Review: “Beyond the Shadowed Earth” by Joanna Ruth Meyer

book coverTitle: Beyond the Shadowed Earth
Series: Beneath the Haunting Sea #2
Author: Joanna Ruth Meyer
Publication Date: January 14, 2020
Publisher: Page Street Kids
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Pre-order: IndieBound | Book Depository | Barnes and Noble | Books-a-Million | Amazon | Kobo | Apple Books

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/39863498-the-gilded-wolves

ARC provided by the publisher through NetGalley. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.

Featuring morally gray characters and an intricate plot, Joanna Ruth Meyer’s companion novel to her 2018 debut Beneath the Haunting Sea is a complex tale about vengeance, guilt, and redemption.

It has always been Eda’s dream to become empress, no matter the cost. Haunted by her ambition and selfishness, she’s convinced that the only way to achieve her goal is to barter with the gods. But all requests come with a price and Eda bargains away the soul of her best friend in exchange for the crown

Years later, her hold on the empire begins to crumble and her best friend unexpectedly grows sick and dies. Gnawed by guilt and betrayal, Eda embarks on a harrowing journey to confront the very god who gave her the kingdom in the first place. However, she soon discovers that he’s trapped at the center of an otherworldly labyrinth and that her bargain with him is more complex than she ever could have imagined.

Though not without flaws, Beyond the Shadowed Earth was, overall, an enjoyable read. Set in the world of Meyer’s debut Beneath the Haunting Sea, this book was ambitious in its coverage; expanding on already established elements and exploring characters previously introduced.

The story focuses on book one’s antagonist, Eda. Intent on taking revenge on the baron who stole her inheritance, a grieving nine-year-old Eda makes a deal with the god Tuer: her life in his service in exchange for the crown. Bargaining with gods, however, are tricky transactions and when Eda fails to fulfill her end of it, she realizes, much too late, that the consequences are bigger than her.

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I’m going to be honest. I had a hard time with this book. Yes, the plot was intriguing, and yes, the world building was well done. I loved and enjoyed both elements. I am, however, of two minds about its characters.

Eda, to say the least, is unlikable. She’s selfish, self-centered, naive, and vengeful. She is so blinded by her anger that it clouds her judgment. She bartered with a god, schemed and killed her way to get the crown. She is everything a villain is.

Being unlikeable, though, isn’t the reason why I have conflicting feelings about her.

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All throughout the book, things happen to Eda – tough ones. She lost both of her parents at a very young age, was displaced and betrayed and used. Her best friend, the one person she truly cares for, is taken from her all while her hold on her empire slips, her barons making their own moves to grab whatever power they could. All these are meant and should have made me, at the very least, a little bit considerate if not totally empathetic towards her. But it was so difficult to connect with Eda. Her character was shallowly drawn and one-dimensional. There just wasn’t so much to her, no hidden depths. This also holds true for most of the supporting characters, which, for a character-driven story, is a big problem.

Setting my issues with character development aside, I still found many things to like in Beyond the Shadowed Earth.

The world building was exquisite. From its complicated politics to its intricate religion, Enduena was fully alive and I gladly immersed myself in it. The magical and almost mythical nine gods, the center of this story’s religion, was the most interesting part for me, and, admittedly, it was what kept me reading especially when Eda’s story wasn’t progressing much.

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Ultimately, even with its share of issues, Beyond the Shadowed Earth was a good read. The conclusion to Eda’s story was satisfying, open-ended enough but with clues that she’s on to the right path. This book is the second of the series, but could pretty much stand on its own. YA fantasy readers, especially the ones that love a good redemption arc will love this story.

about the authorJoanna Ruth Meyer

JOANNA RUTH MEYER hails from Mesa, Arizona, where she lives with her dear family, a rascally feline, and an enormous grand piano. When she’s not writing, she’s trying to convince her students that Bach is actually awesome, or plotting her escape from the desert. She loves good music, thick books, looseleaf tea, rainstorms, and staring out of windows. One day, she aspires to own an old Victorian house with creaky wooden floors and a tower (for writing in, of course!)

