Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Go to your calendar and circle September 27th, 2011. Right now. Make whatever preparations you must to ensure that you have the day to yourself. I'm serious here. Take the day off from work or plan to be sick from school; buy groceries the night before or have take-out numbers handy. Trust me. This book is worth it and once you start reading, you will not want to set it down.

I was blown away by Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone. From cover to cover, I delighted in it all. The creative storyline, the fantastic characters, the clever writing. At BEA, I went to a YA panel where this book's editor spoke at (somewhat excessive) length about her adoration for this book, though she gave surprisingly few specific details about its general plot beyond what the tagline and backcover would indicate. I decided to take a chance and just read it -- and when I finished reading, I immediately wanted to start it all over again (and I haven't felt like that about a book since Anna and the French Kiss).

I now understand the editor's difficulty in summarizing, as general statements don't do justice to the fresh voice and wit that infuses what is absolutely one of the best YA reads published in 2011. There are hints of Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker (the Abarat series, not the horror adult stuff) and yet there's still the allure of a mystery novel coupled with romance and a strong heroine with whom one can identify. It all starts with these fantastically tantalizing lines:

"One upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well."

The novel opens with Karou, a blue-haired, teenage art student in Prague whose ex-boyfriend, Kazimir, is a jerk. A creative jerk, no less, and as such, Kazimir can find different self-centered ways of trying to make Karou want him again (read: make her life miserable, as she no longer wants him), like getting a gig as a nude model for her life drawing class to display (among other things) a newly acquired tattooed "K" over his heart. (Karou's friend, Zuzana, responds to this with, "Can you believe him? Does he think if he just dangles his boy bits at you like a cat toy you'll go scampering after him?") While many teenage girls might have insufferable ex-boyfriends in their pasts, Karou can do just a little more than others could about it... like make wishes and know they will come true... "Wishes, for example, for things like itches."

You see, the life she leads in Prague is only a small part of the world that Karou knows. Karou has a notebook filled with drawings of otherworldly things and while her friends wonder where she comes up with such fantastic creatures, Karou merely shrugs, because explaining that these chimaera, these devils, are the only family she's ever known... well, that could get awkward. Karou has been raised by Brimstone, the Wishmonger, and a handful of other chimaera. They might look like monsters, creatures cobbled together from pieces of animals and humans, and other things could never identify, but they are Karou's family and even when they've always been behind the door to the human world, they've raised her and loved her as their own. Following Karou's break-up with Kazimir, she was devastated and while every teenager finds a relationship conversation with an adult to be incredibly awkward, I found myself wishing I had such guidance as Brimstone quite bluntly offers:

"The Wishmonger's voice was so deep it seemed almost the shadow of sound: a dark sonance that lurked in the lowest register of hearing. 'I don't know many rules to live by,' he'd said. 'But here's one. It's simple. Don't put anything unnecessary into yourself. No poisons or chemicals, no fumes or smoke or alcohol, no sharp objects, no inessential needles--drugs or tattoo--and... no inessential penises, either.'
'Inessential penises?' Karou had repeated, delighted with the phrase in spite of her grief. 'Is there any such thing as an essential one?'
'When an essential one comes along, you'll know,' he replied. 'Stop squandering yourself, child. Wait for love.'
'Love.' Her delight evaporated. She'd thought that was love.
'It will come, and you will know it,' Brimstone had promised, and she so so wanted to believe him."

There are two doors in Brimstone's office and Karou is only allowed to use one of them (she's never seen the other one opened, in fact) which opens to any city one chooses (or at least any city where there's an accompanying magic door linked to it). Karou runs errands for Brimstone, occasionally (and far less than she'd like) earning wishes bigger than the measly old scuppies that created Kazimir's itch. More often than not, these errands involve fetching teeth, which Brimstone keeps in jars and Karou is not allowed to know what purpose they serve. And, as if this wasn't already odd enough, good teeth are getting harder and harder to find. Here's a selection from an errand scene:

"This errand turned out to be a black-market auction in a warehouse on the outskirts of Paris. Karou had attended several such, and they were always the same. Cash only, of course, and attended by sundry underworld types like exiled dictators and crime lords with pretentions to culture. The auction items were a mixed salad of stolen museum pieces--a Chagall drawing, the dried uvula of some beheaded saint, a matched set of tusks from a mature African bull elephant.
Yes. A matched set of tusks from a mature African bull elephant.
Karou signed whens he saw them. Brimstone hadn't told her what she was after, only that she would know it when she saw it, and she did. Oh, and wouldn't they be a delight to wrangle on public transportation?
Unlike the other bidders, she didn't have a long black car waiting, or a pair of thug bodyguards to do her heavy lifting. She had only a string of scuppies and her charm, neither of which proved sufficient to persuade a cab driver to hang seven-foot-long elephant tusks out the back of his taxi. So, grumbling, Karou had to drag them six blocks to the nearest Metro station, down the stairs, and through the turnstyle. They were wrapped in canvas and duct-taped, and when a street musician lowered his violin to inquire, 'Hey lovely, what you got there?' she said, 'Musicians who asked questions,' and kept on going."

