Joint Review: “The Belles”

23197837Book: “The Belles” by Dhonielle Clayton

Publishing Info: Disney-Hyperion, February 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Bookish First; an ARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.

But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.

With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.

Kate’s Review:

Many thanks to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this novel!

My first experience with Dhonielle Clayton was the sudsy and dramatic “Tiny Pretty Things” duology that she wrote with Sona Charaipotra. While I loved the first book in that series, I was left cold by the second. But when I heard that Clayton was writing a fantasy series on her own, I knew that I would absolutely need to get my hands on it. I know that I say that fantasy isn’t really my wheelhouse, I do have exceptions, and this kind of fantasy (other worldly dystopia/utopia) absolutely falls into that category. I sat down and read “The Belles” in one day, absolutely taken in by this amazing fantasy world that Clayton created.

And oh my gosh, so many FASHION DESCRIPTIONS. I have no style, but I love fashion.

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Sashay shanté, bitches. (source)

Orléans  is unlike any other fantasy world that I have seen in a very long time. It has certain similarities with our world, feeling like a combination of French Revolution era societal castes and factions, and yet with magic and grand technologies dispersed throughout it. The Belles, women who have descended from the Goddess of Beauty, have magic flowing through them that allows them to create beauty with various tools and powers that they have. The mortals of Orléans have been cursed with a distinct lack of beauty and grace (the mythology is indeed explained), and the Belles are the only ones who can help them. I greatly enjoyed Camellia’s moral journey as a Belle. She starts wanting to be the very best, to be picked as the Favorite of the Royal Court and to live with them, just as her mother had. But as she starts to live that life, she starts to change, as realities that she has never seen start to become all too real. The way that she changed and met those changes was very fascinating, and hers was a complex and interesting perspective to follow.

The other characters in this book are all very well done as well. Though we only see the events through Camellia’s eyes, I feel like I got a good hold on the supporting ones too and what their motivations were. I greatly enjoyed one of the other Belles named Edel, whose inherent need to rebel and question her life as a Belle was a small, but telling, theme about how different people function within this opulent world. There are different ways that the characters in this book fit into the complicated society, and I was impressed and genuinely horrified by how willing Clayton was to go into disturbing and dark situations to show the dangerous side of a beauty obsessed and power imbalanced culture. Keep an eye out for Princess Sofia. If you want a really screwy and messed up villain in your YA fantasy, she is exactly what you’re looking for.

I really enjoyed “The Belles” and am waiting for the second book on pins and needles.

Serena’s Review:

I had never read any books by Dhonielle Clayton before this, but the intriguing book description alone was enough to convince me this was one to check out. The fact that Kate was also interested was also a plus, since she’s not a huge reader of fantasy, so when there’s one that appeals to her as well, than I’m usually pretty curious!

The thing that stands out about it the most to me was the world-building and descriptions of the beauty that make up the lives of those able to afford such luxuries. The fact that this beauty is also tied to the world’s creation story and is a tangible part of their lives further cemented it as an intriguing concept. What could have read as a fairly superficial fantasy world was instead fully realized and complex, using beauty as not only the primary aspect of the magical system itself but a commentary on what is important to the people in this world. But the simplistic moralizing that one would expect , obsession with physical beauty is superficial and bad, is complicated by the very real implication of the beings peopling this world. Not only do they become physically less beautiful, with grey skin and red eyes, but it is mentioned that insanity also comes for those who fall too far into this “natural” state. I loved the added layers given to this, as, like I said, this could have ended up with a very simple and trite message.

Instead, much of the arc was devoted to Camellia’s growth as a character. Yes, obsession with physical beauty is discussed. But for Camellia, much of her story is that of a young woman who is just beginning to live the life that she’s dreamed of and realizing that it might be very different than she had expected. She’s a typical teenage girl in many ways, struggling with jealousy, self-care, and establishing her own boundaries. Throughout the story, we see her fight with her instincts to please those around her versus do what she knows to be right. Further, this growth comes slowly and steadily, reading as a more natural progression and thus highly relatable to teenage girls. The pressure is real, as are the consequences, and remaining true to your own judgements is never a straight forward path.

I also loved how dark this book was, and I was surprised by the quality of the villain who was presented. The same detailed and extravagant writing that goes into illustrating all of the beauty that makes up this world was put to just as good of use when drawing up the truly terrifying future that now looms by the end of this book.

All in all, I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed this book! It was easy to read the concept and dismiss it as a kind of silly fluff-fantasy that was going to preach an all too familiar message about the “beauty within.” But nope! This is definitely one worth checking out!

Kate’s Rating 8: A sumptuous and unique tale about a gilded society and the darkness behind, and cost of, outer beauty. The characters were all well done and the world Clayton built was wonderfully crafted.

Serena’s Rating 8: A surprising read that avoids the easy and expected messages while still focusing on what’s important. Strong characters, beautiful descriptions, and villain to give you the creeps! Everything you want from YA fantasy fiction!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Belles” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Fashion Dystopia” and “YA Heroines of Colour.”

Find “The Belles” at your library using WorldCat!

The Great Animorphs Re-Read #24: “The Suspicion”

363350Animorphs #24: “The Suspicion” by K.A. Applegate

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, December 1998

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The Yeerks are not the only invaders of Earth. Meet the new enemy: the Helmacrons. Cassie finds their miniature spaceship and donates it to a toy drive. Big mistake. The Helmacrons are tiny, but they’re far from helpless. They have the technology to shrink other creatures to their size. And until they get their spaceship back, they’re taking hostages. The Animorphs must find a way to send these pests back into space — before it’s too late.

Narrator: Cassie

Plot: Oh man, here we go. The first introduction of the Helmacrons. I had totally forgotten that they showed up in a Cassie book, which are already not my favorites of the series.  So…yeah…

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(source)

At the beginning of each chapter, we get an entry from the log of the Helmacron ship, Galaxy Blaster detailing their exploits on planet Earth. Humble these guys are not.

The story opens with Cassie doing chores at home, as always, this time collecting junk to send to Goodwill. And Rachel begging her to do something about her fashion choices, as always. She’s also trying to convince Cassie to join her on a trip to the mall and then the beach, when she notices a toy space ship in Cassie’s junk pile. Cassie says she found it perched on the pump, which, coincidentally, is where she hid the blue box. Tossing it back on the junk pile, she gives in and agrees to join Rachel and enjoy the day.

Cassie hates the beach (seriously, what is wrong with this girl??), but she’s glad that Rachel is having a good time. They walk home in their swimsuits, and Cassie is mortified to see Jake waiting for them. Jake, too, is embarrassed and it’s all very twee. Cassie suddenly notices another toy aircraft perched on the pump. But it’s not the same one. Worse, it suddenly rises and flies away. Jake announces that the weekend has been cancelled, and they need to gather their forces and figure out what’s happening.

Of course, their first plan of action is to ask their resident alien, Ax. Unfortunately, Ax, rather per the usual at this point, has no ideas, so they morph seagulls to try and track down the other ship that Cassie’s dad had toted away to Goodwill. Once there, they convince the Goodwill clerk to let them in the back to search for the ship. They find it, but before they can do much, another small ship zooms into the loading bay and “attacks” Jake with two tiny laser beams. Rachel, typically, gets mad, even more so when they blow off a few strands of her hair, and takes a bat to the ship that’s flying around. But Jake insists they  back off for a bit, and they see the ship link up to the other, presumably giving it a jump start. They then hear a thought-speak voice in their head demanding they hand over the power source and they will then be allowed to live as slaves. Cassie quickly guesses that they must mean the blue box.

Cassie tries to speak to them calmly and peaceably, saying she’s sure they don’t mean to be threatening. They correct her; they very much DO mean to be threatening. They shoot her with their tiny lasers and blow back out of the door. Jake has Tobias follow them, suspecting they are heading back to the farm and the blue box. They morph  birds and discuss the bizarreness of the entire situation as they fly back. On the way, they see Tobias up ahead being attacked by the Helmacron ship. Against Tobias’s much smaller size, the ship could actually do some damage and it looks like they are trying to shoot at his eyes. Rachel is pissed and quickly attacks, followed by the others. They managed to fight them off, but the Helmacrons zip away even faster towards the farm.

They manage to intercept the Helmacrons again just as they are beginning to pull up the blue box with a tractor beam. But their bird morphs aren’t made for endurance flying, and the fight takes it out of them. Cassie demorphs as quickly as she can and chases the Helmacrons and the blue box they are towing into the barn. The Helmacrons issue more threats while Cassie tries to talk them down. Then they shrink her. Tobias flies in after her and they get him too. Marco, too, comes in and gets hit by the ray, but manages to yell over his shoulder to warn the others away before he gets too small. They do, and Jake informs them that the other Helmacron ship took off after Rachel hit it with a brick.

Cassie, Tobias, and Marco stop shrinking, but are now tiny, about the size of a small fly. Strangely, Tobias is still around the same size as each of them, rather than proportionally being smaller. (Part of me feels like this would be just as weird as the rest. From Cassie and Marco’s perspective, Tobias is now a MASSIVE bird.) Ax and Jake try to convince the Helacrons to give back the box and reverse the shrinking, pointing out that as “primitive” as they may think it is, Rachel’s brick did pretty good work of their other ship. They manage to snag the blue box, but both ships still escape, leaving Marco, Tobias, and Cassie in their tiny forms.

Ax theorizes that the Helmacrons used the power of the blue box to shrink the others. Cassie and Marco can’t be heard by the others, their voices too small, but Tobias can still thought-speak with them. Cassie tries to morph to see if that will reverse it, but when she tries to go osprey, she shrinks even further and quickly reverses her morph.

Cassie’s dad shows up and isn’t impressed by Jake and Rachel’s story of looking for Cassie. He’s even less impressed by human!Ax. After kicking them all out of the barn, he begins walking around and manages to bury tiny!Cassie under a tablespoon of dirt he kicks up. Cassie and Marco discover that, similar to ants, they have increased strength for their size, easily moving massive, to them, pieces of dirt. As they debate what to do next, the Helmacrons arrive, and now that they, too, are small, those laser beams are much more of a threat. Luckily, the Helmacrons get caught up in a bit of inter-ship politicking, debating who gets to capture Cassie, Marco, and Tobias, until the other Animrophs show up in towering, gigantic cockroach morphs. Ax has come in a wolf spider morph and is even more terrifying than the others. But they quickly realize the mistake of this when the Helmacrons cripple and seriously injure spider!Ax using the lasers from their ship. Worse, he can’t demorph to heal himself without crushing Marco, Cassie, and Tobias. Cassie insists that they surrender and escape later.

She and Marco let themselves be taken onto the Helmacron ship, and the aliens bring them to their leader. Thing is, the captain is very, very dead. Worse, it looks ritualistic, the Helmacron captain chained to the floor and speared with several swords. Once again Marco puts Cassie to shame in the “make things up” category, reminiscent of their time on the Area 51-like base. Cassie is still a terrible liar. The Helmacrons put a stop to Marco’s display of “groveling” and insist they tell them where the blue box is. They turn on their view screen and Cassie sees the others, safe back in their regular forms, with tiny!Tobias sitting on Rachel’s shoulder. Cassie and Marco claim that none of their friends know where it is, but the “other one” does. The Helmacrons reveal that their sensors can tell who has morphing capabilities, so they will find this “other one.” Cassie quickly comes up with a plan.

“There’s no point trying to hide him from the Helmacrons, Marco,” I said. “There is only one other morph-capable creature on Earth. And the Helmacrons are just going to have to destroy him.”

Suddenly, the light went on in Marco’s head. “Visser Three?”

I nodded, feeling very pleased with myself. “Visser Three.”

It turns out the Helmacrons already know about the Yeerks, and for some reason this causes a division in their ranks, with one group attacking and killing a few of the others. Cassie and Marco also learn that all of the Helmacrons they have met so far have been females when a much smaller, more docile being enters and is addressed as a male. He explains that the captain must be dead because how else could they ensure she would never make any mistakes? He informs them that they are now slaves who must obey the female Helmacrons, and then leaves.

Shortly after, they are lead back to another bridge where the Helmacrons pull up a view screen showing the Blade ship. They can sense Visser Three in a Bug Fighter that is heading back to Earth and follow it. They watch the Bug Fighter descend into an abandoned restaurant that opens its ceiling to let the ship in as a limo pulls up in front of it. Visser Three climbs in in his human morph. The Helmacrons chase after the car, firing at it with their mini lasers. Human!Visser Three roles down the window and spots the tiny ship; it is clear he recognizes what they are. The Helmacrons shoot him in the face with their lasers and another Controller pops out of the sunroof and starts shooting at their ship with a gun, a huge weapon against their small size.

The fighting continues and the Helmacrons veer into the other lane, almost getting hit by on-coming traffic. Cassie and Marco have had enough and decide to get the heck out of there. Their only option is to get even smaller and morph flies. (On this, you’d think they’d have some concerns about their Z-space mass considering what happened in Ax’s book with the mosquito morph. Yes, the passing ship was what pulled them through, but having it happen at all, you’d think it at least would be thought of when they’re now morphing something even tinier.) Once morphed, they are too tiny for the Helmacrons to catch, but they also can’t get anywhere, being too small to cover any distance. As they try to hide, the ship starts to come apart and they realize that a Yeerk Dracon beam must have hit it. Completely disoriented with no way of knowing where they are or how far up they are or anything, they decide to try and slowly demorph and get a sense of things. They find themselves on someone’s head, specifically Chapman’s.

Just then, Tobias shows up. He informs them that Rachel managed to smash the other ship with a tire iron and Jake clamped it in a vice in Cassie’s barn. He says they have things figured out, that the Helmacrons gave them their leaders to hold hostage. Cassie and Marco immediately freak out, knowing that all their friends have are dead Helmacrons. Worse, Tobias tells them that they’re currently at a meeting of the Sharing where Visser Three is doing show and tell with the destroyed Helmacron ship he hit with the Dracon beam. And Ax is there too, outside with the blue box in an attempt to get the Helmacrons to come with them and unshrink the others. Cassie and Marco quickly realize that the Helmacrons are planning on letting the Yeerks and Animorphs duke it out while they escape with the blue box. Just as they think of this, they see the remaining Helmacron ship appear, towing the blue box with them, and aim its lasers at an unhappy Visser Three, shrinking him, too.

Chaos erupts. Visser Three is shrinking, screaming at the Yeerks to grab the blue box. The other Animorphs show up in morph, also trying to get the blue box. And all the while, the Helmacrons blather on about their own power and might. Cassie and Marco can’t tell what’s going except for what they hear through thought-speak. Rachel gets hit by the shrinking ray and the others are still trying to nab the box. Cassie tells Marco to moprh, that they need to get even smaller and have the ability to thought-speak with the others. She calls to Tobias to come pick them up and he nabs skunk!Cassie and mole!Marco in his talons. Cassie has figured out that if, when they morph smaller, they get relatively smaller to their current size, than if they morph bigger, the same thing should apply. They land on the the Helmacron ship, and Cassie has them all morph bigger: Tobias to his human form, and her to her humpback whale form. This way, they will weigh down the ship, essentially disabling it.

Her plan works and the ship begins to sink under her weight, but as it does, a Controller reaches out and grabs the ship. Ax manages to cut off the Controller’s hand with his tale and grab the ship himself. They learn that Jake and Rachel, along with Visser Three and several Controllers, have all been shrunk and are currently having a standoff on one of Ax’s legs. Ax runs away, carrying the ship and blue box. Through this all, they overhear Jake and Rachel fighting Visser Three in some new alien morph along with all of the other shrunken Controllers. Cassie tells Ax to morph a bird, carry the ship and  blue box in his talons, and fly to the Gardens.

But as he morphs, the way his body melds leaves everyone all together: Cassie, Marco and Tobias, but now also tiger!Jake, grizzly!Rachel, Visser Three and the rest of the shrunken Controllers. Quickly, Cassie and Marco morph their battle morphs so the Yeerks don’t see them as humans. They prepare to do battle,  but then the Helmacrons show up and they all unanimously decide that they should be dealt with first. But before they can do anything, Ax informs them that they have arrived at the Gardens and Cassie tells them all to jump off bird!Ax.

They leap and land on something furry. Cassie quickly begins demorphing, explaining that she thought that maybe a newly acquired animal wouldn’t be affected by the shrinking (something something original DNA was shrunk but not new DNA). And for their new morph she’s chosen an anteater. Visser Three shows up and quickly sees what they’re doing, but the Animorphs are all well on their way to becoming regular-sized anteaters. Once morphed, anteater!Cassie quickly nabs a few dozen Helmcrons with her sticky tongue. Cassie begs them to surrender, not wanting to kill them, and Visser Three, who has also morphed an anteater, sneers at her.

<Sentimental Andalite fool,> Visser Three said. He had copied our trick. He had also morphed the anteater. <You can’t kill a Helmacron. They’re a fungible species. Kill one and its mind, if you can call it a mind, is absorbed into another. They never die. Even when they’re dead, they’re not dead. But when it comes to Andalites . . .>

His tongue flits out and nabs tiny!Tobias as he tries to fly away. But before he can do anything, normal-sized!Ax presses his tail blade to anteater!Visser Three’s throat. The three-way stalemate ends with the Animorphs getting control of the shrinking ray and using it to unshrink everyone, letting the Yeerks go. Visser Three is willing to concede that being shrunk again is unappealing, and it’s best to fight another day. They also convince the male Helmacrons that they should fight back against the females, and presumably they all get so caught up in this that they…leave?? The end.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Poor Cassie. It’s really not her fault that she got stuck with this stinker of a book. That said, I don’t think the book is improved by having Cassie as a narrator. For all that I don’t agree with all of Cassie’s approaches to the war, she is at her best when she is given complicated moral plot lines that allow her to fully explore her unique view on conflict. Without that, her voice is probably just the most bland of all the narrators and thus doesn’t add a lot to a story that desperately, DESPERATELY needs a strong narrator to improve it. Further, this is the first book we’ve gotten from Cassie since the whole David ordeal and it’s jarring to have that not really mentioned. Cassie was the mastermind behind that whole plan and also the one, other than Rachel, who presumably would be most broken up by the role she had to play. So it feels like a huge missed opportunity to have her very next book be relegated to, essentially, a filler story. Tobias’s made sense, he had big things of his own to deal with and also was the least involved with the David mess. But Cassie? No way we shouldn’t be hearing all about how conflicted and torn up she is about a plan that she came up with that doomed a human boy to life as a rat.

And beyond that, like I said, Cassie’s voice alone doesn’t have a lot of uniquely interesting aspects to it, other than her POV on moral issues. So when we’re given a bonkers story line like this, Cassie just kind of …goes with it. And it doesn’t help. Sure, she once again comes up with a good animal morph to solve the current problem, but the end of this story was so full of contrivances and wild leaps of logic that it’s hard to even give her much credit for that. It’s all just kind of bad, and Cassie’s narration isn’t strong enough to distract us from that fact.

Our Fearless Leader: Both Cassie and Marco bemoan the loss of Jake’s decision-making skills when they’re on board the Helmacron ship. It’s a good moment to really highlight how dependent the rest of them are on Jake to make important calls in the midst of chaos. But other than that, Jake kind of just does his thing through most of this book. Cassie talks about how cute she thinks he his, and there’s some fun awkwardness at the beginning when Jake sees her in a swimsuit and becomes extremely stammer-y.

Xena, Warrior Princess: As always my favorite parts of Cassie books are the interactions between her and Rachel. Their friendship is awesome, and through Cassie’s books we see a very unique side of Rachel, the more human, normal, teenage girl side that is our best view of what Rachel must have been like before the Yeerk invasion. The story is nicely bookended by Rachel’s teasing Cassie about her changing opinion on whether or not she likes the beach based on whether or not Jake will be there. Rachel also has some pretty funny  moments taking on the Helmacrons with various objects: a brick, a tire iron, a bat. If you need someone to hit things, Rachel’s your girl.

A Hawk’s Life: Tobias is one of the early ones to be shrunk, which is purely for convenience’s sake since tiny!Cassie and Marco can’t be heard using their regular speaking voices. For all of that, he STILL somehow ends up pushed to the side during the majority of the story. Most notably, he isn’t captured and brought on the Helmacron ship with Cassie and Marco.

The Comic Relief: I found myself wishing that this had been a Marco book throughout the entire read. Not only does Marco share in almost all the action with Cassie, but his is the exact sort of narration style that could have possibly saved this dumper fire of a story line. Sure, we get plenty of quips from him throughout, and that’s a huge saving grace, but it would have been so much better had he just had the narration to himself. If you’re going to do nonsense, put it in the hands of your most smart ass character and call it good. Marco is also probably the smartest of the Animorphs (not including Ax, but even there, it’s mostly book smarts), so he would have also been a good pick to be able to make the same leaps of logic that Cassie does. Give Cassie a book that somehow forces her to address the whole David thing, then give this book to Marco. Done! I fixed it!

E.T./Ax Phone Home: So apparently the Andalites haven’t heard of the Helmacrons but the Yeerks have? This seems suspicious, but I’ll just explain it as Ax having not hearde of the Helmacrons, probably because he was sleeping through class. During their first moments with the shrinking ray in the barn, Ax spends a good amount of time “explaining” the science behind it all. It played for comedic value, but then when the story moved on to Marco and Cassie morphing even smaller, and then morphing bigger, and then morphing regular sized, it all got super confusing. I was both too bored to want to understand the “science” of it, but then also very annoyed and confused whenever they were able to twist the shrinking thing to their advantage. It was just dumb. Also, we get another Ax’s-tailblade-to-Visser-Three’s-throat stand off. I should really have a tally for these.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: Right after Cassie is shrunk, Jake ends up on the ground next to her and she gets a close-up view of his face and we have this description:

His eyes were like brown-and-white swimming pools, huge globes that looked as if they might pop and drain down like runny Jell-0. I stared up, transfixed by this face I had always found attractive. And I found myself staring at a zit bigger than I was.

Couples Watch!: Ok, look, this is why I prefer Tobias/Rachel’s romance to Cassie/Jake’s. Remember in the last book where we got that beautiful line from Tobias about the sight of Rachel in the sunlight making his heart ache? Well, here, the first time Cassie sees Jake, we get a line about how she “likes” him, “you know, like.” And sure, this is how kids talk, but the two of them have been saying not only a variation of this, but THIS EXACT LINE, “you know, like,”  for forever now! Given the fact that they’re all living in a constant state of warfare and tragedy, they’ve all matured way past their ages, and this is shown in Rachel and Tobias’s more serious relationship. They simply don’t have the time to be tip-toeing around things. And neither do Jake and Cassie! They might not have the bird problem that Tobias and Rachel do, but they still have the same life or death stakes every day and you’d think that at some point that would push them past some of this silliness. Regardless of what is likely an over-analysis of all of this on my part, I’m simply bored of hearing them say how much they “you know, like” each other. We do get some funny moments with the whole beach/swimsuit thing, but I still enjoyed Tobias and Rachel’s small, but more earnest, moments throughout the book when either of the other ended up in danger.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl:  So Visser Three does appear in this, but we’ve again got the campy, silly Visser Three ala Cassie book #9 when he gets defeated by skunk stink. The last scene where there is a three way standoff was essentially resolved in three sentences, all summarizing what happened but not detailing any actual action. This has to be because it is completely unbelievable that Visser Three would simply walk away in this situation. Especially because the blue box was SITTING RIGHT THERE!. The whole thing was nonsense. And the fact that Visser Three did in fact know about the Helmacrons before all of this and yet was still just as clueless as the Animorphs about how the shrinking thing actually works, etc. was another glaring hole.

The Helmacrons are technically the villains of this piece, but it’s clear that they were mostly written for comedic value. And, on their own, they were pretty amusing. I thought their power structure with the dead captain was pretty interesting, and their on-going infighting and complete delusions about their own abilities played for some good laughs.

<Do you think to terrify us with your pitiful morphs? We are Helmacron warriors!> They were yelling this as they hustled away at top speed.

But, again, that ending. Nothing we’ve seen so far would indicate that the Helmcrons, for all that they get easily caught up in in-fighting, would so easily just wander off, leaving the blue box behind.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Can I cry at the sheer nosedive in quality the books took between the last four and this one? Cuz that’s all I have for this right now.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: Everything. It was all bad plans on everyone’s part. The fact that Ax took the blue box to a Sharing meeting and then somehow (off screen notably!) loses it to the tiny Helmacron ship. Cassie and Marco’s completely nonsensical decision making while on board the ship (“We should stay!” “We should leave!” “Morph small!” “Oh no, we’re too small!”). The entire end of the book! Again, the blue box was sitting out in the open, Visser Three and a bunch of Controllers were there, and the Animorphs decided that now was the time to play fair and unshrink them, just trusting that they’d walk away. Sheer stupidity that only succeeds because it has to for the books to continue.

Favorite Quote: Right after Marco, Cassie and Tobias have been shrunk in the barn and the Helmacrons are poised to shrink whomever walks in next:

“I’m coming in,” Jake said decisively. “No!” Marco yelled in a voice that already sounded like someone breathing helium. “No, Jake and Ax, do not come in!” Then, as an afterthought, he said, “Rachel, you could come in.” <Marco!> Tobias chided. “Hey, the Wicked Witch gets to be full size and I’m down here singing, ‘We represent the Lollipop Guild?’ I don’t think so.”

And Rachel gets a similar jab back later:

“Okay, I’ve had enough of this battle of the alien egos here. I’m counting to three. Then I’m throwing this brick. You little insects either fix my friends . . . and Marco, too … or you get bricked.”

And:

Rachel said it first. “Oh, come on. Like we don’t have enough problem aliens?”

Preach it. No one needs any more of the Helmacrons.

Scorecard: Yeerks 6, Animorphs 10

I’m taking away a point from the Animorphs due to the sheer stupidity at the end, bringing Visser Three and a bunch of Controllers back to their real size while the blue box is sitting out in the open.

Rating: I think it’s pretty clear at this point that I didn’t love this book. Cassie books are never my favorites, but this one failed to even play to her strengths and instead left her with a story line that could have only been saved (maybe) if someone like Marco had been narrating it. The Helmacrons had their fun moments, but the whole plot was muddled and confusing, and the end just made me mad. It was lazy writing all around, and it was only made worse for having come right after four of probably the strongest books in the series. Ugh, and now I just have to dread the return of the Helmacrons, because I know it happens, even if I can’t remember the details.

Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all! But I’ll give a one sentence conclusion and you can take from that what you will!

Kate’s Review: “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey: Who Is Oracle?”

31383619Book: “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey (Vol.1): Who Is Oracle?” by Julie Benson, Shawna Benson, Claire Roe (Ill.), and Roge Antonio (Ill.).

Publishing Info: DC Comics, April 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: A part of DC Universe: Rebirth!

The Birds of Prey prowl the street of Gotham once again! The sisterly, crime-fighting trio–Batgirl, Black Canary, and Huntress–get the band back together in the aftermath of DC Universe: Rebirth, but they’re not reconnecting for nostalgia’s sake. A mysterious new criminal operative called Oracle has declared war on Gotham. Barbara Gordon, a.k.a. Batgirl, and a.k.a. cyber-superhero Oracle in a previous guise, takes exception to someone smearing her legacy. Writing duo and sisters Julie and Shawna Benson, along with breakout artist Claire Roe, reunite the femme fatale crew in Batgirl and the Birds of Prey, Volume 1: Who Is Oracle?!

Review: So okay, my last foray into the “DC: Rebirth” world left me feeling a bit cold. Batwoman deserved so much more than that. So when I saw that my library had “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey: Who Is Oracle?”, I was hopeful that another series near and dear to my heart would get some better treatment within the “Rebirth” series. I’ve been feeling kind of meh towards it as a whole, between Batwoman’s progression and the whole ‘let’s take Alan Moore’s characters and put them into this new series even though he no doubt hates that‘ thing (and I could rant forever, but I shan’t). But I’m willing to give it a chance, as a DC fan through and through. So thank goodness that “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey” feels so, so right.

This is yet another origin story for the Birds of Prey, but Julie and Shawna Benson do a good job of starting from partial scratch without dismissing the original intent of the group. See, originally the Birds of Prey had Barbara Gordon as Oracle at it’s center, and that’s important because that was when Barbara was still wheelchair bound. When she was Oracle, she was arguable they most important member of the Bat Family, and also was great representation for those who have disabilities. Then Barbara’s paralysis was ret-conned so she could be Batgirl again, leaving Oracle behind. In this telling, Babs and Dinah “Black Canary” Lance formed the team when Barbara was still Oracle, but then disbanded shortly thereafter. It is NOW that they are coming back together that we are introduced to the other member of the band, Huntress, who is the other best known member of this team through the years and versions. But the motivations for them are darker this time around. Barbara is angry that someone calling themselves ‘Oracle’ has started sending her messages in a game of cat and mouse. And Huntress has her own personal vendetta that brings her into the fold.

It is definitely darker than other iterations of the Birds of Prey, but I feel that as a reboot, it works pretty well. I like that the motivations aren’t built out of pure nobility, and that Barbara’s relationship with her alter ego Oracle is complicated as hell. I personally love Oracle and I love that after Alan Moore (him again!) basically tried to destroy Batgirl in “The Killing Joke” when Joker shot her in the spine, Barbara Gordon came back more powerful and more essential than she had been before. But I also think it’s important to remember that Barbara turned into Oracle because of the horrifically traumatic experience of being shot. Barbara’s link to Oracle is a double edged sword, and I think that this series has done a pretty good job of addressing that thus far. I also like that Huntress is given some pretty brutal traits in this narrative, as Huntress has always been a bit wild but this story gives that wildness a reason and a very rough origin. There is also a stark contrast between her brutality and her Catholic faith, which has been touched upon a bit and I hope we see more of it. And then there is my girl Black Canary, one of my favorite members of the DC Universe with her snark, sarcasm, and determination built from abandonment. We get a bit of her backstory and motivation as well, and I like that she gets to do a bit more than be the sassy and brassy lead singer of a punk band (I had such high hopes for that series). Plus there’s a panel of her going to town on a plate of nachos and I felt such a kindred connection to her in that moment. The Benson Sisters are giving these girls some good stuff to work with, and I couldn’t be happier.

