Crooked Kingdom

Crooked Kingdom
by Leigh Bardugo

★★★★★ (5 out of 5 stars)

When you can’t beat the odds, change the game.

Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn’t think they’d survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they’re right back to fighting for their lives. Double-crossed and badly weakened, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz’s cunning and test the team’s fragile loyalties. A war will be waged on the city’s dark and twisting streets―a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of the Grisha world.

WOW! Oh wow! This was so good! This book, like the previous one, is many different points of view that switch chapter to chapter, with the opening and closing chapters being from two characters that are not our main protagonists. The biggest change is that we get Wylan’s viewpoint in this book. So in this story we read all 6 perspectives.

This book begins one week after the last book finishes and immediately we are set upon with scheming and action. Unlike the first book, with just one heist, this story has many various schemes, cons, and heists happening throughout. Just like with the last one there were times when this book became too much and I had to set it down, breathe deeply (maybe pace the house), and resume.

The characters! These books are what they are BECAUSE of these brilliant, ambiguous, rough-edged, and beautiful characters. The connection they share and the friendships they’ve created are lovely. Inej and Nina are what every female book friendship should be: loving, respectful, loyal, kind and understanding. There are no princes and princesses fighting to reclaim their rightful place here. No special, unequaled  warriors who are facing adversity yet will, at some point, eventually overcome it. No. These are the forgotten, broken, lost children of the world. They are just trying to survive and find where they belong. And I love it.

In this installment we are able to delve further into Kaz’s mind. He is still enigmatic, still making ruthless decisions at the expense of others for his own gain. But we also see more of his humanity, more of his suffering, his weakness and how much those weaknesses cost him. It hurts my heart to read the passages where he wishes he could overcome his fears and make any sort of contact with Inej like the others can; a hug, an arm thrown carelessly over her shoulder, anything. He desperately wants to but he can’t release his past and so he suffers. These little things make him less “monster” and more “real”.

Inej is amazing. We really get to see here how resilient she is. Throughout the story we get more glimpses of what her life was like after her kidnapping. There were some flashback passages in her chapters that were so freaking hard to read. My stomach churned and I felt sickened by what she was forced to endure. But she is strong and she is smart, and she spends this book planning and working towards a purpose, a goal, to help save all the hurt and misused people of the world.

Oh Jesper. For most of this book Jesper is forced to face the consequences of his actions. As it progresses we see him first try to run and hide, and eventually begin to face his misdeeds head on. He really starts to explore who he is and what has caused him to become so self destructive. He is such a lively character, full of humor and constant jokes, but it masks a great deal of pain and insecurity. Also, I loved reading his budding romance with Wylan.

My little cinnamon roll Wylan. Goodness I liked being able to experience Wylan’s POV in this book. His perspective is a breath of fresh air. He is thoughtful, considerate, gentle, and kind. He is a part of this crew and wants to help the others (and himself), but he wants to do the least amount of damage as possible to other people along the way. Of course he has been living with a bunch of criminals and conmen for months and there are moments where we see a growing deviousness inside him.

I still loved Nina and I still didn’t love Matthias. Nina is an incredible character. She is wholly true to herself. She knows who she is, what she wants, and what she deserves and she doesn’t waver or bend. Even when dealing with the consequences of taking parem in the first book she seems effervescent and full of life. Nina has helped change Matthias’s mind about grisha and their powers and has shown him a different way of life than blindly hating an entire group of people, but I still couldn’t come around on him. He does change a lot throughout the book, ultimately finding grisha’s powers to be wondrous/beautiful. It just wasn’t quite enough for me to forget his bigotry so quickly.

And then there was the last chapter!  *No spoilers, I promise!* Oh my goodness! If someone had reached inside my head and extracted EXACTLY the perfect ending to leave me feeling happy, sad, deeply satisfied, and yearning for more this is what they would have written. Oh jinkies, I loved this book.

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Six of Crows

Six of Crows
by Leigh Bardugo

★★★★★ (5 out of 5 stars)

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price–and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.

Wow! Well that was fantastic. The story is told from 5 different points of view—Kaz, Inej, Jesper, Nina, and Matthias—about 6 main characters with Wylan being the only main character from whom we don’t read a point of view. Both the opening and closing chapters are from the perspective of someone outside of the main group of protagonists. These perspectives help to give a more substantial feel to the world and to share with us an outsider’s impression of our group.

