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.

 

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by J K Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 31, 2016

Summary: It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.

While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.

Review: I’m a big fan of the Harry Potter series. The books have their problems, there’s no denying that, but overall I find them a good set of stories that age along with the kids they’re intended for, have some good humour, and are just fun to read. It’s a universe I enjoy jumping back into every now and again, for the comfort and nostalgia that the books bring.

That being said, I opened The Cursed Child with some amount of trepidation. The story was pretty much over at the end of the original seventh book, plus this was all in screenplay format, and everything I’d heard said it was merely so-so.

And at the end? I rather agree with that sentiment.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is less the story of Harry Potter and more the story of one of his kids, Albus. Coupled with the cutest damn Malfoy to ever exist, Scorpius. After being sorted into Slytherin because of reasons that aren’t exactly adequately explained (seriously, most of the character traits that sound Slytherin-eqsue largely came about as reactions because he was sorted into Slytherin), Albus feels like he doesn’t really have a place within his family, nor does his father understand him. He has a strongly biased view of his father, similar in many ways to how Draco Malfoy’s bitterness toward Harry demonstrated through the core series. After overhearing a conversation between Harry and the ailing Amos Diggory, Albus decides that he can do something that Harry himself was never able to do: save Cedric. He thus drags Scorpius along on a time-traveling adventure to save Cedric from Voldemort.

And if that sounds like any number of fanfics out there, you won’t be far off the mark.

Be warned: from here on out there are going to be a crapton of spoilers for this story, because I have a lot to say about it and many things won’t make sense unless I talk in detail about the plot. If you don’t want spoilers, then don’t highlight the invisible paragraphs. I also assume you’re familiar enough with how to rest of the series went, so if you’re not, then spoiler warnings for that too.

The whole thing is a quick read, thanks to the fact that all you’re reading is dialogue and stage directions, which is nice because it means you’re not actually sticking around too long within any given section that may or may not actually make sense. Albus and Scorpius decide that the best way to prevent Cedric’s death is to make sure that he doesn’t make it to the final task in the Triwizard Tournament, thus never encountering Voldemort in the first place. Solid plan. So they decide to use the world’s last Time-Turner to go back in time, and steal his wand in the first event, evidently ignoring the idea that this may result in him being roasted to death by a dragon anyway.

Accomplishing this sends them rocketing forward into a different timeline. One in which Ron and Hermione never married because they went to the Yule Ball with each other and realised after one dance apparently that it wouldn’t work out (ignoring every bit of jealousy Ron displayed prior to that event, and Hermione’s feelings to boot), Hermione turns into a clone of Snape in terms of personality (openly calling Albus an idiot in class, for instance, and this personality shift is never explained but I think we’re supposed to assume it’s because she’s secretly bitter about Ron marrying someone else, I guess…), and other minor changes to the timeline. Plus Cedric still died, so Albus and Scorpius take a trip back in time once more and try to head Cedric off at the second task instead.

And here’s where the plot starts to fall apart in a huge way. They decide to humiliate Cedric in that task, which evidently doesn’t sit well with him, because humiliation made Cedric decide to be a Death Eater. And to kill Neville. Who consequently never killed Nagini, and thus Harry couldn’t eliminate all the Horcruxes, and Voldemort survived and took over.

But here’s the thing: that sounds utterly unlike Cedric. We see little of him in the fourth book, but what we see doesn’t make me think that people laughing at him would make him go Dark. Also, this timeline’s existence relies on the notion that absolutely nobody but Neville could kill Nagini (this is Scorpius’s explanation for why Voldemort took over, which goes counter to something he says later about prophecy and destiny being mutable and able to be thwarted; you can chalk that up to it being his realization, but that means he was likely wrong about Neville being that sole key figure in Voldemort’s downfall, so then we’re back to the question of why that timeline happened in that way to begin with). Snape lives and is helping Hermione and Ron subvert Voldemort and his Dark government, which also makes no sense because a) Hermione and Ron have no reason to trust him that we can see (the reason they knew he was secretly working for Dumbledore all along is because of Snape giving his memories to Harry just before he died), and b) if we assume everything else played out the same except for Neville’s absence and inability to kill Nagini, then by the time that happened, Snape was already dead, killed by Voldemort to get the Elder Wand.

…Maybe Trelawney’s prophecy was secretly about Neville all along…

Then we get to the second half of the play, which involves — I kid you not — Voldemort’s daughter having manipulated this all along in order to fulfill a prophecy to bring back her father. This involves her going back in time in order to convince Voldemort to not attempt to kill the Potters, thus never causing the backlash that semi-killed him and created the protection around Harry, and thus preventing the creation of the only person that could apparently kill him in the future.

An interesting idea, but similar to the issue with Neville, it also assumes that nobody but Harry could ever have killed Voldemort. That nobody else could ever have discovered the secret of his Horcrux collection and worked out a way to destroy them. I’m sure it’s supposed to be playing on the idea that one person really can make a world of difference, but it comes off more like saying only that person can make a difference. Prophecies are flexible, but things are only ever supposed to work out one exact way.

And it may seem nitpicky to say, but this scene breaks with book canon, because everyone who traveled back in time to thwart the thwarting saw the Potters exit their house.

Their house that was established to essentially be invisible to anyone who didn’t expressly know where it was, as divulged by a Secret Keeper.

This bit makes more sense if all you’ve ever known of the story was what the movies told you, because that didn’t get brought up in the movies at all. But in the books, it was a huge plot point that the Potters knew they were targets, and so a powerful spell was cast on their home to make it secret. Peter Pettigrew knew that secret, and told it to Voldemort, which is how he knew where to go that fateful night. You could argue that because the spell wasn’t in effect when Harry found it during the book’s timeline, then it didn’t matter if anyone else knew about it when he told them, but at that point in the past, it was under a spell. It wouldn’t be a very safe sort of secret if people who already knew about it kept knowing. Then Voldemort could have just tortured their mailman for information. Nobody should have been able to see them leave the house at that point.

And yet…

The whole thing with Delphini being Voldemort’s daughter was just painful, to be honest. It’s hard to imagine Voldemort condescending to even do that, but according to the timeline Delphini admits to, she was born shortly before the Battle of Hogwarts, which means that her mother (Bellatrix Lestrange) was heavily pregnant through many scenes she appeared in and yet nobody noticed. She also fought in that battle soon after giving birth, because apparently women bounce back from that like it’s nothing.

This is part of my biggest problem with the story in The Cursed Child. Not only does it make some truly impressive leaps of logic when it comes to the rippling effects of small changes to the timeline, but it also outright ignores established canon. It’s not the first story to do this. It certainly won’t be the last. But it’s extremely frustrating every time it happens, because I can never shake the feeling that if it’s a plot hole I can spot, the creator should have been able to spot it with greater accuracy.

Maybe it’s just easier to assume that this whole this canonizes multiple universes, and that bookverse and movieverse are both just canon on different timelines. That doesn’t erase my other issues, and it does call into question issues of canon within the movies themselves, but it at least can explain away this one problem.

As for characterization, well, some characters were fairly on point. Others? Not by a long shot. Ron gets turned entirely into the comic relief guy in the primary timeline; running the joke shop would be one thing, but figuring that a snack in the Hogwarts kitchens takes priority over finding his missing nephew? Cedric, when encountered in the maze during a time travel event, talks like a knight from a bad fantasy novel. When we see Snape in the Dark world timeline, he acts like he’s really Sirius pretending to be Snape. I already mentioned Hermione’s random personality switch; she acts like she’s really Snape not even attempting to pretend to be Hermione. Harry and normal!Hermione were pretty decent and recognizable, but I think the book’s biggest saving grace was that most of it surrounds characters who didn’t already have established personalities to begin with, so nothing about them really seems out of place.

For my part, I loved Scorpius. The word adorkable fits him perfectly. I enjoyed seeing more development of Draco, not just as an antagonistic counterpart to Harry but as a loving father and a grieving husband who made some monumental mistakes in the past but not without reason, and not without redemption. Albus may have been a bit of an emo teenager, but I could relate to him to a degree, that sense of feeling out of place around the people who are supposed to give you stability, feeling lost and alone and like only one person in the world actually gets you. I loved seeing the conflict between him and Harry, the rifts that come between people even in good families. I liked the idea that people can still love and support you even when you don’t always get along. So even while some characters were mere caricatures of the people I’d come to expect, there was still enough in other characters to make dealing with them a treat.

Then there’s the Trolley Lady. I just… good gods, the Trolley Lady. That scene was one long “WTF did I just read?” moment.

In the end, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was a story that was fun so long as you don’t think too hard about it. It had some plot holes you could drop a piano through, but it also had some good moments, and some lovable characters to discover. It’s worth reading for curiosity’s sake, but I wouldn’t take it too seriously, nor expect much of it, because it fails to deliver. I feel a bit saddened by the fact that I’m essentially saying you won’t be that disappointed if your expectations are low, but that really does sum up how I felt about this whole screenplay. It was okay, but not great, and not a patch on the core series.

SPFBO Review: Song of the Summer King, by Jess E Owen

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Rating – 8/10
Author’s website
Publication date – July 12, 2012

Summary: Shard is a gryfon in danger. He and other young males of the Silver Isles are old enough to fly, hunt, and fight–old enough to be threats to their ruler, the red gryfon king. In the midst of the dangerous initiation hunt, Shard takes the unexpected advice of a strange she-wolf who seeks him out, and hints that Shard’s past isn’t all that it seems. To learn his past, Shard must abandon the future he wants and make allies of those the gryfons call enemies. When the gryfon king declares open war on the wolves, it throws Shard’s past and uncertain future into the turmoil between. Now with battle lines drawn, Shard must decide whether to fight beside his king… or against him.

Review: I judge YA novels a bit differently than I judge adult novels. That isn’t to say that I expect less of them; often I find that I end up expecting more, because so many YA novels recycle the same old story elements and tropes that I’m quite bored of by now, so my standards for a good YA novel have gotten pretty exacting over the years. But when it comes to writing style, for instance, there are different expectations for a YA novel than for anything else.

When I first started reading Song of the Summer King, I’d forgotten that it was a YA novel, and so at first the writing style came across as a bit stilted, a bit more juvenile than I’d hoped. It made for an awkward beginning, not because it was badly written, but because my expectations were skewed. I mentioned this primarily because that awkwardness was part of my overall experience, even if I came to realise my error pretty quickly.

But once I remembered that oh, right, different set of expectations at play here, I settled more firmly into the story and started to really enjoy what was playing out on the pages.

Shard is a gryfon in a conquered pride. He can’t remember his father, can’t remember a time before the conquerors came, and he is loyal to the current king, a red gryfon named Sverin. On Shard’s first hunt, he encounters a wolf named Catori, and despite wolves being enemies to gryfons, he listens to her advice and emerges victorious. Shard gains the attention of Sverin, and his place within the gryfon pride seems to be on the rise, but so too is his unease about that place, his past, and the future to come.

It’s rarer to find YA fantasies than it is to find YA urban fantasy or YA dystopias, so I tend to keep my eyes open for this sort of book. Maybe there’s the assumption that secondary-world fantasy just won’t appeal to teens, I don’t know; it sure would have appealed to most of the SFF-loving friends I know when they/we were teens. Extra points for me in this case, because I found four-legged creatures fascinating, so give me an entire book where all the characters are gryfons or wolves? Yes please!

I thought it was interesting the way the author pulled elements from Norse mythology to construct parts of the story. I’m no expert on that particular branch of mythology, but I know enough to recognise a few names and a couple of references to particular myths. That aspect of the story made me even more curious as to how it was all going to play out, especially in future novels. (This is the start to a series I definitely want to see through to the end; unlike a lot of YA I’ve been reading lately, I don’t feel burned out on the subgenre after reading Song of the Summer King, and that’s an increasingly rare occurrence for me!)

It’s a small world that Owen paints in Song of the Summer King, taking place on only a small handful of islands. There are hints at a wider world beyond, but so far Shard’s world is small, limited, a suitable backdrop for a character who learns that he has much to learn. Shard is inexperienced but not innocent; he can fight, he pushes his boundaries, he doesn’t meet the world with wide-eyed wonder but with confusion and aggression and the attempt to figure out how all these new things fit into his worldview. He’s actually an interesting character, a good one for the reader to ride along with, because he’s neither a blank slate nor somebody who just accepts the yoke of destiny that the universe places upon him. He doubts, he refuses, he makes mistakes. And by the end, his character growth is reflected in the world around him; the next part of the story seems like it will involve places much further away than the Silver Isles, and Shard will once again have to grow.

