I’m on a short hiatus.

I’m on a short hiatus for the Christmas holidays. My next blog post will go up on Monday, January 6, 2014, and I might be a little tardy (ok, more than usual) when responding to requests for reviews.

We’re going up north for the holidays to visit my husband’s family, so I will be reading, writing, eating, and mingling. (Probably not in the order, but we’ll see.)

Merry Christmas!

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Review: Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Title: Divergent, Divergent #1
Author: Veronica Roth
Genre(s): Young Adult Dystopia

My rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Title: Insurgent, Divergent #2

My rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Title: Allegiant, Divergent #3

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I wanted to like the Divergent series. I really, really wanted to like it, since everyone else does. Far be it from me to criticize something just because it’s in pop culture. Despite Twilight‘s brainlessness, I devoured it. Despite the Hunger Games‘s excessive angst, I enjoyed it (although the first is the best and it devolves as the series goes on). But in these books, the publishing industry seems to be trying to capitalize on a dystopian trend without thought to what it’s promoting for us to consume.

The books were easy to read, the protagonist was likeable enough, and her struggles were difficult and potent. However, as I finished the first book and started the second, I found myself wondering why Tris’s difficulties seemed hollow. The storyline was all right, and the themes it explored were thought-provoking. But as I thought more about it, I tried to understand this society.

I found myself wondering: Where’s the rest of the world? Why does this only take place in Chicago with no mention of other places? Hunger Games is very clear that different cities exist. In Divergent, the rest of the world is left as a mystery, and not a good one. Young people are naturally curious, and Tris has propensity for Erudite. How could she not wonder about it?

Then I started to wonder further. Why do these kids have to pick a faction to stick with for the rest of their lives? God forbid I made a decision like that when I was sixteen. I’m a totally different person now. While teenagers in our society do get forced to make decisions that affect the rest of their lives, we all have the capacity to change our fates. It might be difficult the older we get, but mechanisms still exist.

I was happy to see that some of the questions about the society itself were answered in the third book; however, I didn’t like the answer. I now know why they were insistent on people only clinging to one virtue, but it doesn’t seem natural nor does the setup into factions make sense. I just don’t believe that the people who created the society were that dumb. I get the whole back story–but it doesn’t mean that the founders wouldn’t have tried to make it operate within the confines of human behavior.

As I thought about this, other things started to bother me:

The entire “factionless” concept made no sense. First of all, if people are cast out of society, they’re going to band together. People gravitate toward one another. Why was anyone surprised by this? Secondly, why was anyone cast out of factions anyway? What’s the point? It just seems like a recipe for disaster. And, finally, wouldn’t the Abnegation take in the rejects? That just seems like something they would do.

The more I think about these books, the less I like them. Struggles are only meaningful in fiction if they stem from something believable. The more I read the books, the more I found myself unable to suspend my disbelief. The more information I got on the founding of the factions, the less I was able to buy into the premise. And as the third book progressed, the heavy-handed morality lesson–set within the confines of a society that made no sense–grated.

I really liked Tris and Tobias (although at one point, I feel like Ms. Roth created conflict between them just for the sake of conflict). Overall, their interactions and choices seemed natural. Allegiant had a solid, well-thought-out, realistic ending.

But I just can’t believe the world they live in.

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Review: A Warrior’s Path by Davis Ashura

Title: A Warrior’s Path
Author: Davis Ashura
Genre(s): Adult Fantasy
How To Purchase: Releasing 12/25/13

My rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Note: I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Two millennia ago, a demon thundered into the skies of Arisa, casting down the First World. She was Suwraith, the Bringer of Sorrows. And on the same night as Her arrival, there rose about the world’s great cities the Oases, a mysterious means by which Humanity lies protected and huddled against the might of the Sorrow Bringer. It is a temporary respite. Throughout the rest of Arisa, Suwraith’s Chimeras boil across the Wildness, the wide swaths of land beyond the boundaries of the few, far-flung cities, killing any unfortunates in their path and ruling all in Her name. But always She seeks more: Humanity’s utter extinction.

