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REVIEW:  Mind Games by Kiersten White

REVIEW: Mind Games by Kiersten White

Dear Ms. White,

Despite hearing good things about your Paranormalcy trilogy, I haven’t had the chance to pick them up yet. My paranormal weariness usually results in my passing over books in favor of something fresh and new (to me). But when I heard that you were writing a thriller about sisters, I was intrigued.

Mind GamesFia and Annie were orphaned when their parents died in a car accident. Annie, the older sister, can see the future in confusing, fragmented bursts. But the younger sister, Fia, promised her parents she would take care of Annie, who also happens to be blind. After their parents’ deaths, Fia and Annie go to live with their aunt who is anything but thrilled. When an elite, but mysterious, school takes an interest in Annie, the aunt is more than willing to foist her unwanted burdens onto someone else.

Annie is excited about the school. They make all sorts of promises about restoring her eyesight, and this is more than enough reason for her to accept the offer. Fia, however, doesn’t want to separate and it’s not just the promise that makes her adamant. She has a bad feeling about the school and she’s learned to trust her instincts because they’re always right. Her stubbornness piques the interest of the school and as a result, both sisters are accepted.

In what is a surprise to absolutely no one, the school is not what it seems. It’s a training ground for girls with psychic abilities. And while it was Annie’s precognitive talent that interested the school, it soon becomes apparent that Fia has the more interesting power. Fia has perfect instincts. Her initial gut reaction is the correct one. It makes her perfect for stock trading, corporate espionage… and murder.

When Annie’s abilities fail to live up to their potential, Fia becomes the star of the school. But because she never trusted the school in the first place, she is uncooperative. As a result, the sisters’ relationship is turned against them. Annie becomes the hostage guaranteeing Fia’s good behavior and obedience. Fia does anything asked of her to ensure Annie’s well-being while Annie, in her gilded cage, does everything she can to save her broken sister from becoming a monster.

Having not read your previous books, I went into this book with no expectations. While this book is called a thriller, I don’t think that’s accurate. This was more the story of two sisters, the pressures their relationship undergo, and their many attempts to escape a prison that has broken and warped them. I’m a big fan of female relationships in fiction so I liked this. Readers expecting a dark thriller about corporate espionage and assassination might be disappointed, however. There are moments of unexpected, and somewhat brutal, violence but I wouldn’t call this book that kind of edgy and dark thriller.

The book alternates between the POVs of Fia and Annie. It is in the dreaded first person POV and at times, the narrative veers towards stream of consciousness. I thought it was effective most of the time but other readers may disagree. Despite my enjoyment of the narrative style, I thought the alternating POVs was the novel’s biggest weakness. Due to her rage, Fia’s voice is so much stronger than Annie’s and she stole the narrative show. Part of this is my bias. I have a soft spot for the broken, angry female characters, and Fia is definitely that.

But contrasting Fia’s rage against Annie’s naivete often put Annie in a bad light. It’s true they were young when they encountered the school and Annie let her own hopes cloud her common sense. When you’re young and inexperienced, I can see how you’d believe anything if it meant getting something you’ve always dreamed of. I definitely think the school capitalized on Annie’s trusting nature. But to go from her naivete to Fia, who was clearly mistreated from Day 1 as the school tried to figure out the exact nature of her abilities, was hard. It made Annie’s innocence seem willful in the face of all evidence suggesting otherwise.

On the other hand, I liked the complicated portrayal of their relationship. The traditional dynamic of older sister looking after younger sister was disrupted because of Annie’s disability. On some level, Annie resented this and that contributed to her willingness to believe the promises that her eyesight could be restored. She wanted to be the a proper older sister. But because she’d always been taken care of, she sucked at identifying the transformation being forced upon Fia until it was too late. And then we have Fia, who loves Annie and will do anything for her even if it means destroying herself, but who also resents the fact that Annie landed them in this mess. It’s ugly but I think that’s what makes it real.

This being YA, there are potential love interests. Of course there are. The story of Mind Games is kicked into motion when Fia fails to kill a boy and does everything to hide this mistake to spare Annie. Only she later discovers that it wasn’t the higher ups who ordered the hit; it was Annie. The target, of course, is the good boy in this set-up.  The bad boy in this equation is Fia’s handler. He’s also the son of the school’s owner. I was lukewarm about this apparent love triangle but my fears were misplaced. The novel’s focus remains on the sisters’ relationship and everything else is secondary to that. I will say that despite my overall dislike of the bad boy archetype in YA novels, the one in Mind Games has some surprising depth to him and I found myself warming up to him by the end.

While Mind Games doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, the story is not complete. It does end in a good place but there is no doubt that future adventures are in store. I’m definitely on board for the next installment and based on the novel’s ending, interested to see how the relationship between the sisters evolves from here. B+

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW: The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

REVIEW: The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Dear Ms. Jemisin,

Earlier this year I read your debut fantasy novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and enjoyed it quite a bit. So when it came time for your sophomore effort to be released, I made sure to request a copy. The Broken Kingdoms is the second book of the Inheritance Trilogy, of which The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was the first. It’s not a direct sequel; the protagonist is not Yeine Darr. But it is related, and events of the first book set the stage for this one. I’ll try my best to keep spoilers for the first book to a minimum but as a warning, that’s not always possible.

The Broken Kingdoms (The Inheritance Trilogy) N.K. JemisinOree Shoth is a blind artist who lives in the city of Shadow, which rests beneath the city of Sky. Well, I suppose it’s more accurate to say Oree is blind to everything except magic, which she can see. This quirk proves to be useful. In the decade since the events of Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, godlings have returned to the world. Some of them even live in Shadow. Oree’s ex-lover, in fact, was a godling himself.

Suffice it to say, Oree’s used to gods and godlings. Which is a good thing because one day, she finds a strange man in a garbage heap and takes him home. As you do. Now what do I mean by strange? I mean that he has an odd habit of dying and coming back to life. And not in the vampire or zombie sort of way. Even stranger, when the sun rises at dawn, Oree can see him because he… glows. I imagine people who’ve read the previous book can probably guess who this person is.

Meanwhile, godlings are being killed all over Shadow. This isn’t good because Nahadoth, the newly reinstated Nightlord, doesn’t take kindly to people murdering his children. Completely understandable. Unfortunately, when you’re the Nightlord and are infamous for destroying an entire continent and most of its people, paternal anger takes on a whole new light.

And so an ultimatum is delivered: find the murderer or the Nightlord will come to Shadow. No one wants the Nightlord to come to Shadow. Unfortunately for Oree, who found one of the dead godlings, this means she’s suddenly become a prime suspect and the focus of intense scrutiny. Scrutiny, might I note, that will eventually lead to revelations regarding her heritage and bloodline.

In many respects, I think Broken Kingdoms is more even than its predecessor. I can’t say for sure if that impression is because I came into this book with no expectations based on the cover copy. It is a quieter book in the sense that it doesn’t take place in a royal court. There is no battle for succession. I did not expect political intrigue and for the most part, that was indeed true. Oree is simply a blind artist who came to the city and makes a living selling novelty items. But I think that quietness is also the book’s strength. It portrays a mundane daily life made magical, by virtue of who Oree is and the people with which she surrounds herself.

Since this is set a decade after the culminating events of the previous book, it was interesting to see how things had changed and how things had stayed the same. In the previous book, the world followed one religion, that of Itempas, the sun god. With the return of the Nightlord and the Grey Lady, as well as many new godlings, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the iron control of the Itempan religion is not as it once was. Many people worship other gods. Some people dislike this. Some people would like a return to the old ways. And some others want to take things a step further and form a radical sect of the original religion. I enjoyed that aspect of it.

Much like Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the narrative style of Broken Kingdoms is similar to that of oral storytelling. I don’t think the prose is quite as striking here, less dramatic if you will. On the other hand, I don’t think it needed to be. Oree’s story isn’t one of rulers and family dynasties and returning lost gods to the world. It’s more comforting in a way. And unlike its predecessor, however, the narrative style isn’t tied as closely to the plot and readers won’t learn the reason for it until the very end.

As for the ending itself, I expect this is the part that will get the most commentary and reaction from readers. Up until the climax of the novel, the plot featured a smooth pace that carried me along effortlessly. After the climax, however, the narrative became very choppy for me and what followed was a series of what could be called successive endings. The best comparison is to the ending of Return of the King. You’d think you were reading one ending… but then another would follow. And another. And another. I don’t know if this was deliberate — and if it was, it was very successful — but the effect was very jarring, to the point that some of these “endings” felt tacked on. I also think a certain aspect of the ending was cliche and borderline indulgent. I don’t know if it’s just me, and perhaps it is, but I expected better and more. I myself was not thrilled with it for those reasons.

But since this is a romance blog, I do think I would be remiss not to offer up the details of that ending because the second I finished this book, I emailed Jane. Jane read Hundred Thousand Kingdoms based on my opinion and was waiting for my thoughts on this book before picking it up as well. So when I finished, I knew I had to email her because the ending would not make her happy. I will make use of our spoiler tag so please, skip the paragraph that is about to follow if you wish to remain spoiler-free. It is for the ending of the novel, so please heed my warning.

[spoiler effect="blind"]Oree eventually gets together with Shiny, who if you’ve read the previous book and picked up on my hints, is Itempas in mortal form, after the punishment laid down upon him by Yeine, who has become the new Grey Lady. But making Itempas a mortal was supposed to be a punishment that would last a long time, not eleven years. It’s not much of a trial if Itempas can find something of a contented life with Oree. So due to pressure from Yeine and Nahadoth, Itempas leaves Oree. Now, I personally don’t find this particular separation to be that surprising. I spent the majority of the book skeptical about whether Oree and Itempas would actually get together and when they did, I knew it couldn’t last. The part I found cliche is that not only does Itempas leave, Oree finds herself pregnant with his child. Romance readers, of course, are very familiar with this trope but it is most often found at the beginning of a novel, not the end. And for that reason, because this book ends with the couple separated and the woman pregnant with a child to remember the father by, I can’t not mention it. Because I know it will disappoint some readers.[/spoiler]

To be clear, this is a fantasy novel and not a romance. I don’t think it’s fair to expect an HEA because this genre does not guarantee it. But reader preferences are reader preferences, and those preferences often carry over from one genre to the next. I simply wanted to offer up the details for those who wanted them because I know what it’s like to be enjoying a book, only to reach the end and have that experience be ruined by what was presented in those final pages. I think Jane has blogged about those moments here on DA in the past.

This is a solid follow-up to what I considered a great debut. Many of the quibbles I had with the first novel have been smoothed over and polished here, although I think the ending is still a little rough, if only in the other direction (choppy and dragged out rather than rushed and cramped). I just wish the ending hadn’t been so cliche and uninspiring, but perhaps this will lead into the final book of the Inheritance trilogy, The Kingdom of Gods. One can only hope. As for a grade, I’m assigning one based on it being a fantasy novel. I imagine romance readers would have a different opinion. B

My regards,

Jia

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