Vassa in the Night

28220892First Lines: When Night looked down, it saw its own eyes staring back at it.  Two big black eyes, both full of stars.  At first Night ignored them.

I got this book a few months back from Uppercase, but I kind of let it sit on my shelf forever because I just wasn’t sure what to make of it.  I hadn’t really heard of it at all before it arrived in the mail and it seemed like the type of book I had to be in just the right mood to read.

In the  enchanted city of Brooklyn, there are two types of people: the people who can party without worrying about anything and the people stuck in the working class district where the chance of death is much, much higher.  This is Vassa’s neighborhood, where she lives with her stepmother and two stepsisters.  Nearby is a convenience store owned by Babs Yagga, a women whose policy is to behead anyone caught shoplifting in her store–and sometimes innocent people when the mood strikes.  When Vassa’s stepsister sends her out for light bulbs, Vassa knows this could easily be a suicide mission.  But with a little big of luck and a magical wooden doll from her mother named Erg, Vassa might just break the curse and free her neighboorhood.  But when Bab’s doesn’t play fair, what will Vassa do?

This book was weird.  Like A.G. Howard’s Splintered series weird.  The kind of weird where you have to read sections two or three times and you still don’t actually understand what’s happening.

Vassa is a teenage girl in Brooklyn who doesn’t really fit in. Her stepsisters don’t understand her and her only real friend is a talking doll named Erg. As a trick (sort of a game of chicken, really), Vassa’s sister insists that Vassa go to the nearby BY’s store, where most people who go in after dark never make it out alive.  I thought Vassa was incredibly dumb for even taking her stepsister’s dare, and my opinion of her didn’t improve much throughout the story.

The story is just so bizarre that it’s very hard to follow and I found myself getting bored of it because it was so hard to follow. I kept giving up. I’d read a chapter or two and put it down to do something more interesting.  That’s never a good sign.

There was very little about the first half of this story that I liked. I never had a single character that I clicked with who kept me reading. I never had a moment where I was excited about what I was reading. Even the climax wasn’t terribly exciting for me besides the fact that I was almost done with the book.

The story only really started to improve when it was in its last twenty pages or so. Once the loose ends started getting wrapped up, I finally started feeling like the story was falling into place. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly encouraging. I had to put up with 270 pages before that.

(Some of you are probably wondering why I even bothered finishing this. I own it, bought through Uppercase. I felt obligated to read it all the way to the end.)

It was just too much.  It tries to play into many fairy tale tropes while simultaneously turning them on their head.  But it felt like it was trying to do this with every trope instead of just focusing on a couple.  It’s overwhelming.  Not one I’ll be reading again.

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The Crown’s Game (The Crown’s Game, #1)

26156203First Lines: The smell of sugar and yeast welcomed Vika even before she stepped into the pumpkin-shaped shop on the main street of their little town.

I got this as an ARC a while ago, and it kind of got relegated to the back of my Kindle on accident…until a historical fantasy finally sounded good.  So here I was, curling up with my Kindle and reading about Imperial Russia.

Vika and Nikolai can do things that no one else can.  In fact, they are the only two enchanters in all of Russia.  With the Ottoman Empire preparing to strike, the Tsar needs all the resources he can get, so he started the Crown’s Game.  This magical duel will test the skills of Vika and Nikolai.  The winner becomes Imperial Enchanter and advisor to the Tsar.  The loser dies.  Vika, who grew up training with elemental magic, is ready to show the Tsar what she can do.  Nikolai, an orphan with an affinity for mechanical magic, knows this could be his chance to rise above his station.  But can Nikolai find it in his heart to sentence his brilliant and gorgeous competitor to death?  And when Nikolai’s best friend, Pasha, who also happens to be the heir to the throne, also starts to fall for Vika, the game becomes even more dangerous.  Who will win?

Alright y’all.  I tried really hard to like this book.  But it didn’t work for me.  Get ready for some ranting.

I loved the setting, though.  Imperial Russia is fascinating.  Love the Romanovs and all that jazz.

But other than that, this book was hard to like.  And that started with the characters.  I found them to be very simple characters, very one-dimensional.  We really didn’t get to know them too well because it was all about planning for the games and trying to stamp out the competition.  And when we did get to see them being normal, it just didn’t feel sincere to me.  I can’t really explain it, but they lacked emotional depth.

Which leads me into this love triangle the story attempts.  I don’t even think it actually qualifies as one, honestly, because it was just so pointless.  There were a few spontaneous “I love you’s” and that was about the total emotional depth to it.  I spent a lot of time rolling my eyes because there was no feeling to it at all.  It completely felt like a plot device and nothing else.

And speaking of plot devices, let’s talk about the crux of this plot: the Crown’s Game.  What a load of crap.  So there’s the whole “there can be only one” thing, which actually seems really stupid even if there is a reason for it.  (Another reviewer on Goodreads and I were complaining about this before we even finished the book.)  But ok, let’s say I roll with that.  The point of the game is to find an advisor as the coming war approaches, yes?  Alright, sounds legit.  An enchanter would probably whip your enemies easily on the battlefield.  So then why was the theme of the game to impress the prince by beautifying the city for his birthday?  For the love of God, we’re looking for advisors, not entertainers.  Couldn’t we have done some actual dueling or something rather than “Hey, look tricks I can do with water!  Look at the toys I can conjure!”  …It was very trying for my patience.

And basically every subplot got on my nerves.  I already mentioned the love triangle, but there’s also this bit with mentors and parents (that I don’t really feel like spoiling), but suffice it to say that it wasn’t very impressive either.  Like, some really bizarre stuff happens and everyone just rolls with it like it’s normal?  What the flip?

Ok.  Rant over.  This book did not work for me, but it has a rating on Goodreads of something like 3.84 (at time of posting, at least), so it must be working for some people.

The Warrior Heir (The Heir Chronicles, #1)

First Lines: The scent of wood smoke and roses always took him back there, to the boy he was and never would be again.

So, the other day as my kiddos were taking a standardized test, I happened to finish the book I was reading.  (The horror!)  So I grabbed this off of my classroom bookshelf, figuring it was best if I actually read something I was allowing them to read.  Funny how that works.

Before the Roses, Jack lived a normal life in Trinity, Ohio.  He loves soccer and the only thing that really sets him apart from his friends is the medicine he has to take daily since his heart surgery as a baby.  But then Jack accidentally skips his medicine.  Now he’s stronger and more confident than ever–until his newfound strength nearly kills another soccer player in practice.  That’s when Jack learns the truth–he’s a Weirlind, a member of a magical society.  Ruling the Weirlind are two families: the Red Roses and the White Roses, whose power is determined by who wins a deadly tournament known as the Game.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, Jack finds out that he’s a Warrior…and one of the last when both sides are searching for a champion.

Initially, I thought it was pretty interesting.  I really like it in stories when someone “normal” gets absorbed into a magical world.  (Maybe because I’m holding out the hope that it will happen to me?)  Jack is completely unaware of all the danger he’s in, though he quickly figures out he’s in over his head.  And something about that appealed to me too.

There were some really interesting plot twists, but there were at least two big ones that I called from way too early in the story.  So while it was fun to be taken by surprise a few times, I really just rode out the surprises with “Aha!  I was right!” moments.

I tended to like the world this story was set in (you know, outside of Ohio).  It was interesting, but I also felt that by the end I still didn’t have a great grasp on the rules and customs of the Weir.  (*snort* I accidentally typed “Weird”.  Fitting.)  I felt like I was missing something…and maybe I happened to read an important section too fast.  I’m not ruling that out.

Perhaps the most interesting part for me was the obvious pull from the War of the Roses.  (Medieval English history for the win!  The Houses of Lancaster vs. York.  Look it up.)  With my recent adventure into the world of the British monarchy via extensive genealogy research, I was more than a little proud to see the parallels.  Do I expect my students to know this?  Not even close.  If they do, they’re my new BFF.

Overall, I thought it was a fine read, but it seemed to be missing something for me personally.  For others who maybe don’t read as much, I’m sure this is great.

Illusions of Fate

First Lines: Dear Mama, I am most certainly not dead.  Thank you for your tender concern.  I will try to write more often so you don’t have to worry so between letters. (Because a week’s silence surely means I have fallen prey to a wasting illness or been murdered in these boring, gray streets.)

I am a big fan of Kiersten White, but for some reason this book kept eluding me.  I’d wanted to read it, but I just forgot about it.  It happens to the best of books.  (Tell that to my copy of Jane Eyre that has set neglected on my bookshelves, never having been read.)

Jessamin is the textbook definition of a pariah when she comes from her island nation to the country of Albion.  Drab, gray Albion is vastly different from her sunny, warm homeland, and Jessamin misses home.  But life in Albion changes for her the moment she meets Finn, a gorgeous young lord who introduces Jessa to the world of Albion nobility, a world that has more than power and money…it also has magic.  But Finn has secrets, secrets so dangerous that Lord Downpike, Finn’s rival, will do anything to possess.  And Jessa, armed only with her wits and cunning, may just be the only one who can stop him.

As far as Kiersten White’s style goes, this is solidly her.  It has humorous banter between the main characters that is charming and giggle-worthy, heart behind every character’s actions, mysteries, secrets, unexpected twists, and a cute love story.  I was not disappointed.

I was incredibly surprised by the political nature of this story.  And I don’t mean “political” like “Democrat vs. Republican” or anything.  I mean more like whether countries should colonize “uncivilized” countries and what happens to those in the colonies.  Or female equality.  It definitely wasn’t a bad thing that this story had all those things.  I was just surprised.

Mostly, I’d say this story had a feminist bend to it.  And I use that word in the best way, as I consider myself a feminist.  Jessamin does everything possible to be as strong as she can possible be and she will not let anyone else make decisions for her.  She’s strong and stubborn, which sometimes leads her to make mistakes.  But she definitely tries to assert her female dominance whenever she can.  This has both good and bad effects, which I think was great that the story presented both sides.

Which leads me to Finn.  He was an interesting counterpoint of Jessamin.  He’s strong and stubborn too, but sometimes not as much as Jessamin.  She is so strong and pushy the occasionally he had to step back and let her take the lead on whatever was going on.  And he lets her.  Far from making him seem weak or emasculated, I came to respect him more for it.  He let Jessamin be who she wanted to be.

But I did struggle with the story early on.  This is set in some unstated time period that feels somewhat Victorian but obviously in a fantasy world where countries like Albion exist.  I just could not figure out to save my life what was going on in the first 40 pages or so.  I found the writing to be vague and it seemed like Jessamin was unsure/unclear of things that she should have known quite well.  Either that or I missed something.  I just didn’t think it was very fleshed-out and I struggled to understand what was going on.

Overall, it’s a very entertaining story.  Expect cliffhangers at the end of chapters.  (Which means don’t plan on stopping at the end of chapters.  It won’t happen and you’ll fall into the readers’ lie of “Oh, I’ll just read one more chapter and stop.”)

Sisters’ Fate (The Cahill Witch Chronicles, #3)

First Lines: I leave Maura in the swirling snow and ice.  I cannot look at her scheming face one moment longer, or I will not be responsible for my actions.

It’s a very good thing I made a run to the library when I did last week, because I’m about to get snowed in for the foreseeable future.  So…yay free time for reading!  I picked up a number of series books, so hopefully that means I’ll be finishing off a few series, like this one!

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

Life in New London has just gotten infinitely more dangerous, with girls being sent directly to the gallows for even the mere suspicion of being a witch.  The Sisterhood is powerless to act without revealing themselves.  And after an accidental show of power, Cate becomes the most wanted woman in all of New England.  To make everything worse, Cate can’t decide what she wants to do about Finn, who no longer remembers who she is.  Should she try to help him fall back in love with her or should she protect him from more attacks?  Tess’s visions have been getting even stronger, and it’s only a matter of time now before one of the Cahill sisters brings the prophecy to fruition…

To be fair, I haven’t always been the biggest supporter of this series.  There’s always been something that feels off about the sisters to me.  Maybe it’s all of the drama I find off-putting.  Or maybe it’s the fact that I simply don’t have any sisters and so it all feels weird to me, like, “Oh, sisters really do that?  I could never get my brothers to do that.”  I just wanted to say that upfront because I do think it colors my reading of this book.

Ok, so right from page one, it felt like walking into a brick wall of tension.  I started this book before bed one night and had to put it down after the first chapter simply because my blood was vibrating in my veins, which was not conducive to going to sleep.  But hey, at least it picked up immediately where the last book’s nasty cliffhanger left off.

And the action in this was always moving.  There was constantly something going on that involved Cate’s feud/battle/disagreement with someone.  (Cate seemed to be butting heads with a lot of people this time around.)  But yes, the story is pretty much always tense.  There are very few times where it seems to relax.

The characters were exceptionally well written.  Not just the Cahill sisters, but minor characters as well.  Finn (but seriously, who doesn’t love that boy?), Rilla, and the other Sisters.  And there were other amazing new characters like Prue and Alistair, both of whom I quite enjoyed.  I wish they had been a bigger presence in the series.  And on the flip side, the evil characters are also well-written.  Because even though you want to give them their own pyre, you kind of understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.  And they’re consistent in their evilness.

The story between Cate and Finn is still cute, but it’s obviously different than it has been in the last two books.  I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoiling something.  But Finn is still Finn, and that alone is worth a swoon.

Like I said at the beginning, there were just some times that something felt off about the story to me.  I think it’s mostly due to all of the drama in the Sisterhood, with all of the girls scheming behind other girls’ backs, nasty tricks, and an evil abbess playing puppet master throughout the whole story.  It’s just so opposite of the way I grew up and the friends I’ve had throughout my life that I just can’t put up with girls who do that.  I can’t.  So whenever that was happening (and it frequently did), I kept wanting to put the book down and move on to something else for a while.

Overall, I thought it was an action-packed read with lots of great characters and a plot that was always moving and evolving.  If you haven’t gotten into this series yet…what are you waiting for?

Defy (Defy, #1)

First Lines: The crackle and hiss of the flames devouring our house couldn’t block out the screaming and wailing of those who were still alive.  My friends, the children, and babies.  Orphans.  Most of the men were dead.

I put off reading this for a while due to bad reviews.  Don’t you just hate that?  When I originally read the premise, I thought it sounded awesome.  And then bad reviews started rolling in, and I second guessed myself.  But when a girl wants a fantasy read, she’ll grab what she can find.

Alexa has always been a fighter.  When her life crumbles around her, the only thing she knows how to do is fight back.  So she becomes Alex, a boy in her kingdom’s military.  Her cleverness and skill quickly earns her a place in the prince’s elite guard.  But when a sorcerer breaks in during the night to kidnap the prince, even Alex’s nearly undefeated skill isn’t enough to protect herself, the prince, and fellow guard Rylan from being kidnapped and taken to the jungle by the enemy nation.  And the longer Alex spends with Rylan and Prince Damian, the more she realizes she isn’t the only one keeping dangerous secrets.  When her secret is revealed, Alex finds herself facing a foe she’s never encountered: suitors.  Sweet and dependable Rylan, or the dark and intriguing Damian?  But with danger everywhere, is Alex strong enough to protect herself and her kingdom?

Admittedly, I was leery about the love triangle.  They just make me sigh and want to move on to something else.  But this one wasn’t as bad as I was expecting it to be.  For the most part, Alexa knows who she wants while the other guy is forced to watch from the wings.  So it did have that going for it.  I hate when the girl agonizes the whole story over who she’s going to pick.  Alexa didn’t do that, at least.

I love strong heroines, and I thought Alexa was a good one.  Who’s stronger than a girl who manages to masquerade as a boy for three years AND becomes the second in command in the prince’s guard?  That’s strong on multiple fronts.  (Some reviewers complain that Alexa is whiny and is overly emotional when it comes to the guys.  Eh.  I saw it at times, though not nearly as often as the reviewers would have you believe.)  I also thought Alexa was a great protagonist because, as a character, she was always keenly aware of what was going on around her.  That made her an interesting narrator.

I thought the plot was interesting.  There were many twists and turns.  And while I saw some coming, there were always more that I didn’t expect.  That kept me reading, easily.

And here we get to what needed work: the love story.  For a book that could be called a fantasy/romance, it seemed lacking on real depth to the love story.  I didn’t really feel it.  It was convenient and things sometimes moved too quickly or without good explanation.  I would have liked it if I could have felt more of the emotional side of things in that regard.  (Other emotions the story evokes were done pretty well, but not so much for this.)  And to some extent, I attribute this to being a debut novel.  Hey, everyone’s got to have a weakness, especially on your first run.

While it wasn’t a perfect novel, it was full of action and mystery, a strong heroine, and an interesting cast of characters.

Tsarina

First Lines: The rioters at the gate were loud, but no match for the music inside the Winter Palace.

As someone who once voluntarily gave a speech in high school about Anastasia Romanov, I knew that eventually I was going to get around to reading this book.  A focus on Alexei instead of Anastasia?  That looked new, promising, and exciting.

Natalya, a noblewoman in Imperial Russia, feels like her life is nearly perfect.  As the intended for Alexei Romanov, Natalya will someday be tsarina.  But the Reds in the streets are on the verge of started a revolution that will threaten Natalya’s world as she knows it.  As long as the strange (and possibly magical) Constellation Fabrege egg stays in the Winter Palace, Natalya’s future is safe.  But when the Winter Palace falls into the hands of the Reds, and the egg as well, how far will Natalya go to save Russia?  To save Alexei?  With the help of a young Red looking for the egg himself, Natalya’s world just got vastly more complicated.

I found this to be a charming story.  It was about a historical time period in which I am already incredibly interested in and it twisted the story slightly by talking about Alexei instead of Anastasia.  The premise was different and moved at a good clip, considering Russia is a powder keg just waiting for a spark.

Natalya was a good lead for this story.  She was strong, stubborn, determined, and compassionate.  It was a good combination, and it was easy to see why she could be tsarina someday.  Natalya’s best friend Emilia was strong but fearful.  She was a nice contrast to Natalya’s stubborn strength because Emilia couldn’t handle some of the same things Natalya could.  And Leo, the young Red, he was quite the character.  Determined, clever, and sympathetic.  Though Alexei wasn’t in the story much, it was easy to see how sweet and charming he was.

One thing that has stuck with me is how the author’s note said she wrote this in part to show how we must remember that our enemies are still people too.  When we see our enemies as simply those who oppose us, they stop being human.  She wrote this to help show that we’re more alike than we think we are.  I think she easily succeeded in her mission.  In this day and age, it’s so easy to forget that our enemies are still people with lives, feelings, family.  We see them as what they stand for, not as people.  This book was a nice example of how we can still work together, even though we have opposing viewpoints.

There were a few things I had small issues with.  First of all, the historical timeline was incredibly sped up.  And I realize why this was done.  (The author even mentions this in her author’s note as well, stating that this book is not a textbook, it’s a novel.)  I don’t know if I would have liked the book as well if there was so much downtime for the characters.  The excitement kept the story going.  But that doesn’t mean I still don’t feel a twinge of something icky inside, knowing that the timeline was sped up.  It’s the history nerd in me.

But I also thought the story could have stood on its own legs without the magical/mystical angle to it.  Of course, most people are aware of Rasputin’s legendary accomplishments that took “magic”, but the story took it beyond that.  Again, it did make the story exciting and was basically the plot.  I just wish it had been more historically factual.  This is, once again, the history nerd in me coming out.  I just think Imperial Russia is exciting as it is.

Overall, though, it was an exciting read that tours some beautiful sites in 1917ish Russia with a nice cast of characters.  I enjoyed it.