The Singing by Alison Croggon

The Singing, by Alison Croggon, was published in 2008 by Candlewick. It is the sequel to The Crow.

Rating: 2/5        

I’ve discovered why I’ve struggled to get through these books—there’s very little action. Perhaps that’s why The Crow, the book with the most action, was my favorite. The Singing is, as all the books are, far too long, and there’s too much talking and introspection and not enough danger and suspense. Even the final “showdown” at the end with Sharma was anticlimactic.

Maerad also develops far too much power too quickly. There is not a very good balance to her growth in magic; she goes from somehow defeating a giant Elemental (within the range of what we know about her strength) to a glowing person who leaks magic and can destroy bad guys with a single breath, after merely sitting for ten minutes and thinking—or something. I’m not sure what was happening because my eyes were glazing over.

I honestly think if the books were much shorter, and if there were only three books instead of four, the whole effect would have been much better. But there are whole chapters of this book that are unnecessary, or scenes that go on for far too long, and after a while Croggon’s writing style really starts grating. And it’s clear she doesn’t know how to write action, so she limits it as much as she can, which is why so much of the final confrontation is inward rather than outward—but because everything is delivered in the same exact tone, there’s no suspense or tension to the scene. There’s practically no struggle, either.

Hem remains the only interesting character; Maerad is too flat and boring, especially in this book. The problem with making your character super-powerful is that it also makes them super-boring without conflict or struggle to make them interesting. Hem, who was more normal, seemed more alive than Maerad, who spent most of the last half of the book in a daze that wasn’t really all that important to developing any part of her character.

The Singing, and the Pellinor series in general, tries so hard to deliver on epic fantasy, but falls short in terms of pacing, action, characterization, and intrigue. There’s no politics, barely any struggle, and there wasn’t enough editing done to help mitigate that. I’m a bit sorry I spent so much time on these books, honestly, but what’s done is done, and now I know that I can’t stand them (except for The Crow. That one was okay).

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

Obsidio by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Obsidio, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, was published in 2018 by Alfred A. Knopf. It is the sequel to Gemina.

Rating: 3/5

I really enjoy the format of these books, I do, but the two books after Illuminae have been incredibly underwhelming in terms of plot and characters. It’s like Kaufman and Kristoff were so enamored with what they created in Illuminae that they decided to recreate it two more times in Gemina and Obsidio—and in Obsidio, it really shows.

Let’s start with the characters. Just like in the first two books, it’s a boy and girl who are romantically linked. Except this time, neither character is interesting in the slightest. In fact, the book barely focuses on Asha and Rhys—most of its concern is taken up with Kady, Ezra, Hannah, and Nik, the protagonists of the first two stories—and they are incredibly flat characters. Rhys was cardboard. Asha was barely better. Their actions are predictable, as is the plot.

Speaking of the plot, I suppose there’s really nothing wrong with it at its core, but I’m not thrilled with the way the authors go about revealing things. Kaufman and Kristoff play the same plot tricks they did in the first two books, meaning each reveal is blindingly obvious. They pull the “That person died!—Or did they?” trick several times, even though the format of the book and what was revealed previously immediately proves it wrong. They attempt to obscure the characters’ plan to get rid of Evil Corporation, but there are so many out-of-character moments that it’s incredibly obvious that they’re playing a part (the most prominent example being Rhys’s “betrayal” of Asha—it’s incredibly obvious that it’s part of the Obsidio plan. If you kill four people to protect your girlfriend, you’re not going to turn on her because your buddy died in an explosion that your girlfriend insisted she knew nothing about).

The most interesting character by far is AIDAN, since it represents all of the moral dilemmas that run throughout the book (mostly consisting of doing bad things for good reasons). AIDAN is a great example of how logical evil acts can be. To be honest, it’s a bit disturbing to scroll through Goodreads reviews and see people gushing about how much they love AIDAN. I think they mean they love the characterization of AIDAN, not that they love mass murderers (I hope); I found AIDAN interesting, and probably the best character in the book (though some parts were really dumb, like its overly descriptive speech (why?) and the “AIs can have feelings too” subplot), but I certainly didn’t love it.

So, overall, I think Illuminae was the strongest by far of the three books. Gemina was a weaker repeat (with some new and interesting things) of the first, while Obsidio revealed just how much Kaufman and Kristoff were relying on old plot tropes to pull through. I can’t help but feel that I read the same book three times, or at least the same idea of a book three times.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Lots of (censored) swearing, sexual innuendo, violence.

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult

Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Gemina, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, was published in 2016 by Alfred A. Knopf. It is the sequel to Illuminae.

Rating: 3/5

Kaufman and Kristoff work hard in Gemina to both continue the same tone and format that made Illuminae so unique, and to add new elements to tell the story in—in this case, a journal as well as some different forms of chatrooms. In addition, they ramp up some of the other formats with pictures and other visual elements, making for some rather beautiful pages.

The plot is virtually the same as Illuminae, except a bit less thrilling, less interesting characters, and now-stale gimmicks. Instead of a virus threatening to turn everyone into raging manaics, there’s alien predators who make you basically comatose. They’re kinda scary, but mostly just distracting from the real villains, the hit squad who come to the station to murder/cover up the tracks of the villainy caused by Evil Corporation. Except the hit squad gets summarily dispatched one by one by said alien predators and three teenagers.

Hanna and Nik are the “required” boy/girl protagonist love interests of this novel, though the romance is completely unnecessary and even distracting at times. It adds nothing to either the characters or the plot. It’s like the authors think that because the protagonists are a girl and a boy, there must be a romance between them.Far more interesting is the relationship between Hanna and Jackson, her boyfriend at the start of the novel (Hanna suddenly falls in love with Nik instead along the way).

Another gripe I have with the book is the fact that the authors pulled so many bait-and-switches that the end felt cheap. For one brief moment I wondered if Kaufman and Kristoff were actually going to do what I initially thought—and I was both disgruntled and thrilled that they would do something so daring. Instead, though, they pulled something they did in the first book (more plot repetition) and reversed everything (twice, really!), which left me feeling just disgruntled.

I did like Gemina, I really did, but if the third book is a repeat of plot and character tropes like this one was, then I might stop enjoying this series.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Lots of (censored) swearing, sexual innuendo, violence.

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2phGy86

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, was published in 2015 by Alfred A. Knopf.

Rating: 4/5

Illuminae is one of the most unique books I’ve read in years. Not unique in terms of plot, which in this book, to be honest, isn’t anything groundbreaking or even unfamiliar, but in terms of format. The novel is told entirely through e-mails, messages, posters, reports, dossiers, transcripted surveillance camera footage, and the code of an oddly poetic artificial intelligence.

On paper, the plot is tired and old: planet is attacked, people flee for their lives, now they’re on the run with a mutating pathogen and a rogue AI to deal with. Yet, in this format, it transforms into a compelling, suspenseful story. Somehow Kaufman and Kristoff manage to pull off plot twist after plot twist despite the format (or perhaps because of it, as it is easier to get small details past the reader).

Plus, the conflict and moral dilemma at the heart of the novel is complex and not at all straightforward. Is AIDAN doing the right thing or the wrong thing? What about Syra Boll? This book emphasizes the fact that moral decisions are hard to make and that there’s more than one way of looking at things—something the authors tried to get across, I think, with their characterization of AIDAN, the AI who is trying to save everyone by killing everyone, or something. And the scary thing is that I get it. Almost everything Aidan (and Boll, and the other captains) does to try and stop Phobos from spreading—I understand. Do I agree? That’s a trickier question. That’s the great moral dilemma at the heart of the story.

And it’s a moral dilemma that Kady, the main character, tends to trivialize—one of the major reasons I disliked her. She was smug, self-righteous, always sure that her way of thinking was the right one. I mean, it’s basically a great portrayal of a teenager, but I could barely stand her even so. And the romance—ugh. The older I get, the less I can stand teen romance. There were so many more clever things that the authors could have done with Kady as a character and for the romance, but they chose to hang their hat on their format and add in a tired, stereotypical romance that was the main reason I didn’t rate this book 5 stars.

Another reason is that I got very confused at the end with why the percentage of Phobos afflicted was dropping (but by an incredibly small margin). Was it supposed to symbolize AIDAN malfunctioning or something??

What shines from Illuminae is the format, which transforms an average plot into something that even this science-fiction hater finds intriguing. I never thought I would be so involved in a YA SF book, but this book, even with its annoying main character and romance, proved that is possible—with the right set-up!

Recommended Age Range: 15+

Warnings: Lots of (censored) swearing, sexual innuendo, violence.

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2VelBqM

Wolf Wing by Tanith Lee

Wolf Wing, by Tanith Lee, was published in 2002 by Dutton. It is the sequel to Wolf Queen.

Rating: 3/5

Wolf Wing is the last book in the Claidi Journals series, but it feels like it didn’t need to be. In fact, the only thing it contributes, beyond love angst and Girl Power, is resolution about what’s been going on in the House for the past three books.

It’s not that I didn’t dislike the book. I liked it fine. Claidi has as unique and funny a voice as always, and the addition of Thu made for some great fun. We also learn a lot of things about Claidi that are kinda neat, in a “that wasn’t really necessary, but all right, that’s cool” kind of way. And she and Argul finally get married (and then only exchange about ten words to each other, it seems like) and have their happy ending, so there’s that.

