Mini-Reviews: Crimson, Still

Crimson BoundStill Life

Rosamund Hodge, Crimson Bound

I was pleasantly surprised by this YA fantasy novel, which is a (very) loose retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. Protagonist Rachelle is a bloodbound, doomed to eventually lose her soul to the evil Devourer at the heart of the forest. In the meantime, she works as the king’s hired killer — until he commands her to guard his son Armand, whom she immediately distrusts because the people revere him as a saint. Yet when Rachelle discovers a possible way to change her destiny and defeat the Devourer, Armand may be her only ally. I liked the juicy plot and (of course) the romance, but my favorite aspect of this book is its unexpectedly serious examination of evil and atonement.

Louise Penny, Still Life

I’ve read so many glowing reviews of this series, so I’m a little afraid to say that I didn’t love this first installment. Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t hate it either. I enjoyed the setting of a small town in Quebec, which is charming without being too idealized. And the mystery plot is interesting; I especially liked how the victim’s art contains a clue to the solution. But for one thing, I thought the book was doing too many things at once: introducing the town, describing the victim and her friends, introducing Inspector Gamache and his team…it was a lot to keep track of, and it was hard to tell which characters would turn out to be important. That’s normal for a series opener, of course, but it still made the book difficult to follow.

I also felt that the victim’s friend group was a little smug and snobbish. They’re mostly wealthy, mostly educated, mostly not originally from the small town…whereas some of the lower-class “townie” characters are painted as villains without one redeeming quality. Finally, I thought Agent Nichol was treated a bit unfairly. I read her as being on the autism spectrum (not understanding social cues, not able to see beyond the literal meaning of what people told her), so even though she unquestionably behaves badly, I wanted Gamache (and the book) to treat her with a little more compassion instead of writing her off as a clueless jerk. All that said, I may try the next book in the series, since it won’t have to do as much work of introducing the world and characters.

Mini-Reviews: Necromancer, Dimple, Scrapbook

Death of the NecromancerWhen Dimple Met RishiScrapbook of Frankie Pratt

Martha Wells, The Death of the Necromancer

This gaslamp fantasy follows Nicholas Valliarde, otherwise known as Donatien, the leader of a notorious criminal enterprise in the city of Vienne. He has one goal: to ruin the life of the Count of Montesq, who had Nicholas’s foster-father executed on a false charge of necromancy. In the middle of a heist that would further this goal, however, Nicholas runs into an unexpectedly life-threatening situation and soon learns that a real necromancer may be at work in the city. I really enjoyed this novel, especially the setting, which is like a fantastical version of 18th-century France. There’s also a really great friendship that arises between Nicholas and the police inspector who’s been tracking his criminal alter-ego. I will definitely continue with the Ile-Rien series, although this one stands alone quite well.

Sandhya Menon, When Dimple Met Rishi

Dimple and Rishi are Indian American teens who have never met, but their parents are friends and have tentatively arranged a marriage between them. Rishi knows about the arrangement and is happy about it; he loves his family and his culture, and he trusts his parents to choose an appropriate wife for him. Dimple, on the other hand, is more interested in computer coding than marriage, and she’s desperate to attend a prestigious summer program — one that Rishi happens to be attending also. When they meet, Dimple is enraged to discover the marriage arrangement. But the more she gets to know Rishi, the more she ends up liking him. This is a cute YA rom-com with insight into a culture I know little about. I recommend it if the premise intrigues you!

Caroline Preston, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt

This “novel in pictures” tells the story of Frances “Frankie” Pratt, an ambitious American girl who leaves her hometown to attend college, then travel to New York and Paris in hopes of becoming a writer. The book purports to be Frankie’s scrapbook of these eventful years of her life, with just a few sentences of narration on each page. The photos are of authentic 1920s artifacts — advertisements, ticket stubs, postcards, and the like — and I was very impressed by the author’s dedication to finding these artifacts and creating a story around them. That said, the scrapbook conceit is the cleverest part of the book; the plot and characters are all fairly two-dimensional. Still, this is a fun, quick read that would appeal to people who enjoy scrapbooking or are fascinated by the 1920s.

Review: Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant

Chronicles of Chrestomanci vol 1Diana Wynne Jones, Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant

In Charmed Life, Cat Chant is alone in the world except for his sister Gwendolen: their parents died in a steamboat accident when they were very young, and they have no family except each other. Gwendolen is a gifted witch, and her talents soon outstrip the capabilities of the local magic teacher. So when Cat and Gwendolen are invited to live with the Chrestomanci, the most powerful enchanter in the world and governor of all magic, Gwendolen is ecstatic — until it becomes clear that Chrestomanci won’t teach her any magic. As Gwendolen plots her revenge, Cat gradually realizes that he may have unsuspected talents of his own. The Lives of Christopher Chant takes place 25 years earlier and gives the backstory of how the Chrestomanci came to be. Christopher is able to travel between worlds while he’s dreaming. When other magicians discover this talent and seek to use it for their own ends, Christopher is caught in a battle between good and evil — but which side is he really on?

I dimly recall reading Charmed Life as a child, but I’d forgotten almost all the details. It was a pleasure to revisit the book, which perfectly depicts Cat’s alienation and confusion as he is thrust into a new environment. And I adored Christopher in both books — he’s such a fun enigma as the Chrestomanci, but his origin story makes him an even more interesting and fleshed-out character. In both cases, I felt that the books ended just as they were getting interesting: Cat learns something important about himself, but we don’t get to see what he does with that knowledge. Similarly, Christopher survives his first test as Chrestomanci, but I wanted to see more of his story as he grows into his power. There are a few more books set in this world, so perhaps they’ll fill in some of the blanks, but I was a bit frustrated that these books both ended where they did! Still, I enjoyed both of these books a lot and will continue with the Chronicles of Chrestomanci.

Mini-Reviews: Mask, Winter, Unlimited

Grey MaskWinter of the WitchDetection Unlimited

Patricia Wentworth, Grey Mask

Charles Moray has just returned to England after four years abroad. When he reaches his home, he is surprised to find that it is unlocked and that a secret meeting is taking place inside. He learns that the intruders are members of a criminal organization led by an unknown man in a grey mask. He also sees Margaret Langton — the woman he once loved, who broke off their engagement right before the wedding with no explanation — enter the house and speak with Grey Mask. Charles decides not to go to the police but to investigate the matter himself. He and Margaret eventually team up to save a beautiful young heiress who is in danger from the gang and to discover the identity of Grey Mask. I thought this book would be somewhat cheesy and campy, but in fact I really enjoyed it! I will definitely read more by Patricia Wentworth; this is technically the first book in the Miss Silver series, but Miss Silver is a pretty marginal character in this installment.

Katherine Arden, The Winter of the Witch

I loved the first two books in this trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, and this book was a fitting conclusion to the series. I love the setting, which is essentially a magical version of medieval Russia that contains various elements of Russian folklore. I also really like that the series doesn’t shy away from consequences: although Vasilisa is a sympathetic heroine, sometimes her choices have unexpected or unintended effects on those close to her. It’s a morally complex universe where no one is completely good or evil, and I liked that the book has some sympathy for even the most destructive characters. My only complaint is that the novel is a bit slow-moving, but if you liked earlier books in the series, you should definitely read this last installment!

Georgette Heyer, Detection Unlimited

I love Georgette Heyer, but this isn’t one of my favorite of her mysteries. I’m a little surprised that I feel this way, though, because the mystery plot itself is one of her strongest. It’s a simple setup: a universally disliked man is shot in his garden, and everyone seems to have an alibi for the time of death. I thought the solution was clever and hung together well, although I was a bit disappointed in the choice of murderer because I liked that character! But the reason I didn’t totally love this book is that there’s a lot of padding surrounding the mystery plot; most of the book is just descriptions of the various characters and how they interact with one another. And while Heyer is great at characterization, I just wanted the story to go somewhere!

