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Review: THE GOD GAME by Danny Tobey

Review:  THE GOD GAME by Danny TobeyThe God Game by Danny Tobey
four-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on January 7, 2020
Genres: Science Fiction, Thriller
Pages: 496
Source: Netgalley
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | The Book Depository
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The God Game by Danny Tobey is a sci-fi thriller that focuses on what happens when a video game that starts off as a welcome escape from reality goes off the rails and takes a horribly wrong and dangerous turn.

The story follows Charlie, a high school senior, and his best friends, a group of computer whizzes who call themselves The Vindicators.  The Vindicators are invited to play a secret underground virtual reality video game called The God Game.  The game is designed by hackers and it’s controlled by an AI (Artificial Intelligence) that really believes it’s God, thus it knows everything and its presence is everywhere.  The whole concept fascinates the Vindicators and they get caught up in the excitement of the game right away.

The game really appeals to the teens for several reasons:  1) it’s challenging because it doesn’t come with instructions and you have to figure things out as you go, 2) it makes them feel special to be ‘in the know’ about something no one else knows about, and 3) they can actually perform tasks and get rewarded with actual prizes like expensive electronics and even cash.

It’s all fun and games at first, but then things take a decidedly darker and more sinister turn. The game starts to threaten them if they don’t perform certain tasks, shadowy figures start following them in real life and actually attack them.  Suddenly it’s not so fun anymore, but what happens when “God” won’t let them leave the game?

****

Wow, what a wild ride this book was!  The whole premise of the video game fascinated me and so I got sucked in just as quickly as the characters in the book did.  I’ve seen The God Game compared to both Black Mirror and Stranger Things, but I’ve not watched either show so I can’t attest to that.  What I will say though is that it gave me a definite Ready Player One vibe because of the virtual reality environment that would superimpose itself right over the real world every time Charlie and his friends played.  I loved this aspect of the author’s worldbuilding, especially when the teens go into the boiler room at school and it magically shifts into something that looks way more like Middle Earth than it does a room in a school.

Aside from the brilliant virtual reality worldbuilding, I also loved the suspense and tension created each time the game raises the stakes.  I found myself just flying through the pages because I wanted to know just how far “God” would go with its threats.

As exciting as the game itself was, what also really drew me into the story was its focus on the personal lives of this group of teens and why they were so eager to escape reality and practically live within the virtual reality walls of this game.  There’s a big focus on how hard it is to be a teen – the peer pressure, the pressure from parents, and even the pressure we put on ourselves.  I think that’s a theme that many will find all too relatable, and it also makes it all the more tragic that this game, which should have been an escape from their troubles, just ends up piling on to their troubles even more.

I don’t want to say anything else because it’s really a story you just have to experience for yourself, so I’ll just say if you’re looking for an exciting sci-fi thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat, and especially if you have an interest in AI, VR, and/or video games, you should definitely add Danny Tobey’s The God Game to your reading list.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

You are invited!
Come inside and play with G.O.D.
Bring your friends!
It’s fun!
But remember the rules. Win and ALL YOUR DREAMS COME TRUE.

Lose, you die!

With those words, Charlie and his friends enter the G.O.D. Game, a video game run by underground hackers and controlled by a mysterious AI that believes it’s God. Through their phone-screens and high-tech glasses, the teens’ realities blur with a virtual world of creeping vines, smoldering torches, runes, glyphs, gods, and mythical creatures. When they accomplish a mission, the game rewards them with expensive tech, revenge on high-school tormentors, and cash flowing from ATMs. Slaying a hydra and drawing a bloody pentagram as payment to a Greek god seem harmless at first. Fun even.

But then the threatening messages start. Worship me. Obey me. Complete a mission, however cruel, or the game reveals their secrets and crushes their dreams. Tasks that seemed harmless at first take on deadly consequences. Mysterious packages show up at their homes. Shadowy figures start following them, appearing around corners, attacking them in parking garages. Who else is playing this game, and how far will they go to win?

And what of the game’s first promise: win, win big, lose, you die? Dying in a virtual world doesn’t really mean death in real life—does it?

As Charlie and his friends try to find a way out of the game, they realize they’ve been manipulated into a bigger web they can’t escape: an AI that learned its cruelty from watching us.

God is always watching, and He says when the game is done.

four-stars

About Danny Tobey

Danny Tobey is the author of THE GOD GAME, arriving January 7, 2020 from St. Martin’s press. He is a fifth-generation Texan and a graduate of Harvard College, Yale Law School, and UT Southwestern medical school. Harvard gave Danny the Edward Eager prize “for the best creative writing.” He wrote and edited the Harvard Lampoon and was anthologized in The Best of the Harvard Lampoon: 140 Years of American Humor. Danny’s first novel, the sci-fi fantasy thriller The Faculty Club, came out from Simon & Schuster. Danny is a noted expert on Artificial Intelligence. In 2019, the Library of Congress gave Danny the Burton Award for his work on AI and the law.

Review: RECURSION by Blake Crouch

Review:  RECURSION by Blake CrouchRecursion by Blake Crouch
Also by this author: Dark Matter
four-half-stars
Published by Crown Publishing Group (NY) on June 11, 2019
Genres: Science Fiction, Thriller
Pages: 336
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

 

 

 

 
 

RECURSION Review

 

Wow, Blake Crouch has done it again! I didn’t think there was any way he could top the mind blowing reading experience of Dark Matter, but man, was I wrong…He really outdoes himself with his latest novel, Recursion, a gripping sci-fi read that explores what happens when memory storing technology designed to potentially help Alzheimer’s patients retain some of their memories ends up in the wrong hands.

