Epic by Conor Kostick

Epic, by Conor Kostick, was published in 2004 by Viking.

Rating: 2/5

For some reason I felt like reading books about video games, so a trip to the library rewarded me with Rush (which I hated) and Epic, which reads much more like fantasy than the former and is much more clearly inspired by MMOs and tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons.

Epic takes place in a post-apocalyptic (maybe? It’s not abundantly clear. All we know is that it’s called “New Earth” and Erik and the rest live in a Scandinavian area) Earth where issues and conflicts in real life are resolved in the fantasy game world of Epic. Honestly, I’m not really sure what people do on this New Earth in terms of government, jobs, or anything; there’s mentions of farming, solar panels, some sort of exile jail, and a university, but other than that, Erik and his friends basically have nothing to do except play Epic.

The writing is awkward in many places, full of baffling details, flowery and Victorian descriptions, and blindingly obvious summations. At one point Kostick literally calls two of his characters “protagonists,” as in “the two protagonists walked down the street.” Excessive amounts of detail are poured into describing Epic, with great emphasis placed on how different Erik’s character is from the “gray colorless polygons” of everyone else’s (gray, colorless, polygons are all words used over and over to describe other characters). It reads very much like a tabletop game and much less like a novel.

The plot is understandable insofar as motivation and action go, though so little is revealed about New Earth that the reader just gets swept along in the characters’ emotions without really knowing the reason why. Why was Harald exiled, why does it matter, where is he, what’s the deal with this government? Who knows? Now read more about this cool video game world.

It’s also incredibly difficult to swallow that a world could ban violence so effectively that even one of the villains blanches at the thought of doing anything outside of the game. And one has to wonder with the ending of the book if such a world could even sustain itself anymore without its largest “get out your violence in a way that won’t affect real people” foundation, or without any sort of currency, apparently, or even jobs.

If you like tabletop games (and the way they’re written) and you don’t mind loose worldbuilding, you’d probably enjoy Epic. There’s apparently a sequel or two, as well. I didn’t enjoy it nearly enough to pick up the others, however.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction, Fantasy

Rush by Eve Silver

Rush, by Eve Silver, was published in 2013 by Katherine Tegen.

Rating: 1/5

This book was…bad. I’m not even going to try to sugarcoat it. I actually almost stopped reading it two chapters in (and then continuously thought about stopping), but I decided to keep going so I could write a full review.

So, the premise of this book is that there’s an alien race bent on ruling the world, and in order to defeat them, there’s this Committee (which is like some sort of computer…?) who are pulling people into this “lobby” and making them play a “game” to kill the aliens; any injury they get in the game is magically healed upon their return, unless they die.

If they die in the game, they die for real.

And then there’s time travel or something.

Oh, and there’s a mysterious bad boy who the main character falls in love with who also seems to be slightly manipulative in places? So, that’s a healthy relationship. And let’s not forget the really weird descriptions, like “My disappointment was chalky and bitter, like I had just chewed an aspirin.” And the flagrant misuse of the word “ambivalent.”

The plot is incoherent and makes little sense. There’s a lot of “magic hand-wavey” explanation for the lobby, the game, and the mysterious people running the game. Basically, it’s the way it is and there’s no explanation. There’s very little given about the aliens except for “they want to take over the world.” Jackson, the mysterious boy love interest, smirks and sulks and muscled physique’s his way into Miki’s heart, despite how much she hates him at the beginning. Miki herself turns from “I have no idea what’s going on and I’ll survive by sheer luck” in the first battle to “I can command my team no problem despite having no experience” in the third.

And then there are some side characters, and I don’t remember anything about them.

So, that’s Rush. A mess of bad writing, clunky plot, forgettable characters, and a questionable romance.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Kissing

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction, Realistic

The Echo Room by Parker Peevyhouse

The Echo Room, by Parker Peevyhouse, was published in 2018 by Tor.

