The Traitor’s Kiss: A Review

Sage Fowler is all too aware that she isn’t a lady. She wants it that way. Orphaned at a young age, Sage has spent years dreaming of the day when she’ll be able to leave her uncle’s stifling household.

Her hopes are thwarted when her uncle sends Sage to a matchmaker to evaluate her marriage prospects (and hopefully make a match)–a practice that is become popular throughout the kingdom. Sage has no intention of having an arranged marriage or possibly any marriage. Both prospects are easily avoided thanks to Sage’s sharp tongue and nasty disposition.

Instead Sage finds herself in the unlikely position of matchmaker’s apprentice. When she and her mentor fall in with a group of soldiers, Sage also finds herself in the surprising role of spy. The course of true love, and espionage, never does run smooth as Sage is about to find out in The Traitor’s Kiss (2017) by Erin Beaty.

The Traitor’s Kiss is Beaty’s debut novel and the start of a new series.

This book begins with an interesting premise that is soon mired in all-too familiar world building. Although Sage lives in an imaginary world it’s impossible to ignore the nods to English and (white) European cultures. This tired backdrop is compounded with dark skinned enemies and a “dusky” love interest who comes close to being described as exotic.

Unfortunately Sage herself does little to distract from this problematic world. Readers will either love or hate Sage, something that will likely determine how you feel about the rest of the novel. Sage is meant to be an independent and resourceful young woman. Which she could be if she weren’t busy being brash, thoughtless, and purposefully unkind.

After her parents died, Sage was taken in by her uncle. Early pages frame this arrangement as a nightmare for Sage where she is demeaned, belittled, and abused. Except we learn almost immediately that is not the case. Her uncle has done nothing but care for and tend to her best interests. So what is the meaning behind Sage’s simmering hatred for him and the rest of her family? No one knows. Sage continuously reminds herself and readers of her lack of agency but she also persists in making thoughtless decisions that speak to her inherent privilege in being able to do whatever she wants other peoples’ wishes be damned.

Almost every character falls victim to shorthand characterizations distilling them into a vague stereotype and not much else. Sage’s prickly personality and sharp observations serve her well in a plot that is murky at best as it moves vaguely through time leading Sage from apprentice matchmaker to would-be spy.

The Traitor’s Kiss is a disappointing fantasy that promises romance and adventure but fails to deliver on both marks.

Possible Pairings: All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry, The Glittering Court by Richelle Mead, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes, Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomas

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

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All the Crooked Saints: A Review

Here is a thing that draws everyone to Bicho Raro: The promise of a miracle.

Here is a thing everyone fears after their first miracle: What they’ll need to do to complete their second miracle.

The strange magic of miracles has been a part of the Soria family for generations–long before the family left Mexico for the desert of Bicho Raro, Colorado.

Now, in 1962, three cousins are at a turning point where magic and action intersect.

Joaquin wants many things. He wants his family to understand him, he wants to spend time with his cousins, most of all he wants someone to hear him DJing as Diablo Diablo on the pirate radio station he is running with Beatriz from inside a box truck.

Daniel is the current Saint of Bicho Raro. He performs the miracles and he sets the pilgrims on their paths to help themselves. Despite his saintliness he is incapable of performing the miracle he needs for himself.

Her family calls Beatriz the girl without feelings, objectively she can’t argue the point. But when unexpected misfortune befalls Bicho Raro, Beatriz will have to reconcile her feelings (or lack thereof) with the logical fact of what she has to do next.

Everyone wants a miracle but when miracles go horribly wrong the residents of Bicho Raro might have to settle for forgiveness instead in All the Crooked Saints (2017) by Maggie Stiefvater.

Set in 1962 when radio waves could be stolen and miracles weren’t quite so shocking, Stiefvater’s latest standalone novel is a story of miracles and magic but also family and forgiveness. An omniscient third person narrator tells the story as Beatriz, Joaquin, and Daniel are drawn into the center of the Soria family’s tumultuous relationship to the miracles and pilgrims who shape so much of the Soria identity.

Pilgrims come to Bicho Raro hoping a miracle can change their life, or maybe their fate. The Soria family changed years ago on a lonely night when a miracle went horribly wrong. The Soria cousins–Beatriz, Joaquin, and Daniel–might be the ones to help right the wrongs of that night. But only if they’re willing to risk changing Bicho Raro and themselves forever.

