Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Gracelings are people with exceptional skills. Where the average person can run fast, a Graceling with the gift of running can run like Flash. Where a regular person can be a very good cook, a Graceling with the gift of cooking can make even better food. But for all their amazing abilities, Gracelings are feared. They are property of the king of the kingdom they are born to. Katsa is one such Graceling, the king’s niece, able to kill with her bare hands since she was a child. She had been the king’s private assassin for many years. But when she meets another Graceling from another kingdom, she has no idea how much her life will change. She is forced to examine everything she’s ever believed about her abilities and where her place in the world is meant to be.

This is a strange series, since it doesn’t follow the conventions of a typical book. It’s almost like a TV show, where you’re watching a bunch of episodes back to back. They have some underlining threads running from one section to the next, but for the most part, they have their own stories that are more or less resolved before moving on to the next one. It’s not a good or bad thing, only an unusual one. (Somewhat similar to the way the Alanna series by Tamora Pierce works.)

The reason this works, is because Cashore manages to make Katsa a multi-dimensional character. Her emotions feel very real and you can relate to her every thought and confusion. While the plot seems to change, we have Katsa to hold on to and care about throughout.

Not all of the characters are as well-rounded. Bitterblue, who becomes important in the second half or so of the book, is one of the least developed characters. She’s sympathetic and sweet, even stronger than the average child, but little more. (This is all right, especially since she is getting her own book soon so we will undoubtedly learn more about her then.)

The place I find the story most lacking is in the structure of the world itself. There are seven kingdoms, each ruled by a different king, that are close enough that their politics and commerce are closely connected. But the truth is we don’t get enough of a look into the seven different kingdoms. Why do we need so many? I would have preferred fewer, say four, that we could get to know more intimately than a larger number where we only got bits and pieces of each. Even the important ones didn’t feel fully developed. We spend a large portion of time in Monsea but I don’t feel like I know anything about the place (aside from the king itself).

The love story, though predictable for the most part, is still well done. You still feel a deep connection to Po and Katsa that you don’t always feel with other fantasy couples.

It’s a solid book, not a top ten, but definitely on the positive list.

Room by Emma Donoghue

Jack has lived his entire life in Room, with only his mother for company. It’s all he’s ever known. His friends are Dora, from TV, and Rug, Bed, and most importantly, Ma. At night, comes Old Nick, the only other person Jack has ever seen, with some supplies. What Jack doesn’t know, is that he and his mother are captives and that there is an entire world Outside Room. As Jack gets older and more curious about the world, Ma realizes that they can’t stay there. It was time for her and Jack to escape.

Told from five-year-old Jack’s perspective, this is easily one of the most compelling and interesting stories I have read in a long time. We are fully enveloped in Jack’s world, learning as he does, feeling as he does. Even though we come in knowing all the things he doesn’t we still discover the world with him, seeing everything in a new light.

I love that most people would have left the story with the breakout, but Donoghue goes beyond that. She gets into the heads of her characters to the point where she thought about what it would be like for them to return to the world. The camera crews, the family reactions, the public reactions, all of it is so thought out and true to life (it’s eerily accurate and not just a little bit of a sad commentary on today’s media and society). How would Jack feel being in Outside? How would Ma feel after so long locked up? How would people view them and respond to their plight?

Some people say it’s gimmicky to write the book from Jack’s perspective. I disagree. I think the only way to really give the proper complexity (what Ma sees as good isn’t necessarily what Jack sees as good because he doesn’t have an understanding of Outside) is to do it this way. Told from the perspective of Ma, I don’t think the story would have been nearly as successful. It would too sad and overwhelming. In this way, there’s still hope and confusion. And we get a perspective we could otherwise never get.

Having read this, I can’t wait to check out some of Donoghue’s other books, in hopes that they will be even remotely as good.

(If you read this and want to go a little further, check out the website for this book for a more interactive experience here.)

The Maze Runner (Book 1) by James Dashner

Every month one boy is brought up to the Glade in the elevator with no memory of anything but their first name. Thomas’s arrival is much the same, as unremarkable as any other arrival. He is quickly introduced to life in the Glades. The area they live in is surrounded by stone doors that close at night, separating them from the surrounding maze and the Grievers, dangerous creatures that prowl the maze. During the day, they explore the maze in hopes of finding a way to escape. But the day after Thomas comes, a girl arrives with a message: everything is going to change. And there’s something about the girl that’s familiar to Thomas. Thomas might know more about the maze and how to escape, if only he could remember it.