Rating: 3/5                                          

The Echo Room is kind of an interesting sort of Groundhog Day/repeating day plot. Rett wakes up in an abandoned depot with no memory of how he got there. As he works to solve the mystery of where he is, he finds himself repeating the same day over and over again—except he manages to carry some strange thread of memory across with him each time. As a result, with each “restart” he solves more and more of the mystery.

It’s an interesting book, and difficult to review without spoiling completely. It reminded me a bit of a game I recently played which had a similar premise (though not quite as similar as I thought at first due to the nature of the “restarts” in this book). It does do a lot of “magic science fiction,” where there’s mysterious technology and you’re really not quite sure how it works, but you run with it due to the nature of the book. I’m not super fond of that sort of thing, since inevitably something ends up not making much sense. And it happens here, too, especially near the end, where the characters are like “this device did this thing” and I’m thinking, “Huh? How does that work?”

Despite my problems with the worldbuilding, I did like the plot, and I think Peevyhouse did a good job of revealing everything and showing how all of the mysteries linked together. The biggest problem came near the end, when something that was supposed to be a big reveal fell super flat. It just came too close to a bunch of other things that dulled it down, I think. Until that part, I was pretty invested in the book, though mostly for the mystery. The characters didn’t really interest me too much, and something that I thought for sure would be a big reveal at the end involving their relationship ended up being nothing at all, which disappointed me a little (maybe that’s why that aforementioned plot point ending up falling flat for me).

Overall, I liked the premise and the way the author wove everything together, but Rett and Bryn didn’t really interest me as characters and I thought some of the worldbuilding was clunky and too magic sci-fi. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it. 

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

The Fountains of Silence, by Ruta Sepetys, was published in 2019 by Penguin.

Rating: 3/5                                          

I love Ruta Sepetys’s work; Salt to the Sea was one of my favorite reads a few years ago. However, I really struggled with The Fountains of Silence. Honestly, I thought about stopping it halfway through, that’s how uninvested I was in the story and characters. And it wasn’t that the history behind it wasn’t riveting—the only thing I knew about the Spanish Civil War is from Picasso (Guernica), so learning about it, especially the stolen babies, was fascinating and so, so sad.

Here’s what I didn’t like: the short, short chapters that continually jumped to different characters’ point of view. It was extremely frustrating to have all of these different characters think, do, or say things for a short while, only to switch to another character who thinks, does, or says something else for a short while. The chapters end abruptly, but do nothing to help the reader understand what’s happening. Sepetys also hints—and hints and hints and hints—at things, but the short chapters mean that hints are only ever given—the readers are not given enough time, space, or information, to figure out anything for themselves; instead, we have to wait nearly 200 pages before one of the characters finally reveals something. No clever ways to hide plot twists here—just brevity and point of view switches.

I also found the book a little bit too sappy. It’s sweet and cute that Dan waited 18 years, but how realistic is it that he would really wait that long for a girl he knew for two months?? The whole thing just screamed “bad YA romance.” It felt cheap and disappointing that an author I’ve always associated with nuanced, deep novels relied on cheap writing tricks and a really cliché romance in this otherwise deeply rich historical novel.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction

Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Aurora Rising, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, was published in 2019 by Knopf.

Rating: 3/5                                          

I really wasn’t planning on reading Kaufman and Kristoff’s next trilogy. I mean, I enjoyed Illuminae to an extent (until the trilogy got repetitive and annoying), but I wasn’t super interested in reading more of the same by these two authors.

But the cover art kept pulling me in. I am a sucker for cover art, and this one is gorgeous. Plus, the cover art for the sequel is also amazing, so I shrugged my shoulders and got the book.

