Review: Whitley: Torn

Book Cover
title: Torn
author: Rowenna Miller

pages: 480
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: DNF

Sophie is a dressmaker who has managed to open her own shop and lift herself and her brother, Kristos, out of poverty. Her reputation for beautiful ball gowns and discreetly-embroidered charms for luck, love, and protection secures her a commission from the royal family itself -- and the commission earns her the attentions of a dashing but entirely unattainable duke.

Meanwhile, Kristos rises to prominence in the growing anti-monarchist movement. Their worlds collide when the revolution's shadow leader takes him hostage and demands that Sophie place a curse on the queen's Midwinter costume -- or Kristos will die at their hand.

As the proletariat uprising comes to a violent climax, Sophie is torn: between her brother and the community of her birth, and her lover and the life she's striven to build.

I was so excited to get my hands on this book. So ready to get me some rebellious seamstresses and revolutions and magical garments. Wooooo, bring it on!

And then I got the book, and....slowed down real fast.

It's a really plodding, ponderous book that's dense with politics talk. It required a pretty immediate shift in my expectations, but once I did that, I thought we'd still get along. There was a lot of worldbuilding and a lot of background to the rebellion, which can be interesting if handled well, and I loved the quasi-Regency-era world. Sophie's magic was far more sedate than I would have preferred, the kind of magic that could be mistaken for 'coincidence' because it's not overtly visible. M'kay, still rolling with it.

But it was so sloooooooooow. And I just wasn't feeling Sophie as a main character. I can get behind the concept of a character dragged into things against her intentions, that's find and can make some decent drama, but...maybe not when 33% into the book and you're just starting to maybe even start to get dragged? Her brother was massively more interesting and active and involved, while Sophie was just plugging her ears and making nice with the ruling class. Sophie would have made a great character for a cozy mystery, or maybe a contemplative character-driven novel, but in a revolution-fantasy? Meh.

I hated the way this book handled class, and it's the thing that made me ultimately put the book down. Sophie is positioned in a way to potentially show a lot of conflict. She's one of the few people who makes the system work, so she's largely concerned with keeping the status quo because she's comfortable and any upset the system risks putting her out of work. Now, that's a terrible attitude when people are dying and shit, but as a starting point that she can grow away from, it's got potential. Only she doesn't. She stubbornly clings to that whole 'I got to cozy up to the ruling class' attitude and digs in hard. And then develops a romance with a duke. And, just, I, uh... people are dying? I know the duke is hot, but still?

And maybe she shifts away from that later in the book, but considering the summary paints the revolutionaries as the bad guys, I'm pretty sure it would be more of a 'both sides have some bad to them' thing.

The last thing, which pushed me over the edge, was the way the book tried to flatten all problems onto the same level. Sophie starts talking with her duke friend, and he goes "ah, but woe is the aristocrat, who has all these responsibilities!" Fuck the what, boy?

He literally says that because peers inherit responsibilities to their land and can't just bugger off, that's exactly the same as the poor being deliberately prevented from engaging in business and forced into permanent underclass status.

(Also, shitty peers who don't meet their responsibilities exist and guess who suffers for that because it's not the peer.)

And our lead character? "Aw, uwu, I didn't think of that way, you poor hot man, let me cuddle your sadness away."

Pffffft. No thanks.


Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Novellas and Short Stories

Hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl

CJ's Selections

I've been behind on reading short stories, but I still have a few favorites.  
1.Sightwitch / Susan Dennard - I rarely read the novellas that go with series (even my favorites!), but I'll always make an exception for Susan. SIGHTWITCH is a found footage tale set in the world of TRUTHWITCH, and it actually enrichens the plot so much that I would almost say you have to read it. Unless you want to miss out on all the cool secrets, of course.

2."Guts" / Chuck Palahniuk - There are better stories in HAUNTED (which happens to be my favorite Palahniuk book), but "Guts" is so iconic that it has to get its due. It's so sick and twisted that literally every time Chuck has done a public reading of it, someone has fainted. I'd expect nothing less from the master of transgressive horror.

3.CivilWarLand in Bad Decline / George Saunders - This is actually a book of short stories, but it's been too long since I've read it to pick one. Besides, they all flow together so well. The title track centers around a defunct and strangely-themed amusement park and its pitiful employees. Saunders is a master of dark, quirky humor, and CIVILWARLAND really gives him room to stretch his imagination.

4."A Real Doll" / A.M. Homes - I discovered this in college when my friend was assigned it for her lit class. It's a twisted, transgressive gem of a story about a nameless teenage boy who develops a perverse emotional, and finally sexual, relationship with his sister's Barbie. Shades of violence and Margot Atwood. It's disturbing in the best way.

5."The Tell-Tale Heart" / Edgar Allen Poe - It will always have a special place in my heart for being one of the first short stories I'd ever read, and my introduction to Gothic horror--and to Poe, incidentally. Who can forget that creepy eye and dramatic ending? It is the beating of his hideous heart!

Whitley's Selections

I have no experience talking about short stories. o.o
1.If a Bird Can be a Ghost / Allison Mills - Apex Magazine issue 99 - A girl learns from her grandmother how to catch ghosts in her hair and help them move on. But when the girl's mother dies, she becomes distraught when she can't find her mother anywhere and wonders what good her skills are.

Bittersweet and beautiful and full of the love of family and the various ways that can express itself.

2.The Things My Mother Left Me / P. Djèlí Clark - Fantasy Magazine issue 60 - A newly orphaned girl tries to find a way out of her village to a freer life, but when she makes a bargain with a shifty circus owner, she winds up learning about her mother instead.

A really rich world told in such a short story, with so many wonderful details. I'm still amazed at how full the setting felt within the constraints of the medium.

3.The Greatest Love / Anne McCaffrey - The Girl Who Heard Dragons - A short storied about surrogate motherhood, written when that technology was still being developed. It's told from the POV of a gynecologist who has a couple coming to her, begging to be the test case for the experimental procedure. When it turns out to work, they find themselves embroiled in a legal battle as people refuse to believe that the surrogate mother isn't the genetic mother as well.

I read this whole short story collection many times when I was younger (and have no idea why I didn't jump from this to reading more short stories, but eh) and this one was always my favorite. The interpersonal drama mixed with medical research and the elaborate logistical hurdles they had to cross to make the pregnancy happen always fascinated me.

4.Mermaids, Singing / Tiffany Trent - The Underwater Ballroom Society - A traveling carnival has fantastical creature sideshows, except in this carnival the creatures are real. The leader of a captured band of werewolves escapes briefly and gets assistance from a London girl, but he must return to the carnival in order to free the rest of his companions before they (and the world they are from) get sold off to Queen Victoria.

5.Early to Rise / Ana Mardoll - No Man of Woman Born - An anthology entirely devoted to trans and non-binary characters who either fulfill or subvert the outcome of gendered prophesies and fairy tales. 'Early to Rise' is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty in which an aromantic character must find another option besides 'true love' to break their curse.

Your turn! What are some of your favorite short stories?


ARC Review: Whitley: Hullmetal Girls by Emily Skrutskie

Book Cover
title: Hullmetal Girls
author: Emily Skrutskie
pages: 320
format: eARC
buy it: Amazon | Goodreads
rating: 3/5

Aisha Un-Haad would do anything for her family. When her brother contracts a plague, she knows her janitor's salary isn't enough to fund his treatment. So she volunteers to become a Scela, a mechanically enhanced soldier sworn to protect and serve the governing body of the Fleet, the collective of starships they call home. If Aisha can survive the harrowing modifications and earn an elite place in the Scela ranks, she may be able to save her brother.

Key Tanaka awakens in a Scela body with only hazy memories of her life before. She knows she's from the privileged end of the Fleet, but she has no recollection of why she chose to give up a life of luxury to become a hulking cyborg soldier. If she can make it through the training, she might have a shot at recovering her missing past.

In a unit of new recruits vying for top placement, Aisha's and Key's paths collide, and the two must learn to work together--a tall order for girls from opposite ends of the Fleet. But a rebellion is stirring, pitting those who yearn for independence from the Fleet against a government struggling to maintain unity.

With violence brewing and dark secrets surfacing, Aisha and Key find themselves questioning their loyalties. They will have to put aside their differences, though, if they want to keep humanity from tearing itself apart.

I was most of the way through this book and stuck on why I was having so much trouble finishing it. It made no sense why I wasn’t devouring the book as fast as possible – it’s got spaceships and cyborgs and conspiracies and training montages! It’s got girl friendships and cool tech and interesting side characters and evil governments being taken down from within!

And…it’s the last one. Taken down from within. Because, as much as there’s a lot of stuff going on with factions and resistance groups and such, neither of our main characters actually have any motivation to take down the evil government. They’re just sort of stumbling through the plot, poked and prodded by circumstances and outside actors. Any urgency I felt in this plot was generally contained within individual plot points, and once those points ended, both of our main characters were like “m’kay, that was weird, back to training to be a good government lackey now.” Granted, this dynamic changed near the end, but it took long enough that my sense of connection had really waned. There was a sense of ‘okay, get on with already,’ rather than any emotional satisfaction from seeing their struggles come to fruition.

It’s really shame, because in the personal sense, their struggles were really great. Aisha and her family concerns and Key with her identity crises were both beautifully wrought, and made for compelling stuff…while we were in their chapters. But then we’d leave their chapters and go back to conspiracy plot and lose the emotional thread because they had no motivation for that other plot.

The sci-fi aspects were really great, and the body horror stuff was just the right amounts, with lots of chilling descriptions of the turning-cyborg process. The characters all learning how to handle their new, enhanced bodies and coming to terms with both the good and the bad parts of it were interesting to read. There was a mind-share aspect which I think could have been used to more potential, as is in the book it seemed more like an excuse to info-dump on non-POV characters, and then got ‘turned off’ when the plot needed it to be gone. But other than that, yes, cyborg goodness.

So, yeah. Good characters and setting, but not a lot of follow through on the tension which made for a rather fragmented read. I’d still suggest it for people who are interested in the subject matter, because it does deliver on the summary.


Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books We've Read So Far in 2018

Hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl

CJ's Selections

Here we go: my top 5 from 2018 so far. I kind of sucked about reading this year, but  I did pick some good ones. 

1.The Cruel Prince / Holly Black - Yeah I know, you're super surprised. I can't help it! I adore this dark twisty toxic faerie romance. You have to let go of human social expectations for this to work well, but once you do...oh, my Cardan.

2.Sightwitch / Susan Dennard - Seriously, where you guys been on this one? I know it's a novella, but it's so much cleverer than your typical novella! It's found footage and even though you can read BLOODWITCH without it, you're gonna be so pissed you missed out on all the sneaky secrets and foreshadowing.

3.The Poppy War / R.F. Kuang - This adult book is seriously one of the best books I've read in 10 years. It's a historical slightly-fantasy mashup, a tight alternate universe retelling of the Rape of Nanjing--a real historical massacre that Kuang renders with bonechilling starkness. The whole book is brutal, beautiful, and shocking.

4.Iron Gold / Pierce Brown - This is seriously my most predictable TTT ever. Of course I loved IRON GOLD. Yet again, Pierce Brown has proved that sophomore slump can't touch him. IRON GOLD is a vicious, emotionally fraught successor to the RED RISING trilogy, raising the stakes for Darrow and crew and torturing us all yet again.

5.The City of Brass / S.A. Chakraborty - Another adult fantasy book with a lot of crossover appeal. Brutal (but much less than POPPY WAR), it's the sweeping, gorgeous tale of a daeva/djinn, a girl in Cairo, and an ancient vendetta between immortals. I can't express how compelling this story is.
0.Just five wasn't enough for me this time.

Children of Blood and Bone / Tomi Adeyemi  -  It's less HARRY POTTER (despite the comparisons), more epic Nigerian-based fantasy adventure about a brewing battle between the oppressed caste of magi and the unmagical king who wants to stamp them out. Meet Zelie, magical chosen one and general badass, and the two royal children who must choose their place in the war.

Whitley's Selections

I have such issues with qualitative lists so please don't take these as being in any significant order. They're mostly in reverse order of when I read them.
1.A Princess in Theory / Alyssa Cole - A prince is determined to find his long lost betrothed, missing since childhood, but when he does she doesn't remember or recognize him. He uses the oportunity to get to know her as a peer, but when his subterfuge comes to light her trust issues kick in hard.

Hands down the best contemporary romance (maybe any romance) I've read that I can remember. I adored both of these characters and the way they interacted. Even more, such a big part of romance (or at least, the ones I like) is the self-reflection each character takes towards themselves and their personal growth, and that part of Ledi's story is just ashdfjkahsflkjashdfj I love her so much.

2.The Ugly Stepsister / Aya Ling - A girl from the modern world gets sucked into a Cinderella storybook, cast as the part of the ugly stepsister. She has to make the story come to it's happy ending, or she can never get home, but the prince seems determined to fall for her instead of Cinderella!

I thought this was an adorable retelling, and it's almost hard to describe why. It just had a charm about it that carried it through what could have so easily been trite and dull. Almost every plot point I could tell you about would sound overdone, but the voice of the protagonist and so many of the little details just made me love it anyway.

3.What a Difference a Duke Makes / Lenora Bell
An out of luck governess needs a job in the worst way. A duke suddenly finds himself with a pair of illegitimate twins who need governing. Mari blusters her way into the position on pure brass and turns out to be just what that family needs.

I'm a sucker for the 'gruff grumpy dude with a heart of gold,' and it's so often not done very well, hence the sucker-ness. But Edgar is my perfect example of that trope and I love him so much. He hits a great balance between withdrawn and caring, not too rude to be mean and make me resent his hero status. And Mari is so confident and sassy and asldkfjasdjf I love her.

4.Girls Made of Snow and Glass / Melissa Bashardoust - A retelling of Snow White that gives almost equal time to exploring the characters of Snow and the 'Evil Queen.' Both women have been created/partially created by magic and struggle with what that means for their humanity and how they interact with the world.

This was suuuuuuuuuuuch a good introspective book. Not much on the plot/adventure front, and honestly I think the Snow White model slowed it down at the end because the middle went so far off from the fairy tale. But, heavens, that middle was so good. I loved Mina as the 'evil' queen and reading about her development and the relationship she had to her father and her stepdaughter and her world and all the various ways that struggling to survive put her in this typecast role and how much she wanted to be there for  Lynet and jafaskhdfkjh I want to hug her so much. It was just really beautiful.

5.Song of the Current / Sarah Tolcser - Caro gets blackmailed into take a mysterious box down the river on her barge, but along the way gets beset by privateers and decides to open the box. Inside she finds a royal escaping his country's bloody coup, and has to decide if she wants to help him to safety and/or help him get his throne back.

This book felt really whole-package for me, like nothing was ASLDKFJ WOW but on the other side everything was lower-case wow! The worldbuilding was gloriously smooth and interesting and I loved all the details in it. I loved Caro's character and her competence and insecurities both. There was swashbuckling adventure and humor and pirates and magic and romance and it all just fit together so nicely.

Your turn! What are some awesome books you've read this year?


ARC Review: C.J. Whisper of the Tide by Sarah Tolcser

review         book

Book Covertitle: Whisper of the Tide
author: Sarah Tolcser
pages: 416
format: Paperback ARC
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 3/5 (from hated to loved) or 5.5/10 (all books I've ever read)
recommended for: Fans of Pirates of the Caribbean, Royal Bastards, and other blockbuster fantasies with a funny side.
The second in the immersive series set along the waterways of a fantasy world, perfect for fans of Sabaa Tahir.

Caro has settled into a routine: Wake, eat breakfast, try to figure out who is going attempt to assassinate Markos today. The currents aren't exactly calm. Markos is in constant danger, and his claim to the Akhaian throne is largely unsupported. Without military strength he doesn't have a chance. Relief appears on the horizon when a powerful Archon wants to side with Markos in his fight for the throne. But in exchange for an army, Markos must marry the Archon’s daughter. They must decide which is more important: their love for each other or the fate of Akhaia. And Caro will have to decide if her destiny is to sail with the tide, or chart her own course.

With shipwrecks, lost treasure, old and new enemies, dark magic, and devastating romance, Sarah Tolcser weaves another epic story about chasing fate.

in depth

  • I keep saying I don't like ship books, but Song of the Current was a charming adventure from last year and I think I loved Whisper of the Tide even more. It's a quirky, sweeping fantasy-cum-pirate-adventure that pulls away from many overused conventions to deliver an exciting ride. 

  • The ensemble is a refreshing change. Like Royal Bastards, Whisper has a small cast of main characters who surround Caro. It's not just MC and Love Interest and where are all their friends and family? In fact, Caro's hottie Markos isn't even with her for much of the book, leaving Caro to join forces with others. Caro's POV is snarky and reads like a real teenager. I love how sullen and no-nonsense she can be, and how she's genuinely selfish and has to grow past that. Markos, when he's present, is annoyingly noble, but in an endearing way. We also get Caro's cousin Kente back; I absolutely love this shadowgirl, her trickiness and her spunk. And new to the table is Melanos, Jack Sparrow's spiritual successor. He's gruff and drunk and you're never sure which side he's on, which obviously makes him my favorite person. 

  • It's a pirate adventure, save-the-kingdom, and romance rolled into one. I'll admit, it's biggest flaw was that it's predictable. I guessed a lot of the twists in advance. Sarah makes the safe choices when she could be shaking things up. But, there was enough to love that I did really enjoy myself. It reads like a video game. The setup. The side quest. The vengeful sea goddess who's f*cking things up. The unknown assassin. Caro is constantly scrambling to keep up. And even though I often knew where they were going, it was a thrill to watch them get there. Sarah has a flair for the cinematic that makes my head scream "movie deal!" 

  • You won't recognize this world right away. In a land of Tolkien-clones, Sarah's Greek and Phoenician-inspired linguistics is such a nice change! I'd have liked a little more worldbuilding (see Kate Elliott's Court of Fives) because I was never quite sure why the empire of Akhaia needed saving, or how this war was going to shake out. I think Sarah works best on the smaller level. Like Caro, she is comfortable on a ship, throwing out sailor jargon and made-up slang in a casual and comprehensible way. Her world of pirate queens, sea gods, traders, and explorers feels much more vibrant than the distant foggy empire. All this salty veneer kept me enthralled even when the plot was saggy. 

  • Whisper of the Tides is a solid follow-up to Caro's first adventure. It capitalizes on the sea world that Sarah weaves so well, and combines cheeky humor with cinematic adventure for a movie-like tale. 

in a sentence

  • Whisper of the Tides capitalizes on the sea world that Sarah weaves so well, and combines cheeky humor with cinematic adventure for a movie-like tale. 


will i read this author again?  Yep yep 
will i continue the series?  I think I will, although I'm not sure if it's continuing?  

Note: I received this copy from the author/publisher in exchange for an honest review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.