Thursday, 6 October 2016

Crooked Kingdom (Six of Crows #2) - Leigh Bardugo [Review]

Book: Crooked Kingdom (Six of Crows #2)
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Published: 27th September 2016
Publisher: Orion Children's Books
Pages: 546

Rating: 5/5 stars

Wow, this book is a real corker. The follow up to Six of Crows this book follows the whole gang - Kaz, Inej, Nina, Matthias, Jesper & Wylan - as they face off against Van Eck and his cronies. There's heaps of stuff going on in this book, all set in the Grisha universe. There's a lot to love about this book and its arguably Bardugo's strongest work to date.

It's an almost impossible task to make the reader connect with, nor care about, all the primary characters in a book, especially in a book such as Crooked Kingdom which features an ensemble cast of characters. However, Bardugo manages it. I cant recall a book in which I've enjoyed all the main characters. Every one is complex and layered and interesting. No cardboard cut-out or prop characters who serve no purpose; the main gang is so diverse and I appreciate that immensely. Although my all time favourite will always be Inej, I found myself connecting with all the main crew. Even Wylan, who I cared less for in the first book, gets some excellent character development in this sequel, and Bardugo provided much welcomed insight into his back story and some of his relationships, particularly with Jesper, and his family.

Similarly, this book manages to achieve what is a rare feat for me - having absolutely zero repulsive or insta-love romances! I adored all the potential respective pairings, and the romance is absolutely not the center of the book. It is very subtle, and fits in well with the harsh backdrop of Ketterdam. It is complimentary and simply adds another layer to the characters. Kaz and Inej are such interesting characters on their own and although they do not share a typical romance by any means, there are a couple of segments that allow you to catch a glimpse at what could have been had their backgrounds been different. Matthias and Nina are as snarky and witty as ever, and their banter makes up for some of the more light-hearted passages in the book, particularly towards the first half. Jesper and Wylan are so god-damned adorable, and they really become more than just add-ons in this book, with some excellent scenes alone and together.

Ketterdam is notoriously a city of suffering, and all the main crew are no strangers to this. Everyone has secrets, pasts they'd like to forget, relationships they wish they could mend etc. The multiple POVs flow relatively seamlessly and you get a good amount of time with each character. The chapters start off quite far apart but get closer as you move along through the story, which really emphasises the increasing stakes. There's action elements in pretty much every chapter, but things really pick up at around 250 pages or so.

Bardugo's writing is flawless. I liked the Grisha trilogy, but boy has she really perfected how to tell an excellent story. Bardugo blends together a thrilling tale, detailed world building, and developed and engaging characters. Although the language and style may be strange if you happen to be relatively new to the world of the Grisha, Six of Crows did a pretty good job at being accessible to new readers, so if you've read that, then you'll be fine with this. There's a cool map at the beginning detailing the layout of Ketterdam including all the new locations visited in this novel (university district, the cemetery, the church etc.), and I always appreciate the extra detail, so this was a nice touch.

There's also some really thoughtful nods to the Shadow and Bone series, with certain characters being mentioned and a few surprises! It really brings up a bit of nostalgia that I appreciated.

This book really comes alive and everything feels so vibrant and palpable. From the Warehouse district, to West Stave, to the Geldin district, the image Bardugo creates with her writing is clear and mesmerising. Like other immersive series such as Harry Potter, whenever I read Bardugo's books concerning the Grisha, it always feels like coming home - there's something familiar and comforting (even in a harsh universe such as the one she creates) and that's something that's very difficult to construct - and only a handful of authors have managed to emulate this.

In terms of twists and turns, there's definitely a few! There was a really good narrative surrounding Wylan and Jesper in particular, and a lot of unanswered questions were resolved. The level of tension increases the further into the book you get, and this makes for a real page-turner. Towards the end I was on the edge of my seat, and I definitely had tears in my eyes at some parts. The plot is so intricate that when you see everything come together it is really impressive.