However, the whole book just…isn’t that necessary. There are a lot of characters brought back, and a lot of resolution for them, but that all happens very quickly. The majority of the book is Claidi wandering through Ustareth’s created continent by herself, feeling lonely and jealous—or at least that’s what it felt like. Even before that, Claidi was alone, despite marrying Argul. And Lee throws so much stuff at the reader in the end that the whole pace of the book is thrown off. Nothing that was revealed in this book really changes anything from the first three, and it mostly just seems that Lee really wanted Claidi to be someone special, so she wrote a whole book about it. I can’t say that Wolf Wing is bad, as I did enjoy it. But I found it, ultimately, underwhelming and unnecessary.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2lxF0FJ

Ghostly Echoes by William Ritter

Ghostly Echoes, by William Ritter, was published in 2016 by Algonquin. It is the sequel to Beastly Bones.

Rating: 2/5

Something happened to these delightful Jackaby novels, and I’m not quite sure what. The first two books were fun and charming. Ghostly Echoes, though…I struggled to immerse myself in it. It started off promising enough, but then characters appear simply to voice author messages and political/social stances, and the pleasant supernatural mysteries explode into a malevolent evil plot, complete with a trip to the Underworld.

I think what I liked about the first two Jackaby books was that they were urban fantasy/supernatural lite. There were supernatural elements, sure, but those were intertwined with “normal” 1800s life. Yet this book suddenly decides to introduce immense supernatural content (such as the aforementioned Underworld, and a sinister Dire Council) with the mystery taking the backseat.

Perhaps this is simply my dislike of supernatural books talking, much like how I struggle to enjoy science fiction. I also started disliking Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys when she started ramping up the supernatural. Or perhaps it’s my dislike of authors using characters merely as mouthpieces, which is what happens in this book with the character of Lydia Lee, who serves absolutely no purpose beyond plot convenience and soapboxing. Make those characters more interesting!

Whatever it is, my enthusiasm for Jackaby has dimmed so much that I wonder whether I’ll even read the last book. To be honest, I have no desire to find out what happens next. That disappeared when Abigail took a trip to visit the dead.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Urban Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2NYzYxD

The Crow by Alison Croggon

The Crow, by Alison Croggon, was published in 2006 by Candlewick. It is the sequel to The Riddle.

Rating: 4/5        

I anticipated that The Crow would be my favorite of the Books of Pellinor so far, and I turned out to be correct. The absence of Maerad and pages of pages of her and Cadvan doing absolutely nothing helped make The Crow more interesting, though still just as massively long. This time, though, the book is cram-jam full of action, from the siege of Turbansk to Hem infiltrating the child army of Den Raven.

That’s not to say the book was perfect. It was still way too long, and this time there was so much crammed in that there was almost no time to pause before being slapped in the face with tension and action all over again. I also really didn’t like the plot convenience behind Hem getting his hands on the second half of the Treesong, and the fact that his trek across the country to rescue Zelika was a complete waste of time (except for that previously mentioned plot convenience—or should I say incredibly obvious plot machination??).

Speaking of Zelika, she was a bit annoying, and I’m sure many people probably don’t like where her character goes and how her character is used in the book, though it didn’t bother me as it was realistic. I just am not fond of brash, headstrong characters who do stupid things. Hem was better, though he got a bit annoying at times, too. I liked him more than Maerad, as he seemed more normal and acted in a more understandable fashion than Maerad’s odd weak/strong, passive/assertive ping-pong personality. He also used more magic in one book than Maerad seemed to use in two, so Hem definitely seems the more Bardic of the two and also seems to understand more about many things than Maerad does, though perhaps my memory of the first two books is simply failing me.

Despite the problems with the book, I still enjoyed The Crow for being much more fast-paced and action-y than the first two books, as well as less clumsy in delivery. The characters were more interesting and realistic, though I wasn’t fond of Zelika and Hem had his bad moments, too. The worst part of the book is the obvious plot manipulation in the last third, which made all the other manipulation stand out even more.

The last book promises to bring together Hem and Maerad in one last attempt to free the Treesong and defeat the Bad Guy before he destroys everything. I remember not liking the ending, so we’ll see how it goes!

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2ZxY84d

Wolf Queen by Tanith Lee

Wolf Queen, by Tanith Lee, was published in 2001 by Dutton. It is the sequel to Wolf Star.

Rating: 4/5

Wolf Queen solves lots of the mysteries that were set up over Wolf Tower and Wolf Star and sends Claidi and Argul off on a happy ending, finishing up the Claidi Journals on a sweet, sentimental note—or, at least, that’s what the book wants me to think.

See, this isn’t actually the last Claidi book, though it’s the last one I read. Lee wrote one more, though apparently wasn’t planning to, based on the blurb for this book. I’m excited to read it to see what happens, as that one will truly be a “blind” read for me. This book, Wolf Queen, wasn’t quite as jaw-dropping as it should have been, since I’ve read it before and knew the big twist already. However, it was nice to read it to see all the hints Lee dropped beforehand.

Claidi’s voice is as delightful and unique as always, and even though this book introduces some truly outrageous (in a good way, I think) fantasy/sci-fi elements, her voice made everything somehow more plausible and realistic. I wish it was explained more as to how, exactly, a lot of the magic/technology works—we’ve got clockwork people, which I understand, but then all there are also powerful items that operate on a “don’t pay too much attention to the mechanics” level. Ustareth’s ring is one of those, of course, and it did bother me a bit that there was no explanation as to how it can do half of the things it did.

I wish each book didn’t hinge quite so much on “Claidi gets taken places,” but, again, Claidi’s voice is so delightful that she could probably stay in one room the whole book and it would still be interesting. These books lack a bit of something that I can’t really explain—they’re interesting, and I like them a lot, but they don’t grip me like some books do. However, Claidi and Argul are adorable, and the draw of the books is Claidi’s voice, not complexity of plot or stellar worldbuilding. I can deal with that—and I’m looking forward to exploring Wolf Wing, the book I never read, and seeing if Lee can surprise me.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2HhAtP8

1967 Newbery Medal: Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt

Up a Road Slowly, by Irene Hunt, was published in 1966 by Modern Curriculum Press.

Rating: 3/5

Up a Road Slowly reminds me a little bit of a lesser Anne of Green Gables, but much more of Rebecca of Sunnybrooke Farm, except with less moralizing and a nicer aunt. It’s the story of Julie, who at seven goes to live with her aunt after her mother dies and learns new meanings of love and family as she deals with her older sister getting married, her wild uncle, school rivalries, the death of a student, and boyfriends. However, like Rebecca, it’s much less tongue-in-cheek than Anne, and it uses a ton of plot tropes and language that is extremely reminiscent of older literature and really dates the book.

The writing style is a little old-fashioned and very mature-sounding, even when Julie is only seven (something that is a bit jarring until you get used to it). As Julie gets older, however, she grows into her voice, and I do believe the whole thing is supposed to suggest that Julie is writing this as a memoir from later on in her life. As far as plot and theme go, I thought Hunt’s messages were very good, though they were often delivered in ways that wouldn’t be acceptable today. For example, the description of Agnes, Julie’s classmate who suffered from some sort of mental disability, made me wince a bit, though that would have been an acceptable description in the 60s. However, the language as a whole really gives the book much more of an old-fashioned feel than I think the decade it was written in warrants.

There’s also quite a few dark themes hidden in the book, the most notable being Julie’s old friend Carlotta being “sent away” for the winter after scandal erupts (i.e. she was pregnant). The book as a whole is really quite mature for a children’s book, much more suited for a young adult audience (who would probably understand it and enjoy it more).

I enjoyed Up a Road Slowly, but I didn’t find it overly impressive, and I think it’s too dated to really stand out. The maturity of the themes and the writing were welcome after some of the rather more childish books I’ve read, but that limits the audience as well as alienates them. A good book, but not one I’d probably revisit.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/31I8q3i

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Skyward, by Brandon Sanderson, was published in 2018 by Delacorte

Rating: 5/5

Brandon Sanderson is always so consistently good as a writer—his plots are intricate, his characters are fleshed out, the worldbuilding is superb, and there’s always a bit of humor thrown in to mellow things out. Skyward is no exception. I don’t normally like science fiction, but Sanderson makes it interesting—and understandable. One of his trademarks as an author is complicated, but understandable worldbuilding, and in Skyward everything from the caverns to the planet, but especially the fighter ships, is meticulously explained in a way that makes sense and that flows from the world naturally.

This book was very hard for me to put down, since Sanderson is so good at pacing and tension. While perhaps not as fun as Steelheart was, with all of its superpowers, Spensa and the other members of her flight crew made the book come alive and made me enjoy every minute of it. I also enjoyed the mysteries surrounding M-Bot, Spensa’s spoiler-y ability which I won’t really talk about, and Doomslug (who may not be mysterious, but certainly seems that way). And did I mention that I normally dislike science fiction to the point where it’s hard for me to enjoy any book of that genre, regardless of writer or quality? Yet Sanderson made it as interesting and exciting for me as any book of another genre because he’s so good.

All right, I might be biased (like with Diana Wynne Jones), but I did really love the book. I found a few things problematic towards the end, especially with the big reveal about Spensa and the Krell that I thought was perhaps delivered too fast (though there’s room in the sequels to explore all that, I suppose) or not explained enough, but Skyward was an excellent, fun adventure all the way through.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Z5oXAS