Kate’s Review: “Labyrinth Lost”

27969081Book: “Labyrinth Lost” by Zoraida Córdova

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, September 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.

I fall to my knees. Shattered glass, melted candles and the outline of scorched feathers are all that surround me. Every single person who was in my house – my entire family — is gone.

Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange markings on his skin.

The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…

“Beautiful Creatures” meets “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” with an infusion of Latin American tradition in this highly original fantasy adventure.

Review: So I am kind of switching it up for my second Horrorpalooza review! While I know that Serena is usually the user to do fantasy novels, when I got “Labyrinth Lost” by Zoraida Córdova, I thought that it was going to be more horror based. I mean, the main character is a bruja, which is a kind of witch for this story and it’s purposes, and I did say that witches are going to count in this Horrorpalooza. So while this is less horror and more a remix of “Alice in Wonderland”, I am going to count it as a win because this is the kind of Witch-esque Mythology that I really enjoy: powerful, matriarchal bonds that sustain a family with just as much love as magic. Also, scary demons. Plus, it’s always a plus to see YA books with a POC protagonist, as books for kids and teens (and really all people) should be telling the stories of many different experiences.

So we will start with the good. “Labyrinth’s Lost” takes a concept we’ve seen before (teenage witches) and makes it it’s own unique tale. Alex is a bruja, the most powerful bruja of her generation, and the magical systems that Córdova created for this story are always interesting and taking from Latin American traditions. There are some pretty good source notes at the end of this book where Córdova explains what parts come from tradition, and what parts were invented for the story, and I think that it is valuable to learn about this background. Too often to do you see people using Latin American imagery of spirits and the dead, especially around Halloween, and this book shows the importance of some of this imagery and why it isn’t just spooky makeup. I also loved the magical world of Los Lagos, as it does harken to Wonderland but still maintains its own character and ambiance. The magical system of cantos as opposed to spells also gives a new spin on traditionally Western ideas of witchcraft, and I liked that every chapter started out with a passage from the family Book of Cantos. These Bruja communities are portrayed as incredibly tight knit, and the camaraderie and love was very apparent. I also like that the distinction is made that all brujas are witches, but not all witches are brujas. They are not necessarily interchangeable and one cannot make assumptions about brujas just because they are a kind of witch.

Alex is a fairly realistic protagonist, and while she does teeter towards the trope of ‘chosen one who rejects her power’, I think that there is enough reason given that she may not want to have this power in the first place so as not to be twee or stereotypical. To be an Ecantrix means to have a dangerous power that is hard to control, and given that Alex partially blames herself for the loss of her father, her petulance is excusable. I also greatly appreciated that not only is our main character a Latina girl, she is also bisexual, and her love interest is her best friend Rishi. Rishi gets to come along on this adventure with Alex and the mysterious brujo Nova, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how natural Alex and Rishi got on. Her bisexuality was always treated as just a fact of her being, not as a novelty that needed to be pointed out and doted on.

But with these positives do come a few negatives. One of those is really just out of my own personal preferences: I have a really hard time with fantasy fiction. Sometimes it really grabs me, and other times it’s harder to keep me interested. While I liked a lot about “Labyrinth Lost”, I did find the stuff inside Los Lagos to be far less interesting to me than her life in the real world. I think that had the magic stayed in an urban or real world setting it would have held my interest. but once new lands come into play, I’m really not all that invested unless that world is called Middle Earth or Fantastica. So when we got to Los Lagos, I found it easier to put down. I did like the villain, The Devourer, as she was menacing and seductive all at once, a being that has started to take over Los Lagos and in doing so has made it start to crumble under her oppressive force. She was good, but I wanted more of her.

And then….. the dreaded love triangle.

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Will this madness never cease? (source)

“Labyrinth Lost” is book one in a series (what is it with YA Fantasy books seemingly always packaged as a series?), and even though Alex is very much devoted to Rishi, by the end of this book you just get the feeling that Nova is going to be a threat to this relationship in the near future. After all, even though he does things in this book that should be pretty hard to forgive, he’s being set up as the tragic antihero that is hopelessly devoted to Alex. I really don’t like love triangles, and I had hoped that we were getting away from that, but apparently not. Plus, this book ends on a blatant cliffhanger, making it totally unable to stand alone, and I hate it when books end like that. It just galls me.

All of those complaints aside, I really do think that “Labyrinth Lost” is a really fun read about magic and brujas. I will probably keep going in the series, though I don’t know how long the wait is going to be. I’m not really in any hurry, which is both good, and bad.

Rating 7: A very unique twist on witches and Wonderland with diverse characters, though some of the plot progression left me colder than I would have wanted.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Labyrinth Lost” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Great YA Novels About Latinas!”, and “LGBT Sci-Fi/Fantasy YA”.

Find “Labyrinth Lost” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Poisoned Blade”

31226229Book: “Poisoned Blade” by Kate Elliott

Publishing Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, August 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Now a Challenger, Jessamy is moving up the ranks of the Fives–the complex athletic contest favored by the lowliest Commoners and the loftiest Patrons alike. Pitted against far more formidable adversaries, success is Jes’s only option, as her prize money is essential to keeping her hidden family alive. She leaps at the chance to tour the countryside and face more competitors, but then a fatal attack on her traveling party puts Jes at the center of the war that Lord Kalliarkos–the prince she still loves–is fighting against their country’s enemies. With a sinister overlord watching her every move and Kal’s life on the line, Jes must now become more than a Fives champion…. She must become a warrior.

Review: After finishing, and loving, “Court of Fives,” I immediately requested “Poisoned Blade” from the library, and last week it arrived! Full disclosure, I may have set aside other reading projects for the sole purpose of bringing this book with me on a trip to the cabin last weekend. It seemed like the perfect “mini break” read, and it didn’t let me down!

“Poisoned Blade” picks up immediately after “Court of Fives.” And when I say “immediately,” I mean that it starts the very night after the final scene in the previous book with Jes sneaking into the royal grounds to find and apologize to Kal. Needless to say, he doesn’t take this well. Luckily, both characters are written in a very relatable and believable manner. Jes feels bad for her decision, but doesn’t regret it and wouldn’t do things differently. Yes, it costs her her relationship with Kal, but she saved her family in the process. It’s refreshing to see a character in a young adult series who is so realistically portrayed with regards to the relationships in her life. Obviously, as saddening as it would be for her to lose the trust of a boy she was beginning to love but had only know for a few weeks, her priorities would remain with her beloved mother and sisters.

While “Court of Fives” wasn’t primarily focused on the romance between Jes and Kal, with their immediate falling out at the beginning of this book, Elliott opened up a lot of space for herself to dive more fully into the political intrigue and action of the world she has created. We are more fully exposed to characters who only existed on the periphery of things in the other book, like Menoe (the sister of Kal and new wife of Jes’s father), the royal couple, and their ailing son, Prince Temnos. I thoroughly enjoyed the expansion of the cast and the deeper currents that were exposed through Jes’s interactions with these groups. In every way, the choices that she is faced with both expand and narrow at the same time as she is made aware of the complicated web (Ha! Get it? “Web” because her nickname is “Spider?” I’m super clever…) of relationships, schemes, and history that exist.

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You don’t need to fake it, guys, I know I’m hilarious…(source)

The world-building is also expanded when Jes takes part in a traveling party that tours the outer reaches beyond the city. This opened up a lot of doors for further action and new challenges for our main character. Really, the action was upped big time in this sequel, and I thoroughly enjoyed all of it. Particularly, the spider scouts and their magical/mechanical spiders were more fully explored in this book, which I really liked, as they made such a brief appearance in the first story and left a lot of questions unanswered. Jes also spends a lot more time fully realizing the role she has to play and is much more deliberate with her choices, many of which are not easy and force her to behave in a way that she would have thought impossible in the previous book. I love it when the main character must slide into moral shades of grey!

This book embraced the strengths that were set up in the first, and then went wild with the world-building and the addition of multiple plot layers. I very much enjoyed the whole thing and strongly recommend it for fans of young adult fantasy series. This has been one of the more enjoyable ones of the last few years so far, and I’m excited to see how Elliott wraps the whole thing up! Sadly, I have to wait until NEXT JULY!

Rating 9: A strong sequel, probably even better than the first!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Poisoned Blade” is a new title and thus not on many Goodreads lists. However, it should be on this one “Non-Caucasian Protagonists in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance.”

