Serena’s Review: “Jackaby”

20312462Book: “Jackaby” by William Ritter

Publishing Info: Algonquin Young Readers, September 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

Find “Jackaby” at your library using Worldcat!

 

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

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

Publishing Info: Tor Books, February 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

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

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

Publishing Info: Del Rey, January 2917

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

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

Click here to enter the give away!

Kate’s Review: “Fear the Drowning Deep”

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

Publishing Info: Sky Pony Press, October 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

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

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

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

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

giphy3
Sign me up, I’m there! (source)’

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

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

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

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

giphy4
(source)

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

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

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

Reader’s Advisory:

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

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

Serena’s Review: “Without a Summer”

15793208Book: “Without a Summer” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Publishing Info: Tor Books, April 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Jane and Vincent go to Long Parkmeade to spend time with Jane’s family, but quickly turn restless. The year is unseasonably cold. No one wants to be outside and Mr. Ellsworth is concerned by the harvest, since a bad one may imperil Melody’s dowry. And Melody has concerns of her own, given the inadequate selection of eligible bachelors. When Jane and Vincent receive a commission from a prominent family in London, they decide to take it, and take Melody with them. They hope the change of scenery will do her good and her marriage prospects—and mood—will be brighter in London.

Once there, talk is of nothing but the crop failures caused by the cold and increased unemployment of the coldmongers, which have provoked riots in several cities to the north. With each passing day, it’s more difficult to avoid getting embroiled in the intrigue, none of which really helps Melody’s chances for romance. It’s not long before Jane and Vincent realize that in addition to getting Melody to the church on time, they must take on one small task: solving a crisis of international proportions.

Review: I continue on with my reviews of this series! As I commented on in the first reviews, the books’ ties to the Jane Austen novels that the author attempts to mimic has been the difference maker between my enjoyment levels of the first two in the series. The first tried to tie it too closely to “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility,” leaving original characterization and plot to suffer. While the second seemed to step away completely from this format presenting readers with a completely original story and being stronger for it. This third book strikes on the perfect balance of the two with its very loose connections to “Emma” while also building on its original stories and characters.

I was most excited when picking up this book to realize that Melody was again going to play a central role to the story. Her absence was one of the few low points of the second book, in my opinion. And she was featured even more than I originally thought! Jane, back home with her husband Vincent and now recovered from her experiences and trauma dealt in the end of the last book, is realizing how alone and sad her sister is feeling. Country living just doesn’t have enough variety, particularly in the potential husband arena. So, upon receiving a commission for Jane and Vincent’s work on a glamoural for a wealthy family in London, Jane decides the change of scenery would do her sister good. And so we begin to see the set up and ties to “Emma” in this story, with Jane standing in as our poor, struggling matchmaker.

As I said, this book really seemed to hit on the formula for emulating, but not becoming bogged down by, an original Austen work. Only the loosest ties to “Emma” are visible (and three lines from the novel, for those looking closely!). Jane makes many mistakes as a matchmater, but they are of a different variety than Emma’s, both due to differences in their personality and position. Jane is a married woman, so her own romantic confusion is not involved in this. Further, Jane is a very different character than Emma. Emma is lovable for her blissful naivety. Jane is a much more earnest character and one who is used to being on the right side of most conflicts.

I actually found this to be a very interesting take on a matchmaking failure, and one that can speak to a quandary that many people can find themselves in. In many ways, Jane is a very open-minded, justice-oriented character. In the last several books, she is always on the right side of situations that deal with prejudice and injustice. So, in this way, its not surprising that she has become a bit complacent with her own perception of the world, sure that she does not fall into the same traps that other, less wary and more judgemental, people do. But alas, we can guess how this turns out! I really enjoyed this take as it is a pitfall that I think many of us can fall into, becoming falsely secure in our own perception of the world and failing to recognize that we are still susceptible towards opinions and thoughts that are convenient and not as open-minded as we may think. Vincent’s sly hints that she might be a bit off track were also great. It was a nice little wink to the maneuverings of marriage where battles must be picked carefully and opinions offered gently.