I LOVE these characters! They are so realistic in their shortcomings and weaknesses, but also in their strengths and abilities. Nothing seemed forced or over the top, no one was too perfect or contrived. It genuinely felt like reading about real people in albeit extraordinary circumstances.

Kaz, the leader of this rag tag group, is an enigma. He is callous and blunt, but also calculating and devious. He is an asshole, but a likeable one. He’s just so cool and collected. He’s a con man, a thief, and a murderer, and yet I still rooted for him—I still liked him. Even when I felt repelled by a choice he made, I still wanted to keep reading about him. He has redeeming qualities, arguably very few, but they are there nonetheless. I wish we could have seen even more inside his thought processes and his scheming.

Inej, also known as the Wraith, is so freakin’ awesome. I love her. She is Kaz’s spy, sneaking around and infiltrating everywhere, from members of government and merchant’s houses, to other gangs, stealing secrets and gathering intel for him. She was kidnapped from her bed and sold as a slave to a pleasure house in Ketterdam when she was younger. She remained there until Kaz met her and recognized how she could be useful to him. She is, to me, the most badass of the group by far, and I really enjoyed her chapters.

I liked Jesper a lot. Kaz brings him into the group for his skill as a sharpshooter. He is a thrill seeking adrenaline junky with a gambling addiction. He thrives on danger and adventure, and gets antsy and moody when he is confined in one area for too long. I found his point of view brought a lot of lightness to an otherwise very dark story. At the end of the day he makes bad choices but is a good person.

Nina is a grisha (a person with magical skill) who was formally trained and learning to use her powers as a weapon. She has a backstory with Matthias that is full of hurt and betrayal, and she has taken up with Kaz’s gang while she stays in Ketterdam trying to make right a terrible choice she made in the past. She’s strong, confident, and kind.

Matthias… Ugh. I really didn’t like Matthias for about 80% of this book. He is a Druskelle—elite trained (brainwashed) soldiers whose purpose is to hunt down grisha and ultimately have them killed. His bigotry towards grisha and his misogyny in general was hard to read. There was a lot of eye rolling and huffing happening as I read his chapters. I did find that as the book progressed and he grew as a person I was able to come around to him just a little.

Then there was Wylan, sweet baby Wylan. Unlike the others he grew up in an extremely privileged household and he (for reasons unknown to us for most of the story) left his old life to live in the slums of Ketterdam. Kaz recruits him to help assist with explosives. Another thing which sets Wylan apart is that he obviously disagrees with the unscrupulous manner in which the rest of the crew goes about achieving their goals. He is a clear juxtaposition to them for most of the story.

There were so many things to love about this book: the way the world setting was dark and conniving but the author wrote just enough humor in the story to ease some of the tension. I loved the camaraderie and dialogue between Inej and Nina, Jesper’s flirtatious teasing with Wylan, and how different each point of view was from the others, each one having a unique tone and feel.

Finally, I really enjoyed the pacing. The plot moved pretty steadily for most of the book and then Bardugo kept the plot/action driving onward so quickly in the last third that there were times that I had to put the book down and take a breath because my heart wouldn’t stop racing.

 

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Uprooted

Uprooted
by Naomi Novik

★☆☆☆☆ (1 out of 5 stars)

“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.

But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

Welp, this was a did not finish for me. I didn’t like this. I know so many people loved this book so it must be one of those times where it comes down to my personal preference. But for me it was just not going to work.

I couldn’t stand the main character Agnieszka AT ALL. She was whiny, selfish and frustrating. But the most annoying part was how ridiculously messy and unkempt she was. It aggravated me to have to read every other sentence about how stained, messy, torn, unraveled, blah blah blah her appearance was. I feel like maybe the author was trying to avoid making her character unrealistically perfect and beautiful, and so she just swung completely to the opposite end of the spectrum which felt just as farfetched and unbelievable (I have never, not once, met someone in real life that is THAT much of a disaster).

Then there’s the Dragon. What a freakin’ asshole. He is awful, and I could barely stand having to read the parts with him in them. Which, unfortunately, is a lot. At one point Agnieszka is almost raped, barely manages to defend herself, and he finds her immediately afterwards and yells at her for it. What?!  Maybe he gets better later on but I couldn’t bring myself to suffer through more of him until that “might” happen.

The final nail in the coffin for me was the world building. Or I suppose I should say the lack of world building. This world had all the depth of a children’s picture book. It felt as blah as Agnieszka did. Yes there were forests, rivers, towns, and castles but it felt very shallow.  Like the Dragon, maybe it it gets developed later on but I’m not going to plod through the rest of this book to find out.

 

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A Torch Against the Night

A Torch Against the Night
by Sabaa Tahir

★★★★★ (5 out of 5 stars)

Elias and Laia are running for their lives. After the events of the Fourth Trial, Martial soldiers hunt the two fugitives as they flee the city of Serra and undertake a perilous journey through the heart of the Empire.

Laia is determined to break into Kauf—the Empire’s most secure and dangerous prison—to save her brother, who is the key to the Scholars’ survival. And Elias is determined to help Laia succeed, even if it means giving up his last chance at freedom.

But dark forces, human and otherworldly, work against Laia and Elias. The pair must fight every step of the way to outsmart their enemies: the bloodthirsty Emperor Marcus, the merciless Commandant, the sadistic Warden of Kauf, and, most heartbreaking of all, Helene—Elias’s former friend and the Empire’s newest Blood Shrike.

Bound to Marcus’s will, Helene faces a torturous mission of her own—one that might destroy her: find the traitor Elias Veturius and the Scholar slave who helped him escape…and kill them both.

I really liked this book. The few small things I didn’t enjoy as much in An Ember in the Ashes were absent from this one. Tahir took a beautiful, cruel world with compelling characters and made it even better. She gave us more insight into the characters’ past and their reasoning. And she brought new and well-developed characters into the fold whom I’m excited to see again in the next book. I’m looking at you Harper.

The biggest difference for me from the first book was Laia. I really enjoyed her chapters and was excited to see her build her confidence and trust herself. She made some mistakes and she suffered for them, but she kept moving. The contrast between who she is now and who she was at the beginning of the first book is tremendous. Such fantastic development.

Elias continues to be as engaging here as in the first book. The Commandant and the Warden were sickening. Marcus, the new Emperor, was interesting. You can see some madness beginning to take hold in him. The newer characters Afya, Tas, Mamie Rila, etc., were great additions to the story. Perhaps my favorite character to read was Nightbringer. Ah, he’s so intriguing. He’s definitely a bad person and I don’t want him to succeed, but I feel for him and what he has been through.

The only thing that really bothered me in the book was Helene. I know that there are far worse/cruel characters in this world, but I guess I don’t expect more from the Warden or the Commandant. I just couldn’t get on board with all the terrible things Helene was doing in the name of “duty”. The inability to think for herself and break the rules if it’s called for is to me a profound weakness and, at times, disgusted me. Although, from what I can see by the end of the book, I suspect her blind loyalty is beginning to waver. I hope she grows and begins to push boundaries and test out doing what’s morally right, not just what’s senselessly loyal.

 

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An Ember in the Ashes

An Ember in the Ashes
by Sabaa Tahir

★★★★★ (5 out of 5 stars)

Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

This book hovered at 4/4.5 stars and finished at 5 stars. The chapters here are split between two different characters’ points of view, Laia and Elias. Laia is a Scholar, the people whom the Empire have conquered and have brutally oppressed. Elias is a Mask, the most elite trained warriors for the Empire.

I didn’t care for Laia’s chapters for maybe the first third of this book, but she grew on me. In truth she grew in the book. She was an almost unrecognizably different person by the end of the story. It’s rare to see an author allow a main protagonist to be so weak, whiny, and cowardly that it’s actually hard to even continue reading their perspective, to the point where where you are just screaming in you head, “UGH!”, and then to allow their development to come slowly, organically over the course of the story. No sudden big show of how much she’s suddenly a badass. Nope. Just the slow journey of Laia learning to have faith in herself.

In contrast to Laia, I LOVED Elias from the start. I enjoyed his character and discovering this world through his eyes. Everything about him, his backstory, his desire to always do what’s right, his strength (both physical and mental), and his desperate, heart wrenching desire for a life free from the Empire is hauntingly evocative. He is a great example of how a character can be in a horrible situation and forced to make terrible decisions, yet still strive to inflict the least amount of damage as possible.

Helene was interesting. She often made choices that made me want to yell at her, but I always felt like I understood why she made those decisions. For being a supporting character I think Tahir did a remarkable job at developing her and showing us who this character was.

The rest of the characters, Keenan, the resistance, the masks, Izzi, and Cook, were engaging and I would like to learn more about them in future books.

I think the best part of this book was reading the two different points of view. Usually I don’t enjoy books that switch off from one person to another, BUT it was beautifully rendered here to full effect. It allows for such a comprehensive picture of this world that she has created. You are continually shown the humanity on both sides, not just from the perspective of the oppressed, which is typical, but also the oppressor. You really feel you understand this world because of it.

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Ash Princess

Ash Princess
by Laura Sebastian

★★★☆☆ (3 out of 5 stars)

Theodosia was six when her country was invaded and her mother, the Fire Queen, was murdered before her eyes. On that day, the Kaiser took Theodosia’s family, her land, and her name. Theo was crowned Ash Princess–a title of shame to bear in her new life as a prisoner.

For ten years Theo has been a captive in her own palace. She’s endured the relentless abuse and ridicule of the Kaiser and his court. She is powerless, surviving in her new world only by burying the girl she was deep inside.

Then, one night, the Kaiser forces her to do the unthinkable. With blood on her hands and all hope of reclaiming her throne lost, she realizes that surviving is no longer enough. But she does have a weapon: her mind is sharper than any sword. And power isn’t always won on the battlefield.

For ten years, the Ash Princess has seen her land pillaged and her people enslaved. That all ends here.

My main problem with this book is it has much of the same formula as so many other YA fantasy novels about an (eventually) strong heroine. You know: girl lives or is raised by the people who have wronged her, some catalyst triggers girl’s breaking point, girl suddenly finds she is not alone in her fight against her oppressor, girl fights (unbeknownst to most everyone) to destroy her enemies and reclaim her rightful place.

Where I feel that this book has redemption, however, is that it has a much less optimistic tone than some others out there. When reading many books with the same concept there is usually a current of hope. Not so here. There was a persistent sense of unpleasantness in the back of my brain for the duration of this book.

For example, there are the more obvious showings of whipping and sexual harassment, and the slightly more subtle but complete lack of any true empathy that Crescentia (Cress) displays through most of the story. But where I think the unpleasant feeling truly lies is in every single character’s lack of a moral compass. ALL the characters (with the exception of the Kaiser) are cast in shades of gray. Are they good people who have been forced to do the unthinkable? Have they lost their humanity, the ability to tell right from wrong? Everyone has been hurt so much that at every turn they cause pain in others, over and over and over.

Ah Theodosia! Theo is infuriating. She is constantly switching back and forth in her feelings toward Cress, in her feelings toward Soren, about who she is and what she wants. She spends most of the book acting weaker than she is when in the court and tougher than she is when with her Shadows. She constantly asserts she can do something only to become paralyzed with inaction. It was incredibly frustrating to read, but in the end I liked her (and the book) all the more for it. She’s a mess and it’s what makes the book more realistic.

I liked Soren. His character is interesting. He’s a man living in a society that has certain expectations and demands certain sacrifices to be made. He wants to do good but he has done, and continues to do, so much bad. I think my biggest problem with him was that because it’s so easy to like him, it’s too easy to overlook that he still makes terrible choices, and then we try to reason that he did what he did because he had to. But he didn’t have to, and it made me uncomfortable to still find myself rooting for him in the end.

The other characters need more fleshing out. I couldn’t stand Cress. She was shallow, self-centered, and flakey. How can she claim to be a friend and yet consistently turn a blind eye to the reality of Theo’s life in the court? Eh, I just don’t see any actual good in her. I spent most of the book wanting to throttle her. Blaise is Theo’s closest childhood friend from before her country was invaded and is definitely a romantic interest. He is one of her Shadows and plays a huge role from the beginning in trying to help Theo figure out what she wants and how to get it. But despite all this I just can’t care too much about him because we’re not given enough info on him. The two other rebels working with her (her other Shadows) Heron and Art are awesome and I really would have enjoyed reading more backstory on all of them. They were pretty major in Theo’s attempt to succeed in taking down the court from the inside and yet they were only given a couple paragraphs each about their pasts.

I LOVED the Kaiserin! Oh man, I could have read an entire book just about her and her backstory. What an intriguing woman. But again she is only given a few paragraphs and then nothing. Then there was the Kaiser…What a completely one dimensional caricature of a villian. He’s just soooo evil! He kills this person for no reason, stares lecherously at that too young serving girl, tortures this person for his own pleasure, etc. All of these things are obviously there to tell us just how purely evil and abhorrent he is and yet I felt…nothing. I just didn’t care at all. There was nothing about him that I found compelling, and so he fell flat.

I do feel like most of the issues I have with the book are ones that can be resolved in the next one in the series. More character development, more depth to the world and more dimension to the big bad.

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