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Review: “The Athena Protocol” by Shamim Sarif

The Athena ProtocolTitle: The Athena Protocol
Author: Shamim Sarif
Publication Date: October 8, 2019
Publisher: HarperTeen
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Get it: IndieBound | Book Depository | Barnes and Noble | Books-a-Million | Amazon | Kobo | Apple Books

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/39863498-the-gilded-wolves

ARC access provided by the publisher as part of the Fantastic Flying Book Club’s blog tour. All opinions expressed are my own.

Shamim Sarif serves up fast-paced, action-packed spy thriller in her YA debut The Athena Protocol.

Jessie Archer is a member of the Athena Protocol, an elite organization of female spies who enact vigilante justice around the world.

Athena operatives are never supposed to shoot to kill – so when Jessie can’t stop herself from pulling the trigger, she gets kicked out of the organization, right before a huge mission to take down a human trafficker in Belgrade.

Jessie needs to right her wrong and prove herself, so she starts her own investigation into the trafficking. But going rogue means she has no one to watch her back as she delves into the horrors she uncovers. Meanwhile, her former teammates have been ordered to bring her down. Jessie must face danger from all ides if she’s to complete her mission – and survive.

This was one of my most anticipated books this year. A spy thriller featuring female spies? You got my attention. Someone from the team turns rogue and the other members are ordered to bring her down? SIGN ME UP!

The Athena Protocol was an enjoyable read. Thrilling, fast-paced, so full of heart-pumping action and delicious plot twists. I gobbled up all the spy part – the cool gadgets, Jessie’s amazing ways with a computer and the net, all the spying and sneaking around and bringing down the bad guys.

But more than all the kickass stuff, this book is about female bonds: the strength of it, the depth of it.

The Athena Protocol #3

The bond between the three female spies – Hala, Caitlin, and Jessie – was easily my most favorite part of this book. They weren’t perfect: they fight and argue and have differing opinions and ways of doing things. Coming from different backgrounds and factoring in their unique personalities, it’s something that couldn’t be helped. Caitlin acted as the lever, balancing and tempering her teammates, oftentimes running as a mediator and acting as team leader when they are out in the field.  Hala was closed-off and guarded, controlled and distrustful, cold even. She’s had it toughest among the three and her beginnings are a big part of who she is and how she processes things.

Then there’s Jessie.

Jessie is a compelling protagonist. Fiery, headstrong, and soldier-like in efficiency, she is a competent agent with a deep sense of justice. Her impulsiveness, however, led her to break rules and cross lines, her decisions blowing right back in her face and putting her at odds with her teammates and superiors.

I admit I didn’t like Jessie – her impulsivity and her immaturity both are strikes against her in my book – but it does not take away what a good character she is. She’s an effective story mover. She advanced scene after scene and, with her unpredictability, kept everything exciting while doing so. However, for all her talk of wanting to do better, Jessie’s character growth was minimal at best. She kept on committing the same mistakes throughout the book, never learning from them, and it stagnated her progress.

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This book took a while before it hooked its claws on me. Especially considering that this was told from a first-person POV, an almost infallible way to draw my full attention in, it moved like molasses. The narration felt more like a rundown of what a character, blurring the details – the feel and movement of the scene playing in the MC’s background – that add texture to the story. This lasts until the halfway mark where things, thankfully, start to finally pick up.

The F/F relationship between Jessie and Paulina, the daughter of the story’s villain, added an extra kick to this story. The pair’s dynamics kind of reminded me of Killing Eve’s Eve Polastri and Villanelle, only they’re a lighter version. The twist involving these two right about the last 50 or so pages of the book was something I did not see coming and truly surprises me in a very good way.

The Athena Protocol quote #1

Overall, The Athena Protocol stayed true to what it advertised itself to be – a compulsive YA thriller that’ll have its readers biting their nails. The bond its characters had is this book’s greatest strength. However, the slow start and the lack of character growth took its toll on me and impacted my reading enjoyment. Still, even if I didn’t love this book as much as I thought I would, I think it will find its audience in YA thriller fans especially those who crave spy stories.

about the author

Shamim SarifSHAMIM SARIF is an award-winning novelist, screenwriter, and director born in the UK.

Her debut novel, The World Unseen was inspired by her family’s South African Indian heritage. The book won a Betty Trask award and the Pendleton May First Novel award.

Shamim has adapted and directed the films of all three of her novels including, most recently, Despite the Falling Snow. The book was published by Headline in the UK and St. Martin’s Press in the US. The movie stars Rebecca Ferguson and Charles Dance in a story of love and betrayal in cold war Russia. Her films have won 47 awards internationally.

An accomplished speaker, Shamim has spoken at TED events worldwide, at the INK Conference in India and DLD in Munich. Corporate speaking events have included Deloitte, Goldman Sacs, Citibank, and Disney.

Shamim lives in London with her wife, Hanan, and their two sons.

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Review: “Aurora Blazing” by Jessie Mihalik

Aurora BlazingTitle: Aurora Blazing
Series: Consortium Rebellion #2
Author: Jessie Mihalik
Publication Date: October 1, 2019
Publisher: HarperVoyager
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 
Get it: IndieBound | Book Depository | Barnes and Noble | Books-a-Million | Amazon | Kobo | Apple Books

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/39863498-the-gilded-wolves

ARC provided by the publisher through Edelweiss. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.

Jessie Mihalik’s space drama romance continues in the second book in her Consortium Rebellion trilogy Aurora Blazing.

Bianca von Hasenberg did her duty for High House von Hasenberg and ended up trapped in a terrible marriage. When her husband dies unexpectedly and leaves her a happy widow, she vows never to marry again. Instead, she uses her connections to save other young women. Information is power and Bianca has a network that would be the envy of the ‘verse – if anyone knew about it.

After an attack, Bianca’s oldest brother, the House von Hasenberg heir, disappears from Earth without a trace. Determined to find him, Bianca leaves against orders. When she refuses to return, her father ends Ian Bishop, the director of House von Hasenberg security, to haul her home like a recalcitrant child.

Bianca leaves Ian on a merry chase across the universe, but when their paths finally collide, she persuades him that they would be far more successful at finding her brother if they worked together. She will do anything to save her sibling, even if it means spending time alone on a small ship with the handsome, infuriating man who once broke her heart.

As clues lead them deep into rival House Rockhurst territory, Biana must decide if she can trust Ian with the one piece of information that could destroy her completely…

I fell in love with Jessie Mihalik debut Polaris Rising when I read it this year. It had everything I needed in a scif-fi romance: solid worldbuilding, take-no-prisoners action and a steamy romance. Ada and Locke burned the pages – falling into lust then to love all while they jump from planet to planet to escape their pursuers. I gobbled up their story and, greedy reader that I am, I naturally wanted more.

Aurora Blazing gave me that more.

The second book in the Consortium Rebellion trilogy, Aurora Blazing centers on Ada’s older sister, Bianca von Hasenberg, and House von Hasenberg’s director of security, Ian Bishop. Both characters were already introduced and played minor roles in Polaris Rising so readers who have read the first book will already be familiar with them.

I loved Bianca in PR and I grew to love her more in Aurora Blazing. She’s resourceful and intelligent and tough, but broken. It was clear even from the first few chapters of this installment that her marriage wasn’t just terrible, it was traumatic. Clues as to what her husband did to her are dropped throughout the whole book and when the final reveal came, it was equally horrifying. Her past took something from her, making Bianca question her own capabilities. She suffers and endures chronic pain from debilitating headaches, an aftermath of her dead husband’s experiments on her.

Bianca’s character development was one of the things I loved most about Aurora Blazing. She was only gaining some of her own back when AB opens – learning to trust herself again but still guarded, unwilling to let people back i. It was great watching her walls come down bit by bit, for her to reclaim what she lost. It was certainly satisfying (and so fun!) to see her finally stand up to her father.

