Serena’s Review: “Heartstone”

31290944Book: “Heartstone” by Elle Katharine White

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, January 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: A debut historical fantasy that recasts Jane Austen’s beloved “Pride & Prejudice” in an imaginative world of wyverns, dragons, and the warriors who fight alongside them against the monsters that threaten the kingdom: gryphons, direwolves, lamias, banshees, and lindworms.

They say a Rider in possession of a good blade must be in want of a monster to slay—and Merybourne Manor has plenty of monsters.

Passionate, headstrong Aliza Bentaine knows this all too well; she’s already lost one sister to the invading gryphons. So when Lord Merybourne hires a band of Riders to hunt down the horde, Aliza is relieved her home will soon be safe again.

Her relief is short-lived. With the arrival of the haughty and handsome dragonrider, Alastair Daired, Aliza expects a battle; what she doesn’t expect is a romantic clash of wills, pitting words and wit against the pride of an ancient house. Nor does she anticipate the mystery that follows them from Merybourne Manor, its roots running deep as the foundations of the kingdom itself, where something old and dreadful slumbers . . . something far more sinister than gryphons.

Review: I keep doing it to myself, picking up books that are re-tellings of Jane Austen’s famous novels, always hoping and yet so often disappointed. But this, this, is why I do it! Every once in a blue moon an author gets it right, not feeling too beholden to the original, while also staying true to the themes and doing proper justice to the characters. I very much enjoyed “Hearstone,” both as a retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” and as an original work of fantasy fiction!

As the summary explains, only the barest of bones of the original story can be seen here. This is a different word with a different history and a different society. Fantastical beasts aren’t simply inserted into the Regency England we know from the original novels. And right off the bat this is a strength of the story. Jane Austen’s works are filled with female characters who in one way or another struggle with the limitations that dictate their lives. White does away with this aspect right away. Women not only populate this world equally, but they are active, functioning members of the world. There were many characters from the original who are gender-swapped, like Colonel Foster who becomes a female commander. This was a particularly interesting and freeing choice, I believe, as the story is laid out in a much more action-oriented manner, and White’s world allows all of her characters to play in it equally. Aliza and Anjey (the “Jane” sister) don’t simply get to know their to-be Rider beaus through balls and dancing, but by contributing to the cause to rid their land of monsters.

The story is also told from first person perspective, another change from the original. But Aliza is an entertaining and relatable leading lady. It is interesting watching her develop her opinions and prejudices from the perspective of her inner thoughts, something we don’t see from Elizabeth Bennet. Further, her change of heart as she learns the truth about Daired and grows to care for him is an interesting arc that feels news and fresh coming from this more introspective viewpoint. Daired himself is an appealing leading man. While there is no competing with Mr. Darcy, Daried’s own prejudices and points of pride make sense for the character. In some ways the fact that he manages to attach himself to Aliza based on very few interactions is both more understandable and less than Darcy’s affection for Elizabeth. The two spend more time together than Darcy/Elizabeth and in situations that would cause attachments to develop more quickly. However, as great as the Aliza is, as a character it is less obvious to see why she would stand out so much to Daired who runs into so many people throughout society. Elizabeth’s sparkly wit and uniqueness were always obvious. However, I very much enjoyed their romance, specifically the added action towards the end of the book.

As for secondary characters, it is interesting to see that White seems to have looked at Austen’s original supporting cast and essentially thought “Man, not everyone can be that obnoxious!” This, too, was a welcome change. Austen’s ability to write the ridiculous side of humanity and people is unparalleled. So rather than try to mimic it, White simply eased up on it altogether. The Mr. Collins character is still silly, but she makes him also a good man who ends up in a truly affectionate marriage. Mrs. Bentaine is still set on marrying off her daughters, but she’s also clearly a loving parent, and her insufferablness is very much cut back on. Even deplorable characters like Lady Catherine and Caroline Bingley are reformed, though still flawed. The Caroline Bingley character is a perfect example of both this more positive reimagining and the increased role that female characters play in the story, being a Rider herself alongside Daired and Brysney.

As for the world-building, I very much enjoyed how White built up her fantasy world around this classic story. Nothing felt forced, and she used the fantasy elements as motivations for the plot, not simply as window dressing to support a pre-determined system of events. All of the major plot points from the original story are inherently tied to the specific aspects of this new world.

