Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza

empress-of-a-thousand-skies-by-rhoda-bellezaTitle: Empress of a Thousand Skies
Author: Rhoda Belleza
Series: Empress of a Thousand Skies, #1
Pages: 344
Publisher: Razorbill
Release Date: February 7th 2017

      “Rhee, also known as Crown Princess Rhiannon Ta’an, is the sole surviving heir to a powerful dynasty. She’ll stop at nothing to avenge her family and claim her throne.
      Aly has risen above his war refugee origins to find fame as the dashing star of a DroneVision show. But when he’s falsely accused of killing Rhee, he’s forced to prove his innocence to save his reputation – and his life.
      With planets on the brink of war, Rhee and Aly are thrown together to confront a ruthless evil that threatens the fate of the entire galaxy.

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“From his thumb to his index finger, the length of his hand fit cleanly around Rhee’s neck. He lifted her off the ground and squeezed. She felt her windpipe closing. She gasped for air as she tried to claw his fingers off one by one.”

There are some books with loads of potential that never seem to find their footing and then there are the ones that you wholeheartedly believe in despite their shortcomings. For me, Rhoda Bellaza’s Empress of a Thousand Skies falls into the latter category. Little spoiler here to open this review, please skip the rest of the paragraph if you do not wish to see. I want to start off by saying that the synopsis is very misleading when it comes to how the two lead characters converge. Their individual arcs do not directly intersect, but their stories do. I want to put that out there because I spent a large majority of my time while reading, wondering when these characters would actually meet and was really disappointed to see that they never did. With that being said, I do need to read a sequel soon because I’d love to see these characters in the same room together.

There are so many layers to Bellaza’s universe and this is one of the main reasons why I enjoyed this debut so much. Interplanetary politics plays a large part. From Rhee’s home planet Kalu to Wraeta, a planet destroyed during the Great War and Aly’s birthplace, this world is populated by a variety of individuals who have all be impacted by this war. The peace treaty currently in place was Rhee’s father’s greatest accomplishment, but it has not erased the bad blood between the planets. The war itself created a population of refugees who continuously face discrimination. Technology plays a really interesting role in this world. Most people have what are called cubes installed that make it easy to access information as well as store important memories. Seeing how the characters relied so heavily on this form of technology and how disconcerting it was for them to power down reminded me of how often we rely on our phones for information and how eager we are to take a picture or video of an important event, not realizing that this can sometimes hinder the experience.

At the beginning of the story, Rhee is determined to avenge her family. I liked Rhee for the most part, but there were times when I was puzzled by her decision making. She’d been training for years, but when it came to her plan for revenge, she hadn’t thought much further than getting close enough to the person she believes is responsible in order to stab them in the heart. I mostly chalk up this lack of preparation to her youth and inexperience. She is the kind of character who is motivated more by emotion than reason. I believe Rhee had a lot more influence than she realized and wondered why she didn’t just come out of hiding, take the throne, and then enact her revenge. I loved Aly’s character, flaws and all. As a Wraetan refugee from a once-hostile planet, Aly carries around a lot of weight on his shoulders. He is judged more harshly and seen as untrustworthy by a lot of people. He struggles with living in a world that can be unfriendly and unfair, wanting to prove to everyone that he is worth more their prejudice views would dictate. Like Rhee, he has lost his entire family and is still searching for his place in the world.

Empress of a Thousand Skies has plenty of elements that are relevant to our current political climate, is multi-layered when it comes to its world-building, and introduces two very different and engaging characters that I’m dying to learn more about. It isn’t often that I say this, but I wish this novel had been longer, so I could get a chance to spend more time with both Rhee and Aly.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

ARC Review: The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

Title: The Bone Witch
Author: Rin Chupeco
Series: The Bone Witch,, #1
Pages: 400
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Release Date: March 7th 2017
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher, which does not influence my review*

      “Tea is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy makes her a bone witch, who are feared and ostracized in the kingdom. For theirs is a powerful, elemental magic that can reach beyond the boundaries of the living—and of the human.
      Great power comes at a price, forcing Tea to leave her homeland to train under the guidance of an older, wiser bone witch. There, Tea puts all of her energy into becoming an asha, learning to control her elemental magic and those beasts who will submit by no other force. And Tea must be strong—stronger than she even believes possible. Because war is brewing in the eight kingdoms, war that will threaten the sovereignty of her homeland…and threaten the very survival of those she loves.

