Serena’s Review: “The Queen of Attolia”

40158Book: “The Queen of Attolia” by Megan Whalen Turner

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, April 2000

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Revenge
When Eugenides, the Thief of Eddis, stole Hamiathes’s Gift, the Queen of Attolia lost more than a mythical relic. She lost face. Everyone knew that Eugenides had outwitted and escaped her. To restore her reputation and reassert her power, the Queen of Attolia will go to any length and accept any help that is offered…she will risk her country to execute the perfect revenge.

…but
Eugenides can steal anything. And he taunts the Queen of Attolia, moving through her strongholds seemingly at will. So Attolia waits, secure in the knowledge that the Thief will slip, that he will haunt her palace one too many times.

…at what price?
When Eugenides finds his small mountain country at war with Attolia, he must steal a man, he must steal a queen, he must steal peace. But his greatest triumph, and his greatest loss, comes in capturing something that the Queen of Attolia thought she had sacrificed long ago…

Review: Well, as predicted, I’m well on my to zipping through this entire series well before the publication of the newest book (expected sometime next spring). But I just can’t help myself!

Coming off the strength of the last book, I was very excited picking up this book to discover what new adventures Gen would get himself into next! So I was a bit dismayed when I soon realized that the format of this book has changed from the first. “The Thief” was told from Gen’s first person perspective. This book is not only told from a third person perspective, it also has widened the cast to include chapters from other characters. But I should have had faith! This book was even better than the last, and this change in format is largely responsible for the improvements.

The first person perspective often seems like the more intimate style of storytelling. You’re living fully in a character’s head, so of course readers feel more closely connected to a character written this way. However, as I’ve discussed before, there are also limitations to this type of storytelling. Here we see the strengths of the third person approach. In many ways, it better suits the type of story that Whalen Turn is trying to tell. After pulling the rug out from under readers the way she did at the end of the first book, the author couldn’t use the same trick twice. We all know how clever Gen is and won’t be fooled again! Or will we…

A third person perspective and the increased use of other characters allowed the plot to become that much more intricate, especially given the shift in tone that this story takes. The first was largely an adventure/heist story. This is political intrigue, and very smart political intrigue at that. Often in YA, political intrigue seems to be dumbed down to such an extent that you can barely call it “intrigue.” Not so here. And the added character perspectives, most notably, those of the Queen of Attolia, add so much to this broadened take on the relationships between our main characters and the countries they rule.

I can’t say enough how impressed I am with the tale that was built for the Queen of Attolia (the character, not to be confused with the title of the book itself!). After the first book, I had her comfortably slotted into the “evil queen” character type and nothing more. Low and behold, Whalen Turner had miles more of character development in store for her.

And, of course, I can’t end this review without specifically talking about Gen. While we get less of him, I feel that by the end of this book, I understood this complex, flawed, but brilliant character that much more. The author makes a very brave choice with regards to Gen early in this book, and I was thrilled that she didn’t take any easy outs with how she dealt with the fallout of this choice. Honestly, like I said earlier, I thought that after being fooled once I would be enough on the look out to spot plot developments in this book. But not so. I was shocked when it happened, and even more shocked with the brilliant way that Whalen Turner faced her building narrative straight on, all while cleverly pulling the wool over readers’ eyes.

I can’t rave enough about this series. There is a lot more political maneuvering in this book than in the first (and than is often found in YA fantasy). But these days, with “Game of Thrones” at the the height of its power, I feel that this series is primed for a resurgence.

Rating 10: Brilliant plotting, complex characters, gutsy risk taking that pays off!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Queen of Attolia” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Political themed YA fiction” and “Most Intelligent Plots.”

Find “The Queen of Attolia” at your library using WorldCat.

Previously Reviewed: “The Thief”

 

Kate’s Review: “How To Hang a Witch”

27405351Book: “How To Hang a Witch” by Adriana Mather

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, July 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: It’s the Salem Witch Trials meets Mean Girls in a debut novel from one of the descendants of Cotton Mather, where the trials of high school start to feel like a modern day witch hunt for a teen with all the wrong connections to Salem’s past.

Salem, Massachusetts is the site of the infamous witch trials and the new home of Samantha Mather. Recently transplanted from New York City, Sam and her stepmother are not exactly welcomed with open arms. Sam is the descendant of Cotton Mather, one of the men responsible for those trials and almost immediately, she becomes the enemy of a group of girls who call themselves The Descendants. And guess who their ancestors were?

If dealing with that weren’t enough, Sam also comes face to face with a real live (well technically dead) ghost. A handsome, angry ghost who wants Sam to stop touching his stuff. But soon Sam discovers she is at the center of a centuries old curse affecting anyone with ties to the trials. Sam must come to terms with the ghost and find a way to work with The Descendants to stop a deadly cycle that has been going on since the first accused witch was hanged. If any town should have learned its lesson, it’s Salem. But history may be about to repeat itself.

Review: I need you, readers, to go back and read that description. I will wait…

Okay, did you read it again? Does it not sound absolutely BANANAS?!?! If you said anything other than ‘yeah totally’, I want to know what your life is, because to me this is totally bonkers. Which is why I put it on my list, of course. Because you have a YA novel about teenage witches in Salem, Massachusetts, and the teenage girl descendent of Cotton Mather, written by an ACTUAL descendant of Cotton Mather, that has magic, bitchy teen girls, a Puritan era curse, and a ghost who is a partner in detection.

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(s0urce)

Look, I’m going to be honest. There are many thing that I would criticize: The writing is clunky, Sam is very much a stereotypical ‘I’m so edgy and no one understands me!’ protagonist, the dialog borders on unbelievable, the metaphor of witch hunts as modern day bullying is kind of ham fisted, and there were so many cliches that I lost track of them. But guess what? I DID NOT CARE!!!  All these things aside, it pretty much met all the needs that I needed it to meet! “How To Hang A Witch” by Adriana Mather is a sanitized version of “The Craft” and “American Horror Story: Coven” and yes, it’s over the top and silly, but I’m not mad because I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with it.

Why, you ask? Well, lots of reasons. I like witch stories. I liked that Mather has clearly done a lot of actual research about the Salem Witch Trials and the history of the town, and her family. I like that she does manage to incorporate a lot of that history into the narrative, even if it’s forced in at times. And I was kind of left guessing about who the perpetrator of the curse was, as Mather does put in some good red herrings that did distract me here and there. What could have easily just been a gimmicky book written by a descendant of someone who was there turned out better than it could have. I also did ultimately like our main character, Sam Mather, even if she is close to falling into many a trope in YA literature. As a descendant of Cotton Mather, of COURSE she’s a target for bullying by The Descendants, who are descendants of accused witches. So I was able to forgive Sam’s dark sulking, because unlike other sulking protagonists in YA stories that shall go unnamed, her father is in a coma, her mother is dead, all of her friends have had terrible things happen to them, and now she’s being tormented by most everyone around her. EVEN THE TEACHERS, I kid you not. Because of all this I get her defensiveness and I’m more willing to forgive it, even if it all seemed a bit heaped on. True, when in the first paragraph she warned the reader that she’s super sarcastic I was skeptical, and her constant spats with most everyone in town were also worrisome and repetitive. But as the book went on that forced edginess eventually tapered off, and Sam became more natural in her interactions with those around her, so it didn’t feel as ridiculous. It would have been easy to make it her against the world and that’s it, but she grew and developed, and therein found more common ground with others, which made her more sympathetic and easy to swallow.

But we do need to talk about the love triangle. Because boy, is it a doozy in this one. First you have Jaxon, the nice boy next door type who believes in Sam and is kind and nice to her, if not a little flat and boring. He’s fine. He’s a pretty clear ‘best friend I don’t have feelings for or do I?’ contender. But then…. Then there’s Elijah. Elijah, the thoughtful, brooding, sarcastic, GHOST. A GHOST, GUYS.

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What even is this and why do I kind of love it? (source)

So yeah, that happened. Man, I really do hate love triangles, especially when there is seriously no reason for them. But I did like Elijah, because there was enough sarcastic and snarky personality to him that he wasn’t just an ‘awwwww, woe is meeeeee’ stereotype of the supernatural love interest. He and Sam always felt like they were on equal footing in their investigation of the mystery of the curse, and while he may not have totally adhered to a lot of Puritanical values for sake of storytelling, it was a pretty okay representation of parties equally giving and taking. His motivation was his own as well, with his backstory tied up in the curse and the tragedies of the Salem Witch Trials, so it didn’t feel like he was just thrown in for the love angle alone. He was at least justified in being there. Him being a ghost was a bit silly, sure, but it did add a tragic spin to his romance with Sam. I think that the friendship and intimacy between the two also emphasized that Sam has a harder time fitting in with her living peers (which is dangerous because she teeters towards ‘I’m not like the other girls’-dom). But Jaxon just felt unnecessary to me, and shoe horned in because there needed to be some extra drama in the romance department for whatever reason. True, he starts by serving as the one person who trusts and supports Sam, but then that is rendered unnecessary as time goes on. I’m wondering if he was just there to potentially set up more drama down the line, because looking at Goodreads it looks like this is considered the first in a series. Given how it ended, in kind of an ‘end of “District 9″‘ sort of way…. well, I’d probably read the next one if it does come to fruition.

