Serena’s Review: “His Majesty’s Dragon”

28876Book: “His Majesty’s Dragon” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey, March 2006

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

Book Description: Aerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleonic Wars as valiant warriors ride mighty fighting dragons, bred for size or speed. When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes the precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Captain Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future – and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature. Thrust into the rarified world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France’s own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte’s boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.

Review: I loved both “Uprooted” and “Spinning Silver,” both fairytale retellings by Naomi Novik. I’ve heard repeatedly about her Temeraire series, and yet for some reason hadn’t picked it up. While I do like fantasy fiction that mixes together historical and military fiction as well, I think I always just read the book description for this one and was overwhelmed with flashes of “Master and Commander.” But when my last audiobook expired and I was perusing my audiobook list, the library must have been going through some high demand period and none of the books I had mentally lined up for next were available. But there was “His Majesty’s Dragon” with a glowing, green “available” next to it. So, with no excuses left, I checked it out. Only a few days later, I now have the same problem with trying to find a replacement audiobook because I blew through this one so quickly!

Laurence is proud of his career as a naval man. While impressed with the aerial corps, he’s always preferred this avenue of military life and has looked with wonder at those who live a very different life paired with their dragon companions. But when his ship captures another that carries an egg that is about to hatch, Laurence finds his life taking quite the turn. With the birth of Temeraire, a rare dragon from across the world, Laurence is introduced to an entirely different world, and one that is only marginally understood by society as a whole. Now, on the brink of invasion by Napoleon and his forces, Laurence and Temeraire must learn where they will fit in the challenging future that is unfolding before them.

So, no surprise given my introduction paragraph, but I loved this book! I really don’t know what my problem was. Novik is definitely a strong writer and this book routinely shows up on “best of” fantasy lists. Like I said, all I can blame is having only read a very different sort of fantasy from her in the past (fairytale fantasy) and my completely-unfounded-on-any-facts concern that the story would be mostly about military action with only a dash of dragons. And while, yes, there are highly descriptive battle scenes and the rules and regulations of life in the military are an important part of Laurence and Temeraire’s arc, there was also just a ton of great dragon stuff. Not only between Laurence and Temeraire and their wonderful relationship, but in the entire concept of what a world would look like if dragons were a common thing.

Novik includes tons of detail on the many different types of dragons that make up the world, both the ones native to England and the ones coming from other regions of the world. Their strengths and weaknesses are then used in very specific ways when it comes to military action. In her version of dragon riders, dragons are more like ships, big enough to have entire crews and to operate in coordinated maneuvers with the other dragons around them. In this way, Laurence is both a bonded partner with Temeraire, but also a captain who much command the group of other military personnel who also “crew” the dragon. The whole thing was so incredibly unique. As I just got done saying in my last review about phoenix riders, we’ve seen a lot of books with dragon riders. But here, Novik has come up with a truly original way of approaching the concept and there is so much room to use and expand on this idea.

But, of course, for me the most important thing often comes down to characters, and I absolutely loved both Laurence and Temeraire. Laurence is just a good guy: honorable, noble, able to adjust to his changed circumstances with grace and care. In the beginning, we get a good understanding for just what a life change it means for Laurence to suddenly become a dragon captain and have to leave behind a promising career as a naval captain. But through it all, he puts Temeraire first, always, and handles the skepticism and often out-right reproach of those who resent his new role with firm grace. In these ways, the book is almost as much a fantasy of manners story as anything else. My Jane-Austen-loving ways were all over the intricacies of honor and politeness that Laurence displayed.

And, of course, Temeraire was amazing. He’s a unique type of dragon, not one common to England, so much of the book is learning more about him and what his strengths are. It is clear from the start that he is incredibly intelligent, and Laurence and he form a quick bond based on mutual friendship and respect. He also expresses his own set of moral codes, something that Laurence must struggle to understand when it varies from his own sense of duty. Perhaps due to Temeraire’s unique attributes, but also largely due to Laurence’s not having been raised up in the aerial corps, the two of them see the relationship between riders and dragons and the mode of operation of the entire corp through a unique lens. Along with the reader, they are learning as much as we are, but also coming to see flaws that have long been accepted, challenging norms as they go.

The book does have some excellent battle scenes and even a few scenes that made me tear up. But it also definitely reads as an introduction to a series. Much of the story is made up of world-building and scene-setting, letting readers get to know Laurence and Tameraire slowly throughout the story and setting up conflicts to come. This is where Novik’s strength as a writer comes to play. In another author’s hands, this type of book, that reads largely as a set-up for books to come, could feel plodding and useless. Instead, all of the details and attention to character building were completely absorbing in their own right.

I really can’t say enough good things about this book. Fans of fantasy fiction, especially dragons (and for those looking for a unique take on the whole “dragon rider” concept), should definitely check this one out. If you like historical fiction and military fiction as well, that can only be a plus! For me, these books are already added to my mental list of long-running series that I will need to work my way through in the years to come!

