Luck of the Titanic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Of the eight Chinese passengers aboard the Titanic, six survived.

Valora Luck almost misses her chance to be one of those passengers when her entry is blocked thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act which restricts the admission of Chinese immigrants into the United States. Valora is used to obstacles, though, and isn’t about to let a silly policy stop her from getting on board and seeing her twin brother Jamie for the first time in years.

Jamie is traveling on the Titanic as a seaman on his way to Cuba with the rest of his crew but Val has bigger plans for both of them. Reunited for the first time since their father’s death, this is the perfect opportunity for the twins to revive their acrobatics act–an act that Val knows will be good enough to attract the attention of the Albert Ankeny Stewart. One look at their performance and Mr. Stewart will have to recruit them for the Ringling Circus. Then Val and Jamie can finally get back to being family again instead of near strangers.

Val’s plan is perfect. Until disaster strikes and, as the Titanic begins its last night as an ocean liner, Val and her brother will have to worry about surviving the present before they can plan for the future in Luck of the Titanic (2021) by Stacey Lee.

Find it on Bookshop.

Luck of the Titanic is narrated by Val as she struggles to board the luxury liner and secure passage into America for herself and her brother. The story is inspired by the real Chinese passengers on the TitanicYou can read more about Lee’s real-life inspiration to write this story in an essay she wrote for Oprah Daily.

Lee once again delivers a masterful work of historical fiction. Luck of the Titanic is carefully researched with front matter that includes a cast of characters and diagrams of the famous ship. The balances portraying the very real racism and intolerance Val and her fellow Chinese passengers would have encountered on the ship (or in attempting to travel to the United States) while also highlighting small joys as Val reconnects with her brother, befriends his crewmates, and as all of them discover the magic of this larger-than-life ship before it strikes an iceberg and begins to sink.

Val is an accomplished acrobat which adds a fun dimension to the story. Because of the novel’s setting, this aspect of Val’s life can never be the main point of the story but it still adds so much to her character as readers see her talent and joy in her work–and the contrast in how Jamie feel’s about the same performance skills.

Readers familiar with the history of the Titanic will recognize many key points including the iconic state rooms and grand stairway while the story also shows more of third class (steerage) where Jamie and his crew are located. The novel does include an attempted sexual assault which moves the plot forward (necessitating the separation of Val and some of her friends as the iceberg hits) but also feels excessive in a story that already has plenty of tension and strife for the characters.

Lee also includes nods to common theories about contributing factors to the disaster including the lack of binoculars for crew working in the crow’s nest, the pressure on Captain Smith to drive at speed, and of course the lifeboats (of which there were too few) being launched without reaching full capacity. Other details (the lack of proper warnings from the Marconi operators, the confusion as Titanic tried to signal for help from nearby ships) are left off-page in favor of a focus on the characters. While Lee shows more behind-the-scenes areas of the ship, this novel is largely populated by fictional characters whenever possible leaving notable survivors like Molly Brown and crew member Violet Jessop out of the narrative entirely.

Luck of the Titanic is both gripping and melancholy as the novel builds to its inevitable conclusion. This story of survival and family is completely engrossing while also asking readers to consider whose stories are deemed worth telling in history–and how we can work to widen that scope. Recommended for fans of adventure and historical fiction novels.

Possible Pairings: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, The Watch That Ends the Night by Allan Wolf

All the Broken People: A Review

Lucy King is ready to start over in Woodstock, New York. She has her dog, she has cash, she has her suitcase with her mother’s vintage silk scarf and her father’s hammer. She has plans for a quiet life where her past will never come back to haunt her.

All the Broken People by Leah KonenEnter Vera and John, Lucy’s painfully stylish neighbors who quickly take Lucy under their wing. After being isolated for so long Lucy craves their attention and friendship enough that she knows she’d do almost anything to keep it.

When the couple asks for Lucy’s help to get a fresh start of their own, Lucy knows she has to help. But what starts as a bit of fraud with minimal consequences and an accidental death becomes something else when someone turns up dead.

Receiving more attention than she wanted, Lucy finds herself at the center of the investigation not just as a witness but a likely suspect. After coming so far to start again, Lucy will have to figure out who she can trust–and who’s really to blame–if she wants to keep the new beginning she fought so hard to create in All the Broken People (2020) by Leah Konen.

Find it on Bookshop.

All the Broken People is Konen’s adult debut. You might recognize her name from her previous YA titles.

All the Broken People is an eerie story where every tension is amplified by Lucy’s isolated, first person narration. After escaping a relationship marked by gaslighting and abuse, Lucy no longer trusts anyone. Not even herself. As her carefully constructed life in Woodstock begins to collapse, she’s forced to confront the events that led her here and what she has to do to get out again.

