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.

Review: The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey

The Girl at Midnight Book Cover The Girl at Midnight
Melissa Grey

Beneath the streets of New York City live the Avicen, an ancient race of people with feathers for hair and magic running through their veins. Age-old enchantments keep them hidden from humans. All but one. Echo is a runaway pickpocket who survives by selling stolen treasures on the black market, and the Avicen are the only family she's ever known.

Echo is clever and daring, and at times she can be brash, but above all else she's fiercely loyal. So when a centuries-old war crests on the borders of her home, she decides it's time to act.

Legend has it that there is a way to end the conflict once and for all: find the Firebird, a mythical entity believed to possess power the likes of which the world has never seen. It will be no easy task, though if life as a thief has taught Echo anything, it's how to hunt down what she wants . . . and how to take it.

But some jobs aren't as straightforward as they seem. And this one might just set the world on fire.

Review:

I had really high hopes for The Girl at Midnight, and I think that was my undoing. If I hadn’t expected this to be so great, I don’t think I would have been as disappointed. Reading this book was like expecting to go to a pool party at one of those amazing resort pools with waterslides and a lagoon, only to show up and find a plastic kiddie pool instead. Everything about the book just feels shallow compared to the depths I thought I’d be getting. The romances are rushed, the potentially interesting cultures are never really delved into, and the events of the story happen too easily, with very little effort required of the characters.

The plot centers around two magical races – the bird-like Avicen and the dragon-like Drakharin – that have been at war with each other for centuries. The principle characters are Echo, a human pickpocket who’s befriended the Avicen, and Caius, a Drakharin prince. Both Echo and Caius are on a mission to locate a magical item that, according to legend, will grant its possessor the ability to end the war once and for all: the mythical Firebird.

I was surprised by how quickly this book passed. The first half was over before I knew it, without anything major really happening, and I had no idea how an entire plot could be developed in the remaining chapters. The answer was, by making the plot just barely scratch the surface. Governments are overthrown with no effort. “Good guys” become prisoners just to be released with no hassle hours later. Even the quest for the firebird is simple and easy. All Caius and Echo have to do is receive a clue, follow the clue to a specific location, get another clue, and repeat. No real challenges, no clever puzzles, just following directions and occasionally running from a horde of soldiers.

The book never dives deep enough into the cultures of the Avicen and Drakharin, either. I wanted to learn more about the magical races with their feathers and scales and portals and magic. I wanted to know their history, their hierarchy, and their customs. I didn’t see nearly enough of this, but I suppose there’s room for all of that information in the sequel.

Another bummer was that Echo didn’t live up to my expectations. When I see the word “pickpocket,” my immediate thoughts are of brilliant scoundrels like Locke in Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora or Gen in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series. I picture high-stakes schemes and clever ruses and genius heists. That’s what I envisioned The Girl at Midnight would be like, but with the added bonuses of magic (hooray!) and forbidden love (hooray again!).

That’s not what I got. Echo falls so far short of the Locke/Gen mark that I can’t believe the blurb describes her as “clever” and “daring.” For a pickpocket, Echo doesn’t steal much in the book, and when she does she’s frequently discovered. She’s plucky, I suppose, and she can be funny every now and then, but she just didn’t blow me away as I’d hoped.

Echo may not have enchanted me, but I did enjoy the other characters in this book. Echo’s best friend Ivy is quiet and shy but also brave and strong and kind. Caius is a world-weary, beautiful soul with a compelling backstory. Dorian, Caius’ devoted companion and Captain of the Guard, captured my heart for a myriad of reasons and is unequivocally the highlight of the book.

The Girl at Midnight isn’t bad, I just wanted more from it. I think I’ve been spoiled by all the other great novels that have come before this one. The magical-enemies-falling-in-love plot is done better by Laini Taylor in her Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, and the clever-charming-thief plot is done better by Megan Whalen Turner. If you haven’t read any of those books, though, and if this is your first foray into fantasy or forbidden romance, then I suspect you’ll enjoy The Girl at Midnight a lot more than I did.

Review: The Day Human Prince by B. Kristin McMichael

The Day Human Prince Book Cover The Day Human Prince
B. Kristin McMichael

Devin Alexander grew up as the only day human in a world surrounded by night humans who drank blood, sometimes his blood. He spent his life training toward one goal: the protection of one of those blood drinkers, Arianna Grace. But what is he supposed to do when the blue-eyed girl of the legends doesn’t need him anymore? What does his life mean then? How is a guy supposed to move on when the girl he has yearned over for a decade has chosen someone else?

Before he can even start to figure out his new life without Arianna, Devin has to deal with another problem. He needs to take care of some unfinished business with a night human he has known for less than a month, but with whom he is magically bound.

Vanessa McKinny has promised that she knows a way to undo the spell she placed on Devin to save his life. Devin would do anything to break the bond to be free of her, even if it means traveling to the sidhe village, a place inhabited by a race of night humans that has not had a day human visitor in more than a hundred years. If he doesn’t want to get stuck, he must work with Nessa to find a way to break the bond. Only then can Devin have time to get back to finding his new goal in life, unless he discovers that his path lies with the sidhe.

Review:

A free copy of this book was provided by Xpresso Book Tours in exchange for an honest review.

Several years ago, my husband convinced me to watch X-men: The Last Stand. I protested that I hadn’t seen the first two X-men movies and wouldn’t understand if I started with the third one, but he assured me I’d be able to follow along. I conceded, and we proceeded to watch the film. About half an hour in I still had no idea who the characters were or why they were doing what they were doing, and I kept asking my husband what was happening. His answer, consistently, was: “Oh, if you’d seen the first two movies it would make more sense.”

Reading The Day Human Prince was a similar experience. When I started the book, I had no idea that it was a spin-off of McMichael’s Blue Eyes trilogy. I was disappointed by the one-dimensional characters and lack of strong world building. Once I discovered that the action had begun in a previous series, though, it made sense that everything wasn’t being explained in detail. The foundation had already been laid in Blue Eyes. I’d just missed it.

Everything that seemed remotely interesting in The Day Human Prince – Devin’s unrequited love for Arianna Grace, his tragic history, details about the night human culture – was apparently dealt with in the Blue Eyes books and only mentioned briefly in this spin-off. It was a letdown, and though the plot was decent I think I would have enjoyed it more if I’d read the preceding books.

Then again, maybe not, because I had a huge problem with this book that had nothing to do with the plot or characters: the writing is terrible.

There’s so much that bothers me about McMichael’s writing style that I don’t know where to start. The phrasing is awkward, the sentence structure is off, and there’s endless explanation about things that really don’t require it. What really got me, though, was the point of view.

As a general rule, I prefer first-person to third-person. There are several fantastic books that use third-person successfully (The Raven Boys, the Harry Potter books, most of the novels in The Queen’s Thief series), but there are also myriad novels that don’t. They distance the reader from the characters, rely heavily on telling rather than showing, and engage in head-hopping, which always drives me batty. There are several instances of each of these problems in The Day Human Prince. They’re hard to overlook, and I found myself becoming distracted from the plot because I was so bothered by the writing.

There are also a few other niggling tidbits, like insta-love and absurd superhuman abilities – Devin can snatch an invisible arrow out of the air on its way to a target, for example – that kept me from truly appreciating this book. All of the good stuff – like cool magic and sleeping sidhe kings waiting to be awakened– gets overwhelmed by the parts that are less than great.

I may not have given this book a very positive review, but I will say that there are people who will really love The Day Human Prince, especially those who read and enjoyed the Blue Eyes trilogy. Many of my complaints about this book – particularly the ones about the point of view – are based purely on personal preference, so don’t automatically let me dissuade you from reading it. Instead, I recommend going to Amazon and checking out a few sample pages. If you’re ok with McMichael’s writing style, this may be a better book for you than it was for me.

Last List Blog Hop: Tear You Apart by Sarah Cross

Last List Blog Hop

If you’ve been paying attention to bookish news lately, you’ve likely heard that Egmont Publishing is closing its U.S. division. As a result, many of the authors represented by Egmont are going through a tough time. In an attempt to bolster these fine authors, the lovely ladies (and gentleman) at Cuddlebuggery had the idea to host this Last List Blog Hop to promote Egmont titles.

The idea is that each blogger will sign up to spotlight at least one of the Egmont books and show the reading community how great that book is. The book I have the pleasure of promoting today is Tear You Apart by Sarah Cross.

About Tear You Apart

Book cover for Tear You Apart by Sarah Cross

If you want to live happily ever after, first you have to stay alive.

Viv knows there’s no escaping her fairy-tale curse. One day her beautiful stepmother will feed her a poison apple or convince her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Henley, to hunt her down and cut out her heart before she breaks his. In the city of Beau Rivage, some princesses are destined to be prey.

But then Viv receives an invitation to the exclusive club where the Twelve Dancing Princesses twirl away their nights. There she meets Jasper, an underworld prince who seems to have everything—but what he really wants is her. He vows to save her from her dark fate if she’ll join him and be his queen.

All Viv has to do is tear herself away from the huntsman boy who still holds her heart. Then she might live to see if happily ever after is a promise the prince can keep. But is life as an underworld queen worth sacrificing the true love that might kill her?

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Why You Should Read It

If you like fairy tale mash-ups, Tear You Apart is a must-read. The main story is a combination of Snow White and The 12 Dancing Princesses, but there are a multitude of other tales represented in this book as well – Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Jack and The Beanstalk, and Rumpelstiltskin, just to name a few.

In Beau Rivage, where the story is set, the townspeople are fated to play a role in a fairy tale. Sometimes that role is princess, sometimes hero, sometimes villain – the town’s citizens have no say in the matter. As you can imagine, this can cause tension when friends, neighbors, and family members suddenly find themselves destined to play a part in one another’s lives that they never expected. Friends turn into foes, rivals become lovers, etc., leading to all sorts of delicious drama.

The love/hate relationship that Henley and Viv share is especially captivating. The two have a long history together that is suddenly complicated when Henley is cursed, destined to betray Viv and cut out her heart. No matter how much Henley insists he could never do such a thing, Viv lives in fear of the day that her boyfriend will turn on her. The jealousy, distrust, and hurt that grows between them strains their relationship until the happiness they once shared is nothing more than a memory:

“They were like a firecracker that had burned up. The pretty picture, the sparkling moment was gone; they were just smoke and ashes now.”

Another thing I love about Tear You Apart besides the fairy tale drama is that the book’s characters don’t fall into black and white “Good” and “Evil” categories. There are characters who are bad, but they’re more than just cliche villains.  For example, Regina, Viv’s wicked stepmother, is definitely a messed up woman, but she’s also funny and interesting with motivations that are easy to sympathize with, if not to condone. Likewise, Viv isn’t always lovable and sweet; there are times when she can be a bitch and when she makes decisions that will leave you cringing.

All in all, Tear You Apart is an incredible book, one of the best I’ve read so far this year. I highly recommend it, especially if you’re a fairy tale lover like me!