Mortal Heart by Robin LaFevers

mortal heart

4 out of 5 stars

This is the third in a series. I would give the first one 3 out of 5 stars and the second 4. Unlike most series, where it starts out strong and goes a little downhill, LeFevers really seems to be coming into her own as this series progresses. I found the first one too boring and romance-y, the second exciting but too romance-y, and this one exciting and just the right amount of romance.

Each book in the series centres on the adventures of one of three young women raised as an assassin raised in a convent dedicated to the god of death. They are embroiled in the political intrigue surrounding Anne of Brittany and her war against the French in the late 1400s. I wouldn’t have normally read these books, but I REALLY loved the idea of assassin nuns. Each of the girls starts at the convent, but end up being centre in the regions politics, all the while confronting their faith, their comfort with killing, and the possibility of love and friendship. The books are loosely based in fact, but awesomely embellished with fighting, poisons, and gods.

There is a lot of tension and politics in this book, and not a ton of up-close action (there is some, just not as much as some fantasy). The books are a neat series, in that you get a view of the same conflict from three very different women, with very different personalities. It is a cool way to approach a series. Each of the girls has different skills and powers (being a handmaiden of death has its advantages) and the overarching plot unrolls like a huge tapestry over the course of the three books. I found the details for the time period convincing, with the inclusion of more strong female characters making it approachable for young girls. Having Wikipedia up afterwards to compare the historical notes to the book is a good idea. Anne of Brittany was a neat historical figure in her own right, and having a bunch of religious organizations dedicated to 9 different pre-Christians Gods mucking about (not to mention the gods themselves) made for a really neat read.

True Beauty by Priscilla Wu

true beauty

4 out of 5 stars.

This was recommended to me by one of our regular library patrons who absolutely adored it. It is obviously self-published, since I could not even find a library copy on our provincial system. No idea how our patron found it. I got a copy for Christmas.

This was very impressive for a debut novel. You can tell it is a first work, since some of the writing is a little shaky. The point of view changes within individual paragraphs, and in some parts you get thrown out of the story because of some flaw in the writing. That being said, she wrote it when she was 16. I could not have written something like that at 16.

Hana, our protagonist, starts off as an annoyingly perfect character: kind, smart and beautiful. As you go through, however, you realize she is flawed. That revelation of her character really endeared her too me. She is kind, but only to those who deserve it. She is judgmental and does not forgive easily. I was afraid she was going to be too sugary sweet to stand, but she was written with depth.

The various slaves she befriends have unique personalities which make them distinct. Wu also does not hold back any punches when describing slavery, going into details which I would not have expected given her youth during the writing process. Slavery, torture and rape are all explored.

The book has surprising depth for being so short. People die and it is heartbreaking. People make mistakes and are forgiven or condemned. The book is short but there is a ton of content, and I got attached to the characters very quickly and easily. The developing relationships are sweet, but compelling, and though some of the romance reads a bit too much like a teenage diary, I was still happy with the way things happened. My biggest problem with the book is that the ending was appropriate and satisfying for the characters, but did not address some of the bigger problems with the society itself. In some ways that is realistic. Some people were saved, and others were not. That is probably the way it would actually work out, but I am a little addicted to completely happy endings, so it was a little unnerving.

This was impressive for a first work. The writing was shaky, but the story was solid and the characters were very well done.

Ever Darkening by Janeal Falor

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I received an ARC of this book.

3 out of 5 stars.

The premise of this is really neat. Our protagonist Kaylyn has always been part of a group that seeks to wipe out every evil person from the face of the earth. Then, they finally do it. All the evil people are gone. So why are they getting a call for help from a nearby village?

Some parts of this book are excellent. It has evil sheep (sounds stupid, but done very well!), a cool premise, and a very interesting ending. My problem is that it reads like a romance trying to be fantasy. For being involved in both the end of her life’s mission and the start of a new earth-shattering disaster, Kaylyn sure spends a lot of time thinking about her potential relationship with another member of her crew. It is unbelievable and really distracting. It either feels like Falor really wanted to write romance and is just using the rest of the story as a structure to hang romantic feelings onto, or she did not have enough fantasy content to write an entire book, so she added in an unnecessary storyline to fill the gaps. I was disappointed, since the meat of the book was so good, but the forays into delicate feelings just really threw me off and unbalanced the entire read. On the plus side, it is short enough that, if you are intrigued by the premise like I was, it is not  a huge time commitment. I just think it had the potential to be so much better.

Seraphina and Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

seraphinaShadow Scale

4 out of 5 stars.

May contain spoilers for the first book.

This duo is so amazingly awesome it is hard to describe. It plays with the idea of dragons in a way that I have never seen done before. This is a new author that you are going to have to keep an eye on!!

Seraphina is a human-dragon hybrid in a land that has had only a few decades of extremely uneasy peace between dragons and mankind. In the start of the first book, Seraphina is convinced she is the only one of her kind and has to keep her identity a closely hidden secret, even after discovering a treacherous plot to disrupt the relatively new peace and teaming up with the prince and princess of the kingdom (Lucian and Glisselda) and her dragon uncle (Orma) to try and maintain the flimsy political situation in the region. This book deserved all the praise that it got.

The dragons in this world are a combination of Vulcans off of Star Trek and shape shifters. They worship logic and try to suppress all emotions to the point of too much evidence of feeling getting dragons sent in for reprogramming and removal of tainted memories. This is all very good in dragon form, where they have control, but they can take human form which comes with the requisite emotional responses. Since the treaty between the two species requires dragons in human territory to be in human shape constantly, the ambassadors and scholars living amongst humans have to try their best to understand and mimic our emotions without getting sucked into actually feeling them. The portrayal of aloof and dignified dragons trying to understand sarcasm is really quite appealing. The frustrations that humans deal with trying to explain emotions and customs to dragons is even more so. Most dragons in human shape are required to wear silver bells on their outfits, leaving them prey to roving gangs of dragon-hating thugs which furthers the tensions in the kingdom.

The religion in this world is very, very well done. There are patron saints of EVERYTHING, and all of them hate dragons, and the possibility of hybridity with humans. The descriptions of the various saints, their weird physical manifestations, and their bizarre miracles was a nice, but strange, element in both books.

Seraphina (our protagonist) is a very skilled musician, and an assistant to the court composer, so her understanding of the world is often presented in very musical and artistic terms. She also struggles between loving music and wanting to perform, and her desperate need to keep hidden. She is a brave, complex character. Her friendships and love interests are wonderful to watch start and develop, since she begins as such a closed off person. The love storyline I really enjoyed because it was properly framed within the larger story, encountered some interesting problems, and did not overshadow the action or become to mopey.

The best part of the books, and the main focus of the second, is the garden Seraphina creates in her mind as part of a meditation exercise to control other beings that keep trying to contact her psychically at inopportune moments, causing her to lose consciousness in fairly dangerous and awful ways. We find out fairly early on in the first book that these other beings are actually other hybrids that have telepathically connected with our heroine. She eventually comes to empathize with, and even love, some of them, seeing them as her friends and family, and making her mental habitat for them beautiful and suited to each of their personalities.

One of the plots in the second book is Seraphina going out to look for all of her hybrid friends in the real world. She had met a few in the first, but now she gets to track down the rest. This was brilliant for several reasons. One, we get a chance to see what these people look and act like in the real world, and how the characteristics of their garden avatars translate into reality. Two, we get to travel further around the imaginary world and see more of the scenery and visit other kingdoms, which have varying dragon-tolerance and other weird religions. Three, we get to see how the dragon characteristics manifest in other people, with differing physical and mental abilities. We also get to see how the various kingdoms’ attitudes towards dragons have affected the lives of other hybrids. This book also includes some of the missing history of her early days with her hybrids that was missing in the first book.

Both of these stories are vivid and wonderful. The worlds are rich and realistic and the characters are sympathetic and their struggles are real. I strongly urge anyone who loves fantasy, even if you do not often venture into Teen lit., to give these a try.

Chasing Ravens by Jessica E. Page

chasing ravens

I was given an ARC of this book.

4 out of 5 stars

For those of you who love fairy tales, this one is straight up out of that tradition. Anouk is a young healer with a gift for herbs who has to run away from an undesirable marriage into an adventure straight out of classical Russian fairy tales. Baba Yaga, Koschei the deathless, and the Rusalkas all play a role (if you do not recognize those names, go read some Andrew Lang and check back in after). Anouk’s kindness, determination, and knowledge of herbs are the only things that stand between her village and a brutal war with the trolls.

It is written true to form, with little to no internal dialogue and action taking up most of the text. This book pieces together lots of Russian and Eastern European fairy tale characters which I really enjoyed. The description of the forest and other landscapes was more vivid than you would usually find in fairy tales, but since this is a full-length novel the author had some room to include it without breaking the rhythm or mood of the story. Magic takes place with really no explanation needed, and randomly helping an animal in distress is always a good idea. There is little humour in this book, but lots of imagination and wonder. This is a great contemporary rewrite of the Russian fairytale tradition that really captures the spirit of the original tradition.

I am still unsure whether this is meant for older elementary or junior high students. I guesses elementary just because of the cover design and the age of the protagonist, but I think it could still be a valuable read for older kids (or adults) who love magic and fairy tales. I very much look forward to other books by this author if they are all similar in quality to this one.

The Magician’s Dream by Shawn Thomas Odyssey

the magician's dream

I was given an ARC of this book. This review may contain spoilers of the first two books.

4 out of 5 stars.

This is the third in the Oona Crate Mystery series. The books are a fun mix of mystery, fantasy, and historical fiction. Set in the 1800’s on a street caught in limbo between earth and faerie, Oona learns of the theft of a carbuncle that can bestow fairy-like powers on the wearer and potentially lead to the gates holding all the horrors of Faerie opening. Fortunately, she has some experiencing solving crimes. Unfortunately, the theft could not come at a worse time as Oona is right in the middle of an important magic project and is also trying to make time to hang out with her friend who works at the library. A clue left at the scene of the crime leads her to believe the theft is not unrelated to her father’s murder, so she must take the case, whether she has time to or not.

If you ever wished a Harry Potter novel solely took place in Diagon Alley, then chances are you are going to adore the world Shawn Thomas Odyssey has set up. It is full of people who accept magic as a reality, but still have to go about the everyday task of living. It is cut off from the normal world, but still guards it from evil magic.

In this addition to the series, we really see Oona starting to grow up, as her attentions towards her male friend become more romantic, and she starts to consider the appeal of having another female in the house. She also starts considering gender equality, as word of the women’s rights movement out in the real world starts filtering in. Oona spends some time considering her future and her place in her world.

I enjoy the weird mishmash of three different genres that these books are composed of, because it ends up being a really unique little world of its own. The combination of interesting plot, world, and character development made this a strong third in this series.

The Cage by Megan Shepherd

the cage

I was provided with an ARC of this book.

4 out of 5 stars.

This book is straight up science fiction. A group of teens is abducted by aliens and placed in a  habitat made up of different Earth biomes. They have to figure out if it is a zoo, experiment, or something more sinister as well as try to work together as a group and not go crazy and murder each other. Escape may or may not be an option.

This book is written from several different viewpoints and I really found it interesting to watch the personalities of the captive teens play off of each other, as well as slowly deteriorate under pressure. Some characters have histories linking them, some are strangers. They are expected to eventually mate and raise the next generation. They each deal with stress differently and watching the group try to stabilize itself as some try to escape and others want to stay safe was great.

Trying to figure out whether changes in the environment were internal sabotage or alien influence was also a good part of the book. One or more of the captives may be a spy for the aliens and a lot of the book is puzzling out the alliances and the motives of the characters. Also, alien abduction into a zoo-like environment seems like such an old sci-fi trope, but I haven’t really seen it done that often in the recent teen lit. that it was enjoyable seeing someone address it. I loved the character interactions in this novel, and trying to keep track of who may or may not snap was engaging.

I kind of regret reading this one so early because now I have to wait even longer for the sequel :(.