Silver and her mate Andrew are the alphas of the Roanoke werewolf pack, the largest in North America. But they're more than just that, they've been sworn fealty by the alphas in all the other packs in North America, as well. There's a benefit to having two alphas--they can divide and conquer, which comes in handy when there's an entire continent to manage.
When Andrew leaves for Alaska to intervene in a case for the human mother of an infant Were, Silver must manage everything else that comes up: the pregnant alpha of a sub-pack with a recalcitrant beta, a roamer from South America coming through her territory, and a step-daughter who doesn't know what to do with herself that doesn't involve causing trouble.
Her fragile mind handles Were issues fine, but when she deals with humans she risks looking insane--and that doesn't even include exposing the reality of Weres to the outside world. This makes her an obvious target of the vengeful European pack from Madrid whose balance of power was diminished in book two, TARNISHED (EBR review), as a result of her and Andrew.
The different thing about Held's book in the Urban Fantasy genre is her deep exploration of Were culture and behavior. I enjoy reading her take on it and the problems caused by the culture that have to be dealt with. It's something she handles with finesse across all three books. Silver is the star of the series, I find her fascinating as a broken Were who despite everything still has the dominance and confidence to be an alpha in her own right. She is insightful to others' problems and understands her own limitations.
But while I enjoyed SILVER (EBR review) and TARNISHED, REFLECTED felt flat for me.
It's pretty simple, really. Andrew spends 95% of the book off-stage (he's pretty cool and I wish we could see more of him). And while REFLECTED is told much from Silver's PoV, here Andrew's daughter Felicia becomes the central figure. It's been three years since the events in TARNISHED, so now Felicia is eighteen and must decide about the next stage of her life, whether she becomes a roamer, get a job, or go to college.
I don't dislike Felicia, but I also don't particularly enjoy her character. I'm coming to the realization that I haven't found many teenage girl characters I've truly liked (a hold-over from high school drama? dunno), and Felicia is more of the same wishy-washy, secretive behavior that makes this mom of a teenager go batty. I haven't been a teenage girl for...a while...and even when I was a teen I was more rational that most. So take that for what it's worth.
Even then, I think I have some grounds for being annoyed at Felicia's behavior with the roamer and the raw deal she gives Silver. The solution wasn't hard, she eventually finds it in the end after some colossally dumb behavior. Is the plot contrived? I think so. Did Felicia carry this story? She doesn't have Silver's charisma, that's for sure. These issues might have been glossed over by a YA audience, but the graphic sex scene at the start ruins that notion or else I might have let my teen read it. Perhaps the drama would have made more sense to her.
Recommended Age: 17+
Violence: Some fighting and blood
Sex: A detailed scene opens the novel; other references (more than in the previous novels)
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It took me a while to catch on to this series by Elizabeth Bear. I'd seen reviews when the first book, RANGE OF GHOSTS, came out, including here at EBR (see that review here). I even saw the second book in the series, SHATTERED PILLARS, come out and also reviewed here (see that review here). The books started to sit in my mind a bit. It took a while, but they sounded like something I needed to be a part of. So late last year I finally got RANGE OF GHOSTS (loved it), and for Christmas I received SHATTERED PILLARS (fantastic) so that I could be ready to go when the last volume STELES OF THE SKY came out.
I got STELES OF THE SKY in the mail and tore into it. I was excited to spend more time with the fabulous characters that Elizabeth Bear had created. This is one of those series that starts off pretty simply. We followed Temur on his journeys. We watched him find Edene and love her. We watched the wizard Samarkar save Temur's life and start to journey with him. For the first book it seemed that this was mostly Temur's and Samarkar's story (with occasional interludes from the bad guy, Al-Sepherthe, and Edene). SHATTERED PILLARS expanded the series and we grew to know more about Hrahima the Cho-tse tiger (a very cool character), and Hsuing the warrior priest with a vow of silence. I mean, it just kept getting better and better.
I can happily say that STELES OF THE SKY wrapped up the series nicely for me. The stories build into one another flawlessly. Bear leads us through this wonderful land at a brisk, but even pace that never left me confused. There are some big great scenes in this one, scenes that I was really waiting the whole series for. I left feeling sad that I wouldn't get to spend more time in this world with these characters. That's what series are all about really, right? We find a world that just entrances us, characters that are fun to read about and see what they are up to. One book won't satisfy us so we need more, we need duologies and trilogies and ten book massive series just so we can go back again and again (like vacationing in your favorite spot over and over again). This is a fun vacation spot to enjoy folks. I wish I had a brochure to show you all that this trilogy offers...but you'll just have to stick with the reviews here at EBR for now until you buy the novels yourselves. I would tempt you into it with beautiful vistas, and stunning moments. The people you'll meet! The sights you'll see! You're just gonna have to take my word for it I guess.
