version of himself. And Reichis just wants to eat eyeballs—though I don’t know why, they’re really a bit gristly and full of viscous liquid, even when cooked—and butter biscuits, a passion to which we all may aspire. Moreover, de Castell continues to paint such an amazing picture—one he leaves open to interpretation just enough for the reader to fill in their own gaps—and populate it with the most interesting, conniving characters imaginable. Though none of them more cynical than Kellen, of course. Cynical but trusting and cuddly as a bunny, that’s our Kellen.

TL;DR

This review probably could’ve just been a ramble about how much I enjoyed Kellen’s adventure and how much I’ll miss him in the days to come. I mean, it kinda was… but not like, entirely. I talked about how good the world-building and characters were. The development of Kellen and Reichis, and others was impressive. I mentioned how delicious butter biscuits are. I even included a photo of my favorite brand. Assuming that one has gotten this far in the review, only one reasonable question remains: have you read the series yet? And if not, WHY NOT? It’s amazing! The books even LOOK cool! I can’t recommend this fun, exciting, emotional rollercoaster enough.

An Ember in the Ashes – by Sabaa Tahir (Review)

An Ember in the Ashes #1

Fantasy, YA, Romance

Razorbill; April 28, 2015

464 pages (ebook) 15hr 22min (audio)

3.8 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

In the Martial Empire, no one is free.

Laia is a Scholar—one the Empire’s second class citizens. Her people have been oppressed by the ruling class for years, good for nothing except servitude and slavery. Some few have elevated to craftsmen and above, but none are trusted. Laia’s parents wanted something better for the Scholars; so they were killed. Years later Laia lives with her grandparents and her brother, Darin, but that too is about to change.

When he’s caught with sketches of a Martial forge, Darin is arrested for treason. Her grandparents are killed, their shop burned to the ground; the work of a Mask—the Empire’s faceless assassins. Laia manages to escape—but her alone. With no other option, she is forced to turn to the Resistance, though they’ve already ruined her life once.

Elias is a soldier. Born a Veturius—the daughter of one of the most renowned and elite families in the Empire—he was the son Keris never wanted. As such he grew up a faceless tribesman, before he was found out and brought home to the Empire by his grandfather. There he was sent to Blackcliff, the prestigious military academy, to follow in his mother’s footsteps. It was an honor he never dreamt of and a fate he never wanted.

As Laia is a slave by birth, so too is Elias.

Yet neither is keen to stay that way.

Elias plans to defect, to leave the Empire—and his family—behind. But the Augurs, immortal architects of the Empire, have other plans. See, the Emperor is dying, and without an heir, the line won’t last the year. And so a contest is announced to determine the next ruler—and the Augurs want it to be Elias.

Meanwhile, all Laia wants is her brother. But the Resistance isn’t willing to free him for nothing. So to help her brother, Laia is recruited as a spy. She is to gather information about the Empire: their movements, their secrets, anything useful—and report it to the Resistance. But to free Darin, she has to find something worthwhile. And to find something worthwhile, she has to go somewhere important. Somewhere like Blackcliff.

*—•—*

I read about 70% of this as an audiobook, before my library loan expired. Then, I read the rest as an ebook. While both were decent platforms, the audio was highly immersive, with great voice talent that really got into their parts. Though I probably read through the most tense, thrilling, and heart-pounding sections at the end, I never enjoyed the story more than in its audio-format.

All in all, I was a big fan of AEitA. But… I think it was a little too intense for me. This book has all the tension of a YA fantasy under the constant strain of puberty. I mean, CONSTANT. Laia is high-energy paranoid, and with the stress of having to save her only brother WHILE going undercover in Blackcliff knowing that all the previous spies that have done so have died AND ostensibly doing it alone—it kind of shows. She is highly strung, but for a very good reason. This made her chapters all high-energy, fully pumped up, heart-pounding stress and tension. Elias, meanwhile, is almost as intense; trying to survive Blackcliff, while dealing with the added pressure garnered by the name Veturius, and the constant tug-of-war between his desire to desert the Empire and the loyalty he shares with his few friends and comrades, particularly his best friend Helene—whom he may or may not be in love with. [Yes, I realize those were both run-on sentences—no, I am not rewriting them.]

Both POVs confronted the normal issues YA stories deal with. But instead of one or two, they decided to tackle pretty much ALL OF THEM. Which, understandably, made everything pretty intense, energetic, and angsty. I found myself conflicted between the desire to find out what happened next and the need to stop reading and avoid the wave of stress that only YA development can cause.

As such, the romance was in parts fierce, intense and terribly awkward. As most YA romance is, generally. While I loved the characters in AEitA, none were stronger than those of its love-triangle. And while I hate everything about love-triangles in books, since I loved all the characters within this one—I still hated it. I’m not getting into this now. Or ever. Sufficient to say that I find said triangles to be awkward, annoying, angsty, and an unwelcome flashback to my youth where everything was awkward and so brutally important and cringe-worthy all the time. The romance wasn’t a bad-teen-romcom or together-forever romance. But it wasn’t not these things either.

As I said, I loved the characters. Elias and Helene dominated one half of the text, and as the story progressed, both characters continued to grow and develop. As does the relationship between the two. On the other side, we have Laia and Keenan (a Resistance fighter). I never bought into this romance, which seemed like it was introduced just to counter the possible Elias-Helene one. Keenan barely gets any screen time, and remains as weak and unfleshed a character as when he was introduced. And, while I mostly enjoyed Laia, she also infuriated me. Where Elias developed, she pretty much remained the same. Stubborn, paranoid, and standoffish—pretty much early stages Katniss throughout the whole book. Towards the end, her chapters began to annoy me in a very startling way—which was both good and bad. Bad, as she was frustrating. Good, as it demonstrated just how much I had bought into the story.

