Serena’s Review: “West”

31822495Book: ” West” by Edith Pattou

Publishing Info: HMH Books for Young Readers, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: When Rose first met Charles, he was trapped in the form of a white bear. To rescue him, Rose traveled to the land that lay east of the sun and west of the moon to defeat the evil Troll Queen. Now Rose has found her happily-ever-after with Charles—until a sudden storm destroys his ship and he is presumed dead. But Rose doesn’t believe the shipwreck was an act of nature, nor does she believe Charles is truly dead. Something much more sinister is at work. With mysterious and unstoppable forces threatening the lives of the people she loves, Rose must once again set off on a perilous journey. And this time, the fate of the entire world is at stake.

Review: I read “East” forever and a day ago. It was an obvious read for me, as I love fairytale re-tellings and love “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” in particular. While I have yet to find my “one true love” version of this story (yes, this is a thing for me. For example, Robin McKinley’s “Beauty” and Juliet Marillier’s “Daughter of the Forest” both hold this esteemed title for their respective fairytales), I remember enjoying Pattou’s version and mentally shelving it as a “win” for this fairytale. So, when I saw that now, years later, Pattou was releasing a sequel story, it was a no-brainer to pick it up.

A few years after the events of “East” readers find Rose and her beloved Charles mostly settled into life. With a young baby boy to call their own and established lives pursuing their passions (Charles’s music), they are happy and it feels like the fantastical events of their lives are behind them. That is until Charles’ ship is struck down in a strangely powerful storm on a return journey from one of his musical expeditions. Now Rose will once again brave all to track down the love of her life who she knows, deep down, has not died but must have once again fallen into the grasp of villainy.

Reading this story so many years after “East” was an interesting experience. To be honest, I only had the vaguest memories of that book and they mostly had to do with generally liking it. But, as I said above, not loving it to the extent that I have other fairytale stories. With this book, as I read, I began to remember more and more about the original, not only its own specific take on the tale, but what exactly I liked about it, as well as what held me back.

What I liked has largely to do with a rather nebulous idea regarding writing tone. For fairtyales in particular, there’s a hard-to-pin-down style of writing that often comes hand-in-hand with this type of fantasy. It seems to be a combination of lyrical word choice, simple sentence structure, and a general approach to fantasy that leaves many things unexplained. Magical elements just exist, and it’s expected that readers can just accept them without detailed histories or systems. So, in this way, “West” definitely excels. While the story doesn’t speed along, it also reads nicely, filling its pages with the types of mini adventures and new characters that one expects to run across in fairytales.

The other thing that I remember enjoying from “East,” and that remains strong here, was the characterization of Rose herself. She’s a no-nonsense, go-getter type of heroine of the type that I always particularly enjoy. She doesn’t waffle amidst indecision or others fears (her family all try to convince her that Charles truly died in the ship wreck, as that’s how it appears in every rational sense), but instead has faith in her own abilities and feelings and takes charge of her situation. I also particularly enjoyed her knowledge of trolls to suss out suspicious instances early in the story.

However, there were also elements of this story that reminded me why I didn’t absolutely love “East” either. For one, like that book, Rose is not our only POV character. In the first book, I didn’t love this take on the story either, but I remember enjoying a few of the other POV characters enough that I was able to get on board with it. Here, I feel like there are not only even more POV characters, but that, between them, they tended to bog down Rose’s own story, rather them add nice supplements to it. On top of Rose’s own adventures, we have her brother who is always one step behind her. And her family back in her home village confronting a deadly plague. Both stories were fine, as far as it goes. But there was just too much going on between them all to ever feel truly invested in any of them. Mostly, I just wanted to focus on Rose’s journey to find Charles; I wasn’t too interested in seeing her brother just miss her time and time again. And the plague story, while interesting, just seemed like another tacked on plot that distracted from the main plot line.

In the end, I think my feelings for this book were about on par with what I felt for “East.” Perhaps a bit less so, since the whimsy of trying to track the original story in the retelling was lost in this one. But, as the books are so similar in whats on offer at their core, I think there’s a good chance that however you felt about “East” will transfer to how you feel here. And, as I know a lot of readers really loved that book, I’m sure this will also find a large number of devoted fans. For me, it was still just “kinda good.”

Rating 7: A steady sequel that aptly captures the same tone and feel of the first book, for better or worse.

