Thursday, March 24, 2016

CBR 8 Review 5: The Assassin's Blade by Sarah J Maas

“Life isn't easy, no matter where you are. You'll make choices you think are right, and then suffer for them.” 

If you haven't read any of the absolutely brilliant Throne of Glass series, beware, for spoilers will abound. It's impossible for me to talk about the novellas that make up this book without addressing their connection to the wider world Maas has created. Before I delve into spoiler territory, suffice it to say that you can absolutely read these without having read the rest of the series. The whole set of 5 novellas included take place before any of the events in Throne of Glass, the first book in the actual series. They make for great reading to lay the foundation before you start, and even better reading after you've read all the rest of what Maas has to offer (though now I want to read all 4 published works *again* to see how the novellas resonate throughout them). I personally like them better as a prequel that you consume after you've already gotten into the deep end of your addiction to the series, but I can also see their value as a starting place.

Ok. So those of you who haven't read the other books, go away. Just know that these novellas are awesome as stand-alone, or as a part of this world, but better as part of the whole.

(Looks around) Are they gone? Just left with people who read the other books and/or don't mind spoilers? Good.  Welcome! This is going to be long, so settle in.

As previously stated, The Assassin's Blade is actually a compilation of 5 novellas, known as Throne of Glass 0.1-0.5. The stories included are The Assassin and the Pirate Lord, The Assassin and the Desert, The Assassin and the Underworld, and The Assassin and the Empire, along with a fifth story exclusively available to this collection, The Assassin and the Healer. The stories involved are all about our darling Celaena in her days before Endovier and everything that followed. The whole set is delightful and adds so much to what we know about these characters and the world they live in. Celaena is a bit more of a brat in much of these, but considering her age and life experience, it makes sense. You also get to see her progress from insufferable and self righteous to something more substantial and thoughtful, even though she has a lot more development and maturity to go in the course of the series. You know there's only so far she can grow up to be where she is by the time Throne of Glass kicks off. 

The Assassin and the Pirate Lord
This novella is all about Celaena and Sam journeying to an island to do business with the Pirate Lord on Arobynn's behalf. We get some of the power struggle in Rifthold straight out the gate, with a meeting in the Assassin's Keep. Tensions between everyone are high, but especially between Sam & Celaena. The two are sent away ostensibly to address the murder of several of their own, but in reality, to broker a slave trade between Arobynn and the titular Pirate Lord, Rolfe. This was lovely because it really set the groundwork for Celaena's objection to slavery, which runs through all the books. Even as an assassin, she's still capable of working for the greater good, and she has a constant moral center. This novella also gives us our first hint of chemistry between Sam and Celaena. While readers know where this is headed going in (passion, love, betrayal, death), it's fun to see where it started and how contentious their relationship was in the beginning. Sam's affection may be slightly less obvious if you don't know to look for it, but I doubt it; still, having not read these with virgin eyes, I can't say for certain. This novella also sets up not only the other novellas, but the pathway that leads to Endovier and everything to come. Celaena's actions here are a catalyst, and the chain reaction they set off is monumental in scope. 

The Assassin and the Healer
This novella was a bonus to this book, and chronologically goes second. Celaena is waiting for a boat to head out to the Red Desert, where she has been sent as part of her punishment for her actions in the previous novella. The other part of her punishment she tries to conceal under heavy hoods and coats - Arobynn beat her to within an inch of her life before she was sent away, and the bruises have yet to heal. She has no idea what happened to Sam, other than a memory of him being held back and made to watch as she was beaten. While holed up in the crappy little town of Innish, she meets and ends up helping a barmaid, who was raised as a healer when there was magic in the land. I *loved* the relationship between Celaena and Yrene Towers. I thought it developed nicely, and it helped establish Celaena's trouble with female friendships, but also how much she benefits from them. 

The Assassin and the Desert
Celaena continues on her trail to regain her place with Arobynn by arriving in the Red Desert to train with the Mute Master. I loved that she wasn't instantly taken under his wing, that she had to earn her place in his training. I also enjoyed yet another important female friendship being formed, with Ansel, another trainee at the fortress. I saw Ansel's betrayal coming a long way off, but it hardly mattered. What she did to the Fortress and the others was terrible, and helped put Celaena in a place to earn her letter and a ton of money from the Mute Master, but their relationship was what mattered most to the story. Once again, I enjoyed seeing Celaena learning how to be friends with another woman, and in this case, to learn what a betrayal of that friendship could mean. With attachment comes the chance to be hurt, and this is only a stepping stone to what she'll endure with Sam, and later, Nehemia. I hope Ansel comes back into the world somehow - I'd like to see her tie back into the story, see what Celaena has become.

The Assassin and the Underworld
More slave trade issues, more betrayal by Arobynn, and some solid progress into a relationship between Sam and Celaena. Again, I saw the betrayal coming a long ways off, but in this case, it bothered me not a whit because it made complete character driven sense for Celaena to complete miss the signs. As is stated in many an argument with Sam, she is far more willing to forgive and trust Arobynn than she should be, a lesson that really isn't driven home to her till these novellas reach their conclusion. But we'll get there. Dynamics have shifted as Sam and Celaena play the games we all do when attraction is suddenly realized. We also get the introduction of Lysandra to the story, which was fascinating in contrast to her story-line in Queen of Shadows. I love the way Sam loves Celaena, and that his trade for forgiveness was that Arobynn would never lay a hand on her again. I love the way they work together. I also appreciate Celaena's reticence to both move out and buy out her contract - her ties to Arobynn are deep and binding, and breaking loose from something like that should be a challenge, especially for a troubled young woman like our heroine.

The Assassin and the Empire
And...the heartbreak. Knowing exactly what's coming doesn't make it any easier. In fact, it's the latter, because you watch the dominoes line up and *know* how they will fall, but have to endure your beloved characters remaining oblivious to them all along. Sam and Celaena are technically free - they're still part of the Guild, but no longer indebted to Arobynn, and both living in the apartment Celaena owns. But that freedom has come at a price - no one has contracted them and money won't be around forever. The pair decide to take one last big job to pay their way out - no more Guild, no more living in Rifthold. A fresh start where Arobynn has no connection to them or control over them anymore. How neither of them sense the threat that poses to his proprietary feelings, especially concerning Celaena, is baffling. The man is pure ego, and the two of them attack it at every turn. We know Sam's about to die, and that Celaena is about to end up shipped off to Endovier, but watching it unfold still *hurts*. It's so much worse knowing how it all fell out, and seeing the man who brutally murdered Sam elevated to a position of power as a reward for it. Celaena's heartbreak is palpable. 

You see step by step how Celaena is broken down and reformed to someone other than who she was when she began. 
“The girl who'd taken on a Pirate Lord and his entire island, the girl who'd stolen Asterion horses and raced along the beach in the Red Desert, the girl who'd sat on her own rooftop, watching the sun rise over Avery, the girl who'd felt alive with possibility...that girl was gone.” 
She will never again be what she was. She finds pieces of the girl and uses them to form the woman she becomes, but the girl who starts The Assassin and the Pirate Lord and the one who enters Endovier at the conclusion of The Assassin and the Empire are not the same.

These novellas are brilliant. They flesh out story and character pieces we were missing, rounding out an already beautiful universe. Maas made a brilliant choice in writing them, where many authors would have intentionally abandoned that history to start where their story really hits the ground. It's so much nicer having all of this bonus material. The Throne of Glass series still stands without it, and fantastically so, but it's a richer picture when you add The Assassin's Blade into the mix.

If you love the series, and you should, you must add these to your To Read list immediately.

Check out more great reviews at Cannonball Read!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

CBR 8 Review 4: The Best of Enemies by Jen Lancaster

I went into this book knowing I love Jen Lancaster. I have read several of her books, but this was the first one that was fiction. Jen formerly wrote memoirs - brilliant books of humor based on her own life. When I saw she had made the jump to fiction, I decided that was a thing that I needed to check out. For the most part< I was satisfied.

The Best of Enemies is a frenemy story, although the way that relationship originated is different than expected. Jacqueline Jordan and Kitty Carricoe are our protagonists, with the story being told from a mixture of their viewpoints, some blog posts of Kitty's, and a series of complaints from hotel management regarded events in honor of their mutual best friend, Sarabeth Chandler. The book wastes no time in setting up the disparities between our two leads. Jack is a journalist who focuses on areas of conflict, warzones, and the like, bunking down with soldiers, writing books that could get you a guest appearance on an evening talkshow, while avoiding being home as much as possible. Kitty is the perfect Stepford wife and mother, the type of health nut who calls her children "Littles" and who, if you are me, you immediately want to run over with your car. Harsh? Maybe, but that makes her evolution sweeter because she absolutely grows on you. Jack and Kitty, it would appear, have nothing in common other than Sarabeth (whom Jack calls Sars and Kitty calls Betsy, because it's not enough for them to *be* different, we have to inform that in the nicknames they give the same person).

Our story opens with the two women living their separate lives, giving us some insight into their characters in present day. Jack is disconnected from personal ties that aren't Sars or her brothers (well, two of them at any rate). Kitty is battling to remain on top at the PTO, to hide her dwindling finances, and to keep her marriage going (if you don't see the adultery there coming, you maybe need to pay more attention to the world). The two are thrown together, and set to reminiscing in separate chapters, by the alleged death of Sarabeth's husband. At this point the story bounces between the present (exploring the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death) and past, filling in how both girls knew Sarabeth, and, more importantly, how they knew each other, which is far more interesting and significant that the opening quarter of the book would suggest. Can two such different women with so much bad blood between them reconcile their differences long enough to find out the truth and protect their friend?

Honestly, Sarabeth is a means to an end, and I gave no shits at all about her or her life. But I really don't think you're supposed to. Jack and Kitty, while often fairly broadly drawn stereotypes, were really interesting characters by the end. Their influence on each other was really fun to watch. I also liked hopping back into the past to see how things fell out between the two of them. I don't want to spoil it, but their relationship was not at all what I expected at the start.

This isn't a book that is trying to do much, but as a piece of fluffy fun literature, it absolutely succeeds. I didn't have the good fortune to be lying on a beach while I read it, but it feels like the perfect beach read. There are times it tries a little too hard, but you can't really get angry about it. Fluffy and fun, female centric, embracing both the good and bad things about relationships between female friends, I'd definitely recommend this as some light vacation/escape reading!

Check out more great reviews at Cannonball Read!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

CBR 8 Review 3 : The Secret of Pembrooke Park by Julie Klassen

“How pleasant to escape for an hour or two into the company of a treasured friend.”

Today's lesson, children, is in carefully researching your next book. It is not enough to have something recommended and throw it on your GoodReads account, oh no. You need to make sure you pay close attention to things like genre. And, reader beware, GoodReads does not show you genres on it's app. You must do your due diligence! Go forth to the GoodReads website and really look at that right hand column.  Otherwise you'll end up like me.

Yes, children, I read a piece of Christian fiction.

To start, let me say that I did not hate this book. In fact, I didn't realize that aught was amiss for quite some time. When writing Regency styled fiction, some religion comes with the territory, and until Abigail starts settling into the titular estate, it all works ok. Then she meets the local parson and suddenly DING DING DING - it's Jesus time. I was raised Catholic, and I have retained some facets of my faith over the years. That said, I generally skip Christian lit because I *HATE* being preached to. A lot. So this book had some flaws.  Let's dig in.

This book is the story of Abigail Foster, a young, capable woman who gets her family involved in a bad investment that costs them their home, though not their social standing. When she is offered the opportunity for her family to take up a tenancy in Pembrooke Park, which has remained vacant after some scandalous happenings several decades prior. Wanting to redeem herself in her family's esteem, Abigail works diligently to restore the home. In the process, she grows close to the neighboring family, the Chapman's. This includes their son, William, who is the parson of the local parish. Abigail, in leaving London, also left behind a broken heart after her childhood love seemed to prefer her sister. William starts to look like a way to heal that heart. But the house comes with some ominous tendencies - sounds in the night, warnings of unsavory types, and a mystery at the heart of it all that Abigail is trying to solve.

As far as Regency romance goes, it was fine. I bought into both of Abigail's ties, to childhood sweetheart Gilbert and new flame William. I also really loved her friendship with Leah. I had no problem envisioning the estate, and the way things ran seemed accurate to the things I know of the period. The mystery left me a little cold - it was fine, and I suppose it was logical, but I didn't care all that much about it. But nothing left me colder than the sermons.  When I say that, it's not an exaggeration. The curse of William's chosen profession is that it leaves the author with plenty of opportunity to not just worm theology into conversation, but to literally preach sermons from a pulpit. I skipped several pages in a go every time mass was attended. Or whenever William's solution to anything was based in faith. Which was more and more as the book went on.

Basically, what I'm saying is, this book is fine, but nothing special. And just how much you enjoy it may be related to how much religion you can tolerate in your fiction.