The characters of Markus and Keris were also quite strong. Okay, so mainly just Keris. Where Markus was your classic unhinged sociopath, Keris showed depth, change and insight—a potent combination for a character obviously designed to be a villain. Over the course of the book, we get to see quite a lot more of Elias’s mother than would be comfortable, but I was surprised to find a logic behind her thoughts and actions, and a justification later on. I’m not giving anything away—just that it was eye-opening to say the least.

The only other weakness I can think of is the setting. The world isn’t very well fleshed out in the first book, something I hope is corrected in further installments. I’d like to see more of the land beyond deserts, imposing fortresses, prisons, cities and tunnels. It all had kind of a dark and dreary cast in my imagination—I’d like to see a bit more vibrance from the setting in the future. Furthermore, a greater understanding of the supernatural world would be nice as well. We’re given just a peek of it in AEitA, with hardly any accompanying explanation.

TL;DR

While it may seem like your classic, run-of-the-mill YA fantasy-romance, An Ember in the Ashes isn’t satisfied with just tackling a few of the YA tropes—it does them all. Youthful development, romance, growth, love, hate, war, depth, sacrifice and compromise—seriously, it does them ALL. And though it helped make this read incredibly immersive, it was the characters that made it real for me. Elias and Helene, and Laia, were strong enough to carry the story through a dark and dreary, unassuming world, filled with men and monsters alike, as well as some of both. What brought me back to earth was the romance—a cringe-worthy dual love-triangle—one side of which never felt real. Adding to this was Laia’s refusal to develop, maintaining the detached, stubborn cast she’d cultivated throughout the entire text. When the rubber hit the road and all the threads converged, Laia stubbornly kept on as she had, annoying me and the plot alike.

While it has both ups and downs, An Ember in the Ashes definitely puts more to the good than the ill, making it a must-read YA fantasy that hopefully will only get better with time. A tetralogy (means “four”) that is set to wrap up later this year, An Ember in the Ashes continues with A Torch Against the Night, a book I’m definitely looking forward to reading. Probably as an audiobook. After that… we’ll see how it goes.

Seven Endless Forests – by April Genevieve Tucholke (Review)

I absolutely love the cover—all those greens and trees!—courtesy of the amazing Elizabeth H. Clark.

Standalone / Torvi #1

Fantasy, YA, Arthurian Legend

Farrar, Straus & Giroux; April 28, 2020

352 pages (ebook)

4.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Macmillan and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Torvi has seen little in her eighteen summers, as she’s rarely been out of sight of her family farm. Daughter of an Elsh farmer and a Merrows’ sailor, she spent her entire childhood being told that her lot in life would be to tend the animals, steal glory from her sister, and only provide worth to her family through a dowry. Though her nan would often tell her tales of adventure and glory, Torvi’s mother would dismiss these as too fanciful for her eldest daughter, instead using every opportunity to focus on the talents of her second daughter, Morgunn.

The story opens in the aftermath of a plague, one that has devastated farms in the Middlelands. Everyone Torvi has ever known or cared for died in that plague, excepting two: her father—who broke his promise and returned to the sea some years before—and her sister, Morgunn. But their mother, nan, and all farmhands and servants perished, all to be burned or buried by Torvi’s own hand. Even Viggo—her lover—passed, leaving her all alone. Except for Morgunn. Morgunn, the daughter her mother doted on. The daughter that Torvi never could be. The daughter that would inherit the world, that would win glory, the daughter likely to retrieve the mythical sword of Esca, thus commanding a Jarldom.

The daughter that gets kidnapped in the opening chapters.

A roving band of wolf-priestesses, disciples of flesh, blood and flame, descend upon the farm, taking Morgunn off for sacrifice after razing the steading to the ground. And it’s up to Torvi, her only family left, to rescue her sister and kill the wolves holding her. Something she’ll never hope to do alone.

And so Torvi sets out upon a quest: to find and gain allies in her fight, to save her sister, to rebuild her life, and even—maybe—to liberate a magical sword from a certain stone, thus winning glory. Though on her journey Torvi shall face death, tragedy, danger, and deceit, she may yet find adventure, love, glory, and the acceptance that’s eluded her all her life. But will she reach her sister in time?

Well, she certainly doesn’t reach her sister IN TIME. This is NOT a spoiler, just a note on just how long it takes her to get going. A few chapters in, she (and Morgunn, before her capture) meet Gyda, a druid, and gain their first companion. Then a little after her sister is taken, they collect some Butcher Bards—and are off on a magical adventure! Just, not a time-sensitive one. Honestly, the first part of the story is so random and wandery that by the 1/3 mark I fully expected them to reach the wolves only to find that the raiders had sacrificed Morgunn a month past. And then I realized this probably wouldn’t be very Arthurian. Nevertheless, there’s no real sense of urgency to the plot—as if they’d a gentleman’s (or ladies) agreement from the wolves to stay any executing of anyone until there could be a showdown. Torvi and her band just kick around the world having exciting adventures and telling mystical tales while at the same time casually keeping an eye out for anyone they could use to help free her sister.

The most surprising revelation wasn’t actually that they were wasting waaay too much time. It was that—despite the lack of urgency, despite the impending death of Torvi’s sister—I was actually enjoying the story. Torvi and her band travel to exotic and fanciful locales, face unknown horrors, meet exceptional people, and explore breathtaking forests. And despite the lack of any urgency—or maybe because of it—I really enjoyed it. I mean, the fact that they take their sweet damn time is entirely irksome, something that can’t be understated. It bothered me when I picked up Seven Endless Forests every evening. But by the time I set the book aside each night I was over it, already lost in the aftermath of the adventures they’d undertaken. It is a magical and wondrous world Tucholke created, one that overwhelmed all the issues that came with it. Not that there are many. Other than the sense of urgency, I had one other issue—that of the plot that is Morgunn. Without spoiling as much as possible… the kidnapping of Morgunn doesn’t extend through to the end. At about the 3/4 mark, we clear that up and take on the next adventure: that of the sword of Esca. Now, the two tales are loosely connected, but Tucholke doesn’t really take any pains try and tie them closer. And as much as I adored the story—and I did—this disconnect was annoying, and stupid.

The world-building of Seven Endless Forests is impressive. The myths and stories that appear in the text are so varied and unique that I’d be interested to go back and read Tucholke’s other stuff to see if they weren’t established earlier. Now some of the legends within are retelling of Norse faery tales, like how the story is a retelling of Arthurian legend. But others I didn’t recognize. Now, I don’t pretend to know everything about either topic, but I have dived pretty deep before, into each, so I’m aware of a decent amount. But the various characters that Torvi and her band meet are so wondrous and colorful; the Butcher Bards, the Quicks, the wolf priestesses, the Pig witches, the Merrowsfolk, the monks and witches and wizards and more. And the places they visit are no less amazing—tree villages, night markets, endless forests—that it was easy to lose myself in the world for a few hours or more and then go to bed, forgetting that the plot had basically wandered around aimlessly during that time.

Magic is different depending on who you are. Instead of one universal magical system, there are many. Pig witches read the entrails of beasts to decode the future. Drakes read the stars to accomplish the same. Flemmish Wizards do a bit of both, but command the more traditional magicks besides, making them a class all their own. Wolves (priestesses) rely on yew-berry poison to see the world as it truly is, and to manipulate it to their own ends. Additionally, there are Sea witches, Druids, Bone monks, Jade Fells, and more. Each with their own abilities and styles.

TL;DR

A retelling of Arthurian legend with an emphasis on ancient Norse culture and a map that very much resembles Finland, Seven Endless Forests is the wondrous, meandering adventure that I didn’t know I needed. While it wastes too much time to be considered an urgent rescue mission, and while that whole plot thread ends at the 3/4 mark, the resulting tale that this book tells are worth their weight in gold for their adventure, questing, myths and legends, and its fabulous world. Though possessive of a strange blend of wandering and urgency at first, the story settles down to tell the tale of Torvi, a farm-girl out to seize control of her destiny. It’s not without fault, but succeeds much more than it fails—at least, in my opinion. It reminded me of a novelized Quest for Glory game, if you remember those. Magic, fun, adventure—what more could you ask for? Definitely worth a read.

A Note: While everything I’ve read claims that this is a standalone, at the end of the epilogue there is a disclaimer noting that the story is not over yet, and the conclusion reopens a few threads, just in case the author decides to revisit the world in the future. What I’m saying is: this is just primed for a sequel. So don’t count one out.

A Historical Note: Seven Endless Forests is set in a mythical not-Finland. The story is a retelling of Arthurian legend, but relies heavy on ancient Norse culture and tales. I actually had this in the midst of the review and one point, but then I rambled a bit too much (and this is the CUT DOWN version). Now, as I’ve been an archaeologist and historian in past lives, well… Finland wasn’t originally Norse. It was conquered by Sweden in the Late Middle Ages and generally settled as a colony. They converted the people to Christianity, and several Norse cultural aspects bled into Suomi during this time. But while they bordered one another, the two cultures aren’t the same. The Scandinavian and Finnish languages aren’t even remotely similar. The myths and legends, while occasionally similar, are not the same. And importantly, Norse paganism and Suomenusko are not the same. Norse featured Odin, Thor, Asgard, and Yggdrasil. Suomenusko relied on its own pantheon of gods (like Ukko, Lempo, and Nyyrikki), ancestor worship, and the veneration of forests—that did actually make it into the text. Otherwise, despite the fact that the map is essentially that of Suomi, it’s heavily Norse, with a few Finnish influences.

Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows – by John August (Review)

Arlo Finch #3

YA, Middle Grade, Fantasy

Roaring Brook Press; February 4, 2020

314 pages (ebook) 7 hr 20 min (audio)

3 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Warning: Contains minor spoilers for the previous Arlo Finch books.

Arlo Finch is back—but something has changed.

Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows is the third book in John August’s series surrounding the young lad, Arlo, after his family move to the secluded town of Pine Mountain, Colorado. While the previous two entries in the series dealt with the exciting adventures of Arlo and his friends, the Kingdom of Shadows attempts to add more drama and suspense by throwing Arlo’s data-mining father into the mix, in an adventure that will change the fate of both the Long Woods and the Real World. But where the previous two books succeeded by trying to encapsulate children’s adventures while adding a bit of action and flair, the third book falls short by trying to do too much while ultimately delivering about the same sense of resolution. Ugghhh—I’ve tried to write this intro half a dozen times and it still sounds bad. Just… bear with me, yeah?

After an adventure at summer camp spanning thirty years, Arlo is back home in Pine Mountain, preparing to face a new school, new teachers and new challenges. In Rangers he is training hard, ready to leave Squirrel for a new rank—but has to compete with new additions to his troop, new techniques, and harder tasks than ever before.

