ARC Review: Lucky Girl

Lucky GirlLucky Girl by Amanda Maciel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Release date: April 25, 2017

Being a pretty girl is who Rosie is, but it’s the start of a new school year and she wants to be more. Namely, she’s determined to be better to her best friend, Maddie, who’s just back from a summer program abroad having totally blossomed into her own looks. Rosie isn’t thrilled when Maddie connects with a football player who Rosie was hooking up with—but if it makes her friend happy, she’s prepared to move on. Plus someone even more interesting has moved to town: Alex, who recently garnered public attention after he stopped a classmate from carrying out a shooting rampage at his old high school. Rosie is drawn to Alex in a way she’s never really experienced for a boy before—and she is surprised to discover that, unlike every other guy, he seems to see more to her than her beauty.

Then one night, in the midst of a devastating storm, Rosie suffers an assault that tears apart her life and friendship with Maddie. Forced to face uncomfortable truths about beauty, reputation, and what it really means to be a friend, Rosie realizes that change doesn’t always happen the way you want it to—every disaster has consequences. But with a lot of help and the right people around you, there might also be a way forward.

Trigger warning – book contains scene of sexual assault

Lucky Girl is a book that discusses the underlying rape culture that exists in everyday life – the one where a regular party girl is slut-shamed easily, where she doubts herself because she thinks she is responsible for inciting the crime – you know, regular ingrained misogyny. Rosie is pretty – the whole town knows it, and she loves it. She likes that she can have any boy she wants, and when her friend Maddie returns, from her summer abroad, more beautiful, she is a little jealous and unsure at first. She thought her friendly dynamic was based around the fact that she is the prettier and more experienced one. But then when Maddie’s new boyfriend assaults Rosie at a party, and Maddie thinks she was hooking up, Rosie is at a loss as how to explain it to her. Firstly, she feels guilty for attracting his attention (even though she had hooked up with him before Maddie and he got together) and secondly, she feels like she has projected this image of a loose party girl who no one will take seriously.

The book subtly approaches these topics of slut-shaming, rape culture, prejudices, and how boys get away easily with stuff, as well as how girls are conditioned into blaming themselves for other’s reactions to them. Rosie almost becomes a rape statistic and her first response is to deny anything ever happened. She is embarrassed by it, blames herself for it, feels unworthy of her friendship because of it – while the boy who did it still goes on living his life as normal. And although it comes from the perspective of a girl who is pretty and therefore more likely to gain unwanted attention, it also points out that this is a universal problem. There is also a very important sex-positive message which while not overt, still is pervasive in the book’s theme.

While I loved the message this book gives, and how it is a good example of a coming-of-age novel that approaches topics like sexuality subtly, it is perhaps not a book I would recommend solely on the basis of that. Like, if you wanted me to prescribe a book to you about said topic, this wouldn’t be the first book to spring to my mind. This is because while it does speak about these things, it doesn’t feel fully invested in it. There are too many plot threads running around like the storm, that whole story arc with Alex (which felt extraneous) and her arc with her sister – it felt underdeveloped and unpolished in those regards. The writing is okay, but nothing to jump up excitedly about. In short, despite the way the author handled these serious topics, it ultimately felt like an average sort of book.

Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Balzer + Bray, via Edelweiss.

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ARC Review: The Edge of the Abyss

The Edge of the AbyssThe Edge of the Abyss by Emily Skrutskie
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Release date: April 18, 2017

Three weeks have passed since Cassandra Leung pledged her allegiance to ruthless pirate-queen Santa Elena and set free Bao, the sea monster Reckoner she’d been forced to train. The days as a pirate trainee are long and grueling, but it’s not the physical pain that Cas dreads most. It’s being forced to work with Swift, the pirate girl who broke her heart. But Cas has even bigger problems when she discovers Boa is not the only a monster swimming free. Other Reckoners illegally sold to pirates have escaped their captors and are taking the NeoPacific by storm, attacking ships at random and ruining the ocean ecosystem. As a Reckoner trainer, Cas might be the only one who can stop them. But how can she take up arms against the creatures she used to care for and protect? Will Cas embrace the murky morals that life as a pirate brings or perish in the dark waters of the NeoPacific?

The Abyss Surrounds Us ended with Cas turning her back on her shore life and joining up with the pirate crew of Santa Elena. At the start of this one, she starts having buyer’s remorse over her decision to change the trajectory of her life. Once dedicated to protecting the seas from pirates, she is herself one now – a position that leaves her feeling guilty and sad. Guilty because of the lives she took to protect the one she loves, and sad because she has wholly given up on her future as a Reckoner trainer. And her relationship with Swift is on the rocks since a major reveal at the end of TASU, of the latter being complicit in the death of Durga, the Reckoner Cas had known from childhood. Moreover, she can’t go back to her old life now because of the things she has done and the fear of facing her family with that.

But amidst this life that Cas has sought, so that she can gather proof (I’ll come back to that in a bit), a crisis arises in the form of rogue Reckoners out in the sea, released by pirates who didn’t know how to train them. Since Reckoners are genetically engineered, their populations are strictly regulated so as not to harm the ecosystem, but these free Reckoners, with no trainers to control them, are a danger to the fragile balance of life in the Neo Pacific. Now, Cas has to figure out a way to get rid of these Reckoners, some of which are starting to attack ships unprovoked.

The plotline of this novel was a bit of a disappointment compared to TASU. Mainly because I didn’t agree with Cas’ decision to join the pirates in the end of the last one, as it really doesn’t make sense from the point of gathering evidence. She would have had much better luck back in her town, and besides it is not something she even pursues atop the Minnow. In the first half of the book, I couldn’t even get why Cas decided to hang around, especially because she hates being a pirate. She doesn’t have a clear motive for being there, and this arc exists only to keep the romantic couple within reach of each other. And then later on, towards the end, when they are all gathering for the big showdown, Cas could have easily asked for help from the shore cities, considering they do have Reckoners that she needed to take down the Hellbeasts. Don’t get me wrong, the action and final battle scenes were thrilling, but it felt like an unnecessary arc when there was a much easier solution. Ecosystem takes priority over personal guilt, yo.

Besides the obvious plot holes, the book is otherwise pretty good. I loved the different natures of relationships explored in the book -the hate-respect she has for the Captain, her feelings of resentment and love towards Swift, even her grudging friendship with Varma and Chuck – they all are given importance. And the writing is quite good – expending enough detail over the Reckoners and the action scenes, and still keeping a good pace. Overall, though I loved the way the book was written and the style, I felt the plot ought to have been better planned. Even so, as a finale, it gave a good resolution to the story and had a nice ending.

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

Previous books in series

The Abyss Surrounds Us

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Review: The Abyss Surrounds Us

The Abyss Surrounds UsThe Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For Cassandra Leung, bossing around sea monsters is just the family business. She’s been a Reckoner trainer-in-training ever since she could walk, raising the genetically-engineered beasts to defend ships as they cross the pirate-infested NeoPacific. But when the pirate queen Santa Elena swoops in on Cas’s first solo mission and snatches her from the bloodstained decks, Cas’s dream of being a full-time trainer seems dead in the water.

There’s no time to mourn. Waiting for her on the pirate ship is an unhatched Reckoner pup. Santa Elena wants to take back the seas with a monster of her own, and she needs a proper trainer to do it. She orders Cas to raise the pup, make sure he imprints on her ship, and, when the time comes, teach him to fight for the pirates. If Cas fails, her blood will be the next to paint the sea.

But Cas has fought pirates her entire life. And she’s not about to stop.

Genetically engineered sea monsters as ship pets and protectors – oh yeah, I was so ready for this one. When I started this book, I did not know that I would come out with so much feelings at the end of it. I mean, like, 26 pages in, I was about to cry – 26 pages in! I was that invested, right from the start. It was because Durga was so damn adorable, yes, but also because the book explores the fragile nature of morality and belonging. Cas has been learning to be a Reckoner trainer all her life, but when she is taken prisoner on her first career voyage, she is thrust into this world of grey areas. All her life, she has been taught to keep the balance of the Reckoners, and to accept that they provide justice in the treacherous sea waters. But now, on the other side of the equation, when she has to protect the pirates (even if it is under duress) the ideology of her life disintegrates.

Sure the romance is a major plot in the book, particularly in the second half, but let me talk about the other important relationship here -that between the Reckoner and its trainer. Cas has been nurturing Reckoners right from when she was a kid, and seeing one illegally obtained by the pirates, firstly it is her curiosity over the acquisition that makes her stay. In the early days, she resents her Reckoner because it is a symbol of her captivity, but she soon grows to love Bao. That development was shown so wonderfully in this book – she is worried over what she is training it to do, and how that affects its life. The demanding pirate captain has her perverting the regulated training and turn her beast into a true monster. But Cas soon realizes that the definition of a monster depends on what side of the equation you are viewing it from. Life on either side has the same value, even if one is provoked and yet innocent. Onto the romance – the author delivers a beautiful f/f romance by slowly morphing a tentative friendship into an intense relationship. The driving force for Cas’ decisions in the second half are to protect Swift, but the plot twist at the end has me worried over the state of that relationship in the next book. Since this is going to be only a duology, fingers and toes crossed!

The world-building of this book places it about a century into the future, I am guessing, since there is not a lot of history tied to it. That is perhaps my one grievance against this book, as it made it difficult to imagine a shore-life that is similar to ours, but an ocean life like the old pirate stories. It does make for an interesting anachronism that way, but I wished it was delved into more. I am hoping with Cas challenging this world that she was a part of, will we get to see more of the world-building? Overall, this was one hell of a science fiction book, and quite impressive as a debut. High hopes for the sequel!

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ARC Review: Shadowcaster

ShadowcasterShadowcaster by Cinda Williams Chima
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alyssa ana’Raisa is the reluctant princess heir to the Gray Wolf throne of Fells, a queendom embroiled in a seemingly endless war. Hardened by too many losses, Lyss is more comfortable striking with a sword than maneuvering at court. After a brush with death, she goes on the offensive, meaning to end the war that has raged her whole life. If her gamble doesn’t pay off, she could lose her queendom before she even ascends to the throne.

Across enemy lines in Arden, young rising star Captain Halston Matelon has been fighting for his king since he was a lýtling. Lately, though, he finds himself sent on ever more dangerous assignments. Between the terrifying rumors of witches and wolfish warriors to the north and his cruel king at home, Hal is caught in an impossible game of life and death.

Set in the world of the acclaimed Seven Realms series, this is a thrilling story of the unfathomable costs of war, the allure of dark magic, and two principled and conflicted characters, drawn together despite everything they stand to lose.

I did not realize this while reading Flamecaster (though I should have) but Shattered Realms takes the whole world to another level from Seven Realms. The earlier series was about the power struggle between wizards, the Gray Wolf Throne and the Highland clans. But Shattered Realms, which takes place in the next generation, during an ongoing war with Arden, has a very different theme. It expands the world by introducing the other parts of the Seven Realms like Delphi, the Northern Isles and also the introduction of more fantastical elements like dragons, and a new type of caster individuals – the mage-marked. Though the children of Raisa and Han are still one of the main characters in this series, with Lyss getting her spotlight in this one, it is also mainly about the magemarked Jenna (who appears from the second half of this book) and Breon (a new character introduced here). I find this addition fascinating because it diverges from the general magic that was established during the Seven Realms, and also involves way more pieces on this gigantic chessboard. Along with Arden, they now have enemies in the form of the Church of Malthus, specifically the Darian Order or something, and the Empress of Carthine (I think that was what it was called?) who seems like a pirate Queen more than anything.

If you loved Raisa in the Seven Realms, you will definitely love her warrior princess daughter – Lyss, who is an officer in the Fells army. A fierce leader and brilliant strategist, her paths cross with another fierce leader and brilliant strategist, Han Maleston, who being from the Ardenine army makes for a perfect star-crossed romance. He becomes a prisoner of war in her keep, and though he is looking to escape, he also can’t help being enamored by The Gray Wolf of the Fellsian army. Breon and Jenna, meanwhile are coming into their powers (sort of and at different levels), and I am so invested in seeing them all come together as they all hold different threads of this massive web. The plot-line is of epic proportions, and though we don’t see Adrian in this one, I hope for that reunion in the next, and what that means for the Empress’ invasion.

Although it takes place partly on the timeline of Flamecaster and partly beyond it, this book doesn’t answer the question of what is now happening in Arden? And what is going on with that Darian thingy? So many questions, and even with the 500+ page length, we don’t get many answers. The frequently switching perspectives also make for a story that doesn’t keep you hooked, however, which makes it a little less of an enjoyable read than Flamecaster. It is good, but I expected better.

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

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ARC Review: The End of Our Story

The End of Our StoryThe End of Our Story by Meg Haston
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bridge and Wil have been entangled in each other’s lives for years. Under the white-hot Florida sun, they went from kids daring each other to swim past the breakers to teenagers stealing kisses between classes. But when Bridge betrayed Wil during their junior year, she shattered his heart and their relationship along with it.

Then Wil’s family suffers a violent loss, and Bridge rushes back to Wil’s side. As they struggle to heal old wounds and start falling for each other all over again, Bridge and Wil discover just how much has changed in the past year. As the fierce current of tragedy threatens to pull them under, they must learn how to swim on their own—or risk drowning together.

It is odd, but this is one of the times when I finish a book and do not know what it was about? Was this about Bridget’s inability to stop herself from poking her nose into everyone’s life? About Wil coming to terms with the events of the night of his father’s death? The underlying message that no matter how much you think you know someone, people can still surprise you with their secrets? It hit on some topics like alcoholism and domestic violence, and I would like to warn readers for the trigger-some nature of these topics. Overall, it makes a point of how people are imperfect and even the best of us will have some flaws. This was a book that was solely dedicated to the intense relationship between Bridget and Wil and considering the history they have between them, I agree with the characterization of that relationship in the book. It is all-encompassing for both, since it is the only thing they have known. Even after Bridget’s mistake, and Wil’s breaking them off, it continues to be a thing they can’t let go off.

So, when after Wil’s father’s death, Bridget and he start getting close once again. But now she senses secrets in him and tries to understand where he is coming from. Her every other interaction with others was first about how she misses him, but now it was about why he won’t open up to her. Honestly, if I was Leigh, even I would have cause to get angry. Over onto Minna, though, I sensed that she was more patient about it, in light of her years of experience. But, it felt like this book was determined to not tie up any of the many plot threads and since it does not look like this has a sequel, I am dissatisfied with the ending. I did not see the point of Leigh’s art project, or Minna’s daughter even being part of this plot when Bridge was like Wil, my Wil through half the book. While it has such an intense relationship between the two leads, the secondary characters are being rendered useless. Also, not that this was written like a mystery, but it does have a ‘reveal’ of sorts towards the end, which felt a little late in the game, in a way, because it was in a way something that changed the pace of the plot.

In the end, though, I am sort of indifferent about the book overall. The writing was good, the characters were fleshed out well, but the plot felt flat. It might appeal to some, but an average one for me.

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

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