Just go pick this book up, seriously

Asper by Rhonda Smiley

254 pages

Self-published on May 4, 2017

Amazon | Goodreads | Author’s Website

16-year-old sorceress, Milla, loses everything in an instant—her father, her home, her life as she knows it—over a sacred scroll that can merge Asper with Earth.

Ignited by grief, she sets out for vengeance, but discovers she’s no match for the murderous queen who seeks to rule both worlds.

Determined, Milla flees through a portal to Earth where she can master her craft without being hunted, and return for the kill. While there, she bonds with 17-year-old Parker who, despite his conniving ex-girlfriend, believes in her.

But when a spell her father cast to bury her memories begins to wane, glimpses of a past she never knew start surfacing. A past so unthinkable, it derails her future.

Should she still do what she set out to? Or risk everything—Earth, Asper, Parker—for the sake of hope?

I haven’t been this enamored of a YA fantasy for a good while.

Asper is beautifully written. Although it’s Rhonda Smiley’s debut novel, she’s done plenty of screenwriting in the past, and it shows. The book is positively cinematic, richly described, and just about impossible to put down. The author really knows how to crank up the suspense, and there were more than a few moments that left me with my heart pounding and my fingers desperately flipping the page. (Or something like that. Swiping. eReaders, you know.)

The sheer depth of this novel is what launched it to the top ranks of my list of favorites. The characters are rich with conflict and indecision, but my true favorite was the villian – or, better yet, the fact that it’s really hard to tell who the villain is. The main conflict of Asper (no spoilers, no spoilers) is so layered and well-crafted that it really did leave me pondering. Who’s in the right? What even is ‘right’? It’s fun not knowing if the hero will succeed, but not knowing if they’re even fighting the right battle? It was captivating, refreshing, and not something I find often in the YA shelves.

There is a slight snag, though it didn’t come until the very last page. The ending. The book doesn’t feel unfinished, but it does feel like there’s a chapter missing – the denouement is just a little too abrupt, a little too open for that sequel which may or may not follow. All I’m asking for is an epilogue. 😉

That quibble is nowhere near enough to dissuade me from wholeheartedly recommending Asper to any and all lovers of fantasy looking for something a bit different.

Heck yeah princess power

Rescuing the Prince by Meghann McVey

262 pages

Self-published on February 3, 2017

Amazon | Goodreads

During the afternoon fantasy parade, a dragon swooped down and carried off my boyfriend. I am not making this up.

So begins Leah’s adventures that lead her to another world. At home in California, Leah’s boyfriend Gerry is her rock and motivation. Now, trapped in another world without him, she must find her own courage. During her quest, Leah impersonates a missing princess, learns magic, and meets new friends and allies, including the shy, handsome Tolliver. But in the end, does she have what it takes to defeat Gerry’s fearsome captor, the Dragon Rider?

Oh, this was refreshing. One minute, Leah is happily playing the role of Cinderella at Disneyland Portalis. The next, she’s not only impersonating a real princess in a world she knows nothing about, but she’s got a boyfriend to save – not to mention a cluster of nobles and royalty that need wrangling. Oh, and magic. Let’s not forget the magic.

Rescuing the Prince is super duper fun. Leah is a strong character – though she has her occasional moments of brattiness, she’s a determined and resourceful kid, fighting her fears and anxieties to save the boy she loves. The plot itself was wonderfully unpredictable. I was surprised and thrilled to realize that McVey had staunchly refused all the usual fantasy tropes. The main character is not blessed with unbelievable power. There’s a stunning lack of “Oh, which big strong man will I choose!?” love-triangulation. The Big Bad isn’t a faceless epitome of evil, but a proper character with motivations and history. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole ride, especially the ending – while it feels like a sequel might be forthcoming, the book doesn’t end on a huge cliffhanger. I really do love a good standalone.

If I had one complaint, it’d be that I wish the magic system was explained a little more, but in the grand scheme of badass princessing and daring rescues, I’ll let it slide. I highly recommend Rescuing the Prince to anyone who has a soft spot for YA fantasy.

Great takeoff, rough landing

Wingbound by Heather Trim

231 pages

Self-publishing on March 23, 2018

Amazon | Goodreads | Author’s Website

Ledger is supposed to fear and despise the Sky People of Ellery, but then he meets an Ellerian girl, named Alouette and does the wrong thing. With his village at war with the winged people who live on a floating island that circles their world, he befriends her.

In Ledger’s seventeenth harvest, Ellery returns empty. The Sky People are gone, Alouette is missing, and Ledger must make a difficult choice — continue life as usual in the blacksmith workshop or board the island against the elder’s wishes and find her.

Look, I was hooked from the mention of a fantasy world orbited by a mysterious floating island inhabited by winged strangers. Heather Trim has some serious world-building chops – she deftly sketches sprawling castles and desolate oceans in a soft, simplistic fairy-tale writing style, creating an atmosphere that felt like an old fable, or something deserving of watercolor illustrations.

Unfortunately, the people in those settings didn’t enthrall me quite as much. At the beginning, I really liked Ledger. He’s a compassionate, resourceful dreamer that doesn’t fit in, and his struggle between upholding tradition and doing the right thing was super endearing. But as the story progressed, his character development stalled. Instead of facing the new obstacles in front of him and rising above his flaws, he seemed to lose agency as time went on – by the climax, he struck me as rather whiny. I was far more interested in the supporting cast. Hollis, in particular: the wild and sometimes immature spitfire who just wants to be closer to Ledger. I loved Kava, the wise-beyond-her-years healer that takes it upon herself to wrangle the unruly group of adventurers. I would have loved to see the story unfold from their points of view. Ledger did a great job getting them all into trouble, but when it came time to get back out, I don’t think he added all that much.

In addition, there are a few dozen punctuation errors scattered through the book – not terribly many, but enough that I think another pass by a proofreader would be helpful.

To sum this all up, your mileage may vary. Wingbound is a great concept done fairly well, and I still think it’s worth a read if you’re prepared to roll your eyes at the leading man every once in a while.

I needed a good romp

Jacob’s Orb by James L Mayor

425 pages

Self-published on January 14, 2018

Amazon | Facebook | Author’s Website

Step into the forest with Jacob and discover the forgotten power of the white orb.

“The sign in the sky is nothing more than a moving star, Jacob. Don’t be so foolish as to believe in magic.”

Jacob would have normally listened to his father, but the strange orb that he discovered with his friends had caught the attention of his adventurous spirit. Jacob is soon forced to embark on a terrifying quest to rescue his family from a power that they had refused to believe in.

Jacob’s Orb reminded me why I love YA fiction.

I really, really enjoyed this book. Mayor has a knack for vivid writing that doesn’t bog down the action – I felt like I was 15 again, joining Jacob and his friends on their harrowing quest to save their village. The storyline was well-paced, keeping the stakes high as the characters faced obstacle after obstacle, and I flew through the entire book a single sitting. I couldn’t help myself! There were some truly thrilling twists that I never saw coming – a refreshing feeling after reading perhaps more than my fair share of rather predictable YA novels.

The main character, Jacob, was my favorite part of the whole story. The book not only gives him plenty of external conflict to fight against, but also gives his internal conflict a good bit of screen time. I loved seeing his character development unfold in such a well-written and organic way. Jacob’s Orb touches on themes of working together and making sacrifices, which makes it a book I’d be happy to plop in front of a young reader.

If I have one complaint about this book, it’d be that it really needs one more pass by a proofreader. There are an unfortunate amount of misplaced punctuation and word choice issues that look like they might be the work of autocorrect. The story drew me in enough that the errors didn’t put me off, but fixing those issues would take this book from good to great.

Still, I highly recommend Jacob’s Orb to young adults and the young at heart. It’s a lightning-fast romp that you won’t want to put down.

This one’s a thinker

Rapture by Alex P Wu

269 pages

Self-published on December 28, 2017

Amazon | Goodreads | Author’s Website

In the year 2067, followers of The Pure are vanishing from Earth. It’s rapture, as predicted in their scriptures. At least that is what the religion’s faithful believe.

To conspiracy theorists, the disappearances are a nefarious government plot. To the government, they’re merely human foul-play. To Reiko Liebenstadt, a disgraced agent at the Federal Protectorate, the mystery is her obsession. On the case that sank her career, she alone witnessed a Purist vanish from a canoe in the middle of a lake.

Reiko’s investigation of The Pure leads her to a world ravaged by disease and war. She uncovers the real reason she was chosen for the assignment, the hidden meanings in the prophecies of the scriptures, and the ultimate fate of those raptured.

The truth is far from heavenly.

{Be forewarned: I’ve tried to keep things very vague, but this review does give away a little more about the plot than the blurb does. Potential spoilers ahead.}

Political intrigue, religious fervor, and the fate of humanity – Rapture is the darkest, heaviest sci-fi action epic I’ve had the pleasure of reading in quite some time. Our main character, Reiko, has to live through her own twisted version of the trolley problem, facing tough decision after tough decision as she’s thrust into the center of a spiderweb of factions and agendas she had no idea even existed.

Even better, that spiderweb has been woven with amazing depth and obvious attention to detail.  Wu has created a universe that’s remarkably plausible (obligatory suspension of disbelief aside), which is always a bonus point in my book when it comes to sci-fi. There are no villains-for-villainy’s-sake – every conflict is layered with reasoning and history, making Reiko’s life all the harder as she tries to navigate the minefield.

Wu sketches this conflict in a writing style that’s sparse and clean. It’s a change for me, as I usually prefer denser, more character-focused writing, but it really worked for Rapture. Despite the heavy themes, the pace is punchy and quick, and I devoured it all in just a couple of sittings.

Moral quandaries abound in Rapture, so if you enjoy books that test your core beliefs, look no further. I highly recommend it to those who enjoy hard-hitting fiction that makes you think.