But first, Arlo is going to undertake the most dangerous adventure he’s ever conceived. He’s going to rescue his father, bringing him home to Pine Mountain by traversing the Long Woods. But the Eldritch have plans for Arlo, and the way is already not without its dangers. Enemies—old and new—are all around him. Arlo must rely on his two best friends, his fellow Rangers in Blue Patrol, and his family to see him through it. And even with all of them on his side, it might not be enough.

Okay, so it’s a short blurb. The book actually contains two adventures: Arlo’s mission to rescue his father, and then whatever the Eldritch want. They’re loosely connected later in the text, but for all purposes, they’re really two separate tales. Coming into this I was expecting a rip-roaring gauntlet spanning from Colorado to China and back, with the Eldritch, the government, enemies new and old alike taking shots at Arlo in-between. What I got instead was one adventure, then a break, another adventure, and then a loose connection that sets up a conclusion somehow neither here nor there.

In terms of an adventure, Kingdom of Shadows is a typical Finch special. That is it blends enough action, drama and fun in a bag to create an enjoyable, entertaining, PG adventure. I had no more trouble getting into and through it than usual, which is very little. I had issues with pieces along the way, which I’ll get into in a minute. But the adventure itself, the setting are just as good as usual, the story no harder to read.

I had more issues with the book itself than usual, while taking into account that it is a middle grade story, after all. The first has to do with the story itself. But I’ve already discussed this a little. It’s mostly the pacing that I object to, and the plot. The starting one adventure, then another, only to blend them later on but somehow conclude neither adequately. The pacing gets going early only to slow and never build itself back up to the level it leads with—even during the exciting boss-fight toward the end.

My main issue with the book is Arlo’s father. Clark Finch is a hacker of some sort—never described fully as Arlo himself doesn’t understand it. In fact, Arlo doesn’t understand computers or technology much at all. Instead, he regards it as akin to magic. This is incredibly convenient in the story as there’re parts where Clark will whip out some device, give some generic techno-babble and then magic up a solution to whatever problem they face. As a reason for his exile, it’s a good, modern idea. As a plot point, it’s incredibly lazy—like having the main character carry around a bottomless sack full of whatever it is he might need. Other than this hacker persona, Clark really doesn’t seem to have much of a personality at all. He’s just… there.

Which brings me to my next point. Arlo, by this point, is in seventh grade—making him somewhere around 12-13. But he’s as much of a child as he used to be. The book clearly disagrees with this assessment, going out of its way to compare how he approaches problems now, versus how he would’ve in his year before Rangers. But this mostly regards things that he’s learnt, not any maturing on his part. And yeah, I understand that my maturity level didn’t improve between the ages of 10-14. It CHANGED, but didn’t exactly improve. I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that there should be some kind of character development at this point. But there isn’t. Arlo still goes through the same, simple, straightforward steps when he gets in trouble. While his skills have improved, the process itself hasn’t. And by this age, I would’ve liked to see some evidence of development, even if it’s just regression.

TL;DR

While it still tells a thoroughly enjoyable adventure, Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows pales in comparison to its predecessors, promising a greater sense of drama and suspense and illusion, but delivering on little of it. The sense of fulfillment is equal to past books; no more, nor less. While the story regarding the Eldritch and the Long Woods is a good one, and the adventure to and from China entertaining—the two don’t blend well together, fighting one another for control of the book. Each would’ve made a good read on its own, but together they fell short of a complete story, failing to deliver a satisfactory resolution. Despite the fact that Arlo is now in 7th grade, little has changed from when he first arrived in Pine Mountain. He’s older—technically—and has different skills, though it’s difficult to see any character development. I know this is a Middle Grade book, but I would’ve liked to see SOMETHING. Though it falls short of perfection, short of its predecessors, and feels somewhat lacking upon completion, Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows is a worthwhile read for fans of the series. Hopefully from here it will just go upwards, but only time will tell.

Tunnel of Bones – by Victoria Schwab (Review)

Cassidy Blake #2

Supernatural, Paranormal, Middle Grade

Scholastic Press; September 3, 2019

304 pages (ebook) 5 hr 5 min (audio)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Trouble is haunting Cassidy Blake… even more than usual.

Thus begins Tunnel of Bones, the second Cassidy Blake story, following up City of Ghosts in 2018. Fresh out of Edinburgh, where she tangled with the Red Raven, a spectral lady with aims of becoming flesh reborn. She also met Lara, a girl that can also see and interact with the dead, and whom lets Cassidy in on a little secret. That they must use their power to send the ghosts on, lest they linger in our world and become a danger to it. Enter Paris: one of the most haunted cities in the world.

Not above ground—but below, in the catacombs, ghosts crowd the tunnels, haunting everything and everyone in reach. Fresh into Paris, Cassidy and her parents venture below, filming an episode for their TV show while Cassidy tags along, attempting very hard to slip between the Veil as soon as she’s able. And slip she does. While in the spirit world, Cassidy runs across more than she was prepared for, awakening a very powerful spirit who proceeds to follow her across the Veil.

Thus begins a cat-and-mouse haunting in the center of Paris—where Cassidy is most certainly not the cat. And as a cat, it delights in toying with her, breaking things, and sleeping in the sun. Well… two of those, anyway.

After speaking to Lara, she determines that the spirit is a poltergeist—a ghost of immense power and potential—something that remembers neither who it was nor how it died. Two things Cassidy must discern in order to stop it. And stop it she must—in only a few days. Otherwise, while Cassidy Blake will leave Paris behind, the poltergeist will always remain her problem, her doing, her mistake. And she will have to live with the consequences.