All the Broken People is the kind of book where the less you know when you start, the better. Konen expertly demonstrates her range as an author with this thriller debut filled with menace and ground-pulled-out-from-under-you twists.

Possible Pairings: Only Truth by Julie Cameron, The Girl Before by J. P. Delaney, The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

Verona Comics: A Review

Verona Comics by Jennifer DuganJubilee is an elite cellist. She has incredible talent and, according to her instructors, no emotion as she gets lost in the technical details of playing. With her biggest audition yet coming up for a summer conservatory program, Jubilee has a simple task: take a break. Which is how Jubilee finds herself selling comics with her mom and step-mom at their indie booth at a comic convention and, later, cosplaying as a peacock superhero at the con’s annual prom event.

Ridley doesn’t know who he is yet. All he really knows is that he’s a chronic disappointment to his parents and a barely tolerated presence in his own family. Which is why, despite his out-of-control anxiety, Ridley finds himself at comic con and representing his father’s company, The Geekery, while dressed as Office Batman at prom.

Neither Jubilee nor Ridley are looking for anything long-term, but their connection is immediately obvious. Unfortunately it’s also immediately inconvenient due to their parents’ intense dislike of each other and their rivalry.

With Jubilee’s audition approaching, Ridley’s anxiety spiraling out of control, and circumstances conspiring against them, Jubilee and Ridley will have to figure out if love can conquer all or if some romances are destined for tragedy in Verona Comics (2020) by Jennifer Dugan.

Find it on Bookshop.

Don’t let the cover of this one fool you, Dugan’s latest standalone novel tackles some heavy stuff wrapped in a light romance. Which is, perhaps, to be expected with a retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Lesbrary has a really thoughtful review talking about all the ways that this does in fact nod back to Romeo and Juliet and it makes a lot of sense for exactly why this story is so heavy.

The story alternates between Jubilee and Ridley’s first person narration. In addition to preparing for her audition, Jubilee also has her best friend Jayla–an accomplished Black cosplayer with her eye on FIT for college, and her mom and step-mom to keep her grounded. Jubilee has always been attracted to people of different genders but isn’t sure if that makes her bisexual or something else. And she isn’t sure if any of that “counts” when she’s only ever dated her ex-boyfriend and, now, Ridley.

Ridley, on the other hand, has no support system. He feels isolated and like even more of a failure to his parents after his failed suicide attempt and the betrayal of his last boyfriend. Worst of all, his sister Gray (the only relative Ridley likes) is across the country most of the time. In a desperate bid to stay near Gray and the family home, Ridley tells his father he has a way to get close to The Geekery’s biggest rival. Which, of course, leads to Ridley being in the very bad position of potentially spying on his new girlfriend’s family.

As much as that is to deal with, Ridley is also struggling with crippling social anxiety and chronic stress from his father’s abusive behaviors and his mother’s neglect. Ridley’s unhappiness and his anxiety are palpable in every chapter. Readers should also be warned that there is suicide ideation as well. Later, when Jubilee and Ridley’s relationship seems to have reached a breaking point, both teens also have to confront the fact they might be dealing with co-dependence issues.

While no one dies in Verona Comics, don’t expect a traditional happy ending here either as both Jubilee and Ridley take time to regroup in the wake of a relationship that often brought out the worst in them. Dugan is a great writer and brings all of the fun (and less fun) elements of the comics world to life in this inventive take on Shakespeare’s classic play.

Possible Pairings: Starry Eyes by Jennifer Bennett, Dramacon by Svetlana Chmakova, Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laekan Zea Kemp, When We Collided by Emery Lord, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

The Kingdom of Back: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Speak for the ones who will come after you, looking to you for guidance. Stay true, daughter. One day you will see it all go up in flames.”

The Kingdom of Back by Marie LuThis is a story you already know. But listen carefully, because within it is one you have never heard before:

Nannerl Mozart has one wish that she guards close, no matter how hopeless it might be; she wants to be remembered forever.

A talented musician and performer, Nannerl entrances audiences with her playing which is masterful for one so young. But the older Nannerl becomes, the less brilliant her prowess. Especially compared to her younger brother Wolfgang who has already begun to overshadow Nannerl’s achievements with his own musicality and compositions.

Watching her younger brother, it is increasingly clear that it will be Wolfgang who receives the bulk of their strict father’s praise. It will be Wolfgang living the life Nannerl desperately wants. No amount of talent is enough to allow a young girl in eighteenth-century Austria to compose her own music. Not publicly.

Working in secret by day Nannerl begins creating her own compositions beside her brother. At night she waits for a mysterious visitor from a kingdom that should be little more than a bedtime story she shares with Wolfgang. The stranger has untold powers, and he knows Nannerl’s secret wish. But wishes have a price and the cost of securing her legacy might be greater than Nannerl can bear in The Kingdom of Back (2020) by Marie Lu.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Kingdom of a Back is a standalone novel that blends evocative historical fiction with fantasy elements. As Lu explains in her author’s note, this book was inspired by the real Mozart siblings as well as the eponymous imaginary world they created together as children.

In a departure from her earlier novels, Lu stays close to historical events centering the story in Austria and the Mozart family’s tour through Europe while fantasy elements set in the Kingdom of Back take a secondary role.

Nannerl’s first person narration is introspective and thoughtful as she tries to balance her fierce affection for her brother with her growing frustrations that, merely because of her gender, she will never be able to claim the same praise and recognition that is lavished on Wolfgang. Although jealousy is certainly a factor in Nannerl’s choices throughout the novel, The Kingdom of Back is grounded firmly in the love and friendship between the siblings.

The Kingdom of Back is a meditative story about ambition and achievement, as well as the chasm that can develop between the two. While real life events lend a melancholy tone to this story, it also makes the novel all the more powerful as a rallying cry and a hopeful reminder that there is always room to strive for more. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Heartless by Marissa Meyer, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente, And I Darken by Kiersten White

Frankly in Love: A Review

Frank is a second generation Korean American. He is a senior in high school and what he calls a Limbo. Like the other Korean American kids in his community, Frank finds himself caught between his parents’ expectations and his own wants as an American teen in Southern California.

Frank is all too aware of what his parents want him to do–especially when it comes to dating (spoiler: any girl he brings home had better be Korean). The only problem is that expectations are the last thing on Frank’s mind when he falls for Brit Means who is beautiful, popular, and white.

When Frank realizes his fellow Limbo, Joy Song, is facing the same problem it seems like they have found an obvious solution: pretend to date each other. Fake dating gives Frank and Joy freedom to do what they want without disappointing their parents. But as their fake relationship brings them closer together, Frank wonders if he’s ever understood love at all in Frankly in Love (2019) by David Yoon.

Find it on Bookshop.

Frankly in Love is Yoon’s debut novel. (Yes, before you ask, he and Nicola Yoon are married!)

Frank’s first person narration toes the line between humor and sardonic wit as he shares insights into the push and pull between his life at home with his Korean immigrant parents and his identity outside of their home and community.

While the fake relationship and related chaos add a lot of levity to this story, Frank’s journey throughout the novel is heavier as he tries to figure out who he wants to be (not to mention who he wants to be with) and struggles with how best to interrogate his parents’ racism and prejudices.

Frankly in Love is a contemporary romance with zero toxic masculinity and a charcter asking hard questions about choosing your path and who you love while choosing your battles. Recommended for readers looking for a romance with humor that still skews toward literary.

Possible Pairings: The Beauty of the Moment by Tanaz Bhatena, Boys Don’t Knit by T. S. Easton, Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo, An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

Four Dead Queens: A Review

cover art for Four Dead Queens by Astrid ScholteFour queens rule Quadara. Together, yet apart just like the country’s four quadrants: Archia, Eonia, Ludia, and Toria.

Keralie is one of the best thieves in all of Toria stealing missives, technology, and  contraband from other quadrants that her employer Mackiel can sell in his black market auctions. It isn’t the life Keralie’s parents’ ever imagined for her, but it is the one she’s been groomed for since she was ten.

Even Keralie’s skills prove insufficient when her latest target–a messenger from Eonia–discovers her theft. If he can’t make his delivery, Varin’s life could be forfeit leaving him with little choice but to follow Keralie to retrieve his stolen goods.

What starts as a simple exchange soon escalates when Keralie and Varin discover a plot to assassinate all of Quadara’s queens. With no one else to trust, Keralie and Varin have to set aside their mutual distrust to form a reluctant alliance if they want to escape Mackiel and capture the assassin in Four Dead Queens (2019) by Astrid Scholte.

Four Dead Queen‘s is a standalone adventure that’s part mystery, part thriller, and part speculative fiction.

Quadara and the individual quadrants have the potential to be fascinating backdrops for this story. Unfortunately Quadara is never situated in a larger world making the tension between the quadrants and outside threats feel forced if not entirely contrived. The politics of succession and Queenly Law (the rules that dictate how the quadrants are divided and ruled) also make very little sense and further underscore the poor development of this world.

