Review: Uninvited by Sophie Jordan



Title:  Uninvited

Author:  Sophie Jordan

Publisher:  Harper Teen

Series:  Uninvited #1

Other Reviews for This Author:  Firelight; Vanish; Hidden; Foreplay


I am a Sophie Jordan fanboy.  After loving her Firelight trilogy and her first foray into the New Adult genre (Foreplay), I was more than up for giving her new young adult series a chance.  Uninvited is perfectly on-trend with the current market of YA books that explore scientific (or pseudo-scientific) concepts in a context that feels modern or futuristic to some degree.  It's very much an off-shoot of the dystopian and post-apocalyptic sub genres that are winding down in popularity.  Jordan is very good at writing stories that work well with genre trends, and I don't think Uninvited is any different.  While I didn't love it as much as her New Adult book, I still thoroughly enjoyed it for the escapism, the romance, and the action.  Uninvited is a book that readers who love fast-paced stories will devour.

Homicidal Tendency Syndrome (HTS) has recently been discovered.  The United States is scrambling to figure out what this means for the population on the whole.  One thing seems to be consistent with gathered data: the increase in tested-HTS cases directly correlates to an increase in violent crimes.  Something within the body of humans is manifesting itself in violent tendencies that often result in incidents of individual, or even mass, violence.  According to the government, measurements have to be taken in order to make sure that HTS doesn't result in a generation of killers because the general people deserve their safety.

Privileged seventeen year-old prodigy Davy Hamilton never expected to test positive for HTS.  She has a fabulous boyfriend that she thinks she's in love with; she can sing like an angel and play several instruments; she has gotten into Julliard.  Everything about Davy's life is perfect - certainly nothing has related to violence.  The testing sends Davy into a spiral.  She's expelled from her private school and sent to a public school system where the few HTS-positive students are kept in a classroom called The Cage.  Davy now has a caseworker, the chance of being reported and marked if she exhibits violent behavior, and will never attend Julliard.

The Cage puts Davy's life into a little more perspective.  With the only other girl deadly quiet and all but one of the boys showing some level of aggression, it's clear that Davy's prim-and-proper attitude will need some adjusting if she'll survive among those infected with HTS.  The predatory teacher assigned to watch them doesn't make things any easier.  Davy's only hopes are a scrawny kid with more brains than brawn and Sean, a tough, silent type that seems to be the defender of the group.  Davy's time with HTS makes her question even her longest-running relationships as friendships fall apart and romances break up.  In a world where the only people to trust are those labelled with the same supposedly destructive disease, can Davy survive?  Can she remain the same person that she always was, or is she destined to become a killer?

Confession #1:  The scientific premise of this book is illogical.

Confession #2:  This book addresses an extremely privileged character without much context, and is not a good representation of a character understanding their privilege or checking it.

Confession #3:  I still really enjoyed reading it, but not because of #1 or #2.

So, let's start with #1.  It's pretty obvious that a disease that makes a group of people "killers" is illogical.  On top of that, Jordan's world is not built to make this premise truly understandable within the context of the idea.  It's the epitome of a "high concept" book that doesn't necessarily transition that concept into something that works on a minute detailed scale.  We are never told where this disease stems from; we are never told how one is tested for it or where it originates; we are never told why this disease was discovered in the first place, how it supposedly effects those that have it, or how the disease manages to just make people more prone to violence.  Turning it into a disease also has severe implications in other regards.  It is supposedly recessive and passed from both parents, but because it's supposedly linked to genetics, does that imply that it's mental.  And if so, why is immediately vilified as a disease and why are the people that are infected with it demonized?  It could have potentially been commentary on how mentally able people are prejudiced against those with mental differences to the point where they assume that they are more likely to be violent, but it didn't have enough support in the writing or the world building to back up that potential outcome.  I found myself wondering exactly how I was expected to believe that this was logical when the potential for the concept was set aside in favor of more conventional YA world-building tropes.

On to #2!  Davy is a character with a voice that is reasonably distressed, confused, sad - everything one would expect in this situation - and it's easy to read in the sense that the pacing of the narration and the internal monologue vs. external action is perfect.  Sophie Jordan's narrators are always interesting and engaging when it comes to their style of narration, with just enough description of emotions to make the story personally connective.  I liked reading about Davy when it came to those aspects.  I also felt that Davy gained some sense of self throughout the story, though she tended to be reactive versus proactive (for instance: she doesn't have the escape plans, she doesn't fight back save for when she's emotionally beaten down).  There's one scene where she does take the lead despite some sexist assumptions from a random secondary character.  I appreciated that nod towards her being intelligent and able, though it doesn't happen enough in the story for her to be overwhelmingly strong as a female character.

