Mini-review: ‘Rampant’ by Emmie Mears

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Gwen Maule is Edinburgh’s hero. She’s got a new job for a boss she actually likes, and by night as Shrike she singlehandedly keeps her city’s crime rate at an all time low. But now Rosamund Granger has escaped custody and is killing people across Scotland. Desperately trying to get ahead of the murders, Gwen discovers that Britannia are not as gone as she hoped — and their newest plan will soak the earth in blood.

This is a mini-review, since I only reviewed The Masked Songbird, the first book in this series, less than a week ago. If you’re looking for a new urban fantasy/superhero series, I can’t recommend this one highly enough — but you should definitely start there.

Here are additional things you can look forward to in Rampant, book two in the series:

  • It’s less of an origin story and gets more into the day-to-day of superhero life. Gwen’s superpowers continue to develop in delightful ways.
  • We get to see how Gwen, Taog and Magda cope with PTSD in a way that comes across as realistic without crippling any of them to the point where they hide in cupboards (hi, Katniss).
  • We don’t get to see any more of Angus, which I’m sure is a relief for everyone.
  • We learn much more about Britannia, the organisation of villains (aka crazy cult) that were the baddies in the first book. They are still the baddies in this one.
  • And, hoo boy, are they bad. The death toll is pretty high, you guys. And poor Gwen feels every death, which means we do too.

The only thing holding me back from giving this one five stars is that I found the end a little bit … anticlimactic? A lot of stuff happens, but Gwen is a little bit sidelined in the action, which was unsatisfying because I wanted her to lay out more smackdown than she got to. (It’s hard to be more specific than that without spoilers.)

Still, I really liked this book; I don’t know if Mears is planning on writing more books in this series, but I really hope she does!

Four stars


Review: ‘The Masked Songbird’ by Emmie Mears

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Edinburgh accountant Gwenllian Maule is surviving. She’s got a boyfriend, a rescued pet bird and a flatmate to share rent. Gwen’s biggest challenges: stretching her last twenty quid until payday and not antagonising her terrifying boss.

Then Gwen mistakenly drinks a mysterious beverage that gives her heightened senses, accelerated healing powers and astonishing strength. All of which come in handy the night she rescues her activist neighbour from a beat-down by political thugs.

Now Gwen must figure out what else the serum has done to her body, who else is interested and how her boss is involved. Finally—and most mysteriously—she must uncover how this whole debacle is connected to the looming referendum on Scottish independence.

Superpowers don’t make a superhero. Real strength isn’t something you’re born with — it’s something you build.

Emmie Mears is my favourite new urban fantasy discovery for 2016. I devoured her Ayala Storme series and then went looking for more. The Masked Songbird was her debut, but didn’t suffer for it — it has all the hallmarks of her writing, in that it’s action-packed and full of heart.

Despite the blurb, Gwen starts off in a pretty dark place. Yes, she has a boyfriend — but Angus is a manipulative prick one step away from being abusive. Yes, she has a job — but her terrifying boss is clearly a corporate psychopath (and, it turns out, a regular psychopath too) who has it out for her. Gwen’s life is very grey and grim.

That all changes when, in typical superhero-origin style, Gwen ingests an experimental serum hidden in a bottle of soft drink. But not in a “wow, I have powers; I rock now” way. More in a “what the hell is happening” way. She pays a pretty steep price for her powers (I won’t go into details, because spoilers), and gets her ass handed to her at least once because she gets in over her head. Strength does not automatically equal skill, after all.

And, even with her superpowers, it takes Gwen a while to realise she deserves better than what she has, especially with regards to Angus. She suffers from that sadly fairly common delusion that being with a scumbag is better than being single. (Hint: it’s not!) I’m pleased to say that she grows throughout the story and comes to realise she doesn’t need him.

I haven’t read very many true superhero books, though a lot of urban fantasy has the trappings of a superhero story. The Masked Songbird is pure superhero, down to the spandex costume and the crime-fighting. I loved it so much!

I loved watching Gwen’s friendship with her flatmate Magda turn from “friendly acquaintances” into “BFFs”. And Taog (pronounced “took”, apparently — Welsh names do my head in), the kindly and hot next door neighbour, is patient and committed to his beliefs. There is definite tension there, but Gwen resists it, not wanting to cheat on Angus. Hopefully their relationship will develop further in the sequel.

The overarching events that provide the backdrop and the external story relate to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 (when The Masked Songbird was originally released). The book is set in the lead-up to the vote, and explores the idea of an extremist pro-UK group, Britannia, trying to suppress the “leave” campaign while scaring the public into voting to stay. I did struggle with how truly evil the Britannia members were at times … but I suppose every superhero needs an evil super-villain. (And there’s no doubt that people have gotten violent over this sort of thing in the past … though not usually without religion being a factor too.)