Reader’s Advisory:

“West” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on 2018 YA Fairy Tale Retellings

Find “West” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Dark Days Pact”

26061581Book: “The Dark Days Pact” by Alison Goodman

Publishing Info: Viking Books for Young Readers, January 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: June 1812. Just weeks after her catastrophic coming-out ball, Lady Helen Wrexhall—now disowned by her uncle—is a full member of the demon-hunting Dark Days Club. Her mentor, Lord Carlston, has arranged for Helen to spend the summer season in Brighton so that he can train her new Reclaimer powers. However, the long-term effects of Carlston’s Reclaimer work have taken hold, and his sanity is beginning to slip. At the same time, Carlston’s Dark Days Club colleague and nemesis will stop at nothing to bring Helen over to his side—and the Duke of Selburn is determined to marry her. The stakes are even higher for Helen as she struggles to become the warrior that everyone expects her to be.

Previously Reviewed: “The Dark Days Club”

Review: Ok, I haven’t ranted about a cover for a long time. But man. MAN! This one deserves a good rant. Not only is this cover truly awful on its own, but when you compare it to the first book’s cover, it just gets even worse.

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That cover is good. It’s not doing anything super brilliant or unique, but it’s getting the job done. We know this is a historical novel, and we get that there is some darkness involved in the story, likely fantasy-related. And then we have this new cover…The model looks ridiculous. The weird magical sword is bizarre (and hard to connect with anything in the book). And the whole thing looks like the type of book you’d scoff at in an airport. We’d all like to think that we don’t judge books by their covers, but we do. And this series was already criminally underappreciated, and I can’t imagine this change to cover art helped anything. Also, spoiler alert, it definitely DOESN’T improve with the third book. *sigh*

Lady Helen has forgone the life of marriage and respectability she had previously seen as her future. Instead, she is now a full-fledged member of the Dark Days Club, a secretive society that fights against demonic beings that lurk among the unwary. More to the point, she and her colleagues suspect that the Grand Deceiver is on the move, one of the most powerful and evil beings the Club has ever faced. But Lady Helen is also still in training, with much to learn not only about her own unique abilities, but how she is to balance her responsibilities to the society as well as her loyalties to her friends. Especially Lord Carlston, whose erratic behavior has set him smack dab in the cross hairs of the leadership in the Dark Days Club.

While this book was a bit more wishy-washy for me (not really a surprise for the dreaded “second book” in a trilogy), there were still several aspects of the series that I greatly enjoyed. For one, the pitch perfect mixture of historical regency “manners” story, flitting through ballrooms and strolls through parks with parasols, and magical adventure featuring some legitimately dark villains. Lady Helen must be given full credit as a well-drawn character who is capable of reading as believable in both these very different scenarios. What’s more, both versions of herself, socialite and powerful Reclaimer, are not two suits that fit well together. Those who know her as a well-bred lady first and foremost, question her ability to exist in an action-packed and dangerous world. Here, she rises to the occasion by learning to fight and donning an alter-ego as a young man. On the other side, her Reclaimer friends don’t see the importance or value that Helen does in maintaining a grip on her role as a woman in society. And here, she proves that a well-timed conversation with the right person can be just as valuable as pulling out a sword.

I still also very much like the world that has been imagined here. Reclaiming is a dangerous business, and we see that though Helen has great power, she still has much to learn to survive in this world. Not only that, the most successful Reclaimer must still deal with the negative side-affects of their work, which we see in Lord Carlston’s quick spiral into violence and madness. We also see that the Deceivers themselves can come with a wide variety of motives and ways of living in the world, some more destructive than others. There are also more than a few humans who prove that you don’t have to be a demonic being to be evil.

While I liked all of these general aspects, I did find myself struggling with much of the book. For having so much action and adventure, the pacing also felt very slow. This is a long book, and towards the middle I was becoming more and more tempted to skim along. This is partly due to Helen’s arc itself within the story. Yes, she is new to this world and still trying to figure out who to trust and how to align herself. But she was just so indecisive, trying to play a middle field that anyone a mile away could see as a fool’s quest from the start. She also falls victim to the unfortunate and all too common martyr complex, choosing to make incredibly stupid decisions rather than, I don’t know, communicate with her friends. And for heaven’s sake, it seems all too clear who and what the Duke of Selbourn really is. Even the most naive lady of the time would be side-eyeing a man like this so determinedly not being put off by the repeated refusals and strange revelations about his lady love.

So, while I still liked much of the story, it ultimately felt a bit too long, a bit too predictable, and a bit too clumsy with its main character. But, that said, I’m still all in for the third and final book. At the very least, I can’t wait to read about Lady Helen finally waking the hell up about some things that I’m sure most readers have already guessed.

Rating 7: Falls victim to “second novel syndrome” a bit, but still has enough going for it to pull readers in for the final story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dark Days Pact” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Fantasy of Manners” and “YA Historical Fantasy” (though I wouldn’t classify this as YA).

Find “The Dark Days Club” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “The Flight of Swans”

38397799Book: “The Flight of the Swans” by Sarah McGuire

Publishing Info: Carolrhoda Books, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss Plus

Book Description: Princess Andaryn’s six older brothers have always been her protectors–until her father takes a new Queen, a frightening, mysterious woman who enchants the men in the royal family. When Ryn’s attempt to break the enchantment fails, she makes a bitter bargain: the Queen will spare her brothers’ lives if Ryn remains silent for six years.

Ryn thinks she freed her brothers, but she never thought the Queen would turn her brothers into swans. She never thought she’d have to discover the secret to undoing the Queen’s spell while eluding the Otherworldly forces that hunt her. And she never thought she’d have to do it alone, without speaking a single word.

As months as years go by, Ryn learns there is more to courage than speech . . . and that she is stronger than the Queen could have ever imagined.

Review: Omg, I was so excited when I just randomly stumbled on this book on Edelweiss. I obviously love fairytale retellings. But I LOVE the “Six Swans” fairytale in particular. Juliet Marillier’s “Daughter of the Forest” is probably one of my favorite books ever and is the golden standard as far as I’m concerned for retelling this fairytale. And, frankly, in a world becoming chock-full of other fairytale retellings, there are still very few that tackle this particular tale. So, with those facts in mind, I went into this both very excited and very challenged to not simply do a comparison read with Marillier’s take.

The story follows the classic fairytale. Ryn is a young girl when the story starts out, the youngest of seven siblings with six beloved older brothers. When a sorceress bewitches the king, their father, these siblings rebel only to become caught in the crosshairs of a magical spell themselves. The brothers are all turned into swans, and Ryn is left with impossible task of remaining silent for six years while weaving six tunics out of painful nettles to free her brothers and restore their kingdom.

Long story short, I loved this  book. I loved our main character. I loved how true it remained to the original fairytale. I loved the ways that it expanded on the original fairytale. I loved the romance. I loved the magic. Review done now? Probably could be if I didn’t feel like I owed readers (and the book) at least a bit more detail.

Outside of my general love for the story, there were a few things that stood out in particular. For one, I loved the brothers in this book. Six brothers who spend most of a story as swans and off the page is always going to be a hard thing to tackle for an author. How do you make sure they each have personalities and can be differentiated from each other? While I won’t say that McGuire was completely successful here (there are still one or two brothers who I can only remember small details about), for the most part she does an excellent job of giving the brothers enough distinct traits to make each stand out. For one thing, the way the curse is laid out in this book, the brothers get to spend one night each month as humans. This gives them much more page time than other versions of the tale (Marillier’s swans only become human twice a year). With the addition of these scenes, we get to see much more of the brothers. I particularly loved Aiden, the oldest  brother, and his close relationship with Ryn. He’s probably the brother that is given the most throughout the book, and I just loved everything about him. Secondly, I very much liked Ryn’s twin brother who is the one who has the most of an arc in this book, going from a kind of bratty, young kid to a loyal brother who is the one who really understands the extent of Ryn’s sacrifice in the end.

I also loved the inclusion of particular elements of the fairytale that have been left out of other versions of the story. I always loved the part of the original tale that dealt with the swans carrying their sister across the sea to safety. This is the kind of fairytale scene that is pretty hard to adapt, being very whimsical and hard to actually picture in the real world. McGuire adapts the scene here, having the swans pull a raft carrying Ryn. It was thrilling to see this part of the tale included, and it was also one of the most shining moments for Aiden as a character, even in swan form.

I also loved the romance that builds up between Ryn and the foreign prince, Corbin. As this is a middle grade novel, I had to repeatedly remind myself to be happy with the romance I was getting. But as an example of middle grade romances, this one does very well. It’s another tough part of the story to adapt, what with the usual late entrance of the romantic interest in the fairytale itself. And the fact that our heroine can’t speak, so creating meaningful moments where readers can really buy this type of connection forming can be challenging. McGuire rises to the occasion with aplomb.

The only criticism of the book I have does have to do with my expectations and comparisons to Marillier’s version. Like I said, it was a huge challenge to not compare the two as there are so few examples of this fairytale and Marillier’s is superb. “Daughter of the Forest” is also an adult fantasy novel and has some very adult scenes in the book. It can be a tough read, but its darker moments are also what adds to the ultimate beauty and triumph of the story.