This was one of the more enjoyable Jane Austen retellings that I can remember reading in quite a long time. If you enjoyed the originals, but also like high fantasy, I definitely recommend checking this one out!

Rating 9:

Reader’s Advisory:

“Heartstone” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on “Best Jane Austen Retellings.”

Find “Heartstone” at your library using Worldcat!

Joint Review: “Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast”

41424Book: “Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast” by Robin McKinley

Publishing Info: Harper, October 1978

Where Did We Get this Book: Serena’s owns it, and Kate borrowed it from Serena!

Book Description: Beauty has never liked her nickname. She is thin and awkward; it is her two sisters who are the beautiful ones. But what she lacks in looks, she can perhaps make up for in courage.

When her father comes home with the tale of an enchanted castle in the forest and the terrible promise he had to make to the Beast who lives there, Beauty knows she must go to the castle, a prisoner of her own free will. Her father protests that he will not let her go, but she answers, “Cannot a Beast be tamed?”

Serena’s Thoughts

I originally read this book back in highschool after finding it while browsing through my school library. What a lucky day of my life! I had read a few books by Robin McKinley before this but had somehow missed the fact that she wrote a Beauty and the Beast re-telling (she actually wrote two! Her other book is titled “Rose Daughter” and is a bit more of an adaptation of the tale than a straight re-telling like this one). Fast forward an undefined number of years and “Beauty” is one of a handful of books that I re-read almost on a yearly basis. It’s the epitome of a comfort read for me, at this point. And with that in mind, I’ve found it a bit challenging to review it here for the blog! Unpacking the book as an actual work of fiction outside of my own long history of gushing over it is tricky!

One of the most noteworthy aspects of this tale is its simplicity. There are a million and one Beauty and the Beast adaptations, and they all approach the tale differently with unique additions to the tale and versions of the main characters. What makes “Beauty” stand out is the fact that it really isn’t providing anything extra to the tale: if you could have a novel-length version of the fairy tale itself, no bells or whistles added, this would be it. The tale unfolds in a very familiar way, broken into three parts essentially. There is Beauty’s life through her family’s fall from wealth, then her time adapting to a more simple life and hearing tales about a mysterious woods that one days hits too close to home with her father’s unlucky trip to a strange castle, and then the final third, Beauty’s time in the castle itself, falling in love with a Beast.

I particularly appreciate the fact that McKinley doesn’t rush the first half of this novel. As anxious as I am (and I’m sure many readers as well) to get to the meat of the story, Beauty and the Beast’s love story, this initial build up is important for setting up Beauty as a three dimensional character. We need time to understand Beauty herself, and to grow to love her family as well so that her sacrifice, when it comes, to leave them forever has the emotional weight it deserves.

Due to this greater fleshing out of the beginning of the story, Beauty’s family all get a lot more page time. The sisters, particularly, become their own characters with their own struggles. And, luckily, they are treated much more kindly by McKinley than sisters often fare in fairy tales being neither catty nor selfish.

But, of course, the true joy of the story does indeed come in its second half when Beauty begins her new life at the castle and meets the Beast. Here lies the true brilliance of the story. Under less sure hands we have seen too many incantations of the Beast where he can fall into many character traps, like the overly angsty Beast, or, most likely, the “anger issues are sexy” Beast. The Beast in this story is perfect as a strange, romantic hero. The tragedy of his story and life up to this point is the primary emotion that is brought to the forefront. And it is this sympathy for him upon which Beauty begins to build her feelings. But, even more importantly, McKinley allows her characters to travel the full of arc of a burgeoning relationship. Each are wary of the other (Beauty, for obvious reasons, and the Beast due to the vulnerability he must show to grow close to another human after so long), then through small moments and risks on each character’s part, a friendship develops, and only from there do we begin to see the romance come. McKinley never stumbles in this progression, and its this sure-handedness that makes the story and Beauty and the Beast’s relationship so beautiful and believable.

Re-reading this book for the millionth time, and especially with the new movie on my mind, it strikes me that the original Disney movie might have needed to credit this book for parts of their story. I mean, really, there’s even mention of a dog-like footstool! And this was written before that movie!! Perhaps a questionable lack of attribution on Disney’s part…

Kate’s Thoughts

So I had never actually read “Beauty” until I was at Serena’s house awhile back, and she literally thrust her copy of the book into my hands. I had only read “Sunshine” by Robin McKinley before then, though I had some familiarity with her other works because my mother really likes the “Damar” series. I, too, am a huge fan of the story of “Beauty and the Beast”, as the Disney movie is my favorite Disney movie of all time, and I’ve always enjoyed the fairy tale. Hell, in college I wrote a paper about the symbolism of the Beast in regards to sex and growing up. So yes, Serena was right to toss this my way with the command of ‘read it, read it now’.

I think that the biggest thing that strikes me about this book is that McKinley is very careful to flesh out all of the characters, from Beauty to her sisters to the Beast. While some fairy tales function more on tropes and common themes, McKinley takes these kind of stock characters and explores them a bit more. I was especially happy, like Serena was, that Beauty’s sisters Grace and Hope were also kind and empathetic people. I was worried that there was going to be some of the usual ‘only one girl can be the good one’ malarky, but this book is really kind to it’s female characters. Beauty herself was a wonderful surprise as well, as she is good and kind but has her own weaknesses and is not perfect. I felt a lot of love from her family, which is so rare in so many fairy tales. Seeing them going from wealth to near poverty was a really neat take, giving the story more motivation for the Father to go off, and more motivation for Beauty to make the sacrifices that she ends up making. And I will admit that I was also invested in the love story that befalls upon Grace, who is longing for a long lost love to return to her, even if the odds aren’t in her favor.

And like Serena, I also liked the parts with the Beast and how their relationship progresses. The Beast never really comes off as an actual threat to Beauty, which is a difficult line to treat with this story. I know that a lot of people compare this fairy tale to Stockholm Syndrome (I have a lot of opinions as to why this is incorrect, but that’s another rant for another day), but in “Beauty” it felt more like a mutual understanding between Beauty and the Beast instead of a captive situation. I feel like this gives Beauty the credit she deserves, and it doesn’t let any critiques turn her into a victim in spite of her obvious agency. Her relationship with the Beast is tentative, then sweet, and it was nice seeing them progress and learn about each other.

I think that the best part about this book is that it’s really just fluffy and pure escapism, which sometimes we really just need. There isn’t any unnecessary drama or nonsense, and you know that you’re going to get a happy ending. But even if the ending is guaranteed to be happy, McKinley does a great job of keeping you interested in the journey to happily ever after. If you are a fan of “Beauty and the Beast”, this is definitely a book that you should be picking up. Do yourself this favor!!!

Serena’s Rating 10: My absolute favorite fairy tale re-telling of all!

Kate’s Rating 10: An absolutely lovely retelling of one of my very favorite fairy tales.

Book Club Questions:

  1. Which telling of “Beauty and the Beast” are you most familiar with? What differences were there between this book and the story you’re familiar with?
  2. In many fairy tales, the family members of the hero or heroine are cruel and evil people, but in “Beauty” Beauty’s sisters are lovely and kind. What did you think of that?
  3. We also get to learn a lot about Beauty’s family life well before she meets The Beast. How did you feel about this part of the story? Did it add to the experience?
  4. What did you think about the progression of Beauty’s relationship with The Beast?
  5. What other fairy tale retellings have you read, and which are your favorites?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast” is on these Goodreads lists: “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Best Fairytales and Retellings.”

Find “Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Wintersong”

24763621Book: “Wintersong” by S. Jae-Jones

Publishing Info: Thomas Dunne, February 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: ebook ARC from NetGalley

Book Description: All her life, nineteen-year-old Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, mysterious Goblin King. He is the Lord of Mischief, the Ruler Underground, and the muse around which her music is composed. Yet, as Liesl helps shoulder the burden of running her family’s inn, her dreams of composition and childish fancies about the Goblin King must be set aside in favor of more practical concerns.

But when her sister Käthe is taken by the goblins, Liesl journeys to their realm to rescue her sister and return her to the world above. The Goblin King agrees to let Käthe go—for a price. The life of a maiden must be given to the land, in accordance with the old laws. A life for a life, he says. Without sacrifice, nothing good can grow. Without death, there can be no rebirth. In exchange for her sister’s freedom, Liesl offers her hand in marriage to the Goblin King. He accepts.

