Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Invisible Order, by Paul Crilley



*Caution: This review contains spoilers. Sorry about that – I usually try not to, but I’m not sure how to review this one without talking about vital plot elements. If you don’t wish to read them, you can skip down to the last paragraph, where I give a final rating.*

“It was a morning like any other, frigid and gray, when Emily Snow took to the streets of Victorian London to earn the pennies that would keep her and her little brother alive for another day. But a chance turning took her through a dark alley, where she witnessed an extraordinary battle between fierce creatures no taller than her knee.
“Emily can see into another world. And once she sees it, she cannot turn away: once engaged, she must join in the latest battle in a war that has been waged for centuries. Doing nothing is not an option, for the Invisible Order—a secret army dedicated to preserving our world against the creatures of Faerie—knows about Emily, and its members will do anything to control her.” 
                          ~From the front flap.

Sarah Prineas says this book is “Full of dark wonders and magical delights.”

Patricia C. Wrede claims she “can hardly wait to see what comes next.” 

 I wonder if they read the same book I did.

What can I say about The Invisible Order? It was… unremarkable. A few moments of true luminosity shine through, but overall, the entire book was just rather “meh.” It seems I’m giving nothing but poor reviews lately, but I suppose that’s just the luck of the draw. And it’s not that The Invisible Order was bad—not by any stretch of the imagination. It just… Well, it didn’t require any stretching of the imagination. It was all quite predictable and ordinary.

Well, not all. (Here’s where we get to the spoilers.) There were a few places where I thought, “Oh, that’s actually rather clever.” For example, Emily meets the Faerie Queen, tours the Seelie court, and is shown a way that she (Emily) might help the faeries, who are apparently dying off without access to their native world.
 All of this is pretty standard fare for this sort of book. As a reader, lulled into complacency by the rest of the book, I completely accepted the Queen and her words. 

However, the author gives us a bit of a turn when he reveals that the Faerie Queen—usually portrayed as good, or at least amoral—is just as evil as the Dagda, the dark ruler of the Unseelie court. Both rulers are out to retrieve a magical key that will open the door to Faerie and allow them to bring their armies through to destroy the human race and reclaim the Earth for the fey. And neither ruler is above kidnapping, torture, or murder to get what they want.

The second bit that I really liked was Emily’s quest to find the key. I’m always up for a good treasure hunt with secret doors and riddles and clues and mysterious drawings and such, so this portion of the book was the most interesting to me. It didn’t hurt matters either that one of the places Emily has to go to retrieve part of the hidden key was St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a place I’ve actually been.

 (On the other hand, I was a little annoyed with the author during this scene, because if he’s ever been to St. Paul’s and climbed the stairs to the Whispering Gallery, he’d know that the stairs are very shallow and wide. Emily runs up these stairs, taking them “two at a time”—which, if she’s running, would be awkward and silly. She’d be more likely to leap three or four steps at a time. *Rolls eyes* Ignore me. I get excited reading about places I’ve been, and if the author does anything that doesn’t fit, it very much annoys me.) 

The way that the hunt eventually works out reveals that Emily has apparently set this line of clues up for herself—somehow, she was present two hundred years before and directed the pieces of the key to be hidden in this way.

So those were a few moments where the story shone. However, on the whole, it was more dull than shiny. 

There was nothing particularly new to any of the creatures or even the idea of a secret layer of London that harbors hidden fairies. Emily’s character development was wooden at best and neglected more often than not, leaving me with a character who could be just about anyone—I knew little of her hopes or dreams, personality, desires, etc. There was very little to care about, other than the surface tension created by the various sides of the conflict, and discovering who was telling the truth and who lied. 

If I had weekly access to a big library, I might eventually read the sequel, The Fire King. However, I don’t have such access, and though I have questions that are unanswered, I don’t think I’ll expend the effort to find this one. My biggest question, honestly, I have my doubts as to whether is ever answered: her name is Emily Snow. The very first chapter, we find her wishing for snow, and this is tied to the end of the book when it actually begins to snow and it—in a way—influences her final decision. I feel like there ought to be some sort of concrete connection between her name and the literal weather, but it was so beside-the-point that I can’t really see it ever going that direction. I could be wrong, of course, and if anyone ever reads the rest of the books in this trilogy and finds that I am—please leave a comment! I’d love to know.



***OK, spoilers over. Those of you who skipped most of the review, this paragraph is for you: I found The Invisible Order to be lackluster and uninspiring—not bad, but nothing special. If you spot it on your library shelf, it’s a decent quick book for a day when you can’t find anything else to read. But don’t expect much, and I certainly wouldn’t suggest buying it. I can only give The Invisible Order two quills. Again, not because it was bad, but because it was just so extremely “meh.”
~Brownie

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Beyonders: A World Without Heroes, by Brandon Mull



Don’t you just hate it when you finally get your grubby mitts on a book you’ve been wanting to read for ages, and it turns out to be a dud?

OK, “dud” might be putting it strongly, but it’s true that Beyonders: A World Without Heroes was not the epic read I was expecting. I read Mull’s previous series, Fablehaven a long time ago, and just loved them. They were wonderful, I thought. Now I’m kind of wondering if I should go back and check to see if they were really as good as my fifteen-year-old self thought.

Beyonders is a fairly typical fantasy setup: a boy in our world falls through a magic portal into another world, where he is caught up in events far beyond his ken, and eventually becomes a hero, thanks to his daring-do and personal charm. As far as that goes, Beyonders hits the nail squarely on the head. In terms of worldbuilding and plot, this is one of the better wardrobe fantasies I’ve read in a while. (“Wardrobe fantasy,” as you can probably guess, refers to these sorts of stories, where the main character begins in our world and travels to another.)

I was completely caught up by the story—basically a really long puzzle-and-treasure hunt—as thirteen-year-old Jason travels through kingdoms and villages and swamps of Lyrian in search of the hidden syllables of a secret word that will unmake Maldor, the evil wizard emperor. Some of the characters he meets are outright endearing, some of them inspire instant loyalty, some of them are suspicious, and the one that I kept suspecting from the beginning managed to betray Jason and his friend Rachel just as I had finally come to trust him. The creatures and perils of Lyrian, the way Jason handles himself in various scenarios—his cleverness is a great addition to the story, very trickster-hero—and the nature of their quest all combined to give a very compelling and fascinating story. I loved it.

 “Uh, wait…” I hear you say. “Didn’t you mention something about a “dud” at the beginning of this review?”

Yeah. I did. Because, as I came to learn through reading Snow Whyte and the Queen of Mayhem, nothing can ruin a good story faster than a clumsy move on the part of the writer.

Beyonders is possibly the most detached book I have ever read in my life. I never felt as if I was allowed inside of Jason’s head—everything was described, I was told, never shown. Take this sample:

“With a gnawing hunger growing, he (Jason) struck off toward the rising sun. He soon came upon a brook narrow enough to jump across. He figured if he wanted, he could follow the brook downstream to the river. The crowd should have dispersed by now.

“He crouched beside a place where the water splashed off a little stone shelf. The water looked clean, but he resisted the urge to drink, in case it would make him sick.”

Really? I’ve read fanfiction that did a better job of showing things! Why in the world did Mull write like this—how could he write like this as a veteran writer? I’ve read his other stuff—I don’t remember it ever being this bad. Look, I’m barely even a writer, and I can do better than that. He could have written something like this:

“As he struck off toward the rising sun, Jason’s stomach rumbled. He grimaced at the hollow gnawing and picked his way through the undergrowth, his shoelaces tangling with vines and weeds. He soon came upon a narrow brook that traced through the woodland, barely as wide across as a sidewalk—certainly narrow enough to jump across. He eyed the water, and peered downstream, to where the little brook disappeared into the shadows of the forest. If he wanted, he could follow the brook downstream to the river. The crowd should have dispersed by now.

“He crouched beside a place where the water splashed off a little stone shelf. Licking his dry lips, he stared in longing at the water, which sparkled in the sunlight. It looked clean, but with a sigh, he pushed himself back to his feet. Fantastic world or not, there was no telling what invisible dangers might be lurking in that water.”

OK, so my version is a bit longer. And Beyonders is already a long book, clocking in at around 450 pages. But I honestly think that if Mull had taken the time to show instead of tell here at the outset (this excerpt comes from the second chapter), he could have written a book that was both leaner in the long run, and more compelling overall. Instead, I felt like I was being patronized, as if he thought I wouldn’t understand things if they weren’t completely spelled out for me. Slogging through this bland and flavorless narrative almost kept the rest of the story from being worth the effort. 

Oh yeah—and randomly, 275 pages in, the point of view briefly shifts to Rachel, Jason’s counterpart. She’s also from our world, and other than being given a very cursory development that basically translates to “feminist, homeschooled, clever, and bossy” she gets very little actual screen time. She’s almost just there to provide a reason for Jason’s decisions at the very end of the book—take her out, and the story would change very little. 

