Serena’s Review: “Beneath the Sugar Sky”

27366528Book: “Beneath the Sugar Sky” by Seanan McGuire

Publishing Info: Tor, January 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Beneath the Sugar Sky” returns to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. At this magical boarding school, children who have experienced fantasy adventures are reintroduced to the “real” world.

Sumi died years before her prophesied daughter Rini could be born. Rini was born anyway, and now she’s trying to bring her mother back from a world without magic.

Previously Reviewed: “Every Heart a Doorway” and “Down Among the Sticks and Bones”

Review: I read and loved the first book in this series of novellas, had complicated feelings about the second, though still largely enjoyed it, and was counting down the days until I could get my hands on this one (even better, I got it early so I was able to do away with my “counting calendar” before the madness really took over).

“Beneath the Sugar Sky” introduces us to Cora, yet another girl who has been unwillingly returned to a world where she feels she no longer belongs. New to the Home for Wayward Children, she is just beginning to make friends with the others around her and beginning to understand the far-reaching and complicated network of other worlds that children have traveled to and from for years. But, like them all, she wants only to find her door and return as soon as possible. Instead, what she finds, is a girl who has traveled to this “regular world” with one goal and one goal only: to resurrect her mother, Sumi, who died so tragically way back in the first book.

First off, I loved the combination of introducing a completely new character and world through Cora, but also directly tying the plot to the action from the very first book in the series, and using this contrivance to more naturally bring in characters from the first two books with whom we are familiar and enjoy. I particularly loved the surprise appearance of a past main character and exploring more fully the world she loves.

And that was another great thing! We got to visit multiple fantastical worlds in this book! I always love adventure/quest stories, and that it was lovely following our band of strange heroes through various worlds and seeing how they reacted/experienced each of these worlds. We know that the worlds choose children who are natural fits for those worlds, so seeing those characters out of place in a strange new world was very interesting, highlighting how “high nonsense” worlds would have a negative impact on characters who are more aligned to “logical” worlds. And how the world itself could actively resist those rules being pushed upon it.

Alongside some returning characters, the two new faces are Cora and Rini. Cora, our main character, was an excellent addition to a ever-growing pantheon of characters who push against conformative exceptions of society that make quick judgements of who a person is. In this particular story, we see Cora dealing with the judgements based on her weight. Her athleticism, particularly in the water, was continuously dismissed before she finds her own door that leads to a water world where she goes on adventures as a mermaid. There, in the freezing depths, her extra layers and strong, poweful body are an asset. So, here, returned to a world that sees only a “fat girl,” Cora is struggling to re-assert the powerful self within her.

While I did like the exploration of the judgements and insecurities that Cora deals with in this aspect, I was also a little underwhelmed with its resolution. Namely, there never was much of a resolution to speak of. Throughout the story Cora remains insecure about the judgements she assumes others are making about her. At the same time, she knows her own strength and begins to see how truly in-tune her own world was to her particular strengths. But she also finds ways to use those same strengths in other environments. However, I felt that this particular thread was left a bit hanging in the end. The plot itself was resolved, but this arc seemed to just peter out without any true revelations, either on Cora’s part or on other’s.

Rini was very fun, being the first “native” other world character we’ve seen. It was fun watching her character travel through the book with a “nonsense” perspective on everything. So far, we’ve only seen children from our world who, while particularly attuned for one world or another, understand that strangeness of it when compared to our “real world.” Through Rini, we see a character who has grown up in one of these strange lands and understands its rules and history (there was some great stuff with a creation story here) as as “obvious” as we consider our own world’s rules and history.

This was an excellent third story to McQuire’s Wayward Children series. While some of the internal conflicts weren’t resolved to the extent that I wish they had been, I very much enjoyed her combination of new worlds and characters with familiar faces. Further, each book seems to build upon the last as far as the mythology and connection between all of these various worlds. Even more fun, the characters themselves are learning right along side us! For fans of this series, definitely check this one out. And for those of you not on this train yet, get on, but start with the first as it’s a “must read” to fully appreciate this on.

Rating 8: Whimsical and dark, but coming up just short on a few of its character arcs.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Beneath the Sugar Sky” is a newer book, but it is on this Goodreads list: “2018 Queer SFF Releases.”

Find “Beneath the Sugar Sky” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Hazel Wood”

34275232Book: “The Hazel Wood” by Melissa Albert

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, January 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the uncanny bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a cult-classic book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate, the Hazel Wood, Alice learns how bad her luck can really get: Her mother is stolen away―by a figure who claims to come from the Hinterland, the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother’s stories are set. Alice’s only lead is the message her mother left behind: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.”

Alice has long steered clear of her grandmother’s cultish fans. But now she has no choice but to ally with classmate Ellery Finch, a Hinterland superfan who may have his own reasons for wanting to help her. To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother’s tales began―and where she might find out how her own story went so wrong.