Into this world is born Rukh Shektan, a peerless young warrior from a Caste of warriors. He is well-versed in the keen language of swords and the sacred law of the seven Castes: for each Caste is a role and a Talent given, and none may seek that to which they were not born. It is the iron-clad decree by which all cities maintain their fragile existence and to defy this law means exile and death. And Rukh has ever been faithful to the teachings of his elders.

But all his knowledge and devotion may not save him because soon he must join the Trials, the holy burden by which by which the cities of Humanity maintain their slender connection with one another, and the only means by which a warrior can prove his worth. There in the Wildness, Rukh will struggle to survive as he engages in the never-ending war with the Chimeras, but he will also discover a challenge to all he has held to be true and risk losing all he holds dear. And it will come in the guise of one of Humanity’s greatest enemies – perhaps its greatest allies.

Worse, he will learn of Suwraith’s plans. The Sorrow Bringer has dread intentions for his home. The city of Ashoka is to be razed and her people slaughtered.

A Warrior’s Path contains an interesting perspective on a different social structure than is present in other fantasy I’ve read. Although I had trouble getting into the book, the hierarchy and interplay of beliefs gave me something to think about.

This book’s society is a strict caste-based culture, where every rank can only inter-marry within itself and all its members are prescribed certain careers and magical abilities. The story follows several people who discover that they have abilities–and desires–outside their own caste, as they fight a goddess bent on destroying humanity. The moral implications are intriguing: In a time and place when humanity should band together against its impending doom, people are squabbling over the color of skin and talents they believe shouldn’t overlap between castes.

The different characters’ perspectives on the caste system were varied. Some were traditional and believed that anyone operating outside of the rules was “tainted.” Some are in between, not sure which way their loyalties lay. And some were open to accept people as people, despite their background or magical abilities. The morality was a bit heavy-handed, but the caste system unique enough that it kept me interested.

One of the best parts were the villains on the side of the mad goddess. However, a lot was left unresolved and open for a follow-up book, which left me disappointed that we didn’t learn more about the plans and happenings of that sect.

I struggled to get into the book because of the excessive world-building and back story. Especially at the beginning, I felt I was reading an essay the author had written on how the society functions and who the characters are. Rather than revealing how the caste system worked bit by bit, it was dumped at the beginning and I found myself skimming, unable to follow everything and everyone. There were a lot of characters, and even at the end, I was only clear on a few of the main ones.

If you’re interested in exploring implications of different societal structures, you’ll be interested in A Warrior’s Path. Note that the story doesn’t wrap up at the end but is part of an on-going series.

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Review: Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Fellowship of the RingTitle: The Fellowship of the Rings, The Two Towers, The Return of the King
Author: J.R.R. Tolkein
Genre(s): Adult Fantasy

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Frodo Baggins knew the Ringwraiths were searching for him – and the Ring of Power he bore that would enable Sauron to destroy all that was good in Middle-earth. Now it was up to Frodo and his faithful servant Sam to carry the Ring to where it could be detroyed – in the very center of Sauron’s dark kingdom.

You might think it’s strange that even though I love fantasy, I dislike Lord of the Rings, but here’s the thing: It’s boring.

Yep. I said it.

Lord of the Rings is boring. The original books were boring, and the movies were boring. I forced myself to watch all of them, but it went like this: I had high hopes for the first one, even though I hated the book, which were dashed. During the second one, I sat in the theater, half an hour into the movie, wondering why I was subjecting myself to this torture. The third one I didn’t watch for years after it was released, and even then, it was on a lazy Sunday afternoon when I felt obligated to force myself.

In fact, now that I think about it, I don’t think I ever finished the books. I’m not sure how far I got, but since there were pages upon dozens of pages of “and they wandered,” I can guess it wasn’t that far. I mean, seriously, how long did they have to wander for? That phrase attributed to Tolkien, “Not all who wander are lost,” stirs my blood. The end of it should be, “… but even those people shouldn’t write a book about it.”