So to recap: this book is cheesy, silly, and painted with a broad brush, but I found myself deeply entertained while reading it. Is it going to be something I’d point to if you are genuinely interested in reading about the Salem Witch Trials? Hell no. Is it something I’d point you to if you wanted a spot of fun and a quick read about teen witches? Hell yes. “How To Hang A Witch” was a doozy, and I just decided to buckle up and enjoy the ride, which worked in my favor. No regrets!

Rating 7: At times cheesy and predictable, but also very fun and a nice fluffy read, “How To Hang A Witch” was an entertaining book with characters I cared about and a sappy romance I enjoyed. It’s bananas and I loved that about it.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“How To Hang A Witch” can be found on the following Goodreads lists: “YA & Middle Grade: The Salem Witch Trials”, and “Horror Extravaganza: 31 Days of Halloween”.

Find “How To Hang a Witch” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Shadow Bright and Burning”

23203252Book: “A Shadow Bright and Burning” by Jessica Cluess

Publishing Info: Random House BFYR, September 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: I am Henrietta Howel. The first female sorcerer. The prophesied one. Or am I?

Henrietta Howel can burst into flames. When she is brought to London to train with Her Majesty’s sorcerers, she meets her fellow sorcerer trainees, young men eager to test her powers and her heart. One will challenge her. One will fight for her. One will betray her. As Henrietta discovers the secrets hiding behind the glamour of sorcerer life, she begins to doubt that she’s the true prophesied one. With battle looming, how much will she risk to save the city–and the one she loves?

Review: I featured this book back on one of my highlights posts, and low and behold it finally showed up on my library hold shelf! While I sped through the story and it did avoid most YA tropes that are immediate turn offs for me, I ultimately found myself slightly underwhelmed.

As the book description proves, this story is pretty typical young adult fantasy fare, right down to the special power being fire-related (why is it always fire??). I have to say, if I were an author, I’d be staying as far away as I could from anything that might leave my main character open to “girl on fire” comparisons to Katnis…but that’s just me. Further, the introduction of a million and one love interests, a secret life that she must hide, and a prophesy, completes the trope infestation. But, like I said, Cluess did do just enough to avoid falling completely into any one of these pitfalls.

Henrietta, first off, was a good narrator. She isn’t going to win any awards as the most exciting protagonists out there, but her voice was still interesting and she rarely had any “too dumb to live” moments that one sees too often. The setting, an alternate Victorian London that is under siege by a host of powerful magical entities, was creative, but also opened up the door for one of my biggest sticking points with the book.

There’s an inherent struggle when writing any book that has ties to actual history. The protagonist, especially a young woman character, needs to be true to her time, but the author still needs to create room for her to move. Too often, we have young women with ideas that are far too progressive, or who seems to too easily shuck off the constraints of her time period. So, here, I appreciated what Cluess tried to do. There are several moments where it is clear that Henrietta struggles with the mindset about women’s capabilities that is woven deep into this time period’s culture. However, ultimately, her path is just as easy, leaving the story feeling very awkward. And, while I appreciate the attempts to keep these biases realistic, there were almost too many of them, or they were awkwardly placed, undoing and often muddying the character’s own story arc.

For example, at one point, after Henrietta has already proven to herself and many around her that she is a powerful force to be dealt with, another character expresses a very misogynistic opinion to her, and she simply rolls over and agrees. Obviously, one show of force by a powerful young woman isn’t going to change the minds of everyone, but I would have liked to see the character’s own perspective on these things adjust accordingly as the book progressed and she gained more confidence in herself. A story of a young woman growing to appreciate her own strength and question what she has been told is the obvious route for a story like this, and ultimately, that’s where the narrative is going. But, as I said, these moments were still woven throughout the book in a very odd way that left me feeling off balance with regards to Henrietta’s actual character arc. It felt like the character’s growth was being sacrificed to continue the charade of her own insecurity (another one of my least favorite tropes: the character who must remain insecure just to garner compliments from those around them).

And, of course, there were the whiffs of a love triangle. The story avoids my biggest qualm with this trope, when it takes over the story in place of actual action, but it’s still there, and I don’t feel that it adds anything to the narrative itself. If it had been left out completely, I honestly feel like there would have been absolutely zero change to the story itself, and that’s never a good thing. And, due to this and my general wariness from being once burned, twice shy, it was hard to become fully invested in the many, many young men characters that surround Henrietta, as I have no idea which one will be the next love-triangle fodder in following sequels.

Ultimately, while the story was enjoyable and I was able to speed through it without any major hiccups, this book isn’t doing anything new for the genre. Almost every piece of it felt familiar and reminiscent of one or another young adult fantasy series. If you enjoy this type of story, then go ahead and read it. But if you’re looking for a new take on young adult fantasy, or are too burned out on some of these tropes (love triangles, special girl with special powers, limited world building), then you might want to give this one a pass.

Rating 6: While inoffensive, it was also slightly uncreative and had a few too many familiar pieces trying to pose as unique.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Shadow Bright and Burning” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Victorian YA Novels” and “ParaHistorical Fiction.”

Find “A Shadow Bright and Burning” at your library using WorldCat.

Serena’s Review: “The Thief”

448873Book: “The Thief” by Megan Whalen Turner

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Book, October 1996

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: The king’s scholar, the magus, believes he knows the site of an ancient treasure. To attain it for his king, he needs a skillful thief, and he selects Gen from the king’s prison. The magus is interested only in the thief’s abilities.

What Gen is interested in is anyone’s guess. Their journey toward the treasure is both dangerous and difficult, lightened only imperceptibly by the tales they tell of the old gods and goddesses.

Review: As you can see in the publishing information section, this is a book that’s been around in the young adult fantasy lexicon for quite a while. It routinely comes up in lists of fan favorites and has the bonafides to back it up being listed as a Newbery Honor Book. It is also a long running series, not necessarily in total number of books, but in their slow, steady release. After a long break after this, the first, Turner has released a new novel in the series every 4-5 years it seems, and the next is scheduled to be published next spring. So, with this in mind, I decided that now was a good time to dive into this series!

At first I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this story. Told from the perspective of Gen, a common thief who is rotting in prison until he is enlisted to aid in a royal treasure hunt, the story seemed like a fairly straight forward adventure. The story telling came across rather stilted at first, with Gen often coming across as a lazy, unlikable protagonist. The writing and plot also seemed a bit too simplified for my expectations for a Newbery book. And yet…

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(source)

Turner masterfully handles her protagonist. As I’ve said before, it’s a challenging task to write an unreliable narrator, even more so in these circumstances as the narrator is unreliable for reasons that might make him even harder to write than normal. I know that wasn’t a very helpful sentence, but I don’t want to give away things.

Further, the slow build in plot development also had huge pay offs in the end. The story itself is very short, so that may have been part of my initial skepticism with its slow burn approach to plot. But, ultimately, the adventure, fantasy, and world building were ultimately fleshed out in truly great ways. There were a lot of twists and turns throughout the story that I didn’t expect, including a dive into the mystical that came a bit out of left field for me.

While this story only briefly touches on the politics and relationships found between the countries in this fantasy world, I can see the groundwork that is being lain here. The story itself, however, does read as a stand-alone, so it’s a curious place to be, knowing there are several novels to follow.

But, as I mentioned, I feel that this book garnered its award purely on the strength of Gen as a narrator. His voice is unique (so unique that I wasn’t quite sure what I was dealing with initially and was prone to disliking him, as I mentioned), but, depending on how the next few books go, I think he has the potential to be one of my favorite leading characters.

This is a short, quick read that is well worth its time! Make sure to give it the chance it deserves if you find yourself, like me, struggling with the beginning. The payoff is well worth it! Now, we’ll see how successful I am at spacing out the rest of the books before next spring’s new release. Or…I’ll just read them all right away and waste away in anticipation like the rest of the poor fanbase who have been waiting so much longer than I will have!

Rating 8: A truly unique narrator who is worth the effort it takes to understand him!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Thief” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Thief Books” (it’s first on this list, which says something, I think!) and “Genius Protagonist.”

Find “Dreamer’s Pool” at your library using WorldCat.

 

Kate’s Review: “And the Trees Crept In”

28449150Book: “And the Trees Crept In” by Dawn Kurtagich

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

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: A stunning, terrifying novel about a house the color of blood and the two sisters who are trapped there, by The Dead Houseauthor Dawn Kurtagich

When Silla and Nori arrive at their aunt’s home, it’s immediately clear that the “blood manor” is cursed. The creaking of the house and the stillness of the woods surrounding them would be enough of a sign, but there are secrets too–the questions that Silla can’t ignore: Who is the beautiful boy that’s appeared from the woods? Who is the man that her little sister sees, but no one else? And why does it seem that, ever since they arrived, the trees have been creeping closer?

Filled with just as many twists and turns as The Dead House, and with achingly beautiful, chilling language that delivers haunting scenes, AND THE TREES CREPT IN is the perfect follow-up novel for master horror writer Dawn Kurtagich.

Review: What makes a good gothic horror story? There are many things that need to come together to really make a horror story a gothic one. You usually need a protagonist who is female, though really this isn’t a hard and fast rule anymore. It was just a very common protagonist type back in the Victorian era when these stories were super popular and remain classics. You also need a house or place of action that is isolated and generally creepy in ambiance, like a manor house or a hospital. And there usually has to be a question of what or who is actually causing the conflict of the story: is it something otherworldly, or is it just our poor isolated protagonist losing a grip on reality. “And the Trees Crept In” by Dawn Kurtagich is a pretty good representation of the gothic horror genre, and since it’s written for teens who may be more interested in something that’s more in your face than filled with nuance, I think that it’s a breath of fresh air, YA literary world wise. You have Silla and Nori, two sisters who have fled their abusive home life to live with their Aunt Cath, whose large blood red manor house is in the middle of a forest. From the get go things are strange for the sisters. There’s no technology in the house to be seen, Aunt Cath is both very happy to have them but filled with anxiety, and house seems to be in all kinds of disrepair. Soon Aunt Cath has locked herself in the attic and the trees in the woods seem to get closer and closer to the house. “I am ON BOARD!” I crowed to myself as I started this book, and given that there was talk of a Slenderman-like creepy thing in the woods (super tall, no eyes, huuuuge grin), I was even more elated to devour this book.

But then…. It became really weird, really fast.

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…..Huh. (source)

While the Gothic genre is certainly supposed to be about isolation and questions of sanity, “And the Trees Crept In” kind of took it a little too far and into a realm that was beyond cohesive and more muddled. The story is told mostly from Silla’s point of view, though sometimes Nori’s random scribbles and notes do get some play as well. But mostly it’s a first person narrative from Silla, and diary entries from Silla, which lends perfectly to an unreliable narrator device. However, as Silla’s diary entries go on, they become more and more unclear as to what exactly is going on, just as her narration starts to fall to pieces as well. Normally this is fine in this genre, but I feel that Kurtagich almost took it too far, as by the time we got to the end of the book I was just lost and more frustrated than not. Writing a well done and believable descent into madness is hard to do, to be sure, and while a valiant effort was made here, it didn’t totally work. That being said, everything does eventually get explained in a narrative moment given by Silla’s love interest Gowan. While I appreciated that explanation was given, and while it did TOTALLY make sense, I think that it shouldn’t take a literal monologue of rundown and explanation to achieve that. And on TOP of that, there is a HUGE random twist at the end that just came completely out of left field! That was strange and I didn’t know how to feel about it. There wasn’t really any reason for it to go on top of the other twist that was revealed.

And let’s talk about Gowan and Silla a little bit. Silla’s characterization of a girl who is possibly losing her mind made it very hard for me to be like ‘oh yes, Silla and Gowan FOREVER’. While Gowan does serve a purpose in terms of wrapping things up for us readers in a tight little bow, I don’t quite buy into the romance that these two are supposed to have. I mean, after all is said and done I GET it, but I still don’t quite buy it. There wasn’t enough there before the end to make me really feel all that invested in it. I was far more interested in Silla’s relationship with her little sister Nori. The dynamic was not only interesting because of the age difference (Silla was ten when Nori was born and has always felt like a second mother to her), but because of the fact that Nori is mute. They can communicate with each other, and they have a strong love and bond through their clandestine communication, which gave a more desperate dynamic to both of them. In one sense it makes Silla more desperate to protect her since she seems to have that added layer of vulnerability, but it also makes a tension bubble up because Silla has a harder and harder time having her only company (outside of Gowan’s intermittent visits) be someone who has no voice and is different from her. And Nori’s fascination with the strange being in the woods adds even more tension still. I am admittedly pretty ignorant when it comes to what it is like to be a mute person, but I feel that Nori was portrayed in a sensitive manner.

At the end of the day, I did enjoy this confusing gothic tale of terror. I think that it definitely could have been a bit less convoluted while still maintaining it’s gothic aura. I would tell readers that it does all make sense. You just have to be willing to wait for it.

Rating 7: A pretty confusing and odd tale with a plot that needed explanation, but once it was clear what was going on I was pretty okay with it. There were some unsettling and creepy moments and the Slenderman-esque imagery was spooky.

Reader’s Advisory:

“And the Trees Crept In” is included on the following Goodreads lists: “Diverse Horror”,  and “New Speculative Fiction Stars”.

Find “And the Trees Crept In” at your library using WorldCat!

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”