A review of Magic Lost, Trouble Found, by Lisa Shearin

READ NOVEMBER 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: A girl with attitude. An all-powerful amulet.
This could only mean trouble.

My name is Raine Benares. I’m a seeker. The people who hire me are usually happy when I find things. But some things are better left unfound…

Raine is a sorceress of moderate powers, from an extended family of smugglers and thieves. With a mix of street smarts and magic spells, she can usually take care of herself. But when her friend Quentin, a not-quite-reformed thief, steals an amulet from the home of a powerful necromancer, Raine finds herself wrapped up in more trouble than she cares for. She likes attention as much as the next girl, but having an army of militant goblins hunting her down is not her idea of a good time. The amulet they’re after holds limitless power, derived from an ancient, soul-stealing stone. And when Raine takes possession of the item, it takes possession of her.

Now her moderate powers are increasing beyond anything she could imagine—but is the resumé enhancement worth her soul?”

MY REVIEW: Magic Lost, Trouble Found, book one of Lisa Shearin’s Raine Benares series, was one of the more pleasant reading experiences I’ve had in some time. Up to a point, about which, more later.

The world and the story are each interesting, if not terribly novel and Raine is a very likable protagonist, smart, smart-mouthed, determined, brave, but cautious, and uncompromisingly loyal to her friends. The majority of the supporting cast were enjoyable to read about, as well,  and although we don’t spend a huge amount of time with some of them, they’re important to the plot, and, at times, help us learn more about Raine. In other words, they‘re not just there to take up space, as is far too often the case.

The villains are considerably more stereotypical, especially in their dialog, and not nearly as well fleshed-out as the “good guys.” The main antagonist, a goblin shaman, is a caricature of the psychopathic evildoer, completely one-dimensional. I would have loved a little more depth in his case, even some understanding as to why he turned so thoroughly to the “dark side.”

One thing I liked, though it may seem like a minor point, was the variety in the names of the characters. Benares has a decidedly Mediterranean feel, Spanish, Italian, even Greek. Raine’s cousin Phaelan sounds Irish, his name, anyway. Her sometime associate, Quentin, could be a Brit. The principal villain, Sarad Nukpana, could even be Japanese, as could another nasty, Chigaru. I know this doesn’t take place on our world, but, it’s impossible not to make comparisons of the names. Long story short, the wide range here adds a certain richness to the world Shearin’s created.

I’ve seen a few people classify this as PNR, but, there’s really only a hint of romance: A couple of breath-stealing kisses is about it. I really didn’t care much for either of Raine’s potential romantic interests — well, one is really more sexual than romantic — but that’s just me. In fact, I’m beginning to think that sometimes I fall in love with the lead character while I’m reading, and so I come to resent the competition, so to speak. It’s great than an author can create a character you love, but, a little silly to turn into a first-crush teenager about it. Anyway…

The plot moves along at a pretty good clip, nicely paced, and Shearin manages to hold our interest even during the lulls in the plentiful action, mostly via humor, but also by providing salient back-story. Such sections never feel like info dumps, though, largely because of the first-person POV, and the conversational style of he narration.

However…

Seems like I’ve been saying this a lot lately: The writing just doesn’t measure up to the excellent storytelling. It’s not that there are grammatical gaffes — well, okay, there are several occasions where subject and verb don’t agree in number, and that’s pretty annoying — but it’s really repetitive and cliché-riddled. In one scene, Raine tells us that she and her crew don’t want to call attention to themselves. Unfortunately, we’re told this probably half a dozen times in fewer pages. And, y’know, it’s really a “Well, duh!” remark the first time. There are countless iterations of phrases like “Now, if only I could make myself believe it,” or “But, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer,” a lot of things like “That makes two of us,” or “At this point, I’ll take what I can get.“ Then there’s the ever-popular “You will come with us, or the boy will die.” Cue the spooky organ music. If goblins have mustaches, you can almost see him twirling his while Nell’s tied to the railroad tracks waiting on Dudley to rescue her. Or, maybe a “bwah-ha-ha-ha” afterward. And, in your mind, your hear “vill” instead of “will.”

I have to admit, though, there was one line I really loved: “Sometimes I hated it when I was right, but I always hated it when someone else was.”

Another slight quibble, though: Raine’s an elf, but, we never really get much of a clue what distinguishes the elves in her world from the humans. Is it just the pointy ears? Inquiring minds want to know.

From the viewpoint of the setting, this is an epic fantasy, but it has a decidedly urban fantasy feel to it. That might be off-putting to some purists, but Shearin mixes the two genres very well, and it makes the story move faster than the more laborious epic fantasies often do.

Anyway, Magic Lost, Trouble Found is a really good story with plenty of action and suspense, a nice helping of acerbic wit, and a protagonist that I liked a lot. That, in my opinion, the writing was’t as good as the story-telling doesn’t keep it from being very, very entertaining. Well worth you’re time.

A review of Huntress, by Malinda Lo

Read September 2012

Online plot summary: “Nature is out of balance in the human world. The sun hasn’t shone in years, and crops are failing. Worse yet, strange and hostile creatures have begun to appear. The people’s survival hangs in the balance.
To solve the crisis, the oracle stones are cast, and Kaede and Taisin, two seventeen-year-old girls, are picked to go on a dangerous and unheard-of journey to Tanlili, the city of the Fairy Queen. Taisin is a sage, thrumming with magic, and Kaede is of the earth, without a speck of the otherworldly. And yet the two girls’ destinies are drawn together during the mission. As members of their party succumb to unearthly attacks and fairy tricks, the two come to rely on each other and even begin to fall in love. But the Kingdom needs only one huntress to save it, and what it takes could tear Kaede and Taisin apart forever.
The exciting adventure prequel to Malinda Lo’s highly acclaimed novel Ash is overflowing with lush Chinese influences and details inspired by the I Ching, and is filled with action and romance.”

My review: If I were using a starred rating system here, Huntress would defintely be a 5-star read. I know that, by goodreads standards, 5 stars means “amazing.” I’m not easily amazed, so, for me, it’s a book I really, really liked, and about which I can’t find any thing significant enough to warrant subtracting a star.

I have written – maybe not on this forum — that it’s a shame that books get labelled as “genre fiction.” Oh, sure, it makes it a lot easier to find what you like at your favorite booksellers, or your neighborhood libe, but it almost inevitably limits a book’s audience. Admittedly, Huntress has the advantage of appealing to 3 genres, epic fantasy, LGBT, and YA, but I believe it would definitely be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates a compelling, well-written story, even if their usual reading tastes are more mainstream.

The world-building is both credible and creditable. Descriptive passages are detailed, often lushly so, without being flowery. Plotting is logical and followed consistently (within the context of a fantasy world.) The two main characters are quite engaging and easy to relate to, and they both experience decided growth as the story progresses. Secondary characters are adequately described and contribute depth to the story. The romance is not forced, but is nicely interwoven with the overall plot.

I really admire Lo’s handling of the romance between Kaede and Taisin. The pacing is perfect, and, as in all the best romances, it serves as an element of character development. Lo treats the growing relationship tastefully, almost circumspectly, but still is able to give it a certain sensual quality. It’s simply about two young people falling in love, and the fact that they are both women seems almost incidental.

It would be really easy for this novel to become cliche. A journey by a group of companions obviously suggests Tolkien. In fact, the journey aspect goes all the way back to Homer’s Odyssey. The fact that there’s a quest recalls Arthurian legend. Somehow, though, Lo manages to keep her story fresh, and her own,, largely by the uniqueness of the world she creates, and the strong relationship she builds between Kaede and Taisin.

I don’t read a lot of YA, and almost no epic fantasy, but Huntress has become one of my favorites, irrespective of genre. In short, a tremendously satisfying reading experience.

A review of Ash, by Malinda Lo

Online plot blurb: In the wake of her father’s death, Ash is left at the mercy of her cruel stepmother. Consumed with grief, her only joy comes by the light of the dying hearth fire, rereading the fairy tales her mother once told her. In her dreams, someday the fairies will steal her away, as they are said to do. When she meets the dark and dangerous fairy Sidhean, she believes that her wish may be granted.

The day that Ash meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, her heart begins to change. Instead of chasing fairies, Ash learns to hunt with Kaisa. Though their friendship is as delicate as a new bloom, it reawakens Ash’s capacity for love-and her desire to live. But Sidhean has already claimed Ash for his own, and she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love.

Entrancing, empowering, and romantic, Ash is about the connection between life and love, and solitude and death, where transformation can come from even the deepest grief.

Note: I categorized <i>Ash</i> as “Female protagonists” rather than “lesbian protagonist” because, though there’s a good deal of foreshadowing of a same-sex relationship, we never see it come to fruition.

My review: Malinda Lo’s Ash, a retelling of the Cinderella story, is fairly predicable, but, a pretty enjoyable read, just the same. There’s a certain charm to Lo’s writing that keeps us turning the pages, even though we know what’s going to happen. The writing is evocative without being florid, and the story is, at times, anyway, enchanting, in its way. But…and, didn’t you know there’d be one.…

I never feel like we really get to know Aisling (Ash), though we spend the entire book with her. We never understand her motivations. It’s as though things happen just because the author wants them to happen,. Of Kaisa, I especially wanted to know more. There’s little depth to her character, which is most disappointing. You’re teased with a sense that it would be very rewarding to get to know her, but that opportunity is thwarted. Yeah, it’s a fairy tale. I get that. But, it’s also well over two hundred fifty pages, and the principle characters, at least, absolutely need to be more fleshed out.

I guess my biggest disappointment here is that there was so much potential that was left unrealized. While a reasonably enjoyable way to pass a few hours, Ash ultimately fails to deliver, especially emotionally. While the ending of a story such as this should evoke a deep sigh of contentment and leave a really warm feeling inside, my only reaction when Ash and Kaisa step forward and kiss was, “Oh, that’s nice,” and then I looked around for the next book to read. We have to take the author’s word for it when, as Ash and Kaisa kiss, Ash knows she is home, because Lo merely tells us, she never shows us.

And, dammit, she had the whole book to do so.

I’m very glad I read Lo’s Huntress before this, her first novel. After the unsatisfying experience of Ash, I might never have read Huntress, and that would have been a shame for it is truly wonderful.