In a new feat of subliminal book cover messaging, it seems as if books with red covers provoke added interest in the month of February. Looking back at the books I read this month, I was surprised to find a not insignificant quantity of red-covered titles up for review: Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Tessa Dare’s Romancing the Duke, Drew Chapman’s The Ascendant, and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising. Crazy, right? Today, I want to focus on the three most recently published titles on this list: The Ascendant, Red Rising, and Romancing the Duke.
Other than a quick spot on ABC news in early January, the publication of Drew Chapman’s The Ascendant has not elicited enormous buzz. For this reason, I decided it should go first. Chapman had a surprisingly busy January 2014. Not only did he publish his first major book but he also launched a brand new miniseries on ABC called “The Assets.” In The Ascendant, Chapman muddies the often clear waters of the thriller genre to bring readers a new type of thriller fit for the twenty-first century.
Chapman’s choice of protagonist encapsulates this shift. A genius bond analyst with a devil-may-care attitude, a penchant for video games and hacking, a taste for women, and a questionable moral compass, Garrett Reilly comes across as an odd mix between James Bond, Steve Jobs, and Lisbeth from The Girl with Dragon Tattoo. Garrett leverages his talent at pattern analysis to predict the fluctuations of the global economy, making millions in the process. One day, however, he notices an almost imperceptible shift in the US economy that draws him into an escalating international crisis–the first salvo in an economic cyber war that China is launching against the United States. Garrett quickly becomes embroiled in combating an intensifying fiscal crisis as well as an all-out ground war between China and America.
Chapman did a great job seizing upon such a timely subject. What makes the book compelling, however, is the skill with which he follows through on his initial concept. Chapman delivers a fast paced, lean thriller that goes deep enough to smack of realism without getting too bogged down in the details that can sink a book this varied and complex.
I have been waiting patiently for Romancing the Duke to come out since mid-2013, when I heard Tessa Dare hash out the concept of her new “Castles Ever After” series. There were a number of standout romance novels in her earlier series “Spindle Cove”–especially A Week to be Wicked and Any Duchess Will Do.
Romancing the Duke, I thought, proved to be a strong cornerstone for Dare’s new series. As usual, Dare brought her characteristic blend of romance, silly humor, witty repartee, original storytelling, and great writing to the table.
Daughter of a beloved writer of dime fantasy stories for the British press, Isolde Ophelia Goodnight grew up in the shadow of knights and ladies. Now that she is fully grown, however, she struggles to make an identity for herself, other than that of Britain’s child sweetheart, without alienating the following of her now deceased father.
Little did she know, however, that the castle she was bequeathed by one of her father’s fans came with a recalcitrant, down-on-his luck duke.
As always, Dare spins a great romance. What gave Romancing the Duke added interest was its exploration of fandom, which seems to be a hot topic with the growing popularity of Rainbow Rowell’s latest book Fangirl.
The followers of Isolde’s father’s stories–which were not completed before he died–provide great comic relief while tying seamlessly into Isolde’s growth as protagonist.
Dare falls into the best category of romance writers–the smart kind–making anything she writes a delight.
Rounding out February we have Red Rising, the next Divergent, Ender’s Game, Hunger Games-esque dystopian sci-fi debut wunderkind. Already gracing bestseller lists, Red Rising has scored some big name positive reviews and press attention.
While Red Rising may be slightly over hyped, Pierce Brown does a lot right in his debut. First, he has a winning concept with a strong hook. Space pioneer Darrow lives essentially in slavery on Mars working to mine a valuable terraforming resource. When his wife, a rebellious martyr, dies at the hands of the highest class in their stratified society, Darrow’s thirst for revenge and a chance encounter with underground rebels gives him the opportunity to shake his world to the core. To overthrow his oppressors, however, Darrow has to infiltrate their ranks. Suddenly, the black-and-white world he once knew–or rather, black and red–has become more filled with intrigue and moral quandaries than Darrow could have ever anticipated.
Brown colors Darrow’s story with the effortless worldbuilding of a natural sci-fi/fantasy storyteller. His color-designated caste system with ancient Greco-Roman undertones has an elegant simplicity that belies the clear depths that Brown leaves unexplored as his series develops. As Darrow dives into the privileged ranks of the Golds, the reader falls into the future tech of Brown’s book with a sense of seamless immersion.
What perhaps impressed me most was Brown’s firm command of the plot. He has great pacing, with a number of twists and turns I did not see coming. He never lingers too long in one place and manages to move through a lot of action without overwhelming the reader. There was no excess padding in this book!
Brown distinguishes himself from the crowd by the quality of his concept and the strength of his follow through. He builds on those who came before him without becoming derivative. And–as of yet–no love triangles!
I look forward to a strong second book from Pierce Brown. He has room to grow, but I am hopeful for the rest of this series if he can build on the solid foundational skills he displays in this novel.