Book Club Review: “Sky in the Deep”

34726469We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘genre mash-ups’, where we pick two random genres and try to find a book that fits both. 

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

Book: “Sky in the Deep” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, April 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: Kate got it from the library,

Genre Mash-Up: Fantasy and Romance

Book Description: Raised to be a warrior, seventeen-year-old Eelyn fights alongside her Aska clansmen in an ancient rivalry against the Riki clan. Her life is brutal but simple: fight and survive. Until the day she sees the impossible on the battlefield—her brother, fighting with the enemy—the brother she watched die five years ago.

Faced with her brother’s betrayal, she must survive the winter in the mountains with the Riki, in a village where every neighbor is an enemy, every battle scar possibly one she delivered. But when the Riki village is raided by a ruthless clan thought to be a legend, Eelyn is even more desperate to get back to her beloved family.

She is given no choice but to trust Fiske, her brother’s friend, who sees her as a threat. They must do the impossible: unite the clans to fight together, or risk being slaughtered one by one. Driven by a love for her clan and her growing love for Fiske, Eelyn must confront her own definition of loyalty and family while daring to put her faith in the people she’s spent her life hating.

Kate’s Thoughts

I went into this book with hesitance, if only because it’s described as ‘fantasy’ and you all know how I am about fantasy books. I had remembered that Serena had read it and enjoyed it, and I do have to admit that the idea of Viking based mythology was a tantalizing thought. Still, I was nervous. But it turned out that I had nothing to be nervous about, because “Sky in the Deep” ended up being a really fun read for me!

The greatest appeal of this book was Eelyn, as not only is she a fierce and strong warrior, she is also a complex character who is still a relatable teenage girl. She loves her family and she is very set in her beliefs, and when her belief system is questioned she has to reconcile that life isn’t as black and white and straightforward as she previously thought. But even in the face of these changes to her opinions and realizations of nuance, she still remained true to her self, and it didn’t feel like she strayed from her character in ways that seemed unbelievable. I also really enjoyed seeing how she had to relearn about, and learn to forgive, her brother Iri after his perceived betrayal. I felt that while her relationship and eventual romance with Fiske was an interesting dynamic, I was more invested in whether or not Eelyn would be able to reconcile with Iri.

The world that Young built also kept me interested in the story. I have very little working knowledge of Viking lore and history, so I went into this with little to no expectations. This worked in my favor in two ways: one, I had no idea of anything stood out as ‘inaccurate’ (though as a fantasy that doesn’t necessarily need to enter into it), and it was still exciting enough that it  kept me going. I liked the world building and the explanations of the different cultures and how they were similar and dissimilar, and felt like they were distinct from each other. The action sequences and conflicts were also very well written, and I found myself on the edge of my seat with worry for all the characters I liked. Investment in characters is always a huge plus!

“Sky in the Deep” was a really fun read and a great exception to my usual lukewarm feelings towards fantasy. It makes me feel like people who may not like fantasy will find things to like here!

Serena’s Thoughts

I was excited when I heard that this book was chosen for one of our bookclub picks. Yes, I had already read it, but I had liked it the first go around and was more than happy to revisit it. On a second read-through, my feelings remain pretty much the same. The short and sweet of it: I liked the main character quite a lot, the story could be predictable at times, but the awesome action and subdued romance all hit the right marks for me.

Again, this re-read, the thing that really stood out to me was just how badass Eelyn is. This book is the epitome of showing and not telling as far as warrior skills go. All too often, readers are simply informed that the main character is “such and such incredible fighter” but we either never see it in action, or only get a brief glimpse. This could partly be due to the fact that writing good fight/battle scenes simply isn’t as easy as one would think. But Young rises to the challenge and again and again we see Eelyn’s abilities on display, both in larger battles scenes (like the ones at the beginning of the book) to the smaller skirmishes that Eelyn gets in throughout the story. What’s more, we’re free from having to read through any moral hand-wringing about all of this violence. This is the culture and world that Eelyn has grown up in. It’s brutal and bloody and it simply never occurs to her to question her own role in taking part in this. Through a modern lens, we can have our questions. But through a realistic portrayal of a character living in this world, she wouldn’t have these same thoughts.

Beyond this, one thing that did stand out more for me this re-read was just how beautiful some of the turns of phrase were. Much of the book is action, but there are a few quieter moments throughout the story that are really quite gorgeous, either in the depth of the reflections taking place (especially Eelyn’s struggles to understand her brother and his choices) or simple descriptions of a winter-y scene. The title of the book draws from one of these moments. I think these quieter moments really worked well to balance out what was otherwise a very fast-paced story.

Obviously, re-reading this, I knew what was coming when, so my original criticism of its being a bit predictable is harder to evaluate a second go-around. I do think that that thought remains true, however. Much of this probably has to do with the length of the book. It’s a standalone (yay!), but it also doesn’t have a terribly long page count on its own. Within these restrictions, plot points need to be gotten through fairly efficiently, and the manner in which this is accomplished is, yes, fairly predictable to readers familiar with this type of story.

Overall, however, I still very much enjoyed this book, and it’s definitely one worth checking out if you’re looking for a standalone story that mixes fantasy, history, and romance in an action-packed book.

Kate Rating 8: An action packed adventure with a compelling set of characters and distinct world building, “Sky in the Deep” was a fun surprise!

Serena Rating 8: I’m going to actually up my rating a point after this re-read. I think the strength of the writing as a whole stood out even more this go-around, and it deserves that edge up.

Book Club Questions

  1. This story mixes several different genres all together: fantasy, historical fiction, romance. Did one of these areas standout for you?
  2. Eelyn must grapple with a lot of prejudices and preconceptions in this book. How well do you think her growth in this area was handled?
  3. There are two primary relationships at the heart of this story: Eelyn and her brother, Iri, and Eelyn and Fiske? Were you more invested in one or the other and why?
  4. The book covers a host of dark themes and can be quite violent at times. What did you think about how these aspects of the story were handled?
  5. The story also focuses a lot on found families. Were there any notable elements in this area that stood out for you?

Reader’s Advisory

“Sky in the Deep” is on these Goodreads lists: “YA Vikings” and “YA Fantasy Standalones.”

Find “Sky in the Deep” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “His Majesty’s Dragon”

28876Book: “His Majesty’s Dragon” by Naomi Novik

Publishing Info: Del Rey, March 2006

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

Book Description: Aerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleonic Wars as valiant warriors ride mighty fighting dragons, bred for size or speed. When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes the precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Captain Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future – and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature. Thrust into the rarified world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France’s own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte’s boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.

Review: I loved both “Uprooted” and “Spinning Silver,” both fairytale retellings by Naomi Novik. I’ve heard repeatedly about her Temeraire series, and yet for some reason hadn’t picked it up. While I do like fantasy fiction that mixes together historical and military fiction as well, I think I always just read the book description for this one and was overwhelmed with flashes of “Master and Commander.” But when my last audiobook expired and I was perusing my audiobook list, the library must have been going through some high demand period and none of the books I had mentally lined up for next were available. But there was “His Majesty’s Dragon” with a glowing, green “available” next to it. So, with no excuses left, I checked it out. Only a few days later, I now have the same problem with trying to find a replacement audiobook because I blew through this one so quickly!

Laurence is proud of his career as a naval man. While impressed with the aerial corps, he’s always preferred this avenue of military life and has looked with wonder at those who live a very different life paired with their dragon companions. But when his ship captures another that carries an egg that is about to hatch, Laurence finds his life taking quite the turn. With the birth of Temeraire, a rare dragon from across the world, Laurence is introduced to an entirely different world, and one that is only marginally understood by society as a whole. Now, on the brink of invasion by Napoleon and his forces, Laurence and Temeraire must learn where they will fit in the challenging future that is unfolding before them.

So, no surprise given my introduction paragraph, but I loved this book! I really don’t know what my problem was. Novik is definitely a strong writer and this book routinely shows up on “best of” fantasy lists. Like I said, all I can blame is having only read a very different sort of fantasy from her in the past (fairytale fantasy) and my completely-unfounded-on-any-facts concern that the story would be mostly about military action with only a dash of dragons. And while, yes, there are highly descriptive battle scenes and the rules and regulations of life in the military are an important part of Laurence and Temeraire’s arc, there was also just a ton of great dragon stuff. Not only between Laurence and Temeraire and their wonderful relationship, but in the entire concept of what a world would look like if dragons were a common thing.

Novik includes tons of detail on the many different types of dragons that make up the world, both the ones native to England and the ones coming from other regions of the world. Their strengths and weaknesses are then used in very specific ways when it comes to military action. In her version of dragon riders, dragons are more like ships, big enough to have entire crews and to operate in coordinated maneuvers with the other dragons around them. In this way, Laurence is both a bonded partner with Temeraire, but also a captain who much command the group of other military personnel who also “crew” the dragon. The whole thing was so incredibly unique. As I just got done saying in my last review about phoenix riders, we’ve seen a lot of books with dragon riders. But here, Novik has come up with a truly original way of approaching the concept and there is so much room to use and expand on this idea.

But, of course, for me the most important thing often comes down to characters, and I absolutely loved both Laurence and Temeraire. Laurence is just a good guy: honorable, noble, able to adjust to his changed circumstances with grace and care. In the beginning, we get a good understanding for just what a life change it means for Laurence to suddenly become a dragon captain and have to leave behind a promising career as a naval captain. But through it all, he puts Temeraire first, always, and handles the skepticism and often out-right reproach of those who resent his new role with firm grace. In these ways, the book is almost as much a fantasy of manners story as anything else. My Jane-Austen-loving ways were all over the intricacies of honor and politeness that Laurence displayed.