A quick note - THE ENDING. Oh my god, my poor heart couldn't take it. I'm still not okay. One things for sure, I need more books set in the Grisha universe. I have so many unanswered questions! I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this way - Bardugo knows how to pull on your heartstrings, man.

Overall, Crooked Kingdom completely met and exceeded my expectations and I savored every beautiful, beautiful page. If you haven't read this yet, I strongly urge you to get your hands on a copy. 

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

A Torch Against the Night (An Ember in the Ashes #2) - Sabaa Tahir [Review]

Book: A Torch Against the Night (An Ember in the Ashes #2)
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Published: 8th September 2016
Publisher: HarperVoyager
Pages: 454

Rating: 4/5 stars

Picking up where An Ember in the Ashes left off, this book follows Laia and Elias as they flee the Emperor, the Commandant and well, pretty much everyone. Things appear pretty grim for them, and sufficed to say, this theme continues throughout the book.

I had heard a few mixed reviews for this follow-up novel before its release, so I postponed reading it, however, having now finished, its safe to say I actually found this book to be pretty enjoyable. 

The book opens with a suitably sinister undertone, which I loved (what can I say, I like things a little creepy). This really helps to raise the tension at the beginning and each chapter/point of view (POV) ends with a disquieting moment, or important revelation which serves to drive the pace of the story and encourages you to read further. I appreciated this element, however if you prefer a more laid-back sort of pace, then you might not. However, I am partial to a lot of action and suspense in books, so its safe to say I was hooked.

The story has 3 POVs - Elias, Laia, and Helene. I really, really, enjoyed reading the parts from Helene's perspective. She is my favourite character and I loved being able to explore her relationships, particularly with her family, more and gaining insight into her personal thoughts and motivations. This is also allowed a further understanding of her feelings towards Elias, which was much appreciated. I was intrigued by her interactions with Marcus and the Commandant, although they are of course suitably sinister and frequently violent. 

Laia's perspective is without a doubt the most boring; while her character was relatively satisfactory and sometimes enjoyable throughout the first book, she is at times unbearable during this novel. This detracted away from some of my enjoyment of the book as at times she needs to put things into perspective and honestly someone needs to give her a good shake. Helene Aquilla, she ain't. That girl can handle a lot. Laia - not so much. 

I am definitely a fan of a Helene/Elias relationship and I absolutely do not ship, nor believe Laia and Elias as a couple. Did this decrease my overall enjoyment of the novel? Not quite, but it is something to bear in mind. The character POVs and storyline lead heavily towards a Laia/Elias pairing, but I am certainly not buying it, and Laia, in my opinion should probably remain a single pringle. This leads me on to her and Keenan's relationship (and his character as a whole) which I can barely tolerate. I have never felt an affinity toward Keenan, and therefore I struggled to read passages in which he featured for the first two thirds of the book. He reminds me of Jack in Bridget Jones' Baby, a film I watched recently - very try hard, and a bit of a douche, who (to me) has relatively little reason to be there (at least for most of the book). He does get significantly more character development toward the end however I was less impressed and more relieved. 

In terms of new characters, I really liked Shaeva and Afya, they are both such interesting character and although they play fundamentally different roles throughout this book, they were welcome additions and helped to breath fresh life into the story. 

Tahir definitely has a real way with words, and the writing flows beautifully; it's really easy to picture the scenes and feel immersed in the story. The Empire came alive and I especially enjoyed the descriptions of The Forest. That's not to say this novel is perfect - it isn't - but it is told well, making it an enjoyable read.

This book has a lot of interesting themes regarding death, loyalty and sacrifice. There's some very intriguing passages concerning the more mythical creatures (jinn, efrit, etc.), and the bridge between life and death or the beyond - termed 'the waiting place' in this book. This land is governed by the soul catcher and I found her segments really thought provoking and captivating, particularly as she seems to be neither kind nor callous, she merely just exists, and there's a lot of her backstory that has yet to be unraveled. Her interactions with one main character in particular constituted some of my favourite parts of the book. 

