Review: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas (@SJMaas)

I’ve had Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas sitting on my bookshelf since it came out in August, because I had heard nothing but good things and was itching for an awesome new fantasy to read. But alas, my terrible time management got in the way and weeks kept passing without it getting read. However, then I heard Sarah speak on a YA Fantasy panel at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, and then I got to hang out with her (and the awesome Kat Zhang) for a few hours afterward because they are nice people and didn’t mind me crashing the party even though they’ve known each other for a while, whereas me…notsomuch.

So anyway. After that prolonged Sarah exposure, I concluded two things:

1) Going by her frequent references to Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit, Buffy, Star Wars, Labyrinth, Harry Potter, and Legend, she is my kind of people.

2) I really need to read her book (especially when I found out it’s the start of what will ultimately be a 6-7 book series — um, yes, please).

The Plot (from Goodreads)

After serving out a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier for her crimes, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien is dragged before the Crown Prince. Prince Dorian offers her her freedom on one condition: she must act as his champion in a competition to find a new royal assassin.

Her opponents are men—thieves and assassins and warriors from across the empire, each sponsored by a member of the kings council. If she beats her opponents in a series of eliminations, she’ll serve the kingdom for three years and then be granted her freedom.

Celaena finds her training sessions with the captain of the guard, Westfall, challenging and exhilirating. But she’s bored stiff by court life. Things get a little more interesting when the prince starts to show interest in her… but it’s the gruff Captain Westfall who seems to understand her best.

Then one of the other contestants turns up dead… quickly followed by another. Can Celaena figure out who the killer is before she becomes a victim? As the young assassin investigates, her search leads her to discover a greater destiny than she could possibly have imagined.

My Thoughts

Now this is the type of YA fantasy I can get behind. It’s got fabulously nuanced characters, tons of action, magic, tension, mystery, court intrigue, more action, monsters, a hint of romance, and did I mention action?

From the first chapter, I liked Celaena despite her dark past and hardened nature. She manages to be tough and damaged and brutal while still remaining sympathetic. Her previous life experience has taught her to be wary of everyone she encounters, and her instinct for self-preservation often kicks in before any other thoughts or feelings, but even so, you can sense that aside from being a formidable assassin, she’s still a good person. She eventually manages to form friendships and ties to others that surprise even her, and even though she’s more than willing to kill a man if she must, she does have a sort of self-governing morality that keeps her feeling human in spite of her training.

Then there’s the two male protagonists, the Crown Prince, Dorian, and the Captain of the Guard, Chaol. Sarah managed to pull off something pretty tricky with them: a love triangle that is not annoying. They are both admirable and likable characters, and it’s easy to see how Celaena could be a good match for either of them. While the romance with Dorian is more overt, and the relationship with Chaol more subtle, I really enjoyed both and honestly could be happy whichever way the story goes. I do think the back cover copy (“Two men love her”) is misleading, as Chaol takes the vast majority of the book to try to sort out his feelings and even then, isn’t really sure what they mean. And the romance element is very much secondary to the main element — Celaena has much bigger things to worry about than which boy to choose, and both of the men have a lot on their mind besides Celaena. The book gives us insights into all 3 POVs, and I really liked that while they each definitely thought about romance, it wasn’t the only thing on any of their minds.

We also get the occasional POV of one of the scheming court ladies, who never became likable, but the insight into her thought process kept her from being one-dimensional. It’s always fun when authors let you into the brain of the “bad guys,” because more often than not, that’s not how they see themselves.

The action in the book is mostly centered around the Competition and the training of the Champions. It’s well done, and I could actually visualize most of the fights in my head, as she describes most of them in vivid detail. I always prefer this to fights that are described along the lines of “they fought, their blades flashing blindingly through the air, until she was panting from exertion.”* That’s how a lot of action scenes work in books, leaving pretty much everything to the imagination, and I never really feel satisfied with those. I don’t need a step-by-step recounting of every strike and parry, but my preference is absolutely for more fleshed-out fight scenes.

There’s also some non-Competition-related fighting, which is so cool I don’t want to spoil it by saying anything more about it.

There’s also magic, which was really interesting. It left me asking a lot of questions, like how do Wyrdmarks work if not through magic, and how is the king able to enforce his law against magic? The magical elements were definitely an important part of the plot, but still not the driving force of this book, which was kind of nice. This story focused a lot more on character building and the mechanics of the Competition itself. I strongly suspect that the magical element will evolve significantly as the series progresses, and I’m anxious to find out more about it.