The first few pages of this book are a little slow. I think this is mostly because it’s all inside the character’s head with very little actually happening. (Basically Thomas is in the lift, wakes up, has no memory, and the lift rises.) But as soon as it reaches the surface and he’s brought into the Glades, the book really picks up. Dashner has thought of just about everything–how the boys survive, a vocabulary unique to their experiences (though I wonder if some of the new kids pick up that vocabulary a little too quickly for it to be natural), a hierarchy of sorts, different personalities, etc. It is such an intricate world that it is easy to get lost in it.

He has built solid characters, I believe their reactions and care about their survival. There are some characters it would have been nice to know more about (though I suppose that is difficult since they don’t really know anything about themselves), but it makes sense that if a boy’s memory goes back only a month, there is less to reveal about him than someone whose memory goes back a year or two, etc.

Not every detail involved is a surprise (if anyone was paying attention, they should be able to figure out where the escape route is fairly early on), but there are more than enough surprises to keep you interested. And of course, there is the biggest question of all: who put them in the maze and why?

This is definitely one of the better series that I have read in a while (a few of the ones that I’ve picked up lately have been particularly solid). Book two is already out and reading it is a high priority. This is a series that I would love to see made into a movie.

Spy High: Chaos Rising, The Serpent Scenario, and the Paranoia Plot (Books 2-4) by AJ Butcher

Book 2: The Bond team is gearing up for the prestigious Sherlock Shield competition. Ben, leader of Bond, is determined to beat his rival on the Solo team. But there might be a spy on Bond team. But there may be bigger things to worry about, as CHAOS, the evil organization bent on crippling the world, has declared war. Can Bond team stop them in time?

Book 3: Jennifer (with Jake for company) has returned home to deal with her personal demons–specifically, to get revenge on the person who killed her family. Meanwhile the rest of the team is sent to investigate a new drug that is being sold on the street that turns people into vampire-like addicts. Can they figure out who is behind the drug and stop him before it is too late?

Book 4: With the arrival of a new team member, Rebecca Dee, comes questions and suspicions as Bond team is suddenly hit with mysterious accidents. Not only that, but she seems to be keeping secrets from them about her past. Bond team must deal with these and other issues–especially the unexpected return of a friend.

Once again with the large number of main characters, some of the characters get more attention than others. We get a lot more of Callie and Jennifer here and although we technically get to hear from Eddie more, he didn’t really get any deeper. He remained the goofy guy who did care about being a spy and was particularly, overly interested in getting a girlfriend.

I think the weakest point of this series (aside from the entire idea that they would send early trainees into the field without telling them) is how basic the characters are. They don’t really get more complex (besides Jennifer, of course). Callie has the potential to be interesting but we never really go in depth into her past the way we should.

Overall, they were easy, quick reads, but had I not found the books on sale for pretty cheap, I wouldn’t have bothered reading beyond a book or two. Unless I find the other ones for cheap too, I probably won’t be reading any more of the books.

Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima (Book 1)

This is one of those instances where it was clear that the author’s writing has really grown from their first series to the their second. Cinda Williams Chima’s first series (The Warrior Heir) was anything but weak. I liked it a lot when I read it. But where that trio didn’t quite flow or feel quite right, this one felt like a more complete world.

We follow Hans Allistair, the former street lord who is trying to go straight, and Raisa Marianna the headstrong and insulated Princess Heir of the Fells. Hans lives in a world that requires careful negotiating with the city guards (bribes and avoidance are the best methods), carefully saving money to get by, and a particular divide between wizards and others. (People are particularly wary of wizards after the Demon King broke the world and careful rules have been in place to keep this from happening again.) Hans tries to fit in and stay out of trouble but trouble seems to follow him, in particular because he has a pair of silver cuffs that he cannot remove and does not know where they came from. Raisa lives in the castle, carrying out her every whim (which mostly involves making out with boys she knows she can never be with because as the heir she must marry for the good of the realm), when she realizes that there is more going beyond the castle. She discovers how poor people, how much resentment there is towards the royal guards and the wizards. Her mother is a particularly weak queen and the succession is being threatened. Removed as she is from her queendom, Raisa knows she must do something to help her people and keep those who wish to steal her birthright from succeeding.

One of the things I really enjoyed was how separate Hans and Raisa’s lives seemed, yet they were deeply intertwined in more ways than they could ever imagine. Sure, they run into each other for a few chapters, but those chapters are only the most obvious ways that they are connected.

Another one of Williams Chima’s great skills involves surprise. No matter what you expect or who you think is important, there is always a little more going on than is originally apparent.

For once I can’t think of any particular complaints I had while reading. I like all of the characters, the story is interesting, and there is nothing in particular that stands out as a weak spot. If I had to come up with a complaint, it’s that it seems like Hans and Raina seem to be headed in the direction of being a couple and for some reason that rings false to me. (There’s nothing to really prove that, but that’s the sense I got.) In fact, I feel like we’re just getting to the best part. If this book is any indication of where her writing is going, I can’t wait to get the second book (though I may have to wait until it comes out in paperback since I can only afford so many hardcover books.)

Gone (Book 1) by Michael Grant

Sam is sitting in class when suddenly his teacher disappears. Not just his teacher, everyone over the age of fifteen disappears from his town. There is also a barrier blocking the town off from the rest of the world. Without adults, a fight for control and power takes place, the biggest bullies in town attempting to rule. Sam has a secret though, he has an unusual ability–he can shoot laser-like light from his hands. As he is about to discover, he is not the only one with these powers and while he is a natural-born, compassionate leader, not everyone with abilities is. To make matters worse, Sam learns that his mother has been lying to him about his family, there is a Darkness corrupting animals/people, and worst of all for fourteen year old Sam, is that when people turn fifteen they disappear.

This book has all the ingredients of a book I would like: kids with powers they don’t understand, no adults and thus a reasonable explanation for why the kids are so involved in dangerous events without intervention, and a bit of a mystery to figure out (it’s sort of a futuristic Lord of the Flies). I also like there being a love story without it being the central story (I have never been a fan of a character whose only purpose is to be someone else’s significant other). Overall, I did enjoy reading Michael Grant’s Gone. But that isn’t to say it had no flaws.

The biggest flaw I found in this book involved religion. For one thing, there is a great deal of talking about and invoking God/Jesus/Mary which felt perhaps a little overly forced since there was no indication that these kids were particularly religious to the point where they could recite entire passages off the top of their heads. It also seems a little intrusive. (Maybe it’s just me, but if I was in immediate danger–like say a rush of coyotes surrounding me and threatening to eat me, I think I’d be more inclined to say “Please God, please…” over the an entire long prayer.) Even more than this, was the fact that the main character, Sam, was not only not religious, but not Christian. Though he didn’t particularly identify with any religion, the closest he’s got is Judaism. As such, all the talk of Mother Mary and Jesus, etc should have been a little odd for him, if not a little uncomfortable.

Allegiances seemed a little shifty and easily changed (which I suppose makes sense in a world run by children) but it would have been nice to have a better sense of why people made the decisions they made. Why did Diane choose Caine, why did Edilio join Sam, why did Quinn hover from one side to the other? Granted, this is a multiple book series, so we have time to learn all about the different characters, but sometimes the decisions didn’t quite add up to what we knew.

One of the strengths (and perhaps also weaknesses) of the book is how much is happening. There’s Astrid finding her brother, Astrid and Sam’s relationship, Quinn and Sam’s relationship, the town figuring out how to run, the power struggle between the Coates kids and the rest of the town, the mystery of what happened and how to avoid disappearing, Sam’s past, etc. The plus to this is there is never a dull moment (but Grant did a good job of keeping you from feeling overwhelmed with information). Each scene is informative and moves the story forward in some way. The downside to this, is that we got occasional glimpses of characters such as Lana and Mary who felt like they had serious things going on but simply didn’t get enough attention.

I’m excited to see where the series goes, but I do hope it dials down on the religion and delves into the characters and their motivations/pasts more. This book could actually make a fascinating TV show if executed well. There’s so much happening that there would be material to cover for years.