Just a quick mention to the actual physical copy of the book - oh my god, I am dead. It is stunning. The beautiful orange/gold embossed cover spine is so stunning and really eye-catching. Yes, cover art isn't everything, but I can appreciate a good one when I see it. 

One negative is that the book does suffer slightly (at least toward the first two thirds) from 'middle book syndrome' in that it is largely unclear as to why the main characters are doing what they are doing. I imagine if the main characters were to actually discuss this properly it would go something like this:
Laia - Okay Elias, I know we're like, wanted by the whole Empire and your pal Helene is totally gonna have to track you down and, you know, kill you, but could we make a very quick detour from fleeing for our lives and go rescue my brother from a completely impenetrable prison?
Elias - I'm sorry what?
Laia - Pleeeeease
Elias - Okay, well, I'm sure you have a good reason for risking both our lives (and countless others) for this mission right?
Laia - Well, there are rumors that he can make fancy weapons...
Elias - What? Weapons? I have weapons?!
Laia - Yeah but these are super fancy
Elias - Oh er, okay, cool, I guess, because we totally need those right now... for all the fighters we don't have...

But you get my point, I know we're supposed to believe/accept that breaking Laia's brother out of prison is of immediate importance, but I'm frankly skeptical. We don't really get to see a lot of Darin throughout the book so I'm hoping reasoning and motivations will be explored a bit more in the next book. 

The last third of the book was extremely fast-paced and engaging, and really helped to drive the story and provided some interesting twists and turns, some that were expected, and some that were definitely not. This last section is without a doubt the strongest of the book and really rounded out the plot nicely, leaving lots of potential for the next novel, and I'm hopeful for lots of further development for the main 3 characters in the next installment. 

Friday, 16 September 2016

Empire of Storms (ToG #5) - Sarah J. Maas [Review]

Book: Empire of Storms (Throne of Glass #5)
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Published: 6th September 2016
Publisher: Bloomsbury PLC
Pages: 693

Rating: 4/5 stars

I'll preface this review by saying that I am a massive fan of this series. It was a bit of a slow burner for me, but I found myself absolutely loving the books (Heir of Fire was a real winner for me), and although this book is not as good, in my opinion, it's not truly awful either. I know there's been a lot of divided opinion and I think this mainly stems from the character development in this novel (a la A Court of Mist and Fury), as opposed to the plotting or general themes of the book. 

For me, it's important to point out that, yes, the characters are similar to those of ACOMAF, however this did not affect my enjoyment of the book too much as I absolutely loved ACOMAF and so I enjoyed the parallels. Having said this, did it become slightly repetitive over time? Perhaps. Aelin and Rowan are indeed kindred spirits with Feyre and Rhys (from ACOMAF), and you could interchange the dialogue between the two books and you would not notice the difference. Again, not necessarily a criticism, merely an observation. However, because of this point, it does seem that Aelin (and indeed Rowan) do some things that would seem slightly out of character for them, and this theme continues among the other characters as well. The most notable individual this affects is Dorian. His behavior is sporadic, at best, with some truly cringe-worthy flirting and sexual referencing, and gone is the sweet and honorable prince of past days. Now, again, this did not bother me so much, because Dorian has never been one of my favorite characters, but I can imagine if you did have a soft spot for him, this might take some getting used to. 

As previously mentioned, this book definitely has its string of sexual references and NSFW content. There is a 'mature content' warning on the back of the novel, so this is definitely not young adult, and is more typical of new adult writing. I don't necessarily mind more mature themes, however, like ACOMAF, some of the sex scenes are a bit cringe, and there's a lot of growling (is this a thing?), so just bear this in mind. Although it might be your cup of tea, it seemed a bit out of place. Along similar lines, there is a lot of 'relationship pairing' in this novel, and all of them are heterosexual. Again, not every character has to be paired up in a book with another, and if you are going to go full hog, it might be worth pairing characters up realistically, particularly in Dorian's case, as he began as a character that could seemingly be gay, or bisexual, and ends up in this novel engaging in a pretty standard heterosexual relationship (or at least, as standard as it can be in a land filled with fae, witches, and the equivalent of Voldemort). 

However, some of the characters do truly shine throughout this book, and my favorite is definitely (and shall hopefully always be) Manon. She is truly a unique and layered character, who neither fits into the 'hero' or 'villain' archetypes. I very much enjoyed her story-arc throughout this book, particularly with regard to her role as Wing-Leader, and her witch heritage, and I am so excited for this to be explored further in the sequel. Her relationship with Aelin makes up some of the best parts of the books, and I liked their prickly and witty interactions, and have enjoyed these elements in previous books. Lysandra is also in her element here, and we get to see further extensions of her shape-shifting abilities, including one really awesome section in Skull's Bay. Other characters that take on more of a role in this book include Elide and Lorcan - now, although I don't really enjoy their dynamic together, I do like their characters individually. Elide has been through a lot, and she's not necessarily got anything that amazing or special in her arsenal - she's got average fighting skills, she feels fear, she's had a damaged history - and this makes her more relate-able to the average reader than the rest of the cast that includes mystical, seemingly all-powerful fae and cut-throat witches. Lorcan, I believe, has a lot of potential, and I'm looking forward to how he will develop in the sequel following the final developments at the end of this book. 

Although I would have appreciated more villain-elements in this book - Erawan and Maeve do feature, but they are a bit more of a side plot, in Aelin's quest for the keys/lock. However, the ending (which is arguably the strongest part of the whole book) sets up these elements nicely, and really makes you pine for the sequel. Ideally, this level of pace and tension would have been distributed equally throughout the novel and not clumped together towards the end. Despite the fact that there are some interesting action-elements and twists and turns scattered throughout the book, these do mainly appear at the end which serves to make the pace a little meandering and and foggy in the first two thirds of the book. Although I felt compelled to keep reading in hopes of some clarity, pages could have definitely been cut and the novel would have been no worse for it. 

Despite these aforementioned shortcomings, the story elements and that ending helped to raise the quality of the book for me, over what would have ordinarily been a 3 star rating, and thus, I have awarded 4 stars, but only just. I have faith that the sequel to this book will help to address some of the issues raised - particularly with regard to character development, which seems to be a common theme among other reviewers I have encountered. Based upon the events of the finale, it seems like there is a lot of promise for the next book, and I feel confident that with some alterations and an attempt to make this series a bit more distinct from her other series, A Court of Thorns and Roses, Maas can deliver a solid, engaging, and enthralling read that will do Throne of Glass fans justice. 

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Burn (Dark In You #1) - Suzanne Wright [Review]

Book: Burn (Dark In You #1)
Author: Suzanne Wright
Published: 1st November 2016 (new edition)
Publisher: Piatkus
Pages: 384
Source: eArc provided by the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Going into this book, I was unsure of what to expect - I had not heard of the series previously, however a quick check of popular opinion indicated that others really enjoyed this book. Therefore, I set myself modest expectations and hoped to be pleasantly surprised. As expected, this is definitely a fun read, and although it would not be what I would usually turn to - I may have to explore other books by this author!

Okay, so let's get into details. This book follows tattooist Harper Wallis, who resides in Las Vegas, and details the consequential events that occur once she finds out that her psychic mate or 'anchor' is a guy who's rumored to be the most powerful demon in existence. Intriguing, right? Although this is a story centering round demons and the paranormal, and there's definitely a subtly creepy atmosphere, it's scattered with occasional wit and humor, and the characters are a bit cheeky, so it feels like a more light-hearted and less dramatic read, which for me, is a good thing.

Usually, I tend to not be drawn to the more paranormal demon-centric reads, however, this was a welcome change. Harper, the main female protagonist, is full of energy and sass. She's not your typical damsel in distress/please help me type, which is perfect for me as I prefer my heroines to be a bit more proactive. Her thoughts and actions are realistic and not over the top, and she reacts to the news of her new psychic mate about as well as any of us would take it, which I actually liked. Moving on to the aforementioned mate - Knox - he's absolutely brimming with sass and initially exudes your typical dominant, alpha-male vibe, which at first turned me off a bit. Yeah, he's sexy, but I'm looking for a bit more than that, you know? This was relatively corrected throughout the novel as we get a bit more insight into his character, however I could do with a little bit more in this regard as he still comes across as a bit overbearing and possessive throughout the novel, when Harper is just trying to do her own thing. She's a person, not a piece of furniture, you know?

The setting is great; Las Vegas is always bound to be exciting, and although we don't necessarily get to explore a lot of it, there is a good amount of detail, and the setting serves its purpose - it's not referenced overwhelmingly, but it provides a nice backdrop for the story, which is really about Harper and Knox. 

There is definitely a lot of romance and a bit of mature content in this book (so not one for the younger reader), however, in most cases I prefer this as I like my books to be a bit more realistic and mature, particularly in terms of relationships. There is excellent chemistry between Harper and Knox, and this really helps to drive the book through the slightly more meandering passages. In terms of supporting characters, there's not really a great deal of noteworthy ones, however Isla is definitely an interesting character which has a lot of potential throughout the novel, even though she could have featured more prominently. In terms of related characters to Harper, she has relatively little friends to start off with, and although I did enjoy Khloe, I wish she would have featured a bit more. As for Knox, a lot of his security detail and surrounding demons all kind of mesh into one for me, there's a lot of dudes and names, and I ended up losing track of who is who (Tanner? Levi? Keenan?). 

However, ultimately, the novel is a fairly light-hearted and engaging read, which would definitely attract most readers who are fans of the genre, despite its shortcomings. There's enough action to drive the narrative, and the two main characters are strong, and enthralling, which should satisfy most readers who prefer more dynamic protagonists. 

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Suicide Squad (2016) Review

"Oh I'm not gonna kill you. I'm just gonna hurt you.
Really, really, bad."

By now, you may have heard of this little indie film called Suicide Squad, starring some of the comic book world’s most notable villains… OK, obviously we’re kidding, and the chances of you having not heard of this cinematic entity by now are very slim, so we’ll make this introduction quick and get to the juicy stuff.

The basic premise of this squad-tastic outing is that a secret government agency, headed up by Amanda ‘The Wall’ Waller (Viola Davis), coerces imprisoned supervillains and metahumans into doing its dirty work, in the form of hazardous black ops missions tackling some of the worst opponents in exchange for smaller sentences. Recruited for said operations, and micro-managed by Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), is a whole gaggle of weirdos: an assassin named Deadshot (Will Smith), psychiatrist-turned-crazed-supervillain Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), LA gang member/flaming metahuman El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), expert martial artist Katana (Karen Fukuhara), deadly thief Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), reptilian Killer Croc (Adewale Akkinnuoye-Agbaje), possessed archaeologist June Moon/Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) and mercenary Slipknot (Adam Beach). Occasionally turning up to throw a spanner into Waller’s plans is Harley’s boyfriend, the psychologically manipulative Joker, played by Jared Leto. 

Somersaulting onto screen is the unpredictable and highly anticipated Harley Quinn, the deranged girlfriend/abuse victim of the Joker. It has to be said that Robbie expertly nails this character, effortlessly creepy-smiling her way into a number of ridiculous scenarios with her trusty bat in tow. Quirky, sassy, abrasive, kooky and inherently athletic, Harley is a real scene-stealer and Robbie deserves the credit for taking on such an iconic creation and making it her own whilst staying true to the essence of the character – think Animated Series Harley with the potential to evolve into New 52 Harley.

