Saturday, December 14, 2019

Seraphina (Rachel Hartman)

The Seraphina series, Book 1
Rachel Hartman
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: For forty years, a tenuous peace has kept the dragons of the north and the humans of the south from slaughtering each other. Dragons even take human form to visit the cities of the Southlands, studying the sciences alongside human colleagues - but the two species never truly understand each others' minds, let alone their hearts, and mutual distrust makes for a fragile peace indeed. The young musician Seraphina knows this only too well, for her mother was a human-formed dragon and her father a lawyer for the royal court. Half-bloods like her should not exist, and if she were discovered it would only fan the flames of hatred on both sides to outright violence. Yet as long as she has struggled to hide her secret, she may be the only one who can prevent another interspecies war when assassins infiltrate the heart of the kingdom of Goredd and slaughter a beloved prince.

REVIEW: I've heard great things about this series for several years, and looked forward to finally reading it... until I found myself saddled with a protagonist I didn't care for, in a world largely made up of flattened stereotypes seemingly designed to drive home themes of prejudice and xenophobia and even religious zealotry. Hartman's take on dragonkind lends them a nicely otherworldly mindset - they have structured their entire society around the excision of emotions, even regularly carving up the brains of their own kind to remove "deviant" behavior and memories - yet they often come across less inscrutably alien and more stiff and uninteresting. Humans, on the other hand, are prone to wild emotional swings, emotions being emphasized as the species's greatest weakness (as when turned to short-sighed fanatical hatred under the cult of Saint Ogdo, though truthfully every human in the story seems to have some basic level of prejudice about dragons) and greatest strength (in their ability to create art and - for the umpteenth time in fiction - to love, a force stronger than dragonfire.) It doesn't help that I found Seraphina herself to be irritatingly obtuse as a heroine for long stretches of story, prone to wallowing in angst and conveniently ignoring blatant clues. Things eventually build to a decent climax that nonetheless drags on a little long, as does the wrap-up (which seems to conveniently forget a key thing about Seraphina's love interest.) This book only barely earned a half-mark above Okay for some nice concepts that finally played out in interesting ways, which isn't enough to convince me to press ahead, especially not with Seraphina as the lead again.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Last Dragonlord (Joanne Bertin) - My Review
Song in the Silence (Elizabeth Kerner) - My Review
Voices of Dragons (Carrie Vaughn) - My Review

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Never Trust a Dead Man (Vivian Vande Velde)

Never Trust a Dead Man
Vivian Vande Velde
HMH Books for Young Readers
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Humor/Mystery
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Selwyn thought things couldn't get any worse when Anora, the most beautiful girl in town, chose to marry the arrogant Farold instead of him. When Farold is found dead - stabbed in the back with Selwyn's knife - he finds out that things can indeed get worse. Hastily judged and condemned, sealed in the crypt with Farold's body, Selwyn faces a slow and terrifying death.
Instead, he finds - or, rather, is found by - the witch Elswyth.
Bargaining away years of his life, Selwyn gets her to agree to use her magic to disguise him, so he can return home and figure out who the real killer was and clear his name, not to mention the honor of his family. But the more he learns, the longer the suspect list grows, and the less he realizes he knew about his closest friends, his lifelong neighbors, and even his greatest rival Farold.

REVIEW: This is a fast-reading blend of mystery and fantasy, but feels a bit hollow and shallow. Selwyn's a bumbler and a fool, which makes him frustrating to follow as an amateur investigator. Farold, returned to life by the witch to help him in his investigation, is often no help at all; it's quickly clear why the suspect list is so long. Never friends in life, the two nonetheless must work together, though I never really felt the partnership click as I think I was supposed to. At times, the story gets silly, especially when Seldyn must disguise himself as a young woman (and stumbles into an embarrassing family secret), and I never really felt the urgency of the mystery. The conclusion seems obvious, as well, and doesn't quite ring true, for all that I saw it coming a mile away. It's not a bad little tale, and at times it was kind of fun, but I didn't find it particularly memorable.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Flaw in All Magic (Ben S. Dobson) - My Review
Fanuilh (Daniel Hood) - My Review
Dragon's Bait (Vivian Vande Velde) - My Review

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Robots Vs. Princesses Volume 1 (Todd Matthy)

