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.

Queenslayer – by Sebastien de Castell (Review)

Spellslinger #5

Fantasy, YA

Hot Key Books; May 2, 2019

451 pages (PB)

4 / 5 ✪

Author WebsiteGoodreads

Contains spoilers for the previous Spellslinger books!

The penultimate book in the Spellslinger series finds Kellen in Daroman doing what he does best—pissing people off. As a matter of course, he and Reichis realistically needed to find their way into the Empire at some point. Having been in jail, hunted, or hunted while in jail virtually everywhere else on the continent ultimately would’ve led them to feel disappointed by not having experienced the Daroman justice system first hand.

Kellen being Kellen, he manages to get arrested by Daroman authorities after legally killing someone. Following a duel over a hand of cards, Kellen dispatches his opponent with flair, afterwards wiping some of his blood onto a cloth in the overseeing marshals’ saddlebags. A cloth that just happened to be the Daroman flag. See, Daroman justice is a fiddly bit, and wiping blood (or likely other bodily fluids) on their flag is tantamount to treason. And so Kellen is trussed up, thrown on a horse and paraded to the capital where the Queen is to oversee his trial and subsequent execution. Reichis—meanwhile—rides in style, being hand-fed butter biscuits and pampered by the marshals.

But upon visiting the court, a curious thing happens.

The Queen—the ruling monarch for 2000 years reincarnated in the body of an 11-year old—chooses to spare Kellen, instead appointing him her Tutor of Cards, essentially making him untouchable by the legal system. His reward for this? To help the Queen survive into her teenage years, while also teaching her cards.

And yet, not all is as it seems. While many of the courtiers hate Kellen—being a foreign mage, especially one cursed with Shadowblack, is not good for public opinion—just as many fear him in equal measure. Reichis is generally just viewed with adoration or distaste, both of which seem to infuriate the squirrel-cat. As such, both Kellen and his business partner are quickly confronted with assassination plots, which they manage to thwart. But surviving these is just the first step.

Over the course of Queenslayer, Kellen is thrown into the pit of courtly politics. Involved is a beautiful countess, and the major attempting to force said countess into marriage. There’s a reclusive count willing to help Kellen out, seemingly for free. There’re several marshals seeking his death (actually, there’s quite a lot of people trying to kill him, but). There’s a millennia-old reincarnate, a powerful queen, and a scared little girl—all in one. The Jan’Tep have their fingers in the mix, with Sha’maat appearing to make another brazen request. There’s the queen’s social secretary; a mysterious man everyone loves and hates in equal measure.And there’s Kellen and Reichis in the middle, with no Ferius or Nephenia in sight.

“And what is your occupation?”

“Mostly people try to kill me. When they fail, I take their money.”

As Kellen has proved in past books, he doesn’t need anyone’s help screwing himself over. But as he proved in Soulbinder, neither does he need anyone’s help getting out of it. Just give him a sec to think it over, a half-assed plan involving Reichis that’s sure to fail, and clap him in irons and let him get to work. The results are usually surprising—but always entertaining.

It’s quite something to see Kellen’s progress over these five books. He’s built from a pessimistic smart-ass into something more, while still maintaining his core values. Some of them, at least. The character progression over this book—over the entire series—is an impressive bit of writing. The world-building as well continues to impress. While not as exhaustive as some other contemporaries, Spellslinger has spanned a continent and described, in rare detail, all the major players involved. While some further detail is left wanting, de Castell does a lovely job of giving enough, while not making it seem like too much. Though I’ve a feeling book six lies in the realm of the Jan’Tep—it could very well be anywhere seen over the course of the series.

The plot of Queenslayer involves an intricate—and at times confusing—journey through courtly intrigue, sex, death and politics. What emerges at the end is a a pale comparison to what started out, which I found both pleasing and disappointing at once, somehow. While I was mad at myself for losing a handle on everything that was going on, I loved the end result, an intricate plot with twists and turns and surprises aplenty. And yet, I was disappointed in the times Kellen simply refuses to act. More than once, he refuses to get involved, while the story attempts to pass him by and we the reader have to catch up with it when at last Kellen rejoins the fray.

As the final book looms large: so many questions remain. EDIT: most of which I can’t relay here because of possible spoilers. I guess you’ll just have to read to find out!

