ARC Review – Mask of Shadows

ARC Review – Mask of ShadowsMask of Shadows by Linsey Miller
three-half-stars
Series: Untitled #1
Published by Sourcebooks Fire on August 29th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
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Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Sallot Leon, the protagonist in Linsey Miller’s Mask of Shadows, is out for revenge.  Sal is the sole survivor of the territory of Nacea.  Nacea and all of its people were destroyed when the land of Erlend started a Civil War with the land of Alona.  Erlend was supposed to protect Nacea but when mysterious and deadly shadows were unleashed during the war, the Erlend lords chose to abandon Nacea and retreat to safety.  Completely alone and forced to live as a thief in order to survive, Sal is determined to make those Erlend lords pay for what they did to Nacea.

When Sal steals a poster advertising a contest to become Opal, one of the Queen’s group of elite assassins, it sounds like the perfect way to gain access to the lords and thus begin seeking revenge.  There’s just one catch – the competition to become Opal is basically a fight to the death, the last one alive wins.  So Sal’s plan is ultimately to get revenge or die trying.

 

LIKES

I’d have to say that Sal is definitely my favorite part of the novel. They are charming, witty, and extremely resourceful.  Sal is also the classic underdog in this competition because the majority of the competitors are heavily trained in combat and other lethal skills, whereas Sal is used to getting by on their street smarts.

You’ll also notice my use of ‘they’ as I’m referring to Sal.  Sal is a gender fluid protagonist, and in most cases is referred to as they, although Sal indicates that what gender pronouns are used should be dictated by what type of clothing is being worn. If Sal is wearing a dress, for example, using ‘she’ is perfectly acceptable.  I had never read a book with a gender fluid character in it before so this made for a unique read.  I don’t know much at all about gender fluidity but I thought Miller did a very nice job portraying it here.  I also liked that it was incorporated smoothly into the overall story and didn’t overshadow other plot points.  A few characters inquired about it in terms of how to address Sal, but otherwise they accepted it without question and moved on. It wasn’t treated as an oddity.

Another aspect of Mask of Shadows I enjoyed was the competition itself.  Yes, it was reminiscent of The Hunger Games, but it was still an exciting, action-packed part of the book regardless.  The rules were basically to kill as many of your fellow competitors as possible, but do so without being caught.  Since the competition is to become one of the Queen’s assassins, stealth is one of the most important qualities needed.  Miller does a fantastic job of building plenty of tension and suspense as the reader follows Sal through the competition, playing this ultra-intense kill-or-be-killed game, never knowing when a potential assassin might be hiding around any corner, or up in any tree, looking for the perfect opportunity to take them out. One distinct difference between this competition and The Hunger Games was that all of the competitors were referred to by numbers and wore numbered masks over their faces at all times.  They were only referred to by their numbers, which added an almost-dehumanizing element to the competition. I had mixed feelings about the masks because there were a few competitors I would have liked to know more about, but it was hard to connect with any of them since they were just faceless numbers.

Also somewhat reminiscent of The Hunger Games, but in a good way (for me anyway) is that each competitor is assigned a servant to help them dress, bathe, ensure they have safe, non-poisoned food to eat each day.  Sal’s servant, Maud, was one of my favorite characters in the book.  She’s not allowed to give Sal any kind of advantage during the competition, but behind the scenes, she is hard core in Sal’s corner.  Why?  Because if Sal wins, Maud gets a reward and a huge promotion.  So she’s very excited each day that Sal doesn’t die.  She’s sassy too, so she adds a much-welcomed element of lightheartedness in the middle of what is otherwise just scene after scene of murders and attempted murders.

DISLIKES/ISSUES

My biggest issues with Mask of Shadows had to do with pacing, which was slow at times, especially when the author was detailing Sal’s backstory and the reasons why they wanted to become one of the Queen’s assassins.  I lost interest a few times along the way and only came away with a vague notion of what the world of Mask of Shadows entailed so I would have loved more world building, but without it being in the form of info dumps.

I also had issues with the romance, which I found to be out of place and unfortunately distracting from the main storyline.  Although I thought Sal and Elise had a lot of chemistry when they first met (while Sal was robbing Elise), as the story went on and they are reunited as part of the competition, I preferred them  as teacher and student rather than romantic partners.

Overall, I think more action-packed competition scenes and little or no romance would have better served Mask of Shadows.

FINAL THOUGHTS

While I did have some issues with it, overall I still enjoyed reading Mask of Shadows.  While parts of the storyline are in some ways reminiscent of The Hunger Games, the similarities did not bother me because there are still enough differences to make it a unique and entertaining read.

RATING:  3.5 STARS

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Linsey Miller, and Sourcebooks Fire for allowing me to preview this book.  This in no way shapes my opinion of the book being reviewed.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that. But gender fluid Sal wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery of life as a highway robber and get closer to the upper-class and the nobles who destroyed their home. 

When Sal Leon steals a poster announcing open auditions for the Left Hand, a powerful collection of the Queen’s personal assassins named for the rings she wears — Ruby, Emerald, Amethyst, and Opal — their world changes. They know it’s a chance for a new life.

Except the audition is a fight to the death filled with clever circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. But Sal must survive to put their real reason for auditioning into play: revenge. 

three-half-stars

About Linsey Miller

A wayward biology student from Arkansas, Linsey has previously worked as a crime lab intern, neuroscience lab assistant, and pharmacy technician. She is currently an MFA candidate represented by Rachel Brooks of Bookends Literary. Her debut novel MASK OF SHADOWS is the first in a fantasy duology coming in August 2017 from Sourcebooks Fire. She can be found writing about science and magic anywhere there is coffee.

Book Review: Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

Book Review:  Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida CordovaLabyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas, #1) by Zoraida Córdova
four-stars
Series: Brooklyn Brujas
Published by Sourcebooks Fire on September 6th 2016
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 324
Source: Purchased
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Goodreads Synopsis:  Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.

Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange marks on his skin.

The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…

MY REVIEW

Zoraida Córdova’s Labyrinth Lost is the first book in the Brooklyn Brujas series and it follows sixteen year old Alex, who is just trying to live her life as an average teen in Brooklyn, New York.  Alex, however, is anything but average.  She comes from a long line of magical brujas and brujos, which are witches, so everyone in her family is eagerly anticipating the moment when her magical powers finally awaken.  The problem is that Alex doesn’t want her powers. Her family doesn’t realize it, but Alex’s magic has long since awoken and she thinks she accidentally caused something bad to happen with it since she couldn’t control it.  Because of that, she wants to parts of this magic and so has hidden her magic from others  for as long as she could.

Eventually, however, her family finds out and they throw her the traditional Deathday celebration. This celebration is a family blessing of sorts, including both living family members as well as the spirits of those who have died, which ensures every bruja and brujo’s magic works as it should.  As they are preparing for the Deathday celebration, Alex meets a new friend, Nova.  She is immediately drawn to Nova, although she’s not sure she trusts him because he acts so mysterious.  She confides in him that she doesn’t want her powers and he suggests a spell she can use to eradicate them during the Deathday ceremony.  Alex attempts the spell during the ceremony and, much to her horror, it backfires and banishes her entire family to another realm, an in-between world of sorts, called Los Lagos.  The rest of the book focuses on Alex’s quest to travel to this other world and to right her wrong and save her family.

LIKES

There were so many things I loved about this story that it would take me all day to list them, but here are some standouts for me.

Unique WorldbuildingLabyrinth Lost feels like a cross between Alice in Wonderland and Orpheus’ journey to the underworld to save Eurydice, and then on top of that, it is also filled with a rich history of Spanish and Latin American legends.  Córdova uses this unique combination of ingredients to create one of the most incredibly original worlds I’ve encountered since I started reading fantasy novels.  It’s equal parts creepy and magical and you can’t even begin to guess from one moment to the next what Alex will face on her journey across Los Lagos.  There’s a portal to the other world that must be traveled through, then there’s a ferry that must be taken across a river of souls where souls actually try to grab at the ferry’s passengers, not to mention fierce monsters that are prowling around just waiting to attack, and there’s even a random a tea party, complete with little toad stool chairs, in progress.  I really flew through these pages because I just couldn’t wait to see what Alex would encounter next.

DiversityLabyrinth Lost scores high marks in diversity. In addition to use of Latin folklore, the main character is a person of color and she is also bisexual.  (For those who are fans of love triangles, there’s one in this book and it’s f/f/m).

Family Relationships – I loved how Labyrinth Lost had such a huge focus on family and how important one’s family is.  Even though their relationships tend to be complicated, as most families are, Alex is so close to both her mom and her two sisters and it kills her to think they are suffering because of what she did.  She is willing to risk everything, including her own life, to do whatever she needs to do to free them from Los Lagos.

Coming of Age Story – I love reading journeys of self-discovery and Alex’s journey definitely fits the bill.  When the novel first opened, I honestly didn’t even really like Alex that much. She came across as very selfish and spoiled, and so in many ways, she was my least favorite character. That said, however, she shows such tremendous growth as she devotes herself to saving her family and learns to embrace her magic and all it entails along the way.  By the end of the novel, I ended up loving Alex.

DISLIKES

I won’t really call this a dislike because it’s more “Man, I really wish there was more of this” and that involves Alex’s friend and eventual love interest, Rishi.  Rishi is so devoted to Alex that when she sees this random open portal in Alex’s backyard and can’t find Alex anywhere, she dives into the portal without hesitation because she wants to make sure Alex is okay.  Beyond the fact that she’s totally devoted to Alex, however, we don’t really learn that much about her.  I loved the little glimpses of her personality that we did get and really wanted more.  I’m glad this is just the first in the series so there’s hope for more about Rishi.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Labyrinth Lost is such a unique and memorable read. I loved learning about the Latin folklore and look forward to exploring it further when the next book in the Brooklyn Brujas series is released.

RATING:  4 STARS

four-stars

About Zoraida Córdova

Zoraida Córdova is the author of The Vicious Deep trilogy, the On the Verge series, and Labyrinth Lost. She loves black coffee, snark, and still believes in magic. She is a New Yorker at heart and is currently working on her next novel. Send her a tweet @Zlikeinzorro.

ARC Review of The Bone Witch

ARC Review of The Bone WitchThe Bone Witch (The Bone Witch, #1) by Rin Chupeco
two-half-stars
Series: The Bone Witch #1
Published by Sourcebooks Fire on March 7th 2017
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy
Pages: 400
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  The beast raged; it punctured the air with its spite. But the girl was fiercer.

Tea is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy makes her a bone witch, who are feared and ostracized in the kingdom. For theirs is a powerful, elemental magic that can reach beyond the boundaries of the living—and of the human.

Great power comes at a price, forcing Tea to leave her homeland to train under the guidance of an older, wiser bone witch. There, Tea puts all of her energy into becoming an asha, learning to control her elemental magic and those beasts who will submit by no other force. And Tea must be strong—stronger than she even believes possible. Because war is brewing in the eight kingdoms, war that will threaten the sovereignty of her homeland…and threaten the very survival of those she loves.

My Review:

The Bone Witch follows the story of a young witch named Tea (pronounced Tay Uh).  Tea wants to train to become an asha.  There are several different kinds of asha, all of whom can weave spells to a certain degree using elemental magic, with the rarest of all ashas being the Dark Asha, or Bone Witches, who have the power to raise the dead.  When Tea accidentally raises her brother from the dead at his funeral, she realizes that she is one of those rare dark asha.  She is then removed from her home and sent to train with an older, more experienced dark asha because she must be trained how to wield the dark asha magic.

 

What I Enjoyed:

What I enjoyed the most about The Bone Witch was Chupeco’s writing and her world building.  – the way Chupeco describes these ashas with their elaborate costumes, their gorgeous jeweled hairpins, their graceful movements, and their painted faces had me envisioning magic-wielding geishas.  The descriptions were just so vivid and beautiful.

I was also really into the story early on because it had such a unique premise.  I loved the idea that there were so many different kinds of ashas, each with their own unique abilities, and I was also intrigued by the idea that the dark asha’s magic was often feared in the various kingdoms, which we witnessed throughout Tea’s training.  I loved the air of mystery it lent to the dark asha.

I was also especially into the story because Tea’s newly resurrected zombie brother now basically follows her around everywhere she goes and is considered her familiar.  It’s totally cute (in a creepy sort of way).

I think my favorite part about the story was how it was structured.  In between the chapters that take us with Tea through her early days of training to be a dark asha, we are given small teasers of Tea in the future.  In these teasers, what we see is that Tea has been exiled to a deserted island and is plotting revenge against those who sent her there.  As part of her revenge, she is also using her dark magic and skeletal remains that are on the island to build herself an army of undead beasts.  These teasers really help to build up the suspense as we’re left to wonder 1) what in the world Tea could have done that was bad enough to yield such a punishment for her and 2) wow, how powerful is her magic that she can build such a monstrous army to unleash on her enemies?  You just know as your reading those teasers that we’re in store for something huge as we continue reading about younger Tea’s training.

What I Didn’t Like:

My biggest issue with The Bone Witch is that even though I loved the descriptive writing, overall there was just too much description and not enough action.  Once Tea found out she was a bone witch and left to begin her training, it just didn’t feel like much else happened. Tea spends what feels like forever working as some kind of indentured servant before she actually even starts training. Then once it is determined she can finally start training, more time is spent describing a shopping spree to buy her the proper robes (referred to as hua) and jeweled hairpins than is spent describing what she’s learning.

Then once the story does start to focus more on the training, we have long descriptions of dance moves she is learning and instruments she is learning to play and we just breeze through other elements of the training, like fighting, that probably would be more interesting.  As much as I loved the descriptive passages early on, I really started to get bored with the lengthy descriptions of the patterns on asha’s hua.  This continued to be an issue for me throughout the book.  Every outfit that each asha wore was described in such great detail, but in comparison, a terrifying attack that kills 20 soldiers is just a blip on the radar. It seemed like, in so many cases, the main action of the story really took a backseat to descriptions of items that didn’t seem nearly as important.

Who Would I Recommend The Bone Witch to?

I think I would recommend The Bone Witch to readers who don’t mind a very slow build to what could perhaps end up being a truly phenomenal series.  Those teasers that we get of Tea on the deserted island hint that big things are going to happen and those big things are going to be pretty darn exciting.  Even though I was disappointed with the lack of action in this first book, I definitely see myself continuing with the series because I feel like the second book has the potential to be a great read.

Thanks to Netgalley, the publisher, and Rin Chupeco for providing me with an e-galley of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Rating:  2.5 stars

 

two-half-stars

About Rin Chupeco

Despite an unsettling resemblance to Japanese revenants, Rin always maintains her sense of hummus. Born and raised in Manila, Philippines, she keeps four pets: a dog, two birds, and a husband. Dances like the neighbors are watching.  She is represented by Rebecca Podos of the Helen Rees Agency.