Ian, meanwhile, took his time with me but, in the end, I grew to love him too. Hiding his own secrets, he is just as closed-off as Bianca. He was just so controlled and infuriatingly proper at the beginning that it felt so rewarding when his facade was finally chipped off.

Bianca and Ian’s romance is so different from Ada’s and Locke’s. Theirs was a slow burn, progressing a step at a time throughout the book. The tension between the two, however, was very much palpable even from page one. They have a shared past, one that is tackled in the book, that further complicated their feelings for one another. When they finally get together though, it was just so right. He and Bianca made a great team – different but similar in all the ways that matter. They’re both protective of the people they love and they will go down the line for them.

Readers who loved the trilogy’s first book will definitely find something in Aurora Blazing. It had everything I enjoyed in Polaris Rising – the political machinations, House politics and rivalries, the mystery of the High Houses’ defunct Genesis Project. The bond between the von Hasenberg siblings came out clearer in this book than in the last. It was definitely funny reading about Ferdinand and Benedict play their brother card against Ian. We also see quite a bit what the PR crew – Ada and Locke, Veronica and Rhys – has been up to. Readers also get a glimpse of the next feature couple of the trilogy – Catarina and Alex – so that’s definitely an exciting bit.

Fast-paced and action-filled, both lovers of sci-fi romance will fall in love with this story. The only drawback, I think, is that you have to read the series in order as you may miss a number of key details. It pays off big time though, so I don’t think that’s much of a sacrifice. I’m definitely in for the last leg of this trilogy. I already can’t wait to see how Catarina and Alex’s story plays out.

about the authorjessie_mihalik_squareJESSIE MIHALIK has a degree in Computer Science and a love of all things geeky. A software engineer by trade, Jessie now writes full time from her home in Texas. When she’s not writing, she can be found playing co-op video games with her husband, trying out new board games, or reading books pulled from her overflowing bookshelves.

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

Review: “Tiger Queen” by Annie Sullivan

Tiger Queen coverTitle: Tiger Queen
Author: Annie Sullivan
Publication Date: September 10, 2019
Publisher: Blink
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Get it: IndieBound | Book Depository | Barnes and Noble | Books-a-Million | Amazon | Kobo | Apple Books

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/39863498-the-gilded-wolves

ARC provided by the publisher through Edelweiss. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.

 

A fierce young desert princess must win her way to the crown to save her people from the drought in this YA fantasy inspired by Frank Stockton’s 1882 short story The Lady, or the Tiger?

In the mythical desert kingdom of Achra, an ancient law forces sixteen-year-old Princess Kateri to fight in the arena to prove her right to rule. For Kateri, winning also means fulfilling a promise to her late mother that she would protect her people, who are struggling through windstorms and drought. The situation is worsened by the gang of Desert Boys that frequently raids the city wells, forcing the king to ration what little water is left. The punishment for stealing water is a choice between two doors: behind one lies freedom, and behind the other is a tiger.

But when Kateri’s final opponent is announced, she knows she cannot win. In desperation, she turns to the desert and the one person she never thought she’d side with. What Kateri discovers twists her world – and her heart – upside down. Her future is now behind two doors – only she’s not sure which holds the key to keeping her kingdom and which releases the tiger.

Last year, I had the lucky opportunity to read and review Annie Sullivan’s debut A Touch of Gold. I loved how she created the story – using a character of her own to sort of continue the well-known legend of King Midas’ golden touch. It was unique and entertaining, more than what I thought it would be. So, when I heard that she was coming out with a new re-telling, I immediately grabbed the chance and requested for a reviewer’s copy.

That said, my expectations may have been set a little higher going into this book.

Tiger Queen was an interesting take on Stockton’s The Lady, or the Tiger with a bit of Peter Pan and Robin Hood elements thrown into the mix. Kateri was a compelling character. Sheltered and wanting validation from her King father, she’s naïve, blind to the real struggles of her people and every bit the privileged princess that she was. She has been taught that physical strength is equal to power, so she – with her father then, later on, her father’s cruel captain of the guard Rodric as her mentors – honed herself as a fierce, capable warrior in the arena ready to literally fight off all her suitors to prove her right to rule.