TL;DR

If you’ve made it to Book #4 or #5 in the series, congratulations! Similarly, you probably don’t need much urging from me to finish it off. In all likelihood you’ve stopped reading by now and moved on to the next book. If you haven’t (either gotten this far or stopped reading), then know that even through five books Spellslinger continues to impress. I think most fans of the series will be excited for Crownbreaker, but more than a little disappointed as well. I’ll miss Kellen and Reichis, their adventures and mishaps. But I want to know what happens in the end and how they fit into it. And how Nephenia fits into it. And Sha’maat. And the Jan’Tep. And the continent. And the Shadowblack. What more can I do but recommend this? It’s recommended. There. Done. Join me later for the series denouement—Crownbreaker—published just last fall!

Soulbinder – by Sebastien de Castell (Review)

Spellslinger #4

Fantasy, YA

Hot Key Books; October 4, 2018

417 pages (PB)

4.5 / 5 ✪

Author WebsiteGoodreads

Contains possible spoilers for the previous 3 Spellslinger books.

The fourth book in the Spellslinger series, Soulbinder details the continuing adventures of spellslinger and outlaw Jan’Tep Kellen Argos as he traipses across the land performing his noble deeds. Or… mostly while he rips people off, still searching for a cure for his Shadowblack. But where no one had previously understood his ailment or how to cure it (short of attempting to kill him, that is) (which they’ve all done quite a lot of, really), Soulbinder may finally present Kellen’s lucky break. But—rather than a community of patients now cured of the horrible disease—he’s found a realm of people still infected with it. And they have graciously accepted him into their society, what by knocking him out and kidnapping him and all.

Reichis is nowhere to be found, however, prompting Kellen to assume the worst. As he left his cuddly little business partner dying in the middle of the desert, this isn’t really a big leap. But Kellen, being remarkably short on friends, is still willing to risk his life to save Reichis’s. Assuming that he can even find the squirrel-cat, that is. And, assuming that he can escape the Ebony Abbey first.

The Abbey is quite the abode. A shadowy dimension inaccessible from the outside. Filled with dozens of pupils, all infected with the Shadowblack. Any of whom might turn at the drop of a hat, giving in to the vile darkness that lurks in their minds, urging them to kill.

But Kellen is delayed in his quest to discover Reichis’s fate. First, by the monks knocking him out and tying him up when he tried to escape, but later by the fact that he can’t find anywhere to escape TO. And furthermore, Kellen has very little idea where Reichis even is. He’s in a desert… somewhere… in the world.

And the longer that Kellen is trapped in the Abbey, the more he comes to feel like part of a team. All his life, Kellen has felt alone. First, due to his lack of any magical talent. Next, being marked with the Shadowblack. Here in the Abbey are several dozen young outcasts who feel exactly as he has, all struggling with the same condition that will one day kill them… or worse turn them into monsters. While he needs to find Reichis, needs to continue his quest—Kellen finds himself unwilling to leave. For maybe, finally, he’s found his true home.

Soulbinder may be my favorite book in the series to date. Took me all of four days to read. As with every other book in the series, it’s easy to roll through fairly quickly. The language, the humor, the pacing, the predicaments all make the story move along. The short chapters give one multiple opportunities to stop and get on with one’s life, but also entice the reader into just one or two more, since they won’t take very much time. As usual, de Castell has woven a marvelous tale—with but a few exceptions.

My biggest problem with Soulbinder is that it feels episodic. I mean, Spellslinger is a six-part series, where Book 1 served as a coming-of-age tale, and #2 worked on establishing his outcast identity. Charmcaster sees Kellen really come into his own, complete with his split from Ferius Parfex—his mentor. Soulbinder, while truly interesting and exciting, does little to further the overarching plot. Yes, yes, there is a little bit here and there, but it really just feels like a separate adventure set in the same world. It’s not a tremendous issue, as there are two books to come, but in the same way: there’re only two books left! Assuming that Queenslayer sets the table and Crownbreaker ends the series—what good does Soulbinder serve? That being said, it was a thrilling adventure—one that I’ve just said was my favorite thus far. So, while it DID feel episodic, it’s not like that really bothered me.

Another issue is the lack of returning characters. Kellen is on his own this time. No Reichis. No Ferius. There are a few cameos later on, but initially at least, Kellen has to make do with keeping his own company. That, or make nice with his captor/rescuers. While it’s certainly nice to see how Kellen gets on on his own, and while his interactions with his fellow Shadowblackies are just as entertaining—I missed the dynamic Kellen has with his friends.

In every other way, Soulbinder is a must-read. I loved the new adventure set in a previously unknown locale, and the fellow Shadowblackians provide a glimpse into the deeper, darker corridors or Kellen’s affliction. More so, they offer Kellen with insight into his disease, and how the Shadowblack may even be used to his advantage. And of course, they underline its terrible price. And the Abbot’s knowledge—while far from being complete or scientific—provides us with some much needed lore about the Shadowblack and its sufferers.

