Cold Steel by Kate Elliott

cold steel by kate elliottThis is the 3rd novel in Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy.

Summary (from Amazon): Trouble, treachery, and magic just won’t stop plaguing Cat Barahal. The Master of the Wild Hunt has stolen her husband Andevai. The ruler of the Taino kingdom blames her for his mother’s murder. The infamous General Camjiata insists she join his army to help defeat the cold mages who rule Europa. An enraged fire mage wants to kill her. And Cat, her cousin Bee, and her half-brother Rory, aren’t even back in Europa yet, where revolution is burning up the streets.

Revolutions to plot. Enemies to crush. Handsome men to rescue.

Cat and Bee have their work cut out for them.

My Thoughts: Cold Steel is the last novel in Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy (#1: Cold Magic, #2: Cold Fire). If you are looking for an epic series with adventure, travel, terrific world-building, a bit of romance, an intriguing and utterly unique heroine, a deep friendship, and liberal amounts of humor, this is it.

Cold Steel was a great wrap-up, and it left me aching for more in the way that the best books do. However, I suspect that I did myself an extreme disfavor by waiting so long between the 2nd novel and this one–part of that was, of course, Life, and the general obnoxiousness that comes along with it, and it rendered me fairly confused and sometimes disinterested near the beginning of Cold Steel. I had forgotten some of the “rules” that fantasy / alternate-universe novels like this come with, and for a decent amount of time I was left wondering about many characters’ motives and decisions, which took away some of the enjoyment for me. I should have re-read Cold Fire again before embarking on this 3rd novel, and maybe I’ll attempt that scenario sometime in the future. I think that would change a lot of the way I ended up feeling about the book.

I’d like to reiterate a point I made in my review of Cold Magic, and that is that I really enjoy the portrayal of friendship between Cat, our protagonist, and her cousin/BFF, Bee. I do think it’s a shame that so many of the books specifically marketed towards (young) women feature so few female relationships, and if there are multiple women featured in the novel, they are usually enemies or fighting over a man. Especially with all the recent attention about The Bechdel Test, this is a problem that goes beyond literature. There is a romance in this trilogy, the one between Cat and her husband, Andevai, and it is certainly romantic, swoon-worthy, and heartbreaking at times (as all good romances are), but it is not the only meaningful relationship in our female protagonist’s life–it’s one of many, and that, to me, is a much more realistic and honest portrayal of romance.

Another strong point of Elliott’s is her ability to make her characters fully 3-dimensional. The characters in Cold Fire have weaknesses, and not stupid, shallow “weaknesses” thrown in to make sure that the character isn’t a flawless Mary Sue. Andevai, Cat’s husband and romantic interest, is flawed and these flaws can be both humorous (his pride and vanity lead him to accumulate an impressive number of clothes that have to be lugged across half the continent by Cat and Bee) and serious: Andevai’s loyalty to his past, and an overwhelming desire for respect and recognition cause him and Cat to struggle greatly with their relationship and their dual involvement in the revolution they are fighting for. There are doubts, realistic doubts that caused me as a reader to waver as well.

I was first drawn into this series because I so enjoyed viewing it through Cat’s eyes. She is a unique heroine in that she isn’t really a heroine–in any typical fantasy story, her personality, actions, and motivations would have cast her as the sidekick, and her cousin Bee as the heroine. This is really a story about a side-player in a greater drama with her own reasons for doing what she does, and which might not line up with the traditional, heroic notion of right-and-wrong, save-the-world, goody-goody. I really enjoyed this in the first and second novels, but (and this might be a side effect of the aforementioned delay between my reading the 2nd and 3rd books) she really lost me a few times in Cold Steel. Certain pivotal moments had me going “whaaaat?” at her actions and thoughts, and I didn’t connect with her as well. I ended up not being as invested or impressed emotionally because I didn’t understand her motivations and reactions.

Overall, this is a very good trilogy with a world that I hope Elliott will return to sometime in the future. It’s so fleshed-out and well-developed I feel like she must have more stories and characters off-stage that deserve their chance to be told. Cold Steel was not my favorite of the series, but it’s still good. Also funny. It’s an interesting kind of humor–lots of different kinds of humor, actually. So enjoyable!

Author Websitehttp://www.kateelliott.com/

Queenpin by Megan Abbott

Summary: A young woman, hired to keep the books at a down-at-the-heels nightclub, is taken under the wing of the infamous Gloria Denton, a mob luminary who reigned during the Golden Era of Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano. Before she knows it, she’s ushered into a glittering demimonde of late-night casinos, racetracks, betting parlors, inside heists, and big, big money.

Commentary: I’m going to start this review by saying that I have little to no experience with noir (both film and books), crime fiction, gangster fiction, etc. etc. I picked up Abbott’s book here because I so enjoyed her most recent novel, Dare Me, which is both very different (high school setting) and very similar (power plays and relationships between women). I think I might have ended up liking Queenpin even more though! It was gripping, and gritty, and kind of sucked me into a world that I hadn’t really ever experienced before.

Our nameless heroine is chosen by the infamous Gloria Denton to enter a world completely different from her lower-middle-class, secretarial and accounting background. She’s immediately thrust into the world of gambling parlors, smooth-talking men, high fashion, and money money money. There’s bosses behind the scenes pulling strings every which way, and our narrator is just a bit player in a much larger game–and she knows it. One wrong step and your body is buried in a trash heap somewhere, dumped in a river, or covered with a nice layer of lime. That doesn’t mean she isn’t just as drunk on her new life and the new clothes and the seductive nature of danger and walking on the wrong side of the law.

The relationship between Gloria and our never-named protagonist is really the best part about Queenpin though. Gloria, a take-no-shit woman who knows exactly how to play with the big boys, takes on this starry-eyed new protege. This protege starts learning though, and the relationships starts splintering. The anxiety rises and there is the possibility of betrayal around every corner.

I really enjoyed the sort of old-time noir film… vernacular? There was slang in there that I’d never heard, but Abbott made it flow so smoothly and naturally, and I could hear that slow drawl in my head as I read the words on the page. It definitely immersed me into the world of Queenpin, and was just really fun and dramatic to read.

It was also interesting to me that her novel features two women as the main characters, in a genre that historically focuses on the trenchcoated lone white male walking the dark streets of the city, wearing a cool hat and smoking a cigar, maybe trailed and reluctantly seduced by a lovely femme fatale.

This Publisher’s Weekly review sums it up pretty well I think: “Abbott delivers a sharp, slender, hardboiled tale of a protégé’s schooling by a notorious, been-there-done-that moll… Abbott is pitch-perfect throughout: Gloria Denton, still turning heads in her 40s, is as hard a moll as any, and the kid is a beautiful combination of foil and tool as she strives to emulate her role model. The collision, violent and inevitable, rips away the facade of glitz and glamour, and leaves their low-end edifice starkly exposed.”

Author Website: http://www.meganabbott.com/

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Summary: Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near-impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one unlikely refugee.

Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life– a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha… and the secrets of her heart.

My Thoughts: Shadow and Bone has been popping up all over the YA/fantasy blogs recently and I finally got my hands on a copy from my library. I finished it in less than 12 hours and I’m eager for the sequel, so that tells you a bit about how much I liked it.

I think this is Bardugo’s debut novel, and she did a great job taking the traditional high fantasy genre and putting her own twist on it. There’s some great new world building here that was very well done, explained smoothly and  naturally, and made a lot of sense to the plot, which honestly doesn’t always happen in fantasy novels. I also liked the sort of old Russian influence on a lot of the language and the culture in Bardugo’s world–that’s something I haven’t really seen before in YA fantasy.

I especially, especially liked the way Bardugo book-ended her story with the prologue/epilogue-type chapters, where the style and narration switched slightly and opened and closed her story to great effect. Bardugo’s story here has just the right amount of action mixed with mysticism and the unknown.

I’m glad to have a new fantasy series to follow; I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel when it comes out! Also, the cover is one of the more awesome book typography and design combinations I’ve seen in awhile.

Author Website: http://www.leighbardugo.com/

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Summary: Welcome to the future. Humanity has colonized the solar system – Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond – but the stars are still out of our reach.

Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, The Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for – and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.

Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to The Scopuli and rebel sympathizer, Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.

Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations – and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.

