Review: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Steelheart

SteelheartSteelheart by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Brandon Sanderson’s “Steelheart” twice, once in galley form and the second in audiobook form. I think listening to the audiobook bumped up the rating for me, so this is a solid four star read. MacLeod Andrews was an amazing narrator, and perfect for David’s voice throughout the narrative. Couldn’t have asked for a better performance.

I expected an epic journey out of “Steelheart” and for the most part, I got it. But unfortunately it was a bit of a slog getting there in places. The prologue has quite a bit of intrigue – a world where superheroes are the enemy. In this case, they take the form of Epics – beings with superpowers ruling over the human world in a dystopian environment full of fear and control. David is only eight years old during a fateful day in the bank, when Steelheart makes an appearance against another powerful being who goes on a killing spree inside the bank. But Steelheart is no good guy. It’s clear that he’s there for his own motives as David and his father get caught in the crossfire, and leads to tragic results.

But not before David witnesses events that expose Steelheart’s weakness.

“I’ve seen Steelheart bleed. And I will see him bleed again.”

Epic lines, no?

Fast forward ten years later to where David attempts to join a group known to kill Epics, called the Reckoners. David gives them quite the surprise as he ambushes one of their operations, then reveals he’s been spending the last several years collecting information on each of the Epic weaknesses he’s been able to gather. The group, including the rather dubious Megan and the just, but stern leader “Prof,” isn’t ready to trust David at first, but gradually, as they realize they have an opportunity to take down Steelheart once and for all – they warm up to him and include David in their operations for one grand stand. I really liked watching the characters interact and came to care about them over the course of the story and their attempts to fool and draw Steelheart out for battle. It doesn’t come without costs, and there’s plenty of action, intrigue, betrayal, and humor to go around. And as with Sanderson’s other narratives – a beautiful eye to the worldbuilding. I liked the variety presented in that quite a bit.

But you want to know what kept me from rating this book higher? The overabundance of gun/weaponry details and planning strategies that could’ve been streamlined a little better. Some of it I could understand, but more often than not – it really dragged the pacing of the story in turns. I felt the weight of that as I went through the narrative, and I couldn’t help but think “Dude, this is too much.” (The use of the word “sparks” might’ve been a little much as well, but while that might bug some people with the substitute swear in this particular world, it didn’t bother me except for its frequency.)

I was more intrigued by the interactions of the characters and their push towards confronting Steelheart, and while there were certain turns of the story I saw coming, I was actually more forgiving of those elements. I could understand this was a rebel group and appreciated the knowledge of what they used in their respective battles – but I think the narrative wouldn’t have lost anything if some of that had been cut down. The narrative might’ve even moved quite a bit faster in pacing since it did notably get sluggish in the middle as it pushed towards the group’s confrontation (among other surprising reveals).

Nonetheless, this story held my attention through until the end, in both versions of the story but especially in the audio narrated version. I’d recommend it and certainly will be reading more into the respective series to come, considering there are a few story seeds that it throws for the series to continue forward. Ultimately – I think Sanderson did well with the YA narrative, and certainly was worth the time delving into.

Overall score: 4/5 stars

Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Delacorte Press.

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Review: The Almost Girl by Amalie Howard

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The Almost GirlThe Almost Girl by Amalie Howard
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Initial reaction: Yeah, I have a few things to talk about later on when I’m feeling up to reflecting on this story. In sum, though? Probably one of the more mediocre sci-fi stories I’ve come across. The worldbuilding was sketchy, the characters were typical, the twists were manufactured and convenient, and the whole thing was a mess. Including the romance.

Full review:

Argh, this is the kind of review I don’t want to write, but feel I have to. This particular genre’s a part of my heart and head, and seeing it done in a way that’s undermining its own potential just guts me. I don’t mince words about that. This is my first read from Amalie Howard, and I can’t say that my end impressions of this work are positive enough to want to pick up another book, at least from what the presentation gives here. I may try to see if something else gels with me, but I’m entirely underwhelmed, cheated, and disappointed by this read. I have a feeling multiple audiences, whether intended or beyond, are going to have trouble with this one based on presentation and false promise alone.