Mini-Reviews: Witch, Scarlet, Homicide

Water Witch*Study in Scarlet WomenHome Sweet Homicide

Cynthia Felice and Connie Willis, Water Witch

I’m a huge Connie Willis fan, so I had high hopes for this book, especially because it also contains some of my favorite elements: con artists, a missing princess, and a sci-fi/romance combo. But overall I found it pretty underwhelming. I really liked the kernel of the story, but I wanted it to be fleshed out a lot more, especially the characterization. The romance essentially comes out of nowhere, and I never really felt like I got to know the hero at all. That said, I really liked a twist involving one of the secondary characters, who came to be a lot more important than I initially expected. Overall, I didn’t like this as much as Willis’s solo work, but I already own two more Willis/Felice collaborations, so I’ll definitely read them at some point.

Sherry Thomas, A Study in Scarlet Women

I’d heard great things about the Lady Sherlock series but was hesitant to dive in, fearing that the books wouldn’t live up to the hype. But I was pleasantly surprised — I really enjoyed this book, which recasts literature’s most famous detective as Charlotte Holmes, a Victorian woman whose brilliant mind is constrained by the social rules of her time. So she decides to leave home and forge her own path. Meanwhile, of course, she solves several murders by realizing that they are all connected. I loved this take on a Holmesian character; Charlotte has a brilliant deductive mind but also really enjoys fashion, and her style is surprisingly ornate and gaudy. I also loved that the book, while sympathetic to Charlotte, also shows her flaws and the negative consequences of some of her decisions. I will definitely continue with the series sooner rather than later!

Craig Rice, Home Sweet Homicide

I found this mystery novel delightful. It’s about three children (ages 8 to 14, I believe) whose mother is a popular mystery novelist. When their neighbor is murdered in real life, the kids are ecstatic — now Mother might get some new material for her books, and the publicity is bound to be good for business. Plus, the handsome detective working the case looks like excellent stepfather material, though Mother doesn’t seem to agree. The children team up to solve the mystery with the help of their friends and neighbors; the result is a farcical romp that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Review: The Element of Fire

Element of FireMartha Wells, The Element of Fire

In a quasi-Renaissance fantasy world, the kingdom of Ile-Rien is in a precarious position. King Roland is young and weak, completely under the thumb of his conniving cousin, who has his own plans for the throne. Roland’s mother Ravenna still wields much of the throne’s power, but her health is deteriorating, and many of those at court (including the evil cousin) are now her enemies. In addition to these domestic intrigues, Ile-Rien is now under threat from a foreign sorcerer, Urbain Grandier, who is rumored to be a powerful and dangerous dark magician. Thomas Boniface, captain of the Queen’s Guard and Ravenna’s former lover, is charged with finding Grandier and thwarting whatever plans he may have against Ile-Rien. Thomas also finds himself dealing with Roland’s half-fay half-sister Kade, who returns to court after a years-long absence with unknown motives. Amid the complex allegiances of the court — in which it soon becomes apparent that at least one traitor is at work — whom, if anyone, can Thomas trust? And when Grandier finally makes his move, will Thomas be able to stop him before it’s too late?

I first read this book in (I think) 2009, and I enjoyed it so much that I bought four other books set in the world of Ile-Rien. But for some reason, I never read any of those sequels, and since it’s been more than a decade, I wanted to refresh my memory of the first book. I’m happy to say that I still really enjoyed it! It strikes me as a quintessential classic fantasy novel, with tons of political intrigue, sorcery, and fay magic thrown in for good measure. I really like that, instead of the quasi-medieval setting of most fantasy novels, this book evokes more of a Renaissance feel, with pistols and gunpowder beginning to supplement (though not yet replace) swords as the dominant weapons. I also liked the main characters a lot, particularly Thomas and Kade. They share a cynical, bantering sense of humor that makes their interactions particularly enjoyable; but when the chips are down, they also share a deep courage and sense of loyalty. The plot is action-packed and exciting, and the world-building is vivid. In short, I’m really glad I reread this one, and I look forward to reading a few more of the Ile-Rien books this year!

Review: Snowspelled

SnowspelledStephanie Burgis, Snowspelled

In a fantasy world analogous to 19th-century England, upper-class men are expected to be magicians, while upper-class women are destined to be politicians. But Cassandra Harwood has always had a thirst for magic, and her passionate determination got her all the way to the Great Library, the premier training ground for young magicians. She even found love there with the equally passionate and hardworking Wrexham. But a spell gone horribly wrong has deprived Cassandra of her ability to cast magic, not to mention her social standing and her fiancé. Now, four months after this tragic incident, Cassandra is snowed in at a house party with the high-society people she’s been trying to avoid, including her ex-fiancé. To make matters worse, the snowstorm seems to be magical in origin, and Cassandra is tricked into making a bargain with an arrogant elf-lord to discover who is causing it. If she fails, the consequences will be dire for both herself and her nation, as the age-old treaty between humans and elves will be broken. Can Cassandra discover the culprit and sort out her personal life before it’s too late?

I’ve read and enjoyed books by Stephanie Burgis before, and I’m a sucker for anything that can be described as “Jane Austen plus magic,” so this novella seemed right up my alley. And I did enjoy it overall, but now I find myself remembering more of its flaws. I think the main problem, for me, was the heroine. Cassandra is one of those protagonists who is incredibly stubborn, convinced of her own rightness, and unwilling to compromise. All of her problems in the story are of her own making, particularly the mess of her relationship with Wrexham. I did like Wrexham, and I enjoyed the banter between them, but it frustrated me that they’re both such poor communicators, especially since they were once engaged to each other. Cassandra does grow and change in the course of the story, but it was too little, too late for me. Also, as with many novellas, the short length doesn’t leave much room for nuance in the plot or characters. The world of the story is interesting, and I actually wouldn’t mind reading a full-length novel in this setting, but I feel like I didn’t get to see enough of the world. All in all, I’m not giving up on this author, but I think I’ll stick to her full-length novels instead.

Review: Call Down the Hawk

Call Down the HawkMaggie Stiefvater, Call Down the Hawk

Ronan Lynch is a dreamer, someone who’s able to take objects from his dreams into the waking world. But lately he’s been having trouble with his dreams: he can’t always control what he brings back, and he’s unable to stay away from his home (near a ley line in Virginia) for any length of time. So when he encounters someone else in his dreams, another dreamer who calls himself Bryde, he’s eager to learn more — even though everyone else in his life warns him it’s incredibly dangerous. Meanwhile, Jordan Hennessy is an art forger on a mission to steal a particular painting that just so happens to have been dreamt by Ronan’s father. But complications ensue when her mission brings her into contact with Declan Lynch, Ronan’s uptight and seemingly boring older brother. And then there’s Carmen Farooq-Lane, who is part of a government agency tasked with finding and killing dreamers, because the agency believes a dreamer will cause the end of the world. But the more she learns about the agency’s agenda and tactics, the more she questions her role.

This book is set in the same world as the Raven Cycle, and while it is technically a stand-alone, I really think having the background from TRC is helpful for understanding the world of the novel and the characters of the Lynch brothers in particular. At the same time, I think fans of TRC might be disappointed by how little the other characters from that series appear. Adam is in a few scenes, but Gansey and Blue only appear briefly via text message. So I’m not quite sure who this book is for, if that makes sense; it seems like it would fall short for both newbies and TRC fans. Also, there’s a lot going on in this book, and I’m not sure it all works; the disparate stories take a long time to converge, and before they do, it can be tedious and confusing to figure out what’s going on. I did really like Declan’s story in this book; he was an intriguing character in the Raven Cycle, and I was glad to see more development for him here. But the Carmen sections particularly dragged and didn’t seem necessary for the plot. Of course, this is the first book in a projected trilogy, so maybe she’ll become more integral later on. But I should say that, while there’s no cliffhanger per se, the main plot lines are not resolved in this book. I’ll most likely continue with the trilogy to find out what happens, but so far I’m not enjoying it as much as the Raven Cycle.

Review: The Lady Rogue

Lady RogueJenn Bennett, The Lady Rogue

An unconventional young woman growing up in the 1930s, Theodora Fox has a thirst for adventure. Her father, Richard, is a well-known treasure hunter who travels the world collecting rare and precious artifacts. Yet despite Theo’s eagerness to accompany her father on these trips, he usually ends up leaving her behind, allegedly for her own protection. When Richard fails to return from one such trip, Theo is worried that he’s gotten into trouble and decides to take matters into her own hands. With the help of Huck Gallagher, Richard’s protégé and her own former love interest, she looks for clues in her father’s journal and soon realizes that he was on the trail of a supposedly magical ring that once belonged to Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a. Vlad Dracula. Now Theo and Huck must retrace her father’s footsteps into Romania, where they soon discover that they aren’t the only ones on Richard’s trail. They also encounter murder, magic, and a dangerous secret society with its own plans for Dracula’s ring.

This book sounded like it was going to be a fun, adventurous romp, but unfortunately I didn’t enjoy it. I find myself getting a bit grumpy about YA lately, and this book is a good example of why: I just found Theo to be incredibly immature. She’s one of those headstrong, anachronistic heroines with implausibly amazing skills (in Theo’s case, codebreaking) and a fairly self-centered worldview. She doesn’t really grow or change throughout the novel, although I’ll grant that she does make one very good decision at a climactic moment. But I just didn’t care about her or her quest. The treasure-hunting aspect of the novel is also disappointing, since Theo and Huck are terrible detectives; they wander around Romania cluelessly and finally stumble upon the exact individuals who can tell them what’s going on and what to do next. Finally, the romance irritated me; it was all angst and physical attraction, no true compatibility. Also, I hated the characterization of Huck — he’s from Northern Ireland, and he’s an incredibly broad stereotype (says “Jaysus” all the time, calls Theo “banshee” as a pet name). In short, this one definitely wasn’t for me.

Review: Graceling

GracelingKristin Cashore, Graceling

Throughout the Seven Kingdoms, some individuals have superhuman powers known as Graces. A person’s Grace might be harmless or even useful, such as the ability to swim incredibly fast or to easily perform complex mathematics. But even those Graced with these benign abilities are viewed with suspicion and fear. Katsa, the niece of King Randa, is Graced with superhuman strength, which means that Randa uses her as a threat and a punishment to anyone who crosses him. Katsa hates being used to harm innocent people, and she has begun to fight back by forming a secret Council to rescue those whom Randa seeks to hurt. In the course of one of the Council’s missions, Katsa meets Po, a prince of a nearby kingdom who is Graced with fighting. As they become closer, Po encourages Katsa to stand up for herself at Randa’s court. The two of them also encounter a mysterious plot that sends them on a journey to the farthest reaches of the Seven Kingdoms, where they discover a king hiding a terrible Grace.

I bought this book when it first came out (10+ years ago!) because there was so much good buzz surrounding it; now I finally understand what the fuss was about! I found this book an enjoyable and compelling read. Katsa is a somewhat typical “strong female heroine,” but she’s saved from being too perfect because her Grace is powerless against the Grace of the book’s villain. I liked her stubbornness and independence, and I liked that she was nowhere near as emotionally fluent as the hero. Po is a dream of a love interest; not only is he handsome and able to fight Katsa as an equal, but he also truly respects her and doesn’t try to change her, even when she’s at her most frustrating. My biggest complaint with the book is that the pacing is odd. It almost seems like three different books — one at Randa’s court, another during Katsa and Po’s journey, and a third about the final showdown with the evil king. Personally, I was most interested in the first section, and I would have liked to read an entire novel about the Council and how Katsa finally gets the courage to stand up to Randa. Nevertheless, I would definitely recommend this book to YA fantasy fans!