Review: ‘Godsgrave’ by Jay Kristoff

A ruthless young assassin continues her journey for revenge in this new epic fantasy from New York Times bestselling author Jay Kristoff.

Mia Corvere has found her place among the Blades of Our Lady of Blessed Murder, but many in the Red Church hierarchy think she’s far from earned it. Plying her bloody trade in a backwater of the Republic, she’s no closer to ending the men who destroyed her familia; in fact, she’s told directly that Consul Scaeva is off limits. But after a deadly confrontation with an old enemy, Mia suspicions about the Red Church’s true motives begin to grow.

When it’s announced that Scaeva will be making a rare public appearance at the conclusion of the grand games in Godsgrave, Mia defies the Church and sells herself to a gladiatorial collegium for a chance to finally end him. Upon the sands of the arena, Mia finds new allies, bitter rivals, and more questions about her strange affinity for the shadows. But as conspiracies unfold within the collegium walls, and the body count rises, Mia will be forced to choose between love and revenge, and uncover a secret that could change the very face of her world.

This is the second book in the Nevernight Chronicles (you can see my review of the first book here). Now, given that Jay Kristoff and co-writer Amie Kaufmann have a fabulous, bestselling YA series together, you might think this was YA. You’d be wrong. As I said about the first book, Godsgrave contains pretty much all those adult themes that make conservative school librarians faint: a bisexual main character, swearing, explicit sex and violent murder.

But if the idea of those things doesn’t bother you, and you love the idea of seeing a complex, dystopian fantasy world brought undone by a cold teenage killer, then this is the book for you.

If you took medieval Venice, mixed in some Ancient Rome, and added a daub of original World of Darkness Vampire: the Masquerade (but minus the vampires), you’d get the world of Godsgrave. Slaves, gladiators, masked balls, a looming and evil godlike presence, a secretive cult of assassins, a dissolute and entitled nobility that is either clueless or wilfully cruel — this book has it all.

And then there’s Mia. She was forced to watch her father hanged by her mother when she was a child, and was then taken in by a retired assassin who set her on that path. When you add in the fact that she can manipulate the shadows and is followed around by slices of shadow that eat her fear so she simply doesn’t feel it, she’s a little broken — although that spark of empathy  we saw in her in the first book is still there, buried deep.

The plot twists and turns like a twisty, turny thing. And I didn’t see most of them coming, which always fills me with glee. I can’t wait to see what Mia does next.

 

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Review: ‘Gemina’ by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

gemina_cover

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.

gemina_balls_sml

Five stars


Review: ‘Nevernight’ by Jay Kristoff

nevernight_cover

Destined to destroy empires, Mia Covere is only ten years old when she is given her first lesson in death.

Six years later, the child raised in shadows takes her first steps towards keeping the promise she made on the day that she lost everything.

But the chance to strike against such powerful enemies will be fleeting, so if she is to have her revenge, Mia must become a weapon without equal. She must prove herself against the deadliest of friends and enemies, and survive the tutelage of murderers, liars and demons at the heart of a murder cult.

The Red Church is no Hogwarts, but Mia is no ordinary student.

The shadows love her. And they drink her fear.

Given the whole girl-goes-to-assassin-school vibe of the blurb, I had originally thought this book might be YA. You’d think the “assassin” part of “assassin school” would have tipped me off. Still, by the end of the first chapter I knew very well that Nevernight wouldn’t be for younger readers. Jay Kristoff doesn’t pull his punches.

The book is violent, and doesn’t make any excuses for that. There are sex scenes that are just shy of erotica in their level of detail, though I never found them gratuitous. And in the opening chapter we actually get both, the scene flipping back and forward in time between a sex scene and a stabbing, highlighting the, erm, rather obvious parallels.

There are a lot of flashbacks in Nevernight, especially early in the book. The main storyline picks up when Mia is 16 and seeking to be accepted into the Red Church (said assassin school), but we get glimpses into the formative events of her past. I found the flashbacks interesting, but they were presented in italics to differentiate them from the main story, and I found them harder to read as a result (physically harder; large blocks of italics are painful. Maybe I’m just getting old!).

The other stylistic quirks of Nevernight are the use of footnotes, where the narrator provides extra detail about the world — generally amusing anecdotes and trivia that don’t really have a place in the main story but give a glimpse into the narrator’s personality. The other quirk is that we don’t actually know who the narrator is, just that it’s not Mia herself. (My money is on her shadow companion, Mister Kindly.)

There is magic in the world of Nevernight, which is a lush combination of Ancient Rome and slightly less ancient Venice, but it’s the sort of magic that imposes a cost on the user. I really liked that as a mechanic; it stopped the various magic-users from being completely overpowered and silly.

As far as the characters go, Mia is — unsurprisingly — hard as nails. But there’s an empathetic side to her that is rather out of place in a school of murderers, and as a result she makes herself some good friends and snags a sort-of boyfriend among the other novices. Of course, there’s the obligatory mean girl (who has a very good reason for hating Mia, so she’s not your typical shallow archetype) and the Snape-like teacher (though he makes Snape look soft and cuddly). And the classroom politics and scheming tends to wind up with people dead.

Story-wise I won’t say too much, except to say that there’s a plot twist I didn’t see coming and all sorts of other awesomeness in there. I did have one head-scratching moment over Mia’s apparent inability to remember one particular event in her past — I wasn’t clear on the reasons for that, though maybe I missed something.

I’d recommend this book for people who like their fantasy gritty, their prose rich with metaphor and their heroines stabby.

nevernightsting

Four-and-a-half stars


Review: ‘Illuminae’ by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Illuminae

This morning, Kady thought breaking up with Ezra was the hardest thing she’d have to do.

This afternoon, her planet was invaded.

The year is 2575, and two rival megacorporations are at war over a planet that’s little more than an ice-covered speck at the edge of the universe. Too bad nobody thought to warn the people living on it. With enemy fire raining down on them, Kady and Ezra—who are barely even talking to each other—are forced to fight their way onto an evacuating fleet, with an enemy warship in hot pursuit.

But their problems are just getting started. A deadly plague has broken out and is mutating, with terrifying results; the fleet’s AI, which should be protecting them, may actually be their enemy; and nobody in charge will say what’s really going on. As Kady hacks into a tangled web of data to find the truth, it’s clear only one person can help her bring it all to light: the ex-boyfriend she swore she’d never speak to again.

Told through a fascinating dossier of hacked documents — including emails, schematics, military files, IMs, medical reports, interviews, and more — Illuminae is the first book in a heart-stopping, high-octane trilogy about lives interrupted, the price of truth, and the courage of everyday heroes.

This book, you guys. I pre-ordered it because I love both Amie’s and Jay’s other books, and then took a month to pick it up due to life and other things. Also, I confess, I found the 600-odd pages quite daunting.

I shouldn’t have.

Despite the length, Illuminae is a very easy read (and I suspect, due to the design, has tens of thousands less words than your average 600 pager). Once I started it, I devoured it in about two days; it would’ve been faster but pesky life things got in the way.

If you haven’t heard of Illuminae by now, the first thing you should know about it is that it is ground-breaking in its design. The “found footage” vibe is conveyed not just through the (excellent) writing but through the book’s internal layout. You really get the feeling that you’re holding a dossier of documents that has been cultivated from various sources about the events at Karenza (Kady and Ezra’s home planet) and what follows.

The end result is that the atmosphere this “weird little bookthing” (as Jay Kristoff calls it) conveys is of epic proportions. The creeping dread associated with the plague gave me the shivers, as did pretty much any transcript associated with the crazy AI, AIDAN. (And yet, AIDAN was also my favourite character. Don’t judge me!)

I loved both Kady and Ezra too; although I will never have a book crush on the latter, I did love his sense of humour. And Kady was all the things you want from a young adult leading lady: clever, empathetic, and a little bit sly. Her resilience in particular is off the charts, which, given the circumstances, is probably for the best. 😉

There are also some great little sci-fi easter eggs in Illuminae, such as a sneaky reference to Red Dwarf and a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Another, more personal source of joy for me was spotting all the names of victims that I recognised in the various lists (Jay and I used to move in the same circles and have a lot of friends in common — friends who seem to have all died horribly at one point or another)!

It’s a big call, but I think Illuminae is my favourite read of 2015. It’s definitely in my top two. Read it. Give it to your friends for Christmas.

PS I am counting this review against my Australian Women Writers challenge, because it is at 50% written by an Australian woman. So nyah!

Five stars


My Autographed Book Collection

Until a couple of years ago I didn’t own any autographed books. That was partly because I used to buy a lot of books by overseas authors, and partly because my inclination to queue up to get a signature has always been pretty low. I’d only ever done it once, and it was as a present for my then-boyfriend.

Queues = ugh.

Then I started discovering indie authors, and Twitter, and suddenly I started to build a collection of autographed books. In every single case, the author has posted me the book (or in one case a bookplate, which TOTALLY COUNTS!). No queuing required! 😀

Not all of these authors are indies, obviously. Jay Kristoff and Delilah S. Dawson are traditionally published, and Lauren K. McKellar and Stacey Nash are hybrid authors (doing a little bit of column a and a little bit of column b).

I’ve put these more-or-less in the order that I received them. As much as I can remember, anyway.

Bound by J. Elizabeth Hill

Bound

The Problem With Crazy by Lauren K. McKellar

The Problem With Crazy

 Immagica by K. A. Last

(I also have Fall For Me signed too!)

Immagica

Shh! by Stacey Nash

(I also have signed copies of Fall For Me and Wait!)

Shh!

The Last Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

The Last Stormdancer

Hit by Delilah S. Dawson

Hit

What signed books do you have? Make me jealous with your collections! Do iiiiiiiit!

(Also, if you wanted a signed copy of Isla’s Inheritance, just hypothetically, that is a thing that could be arranged. 😉 )


Review: ‘Endsinger’ by Jay Kristoff

Endsinger

A TREMBLING EARTH
The flames of civil war sweep across the Shima Imperium. With their plans to renew the Kazumitsu dynasty foiled, the Lotus Guild unleash their deadliest creation—a mechanical goliath known as the Earthcrusher, intended to unite the shattered Empire under a yoke of fear. With the Tiger Clan and their puppet Daimyo Hiro in tow, the Guild marches toward a battle for absolute dominion over the Isles.

A BROKEN REBELLION
Yukiko and Buruu are forced to take leadership of the Kagé rebellion, gathering new allies and old friends in an effort to unite the country against the chi-mongers. But the ghosts of Buruu’s past stand between them and the army they need, and Kin’s betrayal has destroyed all trust among their allies. When a new foe joins the war tearing the Imperium apart, it will be all the pair can do to muster the strength to fight, let alone win.

A FINAL BATTLE
The traitor Kin walks the halls of Guild power, his destiny only a bloody knife-stroke away. Hana and Yoshi struggle to find their place in a world now looking to them as heroes. Secret cabals within the Lotus Guild claw and struggle; one toward darkness, the other toward light. And as the earth splits asunder, as armies destroy each other for rule over an empire of lifeless ash and the final secret about blood lotus is revealed, the people of Shima will learn one last, horrifying truth.

There is nothing a mother won’t do to keep her children by her side.

Nothing.

Endsinger is the third and final book in The Lotus War trilogy by Aussie author Jay Kristoff. All the setup from the first two books—the various factions, wars, betrayals, rivalries and romances—comes to a head in Endsinger. That’s probably why the paperback was 661 pages. Seriously, there were times when, after reading for a couple of hours, I had to stop due to wrist strain. By the end I had to stick the cover together with sticky tape because the book was collapsing under its own weight!

If you’ve read the first two books in the series, you’ve already got an idea of what to expect from Jay’s style. His prose is beautifully, darkly descriptive, so much so that I half expected to get a chest infection from reading about Shima’s polluted air and soil. The Lotus Guild and its toxic chi industry—made from the Lotus Bloom they worship and adore—have driven the land over the edge, killed the animals and created great swathes of deadlands where nothing can survive.

(A note on the prose: if you’re the sort who prefers a straightforward style over lush metaphor, you might want to look at a sample of Jay’s writing before deciding whether it’s for you. It’s definitely a matter of taste: one person’s “descriptive” can be another’s “florid”.)

And, like the first two books, his story is bloody. He isn’t afraid to kill characters, which is only fitting. This is a war, after all. But there are a couple of particularly traumatic deaths in Endsinger. I won’t say who they are, obviously, but although I found them sad, they fall into the category of “noble sacrifice for a greater good”, which I’m okay with as a reader. It would be unrealistic if no one died.

Jay’s style is like a lot of epic fantasy, in that he tends to jump between characters, giving little bursts from different perspectives. During battle scenes, particularly, this can be four or five times in a chapter. But he doesn’t head hop within each scene, which is good; when he’s telling a story from a character’s perspective, he is faithful to that character, and manages to portray them as fully fledged people with their own motivations and desires, even the ones that only appear once or twice. (Even the puppy.)

I love the relationships between characters—especially between Yokiko and Buruu, although that’s been an ongoing thing and my adoration is therefore no surprise to me. I have a new favourite in Endsinger though, which is the street rat Yoshi. He’s learned from his (it must be said) rather stupid, cocky behaviour in the previous book, but he still has a bit of swagger there. I just loved his attitude.

Overall, my favourite part of Endsinger is the way all the loose threads are tied into a neat bow (probably made of flesh or intestines or something). There are a few eye-opening moments as we get to see what’s really been going on this whole time—things that were just part of the world in the first two books turn out to have been significant all along. I really admire the level of craft that went into achieving that.

I’ve seen some people shelve this as young adult on Goodreads, but I’d suggest it’s more for older teenagers and adults. Did I mention bloody?

Five stars