Commentary: Leviathan Wakes is the first in an ongoing series, and I picked it up because I hadn’t read a good space opera in awhile. I was hooked from the first page and couldn’t stop reading. Corey’s novel is very plot-driven with a lot of twists and turns, but I actually got pretty invested in our main characters Holden and Miller, as well as the “mystery girl” from the summary, who, although she wasn’t exactly “present” in the traditional definitions of the word for most of the novel, still captured my thoughts and emotions while reading.

Corey also did a good job of explaining the state of his created universe to the reader without being too heavy-handed. I feel like so many science fiction (and/or fantasy novels) get bogged down describing and explaining the rules and present state of their worlds and it can get really awkward. But with Leviathan Wakes, I learned everything I need to know in a way that made sense with the current plot and character stories.

Leviathan also got me thinking about a couple other issues in science fiction and even current space politics/news. I really enjoy science fiction and I particularly enjoy military space opera, a genre that I think makes sense to a lot of people because so much of our own real-world experience with space and space exploration is very nationalistic–the Space Race between the US and the Soviet Union, NASA, various nations’ space organizations, etc. However, the idea of space being privatized, and the most powerful forces in future space exploration being not countries, or even a united force from earth, but corporations and companies–this an idea that isn’t even accepted presently. However, many of the major players in Corey’s world are just that–companies that have done well in the space industry and in the politics that drive the new frontiers that humans have colonized, especially Mars and the Asteroid Belt.

Leviathan Wakes went beyond your typical spaceship shoot-outs and fancy technology; he introduced a world that had shifting cultural, economic, and even social class issues due to colonization of the solar system, and still made it exciting and full of twists and turns (including a particularly terrifying and interesting enemy).

I’d recommend Corey’s Leviathan Wakes for anyone looking for an exciting science fiction that still has a bit of depth. I think I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel.

Author Websitehttp://www.danielabraham.com/books-2/the-expanse/leviathan-wakes/

Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma

Summary: Seventeen-year-old Lochan and sixteen-year-old Maya have always felt more like friends than siblings. Together they have stepped in for their alcoholic, wayward mother to take care of their three younger siblings. As defacto parents to the little ones, Lochan and Maya have had to grow up fast. And the stress of their lives—and the way they understand each other so completely—has also also brought them closer than two siblings would ordinarily be. So close, in fact, that they have fallen in love. Their clandestine romance quickly blooms into deep, desperate love. They know their relationship is wrong and cannot possibly continue. And yet, they cannot stop what feels so incredibly right. As the novel careens toward an explosive and shocking finale, only one thing is certain: a love this devastating has no happy ending.

My Thoughts: As you can already probably tell from the summary, the relationship depicted by this book is far from normal. I had been hearing about it from several different blogs that I follow and decided to pick it up because reviews were fairly good and I was sort of shocked at just how exactly an author could write a book about an incestual relationship and make it… decent?

Suzuma’s writing is definitely far better than decent. It’s absorbing, gripping, engaging, and from the very beginning you see just how difficult Maya and Lochan’s lives are. Their drunk mother is completely absent and such a horrifyingly bad parent that it made me so angry for the kids. Lochan and Maya are completely in charge of their younger siblings and have to deal with making dinner every night, picking up and dropping off their two youngest siblings at school, reeling in a rebellious, lashing-out brother, and all this on top of their regular schoolwork. I was constantly anxious and worried for them and how their situation was going to pan out. Suzuma write their lives and sufferings and occasional lovely joys so convincingly.

You can see just exactly how Maya and Lochan begin falling into each other. There is no one else around. There is no one else they can depend on and confide in and love. I saw it happen and while I understood it, I was slamming on the brakes in my head the whole time. Once their clandestine romance began I couldn’t understand it truly. The societal and cultural taboo threw up an immediate wall for me, and Suzuma’s beautiful writing couldn’t get me through it.

I was still desperate to know what happened to them, all the way up to the end. And boy was it an ending. Forbidden was perfectly paced and engrossing and definitely well written.

I wouldn’t say I was convinced or involved in the romance–but that’s not truly the point. The best and most successful part of Forbidden was the story of 5 children who loved each other trying to make it absolutely on their own in a world that had little sympathy or use for them.

Author Website: http://www.tabithasuzuma.com/