The story follows Barry Sutton, a NYC police detective, and Helena Smith, a gifted neuroscientist.  Barry is sent to an address in New York where a woman is threatening to kill herself.  She has False Memory Syndrome, or FMS, a somewhat new phenomenon that keeps popping up more and more frequently. People who contract FMS suddenly develop a complete set of memories of a life that they haven’t actually lived.  The false memories are so vivid and detailed that they seem real, which causes those who have the condition to become completely confused about what is real and what isn’t.  The woman Barry has been sent to talk down from the roof suddenly started believing that she was happily married to a man that she really wasn’t.  The memories were so convincing that she sought out the man and discovered that he was happily married to someone else and had a family of his own.  Devastated by this discovery and armed with the knowledge that she’s really all alone in the world, she decides she doesn’t want to live.  Barry gets a taste of just how closely our memories dictate our reality and how it can all fall apart if we can’t trust those memories.

Eleven years prior to our meeting Barry, Helena Smith is hard at work trying to develop a technology that she hopes will help Alzheimer’s patients, including her own mother, retain some of their memories.  When a wealthy benefactor offers her nearly unlimited funding to fast track her research, Helena can’t resist.  All goes fantastically until she and her benefactor start testing the technology on live subjects and see all of its possibilities, both good and bad.  Fast forward eleven years and we can see firsthand the bad that can come of it and we see Helena’s and Barry’s journeys intertwine as they come together to try to stop what Helena has inadvertently set into motion.

What made Recursion such a phenomenal read for me was how Crouch manages to take this fictional memory storing technology, which, at first, sounds outrageous and completely impossible, and he transforms it into a scenario that seems completely plausible.  And because it actually does seem plausible, it starts to feel a little less like science fiction and a little more like a glimpse into our future.  The fact that there are potentially catastrophic consequences lends the story a real sense of urgency and ratchets up the tension and suspense.  The emotional and sometimes desperate reactions of those who are impacted by all of this mucking around with memories felt completely authentic too.  I sympathized with them so much and found myself wondering how I would react if I was in their shoes.  I loved that added emotional layer.

Crouch had me so caught up in this story that I was up until nearly 2a.m.one night because I just couldn’t go to sleep until I knew how the story was going to end.  I kind of hated myself the next day, but it was so worth it.  Plus, the writing is so crisp and smooth that it just naturally lends itself to binge-reading it.

Recursion is a powerful and mind blowing read that I just know I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come.  Aside from being a riveting page turner, it’s also a book that left me with some pretty major food for thought, namely the question of whether technology that has the potential to do an incredible amount of good is worth having if it also has the potential to do a devastating amount of bad if placed in the wrong hands.  If you enjoyed Dark Matter, you’re going to love Recursion.  And if you’re a science fiction fan, I highly recommend both novels.  They made Blake Crouch an auto-buy author for me.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Memory makes reality. That’s what New York City cop Barry Sutton is learning as he investigates the devastating phenomenon the media has dubbed False Memory Syndrome—a mysterious affliction that drives its victims mad with memories of a life they never lived.

Neuroscientist Helena Smith already understands the power of memory. It’s why she’s dedicated her life to creating a technology that will let us preserve our most precious moments of our pasts. If she succeeds, anyone will be able to re-experience a first kiss, the birth of a child, the final moment with a dying parent.

As Barry searches for the truth, he comes face-to-face with an opponent more terrifying than any disease—a force that attacks not just our minds but the very fabric of the past. And as its effects begin to unmake the world as we know it, only he and Helena, working together, will stand a chance at defeating it.

But how can they make a stand when reality itself is shifting and crumbling all around them?

four-half-stars

About Blake Crouch

Blake Crouch is a bestselling novelist and screenwriter. He is the author of the novel, Dark Matter, for which he is writing the screenplay for Sony Pictures. His international-bestselling Wayward Pines trilogy was adapted into a television series for FOX, executive produced by M. Night Shyamalan, that was Summer 2015’s #1 show. With Chad Hodge, Crouch also created Good Behavior, the TNT television show starring Michelle Dockery based on his Letty Dobesh novellas. He has written more than a dozen novels that have been translated into over thirty languages and his short fiction has appeared in numerous publications including Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Crouch lives in Colorado.

The best way to stay apprised of new releases is to follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Early Review: SKY WITHOUT STARS

Early Review:  SKY WITHOUT STARSSky Without Stars (System Divine, #1) by Jessica Brody, Joanne Rendell
four-stars
Series: System Divine #1
Published by Simon Pulse on March 26, 2019
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult Fiction, Retelling
Pages: 592
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

SKY WITHOUT STARS Review

 

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is a favorite of mine – I’ve read the book, seen the movie adaptations, and I’ve watched the Broadway show. I’m also a big sci-fi fan so I when I heard that Sky Without Stars by Jessica Brody and Joanne Rendell is a retelling of Les Miserables set in outer space, it immediately became a must-read for me.

Sky Without Stars is a dark and intense story of oppression, rebellion, and revolution.  It features three main characters – a thief, an officer, and a young woman who is guardian to the last surviving library.  These three seemingly unrelated characters will find their lives unexpectedly intertwined as the poor and oppressed citizen of the planet Laterre threaten to rise up against those who would keep them down.

In an atmosphere filled with danger and destruction, who will survive?

The worldbuilding in Sky Without Stars is top notch.  The story is set in outer space on the fictional planet of Laterre.  The authors did a brilliant job of reimaging the tense social climate in France at the time of the French Revolution, the way the filthy rich and the authorities built themselves up on the backs of the poor, while at the same time, turning their backs on them and letting them live in slums or starve in the streets. The descriptions were so vivid that it was easy to imagine the horrid conditions the poor were stuck in while the rich lived in their opulent homes. They also added in lots of futuristic gadgets and weapons, including a modernized version of a guillotine that reminded me a lot of a Star Wars lightsaber.

Chatine was my favorite character. She’s street smart and feisty, and all about doing whatever she has to do in order to survive.  Disguising herself as a boy, Chatine works as a thief, picking pockets all day.  She lives with her con artist family, but there’s no love lost there so Chatine is trying to thieve her way into getting enough money to buy her way onto a better planet.  I live for a good underdog, so I was cheering Chatine on every step of the way.

Marcellus was another interesting character.  He’s a military officer who is in training to take over leadership of the military.  He begins to question his loyalty to the government, however, after receiving a cryptic message from his father, that implores him to go and visit an old friend – an old friend who happens to be suspected of being one of the masterminds behind a rebel faction hiding amongst them.  It was interesting to watch how complicated things got for Marcellus as he struggled to figure out if his loyalties should lie with the government he works for or with the people, who are clearly suffering.

Alouette is the third voice we hear in the story and like, Chatine and Marcellus, she is an easy character to sympathize with.  At first I’ll admit that I found her a little dull compared to the other two characters, but once she is confronted with the fact that her whole life has been a lie, she gets a lot more interesting.

There is also a secondary character that I fell in love with, a young boy named Roche.  He’s a little thief like Chatine, but he has more personality in his body than all of the other characters added together.  He’s clearly modelled after Gavroche, who stole the show in the original story.

The main issue I had with Sky Without Stars was that I found myself constantly comparing it to Les Miserables.  I kept trying to match up every character in the retelling with who they were inspired by in the original and it actually started to get very distracting, especially if I thought the new character fell short of the original, case in point Alouette as Cosette and Marcellus as Marius.  Although I liked both Alouette and Marcellus overall, I just found them a little flat if I thought of them in relation to Cosette and Marius too much.

I also found myself missing characters like Fantine and Valjean, one who was not included in the retelling at all and one who seemed severely underused, even though I considered their roles to be pretty vital in the original.

It can be hard to measure up to a beloved classic, but I think Sky Without Stars stands on its own as a pretty exciting space opera.  I actually think I would have enjoyed it even more than I did if I had been less familiar with the original Les Miserables.  I guess what I’m trying to say there is I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys science fiction, even if you’re not at all familiar with the original classic.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

A thief. An officer. A guardian. 

Three strangers, one shared destiny . . .

When the Last Days came, the planet of Laterre promised hope. A new life for a wealthy French family and their descendants. But five hundred years later, it’s now a place where an extravagant elite class reigns supreme; where the clouds hide the stars and the poor starve in the streets; where a rebel group, long thought dead, is resurfacing.

Whispers of revolution have begun—a revolution that hinges on three unlikely heroes…

Chatine is a street-savvy thief who will do anything to escape the brutal Regime, including spy on Marcellus, the grandson of the most powerful man on the planet.

Marcellus is an officer—and the son of a renowned traitor. In training to take command of the military, Marcellus begins to doubt the government he’s vowed to serve when his father dies and leaves behind a cryptic message that only one person can read: a girl named Alouette.

Alouette is living in an underground refuge, where she guards and protects the last surviving library on the planet. But a shocking murder will bring Alouette to the surface for the first time in twelve years…and plunge Laterre into chaos.

All three have a role to play in a dangerous game of revolution—and together they will shape the future of a planet.

Power, romance, and destiny collide in this sweeping reimagining of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, Les Misérables.

four-stars

About Jessica Brody

Jessica Brody knew from a young age that she wanted to be a writer. She started self “publishing” her own books when she was seven years old, binding the pages together with cardboard, wallpaper samples, and electrical tape.

After graduating from Smith College in 2001 where she double majored in Economics and French and minored in Japanese, Jessica later went on to work for MGM Studios as a Manager of Acquisitions and Business Development. In May of 2005, Jessica quit her job to follow her dream of becoming a published author.

Since then, Jessica has sold over twelve novels for teens, tweens, and adults including 52 Reasons to Hate My Father, The Karma Club, My Life Undecided, and the three books in the Unremembered trilogy, the first of which is currently in development as a major motion picture by the producers of The Vampire Academy, Zero Dark Thirty, Life of Pi, and Slumdog Millionaire. In 2016, she will release two new contemporary novels, A Week of Mondays (August) and Boys of Summer (April), and in 2017, her debut middle grade novel entitled, Addie Bell’s Shortcut to Growing Up, will hit bookstore shelves.

Jessica also writes books for the Descendants: “School of Secrets” series, based on the hit Disney Channel Original movie, Descendants!

Jessica’s books are published and translated in over twenty foreign countries. She currently splits her time between California and Colorado.

About Joanne Rendell

Joanne Rendell is the author of three novels and holds a PhD in English Literature. She teaches fiction writing to teens and kids, as well as online writing classes at Udemy.com and Lynda.com. Joanne is a board member for the youth Shakespeare company, New Genesis Productions. With her husband and son, she divides her time between New York City and New Paltz, New York.

Review: HONOR AMONG THIEVES

Review:  HONOR AMONG THIEVESHonor Among Thieves by Rachel Caine, Ann Aguirre
four-stars
Series: The Honors #1
Published by Katherine Tegen Books on February 13th 2018
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 480
Source: the Publisher
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the Publisher. All opinions are my own..

MY REVIEW:

Honor Among Thieves, a science fiction novel brought to us by Rachel Caine and Ann Aguirre, is a thrill ride from start to finish.  Set in the not-so-distant future, the story follows teenage protagonist Zara Cole, a petty thief who is using her street smarts to survive on her own in New Detroit.  New Detroit isn’t the most pleasant place to live.  It’s actually quite seedy, but it offers Zara what she needs at this point in her life, freedom to live on her own terms and make her own decisions.  Zara has a family—in fact, she could be living with her mother and sister on a wonderful colony on Mars.  Zara’s past, however, has been filled with pain – pain she has experienced at the hands of an abusive father, and then the pain she feels that she has caused her mother and sister.  She decides that they would be better off making a fresh start without her causing them further pain, and so this is how she finds herself alone in New Detroit.

Zara is doing just fine for herself, stealing as she needs to and pawning what she steals for cash.  That is, until she steals from the wrong person – the daughter of Mr. Deluca, the most powerful man around – and finds herself on the run as Mr. Deluca makes it his mission to take Zara down.  Zara faces jail or even death, but in a surprise twist of fate, she finds herself being chosen to become an Honor instead.

The Honors is an elite team of humans who are chosen by the Leviathan.  The Leviathan are a race of what I would say are actual living space ships.  They can be piloted and lived in like space ships, but they can also think, communicate, and feel emotions.  Ever since the Leviathan stepped in and saved Earth from destroying itself, the Leviathan and the humans have had a symbiotic relationship.  Every year the Leviathan select 100 humans who will become passengers aboard the living ships and explore the outer reaches of the universe.  Usually those chosen to be Honors are scientists, musicians, and other scholarly types.  No one from Zara’s community has ever been chosen to be an Honor, so it comes as quite a shock to Zara, who is immediately suspicious as to their motives but agrees to take part because ‘Hey it’s better than jail or death, right?’

What surprises Zara right away is how almost as soon as she meets Nadim, the living ship she will be traveling on, she immediately feels at home for the first time ever.  More comfortable than she ever felt in her own home growing up.  She actually begins to look forward to spending a year traveling with Nadim; that is, until she realizes there’s more to this journey she is on than meets the eye.  Behind the allure of the elite Honors program, things are much darker and more dangerous than Zara had anticipated.  Between that and the other dark truths of the universe that she begins to see while on her journey, Zara realizes she might be in as much danger here as she was back on earth.

Can her street smarts help her here or is Zara in completely over her head?

 

Zara was definitely my favorite part of Honor Among Thieves.  I loved her spunk and her street smarts. She is tough as nails and it’s easy to cheer her on, especially as she takes on the underdog role, both against Deluca and then again as a thief among Honors (Side note:  I loved that little play on words with the title).  As much as I enjoyed the action in the story, it’s actually Zara’s development as a character that really drew me in and kept me reading.  She is so closed off and mistrusting of everyone around her when the story opens, but once she gets on that ship and starts to bond both with Nadim and with Beatrice, her fellow Honor, she becomes almost a completely different person.  She’s so much more open and trusting and her compassionate side just really comes out when it comes to protecting and defending those she cares about.  I liked Zara when the story began, but I absolutely adored her by the end.

Nadim.  Okay, I’ll admit the whole idea of a living ship kind of weirded me out at first.  The image I have in my head is along the lines of Jonah and the Whale but the Whale is actually a space ship.  The whole concept was just so wild. Once I got used to it though, I loved it, especially Zara’s ship, Nadim.  Almost as soon as she boards the ship, Zara learns that some of Nadim’s previous missions haven’t gone very well and that if his mission with Zara goes badly, he will be banished to live alone in space.  What I really liked about Nadim was that even though he is this massive space ship, he still has this vulnerable, almost childlike quality about him, and like Zara, I found myself feeling very protective of him.

The Action.  Between the actual mission itself and then all of the underlying, unexpected drama, this is one action-packed book.  In a lot of ways, this aspect of it reminded me of Illuminae with its breakneck pace and with the way it becomes a survival story.  The last half of the book goes by especially fast because there’s so much drama and suspense.  If you like action, aliens, space battles, and conspiracies, you’d be in for a treat with this book.

 

The only aspect of Honor Among Thieves that I had trouble with is what was referred to as ‘Deep Bonding’ between a Leviathan and a human.  Zara and Nadim engage in this ‘deep bond’ at one point and I don’t know if it was supposed to come across this way, or if I just read more into it than I should have, but it had an almost sexual vibe to me.  I was all for the idea of Zara and Nadim in a non-sexual, soulmate kind of way, but that one section just made for an awkward read for me.

 

Honor Among Thieves is the start of what is sure to be wonderful new series.  I hadn’t read anything by either Rachel Caine or Ann Aguirre prior to reading this story, but they are both on my watch list now.  If you’re into spunky, street smart heroines, space exploration, and are intrigued by the idea of living space ships, be sure to check out Honor Among Thieves.  You won’t be disappointed!

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Petty criminal Zara Cole has a painful past that’s made her stronger than most, which is why she chose life in New Detroit instead moving with her family to Mars. In her eyes, living inside a dome isn’t much better than a prison cell.

Still, when Zara commits a crime that has her running scared, jail might be exactly where she’s headed. Instead Zara is recruited into the Honors, an elite team of humans selected by the Leviathan—a race of sentient alien ships—to explore the outer reaches of the universe as their passengers.

Zara seizes the chance to flee Earth’s dangers, but when she meets Nadim, the alien ship she’s assigned, Zara starts to feel at home for the first time. But nothing could have prepared her for the dark, ominous truths that lurk behind the alluring glitter of starlight.

four-stars

About Ann Aguirre

Ann Aguirre is a New York Times & USA Today bestselling author with a degree in English Literature; before she began writing full time, she was a clown, a clerk, a voice actress, and a savior of stray kittens, not necessarily in that order. She grew up in a yellow house across from a cornfield, but now she lives in sunny Mexico with her husband, children, and various pets. She likes all kinds of books, emo music, action movies and Doctor Who. She writes all kind of fiction in multiple genres, both YA and for adults.

About Rachel Caine

Rachel Caine’s rich, diverse bibliography of more than 50 books in print covers many categories and genres. She started out writing horror and fantasy as Roxanne Longstreet (Stormriders, The Undead, Red Angel, Cold Kiss, Slow Burn) before switching to the name Roxanne Conrad and publishing romantic suspense and mystery (Copper Moon, Bridge of Shadows, Exile). By 2003, she began to publish under her current pseudonym, specializing in urban fantasy, science fiction, and paranormal young adult fiction.

She has been writing original fiction since the age of fourteen, and professionally published since 1991. She graduated from Socorro High School in El Paso Texas (where she was a UIL all-state champion in music and journalism) and went on to earn an accounting degree from Texas Tech University. She played professionally as a musician for several years once out of college, but ultimately gave up the music for writing.

She’s had a varied “day job” career, including web design, graphic arts, accounting, payroll management, insurance investigation, and (most recently) corporate communications and crisis management. (It all counts as research.)

Rachel loves reading, writing, and mild amounts of arithmetic when required … but she has a special place in her heart for history, music, and science, and you’ll find those themes in many of her works.

Book Review – Empress of a Thousand Skies

Book Review – Empress of a Thousand SkiesEmpress of a Thousand Skies (Empress of a Thousand Skies, #1) by Rhoda Belleza
three-half-stars
Series: Empress of a Thousand Skies #1
Published by Razorbill on February 7th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 314
Source: Library
Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Crown princess Rhiannon Ta’an wants vengeance.  The only surviving heir to an ancient Kalusian dynasty, Rhee has spent her life training to destroy the people who killed her family. Now, on the eve of her coronation, the time has finally come for Rhee to claim her throne – and her revenge.

Alyosha is a Wraetan who has risen above his war refugee origins to find fame as the dashing star of a DroneVision show. Despite his popularity, Aly struggles with anti-Wraetan prejudices and the pressure of being perfect in the public eye.

Their paths collide with one brutal act of violence: Rhee is attacked, barely escaping with her life. Aly is blamed for her presumed murder.  The princess and her accused killer are forced to go into hiding – even as a war between planets is waged in Rhee’s name. But soon, Rhee and Aly discover that the assassination attempt is just one part of a sinister plot. Bound together by an evil that only they can stop, the two fugitives must join forces to save the galaxy.  In this exhilarating debut for fans of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy, Rhoda Belleza crafts a powerful saga of vengeance, warfare, and the true meaning of legacy.

 

MY REVIEW

 

Rhoda Belleza’s Empress of a Thousand Skies is a novel I picked up because it’s advertised as being for fans of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy.  Since those are two series that I’m currently reading and really love, I thought this would be a fantastic read for me.  For the most part it was, too. I thought it was a very exciting adventure with a lot of twists and turns in the plot and two very compelling main characters. That said, I did have a few issues with it though — mainly that the synopsis is rather misleading. It states that main characters Alyosha (known as Aly) and Rhiannon (called Rhee) will “join forces to save the galaxy.” Sounds pretty exciting, right? And I’m waiting for it to happen with each passing chapter…and waiting…and waiting, and guess what? Rhee and Aly don’t even meet in the first book. You can tell that’s the direction the series is most likely moving in, but I was surprised and a little frustrated to reach the end and the two of them had never crossed paths yet.

LIKES

That gripe aside, I really enjoyed the overall story. It’s an exciting mix of science fiction and politics, deception and betrayal, and it also tackles some pretty big topics that are relevant to our own society such as racial prejudice and scapegoating, as well as privacy issues that can arise because we surround ourselves all the time with technology that can be hacked.

I also really liked both of the main characters and was sympathetic to both of their stories, which were presented in a dual point of view. Rhee’s entire family was killed in an explosion so she’s the last surviving member of the Kalusian dynasty. She thinks she knows who killed her family and has been training for years to seek her revenge against the killer. She plans to exact revenge on her 16th birthday when she will be crowned Empress. All doesn’t go according to plan though because an attempt is made on her life, and presumed dead and not knowing who she can trust anymore, Rhee goes into hiding until she can figure out who has betrayed her and how she can get the throne back and uphold her father’s legacy.

Aly’s story is equally compelling. He is a Wraetan and a war refugee who, like Rhee, has lost his entire family. He lost his when Wraeta was destroyed ten years ago by Kalu during the Great War. Aly manages to overcome the anti-refugee sentiment and rises in status to become a famous TV star. Even though he is a star, however, he still struggles with anti-Wraetan prejudices and is often belittled because of his dark skin color. When Aly finds evidence that Rhee may not be dead after all and attempts to broadcast this news, he suddenly finds himself the prime suspect in her murder. The real perpetrators knew he would make for the ideal scapegoat because of the racist attitudes toward his people. Aly’s journey then parallels Rhee’s as he too must go into hiding until he can figure out his next move and who he can trust.

 

DISLIKES

There was a lot of info dumping in the beginning as the author set out to describe all of the different planets and territories in this galaxy as well as the backstories of each of these characters. It’s to be expected since she’s creating an entire galaxy from scratch, and the world building itself is phenomenal, but it did tend to slow the pace down at the beginning.  Once she got that out of the way, however, the story really took off for me and I read the whole book in less than two days.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Empress of a Thousand Skies is a book I’d definitely recommend to sci fi fans and to anyone who enjoys political intrigue. It’s like House of Cards set in space, and I definitely want to read the second book when it comes out to see how Rhee and Aly finally do join forces to take down their common enemy and stop a war that threatens to tear apart their world.

 

RATING:  3.5 STARS

three-half-stars

About Rhoda Belleza

Rhoda Belleza was raised in Los Angeles, where she grew up writing XFiles fanfiction and stuffing her face with avocados. When she’s not writing, Rhoda obsesses over nail art tutorials, watches kung fu movies, and sews together crooked things that pass for clothes. She’s a children’s editor at a publishing house and writes from a sunny Brooklyn apartment stuffed far too many bikes and far too many shoes. Empress of a Thousand Skies is her debut novel.

ARC Review of Iceling

ARC Review of IcelingIceling (Icelings #1) by Sasha Stephenson
two-half-stars
Series: Icelings #1
Published by Razorbill on December 13th 2016
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Science Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: First to Read
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from First to Read. All opinions are my own..

Goodreads Synopsis:  Lorna’s adopted sister, Callie, is part of a mysterious group of non-lingual teens, Icelings, born on a remote Arctic island, who may not be entirely human. Now Callie wants to go home.

Seventeen-year-old Lorna loves her adoptive sister, Callie. But Callie can’t say “I love you” back. In fact, Callie can’t say anything at all.

Because Callie is an Iceling—one of hundreds of teens who were discovered sixteen years ago on a remote Arctic island, all of them lacking the ability to speak or understand any known human language.

Mysterious and panicked events lead to the two sisters embarking on a journey to the north, and now Lorna starts to see that there’s a lot more to Callie’s origin story than she’d been led to believe. Little does she know what’s in store, and that she’s about to uncover the terrifying secret about who—and what—Callie really is.

* * * * *

My Review:

As a lover of books, it pains me to read a book and not completely fall in love with it.  The only thing worse than reading a book and not loving it is to then have to sit down and write a review explaining the lack of love I feel.  But that’s unfortunately where I am with Iceling.  Let me start by saying that I don’t think I was anywhere near the target age for this book so that should definitely be taking into account if you’re trying to decide if you should give this book a shot.

What I Liked About Iceling:

  • Originality:  The premise of the story is totally unique.  So many books that I read immediately remind me of three or four other books that are similar in storyline or themes.  The originality of Iceling’s storyline is what initially drew me to request the book in the first place. I was very intrigued by the idea of this Arctic-born mysterious group of non-lingual teens who may or may not be human.  It definitely didn’t sound even remotely close to anything I’ve ever read before.
  • Message:  I enjoyed the relationship between Iceling Callie and her big sister Lorna.  Even though they cannot communicate verbally and Callie demonstrates no signs of even understanding English, Callie and Lorna still share a strong sisterly bond. In fact, Callie is closer to Lorna than she is to anyone else in her family.  I thought the author’s message that being family isn’t necessarily about blood was a powerful one.  And then she takes it a step further to show, as Lorna even learns at one point, that just because you’re related to someone doesn’t mean they won’t betray you or lie to you.
  • Action:  Although the beginning half of Iceling moves along at a somewhat slow pace as we get to know Callie and Lorna and start to see what sets Callie apart from everyone else around her, by about the halfway point, the story really takes off and it’s non-stop action from then on out.  You’ve got government conspiracies, rogue soldiers, betrayal, explosions, murder, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg (pardon the icy pun!)

Sounds pretty good so far, right?  So why didn’t I rate it higher?  Well, unfortunately, what I didn’t like about Iceling far outweighed what I enjoyed about it.

What I Disliked About Iceling:

  • The  Narrator:   For much of the novel, we are in Lorna’s head, following her thoughts about everything that is taking place around her – with Callie, her boyfriend, her parents, etc.  The problem with it for me was that there were so many long, rambling, and often repetitive internal monologues.  I understand wanting to get inside of a character’s head to understand where they’re coming from and that’s usually something that helps me really relate to a main character, but there was just so much rambling that it actually hindered my warming up to Lorna.  I didn’t really become invested in her at all until over halfway through the book when she, Callie, and her friends suddenly become underdogs caught up in a major conspiracy.

There was also a tendency by the narrator to over explain things that were fairly self-explanatory, like Lorna and her friend Mimi driving around “dog-calling” boys.  A couple of examples of said “dog calling” made it completely apparent that “dog calling” is their version of males and their “cat calling.”  I didn’t then need what was basically a textbook definition of “dog callng” to make sure I understood what they were doing. It felt like being spoon fed.

That, on its own, probably wouldn’t have bothered me all that much, but when it was coupled with minimal elaboration on what I considered to be crucial elements of the plot – like, for example, what is going on with Callie and these conniption fits that periodically have her rushed off to the hospital for mystery “treatments” that family members aren’t allowed to witness.  Or how about the mysterious adult Iceling they encounter on their journey to the Arctic who pops up out of the ice and then disappears without a trace? Who or what was that? That’s not really something to toss out there and leave hanging with no real explanation or follow up.

  • Plot Holes that required too much suspension of belief:  I knew by its classification as science fiction that I should expect a few far-fetched events to take place, like the mystery Iceling I just mentioned, but even so, there were just some things that I found a little too hard to swallow.

Now let me say up front that I had issues with Callie and Lorna’s parents leaving them alone for weeks while they traveled to the Galapagos Island.  You know your one daughter is prone to these weird fits and sometimes has to go to the hospital, but you’re cool with leaving teenage Lorna in charge.  Bad Parenting 101, but okay, fine. Bad parenting happens so I can roll with it.

I also struggled a bit with this journey that Lorna and Callie, accompanied by Stan and his Iceling brother Ted, take north to the Arctic.  The trigger for this trip is that both Callie and Ted, even though they were nowhere near each other at the time and had never communicated with one another before, had both simultaneously crafted models of what Lorna and Stan assume is their Arctic homeland.  Again, seems a little odd to pile your Icelings in the car and go on a road trip to the Arctic of all places, but again, stranger things have happened, so I was still hanging in there.

What I could not just roll with, however,  was the fact that it wasn’t just Lorna and Stan who came to this conclusion.  As they get further north, they encounter dozens and dozens of cars containing Icelings, each holding models of the same Arctic island.  So, we’re supposed to believe that every single family that had an Iceling simultaneously came up with the same perfect solution to this odd event:  ROAD TRIP TO THE ARCTIC!

I can’t say too much more about plot holes without spoiling major elements of the story but there  were several other similar plot holes that just left me shaking my head the further I got into the story. Much of the story felt like trying to put together a puzzle that has several missing pieces. You kind of get the whole overall picture, but there are still nagging missing details.

Who Would I Recommend Iceling to?

Even though it wasn’t really for me, I still think it could have the potential to be a great sci-fi read for younger readers. I’m thinking freshmen or sophomores in high school,  being much closer to Lorna’s age than I am, might more readily relate to her —  and especially to what’s going on in her head  –  than I could.

 

My Rating:  2.5 stars

 

* * * * *

two-half-stars

About Sasha Stephenson

Sasha Stephenson holds an MFA in poetry from Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn, New York. This is his first novel.

Book Review – Red Rising

Book Review – Red RisingRed Rising (Red Rising, #1) by Pierce Brown
four-stars
Series: Red Rising # 1
Published by Del Rey (Random House) on January 28th 2014
Genres: Science Fiction, Fantasy
Pages: 382
Source: Purchased
Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:

“I live for the dream that my children will be born free,” she says. “That they will be what they like. That they will own the land their father gave them.”

“I live for you,” I say sadly.

Eo kisses my cheek. “Then you must live for more.”

Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations.

Yet he spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children.

But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity already reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and sprawling parks spread across the planet. Darrow—and Reds like him—are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.

Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity’s overlords struggle for power. He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society’s ruling class. There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies… even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.

My Review:

Wow, what a read! If you enjoy series like The Hunger Games, Divergent, Red Queen, and even Game of Thrones, then Pierce Brown’s Red Rising will be right up your alley. It’s like a mashup of all of them, with a dash of Lord of the Flies thrown in for good measure. From that description alone, you can imagine what an action-packed, adrenaline rush of a book this is and that’s what I loved about it.

Now to be perfectly honest, I did struggle with the first 50 pages or so as Brown was focused almost exclusively on introducing the main character Darrow and his people, the Reds. Darrow’s world is defined by a color-based caste system where he and his fellow reds are considered the lowest in status, and those who are Golds sit at the top of the food chain. In addition to the focus on describing the caste system and Darrow’s place in it, Brown also focuses on the world building aspect. These pages were the slowest part of the read for me and tended to be a little dense at times. However, since the world Brown was creating was a fully colonized solar system with Mars as its central setting (How cool is that?!), I’ll definitely forgive him for the slowness of the read because the rest of the novel more than makes up for it.

So, what did I love about Red Rising? Pretty much everything, but here are some of the highlights for me:

1. The Betrayal – For generations, Darrow and his fellow Reds have worked in mines beneath the surface of Mars. The work they do is dangerous – deadly, in fact, between the pit vipers that try to attack them and the ever present possibility of explosions as they hit pockets of gas. But they have been led to believe that what they are doing is critical – they are working to make Mars habitable for the human race because Earth’s resources are being depleted.

It’s not a good life, by any means, and Darrow’s wife, Eo, thinks they should rebel so that their children can have better than they do. She believes this so fervently that she ultimately becomes a martyr to this cause, killed by the Golds for singing a forbidden song that encourages rebellion. She is in the minority, however. For the most part, the Reds accept their lot in life because they believe that they are sacrificing themselves for the greater good of the human race. That is, until Darrow encounters someone who reveals the truth to him: that the surface of Mars has been habitable for generations. All this time that Darrow and his people have been slaving away beneath the surface, it was not to make Mars habitable, but to sustain life for the upper classes, in particular, the Golds. There are cities, parks, and Golds are even flying around wearing fancy attire and gravity boots.

Now it’s one thing to think you’re making some big and noble sacrifice to ensure the survival of the human race, but it’s quite another thing to be kept basically as slaves to make sure the Golds can keep living the good life. Once he realizes the level of betrayal that has been leveled at his kind for all these years, Darrow vows to pick up his dead wife’s cause and rise up against the Golds. I really liked how Brown drops this truth bomb on Darrow just as he is finishing up the initial world building, so that it drives the rest of the story’s plot forward like an avalanche. It also served to help put me in Darrow’s corner because I was a little conflicted about whether or not I liked him because he has kind of an obnoxious, know-it-all personality in the beginning pages. What the Golds did to the Reds, however, was so repugnant, that I became fully invested in cheering on Darrow. Those Golds need to go down!

2. Darrow’s transformation – In order to exact his revenge, Darrow, with the help of some other rebellious types, plans to defeat the Golds by becoming one of them and infiltrating their ranks. The transformation from Red to Gold is an extreme one that involves a visit to what is known as a “Carver,” which is basically like plastic surgery to the hundredth power – pretty hardcore stuff, to say the least and once carved, Darrow is completely unrecognizable from what he was. As part of his transformation, he also undergoes rigorous intellectual training so that he can mimic the Gold’s vocabulary, mannerisms, and customs, etc., so that he can more easily assimilate into their population and, most importantly, win a spot in their academy, which is where the plan for rebellion will really be set into motion.

Now I can’t say that I 100% bought into what I was reading with this whole carving/transformation business, but Brown’s descriptions of the whole process were so vivid and so phenomenal that I really didn’t care how far-fetched it was. Every few pages I was just sitting there like “OMG, no way! They’re really doing that to him?!” It was fascinating!

3. Darrow’s Squad – I don’t want to go into too many details about what happens once Darrow actually joins the Gold’s academy, since that’s where the bulk of the novel’s action is, but I will say that while pretending to be one of them, Darrow assembles a pretty amazing team of student soldiers. Even though I was conflicted about whether or not I really liked Darrow, I LOVED Mustang. Gold or not, Mustang is fantastic. She’s strong, fearless, witty, – just an all around badass character. Sevro was also a favorite of mine. He’s a quirky character, pulls off quite a few impressive moves, and is also so incredibly loyal to Darrow that it’s impossible not to like him.

Aside from their general awesomeness, what fascinated me even more about them was how much they served to humanize the Golds. Here we have Darrow trying to infiltrate the Golds in order to bring them down, yet he seems to truly like these few Golds who have assembled around him. Does he really like them or is it all just part of his plan? How will they react if they find out that he’s really a Red and not a Gold? The potential for conflict there really intrigues in terms of where this story goes in the later books.

4. The Action! – All I kept thinking while reading the action/battle sequences is “OMG, people actually WANT to go to this academy?! Why?” What takes place in the academy is why I said earlier in my review that Red Rising reminds me of The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones, and Lord of the Flies. The training that takes place here is seriously vicious, like, quite literally, cutthroat, and only the best of the best will endure. Again, I don’t want to go into too many details, but if you like epic fight scenes, military-style strategic maneuvers, and watching how people behave when all societal rules are tossed out the door, then you’ll love this book.

Okay, so that all sounds fabulous, right? Of course. So why didn’t I give this book 5 stars even though I’m clearly gushing about it?

Sexual Violence Against Women – Yes, I totally get that this is a violent, action-packed book with everyone trying to dominate everyone else to climb to the top of the power ranks. I was disappointed, however, to read that for one character in particular, Titus, dominating others included sexual assaulting female student/soldiers. That was just disturbing and over the top for me, and I hope it won’t be a theme that continues in the rest of the series.

Who would I recommend this book to?

I’d definitely recommend Red Rising to anyone who enjoyed The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones, and other similar dystopian-themed books because it’s similar in themes and equally well written. However, because of the level of violence, particularly the sexual violence I just alluded to, I’d confine my recommendation to adults only. I don’t think this would be appropriate for younger readers. In terms of genre, I can’t decide whether to classify this as science fiction or fantasy, but I think that anyone who enjoys either genre would enjoy Red Rising.

Rating: 4 Stars

four-stars

About Pierce Brown

Pierce Brown spent his childhood building forts and setting traps for cousins in the woods of six states and the deserts of two. Graduating from college in 2010, he fancied the idea of continuing his studies at Hogwarts. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a magical bone in his body. So while trying to make it as a writer, he worked as a manager of social media at a startup tech company, toiled as a peon on the Disney lot at ABC Studios, did his time as an NBC page, and gave sleep deprivation a new meaning during his stint as an aide on a U.S. Senate campaign. Now he lives Los Angeles, where he scribbles tales of spaceships, wizards, ghouls, and most things old or bizarre.