Tag Archives: romance

Book Review: Quick Thoughts on Blue Lily, Lily Blue

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and reading levels.

This book… I struggled through a little bit. And I don’t know why. I don’t know what caused it. But I suspect the fault is somehow mine and not the book’s. It took me more than a month. I started it sometime around January 9 and didn’t finish till February 16, and you see how long it’s taken me to even begin the review. I love Maggie Steifvater’s writing no less. I love Henrietta and its surrounding settlements and wilds no less. I love these characters no less, and I may have found new favorites in this book. (“She drifted toward the bedroom, on her way to have a bath or take a nap or start a war.” That’s the moment I decided I would love this character despite her very glaring faults. And then of course “I AM JESSE DITTLEY. DID YOU NEVER EAT YOUR GREENS?” Maybe not as many of them as I should have done, Jesse, and I’m sorry, Jesse.) I still sent a flurry of photographs of fantastic quotes that spoke to me to my friend Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master (or at least took the pictures. Did I send them to you, Gwen?).

I don’t know why it took me so long.

This book does not so narrowly focus on a single one of the quintet the way that Dream Thieves did. We are given glimpses into each character’s psyche, though perhaps Blue’s and Adam’s most vividly as each has a more personal quest (or two) here that intersects with the search for Glendower.

This story is about madness and sanity. This is about magic and mundane, past and present and future. It is about the line and the crossover between these “divisions.”

This is about friendship and family and love: the different expressions of each, the irrevocability of each, the growth and loss of each.

Like in the last book, the prologue is creatively laid out. There are three parts and three perspectives to the prologue: Above, Between, Below. This pattern was not repeated in the epilogue, and I was a little surprised and upset that it did not—but not really, because the epilogue. Three has always been and is explicitly an important number for this story. Which makes me wonder and worry about the five in our quintet. One of whom, I suppose, is already dead, so four. That’s still one too many, but I suppose if the prophecy of book one cannot be outrun or outmaneuvered: three. Oh gosh! Is this a series about winnowing down to three, about the sacrifices necessary to make three?

As I’m sitting down to write this review, and skimming back through the book, and thinking about all that I read, I’m falling more in love with this book. I really can’t wait to finish this series so that I can reread this series (one more book to go!).  It didn’t hurt me as much as the previous book did do, but the quest moves forward, and the players advance, coming out of the shadows.  This might be a set-up book, but I expect the final moves of the game will be bone-chilling in the best way.

Update: I stumbled back into The Raven Boys after writing this review, and that book at least is every bit as magical and wonderful and relaxing and awe-inspiring to re-read as I hoped it would be.

****

Stiefvater, Maggie. The Raven Cycle, Book 3: Blue Lily, Lily Blue. New York: Scholastic, 2015. First published 2014.

This review is not endorsed by Maggie Stiefvater or Scholastic, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: Dream Thieves: I Couldn’t Wait, and I Didn’t Wait (Long) Afterward

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Click to visit the publisher's teachers' page for links to order and summary.Note: I try not to do so, but this time, I just couldn’t resist: I started reading the next book in this series before finishing my review of this book, so there may be some bleed from book three into my review of book two. But I can definitely tell you that I loved book two.

I started this second book in The Raven Cycle pretty immediately after finishing the first, which is usually for me an accolade for the previous book, but The Dream Thieves I loved even more than The Raven Boys. The only reason I think that I didn’t continue on to book three straightaway after putting The Dream Thieves down is because a few books that I had been waiting for were released (ironically, I have not started the one that I paused this series to read, because I fell into a deep well of favorite rereads while waiting for that book to actually arrive—thinking of course that I’d be able to put those rereads down in the middle).

I was a bit surprised that I loved The Dream Thieves so because Ronan, arguably the primary protagonist here, is spikier than I usually like my characters, though in this story we got to see past some of that caustic, tattooed armor to the mushy, homesick, heartsick center—the Ronan that Gansey knew before and which the books reference rather frequently.

The story begins, “A secret is a strange thing. There are three kinds of secrets,” and the epilogue begins that way too. I would have been all over that if I hadn’t been hearing so forcefully the echoes of “The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.” I remember my burbling excitement when I first realized the circular echo that Rothfuss was employing in The Name of the Wind and then used again in The Wise Man’s Fear. Rothfuss definitely did it first (The Name of the Wind was published in 2008), but I want to believe—and do believe—that I’d have been as excited to see Stiefvater use language this way and employ this particular device as I was to see Rothfuss do so if I had seen Stiefvater’s first. It is a beautiful technique and a wonderful way to frame a story and a trick that requires a great deal of finesse and mastery.

Without dropping lots of quotes into this review, I really can’t explain to you why I have come to so love Stiefvater’s prose, her poignant observations and vivid, succinct images. While reading book three, I have taken so many pictures of wonderful lines that I wanted to remember. For this book, I took just one for this line: “His mind was a box he tipped out at the end of his shifts.” That line. I get that line. It captures a feeling that I never would have thought to describe so, but it describes that feeling with such cutting accuracy that I immediately conjure the feeling, the aches and pains and exhaustion.

The Dream Thieves introduces us to more magic. Such wonderful, awesome, terrifying magic. Magic that’s difficult to control, that comes at a terrible price.

While The Raven Boys, I’d be comfortable handing off to a mature 13 year old, this book introduces some darker and more mature topics: homosexuality, drugs, explosive, uncontrollable anger, suicide, murder, more of a romantic subplot, redemption, identity, love in its many forms…. This is a book for an older teen: maybe 14. Maybe. I asked Gwen whose opinion on such matters I trust, and she guessed maybe better to introduce the book to 15 or 16 year olds. As she said, there’s a lot of violence in this book, and an appreciation of the “shades of violence” is important to an understanding of this book’s plot and themes.

*****

Stiefvater, Maggie. The Raven Cycle, Book 2: The Dream Thieves. New York: Scholastic, 2014. First published 2013.

This review is not endorsed by Maggie Stiefvater or Scholastic, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: Maybe Too Much in Too Little of The Raven Boys

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Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle is another recommendation from Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master. She already you might remember introduced me to Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. I left that book enamored with Stiefvater’s writing and happy to try more.

The Raven Cycle—or at least the first book in the series, The Raven Boys—is set here, in Virginia, not more than a few hours’ drive from me, and in the same mountains that I call home. Another friend of mine who doesn’t even know Gwen raves to me about these books too. She’s a local. She says that she knows the mountains that Stiefvater describes and communities like Henrietta and loves how well she has captured the atmosphere of this region.

Well, I expected to like—no, I expected to love this series. When I found out that we were dealing with Welsh mythology, I expected to love it even more. I expected to fall hard.

And I fell. I texted Gwen reactions when my feelings could not be contained and my poor mother got snapped at when she quipped at me for rebuking one of the characters aloud (sorry, Mom). But I didn’t fall as hard as I would have liked to do, and I think I know why:

This hit buttons—different buttons—for Gwen, Katie, and I. It contains independent story threads and independent goals from at least four point of view characters—and the background characters, those who don’t get to narrate, are reluctant to be background characters; how could they be when every woman in the Sargent household is larger than life and every member of Gansey’s found family is inseparable from the others? The story tiptoes along the blurred lines of several different genres: fantasy quest, romance, ghost story, realistic fiction bordering on issue book for grounding…. It was—perhaps—too much to put into one book. There’s something of this book that reminds me of a television season written when the writers expect to be cancelled.

This series is shelved in romance in our store, but it seems an odd choice. It begins with the promise of a true love, and then a second promise that Blue is either Gansey’s true love or his killer (jury’s out on that one), but it feels as if Stiefvater was least interested in the romance in this series. Or maybe I was least interest in the romance. I see the prophecies about Blue and her true love to be like the pressures I feel and see that are slowly killing the population’s ability to have a platonic relationship with members of the opposite sex. It almost seems to me that the romance and the prophecies exist perhaps primarily because of the pressure exerted on writers to include romance and love triangles in their teen fiction.

I would put this in fantasy and choose to focus on the quest and hope that it inspires people to pick up dowsing rods and wander the woods around my home instead of hoping that it inspires girls to long for two boys competing for their attention.

I feel like I’ve come down hard on this book, that I’m focusing too much on what I didn’t like and not enough on the fact that I did tear through this book, I did long to return to it when I had to put it down, did read it whenever I had a moment, and did get emotionally invested enough in the characters to chide them aloud and be hit with at least one reveal hard enough to leave me reeling—even if I sensed that some reveal was coming.

I just wanted more time–more time to spend on the individual threads of this story and with the individual narrators of this story.  Luckily, there are another three books.  I finished this book on September 24, and I’m already anxiously awaiting the return of book 2 to my store’s stock so that I can return to Henrietta.

****

Stiefvater, Maggie. The Raven Cycle, Book 1: The Raven Boys. New York: Scholastic, 2013. First published 2012.

This review is not endorsed by Maggie Stiefvater or Scholastic, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: Atmosphere and Subtlety and Poetry in The Scorpio Races

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I was a horse fanatic who grew up reading all of Marguerite Henry’s books, My Friend Flicka, National Velvet, The Pony Pals, and dabbling in The Saddle Club. Pretty much since the introduction of Harry Potter to my life, I’ve read fewer horse books and more fantasy books and epic quests. Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races combined these two genres and gave me more than either in some ways. This story takes place on the fictional island of Thisby at an indeterminate time (though because of the mention of women’s suffrage movement I can place it probably somewhere between the early 1800s and early 1900s presumably off the coast of the U.K. for the capaill uisce are a British myth and the name is borrowed from the Irish. The capaill uisce or water horses are sea creatures that can come on land and take on more equine features and natures when they do, but they are believed to be faster and are more vicious, eating flesh and blood instead of hay and oats. Iron and red ribbons and bells and knots in their manes can all be used to curb some of the capaill uisces’ power and make them less menacing and more manageable, but none of these is all-powerful, and a capall uisce will always be dangerous.

Every autumn the bravest of the men of Thisby capture, train, and race the water horses along the beach, where the siren song of the ocean is loudest and the capaill uisce are most unpredictable and dangerous. This year—driven by poverty and a belief that running in or winning the race may change her circumstances—Kate “Puck” Connolly has entered as the first woman and on the first land horse to ever race among the capaill uisce.

Ostensibly this is a story about the races but it is more the story of the islanders and particularly the racers—particularly Kate and Sean Kendrick. Sean is the four-time returning champion who trains thoroughbreds and water horses to race and loves the mount from which his father once fell while racing. Corr did not eat Sean’s father, but he couldn’t save him either. Sean needs to win to be able to buy Corr and to leave the service of the stable owner Malvern.

Kate is a woman in a man’s role, but she sacrifices none of her femininity, none of herself in order to race.

In Kate, I believe Sean sees some of himself, the same love and understanding of horses, the same bravery. He reaches out to her, and the two form an unlikely partnership.

I have been feeling overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of romance in especially teen literature of late, and Stiefvater here snuck in a budding romance so subtle and so sweet and so understated that I forgave her and even rooted for the pairing. I don’t think that’s a spoiler only because of the pervasiveness of romance in teen literature which seems to dictate that if there is a male and a female protagonist in the same story they will inevitably get together. There’s a kiss, but gratefully there’s nothing more to make me reluctant to recommend this to younger readers. This will be a book I’m putting in the hands of the middle schoolers who are reading at a higher level without fearing the wrath of the (almost) most conservative parents.

Stiefvater pulled me in with her poetic prose, her love and understanding of horses, which for me was nostalgic—not only for the literature that I grew up on but also for my own childhood, much of which was spent horseback, loving and learning to understand horses.

Stiefvater relates to Thisby itself as a character and it’s hard to argue with her on that point; The Scorpio Races is an atmospheric book, one that makes you a part of the circles and relationships of its characters. It’s a difficult thing to describe if you’ve never experienced that sort of embrace and envelopment from a book. It’s a difficult thing to achieve, and a sense that is ignored or overlooked or slacked off by many writers. It was something my high school English teacher discussed in reference to Thomas Hardy and Return of the Native (which is not a book I particularly enjoyed, but it seems worth mentioning if only because this is the level of prowess I sense in Stiefvater—and if I didn’t enjoy my fling with Hardy it makes him no less revered).

I recognize that perhaps a great deal of this book’s appeal to me is nostalgic and personal, but it is nonetheless something different, something magical, and something subtle.  I’ve already picked up another book of hers to see if that magic extends beyond what is nostalgic–and I’m hopeful that it will.

*****

Stiefvater, Maggie. The Scorpio Races. New York: Scholastic, 2013. First published 2011.

This review is not endorsed by Maggie Stiefvater or Scholastic, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Depth and Darkness Beneath the Fluff in Once Upon A Marigold

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157055Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris is a story of family, friendship, love, magic, and fate. For months now my roommate whenever I’ve said that I need something lighthearted and fluffy has thrust this book at me, and several times now I’ve ignored her. This time, it came to mind when I was looking for such a book, and I requested it from her.

Once Upon a Marigold plays with fairy tale and fantasy character tropes but maybe not with gender as much as I would like. As trope-bent fairy tales go, it is more original than many if still fairly predictable, and that I greatly appreciated.

The protagonist is a young boy found by a bachelor troll in the woods, who tricks that troll into keeping him rather than returning him to his overbearing family and rule-dominated childhood. Chris grows up into a clever, helpful, inventive teen, who begins to realize that there is much of the world that he has not seen and is especially interested in the royal family upon which he spies through his telescope. He is especially interested in the bookish, brunette princess who lives under the curse of being able to read the thoughts of anyone who touches her—so that most people avoid doing so.

He strikes up a burgeoning friendship with the princess via carrier pigeon, but this only increases his desire for interaction with other humans. He leaves his adoptive father for the castle in search of a human experience, where he encounters both the best and worst of humanity and uncovers a dastardly plot that he feels that he—as a good friend—must foil.

Without giving too much of the plot away, this is a story of improbable happy endings—that are still fairly predictable, because this is not the type of story that I ever worried would end unhappily—and I think that would have been true even if it hadn’t been touted to me as lighthearted and fluffy.

There’s enough intrigue and enough danger here to keep me interested, enough that is difficult—marriage arrangements and broken families—that I would avoid giving reading it to a very young child, but it might be a good book for those on the cusp of middle school, just beginning to explore what is more dangerous and what is more disturbing but unwilling yet to relinquish princesses and magic and happily ever afters. Whether or not such children exist, I’m not sure.

This is the first in a series, but neither my roommate nor I yet have the second. The story stands fairly well on its own, only the prologue leaving the spiderthreads of a new story loose and grabbing.

****

Ferris, Jean. Once Upon a Marigold. New York: Harcourt, 2004. First published 2002.

This review is not endorsed by Jean Ferris or Harcourt, Inc or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Subtle Feminism, Subterfuge, and Romance in Crown Duel

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Spoilers. I’ve tried to avoid names as much as possible, but there are spoilers.

This is going to be a difficult book to review in that I’m not sure if I’ve just finished one book or two or three. This edition includes two novels that were originally published separately (as Crown Duel and Court Duel) and a short story that was published first in this edition. That short story I can set aside as wonderful, fluffy fluff but with perhaps the best use of page formatting and white space that I have seen in a long while. The very bottom of the last page reads (and I’m truncating the sentence to avoid spoilers):

“[…] and kicked the door shut behind us.”

Because the line goes to the very bottom of the page, there’s no indication that this is the end of the story till one turns the page and sees two blank, white, facing pages staring out at the reader like the shut doors, saying “what happens now is not your business.”

Just excellent. Though I’m not sure if that was providence or plan. It would be a difficult thing to plan so well.

Now to the meat of this book:

The first book, the original Crown Duel, begins with a rebellion led by a brother and sister, a count and countess of a small, rural, and isolated province in the greater kingdom of Remalna, ruled by a tyrannical king, self-important and uneasy it seems to me on the throne, leading by threat and fear, imposing brutal taxes on lower classes, and occasionally arranging “accidents” for detractors, family of detractors, and potential detractors. The sister is captured by the general of the opposing army after her brother gives into fear and breaks the war code of conduct. She is humiliated, escapes and is hunted, is captured again, and is rescued, sets out to get vengeance, and has her worldview turned on its head when she discovers that she and her brother have not been alone in plotting the overthrow of the king. Mel wins allies through her righteous intentions, refusal to surrender or to be cowed, and her willingness to learn.

Mel is a sword-wielding heroine deprived for the majority of the book of sword, privilege, or the usual trappings of a hero. Most of the book she spends injured, ill, and on the run. Her true power is in her ability to invoke empathy and sympathy through her personality and through the just nature of her cause.

The second novel sees the rebellion ended, the tyrant dead, her brother a member of the royal court, and Mel being invited into that court as well, where battles are fought for social popularity and against faux pas, games of which she is ignorant, though she is a fairly quick study. There she negotiates social patterns, cliques, and party planning.

Both books pulled some pretty stunning twists.  Smith uses a close first person, and Mel is a poorly informed narrator if not an unreliable one.  She tells her story I think as truly as she can, but she is ignorant of many of the characters feelings and intentions, and some of those characters drive the larger plot of the novel more than does Mel.

In the first novel, Mel claims to be entirely uninterested in the opposite sex—and truth be told, she has little time for such diversions, even when she finds a knight to rescue her. But she doesn’t trust the knight, who has ostensibly opposed and hunted her throughout the novel, and later she believes that he kills her brother. This story does not much read as a romance to me, though Smith makes clear that there is frisson when Mel exchanges glances with one particular character—though the nature of that thrill and recognition remains unclear.

In the second book, Mel still purports to be uninterested, but she arouses the interest of several men at court, including a notorious and popular flirt. She has to evaluate her feelings and her beliefs about love and relationships, and does so while corresponding with a mysterious suitor whose gift-giving she demands become a real relationship—if their only conversations are carried out through written letters.

This whole series reminded me of a fantasy Pride and Prejudice with a backdrop of political uncertainty (not a conscious parallel, Smith says, but she admits that there might have been some influence from Austen). The second novel in particular harkens to the social drama of Austen’s book. Mel’s stubborn dislike based on previous, false conclusions in particular harkens to Elizabeth’s as does her eventual reversal of her conclusions because of a letter and her opposite’s upright actions. Ultimately, this story is a romance, albeit a slow one and one which, as the romance builds, washes the reader in action and subterfuge.

The world was interesting, well-crafted, and beautifully described. The first book in particular has elements of a journey novel as Mel is chased and dragged across the country. I spent some time wishing for a map, which I ultimately found after finishing the novel, but I was able through the text alone to place most of the important places within a larger setting and when I did misunderstand, those misplacements didn’t affect the plot.

Smith carefully crafts a feminist heroine and a feminist story. Mel never pretends to be anything other than female, and she feels no need to adopt traditionally masculine performance to be powerful—even when she’s been most stripped of power and needs a disguise. Moreover, Smith carefully, wonderfully maintains gender balance among her background characters. I particularly noticed the female guardswomen, stable hands, and servants, marked by the feminine pronoun more than anything else. It was a very subtle feminism, and very much appreciated because for being a nonissue it was all the more powerful.

I have long known of this book as having produced a favorite character of two my friends’. His name is Vidanric. I read almost the entirety of the first book looking for this character that I expected to love as well. I need to take a moment to compliment and thank my friends for using Vidanric’s first name exclusively when discussing him. “Only polite,” and I was allowed to make my own assumptions (184).

*****

Smith, Sherwood. Crown Duel. New York: Firebird-Penguin Putnam, 2002.

This review is not endorsed by Sherwood Smith, Firebird Books, or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Love and War in The Shadow Throne

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TST_exlargeThere is very little time between the second and third books of Jennifer A. Nielsen’s Ascendance Trilogy; there is in fact a bit of overlap between the last chapters of the second book and the first chapters of the third. The third book does very little to recap Jaron’s previous exploits, and it jumps immediately into the action and into the drama. Because I tried to begin the third book of Jennifer Nielsen’s Ascendance Trilogy after having finished the second in March 2014 and finished the first chapter unable to remember whom a particular character was and how he was able to enter the kings’ private garden and then be hugged by the weeping king, I went back and reread book 2 before returning again to retry book 3, and I think I advise reading the two books back-to-back if that option is available to you too. If you have to read the prologue of The Shadow Throne to reignite your delight in the series, somewhat diminished perhaps by The Runaway King, do that first, then return to The Runaway King and remember what you’re reading up to and why you’re reading. DO NOT run to the Wikia site for the series to answer your questions; I spoiled a bit of The Shadow Throne’s ending for myself doing so.

Especially as I neared the end of The Shadow Throne and of The Ascendance Trilogy, I parroted Sam Gamgee’s quote from Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Two Towers:

“And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?”

Nielsen has never shied from the dark and the brutal; it’s that more than anything else that tips this series from middle-grade to teen. With Carthya at war, surrounded by more powerful enemies on all sides, all of them invading or pressing at the borders, this book is even darker than the other two. The plot seems to bounce Jaron, Roden, Tobias, Fink, Imogen, and Amarinda, all teenagers or younger, in and out of battles and in out of captivity. Their captors are cruel, and Nielsen describes in some detail some of the fiercer beatings, using whips, truncheons, the flats of swords, boots, and fists. The captives are starved and humiliated. There’s psychological torture besides: offers to spare another captive in exchange for information or obedience, offers to save one of two captives but condemn another….

Jaron’s cleverness shines through in all its glory as a tactician and military leader and his love for Carthya and for humanity, his desire to better the lives of everyone, and to sacrifice himself all shine too.

But this is a story about the power of love. Love gives a person purpose, someone or something to fight for, someone or something to fight to return to. Though Jaron claims not to understand this till very late in the book, his actions are driven by love more often than he admits and it’s this that makes his armies and himself powerful in the face of overwhelming odds. Jaron has generated a great deal of love and loyalty among those he knows and those he rules. The attacking armies have greater numbers, but the Carthyans fight for Jaron and for Carthya. It is love that motivates Jaron to escape his first and maybe most brutal captivity of this book, love and fear for a friend.

This book seems to have garnered a lot more criticism on Goodreads than I’d have expected: for being more predictable than previous books, for doing little that was original as a war fiction book, for being war fiction at all. Perhaps these critiques are not unfounded, but I found myself willing to go along with Nielsen and with Jaron through a war fiction (especially coming directly off of the action and hijinks of The Runaway King), and I appreciated the way that details from previous books became clear as forethought for backup plans and backup backup plans in this book, showing if not some spectacularly original thinking on Jaron’s part (at least not when we as readers have read through hundreds of wars in a hundreds of different worlds) then at least some very insightful thinking and careful planning by Nielsen. I allowed Nielsen to play with my heartstrings a bit. [SPOILER] I at first believed that Imogen was dead, then reasoned she couldn’t be, then as time went on and she didn’t reappear, decided that she must be, and then she was back, and I was surprised to see Imogen back when she came back but was surprised because I believed that Nielsen had done away with her, and a lot of people are calling this a cop-out, and maybe it could be, but it was also the only way to happily resolve the series within a trilogy. Had she been dead, Jaron would have been a victor in the war maybe, but he would have been a broken and hollow man. Because the point of this book and this series was the power and strength to be found in love, Jaron had to be happily married, had to be in love—not necessarily with Imogen, but with someone, and he had to be married for love and not for duty. So that’s my answer to those who cry cop-out, a cry I’d probably otherwise raise myself. [END SPOILER] Some of what came as a surprise to Jaron and, because read in his first-person narration, read like plot twists, did not come as a surprise to me, but that I believe was within character for him. Though otherwise good at figuring out people, he was always slow to see love, not unlike Sherlock Holmes (at least within the BBC universe). I would be very unsurprised to learn that Holmes gave some inspiration to Jaron actually. So then again I see reason that the plot twists seemed less twisty—and again I offer my argument that this is a series about the power of love ultimately, so love had thematically to win (here I am talking about a specific “twist”).

Ultimately, as a war book, as a conclusion to a series of mounting danger and threat, I was satisfied. I do feel, like many, that the first in this series is perhaps best because Jaron is most loveable at his most carefree and most obnoxious, but the series builds as it should, and concludes as it should.

****

Nielsen, Jennifer A. The Ascendance Trilogy, Book 3: The Shadow Throne. New York: Scholastic, 2015. First published 2014.

This review is not endorsed by Jennifer A. Nielsen or Scholastic Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Mystic and Rider: Internal and External Journeys as Foreground

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I hadn’t read Sharon Shinn’s Mystic and Rider for four years. I’d reread all the other books in the Twelve Houses series at least once before returning to this first book. There’s much to draw me to the Twelve Houses books as I’ve discussed before, but there is something especially compelling to me about the deep friendships between the six primary protagonists. In this first book, those friendships remain unformed for the majority of the book, the six are instead plagued by prejudiced distrust and several brief fights that must be broken up by more level-headed and duty-driven members of the group. It was interesting to revisit this time before their friendship because I had foreknowledge; I know how inseparable this unlikely group becomes. More than that, I know the trials that they will face in the future, and I can see the foreshadowing in their dialogues. I enjoyed laughing and mumbling, “Oh honey, you don’t even know.” I can also enjoy a writer who foreshadows because it shows a plan and it shows forethought (usually).

The exterior action of the plot is concerned with assessing the attitudes of various regions and ranks of a kingdom. The worldviews of a society are the sort of detail that is usually relegated to an emblematic scene or a throwaway line of dialogue or exposition. It’s impressive to see Shinn maintain the readers’ interest in what is so often so condensed and shoved to the background by other writers.

Granted, Shinn supports this plot with a romantic co-plot and the drama of six diverse personalities in prolonged, close quarters.

I think Shinn does a good job of integrating these the internal and external plots so that neither seems to take precedence over the other. It could be read with either or neither as the primary focus.

Shinn also adds a bit of mystery by concealing one character’s background in particular and having another spend the book not trusting her because of that concealment. I never read the story without knowing Senneth’s story, having read the third book in the series first. I suspect though that that mystery helps too to drive the reader through the story.

Shinn writes fantastic characters, all invoking a great deal of empathy. She writes a fantastic, vast, and vivid world. If you haven’t yet been intrigued by my earlier reviews of these books, I advertise them one last time. Beyond this, there are no more books in the series for me to review, so this will be the last you’ll hear of them from me for a while. If you like high fantasy; poetic, solid prose; empathetic characters and stories of close friendships; if you like fantastical romance; if you enjoy a little politics and intrigue and fantastical religion, give these a try.

I’ve grown a bit with these books, and as I’ve grown, I see them differently, but they are only a bit tarnished for being away from a circle of friend and fellow fans. My rankings of them fluctuate a bit with my circumstances. What once I liked least, I think I now like almost best. And these books set the bar for fictional boyfriends very high. I’m glad that I have these books as warm friends’ smiles in my bookcases, and I considering purchasing the series a solid investment for all the times I will pick them up to smile over a scene or ask Shinn’s advice on worldbuilding.

****

Shinn, Sharon. The Twelve Houses, Book 1: Mystic and Rider. New York: Ace-Berkley-Penguin, 2005.

This review is not endorsed by Sharon Shinn, Ace Books, Berkley Publishing Group, or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: A Wizard of Mars: My Argument for the BroTP

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By the ninth book in Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, the young wizards aren’t so young anymore. I’m not sure that I wholly approve of the latest sign that Kit and Nita are growing older. For at least seven of the previous eight books if not all eight, these two characters have fought within the text against the worlds’ supposition that any male-female partnership has to be sexual if not romantic, and I was all aboard their ship—their BroTP ship. Yet in this most recent book, A Wizard of Mars, the two of them are becoming more romantically attracted to one another. If this pair becomes an OTP, I may just have to jump overboard and head for the nearest desert isle, not because Kit and Nita (Kita? Nit?) are a terrible or even unlikely pairing, but because I was happy thinking that somewhere in the sea of teen fiction there was a ship that did not need a heart-shaped sail.

The world—our world—the literary world has too many romances and too few male-female friendships untroubled by romance. We do not celebrate singleness, and we over-romanticize romance to the detriment of friendship. By doing so we undermine friendships. I have noticed in my interactions with boys, in my friends’ interactions with boys, in boys’ interactions with me and with my friends that we are damaged by this pervasive idealization of love. There are obstacles put in front of male-female friendships unnecessarily. It ought to be as uncomplicated for me to have male-female friendships as it is for me to have female-female friendships, but it is not. We ought not to have to second-guess every action or word when interacting with the opposite sex. We ought not to feel pressured to feel things toward one another that we may not, and we ought not to believe that any positive feeling towards a member of the opposite sex is romantic.

In a world where too early and too incessantly we are bombarded by the ideals of marriage, true love, romance, and sex and our bodies are sexualized too often and too early, Young Wizards’ male-female BroTP was a breath of fresh air—and a very much needed one.

That all being said, this does not feel like a forced romance and if a romance had to be introduced, I think Duane did so skillfully here. It made sense within the context of the novel, paralleling as it did with a Romeo-Juliet (or Oma-Shu) romance that was important to the action of the plot, so that the romance did not seem jarring. The characters’ thoughts about one another seem… realistic and… earthy. Kit surprises himself when he notices that Nita is “hot.” Nita notices Kit noticing other girls. She has touches of jealousy and general confusion as her feelings towards him begin to shift from platonic to romantic. These thoughts follow gender stereotypes that may have at least some basis in our reality—and by that I mean the reality created by eons of societal expectations. I am glad that there were eight books of a male-female friendship without any stirrings of romance, not only because it provides an example of healthy male-female friendship, but because this romance, if I must now live with it, comes then not from a lightning strike, love-at-first-sight cliché, but a real back and forth, friendship, and slow engendering of greater attachment and attraction. At least then, if romance this must be, it is a more realistic romance than some of the fluff pumped into bookshelves.

Diane Duane I have always admired both for her prose and her blending of science and magic and word. In speaking to a coworker about why she was unable to get into the series, I commented that sometimes I feel like I need an understanding of basic physics to understand this series. If you enter into the series thinking it’s a straight fantasy, as she did, it will be jarring. Reading this book, I noticed, having finished George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons just prior, that I had to look up more words used by Duane than Martin. Some of those were scientific jargon, but the majority of words that sent me to a dictionary were not. The vocabulary level in these books is high, and I say that more to their credit than their denouncement. I appreciate authors who push readers, particularly their child readers, because too often that audience is underestimated, if not in fiction, then in the world at large.

This is the first of the books I would hesitate on some level to recommend to a younger child—not because I think them unable to handle the content or the language but because I think Duane’s intended audience is now teens. She all but says so in the final pages of the book when one of the Senior Wizards explains to the gathered young wizards the shift in wizardry and in the manifestation of the Lone One that comes with maturity—and explains that they’ve just faced one of these more mature trials. This being said, there is nothing in this book any more explicit or complicated than is in the fourth Harry Potter book or any of the later books in that series, so if your child is ready for Goblet of Fire, they’re ready for A Wizard of Mars.

****

Duane, Diane. Young Wizards, Book 9: A Wizard of Mars. New York: Harcourt-Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

This review is not endorsed by Diane Duane or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.