Book Review: The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl by Theodora Goss

Title: The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, #3)
Author: Theodora Goss
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: October 1, 2019
Print length: 448 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mary Jekyll and the Athena Club race to save Alice—and foil a plot to unseat the Queen, in the electrifying conclusion to the trilogy that began with the Nebula Award finalist and Locus Award winner The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.

Life’s always an adventure for the Athena Club…especially when one of their own has been kidnapped! After their thrilling European escapades rescuing Lucinda van Helsing, Mary Jekyll and her friends return home to discover that their friend and kitchen maid Alice has vanished— and so has their friend and employer Sherlock Holmes!

As they race to find Alice and bring her home safely, they discover that Alice and Sherlock’s kidnapping are only one small part of a plot that threatens Queen Victoria, and the very future of the British Empire. Can Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine save their friends—and save the Empire? Find out in the final installment of the fantastic and memorable Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club series.

Now THIS is how you end a trilogy! Author Theodora Goss delivers another rolicking escapade with the brave women of Athena Club, adding even more “monstrous” women to the mix.

For those new to these books, the main characters are all the daughters of famous men — mad scientists and members of the Alchemical Society, who used their own daughters as subjects of their dastardly experiments. Their goal? Biological transmutation. The outcome? Unusual women with strange, hidden talents and gifts, such as Beatrice Rappaccini, who thrives on rain and sunshine and gives off poison with her breath, and Catherine Moreau, transformed from a wild, free puma into a young woman with decidedly sharp teeth and claws.

This found family also includes the two daughters of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, each one representing a different facet of his personae, Justine Frankenstein, Professor Van Helsing’s daughter Lucinda, and a young housemaid named Alice who turns out to have unusual powers of mesmerism.

In this 3rd book, the woman of the Athena Club have just returned from their adventures in Vienna and Budapest (described in book 2, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman) — but there’s no time to rest! Alice and Sherlock Holmes are missing, and there seems to be a terrible plot underway involving evil mesmerists, an Egyptian mummy, and a bunch of powerful, treasonous men who want to overthrow the Queen and purify the British Empire.

Luckily, our band of heroines are on the case, and they go chasing off to Cornwall to rescue their friends, save the Queen, and defeat the bad guys once and for all! It’s all high-spirited fun, with the quips and bickering that the characters seem to love so much.

I thought this was a terrific wrap-up for the trilogy, with heightened adventures and plenty of surprises and adrenaline-rushes. There are perhaps too many characters to keep track of, as the circle of acquaintances grows and grows with each book, but it’s all good fun.

If I had to choose, I’d still say that the first book in the trilogy, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, is really and truly the best, because of the emphasis on the main characters’ origin stories and their creation of a family of their own. But that doesn’t take away from how satisfying the other two books are, or how well all three fit together to create one glorious whole.

If you enjoy sparkling, witty characters in a Victorian setting, with touches of the fantastic and supernatural, then you just must check out the Athena Club books!

Book Review: The Extraordinaries by TJ Klune

Title: The Extraordinaries
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication date: July 14, 2020
Length: 405 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Some people are extraordinary. Some are just extra. TJ Klune’s YA debut, The Extraordinaries, is a queer coming-of-age story about a fanboy with ADHD and the heroes he loves.

Nick Bell? Not extraordinary. But being the most popular fanfiction writer in the Extraordinaries fandom is a superpower, right?

After a chance encounter with Shadow Star, Nova City’s mightiest hero (and Nick’s biggest crush), Nick sets out to make himself extraordinary. And he’ll do it with or without the reluctant help of Seth Gray, Nick’s best friend (and maybe the love of his life).

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl meets Marissa Meyer’s Renegades in TJ Klune’s YA debut. 

Based on having read two of his books, I can now pretty confidently state that TJ Klune writes books that makes me want to hug them. I loved The House in the Cerulean Sea, which came out earlier this year, and now The Extraordinaries is here, with adorableness galore.

Our hero, Nick Bell, has no superpowers to speak of — unless you count his amazing imagination, his neuro-atypical brain that never slows down, and his ability to screw up no matter his good intentions.

Nick is starting junior year of high school with a promise to his dad to do better. No more getting into trouble. No more disrupting class or showing up late. And he really, really means to live up to that promise, but things have a way of not working out the way he plans.

