Ash & Bramble by Sarah Prineas

ash and bramble

4 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this work.

Positive points for this work: The premise and storyline are super creative. I love the imagination here.

Negatives: Another love triangle. Because YA lit does not already have enough love triangles.

Pin wakes up in the Godmother’s castle, with no recollection of who she is and where she came from. She is just one of many slaves tasked with creating fairy tale items. Her department is filled with tortured and starving seamstresses who create fabulous ball gowns. She soon befriends a shoemaker, struggling to create footwear for princesses. No one has ever escaped before, and those who try are brutally killed as examples.

Pin and Shoe (the shoemaker) do manage to escape, but Pin is recaptured by the Godmother and stuffed into the Cinderella fairy tale. It turns out the kingdom is governed by a force that attempts to shove everyone into a fairytale, and if they don’t fit, it destroys them. Pin and Shoe (and later Cor, Pin’s prince-to-be) all have to take on an evil Godmother and mindless Story force if they ever want to be anything but puppets.

Those who also read adult fantasy will find the premise of this book very closely resembles Mercedes Lackey’s Five Hundred Kingdoms series. Both centrally feature an unconscious force trying to shape lives to resemble fairytales. I have certainly enjoyed this premise before, and did very much enjoy it now. It is a pretty good explanation for some of the stupider decisions fairy tale characters make. “I was compelled to eat the house made out of gingerbread even though I should have immediately been suspicious!”, ” I had no moral problem trading my daughter’s life for mine even if it means shipping her off to live with a beast”, and “I thought lying to the King about my daughter’s ability to turn straw into gold could not possible backfire immediately!”.

The in-story explanation of where all the fairy tale items come from is brilliant. I have never had an author come up with an fairy tale item sweatshop before and I absolutely love the idea. Fairy Godmothers, fairies and Rumplestiltskins cannot just create something magically, they actually have a huge work force behind them slaving away to create all the shoes and dresses and carriages and gold that the stories use. Brilliant!

I really did not enjoy the love triangle. Pin struggles to decide between the two men she thinks she might love, as every YA heroine seems to struggle with that exact same decision. Apparently teen girls can never just fall for one guy. They have to add the burden of choosing between two people into the mix of adventure they are already dealing with. So what if I am already busy saving the world from zombies? I still have time to mull and brood over finding love, even if it means increasing danger of being ripped to shreds because I am not paying attention!! To all authors, editors and publishers reading this, please stop it with the love triangles. It is really getting stale.

This book also has a lot of smaller references to other fairy tales, so I would not call it a rewrite of Cinderella, as I would a mash-up of quite a few tales. Enjoy!

Winterspell by Claire Legrand

winterspell

2 out of 5 stars.

For having such a cool premise, this was a major disappointment.

Winterspell is a Nutcracker rewrite. Clara, our protagonist, is in trouble in 1899 New York. Her father is part of a dangerous gang that is slowly turning on him, and Clara has attracted the eye of one of the gang’s creepiest and oldest members. Her Godfather Drosselmeyer is the only one she can turn to, but that trust is broken when he reveals his magic and one of his statues comes to life and pulls Clara into an alternate world. The statue is a prince and the alternate world is his faerie kingdom he has been banished from by an evil usurping queen. As her father has also been pulled into this land, Clara must rescue her father and help the prince regain his kingdom.

The most bothersome part of this novel was the gross inconsistencies in Clara’s character. She starts off as a very shy, meek girl existing with all of the taboos of society in the late nineteenth century. Within the course of the novel she becomes sexually adventurous, tolerant of homosexuality and totally free from all taboos that defined her at the beginning of the book. Since this book only covers a few weeks of her life, this seems completely unrealistic. I like it when people who are repressed become comfortable with themselves, but doing it in a couple of weeks is not really how humans seem to work. You cannot undo a lifetime’s worth of programming in less than a month, especially if that month is spent in a weird alternate dimension full of faeries. Clara is either incredibly wishy-washy and mouldable, or just a poorly written heroine.

As for plot, it was not close enough to the original Nutcracker to be an enjoyable homage, but not strong enough to stand on its own without the few references it did contain. The land of the Nutcracker does not at all resemble anything in this book. The pastry and sweets filled land of enchantment is unrecognizable as a Fairy built iron dystopia (more complaints on that later). There is no mouse king. There are no pastries. The nutcracker prince was never a nutcracker. Legrand seems to have taken 2 names and the loose premise of a prince in disguise as an inanimate object and thrown away everything else. If it was not for the use of the name “Drosselmeyer”, this would be unrecognizable as a rewrite.

There is also the inclusion of faeries building a new utopia for themselves (dystopia for the poor humans and mages also living there) out of technology and metal. Faeries do not like iron. It burns them. That is one of the accepted premises of the faery myth that pretty much every writer sticks to. That is part of the legend. It was really annoying to have that flipped around on me without some sort of clever explanation. It was like Legrand wrote about unicorns without horns and then failed to mention why they were missing one of their most distinct characteristics.