I’ll first copy the blurb of this book for posterity, because I’m going to come back to it later and reference it for a number of reasons, including to debunk some significant contradictions between the blurb and the actual narrative.

Seventeen-year-old Riven is as tough as they come. Coming from a world ravaged by a devastating android war, she has to be. There’s no room for softness, no room for emotion, no room for mistakes. A Legion General, she is the right hand of the young Prince of Neospes, a parallel universe to Earth. In Neospes, she has everything: rank, responsibility and respect. But when Prince Cale sends her away to find his long-lost brother, Caden, who has been spirited back to modern day Earth, Riven finds herself in uncharted territory.

Thrown out of her comfort zone but with the mindset of a soldier, Riven has to learn how to be a girl in a realm that is the opposite of what she knows. Riven isn’t prepared for the beauty of a world that is unlike her own in so many ways. Nor is she prepared to feel something more than indifference for the very target she seeks. Caden is nothing like Cale, but he makes something in her come alive, igniting a spark deep down that goes against every cell in her body. For the first time in her life, Riven isn’t sure about her purpose, about her calling. Torn between duty and desire, she must decide whether Caden is simply a target or whether he is something more.

Faced with hideous reanimated Vector soldiers from her own world with agendas of their own, as well as an unexpected reunion with a sister who despises her, it is a race against time to bring Caden back to Neospes. But things aren’t always as they seem, and Riven will have to search for truth. Family betrayals and royal coups are only the tip of the iceberg. Will Riven be able to find the strength to defy her very nature? Or will she become the monstrous soldier she was designed to be?

First, I have to say the blurb for this is very enticing, and the one that made me readily request this as a galley. Wonderfully engaging and establishes the motivations, the character, conflict so clearly that I was ready to jump into this read feet first. And the cover – awesome. This actually had me excited that I’d get to read another YA work with a strong sci-fi leaning, blended with an element of romance, and basically pull me along in its measures from beginning to end.

However, this is almost false advertising. I want to say a good portion of it is false promise for structure and organization of the story as well as intrigue. It tells you almost the whole story in just the blurb alone, but some of the significant details here aren’t revealed until a good portion into the story and you almost wonder why these details aren’t brought in sooner.

Anyway, let’s take it from the top.

I’ll reveal one of my biases right off the bat: maybe I have high expectations for purported BAMF heroine characters dealing with robots (or are subsequently part/full robots themselves). I can think of a lot of strong female characters from cyberpunk anime series and even from Live Action sci-fi movies. Those ladies can kick butt and take names when they’re called to the task. Granted, they may have their moments of weakness, they may have personality flaws, but they still know what they have to do and get it done. And they do it with setbacks put in front of them. Some are teens, some are adults. Age is just a number when you’re dealing with a character that’s called to the task of rising above their means to deal with extraordinary conflicts.

This said: Riven isn’t just a weak character, but she one of the worst purported BAMF characters I’ve come across in a while.

I’m going to address the content of the first paragraph of the blurb first. The majority of this information is true – Riven’s a person of high rank and status in her world of Neospes, and it’s thrown into something of chaos with android wars and beings called “Vectors” – which are dead people with microbots inside them basically taking over the dead people and moving them around like zombies in ensuing battles. Riven’s entrusted with the task of finding Caden (her “target” if you will) to bring him back to Neospes and complete his destiny on behalf of his very ill and long lost brother Cale.

Only, you don’t get the latter information up front about why Caden is Riven’s respective target. It takes a long, long time to get there.

The story starts off with Riven being on the run in the prologue of the work. It’s decentt. Good ensuing action, evil robots – I approved for the most part. But then the first chapter came, and I felt like I was reading a much more mediocre story.

Riven may come from a world with an ensuing android war and be tough as nails and cold minded, but she’s perfectly capable of having emotions about things – what with having strong sentiments about judging the teenagers she’s around as she’s hiding her identity inside a typical 21st century high school.

The teenagers from her world are supposed to be so much more mature than the one she travels to, but she comes across as no more than a whiny, prejudiced brat. She says they’re spoiled beings compared to those in her world, and while that may be explained by the differential between their societies, it’s hard to care for a character who’s that narrow-minded. She even shames the first female character she sees (who just so happens to be her target’s girlfriend – go figure.) The only other interaction with a female character I can think of that she’s not related to in some way in this world, she ends up rescuing because the girl’s drugged and about to be date raped. So…the story’s not exactly establishing lingering interactions with female characters here on the part of Riven’s measure.

To hammer home some insinuated misogyny, Riven makes this statement within the novel:

“People tend to feel sorry for me. Boys in particular.”

Why would Riven say something like this if she’s supposedly able to handle things herself? It’s not so subtle shaming, on the level of vying for dependence and doubly shaming her own gender to boot. How is this relevant to the plot again? This is supposed to be about a general taking back her target in the midst of a robot war in her home realm. Get to the point.

As for Riven not having room to make mistakes? AHAHAHAHAHAHA! Oh dear. One of the unwritten rules about being a BAMF character is like the first rule of Fight Club, you don’t talk about being a BAMF character. You *show* through the things you do (some might talk and do, and that’s fine, as long as you’re “doing”).

Riven says she smart, but gets low test scores when she tries to mask herself as a student in an effort to follow Caden. Riven talks about all the things she shouldn’t feel towards Caden, but feels them anyway. There’s a bit of instalove on the part of Riven upon meeting Caden, even considering he has a girlfriend. She calls the girlfriend a bitch, and apparently, Caden also calls *his own girlfriend* the same.

Also, Riven does not have fighting stamina as much as she thinks/says she does. Even when we see her in the first chapter, as much as I could probably sympathize with her making the long, rough transition to Caden’s world to retrieve him, I didn’t know how to take the fact that she fainted within 3% of the novel starting, in a closet of all places. Maybe I could’ve been more forgiving of her first two times passing out – where she was at the school and what happened on her motorbike when Caden first meets and rescues her.

But then it just kept happening – she keeps getting knocked out, passed out, and pretty much proving herself to be the most mediocre assassin/officer if her performance in retrieving Caden is any indication.

Guys, if your story progression has a character passing out more times than MacGuyver getting hit in the head and suffering from amnesia, you might have a serious problem to contend with.

I make that reference because in the 80s-90s TV series MacGuyver, the titular character had a series of storylines where he would get hit in the head in an ensuing battle (because he’s kind of a jack of all trades helping various parties and foiling malicious government schemes where he can) and not remember who he was. People criticized it because it was an overused plot device for conflict, even in the scheme of so many episodes. In the case of “The Almost Girl”, the fainting was definitely overused. It did not help the character. It did not create suspension in the plot. It just came across as very ill conceived, repetitive, and cheap method for conflict.

I’ll address the last two paragraphs of the blurb in bulk because it talks about the love story and the overarching conflict in this narrative. The high school portion of this story goes far longer than it probably should’ve with respect to establishing the backstory, and the worldbuilding for Riven’s world seems like it was created as it went along, not shaped before or after the story was constructed. It is not as neatly focused as in the blurb. It was tedious to get through and find vital details.

Riven comes across her long lost sister, whom she thinks is a traitor, but her sister also thinks the same of Riven. They’re both fighting over Caden’s respective fate, get caught in the crossfire, and people (even major characters) start dying.

Caden does eventually end up going back to Neospes with Riven, but I have to say in the ensuing conflict, their love story lacks in both depth and chemistry. I honestly have no idea why Caden likes Riven, as many times as she brushes him off, hurts him at his core for emotion and affection, and throws out information that shocks the heck out of him (“You’re a clone!” she says at one point. This turns out not to be true, but cloning has a big part in the story regardless and I’m not going to spoil it for brave souls attempting to read this.)

I honestly have no idea why Riven likes Caden, apart from that he reminds her of Cale, the prince from her realm – which at one point, she was in love with him. While the story has some moments of trying to build the technology of the Vectors and some cool aspects of Neospes for experimentation and functional life, those play less role in this than the unfolding dramas surrounding Riven’s ultra powerful and corrupted family (mother, father, sister) and Cale (who turns out not being the person Riven says he is). It would be more substantial if the reveals weren’t thrown like hot potatoes and coming out of nowhere for revelation. It felt cheap and underdeveloped. It’s like you can tell the author’s flying by the seat of her pants trying to develop all of these as she goes along, and it doesn’t come together very well. Not in the least.

Even with a certain reveal that comes across about Riven, it felt more like a cliche rather than a substantial reveal about her person and function in this whole conflict. I couldn’t get behind it because it was so typical. It’s not surprising given her demeanor, and I’ve read stories that do a much better job of establishing the stakes and identities of their characters for a sci-fi conflict that spans with the political, social, and ethical games that this story tries to put across. Here, it all comes across as surface with no depth to it and terrible pseudoscience to boot. I shook my head in places at the explanations for function sometimes.

The ending of this novel really didn’t do much to sweeten the deal it ended on, because it involves a departure, and leaves the measure more open that it should’ve been.

In the end, save your time. This is not one of the better YA sci-fi novels with romantic elements. It’s messy, the conflicts are repetitive, characters underdeveloped, worldbuilding unnecessarily convoluted, and the pseudoscience of it all just makes it worse for wear. It had potential, it even had moments in the second half where I think the author finally found some ground to depict the world of Neospes for featuring the conflict with the Vectors, but sadly – it’s only really a pale backdrop in comparison to other, more grounded works.

Overall score: 1/5 stars

Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Angry Robot/Strange Chemistry.

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Review: Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

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OrleansOrleans by Sherri L. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Initial reaction: I’m wholeheartedly thanking the author for writing a proper dystopian society that sounds like an actual dystopian society with harrowing stakes and horrific scenarios. “Orleans” was a great story, and I’ll admit it tugged at my heartstrings in moments, though I’ll also admit I wished there was a little more to it in some places. Probably going to get a solid 4 stars from me, and hope to explain a bit more about it in the full review.

Full review:

To start my review on Sherri Smith’s “Orleans”, I have to say that I’m glad there’s an author in the YA spectrum that actually treats the dystopian genre with a proper, non-glorified world with a character who isn’t fated to save the world for some *special* superpower or somehow lends a backdrop to romance where the realm takes a lesser priority for its respective realities. If there’s something about Smith’s world that is distinctive in this genre – not only does it include a racially diverse cast and plausible – but frightening – future, but it also includes characters who are plunged into this horrific setup and must overcome dire situations to accomplish the things they must do in a realistic way.

Fen de la Guerre is a young woman who lives in Orleans, in a future where a number of U.S. States (Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida) have all separated the union due to several hurricanes that have devastated the Gulf. Too many casualties, too little supplies, and too much sickness – with a Fever that has no cure. Fen is a part of the OP tribe. In this devastated image of what was once New Orleans, people separate themselves by bloodtype, and survival hinges on one’s ability to get untainted blood. It’s revealed that some tribes even drink the blood they need if they can’t inject themselves with it, so it’s a grim picture to follow. Fen lives with a friend who acts as leader of her respective tribe, but when the tribe is attacked by scavengers, and her friend dies in childbirth, she has to take on the task of caring for the child and finding a way to get the baby to safety from those who would want to sell her or harm her otherwise.

In the meantime, failed researcher Daniel goes alone into Orleans and the ceded area to find the missing piece of his attempts to find a cure for the Fever. He hopes to find something in the documentation of previous researchers in the area to help him find the missing part of his attempt at a cure, rather than a supervirus that could wipe out the population within a matter of moments due to the nature of the infection.

Both Daniel and Fen end up meeting in Orleans and have far more of a task of survival on their hands than they bargained for.

“Orleans” is told in a dual narrative style – from Fen’s first person dialect to Daniel’s presentation in third person limited. Once I adjusted to the way the narrative was presented, it became easier to follow as I went along. I did find it a bit of a jarring transition though. I think it probably would’ve been a little better with consistency – either sticking with first person or third, but not the two of them. I didn’t mind the dual narrative between Fen or Daniel at all, and I though Pen’s distinct dialect made her voice stand out very well. I’ll admit that the two characters also have a narrative that keeps them both at arms length for most of the work, so it wasn’t nearly as intimate of an experience as I was hoping for in the course of the work, but I did realize both of these character had events in their experience that shaped them to be emotionally distant. So maybe it was just as well that the narrative styles matched their dispositions.

Fen is really the heroine of this collective story when all the events are taken into consideration. I loved her, she was a strong woman and the kind of female character you don’t see in many narratives in YA dystopians. She’s tasked with taking care of the baby that her friend died in labor for. After her tribe’s dissipation from a dire attack fraught with loss, she’s left much on her own to try to figure the next step. Fen’s a survivor, and given some of the things she’s gone through in the past to the present storyline, it tugged on my heartstrings to know what she had to endure even as a young child to get to the point where she was. Considering she’s only a teenager, high school age, it’s like she’s lived several lives over. The grim reality and the grit this story presents from her perspective is really what made this novel work for me.

Daniel was a character I’ll admit I was more disappointed with in certain turns of this story. In the beginning, I admired his goals, his technology (his suit was awesome, well – when it worked, anyway) and realized that in his entry to Orleans, he’s entering a world he has no idea how it functions and where to get his bearings. It makes sense that eventually he would team up with Fen, and I liked the rapport between them. But Daniel…never really accomplished anything he set out to do in this story. While one could argue that this really wasn’t his story to carry, I thought his character could’ve amounted to more than what it did, and it really disappointed me that he wasn’t. Whether that was by his own follies (and he had several of them) or by the fact he never really had the space in the story to do more than what he did, I’m not sure if it was more one than the other. I do think his efforts in the latter part of the novel were good, especially in conjunction with Fen’s rather desperate plan, but I still think that his character was not much more than a placeholder for that ultimate plan.

The worldbuilding in this story was beautifully constructed, and probably one of the strongest aspects of this entire narrative. I was immersed in the world, the devastation, the sense of loss and disparity, and even the sharp social commentary on a “new” type of discrimination in the realm of Orleans. Not by race, but by blood type for survival. It was a bleak future, and one in which every fight had significant weight. I did feel somewhat shortchanged in reading this narrative for some details though, because while the world was constructed very well, it felt like for events in the actual story, there were pieces missing – like it could’ve had more to Fen and Daniel’s journey than what it had. Like the narrative was meant to be longer. I almost wish it had been to cover those gaps and provide more wiggle room and emotional intimacy for those characters.

The ending was reminiscent of my experience with Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses. I didn’t really see it coming until it hit me in the back of my head and realized the weight of what the characters had to do to protect the baby and get her out beyond the Wall for a potentially better life. If you think about the narrative for goals, that was one of the biggest goals promised by its end. Unfortunately, I wish some of the other goals had more measure to them as well.

It’s a good story, and one I enjoyed for what it offered, but I’ll admit, it wasn’t an immediate knockout the way Smith’s “Flygirl” was with me. I enjoyed it, and I’d be willing to read a sequel to the narrative if it has one to fill in some of the afternotes of where this novel left on, but it did leave me with spaces that yearned for more. It’s a valuable social commentary on measures after the U.S.’s very real experiences with Hurricane Katrina. Ultimately, this dystopian scenario shows that as a divided nation, we are not as strong as one unified, and in the face of tragedy, there’s both desperation for survival – in corrupt and constructive ways – and hope for a better future.

Overall score: 4/5 stars

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Review: Phoenix Island by John Dixon

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Phoenix IslandPhoenix Island by John Dixon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Initial reaction: Very nicely plotted action/adventure thriller. I’ll admit it kept me on the edge of my toes many times wondering what would happen and some of the scenes were deliciously dark, despite a few pacing issues. Nonetheless, this will certainly make an interesting jumping point for the TV series that’s based on it. I enjoyed the read.

