Serena’s Review: “Beastly Bones”

24001095Book: “Beastly Bones” by William Ritter

Publishing Info: Algonquin Young Readers, September 2015

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

Book Description: In 1892, New Fiddleham, New England, things are never quite what they seem, especially when Abigail Rook and her eccentric employer, R. F. Jackaby, are called upon to investigate the supernatural. First, members of a particularly vicious species of shape-shifters disguise themselves as a litter of kittens. A day later, their owner is found murdered, with a single mysterious puncture wound to her neck. Then, in nearby Gad’s Valley, dinosaur bones from a recent dig go missing, and an unidentifiable beast attacks animals and people, leaving their mangled bodies behind. Policeman Charlie Cane, exiled from New Fiddleham to the valley, calls on Abigail for help, and soon Abigail and Jackaby are on the hunt for a thief, a monster, and a murderer.

Review: While I didn’t fall in love with “Jackaby,” the first novel in this series, I was still intrigued enough by the things it had done right (an interesting protagonist, less known supernatural beings, and strong writing) to wish to continue on with the series. Granted, it took a while to get around to this, but I’m glad I finally did! This book brought the same strengths as the last and improved on some of my complaints and concerns as well.

Not long after the events of the first novel, Abigail is still feeling unsure about her role as an apprentice to the paranormal detective Jackaby. She has an established place in the household and has made good friends with the local ghost, Jenny, but she still feels like a failure in many regards, simply not having the necessary wealth of expertise to prove herself a useful assistant to Jackaby. So, when a case pops up in the nearby Gad’s Valley concerning a prehistoric dig, Abigail is excited to join up seeing this as an opportunity to put to use her knowledge of and passion for archeology and prove that she does have something to contribute to the team. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Charlie, the handsome  policeman/shape-shifter also happens to now live in this area.

As I said, this book doubles down on the strengths it had shown in the first. Many new and fantastic creatures are introduced in this book, some that have a basis in known mythology, but also several others that seem completely new. The shape-shifter kittens, for example, seem to be a unique creation of Ritter’s and one that he fully makes use of. This, too, is something that I very much appreciate about the fantasy elements in this series. Ritter doesn’t simply play lip service to the genre. Even with new creatures like these shape-shifters, Ritter takes the time to develop and extensive history for the beings and to tie them into known history (here we have ties to Darwin and Queen Victoria!) in new and interesting ways. It is clear that while Jackaby has a wealth of knowledge in the paranormal, he is by no means the only person in the world who understands that we walk the earth alongside fantastic beasts.

Another thing I enjoyed from the first book was the supporting characters. We don’t spend as much time at Jackaby’s home in this one as we did in the first, so Jenny’s page time is similarly limited. However, it is clear that Ritter is setting her, and the mystery of her death, up as a focal point for future stories. But in this book we get a whole new set of fun characters. Including a trapper who will hunt anything and who also has a fascination with the supernatural, two dueling archeologists whose snippy interactions were some of the most amusing in the entire book, and the unstoppable Nellie, an independent lady reporter who marches onto the page with her own plan and with no apologies.

The book also improved on the last in a few ways. First, one of my struggles from the first book was with Jackaby himself who I felt came across as a bit “aggressively wacky” and thus not believable as an actual person. Ritter combats this perception in a few ways. For one, Jackaby simply has a bit less page time than he did in the first and I think this was a wise choice. As a character, Jackaby is best served in brief, yet potent, doses. This method still highlights his strengths and interesting quirks, while not distracting from the story itself. Secondly, I enjoyed the more humorous take on Jackaby’s and Abilgail’s relationship,  most notably his horror at being drawn into discussions about her romantic entanglements with Charlie.

While the first book did not shy away from the darker aspects of this paranormal world, I felt like the stakes were raised in this book. In the first book, Jenny was introduced as a rather one-dimensional ghost friend for Abigail. Here we begin to see beneath the surface to what must be the true horror of being stuck in the world after death without the ability to move on. Also, the central mystery is not resolved without serious consequences. I was surprised by some of the risks that Ritter took towards the end of the novel.

Lastly, the story sets the stage for an over-arching plot which I think is an excellent decision. It would be all too easy for these books to start to feel a bit procedural with a new paranormal case that is begun and wrapped up in each book. The potential for a “big bad” whose presence can be traced throughout the series is intriguing.

As a sequel, “Beastly Bones” did everything I asked of it: reinforced the series’ strengths and improved upon its weaknesses. I’m more invested in checking out the third than I was this second book, which is always a step in the right direction!

