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An Ember in the Ashes & A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

Ember

An Ember in the Ashes

When Masks murder Laia’s grandparents and take her brother Darin, she decides to request help from the Resistance to free her brother from prison. The Resistance, which her mother and father used to lead before they were killed, pledges her assistance only if she takes risks for them, as a slave and secret spy in the Commandant’s household, the leader of the training academy of Masks, Blackcliff. The Commandant has a cruel history with her slaves, and Laia would be going into certain torture…

Elias is a Mask, albeit a reluctant one. He was taken from his adopted Tribal family and put back into his Gens, his familial house, and sent to Blackcliff to be a Mask like his mother, the Commandant. She holds no love for her son, and forces him, despite his nature, to be a killer. When the Emperor suddenly dies, four candidates from the class of graduating Masks are chosen as potentials, Elias among them. He must compete against his best friend Helene Aquila, cruel Marcus, and Marcus’s twin to become the Emperor because the alternate fate is likely death.

Though each are on a different quest, Laia and Elias share a journey that has all the potential to change an Empire while thousands of lives hang in the balance.

Obvious spoilers for book 2 below…


 

 

A Torch Against the Night

With Elias hunted as the Empire’s top fugitive, he and Laia are desperately trying to make their way out of the Blackcliff compound and the city of Serra to save her brother Darin, rumored as imprisoned in harsh Kauf, far to the north. Before they can escape, they are purposefully trapped on their way out of the city by the Commandant, Elias’s mother. She wounds Elias with a deadly poison but lets them go. Laia is left to find her way to the nearest city before Elias dies from his blackouts and seizures, while Elias dreams of strange things that are real and important to both his past and his future.

Meanwhile, Emperor Marcus sends Helene, his Blood Shrike, to kill Elias, but only after severe abuse and torture, making a deal with her father in exchange for influence, allegiance, and insurance of Helene’s compliance. And if Helene does not bring back Elias and kill him? Her family will die.

When Helene comes after Elias and Laia and their new allies, they manage to escape but not without a price. Despite Elias’s illness, he decides to journey on alone hoping that he can rescue Darin before Elias succumbs to poison. As their situation and survival grows more desperate, the Commandant enacts her genocide against the Scholars, Helene edges closer to her goal and her potential doom, while the noose of the Nightbringer is well-laid and waiting for the tiniest misstep from Laia and Elias.


 

A feverish debut that had a lot of marketing and hype, so I was looking forward to this read. I found it an unusual adventure with an intriguing societal system. There is a very deep extreme between hated and liked characters, very few mediocre characters. I automatically liked Elias much more than I liked Laia (but I am not sure how much of not liking Laia was feeling how little I knew her and knew of her). Perhaps I related more to Elias because I could see he was reluctant but forced into terrible deeds? I loved Izzi and the mystery of the Cook and also loved the contrast of Helene and how she grows throughout the series.

While this was a solid read, it just didn’t grip me as much as I had expected. Maybe I am very character-driven and that’s where I experienced a disconnect, but I also very much hated the love triangles and was questioning Laia’s mental sensibility about a certain guy the whole story until I was finally proven right (book 2, but see, still not spoilering!). I liked the first book, but I think book 2 is a typical book 2 in that it is a journey (we’re walking, we’re walking…) and nothing much is resolved but just a set up for book 3. Disappointing but not unheard of.

A solid read and a shoo-in for fantasy fans who are looking for adventure, romance, and an a-typical story. I must confess it took me a lot longer than usual to read the second book. Make of that what you will.

Notes: Graphic violence and sexual circumstances.

 

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Cross-post: Alex Award Recap with Ryan Gattis

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I’ve blogged over at YALSA’s The Hub last week, sharing the experience of attending ALA Annual and listening to Alex Award winner Ryan Gattis describe the recent opportunities he’s had to chat with teens about his book All Involved. 

Check it out, here.

Note: The Alex Award is a list of ten books, and vetted titles, published for adults but with special appeal to teens.

