Category Archives: Reviews

Sofia Amatar, A Stranger in Olondria

I read this book because it won the World Fantasy Award. Hate it when I haven’t even read a book that people like so much!

So I had to catch up and see what this one’s about.

Verdict: that World Fantasy Award is well-deserved. Let’s check off how it’s original, and what it does really well:

  • Original world: check. The Olondrian empire’s that wonderful thing, a realm seen inside-out, from inside its own literature. Many of the features — the Priests of the Stone, for instance — are at an interesting angle compared to the usual set of tropes.
  • Original plot: check. I don’t think I’ve read a story that enters a world like this, from the inside-outside-in, where we’re part of it in our imaginations, yet not part of it, yet affecting it intimately, as the story unfolds.
  • Rich, rich world-building and character-building: Wow. That’s all I can say.

Simplest way to put it: I’ve read very few books that evoke multiple worlds, multiple lives, multiples ways of life so richly, with so much lyricism and texture.

The major weakness, for me, is that there were so many stories within a story, sometimes my patience as a reader was stretched thin. I began to doubt if there would be a payoff — but then there was. Several times. In the end, it all came together. And that was an excellent thing.

So, the congratulations are in order for the World Fantasy Award. This is a book you should not miss.

Beth Cato, The Clockwork Dagger

This book passed an important test. I chose to read it out loud to my wife.

We read together pretty regularly. I don’t know how many other people do that — but for me, at least, it’s a way to enjoy a story physically, when I know it’s worth it. (Usually, i’ve read the book silently before we read the book together).

So this is a pretty fun book.

In the knowing what you’re getting into department: This is steampunk, ticking off all the usual boxes. Airships, clockwork golems, and other mechanical marvels. Victorian social mores (though the setting feels more like Germany just after the 1918 armistice than Victorian Engliand.) But it’s steampunk fantasy, not steampunk pure and simple. This is not our world. The protagonist, Octavia Leander, is a magical healer, and has a mystical relationship to divinity, in the form of the Lady and the Tree, protectors of nature and restorers of health and vitality, in a world determined to mechanize everything.

In the knowing where it’s going department: Because Octavia is incredibly powerful and gifted in her magic, she has become (unbeknownst to her) a target of interest both to her own government and its terrorist/guerrilla liberation army enemies. What should have been an uneventful airship ride to her new job becomes a sequence of dangers. Someone tries to stab her. Someone tries to push her off the airship. And that’s just for starters. They’re still warming up, and she hasn’t got a clue about why. Meanwhile, she’s starting to feel some really inappropriate feelings toward the steward, and she isn’t sure what to do about them.

Some reactions: The plot is very tightly constructed, and the mystery-like reveals as the true situation develops work very effectively. An alert reader of mysteries will be rewarded by the clues Beth Cato drops in advance. But they had better be very alert. She also does some incredible technology vs. mother nature moves that explore very interesting philosophical issues along the way. One of the most fun things about the plot is the sideplot involving a lost princess, hiding in plain site as the dowager widow, Mrs. Viola Stout. Viola is a hard character to get out of your mind.

A fun read. Worth the effort to get your hands on.

Johnny Worthen, Eleanor

David Venn loves her as she is. But she knows that she is a monster.

That is Eleanor’s biggest problem. Though she has plenty of other problems. Like high school — where she does her best to be the unseen Eleanor, always in the background, because it’s safer that way. Because if anyone finds out that she’s really a skinwalker — a shapeshifter — she’ll have to run away to survive. That’s what she did before, when the Navajo came to kill her parents, and she hid for fifty years in the form of a coyote.

But Eleano’rs biggest problem, other than being a monster, is the fact that her adoptive mother Tabitha is dying of cancer, which makes the social worker want to put her in a foster home. She doesn’t want to leave Tabitha. She wants to live a normal life, like a normal girl.

This is one of the most original takes on shapeshifter legends I’ve seen in YA fantasy, based upon Indian legends about skinwalkers — witches who can take another person’s shape, kill them, and then take their place in society. It’s also a very carefully crafted narrative, with two characters — Eleanor, and David Venn — who really come to life. This is one of a few books I’ve read this that goes down on my long term favorites list, along with Cruel Beauty. I got a copy out from the library along with a big stack of other new adult and YA fantasy. Then I read it out loud to my wife, because I thought she would love it (and she did). Then I ordered a copy for myself, which I don’t usually do when I can get a book from my local library.

Just one nitpicky point. Jolly Fish Press should really have hired a better proofreader. This book looks like it was proofread by somebody who thought that running a spell-check was good enough, and that caused me a series of low-level irritations. Pallet where there should have been palette. Homonym pairs like to/two confused a couple of times. Missing words, or extra words, or misplaced words, here and there. One place where they didn’t remember to use lay instead of laid (though I’ve seen books from big houses miss that point). It wasn’t frequent enough to ruin the experience of reading the book, but if there’s any way for them to at least fix the e-book, and any future print runs, I’d say they should make the investment. This is a book that ought to be more widely known than it is.

