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.

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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: Where Futures End

"Where Futures End"

“Five Teenagers.
Five Futures.
Two Worlds.
One Ending.

One year from now, DYLAN develops a sixth sense that allows him to glimpse another world.
Ten years from now, BRIXNEY must get more hits on her social media feed or risk being stuck in a debtor’s colony.
Thirty years from now, EPONY scrubs her online profile and goes ‘High-Concept.’
Sixty years from now, REEF struggles to survive in a city turned virtual gameboard.
And more than one hundred years from now, QUINN uncovers the alarming secret that links them.

Five people, divided by time, determine the fate of us all. These are brilliantly connected stories of one world bent on destroying itself and an alternate world that just might be its savior–unless it’s too late.

In the future, who will you choose to be? And how will you find yourself before the end?”

I was excited when I first started reading Where Futures End. The first story, Dylan’s development of his ‘sixth’ sense that allows him to see and enter an alternate world, wasn’t very original–but it was very engaging. Sure, Dylan was a character that we’ve met time and again in many fantasy adventure novels, but there was something in the way author Parker Peevyhouse wrote him that makes you want to see him get his happy ending.

And then his story suddenly ends.

Brixney’s story was strange. Original, yes– But also very familiar in our social media-obsessed world. Again, we get a character worth rooting for, and a predicament you want to see unfold.

And then her story suddenly ends.

I’m starting to feel restless. What is the author’s purpose in cutting the stories off? Why aren’t they being allowed to flourish? We’re being given promising beginnings with no middle, and no end– But then, I remember: the book blurb promises a last story that would link all of these vignettes.

The third story with Epony was more self-contained. A short story that had a clear beginning, middle, and end. My need for a satisfying story was quenched–even if the story itself wasn’t as good as the first two. And then when the fourth story with Reef ends, I’m starting to feel that my enjoyment of the book was diminishing.

Still. No matter. The final story promises to link all the stories together. I tell myself that it will work out, probably, because why else would people be saying the story was good. I started to hold on to the promise of the book blurbs. Of people saying the book was good–

And then I read the final story. A story that was supposed to link all the stories together. And it does, yes. But the stories were already linked in the first place. Reef’s story was spurned on by Epony’s. Epony’s by Brixney’s. Brixney’s by Dylan’s. And yes, technically the book didn’t lie when it promised an alarming secret that links all five stories.

But it’s a horrible link. It doesn’t tie up the stories together. They remain vignettes of half-realized premises that never became whole. Except the third story. And as I turn the final page, I find myself asking if the gimmick of linking these stories with a last story was realized because the author couldn’t find a way to wrap up the individual stories. That she couldn’t push the story forward to a satisfying conclusion.

Because the book ends and I don’t get the point of it all.

Because the book ends, and the weakest story in terms of originality and characterization suddenly becomes the strongest for actually having an ending and character growth.

Because the book ends, and all I want is the chance to go back in time and stop myself from buying it. Or, at the very least, warn myself not to expect anything from it. Can I do that? Can I go back in time and stop myself from hoping that this book would give me any satisfaction?

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: Remembrance, a Mediator Novel

"Remembrance"

All Susannah Simon wants is to make a good impression at her first job since graduating from college (and since becoming engaged to Dr. Jesse de Silva). But when she’s hired as a guidance counselor at her alma mater, she stumbles across a decade-old murder, and soon ancient history isn’t all that’s coming back to haunt her. Old ghosts as well as new ones are coming out of the woodwork, some to test her, some to vex her, and it isn’t only because she’s a mediator, gifted with second sight.

From a sophomore haunted by the murderous specter of a child, to ghosts of a very different kind–including Paul Slater, Suze’s ex, who shows up to make a bargain Suze is certain must have come from the Devil himself–Suze isn’t sure she’ll make it through the semester, let alone to her wedding night. Suze is used to striking first and asking questions later, but what happens when ghosts from her past–including one she found nearly impossible to resist–strike first?

The Mediator series was one of the things I really enjoyed reading back in high school and college; mostly because of the heroine who wasn’t always heroic and the supernatural element that, for the most part, wasn’t very complicated.