Rating 8: It’s always fun to see a series grow in strength from a shaky start, and this book bumps the series up as an all-around fantasy recommendation for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Beastly Bones” is included on these Goodreads lists: “YA & Middle Grade Historical Mysteries” and “YA Historical Fiction of 2015.”

Find “Beastly Bones” at your library using Worldcat!

Previously Reviewed: “Jackaby”

Serena’s Review: “The Paper Magician”

20727654Book: “The Paper Magician” by Charlie N. Holmberg

Publishing Info: 47North, September 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Ceony Twill arrives at the cottage of Magician Emery Thane with a broken heart. Having graduated at the top of her class from the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, Ceony is assigned an apprenticeship in paper magic despite her dreams of bespelling metal. And once she’s bonded to paper, that will be her only magic… forever.

Yet the spells Ceony learns under the strange yet kind Thane turn out to be more marvelous than she could have ever imagined — animating paper creatures, bringing stories to life via ghostly images, even reading fortunes. But as she discovers these wonders, Ceony also learns of the extraordinary dangers of forbidden magic.

An Excisioner — a practitioner of dark, flesh magic — invades the cottage and rips Thane’s heart from his chest. To save her teacher’s life, Ceony must face the evil magician and embark on an unbelievable adventure that will take her into the chambers of Thane’s still-beating heart—and reveal the very soul of the man.

Review: I was very excited when this book showed up for me at the library. The description sounded like something that hit all of my book preferences, and, even better, it’s the first in a completed trilogy! There’s nothing like finding a good series that you can read all at once. Nowadays, I feel like I’m constantly stuck in a waiting game for the next book to be published in the million and one series that I am following all at once! So the ability to truly binge read something from start to finish is an opportunity that I very much value. However, while I did like portions of this book and will ultimately most likely continue the series, I’m also not invested enough to binge it either, which is too bad.

The set up, as mentioned above, is exactly what I like: a spunky heroine set in past period in time where magic is an established element of society. I also always enjoy the apprenticeship angle that is often found in these stories. And while I was recently relieved to find a lack of romance in “Jackaby,” I was warned ahead of time with this one that that was where we would be going, so I had already bought in to this formula. All this in its favor, the book was still very hit and miss for me.

A definite hit was the magic system that the author has created where magicians must “bond” with a type of material. Ceony has dreamed of bonding to metal, a powerful element that would allow her to create and manipulate powerful machines and weapons. But instead she gets assigned to paper, an element that has long been scorned and neglected, resulting in a deficit of this type of magician. I loved the description of this magic system. There was the more expected paper magic (like origami birds that come to life), but also some very creative takes on what one can accomplish with this type of material. At one point Ceony creates a perfect paper fan that is capable of producing massive forces of wind. There’s also a really interesting idea that has to do with bringing to life images read off paper, like scenes from a book brought to shadowy life. And while some of these things seem frivolous (we are likely to judge them similarly to Ceony herself), the author does a great job throughout the latter half of the story really pushing the boundaries of our expectations. There’s an especially interesting twist on the “story reading” magic towards the end that is probably the biggest hook for me to continue the series all together.

Ceony herself is a perfectly fine protagonist. We don’t get a lot from her, really. Through a few flashbacks, we see a bit of what has gone before in her life, but there are as many questions left unanswered as those that are resolved. In particular, there are several references to her fear of water that never get fully explored. And while I’m all for leaving clues for future stories, these felt a bit to roughly placed and stood out in an awkward way.

This is even more noticeable by the strange shift the book takes about halfway through to become a story completely comprised of flashback scenes. The method the author uses to get us to this place is interesting, but I’m not sure this flashback portion is ever quite earned. We’ve barely met Ceony and have had only a few scenes with her mentor, Thane. So, not only do we lose out on any growth in their relationships (all of these scenes take place in a type of alternative dimension where Thane is largely only present as re-incarnations of his past self), but we’re stuck reading half a book’s worth of a deep dive into a character we barely care about. Perhaps if this had happened in a second book in a series it would have played better. But in a book that’s only 220 pages long, we’re not given enough to begin with to sustain this type of ploy.

To end on a good note, I did enjoy the fact that Ceony was left to operate on her own throughout much of this book with only the company of her paper dog, Fennel. Let’s be honest, the dog was probably my favorite character and the only one that ever truly elicited an actual emotion from me!

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Even the Punisher breaks if you threaten the dog! (source)

I will probably continue the series, just based on the strength and uniqueness of the magic system. But I do have some questions as far as the actual quality of the writing (at points it felt very bland and stilted) as well as some of the story arc decisions (like the choice to sink the last half of the story into a flashback sequence for a character who has literally only had about 15 pages of time prior to this).