This book, as a middle grade novel, had to take a very different route. And while I can appreciate certain changes (the romance needing to be written in a different way, for one), there were also a few choices that I felt were unnecessary and needlessly removed some of the teeth from the story. For one, the aforementioned monthly transformation of the brothers. This lead to a lot of great development for these characters, but also made Ryn’s experience much easier as she regularly had the support of her brothers to tackle basic tasks, like shelter building. She was also limited to not speaking or writing, but was still able to tell others every bit of her tale as long as she mimed it or acted it out. This let her explain her situation to a lot more people, thus creating even more of a safety net for herself. Beyond this, the nettles themselves become less of a challenge. Ryn quickly finds a way of handling the viscous plants in a way that doesn’t injure her at all. Much of the power of the original story is the way the heroine perseveres through the awful trial that is this curse, and part of that trial is the combination of remaining silent while completely a very painful task. All of these choices, when put together, make Ryn’s story a bit too light, in my opinion. Yes, it is a middle grade novel, but I think the author took it a little too far here and could have kept a bit more of the original’s darkness.

But! I still absolutely loved this story. I was so pleased that is lived up to many of my expectations and even surpassed some of them. It’s also a nice alternative to point to for readers looking for a retelling of this fairytale. There are some younger readers to whom, before, I would have hesitated to hand “Daughter of the Forest” because of some of its adult themes. But now we have this! And put together, we have a version for younger readers AND a version for adults!

Rating 9: A beautiful take on a much-overlooked fairytale.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Flight of Swans” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on “The Wild Swans/The Six Swans Retellings.”

Find “The Flight of Swans” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review and Giveaway: “Muse of Nightmares”

25446343Book: “Muse of Nightmares” by Laini Taylor

Publishing Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: In the wake of tragedy, neither Lazlo nor Sarai are who they were before. One a god, the other a ghost, they struggle to grasp the new boundaries of their selves as dark-minded Minya holds them hostage, intent on vengeance against Weep.

Lazlo faces an unthinkable choice—save the woman he loves, or everyone else?—while Sarai feels more helpless than ever. But is she? Sometimes, only the direst need can teach us our own depths, and Sarai, the muse of nightmares, has not yet discovered what she’s capable of.

As humans and godspawn reel in the aftermath of the citadel’s near fall, a new foe shatters their fragile hopes, and the mysteries of the Mesarthim are resurrected: Where did the gods come from, and why? What was done with thousands of children born in the citadel nursery? And most important of all, as forgotten doors are opened and new worlds revealed: Must heroes always slay monsters, or is it possible to save them instead?

Previously Reviewed: “Strange the Dreamer”

Review: While I loved “Strange the Dreamer” with its unique world, beautiful prose, and well-drawn characters, it did commit one of the biggest sins in the book: ending on a horrible cliff-hanger! Why?! Why would you do this?! But, unlike certain other books that Kate and I reviewed recently, cough”Career of Evil”cough, there was only a short, year-long wait before the follow up story was released. I guess that makes it ok. Doesn’t hurt that the sequel was a blast to read on its own, even after tackling the immediate issue left by the cliffhanger.

Lazlo has discovered that he is a God. And not only any ole God, but one of the most rare and powerful with the ability to manipulate the strange blue metal that makes up the godspawns’ home. But power isn’t everything, and Sarai is still dead, even if her being has mostly been saved in the form of one of Minya’s ghosts. And Minya has her own plans for life going forward, ones that distinctly feature revenge and the use of Lazlo’s abilities to achieve it. However, soon, thoughts of revenge begin to subside when all involved realize how small their scope of past events has really been and how much more is truly at stake.

One of the strongest points of all of Taylor’s books is her lyrical manner of writing. That talent is put to good use here and the beautiful imagery continues. However, the topic and storyline of this book is much more action-oriented and in many ways darker in theme. While the first book spent much of its time establishing Strange as a dreamer and exploring Sarai’s abilities, painting lush landscapes with words. Here, Taylor’s gorgeous prose instead speaks to the pain and heartache that is at the core of so many of our characters and how they approach the world they now find themselves in.

Lazlo and Sarai, our main characters from the first book, largely subside into the background in this one, which came as a complete surprise to me. I don’t want to misrepresent the book, as they still narrate a large portion of the story and their romance is still heavily focused upon. However, for me, I found other characters quickly rising to the forefront of my interest.

Minya, in particular, comes to mind. We briefly explored her experiences in the first book, but here we learn that we had only scraped the surface. Not only are past events expanded upon, but we learn more about her own motivations and the mysteries of her being. Why has she remained a child? What drives the seemingly bottomless well of darkness within her and how does her power truly work? There were several great reveals with this character and in many ways I think she has a greater depth of character built for her than Lazlo and Sarai who have a tendency to fall into the rather generic hero category. We know what to expect from them: they’re good people who want to do good things. Minya is much more complicated, and in that way, I found her much more interesting.

There are also two sisters whose stories are introduced. They live in a far away world, and it is only slowly revealed throughout the story how these disconnected bits make up the history of Lazlo and Sarai’s world. I, of course, love stories about sisterhood, so I was all over this arc of a deep bond that drives two sisters to achieve the impossible. And even here, nothing is made simple, easy, or predictable. There is tragedy, confusion, anger, and, of course, a boundless love and loyalty.

This takes me to a few of my criticisms for the book. As I said, other characters (Minya, the sisters, Thyon Fane, etc.) largely took over my interest in this book and while I still enjoyed Lazlo and Sarai, I was much less intrigued by their romance in this go-around. So much of the first book was devoted to establishing their connection that I guess I would have just been fine mostly leaving it at that. I’m guessing this will be an unpopular opinion, as I know many fans of Taylor’s work read her for the beautiful romances. And I still enjoyed it. But given the depth and scope of the larger topics at hand (topics such as revenge, forgiveness, self-identity and discovery), reading more scenes of their ongoing romance taking place in mystical dream-scapes just seemed to interrupt the flow and left me anxious to return to the more serious subjects at hand.

From there, I also continued to struggle to connect to the other godspawn. There were a few whiffs of dialogue here and there that rang a bit too “twee” or “pixy dream girl” esque from these areas. As a fan of Taylor’s writing, I could recognize some of these beats from characters who filled similar roles in her other books, but that recognition just made them fall all the more flat here, as I was never able to fully understand Ruby, Sparrow or Feral as unique characters in their own right.

But, to end on a positive note, for fans of Taylor’s “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” series, there are some really incredible tie-ins to be found in this book that took my completely by surprise. Readers by no means need to be familiar with that series, but it’s a great connection for those of us who have read those books.

I was lucky enough to snag an ARC of this book, and now I want to give it away to you! The giveaway ends on October 31 and is open to US residents only.

Click here to enter the giveaway!

Rating 8: “Muse of Nightmares” expands upon its predecessor by leaps and bounds, exploring complicated and deep topics of revenge, loyalty, and self-created identity.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Muse of Nightmares” is included on the Goodreads lists: “Quality YA Paranormal Romance Novels” and “Consider it NA.”

Find “Muse of Nightmares” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “A Thousand Nights”

21524446We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “B-Sides,” where we pick different books from previous authors that we read in the club.

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

Book: “A Thousand Nights” by E. K. Johnston

Publishing Info: Disney Hyperion, 2015

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

B-Side Book: “The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim”

Book Description: Lo-Melkhiin killed three hundred girls before he came to her village, looking for a wife. When she sees the dust cloud on the horizon, she knows he has arrived. She knows he will want the loveliest girl: her sister. She vows she will not let her be next.

And so she is taken in her sister’s place, and she believes death will soon follow. Lo-Melkhiin’s court is a dangerous palace filled with pretty things: intricate statues with wretched eyes, exquisite threads to weave the most beautiful garments. She sees everything as if for the last time. But the first sun rises and sets, and she is not dead. Night after night, Lo-Melkhiin comes to her and listens to the stories she tells, and day after day she is awoken by the sunrise. Exploring the palace, she begins to unlock years of fear that have tormented and silenced a kingdom. Lo-Melkhiin was not always a cruel ruler. Something went wrong.

Far away, in their village, her sister is mourning. Through her pain, she calls upon the desert winds, conjuring a subtle unseen magic, and something besides death stirs the air.

Back at the palace, the words she speaks to Lo-Melkhiin every night are given a strange life of their own. Little things, at first: a dress from home, a vision of her sister. With each tale she spins, her power grows. Soon she dreams of bigger, more terrible magic: power enough to save a king, if she can put an end to the rule of a monster.

Serena’s Thoughts

Back when we were doing our “A-side” books, I was the one who picked Johnston’s “The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim,” so I was already a bit predisposed to liking this title. On top of that, just based on the book description alone, the story checks off a lot of boxes for me: fairytale-retelling, non-Western setting, sisterhood, and magic. Is it any wonder that I very much enjoyed this book?

There have been a fair number of “1001 Arabian Nights” retellings to come out in the last few years, and I’ve had many mixed reactions to most of them. In its very nature, it’s a rather difficult story to tell. In the original version, our storyteller buys her life with a new story each night. And in the end, her reward is a continued marriage with a murderer. So, how do you twist that story into something worth cheering for? In this area, I think Johnston did several things right.

For one, the central relationship at the heart of this story is not one between our storyteller and her horrible husband. It is instead between her and her sister, the woman she sacrificed herself for and who remains behind in their small village faithfully supporting and working for her sister’s welfare from afar. This a much better focal point for the story itself and takes a lot of pressure off any “romance” that could have come to the forefront. The author’s choices as far as that “romance” goes were also very clever. The biggest challenge, how to make a monster not a monster, is dealt with in a satisfying way, and the biggest trope and pitfall of stories like this, having your heroine fall in love with a monster WHILE HE’S STILL A MONSTER, is avoided.

By also focusing on the relationship with the sister, Johnston centers her story around the role of women in this world, the type of work they do and the largely unnoticed position they hold in society. Through this lens we see how it could become acceptable for a king to go through so many wives without uproar. It’s a subtly feminist story that tackles a lot of bigger points without ever banging it over your head. And the value of typical women’s work is never undervalued in this as well, which is another pitfall that often occurs when trying to make some of these larger points.

I also very much liked the magic system in this book, if you can even call it a “magic system” at all. Like many fairytales, we are given very few explanations or descriptions of where this story is taking place (other than the desert) or how its magic works. Instead, we are allowed to simply immerse ourselves in what is without worrying overly much about the “hows.” There were also a few clever winks and nods to other classic fantasy components at the end of the book that I very much enjoyed.

It’s a quieter, slower moving story, but I think fans of fairytale fantasy will very much enjoy it.

Kate’s Thoughts

Going into “A Thousand Nights”, there were two truths about myself and perceptions in regards to it that I knew: 1) I have never actually read the “1001 Arabian Nights”, and 2) I have had a very mixed experience reading E.K. Johnston. I thought that “The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim” was fine, though I’m far more partial to raising and riding dragons as opposed to slaying them, and I thought that “Exit: Pursued by a Bear” had a good message, but a clunky execution of said message. So picking up “A Thousand Nights” was hard to predict. But I am kind of disappointed to say that it wasn’t really my favorite in terms of fairy tale re-tellings that I have read, and it kind of solidifies that Johnston isn’t an author I would seek out on my own.

I think that a majority of it is the fantasy aspect. As you all know, I have a hard time with that genre, and “A Thousand Nights” wasn’t added to my list of exceptions. There were certainly pros for me within the story itself, which I will try to focus on. The first is that I loved the descriptions of the desert and the different groups of people who lived within it. I am someone who, paradoxically, hates the heat but really loves deserts, so seeing the rich and colorful description of the setting was lovely. I felt like the desert was a character in and of itself, and I had a very clear idea of what it looked like in my mind’s eye. I also really enjoyed the commentary about how women are overlooked within this world, be it through repeated emphasis of women being sacrificed to Lo-Melkiin’s murderous whims because were he overthrown, the economy would destabilize and male traders would lose profits. I think that Johnston paid close attention to how to portray her female characters in an undercurrent lens of feminism, in while they were not named (as this world didn’t place value on them), they were always instrumental in plot points through all kinds of work, both through traditional ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles. And neither gender role was devalued.

All that said, I think that Johnston gets a bit wrapped up in flowery writing and descriptions, and the fantasy elements didn’t pull me in. I appreciate the fact that magic is just a part of this world, but I needed more concrete system behind it. I know that sometimes fantasy novels get TOO wrapped up in the descriptions and the logic of the way magic works, but I needed a bit more in this book beyond the vagueness. I know that Serena was totally fine with not worrying about the hows, and I get that, but as someone who already doesn’t care for the fantasy genre, I REALLY need those hows to explain to me why I should buy into the magic of a world as it is presented to me.

I think that fantasy fans would find a lot to like about this book. I, however, was underwhelmed.

Serena’s Rating 8: A nice fairytale retelling that leans into themes of sisterhood and inner strength.

Kate’s Rating 5: A genre that already doesn’t connect with me is encumbered by a writing and author style that I’ve never totally cared for. Good messages, but an execution I wasn’t fond of.

Book Club Questions

  1. This is a retelling of “1001 Arabian Nights” and features the same basic set up of a young bride trying to outlast a cruel husband. How does this retelling compare to the original or other versions that you have read?
  2. Other than Lo-Melkiin himself, all of the other characters remain nameless. How did this affect your reading of the story?
  3. The story is never clear on a time period or exact location. How did you imagine this land and time?
  4. There is strong emphasis on women and their often over-looked role in this world. What were your thoughts on how this book portrayed its female characters and their relationships with the men around them?
  5. There is a sequel to this book called “Spindle.” Are you interested in reading it and where do you imagine the story could go from here?

Reader’s Advisory

“A Thousand Nights” is on these Goodreads lists: “Scheherazade” and “Desert and Djinni.”

Find “A Thousand Nights” at your library using WorldCat.

Serena’s Review: “Damsel”

36260155Book: “Damsel” by Elana K. Arnold

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss

Book Description: The rite has existed for as long as anyone can remember: when the prince-who-will-be-king comes of age, he must venture out into the gray lands, slay a fierce dragon, and rescue a damsel to be his bride. This is the way things have always been.

