Book: The Hidden Oracle (The Trials of Apollo, Book 1)

"The Hidden Oracle"

My father’s voice still rings in my ears. Can you believe Zeus blamed me for the gods’ battle with Gaea? Just because the earth goddess duped one of my progeny–Octavian–into plunging the Greek and Roman demigods into a civil war that nearly destroyed human civilization. I ask you, how was that my fault?

Now I’m cast out of Olympus in the form of a sixteen-year-old mortal boy, acne and all! Sadly, I’ve been punished this way before. I know I will face many trials and hardships, I can only hope that if I suffer through them and prove myself worthy, Father will forgive me and allow me to become a god again.

But this time my situation seems much more dangerous. One of my ancient adversaries knows I am here and is having me followed. The Oracle of Delphi remains dark, unable to issue prophecies. Most embarrassing of all, I am bound to serve a demigod street urchin who defends herself by throwing rotten fruit.

Zeus could not possibly expect me to fix the Oracle problem by myself. Not in my present weak condition. It’s time for me to drop in on Camp Half-Blood, where I might find some talented fodder…er, I mean heroes to help0. No doubt they will welcome me as a celebrity! They will bring me holy offerings, like peeled grapes, Oreos, and–oh, gods–perhaps even bacon!

Mmm. Yes. If I survive this, I really must write an ode to the power of bacon…

I feel like half this blog post has already been taken over by the book’s back synopsis alone. And it’s not like the synopsis does a good job at selling the book. It doesn’t. In fact, I’m glad that this is actually the first time I’m reading this horrible synopsis–while typing it up. Because I very much would not have picked the book up based on the synopsis alone.

Ah, who am I kidding. This is Rick Riordan. And save for the really horrible Mark of Athena, I’ve enjoyed all of his books. Yes, even the ones from The Kane Chronicles. So even with this weird synopsis, I would have picked up the first book off The Trials of Apollo. I just wanted to say that the synopsis is horrible enough times that someone takes notice. And writes a better synopsis for the next book.

Because it really does a great disservice to the The Hidden Oracle, which I feel, is setting out to be a better series than both Percy Jackson and the Olympians, as well as Heroes of Olympus.

Of course, you first have to get over the fact that Apollo as a main character can get tiring pretty fast. And because Rick Riordan has been doing almost the same shtick for more than ten books, you can already see most of the twists coming a chapter away. But what this book has that the others don’t is interesting characters:

Apollo, as annoying as he is, is Riordan’s most flawed character ever–while still remaining a likeable goof. Meg, the aforementioned demigod street urchin, is a strong female character that has interesting non-romantic issues to deal with. And from the get go, we know that there will be no romantic subplot between the two that could wreak another Mark of Athena upon us.

And I love the fact that the book is told completely through Apollo’s perspective. There’s no jumping around between characters that makes cliffhangers annoying instead of page-turning. There is no split focus between characters that stops the main story moving forward.

The storytelling is linear, which I’m very thankful for, as there are no eleventh-hour twists that gets explained away by a new flashback detailing why said twist is supposed to work. And then, when we do get our twist (or rather, lack of twist?), it actually shakes up the relationship dynamics of characters that make readers look forward to the sequel. Because the new story potential doesn’t stem from the twist, but from how that twist affects our main character.

As I put the book down, I could tell that I was already looking forward to what the next book will bring. Especially with the revelations Riordan shares about the loose ends from his previous two demigod series. Now let’s just hope he doesn’t mess it up.

Book: Death Weavers (Five Kingdoms, Book 4)

"Death Weavers"

Cole is about to face his biggest peril yet.

Since arriving in the Outskirts, Cole and his friends have fought monsters, challenged knights, and battled rampaging robots. But none of that has prepared them Necronum.

In this haunting kingdom, it’s hard to tell the living from the dead, and secret pacts carry terrifying dangers. Within Necronum lies the echolands, a way station for the departed, where the living seldom venture.