Mull’s portrayal of homeschoolers, too, was weird and a little offensive. Rachel’s parents are wealthy and travel a lot, Rachel speaks half-a-dozen languages, which she of course learned on her travels, and the main comment we get from Jason on this whole upbringing is “That’s the problem with homeschoolers. They haven’t learned to interact with their peers.” Granted, he’s basically just trying to get her goat when he says this, but there is never anything to counterbalance it. In the end, you get the impression that Rachel is a worthwhile companion in spite of her upbringing, rather than because of it. Jason, on the other hand, is basically uninfluenced by his background at all. Other than a few times when his baseball knowledge comes in handy, who he was before he landed in Lyrian is completely beside the point.

So…to sum up, Beyonders is a good story. Bad writing, poor characterization, and a few things I found downright insulting manage to bring this book down from the epic ride that it could have been, and I find myself only halfheartedly offering it to you as a “here, you might like this.” I may eventually, someday, maybe go back and find the second two books in the trilogy. But for now, I find myself completely unmotivated.

I give Beyonders a drooping three quills.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Icarus Project, by Laura Quimby





“Thirteen-year-old Maya Parson wants to discover something new and different—something incredible.  When her anthropologist father is invited by an eccentric billionaire to lead a team of international experts to the Arctic to investigate the remains of a woolly mammoth, Maya begs to come along. This could be her big chance!

“But once they reach the lonely, isolated base camp, it becomes clear that things are not what they seem. Why have they been summoned to a place so remote and so forbidding? What exactly is hidden in the ice? Maya is determined to solve the mystery—no matter how strange and unbelievable it gets.”            
                        ~From the front flap)

OK, first off, a correction. Honestly—who writes these blurb things? Maya’s mom is an anthropologist (person who studies people) and her dad is a paleontologist (person who studies fossils). Why in the world would an anthropologist be invited to lead a team of experts to find a wooly mammoth?  *Le sigh*

OK, now on to the review.

I picked up this book because I’m a sucker for all things winged-people. “Icarus” caught my eye, along with the frankly gorgeous cover art. However, this book leaves me a little off balance, review-wise, actually. It was beautiful… but it was beautiful like a really good dream. There was a lack of resolution that somewhat bothered me—or rather, there were a lack of solid answers to questions. You never do figure out exactly “what exactly is hidden in the ice” and even such “strange and unbelievable” events ought to have some kind of explanation. Instead, fantastic things just happen and the reader is never given any sort of background information to explain any of it—just a few cryptic comments from elderly storytellers that are never fully explained either.

Now, all that being said…I actually did enjoy this book. I’ve waited a few days to write this review, to let my impressions solidify, and I still say the same as when I first finished it: this is a good book. The characters are realistic and likable, the setting is exotic and fascinating, and the mystery is intriguing. I wish there had been about four more chapters, spread throughout the book, giving us a… I want to say a worldbuilding—a mythology to base our understanding of the book’s events. The scientific world of Maya’s parents, and the world of the Arctic, are both wonderfully drawn. However, the fantastic elements dropped into this world are underdeveloped and dreamlike—to the point that for once, I completely sympathized with the adults in the story who accuse Maya of making everything up. And I never sympathize with the adults in a story. So that was a very bad thing.

The good things in The Icarus Project are many and varied—and I can’t give too many of them away without spoiling the book. But Maya and her friend Zoey are wonderful—and though Zoey is a very minor character, she was one of my favorites: spunky, clever, and loyal. Kyle, a boy that Maya meets, is both funny and smart, a well-seasoned traveler like Maya wants to be. His antics and company lighten up what could have been a couple of very scary scenarios, and as partners-in-crime go, Kyle is a good one.

The adults are fairly two-dimensional, but that’s to be expected from a kids' book, so I’m not complaining there. The bits of characterization that they do get go a long way, and are very well written. My one complaint there is that the billionaire businessman who brings them all to the frozen Arctic has an item in his office that, when Maya and Kyle discover it, is a huge plot point…to a plot that ends up being completely beside the point and only a lure anyway. Why he makes such an elaborate lure to a ploy he never expected to last more than a few weeks, and then keeps it a “secret”—though apparently expecting someone to “discover” it…—bewildered me. It seemed like a red herring that the author forgot was a red herring for a few chapters, then remembered, and then just ignored.

OK, so my review has been rather negative, and I apologize for that. I find it much easier to talk about the things I didn’t like without spoiling anything. I mean, I could tell you how much I loved Charlie—but you don’t know who Charlie is, and I can’t tell you without ruining the story. Or I could tell you how Ivan surprised me, but I can’t really because that would spoil the ending.

So I’ll just leave it at this, and tell you that The Icarus Project has earned a three-quill rating from me. Have you read it? Leave a comment and tell me what you thought of The Icarus Project!

~The Brownie

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Snow Whyte and the Queen of Mayhem, by Melissa Lemons


 

For the first time in a long time, I find myself reviewing a fairy tale retelling (one of my beloved FTRs) that I honestly cannot recommend, except perhaps to writers as an example of how one mistake can spell the doom of a good story.



First, what is this book? As the book flap says,
“Katiyana Whyte’s world is only as big as the apple orchard she was raised on. She can never leave the home where she grew up under the careful eye of her great uncle Barney. But when life at the orchard suddenly becomes dangerous and her childhood friend Jeremy begs her to flee, Kat finds refuge in the Fluttering Forest with seven dwarves.
“Meanwhile, the queen of Mayhem, an evil sorceress, learns through her magic mirror that the daughter she believed to be dead still lives. Enraged, she sends a servant to kill Kat, the princess of Mayhem, but Kat finds protection in a spell that causes snowstorms whenever she is in danger, giving her the nickname Snow Whyte.
“In the wonderfully imagined Snow Whyte and the Queen of Mayhem, nobody is quite who they seem. Full of romance and adventure, this is the magical tale of Snow White as you’ve never read it!”

Well, I’ll give them that last part. And I hope to never read it this way again. Or any other story for that matter.

First, the good thing the book did: the evil queen is actually Snow’s mother, not her evil stepmother. That was different. And that seems to be the thing that most positive reviews of the book latch on to. Ok. That was interesting. Didn’t really change much, but… OK.

I always hate to give poor reviews, especially to less-established writers, because I know that they often search the internet for reviews of their books and the last thing I want to do is insult anyone. But this book is the best example I have ever come across of a good story ruined by a gimmick. *Caution, this review includes possible spoilers.*

The gimmick, in this case, is the fact that the entire story is told from the point of view of the magic mirror himself. At first, this seemed clever, allowing the author to show us everything that went on—in the queen’s castle, in Kat’s orchard, etc. However, as the book went on, I lost count of how many times the mirror bemoaned in purple prose about how much he longed to be able to see inside Kat’s head, to hear her thoughts, to know what she was thinking or what she had decided, blah-blah, blah…and a heap-load of blah. It wasn’t so much that the repeated thought was annoying—no! It was that I really agreed with him. How in the world am I supposed to care about a character when I never know what she’s thinking about? It was like limited-omniscient point of view—we saw all the events, but knew none of the interior stuff that makes a good story a good story. It was as though we were listening to that really droning guest at a party who wants to tell you about a book he once read and proceeds to tell you the entire book and how he reacted to everything. 

Even clever twists on the original story—like that Kat/Snow was actually the queen’s true daughter, rather than her stepdaughter, or the fact that by the end of the story there are two princes, or the rather delightful family of dwarves that Kat comes to live with (wonderfully free of any Disneyfied elements)—couldn’t save this one. Elements that deserved better treatment were entirely passed over, like the cool idea that Kat/Snow actually generates snowstorms when in danger. This was totally underplayed and nearly a side-note by the end, and something that only the narrator even ever knew about! Or there’s the interesting bit of worldbuilding involving the neighboring kingdom, where each royal heir is required to serve seven years as a servant before becoming eligible for the throne. In the end, this only turned out to be a fancy cover-up so that the author could reveal the two princes—ta-da. 

I’m sorry, I really wanted to like this story. I really did. And I think that if it had been told from Kat’s point of view, where I could have actually cared about her, I would have loved it, and been more willing to forgive some of the other flaws. But the cardboard nature of a cast of characters you can never see inside of was so extremely off-putting that I’m going to have to give Snow Whyte and the Queen of Mayhem a very bedraggled two quills. It would be one, except for the fact that I really did like a couple of the side characters, and did truly believe that it could have been a good book if the author hadn’t made such a terrible mistake in choosing her point of view character.

Sorry, fellow FTR-lovers. Give this one a wide berth. Snow Whyte and the Queen of Mayhem will leave you cold. Bad pun intended.

~The Brownie