Serena’s Review: “Throne of Jade”

14069Book: “Throne of Jade” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, April 2006

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

Book Description: When Britain intercepted a French ship and its precious cargo–an unhatched dragon’s egg–Capt. Will Laurence of HMS Reliant unexpectedly became master and commander of the noble dragon he named Temeraire. As new recruits in Britain’s Aerial Corps, man and dragon soon proved their mettle in daring combat against Bonaparte’s invading forces.

Now China has discovered that its rare gift, intended for Napoleon, has fallen into British hands–and an angry Chinese delegation vows to reclaim the remarkable beast. But Laurence refuses to cooperate. Facing the gallows for his defiance, Laurence has no choice but to accompany Temeraire back to the Far East–a long voyage fraught with peril, intrigue, and the untold terrors of the deep. Yet once the pair reaches the court of the Chinese emperor, even more shocking discoveries and darker dangers await.

Previously Reviewed: “His Majesty’s Dragon”

Review: After discovering the absolute joy that was “Hi Majesty’s Dragon,” it was all I could do to wedge in “The Loneliest Girl in the Universe” before going straight to the next on in this series. Already, this series feels like a comfort read, where I know what I’m going to get, to a good extent, and I’m there for it. I can just relax back and enjoy.

At the end of the last book, Temeraire and Laurence discovered that, while they always knew Temeraire was special, he was even more unique than they had thought: a rare Celestial dragon of the sort to only partner with Chinese royalty. His egg had been meant as a gift for Napoleon, but now that they have realized the error, a delegation has been sent to express their insistence that Temeraire be parted from Laurence and returned to China. Refusing to be parted, both dragon and captain must now set off on the long sea voyage across the world. And once arriving at their destination, both are shocked to realize that perhaps there is more to dragon-human relations than they had presumed.

In some ways, I was just as surprised by this book as I had been by the first. In the first, I had expected a lot more military action and was surprised to find such an intense focus on characterization, especially the building relationship between Laurence and Temeraire. But then in the end, we got that great battle scene where Temeraire’s “super power” essentially came to light and I thought “Ok, now we’re going to move into the military action series I had been expecting!” And then I started this book and found…a long sea voyage with political espionage as the main action of the story.

But, as I said, my expectations not being met just turned into yet another delightful surprise once again! I loved the sea voyage. There were a lot of little episodic moments sprinkled throughout that had to deal with Great Britain’s relationship to the slave trade, the relationships between the various military arms (navy vs aerial), cultural distinctions that don’t translate well between countries, and even sea monsters! And many of these domains were made all the more interesting being seen and discussed through the very different eyes of Laurence and Temeraire. Laurence must confront his own assumptions and prejudices, and Temeraire must work through his understanding of humanity, especially as it deals with dragons.

Like Laurence and Temeraire, the reader so far has only been presented with Great Britain’s approach to dragons. While in the previous book Laurence had already challenged a lot of the obvious negatives that popped up, throughout this book, we learn more and more about the true limitations of the Western approach. It was fascinating to explore the cultural differences in how dragons exist in each of these societies.

I also liked the added wrinkle this added to Laurence and Temeraire’s relationship. Temeraire is rightly curious about the country of his origin. And, like I said, he had already been asking questions regarding the limitations and prejudices put upon dragon-kind back in Great Britain, so he is all the more fascinated and intrigued by the freedoms and independence offered in Chinese society. From Laurence’s side of things, however, he also sees a great country in China, but one that has also treated poorly with his beloved Great Britain, and specifically himself and Temeraire. From the comfort and surety of the relationship that was built up in the first book, this one offers challenge upon challenge to both Temeraire and Laurence. Who needs tons of action when you’re on the edge of your seat with worry about how your precious dragon/captain pair are going to make it through this all??

Given the nature of the story and the need to keep some of the mysteries held close until the end of the book, this did read a bit slower than the first. I was fine with it, however, as, like I said, I’m mostly here for the relationship between Temeraire and Laurence. But if you go into this one expecting an uptick in the military action, you’ll probably be disappointed. However, I do feel like there were a healthy number of action scenes that were perfectly sprinkled throughout the story, so I feel like this is only the most nit-picky of nit-picks. If you enjoyed the fist book in this series, I’m sure you’ll love this one too!

Rating 8: An excellent sequel, all the better for once again offering a surprise in the overall direction the series is taking.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Throne of Jade” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Non-Western Speculative Fiction” and “Historical Military Adventure.”

Find “Throne of Jade” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Unbound Empire”

40618519Book: “The Unbound Empire” by Melissa Caruso

Publishing Info: Orbit, April 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Book Description: While winter snows keep the Witch Lord Ruven’s invading armies at bay, Lady Amalia Cornaro and the fire warlock Zaira attempt to change the fate of mages in the Raverran Empire forever, earning the enmity of those in power who will do anything to keep all magic under tight imperial control. But in the season of the Serene City’s great masquerade, Ruven executes a devastating surprise strike at the heart of the Empire – and at everything Amalia holds most dear.

To stand a chance of defeating Ruven, Amalia and Zaira must face their worst nightmares, expose their deepest secrets, and unleash Zaira’s most devastating fire.

Previously Reviewed: “The Tethered Mage” and “The Defiant Heir”

Review: I have loved this series from the get-go, so it was with very mixed emotions that I picked up and started this book. On one hand, I was dying to know how everything would be wrapped up in one, admittedly long, book. And on the other hand, I didn’t want it to end and had some concerns about whether it would stick the landing. The last book really does make or break a series, and while so far the books have only gotten better and better…you just never know. Luckily, this was a solid landing, and now I’ll just have to wait to see what the author has up her sleeve for a next book/series!

Amalia is coming into her own, heading up her first political action with the introduction of a new law that would grant the magic-wielding Falcons unprecedented freedoms. On top of this all, she is still balancing her complicated feelings for Captain Marcello and the witch-lord Kathe, whom she has been courting for months now. Add to that the mad witch-lord Ruven who is making increasing threats to the Empire and may finally push things to the point where Amalia and Zaira will have to confront the harsh reality of using Zaira’s balefire in combat. But nothing is too great a challenge for a Cornaro. Or is it?

What makes this series special has been the sheer number of points of interest and enjoyment that have pulled me in throughout story. Not only have I enjoyed Amalia as a main character, but I’ve loved her relationship with Zaira. The balance between political and military action has always been on point. The romance has gone in unexpected directions, somehow avoiding gaping pitfalls that many series fall into. And throughout it all, the story tackles larger questions regarding duty, loyalty, and the balance between freedom and safety. This book continued to deliver in all of these areas.

To start with characters (because we all know how much I love character-driven stories), Amalia and Zaira have traversed quite a journey throughout this trilogy and we see the dividends of this slowly built relationship pay off big time in this book. On their own, they are each excellent characters. Amalia’s sense of duty and her clear-eyed vision of her role in the world and the privileges, sacrifices, and burdens that come with it has never been more clear. She is so blessedly free of angst regarding this all. She sees the true dangers of her role (the hardening of one’s heart that comes with making life and death decisions), but doesn’t get caught up in any self-pity or dramatic indecision of the kind that we see all too often from YA protagonists. Zaira, too, is still her prickly self. However, she’s also come to value the relationships she’s built with those around her, and with these connections, she sees her own role in the Empire in a different light. She is still terrified of her balefire and its seeming control over her, but now, with people she loves in danger, she’s willing to risk herself in a way that would never have been true of the self-focused Zaira from the first book.

And together, Amalia and Zaira have come so far. They don’t where BFF bracelets or anything, but the respect and genuine love and friendship between them feels earned and true after the struggles of the first two books. And it’s only through that slow-growth that the almost impossible choices they must face in this book can be believable.

Ruven is also an excellent villain. Not only is he fun to hate, but he is actually given a bit more depth to make him, well, not relatable, but a bit more understandable. And his abilities are legitimately challenging to the point that a way through the threat he presents is never quite clear until the very end, and even then readers are left on the edge of their seat.

And then, of course, we have the romance. In the second book, the author somehow managed to introduce a love triangle that I didn’t hate. I honestly didn’t think this was possible. Much of it comes down to, again, Amalia and her dramatic-free, pragmatic approach to her life and the requirements that come with it. It is believable that she would have feelings for both Kathe and Marcello, and that these feelings could exist at the same time and still be wholly separate from each other. I was incredibly nervous to see how this would ultimately play out, and I was so pleased to find that the resolution presented felt natural and satisfactory. I guess this goes to show that even the most hated tropes don’t always hold true!

This is a long book, however, and it is this length that forces me to drop it down from a perfect 10. There’s a bunch of story here, and it’s not that I was bored at any point. However, especially in the beginning with the ins and outs of Amalia’s political actions to get her Falcon bill approved, there were a few points where I feel like a bit of editing could have been done to streamline the story. When there are all of these greater factors swirling around, this beginning portion almost felt like it was from a different book at times. But not a bad book, even then! Just a different one.

Other than that small, very tiny quibble, I absolutely loved this book and this series as a whole! I so hope that it gets all the attention that it so rightly deserves, and if you haven’t read any of these books yet, just you wait! You have an excellent ride ahead of you!

Rating 9: Perfectly sticks the landing in what turned into one of my favorite trilogies to read in a long time!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Unbound Empire” is a new book so isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Best Political Fantasy.”

Find “The Unbound Empire” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Through the White Wood”

39735900Book: “Through the White Wood” by Jessica Leake

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, April 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Katya’s power to freeze anything she touches has made her an outcast in her isolated village. And when she loses control of her ability, accidentally killing several villagers, she is banished to the palace of the terrifying Prince Sasha in Kiev.

At the castle, though, she is surprised to find that Sasha is just like her—with his own strange talent, the ability to summon fire. Instead of punishment, Sasha offers Katya friendship, and the chance to embrace her power rather than fear it.

But outside the walls of Kiev, Sasha’s enemies have organized their own army of people who can control the very earth. Bent on taking over the entire world, they won’t stop until they’ve destroyed everything.

Katya and Sasha are desperate to stop the encroaching army, and together their powers are a fearsome weapon. But as their enemies draw nearer, leaving destruction in their wake, will fire and frost be enough to save the world? Or will they lose everything they hold dear?

Review: I’ve had some good luck recently with Russian-based fairytale/fantasy novels. Plus, I’m always on the look out for a good standalone as I have way too many series I’m currently invested in. It’s a problem. All of that plus a pretty cover, and I was quick to place a request to read an early coy of this. Ultimately, however, it didn’t live up to all of the expectations I had placed on it.

Katya’s life has been one of fear and isolation, except by the elderly couple who has raised her. One night, her worst fears are realized when she releases her incredible power over ice with horribly destructive results. But her banishment turns out nothing like she had imagined. Instead of punishment, she finds more of her kind, people with incredible powers over elements. Even the Prince of Kiev whose own power over fire seems to perfectly balance her own. Now, not only has she found a place of acceptance, but she finds herself drawn into a greater conflict where her rare abilities may be the turning point that saves her entire nation.

As a pro for this book, the greatest thing that stood out to be was the commitment to the darkness at the heart of Katya’s story and the true danger of her powers. This isn’t just Elsa from “Frozen.” People die when Katya loses control. The original incident that results in her banishment is rightly horrifying, and while yes, she is definitely provoked into it, we see how terrible the results are, not only for the villagers but for Katya herself, as at this point in time, she only has limited control of how her abilities manifest. Then, further into the story, when we begin to hear about the larger threats against the country itself, these incidents aren’t left as purely stories of terrible things happening elsewhere to other people. Again, we see the results of these attacks, and it has a direct impact on Katya and her story. I really appreciated that the author made not only the dangers of Katya’s powers, but the villains themselves, feel more real by raising the stakes in this way.

But other than that, this book simply felt too standard to spark my real interest. Even trying to type out that summary above was a struggle because it just sounds so similar to so, so many stories that are just like it. Ice powers, fire powers, what have you. A book about a teenage girl who has some incredible power, is misunderstood, and then turns out to be the “chosen one” essentially to save a nation? Been there, seen that. Add in a love story with, of course, the prince, and you have pretty much checked off every requirement for the base model of YA fantasy novels.

Katya herself could be incredibly frustrating at times, especially early in the story. Yes, her initial confusion about what is going on and what her role is in everything makes sense. But as the story continues, she bizarrely flips back and forth between being trusting of and then suddenly antagonistic against those around her. And there is never any clear instigating factor behind the switch. It never read as a natural reaction to events happening around her, and instead felt like authorial intervention to add drama.

I also hated the romance. It was a terrible case of instalove where I couldn’t see any true chemistry built between the characters and it happened incredibly fast, especially on Sasha’s side. While Katya is going through her little song and dance of “I like him! I don’t trust him! But he’s great! But no, I must be opposed to him!” Sasha was pretty fully invested in Katya from the start. But…why? Again, no reason is actually presented in the book. We’re simply told that this is how it is.

There was nothing truly bad about this book. But there was also nothing that made it stand out to me. The story felt incredibly familiar. The characters seemed to be just going through the motions that we expect from YA fantasy. And the entire read felt slow and plodding, except for a few instances of action thrown in here and there. I can’t even say the idea behind the book was exceptional, as, like I said, it felt very familiar to many other fantasy YA stories featuring powered young women. If you really love those stories, this is more of the same, and you’ll probably like it. But if you’re looking for a new take on things, this isn’t it.

Rating 6: Pretty much exactly what you’d expect after reading the book description. No surprises here, and that was a bad thing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Through the White Wood” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “2019 Must Read Fantasy.”

Find “Through the White Wood” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Aquicorn Cove”

36482829Book: “Aquicorn Cove” by Katie O’Neill

Publishing Info: Oni Press, October 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: When Lana and her father return to their seaside hometown to help clear the debris of a storm, the last thing she expects is to discover a colony of Aquicorns—magical seahorse-like residents of the coral reef. As she explores the damaged town and the fabled undersea palace, Lana learns that while she cannot always count on adults to be the guardians she needs, she herself is capable of finding the strength to protect both the ocean, and her own happiness.

Review: When I saw that Katie O’Neill had another graphic novel coming out, I knew, I KNEW, that I had to read it. I loved “The Tea Dragon Society” so very much, and gentle and vibrant cuteness was something that I was needing after a stressful couple of weeks. While aquatic mythical creatures may not catch my attention as much as dragons do (unless it’s a sea serpent, as those are basically water dragons if we’re being honest), the cover alone had me screeching with joy. A girl riding some kind of weird water unicorn Pegasus thing?!

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The contrast of this with the horror graphics on my stack was striking. (source)

But the thing that I noticed about “Aquicorn Cove” from the get go is that there is a far more bittersweet undercurrent running through this story than there was with “The Tea Dragon Society”. While the imagery is just as cute and serene as the imagery in that book, the premise here is a bit darker. Lana is a girl whose mother was killed during a violent ocean storm, and that is why she and her father left their hometown in the first place. They are coming back to visit her maternal Aunt Mae as well as clean up the wreckage after another bad storm. Lana has a genuine connection to the ocean like Mae and her mother did, even though being back is painful for her and her father. When she finds an injured baby aquicorn she wants to nurse back to health, her love of the ocean has a tangible element it can attach to. Mae, too, has a connection to the sea, given that she is a fisherwoman and she makes her living because of it, but there is always going to be the painful reminder that the thing she loves took her sister away. They are both coping with the trauma of the loss, but they cope in different ways.

The Aquicorn society that Mae and Lana interact with has it’s own issues that it brings to the story. Aure, the head of the community, has struck up a long time friendship with Mae, as they have helped each other in various ways. Mae has taken objects and products from Aquicorn Cove and has helped her own community thrive. But the give and take relationship has started to crumble, as Aure thinks that the cost for her community has started to become far too great. O’Neill has found a relatable and easy way to show kids the importance of giving back to the environment, and while you understand Mae’s need and want to keep her community alive, you see the cost it has to Aure’s and the reef. There was one panel that is especially relevant where, when pushed back on by Aure, Mae says that her community shouldn’t have to change it’s ways because ‘this is how it’s always been’, and THAT struck a chord. Mae is never presented as a bad person, per se, just someone who is unable to see the consequences that her actions have for others.

The other big theme in this story is the importance of ocean conservation, and how it can be a matter of life and death not only for sea creatures, but for the human communities that live on the seashore. Aquicorn Cove’s reef is sick and starting to die, and without the protection of the reef that can help buffer the strength of ocean storms, the severity on land is becoming more and more devastating. Climate change scientists postulate that storms will become worse and worse as time goes on, and with more of these natural buffers dying off or disappearing the costs and the losses will be higher. At the end of the book O’Neill listed a number of ocean conservation resources, as well as information for the readers on what they can do to help restore the tenuous ecosystems. What I liked about this section was that it was easy to understand for kids, and while O’Neill did simplify it she never made it seem like she was talking down to her readers. She really hits home that we may feel like in our smallness we can’t make a difference, but how we can connect to our community, which can connect to other communities, and how that can help amplify our voices for change. The message was loud and clear, and I really liked it.

And yes, let’s look at how sweet the drawings are.

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EEEEE!!! (Source: Oni Press)
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It’s just so charming. (source: Oni Press)

The gentle design and all around charming style made the art pop and had me smiling from ear to ear.

“Aquicorn Cove” is another lovely graphic novel by Katie O’Neill, and with it’s important messages and themes it stands out from the crowd.

Rating 7: A cute graphic novel with a resonant message, “Aquicorn Cove” is a sweet story that brings out cute sea creatures and talks about the importance of our oceans.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Aquicorn Cove” is included on the Goodreads lists “Tween Graphic Novels”, and “Comics and Graphic Novels by Women”.

Find “Aquicorn Cove” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Curse So Dark and Lonely”

43204703Book: “A Curse So Dark and Lonely” by Brigid Kemmerer

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury YA, January 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Fall in love, break the curse.

It once seemed so easy to Prince Rhen, the heir to Emberfall. Cursed by a powerful enchantress to repeat the autumn of his eighteenth year over and over, he knew he could be saved if a girl fell for him. But that was before he learned that at the end of each autumn, he would turn into a vicious beast hell-bent on destruction. That was before he destroyed his castle, his family, and every last shred of hope.

Nothing has ever been easy for Harper Lacy. With her father long gone, her mother dying, and her brother barely holding their family together while constantly underestimating her because of her cerebral palsy, she learned to be tough enough to survive. But when she tries to save someone else on the streets of Washington, DC, she’s instead somehow sucked into Rhen’s cursed world.

Break the curse, save the kingdom.

A prince? A monster? A curse? Harper doesn’t know where she is or what to believe. But as she spends time with Rhen in this enchanted land, she begins to understand what’s at stake. And as Rhen realizes Harper is not just another girl to charm, his hope comes flooding back. But powerful forces are standing against Emberfall . . . and it will take more than a broken curse to save Harper, Rhen, and his people from utter ruin.

Review: So, as always, another “Beauty and the Beast” retelling comes out and I line up obediently to read it. This, if anything, is proof that I am an eternal optimist, as I’ve had pretty poor luck with this particular fairytale and the versions I’ve read. Yes, “Beauty” is and likely will always be one of my absolute favorite fairytale retellings, and I loved “Uprooted.” But from there…maybe a few middling titles, but then it’s straight down to versions that I highly dislike.  So the scale is pretty heavily weighted on both sides of the extreme. Sadly, “A Curse So Dark and Lonely,” while not my least favorite version, joins the ever expanding ranks of disappointments for this story.

In the fairly standard layout of the story, Rhen is our cursed prince, doomed to relive one season over and over again, attempting to win over a new girl every three months. But, what’s worse, his failures don’t simply reset things, but end with his transformation into a terrible beast that kills all those in his path. Harper, a girl growing up in D.C. and with struggles of her own, suddenly finds herself pulled away from her life (one full of its own strife with her ill mother and a brother caught up in crime rings in an attempt to pay off the family debt) and thrust into the middle of this curse, the most recent would-be curse breaker. To make matters worse, this will be the last season and Rhen’s last chance to break the curse and avoid a life ever after as a monstrous beast.

This book has received a lot of positive reviews, so I just want to say right away that there’s a good chance much of what bothered me with this book wouldn’t hold true for others who enjoy YA fairytales. There have been comparison to “A Court of Thorns and Roses,” for example. Which, given the massive appeal of that series, means many will ultimately really like this. I hated ACOTAR, on the other hand, so that comparison might be even more apt. I didn’t hate this book, but it definitely wasn’t for me.

The good thing about this book is that it does what it sets out to do. We have a unique (ish) take on the “Beauty and the Beast” tale that leans into its darker elements (beast!Rhen is truly destructive and dangerous). A heroine who represents those with disabilities in a really great way (she has what seems to be a high functioning version of cerebral palsy). And a story that delivers both action and romance (eventually).

But, for me, it did all of these things in a very “meh” way. The world-building, for one, was an immediate let-down. Emberfall is simply “such and such, generic fantasy world with magic.” There is no real explanation or true creativity behind any of it. The castle itself has some of the standard magical elements that we expect to see (ooooh, musical instruments that play themselves) and even those that we are given are too few and far between. It’s just enough to set the stage as a fantasy land, but not enough to make it stand out in any way from the millions of other fantasy lands we’ve seen.

And when juxtaposed against the “real world,” this lack of world-building is made even more stark. It’s one thing to set a book entirely in a fairly bland fantasy world, but when you have the “real world” as an element in your book and characters from that world, it’s inevitable that the “hows” and “whys” of it all should come more to the forefront. If everyone lives in this fantasy world, there’s more of a “get out of jail free” card in that, naturally, everyone (and thus the reader) would take things at face value. That’s simply not the case when you have “real world” characters who should be asking these questions.

Beyond that, while there was nothing overtly objectionable with Rhen or Harper, neither of them were particularly intriguing either. Obviously, the inclusion of Harper’s disability is an interesting take and, not having any experience with this of my own, seems to be represented well. But that is not enough to make her a fully-fleshed out character. Rhen, too, was just kind of…fine. I just never felt fully invested in either of them, and there wasn’t enough given to either to make them feel like much more than the fairly standard “beauty” and “beast” cut-outs we’ve come to expect.

