The Brotherband Chronicles: The Outcasts (Book 1)

A New Adventure in a Familiar World

outcastsHalf-Araluen, half-Skandian, Hal Mikkelson has always been an outcast. He is smaller and darker than the boys his age and has a penchant for inventing. In the first book in the series, The Outcasts, it is time for Hal and the other sixteen-year-olds to start their training to be proper Skandian warriors. Hal finds himself unexpectedly in charge of a group of boys who, like himself, have never fit in. The boys must band together to prove their mettle as Skandian warriors and Hal must prove himself a true Skandian.

For fans of The Ranger’s Apprentice, John Flanagan has offered up this new series, The Brotherband Chronicles, as a companion series set in the same world but in the Viking-like country of Skandia. The series begins in much the same way as Apprentice, with main character Hal Mikkelson beginning on the path to his future. But where Will Treaty began training to become a ranger in solitude with only his mentor for company, Hal starts his training with a group of outcasts like himself. A large part of his training is not only in learning the skills of his trade but in forming a bond with his brotherband.

While many authors are overwhelmed by managing so many characters—Hal, the other five boys in his brotherband, and a number of others—Flanagan does an admirable job of keeping each character distinct and memorable. It is impossible not to mention the drunk Thorn, a former Skandian champion with one arm who becomes a mentor figure for Hal. Though he does not delve deeply into many beyond Hal himself, we get a taste of what is to come from the rest of the series.

What I love most about this book is the way it builds out the world we already know. It gives just enough touches of the familiar (characters like Erak and Svengal, introduced in The Ranger’s Apprentice) to feed the nostalgia of regular Flanagan readers, but stands apart with its own flavor. Skandian traditions, with their heavy investment in fighting and seamanship, feel different than the duty to king and country that permeates the Araluen world.

If I were to change one thing, it would be how detailed Flanagan’s explanations and descriptions tend to be. When mid-action, Flanagan has a tendency to describe not only the action a character takes, but all the little insights that led to that action and how they came to be able to make those observations. For example, he may explain how, during a swordfight, a character recognized a coming attack and blocked it because, thanks to his long hours of practice, he noticed a slight shift in body language. While these insights are interesting, they tend to slow down the action significantly. It takes the reader out of the moment, effectively reducing the tension and excitement. These details could be reduced, or even removed, without hurting the story.

Overall, this is a series I plan to keep reading.

A North Shore Story by Dean Economos and Alyssa Machinis

a north shore storyTelling the story of a group of teens with a lot to hide, A North Shore Story feels a lot like Gossip Girl, without the seemingly-omniscient blogger to spoil things at the most inopportune times. Where the story struggles most is in the focus. There are a lot of characters to cover in a very short space.

It became fairly difficult to tell the characters apart or remember who had what issues. While it didn’t feel like any one issue or struggle was unrealistic, the sheer number of them was overwhelming – some characters struggled with unrequited crushes, other had to face cheating boyfriends, others worried about money troubles, others struggled with having a friend surpass them, still others dealt with unfair accusations. It just seems like a lot for a single group of friends to deal with all at once.

Any one or two of these issues could have served as an entire story, being delved into more deeply so we could truly get to know the people involved. Instead, we got a lot of “telling not showing” about how people felt, and we did not get to see many characters’ motivations.

The story has the foundation for a deeper look into the lives of teenagers. What it needs now is more character development and more focus so that it can get the readers invested.

The Caretaker’s Guide to Fablehaven by Brandon Mull

fablehavenThe Caretaker’s Guide to Fablehaven is not the type of book I typically read. I generally prefer reading the book to reading the book about the book. (I never got particularly excited about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them or Quidditch Through the Ages despite loving Harry Potter and re-reading the entire series many times over.) However, The Caretaker’s Guide serves as both an excellent refresher for Mull’s upcoming Fablehaven sequel, Dragonwatch, and as a wealth of knowledge for super-fans of the existing series.