I was torn on City of Ghosts, which I found lacking polish, drama, and shine. I found it rather bland, uninteresting, and short. Tunnel of Bones had more character, polish, but was still short. There’s only so good a story can get in five hours. But Tunnel of Bones surely gets better, quicker than City of Ghosts. To compare the two: Bones had more polish, more charm, more character. Though neither provided the length, the thrill, the immersion that I like in a story.

Again, I found the actual ghost-hunting itself a little bland. Dismissing a poltergeist proved to be more interesting than the Red Raven, but only just. There was no boss-fight (not that I expected one), very little detective work (though there was some), and too much chocolate (only because I can’t eat any). Pretty much like an episode of Danny Phantom—short, less than very thrilling, and over before you realized there was a plot. Was better than the first, though, so it was a step in the right direction.

Jacob is… bland. Lara—who was a cynical, pompous brat in City of Ghosts—actually fleshes out some in this entry. She actually seemed a real person over Bones, something that I did not expect. Something that pleased and encouraged me. Actually may’ve been my most favorite element of the book itself. But while it was something, it was little enough as development goes. Not that there is much character development to speak of, but between the two books there is a little, and Lara accounts for most of it. Cassidy commands the remainder. Jacob… okay, I know he’s a ghost and all, but I would’ve liked to see something out of him. Schwab tries to nudge him toward it in the end, but it’s too little, too late by that point. Might set something up for the third book, but does nothing for the first two. Jacob is actually a little like an imaginary friend; there’s no change, no development—he’s consistent, for better or worse.

There’s one particular event that I need to harp on: late in the book, Cassidy literally mugs a ghost and steals his clothes to disguise Jacob—something that makes no actual sense. We’ve established that ghosts manifest beyond the Veil following their death, and that how they appear in death is directly related to both who they were in life and how they died. It’s their sense of self, basically. One cannot steal someone else’s sense of self and wear it around. And it’s an important plot-point, somehow! If an absolutely ridiculous one.

Audio Note: Reba Buhr is a solid narrator throughout the book. I wouldn’t read the series entirely to hear her voice, but it’s not like it ruined the reading or anything. She was a talented, interesting narrator who enunciated and pronounced everything quite well—both in English and French.

TL;DR

For better or worse, Tunnel of Bones continues on the same path City of Ghosts started, albeit with more polish and shine. There’s even a bit of character development, though not nearly enough. It looks like we’re going to continue in this vein—an episodic, city-to-city, traveling ghost-hunting show. There’s an overarching plot, but it’s thin; as befits a kids’ book, I suppose. Each book so far has shown its own subplot, which has been raced through in the (5 hours of) allotted time. Going forward, I would like to see a little more effort, a little more adventure, a little more intrigue, a little more legwork, and a little… MORE. While Tunnel of Bones is likely better than the original, it still leaves much to be desired. But in terms of readability—it’s good enough; a decent read, that does just enough but little more.

The series continues with Bridge of Souls, expected out in March of 2021.

By some amazing coincidence, I’ve posted this exactly one year after my review of the first one. Huh, weird.

The Fall of the Readers – by Django Wexler (Review)

Forbidden Library #4

Fantasy, YA, Middle Grade

Kathy Dawson Books; December 5, 2017

368 pages (ebook) 7hr 51min (audio)

4.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

So ends the Forbidden Library series. I’ve immensely enjoyed it, and am happy to report that Fall of the Readers was no different! While 2019 was the Year of Django in my book, it seems the future is bright for him. A pair of books out from him this year, with City of Stone and Silence following the debut of Ship of Smoke and Steel that I was a bit torn on. Ashes of the Sun is due out this summer, and my expectations are high. But let’s not (me) get distracted. So, the Fall of the Readers…

With Geryon defeated and imprisoned within a book, Alice reigns over the library. For now. The other Readers, sensing a shift in the balance of power, have come to take Geryon’s realm for themselves. While Alice thought she was prepared for what came ahead, she didn’t imagine just how hard it would be. Soon, the library is under threat. As are all the book realms within it. As are her friends; all the apprentices come under her protection. Alice is outmatched, and she knows it.

So when Ending—Alice and Geryon’s tentative ally—and the library’s labyrinthian, suggests an insane, last-ditch effort, Alice has no real choice but to pursue it. The goal is clear: she must free the labyrinthians, one and all, from their imprisonment. Then, together the free Labyrinthian and young Readers will turn their combined strength upon the elder Readers. And moving forward, the two can work as one to build a better world.

In theory, it’s a lovely ideal. But full of some pretty big “ifs”. Not to mention a mission that is almost certainly sure to fail. And with the old Readers closing in, Alice and her friends must hurry through it, just praying they have enough time to put the desperate plan into action. Because even if it works—and that’s a mighty big IF—and all of them survive, the old Readers are still a powerful enemy. There may be no way to defeat them, regardless of what Alice and the others do. And, well… Alice has more worries than just them. For even if her plan goes off without a hitch, what assurances does she have that Ending and the others will keep their word?

But then, what choice does she have, really?

As Wexler’s YA/Middle Grade series comes to a close, we’re confronted with some desperate, insane, and equally unlikely plans. Alice has always been an idealist, though in recent books, she’s begun to lose a bit of her luster. Her character development over the series has really been interesting, especially as it comes at a middle-grade level. But with all that has come and gone, Alice’s journey is far from over. And the final book may provide the biggest bombshell yet.

While I was sad to see the series end, I can report that it ends well. None of that cliffhanger or end-of-the-world/everyone-dies nonsense. There’s a bit of melancholy to it, but I don’t want to give any more away, so I’m going to leave it at that.

The pace of the book doesn’t let up. Being the final book in the series, it picks up early and never really slows down. There’re very few issues with lag, or the pace letting up, or even the story going off on a tangent. It’s pretty much straightforward to the end. More than one surprise is in store, and the (shall we say) “biggest” bombshell may not be the last. I didn’t have any problem rolling through this one, despite the fact that I lost my loan halfway through and had to start over a month or so later.

Audio Note: After four books, Cassandra Morris’s rendition of Alice has been perfected. Even halfway through the second book I had come to realize that I’d probably hear her voice in my head if I ever had to just read the books instead of listening to them. And while I didn’t have to (for very long, at least), even a few months between finishing the series and completing its review I can still her her voice in my head while I write this. While I was skeptical of her portrayal at first, I’ve certainly come around. Morris totally nailed Alice here, and I hope to read more of her narration later on!

TL;DR

The final entry in the Forbidden Library series was worth the wait. It was also worth reading the previous three to reach. The combined stories, along with those of its characters came together to create a lovely ending. Alice’s journey was a great one to travel. While her romance was a bit up and down (even here in the final book), her motivations, her story, her development as a character were all amazing. When compared with Wexler’s clunky start to the YA Wells of Sorcery, Fall of the Readers is even more of a triumph, and a must-read for anyone that enjoys middle-grade or even YA fantasy. With fantastic world-building end to end, relatable characters, an inventive setting, and provocative and thoughtful story, Fall of the Readers is a great end to a great series.

Witchsign – by Den Patrick (Review)

Ashen Torment #1

Fantasy, YA

HarperVoyager; May 22, 2018

450 pages (PB)

2.3 / 5 ✪

Despite a rather disappointing choice of narrator in Steiner, Witchsign was a lovely fantasy, complete with mystery and magic—the start of a great new series. Until… about its 200th page. At this point, the mystery and adventure dampened, the plot developed serious issues, and the story’s flow completely fell to pieces.

Seventy-five years ago, the dragons fell. The Synod overthrew the rule of fire and magic, hunting the mythic creatures to the ends of the earth until none remained. Thus was the Empire born.

Far to the north lie the Scorched Republics, flanked between the Empire and the Sommerende Ocean. Despite being independent, the republics belong to the Empire in all but name. Northmost of the northern republics is Nordvlast, where the brunt of our story takes place. Steiner lives in Cinderfell, a dreary town tucked up against the Spøkelsea, farthest distant from the Empire of any community on the continent. But even here—where the winters are frigid and the summers short, where ash falls from the sky and the sun rarely shines—the Synod still exert their influence. Every year children below the age of 16 are tested for the Witchsign: the ability to touch and control the elements. If such a child is found, they are shipped off by the Empire, never to be seen again.

Steiner is no witch. A blacksmith’s son, he spends his days in the forge and his nights at the tavern, his eye on the owner’s daughter, Kristofine. A girl who has just begun to return his smiles. A simple life, for a simple man.But he fears the coming Invigilation—the day of testing—regardless. It is not for himself that Steiner worries, but for his sister Kjellrunn. A carefree girl of sixteen, Kjell has always been different. Her hair is a tangle and her body immature, appearing to far younger than her actual age. She spends each day in the forests, communing with the trees, the rock, the ocean. She cares little for the townsfolk, and what they think. For they think she has the Witchsign. Steiner suspects so as well. And even so, Kjell has made it through every testing—all but the last. Steiner is sure this year will be the one she is found out, and taken from them. And he is willing to take any risk to protect her.

Any and every risk.

And he just may have to.

I was quite high on the beginning of this book. One of my top TBR for the year, Witchsign started off well, with a budding romance, a generally likable narrator, a mystery, a conflict, and the promise of much, much more. I was hooked and cruising through; a five-star read for sure.

But… Steiner isn’t the best narrator. Early on he and Kjellrunn share the load rather equally, but later on Steiner shoulders more and more of the story. And he’s… a bit dull. Rash, impulsive, stubborn. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, when it’s well written. But Steiner is not well-written. While the author portrays him as possessive of a keen mind despite his inability to read and write, his hulking frame and his reputation—Steiner’s actions betray him. While early on he seems a thoughtful youth possessed by an impulsive, stubborn streak, later he’s just impulsive, stubborn and rash. I guess this could be chalked up to his development throughout the story, but I just pegged it as bad writing. And though the author continues to paint thought and detail into the prose of Steiner’s chapters and descriptions, the character’s mood consistently contradicts this.

Kjellrunn, meanwhile, offers a thoughtful, provoking POV. Until she doesn’t. And then does, again. See, Witchsign works well enough through the first 300-plus pages. And then it breaks down. The next hundred twenty or so remind me a bit of the first Harry Potter—where the story skips around to the significant moments, while leaving the other parts out in the cold. While that worked (arguably) for Rowling, she used line- and page-breaks to indicate when the story would be taking a breather.

Witchsign doesn’t. I felt like the author was running short on time and provided a bare bones account of the middle, skipped forward to write the ending, and then came back to flesh out the rest. An acceptable tactic, when it works. When you GET to it all. Which e didn’t. What we’re left with is a hundred page gap of poorly written story (so bad in places that I ended up skimming through it a bit), followed by an ending that would’ve worked pretty well if it had matched the preceding events at all. So, while the set-up and middle of the book are good, the lead-in and final battle are nigh-unreadable. Then the wrap-up is back to good. It’s… very frustrating.

