Serena’s Review: “The Copper Promise” Part 4: “Upon the Ashen Blade”

19858251Book: “Upon the Ashen Blade” by Jen Williams

Publishing Info: Headline, January 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Demons and gods, revenge and lies, and still the dragon moves slowly north. Wydrin, Sebastian and Frith now have the tools that could end the destruction, but a vast army lies between them and victory, and time is running out. The race is on to stop Y’Ruen before all of Ede is under her flame.

Review: We’ve arrived at the the fourth and final novella that makes up “The Copper Promise” and our heroes have a lot to do. Wydrin: save her brother’s life. Sebastian: figure himself out and deal with the pesky little demon he’s sold his soul to. Frith: complete his journey to not being an unlikable, arrogant, ass while escaping a crow god. All: deal with the dragon bent on destroying the world with her fire and brood army. So, you know, a reasonable task for about 110 pages of story!

As mentioned in the last review, we were left on cliffhangers in all three stories. But not to fear, these were wrapped up fairly quickly at the beginning of this. So, too, our merry band were speedily re-united. While I enjoyed the three separate storylines for each that we got in the last book (a bit to my surprise!), I was very happy to have our heroes back together. It has become more and more clear that Wydrin is who has been holding things together for her and Sebastian for the last few years. Not only does he make very bad decisions without her (as we saw last time), but the guy is just too serious for his own good and has some major self-esteem issues to work through. Wydrin’s sense of humor, and sense of support, were badly needed by both him and Frith.

Frith’s cliffhanger was solved a bit too easily for my taste, but, due to the page count and long list of tasks mentioned above, this wasn’t all that surprising. It did lead to another mini adventure for the group that I very much enjoyed. The settings and magic systems that these novellas use have a very “classic high fantasy” feel to them that is refreshing in this day and age. All too often, fantasy now reads very dark, grim, and full of anti-heroes and political maneuvering.

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Yes, yes, but sometimes can’t we just have fantasy fun?? (source)

I particularly enjoyed the pieces of this story that came together through connections to the previous three novellas. The added chapter perspectives from the point of view of the members of the brood army paid off in a great way, particularly in bits where there were clever nudges to the reader that weren’t picked up on by our unknowing heroes. And Frith’s backstory was resolved in a satisfactory manner. I wasn’t quite sure where the author was going with this for a while, as the storyline seemed sprinkled in amidst the larger plot conflict of the dragon in strange ways at times.

I really only have two complaints. The first is completely unsurprising and expected: this section was too short to do justice to the many dangling storylines left to be wrapped up. Especially, I would have liked more time with Sebastian and the brood army since the relationship between the two was built up quite a lot in the second and third story. My second complaint has to do with a portion of Wydrin’s story that I felt was ultimately taking up page time that could have been used elsewhere (in the aforementioned Sebastian/brood army bits, or in the epic battle at the end, or simply in giving more time to the evolving relationship between Wydrin and Frith). Really, there were plenty of places that could have used the page time, and I had largely forgotten about this antagonist already. There were elements here that tied into the resolution of the entire story, but I wish there had been a way to deal with this in a manner that didn’t take up as much time. Or maybe just make the whole section longer, and I wouldn’t have cared as much about the pages devoted to this section if they had no impact on the other story components.

Struggles with the limited page time allotted to ending this novella series aside, I very much enjoyed this last entry in the series. I would guess that to read this oneself, you are most likely to come across “The Copper Cat” edition that includes all four novellas. As I mentioned in my first post, I’m not sure how successful this story would be if approached as a traditional fantasy novel in one pieces. The pacing would be strange throughout the entire book, and the changes in storytelling would be very jarring (having the brood army chapters in there for 100 pages without any explanation and then suddenly disappearing, then having another 100 page section told with the three different plots lines, etc). I think the author/publisher would have done themselves a favor if it had been marketed more clearly as a compilation of four novellas. As it stands, without doing extra research and discovering this for oneself, many readers could be left with a bad taste in their mouth simply due to these pacing challenges. It’s really too bad. A simple note on the cover along with marked section titles would have done the trick. But, especially if one goes in knowing this to begin with, I would highly recommend this to readers who enjoy more traditional, slightly campy fantasy adventure stories.

Rating 8: A good ending, though too short to fully do the many plot points justice.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Upon the Ashen Blade” isn’t included on any lists on its own, but the compilation “The Copper Promise” is on this list “Books You Wish More People Knew About.”

Find “Upon the Ashen Blade” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed:Ghosts of the Citadel” and “Children of Fog” and “Prince of Wounds”

Kate’s Review: “Outcast (Vol.2): A Vast and Unending Ruin”

25570825Book: “Outcast (Vol.2): A Vast and Unending Ruin” by Robert Kirkman, Paul Azaceta (Ill.).

Publishing Info: Image Comics, October 2015

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Kyle Barnes has been plagued by demonic possession all his life. In light of recent revelations, he finally feels like he’s starting to piece together the answers he’s looking for. But while he feels a new sense of purpose… is Reverend Anderson’s life falling apart?

Review: In the last collection of “Outcast”, it was pretty clear that the first few comics in this series were laying the groundwork for everything that was going to come after. I was willing to be patient for Volume 1, but I hoped that Volume 2 we’d start seeing more than a brooding Kyle, an earnest and somewhat zealous Anderson, and those around them. I’m pleased to say that “A Vast and Unending Ruin” definitely put it’s characters into the thick of it’s first story arc. The set up is done and we are seeing how it’s all fitting together! Which is a good thing, because I’ll be honest, it was getting a little tiresome to have so much set up in Volume 1 without seeing that much payoff.

One of the biggest developments in “A Vast and Unending Ruin” is that while Kyle and Anderson are definitely on the same side in this battle between themselves and the demons that are possessing those around them, it’s made very clear that they have very different opinions of how to handle and proceed. While Anderson is thinking in the terms of good vs evil and God vs Satan, Kyle isn’t totally convinced that it’s as clear cut as that. Anderson thinks that any of the consequences are going to be positive so long as the person they are trying to help is freed from the demonic grasp, a narrative that is very prevalent in your typical demonic possession story. While there are some vessels that do end up okay in the end (a la Regan McNeil in “The Exorcist”), there are others who do not (a la Emily Rose in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”). While sometimes these stories would make you think that so long as they are no longer possessed, everything is okay, because they are now being welcomed into heaven and their soul is saved. But Kyle doesn’t buy that, as he has seen those who haven’t turned out okay, like his mother. It’s easy for Anderson to say that all is well, but Kyle’s mother has been in a catatonic state for years now. So how can he agree with that? This conflict between the two main protagonists is going to be interesting as time goes on, especially since Kyle isn’t totally convinced that this is just a Biblical kind of situation. It’s an interesting theme to tackle, and hopefully it’s sustainable for awhile, at least until the next big conflict comes.

I also think that it’s important to talk about the women’s roles in this one since I touched on it the review of Volume 1. I’m happy to say that there was some expansion when it came to the lady characters in “A Vast and Unending Ruin”, as we finally got to see Allison interact with Kyle in person, not just with him calling and hanging up. Allison is torn, as she still loves her ex husband, but believes that he attacked their daughter, Amber, and nearly killed her. The ultimate tragedy of this whole situation is that it was actually Allison who attacked Amber while in a state of possession. Kyle took the fall for this, as his whole life demons have been hurting those he loves most, and the only way to keep Allison and Amber safe is to keep them away from him. This interaction gave Allison more depth, as she is neither the wife who is all forgiving, nor it she portrayed as a shrew or a bitch. I felt that her conflict of emotions, fear for their daughter and anger at Kyle versus her emotions for him that linger, made perfect sense based on what she believes to be true. I knew it would be hard to portray that conflict she’s facing, but Kirkman did a very good job writing it. We also got to see a bit more with Mildred and her connection to Sidney (who continues to be fairly mysterious, though we are starting to see some of his motivations), which just raises more questions. But the person that I’m most concerned about, character wise, is Megan, Kyle’s sister. Remember how I said that she didn’t seem like someone who needed to be rescued, despite her back story? Welllllll, I take that back now, given one of the plot points that happened in this collection (no spoilers here, though I’ll probably HAVE to talk about it come Volume 3, so keep that in mind). I’m one of those people who definitely takes issue with women being used as tools to make male characters upset or hurt or vengeful, and I’m really worried that Megan is going to be the second female in this story (along with Kyle’s mother) to fall victim to something terrible in order to make him more brooding and sad. But, we aren’t there yet! So there’s still hope it doesn’t go in this direction…

So overall, I am still enjoying “Outcast” with Volume 2, as it has started to expand on it’s story and we’re seeing the first bits of conflict beyond just exposition. There are still lots of questions to be answered, but it feels like we’re on the track to discovering at least part of what is going on. I’ll be going on to Volume 3 in the nearish future!

