Category: soft sci-fi


So, guess who got hit with a fun little dose of anxiety about actually starting her new job back on Wednesday. It’s me. I spent so much time getting up and looking for things to do that I got just about nothing done. All the same though, I’m happy to share this one with you all. The nice folks at Tor Teen sent it to me ages ago and I’m finally talking about it. By an author I’ve reviewed several times before, Ann Aguirre, this is Heartwood Box. Enjoy!

Heartwood Box cover

Araceli Flores Harper’s parents sent her to live with her great aunt Ottillie for her own safety. On paper, the town is safer than nearly anywhere Araceli could possibly be. No crime. No outward threats. But people, her great uncle included, have been disappearing for years with no trace found. That’s concerning enough on its own. But between her new pen pal from World War 1 and the disappearance of her best friend Araceli will need to dig deep into the town’s mysteries for the truth regardless of the danger.

Ann Aguirre’s Heartwood Box does an interesting job of balancing the mystery of what causes the disappearances and Araceli’s attempts to figure them out and the sort of romance across time between Araceli and Oliver.

Aguirre is one of those authors that I adore with major exception to how she writes romance, Heartwood Box is a fascinating exception to that. Something, I think, about how she balances the romance against the plot and Araceli’s feelings about other characters. The plot is allowed to happen without being entirely devoured by the romance. As the plot gets more serious it feels like Araceli leans more heavily on the impossible romance with Oliver. And yet, the only thing that feels lost to the romance was the possible love triangle with the boy next door class clown, Logan, which did not feel like a loss at all given the characters involved.

It actually becomes difficult to talk more about the plot, beyond going over how it balances with the romance, without spoiling the climax. Which is a bit frustrating because the real mystery only kicks in later in the book, the first half or so of the story is introduction and lead up. And yet, it is introduction and lead up that is done well enough that I was almost disappointed when the end started getting closer. I was enjoying seeing Araceli trying to figure out how she was communicating with Oliver, seeing her finding out more about the town, even her interactions with Logan made for good character work and made him feel like more of a character than just the third wheel guy. The character work over all is good actually, I enjoyed reading the interactions between Araceli and her friends. I wanted to see more of them, more of their stories, it made for great side characters because they felt solid and like they had their own stories going on off page.

My problem, if I had a problem at all, with Heartwood Box is the ending. Trying not to go too far into it, it feels way beyond Araceli’s scope. By nature of the narrative and the book to that point, the reader has to stick with Araceli for the ending but then the things that happened seem vastly out of step with what both the reader and Araceli herself know and could expect. It leaves her feeling unmoored in a way that could easily have been the start of a completely different story. This is definitely a matter of necessity, again the reader has to stick with her or it would be way too jarring, but the difference has to be tremendous enough for the reader to get the sheer magnitude of how much changed from the comparatively small scope of Araceli’s life in this small town in New York. It is a trade off that I’m not entirely sure works, but acknowledge had to be made.

Which brings me to this, I liked Heartwood Box a great deal. It falls pretty far from my usual genre preferences but the characters were interesting and the mystery was well constructed enough that I got hooked. It reminded me of the parts of Ann Aguirre’s writing that I really enjoy and made me want to check out more of her YA works. So it earns a four out of five from me. If I felt more confident with the ending it would have gotten a five.

So this is a review that I did not feel entirely comfortable with the writing of. I did not read the first book, Echos, so things felt more than a little disconnected. I do want to thank the nice folks at Entangled Teen for sending me an ecopy of this for review. This is Alice Reeds’ Fractures. Enjoy!

Fractures cover

Miles and Fiona survived the island. Survived a bear. Their rescue by the FBI should have taken them to safety, a new home and new identities. Instead they were taken to a villa in Poland where everyone has strange expectations for them. Instead they find themselves on a freighter in the middle of the ocean with no food or water. If they want to survive and maybe even stop whoever is behind all of this, Miles and Fiona will have to work together and remember all that has been done to them.

I confess that I did not realize that Alice Reeds’ Fractures was the second book in a series until I was around a third of the way through. I had assumed that the aspects that made it feel like a sequel were a deliberate stylistic choice to leave the reader as lost as the main characters were. I was about it, it felt like a cool idea that could have paid off really well. For obvious reasons it did not pay off, this is the second in a series and that realization was part of what started my path towards losing interest in what was going on.

Fractures feels very like a middle book in that everything feels like set up for something later in the series. It moves very slowly with long spans of Miles worrying over his relationship with Fiona or angsting over his brother or how poorly his father thinks of him. Those stretches of internal concerns made Miles a protagonist I just could not get into, he felt so whiny and constantly down on himself that it felt difficult to keep reading at times, like he should have had another solid book worth of character development rather than just retreading the same beats over and over.

Having missed the first book, the antagonists here seemed like their whole plot was poorly worked out. What the protagonists, and thus the reader, find out is interesting but thin. We get an end goal but not much on how the process is meant to work or why. That could work on a level of keeping the protagonists on their back foot until everything came together. But then things never so much come together as the solution gets dumped into the protagonists’ laps less through their actions and more because the book needed to end. It feels like the plot boiled down to nothing and then tied up far too quickly and too neatly for things to actually be over.

There was a lot that could have been interesting here or well done if given a little more attention. Miles aside, the characters show promise. The antagonists are this huge organization that has been picking out and buying specific teenagers to do military experiments on and everything is shadowy and mysterious and so much could have been explained better. The antagonists could have been so much more threatening if the reader was given more reason to believe that the characters were in danger or if the villa felt more locked down than it did. Even the romance could have been better if the reader was shown Miles making the effort to show Fiona that he cares rather than just thinking about how much he loves her over and over. The bit with their files could have had a much bigger effect if it actually affected the characters rather than Miles just talking about how worried it made him and how it was clearly affecting Fiona too.

Fractures winds up having a lot of things that should have been minor issues adding up to something unenjoyable. I found Miles utterly worthless as a protagonist. The antagonists were bland and flatly villainous. It is the kind of book that I am certain would have been more enjoyable if I had read the first in the series, but I also have no intention of going back and reading the first book. I could probably be convinced to read Alice Reeds again later in her career but for now, Fractures gets a two out of five from me.

It occurred to me while writing this that I really want to ramble about a few sub genres at some point. Not sure how well I would do with that, but it still might be fun. This one is from the nice folks at Entangled Teen, here’s Cindy R. Wilson’s Sting. Enjoy!

Sting cover

The Scorpion robs warehouses in the Light District. These raids help the denizens of the Dark District survive as more and more of the jobs they rely on disappear. But it only takes one person betraying her for the Scorpion to be killed off, replaced in the minds of the Enforcers with a teenage girl, replaced  in their minds with Tessa and thrown in jail to rot far from the people she cares for.  If she wants to get out, to even have the chance at revenge, Tessa will have to team up with the prisoner in the cell next to hers, an outcast from the very Enforcers she wants to stop, Pike. Will their escape allow them to pursue revenge or will the attempt doom them both?

In many ways, Cindy R. Wilson’s Sting feels very much like a book failed by its genre. It feels like a book that had romance ladled into it to avoid filling in the gaps in world building. Or like the author really wanted to dig into the basic social stratification ideas that are heavily used in cyber punk but then backed out for fear of really saying anything. But then it really seems to not know what to do with the romance angle either.

Throughout the first third or so of Sting the reader is introduced to the Dark District with its falling in buildings and denizens who can barely find enough to eat and the jail, Decay, which is being used to erase the jobs that people in the Dark District used to work, thus depriving them of a way to survive, but that has more regular meals and solid shelter than our protagonist can ever remember having had. Tessa wants out though, wants revenge, wants to get back to her sister and helping the people of the Dark District. To do that she has to follow Pike’s plan, which means that she and the reader wind up plopped into the Light District. The reader was shown the Dark District in ruins and told that the Light District was much wealthier, that they had electricity and excess food and all the industry. But then it winds up being so much more than that. The Light District is presented as this big glamorous thing with lights everywhere and brilliant colors on everything and expensive parties regularly.

While I am aware that cities exist with this level of social stratification and that there are people like the Enforcers who want to hurt others seemingly just because they can, it just seems comical here. There is a literal closed off border between the two districts of this one city, a closed off border with armed guards all hopped up on propaganda and undeserved power ready to hurt the Darksiders who might try and go to the Light District for a job or something. It winds up being one of those things that, I am certain that something like it exists, but as presented in Sting it all feels like short hand for actual world building. It feels like the differences needed to be made as stark as possible so that the plot could be remembered through all of Tessa’s random moments of angsting over falling for Pike or over the feelings she had for River.

I confess, a lot of my frustrations here are made much worse by the ending. It feels far too tidy. Too like Wilson was dedicated to that ending from the start and refused to adjust it in light of how dark her antagonist wound up being. It sort of casts everything that came before it in a very artificial light. It feels unearned in a couple of ways.

From a genre angle, as much as I want to compare it to cyber punk, the comparison does not fit well. It is not technology making the Darksiders’ lives worse. Technology really fails to feature heavily, Tessa’s scorpion bots aside. Everything that makes the Darksider’s lives worse is down to one single antagonist and his underlings. The romance plot is certainly key to Sting’s word count, but manages to feel unnecessary and over done. It tends to feel more like filler than important to the character’s arcs. The scenes where Tessa thinks about her feelings for Pike were, at best, frustrating interruptions to what felt like the actual plot even as it feels like the reader is never properly let in on what Pike’s plan is. I kept waiting for something about that to come up, for us to get a better look at how they were planning to deal with the antagonist and show that Pike is as clever as the reader is told he is, but then it never came up.

There was so much here that had the potential to be well done if only given more room for development. So much that should have been given another pass or two before this was sent to the presses. And it just makes the finished book so much more disappointing that the potential was there and not given the development it needed. It took me multiple weeks to finish Sting, not because it was terrible or insulting, but because it was so easy for me to just put it down and do something else. I found other things to do because Tessa getting torn up over her feelings got old just so, so quickly. I came closer to just not finishing Sting than I have any other book in the past three years. For that, it gets two stars.

I think this book might have kicked off my recent reading streak. I enjoyed it a great deal and very much appreciate Entangled Teen’s providing me with a copy for review. Here’s Pintip Dunn’s Malice. Enjoy!

Malice cover

In a shattering flash of electricity Alice was visited by a voice claiming to be from the future. A voice that would go on to inform her that one of the students at her school is the creator of a virus that, in her time, has killed all but a third of the human population. A voice that charges her with finding out who this person is and stopping them before it is too late. But the voice’s orders often feel contradictory or nonsensical and Alice finds herself questioning if following its orders is really the best way to save the future. Is there anything that she can do to save the future outside of the voice’s orders? And why is it so insistent that she avoid one specific boy?

There is a lot to recommend Pintip Dunn’s Malice. The concept is interesting, the idea of a sort of indirect time travel and the implications of that fascinate me. So does the way the story was laid out, with Alice being pulled in different directions by the voice and her own feelings and fears, but it does so while laying out a solid path to who the virus maker might be and building layers of characterization for most of the cast.

The characters for the most part felt like characters. They felt like they existed for more reasons that to support the romance sub plot between Alice and Bandit and, more importantly, most of them felt like they could have been the protagonists of the book if it had been written from a different angle. Even the nameless background students feel like they could have been characters. Alice notes people interacting in the background as part of describing her surroundings. The only real exceptions here have their reasons for being comparatively out of focus, though there were a couple of characters that I found myself wishing we had seen more of.

The plot is well laid out, a reader can pretty easily catch on to where things are going. Though enough unexpected happens that the book never gets boring. Even the romance subplot is well done, it feels like Alice is actually getting to know Bandit rather than just them suddenly being in love. It fits well with the plot too, supporting and complementing it rather well.

One of the only things I have a real complaint with is how the confrontation with the virus maker was handled. It felt rushed in an odd way, almost like Dunn only had so many pages she was allowed and was running out of them. There was all this set up baked in for the virus maker, right up to the climax where the virus maker sounded both heartbreakingly young and so far gone that it sort of made the rest of the ending not work for me. It was not the worst ending that I have ever read by any means, but I would have liked for it to have been given a little more space to settle in.

