Kate’s Review: “The Invasion”

35292343Book: “The Invasion” by Peadar Ó Guilín

Publishing Info: David Pickling Books, March 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: After so much danger, Nessa and Anto can finally dream of a happy life. But the terrible attack on their school has created a witch-hunt for traitors — boys and girls who survived the Call only by making deals with the enemy. To the authorities, Nessa’s guilt is obvious. Her punishment is to be sent back to the nightmare of the Grey Land for the rest of her life. The Sídhe are waiting, and they have a very special fate planned for her.
 
Meanwhile, with the help of a real traitor, the enemy come pouring into Ireland at the head of a terrifying army. Every human they capture becomes a weapon. Anto and the last students of his old school must find a way to strike a blow at the invaders before they lose their lives, or even worse, their minds. But with every moment Anto is confronted with more evidence of Nessa’s guilt.

For Nessa, the thought of seeing Anto again is the only thing keeping her alive. But if she escapes, and if she can find him, surely he is duty-bound to kill her…

Review: I was so very pleasantly surprised by Peadar Ó Guilín’s novel “The Call” that when I found out that it was getting a sequel I was on pins and needles for it to be released. His take on a malevolent and violent faerie world was something that I hadn’t seen before in such brutal and disturbing fashions, and it definitely took the concept of faerie worlds and put it in a dark reality, all while making their rage somewhat understandable. I also loved our protagonists Nessa and Anto, friends and would be boyfriend and girlfriend who beat the odds when they were ‘called’, Anto being a pacifist and Nessa having a disability because of childhood polio. Plus, the concept of humans being the actual monsters at the heart of that book (in the form of violent misogynist Conor) is a theme that I always enjoy. It combined into one of my favorite reads of that year. So when “The Invasion” showed up in my holds, I waited a little bit to savor the anticipation of revisiting Nessa, Anto, and the Sídhe of the Grey World.

Perhaps I put too much anticipation into it, because ultimately, I was kinda disappointed with “The Invasion”.

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Why have your forsaken me? (source)

I do want to give “The Invasion” credit where credit is due. Ó Guilín is relentless in his portrayal of war and violence, and the price of war for those who are part of it. While Nessa and Anto think that perhaps they can live their lives out together and have a happy ending, the Irish Government has other ideas for both of them. Anto is recruited to fight against the invading Sídhe (against his will), even though he has survived the Call with a disfigured, giant arm and is a pacifist at his heart. And Nessa is assumed to be a traitor, because they don’t believe that a girl whose legs were weakened because of childhood polio could have POSSIBLY survived The Call without making a deal with the enemy, and so she is carted off to a life in prison, and then to be sent to the Grey Land as punishment. While it was a super bummer to see that these two are probably not going to get their happy ending together, I appreciated that Ó Guilín doesn’t try to sugarcoat how a reality these two are living in would actually be. He still keeps the violence and disturbing imagery and themes up to a solid eleven, and there were many times that I pretty much squirmed in my seat while reading this book. I also liked seeing Aoife have more of a role in this book. In “The Call” she is merely the mourning girlfriend to Nessa’s best friend Emma. In “The Invasion”, she is with Anto and other classmates of their old school, and she is becoming a warrior out of necessity, even though she is questioning so much. Her character arc was very satisfying to see. We also get to see more of the flora and fauna of The Grey Land itself, beyond the evil faeries. I liked Ó Guilín’s world building here and found it to be as creative as it was messed up.

But there were so many things about this book that didn’t make it feel as satisfying as I wanted it to be. As much as I appreciate that realistically Nessa and Anto are going to have obstacles, I wanted to see them together. I wanted to see them adjusting to life after The Call, but they really didn’t have much interaction outside of the two of them pining for each other. And I found myself frustrated with Anto’s storyline, Aoife aside. Yes, I appreciate Ó Guilín portraying war the way that it should be portrayed, I just didn’t care about Anto and his compatriots fighting on the front lines. ESPECIALLY since some things happen with Liz Sweeney, the mean girl from the first book who is still pretty much awful. And Nessa herself didn’t get as much credit this time around. She got some cool accolades and I did like her new adventure in The Grey Land, but I felt like she didn’t really get much to do. And she deserved so much more than she got.

Overall, “The Invasion” probably ended Nessa’s and Anto’s story realistically, wrapping it up and pretty much tying all the loose ends up as well. But it felt abrupt, and I wanted more, and not in a good way. I appreciate choosing the end that he did, but wish it had felt more like a worthy successor to “The Call”. I’ll definitely give another book by Peadar Ó Guilín a try, but I had wanted more from this.

Rating 6: A sequel that focuses on the price of war and how it tears people apart, “The Invasion” is a not as satisfying conclusion to “The Call”. While it didn’t live up to the first of the two, it was a realistic follow up.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Invasion” isn’t VERY new but isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists for some reason. But I think it would fit in on “Books About Faery”, and “Best YA Fantasy Series About The Fae”.

Find “The Invasion” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously reviewed: “The Call”

Serena’s Review: “Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge”

31019831 Book: “Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge” by Lisa Jensen

Publishing Details: Candlewick Press, July 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: They say Château Beaumont is cursed. But servant-girl Lucie can’t believe such foolishness about handsome Jean-Loup Christian Henri LeNoir, Chevalier de Beaumont, master of the estate. But when the chevalier’s cruelty is revealed, Lucie vows to see him suffer. A wisewoman grants her wish, with a spell that transforms Jean-Loup into monstrous-looking Beast, reflecting the monster he is inside. But Beast is nothing like the chevalier. Jean-Loup would never patiently tend his roses; Jean-Loup would never attempt poetry; Jean-Loup would never express remorse for the wrong done to Lucie. Gradually, Lucie realizes that Beast is an entirely different creature from the handsome chevalier, with a heart more human than Jean-Loup’s ever was. Lucie dares to hope that noble Beast has permanently replaced the cruel Jean-Loup — until an innocent beauty arrives at Beast’s château with the power to break the spell.

Review: Oof, another challenging “Beauty and the Beast” retelling. I think I could probably write an entire PhD on the pitfalls of re-telling this fairytale. When I first saw the book description, I was excited to read a version that was seemingly focused on an entirely new character, not “Beauty” herself. And while that aspect was still interesting, the book itself was very difficult to read and I will have a hard time recommending it to others, unfortunately.

Lucie is a servant in the house of the rich lord, Jean-Loup. After a horrific event, she is the one to wish the worst on her master, resulting in him turning into a beast, and her into a sentient household item. As time passes, she begins to suspect that this new, beastly version of her master might not be the same, and when a stranger arrives on the scene, the world begins to change once again.

So this is obviously not a positive review, but there are a few things I’d like to highlight as positives for this book. One, I still very much appreciate the originality behind the concept of this story. We’ve all read a million and one versions told from various “Beauty’s” perspectives. Some are better than others, but the basic construct is the same. They all arrive on the scene, confused and scared. And slowly come to change their minds and fall in love with the Beast. Here, Lucie knows Jean-Loup before his change and her experiences with him as a Beast are from the perspective of a servant, not the traditional heroine’s role. What’s more, Lucie isn’t even the “Beauty” in this story, and that character does make an appearance and play a part in the story unfolding. It’s a very creative take on things, and I truly wish that other choice had been made that would have allowed this new version to stand well on its own.

Further, I did like the writing for the most part. The “voice” fits well with the re-telling of a fairytale. It verges on rather simplistic and “younger” sounding, but I think that, done right, this tone actually works really well for fairytales which can be unique for having a different cadence, such as this. However, the writing also directly lines up with some of my major criticisms of the book.

It is very simplistic and straight forward. As I began reading, I started thinking “Huh, ok. So this is maybe more of a middle grade version of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ Great!” Mentally, I started aligning it with the words of Shannon Hale, who’s written a bunch of fairytales, many of which have a younger-sounding voice and simple story-telling technique. But alas, this comparison died a sudden, very harsh death only a few chapters into the story.

(This might be a spoiler, but it’s pretty crucial to understanding the negative reaction I’ve had to this book, so if you want to go in blind, skip the rest!)

The prologue to the story sets it up that Lucie is the one who directed the fairy to go “all in,” as it were, on the curse on Jean-Loup. So we know that something awful has to happen to inspire this level of hatred. And something awful does indeed happen, in the form of a graphic sexual assault scene.

This was shocking to see on several accounts, but not least of all is the direct contradiction that the graphic nature of this scene lays across the middle-grade nature of the writing itself. I was mentally comparing this book to Shannon Hale, of all people, based on the writing style itself. The most sweetest fairytale writer you can find! And that’s a problem. Likely, the type of reader who is going to appreciate the tone of this writing style is going to verge younger. Even for me, a fan of middle grade and YA fiction, I was distracted by the simplistic nature of this writing. So those who may truly enjoy it are going to be young. And then you get a scene that could have been straight out of “Game of Thrones.” It’s going to be tough to read for even the most hardened among us who are semi-used to running across scenes like this in adult fantasy, let alone younger readers. But, on this side of things, readers who are prepared for this type of dark scene, are likely going to be completely turned off by the young-sounding writing. So there’s a contradiction there where the writing and content are, conversely, going to turn off both options for a reader-base.

