Gregor and the Code of Claw (Book 5) by Suzanne Collins

Finally, we have come to the book that everything has been building up to. The final battle has come and Gregor does not have the free reign he has become accustomed to in the Underland. His family is being kept hostage, the rats seem to be winning, and there is a secret code that could turn the tide of war if only they could solve it. Can there ever be peace in the Underland? And who will survive this bloody war?

Many series stumble when they deal with the “final event,” the “thing we’ve all been waiting for,” but not Collins. This book deals with every plot line introduced. The stakes are higher than ever as the prophecy has revealed something awful about Gregor’s future, something that no one can bring themselves to tell him but that he has to know. Can Gregor make it out of his final adventure alive?

Like in Harry Potter, we are confronted with the idea that perhaps prophecies are only self-fulfilling. Maybe they are so vague as to possibly fit in anywhere. Maybe they are utter nonsense. Or maybe, they are the true, unalterable future. Whatever your conclusion may be at the end of the book, the prophecies still drive our story forward, forcing our characters into hard, unimaginable choices.

We find out what happens to every character we have come to know and love, and even the ones we’ve learned to hate (the Bane) and you can’t help but feel for all of them. Because no matter how obvious the “right choice” is, the Underland is a world where things are never so easy and obvious as one might hope. Good is twisted and people sometimes find themselves without options. Collins has really created a rich, complex world that I am sorry to have to say goodbye to.

This fast-paced page turner will keep you guessing until the very end, when the only thought you will be left with is: “why must this series end?”

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Midnight Charter by David Whitley

I have a hard time leaving a book I have started reading unfinished. Even when I hate the book, I usually still find myself wanting to know what happened. That being said, there were many times when I considered putting this book down.

The story follows Lily and Mark as they go from orphaned servants to important members of Agoran society. Lily has been an orphan her entire life and was sold by her orphange to work. She comes to work as an astrologer’s servant, where she comes to meet Mark, a boy who grew up in the slums and was sold by his father to the astrologer’s son–Dr. Theopilis when they had both contracted a plague that was sweeping the poor in the city. Agora is a city where everything is about contracts, ownership, and sales. Even emotions can be extracted from a person and sold. Events conspire to lead the pair of friends of opposite paths–Lily works to help the poor of the city while Mark becomes rich and influential. But something bigger is at stake–Lily and Mark are part of a mysterious prophecy meant to determine the future of the city itself.

It feels like we are missing steps throughout the story. We jump from point A to point D to point G, etc. So much time elapses from one chapter to the next that we are always being given summary of the time we missed. As a result, we can’t get involved in the story and just settle into it. It also makes the development of the characters and story feel forced and unrealistic because we didn’t get to see it happen.

The message of the story, about the need for charity, the importance of human life, and how money can corrupt, feels a little preachy instead of natural. I would have liked it to be slightly more subtle. (Perhaps without Lily literally spelling it out at one point…)

Ultimately, I couldn’t get into the story and have major issues with the way it ended. It simply didn’t seem to make sense logically [Spoiler]: How can they change the city if they cannot return to it?

Girl in the Arena by Lisa Haines

Gladiator culture becomes part of US culture, first through an attempt to find peace without war, then as a high stakes game of life and death. As the culture evolves and the organization in charge changes the rules to ever increase the profit, the life of those within its system become ever more complicated. Lyn has had seven gladiator fathers, her mother is the epitome of a gladiator’s wife, and Lyn is expected to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Lyn isn’t sure this lifestyle is for her, but when the fighter who kills her seventh father picks up her dowry bracelet, the rules state she must marry him. Otherwise, her family may lose everything.

This book is one of the most fascinating books I have read in a while (perhaps since the Hunger Games). Haines manages to create a very real and frighteningly possible world where money and media surpass ethics and morality. Gladiator’s lives are nothing if not used for entertainment.

Lyn’s journey–from questioning child of seven gladiators to grieving daughter to fiance to a warrior in her own right–is so touchingly real. you cannot help but root for her, even without knowing how you want things to turn out. Should she marry her father’s killer? The answer seems obvious, but Haines manages to make you wonder if maybe you do want the pair to end up together.

Some of the characters are complicated and strange. You can’t help but want to yell at some and to step in to protect others. Which exactly the balance you want in a good book.

Here we have an excellent social commentary without becoming too bogged down in political climate. I thought this book was great and I only hope Haines intends to write more Young Adult.

Gregor and the Marks of Secret (Book 4) by Suzanne Collins

In truth, this book is more of a part one of two than it is really a book on its own, which isn’t to say there is anything wrong with it. The book is still great, it simply forces you to continue on to the next way (which I would have read regardless because the series had been so solid anyway).

When Luxa gets news that the Nibblers (them mice) of Undlerland) are in trouble, she and Gregor attempt to sneak off to help them. They do not make it out unnoticed and are forced to take along a number of others. Their journey takes them to a dark, unexpected place where they learn what is behind the mice’s troubles and attempt to save them.

The groundwork that Collins laid out in the first two books really starts to play itself out. The Bane is no longer a cute baby mouse, but a somewhat grown up, out of control creature who means big trouble for the Underland.

This book feels a little more similar to the Hunger Games series than those that preceded it. It is darker and grimmer than anything we have seen thus far and sets us up for the all-out war we knew had to be coming–what fantasy series is complete without it?

We have watched Gregor grow into his role as the Warrior but he still has more to learn. He may be a rager (someone who transforms into a great warrior), but he doesn’t know how to control his abilities. He can’t seem to make the slightest bit of progress with his ecolocation training. But even with these problems, he is stronger than he was when we first met him. And he’s older, which means he’s starting to realize the attractions of the opposite sex, which leads to some unwelcome, awkward moments.

This installment serves to endear us even further to Gregor, Ripred, and some of the other Underworlders, while showing us just how awful and complicated things can get.

Dragon Keeper by Carole Wilkinson

Dragon Keeper is the tale of a young orphan girl who serves a cruel master who is meant to care for the emperor’s dragons. Though at first she gives little thought to the dragons, the death of one and the mourning of the remaining dragon make her reconsider. She realizes that she is the dragons’ only chance at safety and freedom. Together they embark on a journey that is full of challenges and discovery.

Wilkinson paints a clear picture of Ancient China which helps make the story feel real and believable. The set up is strong and engaging. The orphan girl is sympathetic.

Despite this, I couldn’t get myself invested in the story. Most of it felt slow and plodding and I just wanted SOMETHING to happen. I love dragons and I love strong heroines and still it did nothing for me. The dialogue feels unnatural and forced. There was a nice little surprising piece of information at the end but it isn’t enough to make me want to read the next book to find out what happens to the dragon and the orphan.

Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods (Book 3) by Suzanne Collins

A plague is sweeping through the Underland and the Warrior, Gregor, is needed to help save them before it is too late. Ares, his bond and close bat friend, is just one of the many victims afflicted and Gregor feels he has no choice but to help, but his mother is not content to let him go himself.

Like with the last book, book three in the series is a major step forward in the story’s narrative. The themes are more complex and interesting–dealing with betrayal, disillusion, and being forced to grow up to soon. You feel for Gregor as he is forced to make difficult choices and is hurt in so many ways.

We get some new characters who are not only enjoyable in their own right, but are also helpful in revealing the truth about some of the characters we think we have gotten to know. They make this a deeper and more complex story without getting confusing or hard to believe.

This story is in turns exciting, surprising, terrifying, and heartbreaking. It only serves to make me more excited to see where the next book in the series will go.

Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud

Ancient heroes defeated dangerous, bloodthirsty trows and claimed the valley where the creatures had lived. The heroes each claimed a part of the valley where they set up their houses. Generations later, the heroes’ descendants have forsaken the sword for more peaceful solutions, but this has not prevented feuds among the heroes’ houses. Halli Sveinsson comes from one such heroes’ house and he has always dreamed of being like the heroes in the stories. He gets the opportunity sooner than he expected after a prank he plays goes to far and leads to disastrous consequences.

Halli is an unusual protagonist because he dreams of the glory of battle. The heroes he idolizes are known for their bloody battles and the disregard with which they treat one another. He goes on a quest to avenge the loss of someone close, thinking he can be just like them. Instead he learns the truth of what it means to kill a person and is forced to re-examine everything he has ever believed about the legends he has grown up on.

This is just the type of story that I normally enjoy most, but for some reason I could not really get into this book. The writing felt a bit stiff and old-fashioned, almost a bit unnatural. The ending in particular left me more confused and less clear on what was happening and how it played into the legends we’d come to know. It felt random in some ways, almost like it had virtually nothing to do with the book itself.

Ultimately an okay read, but not something where I am dying to read what happens next.

Gregor and the Prophecy of the Bane (The Underland Series Book 2) by Suzanne Collins

When the first book ended, I wondered how Collins would bring Gregor back to the Underland. After all, he left with no intention of ever returning. I needn’t have worried, as Collins had this issue well under control with a plausible reason for him to return and stay there.

Gregor was needed back to fulfill a second prophecy, known as The Prophecy of the Bane, about a legendary, large white rat known as the Bane that would plunge the Underworld into chaos. Gregor’s job is too stop the Bane.

The strength of this book is how it picks up where the second book left off–there is no happily ever after. Ares, despite not being exiled, is alone and despised. Gregor’s father is sick and weak, so now his mother has an extra person to take care of. A nosy neighbor keeps asking questions. Gregor has scars that he needs to disguise. These details are so clever. Collins has clearly thought out her world carefully.

Book two in the series is just as strong, exciting, and surprising as the first one. We get to learn a little more about the Underworld creatures–Shiners in particular, which are gluttonous, enormous fireflies.

Across the Universe by Beth Revis

As Earth’s resources are running out, the human race must think of a way to sustain itself. They have come up with a solution: they will send a group of people to another planet.

Amy’s parents are important members of this expedition (her mother is a scientist and her father is part of the military) and so she joins them. The trip will take three hundred years and they will be kept in stasis until they reach the planet. But when she is woken up suddenly and painfully fifty years early, she finds a world that she doesn’t understand.

Elder is the next in line to lead the people of the ship. He is somewhat rebellious for the stagnant world that is life aboard the ship. Amy fascinates him and he is instantly attracted to her differentness. The two must work together to discover who woke her early and why something doesn’t quite add up on the ship.

I was surprised to find myself really invested in this story. The characters are likeable and interesting, the situation–though not entirely unfamiliar–felt fresh and exciting, and though not every plot twist is shocking, there still enough guessing to keep you thinking.

One of the strongest elements of the book, beyond how strongly defined the characters are, is how thought out everything is. Revis has thought out every detail of how life on the ship works, what everyone does, the rules behind the system. Even the villain of the story is complex and, in some ways, sympathetic.

While the book did address many complex issues (is it right to sacrifice the few for the many? what is more important, survival or happiness? how far would you go to assure mankind’s survival?), it still has a way to go before it fully resolves these issues. They are addressed but in a more theoretical way, without the reality of the situation being tested. I am not certain if the book is meant to be a standalone, but I would be happy to see Elder and Amy’s struggle continue so that we can further examine these issues.