TL;DR

Soulbinder is another amazing entry in the Spellslinger series, as Sebastien de Castell does his best to bankrupt us and steal away all of our sleep. A page-turning thriller from beginning to end, while it does comparatively little to advance the overarching plot, Soulbinder does provide a much needed glimpse into the world of the Shadowblack, easily doubling what we know about it thus far. Kellen is on his own this time—no Reichis, no Ferius, though a few familiar faces do crop up later on. And a few new associates do steal the spotlight from him now and then. It’s a quick and easy read; between the language, the story, and the pace, I finished it in 4 days. And I’m not the fastest reader. Highly recommended. Easily a must-read if you’ve made it this far into the Spellslinger series. And if you haven’t—why not?

Spellslinger continues with Queenslayer, the penultimate entry, and Crownbreaker, the series finale—both out in 2019. And can we just admire the cover art and illustrations by Sam Hadley? They’re incredible.

The Palace of Glass – by Django Wexler (Review)

The Forbidden Library #3

Fantasy, YA

Kathy Dawson Books; April 12, 2016

368 pages (ebook); 8hr 15min (audio)

4 / 5 ✪

The Palace of Glass encapsulates what I love about fantasy in general. Adventure, new worlds, new imagination, action, wit, and epic quests. While I was a little less thrilled by the back half of the story, nor the manner in which it transitioned from one portion to the next, the third book in the Forbidden Library series was still a must read for me. I want to mention right away—Cassandra Morris does an excellent job reading Alice! She plays an excellent part, equal parts excitement and trepidation, with more than her fair share of determination. A perfect Alice!

Following the events of The Mad Apprentice, Alice is left with a terrible choice. Whether to continue to accept her father’s killer as her master, or to turn against him knowing full well it will likely mean her death. For she now knows what fate befalls apprentices that betray their masters. And yet, this is a fight Alice knows she can’t avoid. Because—really—there is no choice.

She’s not alone in this fight, however. The labyrinthine Ending has her back—at least kind of. She provides Alice a spell that might just imprison Geryon if Alice can catch him unaware. But the spell is specific, and she’ll only have one shot at it. Now, the spell will bind her uncle, but Alice needs somewhere to put him afterwards. As she can’t imagine killing him—despite what he did to her father—Alice requires a certain item to help her defeat him. Specifically, a certain book. A prison book.

Lucky for her, Geryon is called away, leaving Alice in charge in his stead. Unfortunately, she has but a week before he returns. And the prison book she requires lies deep, deep within the magical realms of the library itself. But even if Alice can get in and retrieve it, AND escape with her life all in the space of one week, will she have the fortitude to use it? Her anger is great, but time dampens all wounds. And even should she succeed in imprisoning Geryon—what then? Who will run the library in his absence? And what will Alice do, when her uncle’s fellow Readers fall upon her, seeking revenge?

So much stress for someone so young. Or anyone, really.

The Palace of Glass actually tells two stories in one. The first involves Alice and her revenge upon her uncle, who—rather than actually killing her father like she claimed, more just let him die (so, still a dick, but not exactly as big of one). While I’m trying to be all enigmatic and non-spoilery about it, I think you can guess what happens. Yup, she returns from her adventures to find Geryon waiting, then they have a dance battle to decide the fate of the library. Ending MCs. The second part of the story deals with the fallout from this epic dance battle. The other readers, feeling the explosion of magic (beats) from the library, deploy in force, sensing blood in the water. The winner is forced to defend themselves and the library, maybe with help from the creatures within. And maybe some other friends.

Both stories are good. The disconnect, however, is a bit awkward. I mean, it’s worse to review without trying to spoil, but the transition between the two tales doesn’t exactly flow great. I had to actually take a little break in between the parts because I had trouble just jumping from one to the next. It’s not that everything changes—but several things do. We go from realms of magical worlds, magical creatures and amazing, little-seen worlds—to the library, with humans, hip hop dance beats, and labyrinthine. Labyrinthines? Labyrinthine? It’s under an umbrella of magic, but still. The stories are different, the motivations and actions and results are mostly different. There’s just a bit of a hiccup here, but it’s not a deal-breaker. Just a bit awkward.