Review: I judged the book by its cover. And the cover is beautiful, so I picked it up. Also, dark fairytales, a mysterious family history, travel between worlds, and this book sounded right up my alley. And while pieces taken outside of the whole were enjoyable, I found myself not as enamored by this one as I had hoped.

Alice and her mother have been running their entire lives, pursed by nameless, faceless, bad luck. That, and from the mystery and cultish fervor that swirls around Alice’s grandmother who is best known for writing an obscure book of fairytales. Other than flee when bad luck arrives on your door, Alice knows there is one rule: don’t interact with fans of her gradnmother’s book. But when her mother disappears, Alice has no choice but to turn to a fan and fellow classmate, the only one who will believe the strangeness involved. And neither are fully prepared for what they get: perhaps those fairytales weren’t fiction after all.

Part of my struggle with this book was due to the fact that it was simply incredibly slow for the first half of the book. It’s not a monstrously long title by any means, but half of a book is still too long to take to get to the meat of the story. There’s quite a lot of build up to Alice’s mom’s disappearance, and then, afterwards, it takes even longer somehow for Alice and Finch to get into the actual magical aspects of the story. This was even more frustrating because it didn’t seem that this extra time was spent building anything. Alice and Finch, early in the story, have already bought into the concept that there are magical elements at play, so it’s not character development that necessitates the slow movement. Further, there are about three or four mini adventures that they go through before even getting out of the city which felt like three or four more than were needed.

This slow beginning also had the unfortunate effect of making me begin to dislike Alice herself. Since the story goes some interesting places with her character in the second half of the book, the fact that the slowness of the first half had already damaged my enjoyment of her was pretty unfortunate. Yes, Alice had a non-traditional childhood and one that was made up largely of isolation and instability. And the author lays the groundwork for her anger early in the story. But all of that given, she’s just kind of a mean person a lot of the time which made it hard for me to become invested in her emotional arc. Like I said, there’s a payoff for some of this in the end. But I do think the slowness of the first half is directly responsible for the fact that damage control had to be done at all. Had we more quickly gotten into the actual story itself, there might have been less time for me to wallow around thinking that Alice was just kind of being a bitch to a bunch of people most of the time.

In the second half, things do pick up, and it was here that I found much of my enjoyment of the story. I loved the fact that the author fully embraced the darker side of fairytales. Throughout the story,  we get to hear some of the stories that were in Alice’s grandmother’s collection, and they are perfectly pitched as darkly creepy and strange, without any clear moral or predictable pattern. This just makes it all the more shivery when the characters and worlds themselves begin to come to life.

Readers’ mileage for this part of the story could also vary. There’s a lot of mystery and obfuscation. Characters withhold information simply because they can. There are definite elements of “Alice in Wonderland” with the strangeness, nonsense, and bizarre mini scenes that Alice travels through. I enjoy nonsense fairytales, and I especially liked the darker aspects of this one. However, I can see how it could read as disjointed and, again, hard to connect to for some readers. Even I struggled a few times with the strange juxtaposition of classical dark magical elements with other very modern references. It was definitely jarring at times, but by this point I was so relieved to have the story picking up that I didn’t mind.

This book was very hit and miss for me. There were parts of it that I absolutely loved (the fairytales themselves, most of the action in the second half, and the nice twist at the end), but I also very much struggled to get into the story. It starts slow and there were certain writing choices, just the way certain sentences were strung together, that were confusing and required me to read through twice, something I never love doing. I also wasn’t sold on Alice as a character, though I did enjoy the later reveals with her. If you like dark fantasy stories and can handle a slow start and a healthy dose of the strange, I’d recommend giving “The Hazel Wood” a go!

Rating 6:  A dark “Alice in Wonderland” where Alice is kind of a brat. But the fairytales themselves were on point!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Hazel Wood” is a newer book and so not on many Goodreads lists. I’m not sure whether I agree with this classification or not, but it is included on “2018 YA Horror.”

Find “The Hazel Wood” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Strange the Dreamer”

28449207Book: “Strange the Dreamer” by Laini Taylor

Publishing Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, March 2017

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

Book Description: The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

Review: This books if full of dreams and mystery. Moths and monsters. Poems painted onto a page leaving stardust in its wake, and images leaping from page to mind in a way that pulls you further in. And, while the audiobook version of this story was incredible, I spent much of my time while listening wishing and dreading that the story would unfurl faster. And, by the end, this combination of joy and dread was the perfect explanation of this book.

Lazlo Strange is a boy who grew up without a name. He has one, but it is similar to the “Jon Snows” of the world, and his childhood was that of an orphan raised among monks who finds his true home in books, and then later, in a library. (Obviously the librarian in my loved the fact that Lazlo was a librarian and that this fact, combined with his love of dreams, fairytales, and curiosity (traits that ring true for librarians everywhere, I’m sure we’d all agree) was repeatedly referenced and critical to the story.) And when he’s given the opportunity to visit the mysterious city of Weep that had suddenly cut off contact with the rest of the world years ago, Lazlo, armed with his dreams, is quick to take up the call. What he finds is much more mysterious, wonderful, and terrible than he ever imagined.

