Stain: A Review

In the wake of a war that literally separated night from day, Lyra is born once upon a nightmare in the kingdom of Eldoria where it is perpetually day filled with beauty, warmth, and light. Night still reigns in Nerezeth, an underground kingdom filled with darkness, cold, and creatures drawn to both.

Painfully pale and too sensitive to light to ever step outside, Lyra is able to soothe or entrance with her voice although she is unable to form words. When her aunt, who is as ruthless as she is ambitious, moves to steal the throne a witch saves Lyra and secretly raises her disguised as a boy called Stain.

To save her kingdom and the prince of night, Lyra will have to reclaim her identity and make herself known without her voice in Stain (2019) by A. G. Howard.

In this standalone version of “The Princess and the Pea” instead of being too delicate to sleep on a pea under a tower of mattresses, Lyra must prove herself equal to the violence and brutality that the prince of night routinely faces.

Within the framework of “The Princess and the Pea” Howard adds myriad fairy tale elements including the aforementioned wicked aunt, evil cousins (Lustacia, Wrathalyne, and Avaricette), a stolen voice and impersonation plot reminiscent of “The Little Mermaid,” and more making for a unique if crowded cast of characters and a sometimes convoluted plot. Vivid writing and vibrant descriptions bring Lyra’s world, particularly Nerezeth, to life in all of its monstrous glory.

Stain is a sensuous retelling set in a distinctly gothic world perfect for fans of the author and readers seeking darker retellings.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, Stealing Snow by Danielle Paige, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West

*A more condensed version of this review was published in the Winter 2018 issue of School Library Journal*

Realm of Ruins: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Please let me be powerful.”

cover art for Realm of Ruins by Hannah WestTrouble follows Valory Braiosa wherever she goes.

Raised in Calgoran during the Age of the Accords, Valory is surrounded by elicrin magic and elicromancers. As a descendant of the legendary Queen Bristal and King Anthony, everyone assumes Valory will become a powerful elicromancer herself. But now she is almost at the end of her time at the Academy with no signs of power manifesting. With her chances of receiving an elicrin stone from the Water dwindling, Valory is forced to consider her greatest fear: a life without magic or power.

Touching the Water is no guarantee of receiving an elicrin stone. Even with careful vetting from the Academy candidates may still be deemed unworthy and drowned in the Water, their bodies lost forever. Valory’s attempt to save her cousin from such a fate proves disastrous. In the aftermath her cousin is dead, the Water is gone, and Valory now has dangerous power no one understands and which Valory can’t control.

Branded a murderer and a rogue, Valory is forced to travel far from home to try and clear her name. Across Nissera it’s apparent that a dark presence is rising and Valory might be the only one powerful enough to stop it. As danger mounts and loyalties are tested, Valory will have to embrace her power to face this danger. But all power comes at a price and this time the cost may be steeper than Valory can pay in Realm of Ruins (2018) by Hannah West.

Real of Ruins is the second book in West’s Nissera Chronicles which begins with the companion novel Kingdom of Ash and Briars.

Realm of Ruins is set one hundred years after the events of West’s debut novel Kingdom of Ash and Briars and follows a new generation of characters. An elaborate family tree at the start of the book and sly asides throughout offer nods to events of the first book although this novel can easily be read as a standalone. (A companion short story, Fields of Fire, can also be read for free online.)

Valory is as pragmatic as she is reckless. Although the implications of her new power are obvious she is still quick to jump to conclusions and easily falls prey to the manipulations of others while she tries to understand her dramatically changed circumstances.

Her efforts to clear her name are soon sidelined as she learns about the emergence of a dangerous new threat known as the Moth King or the Lord of the Elicromancers. Drawn into a hunt to stop this new enemy Valory plays a part in side plots that draw heavily from elements of Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. West manages a convoluted and sometimes bloated plot admirably bringing diverging threads together to explore larger themes of power, collective memory, and the dangers of both if left unchecked.

While Valory is initially a slave to circumstance, forced repeatedly into reactive positions as her situation shifts from bad to worse, Realm of Ruins is largely about agency and choice. It is only when Valory chooses to embrace her power–and the difficult decisions she must make about how to wield it–that she is able to regain control of her fate and try to claim what she sees as her rightful power in the realm.

Realm of Ruins is an intricate and original fantasy. West blends her unique magic system with a vivid world and fairy tale elements to create a story that is entirely fascinating. Recommended for fans of fairy tales, high fantasy, and bloody revolution.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, Frostblood by Elly Blake, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, Reign the Earth by A. C. Gaughen, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Stain by A. G. Howard, Furyborn by Claire Legrand

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

Kingdom of Ash and Briars: A Review

cover art Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah WestBristal’s life changes forever when she is kidnapped. Her humble life as a kitchen maid ends the moment she survives touching the Water and receives an elicrin stone.

Now Bristal is an elicromancer—one of only three people over the centuries to have survived the Water intact.

Immortal and able to wield powerful magic, Bristal is meant to take her place as a peacekeeper and kingmaker. With so much potential power at her command Bristal will have to accept her magic and embrace her destiny despite the dangers in Kingdom of Ash and Briars (2016) by Hannah West.

Kingdom of Ash and Briars is West’s debut novel and the first book in the Nissera Chronicles which continues in Realm of Ruins. (A companion short story, Fields of Fire, can also be read for free online.)

Kingdom of Ash and Briars introduces a richly layered world with a unique magic system. West’s novel is informed by numerous fairy tales (most notably Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty) positioning a reluctant Bristal in the role of fairy godmother.

Bristal’s ability to shape shift and disguise herself informs much of the story as she begins to change her appearance to manipulate individuals and, indeed, entire courts pushing Nissera toward peace and prosperity. These secondary stories play out on a larger stage as Bristal comes to terms with her newfound immortality and learns to control her magic while facing an elicromancer who would rather rule over humans than serve and protect them.

While not as all-seeing as her mentor, Brack (a character I wish we had seen more of in this novel), Bristal is patient and introspective willing to put in the time and sacrifice to do what is needed for Nissera. Her thoughtful planning and analytical nature are nice counterpoints to an otherwise frenetic plot and an often predictable villain. Romance enters the story late in the game with a lasting impact for generations to come.

Kingdom of Ash and Briars is a rich and original fantasy with a memorable world readers will want to revisit. Recommended for readers who enjoy complicated plots, wheels within wheels, and unlikely heroes.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta, The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale, Stain by A. G. Howard, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Snow Like Ashes by Sarah Raasch

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

The Forbidden Wish: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“If you’re not free to love, you’re not free at all.”

cover art for The Forbidden Wish by Jessica KhouryZahra is one of the last shaitan, the most powerful of the jinn able to command all of the elements. Her power as a conjurer is unparalleled. But even that isn’t enough to save the queen who dared to befriend her. Instead her city is destroyed leaving Zahra trapped inside her lamp among the ruins she helped create.

Five hundred years pass until Aladdin finds her lamp and brings Zahra into a world where magic is forbidden and jinn are feared above all else.

When the King of the Jinn offers Zahra a chance to win freedom from her lamp, she draws Aladdin into a dangerous web of court politics and brewing rebellion to try and accomplish her task.

As Zahra comes closer to winning her freedom, she realizes that she has also grown closer to Aladdin. A human and a jinni can have no future together—not when their love is forbidden—but still Zahra cannot change her heart. In a world where every wish has a price, Zahra will have to decide if her freedom is worth the steep cost of her heart in The Forbidden Wish (2018) by Jessica Khoury.

The Forbidden Wish is a thoughtful and inventive retelling of a story you may think you already know inside and out.

Zahra’s narration is powerful and enthralling as she struggles to reconcile her position as a jinn with her own wants and desires. She holds no illusions about Aladdin. She has seen a thousand and one masters in her time and she expects Aladdin to be no better. But instead of a master and his jinni, Zahra is surprised to realize that Aladdin treats her as an equal–a shocking dynamic that plays out against a backdrop of political unrest and brewing rebellion as both Zahra and Aladdin are drawn into a princess’s fight to claim her throne.

When their dangerous friendship becomes something even stronger, Zahra has to confront the painful reality that her freedom might come at the cost of losing Aladdin forever. Zahra’s narrative is imbued with powerful feminist themes as she begins to understand that she has everything she needs to save herself without any bargains or rescue.

The Forbidden Wish is a lush and vibrant story that is as romantic as it is empowering. A must-read for fans of fairy tale retellings and nuance fantasy. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Bound by Blood and Sand by Becky Allen, Becoming Jinn by Lori Goldstein, Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton, Ella, Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

My Plain Jane: A Review

My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi MeadowsYou might think you know Jane Eyre’s story: her childhood privation, her governess position at Thornfield Hall, and her immediate attraction to the dark and brooding Mr. Rochester. You’d be wrong. Mostly because you haven’t heard about the ghosts. Don’t worry, though, My Plain Jane (2018) by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows has you covered.

This standalone alternate history novel inserts teenage aspiring author Charlotte Brontë into the world of her own making (with the addition of ghosts) as she chronicles the life of her best friend at Lowood, Jane Eyre, as inspiration for her first novel about the life of one “Jane Frere.”

Charlotte’s authorial ambitions and Jane’s plans to become a governess are thwarted when Jane’s ability to see ghosts comes to the attention of Alexander Blackwood, an agent for the once prestigious Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits. Determined to help his mentor restore the Society to its past glory, Alexander is keen to recruit Ms. Eyre as an agent–even if it means taking off his ever-present mask and accepting help from the overly eager Ms. Brontë and her screw up brother. This simple task spirals into a madcap story of ghosts, possession, revenge, and murder as Charlotte, Jane, and Alexander must set aside their differences to solve the mysteries of Thornfield Hall, help the Society (and the ghosts), and maybe even save the king of England in the process.

Narrated by Charlotte, Jane, and Alexander in alternating chapters My Plain Jane uses Jane Eyre as a loose framework for the plot which is populated with familiar characters from both the classic novel and history as well as numerous Easter eggs including a likely explanation for the origins of Charlotte’s chosen pen name and excerpts from Jane Eyre as seen in Charlotte’s trusty notebook.

My Plain Jane blends fact with fiction in a humorous story that offers a gentler and more hopeful outcome for Charlotte and her siblings along with a more plausible ending for anyone who ever wondered why Jane Eyre would marry a man twice her age after his first wife is discovered in the attic. A must-read for fans of My Lady Jane or Jane Eyre and a fun alternative for fans of paranormal romances.

Possible Pairings: Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, The Princess Bride by William Goldman, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevemer

*A more condensed version of this review was published the March 2018 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

Everywhere You Want to Be: A Review

cover art Everywhere You Want to Be by Christina JuneMatilda “Tilly” Castillo is used to doing what’s expected of her. But after almost losing her chance to be a professional dancer forever after an injury, Tilly knows she has to take her chance now or lose her dreams forever.

She has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to join a dance troupe in New York City for the summer which could be her best chance to make things happen. Her mother also thinks it will be Tilly’s last hurrah as a dancer before she starts at Georgetown in the fall. But her mother doesn’t need to know that Tilly deferred her admission for a year. At least not until finishes the summer and proves she can make a living as a dancer.

Armed with her vintage red sunglasses and a promise to visit her abuela often in New Jersey, Tilly is ready to take New York by storm. What she doesn’t count on is the fierce rivalry she’ll encounter with another dancer or Paolo–a handsome drummer from her past–surprisingly spending the summer in New York himself.

Over the course of a summer filled with new experiences, loves, and adventure Tilly will have to decide if she wants to follow the path her mother has laid out for her or venture in a new direction to follow her dreams in Everywhere You Want to Be (2018) by Christina June.

Everywhere You Want to Be is June’s sophomore novel and a contemporary riff on Little Red Riding Hood. It is a companion to her debut It Started With Goodbye (a contemporary retelling of Cinderella).

Tilly’s first person narration is thoughtful and quirky as she takes in all of the sights and sounds that New York has to offer. She is a pragmatic heroine who is willing to dream big and work hard to get to where she wants as a professional dancer. Her new friendships and budding romance offer the perfect counterpoint to her escalating rivalry with another dancer.

Everywhere You Want to Be is a perfect summer read. An ode to the big city, big dreams, and growing up.

Possible Pairings: American Panda by Gloria Chao, City Love by Susane Colasanti, Bunheads by Sophie Flack, The Romantics by Leah Konen, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, Summer in the Invisible City by Juliana Romano

Fire and Hemlock: A (ReRead) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Polly Whittacker is nineteen and preparing to return to college after visiting her grandmother over break. She has a flatmate, a boyfriend, and all of the other things she would expect as a college student. It’s ordinary but it feels like enough.

That is until Polly stares at the picture that’s hung above her bed for as long as she can remember. Here, now, of course, Polly knows that “Fire and Hemlock” is just a photograph of some hay bails burning with a hemlock plant in the foreground. But when she was younger didn’t the picture used to have figures dancing and racing around the fire?

The more Polly remembers about the painting, the more she realizes that her memories of the past ten years aren’t quite right either. She has the ordinary set, the ones she always thought were true. But if she thinks back far enough and hard enough, Polly starts to remember another set of memories from a very different, very not ordinary life.

It all started nine years ago when Polly accidentally crashed a funeral and met an odd cellist named Thomas Lynn. Her friendship with Mr. Lynn took the form of fantastical letters, exchanged books, and one very odd visit to his flat in London. Those memories are easy to hold onto once they start to come back.

But something else happened the last time they met. Something worse. And now, here, Polly knows that she and Tom are inextricably tied together–maybe as friends and maybe as more. But Polly won’t have the chance to figure any of that out unless she can gather her memories and figure out not just how to get back to Tom but how to save him in Fire and Hemlock (1985) by Diana Wynne Jones.

I originally reviewed Fire and Hemlock in 2007 just a few months after I started blogging when I first read the novel. Even a decade later I still think about Polly and Tom all the time and almost since the moment I finished it, this book has held a place as one of my most favorite books of all time.

I read this book again in 2017 and was thrilled to see that it absolutely stands up to closer readings. If you can, get your hands on the edition I like to above–it has one of the best covers this book has ever gotten, includes an introduction from Garth Nix, and features an essay Jones wrote about writing this novel–something she rarely talked about in interviews.

Fire and Hemlock is a retelling of Tam Lin, a meditation on what it means to be a hero, a sweeping romance, and one of the best fantasies you’ll ever read. I still haven’t read all of Jones’ novels, the thought of running out is a bit too depressing so I try to keep a few in my figurative back pocket. But if you have to pick just one to read, consider starting here.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, Entwined by Heather Dixon, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper, Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, , The Glass Casket by Templeman McCormick, Beauty by Robin McKinley, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel