Spinning Silver: A Review

“There’s always trouble where there’s money owed, sooner or later.”

Spinning Silver by Naomi NovikMiryem comes from a long line of moneylenders. It’s easy to become a moneylender but it’s hard to be a good one because to be a good moneylender means being cruel. Her father isn’t a good one; he finds it far easier to loan out money than collect payments thus leaving his own family destitute.

Eager to change their circumstances, Miryem takes over inuring herself to pleas for clemency in lieu of actual payments. As the family business finally begins to thrive, Miryem builds a reputation for herself borrowing silver from her grandfather and bringing back gold in return.

When an idle boast attracts the attention of the Staryk–wintry folk known for their cold hearts and brutal magic–Miryem finds herself in the center of a world where striking the right bargain could mean unimaginable wealth and the wrong one could leave her lost forever.

With high stakes and high magic everywhere, Miryem will have to rely on her wits and her nerve when payment for her bargains come due and she has to prove to the Staryk that she is as formidable as the growing rumors about her would claim in Spinning Silver (2018) by Naomi Novik.

Find it on Bookshop.

This standalone fantasy is a loose retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale set in a well-realized world steeped in Jewish culture and tradition. Miryem is a shrewd and capable heroine. She is well aware of the dangers the world for a young woman of means–especially a Jewish one who lends money.

What Miryem fails to realize is that those dangers extend beyond her far town and deep into the strange, cold lands of the Staryk. As Miryem learns more about the Staryk she begins to realize that greater forces are at play in both her own world and the Staryk’s–forces that may need more than her considerable smarts to conquer.

Intertwining stories and multiple points of view extend the world and explore multiple facets of both feminism and womanhood in a world that is quick to dismiss both. Nuanced and complex characterization slowly explore the varied motivations and goals of all of the characters as they work to exert influence over their spheres and fully capitalize on their own agency.

Spinning Silver is a familiar tale masterfully reimagined; a singular retelling that is as crisp and exhilirating as the first chill of winter. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, The Forest Queen by Betsy Cornwell, Roses and Rot by Kat Howard, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Prospero Lost by L. Jagi Lamplighter, Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, Hunted by Meagan Spooner

The Princess and the Warrior: A Picture Book Review

The Princess and the Warrior by Duncan TonatiuhMany prosperous suitors ask Princess Izta to marry them. She refuses them all. Instead it is a warrior named Popoca who steals Itza’s heart when he promises to be true to her and stay by her side.

The emperor is wary of such a match for his only daughter. But he promises that if Popoca can defeat the fierce Jaguar Claw that he and Itza will be allowed to marry. When victory is in Popoca’s grasp, the Jaguar Claw conspires to tell Itza that her true love has died. Grief stricken, Itza falls into a deep sleep that even Popoca cannot lift.

But true to his word, Popoca stays by Itza’s side forever in The Princess and the Warrior: A Tale of Two Volcanoes (2016) by Duncan Tonatiuh.

The Princess and the Warrior is Tonatiuh’s reimagining of the Aztec legend of two volcanoes: Iztaccíhuatl, the princess who continues to sleep, and Popocatépetl, the warrior who spews ash and smoke, trying to wake his love.

Tonatiuh’s artwork is immediately recognizable with sharp line work and figures always shown in profile. This style, reminiscent of Aztec art itself, lends itself especially well to this story.

The text of The Princess and the Warrior draws readers in from the first page with a evocative language and a sense of urgency. The story is aptly retold in picture book form here with themes that will bring to Romeo and Juliet to mind for older readers.

The book concludes with an author’s note from Tonatiuh talking more about his creative choices for this book and the source material. The book itself is well-packaged from the dustjacket and case covers to the interior pages. Bold full-page spreads highlight action in battle scenes while smaller detail illustrations add momentum to the story.

The Princess and the Warrior is a fantastic addition to any picture book collection. An obvious recommendation for any fans of picture book versions of classic folktales and myths. Recommended.

*An advance copy of this title was acquired from the publisher at BEA 2016*

Vassa in the Night: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Vassa in the Night by Sarah PorterSixteen-year-old Vassa Lisa Lowenstein isn’t sure where she fits in her family or if it even qualifies as a family. Her mother is dead. Vassa’s father stayed only long enough to settle Vassa with his new wife. So now she has a stepmother and two stepsisters. Chelsea is nice enough but Stephanie might actually hate Vassa–which is fine since it’s mostly mutual. It’s an odd living arrangement to Vassa but no more peculiar than a lot of things in her working-class Brooklyn neighborhood.

The nights have been acting especially strange as they become longer and longer. When her stepsister (Stephanie, naturally) sends Vassa out in the middle of the night for light bulbs the only store that’s still open is the local BY’s. Everyone knows about BY’s, and its owner Babs Yagg, but people do tend to remember a store that dances around on chicken legs and has a habit of decapitating shoplifters.

Vassa is sure getting out of the store quickly will be easy. Even her enchanted wooden doll, Erg, is willing to behave and keep her sticky fingers to herself this once. When things don’t go as planned in BY’s it will take all of Vassa’s wits and Erg’s cunning to escape the store alive and maybe even break whatever curse has been placed on Brooklyn’s nights in Vassa in the Night (2016) by Sarah Porter.

This standalone urban fantasy is inspired by the Russian folktake “Vassilisa the Beautiful.” Although Vassa is described as incredibly pale, the rest of the book is populated with characters who are realistically diverse. Complicated dynamics within Vassa’s blended family add another dimension to the story. Evocative settings and imagery help bring this bizarre corner of Brooklyn to life including strong allusions to the Studio Ghibli film “Howl’s Moving Castle.”

Vassa is a cynical, no-nonsense character who is quick to make jokes and take risks with the delightfully sharp-tongued Erg at her side. Vassa’s frank narration is sure to remind fans of Veronica Mars as will her resigned acceptance of her role as hero in this story.

Elements of traditional horror blend well with high-concept fantasy in this surprising and engaging tale. A deliberate lack of romantic tension makes Vassa in the Night a refreshing read focused on themes of self-reliance, friendship, and family.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Diviners by Libba Bray, The Reader by Traci Chee, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the August 2016 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review from which it can be seen on various sites online*

The Glass Casket: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Glass Casket by McCormick TemplemanNag’s End is a town that is used to disappointment and hard times. Nag’s Enders also know to stay away from the woods after dark lest the dark creatures–the ones that stayed behind when the good fairies left–eat them up. The town is warded to keep evil out. And as long as people stay out of the woods, it seems safe enough.

But not everyone knows to stay out of the woods.

After years of peaceful living, five soldiers ride through town in a flurry of activity only to disappear. Days later they’re found dead in the woods.

The town elders say it must be wolves. Tom and Jude Parstle don’t believe them. Neither does Tom’s best friend Rowan Rose despite what her pragmatic father might think.

It’s been years since anything unnatural happened in Nag’s End or the surrounding forest. But between the strange deaths and the arrival of Fiona Eira–a preternaturally beautiful girl with her own secrets–it seems change is coming to Nag’s End. As Tom, Jude and Rowan delve deeper into the mystery surrounding these strange deaths none of them are sure who will survive in The Glass Casket (2014) by McCormick Templeman.

The Glass Casket is a strange blend of fantasy with a hint of folklore and a horror suspense story. Five brutally murdered bodies are found within the first few pages but then the story shifts abruptly to an entirely too contrived (not to mention instantaneous) romance only to shift again to a bit of a mystery.

Templeman admirably juggles all of these tropes and plot devices in chapters with titles referring back the Major Arcana cards from a Tarot deck. Despite all of these intriguing elements, The Glass Casket never feels cohesive.

Broken into four parts and further subdivided into chapters, the story is chopped up even more with the story alternating between third person narrations following Tom, Rowan, Jude and Fiona. While this offers an opportunity to see the story from all side the ultimate result is a disjointed, jumpy story. (Not to mention a story that is annoyingly dissimilar from the plot suggested by the book’s jacket copy.)

Unfortunately, Templeman’s strength in world-building only highlights how lacking her characters are in basic development. Tom not only falls in love literally at first sight but also into a grand love that will mark him as forever changed. Jude, meanwhile, behaves like a young boy demonstrating his affection for a girl by being rude and generally treating her badly. Finally Rowan, the heroine of the novel who barely features in the first seventy pages, is supposedly a clever, bookish scholar. Yet throughout the story she is painfully lacking in self-awareness and lashes out with childlike tantrums when upset.

In summary, The Glass Casket is largely beautifully written. Although it is lacking in strong characters, the backdrop of Nag’s End is vivid and extremely evocative. Even the plot, if you can get past the numerous shifts in perspective, is quite suspenseful and an ideal read for fans of horror stories or thrillers.

Possible Pairings: The War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, The Blue Girl by Charles De Lint, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katharine Howe, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab, The Last of the High Kings by Kate Thompson, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, “The Stolen Child” by the Waterboys (hear it here)