Beyond this basic plot, it’s hard to discuss much of this book due to many of the mysteries at the core of this story. I will say that I was surprised to find, about a third of the way into the book, that we were given another viewpoint character. One who was completely shocking and tremendously important to the story. But one whose history, motives, and role in this book would spoil much of it if I dug in too deep.

Lazlo, himself, was a fantastic character. It is easy to see how he falls into the roles he does and becomes generally beloved by those around him. He’s endlessly optimistic, creative, and sees the world in a way that is new and, most importantly, beautiful. And, like Jon Snow, Lazlo is much more than he seems. I was able to guess where the story was going with his character, but given the many other mysteries that took me completely by surprise, and the ones that are still remaining, this is hardly much to pat myself on the back over.

Thematically, this story covers a lot of pretty dark and grim ground. I was surprised by the levels of brutality the author brought to play, but it became clear that nothing else would do to fully realize the true horrors and terrible choices that were before all the characters involved. Both “villains” on either side of the conflict were terrible and terribly tragic. It was easy to see how each ended up where they did, and to feel the brokenness of their characters, and question what one would have done differently in their positions.

Beyond this more individual level, the story explored systematic oppression and trauma. And, the other side of the coin, the ugly side of hatred and fear, even if those feelings are based in truths. There was one line in the book about good people being just as capable of committing atrocities as the bad ones, only in the good people’s case they call those atrocities “justice.” I loved this, and it’s just one of a million examples of the careful handling of difficult subjects that Taylor covers in this story.

But, to balance all of this darkness, there is the sheer beauty of Taylor’s writing and storytelling. I’ve read other books by her, but it’s been a while and I had forgotten just how creative and poetic her writing style is. It walks right up to the edge of purple prose, looks at it, and walks forward, fully confident that it is beautiful and that that accusation won’t stick. There’s not a single falter in the entire book in this aspect. And the style of writing is just half of it. The sheer expanse of creative and lovely imagery is staggering. Taylor creates worlds within worlds and then invites readers to immerse themselves alongside her characters.

The only point that knocks this down from a “10” rating is the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger. I didn’t know going in that this was part of a trilogy, so that’s on me. But I also feel that it is possible to write trilogies without cliffhangers, and I’ve just never personally cared for them. This, however, may not be as off-putting for other readers (especially for those who know about it, or at least the fact that this is the first in a series, going in). Even with it, I highly recommend this book for fantasy readers everywhere. I think this has been marketed as young adult, but I feel like it falls pretty firmly into “new adult” (whatever that really means in the larger scheme of things). Who cares! Any fantasy fan should check out this book!

Rating 9: Dark and mysterious, full of wonder and wonderful terror. A must read for fantasy fans!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Strange the Dreamer” is included on the Goodreads lists: “Emotion Overload in Fantasy/Paranormal” and “Original Stories . . . a Breath of Fresh Air.”

Find “Strange the Dreamer” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Before She Ignites”

285240581Book: “Before She Ignites” by Jodi Meadows

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, September 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Before

Mira Minkoba is the Hopebearer. Since the day she was born, she’s been told she’s special. Important. Perfect. She’s known across the Fallen Isles not just for her beauty, but for the Mira Treaty named after her, a peace agreement which united the seven islands against their enemies on the mainland.

But Mira has never felt as perfect as everyone says. She counts compulsively. She struggles with crippling anxiety. And she’s far too interested in dragons for a girl of her station.

After

Then Mira discovers an explosive secret that challenges everything she and the Treaty stand for. Betrayed by the very people she spent her life serving, Mira is sentenced to the Pit–the deadliest prison in the Fallen Isles. There, a cruel guard would do anything to discover the secret she would die to protect.

No longer beholden to those who betrayed her, Mira must learn to survive on her own and unearth the dark truths about the Fallen Isles–and herself–before her very world begins to collapse.

Review: This book made its way on to my TBR pile for a few different reasons. First of all, I was intrigued by the inclusion of a fantasy heroine who struggles with her mental health. I’ve also read a few of Jodi Meadows’ books in the past and have mostly enjoyed them. And lastly, dragons. Enough said. For those three interest points, the book does deliver. However, the execution and pacing of the story was off and there simply weren’t enough dragons.

Mira’s life has been one lived upon a stage as the living representative of a treaty that brought several island nations together under a peace and trade agreement. But Mira herself has never felt like the fabled Hopebringer that she is meant to represent. For one, she suffers from anxiety and panic attacks and uses a counting system in her mind to keep her fears at bay. For two, she has an unseemly obsession with dragons, always running off to spend time on the reservation with her two friends and these fantastical beasts. But when she stumbles across a secret betrayal and reports it to her countrymen, she’s not rewarded, but thrown in prison.

