Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi

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Publication date – March 6, 2018

Summary: They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.

Now we rise.

Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.

But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.

Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.

Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers and her growing feelings for an enemy.

Thoughts: In this African-inspired novel, magic has been eradicated fairly recently, but the physical signs that would once have marked someone as a magic-user remain, drawing ire and violence from many and making them outcasts. Children of Blood and Bone sees a hot-headed young woman, her reluctant brother, and a runaway princess on a quest to restore magic to the people, to revolt against the king who killed and ruined so many lives, and to take back the power that the people once held for themselves.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I ended up liking it. I mean, it wasn’t a bad book, and it definitely had a lot going for it, but I found myself often growing bored with some of the repetitive narrative. The protagonists go somewhere, the antagonist finds them, the protagonists make a narrow escape. Repeat that at least 2 more times in the first half of the book alone. At first there was tension in that, because narrow escapes almost always bring tension. But after multiple narrow escapes, it lost any edge it might have had. Combined with the second half of the book having a lot of, “Is this the truth? Yes, it must be! Oh no wait maybe things aren’t like I thought! It must be lies! Oh but I want it to be truth, so it must be truth!”…

I’m sure a lot of it was meant to be tense for readers too, dealing with the unknown and trying to muddle your way through a complicated situation where you don’t know all the variables, but for my part, he constant flipping back and forth once again started to get boring, grating on my nerves after a time.

The characters, at least, were great to read about. I loved Zelie’s hot-headed impulsive nature, which got her into trouble more often than not. She had to deal with consequences of her actions, though admittedly a lot of them boiled down to, “Dangit, Zelie, you need to be more considerate of people, you’re causing so much trouble!” but then it gets overlooked until the next impulsive action because the trio had to run away from something. Her brother’s constant frustration over the way Zelie reacts without thinking, the way she frequently brings trouble down around her, was one of the most relatable things to me, not because of a sibling connection (I have none), but because good lord, don’t we all wish, at times, that we could just snap at the people who act without giving a damn to the consequences and seem to keep getting away with it? His frustration and anger were eminently understandable!

But also where the characters were concerned… The romance. Amari and Tzain I can get behind, because their budding romance was pretty adorable to read. But with Zelie and Inan? Nope. I’m very much over the whole, “They’re enemies so they must fall in love” trope; it was stale in the 90s and it’s not any fresher now. Attraction, I could maybe see. Fascination, sure. Inan’s eye-opening experiences regarding Zelie’s life, yes, absolutely, I can understand that. But Inan turned from hated enemy to guy-I-love-because-he-understands-me very quickly, and a lot of that understanding was borderline noncon because Inan had access to Zelie’s thoughts and emotions, and that whole dynamic made the whole, “Is he good or is he bad?” thing even more painful to read. Zelie doubting Inan’s commitment to her and her cause gets questioned so often, and usually for good reasons, that it’s a wonder to me why Zelie kept fanning flames for him. It felt contrived, and I’m not on board with contrived romances.

I did enjoy the premise of the story, when when Children of Blood and Bone focused on that aspect, I found myself quite attentive. Those who can use magic have been systematically killed or had their heritage and training denied to them, so that they can’t rise up and overthrow a ruler who despises it. Since this happened less than a generation ago, the wounds are still open, discontent festering within them. Through circumstance, Zelie and her group are tasked with bringing back magic to the people, to take down an oppressive government and to restore the history and culture of her people. Not a small task to put on the shoulders of a young woman who, while wanting to raise her people up, finds it understandably daunting. With very little information about just how she’s supposed to do this, she sets off on her journey, gaining companions along the way, finding pockets of resistance fighters to aid her, and having her world turned upside down in the process. This aspect of the story, I enjoyed, and even though the inspiration for it all came from a culture and events that are not personally familiar to me, it was easy to feel the fire of resilience and resistance burning, that light inside that tells you to counter injustice in small and large ways.

But in the end, I had too many issues with Children of Blood and Bone to consider it worth recommending strongly, and I really did want to enjoy it more than I ended up doing. The world-building is very interesting, and there’s definitely some good stuff here, but that appreciation was overshadowed by the problems, and in the end I didn’t find it that enjoyable a read, and I’m kind of disappointed by that.

The Lady Rogue, by Jenn Bennett

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Publication date – September 3, 2019

Summary: Traveling with her treasure-hunting father has always been a dream for Theodora. She’s read every book in his library, has an impressive knowledge of the world’s most sought-after relics, and has all the ambition in the world. What she doesn’t have is her father’s permission. That honor goes to her father’s nineteen-year-old protégé—and once-upon-a-time love of Theodora’s life—Huck Gallagher, while Theodora is left to sit alone in her hotel in Istanbul.

Until Huck arrives from an expedition without her father and enlists Theodora’s help in rescuing him. Armed with her father’s travel journal, the reluctant duo learns that her father had been digging up information on a legendary and magical ring that once belonged to Vlad the Impaler — more widely known as Dracula — and that it just might be the key to finding him.

Journeying into Romania, Theodora and Huck embark on a captivating adventure through Gothic villages and dark castles in the misty Carpathian Mountains to recover the notorious ring. But they aren’t the only ones who are searching for it. A secretive and dangerous occult society with a powerful link to Vlad the Impaler himself is hunting for it, too. And they will go to any lengths—including murder—to possess it.

Thoughts: When I first heard this book described as something that fans of A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue would enjoy, my attention was caught. Despite me having problems with it’s sequel, I really enjoyed Gentleman’s Guide, and the idea of a book in that vein but with the legend because Vlad the Impaler thrown in, The Lady Rogue sounded like something I would similarly enjoy.

And it wasn’t bad, really. It just wasn’t something I was able to get into as much as I had hoped.

The Lady Rogue is primarily told from the perspective of Theodora, daughter of a wealthy adventurer who is frequently left behind in the care of tutors and caretakers while her father travels the world on grand adventures, seeking lost artifacts and mysteries. Suddenly reunited with her previous boyfriend, who was supposed to be traveling with Theodora’s father, she finds herself caught up in an adventure of her own as she not only attempts to track down her missing father, but also a lost ring connected to Dracula’s legacy and the dark power that runs through her veins.

In between many of the chapters are short interludes from her father’s journal, where we see the entries dated in the late 1930s. I will be completely honest here — I spent a good amount of the novel thinking that the reason Theodora’s father was missing was because he had somehow traveled back in time. I came to this erroneous conclusion because none of Theodora and Huck’s sections were dated, and they both talked as though they were far closer to today than to almost 80 years ago. Almost nothing was given to indicate the time they existed in, and I based my cues on their behaviour and speech, and it wasn’t until I noticed that I wasn’t seeing any indication that time travel was actually going to be a plot element that I had to look up when the entire book took place.

Now yes, there are some things that do indeed indicate the time period, but I think many of them, to a reader less inclined to look things up, might just assume that they could be explained away by east Europe being, well, not North America. Of course rural European settings would use small mail delivery planes. Of course people would take trains and buses rather than going by car. That’s just how it’s done over there.

It didn’t help that I found two instances (at least, two that stand out in my mind) of characters using slang that is entirely inappropriate for the time period. At one point, Theodora is telling her father off, and comments that, “FYI, [thing].” Now, FYI as an abbreviation for “for your information” did certainly exist in the 1930s, but primarily in a journalistic sense, from what my research has led me to conclude. You would see it in marginalia and in newspaper corrections, that sort of thing. It’s hardly something you would have heard many people say aloud as though they were 90s teens.

The second instance that comes to mind is Huck saying toward the end that he was getting “hangry,” and no, I’m sorry, but that portmanteau gained popularity in the 90s, even if it was used as far back as the 50s, and neither of those decades are the 30s.

Now, I admit that I read an ARC of this book, and those issues might not be in the final release, so I admit that those particular problems might not even be problems in the version that most people will read. However, that doesn’t eliminate any of my commentary on why I was confused about the time period of the book. Neither Theo nor Huck talked or behaved as though they came from any time period but “timeless modern,” and considering this book is meant to be historical fiction with a touch of the supernatural to it, so much felt so out of place for so long.

I did, admittedly, enjoy the story of The Lady Rogue, when I was getting distracted by how anachronistic many of the characters acted. The mystery of Theodora’s father’s disappearance powered most of the book, though along the way, as they made their way from Istanbul to various Romanian cities and towns, the subplot of the ring slowly overtook all else. Theodora’s father was initially searching for the ring, on the premise that 3 identical rings were made but only 1 was real, and supposedly connected to dark magics that gave the wearer great power but also brought death and ruin down around them. In this, I can see how the comparison to The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue were made; both are historical fiction, and both feature a possibly-magical item as a motivation for the characters to progress through the story. Whether that item is actually magical or not is irrelevant; what matters is that people believe it to be, and act accordingly.

The ring was magical (the rest of the legend surrounding it wasn’t quite accurate, though I’ll refrain from giving too many details so that at least something in this book isn’t spoiled for future readers), though it really only proved itself to be at the very end. There were signs building up to it, signs which certainly convinced Theodora even if they didn’t quite convince Huck, but similar to Gentleman’s Guide, the magic itself wasn’t what compelled people. It was the belief in the magic, the legends themselves that made people seek it out, committing sometimes terrible acts in the name of legends and folklore, and I find that sort of thing fascinating. It interests me, to see what people will do in the pursuit of perceived power, what they might be motivated to do to get closer to something they only believe is the truth but don’t have definitive proof of. It’s a testament to the power of myth and belief, and I’m glad to have seen this appear in multiple novels over the past few years.

Unlike Gentleman’s Guide, however, there was no queer element to this story at all. It shares the same element of historical adventure with a supernatural element, but that’s where the similarities end, and I know many people enjoyed Gentleman’s Guide because it was all that and more, a good piece of queer representation. Readers looking for something similar in The Lady Rogue are only going to find superficial resemblance, I think.

The Lady Rogue is certainly an adventure, with a few interesting mysteries that the characters must solve along the way, usually employing a bit of cryptography and sleuthing. The characters are decently developed, though I admit that if you asked me to describe them outside of the context of the story within this book, I’m not sure they’d be that recognizable. Theodora is hot-tempered, intelligent, and in many ways spoiled. Huck is… Irish, and Theodora’s ex-boyfriend-but-it’s-complicated. Theodora’s father is… I don’t know here. An adventurer. Selfish and thoughtless. That’s about it. But within the context of the novel itself, they are distinct from each other when it comes to tone, dialogue, behaviour, and so it wasn’t difficult to tell who was doing or say what if you picked a random line in the middle of a random page.

But on the whole, I didn’t close out The Lady Rogue with many positive feelings toward it. Not many negative, either, for what it’s worth. I had an awkward start with it due to the anachronistic issues I mentioned earlier, but I enjoyed the mystery of the ring well enough, and I think the two sort of cancel each other out, leaving me with a rather neutral impression overall. I don’t think this is one I will ever get the urge to reread, and I think I can feel confident in recommending it to those who enjoy YA historical fiction with a bit of a twist, but that’s likely a fairly niche group, and I’m not sure it has much appeal beyond that. It wasn’t bad, but it’s not one I’d recommend going out of your way to read.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, by Mackenzi Lee

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 2, 2018

Summary: A year after an accidentally whirlwind grand tour with her brother Monty, Felicity Montague has returned to England with two goals in mind—avoid the marriage proposal of a lovestruck suitor from Edinburgh and enroll in medical school. However, her intellect and passion will never be enough in the eyes of the administrators, who see men as the sole guardians of science.

But then a window of opportunity opens—a doctor she idolizes is marrying an old friend of hers in Germany. Felicity believes if she could meet this man he could change her future, but she has no money of her own to make the trip. Luckily, a mysterious young woman is willing to pay Felicity’s way, so long as she’s allowed to travel with Felicity disguised as her maid.

In spite of her suspicions, Felicity agrees, but once the girl’s true motives are revealed, Felicity becomes part of a perilous quest that leads them from the German countryside to the promenades of Zurich to secrets lurking beneath the Atlantic.

Thoughts: After thoroughly enjoying Mackenzi Lee’s previous novel pertaining to the Montague siblings, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, I expected to like this book just as much. In the end, though, I can’t say that I did. Oh, I definitely enjoyed my time with it, and it certainly has its strengths and is worth taking the time to read if you’re a fan of YA historical fiction, but it didn’t captivate me in the same way as its predecessor, and after that strong introduction to the author’s writing, this one felt like a bit of a let-down in comparison.

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy allows Felicity (Monty’s sister and semi-unwilling traveling companion from the previous book) to take centre stage as she tries to gain admittance into the grand masculine halls of higher education. Unsurprisingly given the time period of these books, she is unsuccessful, with her gender being held against her as making her “unfit” to study medicine. Because girly parts and wandering uteruses and blah blah fragile masculinity blah. Felicity is not so much upset as she is angry about this. So when there’s the slim hope of a chance to study under a man she admires, Dr. Platt, she launches herself head-first forward. Even if it means reuniting with an old friend she fell out with years ago. Even if it involves getting mixed up with pirates and murky schemes.

Even if her idol isn’t quite the man she thought he was.

For all that The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy maintains a similar sense of adventure as its predecessor, that adventure didn’t grab me in quite the same way. It wasn’t that I wasn’t invested in Felicity’s journey or her discoveries about the world and herself, but Monty’s starring role in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue meant that a delightfully irreverent sense of humour was there throughout the pages, and his general absence here meant a lack of the same. Felicity’s narration is very different from Monty’s, filled more with anger and stubbornness than wit and baffled privilege. Felicity viewpoint is absolutely important, and still relevant today (much to my chagrin), but as far as entertainment value, I do have to say that Monty’s narration really gave the previous novel an edge over this one.

Felicity’s position is undeniably a hard one to be in. She’s intelligent, driven, passionate, and she wants more for her life than just to settle down and be the wife to a man who would expect her to put away childish things like the desire to learn and be respected in the same way and for doing the same things that a man would. Felicity doesn’t want to be a man, but she wants what men have, and who can blame her? Society dictates that she, her very essence, is unseemly, that she should have abandoned her desires as a childish conceit, or at least done what her friend Johanna did and become more acceptably feminine even if her academic interests remained the same. Through the story Felicity wrestles time and again with whether pursuing her goals is even worth it, whether she can say that it brings her happiness or peace to do so even with the knowledge that she will very likely fail, or whether she should shunt all of that to the side and aim for more social acceptance and put on the mask of civility so that she stops rubbing everyone around her raw.

