Head On (John Scalzi)

Head On (John Scalzi)Head On (Lock In, #2) by John Scalzi
Published by Tor Books on April 17th 2018
Genres: Sci Fi
Pages: 335
Format: audio
Source: Purchased
Amazon
Goodreads

John Scalzi returns with Head On, the standalone follow-up to the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed Lock In. Chilling near-future SF with the thrills of a gritty cop procedural, Head On brings Scalzi's trademark snappy dialogue and technological speculation to the future world of sports.

Hilketa is a frenetic and violent pastime where players attack each other with swords and hammers. The main goal of the game: obtain your opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts. With flesh and bone bodies, a sport like this would be impossible. But all the players are “threeps,” robot-like bodies controlled by people with Haden’s Syndrome, so anything goes. No one gets hurt, but the brutality is real and the crowds love it.

Until a star athlete drops dead on the playing field.

Is it an accident or murder? FBI Agents and Haden-related crime investigators, Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, are called in to uncover the truth―and in doing so travel to the darker side of the fast-growing sport of Hilketa, where fortunes are made or lost, and where players and owners do whatever it takes to win, on and off the field.

Plot: ★★★
Characters: ★★★
Readability: ★★★★

I have a habit of searching for audiobooks based on narrators, and then narrowing those down to titles that sound interesting. Since Wil Wheaton’s narration of Ready Player One remains one of my favourite audiobook performances ever, I tend to keep a pretty close eye on what else he’s narrating, which led me to Lock In way back in 2014.  The premise of Lock in – and it’s sequel, Head On – is really interesting: in the near future, a medical syndrom called Haden’s leaves some people ‘locked in’; unable to move, or speak.  Hadens interact through the world through threeps (robots), and the series follows Chris, a famous Haden who’s also a rookie FBI agent, attempting to solve murder cases.  In Head On,the mystery revolves around Hilketa – a game in which Hadens control robots and earn points by ripping off another players head and shooting it through a hoop.  Partway through a game, one of the star players dies, with no obvious cause.

I really loved the concept of Lock In, but I found it a bit predictable and slow.  I’m pleased to say I thought Head on was much less predictable, though the pacing was still a little off – it took a while to really get going I thought, maybe thanks to the background we needed to understand Hilketa.  I thought the characters were slightly better than in Lock In too – Chris is, as before, a likeable, normal character: the kind of character you’d probably happily have a drink and play pool with, pretty down to earth despite the family’s money.  Vann is significantly less irritating in this second book, although I’m still not emotionally invested in her one way or the other.  I found her and Chris’ relationship kind of so-so; they have some mild occasional teasing, but otherwise don’t seem to have much of a bond.  Chris’ housemates are all interesting and I’d definitely have liked to see more interactions there, though I can see why there weren’t more – the pacing was a little slow at times as it was, so I don’t think they could have added much more without making that more noticeable.

The series is great in terms of gender, diversity, and challenging your unconscious assumptions without being at all in your face or preachy.  In fact, although I called Chris ‘he’ all the way through my review of Lock In, Scalzi deliberately didn’t specify Chris’ gender and both books have two audiobook versions: one narrated by Wil Wheaton and one by Amber Benson.  I actually didn’t realise at all, and assumed based on Wil’s narration that Chris was a he, which gave me lots of pause for thought when I eventually realised!  Despite my issues with the books, I’ll definitely be pre-ordering if the series continues, because the premise is so interesting, and Scalzi’s clearly put a lot of thought into how the world would be changed as a result of 1% of the population having Hadens.

Buy it? I think this is worth buying as an audiobook, because Wheaton’s narration really does add to the experience.
In a nutshell: It’s very clever, the premise is interesting, but the characters and pacing let it down a little.

Lord of Shadows (Cassandra Clare)

Lord of Shadows (Cassandra Clare)Lord of Shadows by Cassandra Clare
Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books on May 23rd 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
Pages: 701
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Would you trade your soul mate for your soul?

A Shadowhunter’s life is bound by duty. Constrained by honor. The word of a Shadowhunter is a solemn pledge, and no vow is more sacred than the vow that binds parabatai, warrior partners—sworn to fight together, die together, but never to fall in love.

Emma Carstairs has learned that the love she shares with her parabatai, Julian Blackthorn, isn’t just forbidden—it could destroy them both. She knows she should run from Julian. But how can she when the Blackthorns are threatened by enemies on all sides?

Their only hope is the Black Volume of the Dead, a spell book of terrible power. Everyone wants it. Only the Blackthorns can find it. Spurred on by a dark bargain with the Seelie Queen, Emma; her best friend, Cristina; and Mark and Julian Blackthorn journey into the Courts of Faerie, where glittering revels hide bloody danger and no promise can be trusted. Meanwhile, rising tension between Shadowhunters and Downworlders has produced the Cohort, an extremist group of Shadowhunters dedicated to registering Downworlders and “unsuitable” Nephilim. They’ll do anything in their power to expose Julian’s secrets and take the Los Angeles Institute for their own.

When Downworlders turn against the Clave, a new threat rises in the form of the Lord of Shadows—the Unseelie King, who sends his greatest warriors to slaughter those with Blackthorn blood and seize the Black Volume. As dangers close in, Julian devises a risky scheme that depends on the cooperation of an unpredictable enemy. But success may come with a price he and Emma cannot even imagine, one that will bring with it a reckoning of blood that could have repercussions for everyone and everything they hold dear.

SPOILER ALERT: As this is book 2 in The Dark Artifices series, there will be spoilers for Lady Midnight throughout this review.

Plot: ★★★★
Characters: ★★★★
Readability: ★★★★★

Given my somewhat inconsistent opinions of Cassandra Clare’s books in the past, I was nervous about Lady Midnight – but then ended up loving it! I bought Lord of Shadows as soon as I had an audible credit, and I binge listened to both books in a row.  I have to admit, part of my motivation for getting the audiobooks was that I knew Lord of Shadows was narrated by James Marsters, one of my favourite narrators (although I miss his Spike accent!).  Picking an audiobook based on the narrator might seem like a pretty risky strategy, but it paid off in this case – I enjoyed Lord of Shadows even more than Lady Midnight.

I felt like we got to see more of the Blackthorn siblings in Lord of Shadows, and I really enjoyed that. I adore Ty, and I’m definitely a not-so-secret Ty and Kit shipper!  The romance element got heavier in Lord of Shadows, which could have been a dealbreaker for me, given that I didn’t love the romance in Lady Midnight, but there was enough here to enjoy to more than balance it out.  Three love triangles are definitely too many, especially when I feel like two of them have a clear way they should pan out (in my head at least).  Feeling like they’ve got an obvious resolution takes away some of the intensity, and instead just felt like a slightly annoying, predictable way to try and ramp up the intensity.

Having said that, I love a lot of the characters, so I’m willing to overlook some of their irritating romance habits to a certain extent.  Mark and Kieran are both pretty emotionally damaged, and those are my favourite kind of characters, so it’s no surprise I’d love them! Christina and Emma are kickass, and Kit and Ty are just kind of adorable.  I mostly just feel a bit bad for Dru, who seems to always get a crappy deal – she’s very relatable, but I do occasionally want to shake her a bit!  Livvy is the weakest character in the family for me, I just find her a bit strange and forgettable.  Tavvy hasn’t had much of an impact either but he’s only little still so I’m not really expecting him to! Maybe it’s just because Ty is such a good character, that I can’t help feeling Livvy is somewhat flat in comparison.

As with Lady Midnight, I found the plot addictive, and burned through this very quickly: 10 days for a ~24 hour audiobook is way above average pace for me!  There is a cliffhanger, so if you’re not fond of those, it might be worth waiting and binge-reading the trilogy all in one go, but having read the first one and knowing the second one was out, I couldn’t convince myself to wait!

One StarOne StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

Lady Midnight (Cassandra Clare)

Lady Midnight (Cassandra Clare)Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare
Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books on March 8th 2016
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
Pages: 698
Format: audio
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

In a kingdom by the sea…

In a secret world where half-angel warriors are sworn to fight demons, parabatai is a sacred word.

A parabatai is your partner in battle. A parabatai is your best friend. Parabatai can be everything to each other—but they can never fall in love.

Emma Carstairs is a warrior, a Shadowhunter, and the best in her generation. She lives for battle. Shoulder to shoulder with her parabatai, Julian Blackthorn, she patrols the streets of Los Angeles, where vampires party on the Sunset Strip, and faeries—the most powerful of supernatural creatures—teeter on the edge of open war with Shadowhunters. When the bodies of humans and faeries turn up murdered in the same way Emma’s parents were when she was a child, an uneasy alliance is formed. This is Emma’s chance for revenge—and Julian’s chance to get back his brother Mark, who is being held prisoner by the faerie Courts. All Emma, Mark, and Julian have to do is solve the murders within two weeks…and before the murderer targets them.