Beyond this, I have problems with the actual story line, having included a scene like this as the basis for Lucie’s hatred of Jean-Loup. For all intents and purposes, Lucie ends up as the romantic interest for the Beast, instead of Belle. The book tries to roll out the tried and true rug of “magically separated/changed selves” that would absolve the Beast of past actions, as he is now no longer truly that person. I will always struggle with this type of wand-waving. Regardless of the fact that the “reasons” that Lucie points to as evidence that these two beings are inherently different are horribly minor (like food preferences and fears of spiders), there’s always going to be an insurmountable hill, in my mind, between forgiving an attacker (a hard ask on its own) and falling in love with him. I just can’t get behind that story, and I don’t think this book did nearly enough, even, to highlight any exception that could be made.

While the latter argument could be a matter of personal preference (though I still don’t think there is a huge swath of readers out there who are just searching for that great tale highlighting a victim falling in love with her attacker), my first point about the very real conflict between writing style and content is enough for me to give this a low rating. I honestly just have a hard time really focusing in on who exactly the audience is supposed to be for this book. At the very least, I wasn’t part of it.

Rating 4: Not for me. I don’t think this is a message we want to send out, regarding victims and their attackers, and the writing style was in direct conflict with the content.

Reader’s Advisory:

Again, honestly, if you want a good “Beauty and the Beast” retelling, go read “Beauty,” (the classic, in my opinion), “Heart’s Blood,” (by may favorite author, Juliet Marillier), or “Hunted” (for a more recently published option).

Find “Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Crooked Kingdom”

22299763Book: “Crooked Kingdom” by Leigh Bardugo

Publishing Info: Orion Children’s Books, September 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn’t think they’d survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they’re right back to fighting for their lives. Double-crossed and badly weakened, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz’s cunning and test the team’s fragile loyalties. A war will be waged on the city’s dark and twisting streets―a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of the Grisha world.

Previously reviewed: “Six of Crows”“Six of Crows”

Review: As was established in our bookclub review of this book, I was definitely the side of our blogging duo who loved the first book. I was all the more surprised given the massive burn I’m still nursing from the author’s original Grisha trilogy that I’ve come to see as an example of how even great writing and great characters can fall prey to some unfortunate YA fantasy tropes. But “Six of Crows” seemed blessedly free of the concerns that plagued those original books, and I was so excited after reading it that I immediately ordered this, the second half of the duology. And, I’m pleased to report, that she stuck the landing on this one!

Kaz and crew are in a tight spot. While they pulled off their last crazy stunt, the reward they were promised not only wasn’t forthcoming, but the powerful merchant with whom they had bargained instead kidnapped Inej and tanked the reputation of the entire crew with the other powerful gangs that make up Ketterdam. Now, stuck between a rock and a hard place, the group must not only recover their lost member and loot, but somehow resolve a political situation has the potential the change the world for the worse.

What sold me on the fist book was the strength of this cast of characters. There are a lot of them, and it speaks to Bardugo’s abilities as an author that she was able to balance so many competing personalities and story arcs. Many of those continue into this book, though there are slight shifts in focus. While much of the first book was taken up by slowly revealing Nina and Mattias’s shared past and resolving their ongoing prejudices, here, their romance and role in each other’s lives has settled down more. The fallout of Nina’s use of the highly addictive, powerful stimulant that she used in the last book to save the team at the very end, was an important and captivating arc for her.

Jesper and Wylan, instead, received more word count and chapters than they had had in the first book. Jesper’s own past was delved into, as well as his continued confrontation with his own gambling addition and the ongoing damage that his past poor choices are wreaking on his own life and the lives of those he loves. Wylan, too, further explores his own highly toxic familial relationships and the true horror that lies at the heart of many of his father’s lies. Their relationship, together, is also given more focus, especially as Jesper begins to realize that his crush on Kaz is a dead end and that Wylan may have always been the better match for him.

Of course, for me, Inej and Kaz were my main points of interest. I enjoyed both of these two the most in the first book, and I continued to enjoy their chapters here. I do feel like they each had a bit less, ultimately, due to the increased focus on Jesper and Wylan, however, I still loved what we were given. Inej, specifically, had come to some pretty frank realizations about what she saw for herself in the future by the end of the last book. And here, it was learning how to follow through with two competing desires. She’s also confronted by a mysterious assassin who may actually be even more skilled than the Wraith herself. Kaz, too, still struggles to overcome the lasting effects of his past. His arc didn’t have as many clear points, as it was more a simple continuation of his rise as a force to be reckoned with in Ketterdam. However, his relationship with Inej and the vulnerability that is required to maintain (begin!) it, is a continual point of challenge for him.