Rating 8: The story is finally progressing a bit faster, and we’re getting some more well thought out character development. I have issues with how Megan’s character may be going, but I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt for now.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Outcast (Vol.2): A Vast and Unending Ruin” isn’t on many Goodreads lists that match the themes, so like I said before, if you like “Hellblazer”, “Hellboy”, and “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”, this is similar.

Find “Outcast (Vol.2): A Vast and Unending Ruin” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously reviewed: “Outcast (Vol.1): A Darkness Surrounds Him”.

Who Rules The World? Girls!: Books With Women Who Kick Ass

Look, no mincing words here. We’re very disappointed with how last weeks Presidential Election turned out. We’re sure you guys can guess why, though that shouldn’t be too hard because the list is long and terrifying. But there were a few small glimmers of hope on Election Night. In our own Minnesota, Ilhan Omar became the first Somali-American  to be elected to the Minnesota House. Tammy Duckworth won the Senate seat in Illinois. And Kate Brown secured the Governorship of Oregon. In honor of the women who didn’t win and the women who did, we’ve put together a list of books with inspirational women, be they fictitious or not, to share with you all.

17851885Book: “I am Malala” by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

Publication Info: Little, Brown and Company, October 2013

At fifteen years old, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai was an outspoken activist for women’s and girls’ education in Pakistan. At the time the Taliban had moved into her home country and had started imposing that girls not be allowed to go to school, and Malala spoke against this. It was because of this that she was shot in the head while riding a bus to school. She survived, and her story has taken the world by storm, putting a spotlight on education for women the world over. Malala’s memoir details her life before her activism, the fallout after her attempted murder, and how she continues to strive and fight for the right for girls to go to school. It’s poignant, inspirational, and incredibly relatable, and you see her courage and determination in her writing and storytelling.

5960325Book: “Shanghai Girls” by Lisa See

Publication Info: Random House, May 2009

Starting in pre-WWII Shanghai and moving through the Red Scare era of Los Angeles, “Shanghai Girls” tells the story of two remarkable Chinese women who live and fight against adversity. Pearl and May are sisters growing up in 1930s Shanghai and having the time of their lives. But then their father informs them that he has sold them as brides to pay off his debts, and they are going to marry two Chinese men who are moving to Los Angeles. But before Pearl and May can join their husband (in Pearl’s case) and future husband (in May’s), the Japanese invade. Their fight for survival in China is devastating, and their adjustment to life in America is jarring. But both Pearl and May show strength and resolve in spite of the horrors and hardships that fall upon them, and their fight against oppression of all kinds will inspire you.

5805Book: “V for Vendetta” by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

Publication Info: Vertigo, 1990

Though many people probably immediately think of V, the Guy Fawkes mask wearing vigilante, in the groundbreaking comic by Alan Moore, “V for Vendetta” also features Evey Hammond, his mentee turned critic turned partner. Evey turns from a victim within the dystopic London she lives in to someone who is actively fighting against the oppressive system, and could be argued to be the true protagonist in this story. V is very much the symbol of the revolutionary ideals at their most extreme. Evey is there to show how a normal woman can take power back in her life and help lead a revolution, and not only shape it, but claim it as her own and keep it going. She has her moments of self doubt and struggle, and questions the morally ambiguous decisions that come before her. She’s a tough gal with a lot to relate to.

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Book: “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins

Publication Info: Scholastic Press, September 2008

Okay, so maybe this is an obvious one. But it’s hard to deny that Katniss Everdeen from District 12, aka The Girl on Fire is a force to be reckoned with within her story. A girl who comes from humble beginnings in a poverty stricken society offers herself up to a battle to the death to save her sister, only to spark a revolution. Sure, the love triangle is a bit much, and sure, last book in the series has a lot of criticism thrown its way, but Katniss is always a well rounded and reluctant hero, with realistic problems and a fortitude that leaps off the page. “The Hunger Games” is the start of her journey, and Katniss really is at her best here.

25953369Book: “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly

Publication Info: HarperCollins World, September 2016

So many stories have been suppressed and removed from history when it comes to scientific achievement, and a new book and movie are making waves about some ingenious women who made their mark in the mathematics field. A group of African American women working for NASA were some of the pioneers behind the space race, working numbers and data that would eventually propel rockets into the air and send man into space. Though their story has been overlooked for a long time, a newly published book shows that these women were essential to the propulsion of the American Space Race. If you like science and STEM things along with American history, this could be the book for you.

28502749Book: “Rad Women Worldwide” by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klien Stahl (Ill.)

Publication Info: Ten Speed Press, September 2016

Why have one or two awesome ladies in a book when you can have a whole lot of them?! In this collection of biographies and essays, a large number of women from all over the world are given their time in the spot light. The backgrounds run the gamut, from artists (like Frida Kahlo) to musicians (like punk icon Poly Styrene to world leaders (like Hatsepshut). This collection for younger readers will open a world of really neat ladies who will inspire kids for all kinds of reasons.

There are, of course, many more super inspirational books about women, fiction and non fiction alike. What are some of your favorites? Let us know in the comments!

 

Serena’s Review: “The Queen of Attolia”

40158Book: “The Queen of Attolia” by Megan Whalen Turner

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, April 2000

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Revenge
When Eugenides, the Thief of Eddis, stole Hamiathes’s Gift, the Queen of Attolia lost more than a mythical relic. She lost face. Everyone knew that Eugenides had outwitted and escaped her. To restore her reputation and reassert her power, the Queen of Attolia will go to any length and accept any help that is offered…she will risk her country to execute the perfect revenge.

…but
Eugenides can steal anything. And he taunts the Queen of Attolia, moving through her strongholds seemingly at will. So Attolia waits, secure in the knowledge that the Thief will slip, that he will haunt her palace one too many times.

…at what price?
When Eugenides finds his small mountain country at war with Attolia, he must steal a man, he must steal a queen, he must steal peace. But his greatest triumph, and his greatest loss, comes in capturing something that the Queen of Attolia thought she had sacrificed long ago…

Review: Well, as predicted, I’m well on my to zipping through this entire series well before the publication of the newest book (expected sometime next spring). But I just can’t help myself!

Coming off the strength of the last book, I was very excited picking up this book to discover what new adventures Gen would get himself into next! So I was a bit dismayed when I soon realized that the format of this book has changed from the first. “The Thief” was told from Gen’s first person perspective. This book is not only told from a third person perspective, it also has widened the cast to include chapters from other characters. But I should have had faith! This book was even better than the last, and this change in format is largely responsible for the improvements.

The first person perspective often seems like the more intimate style of storytelling. You’re living fully in a character’s head, so of course readers feel more closely connected to a character written this way. However, as I’ve discussed before, there are also limitations to this type of storytelling. Here we see the strengths of the third person approach. In many ways, it better suits the type of story that Whalen Turn is trying to tell. After pulling the rug out from under readers the way she did at the end of the first book, the author couldn’t use the same trick twice. We all know how clever Gen is and won’t be fooled again! Or will we…

A third person perspective and the increased use of other characters allowed the plot to become that much more intricate, especially given the shift in tone that this story takes. The first was largely an adventure/heist story. This is political intrigue, and very smart political intrigue at that. Often in YA, political intrigue seems to be dumbed down to such an extent that you can barely call it “intrigue.” Not so here. And the added character perspectives, most notably, those of the Queen of Attolia, add so much to this broadened take on the relationships between our main characters and the countries they rule.

I can’t say enough how impressed I am with the tale that was built for the Queen of Attolia (the character, not to be confused with the title of the book itself!). After the first book, I had her comfortably slotted into the “evil queen” character type and nothing more. Low and behold, Whalen Turner had miles more of character development in store for her.

And, of course, I can’t end this review without specifically talking about Gen. While we get less of him, I feel that by the end of this book, I understood this complex, flawed, but brilliant character that much more. The author makes a very brave choice with regards to Gen early in this book, and I was thrilled that she didn’t take any easy outs with how she dealt with the fallout of this choice. Honestly, like I said earlier, I thought that after being fooled once I would be enough on the look out to spot plot developments in this book. But not so. I was shocked when it happened, and even more shocked with the brilliant way that Whalen Turner faced her building narrative straight on, all while cleverly pulling the wool over readers’ eyes.

I can’t rave enough about this series. There is a lot more political maneuvering in this book than in the first (and than is often found in YA fantasy). But these days, with “Game of Thrones” at the the height of its power, I feel that this series is primed for a resurgence.

Rating 10: Brilliant plotting, complex characters, gutsy risk taking that pays off!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Queen of Attolia” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Political themed YA fiction” and “Most Intelligent Plots.”

Find “The Queen of Attolia” at your library using WorldCat.

Previously Reviewed: “The Thief”

 

Kate’s Review: “How To Hang a Witch”

27405351Book: “How To Hang a Witch” by Adriana Mather

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, July 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: It’s the Salem Witch Trials meets Mean Girls in a debut novel from one of the descendants of Cotton Mather, where the trials of high school start to feel like a modern day witch hunt for a teen with all the wrong connections to Salem’s past.

Salem, Massachusetts is the site of the infamous witch trials and the new home of Samantha Mather. Recently transplanted from New York City, Sam and her stepmother are not exactly welcomed with open arms. Sam is the descendant of Cotton Mather, one of the men responsible for those trials and almost immediately, she becomes the enemy of a group of girls who call themselves The Descendants. And guess who their ancestors were?

If dealing with that weren’t enough, Sam also comes face to face with a real live (well technically dead) ghost. A handsome, angry ghost who wants Sam to stop touching his stuff. But soon Sam discovers she is at the center of a centuries old curse affecting anyone with ties to the trials. Sam must come to terms with the ghost and find a way to work with The Descendants to stop a deadly cycle that has been going on since the first accused witch was hanged. If any town should have learned its lesson, it’s Salem. But history may be about to repeat itself.

Review: I need you, readers, to go back and read that description. I will wait…

Okay, did you read it again? Does it not sound absolutely BANANAS?!?! If you said anything other than ‘yeah totally’, I want to know what your life is, because to me this is totally bonkers. Which is why I put it on my list, of course. Because you have a YA novel about teenage witches in Salem, Massachusetts, and the teenage girl descendent of Cotton Mather, written by an ACTUAL descendant of Cotton Mather, that has magic, bitchy teen girls, a Puritan era curse, and a ghost who is a partner in detection.

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Look, I’m going to be honest. There are many thing that I would criticize: The writing is clunky, Sam is very much a stereotypical ‘I’m so edgy and no one understands me!’ protagonist, the dialog borders on unbelievable, the metaphor of witch hunts as modern day bullying is kind of ham fisted, and there were so many cliches that I lost track of them. But guess what? I DID NOT CARE!!!  All these things aside, it pretty much met all the needs that I needed it to meet! “How To Hang A Witch” by Adriana Mather is a sanitized version of “The Craft” and “American Horror Story: Coven” and yes, it’s over the top and silly, but I’m not mad because I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with it.

Why, you ask? Well, lots of reasons. I like witch stories. I liked that Mather has clearly done a lot of actual research about the Salem Witch Trials and the history of the town, and her family. I like that she does manage to incorporate a lot of that history into the narrative, even if it’s forced in at times. And I was kind of left guessing about who the perpetrator of the curse was, as Mather does put in some good red herrings that did distract me here and there. What could have easily just been a gimmicky book written by a descendant of someone who was there turned out better than it could have. I also did ultimately like our main character, Sam Mather, even if she is close to falling into many a trope in YA literature. As a descendant of Cotton Mather, of COURSE she’s a target for bullying by The Descendants, who are descendants of accused witches. So I was able to forgive Sam’s dark sulking, because unlike other sulking protagonists in YA stories that shall go unnamed, her father is in a coma, her mother is dead, all of her friends have had terrible things happen to them, and now she’s being tormented by most everyone around her. EVEN THE TEACHERS, I kid you not. Because of all this I get her defensiveness and I’m more willing to forgive it, even if it all seemed a bit heaped on. True, when in the first paragraph she warned the reader that she’s super sarcastic I was skeptical, and her constant spats with most everyone in town were also worrisome and repetitive. But as the book went on that forced edginess eventually tapered off, and Sam became more natural in her interactions with those around her, so it didn’t feel as ridiculous. It would have been easy to make it her against the world and that’s it, but she grew and developed, and therein found more common ground with others, which made her more sympathetic and easy to swallow.

