REVIEW: Artificial

Artificial by Jadah McCoy

In the future, humans battle for their life in Elite City. Like in many dystopias, humans destroyed the earth through their own hubris. The humans created the androids, the androids disappeared, leaving humanity to its fate. . That is, after the androids (the Glitches) developed emotions. Massive, bug like Culls show up, and Syl learns that the androids created a plague to turn humans into Culls, infesting the human cities and wiping out the remaining, normal humans. The initial info dump was necessary because some of this background information is confusing. It’s not the sleekest of world building, which is an unfortunate trend throughout this story.

I didn’t care about Syl. There’s nothing to her beyond the plot. She’s a plot piece, and that makes the entire story thin. I can’t understand why Bastion likes her. For me, this undermined the entire book, and there wasn’t anything else to save it. Syl wasn’t surrounded by a stellar cast of characters, either. I didn’t care about Lucca or Sarge. The characters are spectacularly boring early on, which is a killer for me. I will forgive a lot of faults if there are fleshed out and exciting characters. Bastion and the introduction of New Elite City is a relief in the narrative, but it’s ultimately not enough to rescue this book.

The action sequences work, and there are some nice death jump scenes. Even though there’s action, it started to feel as if nothing was happening, and I’m sure my dislike of the characters furthered that feeling. I was always waiting for there to be something more to this story, but if you don’t like this book in the first twenty pages, there’s no more depth to it. If you can get over the characters, maybe something else in this story will interest you. If the characters were more engaging–or built more organically with this future world–this would’ve been a better read.

This is the first in a series, and I’m not hooked. If there was anything to hold back for a second book, it should’ve gone into Artificial to make it more interesting. Sci-fi and fantasy need real depth in at least one area–character, plot, setting–to push the story over the edge into an enjoyable read. None of those areas quite delivered for me. Let me take a moment to speculate on why (but I’m not telling other authors how to do their jobs, just swapping the reader’s brain for the writer’s brain). There should be a potential between all the elements in a story, making the sum greater than its additive parts. In great novels, a positive feedback develops between the world, the character, and the setting, blending with the author’s voice and creating greater themes in the work. None of that is present here, and it’s because everything feels like it’s there to serve (a weak) plot. My bias is that I personally believe there are few plots (and authors that plot like gangbusters) that sustain a novel and keep me solely reading based on plot alone. There are plenty of novels with ‘meh’ plots but engaging, fully-realized characters and quirky, meandering world-building that keep me reading right to the end and are memorable, even though I’ve guessed how the story will end. Plot is not enough. Even the most careful plotters, if they’ve written their stories well, can only fool the eagle-eyed reader to an extent. This is where the quirks of the setting and the vibrancy of characters is needed: to sustain the story between major plot moments. This book has a plot, but there was nothing to sustain the story, which is what really matters.

Notes:

  • There’s a bit of an early info dump. If you’re not interested after reading it, put the book down. That’s all there is to this world and the world-building therein.
  • The Culls are great. They’re gross and were the most interesting element of this story for me.
  • This story should’ve maybe been about Bastion. He wasn’t much more interesting than Syl, enough so that he helped make this read manageable. This would’ve been DNF without Bastion.
  • If you can get into Syl’s character, there’s some great early book action scenes.
  • Why can’t they tell Syl is a human? Why??? They’re androids. I’d think they’d be able to tell. This drove me freaking nuts.

Rating: 2 stars

There was so much in this book I thought I’d like (perpetually on the look-out for non-human centered sci-fi) but the characters all ended up feeling thin. Syl and Bastion are barely memorable, let alone anyone in the supporting cast, and they all feel like they’re there as plot chess pieces. Artificial unfortunately wasn’t an engaging read.

REVIEW: Beauty and the Beast (Timeless Fairytales #1)

Beauty and the Beast (Timeless Fairytales #1) by KM Shea

Do I need to recap the plot of this book? If a series is entitled ‘Timeless Fairy Tales’, I’ve hope you know what you’re in for. As an unashamed fan of Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter (what I consider to be the better of her two Beauty and the Beast retellings), I’m always on the look out for a lovely little retelling like this. KM Shea does an excellent job of bringing her own touch to this story, and it still rings true to the heart of the tale.

The best part of this story is that Elle, the beauty half, has a logical reason to be trapped in the chateaux. In the first scene, she falls through the roof and breaks her leg. Hearkening back to the French roots of the tale, Elle is trapped in a country chateaux in the fantasy country of Loire, which is fantasy France. Prince Severin, the younger brother and non-heir apparent, reluctantly keeps Elle through the summer and autumn in his chateaux until her leg heals. There’s a certain Enlightenment feel to the culture and architecture of the chateaux, and I would’ve enjoyed if the story played up these elements a bit more. For me, it’s not possible to go part French–all aboard the Francophile train or go home. That said, there are nice little allusions to French culture, and I’m clearly freaking obsessed with finding a Beauty and the Beast tale where one of the characters rants about French art and literature.

That said, I liked Elle’s character a lot. At first, she doesn’t seem particularly special as a heroine, but there’s some hints that she’s a bit more than she seems. There’s some playing coy with her backstory, and if it was dropped earlier in the novel, I think it would’ve heightened the tension at the end. As much as I try not to judge a book by its ending, this one was one where I had to do that. The end could’ve–should’ve–been more tense. Frankly, the story ended a bit too soon, and I was waiting for another twist, another action sequence, but it never came.

But let’s get back to the parts I did love: the characters. This is the clear strength of the novel. Elle’s friendship with the servants, especially Emele, is poignant and didn’t bore me. The servants all have personalities of their own, and their part in the curse (being unable to speak and wearing masks) adds a distinctive aura to the story that made it stand out. By including other characters, instead of just having the palace be empty, the world becomes richer, the story filled with more emotional stakes because that’s where the real action is in this novel. The servants also push the romance along with gossip and schemes, and the crown prince, Lucien, helps add depth to the greater political landscape of the story. Also, it was nice to see Severin have relationships outside of his one with Elle.

The central relationship in the story between Elle and Severin worried me at first. Severin is in the unique position that he’s tried to break his curse before and failed, so he has no interest in trying again. This let some of the tension out of the relationship initially, but the servant supporting cast stepped in to help kindle the initial friendship between Severin and Elle. For most of the story, it’s a friendship. That works well with Elle’s character and her supposed station, but this is where I would’ve loved a surprise drop in her backstory. Things would’ve gotten crazy a lot earlier, and more could’ve happened in this novel. There was a certain amount of ease with which the curse was broken, but I like more teasing out of my finales. I know what the ending is going to be. I want to need that ending, anticipate it with every freaking page, and this story didn’t quite deliver that longing. Still, there are sweet, tender moments between the main characters, and they’re both fully fleshed out humans with flaws and pasts.

Notes:

  • I really liked how the servants were incorporated. Emele with the fan was intensely French.
  • Did I imagine the chateaux looking like Versailles (even though that’s anachronistic for the period the story was implied to be in)? Yes, I did.
  • This story delivered the animal companion goods. Fairy tale retellings without animal companions is heresy.
  • Severin is a giant cat. This particular version of the beast is more similar to the gentleman beast than the half-mad one that’s become a bit more popular of late.
  • This is a writer thing, but there were lots of repetitive description words in this story. That’s a difficult part to edit, but it made the world less evocative.
  • Could we’ve gotten something a bit more interesting than ‘working in his study’ for 90% of what Severin did. That would’ve helped build his personality for me.
  • We got a Princess and the Frog sequel tease with Lucien. MAKE IT SO.

Rating: 3 stars

I’m being freaking picky with this, but there are lots of great reasons to read this book. The real reason for this rating is that 1) the ending is a bit slack with the overall tension and 2) the world building needed a bit of work. The pro-part is that there’s a fresh take on the characters, and this makes the story charming throughout, even if it doesn’t hit all the right notes with the plot.

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REVIEW: The Pages of the Mind

The Pages of the Mind by Jeffe Kennedy

I wanted to like this book. I really did. It has a fantastic cover, a great title, and it implied it was going to be about a badass librarian. I was hooked on that concept. Unfortunately, this story didn’t deliver. It’s not really about Dafne, the aforementioned librarian, and if there’d been a focus on her earlier in the book (or if the book had started later when she became more important to the story), I would’ve cared about her more. This story also should’ve been told in third person. It simply would’ve worked better, and I don’t come across many stories where I feel that way being that I don’t prefer a POV. It’s author’s choice, but first POV did nothing to help this story or build Dafne’s character.

Ursula is the new queen, and this book picks up where the previous book in the series left off. The early parts of this book are chronicling Ursula and Harlan’s more interesting adventures, and Dafne literally sits on the sidelines. This is why this didn’t work well as a first person POV–Dafne tells someone else’s story. That’s massively boring. When the early part of the book doesn’t involve the main character at all, I’m concerned.

