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, YA

ARC Review: Game Changer by Neal Shusterman

All it takes is one hit on the football field, and suddenly Ash’s life doesn’t look quite the way he remembers it.

Impossible though it seems, he’s been hit into another dimension—and keeps on bouncing through worlds that are almost-but-not-really his own.

The changes start small, but they quickly spiral out of control as Ash slides into universes where he has everything he’s ever wanted, universes where society is stuck in the past…universes where he finds himself looking at life through entirely different eyes.

And if he isn’t careful, the world he’s learning to see more clearly could blink out of existence…



**Game Changer comes out February 9, 2021!**

Thank you Edelweiss and HarperCollins for this copy in exchange for an honest review

That basic human need for identity is, and has always been, a double-edged sword. Because the closer to our feet we draw that line in the sand, the more we see everyone else as the enemy.

I don’t have any coherent words to say, but I will do my utmost best.

Game Changer is a different kind of story than Neal’s other books, but at the same time, I totally see how it is in his wheelhouse of ideas. While I have seen other early reviewers calling it preachy and taking on too much, I think this was the author’s way of dealing with the wreckage that was 2020. I mean, even COVID was mentioned briefly as a defining moment of history. Like, hey, remember the year everyone went into lockdown due to COVID? Yep. Not sure if I’m ready to see this mentioned in my fictional books, but I totally understand at the same time.

We follow Ash, full name Ashley, a football lineman. I know next to nothing about football – I’m sorry it’s not my country’s sport? – but this isn’t a football-focused story. It’s just the vehicle by which Ash finds himself hurtling through different dimensions of the same world if certain changes or decisions were unmade. I know, this sounds super vague but bear with me.

At first it may be a little confusing to get into. What? Different worlds? Trust me, you just got to hang in there. The changes initially start small. Just one small detail Ash notices that wasn’t the same as what he previously knew the world to be like. However, no one else in his circle of family, friends or townspeople can recall these changes. It’s like the world never made those decisions and Ash is the only one who remembers a different reality where it existed.

I always admire Neal for his ingenuity and creative thinking. I like this take on multi dimensions. And with each dimension Ash accidentally jumps into, the larger the changes and the more drastic consequences. The interactions and events that occur in each dimension’s timeline are still remembered in the new dimension, but with altered memories to fit the narrative of what that world looks like. Yes, it’s a bit complicated but it’s interesting once we’re there.

Now, where do the more negative reviews stem from? This book tackles A LOT of big issues. Racism and segregation, homophobia and hate crimes, sexism and emotional/physical abuse, it’s a lot to learn and take in for just one of these let alone ALL of these. I get that.

BUT I also see where the author is coming from. I don’t see it from the stance that he fully explored each topic in depth (of course he didn’t), but to showcase how imperfect our world is and what more we need to work on as a society together. Yes, sometimes you may feel called out on our own privileges and our ignorance. I think that’s the point. Neal Shusterman’s books always make us think beyond just the story itself to what our own reality and life is like. What makes us tick. What breaks us apart. What builds us up together. It’s the beauty of it!

I can promise you, the ending isn’t just a white-saviour complex whereby Ash, a white dude, saves everything and all is good in the world. No, the point is that there is still a lot to be done and it starts by each of us owning our own biases and figuring out what we CAN do besides just silently agreeing. The ending is hope.

I personally loved the way Neal introduced, not necessarily solved or fully addressed, each social issue we have through Ash’s eyes. I don’t feel called out by it but invigorated to learn more and do more in my life. I hope you pick up this book and feel the same. Let’s not just get defensive but let it bring us to discuss these things to learn and DO something about it.

I have been schooled in my own ignorance. That’s not a bad thing…Perhaps, in the end, that’s the perspective that matters. Only by being humbled can we ever hope to be great.

Ashley Bowman

Overall Recommendation:

Game Changer is one of those books that stay long with you after its final pages are turned. Juggling many things at once, it delicately balances the need to show us the imperfections of our society and world while emphasizing the optimism and hope that we can do better as a whole together. Shusterman excellently throws these perspectives together in a story of multi dimensions through one boy’s eyes. Following Ash’s journey as he unravels his own ignorance and views of the world is eye-opening and guaranteed to shine a light on our own perspectives as we journey with him. What a read indeed!

3.5 star, YA

ARC Review: The Iron Raven by Julie Kagawa

Series: The Iron Fey Evenfall #1

You may have heard of me…

Robin Goodfellow. Puck. Prankster, joker, raven, fool… King Oberon’s right-hand jester from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The legends are many, but the truth will now be known as never before, as Puck finally tells his own story and faces a threat to the lands of Faery and the human world unlike any before.

With the Iron Queen Meghan Chase and her prince consort, Puck’s longtime rival Ash, and allies old and new by his side, Puck begins a fantastical and dangerous adventure not to be missed or forgotten.



***The Iron Raven comes out February 9, 2021***

Thank you Edelweiss and HarperCollins for this copy in exchange for an honest review.

All you old-timer fans out there, are you excited for the next instalment of the Iron Fey series? Because I sure am!

I was such a fan of Julie’s earliest series when it first came out, and while I was always solidly a Team Ash (sorry, not sorry), I loved Puck for the friend and caring guy he was. So here is his story and I’m super glad we get to see the world through his unique eyes.

The Iron Raven picks up some time after the events of the original Iron Fey series AND the Call of the Forgotten series, so you will definitely get spoilers from both. And while there are references to things that occurred in those series (and really big, mighty ones they were!), I don’t believe it’s absolutely necessary to have read all of them to get a good sense of this world from here.

Puck, also known as Robin Goodfellow, is still the trickster you know and heard of – made known by a certain human playwright, hmm? But he may not be exactly the lovable character you remember in the Iron Fey series. Something is going around, and the nastier, crueler side of Robin Goodfellow may be just simmering under the surface as he navigates with old allies and new friends alike in another mission to save the world from ending.

Also, why do the faeries seem to have endless ways to end the world?

Our new love interest Nyx is a girl I can stand behind. While she may not be Meghan Chase, the Iron Queen, she’s strong, capable, fierce and protective of those she cares for. Definitely someone who can go head-to-head with a faerie as old and worldly as Puck, even when he’s not on his absolute best behaviour (though I suppose, when is he really?).

With the same style of storytelling Julie is known for in her previous two trilogies, you can expect action (lots of athletic battling going on here), cute romantic moments (aww!) and an ending that will leave you thirsting for more.

While I enjoyed all of these things, plus the added feels from people and places I remember in her old series (the nostalgia is REAL), I did feel the story could’ve progressed faster at times, particularly the beginning. Once things started really going and I was really invested in the issue at hand, things just seem to get “resolved”, like we’re closing that particular story element and I found myself at the end of the book. With an ending that screamed for another page to exist after it!

But that is the only complaint I have because I thoroughly enjoyed being inside Robin Goodfellow’s head for once. Instead of being the comic relief kinda guy, we get to see what makes him tick, the old things he hadn’t let go of in his many years of existence, and the struggles he hides deep down by putting on a show with his witty tricks and banter.

If you love Puck, this is definitely a book for you. Because his inner monologue was the star of the show for me, and I love him all the more for it.

Overall Recommendation:

The Iron Raven is a great story for those just being introduced to the Nevernever and to those of us who really hit the nostalgia going down these familiar roads. A character not unfamiliar to most of us, this is Robin Goodfellow’s story and the kind of trouble he gets into with old friends (ahh, Meghan and Ash!) and new ones alike. With a budding new romance on the horizon for him and yet another end of the world prophecy he needs to deal with, Puck finds himself facing not only the external issues coming at him but some inner demons of his own he has not really purged in his years of existence. Fun, action-packed scenes and a crew of characters to root for, The Iron Raven feels like slipping on old slippers that we missed and loved.