Friday, May 16, 2014

Renee's Reading: 2014-05-03 through 2014-05-09

Happy Friday everyone! I hope your week went well. Mine was good. And I read some pretty interesting books last week. Wanna hear about them?

Heaven's Queen, by Rachel Bach
From the moment she took a job on Captain Caldswell's doomed ship, Devi Morris' life has been one disaster after another: government conspiracies, two alien races out for her blood, an incurable virus that's eating her alive.

Now, with the captain missing and everyone--even her own government--determined to hunt her down, things are going from bad to impossible. The sensible plan would be to hide and wait for things to blow over, but Devi's never been one to shy from a fight, and she's getting mighty sick of running.

It's time to put this crisis on her terms and do what she knows is right. But with all human life hanging on her actions, the price of taking a stand might be more than she can pay.

Wow. I just loved this trilogy. Snark, romance, violence, and a few questions about morality and the fate of the universe thrown in to add a little more spice. Why, Ms. Bach! All my favorite things! You shouldn't have.

Oh, who am I kidding? You totally should have. Thank you!

I've fallen out of the habit of reading science fiction, and rectifying that was one of my big reading goals for 2014. But it sort of felt like a chore. All the controversy running amok about sexism and science fiction lately has left something of a bad taste in my mouth, which made part of my brain just want to (unfairly) avoid the whole genre.

And then Rachel Bach started writing this action/adventurey space opera trilogy with a kickass heroine. I really liked the Eli Monpress series and I enjoy her blog, so I decided to give these books a go.

And I remembered why I like science fiction. Fortune's Pawn was so fantastic I immediately preordered Honor's Knight and Heaven's Queen. I could not wait for release day on those books. In fact, I liked it so much that I recommended it to Long-Suffering Husband. (I try to avoid doing that because we have very different tastes and it usually ends badly, so it has to be a really good book to merit my insisting and nagging and badgering until he reads and claims to love recommending it to him.)

As I'd hoped, Honor's Knight was fantastic and I could not wait for Heaven's Queen. Finally, release day arrived! Huzzah! Exciting conclusion to a great trilogy! Woohoo!

But excited as I was, I was also a little nervous going into this last book. Knowing this was the finale, I was concerned that it couldn't possibly live up to the potential I had built up in my head. I've had a couple of bad experiences lately with finales leaving me let down. Was this going to be another one?

Not it was not. Heaven's Queen totally lived up to the anticipation and was wonderful. Devi just does not quit. I don't mean that in terms of her actions as a character, though that's certainly true too. I mean, she's just continually awesome to read.

This book had all the great humor and action of the others, dialed up even higher as the stakes rose. The romance element felt really authentic as well. I like how Bach showed how conflicted Devi was over that without dwelling on it, and how the balance of her relationship with Rupert progressed. And I especially loved how strong Devi was in her convictions.

I'm going to try to do this next bit without spoilers. Apologies in advance if it gets a bit tedious. What she does at the end of the book is a pretty big leap of faith. She doesn't know it's the right thing to do. She feels it. She's pretty damn sure about it. But she doesn't know it'll work out like she wants. And I loved how she acknowledged that, thought it through, and then stuck to her decision. There's a moment where she's fighting with Caldwell and she basically says, "Look, I know if I was you I would think what I'm doing was crazy too." She wasn't a blind zealot, but she wasn't just bumbling through the action only trying to survive either. She had such great agency as a character and I loved that.

Devi is such a strong character and I was really struck by what a great job Bach did in writing that without resorting to the usual clichés. Plus, the story was just fun. The world was rich and entertaining. The science made sense, even the parts I didn't come close to really understanding. I loved this book. It was an awesome book on its own and also a really great conclusion to the trilogy.

When We Met, by Susan Mallery
Angel Whittaker earned his scars the hard way, but the scars that can't be seen are the ones that haunt him the most. Since he moved to Fool's Gold, California he's cobbled together a life for himself as a bodyguard trainer. If he's not exactly happy, at least his heart is safe.

Working with pro-football superstars taught tough-talking PR woman Taryn Crawford one thing--she can go toe-to-toe with any man. But then dark, dangerous former Special Ops soldier Angel targets her for seduction. . . and challenges her to resist his tempting kisses.

Even in 4-inch heels, Taryn never backs down. Unless, somehow, Angel can convince her that surrender might feel even better than victory.

I really enjoyed this book. Taryn and Angel's story was fantastic. I loved both their characters and their romance was wonderful to read.

Angel is so tortured. I love a good tortured hero. Mallery did a great job writing him. I thought the direction she chose to go with his trauma was interesting. He's a former assassin, there could have been a lot of emotional baggage there. But we've seen quite a bit of that already in this series with the other men Angel works with. There are hints of it in the way he compartmentalizes everything, but Mallery didn't get bogged down in it. Instead she focused on his grief over his wife and son, and I think she did a fantastic job of exploring that. It was far more personal and I was completely drawn into his character because of it.

Taryn was also an interesting character, though I do think Mallery could have done a better job showing the fallout from her traumatic background. Though she's not completely perfect, aside from a couple of random moments, Taryn seemed very well-adjusted for having gone through all that abuse and poverty. Everyone copes differently and all, but I was surprised there was really no exploring of how she got to the relatively healthy place she's at. Still, she's smart and sassy and I really liked watching her struggle to find her place in Fool's Gold and with Angel.

Another thing I am really enjoyed is how Mallery has kept this series going without overwhelming the reader with references to past books. I've read a couple of small-town series like this where eventually each new book just becomes a contrived series of check-ins with the previous couples and the "primary" romance ends up falling by the wayside.

Thirteen books in, I was worried things would be getting a bit stale in Fool's Gold. But while we did see a couple of the previous characters, they were, as they should be, only there to ground the setting and support the plot. They didn't overwhelm to story.

Along with that, I think Mallery did a very good job of only bringing in characters relevant to Taryn and Angel. Despite the cliché, in a small town everyone doesn't actually know everyone. It wouldn't have made sense for some of the previous couples to put in an appearance here, and Mallery didn't try to wedge them in there anyway. The focus here was definitely on Angel and Taryn and as a reader I really appreciated that.

Overall, this was great read. A fun romance to curl up with on a rainy afternoon.

Allegiant, by Veronica Roth
The faction-based society that Tris Prior once believed in is shattered--fractured by violence and power struggles and scarred by loss and betrayal. So when offered a chance to explore the world past the limits she's known, Tris is ready. Perhaps beyond the fence, she and Tobias will find a simple new life together, free from complicated lies, tangled loyalties, and painful memories.

But Tris's new reality is even more alarming than the one she left behind. Old discoveries are quickly rendered meaningless. Explosive new truths change the hearts of those she loves. And once again, Tris must battle to comprehend the complexities of human nature--and of herself--while facing impossible choices about courage, allegiance, sacrifice, and love.

Told from a riveting dual perspective, Allegiant, by #1 New York Times best-selling author Veronica Roth, brings the Divergent series to a powerful conclusion while revealing the secrets of the dystopian world that has captivated millions of readers in Divergent and Insurgent.

I wanted to like this book. I really did. When it came out last year and there was the giant kerfuffle of angry fans, I got all indignant on the author's behalf. Authors are in charge of the story. They get to write it however they want. And if the main character doesn't end up exactly where you wanted her too, tough.

I do believe that. I believe that very strongly. Maybe I'm biased there, because I'm also a writer, but whatever. This is Roth's story and she has the right, as the author, to write it however she wants to. And I sure as hell don't support anyone threatening or abusing an author the way I heard about Roth getting abused. It's a book, people. No matter how disappointed you feel, there's no reason to threaten the author. Get a grip on reality.

But I understand why people were upset. Because I didn't like the book either.

First off, I really didn't enjoy the dual POV. As I've mentioned in my reviews of the previous books, I don't like the 1st person present POV. It's hard for me to read. And crafting two distinct voices in 1st person can be tough. I don't feel Roth pulled that off. Four/Tobias and Tris didn't feel that different to me. There were several places in the book where I'd be in the middle of a scene and lose track of which one of them was doing the storytelling.

I also found the story itself somewhat lacking. The characters seemed very disconnected from one another, which struck me as odd considering how much they've been through. They're strangers in a strange land, essentially, and regardless of how capable they've proven themselves, they're still teenagers fighting in an adult world. And rather than cling to one another for familiarity and sources of strength, they just sort of drift off in different directions.

The forward momentum of the plot ended up alternating between stalled out and confused. Everyone's motivation got muddled. Everything the previous two books had been about didn't seem to matter at all anymore, until all of the sudden it did again, but not in a way I really bought. And ultimately, nothing anyone did made a whole heck of a lot of sense. They were all just running around reacting, instead of truly taking control. Three books into a series, I want to see the characters asserting themselves a little more, instead of just being pushed around by fate. This story lost all of the urgency that the previous books had built up so well.

Also, as I've been reading these books, I've become less and less enchanted with the world-building. The more I learn about the society Roth has created here, the less believable it seems. I'm by no means an expert in genetic engineering, economics, or sociology, but I had a hard time buying pretty much everything about this world. It's too inconsistent with reality as I currently understand it and, though there's no clear indication of exactly how much time has passed, the society is too close to ours in other respects to allow for those inconsistencies, in my opinion. I was left with too many questions about how humanity ended up at that place. While I don't expect an author to tie up every loose end, I also don't like being left squinting at the book sideways trying to make it make sense.

And now for the big one. The ending. I've thought about the ending of this book a lot, in large part because the controversy over it is part of what drew me to the series in the first place. You'd think I'd be able to just write it off as a book I didn't like and move on, but I couldn't. Maybe it's the contrarian in me, but when people start losing their shit over a book, I want to understand why and really think through my own opinion on the matter. So I'm going to set aside for the moment my problems with the story and the series as a whole and just focus on this one particular point for a little while.

Um. . .  Spoiler alert. I tried writing this part of the review without spoilers, but it started to get really confusing and strange. So consider yourself warned. There are spoilers ahead. If you don't want to read spoilers, stop reading right now.

No, seriously. The first sentence of the very next paragraph is a huge spoiler. I'm even going to put a big annoying gap of space here, just in case the fancy coding I found to hide it doesn't work in your review reading method of choice. (I'm told sometimes spoiler code doesn't work in certain browsers or RSS readers, but I don't know enough about coding to fix that, so I'm going old school and abusing the Enter key.)

So, that was a really long post there. And for only three books. Whew. If you managed to make it all the way to the end, dare I ask: have you read any of these? What did you think of them?

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