Ferryman: A (WIRoB) Review

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books:

Ferryman by Claire McFallWhen Scottish teenager Dylan boards a train from Glasgow to Aberdeen to meet her estranged father for the first time in years she is certain that the momentous trip will change everything. What she won’t realize until later is that instead of meeting her father she will never complete her journey–dying when her train crashes.

Except Dylan wakes up inside her train car, alone and in the dark after the crash, where “Her imagination filled in the blanks, packing the route through the carriage with upturned seats, luggage, broken glass from the windows, and squishy, slick things that were solidifying in her mind’s eye into limbs and torsos.” Outside of the wreckage there is no sign of  disaster recovery; all Dylan sees is a solitary, sandy-haired teenage boy watching her.

It’s clear that something is different about this cobalt eyed boy who does not “stand or even smile when he [sees] her looking at him” and “just continue[s] to stare.” The only two people in an isolated area, Dylan reluctantly agrees to follow Tristan across the unwelcoming landscape away from the wreckage. Along the way Dylan begins to realize that she is not trekking across the Scottish highlands with a startlingly attractive teenage boy–the kind who always “made her nervous” because “they seemed so cool and confident, and she always ended up getting tongue-tied and feeling like a total freak.”

Dylan is dead, traveling through the aptly named wasteland alongside Tristan, her personal ferryman.

As a ferryman Tristan “guide[s] souls across the wasteland and protect[s] them from the demons” keen to devour new and pure souls like Dylan’s. Along the way he also “break[s] the truth to them, then deliver[s] them to wherever they’re going.” Tristan has shepherded more souls than he can count across the wasteland, a task that has become increasingly transactional as his journeys blend together into goodbyes. “Each soul that waved goodbye at the end of the journey had taken a small piece of him with them, torn off a tiny piece of his heart. After a while, he had hardened.” As he reminds Dylan, everyone has to cross the wasteland which he describes as “Their own personal wilderness. It’s a place to discover the truth that you have died and come to terms with it.”

The wasteland is not a place to make friends or fall in love. But as they learn more about each other, and themselves, Dylan and Tristan realize they are not prepared to admit that reaching the end of their path will also mean their inevitable separation as Dylan goes where Tristan cannot follow in Ferryman (2021) by Claire McFall.

Find it on Bookshop.

First published in the UK in 2013 and nominated for the 2014 Carnegie Medal, McFall’s acclaimed debut novel Ferryman has made its way to the US with the rest of the trilogy, Trespassers and Outcasts, slated to follow. A movie adaptation is also in the works. All characters are cued as white in this series with world building loosely inspired by the ancient Greek myth of Charon.

With a heavy focus on the drudgery of walking through the wasteland, McFall is slow to unpack Dylan and Tristan’s mutual attraction although both characters find something they lack in the other.

In spite of himself Tristan appreciates Dylan’s unique perspective and unexpected kindnesses to him when “Most souls, when they discovered what had happened to them, were too absorbed in their own sorrow and self-pity to show much interest in this road between the real world and the end” much less in the ferryman guiding them through it. After countless years changing himself to appear to “look appealing” and trustworthy to each of his souls, Tristan is shocked to have the space to define himself as more than his role as a ferryman and whatever the souls in his charge choose to project onto him.

Dylan, meanwhile, is used to feeling the limits of her agency as a teenage girl who is constantly concerned with doing and saying the right thing. “She was the shy, serious student. Quiet, diligent, but not particularly clever. All of her successes had to be earned through hard work, which was easy when you had no friends.” But in Tristan Dylan finally finds the appreciation she had previously lacked with Tristan who sees Dylan as “a soul worth protecting. A soul worth caring about. A soul that he wanted to give a piece of himself to.”

Although Tristan initially acknowledges some of the unequal power dynamics at play between himself–an ageless, supernatural being–and Dylan–a seemingly ordinary girl despite the high caliber of her soul–this aspect of the plot is never fully explored. Tristan’s initial hesitation since “as her protector, he would be taking advantage of her vulnerability if he acted on his feelings” shifts quickly to a heartfelt confession and both struggling with their looming separation.

With their slog through the wasteland and unspoken longing taking up much of the plot, Ferryman is slow to build to its dramatic conclusion. The novel’s final act offers tantalizing glimpses of world building surrounding what comes beyond the wasteland and what it will mean for both Dylan and Tristan. Readers new to this series will be excited to see these aspects more fully explored in later installments.

