The Library of Fates: A Review

Sikander, the emperor of Macedon, arrives in peaceful Shalingar after conquering Anatolia, Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, Bactria, and Persia. Sikander asks Princess Amrita to become his bride as part of a peaceful treaty between the two nations but the negotiations soon end in bloodshed and force Amrita to flee.

Haunted by the loss of her kingdom and everyone she loves Amrita helps Thala, an enslaved oracle, escape imprisonment. Together Thala is certain that she and Amrita can find the Library of All Things and convince the Keeper of the library to allow them to change their own fates.

As Amrita and Thala come closer to changing their fates, Amrita has to come to terms with the fact that her old life may be impossible to reclaim and a new life can only be found through sacrifice in The Library of Fates (2017) by Aditi Khorana.

Khorana’s sophomore novel is a standalone fantasy imbued with elements from Indian folklore and Hindu mythology combined with elements of the author’s own invention including a giant magical spider that allows characters to travel through time and space.

This story is hampered by anachronistic phrases and details that fail to coalesce into a coherent world or logical magic system. Basically all of background suggests that this story is set around 300BC which fits with the inclusion of Macedon and other countries that are mentioned. In spite of that Amrita and her friends continuously use words and phrases that have origins in the 1800s. Because of this the dialogue feels especially English/American which makes sense given the author being American but also rings untrue as the characters themselves are not (and in fact are probably speaking the fictitious Shalingarsh language throughout). Of course, The Library of Fates would always be read in English by English readers but the offhand linguistic choices often serve to draw readers out of the story.

As a narrator Amrita is an uneasy blend of naive and impetuous while also being seemingly the only character in the novel unaware of her true connection to a mythical goddess called Maya the Diviner. Every character Amrita knows in the palace has been aware of this connection since her birth and kept it from her. Literally. Every. Character.

Despite the inherent tension of an early love triangle, relationships remain underdeveloped save for the endearing if abrupt friendship between Amrita and Thala. As Amrita ponders her odious marriage arrangement with Sikander, she suddenly and completely falls for Arjun, her best friend since childhood. This forbidden love is dropped when Amrita is forced to leave Shalingar without him. A new love interest is introduced for a dramatic star-crossed love story that is largely toothless because the second love interest appears in about ten pages total of the entire book–and that only after the story hits the halfway mark.

Interesting concepts including the Library of All Things itself are bright spots in this otherwise unfocused story where many of the most exciting moments are related in asides or flashbacks. A serviceable if not well-realized fantasy that will appeal to fans of The Wrath and the Dawn and The Star-Touched Queen.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the June 1, 2017 issue of School Library Journal*

The Crown’s Game: A Review

The Crown's Game by Evelyn SkyeUsually, only one enchanter is born to continue the line of magicians with a long history of serving the tsar and protecting Russia from its enemies. When two are born, the tsar initiates the Crown’s Game where the rival enchanters can showcase their talents and prove they deserve to be the only true enchanter in Russia.

Vika Andreyeva has been honing her elemental magic with her father since she was a child. She has always assumed becoming the Imperial Enchanter was her birthright, never imagining there were others like her.

Nikolai Karimov’s mechanical magic is unmatched–a useful quality to help him lead the life of a gentleman without the funds to match. His magic brought him to the attention of his mentor and his training gives Nikolai the life he never could have imagined as an orphan on the Russian steppe. He is determined to win the game and claim the life he has been promised.

When they are summoned to compete against each other Vika and Nikolai meet as enemies. At first. But they are also drawn to each other in ways neither can fully grasp. Only one of them can win the game and only one of them can survive. But even winning may not be enough to protect their hearts in The Crown’s Game (2016) by Evelyn Skye.

The Crown’s Game is Skye’s debut novel and the start of a series.

The Crown’s Game is a historical fantasy set in an alternate Russia where magic flourishes and is a key part of Russia’s heritage, not to mention its defenses. Skye grounds this story in well-researched and thoroughly described details of Russian culture and history. The novel is written in close third person with chapters alternating between the points of view of several characters including Vika, Nikolai, the tsar’s son and heir Pasha, Pasha’s sister Yulia, and others. While the variety of characters rounds out the story it also, unfortunately, decreases the chances for character development.

Despite the title and the marketing for this book, The Crown’s Game is not the high stakes battle readers might expect. Instead of a fierce battle, the game proves to be more of a magical showcase where, during its early stages, the stakes and ultimate outcome of the game often seem to lack real consequences.

Skye does an excellent job of bringing her version of Russia to life. By contrast the fantasy elements of this story are weaker. The magic system lacks internal logic to match the urgency suggested by the story. In particular, it feels arbitrary that there can be only one enchanter. While this may be something that will develop in later installments, it serves as little more than a plot hole here.