Oh, I should add: the other thing I really enjoyed on a personal level was the evocative descriptions of Edinburgh. I went there on holiday in 2012 and it was so easy for me to picture the places I’d visited.

I’ve already bought the sequel and can’t wait to get stuck into it. I highly recommend this one.

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Because I read this on my Kindle, I printed out the cover to take a photo with. I didn’t realise until afterwards that it was a different cover. Aargh!

Four-and-a-half stars


Review: ‘The Firebird’ by Sophie Masson

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I had the devil’s own time finding a decent image of the book cover. Sad.😦

Ivan, youngest son of the powerful, greedy Tsar Demyan, is resigned to a life of misery and humiliation at the hands of his brothers, brutal Yuri and sly Igor. And to add to his torment, Yuri has been promised in marriage to the girl Ivan has loved all his life — the bold and beautiful Princess Tamara, daughter of a neighboring king.

Then one day, Ivan sees the legendary Firebird in his father’s garden. The tsar, obsessed with the beautiful creature, orders his sons out in a quest to capture it and bring it back to the palace. Determined to find the bird before his brothers do, Ivan embarks on a thrilling journey of reckless endeavor and strange magic.

The Firebird is a sweet little story that draws on Russian folklore — not something I’ve read a huge amount of, although a lot of the tropes were familiar (such as the kind and honest younger son suffering from abuse at the hands of his cruel and conniving older brothers).

I found The Firebird an interesting but somewhat straightforward tale; there was only one plot twist that I didn’t see very far in advance, and that was because we are only told the relevant information shortly beforehand.

Ivan, said youngest son, is passive and mopey to the point that I wanted to shake him. Once his quest begins, he shows a little more strength of character, but he is intuitive, rather than logical, and kind to the point of naiveté. Because The Firebird is a fairytale, that naiveté becomes a strength rather than the debilitating weakness it would be in a more-realistic genre. (Is that too cynical of me?)

I quite like Tamara, who is betrothed to Ivan’s evil oldest brother in order to save her kingdom, a betrothal that is the cause of Ivan’s moping. I think I’d have preferred this story if more of it were from her perspective.

A lot of the chapters are unfortunately from the perspective of Ivan’s brothers, Yuri (the cruel one) and Igor (the conniving one). They are irredeemably evil — though, again, they would have been worse in a different genre — and I didn’t really enjoy their chapters very much. It was entertaining seeing them being led around by the nose by a bunch of elderly Russian magicians, though.

What kept me reading (well, listening to my audiobook) was that Sophie Masson’s writing is delightful: her descriptions are as vivid and beautiful as her story is whimsical. At the end of the day, I think this is a “it’s not you, it’s me” situation — I did like The Firebird but I didn’t love it as much as others who dig this genre will.

PS I felt a bit the same about Stardust, which is a similar story, with a similar protagonist. I think maybe “fairytale” isn’t my thing? I’ll stick to “fairytale retellings” instead.

Three stars


shutterstock_166209737_smlIn case you missed it, earlier in the month  I was over at Aussie Owned and Read, with my four tips for ways to see your writing anew.


Review: ‘Gemina’ by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

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Moving to a space station at the edge of the galaxy was always going to be the death of Hanna’s social life. Nobody said it might actually get her killed.

The sci-fi saga that began with the breakout bestseller Illuminae continues on board the Jump Station Heimdall, where two new characters will confront the next wave of the BeiTech assault.

Hanna is the station captain’s pampered daughter; Nik the reluctant member of a notorious crime family. But while the pair are struggling with the realities of life aboard the galaxy’s most boring space station, little do they know that Kady Grant and the Hypatia are headed right toward Heimdall, carrying news of the Kerenza invasion.

When an elite BeiTech strike team invades the station, Hanna and Nik are thrown together to defend their home. But alien predators are picking off the station residents one by one, and a malfunction in the station’s wormhole means the space-time continuum might be ripped in two before dinner. Soon Hanna and Nik aren’t just fighting for their own survival; the fate of everyone on the Hypatia—and possibly the known universe—is in their hands.

But relax. They’ve totally got this. They hope.

Gemina is over 600 pages. I devoured it in two sessions, despite being a single mother who works full time. That should demonstrate that you should read it.

*waits*

Okay, you want more? Well, first off, know that this is the sequel to the magnificent Illuminae, which was one of my favourite 2015 reads — if not my favourite. I gave it five stars on a one to five scale.

Gemina is better.

The genre is, broadly, a young adult, fast-paced, alternate-format sci-fi series. The key adjective there is “alternate format” — both books are presented in a “found footage” way: instant message and radio transcripts, emails and security camera footage (transcribed by a character known only by his analyst code, and also — in this book — by my favourite crazy-ass computer). There’s another difference in Gemina, in that Hanna, our leading lady, has a journal and is an artist. This means we get character sketches, a rough map of the space station, and a creeping sense of dread at the bloodstain slowly spreading in each new page we see.

If Illuminae is space zombies meets 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gemina is a mash-up of space terrorists and space, um, aliens. Like, aliens from the movie Aliens. (This isn’t a spoiler if you’ve read the blurb, btw.) While the latter combination is definitely creepy, Illuminae gave me more chills — although that has a lot to do with my near-phobia of invisible killers such as plagues, I suspect.

I’d find it hard to choose between the leading ladies of Illuminae and Gemina — both are kick-butt in their own ways, though Hanna is in the literal sense that she’s a black-belt with military training, courtesy of ol’ Dad. Definitely a handy lady to have on your side in a terrorist-alien situation.

As for the blokes, I was fond of Ezra but would pick Nik any day of of the week. (Sorry, Ezra.)

We do get to see a handful of characters from the previous book — those that survived, at any rate. There’s a third book to come in the series, where hopefully Kady and Hanna (and the others, I guess, but mainly Kady and Hanna!) will team up and kick BeiTech face first through a black hole. I’ll be cheering for them from over here!

I hear the audiobook is amazing, but I read the paperback. Whichever way you do it, get this series. Love it. Name your children after it.

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Five stars


Review: ‘Heart of Brass’ by Felicity Banks

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Emmeline Muchamore is a well-bred young lady hiding explosive family secrets. She needs to marry well, and quickly, in order to keep her family respectable. But when her brass heart malfunctions, she makes a desperate choice to steal the parts she needs to repair it and survive.

She is unable to explain her actions without revealing she has a steam-powered heart, so she is arrested for theft and transported to Victoria, Australia — right in the midst of the Gold Rush.

Now that she’s escaped the bounds of high society, iron manacles cannot hold her for long.

The only metal that really matters is gold.

I nabbed this when I was at Conflux last month, partly because it’s Australian-set steampunk by a Canberra author but mostly because it’s a seriously beautiful-looking paperback. (Yes, I am that shallow!) Happily, Heart of Brass was worth the gamble.

In the space of a couple-hundred words, we get to see Emmeline go from proper society lady who conforms to (most) social expectations while chaffing at the restrictions they impose to convict and criminal rebelling against an unfair system. For the most part, her transition seems entirely natural, although there’s one particular incident that did have me raising my eyebrows a little — I just wasn’t convinced that such a bright young lady would do something so spontaneous and poorly thought out. Maybe it was that colonial influence.

I loved seeing all the steampunk elements in what could otherwise be considered historical fiction — everything from practical devices to silly fashion (wheels for shoes?! I’m so clumsy I’d break something for sure). The elements are well-integrated into the world rather than seeming strapped on. There’s also an element of magic; metals have different properties that influence the world around them in one way or another. It’s a little bit Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn in that regard, without seeming derivative.

Basically, this combination made me a happy, happy girl.

On the romance front, there isn’t much to speak of — Emmeline is attracted to different characters, but it would go very much against her character to see her shack up with someone early on. Still, it was obvious to me that she was bisexual from fairly early in the story, even though she doesn’t seem to realise it. I loved that element too.

In terms of what I didn’t love, there was really only one thing — this book is kinda short. I read it in paperback, and although I knew there was bonus material at the back, I didn’t expect that bonus material to be almost 100 pages. So when I got to the end of the story, I felt a bit like I’d had the rug pulled out from under me. I wanted moooooooore. Obviously this is a good thing, as I will definitely be buying the sequel. I want more Emmeline, Matilda and Patrick.

As for that bonus material, it’s a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story that tells the tale of one of the bit characters in Heart of Brass, the real-life champion of the Eureka Stockade, Peter Lalor. Although I was disappointed it didn’t show me more of the main characters’ and their story, I did spend a fun hour or so following up all the different story options and reading the Easter Eggs.

I’d definitely recommend Felicity Banks. She’s one to watch. (Also, as a side note, this is the most professionally produced book by a small press that I’ve ever seen. Odyssey Books definitely have game!)

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Four stars


Review: ‘Shattered’ by Sharon M. Johnston

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Mishca needs to save her sisters, but only Ryder can save her.

The truth about Mishca’s past shattered her heart. She deals with the pain by focusing on a new mission: saving her newfound family from their creator. With her sisters scheduled for termination, Mishca and her friends set out on a journey up the North Queensland Coast to save them before someone else dies.

Ryder understands the need driving Mischa. It’s in her DNA. But he’s not giving up on the chance they can still be together. She’s the only one to have seen him levitate. The only one to watch the sparks dance across his skin. The only one he trusts enough to know what is in his heart. And now, he might be the only one who can stop Mishca from losing her humanity.

Driven apart by secrets, will they come together in time?

Shattered is the second book in the Open Heart series by Aussie writer Sharon M. Johnston. For those that missed it, and in the interests of full disclosure, I was part of the book launch for Shattered at the start of the month; Sharon is also part of the Aussie Owned and Read blogging team.

I originally read the first book in the series when it was published under another name by a different small press; it had a not-quite-cliffhanger-y ending, and I had to wait for years for the sequel. (Not quite a GRRM number of years, mind you, but still an inconvenient amount of time!) I was delighted to see that Shattered picked up where Divided left off; Mischa, having discovered the truth about her origins and a threat to her previously unknown sisters, is determined to save them.

Thus begins a road trip across Queensland. I loved the Australian setting and speech patterns. Americanisms are one of those things that Aussie readers get used to seeing in our fiction, to the point where, when Mischa commented that she had to go to the loo, I sat back and grinned about it. (That being said, I’m curious as to why the publisher chose to refer to cell phones rather than mobile phones. Or maybe it’s a Queensland dialect thing?)

There’s a fair amount of action in Shattered, and quite a few different supernatural factions at play. At first I had categorised the series as modern-day sci-fi, but in hindsight it’s more of a mash-up between that and urban fantasy. The nature of the different supernaturals would be a spoiler (and in one case a guess, as it hasn’t been revealed), but it’s a really interesting combination. I’m looking forward to learning more about the reasons for it in the third book.

Ryder and Mischa make an adorable couple, and I was glad to see that whole pesky “Colin” complication take a back seat in Shattered — though I expect Colin is less pleased about the situation! Each of the pair has comic-book-style “origin story” issues as a result of being adopted as babies, which gives them something to bond over and makes their lives more than a little freaky.

The only reason this isn’t a five-star read for me (and I say this with much love for Sharon) is that I feel like her press has let her down in the final copy edit department. There were a few grammatical errors that made me twitch. To my mind, if a press is taking a cut of the profit, they should do a better job at weeding those out — the author can’t really do it because they are too close to their own work to see them! Gah! <end rant>

Still, if you want a fast-paced Aussie urban fantasy/sci-fi with kissing and a supernatural mystery, why not give the Open Heart series a try?

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Four stars


Review: ‘Faking It’ by Gabrielle Tozer

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Things are looking up for Josie Browning. Her boyfriend, James, is crazy about her, and she’s scored a writing job at indi. Now the pressure is on for Josie to prove she’s got what it takes to help plan indi’s launch. Plus, she’s battling with flatmates, frenemies and confusing feelings for travel writer Alex.

High on the perks at indi, Josie’s doing a pretty good job of faking her way in the industry – even though she still hasn’t mastered her hair straightener. But when Josie is invited to a media junket, she accidentally sets off a string of lies that threaten to ruin her reputation, love life and career forever.

Faking It is the sequel to The Intern, which I reviewed last year — however, it stands alone, so if you get the opportunity to pick up the second book and want to dive straight in, the experience won’t be too rocky.

I devoured Faking It in a couple of sessions — it’s very light, fun and easy to read, with a fair number of cringeworthy moments. Josie Browning has gotten perhaps a tiny bit better at thinking before she speaks (a very tiny bit) and her clumsiness is less of a feature in this book. But she still manages to get herself into all manner of tricky situations, mostly by not admitting she needs help when she does. Hence the whole “faking it” thing, of course. That’s kind of the point.

(I was actually really mad at Liani, Josie’s boss, for throwing the poor girl so far into the deep end at various points that she couldn’t even see the edges of the pool anymore. I mean, seriously, woman — you can’t be mad when Josie screws up under that much pressure. She’s 18 and hasn’t even finished her journalism degree yet! What would she know about dealing with celebrity agents and organising magazine launches?! Okay, I’ve got that out of my system now…)

James is sweet, and I loved the adorkable dynamic between him and Josie. He does drop the ball in a pretty spectacular fashion at one point, and then overreacts at another (at least as far as I am concerned) — but that’s part of what makes him a more realistic love interest rather than being a perfect cardboard cutout.

However, for me, the shining treasure in this book is the dialogue, especially Josie’s. Her intermittent verbal filter meant that she often came out with lines that had me giggling, and at other times were raw in their honesty. And the back-and-forth banter was something I could totally hear in my head. It seemed so natural.

The other thing I really enjoyed was catching a glimpse of Josie’s mother recovering from her shattered relationship and starting to date again. Even though Josie was quietly horrified, I was all, “You go, Josie’s mum!”

This series is fun, fluffy YA. The plot is fairly predictable but Josie is so enjoyable a main character that I didn’t mind. Now, can we have a spin-off about Alex, please?

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Four-and-a-half stars