The characters of the Forbidden Library continue to be my favorite aspect of the series. Don’t get me wrong—I love the adventure. The magic. The story. But the characters are all unique, interesting, and propelled by their own motivations. Their interactions are key to the success of the story (or in this case BOTH stories), and the story IS a success. I especially love Alice, which is great since she’s the lead. Inherently likable, but also human. Now, there isn’t a whole lot of character development, but this is a YA (or middle-grade) series, so I really didn’t expect much. It is disappointing, though. The other old Readers make an appearance, along with a whole host of magical creatures. The labyrinthine Ending and Ashes are back, as are several familiar faces among the apprentices. There’s also one important guest star, whom I won’t spoil.

The creatures and realms of PoG stole the show for me. While the characters are the stars of the series, the adventure is the highlight of the book. Wexler does an excellent job of painting alien worlds, creatures, which my mind was more than happy to run with. While the exploration of new and unique is pretty much confined to the first half of the book, don’t worry—there’s plenty of excitement and surprises waiting in the second half.

TL;DR

Despite trying to tell two stories in one, The Palace of Glass is another successful entry in the Forbidden Library quartet. Mostly, it pulls it off. A small disconnect exists between the two tales, though nothing too distracting. As usual, the reader Cassandra Morris is a great help to the story—not to mention an excellent Alice—moving everything along even when the pacing got uneven. The characters are the real reason to read this book. As in the rest of the series, the characters are key, providing interesting interactions, dynamic, conversation and wit. Just don’t expect too much in the way of development. This is a YA series, after all. Recommended to everyone, but specifically fans of adventure, YA, or fans of Wexler’s other books. If you haven’t read any of the series, I’d recommend starting at the beginning. And since I’ve now finished it I can say—don’t worry, you shouldn’t be disappointed.

The Forbidden Library quartet concludes with The Fall of the Readers, out since 2017.

Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon – by John August (Review)

Arlo Finch #2

Fantasy, YA

Roaring Brook Press; February 5, 2019

377 pages (ebook); 8hr 30m (audio)

3.75 / 5 ✪

In the Valley of Fire, Arlo Finch swept in and stole our hearts: his different colored eyes; his exiled father; his migratory home; his quiet, worrisome demeanor. And then came the Long Woods, where Arlo came into his own. If the Valley of Fire is where he found his calling, the Lake of the Moon should be where he grows up. And it is, to an extent.

What Remains of Arlo Finch

Following the events In the Valley of Fire, Arlo has made a home for himself in Pine Mountain. While the Eldrich have ceased making attempts on his life, they’ve not yet forgotten him. Something is coming. Even with the mysterious warning from Fox, Arlo can feel it. And as the summer months loom, so does his feeling of unease.

But with the summer comes summer camp. And for Arlo and his friends in Blue Patrol, that means Rangers.

Even before he departs for camp, Arlo begins to notice some peculiar happenings. First, Connor’s cousin visits him with a warning. Then, a strange man confronts him in the diner, a conversation Arlo has no memory of. And of course there is the troll. The troll, and the other Blue Patrol. All of it is leading to something—but what, Arlo knows not.

Enter the Lake of the Moon.

The Lake of the Moon hosts the Ranger’s Summer Camp, complete with an enchanting ancient lake in possession of its own monster, a variety of summer activities and classes, a lovely mountain forest that connects to the Long Wood, a host of spirits that call it home, and a mystery surrounding its history—and that of Yellow Patrol.

But the camp also comes with its own problems. An addition to the tight-knit patrol. A squabble involving Arlo’s two closest friends. A scare for Connor—which sees him leave camp early. Dissent from within the troop. A mystery, a conspiracy, and another Blue Patrol. To navigate these, Arlo Finch must discover what it means to be a True Ranger, or die trying.

Sadly, Arlo Finch’s second adventure wasn’t nearly as compelling as his first. While it shows a lot of heart, the events surrounding Lake of the Moon were just too confusing to be anywhere near as exciting. The adventure is still fun, imaginative and mysterious, and continues the series well enough, setting up a dramatic adventure for Book #3. But overall it’s a step down from The Valley of Fire.

The time travel I object to the most. For a children’s adventure… I dunno, I’m torn. Part of me wants to say it’s pure fun and excitement. The other part claims it’s way too confusing. The ending doesn’t make much sense, little more than the lead-in to it. For me, I felt that the time-travel was ill-advised for this point in the series. It wasn’t well explained—even though, if it HAD been really well explained, I feel like it would’ve been too much for the intended audience. It just… it wasn’t a good choice for this book.

I don’t really want to focus too much on the characters, on the development, on the world-building or anything else. For anything early-YA Fantasy like this, or Children’s Fiction—it’s not important. The intention is to be a fun, fast-paced adventure with just enough mystery to keep the focus. And The Lake of the Moon does this. Up until the end, where it’s confusing.

