Title: Half a Soul (Regency Faerie Tales Book 1)
Author: Olivia Atwater
Genre: Regency Romance, Fairy Tale Fantasy
Dora Ettings knows she will never be married. As a child, a faerie lord tried to steal her soul; he only got away with half of it. Since that day, Dora has never been able to act normally. She says the wrong things and feels very slightly, if at all. But her beautiful cousin Vanessa has a plan to cure her. Elias Wilder, the young Lord Sorcier, is the best magician in England; surely, he can find a way to make her whole.
Vanessa arranges for a trip to London, where Dora crosses paths with the cantankerous Lord Sorcier and his friend Albert. Although Elias has a great contempt for polite society, he is interested in what ails Dora. In the midst of society balls, marriage plots, and a mysterious plague, Dora and Elias grow closer. To the outside world it almost seems like the Lord Sorcier is courting the strange Miss Ettings. But Dora knows the truth: his attentions to her have only to do with case. For how could the most powerful magician in England fall in love with a woman with only half a soul?
I happened across Half a Soul randomly on Amazon, but I like regency romance (in the vein of Jane Austen) and I like fantasy, so it seemed like a good fit. I sampled the first chapter, and I was engaged with Dora’s plight from the beginning. I was curious to see how a character with half a soul would act and how her romance might unfold. The day I began reading in earnest, I was feeling drained and overwhelmed. I read the entire book without stop and finished it in a few hours. The next morning, I re-read my all favorite bits, which turned out to be most of the book. I found Half a Soul to be, not just entertaining, but also healing and restorative. It made me feel good.
One of the reasons why it was so easy for me to read was because I connected to Dora early on. After the faerie drains her passion, Dora becomes dreamy and erratic and can’t quite function in normal society. (I feel you, girl. Same here.) She is often insulted and treated poorly by those closest to her, and her response is subdued. Yet even though she doesn’t feel strongly, she does feel. In fact, she has a great capacity for caring, which comes out more and more during the course of the story.
Dora’s strangeness actually helps her during her first encounter with Elias, the Lord Sorcier. Elias has a reputation for impropriety, and boy, does he earn it, acting downright rude to Dora the first time he sees her. Dora is barely bothered by his insults and holds her own with witty comebacks. The relationship between Dora and Elias, which begins with verbal sparring, gradually becomes sweet and warm, as Dora learns more about Elias and comes to understand the depth of his character. The Lord Sorcier is a man of passion and ideals, unhappy with the ways of the world.
Note: This review was previously published on my previous blog on September 15, 2013.
Title: The Skinjacker Trilogy: Everlost, Everwild, Everfound
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: Supernatural, Urban Fantasy, YA
A white Toyota slams into a black Mercedes, and just like that, Nick and Allie are dead. But something happens on their way to the light. Their souls collide, and they spin into Everlost, a parallel dimension hovering on the border between life and death. Here, child ghosts wander through deadspots--destroyed places that have "crossed over" into Everlost--and Skinjackers possess humans to remember what it felt like to be alive.
To Mary Hightower, Everlost is the only eternal place, more real than the living world. It is her duty to gather and nurture new souls like Allie and Nick. But Allie doesn't trust Mary. Plunging headfirst into a world of monsters and secrets, Allie and Nick soon learn that all is not what it seems and sometimes those souls with the best intentions may be the ones to destroy the world.
Although Everlost exists parallel to the living world, it might as well be its own realm. Like any well-built fantasy, the protagonists must learn the rules of their new world, develop their powers, and confront villains who wish to dominate and destroy. Since I write epic fantasy, this is all in my wheelhouse and I have to say I found it greatly amusing. Though the point of view was third person omniscient, the author mostly kept inside the character's head, drifting away only to offer key bits of explanation to the audience. This allowed the book to run at a fast pace.
I, personally, judge an author by the quality of their villains, and Mr. Shusterman writes them just the way I like: full of empathy. The antagonists may do horrible things, but they never lose their humanity. In the end, they're tragic figures, presented with the choice of changing or clinging to what they think they desire. Some crossover to become heroes, while others lose themselves forever.
Allie and Nick both find love--but surprisingly not with each other. Their separate romantic arcs illustrate the power and limitations of love and its ability to change people. I'm picky with my love stories, but these two hit all my favorite buttons. The romance strengthened the characters rather than weakened them and did not take away from the plot. The emphasis was on emotional (and dare I say spiritual) connection rather than physical. A bittersweet edge ran through the romance, for as pure as the love might be, when your characters are ghosts, you know happily ever after is out.
The Skinjacker Trilogy hits all my preferences right on the nose, so how can I help but to recommend it? It's a weird, fun, and solid adventure series from Neal Shusterman, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Title: Her Last Mission (A Better Late Romance)
Author: Michelle Knowlden
Genre: Romance, Mystery/ Thriller
Sandra Baak (Sandy) has spent her life periodically impersonating her twin brother Sanford (Ford) in order to make sure he got ahead. When she was seventeen, Sandy spent a year playing Ford while attending a prestigious private school, where she met Mark Orlando. Sandy fell for Mark early on but never had the courage to tell him her true identity.
In the intervening years, Sandra has led a full life as a single woman. In addition to her work as an engineer, she uses her skills in technology to conduct counter-espionage missions--again, in the guise of Ford. When her handler suspects that Mark Orlando, the CEO of Orlando Tech, is involved in peddling government secrets, Sandy finds herself once again in the presence of her old flame. Can she continue to keep her identity under wraps while she conducts her last mission? Or is it time to let her disguise go and tell Mark how she feels?
I know Michelle Knowlden, and I like her stories, the Abishag Mysteries being my favorite. Her latest book came out early this July, for only 99 cents. I was excited, since this is the first full novel of hers I’ve read in a long time. Being a friend may create a bias; however, I will try to be as honest in my review as I can.
Her Last Mission is a light and wholesome riff on Twelfth Night with an industrial espionage mystery thrown in. It has its romantic moments, but I would not exactly call it a romance. The love story comes across less like a journey or an experience, and more like a problem that needs to be solved. Between romance, family drama, and mystery, there were a lot of plot threads flying around. The set-up slowed down the first half of the story, but it picked up in the second half.
What grounded the story and tied the plot threads together was the character of Sandy, a single older woman who has spent her life fulfilling family and career obligations and now finds herself considering a very different future. She tries to reconcile these different aspects of her life and understand what brought her to this point. I found Sandy’s journey very relatable. For me, it made the book a worthwhile read.
Title: The Snow and the Darkness
Author: Matthew Warren Wilson
Jason doesn’t care that a snowstorm is coming. He spent $800 on plane tickets for him and his girlfriend Valerie to travel to Virginia, and he intends to use them. At the airport, Jason’s brother Frank and his girlfriend Lucy meet them. As Frank drives them home amid a freezing blizzard, an accident causes them to divert to a side road. There, Frank sees a lone man walking in the snow. He picks up the stranger out of a sense of compassion. But the stranger gives Jason a bad feeling. The worst seems to be confirmed when, on a pit stop, Lucy is attacked and their tires are slashed. But is it the work of the stranger? Jason thinks he saw… something… in the darkness. Can it be that a monster lurks in the snow?
I was on Amazon, buying some DVDs, when The Snow and the Darkness popped up on the suggestion screen. Normally, I’d download a sample, but this book happened to be free, so I “bought” it. Since it was a gloomy day and I was feeling tired, I decided to go through my books and see which one would be worth reading. The Snow and the Darkness was that lucky book.
The Snow and the Darkness is a horror novel that contains lots of gore, some of it very creative. But it has little in the way of scares. I felt disturbed once or twice in the beginning, but eventually the fountains of blood caused me to feel detached and repulsed. This was because I never felt more than a mild interest in the human characters. Rather than reveal deeper personalities and develop heroic traits, Jason and the survivors unraveled, and I found myself liking them less and less.
The character that came across as the most sympathetic was, ironically, the monster. The monster kept me reading, as I became curious about its origins, its relationship to the human villains, and its fate. Unfortunately, none of these things were answered in a way I found satisfying. Toward the end, the action was so bizarre and ridiculous it was almost comedic, and the ending put me in a bad mood.
As you may imagine, this book contains copious amounts of violence and gore, including mutilation and attempted rape. There is a healthy amount of cursing, mostly the f-word, and some sexual content and nudity.
(Warning: Light Spoilers Ahead.)
A Certain Slant of Light is A Heart-Wrenchingly Beautiful Tale About Love, Language, and the Human Spirit
Title: A Certain Slant of Light
Author: Laura Whitcomb
Genre: Romance, Fantasy, Literary Fiction, YA?
A long time ago, Helen died, but her soul did not make it into Heaven. For over a century, she has existed as a ghost and a writerly muse, attaching herself from one literary figure to the next, watching their lives but never being more than a whisper in their ear. Helen’s latest haunt is an English teacher and aspiring writer named Mr. Brown. One day, as Helen stands beside him in his English class, a boy notices her.
The boy is not what he appeared. James died as a young man and also became a ghost, but very recently, he discovered he could enter an “empty” body. Possessing a high school boy named Billy gives him access to the world again and allows him to see Helen. As the two ghosts begin a whirlwind romance, Helen wonders if she, too, can enter a body and be with James. After so much time spent watching in the distance, is it possible that Helen can once again partake in life?
It has been a long time since I read a book I unabashedly loved. But that is how I felt about A Certain Slant of Light. It is sweet and romantic, full of yearnings and emotions, with beautiful prose and a genuine affection for words and literature. I loved Helen and James. I loved their old-fashioned courtship and their passionate yet somehow innocent romance. This rendered the second half of the book hard to read, as the tension started to ramp up and I became genuinely afraid of what might happen to them. But, though it took a lot of pain and struggle to get there, the ending was happy and left me as a pile of mush, basking in emotion.
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Genre: YA, Literary, Fantasy
Elizabeth Hall is dead. She died when her bicycle was hit by a cab, a senseless accident, and when she awakes, she finds herself on a boat taking her to Elsewhere--the afterlife. Elsewhere is a society similar to our own, except that here everyone ages backwards and once they become a baby, they will be sent back to earth. Most people in Elsewhere have had lived their lives, but Liz died when she was fifteen. As she copes with the sudden loss, she must grapple with creating a new “life” in Elsewhere. But is there a point to “living” when you’re already dead?
I first found out about Elsewhere when the title appeared on Goodreads list of YA books with dead protagonists. I’m writing a YA book with a dead protagonist called Company and part of the marketing process is to research similar books. However, I honestly did want to read Elsewhere, because the idea of a society of people aging backwards intrigued me, and while most books about dead protagonists featured ghosts (my own included), this one attempted to build an afterlife.
Elsewhere is a good book to read when you’re sad. The book has a languid and distant melancholy to it. This is to be expected; the book deals with death. There is grief and loss and mourning. And that, I feel, is the strongest part of the book. Liz’s grieving process is vivid and real. When she arrives at Elsewhere, she is not eager to explore this new land; rather, she sinks into a depression and gets stuck mourning the life she lost.
However, I feel like Liz never fully comes out of that depression. Even as she acclimatizes to her new “life” in Elsewhere, there is a lingering sadness that permeates the novel. In some ways, this has to do with the style of writing. The prose is simple, matter-of-fact, and not terribly descriptive. Anything that might elicit emotion is glossed over. As a result, the sadness is never too sad, but the happiness is not all that happy, either. In fact, everything is such an even keel of lukewarm, I started to feel like I was reading about a person coping with a low-key but persistent case of clinical depression.
Title: Dark (The Dark Trilogy Book 1)
Author: Paul L Arvidson
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction
Dun has troubles on his mind. Since his father disappeared, he has become the main provider for his family. Worse still, he's dealing with vivid and terrifying dreams--a sign he bears the gift of foretelling. When the village elders appoint him as head of a quest to find out why their mysterious neighbors, the Machine-folk, have gone missing, Dun assembles a band of allies to accompany him: his cheerful best friend Padg; Tali, an apprentice-alchemist; and Myrch, a man with many useful abilities and secrets. As they confront the different tribes, they begin to suspect that something odd is going on--a darker presence that threatens to throw their whole world into chaos.
I decided to take my own advice and find some free fantasy books on Kindle to read during quarantine. Dark was one of several I downloaded. What caught my interest and kept me reading was that the world felt both unique and believable. Fantasy books often rely on big, flashy elements to get attention: dragons, unicorns, gods, monsters, magic. But I appreciate a story that takes its time to build its own cultures.
Dark started off with a tribe of simple folks who live by fishing, trading, using reeds make baskets. And yet, there are hints of a more complex world. “Found” items have a curiously manufactured feel to them, underground tunnels are actually a complex system of pipes, and a decayed civilization is shown to have wielded great power once. Something happened in the past, but what could it be? That mystery kept me reading.
Dark initially gave me vibes of: Watership Down, which is high praise for me. (Watership Down is one of the foundational books that has inspired my writing.) You have a group of ordinary people with different abilities, led by someone with flashes of prophecy. (I love prophecy.) Occasionally, they come across technology that the audience may be familiar with but is baffling to them. Their journey is simple, but challenging, and members of the group need to use their different abilities. Friendships are forged and deepened.
However, the similarities diverge when it comes to the ending. Watership Down has one of the best endings I have ever read. Dark’s ending, while certainly not the worst, was rather disappointing. The problems began at Chapter 48, because at Chapter 48, Dark underwent a rapid genre shift and became an entirely different book.
VAGUE SPOILERS AHEAD
Title: The Guardian: A Dream-Hunter Novel
Author: Sherrilyn Kenyon
Genre: Romance, Fantasy
After thousands of years of being tortured in hell, demigod Seth has one chance to escape his misery. His master, the primal god Noir, has captured Solin, god of dreams, who has information about a key that can grant great power or cause great destruction. Seth is put in charge of interrogating the Solin. Little does he know that Solin’s daughter, Lydia, has come to free him. Lydia is an immortal were-jackal with the power to walk into another person’s dreams. But she is no match for Seth, who quickly captures Lydia and offers Solin a trade--the missing key for Lydia’s life. Solin agrees, and Seth keeps Lydia as collateral. But when Seth gets to know Lydia, he finds himself drawn to her. And though Lydia would like nothing more than to hate the man who tortured her father, the more she learns the horrors of Seth’s past, the harder it is to keep her own creeping feelings at bay.
A friend recommended Sherrilyn Kenyon to me a while ago, but I hadn't really gotten around to checking her out. So when I spotted one of her books at the La Habra Library bookstore for the low, low cost of ten cents, I quickly jumped on the chance. I was not disappointed. I finished the book the same day I bought it. The Guardian was that addicting.
The Guardian is a romance book first, a fantasy book second. It has a kind of Beauty and the Beast vibe going, which I really like. If it were a film, it would be a hard R for cursing, sex, and, most prevalent, scenes of violent torture. (More on that later.)
Title: The Buried Giant
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Genre: Literary Fiction, Fantasy
King Arthur is dead. Ogres roam the land, but the people are accustomed to them. More disturbing is a fog that clouds memories. Axl, an old man who lives a modest life with his wife Beatrice, occasionally has glimmers of people long forgotten: a woman with red hair, a missing child, and his estranged son. When Axl and Beatrice embark on a journey to visit their son, they run into a slew of strange traveling companions: a warrior on a solemn quest, a boy marked by evil, and the last remaining knight of King Arthur’s court. As memories are revealed and the secrets of the past are peeled back, Axl and Beatrice learn of a way to restore what was once forgotten--but at a startling cost.
I bought The Buried Giant because its author, Kazuo Ishiguro, also wrote one of my all-time favorite books, The Remains of the Day. As such, I wanted to wait for the perfect time to read The Buried Giant and slowly savor it. Initially, I was captivated by the simple beauty of the prose and filled with a sense of romance. But lurking under the quests and magic was a startlingly realistic look at the nature of war, hatred, and vengeance. These dark undertones slowly crept up on me and left me shaken and disturbed by the end of the book.
This doesn’t mean that The Buried Giant contains explicit material. It doesn’t. There are no graphic or gory depictions of violence, no sex, and no profanity--nothing that is typically labeled as “shocking.” I think what disturbed me, on a personal level, was the contrast between the high ideals of the characters and the horrific atrocities they were still capable of inflicting. It seemed very… realistic… for a fantasy world.
Title: The Sanctity of Sloth (Seven Deadly Sins)
Author: Greta Boris
Medieval anchorites hold a special fascination for Abby Travers. These pious women chose to entomb themselves in small cells built into cathedrals. In order to understand anchorites better--and write a best-selling book on the topic--Abby convinces her father to build her an anchorhold in Mission San Juan Capistrano (a famous historical landmark in California), where she will secretly hide for 40 days. This plan is ruined when Abby witnesses two men dumping a young girl right in front of her. When the girl dies, Abby is the only witness to the crime. But coming forward will mean sacrificing her book and exposing her family to ridicule. When Abby decides on a compromise, she sets in motion a series of events which will put everything she loves in danger.
I’m not sure how I stumbled upon this book; I think it was a recommendation. Regardless, the sample intrigued me. I had never heard of anchorites, but I found the topic fascinating. From the first chapter, Abby finds herself in a moral dilemma, and I was interested to know how it would resolve. So I bought the book and read it during my long road trip to California.
The Sanctity of Sloth delivered on what I wanted from this book. I learned a little about anchorites, and I watched Abby grow and change as she confronted the bizarre circumstance she found herself placed in. The story held my attention, and the prose was serviceable, if not super descriptive.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.