Review: The Exiled Queen

The Exiled QueenThe Exiled Queen by Cinda Williams Chima
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Haunted by the loss of his mother and sister, hunted by the powerful Bayar family, Han Alister makes a devil’s bargain with the clans. If they sponsor his schooling at Mystwerk Academy at Oden’s Ford, he will become their magical sell-sword against the power-hungry Wizard Council.

Han and his clan friend Fire Dancer undertake the dangerous journey south through war-torn Arden. Once in Oden’s Ford, it doesn’t take long for the smoldering feud between Han and Micah Bayar to kindle into flame. After several attempts on his life, Han knows he has to find a way to defend himself.

In the magical dream world of Aediion, Han meets the mysterious Crow, a wizard with a long-standing grudge against the Bayars. Crow offers to tutor Han in wizardry in exchange for his help. Han agrees, once again forced into a bargain he hopes he won’t regret.

Meanwhile, Han’s friends Fire Dancer and Cat Tyburn struggle with their own demons. Dancer is determined to become a clan flashcrafter, despite his charmcaster status. Cat carries a load of guilt, as the only survivor of the slaughter of the gangs in Ragmarket and Southbridge.

Resuming her disguise as gently-born Rebecca Morley, Princess Raisa ana’Marianna travels with her friend Amon Byrne and his triple of cadets to Wien House, the military academy at Oden’s Ford. There she hopes she will find both temporary sanctuary from a forced marriage and the education she needs to succeed as the next Gray Wolf queen.

Much of Raisa’s education takes place outside of the classroom. As she mingles with students of all classes from throughout the Seven Realms, she forges the kind of friendships that don’t happen amid the cut-throat politics of the Gray Wolf Court. She also struggles to deal with her attraction to Amon—an attraction he seems determined to discourage.

When Han Alister asks the girl he knows as Rebecca to tutor him, she agrees. The streetlord turned wizard with the complicated past fascinates her, and he makes it clear the interest is mutual. But Han blames Queen Marianna and the Bayars for the loss of his family. As their relationship deepens, Raisa suspects that if Han knew her true identity, he wouldn’t want anything to do with her.

The second installment in the Seven Realms series takes us to college – fantasy-world style. Like really, our two protagonists are headed towards the seat of education in the Seven Realms – Oden’s Ford. Raisa is running as an exiled princess heir, but also to strengthen her knowledge and become a warrior queen like her famed ancestors, and Han is going to enhance his wizardry so that he can prepare himself to take down the High Wizard. Both on parallel paths through the lands, face different challenges and adversaries, and it does not end when they reach their destination. Both are standing out in their respective places – she as a northerner in a classroom full of southerners, while him as an outsider in a classroom full of high-born wizards.

In the previous, I had a slight issued with the pacing in the start, but The Exiled Queen keeps up a nice fast pace all throughout the book. The events are played across nearly a year, and plenty happens during that time. She is troubled by the news coming out from Fells, and the devoted leader that she is, she feels responsible for the upheaval caused by her absence. She wants to live a free life but she also knows that she is tied to her queendom first. Meanwhile, Han has to dodge deals, threats and political posturing, while also learning to navigate this new world of the elites. His street skills keep him on his toes and alive, but to gain power he has to blend in. Both of them have grown remarkably through the two books, and I am excited how this is going to play out. They are still pieces being manipulated on the board, and I am waiting for the day they dictate the moves.

Content warning for racial slurs used in this book
The inclusion of the obviously-POC race of the Clans seemed generalized in the previous books, but in this one, with the characters interacting with characters from other lands, you see how the different cultures interact with each other, mostly with prejudice. Which is why there are racial tensions and frequent uses of the word ‘savage’, which is distasteful to come across, especially with recent matters brought to light on this issue. (I get that this book was published before all this came to the forefront in discussions of diversity, but I feel it deserves to be included her for future readers of this book.) Besides that, they are frequent slurs (of the fantasy-world type) flung around. It is a construct of the world-building, and some characters (Han and Raisa) frequently call out others on it, but it is there, nevertheless.

Speaking of world-building, the political tensions in this book reach new heights. Raisa is surrounded by one distasteful option after another, and not many people left to trust. She can’t rely on the protection of her mother, not when the Wizard Council is using her as a puppet, and trying to undermine her succession. Han is, for now, not involved in the politics, but he is still tied by his bargain to protect the princess heir, which means the next book might have them being a power partnership together. Overall, this was an amazing sequel, and I am impressed by this series so far.

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Review: The Demon King

The Demon KingThe Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Times are hard in the mountain city of Fellsmarch. Reformed thief Han Alister will do almost anything to eke out a living for his family. The only thing of value he has is something he can’t sell—the thick silver cuffs he’s worn since birth. They’re clearly magicked—as he grows, they grow, and he’s never been able to get them off.

One day, Han and his clan friend, Dancer, confront three young wizards setting fire to the sacred mountain of Hanalea. Han takes an amulet from Micah Bayar, son of the High Wizard, to keep him from using it against them. Soon Han learns that the amulet has an evil history—it once belonged to the Demon King, the wizard who nearly destroyed the world a millennium ago. With a magical piece that powerful at stake, Han knows that the Bayars will stop at nothing to get it back.

Meanwhile, Raisa ana’Marianna, princess heir of the Fells, has her own battles to fight. She’s just returned to court after three years of freedom in the mountains—riding, hunting, and working the famous clan markets. Raisa wants to be more than an ornament in a glittering cage. She aspires to be like Hanalea—the legendary warrior queen who killed the Demon King and saved the world. But her mother has other plans for her—including marriage to a suitor who goes against everything the queendom stands for.

The Seven Realms tremble when the lives of Hans and Raisa collide, fanning the flames of the smoldering war between clans and wizards.

First in the series, The Demon King has blown me away with the writing and the world-building. This is also my first novel of the author, and I am an instant fan. The story takes some time to pick up, with the first half more devoted to setting up the world and introducing characters (too many characters, if you ask me) so it might be better to wade patiently through the start, but in the second, the story starts picking up. It is difficult to explain it in any other word than epic.

There is a world of two kinds of magic – the Vale wizards who practice High Magic and the Highland Clans that practice green magic, with a matrilineal monarchy that is being supported by these two magical races. The events of a millennium ago are the reasons for the bonds set between these three people, and their politics is a tightrope balance between the two. The wizards are powerful but they depend on the clans for their amulets, and though they control the Council, they are forbidden from marrying into the royal line. Naturally, some of them chafe against these restrictions and are trying to make a grab for power.

Raisa, the heir apparent, one of the centers of the plot – she is trying to groom herself into a strong queen, unlike her mother who is increasingly getting swayed by the High Wizard. She is also young and impulsive, and wants to be like every other girl who gets to have a courtship and romance, but the burden of her kingdom threatens to take away her choices. Han, on the other hand, is a charming reformed criminal, who is fostered by the clans and under their protection. He gets into the mess when he comes across one of the forbidden amulets that were seized from that millennium-ago event. His path crosses hers but they are unaware of each other’s roles and positions in this tangled web of politics, and power.

The world-building also lends to some fantastic characterization – the tug of war for power means that neither side is completely innocent. For now, the clans seem like the good guys because they care for Raisa and protect her and her Line, but they are also hiding secrets and trying to limit the power of the wizards. The wizards, for their part, right now seem like a power-grabbing unit but we have only a couple of examples to base that idea on. I am hoping, with the events towards the end propelling a couple of important characters to a magic training school, we get to see more complexity in the faction of the wizards. The romances are unpredictable for now, but I am definitely leaning towards Raisa and Amon, though that seems like a ship that might sink in future books – who knows? Right now, I am just enjoying the possibilities between the different characters.

The ending was a nice culmination of the two character threads of Raisa and Han, and I am excited to know how their paths will cross in the later books. For now, I am hyped about this series and definitely looking forward to devouring it over the next few days.

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ARC Review: Dead Little Mean Girl

Dead Little Mean GirlDead Little Mean Girl by Eva Darrows
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Release date: March 28, 2017

Quinn Littleton was a mean girl—a skinny blonde social terrorist in stilettos. She was everything Emma MacLaren hated. Until she died.

A proud geek girl, Emma loves her quiet life on the outskirts, playing video games and staying off the radar. When her nightmare of a new stepsister moves into the bedroom next door, her world is turned upside down. Quinn is a queen bee with a nasty streak who destroys anyone who gets in her way. Teachers, football players, her fellow cheerleaders—no one is safe.

Emma wants nothing more than to get this girl out of her life, but when Quinn dies suddenly, Emma realizes there was more to her stepsister than anyone ever realized.

Sympathy for the Bully Dead Little Mean Girl gives us a story about two stepsisters – one a typical mean girl, Quinn, and the other a homely nerd, Emma, with the former having a mean streak a mile wide and a raging desire to ruin the latter’s life. Three-fourths of the novel is about how Quinn makes life miserable for everyone around her, especially Emma – she is the kind of toxic evil that even the Devil would probably come to her for pointers. The book delivers this regular bullying fare with some intermittent slapstick humor in the form of Emma’s narration, but you can’t ignore the impulse to wish Quinn dead. And she does exactly that – die, I mean. And then Emma has a change of heart towards her now dead stepsister.

Look, I get the intention with which the author tried to write this novel (as said in the acknowledgements)- she wanted to show that even mean girls deserve humanity and kindness. But when you have a 200+ page reason for hating Quinn, you can’t resolve that kind of vitriol in the last quarter of the book. Emma’s grief towards the end was begun mainly because she realized she had wrongfully accused her and inadvertently caused her death – and looking back, she realizes she never tried to understand her sister or give her chances. But if you reading this book in a stretch (like I was) you remember with perfect clarity how Emma was kind to her in the beginning of the book, before she realizes the brand of toxic that Quinn was. This wasn’t a simple case of a girl with a bad childhood or daddy issues.

Even if we account for her young age, the fact of the matter is that you can’t save people who don’t want to be saved. (Thank you, The 100 for that gem). Sure, we can feel pity for them, but some people cannot be reformed – maybe they can be tamed at most. Quinn’s bullying wasn’t just petty; she openly sought to destroy lives. If her bullying had caused a death (which she could easily have), this narrative wouldn’t have been about trying to humanize her. Which, I must clarify, the author doesn’t do a good job of, either. What exactly was human about Quinn that she deserved more than the level of kindness that was afforded to her? She wasn’t treated badly by people – on the contrary, people worshiped her despite her nastiness. I also get that teenage girls are demonized more easily than any other, but I can’t put aside her homophobia, racism, fatphobia, bullying and entitlement to justify this brand of white feminism. Worse is the fact that Quinn never faces any consequence for her behaviour.

So, you may wonder what I did like about this book? I liked the writing – the author builds a great narrative about the relationship between Emma and her mothers (I just wish they would have been called bisexual instead of lesbians), the wholesome friendship between Emma and her friends, and the build-up for Quinn. For once, a mean girl wasn’t just a cookie cutter character – she had complexity, which the author was striving for, and achieved. Granted, the last quarter of the book sort of fell apart, but until then a good narrative was being built. The way Shawn consoled Emma at the end, making her understand that it wasn’t her fault – that was a good thing, because I couldn’t take Emma blaming herself for it. It also portrays how death makes a person kinder in some one eyes, but as a person who once stood at a funeral for someone I loathed and tried to shed a tear out of decency, I cannot say I condone the ending of the book. It might bring some peace to others, or inspire to ‘kill it with kindness’ but it just wasn’t doing it for me.

Trigger warning for harmful racism, homophobic slurs and body shaming in the book.

Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Harlequin Teen, via Netgalley.

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ARC Review: Vigilante

VigilanteVigilante by Kady Cross
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Release date: March 28, 2017

It’s senior year, and Hadley and her best friend, Magda, should be starting the year together. Instead, Magda is dead and Hadley is alone. Raped at a party the year before and humiliated, Magda was driven to take her own life and Hadley is forced to see her friend’s attackers in the classroom every day. Devastated, enraged and needing an outlet for her grief, Hadley decides to get a little justice of her own.

Donning a pink ski mask and fueled by anger, Hadley goes after each of the guys one by one, planning to strip them of their dignity and social status the way they did to Magda. As the legend of the pink-masked Vigilante begins to take on a life of its own, Hadley’s revenge takes a turn for the dangerous. Could her need for vengeance lead her down a path she can’t turn back from?

I would advise caution here – this a content warning for mentions of rape in this review, and trigger warning for mentions and depictions of sexual assault in the book.

Vigilante has left me a bit on the fence as to how to rate this book. I am leaning for more than 3 but not so much as 4. The reason for the former is that it excellently calls out the rape culture that is prevalent in the world; the fact that sexual assault is rarely ever treated with the kind of brevity that it deserves, and most often the victims are blamed or jeered at. The reason for the latter is that despite all its good intentions to the contrary, the book comes off as preachy and inorganic sometimes, and Trying Too Hard at most.

I won’t go into explaining the plot because it is right there in the blurb and is pretty straightforward and obvious from there. If you watch the MTV show Sweet/Vicious (also part of the reason I took up this book), you can pretty much even guess how the plotline of the book is going to be. Hadley becomes a vigilante to avenge the gang rape and suicide of her best friend. In doing so, she awakens a collective rising of women in her town to protect other women who are targets of sexual assault. She starts out with vengeance but moves on to protection, but the four classmates responsible for her friend’s fate are still her main target. Her rage and guilt drives her for most of the book, but towards the end it is more like fierce protectiveness.

Look, I like that it inspires a feeling of sisterhood and looking out for other women, but it also largely still places the burden of prevention of sexual assault on women, because the book stresses a lot on the self defense classes that she and the local Detective teach – it is frequently mentioned throughout the book that the numbers swell as the Pink Vigilante gains infamy. It does, on two separate occasions, blame perpetrator’s entitlement as the main cause for sexual assault, as well as point out that roofied victims (male or female) can’t fight back, and while it was appreciated, at that point it seems like it is just to cover all the bases. Also the Some Good Men thing was pointed out (presumably to not anger male fans) but that is not what this issue is about, dude. In trying to be more inclusive of key points, the main issue was somehow diminished. Also, can we stop praising boys for achieving basic decency levels? Her friends were going on and on about what a ‘good guy’ Gabriel is – which he was, but they didn’t even know him personally enough to make that judgement!

As for characters, I don’t think Hadley undergoes much of a development. She is angry throughout the book, and only at the end does she gain some sort of peace – wanting an out because she has done what she wanted. Obviously she goes too far, but the way it is written you can’t really connect with her. In a plot so charged with emotion and with a character so complex facing such a monumental change, the fact that you feel disconnected from the horror that a girl faces when she does something she didn’t think she was capable of, it just goes to say that the writing was not up to far. I hate to make comparisons, but for an example, The Female of the Species has a very involved and immersive experience with respect to the protagonist.

Another thing I was a bit discomforted by was victim-blaming. Hadley, in one moment of frustration calls it out as her friend’s mistake. Granted, she took it back, but the fact that the thought even occurred was meant to highlight the fact that rape culture means it is something we, as women, have been brought up to believe. It comes up in the book how girls are taught to be afraid and blame the victim, but boys are not taught not to create that fear, so the suggestion by the plot that within months, most of the girls and women in the book are ‘cured’ of this insidious conditioning is a reach, at best. It is idealistic and does not help anyone to think change is affected so easily, even in fiction, when news cycles are still full of brutal cases of sexual assault that are still, in a corner of most people’s minds attributed as the victim’s fault, even though almost everyone knows better.

Female friendships were promoted, but only topically. The dialogue was stilted between them, and without much build-up as to how the girls come to care for each other. Instead, an unnecessary romantic subplot was carried out, which though providing for convenient alibi, still did not sit right with me, particularly with Gabriel acting a bit controlling of her, at times. I guess, it overall, provides a message that feminism doesn’t mean to hate men, but it really had no place in this book about women affected from sexual assault trying to avenger the crimes committed against them. Overall, it is still a good book, just a little bit preachy at times; still it tackles a tough topic and tries to give it good treatment.

Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Dark Horse Manga, via Edelweiss.

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ARC Review: The Body Market

The Body MarketThe Body Market by Donna Freitas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Release date: March 28, 2017

Skylar Cruz has been betrayed by everyone she trusted. Perhaps worst of all, she and her friends have failed to stop her sister, and now the Body Market is open for business.

Skylar is through being a pawn in everyone else’s game. She may be the only one who can stop what her family started. And she must do it before everyone in the App World runs out of time.

At the end of Unplugged, Skylar had been rescued from her sister’s Body Market, but in the start of The Body Market, she is back – as a witness to the grim proceedings of human trafficking. She wants to end it all, but gets kidnapped by a bounty hunter Kit, who has his own agenda when it comes to the whole App World. Skye’s approach towards the App World was based on the love she had for her family back in the Real one, but now that she has been betrayed by them, she doesn’t know her exact place in the world. Of course, this is where the romantic subplot comes in, and between all the teenage angst of who she should choose and who she should be with, they manage to devise a way to bring down the Body Market.

As a sequel, The Body Market is marginally better than Unplugged; the former’s main pitfall was the weak world-building, with no proper structure in place. This one’s fallacy is the lack of action in general – they are said to be the resistance, but until like the third quarter of the novel, they are twiddling their thumbs with respect to how to go about resisting. A propitious week-long blizzard at the beginning of the novel allowed for the romantic tension to be developed between Skye and Kit, (which I was still not convinced by, btw) and also allowed the activities of the Body Market to halt. The pace, though seemingly fast, feels like nothing has been achieved overall – this may be because a quarter of this novel is filled with damned dream sequences. Look, the significance of those dream sequences became apparent towards the end, but did we really need so many.

The potential of the secondary characters were also wasted, with the plot focusing on the tangled love web between Skye & Kit, Rain & his girlfriend – the last such an extraneous filler jealous-ex fill-in that I don’t even remember her name (and I just finished this book). Adam and Parvda are mostly relegated to sidelines, which makes me wonder why even have the build up in the first book for them. Zeera was one character that gained prominence but only in like a tech role; Trader however gains a significant role and confirms a relationship hinted at in the previous. Ultimately, though, I felt this book was more focused on how Skye felt about Kit and Rain and her eternal comparison between the two worlds.

In the ending, I felt satisfied mainly because it afforded choice to the citizens (something I thought was going to be overlooked as in many dystopia) and also gave a realistic ending to the obstacles presented. It still retains some of the world-building problems that existed in the first, so I don’t understand how this new world order will work either. It seemed like the Real world was a wasteland, but apparently they have enough resources to live comfortably, so I did not see the need for a body market in the first place. Also, there is no apparent governing body – the Ministers were in the App World, meaning they couldn’t be in reality. Overall, I must say I am not impressed much by this sequel as I had hopes it would resolve some issues with the series but failed to do so. It, however, offers enough of a closure that you can consider the series complete, if only you don’t read the last chapter, which serves as a set-up for a new novel than an ending to this one.

Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Harper Teen, via Edelweiss.

Previous books

Unplugged (The Wired, #1)

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