But, more to the point of #2, Davy is privileged.  Her family is wealthy enough to bribe someone once before she's infected with HTS, and she has enough natural talent in music to get into Julliard.  She's gone to private school in an upper-class neighborhood, has many internalized class privileges she doesn't acknowledge, and never encounters a non-white/heterosexual/cisgendered character throughout her journey.  Even when she's presented with the conflicts of being labeled with a disease or when she meets people of different classes, Davy is called out for being different and doesn't realize that it's total bullshit that she's different because she's more "prim and proper" because of her upbringing.  There's also the simple fact that a musical prodigy such as Davy would be much more active in music if she would retain her ability.  We never get scenes of her practicing until later on in the story, and even then it's not frequent or described with much detail.  Someone good enough to get into Julliard would reasonably have an intensive practice schedule or at least an intensive understanding of the weight of musical practice and devotion.  Davy's narration puts her into a position where it seems to just come naturally to her, and that comes across as both unrealistic and privileged.  I enjoyed reading Davy's narration a lot, but these problems stuck out after I finished reading in an unpleasant way.

#3 is where it gets confusing.  Despite the above issues, I really did love reading Uninvited at the time.  Jordan's writing is easy to fall into.  Her romance writing is excellent - Sean is legitimately a solid love interest, and his love story with Davy is pretty balanced along with the action sequence.  All of the action sequences coupled with the tragic events hit the market demand in ways that were appealing, tropeish, but still original.  I still want to read the second book a lot to find out what happens afterwords.  In a lot of ways, I think the writing within this book has grown substantially from that of the first Firelight book.  The addition of the questionable world-building and themes of privilege is what disconnects me from truly adoring this book on a constructive level.  On a level of pure enjoyment it's grand, but acknowledging the issues within the narrative leads me to being less enthusiastic about the book than I was when I had just finished it.

Do I think every reader will love this book?  No.  I would go so far as to say that readers tired reading about privileged characters who tend towards being "special snowflakes" will want to stay away from this book, as well as readers that would find the HTS science to be offensive (because of its lack of depth or because of its potentially negative themes).  Readers that want an engrossing story, that enjoy Jordan's style and may not notice or agree with the above statements will probably adore it.  It's simply a matter of which type of reader you are.  Me?  I'm squarely in the middle because I find both issues important, and I am going to have to grade the book lower and hope that the second book addresses some of my issues with the world.  It's such a great book in theory - I just wish that it held up under critical analysis.

Cover:  Eh.  I love the shine in her hair, but it doesn't really capture me or make me think "wow".  The color scheme is also extremely similar to Lauren Oliver's cover for Panic, which is funny considering how close the release dates are (and that the publisher is the same).

Rating:  3.0 Stars  (Because of the issues of privilege and the world, I had to lower the book's grade a few notches.)

Copy:  Received from publisher/publicist for review  (Thank you, Heather and Harper Collins!!)

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Review: Through the Zombie Glass by Gena Showalter



Title:  Through the Zombie Glass

Author:  Gena Showalter

Publisher:  Harlequin Teen

Series:  White Rabbit Chronicles #2

Other Reviews for This Author:  Intertwined; Unravelled; Alice in Zombieland


I've talked before about my love of the first book in this series.  When you take a shot of the Gena Showalter whiskey, you have to come back for another one (or two, or three...) I went from thinking her work needed improvement to adoring her YA novels.  Her adult novels are perhaps even better, but Alice in Zombieland was a brilliant YA paranormal novel with a main character that kicked butt, had a great romance, and appealed to me with her loyalty to her friends and family.  Through the Zombie Glass is a sequel I've anticipated reading since I read the first book, and I'm happy to have finally taken the time to revisit Ali and her zombie-hunting friends.  While this book is a little less perfect than the first one, it still recreates the magic of the first book (and the kissing - oh, the kissing).

Ali has overcome the death of her parents and has embraced the zombie hunting abilities inherited from both.  With her little sister Emma lingering on the fringes of Ali's life as a guardian angel, she has the ability to move forward.  Her newfound love with Cole and the strengthened friendships she's made after learning to defend herself even more has made Ali into a strong, capable girl ready to fight.  She still finds it hard to deal with sometimes, the thoughts of living life without her family, but she knows that they are in a better place and that she is happy.

The addition of two new people to the team, one being Cole's ex, puts unnecessary stress on the situation as Ali begins to wonder who is worth trusting.  A stray zombie bite also manages to inject venom into Ali's system, causing her to experience moments where she feels as though she has two hearts.  A hearty dose of the antidote seems like it does the job - until Ali starts hearing a voice in her head and seeing a zombie-version of herself in the mirror.  This self never goes away.  This self is a lot like Ali.

Except this self is a zombie.  It wants to hurt the people that Ali loves.  Just as she realizes that she is becoming a danger to herself, Cole distances himself from her and strains their relationship.  Ali feels abandoned just when she needs someone most; to protect the people she loves, she has to start finding out a way to fix things. She can't go to anyone in her group about it at the risk of being removed because of her condition.  The only opportunity to cure herself may lie with the enemy.  As the rabbit clouds begin to appear in the sky more frequently, zombie attacks increase, and Ali finds herself racing against the clock to save herself and the people she loves from falling prey to a deadlier threat than they could have ever imagined.

A story inspired by Alice in Wonderland with zombies.  That initial premise of this series captured me and still has in its second installment.  There's something inherently interesting about it.  Showalter has some unique ideas for her paranormal worlds, but this one is by far the most unique in terms of its inception, and I think that she explores the possibilities in this installment in regards to the zombie aspects specifically.  The story in many ways combines elements of Showalter's adult series (a group of badass, sometimes morally questionable or slightly sexist guys and occasionally girls) with elements of her YA series (focus on romantic issues that expand beyond a single book), and I think the combination works well.  This installment struggles a bit more with balancing these things, but it brings some new conflicts to the table that promise good things for a future book(s) in the series.

Ali is a character that I've enjoyed because of her ability to fight.  There's something very nice about a female character depicted as physically capable, a female character that goes against her boyfriend if it means doing what she thinks is best.  There's a tendency for Ali to carry a depiction of naiveté in the narrative that I don't always enjoy, but she usually comes across as strong and capable.  I think that said characterization is strengthened in this book because of Cole's distancing issue.  Some of Ali's narrative is a bit too focused on wanting Cole back or being jealous of Cole (though it is fairly realistic internal dialogue for a teenager in love), but she is also consistently forced to focus on other matters as she deals with this second zombie self growing inside of her and consistently manifesting. She never backs down and she never lets herself succumb to the evil without a fight.  There's a sense of strong morality in Ali that grows within this book as she fights this dark self that appears.  Morality tends to be a big part of this series, and I think this time around the theme is a little more subtle and flows better with Ali's character overall.  Two things that bothered me included Ali's tendency to slut-shame, which I have to deduct points for because it was seen as completely acceptable and never questioned/challenged, and the lack of swearing.  I know that Cole's character doesn't want to "corrupt" Ali, but it's starting to feel very forced in terms of the overall narrative.  I'm all for Ali wanting to have sex and building up to that internally, but the hypocrisy and problematic thoughts in other areas kind of negated the sex-positivity Ali was gaining in terms of her own body.

Of the other characters, it was a strong mixture between interesting and consistent (which is good) but not exciting.  Cole is still just as dark/brooding/gorgeous/broken as ever, but this time around he comes across as less kind and aware of Ali's needs as he did in the previous book.  As a reader, I understood his motivation to some extent, but it turned into a situation where Cole was being blatantly immature in keeping secrets from Ali.  I think that Showalter does it well in regards to showing how that breeds mistrust within a relationship after the basis of honesty has been established, but it still got to the point where I was less of a fan of Cole.  I think that the additional team members and Ali's friendships are both featured well - not as much as they should be, but it was helpful that Cole's issues were able to bring in the possibility of Ali having other relationships.  I liked that she continued to be sassy and peppy towards the other zombie hunters; her personality was at its strongest when she was forced to confront her friends while struggling to save them from the monster within her.  Ali's grandmother is also the sweetest character in the history of sweet supportive characters - it may not be the most realistic, but I wish my grandmother could be counted on to be supportive of me if I was from a dual lineage of zombie hunters.  It's not something you may want your grandparent to be right away, but Ali's grandmother proves that it's a good skill to have.

Through the Zombie Glass is just as exciting as its predecessor, but the first two hundred pages have more introspection and setup than one would hope for a series that's pretty solid in its action novel tendencies.  I liked getting back into the groove of Ali's voice and narrative style, but it got a little hard to handle when the first book ended with such a good bang.  The narrative also starts off with a more romance-centered approach, which, as stated above, isn't the book's strong suit in terms of creating a situation that feels balanced (even if it is also accurate).  The second half poses many more questions and concerns in regards to the world and what the zombies are really doing there; it also doesn't focus as much on the blatant good versus evil dichotomy of the zombies and the zombie slayers, which help the story to feel more organic and less based on a moral code.  The story ends with a solid punch that will leave readers wanting to know more.  Showalter has enough material for at least one other book in the series.  Ali's narrative is also too juicy to ignore, so I look forward to seeing what further conflicts arise within the various characters as the zombie/world building questions come to a climax within the series arc.

Overall, while Through the Zombie Glass doesn't quite live up to the totally-awesome, addictive quality of the first book, it does more than a fair job at maintaining the momentum of the action sequences and the interesting main character.  Some of the book's pitfalls hit some of my issue buttons (mainly the slut-shaming and similar elements there), while others got better as the story went on (the pacing and the romantic issues with Cole).  Readers will be more than satisfied by this installment.  Showalter has a good stride with her YA writing, and she doesn't skip the heat or the passion in her romantic arcs, so I'm more than confident that the next book will be worth the wait.

Cover:  I don't like the cover model on this one as much (she looks a little off), but the design and the creepiness of the cover is gorgeous.

Rating:  4.0  Stars

Copy:  Received from publisher/publicist for review  (Thank you, Natashya and Harlequin Teen!!)

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Review: Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge



Title:  Cruel Beauty

Author: Rosamund Hodge

Publisher:  Balzar & Bray

Series:  None

Other Reviews for This Author:  None


I don't do gif reviews, but I would for this book.