Robots Vs. Princesses Volume 1
Issues 1 - 4
Todd Matthy, illustrated by Nicholas Chapuis
Dynamite Entertaiment
Fiction, CH? Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In the capital city of Harmonia, four princesses prepare to demonstrate their abilities before the kingdom in a recital, using songs and animals to perform magical wonders. But Princess Zara has greater dreams than woodland housekeepers or bird dressmakers. She wants to sing down a dragon - and the only place to find a dragon is beyond the forbidden woods.
In the endless robot battles, the Destructicons and Centurions fight for supremacy... and one robot is tired of it. Wheeler runs away from the Destructicons, from the war, from everything - off to the forbidden woods, where nobody will follow him. Then a strange sound takes hold of him, changing him, and drawing him to the side of a young human girl.
But there was a reason the woods have kept the two worlds apart for generations. And now that robots and princesses have met, neither will be the same...

REVIEW: Exactly as the title and cover promise, this is a story of singing fairy tale princesses and blasting, smashing war robots. Princess Zara and her friends are plucky princesses gifted with songs that work magic, in a world barely a step removed from a Disney movie. The "brave princess" has become its own trope by now, and this graphic novel does little to put its own twist on that, though the heroines are decent enough for the story and world they inhabit, especially to young readers who aren't looking for terms like "tropes" and are just enjoying the tale. Making the music its own form of magic is a nice, if small, tweak, giving princesses some inherent power. The robots are their own trope as well, basically a watered-down version of the Transformers without the transforming (save when princess magic takes hold; when the robots cross into the princesses' realm, they become dragonish beings.) Naturally, things don't go well when Tyrannis, Wheeler's former Destructicon commander, and the rest of the robots tromp into a fairy tale kingdom to retrieve their wayward soldier, but these princesses aren't going to sit out a fight when their home and their friends are threatened. The means by which they fight sort of come out of nowhere, and the explanation for why there are robots in a magical world is best not overexamined. For younger readers, though, this makes for the start of a fun adventure where princess magic and robots collide.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragons vs. Drones (Wesley King) - My Review
Once Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude (Kevin O'Malley) - My Review
Quantum Mechanics (Jeff Weigel) - My Review

Saturday, November 30, 2019

November Site Update

The month's reviews have been archived and cross-linked on the main Brightdreamer Books website.


Thursday, November 28, 2019

Nightbooks (J. A. White)

J. A. White
Katherine Tegen Books
Fiction, MG Fantasy/Horror
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Since he first saw Night of the Living Dead, young Alex has been obsessed with monsters and scary stories. He writes his dark tales in journals he calls his "nightbooks" - until the night he sneaks out of his apartment to burn them all, tired of being the weird kid in school.
Alex never makes it to the boiler room.
On his way to the basement, he finds himself drawn to Apartment 4E, lured by the sounds of his favorite movie and the smell of pumpkin pie. Once he crosses the threshold, his fate is sealed. Trapped by modern-day witch Natacha and her cunning feline familiar Lenore, Alex must tell a new story every night to stave off a fate worse than death... only he's running out of stories, and Natacha is running out of patience.

REVIEW: This modern-day fairy tale crosses "Hansel and Gretel" with Scheherazade and a healthy dose of terror. Alex loves scary stories even as a part of him worries that his obsession is proof of some flaw in his soul: maybe he really is a monster like his classmates seem to think. Finding himself trapped in a scary story of his own proves far less fun than he anticipated, but even then he can't help being awed and even excited by some of what he finds in the magic apartment, where the living room is crowded with creepy artifacts and doors are as likely to lead right back to the room you left as anywhere else. Natacha is a wicked witch straight from an old fairy tale, terrifying and powerful and no easy opponent to outmaneuver; she spies a kindred spirit in Alex long before he admits his own weakness. Alex hopes to find an ally in Yasmine, another captive, but she has her own pains and problems, while the often-invisible Lenore threatens to unravel any escape plan he manages to concoct. Worse, the stress and despair hamper his ability to write the very stories that are keeping him alive. Periodically, the reader is treated to short tales from Alex's nightbooks, creepy confections that tend to dark endings; White does not pull punches or water down the horror side of this story. It moves fairly quickly, through several terrifying incidents and more than one failed escape plan, to a fitting finale. The whole is a memorable tale full of twisted, nightmarish imagery and characters who truly feel the horrors they are forced to endure.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury) - My Review
Griffin's Castle (Jenny Nimmo) - My Review
Game Over - Extended Edition (Todd Thorne) - My Review