Some of the characters, however, I found a bit two-dimensional. Particularly the antagonists, which amounted to anyone who disliked Shard, really. Halvden didn’t like him because Shard was Vanir, born of the pride that was conquered by the Aesir. Hallr didn’t like Shard for much the same reason. Sverin seemed every inch the cold calculating king, and while Shard himself sought to prove his loyalty, Sverin turning on him was no surprise. It was an inevitable confrontation. Unlike the others, though, Sverin at least had the benefit of being a bit more ambiguous in his approach to Shard, until he let his hatred of the Vanir overtake him. But for the most part, if a character disliked Shard? It was obvious, and you weren’t meant to like them, and they weren’t meant to have any reason that didn’t boil down to general prejudice. That seemed to be the whole of Hallr and Halvden’s characters, really.

For my part, I thought Song of the Summer King was an enjoyable novel, fast-paced and fun and filled with adventure and discovery from an uncommon character. None of the characters here are human, or even humanoid; you’re dealing with a book filled with gryfons and wolves and birds, and exploring what lies between them and unthinking savage animals. Owen has hooked me on Shard’s quest, and I want to spend more time being entertained by the far-reaching adventures of these gryfons. This is a novel to pay attention to if you’re a fan of YA fantasy, and I expect there are quite a few people out there who will enjoy it just as much as I did.

Black Fairy Tale, by Otsuichi

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Author’s Wikipedia page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 10, 2016

Summary: A raven who has learned to speak from watching movies befriends a young girl whose eyes were ruined in a freak accident. He brings her eyeballs he steals from other people, and when she puts them in her eye sockets, she sees memories from their original owners. Desperate to make the girl happy, the raven brings her more and more eyeballs. This is also the story of a young girl, Nami, who has lost her memories and cannot seem to live up to the expectations of those around her. The stories intertwine in a haunting, dreamy, horrific narrative evoking the raw and universal need for love.

Thoughts: This is a very strange book, one that’s easy for me to talk about but difficult for me to feel like I’m reviewing properly. It starts off rather slow, picks up in intrigue, throws in a whole load of body horror, slows right down again, and then kind of ambles along with the rest of the supernatural mystery that makes up the majority of the book, tying it all together near the end. As far as YA novels go, I can’t say I’ve ever read anything else like it, and even now I’m not entirely sure what I think about it.

It starts off with a fairy tale about a raven, who learns to talk and develops a friendship with a little blind girl who doesn’t realise that her conversation partner isn’t human. The raven begins stealing eyes for her, and wearing those eyes gives the girl glimpses into the lives of the people they were stolen from. Only she begins to have nightmares of a terrifying black monster who attacks and kills people, the last memory stored in the stolen eyes.

Then we cut to Nami, who loses an eye in a terrible accident, and along with the eye loses her memory. She gets a transplanted replacement, which starts to show her memories from its previous owner when it gets visual triggers, and Nami begins to unravel not only the life of her new eye’s donor, but also the circumstances surrounding his death. Her lack of memories and change in personality causes heartbreaking friction with her family and friends, and she decides to leave home and travel to the donor’s hometown, to solve the mystery behind his demise.

Eventually we get a third perspective, cut in between Nami’s chapters, where we follow Shun Miki and his strange and terrible power to prevent death. It’s very specific, and rather stomach-churning. He can inflict wounds on creatures and the wounds will neither get infected nor cause death, no matter what he does. He starts out, as any young psychopath does, on insects, moving to animals, and eventually trying his abilities on humans. This is where the body horror begins, and if you’re squeamish, I urge you to be cautious with this book because you will be reading about people grafted to each other, flayed alive (and kept alive, because none of the wounds inflicted cause harm) and their innards played with and repositioned, and similar. I found these chapters particularly difficult to read, since body horror is, evidently, one of my squicks.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Shun Miki’s activities were discovered by the young man whose eye is now in Nami’s possession, but the mystery is in his true identity, and the story is mostly Nami trying to uncover that and bring closure to a very weird set of events. This is partly why the story moves so slowly. Nami speaks to a lot of people around town, thinks she finds the right info, only to run into obstacles, rinse and repeat. Standard mystery fare, in that regard. Not much action or tension really occurs until near the end (and when it does, be prepared again for more body horror), leaving Nami’s chapters feeling slow and Miki’s feeling weirdly uninteresting, largely because he’s so lacking in emotion to begin with. His manipulations of the human body leave him more curiously detached than anything else, and so in addition to the uncomfortable material presented in his sections of the story, most of the driving force is in seeing into the mind of someone who’s extremely mentally ill. Nami’s sections are by far the most interesting, I’d say.

Otsuichi has a knack for disturbing material, there’s no denying that. As slow as the story can be sometimes, there’s a bit of trainwreck appeal to it all, because you want to keep reading and see the gory details laid bare before you. The biggest drawback that I’ve seen to his writing so far (assuming the translator has done a decent job with translation, that is, since I don’t have the skill to read the original version) is in the way the story is so distanced from the reader. We always see the action, but are never a part of it. The story’s good, the writing’s good, but I’ve found that I haven’t really been able to sink into the book the way I can others; it seems like I’m always just in the helicopter, circling overhead and watching it all happen rather than really riding on the shoulders of the characters themselves.

While the raven story at the beginning may seem weird and a bit of a non-sequitor, it does tie back in eventually, which made me happy since at first it seemed like it was a very weird and inappropriate introduction. But it serves to drive home a big theme that runs through all 3 different stories: doing the wrong things for the right reasons. Or at least, what you believe are the right reasons. The raven attacks and disfigures people because he wants to make the little girl happy. Nami runs away from home and leaves behind the scraps of her life in an attempt to solve a murder mystery. Miki assaults and manipulates people’s bodies to his own curiosity, but also to save and prolong their lives, and he does what he can to keep his victims comfortable. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone does horrible things in the belief that they’re doing the right thing for someone.

So, did I like this book? Yes and no. It was written well, the story was compelling, and I think it would make a great horror movie, but the distanced feel throughout, combined with the discomfort I got from the sheer amount of body horror, made it too uncomfortable to really say that I enjoyed it. It was interesting, and definitely an uncommon offering on the YA bookshelves, but I don’t think I’d read it again, and I can’t say that it will appeal to a wide audience. Learning to tell the difference between something bad and something that I didn’t like (and similarly, the difference between something that’s good and something that I did like) is tough, but I think in the end I can say that yes, this was a good book, but no, I didn’t really like it. But your mileage may vary; it body horror doesn’t get to you the same way it gets to me, you might well find Black Fairy Tale to be a classic of YA J-horror novels. It has the potential, for certain.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Sea of Shadows, by Kelley Armstrong

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 8, 2014

Summary: Twin sisters Moria and Ashyn were marked at birth to become the Keeper and the Seeker of Edgewood, beginning with their sixteenth birthday. Trained in fighting and in the secret rites of the spirits, they lead an annual trip into the Forest of the Dead. There, the veil between the living world and the beyond is thinnest, and the girls pay respect to the spirits who have passed.

But this year, their trip goes dreadfully wrong.

Review: Kelley Armstrong has made waves with her previous books, both for adult and YA audiences. Sea of Shadows is the beginning of a YA fantasy series that will probably appeal to many, but from where I stand it had a few problems that made it seem (and I feel bad saying this) like an attempt by a writer early in their career, to make something big by combining aspects of popular fields into a not-quite-cohesive whole.

For the most part, the story itself is quite interesting, with a pair of independent female protagonists, Ashyn and Moria, who both complement each other (as twins) and are still able to stand on their own, their personalities distinct. Their combined job is to keep and calm the evil twisted spirits that live in the nearby Forest of the Dead. But naturally, fate throws a wrench into the works and evil escapes, slaughters their village, and the twins set off on their respective journeys to get help and to find the few survivors that escaped the carnage. Along the way they meet new people with their own agendas, creatures of myth and legend, and a more sinister plot than they could have guessed.

The tone was unexpectedly dark, with more blood and death than I normally see in a YA fantasy, which was impressive. The more dialogue-heavy parts are balanced fairly well by the many action scenes. The romantic subplots were fairly predictable: one sister gravitates to a strong and quiet warrior with a shady past, the other gravitates to an outlaw with a heart of slightly tarnished gold. Not the most original, but I’ll grant you that at least the characters were developed more than it sounds in the brief description I’m giving. The romance may have been a bit contrived, but it wasn’t central to the plot, and the characters were built beyond the mere concept of “love interest.” My previous experience with Armstrong’s YA offerings hold true here: the characters she writes are flawed and largely realistic, the dialogue is more than decent, and the narrative is smooth with plenty of clear imagery.

My biggest problem with this book is that it tries, and fails, to integrate aspects of Japan into a setting that’s mostly based on traditional European fantasy. Sometimes this works, such as a quick and simple line about Ashyn and Moria’s diet being rice-based and that they eat with chopsticks. That sort of thing gives me little hints about the world and sheds light on the culture without having large infodumps. But some attempts are less effective, such as the attempt to blend European and Japanese names to the point where we get Tyrus Tatsu and Gavril Kitsune. Clan names serving as surnames, mostly, which is another glimpse into wider worldbuilding, except that it there doesn’t seem to be any reason for the smooshing of two different and distinct language types like this. Even a simple one-liner like, “Clan names are based on an ancient language that is no longer spoken but that we still retain some knowledge of.” That wouldn’t be great, but it would be better than what’s actually there, which leaves many of the names feeling mismatched and out of place.

Then there are the Katakana mountains, which is the most baffling random use of Japanese in this book. I’m torn between two thoughts on this one: either the author found a random Japanese word she thought people would recognize and named a fictional mountain range after it just because, or else the mountain range coincidentally resembles a set of written characters used to express foreign words. Things like this were what made it feel like any little dribbles of Japanese language or culture that were added to the story were there largely to capitalize on the still-ongoing Japanese craze in North America, thanks in no small part to the proliferation of anime and manga. It detracted much more than it added.

Still, the book wasn’t bad, and the story that Armstrong is setting up definitely has merit. There’s a deeper plot at work than what was initially presented, and my attention was caught enough to want to see it through to the end, in spite of the problems I have with the book. It’s my hope that Armstrong will eventually reveal a reason for her bizarre use of Japanese, if indeed there is a legitimate reason for it; if not, I admit that it makes it hard for me to take the book seriously or give much credit to the author’s ability to blend multiple elements into a smooth story. But the smooth narrative style alone could have me coming back for future installments, so despite reservations, I’m probably still willing to give the sequel a try.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Otherbound, by Corinne Duyvis

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 8, 2016

Summary: Nolan doesn’t see darkness when he closes his eyes. Instead, he’s transported into the mind of Amara, a girl living in a different world. Nolan’s life in his small Arizona town is full of history tests, family tension, and laundry; his parents think he has epilepsy, judging from his frequent blackouts. Amara’s world is full of magic and danger — she’s a mute servant girl who’s tasked with protecting a renegade princess. Nolan is only an observer in Amara’s world — until he learns to control her. At first, Amara is terrified. Then, she’s furious. But to keep the princess — and themselves — alive, they’ll have to work together and discover the truth behind their connection.

Review: Recommended to me by Sarah of Bookworm Blues as part of the Our Words book club, I expected that this book was going to be a good one. I didn’t expect that I’d get quite so addicted to it, however. The more I read, the more I wanted to keep reading, and I was constantly surprised and impressed by what kept happening on the pages.

Nolan experiences a rare type of seizure. Or at least, that’s what everyone, including his family and doctors, believe. In reality, whenever he closes his eyes, even for just the space of a blink, he sees into Amara’s world instead of the darkness behind his eyelids. To say that it’s a distraction is an understatement; Nolan gets sucked into Amara’s world so easily, and Amara’s life is such a part of his that he often finds himself closing his eyes and zoning out of his world so that he can better focus on hers. Amara, for most of her life, hasn’t even realized that Nolan can see through her eyes, and goes about her days keeping Cilla safe from the curse that plagues her. Cilla’s curse means that if even a drop of her blood is spilled, the world around her rebels and tries to kill her, seeking out that blood with a vengeance. Amara’s presence is necessary because she can heal, and so if accidents happen and blood is shed, Amara will smear Cilla’s blood on herself to distract the curse, allowing her body to be broken until the curse is satisfied, knowing that despite the agony she experiences, she, at least, will be able to put her body back together again.