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Her character growth was the most engaging part of this story. Escaping the palace walls that has for so long both protected and caged her, Kateri’s whole world – her truths, beliefs – was shattered, leaving her to learn the harsh reality of her kingdom and its people, of the betrayal of his father. The girl basically needed to pick up what pieces of herself she could salvage, and that’s a tough thing to deal with. I couldn’t help myself from cheering her on.

However, other than Kateri’s evolution, I just can’t find anything else about this story that really stood out for me. Yes, I was entertained enough that I was able to finish reading this in two days. It was fast paced and very much full of action. The Desert Boys gave this story a little bit more of color with their raids and their mission to help the people Achra the best they could. Obviously, I enjoyed this book, but do I see it making its mark in my brain? Sadly, the answer is no.

Tiger Queen 2

Tiger Queen was entertaining and enjoyable. It was a good story, but not a solid one. I found a better chunk of it bland – the antagonists were pretty much one dimensional, bad to the core with none of the nuance I was looking for in a fully-formed villain. The romance, too, did not do much for me. It was slow burn, I get that, but even in slow-burn romances you’ve got to layer in the tension, nudge the pairing together here and there where it makes sense – make it memorable enough that readers remember it and yearn (long) for your characters to be together. In Tiger Queen‘s case though, those little nudges were so subtle they were almost ignorable, and by the time Kateri and her love interest did finally get together, all I felt was an underwhelming meh.

Still, even if this book did not do much for me, I’m sure it will find a place in the hearts of other readers. Fans of YA re-tellings will especially love the creativity that went into this one.

about the author

4135488ANNIE SULLIVAN grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana. She received her Masters degree in Creative Writing from Butler University. She loves fairy tales, everything Jane Austen, and traveling. Her wanderlust has taken her to every continent, where she’s walked on the Great Wall of China, found four-leaf clovers in Ireland, waddled with penguins in Antartica, and cage dived with great white sharks in South Africa.

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Review: “Kingdom of Souls” by Rena Barron

Kingdom of SoulsTitle: Kingdom of Souls
Series: Kingdom of Souls #1
Author: Rena Barron
Publication Date: September 3, 2019
Publisher: HarperVoyager
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Content Warnings: Blood magic, self-injury for a ritual, challenging familial relationship, psychological torture, death of children, mind manipulation, animal possession, animal sacrifice (mentioned), violence
Get it: IndieBound | Book Depository | Barnes and Noble | Books-a-Million | Amazon | Kobo | Apple Books

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/39863498-the-gilded-wolves

ARC access provided by the publisher through NetGalley as part of the Fantastic Flying Book Club’s blog tour. All opinions expressed are my own.

Built on a world based on West Africa, Rena Barron debuts with a compelling story about a girl with no magic in a world teeming with it.

Magic has a price—if you’re willing to pay.

Born into a family of powerful witchdoctors, Arrah yearns for magic of her own. But each year she fails to call forth her ancestral powers, while her ambitious mother watches with growing disapproval.

There’s only one thing Arrah hasn’t tried, a deadly last resort: trading years of her own life for scraps of magic. Until the Kingdom’s children begin to disappear, and Arrah is desperate to find the culprit.

She uncovers something worse. The long-imprisoned Demon King is stirring. And if he rises, his hunger for souls will bring the world to its knees… unless Arrah pays the price for the magic to stop him.

With all intents of being forthright, I will tell you that I have very complicated feelings about this book. There were definitely parts that I loved and parts that I didn’t. Writing this review took just as much time as reading it with me having to parse through said complicated feelings. This post is an extension of that dissection.

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When this book is at its strongest, it doesn’t only put its best foot forward – it goes all out. Nothing is done by half-measures, which works well half the time playing up strengths to a maximum. It’s brave and something that I really admire in this story.