The other main storyline of this book was the complete and utter awfulness that is Vincent’s family. We’ve heard about his past some in the previous books, but here we get to meet the whole cast and man, weren’t they all just a bundle of joy. His father in particular reached truly astonishing levels of evil. There were a few scenes where they are all getting together for family gatherings, and just coming of Christmas, which can have familial challenges for some, I think we can all just count ourselves lucky that at least it wasn’t this. The snark was high with these ones.

The pacing of this book was a bit strange, I have to admit. The first half is fairly slow, with a lot of groundwork being laid, but not a lot of action coming of it. But the book did take a big, unexpected turn towards the end that really brought a new life to the story. While the resolution was very convenient, I did enjoy the tension that was brought to the story in this last third.

All in all, I think this book was a great addition to the series. I enjoyed the ties to “Emma,” but was relieved to find that the story was still also very much its own thing. The action towards the end was appreciated, and I’m excited to see where the books will go next and if we’ll see any other Jane Austen storylines! As long as its not “Northanger Abbey”…

eek
(source)

Rating 7: Series seems to be still going strong!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Without a Summer” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Alternate England” and “Napoleonic Novels.”

Find “Without a Summer” at your library using WorldCat.

Previously Reviewed: “Shades of Milk and Honey” and “Glamour in Glass”

Kate’s Review: “The Call”

30292413Book: “The Call” by Peadar Ó Guilín

Publishing Info: Scholastic Inc, August 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The Hunger Games meets horror in this unforgettable thriller where only one thing is certain . . . you will be Called.

Thousands of years ago, humans banished the Sidhe fairy race to another dimension. The beautiful, terrible Sidhe have stewed in a land of horrors ever since, plotting their revenge . . . and now their day has come.

Fourteen-year-old Nessa lives in a world where every teen will be “Called.” It could come in the middle of the day, it could come deep in the night. But one instant she will be here, and the next she will wake up naked and alone in the Sidhe land. She will be spotted, hunted down, and brutally murdered. And she will be sent back in pieces by the Sidhe to the human world . . . unless she joins the rare few who survive for twenty-four hours and escape unscathed.

Nessa trains with her friends at an academy designed to maximize her chances at survival. But as the days tick by and her classmates go one by one, the threat of her Call lurks ever closer . . . and with it the threat of an even more insidious danger closer to home.

Review: I think that a lot of people have started associating YA science fiction with the idea of the dystopian society, and that the plot is a group of teenagers who have decided to fight back against it. With books like “The Hunger Games”, “Divergent”, “The Testing”, and “Matched” all being hits in their own rights, I think that if a plot has any smatterings of their themes, it will automatically be lumped in with them. I know that I almost made the mistake of doing this with “The Call” by Peadar Ó Guilín. After all, it takes place at a school where teenagers are being trained for the fight of their life, a test that will in all likelihood leave them dead and mangled. “Oh how ‘Hunger Games'” I thought to myself. But man, was I wrong. And I’m ashamed that I was willing to be even slightly dismissive of it.

On paper, sure, it sounds like a familiar trope. But “The Call” is one of the most original YA novels I’ve read in a long time, for a number of reasons. The first is that our main character, Nessa, is a polio survivor, and has to walk with the aid of crutches as one of her legs has been permanently damaged by it. Diversity in YA literature is important, and that includes people with disabilities. From what I know about Polio (having read about it and knowing someone who is a Polio survivor), Ó Guilín did a really good job of portraying Nessa and her strengths and limitations, and while he never used her disability in a ‘let’s all feel sorry for her’ kind of way, he also was honest with how hard it would be, especially in a situation where you have to be able to run and fight. Nessa is a very well rounded character beyond that as well, as she is headstrong and stubborn, but has insecurities that could apply to not just her and her situation, but many teenage girls from lots of backgrounds. She has her problems with her friends, she has her problems with love and relationships, and she has her problems with her family (though they are pretty removed from this story in general). She is a seriously great female protagonist for a YA fantasy novel, always rooted in realism and never treading towards some superhuman and unrealistic ideal. I especially loved her friendship with her best friend Megan, a sarcastic and snide girl who is the perfect foil to her, but very clearly and fiercely has her back. And huzzah and hurray, there is no love triangle to be found here, as Nessa only has eyes for one guy, the pacifist and quiet Anto. Anto as a character isn’t as interesting as Nessa or even Megan, but the arc that he does go on is a pretty good one, and luckily he isn’t there just to be the ‘boy who sees her for what she’s worth isn’t it sweet’ kind of gig. Given that this is supposedly the start of a series, I would be very curious to see where Anto goes, both for himself and with Nessa.

The world itself is also very, very original. While I can understand that the militarized training for teens smacks of “Hunger Games” and “Divergent”, this world is far more creative than that. For one, this isn’t a totalitarian regime that is oppressing these kids by using violence and isolation to control them. This is another outside force, in this case the Sidhé, or fairies. And these fairies are not the kind of fairies we think of in sanitized fairy tales. These fairies were banished from Ireland to another world, and they are taking their revenge by sucking up Ireland’s teenagers and trying to kill them. And succeeding most of the time. These are the kinds of violent fairies that original folklore spoke of, the kind that would put a death curse on a baby just because they weren’t invited to said baby’s Christening.

source
And I mean the REAL Maleficent, not that Angelina Jolie bullshit. (source)

I think that modern fantasy needs more evil and menacing fairies, and “The Call” really delivered on that. Not only are the Sidhé mysterious and vengeful, they are very, VERY violent. Like, to the point where I was getting pretty disturbed by the kind of stuff that they would inflict upon the teens who were taken by The Call. From skinning them, to mutilating them, to transforming them into hideous creatures out of Giger-esque nightmares, these Sidhé were not screwing around, and it made the stakes feel very, very high. Which in turn made me terrified to see what happened next, but also unable to put the book down whenever a poor, hapless teen was taken by The Call.  I also appreciated how Ó Guilín has changed Ireland in subtle ways to reflect how this situation would affect society, with the people knowing English, Old Irish, and Sidhé out of tradition, pride, and necessity, just as I liked how he made it clear that the Sidhé are not the only villains in this story, and in some ways are understandably upset. The best example of this is that by far the scariest villain is not the evil fairies, but a human teenager named Conor. His misogyny and violent obsession with Nessa was just as off putting as the sadistic fairies that chase down teenagers, and the fact that Conor is a very realistic villain in his sociopathy and entitlement made him the most skin crawling of all the antagonists in this book.

I really, really enjoyed “The Call” and I am actually pretty pumped that it sounds like Ó Guilín is going to write more stories in it’s world. Definitely give this a try if you like books like “The Hunger Games”, but know that it stands quite well on it’s own.

Rating 9: A very intense and original fantasy, “The Call” is a refreshing new take on YA survival thrillers, with a fabulous protagonist and deliciously evil fairies.

Reader’s Advisory

“The Call” is not on any Goodreads lists at the moment, but I think that fans of “The Hunger Games” would find a lot to like, and I would put it on “Best YA Fairy Books”.

Find “The Call” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Ice”

6321845Book: “Ice” by Sarah Beth Durst

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, October 2009

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: When Cassie was a little girl, her grandmother told her a fairy tale about her mother, who made a deal with the Polar Bear King and was swept away to the ends of the earth. Now that Cassie is older, she knows the story was a nice way of saying her mother had died. Cassie lives with her father at an Arctic research station, is determined to become a scientist, and has no time for make-believe.

Then, on her eighteenth birthday, Cassie comes face-to-face with a polar bear who speaks to her. He tells her that her mother is alive, imprisoned at the ends of the earth. And he can bring her back — if Cassie will agree to be his bride.

That is the beginning of Cassie’s own real-life fairy tale, one that sends her on an unbelievable journey across the brutal Arctic, through the Canadian boreal forest, and on the back of the North Wind to the land east of the sun and west of the moon. Before it is over, the world she knows will be swept away, and everything she holds dear will be taken from her — until she discovers the true meaning of love and family in the magical realm of Ice.

Review: I recently read and liked “Conjured” by Sarah Beth Durst, and after putting together our list of favorite holiday reads that included a re-telling of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” I discovered the perfect combination of the two with “Ice!” Or…what I thought would be the perfect combination. Sigh.

The story starts out strong enough. I enjoyed the unique approach of setting the story in the modern world with Cassie and her father living in a research station in the Arctic. Cassie herself is introduced as a capable and intelligent protagonist. She conducts research herself and knows much about the Arctic environment and local wildlife. Enough to know that the polar bear tracks she’s seeing are much too large for the regular animals that roam the area.

Another plus has to do with some of the fairytale aspects and their interpretation in this story. The mythology and characters that were introduced were interesting and cleverly tied together, working well within the original fairytale mold while not feeling too tied down by it. The author struck a nice balance between incorporating these portions while also tying the story neatly into Intuit culture and folklore. I also enjoyed the more proactive role that Cassie originally takes in this tale> She makes a bargain of her own with Bear, insisting that she would only agree to marry him if she saved her mother. That said, this initial level of competence and independence on Cassie’s part only serves against the story later when she loses these exact traits in rather disturbing ways.

Most of the portions of the book that I enjoyed most arrived in the first half of the book, and I was pretty fully on board. But then…look, one of the main falling points for retellings of this story is giving the character of Bear a strong enough personality that he stands on his own and makes the slow-burn romance believable. And, while Bear does have somewhat of a personality, the story starts faltering right off that bat. Their relationship, one based on distrust and a forced situation, develops far too quickly to friendship and love. And while this is frustrating, it’s a familiar pitfall. But then…it’s the story takes a nosedive into “Breaking Dawn” territory with a forced pregnancy. Essentially, Bear magically deactivates Cassie’s birth control and then informs her of this after she’s three months pregnant. And from there on out the story just kind of died for me.

While Cassie is initially angry, she comes around to things way too easily. Bear as a romantic lead was killed for me, as this type of behavior is the epitome of abusive. Further, not only has Bear treated Cassie as the human equivalent of an incubator taking no consideration for her own choices about motherhood (she’s 18, remember!), but for the last half of the story, almost every other character she interacts with takes the same approach. Her decisions are constantly questioned with the worry that she’s “risking the baby” and it all gets to be too much. First, the fact that there is no concern expressed for Cassie herself, but only for the child, is saddening. And secondly, Cassie has already had the decision to be a parent taken out of her hands, but now her decisions for how to prioritize her life, protect those she loves, not just the baby, and operate as an individual are being questioned at every moment, as if she has no other purpose than to be pregnant. All of this was incredibly frustrating to read. And I could never get back on board with any romance between Cassie and Bear.

This was a very disappointing read for me. I have read other books by this author and really enjoyed them, so I had high expectations for this story. And the first half is so strong that it makes the large missteps of the latter half all the more frustrating for potential squandered. I really can’t recommend this book. There are much better re-tellings of this story, like “East,” the one I recommended in our “Holidays Favorites” post.

Rating 2: A strong start brought down by some really poor story decisions and an icky non-romance.

Reader’s Advisory:

Note: I don’t agree with this book’s deserving of being on these lists, quality-wise,  but hopefully there are some better ones to be found!

“Ice” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Fairy Tale Retellings: Hidden Gems” and “Fractured Fairy Tales & Story Retellings.”

Find “Ice” at your library using WorldCat.