But we do need to talk about the love triangle. Because boy, is it a doozy in this one. First you have Jaxon, the nice boy next door type who believes in Sam and is kind and nice to her, if not a little flat and boring. He’s fine. He’s a pretty clear ‘best friend I don’t have feelings for or do I?’ contender. But then…. Then there’s Elijah. Elijah, the thoughtful, brooding, sarcastic, GHOST. A GHOST, GUYS.

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What even is this and why do I kind of love it? (source)

So yeah, that happened. Man, I really do hate love triangles, especially when there is seriously no reason for them. But I did like Elijah, because there was enough sarcastic and snarky personality to him that he wasn’t just an ‘awwwww, woe is meeeeee’ stereotype of the supernatural love interest. He and Sam always felt like they were on equal footing in their investigation of the mystery of the curse, and while he may not have totally adhered to a lot of Puritanical values for sake of storytelling, it was a pretty okay representation of parties equally giving and taking. His motivation was his own as well, with his backstory tied up in the curse and the tragedies of the Salem Witch Trials, so it didn’t feel like he was just thrown in for the love angle alone. He was at least justified in being there. Him being a ghost was a bit silly, sure, but it did add a tragic spin to his romance with Sam. I think that the friendship and intimacy between the two also emphasized that Sam has a harder time fitting in with her living peers (which is dangerous because she teeters towards ‘I’m not like the other girls’-dom). But Jaxon just felt unnecessary to me, and shoe horned in because there needed to be some extra drama in the romance department for whatever reason. True, he starts by serving as the one person who trusts and supports Sam, but then that is rendered unnecessary as time goes on. I’m wondering if he was just there to potentially set up more drama down the line, because looking at Goodreads it looks like this is considered the first in a series. Given how it ended, in kind of an ‘end of “District 9″‘ sort of way…. well, I’d probably read the next one if it does come to fruition.

So to recap: this book is cheesy, silly, and painted with a broad brush, but I found myself deeply entertained while reading it. Is it going to be something I’d point to if you are genuinely interested in reading about the Salem Witch Trials? Hell no. Is it something I’d point you to if you wanted a spot of fun and a quick read about teen witches? Hell yes. “How To Hang A Witch” was a doozy, and I just decided to buckle up and enjoy the ride, which worked in my favor. No regrets!

Rating 7: At times cheesy and predictable, but also very fun and a nice fluffy read, “How To Hang A Witch” was an entertaining book with characters I cared about and a sappy romance I enjoyed. It’s bananas and I loved that about it.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“How To Hang A Witch” can be found on the following Goodreads lists: “YA & Middle Grade: The Salem Witch Trials”, and “Horror Extravaganza: 31 Days of Halloween”.

Find “How To Hang a Witch” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Shadow Bright and Burning”

23203252Book: “A Shadow Bright and Burning” by Jessica Cluess

Publishing Info: Random House BFYR, September 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: I am Henrietta Howel. The first female sorcerer. The prophesied one. Or am I?

Henrietta Howel can burst into flames. When she is brought to London to train with Her Majesty’s sorcerers, she meets her fellow sorcerer trainees, young men eager to test her powers and her heart. One will challenge her. One will fight for her. One will betray her. As Henrietta discovers the secrets hiding behind the glamour of sorcerer life, she begins to doubt that she’s the true prophesied one. With battle looming, how much will she risk to save the city–and the one she loves?

Review: I featured this book back on one of my highlights posts, and low and behold it finally showed up on my library hold shelf! While I sped through the story and it did avoid most YA tropes that are immediate turn offs for me, I ultimately found myself slightly underwhelmed.