Karou's life changes, though, the day she sees the angel, Akiva. On an errand for Brimstone, Karou is nearly killed by an angel and is just as strangely spared by him, as he hesitates long enough for Karou to be pulled through a doorway to safety... but safety is relative and it turns out that even while Karou knew more about the chimaera and their world, there is so much she does not know about the centuries-old battle they have fought against the angels... and there's even more she doesn't know about her own past.

The fascinating worlds conjured within these pages are dark and dangerous, but crisp in vivid details. Prague is made particularly magical and otherworldly, despite its existence in our own reality. It provides an excellent gateway to the lands of Taylor's imagination. The reader will have the sense again and again that one door is opened only to discover entirely new realities beyond, multiplied ad infinitum. Karou and her sharp sense of humor are immediate favorites with the reader. She has incredible strength and yet there's a guarded vulnerability to her, so keenly noted in her despair after her ill-fated romance with Kazimir and further illustrated within the drama of the novel. Her uniqueness is brought to light in a hundred ways, causing the reader to actually fall in love with her, rather than simply accept that as the heroine, we're on her side. Her own internal struggles and attempts to understand her place in the worlds feel incredibly real, particularly when her emotions are those which any teen might have. A need to be true to one's friends, an allegiance felt towards those who have sheltered one, and the exasperating desire for connection even while wishing for independence.

"Yearning for love made her feel like a cat that was always twining around ankles, meowing Pet me, pet me, look at me, love me.
Better to be the cat gazing coolly down from a high wall, its expression inscrutable. The cat that shunned petting, that needed no one. Why couldn't she be that cat?
Be that cat!!! she wrote, drawing it into the corner of her page, cool and aloof."

Just as Karou is a brilliant character, so are are Brimstone, Issa, Twiga, and Yasri. Taylor takes her storytelling time, easing us in to her creation, before we start to understand where the story is taking us. There's no need to learn everything at once and the reader will only be pulled deeper in to the story as truths dawn and one races to the finish to confirm if one's guesses are correct. I'll admit that I was a trifle concerned with the appearance of Akiva in his stony perfection at first, but he develops to have a beautiful depth as Karou and the reader learn more about the chimaera, the angels, their war, and that which the chimaera have sought to keep secret for centuries.

I'll stop there. Just go read. Laini Taylor has created something extraordinary here and the best news is... there's more. I honestly don't see how she could possibly top Daughter of Smoke and Bone but I'll be waiting on the edge of my seat to see her try with its sequel. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is full of magic, romance, mystery, and a rare creativity that I only hope is replicated and expounded upon in the next installment in what is sure to be a masterful series.


The Iron Knight

The Iron Fey series is back with the final installment. (No, really, it's the FINAL one... until the next series starts up, that is.) If Julie Kagawa could have had her way, she probably would have opted to end the series on the wistful/slightly tragic note that The Iron Queen brings to the table, but no, she yielded to her begging publisher and fans... and so we have The Iron Knight. Those who haven't tackled any of the other books should definitely not start here, but fans of the series to date will inevitably be quite pleased with this storyline, as it tackles obvious problems and tosses in some fun twists in a truly Julie Kagawa style.

At the end of The Iron Queen, Meghan assumed leadership of the Iron Realm and, heartbreakingly, released Ash from his sworn vow to be her knight and protect her, as the fey cannot survive in her world of iron. Despite this, Ash promised that he would find a way to be with her or die trying, and The Iron Knight is that journey. His unlikely (slash way-obvious) companion on this journey is Puck, Ash's former best friend turned sworn enemy who Ash has pretty much stopped trying to kill since Puck lost out to Ash in the battle for Meghan's affection. (If you forgot, Ash and Puck's relationship went sour many years ago when Ash's girlfriend was killed and Ash blamed her death on Puck's actions. Ash swore that Puck would die at his hand, but the bros came to an unofficial truce.) Together with the cat Grimalkin, the three of them set forth to find the end of the Nevernever. There, Ash hopes to find the Testing Grounds at the End of the World, a place where Ash might be able to gain that which could allow him to survive in Meghan's court -- a mortal soul in exchange for his immortality. Consider what that would mean to Ash and Meghan's long-term relationship and you'll see why it's a big deal and he isn't too keen on voicing his plans aloud to anyone, even if they all understand what he's doing. Just the same, this is his quest and along the way, Ash, Puck, and Grimalkin pick up two surprising companions on their journey... one of whom is very shocking indeed.

