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Book Review Double Feature: Firespell & Hexbound by Chloe Neill

Title: Firespell & Hexbound

Author: Chloe Neill

Genre: Young Adult, Urban Fantasy

Stand alone or series: Books 1 & 2, respectively, of the Dark Elite series

Publisher: Signet (US) / Gollancz YA (UK)
Publication Date: January 2010 & 2011 (US) / May 2010 & January 2011 (UK)
Paperback: 256 pages / 256 pages

How did I get these books: Review Copies from the Publisher

Firespell

New Girl.
New School.
Old Evil.

From the author of the Chicagoland Vampires novels.

A new series about a boarding school filled with something worse than homework.

Lily’s parents have sent her to a fancy boarding school in Chicago filled with the ultra-rich. If that wasn’t bad enough, she’s hearing and seeing bizarre things on St. Sophie’s creepy campus. Her roommate, Scout, keeps her sane, but keeps disappearing at night. When one day Lily finds Scout running from real-life monsters, she learns the hard way that Scout is involved in a splinter group of rebel teens.

They protect Chicago from demons, vamps, and dark magic users. It’s too bad Lily doesn’t have powers of her own to help. At least, none that she’s discovered yet…

Lily has always considered her life to be pretty normal. She’s got her own sense of style and identity, a good group of friends, and a home in upstate New York with a family that loves her. So, when her philosophy professor parents tell Lily that they are planning an extended research sabbatical to Germany and are placing Lily in a prestigious Chicago boarding school so that she can complete her secondary education in the United States, she feels a bit abandoned. St. Sophia’s is an expensive, competitive preparatory academy and home to the children of the rich and powerful – coming from a family with a solidly middle-class income and background, Lily has no idea how her parents could afford such a place, but she’s determined to do her best and deal with her new home. Things seem to be going well, too; though there are the obligatory rich bitch cliques, Lily quickly befriends spunky suitemate Scout, who introduces her to the lay of the land at Chicago’s snootiest academy. But Lily soon learns that behind the died hair, quick wit and dry humor, Scout is hiding something from her. Almost every night, Scout disappears from their suite, only to return at ungodly hours of the morning. When Lily follows her new friend on one of her midnight escapades, she discovers a whole new side of Chicago, rife with danger and creatures that go bump in the night. Scout is part of a rebel alliance called The Enclave, which recruits magically powered teens (or Adepts) and helps them protect humanity from supernatural threats – especially threats from other magically powered adults, called the Dark Elite, or Reapers, who feast on human energy in order to sustain their magical abilities past a certain age.

Lily is determined to stay out of the way – having no magical abilities herself, there isn’t much she can do to help Scout and her team fight the good fight. But soon enough, Lily finds herself sucked into the world of Adepts and Reapers, and she must fight, whether she likes it or not…

Firespellis a compelling mix of familiar YA tropes and compelling characterizations, rolled together in a fast-paced coming of age story. In short, I loved it. While I am OFFICIALLY burned out of paranormal boarding schools (Seriously?! As someone that went to boarding school, I can officially say it is not nearly as glamorous or gothic as its made out to be in many current YA titles), Firespell managed to worm its sneaky little way into my reading rotation and then my heart, and completely won me over by virtue of its awesome characterizations. Lily in particular feels like a real, living, breathing teen. She’s spunky and believable, and author Chloe Neill actually is able to write about a teenager without sounding ridiculously anachronistic or out of her element (as opposed to, say Lili St. Crow’s heroine in her Strange Angels books, who is basically a baby Dante Valentine and uses – get this – a DISCMAN). While there are the requisite rich plastic bitches at the snooty boarding school, there are ambitious kids and talented kids and average kids too – and Ms. Neill manages to capture the averageness perfectly. I sometimes feel like there’s a weird, ridiculous sort of polarization in contemporary YA books, with protagonists almost always portrayed as introverted “geeks” that are mercilessly picked on by the (blonde) bitch cheerleader/homecoming queen type. It’s not 1985 anymore. I loved that Lily isn’t some misfit introvert with no sense of self-respect or identity so often seen in these books; she has a personality, but knows how to both keep her head down AND stand up for herself when the occasion calls for it. She’s the kind of girl that I would have been friends with in high school. By that same token, Lily’s new best friend, Scout (real name: Millicent – how badass is that? If my real name was Millicent, I’d use it all the time) is also awesome, and the exchanges between the two are wonderful, ranging from snappy dialogue, to heartfelt conversations.

Storywise, things move quickly in Firespell as it’s a bonafide page-turner. Though the tropes are familiar, Chloe Neill writes very well, and manages to imbue her take on the paranormal with enough of a twist to make the overdone UF/boarding school landscape worth your while. The world of the Reapers and the Enclave, split by a key ideological difference and locked forever in battle, is a pretty cool twist – plus, teens have a dose of awesome, varied powers (outside of the usual werewolf/vampire mix) (although, I should mention there are weres and vamps around). Running tandem to the Reaper drama is an equally compelling storyline involving Lily and her family, who seem to have alternate motives in sending their only child off to boarding school. Lily’s revelations throughout the book hint at some juicy stuff to come in book 2.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:

They were gathered around a conference table in a high-rise, eight men and women, no one under the age of sixty-five, all of them wealthy beyond measure. And they were here, in the middle of Manhattan, to decide my fate.

I was not quite sixteen and only one month out of my sophomore year of high school. My parents, philosophy professors, had been offered a two-year-long academic sabbatical at a university in Munich, Germany. That’s right—two years out of the country, which only really mattered because they decided I’d be better off staying in the United States.

They’d passed along that little nugget one Saturday in June. I’d been preparing to head to my best friend Ashley’s house, when my parents came into my room and sat down on my bed.

“Lily,” Mom said, “we need to talk.”

I don’t think I’m ruining the surprise by pointing out that nothing good happens when someone starts a speech like that.

My first thought was that something horrible had happened to Ashley. Turned out, she was fine; the trauma hit a little closer to home. My parents told me they’d been accepted into the sabbatical program, and that the chance to work in Germany for two years was an amazing opportunity for them.

Then they got quiet and exchanged one of those long, meaningful looks that really didn’t bode well for me. They said they didn’t want to drag me to Germany with them, that they’d be busy while they were there, and that they wanted me to stay in an American school to have the best chance of going to a great college here. So they’d decided that while they were away, I’d be staying in the States.

I was equal parts bummed and thrilled. Bummed, of course, because they’d be an ocean away while I passed all the big milestones—SAT prep, college visits, prom, completing my vinyl collection of every Smashing Pumpkins track ever released.

Thrilled, because I figured I’d get to stay with Ashley and her parents.

Unfortunately, I was only right about the first part.

My parents had decided it would be best for me to finish high school in Chicago, in a boarding school stuck in the middle of high-rise buildings and concrete—not in Sagamore, my hometown in Upstate New York; not in our tree-lined neighborhood, with my friends and the people and places I knew.

I protested with every argument I could think of.

Flash forward two weeks and 240 miles to the conference table where I sat in a button-up cardigan and pencil skirt I’d never have worn under normal circumstances, the members of the Board of Trustees of St. Sophia’s School for Girls staring back at me. They interviewed every girl who wanted to walk their hallowed halls—after all, heaven forbid they let in a girl who didn’t meet their standards. But that they traveled to New York to see me seemed a little out of the ordinary.

“I hope you’re aware,” said one of them, a silver-haired man with tiny, round glasses, “that St. Sophia’s is a famed academic institution. The school itself has a long and storied history in Chicago, and the Ivy Leagues recruit from its halls.”

A woman with a pile of hair atop her head looked at me and said, slowly, as if talking to a child, “You’ll have any secondary institution in this country or beyond at your feet, Lily, if you’re accepted at St. Sophia’s. If you become a St. Sophia’s girl.”

Okay, but what if I didn’t want to be a St. Sophia’s girl? What if I wanted to stay home in Sagamore with my friends, not a thousand miles away in some freezing midwestern city, surrounded by private school girls who dressed the same, talked the same, bragged about their money?

I didn’t want to be a St. Sophia’s girl. I wanted to be me,Lily Parker, of the dark hair and eyeliner and fabulous fashion sense.

The powers that be of St. Sophia’s were apparently less hesitant. Two weeks after the interview, I got the letter in the mail.

You cand read the full excerpt online HERE.

Rating: 8 – Excellent

Hexbound

Lily Parker is new to St. Sophia’s School for Girls, but she’s already learned that magic can be your best friend…or your worst enemy.

They say absolute power corrupts absolutely. Turns out, even a little magic can turn you to the dark side. That’s why Lily has to learn how to control her newly discovered paranormal abilities, on top of avoiding the snobs who think they run her school, nursing a crush on a cute sophomore with a big, werewolf-y secret, and fighting the good fight with her best friend Scout as they take on Chicago’s nastiest nightlife—including the tainted magic users known as Reapers.

Then Lily’s invited to a private meeting with Sebastian. He’s hot, powerful, and offering to help her harness the magic flowing in her veins in a way no one else can. He’s also a Reaper. Lily can’t hide her suspicions. But she’ll soon find out that the line between good and evil isn’t always clear…

**WARNING: This review contains unavoidable spoilers for Firespell. If you haven’t read book 1 and wish to remain unspoiled, you probably want to look away!**

Things at St. Sophia’s have simmered down since the dramatic conclusion of Firespell – Lily has officially joined the team of Adepts with her newfound Firespell powers, and is on the usual nightly patrol when she and her teammates come across something…bizarre. These fanged, ectoplasm oozing-creatures with supernatural strength and speed are reproducing in the tunnels under the city, and Lily, Scout and company must figure out where they are coming from and how to stop them before they start taking innocent lives – and soon, Lily begins to suspect that her parents’ employers, the nebulous Sterling Research Foundation, might have ties to the monsters.

At the same time, Lily struggles with balancing school, friendships, and a growing crush on werewolf teammate Jason – who, for some reason, Scout warns Lily to be careful with. And while Lily’s trying to sort out her love life, the secrets of her parents, and monsters running amok, the mysterious Reaper Sebastian keeps trying to make contact with Lily. After nearly killing her with a blast of Firespell, triggering Lily’s latent powers, and then helping her figure out how to unleash it, Lily can hardly guess at Sebastian’s motives.

Again, as with Firespell, Hexbound is a tightly-written book with awesome characters and enough thrills and twists to justify reading the book in a single sitting (yes, that’s what happened with me). While Firespell was a discovery/introductory book, Hexbound has Lily coming to terms with her new powers, and her new lifestyle as an Adept. Relationships start to bloom in this book (but of course, you can’t get through this kind of series without a love interest, and what I suspect is a love triangle in the making), but it’s handled well and a tantalizing back-burner sort of side story as opposed to a main impetus for the plot. I liked seeing how the actions of the first book had repercussions in this sequel, in particular as Scout deals with the trauma of her abduction, her fear of Reapers, and her own shaken faith in her abilities. Continuity. It’s a good thing. I also LOVE how Lily’s parents storyline develops in Hexbound – clearly, though the pair love their daughter and are trying to protect her, they are up to their necks in something bad, and I cannot wait to see how it all pans out (in the next book, hopefully?). For all that Lily is shaken by the lies she’s been told by her family, it is refreshing to see a teen character that is in a relationship of trust with her parents – and even though they have lied, she knows they must have their reasons and trusts in them.

Storywise, again Hexbound is a well-told and crafted mystery, this time expanding the realm of the supernatural from Reapers to the inclusion of vampire covens and the nefarious involvement of medical experiments. Although this second novel isn’t quite as good as Firespell, lacking the same dramatic twists and tension, it’s still an excellent book. I loved it, and cannot wait for book 3 (even if it ends with a bit of cheesy melodrama, but the good kind of cheese) – the Dark Elite has easily made its way on my list of favorite YA UF series.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From chapter 1:

I stayed absolutely still, my eyes closed, the sun warm on my face. As long as I didn’t fidget too much, the noon sun was just strong enough to cancel out the chilly October breeze that blew through our part of downtown Chicago.

I guess there was a reason they called it the Windy City.

