Truthwitch: A Review

Truthwitch by Susan DennardMagic is as common as breathing in the Witchlands. But not all witcheries are created equal as two Thread Sisters know all too well.

Safiya is a Truthwitch able to use her magic to tell when someone is lying to her while Iseult is a Threadwitch able to see the threads that bind everyone together–except for her own.

Together, they have spent years keeping Safi’s witchery a secret, knowing that it could be seen as a valuable tool or a dangerous weapon. Safi and Iseult are used to getting into trouble as they prepare for the life they’d like to lead together free of societal obligations and pressures.

When a Bloodwitch catches Safi’s scent, both girls are forced into hiding as fugitives. With the help of their witcheries and unlikely allies including a Nubrevnan captain (and Windwitch) named Merik, Safi and Iseult might be able to survive the storm that is coming. But only if they can manage to stay together in Truthwitch (2016) by Susan Dennard.

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Truthwitch is the start of Dennard’s new Witchlands series.

This book is written in alternating close third-person perspectives. The majority of the story follows Safiya and Iseult although Merik and Aeduan (the Bloodwitch) also carry key parts of the narrative.

In any ensemble book, there is the risk that one character will be more appealing than others. That risk is compounded when the character is decidedly not the center of the narrative. Given the strong theme of friendship and camaraderie, it’s easy to argue that Safi and Iseult are equally important to the story. On the other hand, in a book called Truthwitch, perhaps it isn’t surprising that the story revolves around the decidedly less interesting Safi instead of Iseult.

Many novels are based on the idea that the main character is unique or important. Safi, as a rare Truthwitch, is both. She is also, like many of these same unique and important characters, essentially the worst at what she does. Safi tries to keep her witchery a secret. She fools no one. Safi tries to save her friend. She almost gets that friend killed. In other words, Safi is reckless and thoughtless and shows almost no growth by the end of Truthwitch.

Breakneck pacing and a shoe-horned romance (plus fairly clear foreshadowing of future “ships”) flesh out the story without much nuance. While Dennard has created a complex world with well-researched details, Truthwitch never lingers long enough on any one piece to let readers appreciate these details.

Truthwitch is an interesting start to a new series sure to appeal to readers looking for new lighter fantasy fare. Ideal for readers seeking an action-heavy, plot-driven story.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Realm Breaker by Victoria Aveyard, A Season of Sinister Dreams by Tracy Banghart, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, Roar by Cora Carmack, The Reader by Traci Chee, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco, Witchlanders by Lena Coakley, Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst, Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey, The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove, Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton, The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, Iron Cast by Destiny Soria, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

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

A Gathering of Shadows: A Review

*A Gathering of Shadows is the second book in Schwab’s Shades of Magic Series which begins with A Darker Shade of Magic. As such this review contains major spoilers for book one.*

“Strength and weakness are tangled things. They look so much alike, we often confuse them, the way we confuse magic and power.”

A Gathering of Shadows FinalIt’s been four months since a smuggled stone from Black London nearly destroyed the three remaining cities that share its name. Four months since Kell tied his own life to his brother Rhy, the crown Prince of Red London, to save Rhy’s life. Four months since Kell and his unlikely ally Delilah Bard had to fight their way through the Dane twins in White London to try and save both of their worlds. Four months since Kell returned the stone to Black London along with Holland’s dying body.

Life should be returning to normal.

Rhy is recovered though the nightmare of that night  four months ago still haunt him. Kell stuggles with his guilt and the aftermath of his actions but he is reformed now–a smuggler no more–and determined to make amends. Lila, meanwhile, is trying to find her way in a foreign land in a foreign world now that she has finally left Grey London behind for Red London and its magic.

While Red London prepares for the Element Games, crowds gather for the spectacle and both Lila and Kell find themselves drawn to the games for different reasons. With old friends and allies converging in Red London, perhaps it only makes sense that something darker is waiting to claim its moment in White London.

After all, in worlds where everything has a price and magic can never really be destroyed, alliances and purposes can become very, very, messy in A Gathering of Shadows (2016) by V. E. Schwab.

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A Gathering of Shadows is the second book in Schwab’s Shades of Magic Series which begins with A Darker Shade of Magic.

A Gathering of Shadows expands the worlds introduced in book one by delving deeper into the international (and even cross-world) politics found in Red London while also bringing other empires and lands into the story. Rich descriptions help bring all of the settings, but especially Red London, vividly to life throughout the novel.

