Instant Karma by Marissa Meyer

Instant Karma Cover

Publisher: Pan Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 10 November 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 390 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

One of the leading authors of young adult fiction, Marissa Meyer, returns with a fantastic and compelling standalone romance novel that sees two opposing personalities come together in dramatic and entertaining fashion.

As the summer break is about to begin in Fortuna Beach, a bustling coastal town, chronic overachiever Prudence Daniels is looking forward to her holiday, especially following an arduous biology class with her slacker lab partner, Quint Erickson.  However, disaster strikes at the last moment when she receives a bad grade on her project and Quint refuses to participate in any attempts to redo their assignment.

As Prudence stews with her friends at the local karaoke bar, she slips and hits her head hard after bravely singing Instant Karma by John Lennon.  While at first she considers it to be bad luck, Prudence discovers that the blow to her head appears to have given her special powers that allow her to dole out bad karma instantly to anybody she meets.  Soon, Prudence is enjoying being a force for good in her town, ensuring karmic retribution to anyone who she witness doing wrong.

At the same time, Prudence is still determined to fix her bad grade and approaches a local sea life conservation organisation for more information, only to discover that it is run by Quint’s mother.  Managing to talk her way into volunteering, Prudence finds herself working with Quint, who agrees to help redo their grade if she keeps up her volunteering efforts during her break.  As the two inevitably butt heads, Prudence quickly discovers that Quint is the only person whose karma she cannot affect with her new abilities.  Sparks will fly as these two get closer together and Prudence is about to find out that fate has some real surprises in store for her and Quint.

This was an interesting new standalone book from Meyer, and I was surprised with how much I enjoyed it.  I have to admit that teen dramas that focus on high school romance are not something that I am usually interested in, but I felt the need to read something a little different and I had some great experiences with Meyer’s books in the past.  Meyer is an incredible skilled young adult fiction author whose works usually have a fun twist to them, like The Lunar Chronicles, which re-imagined some classic fairy tales, or her bestselling Renegades trilogy, which focused on a disenfranchised supervillain who goes undercover within a superhero organisation.  I am a major fan of the Renegades novels and I absolutely loved the last two entries in the series, Archenemies and Supernova (Supernova was one of my favourite books of 2019).  Due to how much I enjoyed Meyer’s previous novels, I thought I’d give Instant Karma a chance, and it turned out to be quite a fun and compelling book.  I actually ended up reading it in a single night (I had a deadline) and ended up really liking it, even if I probably wasn’t the intended audience for it.

Instant Karma contains a fun young adult storyline that sees two teenagers with a contentious history find themselves forced together in a wacky and genuinely nice story.  While in many ways this is a fairly typical young adult story, with the classic opposites attract tropes, Meyer mixes it up by including some cool new elements, such as the main character’s ability to manipulate people’s karma or the background storyline of the characters trying to save a sea life conservation organisation, resulting in an excellent and fun story.  While many of the story points are a bit obvious (there is never a doubt that the two main characters will eventually fall in love) Meyer still takes the narrative in some fantastic directions, and readers are guaranteed some fun drama and excellent character development.  I actually really enjoyed getting through this story and I found myself getting extremely invested in the romance between the two main characters.  This ended up being a really good young adult novel, which is probably best enjoyed by a teenage audience, although older readers will have an awesome time getting through this narrative as well.

As I mentioned above, Meyer chucks in some intriguing story elements into this book, and one of the best ones revolves around the protagonist’s newly discovered ability to impact the karma of people she comes into contact with.  This was a rather interesting plot inclusion and it initially proved fun to see the protagonist work out her new powers and use them to get petty vengeance against those who do something selfish or annoying in front of her.  However, there is so much more to this part of the book, as Prudence begins to realise that not everything is as black and white as she initially believes, and maybe the people she punishes do not actually deserve their fates.  For example, she uses her abilities in one case to punish a woman who was defacing a local restaurant billboard.  While it initially appears that she has gotten justice for an innocent struggling business, it is revealed throughout the rest of Instant Karma that the vandal was actually protesting some legitimate concerns, and the actions that Prudence punished were less destructive than she initially believed.  The protagonist encounters a number of these ethical dilemmas throughout the novel, and she finds herself doubting some of her actions and decisions, while at the same time karma and fate push her in some interesting directions.  This adds a really intriguing and compelling edge to Instant Karma’s story, and I quite enjoyed seeing these ethical deliberations unfold, especially as they have some major impacts on the story.

While the karma manipulation story element is fun, the plot inclusion I was most impressed with was the focus on marine ecological conservation.  A surprising amount of Instant Karma’s plot revolves around the two main characters working at a small sea life conservation organisation which is operated by Quint’s mother.  Throughout the course of the book, the protagonist, Prudence, learns a huge amount about conservation and animal rescue as she volunteers alongside Quint in an attempt to raise her grade.  This then evolves into an intriguing storyline that sees Prudence attempt to increase the organisations funding by running a series of events to raise awareness and elicit additional donations.  This proved to be an extremely compelling part of the book’s plot, and Meyer has obviously done a large amount of research around the subject, presenting the reader with a substantial number of intriguing facts and depictions of conservation activities.  This entire inclusion fits into the narrative extremely well, and leads to a number of dramatic and romantic moments as the protagonists clash over various aspects of the conservation work, especially when it comes to their differing opinions around ideals and realities.  All of this adds so much to Instant Karma’s overall narrative and I really enjoyed learning more about sea life conservation through this excellent portrayal of a small volunteer organisations.

Instant Karma by Marissa Meyer is an excellent and enjoyable young adult novel that presents the reader with a fun high school romance between two combative teens.  Meyer adds in a lot of fun story elements to this book and I ended up having a great time reading this awesome novel.  An amazing read for lovers of teen drama.

Waiting on Wednesday – The Last Graduate and It Ends in Fire

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  In my final Waiting on Wednesday for the year I take a look at two epic upcoming fantasy novels that I think will be some of my top reads for 2021.

Ever since I read the first Harry Potter novel many years ago, I have had a particular fondness for fantasy novels that are set within the environs of a magical school.  Something about intrigue and adventure occurring around magical classes really appealed to me, and I have since enjoyed several great novels that have made good use of this setting (The Kingkiller Chronicles are a particularly good example of this).  As a result, it looks like I am going to be rather spoiled in 2021 as two of my most anticipated upcoming releases are going to feature a magical learning environment, although both have an intriguing twist to them.

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The first of these novels is The Last Graduate by bestselling author Naomi Novik, which will serve as the second entry in her Scholomance series.  Novik is a talented author whose work I have greatly enjoyed in the past, such as her bestselling 2018 release, Spinning Silver.  However, the Novik novel that I liked the most was A Deadly Education, which came out earlier this year.  A Deadly Education was the first novel in the Scholomance series and follows a powerful magical user as she attempts to survive an exceedingly deadly magical school filled will betrayal, intrigue, unnecessary heroics, and innumerable student eating creatures.  A Deadly Education was one of my favourite books of 2020 and I am deeply excited that Novik is releasing a sequel in 2021.

The Last Graduate Synopsis:

A budding dark sorceress determined not to use her formidable powers uncovers yet more secrets about the workings of her world in the stunning sequel to A Deadly Education, the start of Naomi Novik’s groundbreaking crossover series.

At the Scholomance, El, Orion, and the other students are faced with their final year—and the looming specter of graduation, a deadly ritual that leaves few students alive in its wake. El is determined that her chosen group will survive, but it is a prospect that is looking harder by the day as the savagery of the school ramps up. Until El realizes that sometimes winning the game means throwing out all the rules . . .

The Last Graduate is currently set for release in late June 2021, and I am really excited to see where the story goes next.  I cannot wait to revisit the fun and inventive magical school that Novik introduced in A Deadly Education, and I am sure that she has some fantastic new ideas to make it even more dangerous.  Based on how the first entry in the series ended, the protagonist is in for even more intrigue and classroom politics in this next book and I am rather excited to see what chaos, destruction and drama gets thrown her way in the future.  I have some major expectations for The Last Graduate, and I look forward to powering through it just like I did with A Deadly Education.

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The next novel I want to highlight in this article is the awesome-sounding It Ends in Fire by Andrew Shvarts.  Shvarts is a relatively new author who debuted back in 2017 with Royal Bastards, the first book in his series of the same name.  The Royal Bastards series was an epic and compelling young adult fantasy series that followed the bastard daughter of a treacherous lord as she and her friends attempted to survive and end a terrible war that ravished their nation.  I absolutely loved this series and each entry in it was very impressive, such as the second novel, City of Bastards, which has one of the best, most explosive endings I have ever enjoyed, or the final novel, War of the Bastards, which was one of my favourite books of 2019.

Due to how much I enjoyed Shvarts’ first series I have been eagerly keeping an eye out for his next project, and you cannot imagine how damn happy I was when I heard that his upcoming book was going to be set in a magical school.  This new novel, It Ends in Fire, is a cool and exciting read that is currently set for release in July 2021.