It took 20% of the book before it felt like Dafne was the main character. The story should’ve just started there or else the earlier parts of the book needed to make Dafne important. She’s a wall flower, and that’s not interesting, even for an introverted character. There’s a lot of characters talking about the plot and not a lot of plot. I felt like this story is about Ursula, which makes sense in the context of the series, but not for this book in particular.

The characters spend so much time talking about things. Less dialogue would’ve helped because there was too much of it. I know, there’s this thing about not putting info dumps and unnecessary description into the story, but less dialogue would’ve tightened this narrative. But shouldn’t characters be interacting? Yes, but when they prattle, all of the meaning in the dialogue is lost. The importance is gone, and all of the conversations felt meandering and useless. In the latter parts of the book, it becomes more descriptive and starts to rely on Dafne’s internal narrative more, and that’s the only reason this book became remotely bearable. This makes the early parts of this book baffling. It feels like an infinitely worse book and a completely different story!

King Nahoka KauPo and the descriptions of his people and traveling to the island relieved the amazing boredom of the earlier parts of this story. This happens a third of the way through, and if you can’t get to this part, I honestly can’t blame you. The first third of this book is DNF bad, but the volcano king’s island focuses the world building and presents Dafne with definitive challenges. The bad news is that the remainder of the story leaves Dafne languishing on an Nahoka’s island, which delivers the story back to some of the more monotonous elements of the earlier part of the novel.

The narrative voice of this novel (and the choice of 1st POV) grated on me the entire time. It was like sandpaper in my eyes. The positives of the book kept drowning in this problem, and no mistake, it was a huge problem for me. I already mentioned the drastic change in writing between the first part of the book and the latter part of the book, and I ‘d honestly skip the first 100 pages if I were to start reading this all over again.

Notes:

  • Maybe it’s because this is an ongoing series, but there’s a lot of ‘fantasy speak’ and fantasy name dropping. So much so that it pulls me out of the story, which is rare.
  • If Dafne keeps talking about other characters instead of doing something, I’m going to stop reading this freaking book.
  • We’re going to talk about sex a lot but not have any actual scenes with sex in it. *sigh*
  • The women in Ursula’s court (the Hawks) are SUPER SASSY. *sigh*
  • Shape-shifters having clothes when they shift back is dumb. This is my official opinion.
  • This also features the world’s most unimportant and boring dragon.

Rating: 2 stars

The major issues–this book not feeling like Dafne’s story–is fixed in the latter two-thirds of the book.  If I hadn’t tried to hack it through the first third, I probably would’ve enjoyed this book a bit more. This was a wildly inconsistent book.

REVIEW: How to Ditch Dead Guys

How to Ditch Dead Guys by Ann M. Noser

We start where How to Date Dead Guys left off. There’s no time skip—we jump right in after Mike disappears into the river. Emma is still dealing from the shock of losing all of her friends, and she wants to solve Steve’s murder. She also clearly has unresolved feelings for Jake, even though she came to grips with her issues with Mike at the end of How to Date Dead Guys.

Emma and Walker investigate a series of murders, and Emma becomes possessed by the spirits of the victims. She relives their deaths, and a particularly evil spirit, Shadow, inhabits her, too. Through Shadow, Emma learns that ‘the Master’ wants to turn her to The Dark Side. This part of the plot isn’t particularly clear, but it launches the story into the possession plot line, which carries through the remainder of the story in a more satisfying way than whatever is meant to happen with the Master.

There are lots of horror elements in this novel, more so than in the first book of the series. The dead church ladies coupled with Emma’s hallucinations are creepy, and while the visualization works, it’s not the story’s strongest elements. The psychological tension between Emma, Walker, and their respective families grips much harder than anything with dead people and witches. The tone in How to Ditch Dead Guys isn’t as lighthearted as the one in How to Date Dead Guys, but during its best moments, the book tries for it. The ease with which the characters interact offsets the darker moments in this series.

The award of ‘Most Improved Character’ goes to Walker. He’s an actual character in this novel instead of a plot device! Walker’s growing relationship with Emma and the tension between Emma and his family is more dramatic than a thousand spirit possessions. I genuinely cared what would happen with Walker this time, and I’m glad he’s sticking around in this series. Being that this is, you know, a series about dead people and necromancy, that’s not a guarantee.

 

Part 2 opens when Emma ‘dies’ and goes to purgatory. Her spell to destroy the Book of Shadows goes awry and she finds herself in a swim center. The bad news? She thinks she’s dead. The best news? Jake is back, and oh boy, did this story need the romantic tension he shares with Emma. The purgatory section focused on what this series does best: interpersonal tensions. All of the paranormal elements are side dressings to how Bernard misses his wife or how none of them trust Steve or how Emma can’t parse her complicated feelings for Jake. The paranormal elements are underwhelming compared to what’s happening between the characters, which is the tension the feeds the story.

