3 star, buddy review, YA

Buddy Review: Set Fire to the Gods by Sara Raasch and Kristen Simmons

Ash is descended from a long line of gladiators, and she knows the brutal nature of war firsthand. But after her mother dies in an arena, she vows to avenge her by overthrowing her fire god, whose temper has stripped her country of its resources.

Madoc grew up fighting on the streets to pay his family’s taxes. But he hides a dangerous secret: he doesn’t have the earth god’s powers like his opponents. His elemental gift is something else—something that hasn’t been seen in centuries.

When an attempted revenge plot goes dangerously wrong, Ash inadvertently throws the fire and earth gods into a conflict that can only be settled by deadly, lavish gladiator games. The fights put Madoc in Ash’s path, and she realizes that his powers are the weapon her rebellion needs—but Madoc won’t jeopardize his family, regardless of how intrigued he is by the beautiful warrior.

But when the gods force Madoc’s hand, he and Ash uncover an ancient war that will threaten more than one immortal—it will unravel the world.



Welcome back to another installment of buddy reads between Fives and Andge at Down the Rabbit Hole!

This time, we ventured into a YA fantasy together, the first book in its duology. While this is nothing out of the ordinary to myself, Andge, my partner and friend, Fives, brings a pair of new eyes to YA fantasies with different expectations and insights than I may have.

Without further ado, here are our thoughts and discussions about this book!

Plot elements

Andge: I always think a good book is made up of a good foundation which can be found in its plot. Particularly important for fantasies in my opinion is its word building. Here, I found myself rather intrigued. There are 6 gods, children of the Mother Goddess who has been dead for centuries, and each god’s children may potentially inherit the ability associated with their elemental nature, known as energeia. I loved this uniqueness, especially because the elements aren’t relegated to just simple fire, water, air and earth. There is also animal and plant energeia which I’ve never seen elsewhere.

I only had two problems with how Raasch and Simmons crafted this world. First, it was an info dump in the beginning which may leave you scrambling to understand all the names of the places, gods and what their energeia can do. Second, even worse than the first, is that this story wastes so much of the world building. We only follow Deimans (the Earth people) and Kulans (the Fire people) with only brief mentions of the other people and places. I wish the authors could’ve done more here with its potential because I think relegating everyone and everything else to book 2 will probably not allow much time or exploration.

Fives: I definitely have to agree with Andge here. Even as only an occasional reader of YA fantasies, I did recognize that elements beyond the base four was something special. This made me immediately look forwards to seeing the plant and animal gods, and how their powers might manifest beyond the “normal” manipulation of the elements. To my surprise and great disappointment, neither of these clans really show up! The main characters are from earth and fire, so we get plenty of world building from these two peoples (two POVs as well). But we are left almost completely in the dark when it came to the other four gods.

I personally enjoy world building, and don’t mind too much if it can be complicated and rather laborious to be explained. However, the way it was written here really set me up to expect so much more. The little tidbits of the earth and fire people really got my excited to meet the rest of the clans. It is unfortunate that there is a beautiful trajectory of the world and how it could be built and explained, but then for me it just falls short when it doesn’t come up to my expectation. I do really like what I see and admire the uniqueness of the concept, but do wish I could have seen more of this wonderfully intriguing world.

Pacing

Andge: With the info dump at the beginning I mentioned came a sluggish start. It may discourage some people from continuing because the real gladiator arena fighting between the Deimans and Kulans take a while to come. I understand the need for setting up the story but it always makes me antsy when we know so much of what WILL happen from the synopsis but it doesn’t occur until way later in the book. The pace definitely picks up by the halfway mark, with an element of intrigue entering into the midst as we wonder about a potential conspiracy among the gods and a surprising gift one of the protagonists has.

Fives: Again, I have to agree with Andge on the pacing – definitely slow. While understandable for world-building (and even though I don’t personally mind too much), the high number of names and terms to get acquainted with is a bit daunting for sure. I loved the whole concept and really wanted to see where it could lead, but the beginning wasn’t able to hook me much. I felt that the middle was quite exciting and driving, but the ending fell a bit short for me. Overall I did not have a hard time reading this book, and I enjoyed it, but there were definitely clear sections where I felt excited to read more, and parts where I was wondering when the next thing would happen.

Characters

Andge: Last but not least, this story ultimately follows Madoc (a Deiman) and Ash (a Kulan) in alternating POVs as they find themselves on the path towards becoming gladiators and fighting for their respective gods in the arena. I liked them, which is always a plus (it is terrible to have to stick with a protagonist you can’t stand), but I didn’t feel anything too special about any of them. Ash is hurt and brimming with vengeance for her mother’s death, a trait that I can sympathize. Madoc, on the other hand, yearns to find his place and be recognized, with the additional protective streak for his found family. But beyond this, I didn’t see anything special in either one of them.

Any secondary characters were not completely two-dimensional, but I found myself wanting to see more of them. For example, Ash’s entourage of Kulan fighters seem brave and equally tired of fighting their god’s wars, but we don’t spend enough time with them. Or Madoc’s adoptive brother and sister who seem to just be more plot elements than real people I care about. I’m not sure if it’s just me being jaded.

Fives: The story follows Madoc and Ash who each have something to fight for as they risk their lives for their goal. Beyond being relatable, and having a complex background to earn sympathy, there isn’t really that much making them more special of a character – although not necessarily a bad thing. Beyond their tragic pasts or their unfortunate circumstances, the authors do not really make it a point to milk these connections and really draw me in. They mention many times, or allude to many things that are quite sad or haunting, but don’t really use it to evoke emotions more than the surface level expected ones.