Find “Poisoned Blade” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “Court of Fives”

Serena’s Review: “The Copper Promise” Part 1: “Ghosts of the Citadel”

19847375Book: “Ghosts of the Citadel” by Jen Williams

Publishing Info: Headline, December 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: It is said that the Citadel is haunted, and that anyone foolish enough to enter will never return. When a mysterious nobleman offers them a small fortune to explore its depths, sellswords Wydrin and Sebastian decide they can afford to be a little foolish – it’s a chance for adventure, riches, and they might even have a tale or two to tell in the tavern afterwards. But they will soon discover that sometimes there is truth in rumour…

Review: A few days ago, poor Kate was having to hear the long tale of woe from me regarding my latest book choice “The Copper Promise.” I remember specifically mentioning that I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the problem was that I was having with the book itself since it featured many of my favorite elements (a spunky heroine, a team adventure, strong high fantasy setting, etc). But for some reason the pacing felt off.

Well, the other day I was doing a bit of research into the book itself when I had a big “Aha!” moment: This book is a compilation of four novellas that were bound together to make the book “The Copper Promise!” It was really a light bulb moment, and now, with this in mind, I am going to move forward with reading/reviewing the book as it was originally published as four separate but serialized stories.

Right off the bat, it was a much more enjoyable experience re-approaching this series as novellas. Read on its own, “Ghost of the Citadel” is an action-packed, snappy-paced adventure story featuring three misfit characters. Tonally, this novella is closer to some of the fantasy of old that was much more campy and poppy. The world-building features classic monsters, fabled wars between mages and gods, and a mysterious Citadel that is the temptation (and seemingly always the death) of adventures throughout the realm.

Our adventures feature Wydrin and her partner Sebastian, a well-established mercenary duo on the look out for their next job. And a fallen lord, Aaron Firth, whose family was murdered and was run off his lands after suffering gruesome torture at the hands of his captor.

As this was a shorter novella, readers are thrown into the action with very little back story for any of these characters. We know a bit more about Firth from a prologue featuring him, but we pick up Wydrin and Sebastian straight from the tavern. I’m intrigued by the hints of backstory for them both. Sebastian heralds from a mountainous realm where he was once a member of an illustrious knights force, but was discharged for unknown reasons. Wydrin seems to have a simple reputation for being one of the best mercenaries out there Wydrin is the type of character who is right up my alley, so I was a bit disappointed by lack of backstory (even hints!) that we were given for her, other than that she is great at her job. Firth was honestly my least favorite character, but I feel like the series is setting him up for a redemption arc, of sorts, so I will wait to see what comes of that in the next three stories.

The story ends on a cliffhanger, so beware of that. But the cliffhanger, and the arc of the story itself, all feels so much more natural when read as an individual novella rather than a section of one book, so I strongly recommend trying to find the ebooks and reading the series in that version.

Rating 7: Once I got myself figured out, an enjoyable first installation for this 4-part novella series!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Ghosts of the Citadel” isn’t included on any lists on its own, but compilation “The Copper Promise” is on these lists: “Best Fantasy Books by Women” and “Fantasy Standalone Novels.”

Find “Ghosts of the Citadel” at your library using WorldCat!

 

 

 

Serena’s Review: “Prickle Moon”

16056356Book: “Prickle Moon” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Ticonderoga, April 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: bought it!

Book Description: Prickle Moon” is a collection of Juliet Marillier’s best short fiction. It contains eleven previously published stories and five new ones. Included are the Sevenwaters novella, “’Twixt Firelight and Water”, the epic Nordic story, “Otherling”, and “In Coed Celyddon”, a tale of the young man who would one day become King Arthur.

The title story, especially written for the collection, concerns an old Scottish wise woman facing an impossible moral dilemma.

Other new stories in the book include “By Bone-Light”, a contemporary retelling of the Russian fairy tale “Vasilissa the Wise”, and “The Angel of Death”, a dark story about a puppy mill rescue.

Review: I don’t typically read many short story compilations. I like my stories lengthy with lots of room for world-building and character development. And yet, I bought this book! Well this is simply because Juliet Marillier is one of my all-time favorite authors. I’ve read all of her books and she is on a very short list (maybe 3?) of authors whose works I will buy without reading first. I’m sure as the months go by I will feel compelled to ultimately post reviews of all of her books, just out of sheer love and a tendency towards being a completionist. But my first post will be on this more recently read book of hers.

“Prickle Moon” features sixteen total stories; the length of each story varies quite a bit with a few lasting only a handful of pages and others taking up more meaty chunks of the total page count. Many of the stories featured Marillier’s staple touch: mixing fantasy elements with, often Irish, folklore and heritage. Her writing is beautiful, lyrical, and often heart-wrenching.

One of my favorites was the title story “Prickle Moon” which features, as the cover art would imply, hedgehogs and a wise woman struggling to find her place in a small world seemingly going mad with grief where she must face the terrible choices put upon her. I’m not ashamed, I ugly cried during this story.

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Tissues? Who said I needed tissues?? (source)

I also really enjoyed “’Twixt Firelight and Water,” though this is one of the lengthier stories and also one that is directly tied to Marillier’s “Sevenwaters” series. I’m not sure how approachable it would be to casual readers who are not already familiar with the world and the characters. However, if you have read that series, it was such a joy to read this short story and get more details on some of the more sidelined characters from the original stories.

Mariller is also known for her fairy tale retellings, another reason she’s a favorite of mine. And here she tackles Rapunzel and the story of Baba Yaga, both of which were also highlights of mine.

There were a few contemporary stories, as well as one that would have to be labeled science fiction. While I still enjoyed these, they were a bit jarring to run into after zipping through the high fantasy tales that mostly make up this collection. I wasn’t completely sold on the science fiction story, especially, but once I got into the rhythm of the contemporary tales, I found myself enjoying them as well. But it is ultimately pretty clear where her strengths as a storyteller lie.

As I said, I don’t have a strong background in short story collections, so I don’t have a lot of other books to compare it to. However, as a newcomer to this type of book, I found myself really enjoying “Prickle Moon.” I did catch myself often wishing that each story could be its own book, but, alas, I imagine that is always the challenge with short stories. If you enjoy short story collections, especially if you are a fantasy/fairy tale retelling genre lover, I strongly recommend “Prickle Moon.” Just make sure to have that box of tissues ready at hand.

Rating 8: A few of the stories were weaker than the others, but the strong ones were fantastic. Marillier’s beautiful writing style and strengths with fantasy writing were well-represented.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Prickle Moon” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it obviously should be on this one: “Collections of Short Stories.”

Find “Prickle Moon” at your library using WorldCat.

 

 

Joint Review: “Double Down”

27818091Though we do tend to read different genres, there is sometimes overlap in the books that we pick up and devour. When this happens, we decide to do a joint review, giving our thoughts through our own personal lenses of what we look for in reading material. A few weeks ago, we reviewed the first book in Gwenda Bond’s “Lois Lane” series, and now we’re back with the sequel!

Book: “Double Down” by Gwenda Bond

Publishing Info: Switch Press, May 2016

Where Did We Get this Book: The library!

Book Description: Lois Lane has settled in to her new school. She has friends, for maybe the first time in her life. She has a job that challenges her. And her friendship is growing with SmallvilleGuy, her online maybe-more-than-a-friend. But when her friend Maddy’s twin collapses in a part of town she never should’ve been in, Lois finds herself embroiled in a dangerous mystery that brings her closer to the dirty underbelly of Metropolis.

Kate’s Thoughts:

I think that a YA series is a great platform for Lois Lane to really shine. It’s pretty tempting to just make her a damsel in distress when she’s serving as a counterpart to Superman, or to just push her aside completely. So if you’re coming to this series looking for solid Lois characterization, this is going to be the series for you! If you’re coming into it looking for an original and well plotted main story that only strengthens her character, well….. Maybe not.

I think that is what frustrates me the most about this series. I read it because I want to see Lois shine more on her own, and shine she does, but at the same time I find myself wanting to get back to the scenes with SmallvilleGuy. I WANT LOIS TO STAND ON HER OWN, but in this series she isn’t completely able to do that. Sure, she is a new coming of Veronica Mars in her own way, and I love how she is written, but in terms of the mysteries that she gets to solve without Clark, they aren’t very strong. In this one we get a strange mystery involving her best friend Maddy’s twin sister Melody, and a secretive conspiracy involving the mayor’s office, the former mayor (who happens to be her friend James’s disgraced father), and human cloning. This plot line was boring and didn’t interest me at all, which isn’t good seeing as it was the main storyline of the book. However, I was definitely invested in her progressing relationship with SmallvilleGuy, and the side mystery that the two of them were working on, involving a mysterious internet handle who claims that they have knowledge of a mysterious flying man. For Lois this could mean finding out what happened to her and her father one night long ago in rural Kansas. She doesn’t know what it means for SmallvilleGuy, of course, but is glad that he’s interested too. This was a mystery I could sink my teeth into, because it puts both Lois AND Clark in a dangerous position, even though we’re only seeing it from Lois’s point of view. It legit felt like some “X-Files” malarky going on, and I was living for it. Especially since Lois fears that her father may be in on it, which I thought was a perfect plot point to introduce. Sam Lane has been contentious in various iterations, and I think to make him a potentially shady government being is a very clever direction to take him in. This storyline also set up for some potential future storylines as the series goes on. One involves a mysterious source who just signs their correspondence with ‘A’. And the other was short and sweet: while Lois and SmallvilleGuy were in a virtual reality world, being represented by their own created avatars, a mysterious, silent avatar was following them around occasionally. An avatar that looks like a bat.

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My face when the book I’m reading may be teasing an unexpected Batman arc. (source)

Damn do I love Batman and all his broody shenanigans. The thought of teenage Bruce somehow interacting with Lois Lane, even if it’s just for a little bit, really, REALLY makes me giddy.

I’ve just kind of come to terms with the fact that I am reading this series because it’s a spot on Lois portrayal that I really, really like. It’s not terribly innovative and had it been about an original plucky high school reporter I would have jumped ship awhile back, but it’s my girl Lois and she keeps it centered. She’s ambitious and whip smart without being cruel or vain, and has realistic flaws that make her interesting. I could read about this Lois Lane all day long, and I am still wanting to see more.

Serena’s Thoughts:

When I started this series, I agreed with Kate’s first thought: that YA is a great vehicle for a Lois Lane story. And, while I still am very much enjoying the novelty of getting to read a Lois Lane centric series, I’m not as sure that this is really true for me any more.

I agree with much of what Kate said regarding the central mystery of this story. The biggest failure in this book for me was this plot and its “believablility” issues. Look, we know this is based on a Superman story, so going in I have “bought in” to the world where an alien being has arrived on earth and has all of these amazing ability. But…that’s really supposed to be the only fantastical difference between this world and our own. The first book featured virtual reality; this is easy to get on board with as it feels like we’ve been one step away from this in reality for the last decade. But this book used cloning as its central plot device. And, look,  cloning is something that has actually happened in our world! It shouldn’t be so hard to believe! But the explanations, science, and plot devices behind it always felt weak, through me out of the story, and for a plot dealing with “twin bonds,” clone tanks, and a mob boss, I was surprisingly bored through a lot of it.

I also second what Kate said about the secondary mystery that Lois and SmallvilleGuy were involved in being much more interesting. There were actual stakes involved in this. I never really cared about Melody, the only connection readers have to her is that she is Maddy’s twin sister (and frankly, I’ve never particularly been super attached to Maddy herself!), but heck yeah I’m invested in sneaky government agencies trying to discover the identity of the flying man!

This is the central problem that I’m coming to see with this series. There’s just no way to balance the primary and secondary characters properly. SmallvilleGuy is firmly a secondary character. His plots are secondary, his page time is secondary, and, I’m sorry, that’s just not going to work in the long run for most readers when the series is being sold based on the strength of  Lois Lane, whom everyone knows through her connections to Clark Kent/Superman and the other classic DC characters. There is no way to write unique, original characters who are going to stand up as more interesting or more worthy of their more central roles in the plot when you have a character like SmallvilleGuy lingering on the sidelines with all of this previously established history and backstory. It’s just an impossible situation. It’s not that Maddy, Devin, James, or any of them are bad characters; they’ve just been plopped into a losing battle. I found myself almost skimming through large chunks of the story, just to get back to the Lois/SmallvilleGuy action, and this isn’t good.

Going back to what I originally said, I at first thought the idea of a YA Lois Lane book had a lot of good things going for it. But I’ve now come to realize that what I was really excited about was just the idea of a Lois Lane book all told. The YA aspect of the series is starting to feel like an anchor, rather than a boost. The action and stakes never feel like they have any true threat, which is another factor contributing to my general boredom/lack of interest in the central mystery, and you just can’t put Clark Kent on the sidelines and expect original characters to carry the show. When readers know the truth of the matter, it’s easy to start feeling impatient for Lois to get there too. And I start looking at this series, and due to it being YA, I just see a never-ending line of books before we get any kind of resolution in this area, unless Bond commits to fully re-writing history (which frankly, I’d be more than ok with!) Just get them in the same room and working together!!

So, ultimately, I found this book fairly frustrating. And largely this has to do with the fact that parts of it are so good! I love Lois herself, the characterization is spot on perfect for me.

