Beyond the Red by Ava Jae

Title: Beyond the Red
Author: Ava Jae
Series: Beyond the Red, #1
Pages: 360
Publisher: Sky Pony Press
Release Date: March 1st 2016

      “Alien queen Kora has a problem as vast as the endless crimson deserts. She’s the first female ruler of her territory in generations, but her people are rioting and call for her violent younger twin brother to take the throne. Despite assassination attempts, a mounting uprising of nomadic human rebels, and pressure to find a mate to help her rule, she’s determined to protect her people from her brother’s would-be tyrannical rule.
      Eros is a rebel soldier hated by aliens and human alike for being a half-blood. But that doesn’t stop him from defending his people—at least until Kora’s soldiers raze his camp and take him captive. He is given an ultimatum: be an enslaved bodyguard to Kora, or be executed for his true identity—a secret kept even from him.
      When Kora and Eros are framed for the attempted assassination of her betrothed, they flee. Their only chance of survival is to turn themselves in to the high court, where revealing Eros’s secret could mean a swift public execution. But when they uncover a violent plot to end the human insurgency, they must find a way to work together to prevent genocide.”

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“A scream rips from my throat, but by the time the soldier turns and sees me, it’s too late–I slam my dagger into his neck. He drops, gurgling as I rip the blade away, whirling on the second soldier and catching him in the throat.”

Ava Jae’s Beyond the Red feels more like a decent setup to an interesting series than a compelling opening installment. The human race is barely surviving, but its greatest enemy is not the dry, hot desert in which they dwell, but the Sepharon, an alien race that regards humanity as invaders. Eros has been raised among humans, but as much as he would like to be a part of their race, nothing erases the fact that he should not exist. As a “half-blood,” Eros is an offspring of a Sepharon and human, considered an abomination to both races. When Eros’s people are attacked by Sepharon soldiers, he finds himself taken captive and thrust into the Sepharon queen’s court. Kora is young and inexperienced. Though the throne is her birthright, many believe her brother Dima is better suited. With threats at every turn and no one in her own ranks she can truly trust, Kora is forced to turn to Eros to protect her. Each needs the other to survive, but their arrangement is a fragile thing.

Beyond the Red has some excellent building blocks for solid world building. I was immediately taken in by this alien world, from the red, hot desert sands to the gleaming white architecture of Vejla city. There’s also an interesting political dynamic with Kora and her brother, as the people riot for a different ruler and Dima tries everything he can to undermine his sister. There’s a larger power structure beyond the kingdom of Eljan, but the novel only just touches on this. The Sepharon people have a really interesting religion that I was hoping to learn more about as well. Beyond the Red started off really strong with its world building, but dropped off in the middle when the focus narrowed to Eros and Kora’s growing relationship and much of these interesting aspects got left behind.

I wanted to believe in the connection between these two characters, but I found that their interest in each other began way too quickly. Eros’s immediate attraction to Kora left me cringing, not just because Eros is a servant, but because Kora’s actions resulted in Eros losing many people he loved. Although it’s acknowledged that Kora is responsible for the actions of her soldiers, I didn’t think that this instantaneous attraction was really necessary in order for me to get behind their relationship. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I felt invested in the two of them and much of this had to do with the fact that it finally felt like they had an actual foundation to build on.

As far as their individual character arcs are concerned, I was hoping for more for Kora. She’s a queen after all and it made me so mad to see her brother circumvent her authority at every turn. I wanted her to gain the kind of confidence she needed in order to lead, but this never really happened. Eros’s story was actually much more interesting. I can’t say too much because of spoilers, but the ending really got me excited for the direction this story is headed.

Rating: 3/5

★★★

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

★★★★

Wolf By Wolf by Ryan Graudin

Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin

Title: Wolf By Wolf
Author: Ryan Graudin
Series: Wolf By Wolf, #1
Pages: 388
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: October 20th 2015 

      “The year is 1956, and the Axis powers of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan rule the world. To commemorate their Great Victory over Britain and Russia, Hitler and Emperor Hirohito host the Axis Tour: an annual motorcycle race across their conjoined continents. The victor is awarded an audience with the highly reclusive Adolf Hitler at the Victor’s ball.
      Yael, who escaped from a death camp, has one goal: Win the race and kill Hitler. A survivor of painful human experimentation, Yael has the power to skinshift and must complete her mission by impersonating last year’s only female victor, Adele Wolfe. This deception becomes more difficult when Felix, Adele twin’s brother, and Luka, her former love interest, enter the race and watch Yael’s every move. But as Yael begins to get closer to the other competitors, can she bring herself to be as ruthless as she needs to be to avoid discovery and complete her mission?”

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“The wind tore ice across her cheeks. Her face was so numb, so cold, but the wolves burned under her skin. Howling secrets. Hidden things anyone could pick up if they listened closely enough.”

Ryan Graudin’s Wolf By Wolf is a daring reimagining of our world’s history. In this alternate universe, Hitler and his allies have successfully conquered much of Europe and Asia, as well as the northern portion of Africa. The rest of the world has buckled under pressure, choosing peace over war, agreeing to a truce with the notorious leader. Those opposed to the New Order have been forced underground, working in secret, biding their time. With the annual Axis Tour, a motorcycle race that spans continents, soon underway, the resistance is ready to make its move and at the center of their plan is Yael. As a child Yael and her mother were imprisoned at a death camp, where she was subjected to various scientific experiments. The goal behind these experiments: to find a way to perfect the Aryan race by suppressing the melanin in a person’s system, thereby controlling their hair, eye, and skin color. Unbeknownst to the doctor in charge of these speculative trials, Yael developed the ability to “skinshift,” to alter her own appearance into the likes of another.

As Yael begins her mission, to impersonate former Axis Tour Victor Adele Wolfe, her resolve to take down Hitler is stronger than ever. Yael has lost everyone important to her and has been stripped of her own identity through the experimentation she endured as a child. Though she is full of anger and retribution, she recognizes that this mission’s success has the potential to become a catalyst, a spark that will signal a revolution that could give way to a better future for the world. She knows how much depends on her being able to masquerade as someone else. This scheme puts in her in a precarious situation, where every word, look, or action threatens to expose her. This is made even more dangerous by the presence of Adele Wolfe’s twin brother Felix and former competitor Luka Löwe. Both know more about Adele than Yael, and both challenge her view of what she has learned on paper about each. Yael is a determined character, but what sets her apart is, despite the injustices done to her, there remains a part of her who refuses to become like those she hates.

Wolf By Wolf is as terrifying as it is fascinating. Graudin’s world explores crimes by Nazi Germany that are rarely explored: human experimentation, as well as envisioning a different history that is frightening in its plausibility. Graudin’s novel is heartbreaking, thrilling, and near perfect in execution, whose impact will be felt long after finishing.

Rating: 5/5

★★★★★

Winter by Marissa Meyer

Winter by Marissa Meyer

Title: Winter
Author: Marissa Meyer
Series: The Lunar Chronicles, #4

In the final push against Queen Levana, Cinder and her crew must infiltrate Luna and put an end to the tyrannical rule of the queen and end the conflict she has reaped upon the Earth. Levana is determined to stop Cinder from claiming the throne as Princess Selene, the true heir of Luna. But Cinder is not the only one who may jeopardize Levana’s reign, Winter, Levana’s stepdaughter, rivals the queen in beauty, but it is her kindness that makes her a threat. Together, Cinder and Winter must reach out to the people of Luna and work together if they have any hope of saving the moon-planet and Earth.

“A thousand horrors clouded her mind. That they wouldn’t believe her. That they wouldn’t follow her. That they wouldn’t want her revolution.”

Winter, the final novel in Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles, brings the series to a thrilling conclusion as the entire ensemble of characters from the first three books come together to defeat a powerful foe. Winter gives readers a much closer look at the mysterious Luna, where the aristocratic people enjoy extravagance while the working-class suffers under terrible conditions. While Levana has been the only Lunar readers have been given an intimate look at, in this final novel, Princess Winter functions as her antithesis. While one uses her glamour, the Lunar gift that makes it possible to manipulate other people’s perceptions, to charm the public, the other has sworn to herself never to use deceptive means. Winter’s vow has had a negative effect on her mind. Prone to horrible visions, many view the princess as mad, including the queen. But Winter is more than the sickness plaguing her mind, she’s kind and generous, an amazing feat considering the environment she grew up in. Winter’s refusal to use her Lunar gift shows a different kind of strength that Levana, who relies so heavily on her own, can never understand.

Linh Cinder, once a lowly cyborg mechanic, is on the brink of claiming her rightful place as Queen of Luna. Cinder has struggled to accept her role as Princess Selene. What I like about Cinder is her doubt never fully disappears, she isn’t sure if she has the ability to rule Luna or if the people will accept her. These doubts, instead of undermining her character, makes her incredibly relatable. There are so many wonderful characters in this series who have grown over the course of several books. Emperor Kai finds a way to be defiant even when he finds his hands tied behind his back. Wolf suffers several losses but his connection with Scarlet keeps him afloat. Scarlet’s world was turned upside down but her tenacity and confidence drives her forward despite the circumstances. Cress, once secure in her own fantasy world, shows a different kind of fight than Cinder or Scarlet, but her skills are invaluable to the team. Thorne has come such a long way from the arrogant thief we first met, this journey has made him a better person and I just love everything about his character development.

Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles has been a fantastic ride. As far as fairy tale retellings go, this has been perhaps the most original I’ve come across and I cannot wait to read more from this author.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★