Review: Labyrinth Lost

When I decided I was only going to review books that I actually enjoyed reading, I didn’t really think about the reality of reading a book that was all right, but full of issues for me. Overall I give Labyrinth Lost a pass, but in the interest of honest reviewing there were aspects of the book that irritated me.

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Alejandra Mortiz is a powerful bruja hiding her magic from her family. Her whole family are brujas and brujos, but Alex is convinced that their magic has brought them nothing but sorrow. When she can’t hide her magic anymore, she devises a spell to get rid of it – but everything goes wrong and her entire family, past and present, are sucked into another dimension ruled by an evil being who wants to consume their souls and gain their power for herself. Alex teams up with her best friend and a brujo with a dark past to get them back, traveling through Los Lagos, a land with beings and rules unlike anything we have on Earth.

The concept of Labyrinth Lost is powerful, and the dimension of Los Lagos is incredibly devised, full of fascinating landscapes and surprises at every turn. The strong point of the book is definitely the way Zoraida Cordóva plays with conceptions of afterlife and alternate dimensions, and paints the world that Alex, Nova and Rishi journey through on their quest.

However, I had my share of problems with Labyrinth Lost as well. First off, it reminded me a lot of the Hunger Games, particularly the arena from Catching Fire. In terms of setting this probably has more to do with my mind than the book, but I couldn’t shake the association. It didn’t help that both Labyrinth Lost and the Hunger Games trilogy are written in first person, present tense. That only strengthened my connection between them, and I wonder if Labyrinth Lost would have been a stronger book in a different tense and point of view. As I said above, I felt that the strongest part of the book was the world, and I loved the descriptions that we got. However, first person isn’t the greatest point of view for descriptive prose, as most humans don’t go into long descriptive paragraphs. The book reflected this and had some weak sentences that felt more like a sketch of the scene than a finished painting. For example, when describing a tunnel, Cordóva writes, “It smells dank and is lit by torches.” Sorry, but, well…duh.

The present tense also irritated me. When writing in present it’s a little too easy to rely on the filler words, especially ‘is.’ And Cordóva does this a lot. This is the very essence of a little thing, but hey, I’m a writer. I obsess over the little things.

Some reviewers have commented on weakness of character, and I can see their points. I think Alex is fairly strong, and Cordóva does a good job of avoiding the ‘invisible girl’ style that would essentially turn Alex into a thin sheet onto which we could just project ourselves. (Side note: she does fulfill the ‘reluctant savior’ trope in a way, with all her moaning about how she has all this cool magic and how terrible is that? There’s an explanation for why she hates it so, but I never really bought it. Maybe because every living human on earth would think her powers are the COOLEST FRICKING THING to have.)Alex has definite flaws, and both she and Nova are strong characters. Rishi is a bit weaker, unfortunately. She rings some of the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ bells, and another reviewer pointed out (quite rightly, I think) that she didn’t bring a lot to Alex’s quest, except for some romantic tension as she and Nova compete for Alex’s affections. I won’t say more in the interest of spoilers, but I did appreciate how the love story turned out.

At the end of the day, I would say Labyrinth Lost is worth the read. Yeah, I grumbled as I read it, but it’s a refreshing portal fantasy and gave us a beautiful world to roam.

This book is for you if: you want a new setting, you like creepy imagery.
Maybe less so if: You sweat the little things, you’re sick of first person, present tense.

Review: Shadowshaper

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So, I met Daniel José Older in a discussion about writing, and his style was so down to earth I knew I had to read some of his work. I nabbed this one as soon as I spotted the cover.

Shadowshaper is the story of Sierra Santiago, a high school student looking forward to a summer hanging out with friends and painting murals. As soon as the summer starts, she’s swept up in a battle that nearly tore her family apart years ago, a battle that’s been kept from her all her life. A magical battle involving her art and her heritage.

Three words I would use to describe this novel and its heroine: Strong. Proud. Real.

Strong

Sierra is strong and not afraid to show it, and that shines in the prose even though it’s written from a 3rd person perspective (that’s not a knock, by the way. I loved that. I miss 3rd person so much in YA).

The plot was also strong. Older knows how to keep his novels lean and each scene served multiple purposes to develop all aspects of his story. The only thing I wasn’t so sure about in this novel was Sierra’s emotional arc. I guess she went from being unsure of her powers to being an accomplished user of them, but to be honest she’s already a pretty great and well-balanced character at the start of the book.

Proud

Sierra is proud of herself, her talents and her heritage. Shadowshaper brings Caribbean legends to New York City and stands with them, giving movement to both art and the dead. I am by no means an expert in Caribbean legends, folklore or culture, so coming at it as an outsider I can say that I enjoyed not just the magic that Older put together, but the way he stood by it. It’s not a creepy horror show act, it’s not whitewashed voodoo, it’s fresh and it’s proud to be what it is.

Speaking of proud, a lot of people have called Shadowshaper a kind of message-fiction. I’m going to be honest, I don’t really see a lot of ‘message’ in here when I look at Sierra’s emotional arc, because the message definitely isn’t, ‘It’s okay to not be white.’ Shadowshaper goes waaaaaaay beyond that. Race politics definitely play a role in the novel, as Sierra has to deal with people who are suspicious just because she’s got dark skin and a fro, not to mention stand up to her racist aunt. But the book isn’t about Sierra learning that her body is okay. From the beginning she’s a fan of her fro: “She loved it the way it was, free and undaunted.” She’s got complaints about her  body, but I’d like to meet the teen that doesn’t. Shadowshaper proudly paints a corner of the world where nobody’s white and nobody needs to be told that that’s okay. And I love that.

Real

I’ve never been to New York. I’ve relied on my sister’s descriptions and the media to give me an impression of the city, and here’s what I’ve got:

-tall buildings
-Broadway shows
-Central Park
-homeless people
-black people in harlem, white people everywhere else.

Yeah, my sister really, really loves Broadway.

I’ve long known in theory that New York is an incredibly diverse place where people from every country in the world converge and bring pieces of their own culture with them. But that’s not the part of New York that we see in other urban fantasy or tv shows like How I Met Your Mother. Older brings us the part of New York that we know is there, but we tend to forget, just like he brings us the story of people we know are there, but tend to forget. We’re doing ourselves a disservice by not giving the places and people he describes more space in our public forums.

But back to technical developments. The writing feels real, the places feel real. The style Older uses is bare bones, which moves us from scene to scene with stark efficiency. I usually prefer a more lyrical style but Older definitely kept the pace up.

You will like this book if: you like urban fantasy, you like diverse casts, you like non-western magic systems, you like strong heroines.

You may not like this book if: you don’t like urban fantasy.

Review: Star Wars – Dark Disciple

You know how sometimes, when you read fanfiction, you get kind of annoyed because the story is focusing on two completely random characters whose hijinks will have zero impact on the overarching plot of the saga? Anyone? Just me?

That was Dark Disciple for me, in a nutshell. I’ve been sitting around for twenty minutes trying to figure out why it bothered me, and that goes a long way towards explaining it. Which is a shame, because the plot of Dark Disciple is just similar enough to the story of Anakin Skywalker’s fall that it provokes comparison – and let’s be honest, no story ever compares unfavorably to the Star Wars prequels.

Author: Christie Golden
Timeline: The first of the tie-ins. Between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Set during The Clone Wars.
Publisher: LucasBooks, July 7, 2015
Summary: Based off unaired Clone Wars episodes, Dark Disciple chronicles the struggles of happy-go-lucky jedi, Quinlan Vos, as he attempts to do the most un-jedi thing possible – kill another being in cold blood. The Jedi Council is determined that Count Dooku should die, and sooner rather than later. Vos must team up with Dooku’s former acolyte, Asajj Ventress, who hates the Jedi nearly as much as she despises her old master. Together, they might be able to bring Dooku down – if their own darkness and desire doesn’t destroy them first.
How much of a Star Wars Nerd to I need to be to get this? Let’s be honest, if you’re looking at a review of a tie-in novel, you’re probably all the nerd you need to be. However, I started this book before watching any of the Clone Wars series, and it’s been a looooooong time since the prequels. I had no trouble following the story or getting into the world.

Review

My first impressions of Dark Disciple were quite strong. First, that cover. Somebody get that cover artist a big, fat raise. That cover doesn’t scream badass, no. It comes up, it punches you in the face, it leaves you in the mud like a badass anything ought to do. I love that cover. Second, the audio. I listened to Dark Disciple via audible, since I have a subscription and my credits have racked up. The audio production was obviously put together with a lot of care, and at first I really enjoyed it (yes, only at first. We’ll get back to that).

The first half of the book seemed to make good on the promise of the cover and the back blurb.  The romance between Vos and Ventress didn’t really excite me – it’s not anything new, to be honest – but the action was exciting, they had something compelling to move them forward, and the edge that Vos walked, between Light and Dark, made for a tense read. It was hard for me not to compare this part of Dark Disciple to the prequels’ love story between Anakin and Padme. And I didn’t really hold back, if I’m honest. I felt that Christie Golden provided a much more compelling, entertaining and believable story of a man in love and in danger with the Dark Side.

Dark Disciple takes a major turn about halfway through, and things started to unravel from there for me. First off, the plot. It descended into convoluted territory, and featured such devices as, “lovers have the can we/can’t we argument ten thousand times rather than just MAKING A FREAKING DECISION and sticking to their guns;” and a personal favorite of mine, “I can’t tell you this Big Secret because that would resolve the plot of the book in ten pages and besides, this will give us more tension.” The sad part is, I think Dark Disciple would have had a lot more tension if we’d known the Big Secret before the very last chapter.

The second half was where the audio started to get on my nerves as well. Dark Disciple is narrated by Marc Thompson, and while he’s mostly spot on with his accents and imitations, at times he got…a little too into the performance. Dark Disciple is told in the third person, from a fairly close point of view; i.e., we should be right up inside the main characters’ minds, feeling what they’re feeling. All the same, not every sentence has to be tense with emotion. Sometimes I felt like Thompson wanted to convey every nuance of How Exciting! It was! For Vos to blow his nose! Um, no thanks. Also, the sound effects. They were mostly all right, but in the lengthier scenes, the sound effects were looped on repeat. Once I heard that, I could never unhear it.

My last issue with Dark Disciple is something I feel kind of bad for. And this should not be a reflection on Christie Golden – I have no idea how much input she had on the story, and I don’t have much experience writing tie-in fiction. However, as the novel had originally been planned as part of the Clone Wars series, I imagine her guidelines were pretty strict.

My problem is that I went into the book knowing the outcome of the main plot. I saw both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, and I remember (ish) how they turned out. So even when I was having the most fun listening, a little voice kept whispering, as though millions of critics cried out in irritation and were suddenly silenced: “So what?” Everything that happened in the story would ultimately be pointless. Because the main characters of Star Wars are not Vos and Ventress, as much as they may enjoy their fifteen minutes of tie-in fame, the saga is not their saga, and the impact of their story will be light. At the same time, it set itself up for such epic proportions that it was hard for me as a reader not to expect grand things of it. And let’s be honest, Vos and Ventress make a much more kickass team than Anakin and, well, anybody. Oh well. At least he barely featured.

This series part of my grand plan to review the Star Wars tie in novels. At the moment I’m just doing the adult novels, and just the ones for the new canon. Questions, comments, polite rants and offers to join the Dark Side welcome.