When I found out that Meg Cabot was following up the Princess Diaries wrap-up Royal Wedding with a new Mediator book, I was ecstatic. And then I started reading the book.

I guess I should learn the lesson of managing expectations. Again.

The Mediator series, for the first four books, were very short novels aimed at Young Adults. At the time, when you say a book is intended for the teen audience, it wasn’t very long. But, I’m guessing, when Harry Potter‘s length increased alongside its popularity, and people didn’t mind; the publishers must have realized that they didn’t need to limit the number of pages of a young adult novel. A good story will have teens reading, no matter the length of a book. So when the last two Mediator books came out in 2004 and 2005, the book was no longer restricted by a small number of pages.

Both Haunted and Twilight flourished with the additional pages. Meg Cabot was able to flesh out her characters more, and made Susannah Simon’s world more immersive. Which is why, when I picked up Remembrance, I was excited to crack open the book immediately. It follows the thickness of the last two Mediator books, and the synopsis at the back promised a great adventure.

A third into the novel though, I was asking myself–Why wasn’t anything happening? In the decade that passed, has Meg Cabot lost hold of Susannah Simon’s voice? Where are her friends? Why is she so hung up on just Jesse and herself when she was able to juggle having a social life on top of school and being a mediator before?

Things started picking up when Susannah finally moved on from being self-centered to start dealing with her ghost situation. From that point on, Remembrance started to read and feel like the old Mediator novels. Which brings me to ask:

Did the Mediator novels work in the past because Meg Cabot was restricted to a certain number of pages? Were they structurally sound and well-paced because the author wasn’t allowed to ramble on and on for fear of running out of pages to tell her story?

Maybe.

But what about Haunted and Twilight? Were they flukes? Or has Meg Cabot gotten used to writing her protagonists one way? As very talkative and very self-centered? Then again, the remaining two-thirds of Remembrance is good, and very reminiscent of Mediator books past. So was the first third just an example of an editor failing to reign in the writer’s meandering thoughts?

At the end of the day, I did still enjoy the book. And I still would like to see more of Susannah Simon, her stepbrothers, and the rest of her ghost-hunting crew. But, here’s to hoping that when a next time does arrive, we won’t be subjected again to a rambling first act that fails to actually subtracts from the protagonist’s likability.

Book: Rebel Allies (I Am Number Four, The Lost Files)

"Rebel Allies"

You know the invasion has begun.
You know we are all that stands in their way.
You think we are alone.
You will see we have hidden allies.
They think they have won.
They are wrong.
They do not have our power.
They do not know the truth.
We have a secret weapon.

I enjoy the Lorien Legacies novels for being book-equivalents of summer blockbuster films, and I don’t really look at them for anything more than entertainment. So it’s always a pleasant surprise when I read The Lost Files novellas because they’re so much better than their main series counterparts.

Probably because they’re so short and they stick to one character’s point of view. The shorter format of the novellas make sure that the action is tight, and the pace is slow enough to allow readers to breathe. But it’s really the singular perspective that elevates the novellas from the main Lorien Legacies series. Because we don’t juggle multiple characters vying for their time in the spotlight, we can actually see the characters deal with their actions and develop into becoming more fully-realized.

In Rebel Allies, the three novellas feature former antagonist Mark James, new character Lexa, and how they teamed up to become an auxiliary team in the fight against the Mogadorians.

Mark James is one of my least favorite characters in the main series. He didn’t really serve a purpose before, other than be the third party to the romance angle of I Am Number Four. When they turned him into a supporting protagonist, he kind of lost his point. And I didn’t really know why there was a need to keep him around, when you already had humans in the main group who served a better purpose than he does, story-telling-wise.

Return to Paradise, his previous novella from a previous The Lost Files collection, further cemented the fact that he no longer had a purpose. And then the people behind the Lorien Legacies series wrote The Fugitive. And suddenly Mark James has direction again.

Unlike the humans in the main group, Mark James is the actual substitute for the majority of the human race. He who wants to do something to help against the alien threat, but is in actuality in over his head. And he doesn’t have an alien best friend who can bust him out of tight spots.

Mark James is painfully human, and that’s what makes his journey resonate more. His humanity. His vulnerability. And his realization that he is not the main character in this story.

Which serves as great foil for new character Lexa who doesn’t give a damn about the other characters. She is in this war for revenge. And it is very refreshing to see another alien character who isn’t extolling the good virtues of the Lorien people.

As the sidelined characters, Mark and Lexa are just the perspective the Lorien Legacies series needed. An outside view of the war that seems to be the be-all and end-all for the characters in the main series. They work well in the outskirts.

Which is why, although I loved them in these novellas, the two kind of felt like a deus-ex-machina device when they appeared in The Fate of Ten. Obviously there was a plan to bring them in the main series, after all, Mark James did come from the very first book– But I also really liked the idea of there being other stories that, although they are affected by the events of the main series, they exist only in the periphery.

It makes the world of Lorien Legacies bigger. More believable. Because not everyone crosses paths.

The series is ending with United As One coming out this year. There’s another The Lost Files collection coming out as well. But I hope the writers of this series still come up with more novellas featuring characters that don’t play major parts in the main series. Because the mythology they built is too amazing to waste in just one linear narrative.

Give your readers more than just the usual.

Book: The Spectacular Now

"The Spectacular Now"

So, my beautiful fat girlfriend, Cassidy, is threatening to kick me to the curb again, my best friend suddenly wants to put the brakes on our lives of fabulous fun, and my dad, well, my dad is a big fat question mark that I’m not sure I want the answer to.

Some people would let a senior year like this get them down. Not me. I’m Sutter Keely, master of the party. But don’t mistake a midnight philosopher like me for nothing more than a shallow party boy. Just ask Aimee, the new girl in my life. She saw the depth in the Sutterman from that first moment when she found me passed out on the front lawn. Okay, so she’s a social disaster, but isn’t it my duty to show her a splendiferous time, and then let her go forth and prosper?

Yes, life is weird, but I embrace the weird. Let everyone else go marching off into their great shining futures if they want. Me, I’ve always been more than content to tip my whisky bottle and take a ride straight into the heart of the Spectacular Now.

Life defines who we are and how we perceive things.

Reading The Spectacular Now, halfway around the world and on the eve of a new year (not to mention my remaining days as thirty-year-old), was a little cathartic. It’s a book that, I feel, I would have enjoyed and analyzed-the-hell-out-of had I read it during the Christmas break stuck in my room while ruminating where my life is going next– But I was in New York City, traversing the metropolitan on my own with no worries and no meaningful connections.

Although I was far from being the master of the party, I was Sutter Keely for thirteen days, while I navigated a foreign city with a not-a-care-in-the-world attitude. I was experiencing the spectacular now.

It was very lonely.

This, obviously, affected my enjoyment of the novel. I could see myself in Sutter and I can see where his life is going. I can see where my life was going through him. And I felt an intense dislike for the events that were unfolding. But from the moment I met Sutter Keely, I already knew where his story was heading.

I really didn’t like it.

I guess this is where I make a disclaimer about the book being well-written and the characters breathing like real people. And that’s true. But I’m not a book critic who earns his living reviewing books online or on paper. I’m a reader who posts my reactions to the books I read. And The Spectacular Now paints a too-bleak picture that I really cannot get myself to like.

On the other hand, the novel has given me something that none of the other books I read in 2015 have given me: the motive to change my life. So, in a way, I can say that this book is life-changing.

One of the questions that The Spectacular Now posits is whether you should live for the future, or if you live in the moment. By the end of the novel, and by the end of my trip, I find my answer: it has to be a mixture of both. You have to live in the moment, but you can never forget that there is always a future that will be affected. If not yours, then someone else’s.

Although I already knew that, The Spectacular Now drives the point deeper in me. Because the time to just play around is over, but it doesn’t mean you have to stop living in the moment either. You just have to find the balance.

And it will be a constant struggle.