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*

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*

Wayfarer: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*Wayfarer is the conclusion to Bracken’s Passenger duology. It contains major spoilers for book one. If you’re new to the series, start at the beginning with Passenger*

“All of us have had to come to terms with the fact that our loyalty is to time itself. It’s our inheritance, our nation, our history.”

“We can live in the past, but we cannot dwell there.”

Wayfarer by Alexandra BrackenEtta’s preparations for her debut as a concert violinist feel distant in the wake of revelations that she and her mother are part of a long line of time travelers who have drawn Etta into the center of a dangerous battle for power.

Etta has gone around the world and through time searching for a coveted astrolabe that can control and manipulate the timeline itself. She knows the astrolabe has to be destroyed. But she also knows she will need it herself if she hopes to save her mother.

Orphaned by a disastrous change to the timeline, Etta wakes up alone in another place and time separated from Nicholas, her partner throughout this journey. The future that she knows no longer exists. In this new timeline Etta finds unexpected help from Julian Ironwood–Cyrus’s heir, long presumed dead–and an unlikely ally from Etta’s own past.

Nicholas could do nothing to keep Etta with him when she was Orphaned. Now he and Sophia are following every lead–every passage–that they can to find the astrolabe and Etta. Their uneasy alliance is tested by the pursuers far too close behind and the mercenary who may be trying to help Nicholas and Sophia–or stop them.

Separated by time itself Nicholas and Etta will have to face impossible odds, familiar enemies, and a dangerous new power if they hope to reunite and keep the timeline safe in Wayfarer (2017) by Alexandra Bracken.

Wayfarer is the conclusion to Bracken’s latest duology which begins with Passenger. It contains major spoilers for book one. If you’re new to the series, start at the beginning.

Wayfarer picks up shortly after the dramatic conclusion of Passenger. Etta is injured and alone after she is Orphaned while Nicholas is left behind in Nassau where he is forced to rely on Sophia’s knowledge of the passages to hopefully find Etta and the astrolabe before time runs out.

This novel once again alternates close third person narration between Etta and Nicholas (possibly with slightly more time given to Nicholas). Although they are separated at the start of the novel both Etta and Nicholas remain true to each other and confident in each other amidst rampant mistrust and doubts from their allies. The steadfastness of their belief in each other is heartening as almost everything else these characters hold true is thrown into doubt over the course of the story as all of the characters face difficult choices once the full threat of the astrolabe becomes clear.

Bracken expands the world of the travelers in Wayfarer with new characters (be sure to watch out for mercenary Li Min), and new backstory about the origins of the travelers and the four families. Sophia, happily, also plays a bigger role in this story after previously being an antagonist to both Nicholas and Etta. Sophia remains ambitious, angry, and delightfully unapologetic even as she begins to make new choices. The focus of this story also shifts from romance to relationships of a different sort as friendships, partnerships, and other alliances form.

One of the constant themes in this series is trust. In Passenger Etta and Nicholas have to learn how to trust each other and, to some extent, their abilities as travelers (albeit inexperienced ones). Wayfarer, meanwhile, finds both Etta and Nicholas having to form new bonds in order to survive. These changing relationships lend depth and substance to a story that is already rich with historical detail and fully developed characters.

Wayfarer is a brilliant novel about trust, choices, and time travel (of course) filled with romance, action, and more than a few memorable moments. This series is a great introduction to time travel and also ideal for fans of the sub-genre. The perfect conclusion to one of my favorite duologies. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Loop by Karen Akins, Until We Meet Again by Renee Collins, The Infinity of You & Me by J. Q. Coyle, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst, The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove, The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, Hourglass by Myra McEntire, The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski, Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, Into the Dim by Janet B. Taylor, All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill, Pivot Point by Kasie West

*An advance copy of this title was sent 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

Don’t You Trust Me?: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Don't You Trust Me? by Patrice KindlMorgan has known for a long time that she is different–cold, even. She is very good at mimicking and reading people. But she doesn’t care about anyone except herself.

When her parents decide to send Morgan away to a school for troubled teens even though she is obviously not troubled and knows exactly what she’s doing, Morgan knows it’s time to move on before her plans to attend a top-tier college, become a lawyer, and make lots of money are completely ruined.

Morgan’s one weak point has always been impulsiveness. When Morgan sees a sad sack girl sobbing hysterically at the airport over being separated from her boyfriend, Morgan doesn’t think twice before offering to switch places.

Suddenly Morgan is living across the country under an assumed name with her very well off “aunt” and “uncle.” And her overly trusting “cousin” Brooke. Morgan knows she has found a good thing here–something that can help her achieve that grand future she has planned. The only question is whether or not Morgan can keep such a complex con going indefinitely in Don’t You Trust Me? (2016) by Patrice Kindl.

While Morgan never calls herself a psychopath or sociopath during the course of the novel, it’s safe to say that she has Antisocial Personality Disorder and the related lack of empathy at the very least.

Kindl packs a lot into this slim novel where Morgan learns very quickly how to use her unique skills to get ahead. Morgan is a classic unreliable narrator as she leads her new “family,” friends, and readers on a wild ride through her months living a double life in an affluent Albany suburb.

Morgan’s first person narration is as humorous as it is heartless as she explains exactly how she changes identities and begins conning local charities and rich neighbors in her constant quest for money and security.

Unsurprisingly, not everything comes easily to Morgan as lies begin stacking up and secrets threaten to come out in Don’t You Trust Me? Short chapters and Morgan’s blunt narration make this book ideal for readers looking for a fast-paced story. Thriller fans looking for something a little different and readers who enjoy dark humor will also find a lot to recommend here.

Possible Pairings: The Graces by Laure Eve, The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Consent by Nancy Ohlin, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies by Lindsay Ribar, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, Thieving Weasels by Billy Taylor, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

The Kiss of Deception: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. PearsonLia, First Daughter of the House of Morrighan, is seventeen years old. She is Morrighan’s princess and a key part of her father’s plans to forge an alliance with the neighboring kingdom of Dalbrek. The only problem is that Lia has no intention of marrying to further her kingdom’s political standing–certainly not to a prince she has never met.

When Lia flees on her wedding day she sets a series of disastrous events in motion that leave chaos and danger in her wake.

Her hopes to start a new life as a commoner alongside her faithful maid, Pauline, are threatened when two handsome strangers arrive at her new home. One is the prince Lia refused to marry, the other is an assassin sent to kill her.

Surrounded by secrets and lies, Lia’s entire world could unravel when the truth is revealed in The Kiss of Deception (2014) by Mary E. Pearson.

The Kiss of Deception is the first book in Pearson’s The Remnant Chronicles which continues with The Heart of Betrayal and The Beauty of Darkness.

The Kiss of Deception is a thoughtful blend of fantasy and suspense layered across a dystopian world. Tantalizing hints throughout the novel suggest that Morrighan shares a common past with the modern world, but no concrete answers are given leaving  readers to draw their own conclusions.

Lia is an interesting heroine and narrates most of the novel. She is often naive and reckless but she is also kind and selfless. What originally appears as thoughtless privilege soon morphs into a strong moral compass and royal demeanor. Lia’s growth throughout the novel is empowering and well handled but her character remains the most developed for most of the novel.

By all rights, The Kiss of Deception should be a fast-paced adventure beginning with Lia’s flight on her wedding day. Lia’s narrative is even interspersed with chapters from the Prince and the Assassin lending another level of mystery to the story. Unfortunately, these pieces take a bit too long to come together which makes the first half of the novel drag. Uneven pacing and predictable plot twists further weaken the story.

The Kiss of Deception introduces a rich world and a large cast of characters. Readers willing to forgive unanswered questions about world building and readers who don’t mind characters who withhold key information will get the most out of this novel. Recommended for readers looking for a new high fantasy with a lot of romance, strong female characters, and meandering action.

Possible Pairings: Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, The Reader by Traci Chee, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, And I Darken by Kiersten White, Blood Red Road by Moira Young

And I Darken: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

And I Darken by Kiersten WhiteLada Dragwlya has always known that being ruthless in a brutal world is the key to survival–especially for a princess whose only perceived worth is in the man she marries. Lada would much prefer to be measured by her own strength and intellect. To that end, she is determined to prove herself stronger and fiercer than any man.

Radu, Lada’s younger brother, is known for his charm and good looks. But those traits do little to counter his naivete and kind nature. As the third, and obviously weakest, son of a prince it seems easier for everyone to ignore Radu. But he knows how much can be heard once people forget he is listening. In a world that values action and might, Radu quickly learns to capitalize on his appearance and his social graces while hiding his own cunning spy-craft.

Lada is livid when she and Radu become hostages of the Ottoman Empire to ensure their father’s loyalty. She rails against the Ottomans and dreams of the day she will be able to escape and return to her beloved Wallachia to restore her homeland to its proper glory and reclaim everything she has been denied.

Radu, meanwhile, welcomes the new beginning these surroundings offer and throws himself into the Ottoman culture including their soothing religion, Islam. He hopes that with time he might finally find the safety and peace he’s craved for most of his young life.

When Lada and Radu meet Mehmed, the sultan’s lonely son, they find an unlikely ally. Radu sees a friend in Mehmed and the promise of being understood for the first time in his life while Lada recognizes her own ambition in Mehmed’s plans for his future and feels a kinship with him that she never thought possible.

In a world where power is a tenuous thing Lada, Radu, and Mehmed will have to weigh their bonds to each other against their desire for control over their own fates in And I Darken (2016) by Kiersten White.

And I Darken is the first book in White’s Conquerors trilogy which presents an alternate history imagining Vlad the Impaler as a girl. IBoth Radu and Mehmed are also based on real historical figures. A map, family trees, and an author’s note help to explain where fact and fiction diverge.

This book begins in 1435 with Lada’s birth and follows the formative years of her childhood and adolescence before it ends in 1451 with Lada poised, in many ways, to become the infamous Vlad the Impaler of legend.

And I Darken alternates close third person point of view between Lada and Radu. Being the kinder and gentler Dragwlya, Radu’s perspective is often a much-needed break from Lada’s vitriol-fueled outlook. Giving them equal prominence in the narrative also helps to highlight how often Lada and Radu’s distinct skills and proclivities compliment each other. This structure also, of course, positions them as obvious foils to one another.

White’s novel is well-researched and evocative–particularly as she brings the Ottoman Empire to life. Through Lada readers can see the violence and fear that the current sultan uses to maintain order. Alternately, Radu’s view of his new home shows the tranquility and comfort that can be found in a new culture and religion (Islam in this case).

Although Lada is often reckless, everything about And I Darken is thoughtful from the plotting to the characterization. The epic scope of this series starter demands a slower pace that will reward patient readers. Lada, Radu, and Mehmed’s story arcs mirror each other as they all strive in various ways (and with varied results) to achieve some level of agency and autonomy in their own lives.

And I Darken is a nuanced story about power, passion, and where the two can intersect. A sweeping and completely captivating start to a promising series. Highly recommended for readers looking for strong historical fiction/historical fantasy with a plot that plays out on a grand stage.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Nemesis by Anna Banks, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Legacy of Kings by Eleanor Herman, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, The Young Elites by Marie Lu, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir