Review: Fire

Fireby Kristin Cashore

Fire lives in a land where monsters roam.  They are as deadly as they are beautiful, luring their prey with their looks then happily devouring them.  Fire, herself, is a monster, more beautiful than any could imagine with hair the color of flames.  She is the last of her kind, the only remaining human monster.  Fire’s father was also a monster and he was evil, enjoying the pain he could inflict and the power he reaped from his ability to compel others.  Fire is afraid of becoming like her father and chooses to hide away in the country side, far away from the capital city where memories of her father’s viciousness still linger.  After the treacherous reign of the past king, whose close adviser was Fire’s father, Fire’s country is unstable.  As civil war threatens, the new rulers of the country need Fire’s help if they are ever going to be able to bring peace to the kingdom, but is Fire willing to allow herself to use her monster powers, even for good, if she risks becoming a true monster like her father?

Reaction: I LOVED Fire.  I will go as far as to say that I liked it more than Graceling.  With Graceling, I had read so much hype about the book it couldn’t possibly live up.  This time, I refused to read any reviews of Fire until I read it myself, which turned out to be a good move.  No one else’s opinion colored my reading and I fell into the story, completely hooked.  I loved Fire as a character.  I found that I could really empathize with what she was feeling.  She is so beautiful that it is hard for to make friends — some hate her for her beauty and others love her too much because of it — and so she keeps herself closed off from others.  Her small world in the northern part of the country keeps her safe but also extremely sheltered.  Fire also fears herself and her own abilities.  It is almost as if every time she uses her ability to enter someone’s mind and compel them, even if it is for a good cause such as keeping a person from harming her or others, she fears she will become her father.  As the story progresses and Fire’s world begins to open, it is great to see how new friends and an ever broadening view of the world help reshape how Fire sees herself and her abilities.  I loved many of the supporting characters, like Brigan, Archer, and Nash among others, and their different reactions to Fire.  I also really enjoyed how good and evil was not black and white.  Fire’s father was evil but he loved her and she couldn’t help but love him, so did that make him not completely evil?  In war, good people are forced to do horrible things, like kill other humans, does that make them not entirely good?  Good people make bad choices; bad people do good things.  I was impressed with how completely Cashore covered this point.

The one part of the book that I did not enjoy was the sections involving Lech, the evil graceling that causes so much trouble in the first book.  Fire begins with a prologue about Lech’s beginnings, his father and how he came to be in a different world from the one of Graceling.  The prologue lead me to believe that Lech was going to play a major part in the book’s main conflict.  Not so.  Lech makes an appearance but it has nothing to do with the civil war and is really just one more, I would say unnecessary, obstacle for Fire to go through.  Fire’s dealings with Lech seem tangential and could easily have been removed.

One final thought: sex.  It happens.  A lot.  Freely and casually and between many different characters.  It was never explicit, only implied, and it worked for me in the fabric of the story but be careful to whom you recommend this book.

Review: Once a Witch

Once a Witchby Carolyn MacCullough

When Tamsin was born, her grandmother predicted that she would be one of the most powerful Talents in her family’s history, but Tamsin’s Talent never appeared.  Now Tamsin is the only “normal” person in her family, living under the shadow of her supremely Talented and beautiful older sister, Rowena.  When a man comes into her grandmother’s bookstore looking for special help finding a missing item and mistakes Tamsin for Rowena, Tamsin can’t help but pretend, just for a moment, that she is her Talented older sister.  Tamsin always intends to set the record straight but one thing leads to another and Tamsin finds herself embroiled in a mystery that has her in way over her head.  With the help of an old friend, Tamsin is determined to solve the mystery, but she may not be prepared for what she is about to find.