It Ends in Fire Synopsis:

ALKA CHELRAZI IS ON A MISSION:
1. Infiltrate Blackwater Academy
2. Win the Great Game
3. Burn Wizard society to the ground

As a child, Alka witnessed her parents’ brutal murder at the hands of Wizards before she was taken in by an underground rebel group.

Now, Alka is deep undercover at the most prestigious school of magic in the Republic: Blackwater Academy, a place where status is everything, where decadent galas end in blood-splattered duels, where every student has their own agenda. To survive, Alka will have to lie, cheat, kill, and use every trick in her spy’s toolkit. And for the first time in her life, the fiercely independent Alka will have to make friends in order to recruit the misfits and the outcasts into her motley rebellion.

But even as she draws closer to victory — to vengeance — she sinks deeper into danger as suspicious professors and murderous rivals seek the traitor in their midst, and dark revelations unravel her resolve. Can Alka destroy the twisted game…without becoming a part of it?

This sounds really, really good!  I love the idea of someone trying to start a rebellion in the middle of a treacherous magic school and it sounds like it could be the basis of a compelling story and an awesome new series.  Based on this cool plot synopsis and because of how incredible Shvarts’ previous series was I am extremely confident that that this new novel is going to be another five-star read and I very much looking forward to enjoying It Ends in Fire.

As you can see, 2021 is definitely looking up for me with the inclusion of these two books on my upcoming reads list.  I have extremely high hopes for both novels, and I am sure that they are going to be some of the best books of the new year.

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 29 September 2020)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 368 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

One of Australia’s best authors of fantasy fiction, the legendary Garth Nix, returns with a fun and creative new young adult novel, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London.

Garth Nix is an interesting and talented writer who has been writing since the 1990s, when he debuted with The Ragwitch.  Since then he has gone on to write a huge number of fantasy series and novels, most of which are aimed at a younger audience, including The Seventh Tower, The Keys to the Kingdom and the Troubletwisters (cowritten with Sean Williams).  However, his most famous body of work has to be The Old Kingdom young adult series, also released as the Abhorsen series.  The Old Kingdom books, which started with Sabriel in 1995, follow the adventures of the Abhorsens, a noble clan of necromancers who protect their kingdom from the undead and evil necromancers.  I read Sabriel and some of the follow-up books when I was a lot younger, and it remained one of my favourite series growing up (although I do need to reread it, especially as a new novel in the series is coming out next year).  Because of how much I enjoyed this series from Nix, in recent years I have kept an eye out for any recent books he has released and I was lucky enough to read his 2019 release, Angel Mage, an entertaining standalone novel that re-imagined The Three Musketeers with magic-granting angels.  Due to how much I enjoyed Angel Mage last year, I decided to also try Nix’s 2020 release, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, and I really enjoyed how it turned out.

In a slightly alternate London in 1983, student Susan Arkshaw has arrived in the city shortly after her 18th birthday to find work and to prepare herself for university life.  However, Susan is also on a mission to find out who her father is.  Despite not knowing his identity or how her mother met him, Susan is certain he lives in the city and is determined to track him down.  Her first lead, an old friend of her mothers, seems promising, until he is turned to dust by a silver hatpin wielded by a mysterious and flamboyantly dressed young man, Merlin St Jacques.

After rescuing her from gun-toting thugs and several deadly and mysterious creatures, Merlin reveals that he is a left-handed bookseller, one half of a secret organisation of magical booksellers who police the Old World of legend and magic and ensure that it does not intrude on normal people.  Merlin is undertaking his own mission to find the person responsible for the death of his mother and is initially content with letting Susan go about her own business in town.  However, when several of the magical and dangerous denizens of the Old World start to attack Susan, it becomes clear that something does not want Susan to find her father.

Drawn into the secret world of magical booksellers and ancient legends, Susan begins to understand the true depths of the world surrounding her.  Working with Merlin and his sister Vivien, a right-handed bookseller, Susan attempts to uncover the secrets of her past in order to discover why anyone would be interested in her.  It soon becomes apparent that Susan is the key to a terrible and dark plot that threatens the natural order of the world and could lead to the destruction of the booksellers.  Can Susan and her new friends face down the dark forces coming towards them, or will the mythic hordes of the past be unleashed on an unsuspecting world?

With The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, Nix has come up with another exciting and compelling young adult fantasy novel that was a lot of fun to read.  This new book from Nix is a creative and action-packed novel that follows a bold protagonist as they run headfirst into the midst of a dangerous supernatural world policed by a strange collection of booksellers.  The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is a standalone novel (with potential to grow into a series), and Nix does an excellent job setting the scene for the narrative at the start and ensuring readers quickly become familiar with the unique new world he has come up with.  I did find that it took me a little while to get into the book, but once I got really involved with the plot the rest of the book flew by and I was able to finish it off rather quickly.  This was a really fast-paced story, loaded with all manner of supernatural fights, weird and creative inclusions and a couple of interesting twists, that all comes together into an excellent narrative that will appeal to a wide range of readers.

The major highlights of this book are the crazy and inventive creative elements that Nix has come up with.  I love the whole idea of a group of eccentric, combat-trained and magically powered booksellers fighting dangerous creatures, and Nix obviously had a lot of fun coming up with them and introducing the unique elements of their organisation.  It was really fun to learn about this unique group of magical heroes, including their various talents, techniques and internal politics.  The inclusion of a group of booksellers who have a magical base beneath some of London’s premier bookshops, also ensures that there are innumerable literary references featured throughout The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, and I had fun identifying all of them and seeing which book would be casually mentioned next.  There is also an intriguing variety of different magical beings and creatures that the protagonists encounter throughout their journey, including some childlike goblins who trap people in a magical renaissance fair, stalking scarecrows, giant mystical wolves and a series of frightening undead corpses.  All of these elements are really cool and immensely creative, and it was a lot of fun to see the protagonist encounter them throughout the course of the book.  I really think that this new fantasy location has a lot of potential for other novels and I hope that Nix chooses to visit this alternate version of London at some point in the future.

I also enjoyed the great characters that Nix featured in this book.  The story is primarily told through the perspective of Susan, a young woman who is encountering a lot of these supernatural elements for the first time.  Susan is an excellent central character, who manages to take each and every new encounter and opponent in her stride, while also providing the reader with a newcomer’s viewpoint to the weird and wonderful Old World of magic.  While Susan is a good main character, you cannot help but enjoy the antics of Merlin St Jacques, the left-handed bookseller who introduces Susan to magic and serves as her protector and love interest.  Merlin is a cocky and funny character who has a love of fancy clothes (he has innumerable outfits), and a penchant for crossdressing.  Merlin serves as a great comic relief character for most of the story, although he isn’t afraid to get serious at times, especially when forced to deal with the tragic death of his mother or the consequences of his own mistakes.  This group of main characters is rounded out by Merlin’s twin sister Vivien, a right-handed bookseller (which gives her a different set of magical powers and responsibilities).  Vivien serves as a counterbalance to Merlin’s more eccentric tendencies, acting as the more sensible member of the trio and serving a vital story role as a result.  These three young main characters are also backed up by a range of distinctive and enjoyable side characters, including the various booksellers, each of whom has a unique design aesthetic.  All of these characters help to make a great story, and it was a lot of fun to see this adventure take place in front of their eyes.

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is another excellent novel from Australian author Garth Nix, who once again presents the reader with an exciting and clever young adult fantasy novel.  Thanks to its great story, amazing creative elements and compelling characters, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is an awesome read that will be enjoyed by its intended younger audience while also remaining appealing for an older audience.  This is a really fun book to check out, and I look forward to seeing what crazy adventure Nix comes up with next.

The Erasure Initiative by Lili Wilkinson

The Erasure Initiative Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 1 August 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 328 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the brightest and best Australian authors, Lili Wilkinson, returns with another intense and captivating young adult fiction novel that takes the reader on a clever thrill ride, The Erasure Initiative.

Lili Wilkinson is an extremely talented writer who has written several bestselling young adult fiction novels since her 2006 debut, Joan of Arc: The Story of Jehanne Darc.  I first really got into Wilkinson’s work back in 2018 when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of After the Lights Go OutAfter the Lights Go Out was an incredible and amazing young adult fiction novel that followed the daughter of a survivalist in outback Australia as she attempted to navigate a real-life apocalyptic event.  This was a truly impressive novel, and not only did I give it a full five-star rating but I also consider it to be one of the best pieces of Australian fiction I have ever read.  As a result, I was extremely excited when I saw that Wilkinson had a new book coming out, especially as The Erasure Initiative had such an awesome-sounding plot behind it.

A teenage girl wakes up on an advanced self-driving bus.  She has no memory of who she is, where she is or what she has done in her past.  The only clue to her identity is a nametag that reads CECILY.  But she is not alone.  On the bus with her are six other people, some who seem familiar and some who do not.  These include an attractive guy, a beautiful girl with severe anger issues, a brilliant high schooler, a tattooed man with violence boiling just beneath the surface, an extremely confident and controlling women and a disorientated old lady.  Like Cecily, none of the other people on the bus appear to have their memories, but each of them has a secret worth dying for.