Rating 9: With two incredibly endearing protagonists at its heart, this military fantasy series is sure to appeal to dragon-loving readers!

Reader’s Advisory:

“His Majesty’s Dragon” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Alternate History Novels and Stories” and “Best Book With or About Dragons.”

Find “His Majesty’s Dragon” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Monday’s Not Coming”

35068534Book: “Monday’s Not Coming” by Tiffany D. Jackson

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, May 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: An audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Monday Charles is missing, and only Claudia seems to notice. Claudia and Monday have always been inseparable—more sisters than friends. So when Monday doesn’t turn up for the first day of school, Claudia’s worried. When she doesn’t show for the second day, or second week, Claudia knows that something is wrong. Monday wouldn’t just leave her to endure tests and bullies alone. Not after last year’s rumors and not with her grades on the line. Now Claudia needs her best—and only—friend more than ever. But Monday’s mother refuses to give Claudia a straight answer, and Monday’s sister April is even less help.

As Claudia digs deeper into her friend’s disappearance, she discovers that no one seems to remember the last time they saw Monday. How can a teenage girl just vanish without anyone noticing that she’s gone?

Review: Tiffany D. Jackson, as you may recall, blew me away with her debut novel “Allegedly” back at the beginning of 2017. The story of Mary and her haunted past of being convicted of killing a baby was raw and unforgiving, and I knew that I absolutely needed to follow Jackson in her writing career because of her ability to weave modern themes of injustice into her stories. I thought that I was going to be ready for “Monday’s Not Coming”. I thought that I was going to be able to brace myself and handle whatever it was she threw at me given the gut punch that was “Allegedly”. And I was wrong, but wrong in the best way possible.

Jackson’s story about a missing girl and her determined best friend once again takes relevant social issues and applies them to a gritty and dark mystery. Claudia always comes off as a realistic teenage girl, her insecurities and her joys and her sadness and worry all culminating in ways that feel incredibly honest. Intense friendships in your childhood can be both magical and damaging, as while you have that person who may know you best, you also run the risk of relying too much on them, and the complicated center of that is very present as Claudia looks for Monday. I both wanted to shake Claudia and hug her as the story went on, as she makes so many bad decisions, but those decisions are rooted in very true to life realities. She wants to find her best friend, but there is only so much she can do on her own, so when those around her either can’t help or won’t help her powerlessness is painful and palpable. There is a sub theme in this book about her learning differences as well, which was a really refreshing theme to address. Perhaps it’s because I have a litany of diagnoses in this regard, but I loved how it made Claudia all the more well rounded, but never made her seem ‘special’ or used as a device to make her pitiable. Jackson just had it be part of her story, and connected it to why she was so reliant on Monday and how her disappearance is made all the worse for Claudia.

The story is told in a couple of different timelines, labeled as ‘The Before’, ‘The After’, and ‘Before The Before’, and while at some points it felt hard to follow it eventually becomes very clear as to how they all fit together. It adds another mysterious undercurrent to the centered ‘what happened to Monday’ aspect of this book, and while on audiobook it felt confusing at times (with no easy ability to go back and forth to remind myself which timeline I was in) I liked how it constructed the narrative. The clues about where Monday is are to be found in all of the timelines, and while I was pretty certain I knew how things were going to end up, I did find myself wavering in my deductions and speculations, enough so that it felt like every reveal was new and interesting. The mystery, too, is a very powerful way for Jackson to address an all too familiar reality when it comes to missing black girls in our society, in that they don’t get nearly as much attention as their white counterparts. Claudia is one of the few people actually trying to get to the bottom of where Monday is, and the fact that a missing teenage girl is so easily swept under the rug reminds us that there are still many racial disparities that need to be addressed in our society. So, too, is the very prevalent social issue of gentrification addressed in this story, as Monday’s family lives in a poorer part of town that is being bought up by real estate developers who want to bring in wealthier (i.e. white) tenants. This stress is just another factor that makes people more likely to look away from the situation at hand. I will say that with two kind of big reveals it felt a LITTLE bit overrun with twists, but ultimately I wasn’t upset with the two just because I bought them for the most part. I think that had this been written by a less talented author I may have been less forgiving, but as it is it didn’t hinder my overall enjoyment.

I should also note that the woman who narrated this, Imani Parks, did a wonderful job. Her voices were varied and she pulled out the right emotions from all of them. While I mentioned before that the audiobook format made it harder to keep track of the various timelines, I don’t think that I lost anything by listening to it as opposed to reading it.

“Monday’s Not Coming” was another emotional and wrenching novel from Tiffany D. Jackson. I was crying in the car as I listened to it, so if you do pick it up, make sure to have tissues on hand. Can’t wait to see what she comes out with next.