The larger story arc of the series plays out well against the backdrop of A Gathering of Shadows‘ more contained story centered around Element Games. Schwab’s intricate plotting follows various characters in close third person perspective as the novel builds to a climax that is surprising at times but ultimately satisfying.

If A Darker Shade of Magic was all about discovering that magic comes at a price, then A Gathering of Shadows explores what shapes that payment can take as characters search for redemption, validation, and even absolution in their own ways.

A Gathering of Shadows is another sophisticated fantasy with high appeal in a series that seems to only get better with each installment. A must read for fans of book one. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, Stardust by Neil Gaiman, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, Blood Magic by Tessa Gratton, The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

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

Briar Rose: A Rapid Fire Book Review

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen (2015)

Briar RoseRebecca and her sisters were always fascinated by their grandmother’s stories. Especially Sleeping Beauty. Although her sisters eventually lost interest, Rebecca never did. Years later, when Gemma is dying, Rebecca is the one who sits and listens to her tales. Rebecca is the one who hears Gemma claim that she was Briar Rose. And it is Rebecca–now a twenty-three-year-old journalist–who will follow her grandmother’s claims from their home in the US to Poland.

Yolen delivers an unlikely retelling of Sleeping Beauty in this haunting novel that blends fact with fiction. The story of Sleeping Beauty weaves together with details of the Holocaust and the brutality and horrors suffered by so many in Nazi Concentration Camps.

Originally published in 1988, parts of this novel are dated with outmoded technology and pre-Internet research. The tense and tone of Briar Rose build distance into the story as well effectively keeping readers at a remove for most of the novel. Although ultimately a story with a happy ending, Briar Rose is also imbued with sadness from the beginning even as Gemma tells her Sleeping Beauty story in flashbacks.

This isn’t a story for everyone and not a conventional retelling although elements of Sleeping Beauty do come into play with Gemma’s history as Rebecca investigates it. Recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction or are interested in World War II.

Updraft: A Review

Updraft by Fran WildeKirit Densira is counting the days until she can take her flight test and follow in her mother’s footsteps as a trader. Kirit dreams of making a name for herself as a merchant, like her mother, and flying between towers with goods to trade and acquire.

Kirit’s dreams are forever changed when she breaks Tower Law and exhibits a rare ability crucial to fighting the skymouths–monsters that can appear in the skies without warning.

With her family threatened by punishment for her crime, Kirit has no choice but to agree to train in the Spire to become a Singer and join them as part of the city’s lawmakers and enforcers.

During her training, Kirit will learn more about her city and its laws. She will also make a choice that could change her city forever. Or destroy it in Updraft (2015) by Fran Wilde.

Updraft is Wilde’s first novel and the start of a new series.

Updraft is filled with vivid descriptions that Kirit’s world to life with all of its dangers and wonder. Compared to the well-realized backdrop for the story, the character motivations often feel like thin contrivances meant to move the plot along.

Wilde has create a strange and eerie world where towers are grown from bone, monsters with gaping mouths prowl the sky, and wings are the only way to travel in a community that abandoned the ground long ago.

Updraft remains firmly focused on its characters throughout, particularly Kirit who is followed with a close third-person narration. Wilde does an excellent job of expanding the world she has created here and introducing characters that promise fascinating adventures in future installments.

Updraft is a solid and evocative fantasy novel. Recommended for readers who like their fantasy adventures to be slightly weird and their prose literary.

Possible Pairings: Witchlanders by Lena Coakley, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde, Eon by Allison Goodman, Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier, Soundless by Richelle Mead, The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier

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

A Darker Shade of Magic: A Review

“Magic bent the world. Pulled it into shape. There were fixed points. Most of the time they were places.”

A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria SchwabKell is one of the last Travelers, a magician with the coveted and closely guarded ability to travel between worlds. Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler working for the crown of Red London to dispatch correspondence between the different cities that share the same name.

Kell’s work brings him to Grey London–a dingy, dull place ruled by the increasingly mad King George III where industrialization has all but stamped out magic. There is also White London–a ruthless city where people struggle to control magic as it drains more and more from the city. There used to be Black London. No one talks about that.

Kell’s official position in the magically balanced Red London also allows him to pursue less official activities as a smuggler supplying magical artifacts to Collectors and Enthusiasts in all three Londons.

Meanwhile, Grey Londoner Delilah Bard knows that she is meant to be a pirate. Even if she is currently without a ship and reduced to working as a cut-purse for the time being. When she crosses paths with Kell, Lila knows that she has found something she never realized was missing from her life.