I won't say any more in means of summary, because quite honestly, fans of the series will be reading this book without a review's encouragement. Those on Team Ash will swoon and those on Team Puck will see this as something to tide them over until Kagawa focuses her talents on crafting a novel solely for Robin Goodfellow. And even if you're on the fence about the series (as I was for the first two books), then you'll still probably read The Iron Knight simply because you're so close to finishing it all and you might as well just do it. It's certainly worth the read if the series gives you any pleasure, but it could never supplant The Iron Queen as the best book of the series.

Personally, I was rather pleased with Kagawa's twists, but ultimately found that one inparticular (involving the most surprising companion) didn't carry quite enough weight in the end and only fulfilled a minimal purpose to put certain issues to rest without much to keep the complication going. Once we get through the Nevernever to the End of the World, my favorite twist comes in to play, but things resolve with a disappointing predictability. The ending will be a shock to no one and should make fans who need a Happily Ever After (HEA) quite happy indeed, but one feels like Kagawa's heart isn't totally in the ending. Kagawa has confessed online that she's a bigger fan of the Ultimate Noble Sacrifice Ending as opposed to the HEA, and so one can almost hear her reluctant sigh, even if she is pleased with the level of fan devotion that all demanded a tidier end for Meghan and Ash. However, given that the whole book seems like a concession to fans, I have to give Kagawa props for coming up with the diverting ideas that she did. Now, folks, let's let her do a book with an UNS, because even if hearts break, I'll bet that it would be her best book of all.

Wiener Wolf

If you've ever loved a little dog that didn't believe he was all that little, then this is the book for you. Wiener Wolf by Jeff Crosby is a delightful picture book that explores the wild animal nature of a very domestic dog. Wiener Dog lives with Granny and wears a knit sweater, slowly dying of utter boredom until one day when adventure seizes him and he flees to the wild woods. There, he becomes WIENER WOLF, casting off his sweater to join a wolf pack and delight in his new undomesticated life... until things get a biiiit too scary. Suddenly a can of dog food doesn't look so bad and Wiener Dog high-tails it back to civilization and the loving arms of Granny. The moral of the experience seems to be that every life needs a little excitement to keep from getting in a rut, even if that's just with some new friends at the local dog park. With fantastic illustrations, Wiener Wolf is a must for dog-lovers -- and oh man, if you know families with dachshunds, then buy this book for them immediately before someone else discovers this gem and does it. This is also the perfect book for if you need to explain to a child why Fido really wouldn't want to be a wild wolf... (or, similarly, why Mrs. Whiskerson wouldn't do well as a warrior cat). Just one read will leave you utterly smitten with Wiener Wolf.

Also recommended for those of you with dachshunds is the best Halloween book EVER written... The Hallo-wiener.


The Forest of Hands and Teeth

Just when you're convinced that the YA market has been flooded with vampires and fairies, something really interesting comes along... specifically, comes lumbering along looking for brains. The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan is the first in a postapocalyptic series where flesh-eating zombies have overrun the world.

Mary lives in a fenced-in town in what was formerly the Appalachian region of the United States of America, and the residents believe it might be the last hold-out against the zombies (known as the Unconsecrated). The town is overseen by the Sisterhood and the Sisters ensure for the well-being of the people while the Guardians (men only, btw) stand watch over the fences and, God-forbid, alert the town if there is ever a breach in the fortifications and the Unconsecrated enter. The fence is the most important thing in the world -- for it is the only thing that stands between a conscious, God-fearing individual and the damning fate that is an Unconsecrated's "existence." Unconsecrated never cease in their search for human flesh, even as their own flesh decays and rots from their bones, and one who was once a mother, father, brother, or wife... well, as soon as they turn, that former association and distinction no longer matters.

Everyone in the village seems to accept the lives that they have been given, because there's not really much to tempt them to dream of better things, but Mary wants more. She wants to see the ocean, this mythical body of water that Mary's mother would tell her stories about when she was a child. It's not like anyone has ever seen it -- people have been born and have died within the village walls for generations now and this "ocean" is dismissed as a myth, to the point where Mary seems to be the only one to think of it at all. There is only the Forest of Hands and Teeth outside the fence, and the death and damnation that comes with a bite from the Unconsecrated. Meanwhile, the sole thing within the village that Mary *does* seem to want is Travis -- but it appears as though Travis will marry her friend, Cassandra. Mary's only chance for marriage, if she's realistic about things, appears to be Travis's brother, Harry. It's not that there's anything wrong with Harry. He obviously likes her, as he's often watching her, but he's not Travis. Reconciling herself to this is difficult, but on the day that Harry comes to ask if Mary will go with him to the dance that starts the beginning of the official courtship festivities, tragedy strikes. Mary's mother, grieving the loss of her husband to the Unconsecrated some time ago, got too close to the fence and was bitten. Mary's mother is taken to the Sisters and now everyone must wait to see if Mary's mother will turn. When it's obvious she will, the Sisters (and, frankly, everyone else) hopes that Mary's mother will choose death rather than surrender her chance at salvation by turning (an odd twist now on what constitutes a mortal sin, really), but no... mom is released in to the forest and Mary is devastated. Believing that she could continue to live with her brother and his wife, Mary is further stricken to learn that he will not have her in his home and that since Harry has not asked for her (for he did not alert Mary's brother to the whole asking Mary to the dance thing), Mary is sent to join the Sisterhood.

Within the walls of the Sisterhood, Mary embarks upon a life that would be mind-numbing if Mary did as she was told, but instead, Mary continues to quietly rebel and sneak about (but not in a fun way, lest you think this story is in any way light). Indeed, she has to do this quietly, as she's forbidden to speak. The sneaking around thing comes in handy when her beloved Travis is brought in after an incident while he was on guard and he needs to be nursed back to health -- and Mary happens to be on hand. Mary tends to him night and day (or every chance the sisters give her) and, unsurprisingly, their quiet and strange relationship deepens, constantly shadowed by a number of factors that all add up to the painful truth -- Mary cannot hope to truly be with Travis without their destroying Cassandra and Harry. But before you get concerned that this book is just like every YA out there, obsessed with the romantic entanglements, I would like to point out the romance is an important plot point, and yet this isn't anything whatsoever like your standard YA romance (minus the teenage longing in the face of terrible odds). Travis isn't the only person that the Sisters bring in to their sanctuary -- Mary spies a stranger, which is utterly impossible... because this would mean that their village is NOT the only village still standing and there are other settlements, full of other people, fighting against the Unconsecrated. Mary's life grows more and more complicated until the inevitable happens: the Unconsecrated breach the wall. Bloody, action-packed, and horrifying, the village's fall involves death and destruction on an epic scale. Mary manages to escape with a handful of others (and just who these companions are is related to a crucial plot point that I won't give away) through a secret corridor of fenced-in protection from the Unconsecrated that was used by the Guardians, but their little survival party has an incredibly twisted dynamic as they flee the only home they've ever known, uncertain if they should return or forge on with the slim hope of encountering other villages or, just maybe, the mythical "ocean."

As I've already indicated, The Forest of Hands and Teeth is not your average YA novel in many ways. To begin with, zombies aren't sexy. Vampires, werewolves, fairies, mermaids, angels, demons, ghosts, dragons, whatever... you can make each and every one of those sexy and accessible for teens, but try as you might, I just don't think that a classic zombie can be sexy. (I'm sure someone has tried, but I don't think I want to read that story.) So there goes the whole angle of a girl who (a) falls in love with a paranormal creature or (b) is a paranormal creature and falls for someone outside her realm of "acceptable" choices that are part of her particular paranormal sect. Instead, we have the paranormal element being a real honest-to-goodness threat and our storyline is set in the midst of this terror and chaos. I mentioned a love story and teenage longing -- oh boy is there longing -- but be warned now: most of it is implied angst or one-sided. We get a lot of Mary's perspective on everything, so we know that she's in love with Travis and she feels bad about Harry being in love with her when she wants his brother, but this isn't a story where we'll have steamy scenes or deep conversations in popular YA style. This could be disappointing for some readers who need romance in their stories, but it's also somewhat refreshing to get a different angle, something that isn't simply a PG-13 version of a bodice-ripper. You might be driven mad by all that remains unsaid, but it's definitely different.

