Reviews: The Border Keeper & The Phantom Forest – Two Underworld Stories, One Good, One Ehh

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Title: The Border Keeper
Author: Kerstin Hall
Publisher: Tor.com
Release Date: July 16th, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Underworld, Gods, Demons
Page Count: 240 (ebook)

Rating: 7.0/10

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Vasethe, a man with a troubled past, comes to seek a favor from a woman who is not what she seems, and must enter the nine hundred and ninety-nine realms of Mkalis, the world of spirits, where gods and demons wage endless war.

The Border Keeper spins wonders both epic―the Byzantine bureaucracy of hundreds of demon realms, impossible oceans, hidden fortresses―and devastatingly personal―a spear flung straight, the profound terror and power of motherhood. What Vasethe discovers in Mkalis threatens to bring his own secrets into light and throw both worlds into chaos.

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She had been called the destroyer of empires. Mistress of the dead, the whispers went. But those few who knew better gave her the title of ya Wenzta, the border keeper.

This isn’t quite the romp through a fantastical underworld I had in mind (as in, not as fast-paced or rich in detail as I’d imagined), but you know when you read or watch or play something that gives you this inexplicable yet pleasant vibe and it just kind of sticks with you for the rest of the day? Yeah, that’s this book.

The worldbuilding is really where the story shines–a mix of weird horror and your typical fantasy fare. You get demon-god politics, crab children, and horrific and imaginative consequences for breaking Mkalis rules (the most important one being “always tell the truth”) and there’s an incredible quietness to it all that I loved and found to be strangely addictive. It’s reminiscent of the Souls games, the way everything feels forlorn without being grisly, and expansive without being crammed to the walls with details and metaphors. And the wistful tone meshes really well with the story’s theme of death and rebirth. It’s one of those worlds that feels subdued but still creative, and I think that’s a quality that’s underappreciated in fantasy.

I wasn’t as enamoured with the characters, unfortunately. While the history of the Eris’s role as the border keeper and her relationship with the gods and demons of Mkalis is fascinating, I wasn’t interested in Eris as a person. Same with Vasethe, who was weirdly bland and non-present throughout the whole story, except for maybe near the end.

Overall, though, this is a lovely debut and I’d love to see more stories set in the same world.

 


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Title: The Phantom Forest
Author: Liz Kerin
Publisher: Inkshares
Release Date: July 16th, 2019
Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Dystopian
Subjects and Themes: Underworld, Demons
Page Count: 336 (paperback)

Rating: 5.0/10

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Every tree in the sacred Forest of Laida houses a soul. And each of those souls will return to the mortal world for many future lives. But not all of them deserve to.

Seycia’s father told her this story as a child―a story of the most holy place in the Underworld, the Forest of Laida, where all souls go to rest before embarking on a new life. But Seycia’s father is dead now, and his killer has put a target on her back.

After she is chosen for her village’s human sacrifice ritual, Seycia is transported to the Underworld and must join forces with Haben, the demon to whom she was sacrificed. Together, they journey to the forest in the Underworld where all souls grow in a quest to destroy the tree of the man who killed her.

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This mashup of a post-apocalyptic world with an underworld was really intriguing at first, and I was invested in maybe…the first 1/4 of it, but sadly the main characters ended up falling flat and I couldn’t find myself being invested in any of their journey. Haben, the human-turned-demon boy, was probably the most interesting of the three protagonists and even then it still felt like his personality only went skin-deep.

The worldbuilding is definitely its biggest asset; the various details of the underworld are vivid and often genuinely creepy, and I wished that the entirety of the story was set there (the idea of underworld soul trees is fantastic).

And the two villains–one human, the other a demon–overshadow Sychia, Miko, and Haben as the stars of the story. They’re magnetic in a way that the protagonists aren’t, and while I’ll always love despicable baddies that I can sink my teeth into, if I’m rooting for them over the heroes for no reason other than that they actually feel more three dimensional than the latter, that’s kind of a big problem.

Overall, the story didn’t do much for me, but the good news is that I’m 1000% in the minority and many other readers did love it, so if you’re into underworld stories then it wouldn’t hurt to try this one out.

Review: Dealing in Dreams – Starts Off High, Crashes To Blandness

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Title: Dealing in Dreams
Author: Lilliam Rivera
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release Date: March 5th, 2019
Genre(s): YA Dystopia
Subjects and Themes: Feminism
Page Count: 336 (hardback)

Rating: 6.0/10

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Sixteen-year-old Nalah leads the fiercest all-girl crew in Mega City. That role brings with it violent throwdowns and access to the hottest boydega clubs, but Nala quickly grows weary of her questionable lifestyle. Her dream is to get off the streets and make a home in the exclusive Mega Towers, in which only a chosen few get to live. To make it to the Mega Towers, Nalah must prove her loyalty to the city’s benevolent founder and cross the border in a search of the mysterious gang the Ashé Riders. Led by a reluctant guide, Nalah battles crews and her own doubts but the closer she gets to her goal the more she loses sight of everything—and everyone—she cares about.

Nalah must choose whether or not she’s willing to do the unspeakable to get what she wants. Can she discover that home is not where you live but whom you chose to protect before she loses the family she’s created for good?

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I went into Dealing in Dreams expecting three things:

1) “The Outsiders meets Mad Max: Fury Road”
2) Female friendships
3) Subversive look at feminism

To my delight and surprise, one of those “X meets Y” blurbs actually proved to be pretty accurate because the world of Dealing in Dreams is one of girl gangs and throwdowns and unrepentant, gritty ultraviolence.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic society where women rule the top of the food chain–as gang members and soldiers to Dessee, the city’s ruler–and men either toil away in factories or in clubs as sex workers (“papi chulos”). And dreams (or sueños)–a drug made to induce euphoric dreaming–are manufactured and dealt like currencies. Overall, it’s a cool, unforgiving city and Rivera paints a stark portrait of it.

I wasn’t as impressed with the female friendships. I never got a good sense of the other girls in Nalah’s gang, and there were definitely no heartwrenching “Stay gold” moments to be found here.

The biggest draw of the book, aside from its worldbuilding, is the theme that it carries. Rivera addresses gender roles and equality and the issue of feminism being presented as the direct opposite of male dominance–the idea that tough, rough women and submissive men equates to a better world. It asks the readers whether lopping off the head of one kind of inequality only to replace it with another can really be called progress.

“You are forced to abide by rigid rules on what it means to be a man and a woman…Do you think violence makes you more of a woman? Does forcing papis to work at boydegas make them a better ally?”

And I love that. That’s a fantastic message. And I loved the way it was presented in the first half.

But I found the second half to be a massive let-down. It felt like an abridged version of the book, with several sections missing from the middle, and events happened far too quickly to pack any kind of emotional punch. And this denial of a satisfying lead-up to the ending renders that message, not moot, but significantly less powerful.

The writing style also plays a part in this issue. It’s super clipped and plain which fits the setting and the MC’s personality pretty well, but doesn’t do much in terms of showing off the secondary characters, and ends up muting scenes that could otherwise have been poignant.

The book is still definitely worth giving a shot, but considering the sheer amount of potential it had, my feelings on Dealing in Dreams are mostly of disappointment.

Blog Tour Review + Giveaway: The Fever King – Baby, You Burn My Brain Up Like a Fever

The Fever King Character Highlights & Giveaway

Title: The Fever King (Feverwake, #1)
Author: Victoria Lee
Publisher Skyscape
Release Date: March 1, 2019
Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Paranormal, Dystopian
Subjects and Themes: LGBTQIAP+, Politics, Abuse
Page Count: 384

Rating: 6.5/10

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In the former United States, sixteen-year-old Noam Álvaro wakes up in a hospital bed, the sole survivor of the viral magic that killed his family and made him a technopath. His ability to control technology attracts the attention of the minister of defense and thrusts him into the magical elite of the nation of Carolinia.

The son of undocumented immigrants, Noam has spent his life fighting for the rights of refugees fleeing magical outbreaks—refugees Carolinia routinely deports with vicious efficiency. Sensing a way to make change, Noam accepts the minister’s offer to teach him the science behind his magic, secretly planning to use it against the government. But then he meets the minister’s son—cruel, dangerous, and achingly beautiful—and the way forward becomes less clear.

Caught between his purpose and his heart, Noam must decide who he can trust and how far he’s willing to go in pursuit of the greater good.

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The Fever King has been getting 5 stars left and right, so before my rating scares you off, I’d to like say that 1) Anything I rate above a 5 is not bad, and 2) I don’t even know if 6.5 is the right rating for this because overall I think (??) I liked it, but I had some major issues with the execution, but at the same time I still recommend it. I haven’t been this conflicted about a book in a while (hence the review title).

This is gonna be a messy one, folks. Strap in. (We’re doing sections today. :D)

 

Some general things I really liked about the book:

♦ The story features very, very pointed themes of immigration policies, refugee crises, and fearmongering–ones that obviously parallel U.S’s political climate in the past handful of years. One could call it too on-the-nose, I suppose. I found it passionate and unapologetic. For me, the political message and scenes relating to it are the strongest aspects of this book.

♦ The integration of science with magic. Something I’ll never not love.

♦ The diversity. We have a protagonist who’s biracial, Jewish, and bisexual, and a queer brown love interest.

♦ Noam and Dara’s relationship, once it gets going, is about navigating the line between unbridled affection and respecting boundaries, which I thought was done very well. And the two are really sweet together.

♦ The last 1/4 of the book ramps up in pace and it’s one crazy event after another. Really entertaining stuff.

 

Onto more specific things:

Worldbuilding:

I love the setup of this world–this future dystopian North America that’s been ravaged by plague that can turn you into a magic user (“witching”). I would have loved to see more of it, but I feel like what I got in the end was a handful of blurry images.

And for such an elite training program, we see so little of Level 4 (the government’s witching school) and the people involved–students and instructors and all–so most of the time it feels like Noam, Lehrer, and Dara are interacting in their own little vacuum. That made things weirdly stifling.

 

Noam:

Noam. Noam. Noam. Noam. Noam.

I love his passion and his determination to fight for what’s right, I really do; he’s got a big heart and the anger that runs through it is utterly infectious. But some of the other aspects of his personality–his obliviousness, naivete, doing things without thinking–annoyed me to no end. Not because I have a problem with those character traits in general, but because they didn’t seem to really fit him.

Noam Alvaro’s background: hacker whiz; political activist; newly-made orphan; been to juvie; and knows first-hand the corruption of government and the sting of discrimination. He’s not some sheltered rich kid who’s ignorant about the ways of the world, and his life thus far has been a string of hardships underlined with tragedies.

So I had trouble reconciling all of that with someone who has the naivete of a storybook princess and the situational awareness of a brick wall. Someone who, among other things, breaks into a high-security government building with zero foreplanning and thinks, “I should just surrender. I’m sure they’ll understand” when he’s about to get caught. It just didn’t make sense.

 

Lehrer and Dara:

Lehrer reminds me quite a bit of Magneto from X-Men, which is probably why I find him the most interesting of the three. Going down the checklist, he’s: German-Jewish; survivor of experimentation and torture; wanted to create a utopia for witchings to live without discrimination; and has a moral compass that veers wildly from “manipulative SOB” to “caring leader.”

My problem with both Lehrer and Dara is that the book (or Noam, rather) keeps nudging me in the ribs and whispering, “Oh wow, aren’t these guys so contradictory and fascinating?” without really showing me that. While we get to see more of Lehrer’s past from the excerpts at the end of the chapters (which I did like), we don’t get much from him in the main story, and Dara is all evasiveness and cryptic “I can tell you things, but I won’t.” And while there’s a good reason for that, a more in-depth look into his character would have been great.

But Dara did grow on me in the last 1/3 of the book, and his story is one that’ll have you reaching for a pillow to hug.

 

Conclusion:

If it seems like I’ve just been ragging on the book, let me give you this:

My brain sometimes acts like an overly persistent, sporadically cantankerous dog that thinks it has something to prove to the world, so once it snags a particular issue, it doesn’t like letting go. And that kind of ends up setting the tone for the rest of the reading experience.

But there’s a a high chance your brain is a nice affable pup. An annoying squirrel throwing nuts at you from a tree? Who cares! Shake if off! (Literally!) The day is sunny and warm, the flowers are in bloom, and holy crap, there are miles and miles of sticks to chew on. Life is amazing.

So some of these issues I had you might be able to easily overlook. And if that’s the case, then I think your experience will be a much, much less conflicting one.

TL;DR. The Fever King was too uneven for me to fall headlong in love with it, but it’s got a good foundation, a heartfelt message, and an ending that just begs you to pick up the sequel (which I will be doing). 

 

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Favourite Quotes

 

Everything worth doing had its risks.
Sometimes you had to do the wrong thing to achieve something better.

“And I meant it when I said I wasn’t gay,” Noam said.
Ames looked disbelieving, but she didn’t pull away.
Noam smirked. “Bisexual isn’t gay.”

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Victoria Lee grew up in Durham, North Carolina, where she spent twelve ascetic years as a vegetarian before discovering spicy chicken wings are, in fact, a delicacy. She’s been a state finalist competitive pianist, a hitchhiker, a pizza connoisseur, an EMT, an expat in China and Sweden, and a science doctoral student. She’s also a bit of a snob about fancy whisky.
Victoria writes early in the morning, then spends the rest of the day trying to impress her border collie puppy and make her experiments work.
She is represented by Holly Root and Taylor Haggerty at Root Literary.

 

Giveaway (US Only):

Giveaway starts on March 19th and ends on the 30th. ENTER HERE.

 

Tour Schedule:

Check out the other tour stops HERE.