Category: Speculative Fiction

The Rebel Trap by Lance Erlick

The Rebel Trap by Lance Erlick(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Voices in sixteen-year-old Annabelle Scott’s head aren’t God or signs she’s going mad—yet. Despite being a Mech Warrior recruit, she rebels against her female-dominated régime by not only refusing to kill Morgan, a handsome boy she’s attracted to, but also helping him escape.

Annabelle’s commander gives her auditory implants and contact cameras for an undercover assignment to investigate her corrupt police captain. Morgan hacks the implants to plead for her help in freeing his brother. As a pawn in a bigger game, she wants to help Morgan yet needs to discover the link between an attempted assassination of her adoptive mom, her police captain, and the geek institute that holds Morgan’s brother. Can she do so without falling into a trap that could destroy her family and get her killed?

[Full disclosure: I received a free ebook in conjunction with the blog tour in exchange for an honest review.]

The Rebel Trap is the sequel to The Rebel Within but is actually the third in chronological order in Lance Erlick’s rebel series.  (Although within the book universe it’s actually book #2.)  Thankfully for me, you don’t have to read the first installment about Annabelle to understand this book.  It seems that the whole series is quite self-contained so that you can start at the end like I did or start at the beginning.

What I really liked about the book was the characters.  Of course your impressions of many of them are biased because you’re seeing them largely through Annabelle, but I like how Lance Erlick gave us insights into people around the main character, including her sister Janine and her adoptive mother.  But of course Annabelle was my favourite character.  She’s tough and determined to succeed in life but there’s a slight hitch when she gets auditory implants and contacts that allow her commander to see and hear everything she does for a mission.  There’s a lack of privacy and then there’s having your boss see and hear everything you do.

Still, she finds a rather interesting way around it as Morgan constantly hounds her to help him rescue his little brother.  And that really showcases the complexity of Annabelle: she wants to help Morgan’s little brother because she knows imprisoning young boys and men for their gender is wrong but at the same time she needs to root out the corruption taking hold in her society.  Did I mention that she’s also caught in a little power war between the commander of the Mech Corps and the commander of the police?  Like all teenagers, Annabelle does angst a fair bit, but unlike some her angst is completely deserved at this point so it’s not actually annoying for the reader.

The only thing I didn’t really like about this book was the repetitiveness of the plot.  It seemed to follow a pattern: Sam would tell Annabelle not to do something, she’d do it, Sam would be happy because she discovered new evidence against Commander Voss and Scarlatti.  This was sort of understandable the first few times because Annabelle was figuring things out and really blundering through the whole ‘subtle’ part of the missions, but it got kind of annoying after the fourth or fifth time.  Unfortunately, this constant repetition made the plot kind of predictable.  I knew how it was going to end and I saw pretty much all of the twists and turns because of course everything Annabelle tries to do as an intern cop is made to trip her up.

Still, despite my dislike of the whole repetitiveness of the thing, the plot was at least reasonably fast-paced.  It was slow enough for Lance Erlick to develop his characters properly but not so slow as to bog the reader down.  Not all of the characters’ motivations are clear in the beginning (although you can probably guess if you try hard enough) so it does keep Annabelle and the readers on their toes until about the middle of the novel where the motives become clearer.

The characters really are the strength of The Rebel Trap, though, so even if the plot was totally awful (which it really isn’t) I would definitely recommend this book.  They’re ambiguous enough to be real but not so ambiguous that you feel like their actions come from nowhere.  It’s a delicate balance and Lance Erlick does it well.  So if you’re into dystopias with flipped societies (women are superior in this one as opposed to men), then I would recommend The Rebel Trap to you.

I give this book 3.5/5 stars.

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Under My Skin by Shawntelle Madison

Under My Skin by Shawntelle Madison(Cover picture courtesy of NetGalley.)