When Ama wakes in the arms of Prince Emory, however, she knows none of this. She has no memory of what came before she was captured by the dragon, or what horrors she has faced in its lair. She knows only this handsome prince, the story he tells of her rescue, and her destiny to sit on the throne beside him. Ama comes with Emory back to the kingdom of Harding, hailed as the new princess, welcomed to the court.

However, as soon as her first night falls, she begins to realize that not all is as it seems, that there is more to the legends of the dragons and the damsels than anyone knows–and that the greatest threats to her life may not be behind her, but here, in front of her.

Review: Oof, this is going to be a tricky one. Even now, starting out this review, I’m not really sure if my thoughts and feelings on this book are fully formed. I guess we’ll just see where the words take me!

The description of this book lays out a fairly typically fantasy story: a princess is rescued from a dragon by a handsome prince. But something is not right. She doesn’t remember her time before the rescue and the prince may not be what he seems. However, this is as it always has been. Damsels being rescued, going on to be Queens and mothers of princes themselves.

Between the book description that, while fairly typical, does lay the groundwork for some type of subversion of this typical fairtyale storyline, and the beautiful, flowery cover art, I went into this book with a certain set of expectations. While I didn’t expect it to play out along typical lines (I was fairly sure that she wouldn’t end up with said prince, for example), I wasn’t prepared for the level of darkness that was introduced in this book and I do have some qualms about certain topics’ sudden appearances.

But the book did have some steady points in its favor, and I want to cover those before I get into the parts that gave me pause. For one, the writing is excellent and I immediately felt drawn into the story. Ama herself doesn’t even show up for the first few chapters and yet I was still fully invested, which speaks again to the strength of the writing. And once Ama is introduced, she was a very cheer-worthy heroine. I was immediately drawn to her story and felt the same fears, confusion, and bewilderment that she experiences. The reader, too, doesn’t know her history, so while she looks for answers, we’re right there with her. But this same attachment to her made other parts of the book incredibly hard to read.

As I said, the description sets the story up to be a subversion of the traditional tale, however, I was not prepared for how completely dark and mature some of the themes and topics became in this book. The beautiful cover, light and fluffy, also belied these dark and heavy themes. I could probably write an entire post on its own discussing my complicated feelings about trigger warnings for books (I generally feel that this idea has been taken too far given the obviousness of the fact that there are a million people out there with a million life experiences and no novel can anticipate all of their reactions to any given story), but this book does serve as an example of why some type of warning might be necessary for certain topics.

Nothing about the description, cover, or classification (YA) of this book would give an indication that this book would dive so heavily into topics that can be very hard for many readers, regardless of their age. Specifically for this book, the topic of sexual assault. And this is by no means the only dark subject matter introduced. There are some tough scenes dealing with animal cruelty and a weird moment in the end that verges on bestiality? I’m not even sure how to qualify that scene. I’m a librarian, so I am by no means saying that these topics shouldn’t appear in books or even that there is a reading level that should be maintained for exposure to them (that is between any given reader and his/her parents, depending). But I do think that more needs to be done to prep readers in what they are picking up. With its cover and light description, I could see middle grade readers thinking this would be a good read for them and then being very taken off guard with the graphic nature of the tale.

I also struggled with the ending of the story. While Ama’s own tale comes to a satisfying conclusion, it is a very brief scene that I’m not convinced fully balances out all of the awfulness that happened before. What’s more, the world that is set up is one where this type of abuse has been happening forever and is by no means limited to the Damsels, though theirs is a unique version of it. So while Ama gets her revenge in the end, there is really no resolution for the world itself and the other women living in it. This heavily dampened any feelings of satisfaction that came from her act of defiance.

In the end, while I did enjoy aspects of the book, I’m not convinced that the darker topics were completely earned or necessary (at least not as the many times they’re repeated throughout the story). And my larger concern is that the book does nothing to warn readers what they are getting when they pick it up. We all know I love dark fairytales, but if a story is going to get this dark, more needs to be done with the marketing to prep unsuspecting readers. I’m not sure what the real answer to that is, but I know that this book was shocking for me to read, and I’d hesitate to recommend it to others without giving them some fair warnings of its subject matter.

Rating 5: I have to give this book a middle-of-the-road rating. I liked Ama and the writing was strong, but the book was incredibly dark and I’m not sure its graphic nature was either necessary or resolved in the end.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Damsel” is a newer title and isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Dark Fairy Tales.”

Find “The Reluctant Queen” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Sisters of the Winter Wood”

37854049Book: “The Sisters of the Winter Wood” by Rena Rossner

Publishing Info: Redhook, September 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!

