The Traitor’s Game: A Review

cover art for The Traitor's Game by Jennifer A. NielsenNo one knows where Kestra Dallisor has spent the last three years. It’s better that way. The longer she can hide, the longer she can avoid becoming a pawn in her father’s political machinations to strengthen his ties to the cruel Lord Endrick. But the time for hiding has ended and Kestra has been called home.

When Kestra is kidnapped en route she faces an impossible bargain: find the Olden Blade to spare the lives of her captive servants and herself.

Simon, one of her kidnappers, doesn’t know what to make of Kestra. She is not at all like the girl he expects, certainly nothing not the girl he remembers from his childhood. But she’s also the only hope he and his people have of finding the Olden Blade and reclaiming their freedom.

There are no winners in the traitor’s game. But that won’t stop Kestra or Simon playing for all they’re worth in The Traitor’s Game (2018) by Jennifer A. Nielsen.

The Traitor’s Game is the first book in Nielsen’s new YA series. The book alternates between Kestra and Simon’s first person narrations.

Nielsen delivers high action, political machinations and the intrigue readers of her middle grade novels have come to expect. Despite some unique flourishes in the world building, this is a fairly familiar story as a lost heir tries to reclaim that which was taken by the conquerors.

Kestra and Simon are interesting foils but lack the chemistry needed for their tension and changing dynamic to sustain an entire book. Their voices in alternating chapters are often indistinguishable. The prose often feels sanitized as violence and danger is pushed off the page for readers to imagine instead of being vividly described–this choice means that the novel can work well for younger readers but also creates a stark contrast between the descriptions of the world and the actual reading experience.

The Traitor’s Game is a familiar addition to the fantasy genres. Sparse world building and under developed characters feel like missed opportunities in what could have been a far richer story. Recommended for fans of the author and readers seeking a strictly plot driven fantasy.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, Everless by Sarah Holland, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Snow Like Ashes by Sarah Raasch, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian

Children of Blood and Bone: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Eleven years ago magic disappeared. Maji throughout Orïsha were brutally killed, their magic torn away before it could save them. Zélie Adebola remembers the night of the Raid when her mother was murdered and her father broken.

Now the children of the maji, Divîners, and the magicless Kosidán now live at the mercy of King Saran who has Orïsha unrecognizable as the wondrous land it once was.

It’s been a long time since Zélie‘s people had any reason to hope. But after a chance encounter in the marketplace, Zélie crosses paths with Amari–a princess and now a fugitive. Amari has stolen a that could bring magic back. But only if Zélie and her brother Tzain can help Amari outwit their pursuers led by Amari’s brother the crown prince and retrieve the other items needed for a ritual to correct the damage of the Raid eleven years ago in Children of Blood and Bone (2018) by Tomi Adeyemi.

Children of Blood and Bone is Adeyemi’s debut novel. This fantasy is inspired by Nigerian culture and is the blockbuster start to a high fantasy trilogy.

Readers need more books inspired by African cultures, readers need more books with  characters of color in leading roles. Children of Blood and Bone is a huge leap in both areas and helping to the lay the groundwork for more to come. I loved a lot of the characters, I loved the rich settings, and I loved the fast-pacing for the first half of the story.

I was less impressed with some of the plotting and world building–both of which often came across as slapdash.

Children of Blood and Bone fits nicely into what I typically refer to as “fantasy lite”–a subgenre where stories take place in a fantasy setting with high action, some romance, and lots of adventure. These stories sometimes lack a cohesive internal logic particularly when it comes to world building and magic systems. Every time Zélie runs into a problem that her magic can’t solve, the rules change so that she suddenly can. Similarly when circumstances conspire to stop Zélie and Amari in their tracks a deux ex machina appears to help them along.

The dialogue in this novel is snappy and fun but often anachronistic. Interestingly, the novel includes first person narration chapters from Zélie, Amari, and Inan–the crown prince determined to destroy magic even as he fights his growing attraction to Zélie.

Character motivations, particularly in the final act, become muddled as Zélie and readers have to decide once and for all who can be called an ally and who is truly an enemy. Adeyemi populates this story with a vibrant cast of characters in everything from skin tone and body type to personality.

Children of Blood and Bone is an engrossing if overly long fantasy. Excellent characters and action balance out a sloppy ending and underdeveloped world building. Recommended for fantasy readers looking for their next splashy adventure.

Possible Pairings: Roar by Cora Carmack, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi, Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

Beneath the Sugar Sky: A Review

“Elsewhere was a legend and a lie, until I came looking for you.”

cover art for Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuireSumi died years before she could return home to her beloved Candy Corn farmer and start a family. Long before her prophesied daughter Rini would have been born.

But Confection is a nonsense world so Rini is born anyway. The only problem is that with Sumi’s premature death the world of Confection was never saved, the Queen of Candy never beaten.

Now the world itself is fighting to erase Rini and the Queen has returned. With time running out Rini hopes that her mother’s friends can help bring Sumi home in Beneath the Sugar Sky (2018) by Seanan McGuire.

Beneath the Sugar Sky is the third book in McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas which begins with Every Heart a Doorway. This novella is a direct sequel to the first.

Beneath the Sugar Sky returns to Eleanor West’s familiar home for wayward children who can no longer find their way back to the other worlds that claimed them. This installment returns to familiar characters including Nancy, Kade, and Christopher.

The bulk of the story is in the close third person perspective of Cora, the newest student at the school. Cora arrived after the events of Every Heart a Doorway and spends a lot of this story trying to reconcile her new circumstances with the story she is clearly joining mid-way and, more confusing for her, the fact that she seems welcome to find her own place in it.

Beneath the Sugar Sky is a thoughtful fantasy and a quest story. This novella is once again imbued with feminist themes. Through Cora, who is overweight but stronger than most people giver her credit for thanks to years of swimming (both in our world and elsewhere), this novella also confronts the damaging stereotypes surrounding body image and beauty.

Beneath the Sugar Sky is an empowering and original story about choosing your own path as Cora and her friends help Rini literally remake the world to save Sumi and herself.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Girl Power Graphic Novels Blog Tour: Featuring Cucumber Quest!

Girl Power Graphic Novels Blog Tour HeaderI always love finding new graphic novels and comics so I was thrilled when I got the chance to join First:Second’s Girl Power Graphic Novels Blog Tour.

While all of the comics were delightful, a new favorite quickly emerged the moment I opened Cucumber Question: The Doughnut Kingdom (2017) and its sequel Cucumber Quest: The Ripple Kingdom (2018) by Gigi D. G.

In Dreamside in a house in the Doughnut Kingdom a young rabbit named Cucumber is preparing to head to magic school. His plans are dashed when his parents reveal that Cucumber is the latest in a line of Legendary Heroes and it is his destiny to save The Doughnut Kingdom and Dreamside from the Nightmare Knight.

While Cucumber appreciates the predicament, he’d much rather go to magic school and leave saving the world to literally anyone else. Luckily (or perhaps not) Cucumber’s younger sister Almond is all about adventure, swords, and fighting so she is more than ready to drag Cucumber along on this epic quest.

Saving the kingdom won’t be easy when allies include a hapless Dream Oracle and a knight armed with little more than charm and a flimsy spear. The quest will take both young rabbits far from home as they travel across Dreamside to gather the tools they need to save the day.

Cucumber Quest: The Doughnut Kingdom is a great introduction to D. G.’s vivid and bizarre world (which started life as a webcomic before the volumes were collected by First:Second) as Cucumber and Almond embark on their journey to try and stop the Nightmare Knight. The adventure continues in Cucumber Quest: The Ripple Kingdom when (spoiler) the Nightmare Knight does in fact return and he and his minions need to be stopped–one kingdom at a time.

The first book includes a great map of The Doughnut Kingdom (shown above) and trading card style intros for all of the characters. Volume Two’s bonus material has more character trading cards and a tourist guide to Cucumber and Almond’s next stop: The Ripple Kingdom. D. G. uses a surprisingly color palette that is bright without being jarring. The comic panels are dynamic and filled with amazingly expressive characters.

These comics are zany and incredibly clever. The cast is filled with strong characters including the mysterious thief, Saturday, and the charmingly forgetful Princess Nautilus. Then of course there’s Almond, the girl who would happily save the world if only any of the adults in Dreamside would let her. Cucumber astutely engages with a lot of the obvious flaws in quest stories (How is Cucumber really the best choice for this? Why is it so easy to resurrect the Nightmare Knight anyway? What’s up with his dad in that cell?) while also embodying everything that makes quest stories so fun (reluctant hero! adventure! mayhem!).

I can’t wait to see what happens when Cucumber, Almond, and the rest of their team head to The Ripple Kingdom.

Be sure to check out all of the titles featured on the blog tour too:

  • Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter by Marcus Sedgwick and Thomas Taylor: A Victorian tale of derring-do and also girls fighting monsters.
  • Cucumber Quest by Gigi D.G: A bunny-filled fantasy adventure of a kingdom in distress and some reluctant (and non-reluctant) heroes.
  • The City on the Other Side by Mairghread Scott and Robin Robinson: A historical San Francisco adventure of a girl who accidentally ends up in fairyland.
  • Star Scouts by Mike Lawrence: A girl scout adventure–but in outer space!
  • Monsters Beware! by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado: A fantasy adventure of defying expectations and friendship (and monsters).

You can also check out these blog tour stops:

The Stone Girl’s Story: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Stone Girl's Story by Sarah Beth DurstMayka and her stone family were brought to life by the markings etched into their bodies–symbols that represent who they are and the stories of their live. Mayka’s father was a talented stonemason. He created fish that could swim, rabbits, birds, and even a turtle before he used everything he had learned to create Mayka a girl who lives and thinks even if she does not need to breath or eat the way humans do.

But stone erodes over time and Mayka’s father is no longer alive to tend to his stone creations. Without a stonemason to maintain them, the stone creature’s markings are fading. Unless a stonemason can recarve their markings Mayka and her stone family will cease to live–becoming nothing more than still statues.

Finding a stonemason won’t be easy. It will force Mayka to leave the only home she has ever known high up on her family’s mountain. Off the mountain Mayka discovers that there is more to the magic that brings her to life than Father ever let on. When her search for a stonemason reveals a threat to all stone creatures, Mayka may not have any time left to wait for a stonemason to save her in The Stone Girl’s Story (2018) by Sarah Beth Durst.

Durst’s latest standalone middle grade fantasy is an evocative adventure where, with the right markings, stone can be brought to life. Durst once again brings her imaginative vision to life in a novel whose heroine is as surprising as her world.

Mayka’s stone family consists of herself and a variety of talking animals eager to help in the search for a new stonemason. The high stakes of this mission are offset with the wonder and enthusiasm with which Mayka explores new lands and makes some surprising friends.

The Stone Girl’s Story is an engrossing adventure and a thoughtful commentary on agency as Mayka realizes that the best way to save herself and her friends might be to do it herself. A delightful addition to the author’s extensive body of work.

Possible Pairings: A Tale of Two Castles by Gail Carson Levine, Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix, Princeless Book One: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin

Be sure to check out my interview with Sarah about this book!

Retribution Rails: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Secrets are like bullets.”

cover art for Retribution Rails by Erin BowmanReece Murphy never wanted to become the notorious Rose Kid. But he hardly had a choice

Five years ago Luther Rose rode in and killed the entire family Reece had been working for. Thanks to a mysterious gold coin, Reece has a different fate. If he can identify the man who gave him the gold piece, Reece can walk away. Until then he has to be part of the Rose Rides–something he can hardly escape thanks to his horrible deeds and even worse reputation as the Rose Kid.

Charlotte Vaughn and her mother are still grieving Charlotte’s father when her uncle begins moving to claim their estate and holdings for himself. Charlotte hopes that following a lead on a big story will help jump start her career as a journalist and bring her one step closer toward self-sufficiency and thwarting her uncle.

Both Reece and Charlotte’s plans are derailed when they cross paths on opposite sides of a botched train robbery. Charlotte could be Reece’s chance for freedom while Reece offers Charlotte the story of a lifetime. Charlotte and Reece know better than to trust each other but they both hope that with a little luck and a lot of grit they can use each other to get exactly what they need in Retribution Rails (2017) by Erin Bowman.

Retribution Rails is a companion novel set ten years after the events of Vengeance Road. While this novel works as a standalone it does reference previous events  throughout.

Written in dual first person narration this novel follows both Charlotte and Reece as they chase dreams and futures they are not sure they’ll ever manage to claim. The contrasts between these two helps to play with their changing perceptions of each other while also highlighting their similarities–particularly in terms of how single-mindedly they pursue their goals.

Reece and Charlotte are often difficult characters–Reece with the past he tries to forget and Charlotte with a surprisingly vindictive personality–and sometimes make the wrong choices. But those stumbles only add to their resiliency and growth throughout the novel. Their chemistry–even when they’re fighting–adds another dimension to this gripping story.

Readers familiar with Bowman’s work will find everything they loved about her first western in Retribution Rails along with a tighter plot which acknowledges the privileges and costs inherent to westward expansion and, in particular, the movement towards rail travel. Retribution Rails is a clever and fast-paced novel filled with adventure, redemption, and just a hint of romance. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly, Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

An Enchantment of Ravens: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Why do we desire, above all other things, that which has the greatest power to destroy us?”

cover art for An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret RogersonIn the town of Whimsy Craft is currency. The fair folk value human artistry and creativity above all else–they crave it and collect it in lieu of creating on their own. For the right talent they might even offer humans their most coveted prize: immortality.

Isobel has made a comfortable life for herself and her aunt and sisters in Whimsy thanks to her skills as a portrait painter. But even Isobel’s talent can’t protect her from the whims of the fair folk. Any fairy client is dangerous–even Isobel’s oldest and most likely harmless patron, Gadfly–but royal ones especially so.

Isobel hopes to dazzle Rook, the autumn prince, with her Craft and then never see him again. Instead, her inclusion of human sorrow in Rook’s expression may doom them both in An Enchantment of Ravens (2017) by Margaret Rogerson.

An Enchantment of Ravens is Rogerson’s debut novel.

Isobel’s first person narration is candid and self-aware with prose that is delicately woven on a sentence level and serves well to compliment the story’s masterful world building.. She is keenly aware of the dangers of the fair folk, particularly their promise of immortality from the Green Well. The beauty and charm of the fair folk stands in stark contrast to their terrifying lack of humanity offering a nuanced interpretation of the fae that will appeal to fans of Holly Black’s faerie novels.

Instead of being drawn in by all of this glamour, Isobel is at pains to maintain her agency and control. Throughout An Enchantment of Ravens she remains utterly pragmatic and logical even as she is forced to do wild and unexpected things–with caring about and trusting Rook being the most illogical of all.

Isobel is a singular heroine and Rook an admirable foil and ally. This character-driven novel is further enhanced with a strong group of secondary characters notably including newly immortal Aster and my personal favorite, Gadfly. This standalone novel builds to a surprising and truly satisfying conclusion as pieces fall into place as neatly as the brushstrokes in one of Isobel’s portraits. An Enchantment of Ravens is an inventive and unique fantasy filled with fairies, danger, and romance. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, Legendary by Stephanie Garber, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White