I have complicated feelings and thoughts about this book. Many of the things I enjoyed were also parts that I later had criticisms of, which makes it hard to write this review. To start with some of the things I remained “all in” on throughout the book, I guess.

I very much enjoyed the world-building in this story. The islands that have joined together in the Mira Treaty all are based around one of the gods in a shared pantheon. These gods, and the religions practiced in their name, greatly shape the culture and priorities of each unique island nation. Mira is from a pair of twin islands that devote themselves to a pair of gods, a god and goddess of love. Through this lens, we get some insight not only into Mira herself and her struggles in her role as a public figure, but also into her reactions to the betrayal committed against her when she reports wrongdoing.

Part of Mira’s anxiety and insecurities are based on the fact that she sees herself as not perfectly matching the preferred and seemingly often inherent skill sets that make up her island’s culture. The people of her home are known for the social skills, to befriend others easily, to converse freely, and to generally thrive in social interactions. Thus, for Mira, a young woman whose role would require the most of these inherent skills, she sees her own struggles and inabilities in these roles as failures and a sign that there is something wrong with her. Further, her naivety when reporting on the betrayal she uncovers is explained through her perception of her homeland. For a country that’s focus is on love and care, it simply never occurs to her that power dynamics and political maneuvering could lead even her own country’s leaders down some treacherous paths.

As the story unrolls, we see various other island nation’s differing cultures and religions. There is an island nation devoted to Silence, and this is reflected in the power they associate with not speaking (a lesson Mira much needs), and an alternative language that they have developed to communicate without noise. There is also a nation focused on warfare and fighting prowess. A nation whose inhabitants are skillful healers and agriculturalists. A nation that worships shadows. All of these cultures are masterfully woven in throughout the story, and I very much appreciated the non-info-dumpy manner that Meadows worked them into Mira’s journey.

Mira herself was an interesting protagonist. I very much enjoyed the exploration of her anxiety, the strategies she has developed to deal with her panic attacks, her counting method (I don’t believe it is meant to represent an OCD habit, but it’s still incorporated well).  Further, Mira is not demonized for missing the beautiful parts of her life when she finds herself in prison. She’s always been clean and been surrounded by lovely things. It’s believable and refreshing that she would miss these things and relish in them when she finds them again, even now knowing the underworkings behind her privileged life. I very much liked that she was written as a believable young woman in this way. And, again, while she sees things through new lens, her character isn’t punished for still loving these creature comforts or presented as superficial for caring that her hair is dry and broken from long days in a prison.

However, while I appreciated these aspects of her character, I never felt truly invested in Mira. I’m not quite sure what the problem was. Perhaps, while I liked the realism that was given to her character, that same realism read as…dull? The story has several action scenes and jumps from one location to another, but Mira was often a passive player in all of this. And that’s what the story requires, I understand that. But that still doesn’t make me enjoy it any more. So, yes, it’s complicated. I see what the author was trying to do, and I think she largely accomplished it, but the downside of that same success is that this goal makes Mira not the most engaging character to follow.

Further, the pacing of the story was strange. In the beginning, her time in prison was broken up with flashbacks to the events that lead up to her ending up where she does. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but it was hard not to find myself skimming through the flashbacks, eager to get back to the prison plotline that I felt was much more compelling. Part of this is due to the fact that Mira’s fellow inmates were much stronger characters than her two friends back in the outside world. So with a fairly bland leading lady, these variations in strength of supporting characters really drove my appreciation of one plotline over the other.

Further, about halfway through the story, Mira’s experiences take a sudden shift and, again, due to the change of location and supporting characters, it was all just kind of “meh.” This whole section left something wanting in my opinion, and again, I was eager to get back to the prison action.

Lastly, the dragons serve an important role within the story, and yet, somehow, I still felt like there wasn’t enough of them in the story itself. At the point we were at in this book, I almost wish there had been even less? We were right at the teetering point with what was given here, and I feel like committing to one side of the other would have been an improvement. Either make the dragons a more active portion of the story, or keep them more fully on the peripheral as chess pieces in a larger game.

Ultimately, while there were things that I very much enjoyed about this story, I left it feel rather indifferent. I wasn’t “in love” with anything presented here, but I also didn’t actively dislike it. I give tons of credit to Meadows for giving us yet another example of a YA protagonist who isn’t a special snowflake. And the world-building is very interesting. As I recently discovered with “A Poison Dark and Drowning,” sometimes the second book in a trilogy is better having gotten all of the set up out of the way with the first book. That would be my hope with this trilogy.

Rating 6: Doing good work introducing a YA heroine who struggles with her mental health, but lacking in strong pacing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Before She Ignites” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Girls with Dragons” and “2017 YA/MG Books With POC Leads.”