And, from the get-go, the story set off on the wrong foot. Pretty early in the book, right after Harper is kidnapped and brought to the castle, we start in on the “she’s so different than the other girls” lines of thought. I almost just put the book down at this point for how much I hate this way of writing. For one, it’s lazy. If you can’t make Harper look good without including negative comparisons to “other girls,” than you have a character problem on its own. Beyond that, Rhen is something like 300 years old at this point. So, how many seasons would that be? You’re telling me that in that entire time, girls have been kidnapped from the modern world and ALL of them have only ever been interested in dresses and NONE of them wanted anything to do with daggers or, I don’t know, trying to escape? Not only is this incredibly insulting (especially when it’s linked to another comment about how originally Rhen would ask for beautiful women in particular, so of course they’re also frivolous and, I don’t know, scared of weapons??), but it’s also beyond the point of belief. These women have been kidnapped. There is no way that they all simply got distracted by sparkles and sat around meekly adoring their wardrobes. It’s as if to say that, for women, the standard reaction to kidnapping is complacency, especially if your kidnapper is rich and handsome. And that Harper’s reaction of immediately trying to escape is somehow unique and note-worthy. I could go on and on with my frustrations with this, but I think I’ve made my point and any more would just be indulging myself in ranting.

So yes. This book wasn’t my favorite and sadly joins the list of “Beauty and the Beast” retellings that I won’t be recommending. Like I said, a lot of people have liked this book, so there is definitely an audience for it. But, for me, the world-building and characters were simply too bland to hold my interest and the early introduction of “other women shaming” into the story was an immediate turn-off.

Rating 5: Not for me, alas. Maybe check it out though if you liked ACOTAR?

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Curse So Dark and Lonely” is a newer book, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists. It is on this one (though I disagree about the “best” in this title): “Best retellings of Beauty and the Beast.”

Find “A Curse So Dark and Lonely” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “A Sorrow Fierce and Falling”

36443576Book: “A Sorrow Fierce and Falling” by Jessica Cluess

Publishing Info: Random House BFYR, October 2018

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

Book Description: It’s time for war.

After suffering terrible losses, Henrietta and Lord Blackwood have led their warriors to Sorrow-Fell, a vast estate where only those invited by a Blackwood may enter–and the ideal place to plan a final assault against the Ancients.

It’s time for a wedding.

Henrietta nervously awaits her marriage to Blackwood, but when the ritual to become his bride reveals a dark secret, she realizes that Sorrow-Fell is not a safe haven; it’s a trap. Convincing the sorcerers of this, however, is not easy. So with Maria, the true chosen one, and Magnus, the young man who once stole her heart, at her side, Henrietta plots a dangerous journey straight into the enemy’s lair. Some will live. Some will die. All will be tested.

In this stunning conclusion to the Kingdom on Fire series, Henrietta must choose between the love from her past, the love from her present, and a love that could define her future. While battles rage, the fate of the kingdom rests on her decision: Will she fall or rise up to become the woman who saves the realm?

It’s time for Henrietta to make her stand.

Previously reviewed: “A Shadow Bright and Burning” and “A Poison Dark and Drowning”

Review: This trilogy has traveled an odd trajectory as far as my feelings for a book series go. I was underwhelmed by the first book, a bit put off by the sheer number of love interests who were introduced. The second one fared better, expanding the world out by quite a bit, upping the ante with the villain, history, and Henrietta’s true role in all of this. And then this one…just kind of threw out a lot of different things and saw what stuck, essentially? I’m not even sure! I’m still experience a bit of whiplash from it all, but I don’t think I liked it, in the end.

Events had been coming to a head at the last book, not least of which saw Henrietta agree to marry Blackwood. However, now, as events continue to spin out of control, Henrietta is forced to re-examine all that she thought she knew about those around her. And with new revelations come new choices, each with their own prices to be paid. Surrounded by her friends and facing new and terrible dangers, Henrietta must face her final challenge.

So, as usual, I’ll try to start with some things I enjoyed about this book. The one consistent thing throughout this series that I have liked has been the general writing style. There’s a nice mixture of interesting turns of phrase alongside stark, to-the-point writing that solidly carries the story along. For the most part, purple prose, of the like that can all too often pop up in YA fantasy that has a strong emphasis on romance, is largely avoided. I also listened to this one on audiobook again (which I did for the second book, too) and enjoyed the narrator’s interpretation of characters. I remember thinking that my increased enjoyment of the second book could have something to do with this change of format. And I now have to think that continuing my read of this series using this format was a wise choice, as I’m not sure I would have made it through this one without the increased enjoyment of the audio narrator.

I also generally still enjoy the world-building. There have always been a plethora of creative ideas at the heart of this story. And I’ve also appreciated the way the author has walked right up to the horror line with many of her villains, making them truly horrible. Much of that still continues here, though it did start to feel overly crowded and muddled at times. It’s only been a year since I read the last book, but there were times where I was still struggling to remember how some of these elements worked together and what there histories were.

However, other than those points, I really had a hard time with this book. I’ve never loved Henrietta as a character, but I also didn’t have any overt issues with her. I was particularly intrigued by the second book where we were introduced to Maria, the “real” chosen one. But here, Henrietta went from blandly ok to outright unlikable. We’ve had three books now to witness her making mistakes as she discovers herself and her role in this conflict. And that’s fine. But by this point, we need to start seeing the growth that comes out of those mistakes. Instead, if anything, Henrietta becomes more indecisive and makes even more nonsensical choices than we’ve seen in the past, often to disastrous results. It makes her not only a frustrating character to read, leaving the reader feeling like the character hasn’t grown at all over two entire books, but this weakness of character was necessary to drive much of the plot, as it revolved around said poor decision making and the results therein.

And, lastly, the romance was a huge problem for me. This has been the biggest question mark for me throughout the entire series. From the very beginning I had huge red flags going up regarding the sheer number of love interests that were introduced. We were way past love triangle and into the realm of love square or even more. It was always too much. As the story progressed, I was mostly able to distract myself from my concerns in these areas. But not here. To finally resolve all of the dangling romantic threads, several characters had to be almost completely re-written. One in particular became almost unrecognizable and the change came out of left field. Beyond this, Henrietta’s reaction to this change was not appropriate, as the character essentially became abusive. There are so many layers of problems with this that I’m tired even thinking about it. Ultimately, it felt like the author didn’t know how to resolve (or even decide!) all of the romantic plotlines that were introduced. So instead of making her main character progress along a natural arc of self-discovery throughout the series that would result in her forming a realistic attachment to one character over the others, the author just got to the last book and decided to write off at least two of the choices, leaving Henrietta with only one viable option anyways. It felt lazy and like a slap in the face to readers. What exactly were we wasting our time on before this point if this is how it’s going to be ultimately resolved?

So, while the book did have some creative ideas with its world-building, in the end that’s all it felt like: a collection of ideas. Looking back over the trilogy as a whole, it looks like the work of an author badly in need of an editor. Everything and the kitchen sink went into this series and it shows worst of all in this last book when you can see the wheels coming off as the author frantically tries to resolve all of the elements that have been introduced (most poorly in the romance arena, perhaps). If you’ve enjoyed this series up to this point, I’m not sure how you’ll feel about this one really. It’s the kind of thing where some readers may really enjoy it and others will hate it, but it’s going to largely come down to what each reader was getting out of the series before and how they wanted things to turn out in the end. For me, it didn’t work and almost retroactively lowered the first two books as well, as it seemed to highlight that there was only ever a shaky overall plot from the very start.

Rating 5: A disappointing conclusion, most especially in the lazy resolution to the multiple love interests that had been introduced.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Sorrow Fierce and Falling” is fairly new and isn’t on any very relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “YA Releases of October, 2018.”

Find “A Sorrow Fierce and Falling” at your library using WorldCat.

Serena’s Review: “Sherwood”

38734256Book: “Sherwood” by Meagan Spooner

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, March 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Robin of Locksley is dead.

Maid Marian doesn’t know how she’ll go on, but the people of Locksley town, persecuted by the Sheriff of Nottingham, need a protector. And the dreadful Guy of Gisborne, the Sheriff’s right hand, wishes to step into Robin’s shoes as Lord of Locksley and Marian’s fiancé.

Who is there to stop them?

Marian never meant to tread in Robin’s footsteps—never intended to stand as a beacon of hope to those awaiting his triumphant return. But with a sweep of his green cloak and the flash of her sword, Marian makes the choice to become her own hero: Robin Hood.

Review: As I mentioned in my brief description of this book in our “Highlights” post for March, I was a big fan of Spooner’s wholly unique take on “Beauty in the Beast” in her YA novel “Hunted.” Now, obviously these two stories aren’t connected, but it is clear by the stylization of the cover art that we’re meant to make associations between the two: both feature a strong, independent female main character and both are reinterpreting a story in which that character had varying levels of agency. I’m definitely not one of those readers who subscribes to the whole “Stockholm syndrome” group fret about Belle/Beauty’s role in her story, but there’s no denying that “Hunted” gave this character a bunch more to do. And here, we have a legitimate side character in Marian being firmly placed in the lead role of the classic Robin Hood tale. It was great to see this book live up to the expectations I had placed on it given my feelings for “Hunted.”

Marian has made the best out of a bad situation: she loves her bow, fighting, and generally running wild and has very little interest or skill in the more “womanly” arts. Luckily for her, her childhood friend Robin has always been her partner in crime in these pursuits, and their engagement seems an obvious route to making the  best of out of an inevitable situation. That is, until he rides off to the Crusades and news reaches her of his death. Devastated by the loss, Marian still sees herself as responsible for the livelihood of the people living on both her own and Robin’s land and when the Sheriff’s taxes rise beyond reason, she finds herself donning not only male garb, but the persona of her deceased fiance, Robin of Locksley. Now, pursued by the Sheriff’s right hand man, a man whose desire to catch “Robin” is only matched in his wish to marry Marian, Marian must lead a double life, and one that can only have a catastrophic end.

I really enjoyed this version of Robin Hood. While I’ve read a fair share of stories that insert a female character as a stand-in for Robin, typically Robin himself is still present in the story, often the love interest. That being the case so much of the time, I truly didn’t trust the book description or the first chapter that laid out the concept that Robin died while at the Crusades. It was probably up until about half way through the book before I really let myself trust that he wasn’t going to just pop up. Not that I have a problem with the Robin character typically, but even by a quarter into the story, Marian herself and the way her story was unfolding was already so intriguing that any addition of the more famous Robin could have only detracted from her. Plus, as I said, in those past versions, even a Robin relegated to a love interest role often rubbed up wrong against what the author was trying to do with the actual main character who was supposedly supposed to be taking on the primary role in the action.

Marian was an excellent lead. Her grief for Robin’s death is real, and I appreciate that this wasn’t glossed over. Instead, we see how his loss affects throughout the entire story, first as a hindrance and further on as a motivation. Over time, she also has to re-assess what she knew about the man she was to marry. We, the readers, get a few extra glimpses into past moments between the two, and it is here, too, that we see small, but very important, differences being laid out between who this Marian and this Robin are compared to what we expect from the typical versions of the story. We also see the foundation for how Marian came to possess the skills necessary to take on the role she does here.

Wisely, Spooner leans in heavily to Marian’s skill with a bow, a talent that, while unusual, wouldn’t fall completely out of the realm of something a lady might have learned. Marian is also described as being exceptionally tall. But that aside, it could still have read as unbelievable for her disguise as a man to be fully bought by those around her had the author not carefully crafted every interaction that “Robin” goes into in a way that plays to hiding Marian’s identity. Indeed, Marian herself is written to understand the limitations of her disguise and to use every advantage she has to work within it, instead of breaking past it in ways that could have read as unbelievable and strange.

I also really enjoyed how many of the secondary characters came into play. Several familiar faces show up throughout the story, and each was given a few extra flares to make them stand out from the usual versions of the characters we’ve seen in other books. But I also really enjoyed the addition of unique characters (or at least vastly expanded upon versions of them). Marian’s father, maid, and horse master all were expanded upon quite a bit and I loved them all.

The most notable new addition, of course, is Guy of Gisbourne who is presented as both the villain and the love interest of the story. Again, because I was expecting Robin to pop back up at any moment, it took me a while to really figure out his role in the story. Thinking back, I tend to attribute this to an intentional decision on the author’s part as well, and not only my own skepticism of how the story was originally presented. Marian herself takes a long time to understand Gisbourne, what motivates him, where his moral compass points, and how he truly feels about her. Her own confusion translates perfectly to the reader. This is both a good and a bad thing. I love slow burn romances, and this is definitely that. But at times I think the book was almost too successful at selling me on Marian’s dislike of Gisbourne and his own coldness as a character. There are a few moments that are meant to show their gradual warming to each other, and they do work, for the most part, but I’m not sure it was ultimately enough. At a certain point, it did feel a bit like some type of authorial-driven light switch was just flicked in Marian’s head because it needed to be, rather than because it was earned.

So, too, her past relationship with Robin was also a bit strained. We only see a few glimpses here and there of their childhood and teenage friendship, but the scenes are all so strongly written and their connection so well established that it almost worked against the burgeoning romance with Gisbourne in a way that I don’t think was intended. I liked the idea of what we’re being told with regards to Robin/Marian/Gisbourne: that people are not always who we initially think they are and that love can present itself in very different ways with different people, and that these ebbs and flows don’t undermine one relationship or the other. But I’m just not sure the reader can actually see this message play out, so much as just be on the receiving end of being told.

Ultimately, I almost think it says even more positive things about the story that the downside I can mention has to do with romance and yet that downside in no way tanks the entire story for me. We all know that if you don’t get the romance right for me, often that can lead to my very much not enjoying a story. And here, it’s not that the romance was wrong, necessarily, just that I felt it was the weakest part of the story. But Marian herself, the reimagining of how the Robin Hood story would play out with her at its heart, the action, and the new characters all provided enough of a counter balance to my questions about the romance to lead me to viewing it with still a very positive light. Fans of Robin Hood re-tellings should definitely check this one out!

Rating 8: A bit muddled in the romance department, but an awesome female Robin Hood saves the day in the end!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Sherwood” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Female Robin Hood” and “YA Modern Retellings.”

Find “Sherwood” at your library using WorldCat!