The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

pillars of the earth cover

There are tons of covers for this book. This one is my favorite. 

You wouldn’t think a book about building a cathedral would pull you in and refuse to let you go. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett did exactly that. The novel follows a large cast of characters though 12th-century England as they struggle with war, famine, corrupt rulers, rape. accusations of witchcraft, death, poverty, and ultimately the decades-long task of of building a stunning cathedral.

This is a very difficult book to sum up because it is extremely long – over 900 pages – and spans the lifetime of several characters, whose difficulties and growth I would hate to give away. I will say all the characters are beautifully written and exquisitely human, each with talents and flaws, and who make decisions that make the reader love and hate them equally. There is a character for everyone – the feminist who overcomes severe adversity to make a name for herself without the help of a man, the strong independent woman accused of witchcraft who lives in the forest, the religious monk who constantly finds himself between what his religion teaches and what society demands, the corrupt bishop who manipulates all those around him for his own gain, the father who struggles to raise his children on his own, the child who must choose whether to follow his parent’s footsteps or strike out on his own. Finally, there is a spectacular villain, you spend the entire novel gleefully hating and waiting for karma to catch up to him.

In addition to a fabulous cast of characters, the novel presents a detailed account of life in 12th-century England, in which travelers would die on the road if they came across bandits, families starved if they couldn’t find work, earls were free to do as they pleased to those in their power with no oversight, religion and royalty fought to determine who was really in charge. And the idea of these uneducated (even then, and certainly by our current standards) peasants building a magnificent cathedral without any of the machinery we are familiar with today was particularly impressive.

On his website ken-follett.com, author Ken Follett notes that the cathedral in his novel is fiction, but he drew inspiration from two real-like cathedrals in his writing, the Wells Cathedral and the Salisbury Cathedral, pictured here to give an idea of what these amazing people were capable of before electricity.

My only, albeit very small, gripe with this novel was that as fascinating as it was learning the minutiae of building a cathedral, I just wasn’t that interested in it, and I occasionally skimmed through some details about building plans. The novel did feel a bit long at points, but on the other hand was so enthralling that when it was over I wanted more, so ultimately no complaints about the length.

I give this book a rare 5 out 5 stars, and recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction. Truthfully, I recommend it to everyone. There is something in this novel for every reader to enjoy, and I like Follett’s writing style enough that I now plan to seek out some of his other works.

PS – There’s a sequel! It’s called World Without End and apparently occurs in the same location two centuries later, during the Black Death. I will be reading it ASAP.

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

scythe coverHumanity has conquered death and achieved immortality. Because disease, hunger, war, or crime no longer exist, a special sect called the Scythedom is created to control the population. They exist to kill, and are the only ones capable of ending a life. Teenagers Citra and Rowan become unwilling apprentices to a man named Scythe Faraday. Though they both initially struggle with the idea of becoming killers, they soon discover they must learn this new terrible skill set to keep themselves alive.

Initially, I struggled with this novel. To be honest, I’m never sure I entirely bought in to the utopia concept of immortality and the Thunderhead – the name for what “the cloud” becomes, an omniscient over-seer essentially in control of all life on Earth. But eventually I became so invested in the story of Citra and Rowan that it didn’t matter that I didn’t buy in to the Thunderhead, I still loved the story. The Scythedom, the professional assassins in charge of “gleaning” the population is becoming more corrupt with each passing year – as you can imagine would happen to a group with no oversight and members who live for several centuries. Citra and Rowan get caught up in this corruption, one on the side of the “new guard” who yearns for change and the permission to glean as many lives as they want in whatever manner they choose. The other ends up on the side of the “old guard” who would never consider killing for sport and understand the importance and solemnity of their jobs. The difference between these two groups and watching Citra and Rowan figure out how they fit in along with all the other struggles that go along with being a scythe was fascinating.

Of course there was a love story – its YA fiction, after all. But it didn’t overwhelm the story – it was almost an afterthought, and was written in a believable way that didn’t take away from either character, especially Citra the female leading lady. The supporting characters were nicely developed. I wanted to know more about Scythe Faraday and Scythe Curie, two scythes who lived for centuries and had much more story to tell than we got in this book. Perhaps we will see more of them in the next book. We have a long wait though – the expected publication is 2018!

I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. Recommended for YA Sci-Fi fans, though at times you need a bit of a strong stomach. 4 stars out of 5. Pick this one up if you get a chance, the series is only going to get better from here.

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

torch-against-nightThis book was awesome. Even better than the first in the series, An Ember in the Ashes, reviewed here. This review will contain EPIC SPOILERS for said first book in the series

Elias and Laia are on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of Elias’s former best friend Helene while they travel to the prison Kauf to rescue Laia’s brother. Laia knows the prison break will be almost impossible, but will do anything to save her last living family member. Elias just hopes he lives long enough to help Laia, since he is dying from poison inflicted by his mother when they fought during his escape. The two face plenty of danger, make unexpected allies, suffer tragedy and heartbreak, and at times its difficult to believe either will ever reach anything resembling a happy ending.

Both Elias and Laia go through some significant character development in this book as well. Elias struggles to figure out who he is and where his loyalties lie now that he has escaped the empire and has only months left to live. Laia discovers magic powers have been awakened in her, and she must learn to control them and use them to help her in her quest to free her brother. She also must take a stand and decide whether or not she wants to be part of the Scholar Resistance. Everyone in this novel becomes more than they originally thought they were capable of. Watching the characters grow and struggle with their choices and the consequences of them is captivating.

New to this installment in the series are chapters told from Helene’s perspective. Talk about a conflicted character. Helene’s world is turned completely upside-down, as she finds herself hunting her best friend Elias with orders to kill him. If she fails in her mission, her family will be killed. Everything Helene tries to do feels like the wrong thing for one reason or another, either because of her loyalty to her friend and man she once loved, or her loyalty to her family and the empire. Reading events from her perspective in addition to Elias and Laia really added an extra layer to the novel, and was a brilliant choice by Tahir.

It was nearly impossible to predict how this story would end. From the beginning it was clear everything could not be tied up with a nice neat bow. But the twists and turns were unpredictable and added to the suspense and excitement. Total emotional roller coaster. It’s difficult for me to say more without giving away some major plot points, and trust me this story is better if you don’t know what’s coming.

I give this book a rare 5 out of 5 stars and recommend it to those who enjoy high fantasy, adventure, magic, and suspense. Definitely read the first book in the series before you read this one. It’s going to be a loooooong wait for the next book!

Showdown by Ted Dekker

This book was pitched as the ultimate showdown between good and evil. Except it wasn’t. It was more about mind control and people who thought their intelligence gave them the right to play God.

There were two main settings to the book. Paradise, a tiny town of about 400 or so people in the mountains of Colorado. And the Monastery, hidden in the mountains outside Paradise, and home to a bunch of brilliant young showdownchildren, wise beyond their years, who are being taught all about love by a group of very smart adults with the eventual goal of “changing the world.” Eventually you, the reader, find out that hidden in the basement of this monastery are a bunch of blank books – whatever you write in the books becomes reality, but you can only write in the books if you have childlike innocence, or something along those lines. Hence, the discoverer of the books sets up the monastery with the intention of raising a bunch of brilliant kids who will write only positive, wonderful things in these books and make the world a better place. What could possibly go wrong?

Turns out just about everything can go wrong. A rogue teacher (because there’s always one, isn’t there?) encourages a student to seek out the books. The student discovers its way more fun to write stories filled with evil and violence than with love, and once he realizes everything he writes in the book is happening in real life, he gleefully turns Paradise into hell. And now, for the SPOILERS

Of course there is one student in the monastery who isn’t taken in by thoughts of doing evil, and with his father, the head of the monastery, writes in one of the books and tries to turn things around. This plan fails, he eventually this child goes down to the town and sacrifices himself to save the townspeople. The father, who is suddenly able to write in the books, unlike every other adult ever, manages to resurrect his son and fix the town. I don’t suppose this story sounds familiar to anyone, does it?

I guess I had trouble buying in to this story. Not only was I not convinced a bunch of thirteen year-olds would immediately abandon everything they had been taught and mindlessly write terrifying evil, there was also this magic, hallucinogenic “worm gel” involved, that the students found in the dungeons with the books and which made them sick but was addictive…and yeah, was never explained fully. And all the while the rest of the supposedly brilliant adults in the monastery could just do nothing? Really?? And the sacrifice of the perfect son to save the town was just too on-the-nose for me.

In the end, I just don’t think Ted Dekker is an author for me. I always think the synopsis of his books sound great, but then when I read them they are too concerned with religious symbolism and parallels for my taste. I give this book 2 out of 5 stars, but do recommend it for those who like science fiction with lots of religious overtones thrown in.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Some days I am good at writing book summaries. Some days I am not. Today is the second sort of day, so I am borrowing the book blurb from Goodreads.com:

Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

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An Ember in the Ashes was excellent. The characters were real and relate-able. I particularly emphasized with Laia, desperate to save her brother but terrified of basically everything. She doesn’t want to be part of the resistance, doesn’t want to become a spy, certainly doesn’t want to constantly withstand abuse from her owner, but her determination overcomes her fear. She is not magically a wonderfully talented fighter, she doesn’t take over the resistance – she is just a regular young woman doing what she has to do to save the only family she has left. She is brilliantly written.

Elias was fabulously written as well. He was a smidgeon more stereotypical for this sort of story – orphan, taken in by the tribesman (the token outsiders) but then brought back to the military and becomes their greatest fighter, all the while hating everything the military stands for. But then Elias is pulled into a game where he can win and take over not just the military but the entire empire, and change it for the better. His internal struggles over whether he should stay and fight or run, his feelings for his oldest friend and his feelings for the new, unusual slave-girl make great, believable reading.

This book had several twists and turns, and nothing turned out the way you would expect. It left me excited for the second book in the series, without a cliffhanger ending that just made me angry and left too many loose ends. And it never got bogged down my romance. I give it 5 out of 5 stars, and recommend it to fans of high fantasy and books centered around slave resistance/revolt. The second book in the series is also available as well: A Torch Against the Night.

The Elite by Kiera Cass

The Elite by Kiera Cass is the second book in The Selection series. Therefore, it goes without saying that MAJOR SPOILERS for The Selection, book 1 in the series, will be found in this review. I have not reviewed The Selection, and I read it too long ago to do a complete review now, but I will summarize it below. DO NOT read this review if you have not read The Selection!!

elite-kiera-cass

The setting for this series is post-apocalyptic southwest United States, specifically Los Angeles. World War Four has passed, and a new system of government is in place, which includes a royal family and an inescapable caste system. America is a young woman whose family belongs to the artist caste, one of the lowest, and her talents lie in song and violin playing. America is randomly selected to participate in The Selection. During the Selection, a group of 35 eligible young women are invited to the royal palace and eventually one of them will be chosen to marry Prince Maxon and become the new queen. Initially, America does not want to be part of the Selection, wanting to stay with her childhood sweetheart Aspen (who also happens to be a caste below her). Eventually, America realizes Prince Maxon might not be so bad after all, and feels like she may have the opportunity to change things for the better if she stays part of the Selection.

 

In The Elite, America has made it to the final group of eight in the quest to win Prince Maxon’s love and become queen. After several weeks and plenty of inner conflict, America has found herself falling in love with Prince Maxon. Even though America’s former love Aspen has joined the palace guard to be close to America, she is still on the cusp of deciding to tell Maxon she loves him and is willing to become his queen. Mere moments after America makes the life-altering decision to stay with Maxon, and thinks to herself nothing could possibly change the way she feels, everything changes.

True confession time: there are few things I hate more than books, whether they be YA or adult, in which the plot is centered around a girl trying to decide between two near-perfect boys. The worst part of these stories is not just that the girl can’t make a decision and strings along two unsuspecting boys, but that the boys let her. Alright, so Maxon doesn’t know about Aspen–but he continually tells America she can have “more time” and he will wait for her because she is just so wonderful in every way. (*gags* – sorry but come on!) Aspen DOES know about the competition with Maxon, but rather than tell America he’s going to take his gorgeous looks and fabulous charm elsewhere, he also chooses to wait for her because, again, she is just soooooo amazing. This plot device doesn’t say much about the girls OR the boys in series like these.

Luckily, there is just enough “extra” in this series that I can tolerate the silly love triangle. In The Selection, the author teased us with information about the history of the world the characters are living in. The history of the caste system and how the US went from democracy to monarchy are what really interest me about this novel, and who are the North and South Rebels that keep being mentioned? We moved closer to the answers to these questions in The Elite, and the story became a bit more interesting. I have the impression the next novel, The One, will bring us more about the Rebels and the former rulers.

I give this novel 3 stars out of 5, and recommend it to fans of YA, dystopian literature that includes a slightly-sappy love story.

Dark Witch by Nora Roberts

Iona Sheehan has never felt like she belonged. Fed up with her mediocre life and heeding the suggestion of her Nan, Iona sells everything she owns and moves to Ireland to track down her family history. She meets her cousins, Branna and Connor O’Dwyer, and discovers she is the Third O’Dwyer – the third descendant of the Dark Witch. Now that the three descendants are all in one place, the time has come to finally defeat the Dark Witch’s oldest enemy, the demon Cabhan. Iona must quickly adjust to the fact that not only is she a witch, she is one of three witches who must defeat an evil 800 years old.

I picked up this book in hopes it would be something like Nora Roberts’s Circle Trilogy – mythology, magic, heartbreak, romance, and action. Additionally, as someone who loves horses and has been horseback riding almost her entire life, I figured a book in which the main character couldark-witch-coverd TALK to HORSES could not possibly be bad. I was sadly disappointed. The characters were so flat and boring. The leading lady, Iona, said every single thought that popped into her head and her personality consisted of talking too much and “living in the moment.” Iona’s love interest, Boyle, was confusing and completely unrealistic. I think he was supposed to be dark and mysterious, and struggling with these newfound feelings of love he never experienced before. But he was written so arrogant and dumb with dialogue like, “sure I made her cry, but I’ll just apologize and she’ll see reason!” Anything endearing or attractive about him was lost. The other characters had the same problems. Cliched dialogue. Shallow, uninteresting personalities. The “romantic tensions” between couples were so obvious it was like being hit over the head with the book. It’s hard to get emotionally invested in a character and their heartbreak when you can very clearly see who they are going to end up with.

The action wasn’t much better. The system of magic didn’t always make sense. And when you are a serious fantasy reader, the system of magic must make sense. There was some sort of time travel involved I think. I’m not even sure it was so poorly explained. The entire book was leading up to the final confrontation with the demon Cabhan, and the battle was over so quickly I barely realized it happened. Even the accurately described horsemanship wasn’t enough to distract from the lousy plot. Truthfully, the best part of the book was the first few chapters where we met the original Dark Witch Sorcha and her children who end up being the ancestors of Branna, Connor, and Iona. I would like to read an entire book about them.

I probably won’t continue with this series. Maybe if my library happens to have it available as a downloadable e-book. I’m mildly intrigued to hear more of Fin’s story – the guy who fights on the side of the “good guys” but is a blood relative of Cabhan. Otherwise this series falls into the category of Too Many Books, Too Little Time. Oh well. Nora Roberts has written soooo many books a few of them had to not be as awesome as the rest.

Dark Descendant by Jenna Black

Dark Descendant is the first book in the Nikki Glass series. Here’s the summary from the back of the book:

Nikki Glass can track down any man. But when her latest client turns out to be a true descendant of Hades, Nikki now discovers she can’t die. . . .
Crazy as it sounds, Nikki’s manhunting skills are literally god-given. She’s a living, breathing descendant of Artemis who has stepped right into a trap set by the children of the gods. Nikki’s new “friends” include a descendant of Eros, who uses sex as a weapon; a descendant of Loki, whose tricks are no laughing matter; and a half-mad descendant of Kali who thinks she’s a spy.
But most powerful of all are the Olympians, a rival clan of immortals seeking to destroy all Descendants who refuse to bow down to them. In the eternal battle of good god/bad god, Nikki would make a divine weapon. But if they think she’ll surrender without a fight, the gods must be crazy. .

dark descendant coverI was pretty excited to read this book because I’m into mythology, and it sounded like it would be different than the vampire love-triangles I had been reading recently. On one hand, I was not disappointed. There certainly was no love triangle or vampires. On the other hand, the mythology wasn’t nearly as exciting as I had hoped it would be. In this world, a group called Liberi are immortal descendants of the gods who thanks to their ancestry have powers reminiscent of the gods from whom they descend. One group of Liberi, called the Olympians, are led by a power-hungry Liberi named Konstantin who wants to control everyone and thinks the only Liberi who deserve to live are those descended from the Greek gods. Anderson leads the other group of Liberi, a small faction that doesn’t agree with Konstantin’s way of thinking and tries to protect other Liberi from Konstantin. In the course of her work as a Private Investigator, Nikki Glass discovers she is a Liberi and her ancestor is the highly sought-after Artemis, goddess of the hunt. When Konstantin finds out about Nikki, he wants to use her to track and kill other Liberi. Nikki is forced to turn to Anderson for help, but his group of part-gods doesn’t like Nikki much, so Nikki has to avoid the bad guys, watch her back around Anderson’s good guys, all while learning to deal with her new life which has been totally turned upside down.

The Liberi and it’s various factions doesn’t read nearly as complicated as it did in the description I tried to write, because Nikki spends the entire novel talking about them and trying to figure out which is the lesser of two evils. In fact, Nikki spends a lot of time telling us things, like how she has a “bleeding heart,” how she’s jealous/not jealous of her perfect, older adopted sister, how every male around her is attractive. All of them. Even the ones that only make a token appearance to mention the god they descended from and then disappear totally, thus allowing the author to say “look! mythology!” I think that was the frustrating part of this book for me. It had several good ideas that were all mentioned but not developed. Characters would show up for two seconds, but we never learned anything about them and by the time they reappeared I had forgotten who they were. Maybe these characters and their backstories will be explored in more detail in later books. I hope so, because at the very least I want to know more about Blake, the half-sex-god.

Not bad for a first book in the series. Started slow, but by the end I was emotionally invested and didn’t want to put it down. I’m not dying for the next book, but I would like to read it eventually. 3 stars out of 5 and recommended for fans of urban fantasy and female heroines who don’t spend half the book sleeping with everyone. Happy reading!

-Branwen

 

Night Shift by Charlaine Harris

night shiftStrange things are happening in Midnight, Texas. Stranger than usual, that is. People are traveling to the crossroads in the middle of the town to commit suicide. Resident vampire Lemuel believes the answer to this epidemic can be found in the old books from the pawn shop, including a book about all the magical and paranormal places in North America. The bad news is the books are written in Etruscan, and Lemuel has to translate them fast before whatever weird force beneath the crossroads starts effecting more than just Midnight.

There were things I both liked and disliked about this book. On one hand, we learned more of Lemuel’s story, which I had been waiting for since the first time he was mentioned. He isn’t your typical vampire, feeding off of both blood and energy. He was also quiet and pretty much left alone by the other people in town in the first two books. Being in his head was interesting, but not particularly unexpected.

The demon-under-the-crossroads story line was interesting. I liked that the whole town had to come together to stop him. I thought the virgin sex ritual was a little awkward, and it’s not like you couldn’t figure out who Fiji was going to pick for her big moment from several chapters in advance. Unfortunately, I thought the whole book was a bit rushed. I discovered after reading that Harris intends this to be the last Midnight, Texas book in a trilogy. Which made the whole thing make a lot more sense. All the explanations were very rushed, and didn’t entirely match up with the setup in the first two books. I was especially bothered by the Teacher/Olivia plot line, which came out of nowhere and ended with Olivia acting rather out of character. I felt like all these characters had a lot more story left to tell, and while I didn’t necessarily want this to turn into a never-ending series like the Sookie Stackhouse series, which I eventually stopped reading, I did think the wrap ups for each character was cookie cutter, uninteresting, and left too many unanswered questions. I hope Harris will change her mind and write more books in this series, because I love these characters and I don’t want this to be the end for them.

Reap the Wind by Karen Chance

Reap the Wind is the seventh installment in the Cassandra Palmer series by Karen Chance. When I first got into this series, I devoured the books. Cassie was one of my favorite characters of all time, and the world building was right up there witreap the windh the Mercy Thompson series and the Kate Daniels series. I could not get enough…I actually BOUGHT the sixth book, Tempt the Stars (reviewed here). And I was disappointed. The series had reached the point where there was too much action and yet not enough action. Pages of action sequences, like running/fighting/shifting through the demon realms, without any advancing of the plot. I was getting tired of Cassie going round and round with Pritkin and Mircea as well. Reap the Wind was finally different.

**SPOILER ALERT!!** 

I’m not necessarily spoiling the plot here, but I am going to give away some of Cassie’s character development in this novel. Read on at your own risk.

In previous novels, Cassie spent her time being pushed around by various individuals. Whether it was Tony, the vampire who originally “owned” her; Pritkin, who bossed her around in the process of training; Mircea, who sure became her sort-of-husband but was also a high level Master vampire and bossing people around is what Master vampires DO; Jonas, leader of the Circle who believes he should control the Pythia; even Agnes, former Pythia who had a plan for how she wanted Cassie to follow in her footsteps. Cassie threw her power around and expressed some strong opinions, but never really stood up for herself – more so complained when people didn’t do what she thought was right or ethical. Not anymore. Cassie comes to the realization that while she may control the Pythia power, it hasn’t magically (pardon the pun) earned her the respect of all the people trying to boss her around. This major turning point finds Cassie taking charge of her life, making decisions for herself, and forcing the people around her to take her seriously. It was refreshing, and the Cassie I have been looking forward to for several books.

Now the bad news is: Chance leaves us with yet another cliffhanger. Not as bad as the last few books maybe, but a cliffhanger all the same. Worst is that her publishing company announces one date of publication for the next book, and then pushes it off at least 6 months, sometimes longer. It didn’t bother me as much as it may have since I was expecting it, I just sort of sighed and moved on with my life. Maybe someday Chance will actually resolve something in this series. I still love the characters and the world (more Kit Marlowe please!), and I’m going to keep reading them. From a library. I won’t be spending any money on them and I’m not in a hurry to get the next one.