Rating 6: Very much a “fine” novel. I’m more invested in Fennel, however, than either Ceony or Thane.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Paper Magician” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Dueling Magicians”and “Female Apprentices Romance.”

Find “The Paper Magician” at your library using Worldcat!

Book Club Review: “The Neverending Story”

27712We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Book Challenge!” theme. This book comes from a “Pick a book that has been translated from a different language” challenge.

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

Book: “The Neverending Story” by Michael Ende

Publishing Info: Thienemann Verlag, 1979

Where Did We Get This Book: Kate owns it,

Book Description: This epic work of the imagination has captured the hearts of millions of readers worldwide since it was first published more than a decade ago. Its special story within a story is an irresistible invitation for readers to become part of the book itself. And now this modern classic and bibliophile’s dream is available in hardcover again.

The story begins with a lonely boy named Bastian and the strange book that draws him into the beautiful but doomed world of Fantastica. Only a human can save this enchanted place–by giving its ruler, the Childlike Empress, a new name. But the journey to her tower leads through lands of dragons, giants, monsters, and magic–and once Bastian begins his quest, he may never return. As he is drawn deeper into Fantastica, he must find the courage to face unspeakable foes and the mysteries of his own heart.

Readers, too, can travel to the wondrous, unforgettable world of Fantastica if they will just turn the page….

Kate’s Thoughts

We are finally back to our book club, which means that we are finally back to our book club posts! This time around, the theme was pretty fun; we each came up with two themes that we put into a hat, and then whichever suggestions you drew, you had to pick what theme you wanted to do. One of the suggestions I got was “A book translated from another language.” It was in that moment that I knew exactly what I wanted to do: “The Neverending Story.” I had grown up watching the movie (and its first sequel, “Neverending Story 2”), and I’m pretty sure that I wore out the video cassette of it that we had. What can I say, eight year old Kate had a pretty serious thing for the movie’s version of Atreyu.

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To  girl me this was SO BADASS!!! (source)

But it took me awhile to actually read the book. The first time was when I was in middle school. I’ve re-read it a few times since then, but it had been awhile. And I knew that going into it I would probably expose myself to criticism and having to rethink one of my favorite books from childhood. But that was actually good for me, in the end.

There are a number of themes that can be found in this book. Sure, there is the usual ‘hero’s cycle’ theme that both Atreyu the warrior and Bastian Balthazar Bux go through. But along with that we get the themes of childhood, broken innocence, grief, and imagination. The book is split into two distinct parts: the first is Bastian acting as a (not actually) passive part of a fantasy story at hand, where the world of Fantastica is falling apart because their leader, the Childlike Empress, is dying. But it’s also because The Nothing is tearing apart the very fabric of its world. But then the second half is about how Bastian, seen as the savior of Fantastica, is taken to a world that is not his own, and is corrupted by the power he is given to save it. While they could easily read as two distinct books, as far as Bastian’s journey goes it comes full circle. I had forgotten that Bastian was such a little punk for the second half of the book, as most of my fond memories come from Atreyu’s journey. But I think that it was a very interesting choice for Ende to make the hero we’re meant to relate to and root for from the get go the one that we’re rooting against by the end. But along with that theme is the ever permeating spectre of grief that haunts the story. Fantastica is falling apart and losing itself, many of its inhabitants dying (including Atreyu’s faithful horse Artax, and don’t even think of telling me that this isn’t one of the saddest moments in movie history, jerks!). But along with that is the fact that Bastian’s mother has recently passed away, leaving Bastian feeling empty and his father lost in his own sadness, and unable to care for his child. Of course Bastian wants to run away from his life; a land of luck dragons and magic and Childlike Empresses has got to be better than the reality he’s living. Even if that land is hard and imperfect as we soon realize it is. Bastian learns that the strongest thing that a person can have is not power, but love, and that his love is needed in his own world, no matter how hard that world is. And Ende created a wonderful cast of characters to help the reader explore these themes, from the brave and loyal Atreyu to the kind and optimistic Falkor the Luck Dragon. God I love Falkor.

There are, of course, some things that left me feeling a bit cringy as I read it. As much as I really, really do love Atreyu, and think that he’s a great character and a wonderful hero for the first half of the book, it complete smacks of European cluelessness that he is clearly based on American Indian Indigenous cultures and merely in a superficial way. While he is himself a complex and well rounded character, the only things we really know about his people and culture is that 1) they hunt buffalo, and 2) they have mystical rights of passage that involve hunting these buffalo, as well as spiritual dreams/connections to said buffalo. It reeked of the ‘Indian as mystic’ trope that is far too prevalent in popular culture and literature. It’s also pretty disconcerting that there are very few women in this book, and the ones that are there are not terribly fleshed out. The Childlike Empress is wise and mysterious, but we know little about her outside of her purity and goodness. The various females Atreyu meets on his journey are just there to give him some info or advice. And then there’s Xayide. She is literally an evil sorceress who is just there to fuck things up for Bastian and turn him against his friends. Not exactly empowering.

All that said, however, I still really enjoyed going back and reading “The Neverending Story.” I think that as an old school fantasy novel it still holds up pretty well, the characters still very beloved and the story still entertaining and wondrous.

Serena’s Thoughts

I was excited when Kate picked this book as her bookclub choice. I feel like my experience of this story is the same as Kate’s which is the same as many girls our age: it all began with a strong crush on Atreyu from the movie. I mean, c’mon, let’s admit that we all loved him!

atreyu
(source)

However, I never made it past the movie version of the story (though I, too, wore out my VHS copy of the film). I did know that the movie only focused on the first half of the book and while I did watch the sequel film once (I remember that they re-cast Atreyu and I’m pretty sure kid!Serena saw that as an unforgivable crime and never looked back), I have no memory of the story. So I was especially curious to get the second half of the book.

But let’s start with the first half! Right off that bat I was horrified…by the fact that the magical land is called “Fantastica” and I’ve known it as “Fantasia” all along! What is this change?? Cuz now I’m all mixed up about it since I’ve known it as “Fantasia” my whole life only now to discover that this was a change from the original! This was a major internal conflict for me throughout the book. But on a more serious note, I very much enjoyed this first half and how true to the book the movie really did stay in this part. There were changes here and there, some that I preferred in the movie (I think the tension was greater in the movie with the First Gate sphynxs than the way they were described to work in the book) and some that I preferred in the book (man, somehow Artax’s death CAN be even more traumatic!)

I very much the extra insight (though its still very minimal) with regards to the relationship between the Childlike Empress and the land of Fantasia itself. While still confusing and never fully explained, I felt like the connection between her, The Nothing, and the land of Fantasia (I just now realized that I’ve been typing Fantasia instead of Fantastica this whole time! See?! It’s hard!) is a better lain out in the book. I also really liked the character of Atreyu. He was heroic in the movie, but here we see even more how impossible his task was when it was given to him and how brave he would have to be to move forward with so little hope of success.

Bastian on the other hand…Look, I never really liked him in the movie and I didn’t really like him here. Though, I will say that I liked him better in the first half of the book than I did in the movie that covered this portion. Here he’s a bit bumbling, but he picks up on what is going on in a more willing way. Maybe it was just the kid actor in the movie, but I never really liked Bastian there. Kid-me always got very annoyed by the way he reacted to the realization that he was in the book. He got angry instead of inspired, and as a kid who always wanted to live in a book, too, I was never impressed by him.

But then we get to the second half and now I feel completely justified in my initial dislike of him as a kid. Maybe that actor was just channeling this portion of the character all along and was simply done a diservice by only portraying the first half’s version who is supposed to be the more sympathetic of the two. I had a harder time with this portion and I can see why the movie stuck to the first half of the book. It’s just always going to be a bit of a hard sell when you main character turns into a real brat. As Kate mentioned, there are some lovely themes of grief and love throughout this all, but I’m still a bit biased towards the first half. Though this is honestly probably due to the movie’s lasting influence on me. Oh well!

Kate already covered a few of the problematic issues of the book, so I won’t go into them myself. They were distracting, but I wouldn’t say anything was overly offensive to a point that it affected my reading of the story. Just a bit unfortunate, ultimately.

All told, I very much enjoyed this book! While I enjoyed the first half more than the second, it was an interesting read altogether. I imagine especially for the time the “metaness” of the story itself was particularly interesting, and, even now when this approach has been explored in other books (“The Princess Bride” comes to mind a bit), it still has some fresh takes on a story-within-a-story.

Kate’s Rating 9: Though it is certainly not perfect and has some flaws that I had a hard time overlooking, “The Neverending Story” is still a fun and wondrous fantasy book with lots of deep and meaningful themes and lovely characters.

Serena’s Rating 8: I second what Kate said! One point lower for me as I did find myself struggling a bit at times with my increasing dislike of Bastian, but still a thoroughly enjoyable read!

Book Club Questions:

1) What do you think about the world of Fantastica and how it’s influenced by our world? Is the thought of readers having influence on stories a theme that you enjoyed?

