Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

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Illuminae, written by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman, is a science fiction book following detailed reports gathered from the tragic events into what they call the illuminae files. There are two main characters, Kady Grant and Ezra Mason, who are stuck on two separate ships in space.

This book doesn’t follow the usual narrative seen in other science fiction and fantasy books. Each page is a copy of a diary entry, artwork, interview, security footage report, or other classified documents. They are organized in order of the events and use a lot of documents from Kady and Ezra, as they had pivotal roles in the outcome of the story.

At first, I almost put the book down, never to pick it up again. The book started out unbelievably boring. Once you get around 100 pages in, you finally began to care a bit about the characters and their journeys. I believe this is due to the unorthodox format the book is written in. It’s more of a plot-driven book than a character one, but I do believe you begin to care about the characters, particularly Kady, towards the end.
During the action scenes, the graphics were visually stunning. It blew me away and made me wish more books involved beautiful and thoughtful art inside them. It was the best way to convey action with minimal words and arguably hit me harder than a narrative format does.

The romance in the book wasn’t my favorite. It felt boring and didn’t add anything to the plot other than a connection between the two ships. I also didn’t enjoy the text messages between the characters, because they took me out of the story and made the characters seem childish. Despite this, there were some moments that made me giggle. Ezra was a rather funny character and it helped keep me interested in the story, which was already so tense.

There was an AI character that is reminiscent of Ultron from Avengers: Age of Ultron, which was a cool comparison. It also brought about questions about artificial intelligence and its dangers, which is a prevalent topic heading into the future.

The end of the book upset me because something is revealed that I felt would have been better placed in another book. I can’t go into detail without spoiling it, but the book did something that really annoys me in other creative storytelling forms.

There are two other books in the series, and I know the second one follows some new characters in the same document format. Although I loved the artistic parts of the book, I won’t be continuing with the series.

Overall, I would rate Illuminae 5/10 dragons for its artistic layout and an intriguing plot. I would recommend reading if you appreciate plot-driven books and cringe romance.

Sorcery of Thorns, by Margaret Rogerson

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Sorcery of Thorns, written by Margaret Rogerson, is a standalone fantasy novel following Elisabeth as she uncovers the mysterious releasing of dangerous grimoires around the land. To help her are Nathaniel, a highborn sorcerer, and Silas, his ominous friend.

I went into this book not expecting too much, as the reviews for Rogerson’s last book, An Enchantment of Ravens, were mixed, with many people pointing out flaws in the romance and plot. I feel as though Rogerson took the feedback from the first novel and applied it to this one, as there were no issues with either. Giving authors a second or even third chance as they write more books and gain experience is an excellent way to see their growth and find a new favorite book, as I’ve found from personal experience, but I digress.

This was one of the most refreshing fantasy reads I’ve had in the past few years. Having read so many fantasy books following the same – almost cliché – outline, it was nice to read one that faced threats of a different kind. The detailed descriptions of grimoires and our main character’s peculiar interactions with ones of differing class kept me intrigued and questioning the ramifications of the conflict.

Nathaniel was a fantastic supporting character, full of depth and a very charming personality. When with Elisabeth, he complements her powers with his own, working together to fight obstacles. The chemistry between the two worked very well and was convincing. Nathaniel was also a very funny character. I found myself smiling along with his dialogue, which is something I value in a character.

The other supporting character was Silas, the demon bound to Nathaniel. The buildup to Elisabeth understanding the true relationship between Nathaniel and Silas was shown steadily throughout the book, in some unexpected ways. The time spent on interactions between Silas and Elisabeth not only helped the reader grow attached to his character, but it also allowed the emotional reveal at the end to be all the more impactful.

One character I feel needed more time interacting with Elisabeth was her friend from the library, Katrien, who played an important role behind the scenes, but I didn’t feel very attached to her.

The romance was built up wonderfully, not too quickly, as most young adult novels seem to do. The relationship went from hate to love as Elisabeth battled with the rules she followed as an apprentice at the library her whole life, which included being frightened of sorcerers and thinking they are evil. Nathaniel must battle with the idea of loving someone and opening up about his past.

The book carries feminist themes and featured a casually bisexual romantic interest (Nathaniel), which combined with the amazing plot and characters, made me love the book even more. Elisabeth is continuously described as a very tall girl, which is something I can’t recall ever reading as an attribute to the main character before. I’m sure the tall girl representation will pleasantly surprise many readers and help them see themselves in Elisabeth.

The last page was one of the most satisfying endings I’ve read in a long time and it left me excited, imagining the possibilities for our characters. This book is a standalone, therefore there won’t be a continuation as of now. I would argue this is a good thing as the book was perfect and wrapped everything up nicely; extending the story is unneeded, which is hard for me to say as I loved the characters so much.