This carries through to the end of the novel, where Mike and his brother, Kevin, come back into the story. Kevin’s a cop now, and he helps Emma clear Walker’s name. Emma’s guilt propelled How to Date Dead Guys into the final act, and Emma’s understandable stubbornness in the face of her family and friends’ struggles brings this second book in the series to a close. If I’m honest, I wasn’t quite as into the earlier parts of this book because I didn’t feel the focus on the paranormal elements did Emma or the story any favors, but these stories are slow burners. The later parts of the book make up for some of what I found lacking early on because the story shifted back to relying on the tension between the characters for drama, which is what worked the best in this novel.

Notes:

  • Black moths! Moth terror: take 2. This is the second book I’ve read with demonic moths. I’m glad their horror potential is being recognized.
  • Walker’s mom is quite the obstacle. The best parts of this book are the human elements. It almost feels more like contemporary NA than paranormal.
  • Of course purgatory is swim aerobics.
  • The series always shocks me with how dark it gets. It feels like a cozy family drama, but then it springs this ending on you, and you wonder what you’re reading.

Rating: 4 stars

Even though I personally didn’t like this story as much as the first one, it builds the series and ultimately will have the same elements that made How to Date Dead Guys so much fun to read. This is a darker book, but this is a series about dead people, so I’m not completely shocked.

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REVIEW: The Emperor’s Railroad

The Emperor’s Railroad by Guy Hailey

I read this novella by Guy Hailey being completely unfamiliar with his writing style or his previous works. On reflection, while novellas can help introduce you to an author and their style, I don’t think this is a particularly good way to get into this author (especially if you love long novels and series). There’s no previous works of his that this novella made me want to read. If you’re a novella person, this is a quick read, and if you’re already familiar with the author, you’ll probably like it more than I did. The Emperor’s Railroad is the first in the Dreaming Cities series, and if it’s a series of novellas, and you like this story, this might be a series that’s worth your time. The description of the world sounded amazing, which is what drew me to it.

Global war devastated the environment, a zombie-like plague wiped out much of humanity, and civilization as we once understood it came to a standstill. But that was a thousand years ago, and the world is now a very different place.

Conflict between city states is constant, superstition is rife, and machine relics, mutant creatures and resurrected prehistoric beasts trouble the land. Watching over all are the silent Dreaming Cities. Homes of the angels, bastion outposts of heaven on Earth. Or so the church claims. Very few go in, and nobody ever comes out.

Until now…

Zombies! Futuristic fantasy wars! Mutants! Dragons! The world building in this novel doesn’t disappoint. The zombie apocalypse reminded me of World War Z, which I loved. The invasion of New Karlsville scarred and shocked me, and felt like a vignette out of World War Z with a fantasy twist. This was the strongest aspect of the novella for me. This scene was genuinely scary and impactful, and I wish the novella would’ve opened with this instead because it would’ve roped me into the story faster. Instead, we’re introduced to Quinn as this ultra-badass, and I kind of hate when a non-POV character is heralded as such a badass immediately. It takes time to establish awesome characters are awesome and don’t just tell me this guy is awesome–I have to come to believe it for myself by the character’s actions. I was never as in awe of Quinn as the narrator, 12 year old Abney. That’s probably intentional, but this story is notably better once the focus shifts from how awesome knight Quinn is to the stakes of Abney and his mom attempting to resettle after the New Karlsville disaster.

Unfortunately, like with many novellas, I always feel like I’m in the middle of a story that feels half-baked. There’s a lot of world building that’s vague, and no amount of connecting with the characters or potential coolness of the world could eliminate this feeling of being unmoored for me. There’s also an incongruous aspect to this novella: Abney is a 12-year old protagonist, which really works for introducing us to this futuristic world. However, this is another narrative retelling, where we’re being told about Abney’s journey from New Karlsville to Winfort by the older Abney that already made the journey. Older Abney, presumably, should’ve known more about the world than 12-year old Abney, but we’re never given this perspective. It gives the world building a bait-and-switch feel where a lot of information is purposefully kept from us by the narrator and characters in story.