As for the plot itself, I very much enjoyed the complicated heist that was put into effect. There were several points that were laid down here and there that later came to play in new and surprising ways. There was just enough made clear to see the building blocks of the plan, but enough was hidden from various characters to have a good number of surprises in store (this is probably another reason why we had fewer Kaz chapters than I’d like, since, by necessity of the plot remaining a mystery, the man who knows it all can’t have a lot of focus). I liked the multiple showdowns that came into play and the ways in which various crew members’ strengths were called upon at different times to solve different problems.

The story was a bit more sprawling than the close-focused mission of the first book and I both appreciated the added complication but also felt a bit more adrift in the middle when the pieces were still being put together. The goal itself was almost too ambiguous to give the action a clear focus. This resulted in some of what should have been compelling action scenes feeling a bit disjointed from the book, as it wasn’t clear until the end how they all added together to get the result.

I also really enjoyed the ending. The story definitely didn’t shy away from some grim choices, and while I know this will disappoint some readers, I felt that these decisions were necessary to reflect the true dangers of the situation at hand. Further, while broad paths were laid before each character, their stories were by no means neatly wrapped up. Instead, we saw glimpses into what could be the future, but they were left so wide-open that there’s room to imagine various outcomes for them all.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this duology. It’s hard to think of many fantasy/heist books (of course, there’s the insurmountable Megan Whalen Turner), so in many ways these stories felt like a breath of fresh air in YA fantasy fiction (is it even YA? This was a question we discussed at bookclub, and I’m not sure of the answer for books like this). If you enjoyed “Six of Crows,” or Megan Whalen Turner’s “Queen’s Thief” series, or other books by Leigh Bardugo, definitely check this one out!

Rating 9: A thoroughly satisfying conclusion to this duology.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Crooked Kingdom” is included on these Goodreads lists: “YA fantasy/sf novels with major LGBTQ Characters” and “Thieves.”

Find “Crooked Kingdom” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Into the Bright Unknown”

18054074Book: “Into the Bright Unknown” by Rae Carson

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, October 2017

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

Book Description: Leah Westfall, her fiancé Jefferson, and her friends have become rich in the California Territory, thanks to Lee’s magical ability to sense precious gold. But their fortune has made them a target, and when a dangerous billionaire sets out to destroy them, Lee and her friends decide they’ve had enough—they will fight back with all their power and talents. 

Lee’s magic is continuing to strengthen and grow, but someone is on to her—someone who might have a bit of magic herself. The stakes are higher than ever as Lee and her friends hatch a daring scheme that could alter the California landscape forever. 

Previously reviewed: “Walk on Earth a Stranger” and “Like a River Glorious”

Review: This is the last in the “Gold Seer” trilogy and after the previous book which seemed to wrap up much of the story and do-away with its main villain, I wasn’t sure where this book would go from there. I was also still smarting from the pretty graphic and hard-to-read scenes that made up a good chunk of that book, so I went into this one hopeful that we’d have a return to the “Oregon Trail” adventures of the first book. What we got was probably something in-between.

Life is moving along in Glory, California. Lee and her friends have on their hands what looks to be a growing and bustling town. Except for the fact that the town charter they had paid for from the wealthy Henry Hardwick in the last book has yet to arrive. With this problem before them, a large chunk of our main characters head off to San Fransisco. What they find is a man much more villainous than they had suspected and before long, Lee and her friends have much more to deal with than just a small town charter.

With this as the last book in the trilogy, looking back, it’s hard to get a real sense for this series as a whole. The first one was a fairly straight-forward travelogue with fun call-outs to the tropes of Oregon Trail games and stories. The second took a nose dive into the worst parts of humanity and left Lee as a bit of a passive character. And this one gets the gang back together, adds a new villain, and pretty much turns into a heist story. It’s all a little strange, from that angle.

But to judge this book on its own, there were definite areas of improvement from the last book but it still didn’t manage to reclaim the highs of the first. I very much enjoyed the return of many of our familiar characters who were largely absent in the second book. In particular, Becky, who had snuck up on me in the first book as a favorite and then disappeared in the second installment. As a heist story, it makes sense to have this large cast and the book already had many of these people on hand, so it was fun seeing them all interact and plan together in a way that was intentional, rather than the hap-hazard manner in which they had been forced by circumstances on the trail to work together before.