 

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Illuminae & Gemina (The Illuminae Files) by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Possibly the most brilliant YA science fiction/space fiction series I have ever read (meaning I liked them more than Ender’s Game, sorry mega-fans)! So good that as I write this review, I am itching to read them again. . .

Illuminae

The same day their mining planet of Kerenza is attacked with spaceships and bioweapons by a large corporation, Ezra and Kady end their relationship but must rely on one another to survive the destruction. Framed like a case file against Bei-Tech and its leadership with documentation of the incident against Kerenza, the Illuminae file contains reports, personal interviews, memos, art and design pieces, wiki entries, emails, IMs, video transcripts, and code. The few refugees from Kerenza escape to three nearby ships, science vessel Hypatia, heavy freighter Copernicus, and battlecarrier Alexander, and though the Alexander managed to cripple much of Bei-Tech’s fleet while taking heavy damage, there is still one dreadnought left–the Lincoln–that is coming to finish them off. The only hope of escape is a nearby waypoint, but the Lincoln will find and destroy them long before then. However, the bioweapon Bei-Tech unleashed is mutating into a deadly plague aboard the Copernicus, and the Alexander‘s artificial intelligence, severely damaged in the battle, is wavering between destroying them all or protecting them as it was designed to do. Military leadership is silent leaving everyone panicked.

Meanwhile, Kady and Ezra manage to help each other survive, but get separated aboard the ships: Kady on Hypatia and Ezra aboard the Alexander. Due to immediate need, Ezra is conscripted into the military as a pilot, while Kady proves too difficult. Instead, Kady spends her time hacking the networks in attempts to gain intel and communicate with others to find her mother. On Ezra’s first flight out, he witnesses the Alexander‘s AI shoot missiles at their ship the Copernicus while a few shuttles take flight. Ezra’s flight group is ordered by the AI to destroy all the shuttles and attempts to contact leadership for confirmation but all efforts are blocked by the damaged and dictatorial AI AIDAN. In the aftermath, Kady, who has been secretly working in conjunction with another gifted research hacker aboard the Hypatia, Byron Zhang, learns of Ezra’s court martial. Knowing her mother must have died on the Copernicus, Kady dedicates herself to saving Ezra, even to the point of becoming suicidal in returning to the mayhem and plague-ridden Alexander just to save the last person around that she loves. Will Kady be able to stop AIDAN before it murders everyone or will the Lincoln beat them all to it? Is there any hope of survival?

Gemina

This second file describes the events at the Heimdall waypoint, where the Kerenza survivors are looking to reach to survive. Daughter of the station’s commander, Hanna Donnelly is planning for a party with her military officer boyfriend, Jackson Merrick, and trying to score some of the local drug known as dust (think marijuana rather than anything hard). Her drug dealer is Niklas Malikov, an outrageous flirt and nephew of the local crime lord who farms lamina, terrifying fast-evolving parasites that manufacture dust. On the night Nik and Hanna are supposed to meet up, a Bei-Tech undercover operative cons Nik and his family into intercepting a secret mission allowing Bei-Tech assassins into the waypoint. Luckily, Nik skips out on the destruction to meet Hanna while the rest of the jump station dissolves into chaos and murder. As the Bei-Tech assassins continue their mission, Nik and Hanna are left as the only two free people on the station, aided by the computer skills of Nik’s cousin Ella. Through Hanna’s lifelong training at strategy and combat due to her father’s obsession and Nik’s determination, wit, and heart, they must battle or outsmart their way through Bei-Tech’s 24 assassins before a second Bei-Tech fleet arrives and their hope for a future is lost for a thousand years.

Honestly, I am trying so hard here not to reveal epic spoilers. I loved every minute of this nail-biting series and want to experience it over and over again. My favorite bits were the IMs because so much of my teen years were spent forming relationships over IM/internet forums. The art and design elements were unexpected but tied together the setting and feel of the story. Addictive. Terrifying. I want more.

While Illuminae was the real stand out, Gemina was not far behind as a solid sequel and may have equaled the first had my pre-pub edition contained the rest of the art intended for the final copy (understandably still in development).

My copies of Illuminae and Gemina are advanced reader copies (that I’ve been foisting on everyone I can). THANK YOU #alaac15, #alaac16, and most especially Penguin Random House for giving them out! Currently this series is tied with one other (coming soon!) for my favorite reads of 2016!

Note: Language, violence, sexual connotations, and visceral descriptors.

 

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The Jewel & The White Rose by Amy Ewing

The Jewel

Raised to be a surrogate for rich families in the Jewel, the rich innermost ring of society, Violet Lasting believes she will be part of wealth, royalty, and beauty while also giving her family some measure of security. Violet is one of the most talented and desired surrogates, a fact that attracts the attention of the most powerful in the city. Sent to be made beautiful, a talented designer Lucien is kind to her before her Auction, and Violet is made stunning but true to her personality. The matron of one of the most important of the four houses, the Duchess of the Lake, buys her to be a surrogate for her new daughter, and though trapped and forced into obedience, Violet is treated well by the Duchess, unlike her other surrogate friends. One, the surrogate of the Electress, is practically murdered at the table, and Violet’s friend Raven isn’t herself. Plots and poison surround her, and Violet rebels against the Duchess’s scheming. In punishment, the Duchess begins to have Violet tested for her magic in preparation for the impending baby. Violet turns to Lucien one day and tells him of her suspicions, that she is being groomed to birth a princess at a much faster rate than the rest. Lucien promises to save her, and just as Violet gets closer to her freedom, she falls in love and promises to stop at nothing until she saves her friends from their surrogate hell as well.

The White Rose

After events of the last novel, Violet has been caught with Ash, the male companion (read male escort), who faces death while she gets punishment that earns her handmaiden Annabelle a swift death. Awaiting almost certain torture, Violet is saved by Garnet, the Duchess’s wild son, and makes him save Ash as well. Reuniting with a very sick Raven, Violet and Ash must travel out of the Jewel to a safe haven known as the White Rose. At any moment they could be caught, executed, or forced back to the Jewel and their owners, taking knowledge of the secretly murderous plans of the Electress with them. They must survive to fight for their peers, families, the country, and their future freedom.

I did not expect to like this series as much as I did, partially because of the generic “girl in dress” cover and the unenlightened titles; however, I actually loved this series. Plot twists kept surprising me, and I was unable to predict how certain events would happen. Fans of The Hunger GamesDivergent, but mainly The Selection series will love these books. One would think that for a series that deals with surrogates, medical implantation, “companions”…that sexuality would be more graphic, but actually, I thought it was very well done for the topics it handled and/or avoided.

Totally 4 out of 5 stars.

 

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The Heir and the Spare by Emily Albright

25517283The Heir and the Spare

Evangeline Gray has graduated from high school and is on her way to Oxford, finally embarking on her mother’s mysterious adventure to discover her heritage. Evie’s mother had died some years earlier, and each year on her birthday Evie had received a letter from her. Usually her father knew about these letters, but this last one he did not, and Evie intended to keep it that way. Her mother’s family had never liked her father, and so Evie knew nothing about her mother except she was English.

Now in England for school, Evie makes a few friends: Suzy, Edmund, Preston, and Caroline.  Edmund, who loves museums and art much like Evie, offers to take her on the next leg of the mystery, touring about London. After a wonderful day and plans for the future, Evie discovers her new friend is actually second in line to the British throne! Following more clues left by her mother’s lawyer/best friend Anton, Evie confides in Edmund about her mission to learn more about her mom’s childhood. As she grows closer to Edmund and to revealing her mother’s secrets, Evie finds she really loves her life in England, and yet… things are more complicated than ever. She’s falling for a prince who is promised to another, and her grandmother hates her but keeps asking for her. Evie has hard choices to make, but will she make the right one, and is that one her family would be proud of?

A brilliant teen read-a-like for one of my favorite books The Royal We that is charming, witty, engaging, and totally a beach pleasure read that still carries a few setbacks to make things less of a sappy fairytale.

 

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