The overall tone of the story is incredibly bleak, but again, I found this to be a really interesting choice for a YA novel in today's market. I simply haven't come across anything like it. Even things like Hunger Games, which has the same realistic struggle elements to it, at least makes the characters more open and accessible. Here, the reader is isolated with Mary and there is no real relief in the form of a connection that isn't otherwise so complicated that it's impossible to say anything. There's a lot of time where people aren't talking and, indeed, the Most Frustrating Thing Ever in this book is the fact that no one can bring themselves to say what they feel for fear of disturbing the established order. It's almost British in the total lack of honest communication. It's a clear choice on the part of the author to do this, but it can prove to be somewhat taxing as you move along.

That said, I definitely recommend The Forest of Hands and Teeth for anyone who's a bit fed up with the current YA scene and needs something different. Its appeal is hardly limited to YA fans, though, as it doesn't really feel like YA, except for the teenage angst and longing. Carrie Ryan may not have been able to make zombies sexy, but she sure as heck created a fascinating and compelling world that will have you wondering until the end at what lies in store, even if you want to smack most everyone upside the head along the way. This is the first in a series, but it stands on its own quite capably. Even if you tear through this book, it will leave you thinking about it for weeks. You may not like Mary and you may be frustrated with her world, but it's impossible to forget either of them. I haven't yet read the other ones in this series, but I've already bought them and tucked them away for a rainy day when I can sit on the couch, bar the door in case of zombie attack, and settle down with a book that I know will be twisted, emotionally wrenching, and thoroughly riveting.


The Mephisto Covenant

After a somewhat rocky start, The Mephisto Covenant by Trinity Faegan presents an intriguing world set-up where good and evil battle for the souls of the living in very real and complicated ways... and evidently with a somewhat low success rate as far as the good guys are concerned. I want to warn you up front that the main problem with this novel is that the first few chapters are infected with an acute case of info-dump, thus making it difficult to warm up to the story at first with all the dense explanations, which could potentially cause the reader to set the whole thing aside. If you can manage to wade through the info-dump, though, then you'll see that the story finds its own peculiar rhythm and presents some interesting moments, though there are still some distinct flaws.

Teenage Sasha lives with her mother in San Francisco, but she's not terribly interested in school this fall. This past year, Sasha's "accountant" father was murdered in a hotel room in Russia, an act that was dismissed as a random robbery gone wrong, but this explanation does not satisfy Sasha in the least bit. She's desperate to find out just what happened to her father and will go to any lengths to discover the truth... even if that means striking a deal with a rather shady fellow named Eryx whose name has been whispered about town as heading up a secret society called the Ravens. Those who join the Ravens have been granted a wish and everyone seems to swear that their wishes come true. When given the opportunity to join, Sasha decides to see what Eryx can tell her, but it doesn't quite get to that point as she quickly realizes she's been set up and the leader of this particular sect of the Ravens is a rather evil fellow that used to date Sasha's mother and wants to hand her over to Eryx. (It's a small, evil world in this novel.) Sasha is nearly killed by mom's ex and his minions but a mysterious young man appears, freezes time, rescues her, lets spill some crucial information, and then wipes her memory. (As you can imagine, for the sake of the narrative, a silly little memory wipe won't exactly keep Sasha from feeling like she's missing something once she returns to life after the Raven attack.) The young man who saves Sasha is named Jax and he's not exactly young, seeing as he's a few centuries old. He and his brothers (who follow on his heels to deal with the whole Ravens group) are sons of hell -- and weirdly enough, they're kind of the good guys but with a twist. The sons of hell are the children of Mephistopheles, fated to rid the world of those who have pledged their souls to Eryx, who is working on behalf of Satan. This doesn't mean the sons of hell kill these people, as that would send their souls to Satan and only strengthen him, but rather, Jax and his brothers keep these individuals forever trapped in "hell on earth," an (endless?) cavern where they will never die and never escape. The righteous task of the sons of hell is mitigated by their own dark desires (sex, violence, etc.). They are doomed to eventual damnation, despite their "good" work, though there is just one tiny loophole that could result in their redemption. "The Mephisto Covenant" was made between God and Mephistopheles -- if a son of hell finds and falls in love with an Anabo (a pure soul and essentially an angel on earth), then his soul can be saved. The appearance of an Anabo is an incredibly rare event (indeed, the sons of hell have only ever come across two in their centuries' old existence). When an Anabo appears on earth, she is fated to a particular son of Hell, who catches her "scent" when near her and who then has the opportunity to save his soul if their love is true.

If you haven't already guessed it, Sasha is an Anabo. As "a daughter of Eve," she doesn't feel the same pull towards evil that normal humans do, even in simple jealousies or petty angers, as her soul is totally without sin. (The idea here is that Adam and Eve had a daughter, Aurora, prior to their Fall and Anabos are somehow the legacy of this.) Sasha's being an Anabo is a huge problem for Eryx, because (1) an Anabo's love can redeem a son of hell as previously mentioned and (2) only then can the Anabo and son of hell come together to bear children, who will also fight against Eryx with the rest of the sons of hell. Once the eldest member of the sons of hell, Eryx is now on the side of evil and constantly works to damn his brothers, too. The Ravens are simply a cover for Eryx's attempts to recruit souls for Satan, and once sworn to him, they can never be returned, unless he releases that person from his or her contract... which essentially never happens. A soul lost is lost forever.

But back to Sasha and Jax. Basically, Jax is obsessed with Sasha from the moment he smells her. After he and his brothers take care of the Ravens, it's all he can do to not watch her 24/7. He knows this is his chance at redemption and he's desperate not to screw this up, but there's no precedent for a son of hell keeping his Anabo love safe from Eryx -- only one brother has ever found his Anabo... and she was brutally raped and killed by Eryx before she could be taken to safety. Yikes. The only thing this taught the sons of hell is that once an Anabo is marked (aka has sex), Eryx will know where she is the same way that *they* know where she is and unless it's within the safety of their stronghold, then she is in great danger. Oh, and there's also the fact that the more time an Anabo spends with a son of hell, the more she becomes like him and begins to feel negative emotions like anger. And some intense strength and speed.

Was this enough information for you? To toss at you in the first few chapters? You think? Oh man. Just wait. There's more.

Sasha returns home from her ordeal with the Ravens (fuzzy on the details between when they attacked her and when she woke up, alone, without a scratch on her) to find her home life in uproar. Her mother is going to be deported back to Russia and Sasha is being packed off to Colorado to live with an uncle she never knew about -- her father's sister's husband. Worse than this, it appears that bad blood between her father and his sister means that her new aunt loathes ever fiber of Sasha's being and would kick her out on the street if it wasn't for Sasha's uncle who's always had a thing for Sasha's mom. Sasha has two cousins -- teenage boys that are polar opposites; one of whom is obviously as evil as his mother and the other plays video games all day. I don't think I need to go on about how horrifying this general picture is for Sasha, do I? It sucks. Of course, there is one up side to Sasha's expulsion to Colorado -- she now finds herself in Telluride, which is conveniently the exact same place where the sons of hell make their home. Still, it's not like she's safe because even there, a branch of the Ravens is popping up and you can depend on a rather shocking body count before the book wraps up.

On the whole, there's a lot about this book that's kind of confusing. The incredibly dense explanations and set-up at the beginning of the book is a real turn-off and it takes a while before you feel like Faegan hits her stride. While I doubt that many teens have read JR Ward's "Black Dagger Brotherhood" romance novel series, I was very strongly reminded of it once we got all the set-up details out of the way here. Each JR Ward book features one of the Brothers (vampire warriors) and the woman who will ultimately become his mate. Lots of denial/drama, lots of sex, eventual happy ending. In that world, vampires are born, not made; Brothers mate for life and they all live in a compound where they fight evil, which threatens both their race and humanity in general. This book has a similar premise, where Jax (who is often seen as the leader in a fight) finds his Anabo and there's drama before the eventual coupling. Honestly, I find the whole Anabo concept to be a bit weak, as there's no established explanation for their presence or rarity. It's not like it's something passed on within a family or one Anabo every generation (despite the Aurora link), which might make some kind of sense, but nope. Granted, it's possible that many Anabo have lived and died without being identified by the sons of hell, but still, it's disappointing to not have any real example as to why Sasha has appeared and why others have not really come before her in larger numbers. (Particularly given the fact that I'd bet you the subsequent books follow the JR Ward format of giving each brother his Anabo love.)

Surprisingly, despite the whole idea that Sasha is destined for Jax, there isn't the same assurance that they will naturally fall in love and this is one thing I appreciated. Sasha and Jax were surprisingly realistic about the chances of real love, despite their attraction. It might not be a very teenager thing to do, but Sasha actually questioned whether or not her feelings for Jax were real and her own or if they had to do with the whole Anabo thing. Sasha is very concerned about her free will and ability to decide for herself in all this... and Jax is rather all or nothing -- he doesn't want Sasha to feel like she needs to stay with him if they're not in love. (Those qualms don't keep them from making out every five minutes, of course, whether that be on ski slopes, at school, or in Jax's bedroom, but still, it's nice to see teens thinking with things other than their hormones.) The whole storyline puts a great amount of emphasis on free will on both sides of this equation. Of course, the benefit of free will is somewhat painted in a negative light, given that it's what's keeping Sasha in the world's most unhealthy living environment for much longer than she should (though perhaps the home life is about on par with how utterly horrifying school becomes when disgusting rumors about Sasha are spread around). In this world, people are definitely free to make their own decisions, even if they're the wrong ones and they carry the consequences of losing one's soul on foolish wishes, however well-intentioned. Good people are damned in the course of the book and the author treats this with care -- acknowledging that people can make bad decisions which have catastrophic repercussions.

As a result of the complicated moral questions, the somewhat bleak outlook on humanity, and a WAY steamier sex scene than one usually finds in YA, I would suggest that the younger teen set steer clear of this one. Faegan doesn't shy away from crafting dreadful scenes at school and home for Sasha. Oddly enough, it never really has to do with drugs or alcohol, which generally receive a pass in YA fiction when used as an excuse for teaching kids lessons about those evils... here, everything that people do to each other stems entirely from their own evil desires and thoughts. Sure, negative wishes are magnified in to really evil things when a person pledges their soul to Satan, but it's still terrifying what people are capable of doing entirely of their own volition in this book. I'm not talking axe murderers or rape scenes, but I am talking about terrible gossip, sexual assault, domestic violence, epic peer pressure, betrayal, and layers and layers of lies. (I didn't even go in to the whole twisted scene that is Sasha's family history here.) That said, all of these things are what make this book kind of interesting. The wide expanse of moral gray areas are fascinating and, let's face it, the reader is pulling for Jax and Sasha to get together for their own reasons and not for some pact, even if it does save his soul. There's something very oddly compelling about this book once you've worked through and sorted out all its mythology, but even that isn't totally enough to redeem it. Sadly, I thought the ending was somewhat of a let-down, being too simplistic and somewhat undermining the complications of the world. At least there's a conclusion and it doesn't end on a cliffhanger, as one is very aware that this is the first book of a series (this one is subtitled "The Redemption of Ajax"). It wraps things up too tidily for something that's been reveling in difficult choices and judgments. It was disappointing to not be able to absolutely say that the book turned itself around once the labyrinthine explanations were done with. I so wanted it to end with a bang so one could simply say that beginnings just weren't Faegan's thing, but it turns out the same is true for endings. Ultimately, her strength is in the middle stuff -- having fully gotten in to the world, she can do interesting things and I guess you better enjoy it while it lasts because all too soon you'll be sighing over a rushed and predictable ending. Still, I was entertained enough while reading it to be compelled to finish it all in a day. I haven't mentally committed to the idea of reading the sequel until I get some kind of confirmation if Faegan is, indeed, going the JR Ward route with the new love story in each book, but I'll certainly keep an eye out for it when summaries pop up to see if I'm right.

I'm not exactly sure who to recommend this book to... fans of super-convoluted moral orders? Fans of hidden and twisted societies that hide from our own and live with their own rules and mythologies? (If it's the latter, then I'd suggest you go read Daughter of Smoke and Bone for something truly good.) It's not exactly for fans of the supernatural set or even for those who love YA about angels. I'll be curious to see who rallies around this one, as it's certainly a unique read. I didn't love it, but then... I spent a lot of time trying to explain and unravel it, so clearly Faegan crafted a world that caught my attention.

Note: I received an advanced review e-galley for the purpose of review from NetGalley.


Sweet Venom

Greek mythology is finally making its way from Percy Jackson to the teen market -- and Sweet Venom is a charming new adaptation of an old myth with new tricks. Popular culture leaves most people with the awareness of Medusa was a woman/creature with snakes for hair and a stony gaze that could turn anyone who looked into her eyes into, well, stone. In Tera Lynn Childs's "Medusa Girls" series, this isn't quite the whole story, as Medusa (and her two sisters) got a bad rap from a jealous god. (Isn't it always the way?) This isn't to say that the reputation was entirely a bad thing in the end, as it shielded her descendants from scrutiny. These descendants follow in her footsteps, turning the "family business" into guardianship (they are called "huntresses"), and making it their life's work to protect the general human populace from beasties that slip through a crack between the worlds, a crack which happens to be located in San Francisco.

Of course, Grace knows nothing about this. She's lived in the middle of nowhere USA with her family and she thinks the big adventure of her life will be their relocation to San Francisco so she can take advantage of a scholarship at a prestigious high school. That's before Grace sees a minotaur (though she appears to be the only person startled by it)... and *then* sees someone who could be her double show up to fight it.

This is how Grace meets her long-lost-twin, Gretchen.

Gretchen is a huntress and a damn good one. (In my mind, I pictured Faith from Buffy before she went totally nutso.) Saved from living on the streets by a mentor who trained her to fight the monsters that it seemed like only Gretchen could see, Gretchen isn't scared of the monsters now... she's mostly just pissed that between monster hunting and homework, she barely gets any sleep. What *does* scare her is the fact that her mentor has gone MIA and Gretchen has no idea what's become of her. Now this whole identical twin thing pops up and Gretchen doesn't do well with the personal/emotional stuff.

Grace and Gretchen have to come to terms with this newfound relationship and it really isn't easy for either of them. Grace has a loving family (and a very protective brother, Thane, who might notice when a girl identical to his adopted sister is walking around school) whereas Gretchen only really trusts her mentor and this soft version of herself could only be deadweight. Grace has to decide if she wants to help Gretchen in her fight against the monsters (if Gretchen even lets her)... and even if they can find a way to come to terms with each other, well... the surprises aren't over for this pair.

If you're looking for a story with dark twists and turns, you'll have to hunt elsewhere, because Sweet Venom is quite sweet and light indeed, striking a charming note in the often quite-dark-indeed paranormal teen genre. I'll admit that I scooped up Sweet Venom with only the awareness that this was a Medusa story and so I didn't read much beyond that... and maybe that it takes place in San Francisco. I was pleasantly surprised by the tone, which seems just as eager to tackle Grace's crush on her brother's friend Milo as the issue of various mythological demons cropping up in the Castro. Narration jumps between Grace and Gretchen in the beginning, allowing you to see both of their perspectives, which gives nice perspective -- and eventually allows Childs to do a fun twist which caught me slightly by surprise (in a good way!) and I'm pretending that it hasn't been spoiled for you with other reviews. Grace is obviously the "straight man" character and so provides the reader with the chance to be oriented in to this world while Gretchen provides attitude and knowledge. Later, you meet another important character who didn't seem to get the same careful depth as Grace and Gretchen, but the series is young, there will hopefully be time for that. The important note is that here, they are all distinct characters and don't immediately mesh together, and their differences will likely fuel many bits of dialogue in the books to come. I only hope Childs continues to let each character to continue to develop in an independent fashion as they grow, rather than falling prey to any easy shortcuts like allowing stereotypes to take the place of character development, which would keep them sounding different but deny them any depth. Given the care that Childs has shown to the characters thus far, though, I don't think she's in any danger of that.

I always appreciate when authors who use mythology are inclined to let the stories stand without wild adjustments -- or if there are adjustments, for them to happen in relation to the more modern setting rather than repeat "no, the history books got it all wrong!" over and over. Not that Childs doesn't make any adjustments... she tweaks enough to accommodate for her additions to the storyline, but there's no feeling of deep, egregious wrong or outrageous liberties being taken with the myths as most folks know them. I frequently found myself thinking that this book reminded me of Percy Jackson... only it wasn't trying so hard to be funny and it was a bit more grown-up (only slightly, as we're aiming for teens instead of tweens, but I imagine this novel would be totally acceptable for tweens, too). There's a definite girl-bent that will make this a hard sell for male readers, though it's refreshing to have a story where the romance is on the lighter side as opposed to being the sole focus with some other storyline details tossed in. Some interesting young men that factor in as romantic interests for the girls and I think we can bet that they're all more than they seem at first glance. (Indeed, they somewhat fade in to the background before the ending of the book, so I hope they come back with beefier storylines or some ability to contribute to the larger goals in the book.) It looks as though real romance or male character development will happen as the series unfolds, for Childs isn't rushing things there and I suppose I prefer it this way. Better to take it slow than create false drama to liven things up. All in all, Sweet Venom is a fun romp and a quick read -- a delightful beginning-of-fall novel as you look to curl up on the couch with something light and entertaining as the back-to-school crush might load one's plate down with heavier tomes. I'm certainly looking forward to the next in this series, as I think these Medusa girls have some very amusing storylines ahead of them.

Full disclosure: I don't work on this book, but it does factor in to my professional life. My review is my own personal opinion, but weight this knowledge as you see fit.