I had no idea that I would read a book that I would clearly designate as one of my favorites of the year so far this early on, especially with how my reading has been going lately.  Cruel Beauty promises to be many things based on the marketing; its cover is gorgeous and melodramatic with its endless staircase entwined with the insides of a bloody rose, and the back cover copy uses short, powerful statements in order to make the story seem mysterious.  The entire thing suggests a YA paranormal romance.  Let me tell you a secret, readers: this book is so much more.

So.  Much.  More.

This book made my heart ache because it was so much more than I expected.  Believe me when I tell you that there is something about this story that is special.  It's not just the 'Beauty and the Beast' tale retold; it's a timeless tale all its own, inspired by stories of fantasy and gods.  Cruel Beauty is an earthquake.

A demonic prince reigns over a land that was once a part of a larger world.  A parchment sky is in place, looming over the villages that fear the prince.  He is known for granting favors; they always come with a price.  Once upon a time, a man and his wife wanted children, but the wife was unable to bear them.  The man went to the demonic prince with the hopes of having a favor granted - compromise would be made so the children and his wife would be safe from unjust consequences.  The prince granted the man's wish, and the wife was overjoyed when she became pregnant with twins.  As with most fairytales, the birth of the girls was unsettled due to inevitable tragedy: their mother died.

Nyx was one of those twins.  She has been trained from a young age to incite her father's revenge in the completion of his half of the compromise.  In order for Nyx's father to complete the requirements for his bargain, one of his daughters is required to marry the demon prince.  Nyx is the daughter destined for this.  Unlike her sister, there is an ever-present darkness in her heart because of the resentment of this marriage.  Nyx can never fall in love; she can never go to school to study the magic that makes up her world.  Nyx is destined to marry, and therefore she is trained to kill.

She is taken there at seventeen - a sweeping castle that is both archaic and timeless, a dark place where the prince, known as The Gentle Lord to his people, lives untouched by death.  Nyx is prepared with a dagger gifted to her by her sister with the hopes that the old tale of a "virgin with a virgin blade" would have some truth to it.  Entering the castle presents her with a world much darker than she ever anticipated.  Ignifex, The Gentle Lord himself, is a being with strands of evil corseting his heart, yet he doesn't force himself upon Nyx.  His shadow servant also appears to be more than a demon in disguise.  Nyx finds herself stuck in a world where the darkness and the light within it vie for her attention, her heart, and her vengeance.  She will find that evil cannot go unloved, and that revenge must be enacted.

There is nothing more interesting than a take on an old story that fleshes it out into something totally different.  Cruel Beauty is that; it is 'Beauty and the Beast' but with more magic and nuance.  The first fifty pages of the book are also vastly different from the rest of it.  The narration of the story is from a character prone to describing everything, a character who is emotional and extremely frustrated with the dark parts of herself.  The first fifty pages thus serve primarily as the backstory/character voice-dump of the story.  Moving beyond that is where the story gets true life.  It's a deep Italian opera with songs of a pinnacled bass and an airy soprano.  The book finds itself exploring the depths of what it means to be good and evil.  'Beauty and the Beast' as a fairytale is one that develops on the polarization of this theme, whereas Cruel Beauty takes this polarization and asks what it means to have nuances.  Beauty has as much evil in her as she does good.  Beast is evil but with kindness somewhere within the evil.  He has his own set of morals.  Evil is not total, and neither is good.

I think that Nyx's narration grew on me because she learned to embrace her anger.  This fairytale retelling stands out because the female character learns to be angry; she learns that she should not hate herself for thinking bad thoughts, but she should learn to balance those with positive thoughts.  It's about learning that being a self-serving person doesn't destroy her as a human being.  In some ways, Nyx is a better person for thinking about herself because she is able to focus on her survival and her own happiness.  She was never happy as a martyr character because it was never voluntary; Nyx was not given the chance to choose, nor was she given the opportunity to live with complete freedom prior to her " choice".  Because of this, she is a forced martyr, and she is forced to put everyone ahead of herself without any true reason.  This makes her resentment and anger understandable; it also makes her attraction to Ignifex and his shadow servant make sense.  They represent the polarized good and evil, light and dark, shadow and substance.  Nyx constantly finds herself learning new things that tip the scales out of balance as she realizes that the perceived morality around her wasn't as black-and-white as she initially interpreted it.  I think Nyx's struggles with understanding revenge, fate, and deception were excellent.  There was never a time when I thought that she was a character that did something without thinking; there was also never a time when I felt like she only presented a situation in a boring, predictable, one-sided way.  Nyx has the ability to perceive things in ways that challenge a reader's preconceptions as to how her romantic story arc will go down.  In many ways, her kick-assery as a heroine is perfect because it involves her learning to eschew expectations and embrace the harder decisions found within the darkness of her soul.

I thought that the usage of Ignifex and his shadow servant was excellent because of this breakdown of polarization.  There's something brilliantly thematic about using these two prongs of a "love triangle" to explain the ways in which light and shadow work in the human soul.  Ignifex stole my heart because he was blatantly evil, yet he respected Nyx when it came to her body.  He never practiced the idea of having sex with her just because they were married.  He never forced himself on her physically.  He still had the darkness of being the one in charge within the captivity fantasy (although we as readers soon learn that his situation is much more complicated than that), but he has good qualities about himself.  We also see Ignifex as a character who feels trapped, whose self-doubt and attempts at forgetting the bigger issues in his life make him vulnerable and sensitive beneath his snarky angst.  The shadow character, Shade, is interesting as well because he is the character that is presented as the "insta-luv" option, but he quickly becomes something different as Nyx learns more about him and the house.  I felt that these two characters balanced each other well with their connections, their ties to each other, and the way they foil each other in Nyx's quest to save herself and the world around her.