The romance scenes were awkward and more than a little lurid. Watching the sexual blossoming of naive girl set at high speed was uncomfortable and struck me as disengenuous on the part of Legrand.

If someone wants a gritty dystopian rewrite of a classic, I will direct them to Danielle Paige. This one is just not worth the time.

Mad Miss Mimic by Sarah Henstra

mad miss mimic

3 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC of this work.

For those of you who do not think historical fiction gets enough representation in this blog, here you go, something historical! It does not even have any time travel!

Leo is beautiful, young, and an heiress to a large fortune. She should be swarmed with eager suitors, but they keep getting scared away by her speech problems. Not only does she have a stutter, but she also has the ability to perfectly mimic the speech of others. This crops up at the most inopportune times, leading Leo’s sister to nickname her rude and mimicking alter-ego “miss mimic”. Her sister is eager to marry her off, and now there seems to be the perfect man. Mr. Thornfax is gorgeous, wealthy, and does not seem to mind her speech problems. If only her thoughts did not keep wandering to her brother-in-law’s assistant Tom. If only opium was not becoming a serious social problem. If only a random terrorist organization wasn’t blowing things up.

Given how much I love Jane Austen and other classic books about young women struggling to get married, this was a pretty good match for me. A lot of this book is about someone struggling to fit into society and make an advantageous marriage. It describes gowns, social outings and gossip. I know that sounds boring for some of you science fiction and fantasy fans, but for you that is compensated for by the action-packed opium plot where Leo is pulled into the search for the Black Glove gang that insists on blowing up parts of the city. I would have been fine with just the marriage and stuttering plot line, but others may need more action.

The whole book has opium strewn throughout it. Characters ingest it, people die from overdoses and Parliament is debating whether or not to ban it. Writing about opium from a more historical perspective (a lot more medical than now) was a part of the work I enjoyed. It has a very Sherlock Holmes/ 19th century starving poet in a gutter feel about it.

Leo does not have a great personality, only showing interest in a  few things, but that may also be a side-effect of an impersonal and straightforward prose style. We spend a lot of time looking at what Leo does and feels about her speech problem and romantic life, but we do not see a lot of the rest of her. Because of her abnormality, she does not interact with a wide variety of characters so we cannot figure out a lot about her from her friends and family. Leo is a fairly flat character with some interests tacked on.

What really carried this story was its resemblance to other novels of manners, with the added twist of a protagonist with a speech disorder. I probably would have enjoyed it as much, if not more, without the Black Hand plot line. It mixed too much action and fast-pacing into a story that resembles the type of books that traditionally have little to no action at all.

This was not bad for a first novel. The mixing of action with close inspections of manners and daily social life was not done fabulously, but I still would like to see more from this author. Her premises are unique and intriguing.

Valiant by Sarah McGuire

valiant

3 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this work.

Despite the description, this book actually incorporates two different fairy tales. The Brave Little Tailor and Koschei the Deathless are both referred to.

Saville is the daughter of a Tailor who has dragged her and his precious fabric to the capital city of the kingdom. When he falls ill, Saville must dress up like a male apprentice and seek work to keep them both fed. Since her skills are equal to that of her father, she is able to work for the king. When a young boy she has rescued is captured by two giant scouts, Saville springs out to save him, and tricks the giants into leaving. Unfortunately, this causes her to become the city’s hero and now everyone is expecting her to defeat the army of giants commanded by an immortal Lord marching towards them. Since this is a war that cannot be won by strength, Saville is going to have to use all of her wits to save the kingdom.

This is one of those strange books that hangs right between the junior and YA designations. It is short enough, and the characters are uncomplicated enough that it could fit easily into a collection for older elementary kids. There is not a heavy moral or philosophical background to the story that a lot of YA books are now introducing (such as reproductive rights for women and proper responses to terrorist threats). Also, the main character, despite some romantic leanings, reads very young. The picture initially in my head was of Saville being between 10 and 12. She is not very emotionally complex. That all being taken into consideration, the romance in the end is more what you would see in a teen novel. I am not sure where I would put this if I were cataloguing it for a collection. Thematically it is very young, and the style of writing is very straightforward, but there is enough romance and thinking about romance that might not appeal to younger readers.

I liked the mashup of two very different fairy tales. Koschei is a very Russian/ Eastern European tale, where The Brave Little Tailor is very Western European. The Russian-ness of Koschei did not come through at all with the entire setting of the book and all of the characters being very Western European, but I love that McGuire tried. Usually the cool Eastern European stuff is either ignored or left in its own little bubble so it is great to see it included next to a very well know tale.

The tailor being a modest girl instead of a braggart boy was also a twist, and I do appreciate a protagonist winning because of wits instead of brawn. Saville’s entry into the political intrigue of the palace and her issues with her father add to the 3-dimensionality of the character, but because the writing is so straightforward, Saville never became as real to me as many other characters do.