Nick and his father live in Nova City, where his dad is a hard-working cop on the night shift. They live in the After — the years that have passed since Nick’s mother was killed during a bank robbery. Now it’s just the two of them, and while they love each other very much, it’s just not always easy.

Nova City is also the home of two Extraordinaries — superheroes who swoop in to fight crime and save the day. Shadow Star is the good guy, the masked man whose every move causes people to swoon in awe (and Nick to swoon in lust). Shadow Star’s archnemesis is Pyro Storm, the villain who can create and control fire, blocked from evil deeds by Shadow Star’s ability to manipulate shadows to carry out his will. They engage in epic battles over and around Nova City, but lately, these battles have escalated in their seriousness and the amount of damage left behind. The police chief is determined to put a stop to the havoc caused by these Extraordinaries.

Besides having a huge crush on Shadow Star, Nick writes incredibly popular fanfiction about him, and lives for the idea of meeting him eventually. Meanwhile, he goes to school and spends time with his best friends, who love Nick unconditionally, even when his brain and his tongue get him into trouble again and again. He’s a lot. But he’s theirs, and he’s a good guy (so lovable!), and they have his back no matter what.

Where do I even begin to describe how much I loved this book? It’s delightful and funny, but also surprisingly tender and lovely.

The relationship between Nick and his dad isn’t always smooth, but it is always grounded in love and devotion, and it’s really special to read about. While Aaron, the father, often causes Nick to squirm with his frank talk about sex and other matters, he’s coming from a place of support, and he’s determined to be the parent Nick needs, knowing that the two of them have to stick together through good times and bad.

Nick’s friend group is amazing — each quirky and unique in their own way, and so much fun to read about. Also, all queer and proud, in a no big deal, this is who I am sort of way. Each one of them deserves so many hugs! (Except Gibby might twist your arm if you try to hug her, so watch out. She’s tough.)

The writing is funny and charming, and Nicky especially has great lines. He’s a total smart-ass, even when he doesn’t necessarily intend to be.

The Great Romance of Nick and Owen came to an end as quickly as it started. (“You’re a great guy, Nicky, but I’m a wild animal who can’t be caged.” “Oh my god, you are not!”)

Nick really didn’t understand straight people. They didn’t seem to have any sense of self-preservation.

He wasn’t very adept when it came to comforting people he’d made out with. Or, at least, that appeared to be the case. He’d never made out with anyone else. He wondered if he needed to find someone else to make out with and then have them talk about their damaged relationship with their family to make sure.

Nick wondered if it were possible to disappear into the floor. He tapped his foot against it. Solid as always.

Nick groaned. “This sucks. Not only am I the comedic relief/love interest, I’m also the clueless comedic relief/love interest who is a pawn in a game I didn’t even realize was being played. God, my life is so cliche.

I feel like I could go on and on about how awesome this book is, or spend another 10,000 words or so just picking random paragraphs from the book to prove to you how fantastic and whimsical and hilarious and touching the writing is.

But let’s leave it at this: Nick is a damaged, imperfect guy living in a superhero world, and he’s extraordinary in his own ordinary way. I love him bunches and bunches, and I’m thrilled to know that The Extraordinaries is apparently the first book in a trilogy. I will absolutely read more about these characters and this world, and wish I didn’t have to wait for 2021 for the next installment.

Meanwhile, I’m clearly going to need to start working my way through TJ Klune’s backlist, pronto.

Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss

Title: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, #2)
Author: Theodora Goss
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: July 10, 2018
Print length: 736 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In the sequel to the critically acclaimed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Mary Jekyll and the rest of the daughters of literature’s mad scientists embark on a madcap adventure across Europe to rescue another monstrous girl and stop the Alchemical Society’s nefarious plans once and for all.

Mary Jekyll’s life has been peaceful since she helped Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solve the Whitechapel Murders. Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein, and Mary’s sister Diana Hyde have settled into the Jekyll household in London, and although they sometimes quarrel, the members of the Athena Club get along as well as any five young women with very different personalities. At least they can always rely on Mrs. Poole.

But when Mary receives a telegram that Lucinda Van Helsing has been kidnapped, the Athena Club must travel to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rescue yet another young woman who has been subjected to horrific experimentation. Where is Lucinda, and what has Professor Van Helsing been doing to his daughter? Can Mary, Diana, Beatrice, and Justine reach her in time?

Racing against the clock to save Lucinda from certain doom, the Athena Club embarks on a madcap journey across Europe. From Paris to Vienna to Budapest, Mary and her friends must make new allies, face old enemies, and finally confront the fearsome, secretive Alchemical Society. It’s time for these monstrous gentlewomen to overcome the past and create their own destinies. 

Oh, what fun! One of my most enjoyable reads this past year was The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, book one in the Athena Club trilogy. In it, we met the daughters of famous men — men who conducted monstrous experiments in the name of science, and left behind daughters bearing the scars of their work.

In book #2, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, this found family of heroic women is at it again. They’ve banded together to form a home and a family, finding happiness and belonging that they’ve never had elsewhere. A plea for help from Mary Jekyll’s former governess, Mina Murray, sets the plot in motion. A young woman named Lucinda Van Helsing is missing, and her father, Dr. Van Helsing, is suspected of being in league with the nefarious Society of Alchemists.

This kicks off the Athena Club’s next adventure, as they head to Vienna and then Budapest to rescue Lucinda and reveal the terrible conspiracies at the heart of the Society of Alchemists.

Along the way, there’s travel aboard the Orient Express, a meeting with Irene Adler (of Sherlock Holmes fame), circus performances, a battle with vampires, and a break-in/break-out from an asylum.

Our heroes show the pluck and bravery that make them so special, whether it’s the careful planning of Mary, or Beatrice’s special brand of poison, or Catherine’s claws, or Justine’s strength and moral fiber, they work well together while pursuing the cause of justice and freedom for the victims and survivors of the mad scientists.

I love how author Theodora Goss turns these famous stories on their heads. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein may have been published as a novel, but the Athena Club understands that it’s a true story, with Justine Frankenstein as living proof. Count Dracula makes a memorable appearance, but he’s not at all the person you’d expect. Sherlock Holmes is one of Mary’s mentors, but he only appears in the beginning parts of the story — it’s Irene Adler whose wits and abilities get a chance to shine.

My only quibble with European Travels is the length. At 700+ pages, it’s a bit of a daunting reading experience, and since the book itself is divided into two parts, perhaps it would have been better as two separate books. I think I might have enjoyed it more if I’d taken a break in between parts I & II — unfortunately, a little reading fatigue set in, so by the end, I was slightly less engaged, and I think that’s due to the size of the book — because the plot itself is exciting and creative throughout.

That’s really just a minor complaint. This book is definitely worth the time and effort!

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how funny the characters can be. Young Diana Hyde is a bratty, brave teen with no manners, and she can be counted on to disrupt any serious moment by acting out in some outrageous fashion or another. Plus, the writing is just so much fun. The story we’re reading is meant to be Catherine Moreau’s novelization of the Athena Club’s adventures — and at regular intervals, her narrative is interrupted by the other characters adding their own opinions and criticisms of Catherine’s version of events. It’s clever and silly and just so delightful.

As a whole, I loved this book, and I love the series so far. With dynamic, strong, quirky characters and a plot full of intrigue and action, it’s a truly compelling read.

Can’t wait to dive into the third and final book, The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl!

Faerie two-fer: Wrapping up the Folk of the Air series by Holly Black

I raced my way through this awesome trilogy during the past week and a half, and loved every moment!

I wrote a review for the first book, The Cruel Prince (here)… but by the time I finished book #2, The Wicked King, there was no way I was going to pause for anything but work and sleep until I finished #3 as well.

So, now that I’ve come up for air, I thought I’d share my take on these two terrific books.

Title: The Wicked King
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Length: 336 pages
Published: January 8, 2019
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You must be strong enough to strike and strike and strike again without tiring.

The first lesson is to make yourself strong.

After the jaw-dropping revelation that Oak is the heir to Faerie, Jude must keep her younger brother safe. To do so, she has bound the wicked king, Cardan, to her, and made herself the power behind the throne. Navigating the constantly shifting political alliances of Faerie would be difficult enough if Cardan were easy to control. But he does everything in his power to humiliate and undermine her even as his fascination with her remains undiminished.

When it becomes all too clear that someone close to Jude means to betray her, threatening her own life and the lives of everyone she loves, Jude must uncover the traitor and fight her own complicated feelings for Cardan to maintain control as a mortal in a Faerie world.

The story gets much more complicated in The Wicked King. Jude is no longer the outsider, a powerless mortal girl growing up in Faerie. Here, she now wields great power as the royal seneschal, governing Elfhame through Cardan, who seems to resent and hate her for the situation she’s placed him in.

I enjoyed the book so much, although I’ll admit to feeling a bit frustrated early on by what seemed like a shift away from the more delightful, personal elements of the story in favor of court scheming and politics.

Still, the deeper I went, the more wrapped up I found myself, and I loved the ways that the story and the characters grew and changed throughout. There are some pretty horrifying interludes, and it’s impossible not to recognize how far Jude has come and what inner resolve she brings to every situation… even if she is a bit blind when it comes to understanding her own emotions.

The 2nd book in a trilogy can often feel like a bridge rather than a compelling book on its own. Luckily, that’s not the case here. The Wicked King was a truly engaging, magical read.

Title: The Queen of Nothing
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Length: 300 pages
Published: November 29, 2019
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

He will be destruction of the crown and the ruination of the throne.

Power is much easier to acquire than it is to hold onto. Jude learned this lesson when she released her control over the wicked king, Cardan, in exchange for immeasurable power.

Now as the exiled mortal Queen of Faerie, Jude is powerless and left reeling from Cardan’s betrayal. She bides her time determined to reclaim everything he took from her. Opportunity arrives in the form of her deceptive twin sister, Taryn, whose mortal life is in peril.

Jude must risk venturing back into the treacherous Faerie Court, and confront her lingering feelings for Cardan, if she wishes to save her sister. But Elfhame is not as she left it. War is brewing. As Jude slips deep within enemy lines she becomes ensnared in the conflict’s bloody politics.

And, when a dormant yet powerful curse is unleashed, panic spreads throughout the land, forcing her to choose between her ambition and her humanity…

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author Holly Black, comes the highly anticipated and jaw-dropping finale to The Folk of the Air trilogy. 

Wow! What a way to end with a bang!

The Queen of Nothing is intricately plotted and — even more impressive — lets each character fully demonstrate their own growth and evolution.

There are surprises galore, plenty of dramatic action and heroics, and enough swoony romantic moments to melt the coldest of hearts.

And talk about suspense! There were several moments where I had to remind myself to take deep breaths and calm down. I mean, there was no way things wouldn’t work out in the end… right?

I’m officially in love with the world of The Folk of the Air. I can’t believe it took me this long to getting around to this trilogy! I’m now eager to gobble up ALL of Holly Black’s books, as soon as humanly possible. (Or, you know, after I make a dent in my obscenely huge pile of books already waiting to be read.)

Seriously, I loved this trilogy, need to own copies of all three books once I reluctantly hand them back to the library… and will probably listen to the audiobooks sooner rather than later too.

If you enjoy faerie worlds with well-built magical systems and eerily beautiful and dangerous people and rules that still remain full of human emotion and relationships, absolutely check out these books!

Book Review: The Toll (Arc of a Scythe, #3) by Neal Shusterman

Title: The Toll (Arc of a Scythe, #3)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: November 5, 2019
Length: 625 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

It’s been three years since Rowan and Citra disappeared; since Scythe Goddard came into power; since the Thunderhead closed itself off to everyone but Grayson Tolliver.

In this pulse-pounding conclusion to New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman’s Arc of a Scythe trilogy, constitutions are tested and old friends are brought back from the dead.

 

The Toll wraps up the futuristic story begun in 2016’s Scythe and continued in 2018’s Thunderhead. In these books, author Neal Shusterman presents a post-mortal world, where an all-knowing AI has become sentient and has solved all of the world’s problems, from starvation to disease to crime to poverty. Humankind is essentially immortal.

To preserve the fine balance of resources and needs, the only authority left in the world is the scythedom — people given the authority and responsibility to “glean” a certain percentage of the world’s population in order to make sure that the perfect world can continue to support everyone who’s left. And it works, for the most part… except that it’s still true that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and there are those among the scythedom who revel in their own power and the thrill of the kill, rather than seeing themselves as servants of the greater good.

In The Toll, the world is, basically, going to hell in a handbasket. The reasonable and responsible old-guard scythes have mostly all been eliminated, and the most corrupt and power-hungry scythe of all has taken over, with the goal of nothing less than world domination.

In this scary world, there are still scythes on the fringes, working to evade or undermine this new order, as well as a group hand-picked by the Thunderhead to create a mysterious settlement in an unknown tropical location. Meanwhile, the oddball religious cult known as Tonists have a new prophet, and their popularity and power seems to be on the rise as well.

At 625 pages, The Toll is longer than either of the preceding books, and while I get that there’s a lot to wrap up, it’s also overstuffed and often meandering. What I really loved about Scythe, in addition to the fascinating world created in its pages, are the characters and their moral dilemmas, as well as their personalities and their relationships.

Much of that is sacrificed in The Toll for the sake of plot, plot, and more plot. We spend very little time with the young heroes from the previous two books. Instead, the cast of characters is even broader than before, and we jump around the globe constantly. On the one hand, it’s pretty remarkable how the author keeps so many plot strands in play and connected; on the other hand, this book feels much less personal and much more action-driven.

Also, for a YA trilogy, this final installment spends a lot more time with its adult characters than with its younger, teen/young adult people, which is perhaps an odd choice.

Did I enjoy The Toll? Yes, for the most part. I’m actually quite satisfied with the wrap-up to the trilogy and the clever solutions and outcomes. However… there were lots of moments within the book where the length just made me downright tired. I think a lot could have been trimmed, and I would have preferred a more intimate scale rather than trying to encompass the entire world.

Still, the trilogy as a whole is mesmerizing, presenting a flawed utopia and showing how a society can only be as perfect as its most imperfect members. I loved the concept and the world-building, and have no hesitation about recommending these books.

And now, for those who have already read the books, here are my lingering questions and quibbles.

WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS!

Just a few of the little fiddly bits that continue to bug me after reading the book:

  • The Thunderhead is not able to break the laws that govern its interactions. Who created those laws?
  • Did the founding scythes program the Thunderhead so it would have no contact with the scythedom? Or did the Thunderhead institute the scythedom and then create the separation itself?
  • How did the founding scythes first form and settle upon their purpose? Again, were they created by the Thunderhead?
  • We only know that the Thunderhead can’t break the law because it repeatedly says so. Can the Thunderhead change its own programming? Could someone else change it?
  • How did the founding scythes create the scythe diamonds in the first place? We know that scythe technology is way behind what the Thunderhead can do, and that without the Thunderhead, technology just isn’t particularly reliable.
  • Why wouldn’t people rise up in protest against the scythes and their mass gleanings long before the events in The Toll?

Okay, those are just my initial random thoughts and questions immediately after finishing the book. If you’ve read these and have thoughts on any of these (or anything else related to the story!), please add your comments!

Shelf Control #122: Symbiont by Mira Grant

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Symbiont (Parasitology, #2)
Author: Mira Grant
Published: 2014
Length: 518 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

THE ENEMY IS INSIDE US.

The SymboGen-designed parasites were created to relieve humanity of disease and sickness. But the implants in the majority of the world’s population began attacking their hosts, turning them into a ravenous horde.

Now those who do not appear to be afflicted are being gathered for quarantine as panic spreads, but Sal and her companions must discover how the parasites are taking over their hosts, what their eventual goal is and how they can be stopped.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy when the book came out in 2014.

Why I want to read it:

Oh, I’m so torn about this book! I loved the first book in the series (Parasite) — so gross and so good! But somehow, when I got Symbiont, I just couldn’t muster the interest to keep going with the overarching story. Mira Grant is an absolute fave of mine, so how can I own books by her and not read them? I’m afraid I’ll have to start over again from the beginning if I want book #2 to make any sense to me at all. Should I? Is it worth it? I’m not sure how I can be a legit fan and not read this trilogy!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Audiobook Review: Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel (The Themis Files, #3)

 

 

In her childhood, Rose Franklin accidentally discovered a giant metal hand buried beneath the ground outside Deadwood, South Dakota. As an adult, Dr. Rose Franklin led the team that uncovered the rest of the body parts which together form Themis: a powerful robot of mysterious alien origin. She, along with linguist Vincent, pilot Kara, and the unnamed Interviewer, protected the Earth from geopolitical conflict and alien invasion alike. Now, after nearly ten years on another world, Rose returns to find her old alliances forfeit and the planet in shambles. And she must pick up the pieces of the Earth Defense Corps as her own friends turn against each other.