Hodge's world is one that is lush, brilliant, and filled with monsters.  Shadows and sorcery bleed together in a world inspired by the Greek myths; the inspiration is far more complex and subtle at times than one would think, and it is integrated in a way that seeps into the core of the narrative itself.  Fables and stories are themes that come in at every interval - from the library with blackened holes in the pages of its books to the way that myths are retold (both the myths of Hodge's world and the myths of the Greeks).  It also asks the questions of who the true causes behind the myths are.  What beings are pushing the hands of fate, and why do they desire everything to be filled with consequences and impossible riddles?  How is one able to understand these things that make everyone into pawns?  Is our world real, or is it one of fantasy, fable, and village songs?  The house itself becomes a character as its tricks weave into Nyx's narrative.  In many ways, this story is reminiscent of fantasy tales in how it presents its lead character with periodic trials and puzzles to overcome.  Fans of role-playing video games may notice a similarity in how these puzzles work; it also has a slight throwback to an anime, too, because of how the characters are presented with such layered polarity within the framework of a quest and puzzles.

Magic works in a system that fits the world as well.  It's based on the idea of connecting the four elements, and the connections often are imbued within "hearts", at least in regards to the castle.  There isn't as much of the magic in the middle of the book, but it is used often enough to give the reader a solid idea of what the magic needs in order to function and what limitations it has.  It's a different way to go about creating a magical system based on elemental affinities and connectivity, and I loved that about it.  I find myself wishing that Hodge would have explored the magic more.  She's the kind of writer that has unlimited potential within her ideas; readers will undoubtedly love that nothing in this story feels familiar after the pages start turning.  In that respect, the plot does take a good fifty or sixty pages to get into because of the voice and the initial set-up, but the story is utter magic once things get rolling.  It is fire, earth, water, air; it is the very essence of what a fantasy story should be.  There are consequences and tragedies and decisions made by people who have to do the best that they can based on the people that they have become.  Hodge has created a world that lives beyond the stained ink on her printed page.

Cruel Beauty is not a damsel that faints into the arms of a beast simply because it has a good heart that matches hers.  It is a damsel with a torn dress that knows how to kill; it is a woman that embraces that she does not need to be the moral center of every situation because the world wants her to be; it is Nyx, someone who is more than a martyr or a bride or a daughter.  Cruel Beauty is about Nyx becoming herself and, in the process, falling in love with a demon that allows her to look at said self in a new light.  It is a book with pitted pages and watermarks, one that will be bent from your tense grip and stained with the tears you'll shed at the final pages.  This book is brilliant, unexpected, and one that I will return to throughout the year in thought.  Cruel Beauty is the dark side of the tale as old as time.

Cover:  This cover is gorgeous because of how it connects the rose and the spiral staircase as images. I think it regulates the story to being interpreted as explicitly romantic, but it captures a strong sense of the atmosphere of the story.

Rating:  5.0  Stars

Copy:  Received from publisher/publicist for review  (Thank you, Heather and Harper Collins!!!)

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Review: The Gathering Storm by Robin Bridges



Title:  The Gathering Storm

Author:  Robin Bridges

Publisher:  Delacorte Press

Series:  The Katarina Trilogy #1

Other Reviews for This Author:  None


Sometimes you need your Russian royalty tainted with the blood of necromancy.  Er...well, in your books, anyway.  I've discussed my love of the history of the Russian royal family on a few occasions - as early back as my review of Anastasia's Secret - and to put that in a fantasy YA novel with romance and vampires and necromancers and werewolves and intrigue?  I had to read this series at some point.  I finally caved in when the third book came to me a month or two ago and I had no more excuses.  The Gathering Storm has made it clear that I'll be reading the other two books soon.  This wasn't a perfect debut effort by any means, but sometimes it's so easy to overlook storytelling flaws when you realize that the book can be enjoyed anyway. This is a book to be enjoyed.

Katarina Alexandrovna is a Duchess of Oldenburg, a girl of a privilege because of her distant connection to the royal Russian bloodline, and a girl expected to marry and continue her station in life.  She hates it.  More than anything, Katarina wants to go to school and become a doctor.  Her father's interest in medical research has given her the courage to fight for her right to become more educated after she completes finishing school - which, while an education, is an education aimed at upper-class women who are not expected to become medical professionals.  She knows that this goal will go against the expectations her mother has set on her, but Katarina refuses to give up her dreams of changing the world via medicine.

There's one more roadblock to Katarina's happiness: necromancy.  At a young age, Katiya accidentally resurrected an animal and became aware of the powers she held. It's common knowledge that the Light and Dark faerie courts are intertwined into Russian aristocratic society, but supernatural powers of Katiya's type are considered to be forces that few want around.  They're dark powers.  The wrong hands could use them to turn the Russian courts into places of dreaded evil.  She's always tried to hide her gifts because of this.  Katiya's life at school introduces her to several girls that are members of a royal family known for their dabbling in darker magic - only, unlike Katiya, these family members are said to embrace their gifts with devilish excitement.

An aristocratic function sets Katiya's journey in motion as people from this infamous family take note of her gifts, just as Katiya takes note of attempts at manipulating the Russian royal family.  Katiya's gift leads several people of high ranking to show interest in her: an older woman known for eccentricities that discusses the existence of "blood drinkers" within the courts, a man by the name of Prince Danillo whose family is that of the dreaded rumors, and George Alexandrovich, the middle son of the Tsar himself.  One tries to warn Katiya, one tries to seduce her, and one suspects her of attempted conspiracy with her necromancy.  The interlaced relationships, suspicions, betrayals, and magical ties become a web of unimaginable danger as Katiya comes into her powers as a necromancer and is forced to embrace said powers, or die.

As you can tell, the alternative history created in The Gathering Storm is not one that limits itself to a singular supernatural concept.  It's an epic story that encompasses the idea of faerie courts, vampires, werewolves, necromancers, and other types of magic that seem to exist in the background that highlights the overall narrative.  A book like this is not meant to be contained in a singular volume, but it was a delightful read on its own despite the knowledge that it is intended to be a larger series.  What I found most interesting about this book is that its flaws are also a part of its strengths as a work, thereby making it able to be enjoyed despite some of the issues presented within the writing.

Readers will more than like Katiya.  If you have a predisposed like of heroines that enjoy science or math, you'll find her engaging and fun.  Her love of medical science peppers the text with consistent points of knowledge, a medical fact or a scene where she butts in and expresses her dislike of the "old" superstitious medical practices in place of the more modern ones being developed by revolutionary researchers and scientists.  This conflict occurs a lot, and while it isn't the only present conflict in her character, it's one that Bridges incorporates into the book enough that it becomes more than a background character trait.  Katiya's love of medical science is an integral part of her characterization that allows her to become something more than a girl with something special about her.  I think readers will also enjoy seeing her growth as a character with powers that hold great responsibility; she doesn't want to be great because of magic, but because of her mind, and that struggle is one that Katiya grapples with even after the last page is turned.  She is constantly coming across issues with her magic that require her to learn more about it, yet she also hates being defined by those around her in regards to her powers.  At times, it feels as though her desire to avoid all necromancy-related knowledge is more of an authorial device to incite more external conflict, but it usually seems to be an organic reaction from Katiya as a character.  I think allowing Katiya to embrace herself as a magical being earlier in the narrative would have provided a cleaner and stronger character arc in this first installment; that's really the only place that I struggled with her.

A huge bonus to all of this: the romance in this story is not the focal point.  Katiya learns very early on that Prince Danillo is someone with the ability to manipulate her emotions.  She doesn't like getting close to him.  There are a few times she seems pushed into making a stupid decision that will cause her to have more conflict with him, but she's usually pretty aware that he's creepy as all get-out.  I liked that he wasn't portrayed as particularly sexy even when Katiya wasn't interested in him.  It felt more real, in that way, and it helped Katiya seem more level-headed.  He's mostly evil, though.  Danillo isn't a character that's super fleshed out.  His family in general is very creepy, and I have to hand it to Bridges for creating a grouping of characters that squicked me out throughout the narrative without question.  I'm usually not a fan of villains; I was more than a fan of these characters making things bad, as they were enjoyably devious.  George and Katiya are more spatty than they are romantic.  The characters really don't warm up to each other until later in the narrative, and there's a certain sense of rush to their affections for each other, but I liked that Katiya was confident in her place as his equal.  It never felt like she was supposed to just be this ugly, gooey mess around George because he was brooding, kind of a douchebag, but smart and attractive.   Bridges managed to make the romance palatable despite how it initially came off as being another rendition of a tired YA trope.  I liked that, and I liked that the romance fit into the plot as a whole rather than transforming into the only plot the book was taking the time to exhibit.

The world of Robin Bridges' Katarina series is one that I would love to visit and study, yet I dread being asked about the mechanics after reading the first book.  It's a situation where the promise of the different aspects is great, but putting them together requires a bit more finesse than the author has at the time of writing.  Readers are thrust into the world (which is a good thing in order to create a reading experience where it feels organic) but things are not given internal sense in regards to the narrative.  The aspects of the faerie courts, the vampires, the magic all kind of get lost in the narrative as the story barrels forward.  Transitions between chapters sometimes feel jarring as Bridges goes between one supernatural aspect and another; the world also doesn't feel as aware of the supernatural as Katiya does, yet she speaks as though several things are common knowledge.  The world would have been developed better if these supernatural aspects had been more integrated in the world as a whole rather than specific sections of it.  In that respect, the narration would have been able to move forward with a stronger sense of believability. 

Bridges clearly has an excitement for what she writes; this allowed the book to be enjoyable despite the world building issues. Katiya's voice feels authentic as a teenaged narrator with its shift of topics and priorities.  The headstrong, fearless, occasionally rash decision-making in particular is written with a sense of understanding in regards to teenagers.  Katiya comes into her knowledge and knows that she can save everyone.  Because of this, she tries to do it to assert her independence when she really wants to assert it by becoming a doctor and going against expectations from every end (the end of her mother, the end of society, and the end of those who know of her power).  Bridges writes her emotional themes well and is great at integrated them throughout the entirety of the text.  There's also a feeling of excitement in the action scenes, suspense in the scenes that require it - I may have been able to anticipate some twists and turns, but Bridges made all of them thrilling.  The strength in the writing lies in that energy and humor in the world.  It's always something fun to read even if it doesn't feel entirely explained or textually supported. 

The overall impression that I got from The Gathering Storm was one of a book that fit me well.  It's not as romantic as I usually go, but it still does the romantic arcs with some good flavor and has a world full of many things I enjoy reading about.  Its main character is a hoot, her love interest is rude, the other one is evil (and damn good at it), and the world doesn't always make total sense.  It's basically a situation where the whole is greater than the individual parts, and I'm fine with that.  Katiya's story is one of a girl striving for independence when she's someone of intelligence and drive.  I can always get behind that, and I will be behind that for the other two books in the trilogy.  (And that means I'm going to read them soon.  Which I never do anymore.) 

Cover:  I love the ferocity of the cover model, the swirling snow, the font, and the way that she simply looks fierce.  All of the Katarina covers have that in common - a fierce cover model - and I think it says a lot that Random House markets these books based on that. 

Rating:  4.0  Stars

Copy:  Received from publisher/publicist for review  (Thank you, Heather and Harper Collins!!)

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Review: The Promise of Amazing by Robin Constantine



Title:  The Promise of Amazing

Author:  Robin Constantine

Publisher:  Balzar & Bray

Series:  None

Other Reviews for This Author:  None



Balzar and Bray always puts out novels that have me curious.  As a publishing imprint, I've come to associate it with high-quality stories that usually have something unique about them, whereas the other Harper Collins imprints for teens tend to vary because their visions are a little less emotional and a little more genre-based (Harper Teen is more commercial, Greenwillow is more fantasy-oriented, Harper has more crossover appeal).  The Promise of Amazing piqued my interest because of the imprint quality and the cuteness of the cover.  A contemporary romantic comedy is always up my alley, and I think the idea of one that promises a level of angsty conflict along with the cute romance was exactly what I needed when I read this book.  It's a debut novel that has more to it than meets the eye, even if it's not as polished as one would hope it to be.

The middle is a place that Wren knows well.  For being at an all-girl's school with stellar academics, competition to spare, and students that aim for the top, she's squarely in the middle.  She got rejected from the Honor society because she was smart but quiet.  Too quiet.  Wren has started to believe that she really is just average.  It doesn't help that the world around her seems to fit in with this idea.  Compared to her playful older brother and her successful older sister, she views herself as the child destined to end up running the family's Arthurian-themed catering company.  What a life.

Wren's work at the catering company leads her to working a wedding one fateful night when the sexy Grayson Barrett chokes on a mini-hotdog.  She saves his life; they can't forget each other.  Grayson is instantly intrigued by Wren, the girl that tries to fade into the background despite being adorable and different from everyone else around her.  Grayson knows that he's the stereotypical bad boy; he goes to the local public school because he was kicked out of the all-boys private school for running a term paper operation.  Add that to his family problems and Grayson is the brooding guy girls dream of.  He knows that he could get anyone, so why does his mind go back to Wren?

Grayson does what it takes to put himself in Wren's path.  There's something intriguing about taking the plunge and getting involved with the guy that choked on a mini-hotdog, but it's not long before Grayson's blunt honesty about his past scares Wren away.  Even then she can't stop thinking about him.  The two teenagers begin to deal with problems of self, family, and friends as they get to know each other and look for the reason behind their intrigue and attraction.  They know it's not just physical; the question is - what exactly is it, and will they be able to overcome their issues in order to make it work?

The opening of The Promise of Amazing seems to provide exactly what the title hopes it to.  Constantine's voice is brimming with possibility and poise as it opens a contemporary romance where the girl really does seem invisible and the boy really does seem bad.  As the story moves on, the book seems to stumble and trip as it struggles to put all of Constantine's excellent ideas into action.  A debut novel like this makes it very clear that a debut novelist's skills with narrative construction can really make or break the success of the book.  I loved this book at it's best, yet its best wasn't enough to put it into the territory of "It's amazing, go purchase it right now."  Forgive me for the play on words, but while The Promise of Amazing certainly promised a lot, what it delivered wasn't quite as amazing as one would hope.