Book Description: Raised in a small village surrounded by vast forests, Liba and Laya have lived a peaceful sheltered life – even if they’ve heard of troubling times for Jews elsewhere. When their parents travel to visit their dying grandfather, the sisters are left behind in their home in the woods.

But before they leave, Liba discovers the secret that their Tati can transform into a bear, and their Mami into a swan. Perhaps, Liba realizes, the old fairy tales are true. She must guard this secret carefully, even from her beloved sister.

Soon a troupe of mysterious men appear in town and Laya falls under their spell-despite their mother’s warning to be wary of strangers. And these are not the only dangers lurking in the woods…

The sisters will need each other if they are to become the women they need to be – and save their people from the dark forces that draw closer.

Review: The book description for this title reads like an itemized list of “what Serena looks for in fantasy fiction.” Fairytale-like? Check. Sisterhood? Check. Mysterious men? Check. Add to that a gorgeous cover and requesting this book really was a no brainer. And I’m definitely glad I did, as not only were the expectations raised by the description met, but the book offered up several other unexpected surprise delights.

Much of the main plot points are lain out in the book description itself. The two sisters who are suddenly thrust into a new reality, one filled with shape-shifters and magic. The sudden absence of beloved parents. The appearance of a strange group of men. And throughout it all, the looming fear of what it truly means to be these new, strange beings who can transform into bears and swans. Who are their people? Who is their family? And who will they be once they allow this power to emerge?

I very much enjoyed the fairytale feeling that was at the heart of this story. Many elements involved, the dark woods, mysterious stranger but oddly beautiful and compelling strangers who temp with delicious, rare fruits, animal transformations, and sibling relationships, all ring for the type of tale we expect. But what made it even more exciting to read was that together as a whole, this was a completely unique tale. Reading a bit of how the author read the book, it sounds like it is partially based on some Jewish folklore, so while there were familiar pieces (remnants of “The Goblin Market” story), it felt like a breath of fresh air into a genre often  bogged down in the same stories told a million different ways.

The writing in this book completely supported this fairytale medium, deftly laid down in beautiful and lyrical strokes. On top of this, the author included a good amount of the Yiddish language within the story and dialogue. Not familiar with the language myself, I often had to take advantage of the definitions at the end of the book, but I truly appreciate the added authenticity these language choices gave the book. Rossner did not pull back and dumb down any of these choices for the unfamiliar reader and added to the feeling of immersion in this world and culture.

Further on the writing, going in, I was unaware that half of the book was written in verse. The story alternates chapters between Liba and Laya, and Laya’s portions are told through poetry. This was an interesting choice to not only diversity the type of writing but to further examine the differences between Liba and Laya. Liba, the older sister and, rather stereotypically, more responsible sister is written in very straightforward prose. She presents her experiences, thoughts and emotions clearly and without much embellishment. This further ties together towards her animal form, the bear, an Earth bound creatures that is strong and steady. Laya, on the other hand, is a being of the air and has the ability to transform into a swan, so her bits flow wildly to and fro and benefit from the stylistic choices available through poetic style.

While I liked the overall choices behind writing these characters this way, it did ultimately present a bit of a problem with how I connected with each character. I was likely always going to gravitate towards the more pragmatic Liba, but Laya was also slightly damaged for both her storyline (she’s the one to get into trouble with the mysterious strangers after, something that is obviously a terrible idea from the get go) and the fact that she simply  had much less page time being written from a poetic form. But overall, stories of sisterly bonds are always going to pull together for me, so even while I was always anxious to return to Liba’s portions of the story, Laya pulled her own weight as far as valuing her sister which ultimately endeared her to me.

There is also a good deal of history woven through the text, especially regarding the tensions that can so quickly build and the anti-semitism that can lurk below the surface even in seemingly happy secular and Jewish communities. Some of the portions of this book were rather hard to read with the challenges that Liba, Laya and her people face, but it was also a good exploration of how easily prejudices can be used to outcast an entire group of people from a home they’ve loved and built for years.

From the book description, and the fact that it is targeted towards adult audiences, I had some assumptions about this being a darker fairytale. And while there are dark elements in it, I’m not sure that that is truly the genre (or audience) that this story is geared towards. Instead, it read much more like a fantasy romance and I think would greatly appeal to YA readers, especially those who like reading poetry. But that being said, I do think all fantasy fans, especially fairytale fantasy fans, will enjoy this book.

Rating 8: A strong new entry in fairytale fiction, especially for those looking for unique tales with a heavy dose of sisterhood and romance.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sisters of the Winter Wood” is a new title so isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “Atmospheric Woods.”

Find “The Sisters of the Winter Wood” at your library using WorldCat!