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The Scorpio Races – Maggie Stiefvater

Just posted my thoughts on this amazing book over at my other (and now main) blog.

This is now my favourite Stiefvater novel. Which is a big call.

If you can’t get enough zombies…

I found a fun new zombie series this week: RG Bullet’s The Caldecott Chronicles. My review is over at my official blog.

The Bridge – Jane Higgins

This is an excellent novel. It’s got everything a great YA story should have: strong characters, gripping plot, nail-biting tension, and a powerful message (in this case, the futility of war).

The Bridge is set in a dystopian future, where a divided city is at war with itself. The river and a series of bridges are all that separate Cityside and Southside.

Nik lives in Cityside, where ISIS is in control and keeps the hostiles from Southside at bay. Nik’s always understood his place in Cityside, but when ISIS recruits overlook him – despite the fact he’s one of the smartest kids his age – he starts to wonder why. But then his school his bombed, a friend’s brother, Sol, is kidnapped, and the hostiles take over the bridges. Nik is desperate to save Sol, and heads into enemy territory…

I love the way narrative character Nik’s view of the world is shaken – and ultimately widened – when he crosses into Southside.

Jane Higgins does an amazing job of depicting how a society might respond to ongoing civil conflict. In The Bridge, both sides have de-humanised the other; both are committed to revenge and retribution for the daily tragedies; and groups on both sides believe there can’t be peace without the total subjugation of the other.

But this isn’t just about the futility of war; it’s also a lesson in how peace can never come without justice. War can never truly be brought to an end when one side loses its capacity for empathy for the other.

While there’s certainly some moments of heartbreak in The Bridge, there are also moments of hope, and I was so moved by Nik’s personal journey that I was a tad teary by the final page.

Highly recommended.

(An aside: While the setting and the war in question is completely fictitious, I couldn’t help but feel a strong parallel with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given the dynamic between the two sides… which would certainly make for an interesting study topic.)

Forever – Maggie Stiefvater

This is the perfect ending to an exceptional series.

There will be some spoilers below if you haven’t read the first two books, so if you intend to – stop reading now (and read my Shiver review instead).

So…  In Forever, Grace is now a wolf and Sam is a boy, who may or may not be cured from turning into a wolf again.

Life is more complicated than it’s ever been for the pair because not only is Sam the prime suspect in Grace’s disappearance, there are also plans for Mercy Falls’ wolf population to be culled – using helicopters and rifles.

And while waiting for Grace to return to her human form, Sam is also missing his wolf family, and wrestling with the truth about his past – and Beck’s role in it.

Meanwhile, Cole keeps working to find a cure – mostly because the idea of failure doesn’t occur to him – and Isabel still oscillates between lust and loathing for him.

For me, one of the most rewarding aspects of Forever, is the respective emotional journeys of Sam and Cole. They are polar opposites in pretty much every way possible, but their transformative moments are equally rewarding.

The series is so beautifully written I’ve often had to force myself to slow down and savour the language, but by mid-way through Forever, that’s impossible. As the threat to the wolves builds, the tension and pace demands rapid page turning.

What’s driven this story all along is the beautiful, tender relationship between Sam and Grace, and – since Linger – there’s also the more volatile attraction between Cole and Isabel, fairly humming with raw sexuality.

So, yes, the Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy is a love (and lust) story. But it’s so much more than that.

It’s a story about grief, longing and regret … of love, redemption and self-acceptance. It’s about the joy of living and the pain of loss; the need to belong, and the need to be comfortable in your own skin.

All the threads from the past two books come together seamlessly in Forever, but that doesn’t mean everything is wrapped up with a neat bow – and readers who have been paying attention would expect nothing less.

But there’s more than enough resolution to leave fans sighing with satisfaction.

I had such high expectations for this final instalment and it impresses me so much that Forever exceeded them.

So, yeah. I loved this book as much as the others. Maybe even more.

And in response to Place’s request below, here’s the trailer:

The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness

This book left me exhausted.

It’s pretty much one long chase for most of its 479 pages, but it’s also more than that. It’s original, clever, thought-provoking and disturbing, sitting somewhere on the YA shelf between science fiction and fantasy.

The story is set in the future, on a planet called New World, which has been settled by people wanting to start a fresh life (not dissimilar to the original settlers of another New World a few centuries back).

These church settlers fought a war against the indigenous inhabitants (known as the Spackle), and became infected by a germ that allowed men to hear each other’s thoughts, and those of all living creatures around them – except women.

But in Prentisstown, all the women have now died, and all the males have turned 13 – except Todd. He’s the last boy in the settler town and is counting down the days before he becomes a man.

Todd is used to hearing the thoughts of the men of Prentisstown – dark thoughts filled with anger, desperation and longing – and those of his lively dog Manchee (“Poo Todd!”)

But when he stumbles across a patch of silence down by the river, he knows something isn’t right. He doesn’t know what it means, but just hearing the silence is enough to put his life at risk, and before he understand why, Todd’s on the run with the ever-loyal Manchee.

He discovers the source of the silence and that answer – and the revelation Prentisstown is not the only settlement on New World – turn his life inside out.

For most of The Knife of Never Letting Go, Todd is on the run from the crazed men of Prentisstown, and the threat they pose only escalates as the chase continues.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book as fast-paced as this. one Ness builds the tension quickly and sustains it to the point it’s almost unbearable – in fact, by the showdown at the end, it’s excruciating.

It’s hard not to devour this novel. Aside from the pace, Todd’s narrative voice is sweet and funny, and his journey from innocence to awakening is mesmerising. He makes mistakes that threaten to consume him, and has to make a heart-breaking sacrifice. But he makes good choices too, and it’s satisfying watching him start to come of age (even if he takes some pretty intense punishment along the way).

And then there is Ness’ exploration of themes of ignorance, fear and moral corruption, and how communities might react when half its population has no privacy for their thoughts.

For much of the book, I had no idea what was going on (because Todd doesn’t) – although I could take some good guesses. But by the end, there are enough answers to be make the nail-biting journey worth the effort.

By the end, I was exhausted, and, to be honest, a little deflated by the cliffhanger finale. But it perfectly sets up the second book of the trilogy. Having read some non-spoiler reviews of the rest of the series, I think I’ll take a breath before diving into the rest of the series though…

The Replacement – Brenna Yovanoff

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I’ve had this book in my to-read pile for a few months now and finally got to it this week. And I have to say, it was worth the wait.

The Replacement has everything I love in paranormal fiction: moody cover art (in both editions I’ve seen), original mythology, lyrical writing, sharp dialogue and an engaging plot that brings something new to the YA paranormal genre.

There’s a love interest, but you wouldn’t call it romantic. There are other-worldly beings but they are creepy, and often brutal. And there’s a cute guy, but he has a few issues…

Quick plot overview: Mackie Doyle is a Replacement, someone not quite human, left in the crib of a human baby 16 years ago to replace the real child, who was stolen by the creatures who live in the murky tunnels under the small town of Gentry.

But now Mackie’s fatal allergies to iron, blood and consecrated ground are slowly killing him. And when he’s forced to face his connection to the dark characters of the Slag Heap, he has a chance to work out once and for all where he belongs.

One of the things I particularly liked about The Replacement is that Mackie knows from the start he’s a Replacement – as does his family. Even his friends know he’s not quite normal. And everyone accepts and protects him, while the town around them lives in denial about their missing children.

The driving character arc in The Replacement is not in Mackie discovering who he is, but discovering how to belong in the human world.

Yovanoff has created an exceptionally atmospheric novel, with a disturbing mythology that’s not only enthralling, it also provides some truly creepy moments that almost push this into horror territory.

There are also some fascinating themes tackled here: the nature of worship and sacrifice, the power of denial, and the value of love and acceptance.

Male narrators tend to be reasonably rare in the genre, and Mackie is a complex and well drawn character, who – along with his buddies – actually talks and acts like a teenage boy, not an overly idealised version of one.

He’s not a hero. In fact, he’s often physically vulnerable, and his moments of courage come when he pushes through his own limitations to try and make things right in Gentry again.

Mackie is drawn to the delightfully foul-tempered Tate, whose younger sister is the latest to be “replaced”, and whose disappearance is glossed by a town desperate to not face the reality of the unspoken – and largely unconscious – blood-soaked pact made generations ago to keep their town prosperous.

She’s the one who finally has the courage to demand the truth and set Mackie on his dangerous path of self-discovery.

This is YA paranormal/supernatural fiction with an edge. It’s evocative, well-written and completely enthralling. I’d definitely recommend it for readers who aren’t afraid of a little darkness in their paranormal adventures.

Entice – Carrie Jones

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Carrie Jones’ YA series about violent pixies takes some interesting turns in this third instalment, but is just as readable and likable as its predecessors (Need and Captivate).

Note: there are spoilers below if you haven’t read the first two books. If you have, it’s safe to read on…

Life in Zara’s icy, isolated, Maine town has taken a turn for the worse, with more teenagers going missing and Zara having to face the consequences of the life- changing decision she made at the end of Captivate.

This book is pretty much all about Zara’s desperate attempts to get to Valhalla and rescue Nick, while trying to convince her friends she hasn’t become their enemy.

One of the things I like about this series so much is the ideological battle Zara faces and the tough choices she continues to have to make to keep her town, her friends and her family safe.

In Need, Zara had to deal with pixie situation in a way that went against her philosophies of pacifism and justice.

In Captivate, she had to deal with the consequences of her choices, and come to terms with the fact that ideals are never as black and white in the harsh light of reality.

In Entice, she has become what she fears most and struggles with the question of whether you can fight evil without becoming evil. Jones also continues to pick at the threads of bigotry, with several characters being forced to question their hatred of pixies and accept that not all are the same – and not all are their enemy.

And yes, there’s still a romantic thread (and not entirely unexpected). With Nick still trapped in Valhalla, the pixie king Astley is centre stage as the main man in Zara’s life, and Jones writes him in a way that ensures he’s becoming a genuine rival for Zara’s affections.

Because, while she’s undoubtedly in love with Nick – and willing to sacrifice just about anything to have him back – it’s Astley she shares some of the most intense moments of her life with, and who helps her better understand what duty and sacrifice really mean.

There’s a lot more action in this book that the first two, all of which seems to be building towards a huge showdown that’s becoming more than just a factional spat among pixies.

It’s hard to tell whether this will wrap up in the next book, or if Jones is setting up for a longer-running series. Either way, I’m still hooked.

Afterlife – Claudia Gray

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Throughout the Evernight books, Claudia Gray has taken her characters into interesting territory, but she’s saved the best journey until last to deliver a worthy finale to this YA gothic tale.

All the way along, this series’ trademark has been clever plot twists and characters with ambiguous motives. More than one supporting character has turned out to be more than they first appeared. And the (literally) heart-stopping cliffhanger at the end of Hourglass left many readers wondering how Gray was going to resolve all the dilemmas she’d created.

But resolve them she does (well most of them – there’s a spin-off series coming, so a few have to be left hanging), bringing this page-turning series to a satisfying close.

If you’ve read the first three novels (Evernight, Stargazer and Hourglass), this review won’t contain any spoilers. If you haven’t, and intend to, you might want to come back later.

Afterlife is essentially about Bianca and Lucas coming to terms with the fact they’ve both turned into what they hate and fear the most. They not only have to find out if their relationship can survive their new reality – they also have to find out if they can accept themselves.

We also finally find out more about the wraiths, and what they want from Bianca; the significance of the relationships between wraiths and vampires (and vampire hunters); and Mrs Bethany’s hidden agenda.

The gothic atmosphere of earlier books is retained, helped by the fact the action heads back to where it all began, at Evernight Academy, and  the author again demonstrates her skill as a storyteller, setting a cracker pace and building the tension to the inevitable showdown between Bianca, Lucas and their enemies.

The final page of my edition of Afterlife has a teaser for an upcoming novel about Balthazar, one of the most popular characters in this series, so it’s safe to say fans can look forward to more adventures in this nicely textured world Gray has created.  I must admit, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next for that particular vampire…

(In the meantime, Gray has Fateful – a new paranormal story about werewolves on the Titanic – due out later this year.)

The Passage – Justin Cronin

I’ve read so much paranormal fantasy lately, I sometimes forget vampires still have a place in their original genre – horror.

Although, Justin Cronin’s epic novel The Passage is much more than just a well written horror story. It’s kind of a cross between The Stand (by Stephen King) and The Road (by Cormac McCarthy). It’s got great characters and more than a few genuine nail-biting moments.

If you’re interested, you can read my full review over at Great Stories.

Wrapping up the Vampire Academy series

Richelle Mead has set some pretty high expectations as this series has unfolded, and she definitely delivers with the sixth and final novel, Last Sacrifice.

(This post will double as a review for both Last Sacrifice and the fifth book in the series, Spirit Bound.  As with past reviews of this series, this post won’t provide spoilers to anyone who’s read the first four books, but it will for those who haven’t…)

You can read reviews of earlier books (and plot set up) elsewhere on this blog (Vampire Academy and Frostbite, Shadow Kiss and Blood Promise).

First up, a quick look at Spirit Bound, which picks up after Rose’s violent Russian adventure.

A lot happens in this book, with the myriad of plot threads starting to draw together, setting up for some major action in the final book – on a number of fronts. There’s further development in Mead’s detailed mythology, as well as some serious progression in the story of arcs of key characters.

The main plot here is Rose’s continued fight to save Dimitri, even though she’s now with Adrian. She comes up with a crazy plan that also involves Lissa, Eddie and her nemesis, Victor Dashkov. But even when Rose’s plan comes to fruition, the result is not quite what she expects.

Meanwhile, there are major rumblings at the Moroi Court, with paranoid royals wanting to drop the guardian age of service to 15. Spirit Bound ends with a classic cliffhanger, with the Queen murdered and Rose arrested on suspicion of being the killer.

It’s a testament to Mead’s ability to write likable characters and build realistic storylines that she can create a believable love triangle. Yes, even I – the great hater of love triangles – thought this one worked. To the point that (at the end of this book, at least) I would have accepted either choice by Rose.

That changes through the course of Last Sacrifice…

The final novel has two main storylines: Rose’s hunt for an illegitimate Dragomir – whose existence will give Lissa a voice in the Royal Court – and Lissa’s attempts to clear Rose’s name.

This novel is as much Dimitri’s story as it is Rose’s. He helps break Rose out of prison, and goes on the run with her – at first because Lissa asks him to, and then because he recognises he has a chance for redemption (and seriously, who doesn’t love a good redemption story?).

Looking back across all six books, there’s been real character growth for just about every key character, which is one of the things that sets this series apart from others in the YA paranormal genre.

Rose’s relationships with Dimitri and Adrian are complex, and not everything gets tied up with a neat bow. Which works out quite well, given Mead has a new series coming out later this year featuring some of those characters whose issues are yet to be resolved.

All the big questions set up in the series are answered, but there are plenty of others – involving peripheral characters and issues – that give scope for many more stories in this world Mead has created.