For once, I don’t have anything bad to say about a book! I will end with a quote:

“You like this place?”
“Of course I do. It has books in it.”

       I would rate Sorcery of Thorns, by Margaret Rogerson, 10/10 dragons for its fantastic plot and characters.

Crooked Kingdom, by Leigh Bardugo

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Crooked Kingdom, the second book in the Six of Crows duology, written by Leigh Bardugo, follows our cast of characters as they face a new challenge more dangerous than the last.

After the major heist of the first book, I wondered how Crooked Kingdom would be able to top that, and it did, using smaller yet impactful sneaking moments that worked towards a greater cause.

The characters became fully developed midway through the book. Jesper and Wylan remained the same enjoyable characters but with an interesting back story, such as the introduction of Jesper’s dad that propelled the story while adding new personal stakes. Wylan had a complex relationship with his father that added sympathy towards his character.

We learned more about Inej’s background along with her talents of climbing and moving in silence, and she quickly became my favorite character. As a female character, she is incredibly strong and independent in ways other young adult book protagonists miss. She is sure of her abilities without being arrogant, which is what we see in characters such as Aelin Galathynius from the Throne of Glass series. Arrogance seems to be overused in young adult female protagonists, therefore seeing a character who is so strong yet humble and doesn’t need others to see her abilities or lose a fight to her to feel confident she is capable, is a great person to look up to. Due to this, Inej became one of my favorite female protagonists.

We were also given more backstory on Kaz that explained his negative disposition and we got to see him grow from the hatred he had. This made him likable/understandable in the end, adding some humanity to his morally grey character. My only problems with characters were with Nina and Matthias. I didn’t feel as connected to Nina and mainly found myself annoyed by her points of view and actions. Matthias was a character I never liked from the beginning, although he did show positive development.

I loved the relationship between Kaz and Inej. Many young adult authors tend to rush romance between characters that don’t appear to be emotionally or mentally prepared for a relationship. This was a very slow-burning romance that worked perfectly and made sense between the two. Despite not ending with any real physical connection, there was an emotional one that alluded to the fact that these two characters would get together in the future when they are prepared. It doesn’t make their relationship the most important aspect of their story, which makes sense considering the stakes at hand.

I especially loved the introduction of characters from the Shadow and Bone series because it reminded me of the vast setting and was incredibly enjoyable to see unlikely characters interact, such as Nikolai and Kaz. The Grisha powers are explored more in this book than the last, especially with the ability-enhancing Jurda Parem being abused. There were also many misdirects and twists throughout the book that kept me on edge and my emotions were like a rollercoaster.

To digress, I’ve recently learned there will be a tv series about both the Shadow and Bone series and the Six of Crows duology. Nothing has been revealed besides the fact that they are in the middle of casting and location scouting, and I feel as though it’ll be an amazing series. Leigh Bardugo is an executive producer for the show, which gives me hope they will be able to portray the world and the stories in a way that even people who don’t particularly like reading will find enjoyable.

Although I will not be reading the Nikolai centered duology Leigh has recently published simply due to not being particularly interested in learning more of the characters, I do plan on reading future fantasy series by her. I would highly recommend reading any and all of her Grishaverse books, especially before the tv series releases (which won’t be for a while). Her writing and setting is so unique and dark and truly feels as though you are in a whole other world unlike any other you’ve read about before.

Compared to the first book, Crooked Kingdom was a more enjoyable book to read, earning 9/10 dragons.

Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo

 

Six of Crows, written by Leigh Bardugo, is a high fantasy book set in the Grishaverse, the same universe her previous series Shadow and Bone occurred in. It includes overlapping characters as this book took place only two years after the events of Ruin and Rising. It follows six characters as they plan an ambitious heist and form a unique bond.

The book is generally loved among the young adult book community and I haven’t heard anything bad about it. The unique story line of gang members and heisting isn’t something you find in mainstream fantasy, especially in a world that already been developed. Rather than expanding on her universe by focusing on the magical higher-ups of Ravka or other nations, Bardugo chose to laser in on the slums of Ketterdam in the small island, Kerch.

The characters posed a problem for me throughout the book. Most of the first book is spent developing the characters, therefore, it was disappointing that I didn’t seem to connect with any of them, leaving me bored and waiting for the action to start.

