‘Kingdom of the Wicked’ – Kerri Maniscalco

 

From the moment Emilia and her twin sister, Vittoria, are introduced to us at eight years old we know the amulets they wear are significant. These are girls whose family are part of a hidden group, witches who work in secret and who are well-versed in prophecies. However, no matter what knowledge they have they could not be prepared for what transpires here.

Early on, Vittoria is murdered, her heart ripped out and her body left for Emilia to discover. Understandably, Emilia wants to find out what happened and for whoever is responsible to pay. But nothing comes easily here and Emilia ends up in a situation that heralds great danger.

To cut a long story short, Emilia decides to take matters into her own hands, and to summon a demon. The one she ends up summoning is Wrath, one of the seven Princes of Hell. Determined to get answers and avenge her sister’s murder, Emilia ignores much of what she has heard and enters a bargain – the possibilities of which are only hinted at here.

Maniscalco creates an interesting character in Wrath. Obviously intent on a higher purpose it is blindingly obvious that he is not to be trusted. Yet there is something hinted at under the surface, something that definitely suggests Emilia has got under his skin and offers something he wasn’t quite prepared for. While I’d have been quite content if we’d seen this side through to its conclusion, I actually liked the fact that Wrath kept his eye on the main goal and set up a much more intriguing scenario (which I imagine we’ll see in the sequel). I can’t wait to see what happens now Emilia has her own endgame in sight.

Huge thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication.

‘A Deadly Education’ – Naomi Novik

 

A Deadly Education had me hooked from the moment it mentioned a school where strategy was all…where you graduate or die. I was expecting something dark, and wasn’t wholly disappointed.

This was a school like no other, where danger lurks round every corner (and on the ceiling and behind doors) and if you make it through the year you either have power of the magnitude others should be scared of or you have friends in high places. Our main character is El, daughter of a renowned healer, who is not particularly sociable or likeable, who has skills she wants to keep hidden and who is sick to death of being rescued by the school hero Orion.

From the opening I liked El. Rather abrasive but well-meaning, she is easy to empathise with. Watching so much from the sidelines, she is a rather reluctant main character who realises that sometimes you have to adopt a different strategy to win the long game.

In their final year the power being shown by the dark creatures attacking them is of concern. Orion is doing what he can to keep people safe, but our unlikely alliance offers a different approach. It felt strange to have a book set in a school where there is little adult presence, and where we can see the stakes are so high.

The story itself built as expected. Slowly we see the rising threat and watch as they work out how to tackle it. I was more intrigued by the message from her mum at the end warning her to stay away from Orion – a little late, and of course I want to know what is in store for them in what I imagine will be a dangerous senior year.

‘Rumblestar’ – Abi Elphinstone

The time it took me to listen to this on audio is, in no way, a sign of my feelings about the book. I am pretty new to using audiobooks and find certain conditions/settings make it easier for me to follow the story when I don’t have the physical text in front of me.

This is a great adventure, with characters that you can’t help but admire, want to succeed and which made me feel a lot braver just reading about them. Eleven year old Casper likes routine and his life is led by his timetables. Unfortunately, these timetables mostly consist of helping him to avoid the school bullies determined to make his life awful.

One day Casper finds himself hiding in a clock to escape them, and is transported to a magical world. Rumblestar is a strange place, full of whimsy, but the characters he meets as he tries to prevent the evil taking over the world. From Arlo the dragon to his first proper friend, Utterly Thankless, these characters were full of life.

There was a great blend of fear and humour, and our character’s journey was inspirational. Huge thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for letting me listen to this prior to publication.

 

‘Hollowpox: the Hunt for Morrigan Crow’ – Jessica Townsend

What an October treat this will be for many readers, and I’m thrilled to have been given the opportunity via the publishers and NetGalley to read it before publication (and desperate for my pre-order to arrive so I can read it again).

For a book targeting younger readers, our third instalment takes a dangerous turn that brings darkness to Nevermoor. The threat comes in the form of a virus (I did wonder if Townsend had the ability to see into the future!) called the Hollowpox that infects wunimals and forces them to act in self-destructive and dangerous ways. The infection rate is small, initially, but quickly takes hold and rises to the level that means it cannot be ignored. Restrictions are imposed and fear of what is to come spreads.