Rating 9: An emotional mystery with all too relevant themes, “Monday’s Not Coming” is another gut punch of a novel by the talented Tiffany D. Jackson.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Monday’s Not Coming” is included on the Goodreads lists “Black Heroines 2018”, and “YA Missing Persons”.

Find “Monday’s Not Coming” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “The Wolf in the Whale”

39603796Book: “The Wolf in the Whale” by Jordanna Max Brodsky

Publishing Info: Redhook, January 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Book Description: Born with the soul of a hunter and the language of the gods, Omat is destined to become a shaman like her grandfather. To protect her people, she invokes the spirits of the sky, the sea, and the air.

But the gods have stopped listening, the seals won’t come, and Omat’s family is starving.

Desperate to save them, Omat journeys through the icy wastes, fighting for survival with every step. When she meets a Viking warrior and his strange new gods, together they set in motion a conflict that could shatter her world…or save it.

The Wolf in the Whale is a powerful tale of magic, discovery and adventure, featuring an unforgettable narrator ready to confront the gods themselves.

Review: I was very excited when I received a ARC of this book. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but the brief description was immediately intriguing. I’ve found very few fantasy/historical novels (especially adult fiction, for some reason) that focus on the culture and history of the Inuit people. What’s more, the ancient trips of the Vikings to North America are included, another topic that I’ve rarely come across. And, now a resident of Minnesota where the Vikings and their previous trips here are kind of a big deal, this book felt like a no-brainer. And I’m pleased to report that not only did it live up to my excitement, but it surpassed it!

Omat’s being is made up of many parts, but most especially she carries the spirit of her deceased father in herself. This duel nature between a man’s spirit and a woman’s body has not prevented her from contributing to her small, family group, struggling to survive, mostly alone, out on the tundra. But when their small life is intruded upon by strangers, Omat’s role, shaman abilities, and future are suddenly, horribly, called into question. Now alone in the world, it is up to Omat to carve her own path to save her people and to merge the powerful spirits she’s walked with her entire life with the new deities being carried to her world from across the frozen sea.

One of the primary themes in this book is identity, most especially called into light through Omat’s journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. The religious beliefs of her people state that the spirits of the deceased can come to life again in a newly born person. That person is then both the new embodiment of that being but also still their new self at the same time. For Omat, this complicated balance is made more difficult by the spirit inhabiting her coming from her father, a man who had been an important provider for their poor family group before his unexpected death. Omat is thus raised as a man, developing both the important and necessary roles of shaman and hunger and garnering the respect that comes along with these duties, but also acquiring the same dismissal attitude towards the womens’ work accomplished by the women in their family. I particularly enjoyed how this tension played out throughout the story, as we see Omat’s struggles to retain the independence and respect that came with her man’s role, but slowly learns to respect and see with a new eyes the crucial roles that women play. The author also neatly avoids falling into any traps that would make Omat’s journey of self-discovery feel too modern or anachronistic. Instead, it feels like a natural path for a character in her position in the time. Meaning, of course, that while she comes to a balance for herself, she is still an exception, even in her own eyes, to the traditional roles assigned to each group. It was a fascinating journey.

The story itself neatly weaves in fantastical elements that pull from Inuit folk tales and religious beliefs. These then, eventually, mix with the Vikings’ own belief system, and we even see the beginning tendrils of spreading Christianity and how that rubs up against these two other, older beliefs. Again, the author presented an interesting balance between exploring faith but also presenting walking/talking gods in the more recognizable, fantasy-based way. The Inuit folklore was especially strong, with several of the tales introduced in the beginning of the book coming to life throughout the story and playing a major role in influencing the outcomes of certain events. I also enjoyed the romantic story that is introduced about halfway through, perfectly balancing itself within the greater story as a whole without overshadowing Omat or her journey.

This was almost a perfect read for me, but there were a few dings against it that came out mostly in the first half of the book. For one, it is slow to get started. There’s a good third of the book to get through before the real action begins to take place, and while this portion is laying important groundwork, it simply read slowly and delayed my full immersion into the story.

I also wish that the publisher had marketed this book differently. Since it’s all out in the open anyways, it’s no spoiler that Omat is a woman. But the way the story plays out, in the beginning chapters of the book, readers, and Omat herself to some extent, aren’t aware that the main character is female. The reveal is then ruined by our previous knowledge from the book’s marketing. I’m guessing this was just a risk the publisher didn’t want to take, but I think that it underestimates readers and severely undercuts what could have been a great reveal, and one that tied neatly to the major themes of the book (our perceptions of gender roles).

The last thing wasn’t so much a mark against the book as a general warning: there are a few fairly graphic scenes dealing with violence and assault against women. Readers can kind of get a sense that the story is headed in this direction, but these scenes were still very hard to read.

