Serena’s Review: “Now I Rise”

22817331Book: “Now I Rise” by Kiersten White

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, June 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: She has no allies. No throne. All she has is what she’s always had: herself.

After failing to secure the Wallachian throne, Lada Dracul is out to punish anyone who dares to cross her blood-strewn path. Filled with a white-hot rage, she storms the countryside with her men, accompanied by her childhood friend Bogdan, terrorizing the land. But brute force isn’t getting Lada what she wants. And thinking of Mehmed brings little comfort to her thorny heart. There’s no time to wonder whether he still thinks about her, even loves her. She left him before he could leave her.

What Lada needs is her younger brother Radu’s subtlety and skill. But Mehmed has sent him to Constantinople—and it’s no diplomatic mission. Mehmed wants control of the city, and Radu has earned an unwanted place as a double-crossing spy behind enemy lines. Radu longs for his sister’s fierce confidence—but for the first time in his life, he rejects her unexpected plea for help. Torn between loyalties to faith, to the Ottomans, and to Mehmed, he knows he owes Lada nothing. If she dies, he could never forgive himself—but if he fails in Constantinople, will Mehmed ever forgive him?

As nations fall around them, the Dracul siblings must decide: what will they sacrifice to fulfill their destinies? Empires will topple, thrones will be won…and souls will be lost.

Previously Reviewed: “And I Darken” (some spoilers!)

Review: “And I Darken” was another surprise hit from last year, so much so that it made my “Top Ten” list at the end of the year. So I was anxiously awaiting this sequel. The stakes (…pun intended?? with impaling?? get it???) have never been higher for Lada, Radu, and Mehmed. Impossible dreams are being pursued, but how much will need to be sacrificed in the attempt? And once they get what they want, was it worth the price?

The narrative is again split between Lada and Radu, however, so many of their choices revolve around their conflicting feelings towards Mehmed, their childhood friend, ruler of the nation that has held them hostage from family and country, and lover/wished for lover of both, that he almost feels like a POV character, too.

As I mentioned, this story is mostly about obsessions that have taken the place of love. Lada, Radu, and Mehmed all serve as prime examples of how letting one goal become your purpose in life can begin to rule you and lead to choices you never would have imagined. Each of their goals are impossible in different ways.

For Lada, it turns out that reclaiming her homeland isn’t as easy as she thought. Also, Mehmed’s “support” isn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Lada’s story here is a tragic example of expectations vs. reality and her slow realization that she is truly alone in the world, even from those she loves best. Lada wishes to become Prince of her homeland of Wallachia, a nation that has never had a female ruler and has been willing subservient to the Ottomans for decades. She is routinely dismissed by those around her for simply being a girl, and it takes the entire book for her to realize that even those closest to her see and use her this way. And along her own path, she is forced to make choices, betray those she loves, in pursuit of this seemingly impossible goal. Terrible acts are committed all for the good of Wallachia. And what makes her story, and these books, most compelling is the morally grey area these choices always exist within. Lada does terrible things, but in a certain light, she also does incredibly good things. She betrays those around her and is betrayed herself. Routinely, she chooses Wallachia over those who love her and those who claim to love her. She pushes forward with a single-minded determination, dealing out consequences left and right, that both help and hurt her. So, too, she must deal with the fact that Mehmed and Radu are equally single-minded in their own pursuits, and those don’t always align with her own goals.

Radu’s unrequited love for Mehmed is front and center in this book. He has been shunted to the side in Mehmed’s court to serve as a “sleeper agent,” essentially. But this also results in real isolation and distance between the two. And then he is sent in to Constantinople as a spy and things go from bad to worse. The “enemy” is now humanized for him, and while he despises their strange obsession with “signs” and holy artifacts, he also grows to respect Constantine himself, and especially, the young man, Cypiran, who serves as host to Radu and his wife, Nazira. He is forced to double cross and double cross again his friends on both sides of what he is increasingly convinced is nothing more than a war of egos between Mehmed and Constantine.

While Lada, too, makes choices that are hard to read about, she’s also fighting for respect and acknowledgement for her accomplishments, a goal that I can very much understand. She’s also simply a badass character, and has some fun moments between herself and her soldiers that were even comedic. Radu…I struggled with more. His obsession with Mehmed is the epitome of unhealthy, something that Nazira (probably the most likeable and objectively “good” character there is in this book!) is quick to point out in the most strong language. His choices, while understandable for his character, routinely made me want to smack him up the backside of the head. But, all of this said, he is an intriguingly conflicted character. It’s a sign of incredible strength as an author to make a character whom I often very much disliked at the same time read as incredibly interesting and whose story I am still fully invested in.