As the book description proves, this story is pretty typical young adult fantasy fare, right down to the special power being fire-related (why is it always fire??). I have to say, if I were an author, I’d be staying as far away as I could from anything that might leave my main character open to “girl on fire” comparisons to Katnis…but that’s just me. Further, the introduction of a million and one love interests, a secret life that she must hide, and a prophesy, completes the trope infestation. But, like I said, Cluess did do just enough to avoid falling completely into any one of these pitfalls.

Henrietta, first off, was a good narrator. She isn’t going to win any awards as the most exciting protagonists out there, but her voice was still interesting and she rarely had any “too dumb to live” moments that one sees too often. The setting, an alternate Victorian London that is under siege by a host of powerful magical entities, was creative, but also opened up the door for one of my biggest sticking points with the book.

There’s an inherent struggle when writing any book that has ties to actual history. The protagonist, especially a young woman character, needs to be true to her time, but the author still needs to create room for her to move. Too often, we have young women with ideas that are far too progressive, or who seems to too easily shuck off the constraints of her time period. So, here, I appreciated what Cluess tried to do. There are several moments where it is clear that Henrietta struggles with the mindset about women’s capabilities that is woven deep into this time period’s culture. However, ultimately, her path is just as easy, leaving the story feeling very awkward. And, while I appreciate the attempts to keep these biases realistic, there were almost too many of them, or they were awkwardly placed, undoing and often muddying the character’s own story arc.

For example, at one point, after Henrietta has already proven to herself and many around her that she is a powerful force to be dealt with, another character expresses a very misogynistic opinion to her, and she simply rolls over and agrees. Obviously, one show of force by a powerful young woman isn’t going to change the minds of everyone, but I would have liked to see the character’s own perspective on these things adjust accordingly as the book progressed and she gained more confidence in herself. A story of a young woman growing to appreciate her own strength and question what she has been told is the obvious route for a story like this, and ultimately, that’s where the narrative is going. But, as I said, these moments were still woven throughout the book in a very odd way that left me feeling off balance with regards to Henrietta’s actual character arc. It felt like the character’s growth was being sacrificed to continue the charade of her own insecurity (another one of my least favorite tropes: the character who must remain insecure just to garner compliments from those around them).

And, of course, there were the whiffs of a love triangle. The story avoids my biggest qualm with this trope, when it takes over the story in place of actual action, but it’s still there, and I don’t feel that it adds anything to the narrative itself. If it had been left out completely, I honestly feel like there would have been absolutely zero change to the story itself, and that’s never a good thing. And, due to this and my general wariness from being once burned, twice shy, it was hard to become fully invested in the many, many young men characters that surround Henrietta, as I have no idea which one will be the next love-triangle fodder in following sequels.

Ultimately, while the story was enjoyable and I was able to speed through it without any major hiccups, this book isn’t doing anything new for the genre. Almost every piece of it felt familiar and reminiscent of one or another young adult fantasy series. If you enjoy this type of story, then go ahead and read it. But if you’re looking for a new take on young adult fantasy, or are too burned out on some of these tropes (love triangles, special girl with special powers, limited world building), then you might want to give this one a pass.

Rating 6: While inoffensive, it was also slightly uncreative and had a few too many familiar pieces trying to pose as unique.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Shadow Bright and Burning” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Victorian YA Novels” and “ParaHistorical Fiction.”

Find “A Shadow Bright and Burning” at your library using WorldCat.

Kate’s Review: “You Will Know Me”

25251757Book: “You Will Know Me” by Megan Abbott

Publishing Info: Little Brown, July 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Katie and Eric Knox have dedicated their lives to their fifteen-year-old daughter Devon, a gymnastics prodigy and Olympic hopeful. But when a violent death rocks their close-knit gymnastics community just weeks before an all-important competition, everything the Knoxes have worked so hard for feels suddenly at risk. As rumors swirl among the other parents, revealing hidden plots and allegiances, Katie tries frantically to hold her family together while also finding herself drawn, irresistibly, to the crime itself, and the dark corners it threatens to illuminate. From a writer with “exceptional gifts for making nerves jangle and skin crawl,” (Janet Maslin) You Will Know Me is a breathless rollercoaster of a novel about the desperate limits of desire, jealousy, and ambition.