Lee and Jefferson’s relationship was also good. I was glad to see them working together for much of this book after being separated for so much of it during the previous one. The lack of relationship drama was also a welcome relief given that all too often it seems as if authors feel the need to throw a wrench in their romances in the last book from a misguided attempt to “build tension.”

One of the strongest portions of this book, for me, was the increased focus on Lee’s abilities. There was a big shift in the end of the last book with how her gold sense operated, and it was interesting watching Lee continue to practice and explore the possible new uses of her powers. There were several moments in this book where she came up with clever ways to put this power to use, and after being mostly useless in the second book, the success of their plans ultimately did fall to Lee’s own abilities, both with her powers and her planning. I was also surprised when an arc was introduced that dealt more fully with where these abilities might have come from and what other forms of magic might exist in the world. It was a nice addition as, up to this point, it felt a little strange to have Lee be the only exception to a world that otherwise seemed magic-less and true to history.

Those were the stronger aspects of the book. However, I did still struggle with the main plot itself and the villains. It’s a weird complaint, but like the second book, the villains were almost TOO villainous. In that they all seemed evil simply…because. And while I know that money and influence could go a long way then (and still can today), it also bordered on unrealistic that some of the villains’ actions could have been overlooked for so long. A man is killed in a crowd of people at one point, and no one bats an eye. Even with prejudices in mind, I have to think that this would have lead to something more.

The heist itself was interesting enough. But it was also a bit too complicated, for my thoughts. Or, barring that, not easy enough to put together on ones own without a massive infodump at the end explaining it all. A good heist story keeps some cards hidden, but still leaves room for the reader to put things together for themselves. Here, while there were parts that I could guess, the infodump where “all was told” was still long and confusing. This could partly be due to the simple fact that no finesse was used for said infodump: characters just spilled it out in long chunks of dialogue. At the best, it was just boring. At the worst, it left me still confused but not wanting to expose myself to the boredom again in an attempt to try to understand with a second read-through.

In the end, the series never quite regained the high that was the first book and seemed to flounder around for purchase and focus in the last two books, each presenting wildly different stories both in tone and topic. If I was to recommend this series, I’d almost say to just stop with the first. The second two are not worthless, but they’re also the kind of books that I will quickly forget. But if you are still enjoying these characters and the unique combination of realistic history with small doses of magic, this book was still an improvement on the second and might be worth checking out.

Rating 6: A serviceable story with a few highs relating to Lee’s magic, but a heist that was too confusing to be truly enjoyable.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Into the Bright Unknown” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “California Gold Rush in YA & Middle Grade Fiction” and “Young Adult Books Without Insta-Love.”

Find “Into the Bright Unknown” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Spinning Silver”

36896898Book: “Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey, July 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss!

Book Description: Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders… but her father isn’t a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife’s dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty–until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers’ pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed–and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.

But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it’s worth–especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.

Review: I was so excited when I saw that this book was coming out! “Uprooted” is one of my favorite more recent fairytale novels, and part of the reason I loved it was that it was a stand alone book. So to see that Novik was releasing yet another fairytale that would likely also be a standalone made my day. I was even more excited when I realized that it looked to be a reinterpretation of “Rumpelstiltskin” which has been, by far, one of the more underutilized fairytales in the midst of this retellings resurgence. And all of my wildest hopes and dreams have come true! I absolutely adored this book and my hardback copy is already pre-ordered.

Miryem’s life has been one filled with strained relationships. Her grandfather, a wealthy money lender, has struggled to watch his daughter’s family slowly slip into poverty as his son-in-law, Miryem’s father, has failed to make an earning as a moneylender himself. What’s more, Miryem, a decisive and strong-willed young woman, has never understood her father’s struggles to collect. After being pushed to far, with her mother’s health at risk, Miryem finally takes over the business, to her father’s shame and sadness, as this is by no means a “proper” task for a young lady. But Miryem excels. Far too well even, as she draws the attention of the magical beings who wander the winter woods looting and raiding villages for gold. And who could be more valuable than a woman you seems to turn anything she touches to gold? Now tangled in a complicated world of fairy rules and wars, Miryem will need to  draw on all the strength she has to save not only herself but perhaps even her country.