All the Crooked Saints is an evocative and marvelously told story. Wry humor, unique fantasy elements, friendship, and the fierce power of hope come together here to create an unforgettable story. Not to be missed. Will hold special appeal for readers who enjoy character driven fantasy.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher at BookExpo 2017*

That Inevitable Victorian Thing: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Years from now Victoria-Margaret will be the next Queen and continue the work her ancestor Victoria I started two centuries earlier to strengthen the British Empire for all of its people and promote genetic diversity and inter-Empire politics with an advantageous marriage. First  the crown princess will have a summer of freedom for her debut season in Toronto. Although her brown skin, epicanthal fold, and freckles make her easily recognizable as the current Queen’s daughter, Margaret is able to disguise herself with the help of her natural hair and a non-royal alias.

Helena Marcus is looking forward to a quiet debut in New London and making her unspoken understanding with August Callaghan official. August wants nothing more but hopes to delay their official engagement until he can see himself clear of the American pirates plaguing his Canadian and Hong Kong Chinese family’s lumber and shipping business.

When her mother’s position as a placement geneticist brings Helena to the far more prestigious Toronto debut scene she and Margaret strike up an immediate and easy friendship with a hint of flirtation.

Spending the summer up north at the Marcus cottage near Lake Muskoka allows Margaret to see more of the Empire and to find her own place among the raucous Callaghan family. As Margaret, Helena, and August grow closer and learn more of each others’ secrets they realize they may be poised to help each other get everything they’ve long wanted in That Inevitable Victorian Thing (2017) by E. K. Johnston.

Johnston’s standalone novel blends light science fiction elements in a near-future setting with the tone and style of a Victorian novel. Chapter headers including maps, society gossip pages, and correspondence serve to expand the detailed world building and highlight how deliberately and thoughtfully inclusive the Empire is (despite realistically damaging colonialism in the Empire’s distant past).

That Inevitable Victorian Thing alternates close third person point of view between Margaret, Helena, and August as all of the characters face what it means to be an adult in charge of one’s own responsibilities and, regardless of consequences, also one’s own mistakes. The voice throughout is pitch perfect for an homage to Victorian novels and works exceedingly well with the near-future world these characters inhabit.

While Margaret faces the prospect of an arranged marriage in her future, and August struggles with how best to deal with American pirates demanding protection money, Helena faces her own surprise. At eighteen every member of the Empire is able to log into the -gnet to see their full genetic profile and seek out prospective matches. When she logs in for the first time Helena is shocked by her genetic profile and uncertain what it means for her future.

Fortunately, Helena has nothing but support from her friends and loved ones. Even as this story builds toward conflict and shocks, Johnston’s tight control of the narrative serves to suggest that regardless of the outcome, these three characters will not just make it through but thrive.

That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a self-aware novel set in a fascinating world that is filled with wit and humor. Helena’s chemistry with both Margaret and Henry crackles despite being couched in Victorian manners and conventions. A perfect introduction to speculative fiction, a sweet romance, and a delight for fans of alternate history That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a must-read for all. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, These Broken Stars by Aimee Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the August 2017 issue of School Library Journal*

Pashmina: A Graphic Novel Review

Priyanka doesn’t feel like she fits in at her high school where she tells everyone to call her “Pri” to avoid any questions about pronouncing her name. She doesn’t feel confident about her artwork even when her teacher nominates one of her comics for an art contest.

At home Pri’s mother refuses to answer questions about her father. When she finds out that her uncle Jatin and his wife are expecting a new baby, Pri isn’t sure what that will mean for their relationship. Nervous that she is being displaced, Pri prays to Shakti.

Pri is guilt-ridden and terrified that her prayers have been answered in the worst way when baby Shilpa is born premature. She finds unexpected comfort in one of her mother’s old pashmina shawls. Wrapped up in the shawl Pri is transported to a colorful and vibrant vision of India that only furthers her interest in the country and her mother’s past.

When Pri’s mother surprises her with a trip to India she is thrilled to have the chance to visit and meet her mother’s sister. Arriving in India is thrilling and offers so many new experiences but as Pri explores more of the country and learns more about her family, she realizes that the visions from the shawl are far from the truth in Pashmina (2017) by Nidhi Chanani.

Pashmina is Chanani’s debut graphic novel.

Chanani’s artwork is whimsical and carefully detailed. The comic uses color to draw a neat contrast between Pri’s real life which is shown in pale neutrals and her fantastical visions of India that are vibrant in rich colors reminiscent of the cover art.

Although Pri is around sixteen (one plot point involves Uncle Jatin teaching her to drive), she reads much younger as a character–something that is also reflected in the story making this feel more like a middle grade story than one about a girl in high school. Some aspects of the plot remain vague (how Pri can travel to India on such short notice for instance) but these pieces do little to diminish the effect of the whole. The plot stops short of exploring some of the more complicated issues like the sometimes strained relationship of Pri’s aunt and uncle in India, although overall this comic is nuanced and thoughtful.

Pashmina is a clever story brimming with positivity. Chanani blends fantasy elements well with accurate and honest portrayals of Pri’s life as the child of an Indian immigrant as well as the hardships, cultural heritage, and beauty that can be found in India.

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2017*

The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic: A Review

Leigh Bardugo follows up her popular Grisha trilogy and its companion Six of Crows duology with The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic, a collection of atmospheric short stories which serve as an excellent introduction to the Grishaverse for new readers while expanding the world for seasoned fans.

The six short stories (including three previously published by Tor.com) are inspired by the cultures found in the Grishaverse as well as traditional fairy tales, folk tales, and myths. In her author’s note Bardugo explains her thought process as she examined familiar fairy tales and pulled at the troubling threads found within.

Every story is accompanied by Sarah Kipin‘s border illustrations which grow around the pages as the tales unfolds culminating in a double page illustration at the end of each story. Two color printing enhances the collection and makes this a stunning addition to any bookshelf.

In “Ayama and the Thorn Wood,” a Zemeni tale with nods to Cinderella, The Thousand Nights and Beauty and the Beast, Ayama ventures into the Thorn Wood where she must speak truth while placating a fearsome beast with fanciful stories.

The Ravkan story “The Too-Clever Fox,” follows Koja–an ugly fox–as he learns that sometimes help from a friend outweighs mere cunning when he tries to stop a ruthless hunter.

Bardugo’s answer to Hansel and Gretel, “The Witch of Duva” follows Nadya into the woods where she finds a wondrous witch who can help her discover the truth about her new step-mother–but only for a steep cost.

Beautiful Yeva questions her father’s decision to follow the common fairy tale tradition of setting nearly impossible tasks to choose her future husband in “Little Knife” as Semyon uses his abilities as a Tidemaker to get help from a river to complete them.

The Kerch tale of “The Soldier Prince” explores themes of identity and desire when a demon named Droessen creates a nutcracker soldier who comes to life–but is being alive the same as being real?

The collection finishes with the Fjerdan story “When Water Sang Fire” about a sildroher mermaid named Ulla who dreams of being able to use her singing magic as she chooses, until her attempt to create a fire that will burn underwater ends in betrayal and heartbreak, suggesting a possible origin story for the Little Mermaid’s notorious sea witch.

Themes of feminism and empowerment color each story with heroes and heroines given the chance to choose their own fates and stir the pot, for better or worse. Strong writing, compelling stories, and gorgeous illustrations make this collection a must have for fans of the author and readers eager for new fairy tale retellings to devour.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Entwined by Heather Dixon, Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the October 2017 issue of School Library Journal*

Always and Forever, Lara Jean: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*Always and Forever, Lara Jean is the sequel to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and  P. S. I Still Love You. As such there are major spoilers for both preceding books in this review.*

“There’s so much to be excited about, if you let yourself be.”

It feels like everything is changing for Lara Jean the spring of her senior year in high school. She and Peter K. are still together but she is waiting for those much-anticipated college acceptance letters. Margot seems farther away than ever in Scotland especially as their father announces his plans to remarry. Kitty, the youngest Song girl, is ecstatic about the wedding and seems to be growing up all too quickly.

Lara Jean knows exactly how she wants the rest of her senior year and college to go. But even with all of her careful planning it seems like Lara Jean will still have to face some unexpected decisions and opportunities in Always and Forever, Lara Jean (2017) by Jenny Han.

Always and Forever, Lara Jean is the unexpected third book in Han’s Lara Jean trilogy which began with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and  P. S. I Still Love You. Han wrote this book in secret as a surprise for her readers who are fans of this series and these characters.

This final installment starts near Easter as Lara Jean is anxiously waiting to hear back from colleges and trying to plan what will come next for her own future as well as her future with Peter. Surprise college decisions and other changes prove that even the best laid plans can be changed and, more importantly, your future is your own to shape.

Lara Jean remains a sweet and thoughtful narrator here facing some universal dilemmas particularly when she realizes her dreams about college are not going to resemble her reality. Lara Jean has always had an excellent support system with her family, friends, and Peter but it’s especially nice to see Lara Jean making her own decisions here even if sometimes they are scary choices. Throughout this quiet novel Lara Jean demonstrates her signature blend of resilience and optimism.

Always and Forever, Lara Jean is the perfect conclusion for this series and these characters. A memorable and satisfying send off for fans of this much loved series.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) by Justina Chen, Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg, The Year My Sister Got Lucky by Aimee Friedman, I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, The Key to the Golden Firebird by Maureen Johnson, Undercover by Beth Kephart, Shuffle, Repeat by Jen Klein, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan, Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales, The Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott, The Edge of Falling by Rebecca Serle

Don’t forget to check out all of my buttons inspired by To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before & P. S. I Still Love You

Strange the Dreamer: A Review

“He’d sooner die trying to hold the world on his shoulders than running away. Better, always, to run toward.”

No one knows what happened in Weep two hundred years ago to isolate the wondrous city from the rest of the world.

Lazlo Strange has been obsessed with Weep since he felt the city’s true name stripped from his mind when he was five years old. Now he spends every free moment tracking down what clues he can about the city as it once was and hints to what might have transpired there.

Unlikely as it may be for a war orphan turned into a lowly junior librarian, Lazlo’s greatest dream is to visit Weep and see its wonders with his own eyes. He knows such opportunities, such legends, are more suitable to men like Thyon Nero–a scholar renowned through the land for his alchemical wonders–but that does little to tamp down his hope. Lazlo is a dreamer who survives on a steady diet of magic and fairy tales. To deny the possibility of either in his own small life is unthinkable.

When an unexpected caravan led by Eril-Fane, the Godslayer, arrives Lazlo has to embrace his dream and strive for the impossible: not just the chance to see the Unseen City for himself but possibly the chance to save it.

The city is more than even Lazlo could have expected filled with wonders and horrors in equal measure. The city is still haunted by the centuries long legacy of war and terror under the Mesarthium–blue-skinned gods who came down from the sky when the city was still whole.

There are problems to solve in Weep and answers to find. But as Lazlo explores his dream city, he realizes there are also more questions as his own dreamscape becomes something he doesn’t recognize with moments that are strikingly, vividly real, and a blue-skinned goddess who seems nothing like the terror he’s heard about from the Godslayer.

In a world where the old gods are dead and dreams have weight, Lazlo will have to decide what he wants to protect and what he’s willing to lose in Strange the Dreamer (2017) by Laini Taylor. Welcome to Weep.

Strange the Dreamer is the first book in Taylor’s latest duology which will continue in The Muse of Nightmares. While this story is very obviously unfinished (the last line of the novel is “Because this story was not over yet.”) Strange the Dreamer does provide a partially contained arc in terms of Lazlo’s journey and growth as he comes into his own upon arriving in Weep.

Through Weep and its history Strange the Dreamer artfully explores themes of forgiveness and recovery as both Lazlo and the rest of Weep struggle to determine next steps for the wounded but healing city. The imagined city of Weep is evocative and vibrant with distinct customs, landscapes, and even language. The use of language is demonstrated especially well with the words in Weep’s native language used to start each section of the novel.

Taylor builds drama that remains taut from the opening prologue until the very last page. Written with an omniscient third person point of view this story is very self-aware and encompasses numerous points of view. This narrative structure and the tone of the novel are deliberately reminiscent of the fairy tales that Lazlo so richly loves and serve to underscore the fairy tale nature of Strange the Dreamer where magic continuously appears in seemingly mundane and unexpected places.

Strange the Dreamer is a captivating fantasy sure to appeal to readers looking for an intricate and unique story. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Reader by Traci Chee, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Lirael by Garth Nix, A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater, The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner