Book Review – A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas

I moved immediately into A Court of Wings and Ruin on the heels of finishing A Court of Mist and Fury; the ending of the second book in Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses series demanded it. And while the characters, their relationships, the themes, and the content are all as compelling as the first two novels in the series, A Court of Wings and Ruin suffers tremendously in pacing and organization, leaving this initial trilogy arc with a satisfying if roughly executed conclusion.

Feyre begins the novel back at Tamlin’s Spring Court pretending that her relationship with Rhys was all a delusion he’d forced on her and that she had really been in love with Tamlin all along. Not everyone buys Feyre’s cover though. When Feyre’s sisters were forced into the Cauldron and turned fae, Lucien felt the deep pull of a mating bond with Elain. Unable to escape his concern and curiosity for her, he keeps a close eye of Feyre, which feeds into her own plans for undermining Tamlin’s hold over his Court and accumulating knowledge about the Hybern forces. From the crumbling Spring Court, Feyre eventually rejoins her mate and family at the Night Court where their preparations for the coming war with Hybern are well under way. Her sisters are adjusting to fae life with varying degrees of success; allies are few and far between; and any possible alliance between the Courts of Prythian will be fragile and tenuous at best. But war is coming and they must do what they can in the face of annihilation. Continue reading

Advertisements

Book Review – A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas

After finishing A Court of Thorns and Roses, I immediately put myself on the waitlist for the second novel in the series, A Court of Mist and Fury. But waiting for a copy through the library became too tedious so I caved and bought a copy instead and have rarely been happier with the decision (I went ahead and bought the third novel, A Court of Wings and Ruin before finishing the second so the review for that book won’t be too far behind this one). Though A Court of Thorns and Roses is a wonderful well-contained novel in its own right, A Court of Mist and Fury expands on Sarah J. Maas’ universe beautifully, taking the foundational elements of the first novel and building the characters, their back stories, and their relationships with incredible skill and detail. The trauma of the first novel’s final act is central to where the characters find themselves at the start of this second book and its harsh realities force a new perspective onto everything and everyone.

Though months have passed since Feyre’s trials Under the Mountain and having been remade as High Fae, Feyre still has stomach churning nightmares and her life at the Spring Court hasn’t been as restorative as she might have hoped. So far the High Lord of the Night Court, Rhysand, hasn’t bothered her or Tamlin regarding the bargain she made with him during her trials, but with her wedding to Tamlin approaching and Tamlin clearly worried with diplomatic matters he’s not telling her about, Feyre continues to stall in moving past her trauma. When Rhysand finally calls in his half of the bargain she struck, Feyre’s time away from Tamlin and the Spring Court help to open her eyes to how much she has changed since her human days Under the Mountain. Perhaps the love she gave her human life for isn’t enough for her fae life. Continue reading

Book Review – The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

raven boys - book coverSince finishing The Lunar Chronicles last year, I’ve been searching for a replacement YA series to become invested in and I think I may have found it in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle series—or at least, the first book, The Raven Boys has left me still intrigued enough to check out the next book sometime soon. Bringing together mystical and mythological elements I’ve read about in both other novels and studied the histories of over the years, The Raven Boys definitely sets up a larger story than just the one that gets told in its pages.

Blue Sargent has grown up in a house full of psychics—her mother and her mother’s friends—but she shows no ability herself; she only serves as an amplifier or battery of sorts, helping to strengthen those around her. But one thing all the psychics in her life seem to agree on is that she will somehow spell death for her true love—whoever he might be—and must avoid kissing him to protect him… even though she’s just a teenager and has no idea who he might be. But on St. Mark’s Day when she accompanies one of those friends of her mother’s to the Corpse Road and actually sees and hears one of the spirits—a teenage boy named Gansey who attends the local private boys’ school, Aglionby—she might have learned the first bit about him. Blue has her doubts, however, when she actually meets Gansey and his friends, Adam, Ronan, and Noah, and begins assisting them in their search for the historically mythical Glendower and things in their small town of Henrietta begin getting even weirder than any of them could have dreamt.

Continue reading

Book Review – The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

golem and jinni - book coverA friend recommended The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker to me a few weeks ago and after reading the description, I was more than a little intrigued. Though it took some time for me to get into it, once I was in there was no turning back. It’s a novel comprised of pairings that don’t seem like they would make much sense initially but which are brought together in surprisingly beautiful, complementary ways. Compelling in the simple surface action of the story, The Golem and the Jinni proves even more engaging at deeper, philosophical levels.

The story begins with introducing—or in the case of the Golem, creating—the two central and titular beings of the narrative. The Golem’s creation and waking are quickly followed by the death of her master, leaving her untethered during the critical early days of her existence. She arrives in America with no one waiting for her who can help her navigate a city teeming with the hopes and wishes of thousands of people. A young tinsmith inadvertently releases the Jinni from a copper flask but the Jinni can’t remember the specifics of how he came to be trapped in a human form or who it was that put him in the flask. He too is wildly unprepared for life in New York City during the height of immigration. The Golem and the Jinni soon come to grips with how to survive in their new lives but both yearn for something more—to be able to be their true selves without fear though first they have to figure out what those true selves are. Continue reading

Book Review – The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

book of life - book coverOf the three books in Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy, this was the book I read the fastest. The final installment in the trilogy—though it’s unlikely to be the last in this universe she has created—The Book of Life deftly weaves together several of the plot threads that almost felt like they’d been dropped through the second book, while still holding tight to the newer plot threads from that second book. Once everything is brought together, the story presses toward a climactic showdown that probably won’t work for everyone but worked well enough for me.

Having returned from the sixteenth century with a better understanding of her powers and what they need to accomplish with regards to the Book of Life, Diana and Matthew must first adjust to the changes that have occurred in the twenty-first century in their absence—including the death of Diana’s aunt, Emily. Vampire customs and the rules of the Congregation’s covenant begin clashing with increasing frequency against the de Clermonts’ expanding family but their biggest problem proves to be a vampire son of Matthew’s who’d been disowned centuries earlier—Benjamin. Obsessed with discovering a way for vampires to reproduce with witches to create a master race, Benjamin has been working at the edges of things longer than anyone realized and is just as determined to find the Book of Life—and gain revenge on his sire by getting his hands on Diana and the twins she is carrying. Continue reading

Book Review – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

jonathan strange mr norrell - book coverOne of my friends back in college recommended Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to me so I went ahead and bought a copy but with all the reading I already had to do for my literature classes, I didn’t have the time or motivation to start such a long book and it went into my massive To Read pile. Then last year BBC America started advertising their miniseries adaptation of the novel. Since I had a vacation coming up and would be spending many hours in the car—prime reading time—I decided it was the perfect time to tackle the book and thought I’d have it finished in time to watch the show. I quickly found myself bogged down by the pacing of the novel and ended up sidelining it, reading a chapter here and there between other books but after almost a full year, I’ve finally finished Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

At the start of the nineteenth century, men of leisure in England are looking for new areas of study to explore and the illustrious history of English magic finds new life as Mr Norrell appears on the scene as the first practical magician in an age. But Mr Norrell is a bit possessive and controlling when it comes to magic. He hoards books of magic in his massive library, bars others from attempting to practice magic or call themselves magicians, and controls what magical theory is published—until Jonathan Strange stumbles into magic. Younger and with little knowledge of magical theory or history, Mr Norrell actually agrees to teach and work with Strange but he is still restrictive in what he will allow Strange to learn—a practice which begins to sow resentment between the pupil and his mentor until they eventually part ways and turn antagonistic towards one another. All through this, a faerie, initially summoned by Mr Norrell for assistance, intervenes with people in the two magicians’ lives to general misery without detection. Efforts to countermand the faerie’s enchantments may require the two magicians overcome their enmity and work together again. Continue reading

Book Review – Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

shadow of night - book coverSince I read and posted my review of A Discovery of Witches, I’ve heard that there will actually be more books in the series than just the initial trilogy. Having gotten further attached to the characters in the Shadow of Night, the second book in the trilogy, I’m excited that the next book won’t be the end—though I’m perhaps more excited to see how things played out in the present timeline while Diana and Matthew were in the past as well as how this particular plot ultimately wraps up.

Despite Diana’s familiarity with the history of Elizabethan England, when she and Matthew arrive after timewalking there, she has a lot to learn—about how to behave and live in the sixteenth century, about Matthew’s family and past, and about who she is and how her magic works. The tasks they set out for themselves—finding a witch to educate Diana and locating the Ashmole 782 text—aren’t as simple as they had hoped or planned them to be. Matthew becomes conflicted as he must act in accordance with his sixteenth century self though many of his beliefs have shifted drastically; Diana must come to terms with her magic, training so she can protect herself from those who covet her powers or might wish her harm. In the present, those Matthew and Diana have left behind wait and watch for signs of a changing history and portents of their return. Continue reading

Book Review – A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

discovery of witches - book coverI don’t recall where it was I first saw this book recommended but reading the summary caught my attention enough to stick it on one of my To Read lists. As part of the Harry Potter generation, I will forever have a fondness for fantasy novels dealing with witches and wizards, especially when they’re well plotted and the world building is thorough—both of which perfectly describe Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, the first in her All Souls Trilogy. I know I won’t be able to wait too long to read and review the next book in the trio—I need to know what happens next.

Diana Bishop is the last in a long and famous line of witches but she prefers her life as a historian and, as a rule, avoids using her magic except when it’s absolutely necessary. Her research into early alchemical texts doesn’t count. But one day while researching at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, she discovers that one of the manuscripts she requested has magic shielding parts of it. Wary of what she might have stumbled onto, Diana sends it back and moves on but in the following days the library begins to fill with other creatures—witches, daemons, and vampires. Among those watching her is Professor Matthew Clairmont, a physician, research biologist, and vampire. Though she is cautious about him at first, she can’t deny the way she’s drawn to him, learning that he and everyone else are interested in the manuscript she was able to summon where so many had failed—a fact that, along with her blossoming relationship with Clairmont, put Diana in danger. Continue reading

Book Review – The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter

9780425272459_p0_v4_s260x420I was originally aiming for this to be a preview, as Sylvia Izzo Hunter’s The Midnight Queen was first released last Tuesday, Sept. 2, but it took me longer to get through my last book than I’d planned. Another novel with magic as a central feature, I wish I’d skipped ahead to The Midnight Queen earlier. Aimed at a young adult audience, The Midnight Queen doesn’t take itself too seriously. It addresses issues related to sexism and women’s rights, but without being too heavy handed or preachy. This particular approach to magick weaves in many different (though largely European) cultures, languages, and legends. The Midnight Queen was a very welcome change of pace. It’s not the next Harry Potter, but it will appeal to those of us who will never be quite ready to let go of that kind of world.

Graham “Gray” Marshall is a Fellow at Merlin College until something goes horribly wrong one night when he’s on a mysterious errand with some classmates. His tutor, Professor Callendar, brings him home with him for the summer holidays in what seems like a punishment. But while staying with the professor’s family, Gray meets and befriends the Professor’s inquisitive and studious middle daughter, Sophie. Though the Professor doesn’t like the idea of his daughters learning magick, there’s something about it that draws Sophie in, leading her to urge Gray to tutor her in the subject. As his stay progresses, suspicious visitors and surprising happenings begin to uncover a larger plot against the head of the college and beyond, with Gray and Sophie leading the charge to unravel the scheme and prevent it from being realized. Continue reading

Book Review – The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

9780062255655_p0_v4_s260x420I’ve read and enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (and I’m a huge fan of the two episodes of Doctor Who that he wrote). He has a style and approach that’s impossible to nail down so I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from his latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. But then, that’s an enormous part of the fun of reading Neil Gaiman’s work.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane begins with a man reflecting on the magic of his childhood except that in his case, some of it may have been literal. His parents took in lodgers to ease money problems when he was younger. When one man steals the family car and commits suicide, a series of events is set in motion that stretches the young boy’s imagination. Though his new friend, Lettie, appears to be only a few years older than him, Lettie, her mother, and grandmother are not what they appear to be. But watching what they’re capable of doesn’t make what they are any clearer.

Continue reading

Book Review – The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

5194Yo0pYDLErin Morgenstern’s first novel, The Night Circus, is mesmerizing. It is imaginative and sentimental but she avoids overdoing it. Vivid, even when describing the monochromatic circus itself, The Night Circus somehow manages to feel complete and satisfying even while it maintains an aura of mystery.

Celia and Marco have each been trained in ancient magical arts but by two very different teachers. Unfortunately for these two, their teachers each feel they have a point to prove and pit the two students against each other to determine whose methods of instruction are superior. Giving their pupils only a small amount of information and a venue, they’re left to their own devices. And with a little help from creative investors, the two spend years creating, expanding, and perfecting their battleground, Le Cirque de Rêves.

Continue reading

Book Review – The Child Thief by Brom

book cover - child thief

When reading the original text of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Brom found it more sinister than he had always found it represented in popular culture. When several lines stuck in his mind, provoking dark questions about the boy who never grows up, The Child Thief was born. But as Brom states in an afterword addressing his inspiration, he works to create his own version of Peter as a character as well as an intricate world inspired largely by Celtic mythology. His artwork provides the final touch on this amazingly intricate and engaging reimagining of Peter Pan.

Brom eases the reader into the world of Avalon as he has created it, beginning instead with the more familiar image of Peter luring children to follow him, though even these early scenes show that this will not be a story for very young children. Sharing much of the novel’s spotlight is Nick, a teenage boy who is having trouble at home in the wake of his father’s death as his mother struggles to care for him and his grandmother. Tormented by the shady characters renting rooms in their house (and dealing drugs), Peter shows up just in time to save Nick’s hide and urges the teen to follow him through the mist to a hidden magical land. But once there, the politics and feuds of the various races begin to come to light and Nick fights to maintain his skepticism in the face of Peter’s charm and allure.

The novel is set mostly on the island of Avalon, a land where magic makes time move differently. The magic is fading as the Flesh-eaters ravage the land and threaten the lives everyone on the island from the Lady of the Lake whose mist protects Avalon from further invasion to the pixies that harass the lost boys and girls that make up Peter’s fighting force of Devils. Peter’s perspective is the constant through the novel but there are plenty of other characters’ points of view for balance. In addition to Nick’s skepticism and resistance, some of the enemies Peter has made over the centuries are also represented. The Captain proves more sympathetic than expected, at least when compared to some of the Flesh-eaters he leads into battle and those left behind in their fort.

At times, The Child Thief displays elements reminiscent of Lord of the Flies and American Gods, while relying on Arthurian legend in addition to Peter Pan and the Celtic mythology to which so much of the novel is rooted. But while it’s possible to pull out and identify various influences, The Child Thief stands out as indelibly its own story. The level of care and organization put into the plotting and pacing is as evident as the detail in the paintings and sketches that serve as illustrations throughout the novel (many of which can be seen in even greater detail on Brom’s website). Be warned: Brom is not afraid to go dark; the confrontations are frequent, violent, and graphic, not for those who find themselves easily disturbed by vivid descriptions of carnage (luckily, I fall in the camp of those who have a higher tolerance for reading such scenes than watching them unfold on a screen). For anyone on the borderline, I would suggest trying it. The themes at the heart of the violence are hardly limited to the realm of fantasy and are well worth exploring.

Book Review – Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning

In the last year or so, I’ve enjoyed a number of novels that fall within the fantasy genre, specifically where elements of fantasy are crossed with a recognizable modern world. Because of this I’ve been trying to find more in that genre. It is a genre that is blossoming in popularity at the teen level and it feels like it’s trickling up into fiction geared more towards adults. One of the series that I had seen advertised and heard was decent was Karen Marie Moning’s Fever Series. The prospect of there being several books that I might dive into and enjoy was exciting. However, after finishing the inaugural Darkfever, I think I will take a break from that genre for a while.

MacKayla Lane is a heroine we’ve all seen (perhaps too many times) before. She’s kind of just coasting along through life managing to get by on seemingly minimal skills and effort when her life is forever altered by the mysterious murder of her sister. Dropping everything, Mac flies to Dublin, where her sister had been studying at the time of her death, to retrace her steps and solve her murder. She finds that there were a lot of secrets her sister had been keeping from her and that most of them were likely of a supernatural sort. When it turns out that Mac has rare gifts with regards to seeing and moving in a world crawling with Fae, she finds herself on a path with a man called Jericho, a path that will hopefully lead to her sister’s killer but not before it leads to many more questions about Mac herself and the world in which she lives.

I’m not entirely sure what it was about the book that I found so off-putting. It was more than just a narrator/protagonist that grated on my nerves. Everything about Mac rubbed me the wrong way and felt unbalanced. There was, to my mind at least, a great contradiction between her claims and her actions that made her more than just an unreliable narrator (which, in and of itself, is something that I can and have been able to overlook in the past). Maybe it was that feeling that she’s such a recycled character. To be honest, for the first half of the book I kept flashing to Sookie Stackhouse whenever I tried to picture Mac.

I don’t know enough about traditional fairy lore to be able to truly comment on Moning’s depictions of the Fae and their interactions with our modern world. I’m sure there are purists out there better able to nit-pick where Moning ignored or altered the lore to suit her needs and which broken rules are the most grievous. On the whole, I thought it felt too sensationalized and overdone for me to maintain the necessary suspension of disbelief. As I tend to be one of those purists, it probably would have bothered me even more if I better understood the lore behind the novel.

The plot was halfway decent and the writing is something I could force myself to look past, but there was too much of an effort to tease the reader, too many questions with too few answers. It’s clear that several books were planned from the outset with just enough information doled out in each to peak the readers’ curiosity and keep them coming back for more. Unfortunately, my love for solving puzzles and figuring out mysteries wasn’t enough to overcome the underdeveloped secondary characters and an obnoxious narrator/protagonist. Ultimately, though it bothers the part of me that likes to complete what I start, I just wasn’t able to care about the characters or the story enough to further pursue this series. Darkfever’s tireless efforts to impress fell flat and turned this reader off.

Book Review – American Gods by Neil Gaiman

What would Zeus be if instead of sitting atop Mount Olympus with his lightning bolt he struggled to keep his Greek restaurant at the base of Mount Washington afloat? What would Isis be if she walked the banks of the Mississippi instead of the banks of the Nile? They would be right at home among the other struggling American Gods of Neil Gaiman’s novel, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. An interesting interpretation of some recognizable deities from a variety of pantheons, Gaiman’s American Gods juggles several plotlines without losing the reader’s interest though it does at times stretch the reader’s ability to organize and remember the influx of information.

The novel focuses mostly on its protagonist, Shadow, who is released from prison a few days early upon the tragic death of his wife, Laura. With Laura dead, he has nothing left to hold him to his former home so when a mysterious man calling himself Wednesday hires him as a sort of bodyguard, Shadow shrugs his shoulders and goes. It does not take long for Shadow to see behind the curtain as Wednesday brings him to a number of the older, floundering gods seeking their assistance for an unavoidable battle that’s brewing with the younger gods of the current technologically advanced society and culture.

There are side stories involving Shadow’s dead-but-still-around wife and the mysterious disappearances of children in the small town where he lives in hiding under an assumed name between gigs for Wednesday. Diverging completely from the main story lines are interludes giving the background of some of the gods and/or details of their existences in America today. Some of these deities pop up again as Wednesday and Shadow plead their case. They provide a lot of background for Gaiman’s whole concept of how these gods came to the country and what they do in order to exist as well as functioning as pauses from the main storylines.

American Gods has so many elements, many of them supernatural, it is hard to appropriately describe any of them. The same goes for the many-faceted characters. The gods have as many sides to their personalities as the people who have believed in them over the years (or fed their needs when straightforward belief failed to be enough). Perhaps the most unexpectedly engaging character is that of Shadow’s dead-but-still-around wife, Laura.

Based on the information about her that Shadow gives before the reader is introduced to her, dying turned off any filters she had for her speech and behavior. Her honesty is brutal and refreshing, especially for the reader who is probably not as trusting as Shadow proves to be. Laura’s observation that as much as she loved Shadow, she never felt that he was really alive, proves to be one of the biggest influences on his character as the story progresses.

The magic of American Gods lies not in it’s clever and surprising plots, but in the way it forces the reader to examine the role of the divine through history and its reflection of us, particularly in the present. The gods of the novel are at the mercy of the people, their tastes, their whims, and their values. Desperate gods are just as dangerous as desperate humans though they can prove to be just as susceptible too.

 

 

Book Review – Fire by Kristen Cashore

The world Kristen Cashore created in her first novel, Graceling, proves to be more extensive and contains more wonders than just the Gracelings. In her second novel, Fire, Cashore takes the reader a few decades back in time and to a country over the mountains from the Seven Kingdoms introduced in Graceling. In a land relatively unmentioned in her first novel, Fire focuses on the political strife of the Dells where there are colorful monster-animals that enthrall and threaten the scattered population almost as much as the feuding lords trying to topple the royal family.

The vibrantly hued monster-animals are a particular threat to Fire who, since the death of her father, is the last of the powerful and alluring human-monsters. The Dells are a kingdom perpetually on the brink of war after the late King Nax’s selfish and lavish tendencies along with those of Cansrel (Fire’s father and Nax’s closest friend and advisor) drove the kingdom into disrepair and vulnerability. Living in the shadow of her father’s violent and lasting memory, Fire learns to develop the mental powers that come with being a monster but she fears what using those powers might lead her to become. She fears becoming manipulative and destructive like her father and sometimes goes to uncomfortable extremes when that fear creeps up on her.

From the novel’s prologue, it’s clear that the mysterious and dangerous Leck from Graceling will make an appearance in Fire, but the role he plays is more understated and secondary than the first impression of the prologue. Showing his early childhood, Leck is instantly recognizable and proves to be less complex than expected. A few of the questions about Leck that arose in Graceling are answered in Fire, but the Leck is really the only connection between the two novels, and with what turns out to be only development to his back-story and no real insight into the psychology of his character, it seems like an unnecessary link to have included.

Though the premise of the monsters that roam the Dells is more than enough to raise eyebrows at first, but once you’ve suspended your disbelief, the political strife of those hills captures the attention. Small skirmishes make way for a great deal of spying and intrigue in the capitol city as preparations for the oncoming war unfold, with Fire grasping at just what her role will be in protecting her county. Where the more important plot advancements in Graceling felt rushed to the point where they were over before you could fully realize what had happened, the pacing of Fire is much more even.

The characters of Fire are just as much a driving force of the novel as those of Graceling were. With Fire, Cashore has presented another strong and independent female figure for teenage girls (Cashore’s target audience). Her female characters don’t always know quite what they want, but when they do find something they feel strongly about, they refuse to stand by when they can do something about it, but they also think things through and in some instances, over think them.

I’m looking forward to the next installment, Bitterblue, though no release date has been set as of yet. Considering the almost complete independence of the first two novels, I am eager to see whether Cashore will bring other characters from Graceling back and whether or not any of the characters from Fire will make an appearance.

 

Graceling

Heinde’s Sight – A Short Story

“People only see what they are prepared to see.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

This short story was inspired by a dinner conversation my friends and I had where we tried to come up with the most useless super-hero powers imaginable. I struggled to find the right voice and the right words for this story so that it would be entertaining and the concept would be understandable. I’m still not sure that I’m there so please let me know what you think so that I can continue to improve on it.

Claire has unique visions when she falls asleep at night. Her visions of futures that will never come to pass for the individuals around her can make it difficult to fit in but they also allow her a freedom unknown by those same people.

Excerpt from “Heinde’s Sight”

Everyone at the local pizza place knew about Claire Heinde and her odd ways. Well, all the regulars knew about her. They knew that her closest confidante was the crazy homeless guy who collected cans and used the money from returning them to buy aluminum foil, which he would wrap around streetlights, telephone poles, and parking meters to mess with the signals the aliens were beaming to Earth. They knew that Claire had this way of looking at a person that could make them feel like the biggest failure in the universe or with such blatant admiration that they couldn’t help but blush. They knew that while Claire didn’t have regular days, she’d come into the pizza place twice a week, sit at the counter on the stool meant to be a seat for the elderly customers forced to wait in line, and after ordering a slice of cheese-less, toppings-less pizza and a chocolate milkshake, she would open up a black composition book, scribble furiously, tear the page out, rip it up and let the pieces blow out of her hand as she walked away from the Slice of Seventh Heaven Pizza Parlor.

The old timers would talk about how she’d always been a little daft in the head and that it was a shame since her parents had been bright enough. Every once in a while, a new addition to the regular crowd would ask what had happened to Claire that made her act that way. One would swear she’d been dropped on her head as a small child, a complete accident. Another would claim it was that car accident a while back and why was he the only one who remembered how she’d acted normally before but came in the week after getting out of the hospital and started scraping the cheese from her pizza. A third would call the second nuts and remind him she wasn’t even in the car that crashed, wasn’t even in town when it happened; it was abuse that had put poor Claire out of her mind. Perfect family like that had to be hiding something. There were chemicals in the area where she lived that leeched into the Heide’s vegetable garden. She was on a medication for something and it messed with her ability to interact with others. Too much therapy in her formative years. Not enough.

In truth, none of them knew much about Claire and that should have made them uneasy. It would have made them squirm if they had any idea how much she knew about them without even trying to discover anything (in fact, she tried very hard not to know more about them than they could ever know about themselves).

Book Review – Septimus Heap Book One: Magyk by Angie Sage

There were two reasons why I got and read Magyk, the first book in Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap series. The first is that I have a very difficult time resisting anything that is free (and at the time the book was Barnes & Noble’s free Nook book of the week). The second is that there has been a small void since the last of the Harry Potter books came out that can only be temporarily appeased (and it’s still a little early for me to go ahead with my plan to re-read the original seven before the release of the final installment of the movie franchise in July).

Septimus Heap is born to a wizard family and happens to be the seventh son of a seventh son, making him a very magykal being. Unfortunately, Septimus dies shortly after birth leaving the family temporarily devastated. But Silas Heap found a newborn baby girl in the snow on the way back to his family the day of Septimus’ short life and she helps the distraught mother and bewildered boys to heal. Until the day that an Assassin comes to kill their beloved girl who is really the daughter of the late queen, slain ten years earlier on the day of the girl’s birth (and Septimus’ death). The Heaps are not the only ones determined to protect the princess as Darke magyk threatens more than just their family.

Septimus Heap is not Harry Potter but it doesn’t try to be either. The world and magykal hierarchy created by Angie Sage is distinctly separate. The troubles begin when the former ExtraOrdinary Wizard and necromancer, DomDaniel, returns to claim his position and finish off the Queenling. There are only brief glimpses of the political situation in this first novel though based on the way that Sage patiently built and layered this book, I have hope that the whys behind the series’ violent beginnings will be revisited and expanded upon in the later novels.

Sage’s manner of storytelling wanders about rather than focusing solely on the handful of main characters. The deviations, that can be confusing and appear superfluous at first, quickly become one of the most entertaining aspects of the novel as the pieces of the story begin falling into place. The secondary characters are opinionated and it’s nice to hear their side from time to time. And yet, Sage always manages to bring focus back to her central tale.

Sage has two plots at work in this first novel, neither of which is truly resolved, inspiring the reader to seek further answers and more adventures in the remaining novels of her series. Considering the fact that there are still so many questions at the end of the book, Sage does a wonderful job of wrapping up the secondary characters. Without a true epilogue or hint of what exactly awaits the reader in the next book, Sage ends the novel with at least a paragraph for nearly all of the minor characters met along the way from the gatekeeper and his family to a messenger Rat who learned that his wife was right and it really is safer not to get involved with wizards.

Book Review – I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore

I have to admit that the reason I read Pittacus Lore’s I Am Number Four is because I found the previews for the film (which was released in theaters this past Friday 2/18) intriguing. When I found out it was based on a novel, I added it to the list of books to read before I see the movie. I Am Number Four is a science-fiction novel marketed towards young adults but with an appeal that reaches further.

John Smith was one of nine children from the planet Lorien who escaped ten years before when the Mogadorians attacked in pursuit of Lorien’s natural resources, killing all of the people and destroying the planet in the process. A member of the protective Guarde, John and Henri, his Cepan (teacher/legal guardian) are constantly on the run from Mogadorians who followed them to Earth. Because of a protection spell cast as they were leaving, the children can only be killed in their particular numerical order and John is next on the list.

Hiding in a small town in Ohio, John finally begins to develop his legacies, the powers that will make him an effective Guarde in the fight to defeat the Mogadorians and return to Lorien. For the first time he also makes a friend, Sam Goode, an alien conspiracy-theory enthusiast, and a girlfriend, Sarah Hart. When events have Henri starting to look to run again, John has to stand up for himself now that he has a reason to stay and something he’s willing to fight to keep.

There are many different ways to explain a character’s supernatural powers in fantasy or science fiction novels and alien origins isn’t groundbreaking or new, but in I Am Number Four it doesn’t feel like a tired or overused premise. For the most part, the characters are engaging and there is enough tension to keep an adult reader’s attention even through the passages that are clearly meant to appeal to the intended teen-audience. The romance gets repetitive and is completely predictable but nowhere near as annoying or redundant as other successful teen series (Twilight or Fallen, for instance).

The pacing reminds me a little of The Hunger Games Trilogy in the way that when a chapter ends, there is an internal debate over how important what you should be doing really when compared to getting a few more answers, reading one more chapter. The author doesn’t try to cram too much into the novel either. Even though it is meant to set up the Legacies of Lorien series, it didn’t feel like a throw-away novel with the sole purpose of setting up the premise and introducing the characters but is a novel that can stand alone. In fact, the story being told clearly feels bigger than what would fit in one book. It will be interesting to see if the next book in the series, The Power of Six due out at the end of the summer, can take more risks and reach out to more than just the teen audience.

 

The Power of Six

Book Review – Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Katsa is the niece of the king in the centermost of the Seven Kingdoms. Her eyes, one blue and one green, tell everyone that she is Graced, but it is her uncle, King Randa, who is responsible for making Katsa and her Grace known to all. Katsa is deadly and King Randa uses her for his dirty work, a position Katsa grows more and more disgusted with. When she meets the Lienid Prince Po who appears similarly Graced, she begins to think differently about her Grace and how she lets it define her. But first Katsa and Po must deal with a king more dangerous and controlling than Randa.

The characters of Graceling, Kristin Cashore’s 2008 debut novel, are what drive this book. It is a quick read following Katsa on a journey both physical and emotional. Katsa is captivating because of her intense internal conflict. She cannot deny her Grace because it is a part of who she is but neither does she want it to be the only thing that defines her. Similarly, she doesn’t want to belong to anyone but herself and the society she lives in makes that a very difficult accomplishment for women. Katsa and Po have wonderful chemistry though it occasionally drifts towards the melodramatic (something that I think must be a requirement of any fiction marketed towards a teen audience).

There are some supporting characters that I wish had a stronger presence in the novel. Helda, Katsa’s insightful handmaid, was a fun change from the somewhat oblivious (though endearing) Katsa. Her supportive cousin, Prince Raffin, and his medicinal concoctions with unusual side effects provided a lot of humor throughout the book. And though Katsa wasn’t always fond of him, I found I was sorry to see less of Giddon as the plot took Katsa out of his presence.

If I had to pick one weakness for the novel, I’d have to say it’s the pacing. It moves at a comfortable pace but every once in a while it seems to speed up too much. The beginning and a number of key plot points are so abrupt I had to reread some of them, making myself read slower so I didn’t miss what exactly happened. Considering the build-up to most of these scenes, it was disappointing that there wasn’t more to them. They were surprising, but not necessarily in a good way. I think there could also be more about the political situations of the Seven Kingdoms; enough was given for the plot, but I’d like to know more of the histories between them.

There are some obligatory stages of Katsa’s personal growth that could easily dissolve into clichés but Cashore doesn’t give in to those impulses as often as a number of writers of teen fiction do. It’s also nice to see a book being marketed to young adult girls where the heroine is truly empowering. Katsa not only can protect herself, but she feels it’s important that all young girls should be taught how to help themselves. Katsa’s words and actions match (unlike a few other popular young adult novels I could mention but won’t).

Cashore’s second venture to the Seven Kingdoms Fire, released last October, diverges from Katsa’s story. But the third book in the series, Bitterblue, scheduled for a 2011 release, promises to be more of a return to the characters from Graceling.

 

Fire

My recommendations for children in the flexible genre of fantasy

“Fantasy is one of the most flexible genres. It is one of the few genres in which the same book can be read by an adult and a 12-year old — comfortably and without any explanation.” – unknown

Fantasy is a genre that appeals to many children and can be a great way to get them interested in reading. Recent writers have made the genre more popular than ever. Here are a few of my recommendations for children (and their parents or siblings) interested in fantasy, some better known than others.

As a rule, I recommend that children move from Oz, to Narnia, to Hogwarts, to Middle Earth.

Contrary to the movie’s ending, Oz wasn’t just a dream for Dorothy. L. Frank Baum wrote fourteen novels for children centering around Dorothy and her friends in the land of Oz, including many characters Hollywood left out.

C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia can be read in many different orders (published order vs. the newer chronological order) but all children should read at least The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

 

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series got children interested in reading like never before. With midnight release parties for the last few in the series, it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t heard of Harry Potter (and it might be even harder to find someone who doesn’t recommend it after having read them themselves). For the record, my favorite from the series is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

 

The amount of detail that J. R. R. Tolkien put into Middle Earth, its peoples, and their history is greater than anything else I’ve ever read. While The Hobbit was meant to be a children’s book and the rest of The Lord of the Rings was meant for an older audience, I have found that most tend to favor one more than the other (I had a hard time getting through The Hobbit every time I tried to read it but The Lord of the Rings I’ve read multiple times).

The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan (and upcoming spin-off series) have been gaining in popularity, especially since the movie was released recently. I plan to tackle this series over the summer when my dad finishes but have heard only good things about it so far.

Tamora Pierce tends to be less recognized than some of the others but her Circle of Magic series following four children with special gifts and a unique bond are a solid choice for pre-teen readers. She also has a spin-off series, The Circle Opens among other series.

The movie did not do justice to Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted. Middle school age girls will fall in love with the characters and story of Ella of Frell and her prince Charmont. Following up Ella, Levine wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre, which was good but didn’t quite match the magic of Ella.

I’m not going to go into details for all of these books because it would take too long, but here are a few others I recommend:

The Unicorn Hunt by Elaine Cunningham (Unfortunately, this book is out of print but check libraries and used book stores)

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland / Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll (Classic)

Into the Land of the Unicorns by Bruce Coville (Published in 1994, it was the first of a series the Coville has been working on for a while; Book 3 was published in 2008 and Book 4 came out at the beginning of this month)

Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie (Another classic)

Princess Nevermore by Dian Curtis Regan (Originally published in 1995, she finally published a sequel, Cam’s Quest in 2007)