Find “Before She Ignites” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Poison Dark and Drowning”

33629245Book: “A Poison Dark and Drowning” by Jessica Cluess

Publishing Info: Random House Books for Young Readers, September 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: Blogging for Books

Book Description: Henrietta doesn’t need a prophecy to know that she’s in danger. She came to London to be named the chosen one, the first female sorcerer in centuries, the one who would defeat the bloodthirsty Ancients. Instead, she discovered a city ruled by secrets. And the biggest secret of all: Henrietta is not the chosen one.

Still, she must play the role in order to keep herself and Rook, her best friend and childhood love, safe. But can she truly save him? The poison in Rook’s system is transforming him into something monstrous as he begins to master dark powers of his own.

So when Henrietta finds a clue to the Ancients’ past that could turn the tide of the war, she persuades Blackwood, the mysterious Earl of Sorrow-Fell, to travel up the coast to seek out strange new weapons. And Magnus, the brave, reckless flirt who wants to win back her favor, is assigned to their mission. Together, they will face monsters, meet powerful new allies, and uncover the most devastating weapon of all: the truth.

Previously Reviewed: “A Shadow Bright and Burning”

Review: I wasn’t a huge fan of “A Shadow Bright and Burning.” It wasn’t the worst thing ever, but I had a few distinct issues with it and, perhaps worse, after reading it, I pretty much forgot about it and the fact that it was the first in a trilogy. But then “A Poison Dark and Drowning” popped up on Blogging for Books, and I thought “why the heck not?” I also requested an audiobook version from the library, since we all know how I am about needing my multiple formats. And, in this case particularly, I’m very glad I did! While this wasn’t a perfect book and several of my concerns from the first came to fruition here, this sequel is definitely an improvement on the first, increasing the stakes, expanding the setting, and, for the audiobook, read by an awesome narrator who added much needed depth and tone to Henrietta’s voice.

Opening shortly after the end of the first novel, Henrietta has settled into her new life as a sorcerer. As well as she can, that is, knowing that she is being asked to live a lie and pose as the prophesied savior. London is in a precarious point in the war against the almost all-powerful Ancients, lead by the horrifying Skinned Man, Relim. Yes, at the end of the last book they struck a crucial blow, killing one of the Ancients for the first time ever. But the protective ward around the city fell as a result, and now they all wait, exposed, wondering why Relim hasn’t yet struck. Throughout all of this, Henrietta’s focus is also drawn more close to home as her childhood friend and love, Rook, begins to succumb to the darkness that has poisoned him after being attacked in the last book.

It is clear that Cluess felt much more freed up, as it were, when she wrote this novel. It’s not even that surprising. She had a lot of ground to cover in the first book including world-building, the mysteries surrounding Henrietta’s family, and setting up not one but two magic systems. Here, with all of these factors already in place, it feels like the author was finally able to open her wings. The pacing of this story was much more active, and the magical elements fit more naturally into the storyline. Henrietta’s tale takes outside of London, onto the treacherous ocean, ruled by a monstrous spider Ancient, to a misty moor hiding a monster hunter’s house, down into the land of fairy that is ruled by the capricious and cruel Queen Mab, and through many different battles, with the Ancients themselves, as well as their creepy familiars.

Henrietta herself is also more fully fleshed out in this novel. While she still had a tendency to withhold information and lie more often than is likely wise (a pet peeve of mine with YA heroines), she’s also more sure of herself and of her own powers, specifically her magicians magic. She also barely avoids the typical “martyr complex” also all too familiar for YA heroines, and still maintains a practical head on her shoulder, even when atrocities are being committed simply to lure her out. Part of my increased appreciated for Henrietta is due to the clever and nuanced voice that the audiobook narrator managed to give the character. There were moments where she added tones of humor, exasperation, and sense to dialogue that may have read more melodramatic simply from the page. It’s one of those tricky things, in cases like this. I honestly can’t tell how much of my improved attitude towards this character comes from the way she was written (was the characterization actually stronger?) or from simply enjoying this narrator quite a bit (would I have appreciated the first book’s version of Henrietta more had I listened to the audiobook version of that one too?).  Ultimately, I do think that Henrietta’s storyline was much stronger in this book, largely freed from the angst and drama from the first book.

We also delved more deeply into Henrietta’s history and into the mystery surrounding how and why the portal that let the Ancients into this world was open 17 years ago. While I found some of this to be fairly predictable, there were enough twists and turns added to still make the reveals feel new and interesting.

The stakes were also much higher in this story. The ward is down, London is in danger, and the odds are not good. And these things aren’t simply left as passive threats. There are battles, soldiers die. Towns are destroyed, and civilians suffer. Beyond this, there are consequences, real and terrible consequences, to the choices that characters make. I was surprised and impressed by the author’s commitment to “going there” with some of these decisions. This added seriousness of tone did a lot to balance out my major, and predictable criticism of this book: a love square.

As I mentioned in my review of the first book, the story is set up with Henrietta surrounded by a bunch of young men, all potential love interests in some manner or another. In that book we had Rook, Henrietta’s childhood love, and Magnus, the charming rogue. The story ended with Henrietta choosing Rook, in no little part due to the fact that Magnus turned into a jerk who was not only already engaged but let loose that he thought Henrietta was beneath him. But here, not only does Magnus get freed back up, breaking his engagement, but somehow is retconned into being much more regretful about his previous behavior. Henrietta’s heart is with Rook, however his descent into darkness and the unknowable future make their relationship challenge. And now we also add in Blackwood, the dark and brooding magicain who was slow to warn to Henrietta in the first book, but looks to be being slotted into a sort of “Mr. Darcy/bad boy” role where he’s made better by his close friendship with Henrietta, a relationship that, at first only on his side but slowly on hers as well, begins to blossom into something more.

The worst part of all of this was the fact that the book was clipping along until about halfway through with barely a reference to any romance, other than a few thoughts and concerns shot Rook’s way. And then BAM, right in the middle of the story and the action the brakes were thrown on and the story became stuck in love-triangle/square-melodrama. Thankfully, the story did kick back into the action eventually, but there were times in the middle of this section where I almost put the book down. I really don’t understand why this is considered to be necessary in YA fantasy. The story was so strong without it, and sure a dash of romance is often appreciated, but tonally, the book takes a massive swerve when it suddenly commits so much page time to these silly romantic flounderings. And ultimately, this middle section soured my opinion on all the characters involved: Henrietta, Blackwood, Rook. Magnus, bizarrely, probably comes out of all of this in the best light. And in the end, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about where things stand. Who exactly am I supposed to be rooting for? The fact that I can’t tell is the biggest problem, and ultimately, I wish Henrietta would just kick them all to the side and go have awesome adventures with Maria.

To end on a good note, Maria, a Scottish witch they pick up on their travels, was probably my favorite part of this story. Not only does she add the much needed female companion to Henrietta, but as a character herself, she’s excellent. Through her we see the horrors that the witches have suffered, alongside the magicians who we’ve heard about through Henrietta’s story, during the systematized persecution put in place after the portal was opened years ago. She has a powerful magical ability, and she wields an ax. And, best of all, the story sets her up in a pivotal role going forward. Again, Henrietta, girl, throw those boys away and hang with Maria. Rook = no personality. Blackwood = kind of a jerk with controlling tendencies. Magnus = already showed his cards as a player. Maria = besty who is the only one Henrietta is comfortable being completely truthful with. Seems pretty obvious to me.

Ultimately, I did enjoy “A Poison Dark and Drowning” more than the first. The story is given increased depth and danger, and while some of my predictions regarding the plethora of love interests did come to icky fruition, the added character of Maria makes up for it. If you like audiobooks, I do recommend checking out that version of the story as some of my increased opinion could be due to the narrator’s skillful reading.

Rating 7: Full of action and dark twisty magic, if unfortunately interrupted by silly romantic entanglements at times.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“A Poison Dark and Drowning” is fairly new and isn’t on any very relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Victorian YA Novels.”

Find “A Poison Dark and Drowning”  at your library using WorldCat.

 

Kate’s Review: “The Tea Dragon Society”

34895950Book: “The Tea Dragon Society” by Kate O’Neill

Publishing Info: Oni Press, October 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: From the award-winning author of Princess Princess Ever After comes The Tea Dragon Society, a charming all-ages book that follows the story of Greta, a blacksmith apprentice, and the people she meets as she becomes entwined in the enchanting world of tea dragons. 

After discovering a lost tea dragon in the marketplace, Greta learns about the dying art form of tea dragon care-taking from the kind tea shop owners, Hesekiel and Erik. As she befriends them and their shy ward, Minette, Greta sees how the craft enriches their lives—and eventually her own.

Review: Now see here, I may be the resident horror/thriller/true crime/all things macabre blogger, but I, too, am sometimes in need of a break from those things. While I do love me all the dark, dank, and creepy of the world, every once in awhile I yearn for a serious palate cleanser to take me down from a self made anxiety tower where I find myself perched all too often. So while at the desk at work the other day, my dear friend Tami (who is also the children’s librarian at my library) handed me this book and said “You are going to love this.” Boy oh boy, was she right, and was “The Tea Dragon Society” everything I needed in that moment!!! Hell, the cover alone gave me a vocal and physical reaction the moment I saw it.

giphy11
Specifically this with a loud “AWWWWWW!!!” (source)

“The Tea Dragon Society” is a calming and quiet graphic novel for kids, though I would argue that it’s suitable for all ages of youth AND adult as well. It takes place in an unspecified fantasy world, where there are dragons and goblins and animal creatures, and while none of it is really explained in depth, it really doesn’t have to be. This is just the world the story takes place in and it needs to explanation. We follow Greta, the daughter of a blacksmith who finds that her passion in life may actually be centered on Tea Dragon rearing. Tea dragons are dragons who grow tea leaves on their horns. Different kinds of dragons produce different kinds of tea. From Jasmine Dragons to Rooibos Dragons to Ginger Dragons, these creatures need love and attention to make the best leaves. IS THIS NOT THE CUTEST THING YOU’VE EVER HEARD? Maybe I’m biased, as I love love LOVE dragons, but the creativity and the gentle sweetness of it just hits me right in the feels.

And let’s talk about those who blacksmith and those who raise tea dragons, and what that means for gender roles in this world. Right off the bat we are introduced to Greta’s mother, who is teaching Greta how to blacksmith. Greta’s mother is implied to be one of the best blacksmiths around, and it is Greta’s father who is the artist within the family. It was so refreshing to see a mother teaching her daughter a craft that is often associated with masculinity, and teaching her the family business. While Greta has some reservations about blacksmithing and her personal devotion to it, it’s never because of her gender. Along with that, the people who raise the tea dragons are two men, Hesekiel and Erik (though Heseikiel is some kind of animalesque being, kind of looking like a llama?). Erik used to be an adventurer, but after an accident those days are behind him. However, he is never shown as being weakened or at a disadvantage because he lost this previous life. On the contrary, he’s settled into a new life of dragon rearing and gardening as well as maintaining the home that he and his partner Hesekiel share.

We also get some really good diversity in this book, as Greta and her family are darker skinned, as is Erik. Along with that, Erik is in a wheelchair because of an accident in his past. As mentioned before, Erik and Hesekiel are romantic as well as business partners, and their relationship is so lovely and shows years of devotion and caring. Minette, Erik and Hesekiel’s ward, is also representative of a different ability set, and while I don’t really want to spoil it here, I will say that she also shows that with these inherent disadvantages she can still do what she loves. In the picture of the previous Tea Dragon Society there was also diversity, showing that just about anyone could take on this life and be successful at it. While I do think that explicit discussions of why diversity matters, and being explicit about these differences in these stories are important, I also like seeing normalized diversity such as in this world. Especially since fantasy and sci-fi does have a diversity problem within the stories that are told. This goes to show that it can be done and that it should be done.

And yes, we need to talk about the dragons. Because holy crap are they just the cutest things ever.

almanac_entertainment-1
OMG!!!! (source)
almanac_diet
SCREEEEECH! (source)

There are so many designs for these different kinds of dragons, and O’Neill made it so that they do kind of represent the various teas that their horns produce. The Chamomile Dragon (the yellow one above) always looks a little relaxed and sleepy. The Rooibos Dragon (the red one above) looks spiky and rambunctious. The Earl Grey Dragon looks dignified and regal. And so on. To make these dragons so varied and yet still similar amongst themselves is such a great design, and it goes to show that dragons don’t always have to be big and daunting and fearsome. Though hey, I’m never going to complain about those kinds of dragons either.

“The Tea Dragon Society” was the right bit of fluff I needed in my life to give me an overdose on cuteness while building a lovely fantasy world. I can’t recommend it enough to not only children and parents, but also to people who like fantasy. Or those like me who really just need a relaxing read once in awhile. While O’Neill says that the story has concluded, I would be so pleased if someday she decides to revisit these characters and the lovely world that they live within.

Rating 9: TOO CUTE FOR WORDS!!!!! Along with that, we have a diverse cast of characters and an interesting examination of gender norms.

Reader’s Advisory

“The Tea Dragon Society” is on the Goodreads lists “Comics & Graphic Novels by Women”, and “2017 YA Books with LGBT Themes” (though this book is definitely appropriate for all ages).

Find “The Tea Dragon Society” at your library using WorldCat!

Here is the website for the original webcomic for “The Tea Dragon Society”.

Serena’s Review: “The Tethered Mage”

34219880Book: “The Tethered Mage” by Melissa Caruso

Publishing Info: Orbit, October 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: In the Raverran Empire, magic is scarce and those born with power are strictly controlled — taken as children and conscripted into the Falcon Army.

Zaira has lived her life on the streets to avoid this fate, hiding her mage-mark and thieving to survive. But hers is a rare and dangerous magic, one that threatens the entire empire.

Lady Amalia Cornaro was never meant to be a Falconer. Heiress and scholar, she was born into a treacherous world of political machinations.

But fate has bound the heir and the mage. And as war looms on the horizon, a single spark could turn their city into a pyre.

Review: My first props (of many to come) for this book is to whomever designed the cover art. I’ve ranted in the past about cover art tendencies in which publishers try to piggy-back off the designs of other popular books, regardless of whether or not that style or art subject matches the topic of the actual book they are producing. And yes, I know that it’s a business, and I understand the marketing behind it. But that’s the case with every cover art decision ever, and “The Tethered Mage”‘s cover art shows that publishers are perfectly capable of creating unique, pertinent, and striking art for an individual book without needing to reference others to sell. I knew next to nothing about this book, but clicked through to read the description based on this art alone, and largely this was due to its originality. I hadn’t seen a book like this before, therefore I didn’t have expectations going into checking outs its details.

My second props comes for this same originality carrying throughout the book itself. I may not have had many expectations from the art, but reading the descriptions, I had a few guesses (concerns) about the story. Yet another fire mage with a “past.” Likely a duo protagonist situation. Two women protagonists, none the less, creating potential for the ever-dreaded competitive women themes. But almost immediately after reading the first few chapters, I was ecstatic to realize that not only some of these assumptions, but all of them, were completely off base.

While the story does focus on these two women, it is told only from the perspective of Amalia Cornaro, a young woman who is in line to inherit her powerful and canny mother’s position on the Council of Nine, a group of nobles who essentially rule the land. But when she helps a young Captain bring a fire mage under control, she finds herself in a precarious position, the Falconer of the only current fire mage in the realm, and one who had done her best to avoid capture her entire life. Now Amalia must not only win the friendship of this wary and angry young woman, but larger forces are moving within the Empire, threatening its peace and tempting its rulers to now use this suddenly gained powerhouse of a Falcon/Falconer duo, regardless of said Falcon/Falconer’s opinions on the matter of burning down entire cities.

I loved that this story comes from Amalia’s point of view. While I like the magical aspects of fantasy fiction as much as the next person, I have been finding myself growing a bit weary with the fire mage young woman protagonists who litter the genre, currently. No exaggeration, I’ve read three books in the last month that feature a young woman fire mage of some sort.

But while Zaira is a focal point of the story, and gets an intriguing arc of her own, she’s secondary to Amalia, an ordinary young woman who is beginning to understand the burden she will be inheriting as an up-and-coming political leader. She’s also a scholar who, while not magically gifted herself, gets herself and others out of several binds using her knowledge of the intricacies of magical formulas. She’s also a perfect example of a character rising to meet the challenges she’s presented with. Her arc is full of personal growth and courage, and while intimidated by her circumstances at times, she’s blessedly free of unnecessary drama or indecision.

Supporting Amalia, we have her mother, La Contessa, her Falcon, Zaira, and the Captain of the Falcon guards, Marcello. All of these relationships were incredibly drawn, speaking to the unique challenges they each represent to Amalia. I was especially pleased with the portrayal of Amalia’s relationship to her mother, La Contessa. So rarely do we get to see truly loving and supportive mother/daughter relationships in fiction. That’s not to say that Amalia and her mother are without conflict, but they handle their disagreements within the larger understanding and comfort of their love for one another.

Zaira, and her relationship with Amalia, is notably free of the overly typical woman on woman competition and sniping. Given the circumstances of their partnership, their relationship is built on a lot of mistrust and misunderstanding, but these circumstances, never the specifics of the other woman, are what drives their conflict and growth. And through these challenges grows a tentative friendship, free of competition and jealousy. Zaira is also a diverse character, expressing interest in both a powerful lord and one of her fellow Falcons, a young woman.

My third props goes to this story’s portrayal of a complicated society and its approach to its magical members. The system that has been created, wherein children with magical abilities have no choice but to join the Falcon system where there powers are tied to the control of a nonmagical Falconer who can, at will, release or bind the Falcon’s abilities, is one filled with problematic issues. But on the other side we see the legitimate dangers that unbound mages present to the city. Mages are incapable of controlling their powers beyond a certain point, getting lost within these forces. In the very first chapter, Zaira, with her fire ability running out of control, could have burnt down the entire city. And throughout the story we learn of other, more tragic, events that have occurred when mages are left free. I very much enjoyed the careful exploration of the many sides of this complicated system. The story touched on free will, choice, and sacrifices made for the good of the public, delving into the many aspects of these topics, without preaching on a correct answer to this complicated problem.

Lastly, the setting and politics. The story takes place in a world that loosely connects to historical Venice. Raverra is also made up canals and waterways, and it was easy to overlay images of Venice onto this new city. The politics of the region were also key to the plot of this story, with a powerful northern realm making inroads into the treaties that hold together many city states that used to operate independently, but now all fall within the oversight of the Empire. The mystery was compelling, and the action fast-moving.

I was incredibly surprised by how much I enjoyed this story. The characters are nuanced, the plot is complicated, and the book doesn’t shy away from confronting large issues that may not have a clear right answer. This is a must for fantasy lovers everywhere! Now I just have to anxiously wait for the sequel!

Rating 9: A wonderful surprise worth adding to your fantasy TBR shelf!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Tethered Mage” is included on the Goodreads lists: “Covers With Beautiful Art” and “‘Gender Is No Object’ Second-World Fantasy.”

Find “The Tethered Mage” at your library using WorldCat!