I have loved The Themis Files books since day one, so it’s probably no surprise that I really and truly loved this concluding volume as well. In the first two Themis Files books, we see the discovery of a giant robot, which is in truth an alien artifact, leading to an alien invasion that threatens the survival of all humankind. Here, in Only Human, we find out how it all works out.

The previous book, Waking Gods, ends on a cliffhanger. With the immediate threat removed, Vincent, Rose, and Eva are celebrating their victory, when they suddenly realize they’re not on Earth any longer. As Only Human opens, we learn that our Earthlings have been transported to the alien home planet, which finally gets a name – Esat Ekt. And there they stay, learning the Ekt language, culture, and sense of morality, with no means of going home.

The Ekt’s principal code of morality is non-interference. They will not allow themselves to alter the course of any other species’ progress, development, or evolution. If a species is meant to go extinct, the Ekt will not interfere. And if a species, such as the human race, develops in a way that they should not have because of Ekt interference in the past, then all signs of that interference must be eliminated. Of course, the Ekt didn’t mean to commit mass murder, as they did in book #2, and here in book #3, the people of Esat Ekt are deeply embroiled in a reexamination of their non-interference policy after realizing their responsibility for the deaths of tens of millions on Earth.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, in the years following the great battle which concluded in the previous book, human interactions have changed dramatically. One of the giant robots ended up left behind, then seized as property of the United States, which then used it to rewrite the geopolitical lines of the planet. When Rose, Vincent, and Eva return almost a decade later aboard Themis, the Russians want the robot — badly — and will do just about anything to get it and its pilots under their control, in an effort to reshape the world’s balance of power.

As with the earlier books, Only Human is told via interview transcripts and journal entries, with the entries from the humans on Esat Ekt interwoven with the entries from Earth upon the gang’s arrival back on their home planet all those years later. Through these entries, we learn about life on Esat Ekt — the politics, the participatory democracy, the casual bigotry, and the way a free society can have hidden biases and injustices. Meanwhile, we see the ongoing complicated dynamics between the main characters. The highlight is the relationship between Vincent and his daughter Eva. Only 10  years old when they were whisked off to an alien planet, by the start of the action in this book Eva is a 19-year-old young woman who is strong-willed and ready to jump into action to pursue justice, never mind her own safety. Naturally, she and Vincent are on a collision course, and when their conflict finally comes to a head, it’s spectucular.

There are so many memorable characters in these books. An old favorite, Mr. Burns, returns in Only Human, and I also was really fascinated by the American-raised Russian agent Katherine, whose Americanisms and snark hide a truly terrifying ruthless streak.

The audiobook version is amazing, performed by a full cast. In fact, while I had the e-book ARC for some time before the official release date, I chose to wait until the Audible edition became available because I really wanted to experience the story in that way, as I did with the first two books. The voice actors are terrific. I love Vincent, with his French-Canadian accent and excitable nature; Rose’s calm demeanor, Mr. Burns’s humor, and — big treat here — the Ekt characters as well, speaking both a mangled sort of English as well as their own native language. My only complaint is that Eva’s accent has completely changed from the previous book, and it was weird and distracting at first. Oh well. I got over it. As a whole, the audiobook experience is a delight.

Let’s pause here to admire author Sylvain Neuvel’s fantastic use of his linguistics background to create a language for the Ekt that’s weird and alien and sounds just awesome to listen to. I loved the words and phrases, and very much enjoyed learning a yokits swear word in Ekt.

Needless to say, I highly recommend the Themis Files series. If you enjoy audiobooks, absolutely listen to these! The production is top-notch and really added to my enjoyment. But even without the audio, it’s an incredible story, so well written, full of sci-fi adventure and surprises — but even more so, full of human emotion and heart, which are what truly makes this story work.

I really do hope that the author will choose to write more in the Themis-verse… but if not, I’ll still want to read whatever he writes next.

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The details:

Title: Only Human (The Themis Files, #3)
Author: Sylvain Neuvel
Narrator: Full cast production
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: May 1, 2018
Length (print): 336 pages
Length (audiobook): 8 hours, 43 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: E-book review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley; audiobook downloaded via Audible

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Series wrap-up: The Newsflesh trilogy by Mira Grant

Wow.