Possible Pairings: Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, You Are the Everything by Karen Rivers, Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde

Ash Princess: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Ash Princess by Laura SebastianTen years ago invaders killed Theodosia’s mother, the Fire Queen of Astrea, enslaved her people, and stole her name.

Over many long years, Theo has learned how to play the game. Don’t anger the Kaiser and stay alive. She plays along with his manipulations, silently accepts his punishments, and hides behind the persona of Thora–the meek girl the Kaiser thinks she has become.

But when Theo is forced to do the unthinkable she reaches a breaking point.

Survival is no longer enough. After years of hiding, it’s time for Theo to fight and reclaim everything that has been stolen in Ash Princess (2018) by Laura Sebastian.

Ash Princess is Sebastian’s debut novel and the start of a trilogy.

Sebastian’s richly described world, complex elemental magic, and fraught politics add new twists to this familiar story. Unfortunately one element that remains the same is that the enslaved Astreans are “tawny skinned” and dark haired while the invading Kalovoxians are pale and blonde–a common trope that is played out and could do with more unpacking in this and other similar titles.

Theo is a survivor who has learned how to hide in plain sight. Because of her small world and her captivity her first person narration often feels claustrophobic as she struggles to plot her way out of the Kaiser’s clutches.

Ash Princess’s promising in contrived plot is marred by an erratic timeline that brings Theo’s interactions with the Kaiser’s son Prinz Søren from calculated seduction as part of an assassination attempt to actual love in the blink of an eye. Theo’s shift from trying to keep herself alive while waiting for a rescue that never comes shifts equally fast to Theo placing herself in the center of a rebellion plot as a spy.

Theo’s perilous situation and the high stakes of the story are not enough to distract from a second half that drags while characters dither over who to trust, who to love, and (perhaps most relevantly) who to kill. While Theo is an interesting and strong heroine, she is not always sympathetic with unclear motivations for her numerous poor decisions throughout the book.

Ash Princess is an entertaining, plot-driven fantasy. Recommended for readers who like their fantasy angsty and their characters morally ambiguous at best.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, Everless by Sara Holland, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen, The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross, Amber & Dusk by Lyra Selene

Exquisite Captive: A Review

Exquisite Captive by Heather DemetriosNalia is a powerful jinni from the world of Arjinna. After a deadly coup killed almost everyone she cared about, Nalia was captured by a slave trader who sells jinn to humans. Since then she has been on the dark caravan of the jinni slave trade for three years.

Trapped in Hollywood and bound to a handsome master who is as ruthless as he is powerful, Nalia is desperate for the chance to return to Arjinna and rescue her captive brother. Unfortunately, that seems nearly impossible while bound to her master and the bottle that can hold her prisoner.

When Nalia agrees to a dangerous bargain with the leader of Arjinna’s revolution she will have to decide if any price can be too high for her freedom and the chance to save her brother in Exquisite Captive (2014) by Heather Demetrios.

Exquisite Captive is the first book in Demetrios’ Dark Caravan trilogy.

This gritty urban fantasy has a lot going for it. The Hollywood setting, as well as the descriptions of Arjinna, are lush and immediately evocative. Although some of the situations are stilted, most of the story here is exciting and fast-paced.

Nalia herself is a strong and capable heroine. Unfortunately she is also in the middle of an extremely lopsided (read: forced) love triangle. On one side we have Nalia’s master Malek and on the other Raf–leader of the Arjinnan revolution. Raf often feels like a one-note character with his efforts to save his people and his strong convictions. Malek is more nuanced but decidedly less sympathetic as every bit of character development is countered with a new act of villainy. The romance, such as it is, with both men seems to come out of nowhere as feelings bloom suddenly (with varying levels of returned feelings) for all of the characters.

The well-realized world of Arjinna is sadly overshadowed by stiff descriptions and numerous explanations of djinni hierarchies and Arjinnan culture. While it is all valuable information, the sheer volume can be daunting and makes an already long story feel even lengthier.

However, Demetrios does still craft a refreshingly diverse story here (albeit with some unfortunate stereotypes creeping in–most notably with Sergei). With nods to Arabian culture and tons of action, Exquisite Captive is an interesting blend of traditional jinni lore and urban fantasy elements. It is sure to appeal to readers looking for the next big thing in paranormal romances.

