The Name of the Game: Cryptofauna by Patrick Canning

CryptofaunaCryptofauna by Patrick Canning

Published: January 23, 2019
Publisher: Patrick Canning
Genre(s): Humor, Fantasy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 9 hrs and 17 mins

Cryptofauna is an entertaining book that runs on pure momentum. The sheer volume of absurdity paired with the author’s constant digressions and convoluted wordplay keeps things humming along while the mysterious nature of the game at the center of the book keeps you hooked until the end.

Reading this felt like strapping myself to a narrative rocket with no time to stop and think about the whys and hows of it all. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think it could get a bit exhausting if the book was too much longer.

Cryptofauna is about a suicidal janitor named Jim, stopped from killing himself and recruited into the titular game by a mysterious older gentleman named Ozymandias (Oz for short) who lives in the mental institution slash retirement home where Jim works.

Oz doesn’t explain much to Jim before setting him off on a series of three tasks – his initiation as an “operator” in Cryptofauna. Jim meets a lot of colorful characters and ends up in a series of bizarre or distressing situations that always feel playfully absurd even when they are also deadly serious, and the book carries us along his journey.

Cryptofauna the game is never explained in much detail. We get the broad strokes, i.e. that it involves sets of operators battling each other over the course of their artificially extended lives to either improve or undermine the state of the world. The actual details of what that means in practice are vague, probably because it’s funnier that way. I have mixed feelings about this if only because the whole thing feels a bit hand-wavy; the silliness and humor are clearly the point, so the rules don’t matter.

Also, the book spends most of its length focused on Jim completing the seemingly random tasks that serve as his initiation. His assigned rival doesn’t play by the rules, so we don’t get to spend much time with Jim as a practicing operator. Jim’s tasks sort of make sense in a macro way while also feeling arbitrary for the sake of comedy.

There is a scene late in the book where Jim and his allies destroy a sinister boarding school, but instead of dramatizing the action, Canning summarizes it in a few non-specific sentences and explains that it was a battle for the ages. Again, this is presumably meant to be a joke, but it felt more like a placeholder.

I did enjoy this book, and I’d probably be up for reading another by Canning, but I think I would enjoy it more if it balanced humor with a slightly more grounded narrative.

LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the author.

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A Detailed Mirage: Fata Morgana by Steven R. Boyett and Ken Mitchroney

Fata Morgana by Steven R. Boyett and Ken Mitchroney

Published: June 13, 2017
Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Genre(s): Adventure, War, Science Fiction
Format: Audiobook
Length: 12 hrs and 9 mins

I think what drew me to Fata Morgana was the promise of an old-fashioned adventure with a bit of romance: a WW2 bomber plane flies through a portal to another world and the crew has to learn how to deal with extreme culture shock while their captain falls in love with a mysterious woman. However, I wasn’t expecting that it would also include an obsessive attention to detail about the intricacies of flying and crewing a bomber.

Fata Morgana does deliver on that initial promise of adventure, but I have to admit that it required a bit of patience on my part to get invested in the story. I don’t generally enjoy it when an author has clearly gone out of their way to get every little detail right and wants to make for damn sure that you know about it. If you want to read an exhaustive catalog of the US Army Air Force bomber crew experience during WW2, you’ll probably love this book, but if you aren’t into that level of minutiae, you might have to give it some room to grow on you.

It doesn’t help that the characters are all fairly one-dimensional archetypes and they never rise above their first impressions. They wisecrack, they make earnest speeches, they sacrifice for the good of the crew, they’re generally stand-up guys. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, per se, because the story well-executed and there isn’t a false note throughout, but I can barely remember any of their names.

There is one interesting sequence late in the book where reality comes unstuck and things get a little surreal, but it goes on for long enough that it started feeling repetitive. The best parts of the book are when the crew has to do their job and fight back against their enemies, be they Nazis or otherwise. These sequences are thrilling and evocative, and are part of what brought the book home for me. There are a few action sequences full of heart-pounding moments and thrills, especially late in the book.

I did like Fata Morgana, but it feels like this review landed a bit more on the negative side than I intended. I think this a book for a certain type of reader laser-focused on verisimilitude, even in their science fiction. I don’t generally fall into that category, but I can still appreciate a story well-told.

REALLY LIKED IT

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Modernized Space Girl: Barbarella, Volume 1

Barbarella, Volume 1Barbarella, Volume 1: Red Hot Gospel

Written by: Mike Carey
Art by: Kenan Yar, Jorge Fornés
Published: October 10th, 2018
Publisher: Dynamite
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Graphic Novel
Format: E-Book
Length: 126 pages

First, some caveats about this review of the new Barbarella comic written by Mike Carey: I’ve never seen the Jane Fonda movie, so I watched the trailer to get a feel for it because it felt like a necessary entry point.

I also read the first volume of the classic comics by Jean-Claude Forest so that I’d have a baseline to compare against the rebooted series. From a writing standpoint, I’d say that the two versions of Barbarella are on close to equal footing, but the art in the modern version just does not do the character justice.

Forest draws the classic 60s version in black and white with an almost sketch-like quality to the art. The suggestive lines are still evocative even if the style is a little dated. It might be interesting to read a remastered version with full-color art as long as it didn’t lose the style of the original. I think I would have preferred that over the rebooted version, or at least a new comic that more closely follows the classic style.

The first volume of the Mike Carey version consists of a three-issue arc drawn by the series artist, Kenan Yar, and a stand-alone drawn by Jorge Fornés. Both stories start with Barbarella’s ship breaking down, which I’m guessing is a running joke from the movie.

In the longer story, Barbarella crash-lands in the middle of a rebellion on a repressive religious planet where the church removes everyone’s genitalia to prevent them from enjoying sex (because pleasure is a temptation.) Naturally, Barbarella considers this a horrifying injustice and does everything she can to fight the church, stopping only at murder. The story is a bit forgettable. It doesn’t help that Barbarella isn’t driving the plot for most of the arc.

I’m also not a fan of Kenyan Yar’s art, which doesn’t capture the look of the character. The perspectives are oftentimes awkward, and Barbarella herself doesn’t have the cool elegance of the original. It’s a shame, because the cover art is uniformly great. The covers made me wish for an arc drawn by one of those artists.

The art for the standalone story was a much better fit for Barbarella’s style and personality. That story follows her as she books passage on a ship towing three bespoke planets to their destinations. When someone sabotages one of the planets, the story turns into a spin on an old-fashioned mystery. I liked it more than the longer arc, but it felt comparatively slight and a bit rushed.

I’m not sure if I’ll read more Barbarella. This volume was a bit shallow, and I don’t think I’ll come around on Yar’s art. I still might watch the movie, though, even if it is super-cheesy and somehow rated PG despite its reputation for innuendo.

LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.

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The Silliest Quest: Kill the Farm Boy

Kill the Farm Boy by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne

Published: July 17th 2018
Publisher: Del Rey
Genre(s): Fantasy, Humor, Satire
Format: ebook
Length: 384 pages

Kill the Farm Boy is a silly book that sends up and undermines some well-worn clichés of the fantasy genre’s hero narrative. It asks questions like “What does it mean to be the Chosen One?” and “Who deserves to be a protagonist?” and then unloads goat poop on them. This succeeds with varying results.

I read most of the book on a three-hour plane ride, and at first I did enjoy it. Somewhere in the middle, though, it started to drag a bit, and I still hadn’t finished it by the time my trip was over. Instead, I switched gears and finished Meddling Kids, which I read at a snail’s pace over the last few months.

I think part of the reason that I lost momentum was that the book started feeling a bit muddled, as though the story underlying the jokes and satire wasn’t as robust as it needed to be. Also, I was no longer trapped inside a metal tube hurtling through the sky, so I had more things to distract me.

The main twist to Kill the Farm Boy is that the protagonist isn’t who you think it’s going to be after the first chapter. When the book opens, we meet an unremarkable farm boy named Worstley anointed as Chosen One by a sketchy-seeming fairy who also gives Worstley’s goat the power of speech. Worstley and Gustave, the goat, set off on a quest to do something or other involving destiny and then the story takes a decisive left turn that I won’t spoil here.

As the adventure continues, the cast of characters grows and we meet an oddball assortment of misfits and outcasts. Each one gets some time in the spotlight, but it’s sometimes hard to tell which character is driving the story, and I quickly forgot the aim of their quest after putting the book down for a few days.

The general silly tone also means that the stakes feel non-existent, even when characters suddenly and unexpectedly die. Every death plays as comedy. Also, there are several moments where it feels like the authors are summarizing something tedious to save time and jump ahead even though the book still feels like an overlong joke.

I definitely laughed or chuckled several times while reading this book, so it was an enjoyable read. I just wish there was something more interesting underneath all the silliness. Not every comic fantasy author can be Terry Pratchett, though they might try.

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Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.

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That Which Unravels: The Readymade Thief

The Readymade Thief by Augustus RoseThe Readymade Thief by Augustus Rose

Published: August 1st, 2017
Publisher: Viking
Genre(s): Adventure, Thriller, Mystery
Format: Hardcover
Length: 384 pages

I originally picked up The Readymade Thief by Augustus Rose because the cover caught my eye, but the summary and a few blurbs from some of my favorite authors finished the sale. I started reading it soon after I bought it, and loved the first half so much that I enthusiastically recommended it to several people. Unfortunately, the latter half of the book feels messy, and the ending is a bit unsatisfying. I would still recommend it, but not without a few caveats.

The main character, Lee, is an intelligent and resourceful girl who finds herself backed into a life on the run after a series of mistakes and personal betrayals. Lee is the main reason the book works as well as it does for as long as it does; she’s a sympathetic and compelling character trying to find her way in the world under impossible circumstances. It also helps that I love stories about secret societies and histories that exist just out of view, and a character forced into the margins of society is the perfect person to explore that kind of world.

Like most high schoolers, Lee dreams of going to college, but she builds her funds by shoplifting and selling her classmates the goods. When the school finds her best friend’s drugs in Lee’s locker, she takes the fall and ends up in juvie. After a few excruciating months of bullying and stress, Lee escapes, and that’s when things get interesting.

Now homeless and friendless, Lee falls on the mercy of a strange organization called the Société Anonomie. They’re mostly known for throwing wild parties and dressing up in antiquated clothing, but they also run a house for homeless runaways where Lee winds up when she needs somewhere to sleep. It isn’t long before she discovers something more sinister going on at the SA house. In her haste to escape, she steals an object precious to the SA, and spends the rest of the book trying to decide what to do next. Should she run, fight, or give back what she stole in the hope that they’ll leave her alone?

There are a lot of things I loved about The Readymade Thief, which is why I’m sad that it doesn’t stick the landing. My favorite parts are when Lee is living in the houses of people on vacation, going on night-time excursions to abandoned places with her new friend Tomi and trying to figure out why the SA wants a stolen Duchamp readymade. Trying to solve a mystery is almost always the most engaging part.

I started having problems with the book when it became obvious that Lee could probably give back the Duchamp and the SA would leave her alone, but the story kept manufacturing reasons for her to stay invested. The real problem is that Lee doesn’t have a driving, personal reason to stop the SA. All she wants is for everyone to leave her alone so that she can live her life. She’s an interesting character, but she isn’t a crusading hero-type. The best she can manage is a quest for vengeance, but her plans all fall apart because she keeps doing stupid things without thinking.

The hoariest cliché arrives during the climax, when Lee finally confronts the villain. He monologues for pages, helpfully connecting the dots and explaining his organization’s true motivations. That device rarely works without feeling heavy-handed, and here it just misses the mark.

The best parts of The Readymade Thief help make up for its flaws, but the one downside of a shaky ending is that it’s the last thing you remember about a book. That’s probably why my criticisms are still so fresh in my mind. Even so, The Readymade Thief is worth a read, and I’ll definitely keep an eye out for future books by Augustus Rose.

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The Fire Inside: Heroine Complex

Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn

Published: July 5th 2016
Publisher: DAW
Genre(s): Fantasy, Adventure, Superheroes
Format: E-Book
Length: 378 pages

I love stories about people with mundane jobs who exist in the orbit of someone extraordinary – like a personal assistant to a superhero, for example. It’s a fun mental exercise to think about what that might actually be like, what you’d have to deal with when your job function includes placating a petulant heroine when she isn’t out saving lives and stopping evil.

Evie Tanaka is in that exact position when Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn begins. She’s the mousy, reserved personal assistant to Aveda Jupiter, San Francisco’s Favorite Superhero – previously known as Evie’s childhood friend, Annie.

Evie has no social life outside of work and tries to keep her feelings on clampdown because of a tragedy in her past. It doesn’t help that her mom died a few years back and her father subsequently disappeared on walkabout, so Evie is also responsible for taking care of her bratty teenage sister, Bea.

Evie is just barely holding her life together until Aveda is injured and needs someone to take her place in public appearances. See, Aveda’s superhero powers come from a failed demon invasion that turned into an ongoing demon problem, and she isn’t the only person who was granted powers. Their friend Scott can perform little magic spells, including a glamour that will let Evie impersonate Aveda.

As soon as Evie goes out in public as Aveda, things go off the rails. Demons attack, and Evie is forced to use her own powers – flames that come out of her hands when she is upset or angry. She’d tried to keep them inside like her emotions because she was afraid of what she might do, but as soon as she lets them out, she finds it much harder to keep anything inside.

Heroine Complex is ultimately a story about a closed-off, repressed young woman learning to trust her own emotions and believe in herself. It’s also funny, full of well-drawn characters, and genuinely entertaining.

When I first picked it up and started reading, I assumed that it was a young adult novel, partially because of the cover, but also because of the writing style, which made the characters seem young. However, as I kept reading, it became obvious that the characters were all in their late twenties. Then there was the first of several fairly hot sex scenes, which made me realize that I’d been reading an urban fantasy all along.

This genre confusion didn’t negatively impact my enjoyment of the book, but it did make me wonder why I immediately assumed it was a young adult novel. I really like the cover design, but maybe the cartoony style made me jump to conclusions.

In any case, I’d definitely recommend Heroine Complex. It’s the first book in a trilogy, each of which focuses on a different girl in the group – Evie, then Aveda, and then finally Bea. I’ll probably pick up the next two sometime soon.

REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.

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Suburban Weirdness, Circa 1988: Paper Girls, Vol 1

paper girlsPaper Girls, Vol. 1

Written by: Brian K. Vaughan
Art by: Cliff Chiang
Colors by: Matthew Wilson
Published: April 5th 2016
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Adventure
Format: Paperback
Length: 144 pages

Paper Girls feels like a forgotten 1980s adventure that piles on the subversive twists. They don’t make movies like that anymore, let alone ones this weird.

I think the technical term here is “box office poison,” and yet I’d love to see Paper Girls up on the big screen. It begs for the kind of lovingly nostalgic adaptation that could only work with modern special effects and sensibilities.

Erin is a paper girl in the small town of Stony Stream, Ohio. Her story begins on the morning of November 1st, which is known in her profession as “Hell Night” thanks to all the teenaged trick-or-treaters still humming on stolen sugar highs.

When Erin runs into three other girls on the same route, they team up to stay safe during the night, but run into something far more sinister than marauding teenagers. Things only get weirder from there.

If you enjoy Vaughan’s work on Saga, you’ll recognize the same bizarre sensibilities here. What starts off like a throwback to Spielberg at the height of the eighties quickly collides with Vaughan’s surrealist sci-fi tendencies, and shit gets weird.

I’m still not entirely sure what is going on in the story at the end of the first volume, but it definitely grabbed me and made me want to keep reading. As soon as I finished issue five, I bought the next issue at full price and am seriously considering subscribing to the series on Comixology.

My only real criticism of the book is that the girls don’t get much character development. Erin is a good girl. Mac is a cynical rebel. KJ and Tiffany are… present? Somehow the book still works despite hanging on archetypical characters with little to no depth.

That said, that lack of depth could be a major turnoff if you aren’t a fan of Vaughan’s brand of weirdness. My hope is that future issues flesh out the characters a bit more, but either way I’m hooked.

LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.

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Armada: Second Wave Slump

ArmadaArmada by Ernest Cline

Published: July 14th 2015
Publisher: Crown Publishing
Genre(s): Science Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Length: 349 pages

The Last Starfighter is a very bad movie. The too-thin story is nothing but a delivery mechanism for a few minutes of primitive CGI, and I question the taste of anyone who could watch it nowadays without groaning.

Accordingly, if you operate under the theory that very bad movies are the ones that actually deserve reboots, there has never been a premise more ripe for a “re-imagining” than The Last Starfighter. The advances made to video games since the heyday of arcade cabinets are exponential, and the line between games and combat simulators has never been thinner.

Armada is Ernest Cline’s pitch for a Last Starfighter reboot, tailor-made for the inevitable blockbuster film adaptation. It improves on the movie in a few ways but introduces new problems; although it is more grounded and believable than the original, the plotting is slapdash and the pop culture references are overwhelming.

In Armada, Cline tells the story of Zack Lightman, a fatherless teenage gamer with anger-management issues and a high score in the titular game – a popular space-flight simulator/shooter. Zack’s late father was also a gamer obsessed with pop culture, but he also had a crackpot theory that all science fiction is part of a government plot designed to prepare people for alien invasions.

Zack obsesses over everything his father loved despite his suspicions that Lightman the elder might have been a little crazy. Although his obsession does eventually tie into the plot, it’s mostly just Cline’s excuse for peppering the dialogue with references to 80s movies. In fact, in the book’s most egregious moments, the characters quote dialog verbatim instead of having real human conversations.

When Zack sees a ship from Armada flying past his school, he thinks he’s going crazy like his father, and tries to write it off. However, we immediately know a few things that he seems willfully ignorant about despite his intimate familiarity with The Last Starfighter:

  1. He isn’t crazy. That was totally a real alien ship.
  2. He is going to get recruited by the military.
  3. Oh, and, his dad is totally alive out there somewhere. Duh.

All of this is screamingly obvious, but the book takes its sweet time getting to the point where Zack actually steps into a spaceship. I’m sure that once this is a movie, the pacing of this section will be better and it won’t feel like such a drag to spend time on Zack’s normal life, but here the first act of the story is deadly dull. I could definitely have done without the chapter-length walk-through of Armada’s in-game mechanics, especially because at that point the stakes were still nonexistent.

It doesn’t help that Cline spends a lot of time setting up characters and situations that never really pay off. Zack’s anger issues just go away without him ever actually addressing them. His love interest gets one significant scene and then barely appears in the rest of the book even though she’s actually a pretty cool character. The overall effect is a book that feels underdeveloped and rushed, as though producing a movie-ready follow-up was the main priority here.

And, yes, the pop-culture references that Cline is known for do feel a bit heavy-handed. Somehow the same obsession with 80s culture worked just fine in his début, but here it took me out of the action almost every time. There’s also a weird scene where Zack describes how hot his mom is and admits to a mild Oedipal complex. These are all things that I think Cline would have fixed with another rewrite or two.

It’s a shame, really, because I genuinely enjoyed Ready Player One, and I was really excited for Cline’s follow-up. I think he has a lot of potential as a writer, and I could still see that potential in Armada even if I don’t think the execution is there. For example, the government’s recruitment plan makes a lot more sense than The Last Starfighter, and once the invasion gets underway, Cline introduces a new mystery that makes for a far more compelling dramatic question than whether Zack will get recruited.

Cline already has a lucrative deal for his third book, so it’s not like the shakiness of his craft on Armada is going to derail his career, but I hope he gets the chance to put a bit more love and attention into his next book.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

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Rat Queens: Everything’s Coming Up Tentacles

RatQueensV2_CoverRat Queens, Vol. 2: The Far-Reaching Tentacles of N’Rygoth

Story: Kurtis J. Wiebe
Art: Roc Upchurch and Stjepan Sejic

Published: May 19, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Fantasy
Format: Paperback
Length: 136 pages

Rat Queens is a modern spin on classic fantasy tropes that plays within those boundaries while also subverting clichés, and does so with a light touch. It has a great premise: a group of rowdy adventurers in a fantasy world fight, fuck, and generally incite civic destruction. The twist is that they’re all women, and they work both with and against other adventuring parties with similar mixes of race and gender.

The character designs are great, and Wiebe has a fantastic sense of humor. The character development is especially well-done, and each of the women at the center of the story feel both fully developed and entirely unique. In fact, characterization is probably the strongest aspect of the series so far.

I definitely enjoyed the first volume, Sass & Sorcery, which was a story about the team as they dealt with a surprising betrayal. This second volume, The Far-Reaching tentacles of N’Rygoth, tells a story that focuses on Dee, a semi-lapsed member of a religion that worships Lovecraftian horrors. I get the impression that future volumes of the series will tell similar stories that focus on each member of the Queens, so this volume is probably a good template for things to come.

Unfortunately, although I did enjoy volume two, it wasn’t as funny as volume one, and the pacing felt a little rushed at times. It opens with the Queens fighting against invading inter-dimensional horrors, and doesn’t really let up much from there. There are flashbacks interspersed throughout – part of the invasion involves strange mind control that distracts the Queens with hallucinated memories while they try to fight – so we do get a bit more back story for the characters, but it still felt like this volume didn’t gel quite as well as the first.

There was also a significant change behind the scenes when the original artist, Roc Upchurch, got arrested for domestic abuse charges and Wiebe fired him from the series. Stjepan Sejic, the artist who completed the last few issues in this volume, has his own unique style, but definitely fits very well within the established Rat Queens universe.

Although I do think this volume had a slight dip in quality, I would still heartily recommend picking up the series, and I look forward to future issues. Definitely worth checking out.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.

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Stealing Hearts and Paintings: Heist Society by Ally Carter

Heist SocietyPublished: February 9th, 2010
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Genre(s): Young Adult, Crime, Thriller
Format: Audiobook
Length: 6 hrs and 6 mins

First, a confession: I was mostly inspired to pick up this book thanks to an incredible cover re-design done for Maureen Johnson’s #coverflip challenge a few months ago. I’d seen Ally Carter’s books on the shelves before and was vaguely intrigued by the titles and premises, but never enough to actually read them. I try to be open-minded about books that look like they aren’t “meant for me” but it’s all too easy to forget. Heist Society is a good reminder that I oftentimes thoroughly enjoy books that someone in a marketing department decided only a woman would read.

Heist Society is the first in a series of books about Katarina “Kat” Bishop, a teenage girl who comes from a long like of con artists and thieves. The book opens with her getting kicked out of a prestigious boarding school that she’d scammed her way into in the first place. Her motivation? No schemes or plans but her desire to get out of the family business and live a normal life. Unfortunately for her, the family business won’t let her go that easy. When it turns out that her father is in trouble with a very dangerous man who wants his paintings back, Kat assembles a crew and plans a heist to save her father’s life and put things right.

The tone throughout is arch but not snarky, brisk and cool and thoroughly engaging. There’s a bit of romance, even a love triangle by the end of it, and the heist is appropriately convoluted and clever. One of the things I liked most about Heist Society is the way Carter uses real historical details to flesh out the back story and give the heist meaning and weight. I was already enjoying the book, but when Kat learns exactly what kind of paintings she’s dealing with, Carter had me thoroughly hooked for the long haul.

My only criticism of the book relates to a character named Nick. Nick’s appearance late in the story adds a nice bit of romantic tension, but his motivations and back story never make sense. He feels like a slightly too-obvious late addition designed to raise the stakes of the relationship between Kat and her friend Hale.

However, I’d consider that a minor quibble, and it certainly didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of Heist Society. I’ll definitely be picking up the next book in the series.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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