It was a Sunday afternoon at St. Sophia’s School for Girls, and I was squeezed into a tiny square of sunshine on the lawn with my friend Scout. She sat beside me with her arms stretched out behind her, eyes closed and head tipped up to the sky. I sat cross-legged, art history book open in my lap. Every few minutes we’d inch our legs a little farther to the left, trying to take in the last warm bit of fall.

“This totally beats sitting in class,” Scout said. “And wearing uniforms.”

Scout was dressed in a black skirt and shirt she’d sewn from two White Sox T-shirts. It was quite a change from the navy and yellow private school plaid we usually wore. And then there were the shoes (Converses she’d coated in gold glitter), the hair (a short blond bob with dark tips), and the silver nose ring. Even in the uniform, there was no mistaking Scout Green for the average “St. Sophia’s girl.”

“You are totally rocking those clothes today.”

Scout opened an eye and glanced down at her jersey skirt. “I appreciate your appreciation of my obvious good taste. Besides, someone had to rock it out. This place is a like a dismal swamp of bleh.”

I put a hand over my heart. “Thank God you’re here to save us, Saint Scout.”

Scout snorted and crossed one ankle over the other, her shoes glinting in the sunlight.

“And now I know why I keep finding glitter on my bedroom floor.”

“Whatever. My shoes do not shed.”

I gave her a dubious look.

“Seriously. That’s just . . . um . . . horn dust from the unicorns that braid your hair while you sleep.”

Scout and I both looked at each other. Unfortunately, while I didn’t remember waking up with any mysterious braids, we couldn’t exactly rule out the unicorn part.

Oh, did I mention Scout could do magic?

Yeah, you heard me. And I know what you’re thinking: “Lily Parker, there’s no such thing as magic. The tofu is starting to go to your head.”

You’re going to have to trust me on this one. See, as it turns out, Chicago is home to an underground world of magicians battling it out while the rest of the city is asleep. And those magicians included the girl beside me, who was now humming a song from High School Musical 3.

Scary, right?

Millicent Green, AKA Scout, was actually an Adept and a member of Enclave Three.

And here’s the second twist—so was I.

You can read the full chapter online HERE.

Rating: 7 – Very Good

Reading Next: Unseen by Rachel Caine

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12 Comments

  • Sarah
    February 2, 2011 at 6:21 am

    I kind of LOVE these books 🙂 I agree, I appreciation how Lily isn’t some weakling; she has spunk and an actual spine. Scout is my favorite, though 🙂

  • KMont
    February 2, 2011 at 9:24 am

    I’m glad you reviewed these books, although I only read through your review of the first book. I’d been thinking last year of reading Firespell, but I think the boarding school aspect, while not necessarily a turn-off, just felt overused. Nice to see that it isn’t a detriment when actually reading the book. I have the second book, sent by the publisher. Might be worth my while to get the first now. The way my life is going (read: as in not getting enough reading done), I could use a bona-fide page-turner! Something with a snappy pace and interesting plot and characters that does. not. lag. Arg.

  • Rana
    February 2, 2011 at 10:23 am

    This looks awesome!
    I’m currently reading Monsters of Men but I’m definitely picking up this one next.
    Great review 😀

  • danielle
    February 2, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    Really? I felt the opposite about Firespell. Lily, while not flat necessarily, felt more like someone’s idea of a teenager then one I could relate to. All the other characters did nothing but stand around and be described for a paragraph before being forgotten about completely. But I haven’t read Hexbound yet.

  • orannia
    February 2, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    Thank you Thea! I was all like ‘Oh no, a paranormal boarding school in which the main female character will be all super special with powers’ (sorry – paranormal and I are not friends ATM 🙂 ) and then I read:

    Lily is determined to stay out of the way – having no magical abilities herself…

    A sensible heroine? I’ll give it a go. And my library have it, so YAH!

  • Jo
    February 3, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    Thank you for the comment about boarding schools — I went to one, too – and it not only wasn’t dark and gothic, but all the kids there weren’t rich. And, we didn’t have vampires.

    Nice review of these 2 books! I’ve been wondering about them, so maybe now I’ll pick them up. 🙂

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