The Diabolic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Being a good Diabolic meant being a hideous person.”

The Diabolic by S. J. KincaidDiabolics have only one purpose: protect the person they have been bonded to at all costs.

Nemesis barely remembers the time before she was bonded to Sidonia. Anything that came before is irrelevant. Now Nemesis will do whatever is necessary to ensure that Sidonia survives and flourishes. As long as Sidonia is safe and secure everything else, including Nemesis’s own well-being, becomes irrelevant.

When news of her senator father’s heresy reaches the seat of the Empire, Sidonia is summoned to the Imperial Court as a hostage. There is no way for Nemesis to strike against the Emperor. No way for her to shelter Sidonia when she is summoned. This time the only way Nemesis can protect Sidonia is to become her.

At the Imperial Court, Nemesis has to hide her superior strength, cunning intellect, and her ruthless lack of humanity. Greedy senators, calculating heirs, and the Emperor’s mad nephew Tyrus are all keen to use Nemesis for their own ends. But she has little interest in the politics at Court or the rebellion that is beginning to foment.

Nemesis knows that she is not human. She knows the matters of the Imperial Court are not her concern. But she also soon realizes that saving Sidonia may involve saving not just herself but the entire Empire in The Diabolic (2016) by S. J. Kincaid.

The Diabolic was written as a standalone sci-fi novel. After its release Kincaid signed a book deal for two additional novels making The Diabolic the start of a trilogy.

Kincaid has built a unique world layered with complex alliances and difficult questions about what it means to be human which play out against a galactic power struggle. Nemesis’s performative identity as Sidonia contrasts well against the Emperor’s son, Tyrus, a Hamlet-like figure who may or may not be putting on an act of his own in a bid for the throne. Nemesis’s character growth as she learns to choose herself beyond any loyalty she feels to Sidonia or others is fascinating and thoughtfully done.

The Diabolic is a sprawling space opera that brings Nemesis and other characters across the galaxy in a story filled with double crosses, twists, and intrigue so thick you could cut it with a knife. Nemesis narrates the novel with a tone that is as pragmatic as it is chilling–unsurprising for a character who has been told constantly throughout her life that she will never be human. Whether Nemesis will prove her detractors correct or exceed her supposed Diabolic limitations remains to be seen.

The combination of ambiguous morality, lavish settings, and a cast of provocative characters make The Diabolic an utterly satisfying sci-fi adventure. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, Proxy by Alex London, Legend by Marie Lu, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, Birthmarked by Caragh M.O’Brien, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, And I Darken by Kiersten White

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

Caraval: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Caraval by Stephanie GarberScarlett and her younger sister Tella grew up hearing their grandmother reminisce about visiting Caraval as a young woman. Scarlett writes to Legend every year hoping against hope that he might bring Caraval back to the small island of Trisda in the Conquered Isles.

When tickets to Caraval finally arrive, Scarlett knows she won’t be able to go. Not when being prepared for her upcoming arranged marriage, which can free Tell and herself from their abusive father, is far more pressing. Except impetuous Tella has other plans and recruits a disreputable sailor to help bring Scarlett to the magical show.

Caraval is meant to be a game and a decadent diversion for both players and spectators. But Tella’s disappearance is very real and, Scarlett soon realizes, central to this year’s game.

As Scarlett tries desperately to follow the clues to her sister, the dangers of the supposed show become very real. If she fails to find Tella and win the game, Scarlett risks losing her sister forever in Caraval (2017) by Stephanie Garber.

Caraval is Garber’s debut novel and the first book in a series. The book is written in close third person following Scarlett’s perspective. Although the epilogue promises  twists and adventures in future installments, this novel functions for the most part as a standalone.

Garber’s vibrant descriptions bring the whimsical and dangerous elements of Caraval to life as Scarlett begins to discover the wonders to be found in a place where secrets can become currency and time can be bought and sold.

Scarlett is a cautious and timid heroine for much of Caraval. She has spent years trying to shelter her sister from their father’s calculated abuse and manipulations. Scarlett’s primary concerns are safety and distance from her father. Love, adventure, and all of the things Tella craves feel secondary if not entirely superfluous in comparison.

Caraval features a varied array of characters and some romance but this novel remains surprisingly introspective in its focus on Scarlett’s own journey toward autonomy and agency. A few predictable twists and some unexpected turns serve as a strong backdrop for Scarlett’s growth as she realizes she is the victim of her father’s abuse, not the cause. As Scarlett moves deeper into the machinations of Caraval she begins to correct her earlier mistakes both in the game and in her own life while learning to trust her instincts.