Their search takes Emma from sea caves full of sorcery to a dark lottery where death is dispensed. And each clue she unravels uncovers more secrets. What has Julian been hiding from her all these years? Why does Shadowhunter Law forbid parabatai to fall in love? Who really killed her parents—and can she bear to know the truth?

The darkly magical world of Shadowhunters has captured the imaginations of millions of readers across the globe. Join the adventure in Lady Midnight, the long-awaited first volume of a new trilogy from Cassandra Clare.

Plot: ★★★★
Characters: ★★★★
Readability: ★★★★

I have a somewhat rocky track history with Cassandra Clare’s books… I loved books 1-3 of The Mortal Instruments but I thought 4 was pretty poor, and then ended up enjoying 5 & 6.  I’ve tried multiple times to get into The Infernal Devices, but despite having read Clockwork Angel I remember almost nothing about it and felt decidedly underwhelmed by it.  I put off picking up Lady Midnight because I assumed I’d need to have read The Infernal Devices first, but since I had an audible credit to spend I thought I’d just give it a try and look up a wikipedia summary for if I really needed to.

Lady Midnight follows Emma Carstairs and the Blackthorns, five years after City of Heavenly Fire. Based mostly at the LA Institute, this is a shadowhunter world that’s both familiar and still a little new to us as readers.  We’ve got characters that we know, sort of – we met Emma and the Blackthorns in City of Heavenly Fire – as well as new characters, like Kit Rook and Kieran.  We’ve got a few plot threads to follow throughout Lady Midnight: the return of Mark, who’s both changed and unchanged by his time in faerie, Emma’s search for evidence of what happened to her parents, and her desperate desire for revenge, and Emma and Julian’s potentially-veering-into-dangerous-territory feelings.

I have to say, I actually love most of the characters. Julian, like Jace, is a little too perfect-seeming for me at times, but I loved his siblings.  I instantly liked Kit and both Emma and Christina are very easy to like. The family dynamics between the Blackthorns are great, and the intense feelings stirred up by Mark’s return led to some moments that tugged on the heartstrings!  The romance definitely wasn’t my favourite aspect – one of my least favourite things in YA, especially when there’s a big cast, is when everyone gets paired off so neatly, with their forever partners (I don’t love all of Maas’ pairings for the same reason!) – but I didn’t dislike it. It felt plausible enough, and I could see why each would like the other, even if I thought everyone’s feelings were a little over the top!

Listening to audiobooks always takes me longer than reading a book of the same length because I only listen while walking to work (which I don’t do every day) and briefly to fall asleep.  Having said that, I listened to nearly 20 hours of audiobook in just under a month, which is a little higher than usual probably, because I was enjoying it!  While Morena Baccarin probably won’t be making it onto my list of all-time favourite narrators – which are all men so far, weirdly – I did find her very pleasant to listen to, and I’d happily listen to another audiobook she narrated.

I enjoyed Lady Midnight a lot more than I expected to, and as soon as I got another audible credit, I bought Lord of Shadows, and listened to it pretty much straight away.  You can bet I’ll be getting book 3 when it’s out too!

One StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

Review: Tower of Dawn

Review: Tower of DawnTower of Dawn (Throne of Glass, #6) by Sarah J. Maas
on September 5th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
Pages: 660
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

In the next installment of the New York Times bestselling Throne of Glass series, follow Chaol on his sweeping journey to a distant empire.
Chaol Westfall has always defined himself by his unwavering loyalty, his strength, and his position as the Captain of the Guard. But all of that has changed since the glass castle shattered, since his men were slaughtered, since the King of Adarlan spared him from a killing blow, but left his body broken.
His only shot at recovery lies with the legendary healers of the Torre Cesme in Antica—the stronghold of the southern continent's mighty empire. And with war looming over Dorian and Aelin back home, their survival might lie with Chaol and Nesryn convincing its rulers to ally with them.
But what they discover in Antica will change them both—and be more vital to saving Erilea than they could have imagined.

Plot: ★★★★★
Characters: ★★★★
Readability: ★★★★★

Tower of Dawn runs parallel to Empire of Storms, following Chaol and Nesryn’s journey to try and gain more allies for Aelin and the others.  On top of dealing with the politics and negotiations, trying to gain allies without revealing what they know about the Wyrdkeys because they don’t know who can be trusted, Chaol is also dealing with the aftermath of his injuries.  I like Nesryn and Chaol well enough, but I knew my two favourite characters (Manon & Lysandra) wouldn’t be in Tower of Dawn, so I went in not sure how attached to the characters I’d feel.  I’d also seen a few reviews saying it was too long, which seemed very believable looking at it. I shouldn’t have worried; I ended up loving a lot of the characters, especially Nesryn and Sartaq.  Nesryn and Chaol actually spend quite a lot of time apart throughout Tower of Dawn, so we alternate between their points of view, which was a thing I liked. I’m always a fan of multiple POVs, and I thought it worked really well here. While I preferred Nesryn’s storyline over Chaol’s, I could also see the importance of Chaol’s, and of course, I still enjoyed it.  Alternating between the two characters’ stories meant a slow-scene in one storyline could be followed up by something action-packed in the other, which kept me flicking through the pages saying ‘one more chapter’ far later than I should have been!

I actually was really pleasantly surprised by Tower of Dawn: I finished the book in 72 hours, even around work – in comparison, it took me almost two weeks to finish Empire of Storms, even despite having Manon to keep me addicted!  From my first-read of Throne of Glass to now, Maas has amazed me with the characters, the plot and the world-building.  In Tower of Dawn, that’s still the case, and we also got to see so many loose (or previously insignificant-seeming) threads link back together, and it becomes clear just how much planning Maas has put into the series.  This felt similar in many ways to the early Throne of Glass novels: it’s a little simpler and the cast is a little smaller, and while I’ve loved the way the series has developed as it went on, it was also nice to return to the same style that made me fall in love with the series initially. I missed Manon and her thirteen, but this was absolutely a worthy addition to the series.

One StarOne StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

Review: Wolf Brother

Review: Wolf BrotherWolf Brother (Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, #1) by Michelle Paver
Published by Orion Children's Books on May 27th 2005
Genres: Action & Adventure, Family, Hard Science Fiction
Length: 6 hours 25 minutes
Format: audio
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Thousands of years ago the land is one dark forest. Its people are hunter-gatherers. They know every tree and herb and they know how to survive in a time of enchantment and powerful magic. Until an ambitious and malevolent force conjures a demon: a demon so evil that it can be contained only in the body of a ferocious bear that will slay everything it sees, a demon determined to destroy the world.
Only one boy can stop it—12 year old Torak, who has seen his father murdered by the bear. With his dying breath, Torak’s father tells his son of the burden that is his. He must lead the bear to the mountain of the World Spirit and beg that spirit’s help to overcome it.
Torak is an unwilling hero. He is scared and trusts no one. His only companion is a wolf cub only three moons old, whom he seems to understand better than any human.
Theirs is a terrifying quest in a world of wolves, tree spirits and Hidden People, a world in which trusting a friend means risking your life.

Wolf Brother is one of those books that’s been on my radar for as long as I can remember, but only in the vaguest sense: I could picture the cover, I could tell you it was a children’s book, and that’s pretty much it.  Recently, having finished The Dresden Files audiobooks, I wasn’t sure what to spend my next audible credit on, but somehow ended up on the page for Wolf Brother.  The plot sounded intriguing enough – historical fiction, fantasy elements, a wolf! – but what really sold me was the fact that Sir Ian McKellen narrated it. I mean, let’s be honest, he has a voice just made for storytelling and I assume he must have been asked to read a lot of audiobooks by now, but for some reason this is the one he decided to go ahead with.  It’s quite short by audiobook standards – only 6.5 hours – which is good because it means you get through it quickly, but slightly less good in terms of value per credit 😉

Torak is likeable, Renn is pretty great, but the character who makes the book is of course, Wolf. The way he thinks – calling the humans ‘tailless’es, and an arrow the Long-Claw-That-Flies – is great, and he’s certainly the character I got most attached to.  As expected, McKellen’s narration is great, and the plot moves on quickly throughout the story; what could easily have been multiple books is instead just under 300 action-packed pages.  The downside to the quick pacing is that everything is pretty quick: relationships, plot development, character growth, are all pretty instantaneous.  I felt Torak found everything just a little bit too easy; he doesn’t have much in the way of strategy, or a plan, or if I’m totally honest, much of anything that particularly suggests he should be the hero of the story, apart from his ability to talk to Wolf.  The writing style is also pretty simple, and while it touches on a few darker themes, there’s no forgetting it’s a kids book.  Obviously kids are the target audience, but I think it’s a little disappointing that the pacing and writing could put off adults for whom the setting and storyline had crossover appeal.

Despite my issues with the book, I loved the setting, the survival skills elements were really cool, and the obvious research Paver has done really shines through.  I’m probably intrigued enough to get around to the rest on audio, if only because McKellen’s narration was so great.  Sadly though, I definitely think I’d have enjoyed this alot more if I’d discovered it as a kid.