As Cecily and her new acquaintances attempt to make sense of who they are and what is happening to them, a series of ethical questions are posed to them.  Each person on the bus must participate and choose an outcome to a hypothetical scenario, with the decision the majority chooses taking place before their eyes.  Soon, the participants are tested in even more shocking ways, as the various ethical questions become personal and deadly.  Determined to find a way out of this situation, the passengers attempt to uncover the truth behind their incarceration on the bus.  But the deeper they dig the more secrets about their past are revealed and the more discord grows amongst them.  How are each of these people connected and what actions in their past resulted in them being placed on the bus?  More importantly, what is the Erasure Initiative and what impact will it have on all of them?

This was a heck of a novel from an author who I am a major fan of at the moment.  Wilkinson did an outstanding job crafting together this compelling and thought-provoking standalone novel which combines an extremely gripping and clever storyline, with some rather fantastic and inventive ethical dilemmas.  The end result is an impressive young adult fiction novel that I absolutely loved and which I was able to read in extremely short succession, especially once I became addicted to The Erasure Initiative’s captivating narrative and needed to find out how the book would end.

I really have to highlight the incredible narrative that Wilkinson came up with for this fantastic novel.  The story is told from the point of view of the main character, Cecily (if that is her real name!) and shows her slowly unwind the events occurring around her.  Wilkinson starts the story off strong, presenting the reader with a series of enticing mysteries, including who the main characters are, what they are doing on the bus, who is behind their predicament, and what secrets each character’s apparent amnesia hides.  As the story progresses and the characters start to get a sense of who they are and how they feel about each other, they are beset not only with the strange ethical questions but with a series of hints at their past and what they are there for.  This is assisted by a series of in-narrative documents and articles that appear at the start of multiple chapters, providing the reader with more clues towards the character’s past lives.  These hints and reveals are done perfectly by Wilkinson, with a lot of the key information initially redacted to give readers a basic shape of the character’s past and personalities, without revealing the whole picture.  This all leads into the story’s big reveals that start about halfway through the book.  While I was able to predict a couple, including who the novel’s antagonist was, there were quite a few reveals I did not see coming, and one in particular had me reeling at its cleverness and the author’s excellent use of misdirection.  By the end of the book, all of the various twists and secrets come together perfectly, and the overall conclusion of the novel is extremely satisfying, especially as I quite enjoyed where the characters ended up.  Overall, this was a pretty epic story, and I really enjoyed seeing how it turned out.

One of the most intriguing parts of The Erasure Initiative’s story was the way that the author examines ethics and how humans view right and wrong.  The novel follows several amnesiac characters as they are forced to participate in a series of ethical dilemmas, most of which are some variation of the ‘trolley problem’.  Watching the characters react to the numerous variations of the problem and try to come up with the answer they think is right is really quite fascinating, especially when it is influenced by several additional factors, like who is involved, certain alterations in a person’s appearance and more.  All of this results in a number of thought-provoking scenarios for the characters, which is further complicated by the people not knowing who they are thanks to their amnesia.  This leads to all manner of additional fascinating examinations of self and personality as the people try to determine who they are based on the few clues or details they have been given, like attempting to work out whether the people who woke up with a certain colour shirt are law-abiding citizens or criminals.  I really liked the various reflective looks at people’s personalities, as the characters looked in on themselves or passed judgements on their fellow passengers.  The eventual reveal of the cause of the amnesia and the forced ethical examinations results in even more discussions about morals and personalities, as the characters come to terms with who they are and what choices they made in their previous lives.  All of this added an extremely compelling and interesting edge to the entire story, which certainly makes The Erasure Initiative stick out and become even more memorable.

Like most of Wilkinson’s work, The Erasure Initiative is marketed towards a young adult audience, and I can guarantee that this is the sort of book I would have really appreciated when I was a teenager.  As I have mentioned above, this book contains quite an impressive story, and one of the great things about it is that it does not talk down to its intended audience.  Indeed, Wilkinson has included some very complex and clever themes about identity, personality, decision making and ethical behaviour that I feel younger readers will really appreciate and take the time to consider.  Many of the characters and their decisions will easily resonate with a teenage audience, and this is a very worthwhile book for them to check out.  The book does contain some mature themes and content which potentially makes it a bit inappropriate for younger readers and early teens, although most of the inclusions are tastefully done and in keeping with current social norms.  This is also one of those young adult novels that is extremely accessible to older readers, and I feel that there is a lot in The Erasure Initiative for post-teen readers.

With The Erasure Initiative, amazing Australian author Lili Wilkinson has once again produced an incredible and powerful young adult fiction novel that comes highly recommended.  I loved the amazingly clever story, especially thanks to the memorable ethical elements and this is a fantastic novel for a huge range of different readers.  Wilkinson is fast becoming one of my favourite Australian authors, and I cannot wait to see what outstanding story she comes up with next.

Aurora Burning by Amie Kaufman by Jay Kristoff

Aurora Burning Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 5 May 2020)

Series: Aurora Cycle – Book Two

Length: 497 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The powerhouse writing team of Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, two of Australia’s best authors, return with the second book in their epic young adult science fiction series, the Aurora Cycle, with Aurora Burning.

Far in the future, and the universe has never been in more trouble.  A sinister new threat has emerged in the galaxy, the ancient menace known as the Ra’haam, plant-like parasites that wish to incorporate all life in the universe into their hivemind.  In order to facilitate their goals, the Ra’haam have taken over humanity’s premier intelligence organisation, the GIA, and are using them to manipulate everyone towards war.  Luckily, a squad of the intergalactic peacekeeping organisation, the Aurora Legion, is on the case, desperate to stop the Ra’haam at any cost.  Unfortunately for us, the scrappy and mismatched Squad 312 are a bunch of hormonal teenagers with some serious personal issues.

Following the tragic events that occurred on Octavia III, which saw one of their members fall, Squad 312 needs to regroup and rethink their strategy.  Already disowned by the Aurora Legion and hunted by GIA, their task becomes infinitely harder when they are framed for a terrible crime and become the most wanted beings in the galaxy.  Worse, the squad’s Syldrathi tank Kal’s long lost sister is also on their trail, determined to achieve a fatal family reunion, and she has a small army of genocidal Syldrathi warriors backing her up.

As the Squad flees from those hunting them, they attempt to work out a plan to save everyone.  Their only hope is to get their resident psychic girl out of time, Auri, to the Trigger, a powerful weapon left behind by an ancient enemy of the Ra’haam, which Auri can use to wipe the plant parasites out and save everyone else.  However, they have no idea where it is, and their only clue is the salvaged remains of the colony ship Auri was trapped on for hundreds of years.  Attempting to recover the ship’s black box, the Squad soon find themselves in a whole new world of trouble.  Can they overcome their various problems and opponents before it is too late, or is the whole universe doomed?

I actually read this book a little while ago, and while I did do a short review of it in the Canberra Weekly I have been meaning to do a longer review for a while as I did have a great time reading this book.  Aurora Burning is another fun and fast-paced novel from Kaufman and Kristoff that serves as an amazing follow up to the epic first entry in the Aurora Cycle, 2019’s Aurora Rising.  This was an absolutely fantastic book that features an amazing young adult science fiction story based around several excellent characters.  Readers are guaranteed an awesome read with Aurora Burning, and it was an absolute treat to read.

At the centre of this book is a fast-paced, action-packed, character-driven narrative that follows the adventures of a mismatched and entertaining group of protagonists as they attempt to save the universe.  The story is deeply enjoyable and very addictive, allowing readers to power through this exciting novel in a remarkably short amount of time.  The story starts off extremely strong, and readers are quickly catapulted into all the fun and excitement as the team encounter all manner of problems and obstacles that they need to overcome in their own special and chaotic way.  The plot is also extremely accessible to those people who have not had the chance to read Aurora Rising first, especially with the exceptionally detailed character synopsis and history contained at the start of the book and the succinct plot replays from the various characters.  I loved the excellent science fiction adventure story that Kaufman and Kristoff have come up with for Aurora Burning, especially as it contains a great blend of action, adventure, drama and romance, all wrapped up with the series’ unique of sense humour.  I also really liked where the story went throughout the course of the book.  The authors drop in some big twists and reveals throughout Aurora Burning which have significant impacts on the plot and ensure some rather dramatic moments in the story.  All of this proves to be extremely compelling, especially as the plot leads up to some high stakes and memorable cliff-hangers at the end of the book, with the fate of many of the characters left to chance.  This pretty much ensures that I am going to have to get the next entry in the series when it comes out next year, and if the authors keep up the amazing writing that they did in Aurora Burning, I really do not have a problem with that.