Caraval is a thrilling and evocative fantasy sure to appeal to readers who enjoy stories imbued with magic and adventure. Intricate world building and the circus-like atmosphere of Caraval lend this novel an extra bit of flair that even Legend would admire.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

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

The Reader: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Sefia has been hiding and evading capture for most of her life. It started with the house  built on a hill filled with secret rooms and hidden passages meant to guard a dangerous secret. When her father is murdered, Sefia does what she has been trained to do. She hides. She grabs the thing that her parents spent their lives protecting. She goes to her aunt Nin and together they run away.

After Nin is kidnapped, Sefia vows to find her. Sefia turns to the strange rectangular object her father died to protect. As she examines the thing, Sefia slowly realizes it is a book.

The Book may hold secrets about Nin’s abduction and Sefia’s own parents if only she can master the symbols within and learn to read the words. In Sefia’s world, books are their own kind of magic–a dangerous power in the wrong hands. Sefia will need that power if she wants to rescue Nin and stop hiding in The Reader (2016) by Traci Chee.

The Reader is Chee’s first novel and the beginning of her Sea of Ink and Gold series. This book is a layered narrative filled with hidden messages and clues within the text (be sure to look at the page numbers for one of them). The depth and layers within The Reader are impressive and staggering to contemplate. However the hidden clues, messages, and intricate physical design of this novel are distracting at times. Readers willing to give this story time and a proper chance will enjoy the intricate layers and the unexpected ways Chee’s multiple narratives come together.

In the fantasy world Chee has created the written word doesn’t exist. While they have identifying symbols to label things like herbs and other items, this world relies more heavily on an oral tradition for their stories and history. Books and reading are magic in a very literal sense and so both things are closely guarded by mysterious powers and largely unknown to citizens like Sefia.

If you spend too much time scrutinizing the main conceit of this plot (reading doesn’t exist), it starts to crumble. How does electricity work in this otherwise non-industrial society? How do characters leave messages for each other without written words? Are glyphs used? Oral recordings? No one knows or at least no one shares.

Vocabulary that would be taken for granted in any other story also needs further clarification in a book like The Reader. How do characters know about pens or reading lamps? Why do they exist if, as the novel states, reading doesn’t exist? Furthermore, although Chee’s writing is rich and heady, there isn’t a particularly good way to show a character learning to read when that character doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe a book, letters, or words. It makes for plodding passages and very slow progress for the rest of the story.

Readers willing to ignore these niggling questions may find themselves drawn into Sefia’s story. The premise, the larger message about the written word, and particularly Sefia’s own growth is empowering. Chee’s descriptions are vivid and bring Sefia’s multi-faceted world to life.

The Reader is a slow-paced adventure story. Sefia embarks on a journey with unlikely allies and surprising foes. She discovers magic and her own inner strength. She also, strangely enough, learns to read. How you feel about that last one will largely influence how you feel about this story as a whole. Recommended for readers seeking an introspective fantasy with a slow payoff. (Go into this one willing to commit to the series as many of the big reveals come in final chapters.)

Possible Pairings: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter

Nemesis: A Review

Nemesis by Anna BanksPrincess Sepora of Serubel is the last Forger in the Five kingdoms. She is the only person alive who can create spectorium, a powerful element coveted for its energy and powerful properties.

When Sepora’s father weaponizes spectorium, Sepora chooses to leave her kingdom in secret and disappear rather than help him start a war. Across the border in Theoria, Sepora plans to live a quiet and anonymous life while hiding her Forging from prying eyes. Until she is captured and forced into service for Theoria’s king.

Tarik is young to be king and feels unready for the responsibilities that come with the title, especially as he has to deal with a mysterious plague sweeping through Theoria’s people with alarming speed. His efforts to track down a cure are complicated by a distracting new servant.

When Sepora and Tarik meet they form an immediate bond and an unlikely friendship could lead to much more. Sepora’s Forging could save Tarik’s kingdom but if her father finds her, it could also lead to war across the Five Kingdoms in Nemesis (2016) by Anna Banks.

Nemesis is the first book in Banks’ new duology which will conclude with Ally.

Nemesis introduces an interesting world filled with unique cultures that nod to ancient civilizations (Theoria places their dead in giant pyramids waiting for the day their scientists learn to conquer death) and science that comes close to magic. Unfortunately most of these elements are introduced through dense informational passages that make the opening of this novel feel clunky. And even worse, a lot of the world building in this book is just plain problematic.