Alongside this very real threat hovers the fear Morrigan has of Squall, the link they seem to share and what it will mean for her to be a Wundersmith. Now in her next year of studies Morrigan is granted the opportunity to study more of the craft that few seem to understand, many fear and yet which offers real potential. Through some inventive teaching methods she gets to learn more about Wunder and how she can manipulate it. It also means she gets to see more of Squall, and comes to see him as human.

Throughout the book the focus is on the Hollowpox and its impact. However, Townsend seamlessly blends this bigger picture with the emotional journey of Morrigan and some cracking scenes that really had me racing through the pages. The writing, throughout, is vibrant and there are several moments (you’ll know them when you get there) that really had me guessing in which direction this was going to go.

I can safely this was a read that I’d highly recommend.

 

‘Midnight Sun’ – Stephanie Meyer

Twilight from Edward’s view…yes, at the time, I read the leaked version that made its way on-line and, yes, at the time I thought it seemed a little pointless. When this project seemed to be shelved, life went on and I didn’t think of it again…until we got the news it was releasing this summer. No matter what I thought of it, I knew I’d read this because it counted as unfinished business and my curiosity would win out.

The first thing to make clear is, as so many point out, this is over-the-top, riddled with cringe-worthy similes and there’s still very little to make Bella a particularly endearing character. I have to say I expected this. The second thing to comment on is the story is the same. We know what’s going to happen and it really is a step-by-step rehash of the story we already know, so there’s little added for us. Again, no surprises.

What we did get with this story from Edward’s view was an attempt to poke beneath the surface of what still seems a very odd and unhealthy relationship. I actually found myself liking some of the big scenes coming from this perspective – things were fleshed out and it was easy to see why events were organised as they were. Learning a little more about the Cullens and their backgrounds was good. Some will kill me for saying it, but I also liked the fact there was surprisingly little focus on Jacob and the wolves. My only concern now is the somewhat cynical fear that we’re now going to get another book…this time telling us Jacob’s story. I truly hope not, as I feel this would be too much and definitely exploiting all those readers (myself included) who probably could have done without this but who read it for the nostalgia fix.

 

‘Cinderella is Dead’ – Kalynn Bayron

 

The story of Cinderella is one that everyone knows. But what would you do if the story was a lie? That is the premise of this story, and it was one I was really excited about reading so I was thrilled to get an ARC from NetGalley to read in exchange for my honest thoughts.

Our story focuses on Sophia, a young girl who lives in Lille where everyone abides by the rules set. Every year girls have to attend the Annual Ball – if they are chosen they must be subservient to their husband, and if they are not chosen nobody hears from them again. Though some recognise the problems with such a regime, none seem prepared to stand up to fight it.

Sophia would like nothing more than to live with her childhood friend, Erin. When the time comes for them to attend the Ball, things don’t quite go to plan. Sophia escapes, and takes refuge in Cinderella’s mausoleum where she is found by Cinderella’s only living descendant, Constance. Buoyed by their sense of belief, and hope for a different future, the girls take on the challenge of confronting the King. They take on a journey fraught with danger, where nobody is quite what they claim to be, in a desperate attempt to change the lives of girls in the future for the better.

While the story follows a rather predictable path, there were attempts to offer something new. We got strong female characters who weren’t afraid to stand up for their beliefs. There was the odd twist to illustrate the idea that sometimes people can hide their true desires from others, and there were hints that people can change things if they are true to their convictions. Perhaps the Cinderella retelling offers less than it might, but it was certainly an interesting read.

‘The Damned’ – Renée Ahdieh

In this second instalment of the series, we start to get answers to some of the questions that so niggled me in the opening.

This time round we begin with the aftermath of what took place with Celine and Bastien. Celine has asked for her memories to be removed in exchange for letting Bastien live. He has been turned into a vampire, thus breaking an old agreement that looks as if it’ll cause trouble. She seems to be settling into her new life, even looking forward to a future with Michael Grimaldi, but we soon learn she is not fully unaware of her past experiences.

The answers behind Celine’s immunity to the mind-altering came as something of a surprise (I wondered if there were details I’d missed from earlier). I enjoyed her determination to be true to herself, in spite of what those around her say, though it didn’t really seem that we were in a particularly different time.

It won’t come as any surprise to see Bastien and Celine are more closely linked than people might like them to be. We get hints of a much bigger picture, and the references to the past and the other worlds suggest that there could be exciting times ahead.

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this prior to publication.

 

‘The Extraordinaries’ – T.J. Klune

The Extraordinaries has a rather unusual take on the super-hero story and I wasn’t totally sure whether we were meant to see this as genuine fantasy, fan-fiction comedy, or some weird hybrid. Elements of this were very funny, the hints of what’s to come in the bigger picture are definitely interesting but there’s a few elements that I feel will make this problematic.
Our main character is Nick Bell, son of a local cop. Nick has ADHD and is struggling since the killing of his mother. He has a close group of friends that he claims are the school outcasts, though their bond is close enough they don’t seem to take much notice of this. His ex, Owen, still hangs around and pushes his buttons – but seems very keen to see how Nick’s best friend Seth reacts. Nick keeps himself occupied by writing fan fiction about his crush on the superhero Shadow Star.
From the outset we see how important the superhero is to Nick. He ends up rescued by him, but then there’s the small matter of Power Storm, his nemesis. We don’t know quite what’s going on (although it doesn’t take long to figure some parts out) but the rapidly escalating violence between these two starts to cause problems.
The focus on Nick means we are, naturally, kept a little in the dark about some aspects of the world-building and events taking place. As Nick learns, so do we. Watching him bounce round causing chaos was funny, but not particularly helpful at times. However, once we get further details of the role certain characters play it certainly offered more interest- don’t want to give anything away, but the revelations about Nick’s mum right at the end certainly imply there’s more to this than we’ve got here.
Unfortunately, the humour and general lighthearted focus was marred by some of the details given and the characters’ reactions. As the son of a cop, Nick gets away with a lot. In light of current affairs and concern about police behaviour, to have him joking about such affairs seems in bad taste. We find out his dad was demoted after punching someone involved in a case. Few details are given, but it adds nothing to this story and seemed a poor decision to feature when so much is being talked about with regard to the behaviour of those in charge of maintaining law and order. I’ve seen a couple of reviews where this feature was picked up on and vociferously decried, so it’ll be interesting to see whether attention is paid to these advance reviews and whether any changes are made prior to publication.
Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this in exchange for my thoughts.

 

‘The Fascinators’ – Andrew Eliopulos

The Fascinators was one of those reads that I’m not quite sure what to make of.

The prologue opens by getting us to see young Liv picked up by a group that we know nothing about and hints at something awful happening before completely switching focus. The story then shifts to a trio made up of Sam, James and Delia. They practise magic and are definitely something of an oddity in their hometown. We don’t know where their magic comes from or why it’s such a big deal to them, and this lack of detail was part of the issue with the book for me.

These characters live in a world where magic is fundamental to the story unfolding for us, yet we are never shown how we come to this position. With the arrival of new guy Denver we can see there’s a shift in the dynamics but it’s unclear just why this comes about.

A key factor in this story is the focus on Sam coming to terms with his feelings for James and how this impacts on their group dynamic. There’s clearly been tension for some time before we encounter the group but we don’t really get to understand this until a lot later on, by which time we’ve probably decided our views on them all and what we want to happen.

In terms of plot, it’s actually quite straightforward – but without really getting a full picture of the world/attitudes to magic it was quite hard to really understand the significance of details until quite late on. Sam was infuriating at times, but the end result was actually quite positive and suggested that his relationship with James could have been held up to closer scrutiny.

 

‘The Challenger’ – Taran Matharu

Talk about leaving you hanging! A frustrating (yet fitting) end to a cracking story.

Picking up not long after the events of Book One, Cade learns that he is to act as the representative in a much bigger battle. It’s a threat he is ill-equipped to deal with, so the priority for the group at the start is to find armour.

Unfortunately, while searching for what they need the group are taken by slavers. Cade has to barter for his freedom – resulting in them being forced to participate in the emperor’s gladiatorial games.

What follows is fraught with danger, but wholly believable. Seen from Cade’s perspective we are made to witness a number of awful battles as he strives to complete the tasks put in front of him to secure what he needs to have a chance of success. We get a lot of awful scenes, but Cade’s honest reactions to these mean we never see them as anything other than a very necessary step towards what he needs to do to get home (or be in with a chance to).

There’s hints of romance, which you could see coming a mile off. There’s deepening bonds of friendship and there’s a clear sense that these characters we come to care about are mere pawns in a much bigger game.

I am so grateful to NetGalley for granting me access to this in exchange for my thoughts. Now I need to dig a little and see what the plans for part three are…I have questions that I’m really hoping will be answered!