I think this story is too short and simple to really be a huge deal to older readers, but I think it will work well for younger crowds and for anyone older who is looking for a really quick and cute read.

Stray by Elissa Sussman

stray

5 out of 5 stars.

I enjoyed this one a fairly silly amount.

Princess Aislynn has always tried to follow the Path, a system set out to keep Princesses pure and their magic contained, but her powers keep breaking out at just the wrong moment. If this continues, she could lose all chances of a good marriage and be condemned to a life as a fairy godmother.

Damn that is a cool premise. Sussman has taken a world of fairy tales (there are plenty of references all over to the classic tales) and turned it slightly dystopian. Princesses are forced to follow a strict religious and moral code to keep themselves pure and suppress any power or individuality they might have. They are watched over by fairy godmothers, disgraced princesses who have had their hearts removed and are set to the task of making sure other princesses do not stray.

A lot of the story also focuses on Aislynn’s relationship with her friends, parents and fairy godmother. There is romance, but also most of the other relationships you would expect a young woman to have. It really gives the character a very well rounded personality.

The antagonist of the book is a shadowy evil queen, ruler of a neighbouring kingdom who seems connected with the epidemic of missing girls. The more immediate evil, though, is the repressive, straight-laced society this is all taking place in. This is not a typical fantasy in that the protagonist does not set out to save the world. She does not even try to take down the repressive society she is in.

The story is mostly about Aislynn’s personal growth and discovery. She is not out to save the world, just to find herself. It is a magical and intimate story with a fantastic premise and great world building. I cannot wait to read the next by this author.

Seriously Wicked by Tina Connolly

seriously wicked

4 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC of this work.

This one was a lot of fun. Cam is being raised by a witch. She has to find ways of fitting homework into a schedule that includes gathering spell ingredients (how does a modern teen find a steady supply of goat’s blood anyways?) and dragon care. The witch is pushing her to follow in her footsteps, but Cam would much rather just be a regular teenager. She finally manages to find a boy she likes when one of the witch’s spells goes awry and he ends up inhabited by a demon. Now she has to figure out how to get a demon out of a person and stop the rest of the witch’s plan to rule the city by harnessing the power of an exploding phoenix, all without becoming the thing she fears most: just another wicked witch.

The most charming part of this story was the practical look at how hard it would be to practice witch-craft in the modern age. Sure you can get normal produce, but where the hell is high-schooler supposed to get eyes of newt? And it turns out spells are more like complicated logic and math problems, so just figuring out what you need is a chore and a half. I also really liked how fed up Cam gets at the witch’s constant nagging to be more like her. It is such a realistic situation (overly critical and pushy guardian) in such a fantasy setting. The witch’s most evil dream being to control the municipality is also hilarious. Magical powers and all she wants is to be elected to the local council.

This is a much less serious read than Tina Connolly’s other trilogy (which has also been reviewed by me and is fabulous) but is really light-hearted. A great summer read for those who love witches and humour!

All Clear by Connie Willis

blackout all clear

4 out of 5 stars

I think I finally found a science fiction book that my history-loving mother would like.

It is 2060 in Oxford. Time travel is begin used by historians to observe and document key events in human history (though some are so critical time travellers are not allowed near). 3 students have gone back to observe World War 2. Merope (Eileen) is in the British countryside taking care of war evacuees. Polly is watching the blitz as a shopgirl in London, and Michael is watching the evacuation of Dunkirk. All three complete their assignments when it becomes clear that the time travel drops to take them home are malfunctioning. They are all stuck in the middle of one of the deadliest wars in human history, with only a limited knowledge of upcoming bombings and troop movements.

I love the balance Willis has struck between the science fiction and historical elements in these books. On one side, the time travellers have an advantage over the contemporaries in that, for the time they were scheduled to be in the past, they have memorized which areas of the country get bombed and burned, so they are pre warned, for a while, of where is safe. On the downside, they live in fear of inadvertently changing the course of history. Time travel is supposed to prevent paradoxes and major changes to history, but small, worrying discrepancies start showing up. Each character experiences World War II both through the eyes of the people around them in the time period, and as a historian with the knowledge of the 21st century.

Willis does a great job of taking readers through the terror and tedium of being in London during the Blitz. People are terrified for their lives as bombs reign down, but also have to cope with how boring it is to be stuck in the dark every evening with nothing to do. Little details, like how precious pantyhose become and how difficult it is to navigate when all the road signs are blacked out really add a realism to the text. All three characters have to survive the war, try to find a way back to the future, not get arrested as spies, and try not to wreck history.

There are a lot of complaints on Goodreads about these books being tedious, but I found the pacing to be in line with other historical fiction I have read. Willis does go into a lot of detail about the day-to-day doings of the characters, but that makes the setting real. There is not as much action as science fiction fans might expect, but there is a lot of character development that kept me interested.

I really enjoyed learning about World War II through a science fiction lens. I was constantly popping onto Wikipedia to read articles about the events and people. These are great for historical fiction buffs or anyone who loves time travel.