I just finished binge-reading Mira Grant’s amazing trilogy, Newsflesh (consisting of Feed, Deadline, and Blackout), and all I can say is — what the hell took me so long? I’d been hearing for years that these books are must-reads. What in the bloody hell was my problem?

Sigh. Better late than never, right?

The fact is, for whatever reason, I must have head my head under a rock in 2010, 2011, and 2012… but here it is, the opening months of 2018, and I’m soooooo darned happy that I finally devoured these books.

For the uninitiated: What’s it all about?

As the blurb for Feed says:

The year was 2014. We had cured cancer. We had beaten the common cold. But in doing so we created something new, something terrible that no one could stop.

Short version: A zombie uprising. When the viruses meant to cure cancer and the cold accidentally mingle upon release into the world, they combine into something deadly, known as Kellis-Amberlee, a virus that causes the dead to rise and eat people. But somehow, humanity survives — a smaller, more frightened, vastly security conscious slice of humanity, but still, the rising has been overcome, and life goes on, although the world is permanently changed.

In the world of Newsflesh, the most reliable source of news in a dangerous and secretive world is the blogging community. After all, they were the first to tell the truth when mainstream media outlets called the initial reports of zombies merely Internet hoaxes. If not for the bloggers, the realization of what was really happening, and what it would take to stay alive, might have come too late. Now, 20+ years after the rising, bloggers are the stars of the media and the most trusted source of news, and our main characters, brother and sister Shaun and Georgia Mason, are the cream of the crop.

Shaun and Georgia live for the truth and the truth alone. Their lives become infinitely more complicated when they’re chosen to be embedded with a candidate on the presidential campaign trail. Shaun and Georgia see this as a huge ratings boost, a way to finally reach the top tier and go independent. They don’t expect to be drawn into a shadow world of conspiracies and danger, risking everything they stand for as well as each other and their teams of trusted colleagues.

I really don’t want to give too much away, so I won’t go into detail about the series as a whole or where the plot goes. Suffice it to say that the plot twists always caught me off guard, and for a book about the zombie apocalypse, there were way more laughs and tears than I would have imagined. I came to love the characters, not just Shaun and Georgia, but also their friends and allies who fight by their side and share their commitment to the truth, no matter what. Okay, I loved Shaun and Georgia 10x more than anyone else, but that’s just because they’re so completely awesome.

I’ll admit that the scientific/medical/virological jargon and discussions often warped my brain, as I had to super-concentrate to decipher what the hell these people were trying to say. The effort is worth it. Mira Grant has put together a scary, crazy, complicated world, where viruses are deadly, but so is ignorance and inattention.

I’ve read complaints about the repetition of certain details throughout the books, particularly how the characters constantly have to undergo blood tests every time they enter or exit just about any place. I, for one, think this is fabulous. It’s the very repetition of the constant blood tests, and how the characters treat them as a normal fact of life, that shows us just how very different this world is. Safety is never taken for granted. Knowing one’s status as uninfected only lasts until the next test — you never know when you might become infected, or when the virus living inside you might spontaneously amplify (meaning you go full zombie with no apparent triggering event). The blood tests are just one small element in these masterfully constructed books that show us what a world might be like after the unthinkable becomes a reality.

Let’s also stop to appreciate the snappy dialogue and funny bits throughout the books. Shaun and Georgia and the rest of their team have the kind of closeness that means they know each other to the core, and that’s conveyed through their banter and ability to finish one another’s thoughts and read the fear and worries underneath the jokes and quips. And plus, there are just some things that are so awful that they’re funny. Okay, like a zombie bear. Or being afraid of zombie raccoons. I mean, that’s funny stuff!

I tore through these books, and just could not stop. I really and truly loved them, start to finish, and I’m thrilled to learn that there are more stories in the Newsflesh world! First, there’s a collection of various stories originally released as separate e-novellas (Rise, published 2016). Also in 2016, Grant published the novel Feedback, which is apparently set during the same period as Feed, but focusing on different characters. I’m less excited for that one (did I mention my love for Shaun and Georgia yet?), but I’ll read it anyway, because right this very minute, having just finished Blackout, I’m absolutely not ready to leave this world behind.

For anyone, like me, who didn’t have the brains (zombie joke!) to jump on board when Feed was first released… well, it’s never too late. I loved this trilogy, and I hope you will too!