The only problem I had with this last book (and it's a small thing in relation to the whole) was strangely enough, the lack of Temur. He was the character I started with. He was my first and most important window into this world, and as much as I enjoyed the other characters (and I really did) I kind of missed Temur in this one. It felt like he got shoved to the sides for a bit of the book and I wanted to experience some of these events through his eyes. I wanted to see it and feel it with him.
I nitpick. This series is really great. It took me awhile to catch on but hopefully you (my dear readers) are smarter than me and already know what I've just finished figuring out. THIS SERIES ROCKS!
Age Recommendation: 16+
Language: There are a few words, a scattering of F words (less than 10 I think) and little else
Violence: Never described in much detail even in the battle scenes
Sex: Mentioned a few times, never shown in detail
Here are your links so you can enjoy the series as much as we do here at EBR:
RANGE OF GHOSTS
STELES OF THE SKY
Stranded on an alien space station when she's left behind by her colony ship, Tula is never able to contact them again. She must now learn to survive as a lone human among less than friendly aliens. Tula prepares for the day when she can have her revenge on Brother Blue, the man who left her behind, and who was responsible for the disappearance of the colony ship.
She begins to think she will never get off the station until one day, three years after being stranded, three humans arrive and are stranded themselves.
TIN STAR is easy to read, the prose smooth and surprisingly gentle for the subject matter. We are introduced to the station, the aliens, and the politics in an almost off-hand way. Not like they're unimportant, but that Tula's real attention is somewhere else--so explaining the details of the world she lives in and those who populate it take second fiddle. As a result the world-building feels incomplete and at times it's hard to truly visualize Tula's surroundings as the story progresses.
Tula is clever, but also isolated. Stranded as a girl, she spends her teenage years having to depend on her own self for survival. She learns how to communicate with the aliens in ways that they understand--even becoming friends with a few of them--and how to use trade to get what she needs. Since the book is told from her PoV we're limited to understanding the secondary characters, especially the aliens, and as a result their actions don't make sense until explained after the fact. This makes character interactions sometimes feel contrived, and it's those very interactions upon which a credible conclusion rely. (Hint: the ending, while exciting, wasn't exactly credible.)
The prose and forward movement of the story hides deeper problems. I found the same issue in THE 5TH WAVE (EBR review): the narration was so smooth and confident it was easy to accept the events and behaviors as real. Until you stopped to think about them, that is. The one thing THE 5TH WAVE did well that TIN STAR doesn't is the emotion. Tula talks about events so blandly that it gives readers too much distance. For example we know she wants revenge on Brother Blue...but do we ever really feel her rage?
I didn't hate this book. It was still an interesting read, and YA readers who are new to Sci Fi may find TIN STAR a good introduction to the genre without being overwhelmed. But just warn them that not all Sci Fi is this bland.
Recommended Age: 14+
Violence: One vague fight
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It's the year 1877, but not like we would recognize. Egypt's capital Memphis is the center of civilization, its Pharaoh the lord over Europe, Africa, and much of Asia. Scott Oken and Mikel Mabruke are agents of the Pharaoh, even though they have royal titles of their own (like the Pharaoh, they are descended from Cesar and Cleopatra). They travel the world to secure intelligence for the empire, to keep it safe and strong.
Oken is called home from an assignment and Mabruke out of retirement to be sent on a special quest for the queen: to discover what the Inca king is up to. Some suspect he's building a rocket ship that will go all the way to the moon, and the queen of Egypt doesn't want to be left out of the endeavor.
As Oken and Mabruke travel across the ocean to the cradle of western civilization, they discover that the plans are much more nefarious than expected--of course.
I liked this book on the surface, it was entertaining and clever, particularly the technological elements. The prose was lively and the novel itself was easy to read...only if I didn't think too much about it. After it was over and I had some time to understand what really happened, I was disappointed. Wheeler sets up the story well enough, with lots of initial details to suck you in, and with plenty of exciting situations our heroes must find their way out of. Unfortunately, despite all that effort, THREE PRINCES falls frustratingly short.
It falls short in the world-building. Since it's an alternate history novel of Egypt and Maya civilizations that continued instead of collapsing, Wheeler attempts to show how they would have modernized. But even an amateur historian like myself was left with a lot of questions. There are references to people like Queen Victoria, Galileo, and so on, but how can they exist in a world where England and Italy did not evolve in a way where they would be the same as in our world? How did the Maya not collapse? How did Egypt retain its power and spread? What events allowed this to happen? I wasn't expecting a history book, but some hints would have been helpful so I could find this alternate world more believable.