Reaction: This book was a pleasant surprise.  I really hesitated over the premise — Tamsin posing as her sister, which usually is a plot device that just creates way too much tension for me to handle — but I am very glad that I gave it a chance.  Tamsin posing as Rowena turned out to be a fairly small part of the story, the catalyst to get the ball rolling, but the real meat of the story is Tamsin learning about her family’s history and learning who she is and how she fits into the mix of Talented people from whom she’s always felt isolated.  The back story of Tamsin’s family and the family history along with the idea of Talents with a capital “T” added interest to what could have been just another witch story.  The ending has closure but leaves enough open for another book.  While I think it works as a standalone, I certainly wouldn’t mind more time developing the Tamsin/Gabriel relationship. :)

Graphic Novel Round Up, Part 1

Recently I’ve read several graphic novels.  I’m not great at writing full-length, in depth reviews for them as I do for novels, so I thought I would do a compilation post, despite there being no real theme between them.  Here it goes:

Rapunzels RevengeRapunzel’s Revenge
by Shannon and Dean Hale
Illustrated by Nathan Hale (no relation)

A girl-power retelling of Rapunzel.  Rapunzel lives inside the walls of a beautiful, lush castle but cannot help but be curious about what lies beyond her gilded cage.  Going against the wishes of the only mother she’s ever known, Rapunzel scales the castle walls and gets a peak at the other side.  Outside the wall is a vast wasteland of people treated like insects and worked to the bone in the mines.  It is there that she meets her real mother, a woman she remembers to be kind and loving, a woman who is now one of Mother Gothel’s slaves.  Back inside the castle, Rapunzel confronts Mother Gothel with the truth and gets taken to the far reaches of the land and locked in a room atop a very tall tree.  Rapunzel’s story has only just begun.  When she escapes her treetop prison, she is determined to make it back to the castle to save her mother and the slaves.  She meets a handsome thief along the way and they decide to team up, but Rapunzel has a thing or two to teach him about the difference between right and wrong and helping other people.  Will they be able to make it to the castle without getting caught?  Will they be able to make a difference once they get to the castle?

A great graphic retelling of Rapunzel.  I enjoyed Rapunzel’s strength and goodness, and enjoyed when some of the traditional elements of fairy tales were upended.  For example, after saving herself from her treetop prison, she meets a self-proclaimed hero who tells her he is going to go rescue the girl trapped in the tower…well, not actually rescue her because he doesn’t want to incur Mother Gothel’s wrath but he’ll just tell her he’s going to rescue her and she’ll be too dumb to know otherwise.  Rapunzel happily points him to her now vacant tower and tells him to yell really loud since the girl in the tower is hard of hearing.  Full of humor, parts of other fairy tales thrown in (such as Jack and the Bean Stalk), and pretty color illustrations, it is a fun read for fairy tale lovers.

Black BirdBlack Bird, volume 1
by Kanoko Sakurakoji

Misao sees things that others can’t, spirits who constantly trip her or mesmerize her making her a bit of an oddity at school.  The only person she’s ever known who could also see the spirits was her childhood friend Kyo.  He was a bit older than her but she still has very fond, if not vague, memories of him.  He left ten years ago and told her he would be back for her.  While she really wants a boyfriend, no one can stand up to her memories of Kyo.  Now Kyo is back but he is not exactly what Misao remembered; he is a demon.  It turns out that Misao is the bride of prophecy.  Demons who drink her blood are granted a long life, those who eat her flesh gain eternal youth, and those who marry her will ensure prosperity for their people.  Misao just turned sixteen and that is the age the prophecy takes effect.  Now demons will be after her to injure her or kill her just to gain power.  Kyo is a demon and he wants to marry Misao.  Though she has feelings for him she can’t stand the thought that he only wants to be with her because of the power she could give him.  But as he continually saves her from other spirits and demons, even putting his own life at risk, she begins to wonder if he really is only doing it for power, if maybe he feels something else.

For the most part, I really enjoyed the first volume in the series.  My two main issues were: 1. I thought the translation seemed a bit choppy at parts making for unrealistic sounding dialogue and 2. Kyo’s obsession with getting Misao to sleep with him came up at the most awkward times.  The first got better the more I read.  The second continued to jar me out of the story.  I get that he’s trying to persuade her to marry him and the power that both the marriage and their coupling could give him would be great, but he comes across as pretty suave and then all of the sudden he’ll be like “OK, time for sex”.  There were better ways, it seemed, to introduce that topic.  I can definitely see why this one was rated T+.  Overall, though, I got sucked into the story and am looking forward to the release of the next couple of volumes. Go Misao and Kyo!

Souls Squared: A Review of Two Books

Last week I was looking for good recommendations for girly fantasy titles not involving vampires or fairies.  No one had any but that’s ok because not long after posting that I received My Soul to Take by Rachel Vincent and Meridian by Amber Kizer in on hold at the library.  You can guess what I’ve been doing the past couple of days! :)  I didn’t realize how similar these two books were when I originally requested them but reading them back to back made me think that they would be perfect paired together for review.  Both books deal with death and the release of a person’s soul after death.

My Soul to TakeI picked up My Soul to Take first, which was a bit surprising because I really had no interest in the title when I first heard about it…a girl who uncontrollably screams when someone dies, nuh uh, but the whims of a reader never make sense (at least my reading whims).

Kaylee Cavanaugh has lived with her aunt, uncle, and cousin for most of her life, ever since her mother died in a car accident and her father, deciding he couldn’t care for young Kaylee on his own, dropped her off and headed to Ireland.  Despite her father’s abandonment, Kaylee’s life is mostly normal, except for her attacks.  Her aunt and uncle, doctors, everyone seems to think these episodes are run-of-the-mill panic attacks, and Kaylee just needs some drugs and she’ll be fine.  Kaylee knows that’s not the case, she knows screaming endlessly for hours for no apparent reason isn’t normal but it’s not a panic attack and she’s not crazy and she doesn’t need drugs.  After a night out at a dance club, things simultaneously get better and worse for Kaylee.  The good: Nash, one of the hottest guys at school, seems to be interested in her and doesn’t even freak out when she has an “episode,” in fact, his presence and the songs he sings to her help calm her down from the worst of the attack.  The bad: Nash knows a secret about Kaylee, one that can explain everything she’s going through, a secret that her family has kept from her her entire life.  Also, Kaylee learns she screams when someone dies, and lately, Kaylee has been screaming a lot.

MeridianNext, Meridian (pretty cover, right?)  Death has followed Meridian her whole life, attracted to her like a magnet from the time she was a baby.  At first it was just insects but as Meridian grew, so did the size of the creatures that sought her.  Meridian has also almost always been sick.  She has trouble sleeping (I suppose anyone would if they woke up with dead things going bump in the night around them), she doesn’t eat much, her whole body aches and constantly seems as though it is physically falling apart.  She’s never really had friends and has always been considered weird.  Even her parents seem standoffish and are not as affectionate with her as they are with her younger brother, Sammy.  Young Sammy is the only one who seems to love and accept Meridian for herself.   On her sixteenth birthday, everything changes.  Walking home from the bus stop, Meridian witnesses a car plowing into and killing several of her classmates.  All of the death causes Meridian to completely collapse.  Her parents quickly ship her off to a bus station, give her a ticket and some money, and tell her to make her way to her aunt’s house in Revelation, Colorado.  They tell her they love her but she’s not to come back home because they won’t be there; they’re leaving as well and they don’t tell her where they’re going.  Meridian has no idea what’s going on and knows nothing about this aunt except that she sends quilts as birthday presents.

After a long, tiring journey, Meridian finally makes it to Auntie’s and Auntie reveals the big secret, one that Meridian should have been told a long time ago: Meridian is a Fenestra.  A Fenestra is half-human, half-angel and she provides souls a safe passage to the good afterlife (many would call it heaven).  Meridian must learn to control her power before it ruins her and in time to save herself and her loved ones from the evil beings that seek to destroy Fenestras and those who work in the light.

Reaction(s): Two very different books, two very similar themes.  In My Soul to Take, Kaylee’s screams allow her control souls as they depart from the dead, giving them time to say final goodbyes and guaranteeing they won’t be snatched by malevolent beings.  In Meridian, Meridian is a Fenestra who helps ferry souls between the living world and the afterlife. To my surprise, I enjoyed My Soul to Take better, though they were both good.  My Soul to Take ended up having fairies of sorts but it was such a different and original take on fairies that I didn’t mind that it violated one of my specifications. :)  I thought the back story was fairly well developed and I really enjoyed Kaylee and Nash as a couple.  While they had an instant bond, the “L” word was never mentioned.  I get really annoyed when characters fall instantly in love, though I know I’m in the minority.  Kaylee and Nash had instant attraction, which I think is totally believable, and a pull because they were two of a kind and different from pretty much everyone else they knew.  I’m interested in reading some of the next books in the series but not dying to do so.

Merdian wasn’t quite as tightly drawn as My Soul to Take.  The premise was very interesting and the characters had potential it just seemed like there was a bit too much going on to fully develop any one thing.  I wanted more practice time between Meridian and Auntie.  I wanted Tens and Meridian to have more time to develop their feelings.  In the end it turned into a jarring instant love with little transition between Tens’ veiled animosity and his love.  I wanted more time to understand the bad guy and a better battle with evil at the end.  Again, a great premise and a good story, I just needed a bit more from it.

Both stories dip into areas that are new to me in the fantasy genre and provide interesting takes on death, souls, and the afterlife.

P.S. I’m still interested in any fantasy with romantic subplot recommendations if you have any. :)

Plague

Plagueby Joanne Dahme

Nell looks exactly like Princess Joan and after Nell’s parents succumb to the plague, Nell and her brother George go to live in the castle where Nell works as Princess Joan’s body double in times of trouble.  Now several years after her parents’ death, Nell, George, and Princess Joan are off to Spain where Princess Joan is set to marry the Prince of Castile.  Unfortunately, Joan dies of the plague before she can meet her betrothed.  Refusing to give up the power the marriage would give to his family, Princess Joan’s brother, the Black Prince, blackmails Nell into posing as the princess and forces her to continue the journey to marry Prince of Castile as if she were Joan.  Nell does not want to go along with the plot and looks for every opportunity to escape.  Luckily, Nell has several people on her side and with the help of some unlikely good Samaritans — a minstrel, a monk, a gravedigger, and some merchants — Nell and George slip away from the Black Prince, but will they ever be free from his vengeance?

Reaction: Overall, I liked it but I found it a bit flawed.  It’s been awhile (maybe three weeks now?) since I read it and the things that have stuck with me about it aren’t necessarily the good things.  I thought Nell was a bit weak.  I think a lot of her weakness was understandable due to her position in life and the restraints of that position but I wanted her to do a bit more, be a bit more active in changing her own fate.  Also, her blind devotion to Princess Joan and the way she put Princess Joan above her own needs even after P.J. was dead bothered me, though, again, somewhat understandable due to her position.  George’s unexplained and sudden ability as a magical healer seemed out of place and unnecessary to the plot.  It took me out of the story as I tried to puzzle its significance when it didn’t seem to have any.  Finally, a big one for me, there was no historical note along with the text.  I am not familiar this period of English history so I was curious about what was true and what wasn’t.  Obviously the fantasy elements were not true but was the King a real king?  Was Princess Joan real?  What was the timetable of the plague?  I just wish there had been some note as to the historical background of the story.

The Plague did have many things going for it.  The best, I would say, is the dastardly villain, the Black Prince.  I loved his ability to control rats like a pied piper.  I can’t imagine having thousands of rats sent to chase after you and run all over you and squish you and bite you.  Ack!  Also, his use of rats and the fact that characters saw rats everywhere was great because of the plague.  I know enough about the plague to know that rats played a part in its spread.  I also liked the imagery of the plague worn country.  The plague was almost a main character itself because of its total effect on the people and the land everywhere the characters traveled.  The secondary characters were also amusing.  I especially loved the jolly gravedigger.  Oh, and the cover, pretty.  Even the hard shell is decorative.

FYI: Joanne Dahme, who also wrote last year’s Creepers, has another book coming out this summer that looks intriguing called Tombstone Tea — another ghosty, scary story.

Bones of Faerie

Bones of Faerieby Janni Lee Simner

Liza lives in a world much different from our own.  Liza’s world was changed when humans and faerie fought a horrible war, devastating both sides.  Liza has been brought up to believe that anything and everything to do with the faeries is bad, especially magic.  When her baby sister is born with pale, pale hair, a sure sign of magic, her father takes the baby to a hillside in the middle of the night and leaves her there to die or be taken by her own kind.  That is the world Liza knows.  When Liza herself begins to show signs of magic, she flees her small town to save herself and to save others from the horrors of her burgeoning powers.  With Liza goes her old cat Tallow, Matthew, another member of her town who is harboring his own secrets, and Allie, a young healer only just beginning to learn her own craft.  As Liza, Matthew, Allie, and Tallow embark on their journey, Liza begins to learn that the ideas drilled into her from birth may not be true, and magic may just be a saving-grace for her ravaged, war-torn country.

Reaction: Bones of Faerie is so much more than a fairy story.  It is also about war.  Liza is brought up to believe that the side of the humans was right and the faerie’s was wrong.  This black and white story of war does not do justice to the nuances of the actuality.  In real life, the humans were just as horrible to the faeries, possibly even more so, than the faeries were to humans.  War is not black and white but full of more shades of gray than possible for any one being to understand.

The story is also about abuse.  Liza’s father is verbally and physically abusive, unable to see past his own warped views of the world.  When Liza is late to work, he lashes her back leaving welts and bloody cuts.  If he were to find out that Liza was exhibiting signs of magic, he would not hesitate to slit her throat and kill her just as he killed his baby daughter.  What was fascinating, though, was the fond memories Liza carried of her father.  He taught her to hunt, to walk softly, use a bow and arrow, and to cleanly skin her kill.  He taught her many other survival techniques that come in handy to Liza while she is on her journey.  I think it is a sign of a truly great author to show the humanity of the monster.  Liza remembers both the good and the bad of the only father she’s ever known.

Of course, this story is about faerie.  It is also about so much more.  It is gripping and captivating.  It grabs you from the first line of the first chapter and carries through to the last line of the last chapter.  I cannot say enough about the awesomeness of this multi-layered tale.

Also: Janni Lee Simner wrote a short story that takes place in the same world as Liza’s called Invasive Species, which you can read here.

The Glass Maker’s Daughter

Glass Maker's Daughterby V. Briceland

Risa is the daughter of one of the seven most prominent families in Cassaforte, and because of her status, her future is to be decided by the gods during the Ritual of Scrutiny.  As the day for the ritual approaches, Risa is excited, wondering which of the two gods will pick her to study at their school, but when the Ritual of Scrutiny is performed over Risa, the unthinkable happens.  She remains unchosen, something that has never happened in the history of Cassaforte.  Stricken and ashamed, Risa retreats within herself and her craft, making beautiful glass bowls, but what Risa doesn’t understand is that the god’s have not maligned her but have a different fate in mind.  Not long after the day of the ritual, the power-hungry prince tries to take over Cassaforte and, in the process, begins to ruin the magical foundations that have helped Cassaforte stay a prosperous and peaceful country.  It is up to Risa and a rag-tag group of new friends to find a way to stop the prince before he ruins the entire kingdom.

Reaction: A solid, classic fantasy tale.  While I do love stories about fairies, vampires, and magic in our time, this story takes fantasy back to its roots, and that was refreshing.  Because of what I would consider the “classic” fantasy elements, some may find the story predictable but I found it to be comforting.  Also, Risa may not be liked by all.  She’s stubborn, a bit immature, a bit self-centered, and can be impulsive, but I liked this about her.  She was a very real teenager; teenagers are often stubborn, immature, self-centered, and impulsive.  But at her heart, Risa truly wanted to do the right thing, whether she chose the proper path to get there or not.  The supporting characters added flare to the story.  Milo, the fun-loving city guard and possible love-interest.  Milo’s sister, Camilla, who is the opposite of Milo, a very serious, studious guard, who is in love with a very serious, studious glass-maker.  Ricard, the People’s Poet who sings horrible, rhyming songs and whose one good song causes Risa lots of trouble.  And more, too many to mention.  If you enjoy more traditional fantasy like Robin McKinley or the Crown/Court Duet, I don’t believe you’ll be disappointed with The Glass-Maker’s Daughter.