Of course, where there’s Harley there’s likely to be the Joker, and Jared Leto bursts into view like a garish paint gangster sporting bright neon green hair, twisted tattoos and a plethora of pimp outfits. It’s visually striking, needless to say, and Leto assumes the role of the Joker with eerie ease, being outwardly terrifying and intimidating as he snarls at and slaps around his adversaries. Granted, he’s not in much of the film, but perhaps this is a good thing, as it would be quite overwhelming to introduce him and have him be a substantial villain whilst also giving the other cast members their screen time. Let’s say he’s around enough to tantalise your jokey taste-buds, but not too much so that you’re choking on it. You can rest assured that this particular incarnation of the Joker has effective chemistry with Harley, and Leto and Robbie shine as the chaotic clown king and queen, with the potential for them to star in a sequel together more prominently.

Unsurprisingly, the performances all-round are exceptionally spot-on, with Jay Hernandez and Will Smith being especially notable. Hernandez, who portrays pyrotechnic El Diablo (think of a murderous Seamus Finnigan), beautifully illustrates his character’s brutal backstory as it unfolds tragically on screen, whilst also proving to be the moral anchor that guides the film to its conclusion. Meanwhile, Smith’s Deadshot is an assassin who enjoys danger and his skills, but this conflicts with his love for his daughter. In the end, Smith manages to balance character comedy flair as the sarcastic gun-slinger with emotive familial energy relating to his child. 

Other players in this suicide squad include Katana, who newcomer Fukuhara portrays with a steely determination, flexing her sword-slicing skills this is one woman you don't want to mess with - but it would have been interesting and more fulfilling to have her feature more in the story, especially regarding her backstory. Killer Croc is a cannibal with rage issues courtesy of Akkinnuoye-Agbaje, who has moments of humour and viciousness, whilst Courtney’s Captain Boomerang is like a hobo squirrel with a penchant for fluffy pink unicorns who always seems to have his booze detectors on, and actually provides some of the more ridiculous but hilarious moments of the film.

Delevingne’s Enchantress also occasionally pops up in her quest for something convoluted, and although she’s received some negative attention for her performance, its actually rather fittingly creepy and her rhythmic dance movements are in-keeping with a mud-covered, Grudge-esque ancient witch. Somehow Rick Flag manages to make an unlikely team out of these misfits, so props to Joel Kinnaman. You might think that amongst these bunch of baddies there’s no one who could possibly keep them in line. But the ‘baddest bitch’ is well and truly the menacing Amanda Waller played sublimely by Viola Davis. She’s intimidating, fierce, gives absolutely no fucks and is perhaps the most manipulative of all as the ominous puppet master.

Having said all of these positives about the characters, there are a few negatives that bring the film down, such as the seemingly haphazard editing in some sections, that make the film seem rushed (possibly due to the deleted scene debacle and studio interference), such as the Joker/Batman chase scene and some in the middle part (held back for spoilers). Whilst this isn’t life-threatening for the film, it does diminish the overall quality of the picture as this could have been fixed for a more effective and triumphant return for DC. For instance, some more character development for the Enchantress and her motivations as well as Katana’s background would have helped fuel the purpose of the missions and added to the effectivity. Additionally, characters such as Batman, the Joker (although not so much a personal gripe) and Katana could have featured more, and Slipknot’s whole escapade doesn’t have the impact the studio might have been hoping for (it's seriously bad).

Fortunately, however, the movie succeeds in other avenues, such as acoustically, as it features an impressive soundtrack that is as twisted and vibrant as you’d expect (Kehlani’s ‘Gangsta’ being a standout), a firm departure from the dark and dreary Dawn of Justice. Visually, Suicide Squad is a colourful explosion as mad as its characters, featuring fun titles akin to Scott Pilgrim, with less of a focus on being a ‘superhero movie’ and more on being a comic book adaptation. Whilst the plot is nothing revolutionary or ground-breaking, it works well in context with the large personalities on screen, and is thoroughly entertaining ride.

Ultimately, Suicide Squad is stylistically vivid, and boasts an array of quirky characters and commendable performances to make up for its missteps; you’d be an absolute joker to miss it.