A Conjuring of Light: A Review

*A Conjuring of Light is the final book in Schwab’s Shades of Magic Series which begins with A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows. As such this review contains major spoilers for book one and two.*

“Life isn’t made of choices. It’s made of trades. Some are good, some are bad, but they all have a cost.”

“We don’t choose what we are, but we choose what we do.”

Once there were four Londons. Black London was consumed by magic a long time ago. White London will die without more magic. Grey London never had any magic. Then there’s Red London, the jewel of the Maresh Empire and a shining beacon of magic across its world. That magic is what makes Red London so beautiful; it’s what is threatening to destroy it as well.

An interloper from Black London is tearing its way through Red London leaving destruction and death in its wake. Kell is used to being alone and to thinking of himself as isolated thanks to his Antari blood but all of that changes when the only home he’s ever had and the only family that matters is threatened. But Kell can’t fight this battle alone. Not if he wants to win.

Lila has thrived in Red London leaving behind her life as a thief to pursue her dream of becoming a pirate. She made it through the magical competition of the Essen Tasch but not she has to learn to control her magic before it begins to control her.

Kell and Lila will have to use every spell and trick they know to face a new threat from Black London. Along the way they’ll rely on old friends like Kell’s brother Prince Rhy and uneasy allies like the mysterious Captain Alucard Emery. Even old enemies may become allies before the battle is over. To survive, to win, will take everything the Antari have to give and maybe even more in A Conjuring of Light (2017) by V. E. Schwab.

A Conjuring of Light is the final book in Schwab’s Shades of Magic Series which begins with A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows. As such this review contains major spoilers for book one and two.

A Conjuring of Light picks up shortly after book two. Everyone is in peril and trouble is brewing. The tension does not let up from there. At more than six hundred pages you would thing this book would feel bloated of slow. It doesn’t. Schwab’s story is perfectly paced to give this series the conclusion it deserves.

Written in third person this novel alternates perspective to follow all of the major characters that readers have come to know and love over the course of this series. Rhy is still struggling with what it means to be a prince without magic while also processing the way his life is now tied to Kell’s. Alucard is haunted by his past and not sure he can ever be free of it. Lila still has so much to learn about being an Antari and letting people love her instead of running away. Kell, similarly, is still struggling to define what family means for a man with no memory of his past. Does a past he can’t remember mean anything compared to the family he has known for most of his life?

Then, of course, there’s Holland. Before A Conjuring of Light it’s easy to say Holland is the villain of this story and stop there. Schwab’s deliberate and complex characterization, however, slowly reveals that there is much more to this oldest and most experienced Antari. This story is also peppered with flashbacks for all of the characters though most notably for Holland.

It’s a rare epic fantasy that can be grim and tense and also make you laugh out loud. Schwab makes it look effortless here. A Conjuring Light is a perfect conclusion to a truly original series filled with memorable characters, adventure, and one of the most stunning redemption ever.

A Conjuring of Light is a story of uneasy alliances, fierce bonds, and at its center three powerful magicians whose lives are inextricably linked–whether or not they want to be. This series is a must read for all fantasy enthusiasts. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Stardust by Neil Gaiman, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, Blood Magic by Tessa Gratton, The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

March: Book Three: A Graphic Novel Review

March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate PowellThe March trilogy is a graphic novel series telling the story of John Lewis’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. When March: Book Three (2016) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell begins in September 1963 with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Although this novel focuses on Lewis’s experiences with him as the narrator and, of course, biographical information from his own life, this story also takes a wider lens to look at the movement as a whole. Lewis is the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) whose younger members are feeling disillusioned with the more mainstream activists who often take credit for SNCCs moves while sidelining their role. SNCC is on the verge of fracturing from within, and violence is increasing in the south as Lewis and others make plans for Freedom Vote and the Mississippi Freedom Summer.

March: Book Three is a thoughtful and engrossing conclusion to a trilogy that is already being hailed as a modern classic. This final installment was the 2016 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature and the 2017 Printz Award winner.

Although it is the third part of a trilogy, most of this story makes sense on its own. Readers with a basic knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement and history of the time may have an easier go diving into this story than those without that background. Because this book is so visual, I will admit that I had a hard time identifying key characters early on which, I think, is partly from coming to this book without reading the earlier installments.

Lewis and Aydin have worked together to create a narrative that focuses on Lewis’s life experiences and his own changing feelings about SNCC and the movement as a whole. At the same time, the scope and breadth of the movement–the far-reaching hopes and the devastating violence–are also emphasizes both with the narrative text and with Powell’s moving illustrations and dynamic panel layouts.

The black and white illustrations work extremely well to highlight the injustice the Civil Rights Movement was fighting. The lack of color in the illustrations also has the interesting effect of flattening a lot of the skin tones and underscoring how similar we all are. Powell does a good job filling each panel and page with movement and action. Some of the panels are a bit frenzied but it’s a deliberate choice at key moments.

Having March: Book Three framed as a story told in retrospect was also a very effective choice. Readers go into this story knowing that Lewis makes it through–he survives–and also seeing immediately how far things have progressed (and how much work remains). Reading this story through a different lens with more immediacy to the narrative would have been unbearable and often devastating in the wake of the loss and danger faced by Lewis and everyone else in the Movement. I read this graphic novel near the 2016 election and it was very poignant and bittersweet to see the power of the vote in action while also realizing how much was undone in 2016 and how much still must be done.

While this book functions as a larger history of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, it’s also important to remember that this series is also an autobiographical text in many ways. Because of that, this story does set aside and gloss over certain moments. This selective focus is a flaw of any biographical text and it makes sense in the context of this series as the focus is clearly and deliberately on the main events and players of the Movement. That said, it is interesting to note the way Stokely Carmichael’s comments about women’s only position in SNCC being prone was glossed over. I am sure it was seen as a joke by a lot of people then (and still) but the way it was sidestepped here just highlights how anyone, even with the best intentions does have an agenda and bias in terms of scope and how events are presented. It’s also worth noting that this story stops short of SNCC’s dissolution and Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.

March: Book Three is a powerful conclusion to a trilogy everyone should read. This series deserves every bit of praise it has received. It is a rare series that occupies the space between academic reading for school and pleasure reading quite comfortably. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, We Are the Ship by Kadir Nelson, X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon, The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin, Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley, Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

Samurai Rising: A Non-Fiction Review

“Few warriors are as famous as the Japanese samurai. We remember those beautiful swords and those fearsome helmets. We recall, with both horror and fascination, how some chose to end their own lives. But no one can understand the samurai without knowing Minamoto Yoshitsune.”

Samurai Rising by Pamela S. Turner, illustrated by Gareth HindsSamurai warriors occupy an unusual space between actual history and the stuff of legend. Immortalized in countless books and films, these warriors are sensationalized and idealized but rarely studied as historical figures.

Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune (2016) by Pamela S. Turner, illustrated by Gareth Hinds works to correct that with this biography of one of history’s most famous samurai.

Yoshitsune’s story begins in 1160 when his father tries to kidnap the Japanese Emperor and take more prestige and wealth for the Minamoto samurai by force. He fails thus forfeiting his life and placing his rival, the leader of the Taira samurai, in an influential position as the emperor’s right hand. Yoshitsune avoids execution thanks to his mother’s pleas and is instead exiled as a child at a monastery to become a monk.

As he grows older and learns more about his family’s heritage Yoshitsune rejects that path, runs away from the monastery, learns the ways of the samurai, and sets out help his family reclaim their supposed birthright.

This story begins in 1160 when the Minamoto abduction of the emperor fails. Turner bridges the more than 850 years between Yoshitsune and readers with thorough research and a healthy dose of supposition.

Samurai Rising opens with a listing of key figures in the story along with name pronunciations and a short description of their relationship to Yoshitsune. Detailed maps show readers Japan as a whole as well as key battle site and strongholds that will turn up in the story. The text is further enhanced with illustrations from Gareth Hinds that appear at the beginning of each chapter showcasing samurai in action or detailed images of their various equipment. Turner finishes this book with copious footnotes about her research and the details she has chosen to include and interpret in this story.

This book can appeal to a wide range of ages. It’s been discussed as a contender for both children’s and young adult awards and was named a finalist for the Young Adult Library Services Association’s (YALSA’s) Non-Fiction Awards.

Samurai Rising reads very young. The narrative voice feels decidedly middle grade as does the snappy tone and the witty asides peppered throughout the text. Turner’s writing is filled with pat language and anachronistic analogies to better situated samurai life and culture in modern terms. (Example: Saying the “cool kids” of the Japanese ruling class saw the samurai as “dumb jocks” or comparing Yoshitsune showing up at the Hiraizumi estate asking for samurai training to a boy who has never been to Little League showing up for spring training with the Yankees.) This information will work for some readers. I was not one of them.

Aside from pulling me out of the story–because really, even as a historical biography this book is essentially a story–these comparisons often highlighted very specific assumptions Turner makes about who will be reading this book (sports enthusiasts, people with the cultural knowledge to know the Yankees, readers familiar with the stereotypical social hierarchy of high school . . .). Seeing these assumptions at play is intensely irritating as it creates the effect of talking down to readers and, for me, placing me as firmly not within the target audience (which is okay, that happens when adults read YA but it could easily happen for kids and teens outside of the target area as well).

Writing issues aside, Samurai Rising is also a book that glorifies violence and war and doesn’t look to closely at the implications of writing a history about the “winning” side of this samurai battle. Why are the Minamoto the heroes? Why is violence and death acceptable within the ceremony of samurai culture? Turner never really says. I don’t have the background in Japanese history to say much of anything but I will point you to Leonard Kim’s review which raises a lot of these questions and points out some of the inherent flaws in this viewpoint.

The scope of Samurai Rising and the subject matter is especially impressive given the relative dearth of textual evidence from the time. Turner takes on a lot here and she successfully breathes life into Yoshitsune’s story making it engaging and approachable for readers. Whether or not that is a good thing is a matter open to interpretation and discussion.

If you want to hear more thoughts about Samurai Rising be sure to check out Sarah Couri’s review on Someday My Printz Will Come and the discussion in the comments on Heavy Medal as well. Leonard Kim’s review should also be required reading about this book.

Possible Pairings: The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb, The Samurai’s Tale by Erik Christian Haugaard, The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin, Rurouni Kenshin by Nobuhiro Watsuki

Who Killed Christopher Goodman?: A Review

“The finger that tips the first domino is guilty, not the dominos themselves.”

Who Killed Christopher Goodman? by Allan WolfChristopher Goodman wears ridiculous bell bottoms. He plays trombone in the school band. He introduces himself to every person he meets and shakes their hands. No doubt, Christ is a little eccentric, but he’s a genuinely nice guy. Which is why everyone in Goldsburg, Virginia is shocked when Chris is murdered during 1979’s Deadwood Days, a western street festival that draws tourists to the town every summer.

Classmates Doc Chestnut and Squib Kaplan find Chris’ body during a cross country run. The entire school, the entire community, is stunned by the murder.

Doc and Squib along with Hunger McCoy, Hazel Turner, and Mildred Penny carry the burden of knowing they were together on the night of the murder and may have inadvertently played a part in the tragedy. All five of them are haunted by the events of that night and the ways things could have turned out differently as they try to make sense of their grief and guilt in Who Killed Christopher Goodman? (2017) by Allan Wolf.

This mystery is inspired by an actual murder that occurred when Wolf was a teen himself as explained in an author’s note. Although Wolf was not as connected to that murder as his characters in Who Killed Christopher Goodman? he never forgot about the murder and always wondered about that lost chance at friendship.

Who Killed Christopher Goodman? features six narrators including Chris’ killer. While readers might guess who the killer is early on, Wolf does an excellent job of maintaining just enough tension and suspense over the course of the novel to still keep readers wondering.

Scenes with group dialogue are written in a screenplay style which ties well with the way the cast of voices are listed  in the beginning with quick identifiers: David Oscar “Doc” Chestnut, the Sleepwalker; Leonard Pelf, the Runaway; Scott “Squib” Kaplan, the Genius; Hunger McCoy, the Good Ol’ Boy; Hazel Turner, the Farm Girl; and Mildred Penny, the Stamp Collector. Wolf helps to differentiate between the large cast of narrators with distinct dialects including long-winded sentences for Squib who has Tourette’s and verse passages for Leonard.

Wolf uses this unique format to excellent effect to create a gripping mystery as well as a thoughtful character study where each of the six main characters grapple with their actions on the night of the murder and their blame, if any, in Christopher Goodman’s death. Who Killed Christopher Goodman? is a fast-paced novel that will appeal to reluctant readers as well as fans of mystery and suspense. (In fact, I wouldn’t surprised to see this get an Edgar nomination.)

Possible Pairings: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, The Diviners by Libba Bray, The Game of Love and Death by Martha A. Brockenbrouch, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski, Sorcery and Cecelia by Caroline Stevemer and Patricia C. Wrede, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

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

The Lie Tree: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Magic” was not an answer; it was an excuse to avoid looking for one.

The Lie Tree by Francis HardingeFaith Sunderly is no longer a child but at fourteen she is not quite a woman. Desperate for her father’s respect, Faith is keen to be seen as a proper young lady. But a proper young lady doesn’t have a sharp intellect or burning curiosity that drives her to acts of subterfuge. They certainly don’t harbor dreams of becoming a scientist.

Faith knows that some kind of calamity drove her family from their home in Kent to the strange island of Vane and ruined her father’s reputation. The Reverend Sunderly’s name is further sullied when he dies under strange circumstances soon after the family’s arrival. While her grasping mother does everything she can to ensure the Reverend has a Christian burial, Faith is resolutely certain that her father was murdered.

Investigating his death and the events that brought the family to the island, Faith discovers that her father was hiding an odd tree that thrives in near darkness and bears fruit for every lie it’s told. Stranger still, every piece of fruit can reveal a secret truth.

Hoping to prove her worth as a scientist and discover her father’s murderer, Faith plans to study the tree and use its fruit. But revealing a truth as large as the identity of a murderer requires monstrous lies which soon gain a life of their own and threaten to destroy far more than Faith’s reputation in The Lie Tree (2016) by Frances Hardinge.

The Lie Tree is Hardinge’s latest standalone novel.

The Lie Tree is atmospheric and evocative with vibrant descriptions of the island landscape. Hardinge seamlessly blends a variety of genres in this book which features a compelling mystery, a thoughtfully detailed historical setting circa 1868, and fascinating fantasy elements.

In her short life Faith has come up against the limitations of her gender repeatedly and seen the scientific world she so loves betray her again and again. Faith knows she is capable of becoming more than a decorative and occasionally witty wife like her mother. Yet the men in her life constantly remind Faith that to want more, indeed to want almost anything at all, runs contrary to her proper place in the world. As a result Faith is a pragmatic and often ruthless heroine. She knows she is unkind and unlikable. She doesn’t care. This fact is deftly illustrated with her reluctant association with Paul–an island boy unwillingly drawn into Faith’s investigations.

This complex and nuanced narrative is all about contrasts and tensions. The Lie Tree takes place at a time when scientists are still struggling to find ways to articulate evolution and to reconcile scientific advancements with spiritual belief. Faith’s father is terrified of what evolution and archaeology might mean for his already fragile religious faith. His efforts to find definitive proof of one or the other ultimately becomes his undoing.

The Lie Tree also examines the ways in which femininity can be exploited and manipulated as demonstrated by its varied cast of characters. Faith explores this theme throughout the narrative as she tries to make sense of her role in an adult world that has little use for her both as a not-quite child and as a young woman.

Recommended for readers who like their fantasy to come with mystery, suspense, a firmly historical setting and a healthy dose of feminism. The Lie Tree is a provocative and fascinating novel guaranteed to stay with readers long after the book is finished. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Chime by Franny Billingsley, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, Steeplejack by A. J. Hartley, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, A Tyranny of Petticoats edited by Jessica Spotswood, The Forbidden Orchid by Sharon Biggs Waller, The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters

*An advance copy of this title was provided for review by the publisher at BEA 2016*

Blood Red, Snow White: A Review

“There was never a story that was happy through and through, and this one is no different.”

Blood Red, Snow White by Marcus SedgwickArthur Ransome left his family and his home in England to travel to Russia where he found work as a journalist. His love story with Russia started the moment he set foot on its snow-covered ground and continued as he compiled his first published book–a collection of Russian fairy tales.

Over the years Russia would continue to draw Ransome back to it through the first murmurings of unrest in Tsarist Russia, into the first bloody revolution, and beyond. Reporting on the turbulent political climate for an English newspaper draws Ransome unwittingly into the middle of the conflict between White and Red Russia as he is courted to be both a spy and a double agent.

All Arthur wants is to hide away and marry the Russian woman he loves. But that proves difficult with her position as Trotsky’s secretary and his own murky sympathies. With history being made and the world changing from moment to moment, Arthur will have to choose a side and make hard choices to survive in Blood Red, Snow White (2016) by Marcus Sedgwick.

Blood Red, Snow White was originally published in the UK in 2007 and made its first appearance in the US when it was reprinted in 2016. This book follows the sensational real story of novelist Arthur Ransome during his years in Russia as a suspected spy before he would write his Swallows and Amazons children adventure novels. Blood Red, Snow White was originally written shortly after Ransome’s MI6 file was made public–details Sedgwick relates in an author’s note which includes excerpts from those files.

This novel is broken into three parts. The beginning, written in third person, relates the beginning of Arthur’s life and journey to Russia as well as the early stages of the Russian Revolution as short fairy tales. The second part of the novel, in a closer third person point of view, follows Arthur over the course of one night in Moscow as he decides if he will agree to act as a British spy. In part three Arthur narrates his story in first person as he tries to make his way back into Russian and extricate himself and Evgenia from the political machinations around them.

This fast-paced, literary novel looks at a moment in history through an unexpected lens. Readers familiar with Ransome’s own books will, of course, find this novel fascinating. Although some of this novel is, necessarily, speculation it is well-researched and thorough with detailed information about Russia during Ransome’s time there as well as key details of Ransome’s life.

Blood Red, Snow White is an approachable and ambitious novel filled with atmospheric settings and a gripping story of love, adventure, spies, and Russia.

Possible Pairings: Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson, Black Ice by Becca Fitzpatrick, The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan

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

Like a River Glorious: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*Like a River Glorious is the second book in Carson’s Gold Seer trilogy. This review contains spoilers for book one. If you’re new to the series start with book one Walk On Earth a Stranger*

“I thought my magic would save us all. But it turns out, all the magic in the world is rubbish compared to good people who take care of their own.”

Like a River Glorious by Rae CarsonOctober 1849: Leah “Lee” Westfall has made it to California along with her new family of misfits, outcasts, and unlikely friends that she met along the trail. But even with her best friend Jefferson and her family by her side, the path to gold and prosperity is not easy–even for a witchy girl like Lee who can sense gold.

Hiram, Lee’s uncle, is still desperate to use her powers for her own gain. Lee was helpless to stop Hiram from killing her parents, she’s determined that he won’t hurt anyone else she cares about.

Lee’s plan to best Hiram backfire leaving Lee vulnerable as her uncle’s captive. Separated from her friends, Lee will need every ounce of her witchy powers, her resilience, and the help of new allies if she wants to free herself from Hiram’s grasp once and for all in Like a River Glorious (2016) by Rae Carson.

Like a River Glorious is the second book in Carson’s Gold Seer trilogy. This review contains spoilers for book one. If you’re new to the series start with book one Walk On Earth a Stranger.

Like a River Glorious picks up shortly after the conclusion of book one (which ends right when Lee and her group arrive in California). Lee has found them a gold-rich area to claim and their settlement is well on its way to becoming a town called Glory. Then Uncle Hiram shows up, takes Lee captive, and everything goes to hell.

In order to read this book, it’s important to acknowledge that westerns are inherently problematic. As a genre the western often centers the experience of white characters while ignoring or diminish native experiences. Older westerns (and bad modern ones) romanticize expansion, systemic genocide, and white savior tropes while exoticizing, stereotyping or dehumanizing American Indians. If you want to see critiques of books through a Native lens, definitely check out Debbie Reese’s blog, especially her review of the first book in this series.

Reading Like a River Glorious with the above in mind, there are still some problems inherent to the genre. But in this second installment, Carson does the work on the page to constantly check Leah’s privilege as well as that of the other characters (male privilege for instance). This book also thoughtfully engages with a lot of the racism/biases/stereotypes that Lee encounters.

The scope of this book is much smaller, Lee spends a lot of the story held captive by her uncle. Her world narrows to securing survival and safety for herself and those she cares about. She see the atrocities her uncle is perpetrating in his mad search for gold and she feels helpless in the face of it. Understandably, that makes Like a River Glorious quite bleak but also very important as, through Lee’s first person narration, the novel the problems of westward expansion along with the wonder that pioneers felt as they sought opportunities at the expense of the indigenous populations.

Carson uses this shift in tone to create a more character driven story focused particularly on Lee and Jefferson as the two friends try to reconcile their lifelong friendship with what comes next when Jefferson wants more and Lee wants to maintain her autonomy.

Lee grows up a lot in this installment as she realizes she cannot (and should not) always be the hero. Jefferson remains a perfect counterpoint to Lee as male lead and an excellent character in his own right. Like a River Glorious is a well-researched work of historical fiction with a slow burn a slow burn romance and inclusive cast and a touch of fantasy. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman, A Curse as Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede