Serena’s Review: “Onyx and Ivory”

34739766Book: “Onyx and Ivory” by Mindee Arnett

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, May 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss

Book Description: They call her Traitor Kate. It’s a title Kate Brighton inherited from her father after he tried to assassinate the high king years ago. Now Kate lives as an outcast, clinging to the fringes of society as a member of the Relay, the imperial courier service. Only those most skilled in riding and bow hunting ride for the Relay; and only the fastest survive, for when dark falls, the nightdrakes—deadly flightless dragons—come out to hunt. Fortunately, Kate has a secret edge: she is a wilder, born with magic that allows her to influence the minds of animals.

The high king’s second son, Corwin Tormane, never asked to lead. Even as he waits for the uror—the once-in-a-generation ritual to decide which of the king’s children will succeed him—he knows it’s always been his brother who will assume the throne. And that’s fine by him. He’d rather spend his days away from the palace, away from the sight of his father, broken with sickness from the attempt on his life.

With their paths once more entangled, Kate and Corwin have to put the past behind them. The threat of drakes who attack in the daylight is only the beginning of a darker menace stirring in the kingdom—one whose origins have dire implications for Kate’s father’s attack upon the king and will thrust them into the middle of a brewing civil war in the kingdom of Rime.

Review: This is another book that I requested primarily based on the beautiful cover art. Another win for the “no models on covers” team! I was also intrigued by the dueling narratives, though I think I generally tend to be a reader who prefers only one POV. But, if done right, I’ve loved alternating narrators in the past, and I was hopeful for this one. Plus, I’m always there for any fantasy story that involves animal magic!

Kate is living a life in hiding. After her father was executed for attempting to murder his good friend, the king, Kate’s life fell to pieces. Where once she had a best friend and burgeoning love in Prince Corwin, now she has only estrangement and bitterness at his failure to stand up for her and her father. Her cozy life working alongside her father in the palace stables has turned to one fraught with danger and hard work as she tries to support herself as a mail carrier in a land full of dangerous beasts that kill any out after dark. All of this while she tried to hide her magical ability to influence animals from the inquisitionists roaming the realm looking to round up and dispose of those like her.

Corwin’s life, too, is not what he once believed it would be. After years in self-imposed exile, he has returned to a country that doesn’t seem to need him, being well run by his brother in his ailing father’s place. But when strange attacks begin to happen in daylight, Corwin and Kate find there paths crossing again, as they both strive against dark forces at work in the kingdom.

Both Kate and Corwin were strong narrators with compelling arcs of their own, plus the storyline of their re-building relationship. Kate’s magic was intriguing and throughout the story, we learn alongside her what she is truly capable of. What’s more, her story is an interesting take on persecution and privilege. Up to this point, Kate has been comfortable enough hiding her magic. She has believed the stories she has been told about the dangers of her magic and that of others like her. So, while she lives in fear of being caught, she hasn’t had to truly confront what life is like for those who didn’t grow up in a palace, free from suspicion primarily because of position. Throughout the story, Kate witnesses the harsh realities of what this type of persecution, based on nothing more than fear, is like for those who have not had this type of shield. Once she is thrown back into life alongside those in power, she begins to see that her role can no longer be that of a passive player, content to use her powers in secret and live a quiet life.

Corwin’s story is fraught with insecurity and doubt. His self-esteem and self-respect have been poisoned by regret over his lost relationship with Kate and his perceived failures of her and of his country. The story introduces an intriguing concept with a sort of test that historically has been signaled by the arrival of a two-toned animal. This test determines which heir will inherit the throne. In his early 20s, the time is well past when this sign should have arrived and Corwin sees this as confirmation of his own failures. When the sign finally does arrive, Corwin must learn to accept his own strengths and make his own choices.

I also very much enjoyed the romance between these two characters. This isn’t first love, as that happened earlier in each of their lives only to be cut short by the trauma of Kate’s father’s betrayal of Corwin’s father. So when they are forced back to each other, their is doubt, hurt, and betrayal that must be dealt with. Beyond this is the understanding that Kate, the daughter of a traitor, will never be considered a worthy consort for a would-be king. What’s more, they each have secrets: Kate’s own magic, which she fears to reveal to Corwin whose own mother was killed by an out-of-control magic wielder; and Corwin’s lost years which clearly added to the self-doubt he feels with regards to himself.

