Thursday, December 24, 2015

REVIEW: The Shadow's Curse by Amy McCulloch (The Knots Sequence #2)

The Shadow's Curse
by Amy McCulloch
The Knots Sequence #2
4/5 stars
US release date: February 8, 2016

That was quick, right? ;)
This review does contain some spoilers pertaining to the first book in the series, The Oathbreaker's Shadow.

How I found it:
Many thanks to NetGalley and Flux for an ARC of this book in return for an honest review.
I was initially drawn to this title on NetGalley because it is published by Flux, who I've heard is a pretty fantastic publishing company. Plus, it sounded fascinating. I didn't realize at the time that it was a sequel -you can read the review for The Oathbreaker's Shadow right here- so I had to scramble to read both before the deadline. BUT IT WAS SO WORTH IT.

Again, the world building and magic system are fantastic! The world McCulloch has created is an exotic nomadic society in and on the outskirts of a brutal, blistering desert. In this second book, she takes us even deeper into this world, up into the mountain tribe of the learned Baril, across an ocean, and into the closed off kingdom in the South, with a dash of secret tunnels and feuding societies sprinkled in along the way.

At the same time, she continues to expound on the magic of knots and shadows and how it all ties into Raim's destiny and I finally get to enthuse on how much I absolutely love, love, LOVE the fact that an oathbreaker's shadow is actually a piece of the soul of the person whose oath they broke, haunting them for their mistake! How brilliant is that? It's FANTASTIC, is what it is. It adds an amazing layer of depth to both characters, because there is a part of Raim who was convinced to follow Khareh's dastardly schemes and there was a part of Khareh who couldn't. Talk about a gray area!

I really enjoyed the first book, but this one I loved. In the review for The Oathbreaker's Shadow, I mentioned just how wonderfully vivid best friends Raim and Khareh were and they got even better. While the first book showed us primarily Raim's journey, The Shadow's Curse is very much a dynamic between the former best friends. It's broken into two perspectives, half told by Raim and half told by Wadi, imprisoned by Khareh. Using Wadi as the second voice in this story was a very clever move, I think, because we see everything that Khareh is up to, including his own misgivings and regrets, but we see them all through the eyes of his enemy. This is a constant habitation of the gray area, because Wadi hates Khareh for betraying Raim and for everything that he has done, but at the same time she begins to understand him.

This is a tale of best friends-turned-enemies and my heart almost couldn't take it! While we don't see Khareh interacting on a personal level with his shadow of Raim, we do see Raim constantly talking to, trusting, and relying on the piece of Khareh's soul -dubbed Draikh- who is made up of all of the best parts of his best friend, the part that would never betray him. All the while Raim knows that it is just a shadow of Khareh, who did betray him, and only the shadow of their old friendship. MY HEART. McCulloch worked it beautifully, too, because she still managed to work over my emotions so thoroughly without bringing Raim and Khareh back onto the same page until the climax. Brilliantly and beautifully done.

Amy McCulloch has also won my high estimation because not once did she even think about dipping into a love triangle for Wadi between Raim and Khareh. So many authors would have taken that as a given, so bless your heart, Amy McCulloch, because you proved that we can have interesting and dynamic characters, including one girl and two boys, and keep our rapt attention without resorting to the over- and often poorly-done triangle. Bless you.

Obviously, for me, Raim and Khareh totally took the cake, but I would be remiss not to mention that Wadi is also a great character. She doesn't jump off the page quite as much as the other two, but she has a great presence and she is a fantastic example of a strong female character.

The biggest pro of all for this book had to be the ending. It was perfect. Throughout the series, I toyed with a few theories on how it would end, but none of them seemed quite right, and Amy McCulloch totally nailed it. This was an engrossing, fascinating, and deeply satisfying conclusion.

While I think that the narrative wasn't quite as bulky as in the first book, there were still times I did find myself skimming. I think McCulloch did a much better job using her narrative to further both scene and story in the Wadi chapters, because we were seeing the enemy through her eyes, and there was so much emotion infused there.

I wanted to know just how Khareh managed to win over his haunt of Raim, but it never goes into detail about this. This was disappointing because, having been so much in the head of Raim, I feel as the reader that he would never have agreed to such a thing. So why did a piece of him do it? This could have potentially deepened Raim's character and given us an interesting conflict or crisis of faith. Instead, it was essentially glazed over.

I had hoped we would see some further, realistic development for Raim and Wadi's relationship, but I was disappointed. In the first book, they leapt quickly from 'Hey, I just met you' to 'I can't live without you' in an unsatisfactory span of interaction, and the second book just kept with it. There wasn't much more development past this, except maybe 'absence makes the heart grow fonder.' I wasn't totally thrilled with the way the romantic story line was executed, but for the rest of this fantastic story, I can let it go.

Clean Read Guide:
Again, there is some violence in this story. Wadi is imprisoned with Khareh and his army, so we do see death and some of the realities of war. It's pretty tame though.
No bedroom scenes or make-out sessions, though there was probably an innocent kiss or two.
No profanity.

Fantastic! This was even better than the first book and a wholly satisfying series. It was left with an opening for more, but it could definitely stand alone. My absolute favorite thing about this book was the relationship between Raim and Khareh -friends turned enemies- and watching them deal with and develop from all of the consequences of that: what they regret, what they don't, and how they cope with the betrayal and the loss of their friendship. What an emotional roller coaster ride. The world, magic, and compelling story serve as excellent bonuses to this main attraction.

REVIEW: The Oathbreaker's Shadow by Amy McCulloch (The Knots Sequence #1)

The Oathbreaker's Shadow
by Amy McCulloch
The Knots Sequence #1
3/5 stars

How I found this book:
I picked this book up because I was given an ARC of its sequel, The Shadow's Curse, before I realized it was a sequel. <reading overdrive />

What makes this book stand out is its breath-taking worldbuilding and wholly original magic system. It's a fascinating universe that I couldn't get enough of. I caught myself singing 'Arabian Nights' now and then with this desert society of tribal nomads which is, to me, such a foreign and intriguing concept I had to keep reading. It wasn't just the nomadic lifestyle that made this interesting; it was how McCulloch describes it through her characters. The nobility and freedom of it. It's such an interesting and, again, foreign outlook to me that it was fascinating.

As for the magic system, I haven't seen anything like it before, and to find something unique in this genre can be tricky. The magic works in oaths and in knots. When someone makes a promise or a vow, they bind that promise with magic within a knot. Should they ever break that promise, the magic and the knot will break, transforming into a shadow of shame that will haunt them until their death, marking them as a despicable oathbreaker. And that's as much as I can say before spoilers, but let's just say, there's something about that shadow...

The story starts with a compelling mystery, questioning where our hero, Raim, received a knotted bracelet as a baby, what promise it might contain and to who.

Both Raim and his best friend Khareh are vivid and interesting characters. It was very easy to connect to both of them because of their clear and present personalities and their friendship -with its ups and downs and being so familiar with each other's faults and strengths- utterly humanized them. They're so powerful and full of life I wonder if McCulloch had to keep a cudgel at her desk to stop them from popping out of the pages.

This is the first book in a duology, its sequel set to release in February 2016. This is a plus in my book, because I am invested in so many multiple book series it's laughable. Knowing that I can step into this world but that it also won't stretch on for years and years makes it even more compelling.

There was too much narrative in this for my taste. There was a lot of detail and much of it felt removed from the characters and the story, which is a big no-no in my book. I did find myself skimming large sections. It also slowed down the beginning of the story, which I'm a little torn about because, on the one hand, we become fully immersed in this exotic world, but it also took nearly a hundred pages for the story to kick into gear.

My one other complaint with this book was an unsatisfactory development between Raim and his love interest. I feel like their relationship was pushed and premature. We didn't actually see them interact as much as we were told that they did, so I felt out of the loop on a lot of significant interactions as they were supposed to be falling in love. What I saw was a good beginning for a relationship, but they seemed to jump from 'beginning' to 'I can't live without you' in leaps and bounds I didn't quite catch. I feel like this can be a common problem in YA and I hope the next book gives us some more satisfactory and believable development between them.

Clean Read Guide:
Raim is a trained soldier, so there is violence in this book, with at least one very descriptive suicide. For this alone, I'd recommend it to mature audiences.
There is one make-out scene, but it's short and not very detailed.
No profanity.

The Oathbreaker's Shadow was a fantastic story, with a fascinating world and an original and thrilling magic system. A fun read, it's also a fresh breath of air in the YA fantasy genre. I would recommend it to fans of worldbuilding and epic fantasies and I can't wait to read the sequel.

Check out the review for the sequel, The Shadow's Curse.

Friday, December 18, 2015

STAR WARS The Force Awakens Reaction (Spoiler-Free)

Amanda & the Star Wars Summer

This is mainly directed at those of you who are a little gun-shy about the new Star Wars, who might be holding off until you hear from people you trust whether it's worth it.

You might not know me, but let me assure you, I am an unrepentant Star Wars geek, and as such I am telling you:

It is worth it.

The Force Awakens lives and breathes the tradition of the original trilogy, truly honoring the classics. It is, above all else, a true extension of the Star Wars universe and a very fitting next chapter.

Not only that, The Force Awakens honors the spirit of the Classic Canon. So many of us couldn't believe that they debunked so much of the Extended Universe in preparation for this movie, because there were so many fantastic stories that could be told and that we didn't want to let go of.
I haven't read extensively in the EU yet, but I think I understand now why they did this. And I am okay with it. 
The writers didn't erase the Classic Canon from history. They didn't forget that it existed. They know that it's there, that it has been there in the minds and hearts of fans for decades. It will never be erased. They didn't want to erase it and so they allowed its spirit to live on.

The original cast, bless them, were not just cameos. I was terrified they might just be there to pull in a bigger crowd. They were, and will continue to be, indispensable to the Star Wars story.

The lack of excessive CGI was a heaven-send. I love the feel and the look of the universe again. It is so natural, so original, so beautifully freaking authentic and STAR WARS HAS STILL GOT IT, BABY!

The Force Awakens, while honoring the original, was not. It didn't even try to be. The writers did a marvelous job successfully updating our beloved universe in a fantastic tone that not only felt genuine and so right, but played to a new generation of future Star Wars geeks and current audiences. Humor, quips, snark, dramatic duels, epic cinematography, and the characters! Ack, I can't say more without spoilers! 

This movie exceeded my expectations. I had no doubt that Disney would pull off something amazing rather than ruin the franchise, but even I was beginning to have some doubts; to dread whether or not they could produce an amazing expansion of the Star Wars universe I could love, rather than just an amazing film that I would like.

It wasn't perfect. It had flaws. There are some issues I have with character interaction (or lack thereof), storytelling gaps and holes, and I'm sure everyone has a pet peeve or two about it. But the most important thing is this:

I came away from The Force Awakens with something I didn't think possible:
A deeper love and a greater appreciation of the Star Wars universe and its characters. 

That should be all you need to know right there.

Don't let fear and doubt cloud your judgement. Buy a ticket. Embrace the next step in the Star Wars universe. And as always, may the Force be with you.

There's more where this came from!
Amanda & the Star Wars Summer

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Amanda & the Star Wars Summer: Episode IV

Amanda & the Star Wars Summer

Ahhhhh, it's good to be back! I had to crawl out of my writing hiatus with a new video before Force Awakens hits theaters -because there's no way I'm missing this!

Moving Target: A Princess Leia Adventure (Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens)Moving Target: A Princess Leia Adventure by Cecil Castellucci
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As always, Princess Leia is awesome.

In the wake of Empire Strikes Back, Leia is a guarded and protected figure of hope for the Rebel Alliance. More than anything, she wants to do something, but she is too valuable to the Alliance. Between the desire to fight the Empire, search for Han Solo, and assist the Rebellion, Leia finds herself struggling with the question of duty vs. desire. She soon finds her chance to help the Rebellion and give the Empire a little what for, but it is the inner struggle of duty vs. desire that dominated so much of the book for me.

I am a Han and Leia fan, all the way. So while the Princess is trying to justify her actions for the sake of duty -and her inactions for her desire in the name of duty- I'm only thinking about how it will play into the fate of my favorite OTP.

When I wasn't obsessing over whether or not Han and Leia will be a thing in Episode VII, I was appreciating that Leia's task in Moving Target wasn't a political one. I've run into that quite a bit in Star Wars books (she is a politician, after all) but it was a nice change that Leia was sent on a genuine adventure, even if it could be a suicide mission.

This is technically a children's book, but Disney isn't pulling any punches. It's a good read -excitement! intrigue!- with a sophisticated closer look at the Star Wars universe, especially the conflict between the Rebellion and the Empire. There are questions of right and wrong, good and bad, just how far someone is willing to go for their cause, and whether it's too far. People die. Don't be fooled by the 'kids book' label. Moving Target is a serious addition to the canon and you need to read it.
View all my reviews

Other books:
4/5 stars
Smuggler's Run: A Han Solo and Chewbacca Adventure by Greg Rucka
4/5 stars
Attack of the Clones by R.A. Salvatore
3.5/5 stars

Now I guess there's only one thing left to say. Enjoy The Force Awakens, my fellow geeks, and may the Force be with us all.

There's more where this came from!
Amanda & the Star Wars Summer