But when Nolan discovers that his new medication allows him moments of control over Amara’s body, Amara becomes very much aware of Nolan’s presence, and just what that means for her and for Cilla.

Amara’s world at first to just be yet another generic fantasy world, only it quickly reveals itself to be pretty well-built and well-defined. There are multiple different cultures and subcultures portrayed, not just nationalities but social classes. Fine details like not signing or speaking aloud the names of the deceased, lest you attract their spirits and prevent them from resting, were touches that seem small and inconsequential on their own, but they add up to create a world that feels fleshed-out and real. And happily, the worldbuilding wasn’t done in the form of infodumping, but in casual mentions that leave it to the reader to pick up and understand. It may not have been the most  unique fantasy world I’ve ever encountered in books, but it was still complete and comprehensible, and that counts for a lot.

It’s no surprise that Duyvis’s book touches on the realities and implications of disabilities. Nolan’s perceived epilepsy affects how others treat him, for one thing, and it affects the lives of his family. To help pay for treatment that Nolan guiltily knows isn’t working, his mother takes a second job, for instance. Even knowing that he’s not having seizures so much as he’s seeing into another world, Nolan’s life isn’t what you’d call easy. It’s difficult for him to focus. He’s withdrawn, misses much of his schoolwork, has few friends and hobbies. He may not have a rare form of epilepsy, but his ability to view another world when his eyes are closed affects so many aspects of his life that he can’t separate the two.

Cilla’s curse also manifests as a form of disability, as she is hyper-aware of anything around her that could even scratch her skin, with the possibility of drawing blood. As I was reading about the diligence she and Amara used to keep her safe, I was reminded of stories of people with hemophilia, aware that bleeding can be dangerous for them and yet running that risk every moment of every day, especially in a time and place where medicines to treat such a condition weren’t available.

But it isn’t just disability that Otherbound tackles. No, running through the novel are multiple themes of duty and servitude, and the question of how much of a person’s actions are related to their relative social position and how much are because of their genuine thoughts and feelings. There are themes of abuse, with Jorn’s repeated over-the-top punishments of Amara, such as burning her hands to make her feel pain, knowing she wouldn’t be permanently scarred by the act. There are themes of love, obviously, because there are few books that don’t, and seeing the development of the relationships between Amara and Maart, and Amara and Cilla, were just fantastic. There’s the question of whether it’s good or bad to use someone without their permission if it results in saving them; Nolan took over Amara’s body and acted through her in order to save her, and save others, even when she actively didn’t want him around. It’s a complex and multi-layered story, one that surprised me since I’m used to seeing so many YA novels these days make passes at complexity while really only brushing lightly by it.

Otherbound constantly throws new twists at the reader. Just when I thought I understood what was going on, some new piece of information would be uncovered, or somebody would have an epiphany, and the plot would get deeper and more interesting, and I just found myself devouring this book. Once I picked it up, it was hard to put down. Alternating the chapters between Amara’s viewpoint and Nolan’s (which often included more glimpses into Amara’s world, so Nolan’s chapters were still in part Amara’s too) was a good way to convey the whole story, showing how the two worlds and the two people were so connected.

Not to mention I have a weakness for stories that involve two spirits or minds in the same body, and it’s so rare that I find stories that actually incorporate that. Where at first I thought that this was going to be somewhat akin to Katherine Blake’s The Interior Life, where the main character is mostly a passive observer until they themselves are changed by the character in their head, Nolan and Amara’s relationship grew more consciously symbiotic as the book progressed, until both of them knew how much they were needed. The driving force of the story still was centered in Amara’s world rather than Nolan’s, but there was some wonderful bleedover, and it was great to see the two stories intersect and combine in ways that I didn’t always predict.

But the ending. Oh god, that ending had me open-mouthed, in tears for a moment, because damn, does Duyvis ever know how to tug at my heartstrings! Much of the second half of the novel focuses on ending Cilla’s curse, and whether or not there’s a way to do it without killing her. I don’t want to give the ending away (though I will say that if you think it ends by Cilla dying, that’s not the whole picture, and there’s so much more to it), but suffice it to say that I was on the edge of my seat as I read through it, wondering whether each moment would be the last, wondering how it would all play out and come together in the end. I haven’t felt that kind of tension in a book, let alone a YA book, for quite some time, and my hat’s off to Duyvis for pulling it off.

Otherbound is a book that isn’t making as many waves as it ought to. I hadn’t even heard of it before seeing it mentioned on Our Words. It has good representation of disability, good representation of bisexuality, good representation of so much that it’s amazing to me that it slipped under my radar. I enjoyed it so much. There were some plot threads that I felt could have been expanded upon (or thrown in without much reason or purpose), but aside from that, really, it was a phenomenal book, and I think fans of YA fantasy and urban fantasy will eat this up just as much as I did. This leaves my hands highly recommended, and I look forward to seeing more of what Duyvis will do in the future.

SPFBO Review: Scrapplings, by Amelia Smith

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Rating – 7.5/10
Author’s website
Publication date – December 1, 2014

Summary: Everyone in the Tiadun Keep is dragon-blind, even the priestesses. Darna pretends she can’t see the realm’s guardian dragon either – she already gets teased enough for her limp. She flees to the legendary city of Anamat, where some still see the dragons, or so the minstrels say.

On her journey, she meets Myril, an older scrappling girl with an eerie sense of hearing and frequent premonitions. Together, they hope to find their places in the city.

Then there’s Iola, who actually wants to be a priestess. She’s so dragon-struck that she can’t see through the temples’ thin veils of piety, can’t see the priestesses’ greed as they fleece their sweaty devotees.

Thorat is Iola’s champion. He sees dragons as much as the girls do, but unlike them he’s very good at blending in with normal boys. Darna wishes he would notice her sometimes, too.

In the city, Darna strikes out on her own to find secret passageways. She scavenges for valuable scraps to sell. If she can’t buy a guild apprenticeship by Midsummer, she’ll be exiled from the city, unless the priestesses take her, which is the last thing she wants. So when she’s offered a sack full of gold beads for a small bit of thieving, she takes her chances… and ends up angering the dragon herself.

Thoughts: I had a good feeling about this book when I first read the synopsis, months back when it arrived as part of my SPFBO package. It sounded like it had a lot of potential to be really enjoyable, and while the world at first seemed a bit generic, well, it’s not like I haven’t read and enjoyed books set in generic fantasy worlds in the past.

As it turns out, the worldbuilding was actually one of the things I liked best about Scrapplings. On the surface it looks a bit generic. There are dragons. A country with ties to them, and a fear of foreigners who have less to do with dragons. Urchins in the street, priestesses in their temples. Nothing outstanding. But those are just the bare bones, the scaffolding that holds it all together and supports the artistry on the surface. Dragons are creatures of myth, who both made the world and are the world, and they’re more spiritual beings than corporeal ones. Priestesses devoted to dragons are akin to what we’d think of as temple prostitutes, engaging in sexual acts as a spiritual thing, representing a communion with dragons. Or that’s the theory, anyway, since many priestesses seem to have more belief in the sex than they do in dragons, or what their positions are supposed to represent. Dragons are invisible to most, and those who see them often go on to become priestesses, rather as a default position.

Darna is a girl who can see dragons but has no interest in becoming a priestess. She also seems to be the illegitimate child of a prince and a priestess, though for most of her life she’s been treated as a servant, and stigma against her and her disability hold her back from following her dreams. Iola was cast out from her family, dreams of traveling to the city of Anamat to become a priestess, and can’t understand why Darna would want anything else. Thorat is a fairly generic boy who travelled with Iola on her journey, who sees dragons far less than the rest of them but still sees them. And then there’s Myril, who seems even less distinguished than Thorat, but who can also see dragons and is on her way to Anamat too.

The main characters are a bit peculiar in that they have an interesting dynamic while largely remaining pretty uninteresting people. They remained acquaintances rather than friends, each following their own path as the story went along but always gravitating back to each other in the end. So that was an interesting twist on what you usually see in YA-oriented stuff; most often people thrown together by circumstance either become friends or enemies, but rarely do they keep a similar dynamic to when they started. Most of the characters, though, weren’t particularly interesting. Darna most certainly was, since she showed initiative and ended up in the thick of conflict and larger plots and the real meat of the story. Iola was, to a degree, since she seemed most connected to the dragons. But Thorat seemed to be there to provide a couple of perspective breaks and participate in a scheme toward the end of the book, and Myril didn’t really contribute to the story at all. Elna, a secondary character who shows up halfway through the book and whose purpose is really just to be another member of Darna’s small street gang, got more development than Myril did.

Stylistically, I rather enjoyed Scrapplings. The beginning was a bit awkward, and I thought the first chapter could have been cut entirely without anything really being missed from the story (at least not that couldn’t have been filled in by flashbacks similar to what other characters got as their introduction, or dropping explanations throughout the rest of the text), but for the most part, it was pretty good. Scrapplings is one of those books where surprisingly little happens, but you don’t realise it until you’ve already gotten invested in the world and the story. I’m a bit odd in that sometimes I really like reading about the day-to-day lives of some characters, so the amount of window-dressing in this story didn’t bother me as much as it might bother those who prefer a very tight story with no words wasted. But the worldbuilding and the writing style were good, even if the pacing wasn’t fantastic.

So it’s a book not without its issues, but it was still very enjoyable, and it interested me enough to make me curious about reading future installments of the series. It’s a light read, not heavy on action or tension, and in some ways it feels more like the first half of a book rather than a full book itself, but that doesn’t by default make it a bad book. (Nor do I count that as a flaw that only arose due to the book’s self-published status, given that I recently read a traditionally-published novel by a big-name author that made me think the exact same thing.)  Categorically, I think I might put this book somewhere between mid-grade and YA, given the combination of the ages of the characters, aspects of the writing style, and some of the novel’s content, and while mid-grade isn’t exactly my speciality, I do know what I like, and I liked Scrapplings. Once you get past the awkward beginning, the story really starts to shine through, and I can see a fair bit of potential for the rest of this series.

Legacies, by Mercedes Lackey & Rosemary Edghill

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Lackey’s website | Edghill’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 6, 2010

Summary: Who—or what—is stalking the students at Oakhurst Academy?

In the wake of the accident that killed her family, Spirit White is spirited away to Oakhurst Academy, a combination school and orphanage in the middle of Montana. There she learns she is a legacy—not only to the school, which her parents also attended, but to magic.

All the students at Oakhurst have magical powers, and although Spirit’s hasn’t manifested itself yet, the administrators insist she has one. Spirit isn’t sure she cares. Devastated by the loss of her family, she finds comfort with a group of friends: Burke Hallows, Lachlann Spears, Muirin Shae, and Adelaide Lake.

But something strange is going on at Oakhurst. Students start disappearing under mysterious circumstances, and the school seems to be trying to cover it up. Spirit and her friends must find out what’s happening—before one of them becomes the next victim…

Thoughts: If you read the description and think this sounds like Harry Potter for teens, you’re not far off the mark. It’s hard to avoid comparisons to that series when part of your premise is, “Person goes to a school for magic-users.” Doubly so when your main character is an orphan. So that colours the interpretation of the book right from the get-go; it’s just impossible to avoid.

That being said, there are plenty of departures from that concept that make accusations of it being derivative pretty much pointless. I can think of a handful of books that share similar starting points. That doesn’t make them all Harry Potter clones.

(Speaking of being derivative, though, I do feel compelled to mention that characters using guns loaded with rock salt seemed lifted wholesale from Supernatural. A clever idea, and I’m sure it’s been done elsewhere as well, but given that I personally saw it done first on that show, it seemed like a bit of a stale idea.)

The story follows Spirit White, and if that name causes you to roll your eyes, just know that it does the same thing for Spirit herself. After her parents and younger sister died in a tragic car crash, she found herself to be a Legacy, someone with a place at Oakhurst Academy. At least one of her parents attended school there, and due to a not-at-all-creepy policy, the school keeps track of all their former students and makes arrangements for their children should anything similarly tragic happen. Oakhurst, as you could tell from previous comments, is a school specifically for children who can do magic, so yes, you have a boarding school full of magic orphans. But students keep disappearing from Oakhurst. Not often, just a few a year. Most of the students accept this as a fact of life. Some troubled kids run away, so find their fortunes elsewhere. Nobody thinks twice about it. They have enough to do. But a suspicious Spirit and her friends think there’s more to it, and so set out to find out what’s happening to the missing Oakhurst students.

The biggest problem with this book is that it feels like half a novel. Spirit and friends do get to the bottom of why the students disappeared, but that felt more like a single episode of a TV show rather than a complete story arc. There were hints dropped of a much larger plot, one that seemed far more interesting than what everyone else was dwelling on. Why the headmaster of the school has a split personality, going from yelling tyrant to kindly doddering old man depending on the scene. Why, after what seems like a fairly routine disappearance, everyone starts acting like a war is beginning A war may be beginning, but those disappearances were either related to the Wild Hunt plotline, or else that whole plotline (and thus over half the novel) was a diversion and just pure coincidence. Why Spirit’s magic doesn’t manifest.

Why nobody seems to have put together that for a parent to have gone to Oakhurst in the first place, all of their family must have died too, leaving this giant bloody trail across generations.

So while the story and the twists on lore were interesting, it felt unsatisfactory and incomplete. And that was quite a let-down. Likely it was done as sequel-bait, leaving some dangling plot-threads to be picked up later, and I’m sure this book will appeal to people looking for some supernatural adventure involving kids with tragic pasts in an elite boarding school. As fluff fiction goes, it really wasn’t that bad. But I did expect more from it, especially with the tantalizing hints that were being dropped.

Another thing I do want to point out is that this book suffered from some weird assumptions and editing mistakes. Assumption-wise, I’m referring largely to a throw-away scene in which a character talks about creating holy water, and how it’s easy to make because really it just involves water being blessed by a believer. And Spirit’s thoughts essentially go, “Huh, I didn’t know he was a Christian.” At no point was a specific religion brought into it, and blessed water exists as part of different practices in multiple non-Christian religions. So it was a weird assumption, and I’m not sure if it speaks more to character bias or author bias. Could go either way.

As for editing mistakes… Oakhurst was refered to as Oakdale at one point. Spirit’s little sister, Phoenix, was called by the nickname Fee once, at the very end of the book, and after Spirit has thought about her dozens of times through the novel. This is the sort of stuff I expect to be caught in the editing stage of a book, and here, it just slipped by. And before anyone asks, no, it wasn’t an ARC or an uncorrected proof that I read. It was a finished release copy. These errors made it to the final version. Small, and also easy to ignore because they don’t affect the story, but they speak of poor quality control.

So overall? A decent YA adventure. It had its problems, but it was still pretty fun to read, and I’ll probably continue with the rest of the series just to see how the larger story plays out. But after this introduction, I don’t expect great things from it. I expect some fun, some quick reads, and a story that entertains but it largely forgettable, a take-it-or-leave-it series that is neither meant to nor does it leave an impact. Good for passing the time, good for those looking for some comfort fiction, but not for those looking for a book to really wow them.

Hidden Huntress, by Danielle L Jensen

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 2, 2015

Summary: Beneath the mountain, the king’s reign of tyranny is absolute; the one troll with the capacity to challenge him is imprisoned for treason. Cécile has escaped the darkness of Trollus, but she learns all too quickly that she is not beyond the reach of the king’s power. Or his manipulation.

Recovered from her injuries, she now lives with her mother in Trianon and graces the opera stage every night. But by day she searches for the witch who has eluded the trolls for five hundred years. Whether she succeeds or fails, the costs to those she cares about will be high.

To find Anushka, she must delve into magic that is both dark and deadly. But the witch is a clever creature. And Cécile might not just be the hunter. She might also be the hunted…

Thoughts: Following up on Danielle Jensen’s hit YA novel, Stolen Songbird, Hidden Huntress continues the story of Cecile and Tristan, and the trolls that influence their lives. Cecile is in Trianon, following in her mother’s social footsteps and building her social and musical career while at the same time searching for Anushka, the woman who cursed the trolls so many centuries ago. Tristan is still trapped in Trollus, reviled by half-bloods and full-bloods alike for his deception, trying to regain influence and uncovering some disturbing truths along the way. The troll king wants freedom, wants Anushka’s curse broken, and Angouleme wants control of the throne. Politics and prophesy come to a head as the layers get peeled back and the mystery comes undone.

It’s interesting to see Cecile and Tristan far apart for the better part of the book. With the two of them being magically bonded, they remain aware of the other’s strong emotions, which influence them in various ways. Tristan’s pain from having iron spikes shoved through his arms affects Cecile’s health and energy. Cecile’s bonded vow to the troll king to find Anushka brings Tristan to desperation, and the two feed off each other in a mostly detrimental way. I actually liked the way this was handled quite a bit, since it was a major inversion of how most psychic bonds are done in fiction, especially between two people in love. Most of the presentation of that bond were actually quite detrimental. The bond doesn’t stop someone from cheating on their partner, for instance, but it does make the partner aware of what’s going on, and the cheater feels the emotional pain of the one they’ve wronged. The death of one is often the death of the other. Often you see such bonds as romantic and wonderful, but here it was shown to have as many or more drawbacks as it has benefits.

The mystery of Anushka was an interesting one. Who is she? Where is she? How has she lived for so long? Cecile’s sections were highly focused on that investigation, and it was fun to see where all the clues went. I started to form my own theories on Anushka’s identity about halfway through the book (and I’m glad to see that I was right in my theory!), but even though I saw that big reveal coming from a distance, the way all the pieces fit together in the end still surprised me now and again, and here were a few times I put things together only a page or two before it was said outright. I love it when mysteries can do that, and I think Jensen’s got a great talent for writing the exact sort of mystery I like best.

In the same vein, I also love how Jensen added sympathy to Anushka by revealing more of her backstory, and from her point of view. Why she did what she did, how she was wronged so many centuries ago, and why she started on her path to revenge. I love shades-of-grey villains like that, ones who do terrible things but still have their reasons for it. Better still, reasons that even her opponents – Cecile, Tristan, and the readers themselves – can understand and to a degree agree to. But rather than taking that to extremes and presenting Anushka as the wronged misunderstood party, she was still very much a villain. I agree with Cecile when she said that Anushka deserved to get revenge for what was done to her, but that doesn’t erase the fact that she’s a murderer and someone who has punished an entire race for the wrongs of a few individuals. I adored this scene in the novel, where all of that is revealed; it’s probably one of those most powerful and moving scenes in the whole novel.

Also of note, I really liked Cecile’s character development in Hidden Huntress. While she wasn’t exactly a timid little mouse in Stolen Songbird, she’s grown in some very interesting ways, and much of that comes from the situations she’s confronted as the story progressed. Her encounters with blood magic influence her very strongly here, as she twice chooses to do a terrible thing that sickens her in order to get the needed power to do what is expedient rather than take the slower and less certain path. I do like that the story didn’t devolve into some personal battle to stop using blood magic, though, since while that’s an interesting enough journey for a character to take, I feel it would have weakened the rest of the story as a whole, adding a dimension that didn’t need to be added. So Jensen gets much praise from me for being able to walk that balance well.

But incidents like that did seem to prepare Cecile for moments when the right thing to do was also the horrible thing to do. (Spoiler alert: such as sticking a knife between her own mother’s ribs to prevent her mother from killing someone else.) A brilliant ending to a very moving scene, and a fantastic expression of the woman Cecile has become over time. Painful, emotional, and necessary.

The novel ends on a cliffhanger, and what a cliffhanger it is! But it doesn’t leave the main plot thread dangling; that’s wrapped up very nicely, and the cliffhanger ending is much more a consequence of what happened in the novel rather than an attempt to drag the events out further. Between this, and Stolen Songbird itself, it’s easy to see why Jensen is making such waves in the YA genre. Her writing is gorgeous, the plot tight and well-paced, villains you love to hate, and characters who are fantastically unique and not without many the many flaws that make a person a person. Suffice it to say that I’m already looking forward to the next book! This series is a definite stand-out in a saturated genre, rekindling interest and giving me greater respect for the gems that can be found on the YA shelves.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 19, 2015

Summary: “Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.

But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

Thoughts: There are so many glowing reviews of this book that chances are my review isn’t going to tell anyone anything they haven’t already heard elsewhere. This is a very good book. Surprisingly good, in many ways. That isn’t to say I went into this book with low expectations, but at the end, I was still quite impressed with just how enjoyable Uprooted really is.

Agnieszka lives in a village by the Wood, and every 10 years, a wizard in the nearby tower chooses a girl to live with him. 10 years go by, the girl is let go, and never returns home. He always chooses someone of talent, of skill, and Agnieszka expects that it will be her friend Kasia who is chosen. But when she shows signs of magic, the wizard, called the Dragon, chooses her instead. That one upset in everyone’s plans turns into something momentous when the cursed Wood starts acting against humans even more than normal, and Agnieszka finds herself caught up in a battle not for her own life, but for the lives of everyone across multiple kingdoms.

As much as most of the characters are written well, I actually find the characters to be one of the biggest drawbacks this book has. Agnieszka’s all right, as far as main characters go, and she shows a lot of growth as the story goes on. She ends up in a far different place than you’d expect her to when you see her early on. The Dragon, also called Sarkan, probably gets the most development after Agnieszka, and stars alongside her in just about every scene. Problem is, he’s not a nice guy for the most part. He’s the sort of man who’d teach someone to sew by throwing a ripped shirt at them and telling them to get on with it. He’s interesting, for sure, but his abrasive nature made him very hard to read at times, because there were so many occasions where I just wanted to reach through the boundaries of the book and smack him upside the head until he stopped being such a jackass.

Interesting to read about, but not the kind of person I ever want to have to associate with in real life.

But other characters really don’t get much development, and they often come across as character outlines rather than characters in their own right. Kasia plays a role through the entire novel, and the most development she gets is when she’s corrupted. Then she just goes back to being a background character who still manages to be in every major event. Same with the prince, with other wizards and witches… The Queen gets a fair bit of spotlight shone upon her, but pretty much only right at the end. Otherwise, she’s just like everyone else; playing a part that needs to be played for the story to advance.

But the story itself is fantastic, even if the characters aren’t. The level of detail that went into the creation of this fantasy world, pulling a lot of inspiration from European history and myth and melding it wonderfully with fantastical elements, was just beautiful, and Novik has real skill at bringing a scene to vivid life. The history of the Wood, the way magic works, it all comes together so very well to create a brilliant world that’s filled with stories, and I want to read more of them. It was enough to make me overlook the problems I had with the characters. More often than not I was distracted by events in such a way that it was easy to just get caught in the flow and forget that the people I was reading about weren’t as fleshed out as they could have been. You know something’s a strength when it makes up for a weakness. Novik’s got some major talent here, and now that I’ve read Uprooted, I’m honestly surprised that I haven’t read anything else by her yet.

Must make an effort to change that.

Every other review has commented on the romantic aspect, and so I feel compelled to as well. For my part, I’m not that fond of romance as a major element, and happily, the romance kept to its place as a side-dish rather than the main course. I couldn’t personally feel for Agniezska and Sarkan’s romance, but that may well be because I just didn’t like Sarkan that much. However, this book is pretty notable for seeming to be geared toward young adults and yet still containing a pretty tasteful sex scene. Most media presentations of YA sexuality show sexual tension and then just stop. Or make eventual sex some big flowery thing that characters debate over for weeks. Here, it’s two interested people getting caught up in the moment, one of them young and the other young in appearance only, and it’s detailed without being exceptionally graphic. So kudos to Novik for walking that fine line; I think that was very well done.

I see no sign that this is anything but a standalone, which is good in that it’s easy to pick up and read without feeling any obligation to continue on, but also bad in that it’s definitely something I want to continue with, were it to become part of a series later on down the road. Tight pacing, a good balance between tense action and calmer discoveries, and a strong compelling plot all combine to make something that’s well worth reading. It’s a quick read in part because you so easily can get caught up in everything, reading for hours until you don’t know where the time went. A fun read, a magical read, and one that’s likely to stay with you for a while.

(Received for review from the publisher.)