The novel alternates between Sepora’s first person narration in a stilted style that rarely uses contractions and Tarik’s third person narrative. The transition from first to third person does little to differentiate between Sepora and Tarik’s narrative voices and instead creates a jarring transition between chapters.

Sepora is a thoughtful protagonist. She struggles with the choice to leave her home and what it will mean for her kingdom and beyond as spectorium disappears. Her moral dilemmas are portrayed throughout the book with careful thought and her growth throughout the novel is handled quite well.

Unfortunately some remarks about other kingdoms lack that same forethought. Throughout Nemesis the Wachuk kingdom is described as primitive because the people their have chosen to eschew verbal language because actions, as it were, speak louder. The Wachuks use sign language and some sounds described alternately as clicks, growls and grunts. The commonality for every descriptor is that they are described as primitive. Readers never see what Wachuk life actually looks like. The idea that being non-verbal makes the Wachuk’s primitive is never challenged or even explored in any meaningful way on the page. None of the characters have a teachable moment about it. Lingots, Theorians who are able to discern lies from truths and interpret languages, can understand the Wachuk but again that never leads to any deeper revelations.

This bias where different is equated with primitive/inferior is compounded with the portrayal of the Parani. In Serubel, parents tell their children about the Parani as a cautionary tale to keep them out of the dangerous water nearby. The Parani live underwater and are rumored to be able to kill a person in moments. They have tough skin, webbed fingers, and sharp teeth. Sepora also learns firsthand that they are humanoid in appearance and capable of comprehension, reasoning, and language (in the form of high pitched sounds that again do not resemble “typical” words and therefore must be “primitive”). Everyone else in the five kingdoms views the Parani as animals to be avoided or, if encountered, killed before they can attack. Or eaten. Again meaningful realizations that the Parani are people become sidelined by the Lingots’ magical ability to understand them despite the Parani being crucial to the story.

There is a lot in Nemesis that works well. Sepora is an engaging if sometimes misguided heroine and Tarik is an entertaining foil/love interest. The premise of the story is intriguing if not the most highly developed. Unfortunately the combination of stock secondary characters, poorly integrated world building details, and badly handled misconceptions about “primitive” or “other” characters take this potentially fun story and make it incredibly problematic and often painful.

Readers looking for a story with star-crossed lovers and/or nuanced fantasy would be better served elsewhere.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, The Impostor Queen by Sarah Fine, Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, And I Darken by Kiersten White

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

Crooked Kingdom: A Review

*Crooked Kingdom is the conclusion to Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology. It contains major spoilers for book one. If you’re new to the series, start at the beginning with Six of Crows*

“But what about the rest of us? What about the nobodies and the nothings, the invisible girls? We learn to hold our heads as if we have crowns. We learn to wring magic from the ordinary. That was how you survived when you weren’t chosen, when there was no royal blood in your veins. When the world owed you nothing, you demanded something of it anyway.”

—-

“Crows remember human faces. They remember the people who feed them, who are kind to them. And the people who wrong them too.”

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh BardugoIn a city where trade is sacred, Kaz Brekker knows the ins and outs of negotiation better than most. But even Kaz’s knack for staying ten steps ahead of his enemies and rivals can’t help him when he is double-crossed in the wake of what should have been the greatest heist of his nefarious career.

Now Kaz and his crew are scrambling to evade their enemies and regroup before moving against some of the most powerful figures in Ketterdam. Kaz may have lost a member of his crew. He may be branded as a traitor. But Kaz is also one of the only people who understands the true dangers of the drug jurda parem. And Kaz, along with his crew, is the only one who can hope to make things right.

Kaz and his crew are alone in a dangerous game that could change the face of Ketterdam and the rest of the world forever. As the odds turn against him, Kaz will have to use every trick he’s learned to change the game and get justice once and for all in Crooked Kingdom (2016) by Leigh Bardugo.

Crooked Kingdom is the conclusion to Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology. It contains major spoilers for book one. If you’re new to the series, start at the beginning with Six of Crows.

As a sequel, Crooked Crows had a lot of promise and high expectations to meet. Like Six of Crows it is written with alternating close third person viewpoints for each member of the crew (Kaz, Inej, Nina, Metthias, Jesper, Wylan) as well as some other key figures. The multiple plot threads and overlapping narratives play against each other and build tension as the novel moves to a conclusion appropriately filled with surprises.

At her launch event for Crooked Kingdom, Bardugo mentioned that this series was inspired by her love of heist movies. Unfortunately, the plot devices in heist films rely heavily on visual cues or sleight of hand, neither of which translates well into a novel. Bardugo makes her inclusion of clues and hints to make the payoff for various cons and twists in this book seem effortless.

Bardugo’s prose is intelligent, deliberate, and thoughtful. Any author can give a character a redemption arc but the truly impressive thing here is that Kaz is exactly what he says he is from the beginning. He is a monster. He is a villain. He is ruthless. And yet by the end of this series he also has depth and nuance and is so much more than even he can fathom. The level of development and growth for the entire cast of characters was fascinating and incredibly satisfying.

This novel is an amazing reference for the mechanics of how a novel comes together and how a series should culminate. Every single thing that is hinted at either in Six of Crows or in the beginning of this book eventually comes together and is resolved. Surprises perfectly balance expected outcomes and characters shock as much as they impress. Crooked Kingdom is an excellent story with a tightly wound plot and characters who are flawed and grasping even as they learn and grow. A perfect conclusion to an exceptional duology.

Possible Pairings: White Cat by Holly Black, Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman, StarCrossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, Never Never by Brianna Shrum, The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye

My Lady Jane: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi MeadowsEdward (King of England, teenage boy, lover of blackberries, and dogs) is dying. Before he has a chance to kiss a girl or do much of anything with his tragically short life. Edward would like to wallow about his pending demise thanks to “the Affliction” but instead he’s facing a lot of pressure to secure his line of succession. Unsure if he can trust his sister Bess with the crown, and positive he can’t trust his blood-thirsty sister Mary, Edward’s only option seems to be his cousin. Jane.

Lady Jane Grey has little interest in marriage or the crown. But faced with a royal decree arranging her marriage, she has little choice but to comply. When she ends up married to Lord Gifford Dudley–an aspiring poet by night and a horse by day thanks to his uncontrolled Eðian (eth-y-un) magic–she is resigned to a quiet life with a husband who may or may not be horrible.

Then Jane’s dear cousin Edward dies (or does he?) setting off a hectic nine days with Jane in the throne and, eventually, on the run with her new husband in My Lady Jane (2016) by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows.

My Lady Jane is a delightful historical fantasy co-written by three authors (who will be writing at least two more “Jane” books about other famous Janes in history). The novel alternates first-person narration between Edward, Jane, and G.

The authors start the book with a preface explaining that this book offers an alternate (and true, according to them) history of England and Lady Jane Grey. The authors don’t expand upon what they changed but interested readers can easily research the key players online. The addition of shape-shifter magic works surprisingly well within the context of English politics at the time.

My Lady Jane is a page-turner filled with adventure, action, sweet romance, and even some magic. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, The Princess Bride by William Goldman, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, The Romantics by Leah Konen, These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevemer

The Graces: A Review

The Graces by Laure EveEveryone says that the Graces are witches.

Thalia might dress the part with her spangly skirts and scarves, and Fenrin might bewitch all the girls in town with his good looks and charm. But Summer, the youngest Grace, is the only one willing to admit that she is exactly what everyone in town whispers.

Everyone wants to get close to the Graces. Everyone knows how much it must hurt to lose their interest. Because everyone, inevitably, loses the Graces’ interest.

River is new in town and desperate to attach herself to the Graces. She’s in love with Fenrin, like everyone, even though it’s a cliche. She hopes that seeing into their strange world might understand some of what’s been happening to her. But first River has to become one of the Graces. And she’s will to do whatever it takes to get their attention in The Graces (2016) by Laure Eve.

The Graces is Eve’s first novel and the start of a series.

Eve builds tension early with a narrator who remains nameless for the first part of the novel. Readers know that River arrived in town under a cloud, forced to move for reasons she will not divulge. River sees herself as different and other–just like the Graces themselves–and her narration is suitably calculating and cold.

While The Graces is atmospheric, the beginning remains slow with River carefully circling the Grace siblings as she tries to break into their orbit. The push and pull between what is true and what is not works well with the interplay between magic and reality throughout the novel.

Recommended for readers looking for a trippy book with twists reminiscent of Liar and readers who enjoy an unsympathetic main character–whether to root for them or to watch them fail.

Possible Pairings: The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, Consent by Nancy Ohlin, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, Wink, Poppy, Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

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