Full review:

John Dixon’s “Phoenix Island” took me by surprise in terms of how immersive and enthralling an adventure it portrayed. The story centers on 17-year old Carl Freeman as he’s punished for crossing the line one too many times. As a young boxer, he uses his abilities to defend the weak and recalls his former police officer father. Yet after his last scuffle sends a boy to the hospital, he gets shipped off to Phoenix Island. The Island appears to be something of a military boot camp at first, a place for delinquent youths who are orphaned, at the end of their rope or, like Carl, have crossed the line one too many times in detriment to their futures. Carl thinks he’ll do his time and get out – stay within the rules and he should be fine.

But Phoenix Island isn’t what it seems on the surface. With nightmarish creatures, brutal commanders, and secrets in journals and word of mouth through the ranks, Carl has to survive long enough to make head for tails of what Phoenix Island wants from him, and it’s more than he or anyone could bargain for.

This novel has the right balance of action and creep factors to draw the reader. Carl’s a sympathetic character, and he builds up a decent enough rapport with other Phoenix Island goers – I liked Ross and Octavia as well. He figures out that something is amiss with the Island fairly quickly, and the torment scenes and action sequences are portrayed very well. I did have some issues with some of the pacing in the story in spells, particularly towards the end where it’s not as smooth in the transitions as the novel was in the beginning and middle, but I really liked the journey.

Well-developed and intriguing dystopian thriller – probably among the best I’ve read this year, and I hope to read more from John Dixon in the future.

Overall score: 4/5 stars

Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Gallery Books.

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Review: Naomi and the Horse-Flavored T-Shirt

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Naomi and the Horse-Flavored T-ShirtNaomi and the Horse-Flavored T-Shirt by Dan Boehl
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Initial reaction: This has to be the most peculiar dystopian novel I’ve read in a while. And I’ve had this for quite some time and am just getting around to reading it. If it were not for some of the repetition, I think this could’ve been better than it was, and I’ll admit the story itself is a bit convoluted. But at least it was a quick, easy read.

Full review:

You know, it’s not often when I’m absolutely stumped in the aftermath of reading a work that I have no idea how to reflect upon my experiences with it. And I’m sort of having that same reaction now to reading Dan Boehl’s “Naomi and the Horse-Flavored T-Shirt.” It’s not that I thought it was a bad read, not at all. Just really…strange.

The story revolves around a girl named Naomi who owns a Horse-Flavored T-Shirt, which is supposed to be rare in a world where horses don’t exist and Paste is ubiquitous (I sincerely had no idea what Paste was starting out, and the narrative kinds of throws you into the loop of things saying that Paste – eating, consuming, making things from it – is the norm).

Naomi sets out on a journey to find horses in her world and gets introduced to a lot of colorful characters. I can’t say that they were all that developed, and the narrative plays very fast and loose on the journey aspects, so there was never a time I felt completely immersed or had a sense of the world. All I do know is that this is supposed to be a dystopian United States based on Texas being its own isolated state and there being a War with Oklahoma, and the fact that everyone’s been assimilated into living this Paste existence, and paste is described as being made from horse urine?

Yeah, it’s weird. I don’t say that in a bad way, it’s just that I’m more perplexed than anything else. I think it was going for some kind of Wizard of Oz or children’s fic environment with a bit of the absurd thrown in, but I don’t think the charm quite came off as well as it could’ve been.

I will say that I liked Sammy and Naomi enough to follow them, even if I didn’t really know what was going on. The aim of the journey, though a little hard to follow in retrospect, seemed to be escaping the Paste society, Naomi finding out what happened to her father, and seeing that there was more to life than the Paste existence, with Naomi at the helm to reshape the world.

It’s a quick, easy read, definitely rooted with YA dystopia, but rather light in both writing, tone, and focus. It wasn’t as immersive as I would’ve liked it to be, but not a bad way to pass the time. I just wish it could’ve been a little more.

Overall: 2.5/5 stars

Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher.

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