The story itself is well-thought out and the world well built—again, until it isn’t. The characters, the development, the plot, the flow—everything takes a break around the two-thirds mark.

Now, if you could just let off there and pick up at the end… but you can’t. Nothing would make sense. Believe me—I tried. Again, Den Patrick has me raving at the beginning and skipping chapters by the end. Quite an unusual feat to pull off more than once. Honestly, it was painful to see the read collapse like it did. And disappointing. A little more time could’ve made all the difference. But… t’was not to be.

TL;DR

Before beginning Witchsign I raved about its beautiful cover and interesting-sounding story. Right away I was hooked, and continued to praise the writing, the mystery and the story. But, like the Boy with the Porcelain Blade before it, that all changed. At around the halfway mark I became disillusioned with Steiner. At the two-thirds mark, became disillusioned with the story. Shortly thereafter, it became nigh-unreadable. If you tough it out to the end, you’re treated to a lovely post-battle wrap up, which only made sense when I figured that the author was running short on time and skipped forward to write the end first. But never got back to the middle. It gets the point across, carries the plot from Point A to B—but barely. And not well.

If you’re on the fence, I’d recommend against it. But, if you, say—have the next book sitting around somewhere already (it was free, which helps), and you want to tough it out… yeah, it’s doable. Wasn’t bad til the 300-page mark. The Ashen Torment continues in Stormtide, published last year. I’ll probably get to it eventually, so I’ll let you know how it goes. An important reminder though: you can’t judge a book by its cover.

The Hazel Wood – by Melissa Albert (Review)

The Hazel Wood #1

Fantasy, YA

Flatiron Books; January 30, 2018

356 pages (ebook)

12 hr, 11 min (audio)

GoodreadsAuthor Twitter

4 / 5 ✪

When Alice Proserpine was six, a strange red-haired man came to kidnap her. Now, unlike most kidnappers, he didn’t cover his face or hers. He didn’t bundle her into a van and threaten her or her mother. He didn’t demand a ransom for her, or much of anything else. He simply pulled up in an old blue Buick and asked if she’d like a ride to meet her grandmother. And Alice, being a child, said yes.

Years later, Alice still remembers the man. The way he spoke and laughed. How he’d bought her pancakes and told her the strangest stories while she ate them. How the police found them after 14 hours, and how they were amazed to hear he hadn’t mistreated her. She remembers him, and how panicked her mother, Ella, was to find her. Years later, Alice’s mother is still haunted by this event—although Alice remembers it fondly, through a haze of being young and impressionable, she reasons. It is the reason they move from town to town like drifters. The reason Alice concocts a different last name and life story each time they do. The reason that some days she awakens to find her mother up, the car packed and waiting. It—and her grandmother, Althea—is the reason they are never safe.

Alice is seventeen now, and her mother has settled down somewhat. They currently reside in New York City, where her mother has married wealthy businessman Harold. Now Alice shares a penthouse loft with him and her mother, and his daughter Audrey, a stereotypical rich, popular, snob who’s addicted to her phone and fashion. That is, until one day when Ella vanishes, and Harold throws her out at gunpoint, wild-eyed and raving nonsensically. Newly destitute and—well, more destitute than usual—desperate to find Ella, Alice turns to the only person she can: billionaire’s son Ellery Finch, and the closest thing she has to a friend. But not only is Ellery the awkward, geeky slush fund of disposable income that Alice has never wanted, he’s also the only person she has ever met who’s read “Tales from the Hinterland”, her grandmother Althea’s book, and—apparently—the reason this whole fiasco started.

A cult classic, Tales from the Hinterland is nothing but a collection of loosely-tied fairy tales, though each one featuring a strange and dark ending. Not that Alice has ever read them. But Finch has. And it’s his knowledge that may be the key for finding Ella. All Alice has to do is disregard Ella’s final message to her: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.”

The Hazel Wood was not at all what I expected. I mean, going into it, I didn’t know what to expect. Something about fairy tales, surely. But we really don’t get into the fairy tales until the halfway mark or so—prior to that there’re only snippets and clues. An adventure-thriller, with mystery and fantasy thrown in—the Hazel Wood defied my expectations as surely as it will your own.

It’s a great read, for the most part. What begins as a thought-provoking mystery soon becomes a heart-pounding pursuit, which itself becomes a rescue op gone wrong. It’s quite the ride, on the whole, twisting and turning plot-lines that weave and intersect so frequently that there’s never any problem reading. But in the end—which I’m totally NOT giving away—it all kinda fizzles out. Not that there isn’t any resolution. Just that it isn’t entirely satisfactory. It’s certainly lackluster. Althea, Ella, and the Hazel Wood have all been the driving factors to this point. But following the resolution, what Alice wants gets… muddied up a bit. The results of this are a bit anticlimactic, but hopefully get resolved in the next book. In fact, “The Boy Who Never Came Home”, a short told from Ellery’s POV, helps fill in some bits and pieces. This was included with the edition I read, though you may have to find it elsewhere if you get a different one. While this novella and the original story combine to create a MORE satisfactory ending, it’s still far from what I’d hoped. But as I said, hopefully the second book pulls everything together.

The setting of the Hazel Wood is spectacular. Not so much New York City, which looks and sounds like a city no matter how you spin it—once we get Upstate, or to the Hazel Wood itself, the depiction really takes a turn. It certainly reads like a dark fairy tale from that moment on, and I was left picturing a world like that of Hans Christian Andersen or Lewis Carroll which had been dipped in ink and left to absorb around the edges. A truly dark and twisted world that inspires both dreams and nightmares alike.