The world-building and magic system were fairly standard, but I didn’t really see this as a down side. I very much enjoyed the magical creatures who descriptions were terrifying and whose presence and limitations based on day and night clearly shaped much of what goes on in this kingdom. I particularly liked the magical system set up for the process of inheritance. It was a unique concept and the trials themselves were exciting. The villain was also quite good. There were numerous red herrings and the motivations and methods of said villain were also a good reveal.

Overall, I had a blast reading this book. I was able to slip quickly and easily into this world. I cared about both Kate and Corwin’s stories separately, and was invested in their relationship as a couple. My only criticism comes with the ending. There’s this great battle scene full of magic, fighting, and sufficient stakes, and then it kind of just…ends. I was reading an ebook version, so maybe I was just caught by surprise more than I would have been had it been a physical book, but things did feel as if they got wrapped up fairly quickly. I’m also assuming there is going to be a sequel, though I haven’t seem mention of that anywhere! All in all, however, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was a fairly standard fantasy, but the strength of its two narrators and the solid romance kicked it up pretty high on my own personal rating scale.

Rating 9: Two main characters whom you can’t help but root for!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Onyx and Ivory” is a new title, so it isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Multiple POV Fantasy Books.”

Find “Onyx and Ivory” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Song of the Current”

31450960Book: “Song of the Current” by Sarah Tolcser

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury Children’s, June 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the publisher!

Book Description: Caroline Oresteia is destined for the river. For generations, her family has been called by the river god, who has guided their wherries on countless voyages throughout the Riverlands. At seventeen, Caro has spent years listening to the water, ready to meet her fate. But the river god hasn’t spoken her name yet—and if he hasn’t by now, there’s a chance he never will.

Caro decides to take her future into her own hands when her father is arrested for refusing to transport a mysterious crate. By agreeing to deliver it in exchange for his release, Caro finds herself caught in a web of politics and lies, with dangerous pirates after the cargo—an arrogant courier with a secret—and without the river god to help her. With so much at stake, Caro must choose between the life she always wanted and the one she never could have imagined for herself.

Review: First off, a bit thanks to the publisher for sending this my way! Just in time for us all to gear up for the second in the series, “Whisper of the Tide,” to come out this June. And this was a super solid outing for a new fantasy series, so count me as on board that excitement train!

So I was one of those kids who went to summer camp. During middle school I just went to the regular camp, but then I discovered the magnificence of “themed” camps also offered through the sane organization. Specifically, sailing camp. It was a week long camp where a bunch of high schoolers and a few counselors pretty much sailed around this massive lake in northern Idaho and camped overnight at various places. So…yeah…I’m pretty much a sailing expert. Ha! Not all. But this little jaunt into memory lane is one of the reasons that I loved this book.

We’ve all read a million and one epic fantasies with dragons and magical powers A few trillion fairy tale retellings. And as much as I love both of those, it’s always nice to find a new take on the genre, and that’s what we get here. Not only does the majority of the story take place on the water, be it rivers or the ocean, but the main character’s entire life and that of her family revolves around living on and operating ships. What’s more, it is a crucial aspect of the magic system, the economy of the world, and its belief system.

I loved that the author went all in on this concept. She doesn’t hesitate to devote a decent amount of time describing ships and the skills necessary to successfully navigate them. I had a lot of fun picking out the few bits of knowledge I recognized, and it was interesting to learn even more. This may read as a bit dull to some readers, but I think if you know what you’re going to get and have an interest in sailing and ships, this sharp focus will be appreciated.

But the world-building goes beyond just detailed ship knowledge. As I said, the politics and economics of this world revolve in one way or another around the waterways. Caro’s path through this adventure is tied to the different parties involved who have an interest in what goes on out on the water. Caro’s mother and father both come from very different worlds, and I loved the very different outlook they both brought to what it means to love the water and the ships on it.

Caro, herself, was an excellent protagonist. It’s clear from the beginning that she is a skilled sailor, and as she moves through the story, she gains even more confidence in this area, all while still trying to find her exact role in this world. She’s pulled between the two opposite forces of her parents, and also is starting to suspect that she may be something altogether different than either of them would suspect. Here, the magic system was particularly interesting, including a very unique river god.

The other major player is Markos,  a young man full of arrogance and swagger, and whose lot gets thrown in with Caro’s, much to her initial displeasure. This was a perfect example of one of my much loved romances: the dislike changing to love arc. But it’s also a tough one to pull off, with many authors succeeding a bit too well at the “dislike” portion, so much so that they can’t justify the love to follow. Here, Markos’s vanity and incompetence are humorous. And while it’s easy to see why he gets under Caro’s skin, as a reader, I was just having blast reading about his foibles. And, as Caro gets to know him better, he has clear strengths, such as an unbreakable love for his family and some pretty stellar sword skills.

For me, the unique world-building and the spot-on characterization of Caro and Markos are what truly sold me on the story. It does focus quite a bit on the sailing aspect of things, so if you have zero interest in ships and how they work, this might be a struggle. But for everyone else, jump on board!

Rating 8: This book was a romp, a fast-moving adventure full of ships, magic, and high stakes.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Song of the Current” is on these Goodreads lists: “Teen Pirate Books” and “Mixed Race MG, YA.”

Find “Song of the Current” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review & Giveaway: “Furyborn”

34323570Book: “Furyborn” by Claire Legrand

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, May 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley and BookishFirst

Book Description: When assassins ambush her best friend, the crown prince, Rielle Dardenne risks everything to save him, exposing her ability to perform all seven kinds of elemental magic. The only people who should possess this extraordinary power are a pair of prophesied queens: a queen of light and salvation and a queen of blood and destruction. To prove she is the Sun Queen, Rielle must endure seven trials to test her magic. If she fails, she will be executed…unless the trials kill her first.

A thousand years later, the legend of Queen Rielle is a mere fairy tale to bounty hunter Eliana Ferracora. When the Undying Empire conquered her kingdom, she embraced violence to keep her family alive. Now, she believes herself untouchable–until her mother vanishes without a trace, along with countless other women in their city. To find her, Eliana joins a rebel captain on a dangerous mission and discovers that the evil at the heart of the empire is more terrible than she ever imagined.

As Rielle and Eliana fight in a cosmic war that spans millennia, their stories intersect, and the shocking connections between them ultimately determine the fate of their world–and of each other.

Review: I’m pretty sure “Furyborn” wins the competition for most hyped book this spring. Everywhere I look there are lists including it as most looked forward to, rave reviews, or options to get your hands on it early. So props to the marketing team for getting this one out there. However, as has become a bit of a habit for me with much-hyped books, I had some mixed feelings on this one. Mixed though! I did enjoy this more than “The Cruel Prince” which was my last big letdown from the hype machine.

Most of the things I enjoyed in this story were also directly tied to aspects that I did not. Unlike other books, the problems I had with this story weren’t connected as much to the actual characterizations we’re given or the overall story. Both were mostly strong. But there are writing choices throughout the story that frankly sabotaged the good efforts made elsewhere.

For example, to start out. Both Rielle and Eliana are strong enough characters on their own. They live in very different worlds, and while some of their struggles are similar (trying to find their place in the world & hiding/fighting against perceptions that might set others against them and those they love), they are distinct in their own right. They each have a unique voice, always an important element in shared POV books. I personally found myself a bit more drawn to Eliana. Her story has a bit more mystery (for reasons we’ll discuss later), and as a character, I enjoyed her more morally grey worldview. However, I didn’t dislike Rielle either.

The other side of this coin, though, is the fact that both of these characters feel cut off at the knees by the alternating POVs. It’s not even a complicated problem: each POV is simply too short. The reader is being constantly bounced back and forth between each girl’s story, that one can never really settle into either character or plotline. This results in me kind of just not caring, when all is said and done. Readers need a chance to settle into a character, to really come into their world and understand their motivations and challenges. But when we’re constantly bounced back and forth between two very different stories every few pages, there is never a chance to really get that moment where you become invested. It was a fine read, but it was just that, a read. I never felt like I was really in this world. I was always just reading about it.

This problem extends to the world-building. There’s a lot that needs to happen on this front for a story that is going to try to present two very different worlds, thousands of years apart. The author essentially has to do twice the world-building to successfully pull it off. But, again, because of the quick switches between one character and the other, I never felt like I had a clear understanding of either of these worlds. There are angels in one? But the details are foggy. The other world has a empire that is set on taking over the world, but why and how? These details are all interesting on their own, but it ultimately felt like the author had bit off more than she could chew. Or, at the very least, more than could be reasonably fit in one novel that also has a lot of other things going on.

The action was fun. There is no denying that this book moves, and it was this that got me through some of the failings in my full connection to either character or the world itself. What’s more, I enjoyed that the action was very different between each girl’s storylines. Rielle’s ongoing magical trials were exciting and fast-moving. Whereas Eliana’s were caught up in politics and the violent nature of what the world has become under this ambitious empire. But, again, this same fast-moving action was also part of the reason the world-building and character development felt stunted. There simply weren’t enough pages to fit in all of this action while also developing two fully-realized characters and two fully expanded worlds.

I did  also have one major criticism of this book. I read a good article recently that questioned whether a prologue is ever necessary for a book. The author of the essay mentioned that very talented authors could pull them off (like J.K. Rowling and her prologue in the first Harry Potter book), but even then, did you need them? This book serves as a perfect example where, for me, the prologue actively damaged my perception of the story right off the bat. It’s not long, but in even those few pages, the author managed to spoil almost every single reveal that was to come throughout the rest of the book. I already new the secrets that plagued some of our characters, thus making their confusion and ultimate surprise incredibly uninteresting to read about.

Further, I feel like this prologue was meant to inspire curiosity about how one character ended up where she did. But instead, I felt spoiled for her entire plot and thus her chapters held very little interest. There was no real threat behind any of the things she confronted because I knew where she ended up. If I hadn’t already been losing interest in characters because of the quick jumps back and forth due to the POV switches, this prologue alone did enough to pretty much kill off my interest and curiosity in at least one of these two.

All of that said, there book is still a fairly strong outing in a new fantasy world. There isn’t a lack of action or story, and the characters are interesting on their own. The problems I had were all down to stylistic choices (too short of chapters between switches, an uneven balance between action and world-building, and an unnecessary and ultimately harmful prologue). I’ll probably still stick around to read the next books in the series, however.

Want to judge for yourself? Get your hands on an ARC of “Furyborn” before it comes out! Giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and ends May 10, 2018.

Click here to enter!

Rating 6: Had some good things going for it, but the author made a few writing choices that seemed to shoot the book in the foot.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Furyborn” is an upcoming title, but it it is included on this Goodreads list: “Badass YA Heroines.”

Find “Furyborn” at your library using WorldCat!

 

 

Serena’s Review: “Song of Blood and Stone”

36347830Book: “Song of Blood and Stone” by L. Penelope

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, May 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: Orphaned and alone, Jasminda lives in a land where cold whispers of invasion and war linger on the wind. Jasminda herself is an outcast in her homeland of Elsira, where her gift of Earthsong is feared. When ruthless soldiers seek refuge in her isolated cabin, they bring with them a captive–an injured spy who threatens to steal her heart.

Jack’s mission behind enemy lines to prove that the Mantle between Elsira and Lagamiri is about to fall nearly cost him his life, but he is saved by the healing Song of a mysterious young woman. Now he must do whatever it takes to save Elsira and it’s people from the True Father and he needs Jasminda’s Earthsong to do it. They escape their ruthless captors and together they embark on a perilous journey to save Elsira and to uncover the secrets of The Queen Who Sleeps.

Thrust into a hostile society, Jasminda and Jack must rely on one another even as secrets jeopardize their bond. As an ancient evil gains power, Jasminda races to unlock a mystery that promises salvation.

The fates of two nations hang in the balance as Jasminda and Jack must choose between love and duty to fulfill their destinies and end the war.

Review: I was super excited when I received this in the mail. For one, look at that gorgeous cover? I’m not usually a fan of covers with models, but I’ll make an exception for this one. Beyond that, I was intrigued by the premise and am always stoked when I can find fantasy fiction featuring a diverse cast of characters. And while there were some slower moments, overall, I really enjoyed this read!

The world is literally split in two by an impenetrable magic force field that has kept two warring civilizations separate for as long as anyone can remember, with only brief breaks of warfare every few centuries when the field falters. On one side, Elsira, a technologically advanced civilization has risen, longing for the day when their sleeping Queen will again awaken. On the other side, Lagamiri, a nation full of magic wielders who can control the elements, but who are ruled by a tyrannical and vicious God King. The prejudices are strong on each side. Jasminda, a daughter of both races, has grown up in a country where her skin marks her as the enemy, as an Earthsinger. She’s kept to herself these long years, finding isolation to be her best bet for a quiet life. That is until she meets Jack, an Elsiran soldier with his own secrets, but who also shows her that there are those out there who see her as more than just an “other.”

I loved the world-building in this story. The idea of magic users vs. technology isn’t anything new, but what really added to this take on it was combining it with other prejudices, on both sides, and the fear and ignorance that can come from these sorts of long-standing built up generalizations about people. Throughout the story, we are also given glimpses into the ancient history of this world, and this is really what solidified the concept for me. Through these, we see that the world wasn’t always this way, and in fact many things had been turned on their heads. The origin story was compelling and each chapter was intro’d with little parables from this almost forgotten time. I particularly enjoyed how each parable loosely connected to the happenings of each chapter.

Through this history and the current situation, Jasminda and Jack both portray different roles and experiences of segregation and prejudice. Jasminda has lived a life of not belonging. She’s grown up in a country that judges her for her skin color and her power, but it is her home. I enjoyed how much this fact was hit home. Just because she looked like those on the other side of the wall, didn’t mean she would be any more welcome there or that that should in any way be her place, based on only one part of her being. Jack, as an advocate and an example of a more tolerant and enlightened individual, still must learn to understand the true battles that those like Jasminda face. His idealism is often based in naivety. But through him, Jasminda, too, learns that not everyone is as they seem, and that there may be a way forward for both peoples together.

The story also had a strong through line on the experiences of refugees, and the terrible choices they face. Here, many Lagamiri secretly cross the border, hoping to escape the terror that is their homeland. This choice isn’t only leaving behind all they have known, but is to willing walk into a country knowing they will face a different kind of persecution there. They live in camps and face many injustices at the hands of a struggling nation looking for someone to blame. And yet, this is still a better choice than the horrors that wait back home.

For all of these positives, I did struggle with a few things. While the story took on some big concepts, giving detailed focus and attention to these challenges, I never quite felt connected to the story. Jasminda and Jack, while interesting protagonists, were each a little too perfect to feel real. They were just kind of…fine. I wasn’t hugely invested in their individual struggles, but happy to go along for the ride.

The story also isn’t helped out by a few strange choices with pacing and explanations for the magic system. The plot would zip through a few key moments, with very little clarity on what was actually taking place, and then suddenly move very slowly through other, more character-driven scenes. I think this is likely a show of where the author’s true interests and talents as a writer lie, but it makes for a rather bumpy reading experience.

Also, at different times, it felt like distances on the map changed drastically, or didn’t match with the expanse of the world that we’re told exists. It seemed, at times, that the entire country could be traveled in only a few hours, which doesn’t make sense given the references to geographical elements and the population that is hinted at. Further, while the magic system was interesting, I struggled to understand how it actually worked. For example, it was referenced several times that Earthsingers couldn’t kill with their magic, but could use the elements in every other way. But what does that actually look like? If they sent fire at someone, wouldn’t that still be killing with their magic? Or does it do nothing, and if that’s the case, then what power does that actually give them? I found it confusing, especially given the fact that this restriction was referenced more than once.

The romance, kind of like the two main characters, was also a bit too perfect. For all of theirs struggles, Jasminda and Jack’s love is never really the complicated or tragic “Romeo and Juliet” story that we’re promised. I enjoyed the romance, don’t get me wrong, but I think the misleading description played against it, in the end.

All in all, I very much enjoyed “Song of Blood and Stone.” It’s a great example of fantasy fiction tackling bigger topics like diversity, prejudice, and the challenges faced by refugees. However, there is a large focus on romance, so readers who don’t enjoy those elements might want to avoid this one, and the characters are also a bit flat.

Rating 7: Even with some missteps, would still recommend it based on the strengths of the challenges it addresses, especially set against an interesting fantasy backdrop.

Reader’s Advisory

“Song of Blood and Stone” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Non-Caucasian Protagonists in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance” and “Fantasy Romance.”

Find “Song of Blood and Stone” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review & Giveaway: “The Queen of the Tearling”

22864842Book: “The Queen of the Tearling” by Erika Johansen

Publishing Info: Harper, July 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: bought it!

Book Description: An untested young princess must claim her throne, learn to become a queen, and combat a malevolent sorceress in an epic battle between light and darkness in this spectacular debut—the first novel in a trilogy.

Young Kelsea Raleigh was raised in hiding after the death of her mother, Queen Elyssa, far from the intrigues of the royal Keep and in the care of two devoted servants who pledged their lives to protect her. Growing up in a cottage deep in the woods, Kelsea knows little of her kingdom’s haunted past . . . or that its fate will soon rest in her hands.

Review: I know, I know. How have I not read this one already? But I’ve been burned by the hype machine before, so sometimes I just like to, you know, wait and see. And, also, I have a massive TBR list and some these slip on through! But while I was on vacation a few weeks ago, I was in the bookstore (cuz obviously this is what one does when one is on vacation: check out the Barnes and Noble in THIS new town!!). And while I was browsing I ran across this book and was like “why the heck not?” So here we are.

Kelsea has lived a remote life, kept away from all of society and trained up by a reclusive couple. But the day has come when all of that changes, and Kelsea must set out with stranger to reclaim her throne. But while she knows her goal, she doesn’t know the secrets of the past, her own or that of her kingdom’s. Now, not knowing who to trust, Kelsea must set a new course for herself and her kingdom.

So let’s just get it out there. I had very mixed feelings about this book. It started out, I was loving it. Then there were a couple of characterization bits that I hated with a passion. Then more story, liked that. Then BAM! Oops, didn’t know what was really going on the entire time, so dislike that. It was all over the place, really.

It’s hard even to say things that I liked because while I liked parts of them, there were other parts I very much didn’t like. But let’s start with the plot. I loved the beginning of this book and the mysteries that were set up for Kelsea. The logic behind why so much was kept from her never quite sat right, but as it wasn’t a new conceit, I was happy enough going with it (just don’t think too hard about how “prepared” someone could be if they’ve never even interacted with anyone but the couple who raised them..).

The writing was solid, and I, personally, can enjoy a slower moving plot, which this definitely was. Much of this book was essentially a travelogue, but I was all there for it. Give me an epic quest book any day of the week!

Kelsea herself was also a sympathetic character. Until she wasn’t. I really don’t understand why we keep getting characters like this, who have very unhealthy ideas about beauty standards. Here, Kelsea makes the terrible comment about the only thing worse than being ugly (Kelsea of course doesn’t think she is beautiful at all) is being ugly and thinking you’re beautiful. Cuz yes, how dare you have good self-esteem if you’re not conventionally beautiful! It was terrible. But again, this was one particularly bad moment within an entire book. Much of the rest of the time, I found Kelsea to be a compelling and interesting heroine.

The world building was where things got batty. For a good chunk of this book, the world is presented as a fairly standard other-world, Medieval Age, fantasy novel, of the type we’re all familiar with. But nope! Out of nowhere comes the reveal that this is actually some type of dystonian world set in the future after things went really wrong? This seems like it could be a cool idea on paper, but in reality, it kind of just pissed me off. For one, I didn’t like being caught by surprise by it. It wasn’t the type of reveal that added to the story, but instead made me start questioning all of the things I had been completely on board with before it happened. Now suddenly that Medieval Age type setting seems kind of dumb and how the heck would that even happen? Maybe if the author had introduced this concept at the beginning of the story, it would have been less jarring. But, for me, I didn’t appreciate the bait and switch of it all and it left a bad taste in my mouth.

I did enjoy the villain, and again, much of the story of Kelsea’s travels. But, as I said, I had some fairly big problems, too: the fixation on beauty (whether one has it or not, whether it leads to rape, etc) and, ultimately, the world-building itself after the reveal that this is in some future time. I’m betting that people’s appreciation of this book must have lived and died on how that switch was received. Given the general popularity of this book, I must be in the minority in finding it jarring. But I know that people love this book, so I’m looking to re-home my book with a giveaway! The giveaway is open to US residents only  and ends May 1.

Click here to enter!

Rating 6: Had some really good stuff going for it, but burned me a few too many times with weird character beats and an unappreciated bait and switch with the world itself.

Reader’s Advisory

“The Queen of the Tearling” is on these Goodreads lists: “NEW ADULT fantasy & paranormal romance” and “Best Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction.”

Find “The Queen of the Tearling” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Owl Eyes: A Fairy Tale”

38739033Book: “Owl Eyes: A Fairy Tale” by Molly Larzer

Publishing Info: Fire and Ice YA, March 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Nora knows three things: she is a servant, her parents are dead, and she lives in the kitchen house with her adoptive family. But her world is torn apart when she discovers that her birth father has always been right there, living in the house she serves.

This discovery leads Nora to more questions. Why was she thrown in an ash-covered room for asking about her father? Why is a silver-bladed knife the only inheritance from her birth mother? Why is magic forbidden in her household—and throughout the province of the Runes? The answers may not be the ones Nora hoped for, as they threaten a possible romance and her relationship with the adoptive family she loves.

With the announcement of a royal ball, Nora must decide what she is willing to give up in order to claim her stolen birthright, and whether this new life is worth losing her family—and herself.

Review: What? Another fairy tale retelling book review by me? Shocking, I know! It’s like I have some personal mission to read every single one that is ever published! (I don’t, but at this point, does it really make a difference?) As I have a particular fondness for fairy tales that lean in on the darkness that was inherent to many of the originals, I jumped all over this title when I saw it pop up on NetGalley. But, while the darkness and world building did deliver, I was overall left underwhelmed with this new entry to the vast world of Cinderella stories.

For the good: the story delivers on the essentials of what is laid out in the book description above. This is indeed a Cinderella story, but nicely twisted on its head so as to not simply be another rehashing of a very often rehashed story. I enjoyed the tension that was built throughout the story between Nora’s desire to uncover the truth about her family and herself alongside her realizations of the good things that have made up her life as is. As it’s mentioned in the description, the scene early in the book when she is thrown in the ash covered room plays for particularly good effect throughout, and her ongoing struggles with the fallout of this event are repeatedly hit home. She was, after all, a very young girl when it took place.

I also enjoyed much of the world-building, but here also is where my criticisms begin to come to play. The world of Colandaria sounds like an intriguing place, with an interesting magic system and a history of wars between it and its neighbors. However, none of this is fleshed out or explored in any meaningful way. Instead, details are sprinkled here and there on the periphery of Nora’s tale, but never quite enough to give me a solid sense of place or investment in the world’s effect on the plot line that was unfolding.

The plot was another stumbling block. While things do pick up towards the last third of the book, the action itself felt very stilted. It’s hard to really put my finger on what exactly the problem was. The writing is solid enough, but things seemed to simply progress from one event to another and I was just kind of…there. Every once in a while a few pages would grab me, like the aforementioned scene in the ash room, but then the book would fall back to mundane details for pages on end.

Most of my problem probably lies at the feet of Nora herself. She was simply not an engaging protagonist to follow through this story. Her arc is laid before her, but as she moved through it, her character itself wasn’t one whom I became invested in. She felt very flat, and I had a hard time pinning down any attributes to her as a person. Was she feisty? Reflective? Shy? Ambitious? I couldn’t tell you. Instead, she simply moves through the book, and we move with her. But, as we are seeing this story through her eyes, I was never sure how I felt about it because it was never clear what lens Nora was using herself.

This, in turn, colored my perceptions of the other characters. While some of them seemed to have interesting parts to them (Jack, in particular), because Nora read so flat herself, her views of these others also read as fairly flat. A story like this really lives and dies on the strength of its lead, and my lack of investment in Nora spread easily to those around her.

While I did like the twists and turns the story took, particularly the ball itself, I also wasn’t a huge fan of the romance in this. Simply put, there just wasn’t enough of it. This is a very subjective point of view, however, as I can also see how the lack of romance could be a plus for other readers. I, however, always like a solid romance plot line in my fantasy, particularly in my fairy tale retellings that are, often, inherently romantic tales on their own.

Overall, I was pretty disappointed with this read. There wasn’t anything bad about it, per se, but I just couldn’t seem to care. I found myself often putting the book down and having to force myself to pick it up again. If you absolutely love Cinderella stories, particularly ones with less of a romantic subplot, this may be the book for you. But, all in all, my recommendation is a solid “meh.”

Rating 5: A dull main character ultimately polluted what might have been an interesting retelling of “Cinderella.”

Reader’s Advisory:

“Owl Eyes: A Fairy Tale” is a newer title so isn’t on any Goodreads lists. It should be on “Cinderella Retellings.”

Find “Owl Eyes: A Fairy Tale” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Torn”

35959724Book: “Torn” by Rowenna Miller

Publishing Info: Orbit, March 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

Book Description: Sophie is a dressmaker who has managed to open her own shop and lift herself and her brother, Kristos, out of poverty. Her reputation for beautiful ball gowns and discreetly-embroidered charms for luck, love, and protection secures her a commission from the royal family itself — and the commission earns her the attentions of a dashing but entirely unattainable duke.

Meanwhile, Kristos rises to prominence in the growing anti-monarchist movement. Their worlds collide when the revolution’s shadow leader takes him hostage and demands that Sophie place a curse on the queen’s Midwinter costume — or Kristos will die at their hand.

As the proletariat uprising comes to a violent climax, Sophie is torn: between her brother and the community of her birth, and her lover and the life she’s striven to build.

Review: I love to cross-stitch, have loved it for years since I learned to stitch as a little girl. It’s also a handy hobby to support a very unhealthy Netflix binging habit. But it’s also a less common craft nowadays. I have a bunch of friends who knit, a couple of crocheters, but none of my friends embroider. So I was stoked when I saw this book coming this spring from Orbit. A fantasy novel where embroidery IS the magic? I immediately requested a copy and started reading when it arrived (though this then lead to mental confusion: should I READ about embroidery or actually DO my embroidery? Which will be more fun?!?!)

Sophie is a successful business woman, and in a land that is highly regulated with limited mobility for common folk, she is unique in her quick rise. But she possesses a special skill, the ability to sew charms into her elaborate garments. However, her clientele, the nobility of the city, put her in the awkward position of hovering between the wealthy aristocrats whom she serves and the poorer working class where she was born and still lives. Just as she begins to break into this upper class of clients (maybe even a dress commission for the princess and queen!), things begin to go sideways, starting with her brother, Kristos, who is leading a grassroots revolution. Tensions rise as Kristos and his ilk push against the restrictions of their current lives and Sophie tries to balance her ties to her brother, while also maintaining her relationship with her noble clients. But the situations is untenable, and eventually, something will fall…

I always love unique magic systems. There are far too many that simply say “and then magic!” But here, Miller has brilliantly mixed a subtle sort of magic in with a task that is often brushed aside as menial. It is a clever expansion on the “hedge witch” motif that so often appears in the background of other novels, women with barely understood abilities that they tie to the work of their gender, often in cooking and healing. It’s a clever way of taking a domestic task and imbuing it with power, all while acknowledging the value of the task itself, with or without magical elements. All along, Sophie’s success comes not only from her magical abilities, but from her acumen as a business woman and her sheer skill at constructing and predicting fashion.

Sophie also only has a limited understanding of how exactly her charms work, so as the book progresses, the reader gets to explore the inner workings and expanding possibilities of charms alongside her. But from the beginning, I enjoyed the small scenes of her sewing light into garments. It was such a peaceful, lovely image, especially for someone who sews herself.

Other than the magical elements, the majority of the story is devoted to the growing unrest between Kristos’s revolution and the nobility whom Sophie works with and befriends. Miller presents an excellent exploration of what it means to exist between the battle lines of a revolution such as this. When evaluating history, it’s too easy to slot everyone into one camp or the other, but to do so is to ignore what has to be the large number of individuals who just want to go about their lives, understanding the positions of both parties. Sophie has familial ties on one hand and a general sympathy to the plight of the less lucky commoner, but she also has faces to put to the nobility, and through her work with them, understands them to be individuals with their own worries and concerns. At its core, this is a story of the line where idealism meets pragmatism, and the truth of what revolt and revolution looks like for all involved.

The book isn’t perfect, however, and it was perhaps a bit long for my taste. The story begins to sag a bit towards the middle as Sophie struggles to find her role in this building conflict. It also focuses heavily on the ins and outs of her day-to-day life and work in the shop. I enjoyed many of these details, but it might be a struggle for others who are looking for a more action-packed story.

It also has a sweet romantic plot line. While I enjoyed Theodore, and thought that his and Sophie’s relationship was developed well, I also never became fully attached to it. I’m not sure why, really. I very much enjoyed Sophie as a character, but I think maybe Theodore was also a bit TOO perfect, which made him a bit less interesting. This is a minor quibble, however.

All in all, I really enjoyed “Torn.” It stands out as a unique in several ways, presenting a magical system built around a common, domestic task, as well as its close examination of what the middle ground could look like in the midst of a brewing revolution. For fans of classic fantasy, and those who are ok with a slower building read, definitely check out “Torn.”

Rating 7: Magical sewing and an introspective story of revolution make this a fun read, if a bit slower read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Torn” is a newer book so isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Crafty Magic.”

Find “Torn” at your library using WorldCat!