Down in the Underground, Liesl discovers that the Goblin King still inspires her—musically, physically, emotionally. Yet even as her talent blossoms, Liesl’s life is slowly fading away, the price she paid for becoming the Goblin King’s bride. As the two of them grow closer, they must learn just what it is they are each willing to sacrifice: her life, her music, or the end of the world.

Review: This book has been marketed as a good read for fans of “Labyrinth,” and while I’m familiar with the movie, I wouldn’t say that I’m a die hard fan by any means. I think I’ve only seen it once? But from what I remember, this book description does seems very close to that story. Perhaps too close? I have read several iterations of the “Goblin King” fairytale, however, and have had a hit or miss run of them. But I’m always intrigued by the basic arc and curious to see what new twists each author will bring to a fairly established story. However, while “Wintersong” is written beautifully, after reading it I wouldn’t list it as one of my top choices for this type of story.

Basically, this story can be split into two halves. The first deals with Liesl’s mission to save her beloved sister Kathe from the clutches of the Goblin King who has stolen her away. For the most part, I very much enjoyed this first half of the book. Liesl’s relationship with her sister is realistically complicated, based in both deep familial love but also challenged by Liesl’s jealously of the perfection she attributes to her sister based on her beauty. While this strained relationship could at times leave Liesl looking a bit selfish and self-centered, I felt like it also tapped into the true undercurrents that develop in many sibling relationships. And the fact that beneath it all Liesl would do anything, even sacrifice herself, to save her sister properly orients both her character and the sisters’ relationship as a positive one.

The second half of the story is where it goes a bit off the rails for me. This is kind of surprising, because as much as I loved the first half, I always knew where the meat of this story would lie: Liesl’s time spent as the wife of the Goblin King. And typically, this is the part of these types of stories that I enjoy the most. That said, it is also the most challenging to write as now the Goblin King must be developed to have more layers beyond villainy and the complicated relationship between him and his stolen bride must be more fully fleshed out.

And while there were elements of this half of the story I did enjoy, I also felt like the novel became a bit confused about what it was trying to do and say. Honestly, it almost feels as if this book would have done better if it had been marketed as an adult fantasy novel. Being pushed into YA territory leaves the physical aspects of the two’s relationship rather strained and almost working against the author’s arc of self-discovery for Liesl. It just felt odd at times.

The Goblin King’s transformation into a tragic, romantic hero also felt like something we have seen too often before. And while that isn’t always a fault (as I said, I’ve read many of these types of novels), this book’s descriptions of him at times seem to take its own angst and oh so tragic beauty too seriously. The lyricism of the novel that serves the story so well in its world building and descriptions of music, begins to feel a bit empty and cliche when it comes to their romantic relationship.

At this point in the review, I would say the book was coming in at a solid 5. I liked the first half, didn’t really like the second half, so a very middle of the road read. However, I won’t spoil it, but I was very disappointed with the end of the novel. I understand what the author was trying to do. However, there are too many questions left unanswered, and, again, the beautiful tragedy of it all seemed to be taking itself too seriously for the type of book this is. I hear there is a sequel in the works, and I do not appreciate books that leave cliff hangers that require readers to continue to get any sense of resolution. Sure, leave the door open and set the stage, but end it in a way that is still satisfying if readers don’t want to continue. So yes, I was unhappy with the end of the book. It may work for some, but it didn’t for me, hence the extra drop in my rating of it.

Serena’s Review and Giveaway: “A Conjuring of Light”

29939230Book: “A Conjuring of Light” by V.E. Schwab

Publishing Info: Tor Books, February 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: I bought it! (And an extra for this giveaway, since, let’s be real: I’m keeping mine!)

Book Description: Londons fall and kingdoms rise while darkness sweeps the Maresh Empire—and the fraught balance of magic blossoms into dangerous territory while heroes and foes struggle alike. The direct sequel to “A Gathering of Shadows,” and the final book in the Shades of Magic epic fantasy series, “A Conjuring of Light” sees Schwab reach a thrilling culmination concerning the fate of beloved protagonists—and old enemies.

Review: While I should have felt completely confident after Schwab nailed the always-challenging middle book of a series, the final book is really what a series lives and dies on and…and…nothing bad must happen to my lovelies, Lila, Kell, and Rhy! And, while bad things do happen in this book (narrative-wise, not quality-wise, thank god), as a closing chapter for the trilogy, “A Conjuring of Light” was everything I wanted and many things I didn’t know I even DID want!

I was lucky enough to have gotten around to “A Gathering of Shadows” only a week or so before this book came out. So I only had to live with that killer cliffhanger for a few days before I rushed out to my local bookstore and purchased this book. I feel true and deep pity for all the other readers out there who had to struggle with it for a whole year! With my approach, and the fact that this book takes off exactly where the previous one leaves off (Lila rushing to Kell’s rescue AGAIN, and Rhy sinking into death-remission), this almost felt like the very long second half of the story that was started in the second book.

The pacing of this book is essentially action-packed from the get go with a few, very few, breaks often in the form of flash back sequences. As the personified dark magic seeps into Kell’s world, the true magnitude of the disaster that our heroes are up against begins to take form. The stakes are impossibly high, and from the beginning it was clear that any hope of winning wasn’t going to come without a steep cost. While the second book highlighted what magic can do as it was put on show during the international competition, this book shows its limitations, especially at the hands of the fragile human magicians with their limited capacity to channel it. The fancy flourishes and tricks prove to be much too little against the seemingly unstoppable force that is the Shadow King.

This book also can be split into two parts. The seemingly futile disaster overtaking Red London, and then a jaunty ship journey, complete with Sea Serpents! If it sounds like those two things wouldn’t mix well, you’d be wrong. And in many ways, this second half of the book was my favorite. It was essentially an odd company adventure romp featuring my favorite characters: Lila, Kell, Alucard, and, bizarrely, Holland.

Lila is, and will always be, my favorite character. And while much of her growth took place in the second novel, we see her really come into her own in this book, recognizing the benefit of staying put every once in a while and the strength to be gained from relationships with others, even with the risk of loss.

Kell, too, was much more filled out coming off the second novel, so his arc was also more limited to simply overcoming this great nemesis. However, there was some interesting nuance added to his relationship with the royal parents, and his relationship with Rhy continues to by my favorite portrayal of brotherhood on page.

And, obviously, Lila and Kell now together….my heart!

The more surprising character arcs came for both Alucard and Holland. With both, but especially with Holland, we are given a much clearer look into their past through flashbacks. Alucard’s story highlights the fact that Red London, as advanced as it is, does struggle with similar prejudices as our own world, a fact that he suffers for greatly.

And Holland. His story came out of left field! While the first book does a good job setting him up as more than a simple villain, this is where we finally see behind the mask and are witness to the complete and utter tragedy that has been his life. Honestly, after seeing it all, Holland turns out to be the strongest character of them all, even given the fact that they largely wouldn’t even be in this whole “Shadow King” mess had it not been for him.

I’ve already written a bunch and I still feel like I’ve barely skimmed the surface of what’s to love about this book and series as a whole. I honestly can’t recommend it enough for fans of fantasy. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a trilogy that feels so perfect in every way. In this case, even the most wild and outlandish praise is well deserved.

Rating 10: A perfect 10 for the whole trilogy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Conjuring of Light” is newly released and thus not on many Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Fantasy/SF Atlas–London” and “Magic, Adventure, Romance.”

Find “A Conjuring of Light” at your library using Worldcat!

But wait! There’s more! If somehow you have managed to resist instantly purchasing this for yourself, never fear, I am hosting a giveaway for a hardcover edition of “A Conjuring of Light!”

EDIT: I failed to update the “comment on the blog” question for the giveaway! So instead of favorite murder mystery (darn you, Kate, and your murder mysteries and my own ineptitude when recycling your work!), what is your favorite fantasy novel that was published in the last year?

Click here to enter the giveaway!

Serena’s Review: “A Gathering of Shadows”

20764879Book: “A Gathering of Shadows” by V. E. Schwab

Publishing Info: Tor Books, February 2016

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

Book Description: It has been four months since a mysterious obsidian stone fell into Kell’s possession. Four months since his path crossed with Delilah Bard. Four months since Prince Rhy was wounded, and since the nefarious Dane twins of White London fell, and four months since the stone was cast with Holland’s dying body through the rift–back into Black London.

Now, restless after having given up his smuggling habit, Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila, who disappeared from the docks as she always meant to do. As Red London finalizes preparations for the Element Games–an extravagant international competition of magic meant to entertain and keep healthy the ties between neighboring countries–a certain pirate ship draws closer, carrying old friends back into port.

And while Red London is caught up in the pageantry and thrills of the Games, another London is coming back to life. After all, a shadow that was gone in the night will reappear in the morning. But the balance of magic is ever perilous, and for one city to flourish, another London must fall.

Review: After the high that was “A Darker Shade of Magic,” I went into “A Gathering of Shadows” with extremely high expectations. And without any ado, this book more than met those!

Second books in a trilogy are a beast. The stage has been set, the characters established, but the grand finale must be held off. Too many series experience the “second book slump” when these delicate balances can’t be met. Often these books come across as filler, so busy holding back that they never present a story of their own. “A Conjuring of Light” shows how you do a second novel right.

The story itself is simple yet effective. Schwab builds her narrative around an Olympics-like competition of magicians that will be held in Red London, using it as a support on which to overlay the character development of Kell and Lila.

Kell is struggling with his new reality, his life forced tied to Rhy’s. With any harm that is done to him affecting Rhy as well, his freedom has been greatly limited by a King and Queen who fear for their son and heir’s life. Further, while Kell struggled with the awe with which the city’s populace viewed him before, after the devastation left in the Black London artifact’s wake, hero worship has shifted to general fear and distrust. Sensing this growing restlessness and unhappiness, Rhy concocts a scheme for Kell to enter the Games in disguise.

Lila, on the other hand, is living her dream. Through a series of flashbacks, we see the way she managed to con her way onto a pirate ship and slowly ingratiate herself with the charming captain and powerful magician, Alucard Emery. She has also slowly been training as a magician and in true “Lila” style has decided that nothing will due but to also enter the Games as a disguised contestant. Her sheer brazenness and over-confidence is unfailingly charming!

While one of my favorite aspects of the first novel was the report that was built up between Kell and Lila, I found myself equally enjoying this extended period of separation. Schwab drew out the tension, ratcheting up reader’s expectations higher and higher, as she had her two main characters circle closer and closer to one other through their experiences in the Games before finally, and satisfyingly, clashing together towards the final third of the novel.

Through Lila’s lessons with Alucard and the Games themselves, Schwab also greatly expands her magical system. While we heard a lot about elemental magic in the first book, we were largely only exposed to Kell’s specific brand of blood magic. Here, however, the full force of what can be done with elemental magic is on display, and it was fascinating!

Behind the scenes, we also begin to see the stage being set for the grand final conflict to come in the last book. Holland, our favorite Antari villain from the first book, has survived and the Black London magic is yet again in play.

As I said, this book seemed to hit all of the marks as as second novel. Schwab carefully uses this book to add layers to her main characters and give them all room to grow and react to the happenings of the first book (we also get more of Rhy in this story, which I loved). The main story arc advances very little, but the Games serve as an architectural framework upon which to hang this character development, provide action, and expand an existing magic system. And behind it all, the building blocks are slotted in place for the final story.

A warning: this book ends on a massive, MASSIVE, cliffhanger. But despair not! The final book is out, and I will have a review for that up on Friday along with a giveaway!

Rating 10: A rare thing indeed, a sequel that meets the same high rating as its predecessor!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Gathering of Shadows” is included on these Goodreads lists: Thieves and “YA Books with Parallel Universes” (though this book is not a YA title, officially).

Find “A Gathering of Shadows” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “RoseBlood”

While I make an effort to complete most books I read, every once in a while I come upon one  that I just can’t get through. When I find myself repeatedly putting down a book to the point that attempting to finish it is taking up weeks of my time, I sometimes come to the conclusion that a book is a book, not a life and death contract to read until completion. There are too many books in the world that I will never get to to spends days on end trying to finish a book that I already know will not be my cup of tea. Sadly, one such of these books came across my desk recently.

28818314Books: “RoseBlood” by A.G. Howard

Publishing Info: Amulet Books, January 2017

Where Did I Get these Books: the library!

Book Description: In this modern day spin on Leroux’s gothic tale of unrequited love turned to madness, seventeen-year-old Rune Germain has a mysterious affliction linked to her operatic talent, and a horrifying mistake she’s trying to hide. Hoping creative direction will help her, Rune’s mother sends her to a French arts conservatory for her senior year, located in an opera house rumored to have ties to The Phantom of the Opera.

At RoseBlood, Rune secretly befriends the masked Thorn—an elusive violinist who not only guides her musical transformation through dreams that seem more real than reality itself, but somehow knows who she is behind her own masks. As the two discover an otherworldly connection and a soul-deep romance blossoms, Thorn’s dark agenda comes to light and he’s forced to make a deadly choice: lead Rune to her destruction, or face the wrath of the phantom who has haunted the opera house for a century, and is the only father he’s ever known.

There will be spoilers in this post!

Review: I included this book as one of my highlights in January’s post and even there I expressed nervousness going in. The expectation game plays a large part in books like this. I love everything “Phantom of the Opera,” so this being the case I have a critical eye for stories related to it. And while this was definitely part of my struggle with “RoseBlood,” it was combined with some other flaws to the point that I put it down about two thirds of the way through.

This book tries to do two things with “Phantom of the Opera:” present a sequel while also re-telling the classic tale in the modern day featuring our two teen protagonists. As a sequel, nothing about this book worked for me. Perhaps if had simply been a retelling I could have gotten on board, but as a sequel, the author wrote herself into a corner where she had to re-create and “modernize” the Phantom himself while also providing backstory into the original story that would make it fit with her new version. So the Phantom, Erik, becomes a…wait for it…psychic vampire whose method of feeding is siphoning off the emotions of others. And the way he does that is…wait for it…owning a rave where he shows the audience his face nightly and feeds off their fear. Yes. This is a real thing the book does. I can barely take it seriously enough to type it out.

Next, the author creates a paranormal “soulmates” device (but she calls them “twin flames” because apparently she can’t take the term “soulmate” seriously, but somehow “twin flames” is a more acceptable term?) where not only are our main characters “twin flames,” but so were Erik and Christine in the original story. Only she wasn’t “mature” enough to understand the deep love and soul connection she shared with the Phantom. So, now beyond the ridiculousness factor of psychic vampires who own raves, we’ve got a backstory that completely misses the message of deep tragedy in the original and throws Christine under the bus. The relationship between Christine and the Phantom was never a healthy one, and that was the whole point. Erik’s life was one of such deep tragedy that he was broken as a person, not knowing how to express real love for another or how to exist in society. At no point should Christine have ever stayed with him, and to paint her as an immature character who threw away true love does a huge disservice to the character and to the message of the original story.

So those were my concerns with this book as far as it goes as an adaptation of “Phantom of the Opera.” While I can’t say whether or not I would have continued reading had these been my only stumbling blocks, the fact that the novel as a whole reads as a “paint by numbers” YA fantasy was the final nail in the coffin of my ability to complete it.

In other reviews I’ve discussed some of the over-used tropes that can be found in YA fantasy that now feel so tired that they need to be shelved immediately. But this book manages to hit every single one of them, reading almost like a “Twilight” rip-off with only the aforementioned “Phantom” tie-ins differentiating it.

We have a main character with a ridiculous name who is gorgeous and has a special talent that she was born with but can’t control. She goes to a school that she hates (though it’s in Paris and full of rich, beautiful people), and immediately, through no effort of her own, becomes friends with everyone. The popular girls of school also immediately dislike her because they envy her beauty and talent. She meets a mysterious boy who wears a mask even though he, too, is incredibly good looking (this also felt like a very poor use of a “Phantom” tie-in, again missing the point of original that beauty is found beyond one’s face). She discovers they are soulmates, and they immediately fall in love (no stakes in the relationship, no growing to know, appreciate, and love each other, they’re just “destined”). Powers, magic, an attempt on her life. The end. There was just nothing there.

The unique aspects of this story were the connections to the original, and after they were used so poorly, there was nothing left to grab on to. The fact that the book was also over-written and overwrought with pages upon pages of flowery, descriptive language just really killed any interest I had in the story.

Now look, we here at The Library Ladies try to always include positives. And the positive for this is if you are a reader who truly enjoys the formula I described above, then this book will be great for you. And that’s fine! But, for me, nothing about this story worked. And while there are clearly readers who still enjoy this type of story, I also sincerely hope that we begin to move beyond these overly tired YA fantasy staples. They have been so over-used that they almost feel like a parody of themselves at this point. YA fantasy can do (and be) better.

Rating: DNF

Reader’s Advisory:

“RoseBlood” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Retellings of Classic Novels for Children and YA”and “Phantom of the Opera.”

Find “RoseBlood” at your library using Worldcat!

 

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”