The characters—Alice and Finch in particular—are impressive. While none else have the depth, the attention to detail that these two command, no others are around quite as much as they are. From the relationship between the two (whatever it is), to the way it affects their actions, to the manner in which it changes over the course of the telling, I was absorbed by the way Melissa Albert uses it to strengthen her story. Though it can’t be said that individual character growth and development are nearly so strong, their mutual bond shows that such a thing can be possible [in the future].

TL;DR

The Hazel Wood was quite a read—action, adventure, mystery and enjoyable but dark fantasy all twirled into one. While I’m definitely interested in anything more Melissa Albert has to offer, the ending somewhat soured me on it, thus I did not go out and buy the next book directly upon finishing it. Where the individual character development disappointed, the twisting way in which Alice and Finch’s relationship changes more than makes up for it. The dark fairy tale setting is lovely, as the author seems to have captured the very essence of fairy tales and brought them to life, but with a dark, bloody twist. I hear a copy of the Tales of the Hinterland is in the works, and would love to read it! But until 2021, you’ll have to make do with The Night Country, which follows the Hazel Wood and hopefully ties up some loose threads. If you get to it before me, could you stop by and let me know how it is? Thank you!

Audio Note: It actually took me some time to get used to the reader, Rebecca Soler, but once I did I thought that she encapsulated Alice quite nicely. While I’d certainly recommend it (and her) for the heart-pounding moments of anticipation or the slow, methodical mysteries throughout—I’m less than sold on the fast-paced action elements. It may just be me but I found that she sorta slurs the words together a bit to get them out faster (like I do when I talk fast), and at protracted times it became more difficult to follow. Just my opinion, not a shot or anything.

Brightstorm – by Vashti Hardy (Review)

Sky-Ship Adventure #1

Middle Grade, Steampunk, YA, Adventure

Scholastic; March 1, 2018 (UK)

Norton Young Readers; March 17, 2020 (US)

352 pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly furnished with a copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Norton and NetGalley for the ARC!

Brightstorm is the debut novel from middle grade author Vashti Hardy. Set in an alternate London (called “Lontown”), it follows a set of twins, Arthur and Maddie, born of adventurer Ernest Brightstorm, who must retrace the steps of his final adventure in order to clear their family name.

When adventure twins Arthur and Maudie Brightstorm receive word that their father has been killed while attempting to reach South Polaris, they think that life can’t get much worse. But, when he is accused of attempted sabotage and disowned by the explorer community, they find out that this nightmare can get even worse. Stripped of their home and inheritance, the Brightstorms are essentially sold off by their de facto legal guardian as housekeepers to the Beggins, a malevolent pair of busybodies occupying a poorer section of Lontown known as the Drips.

In an attempt to recover their family’s honor, the twins must escape domestic servitude, get hired on another expedition to South Polaris, locate their father’s downed skyship, and clear his name. Not an easy task for anyone, but possibly more for a pair of twelve year-olds. Though instead of experience, the twins have each other—which is sure to be the greatest benefit of all.

Officially a middle-grade fantasy, Brightstorm was a fun, rousing adventure so long as I didn’t overanalyze it. So, it’s a kids’ book and I’m not an English teacher—you don’t have to overthink it. I mean, you totally CAN overthink it, but I’m not going to. It’s all good fun. That’s my review—little more needed.

While Brightstorm isn’t perfect, it’s certainly good enough. An enjoyable adventure! Arthur and Maudie are the desirable narrators for a childhood adventure story; with one boy and one girl, they can tell a nice, balanced story that most young children will relate to. That is, it COULD have been a balanced story perfect for both boys and girls, except that Arthur does all the narrating. Not that Maudie plays a bit part or anything—she shares the spotlight with Arthur, solving mechanical puzzles and problems, as well as doing a fair bit of exploration herself. She just doesn’t live the story the way Arthur does. Now, nothing away from Arthur—with his iron arm, the kid is a true survivor, someone who has overcome their so-called “limitations” to lead a rich, fulfilling life, even excelling where so many “able-bodied” people would fail. That being said, I would’ve liked to see more from Maudie’s perspective. Maybe in the next book!

The mystery is… not really very mysterious. It plays out like any starter mystery I could think of. There’s good, there’s evil, and there’s a generally solid line between the two. Likewise, the Brightstorms start low in the beginning, but life gets better the more they progress. Yes, there are a few harrowing parts, but seeing as this is a middle-grade fiction, I really wouldn’t’ve expected any harsh life-lessons at this point. Clues are collected, they all add up nicely and leave very little in the way of loose ends, and the end of the tale sets us up for the next one in a straightforward manner.

TL;DR

If you like exciting, new adventures that are above all else fun—then Brightstorm is your kind of read. This preteen steampunk adventure features a pair of twins as the protagonists, though we only ever hear from Arthur, an oversight that I hope gets corrected in the next book. We even learn a few lessons; the most obvious being that we can overcome any obstacle with friendship, resourcefulness, and sheer determination. If so far you think that this sounds like your cup of tea—then dive on in! It being an adventure with definite British overtones, I can guarantee you that you will hear some funny names and a lot about tea. Now, if you like exciting novels that tell it like it is, feature dark overtones that blur the lines between what’s right and wrong—maybe skip this. This ain’t that kind of book. It’s more straightforward, fun and adventure. Don’t read too much into it.

Don’t miss the next Sky-Ship Adventure—Darkwhispers—due out in February 2020.