The Crown’s Game is an ambitious novel is rife with ambience and intrigue as both Vika and Nikolai discover uncomfortable truths about their pasts as they move through the game. Twists, shocks, and surprising relationships further increase the tension. Recommended for readers with a fondness for Russian settings and light fantasy that is heavy on the romance and angst.

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, The Game of Love and Death by Martha A. Brockenbrough, Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski, Iron Cast by Destiny Soria, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

These Vicious Masks: A Review

These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly ZekasEngland, 1882. Evelyn would rather do anything than spend another night at another interminable party with the same vapid women and the same eligible bachelors that her mother considers ideal candidates for marriage. Evelyn has no desire to be married off so quickly and disappear behind the veiled curtain of domesticity.

Little surprise, then, that Evelyn immediately secures passage to London when her younger sister Rose disappears under mysterious circumstances.

Accompanied on her search by the dashing Mr. Kent and the brooding Sebastian Braddock (who claims Evelyn and her sister have healing powers), Evelyn is thrown in a world of secrets populated by extraordinary people. Evelyn isn’t sure what to believe or who to trust. The only thing Evelyn knows for certain is that she has to find Rose before it’s too late in These Vicious Masks (2016) by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas.

These Vicious Masks is the first novel from Shanker and Zekas. It is also the start of a series.

These Vicious Masks starts with a fun premise. Victorian England. Romance. Superpowers. Action. This book literally has it all complete with a heroine with decidedly modern sensibilities (something that was, personally, less satisfying to read than a character operating within the social mores and expectations of her era).

Evelyn’s narration is filled with snark and humor as she bemoans her status an a young (bored) debutante before her sister’s disappearance. The story is filled with evocative descriptions but thinner on historical detail with the time period serving more as set dressing for the novel than an integral part of the plot.

Readers will follow Evelyn’s search for Rose with as much interest as they will her romantic prospects with the appropriately contrasting suitors of Mr. Kent and Mr. Braddock in a love triangle that is filled with intrigue and tension.

These Vicious Masks is a fast-paced and super fun read. Ideal for fans of light historical fiction and superhero adventure. An open-ended conclusion and shocks in the denouement promise an exciting next installment.

Possible Pairings: Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter, Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly, The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows; A Breath of Frost by Alyxandra Harvey, A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee, The Beautiful and the Cursed by Page Morgan, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

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

The Girl at Midnight: A Review

The Girl at Midnight by Melissa GreyThe Avicen have lived beneath New York City for years. Bird-like creatures with feathers for hair, the Avicen can use scarves and sunglasses to blend in when they have to. The rest of the time magical wards make sure they remain hidden from prying human eyes. Except for Echo–the human pickpocket who considers the Avicen, at least some of them, her family.

Echo is used to fending for herself and she has the fierce, brusque persona to prove it. When she isn’t busy being reckless and stealing things around the world for the thrill of it, she is also extremely loyal.

When word surfaces of a way to end the centuries-long war between the Avicen and their dragon-like enemies the Drakharin, Echo jumps at the chance to help.

Legend suggests that the Firebird is the only thing with the power to end the war. The only problem is no one knows what the Firebird is or where to find it. But if life as a thief has taught Echo anything, it’s how to enjoy a challenge in The Girl at Midnight (2015) by Melissa Grey.

The Girl at Midnight is Grey’s debut novel and the start to a trilogy.

The Girl at Midnight starts strong with a fantastically intricate world complete with magic, mythical creatures and a conflict that has lasted centuries. Both the Avicen and Drakharin make sense within the story and have complex cultures to match. In fact, the only thing that doesn’t make sense is trying to picture them while reading as imagining feathers as hair continues to be a sticking point.

Unfortunately the characters who populate The Girl at Midnight pale in comparison to the world within the novel. Most of the characters are defined by one carefully chosen trait and little else. Echo is slightly more developed although she too often comes across as a collection of eccentricities and behaviors (between her preoccupation with food, collecting words, hoarding books and throwing out pop culture references with zero context) that never quite rang true. The logistics of Echo’s living unnoticed in a library also begins to fall apart under any kind of scrutiny.

The Girl at Midnight is a decent urban fantasy in places but it also one that will immediately feel familiar to anyone well-read in the genre. Grey’s admirable world building only serves to underscore the predictable, lackluster plot and weak characters. Recommended for readers looking to discover new places (both real and imagined) rather than find their next engrossing read.

Possible Pairings: Raised by Wolves by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst, Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray, Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Archived by Victoria Schwab, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Hold Me Like a Breath: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany SchmidtIn a world where organ donation is strictly regulated, Penelope Landlow’s Family helps those who can’t afford to wait for legal organ transplants . . . as long as they can afford to pay black market prices.

With rival families and upstarts jockeying for position, Penelope knows as well as anyone that the Family business is dangerous. With the Organ Act making its way through congress she also knows the Family business is on the verge of a major change.

Thanks to an autoimmune disorder called Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP) that causes excessive bruising and bleeding, Penelope also knows she’ll never really be a part of the Family business–changes or not.

With her entire family, and even her lifelong crush, convinced that she is far too fragile for the Family business or anything resembling a normal life, Penelope spends her days dreaming of NYC, shopping, watching C-Span, and wandering her family’s lavish estate.

It isn’t enough.

When disaster strikes, Penelope is thrust into a world of secrets and betrayals she is ill-equipped to understand. As she struggles to make sense of her shattered past and shape her own future she’ll also learn that life isn’t always a fairy tale. Sometimes you have to make your own happy ending in Hold Me Like a Breath (2015) by Tiffany Schmidt.

Hold Me Like a Breath is the first book in Schmidt’s Once Upon a Crime Family trilogy. It is loosely inspired by the story “The Princess and the Pea.”

Penelope is an interesting heroine in that she is spunky while also being painfully naive thanks to her sheltered upbringing. Although she is fragile because of her ITP, Penelope is not easily broken as she demonstrates repeatedly throughout the narrative.

With organized crime, black market organs and murder as part of the plot, Hold Me Like a Breath is not your typical fairy tale romance. Sweet moments of first love are tempered with suspense and action as Penelope tries to make sense of the catastrophe that leaves her alone for the first time.

Hold Me Like a Breath is an engaging mystery and coming-of-age story complete with twists that turn the narrative completely upside down not once but twice. A romantic lead who sees Penelope as a true equal helps move the romance here from saccharine and sweet to rock solid and empowering.

Schmidt blends elements of mystery and romance in this retelling that is as unique as it is exciting. In addition to nods to the source material, this book also builds a world that is developed down to the finest details and includes a diverse cast of characters who readers will look forward to seeing in book two. Hold Me Like a Breath is a clever page-turner with a heroine who learns what it takes to chase her own happily ever after in this sensational start to what is sure to be a marvelous series.

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, White Cat by Holly Black, Strings Attached by Judy Blundell, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, Heist Society by Ally Carter, The Brokenhearted by Amelia Kahaney, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Lock & Mori by Heather W. Petty, It Wasn’t Always Like This by Joy Preble, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

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

You can also check out my interview with Tiffany!

The Sin Eater’s Daughter: A Review

The Sin Eater's Daughter by Melinda SalisburyTwylla has always had a destiny. Four harvests ago she chose a path that would lead her away from the fraught burden of following in her mother’s steps as the next Sin Eater for Lormere.

Now Twylla is blessed by the gods and serves at their pleasure as Daunen Embodied–the mortal incarnation of the daughter of the gods and the only one worthy of marrying the crown prince. The gods’ continued approval is confirmed each moon during the Telling when Twylla drinks deadly Morningsbane poison without harm.

But her blessing and survival come at a cost. The poison lingers in Twylla’s blood and on her skin so that her barest touch can kill–something the queen of Lormere exploits by making Twylla a reluctant executioner.

Twylla made peace with her role as executioner long ago. Until the return of the prince, Merek, and the arrival of a new guard named Lief when Twylla finds herself questioning many things about her role as Daunen Embodied and the motivations of the queen. Again Twylla will have a chance to choose her destiny, but first she must decide what to believe and who to trust in The Sin Eater’s Daughter (2015) by Melinda Salisbury.

The Sin Eater’s Daughter is Salisbury’s first novel and the start of a new series.

The Sin Eater’s Daughter presents a complex world comprised of three vastly different kingdoms including Twylla’s home in Lormere where the novel is set. While Lormere is a comparatively vast empire, it is also quite primitive with a seat of power traditionally held by siblings in a misguided effort to keep the royal line pure. On Lormere’s borders are Tregallan–Lormere’s chief supplier of goods that Lormere cannot produce itself and a new democracy that values science over religion–and Tallith–a fallen kingdom that once held vast wealth thanks to the closely guarded secrets of the science of alchemy.

Within Lormere Salisbury also offers a religious system that includes invented gods with numerous Christian undertones in addition to Sin Eating. Unfortunately the Eating is never fully explained as reader’s are left to wonder how certain foods are chosen to represent sins and how, exactly, a person’s sins can be cataloged properly after their death.

Despite being the castle executioner, Twylla is incredibly naive for the majority of the novel. At times this creates interesting moments of tension between science and faith as Twylla tries to learn more about her past. In others it only serves to make it easier for her to swoon over her new guard Lief.

Of the two male leads Merek, the prince, is far more compelling as he struggles to figure out how to bring Lormere out of its archaic traditions and move it beyond the ruthless rule of his mother, the queen. Lief is little more than a pretty face by comparison.

The Sin Eater’s Daughter is at its strongest when Salisbury details the machinations of the queen and the intrigue surrounding Twylla’s role as Daunen. The queen adds a lot of suspense to the story as an especially chilling villain.

Twylla’s development over the course of the story is fascinating as she comes to term with the choices she has made and acknowledges that having agency (choosing to accept her role as Daunen, choosing to not follow the path of the Sin Eater) is not the same as having power–something she craves as she hopes to garner some level of revenge for past wrongs.

Unfortunately, much of this The Sin Eater’s Daughter‘s promise does not come to fruition. Twylla’s character fizzles toward the end thanks to an epilogue that negates most of her previous growth during the novel. This book sets up a lot for the next installment in the series including a twist that upturns almost every conceit previously detailed in the story. Although exciting, this final twist diminishes previous shocks by rendering them largely irrelevant.

Since this book is the start of a series, there is still room for a lot of things to change but taken on its own the conclusion remains disappointing. The Sin Eater’s Daughter is an engaging fantasy but not without flaws. Ideal for readers who do not question worldbuilding and enjoy a balanced love triangle.

Possible Pairings: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, Frostblood by Elly Blake, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder, The Storyspinner by Becky Wallace

Red Queen: A Review

Red Queen by Victoria AveyardLife as a Red in Norta is not easy. Reds are normal in every way–forced into poverty and manual labor while Silvers, the silver-blooded elite with nearly inconceivable abilities, rule the land. Mare Barrow doesn’t like anything about the Silvers but she understands that they are unstoppable; impossible to fight.

But Mare is also almost eighteen and with no job prospects beyond petty theft in her future, she knows that she will be drafted into the military soon to fight in the decades long war against the Lakelanders. The same thing happened to all of her brothers before her.

Mare is resigned to her fate until one false step reveals that Mare, like the Silvers, has a shocking ability never before seen in a Red. Suddenly Mare is drawn into the middle of Norta’s class warfare disguised as a long-lost Silver princess. While rebellion brews and the Silver king tries to keep the unhappy masses in check, Mare will have to balance the dazzling luxury of the Silver world with everything she holds dear and everything she is willing to sacrifice for freedom for herself and her people in Red Queen (2015) by Victoria Aveyard.

Red Queen is Aveyard’s debut novel. It is also the first book in her Red Queen trilogy.

Red Queen is being marketed as Graceling meets The Selection which in many ways is very true as this book includes special abilities and romance at court. It is, however, much darker in tone than The Selection with a much stronger focus on rebellion and revolution. For that reason The Hunger Games is a comparison that makes a bit more sense.

Obviously, Red Queen has quite a few similarities to other fantasy titles. It also, however, has a very unique world as conceived by Aveyard. The dichotomy between Reds and Silvers is explained well and takes the story in interesting directions as Mare walks the line between Red and Silver throughout the story. Unfortunately the division between Reds and Silvers remains very one dimensional for most of the novel as Silvers are generally seen as ruthless and calculating while Reds are oppressed and exploited. Both are true but it felt heavy-handed to say that every Silver would follow these same ideals and ways of thinking despite class divisions among the elite.

Mare is a frank narrator but she is also often reckless to the point of harming herself and those she cares about. Her motivations throughout the story–when she chooses to join the Red rebellion or during her rather fuzzy love triangle–are murky at best. Readers learn early on why Mare wants to fight the Silvers, why she is drawn to the person who holds her affections, but it never feels quite sincere enough or believable enough to justify the risks Mare takes.

The pacing in Red Queen is not perfect either. Scenes of lavish court balls and machinations alternate with high action fights or training sequences that make the middle part of the novel choppy. The narrative loses all sense of urgency as Mare moves between learning basics of Silver protocol and planning acts of rebellion in an often aimless manner.

Red Queen is a strong debut both for Aveyard and for this trilogy. While not ideal for readers who like their fantasies to have a lot of nuance, Red Queen is ideal for anyone seeking the next big action-packed series that is sure to have everyone talking.

Possible Pairings: The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken, Frostblood by Elly Blake, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Selection by Kiera Cass, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, Legend by Marie Lu, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, Divergent by Veronica Roth, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury, The Storyspinner by Becky Wallace