Honestly, it’s a debate I’ve had with myself multiple times, so I can very much understand and appreciate Felicity’s dilemma. Is it better to hide the deepest part of oneself and to conform in the name of making life more harmonious, or is it better to be true to oneself even if the cost is social cohesion and connection? Which brings greater satisfaction? Which is more important? Though it may seem to the reader that Felicity comes off as flip-floppy or indecisive regarding something we already know she feels strongly about, that indecision is, in fact, a very realistic aspect to the lives of many who don’t fit in, who are too passionate or odd to adapt to society’s mold. Frankly, I’m in my 30s and I still wrestle with this from time to time. It’s a debate that doesn’t just end after one decision. There is always something around the corner that makes you doubt whether self-denial might be worth it after all.

Once again comparing this novel to the one that came before it, the supernatural element seemed stronger and more overt this time around. In Monty’s story, the mere rumour of a magical or alchemical panacea drove a lot of the plot forward. Here, while for a while the story is about Felicity reaching Dr. Platt and then uncovering his true motives, there’s also the issue of Sim, whose presence comes and goes but is ultimately tied to her family’s legacy of keeping the secret of the sea serpents whose scales act like a drug when ingested. Once Sim reveals that information, Felicity can look back on her interactions with Platt and see that he already knew about the serpents and their scales, and that the otherwordly (so to speak) element was present the whole time within the story.

Honestly, this didn’t really do anything for me. Felicity and Johanna’s encounter with the sea serpents and their theories on how they live were interesting and reminiscent of Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series, but the execution of that plot element didn’t feel as deft as the similar element in the previous book. As I said, I was intrigued by how much Monty was driven by the rumour of the alchemical panacea, to the point where it frankly didn’t really matter whether there was truth behind the rumour or not. The possibility sparked both adventure and misadventure, and it was a great example of what a person can do with mere whispers in their ears. Here, though, it was like Felicity’s goal changed repeatedly, that she had nothing until she had everything, and there wasn’t a great mystery to solve, no wondering as to the truth of what she hears. There are sea serpents, Platt is after them, the scales do exactly what Felicity had been told they do.

If it had been more akin to what The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue had presented, Sim’s family would have believed the dragons to be real but wouldn’t have show undeniable proof, Felicity and Johanna would never have found the dead beached serpent nor its orphaned offspring, a serpent wouldn’t have risen from the depths to crush their enemies, and the whole journey would have been Felicity trying to reach her mentor, then going off on an adventure with her childhood friend to discover whether or not the rumours of such miraculous creatures had any truth to them, and they would have found nothing concrete but seen something under the ocean’s waves that we’d all know to be the sea serpent, but that’s as close as anyone would come to concrete evidence. The journey sparked by personal ambition, changing to include the desires of or for a childhood friend, rumours pushing them on, and in the end both nothing and everything changed.

Since I’m sure it’s on the minds of anyone reading this review, yes, there is once again queer representation in this book, though it’s not exactly as positive as before. Felicity isn’t precisely disgusted by the relationship between her brother and Percy, but she acts often as though she doesn’t want to see it and doesn’t want to be around them when they’re acting like a couple. She accepts that they’re in love and that they make each other happy, but she herself is happiest when they’re not around her being happy with each other. Frankly, that was rather unpleasant to read.

Sim is undeniably attracted to women (less sure about whether she’s attracted to men also; that wasn’t really touched on), and I honestly would read an entire novel about her because she’s a great character with lots of potential, although as I mentioned previously, she dips in and out of the story when the plot needs her to, so she’s not present as much as she could be and as such didn’t get as much development as some of the others. And I know it’s likely to be a case of Unfortunate Implications rather than anything deliberate, but when Sim is a Muslim woman who vanishes from the story at intervals because it’s not convenient to have her around and doesn’t get the development of characters like Johanna, it can come across a bit as saying that the openly-Muslim characters aren’t as important as the white Europeans. Or that they’re only good to have around when they’re needed to advance someone else’s story. Again, probably not the author’s intention, but it can read that way at times, and it’s something that’s worth paying attention to.

As for how Felicity relates to queer representation… It’s not said explicitly, since the terms weren’t really in common use with modern connotations during the time this book is set, but Felicity is probably either asexual, aromantic, or both. I’m not even entirely sure, if Felicity were given those terms and modern knowledge, whether she would know. Neither man nor woman has been able to light a fire in her, so to speak, but that doesn’t narrow it down, and it might just mean she doesn’t like kissing. It’s not a universal like, after all. And while it was good to see a potentially aro/ace character in a YA novel, I do have some issues with the presentation.

First, it’s not concrete. As I said, her experience has mostly been that she hasn’t been interested in anyone so far and isn’t that into kissing. Compared to her brother’s clear and self-expressed attraction to men and women, it’s easy for readers who don’t want to see more aro/ace characters to just not read that in Felicity, and to downplay it as her just not having found “the right person” yet.

And believe me, I wish I could properly convey the sour feeling associated with those words, because I’ve heard them from many people in regard to myself, and there’s a lot of bitterness surrounding the idea that asexual people just need somebody to awaken latent sexual desire within them. Like we’re all “late bloomers,” sexually immature, and that we need sexytimes to prove to ourselves that we want sexytimes, and yes, “you’ll want it after you’ve had it,” is a common idea and is just as damaging and creepy as you might think it is.

Secondly, a lot of presentations of asexuality in media come across as more a matter of a character not knowing what they want and less as knowing what they don’t want. Asexual people do go through a journey of discovery when it comes to their sexuality, absolutely, and we don’t always instantly know, “Ah yes, I absolutely have no sexual or romantic desire for people,” but very often the formula seems to break down as:

Am I interested in the opposite gender? No.
Am I interested in the same gender? No.
Well golly, there must be something wrong and weird about me. Why can’t I decide which I like?

The idea that sexual or romantic attraction is innate rather than just being common is one that prevents asexual and aromantic people from accepting themselves. And society backs up this idea, because there’s so much even now that tells us we have to define ourselves by what we are, by what we like, that nobody every considers that not liking a thing is a thing in itself. If someone didn’t like living in apartments, we wouldn’t automatically assume that they do like living in houses, but we go that route with sexuality all the time. If someone has no attraction to either gender, they often struggle defining themselves because this culture and this language doesn’t really have much call for expressing who we are by what we don’t have an interest in. That seems negative,and so must be discouraged. We can’t say that we dislike living in apartments; we must say we like living in houses, even if that isn’t really the truth of the matter. Even if the dislike of apartments defines us more than liking to live in houses, our identity must stem from what we like, what we are, what we do, or else we’re curmudgeons and negative and nobody wants to be around a Negative Nelly.

Where am I going with this? Essentially, to the point that Felicity’s sexual orientation in The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy is hinted at only by telling us what she doesn’t like. We’re meant to follow that to the conclusion of asexuality or aromanticism, but its never said. Felicity never says, or thinks, “I have no romantic or sexual desire for anybody.” She just expresses that kissing men didn’t appeal to her, and kissing Sim was better but still not that appealing, and so the reader is meant to reach the conclusion through a series of if/then coding. If not this, then that. If not that, then the other thing. Saying it without saying it, because even if a clever author could easily find ways to express that a lack of desire is still something, there was no such cleverness here, and it was disappointing.

Third and final, Felicity’s potential asexuality and/or aromanticism is tied to her personality of not having much time for anyone and anything that doesn’t suit her and her goals. She’s impatient, driven, passionate, and at times extremely single-minded, and it’s too easy to read that her lack of desire for sexual or romantic connection is just another facet of that “no time for anything else” personality, rather than something that can and does play a part in the lives of many kinds of people with a variety of different personality types. It’s a trope at this point. The asexual characters is nearly always the one that’s asexual due to trauma or religion, or they’re the obsessive goes-against-the-grain type that often can’t see outside their own narrow scope.

And once again, it was disappointing.

Similar to the issue with Sim, I feel that this was less the author’s deliberate intention and more a case of unfortunate implications. But these implications are once again things that can damage and delay acceptance. I can all too easily imagine a teen reading this book and thinking, “Felicity’s just like me that way, I’m not interested in sex/romance either, but oh wait, Felicity’s not interested in anything outside of her focus and drive to get into medicine, so maybe she’s got so time for romance just like she had no time for Johanna’s pretty dresses.” Instead of someone seeing themselves in a book for possibly the first time, they see someone who might be like them, maybe, but it’s so easy to explain away, and it’s never even explicitly stated to begin with.

I won’t say that I didn’t enjoy this book. I will say that I didn’t enjoy it as much as its predecessor, and that I found the previous book to be better on a multitude of levels. I can see The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy appealing to people who enjoy historical fiction, and to those who are interested in historical aspects of feminism. But where The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue shone, this book merely glitters in comparison, and I think it could have stood a couple more sensitivity readers going over the material to smooth over some of the rough edges that might scratch at people who need to be met with better. It’s easily skippable even if you really enjoyed the first book of the series, though in fairness, a third book is still on the horizon and might well build off certain things established here, so I can’t say for absolute certainty that this will remain my opinion in the future.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, by Mackenzi Lee

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 27, 2017

Summary: A young bisexual British lord embarks on an unforgettable Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend/secret crush. An 18th-century romantic adventure for the modern age written by This Monstrous Thing author Mackenzi Lee—Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda meets the 1700s.

Henry “Monty” Montague doesn’t care that his roguish passions are far from suitable for the gentleman he was born to be. But as Monty embarks on his grand tour of Europe, his quests for pleasure and vice are in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

So Monty vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

Witty, dazzling, and intriguing at every turn, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is an irresistible romp that explores the undeniably fine lines between friendship and love.

Thoughts: There needs to be more historical fantasy with queer characters; I’ll say that for nothing. Queer people aren’t some modern phenomenon, and I enjoy seeing such characters in historical settings, and doubly so in YA novels, because there are still a number of people who hold that queer culture and experience is something that only adults are capable of handling and so teens don’t need to know.

My sincere regrets to the myriad queer teens out there who have to deal with this. I was one of you, once, before growing into a queer adult, and I can say with certainty that greater exposure and education would have made coming to grips with myself a lot easier, had such things been more readily available in my youth.

The protagonist, Henry “Monty” Montague, is something of the black sheep of his family. Drinking, gambling, and going to bed with men and women alike, though with his heart set on his best friend, Percy. Percy, who is a young black man in the 1700s, so you can well imagine what his social status is and how he’s treated by many. Before settling down to take over the family’s estate, Monty has plans to tour Europe (along with Percy, to his happiness, and his sister Felicity, to his chagrin), and to use it as an excuse for hedonistic debauchery before having to give at least some of that up for social propriety. But his plans for fun keep getting derailed, first by misunderstandings with Percy and the chaperone the group was forced to bring, and then by the discovery that Percy has epilepsy, and contrary to the story he told about going to school at the end of the tour, he’s actually being sent to an asylum, where he can be, to put it mildly, “less of an inconvenience.” Percy won’t stand for this, and when rumours reach his ears of something that might cure Percy’s epilepsy, the trio’s journey takes a sharp turn toward the uncanny and dangerous.

It was fairly obvious, just from the back-of-the-book synopsis, that The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue was going to be a queer historical, and that alone would have convinced me to read it. I didn’t expect that it would have fantastical elements to it, though, and that was a very pleasant bonus. That aspect of the story isn’t revealed until well past the halfway point, giving the reader plenty of time to get hooked on the rest of the story first. The cure for Percy’s epilepsy is alchemical, of sorts, a magical panacea in the form of an undying human heart. That this is even possible is a surprise to all characters, since The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is, until the discovery of that plot point, based very firmly in historical reality, rather than historical fantasy. The handling of the magical elements reminded me very much of Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord and its magical carousel: it’s a motivating force for the characters, it drives part of the plot along, but it doesn’t really show up on centre stage. Its biggest effect isn’t in what it actually does so much as what it motivates character to do in order to obtain it.

It’s worth noting that the story could have gone in much the same fashion whether or not the heart had any magical curative properties. The mere rumour of it, hints at where it might be and what it might do, influenced Monty. By the time he found it, his life had already changed just from hearing of it, and it scarcely mattered if it was true or merely compelling fiction. It was a deft way to handle something so mystical while still keeping the story feeling very much grounded in reality, and I would love to see more books take this tack.

As for Monty himself, he is the very epitome of privilege. He is a wealthy white man in the 1700s, and while it can’t be denied that his life has some legitimate hardships (being bisexual was hardly approved of at the time, and he was pressured from many sides to hide or change that aspect of himself), he was startlingly ignorant about the hardships anyone else may endure in their lives. His European Tour with Percy and Felicity was, by and large, his coming of age story. Intended to be his “last hedonistic hurrah,” he instead finds himself confronted at every turn with the fact that he is ignorant and selfish, and that those closest to him suffer for those traits. He sees hypocrisy in his sister for wanting to study and simultaneously not wanting to be sent away to school (not learning until much later that she is being sent to a finishing school, where she’ll be taught manners and comportment and all things “befitting a lady,” not a school where she can learn academically the way a man might), he refuses to see that Percy may suffer for being black and for having a chronic illness, and generally thinks that his way is the right way solely because he thought of it, regardless of what others want. When Monty decides to seek the magical panacea, it’s not because Percy expressed that he wanted to be cured of his epilepsy, but because Monty wanted Percy to be cured, and wanted that so that Percy wouldn’t have to be sent away. His heart was in the right place, but his privilege made him so blind to the validity and value of others that he didn’t think anything was wrong with demanding his way all the time.

Frankly, it was nice to see him be taken down a few pegs through the book’s progression, to see him forced to confront, undeniably, that the whole world wasn’t the way he had experienced in his small and carefully manufactured life, and that his wants could not always come first and foremost.

I may not know the most about the time period and locations this novel took place in, but it was clear that the author did some research about the subjects she was tackling in her writing. Historical treatment of women, of people of colour, of people with chronic and/or serious illnesses, or queer people, all came into play during A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, and even if some license was taken in places, the overall feel of the novel was indeed one of authenticity, of enough historical references and turns of phrase to centre a reader in the moment while still maintaining and witty and irreverent tone through the narrative to keep the reader entertained. It was, to be blunt, a damn fine read, a historical romp through marginalized groups as seen through the eyes of someone whose privilege is getting stripped away in layers, and the story of a young man finally growing up. I can heartily recommend this to fans of YA historical fiction (even those who don’t typically go in for a touch of fantasy) and to those seeking more books with queer and other marginalized characters.

The Walled City, by Ryan Graudin

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 12, 2019

Summary: 730. That’s how many days I’ve been trapped. 18. That’s how many days I have left to find a way out.

Jin, Mei Yee, and Dai all live in the Walled City, a lawless labyrinth run by crime lords and overrun by street gangs. Teens there traffic drugs or work in brothels–or, like Jin, hide under the radar. But when Dai offers Jin a chance to find her lost sister, Mei Yee, she begins a breathtaking race against the clock to escape the Walled City itself.

Thoughts: I’d heard so many good things about The Walled City, and the concept certainly intrigued me. A city cut off from the things and people outside it, a lawlessness that had its own rules, people caught up in schemes far bigger than they could imagine, all intersecting to bring their stories together. It seemed like a great starting point for an epic story.

So what went wrong?

I suspect in many ways the disconnect I felt for this book is purely a personal thing, because most other reviews I read for it don’t mention the particular aspects that were problems for me. Everyone’s got their individual tastes, and that’s fine. But in the interest of full disclosure, and because there’s always the possibility that there’s someone out there who will have the same problems, I feel that they’re worth discussing.

The Walled City of Hak Nam is based on Kowloon Walled City, an old fort in Hong Kong that was essentially left to its own devices and became a sort of city within a city, a place where the usual rules don’t apply, and where drugs, murder, prostitution, the whole nine yards were run often without any interference from outside forces, because Kowloon both was and wasn’t within Hong Kong’s jurisdiction. It was a complicated situation, just as it is within The Walled City, with Hak Nam replacing Kowloon, and Seng Ngoi replacing Hong Kong.

You might think, then, that The Walled City is a small sample of a much larger world, the story that we get to see set in a secondary world that is most decidedly not the world we know and live in. But no, not really. Or if it is, it’s the same in every respect except for two place names being different. The world within The Walled City has 747 airplanes, Mercedes cars, television. Seng Ngoi and Hak Nam are in the eastern part of the world, and English is a language. It seems, for all intents and purposes, that The Walled City is set in this world, only, as I said, with 2 places having different names than we’re used to.

This comes across an awful lot like the author wanted to write a story set within Kowloon, but didn’t want to commit to writing something about a place that actually existed, and so instead set the story in a place that was identical for all intents and purposes, but with an easy out in case something ended up not being historically accurate to the places that inspired the book’s setting. A way to say, “Well, it’s not really Kowloon, not really Hong Kong, so there’s nothing to really be accurate about.”

Which left this world wide open for so much creative execution, so many ways to change a few things here and there and make it a wholly original world, even if it was heavily inspired by something real. Television could still happen in this world, but just leave out the mentions of brand names. The setting can be in the east, but change English to, I don’t know, some language that isn’t real and that you don’t have to deal with beyond giving it a name. Then suddenly Hak Nam and Seng Ngoi become real within their own world, a self-contained part of a much broader reality, instead of being fake places based on real places, set in the real world.

It would have been a small change but it would have made so much difference, at least to my reading of the book. It felt like unused potential, and it dogged the footsteps of the story throughout.

As for the story itself, rather than the setting, it was interesting enough. The book follows three primary characters: Dai, a rich boy who was exiled to Hak Nam and now seeks to find evidence against a drug lord to barter for his freedom; Jin, a girl who disguises herself as a boy for her safety and whose goal is to find her sister within one of the city’s brothels; and Mei Yee, Jin’s sister, working within one of the brothels owned by Hak Nam’s most powerful drug lord. Jin and Dai’s paths cross and they begin working together, mostly for Dai’s purposes but it also dovetails nicely into Jin’s plan to find and free her sister. Naturally, Dai ends up meeting Mei Yee along the way, conversing with her through her window since Mei Yee isn’t allowed outside, and the two develop a crush on each other as they learn more about each other’s lives and goals.

Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character, and their voices are distinct enough that it’s easy to tell them apart despite all chapters being written in the first person. Mei Yee has more poetic imagery in her observations, Dai is confident and cocky, and Jin’s sentences are often shorter and to the point, which ties back well to her life on the street filled with abbreviated experiences and frantic lifestyle. You can turn to any random page in the book and within a few sentences get a very clear idea of who is narrating, and credit where credit is due, that’s a tough thing to manage and I think the author pulled it off quite well.

The romance between Dai and Mei Yee was fairly predictable, and though it wasn’t given much time to really develop on the pages, it still was somewhat sweet. The two do fall for each other without knowing much about who the other really is and what they really want at first, and I think much of their attraction was based on who they each wanted the other to be, a sort of aspirational crush, as it were, but it was still rather cute to read their budding romance and to wonder how long it would last once they experienced the world beyond Hak Nam’s walls and their own immediate wants? Would it survive? Would they remain compatible with each other? Were they even as compatible as they assumed they were? Honestly, I can’t answer any of those questions, because the focus of the story wasn’t on their romance. But I will say that their interest was believable, realistic, and didn’t immediately go into the realm of obsessive attraction, and for that, I was thankful.

In the end, The Walled City wasn’t a bad story, and it had enough action and intrigue to convince me to read the whole thing through, but I couldn’t help but feel that it could have easily been so much more. The world-building felt nonexistent at best and confused at worst, and as I previously mentioned, it felt like the author was afraid to commit to telling a story about people in the actual Kowloon Walled City. It ended up making a novel that was somewhere between historical fiction and speculative/secondary-world fiction, fitting in neither and so being very hard to categorize. This is one you read when you want something you don’t want to look deeply at, because then the cracks become obvious and you start to ask more questions that can’t be answered. Its lack of easy categorization makes it difficult to recommend: “people might enjoy this if they enjoy… books, I guess?”

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Rage of Dragons, by Evan Winter

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 12, 2019

Summary: The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable war for almost two hundred years. The lucky ones are born gifted. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.

Everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war.

Young, gift-less Tau knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured, get out early, and settle down to marriage, children, and land. Only, he doesn’t get the chance.

Those closest to him are brutally murdered, and his grief swiftly turns to anger. Fixated on revenge, Tau dedicates himself to an unthinkable path. He’ll become the greatest swordsman to ever live, a man willing to die a hundred thousand times for the chance to kill the three who betrayed him.

The Rage of Dragons launches a stunning and powerful debut epic fantasy series that readers are already calling “the best fantasy book in years.”

Thoughts: There’s a very good reason for a lot of the hype that surrounded this book at launch. The Rage of Dragons is the sort of book that pulls you in very quickly, and leaves a strong impression after you finish the final page. It’s the kind of epic fantasy that feels comfortable to fans of that particular genre, while also displaying an impressive amount of originality to make it stand out. There are demons, there are dragons, there is military drama, there are all the hallmarks of an epic fantasy classic, and yet it is also so unlike many epic fantasy novels I’ve read, in no small part because it is not set in a land broadly inspired by medieval Europe, and neither are its people. Instead we get something inspired by South Africa, which is far less common and worth paying attention to for its representation and creativity

It is, in short, very well worth the hype.

The Rage of Dragons is, first and foremost, a story of a man driven by the desire for revenge. Tau is from one of the lower castes of the Omehi people, limited in his ability to advance in life, but powerfully motivated to go as far as he can after the death of his father reroutes Tau’s plans for his life. Now he is driven to become the best fighter he can be, not to fight in his people’s unending war against the hedeni, but to get to a place where he can kill those who played a part in his father’s death. But, as in any good story, Tau’s journey is far from easy, and far from straightforward, and time and again Tau finds himself running into walls that block his goals or turn him aside to a new aim.

Put that way, the story might seem unfocused, but that’s far from the case. In many cases, Tau stays focused on his goal of revenge even after uncovering details that things are not always as they seem, that things are more complicated than he wants to believe in order to keep his goal in sight. Frankly, it was interesting to see a character bent on revenge to the point of blindness, to the point of damaging himself and refusing to be turned aside even when logically he should have been. Emotion rarely obeys logic, and Tau’s singular drive did not respond to anything until it became impossible to ignore.

It’s difficult to talk about The Rage of Dragons without mentioning the Omehi caste system, which, as caste systems do, affect so many aspects of every character’s life. Tau is Common, which isn’t the lowest caste but it’s also far from the highest, and as such, his life is very limited. He can (and did) gain some military training and status, but even that would only take him so far. So, a caste system with a limited degree of meritocracy, just enough to give people hope that life might improve but not so much that they will ever improve to the degree of a higher caste. People from the Noble caste, thanks to selective breeding, are taller and stronger than Lessers, giving them physical as well as social advantages. For Tau, options in life are: become an Ihashe (a low-level soldier) through physical prowess, become front-line fodder in the war, or become a Drudge (essentially a slave).

It’s not surprising that Tau throws himself into becoming not only an Ihashe, but the strongest one he can be, training literally night and day to hone his martial abilities and make himself ready for the day when he challenges his father’s killers to the death.

There are plenty of characters in plenty of books who end up being the best of the best, the exceptions to all the rules, and so that’s why the story is about them. But more often than not, that skill is a natural talent, albeit enhanced by training. In many other books, a character like Tau would find himself suddenly presented with training that brings out hidden martial talent that existed within him all along, and that exceptional nature would be what saves him and propels him forward. Here, it’s just the opposite. Compared to the others he trains with, Tau is, at first, weaker and smaller than all of them, and to rise to their level, he has to put in extra hours of training to improve. But being as good as the others isn’t enough, and he knows it, so he puts in more hours, forgoing sleep, forgoing friendships, in the pursuit of power.

He ends up being able to dual-wield swords, and admittedly cool trick that I’ve seen before, but again, it usually gets presented as some natural talent. Tau finds he can wield two swords at once due to a lucky accident, and due to his dominant hand being injured during the early days of his training, forcing him to fight with his weaker hand and so in essence becoming ambidextrous. Nor is his progress unmarked by any detriments: Tau loses sleep, gets injured, fights demons and starts to see them everywhere even when they aren’t there. His drive has drawbacks, tangible ones, and to be honest, it was good to see on the page. Sometimes stories are remarkable for what they don’t do rather than what they do do, and this is one such case. It would have been easy to have Tau be naturally talented and to rise with effort, yes, but also without sacrifice. It was fantastic to not the see author fall into that trap, to give Tau more obstacles to overcome and actual difficulty overcoming them. It made him, however exceptional he turned out to be, very relatable, very real.

It’s worth mentioning the hedeni in this review, because I often feel awkward when an entire race of people are presented as “savages” and “the enemy.” Especially when we see almost nothing from the viewpoint of any of those people, and the vast majority from the people who invaded the hedeni’s lands and seek to eliminate them. While it becomes clearer toward the end of the book that the hedeni have a strong culture of their own and are not the slavering horde that the Omehi believe them to be, much of the book is written from the perspective that they are pretty much there to be an obstacle to the Omehi being secure in land that, frankly, they invaded and caused massive damage to. This is a perfect example of not just history being written by the victor, but of culture being defined largely by an “us vs them” mentality, with little to balance the perspective. It was reminiscent of old presentations of North America’s Indigenous people, seen as nothing but an uncivilized obstacle to European power and comfort, and while I don’t delude myself into thinking this mentality has only ever been part of White history, it still was uncomfortable to read.

I can understand it from a storytelling perspective. The Rage of Dragons was about Tau’s revenge, his loss, and not about culture clashes and erasure, though it did take on a little bit of that toward the book’s climax. But while I do understand the decision from the standpoint of a storyteller, I won’t pretend it didn’t make for some very awkward overtones at times.

Still, I cannot express properly just how much I enjoyed reading The Rage of Dragons. The world is so complete, so developed, that even though we really only see a very small part of it, it feels larger, it feels connected to what lies beyond the small section of land in which the book is set. Characters had their own unique voices, varied personalities, and even when I didn’t particularly like some of them, I was invested in what happened to them. Winter, has a wonderful talent for telling engrossing stories and for keeping readers hanging on every page, every word, with action and intrigue aplenty. I was truly impressed with this debut novel, and I’m very excited to see the story continue in later books, and to keep an eye on other things that the author may write in the future. I highly recommend The Rage of Dragons to those who love epic fantasy but who also crave something more unique in their reading.

(Received in exchange for an honest review.)

Seraphina’s Lament, by Sarah Chorn

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Author’s website
Publication date – February 19, 2019

Summary: The world is dying.

The Sunset Lands are broken, torn apart by a war of ideology paid for with the lives of the peasants. Drought holds the east as famine ravages the farmlands. In the west, borders slam shut in the face of waves of refugees, dooming all of those trying to flee to slow starvation, or a future in forced labor camps. There is no salvation.

In the city of Lord’s Reach, Seraphina, a slave with unique talents, sets in motion a series of events that will change everything. In a fight for the soul of the nation, everyone is a player. But something ominous is calling people to Lord’s Reach and the very nature of magic itself is changing. Paths will converge, the battle for the Sunset Lands has shifted, and now humanity itself is at stake.

First, you must break before you can become.

Review: I’ll start off by saying that Seraphina’s Lament is a very hard novel for me to review. Mostly because while the story itself is fascinating, the characters interesting, most of what I want to do is gush over Chorn’s writing style.

But one step at a time.

Seraphina’s Lament takes place in the Sunset Lands, a place that was previously a monarchy but that had its ruling power overthrown in a revolution. Now in charge is Premier Eyad, head of the collectivist government, maker of the laws that have resulted in overfarming and the resulting famine. As with most people who attained power in such a way, he’s paranoid about counterrevolutionary elements, and oddly sees “failure to grow food where food won’t grow” as a punishable offense. People are fleeing, to escape a life of starvation and cruelty. But problems in the Sunset Lands run deeper than that. An army of skeletons approaches Lord’s Reach, dying people infected by hunger until their very humanity has been eaten away, led by what was once a man and who now calls himself the Bone Lord. Magic in the form of elemental talents seems to be dying, except in those for whom it grows wildly and out of control. Old powers stir. People are changing, becoming something new, something different.

And before you become, you must break.

While the book is named for one of its characters, the story goes far beyond Seraphina herself. She is a slave, owned by Eyad, scarred and in chronic pain and possessing a fire talent that seems to be growing in strength. There’s Neryan, Seraphina’s twin brother who escaped slavery, possessing a water talent that is Seraphina’s opposite and complement, bent on freeing his sister from bondage. There’s Vadden, who grabs the title of My Favourite Character from early on and keeps it through the story, determined to remove Eyad from power and atone for the wrongs he committed in playing a part to overthrow the previous government and pave the way for Eyad to take the abusive stance he has. Every single character is broken in some way, holding themselves together against overwhelming odds, and none of them are perfect, which is what makes them all so compelling to read about.

I mentioned Chorn’s writing style, and it’s that which makes this book really memorable, at least for my part. Her writing is incredibly evocative, poetic, concerned with metaphor and simile that sets the mood in a way that physical descriptions can’t always manage. Instead of mentioning the phase of the moon, for instance, you get lines akin to, “The moon was a scythe meant for killing,” a description that conveys the phase to the reader anyone (for those looking for clear imagery to picture), and also sets the tone of the scene without any further words. The book has been categorized by many as being grimdark, and that word alone tends to conjure images of blood and violence and death, and yes, those things are definitely present in Seraphina’s Lament, but in ways that are more horrifying (at least to me) than someone being hacked to death with swords and axes. Instead, you have chilling depictions of people eating their recently deceased neighbours, sometimes children, acts born of starvation and desperation in a dying land. Much of the poetic prose is beautiful, which serves as a counterpoint to the events that, inspired by history, horrify and disgust.

This is the sort of book that largely defies proper description, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that to really understand it, you have to read it. Reviews and summaries really only scratch the surface, and I know I’m failing to really do Seraphina’s Lament justice here. Chorn is a rising star in the grimdark world, a star worth tracking, and I, for one, am excited to see what she’ll do next.

(Received from the author in exchange for review.)

The Copper Promise, by Jen Williams

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 5, 2016

Summary: There are some tall stories about the caverns beneath the Citadel – about magic and mages and monsters and gods. Wydrin of Crosshaven has heard them all, but she’s spent long enough trawling caverns and taverns with her companion Sir Sebastian to learn that there’s no money to be made in chasing rumours.

But then a crippled nobleman with a dead man’s name offers them a job: exploring the Citadel’s darkest depths. It sounds like just another quest with gold and adventure …if they’re lucky, they might even have a tale of their own to tell once it’s over.

These reckless adventurers will soon learn that sometimes there is truth in rumour. Sometimes a story can save your life.

Review: What do an exiled religious warrior, a sassy woman of dubious moral character, and a deposed nobleman hungry for power all have in common? Oh, just saving the world from certain doom!

That’s the quickest basic pitch I can think of for The Copper Promise, and even then, it falls far short of what’s actually delivered. The novel starts off with Frith, a man of nobel birth whose entire family was slaughtered and who was tortured in an effort to find his family secret vault of riches, approaching a small band of adventurers with a proposition: explore the Citadel, the place where Mages went down imprisoning the last of the gods, in order to find treasure, fame, and oh, probably enough power to ensure that you can take back your family seat from the demon-worshiping tyrant who took it from you.

They accidentally free a dragon.

Who is the last of the gods.

They also free that dragon’s brood of insatiable offspring, who kill as easily as they breathe.

So, how was your Monday?

I’ll say this for nothing: Jen Williams knows how to write a tight combination of interesting characters and good action. I don’t think there was a moment of this book that felt dull, even when the characters were all separated for a while and doing their own thing. They all felt so distinct and so fully realised that even when main story was slowed a touch, I enjoyed reading what everyone was up to in the meantime. Especially Wydrin, but I mean, really, Wydrin is so very entertaining that it’s hard to not enjoy reading the sections from her perspective. She’s quick-witty and fiery and though I called her a “sassy woman of dubious morals” earlier, she does in fact have a pretty strong moral compass. It’s just that her morals are her own, not always constrained by what society (or even her own companions) would always deem appropriate. But you can’t accuse her of only being out for number one, since loyalty is one of her strongest traits, and I love that about her.

One of the themes I appreciated the most through this novel is how words have power. There’s the obvious way, since magic is summoned and controlled by words in this fantasy world, but even aside from that, the everyday words we use for communication have power to them too, and one of the characters states that outright at one point. The words we use to communicate concepts to each other might not be magic, per se, but what we say has effects on the world, altering people’s perceptions, changing how others do things, and if that’s not powerful, then nothing is.

Add to that the fact that Y’Ruen’s army started to understand the world they were interacting with through words, via their connection to Sebastian’s blood. Without going too deep into that story arc or delivering too many spoilers, certain members of the brood army started encountering words, and slowly uncovered their meanings, and in doing so, started to appreciate the concepts those words held and what they meant for others. Words became a source of individuality and independence, helping them forge their own identities in the midst of the hive-mind, and quite frankly, I can’t think of a better allegory for showing how our connection to language is deeply personal and can change the direction of our lives. Williams, in this book, used words to convey the power of words, and I loved it.

The Copper Promise is a tremendously easy book to fall into. If you just want to appreciate the brilliant adventure story that lies on the surface, then that’s fine, and there’s plenty there to entertain. If you want to dig below the surface and get wrapped up in speculation about words and debates about individuality at the cost of group solidarity (as was the case with both the brood army and Sebastian), then that’s more than okay, because there’s plenty there for you too. If you just want a book that will have you grinning over the antics of the characters, then sure, you’re going to find plenty here that will suit your tastes as well. It’s the sort of book that can be appreciated on multiple levels, and by a fairly wide range of people who look for different things in their fantasy novels. I am really excited to read the sequel to The Copper Promise in the future, and I highly recommend this book to those who are looking for a great fast-paced fantasy read!

(Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Shards and Ashes, edited by Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong

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Armstrong’s website / Marr’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 19, 2013

Summary: Gripping original stories of dystopian worlds from nine New York Times bestselling authors, edited by Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong.

The world is gone, destroyed by human, ecological, or supernatural causes. Survivors dodge chemical warfare and cruel gods; they travel the reaches of space and inhabit underground caverns. Their enemies are disease, corrupt corporations, and one another; their resources are few, and their courage is tested.

Powerful original dystopian tales from nine bestselling authors offer bleak insight, prophetic visions, and precious glimmers of light among the shards and ashes of a ruined world.

Review: In every dystopian novel, there are countless characters who do things that aren’t worthy of a full book, but are no less interesting to read about. Sometimes authors come up with dystopian settings or concepts they’d like to play with but that can’t really be expanded into a full world as is. And quite frankly, I think an anthology of dystopian stories is a great idea. As burned out as I can get on YA dystopian fiction, I admit that part of that burnout is due to the stories often being transparent until they get ridiculously convoluted. Or else being an idea that is interesting in its own right but when stretched out to novel-length, becomes tedious and pondering. Short stories are a great way to get around this, and even people who feel that the genre is on its way out can find a fair bit to enjoy within a book that takes us to multiple different dystopian worlds to explore multiple different ideas.

Of course, as with any anthology, stories can run the gamut between meh and amazing. So it is with this one too, unsurprisingly. But there were still a few memorably stories in here that I feel are worth pointing out.

Veronica Roth’s Hearken takes place in a world where not only is bio-terrorism a sadly common occurrence, but also certain people can hear songs of life and death with the aid of a special implant. Everybody has such a song, from the moment they’re born until they die, as we all have life and death in our existence. These musically-inclined individuals can play and record the song of someone’s life or death, as requested, a sort of musical record of some of the most existential concepts we really have. The story focuses on Darya, her difficult childhood, and her life leading up to her decision as to whether she wants to focus on songs of life or songs of death. It’s an interesting concept that Roth played with here, and as I mentioned earlier, I doubt it’s one that could fill an entire novel, but it certainly made for a decent short story.

Margaret Stohl’s Necklace of Raindrops was one that I have mixed feelings about, if I’m being honest. The story takes place in a world where life is measured by beads on a necklace. The more beads, the longer your life will be. But people “spend” beads for memorable experiences, like skydiving, or trips to interesting places. A person’s life is a balance between being long and being interesting. You can live for a long time if you don’t spend your beads, but the question is whether such an uninteresting life is really worth it. Taken literally, there are so many logical problems with this story that I don’t even know where to begin. Who decided this? How does the bead system work? Do the spent beads go to someone, who redistributes them? Who decides what experience is worth what cost? And so on. But taken symbolically, it’s a lot more interesting. Stohl writes a metaphor come to life, and to hell with the logistical conundrums! While I like knowing the ins and outs of how a dystopian world is supposed to function, sometimes those details get in the way of a good story, and I commend Stohl for experimenting like this.

Carrie Ryan’s Miasma is set in a world filled with sickness and death, and medicine as we know it has failed. To keep contagion from getting out of hand, there are old-fashioned plague doctors wandering the streets, their bird-like masks hiding more than just their faces but some deeper agenda. They bring with them animals that can sniff out disease like prey. The protagonist, Frankie, knows her younger sister is sick but uses tricks to keep her from being taken away, like bathing in scented water to mask the smell of illness. Pleasant smells, after all, are believed to keep away the evil disease-causing miasma, similar to very old European theories on disease. Of all the stories in this anthology, this was the one I most wanted to see more of. More of the world, more of the characters, more of the deeper plot that’s hinted at as the story goes on. A lot of the others were one-shot short stories, but this one feels like there could be so much more to it, and I’d love to read that.

The other stories in the collection were okay, but none of them really made an impression on me the way these three did. There were plenty of big name authors here to catch your attention if you’re a fan of YA novels (Melissa Marr, in addition to co-editing this collection, also wrote a story for it, as did Kelley Armstrong), but I’ve read surprisingly few of those authors myself, so that wasn’t what pulled me in. I was looking for a quick read and some interesting ideas. This book certainly was a quick read, and there were some interesting ideas indeed, but there were also a number of pretty predictable ones. Definitely fine if that’s what you’re looking for, but I think I went into this book expecting something else. It wasn’t bad, not at all, but it also wasn’t something that made a particularly deep impression on me, aside from a few of the stories. As I said, if you’re a fan of the authors whose stories are included here, or you’re a fan of YA dystopian stories in general, then this anthology might be right up your alley, and I encourage you to check it out if you’re able to. But if you don’t fall into those categories, I don’t think you’ll find too much here that will appeal to you. So, mostly for YA and YA dystopia fans, I think.

 

The Three, by Sarah Lotz

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 20, 2014

Summary: Four simultaneous plane crashes. Three child survivors. A religious fanatic who insists the three are harbingers of the apocalypse. What if he’s right?

The world is stunned when four commuter planes crash within hours of each other on different continents. Facing global panic, officials are under pressure to find the causes. With terrorist attacks and environmental factors ruled out, there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between the crashes, except that in three of the four air disasters a child survivor is found in the wreckage.

Dubbed ‘The Three’ by the international press, the children all exhibit disturbing behavioural problems, presumably caused by the horror they lived through and the unrelenting press attention. This attention becomes more than just intrusive when a rapture cult led by a charismatic evangelical minister insists that the survivors are three of the four harbingers of the apocalypse. The Three are forced to go into hiding, but as the children’s behaviour becomes increasingly disturbing, even their guardians begin to question their miraculous survival…

Review: I had been looking forward to reading this book for so very long by the time I finally found a copy at the library, and let me say, I’m glad I did. The Three is a very engaging book, a heck of a page-turner, with a mystery that really keeps you going, wanting to unveil the next piece of the puzzle so that the picture becomes complete, little by little.

After 4 disastrous airplane crashes on the same day, with only 3 child survivors, the world starts to pay attention. Doubly so after odd things begin to happen around those children. Strange behaviours, conspiracy theories, whispers about the end of days, the whole shebang. Part of the mystery of this novel is sorting out truth from fiction, to figure out what’s really going on, and rather than present this story in a rather standard format, Lotz instead opts to tell it in a series of interviews and articles, chat logs and book excerpts, so that every view we get is tainted by bias and unreliability and subjectivity. The reader has to sort through what they’re given and see which interpretations make the most sense, much as we have to do whenever anything big hits the news. We’re presented with dozens of different viewpoints, some contradictory, some inflammatory, some with a kernel of truth inside, and we have to figure out what fits from the pieces we’re given.

The format also contributes to the way the book engages with the reader, pushes them just a little further onward. Most of the chapters aren’t very long, so it’s very easy to fall into the “just one more chapter” trap. The location shifts often, with the story spanning the globe as not all of the planes crashed in just one country, nor do all the surviving children live remotely near each other. If you’re not too keen on one particular story arc, not to worry, because Lotz switches you back to another one regularly, keeping things moving and going round. On one hand, this manner of storytelling did compel me to read more, with short snippets and frequent plot advancement. On the other hand, when taken as a whole, the plot does move somewhat slowly regardless, with progress happening in one place and then switching to another so that progress can happen there, and so on. There’s something new every time, from every viewpoint, but I will admit there are times that this sort of circular progression made things feel a bit slow, even if I still enjoyed watching the story unfold.

Lotz also does a fantastic job of commenting on the media circus through The Three, if I may be so blunt. The sensationalism behind the miraculous survival of the three children, the theories that spring up around them, the way people see bad within good and good within bad and spin those things out of proportion… I can’t say it was tastefully done, since in some ways, rampant consumption of any and all info can be rather tasteless, but it was well done, never the less. We get a feeling almost of rubbernecking over Paul’s downward mental spiral and paranoia around Jess, intruding on a private tragedy. We experience Ryu’s anxiety through his chat messages with Chiyoko, whose general disgust with life we also get a strong sense of. The book itself even makes mention of this, as it’s pitched as being a book written by the fictional Elspeth, documenting and compiling what information she can about The Three. There are passages that talk about her own bias regarding the events, sensationalizing the stories and prying into aspects of people’s lives that she has no business with.

I will say that the book dips into some cultural awkwardness now and again, however, which is a mark against it. It’s hard not to wince a little bit at the character of Ryu, a Japanese shut-in, or the doomsday cult that spring up around an American pastor. That isn’t to say that people like those characters don’t exist in the real world, but enough media attention has been made that sometimes it feels like those stereotypes are meant to be representative of an entire culture’s failings.

On the other hand, that may have been part of the point. That doomsday cult, for instance, is of the opinion that the Three are signs of the end times, that they’re three of the four horsemen, and maybe the very fact that respective societies have failed and produced certain types of people is a sign not of the flaws of cultures or people in themselves, but of the flaw of everything. Everything has gone to pot and needs to be wiped out and started over, the cycle beginning anew.

That interpretation doesn’t make things much better, since to be honest, there are so many ways of avoiding the use of those stereotypes to begin with, but it does improve it a little, at least in my mind.

The Three is the kind of novel to get you thinking, and specifically to get you thinking in circles, spiraling back and coming at things again and again as you try to fit together the whole narrative in a cohesive way. It’s a wonderful creative endeavour, and it had me pausing often to consider what was happening, and wondering how I might react in similar circumstances. Even if you never get particularly invested in or attached to many of the characters, they’re still rather interesting characters to follow, and they play their parts in the story well, showing the human element in an international tragedy/mystery. Even though it leaves itself open for a sequel (and indeed there is a sequel, though I have yet to read it), it’s still a complete story in itself, and could serve as a standalone novel; even if there are still unanswered questions at the end, they still come with a sense of story’s closure. If you’re a fan of slow-burn horror or supernatural thrillers, then you’d do well to give Lotz’s The Three a read.