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.

4 star, YA

Review: One of Us is Next by Karen M. McManus

One of Us is Lying #2

Come on, Bayview, you know you’ve missed this.

A ton of copycat gossip apps have popped up since Simon died, but in the year since the Bayview four were cleared of his shocking death, no one’s been able to fill the gossip void quite like he could. The problem is no one has the facts.

Until now.

This time it’s not an app, though—it’s a game.

Truth or Dare.

Phoebe’s the first target. If you choose not to play, it’s a truth. And hers is dark.

Then comes Maeve and she should know better—always choose the dare.

But by the time Knox is about to be tagged, things have gotten dangerous. The dares have become deadly, and if Maeve learned anything from Bronwyn last year, it’s that they can’t count on the police for help. Or protection.

Simon’s gone, but someone’s determined to keep his legacy at Bayview High alive. And this time, there’s a whole new set of rules. 



Karen M. McManus does it again! In this exciting sequel to One of Us is Lying, Bayview High is once again plunged into the mystery of a seemingly omniscient narrator (think Gossip Girl or Pretty Little Liars!) even after the death of Simon. Can Bayview ever escape his clutches?

Instead of the Bayview Four, this time the story revolves around three main characters and their POVs. It has been a year since Simon’s passing, and Bayview is seemingly quiet from the normal gossip-mongering. Some copycats have arisen to try and be the new Simon, but all have failed – until now. As a cryptic new message introduces a brand new game to be played, the stakes are raised. Can our protagonists band together to unveil the truth and stop whoever is behind it before it’s too late?

Once again we have a type of whodunnit mystery novel as a sequel to the original, in which the protagonists must dig into the past to uncover the truth of the present. What are the links between the Truth or Dare game and the events that transpire at Bayview High? We have Bronwyn’s younger sister Maeve as a main protagonist, and her two friends Knox and Phoebe, who all fall victim to the Truth or Dare game. Once again, even with the alternating point of views, I found the storytelling to be quite clear, and easy to follow. The twists and turns in this mystery were exciting, and the ending was actually not as predictable as I thought it would be.

Although the concept of the “omniscient narrator” is no longer novel in the sequel, McManus actually finds a new way to incorporate this concept in the same setting – kudos for being able to do that! With such a specific concept, it’s easy for the sequel to be repetitive, but I found the characters and the plotlines different enough that I was happy with the familiarity and still intrigued by the mystery and suspense. The growth of the characters was also nice to see – as much growth as can be found in a mystery novel anyway.

Overall I think these two books make a great set. I think McManus has a way of really appealing to the’young adult in me, using so many references from modern day contemporary settings to make me feel like I’m right among the kids “my age” again. Did anyone else have this kind of feeling reading her works? It certainly draws me in like no other YA author I’ve read recently. I will definitely be looking out for more of her works in the future!

Overall Recommendations

One of Us is Next is the exciting sequel to McManus’ original work One of Us is Lying, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. This story takes place the year after the tragic events of the original novel, and has all the same foreboding of Simon’s original reign of terror. Just who is responsible for the revival of his sinister games? A great set of two, I highly recommend reading these two books together, the author does a really good job of creating this ‘world’ at Bayview High, and I felt that this sequel was a good companion to the first novel. Expands the world just enough, but also doesn’t overplay and overuse the same tropes. If you enjoy reading about high schoolers getting caught in tough situations and fighting through it, be sure to check this book out. And if you missed Andge’s review on One of Us is Lying, you can read it here!

5 star, YA

Review: Influence by Sara Shepard and Lilia Buckingham

Get ready to delve into the world of teen influencers like you’ve never done before–from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of PRETTY LITTLE LIARS Sara Shepard and sixteen-year-old actress and social media personality Lilia Buckingham comes a twisty mystery that takes place in the fiercely competitive world of Internet stars.

After a video she makes goes viral, everyone knows Delilah Rollins. And now that she’s in LA, Delilah’s standing on the edge of something incredible. Everything is going to change. She has no idea how much.

Jasmine Walters-Diaz grew up in the spotlight. A child star turned media darling, the posts of her in her classic Lulu C. rainbow skirt practically break the Internet. But if the world knew who Jasmine really was, her perfect life? Canceled.

Fiona Jacobs is so funny–the kind of girl for whom a crowd parts–no wonder she’s always smiling! But on the inside? The girl’s a hot mess. And when someone comes out of the shadows with a secret from her past, it’s one that won’t just embarrass Fiona: it will ruin her.

Who wouldn’t want to be Scarlet Leigh? Just look at her Instagram. Scarlet isn’t just styled to perfection: she is perfection. Scarlet has a gorgeous, famous boyfriend named Jack and there’s a whole fanbase about their ship. To everyone watching online, their lives seem perfect . . . but are they really? The sun is hot in California . . . and someone’s going to get burned.



Feeling my inner part Gen-Z mentality coming out here, but this was the surprise of the year so far for me. Influence follows the life of three young girls either just starting out in a career on social media or growing up as a childhood star. While I particularly loved one girl over the others, I was delighted to learn so much about what being an influencer is like through their eyes. This was only possible due to the personal knowledge and experience by one of the authors, Lilia Buckingham, an actual influential teenager who stands for justice and pride.

The story flows amazingly, with short chapters alternating between our three girls. Delilah, otherwise known as Lila D, was new to the game, having a video of her rescuing an animal from a burning building shooting her to viral fandom. I loved her because I could understand her the most. The confusion in moving to L.A, and figuring out the kind of lifestyle and rhythm influencers partake to constantly create and stay relevant for their fans. I liked that she stayed true to herself throughout, not pandering a certain persona to people to gain fame.

Jasmine was also a delight to follow. Having been a popular child star in a program for children, she was forced to maintain that persona through a literal contract for her sponsors which included a clause for morals. As in she couldn’t do anything that was deemed inappropriate by parents. The question became, how do you find yourself if you could never actually be yourself and explore? Her whole character reminded me of Miley Cyrus, and now I have even more sympathy for her who had to really go through such an ordeal in real life. And perhaps even larger spectacle to shed such image.

Lastly, there was Fiona and I’m glad the authors included her. She suffers from OCD and carries a deep secret from the past that may have triggered more of symptoms. Trying to keep everything under control while remaining calm for her fans and upcoming acting jobs is hard. It doesn’t get any better when someone started blackmailing her about this secret!

We follow these three friends as they navigate the spotlight, influencer events and gigs. I love that the authors take the time to get us settled in with their lives, the secrets they harbour, and the internal storm they each face that never surfaces on the faces they share with their audiences.

Then, this becomes a true crime mystery! Someone dies.

If you know me, you know that I absolutely ADORE mysteries, particularly whodunnits. It was like the icing on the cake. From the whole slew of cast and characters we meet through each girl, there are so many potential suspects who may want this person gone. And because we understand the intricacies of relationships behind the scenes, it’s easier to put on our detective hats and guess along as we go.

There’s also some angsty romance like the cherry on top. Delilah finds herself in a snare when a guy she had a meet-cute moment with turns out to be some famous Youtuber who is in a relationship! Oh, what will happen from that? I’m just grinning at this whole setup because it’s cheesy but so perfectly executed amidst everything else in this book. It’s not the focus for sure, but it’s a big part of Delilah’s POV and totally adds to the story.

The overall message of Influence is that it’s hard to show our real selves online, even more so when you have crafted a persona for yourself that has exploded among your fan base to the point that its taken a life of its own. While most of us may never experience such fame and the intricate balance of staying true to ourselves online, the lesson is still real and relevant regardless of how many eyes are on us. Vulnerability is hard, whether thousands of people are watching or even just one, but it’s a choice we ultimately need to make if we want to figure out who we are. What is seen on the outside may not always represent who are are inside but that doesn’t have to remain the case forever.

It is always a choice we can make for ourselves. And I love that behind the fun premise of the life of influencers, Influence is ultimately about this. Find your voice and be true to yourself.

Overall Recommendation:

Influence gives interesting insight into the lives of social media influencers, and a whopping story of the facades we show the world. I loved the realness of the three protagonists and their individual struggles as they seek out recognition, fame and ultimately, themselves. The overall pacing was great, flipping between the different POVs, with the suspense ramping up when a mystery presented itself halfway. While it may seem like strictly a teen book, I feel this story has complex layers to it that will appeal to a wider audience. Ultimately, Influence makes us question what our true selves are and how willing we are to reach for it.