While I enjoyed Oken as the PoV narrator, I never once felt like I could take the characters and situations in THREE PRINCES seriously. Maybe that's what Wheeler intended, a sort of cartoony off-the-wall zaniness. Maybe a campy kind of Egyptian James Bond. I don't know, but it still didn't quite work. Everything was too perfect: all the food was delicious; everything was luxurious and well-made; the bad people were not only insane they were stupid and easy to defeat and had no clear motivations; the women were all beautiful and clever; the heroes were smart and perfectly justified and a little too modern in their sensibilities. It didn't feel like a real place or that these people could have existed.
And isn't that the point of alternate histories? To explore the 'what if' and to carry it out in a way that would follow logical conclusions based on reasonable hypothesis? The premise is there and it's cool, but the story relies too much on coincidence to give it the structure it needed to carry the story to a reasonable conclusion.
Recommended Age: 16+
Language: Almost none
Violence: Scattered and some blood, but not particularly graphic
Sex: Implied and referenced
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I harp a lot about how infrequently I find good Science Fiction. I know it. Give me a megaphone and let me crow it from the rooftops. I have no shame. Give no quarter, I say. That is my opinion and I stand by it absolutely.
Still... it's nice to occasionally find that someone out there is listening.
A DARKLING SEA is James L. Cambias's debut novel. It's got new planets, human explorers, and aliens. The thing is a perfect setup for conflict and struggle, but it's also a place to let our minds wander a little bit.
A sparsely-populated human research facility is located on the ocean floor of the ice-covered planet of Illmatar where a team of scientists have come to study the local population of aliens. The only issue is that there is a no-contact policy in place, agreed upon by the governmental agencies of Earth and the alien planet of Shalina. So, of course, the book starts out with some idiot in the facility deciding to go and do something stupid that violates the single-most important mandate of the mission. His motive: greed. Of course. What else is there that matters in situations like these? In the process he finds out that the Ilmatarans are nowhere near as primitive as they look and sets up the main conflict of the story.
The best aspect of this book was the world-building for the Ilmatarans. (Think very large, sentient, lobsters and you won't be far off.) The author spends a lot of time developing their societal structure, and morality; their lives and their language; their world and their ignorance of the wider universe. He does this through POV characters of the Ilmataran race.
Now, I know that a lot of you probably just turned and ran away screaming because of the whole alien POV thing. I have to admit that it was a huge red flag for me at first, because I've seen that done sooooo poorly sooooo many times. In this case, the author actually does a pretty decent job of them though. It was a risk, and in my book it paid off, because he was able to keep the alien species just familiar enough to make them sympathetic while still throwing in their obvious differences from humanity. In fact, the development of the Ilmatarans pretty much over-shadowed the development of either of the others.
The second alien species, the Sholen, felt almost cartoonish in comparison, as there is only very little in the way of actual world-building development for them. To put it as simply as possible, the Sholen were like oversized cougars with a heightened sense of sexual dominance and unified purpose. Although, in comparison to either of these, the humans in the story weren't much more than stick figures, with a limited array of personalities and emotional variance. Some of the difficulty that I had with the characterization of each of these species probably had something to do with the fact that nearly the entire book was relayed with a very formal-sounding style of speech. This worked just fine for the Ilmatarans, and even mostly for the Sholen, but it made the humans sound stilted and imaginary, and led to even the very-different alien species ending up sounding very similar in nature.
The pacing of the book was kind of hit-and-miss. It started out great, with the initiation of the conflict happening right at the beginning. That was a great way to start the book. Just, BANG! But afterward, things slowed down considerably. The middle half of the book was where most of the Ilmataran development was, mostly portrayed to us through the eyes of two POV characters, Broadtail and Strongpincer. While the scientists on the research facility continue their research, hoping for the best, these two Ilmatarans roam around the underwater world of Ilmatar and show us the scene. Even after the Sholen show up (which we knew they eventually would, given the breaking of the contract at the beginning of the story), things stay very slow and circumspect, with very little tension to be had.
Once the final conflict does begin though, things pick up and get moving, culminating in the eventual, if long-in-coming, conflict foretold at the outset. In this, the author has done a great job of making a promise and then delivering on it. I was pleased to see that.
For Science Fiction, it had enough in it for me to like it, and it's definitely better than most of the SF I find out there, especially given the fact that it's a debut novel. It was great to see some of the things I did in here.
Recommended Age: 16+
Profanity: A moderate amount of all sorts
Violence:Quite a few deaths, but most of the details are glossed-over
Sex: Numerous references of alien and human sex and some mild discussion
Your link: A Darkling Sea
Kestrel is the teenage daughter of a general in the Valoria army, the equivalent of the ancient Roman Empire. He helps the provincial governor in the Herrani territory, where they have enslaved the invaded locals. As a Valorian she must soon decide to join the military or be married. But despite a knack for strategy her combat skills are lacking--her true talent lies in the piano.
Arin is Harrani, and like all his people he is a slave. But he has a secret, and when Kestrel buys him spontaneously at an auction, even she doesn't guess his intentions until it's too late.
You can pretty much guess where the story goes from here: two star-crossed youth from different worlds who, over time, come to realize their feelings for each other. Cue mushy, wide-eyed, and contrived scenes. Still, it was fun and I'm sure a lot of YA female readers will love it.
Not only will they enjoy the romance, they'll find the main character Kestrel a typical teenage girl, with her own strengths and weaknesses. Her love of music is inherited from her mother, but it's a skill usually only Harrani have. Her knack for strategy gets her out of more than one tight spot (as well as causing problems), and while this adult's discerning eye sees the obvious set-up, I know that the target audience will find her talents pretty cool.
Arin is the brooding yet clever slave whose blacksmith training is a valuable skill (convenient, no?). He's handsome, although Kestrel doesn't ever seem to notice(???). He thinks that Valorians are a ruthless and corrupt people, but as a result of his direct observation of the tender-hearted Kestrel, he discovers his belief may be wrong. Unfortunately he discovers this too late and must attempt to mitigate the potential fall-out with the woman he's fallen in love with.
The story is told in third person PoV between Kestrel and Arin in a way that highlights their personalities yet also gives us a view of this alternate world Rutkoski is creating. There are parallels with ancient Rome and its conquered territories--but that's as far as the fantasy-side gets, there is no magic/mystical here. It was interesting to see how invaders and the conquered would have lived side-by-side, how the different cultures clash. There are descriptions about the land and the people and their interactions, but it could have been so much more. However, while more world-building could have created more depth, alas there wasn't enough time.
The story starts off well enough, but the middle is circular as the main characters interact with each other, until the plot finally takes off in the last quarter and everything turns upside-down. It didn't end the way I expected. THE WINNER'S CURSE is the first book in a trilogy so I have no idea where the story is headed, but with that ending (even if it was rather deus ex machina) I think I might want to find out what happens next, just to see how Rutkoski tries to unravel the mess she's made.
Recommended Age: 14+
Violence: Several scenes, but not particularly graphic
Sex: Vague references
Find the start to this new series here:
THE WINNER'S CURSE
I'm not entirely sure when I last read a Western. Probably TRUE GRIT. Before that? Who knows? See, I grew up on Westerns. Louis L'Amour was my go-to author for the longest time. I loved the sense of adventure and the roughness of the world L'Amour's characters inhabited. I watched John Wayne movies and loved every last one of them. From there came Tombstone and Unforgiven, and I realized how much I loved a darker Western story. I count NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN in that camp. But really, finding good Westerns is tough sledding these days. For me, I know within the first page of a novel or the opening minutes of a movie if I'm going to like it or not.
At WorldCon in 2013, Joe Lansdale showed me his new novel, THE THICKET. A straight-up Western. I went home, grabbed a copy, and just finally got around to reading it. From the first paragraph, I knew I would love the novel. Love at first sight, if you will. Once I'd turned that final page, I remembered every tiny reason why I loved Westerns.
I loved this novel.
Jack Parker thought he'd already seen his fair share of tragedy. His grandmother was killed in a farm accident when he was barely five years old. His parents have just succumbed to the smallpox epidemic sweeping turn-of-the-century East Texas--orphaning him and his younger sister, Lula.
Then catastrophe strikes on the way to their uncle's farm, when a traveling group of bank-robbing bandits murder Jack's grandfather and kidnap his sister. With no elders left for miles, Jack must grow up fast and enlist a band of heroes the likes of which has never been seen if his sister stands any chance at survival. But the best he can come up with is a charismatic, bounty-hunting dwarf named Shorty, a grave-digging son of an ex-slave named Eustace, and a street-smart woman-for-hire named Jimmie Sue who's come into some very intimate knowledge about the bandits (and a few members of Jack's extended family to boot).
THE THICKET is told from Jack's PoV in 1st Person. Jack is immediately likable with a mix of innocence and wonder to go along with raw determination. After his sister is kidnapped, he does his level-best to find the people to help track her down. There is a purity to his cause, though never once in the novel does Lansdale shy away from the harsh realities facing a girl in that situation.
The story one of pursuit, and revenge. It's about Jack growing up the hard way. I was constantly amazed, however, just how deftly Lansdale tells his story. At times he shies away from the brutal details, and then at others he gives the most horrid and vivid picture of them.
I think this is the mark of an experienced storyteller. This ability for the timing of certain things. Humor. Horror. Love. Violence. Honesty. Tenderness. Each has a part in a novel, but knowing when to show them is the key. To me, this is the single greatest reason why I love Lansdale's work. I can see the work he's put in over the years to hone his craft. There were times when I was appalled at the brutality he brought up. Others where I laughed out loud. Then others where I was touched. This is the mark of a great author.
I always focus on character. Great characters are what I read for. While Jack was great, this story wouldn't have been even close to as incredible without Shorty and Eustace. The banter they have, and the history they reference was awesome. Some of the conversations they each have with Jack create more character development in a page than many authors are able to achieve over the course of a full novel. Jimmie Sue was also a great character, but for different reasons. It's what she represents and her attitude that make her stand out amidst other female characters in fiction.
Westerns have always been--to me at least--about the legends of characters. Without spoiling anything, I love how this is represented in THE THICKET.
Here is the heart of the matter. THE THICKET is the Western novel I didn't know could be written anymore. It's got all the things I loved about the novel TRUE GRIT, and the movie Unforgiven. Maybe you want to read a good Western. Maybe you haven't ever read one, but want to give it a shot. Maybe you just want to read a great novel with great characters.
THE THICKET is that novel.
Recommended Age: 17+
Profanity: Plenty, usually comes from certain characters.
Violence: There were some scenes that were shocking. But it never felt like shock-value.
Sex: Yeah. Jimmie Sue is a prostitute, after all. Lots of talk. Nothing super detail in way of scenes. Some talk of rape.
Just buy this book:
Teenage Rain Cacique lives in the Prospero Keys (known to locals as The Ghosts), a series of islands between Florida and the Bermuda Triangle. To her dismay, she's pretty sure she's going to spend the rest of her life there, catering to the tourists who come to enjoy the tropical weather and scenery. Her and her friend Charlie spend their last free days before school begins having as much fun as they can.
But while returning from a water skiing trip with friends, Rain learns of the death of a beloved grandfather, Sebastian, and she's convinced her life will never be the same.
Early on Greg Weisman gives us a great sense of the setting in RAIN OF THE GHOSTS, his clean prose leaving the storytelling unencumbered. It's easy to imagine the scenery as Rain moves through her world. Her parents run a bed and breakfast on the island, but she's resentful of the strangers who come and go in her life. The newest client is Callahan, a fellow from Australia whose odd behavior makes Rain suspicious. Right before Grandfather Sebastian's death, he gave her a bracelet given to him by his grandmother: not only is it unique-looking, but it seems that it makes Rain able to see ghosts. Even though she has no proof, she thinks Callahan wants to steal it.
Weisman's portrayal of young teenage angst (Rain is 13) and perspective was well done, without being overboard or annoying. Rain and Charlie's feelings will seem real to tween readers; their interactions with each other and with the other teens on the island feel realistic. Unfortunately the brevity of the novel meant that much of what was introduced didn't go anywhere, leaving the resolution too open-ended to feel complete.
While RAIN OF THE GHOSTS has many strengths, where it was weakest was in the narrative style: we don't really learn "who" (other than his name) the narrator is until halfway through the book, but even after learning who it was I was confused, less about as to why than how it was done. As a result, the PoV character felt gimmicky, even if I get why Weisman did it--the limitations of a focused third-person narrative (say, Rain only) would have kept readers uninformed about what else was happening. It appears that there's a bigger picture than what Rain understands about her grandfather and the bracelet he gave her.
There are other people who are aware of her bracelet's magical properties and will do what they can to get it. Fortunately, Rain has unknown allies with special abilities of their own: the local bum Maq whose ability to see the future makes him less aware of the present, which makes him seem a little crazy; and Opie (our narrator) whose awareness of present events isn't limited to what he can physically see, which is why he knows everything Rain, Charlie, and others are feeling and what they're doing at any given moment. Even knowing this, the narrative style was confusing--awkward switches between the heads of several characters was difficult to follow. I almost gave the book a "mediocre" rating because of the narrative style, but I think younger readers will be more flexible and will enjoy the novel despite this issue.
RAIN OF THE GHOSTS is a quick, fun read, with realism and fantastical elements woven together in satisfying ways. Even if the wrap-up left a lot of open questions, the ending was still exciting.
Recommended Age: Most likely 10+ interest level; 8+ for content
Find this start to a new series here:
RAIN OF THE GHOSTS