Serena’s Review: “Julia Defiant”

30634295Book: “Julia Defiant” by Catherine Egan

Publication Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers. June 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Julia and a mismatched band of revolutionaries, scholars, and thieves have crossed the world searching for a witch. But for all the miles traveled, they are no closer to finding Ko Dan. No closer to undoing the terrible spell he cast that bound an ancient magic to the life of a small child. Casimir wants that magic will happily kill Theo to extract it and every moment they hunt for Ko Dan, Casimir s assassins are hunting them.

Julia can deal with danger. The thing that truly scares her lies within. Her strange ability to vanish to a place just out of sight has grown: she can now disappear so completely that it s like stepping into another world. It s a fiery, hellish world, filled with creatures who seem to recognize her and count her as one of their own.

So . . . is Julia a girl with a monster lurking inside her? Or a monster wearing the disguise of a girl? If she can use her monstrous power to save Theo, does it matter?

Previously reviewed: “Julia Vanishes”

Review: I saw that the third novel in this series was due to come out shortly, so it was a good reminder to check out this second book. Somehow the “Julia Vanishes” had slipped completely off my radar, all the more surprising for it having a few rare qualities that stand out in a sea of fantasy fiction that can be all too filled with tropes. These rarities were on display once again in this second book, and some of the quibbles I had with the first have also largely been resolved.

Several months have passed and miles have been crossed since the ending of the first book. Julia and her rather enormous cast of fellows now find themselves in a foreign land, loosely based on China, still on the search for a way to remove the magical book from the body of little Theo. Julia, in particular, is devoted to this mission in an effort to make up for her past disastrous choices with regards to Theo. But as she works towards this cause, she begins to discover more aspects of her unique vanishing ability and with these discoveries come unwelcome questions about her own history and identity.

First off, it is absolutely necessary to read the first book in this series before getting to this one. Even the several months break I had between the two lead to a longer than usual re-familiarizing period of time when I started this one. Several of the points that make this book and series so good (a large cast of characters, unique worlds, complicated histories) also make it very challenging to jump into with out refreshing oneself on the events of the past book. Beyond our cast of familiar characters, we’re also dropped into the middle of a new portion of this world with its own politics with regards to witches, its own powerful individual with whom Julia and co. must work, and new settings. After I finally felt like I had caught myself up, I greatly enjoyed this change in scenery. (It’s also noteworthy that for all of these challenges with complicated names/histories/etc., I greatly appreciated the author’s choice to trust her audience to catch up with things on their own. There were no info-dumps or clunky prologues to help with this process, but instead readers are left to put the pieces together on their own, which, with some patience, is perfectly doable.)

One of my criticisms of the first book was the fact that it felt like it had two dueling stories competing against each other, both detracting from the other. This problem has been completely handled in this book. The plotting felt much more streamlined and there was an appreciated increase in the action of the story. The book is driven by the mission to save Theo and this action is balanced by the character growth and inspection that comes through the ongoing mystery into Julia’s past and her abilities. Rather than having two plot pieces tangling together, this balance of plot and character development feel much more natural and give this book a stronger sense of natural flow.

Julia’s development is probably one of my favorite parts of this story. Her increased confidence and clever use of her vanishing powers could have opened a door for her character to lose value due to being “over powered.” But instead, the author finds ways to not only bring large questions into her magical abilities and history, but also focus in on the very human struggles that Julia is still managing. Her feelings of self-hatred with regards to her past choice to give up Theo to the enemy. Her relationship with a brother and her realization that he has lived a restricted life in an effort to support her. The ongoing fallout from her broken heart in the last book, and her realization that there are more fish in the sea.

What makes this last point stand out so well is the way the author introduces other fishes without setting any of them up as a “soul mate” or “one true love.” I loved the “Alanna” series by Tamora Pierce growing up. And I think one part that I liked then and have grown to appreciate more and more as I get older was the way that Pierce exposed Alanna to different romantic interests throughout the series until, in the end, she finally is able to recognize what is important in a partner and what she specifically needs. All to often in YA fiction, romantic interests are introduced who are A.) the protagonists first love of any kind and B.) perfect for them in every way, no questions asked. This never sits well, and I commend the author of this book for exploring a more honest take on the trials and tribulations of young love. Your first love may not be perfect for you. What’s more, your SECOND love also may not be perfect for you. But you learn things from them all. I had a hard time thinking of a similar current series that has tackled this subject as well as this book has, especially given how small a role the romantic aspects play in either book, all told.

I really enjoyed this book, even more than the first. My quibbles about the plotting where deftly handled, and this one was a quick read full of intense action sequences, strong characterization for a large cast, and solid character growth and exploration for Julia herself. Of course, as I’ve said, you have to read the first book first. But if you enjoyed that one at all, I definitely recommend this book as I think it’s even better!

Rating 8: With a realistic portrayal of the challenges of young love and an increased amount of action, “Julia Defiant” is an even better novel than the first!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Julia Defiant” isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Fantasy Books about Thieves.”

Find “Julia Defiant” at your library using WorldCat!

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