Still separated from his power, Cole must cross to the echolands and rely on his instincts to help rescue his friends. With enemies closing in, Cole risks losing everything to find the one thing that might save them.

Before I begin, I must warn whoever is reading this that I’m not going to hold back on spoilers. So if you’re planning on picking the book up, I suggest clicking away and coming back once you’ve finished the fourth installment off Brandon Mull’s Five Kingdoms series. Now, with that out of the way–

I actually don’t know if I liked Mull’s penultimate book to his current series. I mean, leading up to the finale, Death Weavers definitely ups the stakes and does a good job at building the tension. But at the same time, it feels a bit… much.

Now, I praised Crystal Keepers for breaking out of the Mull mold. It didn’t feel like it was a part of the Fablehaven series, and it was very different from the Beyonders trilogy. And the best part? It continued the Five Kingdoms story without being a carbon copy of the two books that preceded it–whilst standing out as its own story. Unfortunately, in Death Weavers, Mull zags again by doubling down on the fantastical countryside capers.

And not only is the fourth book back on fantasy ground, Mull actually brings back a lot of characters from earlier books–and even a couple from the Beyonders trilogy.

The thing here is: when Drake and Ferrin, both well-loved characters from the Beyonders books, first popped up? I thought it was a great way of establishing where and what the Outskirts was. And then they joined the adventure. Which would’ve been great had it been necessary for them to be part of the adventure. It wasn’t. Mull could’ve created new characters to join them, and it wouldn’t have mattered. Their inclusion, by book’s end, felt more like fan service than a story necessity.

Then there’s the cop out with Destiny.

See, in each book, Cole Randolph is saving one princess at a time. In this book, he’s supposed to save and protect the youngest princess, Destiny, from the bad guys who want to take her power. When Cole finally finds Destiny, they immediately get cornered by bad guys. Which was a good plot development, I thought. Then Destiny jumped into the river where no one comes out off, and I was floored. It was a risky move. Especially for a Young Adult adventure book. I loved it because it presents new problems, and it will definitely develop the characters as they confront an important death–in the book that has the theme of death hovering over everyone!

And then Cole saves her.

This is when I started disliking the character of Cole. I know he’s supposed to be the all-powerful savior, and the hero to the entire series–but, it’s hard to root for a guy you know will end up winning in the end. Sure he makes mistakes, but he doesn’t really experience loss. And that makes for a pretty crappy hero’s journey.

Of course, with this being the second-to-last book off the series, I’m still definitely picking the next book up to see how it all gets wrapped up; but I must say that the Five Kingdoms isn’t living up to the legacy of the Beyonders trilogy. The world feels half-formed, and the characters don’t feel like real people most of the time. The villains are still vague, and we’re already four books in–and although they’re all said to be scary, none of them feels threatening because of how powerful our main protagonist is.

I guess I have made my mind up about Death Weavers after all.

It’s a pretty disappointing book overall, even if it does do its job of building up the finale.

Book: Crystal Keepers (Five Kingdoms, Book 3)

"Crystal Keepers"

Cole Randolph still can’t believe the way his life has turned inside out. Stuck in a strange land far from his home, he has found his friend Dalton and has survived the first two kingdoms of the Outskirts, but none of that has prepared him for the magnetic highways and robotic bounty hunters of Zeropolis.

Ruled by Abram Trench, the one Grand Shaper who stayed loyal to the evil High King, the government of Zeropolis uses advanced technologies to keep tight control. Luckily, the resistance in Zeropolis is anchored by the Crystal Keepers–a group of young rebels with unique weapons.

On the run from the High King’s secret police, Cole and Dalton hope to find more of their lost friends and help Mira locate her sister Constance. But as their enemies ruthlessly dismantle the resistance, time is running out for Cole to uncover the secrets behind the Zeropolitan government and unravel the mystery of who helped the High King steal his daughters’ powers.

In Crystal Keepers, we finally get a story that feels original and not a retread of a previous adventure. As Cole and our other journeying protagonists enter the kingdom of Zeropolis, we’re treated to a world unlike we’ve seen in previous Brandon Mull novels–a technologically-advanced one.

The change of milieu really helps the storytelling feel fresh, as the checklist of things that need to happen author Mull employed in Rogue Knight doesn’t pop up here. The adventures are new, as are the dangers–which makes Crystal Keepers a page-turner. You don’t have an idea what’s going to happen next.

Now, I don’t know if this was a case of lowered expectations, but I really enjoyed reading the third installment off the Five Kingdoms series. Crystal Keepers feels action-packed without being overdone, and the pacing is slow enough to let the characters breathe and process what’s going on around them.

What I like best about this book is the fact that the writer is finally coloring in the characters that have, so far, only been mentioned and not seen. We’re starting to see how perception plays into the story, and how not everything is as black-and-white as previously thought. And yet, although a few chapters is given to the ongoing main arc, it doesn’t feel like a big break from the book’s own story line. It’s still pushing the book’s plot forward while pushing the bigger picture.

With the introduction of new characters, the ones we’ve been traveling with since the first book also come off a little better. To be honest, in Rogue Knight, our protagonists were starting to grate on my nerves. So the addition of new personalities and voices were very welcome, to water down my annoyance at the constant bickering between Cole and fellow traveler Jace.

There were still a few parts of the book that I wasn’t fond off–parts that felt obvious foreshadowing and device-planting. But on the whole, they didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the book. And I highly doubt that the intended readers of the series would be too discerning about obvious plot devices.

All that said, there is one twist that I’m still on the fence about.

In the first two books, there happened to be a great unexplainable being that’s causing mayhem in whatever kingdom they were in. Beings that turn out to be a personification of the princesses stolen powers. I was on the look out for the same device here, in the third book, but it didn’t appear until the last few chapters.

And, no, I don’t mean that it didn’t appear physically until the last few chapters. I mean that there was no sign of it at all until it needed to be the big villain.

Now, on the one hand, I really liked how Brandon Mull tried to change it up and not repeat what he did before. But, on the other hand, I’m not a fan of a third-act reveal of an enemy that needs to be defeated; one that the book needs to end big at that.

I guess I’ll just have to hope that this doesn’t happen again in the remaining two novels off the Five Kingdoms series.

I’m crossing my fingers.

Book: The Sleeper and the Spindle

"The Sleeper and the Spindle"

She was one of the those forest witches driven to the margins a thousand years ago, and a bad lot. She cursed the babe at birth, such that when the girl was eighteen she would prick her finger and sleep forever.

Sleeping Beauty has gotten its fair share of retelling. Heck, Sleeping Beauty itself is a retelling. But there is something to be said about Neil Gaiman’s version that makes it so very other-worldly. Sure, Chris Riddell’s artwork is amazing and adds to the feel of the storytelling– but even without it, the words itself seem to have a weight upon them as they spin the tale of Briar Rose.

I love the fact that our protagonist is a woman–and Snow White at that. She has her own story that doesn’t get told outright, but is filled in through trickles of exposition that feels like accidents. It’s as if the character herself doesn’t want to take away from the gravity of her adventure to save her kingdom–and the babe who was cursed by the witch–

And then there’s the lightness in the sparse dialogue peppered throughout the story, as if to balance the whole affair.

But what I love most about The Sleeper and the Spindle is how it subverts expectations. Everyone knows the story of Briar Rose in one form or another, but even as Gaiman ticks off the plot developments that people expect–he also adds his own whimsical twists to the events that unfold, pushing the familiar story into new territories.

The Sleeper and the Spindle ends where Sleeping Beauty ends; with the curse lifted, and the witch defeated. But Gaiman also provides a different happy ending for his characters. He doesn’t tie their destinies to each other just because it is what’s expected. He gives them the happy ending they all deserve. Freedom to choose their own fates–something they hadn’t been given their whole lives.

And I realized I sort of spoiled the ending.

Believe me, though, when I say that The Sleeper and the Spindle is worth reading on your own. Multiple times. And then sharing the story with friends. And acquaintances. And even strangers.

Let it cast its spell on you.

Book: Rogue Knight (Five Kingdoms, Book 2)

"Rogue Knight"

Cole Randolph never meant to come to the Outskirts, but when his friends were kidnapped on Halloween he had to try to save them. Now he’s trapped in a world that lies between wakefulness and dreaming, reality and imagination, life and death.

Cole’s hunt for his lost friends has led him to the kingdom of Elloweer. Accompanied by new friends Mira, Twitch, and Jace, Cole teams up with the resistance movement and joins the search for Mira’s sister Honor.

But Elloweer has grown unstable. A mysterious enemy is wiping out towns, leaving no witnesses or survivors. And an infamous rebel know throughout the kingdom as the Rogue Knight is upsetting the balance of power.

With enemies in pursuit, Cole and Mira must resort to a fascinating new kind of magic to protect themselves. Every move is filled with danger as Cole and his friends try to outwit the High King, who will stop at nothing to regain what he has lost.

The second book in the Five Kingdoms series reads a little better than its predecessor, but that’s not entirely a good thing. You see, I didn’t have that high a regard for Sky Raiders, and Rogue Knight only elevates my view on the series a little bit.

That said, Five Kingdoms is more interesting than Brandon Mull’s own Fablehaven series, which, until now I’ve still no interest of continuing after the first book–although I already bought a copy of the sequel.

Digression aside; what makes Rogue Knight a little better than Sky Raiders for me is the fact that it has a better twist than the first book. One of the things I disliked in Sky Raiders is the too short time it spent on concluding the first book–which wasn’t very satisfying because it barely gave closure to anything.

Rogue Knight begins and ends with the opening and closing of a problem, with a promise of the next big adventure. This was what I was talking about previously, in my Sky Raiders post, about a book having its own start, quest, and end. Granted, this book did not have the burden of introducing and setting up the journey for the entire series. But I still have thoughts on how Sky Raiders could be tweaked to make it a more satisfying read.

Now, why did I say that my view on the series as a whole only rose a little when it already provided the complete journey I was looking for previously? Well, it mostly has to do with the feeling of déjà vu while reading the story. The quest that Cole and his friends get into doesn’t feel very organic. It feels like author Mull has a checklist of things that need to happen, and he’s checking the items off it one by one.

So, sure, Rogue Knight does have the ingredients of a good story, and it does have a clearer structure of where the story begins and ends. But unlike Sky Raiders that has the magic of a whole new world waiting to be explored, Rogue Knight feels like a rehash with a different set of characters to take the place of the ones from the first story, while essentially providing the same plot movement.

Closing the book, there’s a feeling that the author is still trying to find the balance of presenting something new while sticking to the formula of what made his previous novels work. Which, while I’m not overly satisfied with this book, I must say that it did make me look forward to reading the next installment. Because it does feel like Brandon Mull is getting his groove back.

Book: The Game of Lives

"The Game of Lives"

Michael used to live to game. Now the games he was playing have become all too real. Only weeks ago, Sinking ino the Sleep was fun. The VirtNet combined the most cutting-edge technology and the most sophisticated gaming for a full mind-body experience. And it was Michael’s passion. But now every time Michael Sink,s he risks his life.

The games are over. The VirtNet has become a world of deadly consequences, and Kaine grows stronger by the day. The Mortality Doctrine–Kaine’s master plan–has nearly been realized, and little by little the line separating the virtual from the real is blurring. If Kaine succeeds, it will mean worldwide cyber domination. And it looks like Michael and his friends are the only ones who can put the monster back in the box–if Michael can figure out who his friends really are.

I am done with the Mortality Doctrine trilogy. Literally, because this is the last book. I hope. And figuratively, because… Well, this was one tough book to finish. And no, it wasn’t because I didn’t want to let go of the story yet. It was mostly because I found it hard not to root for the villains.

Halfway through the book, I was sick and tired of the main character, Michael.

But more than an unlikable main character, what I didn’t like about The Game of Lives is that it doesn’t provide a fulfilling conclusion to the journey we started with The Eye of Minds. It still feels like random events are happening to stop the main characters from achieving their goal without rhyme or reason.

And then there were the characters.

I love morally gray characters. They make stories interesting, because you never know if they would do something good, or bad. They’re even better when you can see why they would choose to do a good or a bad thing. But when they’re doing something obviously sinister, and then they say they’re doing something good without back-up evidence that they might actually be telling the truth? You get a villain like Klaine.

Come to think of it, my problem with the Mortality Doctrine from the get go has always been Klaine. I understand the need for a complicated villain, but I feel like we were short-changed with a villain who can’t decide if he’s good, bad, or just plain selfish.

I hated Klaine not because he was the bad guy, but because he was badly written. He is supposed to be scary, but he doesn’t really pose any threat. Not even during the last battle between good and evil. Not even during the last part where our main protagonist is duking it out with him.

Stories like this always needs a good villain. That’s half the battle. When your villain doesn’t live up to the title of head evil honcho? However you end the series will be disappointing.

And that’s what The Game of Lives is: a disappointing ending to a series that wasn’t all that stellar to begin with.

Book: Sky Raiders (Five Kingdoms, Book 1)

"Sky Raiders"

Cole Randolph is just trying to have fun with his friends on Halloween. But their trip to a neighborhood haunted house turns out to be the start of a wild adventure when Cole watches his friends being whisked away through a mysterious passage.

Cole dives in after them, only to emerge somewhere that’s very clearly no longer Mesa, Arizona. He soon learns he’s come to a place called the Outskirts.

Made up of five kingdoms, the Outskirts lies between wakefulness and dreaming, reality and imagination, life and death. It’s an in-between place. Some people are born there. Some find their way there from our world, or from other worlds. The balance of power in the five kingdoms has been upset, and the magic there is becoming unstable. It’s up to Cole and an unusual girl he meets there names Mira to set things right, rescue his friends, and hopefully survive long enough to find his way back home…

The book was a slow burn for me. I didn’t really get into it until after our protagonist Cole gets into the titular Sky Raiders. But before you turn away from the book, it does happen fairly early on. You just have to read through a lot of exposition and establishing action first.

And there lies my problem with Sky Raiders. It establishes things that, while informing our main character’s goal, doesn’t really add anything to the entirety of the book. You could swap a different goal for Cole, a more pressing one maybe, and the action will unfold the same way.

What we get instead is knowledge that the story doesn’t end in this book. And while I enjoy reading stories that continue from book to book (and I already knew this when I picked up the first book of the Five Kingdoms series), I wish the whole thing was better executed.

A perfect example of this would be Brandon Mull’s own Beyonder series. The first book has its own start, quest, and end. As a reader, I was invested in that journey thoroughly because it had a clear ending. And although its ending was pretty much complete, I opted to join the second adventure that the author offered, because Mull didn’t disappoint in wrapping things up before presenting the second goal.

The same cannot be said for the first Five Kingdoms book. When I passed a certain percentage of the book and our main characters were still on the road, looking for the first boss battle to fight? I already knew the whole book was just a set up to something else. Something that we might still not get in the second book. And although I’ve already picked up Rogue Knight (because I am intrigued about this new world Mull has built), I am not happy about the fact that we didn’t get a satisfying conclusion in the first book.

Which brings me to a question: With the success of Harry Potter and other book series, are publishers becoming more lenient to stories that don’t end in one book? Is this a way of ensuring future sales? Because, I must say, I’m not a fan.

A book should be allowed to have its own ending, even if it’s just an ending for now. Because, as a reader, there’s nothing satisfying about being left hanging on a cliff for a year, before finding out if you’re continuing your journey or not.