And, of course, Temeraire was amazing. He’s a unique type of dragon, not one common to England, so much of the book is learning more about him and what his strengths are. It is clear from the start that he is incredibly intelligent, and Laurence and he form a quick bond based on mutual friendship and respect. He also expresses his own set of moral codes, something that Laurence must struggle to understand when it varies from his own sense of duty. Perhaps due to Temeraire’s unique attributes, but also largely due to Laurence’s not having been raised up in the aerial corps, the two of them see the relationship between riders and dragons and the mode of operation of the entire corp through a unique lens. Along with the reader, they are learning as much as we are, but also coming to see flaws that have long been accepted, challenging norms as they go.

The book does have some excellent battle scenes and even a few scenes that made me tear up. But it also definitely reads as an introduction to a series. Much of the story is made up of world-building and scene-setting, letting readers get to know Laurence and Tameraire slowly throughout the story and setting up conflicts to come. This is where Novik’s strength as a writer comes to play. In another author’s hands, this type of book, that reads largely as a set-up for books to come, could feel plodding and useless. Instead, all of the details and attention to character building were completely absorbing in their own right.

I really can’t say enough good things about this book. Fans of fantasy fiction, especially dragons (and for those looking for a unique take on the whole “dragon rider” concept), should definitely check this one out. If you like historical fiction and military fiction as well, that can only be a plus! For me, these books are already added to my mental list of long-running series that I will need to work my way through in the years to come!

Rating 9: With two incredibly endearing protagonists at its heart, this military fantasy series is sure to appeal to dragon-loving readers!

Reader’s Advisory:

“His Majesty’s Dragon” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Alternate History Novels and Stories” and “Best Book With or About Dragons.”

Find “His Majesty’s Dragon” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Stalking Jack the Ripper”

40727470Book: “Stalking Jack the Ripper” by Kerri Maniscalco

Publishing Info: Jimmy Patterson, September 2016

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

Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Audrey Rose Wadsworth was born a lord’s daughter, with a life of wealth and privilege stretched out before her. But between the social teas and silk dress fittings, she leads a forbidden secret life.

Against her stern father’s wishes and society’s expectations, Audrey often slips away to her uncle’s laboratory to study the gruesome practice of forensic medicine. When her work on a string of savagely killed corpses drags Audrey into the investigation of a serial murderer, her search for answers brings her close to her own sheltered world.

Review: I’m always on the lookout for another good historical mystery series. While I have several that I’m currently following, there’s always room for more! I’d seen this title floating around in a few discussions with other fans of historical mysteries and was intrigued by not only the concept (while I’m not at Kate’s level of knowledge of famous serial killers, we all know about Jack the Ripper!), but also by the fact that it was  YA series. So off to the library I went where I was pleased to find a lovely audiobook version ready and waiting!

Ever since her mother’s death, Audrey Rose has turned to science to understand the world. Under the tutelage of her eccentric uncle, she has learned the ins and outs of anatomy and even begun conducting procedures herself. But what began as a pursuit of knowledge turns a deadly angle when a streak of murders of women hit London. Called upon for the forensic knowledge, Audrey Rose, her uncle, and his apprentice, the irritating but handsome, Thomas, are pulled into the dark and disturbing mind of a mad man. And as they begin unraveling the crimes, Audrey Rose begins to suspect that the mysterious “Jack” may be stalking them, in turn.

So, right off the bat, this is going to be a mixed review. On one hand, I genuinely enjoyed reading this book and whizzed through it quite quickly. But on the other side of things, once completed, I found myself looking back on many aspects of the storytelling with some dissatisfaction. But, as always, we shall begin with the strengths!

One of the things that intrigued me most about this book and series was the combination of a historical mystery based on a real-life crime spree and the young adult genre. I’ve mostly read adult historical mysteries in the past, and it’s pretty obvious that fantasy, and now to some extent contemporary fiction, is still dominating the YA genre. Historical mysteries/thrillers are hard to come by! And I do think the author managed to pull off the merging of all of these elements quite well. For fans of historical mysteries, there were familiar elements in the detailed depiction of the time period and the creation of a romantically-tinged buddy cop duo in Audrey Rose and Thomas. The mystery was solid enough, probably enhanced mostly by its connection to the true crimes, and it walked right up to the horror line, if not crossing it a bit towards the end in a surprisingly gruesome manner. And for YA fans, Aubrey Rose and Thomas checked most of the boxes for what readers expect from their teenage protagonists.

This horror aspect and the reveal at the end of the murderer and their motivations was also one of the strongest aspects of the book. While I felt that the identity of the murderer was telegraphed fairly early on, the motivation came as a complete surprise and the manner of its explanation and end game was particularly horrific. There was almost a cross-over with another famous story in a way that I hadn’t been expecting at all.

The writing was also snappy and quick-moving, with the dialogue between Aubrey Rose and Thomas rising to the top as often particularly enjoyable. However, here was also where I began to struggle with the story. There was something verging on anachronistic in the relationship and mode of speaking that was built up between these two. As I said, this type of buddy cop/romantic relationship is fairly standard for historical mystery fare, and often that involves a rather progressive man and woman at its heart. However, here, there were a few elements that pushed this typical pattern over some unseen line in my mind. Part of it could have to do with their age. For example, both Veronica and Amelia were independent, fully grown women when they set off on their adventures. Age, experience, and, importantly, financial and social freedom that was rarely seen in the time, allowed them to interact with others and the world in the way they did. Aubrey Rose is still quite young, not even “out” in society, and still a member of her father’s household. This then ended up rubbing up wrongly against some of her choices and ways of speaking, especially in her interactions with Thomas.

So, too, Thomas’s flirty and sarcastic way of speaking was also hampered by not only his relatively young age, but also the fact that he was supposedly raised to be a gentleman and was interacting with a young, often unchaperoned, girl. This left some of his more suggestive remarks reading not as the fun flirtation that I’m sure they were meant to portray, but instead as rather boorish and unflattering. All together, it was the kind of an odd, unhappy mixture of modern YA romance tropes on top of a historical setting that isn’t equipped to manage those tropes in the same way.

Further, while I generally enjoyed Aubrey Rose as a character, she did have her fair share of really poor decision making and thinking. And while these flaws were often made clear to her, eventually, it was still a frustrating read at times when aspects of the mystery were only too clear to readers, but Aubrey Rose, through plot necessity, was forced to remain and act clueless. In this same way, her interactions with Thomas became equally frustrating as she insisted on “misinterpreting” his flirtations throughout the entire book, even when those same flirtations became almost inappropriately obvious.

In the end, it was a bit of a mixed bag. I really enjoyed what the author was attempting to do, and I think she should be applauded for managing to merge so many genres together. However, this same merging of genres also let the author and the book down at times when tropes from each didn’t play well together. But, as I said, I also whizzed through this book quite quickly, so I still plan on checking out the next in the series. We’ll evaluate again from there! Fans of historical mysteries may want to check this series out, but if you’re not a fan of YA fiction to some extent, you may be frustrated by some of those elements.

Rating 6: A fast-paced, fun read, just try not to think about it too much afterwards though or you may become frustrated.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Stalking Jack the Ripper” isn’t on many Goodreads lists for some reason, but it is on  “YA Fiction set in the 1880s.”

Find “Stalking Jack the Ripper” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Wolf in the Whale”

39603796Book: “The Wolf in the Whale” by Jordanna Max Brodsky

Publishing Info: Redhook, January 2019

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

Book Description: Born with the soul of a hunter and the language of the gods, Omat is destined to become a shaman like her grandfather. To protect her people, she invokes the spirits of the sky, the sea, and the air.

But the gods have stopped listening, the seals won’t come, and Omat’s family is starving.

Desperate to save them, Omat journeys through the icy wastes, fighting for survival with every step. When she meets a Viking warrior and his strange new gods, together they set in motion a conflict that could shatter her world…or save it.

The Wolf in the Whale is a powerful tale of magic, discovery and adventure, featuring an unforgettable narrator ready to confront the gods themselves.

Review: I was very excited when I received a ARC of this book. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but the brief description was immediately intriguing. I’ve found very few fantasy/historical novels (especially adult fiction, for some reason) that focus on the culture and history of the Inuit people. What’s more, the ancient trips of the Vikings to North America are included, another topic that I’ve rarely come across. And, now a resident of Minnesota where the Vikings and their previous trips here are kind of a big deal, this book felt like a no-brainer. And I’m pleased to report that not only did it live up to my excitement, but it surpassed it!

Omat’s being is made up of many parts, but most especially she carries the spirit of her deceased father in herself. This duel nature between a man’s spirit and a woman’s body has not prevented her from contributing to her small, family group, struggling to survive, mostly alone, out on the tundra. But when their small life is intruded upon by strangers, Omat’s role, shaman abilities, and future are suddenly, horribly, called into question. Now alone in the world, it is up to Omat to carve her own path to save her people and to merge the powerful spirits she’s walked with her entire life with the new deities being carried to her world from across the frozen sea.

One of the primary themes in this book is identity, most especially called into light through Omat’s journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. The religious beliefs of her people state that the spirits of the deceased can come to life again in a newly born person. That person is then both the new embodiment of that being but also still their new self at the same time. For Omat, this complicated balance is made more difficult by the spirit inhabiting her coming from her father, a man who had been an important provider for their poor family group before his unexpected death. Omat is thus raised as a man, developing both the important and necessary roles of shaman and hunger and garnering the respect that comes along with these duties, but also acquiring the same dismissal attitude towards the womens’ work accomplished by the women in their family. I particularly enjoyed how this tension played out throughout the story, as we see Omat’s struggles to retain the independence and respect that came with her man’s role, but slowly learns to respect and see with a new eyes the crucial roles that women play. The author also neatly avoids falling into any traps that would make Omat’s journey of self-discovery feel too modern or anachronistic. Instead, it feels like a natural path for a character in her position in the time. Meaning, of course, that while she comes to a balance for herself, she is still an exception, even in her own eyes, to the traditional roles assigned to each group. It was a fascinating journey.

The story itself neatly weaves in fantastical elements that pull from Inuit folk tales and religious beliefs. These then, eventually, mix with the Vikings’ own belief system, and we even see the beginning tendrils of spreading Christianity and how that rubs up against these two other, older beliefs. Again, the author presented an interesting balance between exploring faith but also presenting walking/talking gods in the more recognizable, fantasy-based way. The Inuit folklore was especially strong, with several of the tales introduced in the beginning of the book coming to life throughout the story and playing a major role in influencing the outcomes of certain events. I also enjoyed the romantic story that is introduced about halfway through, perfectly balancing itself within the greater story as a whole without overshadowing Omat or her journey.

This was almost a perfect read for me, but there were a few dings against it that came out mostly in the first half of the book. For one, it is slow to get started. There’s a good third of the book to get through before the real action begins to take place, and while this portion is laying important groundwork, it simply read slowly and delayed my full immersion into the story.

I also wish that the publisher had marketed this book differently. Since it’s all out in the open anyways, it’s no spoiler that Omat is a woman. But the way the story plays out, in the beginning chapters of the book, readers, and Omat herself to some extent, aren’t aware that the main character is female. The reveal is then ruined by our previous knowledge from the book’s marketing. I’m guessing this was just a risk the publisher didn’t want to take, but I think that it underestimates readers and severely undercuts what could have been a great reveal, and one that tied neatly to the major themes of the book (our perceptions of gender roles).

The last thing wasn’t so much a mark against the book as a general warning: there are a few fairly graphic scenes dealing with violence and assault against women. Readers can kind of get a sense that the story is headed in this direction, but these scenes were still very hard to read.

But, those quibbles aside, I adored this book! The setting felt fresh and new, and Omat’s journey was both exciting as an adventure and fascinating as an introspection into the roles of men and women. If you enjoy historical fantasy, and especially if you’re longing for something new, NOT set in medieval Europe, definitely give “The Wolf in the Whale” a try!

Rating 9: Simply excellent! I’ll definitely be on the look-out for more books from this author!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Wolf in the Whale” is a new title and isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Popular Inuit Books” and “Canadian Arctic.”

Find “The Wolf in the Whale” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Bombshells United: War Bonds”

39208018Book: “Bombshells United (Vol.2): War Bonds” by Marguerite Bennett, Stephen Byrne (Ill.), Mirka Andolfo (Ill.), Sia Oum (Ill.), and Sandy Jarrell (Ill.).

Publishing Info: DC Comics, October 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Years ago, before she became the battling Bombshell known as Batwoman, Kate Kane and Renee Montoya loved and fought together in the Spanish Resistance, and even formed a family with their adopted son Jasón. But their lives were turned upside down, and Kate found a new life and a new love for herself in Gotham City.

Now Kate is back in Spain, working with Renee once again to save the country from a tyrannical ruler…only this time the despot has unstoppable occult powers. His name is Black Adam, and he’s lived for millennia seeking the moment he can gain control of the powers of life and death.

Batwoman, Renee and Black Adam are all defined by whom they’ve loved and lost. But beneath the ancient streets of Madrid, a mystical labyrinth conceals the means to bring life back to the dead: a Lazarus Pit. 

With this incredible power, will Black Adam gain the final piece he needs to crush the entire world under his heel? Or will the dead have their own say in it?

Writer Marguerite Bennett (Batwoman) and artists Mirka Andolfo (Harley Quinn), Siya Oum (Lola XO) and Stephen Byrne (Green Arrow) bring fan-favorite Bombshell Kate Kane back to where she began…but how much will her past define her future? Collects Bombshells: United #7-12.

Review: I’m feeling a bit morose that this is going to be the second to last “Bombshells” story collection for the foreseeable future. I’ve moved on from being angry to depressed when it comes to this series being cancelled, and I’m thinking that I’m moving closer and closer to acceptance. There are a couple of reasons for this acceptance that are more on the unfortunate side, but more on that in a little bit. Because at the end of the day I still think that it is a damn travesty that DC cancelled this title just because of how unique it is and how it covers a vast swath of characters who come from diverse backgrounds and give diverse voices to the stories they are telling. And now it sounds like I’m reverting back towards anger, so before that happens let’s get to the nitty gritty of what worked, and what didn’t, in “Bombshells United: War Bonds”.

It’s been a little while, but we once again have caught up with Kate Kane and Renée Montoya, aka Batwoman and The Question. They have moved on from their final battle and have ended up back in Spain, where they first met and fell in love. But it’s also where they lost their adopted son Jasón, when mercenary The Cheetah murdered him for the hell of it. The loss is still gaping, and while Kate and Renée have found each other again the pain lingers. I liked that we got to see their grief in this way, as something that will always be with them, even if it isn’t as all encompassing as it had been initially. This theme of grief is where the crux of this story comes in, post-Franco Spain,’s new ruler is a whole new tyrant that we know as Black Adam, who is also haunted by a terrible loss from his past. He is looking for a way to resurrect his dead queen Isis, and has heard of a pit with magical powers that can bring people back to life. But it’s Kate and Renée who stumble upon it first, finding this Lazarus pit in the middle of an underground labyrinth. And who else do they find there, but Talia Al Ghul and Cheetah. And Cheetah is there because she has brought Jasón back to life, as she is now driven by guilt and a need for forgiveness and redemption.

giphy
Me as I realized that this kind of plot point seemed VERY familiar… (source)

Okay folks, it’s real talk time. I really, REALLY appreciate that Bennett is trying to think beyond the usual physical and violent conflict resolution that we see in superhero stories, and I understand that it’s a fun way to show that women’s roles and stereotypes of being peacemakers and nurturers can be subverted into something powerful enough to stand up against super villainy. But, for the love of God, this is the fourth time that a nemesis has seen the evil of their ways thanks to spending time with the Bombshells (or in Cheetah’s and Paula Van Gunther’s cases, just kind of needing the conflict resolution to fit an upcoming plot device), and it is getting old. I am all for redemption arcs, and I think that it’s especially important that bad women in fiction get these arcs since it feels like men do when it suits the storyteller. But I want them to be complex and interesting, not just tossed together in a moment because of peace love and understanding. It also makes it so that our cast of villains becomes smaller and smaller, and you instead need to introduce new (albeit familiar) antagonists to stir the pot, like Black Adam. I will admit that I’m not as familiar with him, as Shazam (aka Miri Marvel as she is in this story) was never a title that I got into very much. But even if I had been into him, I feel like introducing a new huge big bad at this point was just another example of fantasy bloat that “Bombshells” is starting to see more of.

That makes it sound like that I didn’t like anything about this turn of events, and that’s not totally true. Like many stories with similar themes that come before it, Kate and Renée will have to contend with the unforeseen consequences of Jasón’s resurrection. Though it isn’t full on zombie Jasón or anything like that, you do get the sense as the story goes on that perhaps things won’t be as happily ever after as Cheetah intended it to be. I also liked that for Kate and Renée, Cheetah’s actions weren’t automatically welcomed with open arms. They didn’t forgive her automatically because of this, and I thought that that was a realistic and refreshing turn of events. It’s one thing of the Batgirls or Wonder Girls  are able to take a former enemy into the fold and show them compassion. But Harvey Dent and Clayface didn’t murder their kids just for the fun of it. I thought that Bennett hit that nail on the head, that atonement doesn’t automatically earn forgiveness.

The art in this collection worked better for me than it did in “Bombshells United: American Soil”, mainly because it didn’t feel as cutesy. There were also nice moments of pondering or waxing poetic on mythology that felt more muted and subdued, and I really took to it. Maybe it helped that during one of these sequences Kate ACTUALLY ACKNOWLEDGED THAT MAGGIE SAWYER IS STILL BACK HOME WAITING FOR HER. In any case, I thought that the design worked well and added a lot to the retro style narrative.

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(source)

As mentioned above, we are only getting one more collection of “Bombshells United” before it’s over. One more. There are so many things that haven’t really been addressed across the other characters, and given that there has been a new explosion of characters I’m worried that the focus is in no way going to be brought back to where it needs to be to have a totally satisfying ending where all loose ends get tied up. And while that is in part certainly the fault of the cancellation (I’m sure that Bennett had lots of really good ideas and paths on how and when she was going to take them on), it’s also in part an example of why exploding character rosters and plot lines can come back and bite you in the butt. As I slide closer to acceptance that this series has ended, I hope that in the next, and final, issue I will walk away with some satisfaction. And that Kate, Diana, Kara, Harley, and all the rest are given their due that they so richly deserve.

Rating 6: There was a lot to like about “Bombshells United: War Bonds”, but repetitive storytelling is starting to take it’s toll.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bombshells United (Vol.2): War Bonds” is not on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Girls Read Comics”, and “Show Me Your Queers”.

Find “Bombshells United (Vol 2): War Bonds” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “Once Upon a River”

40130093Book: “Once Upon a River” by Diane Setterfield

Publishing Info: Atria/Emily Bestler Books, December 2018

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

Book Description: A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child.

Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.

Is it a miracle?

Is it magic?

Or can it be explained by science?

Review: I’ve heard the name “Diane Setterfield” tossed around here and there over the last few years. Her novels, that often combine fantastical elements and historical settings, are the type that would likely appeal to me, so she’ll pop up on lists here and there that I glance through. All that said, for some reason or another, I’ve never actually taken the time to pick up one of her books. Big mistake! Apparently, I needed someone to take the choice out of my hands, so I’m very thankful for the publisher sending me a copy and giving my butt a good kick towards this excellent book and author.

There is an inn on a river. An inn where late nights are full of stories, tellers and listeners all gathering together over their beers to share new and familiar tales. Until one night, a story unfolds at their feet with the unexpected appearance of a little girl, apparently dead until…she’s not. But who is she? Where did she come from? Everyone has their own story, their own connection to this strange young girl. But what is the truth?

The very first thing that struck me is the writing tone of this book. In my opinion, any story that is going to also focus on storytelling as its subject matter must master this element first and foremost, and Setterfield accomplishes this quickly and thoroughly. From the very first few pages, one is swept into a lyrical story that reads like the best fairytales and folklore stories. The language is simple, but beautiful, and it’s easy to imagine sitting in the very same smoky inn, drinking mulled cider, while someone recounts this story aloud. The atmosphere is set incredibly, and while it only takes a few pages for the small girl to arrive, I already felt completely immersed in this world.

As the story progressed, I enjoyed the introduction of a larger cast of characters, all with their own distinctive stories and connections to the girl. In each story, we’re given just enough to begin forming assumptions and connections ourselves, but mysteries are ever present. Half of the fun of the book was attempting to weave all of these narratives together to form a complete circle.

Further, the setting was left a bit nebulous, but in this type of story, it seemed to work. It took a while for me to settle on what time period this was taking place in, which seems like it could be a criticism. But, like the best stories, a tale should be able to simply exist, without hard dates lodging it in time. Further, as the summary alludes to, there is a running question throughout the story of the fantastical. The little girl was dead. Everyone who saw her could confirm this. But then she wasn’t. Various characters come down on different sides when attempting to prescribe an explanation for this event. And readers, too, are left questioning what exactly is going on. Is there a level of fantasy being introduced here? Or is it the type of “fantasy” that we can all see in our everyday life, now, if we really look for it?

“Once Upon a River” is a beautiful story, mysterious and ever-flowing like the river that is at its heart. Fans of Setterfield’s previous books are sure to be pleased with this more recent entry. And new readers, like me, who enjoy stories about stories and lyrical writing will also come away satisfied. It’s just the kind of cozy book that is perfect to settle down with on these cold, winter nights.

Rating 8: A story that immediately draws you in with its beautiful writing and mysterious weave of intersecting tales.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Once Upon a River” is on these Goodreads lists: “Winter Seasonal Reads” and “Historical Fiction 2018.”

Find “Once Upon a River” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel”

37638211Book: “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel: A Story of Sleepy Hollow” by Alyssa Palombo

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Griffin, October 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: When Ichabod Crane arrives in the spooky little village of Sleepy Hollow as the new schoolmaster, Katrina Van Tassel is instantly drawn to him. Through their shared love of books and music, they form a friendship that quickly develops into romance. Ichabod knows that as an itinerant schoolteacher of little social standing, he has nothing to offer the wealthy Katrina – unlike her childhood friend-turned-enemy, Brom Van Brunt, who is the suitor Katrina’s father favors.

But when romance gives way to passion, Ichabod and Katrina embark on a secret love affair, sneaking away into the woods after dark to be together – all while praying they do not catch sight of Sleepy Hollow’s legendary Headless Horseman. That is, until All Hallows’s Eve, when Ichabod suddenly disappears, leaving Katrina alone and in a perilous position.

Enlisting the help of her friend – and rumored witch – Charlotte Jansen, Katrina seeks the truth of Ichabod Crane’s disappearance, investigating the forest around Sleepy Hollow using unconventional – often magical – means. What they find forces Katrina to question everything she once knew, and to wonder if the Headless Horseman is perhaps more than just a story after all. In Alyssa Palombo’s The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel nothing is as it seems, and love is a thing even death won’t erase.

Review: I’ve had a deep affection for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” ever since I was a little girl. My first exposure to it was the Bing Crosby Disney vehicle, with it’s jaunty music and admittedly all too terrifying Headless Horseman. My favorite adaptation is the utterly faithless but still WAY fun and interesting Tim Burton film “Sleepy Hollow”, as while Johnny Depp is a creep his portrayal of Ichabod Crane as an earnest and logical detective is a preferable contrast to the original superstitious gold digger Washington Irving imagined. But something that cannot be denied in either version, from the fairly true to the quirky retelling, is that the female love interest, Katrina Van Tassel, really isn’t given much to do outside of being an object of affection. While it’s certainly true that Christina Ricci’s version of Katrina is perfectly adequate (hell, she gets to be a witch, which is pretty neat), it is mostly Ichabod’s story. So when I read about “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” by Alyssa Palombo, I knew that I had to read it, as it is a retelling of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” but from a female centered perspective.

This isn’t so much a ghost story this time around as it is a romance and mystery, and it’s certainly presented through a feminist lens. Like in the original tale, Katrina is the daughter of wealthy farmer Baltus Van Tassel, but instead of being merely a point in a love triangle she is a sharp and independent woman who sees life beyond Sleepy Hollow and the path that is planned out for her. While her father does encourage her studies and her interests, ultimately he sees her marrying her childhood friend Brom Van Brunt, aka Brom Bones, who remains the WORST. Katrina has other ideas, as she has come to despise him because of his treatment of her best friend Charlotte, the daughter of the town midwife. Brom is very much the macho and of the time ideal of a man, popular and the son of another successful (and therefore land owning) farmer, though his misogyny and bigotry turns Katrina off. It’s a solid portrayal of a timeless villain, and while he remains antagonistic, Palombo does a good job of making him a little more complex than merely the town brute. But don’t get me wrong, he’s still awful.

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It has to be done. (source)

Katrina’s loyalties are to Charlotte because Charlotte is one of two profoundly meaningful female relationships she has in this book, the other being Nancy, her former nursemaid. I loved that not only do we get Katrina to steer the ship of feminist interpretations, but that Charlotte and Nancy provide examples of positive and supportive female friendship that could otherwise have been completely waylaid. It also is a good way to address horrific realities of the time in organic ways. It brings up the distrust people had towards women like Charlotte and her mother, who are midwives and herbalists who are seen as potential witches, and the evil that was chattel slavery, as Nancy is a former slave who is now employed by the Van Tassels. While it is made clear that she is  given a wage and has her freedom, her past as property is not ignored, and it is addressed in a way that shows the privileges that women like Katrina and Charlotte DID have during this time because of their skin that were not afforded to Nancy. These three women band together and support each other, and it felt fairly even handed, as neither Charlotte nor Nancy felt like props there merely to hold Katrina up.

The romance between Katrina and Ichabod was very satisfying as well. Since it is through Katrina’s eyes, her agency and intent are always present, as Ichabod is portrayed as a man of intellect who sees Katrina as an equal in all ways. Her self worth and independence are only bolstered by him, and their love affair is not only on even footing, it’s also VERY romantic. And smutty. My GOODNESS is this book heavy on the love scenes during the first part. Palombo manages to make these love scenes feel fairly real for the time and place, and the romance is a slow burn that really makes you root for Katrina and Ichabod, even if the original story has mapped out a very clear, and tragic, path for it to take. Unlike “Sleepy Hollow”, “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” doesn’t completely throw the source material out the window, and while I knew that going in there would absolutely be bittersweetness, I wasn’t prepared for how emotional Katrina and Ichabod’s romance, and his ultimate disappearance, was going to be. Palombo constructs a love that feels timeless and complex, and makes Ichabod far more than a gold digging schemer, as well as more than a deep thinking hero. Yet ultimately, this IS Katrina’s story, and while her love for Ichabod sets it in motion she is the one fully in control beyond her relationship with him. She has to make some tough choices in the wake of his disappearance, choices that she doesn’t want to make and yet must because of the time period, and her drive to find out what did happen to the love of her life, be it him running off or Headless Horseman taking him, make her an all the more intriguing heroine. Because while love is a huge theme, there is also a lot of grief, and what grief can do to a person.

But given the ambiguity of the original source material (was it a Horseman who was responsible for Ichabod’s disappearance, or a very mortal man?), “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” would be missing something if the supernatural aspect wasn’t there. Luckily, Palombo does have eerie elements. Katrina is haunted by visions of the Headless Horseman her entire life, her gift for Sight being a main theme in this book. She and Charlotte both have seemingly otherworldly powers, though they are never overdone or overshot. Given that I LOVE The Headless Horseman as a ghost and antagonist, I was worried that he was going to be more of an afterthought in this story. But while he does play a smaller role, and a more opaque one at that, there was enough of him and the idea of him that still gave him a presence throughout the narrative. Palombo brings in other folklore from the original tale and region (and provides handy author’s notes at the end about it), as Katrina collects and tells the stories of ghosts and spectres through the area. After all, she too is haunted by things, though they are perhaps more of this Earth. By the end of this book I really liked how the ghostly tales were woven into the overall story arc, and how they could serve as metaphors for the things that Katrina was going through. And yes, The Headless Horseman does have one pretty damn satisfying moment, as ambiguous as it may be. After all, he himself is an ambiguous character in the original tale, so this time around it feels extra sweet to see the big moment that is given to him.

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#teamhorseman (source)

Overall, I really liked “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel”. It retold a story that I love in a unique and female centered way. I’m setting this book on the shelf next to my copy of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” so they can coexist in the way the two tales really ought to.

Rating 9: A lovely romance with a bittersweet mystery “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” re-tells an old classic with a female focused lens, and brings it satisfying new characterizations.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “The Best Fairytales and Retellings”.

Find “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” at your library using WorldCat!