Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Akata Witch Book Cover Akata Witch
Nnedi Okorafor

Sunny Nwazue lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. Her features are West African, but she's albino. She's a terrific athlete, but can't go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits in. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a "free agent" with latent magical power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.

Soon she's part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But just as she's finding her footing, Sunny and her friends are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a career criminal who knows magic, too. Will their training be enough to help them against a threat whose powers greatly outnumber theirs?

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Penguin’s First to Read program for the review copy!

Unfortunately, Akata Witch just wasn’t for me. It didn’t hold my interest, and I spent much of the book compulsively checking how many pages I had left and hoping that I was almost at the end.

I’ve seen Akata Witch hailed as “the Nigerian Harry Potter,” but the book fails to live up to the hype. There are similarities between Akata Witch and the Harry Potter series – both star a preteen misfit who discovers they possess magical abilities and must be taught to wield that magic in order to fight an evil wizard – but Akata Witch lacks the richness and the “wow” factor that made me fall in love with Rowling’s novels.

Okorafor’s book stars a 12-year-old albino girl named Sunny who doesn’t feel she belongs. She’s picked on at school, and at home she has to deal with annoying older brothers and a father who doesn’t appreciate her “otherness.” Everything changes, though, when she learns she is a Leopard Person, or someone who possesses magic juju. She also finds out that she’s fated to be one fourth of a coven that’s purportedly destined for a great purpose. Like Sunny, her fellow coven members are very young – the oldest is about 14 or 15 – but they do their best to train and make ready for their ultimate battle with an evil Leopard Person who’s gone rogue. Much of the book focuses on the four coven members honing their juju, going to lessons and field trips, and teaching Sunny about the world of the Leopard People.

As much as I love fantasy stories, this particular one didn’t resonate with me for some reason. I was incredibly bored and didn’t feel the sense of wonder, delight, or amazement I usually experience when I read fantasy. Part of my problem is that I wasn’t enamored of the plot or the characters, who were flat at best and annoying at worst. I had a tough time connecting with them, and I partially blame this on the third-person point of view. I can’t help but feel that the book would have had a lot more personality if the story had been filtered through Sunny’s first-person viewpoint.

That said, there are a few interesting and creative bits of magic in the book now and then, like masquerades – spirits that enter the world through termite mounds; tungwas – balls of hair, flesh, and teeth that float around and explode at random; and wasp artists that build spectacular creations out of found household objects but are notoriously melodramatic if they feel their work isn’t valued:

“‘It’s a wasp artist,’ Orlu said. ‘They live for their art. If you want it to live for a long time, make sure you let it out like you’ve been doing, and show it that you appreciate its work.’

‘I’d smash the thing,’ Sasha said. ‘My sister had one when she was small , and when she forgot to give it praise once, it got pissed and stung her. Its sting paralyzes you for ten minutes so that you can do nothing but watch it build its ‘final masterpiece’ and then keep watching as it dramatically dies. The damn things are psychotic.’”

By far the most positive aspect of this book is that it opened my eyes to just how narrow my worldview is; it wasn’t until I read Akata Witch that I realized how rarely I read books that are set in a country and culture very different from my own. Growing up in the U.S., reading American books, and watching American movies and TV shows, my understanding of the world has been admittedly limited. I so infrequently venture outside of my comfort zone when it comes to books and other media that I was – stupidly – unprepared for Akata Witch’s descriptions of foods, expressions, residences, etc. that were so very unfamiliar to me. Sometimes this led to confusion (I still don’t understand what a “rapa” is, and what on Earth is a chewing stick?), but for the most part it was a humbling reminder that “my” way of life isn’t “the” way of life. This book showed me that there is so much I don’t know, and so much that I don’t even realize I don’t know.

One thing that really struck me was the fact that there are so many people speaking so many different languages in many scenes of the book. There’s no guarantee that everyone who needs to interact with one another in a given situation will speak the same language, which leads to a constant need for translation. This is viewed as the norm, as nothing out of the ordinary. It’s a stark contrast to what I’m used to in the U.S., where some people can sadly be rude – and downright ugly – when they hear people speaking anything but English. There’s even a reference to this in the book, which is, again, quite humbling:

“The toucan man scoffed. ‘They don’t teach them to understand others, they teach them to expect others to understand them,’ he said in English. He humphed and said, ‘Americans.’”

Bottom line? Much as I enjoyed the cultural aspect of Akata Witch, I really struggled with staying invested in the story and characters. It just didn’t hold my attention, and I can’t say I’ll be reading the sequel when it comes out later this year.

Review: The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

The Bone Witch Book Cover The Bone Witch
Rin Chupeco

The beast raged; it punctured the air with its spite. But the girl was fiercer.

Tea is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy makes her a bone witch, who are feared and ostracized in the kingdom. For theirs is a powerful, elemental magic that can reach beyond the boundaries of the living—and of the human.

Great power comes at a price, forcing Tea to leave her homeland to train under the guidance of an older, wiser bone witch. There, Tea puts all of her energy into becoming an asha, learning to control her elemental magic and those beasts who will submit by no other force. And Tea must be strong—stronger than she even believes possible. Because war is brewing in the eight kingdoms, war that will threaten the sovereignty of her homeland…and threaten the very survival of those she loves.

Review:

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

I am more than a little irritated right now.

If you’ve read my review of Courvalian: The Resistance by Benjamin Reed, you know how enraged I get when I feel like I’ve been cheated by a book’s ending. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s enough to send me over the edge. Hence, the single star for The Bone Witch.

The book’s pacing is terrible, the protagonist has about as much personality as a dead fish, and the plot is buried under a mountain of tedious and unnecessary details. And yet, Chupeco doles out just enough promising tidbits to make you think you’re being set up for something epic to eventually happen. Even as I grew increasingly bored and impatient, I forced myself to keep reading because I just KNEW there had to be payoff in the end.

I was wrong. This book is just a giant tease.

The novel is presented as a tale told to a traveling bard by a 17-year-old girl named Tea. Tea is a bone witch, capable of commanding the dead. Once a rising star in the world of asha (women who can wield magic and are highly sought-after members of society), Tea has fallen from grace and is living in exile. At the bard’s request, Tea agrees to share her story and explain how she ended up where she currently is. But here’s the thing – she never actually gets around to revealing what happened and why she’s been exiled.

The book alternates between the present, where the bard watches Tea ostensibly prepare for some kind of battle, and the past, which shows Tea’s discovery of her powers and her induction into the world of asha. Whereas past Tea is relatively pleasant and naïve, present-day Tea is bitter, sad, and set on revenge. You’d expect to learn, over the course of the book, what made her this way, what journey she took to get from Point A to Point B. Instead, you just get endlessly dull descriptions of Tea’s magical training and the duties of the asha. There are no actual answers. The tragic love story that present-day Tea keeps alluding to? It never transpires. The big event that ostensibly leads to Tea cutting ties with everyone she’s ever cared about? You never see it happen.

I’m not kidding – you get zero answers. At the end it’s basically like, “Now that you know everything you could possibly need to know about asha clothing and parties and the countries that make up this fictional kingdom, the book is going to end. Hope you don’t mind waiting until book two to actually learn something worthwhile!

What a complete and utter cop-out. I am a flaming ball of rage.

I might have been mildly appeased if the book at least had strong characterization and writing, but that isn’t the case. The only characters who are remotely interesting get very little page time, and the ones we see the most of – Tea and her resurrected brother, Fox – are insipid. The writing itself is just meh. This could have been because I was reading an ARC, but certain phrases were confusing and awkward, and I felt like a lot of sentences could’ve been reworded.

One last frustration, and then I’ll give it a rest: the world-building didn’t do it for me. There are so many details, so many kingdoms and cultures and clothes and politics, that it’s just too much to take in. It’s evident that Chupeco invested a lot of time and care into her world and its inhabitants, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of it.

I was especially bewildered by the asha, who are essentially fantasy-world versions of Japanese geisha. I couldn’t wrap my head around their purpose. These women have magical abilities and are trained to be bad-ass fighters, but 95% of the time all you see them do is paint their faces, arrange flowers, play the sitar, and attend parties. They are highly popular and are paid to attend dinners and soirees, though I’m not really sure why. They’re basically just fashionable, glorified party guests, who happen to be able to work magic. Again, I don’t really get it. All I know is that if I have to read one more description of an asha’s elaborate hairpins or decorative waist wrap, I’m going to expire of boredom.

Giveaway and Cover Reveal: Heart of the Guardian by Desiree Williams

It’s finally here – the cover reveal for Heart of the Guardian, the final installment of Desiree Williams’ Heart Song trilogy! As beautiful as the covers of Heart Song and Shifter’s Heart were, Heart of the Guardian is hands down my favorite; in fact, it’s probably one of the most stunning covers I’ve seen this year.  In addition to this great reveal, I’ve also got an excerpt for you from Heart of the Guardian, as well as the chance to win an awesome giveaway courtesy of the author herself. Cheers!

About Heart of the Guardian

The time has come. The war ends now…

Syrina’s inner energy has not been the same since the Guardian Alanna saved her that day in the market. A burning need to help others drives her to seek permission to join the caravan headed to the Rebels camp. Lady Alanna and Prince Jerric have given Syrina and her mother so much, and in return, Syrina wants to spread that kindness to the Guardian’s army in any way she can.

It was supposed to be another easy plan. Until an amber-eyed stranger flipped her life around, throwing her into the strange world of Guardians and Warriors. Now, Syrina faces challenges she’s never even dreamed of as the missing piece in the War on the Lands is found.

New enemies and allies surface in this never ending war. Syrina and the Guardians lock onto the measure of goodness they’ve been given while evil threatens to rip it from their hands.

When the battle hits home, nothing will be the same.

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for…the big reveal!

Book cover for Heart of the Guardian by Desiree Williams

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Excerpt from Heart of the Guardian

“Do you need your energy back?”

Syrina jumped at how close his voice came. Whipping around, she found Emer a few feet from her. She hadn’t expected him to address her again, or to close the distance between them. She swallowed, unable to look away from those amber eyes. “Excuse me?”

He pointed to the barrier still around him. “You energy? Do you want to pull it back?”

“Oh, um, you can hang on to it, if you’d like. The barrier will continue to move with you, and once you’re finished just stretch your arms past the border. The edges will dissolve and the energy dissipate into the air.”

Syrina opted for a friendly tone, but her response made Emer’s frown deepen—if that were possible. He crossed his arms, watching her until she wanted to squirm.

“What did you do to him?” He pointed his chin toward Janson, who was now in a jovial mood, showing off the wares he’d transported from Aldonnia.

She shrugged a shoulder. Syrina had no idea how she’d done it, so it wasn’t like she could explain it. Not that it would be wise to tell this Rebel anyhow. “Not sure I know what you mean.”

Her heart skipped several beats before a small half-grin pulled at Emer’s mouth. She couldn’t stop herself from wondering what he’d look like if he truly smiled.

“You can keep your secrets, Miss Syrina. You’ll find we all have a trove full of them.” He strode past her, saying, “Welcome to the Rebels’ camp.”

Author Bio

Photo of Heart Song author Desiree WilliamsDesiree Williams is a dreamer by day and chocoholic by night. She lives in the beautiful state of Kentucky with her husband and daughter, where she juggles life as a wannabe supermom. Desiree is a lover of food and avoider of dirty dishes. She delights in making people laugh and strives to bring hope and love with her wherever she goes.

You can find out more about Desiree and her books at www.desireewilliamsbooks.blogspot.com.

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Giveaway

This is one giveaway you don’t want to miss – a lucky winner will receive a gorgeous rose gold heart pendant necklace, a $15 Amazon gift card, and Heart Song trilogy bookmarks. For a chance to win, enter the giveaway below. The winner will be announced on Desiree’s blog, Facebook, and Twitter account the morning of August 11.

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Review: Shifter’s Heart by Desiree Williams

Shifter's Heart Book Cover Shifter's Heart
Desiree Williams

As the flames of Varkadon spread, war rips through the Shifter Territory…

With the Aldonnian kingdom celebrating the news of her brother’s soul bonding, Laelynn seizes every opportunity to drive herself to the brink of exhaustion. If her body is worn, then her brain would be too tired to dream. Laelynn knew the men who’d captured her were gone from this world, but that didn’t stop the haunting images from plaguing her mind. Not even the pesky thorn-in-her-side Shifter Prince could keep the dreams at bay. Though Dustan’s commentary through their mental bond had kept a lingering smile on her lips, despite the battles that rage within her.

Yet when Dustan distances himself Laelynn questions the connection between them. Those fears rise when her own talents begin to morph and grow into the unexpected. Torn between love and faith, Laelynn strives to find the purpose behind the evolving gifts. What she discovers is far more than she ever imagined.

As tragedy befalls the Shifter Territory and brother battles against brother, Laelynn knows what must be done. Face her demons and triumph, or she’ll never claim the song of her heart.

Review:

If you’re in search of a tender romance that also contains action and humor, you need look no further than Shifter’s Heart, the second book in the Heart Song trilogy by Desiree Williams. If Heart Song was a good book, then Shifter’s Heart is a great one. Williams really steps up her game in this installment, bringing to the table excellent descriptions, sweet but steamy relationships, and plenty of banter to keep you laughing even in the midst of a battle between good and evil.

The war that began in Heart Song between Aldonnia and the evil Varkadons continues in Shifter’s Heart. Alanna, Jerric, and their friends and family must rally their forces and hone their magical abilities if they have any hope of defeating the Varkadons and stopping their enemies’ reign of terror. This mission is a compelling one, but I found I was less interested in the fight to overcome the Varkadons than I was in the love story developing between Laelynn, Jerric’s sister, and Dustan, High Prince of the Shifters.

Dustan and Laelynn were my two favorite characters in Heart Song, so I was overjoyed when I realized they were going to be taking center stage in Shifter’s Heart. I’m gaga over Dustan – the mischievous shape-shifter is thoughtful, romantic, and hilarious, with a flair for drama and a talent for playing pranks and stirring up trouble. The margins of my ARC were filled with comments like “Geez, I love Dustan!” and “Oh, Dustan – you crack me up!” Laelynn is a gem, too. She’s loving and kind, but she has enough spunk and attitude to make her feel human and relatable.

Laelynn and Dustan make a great pair – I adored them as a couple. The physical relationships in the book are limited to kissing and cuddling, but Williams somehow manages to make the romance steamy AND sweet. You can feel the attraction between the characters, and it’s enticing without getting out of hand. I had a big grin on my face for much of the book, mostly due to this very fact.

There’s a lot more humor and banter in Shifter’s Heart than there was in Heart Song, something that I loved. Both Dustan and Laelynn cracked me up, and I loved how they interacted together. The teasing, joking, and sarcasm between them never gets old, and it made me laugh out loud at several points in the book. Here’s a scene where Laelynn (who can control plants) is playfully arguing with Dustan:

“You’re insufferable, you know that?”

“It’s what you love most about me.” Dustan nuzzled Laelynn’s cheek, pressing his nose along her jaw line while she fought to shove him off. Vines leapt from nearby plants, tangling around Dustan’s waist, lifting him off the ground.

His gray eyes glowed silver at being captured, and a slow smile tipped the corners of his mouth. “Contain yourself, beloved. You’re only supposed to tie me up when we’re–”

A large leaf smacked over Dustan’s mouth, muffling the remaining words.

The only thing thing I wasn’t crazy about in Shifter’s Heart was something that also bothered me in Heart Song, and it’s more personal preference than anything else. Although I love romance, I’m not wild about books that read like romance novels; the language tends to be a little too cheesy. There are times when Shifter’s Heart skirts romance-novel-language territory, like when characters’ souls are supposedly calling out to one another or when eyes are constantly described as “blazing with love.” Still, this sort of thing is minor compared to all the other, beautiful aspects of the love story.

In addition to writing a compelling romance, Williams also excels at writing beautiful descriptions and poignant, hopeful scenes. I have several passages underlined in my ARC simply because I loved how they were worded. The chapters set in the Shifter territory are particularly lovely:

The trees broke apart to reveal a small clearing ahead. Dustan dropped her hand as he waded alone into the waist-high grass dotted with orange and yellow wildflowers. A gust of wind stirred the long stems, their fragrance swirling around her in a welcoming embrace, beckoning her to enter the field.

Isn’t that just gorgeous? And it’s just one of many exquisitely-written scenes!

All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better sequel to Heart Song. Williams has really grown as an author, presenting a delightful novel that will make its readers laugh, cry, and swoon in turns. I can’t wait to read the final installment to find out what new joys Williams has in store!

A free ARC of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Courvalian: The Resistance by Benjamin Reed

Courvalian: The Resistance Book Cover Courvalian: The Resistance
Benjamin Reed

The teenaged Korza brothers, Matthew, Charles, and Travis, are all avid outdoorsmen, who thrive on mastering punishing wilderness conditions. They don’t know it but these skills will prove invaluable when they are mystically thrust into a medieval, forested world where a violent revolution against a venal monarch is underway. With no real memory of their former lives or even of their own relationships to each other, aside from a sense of unbreakable brotherly bond, the Korzas will have to somehow make their way amidst the turmoil of this new world. Encounters with the despotic king’s army of soulless killers inspire them to join the Resistance against him. As the war heats up to a boil, and new friendships, both human and animal, are forged in blood, the brothers discover reserves of courage and ingenuity that will serve their new comrades well. Epic battles rage through darkest woods, a massive fort hidden in the forest canopy, and finally to a spectacular, winged siege against a forbidding castle keep where unexpected dangers await.

Review:

I get what Benjamin Reed was going for with Courvalian: The Resistance – an epic tale of heroism in a battle against a corrupt, greedy king – but it didn’t really work for me.

The story starts when three brothers – Charles, Travis, and Matthew – set off on a multi-day hiking trip in the mountains. One night the cave the brothers are sheltering in collapses, somehow transporting them to a different place and time. They wake up in a medieval tavern in Ozark with no memory of how they got there, who they are, or where they came from. You might expect this amnesia to be disorienting, troubling, but you’d be wrong. The brothers acclimate to their new surroundings almost immediately, and within an hour of arriving in Ozark they’ve been recruited for the Resistance, a group of citizens fighting against their tyrannical ruler.

If this sounds improbable, that’s because it is. Herein lies my problem with this book.

The key plot points are way too simplistic, to the point of being ludicrous. Charles, Travis, and Matthew have zero memories, but they don’t seem to find this strange or care all that much. Rather than making even the slightest effort to regain their memories, the brothers throw themselves wholeheartedly into working for a Resistance they know next to nothing about, even though it means risking their lives. Surprisingly, no one in the Resistance seems to have any qualms about inviting complete strangers into their midst. Also surprisingly, the brothers are ridiculously easy to recruit.

There’s a passage towards the beginning of the book where Helius, a member of the Resistance, attempts to convince Travis to join the cause, which would mean Travis leaving his brothers (at this point they’ve established that they share a fraternal bond) in the middle of a dangerous, unfamiliar world:

“I don’t want to fight,” Travis said laconically.

“Your bar brawl didn’t exactly indicate to me that you don’t want to fight. Which is why I think I’ve found the guy I’ve been looking for,” Helius exclaimed happily. “There’s no time to waste, we must leave tonight.”

“What about Matthew and Charles?” Travis asked.

“They have their own destinies,” Helius answered.

“As long as squirt doesn’t get hurt,” Travis smiled weakly while motioning towards Matthew.

You sure put up a fight there, Travis. Helius really had to twist your arm.

It’s not just the plot that’s too simplistic; it’s the characterization, too. With the exception of Matthew, who’s the protagonist in the story, you don’t get a chance to develop your own opinions about characters. Instead, you’re simply told how you should think of them: “So-and-so is respected.” “So-and-so is brave.” “So-and-so is wise.” “So-and-so is a hero.” You simply get a brief statement of characters’ personalities instead of getting to see them in action.

I also wish Reed would have focused and expanded on relationships and emotional growth. Instead of simply announcing an emotion, I wanted to see that emotion demonstrated. Rather than saying, “Matthew was anxious,” or “The man’s temper was flaring,” I wanted Reed to show evidence of the anxiety and anger.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. It’s a scene where Matthew meets the Resistance’s leader, Kurtax:

“From the very onset, Matthew could see why Kurtax was so highly regarded. The man seemed to spew probity from his every feature. Matthew innately knew that if they were destined to win the war, it would be because Kurtax was their sedulous commander on the battlefield and the sagacious leader of it.”

Matthew met Kurtax all of five minutes ago, yet he inherently knows that Kurtax is a great leader? Um, okay. Just glancing at Kurtax may be enough for Matthew to discern his character, but not for me. I’m not going to believe Kurtax is respected or courageous or a great tactician until I witness him in action. Let me see him making a tough decision, or leading his men into battle, or rallying his troops with a rousing speech or act of bravery. Otherwise, there’s no reason for me to believe he’s all that and a bag of chips.

Here’s another example:

“Wilred’s height gave him credibility, but it was his mannerisms, which were similar to Kurtax’s or Irvin’s that seemed to instantly command respect.”

Again, what does Wilfred being tall have to do with him being credible? And what mannerisms make him command respect? Show me!

Reed may not provide much depth for his characters and plot, but he has no problem supplying plenty of details and examples for other stuff in this book. The unimportant things get the focus: there are long, specific descriptions of the terrain and precise explanations of exactly how the boys pack their bags, shoot arrows, crawl into berry bushes, walk through the woods, etc. The battle scenes are described at length (interestingly enough, small numbers of heroic Resistors can defeat vast armies of smelly, snarling bad guys), and so are the various plants and trees.

The thing that really pushed me over the edge with this book was the cliffhanger ending. When I read the last line of this book, I was FURIOUS. Not in the “Oh my gosh, how am I going to survive until I get the next book?” kind of way; it was more like, “Wow, I feel so cheated.” I usually don’t mind cliffhangers, but this one felt like a cop-out. You can’t just make a random statement at the end of a book – a statement that makes absolutely no sense and has nothing to do with the rest of the novel – and expect it to mean something to the reader when they have no idea what you’re talking about. I was NOT a happy camper when I finished this book.

If Courvalian: The Resistance has a saving grace, it’s Matthew, the youngest of the three brothers. He’s such an endearing character, always willing to help others even when it means putting his own comfort and safety at risk. When undertaking missions for the Resistance, Matthew is resourceful, smart, and uses his time wisely, practicing his dagger throwing and combat skills while trekking through the woods. He saves innocent bear cubs, fights bravely, and is an all-around good guy.

Still, Matthew alone can’t make up for my frustrations with this book. There are definitely readers who will heartily enjoy Courvalian: The Resistance, but it just wasn’t for me.