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Rin Chupeco’s The Bone Witch is a unique story of one girl’s rise through the ranking of the asha, a order of women whose responsibilities range from entertainment to battling daeva, the deadly creatures set loose by the False Prince. The story shifts between past and present storylines, as we’re given a glimpse of who Tea will become and what made her into an asha in exile. When Tea is far too young to understand her own power, she accidentally resurrects her brother. This show of power does not go unnoticed and Tea is given the opportunity to learn under the tutelage of the bone witch Lady Mykaela. But bone witches are not as highly revered as other kinds of asha. Many fear them as their power more closely resembles that of the Faceless, those who serve the False Prince. Tea learns that becoming an asha will not be easy, but she may not have a choice when those battling daeva are failing and she may be the only one who can stop them.

Chupeco’s world is well-developed and often times lush. As Tea learns what it means to be an asha, so we learn alongside her. While I enjoyed the various aspects of the asha life, there were times when this really slowed down the narrative and I got impatient for something to happen. One part of being an asha that was really intriguing was the importance of one’s attire. The wardrobe of an asha is unique and significant to her. Chupeco’s writing shines the most when she is describing these traditional ensembles. I found it really unique that each person had a heartglass that they wore around their necks that they could exchange with the person they loved as a sign of commitment. With the right kind of skill, you could learn to discern a person’s feelings from the color of their heartglass.

Readers are given two simultaneous portraits of Tea. Her younger self is bright-eyed and untested. She is only beginning to understand the power she yields and to many, she is an easy target. She is infatuated with Prince Kance as he is kind to Tea in a way that not many are. The most important figure in her life is her older brother Fox. He is forever tied to her because how she brought him back to life. Only a few years older, the exiled Tea we are introduced to is wise beyond her years. She yields her magic in a controlled and graceful fashion. She also holds close the loss of people dear her, one who died for her and another that chose to turn away from her. I’m really interested in learning more about this older Tea and what transpires in the couple of years between the close of this first installment and the future Tea.

You probably won’t read another book like Rin Chupeco’s The Bone Witch. Her world is both dark and enchanting. Chupeco pays particular attention to detail in a way that many other fantasy books don’t. I’m looking forward to finding out more about Tea’s journey and transformation, and I’m also hoping we get to explore her abilities more.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

a-conjuring-of-light-by-v-e-schwabTitle: A Conjuring of Light
Author: V.E. Schwab
Series: Shades of Magic, #3
Pages: 624
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: February 21st 2017

      “THE BALANCE OF POWER HAS FINALLY TIPPED…
      The precarious equilibrium among four Londons has reached its breaking point. Once brimming with the red vivacity of magic, darkness casts a shadow over the Maresh Empire, leaving a space for another London to rise.
      WHO WILL CRUMBLE?
      Kell – once assumed to be the last surviving Antari – begins to waver under the pressure of competing loyalties. And in the wake of tragedy, can Arnes survive?
      WHO WILL RISE?
      Lila Bard, once a commonplace – but never common – thief, has survived and flourished through a series of magical trials. But now she must learn to control the magic, before it bleeds her dry. Meanwhile, the disgraced Captain Alucard Emery of the Night Spire collects his crew, attempting a race against time to acquire the impossible.
      WHO WILL TAKE CONTROL?
      And an ancient enemy returns to claim a crown while a fallen hero tries to save a world in decay.”

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“He tried to rise–he had to get up, had to find his brother—but hands surged from the darkness, fought him, held him down against silk sheets, fingers digging into shoulders and wrists and knees, and the pain was there again, vicious and jagged, peeling back flesh, dragging its nails over bone.

V.E. Schwab’s A Conjuring of Light is an engrossing and heart-stopping conclusion to one of the most inventive fantasy series I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Schwab has crafted a complex and engaging world, one filled with magic that sunk its teeth into me from the very first page of A Darker Shade of Magic. In this final installment, Red Londen is under attack and Kell must face an enemy far more powerful than himself. Osaron has already taken control of one Antari, but he has his eyes set on Kell. The kingdom is buckling under the weight of Osaron’s power, people are giving in to the intruding whispers, unable to resist Osaron’s influence. A plan begins to form to take Osaron down, who is more apparition than man and thus harder to kill, but the cost may be far greater than anyone imagined.

I’ve really enjoyed all the characters’ arcs throughout this series. Brought up beside Prince Rhy, but invariably different, Kell has not quite belonged in his brother’s world. As an Anatari, Kell has been gifted with the kind of magic that others would kill for, but it has also made him a kind of prisoner. His dynamic with the King and Queen is complicated and at times heartbreaking. Kell, who has regarded them as family, discovers that he was a tool, a weapon used to protect the crown prince. There is a coldness between Kell and these two that never seems to thaw. Despite their missteps, Kell recognizes that his adoptive parents love him, maybe not in the way that he wants, but in the only way they know how. Kell’s unspoken loneliness is something that has always stood out to me. He is a prince, but has never quite felt like a son. He is an Antari, able to travel through worlds, but navigates these worlds very much alone. Holland was the first person he met who could truly understand him, but instead of a friend, he became a foe. But unlike Holland, whose choices have cut him off from building meaningful connections, Kell is unalterably tied to his brother Rhy and the enigmatic Lila. Where he once believed he must navigate the world alone, he comes to realize he doesn’t have to.

Lila has spent most of her life running. It is her coping mechanism, her way of protecting her heart from pain. She is arrogant, ambitious, and at times reckless. She’s convinced herself that she’s better off alone, that looking out for herself is the only way to live. But people like Kell and Alucard have managed to pierce the wall she’s built around herself and in this final novel, she must decide if running is something she still has to do. I was really happy to get more of the story from Alucard’s perspective. We’ve seen him mainly through Rhy and Kell’s eyes, which hold conflicting views of the aristocrat turned pirate. He isn’t a man used to being vulnerable, of waiting and asking for things he wants. He knows he still wants to be with Rhy, but is no longer the one in control. Alucard has caused pain, but has also been the target. Much like Lila, he has also been running, but has a chance to be the kind of person Rhy deserves.

Holland’s story is fraught with pain. He has been used, betrayed, and discarded. Despite everything he has done in the past, I found myself rooting for him. He may never be as noble and self-sacrificing as Kell, but he has his own brand of honor that is needed to overcome Osaron. A Conjuring of Light is undeniably Rhy’s book. It is a chronicle of his rise, of this once flippant prince shaking off the final bits of boyhood. It’s Rhy recognizing and accepting the weight of the crown upon his shoulders, of discovering that his life is not his own, but his people’s. My heart broke for Rhy more than any other character. I felt every doubt, every struggle, and every loss. But I also rejoiced in his triumphs, every brave act endeared him more to me and it was so satisfying to see all he had been through coalescing into a truly rewarding arc.

A Conjuring of Light managed to pull at my heartstrings more than the previous books. Schwab’s writing truly dazzles. I’m in love with every fight scene, which are sometimes elegant and other times messy, but always enthralling. Schwab has created a world that is easy to fall into and much harder to leave.

Rating: 5/5

★★★★★

Mini Reviews: Nimona + Burn Baby Burn

MiniTime for another round of mini reviews. I’ve been lucky enough to pick up some really great reads this year, here are a couple that I didn’t have time to write full reviews for, but that I enjoyed a lot nonetheless. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: Nimona
Author: Noelle Stevenson
Series: N/A
Pages: 266
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: May 12th 2015 

      “Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren’t the heroes everyone thinks they are.
      But as small acts of mischief escalate into a vicious battle, Lord Blackheart realizes that Nimona’s powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he is willing to admit.”

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Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona is my first graphic novel and it won’t be my last. Stevenson’s characters are incredibly lovable from the impulsive Nimona to the strangely ethical supervillain Ballister Blackheart. With a fast-paced story, Nimona was a hard one to put down. Nimona and Blackheart make quite the team as they seek to bring down the Institution of Law Enforcement & Heroics. With Blackheart’s archenemy Sir Goldenloin leading the fight against them, this story is full of humor and adventure with friendship and love at its center. If you enjoy superhero stories where no one is who they seem, where the line between the good guys and bad guys is blurred, be sure to check this one out.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★


Title: Burn Baby Burn
Author: Meg Medina
Series: N/A
Pages: 310
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release Date: March 8th 2016

      “Nora Lopez is seventeen during the infamous year 1977 in New York.
      After a freezing winter, a boiling hot summer explodes with arson, a blackout, and a serial killer named Son of Sam, who is shooting young people on the streets seemingly at random.
      Not only is the city a disaster, but Nora has troubles of her own: her brother, Hector, is growing more uncontrollable by the day, her mother is helpless to stop him, and her father is so busy with his new family that he only calls on holidays.
      And it doesn’t stop there. The super’s after her mother to pay their overdue rent, and her teachers are pushing her to apply for college, but all Nora wants is to turn eighteen and be on her own. There is a cute guy who started working with her at the deli, but is dating even worth the risk when the killer especially likes picking off couples who stay out too late?”

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“They were eighteen and twenty years old, more or less like us. They went to the movies and found out that the city isn’t huge at all. In fact, it can shrink down to the size of a gun barrel, just like that.”

Meg Medina’s Burn Baby Burn is an emotionally gripping novel. Nora is a protagonist that is easily relatable as she struggles with an uncertain present and an even more uncertain future. It’s 1977 and the serial killer, the Son of Sam, is on a rampage. Nora and her best friend Kathleen are on the brink of adulthood and while this should be the best time of their lives, much of their choices are predicated on the fear that anyone, including themselves, can be the serial killer’s next target. Nora’s homelife is a constant struggle, if it isn’t financial issues that make it almost impossible to make rent every month, than it’s her younger brother Hector, who is spiraling out of control. Trapped between her brother’s rage and her mother’s impotence, Nora is constantly trying keep the peace and not drown in her own despair in the process. Medina does a fantastic job of transporting the readers to 1977 New York and made it impossible to not feel for someone like Nora who has so many unreasonable burdens placed upon her shoulders. It’s the story of a young women who finds courage to stand up for herself, to take control of her own life despite the awful hand she’s been dealt.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

aristotle-and-dante-discover-the-secrets-to-the-universe-by-benjamin-alire-saenzTitle: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Series: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, #1
Pages: 359
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release Date: February 21st 2012
*This review is based on the audio version of this book, narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda*

      “Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

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“There were so many ghosts in our house – the ghost of my brother, the ghost of my father’s war, the ghost of my sisters’ voices. And I thought that maybe there were ghosts inside of me that I hadn’t even met yet.”

Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is compelling coming-of-age story, infused with both touching and tragic moments in the life of Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza. The summer of Ari’s fifteenth year, he meets Dante and while the two could not be any more different, they quickly become friends. Over the course of two summers, both their lives are irrevocably changed by this friendship. This is the very first audio book I’ve listened to and although I was apprehensive about whether or not it would be able to hold my attention, I could not ask for a better narrator than Lin-Manuel Miranda. In fact, I might have been spoiled and need every audiobook I listen to to be narrated by him.

I loved how important family was in this book, not just for Ari but for Dante as well. Much of Ari’s resentment toward his parents comes from how closed off they are around him and this is never more apparent than with regard to his older brother, Bernardo, who is currently incarcerated. Ari wants so badly to know why, to be able to utter his brother’s name, but there’s a lot of hurt and shame that keeps both his parents tight-lipped. Ari’s father is also a veteran who continues to deal with the psychological effects of war. Ari is desperate to know his father, to have a real honest conversation, but this isn’t always possible for his dad. There is so much to love about Dante’s parents and it’s obvious right off the bat that they are meant to be a contrast to Ari’s. Dante’s father shows more affection in one interaction with his son than Ari has ever witnessed from his father. I thought it was still really important that Dante still finds it hard to open up to his parents. When he is contemplating telling them he is gay, he confesses to Ari that he doesn’t want to be a disappointment.

From the very beginning it’s clear that Dante is more sure of himself. He’s curious about the world and himself and isn’t afraid to share his feelings about both. He’s one of those people who lights up a room and his optimism is infectious. Ari’s feelings for Dante are gradual. Unlike Dante, he isn’t so sure of himself. He has a lot of internal dialogue that can be messy, contradictory, and evasive. He hides behind a lot of sardonic comments, but there’s so much happening underneath the surface, you can’t help but feel the weight he carries around. Of course, there were still times when I wanted to slap him upside the head to knock some sense into him. Ari feels more for Dante than he’s willing to admit, but still has to deal with his own internalized homophobia before being able to label what his relationship with Dante really is.

Both Ari and Dante are Mexican American and I found it really interesting and insightful how the characters deal with their ethnic identities. Dante never feels quite “Mexican” enough and is often convinced that other Mexicans don’t like him because of it. Ari makes snide remarks about what it means to be Mexican, even going so far as to say he’s more Mexican than Dante because of his darker skin. When you grow up in a society that stereotypes your culture and places less value on you because of your background, it can really do a number on how you perceive yourself, not just your place in society, but your place within that group. These stereotypes are often perpetuated within the community and I’ve known plenty of Mexican Americans that feel not quite American and not quite Mexican either and it’s a hard line to walk. That being said, I do wish the characters had come to a resolution regarding their identities or at least had a continued discussion about this part of who they are.

Sáenz does a fine job of capturing the pain and uncertainty of growing up when you’re on the brink of adulthood. Ari’s journey of self-discovery is incredibly moving and will have you rooting for him till the end.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson

allegedly-by-tiffany-d-jackson Title: Allegedly
Author: Tiffany D. Jackson
Series: N/A
Pages: 387
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Release Date: January 24th 2017

      “Mary B. Addison killed a baby.
      Allegedly. She didn’t say much in that first interview with detectives, and the media filled in the only blanks that mattered: A white baby had died while under the care of a church-going black woman and her nine-year-old daughter. The public convicted Mary and the jury made it official. But did she do it? She wouldn’t say.
      Mary survived six years in baby jail before being dumped in a group home. The house isn’t really “home”—no place where you fear for your life can be considered a home. Home is Ted, who she meets on assignment at a nursing home.
      There wasn’t a point to setting the record straight before, but now she’s got Ted—and their unborn child—to think about. When the state threatens to take her baby, Mary must find the voice to fight her past. And her fate lies in the hands of the one person she distrusts the most: her Momma. No one knows the real Momma. But who really knows the real Mary?”

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“I’m dizzy from holding my breath for so long, maybe for years. And something ugly, hidden deep inside me is threatening to erupt. I can’t hold it back anymore. How do I make it stop before it’s too late?

Tiffany D. Jackson’s Allegedly is one of the strongest debuts I’ve ever read. Mary B. Addison’s life is run by the state. Convicted of manslaughter at age nine, Mary has been in the system for nearly seven years. The group home she currently resides in is a living nightmare. The adults she is surrounded by are apathetic at best and the other girls in the group home can be ruthless and cruel. Mary just tries her best to survive, but when she discovers she is pregnant, she has more than herself to worry about. Mary wants to keep her baby, but with the kind of conviction she has on her record, Mary will be lucky to even hold her baby before its taken away. In order for her to even have a chance to raise her own child, Mary must confront her past and speak up when so many have wished to silence her.

Mary’s story is both compelling and heartbreaking. Mary is adamant about her innocence, but she’s also torn between telling the truth and condemning the one person in her life she’s always felt protective of: her mother. The author does an incredible job of holding the reader’s attention, not only by using Mary’s appeal to overturn her case to push the story forward, but also by weaving in excerpts from interviews and various officials’ notes in order to give a clearer picture of Mary’s past. With the entire system stacked against her, it isn’t hard to root for Mary, to hope that she could somehow have a happy ending. But there are instances when Mary’s credibility is brought into question. It isn’t that she is necessarily lying, but that she isn’t telling the whole truth. What happened the night little Alyssa died is shrouded in mystery and while I wanted to hear the whole story from Mary sooner, it was the secrecy and uncertainty of that night that kept me reading.

The most interesting and powerful relationship in Allegedly is Mary’s complicated dynamic with her mother. Though Mary has been through a lifetime of pain, she’s still in many ways very young. Her emotional age is never more apparent than when discussing her mother. Though she blames her mother for what happened to Alyssa, she still wants to protect her. She still worries about her mother’s mental health when she isn’t around, whether she’s been taking her pills and if she’s been having as her mother phrases it “a day.” She wishes more than anything to be able to talk to her mother when it comes to her pregnancy, but her mother remains antagonistic toward the very idea, so Mary remains very much isolated. Mary is starved for motherly love, but is also understandably distrustful of strangers. For her, it isn’t a matter of if the people in her life will disappoint her, but a matter of when.

Allegedly examines minors in the justice system, systemic racism, mental illness, teen pregnancy, and a myriad of other important topics. Jackson has crafted an amazing debut that is both moving and thought-provoking and one that I will not soon forget.

Rating: 5/5

★★★★★