The one complaint I have (which is all a matter of taste, because I’ve read other glowing reviews whose one complaint is the exact opposite of what I’m about to say) is that there are parts where I felt the narrative skipped ahead and I needed a little more information to get from point A to point B. Some transitions felt just slightly jarring. I was never lost, just felt that there was a scene or a snippet missing that I wish was there. I suspect this was because this story is less than half the length that it was in its original form, and while 900 pages would have been far too long, I’m guessing that there was some information lost in streamlining it down to the much more manageable length of ~400 pages that I would like to have had.

However, it’s still a pretty hefty book for YA, and I’ve heard other people say it’s too long. So take what I’m saying with a grain of salt.

Overall, this was a great read that kept me thoroughly invested throughout. I can’t wait to see where Sarah takes the story from here.

Content Guide: Contains a large amount of violence, some gore, devious plotting, references to torture.

*not a direct quote  from anything, just a sad little example I made up.

Review: If I Stay by Gayle Forman (@gayleforman)

I’ve been hearing great things about If I Stay by Gayle Forman for a long time now, but I didn’t get around to reading it until one of my real-life friends mentioned that it (and its sequel, Where She Went) were among her favorite books. I figured if they’re her favorite books, she probably owns them, and so I asked to borrow them. I read both over the weekend of my brother’s wedding, then needed a few weeks to process them. They’re the kind of books I can’t form coherent thoughts about right off the bat.

But now I think I can (maybe) talk rationally about them. Although, for the purposes of this review, I’ll only be discussing If I Stay, because they are very different books.

The Plot (from Goodreads)

In the blink of an eye everything changes. Seventeen ­year-old Mia has no memory of the accident; she can only recall what happened afterwards, watching her own damaged body being taken from the wreck. Little by little she struggles to put together the pieces- to figure out what she has lost, what she has left, and the very difficult choice she must make. Heartwrenchingly beautiful, Mia’s story will stay with you for a long, long time.

My Thoughts

If I Stay alternates between Mia’s flashbacks of her life and her out-of-body experience after the accident, watching her friends and family react to what has happened to her, her parents, and her brother. We get to see snippets of her childhood, her interaction with her parents and brother, and the evolution of relationship with her boyfriend, Adam, and her best friend, Kim. Meanwhile, we’re also in the hospital, seeing how Adam, Kim, Mia’s grandparents and other extended family members are coping. And through it all, Mia has to decide if she’s going to succumb to her injuries or fight for her life; if the experiences she hasn’t yet had are worth the pain of the world she’d be returning to.

This book hurt to read. While Mia is a bit of a detached narrator, it was still devastating to view the scene of the crash through her eyes, and to experience each of her revelations with her throughout the book. But although there is lots of sadness and hardship in this book, there is also joy and humor. Mia had an overall happy life. She had parents who loved her, a boyfriend who was devoted to her, and friends that cared for her. She had a creative outlet in the cello that the people in her life may not have totally understood, but still supported.

In a way, that happiness made what happened to her that much harder to read about. Her losses were large and meaningful, and it made it easy to understand why she would debate whether or not she wanted to return to a life that had been stripped of so much. There was no clear-cut right or wrong answer, and no matter what she chose, it would have made sense. It also makes her ultimate choice a double-edged sword. I simultaneously agreed with her choice and regretted, along with Mia, what she gave up by making it.

The few annoyances I had with this book were actually not problems with the book, just bits of added realism for the characters. While Mia adored her parents, and they loved her fiercely, as she looked back on her life, she would reflect on some occasions with her parents that she thought were awesome and I thought were questionable parenting decisions. But of course, that’s because she’s a teenager and these are her parents, and I’m an adult, and a parent, so our perspectives are going to be very different. (Of course, that also has a lot to do with your personal parenting — and life — philosophy, and we all know there are as many of those in the world as there are people. So other parents may think Mia’s parents are the epitome of parenting, and that’s fine too). There were also a couple instances with Adam in flashback that made me raise an eyebrow or two, but again, I understood why they made sense for the characters.

One of my favorite aspects of the book was the use of music, and how Mia, her parents, and Adam were all musicians, albeit very different kinds. Whenever Mia was talking about how she felt playing the cello, or about how her parents or Adam talked about music, I continually thought, yes. This is how musicians think (while I’m not the virtuoso Mia is, I still have a musician’s brain). It made me want to go watch cello videos on YouTube (because there are some awesome cello videos on YouTube. Like this one. Or this one), or to sing, or to dust off my piano music. I loved how they all related through music, and while they approached it differently, they all understood that the music was the important thing.

If I Stay is a powerful and introspective look at life, love, family, friendship, and how everything we know can change in an instant. It was beautiful and haunting and sweet and sad, all at once. It’s not like any other book I’ve read, and it stuck with me for a long time after I turned the last page.