A world built as strong as it is vast

Kingdom of Souls is an ambitious work and its larger-than-life world attests to it. With West Africa at its foundation, Barron’s world is a lush, colorful one with unique characteristics that’ll separate it from other stories in its genre.

I love how clear the story’s world was described – the dynamics between its peoples, the Five Tribes and the Almighty Kingdom: their belief system, the gods they worship, political hierarchy, and general way of living. They are fully alive within the pages of this story, even the Northerners and Kefu, though I have a feeling there’d be a lot more from those last two in the coming books as they’ve only been discussed in relation with the former.

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Mythology weaved into the narrative

I love mythology and I love that many books have a bit of it included in their narrative. I most especially love when the mythology and lore in a book go outside the usual Greek and Roman ones that have already inspired a handful of earlier YA titles.

But, that’s not the case with Kingdom of Souls.

Mythology and lore are not added as a mere layer to Arrah’s story – it’s tightly woven into the narrative with a life and purpose of its own independent from Arrah. Heka – the god of the peoples of the Five Tribes – and the Orishas – the gods of the Almighty Kingdom – all add something to the whole story. Powerful but fallible and unpredictable, their intentions are not entirely pure and their actions aren’t always for the good of everyone. They are the wild cards of this story and I just have a feeling they will continue to serve up surprises in the coming sequels, which will be really interesting especially given the way things ended in this one.

A compelling heroine

This is one of the biggest selling points of this book for me. Kingdom of Souls is a character-driven story, and it needed a strong character to carry its weight through.

Arrah proved to be more than capable for the part.

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She is a compelling heroine, one that you will root for from beginning to end. She’s tough, fierce, and determined but she’s also plagued with frustration, disappointment, and feelings of inadequacy at her lack of magic, at her mother’s disapproval and condescension. Arrah is loyal and dedicated to her family and her friends, unhesitatingly making sacrifices – crossing lines she set for herself – in the belief that it will save those she loves.

With a solid cast of characters behind her – the charming Rudjek, steadfast Sukkar, and Hassana, her loving father Oshe and her paradoxical mother Arti – Arrah grow by leaps and bounds within the pages of this book and it was such a joy reading about her. I found it easy to empathize with her, despair with her – basically to feel whatever it is that she is feeling. It takes a special kind of character to do that and, if anything, I will be reading the sequels just to find out what happens to Arrah.

breaker

As it is with any book, I had a number of issues with Kingdom of Souls. Some of these I would have easily overlooked but, in the case of this book, they just greatly affected my enjoyment that I had to take note of them.

Too much

I appreciate complex stories, I really do. Sometimes though, when you add one thing after another, it just gets to be too much. This was my main problem with Kingdom of Souls.

Barron served up plot twists like dishes on a banquet, and it became too much, too hard to digest. All the plot threads she pulled into this book alone could easily write a trilogy. It created an imbalance that in turn affected the story’s pace.

KoS 6

Wonky pacing

This is probably my biggest issue.

Being a character-driven story, I already expected the pace of this book to run a bit slower. But, with all those blocks of story pieces thrown into the plot, the pace just crawled.

This problem was most prevalent in the book’s middle parts. It just sagged, felt unbalanced and repetitive. Characters would go on about something one chapter only to repeat talking about the same thing a few chapters down. I put down the book a handful of times because it just got too exhausting. It was a good thing that the first and last parts of the book were more even-tempered.

breaker

Kingdom of Souls is an imperfect but still sets the beginnings of what sounds like a really promising series. Its strength lies deeply in its character and Barron’s rich world-building. I would definitely come back for the sequels because I’m just too curious (and, honestly, too attached to the characters.) YA SFF readers will find something to love in this book, and hopefully, the whole series.

about the authorRena BarronRENA BARRON grew up in small-town Alabama where stories of magic and adventure sparked her imagination. After penning her first awful poem in middle school, she graduated to writing short stories and novels by high school.

Rena loves all things science fiction, ghosts, and superheroes. She’s a self-proclaimed space nerd. When she’s not writing, she can be found reading or brushing up on her French.

Website | TwitterInstagram | Tumblr

 

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