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Book details:

Feed – 599 pages, published 2010
Deadline – 584 pages, published 2011
Blackout – 512 pages, published 2012

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Book Review: The Girl in the Tower

The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.

Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.

The Bear and the Nightingale was one of the most lovely and original books of 2017. I reviewed it back in January when it was released, and have been raving about it ever since. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to get my hands on the sequel!

The Girl in the Tower picks up where the first book leaves off. Vasya has fled her home and her village, someplace she’s never left in her entire life, after the death of her father. She knows she cannot stay in a place where she’s suspected of witchcraft and distrusted by almost all. In medieval Russia, girls have really zero choices in their lives, and there are only two paths available: Marry, produce children, and run a household… or don’t marry and go instead to a convent.

But Vasya is a free spirit who sees and communicates with the chyerti, the spirits of Russian folklore who inhabit the forests, the hearth, and all aspects of the natural and man-made world. However, the people have become blinded by the edicts of the Church and no longer tend to the chyerti as they should, and now consider them to be demons and devils to be feared and cast out. Vasya chooses a different path for her life, and leaves on her beautiful horse Solovey. As she rides through freezing forests, she is occasionally accompanied by Morozko, the frost-demon who cares for her, with whom she has a mysterious bond.

Meanwhile, bandits have been raiding villages in the area near Moscow, slaughtering the villagers, burning the towns to the ground, and stealing their young girls to sell as slaves. Vasya’s brother Sasha, a fierce warrior and a monk, brings word to Grand Prince Dmitrii, and they set out to track down the bandits and stop them, while also fearing the threat of a Tatar invasion.

Paths converge, as Vasya shows up with children rescued from a burned village and seeks shelter at Sasha’s monastery, but she’s traveling in disguise as a boy, and must maintain the fiction in order to be allowed to fight and defend Moscow from the forces that threaten their world. In Moscow society, women live their lives in their towers and are not permitted on the streets or to mingle with men, so Vasya’s masquerade is a huge breach that, if revealed, will end in disaster for her, as well as for her brother and sister Olga, a princess of Moscow.

That’s the gist of the plot in The Girl in the Tower, and I won’t go into further detail, because this book really should be explored and appreciated with fresh eyes.

Once again, author Katherine Arden paints a picture of a time and place where harsh societal strictures limit women’s options, and yet at the same time, a world where magic is fading but isn’t quite gone. Reading this book, I could practically feel the freezing temperatures of the forests, and wondered at the forces keeping Vasya alive when she should have frozen to death.

The traditions and daily routines are vividly described, especially the role of the bathhouses and the terem, the secluded dwelling areas for upper class women. A glossary at the back of the book provides a key tool in gaining a fuller understanding of the terms used throughout the story — reading through this section is a must, either during or after reading the book itself.

The books starts a little slowly, and it’s not until we get a bit further into Vasya’s adventures that the story truly picks up. Once it does, it’s impossible to put down.

Vasya, as in the first book, is a marvelous character. She’s brave and defiant, but with inner doubts and wounds. She knows that her society has no place for her, and all she dreams of is escape, riding off with her horse to see as much of the world as she can. Getting drawn into the intrigues and dangers of Moscow is not a part of her plan, but she can’t walk away when people she cares about are in danger, and displays her courage again and again.

As the second book in a trilogy, The Girl in the Tower doesn’t have the incredible newness of The Bear and the Nightingale. It’s definitely a middle book, continuing on with the world introduced in the first book, rather than focusing so much on world-building and the introduction of the beliefs, superstitions, and traditions of the time. The story is much more action-focused, and lacks the sense of wonder evoked in the first book as we meet the chyerti and see Vasya coming of age with her sight and her strength.

Still, The Girl in the Tower is an engaging and moving read, and does what it needs to do in terms of moving the story forward and showing the next chapter of Vasya’s life, as she leaves behind the village girl she once was and sets out to find a new path. This book is a transition from the start of Vasya’s story, laying the groundwork for what’s to come.

Now that I’ve read The Girl in the Tower, I cannot wait for the third book! Vasya is an amazing character, and her journey to become her true self is inspiring and thrilling. The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower are must-reads. Check them out!

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The details:

Title: The Girl in the Tower
Series: The Winternight Trilogy, #2
Author: Katherine Arden
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: December 5, 2017
Length: 363 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher

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