Notes:

Because this novella was short and a quick read, I don’t have any real notes on it. Instead, I have a major complaint about the overall production of the novella. Being that this is the ‘notes’ section, you’re free to agree or disagree, but it’s how this novella is positioned within a series that ultimately broke my engagement with it, not anything in particular to do with the writing or the characters or the admittedly amazing setting. The Emperor’s Railroad is listed as a Dreaming Cities story. I went looking for more Dreaming Cities books to see if this was a story about a side character in a larger series. If there had been preexisting, full length novels about the angels and the wars between the dreaming cities and the emperor, I would’ve read them. I felt like I was missing SO MUCH backstory, and I was freaking sick of being teased about it by the end of the novella. I wanted that story. This novella? It’s not that story. It’s not even a companion to that story. This is supposed to be the first in a series, which is why the world building teased me so much, but it should’ve been an entire novel. Maybe not this individual tale of Abney and his mom, but it’s a good side-character vignette, world-expansion novella for an already established series. This novella didn’t make me want to continue reading this series because I didn’t care about Quinn and all his mysteries because the story wasn’t about those.

Rating: 3 stars

There is a lot of strong aspects to this story, and it’s ultimately a captivating and well-done vignette. If it would’ve been a companion novella to an additional series, I would’ve given that series a try. As a part one in a new series? I’m not sure this works as that. Does it intrigue? Yes, but this story referenced events that we had no idea about–and that we weren’t going to learn the full meanings of in this novella. It’s a testament to how well-done the overall work is that this didn’t make me rage quit, but this world is well-developed and frustratingly under explained and under explored.

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REVIEW: Minotaur

Minotaur by Phillip W. Simpson

The summary of this story is obvious: it’s a retelling of the infamous Creteian Minotaur’s life. The minotaur, Ast, meets Ovid, the famous Roman poet, and recounts the details of his life over a thousand years after the events of the labyrinth occurred. I love mythology and ancient history, and that’s what drew me to this book initially. This novel was a quintessential For Want of A Nail story for me,  and if you love stories from the monster’s POV (think the classic Grendel), then Minotaur is going to be a net positive read for you (it was for me). There’s a lot of good in this novel, but the format of the retelling weighs it down and limits how connected I felt to this story at any given time.

Ast retelling his life to Ovid is an interesting premise. The narrative retelling format makes sense for this story, and it lends the story a mythological feel. However, after reading a couple stories that relied on this narrative retelling format, I think there’s some major draw backs in telling a story this way. Because Ast tells you a lot of things, this makes some of the other characters in the story seem under developed. Pheadra suffers the most from this, and that’s a shame because it would’ve been a better story if I understood her more or had a better feeling of her as person.

I love mythology retellings and reimaginings, but this story didn’t quite do it for me. How you feel about this retelling will likely depend on how engaged you are with Ast’s narrative voice. It’s not bad, and the style is purposefully archaic, but that does mean that it’s a bit dry. Still, I liked Ast as a character; he’s a purposeful gentle giant, and his treatment during his childhood, his encounters with bandits, and his events in the labyrinth turn on the foil between Ast’s appearance and his true personality. We rely on Ast for most of the story–and solely during the retellings–to form opinions on the characters. All their actions are filtered through his perspective, which causes the characters to lose a bit of their own agency and personality. At the same time, Ast is a reliable narrator, and there’s no reason given why he’d be anything but honest with Ovid. In some ways, this creates a more boring story–Ast has clearly developed some emotional distance and perspective on the events of his childhood.

Ovid isn’t much of a character, and that’s a shame because a more developed character could’ve helped this story. Ovid is a drunken old man with three divorces, and he serves mainly as a personality foil for Ast. There are also a lot of ‘genius bonuses’ for readers who know a bit about Minoan society and Greek mythology. Icarus makes an appearance; of course Theseus does, and his characterization stands out a bit stronger than most. King Minos comes across as a mustache twirling villain, but this hardly matters as the story needs a strong antagonist, and he fits that role.

Notes:

  • I did end up sympathizing with Ast. I mean, it’s hard not to after all the kick-the-dog moments in this novel.
  • This is one of my favorite myths. I mean, this is catnip to me.
  • The ‘twist’ ending is telegraphed pretty hard; Ovid seems like a  moron for not figuring this out, but I guess he’s drunk.
  • There’s a pet rat in this novel! Glacaus was an adorable character, but once again, this my me being a sucker for animal companions. Rats are the cutest. Videos of pet rats:

Einstein and Darwin

Baby rats (bonus dog)

Rating: 3 stars:

The minotaur is my favorite myth, and I love monster POV retellings. However, the style of this story was too dry for me to ultimately love the book. The narrative retelling hampered my ability to connect with other characters beside Ast.

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