Review: When I was a kid my parents signed me up for gymnastics classes at the local Y. They weren’t terribly hardcore or intense. I learned how to walk a balance beam, how to do proper somersaults, and cartwheels, and even how to do a pretty basic routine on the bars, i.e. how to flip around one bar and MAYBE shift your position from one direction to another. There were no delusions that this was just to give me something to do and round my childhood experiences out a bit more, but I did enjoy it for the two years that I did it. I was never going to be exceptional at it, even good at it. I was fine. And while maybe that would break some people’s hearts, it doesn’t break mine, because to be truly exceptional at something means you are investing all you have into it. I’m content watching the Women’s Gymnastics Team at the Olympics every four years, I never needed to be there with them. “You Will Know Me” takes that idea of exceptionalism and explores the darkest sides of devoting one’s life to sheer raw talent. It’s the sacrifice behind the glory, along with some soapy suds, lies, and murder. Aka, everything I ever wanted from a novel about gymnastics.

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Bela Karolyi’s rollercoaster of emotions is my love for soapy thriller novels about gymnastics personified. (source)

I’ve read two other Megan Abbott books about toxic girlhood. “Dare Me” was about high school cheerleading, and “The Fever” was about tenuous friendships. “You Will Know Me” is a bit different, because while it’s definitely about Devon, the very gifted and laser beam determined fifteen year old gymnast, it’s from the perspective of her mother Katie. Katie and Eric have put their entire life into Devon’s gymnastics, having put themselves into serious monetary and emotional debt so she could pursue her dream. Perhaps it’s out of pride, but you also get the sense that it’s out of guilt on both their parts, as a freak accident left Devon with a deformed foot at three years old, an accident that certainly could have been prevented. To see their negligence bloom into something phenomenal is the solace they can take from it, I suppose. Of course, it leaves their younger son Drew a bit neglected in his own right, as now everything, especially for Eric, is about Devon’s success and their collective dream of Olympic Gold. The pride mixed with the toxicity of the need for affirmation is one of the more disturbing things about this book, and Abbott does not hold back on showing how much damage is being done to this family. Even before the unexpected death of Ryan, a young handyman close to the team and their families, you can tell that the Knoxes are in a sedate, yet very real, turmoil. They have put 100% of their eggs into the Gymnastics Basket, and that’s a serious problem. Toxicity indeed.

Abbott does a pretty good job of showing the problems instead of telling them, slowly laying out the information across the story and its characters. The mystery of what happened to Ryan is the heart of the tale, but some of the more interesting parts to me were the family dynamics. You have Katie, a woman who got married young because she was pregnant, who is very much in love with her husband but knows all too well that youth is exciting and maddening. Perhaps that’s why she’s on board with Devon having all this structure in her life, since she herself didn’t have any. Then there’s Eric, a man who never thought he would be married and now his entire life is (one of) his children. And Devon, well…. She’s robotic and scary. The mystery is surrounding this family and the secrets that all of them have, but I do have to say that if you really think about it and the clues that are not so subtly dispersed throughout the story, you will probably be able to figure it out pretty quickly. Maybe you won’t be able to figure out the motive right away, but that too will become pretty obvious if you put some thought into it. So as I was reading I resolved myself to enjoying it for the character study as opposed to the mystery that was presented. And honestly, that was just fine. I devoured this book because I was just taken in by how dysfunctional and screwed up the Knox Family was. Seriously, I read this book in basically a night because even though I pretty much knew what was going to happen, I wanted to see it happen. That’s what I liked about Abbott’s book “The Fever”: it really pulled me in even if I couldn’t tell you much about the mystery now. I love it when a book can do that.

So I suppose that as a mystery and a thriller, “You Will Know Me” didn’t really have any surprises for me personally, but ultimately that didn’t really matter. Abbott does a good enough job of telling an entertaining surrounding story that it kept me going in spite of the lack of mystery.

Rating 7: Though the mystery wasn’t too hard to figure out, the portrayal of family tension and drama was spot on and engrossing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“You Will Know Me” can be found on the following Goodreads lists: “The Girl on the Train Readalikes”, and “Women Are Writing The Best Crime Novels”.

Find “You Will Know Me” at your library using WorldCat!