But magic, even small magic smuggled across borders, is a dangerous business where nothing is free. Drawn into a deadly web of magic and conspiracy, Kell and Lila will have to wok together if they want to save any of the Londons in A Darker Shade of Magic (2015) by V. E. Schwab.

Find it on Bookshop.

A Darker Shade of Magic is Schwab’s second book written for an adult audience. (She has numerous, equally wonderful YA titles published under the name Victoria Schwab.) It is also the start of her new fantasy trilogy.

A Darker Shade of Magic is an evocative fantasy novel with not one but three well-developed worlds that include historical details and logical magic conventions. For all of the characters, perhaps most literally for Kell, magic comes at a cost–one that is quite dear for some–a theme that Schwab skillfully explores throughout the novel.

Despite the dangers and dark elements to be found here, A Darker Shade of Magic is also imbued with a sense of wonder for both magic and exploration as new worlds open before Kell and Lila’s eyes.

Kell and Lila are reckless characters who are dangerously charming. They are also shrewd and often jaded, particularly Lila. These traits make it all the sweeter to read about their evolving bond and to see this unlikely pair work together against some very dangerous enemies. Witty banter throughout is an added bonus in this story filled with sharp observations and vivid prose.

A Darker Shade of Magic strikes the perfect balance between urgency and introspection with a fast-paced plot and characters who often operate in the grey areas of morality. Seeing the story from both Kell and Lila’s perspectives adds another element to this intricate story that hints at marvelous things to come in the rest of the series. Highly recommended for fans of both urban and high fantasy.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, Stardust by Neil Gaiman, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, Blood Magic by Tessa Gratton, The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

The Accidental Highwayman: A Review

The Accidental Highwayman by Ben TrippIn eighteenth century Christopher “Kit” Bristol thinks he has finally found legitimate and respectable work as a gentleman’s gentleman. Yes, he sometimes misses his dramatic life working in a traveling show. Of course riding an old mare into town for errands can’t compare to riding a fine horse in a ring for trick spectacles. But Kit has left that life behind. He is a servant now with stable work in a lovely manor. It matters little that the manor is largely on the brink of falling apart.

Unfortunately, Kit’s visions of grandeur and legitimacy are rudely shattered one night when he learns that his master’s odd habits are hiding a secret. Kit has unknowingly been working for Whistling Jack–a notorious highwayman who is wanted by both the authorities and other, far more dangerous, foes.

In a fit of loyalty, Kit dons his master’s clothes hoping to buy Whistling Jack precious time after the highwayman is gravely injured. The deed is futile. It also drags Kit into the middle of his master’s unfinished quest–a fantastical mission that Kit is ill-prepared to complete.

Tasked with stopping the marriage of King George III to a fairy princess named Morgana, Kit will have to plumb the depths of his ingenuity and search for unlikely allies if he hopes to survive let alone succeed in The Accidental Highwayman: Being the Tale of Kit Bristol, His Horse Midnight, a Mysterious Princess, and Sundry Magical Persons Besides (2014) by Ben Tripp.

The Accidental Highwayman is Tripp’s first novel for young adults. It also includes delightful illustrations by the author.

This book is an enjoyable fantasy romp complete with fairies, goblings (not to be confused with goblins!) and a fair bit of whimsy. Tripp does an excellent job of combing a historical fiction sensibility with a fantasy story to create a new type of fairytale with an 18th century background. Tripp’s illustrations also add to the playful quality of the story.

Although sometimes predictable, The Accidental Highwayman is a solid fantasy adventure that will appeal to readers looking for action as much as they are humor or romance. This rollicking story is but the first in an anticipated series that promises numerous adventures for both Kit and Morgana.

Thanks to Esther Bochner at MacMillan, you can also check out a clip from the audiobook of The Accidental Highwayman, narrated by Steve West: https://soundcloud.com/macaudio-2/the-accidental-highwayman-by-ben-tripp-audiobook-excerpt

Possible Pairings: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco, Stardust by Neil Gaiman, The Princess Bride by William Goldman, Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix, The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherine Valente, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Candide by Voltaire, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Vicious: A Review

“The world resists, when you break its rules.”

Vicious by V. E. SchwabVictor and Eli have been competing with each other since the moment they met. Victor could easily surpass Eli, of course. But he recognizes the same reckless ambition in Eli and, Victor thinks, the same broken pieces that Victor can’t quite fix in himself. In a world where so many things are boring Eli, at least, is interesting.

Eli proves to be especially interesting in their senior year of college when their shared thesis research about adrenaline and near-death experiences reveals that under the right circumstances it may be possible to develop ExtraOrdinary abilities.

Their fates tangle even further when experiments with that research go horribly wrong.

Ten years later Victor and Eli find themselves on opposite sides of a battle for power. While Victor breaks out of prison determined to exact revenge on the friend who betrayed him, Eli is on a mission of his own to eliminate every ExtraOrdinary person that he can.

Victor and Eli both know a final meeting is inevitable. They both know only one is likely to survive. But even as they move inexorably closer to that final confrontation, it’s unclear who will emerge the hero. And who will forever be remembered as the villain in Vicious (2013) by V. E. Schwab.*

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Vicious is an intricately plotted story of revenge and the not-quite redemption of Victor Vale. With chapters labeled “ten years ago” and “last night” (among other times) readers are brought closer and closer to Victor and Eli’s dramatic showdown. Flashbacks interspersed with the present story explain the rivalry between the two men while also providing valuable insight into their characters.

Schwab expertly navigates the murky area between right and wrong as readers (and perhaps the characters themselves) are left wondering who, if anyone, is the actual hero of the story.  With a plot exploring the idea that opposing a self-proclaimed hero–even for very good, very right reasons–might make someone a villain by default, Vicious is still populated with a number of surprisingly likable characters.

Vicious pushes the boundaries of conventional superhero tropes to take this story in a new and original direction. Readers looking for the next great anti-hero or fans who always cheer a little louder for the bad guy will definitely want to give Vicious a try.

*V. E. Schwab is the alter ego of YA author Victoria Schwab. This book is marketed for adult readers. It would be great for older teen readers but younger readers should be prepared for more mature language and some violence.

Possible Pairings: Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst, Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch, The Brokenhearted by Amelia Kahaney, Proxy by Alex London, Fracture by Megan Miranda, Watchmen by Alan Moore, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, The Superhero Handbook by Michael Powell, If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio, Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, Never Never by Brianna Shrum, The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2013*

Little Brother: A Review

Little Brother by Cory DoctorowI don’t know what I was expecting when I opened Little Brother (2008) by Cory Doctorow. What I do know is that those expectations were largely colored by Doctorow’s appearances in various web-comic-strips on XKCD as a red cape wearing blogger who flies around in a hot air balloon.

Anyway, Marcus Yallow is a senior in San Francisco in the near future. He goes to Cesar Chavez High School which makes him one of the most surveilled people in the world. There’s a terrorist attack, he’s held captive in a Guantanamo Bay-esque prison, he’s released and then he decides to use his hacker skillz to get even and reclaim his city from the sinister clutches of Homeland Security.

And as action-packed as that sounds, the book never became more than a mildly interesting bit of tedious reading for me.

I’m fairly tech savvy, and I do worry about privacy and the like, but after finishing Little Brother the only piece of tech-related advice I retained from the story was that crypto is really awesome. Doctorow tries to embed useful information into the story, but it is either too basic to be interesting or too specialized and esoteric to make sense.

I’m not a teenager and I come from a liberal household and I was living in Greenwich Village during 9/11. I found it irritating that Doctorow’s character’s seemed to operate in a very binary way. Young people (for the most part) opposed the Department of Homeland Security while older people (for the most part) blithely accepted martial law. Really?

Finally, the real reason I disliked this book is that it just was not well put together. With all due respect to the importance of this novel’s subject matter, the writing was far from impressing. The descriptions of technology were almost always too long (and often too technical) to be seamlessly integrated into a novel.

The novel’s continuity verged on non-existent. For instance, Marcus makes a point of mentioning in the early pages that he is wearing boots for easy removal at metal detectors. Yet when he is released he receives his sneakers back with clean clothes. The core of the story–about Marcus’ missing friend–is left hanging for vast spans of the plot. Doctorow is at pains to create a core group for Marcus only to have them all removed from the story by the halfway point and then haphazardly mentioned in a rushed ending.

Marcus was also a bit annoying as a narrator–particularly when in the company of his girlfriend. Realistic depictions of teens aside, I was hoping for a bit more from characters (teen or otherwise) in a novel which is grounded in such extraordinary circumstances.

Also, and this isn’t really the book’s fault, but I truly disliked the cover.