I definitely agree with Andge that the secondary characters were much more foil in nature – I am not entirely sure if we were supposed to feel sorry for them or be invested in their story, but they definitely felt like a means to an end for the main characters, and it really felt like no one else in the story mattered but them (main character syndrome?). But if you like books all about the main characters, then this is for you!


Have you read this one before or have it on your TBR? We are always delighted to hear your thoughts!

Until next time, friends.

5 star, adult, buddy review

Buddy Review: The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

Anna Fox lives alone, a recluse in her New York City home, unable to venture outside. She spends her day drinking wine (maybe too much), watching old movies, recalling happier times . . . and spying on her neighbors.

Then the Russells move into the house across the way: a father, a mother and their teenage son. The perfect family. But when Anna, gazing out her window one night, sees something she shouldn’t, her world begins to crumble and its shocking secrets are laid bare.

What is real? What is imagined? Who is in danger? Who is in control? In this diabolically gripping thriller, no one—and nothing—is what it seems.



Welcome to our first buddy read at Down the Rabbit Hole! Fives and I are excited to start such a series with A.J. Finn’s explosive debut, The Woman in the Window. If you would like to see more of these kinds of reviews, please let us know in the comments below!

Breaking the book into a couple of important points, these are our individual and collective thoughts that came up as we read this book together.

Pacing and suspense build-up

Andge: While a thriller is typically typed as so by the level of intrigue and suspense the author aimed to put their audience through, not all are successful. The Woman in the Window was super slow for its first 30 or so chapters, let’s be honest. But its mundane, day-to-day details in Anna Fox’s life had a purpose that came back ten-fold, leaving me to revel at what came to be at the climax. Once details of the event Anna witnessed through her window unfolded, things just climb from there in a way that felt organic. Headings showing you the passage of time helped create a sense of urgency as we learn one new thing after the other. I would say the pacing couldn’t have been better.

Fives: I definitely agree with Andge’s sentiment here – the beginning was quite slow – although I personally don’t mind too much, I am all about that slow build suspense (the ‘just what is going on?!’ feeling). This all being said, the ramp up in tension and excitement was quick and relentless. I know for a fact that neither of us were able to put it down after the second half the book – it was painstaking for us to stop at our agreed landmarks for discussion! The short chapters were very well executed in providing this kind of steady rhythm that underlies the whole novel and provides a driving force for the suspense. Not every thriller I have read has this type of pacing, but I can say I definitely enjoyed this whole experience!

Plot elements

Andge: Any good mystery or thriller places a good amount of attention to the mundane details. They may just be there to set the scene, or in actuality, help tie together loose pieces at the end. A.J. Finn did this beautifully! I honestly flipped through pages back and forth in later scenes referencing earlier ones with exclamations of “oh wow I totally missed this!”. Red herrings are also a thing I look out for but the level of craftsmanship in this piece of writing made it hard for me to narrow down what mattered or what was there to throw us off. This detail-oriented planning was perfect for such a book.

Fives: Having more thrillers under my belt than perhaps an average reader, I have come to expect many kinds of seemingly mundane plot points or bedazzled red herrings. That being said, A.J. Finn did a fantastic job slipping in all the inconspicuous little details mixed in with the heavy hints – this did a really good job of mixing us up! Andge and I had long discussions over the many details inserted into the plot, and what they could possibly mean in the whole scheme of the novel. I believe one of the best approaches to thrillers is the hiding of important facts in plain sight, and I can say that the author did the most fantastic job of this – only when you really stop to scrutinize the details can you really even begin to pick out some possibilities. That being said, you won’t be able to stop turning the page to think!

Characters

Andge: In my experience with mysteries, sometimes the whodunnit individual was some random character who appeared for five seconds on a singular page in chapter 10, or something. So of course I had no idea they did it! Unlike my frustrations in those stories, I loved that we got to really know a handful of main characters in this book. The Russells made up of Alistair, Jane and Ethan held an air of mystery that slowly unravelled little by little as Anna interacted with them in her limited capacity. Add in Anna’s estranged family, daughter Olivia and husband Ed, plus her handsome live-in tenant David, there were a lot of people to consider when trying to piece the bits of information Finn slowly released to us at interesting times. Were any of these people involved in something, and why?

Fives: The characters are one of the standout points in this thriller. We get so many details into each of the main characters, and there are very few throwaway characters. Everyone was there for a reason, and as you delve deeper into all the characters that show up in the book, each one leaves you wondering about their motive and secrets – the mark of a truly skilled author. The plot follows only Anna, an agoraphobe who is stuck in her house, as she looks beyond into other houses. After reading the book, I am reminded that windows are two-way – does ‘The Woman in the Window’ refer to Anna looking out through the window, or someone else being looked at?

Ending

Andge: I would never want to ruin a book such as a thriller to you. But to sum up my feelings for The Woman in the Window, I have to at least address the ending. We came up with many hypotheses over our discussions for how this story was to end, and I do mean many. What I will say is that I wasn’t disappointed which is a HUGE win in my books, and it felt like the right kind of ending to give Anna and her story.

Fives: So in the end, what happens is – – just kidding. But trust me, despite being able to predict a few things here and there (none of which we were sure still, by the way), the whole ramp up all the way to the climax and resolution was just honestly enthralling, and I don’t think there was any other way I would have wanted it. The transformation of Anna from the beginning to the end was also a marked delight, and you must go see (or rather, read) for yourself! What are you waiting for?


We hope you liked reading this buddy review! We are super excited for any subsequent releases by A.J. Finn. But most importantly, we are stoked for the upcoming Netflix adaptation of this book this year. Stay tuned for a blog post comparing our thoughts on the book with the movie 🙂