I’m not a fan of the rotating viewpoints, and this book has 6 characters to consider, though at least one of them keeps it short and sweet. By far the most interesting is Aurora. The others are more or less boring. There’s Tyler, the leader, who’s apparently both super hot and super smart, according to all the characters; there’s Scarlett, his sister, who’s had a million boyfriends and we’re supposed to admire her for that and for her acceptance of blatant objectification, I guess; there’s Cat, the pilot, who’s got some past with Tyler and keeps referring to him as “her Alpha” because all the characters call each other creepy things like “my Ace,” “my Alpha,” etc. There’s Zila, who’s my second favorite because she’s the quietest; there’s Finian, Alien #1, who really creepily objectifies everyone, and then there’s Legolas/elf clone Kal, Alien #2, who is literally called Legolas by Aurora (because apparently Lord of the Rings survived in pop culture though to the twenty-second century, which is…actually plausible, I suppose) and has this really cliché soulmate bond with her.

The plot is pretty interesting, though it definitely recycles some of the things that Kaufman and Kristoff did in Illuminae, most notably the dangerous plague/hive mind that’s going to take over the world if not checked. This first book is mainly set-up and worldbuilding, establishing the characters and the world and what’s at stake. There’s no real explanation as to why Aurora suddenly has special powers, beyond “an ancient species gave them to her somehow” handwave, but we might see some more development in that area in other books.

Criticisms aside, I did legitimately enjoy about 75% of the book. I just had serious problems with character interactions, the characterization itself, and a lot of stuff that happened at the end, like the soulbond and the weird ending with the stream of consciousness writing. But, it was fun and fairly tricky and I’ll probably read the sequel.

Recommended Age Range: 15+

Warnings: Tons of objectification, sexual innuendos, violence.

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction

Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

Starsight, by Brandon Sanderson, was published in 2019 by Delacorte. It is the sequel to Skyward.

Rating: 4/5

Starsight expands on the world Sanderson created in Skyward, taking us beyond Detritus to a world (universe?) filled with aliens and giant monstrous eyes living in “nowhere,” the place where ships travel faster than light. The characters from Skyward all take a back seat, with some not even showing up at all, while Spensa, M-Bot, and Doomslug take a risk and travel to see how they can help the humans on Detritus escape.

I wasn’t as fond of this book as I was Skyward, for various reasons. I loved how Sanderson expanded the world and all the new creatures and politics and dangers we met, especially the scary delvers and their mazes and eyes. But I wasn’t fond of how quickly he catapulted us out of the familiar, with Spensa taking her trip to Starsight less than a hundred pages in. While he gave us lots of alien politics and introduced new, fun characters, I was a bit annoyed that we never really got to see any of the olds ones, though at least Jorgen gets a few Interludes (with some information that seemed completely out of left field).

The part of the book that really let me down, though, was the “final battle.” I’ve been disappointed with Sanderson’s resolutions before (like in Calamity), and this one just seemed so anticlimactic and so ridiculous of a solution that it completely spoiled the atmosphere of the book for me. I was left feeling disgruntled, so the rest of the book ended up falling a little bit flat.

Plus, it ended on a cliffhanger. Ooo, I hate that.

Sanderson, at least, has the ability to weave plot threads throughout multiple books and remember that they’re there, and there’s tons of things that he seeded throughout Skyward that come to fruition here. Likely there’s lots of things that he still has up his sleeve for the presumed third book. And I still love that about him, of course.

I just wish this book hadn’t been quite as much of a let-down. A tiny let-down, but a let-down all the same.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction

Supernova by Marissa Meyer

Supernova, by Marissa Meyer, was published in 2018 by Feiwel and Friends. It is the sequel to Archenemies.

Rating: 3/5

*minor spoilers*

Though Supernova has the best cover art of the trilogy, I found it the weakest in terms of plot and resolution. It’s not that the climax and characterization aren’t satisfying or well-developed—they are, though I thought the book could have been 100 pages shorter—but everything revolved too much around underdeveloped concepts and too-quick reveals. The whole concept of the “star,” which Adrian plucked out of Nova’s brain (????), was not very well explained, and there were so many plot reveals that they started getting tiresome after a while. One of the biggest plot reveals I called from five miles away; Meyer never did anything with the reveal, either, so it felt pointless.

The most irritating thing was the ending, though, which is the sort of ending where everything is forgotten and everyone gets along (though this is maybe indicated not to be true with the epilogue). It just seemed extremely unrealistic to me, and absolutely none of Nova’s problems with society were answered or even addressed adequately (also, Meyer isn’t very consistent with what she has a problem with—in the first two books, it was making nonprodigies rely more on themselves, whereas in this book Nova is just angry at prodigies abusing their power). Instead, everything is disguised by a “the villain is dead and now we can all live together in harmony, conveniently forgetting what we were at odds about before said villain appeared” ending.

That is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book. I actually had a hard time putting it down. But I did think there were more problems with this book than the first two books. Some of the things Meyer does in this book should have been a little bit more clear in the first two books, or better explained in this book (I really did not understand the whole star thing). The reveal about Phobia was interesting, though, as was the Magpie reveal (which is the one I called from five miles away and wish was better explored in the earlier books rather than entirely out of left field). Overall, though, I did enjoy this trilogy a lot.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: LGBTQ+ themes

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction/Fantasy

Archenemies by Marissa Meyer

Archenemies, by Marissa Meyer, was published in 2018 by Feiwel and Friends. It is the sequel to Renegades.

Rating: 4/5

*minor spoilers*

I keep expecting to know how Meyer will do things, but the first book surprised me and this book, though it didn’t surprise me in the same way, still didn’t end the way I expected. The plot is a little more basic in this one: for the entire book, Nova’s goal is to steal Ace Anarchy’s helmet (which somehow amplifies his powers, but we’re never told how or why). There’s some side plots that crop up along the way—Agent N, which was introduced in the first book, and the Vitality Charm—but the main action at the end is focused around the helmet. This is a long book to have such a simple plot, and it definitely shows in areas.

Once again, I expected Nova’s identity as Nightmare to be revealed, and once again, it was not, except now it’s gotten to the point where I have no idea how Meyer can possibly pull any sort of happy ending out of this. Adrian is angry at Nightmare, Nova is angry at Sentinel—how can there be anything large enough to get past that? Will there be a mysterious big villain coming out of nowhere that requires them to team up? Or is Meyer going to use the number of times Nightmare and Sentinel get associated with things that they didn’t actually do be the thing that brings them back together?

Of course, I’m assuming the series will end with their identities being revealed, but now that I think about it, that doesn’t have to be the case. It may, in fact, be more interesting if they were never revealed.

The most interesting thing about these books is that Meyer has stuck strictly to Nova’s ideas of the Renegades throughout, never once showing another side. Not even Adrian’s point of view chapters have much to do with countering Nova’s ideas, and any opposite viewpoint is interspersed with Nova’s curt questions. It’s clear, especially at the end of the book, that Meyer wants us to agree with Nova.

I hope the plot for the third book is a bit more tricky and complex than this one, but otherwise I’m surprised by how much I’ve been enjoying this series. Hopefully Meyer doesn’t pull anything outrageous or annoying in the last book.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: LGBTQ+ themes

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction/Fantasy

Renegades by Marissa Meyer

Renegades, by Marissa Meyer, was published in 2017 by Feiwel and Friends.

Rating: 4/5

*minor spoilers*

Brandon Sanderson’s Reckoners series gave me a taste for superhero novels, so I decided to give Meyer’s (the author of Cinder) YA trilogy a shot. I liked her Lunar Chronicles well enough, except for Winter, so I figured I might enjoy this though it’s a different genre.

At first, I thought Renegades would be predictable. I mean, there’s only so many ways you can take a “girl infiltrates her enemy’s headquarters and seeks to overthrow them from the inside” plot. So, I figured that Nova would, in the course of her Renegade disguise, fall in love with Sketch/Adrian, but then discover that what she thought about the Renegades wasn’t true and/or get unmasked before she can do anything. The book would end with her true identity as a villain/Anarchist revealed.

Things looked good to be heading in that direction, until the very end when Meyer proved that she wasn’t just following a predictable, overused trope.

For one, Nova isn’t unmasked. For another, she still really and truly sticks to her Anarchist roots throughout, and while she learns a lot about the Renegades, she’s still dissatisfied with the way they run things (this whole book seems to be about Big Government Ruining Things because Nova is very into individual responsibility and not letting beaurocrats make all the decisions and solve all the problems). For a third, Meyer pulls a plot twist out of thin air at the very end of the book, a twist I didn’t see coming—and the great thing is, it didn’t come out of left field at all, AND it wasn’t particularly obvious.

So, in terms of plot, I can’t really fault Meyer. She did a much better job than I thought she would do, though the length of the book seems too long. There’s a stretch in the middle where everyone runs around a library that goes on forever. However, I can fault her for worldbuilding because it made very little sense. She’s simply too vague about the way things happened and nothing really is clear as to how things got the way they are. There’s no sense of place or time to the novel. Meyer seems to be being deliberately vague about many things like technology and other familiar things that would ground the novel, but then casually throws out words from modern day that fly in the face of a world-completely-changed narrative.

In addition, while several of the superpowers are clever (especially Sketch’s power) and most are standard ones you can think of, some are mindboggling strange. Like Ruby/Red Assassin, who swallowed some rubies and then suddenly has blood that turns into crystals??? What? And then there’s continuous mention of “bloodstone” with no reference as to what, exactly, that is…a drop of her blood that she uses as a jewel on her weapons? Or does she make weapons with her blood and then adorns each of them with this drop of blood (if so, why?)?

However, despite those things, as you can tell I still rated this a 4 out of 5, so my issues with the novel weren’t big enough to take away from my overall enjoyment of it, especially when Meyer changed things up and surprised me in a good way. The last (third) book just came out (though the end of this book seems to imply that it was originally only supposed to be 2 books), so I’m glad to read a series that’s actually finished already so I don’t have to wait too long.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Minor LGBTQ+ themes

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction/Fantasy

A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

A Curse So Dark and Lonely, by Brigid Kemmerer, was published in 2019 by Bloomsbury.

Rating: 4/5

A Curse So Dark and Lonely is continuing the streak of YA books that I’m pleasantly surprised with. It’s a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” involving parallel universes, curses, and a fairly decently developed world. Harper, a girl with cerebral palsy, is taken into another world in order to break the curse of the prince of that realm. The curse, of course, can only be broken by true love, but since Harper was kidnapped, she’s really not at all interested.

The thing that I was most impressed with was how Kemmerer resolved the curse. Honestly, overall, I thought she did a fantastic job with building the relationship between Harper and Rhen, and then to make it even better, she doesn’t rush the ending or force the characters into something that doesn’t make sense—instead, there’s a question raised, and a resolution to just try and figure things out. It was done really well, in my opinion, and it was a great way to “modernize” the “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale.

My biggest criticism is probably the parallel universe aspect of it. Harper being a character in the fantasy world makes no sense and would not have worked in the book at all, so I understand the idea behind having Harper be from Washington, D.C., but the parts involving her family back in D.C. were the weakest in the book. Kemmerer’s decision to give Harper’s family a loan shark background really didn’t work very well and seemed only to be used to generate drama, especially since nothing came of that side story, anyway. Scrap Jacob’s role as loan shark muscle and you still have all the incentive Harper needs to miss home and to want to return home later (i.e., her sick mother). So, that part fell a little flat because it didn’t really seem to contribute anything besides more drama that wasn’t needed.

Despite that, however, I really enjoyed A Curse So Dark and Lonely. It was not a traditional “Beauty and the Beast” retelling and I thought Kemmerer did a great job of making things new and original, and especially in changing certain things about the fairy tale that are more problematic and making them more realistic. There’s a sequel coming out eventually, so I might pick that up when it does!

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Realistic, Fairy Tale, Young Adult