[Oh, also, I have no idea why the cover blurb says it will appeal to fans of Twilight. While it definitely could appeal to fans of Twilight, it is absolutely nothing like Twilight, except that it features a teen female protagonist with a boyfriend.]

Content guide: Contains graphic description of a devastating car accident, profanity, some sexual activity.

 

Review: What’s Left of Me by Kat Zhang (@KatZhang @harperteen)

Received an advance digital review copy from Edelweiss

I’ve been interested in What’s Left of Me, the debut by Kat Zhang, since I first heard of it. The premise was intriguing – two people trapped in the same body, fighting for dominance? But unlike in other books exploring a similar theme, like The Host, the characters in this book are actually born that way? I sensed potential for greatness. And when I realized Kat was another Nashville author whom I would have the opportunity to meet, that sealed the deal. I needed to read this book ASAP.

The Plot (from Goodreads)

Eva and Addie started out the same way as everyone else—two souls woven together in one body, taking turns controlling their movements as they learned how to walk, how to sing, how to dance. But as they grew, so did the worried whispers. Why aren’t they settling? Why isn’t one of them fading? The doctors ran tests, the neighbors shied away, and their parents begged for more time. Finally Addie was pronounced healthy and Eva was declared gone. Except, she wasn’t . . .

For the past three years, Eva has clung to the remnants of her life. Only Addie knows she’s still there, trapped inside their body. Then one day, they discover there may be a way for Eva to move again. The risks are unimaginable-hybrids are considered a threat to society, so if they are caught, Addie and Eva will be locked away with the others. And yet . . . for a chance to smile, to twirl, to speak, Eva will do anything.

My Thoughts

This book took some getting used to, because of the unnatural (yet accurate for the story) use of pronouns and verb conjugations. Because there are two people sharing one body, you get paragraphs like this:

“Kind of,” Addie said. She managed to keep our voice bland despite Hally’s dogged high spirits, but our fingers tugged at the bottom of our blouse. It had fit at the beginning of the year, when we’d bought all new uniforms for high school, but we’d grown taller since then. Our parents hadn’t noticed, not with — well, not with everything that was happening with Lyle — and we hadn’t said anything.

“Want to come over?” Hally said.

Addie’s smile was strained. As far as we knew, Hally had never asked anyone over.

- page 8, What’s Left of Me

Keeping in mind that all those “our”s and “we”s are talking about two individuals sharing the same body. Sometimes Addie acts independently of Eva, sometimes they act together. Sometimes people are addressing both of them, sometimes just one. You’d think it would be really confusing, but it’s not once you get used to it. I do, however, feel sorry for Kat’s editor. Grammarcheck would have had a hard time with this one.

I really liked that this story was told from the perspective of Eva, the recessive soul. It was fascinating watching Eva and Addie’s sibling dynamic, when one of them had only a voice and no body. They could communicate with each other, but Eva couldn’t speak with their voice to anyone else. So lots of times, Eva sat helplessly inside their body, urging Addie toward a course of action, only to have to suffer the consequences when Addie made a different choice.

Although it wasn’t a major plot point of the book, I was completely fascinated by the family dynamics in the book. Eva and Addie’s parents both, at some point during their lives, tell them that they love both of them. But at the same time, they urge Eva to fade away, and for Addie to assert her dominance. It’s such a weird and challenging concept — how should a parent’s love be affected by having two children inhabiting the same body? And should they mourn the “death” of one for the good of the other, or should they simply accept it as the way life works? Eva, obviously, feels hurt by the withdrawal of her parents’ affection — from her, not Addie — even as she tries to tell herself it’s normal for them to stop talking to her. Again, this isn’t actually a huge part of the story, but it was such an interesting question to me.

And the question necessarily expands to intertwine with the main narrative. Should one soul be forced to fade away, or do both have a right to share the body? And if both souls have equal rights to the body, who gets to choose what they do? If one soul is romantically attracted to someone and the other is not, which gets to follow their heart?

As Eva and Addie struggle with these philosophical questions, they have to deal with the physical problem of being taken and incarcerated if their hybrid nature is discovered. And so in addition to the internal struggle, there is a lot of external action, adventure, and peril. Even a touch of romance, although that too becomes a delicate and challenging situation. It’s a great mix, and I was completely sucked in.

Eva’s narration is sparse but effective, and the storytelling flowed nicely. There’s still some huge questions at the end of the book, but it’s not a cliffhanger. Truthfully, I don’t know if it’s possible to fully and neatly answer all of the questions raised by this book, so in that way, it would actually work as a standalone (even though it’s the first of a trilogy). Oh, and although it’s being touted as a dystopian, it’s really not. Nor is it really sci-fi. More of an alternate reality. It’s one of those books that’s kind of hard to define, which I think actually broadens its appeal.

I thought this book was really good, but it didn’t completely knock me off my feet. I feel like it could, and I’m almost expecting that from the sequel. But while this one was highly enjoyable, it didn’t quite crack that amorphous bubble that houses my all-time favorites. That said, I still highly recommend it.

Content guide: Contains some violence

Review: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater (@Scholastic)

Read and reviewed as part of the Southern Book Bloggers ARC Tour

I’ll be honest. I had absolutely no idea what The Raven Boys was about when I requested to be part of the ARC tour. I just knew a bunch of other bloggers had been raving about how excited they were for it, and about what a great writer Maggie Stiefvater is, so I threw my hat in the ring. And then it arrived in the mail and it was thick, and I had just been in a mini-slump and thought “Oh no. I’ll never finish this in a week.”

And then I finished it in three days (which for some book bloggers is still slow, but with the way my life has been lately, let me assure you that three days is about as fast as it gets). If that tells you anything.

The Plot (from Goodreads)

“There are only two reasons a non-seer would see a spirit on St. Mark’s Eve,” Neeve said. “Either you’re his true love . . . or you killed him.”

It is freezing in the churchyard, even before the dead arrive.

Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue herself never sees them—not until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks directly to her.

His name is Gansey, and Blue soon discovers that he is a rich student at Aglionby, the local private school. Blue has a policy of staying away from Aglionby boys. Known as Raven Boys, they can only mean trouble.

But Blue is drawn to Gansey, in a way she can’t entirely explain. He has it all—family money, good looks, devoted friends—but he’s looking for much more than that. He is on a quest that has encompassed three other Raven Boys: Adam, the scholarship student who resents all the privilege around him; Ronan, the fierce soul who ranges from anger to despair; and Noah, the taciturn watcher of the four, who notices many things but says very little.

For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. She never thought this would be a problem. But now, as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore.

From Maggie Stiefvater, the bestselling and acclaimed author of the Shiver trilogy and The Scorpio Races, comes a spellbinding new series where the inevitability of death and the nature of love lead us to a place we’ve never been before.

My Thoughts

First of all, the synopsis is misleading. It implies that there is a romance in this book between Blue and Gansey, and there is not. There is a hint of romance between Blue and one of the other Raven Boys, but not Gansey. Now, I’m pretty sure that if all the foreshadowing is to be believed, the Blue-Gansey romance will come later in the series, but in this first book, there’s actually very little romance at all.

This book does really well on a few fronts. First, the story itself is really interesting. The complex relationships between the boys and Blue, the intricate supernatural element that they’re exploring, and the interwoven mysteries that play out all kept the narrative moving and my attention occupied.

I also really liked several of the characters, particularly Blue, Adam, and strangely enough, Ronan. I’m not even sure if I was supposed to like Ronan, but I did. Adam was definitely my favorite of the Raven Boys, and I thought the best developed. And Blue was feisty and quirky in a way that let me see how she would really fit in well with the odd group of friends.

Maggie Stiefvater’s prose is engaging and flows nicely. I can see why her books are so popular (and now I’m motivated to actually go read the Shiver trilogy, which has been sitting unread on my shelf for months).

One warning: This book asks some pretty big questions that are not answered in this book. One in particular that I thought for sure would be addressed before the end of the book, isn’t. It’s not a cliffhanger per se, just big questions that remain unresolved. Now I’m thinking that it will probably take the entire trilogy to get answers to some of these, but it took the entire book for me to realize the answers weren’t coming.  It didn’t really bother me, but I just want you to be aware.

I did have a few problems with the book that kept me from completely loving it. The first is the shifting POVs. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good multiple-POV book, when it’s done right. And for the most part, this book did it right, with one exception. The villain (of sorts) gets a voice, and while part of me loves the idea of a villain getting to tell his side of the story, I don’t think it worked in this book. It all comes back to my whole hangup with “is this voice necessary?” and his POV was used so infrequently, I didn’t think it was necessary. Interesting? Kinda. Necessary? Probably not. Yes, he lets us in on a few pieces of information we wouldn’t have had otherwise, but I don’t think the story would have suffered without them, or if we had learned them through another method.

Then there’s the fact that I just didn’t really feel connected to Noah or Gansey, and I’m not sure why, but this story really needed me to have a connection with both of those characters to fully succeed. This just might be a problem with my brain, because I haven’t heard of anyone else having this problem. But bottom line, I felt like I really should care about these characters, and I didn’t. Not too much. I didn’t dislike them; I was just sort of apathetic towards them.

Now, will that apathy keep me from picking up the sequel? Definitely not. As I mentioned before, I loved some of the other characters, and the story is fascinating. So while I may not have thought the book was perfect, I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I will be eager to pick up the next one when it comes out to see what happens next with Blue and the Raven Boys.

Content Guide: Contains profanity and some violence

Review: Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins (@naturallysteph)

I’ll be honest. I’ve put off reading this book for a while because, much like the Young Boy in The Princess Bride, I feared it was “a kissing book.” Mostly because of the title. And while I don’t mind some kissing in my books — you know, shoved in between the explosions and the dragons — I didn’t think I was really going to be into a YA contemporary centered around kissing.

But then many, many, many people told me that I needed to read it. And I think the straw that broke the camel’s back was this Twitter conversation where C.J. Redwine bullied me into reading it. (Okay, maybe “bullied” is too harsh, since all she did was use ALL CAPS on Twitter, and I am a pushover).

So I checked it out of the library. And I tried to ignore the cover, because the cover makes me think it’s a kissing book. Also, I don’t like the Eiffel Tower.

I know.  I know.

Anyway. I am happy to report that while there most certainly is kissing in this book, it is not “a kissing book,” and it is indeed quite enjoyable.

ALL THE PEOPLE WERE RIGHT.

The Plot (from Goodreads)

Anna is looking forward to her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a great job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. Which is why she is less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris – until she meets Etienne St. Clair: perfect, Parisian (and English and American, which makes for a swoon-worthy accent), and utterly irresistible. The only problem is that he’s taken, and Anna might be, too, if anything comes of her almost-relationship back home. As winter melts into spring, will a year of romantic near – misses end with the French kiss Anna – and readers – have long awaited?

My Thoughts

Reasons I wasn’t sure if this book would appeal to me:

1) It sounds like a cheating book. I hate cheating books.

2) It takes place in Paris. I don’t like Paris. I know, I’m weird, but when I visited Paris, I just didn’t like it. For whatever reason. I don’t know. I just don’t like it.

3) The summary uses the phrase “swoon-worthy,” which makes me cringe. Seriously. Is this anyone’s honest reaction when they hear a British accent?

I should hope not. It is overly dramatic, and inaccurate. You know what’s swoon-worthy? Finding out you just won the Publisher’s Clearing House. Finding out that a loved one’s cancer is gone. Discovering that a loved one you thought was dead is actually alive.

Not a British accent.

HOWEVER.

None of my problems with this book turned out to actually be problems with this book. Which was a pleasant surprise.

I loved Anna. First off, Anna also kind of hates Paris, and thus I felt a kinship with her. She also is socially awkward and goes to painstaking and impractical lengths to keep from coming in contact with other humans, and I was like, YES. I can relate to this!

And then I also liked her friends. So often in books, I wind up liking the protagonist and then hating their friends, and then wondering why they’re friends in the first place. Not so in this book. They had a natural friend dynamic, where every member of the group had a distinct personality and role to play, and you could see why they would all have gravitated toward each other.

Of course, the majority of the plot circles around her relationship with Etienne St. Clair, and her struggle to determine how she feels when she knows he has a girlfriend and she has a maybe-something-or-other back in Atlanta. I was prepared for this to be extremely irritating, either because their friendship wouldn’t feel like a real friendship, or because one of them was going to cheat. And I just can’t root for cheaters. Period.

But. It wasn’t irritating. Or at least, not irritating in a way that kept me from enjoying the book. I was irritated alongside Anna. She berated herself for looking for hidden meaning in his actions, and I could completely sympathize. And while there were a few times I just wanted to throttle St. Clair (who, while not a cheater, was a monumentally crappy boyfriend on several occasions), he never crossed that point-of-no-return line where I simply would not be able to hold out hope for him and Anna anymore, because I’d be too busy thinking he was scum.

I liked that their friendship was real. They were comfortable, their personalities were complementary, and they just worked well together. One of my favorite chapters was their back-and-forth holiday email exchanges, which is normally one of my least favorite book gimmicks. But their banter seemed natural and easy, and I enjoyed it.

Anyway. I could keep talking about this book and how much fun it was and how I loved Anna’s snarky yet awkwardly endearing inner monologue and how happy it made me to read about friendships that felt real and a friendship-turned-romance that didn’t feel forced. Or I could stop talking and you could just go read it. Which you should.

Content Guide: Contains profanity, under-age drinking, implied sexual activity