Kaz, a beloved character, was too cold-hearted and rude for me to understand why people liked him so much. He was an interesting character and had a unique personality, and when later things are revealed about his past, it begins to make him a more likable/ understandable character. By the end of the sequel, Crooked Kingdom, he did become a favorite of mine. Inej lacked depth throughout the first half of the book, most likely due to the shifting points of views. As with Kaz, she gets better in the second book and is also a favorite character of mine. Jesper was my favorite throughout both books, as he was comedic and lifted the dark mood. Wylan did the same. Both characters worked great in the book. Matthias never connected with me despite giving reason to, therefore I never cared about his brutish, old-fashioned character. Nina was annoying most of the time and I found myself skipping through her and Matthias’ chapters quicker than the others.
Each character had specific skills that aided the plot greatly and mixed in magic and logic in a way that was enjoyable to read.

The villain was amazingly unlikeable and brought out real emotion when the details emerge. Romance-wise, the book gave us a couple with history and two slow-burning relationships, which kept the interactions realistic because, how much time would there be for romance as you’re saving the world?

The setting was amazing due to the happy – and sad – memories of the Shadow and Bone trilogy set in the same universe. I recognized place names and overlapping beloved characters that heightened my experience reading the book. I loved the stark difference between the two stories and the underlying themes of addiction and drug use. Although the setting isn’t described as much as I would have liked, I had vivid images of the streets of the Barrel throughout the book.

Plot-wise, the book was unique and kept me on edge. Bardugo isn’t one to shy from violence, which ended with scarred characters with gruesome pasts continuing to suffer in a ruthless gang society. The heist was well thought out and nerve-wracking. I feel as though if she had given the characters more to do in the first half of the book, I would have started to like them sooner.

This book did manage to disappoint me, but the second book was a lovely surprise that makes me think back on the series with a warm heart.

Overall, I rate Six of Crows 6/10 dragons, for its amazing plot and sentimental setting. Despite issues with characters, the second book lifted the first book higher in my mind when looking back on it.

Days of Blood & Starlight, by Laini Taylor

 

Days of Blood & Starlight, the sequel to Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor, was an engrossing continuation of a shocking first book. It picked up directly where the last ended, which was with a shocking climax that I can’t describe without spoiling. There were multiple points of view throughout the book, and as usual, some were more engrossing than others, but towards the middle, all parts were equally interesting to me, which was refreshing.

My main issue with the book was that it spent a huge amount of time simply restating what happened in the first book without doing much to set up a new conflict. This was nice for me to read as I had read the first book around four years ago, although I could see something like this annoying those who are reading them consecutively. The first one hundred pages were very slow but there was a turning point that really allowed the captivating details of the world to shine through and become the focus of the novel. Overall, not much actually happened in the book, but it allowed the characters to develop loads and was a good bridge to a high stakes finale.

The characters are extremely fleshed out, allowing the reader to easily differentiate between them beyond their names. The two human characters Mik and Zuzana became my two favorites; their humor carried the book and lightened the mood for more than just the monsters they performed for. Karou, the main character, is more down to earth and spends a lot of time focused on what happened and how to fix everything. From what I remember, Akiva was a character I liked a lot, but in this book, he just proved to be annoying with his every thought being about Karou.

Despite developing so many characters, one of the main villains, Thiago, wasn’t developed enough to explain his actions later in the book and I wished that he had more interactions with Karou so we could get to know him like we did his sidekick, Ten.

The romance is very complex, and Taylor subverts expectations by continuing to keep the characters apart, as they should be considering everything that occurred between them in the previous book. Throughout the story, there were many moments I thought Karou would have the opportunity to get in a relationship with someone other than Akiva, which many other authors would have included, but refreshingly there wasn’t any new romance introduced. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel the connection between Karou and Akiva anymore and don’t want them to get back together as I’m sure they will in the final book. I’m not quite sure why I feel this way as most people seem to like them together, but perhaps the final book will change my mind.

Overall, I would rate Days of Blood & Starlight 6/10 dragons for its realistic characters and intriguing world.

Wicked Saints, by Emily A. Duncan

Cover of Wicked Saints novel

Wicked Saints, written by Emily A. Duncan, is an action-packed fantasy filled with love and betrayal. It follows our main character Nadya, a cleric from Kalyazin who can speak to the gods, while she works to save her people. She meets Malachiasz, a blood mage from the rival kingdom Tranavia, who she works with to end the war. The book also follows Serefin, the crown prince, who is just trying to figure things out with his kingdom while trying not to die by the hands of his father. I would highly recommend this book so beware of spoilers down below.

The magic system in this book is refreshingly unique. Nadya herself has powers gifted to her by the gods and she speaks with them to get her power. The mysteries of her magic are explored throughout the book and it’s very intriguing. The Tranavians use a power called blood magic, which Nadya continuously calls heresy. They must use their blood to activate spells they draw into their spell books.

The plot of the book was similar to other young adult fantasy books: save the kingdom and end a war. What differs is that there is a clash in religion. While Nadya and her people believe in the gods and are very religious, the Tranavians seem to be atheists. The battle between the two opposing belief systems becomes a real conflict that can be shown in today’s society to some extent. It also leaves the reader in a peculiar position of not knowing which side to be on and wondering who they should really be rooting for.

The romance was very well done and heartbreaking. The rivalry between the two’s beliefs create the “forbidden romance” and adds to the confusion Nadya feels as she navigates her journey. The character development was amazing. Each had their own personality that was distinguishable from the others, which you don’t always find in young adult books. They all have internal struggles that could be relatable to some people. Serefin is the most relatable character and his personality is unlike others I’ve seen, which is refreshing and makes him a lovable character. The development for Nadya was smooth and believable, although the romance did move quickly at the beginning, so it could have used some more pages and adventures to flesh it out. Malachiasz was a confusing character towards the end of the book. As a perpetual liar, it was hard to distinguish what was real and what wasn’t, which could have been the author’s choice, but it left me a little frustrated.

The two of the side characters felt a little underdeveloped and sort of didn’t need to be there, so hopefully, Duncan gives them a chance to shine in future books. There was plenty of diversity in the book that didn’t feel forced, which will make it easier for all readers to feel connected to the book in some way.

The book is very dark and the characters have some morally grey areas that they have to cross when dealing with religion, so I would recommend this book to older teenagers if those topics bother you.

I would rate Wicked Saints 9/10 dragons for its unique story and heartbreaking romance.

Kingdom of Ash and Briars, by Hannah West

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  Kingdom of Ash and Briars, the first in the Nissera Chronicles written by Hannah West, is a fun fairy tale mashup and retelling that keeps the reader interested through to its final page. It follows Bristal, a newly found elicromancer, as she builds up her magic skills with the help of her mentor, Brack, to someday defeat the powerful Tamarice.

Along the way, the story uses plot points similar to those found in Cinderella, Mulan, Sleeping Beauty, and Jane Austin’s Emma. The Cinderella aspect of the book was fun and added a new twist to the cliché norms of high fantasy novels, which was refreshing. Despite this, I wish that the book was longer and took more time or more books to flesh out the characters and events in a way that connects the reader to the book in an emotional aspect. The part where the story reflected the happenings in Mulan was the most fun and the most in need of more detail and moments to push character relationships further, particularly the one between Prince Anthony and Bristal. Anthony ended up being a rather bland character without much personality or giving the reader much reason to believe that the two characters actually liked each other beyond their looks enough to get married.

The most underdeveloped character and largest disappointment was Brack, as he was set up as a major character in the beginning only to be gone for most of the book, leaving the reader to wonder why he is even there because he doesn’t do much. The relationship between him and Bristal suggested romantic tension but failed to do anything more than making the reader slightly angry as the more interesting potentially male love interest slips away. The villain, Tamarice, has a wonderful personality at the beginning of the book, showing flaws to her character that continue to be explained throughout the book, which made her an enjoyable character. She seemed like a powerful villain that would have been more frightening if the book were made into a trilogy. Elinor, the girl who portrayed Cinderella, was wildly underdeveloped and very one dimensional. It’s hard for the reader to understand why she is even included in the book, as neither her nor Charles are particularly integral to the plot. Rose played the roles of sleeping beauty and was more developed but displayed an annoying sort of ignorance that rubbed me the wrong way. She, like Elinor, seemed too perfect, which could have been a reflection on how princesses are shown by the media or a mistake by the author. Bristal as the main character was very laid back and could have used some more development, but she had a very clear air of maturity and reason.

The magic in this book was very intriguing and unique in its rules and simply how it works that places it apart from other young adult fantasy novels. Rather than just having magic that flows out of the character almost endlessly with only days or a month of training, Bristal has to read books, study spells, and train for years to be even half as good as someone as experienced as Tamarice or Brack, showing some limit to magic while not gifting the main character some unexplainable gift. One also has to wear what is called an elicrin stone, each a different color and made specifically for the person meant to wield it, which is what responds to the spells said with the magic. This magic system was one of my favorites I’ve read.

West is writing other books in the Nissera Chronicles, although they don’t seem to be from the perspective of Bristal or any other character mentioned in the book, which gives me hope that the future books will carry on the unique magic system while increasingly getting better with character development as West becomes more experienced.

Overall, I would give Kingdom of Ash and Briars 6/10 dragons and I’m excited to see what books proceed.