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Oh, Lois…(source)

 

And SmallvilleGuy, too! But right there, if your two, let’s face it, MAIN characters are both so strong, it’s tough to read a series where one of them is sidelined and the other spends most of her time on plots that have very little at stake and with characters who just can’t stand up on their own. I shouldn’t be more interested in a flying bat machine that literally gets 4 sentences worth of page time than in Lois’s actual highschool friends. Can we just have a massive time jump and start writing the series from Lois’s perspective while at Daily Planet with Clark??

Serena’s Rating 6: I just love Lois and SmallvilleGuy so much that I’m finding it harder and harder to appreciate the other aspects of this series. But, of course, I’ll continue reading, because there’s no way I’m NOT supporting a “Lois Lane” series!

Kate’s Rating 7: The main plot and mystery isn’t very interesting, but Lois’s side mystery with SmallvilleGuy and the government’s hunt for the flying man has me fully invested.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Double Down” is included on these Goodreads lists: “YA Superheroes (Not Comics/Graphic Novels)”, and “Fiction Featuring Lois Lane”.

Find “Double Down” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Court of Fives”

18068907Book: “Court of Fives” by Kate Elliot

Publishing Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, August 2016

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

Book Description: Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper-class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But away from her family, she can be whomever she wants when she sneaks out to train for the Fives, an intricate, multilevel athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best competitors.

Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an improbable friendship between the two Fives competitors—one of mixed race and the other a Patron boy—causes heads to turn. When Kal’s powerful, scheming uncle tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test her new friend’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a royal clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.

Review: As advertised on the cover of this book, Kate Elliott is a World Fantasy Award Finalist, which puts me to shame when I admit that before this, I hadn’t read anything by her. But after reading “Court of Fives,” I definitely will!

Jes and her sisters walk a precarious and lonely path. As the daughters of a Patron father who has been making a name for himself with militaristic achievements and their Commoner mother, a woman their father can’t legally marry, they do not fit in either world.  With such limited choices, each sister must find her own solace and way forward, and for Jes, that escape is the Fives, an intricate, Olympics-like sports competition that rests at the heart of society. But when her world begins to crumble around her, Jes must put these same skills to the real test: saving her mother’s and sisters’ lives.

This was perfect timing, as far as books go. Just coming off the amazingness that was the Summer Olympics, I was perfectly primed for a book about an awesome woman athlete kicking ass and taking names. I mean, I’m pretty sure I would have been perfectly happy with this book if it had just been scene after scene of Jes rocking it out at the Fives competition. And that was one thing I truly appreciated about this story. Jes starts out fully confident in her abilities, and then…lives up to her own word! Sure, she meets legendary athletes who help her train, and I’m sure will play more of a role in future books, but Jes is never “downgraded” by “reality” which is so often the case with stories like this. Girl starts out really good at THING, meets boy who then beats her at THING, boy and girl form competitive relationship where girl improves over the course of the book to maybe be awesome by the end. There is none of that. Jes is clearly at the top of her game throughout the story, and gains the respect and admiration of her colleagues for it.

Especially from Kal. I loved their friendship. There’s never any doubt that Jes is the superior player, but Kal is a gracious friend who doesn’t feel the need to tear her own for this, but sees her for the mentor she can be in his own quest to improve. It was a fun dynamic.

Adding to that, I really enjoyed the clashing cultures, classism, and struggle due to colonization that is on display in this book. Each culture/society is well-rounded and it was interesting watching Jes come to the “history is told by the winner” conclusion. Her struggles as a child of two worlds and the realities of the choices she has before her were also well done. There were no easy answers, and it was never forgotten that Jes, her sisters, her mother, and even her father, were constantly bound by the roles that society imposed on them.

I also really enjoyed the relationship that Jes had with her family. Her challenging relationship with a father whose choices she didn’t always understand or agree with, her mother who chose a life of scorn from outsiders to be with the man she loved, and Jes’s sisters, all dealing with the same restrictions as Jes. I particularly enjoyed the sisters, and the fact that none of them became pigeon-holed into the roles they are initially laid out in. At first I was rather dismissive of them all: you have the scholar, check; the rebel, check, and the beautiful, spoiled baby of the family, check. But each character broke from their roles in ways that surprised me.

I really enjoyed this book. There was such depth to this world and the culture, and the mores serious issues regarding classism and imperialism were balanced by fun sports moments and lots of adventure. The ending also made some brave choices, denying Jes an easy resolution and setting readers up for the sequel. My library request is already placed!

Rating 9: A complicated and challenging world, peopled with fun characters. The beginning of a trilogy that earns its follow up stories!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Court of Fives” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it should be on “The Games We Play” and “Best Books About Family Relationships.”

Find “Court of Fives” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Star of the Morning”

"Star of Morning"
Book: “Star of the Morning” by Lynn Kurland

Publishing Info: Berkley Trade, December 2006

Where Did I Get this Book: The library!

Book Description: Darkness covers the north, since the black mage has begun his assault on the kingdom of Neroche. Legend has it that only the two magical swords held by Neroche’s king can defeat the mage. Now the fate of the Nine Kingdoms rests in the hands of a woman destined to wield one of those blades…

In this land of dragons and mages, warrior maids and magical swords, nothing is as it seems. And Morgan will find that the magic in her blood brings her troubles she cannot face with a sword-and a love more powerful than she has ever imagined.

Review: This book came to me by way of boredom-browsing through the library, a habit that has been met with both good and bad results in the books I ultimately end up with. I chose this one purely on the cover and the description. I have a weakness for the fantasy warrior woman trope, and I’m not ashamed! And as far as this aspect of the story goes, I was definitely satisfied.

We’re introduced to a fully capable Morgan who has years of experience under her belt, isn’t taking back talk from anyone, and demonstrates her abilities repeatedly throughout the book. Often, I find fantasy stories can rely too heavily on telling readers that their heroes are great, all while getting caught up in other plots and never really proving this claim. Morgan is not this. She fights off wild beasts, she trains a lord’s set of guards, she beats up on the king, for heaven’s sake! We are repeatedly shown just how awesome she really is. And I loved it all. What’s even better is that Morgan is aware of her talent. She doesn’t downplay herself and is fully confident in her abilities. If anything, she’s on the arrogant side which plays great for humorous effect.(She regularly complains about how incompetent the king is, unaware that he’s the king, and it’s too much fun).

And it’s not only Morgan who’s aware of her skill. Other characters, male characters, mention and appreciate her skill as well, reinforcing her place as a uniquely skilled swordswoman. Major points for this! It’s always refreshing to read a fantasy novel like this where the female protagonist isn’t punished in any way for being what she is: an extremely talented fighter. She’s just who she is, and that’s enough for everyone around her.

The story is split between Morgan and Miach, the king’s youngest brother and archmage of the realm. Also her love interest. He was given much more time in the story than the plot synopsis indicates. If anything, it’s a dual protagonist set-up between the two. He was also a fun character and what time we spent with him was enjoyable. While I probably enjoyed Morgan’s sections more, I wasn’t bothered by Miach’s portions.

The biggest strength of this book for me was the humor. There were several laugh-out-loud moments for me. The dialogue was witty and Morgan’s inner appraisal of those around her was always entertaining. Again, her disdain of the undercover king, and his reactions to her bluntness, was hilarious.

I do have a couple of criticisms. This book is fantasy-lite. The worldbuilding is of the most generic type for stories like this. We could be in any average magical world and nothing is really unique about this one. Magic is just a thing, there is no explanation for how it works the way it does or any limitations on its range. The politics are very typical, and what we’re given of the history of the world isn’t presenting anything terribly interesting.

And I personally always ding a book when the major conflicts of the story hinge on people choosing to just not communicate. There are several decisions like this throughout the book that just made me want to slap people. It was easy to see the conflict being set up by these choices and the payoff wasn’t worth the frustration of watching characters so badly mismanage things for a purely contrived purpose. These decisions made no sense and when I can see the author’s hand this clearly, it aggravates me. It goes completely against the competent characters that have been set up so far to then make them behave in this way, and it only succeeded in taking me out of the story.

Also, the ending. I won’t spoil it, but it was wrapped up way too quickly and in a manner that almost undid a lot of the goodwork and goodwill the book had built up up to this point. This book is the first in a trilogy, and while I was entertained by it and there were a lot of aspects I liked, I’ll still put this on my to-read list but I’m not in a major rush to get my hands on the second one based on some of these flaws.

Rating 6: So good in so many ways! So frustrating in so many ways!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Star of the Morning” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Best ‘Strong Female’ Fantasy Novels” and “Magic, Adventure, Romance.”

Find “Star of the Morning” at your library using WorldCat!