Review: The Boy Who Grew Dragons by Andy Shepherd

theboywhogrewdragons_shepherdThe Boy Who Grew Dragons
Andy Shepherd
Illustrations by Sara Ogilvie

Publisher: Leminscaat
Publishing year: 2018
Pages: 209
ISBN: 9789047710684
Genre: Children’s (middle grade), fantasy
Rating: 5/5

Note: I’ve read the Dutch version of this book, ‘De jongen die draken kweekte’, which is translated by Jesse Goossens. The Dutch translation is published by Leminscaat, who kindly provided me with a copy through my work. 

Tomas often helps his grandfather in tending his yard. When he finds a strange tree in the yard, he gets quite the surprise when he takes the equally strange fruit home. A dragon hatches from it, which is of course the coolest pet ever! However, Tomas discovers that raising a dragon is definitely not easy — especially when you don’t want your parents to find out!

Getting and raising your own dragon is a childhood dream (one I, unfortunately, haven’t yet been able to accomplish), so I was really excited to read this when a coworker/friend pushed an ARC into my hands at work. This book is mainly about all the antics Tomas’s scaly friend Fikkie (Flicker in the original version) is up to and how Tomas deals with the ensuing chaos while learning about dragons on the fly. Fikkie is a pretty curious creature who breathes sparks and drops flammable poop, so the situations Tomas finds himself in are humorous and adorable.

What I especially liked is, despite the relatable everyday setting, the sense of wonder you get when you discover more about Fikkie and his kin along with Tomas, and the way you see Tomas’s relationship with his dragon develop. There is also a lot of depth in the relationships between him and his family — especially his grandfather and his little sister. This resulted in a very heartwarming story with a positive portrayal of dragons and family relations, which only added to the book’s charm.

Finally, this book has adorable illustrations by Sara Ogilvie. They’re in black and white and might be simple, but they’re expressive and underline the whimsical feeling you get from the book.

This is apparently the first installment in a series, and I honestly can’t wait to read the second one (I liked what I believe is the sequel hook!). In the mean time, I can’t help but wonder where I can get my hands on one of those dragon fruits!

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Review: Burying Leo by Helga Gruendler-Schierloh

BuryingLeo_GruendlerSchierlohBurying Leo
Helga Gruendler-Schierloh

Publisher: Laurel Highlands Publishing
Publishing year:
 2017
Pages: 346
ISBN: 9781941087374
Language: English
Genre: Contemporary
Rating: 3.5/5

Note: I’ve received a free e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This did not influence my review in any way. 

Ingrid could no longer sing after an audition as a singer led to traumatizing sexual assault. Having fled her home country Germany in a marriage with a guy named Joe she barely knew, she clings to the hope of starting a family. When her hopes crumble, she turns to singing — but in order to do that, she will have to deal with her own past.

This type of book is way out of my comfort zone, but Gruendler-Schierloh’s pleasant writing style made this a good read nonetheless. The narrative was also well paced, avoiding information dumps and scenes that didn’t really contribute to the narrative or the character development.

Speaking of which, I think Ingrid was a very developed character. She started out as the type of character who would conform to her husband’s wishes in hopes of getting pregnant to someone much more empowered and independent. Though I do not really relate to Ingrid as a character, I did sympathize with the her and the terrible things she had to go through. I couldn’t help but root for her when she finally took some steps to gain some independence and to deal with her past. The flashback in the novel really helped in portraying how Ingrid became the person she is at the start of the novel. She is not without her flaws — I even considered her a bit hypocritical and passive at times — but that only made Ingrid feel like a person.

I should warn that, considering the subject matter, the book contains a graphic rape scene. I felt that Gruendler-Schierloh handled this sensitive issue quite well, however, focusing on Ingrid’s turmoil and the very lasting effect the experience has had on her life. Burying Leo is very much about Ingrid having to come to terms to what has happened to her rather than stowing it away in a dark corner of her mind. Music, and by extension the musician friend Mick she made through music, play a significant role in overcoming her obstacles Furthermore, the book also tackles other heavy themes such as marital discord and infertility.

I did feel some the flashbacks were a bit unclear initially, confusing me the first couple of lines before realizing the chapter took place several years in the past. I also felt that Joe’s portrayal could have been a bit more nuanced — though he started out as ‘simply’ a driven character who saw his wife as more of a business asset than… well… his wife, his character would fluctuate to ‘suddenly’ caring to being an unlikable piece of shit, as if Ingrid’s doubts and her eventually leaving her husband had to be justified by however Joe behaved. We already knew the marriage wasn’t a good one; there was no need to underline this by throwing all subtlety out of the window. However, these issues are fairly minor.

Burying Leo was out of my comfort zone and I couldn’t fully relate to the main character. That said, Ingrid’s growth from an obedient wife burdened with what has happened to her into a more empowered and independent woman was very satisfying to read.

Review: Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky

dogsofwar_tchaikovskyDogs of War
Adrian Tchaikovsky

Publisher: Head of Zeus Ltd.
Publishing year: 2017
Pages: 346
ISBN: 9781786693891
Language: English
Genre: Science fiction
Rating: 5/5

Rex wants to be a Good Dog. He’s a genetically engineered dog-like creature called a Bioform. He’s obedient, loyal to a fault, and more than capable to follow orders and fight in a war. And that’s what Rex does: follow his Master’s orders and kill enemies. His feedback chip tells him he’s a Good Dog for doing just that. However, Rex discovers that life is not so black and white, and that being a Good Dog is far more complicated.

Initially, Dogs of War starts out with Rex and his pack of other Bioforms just following orders during a war in Campeche, Mexico. Rex’s squadmates are all interesting in their own right. There is Dragon, a genetically engineered lizard who is used against special targets, but is a bit on the lazy side. There’s Honey, a genetically engineered bear who sports a giant cannon and is also very clever. Finally, there is Bees, a hive-mind of bees, which is a fascinating concept of itself. Life is initially simple for Rex; he follows orders, and commands his squad to fulfill those orders to the best of their ability. Then the plot kicks in and Rex finds himself having to make decisions on his own. But how do you decide what’s the best course of action? How can you be a Good Dog when no one tells you what to do? Can you be a Good Dog when your Master is bad?

Rex is a very endearing main character. Despite the fact that he’s deadly and that he has killed a lot of people, there is a certain innocence in his world view. When he slips his Master’s control, you see him not only agonize over what he should do and how to decide on whether someone is an enemy or not, but you can also understand his yearning for the clear-cut purpose he had when still on a leash. He becomes increasingly conflicted between his loyalty and doing the Right Thing, whatever that might be. Rex’s conflict is given weight because he’s so endearing, which allows this novel to pack quite the emotional punch.

As rewarding as Rex’s growth is, Dogs of War offers much more than that. Where it could have ended after the initial situation in Campeche was resolved, it doesn’t. The novel deals with the rights of non-humans and their place in the world, their rights to ‘live’ as sentient beings even if they aren’t human. There is also the issue of artificial intelligence and the manifacture of it. The novel also deals with ethics and morality; of bearing the responsibility for your decisions or hiding behind justification and conditioning. Tchaikovsky also manages to provide some interesting social commentary about public opinion and warfare. He not only does this through Rex’s POV, but also by including the POV of several other characters. Some people might not find the human POV’s  interesting, but I felt it contributed to the world building and the gravity of the issues that were tackled.

The prose itself was also very well written. Most characters had very distinctive voices; especially in the cases of Rex – whose canine qualities really shine through in the used language, which makes him even more endearing – and Bees, whose hive mind was incredibly interesting to read. The only downside? I felt that the character of Asanto and her purpose in the story felt a little forced, even though the concept she represents is interesting. This is only a minor issue, however.

If you’re looking for a well-written science fiction with an endearing protagonist that deals with some complex issues, you should give Dogs of War a try, especially if you like animals and/or good action sequences. I’m definitely interested in reading more of Tchaikosky’s work.

Review: The Trees by Ali Shaw

Life was pretty busy, so apologies for the radio silence. I bring you a new review to make up for it.

thetrees_alishaw

The Trees
Ali Shaw

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publishing year:
 2016
Pages: 487
ISBN: 9781408862308
Language: English
Genre: Magical realism, apocalyptic
Rating: 4/5

One downside of working in a bookshop is that cover buys are likely to happen, especially if you’re unpacking or shelving books. This was most certainly the case for The Trees. A face of a fox made of leaves certainly caught my eye. This, along with the blurb on the back, made me purchase it by the end of my shift.

The Trees takes place in England for the most part, where trees suddenly spout from the ground, destroying houses, streets, and human lives in the process. The people who didn’t get skewered on tree branches are faced with the instant collapse of society and have to survive in an unfamiliar world. Protagonist Adrien Thomas is one of the survivors, and he is quite overwhelmed by the sudden change. Luckily, he meets nature-loving Hannah and her son Seb. Together, they set out to find Adrian’s wife, who was in Ireland for work at the time. The forest seems to go on forever, though, and they not only have to face the cruelty of nature, but also their own demons.

To be fair, Adrian is not a protagonist I’d normally like. He is passive, prone to self-pity and tends to give up easily. He is well aware of his faults, which is an unending source of self-loathing for him. When the trees first arrive, he clings to the idea that help will arrive and would be content to wait it out in his comfortable armchair. He meets Hannah and Seb by chance, and it’s fear that eventually propels him to join them. Still, Adrian managed to be a sympathetic character that I was rooting for, which paid off in his character development. Though he doesn’t become some assertive, ambitious leader (that would have been weird), he does grow as a person and ends up doing things by the end of the novel that he wouldn’t have done at the beginning.

Hannah and Seb also grow throughout the book. Though Hannah is initially thrilled with the coming of the trees, she is eventually faced with how cruel nature can be which forces her to come to terms with her views on nature. Seb initially starts out as a somewhat sullen teenager who is robbed of a life that was primarily defined by technology, but he really comes into his own. Eventually, the trio also meet the Japanese schoolgirl Hiroko, who had been on a school trip at the time of the trees arriving and has some formidable survival skills. Finally, there is the fox kit Yasuo, who is adorable. The Trees also introduces some antagonists, but they all have a human quality to them.

Speaking of qualities, the endless forest is not simply a collection of trees providing a stage for the cruelty of nature. There is a certain mystical aspect to the forest as well. It tends to change paths or direct the people wandering among the trees. It has hallucinatory qualities that are never quite fully explained, allowing the woods to remain mysterious and sometimes even eerie. The woods also cause the Kirin appear, who act like some sort of guide, and the whisplike Whisperers, whose purpose remains unknown for a large part of the novel. Even though The Trees is mostly apocalyptic with significant character building, the woods and the new creatures give it also a fairytale-like quality, albeit a very dark one. Nature is not only cruel, but also beautiful, and the two go hand in hand.

This brings me to the one negative point. Though the purpose of the Whisperers is revealed, and their presence looms over the narrative and the characters (or, more signficantly, Adrien), I feel a bit more could have been done with them or the mysterious eeriness of the woods. Regardless, The Trees is a character-driven novel with a lot of atmosphere and some beautiful and heartwarming scenes. It’s not as creepy or action-driven as most apocalyptic fiction, but if you don’t mind this is definitely worth a shot.

Review: Champions: At Fire’s End by Charlotte Jain

atfiresend_charlottejainChampions: At Fire’s End
(Champions #1)
Charlotte Jain

Publisher: N/A
Publishing year:
 2017
ISBN: 9780992586935
Language: English
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Rating: 1.5/5

Note: I’ve received a free e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This did not influence my review in any way. 

The Titan and the Olympians are at war. To resolve this endless battle, four mortals are given the power to control the elements so they can fight amongst themselves. Teenagers April and Kyle are two of these Champions. Controlling fire and water respectively, they must uncover the identities of the other two Champions and fight them to the death. Unfortunately, with their powers taking a heavy toll on their bodies, time is running out.

This book begins with a note on the mythology in the Champion series, stating that the author has been inspired by Greek and Roman mythology, but that the mythology is freely adapted. The Immortals are named after various Greek gods. Athena embodies wisdom, Hades is Lord of the Underwold, and the twins Apollo and Athena wield bows. These similarities are superficial. Still, I believe it is necessary to point this out; it’s not so much a twist on modern mythology as the synopsis promises, but simply characters sharing names and some other superficial traits. I wish I was able to tell more about these characters, but unfortunately, they are just there. Three of them guide the main characters, but the others don’t leave a lasting impression other than being uncaring Immortals. This feels like a wasted opportunity.

Which brings me to the other problems of At Fire’s End: it was very unpolished. The plot gets right into the action, which on itself wouldn’t be a problem if there wasn’t so much confusion. The exposition doesn’t happen until halfway in the story, when Kyle and April finally inform the other two Champions of their predicament, which is way too late. Though the characters go to a normal modern school, the world isn’t fleshed out either. Considering the world represents the stakes, the lack of fleshing out eliminates the urgency. What are the effects of the war on the population? Are there other supernatural creatures than the Furies they fought? If so, why weren’t they mentioned until they appeared? Why weren’t the Furies mentioned until they appeared? Where did they come from? The story was scattered and there was barely any foreshadowing, which leads to terrible pacing and the feeling things happened just because.

Even the main characters aren’t fleshed out well, which makes it difficult to care about them or their struggle. Their interactions seem overly dramatic and forced, which is underlined by the big chunks of speeches the characters blurt out in the middle of supposedly intense situations. Disregarding the issue of ‘time and place’: character exposition happens almost solely in these speeches. Despite the drama, the characters still remain shallow. I never got a real sense of who they were, what they were like, and how they would develop or change throughout the story. There was a lot of telling, but no showing. Kyle was supposed to be cunning, but I never once saw a situation where this cunning quality was displayed. Instead, Kyle makes some very rash and illogical decisions, which even disproves what we’ve been told.

The story was told through the POV of both Kyle and April, but their voices were not distinct at all. The other two Champions, Kim and Noah, barely got any exposition or development; again, they were just there to be the other Champions. I couldn’t help but wonder: why should I care about these characters? This is, unfortunately, a fatal flaw.

That is not to say that there wasn’t some promise. I did like the aspect of the characters genuinely struggling with their powers; that these powers were taking a toll on their bodies and that the characters had to be trained. The idea itself is also interesting enough, but the execution makes for a tedious and confusing read. If the pacing would be fixed, the setting and characters fleshed out more, and the story overall be more polished, then Champions: At Fire’s End would be a lot more engaging.

Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Apologies for the radio silence; life caught up with me for the past few weeks. But this isn’t supposed to be a “sorry I haven’t posted much”-post, so here’s a new review to make up for it!

drsleep_stephenking

Doctor Sleep
(The Shining #2)
Stephen King

Publisher: Hodder
Publishing year:
 2013
Pages: 499
ISBN: 9781444783247
Language: English
Genre: Horror
Rating: 3/5

I always enjoy reading books by Stephen King. I love how he builds his stories and develops his characters; King does not do flat characters. They may not always be likable, but you usually get a sense of their motivations and why they do what they do, even if you sometimes see that train wreck that resulted from their actions coming from a mile a way. Yes, that tension. Stephen King is a master of building tension, of having a story go along with a threatening sense of foreboding looming in the background up to the point where everything goes to shit in the last 100 or so pages.

Yes, you could say I’m a fan of Stephen King.

Which brings me to Doctor Sleep, which is a sequel to The Shining.  Always wanted to see how Danny Torrance fared after the traumatic events at the Overlook Hotel? Well, you’re about to find out. Danny, now Dan, has been drifting for decades, following his father’s footsteps into alcoholism to drown out his gift. It’s certainly tragic to see how Dan deals with his demons, so it’s with relief we see that he eventually settles down at a nursing home where he helps people pass on. At one point, however, he meets Abra Stone. With the brightest ‘shining’ he has ever seen, she’s powerful, but she also attracts The True Knot. These supernatural people live off the ‘steam’ that kids like Abra produce when tortured and killed. Of course, at one point, Dan has to confront his own demons if he wants to save Abra.

As a story of Dan dealing with the aftermath of the events in The Shining, Doctor Sleep works well. Like his father, he became an alcoholic. A lot of the narrative is dedicated to Dan’s reflections; why he’s drinking, his mistakes during a life of drifting and his attempts to make things right again while fighting the temptation of the bottle. There are frequent references to The Shining, so you can’t really read this book without reading its predecessor.

As a horror story? Doctor Sleep falls flat. The premise is promising enough and the stakes are clear, except The True Knot is just not very threatening. Of course, they kidnap kids. They torture them. They are untouchable because they are rich bastards. They have set their sights on Abra and they aren’t necessarily incapable. Mostly. Okay, most of them die very quickly for supposed villains. I think the character known as The Crow came the closest to being a threat, however. The rest? Abra manages to outsmart them and she’s a teenager. A brilliant teenager, but a teenager nonetheless. Especially with the help of Dan, who does his fair share of outsmarting The True Knot as well. Helped by the supporting cast, Dan and Abra have comparatively little difficulty in overcoming their obstacles. Even the leader of The True Knot, Rose the Hat, falls flat. She becomes increasingly unhinged and vengeful, but she and her gang are pretty easily defeated. Their silly names could have been a contrast to the threat they should have been posing, but now they just seem difficult to take seriously.

And because there is no threat, no tension, and no real sense of foreboding, I wasn’t worried for the main characters. There weren’t even any scares. For a novel by Stephen King, I had expected a bit more, especially for a sequel to The Shining. As a story about Dan coming to terms with his past and his inner demons, Doctor Sleep was an interesting story and worth reading. As a horror story with unsettling moments and that sense of foreboding looming over you? Doctor Sleep unfortunately falls very short.

Review: The Waking Fire by Anthony Ryan

thewakingfirefinalThe Waking Fire
(The Draconis Memoria #1)
Anthony Ryan

Publisher: Orbit
Publishing year:
2016
Pages: 679
ISBN: 9780356506364
Language: English
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 4.5/5

I’m always up for an interesting story involving dragons. Honestly, who doesn’t love these powerful fire-breathing lizards? Though the inclusion of dragons doesn’t necessarily guarantee a compelling fantasy novel, but with excellent world building Anthony Ryan thankfully succeeds in his next fantasy series.

Contrary to most high fantasy, or at least most fantasy involving dragons (there are exceptions, I know), Ryan’s world does not involve monarchies or knights in shining armour. Though there is a neighbouring empire and (of course) the threat of war, the country the protagonists hail from has done away with obsolete practices of kings and nobility, and is instead ruled by corporations. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is fine and dandy; there’s corruption, there are people living in slums, and the dragons (drakes) are exploited in breeding pens or are nearly hunted to extinction in the name of profit. Basically: capitalism.

What’s the point in exploiting these dragons? Well, their blood has magical properties that certain gifted people are able to use; they’re called blood-blessed. Depending on their affinity and which type of drake the utilized blood comes from, the abilities can range from powering ships to telepathy, to increasing muscle output. It’s an interesting magic system that comes with clear limitations and boundaries for the characters, something that I can always appreciate. The existence of these people and their abilities make Drake blood a valuable commodity, and the economy of this world thrives on harvesting these creatures for their blood. Moreover, the technology of this world is reminiscent of the late 19th century with steampunk elements, which also sets this fantasy epic apart from other works involving dragons. It’s a very unique combination.

The Waking Fire has three protagonists. The first is Clay, a thief from the slums who is secretly a blood-blessed and is forced to go on an expedition to find the mysterious White Drake. The second is Lizanne, a spy who has to infiltrate an enemy country to further the agenda of the Ironship Trading Syndicate she works for. Finally, there is Hilemore, the second lieutenant on a navy ship who finds himself having to work with a badass female pirate. Both Clay and Lizanne have ample character development. Clay goes from a largely self-serving thief trying to leave the mission he’s forced to undertake to wanting to save the world, and Lizanne begins to question her mission as well as her mentor. These characters also frequently interact with one another, which allows for their storylines to intertwine.

Unfortunately, Hilemore appears to be more of a loose end. Not only does he get fewer chapters compared to the other two characters, but his storyline does not feel as connected or even as important to the rest of the plot. His interaction with the female pirate Zenida is interesting and it sheds light on events taking place elsewhere, but it doesn’t have a whole lot of impact. Moreover, his lack of screen time does not showcase any character development other than an honourable navy officer being forced to work with a pirate. The significance of this character might change as I expect him to become more involved, but it’s still a pity his story felt a little underwhelming compared to the others. And while I’m nitpicking: I also felt a certain reveal by the end of Clay’s story involving a certain character and the White Drake was not as well-reasoned as I would have liked, but I can’t say much without spoiling anything.

Still, The Waking Fire is a compelling read. Though Ryan has done a great job with building his world and its magic system, I think the greatest element is the sense of mystery. The built-up is slow, but tension continues to rise as the novel progresses. This is especially evident in Clay’s storyline; though the other characters experience the consequences of all the strange events that are happening, it’s Clay who draws closer to the mystery behind the White Drake. The pacing is crucial to pulling this rising tension off and Ryan has done this perfectly. This mystery, along with the fluid writing style, made it impossible to put this book down.

However, I can’t help but wonder whether this element will hold up for the second installment of this series, The Legion of Flame. One of the draws of The Waking Fire was the mystery behind the White Drake and the strange occurrences happening everywhere. By the end of The Waking Fire, the mystery has been largely resolved, which seemingly ‘only’ leaves our main characters to find a way to save the world. I suppose I’ll have to read Ryan’s second installment to The Draconis Memoria to find out whether the series has more in store than initially expected. In the mean time, if you’re looking for an original take on a high fantasy novel involving dragons and a real sense of mystery, The Waking Fire is a recommended read!