Possible Pairings: Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, Finnkin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, The Art of Wishing by Lindsay Ribar, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, The Fire Artist by Daisy Whitney

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the August 2014 issue of School Library Journal from which it can be seen in various sites online*

The Jewel: A Review

The Jewel by Amy EwingViolet Lasting’s life changed forever with one blood test. Instead of living a happy life with her family in the Marsh, the poorest section of the Lone City, Violent is whisked away to a holding facility. The next four years are spent preparing for life as a Surrogate.

Violet has known for years that the day would come, but it is still an immense shock to be sold at auction and moved into the city’s wealthy center, the Jewel. In a city obsessed with pure blood and status, the royals are unable to produce healthy children without the use of Surrogates like Violet. Life in the Jewel will mean untold wealth and luxury. But it will also mean countless humiliations and punishments.

While she walks a fine like between obedience and contempt, Violet learns that there is more to the Jewel than meets the eye. Learning more could mean finding a way out before the Jewel swallows her whole. But it could also mean disastrous consequences when Violet begins an illicit relationship in secret in The Jewel (2014) by Amy Ewing.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Jewel is Ewing’s debut novel. It is also the first book in The Lone City trilogy.

Ewing offers a promising debut in this novel that is equal parts gritty and engrossing. Unfortunately what potential this story has to go in a unique direction is dashed at the halfway mark when an unexpected and largely unnecessary romance develops. In addition to adding little to the story, this relationship is also painfully lacking in foundation as instant attracting quickly turns to what can only be called instant love.

While the flaws in the romance aspect of The Jewel can be overlooked, poorly executed world building cannot. Instead of evoking an eerie world with her descriptions and back story, Ewing does little to clarify the world of the Jewel or the rest of the Lone City. No explanation is given for this segmented society or the construction of the Lone City itself.

Finally, although Violet constantly talks about the pressure she feels to escape her life as a surrogate, the urgency never comes across as something real or palpable. A cliffhanger ending promises more twists and intrigue, but those promises are largely too late. While readers looking for books in a certain vein will find another entertaining story in The Jewel, those looking for a story that is as well-rounded as it is engaging will be better served elsewhere.

Possible Pairings: Crewel by Gennifer Albin, Frostblood by Elly Blake, Eve by Anna Carey, The Selection by Kiera Cass, The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis, Wither by Lauren DeStefano, Everless by Sara Holland, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Legend by Marie Lu, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

*A copy of this book was acquired for review consideration from the publisher at BEA 2014*

The Shadows: A Review

The Shadows by Megan ChanceGrace Knox is nearly seventeen. She should be preparing for her debut and enjoying everything that 19th Century New York has to offer. Instead Grace is tasked with keeping her family from the poorhouse by marrying well (and quickly).

While Grace is dismayed at this turn, she is thrilled to be the object of Patrick Devlin’s affections. Patrick being young and well-off, not to mention good looking, is more than Grace could have hoped for. Grace may not share Patrick’s passion to fight for Ireland’s independence. But surely such a passion can grow over time?

The only problem is that while Grace is enjoying Patrick’s company her thoughts keep turning to Patrick’s mysterious new stable boy Diarmid. Being with Derry is impossible, of course. It would mean losing everything not just for herself but for her entire family.

The only problem is Grace feels like she knows Diarmid and no matter how much she tries to stay away, she feels drawn to him. But Diarmid has his own secrets. Secrets about Irish legends and heroes. Secrets that might get Grace killed in The Shadows (2014) by Megan Chance.

The Shadows is the first book in The Fianna Trilogy.

Chance offers a well-written historical fantasy here rich with details that bring Victorian New York to life. Grace’s insecurities about her worth are frustrating throughout the story although Grace is an otherwise interesting heroine. Unfortunately there is very little going on here beyond the love triangle.

Chance sets up many elements and plot points that will no doubt be addressed later in the trilogy. Unfortunately The Shadows is thin on resolution. Instead readers watch as Grace waffles between Patrick and Diarmid with little in the way of an actual decision until mere pages of the story remain. (This decision will likely be reversed if not entirely unraveled at least once before the trilogy concludes.)

Readers looking for a pure paranormal romance will likely enjoy The Shadows quite a bit. Readers who prefer their romances tempered with plot development, on the other hand, may be better served elsewhere.

Possible Pairings: Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, The Luxe by Anna Godbersen, Cart and Cwidder by Diana Wynne Jones, This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, Rebel Mechanics by Shanna Swendson, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson

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)