Posted in Books

The Queen of the Tearling

The Queen of the Tearling (The Queen of the Tearling, #1)The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Young Adult genre is not my favorite. Once upon a time, I absolutely loved it. The Hunger Games, Divergent (if we ignore the travesty that was Allegiant), Uglies, and heck, even Twilight, were all a lot of fun when I first read them five or so years ago. They weren’t masterpieces of literature by any means, but they were fun. I doubt I would enjoy them as much a second time, but I’ve left them with the ratings I originally gave them because they earned that rating at the time. Since then, the genre has gotten stale to me. Books like Matched, Red Queen, Beautiful Creatures, The Young Elites and others left me with a bad taste in my mouth. They just seemed so formulaic, recycled from stories that had already been successful. I got sick of the angst and self doubt and insta-love and love triangles that plague the genre as a whole. There were exceptions, of course; I loved Daughter of Smoke & Bone, Six of Crows, and Cinder. But since the genre has been pretty hit-or-miss for me, I was hesitant to pick this book up.

I’m glad I did, though! Kelsea started off as an unlikely heroine to me, but she tried so hard to do the right thing that I couldn’t help but like her. She struggled with her looks and with believing in herself, but the girl was smart and determined and just so strong. The supporting characters were very well written, as well, especially Lazarus, the Fetch, and Javel. As a reader, I appreciate when a writer gives me character development and insight in small doses, instead of drowning me in information or starving me for the same. Johansen balanced this very well.

When I first started reading, the setting kept throwing me out of the story. It felt like a completely new place, but I kept being reminded that the capital was New London, and that they were a colony whose American doctors had been lost at sea and so on. For some reason, the emphasis on the setting being founded on our reality was jarring to me. But I acclimated, and I’m beginning to see the reasoning behind Johansen’s choices.

The magic in the book was very mysterious and remains unexplained, but I actually enjoyed that aspect. I’m a big fan of technical magic systems á la Sanderson, but I can appreciate mystery when it’s well presented, as this was. Sometimes the magic was a tad too convenient, but alas. Hopefully the Jewels and their power will be further fleshed out in following books.

A couple of things bothered me, though. First and foremost, some of the content makes me uncomfortable with the YA label attached to the book. There was a good bit of language and sexual content that I wouldn’t be comfortable with a high school freshman reading. In my opinion, this would be more appropriately labeled a New Adult fantasy instead of a Young Adult fantasy. I had much the same problem with the genre being tacked onto the Red Rising trilogy. Also, I’m afraid that Kelsea’s self-image issues and her focus on her looks or lack thereof could be harmful to girls struggling with their appearances.

Finally, I appreciated that there was an actual ending to the story. Yes, this is a trilogy, and the book most definitely left room for the next two volumes. But there was actually a resolution! So many YA books just leave you hanging at the end. (I’m looking at you, Three Dark Crowns.) All things considered, this was a fun read, and I’ll be continuing the trilogy at some point in the future.

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Senlin Ascends

Senlin Ascends (The Books of Babel, #1)Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 stars, rounded up to 5.

“What if?” questions make for the most interesting stories. What if you could attend a school that could teach you the mysterious art of magic? What if dragons were real? What if we’re not alone in the universe? What if swords could talk, and their sass could not be contained? Or, in the case of this book, what if God never destroyed the Tower of Babel and it became the center of civilization?

Bancroft did a wonderful job weaving his tale of Thomas Senlin, a school Headmaster venturing to the Tower for his honeymoon with his lovely, plucky wife, Marya. Within minutes of leaving their train, the newlyweds are separated in the sea of humanity cresting around the foot of the Tower. Senlin Ascends is the story of Thomas Senlin’s mad search for his wife as he enters the Tower and progresses further up and further in. Each “ringdom” presents new challenges for Senlin and new philosophical conjectures to be mused upon by the reader. And each new leg of Senlin’s journey exposes a new, darker, and more disturbing view of the Tower lauded as the center of civilization.

What determines a person’s worth? Their wealth? Their name? Their relationships? Their position? What is the meaning of life? Is it to live rough and drink much and just endure until the end comes? Is it to become someone else, to fill a role until you can’t tell where it ends and the “real” you begins? It it to frolic and mingle and bask in your station while gloating over and pitying those less fortunate? When you live a world about the rest of the population, can you continue seeing them as equals, or do they become something less than human in your eyes? All of these questions and more filter through the mind of the reader as they follow Senlin’s ascension through the Tower.

Besides the philosophical bent of the book, my favorite aspect of Bancroft’s story was his main character, Thomas Senlin. When we first meet Senlin, he is self-conscious, nervous, absentminded, naïve, snooty, and quite honestly helpless. But when faced with the loss of his wife, Senlin adapts. He more than changes; he metamorphoses. We watch Senlin endure hardships beyond his imagining and, slowly but surely, become an entirely new creature. But unlike many of those changed but the Tower, Senlin doesn’t putrefy; he flourishes. Senlin becomes driven, focused, clever, and confident, all while maintaining a stunning optimism completely opposed to life in the Tower. He manages to make friends when none are meant to be found. His growth is some of the greatest character development I’ve read in any book. Side characters, such as Adamos, Edith, Tarrou, Oglier, Iren, and even Finn Goll are all well fleshed out and grow throughout the story. Though she is missing for a larger portion of the novel, Marya is a lovely character whose many facets are revealed nicely through flashbacks. As the story progresses, her relationship with Senlin makes more and more sense, and the love he has for her becomes more real and poignant as he fights his way through the Tower in search of her. I’m hopeful that Marya will be a greater presence in the second volume of the trilogy, because I loved everything I read about her.

I enjoyed the book immensely, though I do feel it was a bit overhyped. The character development, as stated previously, was beyond reproach. The Tower itself was a wonderful setting, new and interesting and nuanced. But the pacing of the story left something to be desired, stretching the plot too thin in places. I also felt frustrated at the lack of an ending, though I know this is the first in a trilogy and can see where Bancroft did attempt to provide some sort of resolution. But besides the poor pacing, Senlin Ascends was a fantastic read, and felt truly unique, for which I couldn’t give less than 4.5 stars. I will most definitely be reading the rest of Bancroft’s work.

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Reconstructing Amelia

Reconstructing AmeliaReconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

2.5 out of 5, rounded up to 3.

This was not my favorite book. But that’s not the book’s fault. I’m just not a fan of contemporary murder mysteries unless they’re penned by Nora Roberts, my favorite guilty-pleasure author. I would have never picked this book up on my own, but joining a real-life book club has gotten me out of my fantasy comfort zone. All of that being said, the hatred I had for the first half of the book mellowed, and I sped through the last half.

I think one of my big problems with contemporary thrillers is that their plot twists are over-hyped. Going into a book like this or Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, I psych myself up to be shocked. But then I’m not. Sure, there are some surprises, but I end up predicting many of the twists. Perhaps this is from overexposure, but the books lose a bit of their zing for me, regardless. Also, contemporary thrillers tend to have an overabundance of unlikeable characters, and this book was no exception. I understand that the writers are going for realism here, but their view on reality is depressingly pessimistic in my opinion. When characters have no redeeming qualities, I have a hard time connecting to them and caring about their stories.

Once I passed the halfway point in the story, I did start to care a bit more about Amelia and Karen, but I was never quite able to cement a connection with them. And, unfortunately, none of the “big reveals” in the plot were surprising to me, but I won’t get into those as I’m trying for a spoiler-free review. But I did enjoy this one more than both of the aforementioned books, though I rated Gone Girl higher because I had read less of this genre at that time and was thus more surprised by the twists. All in all, it was a decent read, and would probably appeal more to a reader who doesn’t prefer their stories filled with dragons and magic and sassy talking swords.

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Morning Star

Morning Star (Red Rising, #3)Morning Star by Pierce Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars, for both this book and the series overall.

That was a wild, brutal ride. Excellent, but brutal. Brown knows how to write a finale. Were there issues with this last book? Yes. Some scenes were drawn out, other scenes were rushed. Some writing decisions made by Brown felt like they were made purely to mess with the emotions of the reader, not to further the plot. But other decisions Brown made were tiny but wonderful, such as the inclusion of a beloved meme.

Darrow’s character was a bit lackluster in this final book, but it was a believable lack, in my opinion. The poor man had been through the wringer. One does not simply get over the psychological ramifications of torture just because one is freed from their prison cell. If he would’ve just popped right back into the character he was in Golden Son, I think I would have lost a bit of respect for Brown’s writing, so I appreciate how he wrote his central character. There was also some incredible growth in some of the side characters, namely Sevro, Ragnar, and Victra. Watching Sevro grow from book one to book three was really wonderful. I got attached to so many characters, and my heart shattered when some of them didn’t survive.

I did have a few qualms with the series overall. First, I’m not a fan of a first person narrative. I understand that the series wouldn’t have worked as well any other way, but being inside someone’s mind for three books gets a bit tedious after a while. Also, it’s incredibly hard to hide a plot twist when the narrator is involved, because how can he keep from thinking about the plan he helped engineer? Thus, some things that should have been shocking ended up being a tad predictable. Some of the romance felt contrived, as well. The conclusion felt a bit rushed, but I tend to feel that way about any good story; I just don’t want it to end. All in all, I was satisfied. And I can’t wait to read Iron Gold!
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Posted in My Fiction and Poetry

The Last Dancing Princess

The night sky hung low, heavy as crushed velvet and thick with diamonds. Rebecca stepped out onto the terrace and shut the doors behind her, but even leaning against them couldn’t shut in the music. It followed her outside, seeping through doorjambs and windows and high stone walls to curl seductively around her, enticing her back inside to dance. When she did not yield to its embrace, the music floated lazily up and away, toward the velvet sky set with stars. The song faded, and Rebecca released the breath she had held trapped behind clenched teeth, her lips trembling slightly in relief. Her relief was premature. Where his music had failed, the musician had come to try his luck.

The violinist was a tall man, and thin. Not so thin as to seem skinny, but his flesh was pulled taut over his bones as though the artist who had shaped him had left no room for either error or embellishment. In form, he was perfect. However, his thinness reflected itself in his eyes and gave everyone who met him the impression of… hunger. That hunger was what Rebecca feared. Matthew’s hunger was powerful, and it called forth the hunger that dwelled in the deepest, blackest parts of others. And, despite her very best efforts, Rebecca was not exempt from that stirring hunger. Matthew stepped onto the balcony, his dark hair silver in the moonlight, his eyes inky pools darker than the night around them.

“Rebecca, my angel, my dove, won’t you come back inside and dance to my music?” Matthew asked. He stretched out his left hand towards her, his right cradling the violin that had become her bane.

The smile resting on his lips was gentle, but she read the truth behind that smile in the razors of his cheekbones, sharp enough to slice through the toughest opponent. She had witnessed him wielding that smile, and held out little hope that she would triumph where others had fallen. Her heart ached at the memory of the musician’s most recent victims. She had once been merely a single dancer among many, but the music had claimed her sisters, one by one. Rebecca was the last of them, and she felt in her bones that, if she succumbed to Matthew’s seduction, she would join her sisters before the sun rose.

“Haven’t you taken enough?” she begged. Her throat was raw with pain and fear, and her words were the softest of whispers. “Please, please let me go. My father will be alone in the world if you take me. Please,” she pleaded with the last of her voice.

She had watched her father mourn each of her sisters, and it had broken her heart. But it was the pain and confusion and fear in the old king’s face that had shattered her. He clung to her, the last of his daughters, and she knew that losing her would break him past the point of repair. Love for her father gave her the strength to take a step away from the musician, but only one. He would have her soon.

“I would never hurt you, my love,” Matthew soothed. “Your sisters were weak, fragile things. But you’re different. They didn’t feel my music like you do.” The hunger in his eyes threatened to swallow her where she stood. The neck of his violin protested beneath white knuckles. His throat bobbed as he spoke past his thirst.

“No one has ever danced to my music with such abandon. No other voice has ever joined with it as sweetly. We are meant, you and I. Your sisters were merely preludes to you. Rebecca,” he moaned as he reached one lithe hand toward her face, “oh, my love. You belong with me.”

Cold iron met her hand as Rebecca took one last shaky step away from the musician. She grasped the railing of the balcony, threading her wrist through the tightly curling metal to keep herself from stepping forward and resting her cheek against Matthew’s outstretched hand. Because, despite her fear and her sorrow over her sisters and her father, the musician was beautiful, and some perverse part of her loved both him and his music. That part of her wanted to dance until nothing remained of her feet but bone and blood, to sing until her throat sliced itself to ribbons and only silence and pain remained. Surely Matthew was merely another name for Mephistopheles; who but the Devil could wield music to entice his listener to pain and death? For her death was certain if she gave in to the music.

Rebecca looked down and, for the briefest of moments, could see through the illusion that clothed her. The lavish ball gown that matched the midnight sky faded, revealing a once white nightgown, now little more than stained rags. In that instant she could see the torn, bloody remnants of her feet, and the bloody footprints that Matthew’s music had inflicted. The dirty hand she held before her fisted into her stained gown as it melted into lush velvet once more. No, she would fair no better than her sisters, no matter what her tormentor professed. Her other hand tightened on the balcony’s railing. If she was going to die, she would go out on her own terms. And those terms did not include dancing. Matthew must have seen the decision in her eyes. His widened in return.

“No!” he cried, lunging for his dancer, his muse. Rebecca twisted away, twirling in one last pirouette. The musician could not match the dancer for speed. Furious with her options, Rebecca snatched Matthew’s violin from his arms. If she was to lose her life, the least he deserved was the loss of his instrument. The musician’s face turned white with rage and fear. Rebecca flashed her teeth in a feral smile and threw herself from the balcony.

~~~~~~~

A world away, in a kingdom where trees grew leaves of green instead of silver and gold and bore fruit instead of jewels, a princess woke in her bedchamber. She jolted awake, her hands fisted into crimson quilts as she tried to hang on to the present. A shaky laugh fell from Rebecca’s lips. She was alive. Had it all been a dream? Giddy with hope, she leaped from bed to search for her sisters, but stumbled with her first step. Pain shot through her as her feet met the carpeted stone beneath them. Rebecca looked down at the ragged remains of her feet, torn and broken and pitiful. The sight of them reinforced the pain and she fell to her knees, the stone beneath her adding to her bruises.

“So, not a dream, then,” she whispered to herself.

The words were razors inside her battered throat. The tears filling her eyes added to the pain, but she did nothing to fight them. She struggled to her feet once more, but they refused to hold her. So, on bruised knees and filthy hands, she crawled. Pain pulsed through her feet with every move she made, but still she crawled. Sorrow filmed her eyes so thickly with tears that she could see nothing but light and blurred shapes, but this was the room of her childhood and she had no need of sight to crawl its length. She crawled past the vacant beds that should have housed the slumbering frames of her sisters. Hoarse, broken sobs shook her frame, lighting her throat with red hot embers of pain. The backs of her hands were slick with tears. Rebecca had shed countless tears in this room, but never alone. The loneliness broke her heart.

Finally, after what felt like miles beneath her tired hands and knees, Rebecca reached the door of the giant bedchamber. Wood crunched suddenly beneath the palm of her hand. The princess wiped her eyes and knelt, a hiss of pain escaping as her thighs touched her heels. She lifted the broken violin from the floor and cradled it against her chest. Nothing could bring her sisters back, but at least she had caused their murderer pain. A brittle smile twisted her lips as she thought of Matthew’s agony over his loss. Because here, lying against her breast, was the source of his power. She could feel magic pulsing through the broken wood, and she knew she had won.

Footsteps rang down the hallway. The door before her flew open. The king stood before her, his eyes shadowed with exhaustion and haunted by sorrow and fear. The fear receded as he caught sight of his youngest daughter, bent and bloody and broken on the stones before him. He fell to his knees before her and wrapped her in his arms. His tears fell into her chestnut hair as he sobbed.

“I was so afraid that I was going to lose you like I lost your sisters,” the king said, his deep voice thick and gruff from tears. “I was so afraid,” he said again, clutching his last child tightly.

Rebecca pulled away slowly, gently. She held up the broken violin. “He has no power now. I’m so sorry that I didn’t stop him sooner. I could have saved them,” she whispered. Tears dripped from the tip of her nose as she bowed her head in shame.

“No,” said the king. As gently as she had pulled away from him, her father lifted her chin until their eyes met. There was no judgement, no condemnation in those green eyes, only relief. “You couldn’t have known,” he said firmly. “I’m just so glad, so thankful that you figured out a way to save yourself.”

The king helped his daughter to her feet. When her battered feet gave beneath her weight, the king scooped her up into his arms. He closed the door behind them, leaving the broken violin abandoned and alone on the cold stone floor.

~~~~~~~

The morning of Rebecca’s coronation dawned bright and warm. The air was filled with birdsong and thick with excitement. Twelve years had passed since Rebecca had survived the mad musician. And twelve years had passed since the king had outlawed music from the land. Even the birdsong had tormented him, but no law could silence the throats of nightingales and sparrows; their song was their lifeblood and the breath in their tiny lungs. The kingdom had mourned the loss, though they did not fault the king for his decision. Any man who had lost eleven daughters to the seduction of melody, and had seen his only remaining daughter crippled by its call, was entitled his hatred. But the old king was dead and, despite having every reason to share her father’s hatred, the people knew that their new queen would silence them no longer.

There had been music in the land, of course. In the dead of night, in inns with bolted doors and around fires burned down to ash, there was music. But fear tainted music’s sweetness, and only the most desperate musicians sang or played their songs in the darkness. Today music would be heard in the light, and the entire kingdom had journeyed to the castle to hear the silence broken.

Rebecca smoothed the emerald velvet of her gown. Monarchs were supposed to wear crimson, but the new queen could no longer bear the sight of the color, so close to the shade of fresh blood. Father Silas spoke a blessing over her as he placed the crown atop the thick waves of her hair. She nodded her thanks and reached up beside her. Tobias, her guard and adviser and the best of her friends, helped her to her feet. She squeezed the hand of her soon-to-be husband. Gingerly, she spun to face the crowd of her people and bowed to them. The roar of applause was deafening. The new queen grinned and let herself sink into the wheeled chair the court carpenter had crafted for her.

The entire kingdom was silent as they entered the palace’s largest ballroom. Even children held their tongues in hope. Tobias settled his queen onto her throne, and she nodded to a darkened corner of the room. Light flared to life, a neat trick suggested by the court jester. A band of musicians were revealed by that light, and they began to play, suddenly thankful for breaking the king’s law in the dark of night as their fingers danced lightly across strings. The people cheered, but softly, so as not to drown out the music. Common men and women raced to the dance floor, followed by a trickle of hesitant lords and ladies. There were stumbles and missed steps, but the memory of the dance returned to their feet. The young were taught the steps by the old. The noble were reminded of the rhythm by the common. The kingdom was bound together by the music and the dance.

As the first song ended and the second song began, a hush spread across the crowd as they parted to make room for their queen. She held Tobias’s hand for support, but her steps were smooth and steady. No one had seen Rebecca walk in twelve years. No one, that is, but Tobias. When they reached the center of the floor, the couple bowed to one another. Every living creature in the hall held their breath as the queen began to dance. Beautifully, defiantly, she danced, her arms spread wide to embrace the music that lilted through the air. And as she danced, she sang.

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Posted in My Fiction and Poetry

A Kiss of Lightning

A branch scraped against her window, seductive in movement and menacing in sound. A storm raged. Kira gripped the covers tightly, shaking hands pulling the warmth up around pale face. In the hollow of her chest, embarrassment burned at the knowledge that something as natural as rain had reduced a grown woman to a trembling child; but the emotion lay trapped in her rib cage, unable to reach her face to warm it or her mind to shame it. And, if she were honest with herself, it was not that rain that made fear burn like a ball of cold lead in her belly; it was the lightning.

When the wind moaned, she heard her name laced within its breath. If she had heard the wind cry out for her a year ago, she would have tossed back the blankets that held her and raced out barefoot to meet the storm. She would have danced in the flood, arms raised high and lips parted to catch what fell from the sky. She would have raced the lightning, sang in harmony with its thunder. Laughter would have poured from her throat as she embraced a wildness only safe under the cover of gunmetal skies as they unleashed their fury and their blessings. How she had mocked others for fearing the nature she reveled in, sneering at their cautions and their warnings. Her distain drove the others away, but she didn’t care; the storm was the only friend she needed. Even when the weather clears, she always knew that clear skies would eventually cloud once more. The storm always came back to her.

But Kira had raced the lightning one time too many. One night, the storm took her joy for pride and her speed for rivalry. Whether overcome with fury at her challenge or overwhelmed by a desire spawned from her fearlessness, only the lightning knew. But on that night, she didn’t run fast enough. She had felt an electric caress, brushing a kiss across her nape that left the tiny hairs there standing on end, seeking more contact. And contact she received. The lightning struck her as she turned to seek it, coursing through her blood and bones, its kiss now demanding more than she could answer. The tears that fell from her eyes hissed and smoked into nothingness before they ever reached her cheeks. Laughter turned to ash on her tongue. When the lightning left her body, traveling down into the earth beneath her, Kira crumpled. The rain trailed down her cheeks as she lay on the sodden grass was a bitter replacement for the tears that had been burned from her.

The people who had given her up to her passion came back to her in her pain. When she woke from what she had thought was an eternal slumber, Kira laid nestled into her own bed. Concern gave way to relief in their faces as those holding vigil at her side saw the fluttering lashes part around her eyes. She had tried to ask them how long she had slept, but the lightning hadn’t left enough moisture within her for Kira to even speak, nor could she cry at the loss. As she studied the people surrounding her, she noticed the same fascination etched into each face, though some stared at her face, some her hands, some her neck. She looked down at the fingers and saw a delicate pattern weaving its way onto her hands and up her arms. The lightning had left her a gift etched in flesh, a superimposition of itself on her skin. It was beautiful, and she would never forgive it.

Days turned to weeks, and weeks to months as Kira slowly healed. She was able to speak once more, and able to move as anyone else would, walking and smiling right alongside the rest of the village. But she no longer ran, and the well of her tears never replenished itself after its forced drought; these were differences that only she noticed. Her skin, however, never returned to its monochromatic ivory. She forever after bore golden etchings as delicate as lace along every inch of her flesh. Before she was touch by lightning’s kiss, she had felt little for the other townsfolk but distaste at their sameness. Now, she would have traded away her unnatural beauty in a heartbeat if it meant that her neighbors would look at her as they saw each other. Whenever Kira offered to help bring in a harvest or dip tallow candles with the rest of the community, they refused her with reverential thanks. They now viewed her as something akin to a goddess, and goddesses didn’t bend their backs beneath the weight of wheat sheaves.

As the months passed, Kira finally made a new place for herself among her people. By sweat-soaked brow and blood-stained hands, she proved herself to be an incomparable midwife. And if expectant mothers believed that her presence would guarantee an easy birth and a healthy child because she was marked by the gods, Kira considered it a boon to business. With the money she saved from midwifing, she began building herself a house on a barren hill right outside the village. She laid her home’s foundation beneath the hill’s solitary resident, an old hickory tree that bore charred scars from a lightning bolt. She felt a kinship with that tree unlike anything she had felt since she had been struck. Though blackened, the tree still lived. Though changed, so did she.

When the villagers noticed her fledgling construction, they poured from their homes to help. One morning, as dawn colored the sky with pastel fingers, Kira arrived on her hill to see it already occupied. One family had brought timber from their mill. Another had brought buckets of pitch, another bundles of rushes to use as thatching for the roof. The town blacksmith had brought baskets of nails. She had delivered his second child two weeks back, a healthy girl with his green eyes and her mother’s red hair. Women with toddlers at their skirts and newborns at their breasts were stitching together quilts and curtains of cheerful reds and soothing plums. Such fabric was rare, as the rich dyes that produced them were scarce. These were pieces saved through the years to shape wedding quilts for their daughters, and yet the village women were joining all of their colorful swatches into a gift for her.

A hickory twig snapped beneath Kira’s foot as she edged closer. The sound rang across the hill, stilling hammers and turning heads. All eyes fastened on the woman with the golden scars, pride at their work on their lips but wariness of her reaction in the folds of their brows. Kira walked forward, stopping at the future site of her front door. She met the eyes of her neighbors and took a trembling breath.

“Thank you. All of you,” she whispered.

The wind carried her thanks to each ear as if her words were meant for them alone. She smiled, and they smiled with her. The wind stilled as she gave them the greatest gift she had to offer; a single tear pooled within her left eye and rolled down her cheek. She sucked in a shocked breath at the touch of moisture on her skin. The crowd sucked in shocked breaths at the hue of the tear, as vibrantly gold as the ichor of the gods. The tear slid off her chin and splashed to the ground. The villagers resumed their work, filled with a reverence that bordered on fear. Kira’s heart ached at the distance between herself and her neighbors that she feared would never be bridged.

By sunset, her little house had been completed. One carpenter, braver than most, had hewn her a front door of cedar and carved storm clouds and lightning into its face. When he presented it to her, he saw the pain etched into her face as plainly as the golden lace of her scars. Without a word, he took the door back off of its hinges and resumed carving by the light of a fire left by the townswomen. Kira squatted down next to the man.

“Thank you for the door. It’s lovely. And I appreciate how hard you’ve worked on it, but everyone else is gone. You should go home, too,” she said, laying a tentative hand on his broad shoulder.

The big man looked up at her, his amber eyes tiger-bright by the light of the fire. “I’m almost done,” he said. His voice was as deep as the ocean. He resumed his whittling, big hand steady around his small knife. Kira sat back on her heels and watched him work. She searched her mind as he carved, trying to remember his name. Slowly, a memory from many summers ago trickled into her mind. When she had first started chasing storms, the big carpenter had been a boy with tiger eyes, and he had run with her until lightning struck too close and scared his mother. His name was Timothy, and he had been a little in love with her once. As the first stars glittered in the velvet blackness of night, the carpenter blew the sawdust from his work. Kira stood to look at his carving, but Timothy held up a calloused hand to block her view.

“Not yet,” he grumbled as his other hand dug around in the tool bag at his feet. He drew out a set of paints and filled in his etchings with a delicacy that charmed Kira. A gentle smile graced her face as she retook her seat and watched him work. In minutes he was wiping his fingers clean in the dewy grass. Timothy stood and carefully hoisted his work into its new home, carefully setting the door on its hinges. On his nod, Kira stood from the fire and walked over to examine his work.

“Oh,” she breathed, her fingers tracing the air above the carvings. He had left the storm clouds and lightning as they were, but had carved and painted a beautiful rainbow about them and a golden flower below them. The flower was exquisite, but she had never seen its like in nature. “What kind of flower is that?” she asked.

The carpenter gave her a questioning look before pointing to the side of her door. What blossomed there was exceedingly lovely, its petals a delicate profusion of curls unlike anything she had ever seen. But what truly set the bloom apart was its luminescence; under the light of the moon, the golden flower glowed, as if filled with fireflies.

“I don’t understand,” Kira murmured. “Where did it come from? It wasn’t here this morning.”

Timothy caught her sky blue eyes with his own, disbelief and a touch of offense coloring his amber stare. As he searched her face, his eyes softened, and he seemed to understand her more than any other person ever had.

“It came from your tear. It bloomed there today. I thought you knew,” he added.

His deep voice soothed, but couldn’t quail the shock she felt at being the source of the flower. He laid a gentle hand on her shoulder and squeezed before walking out into the darkness. He turned back once, his heart in his eyes. She knew in that moment that he still loved her. With a boldness that surprised her, she put her fingers to her lips and tossed a kiss into the night. He answered with a grin, and suddenly her fear of living her life alone was unfounded.

Kira rested her hand over the place he had touched her; it was the first touch she had felt since the lightning’s kiss. She stayed outside after he left, admiring his gift and studying the flower that had bloomed from her tear. The wind began to pick up, howling across the valley and lashing Kira’s face with whips made of her own blonde hair. The gale spoke words that no human should understand, but its language was clear to her ear.

“He is coming. He will speak with you,” blew the wind.

Kira debated within herself whether to stand her ground or retreat inside. She wanted the safety of her new home, but she feared that, if she hid, the lightning would lash out at the little house in its fury. So she waited, the lightning lattice scrolled across her skin glowing softly in the moonlight. Lightning jumped from cloud to cloud, moving closer to his target until a bolt struck the hickory tree behind her. She prayed for safety and answers as she turned to face the force of nature that had marked her.

“You’re scared. Why?” The lightning’s words scorched the air.

“Why am I scared? Look what you did to me! Why did you strike me?” Kira screamed her questions and accusations into the air.

The lightning’s confusion was palpable. “I didn’t strike you; I kissed you. I marked you as mine.”

“I’m not yours. I am my own.”

“But, you ran with me and laughed with me. You loved me, I could feel it. So, I made you mine.” The wind howled its agreement in the distance.

Kira was choking on the ozone-laden air. “You can’t just made someone yours. You have to ask!” she shouted over the wind.

The crackle that split the air could have been an uneasy laugh. “Well, will you be mine, then?”

Kira stood tall, rain now coursing down her face as storm clouds cried in confusion. She thought back, remembering the nights she had raced the lightning and laughed with its thunder. But breaking through those memories was the sight of her village building her a home, quilting together the best of what they had as a gift for her. She saw the big carpenter with his gentle hands and his tiger eyes, and her desire for a life with him outweighed her former lust to launch herself through the clouds with lightning as her lover. Sorrow filled her at what she might have had with the lightning, and terror coursed through her at the thought that the storm might not let her go, might not allow her the life her heart had chosen. The raging emotions wrung two more tears from her. A golden drop fell once more from her left eye, a luminescent golden bloom growing where it landed. But this time, a tear fell from Kira’s right eye as well. A silver tear. A glowing sapling of quicksilver grew where it fell.

The lightning hissed at the metallic tears and what they had produced, for it read her heart in the droplets and what they grew. Wind moaned in mourning, whipping Kira’s skirt around her legs. “I see your decision in the plants at your feet. I promise not to harm you or those dear to you. One day you will change your mind,” shot the lightning. With crushing thunder, the lightning left Kira alone on her hill.

As she walked into her new home, she knew that sleep would be unattainable that night. She lit a fire and took a large box from one corner of the main room. Within the box rested soft yarn in brilliant hues, feathers, and leather hoops, things she had bought and gathered before she had been struck. She put her hands to work and gave her heart room to mourn the lightning and dream of the future. While the sky was still dark, Kira gathered the works of her hands and snuck down to the village. When dawn broke, every home in the town had a dreamcatcher hung above its door. Timothy’s was the largest, and feathers in the shape of a heart dangled beneath the hoop.

The lightning kept its distance as Timothy courted its lost love. Kira was happy, even happier than she had been when she basked in the storms. The villagers softened at her smiles, and did their best to treat her as one of them instead of the goddess they saw. Timothy was thankful for the lightning’s kiss, because Kira would have never stopping running after storms without that touch. He thought the golden lattice left on her skin by the strike was stunning, but he had loved her before it. He looked past the marks to the woman they hid, and Kira loved him fiercely for it.

The village had a mild winter, with rain and snow but no thundering storms. Spring came, and Timothy and Kira were married beneath sunny skies and cherry blossoms. As they pledged their love for each other, the lightning saw the truth; Kira would never come back to the heart of the storm. On their wedding night, a storm dropped on the valley that was vicious in its ferocity, laying waste to trees and fields. Any home with a dreamcatcher hanging above its door was rattled but left intact, its inhabitants huddled within its safety. Timothy had hung his dreamcatcher above the cedar door he had carved for Kira. He had no fear of the storm because of his wife’s gift, and rested easily at her side. But Kira feared the lightning’s rage, feared that the lightning might go back on its word in a fit of jealousy. The storm rose to a crescendo. Inside, Kira cowered at the thundering of her former lover, former friend. Outside, lightning lashed out in fury as it mourned lost love.

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Theft of Swords

Theft of Swords (The Riyria Revelations, #1)Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I first read The Name of the Wind a few years ago, I just knew that Patrick Rothfuss would be my favorite fantasy author for the rest of my life. I’m a loyalist; once I hitch my little fan wagon onto a fandom train, I’m there until the end of the line. Even if the quality goes down, even if plot twists in a way that I hate, even if I have to wait years and years between installments, my mama didn’t raise no quitter. And I’m definitely not quitting the Kingkiller Chronicles. But I have to confess that Rothfuss has been usurped as king of my fantasy-loving heart by Brandon Sanderson, whose creativity and work ethic knows no bounds. Once the throne was taken from him, I felt sure that Rothfuss would at least remain the prince regent, but alas. Now that I’ve found Michael J. Sullivan, my former favorite may have been relegated to the wings.

Did Sullivan use words as paint on the canvas of his pages to craft sentences so lovely they made me want to weep? No, he is not Rothfuss. Did he build a world and a magic system so real I suspect I could step inside the book, followed by plot twists that stop my heart and make me scream in shock? No, he is not Sanderson. But that’s what is so refreshing about Sullivan; he’s not trying to be anyone but himself. He’s not trying to reinvent the wheel. If anything, he tries to pack as many fantasy tropes as he can into his novels. He’s not trying to do anything new for the genre. What he is trying to do, and what he is succeeding at, is put out something fun and lighthearted in the midst of an overabundance of grim-dark entries into the genre, and he manages to do so without coming across as cheesy in any way.

Theft of Swords was so much fun! Hadrian and Royce had great chemistry. The partners were thieves for hire, with Hadrian serving as the muscle and Royce as the sticky fingers. Usually when partners are the main characters of a story, I have a favorite. But I couldn’t choose between Hadrian and Royce. They’re both snarky and sassy and good men against their better judgment. There are host of fun side characters as well, my favorites of whom are Ersahaddon, Magnus, and especially Myron; none of whom I want to say much about because I don’t want to give anything away. Besides the wonderful characters and sassy dialogue, Sullivan also managed to add a lot of mystery into a fun romp of a fantasy, which I thought was pretty different. He managed to write a really engrossing fantasy in easy to read, everyday English. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves fantasy, and especially to those who sometimes have a hard time focusing on a book. Lack of focus won’t be a problem here, for sure. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series, and everything else Sullivan puts out!

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Blood Rites

Blood Rites (The Dresden Files, #6)Blood Rites by Jim Butcher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s a thankless job, being Chicago’s only professional wizard. But it’s what Harry Dresden signed up for, and he is up to the challenge. Usually. But for someone always so swamped with work, the poor man never has two quarters to rub together. That lack of funds always ends up getting him in trouble, whether because of the jobs he takes to get some cash or because he ends up owing some sketchy people money.

This book opens with Dresden rescuing puppies from demonic purple flying monkeys. No, really. Demonic purple flying monkeys that hurl incendiary poo. And can join forces to create one giant purple King Kong demon. Needless to say, the beginning was hilarious. One of the puppies, the one that manages to sneak his way into Dresden’s life, is the cutest thing ever. I can’t wait to get more of him in future books!

Later in the book, Dresden helps an adult film maker dodge a curse targeting the women on set as a favor to Thomas, the sexy White Court vampire that always has his back for some unexplained reason. The curse is completely wonky. Seriously, someone got taken out by a frozen turkey that fell out of an airplane. There are freaky Black Court vampires on the hunt for Dresden, and during all of this other craziness Harry gets some family bombshells dropped on him. Lots of stuff goes down.

Here is my problem with the Dresden Files; the writing is just so scattered. Butcher writes an entertaining story, but when he’s trying to bring plot points together things just fall apart for some reason. I can see where Butcher is trying to go with the story, and I can follow what he’s getting at, but the writing itself doesn’t convey the plot twists in any kind of concise manner. Are these five-star quality books? No. Will I continue to read them when I need a break from denser, better written books? Yes. Because Dresden might not be the best written book series on the market, but it sure is fun.

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Golden Son

Golden Son (Red Rising, #2)Golden Son by Pierce Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 stars, rounded up to 5.

I’m not crying, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say there were tears of anger clouding my vision. This was a fantastic book, arguably even better than the first volume in the trilogy, Red Rising. As other friends have stated, these are NOT YA books, and have been mislabeled as such. There’s a brutality to the series that I wouldn’t want a young teenage child of mine reading. That being said, the books are well worth reading for an older audience, especially those who like their space operas coated in blood. Sci-Fi is not my genre of choice, but this trilogy is epic.

Darrow, our main character, lives a lonely life, harboring secrets that will get him killed if so much as hinted at to the wrong people. And the wrong people are everyone around him, the Golds that have oppressed the other Colors for generations. Darrow has to play a long game, making friends but holding them at arm’s length, knowing that he will likely need to betray those friends some day. He is a believably tortured character, and one who has sacrificed much to become the man he is. This man is no Gary Stu, but should be respected as a character for the immense pain and hardship that Carved him into the Gold now famous throughout the solar system.

Pierce Brown crafted a fantastic futuristic landscape, and a great cast of characters. My favorite characters outside of Darrow are Sevro, Darrow’s smaller, crass shadow and most trusted friend; Fitchner, the equally crass former Proctor with hidden depths; and Ragnar, the Stained Obsidian who blossoms when allowed to have a mind of his own. There were plenty of other characters I liked, as well, but keep in mind that Brown is a firm believer in killing his darlings; no one is safe, and everyone suffers.

This is a dark trilogy, but it’s incredibly well written. The philosophy presented has led to a lot of soul searching, at least in this reader. Darkness is something I tend to avoid, as it usually leaches its way into my thoughts and sours my outlook on life. But sometimes darkness is necessary, and even beautiful It there was no darkness, we would never see the stars.
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The Wayfarer Redemption

The Wayfarer Redemption (Wayfarer Redemption, #1)The Wayfarer Redemption by Sara Douglass
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To the best of my knowledge, this was my first foray into Australian fantasy. And for the most part, it was an enjoyable journey. The land of Achar is facing a supernatural invasion, and Axis, the BattleAxe of the realm, sets out to fight the incursion. But Axis’s history is not what he has been taught his whole life to believe, and there is more to him than he thinks. As he slowly uncovers his past and the powers latent within him, he is joined by two priests, a pig herder, a white cat, and a lovely young woman named Faraday, who just so happens to be engaged to Axis’s greatest enemy; his half-brother, Borneheld. Layer by layer, the Prophecy of the Destroyer is revealed, and Axis’s life will never be the same.

It didn’t take me long to warm up to Axis, because I have a thing for surly guys who are actually really great people deep down. Faraday, on the other hand, took a while for me to embrace. She seemed in turns both too whiny and too accepting of any powers that manifested through her. But grow on me she did! My favorite minor characters were Azhure, a human who had lived through hell but was stronger for it; and StarDrifter and FreeFall, Icarii royalty who were absolutely gorgeous with their incredible wings.

The Icarii, a winged race, and the Avar, a race of forest dwellers, were interesting additions to Douglass’s world. They had been slaughtered by humans (Acharites) in the distant past, and the humans had deforested as much of the land as possible. In fact, the religion of the land was the Way of the Plough, and it portrayed trees and forests as almost demonic. The Seneschal, or the ruling religious body, were truly awful. The emphasis on deforestation (and the implied evil of the action) reminded me of Ferngully. The true power of this planet was not found in Artor and his way of the Plough, but in the Mother, a nature deity whose powers manifested themselves through trees and lakes. The nature religion of the Avar, Icarii, and those Acharites who were converted reminded me vaguely of Wicca.

The story was interesting, and the setting and characters were interesting. My main problem with the book was the writing itself. One of my biggest pet peeves is the repetition of names in dialogue, and Douglass fell into that. They know who they are; you don’t have to keep reminding them that you know their name! I got bogged down a bit at times, as well, by an inability to find a character’s actions believable (I’m looking at you, Borneheld, you beast); by either overabundance or lack of description, depending on the chapter; or by a constant reiteration of information that had been conveyed multiple times. But beyond that, it was just a fun look back at the fantasy genre of 20 years ago. I can absolutely see the nostalgic value of the books if they were one of your first forays into fantasy, as they were for my lovely friend Sarah. I will definitely be reading the rest of the series, it will just be at some point in the distant future.
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