Just like in the first book, Aurora Burning’s story is told from multiple perspectives, as all of the surviving members of Squad 312 serve as point-of-view characters throughout the course of the novel.  There are currently six members of the squad, including Aurora (Auri), the physic girl who the squad rescued in the first book, Tyler the team’s Alpha (leader), Kalis (Kal) the Tank (fighter extraordinaire), Scarlett the Face (team diplomat), Finian the squad’s Gearhead (mechanic) and Zila the Science Officer.  These protagonists are an eclectic and damaged group of characters, and I liked how each of them represented different young adult fiction character archetypes.  For example, Auri is the powerful chosen one, Tyler is the charismatic leader trying to live up to his heroic father’s legacy, Kal is the broody outsider with secrets, Scarlett is the team’s voice of reason and overconfident heartbreaker, Finian is the insecure one who overcompensates with sarcasm, while Zila is the brilliant but socially awkward one.  Each of these protagonists narrates several chapters throughout the book, which allows the authors to dive into their history and feelings, showing their opinions and thoughts on the events that occur throughout the course of the book.

I personally really enjoyed each of these central characters as individuals as each of them have their own unique personalities and idiosyncrasies which the authors highlight in each character’s various point-of-view chapters.  It was interesting to see how each of them has developed since the first books, with the squad coming together as a team and working together and supporting each other, as well as how the revelations and tragedies that occurred at the end of Aurora Rising have impacted them.  Each of these protagonists have their own specific story arc in Aurora Burning, and the story sees several of the characters get separated from the rest of the group and embarking on their own adventures.  There are some really interesting developments that occur throughout the book, with some characters having more of their backstory revealed, while others have major revelations about themselves be made public.  While the focus of the book is generally split rather fairly between the members of Squad 312, Auri and Tyler did rather stand out in the first novel as the main characters.  This continues in Aurora Burning, although Kal also gets a substantial amount of focus, not only due to his romance with Auri, but because his sister is introduced as a determined antagonist, resulting in secrets from his past coming out.  This does mean that Scarlett, Finian and Zila do get a little less focus, although substantial time is spent on exploring them and their personalities, such as Zila’s previously hidden past, or certain hinted relationships or personal revelations.  These entertaining and neurotic point-of-view characters are one of the main reasons this book was such a fantastic read and I really liked where the authors took their various relationships and story arcs.  It will be really interesting to see where they end up in the third book, and I am looking forward to finding out their final fates.

As a result of where the story goes, the authors continue to explore and expand on the fun and compelling universe that Aurora Burning is set in.  There are a number of interesting new elements to this book as a result, including some great new side characters, such as Kal’s murderous family, more alien races, a dive into the history of this universe and an examination of the Ra’haam and their ancient, long-dead enemies the Eshvaren.  I rather enjoyed learning more about this universe, and I particularly liked how the authors use Aurora’s defective uniglass Magellan (think an advanced iPad with an annoying and snarky AI personality), to explore extra details.  Not only does Magellan act as a sort of seventh protagonist for the book, but he also provides in-universe information summaries at the start of several chapters, as well as providing the readers with the detailed character bios at the start of the novel.  These information summaries are rich in historical and social details about several elements of this universe, and they really help to expand on the information provided throughout the story.  Naturally, Magellan provides entries that are a little more personalised and different that a standard history or encyclopedia record would be, and it was often quite amusing to see the humorous and light-hearted changes that are added in.  Overall, the novel features some rather big and dramatic reveals about the universe and what has been happening in it, resulting in some major story moments with significant and captivating consequences.

Aurora Burning is marketed towards the young adult fiction crowd, and in many ways it is a great book for a younger audience, featuring a group of diverse teens rebelling against authority and doing things their own way.  However, due to the mild sexual content, which includes quite a bit of innuendo, this is probably best suited to older teenagers who will no doubt enjoy the exciting narrative and dynamic characters.  Like many young adult fiction novels, Aurora Burning is also quite a good book for older readers who are interested in the story.  Indeed, this is one of the easiest young adult fiction novels for adult readers to get into, as the story is quite well written and exceedingly entertaining.  As result, this second book in the Aurora Cycle is a great read to check and I think that it will appeal to a wide and diverse audience of readers.

I have to say that I had an incredible time reading Aurora Burning and it turned out to be quite an excellent read.  Kaufman and Kristoff do an outstanding job of continuing the fun and action packed narrative that started in Aurora Rising and I loved the blend of fast-paced storytelling, universe building, humour, all told through the eyes of six distinctive and fantastic point-of-view characters.  This book comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to see how these awesome Australian authors finish off this series next year.

Star Wars: Queen’s Peril by E. K. Johnston

Queen's Peril Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 2 June 2020)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 6 hours and 10 minutes

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive back into a galaxy far, far away, as bestselling young adult author E. K. Johnston presents the very first Star Wars novel of 2020, Star Wars: Queen’s Peril.

Padmé Naberrie has always wanted to serve the people of her home planet of Naboo, and she knows that the best way to do that is to become Queen. Entering the competitive election, the 14-year-old politician is elected as ruler of Naboo. Casting aside her real identity for the protection of herself and her family, Padmé takes on a new name, Amidala, and moves into the royal palace, determined to bring change to Naboo. However, even a ruler as brilliant and diplomatic as Padmé is unable to do everything by herself, and she finds out that she is going to need help.

In order to keep her safe and to assist her with her needs, Padmé is introduced to a group of talented young women who will serve as her handmaidens. Acting as her assistants, confidantes, bodyguards and decoys, each of her handmaidens brings something different to the group, and it is up to Padmé to turn them into an effective team. Together, Padmé and her new friends seem capable of dealing with any challenge that may impact them.

However, there is a dark plot at work within the Republic, and its mastermind has Naboo in their sights. Soon Naboo is invaded by the armies of the Trade Federation, who seek to capture Queen Amidala and force her to sign away the planet. Forced to flee in disguise, Padmé sets out to reclaim her home and will do anything to free her planet. While Jedi, soldiers and a young chosen one may rally to their cause, the fate of Naboo ultimately rests on the shoulders of a young queen and her loyal handmaidens.

Queen’s Peril is an intriguing and enjoyable new addition to the Star Wars canon from bestselling author E. K. Johnston. I have been rather enjoying some of Johnston’s recent Star Wars releases, and I had a fun time reading her 2016 novel, Ahsoka, as well as last year’s fantastic release, Queen’s Shadow. Queen’s Peril is the first of several Star Wars books being released in 2020 (although some have been delayed), and I have been looking forward to seeing how this book turns out. This new novel acts as a prequel to Queen’s Shadow and is set both before and during the events of the first Star Wars prequel film, The Phantom Menace. This ended up being a fun and interesting read that explores some unique parts of Star Wars lore.

This latest Star Wars novel contains an intriguing tale that starts from the moment that Padmé is elected queen and takes on the Amidala persona. The first two thirds of this book follow the early days of Amidala’s reign, introducing Padmé and her handmaidens and showing how they became such a tight-knit team. There are a number of great moments during this first part of the story, and it was interesting to see the origin of a number of elements of the Amidala character that are shown in The Phantom Menace, such as her voice, the establishment of the decoy system, and a huge range of other compelling features. There are also several scenes that are dedicated to exploring why the Trade Federation decided to target Naboo and what the origins of their conflict were. I really enjoyed the first two thirds of this book, and I feel that the final third kind of let it down a little. The last part of the book focuses on the invasion of Naboo and follows the events of The Phantom Menace. While it was cool to see some different perspectives on the events of the film, this part of the book felt rather rushed, as the narrative jumped between a number of sequences from the movie in rather quick succession. Despite the problems with the ending, this was still a rather compelling story, and I did enjoy Johnston’s additions to the Star Wars universe.

While on the surface this book appears to be purely about Padmé, Queen’s Peril is actually about a number of different characters who made Padmé’s role as Queen Amidala possible. Padmé is naturally one of the main characters of the book, but all five of her handmaidens are just as important to the story. Johnston previously introduced each of these handmaidens in Queen’s Shadow, and briefly explored their unique skills and what they brought to the group. She does this again in Queen’s Peril, although this is done in greater detail, as this book shows each character’s history and how each of them became a handmaiden. Each of the handmaidens is given a distinctive personality, and all five get a number of scenes told from their point-of-view. I really enjoyed learning more about these characters, and it was great to see them come together as a group and work towards ensuring that Padmé was protected and an effective queen. While each of the characters are explored in some detailed, the biggest focus is on Sabé, Padmé’s first handmaiden and her main decoy (played by Keira Knightly in the film). The author spends time showing the unique relationship between Sabé and Padmé, and it was captivating to see the trust between them grow. Because she was so heavily focused on in the movie, Padmé does not get a lot of scenes in the last third of the book, so quite a bit this part of the story is told from the perspective of all the handmaidens. It was rather interesting to see how each of these characters went during the course of the film, and it was particularly cool to see some scenes with Sabé as she pretended to be the Queen.

In addition to Padmé and her handmaidens, Queen’s Peril also featured point-of-view chapters or scenes from pretty much all the key characters from The Phantom Menace film. The use of all these extra characters was an interesting choice from Johnston, and I liked how it expanded the story and showed some fresh perspectives and backstory for several major Star Wars protagonists. Most of these appearances are rather brief, with characters like Anakin, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn only getting a few minor scenes. However, other characters do get some extended sequences, especially Captain Panaka, the head of Amidala’s palace guards. Several chapters are told from Panaka’s perspective, and he becomes quite a key character within the book, mainly because he is the person who finds and recruits all of the handmaidens. Panaka is a major driving force of the plot, and it was interesting to see his role expanded from the films, especially as you get more insight into why he is so dedicated to the Queen. I also really liked how the book features several sequences told from the perspective of Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious. These scenes were fun, as they showed a lot of Palpatine’s earliest manipulations, including how he was able to organise the invasion of Naboo. Overall, I rather appreciated how the author utilised all the characters within Queen’s Peril, and watching their development and interactions proved to be quite compelling.

Like the author’s other Star Wars novels, Queen’s Peril is intended for a young adult audience, and Johnston does a fantastic job tailoring it towards younger readers. This book has a lot of great young adult moments to it, especially as it focuses on a group of teen girls working together to outsmart a variety of adults and then eventually save their entire planet from an invasion. Queen’s Peril has some fantastic portrayals of these teen protagonists, and there are a number of sequences which show them stepping up or dealing with complicated issues that younger female readers will appreciate. While it is intended for younger readers, Queen’s Peril, like most young adult Star Wars novels, is also very accessible to all readers who are major fans of the franchise, and it is easy for older readers to get into and enjoy the plot of the book and its intriguing new additions to the Star Wars lore.

I did have a minor complaint about the release order of the books in Johnston’s series about Padmé. While I enjoyed both Queen’s Peril and Queen’s Shadow, I really do think that it was an odd decision to release Queen’s Shadow first, and then release a prequel novel a year later. It would have been better to release Queen’s Peril first to introduce the various handmaidens and help build up the emotional connection between them and Padmé, making their use and inclusion in Queen’s Shadow a bit more impactful. It might also have made a bit more sense to have Queen’s Peril only focus on events before The Phantom Menace, have another book focus exclusively on what was happening with the handmaidens and Padmé during the course of the film (which would have ensured that Queen’s Peril did not feel as rushed as it did towards the end), and then release Queen’s Shadow. While I am sure that there is some reason why the order for these books was a bit off, probably at the publisher level, I think they could have planned this out a little better.

I ended up grabbing the audiobook version of Queen’s Peril, and I had a great time listening to this book. Queen’s Peril has a short run time of just over six hours, so it is rather easy to get through this book quickly. Like all Star Wars audiobooks, this version of Queen’s Peril was a real auditory treat, due to the excellent use of the iconic Star Wars sound effects and scores from the movies, which are used to enhance each of the scenes. While it was great to once again hear all the fantastic music and intriguing background noises, Queen’s Peril’s greatest strength as an audiobook comes from its fantastic narrator, Catherine Taber. Taber is the actress who voiced Padmé in The Clones Wars animated television show, and, short of getting Natalie Portman in, is the perfect person to narrate a novel about the character. Taber also narrated the previous Johnston book about Padmé, Queen’s Shadow (indeed all of Johnston’s Star Wars books have featured the character’s voice actor as a narrator for their audiobook), and it was great to see her return. She naturally does a perfect voice for the character of Padmé, as well as for the handmaidens, who had similar speaking patterns due to their role as decoys. There are some great vocal scenes between these characters, especially when they are trying to perfect the Amidala voice, and they go through several variations throughout the book. In addition, because Queen’s Peril features nearly every major character from The Phantom Menace, Taber also had to voice several different people who were brought to life by some amazing actors in the original film. I felt that Taber did a fantastic job as imitating some of these voices, and it proved to be a real showcase for her skills as a voice actor. Overall, I had an amazing time listening to this audiobook, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out Queen’s Peril.

Star Wars: Queen’s Peril is an intriguing and exciting new young adult Star Wars release from E. K. Johnson that acts as a sequel to her previous awesome novel, Queen’s Shadow. Johnston comes up with another compelling story that explores the early life of Padmé/Queen Amidala and her loyal handmaidens. While it does have some flaws, it is a very good book, and it should prove to be a fun read for established fans of the franchise and younger readers who are interested in breaking into the expanded universe. I had an amazing time listening to this book and I look forward to seeing what sort of Star Wars story Johnston produces next.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Cover

Publisher: Scholastic Audio (Audiobook – 19 May 2020)

Series: The Hunger Games – Book 0

Length: 16 hours and 16 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It is time to return to Panem as bestselling young adult fiction author Suzanne Collins presents the thrilling prequel to her acclaimed The Hunger Games series, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

It has been 10 years since the third and final book in The Hunger Games trilogy was published. Since then the series has gone from strength the strength, thanks to the four films that converted these books into an ultra-popular franchise. Like many, I jumped onto The Hunger Games bandwagon after the first film was released, and I ended up listening to all three of the novels in quick succession. This of course turned me into a pretty major fan of the franchise, and I eagerly watched the next three films as they were released. As a result, I was extremely intrigued when I heard that Collins was writing a prequel novel, and I have been looking forward to it for some time. I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes right after its release, and it proved to be an extremely interesting book that I rather enjoyed.

It has only been a decade since the Capitol won the war that ravished Panem, defeating the Districts and forcing them back under Capitol control. As punishment for their crimes, every year two children from each of the 12 surviving Districts are forced to compete in the Hunger Games, a brutal fight to the death from which there is only one survivor. While many in both the Capitol and the Districts view the Games as distasteful, for one young man it represents an invaluable opportunity.

Coriolanus Snow is a young academy student whose family has fallen on hard times after the war. Coriolanus’s one chance to get into the Capitol university and have a chance at wealth and prestige is to successfully mentor one of the tributes in the annual Hunger Games and ensure that they win. The odds seem to be against him when he is given the female tribute from District 12, generally considered the lowest tribute with the worst odds of surviving. However, when his tribute, the wild and alluring Lucy Gray Baird, sings on stage at the reaping, Coriolanus’s hopes rise, as her antics capture the attention of everyone in the Capitol. Determined to succeed no matter the cost, Coriolanus soon finds his fate entwined with that of Lucy Gray. But as he gets closer and closer with his tribute, just how far is Coriolanus willing to go, and how will his decisions now affect the future of Panem forever?

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a captivating and entertaining read that serves as a fascinating prequel to the original Hunger Games novels. Collins comes up with a fantastic, character-driven story that focuses on the main antagonist of the first trilogy, President Snow, while also diving back into the past of her unique dystopian future, showing the early days of the Hunger Games. I have to admit that I had rather high expectations going into this novel, and I ended up being a little disappointed at times with how it turned out. This was a rather less exciting read than the previous Hunger Games books, as Collins spends a lot of time exploring society, human nature and the psyche of the villainous protagonist. It was also way too long, and I think it could have been shortened down a little. Despite probably being my least favourite Hunger Games novel so far, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is still a really good book that I had an amazing time listening to it.

This book contains an intriguing plot that follows the protagonist as he becomes involved in the events of the 10th annual Hunger Games. The story is broken up into three distinctive parts, each of which takes up about a third of the book’s narrative. The first part deals with the lead-up to the Hunger Games, the second part follows the actual Hunger Games as Snow watches from the outside, while the last third of the book details the aftermath of the games, and features a new adventure for the protagonist. Each of these three parts proved to be enjoyable in their own right, and together they formed a rather compelling overall narrative. I was a little surprised that the actual Hunger Games ended about two-thirds of the way into the story. When the novel suddenly jumped to a post-Hunger Games storyline with third of the book still to go, I honestly thought that Collins had made a mistake, and would have been better off portraying an extended Hunger Games. However, this third part served as a rather good conclusion to the entire novel, and I actually really liked some of the major plot elements that occurred there, especially as they were the most transformative part of the novel for the main character. There are a lot of cool moments within this story, as well as a bevy of supporting characters, many of whom Collins is able to give a bit of depth to with a few short paragraphs. I actually really enjoyed where this story went, and while I did envision it going in a different direction, I think that Collins did a good job with it in the end.

One of the key things about The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is that it serves as an origin story for President Snow, the main antagonist of the original Hunger Games trilogy. It features an 18-year-old Snow as the main character and is told completely from his perspective. I understand that quite a few people were not exactly thrilled that President Snow was the focus of this novel, and many did not want to see a book that followed a young version of him. While I can understand their feelings about this, I personally enjoyed seeing something that focused on Snow and his early history. I have read and enjoyed many stories in the past that focus on a villain, or which features them as a major protagonist, and it can often be quite fun to see their perspectives and motivations. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a good example of this, and I found it fascinating to see a younger Snow and watch his involvement in his first Hunger Games.

Collins has an interesting take on the character of the young President Snow, and presents the reader with some key moments from his life, as well as some of the people who helped shape him into the villain we know in the later books. The author spends time exploring elements of his childhood, such as showing how he suffered during the war, not only losing both his parents, but also nearly dying from starvation as the Districts besieged the Capitol. There are also some intriguing examinations of his family, such as the grandmother who gifted him his love of roses, and the revelation that the character of Tigress, who appeared in the third book (fourth movie), is actually Snow’s cousin and closest living relative. However, despite these more humanising elements, Snow is shown to be a truly irredeemable person even before the transformative events of the novel. From the very start of the book, Collins portrays him as a manipulative and conceited individual, constantly sucking up to people in order to get what he wants, resentful of those around him who have more than he does and concerned most of all with status. While there are some intriguing nature versus nurture elements to his early behaviours, Snow is shown to be just an unpleasant person. This of course makes him a hard protagonist to get behind for this book, and for most of the story you really were not rooting for him to succeed. Despite this, I found his story to be rather compelling and I enjoyed seeing this mostly amoral teenager attempt to succeed, while presenting the reader with various, weak or selfish justifications for his actions in his mind.

While he is already a pretty despicable person, it is the events of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes that truly turn him into the cutthroat person that takes control of the Capitol in the future. Thanks to a combination of his experiences and some perceived betrayals (which are always worse from his point of view), as well as the mentorship of the Capitol’s sadistic head gamemaker, Doctor Gaul, Snow becomes much more ruthless and ambitious, and some of his actions towards the end of the book show just how evil he has become. It was also cool to see him embrace the philosophy around the Hunger Games, as well as developing a hatred of District 12 and certain other symbols and songs, all of which the character would carry with him to the main trilogy 60 years in the future. All of this analysis of Snow’s character formed a captivating heart to the story, and I liked the more villain-centric novel, even if this great antagonist did come across as a winy child at times. I will be intrigued to see more of the events that influenced Snow in the future, although I can appreciate that many others would prefer stories based around Collins’s protagonists.

The other major character that I have to discuss is Snow’s tribute from District 12, Lucy Gray Baird. Lucy Gray is an entertaining and likeable character who steps off the page right at the moment of her introduction and sticks in the mind. Lucy Gray is a very different tribute to that of Katniss from the main trilogy, being a singer and rebellious entertainer who effortlessly makes everyone fall in love with her, and who relies on cunning and underhanded tactics to survive rather than martial prowess. She also serenades both the reader and the other characters with a variety of different songs, and I quite enjoyed seeing several of the musical numbers she came up with, especially as you find out the origins of one of the musical pieces that appear in the original trilogy. Lucy Gray is the character who the reader is most drawn to, and you find yourself even hoping that Snow succeeds, as this will ensure Lucy Gray’s survival. Snow and Lucy Gray end up having a bit of an awkward romance, which on the surface seems nice, although you only see it from Snow’s point of view, and he becomes rather possessive of her in his own mind. I would have been interested to see Lucy Gray’s thoughts on Snow, as it could have really changed the whole dynamic of their relationship. Overall, though, Lucy Gray is a great new character, and the way her arc in this book ends really helps drive home how terrible Snow can be.

The thing that I think most people, especially established fans of The Hunger Games novels, will enjoy about this prequel novel is the substantial world building that Collins does. The author does an outstanding job showing off an early version of Panem, which is still recovering from the impacts of the war, and where control over the Districts is not yet complete. This is a rather different Capitol to what you see in the other The Hunger Games books, as there are no elaborate costumes, outrageous styles, strange cosmetic surgery or excessive luxuries. Instead it is a far more subdued Capitol, with less food, traumatised people and rubble still in the streets. This made for a curious contrast to what we see in the future books, and it was interesting to see the differences and similarities. There are also some exciting flashbacks to the war itself from the memory of Snow, and it was cool to learn a little more about that. Naturally, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes contains a lot of foreshadowing to the events of the original Hunger Games trilogy, and fans will enjoy seeing historical views of certain key events, locations and people.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this world building is the author’s exploration of the early Hunger Games and how they took place. These Games are very different to the elaborate affairs shown in the original trilogy. Up until this point the Hunger Games are rather basic, with the tributes simply thrown into an abandoned sports arena with a bunch of weapons. There are some great comparisons between these more basic games and the games that we are more familiar with, such as the way that the tributes are treated, as rather than the luxurious train with all the fancy food that Katniss and Peeta travelled in, the tributes for these Hunger Games arrive starved and injured in a livestock train. This is also the games where they start to experiment with some of the elements that are recognisable from the main games, such as having a mentor, brief interviews with a Flickerman (in this case, Lucky Flickerman, the local news weatherman and amateur magician), gambling and sponsors. It was really cool to see the origins of these ideas, and why they were implemented, and it makes for a truly fascinating addition to the book. Collins also really dives into the philosophy behind the Games, and why the leaders of the Capitol were so eager for them to succeed and why they believed that they helped control the Districts. The origin of the Games is also revealed, as well as some of the key players, and I think it served as an invaluable piece of this universe’s lore. I quite liked learning more about the early days of the Hunger Games, and I imagine that a lot of readers will love to find out how such a terrible event came to pass.

The actual Hunger Games that took place in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was a shorter and more barebones affair than what we have seen before. The tributes are fighting in an actual sporting arena, rather than a terraformed zone, and most of them spend the time hiding in the tunnels. Due to the fact that we are seeing it from Snow’s point of view, and because the arena only has a couple of cameras that only cover a fraction of the area, there are a lot of periods of inactivity and blank time, where the reader has no idea what is going on. This made for a much more disrupted experience, and while it was interesting to see the games unfold from the outside (something we saw a little bit of in the movie, but not in the books), it was nowhere as exciting as it could have been. That being said, there are still some really cool moments of child murder, and I did like seeing the mentor’s role in winning the games. The way in which the games came to an end was also rather clever, and it played into the events occurring outside with Snow. While it could have been longer, more exciting and perhaps more intense, this was still a fun part of the novel, and I look forward to seeing more fights to the death in any future Hunger Games novels Collins writes.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes rather than grab a physical copy, and I am rather glad that I did, as it proved to be a great way to enjoy this book. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes audiobook is narrated by Santino Fontana and has a run time of just over 16 hours. This was a rather extensive run time for a Hunger Games novel; it was around five hours longer than any of the previous audiobooks in the series. That being said, I was able to get through this audiobook in a rather short period of time, and I found myself really engaged by this format, as it helped explore all the elements of this earlier version of Panem. Santino Fontana proved to be a very good narrator for this novel and he does an excellent job bringing the book’s large host of characters to life. The various voices he does fit the characters rather well, and I thought that his narration helped to highlight how horrible Snow could be at times. I also liked how Fontana’s narration worked with the multiple songs that Collins featured throughout the novel, and his spoken version of them sounded rather cool. As a result, I would definitely recommend the audiobook version of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes to people interested in checking this book out, as it was a wonderful format to enjoy this great story with.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was a curious and unique new addition to The Hunger Games franchise, which I thought turned out to be a rather good read. Collins ended up writing an intriguing, character-based narrative that showed a new side to the main antagonist of her original trilogy. While this book is not without its flaws, I had a wonderful time reading it, and once I got into its plot I had a hard time putting it down. Ideal for those fans of the previous Hunger Games novel, this book should make for an interesting movie in the future, and I am planning to grab any future novels from Collins set in this universe.

Ember Queen by Laura Sebastian

Ember Queen Cover

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback – 11 February 2020)

Series: Ash Princess – Book Three

Length: 465 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Young adult fantasy fiction author Laura Sebastian brings her debut series to a close in a big way with Ember Queen, the excellent and exciting conclusion to the Ash Princess trilogy.

Years ago, when the vicious Kalovaxians invaded the island of Astrea, they killed their queen, enslaved the Astrean people and stole their sacred magical gems. Princess Theodosia, heir the Astrean throne, was imprisoned and spent over 10 years as a captive of the Kalovaxian Kaiser, belittled by the mocking title of “Ash Princess”. However, this imprisonment didn’t break Theo; instead, with the help of her friends, she was able to escape to forge her own destiny. Now Theo has returned to Astrea, leading an army made up of freed Astreans, pirates, refugees and forces from the other nations the Kalovaxians have ruined. Hoping to free her people, Theo and her friends believe that they finally have the advantage over the Kalovaxians. However, the sins of Theo’s past have come back to haunt her.

Cress is a young Kalovaxian noblewoman who claimed Theo as her best friend during Theo’s imprisonment, despite being the daughter of the man who killed Theo’s mother. Theo chose to poison Cress and her father when she made her escape, and while she succeeded in killing Cress’s father, the magical poison she used had unexpected side effects on Cress. Despite being burned and mutilated, Cress survived, with the fire-imbued poison granting her powerful and deadly magical abilities. Using these to her advantage, Cress has done the unthinkable, killing the Kalovaxian Kaiser, poisoning Theo and claiming power over Astrea as the Kaiserin.

Barely surviving her own poisoning after a sojourn down into the magical Fire Mine, Theo must now find a way to free Astrea from her former best friend. With her own fire magic greatly increased, Theo plots to take the fight straight to the Kalovaxians. However, Cress has her own plans, and whole of Astrea may burn in order for her to get her revenge. Who will rise as the Ember Queen, and will the winner have anything left to rule?

Wow, talk about an impressive end to a great trilogy. Ember Queen is an amazing book from Laura Sebastian, who over the last couple of years has done an excellent job establishing herself as one of the best new young adult fantasy fiction authors. This is the third and final book in Sebastian’s debut Ash Princess trilogy, and this is definitely another superb addition to this fun series. I have been enjoying this trilogy since the beginning, reading Ash Princess in 2018 and Lady Smoke in 2019, both of which are pretty fantastic novels. Ember Queen turned out to be an excellent conclusion to this entire trilogy, and I had a great time reading it.

Sebastian has pulled together an excellent story for the final volume of the Ash Princess series, and I really liked the way in which she wrapped up the entire trilogy. After the first two novels dealt with the oppression of Astrea by the Kalovaxians, we finally get to see Theo’s big attempt to free her country from the invaders. I loved the way that Sebastian changed the theme of each novel, with the first novel relying on espionage, the second on diplomacy, and this third book on war. Sebastian produced a compelling narrative around this battle for the control of Astrea, and I really liked some of the directions that the story went into, especially when some intriguing new fantasy elements were introduced by the antagonist. Overall, I was really impressed with how Ember Queen turned out, especially as Sebastian used it to expertly conclude this awesome trilogy.

One of the main strengths of the Ash Princess trilogy has always been its great characters, who evolve throughout the course of the books. This is particularly true for Ember Queen, as Sebastian wraps up many of the character threads that have been introduced in the previous books, resulting in some excellent character devolvement as well as some satisfying conclusions for many character arcs. The main example of this is the series protagonist and point-of-view character, Princess Theodosia (Theo). Throughout the course of the first two books, Theo has grown substantially as a character, from a meek and seemingly broken prisoner to a cunning spy and manipulator, to a canny diplomat to finally an effective military commander. We finally get to see Theo take up the reins of leadership and responsibility that she has been somewhat apprehensive of in the previous books, as she starts making the hard decisions needed to ensure the freedom of her people. I really liked seeing all this character growth from the protagonist and I also appreciated the fact that Sebastian had Theo look back and own many of her prior mistakes and decisions that she regretted. Overall, I thought that Sebastian did an amazing job portraying Theo’s entire arc, and I think that she concluded her story in an impressive and enjoyable manner.

Sebastian has also produced some great conclusions to the arcs of the various side characters that were featured within this trilogy. For example, Soren has an intriguing story during Ember Queen, as he finds himself once again caught between the woman he loves and supports, Theo, and his people, the Kalovaxians. Like Theo does with the Astreans, Soren must come to a decision about his role as a leader of the Kalovaxians, and I think that his story and romance with Theo came together quite well. Blaise, Theo’s childhood friend and secondary love interest, also has an excellent arc within this book, finally getting some closure over his relationship with Theo, as well as the conclusion to his mine-madness arc. Several of the other supporting characters get some great advancement within this book as well. Artemisia, Erik and Heron all have their individual tales expanded on, and it’s great to see how comfortable and close they, Theo, Soren and Blaise have come together as a group. I particularly liked the way that Theo has gotten closer to Artemisia, her tough-as-nails cousin and bodyguard, and I had a good laugh at the way that Art allowed Theo a one-off session of girl talk as a way of calming her down before the final battle. New character Maile is an interesting addition to the series, and while she initially comes across as rather abrasive, she eventually becomes part of the group, resulting in a significant revelation for one of the characters.

The main thing that really made Ember Queen stand out to me was the complex relationship between the protagonist of the book, Theo, and the antagonist, Cress. This has always been a rather interesting relationship, as within the first book Theo and Cress were, in theory, best friends, referring to the other as their heart’s sister, even if Cress was actually rather controlling and manipulative. Theo eventually allowed Cress and her father to be poisoned at the end of the first book, and Cress now holds a heavy grudge against Theo for her betrayal. She has also evolved as a character since this first book, morphing into a much more confident woman who has taken control of her people in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of Theo’s growth as a leader. However, this is where some of the similarities end, as Cress is now a bit of a black mirror to Theo, as she is cruel, ruthless, determined to win whatever the cost and has no compunction about killing innocents. Despite all this, Theo is still drawn to her old friend, and the two of them have a compelling emotional bond (as well as an actual magical bond) throughout this novel. Theo feels guilty for the way that she betrayed and poisoned Cress, and she has a bit of a hard time seeing the evil person that she has become, and is more inclined to consider mercy than her friends would like. Cress, on the other hand, acts as ruthlessly as possible towards Theo and her friends, and is actually an extremely convincing antagonist for this book. Despite her actions, the reader gets to see that Cress is still deeply concerned with what Theo thinks about her and her plans, and there are still hints of a connection. However, her sense of betrayal, anger and determination to keep her newfound power always start to overwhelm any connection she feels to her old friend, and this leads to some devastating and heart-breaking confrontations. This whole dynamic between protagonist and antagonist is a really amazing part of Ember Queen, and adds significantly to the overall quality of the story.

I have always appreciated the magical system that Sebastian has featured in her Ash Princess books. This magic is elemental in nature, based around fire, earth, water or air (similar to the magic in Avatar: The Last Airbender, with a few key differences), and is exclusive to the Astreans, due to the presence of the magical mines located on their island. This magic has been a bit of an understated affair in the previous books, as the plots of those novels focused on espionage and diplomacy and required smaller, more subtle displays of magic. However, in Ember Queen, the Astreans are now at war, and so the magical gloves are off. This book is filled with a number of great examples of just how powerful or effective Astrean magic can be and it is a really cool addition to the series. Seeing the formerly enslaved or dispossessed Astreans unleash their power against their oppressors is a little cathartic, and it certainly makes for some great, if devastating, scenes. Sebastian also does some intriguing morphing of her magical system when it comes to Theo, Cress and some other characters, and this results in a rather interesting plot line that I liked.

Like the rest of the books in this series, Ember Queen is a rather good piece of young adult fiction. Sebastian has created an amazing story that features a group of young people growing as characters and sacrificing everything for freedom, friendship and justice. This a great book for younger readers, and while there is plenty of violence, war and fighting, there is nothing too graphic or over-the-top that makes it inappropriate for younger readers. I personally really appreciated Sebastian’s excellent portrayal of several LGBT+ characters within this book, especially as two of these characters had one of the best romantic relationships in the entire series. Despite being angled towards younger readers, Ember Queen is one of those books that can be enjoyed by a wider audience of people. There is definitely something for everyone in this book and it is really worth checking out.

Ember Queen by Laura Sebastian is a wonderful novel that not only contains a captivating story, but which also does an awesome job concluding the author’s debut trilogy. In this final book in the Ash Princess trilogy, Sebastian presents a desperate battle for freedom, complete with intriguing magical elements, excellent characters, complex interactions between the protagonist and antagonist and a fantastic story. All of this comes together in a first-rate read, which is a great conclusion to this series. I note that Sebastian has her next body of work already planned out, with the first book in her upcoming young adult fantasy series, Constellation of Chaos, set for release next year. This new book has an interesting plot synopsis out already and I am planning to grab this book when it comes out. Until then, Ember Queen is an excellent book from Sebastian and it is really worth seeing how this fantastic trilogy ends.

Waiting on Wednesday – Aurora Burning, TRUEL1F3 and Empire of the Vampire

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings. Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them. For this Waiting on Wednesday, I check out three intriguing books coming out later this year which have all been authored by Australian author Jay Kristoff.

Kristoff is a bestselling science fiction and fantasy author who is currently one of the top writers of young adult fiction in the world today. Kristoff has been absolutely dominating the young adult market ever since his debut in 2012, Stormdancer, the first book in The Lotus War series. Since then he has gone one to produce a number of impressive books, including his highly regarded The Nevernight Chronicle, which concluded last year, and The Illuminae Files, which he co-authored with fellow Australian Amie Kaufman. Kristoff is an impressively prolific writer who has the ability to produce a number of excellent books each year. In 2019 alone he produced three separate novels, Aurora Rising, DEV1At3 and Darkdawn, all of which were entries in three different series. I actually only became familiar with Kristoff’s work last year when I ended up reading two of his three 2019 releases, both of which really impressed me with their inventive, fast-paced stories that were loaded with cool science fiction elements and enjoyable humour. As a result, I fully intend to read all three of these upcoming books and thought it would be interesting to examine all three of them in this one Waiting on Wednesday post.

Aurora Burning Cover

The first one of Kristoff’s books to be released is the young adult fiction novel, Aurora Burning. Aurora Burning is the sequel to 2019’s Aurora Rising and is also the second book in The Aurora Cycle, which he is again co-writing with Amie Kaufman. Aurora Rising, which is set in the far future, followed a mismatched crew of youths who are members of an interstellar peacekeeping group. Their first mission sees them forced to go rogue and investigate the hidden secrets of a mysterious girl, Aurora, who they rescued from stasis aboard an ancient transport ship. This turned into a fantastic and action-packed thrill ride that I really enjoyed, and I ended up giving it a full five stars when I reviewed it. As a result, I am really keen to check out the sequel, especially as Kristoff and Kaufman are going to continue a number of the fun story threads from the first book. Aurora Burning is currently set for release 28 April 2020 and I have high hopes that it will be just as much fun as the first entry in this series.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Our heroes are back… kind of. From the bestselling co-authors of the Illuminae Files comes the second book in the epic series about a squad of misfits, losers, and discipline cases who just might be the galaxy’s best hope for survival.

First, the bad news: an ancient evil—you know, your standard consume-all-life-in-the-galaxy deal—is about to be unleashed. The good news? Squad 312 is standing by to save the day. They’ve just got to take care of a few small distractions first.

Like the clan of gremps who’d like to rearrange their favorite faces.

And the cadre of illegit GIA agents with creepy flowers where their eyes used to be, who’ll stop at nothing to get their hands on Auri.

Then there’s Kal’s long-lost sister, who’s not exactly happy to see her baby brother, and has a Syldrathi army at her back. With half the known galaxy on their tails, Squad 312 has never felt so wanted.

When they learn the Hadfield has been found, it’s time to come out of hiding. Two centuries ago, the colony ship vanished, leaving Auri as its sole survivor. Now, its black box might be what saves them. But time is short, and if Auri can’t learn to master her powers as a Trigger, the squad and all their admirers are going to be deader than the Great Ultrasaur of Abraaxis IV.

Shocking revelations, bank heists, mysterious gifts, inappropriately tight bodysuits, and an epic firefight will determine the fate of the Aurora Legion’s most unforgettable heroes—and maybe the rest of the galaxy as well.

TRUEL1F3 Cover

The second book of Kristoff’s that is being released this year is another young adult novel, TRUEL1F3, the third and final book in his LIFEL1K3 series. This series is set in the post-apocalyptic America and follows a cyborg, a mutant, a robot and a seemingly normal girl as they find themselves contending with warring mega-corporations, violent fanatics and vengeful murderous cyborgs. The LIFEL1K3 books started in 2018 with LIFEL1K3, which was one of the most popular young adult novels of the year and it was quickly followed up with a second book DEV1AT3 in 2019. TRUEL1F3, which is going to be released on 30 June 2020, follows on from a massive cliff hanger at the end of DEV1AT3 and is set to conclude this epic series with a bang. This book has a really exciting sounding plot synopsis as well as a truly excellent cover, and I am very curious to see how this amazing series ends.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Best friends have become enemies.

Lovers have become strangers.

And deciding whose side you’re on could be the difference between life and death.

For Eve and Lemon, discovering the truth about themselves–and each other–was too much for their friendship to take. But with the country on the brink of a new world war – this time between the BioMaas swarm at CityHive and Daedalus’s army at Megopolis, loyalties will be pushed to the brink, unlikely alliances will form and with them, betrayals.

But the threat doesn’t stop there, because the lifelikes are determined to access the program that will set every robot free, a task requiring both Eve and Ana, the girl she was created to replace.

In the end, violent clashes and heartbreaking choices reveal the true heroes…and they may not be who you think they are.

Empire of the Vampire precover

The final book that I am going to feature in this article is Empire of the Vampire, Kristoff’s first non-young adult fiction novel. It features a rather cool story set on a world where the sun failed to rise, which lead to humanity being conquered by the emerging vampire legion. I really like sound of this novel, and I have a strong feeling that it is going to be an epic and amazing book. I actually just featured Empire of the Vampire on my Top Ten Books I Predict Will be 5 Star Reads list, and I truly believe that based on its awesome sounding plot, this book has the potential to be a perfect five star novel. I am a tad uncertain when this book is going to be released, as I have seen release dates for both September 2020 and September 2021. However, no matter when it is released, I am really looking forward to checking it out.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Twenty-four years have passed since the last sunrise, and for almost three decades, the creatures of the night have walked the day without fear. Once, humanity fought bravely against the coldblood legions, but now, we exist only in a few scattered settlements—tiny sparks of light in a growing sea of darkness.

Gabriel de León is the last of the Silversaints, a holy order dedicated to defending realm and church, now utterly destroyed. Imprisoned for the murder of the vampiric king, Gabriel is charged with telling the story of his life.

His tale spans years, from his youth in the monastery of San Michon, to the forbidden love that spelled his undoing, and the betrayal that saw his order annihilated. Most importantly, Gabriel will tell the story of the Grail—the legendary cup prophesied to bring an end to the eternal night, whose location is known to a single person: A smart-mouthed teenage urchin named Dior.

Their journey with a band of unlikely allies would see Dior and Gabriel forge an unbreakable bond, and set the broken paragon on a road to redemption.

But now, the Grail is shattered. And with the cup of the Redeemer destroyed and the last Silversaint awaiting execution, what can bring an end to this undying empire?

As you can from the above, 2020 is going to be an amazing year for fans of Jay Kristoff. I am very excited for all three of these upcoming novels, especially as I know I am going to love each and every one of them.

Guest Review: The Fowl Twins by Eoin Colfer

For this entry, my lovely and talented editor Alex steps out of the shadows once again (after previously reviewing Pan’s Labyrinth) and provides us with a guest review of a book she recently picked up.

The Fowl Twins Cover.jpg

Publisher: Harper Collins (Trade Paperback – 5 November 2019)

Series: The Fowl Twins – Book One

Length: 432 pages

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Unseen Library occasionally raises the topic of auto-buy authors, and Eoin Colfer is one of mine. I’m already hyped for Highfire, so you can imagine my excitement when I happened upon a display of The Fowl Twins in a department store the other day. I didn’t even break my stride or pause to read the back cover; as soon as I saw the words “Colfer” and “Fowl” I picked up a copy and had started reading it before I reached the checkout queue. The eight Artemis Fowl books followed the eponymous juvenile criminal mastermind and his many run-ins with the People, the secret civilisation of magical beings living deep underground. The series ran from 2001 to 2012 and was one of my favourites growing up, so I was absolutely thrilled to discover that Colfer is now continuing the saga.

The Fowl Twins picks up the story several years after Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian, the final book in the original series. Artemis himself gets a rest; this story follows his younger brothers, Myles and Beckett. Myles is undoubtedly cut from the same cloth as Artemis and their father, with a talent for the sciences, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a penchant for fashionable suits and cutting insults. Beckett is more interested in active pursuits and making friends with wildlife, but he shares the same cunning and passionate loyalty that Fowls are famous for. The twins were only toddlers in Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian and have no memory of the People, and it appears that their lives have been relatively quiet since those events. But in the Fowl world quiet never lasts for long, and when a rare troll surfaces on the family estate the twins suddenly find themselves in the midst of a cat-and-mouse game with an LEP specialist, an immortal duke and a knife-wielding nun.

Given that this is the ninth book set in the Fowl universe, the story is built upon a great deal of already-established Fairy lore and, indeed, laws. However, it does not wholly rely on readers having a certain level of assumed knowledge; Colfer ensures that no reader gets left behind. The appropriate backstory and important details are provided where necessary in his usual elegant style so that new readers are informed and old fans aren’t bored by the rehashing of exposition. As an old fan myself, albeit one with an appalling memory, I really appreciated the unobtrusive reminders of previous events in the Fowl canon.

There is of course a lot for fans of the original series to enjoy, including some excellent cameos. I found that many elements of the story mirrored the original Artemis Fowl. Myles and Beckett are around the same age Artemis was in his first Fairy adventure, and it was amazing to see how their different upbringings shaped them. When we first meet Artemis, he is in a desperate pursuit to rescue his father from a Russian mafia and his mother from her rapidly deepening delirium. Myles and Beckett, on the other hand, have enjoyed an upbringing with an intact, stable family and without the inherent danger that comes with being part of an active criminal empire. They are, as a result, far more well adjusted 11-year-olds, and it was so enjoyable to see the bond the boys all share.

Also like Artemis Fowl, The Fowl Twins features at its core a plot to kidnap a Fairy creature for personal gain, but this time the Fowls are innocent. Instead, the baddie is the whimsically named Lord Teddy Bleedham-Drye, who I can’t help but imagine as a scoundrel in the style of Terry-Thomas, whose ruthless quest for immortality leads him to the Fowl estate to tackle a troll. No Fowl story would be complete without the involvement of the LEP, and Specialist Lazuli Heitz finds herself in an uncomfortably similar position to Captain Holly Short, in that her supposedly straightforward surface mission goes immediately haywire as soon as the Fowls get involved. Lazuli is an excellent addition to the main cast of characters, and her talent for quick-thinking and creative problem-solving perfectly complement those of the boys she finds herself teamed up with.

The Fowl Twins is an excellent blend of suspense and action, and Eoin Colfer’s impeccably charming style of omniscient narration means there’s never a dull moment. The story is also incredibly fast-paced, with 400-odd pages covering only a couple of days, and so compelling that I finished reading it in no time. This book is fun for all ages and would make an excellent Christmas gift for a young new reader, a 20-something who loved the original series, or really anyone who enjoys a suspenseful story with a magical element. I can’t wait to see more adventures of Myles, Beckett and Lazuli.