Keralie’s first-person narration gives depth to both herself and Varin who is simultaneously her foil and her love interest. Sadly both protagonists stumble through the story without anything resembling agency as they are repeatedly driven from one reactive position to the next. The rest of the characters are exceedingly flat–a problem that is especially obvious with Mackiel the supposedly charming criminal mastermind who never once manages to come across as anything but slimy and manipulative.

Four Dead Queens is suspenseful and well-paced with high action and a deep sense of urgency as Keralie and Varin hunt the assassin. In contrast, the mystery’s resolution is a bitter disappointment as much of the actual intrigue comes more from the author’s deliberate manipulation of the story’s timeline and perspective rather than true plot twists.

It’s no surprise that this story has a body count but it’s both disappointing and problematic that two of the only queer characters characters and two of the only dark-skinned characters (including one raised in secret in two small rooms) are among the first victims. Varin’s position as an Eonian with a premature death date is also troubling and surprising as he comes from a quadrant known for its medical advancements and life-prolonging technologies.

Four Dead Queens is an interesting if sometimes frustrating mystery but the fantasy world framework of Quadara is shoddily built at best. A high-concept story that fails to capitalize on a unique world and instead remains painfully predictable and opaque.

Possible Pairings: Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Rule by Ellen Goodlett, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Last of Her Name by Jessica Khoury, Divergent by Veronica Roth, The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg, The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

Wildcard: A Review

*Wildcard is the conclusion of Marie Lu’s Warcross trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with Warcross.*

cover art for Wildcard by Marie LuEmika Chen was a bounty hunter and a hacker. Now, she’s a fugitive.

Emika’s tried to hack the Warcross Championship and stop Hideo’s NeuroLink algorithm from going online. She failed.

Now Hideo is using the algorithm to prevent crimes and force criminals to turn themselves in. But with Hideo controlling almost everyone in the world, how long before he becomes corrupt himself?

Still determined to stop him, Emika enlists the help of her former teammates, the Phoenix Riders, to find a way to shut the algorithm down before its too late. But Hideo isn’t the only threat anymore.

With a bounty on her head, Emika becomes entangled with mysterious hacker Zero and the Blackcoats–a ruthless crew of vigilantes. The Blackcoats want to stop Hideo too. But they don’t care about any extra bloodshed along the way.

With nowhere to hide and no one to trust, Emika will have to decide for herself how far she’s willing to go to stop the Neurolink–especially if stopping the algorithm means sacrificing Hideo in Wildcard (2018) by Marie Lu.

Find it on Bookshop.

Wildcard is the conclusion to Lu’s high tech sci-fi duology that started in Warcross.

Wildcard picks up right where Warcross left off. With days left before the Warcross Closing ceremony and the launch of the algorithm to all Neurolink users, Emika and her friends are at a loss for how to stop what seems inevitable. Emika’s efforts to stop the algorithm are further complicated by her continued attraction to Hideo and her hope that he might be still be saved from himself.

Despite the ostensibly higher stakes, it’s hard to feel invested in Wildcard‘s plot. Even the imminence of the algorithm’s worldwide launch and Emika having to literally fight for her life at every turn failed to add any sense of urgency to the story. The shift in focus as Emika’s challenges become more internal (Should she work with Zero? Can she save Hideo?) combined with much more time spent in the Neurolink’s virtual world make the story feel that much more abstract.

Warcross had a plot that could have easily been resolved with a few honest conversations. This flaw is amplified in Wildcard and much harder to ignore. Most of the plot revolves around a fundamental, and baffling, lack of communication between characters right until a deus ex machina ending brings everything to a quick (if sometimes messy) resolution.

This duology introduces readers to a fantastic world filled with surprisingly plausible technology and a truly memorable group of characters. Despite shortcomings in the plot, Wildcard offers fans a satisfying and appropriate conclusion for a favorite cast of characters.

Possible Pairings: Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza, A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, For the Win by Cory Doctorow, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh, Strange Exit by Parker Peevyhouse, The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah, Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde, Partials by Dan Wells

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*

Royals (aka Prince Charming): A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Royals by Rachel HawkinsDaisy doesn’t want to be a princess, or even in the limelight really, but it turns out that’s hard when her older sister is practically engaged to the Crown Prince of Scotland.

After one too many near-misses with the paparazzi Daisy is whisked off to Scotland with her sister to lay low. It’s not at all how Daisy wants to spend her summer but she doesn’t have much choice in the matter. Especially when Ellie announces her engagement.

In Scotland Daisy is supposed learn how to be regal while keeping a low profile. She even has help from the royal fixer and Miles, a close friend of the royal family. But it turns out keeping a low profile is hard when the prince’s younger brother, Sebastian, is an actual human dumpster fire–he and his friends (including Miles) are literally called the Royal Wreckers–and seems hellbent on dragging Daisy into as much trouble as he possibly can.

Daisy knows she doesn’t quite fit the royal rule book with her mermaid red hair, geeky interests, and no nonsense attitude. But no one ever said she couldn’t rewrite the rules herself in Royals (2018) by Rachel Hawkins.

Find it on Bookshop.

Royals can be read as a standalone contemporary but it is also the start of a series–each following a different heroine. (Note: This book was retitled as Prince Charming for the paperback edition.)

Daisy is a delightful narrator. She is smart, witty, and she calls things as she sees them in this fast-paced story. Daisy struggles to mold herself in the image of her poised and elegant sister who seems to have been born to be a princess with hilarious results. But even royals have obligations and Daisy soon realizes that she isn’t the only one feeling pressure after her sister and the prince announce their engagement.

Daisy’s story is pure, escapist fun complete with an unexpected love interest, friend shenanigans, and many zany mishaps as Daisy learns the hard way that expectations can be misleading–especially when it comes to love.

Royals is an effervescent and cheery contemporary. I cannot wait to see what happens in book two.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo, Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks, Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy, American Royals by Katharine McGee, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Truly Madly Royally by Debbie Rigaud, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Prince in Disguise by Stephanie Kate Strohm

Warcross: A Review

“Everything’s science fiction until someone makes it science fact.”

cover art for Warcross by Marie LuEmika Chen’s life is a constant struggle. Since her father’s death she’s been drowning in debt as she tries to pay off the medical expenses and gambling debts he left behind. Emika is a stellar hacker but thanks to the arrest on her record she can’t get any jobs near a computer. Instead she works as a bounty hunter tracking down petty criminals who do stupid things like gamble on Warcross and hustling to stay ahead of the competition.

Warcross is the one place where Emika can relax. The virtual reality game is a diversion, a competition, and place where Emika can remember what she loves: coding. With an eviction notice hanging over her head it’s also a place where she can take a big risk and hack into the opening game of the Warcross Championship to try and steal an item and erase her debt.

When the hack goes spectacularly wrong Emika thinks she’s heading for a swift arrest and jail. But instead she is whisked to Tokyo where she meets Warcross’s creator–eccentric young millionaire Hideo Tanaka–and is hired to work as a spy and bounty hunter tracking down a hacker who is threatening the Warcross world.

To cover for her real mission Emika is placed in the Wardraft and becomes part of the Championship. Winning the Championship and finding the hacker could change Emika’s life. Getting too close to the truth could change the world of Warcross and beyond forever in Warcross (2017) by Marie Lu.

 Find it on Bookshop.

Warcross is the first book in Lu’s Warcross duology.

Lu has once again created a well-realized and fascinating world where virtual reality and augmented reality are plausibly integrated into everyday life. This plot-driven story is fast-paced and full of action as Emika’s investigation brings her into Tokyo as well as the virtual worlds of Warcross and the Dark World typically inhabited by criminals and hackers.

The coding and gameplay aspects of Warcross can feel convenient while more than one twist will leave readers wondering if a few frank conversations between characters could have avoided many of the novel’s main conflicts. The tension of the championship and the urgency of Emika’s investigation to track down the Warcross hacker, known only as Zero, raise the stakes enough to detract from these holes in the plot.

Warcross is filled with distinct characters from a variety of backgrounds ranging from poor Hammie, a champion Thief in Warcross who uses her winnings to support her family to DJ Ren–a champion Warcross player/French DJ sensation–and Phoenix Rider team captain Asher who is American and flies through Warcross games in virtual reality while navigating the real world in a high tech wheelchair. While Emika is immediately drawn into the camaraderie and competition surrounding Warcross (not to mention drawn to enticing and mysterious Hideo) she knows she can’t let her guard down if she wants to identify Zero and beat the other bounty hunters to the prize.

The high stakes of the Warcross championship blend well with the larger mystery of finding Zero.The excitement and twists, particularly in the second half of the novel, work well to draw readers in and help them ignore the fact that a few frank conversations could solve most if not all of Emika and Hideo’s problems.

This duology starter is filled with inventive world building, top notch characters, and provocative questions about who (if anyone) deserves a redemption arc. Warcross draws readers in with action and gaming, but where it really shines is with the thoughtful meditation on what separates heroes from villains in a world that is anything but black and white. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza, A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, For the Win by Cory Doctorow, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh, Strange Exit by Parker Peevyhouse, The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah, Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde, Partials by Dan Wells

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2017*

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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, Ink, Iron, and Glass by Gwendolyn Clare, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, 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, Elysium Girls by Kate Pentecost, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor