Serena’s Review: “Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge”

31019831 Book: “Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge” by Lisa Jensen

Publishing Details: Candlewick Press, July 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: They say Château Beaumont is cursed. But servant-girl Lucie can’t believe such foolishness about handsome Jean-Loup Christian Henri LeNoir, Chevalier de Beaumont, master of the estate. But when the chevalier’s cruelty is revealed, Lucie vows to see him suffer. A wisewoman grants her wish, with a spell that transforms Jean-Loup into monstrous-looking Beast, reflecting the monster he is inside. But Beast is nothing like the chevalier. Jean-Loup would never patiently tend his roses; Jean-Loup would never attempt poetry; Jean-Loup would never express remorse for the wrong done to Lucie. Gradually, Lucie realizes that Beast is an entirely different creature from the handsome chevalier, with a heart more human than Jean-Loup’s ever was. Lucie dares to hope that noble Beast has permanently replaced the cruel Jean-Loup — until an innocent beauty arrives at Beast’s château with the power to break the spell.

Review: Oof, another challenging “Beauty and the Beast” retelling. I think I could probably write an entire PhD on the pitfalls of re-telling this fairytale. When I first saw the book description, I was excited to read a version that was seemingly focused on an entirely new character, not “Beauty” herself. And while that aspect was still interesting, the book itself was very difficult to read and I will have a hard time recommending it to others, unfortunately.

Lucie is a servant in the house of the rich lord, Jean-Loup. After a horrific event, she is the one to wish the worst on her master, resulting in him turning into a beast, and her into a sentient household item. As time passes, she begins to suspect that this new, beastly version of her master might not be the same, and when a stranger arrives on the scene, the world begins to change once again.

So this is obviously not a positive review, but there are a few things I’d like to highlight as positives for this book. One, I still very much appreciate the originality behind the concept of this story. We’ve all read a million and one versions told from various “Beauty’s” perspectives. Some are better than others, but the basic construct is the same. They all arrive on the scene, confused and scared. And slowly come to change their minds and fall in love with the Beast. Here, Lucie knows Jean-Loup before his change and her experiences with him as a Beast are from the perspective of a servant, not the traditional heroine’s role. What’s more, Lucie isn’t even the “Beauty” in this story, and that character does make an appearance and play a part in the story unfolding. It’s a very creative take on things, and I truly wish that other choice had been made that would have allowed this new version to stand well on its own.

Further, I did like the writing for the most part. The “voice” fits well with the re-telling of a fairytale. It verges on rather simplistic and “younger” sounding, but I think that, done right, this tone actually works really well for fairytales which can be unique for having a different cadence, such as this. However, the writing also directly lines up with some of my major criticisms of the book.

It is very simplistic and straight forward. As I began reading, I started thinking “Huh, ok. So this is maybe more of a middle grade version of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ Great!” Mentally, I started aligning it with the words of Shannon Hale, who’s written a bunch of fairytales, many of which have a younger-sounding voice and simple story-telling technique. But alas, this comparison died a sudden, very harsh death only a few chapters into the story.

(This might be a spoiler, but it’s pretty crucial to understanding the negative reaction I’ve had to this book, so if you want to go in blind, skip the rest!)

The prologue to the story sets it up that Lucie is the one who directed the fairy to go “all in,” as it were, on the curse on Jean-Loup. So we know that something awful has to happen to inspire this level of hatred. And something awful does indeed happen, in the form of a graphic sexual assault scene.

This was shocking to see on several accounts, but not least of all is the direct contradiction that the graphic nature of this scene lays across the middle-grade nature of the writing itself. I was mentally comparing this book to Shannon Hale, of all people, based on the writing style itself. The most sweetest fairytale writer you can find! And that’s a problem. Likely, the type of reader who is going to appreciate the tone of this writing style is going to verge younger. Even for me, a fan of middle grade and YA fiction, I was distracted by the simplistic nature of this writing. So those who may truly enjoy it are going to be young. And then you get a scene that could have been straight out of “Game of Thrones.” It’s going to be tough to read for even the most hardened among us who are semi-used to running across scenes like this in adult fantasy, let alone younger readers. But, on this side of things, readers who are prepared for this type of dark scene, are likely going to be completely turned off by the young-sounding writing. So there’s a contradiction there where the writing and content are, conversely, going to turn off both options for a reader-base.

Beyond this, I have problems with the actual story line, having included a scene like this as the basis for Lucie’s hatred of Jean-Loup. For all intents and purposes, Lucie ends up as the romantic interest for the Beast, instead of Belle. The book tries to roll out the tried and true rug of “magically separated/changed selves” that would absolve the Beast of past actions, as he is now no longer truly that person. I will always struggle with this type of wand-waving. Regardless of the fact that the “reasons” that Lucie points to as evidence that these two beings are inherently different are horribly minor (like food preferences and fears of spiders), there’s always going to be an insurmountable hill, in my mind, between forgiving an attacker (a hard ask on its own) and falling in love with him. I just can’t get behind that story, and I don’t think this book did nearly enough, even, to highlight any exception that could be made.

While the latter argument could be a matter of personal preference (though I still don’t think there is a huge swath of readers out there who are just searching for that great tale highlighting a victim falling in love with her attacker), my first point about the very real conflict between writing style and content is enough for me to give this a low rating. I honestly just have a hard time really focusing in on who exactly the audience is supposed to be for this book. At the very least, I wasn’t part of it.

Rating 4: Not for me. I don’t think this is a message we want to send out, regarding victims and their attackers, and the writing style was in direct conflict with the content.

Reader’s Advisory:

Again, honestly, if you want a good “Beauty and the Beast” retelling, go read “Beauty,” (the classic, in my opinion), “Heart’s Blood,” (by may favorite author, Juliet Marillier), or “Hunted” (for a more recently published option).

Find “Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Crooked Kingdom”

22299763Book: “Crooked Kingdom” by Leigh Bardugo

Publishing Info: Orion Children’s Books, September 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn’t think they’d survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they’re right back to fighting for their lives. Double-crossed and badly weakened, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz’s cunning and test the team’s fragile loyalties. A war will be waged on the city’s dark and twisting streets―a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of the Grisha world.

Previously reviewed: “Six of Crows”“Six of Crows”

Review: As was established in our bookclub review of this book, I was definitely the side of our blogging duo who loved the first book. I was all the more surprised given the massive burn I’m still nursing from the author’s original Grisha trilogy that I’ve come to see as an example of how even great writing and great characters can fall prey to some unfortunate YA fantasy tropes. But “Six of Crows” seemed blessedly free of the concerns that plagued those original books, and I was so excited after reading it that I immediately ordered this, the second half of the duology. And, I’m pleased to report, that she stuck the landing on this one!

Kaz and crew are in a tight spot. While they pulled off their last crazy stunt, the reward they were promised not only wasn’t forthcoming, but the powerful merchant with whom they had bargained instead kidnapped Inej and tanked the reputation of the entire crew with the other powerful gangs that make up Ketterdam. Now, stuck between a rock and a hard place, the group must not only recover their lost member and loot, but somehow resolve a political situation has the potential the change the world for the worse.

What sold me on the fist book was the strength of this cast of characters. There are a lot of them, and it speaks to Bardugo’s abilities as an author that she was able to balance so many competing personalities and story arcs. Many of those continue into this book, though there are slight shifts in focus. While much of the first book was taken up by slowly revealing Nina and Mattias’s shared past and resolving their ongoing prejudices, here, their romance and role in each other’s lives has settled down more. The fallout of Nina’s use of the highly addictive, powerful stimulant that she used in the last book to save the team at the very end, was an important and captivating arc for her.

Jesper and Wylan, instead, received more word count and chapters than they had had in the first book. Jesper’s own past was delved into, as well as his continued confrontation with his own gambling addition and the ongoing damage that his past poor choices are wreaking on his own life and the lives of those he loves. Wylan, too, further explores his own highly toxic familial relationships and the true horror that lies at the heart of many of his father’s lies. Their relationship, together, is also given more focus, especially as Jesper begins to realize that his crush on Kaz is a dead end and that Wylan may have always been the better match for him.

Of course, for me, Inej and Kaz were my main points of interest. I enjoyed both of these two the most in the first book, and I continued to enjoy their chapters here. I do feel like they each had a bit less, ultimately, due to the increased focus on Jesper and Wylan, however, I still loved what we were given. Inej, specifically, had come to some pretty frank realizations about what she saw for herself in the future by the end of the last book. And here, it was learning how to follow through with two competing desires. She’s also confronted by a mysterious assassin who may actually be even more skilled than the Wraith herself. Kaz, too, still struggles to overcome the lasting effects of his past. His arc didn’t have as many clear points, as it was more a simple continuation of his rise as a force to be reckoned with in Ketterdam. However, his relationship with Inej and the vulnerability that is required to maintain (begin!) it, is a continual point of challenge for him.

As for the plot itself, I very much enjoyed the complicated heist that was put into effect. There were several points that were laid down here and there that later came to play in new and surprising ways. There was just enough made clear to see the building blocks of the plan, but enough was hidden from various characters to have a good number of surprises in store (this is probably another reason why we had fewer Kaz chapters than I’d like, since, by necessity of the plot remaining a mystery, the man who knows it all can’t have a lot of focus). I liked the multiple showdowns that came into play and the ways in which various crew members’ strengths were called upon at different times to solve different problems.

The story was a bit more sprawling than the close-focused mission of the first book and I both appreciated the added complication but also felt a bit more adrift in the middle when the pieces were still being put together. The goal itself was almost too ambiguous to give the action a clear focus. This resulted in some of what should have been compelling action scenes feeling a bit disjointed from the book, as it wasn’t clear until the end how they all added together to get the result.

I also really enjoyed the ending. The story definitely didn’t shy away from some grim choices, and while I know this will disappoint some readers, I felt that these decisions were necessary to reflect the true dangers of the situation at hand. Further, while broad paths were laid before each character, their stories were by no means neatly wrapped up. Instead, we saw glimpses into what could be the future, but they were left so wide-open that there’s room to imagine various outcomes for them all.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this duology. It’s hard to think of many fantasy/heist books (of course, there’s the insurmountable Megan Whalen Turner), so in many ways these stories felt like a breath of fresh air in YA fantasy fiction (is it even YA? This was a question we discussed at bookclub, and I’m not sure of the answer for books like this). If you enjoyed “Six of Crows,” or Megan Whalen Turner’s “Queen’s Thief” series, or other books by Leigh Bardugo, definitely check this one out!

Rating 9: A thoroughly satisfying conclusion to this duology.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Crooked Kingdom” is included on these Goodreads lists: “YA fantasy/sf novels with major LGBTQ Characters” and “Thieves.”

Find “Crooked Kingdom” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Into the Bright Unknown”

18054074Book: “Into the Bright Unknown” by Rae Carson

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, October 2017

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

Book Description: Leah Westfall, her fiancé Jefferson, and her friends have become rich in the California Territory, thanks to Lee’s magical ability to sense precious gold. But their fortune has made them a target, and when a dangerous billionaire sets out to destroy them, Lee and her friends decide they’ve had enough—they will fight back with all their power and talents. 

Lee’s magic is continuing to strengthen and grow, but someone is on to her—someone who might have a bit of magic herself. The stakes are higher than ever as Lee and her friends hatch a daring scheme that could alter the California landscape forever. 

Previously reviewed: “Walk on Earth a Stranger” and “Like a River Glorious”

Review: This is the last in the “Gold Seer” trilogy and after the previous book which seemed to wrap up much of the story and do-away with its main villain, I wasn’t sure where this book would go from there. I was also still smarting from the pretty graphic and hard-to-read scenes that made up a good chunk of that book, so I went into this one hopeful that we’d have a return to the “Oregon Trail” adventures of the first book. What we got was probably something in-between.

Life is moving along in Glory, California. Lee and her friends have on their hands what looks to be a growing and bustling town. Except for the fact that the town charter they had paid for from the wealthy Henry Hardwick in the last book has yet to arrive. With this problem before them, a large chunk of our main characters head off to San Fransisco. What they find is a man much more villainous than they had suspected and before long, Lee and her friends have much more to deal with than just a small town charter.

With this as the last book in the trilogy, looking back, it’s hard to get a real sense for this series as a whole. The first one was a fairly straight-forward travelogue with fun call-outs to the tropes of Oregon Trail games and stories. The second took a nose dive into the worst parts of humanity and left Lee as a bit of a passive character. And this one gets the gang back together, adds a new villain, and pretty much turns into a heist story. It’s all a little strange, from that angle.

But to judge this book on its own, there were definite areas of improvement from the last book but it still didn’t manage to reclaim the highs of the first. I very much enjoyed the return of many of our familiar characters who were largely absent in the second book. In particular, Becky, who had snuck up on me in the first book as a favorite and then disappeared in the second installment. As a heist story, it makes sense to have this large cast and the book already had many of these people on hand, so it was fun seeing them all interact and plan together in a way that was intentional, rather than the hap-hazard manner in which they had been forced by circumstances on the trail to work together before.

Lee and Jefferson’s relationship was also good. I was glad to see them working together for much of this book after being separated for so much of it during the previous one. The lack of relationship drama was also a welcome relief given that all too often it seems as if authors feel the need to throw a wrench in their romances in the last book from a misguided attempt to “build tension.”

One of the strongest portions of this book, for me, was the increased focus on Lee’s abilities. There was a big shift in the end of the last book with how her gold sense operated, and it was interesting watching Lee continue to practice and explore the possible new uses of her powers. There were several moments in this book where she came up with clever ways to put this power to use, and after being mostly useless in the second book, the success of their plans ultimately did fall to Lee’s own abilities, both with her powers and her planning. I was also surprised when an arc was introduced that dealt more fully with where these abilities might have come from and what other forms of magic might exist in the world. It was a nice addition as, up to this point, it felt a little strange to have Lee be the only exception to a world that otherwise seemed magic-less and true to history.

Those were the stronger aspects of the book. However, I did still struggle with the main plot itself and the villains. It’s a weird complaint, but like the second book, the villains were almost TOO villainous. In that they all seemed evil simply…because. And while I know that money and influence could go a long way then (and still can today), it also bordered on unrealistic that some of the villains’ actions could have been overlooked for so long. A man is killed in a crowd of people at one point, and no one bats an eye. Even with prejudices in mind, I have to think that this would have lead to something more.

The heist itself was interesting enough. But it was also a bit too complicated, for my thoughts. Or, barring that, not easy enough to put together on ones own without a massive infodump at the end explaining it all. A good heist story keeps some cards hidden, but still leaves room for the reader to put things together for themselves. Here, while there were parts that I could guess, the infodump where “all was told” was still long and confusing. This could partly be due to the simple fact that no finesse was used for said infodump: characters just spilled it out in long chunks of dialogue. At the best, it was just boring. At the worst, it left me still confused but not wanting to expose myself to the boredom again in an attempt to try to understand with a second read-through.

In the end, the series never quite regained the high that was the first book and seemed to flounder around for purchase and focus in the last two books, each presenting wildly different stories both in tone and topic. If I was to recommend this series, I’d almost say to just stop with the first. The second two are not worthless, but they’re also the kind of books that I will quickly forget. But if you are still enjoying these characters and the unique combination of realistic history with small doses of magic, this book was still an improvement on the second and might be worth checking out.

Rating 6: A serviceable story with a few highs relating to Lee’s magic, but a heist that was too confusing to be truly enjoyable.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Into the Bright Unknown” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “California Gold Rush in YA & Middle Grade Fiction” and “Young Adult Books Without Insta-Love.”

Find “Into the Bright Unknown” at your library using WorldCat!

The Great Animorphs Re-Read #33: “The Illusion”

302871Animorphs #33: “The Illusion”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, September 1999

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The Yeerks possess a weapon that could be the biggest threat to the Animorphs yet. The anti-morphing ray transforms a person in morph back to natural form. Unless they find and destroy the top-secret ray, the Animorphs could be exposed for good.

Narrator: Tobias

Plot: What made getting through the last book so terrible (beyond the fact that it was god awful all on its own) was that I knew this one was coming up next. And this was one of my favorites as a kid growing up. Other than the first few and the David trilogy, this was by far the book I re-read the most and thus one of the rare later series stories that I have clear memories of. And yet, even I didn’t remember just how sob-worthy this story was!!

Actual footage of me while trying to read this book in public.

Tobias is at a school dance and feeling awkward. While many of us realize this is how ALL teenagers feel at school dances, Tobias attributes it to his discomfort being human again after spending so much time as a hawk. What’s more, he’s pretty sure Rachel wants to dance. Halfway through their dance, however, Tobias sees the clock on the gym wall and realizes he only has a few minutes left before he would be trapped in his human morph and out of the Yeerk war altogether. As he bolts for the outdoors, Rachel catches up with him and finally opens up about some of the challenges of their relationship. Notably, that with all of the craziness in her life, she needs something normal and would it really be that bad if Tobias were human once again? Unnerved, Tobias still makes a break for it and manages to escape outside and regain his hawk form. Jake, who also noticed the mad dash, comments that he is glad Tobias made it back to hawk as the team needs him for his eyes in the air. Tobias suspects that while this may be true, Jake has also become the type of leader to use his assets wisely and say what needs to be said to keep people in line.

The next day the team meets in the barn. Erek had caught up with Jake earlier and had some news to share about the Anit-Morphing Ray that the group had failed to destroy in their last mission. The problem is that they have no idea where the Yeerks are keeping the ray, but they do know that the Sharing is hosting a big unveiling for their new community center. Through this they come up with a plan: the Yeerks are likely looking to trap a “Andalite bandit” at this event to test their ray on. Instead, the Animorphs will purposely walk into said trap and then through capture figure out where the ray is located so they can destroy it. It’s clear to Tobias that Jake has more in mind than this, and he quickly understands that Jake means for Tobias to volunteer, reasoning that if Tobias is captured, the Yeerks will assume he in morph, use the ray gun on him, and then think that it doesn’t work when Tobias fails to “demorph.” Tobias will also need to acquire Ax so he can pretend to attempt “demorphing” to further convince the Yeerks that they do in fact have an Andalite in morph. Of course, there is no guarantee that the ray gun is even safe and won’t just kill its target, so this is a very high risk mission for Tobias. But the whole group recognizes it as the only option, and Tobias moves forward with acquiring Ax.

Back in their forest, Tobias and Ax bond over Tobias’s experiences as an Andalite, especially given their familial relationship with Ax essentially being Tobias’s uncle. Ax teaches him a few tail blade moves and walks him through the evening ritual.

The next day, the team goes into action at the Sharing event. Jake sits with his family as Tom is given an award. Tobias flies above. Ax is in human morph and is meant to guide the remaining team who are all in fly morph. Hi-jinks ensue as Ax inevitably gets distracted by food and causes a minor scene. Eventually, he and Tobias manage to sneak into the back of the community center and discover the location of the Yeerk’s “trap:” a playground with a tunnel. It’s clear that the Yeerks are trying to set it up to look as if this tunnel is a new entrance to the Yeerk pool so as to temp Andalite bandits into it.

The group all reconvene near the playground. Fly!Rachel hides in Tobias’s feathers and it is her job to report back to the rest of them where the ray gun is so they can attack and rescue him. Ax and Tobias make a break for the tunnel, drawing the attention of the Yeerks. Tobias flies all the way in while Ax “aborts” at the last minute and draws the rest of the Controllers after him. Inside the tunnel in the connected room, hawk!Tobias confronts the Controllers who are in place to spring the “trap.” At their head is a young woman who looks eerily like Rachel. She identifies herself as “Taylor” and she is a sub-visser in the Yeerk ranks. She also happens to have a stun gun of sorts that she shoots at Tobias, not caring if it takes down a few Hork Bajir in the process. Paralyzed, fly!Rachel slips off to land on the floor, vulnerable to be stepped on. Now alone and with the plan already in shambles, Tobias is stuffed in a box and relocated.

When he is let out of the box, he finds himself in a larger clear box with the ray gun pointed directly at him. Visser Three shows up with two Controller scientists in tow. They test the ray gun on Tobias. When it fails, Visser Three is not pleased, feeding the scientists to a pit of Taxxons that is located beneath the floor. He instructs Taylor to torture Tobias into demorphing so he can be infested and give information on the other bandits.

And so begins pages of poor Tobias being tortured. Taylor uses the ray gun to shoot some type of rays at him that trigger pain sensors in his brain.Through it all, we get some great flashbacks to periods in Tobias’s life that highlight why he might be so hesitant to want to return to a human life. We see a bully who persistently comes after him. And a very sad scene where Tobias comes home with an award, only to be told by his lazy uncle that if there’s no money in it, than it’s worthless and Tobias should just get a job (we’re to remember that these kids were like 13 at the beginning of this series and that this scene presumably happened sometime before that even, so….yeah, the uncle is a piece of work). The scene and Taylor’s dialogue within it are a clear reference to the classic “Pit of Despair” scene from “The Princess Bride.” Eventually, Tobias realizes that he can retreat to the mind of the hawk in order to survive the pain. The hawk has no understanding of what is causing this pain or that it has any way of preventing it from happening again; to him it is just another unpleasant part of life now.

Eventually, Taylor figures out what Tobias is up to and introduces a third setting on the ray: the ability to send beams that connect to pleasure sensors in the brain, which brutally yanks Tobias back and forth between pain and pleasure, thus disallowing him from using the hawk for safety. In a few flashbacks here, we see there was once an elderly woman who would take Tobias in after school and feed him treats, one of the few good memories, it seems, from his childhood. He also has memories of showing up at Rachel’s room for what must be regular flying dates they go on.

During a break in the action, Tobias realizes that something strange is up with Taylor. It becomes clear that she has gone insane and Tobias is able to wheedle the story of her past out of her. It turns out that the girl Taylor had once been the homecoming queen of her highschool, but after a house fire she was left badly burned and missing an arm and leg. Having lost her looks, all that was important to her it seemed, she turned to the Yeerks who offered to heal her in exchange for becoming a Controller. Somehow throughout this all, the Yeerk who infested her and Taylor herself somehow merged their personalities, leaving the current Taylor to routinely switch between identifying past Taylor as herself or as a separate being. By this point, Tobias is past the two hour “limit” and Taylor realizes that she has failed to get the “Andalite” to demorph. The knowledge that there is a good chance Visser Three will also feed her to the Taxxons in the pit, she turns up the torture to a new level.

It is too much. Tobias feels himself dying and right near the end he experiences a vision. An Andalite comes to him and presses his tail blade to his forehead. He then experiences a series of “memories” from his father, Elfangor’s, point of view. At the end, Elfangor says that Tobias has come from a long line of warriors who put others before themselves, and that death to save his friends is a noble way to go. But before the light can finally go out, the other Animorphs arrive. They battle Taylor and the Hork Bajir who come to her defense and manage to destroy the ray gun.