I had a lot of fun with Malice. There were moments when I wanted Alice to go ahead and figure out what was going on so that we could get into the fighting back part. There were moments where something clicked and I just knew where things were moving. It was a book that I was willing to go with the flow on and see how things fell into place. The writing was well plotted and, while Malice is vehemently a standalone book, I find myself looking forward to what Dunn writes next. So, this earns a four out of five from me.

 

So, here’s a review where I dip my toe in a setting that I know not a ton about. I feel like the book stands well enough on its own to be enjoyable even if you aren’t super familiar with the rest of the Star Wars extended universe. This has sort of inspired another thing I want to talk about. For now though, enjoy!

Star Wars Queen's Shadow cover

On the last day of her rule Queen Amidala stayed ensconced with her handmaidens and trusted guards, relaxing on the one day she could before trying to build a life as Padmé Naberrie. A life she would have to put off building once the new Queen asked her to continue serving Naboo. The planet needed a new representative in the Galactic Senate, who could be a better fit? Who else loves Naboo and its people well enough to fight for them? And so Padmé agrees to take up the mantle of senator, to remain Amidala for as long as she is needed. A senator needs to be a much different person than a queen though, Padmé and her handmaidens will need to figure out what that means if she is going to navigate the Galactic Senate.

I confess, I started E. K. Johnson’s Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow because I wanted something science fiction but with little to no narrative consequence. So a book focused on a character who, while I’m certain other aspects of her personal arc have been covered on other books, by definition cannot be allowed to do anything that would have consequences for the greater Star Wars narrative seemed like it would fit the bill pretty well. The blurb suggested that it would be mostly character work, something that sounded really good honestly. It was pretty well exactly what I was looking for.

As much as this is a book about Padmé, and her change over from Queen to senator, it’s also very much about her world and the people she surrounds herself with. Early on each of Padmé’s handmaidens get a fair amount of focus all the better to drive home how close they all are and how much they care about Naboo, how idealistic Naboo’s culture is even after the Trade Federation’s attack. It gets the reader attached to everything Padmé is about to leave behind. Gives a taste of her relationships and the rules she’s lived by before leading into a place where those relationships and rules are not nearly as effective as they had been at home, are in fact detrimental in some ways. I adored that. Having the protagonist not only very clearly relying on others, but having that be a core feature of how she is able to accomplish things and adapt is something that I had not really realized that I miss in a fair number of other books. Because Padmé’s handmaidens are more than just her staff, she trusts them with her life and there’s this support structure there. Especially with Sabé, Padmé’s best friend and bodyguard and body double, very nearly the deuteragonist in some places where she acts as an agent outside of the happenings directly in the Galactic Senate.

I found myself wanting to see more of the handmaiden characters as the book went on and focused more on Senator Amidala. I find myself wanting to see more of them having finished the book, it left me curious about how they would deal with the Empire but not doubting for a moment that each of them would rebel in her own way be that art or politics, providing space for those displaced or fighting directly. I want to know where they went from the last chapter of Queen’s Shadow and where that took them.

That also leads me to one of the only issues I had with Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow.  The ending, specifically the epilogue, just completely took me out of it. The final chapter wrapped things up on a low note but left the reader with a sense of hope. Padmé and her team are going to keep fighting for what’s good and right in the galaxy.  The Epilogue shattered that in a way that starts off beautifully mirroring the first chapter but that also feels unnecessary and almost mean spirited in how it deals with some of the characters. It took me from knowing that cannon will still happen with everything that implies and hammered it in like a crooked nail in an otherwise fantastically built piece. It killed the sense of hope that the final chapter ended on and that’s what I find myself coming back to over and over like a missing tooth. The death of hope and how very out of place it feels in the context of the rest of the book.

That’s my only big issue and, aside from a couple of odd romance-ish moments that felt a little out of place, I think it was my only real issue. If not for the epilogue Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow would be a five out of five for me. It leaves me wanting more from the characters and I am definitely planning on looking for more of E. K. Johnson’s work. So, all told Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow earns a four out of five.

Late posting this, yesterday didn’t really happen. The “And Another Thing” is something I’ve been wanting to write something for for a while and I’ve been meaning to go back and talk about this since I realized it, but haven’t really taken the time to put it to paper as it were. So now seemed like a great time to get this done. This is sort of touching on an older review, you can find that here. I might make this a semi-regular thing for books that I couldn’t get to everything reasonably or series after I’ve already reviewed the books that make them up. It could be a lot of fun, this one was at least.

So, one of my big issues with Free Chocolate was pacing and information related. There would be long stretches of nothing new, of repetition, of the reader being reminded that Bo is in trouble because of the Zamite’s usually eating stowaways or of the corporate assassin calling her to remind her that he’s going to kill her family if she doesn’t get the cacao beans back and provably destroy them. Of how she doesn’t know as much about her boyfriend as she thought.

It hit me some time later.

Each chapter is an episode of a soap opera.

Each chapter.

And I missed that on my first go round with the book.

This is a thing that could have been brilliant. But I feel like it’s let down by the novel format and, as a result, becomes a letdown of a read.

One of the big things with soap operas is getting the viewer to come back every day. So, there’s a lot of characters and a lot of plot lines running constantly. Even if one plot line ends during an episode there’s still several more going and chances are that the ending of one will result in the start of another. It’s a constant cycle and characters are continually being introduced and developed and moved out of the story.

It’s a daily thing and needs to keep people coming back daily. But it’s also only a half an hour to an hour daily, so small amounts of all of this can be twined together and stretched out. But it loses something if you’re watching episodes back to back to back. Things fall a little flat because tension doesn’t work if it’s kept cranked up over a long amount of time. Plus, a lot of the repetition on a soap opera covers if you miss a day here and there.

Same thing with Free Chocolate. Since every chapter is an episode and soap operas require continual high tension it winds up being clunky. Plot lines and information are continually reintroduced. Characters are continually gone back over.

It feels like it could work really well over the course of a couple of months. Just like, post one chapter a day and have it go from there and I think the pacing would have worked a lot better.

So, I’m late getting this posted, but it is still technically Wednesday. I’ve written and rewritten this at least four times. I think this one is as close to something I’m happy with as this is going to get. This series was one that I really enjoyed and I’m hoping to see more from Roberts in the future. This one is thanks to Curiosity Quills Press, here’s Richard Roberts’ Please Don’t Tell My Parents You Believe Her. Enjoy!

Please Dont Tell My Parents You Believe Her cover

As part of the Inscrutable Machine Penny Akk, Bad Penny, has faced heroes and villains and threats from the very moons of Jupiter. She’s faced enemies turned friends and friends turned enemies. But when she was ready to face the thing she feared the most, telling her parents about being Bad Penny, she found herself trapped in a robot body by her own power. With her friends away and her parents believing the fake Penny her powers built instead of her, Penny will have to find new allies and pull off the biggest heist of her whole career. Bad Penny is going to have to steal her own life back. A super villain’s work is never done.

As would be expected of the last book in a series that I really enjoyed, I have thoughts on Richard Roberts’ Please Don’t Tell My Parents You Believe Her. A number of them in fact. This is a book that was split between opening up the world it’s set in for later stories, giving the reader more on some of the side characters and how things work, and also tying up Penelope Akk’s story. That’s where I get a little bit frustrated.

Please Don’t Tell My Parents You Believe Her is the book it needs to be more than the book I would have hoped it would be. It’s the tie up novel. The place where Penny finally gets to shed Bad Penny for a chance to be a hero. But first she has to beat the most dangerous super villain she’s ever faced, herself. And yet, even with the stakes as high as they are for Penny, I found myself more interested in what was going on with Ampexia or Cassie or what was going on with the other Penny at the Akk household.

That’s actually something that I would have really liked to have seen with how far the other Penny takes things. How did Penny’s parents react to that? We see the Audit reject Bad Penny early on because she defaults to believing the flesh and blood Penny over robotic Bad Penny. Never mind that the Machine stubbornly sticks to Bad Penny. This drove me up the walls, because it feels like it should have been a bigger thing all around. Like, we get the letters from super villain camp that Penny writes to cope with what’s going on but I wanted to see more of the parents being worried of if they made the right choice. Which is an odd stand out, because we see her friends trying to split time between the Pennys.

But then there’s all the support Penny gets early on from, mostly new, side characters who deal with robots. She gets to team up with the mascot from her childhood favorite pizza place, Gerty Goat. Ampexia shows back up as a team mate and makes for some really enjoyable scenes of Penny getting to know  her and learning to take a chill between bouts of villainy.

There’s a lot of early on heist stuff, since Penny’s lost most of her gear. Between that and the bits with other characters that feel like they could have been expanded, kind of makes me wish that this had been split between two books. One with Penny adjusting to her robot body and gathering her allies and a second with the heists and the build up to the big fight with other Penny. It could make the expansion of characters and the whole robot deal feel like it had more room to breath while also allowing more space for Penny to deal with and question her current state of being. But, I also say that as someone who enjoyed the series and would really like to read more of it.

That’s really where I come down on this I think. It was an enjoyable book and it tied up the series exactly the way the series needed to be tied up for character stuff. But it also leaves room for more stories and showed a lot of characters who’s stories I’m really interested in reading. It’s the book that it needed to be, but that also leaves me wanting more from this setting. So, Please Don’t Tell My Parents You Believe Her gets a four out of five from me. I’m going to go find the prequel.

This came out later than planned. This one’s thanks to the awesome folks at Curiosity Quills Press. Here’s Richard Roberts’ Please Don’t Tell My Parents I Blew Up The Moon. Enjoy!

Please Dont Tell My Parents I Blew Up the Moon cover

Bad Penny and the rest of the Implacable Machine are bored out of their minds. Going back to school after a break full of super villainy and fighting heroes both their own age and grown up will do that. So of course they jump at the chance to visit Jupiter and see things no human has before. No human except the ones who already live there. With a homemade space ship and the help of a giant spider the Implacable Machine will see everything from alien invaders to robot overlords and the colonies trapped between them. With any luck, they’ll be able to help the rebels and their new friend get their homes back and be on their way towards heroism.

Please Don’t Tell My Parents I Blew Up The Moon follows Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m a Super Villain pretty directly with the Implacable Machine trying to settle back into day to day school lives. It’s got a really strong start there, giving the reader a taste of how dull things are after Penny and company have gone toe to toe with some of the best of the best but then have to go back to being just kids. It gives the reader one of a number of good reasons why the team is so ready to take up Spider’s offer to see what lies beyond the asteroid belt first hand. But it also pulls back a little to anchor things back in the reality of the setting, which is good because the book goes way out there.

This one feels a lot slower than the previous book, largely due to the necessity of doing all the world building for the Puppeteers and the Jupiter colonies and, and, and. This is unfortunate because it slows the book down just enough that it makes it easy to put down. There are all these places being introduced and their rules and culture and it leads to things feeling a little flat. The Puppeteers are scary aliens that can take over people and force them to do whatever. One of the colonies is very steam punk flavored and people are constantly being told what to do by the automatons that functionally rule the place. It feels sketched out but not quite filled in.

There’s a similar problem with some of the characterization. The new friend character bounces between being totally cool with Penny’s powers and how they work and then freaked out about it and jealous over how her brothers and everyone else react to Penny’s power. It’s like a switch flips when Roberts felt the situation demanded it. It doesn’t tend to feel like it fits, like there should have been more build for it and more awareness on Penny’s part. The final boss of the novel has a similar issue, though I can’t really go into that without spoilers.

There are parts that are a ton of fun, especially early on before they reach the Jupiter colonies. The whole bit surrounding the Red Herring being built is a lot of fun. Plus the little bits of Penny and company in class and their classmates’ reactions to Penny’s power manifesting make for a couple of nice notes that what she’s got going on is out of the ordinary. I’m also interested in seeing how the workings of her power continue to develop, given the way Mourning Dove reacts to it and how much it seems to be capable of when given free reign. I’m really excited to see more of all that as the series continues.

As and over all thing, I enjoyed Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m a Super Villain more than Please Don’t Tell My Parents I Blew Up The Moon. While both needed world building it flowed much better for me in the first book, likely due to being set in our world but with supers.  I would have liked to see more put into the new characters introduced, but I feel like at least a couple of them are going to show up again later, so it seems pretty reasonable that they would get more development then. Please Don’t Tell My Parents I Blew Up The Moon is nowhere near a bad book though and I am very much looking forward to reading the next one, so it gets a three out of five.

Late again. Sorry all, things have been sort of running in all directions and I feel like I can’t catch up. That aside, this is the first in a series that I’m going to be reviewing the entirety of thanks to the awesome folks at Curiosity Quills Press. Here is Richard Roberts’ Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m a Super Villain. Enjoy!

Please Dont Tell My Parents Im a Super Villan cover

Penelope Akk wants to be a hero like her parents. She knows her power will activate any day now and she’s more than ready to prove herself. When it hits like a lightning bolt of inspiration and leaves her with a new tool that is more than amazing, she’s on her way to greatness. At least, she thinks she is until a confrontation with a hero’s sidekick leaves her and her friends labeled villains. Turns out that no matter how much she wants to be a hero, Penny Akk is really good at being a super villain and her friends aren’t all too ready to talk her out of it. Might as well have fun while it lasts, right?

Richard Robert’s Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m a Super Villain is something of an odd duck of a novel. There’s this whole world built up with heroes and villains and powers. There were aliens that invaded awhile back, but no one’s seen them in forever. Then we have the protagonists sort of getting dropped into all of this. They’re all varying degrees of familiar with the world’s heroes and villains, Penny because of her parents and Clair and Ray due to being into the fandoms, but this is the first time they’re in the middle of it all. It’s odd but easy to go along with.

This book was a lot of fun in a way that I haven’t seen in a while. There’s this massive element of embraced silliness that comes with the whole super villain deal, largely because we’re seeing them as people interacting with, essentially, comrades rather than just antagonists. The little mistakes that Penny makes when telling the Machine to do certain things because she simply hadn’t thought of them are great. They’re a sort of growing pains for a villainous mastermind in training deal. The bits with Clair just goofing around in her bear suit or geeking out about various heroes and villains with Ray do a great job of keeping the tone light and fun.

The various villains that the team winds up rubbing shoulders with are likewise really entertaining. A special focus is given to the other mad scientists, who each have their own particular theme or type of tech that they specialize in, but it winds up being a bit like seeing all the members of this one club grouped up. They rib each other and joke around about their various inventions and how they work. There’s this fantastic character, Apparition, who I feel like I would read a book about on her own. Another character Lucyfar feels like she could also be a favorite of mine later on in the series. Plus, the villains take the protagonists seriously and treat them like they know what they’re doing. The heroes don’t, which feels a little weird all said.

There are a handful of places where it feels like the team winds up doing villainous things because the plot demands it rather than because it fits entirely with what’s going on with the characters. I also found myself wishing that more was done with Miss A, the sidekick who kicks off the Inscrutable Machine’s villainy, because she felt like she could have been such a fantastic antagonist for them. In addition to that, her whole plan to flush out the children of super villains that she’s convinced are at her school is terribly irresponsible and breaks with the idea of not making it personal that’s sort of threaded through a lot of the discussion of hero/villain dynamics. She’s pretty implicitly breaking the understood rules with that and I want to see something come of it.

That said, there’s time for something to come of it, and I’m interested in seeing what comes next. There’s a lot of promise to the world here and Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m a Super Villain gives really good bones for the series to come. It earns a four out of five and I’m going to be coming back to this series later on.

Free Chocolate

Sorry about taking so long on this one. I had a lot to say but not a great way of saying any of it without spoiling the last third of the book badly. I feel like there’s a lot here that I want to flesh out elsewhere, since that would entail spoilers. In any case, this one’s courtesy of netGalley. Here’s Free Chocolate. Enjoy!

Free Chocolate cover

After the alien Krom made first contact Earth was left with one unique commodity, chocolate. Everyone in the galaxy adores the stuff and will do whatever it takes to get their hand equivalents on it. To protect itself Earth has closed its doors to the greater universe, no aliens allowed. In light of that and recent pirate attacks resulting in the accidental destruction of a civilian ship by and HGB pilot, culinary student Bodacious Benitez is summoned back to Earth to serve as the face of HGB, the Princess of Chocolate. Face of the company or not Bo has long disagreed with HGB’s methods and, with her Krom boyfriend’s help, is going to do everything she can to break HGB’s monopoly and bring chocolate to the universe.

I have a lot of thoughts on Amber Royer’s Free Chocolate. There was a lot of stuff that I feel like could have been fun and some stuff that I feel like needed more focus to work at all. More than anything, I feel like the book lacks focus. There are a number of places in Free Chocolate where it feels like Royer had three or four ideas for a book but not enough for any single one of them, so she kind of stitched them together. Things happen and don’t seem to have any consequences. There’s some stuff that gets talked about not at all, but then both Bo and the reader are expected to just roll with it. It feels disjointed.

A lot of this is down to how the book deals with its timeline. It takes ages for Bo to actually get into space and on the run from Tyson, the space cop, and then it seems like the action is constantly interrupted. There’s the corporate assassin who calls Bo repeatedly to remind her that there’s only so long until he has to hurt her family. There’s cooking for aliens while on the run and being terrified of said aliens. It slows things to a crawl and makes the book super easy to put down

There is also a linguistic thing that I feel slows Free Chocolate down as well, it also contributed to it being pretty easy to put down. There’s a number of alien languages mentioned as being spoken and a handful of words used when Bo doesn’t know them. It’s just sort of tagged and let go. But then Bo is a native Spanish speaker so, while I would expect some Spanish to be used, it’s done largely in a way that feels like the author is reminding the reader of that rather than as a natural part of how she talks. It’s this sort of immersion breaking thing that Bo never says but or head, it’s always pero or cabeza, or she’ll use a phrase and then immediately provide the translation. This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that a lot of this happens in Bo’s internal monologue, so she winds up translating for an audience she shouldn’t be aware of. I feel like leaving the phrases without the extra translation could have worked well. Bo referring to Brill using various terms of endearment worked really well, I thought. It just sort of feels strange that we get more translating for the existent Earth language than the handful of alien languages.

All of that boils down to it being kind of hard to care about the characters and what’s happening to them. Bo is on the run from a massive corporation with an assassin threatening her family and a venomous space cop on her tail. She’s stuck surrounded by aliens that could easily eat her if she messes up while her boyfriend may have been playing her this whole time. All of that, with all the interruptions and characters dropping in and out in an attempt to keep the drama level high, and I really just could have cared less. Like, the pilot who’s accident kicked off the plot, he’s given this level of importance within Bo’s story that is usually saved for major side characters, love interests or best friends. But after she leaves Earth, he takes a background spot for the vast majority of the story. This is the guy she’s essentially willing to trade her life for, they knew each other for two or three days, tops. Brill, the alien boyfriend, swaps between being super loving and sketchy to no end. It’s like the story couldn’t make up its mind about if he was one of the antagonists, just using Bo to get a hold of the cacao beans, or if he legitimately cares about her and is doing something at least sort of heroic. That leaves the reader to decide about him right up until the end, but then there’s this attempt at explaining his behavior in context of Krom society, but he had not wanted to talk to Bo about Krom society so neither she nor the reader knows anything about it until then. It just doesn’t work for me. I’d have liked to have seen more of the space cop, especially the post Bo stowing away version of him, and Chestla, the cat girl TA, though. They were pretty entertaining.

The galley crew on the Zantite ship were also interesting and I found myself enjoying the cooking segments. Talking about cooking and food were the parts where Royer’s writing shines best. If this had been more of a science fiction cozy mystery thing and focused more on the food and cooking I think it could have worked better, those scenes are just that enjoyable.

That’s where I land on Free Chocolate I think. There are a lot of first novel issues here, largely in the character work and how scattered the overall plot can feel. There are the bones of something good here, but it exists in the small moments where Bo is allowed to be a chef and interact with other characters on that level. I could see Royer handling the grander scale, galactic conflict stuff after she’s written more fiction. That said, this is a book that I found incredibly easy to put down in favor of doing any number of other things. So, I’m giving Free Chocolate a two out of five with the note that, while I’m not likely to read the inevitable sequel, I might check out another one of Royer’s books later on in her writing career.