Plus, the art is super fun. It does a good job of being dark and dour, as well as putting splashes of color to give it a bit of spunk.

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I will admit that the eventual reveal about Oracle left me a little cold. I’ve mentioned before that I have my OWN opinions on who should fill the Oracle role now that Barbara is back in the cowl. But I’m going to be open-minded and stick it out to see where this goes. This is a series that has it’s talons in me, no question.

“Batgirl and the Birds of Prey: Who Is Oracle?” is a very strong start to a series that I am very excited to follow. I’m finally invested in a “Rebirth” arc storyline, which has let me breathe a sigh of relief when it comes to the future of DC.

Rating 8: Grittier than the “Batgirl” comics, “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey: Who is Oracle?” gives some complex and kickass ladies some dark things to do. Also, Black Canary is the very best and it’s great to see her again.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Batgirl and the Birds of Prey (Vol.1): Who Is Oracle?” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it would definitely fit in on “Kickass Women in Superhero Comics”.

Find “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey (Vol.1): Who Is Oracle?” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Jane, Unlimited”

32991569Book: “Jane, Unlimited” by Kristin Cashore

Publishing Info: Kathy Dawson Books, September 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: If you could change your story, would you?

Jane has lived a mostly ordinary life, raised by her recently deceased aunt Magnolia, whom she counted on to turn life into an adventure. Without Aunt Magnolia, Jane is directionless. Then an old acquaintance, the glamorous and capricious Kiran Thrash, blows back into Jane’s life and invites her to a gala at the Thrashes’ extravagant island mansion called Tu Reviens. Jane remembers her aunt telling her: “If anyone ever invites you to Tu Reviens, promise me that you’ll go.”

What Jane doesn’t know is that at Tu Reviens her story will change; the house will offer her five choices that could ultimately determine the course of her untethered life. But every choice comes with a price. She might fall in love, she might lose her life, she might come face-to-face with herself. At Tu Reviens, anything is possible.

Review: I have a lot of thoughts on this book, on the book itself (which is of the sort that is probably best appreciated on re-reads) and on the reception of said book by the general reading public. But, without further ado: I, for one, absolutely loved the book and am absolutely baffled by the general reading public’s reception of it.

Jane parents died in an plane crash when she was a baby. They decided to sit on one side of the plane, and on that side, everyone died, On the other side, everyone lived. This choice changed Jane’s life, but led her to a happy childhood growing up with her Aunt Magnolia, a marine biologist with a general joie de vivre approach to life. Now tragedy has stuck again with the death of her beloved Aunt, and Jane finds herself aimless and alone, with only her love for umbrella-making to give her any purpose. That is until she is invited to Tu Revien, a house full of mysteries, and once again, there are important, life-changing choices ahead.

It’s hard for me to really get at this book and my reaction to it without wondering whether my prior knowledge of it affected my read. I’d like to think not, but I’m not sure. For one, I had the joy of getting to meet Kristin Cashore at ALA this last summer and hear her speak on a panel. During the panel, one librarian got up and asked if there were pages missing from her most recent book, as the librarian found it very confusing. Cashore said this was exactly what she had worried about when writing it, knowing that it was an experimental style. First, I was very embarrassed for everyone involved in this situation, as the panel was about a completely different topic and not the place for authors to be quizzed about their own works. Librarians should know better! But I won’t rant about that.

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Here I am getting my copy signed by the author! A definite highlight at ALA!

Cashore was gracious enough to explain that she started the book as a “choose your own adventure” story, which than morphed into a more traditional novel, in that it is meant to be read in a linear fashion. So, I had this information going in and to a certain extent knew what to expect. However, that aside, I do think that she did an amazing job setting up that this was where the story was headed, with no prior knowledge of this required. As I laid out in my brief plot description, the story starts out with the idea that Jane’s entire life was shaped around a completely arbitrary decision that her parents made, which side of the plane to sit on. Further, Jane and her friend, Kiran, a member of the family who owns the house and the one who invited Jane there, discuss the fact that choices can lead you to very different places in life, and you never know which choice will be the one to make the big difference.

With this premise, the story starts out slowly putting together a great cast of characters, and many mysteries for Jane to follow. This takes about 100 pages or so, which is where I’ve heard the most complaints about it being a slow read. For me, this was completely necessary work for laying a foundation for the rest of the book. In these pages, we get to know Jane, and those around her. We have mysterious disappearing art, rumors of a missing family and their children, a dog that is obsessed with a painting, and the family’s own strange history with the missing first and second wife of the father. From there, Jane chooses.

And yes, those choices have drastically different outcomes! I’m talking, genre-defying outcomes. I don’t know how I’ll categorize this book when I get to posting it, because it’s a bit of everything. We have mystery, we have intrigue, we have horror, we have sci-fi, we have fantasy. You name it! And what makes this even more excellent is the way the story reads, as, like I said, it is still laid out in a linear manner, meaning each section is meant to be read after the last. You aren’t supposed to “pick” which story to read, but go through them in the order they are presented. Through this method, you see the real genius of what Cashore has done: with each storyline, the reader has more knowledge of all the elements at play. We see characters move in and out of a scene and have more knowledge of what is going on than Jane herself, because we’ve seen that side of the story already, through a previous choice. It’s the kind of book that I’m sure is even better the second time, catching all the small details that are woven throughout all of these various outcomes. It’s simply brilliant.

Beyond this, each genre was compelling. I had my favorites, but I was impressed by Cashore’s ability at them all. The horror story line was particularly disturbing. And, not surprisingly, I enjoyed the sci-fi and fantasy plotlines the best. Most of all, I spent a ridiculous amount of timing wondering which choice I would have made, and then dissecting which plot line would be the best to choose in order to increase one’s chances of eventually encountering ALL of the mysteries, but still avoiding the horror one. Seriously, I’ve continued to think about this for like a week even after finishing the book.

And this is why I’m so baffled by the book’s general reception! Cashore’s writing is as strong as ever. Her characters are compelling, and anyone who’s read “Bitterblue,” specifically, shouldn’t be shocked by her more introspective character in Jane. And yet, on Goodreads, there are so many low stars! And look, I’m all for that everyone has their own opinion, and I’m not here to tell anyone that they’re wrong, but I do find it surprising. I think much of it is simply due to the fact that here we have an author who wrote a beloved fantasy trilogy years ago, and everyone’s been waiting with baited breath for her to re-emerge with her newest YA fantasy work, preferably in the same world. And then we got…this. Which is so completely different than the books we all loved from her before. But if an author is allowed only to write what we loved and were comfortable with before, how limiting would that be? If we only expect one kind of book from any given author simply because they wrote a good one in that mode in the past, we are doing not only them, but ourselves, a massive disservice.

I don’t particularly think this result was anyone’s fault. It’s definitely not Cashore’s, who is free to write whatever calls to her. And I can even understand fan disappointment from those who so loved “Graceling” and were wanting more of the same (for the record, I, too, loved “Graceling” and “Fire” and have my hardback copies stored lovingly on my shelves). But I do challenge readers to strive against the tendency to limit authors and our own reading habits to only the “known” and comfortable. You never know what you’re missing out on. And, let me say, had some of those DNF reviews managed to get past the first half of the book that was not the sword-and-sorcery fantasy they had expected, they might have found themselves choosing a path that included its own delightful fantasy world!

Rating 9: A criminally under-appreciated book and the answer to “what would an adult ‘chose your own adventure’ novel look like?”

Reader’s Advisory:

“Jane, Unlimited” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Bisexual Fiction in YA” and “Derivatives of Jane Eyre.”

Find “Jane, Unlimited” at your library using WorldCat!

 

 

Kate’s Review: “The Prince and the Dressmaker”

34506912Book: “The Prince and the Dressmaker” by Jen Wang

Publishing Info: First Second, February 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Paris, at the dawn of the modern age:

Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride―or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia―the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!

Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances―one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend? Jen Wang weaves an exuberantly romantic tale of identity, young love, art, and family. A fairy tale for any age, The Prince and the Dressmaker will steal your heart.

Review: I first want to extend a special thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book!

It’s almost Valentine’s Day! While the hubby and I are pretty low key when it comes to the holiday, I do enjoy the little bits of romance that I see here and there. Given the holiday, it’s an appropriate time for me to talk about one of the cuter romances that I’ve read as of late! Before I saw it on NetGalley, I hadn’t heard of “The Prince and the Dressmaker”, and I requested it on a whim. I sat down one day thinking I’d at least start it, and then ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting.

Jen Wang has created a very gentle and quiet story about friendship and identity with “The Prince and the Dressmaker”. Within it’s pages we meet Frances, a quiet but ambitious dressmaker, and Sebastian, a Belgian Prince who also likes to dress in womens clothing and become Lady Crystallia. While Sebastian’s gender identity is kept vague, I am going to refer to them with they/them pronouns and as gender non-conforming/non-binary. I liked how Frances and Sebastian both interacted with each other and how they found a mutual understanding and respect within their Prince/Dressmaker relationship. Their friendship is sweet and simple, and I loved how it progressed as the story went on. While it did ultimately end in romance (Spoiler alert I guess?), I think that Wang approached it in a way that didn’t feel schmaltzy or in a way that negated the friendly, non romantic intimacy that had existed between the two of them at the start. I also feel that it’s important to have representation of more non-binary and gender non-conforming characters in stories, especially in positive, non-tragic ways, so Sebastian’s story arc was a story that I was happy to see. I will, however, say that as a cis straight woman the lens through which I approached this book and the story it tells is probably not the same as someone who would identify in other ways, and therefore I’m not sure that I can gauge whether or not it’s a good representation.

Frances’ story arc was the weaker of the two character progressions, but I still found it to be one that was engaging. She wants to become a designer, but as a woman (and a lower class one at that) she has very little agency and control over her life. She sees this arrangement with Sebastian as a way to get her work out there, and then finds herself in a place of power that she cannot speak of, lest it betray Sebastian’s secret. I also enjoyed her quiet but strong willed personality. Her strength may not be loud, but it is there nonetheless, and her moments of triumph were undoubtedly satisfying. And I don’t know why it struck me, but I loved that her hair is purple. Her entire character design just struck me as resonant for some reason. Possibly because I, too, like to wear my hair in a side braid and have thick eyebrows. Her expressions and facial designs really get her emotions across, so even though she was a bit more soft spoken I felt like I always knew what she was feeling.

The art, too, was fabulous. It fit the mood of the story well, simplistic and soft but popping off the page. There seemed to be some influence from manga and anime, but Wang also has made a mark of her own with the design. The imagery also harkens back to the time period of the regency (I think?) era. The fashion styles are absolutely gorgeous and delightful, with lots of colors used for Lady Crystallia’s dresses that just made me smile.

princedressmaker2small_by_jayalaw-db9gyyn
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Overall, I found “The Prince and the Dressmaker” to be a calm and charming story with a complex and heartfelt relationship at the heart of it. If you are looking for something to read this Valentine’s Day, seek this one out.

Rating 8: A gentle and sweet graphic novel about identity and friendship. While I can’t speak to the accuracy of the depiction of non-binary gender identity, the story had complex and likable characters and a lovely central relationship.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Prince and the Dressmaker” is included on the Goodreads lists “Graphic Novels Featuring LGBTQ Themes”, and “2018 Books by Authors of Color/Native Authors”.

Find “The Prince and the Dressmaker” at your library using WorldCat!

Valentine’s Day Giveaway: “City of Brass”

Happy Valentine’s Day (week!) everyone! While Hallmark would have you believe that this holiday is meant to celebrate romantic love, we see it as yet another excuse to share our love of books and reading! And to do that, we’re hosting another giveaway!

32718027Book: “City of Brass” by S. A. Chakraborty

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, November 2017

Book Description: Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of 18th century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trade she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, healings—are all tricks, sleights of hand, learned skills; a means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles.

But when Nahri accidentally summons an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to accept that the magical world she thought only existed in childhood stories is real. For the warrior tells her a new tale: across hot, windswept sands teeming with creatures of fire, and rivers where the mythical marid sleep; past ruins of once-magnificent human metropolises, and mountains where the circling hawks are not what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass–a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound.

In that city, behind gilded brass walls laced with enchantments, behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments are simmering. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, she learns that true power is fierce and brutal. That magic cannot shield her from the dangerous web of court politics. That even the cleverest of schemes can have deadly consequences.

After all, there is a reason they say be careful what you wish for . . .

Giveaway Details: I absolutely LOVED this book, guys! It was the perfect mix of a fresh new fantasy world, a unique setting drawing on the history and geography of the Middle Easy, and, most importantly, two amazing lead characters. Beyond that, given that this is, in fact, a Valentine’s Day giveaway, it does have a romantic subplot.

But really, the main reason I’m wanting to share it with your guys is based on my own absolute love of this book. It was #4 on my yearly Top Ten list and I’m pretty much stalking the author on Twitter for updates on the next book. Plus, I recommend following her and checking out her thread on the original story from 1001 Nights that this book was based on! For your reading convenience, here is a link to that thread! You can also check out my full review to read the entirety of my gushing about this book. So, without further ado, on to the giveaway! It’s open to US entrants only and will run until February 19. Good luck and happy reading!

Click here to enter!

 

 

 

 

Serena’s Review: “A Conspiracy in Belgravia”

33835806Book: “A Conspiracy in Belgravia” by Sherry Thomas

Publishing Info: Penguin Group, September 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: bought it!

Book Description: Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.

Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.

In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body that surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

Previously Reviewed: “A Study in Scarlet Women”

Review:  So this is the book that I bought when I was only halfway through the first one. That’s how much I was loving what Thomas was laying down in her re-imaging of Sherlock Holmes as a young, “fallen” woman named Charlotte. With this method, I was able to put down the first book and immediately pick up the next, and I think this worked in the books’ favor, though, let’s be real, I would have loved it in whatever manner I had gotten to reading it in.

The story picks up almost immediately after the events of “A Study in Scarlet Women.” Charlotte Holmes is still very much just figuring out what her new life will be like living the charade of marketing her services through her fictionalized ailing brother, “Sherlock.” Of course, there are those who know the truth.

Mrs. Watson, Charlotte’s business partner and roommate. Livia, her sister who remains stuck in their unhappy childhood home and whom Charlotte dreams of rescuing one day through her own financial independence. Inspector Treadles, the police detective who worked with her on her first case, and is less than enthused by the fact that the “man” he had esteemed for so long turned out to be a woman, and that, through this revelation, he’s had to confront the reality that his own wife might also be more than she seems. And, of course, Lord Ingram, Charlotte’s childhood compatriot with whom she has a challenging relationship, due to his unfortunate marriage.

This story takes this already large cast of characters and blows it up even further. Most importantly, Lord Bankcroft, the Mycroft of this world and Lord Ingram’s brother, makes an appearance. In the first book we learned that he had made an offer of marriage to Charlotte in the past. And here, we see that he is just as determined, regardless of her role as “Sherlock.” In fact, as an incentive to her consideration, he provides her with several puzzles from his own work in the field of secrets and mysteries. And of course, one turns out to be more than it had seemed. On top of this, Charlotte has a new client: Lady Ingram.

I’m already halfway through a typical word count for these reviews, and I’ve just finished laying out the bare bones of all that goes on in this story. Not only is the mystery just as compelling and complicated as the first, requiring me to again page back and forth a few times to keep track of things, but the interweavings of all of the characters’ relationships and interactions became even more complicated.

I loved that we got to meet Bankcroft in this book and explore the role that he plays in this world. He also provides a legitimate temptation to Charlotte, offering her a doorway back into “acceptable society.” Even one that could offer her some of the same mental challenges that she enjoys in her current position. Through these interactions and her tackling of this case, Charlotte really has to confront what she expects and wants from her life. It’s not as simple as it could be, either, as Charlotte is not simply thinking of herself, but of her two sisters who are languishing in the unhappy and neglectful home of their parents, and who depend on her for any hope of future freedom.

I also enjoyed the continuing expansion of Charlotte’s skillset. As I said in the first review, I appreciated the fact that this version of Sherlock doesn’t come with all of his/her skills already in place. Too often versions of Sherlock seem so over-powered with their supreme abilities in literally everything that they become practically unbelievable. Charlotte is brilliant, but she still has much to learn. I particularly enjoyed the introduction of self-defense lessons taught by none other than Mrs. Watson herself, who, living a life as an actress in the more seedy parts of the world, has a firm foundation under her belt in this area. Charlotte also begins exploring the world of lock-picking and disguise, two other typical areas of expertise for a Sherlock character.

The mystery was also particularly intriguing. As I said, it was just as complicated as the first, something that I find incredibly satisfying. But because we are getting at these mysteries through more personal connections to Charlotte and those around her, I felt that it was even stronger. The mystery she stumbles upon through Mycroft’s work obviously ties into her interactions and future with him. And the mystery brought to her by Lady Ingram clearly affects her tenuous relationship with Lord Ingram. How can she maintain her friendship and loyalty to one while respecting the secrecy of a woman who has come to “Sherlock,” a man wholly unconnected with her husband?

Obviously this is further complicated by the underlying tremors of romantic feelings that exist between Lord Ingram and Charlotte. This aspect of the story is still gradually building, and as a fan of slow-burn relationships, I have loved this part of the story. The author doesn’t hand-wave away the fact that he is married and has children. He chose his wife completely on his own, and he loves his children, regardless of his failed marriage. The realities of these things are solid and not to be easily done away with simply due to his complicated feelings for Charlotte. I love how the author has handled this so far, and that gives me full faith to trust where she is leading readers in future books.

This is going to go down as yet another book that I’ve read recently that is even better than the first. If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories, particularly re-imaginings of the classic character, than this is a must for your next read! I’ve now become quite spoiled, reading both books back to back, so the wait for the next book, due to come out sometime this year, looks like it will be quite tortuous.

Rating 9: Fantastic! Both this, and the first one, are early runners for my “Best of 2018” list already!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Conspiracy in Belgravia” is a newer title and isn’t on many relevant Goodreads list, but it is on “Regency and Victorian Mysteries.”

Find “A Conspiracy in Belgravia” at your library using WorldCat!