2)Ende clearly took some influence from American Indian cultures/stereotypes when he created the character of Atreyu. How do you feel about him as a character throughout this story? What do you think of his portrayal?

3)Bastian starts out the story as a passive character who is merely reading a book, but finds out that he has the ability to influence the world of Fantastica. What did you think of his journey from the beginning of the story to the end?

4)In this book there is the constant spectre of devastation, grief, and loss, be it the destruction of Fantastica by the Nothing to the loss of Bastian’s mother. What do you think Ende was trying to say about these feelings of despair and grief within human nature?

5)There are many instances within this book where Ende would hint at other stories and adventures of certain characters, but would say ‘but that’s another story and shall be told another time’. Which of these stories would you most want to learn about?

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Neverending Story” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Doors, Portals, Gates”, and “Quests”.

Find “The Neverending Story” at your library using WorldCat!

The next book club book is “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library”!

Serena’s Review: “Jackaby”

20312462Book: “Jackaby” by William Ritter

Publishing Info: Algonquin Young Readers, September 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary–including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby’s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer is on the loose. The police are convinced it’s an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain it’s a nonhuman creature, whose existence the police–with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane–deny.

Review: This was actually a book club book that I read a few years ago, but I wanted to review it here on the blog since I’m currently reading the sequel and I’m a librarian, so I’m naturally a completionist! Gotta have em all!

When this book showed up on our bookclub list, I was very excited. It was marketed as “Doctor Who” meets Sherlock Holmes, and while I’m not a complete nut for “Doctor Who” all told, I do love its wacky take on fantasy and science fiction. So combining that with “Sherlock Holmes” (my love of which has been well documented), seemed like it should be something that would be right up my alley! Ultimately, while I did like it, it was a bit more on the “meh” end of things than I would have liked.

Abigail Rook, fresh off the boat with dashed dreams of being an archaeologist like her father in hand, falls into a strange apprenticeship with an even stranger man: Jackaby, a paranormal investigator. Story aside (I’ll get to that a bit later on), this book lives and dies on these two main characters and right here is where we get into the general feeling of indifference.

Abigail herself is a likable character. Her personality, drive, and ability to make her way, even as ineptly as she does here, did feel a bit out of character for the time period. Yes, we’re on the cusp of the turn of the century, but there would still be some harsh realities facing her as a young woman alone in a new country. There’s nothing egregious going on as far as anachronisms or anything, but Abigail did feel a bit out of place for the time. That aside, I did enjoy her as a protagonist. She serves as our eyes into this new world, and her confusion is our confusion. As the story progresses, it becomes clear what role she will play as the Watson to Jackaby’s Holmes. Jackaby is nothing if not dense when it comes to social clues, and here is where Abigail fits in this puzzle. It’s not a super creative take, but it works for the story and she plays her part well.

I especially enjoyed the way Ritter approaches the small amount of romance in this story. Even that sentence is misleading as any romance that is seen here is strictly in the foreshadowing category. But what is most relieving is the fact that it is clear that this romantic angle will decidedly NOT focus on Abigail/Jackaby. I had definite concerns that this was going to be the romantic couple of the series, or *shudders* one corner of a love triangle. But, thankfully, we are introduced to a new character outside of the primary duo who seems to be set up to play this role going forward.

Jackaby himself was…ok? Honestly, I think some of my problems with the book had to do with him as a character. He was a bit too “preciously wacky,” if that makes sense? He’s obviously a creation based on  both Holmes and the Doctor, but the portrayal definitely falls more closely to the latter. It’s simply not unique enough. Jackaby could practically BE the Doctor, and it starts to feel derivative rather quickly.

To end on a good note, the world-building and the paranormal elements that were included were interesting and more unique. The villain character and several of the other beings were not the ones we’re used to seeing in this type of story, and I enjoyed diving into some of the history of these creatures. The supporting cast is also interesting, including the previously mentioned love interest who turns out to be more than he seems, as well as Jackaby’s current roommates, a ghost woman with unfinished business, and Jackaby’s previous apprentice who now lives an unfortunate, if still scholarly, life as a duck.

There were definitely strengths of the book, but it’s always going to be a struggle if the title character doesn’t live up to expectations. That said, if you enjoy “Doctor Who” and Sherlock Holmes this still might be a fun book to check out. Stay tuned for my upcoming review of the sequel “Beastly Bones.”

Rating 6: If I could, I’d give it a solid 6.5. Better than average, but rather underwhelming.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Jackaby” is included on these Goodreads lists: “YA & Middle Grade Sherlock Holmes” and “Victorian Spiritualism Fiction.”

Find “Jackaby” at your library using Worldcat!

 

Serena’s Review: “A Darker Shade of Magic”

22055262Book: “A Darker Shade of Magic” by V.E. Schwab

Publishing Info: Tor Books, February 2015

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

Book Description: Kell is one of the last travelers–magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel universes connected by one magical city.

There’s Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, and with one mad King–George III. Red London, where life and magic are revered–and where Kell was raised alongside Rhy Maresh, the roguish heir to a flourishing empire. White London–a place where people fight to control magic and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London. But no one speaks of that now.

Officially, Kell is the Red traveler, ambassador of the Maresh empire, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. It’s a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.

Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.

Review: Apparently, I picked up this book right when my bookclub friend Alicia was looking for a book gift for me for our bookclub gift exchange ruining all of her plans. But…#NOREGRETS! Sorry Alicia! I already waited too long to get to this gem, a fact that was even more underlined once I discovered what I had been missing. This is a good example of being bit in the butt by being too gunshy of books that have been extremely hyped, since it well deserved all the mass praise it has received over the last few years!

In this book, there are three (or…four?) Londons based in different worlds, all with varying levels of magic. Grey London (our London) is practically magic-free, Red London is thriving with a healthy relationship with magic and magic users, White London is slowly dying, starved for magic, and then…Black London, a place many have forgotten ever actually existed outside of its own cautionary tale of what happens when greed, gluttony, and power mix too closely with magic. These worlds are all disconnected from each other, a decision that was made to protect the worlds when Black London began its descent. Kel is one of two beings left with the ability to travel between these worlds.

Right there you have a great set up for a new fantasy world. Not only is there one new world, but a whole set of them with various interactions and politics between them. Through Kel, we see these three worlds (Black London remains a threatening presence looming in the background and the source of the book’s primary conflict, but not an actual place that is visited in the book. I hope this changes in future stories!). I loved the time that was spent in each of these worlds. They are all so fully realized and populated, from the named characters we interact with in each, to the general feeling and culture of the populace. Each world is full of rich detail, and I couldn’t ever decide which was the most exciting to spend time in. Well, maybe Grey London, our London, was the least interesting. But there lives Lila! So, I don’t know!

Speaking of Lila, I was so excited to realize that she plays a much more integral role to this story than I had been lead to believe by the book description. In reality, this is a dual protagonist book featuring both Kel and Lila.

Lila is a Grey London resident, a thief, and a young woman who is desperately looking for something more out of life. Namely, she wants to be a pirate. This sounds silly, typing it out, but one of the things I most loved about this character was her unwillingness to apologize for what she wanted out of life and the decisions she made pursuing these goals. Obviously, being a thief, Lila’s outlook on morality is skewed by her own experience growing up in extreme poverty and a life full of danger and uncertainty. What was fascinating about Lila was the evolution of the reader’s understanding of her throughout the story. Even finishing it, I’m not quire sure where the line is drawn between the brash, hyper confident, bold persona that she has created to survive, and her actual core being. Her moments of vulnerability gave small glimpses further in, but it was also gratifying to discover that, while some of this seeming persona was built up as a survival tactic, Lila is also just Lila: foolishly brave and lovably standoffish. Her characterization could have easily slipped into stereotypes, but Lila practically jumps off the page as a fully formed, fully flawed, character.

Kel, too, was a great character. I particularly enjoyed the inner struggles we see within him with regards to his strained relationship with the royal family of Red London who have raised him as their son, but also rely on him as a valuable tool due to his power, and, though he doesn’t remember, likely stole him away from his original family when young. I especially loved the relationship he has with the crown prince, Rye. It was a lovely example of male friendship and  brotherly love, full of tension, heartbreak, and affable goodwill.

Together, Kel and Lila are great duo. Their characters bounce off each other perfectly, and I pretty much just want to read a whole book series of just these two going off on madcap adventures, Kel full of exasperation with Lila the whole way.

I haven’t even talked about the plot or villains, but they were much darker than I had initially thought when picking up this book. The mad twins who rule White London, in particular. I also loved the increasing knowledge of the uses, limitations, and dangers of the magic system in these worlds that readers slowly discover throughout the course of the story. None of it felt like convenient wand-waving, but parts of a larger system that we as readers are only scraping the surface of. I’m excited to see where the author goes with this aspect of the story as well.

I’ve already gone on and on and only touched upon a few of the points of this story that I loved! 2017 has just started, but I’m pretty sure I’ve already found a Top 10 inclusion for the year!

Rating 10: Loved it. Loved everything about it. Characters, world building, magic system, adventure, danger, family, friendship, romance!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Darker Shade of Magic” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Most Interesting Magic System” and “Books with parallel world.”

Find “A Darker Shade of Magic” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review & Giveaway: “The Bear and the Nightingale”

25489134Book: “The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden

Publishing Info: Del Rey, January 2917

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC

Book Description: At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

Review: I received an ARC of this book and was so excited when it arrived on my doorstep. Of course, we all know that I love a good fairytale type fantasy novel. Further, Russian fairytales are a bit in vogue currently it seems. This probably started a few years ago with the “Shadow and Bone” series, but is still going strong today it seems. Only a few months ago I read yet another Russian fairytale, “Vassa in the Night,” which I had middling feelings about. So, I’ve been waiting, waiting for the good one to arrive. And here it is!

This book is a perfect example of when the cover art can in fact speak to the actual story. Looking at this cover, with the deep, dark cold blues of a winter night and the cloud of brightness and warmth blossoming in its center, beckoning the shadow of a young woman in from the dark, just so perfectly fits the mood, tone, and feel of this story. The feeling of winter, with its beauty, its power, and its danger pervades every moment in this story. The land itself is a character, and the changing of the seasons, its voice. But this world is home to Vasilisa and her family. They accept its challenges, just as they relish the unique joys that come with living far away in a deep dark woods.

What is so lovely about this story is the very “fairytale-ness” of it. There is no one fairytale that it is retelling, and, in many ways, it could also just be any old, winter fantasy novel in the hands of a less gifted author. But Arden nails that indescribable element that somehow transforms a story into a folktale. I’m not quite sure even what it is. Some combination of lyricism, philosophy, beautifully rendered characters, and a respect for the beauty that can be found in the whole process of storytelling, not just the destination. Juliet Marillier is one of my all time favorite authors due to her ability to capture what feels like the essence of folktales into her novels, and here, Arden, too, seems to  embody this same quality.

While this is Vasalisa’s story, in many ways, I loved how Arden didn’t short shift the characters that surrounded her. More and more, recently, I have found many young adult female protagonists seems to be written in a void. They are the only developed characters in their world, and that then leads to they themselves not being fully developed due to a lack of support and framework from which to interact. Here, we have Vasalisa’s father, her brothers, the priest who comes to their small village, the nurse, and the step mother. All fully realized, all with motives, all with unique perspectives and strengths and weaknesses. Not a single character is all good or all bad. Vasalisa’s father, so supportive much of the time, struggles with one of his son’s choices. The step mother, who is in many ways the villain of the story, has chapters that introduce her as a completely sympathetic individual. And even as we see her behave atrociously, we can understand how her world has shrunk, how she has been betrayed and manipulated by everyone around her, and how her every decisions operates from a place of stark terror.

This is a slow-moving story. The first fifty percent of it is setting up this world and these characters. I completely enjoyed this section as well, but it may seem slow to others who are looking for more fantasy action. But the second half completely delivers on this point, as well. There are many truly creepy and horrific moments, and plenty of other developments that simply left a smile on my face. The ending, too, was perfect. Bittersweet, poignant, and left open to interpretation. I can’t rave enough about this book! Another story that I’m sure will make my Top 10 for 2017! Apparently this is the first book in a trilogy, so I’m very excited to revisit this world and these characters going forward!

Rating 10: A perfect read for a snowy evening and a wonderful book all around.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bear and the Nightingale” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best of Russia”  and “Russian Fairy Tales.”

Find “The Bear and the Nightingale” at your library using Worldcat!

And, even better, you can enjoy this book, too! I’m hosting a give-away for the ARC of this book (cuz, let’s be honest, I’m going out to buy my own hardback any day now!). The giveaway will run until Feb. 1, 2017. Please see the Terms & Conditions for more details!

Click here to enter the give away!

Kate’s Review: “Fear the Drowning Deep”

23924355Book: “Fear the Drowning Deep” by Sarah Glenn Marsh

Publishing Info: Sky Pony Press, October 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Witch’s apprentice Bridey Corkill has hated the ocean ever since she watched her granddad dive in and drown with a smile on his face. So when a dead girl rolls in with the tide in the summer of 1913, sixteen-year-old Bridey suspects that whatever compelled her granddad to leap into the sea has made its return to the Isle of Man.

Soon, villagers are vanishing in the night, but no one shares Bridey’s suspicions about the sea. No one but the island’s witch, who isn’t as frightening as she first appears, and the handsome dark-haired lad Bridey rescues from a grim and watery fate. The cause of the deep gashes in Fynn’s stomach and his lost memories are, like the recent disappearances, a mystery well-guarded by the sea. In exchange for saving his life, Fynn teaches Bridey to master her fear of the water — stealing her heart in the process.

Now, Bridey must work with the Isle’s eccentric witch and the boy she isn’t sure she can trust — because if she can’t uncover the truth about the ancient evil in the water, everyone she loves will walk into the sea, never to return.

Review: So look, on paper this, to me, sounded like a straight up thriller with a supernatural twist to it. That’s why I’m reviewing this book that is, in actuality, pretty much just a straight up fantasy. Sorry, Serena, this is my genre today! That being said, there are definitely a number of strange and creepy things that really added to the potential of “Fear the Drowning Deep”. A witch’s apprentice? Murdered girls? ANCIENT EVIL IN THE WATER?

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Sign me up, I’m there! (source)’

But sadly, while I was all in and totally stoked, when I got to it, it didn’t quite live up to what I hoped it would. I think that what tripped this book up for me were a couple of things. One, my expectations were not met, and while that’s not the book’s fault, it nonetheless made it so I was setting myself up for a fall. The second thing is that it fell into too many traps of the fantasy romance YA genre, which I have become less and less forgiving of as time has gone on. You combine these two things, and then throw in a description that really played up more of a horror thriller angle than it was, and well, we’re bound to have some problems.

But hey, let’s start off with the things that I DID like about this story before we get into the negatives. First of all, I enjoyed the setting of this book, taking place on the Isle of Man in 1913. I don’t know much about the Isle of Man outside of the fact that the Bee Gees were from there, so seeing it in a historical setting with some of the mythology from the area were fun themes to explore. Bridey was an alright protagonist. I liked that she was a responsible teenager of her time, and while sometimes her aspirations kind of treaded towards the less pragmatic and more fanciful, by 1913 I think this is a more acceptable mentality for a teenage girl to have. I also really liked the storyline involving her and Morag, the island ‘witch’ whom Bridley apprentices for, just as her mother did when she was a girl. The parts of the story where Bridley was learning how to find ingredients for medicine, charms, and protection, were very intriguing to me, and I liked Morag’s role in the story as the misunderstood outsider. True, it got a bit aggravating when Bridley would dismiss Morag’s advice or warnings as superstitions or useless, because she has spent her whole life believing her to be some kind of witch! I have a hard time believing that she’d be so dense or haughty that she’d just toss this woman’s opinions out the window! It didn’t feel like it matched Bridley’s character, and that got a bit annoying.

I also liked the take and portrayals of various mythological creatures that you may not see as much in fantasy stories. Sure, we’ve all seen our fair share of dragons, vampires, and ghosts, but in this book we get sea serpents, Little Fellas, and fossegrims. Marsh has taken some long neglected mythologies and has given them a fresh perspective, and I think that this book could easily encourage interested parties to take a gander at these stories when they may not have otherwise.

However, a big strike against this book, for me, is that once again, we are met with the Dreaded Love Triangle. THIS time it’s between Bridley, her childhood friend Lugh, and the mysterious visitor Fynn, who washes up on shore one day with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Boy, a girl is torn between her true blue best friend and a strange and enigmatic newcomer. I sure haven’t read anything like THAT before.

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(source)

This is only compounded by the fact that a day before Fynn showed up, Bridley had been kissed by Lugh, and she had really quite liked it. But the moment that Fynn arrives, Lugh is completely out of her thoughts. It’s one thing if she was always a bit ambivalent about her feelings for him. It’s tired and worn out, but at least it’s realistic. Because MAN did she shift on a dime without any second thoughts. Plus, we got a ridiculous scene in which Finn and Lugh start fighting each other over her, and everyone felt a bit out of character all just for the drama. Lugh just didn’t feel like a character who even needed to be there, in all honesty. There was plenty of dramatics without Bridley having to be in the middle of a fight between the two stereotypes of romantic entanglements.

This book definitely had some things going for it, but overall “Fear the Drowning Deep” found itself in a couple of ruts that it never really pulled itself from. I really enjoyed the mythology aspect and the witch aspect, but there were too many well worn ideas that weren’t really reinvented to make it a complete stand out. Come for the mythos, try and tolerate the repetitiveness.

Rating 6: Though original in some ways, “Fear the Drowning Deep” wasn’t what I had hoped it would be, and fell into too many YA traps.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Fear the Drowning Deep” can be found on the following Goodreads lists: “Sea Creatures”, and “All Things Celtic”.

Find “Fear the Drowning Deep” at your library using WorldCat!