Hello everyone, and welcome back!
I keep trying to cram in that third read per week, but alas, it’s been a busy time. (Well, that and I’ve been using my spare hours to finish Mass Effect 2, but you know.) So I’m here to review Fate of Flames and Defy the Stars. If I weren’t such a mood reader, I’d schedule books together that had something to do with each other so I could compare them. These are not at all similar, and my feelings about them are also not similar.
Fate of Flames by Sarah Raughley
The premise of this book was described as Sailor Moon meets Pacific Rim, which is not altogether inaccurate. There’s also a dash of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I think: four girls in all the world are imbued with powers (mostly) from the classical elements: fire, ice (water, usually), earth, and air. They are the only ones with the power to stop the huge, kaiju-like creatures who otherwise attack human settlements, called phantoms in this book, and kept at bay in most cities by some kind of wave-transmitting technology that has been adapted for use in different ways around the world. The problem? Recently, phantoms have been busting into human cities anyway, along with some mysterious guy. Also, the girls who take up this mantle are complicated human beings who don’t always want the responsibility—and who, like slayers, tend to die young and quickly.
Stop there: that’s as excited as you’ll get about this book.
This book coasts on its cool mash-up premise without giving us much else to love. The fight scenes are messy, the characters feel pretty flat, and while the pace is pretty quick, the plot feels a little bit all over the place, as if too much is crammed in and things are hanging out the seams.
While the four female characters with powers, called Effigies, have very cool abilities and are diverse and think differently about their positions, they aren’t very developed and tend to come off a little…annoying, as a result. (I’m not easily annoyed by characters, but I don’t feel like I was given enough time and reason to sympathize with these characters before they started whining about their roles.)
One of the Effigies is rebellious and violent, one is a literal ice queen, one is fearful and flighty (can you also guess her element?), and one is new to all of this and also a special snowflake because she has a lot of potential and the villain is after her (the protagonist, of course). Also, to no one’s surprise ever, the shadowy council that oversees the Effigies is, well, shadowy.
I guess my feeling about this book is that it counts on you to be genre-savvy in order to want to read it, because it will appeal most to people who enjoy genre fiction like what it’s referencing, but then it plays directly into your expectations (especially via the Sailor Moon and Buffy references). The girls are familiar stereotypes cobbled together (not to slam SM, as in that they do develop through their relationships). The (mostly men) overseeing them are shady. They need to learn to band together as friends to fight effectively as a team. Peering into past lives to discover the truth and find out how to defeat the villain is also a thing.
Which is not to say that something staying in its genre lane is a terrible thing. I suppose it’s just that what makes those other narratives great is character development. For Sailor Moon, it’s about Usagi digging deep inside herself to find courage and about the friendships that develop between the girls—and how she creates that family, that sense that they’re not alone. Buffy is very much about fighting the monsters of coming of age, which makes it necessary for the characters to confront new sides of themselves. Even Pacific Rim requires that characters work through their past trauma and connect with others. Without any of that development, each of those pieces of media would just be…a kind of lacklustre story about people fighting an endless series of monsters, with some cool worldbuilding and a dash of romance.
Which is kind of what happens here. (The dash of romance was looking predictable and pretty boring, so I’m glad it didn’t go much of anywhere and looks as if it might be subverted a bit.)
I don’t know. On one hand, I don’t want to give up entirely on the series Fate of Flames is starting. It is a cool premise, there is some cool worldbuilding (although a lot of holes in that, so…if I read a sequel, I hope those are explained), and I do actually want to see four young women band together to stand up against Shady Dudes and also Giant Enemy Snakes. I am gratified by the fact that this was a diverse cast of female main characters and there is no immediate love triangle and instalove seems to have been…at least put off.
But every character’s motivations were kind of a question mark in this book other than the protagonist, who was scared but wanted to help people but mostly couldn’t because she’s new. Which is relatable, but not always easy to read. (Ineffective protagonists can be tricky.) And while it made sense to obscure the intentions of villains or possible villains, getting to know the other Effigies on such a surface level made it feel as if the book’s premise was an unkept promise.
That’s a lot of justification to say that I’m kind of “ehhh” about this book, isn’t it?
Defy the stars by Claudia Gray
Don’t let the terrible tagline that was on my cover of this book fool you. Don’t let the ridiculously simple premise (a boy and a girl stuck together fall in love! in space!) fool you. This book was actually good.
Claudia Gray is one of those authors I have been intending on giving a second chance for a while. I didn’t hate A Thousand Pieces of You, but I didn’t love it, and I have never continued that trilogy. The romance was a little overwrought for me, the love triangle just a bit much (plus it was between two grad students and a teen girl living at home with her professor parents, so…weird?), and although I liked the world-jumping sci-fi fun and the focus on family, the villain came off as just almost boringly evil.
Defy the Stars is definitely much different. No love triangle. The romance is, by comparison, very subtle and a pretty slow build.
While someone in this book is definitely villainous in their treatment of a main character, this is a book guided far more by shades of grey: Earth and one of its former colony planets, Genesis, are at war. Both sides have reasons to be engaged in their war, and the stakes are huge. And the decisions of people on both sides, as well as the people caught in between, are not at all black and white.
Abel is a mech, an extremely advanced partially-organic artificial intelligence created by Earth’s top scientist. Noemi is a young Genesis soldier, ready to give her life to protect her planet. They meet on a derelict ship and initially try to kill each other, but end up working together and learning a lot about each other. In the process, Noemi learns why it is that Earth has gone to war, and Abel learns that he is more than a tool for others to use. And the two of them learn to care about one another.
In the meantime, though, the two hop through space, visit various planets, make friends, and have adventures, which keeps the book moving and the sci-fi feel fresh: it’s always interesting to imagine how the future might look in terms of AI technology and colonization of other planets, and this has a very cool Terminator plus The Fifth Element aesthetic in some ways. (Or maybe also Mass Effect. But my mind might be skewed to think that way.)
The worldbuilding here was nice: not so many details that it always felt like info-dumping, but not so little that it felt as if there were massive plotholes at the centre of everything. The character arcs also worked; while robots learning that they’re somehow kind of human is a whole sci-fi trope, it came off well here, and while Noemi didn’t change radically as a character, her slow realization of what else is going on in the galaxy (as well as her joy at being free and having people value her) played well. And although the romance still needed environmental factors to feel really believable (lives in danger, an AI meeting the first person who treats him like a person, etc.), for a young adult novel especially, a lot of time and effort was put into constructing believable hate-to-love feelings between the two main characters.
(Not to rail at YA, but romance is such an expected norm that instalove is so, so common, even in situations where the characters were previously enemies! Sometimes it takes very few pages for two people who barely know each other to die for one another, which is…sure, maybe the way first love feels, but this goes a bit far.)
Anyway. On the less positive side, I feel as if the “friends” they met were pretty underdeveloped. This didn’t bother me horribly, especially in the case of people who got railroaded into helping them because they had no choice, but for the people who chose to, it was a bit headscratching. I think developing those people more might have been awkward for the pacing, but it’s also tricky to have people save the main characters if they’re people the reader hasn’t met; it can feel a little too deus ex machina. I am hoping that as this series continues, the other characters get a bit more development and give us more of a sense of their motivations. (Although hopefully not to the point of utter bloat; I feel like some YA series just decide to give everyone perspective chapters, George R.R. Martin style, and the narrative bloat is too real.)
Also, there were a couple of moments where I was concerned the author was forwarding me a message I didn’t agree with, although it didn’t feel decisive. I’m not sure how to explain this, other than that sometimes I’m not sure if a character or an author is putting across a particular perspective, and if it’s the character holding a certain belief or prejudice I’m generally okay with it, but if the narrative indicates I’m supposed to agree with the character then I consider it an author point of view they’ve written in, and that might make me uncomfortable. (In this case, it felt like a character was looking down on sex workers, but I wasn’t sure if that was narratively reinforced or not, or if it was just supposed to be a gentle reminder of Noemi’s reserved feelings about sexuality.)
Those moments of imperfection or uncertainty aside, I quite enjoyed this read and I’m looking forward to the continuation of this series. …which I now have to wait a while for, because this is new. Dang.
Thanks for coming by, and I’ll speak to you again Tuesday!