But, those quibbles aside, I adored this book! The setting felt fresh and new, and Omat’s journey was both exciting as an adventure and fascinating as an introspection into the roles of men and women. If you enjoy historical fantasy, and especially if you’re longing for something new, NOT set in medieval Europe, definitely give “The Wolf in the Whale” a try!

Rating 9: Simply excellent! I’ll definitely be on the look-out for more books from this author!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Wolf in the Whale” is a new title and isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Popular Inuit Books” and “Canadian Arctic.”

Find “The Wolf in the Whale” at your library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “The Haunting of Hill House”

89717We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘genre mash-ups’, where we pick two random genres and try to find a book that fits both. 

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson

Publishing Info: Viking, 1959

Where Did We Get This Book: Audiobook from the library!

Genre Mash-up: Historical and Horror

Book Description: First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, the lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Kate’s Thoughts

I first read “The Haunting of Hill House” in middle school, egged on by both my mother and my love for the 1962 film “The Haunting.” Even though I knew pretty much what to expect then, it still managed to creep me out, the story of a haunted house and the paranormal investigators within in giving me a serious dose of terror. Revisiting it for book club has been a real treat, especially with the recent (and VERY different) adaptation on Netflix being so fresh in my mind.

What struck me again as I listened to it is that Jackson does a really good job of not only setting up moments that are genuinely terrifying, but that she is just as good at writing the ‘down time’ moments. The slow build of the actual threat is fun to see, as Eleanor, Theo, Luke, and Dr. Montague go from mildly skeptical, to amused, to anxious, to outright horrified. The escalation, starting with doors closing on their own and cold spots turning into banging on doors and hallucinations, is slow and it burns as such, and it builds up terror in ways that few authors can achieve. Jackson holds her cards to her vest, but as she lays them out at her own pace the reader is continually caught unawares and left breathless.

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And perhaps apprehensive of any type of bump in the night. (source)

I also like how well rounded our four characters are. While it’s mostly from Eleanor’s point of view, I think that we get a pretty good sense of Theo, Luke, and Dr. Montague. The only focused upon characters (as opposed to one offs like Eleanor’s sister)  who are laughably awful are Dr. Montague’s wife, and her ‘friend’ Arthur (what is up with Arthur? Is he a lover of Mrs. Montague’s or just a weird hanger on?), as her prim condescension is laid on VERY thick and his toxic masculinity is overdone even for the original time period. But even this serves the purpose of banding our four together tighter, which makes the ultimate climax and fate of one of them all the more upsetting. My favorite is Theo, the empath with a snide streak, who may or may not be goading Eleanor on for her own amusements. Given that Eleanor is our primary character, and she is slowly slipping into obsession and madness, it’s hard to know just how manipulative Theo is, and I like the second guessing Jackson made me do (another side note: Is Theo coded as bisexual? If so, is that a facet of a too often trotted out trope of the untrustworthy bisexual? So many questions).

I quite enjoyed my second reading of “The Haunting of Hill House.” It’s a classic endeavor into the gothic/haunted house story, and I feel that it holds up pretty well after all this time. If you are interested in reading it because of the Netflix series, know that it’s VERY different. But don’t let that dissuade you. I think that it would give you a better appreciation of what the show did. In any case, it’s a spooky read for a dark night.

Serena’s Thoughts

Poor Kate is a real trooper about bookclub. As you may have noticed, our bookclub is made up of an over-abundance of fantasy readers, so that genre gets probably more than its fair share of representation in the titles we choose. Obviously this works out great for me! But it leaves Kate and a few of the others having to read out of their comfort zones quite a bit. And they’re great about it! But it’s also probably not as good for the fantasy fans among us, as well, since we’re often less challenged to read books that wouldn’t cross our paths anyways. Not so this month! We have swapped roles and here I am, in all of my magic system and unicorn-loving form, reviewing a horror novel! (Another shout out to Kate for finding an audiobook version of this for me on YouTube since the book is understandably pretty popular right now due to the Netflix adaptation and my place on the holds list at the library was getting me nowhere fast!).

Obviously, I don’t read horror stories, so I don’t have a lot of comparisons to draw from. Instead, sadly, what I do have are a lot of tired tropes that I’ve seen ad nauseum in the few horror movies that I’ve somehow watched (how, HOW, did I end up seeing not only “Saw” but several of its sequels?!). This has unfortunately tinged my perception of horror novels, and while I’m sure that the equivalent torture porn, jump-scare prone type storytelling can be found in horror fiction as in this genre of film, this was thankfully nothing like it. It feels almost insulting to type this out about what is known to be a classic work of horror literature, but I was so surprised and impressed by the writing itself.

It was through this immense strength in imagery and poetic turns of phrase that Jackson was able to rise about what is, now at least, a fairly familiar set up: a bunch of people going to a haunted house to “test” how haunted it truly was. I quickly became truly invested in the characters and the detailed descriptions not only helped create a strong sense of place, but obviously helped ratchet up the tension. And yes, tense it was! Again, I don’t have anything to compare this to as far as its creepiness level, but I, for one, was pretty spooked by a good bit of this. But because of the strong characters and even stronger writing, I was too invested to think of putting it down.

As Kate referenced as well, the ambiguity of everything that is happening only adds to the tension. Our main character becomes more and more unreliable and readers are left questioning everything they’re told. Is the house truly haunted? Is someone playing a game with them? Are they all just going mad? A lot of horror producers, mostly for film, often talk about how it’s what goes unseen that is the most scary. Once you “reveal” your monster, that original level of fear is hard to regain. And in this book, so much is unknown!

Ultimately, while this book completely freaked me out, I definitely enjoyed the push to get out there and read something that is so far outside of my comfort zone and not a book I would have ever picked up on my own. Frankly, if I wasn’t such a scardy cat, I think I could really like horror fiction, especially the type of horror that crosses over into the supernatural. Alas, I’m too chicken.

Kate’s Rating 9: A classic in horror literature that still brings readers back again and again, “The Haunting of Hill House” is a must for readers who want something scary.

Serena’s Rating 8: With no  bench mark to judge it from, I really enjoyed “The Haunting of Hill House,” especially the strength of Jackson’s writing.

Book Club Questions

  1. Why do you think each person was motivated to come to Hill House? What do you think motivates the Dudleys to stay?
  2. The house is a character itself—could some of the strange phenomena be explained by the strange construction? The history of its inhabitants?
  3. What parallels can be drawn between past inhabitants of Hill House and the current visitors?
  4. The author chooses to have several characters witness strange phenomena, making it very definite that they are happening. What do you believe?
  5. How does Eleanor’s past influence her choices and actions?
  6. What do you make of the repetition of the passage at the beginning and the end of the novel?
  7. For those that have seen adaptations of this story—how do they compare? What is good/bad/different about them?
  8. Would you spend a week in a “haunted” house?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Haunting of Hill House” is included on the Goodreads lists “Modern Gothic”, and “Haunted House Books”.

Find “The Haunting of Hill House” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Age of Swords”

32337902Book: “Age of Swords” by Michael J. Sullivan

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, July 2017

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

Book Description: Raithe, the God Killer, may have started the rebellion by killing a Fhrey, but long-standing enmities dividing the Rhune make it all but impossible to unite against a common foe. And even if the clans can join forces, how will they defeat an enemy whose magical prowess makes the Fhrey indistinguishable from gods?

The answer lies across the sea in a faraway land populated by a reclusive and dour race who feels nothing but disdain for both Fhrey and mankind. With time running out, Persephone leads the gifted young seer Suri, the Fhrey sorceress Arion, and a small band of misfits in a desperate search for aid—a quest that will take them into the darkest depths of Elan. There, an ancient adversary waits—an enemy as surprising as it is deadly.

Previously Reviewed: “Age of Myth”

Review: I raved about “Age of Myth” in my review of it a few months ago. So much so that it even made its way onto my “Top 10” list for the year! Part of my enjoyment for the book was the promise of what looked to be an excellent, epic fantasy series, but one can never know for sure based on just one book. Well, as I mentioned in said “Top 10” list, I’m here with my review for the second book in the series, and I can report that yes, my enthusiasm was not unfounded!

While it hasn’t hit the fan yet, humankind knows that a conflict with the powerful, magical, and long-lived Fhrey is on the horizon. But they are woefully unprepared: they do not have weapons, they do not have a leader, and they do not have a strategy. Persephone has her own opinions on the last two, but for the weapons, at least, she has a plan. Gathering together a rag-tag group of powerful (in their own specific ways) women, she sets off to discover the secrets of making stronger weapons, a secret held by yet another antagonistic race. Raithe remains behind to deal with the squabbling clans as they work towards electing a leader. Each must face a new set of challenges that will only be one more small step in preparing their people for what feels like an impossible fight.

There are a lot of comparisons to “Lord of the Rings” in fantasy literature. And it’s pretty obvious why that is. It’s one of the few fantasy series that has truly bounced past its genre limitations, in that even readers not familiar with fantasy and sci fi are likely to have read it, or at least be passingly familiar with this story. Don’t get me wrong, “Lord of the Rings” is by no means the be-all, end-all and much of what even that great work does is pulled from a long tradition of story-telling and hero’s journeys. This is important to remember when we see elements from that series pop up in other series. Stories are all influenced by each other, and that’s ok! All of this to say that there are some pretty distinct lines to be drawn from this series and “Lord of the Rings,” and I, for one, am fine with it.

As I mentioned in my review of the first book, we have our three staple fantasy races: humans, elves and dwarves. Many of the characteristics of each is familiar from traditional portrayals. Humans are kind of pathetically (but heroically!) resilient in the face of their limitations. Elves are obviously the most powerful, but are pretty arrogant to boot. And dwarves just do their own thing, with a certain dickish flair. These are familiar traits from “Lord of the Rings” and other fantasy novels, and they hold true here. But what really got me (in a good way) in this book was that as I was reading, I just had this, fairly iconic now, scene playing in my head:

I can’t find a gif of the whole thing, but we all know what I’m talking about.

But take this scene and replace all the men with women! And then they all go into Moria, essentially, and terrifying and heart-breaking things occur. Yes, many of these things felt familiar, down to the almost all-powerful beast lurking in the depths, but frankly, I couldn’t care less just due to how awesome it was to find a band of adventurers that was completely made up of women! And they all fulfilled the same roles that you would typically find men filling in this type of group expedition. The leader. The magician. The scribe. The warrior. The inventor.

The one criticism I found here had to do with the characterization of Roan. I really like this character, over all. But it did start to feel as if she was literally inventing every new type of technology or discovery all by herself in a very short period of time. The wheel? Roan’s got it. Bows and arrows? Yep. Swords? Sure! It just got to be a bit much, especially as all of these things were invented over a very short period of time between the two books so far. I mean, at this rate, she’ll have invented computers and space technology by the end of the series!

However, I did like the ongoing gender-swapping that was going on between Persephone and Raithe. Persephone is the go-getter in this series. Through her own sheer will and persistence, action happens. Raithe is the one dragging his feet. His pessimism towards the entire affair was a bit challenging to read, but it also felt very true to his character. His experience of life has not been a happy one and, in many ways, he’s right about the seeming hopelessness of this situation. And having come from a tribe and family that rarely expected to see another day, and thus maintained only fleeting connections to those around them, the idea of fighting for a cause or for other people is a bit foreign to him. It was refreshing to see his slow growth as a heroic character, rather than have him spring up as a fully formed, capital “H” hero in the traditional sense. I’m curious to see where his story will go as things move forward.

This book also made me cry. Like, a lot. Not throughout the entire book or anything, but just really hard at one very specific part. My husband happened to walk in to the garage while I was sitting in my car listening to this particular part on the audio book (definitely wasn’t going to turn it off just because I’d, you know, gotten home!) and I’m pretty sure he thought someone had died.

And, while the plot has a lot of great action scenes and a fun arc of its own, it is also definitely continue to slowly set the stage for the series as a whole. Very little actual movement was made in the larger conflict, but we can see the pieces slowly coming into place.

I’m on the waiting list for the audiobook for the third book in the series (massive plug for the audiobook version of this series, the narrator is awesome). But part of me is also not in a huge rush for it to arrive since once I inevitably fly through that one, I’ll have to join the rest of the fans in waiting for a new book to be published. Hopefully it will be soon, but with a series as enjoyable as this one has been so far, “soon” is never quick enough!

Rating 9:

Reader’s Advisory:

“Age of Swords” is on these Goodreads lists: “Examples of Male Authors Writing Great Female Protagonists” and “Fantasy novels with positive portrayals of female leadership.”

Find “Age of Swords” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Two Can Keep A Secret”

38225791Book: “Two Can Keep A Secret” by Karen M. McManus

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, January 2019

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

Book Description: Echo Ridge is small-town America. Ellery’s never been there, but she’s heard all about it. Her aunt went missing there at age seventeen. And only five years ago, a homecoming queen put the town on the map when she was killed. Now Ellery has to move there to live with a grandmother she barely knows.

The town is picture-perfect, but it’s hiding secrets. And before school even begins for Ellery, someone’s declared open season on homecoming, promising to make it as dangerous as it was five years ago. Then, almost as if to prove it, another girl goes missing.

Ellery knows all about secrets. Her mother has them; her grandmother does too. And the longer she’s in Echo Ridge, the clearer it becomes that everyone there is hiding something. The thing is, secrets are dangerous–and most people aren’t good at keeping them. Which is why in Echo Ridge, it’s safest to keep your secrets to yourself.

Review: Thank you so much to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this book!

I know that I probably over reference “Twin Peaks” in my blog posts, but given that for me it’s the pinnacle of storytelling it’s a standard that I can’t help but hold certain types of stories to. Basically, if you are writing a book about a small town with seedy secrets, I’m going to immediately start chanting in my head about magicians longing to see and stuff of that nature. If a book doesn’t live up to those (probably unfair) expectations, woe be unto the author and the universe they create. But when they do?

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(source)

And that brings me to Karen M. McManus’s newest YA mystery thriller “Two Can Keep A Secret”. Given my enjoyment of her previous book, “One of Us Is Lying”, I was excited and nervous to read her follow up to a stellar debut. The good news is that I liked “Two Can Keep A Secret” even more than “One of Us Is Lying”!

Once again, McManus has a compelling hook and likable characters that immediately pull the reader in. While on the surface our cast seems to fill various tropes of the genre (the cynical new girl, the misunderstood outsider, the manipulative and popular bitch), McManus writes them all in such a way that they feel fresh and unique. Our main two perspectives are Ellery, a true crime obsessed teen who has just moved to her mother’s home town of Echo Park, and Malcolm, the younger brother of a former golden boy. Both have outside connections to tragedy in this small town, as Ellery’s aunt disappeared when she and Ellery’s mom were teens, and Malcolm’s brother fell from grace after his girlfriend was murdered and he was the prime suspect. While it may have been easy to follow ever explored formulas for both our main characters, Ellery and Malcolm both surprised me with their depth. They both have moments of triumph and moments that were less than flattering, but at all times they felt like realistic teens who are trying to move past painful realities and traumas. While the supporting cast didn’t have as much time to shine as these two, when they were on the page they, too, felt like real teens with lives they were navigating as best they could. I especially liked Ezra, Ellery’s twin brother, whose love and loyalty to his sister was a good way to counterbalance the ever so tempting ‘all alone new kid’ plot line. It was also a thoughtful way to show how different people can approach and process a shared pain, as the twins have to navigate moving to a new place after their mother Sadie ends up rehab.

There are multiple mysteries tied up in “Two Can Keep A Secret”, but McManus juggles them with ease so they never feel overwhelming. Echo Park is a town filled with secrets, from who killed Lacey the Homecoming Queen, to the disappearance of Sadie’s twin sister Sarah (which, understandably, has possibly contributed to her mental problems), to secret familial connections that no one wants to talk about. The various tragedies at the center of this story were where the book most reminded me of “Twin Peaks”, and I think that’s in part due to how well McManus laid out this town and those who inhabit it. While there were some answers I was able to discern on my own before their reveals, for the most part I was left guessing and theorizing up until the answer was given. I greatly enjoyed the many different mysteries, from the tragic to the sudsy. They were all satisfying from start to finish, and McManus did a superb job of making sure all of her threads were pulled together by the end of the book.

“Two Can Keep A Secret” was a fun and suspenseful mystery, and it solidifies Karen M. McManus as a talented thriller author. Readers of thrillers, no matter their age, will almost assuredly find something to like here. And if you like the less surreal aspects of “Twin Peaks”, this book could be a good fit for you as well!

Rating 9: A fabulous follow up to a great debut, “Two Can Keep A Secret” is a tantalizing mystery with fun characters and many satisfying twists and turns. Fans of thrillers should check it out.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Two Can Keep A Secret” is included on the Goodreads lists “Secrets and Lies”, and “Mystery Thriller 2019”.

Find “Two Can Keep A Secret” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel”

37638211Book: “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel: A Story of Sleepy Hollow” by Alyssa Palombo

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Griffin, October 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: When Ichabod Crane arrives in the spooky little village of Sleepy Hollow as the new schoolmaster, Katrina Van Tassel is instantly drawn to him. Through their shared love of books and music, they form a friendship that quickly develops into romance. Ichabod knows that as an itinerant schoolteacher of little social standing, he has nothing to offer the wealthy Katrina – unlike her childhood friend-turned-enemy, Brom Van Brunt, who is the suitor Katrina’s father favors.

But when romance gives way to passion, Ichabod and Katrina embark on a secret love affair, sneaking away into the woods after dark to be together – all while praying they do not catch sight of Sleepy Hollow’s legendary Headless Horseman. That is, until All Hallows’s Eve, when Ichabod suddenly disappears, leaving Katrina alone and in a perilous position.

Enlisting the help of her friend – and rumored witch – Charlotte Jansen, Katrina seeks the truth of Ichabod Crane’s disappearance, investigating the forest around Sleepy Hollow using unconventional – often magical – means. What they find forces Katrina to question everything she once knew, and to wonder if the Headless Horseman is perhaps more than just a story after all. In Alyssa Palombo’s The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel nothing is as it seems, and love is a thing even death won’t erase.

Review: I’ve had a deep affection for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” ever since I was a little girl. My first exposure to it was the Bing Crosby Disney vehicle, with it’s jaunty music and admittedly all too terrifying Headless Horseman. My favorite adaptation is the utterly faithless but still WAY fun and interesting Tim Burton film “Sleepy Hollow”, as while Johnny Depp is a creep his portrayal of Ichabod Crane as an earnest and logical detective is a preferable contrast to the original superstitious gold digger Washington Irving imagined. But something that cannot be denied in either version, from the fairly true to the quirky retelling, is that the female love interest, Katrina Van Tassel, really isn’t given much to do outside of being an object of affection. While it’s certainly true that Christina Ricci’s version of Katrina is perfectly adequate (hell, she gets to be a witch, which is pretty neat), it is mostly Ichabod’s story. So when I read about “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” by Alyssa Palombo, I knew that I had to read it, as it is a retelling of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” but from a female centered perspective.

This isn’t so much a ghost story this time around as it is a romance and mystery, and it’s certainly presented through a feminist lens. Like in the original tale, Katrina is the daughter of wealthy farmer Baltus Van Tassel, but instead of being merely a point in a love triangle she is a sharp and independent woman who sees life beyond Sleepy Hollow and the path that is planned out for her. While her father does encourage her studies and her interests, ultimately he sees her marrying her childhood friend Brom Van Brunt, aka Brom Bones, who remains the WORST. Katrina has other ideas, as she has come to despise him because of his treatment of her best friend Charlotte, the daughter of the town midwife. Brom is very much the macho and of the time ideal of a man, popular and the son of another successful (and therefore land owning) farmer, though his misogyny and bigotry turns Katrina off. It’s a solid portrayal of a timeless villain, and while he remains antagonistic, Palombo does a good job of making him a little more complex than merely the town brute. But don’t get me wrong, he’s still awful.

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It has to be done. (source)

Katrina’s loyalties are to Charlotte because Charlotte is one of two profoundly meaningful female relationships she has in this book, the other being Nancy, her former nursemaid. I loved that not only do we get Katrina to steer the ship of feminist interpretations, but that Charlotte and Nancy provide examples of positive and supportive female friendship that could otherwise have been completely waylaid. It also is a good way to address horrific realities of the time in organic ways. It brings up the distrust people had towards women like Charlotte and her mother, who are midwives and herbalists who are seen as potential witches, and the evil that was chattel slavery, as Nancy is a former slave who is now employed by the Van Tassels. While it is made clear that she is  given a wage and has her freedom, her past as property is not ignored, and it is addressed in a way that shows the privileges that women like Katrina and Charlotte DID have during this time because of their skin that were not afforded to Nancy. These three women band together and support each other, and it felt fairly even handed, as neither Charlotte nor Nancy felt like props there merely to hold Katrina up.

The romance between Katrina and Ichabod was very satisfying as well. Since it is through Katrina’s eyes, her agency and intent are always present, as Ichabod is portrayed as a man of intellect who sees Katrina as an equal in all ways. Her self worth and independence are only bolstered by him, and their love affair is not only on even footing, it’s also VERY romantic. And smutty. My GOODNESS is this book heavy on the love scenes during the first part. Palombo manages to make these love scenes feel fairly real for the time and place, and the romance is a slow burn that really makes you root for Katrina and Ichabod, even if the original story has mapped out a very clear, and tragic, path for it to take. Unlike “Sleepy Hollow”, “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” doesn’t completely throw the source material out the window, and while I knew that going in there would absolutely be bittersweetness, I wasn’t prepared for how emotional Katrina and Ichabod’s romance, and his ultimate disappearance, was going to be. Palombo constructs a love that feels timeless and complex, and makes Ichabod far more than a gold digging schemer, as well as more than a deep thinking hero. Yet ultimately, this IS Katrina’s story, and while her love for Ichabod sets it in motion she is the one fully in control beyond her relationship with him. She has to make some tough choices in the wake of his disappearance, choices that she doesn’t want to make and yet must because of the time period, and her drive to find out what did happen to the love of her life, be it him running off or Headless Horseman taking him, make her an all the more intriguing heroine. Because while love is a huge theme, there is also a lot of grief, and what grief can do to a person.

But given the ambiguity of the original source material (was it a Horseman who was responsible for Ichabod’s disappearance, or a very mortal man?), “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” would be missing something if the supernatural aspect wasn’t there. Luckily, Palombo does have eerie elements. Katrina is haunted by visions of the Headless Horseman her entire life, her gift for Sight being a main theme in this book. She and Charlotte both have seemingly otherworldly powers, though they are never overdone or overshot. Given that I LOVE The Headless Horseman as a ghost and antagonist, I was worried that he was going to be more of an afterthought in this story. But while he does play a smaller role, and a more opaque one at that, there was enough of him and the idea of him that still gave him a presence throughout the narrative. Palombo brings in other folklore from the original tale and region (and provides handy author’s notes at the end about it), as Katrina collects and tells the stories of ghosts and spectres through the area. After all, she too is haunted by things, though they are perhaps more of this Earth. By the end of this book I really liked how the ghostly tales were woven into the overall story arc, and how they could serve as metaphors for the things that Katrina was going through. And yes, The Headless Horseman does have one pretty damn satisfying moment, as ambiguous as it may be. After all, he himself is an ambiguous character in the original tale, so this time around it feels extra sweet to see the big moment that is given to him.

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#teamhorseman (source)

Overall, I really liked “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel”. It retold a story that I love in a unique and female centered way. I’m setting this book on the shelf next to my copy of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” so they can coexist in the way the two tales really ought to.

Rating 9: A lovely romance with a bittersweet mystery “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” re-tells an old classic with a female focused lens, and brings it satisfying new characterizations.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “The Best Fairytales and Retellings”.

Find “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” at your library using WorldCat!