The Lake of the Moon provides a lovely setting compared to Pine Mountain. Not that Pine Mountain was bad, just inconsistent. It provided an off-the-grid, small town setting without most of the typical limitations. It was quaint, if under utilized. Comparing it to something like Gravity Falls… it really could’ve provided more adventure, more mystery. The Lake of the Moon revitalizes the series’ setting. A typical summer camp, with atypical features. It works very well with the story (up til the end, as I’ve said). Something new, pretty, and a bit mysterious.

TL;DR

Where Arlo Finch triumphed in the Valley of Fire, Arlo Finch struggles through the Lake of the Moon. While most of the story was fun, exciting and mysterious—the conclusion lets everything down, due to some a convoluted mess of time-travel and thriller nonsense to tie everything together. Arlo is in the process of becoming a hero, but we’ll just have to see where his legend goes from here. While I still think Lake of the Moon was a step down from the original, it’s still a fun, interesting read. Again, James Patrick Cronin delivers an excellent narration, capturing Arlo Finch and embodying him to a T. Honestly, I’m torn as to whether it’s too much for the children the story’s intended for. It confused me, but I probably overthought it. Plus, I’m not great at anything time-travel. I’d still recommend it, the roughly 8.5 hour adventure doing just enough to keep me entertained without growing too deep or messy.

Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows, the third book in the series, is due out February 4, 2020.

Ship of Smoke and Steel – by Django Wexler (Review)

Wells of Sorcery #1

Fantasy, YA, Teen

Tor Teen; January 22, 2019

366 pages (Hardcover)

3.5 / 5 ✪

Ship of Smoke and Steel is the latest offering from Django Wexler, a YA/Teen fantasy novel with adventure and romantic elements. A bit of a mashup, it involves some mystery, combat and suspense as well. Some of these it does very well, while others it fails at spectacularly. While I definitely enjoyed my time spent reading it, SoSaS wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as I would’ve thought after the first third. While hardly a slog, some sections were weighed down by clumsy, uneven pacing or slowed by the melding of two stories that just didn’t fit.

But let’s get into it.

In the slums of Kahnzoka, 18-year-old Isoka once ran collections for a shadowy crime lord. One that may or may not have also been her. A Melos adept, she used her combat magics to cut her way through anyone or thing that opposed her. But when her secret was discovered, Isoka was snatched up by the Empire, and given an impossible choice. To steal a legendary ghost ship for the Empire—something that is almost surely a suicide mission—or to turn her back on the one person Isoka truly loves: her little sister, Tori.

Soliton is more myth than ship. It makes berth in Kahnzoka once a year, where the adepts and sensitives of the city are sacrificed to help swell its ranks. Isoka is one such sacrifice. Infiltrating the ship under the orders of the Empire, she’ll have one year to deliver them Soliton, or lose Tori forever. But the task is a daunting one. And as you may’ve guessed, it begins from the bottom.

Thrown in with a ragtag group of misfits, Isoka’s mission looks doomed from the start. But—as these misfits show their character (and Isoka nearly dies)—she soon comes upon an opportunity for advancement. One she can’t afford to pass up. But on a ship of magic users and sensitives, how can she tell friend from foe? And what else may be lurking, ready to pounce?

As a teen fantasy adventure, SoSaS impresses. I loved the new and mystical sights; the mysterious ship Soliton, the creatures onboard, the descriptions, the Vile Rot, the wonder and adventure and twists and turns. Isoka’s journey is a bleak and bloody one to be sure, but the vibrance of the world itself makes up for her heavy handed approach to life. Soliton doesn’t seem like a ship, encompassing vast swaths of mysterious and unexplored heights, depths, and decks. Truly a world in itself, the ship is a triumphant creation, pulled off by Wexler through what I suspect is a time-honed combination of skill and luck, tempered with a wild imagination.

The story itself is… good. It’’s a little lame at first, if I’m honest. Kahnzoka isn’t the best backdrop, and the initial plot of blackmail and an impossible task, then a ragtag group of misfits seemed a bit cut-and-paste. Once aboard Soliton, the story really takes off. While beneath it all, there’s still the rather unimaginative blackmail machination driving everything—the story of Soliton itself steals the show. Now, though the ending itself is a little less than spectacular, the journey there is well enough worth it.

The romance, however, is a complete dud. Unless an awkward, fumbling teen romance is a thing that people actually WANT to read about. Now, Isoka has no problems cavorting with the opposite sex. At least when screwing them. It’s the fairer sex that’s the root of her issues. Specifically, one certain princess. This is the focus of the book’s romance. And personally it makes me cringe. Not the same-sex attraction, but the way that it is rendered. It reminds me of a simpler, more awkward, complicated, adolescent time when everything was all puberty, puberty, PUBERTY. It certainly does NOT make for an entertaining read.

The magic and combat of SoSaS is where the action is. The Wells of Sorcery—eight of them, at least—make for an entertaining combination of combat and tactics. When these Wells are combined in a single person, the opportunities for different styles of attack are nearly endless. Here, Wexler has built an impressive arsenal of potential magical powers and techniques that is certainly worth a look. That said, I felt that it was undersold in the book. The story gives a brief overview of the Wells, but little detail is given to anything beyond Melos. I would’ve liked to see more depth from the magic, especially beyond mere combat. The Lost Well (Eddica, the Well of Spirits) is well featured in the mystery around Soliton, but not very well explained. Actually, this is about par—the other Wells are similarly underused, vague and ill explained. We’re left with just a basic understanding of the magic; little beyond how to kill things.

SoSaS doesn’t feature a cliffhanger or anything, but the ending is less than perfect. For days afterwards I felt too disappointed to start this review, preferring to put it off while I searched for any fulfillment the text had yet to offer. Without giving anything away, I’ll say that it’s abrupt. There’s little feeling of resolution—the story falling flat after such a great buildup. I’m still enthusiastic for the next one, just not excited. I want to read it and all, but it can wait.

TL;DR

Ship of Smoke and Steel is the latest addition to Wexler’s family, a Teen/YA novel that takes two different perspectives of a girl—Isoka—and attempts to weave them into a single story. The resulting adventure is fantastic. With flashy magic and brutal combat that helps support a lush and vibrant world aboard the mysterious Soliton, which is more continent than ship. The story of one girl’s quest to save her sister, at whatever cost. The resulting love-story doesn’t work. With cringe-worthy scenes that disrupt pacing, will-they won’t-they moments abound—as Isoka travels the length of the world to find love. I suppose it IS a teen novel, and nothing screams puberty more than this romance. Combined, the two tales make one halfway decent story, just don’t expect too much. The conclusion, as well, could’ve used an overhaul. I left SoSaS feeling unfulfilled, even disappointed, as Wexler usually does a better job at resolution. While Ship of Smoke and Steel is well worth a look as a fantasy adventure, it’s worth little as a well-rounded tale. There’s action, combat, adventure, mystery and suspense, but anything beyond the hitting of things is rather lackluster. As is the magic itself. Full of color and flair, the Wells are skirted over—no real detail, nothing in-depth, and little seen other than with Melos itself.

The short of it: Ship of Smoke and Steel underwhelmed me. I definitely enjoyed the adventure—and would recommend the book for that alone—but a well-rounded fantasy it is not. While I am looking forward to the sequel, I honestly expect more from it.

City of Stone and Silence comes out January 7, 2020.

Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire – by John August (Review)

Arlo Finch #1

YA, Fantasy

Roaring Brook Press; February 6, 2018

326 pages (ebook)

4.5 / 5 ✪

Arlo Finch is 12. After his father fled to China, his family moved around a lot, passing between cities like the trees in a forest. Eventually, they made their way to Pine Mountain. But Pine Mountain isn’t like any of the rest. Indeed, it’s not a city at all—the town doesn’t appear on most maps, there’s little to no cell service, and trees vastly outnumber the residents. That said, this quaint little hamlet might just be the break that Arlo and his family need. The new start that they deserve.

Arlo, despite having an old man’s name, is an immediately relatable character—at least to me. I share some of his worrying, his anxiety, his love for adventure, open spaces and nature. After one day of moving to Pine Mountain, Arlo knows he’s going to love it there, as long as the world doesn’t try to kill him very much. And the world obliges. His uncle doesn’t immediately change into a bear and kill them. A rockslide doesn’t destroy the house, trapping them all inside. A mountain lion doesn’t unlock the front door, sneak upstairs, and attack Arlo. At least, it hasn’t yet.

For his part, Arlo does his best to avoid everyone and remain aloof and friendless. He does a lousy job at it, however, as within a week he already has a pair of friends and a new hobby to consume all of his non-homework time: Rangers.

Rangers is sort of like Scouts, albeit a Scouts dipped in magic and sweetened by the supernatural. You see, Pine Mountain (among other places) is home to the mysterious Long Wood, a transition point between our world and many others. Due to its isolation and locale in the mountains of Colorado, Pine Mountain sits right on the doorstep of the Long Wood, a place where the veil is thinnest, where someone can stumble right through and end up—anywhere. Rangers shares its knowledge of the inhabitants and ways of the Long Wood, so that its members might survive it. Rangers is built around “the Wonder”—the supernatural thread that connects our world to the Long Wood. Due to its locale, there is quite a lot of Wonder in Pine Mountain.

But there is more to the Long Wood than magic and mystery. Before long, Arlo has worn out his welcome in Pine Mountain—and the world goes back to trying to kill him. Actively, this time. For there is something different about Arlo Finch, something that the Long Wood may awaken, if he survives long enough to see it.

Arlo Finch turned out to be just what I needed.

In a month (well, a second month) where I’ve been dealing with health and illness, reading anything has proven difficult. Focusing on anything an impossible challenge. My stomach has been bothering me constantly. Nauseous most of the time. Had little enough sleep and no energy besides. My thoughts have been fractured, making writing anything coherent a challenge. Arlo Finch was light enough that I didn’t have to focus all my energy on it, but possessive of an entertaining and immersive story that kept me consistently involved. John August did a magnificent job on this one, a YA that toes the line between an immersive, detailed mystery and a light fantasy adventure. James Patrick Cronin was an exceptional narrator, effortlessly bringing Arlo’s story to life.

It wasn’t perfect, but near enough that my nitpicking will wear little upon it. A few points consistently bothered me, probably because I’m an adult, waaay over analyzing a kid’s book. But whatever. The first is that August clearly doesn’t live in the area he’s trying to recapture. There’s nothing wrong with that—I realize that residing in a place and recreating it are not the same thing. Furthermore, I doubt that Brandon Sanderson actually lives in the Cosmere, like, all the time. It’s just that August’s rendition of the place doesn’t really fit. The town has actual buildings. It has THREE full Ranger troops. It actually has SOME cell service. And mountain lions, though it’s too high for them. As someone who lives in a nowhere adjacent locale, my worldview and his butted heads. I guess I’m complaining that August didn’t do enough research, or didn’t make his setting believable, but hey—kid’s book, it’s probably fine,.

It’s the story itself that makes In the Valley of Fire a must-read. The story, and Arlo himself.

It’s an adventure that embodies the Ranger’s Vow: loyal, brave, kind and true. It’s entertaining. It’s fun. Though the plot mostly follows the Rangers, the story revolves around Arlo himself. Him, and his life. His idiosyncrasies. His heterochomia iridum—his two different colored eyes. His personality, his journey. If Arlo was a superhero—or if that’s what he’s to become—then this is his origin story.

TL;DR

Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire is a lovely adventure reminiscent of Gravity Falls and Percy Jackson. A light but immersive YA tale, filled with excitement and steeped in mystery, this tells the tale of Arlo’s origin story, his move to Pine Mountain, and his first involvement in Rangers. Everything that comes before—it all started here. Arlo is quite the lead; full of character, strong yet with all the flaws borne of youth, humanity. I loved the audiobook: raced through it in 2-3 days, then moved on to #2 and did the same. It’s short, light, fun—a great YA adventure. And exactly what I needed.

Book #2, Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon continues the series with the third installment, Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows, due out in February 2020.

The Mad Apprentice – by Django Wexler (Review)

The Forbidden Library #2

YA, Fantasy

Kathy Dawson Books; April 21, 2015

336 pages (ebook) / 7hr 22m (audio)

4 / 5 ✪

The Mad Apprentice is the second in the Forbidden Library sequence by Django Wexler. A YA series, it chronicles the adventures of Alice the Reader as she navigates through the world, attempting to find her place in it. Though I was somewhat split over the Forbidden Library—it’s really the sophomore effort that can make or break a possible series. And the Mad Apprentice delivered in a big way.

Little has happened following the events of Forbidden, with Alice continuing to study under her uncle, Geryon, master and Reader extraordinaire. She has heard nothing from Isaac, the boy she bonded the dragon with in the first book, and similarly little from the dragon itself. Other than the vague sense that it lurks within her mind, it might as well have been a dream. So begins Book #2, and Alice is quickly dispatched to deal with the former apprentice of a “friend” of Geryon, who has apparently gone rogue and killed his master. Here she meets with several other apprentices, each sent by their masters to deal with this threat. While a few seem friendly enough, some are decidedly not—including one that Alice has met before. Isaac seems different from when Alice had met him before. He is closed off from her, despite their bond. But when Alice begins to doubt that the danger facing them may come more from without than within, something new reveals itself to her. For the labyrinth itself is home to a far more dangerous creature than Jacob (the apprentice that killed his master). In the darkness lurks the ominous creature Torment. But while this contesting this creature may result in Alice and the other apprentices’ demise, it may instead provide information useful to make the risk worthwhile. Specifically, the details of her father’s disappearance.

So, I enjoyed Apprentice better than the initial Forbidden.

Returning are the elements of intrigue, backstabbing and mystery. The characters are more of a strength than the initial; as both Alice and Isaac return, joined by other apprentices. I’ll be interested to see if any appear further down the line—either as friends or enemies. Though several of the other apprentices do form relationships with Alice. Friendly, or otherwise. Also, the budding romance is still budding, as it were. Little more comes of it, in Apprentice.

The character development is rather minute—but given that it is a YA fantasy, that’s not unexpected. There does seem to be a bit for Alice, a bit of a greater arc, one that is sure to continue. The dragon also appears to have its own story arc, but we won’t get into that. Some more of the magic is explained, as each apprentice seems to manifest a different and unique ability. There’s a bit added to every aspect, in my opinion. Each improved upon by a degree. I liked it more, I hope you will too!

TL;DR

The Mad Apprentice capitalizes on the successes it made in The Forbidden Library, pretty much improving across the board. While it’s by no means perfect, Wexler has crafted an solid YA coming-of-age fantasy, complete with magic and mystery. While before we got very little of what it means to be a Reader past jumping into books, Apprentice expands upon this, introducing more characters each possessing their own unique magical abilities. Alice is an interesting, heart-felt character that continues to shine, and hopefully will continue to into the future of the sequence.

Charmcaster – by Sebastien de Castell (Review)

Spellslinger #3

YA, Fantasy

Hot Key Books; May 17, 2018

417 pages (PB)

4 / 5 ✪

Very little in Kellen’s life seems to be going his way. Counterbanded by his own blood, exiled by his kin, hunted by his people—Kellen has had his fair share of ill fortune. And so when he finds himself hunted by hextrackers in the middle of a sandstorm in a barren expanse of desert, he obviously assumes the worst. And yet, not all is as it seems. For when he and Ferius work to save the life of their pursuer, Kellen gets a surprise. One in the form of kiss.

Charmcaster sees Nephenia join the fold, signing on as the fourth member of Team Kellen. And yet her appearance is hardly the good news the team has been looking for. No, it seems that she only was able to find Kellen because there are sooo many other mages trying to kill him. And yet, her arrival heralds quite a bit more than the feelings of love and terror with Kellen. For something amazing is occurring within one of the smallest nations on the continent, Gitabria. Here, a community of scientists and inventors have produced something truly remarkable: a mechanical bird.

Spies and diplomats alike flock to the symposium where sight of this mythical creature awaits. Each are willing to part with exorbitant amounts of coin in order to buy such a wonder, or more, learn how it was made. But the bird holds a dark secret buried within, such that many will kill to cover it up. And yet, as so much comes to light, the world itself might be in the balance.

And yet how could something so small set off a war? Kellen and the gang investigate.

Charmcaster is another fun, exciting, interesting read from Greatcoats author Sebastien de Castell. As of now I’m four books in to this series of six, where each book is as exciting as the last. Kellen, as always, exudes a certain combination of sarcasm, hope and ineptitude to attract even the most discerning of readers, and backs it up with enough action and espionage to keep them entertained through to the end.

This third entry further cements Kellen’s standing as an outlaw spellslinger, while also further enhancing his character’s means and ability. Charmcaster is an excellent example of character development, as Kellen is once more forced to adapt and evolve, using tools and tricks to distract from his lack of magic. Nephenia’s appearance adds even more to Kellen’s development, as Shadowblack—while I thoroughly enjoyed it—did little in the way of romance. But with his love interest from Spellslinger back… Kellen is free to… um, whatever he does. Wouldn’t call it romance, exactly, except in the awkward teenage way of teens who are especially awkward when it comes to romance. So… not a terribly romantic romance, but an entertaining one.

The story is… pretty good. While it lacks the intrigue and polish found in the first two books, Charmcaster is by no means bad. It’s just, well, not as good. Interesting if not intriguing intrigue. Too much cloak and dagger but too little mystery. It delivers the same snappy, entertaining dialogue as in previous books, while providing an enticing if not heart-pounding adventure.

TL;DR

The short of it: Charmcaster is an interesting, entertaining entry to the Spellslinger series. One that takes great strides to develop Kellen’s character, while doing much less to further the overarching story. The return of Nephenia does wonders for the romantic aspect of it all, in the sense that 1>0. It’s certainly worth the price of admission, or the $7ish I paid for it. An entertaining adventure that one can probably burn through multiple times with no regrets. I certainly have none in buying it.