Towards the end, grizzly!Rachel has an opportunity to kill Taylor, one that she is just about to take when Tobias tells her to stop. Throughout it all, he hasn’t been able to avoid drawing comparisons between Rachel and Taylor, two girls who are rarely beautiful. But where Taylor’s strength came from her beauty and without it lead her to do terrible things, Tobias sees the grizzly morph as an outer representation of Rachel’s stronger inner self. He asks her to let Taylor go; to be Rachel, and not Taylor.

The last scene is the Animorphs on the beach, trying to gain a bit of normalcy after all of the craziness. Tobias describes his last vision to Ax who is quite shocked. He says there is an Andalite legend that some memories are passed through the DNA and that they can be triggered in the last moments of life, but he’s been sure those were just tales.

Finally, Rachel joins them on the beach. Tobias runs to her and they hug, Rachel asking how bad it was and Tobias confessing that it was really bad, he almost gave in. But through it all, he comes to the conclusion that for now he knows who he is: the person that Rachel loves. She kisses him, and they go flying.

A Hawk’s Life: This is a great Tobias book. He has a lot to contend with before he even gets tot he torture scene. There’s his ongoing struggle with striking a balance between his hawk form and his human form and his fears that Rachel is becoming more and more unwilling to deal with the limbo that is their relationship as it stands.

The book also leans in heavily on the shortened life span of a hawk, something we haven’t seen before. Not only does Tobias see an inconveniently placed poster on this topic on the highschool walls while he flees to demorph, but there is an eagle that is dying from old age in Cassie’s barn (the team use the eagle as a way to gain entrance to the morphing ray room and save Tobias in the end of the book.) Whenever he looks at the bird, it’s a reminder of the shortened life span and the dangers that wild birds face.

He really gets into his Andalite heritage for the first time, morphing an Andalite and learning more about Andalite history and culture through his moments with Ax. The DNA-memory thing is also a great addition as it finally gives Tobias a more clear connection with his father. In one of the memories, Elfangor spends a moment thinking about how he misses Loren and wishes he was on Earth with her and his son. One has to imagine that this memory is a great comfort to Tobias, knowing Elfangor loved his mother and him and didn’t want to leave them.

All I could hear was “Siiimbaaaa” in my head while I read this scene.

And then, of course, there’s all the stuff in the torture scenes with the dark glimpses into Tobias’s past, as well as some of the more happy memories with Rachel and the woman who used to give him treats. Tobias also wisely catches on to there being something strange going on with Taylor and uses that knowledge to draw her into talking about herself and giving himself a break.

In the end, he confesses to Rachel that he almost broke. But Rachel reassures him that she knows who he is and that he’d never give them up, and Tobias realizes that his sense of self is well cared for him Rachel’s hands.

Our Fearless Leader: Tobias makes some pretty blatant statements about Jake’s transformation as a leader. He suspects immediately that while Jake might truly mean his words about being glad Tobias made it back to his hawk morph because he knows that’s what Tobias wants, Jake is also a leader who will say whatever he thinks will further his mission. He needs Tobias in his hawk form, and Tobias suspects that that is at the heart of anything he says.

Tobias also sees the manipulation at play when they’re all in the barn planning what to do about the ray gun. Jake volunteers at first, but Tobias sees that he isn’t expecting this plan to go forward. And then when Ax volunteers, he’s silent. It’s clear that he had a person in mind and is waiting for that person (Tobias) to volunteer himself, so that Jake doesn’t have to ask/order him to do it. It’s one of the more clear examples we’ve seen of Jake starting to use his friends a chess pieces. It’s cold, but it’s also necessary and Tobias recognizes this.

Xena, Warrior Princess: This book did a great job following up on the awfulness that was the last book. Rachel is clearly shaken from the experience and looking for normalcy in her life, and her romance with Tobias isn’t helping. In the very beginning of the book, she has one of the more honest conversations we’ve seen between the two. It’s clear that it’s not simply selfish, romantic reasons that she wants Tobias to consider staying human, but that her own inner struggles make it even harder for her to deal with the burden that is their romance. Further, she seems to be the only Animorph who is concerned by the way that Tobias is leaning into his life as a hawk and more and more prone to discomfort whenever he’s human. She repeatedly reminds him that his human form isn’t just a “morph,” it’s who he naturally is and that it’s worrisome if he doesn’t remember this.

It’s never made clear whether or not she was actually aware of the time and had been trying to trick Tobias into staying. My interpretation is that she didn’t really know herself what she wanted to happen, and  that a small, secret part of her was both hoping he wouldn’t realize but not actively plotting to trap him.

Early in the barn conversation, she also volunteers for the mission before it becomes clear that Jake has Tobias in mind. We don’t see the scene when she insists on going in with him as a fly, but I feel confident we can assume it wasn’t much of a “discussion” at all. As they’re going in, she tells Tobias not to put the mission first. That if things get too bad, he should forget about the mission and save himself.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie does very little in this book. After they all agree that Tobias is the one to go on this mission, Tobias notes that she gives him a particular sympathetic look that she reserves for only the most series moments. And then in the end when they’re all on the beach, she’s off looking for injured animals on the reef. Because of course she is.

The Comic Relief: Marco is the only other one to quickly realize that Jake has another plan in mind when they’re talking in the barn. He also is one of the quickest to realize what exactly that plan is. In the final battle scene, gorilla!Marco is the one to save Tobias, getting very torn up in the process. It’s a nice scene as often Marco and Tobias don’t have many scenes together and are two of the more disconnected members of the group, both due to differing personalities and a lack of any significant connection on their own. But here is is clear that Marco is unwilling to give up and leave Tobias behind, even if that means putting his own life on the line.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: This was a big book for really establishing the connection between Ax, Tobias, and their shared Andalite heritage. The scenes of Ax teaching Tobias about Andalite culture were very well done, and there’s an interesting moment when Tobias first morphs an Andalite when he realizes that the natural state of Andalites is to be optimistic. Ax confirms that they have had to “train” themselves to be warriors, against their natural instincts. Later, when Ax and Tobias are infiltrating the Sharing community center, it is clear that Ax is very worried about Tobias’s role in this mission, again highlighting the strong bond between them.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: The scenes of the damage that is done to Tobias during the torture sessions is pretty vivid. Not only is the ray setting of pain sensors in his head, but in his mindless thrashing, he does a lot of physical damage to himself. He breaks a wing, loses feathers, and, yikes, breaks his beak. It’s so bad that when the other Animorphs show up, grizzly!Rachel takes one look at him and knows how bad it must have been, further spurring her anger and wish to kill Taylor at the end.