It’s no secret that I love fairytales, be they original or retellings. But as I’ve had a string of bad luck with “Beauty and the Beast” retellings (oof, there’s another one coming, folks, so look forward to that!), I have been hankering for a more original tale, unbound from conventions that all too often skew what could have been a good story. What’s more, Novik has already proven herself as being able to masterfully take the bare bones of a fairytale and make it something that only marginally resembles the original. And this held true for “Spinning Silver,” as well. While there are the barest tinges of the original “Rumplestilskin” tale before the story quickly (I’m talking a few chapters in) swerves into new and uncharted territory. And much better territory, when it comes down to it.

For one thing, given the description above and my own false assumption that it would follow the standard set by “Uprooted,” I went into this book fully expecting it to be Miryem’s tale following her struggles to turn rooms of silver into gold. And for the first several chapters, that’s what I got. But then a new character was introduced, a young woman from the same village whose home life is terrible and who is looking for a way out for her and her young brothers. Ok, now we have two. A few chapters more and yet another new character comes in, this time a young woman who is the disappointingly plain heiress to a father who has high hopes of rising his family’s position in the nobility. And that’s only the first three and the three who would turn out to be the more traditional lead characters for a book like this! But Novik doesn’t stop there and we get even more chapters from characters like the younger brothers, the nurse maid to the heiress, and even the villain himself at one point.

As has been documented on this blog several times before, I typically prefer books with only one narrator. I can handle two. But, like all silly reading “rules,” an exception was bound to come along, and that exception came here. While I did have favorites, Miryem herself, of course, as well as the heiress who played a much bigger role than I had expected at first, I enjoyed ALL of these characters. Not only did they all contribute important view changes on what became a very twisty plot, but each had a distinct voice, a “must” for any multiple POV book, and the point where I usually have criticisms for same-ness. They also all experienced clear character growth as the story progressed, though the amount of this was tied to the varied amount of page time each was given. Miryem’s sense of responsibility warred with the pride that lead her to become entangled in fairy wars. The peasant girl with the bad home life grew to have an appreciation for what family should mean. And the heiress found her own power in a world that had already written her off.

It also takes a lot of plot to provide ample room for movement and growth for a book with a cast of characters as large as this. And, again, Novik met this challenge head-on. The story slowly builds with several seemingly disparate through lines following each of these characters. But as the book continues, steadily these lines get woven together until by about halfway through the book the complicated network of intrigue is coming together. The players have been established and it is now up to several young women, all of whom are hugely out of their depth with creatures of magic and power surrounding them, to come together and save a country that is more and more plagued by long-lasting winters.

The magical elements were also surprising and unique. With the “Rumpelstilskin” parallel presented right at the get-go, I fully expected to see plenty of struggles regarding turning various things into gold. But that was only a small part of the fantasy world Novik created here. For one thing, the villain came completely out of left-field and was appropriately threatening and devious. Further, Miryem is not the only one to encounter and wield power in this story, and I was thrilled to see small references to other fairytales sprinkled here and there throughout the story.

The book also surprised me with a careful look at the anti-Sematism that Miryem, her family, and her people experienced throughout this book. While the story is set in a fantasy world, the challenging tension that is balanced between the Jewish people, their neighbors, and their roles in finance and banking was all too familiar to real-life history. Through Miryem, we see the struggles her family has faced with these prejudices, but also the important role her religion and culture holds in her life. Through other characters, we see their own biases and prejudices challenged and changed. It’s a nice added commentary in an otherwise purely fantastical tale.

Like “Uprooted,” the romance is understated in this story and isn’t a driving force for any of its characters. While I could have liked a bit more of it, I was quite pleased with what we did get, and, again, surprised that it wasn’t limited to our primary main character.

All in all, I absolutely loved this book. If you liked “Uprooted,” or like fairytales, or like fantasy, or just like good books, get your hands on this one!

Rating 10: Should I have been surprised? No. Was I thrilled? Yes. I can pretty much guarantee this will make my “Top Ten” list in December.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Spinning Silver” is on these Goodreads lists: “All that Glitters: Rumpelstiltskin Retellings” and “Upcoming 2018 Sci-Fi/Fantasy With Female Leads or Co-Leads.”

Find “Spinning Silver” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Julia Defiant”

30634295Book: “Julia Defiant” by Catherine Egan

Publication Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers. June 2017

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

Book Description: Julia and a mismatched band of revolutionaries, scholars, and thieves have crossed the world searching for a witch. But for all the miles traveled, they are no closer to finding Ko Dan. No closer to undoing the terrible spell he cast that bound an ancient magic to the life of a small child. Casimir wants that magic will happily kill Theo to extract it and every moment they hunt for Ko Dan, Casimir s assassins are hunting them.

Julia can deal with danger. The thing that truly scares her lies within. Her strange ability to vanish to a place just out of sight has grown: she can now disappear so completely that it s like stepping into another world. It s a fiery, hellish world, filled with creatures who seem to recognize her and count her as one of their own.

So . . . is Julia a girl with a monster lurking inside her? Or a monster wearing the disguise of a girl? If she can use her monstrous power to save Theo, does it matter?

Previously reviewed: “Julia Vanishes”

Review: I saw that the third novel in this series was due to come out shortly, so it was a good reminder to check out this second book. Somehow the “Julia Vanishes” had slipped completely off my radar, all the more surprising for it having a few rare qualities that stand out in a sea of fantasy fiction that can be all too filled with tropes. These rarities were on display once again in this second book, and some of the quibbles I had with the first have also largely been resolved.

Several months have passed and miles have been crossed since the ending of the first book. Julia and her rather enormous cast of fellows now find themselves in a foreign land, loosely based on China, still on the search for a way to remove the magical book from the body of little Theo. Julia, in particular, is devoted to this mission in an effort to make up for her past disastrous choices with regards to Theo. But as she works towards this cause, she begins to discover more aspects of her unique vanishing ability and with these discoveries come unwelcome questions about her own history and identity.

First off, it is absolutely necessary to read the first book in this series before getting to this one. Even the several months break I had between the two lead to a longer than usual re-familiarizing period of time when I started this one. Several of the points that make this book and series so good (a large cast of characters, unique worlds, complicated histories) also make it very challenging to jump into with out refreshing oneself on the events of the past book. Beyond our cast of familiar characters, we’re also dropped into the middle of a new portion of this world with its own politics with regards to witches, its own powerful individual with whom Julia and co. must work, and new settings. After I finally felt like I had caught myself up, I greatly enjoyed this change in scenery. (It’s also noteworthy that for all of these challenges with complicated names/histories/etc., I greatly appreciated the author’s choice to trust her audience to catch up with things on their own. There were no info-dumps or clunky prologues to help with this process, but instead readers are left to put the pieces together on their own, which, with some patience, is perfectly doable.)

One of my criticisms of the first book was the fact that it felt like it had two dueling stories competing against each other, both detracting from the other. This problem has been completely handled in this book. The plotting felt much more streamlined and there was an appreciated increase in the action of the story. The book is driven by the mission to save Theo and this action is balanced by the character growth and inspection that comes through the ongoing mystery into Julia’s past and her abilities. Rather than having two plot pieces tangling together, this balance of plot and character development feel much more natural and give this book a stronger sense of natural flow.

Julia’s development is probably one of my favorite parts of this story. Her increased confidence and clever use of her vanishing powers could have opened a door for her character to lose value due to being “over powered.” But instead, the author finds ways to not only bring large questions into her magical abilities and history, but also focus in on the very human struggles that Julia is still managing. Her feelings of self-hatred with regards to her past choice to give up Theo to the enemy. Her relationship with a brother and her realization that he has lived a restricted life in an effort to support her. The ongoing fallout from her broken heart in the last book, and her realization that there are more fish in the sea.

What makes this last point stand out so well is the way the author introduces other fishes without setting any of them up as a “soul mate” or “one true love.” I loved the “Alanna” series by Tamora Pierce growing up. And I think one part that I liked then and have grown to appreciate more and more as I get older was the way that Pierce exposed Alanna to different romantic interests throughout the series until, in the end, she finally is able to recognize what is important in a partner and what she specifically needs. All to often in YA fiction, romantic interests are introduced who are A.) the protagonists first love of any kind and B.) perfect for them in every way, no questions asked. This never sits well, and I commend the author of this book for exploring a more honest take on the trials and tribulations of young love. Your first love may not be perfect for you. What’s more, your SECOND love also may not be perfect for you. But you learn things from them all. I had a hard time thinking of a similar current series that has tackled this subject as well as this book has, especially given how small a role the romantic aspects play in either book, all told.

I really enjoyed this book, even more than the first. My quibbles about the plotting where deftly handled, and this one was a quick read full of intense action sequences, strong characterization for a large cast, and solid character growth and exploration for Julia herself. Of course, as I’ve said, you have to read the first book first. But if you enjoyed that one at all, I definitely recommend this book as I think it’s even better!

Rating 8: With a realistic portrayal of the challenges of young love and an increased amount of action, “Julia Defiant” is an even better novel than the first!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Julia Defiant” isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Fantasy Books about Thieves.”

Find “Julia Defiant” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Buried Heart”

29750595Book: “Buried Heart” by Kate Elliott

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

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

Book Description: In this third book in the epic Court of Fives series, Jessamy is the crux of a revolution forged by the Commoner class hoping to overthrow their longtime Patron overlords. But enemies from foreign lands have attacked the kingdom, and Jes must find a way to unite the Commoners and Patrons to defend their home and all the people she loves. Will her status as a prominent champion athlete be enough to bring together those who have despised one another since long before her birth? Will she be able to keep her family out of the clutches of the evil Lord Gargaron? And will her relationship with Prince Kalliarkos remain strong when they find themselves on opposite sides of a war?

Previously reviewed: “Court of Fives” & “Poisoned Blade”

Review: This review is a long time in coming given how much I enjoyed the first two books in the trilogy since we’re coming up fast on a years since it’s been out! But I will blame my audiobook library queue. I had this one almost finished months ago, and then had to return it to the library and had to wait in line patiently to get it back. Yes, yes, I could have just read a physical copy or done any number of things to get it sooner. But my dedication to one format and the library knows no bounds! Even if that leads me to nonsensical places like writing a review months later and then dedicating an entire paragraph to these very trials and tribulations. Anyways, on to the review!

Things are coming to a head in the fight for the future of Jes’s homeland. And not only are her parents on opposing sides of this battle, but her beloved Prince Kal is finding himself more and more likely to be called upon as a leader in these trying times. While Jes’s prowess as an athlete and the star-power she has won for herself there has gotten her this far, what role will she play as events greater than she ever imagined begin to unfurl?

The story picks up immediately following the events of “Poisoned Blade.” I always like books that could be read as one, continuous story, but coming after a long break between reads, it did prove a bit challenging for me to fall back into this world. There is just so much here! After two books already, Elliott has set up not only a complex and believable world, but one that is peopled and driven by two different cultures with very different outlooks on life, and, importantly, history. That’s not to mention the ever growing cast of characters, all of whom have been slowly revealed to have their own motives in the ongoing conflict. Once I caught myself up again, all of these details fell neatly into place and this same complexity reestablished itself as firmly a plus for the series.

Especially the history aspect of the book. Throughout the series, Elliott has done a thorough deep-dive into what it really looks like to have a history that has only been told by the winners. Through all three books we have begun to see just how thoroughly retold and rewashed events of the past have been, and how now, in the third book, people are trying to reclaim these lost bits of history. This also was carefully crafted and presented. There are no easy pathways and correct decisions that can be made to right the wrongs of the past. And Elliott explores how the choices made in the present will continue to play into this narrative as the future of these two peoples continues to unfold.

Jes, as always, is a great character through whom to view this conflict. As a girl from both worlds, we are given front row seats to her own harsh realizations about what actual change would entail. Throughout the first two books and a large portion of this one, Jes’s outlook on the future has been, frankly, pretty naive. Here she is forced to truly confront her own ignorance of the political powers at play and the limitations that exist for even rulers themselves.

The action takes a swing away from the excitement of the court of fives games that has made up much of the other books. With stakes as high as these, there simply isn’t room for these type of trials as often. However, even with that being the case, I was impressed by how neatly Elliott was able to tie this aspect of the story into the greater conflict as a hole. Don’t get me wrong, Jes’s skill as a competitor is still important and relevant to this book, and the few races we saw all had incredibly high stakes and were just as thrilling as always.

However, the real action came back to the conflict itself. We saw more battles, more personal struggles in Jes’s ongoing conflict with Lord Gargaron, and a epic resolution to the entire chain of events that was both heartbreaking and incredibly satisfying. Elliott doesn’t back away from the ugliness that would take place in an overthrow of this kind, even with the most benevolent and wise of leaders at its head. Further, Jes and Kal’s romance does not get the “magic wand” treatment and they, too, much confront the challenges of any future they may have together.

I thoroughly enjoyed this final installment in the trilogy. I did knock it down one point from the previous two, simply because there were portions in the beginning and middle of the book where the pacing seemed off (events would move quickly, only to suddenly lag for several pages). This book had to fit a lot into one story and there were times where I felt like it had a few missteps simply due to the challenges of getting it all in there. But that said, this was still a thoroughly enjoyable read and very gratifying end to a solid fantasy trilogy.

Rating 8: An epic conclusion to a high stakes fantasy trilogy, full of action, heartbreak, and an introspection on what it means for a nation to rediscover its history and reclaim its future.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Buried Heart” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it should be on “The Games We Play” and “Best Books About Family Relationships.”

Find “Buried Heart” at your library using WorldCat!