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!

Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January

Ten Thousand Doors of JanuaryAlix E. Harrow, The Ten Thousand Doors of January

In the first years of the 20th century, January Scaller lives a small, safe life in the home of her guardian, Cornelius Locke. Locke House is large and richly appointed, full of rare treasures from faraway lands. January’s father works for Mr. Locke by finding these treasures, so he is often gone for months or years at a time. As a result, January grows up feeling lonely and out of place. Then one day she finds a book called The Ten Thousand Doors, and it introduces her to the concept of Doors, or portals to other worlds, which introduce change and new ideas and revolutions. January is captivated by the book and by the idea of Doors, especially when the book turns out to have a connection to certain surprising abilities of her own. Eventually January sets off on a quest for her past, a quest that involves finding and passing through the right Door. But a malevolent society of rich and powerful men is bent on closing the Doors, and she must ultimately use everything she’s learned to preserve the freedom of multiple worlds.

If you’re looking for a fast-paced YA adventure novel, this is not the book for you. It takes its time in setting up January’s character, her world, and a seemingly unrelated plot that (predictably) ties in with the main story. In fact, nothing really happens plot-wise until about halfway through the book! Normally this would bother me, but in this case, I was immersed in the lovely writing and the magical, faintly gothic atmosphere. I’m not usually someone who reads for setting or style, but there are some books that you just sink into — that feel like magic — and for me, this is one of those books. In terms of characters, this is very much January’s story, and much of the book focuses on her thoughts and reactions to things. I would have liked some more insight into Jane and Samuel, two of January’s allies who help her in her quest. We do get their backstory, especially Jane’s, in some depth, but I never felt like I really got to know them as people or understand what made them tick. The book contains some (slightly heavy-handed, I thought) social commentary and a lovely, quiet romance. Overall, I really liked it and think it will end up on my top 10 list for 2019!

Review: The Woman Who Died a Lot

Woman Who Died a LotJasper Fforde, The Woman Who Died a Lot

This seventh book in the Thursday Next series continues the madcap adventures of Thursday Next, her family, and the alternate-reality Swindon that is obsessed with all things literary. Thursday is now middle-aged and struggling with the fact that she’s not as physically resilient as she used to be. She hopes to become the head of a newly reinstated SpecOps 27 (the division of the government dealing with literary crimes), but instead, she’s offered the job of Chief Librarian of Swindon All-You-Can-Eat-at-Fatso’s Drink Not Included Library, a plum assignment that gives her absolute power within the library’s domain. But there’s still plenty of trouble to go around. Her son Friday’s career at the ChronoGuard is halted when time travel is ruled impossible, and he’s now coming to terms with a very different destiny. Meanwhile, the Global Standard Deity is preparing to smite Swindon within a week, unless Thursday’s genius daughter Tuesday can find a way to stop it. Not to mention, the sinister Goliath Corp is up to its usual skulduggery, and more than one person seems to want Thursday dead.

I’m a longtime Fforde ffan, but I haven’t been as impressed by his last few books. Maybe the novelty of his humor has worn off for me, but I was only intermittently amused by this installment. There are still a lot of fun jokes and gags and wordplay, but the whole seems like less than the sum of its parts. The Thursday vs. Goliath stuff was fine, but it felt like a retread of previous books with nothing particularly new to add. The Chronoguard stuff was more interesting — I especially enjoyed the idea that time travel works (or used to work) because someone would invent the technology in the future, and therefore it could be used in the present. I wanted a little more about Thursday’s Librarian gig, but her library-related adventures are fairly peripheral to the main plot. In fact, I’m realizing that there aren’t a lot of literature-related hijinks in this novel. Unlike the first few books, which were constantly jumping into and out of specific literary worlds, this one doesn’t contain many literary allusions at all. Maybe that’s why earlier books in the series worked for me better than the last few. Regardless, I’m glad to be caught up with the Thursday Next series, but I’m also glad that it’s now (as far as I can tell) complete.

Review: The Goblin Emperor

Goblin EmperorKatherine Addison, The Goblin Emperor

Maia’s father is the emperor of all the Elflands, but Maia has spent his entire life in exile because of the emperor’s disdain for Maia’s mother, whom he married solely for political reasons. Maia’s mother died when he was young, so he has grown up in isolation with his abusive cousin Setheris as a guardian. But everything changes for Maia when a messenger from the imperial court brings shocking news: Maia’s father and all his half-brothers have been killed in an airship accident, and Maia is the new emperor. Though Maia has no choice but to do his duty and accept the title of emperor, he is horrified. He is young, ill educated, and completely unprepared for the intrigues of court life; moreover, it’s clear that many of the courtiers aren’t thrilled to have an 18-year-old half-goblin as their ruler. Now Maia must quickly learn how to be the emperor his country needs, distinguish friend from foe, and investigate his father’s death, which may not have been so accidental after all.

This is a book with a high degree of difficulty, but I’m happy I stuck with it because I ended up really liking it. The challenging elements are as follows: first, the world of the book is very detailed and elaborate, but the reader is flung into it without explanation. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — I find exposition-heavy infodumps much worse — but it does make the book hard to follow at first. The second challenge is the language: not only are the names of people and places impossible to pronounce or spell, but characters use a formal “we” when speaking of themselves and an informal “thou” when speaking to their close friends. I actually liked this archaic use of pronouns, but it requires a mental adjustment to get into the flow of the dialogue. And finally, not much happens in the book, plot-wise; Maia mostly drifts from one situation to another and tries desperately not to make a fool of himself. Nevertheless, he’s such a sympathetic character, and the world he’s navigating is so fascinating and well built, that I truly enjoyed the book anyway. I think it would appeal to fans of setting-heavy fantasy novels like The Night Circus.

Review: The Seat of Magic

Seat of MagicJ. Kathleen Cheney, The Seat of Magic

Two weeks after the events of The Golden City, Duilio is missing Oriana and getting slightly worried: he’s had no word from her since she left his house for her sereia homeland. But he has plenty of distractions to occupy his mind: it seems that someone is killing prostitutes in the Golden City without leaving a visible mark on their corpses. And someone — the same person, or someone else? — is murdering nonhuman individuals and removing their magical body parts. As Duilio and his cousin Joaquim investigate these crimes, they once again uncover dark magic and a plot that threatens the very existence of Northern Portugal. Meanwhile, Oriana learns some shocking information about her family and realizes that her own past may be directly connected to the conspiracy Duilio is uncovering. Together, Oriana and Duilio must act to prevent a political catastrophe — and also finally to address their feelings for one another.

I liked but didn’t love the first book in this series, and I find myself feeling the same way about this installment. I probably prefer it slightly to The Golden City because there’s less exposition about the world and the major characters. I also think the mystery plots are a little tighter and better integrated with each other. My favorite part of this book was Duilio’s relationship with the infante, who — as brother of the reigning prince and next in line for the throne — is kept under house arrest to prevent a coup. The infante is a fun character, and I enjoy a good political intrigue plot, so I was definitely on board for that storyline. I also liked learning more about Joaquim and getting inside his head a little bit. As in the first book, I think the murder-and-magic stuff is actually the weakest part; but at least it ties in well with the other plot lines in this installment of the series. Finally, I was glad to see how Duilio and Oriana resolved their relationship conflicts. Overall, I’m not racing to pick up the next book, but I do plan to continue with the series at some point.

Review: Sorcery of Thorns

Sorcery of ThornsMargaret Rogerson, Sorcery of Thorns

Elisabeth is an orphan who was raised in a Great Library among the grimoires, books that have been enchanted by the demonic power of sorcery. She hopes one day to become a warden so that she can protect the pubic from the evils they contain. When one of the library’s most dangerous grimoires escapes, Elisabeth successfully stops it from harming anyone, but her presence on the scene is viewed as suspicious. She is taken to the capital city to be tried for sabotage, but there she soon realizes that this one incident is part of a much larger and more dangerous plot. Her only ally is Nathaniel Thorn, a powerful sorcerer whom she has every reason to distrust. But as they work together to discover the real saboteur’s identity and purpose, Elisabeth learns that there is more to sorcery — and to Nathaniel — than meets the eye.

I’ve become somewhat disenchanted with YA fantasy recently, but the premise of this novel intrigued me, so I decided to give it a try. And I’m so glad I did, because I really loved it! Elisabeth is in some ways a typical YA fantasy heroine; she’s great with a sword (despite never having been trained) and has hitherto-unsuspected special powers. But she also strikes me as a real person, someone who has to confront her fears and prejudices as she learns that the world is more complicated than she thought. And I adored both Nathaniel and his demonic servant, Silas; their relationship is almost more compelling than that between Nathaniel and Elisabeth. The plot is exciting and action-packed, and I love that the villain’s identity is revealed early on; the book doesn’t underestimate its readers’ intelligence. Most of all, I enjoyed the flashes of humor throughout the book, as the characters joke and tease even in the most serious, life-threatening situations. In short, I loved this book and will definitely seek out Rogerson’s previous novel, An Enchantment of Ravens!

Review: Arcanos Unraveled

Arcanos UnraveledJonna Gjevre, Arcanos Unraveled

Anya Winter is an adjunct professor at Arcanos Hall, a magical university hiding in plain sight in Madison, Wisconsin. As a mere hedge witch, she’s neither powerful nor prestigious, but she doers have a talent for knitting magical artifacts. She also seems to have a talent for getting into trouble: first the magical shield protecting Arcanos from the mundane world is sabotaged, then Anya’s student needs help hiding a dead body, and finally Anya is blamed for the shield’s malfunction and banished from Arcanos altogether. In order to reclaim her place at the university, she’ll need to figure out what’s really going on, even if it means teaming up with a mysterious, frustrating, and handsome engineer named Kyril. Together, they uncover a nefarious plot that will have consequences for the entire magical world.

I found this book an enjoyable read, but there was a little bit too much going on for my taste. Or rather, the book keeps offering glimpses of interesting things — how the knitting magic works, for instance, or what is the broader political situation in Anya’s world — but never really develops them. I don’t normally read for setting, but I would have appreciated some more world-building here. Also, a few plot threads are never satisfactorily resolved: for example, what became of the woman in the red leather dress? There’s a bit of a romance between Anya and Kyril, but it feels very superficial (he’s so annoying! Yet so handsome!). There’s also Anya’s ex-boyfriend, who is such an obvious slimeball that it made me doubt Anya’s intelligence. Overall, I liked the premise and the basic outline of this book, but I wanted more from it.

Review: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles

Enchanted Forest ChroniclesPatricia C. Wrede, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles

These four stories take place in a fractured-fairytale setting and center around Cimorene, a princess who refuses to be proper. In Dealing with Dragons, Cimorene wants to escape marriage to a handsome but dull prince, so she runs away and offers to become the princess of the dragon Kazul. She has many adventures in her new life, most importantly thwarting some meddlesome wizards who hope to steal the dragons’ magic. In Searching for Dragons, Mendanbar, the king of the Enchanted Forest, needs to find out who is stealing magic from the forest, so he teams up with Cimorene to discover that those pesky wizards are at it again. Calling on Dragons follows the witch Morwen, who discovers yet another wizard plot and must alert Cimorene and Mendanbar, with the help of her nine cats and a magician named Telemain. Finally, in Talking to Dragons, Cimorene’s son Daystar has his own adventure and learns about his past as a result.

What a delight these books are! They’re marketed for children, but they contain so much sly humor that they can definitely be enjoyed by adults as well. It’s fun to catch all the references to, and subversions of, fairytale tropes: for example, in the first book, Cimorene is perpetually annoyed by knights and princes who keep trying to “rescue” her.   I also really loved all the main characters in these books, especially the women. Cimorene is a delightful heroine, strong-minded and pragmatic, who can solve any problem that comes her way, including melting a troublesome wizard. And the witch Morwen reminds me a great deal of Professor McGonagall — stern, but with a heart of gold underneath. I unapologetically shipped her and Telemain! Some things didn’t quite work for me, such as the rabbit-turned-donkey in the third book; he’s meant to be comic relief, but I found him a little much. And Shiara, a main character in the fourth book, seems a little bit too much like Cimorene. But all in all, I really enjoyed these books and am frankly annoyed that I don’t know any eight- or nine-year-old children to share them with!