Readers will identify with Wren if they've ever felt invisible; she plays that card well, folks, and when she narrates the story you really feel like she lives up to the label.  Wren doesn't know what her passions are or what she wants to do.  She looks to her friends that are super passionate for excitement, or constantly working for her family business if she has to.  Wren's inability to step out of her comfort zone becomes a huge issues for her character early on.  Grayson provides an easy way for Wren to do it, and that becomes the primary reason that Wren is fascinated with him beyond his hot body.  Sure, there's the fact that he reads philosophy and drinks black coffee, but the bad boy personae is the perfect escape for Wren as a character.  She has a spunk and snark to her narration that makes her feel like a unique character despite this issue she faces - that helps tremendously in feeling empathy for her despite her being "boring".  She does grow into a character that becomes more aware of her agency in the world, yet there's always a sense of it never being quite enough to make her into a character that feels independent.  So much of Wren's story is tied to her romance with Grayson that it feels as though her primary "uniqueness" is falling in love with him.  This argument can be made in a lot of YA stories, but I find that usually the heroine undersells herself when she is clearly something more early on in the story.  In this case, while I think Wren is indeed "something more" than a middle-of-the-road Boring Bettie, I don't think that's shown beyond her witty remarks and her romance with Grayson.  That became a niggle throughout the story that never quite went away.

Then we have Grayson.  Grayson is surprisingly a well-done bad boy.  Adding in his narration to the story gives it a cool twist, and it's odd in that Grayson is the one that falls for Wren more readily than she falls for him.  Both characters fall fast, but it's more about them exploring each other and seeing if the falling is real or not.  Grayson's story makes him seem troubled; not evil, but troubled.  Adding in his narration gave the reader the ability to empathize with his hardships in a way that Wren couldn't directly.  I think it was an overall smart decision to make.  As the story progresses, though, the reader finds out that Grayson is involved in some less-than-cool activities that directly disengage the trust he builds up with Wren.  There was at least one instance where I think the only thing he could have done was tell Wren about it and avoid getting caught up in the mess, even if it meant a hard situation for him.  By the end of the book you still like Grayson, but I never quite felt like he made up for the trust that he broke in Wren.  Seeing it from his end felt like a way of manipulating the reader into empathizing with it, but it didn't help me.  It almost made me angry because I felt like it was trying to get me to see the situation in a biased light.  Grayson is a bad boy and he feels damaged.  I can get behind that.  But that doesn't mean that I want him to screw up his relationship when he knows about it and then try to get away with it because of his past history.  There's a fine line with bad boys - they can do morally questionable things so long as they do not hurt their love interest in a way that they can predict or understand.  The issue with Grayson is that he is highly aware of how he will hurt Wren and the consequences for going against expectations to keep her safe are never great enough to make his choice to hurt her instead acceptable.  That's just me, though, and I could see many readers being Team Grayson until kingdom come.  He is super attractive.

Constantine constructs a world where the romance makes a lot of sense.  These two come together in unconventional ways because they are interested in each other; it's not quite insta-love, but it's insta-interest.  I think Constantine expressed how people get stuck in your head and don't let go; how it's easy to fixate on someone because they connect with you in a way that you haven't quite experienced or understood before.  This love story is one about people who are very different - truly different - discovering their ability to connect as human beings with shared tragedies and shitty pasts.  The other characters in the story provide good drama and the occasional comedic situation to balance the sheer amount of snarky angst that the two protagonists bring to the table.  As for plot construction, the story tends to feel longer than it should.  It could be the dual narration or just the amount of issues Constantine tries to cover, but the story feels like it could have been fifty pages shorter and been the perfect length.  I think a lot of it just derives from the character back-and-forth and the occasional lull in conflict between them.  Wren and Grayson have conflict, but not all the time, and there is outer conflict that comes and goes.  It would have helped for the conflict to have been sensible and continuous so as to feel organic, but that doesn't quite work out, and sometimes different issues fade out for a while in order to make room for others.  Overall, there was just a lot to fit into a story of this type, and the sheer amount of dialogue overrides the internal characterization to the point where some of the conflict takes longer than necessary to understand and dissect.  I'm all for showing instead of telling, but with two characters with a shit ton of stuff going on, internal dialogue can really help clarify a character's thought process and add a sense of importance to the issues being explored.  That would be the biggest flaw in the debut novel from a stylistic standpoint, because the character voices were so on-point for teenagers going through these experiences.

I'm not quite sure how to put my feelings for this book into a grade.  On one hand, The Promise of Amazing never feels like it hits the balance it needs to be a stellar book.  Trust me, it has that potential.  On the other hand, there is a strong sense of character voice that can't be ignored and an understanding of what it means to be interested in someone, leading to falling in love.  I still can't quite figure it out.  Constantine may have tried a bit too much in this novel - yet when it got it right, it got it really right, and it did it in a way that was subtle and surprising.  I have to give this book props overall.  I may not have gotten a totally polished experience, but Robin Constantine taps into things that ring as true as can be.  That's something worth lauding in a debut novel that manages to be both serious and funny but always romantic.

Cover: This cover is adorable.  Perhaps not the most original cover (it reminds me of several contemporary YA romance covers from last year), but it gives a good idea of what the story covers.

Rating:  3.5 Stars

Copy:  Received from publisher/publicist for review  (Thank you, Heather and Harper Collins!!) 

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