And Mehmed. As I said, we don’t get a POV for him, but he’s so instrumental to the other two, that we are painted a fairly clear picture. And that picture is: nothing and no one matters except for Constantinople. His obsession is arguably the worst of them all. He uses Lada and Radu in truly unacceptable ways. He claims to love them both, and I believe he probably does, but by the end of this story, to me, he reads as the true villain.

The themes of this book are dark and heart-breaking. Again and again, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed choose impossible dreams over the love of family and friends. Radu abandons Lada in pursuit of Mehmed. Mehmed uses Radu’s feelings for him against him and abandons Lada in the wilderness in pursuit of Constantinople. And Lada sacrifices the goodness and softness in herself to become whom she must to be Prince of Wallachia. Poetic tragedy, conflicted characters, and a stark historic landscape that proves that no one wins when obsessions rule over love and kindness.

This isn’t an easy read, but the writing is incredibly strong, the characters are full fleshed out, and the story is like watching a slow-motion car crash that you can’t look away from. Definitely check this book out if you enjoy books that look at the darker side of history.

Rating 10: Poignant and beautiful, terrible and tragic, a must-read for historical fiction fans.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Now I Rise” is on these Goodreads lists: “Historical Children’s and YA with LGBT characters” and “Diverse YA Retellings.”

Find “Now I Rise” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Thick as Thieves”

8306741Book: “Thick as Thieves” by Megan Whalen Turner

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, May 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Deep within the palace of the Mede emperor, in an alcove off the main room of his master’s apartments,. Kamet minds his master’s business and his own. Carefully keeping the accounts, and his own counsel, Kamet has accumulated a few possessions, a little money stored in the household’s cashbox, and a significant amount of personal power. As a slave, his fate is tied to his master’s. If Nahuseresh’s fortunes improve, so will Kamet’s, and Nahuseresh has been working diligently to promote his fortunes since the debacle in Attolia.

A soldier in the shadows offers escape, but Kamet won’t sacrifice his ambition for a meager and unreliable freedom; not until a whispered warning of poison and murder destroys all of his carefully laid plans. When Kamet flees for his life, he leaves behind everything—his past, his identity, his meticulously crafted defenses—and finds himself woefully unprepared for the journey that lies ahead.

Pursued across rivers, wastelands, salt plains, snowcapped mountains, and storm-tossed seas, Kamet is dead set on regaining control of his future and protecting himself at any cost. Friendships—new and long-forgotten—beckon, lethal enemies circle, secrets accumulate, and the fragile hopes of the little kingdoms of Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis hang in the balance.

Review: As I made abundantly clear in my gushing ALA posts, I’ve very much been looking forward to “Thick as Thieves,” the fifth installment in the “Queen’s Thief” series and was beyond thrilled when I got to meet Megan Whalen Turner several times and snag a signed copy of the book. It immediately jumped to the top of my reading list, and I am happy to report that it was worth the wait for its release!

As is now the pattern with these stories, our protagonist has once again changed in this story. This time around we follow Kamet, a slave to the Mede ambassador. We technically met this character several books ago when the Mede ambassador was visiting Attolia and attempting to bully the queen into an alliance. It was quite a lot of fun watching him be sent home in shame, Kamet in tow. Here, we meet up again with Kamet in the years that have followed. From his perspective, while the embarrassment of what happened to his master was unfortunate, Attolia is still a backwaters country with a fool of a king and in all respects he would like to simply wash his hands of his time there. Besides, good things are coming his way. Slave or not, he sees a future of power and influence ahead as the right hand man to the to-be Mede emperor.

These beginning scenes documenting Kamet’s life as a slave serve as an important insight into his head. As a reader, we are trained to look at his situation and pity him. He’s a slave, no amount of power and influence should be worth it. Kamet is both a reliable and unreliable narrator in this way. His perspective is not completely false; he does have power and influence in his position, much more so than other slaves, and, importantly, more so even than other free men. Not only does he choose to remain a slave when he is initially presented with the opportunity to flee, but throughout the story we see that he has become very arrogant from this position. He thinks quite a lot of himself and the role he has played, often looking down on the other slaves as well as entire countries like Attolia.

But on the other hand, Kamet is unreliable. He’s clearly suffering from some version of Stockholm syndrome, more worried about the embarrassment of being seen to have been beaten after an error in judgement than enraged that he was beaten at all. He blames himself for causing the situation that forced his “good” master’s hand.