I’m sure fans of this series don’t agree with me, but honestly. I do not understand why people like it.

OK, I understand. It’s a magical world, with awesome creatures, interesting plot (when the plot finally happens), and a wholly new world. And it was at a time when publishing was a lot different than it is now. Back when I tried to read it, I looked up runes in an encyclopedia, learned how to write them, and covered my notebooks with runic phrases. (Mostly “Trust No One” because I was obsessed with the X-Files back in the day, as well.) I get the allure of the fantasy world, obviously, since I’m a big fantasy fan.

The thing is, I feel this way about a lot of the classics. Don’t get me started on Huckleberry Finn. I love Mark Twain. Interesting guy. But his books? No, thanks.

I’m sure this isn’t one of my most popular opinions, but I really felt like I had to get it out there. Yes, I like fantasy. No, I don’t like Lord of the Rings.

Phew. It feels good to get that off my chest.

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Review: Confronting the Demon by Ciara Ballintyne

Confronting the Demon by Ciara Ballintyne - GoodreadsTitle: Confronting the Demon
Author: Ciara Ballintyne
Genre(s): Adult Fantasy
How To Purchase: Ciara Ballintyne’s Website

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The gates to hell are thrown wide when Alloran is betrayed by his best friend, Ladanyon, and framed for forbidden magic. He is hunted by the guards and the wizards both, tormented by the gruesome murder of his friends and loved ones, and crippled by fear for the living. Now Alloran must face his demons, or damn the woman he loves.

Confronting the Demon is an impressive debut fantasy novella that feels as though it’s part of a larger body of work. It was short but action-packed, and the short story “A Magical Melody” included at the end was a fun bonus. And this from a cynical grump who doesn’t usually like bonus material.

I loved the thoroughness of the world building. The summoned demons, the opulent citadel, and the fleshed out sorcery hinted at more going on beyond the pages of the story. I enjoyed the twists and turns of Alloran and Gisayne’s relationship with one another and the antagonist Ladanyon. So much was skittering under the surface that it made the character interactions real.

The descriptions of demons were fascinating, but you would expect that from someone who has a Pinterest page called Demons and Darkness. The demons in this book come from different levels of hell, each one increasing in power as the numbers decrease. The hellcats from the seventh level of hell are the weakest–but their claws still sting like needles. And the first-level demon fought in the climax, with tentacles tearing apart the city, made me want to scream, “RELEASE THE KRAKEN.”

It doesn’t take much for me to yell that, though. If I had a catch phrase, that might be it.

One of the best complaints an author can receive is that their work is too short, and this is one of the few drawbacks I can muster about this book. It feels like an extended short story, so it lacks sub-plots that one would normally expect in a full novel. (I don’t read a lot of novellas, but I assume this is usual.) I wanted to meet Alloran, Ladanyon, and Gisayne’s peers, pull back the curtain into their lives, and delve into their back stories.

Confronting the Demon is a quick, engrossing read, and I recommend fantasy fans to both buy it and keep an eye on Ms. Ballintyne. I can’t wait to see what else she has in store. I liked this novella so much I asked her to write a post for Magic & Mayhem, so go check out her review of The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett from Friday.

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Guest Review: Ciara Ballintyne on The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett

Did you know that today is a very special day? It is!