All the important characters from Fablehaven, both heroes and villains, show up in one form or another in this book: Seth and Kendra provide entertaining comments and additions (that make it feel like this is a real book being updated by each generation of caretakers). Villains/demons such as Zzyzx and Muriel the witch are featured in multiple places. The book is also a great way to expand your knowledge of the Fablehaven world and, for younger audiences, a way to imagine being a caretaker-in-training for Fablehaven. 

If you can’t get enough of Fablehaven, this is the perfect book to help you bide your time until the sequel series comes out in 2016. (Otherwise, just pick one of Mull’s series, I have yet to be disappointed.)

Fires of Invention (Mysteries of Cove #1) by J. Scott Savage

coveFires of Invention reminded me a lot of City of Ember, one of the earlier dystopian novels I read when I started my general binging of all things middle grade and YA. The two share many things in common—a city built underground, supplies dwindling, strict rules, and a history that turns may not be quite accurate. Cove is a city where tradition and “the way things have always been done” is more important than creativity and innovation. Calling someone an inventor is the worst insult you can give. It is better to stick with tradition than create something new, no matter how helpful it is or how many people’s lives it might save.

The hero of the story is Trenton, a boy whose mind is full of inventions. When he sees a machine, he can tell almost instantly how it works and how to make it better. Despite his efforts to bury these instincts deep, he cannot help but create things. One day he is sent into a narrow mining shaft where the mining belt is broken, he discovers an illegal screwdriver that sets him on a path of discovery.

The screwdriver, he learns, was that of Leo Babbage, the most infamous inventor of Cove, who is said to have killed a bunch of people, and himself, when one of his inventions backfired and exploded. It is more than a screwdriver though. It is a clue to something much bigger. With the help of Babbage’s daughter, Kallista, Trenton follows the clues, which leads him to several major discoveries that could change his life and all of Cove, forever.

One of the strengths of Cove is the way it delves into relationships. Trenton’s mother, who was injured in a mining accident, is overprotective and distant. She loves him, but doesn’t understand him. His father, on the other hand, is loving and supportive, relating to Trenton’s creativity in ways Trenton can’t even imagine. Simoni, his long-time crush, forces Trenton to examine what he wants out of a relationship. And Kallista is driven, outspoken, and angry; with her help, Trenton learns to question everything he has always believed.

I’m excited to see where book two takes Trenton, though given where this book ended, it is hard to imagine it being anything like the first.

Secrets of Neverak (A Tale of Light and Shadow #1) by Jacob Gowans

neverakWhen I read the first book in this series, I was skeptical. It was described as a fantasy book, yet did not really seem to contain, much, if any, fantasy. Instead, it felt more like a love story set in some vaguely historical time period (no computers or technology but not located anywhere familiar). It turns out that the first–which was also an enjoyable read though it didn’t really feel like my genre–was more like set up for a much bigger, more fanastical follow up.

Secrets of Never really picked up in the areas where I felt the first book was lacking. The fantasy elements were real and tangible, but not overwhelming. We learn that there is a Seer who can predict possible futures and help manipulate events (as well as perform some unique spell craft, which we have only scratched the surface on), there are magical artifacts that can curse or provide gifts to people, and there is a type of magic called “The Path of Lyrial” that can be passed down via a type of blessing. There are ghosts and other haunting beings and supernatural creatures such as dragons.

The characters were given room to grow and develop into multi-dimensional characters. The most interesting thing about many of the main characters is that they are allowed to be flawed–Henry has too much pride and holds himself accountable for ever misstep whether or not he had anything to do with it, Maggie can be cruel and lash out when hurt and tends to be critical and judge harshly, James is afraid to open up to people because of a heart break in his past that has left him distant and cold, and Ruther is addicted to gambling and drinking which often gets him into trouble. Isabelle, who spent much of book one unconscious, finally gets her own storyline where we can see her strength of character and resourcefulness and understand why Henry loves her so much. While I would like to see her be more multi-dimensional like the others (of all the characters she is the only one who is too perfect and has no identifiable character flaws as yet), it was nice to finally get to know her. Even the evil emperor and his general have distinct characters quirks that bring them to life.

As the story progresses, it is clear that there is a much bigger picture than any of the involved characters realize. They have unwittingly been drawn into the midst of a battle that goes beyond two kingdoms fighting for power and of which we have only seen the smallest inklings so far. This series has a lot more to give and if book 2 is any indication, book 3 will be even better.

Resist (Resistance Trilogy #2) by Tracy Lawson

The frequency of terrorist attacks in the United States has led to the creation of the Office of Civilian Safety and Defense. Slowly, the OCSD has made life safer for the American people–by controlling all aspects of their lives from food to schooling to travel. If people don’t congregate, they won’t become a target. But when the OCSD releases a new treatment meant to protect the public against airborne chemical attacks, things begin to look suspicious. Former high school sports star Tommy and current college student Careen soon find themselves tangled up in a resistance group bent on stopping the OCSD from accomplishing its real goal: Power. Together they manage to shake the American people’s faith in the OCSD, but the battle is not over. Careen finds herself a wanted criminal and the face of the rebellion while Tommy struggles to reconnect with the parents he thought he had lost and to find his place in the fight. But being part of the resistance bring its own set of challenges. Can everyone be trusted? What should be sacrificed for the sake of freedom?

The concept of this series is a powerful one because it seems only just outside the realm of possibility. What would people give up for the promise of safety? Quite a lot, according to this series, whether they realize it or not.

There were two main issues I’ve had thus far in the series. The first has to do with the OCSD’s master plan. In a bid to gain power, the OCSD convinced the public that an airborne terrorist attack was imminent and began giving the people the drug in phases. Phase one was a sort of LSD-type drug that made people hallucinatate and dependent on the government to help them survive. Phase two weakened their wills so that they became highly susceptive to instructions and orders. Phase three…total control? I’m not entirely clear on what the third phase was meant to do, the plan having been foiled by Tommy, Careen, and the rebellion. This supposed antidote is where the plot sort of loses me. I find it hard to believe that those who were on a placebo drug (employees whose jobs were deemed essential services) would not have noticed that drugged-out behavior of their friends, family, and neighbors. Wouldn’t it have led to a significant number of accidents, injuries, and deaths? I can buy the idea of people willingly allowing many of their rights to be stripped for the sake of safety. I can buy a corrupt government department scheming for power. I’m just not sure this particular plan makes any sense. In book 2, the OCSD has been exposed and embarrassed and yet somehow it seems to mostly be running (with some issues that have more to do with the post office than anything else).

The second issue I’ve had is in the characters. I want to get to know them better, to understand more about their motivations. And I want them to be more active. So much of book 1 had Tommy and Careen on phase one and so much of book 2 had them mostly following orders and reacting to events happening elsewhere. I also wanted to be more invested in their relationship, but that requires seeing them together–truly together, when not on drugs. I think book 3 will see some of this, as this is the final showdown and the characters will have to take a stand in some way or another.

Where Resist shined was in showing that nothing is black and white. It isn’t as simple as the OCSD is evil and the rebellion is good. Much in the way that The Hunger Games made us question Alma Coin, book two in the series makes us question the members of the rebellion. Each person has slightly different desires–glory, love, recognition, philosophy–and those differing goals call into question who the good guys and the bad guys are in this story. If you love that ambiguity, this is the story for you.

Seeker (Book #1) by Arwen Elys Dayton

Seeker

Quin, together with her cousin, Shinobu, and John, the boy she loves, has spent her childhood training for her birthright under the tutelage of her cruel father. The three of them come from a long line of Seekers, sworn to help humankind with special training and unique tools that allow them to travel the world in the blink of an eye. But there is a lot Quin doesn’t know about the Seekers  and her family’s past. When she finally takes her oath to become a Seeker, she discovers that much of what she believed about the Seekers and John are untrue. She is forced to commit terrible acts. When an attack on her home enables her to escape, she must come to terms with her actions, the Seekers, and the boy she loves, and find a way to reclaim the noble purpose that the Seekers were intended for.

There are some strong elements to the story that make it engaging and interesting:

  • an ancient order that has been corrupted because of its power (two ancient orders, in fact, but the Seekers are the primary group)
  • a complicated dynamic between Quin and her mother, who washed out of Seeker training and seems to have a miserable marriage that leads her to incessant drinking
  • a dangerous weapon called a disruptor that drives a person into a permanent, torturous coma that all Seekers fear but must learn to stand against
  • a whipsword that the Seekers use, which can reshape itself into any weapon
  • the process of globe hopping via an athame that takes them into a sort of hole in the fabric of the world where they can lose themselves if they aren’t careful

Despite these things, I had a number of issues with the book, including its structure (it felt like two books forced into one), a lack of character development (their actions often felt like “this helps the plot or conflict progress but doesn’t really make sense in regards to what’s been established by their character or even just in general), and a lack of focus (there is a secondary plot about an order called the Dreads that is introduced halfway through the book that competes with the main story but feels superfluous).

The structure of the book seemed like one of the more unnecessary problems . Considering that this is the first book in a series, it seems like making this two separate books would have made more sense. The first half, designated “Part One,” focusing on the time when Quin is training, taking her oath, discovering her father’s lies, and has her home more or less destroyed are one story that could have filled its own book. The second half, “Part Two,” taking place after the attack, when Quin and her cousin and fellow Seeker Shinobu have escaped and established new lives for themselves only to have their old lives catch up with them feels like it should have been its own story. Both parts of this story don’t seem to get the development and attention they deserve, making it feel like we are missing something. Some of the mysteries of the story (like why the athame is so all-important) feel more like there just wasn’t time to explain them, not that they are being strategically being kept for a big reveal later.

The lack of character development is due to a few different elements. We are told that Quin’s father Briac is cruel and overly-harsh, but much of this is relayed to us via the characters discussing how mean he can be, not by showing him being mean. (Later we discover that he has corrupted the legacy of the Seekers and uses it for his own purposes, but this revelation comes very late and isn’t really clear until almost the end of the book.) The prime example of his cruelty is that he does not seem to want John to become a Seeker, for reasons unclear. But one of the first things we are shown is that John cannot overcome his fear in the face of the disruptor. This seems like a very real and very clear reason for him not to be a made a Seeker, even if the bias were not a factor. If the book had been split into two books, with the first one spending more time on their training and interactions with Briac, as well as more about Shinobu’s relationship with his father Mariko, who is also a Seeker, we would have had the time to get to know everyone better. We also would have gotten to know John and Quin’s relationship more, because it did not seem very developed or realistic.

The lack of focus is in part the disjointed first a second half, but it is also the introduction of the Dreads. In the first half, they are essentially a couple mysterious people who are there to swear in new Seekers and enforce certain rules of the order. It is clear they have incredible abilities such as moving at super speed. Suddenly in the second half of the book we start getting Maud’s perspective. She is the youngest of the Dreads–there are three, the Old Dread, Middle Dread, and Young Dread–and questions much of what she sees. The Dreads, who lives for hundreds of years, are meant to be impartial, but Maud questions where they fulfill this requirement. She questions who she should be aligned with and who she should obey. She is perhaps the most interesting element of the story, but it also doesn’t feel like a true part of the story. Instead it feels like it was added in order to make it easier for other things to happen for the main characters. If anything, it felt like it could have (maybe should have) been a companion novel.

I don’t feel like I know the characters well enough to really root for them. I’m not sure if I will be picking up book two.

Project ELE by Rebecca Gober and Courtney Nuckels

Project ELE tells about a time when a virus has wiped out a large number of the population and the Earth’s temperature is rising to uninhabitable temperatures. Fifteen-year-old Willow Mosby must leave her life (and much of her family) behind and go into a F.E.M.A. shelter to survive. What she finds there are friends, love, amazing new abilities, and unexpected danger.

I was surprisingly disappointed by this book, which is the first in a series. There is a lot of promise in the idea (as someone who likes dystopian novels and stories about people with “powers”), but the execution was lacking:

– The story is told from Willow’s perspective. I tend to find first person narratives difficult in the best of times (the characters are too in their own heads and they tend to whine a bit too much), but here it was particularly problematic because Willow is perfectly bland. She’s a sweet girl with no real defining traits. Reading the story from her perspective didn’t make me feel closer to the action and it didn’t add to the experience. She didn’t have unique insights (by contrast, Cia from The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau had unique observations about the people around her and what their behavior might indicate, which was why I found it so enjoyable) and her thought process was never clear enough for me to relate to why she did some of the things she did.

– Considering that half of Willow’s family will likely die while she is in the relative safety of the shelter, she does not think about these family members very often. I could believe this more in a third person narrative where we don’t have the character’s inner thoughts and don’t know what she is thinking at all times, but with first person, we should see her thoughts occasionally drift in their direction every so often, even if she pushes them away and doesn’t want to dwell on it.

– It takes too long to get to the point in the story where Willow and her friends discover amazing new abilities. It feels like we spend 2/3 of the book in a standard dystopian novel and then suddenly we are in a superhero story. The shift is disorienting. The special abilities elements needed to be integrated into the story earlier (even with hints and clues) and some of the details before that could have been shortened or cut out to make the story feel more cohesive.

It is very rare for me not to want to finisha book, if only because I like to know what happened, but in this case, I don’t intend to pick up book 2.

The Young Elites (#1) by Marie Lu

young elitesThe Young Elites is about a young noble named Adelina who survived a plague when she was a child, but not unmarked. In addition to losing an eye, her hair has turned white, marking her as a malfetto. Some malfettos have special abilities and are known as the Young Elite. Adelina soon discovers that she has an ability, which soon gets her swept up in a plot to overthrow the king and queen.

Having already read Marie Lu’s Legacy series, I went into the book expecting to enjoy it. Even so, the book had a number of surprises that I was not expecting and deeply appreciated (such as the fate of an important character and the motivation of another). In this regard, the series felt like a step forward in Lu’s writing. The Legacy series did not carry the same level of unexpected turns as this one did, which made the series less predictable. The Legacy series has shown that Lu has no qualms killing off major characters, something more common in YA these days, but not so early in a series. This established high stakes that will only make the series going forward more compelling and unexpected.

I have two main issues with The Young Elites:

First, I think the character of Raffaele was a somewhat unnecessary character. His mentoring of Adelina was important, as was his friendship with Enzo, but he also served an expository function that made some revelations in the book seem too easy. Rather than discover the emotions that Adelina’s magic aligned with, the series simply told us from the start. I think it would have been more powerful to discover this through her actions and experiences instead.

Secondly, we were repeatedly told that Adelina was dark and ambitious (and extension of my first complaint), but very little of what we were shown of her in the book really indicates this. Yes, she made a few questionable choices, but no more so than other characters, including those whose emotions were aligned with “joy” and other more positive emotions. It feels as though the book is trying to convince us that she has darkness within, but mostly fails in the attempt.

That being said, the characters were dynamic, the world believable, and the power-struggle engrossing. I will definitely be reading book two when it comes out.

Throne of Glass (#1) by Sarah J. Maas

throne of glassThrone of Glass follows master assassin Celaena Sardothien, who is captured and forced to work in a labor camp after being betrayed by one of her fellow law-breakers. Her life changes when she is given the chance to win her freedom. All she has to do is win a dangerous competition against other hardened criminals for the position of King’s Champion.

What I enjoyed most about the book is the quick pace, intricate but interesting backstory, and the air of mystery surrounding the characters and events. The characters are engaging and likable and it is easy to be drawn into the story.

Where the book faultered was in its commitment to the Celaena’s role as an assassin. We are frequently told that she has killed many people, that she is known as the greatest living assassin. While it is clear that she is skilled and capable, it is difficult to believe she is truly a ruthless murderer. She risks her life and her chance at freedom to save her fellow competitor, she immediately falls for the son of the man who murdered her parents, she displays a level of childlike wonder that is not likely of someone who has experienced the hardships she has experienced.

Despite this issue, the rest of the story was engaging enough to be enjoyable.