Everyone wants to either be a member of the Guild or work for them. Little does the populace know that the Guild hides sinister secrets…

For Tate Sullivan, life in her small, coastal town is far from glamorous. The affluent lives of the Guild members and their servants isn’t something she has ever wanted. But all sixteen year-olds must take a simple test, and Tate’s result thrusts her into the Guild’s world, one where they hide horrible plans for those they select. Tate must fight the relentless General Dagon for control of her mind, body, and soul to keep the one precious thing she has always taken for granted: herself.

Her only ally is the same handsome boy she is pitted against in General Dagon’s deadly game. Quinn desires nothing more than to end the life of General Dagon who has taken over Tate’s mind. While romance blooms between Tate and Quinn, General Dagon plots to eventually take over Tate’s body, and love might end before it even begins.

[Full disclosure: I requested and received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Okay, so the blurb gives away the fact that Tate has to fight off General Dagon, who is trying to stay immortal by taking over the minds (and thus the bodies) of young people.  But don’t let the blurb fool you: this book is so much more complex.

I absolutely loved the world-building in Under My Skin.  It combines all of the good elements of YA (a very emotional/personal journey, mature but not overly dry themes) and leaves out all of the trendy terrible elements (a love triangle, a useless best friend, an inability to lie on the part of the main character).  While the science of the mind-transfer is left out in the beginning for obvious reasons, I was very happy that as Tate kept fighting for her life, more of it was revealed.  I like the idea of their whole dystopian world, that the mysterious Guild pays off families to unknowingly sell their children into slavery.  The Guild is pretty exclusive and although some of the rich merchant families are aware of what’s happening, they want in on it too for the chance at immortality.  It’s kind of a sick cycle when you think about it.

I love Tate almost as much as I hate her name.  She’s not a very strong character in the beginning, however.  She’s very self-conscious of the scar she has from the doctor fixing her cleft palate as a baby and that makes her have very low self-esteem.  It’s one of the vulnerabilities General Dagon exploits as he fights to control her body and I love the whole self-esteem journey she goes through.  And my favourite part is that it’s at an organic pace.  She doesn’t just suddenly gain the willpower to fight him; she fights a little bit in the beginning and her determination grows as her self-esteem does.  Whether or not it’s enough to actually beat the ruthless Dagon is another question, however.

The plot is actually quite fast-paced considering that this is largely a character-driven novel.  There’s of course the conflict with a society that steals the bodies of teenagers but the conflict is largely between Dagon and Tate.  Yes, there is some romance, but it’s not the forefront of the novel all of the time.  I’ve read so many books with contrived romance lately, that I really couldn’t stand it if Shawntelle Madison did the same thing.  Thank goodness she didn’t!  Instead, the focus is actually the main character and her struggle for her life.  As it should be.

Although the plot ends on a pretty big cliffhanger, I was still quite satisfied with where Shawntelle Madison chose to leave off.  It fulfilled the main conflict of the story but also introduced the secondary conflict as the centerpiece for the next book in the Immortality Strain series.  I can’t wait for the second book!

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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The Book of Ivy by Amy Engel

The Book of Ivy by Amy Engel(Cover picture courtesy of NetGalley.)

After a brutal nuclear war, the United States was left decimated. A small group of survivors eventually banded together, but only after more conflict over which family would govern the new nation. The Westfalls lost. Fifty years later, peace and control are maintained by marrying the daughters of the losing side to the sons of the winning group in a yearly ritual.

This year, it is my turn.

My name is Ivy Westfall, and my mission is simple: to kill the president’s son—my soon-to-be husband—and restore the Westfall family to power.

But Bishop Lattimer is either a very skilled actor or he’s not the cruel, heartless boy my family warned me to expect. He might even be the one person in this world who truly understands me. But there is no escape from my fate. I am the only one who can restore the Westfall legacy.

Because Bishop must die. And I must be the one to kill him…

[Full disclosure: I received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

At first, I thought The Book of Ivy would be a guilty pleasure read.  I’m a sucker for the failed-assassin trope, I’ll admit.  What I didn’t really expect was that it would have as much depth as it did.

In her debut novel, Amy Engel has created some truly amazing characters.  Ivy is one of the more memorable characters I’ve read in a long, long time.  She’s brave and not afraid to stand up for herself, but at the same time she can be weak and vulnerable when it comes to her family.  Not only that, she also knows how to act: she can hide her feelings from those around her reasonably well.  But when Bishop starts to worm his way into her paranoid heart, she starts to question all that her family has told her about the current regime.  It’s not perfect, but maybe the Westfalls don’t have Ivy’s best interests at heart.

Bishop was more than your typical love interest as well.  He’s kind and patient, waiting for Ivy to come around rather than trying to force his affection on her once he falls in love with her.  He knows that she doesn’t trust him and instead of saying “I am trustworthy”, he demonstrates it.  Some of his actions are rather shocking to our sensibilities, but in the fairly brutal future they make sense.  To his credit, he did the right thing but he is also disgusted about what he did in that case.  That makes him a memorable character as well instead of just Generic Male Love Interest.

The world-building is excellent.  There’s not much I haven’t seen in post-apocalyptic/speculative fiction but The Book of Ivy manages to combine old tropes with Amy Engel’s new take on them.  She paints a realistic picture of a horrible world where the survival of the fittest is very, very true.  Even within their community, there is always danger lurking around the corner and dissent is punished severely.  I would like to know a little more about the founding of the community, but Amy Engel manages to explain all of the essential things in the course of the book.  So I’m looking forward to learning more, but I’m not desperately seeking information in order to actually understand the book.

The only place that I felt The Book of Ivy was shaky was the plot.  Not the pacing, which was excellent for a largely character-driven novel, but the plot itself.  It was fairly fast-paced and the way Ivy changes is very believable, but I was a little annoyed at the end.  Ivy did some counter-intuitive things in order to advance the plot at the end and set up the next book The Revolution of Ivy.  I get that she needed to finally meet the rebels on the other side of the fence, but it could have been done in a more believable fashion.  Still, it’s a first book and it didn’t make me mad or even anything more than slightly annoyed.

All considered, The Book of Ivy is an amazing debut that’s better than the books of more established authors.  It’s one of the better post-apocalyptic books that I’ve ever read in the YA genre and considering how many I’ve read, that’s saying something.  I can highly recommend picking it up when it releases on November 11.  I can almost guarantee that once you finish it, you’ll be like me and become extremely anxious for November 2015 when the next book releases.

I give this book 4.5/5 stars.

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Fever by Lauren DeStefano

Fever by Lauren DeStefanoRhine and Gabriel have escaped the mansion, but danger is never far behind.

Running away brings Rhine and Gabriel right into a trap, in the form of a twisted carnival whose ringmistress keeps watch over a menagerie of girls. Just as Rhine uncovers what plans await her, her fortune turns again. With Gabriel at her side, Rhine travels through an environment as grim as the one she left a year ago – surroundings that mirror her own feelings of fear and hopelessness.

The two are determined to get to Manhattan, to relative safety with Rhine’s twin brother, Rowan. But the road there is long and perilous – and in a world where young women only live to age twenty and young men die at twenty-five, time is precious. Worse still, they can’t seem to elude Rhine’s father-in-law, Vaughn, who is determined to bring Rhine back to the mansion…by any means necessary.

In the sequel to Lauren DeStefano’s harrowing Wither, Rhine must decide if freedom is worth the price – now that she has more to lose than ever.

I actually sort of liked the first book, Wither; enough to give it four stars.  But unfortunately, Fever didn’t do so well.  It suffers from severe Book 2 Syndrome.

I hate to say it after liking the first book, but Fever is just plain boring.  Rhine and Gabriel run away and get caught in a creepy brothel-carnival before again escaping into the city to find Rhine’s brother Rowan.  There’s a little bit of action in the end and we finally find out what those stupid June Beans from the first book were all about, but that’s it.  It’s a slow pace for a book that’s only a little over 300 pages and that’s why it seems like it’s much, much longer.  Face it: the plot is just boring and the pacing was too slow.

So let’s talk about characters.  Rhine and Gabriel didn’t really change all that much from the first book.  Rhine got a tiny bit more cynical, but that’s essentially it.  She really has no character development in Fever; she just sort of reacts to events unfolding around her like she pretty much always has.  And I hate that in a particularly spoiler-y situation, she still hasn’t learned to keep her mouth shut and stop herself from blurting out the wrong things.  Rhine lacks subtlety, as she always has.  Gabriel is just sort of your Generic Male Love Interest, there to protect her whenever she needs it and to make out with her but obviously never have sex with her.  He looked like he was almost a good character in the first book, but he’s pretty one dimensional in this one.

What about world-building?  Well, unfortunately, we learn nothing further about why the genetic modification in children left them with a decreased life expectancy and a horrible new way of life once society realized that.  The older generations are still trying to hold it together and the younger generations are essentially contributing to the anarchy of society by not really caring what they do because they’re going to be dead soon anyway.  We get to see vague flashes of the people in power, which is fine, but I really would have liked for there to be a little more information about the science of Lauren DeStefano’s world.  It doesn’t have to be hard science fiction, but some information would have been nice, even if it were just mentioned in passing.

Essentially, except for the last few pages, Fever was a rather boring disappointment.  The next book Sever has potential, but I really wish that DeStefano hadn’t dropped the ball so bad on her second book in the trilogy.  It’s a textbook case of Book 2 Syndrome, unfortunately.  I’m still probably going to end up reading book 3 despite that, but I am seriously having doubts about this trilogy right now.

I give this book 2/5 stars.

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Twell and The Army of Powers by Kate O’Leary

Twell by Kate O'Leary(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Twell lives in the new world of Como, and has always neglected her telekinetic gifts, desiring to be ‘normal.’ Her biggest drama in life is having to be genetically partnered with a boy she doesn’t know or love by her next birthday. Unfortunately she loves her best friend, who loves the girl she hates most, and Twell is left frustrated & heartbroken.

When Twell is requested alongside several other teens to develop her skills for the protection of Como, she reluctantly agrees to the training, and finds herself thrown into all sorts of mental and physical challenges.
Handsome, charismatic Jonaz, is gifted with the power of healing. According to Twell he’s an infuriating prat who delights in provoking her. But first impressions have always been her downfall.
When Como is attacked, life as Twell knows it is changed forever, with devastating consequences. With no choice but to fight, Twell risks her life to protect those who have survived, coming up against unexpected dangers she could never anticipate. Will she survive, and if so will she be matched to a stranger when the one she is growing to love is destined to another?

[Full disclosure: I was provided a free paperback through the blog tour in exchange for an honest review.]

In the first chapter of this book, I was filled with dread.  It seemed like your typical catty teenage drama book with only a little bit of science fiction and a dash of dystopia.  Then at the end of the chapter we learn that the leadership of Como, the Governing Body, chooses who you are matched with as life partners based on your genetics.  Pretty terrifying, huh?  There’s also the fact that every citizen wears a wristband that brings them updates from the GB and allows them to monitor everyone, everywhere.  That’s even more terrifying.

Twell is a complicated character.  She’s judgmental but at least she’s eventually willing to revise her judgments and act like a real human being rather than a super catty teenager.  To her credit, she does grow quite a bit as a person as the book progresses, but there is a lot of angst to get through in the beginning.  And to be fair, I’d be pretty angsty too if a government controlled my entire life like it does on Como.  Twell’s interactions with the other characters are fascinating and I’ll admit she is a sympathetic character, particularly after tragedy strikes in the later half of the book.  So I can’t really diss her or Kate O’Leary’s character development; it’s pretty good.

My only real criticism of Twell and The Army of Powers is the fact that the writing is unpolished.  I don’t mean it’s bad or has lots of typos, but it feels like there’s a little more maturity needed on the part of the author to pull off those super emotional scenes.  Part of the problem is that this is a first book so of course it’s going to be rough.  But the other part is the fact that Kate O’Leary sometimes doesn’t let her characters speak for themselves.  Whenever they say something that is clearly meant in one way she still adds an explanation after their dialogue that feels unnecessary, even in a book aimed at younger readers.  It gets a little distracting at times but I believe Kate O’Leary’s writing will only improve with the sequel (especially considering that heart-wrenching cliffhanger).

So aside from a little bit of rough writing, this book is actually quite good.  It’s not reliant on just one trope but it’s rather a mash-up of quite a few sci-fi and dystopian tropes into one unique, well thought-out world with realistic characters.  I’d recommend it for younger teens, although there are some scenes of violence.

I give this book 3.5/5 stars.

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Perfected by Kate Jarvik Birch

Perfected by Kate Jarvik Birch

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

As soon as the government passed legislation allowing humans to be genetically engineered and sold as pets, the rich and powerful rushed to own beautiful girls like Ella. Trained from birth to be graceful, demure, and above all, perfect, these “family companions” enter their masters’ homes prepared to live a life of idle luxury.

 

Ella is happy with her new role as playmate for a congressman’s bubbly young daughter, but she doesn’t expect Penn, the congressman’s handsome and rebellious son. He’s the only person who sees beyond the perfect exterior to the girl within. Falling for him goes against every rule she knows…and the freedom she finds with him is intoxicating.

 

But when Ella is kidnapped and thrust into the dark underworld lurking beneath her pampered life, she’s faced with an unthinkable choice. Because the only thing more dangerous than staying with Penn’s family is leaving…and if she’s unsuccessful, she’ll face a fate far worse than death.

 

For fans of Keira Cass’s Selection series and Lauren DeStefano’s Chemical Garden series, Perfected is a chilling look at what it means to be human, and a stunning celebration of the power of love to set us free, wrapped in a glamorous—and dangerous—bow.

[Full disclosure: I received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

This is another book where I honestly don’t know where to start because there are so many things wrong with it.  I’ll try my best, though.

Okay, so the premise of Perfected is that genetically perfect humans are being engineered and sold as pets.  This is not quite stupid but so ridiculous my eyes nearly popped out of my head when I realized that Kate Jarvik Birch was tone-deaf about things like politics or social movements.  I would have believed this premise had she actually done some decent world-building instead of just setting this in what seems to be the present.  There’s a lot of problems with setting it in the present but I’ll start with the main one: the American people would never again accept slavery.

Yes, there is illegal slavery all around the globe, even in the United States.  But for it to be ingrained into the legal system as actual legislation when the government can’t even pass the simplest bill right now?  That’s ridiculous.  It would be political suicide in this current culture to even mention something that might possibly be resembling slavery, let alone outright slavery of human beings.  No one can even agree on genetically modified food, for crying out loud!  How do you think making designer babies would go over in the next five years?  And for them to be made into slaves?  Yeah, right.

Like I said, I would have been more lenient with the premise of the books had the author done her work and did some real world-building.  I could have understood maybe slavery coming about after some catastrophic events that reshaped the American social and political environments forever.  Something like a world war, perhaps.  At least then it would have an aura of possibility.  But as it is, saying that the legislation got passed simply because of corporate donations and pressure is so simplistic it’s insulting to the readers.  I’m Canadian and I understand that it’s not that simple in American politics, even with outrageous amounts of money.

It doesn’t take a cynical reader like me to realize that young, beautiful girls being bought by wealthy old men is a recipe for sexual slavery.  It’s alluded to in the novel and is revealed as the reason Ella’s predecessor was removed from the home but it’s never really explored or even presented realistically.  The fact that Ella doesn’t even know what kissing is beggars belief when these girls are trained to go into the homes of wealthy men.  Add that to the fact they’re sold into prostitution when they’re no longer cute and you have to wonder why the ‘breeders’ (the people who create these girls) don’t have them spayed (their word, not mine) in the first place or at least teach them basic sex ed.  Yes, I know they’re kept naïve and innocent but some things are just too unrealistic.

Okay, even if I ignored all of the things wrong with Kate Jarvik Birch’s premise and world-building I still wouldn’t be a huge fan of this book.  Ella has been bred and taught to be compliant so she makes a ridiculously boring narrator.  She’s not interesting and not even really that sympathetic.  Penn, just don’t get me started on him.  One minute he hates the sight of Ella the next he’s got his tongue in her mouth.  Ugh.  I really, really, really hate Insta-Love.

The plot is moderately paced but there are absolutely no surprises.  Of course the previous girl got pregnant with the Congressman’s child and was killed.  That’s why his wife was so opposed to getting a new ‘pet’.  Of course Penn and Ella try to escape and claim refugee status at the Canadian border.  There were no real twists or turns to the plot and I don’t think you have to be a cynical reader like I am to figure out what’s going to happen in the end.  Mind you, it ends on sort of a cliffhanger so they can make a franchise out of this if it does indeed become the new Chemical Garden series or The Selection.

Don’t be fooled by pretty covers, folks.  It’s not worth it.

I give this book 1/5 stars.

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After the End by Amy Plum

After the End by Amy Plum(Cover picture courtesy of Amy Plum’s website.)

She’s searching for answers to her past. They’re hunting her to save their future.

World War III has left the world ravaged by nuclear radiation. A lucky few escaped to the Alaskan wilderness. They’ve survived for the last thirty years by living off the land, being one with nature, and hiding from whoever else might still be out there.

At least, this is what Juneau has been told her entire life.

When Juneau returns from a hunting trip to discover that everyone in her clan has vanished, she sets off to find them. Leaving the boundaries of their land for the very first time, she learns something horrifying: There never was a war. Cities were never destroyed. The world is intact. Everything was a lie.

Now Juneau is adrift in a modern-day world she never knew existed. But while she’s trying to find a way to rescue her friends and family, someone else is looking for her. Someone who knows the extraordinary truth about the secrets of her past.

[Full disclosure: I requested and received a free paperback from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.]

A post apocalyptic book that isn’t actually a post apocalyptic book?  No Insta-Love?  Just a hint of magic?  If any of these sound interesting, you’ll like After the End.

I began reading this book with low expectations.  In the beginning it seemed like your pretty typical YA novel but then Amy Plum put some very interesting twists in to throw readers for a loop.  Even though the blurb spoils the big reveal, it’s still kind of a shock to learn that Juneau’s whole life has been a lie.  Her elders have lied to her for years and now suddenly she has to cope in a modern world she’s only read about in outdated encyclopedias.

Juneau and Miles are both three dimensional characters that are very, very different.  Miles at first seems like your typical spoiled rich boy, but as he spends time with Juneau I like how he sort of grows out of that attitude and tries to do things for himself.  Juneau thinks Miles is an idiot for not knowing how to do these things but eventually accepts that he is knowledgeable too, just in a different way.  As you’ve probably guessed by now they fall in love but it’s by no means Insta-Love and there are a lot of hurdles along the way.

The plot was surprisingly fast-paced.  It’s not a one-sitting book, but it is the kind of book you want to sneak away to read as often as you can, even if it’s only a couple of pages at the time.  I would have liked some more description in some places, but Amy Plum’s writing is still excellent and she has a good sense of how to balance action and description.  The points of views also change between Juneau and Miles at a more natural rate so it doesn’t feel like Amy Plum changed points of view just for the sake of dragging the plot along.

Basically, this is not your typical post-apocalyptic book and because of that (and the cliffhanger ending) I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

I give this book 4.5/5 stars.

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