After he is forced to flee Mede after the death of his master, it was great reading about the slow transition Kamet undergoes. The Attolian guard is a steady, consistent presence of another way to live. He doesn’t speak much at all, and when he does, Kamet must constantly re-evaluate his views of Attolia, the Attolian soldier, and himself.

The story is essentially a travelogue following these two characters’ flight through Mede attempting to gain passage by ship back to Attolia. For a book that has many action sequences (fleeing from slavers, hiding from guards, etc), it also felt like a steady character study of these two characters, but particularly Kamet himself. I’ve always loved Whalen Turner’s ability to make the reader fall in love with each new character she presents. Even more challenging, she often starts with characters we aren’t pre-disposed to love. Kamet is the same; his arrogance and seemingly wilful ignorance can make him frustrating in the beginning. But there’s great chemistry between him and the Attolian and it was a lovely story reading about Kamet essentially rediscovering who he is now that the one thing he has defined himself as, a powerful slave, has been taken away from him.

Other than great characters, we can always expect great twists from this author, and this book is no different. I was actually able to predict a few of the story turns, but there were others that took me completely by surprise. Never fear, Gen does make an appearance towards the end and is just as clever, confusing, and appealing as ever. Throughout the series, the scope of his schemes has had to constantly expand, from tricking a few people in the first book, to maneuvering entire countries and empires in later books. The thrill remains as we watch him triumph, oh so casually, over these other power houses who have all dismissed him as so much foolishness.

Coming as no surprise now, I completely recommend this story. It is fairly necessary to have read the other books in the series before reading this one, I would say. But hey, if you haven’t already, all the more exciting for you since they are all so great!

Rating 10: Worth any wait.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Thick as Thieves” is a new book and isn’t on m any relevant Goodreads lists (other than ones titled things like “Books that need to come out sooner!!!”), but it should be on “Books with Unreliable Narrators.”

Find “Thick as Thieves” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “The Thief” and “The Queen of Attolia” and “The King of Attolia” and “A Conspiracy of Kings”

Kate’s Review: “DC Bombshells (Vol.3): Uprising”

31624824Book: “DC Bombshells (Vol.3): Uprising” by Marguerite Bennett, Mirka Andolfo (Ill.), and Laura Braga (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Comics, March 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Based on the hit DC Collectibles product line! As World War II rages across Europe, the Allied forces issue a call to arms for the greatest heroines the world has ever known! With an old villain arising from beyond the grave, Wonder Woman, Batwoman, Kara Starikov, Kortni Duginova and Mera must aid the Allied forces while at home, a brave group of Batgirls must defend the homeland!
The incredibly popular DC Collectibles line is brought to life in these stories that reimagine the course of history! From writer Marguerite Bennett (BATGIRL, EARTH 2: WORLD’S END) and featuring artists including Marguerite Sauvage (HINTERKIND), Laura Braga (Witchblade) and Mirka Andolfo (Chaos) comes DC COMICS: BOMBSHELLS VOL. 3.

Review: With the way that the last “DC Bombshells” collection ended (if you’ll remember, it was devastating), I was wondering if we were going to get into more pathos in which we’d have to potentially say goodbye to another of our beloved heroines. I suppose that I should have steeled myself for that possibility from the get go, as this is WWII and with war comes death. And given that our ladies are spread out across various fronts, battling not only Nazis, but also Nazi Zombies, the stakes are pretty high. And we jumped right back into it.

But first, we went back to the home front to check in with the Bat Girls! They’re continuing there time of taking up the mantle for Batwoman while she is overseas, and this time they have a new ally to go along with Maggie Sawyer.

LOIS LAAAAAAAANE!!!!

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It’s her time at the table, folks, so buckle up! (source)

Seeing Lois introduced (and giving her a very interesting backstory that gently but deftly touches on the immigrant experience) was a serious treat for this Lois Lane fangirl. It was also great seeing her jump in without having to worry about needing help from Superman (still nowhere in sight), and helping the Bat Girls break up a crime ring (involving the Penguin!), though they find themselves wanted in the process. Seeing this and a non-Two Face-d version of Harvey Dent going on and on as a political candidate with an “America First” platform made this story feel pretty close to home.

But meanwhile, in Europe, we catch up with our Bombshells on the front lines. We don’t get to see Wonder Woman, Supergirl, or the aftermath of Stargirl’s death this time, but that’s okay by me. I’m not ready to see the fallout from that. But that isn’t to say that we have a lack of stories this time around, as we are juggling a number of story lines. We have Batwoman, leaving Wonder Woman and Stargirl to try and get back to the front lines, who meets up with an old flame, Renee Montoya (aka The Question). They first met during the Spanish Civil War, and fought on the rebel side against the fascists. Now they are teaming up again, in spite of bad memories of losing a young protege and friend named Jacon (YES AS IN JASON TODD I AM SCREAMING) and the end of their love. You have Zatanna, who has been sent to a ghetto because of her Jewish and Romani heritage, and is being tormented by Joker’s Daughter, who has taken away her powers. You have Mera, who has washed up in Ireland without her powers, banished from Atlantis and her rightful throne. And we finally come back to Harley and Ivy, who have become freedom fighters for the resistance, and have found love with each other as they try to make their way to Berlin to take down the Nazis from their home base. And I haven’t even mentioned Huntress, Miri Marvel, Joker, Catwoman, Raven, and Aquaman, who all make appearances as well.

It’s definitely a lot to balance. But Bennett does a really good job of slowly but surely weaving all of these stories together. It was SO lovely to see my girls Harley and Ivy again, and to see how they play into this whole thing. I was wondering how it was all going to fit together, but it does. I was also really relieved that even though we did get a bit more romance with some of the heavy hitting men of the Universe (Aquaman and Constantine, specifically), it didn’t bring down Mera or Zatanna. Even though Mera has found lighthouse keeper Arthur, there is no sign of him having powers that are going to outdo hers as of yet. Their romance is just another part of her as a person, but Mera remains Mera and isn’t distracted from her goal of getting her powers and Atlantis back. The same can be said for Constantine, who is in the ghetto with Zatanna. He is there to support her, but his presence doesn’t weaken her or make her seem like he is her only strength in a horrific situation.

I loved seeing all of these women come together to fight against Joker’s Daughter and the Nazis, and that a number of these women in this story are Jewish or of Jewish descent, as Batwoman, Zatanna, Miri, and Harley all make mention of their heritage while they are inside the ghetto during a shabbat dinner. There was great beauty in this entire moment, as it wasn’t solely a ‘savior’ moment, as these women are also targets because of their heritage. The symbolism was bittersweet, and I really appreciated it. It was also good seeing the concept of abusive and controlling relationships being addressed, and not just in romantic ways. There was a small moment with Harley and Joker as she tells Ivy about her past, but there is also the relationship between Joker’s Daughter and Zatanna, and the relationship between Mera and her former beau. There is also poor Raven, who has only known Joker’s Mother as her mother figure, and is so damaged in her need to please her but also her need to escape. These are things that women in real life have to grapple with, and I so appreciate that this series dares to bring up the toxicity of relationships like these, and contrast them with healthy relationships. Harley finds Ivy. Zatanna finds Constantine. Raven finds a new group of women to mother her. Mera finds Arthur. And they all find more self respect. It’s just so positive!!! I can’t gush about it enough!!

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(source)

There is just so much to love in this series. It continues to be super feminist, it continues to strive for diversity, and it continues to have some awesome action sequences that are just as good as any other superhero comic out there. I am once again sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for the next one in the series (out this fall I think!). While I’m worried that some characters are done, I am excited to see who else could show up.

Rating 10: Once again “DC Bombshells” knocks me off my seat and excites and thrills me until I turn the final page. These ladies continue to kick serious ass!!!

Reader’s Advisory:

“DC Bombshells (Vol.3): Uprising” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but given the lists it’s predecessors are on it would fit right in on “#fempowerathon”, and “Amazons, Female Warriors, and Wonder Women”.

Find “DC Bombshells (Vol.3): Uprising” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “DC Bombshells (Vol 1): Enlisted!”, and “DC Bombshells (Vol 2): Allies”.

Emily’s Corner: “Ready Player One”

20170202_140222Emily and I (Serena) have been friends since the first week of freshman year of college. Other than a lost purse (I did the losing, Emily did the calming), take a wild guess as to what we bonded over? Yes, that is correct: books. And the fact that we both had plans to be English majors and would go on to coordinate our schedules to have as many similar classes as possible! All that said, Emily has agreed to be a semi-regular contributor to our blog, so keep your eyes open for posts from her in “Emily’s Corner” on random Mondays going forward!

9969571Book: “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline

Publishing Info: Ernest Cline sold the novel in June 2010 in a bidding war to the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House. The book was published on August 16, 2011.

Where Did I Get this Book: Barnes and Nobles

Book Description: In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines—puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them.

But when Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade’s going to survive, he’ll have to win—and confront the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

Review: I adore science fiction, though I often lament the cheesiness that plagues the genre. So I was utterly floored by this book. This is the kind of science fiction that would convert even the most ardent sci-fi hater. Ernest Cline absolutely hit it out of the park on his first try.

“Ready Play One” is set in our world, less than thirty years into the future. The world is a bleak place, with a gaping divide between rich and poor, where the OASIS is the only respite from a reality of war, famine, violence, and disease. This book is believable because both the reality and virtual reality presented hit close to home. Global war is the norm, the populace consists of the uber-wealthy and people living on the streets, there is no middle class. In-game commerce is more valuable than hard cash, and the OASIS has more engaged voters than the actual government does. This isn’t Star Trek; it’s a future that feels hauntingly close at hand.

Wade is the perfect protagonist. Yes, he’s a teenager. He’s whiny at times, and you want to smack him upside the head when he pines too long after his love interest. But you can’t help rooting for him because he represents what it means to be the little guy, to go up against “the man” against all odds. He’s brilliant, but flawed enough that he doesn’t get preachy.

Wade’s story pivots around a global treasure hunt set up within the OASIS by its’ creator, a treasure hunt that is in itself a love letter to pop culture of the 80s. I loved the references I caught (shout-out to Wil Wheaton, who also narrates the audio book!), but wasn’t distracted by the ones that went over my head. I’m too young to catch the majority of the early 80s gaming references, but if anything it made me want to research Pong-era gaming systems. Atari, anyone?

The treasure hunt within the game is an engrossing adventure, complicated by real-world villains in the book, the IOI conglomerate who want to monetize and control the OASIS. Wade, known as Parzival in the OASIS, becomes the first player to crack the first of three clues that lead to both in-game and real-world treasure. He becomes the target of the IOI and cautiously teams up with other top players, known as Art3mis (pronounced Artemis), Aech (pronounced like the letter “H”), and brothers Daito and Shoto to win the game and keep IOI from dominating the OASIS.

“Ready Player One” is a great springboard for discussion on issues of technology, privacy, monetization, and legal liability which are hot topics today. It also provides thoughtful commentary on the positives and negatives of a fully immersive virtual world and the risks inherent to addictive technology. This is a thoughtful book, one that immerses you in the story but also makes you question your own addictive tendencies. Personally, I was struck by the idea that books were the first virtual reality, and wondered if I, as a self-proclaimed book addict, could really judge people who spend hours on video games.

There is a great twist near the end of the book, as Wade’s in-game friends introduce themselves to him in the real world. If nothing else, the reveal of Aech’s identity is worth reading the book for. There is also a teaser at the end which could leave room for a sequel. My guess is that Ernest Cline will wait to see how the movie adaptation turns out before deciding whether or not to pick up the story again.

Rating 10: This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, one that may just get added to my annual reads list.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ready Player One” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Books About Video Games and Virtual Reality” and “Nerdventure.”

Find “Ready Player One” at your library using Worldcat!

Joint Review: “Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast”

41424Book: “Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast” by Robin McKinley

Publishing Info: Harper, October 1978

Where Did We Get this Book: Serena’s owns it, and Kate borrowed it from Serena!

Book Description: Beauty has never liked her nickname. She is thin and awkward; it is her two sisters who are the beautiful ones. But what she lacks in looks, she can perhaps make up for in courage.

When her father comes home with the tale of an enchanted castle in the forest and the terrible promise he had to make to the Beast who lives there, Beauty knows she must go to the castle, a prisoner of her own free will. Her father protests that he will not let her go, but she answers, “Cannot a Beast be tamed?”

Serena’s Thoughts

I originally read this book back in highschool after finding it while browsing through my school library. What a lucky day of my life! I had read a few books by Robin McKinley before this but had somehow missed the fact that she wrote a Beauty and the Beast re-telling (she actually wrote two! Her other book is titled “Rose Daughter” and is a bit more of an adaptation of the tale than a straight re-telling like this one). Fast forward an undefined number of years and “Beauty” is one of a handful of books that I re-read almost on a yearly basis. It’s the epitome of a comfort read for me, at this point. And with that in mind, I’ve found it a bit challenging to review it here for the blog! Unpacking the book as an actual work of fiction outside of my own long history of gushing over it is tricky!

One of the most noteworthy aspects of this tale is its simplicity. There are a million and one Beauty and the Beast adaptations, and they all approach the tale differently with unique additions to the tale and versions of the main characters. What makes “Beauty” stand out is the fact that it really isn’t providing anything extra to the tale: if you could have a novel-length version of the fairy tale itself, no bells or whistles added, this would be it. The tale unfolds in a very familiar way, broken into three parts essentially. There is Beauty’s life through her family’s fall from wealth, then her time adapting to a more simple life and hearing tales about a mysterious woods that one days hits too close to home with her father’s unlucky trip to a strange castle, and then the final third, Beauty’s time in the castle itself, falling in love with a Beast.

I particularly appreciate the fact that McKinley doesn’t rush the first half of this novel. As anxious as I am (and I’m sure many readers as well) to get to the meat of the story, Beauty and the Beast’s love story, this initial build up is important for setting up Beauty as a three dimensional character. We need time to understand Beauty herself, and to grow to love her family as well so that her sacrifice, when it comes, to leave them forever has the emotional weight it deserves.

Due to this greater fleshing out of the beginning of the story, Beauty’s family all get a lot more page time. The sisters, particularly, become their own characters with their own struggles. And, luckily, they are treated much more kindly by McKinley than sisters often fare in fairy tales being neither catty nor selfish.

But, of course, the true joy of the story does indeed come in its second half when Beauty begins her new life at the castle and meets the Beast. Here lies the true brilliance of the story. Under less sure hands we have seen too many incantations of the Beast where he can fall into many character traps, like the overly angsty Beast, or, most likely, the “anger issues are sexy” Beast. The Beast in this story is perfect as a strange, romantic hero. The tragedy of his story and life up to this point is the primary emotion that is brought to the forefront. And it is this sympathy for him upon which Beauty begins to build her feelings. But, even more importantly, McKinley allows her characters to travel the full of arc of a burgeoning relationship. Each are wary of the other (Beauty, for obvious reasons, and the Beast due to the vulnerability he must show to grow close to another human after so long), then through small moments and risks on each character’s part, a friendship develops, and only from there do we begin to see the romance come. McKinley never stumbles in this progression, and its this sure-handedness that makes the story and Beauty and the Beast’s relationship so beautiful and believable.

Re-reading this book for the millionth time, and especially with the new movie on my mind, it strikes me that the original Disney movie might have needed to credit this book for parts of their story. I mean, really, there’s even mention of a dog-like footstool! And this was written before that movie!! Perhaps a questionable lack of attribution on Disney’s part…

Kate’s Thoughts

So I had never actually read “Beauty” until I was at Serena’s house awhile back, and she literally thrust her copy of the book into my hands. I had only read “Sunshine” by Robin McKinley before then, though I had some familiarity with her other works because my mother really likes the “Damar” series. I, too, am a huge fan of the story of “Beauty and the Beast”, as the Disney movie is my favorite Disney movie of all time, and I’ve always enjoyed the fairy tale. Hell, in college I wrote a paper about the symbolism of the Beast in regards to sex and growing up. So yes, Serena was right to toss this my way with the command of ‘read it, read it now’.

I think that the biggest thing that strikes me about this book is that McKinley is very careful to flesh out all of the characters, from Beauty to her sisters to the Beast. While some fairy tales function more on tropes and common themes, McKinley takes these kind of stock characters and explores them a bit more. I was especially happy, like Serena was, that Beauty’s sisters Grace and Hope were also kind and empathetic people. I was worried that there was going to be some of the usual ‘only one girl can be the good one’ malarky, but this book is really kind to it’s female characters. Beauty herself was a wonderful surprise as well, as she is good and kind but has her own weaknesses and is not perfect. I felt a lot of love from her family, which is so rare in so many fairy tales. Seeing them going from wealth to near poverty was a really neat take, giving the story more motivation for the Father to go off, and more motivation for Beauty to make the sacrifices that she ends up making. And I will admit that I was also invested in the love story that befalls upon Grace, who is longing for a long lost love to return to her, even if the odds aren’t in her favor.

And like Serena, I also liked the parts with the Beast and how their relationship progresses. The Beast never really comes off as an actual threat to Beauty, which is a difficult line to treat with this story. I know that a lot of people compare this fairy tale to Stockholm Syndrome (I have a lot of opinions as to why this is incorrect, but that’s another rant for another day), but in “Beauty” it felt more like a mutual understanding between Beauty and the Beast instead of a captive situation. I feel like this gives Beauty the credit she deserves, and it doesn’t let any critiques turn her into a victim in spite of her obvious agency. Her relationship with the Beast is tentative, then sweet, and it was nice seeing them progress and learn about each other.