Vicki Weavil: Crown of Ice

Disney this is not. In this feminist fairy tale, the girl isn’t a princess, and she’s quite happy to make the guy wait till she’s ready to enter a relationship on an equal footing.
All very true, but it doesn’t really capture the essence of the story, which is (quite coincidentally) coming out shortly after Disney did the Ice Queen too. But this Ice Queen is far brainier than the Disney version, and very interesting in her own right.

She’s got a heart, but she’s really good at hiding that part of herself from herself or anybody else.

She’s has a love interest, but you wouldn’t know it for a long, long time. Takes a while for that heart to thaw …

And she has a deadline (when her next birthday hits, she’s not toast, but a ghost), so she is very, very motivated to complete her magical task.

One of the striking things about this as a novel, for me, was the spare, minimal style of narration, much more like a traditional fairy tale than a typical YA novel. It worked very well, especially in the early going. I was a bit disappointed that the narrative didn’t hit me over the head a bit harder when her heart began to shift in the later parts of the novel — I think an inattentive reader might miss the cues.

A fun read. Don’t miss it.

(I got a free copy of this book in return for an honest review. I have no other connection with the publisher, Month9books.)

ARC Giveaway: Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest


I’m collecting quite a collection of advance review copies, and the thought occurred to me that there are other people out there who would probably enjoy getting a chance to read Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest before it comes out in January 2015.

So, I’m going to hold a giveaway contest. Here are the rules:

1. Go to my review of the book.
2. Write a comment AT THAT PAGE (not on this post) in which you recommend three books that you think people who like Holly Black’s previous works would also like to read.
3. Your comment won’t appear immediately; I approve comments as an anti-spam measure. But I’ll review and approve all relevant comments by September 1st, at which time I’ll announce the winner.
4. My decision who to give the book to will be based on your comment and recommendations. I’ll judge which comment was most helpful and had the most interesting book recommendation.
5. When I’ve made my decision I’ll post the winner and contact him or her to get a mailing address. At which point it’ll be on its way to some lucky someone.

Let the fun begin.

Licia Troisi, Nihal of the Land of the Wind

There is a certain kind of story, like the first Harry Potter book (and NOT like the later books in that same series), that may work very well for preteens or very young teens, but which absolutely get on my nerves. They’re what I call self-insertion fantasies, and the whole point seems to be to give the reader the chance to fantasize about being someone special. The story is almost all action, with very little internal character development, and the language, too, tends to be very simple. Nothing is allowed to get in the way of the reader’s total self-identification with the protagonist.

This starts out as that kind of story. The protagonist, Nihal, is very special. Her appearance is distinctive; she loves to fight, and she is extraordinarily talented as a fighter. When a fifteen year old girl learns fighting so quickly and intuitively that she is able to beat ten well-trained fully grown warriors, one after the other, we’re definitely in wish-fulfillment territory. The adventures she has are a progression that might appeal greatly to readers who just want a character to identify with and lots of adventures to see that character perform in.

Then there’s a twist. I won’t spoil it, but it’s very appropriate if the intended readers are pre-teens or early teens, and it takes the book out of wish-fulfillment territory and into coming-of-age territory.

I can’t recommend this book to well-read fantasy readers, because neither the world-building or the character and her journey really stand out. But I think it might be a very wonderful first fantasy for a certain kind of young reader, which may account for its best-seller status in Italy, its original country of publication.

Note: I got a copy of this book for free at Book Expo America. I have no other connection with the publisher.

Victoria Schwab, The Archived and The Unbound

Perhaps we need to invent a category of YA fiction for books that feature an unusual afterlife. In the world Victoria Schwab, the afterlife is like a library. Most people stay shelved, but a few are withdrawn from the stacks and get to be a librarian. This whole system is protected by a special group drawn from among the living – Keepers, whose job it is to return Histories to the library if they wake up and wander.

In The Archived, Mackenzie is a teenage Keeper who has inherited the job from her recently deceased grandfather. The number of Histories escaping is increasing horribly, and she has to find out why before she gets overwhelmed. To do so, she has to solve the mystery of people who used to live in her apartment building, and appear to have been murdered, but but whose names do not appear in the library’s Index. She does so with the help of another teenaged Keeper, Owen, but only barely manages to survive the schemes of a rogue Librarian and the suspicious attentions of the Library staff. In The Unbound. Mackenzie has to negotiate the conflict between her ordinary life as a schoolgirl (and a new, prep school, at that) and her life as a Keeper, even as the rogue librarian (who should be dead and gone) haunts her thoughts until she begins to wonder if she is going mad. Which would definitely disqualify her from being a Keeper, in which case the library staff would wipe any inconvenient memories, so she HAS to succeed.

After these two books, there will be at least one more sequel, which will enable us to see deeper into the nature of the Library, and determine whether Mackenzie is going to be an afterlife revolutionary.

These novels have staple elements you expect to see in YA fantasy – the fitting-in-at-school theme, the uncertainties-of-first-love theme, and the need for the character to grow up quickly and make very consequential moral choices, but they definitely deliver them with a unique twist.
Two thumbs up. I’m definitely going to get book #3 when it comes out.

Note: I checked the first book out from my local public library, then bought the second. I have no connection with the author or publisher.

Corinne Duyvis, Otherbound

This is a story of two worlds: Amara’s world, and Nolan’s.

In Nolan’s world, which is also our world, Nolan has epilepsy (as far as his doctors can tell), but none of the medicines seem to work. What they don’t know is that every time he blinks, he’s transported to another world. Amara’s world, where he sees life through Amara’s eyes.

Amara is a servant – pretty much a slave, and she is cursed with the gift of self-healing. Cursed, because she has to endure attacks meant to injure Cilla, her mistress, a princess on the run, who is being dogged by a powerful spell.

Nolan has been keeping a journal secretly for years, recording all of his experiences in Amara’s body. But he is an onlooker, unable to affect what happens in Amara’s world, until one day he learns how to move in, take control, and act on his own volition.

Now, from Amara’s point of view, he is an evil spirit, possessing her.

I thought I had seen every kind of portal fantasy that there is, but Corinne Duyvis has come up with a new one. The effect is very original – we have split perspectives, a constant shift back and forth between worlds, and an unusual dynamic between the paired protagonists. The fantasy world is a pretty original one in its own right, very well-thought-out, but what’s really striking is the fundamental premise once it fully emerges. People from our world are invading the fantasy world, seeking to take it over by possessing its most powerful magicians, and only Nolan and Amara can stop them, if only they can figure out how to work together.

This is a very strong work, dealing with themes that resonated strongly for me and may, I think, resonate just as strongly for a wide range of readers.

Note: I checked this book out from my local public library. I have no connection with the author or publisher.

Lucy Saxon, Take Back the Skies

What’s steampunk without airships and mechanical men? Not to worry, Lucy Saxon gives those to you in spades.

Catherine, the tomboy daughter of a well-connected, powerful lord decides that an arranged marriage is not for her. So she stows away on an airship, gets adopted by the crew, and then helps to uncover a horrible scheme in which her own father is the master-mind. Having lost a war, rather than admit defeat, the aristocracy overthrew the monarchy, instituted a totalitarian state, and started a secret project to build an army of half-mechanical soldiers, but Catherine’s inside knowledge enables the crew of the airship to infiltrate government headquarters and reveal the truth to the rest of the world. Along the way, she pretends to be a boy, falls in love, gets unmasked, and has to prove where her loyalties really lie.

This is a very standard steampunk world, and a very standard adventure plot. The distinctive elements can be described as follows: Take Cromwell’s England, add steampunk, mix in successfully rebellious colonies, then add a dash of dastardly experimentation involving lots of vivisection.

Catherine has spunk. She’s a lively character, and the book’s a fast read. I give the novel a thumbs up, though with the reservations I’ve already noted. This is not a book that will wow anyone as The Next Big Thing, but teen readers who’re turned on to steampunk and are looking for more will definitely enjoy this book.

Note: I checked this book out from my local public library. I have no connection with the author or publisher.

Lenore Appelhans, The Memory of After

It isn’t all that often that we encounter a YA fantasy where the heroine and one of the male love interests belong to a church youth group and the other love interest is a fallen angel. It’s even rarer to have a novel that starts in the afterlife. But that’s what we have here, and it’s a pretty neat ride.

Who would have thought that the afterlife would be a series of endless replays (unless you manage to borrow someone else’s memories?) But that’s what Felicia’s stuck in, until an old boyfriend named Julian bursts into the hive and engineers her escape into an afterworld in which fallen angels called the Morati are holding up everyone’s progress toward heaven (or hell) in order to collect enough power from the waylaid spirits to mount an assault on heaven itself. The plot unfolds with plenty of unexpected twists and turns to a satisfying conclusion, and it sets up possible sequels with a premise that could prove very interesting.

I have to point out that the world-building is a bit on the light side. Exactly why spirits’ memories provide power to the fallen angels remains a bit vague, and it’s even vaguer why Felicia is special – explanations are offered, but to my ear they’re not fully convincing. However, that’s no obstacle to getting a fun read (unless, like me, you’re super-critical about things like that.). It’s also worth noting that this is a book you can easily give to a younger teen – it’s quick-paced, easy to read, and pretty clean (though well-stocked with kisses, so it’s most distinctly not hormone-neutral!)

It’s fun. So enjoy! I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.

Note: I got a signed copy of this book for free at Book Expo America. I have no other connection with the publisher.