Today marks my first guest review, written by the talented Ciara Ballintyne, author of Confronting the Demon. Stay tuned on Monday for my own review of her book, the reading of which prompted me to contact her to do this guest post. Meet Ciara:

JM0130BCiara has chosen to review a book that influenced her own writing, The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett. OK, OK, I’ve talked enough, let’s get to what Ciara has to say:
185px-The-last-heroTitle: The Last Hero, Book #27 of Discworld
Author: Terry Pratchett
Genre(s): Adult Humorous Science Fiction

Cohen the Barbarian. He’s been a legend in his own lifetime.
He can remember the good old days of high adventure, when being a Hero meant one didn’t have to worry about aching backs and lawyers and civilization. But these days, he can’t always remember just where he put his teeth…So now, with his ancient (yet still trusty) sword and new walking stick in hand, Cohen gathers a group of his old — very old — friends to embark on one final quest. He’s going to climb the highest mountain of Discworld and meet the gods. It’s time the Last Hero in the world returns what the first hero stole. Trouble is, that’ll mean the end of the world, if no one stops him in time.

A long time ago, the first hero stole the secret of fire from the gods. Now, the last hero, Cohen the Barbarian, together with his Silver Horde, is returning it. With a vengeance.

I said SILVER HORDE. Silver, you know? SILVER? Your hair! Oh, never mind…

It’s not silver for all the loot they stole, see?

Cohen is the disc’s answer to Conan – eighty years old in the shade, with dentures made from troll teeth (diamonds) and tough as old boot leather (possibly tougher, and certainly stringier). The Silver Horde may not always be able to hear what’s going on (one of them even uses an ear horn) but they can always beat it into submission (even from the seat of a wheelchair).

‘And they’re heroes,’ said Mr Betteridge of the Guild of Historians.

‘And that means, exactly?’ said the Patrician, sighing.

‘They’re good at doing what they want to do.’

‘But they are also, as I understand it, very old men.’

‘Very old heroes,’ the historian corrected him. ‘That just means they’ve had a lot of experience in doing what they want to do.’

Lord Vetinari sighed again. He did not like to live in a world of heroes. You had civilisation, such as it was, and you had heroes.

The problem is, this spells disastrous consequences for the entire disc… The end of the world, in fact. Again. Unless someone stops him.

So who is really the last hero?

Enter Rincewind, once again swindled into certain danger and almost certain death.

Of all the Discworld books, the ones with Rincewind are by far my favourites. I think they are the funniest, because how can you compete with a cowardly wizard who can’t do magic, who has no interest in saving the world, or the danger that goes with it, and yet somehow always manages to find himself at the centre of these things – and pulls it off? And surely no one had disappointed Death as many times as Rincewind.

In fact, The Last Hero features nearly all my favourite characters – Death, the Librarian, Vetinari, Captain Carrot, and Leonard of Quirm, who all come together in a desperate mission to save the disc. Which is to say, of course, that Lord Vetinari decrees it shall be done and has Leonard design an insane plan. Carrot volunteers because he’s like that, and Rincewind volunteers out of a belief in sheer inevitability – he knows he’s going to wind up on this mission whether he likes it or not, because that’s what always happens to him, so why fight it?  Death, naturally, is quite invested in the outcome.

‘What is that on your badge, Captain Carrot?’

‘Mission motto, sir,’ said Carrot cheerfully. ‘Morituri Nolumnus Mori. Rincewind suggested it.’

‘I imagine he did,’ said Lord Vetinari, observing the wizard coldly. ‘And would you care to give us a colloquial translation, Mr Rincewind?’

‘Er…’ Rincewind hesitated, but there was really no escape. ‘Er… roughly speaking, it means, “We who are about to die don’t want to,” sir.’

Like all Discworld books, The Last Hero is a rollicking good laugh, combining some of the best elements of the Discworld series in one volume. It comes in an illustrated format, with some fantastic pictures. Highly recommended!

The Last Hero has a particular place in my heart because a line from the book served as the inspiration for my novella, Confronting the Demon. It was the writing prompt for my writer’s group one month several years ago. The story went through many iterations before it settled into the form in which it now exists, but throughout all its incarnations, the concept that originally sprang from the prompt remained true. It came from this paragraph:

‘That meal,’ said Cohen, ‘was heroic. No other word for it.’

‘That’s right, Mrs. McGarry,’ said Evil Harry. ‘Even rat doesn’t taste this much like chicken.’

‘Yes, the tentacles hardly spoiled it at all!’ said Caleb enthusiastically.

[Samantha’s note: Aha! Tentacles …]

So do yourself a favour, and go buy The Last Hero. Paperback, not ebook, because some of the best jokes are in the footnotes and you miss out on them in ebook. If you have the option, get the illustrated version. Love the artwork. It won’t fit nicely on your shelf, but it’s worth it.

Interested in more words by Ciara? Find her:

Or if you want to check out Confronting the Demon, you can find it here:

A big thank you to Ciara for her post today!

Review: Scarlette by Davonna Juroe

Title: Scarlette
Author: Davonna Juroe
Genre(s): Adult Historical Paranormal Fairy Tale Re-telling
How To Purchase: Kindle

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ninety years before the Brothers Grimm penned their version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” an historic, gruesome series of events shocked all of Europe. Starting in 1764, an unidentified wolf-like animal ferociously mauled dozens of peasants in the Gévaudan region of France.

Whispered rumors of unnatural creatures blended with age-old superstition to cause mass hysteria. A werewolf was blamed for the carnage. Alarmed, King Louis XV sent his best huntsmen to rid the province of the beastly scourge, but this legendary massacre had only just begun.

Scarlette, a 19-year-old seamstress who is laboring to make ends meet, lives under this dark threat. Although fearful of the nightmarish monster lurking in the surrounding forest, she remains skeptical of the supernatural gossip.

Until her grandmother is attacked.

Scarlette learns that her grandmother has been infected by the animal’s bite. Desperate to save her, Scarlette begins to uncover the dark secrets of her village and finds there are those who wish to keep their pasts hidden. As time grows short, Scarlette is befriended by a local nobleman and a woodcutter who both share an eerie history with the wolf.

Scarlette must unravel the men’s connection and solve a long-forgotten crime. But as she pieces together the clues, Scarlette finds herself torn between the two men. Both of them desire more than friendship and together hold the key to the cure.

Based on both the traditional Grimm fairy-tale and older known French versions of “Little Red Riding Hood,” this dark Young Adult novel is set against the 18th century Beast of Gévaudan attacks and blends fairy-tale with Gothic romance in a modern, accessible prose style. Unique to the genre, the novel revives the fable of the girl-in-the-red-cloak with a new historical angle that blurs the line between folklore and reality.

I’m a sucker for fairy tale re-tellings. The darker, the better. Scarlette doesn’t disappoint, although it wasn’t what I expected.

The story deviates from the fairy tale plot that we all know and love, but it doesn’t disappoint. In this book, the “wolf” is both real and figurative. Scarlette, our protagonist, lives in the mid-1700s France, in a small town that is frightened and shocked by animal attacks on the population. Her mother is terrible to her, her employer is a lecherous old man, and she’s struggling to feed herself and keep a roof over her head. Scarlette’s grandmother is the only light in her life… but poor granny doesn’t last very long.

As the attacks intensify, Scarlette becomes confused and overwrought. She makes friends with a rich nobleman, who isn’t what he seems. Or is he? Good ol’ Marquis de Sade gets a minor role–which is always a great way to solidify a place in my heart.

The woodcutter guild was an interesting aspect that I wish was explored in greater detail. Scarlette’s friendship with a woodcutter who saves her is on shaky ground–especially since the guild kidnapped her previously, adding to her disorientation and confusion. I would have loved to see the story finish on a darker note than it did, but, after all, it is a fairy tale. Happy ever after mandatory?

Scarlette blends paranormal, romance, and historical fiction into an interesting story. I’ve tried to decide if this is Young Adult or Adult, and because of the dark tone and theme, I would consider it Adult. The details of 1700’s France are fascinating. The older I get, the more I appreciate historical fiction, and Ms. Juroe did a great job creating that time period.

If you like fairy tale re-tellings or paranormal historicals, I would suggest this book. A solid four of five stars, and I’m looking forward to more of the author’s books.

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