I think that the best part about this book is that it’s really just fluffy and pure escapism, which sometimes we really just need. There isn’t any unnecessary drama or nonsense, and you know that you’re going to get a happy ending. But even if the ending is guaranteed to be happy, McKinley does a great job of keeping you interested in the journey to happily ever after. If you are a fan of “Beauty and the Beast”, this is definitely a book that you should be picking up. Do yourself this favor!!!

Serena’s Rating 10: My absolute favorite fairy tale re-telling of all!

Kate’s Rating 10: An absolutely lovely retelling of one of my very favorite fairy tales.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast” is on these Goodreads lists: “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Best Fairytales and Retellings.”

Find “Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review and Giveaway: “A Conjuring of Light”

29939230Book: “A Conjuring of Light” by V.E. Schwab

Publishing Info: Tor Books, February 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: I bought it! (And an extra for this giveaway, since, let’s be real: I’m keeping mine!)

Book Description: Londons fall and kingdoms rise while darkness sweeps the Maresh Empire—and the fraught balance of magic blossoms into dangerous territory while heroes and foes struggle alike. The direct sequel to “A Gathering of Shadows,” and the final book in the Shades of Magic epic fantasy series, “A Conjuring of Light” sees Schwab reach a thrilling culmination concerning the fate of beloved protagonists—and old enemies.

Review: While I should have felt completely confident after Schwab nailed the always-challenging middle book of a series, the final book is really what a series lives and dies on and…and…nothing bad must happen to my lovelies, Lila, Kell, and Rhy! And, while bad things do happen in this book (narrative-wise, not quality-wise, thank god), as a closing chapter for the trilogy, “A Conjuring of Light” was everything I wanted and many things I didn’t know I even DID want!

I was lucky enough to have gotten around to “A Gathering of Shadows” only a week or so before this book came out. So I only had to live with that killer cliffhanger for a few days before I rushed out to my local bookstore and purchased this book. I feel true and deep pity for all the other readers out there who had to struggle with it for a whole year! With my approach, and the fact that this book takes off exactly where the previous one leaves off (Lila rushing to Kell’s rescue AGAIN, and Rhy sinking into death-remission), this almost felt like the very long second half of the story that was started in the second book.

The pacing of this book is essentially action-packed from the get go with a few, very few, breaks often in the form of flash back sequences. As the personified dark magic seeps into Kell’s world, the true magnitude of the disaster that our heroes are up against begins to take form. The stakes are impossibly high, and from the beginning it was clear that any hope of winning wasn’t going to come without a steep cost. While the second book highlighted what magic can do as it was put on show during the international competition, this book shows its limitations, especially at the hands of the fragile human magicians with their limited capacity to channel it. The fancy flourishes and tricks prove to be much too little against the seemingly unstoppable force that is the Shadow King.

This book also can be split into two parts. The seemingly futile disaster overtaking Red London, and then a jaunty ship journey, complete with Sea Serpents! If it sounds like those two things wouldn’t mix well, you’d be wrong. And in many ways, this second half of the book was my favorite. It was essentially an odd company adventure romp featuring my favorite characters: Lila, Kell, Alucard, and, bizarrely, Holland.

Lila is, and will always be, my favorite character. And while much of her growth took place in the second novel, we see her really come into her own in this book, recognizing the benefit of staying put every once in a while and the strength to be gained from relationships with others, even with the risk of loss.

Kell, too, was much more filled out coming off the second novel, so his arc was also more limited to simply overcoming this great nemesis. However, there was some interesting nuance added to his relationship with the royal parents, and his relationship with Rhy continues to by my favorite portrayal of brotherhood on page.

And, obviously, Lila and Kell now together….my heart!

The more surprising character arcs came for both Alucard and Holland. With both, but especially with Holland, we are given a much clearer look into their past through flashbacks. Alucard’s story highlights the fact that Red London, as advanced as it is, does struggle with similar prejudices as our own world, a fact that he suffers for greatly.

And Holland. His story came out of left field! While the first book does a good job setting him up as more than a simple villain, this is where we finally see behind the mask and are witness to the complete and utter tragedy that has been his life. Honestly, after seeing it all, Holland turns out to be the strongest character of them all, even given the fact that they largely wouldn’t even be in this whole “Shadow King” mess had it not been for him.

I’ve already written a bunch and I still feel like I’ve barely skimmed the surface of what’s to love about this book and series as a whole. I honestly can’t recommend it enough for fans of fantasy. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a trilogy that feels so perfect in every way. In this case, even the most wild and outlandish praise is well deserved.

Rating 10: A perfect 10 for the whole trilogy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Conjuring of Light” is newly released and thus not on many Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Fantasy/SF Atlas–London” and “Magic, Adventure, Romance.”

Find “A Conjuring of Light” at your library using Worldcat!

But wait! There’s more! If somehow you have managed to resist instantly purchasing this for yourself, never fear, I am hosting a giveaway for a hardcover edition of “A Conjuring of Light!”

EDIT: I failed to update the “comment on the blog” question for the giveaway! So instead of favorite murder mystery (darn you, Kate, and your murder mysteries and my own ineptitude when recycling your work!), what is your favorite fantasy novel that was published in the last year?

Click here to enter the giveaway!

Serena’s Review: “A Gathering of Shadows”

20764879Book: “A Gathering of Shadows” by V. E. Schwab

Publishing Info: Tor Books, February 2016

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

Book Description: It has been four months since a mysterious obsidian stone fell into Kell’s possession. Four months since his path crossed with Delilah Bard. Four months since Prince Rhy was wounded, and since the nefarious Dane twins of White London fell, and four months since the stone was cast with Holland’s dying body through the rift–back into Black London.

Now, restless after having given up his smuggling habit, Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila, who disappeared from the docks as she always meant to do. As Red London finalizes preparations for the Element Games–an extravagant international competition of magic meant to entertain and keep healthy the ties between neighboring countries–a certain pirate ship draws closer, carrying old friends back into port.

And while Red London is caught up in the pageantry and thrills of the Games, another London is coming back to life. After all, a shadow that was gone in the night will reappear in the morning. But the balance of magic is ever perilous, and for one city to flourish, another London must fall.

Review: After the high that was “A Darker Shade of Magic,” I went into “A Gathering of Shadows” with extremely high expectations. And without any ado, this book more than met those!

Second books in a trilogy are a beast. The stage has been set, the characters established, but the grand finale must be held off. Too many series experience the “second book slump” when these delicate balances can’t be met. Often these books come across as filler, so busy holding back that they never present a story of their own. “A Conjuring of Light” shows how you do a second novel right.

The story itself is simple yet effective. Schwab builds her narrative around an Olympics-like competition of magicians that will be held in Red London, using it as a support on which to overlay the character development of Kell and Lila.

Kell is struggling with his new reality, his life forced tied to Rhy’s. With any harm that is done to him affecting Rhy as well, his freedom has been greatly limited by a King and Queen who fear for their son and heir’s life. Further, while Kell struggled with the awe with which the city’s populace viewed him before, after the devastation left in the Black London artifact’s wake, hero worship has shifted to general fear and distrust. Sensing this growing restlessness and unhappiness, Rhy concocts a scheme for Kell to enter the Games in disguise.

Lila, on the other hand, is living her dream. Through a series of flashbacks, we see the way she managed to con her way onto a pirate ship and slowly ingratiate herself with the charming captain and powerful magician, Alucard Emery. She has also slowly been training as a magician and in true “Lila” style has decided that nothing will due but to also enter the Games as a disguised contestant. Her sheer brazenness and over-confidence is unfailingly charming!

While one of my favorite aspects of the first novel was the report that was built up between Kell and Lila, I found myself equally enjoying this extended period of separation. Schwab drew out the tension, ratcheting up reader’s expectations higher and higher, as she had her two main characters circle closer and closer to one other through their experiences in the Games before finally, and satisfyingly, clashing together towards the final third of the novel.

Through Lila’s lessons with Alucard and the Games themselves, Schwab also greatly expands her magical system. While we heard a lot about elemental magic in the first book, we were largely only exposed to Kell’s specific brand of blood magic. Here, however, the full force of what can be done with elemental magic is on display, and it was fascinating!

Behind the scenes, we also begin to see the stage being set for the grand final conflict to come in the last book. Holland, our favorite Antari villain from the first book, has survived and the Black London magic is yet again in play.

As I said, this book seemed to hit all of the marks as as second novel. Schwab carefully uses this book to add layers to her main characters and give them all room to grow and react to the happenings of the first book (we also get more of Rhy in this story, which I loved). The main story arc advances very little, but the Games serve as an architectural framework upon which to hang this character development, provide action, and expand an existing magic system. And behind it all, the building blocks are slotted in place for the final story.

A warning: this book ends on a massive, MASSIVE, cliffhanger. But despair not! The final book is out, and I will have a review for that up on Friday along with a giveaway!

Rating 10: A rare thing indeed, a sequel that meets the same high rating as its predecessor!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Gathering of Shadows” is included on these Goodreads lists: Thieves and “YA Books with Parallel Universes” (though this book is not a YA title, officially).

Find “A Gathering of Shadows” at your library using Worldcat!