Couples Watch!: This is by far the most romance-centric book so far (and from my memory, in the entire series). It starts right out with the challenges that Rachel and Tobias face and the increasing pressure they both feel to make this impossible thing work. Rachel is clearly hitting a wall with her ability to juggle so much craziness in her life and is concerned about Tobias’s well-being, not only his increasing association with his hawk self but the fact that the stark reality is that hawks have much shorter life spans than humans.

Then of course we have all of the concern from Rachel about Tobias going on this mission, though it’s worth noting that even she doesn’t come out against it, knowing it’s the best option. She goes in with him and tells him to put himself first.

While captured, Tobias repeatedly refers to the fact that Taylor looks like Rachel and notes how very different these two beautiful teenage girls are. It’s not only a reflection on his own thoughts on Rachel (and his ongoing concern that something terrible might have happened to her when she fell off him while paralyzed. She even began to cry when this happened, one of the few times we see this), but a good reminder for readers (after the book that shall not be named…) that while Rachel is dangerous, she’s still a good person and nowhere near the type of person who would have fallen in with the Yeerks had she lost her beauty.

Then there’s the end, of course. I think this is the first time either member of either couple has said the “love” word. And not only is he saying it, but Tobias sees this love and his relationship with Rachel as the foundation of his own identity, whether human or bird. They also kiss, rather casually even, further highlighting how much more established their relationship is than Jake and Cassie who are still awkwardly skirting around each other and (like in the last Jake book) barely referencing the thing between them.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: When Ax and Tobias sneak in to find out where the “trap/Yeerk pool entrance” is located, they stumble on two Controllers who are discussing the mad idea that Visser Three has had that somehow in an open-air Sharing event they’re supposed to catch any animal that wanders in. But they note that you can’t say this to him or you’ll end up dead, as the two scientists discover when they try to assure Visser Three that they ray can’t possibly not work.

Taylor also makes this comment to Chapman after they’ve caught Tobias, which I’m sure is a direct jab at his learning to speak “villain talk” from Visser Three, though luckily for her, Visser Three’s not there to hear it:

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” he offered, smirking.

“Shut up, Chapman,”the girl said calmly. “You sound like some pun-spouting villain from a Batman movie.”

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: As evident by the gif at the very beginning of this post, this book has by far been the biggest tear jerker of the series. Not only do you have an extended torture scene taking up a large chunk of the book (talk about not pulling your punches for a young audience!), but the thoughts and memories that come with it are rough. The scene with Tobias’s uncle is particularly heart-breaking as we have to imagine that this is just once moment from a long list of moments where a very young Tobias has been completely ignored and beaten down by the only parental figures he has had.

Then there are scenes of animal abuse that Tobias imagines when thinking about the hawk’s approach to pain and fear. Oof. There were legit tears in this section, what with the descriptions of the fear, the pain, and, in my opinion worst of all, the confusion that these animals would feel when being tormented by humans. Some of them were so specific (like the scene of a wild goose being clubbed to death on a golf course by cruel teenagers) that you have to imagine the ghost writer who wrote this book was pulling from some traumatic memory of their own. Yikes, it was a lot.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: This is another good plan from the Animorphs. It’s pretty complex, too, with all of the moving pieces, especially in the beginning. They really sell it hard that they are “accidentally” getting caught, even putting Ax at risk by having him run out and away in the open to be chased (and maybe caught) by the Yeerks. It’s not really their fault that they didn’t anticipate the freeze gun as that’s not technology they’ve run into before. I do feel like there is still a pretty big question mark about how exactly fly!Rachel was supposed to get off Tobias and, with very poor eyesight, find a place to demorph and get out to return to the others. But I’m sure this was a risk they felt they had to take (just like sending Tobias in in the first place) to destroy what would have been a game-changing weapon.

The Yeerks’ plan, however, was not that good. The group all comment that the Yeerk “trap” with the playground tunnel was all too easy to spot and that the Yeerks must really think the Andalites are idiots if they fell for it. But then again, the Animorphs were still choosing to go in, so….

Favorite Quote:

There’s a great scene where Jake and human!Visser Three come face to face while at the Sharing event when Visser Three tries to swat fly!Cassie off Jake’s arm. It’s a really cool moment and one of the ones that I can so easily picture as if it were in a movie:

“Such filthy insects. Allow me to . . .” He swung at Jake.

Jake’s hand shot up. He grabbed the Visser’s wrist in his fist. For a long few seconds the two of them glared at each other. Visser Three, leader of the Yeerk forces on Earth. And Jake, his unrecognized foe.

The “Ax goes crazy with food” scene at the Sharing event also provided some much needed levity to an otherwise very serious and sad book:

<Marco,what exactly are you doing in the fondue?> Rachel asked.

<Exactly? Well … I wanted to see if it would still taste good sucked up through a fly mouth.You gonna help me or do you just want to bust me?>

<Let him get eaten,>Rachel advised.

Scorecard: Yeerks 8, Animorphs 13

The Animorphs manage to take out the ray gun and came up with a pretty clever way of tricking the Yeerks into thinking it didn’t work, in the event that they hadn’t been able to destroy it. Plus, bonus, the two scientists who came up with what was actually a brilliant idea, ended up fed to Taxxons by a very short-sighted Visser Three who had a tantrum. So a win/win/win!

Rating: I loved this book. Always did and still do. All of the characters are exactly on point. There are good references to past events, particularly Rachel’s struggle to find normalcy in her life after being so shaken up by her last book. Jake’s ongoing descent into pure leadership mode and his showdown with Visser Three. Marco’s smarts. Cassie’s concern. Ax’s acknowledgement of his and Tobias’s shared Andalite heritage. And all of the confusion and inner strength that make Tobias such an interesting character. We get a lot of extra information on what his life was like before the Animorphs, and I think at this point in the series, it’s very important to get these scenes to fully understand why Tobias is so hesitant to go back to life as a boy.

We also get a very good villain in Taylor. It’s always nice to have another villain other than Visser Three to focus on in these books, and Taylor is given quite a bit of character development herself. Not only does she have an interesting back story that ties into her crazed perspective that we see on display, but her similarities to Rachel lead Tobias to make some poignant and important comparisons and contrasts between the two.

And, of course, as I’m fully on the Tobias/Rachel ship, I like the focus on their relationship in this book. It doesn’t feel silly or immature, but really highlights the challenges faced by these two and why they are so drawn together and serve as much needed support systems to each other.

This is probably one of the better ghost written books in the series, and I feel like that had to have been clear since I’m pretty sure this same writer also wrote a good number towards the end of the series. It does present a weird contrast when placed next to the last book that was somehow written by Applegate herself. Just goes to show that even good authors can make big missteps and that the ghost writers shouldn’t be completely written off either.

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!

Serena’s Review: “Spinning Silver”

36896898Book: “Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey, July 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss!

Book Description: Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders… but her father isn’t a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife’s dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty–until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers’ pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed–and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.

But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it’s worth–especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.

Review: I was so excited when I saw that this book was coming out! “Uprooted” is one of my favorite more recent fairytale novels, and part of the reason I loved it was that it was a stand alone book. So to see that Novik was releasing yet another fairytale that would likely also be a standalone made my day. I was even more excited when I realized that it looked to be a reinterpretation of “Rumpelstiltskin” which has been, by far, one of the more underutilized fairytales in the midst of this retellings resurgence. And all of my wildest hopes and dreams have come true! I absolutely adored this book and my hardback copy is already pre-ordered.

Miryem’s life has been one filled with strained relationships. Her grandfather, a wealthy money lender, has struggled to watch his daughter’s family slowly slip into poverty as his son-in-law, Miryem’s father, has failed to make an earning as a moneylender himself. What’s more, Miryem, a decisive and strong-willed young woman, has never understood her father’s struggles to collect. After being pushed to far, with her mother’s health at risk, Miryem finally takes over the business, to her father’s shame and sadness, as this is by no means a “proper” task for a young lady. But Miryem excels. Far too well even, as she draws the attention of the magical beings who wander the winter woods looting and raiding villages for gold. And who could be more valuable than a woman you seems to turn anything she touches to gold? Now tangled in a complicated world of fairy rules and wars, Miryem will need to  draw on all the strength she has to save not only herself but perhaps even her country.

It’s no secret that I love fairytales, be they original or retellings. But as I’ve had a string of bad luck with “Beauty and the Beast” retellings (oof, there’s another one coming, folks, so look forward to that!), I have been hankering for a more original tale, unbound from conventions that all too often skew what could have been a good story. What’s more, Novik has already proven herself as being able to masterfully take the bare bones of a fairytale and make it something that only marginally resembles the original. And this held true for “Spinning Silver,” as well. While there are the barest tinges of the original “Rumplestilskin” tale before the story quickly (I’m talking a few chapters in) swerves into new and uncharted territory. And much better territory, when it comes down to it.

For one thing, given the description above and my own false assumption that it would follow the standard set by “Uprooted,” I went into this book fully expecting it to be Miryem’s tale following her struggles to turn rooms of silver into gold. And for the first several chapters, that’s what I got. But then a new character was introduced, a young woman from the same village whose home life is terrible and who is looking for a way out for her and her young brothers. Ok, now we have two. A few chapters more and yet another new character comes in, this time a young woman who is the disappointingly plain heiress to a father who has high hopes of rising his family’s position in the nobility. And that’s only the first three and the three who would turn out to be the more traditional lead characters for a book like this! But Novik doesn’t stop there and we get even more chapters from characters like the younger brothers, the nurse maid to the heiress, and even the villain himself at one point.

As has been documented on this blog several times before, I typically prefer books with only one narrator. I can handle two. But, like all silly reading “rules,” an exception was bound to come along, and that exception came here. While I did have favorites, Miryem herself, of course, as well as the heiress who played a much bigger role than I had expected at first, I enjoyed ALL of these characters. Not only did they all contribute important view changes on what became a very twisty plot, but each had a distinct voice, a “must” for any multiple POV book, and the point where I usually have criticisms for same-ness. They also all experienced clear character growth as the story progressed, though the amount of this was tied to the varied amount of page time each was given. Miryem’s sense of responsibility warred with the pride that lead her to become entangled in fairy wars. The peasant girl with the bad home life grew to have an appreciation for what family should mean. And the heiress found her own power in a world that had already written her off.

It also takes a lot of plot to provide ample room for movement and growth for a book with a cast of characters as large as this. And, again, Novik met this challenge head-on. The story slowly builds with several seemingly disparate through lines following each of these characters. But as the book continues, steadily these lines get woven together until by about halfway through the book the complicated network of intrigue is coming together. The players have been established and it is now up to several young women, all of whom are hugely out of their depth with creatures of magic and power surrounding them, to come together and save a country that is more and more plagued by long-lasting winters.

The magical elements were also surprising and unique. With the “Rumpelstilskin” parallel presented right at the get-go, I fully expected to see plenty of struggles regarding turning various things into gold. But that was only a small part of the fantasy world Novik created here. For one thing, the villain came completely out of left-field and was appropriately threatening and devious. Further, Miryem is not the only one to encounter and wield power in this story, and I was thrilled to see small references to other fairytales sprinkled here and there throughout the story.

The book also surprised me with a careful look at the anti-Sematism that Miryem, her family, and her people experienced throughout this book. While the story is set in a fantasy world, the challenging tension that is balanced between the Jewish people, their neighbors, and their roles in finance and banking was all too familiar to real-life history. Through Miryem, we see the struggles her family has faced with these prejudices, but also the important role her religion and culture holds in her life. Through other characters, we see their own biases and prejudices challenged and changed. It’s a nice added commentary in an otherwise purely fantastical tale.

Like “Uprooted,” the romance is understated in this story and isn’t a driving force for any of its characters. While I could have liked a bit more of it, I was quite pleased with what we did get, and, again, surprised that it wasn’t limited to our primary main character.

All in all, I absolutely loved this book. If you liked “Uprooted,” or like fairytales, or like fantasy, or just like good books, get your hands on this one!

Rating 10: Should I have been surprised? No. Was I thrilled? Yes. I can pretty much guarantee this will make my “Top Ten” list in December.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Spinning Silver” is on these Goodreads lists: “All that Glitters: Rumpelstiltskin Retellings” and “Upcoming 2018 Sci-Fi/Fantasy With Female Leads or Co-Leads.”

Find “Spinning Silver” at your library using WorldCat!

 

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!

Serena’s Review: “A Perilous Undertaking”

30008834Book: “A Perilous Undertaking” by Deanna Raybourn

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, January 2017

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

Book Description: London, 1887. At the Curiosity Club, a ladies-only establishment for daring and intrepid women, Victorian adventuress Veronica Speedwell meets the mysterious Lady Sundridge, who begs her to take on an impossible task–saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution. Ramsforth, accused of the brutal murder of his mistress, Artemisia, will face the hangman’s noose in a week’s time if the real killer is not found.

But Lady Sundridge is not all that she seems, and unmasking her true identity is only the first of many secrets Veronica must uncover. Together with her natural-historian colleague, Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer. From a Bohemian artists’ colony to a royal palace to a subterranean grotto with a decadent history, the investigation proves to be a very perilous undertaking indeed…

Previously reviewed: “A Curious Beginning”

Review: I’ve finally gotten around to writing a review for the second book in this series! Confession: I read this several months ago…But! There have been several more recent releases that I’ve read between then and now that I wanted to get in nearer their publication date, so here we hare. #blogproblems. Anyways, all of that to say, the delay in this had nothing to do with reservations about the series or this book in general, because turns out, I liked this one just as much as the first, maybe even more!

Veronica Speedwell and Stoker have finally settled into a routine and are excited to set out on their first expedition with their wealthy patron. That is until he trips on a tortoise and has to cancel the whole thing, leaving Veronica and Stoker at a loss with how to fill their time. Wouldn’t it be nice if a mystery would fall on their doorstep right about now? And lo and behold, one does! This time with a murder in a close knit of artist friends and a speculation that the man found covered in blood at her feet may be innocent after all. Now it’s up to Veronica and Stoker to not only get to the bottom of all the shenanigans that this group has been getting up to over the years, but also to unravel a complicated knot of possible relationships and motives to hopefully save the life of an innocent man. Or is he?

Man, I’m just enjoying the heck out of these books! Veronica is such a hoot, and she’s even better in this book, now having found a new pursuit at which to aim her talents and intelligence. Stoker plays the reluctant side kick in front of Veronica’s unparalleled enthusiasm, and it sets a great tone for the series going forward. Further, in the midst of the mystery itself, we get some nice added building blocks to both of our main characters. Veronica is still reeling from the revelations about her parentage that she discovered in the last book. It’s not something that can simply be shrugged off, and specific elements of this mystery bring some of these lingering feelings to a head. Stoker, too, is still managing reconciling his complicated history with his past wife with his growing attachment (mostly just partnership, at this point) with another strong-willed woman.

The mystery itself also plays to both of these characters strengths and there were some fun swaps in gender roles that played for a lot of good comedic value. Stoker, for example, ends up being the distraction for fawning admirers while Veronica sneaks around hunting for clues. The pair also find themselves caught up in an underground…um…risque club? Stoker, of course, is horrified. Veronica is curious and enthusiastic. Which leads to even more horror on Stoker’s part.

The cast of possible suspects was large and I enjoyed many of the secondary characters that were introduced through the artists’ group. However, like the first book, I did find the ending a bit rushed and was able to predict the correct villain and their motivation fairly early on. But for me this didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the story. The writing is swift and sure, balancing excellent comedic dialogue with a never-faltering first person narrator.

One last criticism may be that I feel like the relationship between Veronica and Stoker might be moving a bit slowly, but this might just be due to the mental comparisons I can’t help but draw  between this series and the Amelia Peabody series. They are very alike, both with the historical setting and the general temperaments of the two leads. And with that one, we’ve seen how successfully the series moved forward even after the two main characters got married in the very first book. Here, it feels like the author might be shying back a bit out of fear that the romantic suspense is what is driving the story. I don’t believe it is, and I’ve seen how well characters like these can flourish, even if the initial romance has been resolved happily early on. But I just received the third book from the library today, so we’ll see how things progress there.

All told, I enjoyed this second novel just as much as the first. Having already been introduced to these characters and had the partnership between Veronica and Stoker already built, I might even say this was the stronger outing of the two. If you enjoyed the first book, definitely check this one out!

Rating 9: No second book slump to be seen here!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Perilous Undertaking” is on these Goodreads lists: “Best Victorian Historical Fiction Set In Britain” and “Lady detectives.”

Find “A Perilous Undertaking”  at your library using Worldcat!