Snow Like Ashes and Ice Like Fire by Sara Raasch

snow like ashes  ice like fire

3 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC of the second book

Spoiler alert for the first book.

The world invented for this book is really neat. There are eight major kingdoms in the land, 4 seasons and 4 rhythms. The seasons are named after the seasons and are all eternally stuck weather wise in their namesake. Our protagonist is from Winter. The 4 rhythm kingdoms (not named after musical rhythms as far as I can tell) get the full complement of seasons, but each have a national interest/ characteristic that is determined by their ruler. For example, one is mostly concerned with rational thinking and has a lot of libraries and universities.

Magic within the land is controlled by the 8 rulers, with each kingdom needing a gender-specific ruler to wield their object of power. With the magic, the ruler can give his/ her kingdom and its citizens strength and good fortune and lead them in battle if need be. The sovereign can also keep the people mostly concerned with a certain type of life, so the ruler of the kingdom who enjoys rationality can make her citizens more studious.

When the first book opens, Winter has been attacked and its citizens enslaved by Spring. Meira is part of a very small band of escaped refugees who managed to sneak her and the crown prince out during the initial massacre when they were infants and they are all trying to get their kingdom back. Their main concern is getting the locket that connects their ruler to magic back. The invading army and their king Angra killed most of the royal family and snapped the locket in half, hiding one half around Spring/Winter and the other half around Angra’s neck. Once the locket is together, they hope to gain allies amongst some of the other kingdoms and march against Spring.

Meira eventually manages to find one half of the locket, but since the other one is always on Angra’s person, the Winterians turn to their quest for allies. The only kingdom willing to help is Cordell, and their king Noam puts a heavy price tag on his help: he wants his son and heir to marry Meira and expects to have full access to Winter’s fabled mines to search for the source of all magic. With nowhere else to turn, the Winterians agree, but Noam quickly sells them out to Angra. It is discovered over the course of the book that Meira is actually the princess of Winter and can channel the magic. The book ends with Meira and the refugees gaining their kingdom back, but deeply indebted to Noam. At least his son, Theron, is sympathetic to Meira.

The second book is quite different from the first. The first focuses on a small group of rebels and has a lot of action sequences. The second is a lot more political. Now, Meira is Queen and must politically maneuver her kingdom out of Noam’s grasp and into better relations with the other countries. She and Theron set out on a cross-kingdom tour, Meira to locate some mysterious objects and Theron to plead for peace.

The setting of the second book is much more exciting because we see so much more of the world. We are introduced to almost all of the other kingdoms and their rulers. Meira’s decisions also become much more complicated as she is now acting on behalf of all of her people instead of a small group of rebels. She has trouble knowing who to trust, especially as she meets other rulers who all have their own agendas. The cast grows quite a bit in the second book and the characters mature. The plot gets a lot more complicated since there are several characters working at cross-purposes.

Overall, I really enjoyed the magic and the world building of this series. I have never had a fantasy series that focused this much on seasons and I liked what Raasch did with it. On the other hand, none of the characters really struck me. Meira is such a stock strong girl with no flaws distracted by love that I did not click with her. There are too many YA female protagonists that read exactly the same way. The plots were morally simple good versus evil and, while it occasionally comes close to some interesting points on politics and the moral responsibility of absolute rulers, it was not explored enough to make it a central feature. I love the world, but the rest just didn’t do anything great for me.

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The Diviners by Libba Bray

diviners lair of dreams

4.5 out of 5 stars each

I received an ARC of the second book.

I have not read a ton of fiction set in the late 1920’s (partially because I REALLY hate flapper fashion), but Libba Bray was really worth it. She really sets a scene so well. Some of her chapters, perhaps as an homage to John Steinbeck, start out with a broad description of the time and place (New York) that really draw you into the time period. She also added a bunch of slang and references to activities and people of the time. It is nice to have wikipedia open to look up some of the things she mentions. It would also be a good idea to have a cd of smooth early jazz playing in the background while you read (Libba Bray has some playlists right on her website, http://www.thedivinersseries.com/#!/page=DivinersRadio).

When Evie gets in trouble at home for using her ability to “read” the history of objects, she is packed off to live with her uncle in New York. Since Evie wants to live the big, glamorous lifestyle of the movie and radio stars, it is not the punishment her parents think it will be. Her uncle runs a museum that studies the paranormal and soon after Evie’s arrival he is called in to consult on a rash of ghoulish murders. Evie’s talents may provide a key to stopping the psychopath, if she can harness them in time. Along the way she is joined by other young New Yorkers, some of whom are also harbouring secrets and powers.

In the second book, New York citizens are being plagued by a sleeping sickness, where they are dragged into dreams while their bodies slowly decay. Evie is so occupied by her own stardom as a Diviner that some of her friends have to take over the bulk of the investigation into the phenomenon, especially Ling (a Chinese-American girl) and Henry (a gay aristocrat). This gave the book more of a feel of a companion book instead of a sequel. Evie is almost relegated to a secondary character as some of the people from the first book take the centre stage. I really enjoyed that since I find Evie’s party girl character a lot less appealing than academic Ling and haunted Theta. This book is a bit more abstract than the first, since more of it takes place in a dream world, but it still has the paranormal thrill that characterized the first.

There are a lot of good characters in this series. Libba Bray has provided a cast that spans different races and sexual preferences, something I look for in teen books. Both books deal quite a bit with racism (given the time period it is especially pertinent) and all the characters are flawed enough to come across as human. There are multiple romances going on, but they do not overshadow the main plot. There are friendships and family relationships as well as romantic ones. The books jump between viewpoints, so we see America through African-American, Chinese-American, and European-American lenses. Sometimes I don’t enjoy multiple POV books, but Bray has made her characters distinct enough that it was delightful to get inside of their heads.

Plot-wise, both of these books have more going on than is usual in YA. There is the main strain of the characters hunting down the paranormal threat, but there are a substantial number of side plots. Theta and Memphis struggle with a mixed race relationship in a time period where that did not go over well, even as Memphis is struggling with his own diminished powers, his brother’s reception to the paranormal, and a blind beggar who seems to know more than he is telling. Sam is trying to track down his mother and find out more about the secret government project that may be behind her disappearance and Theta is running from her painful past. The books are never boring since there are so many threads to keep track of.

Between the two I found the first one creepier, since the murders were rather gruesome, and the second one more interesting. I liked the inclusion of a Chinese-American character who takes a more scientific point of view of her powers and tries to think through things rationally. She also provided another example of racism at the time, as she and Memphis are treated differently than the other characters, especially when Chinese immigrants start being blamed for the sleeping sickness. We also get more of the characters meeting each other, so watching them play off of different personalities made them more fleshed out. Libba Bray deals with a lot of issues at the time, from Eugenics and the KKK, to immigration and the people who preyed off of them, to racism and homophobia, so these books would make a great accompaniment to a history lesson on the roaring 20’s.

This series is rich and satisfying.There is wit in the dialogue and the writing flows smoothly. The addition of ghosts and mystery to the late 1920’s works so well that I would readily recommend these to any reader junior high and above (some grade fives and sixes might also be able to handle them, depending on how strong they are at reading).

The Witch Hunter by Virginia Boecker

witch hunter

3 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC of this book.

The description of this book on Goodreads really drew me in. It sounded a lot like a fantasy version of the Salem Witch Trials, so instead of hunting and burning scared old women, they would be facing off against real witches. So cool! There could be these epic battles between witches and witch hunters and it would be really exciting and imaginative.

What I got was somewhat inventive. Elizabeth is one of the best witch hunters in the kingdom, until she is caught with herbs in her pocket and sentenced to death. She is rescued from jail, but instead of her best friend, it is the kingdom’s most wanted wizard who breaks her out. Now also a wanted criminal, Elizabeth has to decide who will finally win her loyalty.

What was unfortunate about the setup of this book is Elizabeth spends so much time in hiding with the rebel witches and wizards the setting and the magical system never really get explored to the reader’s satisfaction. There is not much before and after her hiding away so we don’t see much of the world, and since the witches don’t really trust her, we do not get to see how magic works in this fictional universe. Most of the book seemed to be short conversations with various characters in which biographical details were gained, and Elizabeth trying to figure out who to trust. There does end up being some action at the end, and there is a dramatic reveal of hitherto unknown information, but the promise of the premise gets really overridden by a plot that really restricts information about the world it is set in.

We never get to know the characters very intimately. We see Elizabeth react to quite a few different stimuli, but you never get a real sense of her personality or inner voice. We have even less sense of the other characters. There are a couple rebel boys her age and I kept getting them confused since they seemed so similar. I would have enjoyed this book a lot more had I gotten to know the characters better. I found it difficult to care about what happened to them because, even most of the way through the book, they were still strangers.

The plot was very standard, with no real surprises. Girl works for evil government, girl meets rebels, girl falls for one of the rebels, girl has to decide who to trust. There was nothing you really couldn’t see coming if you are familiar with the genre. It wasn’t bad, just not very innovative.

I was fairly disappointed in this book because I had come in with fairly high expectations. It is entertaining and I am glad I read it, but nothing really caught my attention as groundbreaking.

Tangled Webs by Lee Bross

tangled webs

3 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC of this work.

Arista was raised as a thief and pickpocket and now is one of London’s most recognizable criminal figures: Lady A, who will pay generously for the secrets of the nobility. What most people do not know is that Lady A is just a puppet for Bones, the man who rescued her from poverty-filled death, but was still really abusive.

Another criminal, Wild, offers her a way out of Bones’ clutches, but into his. Caught between a rock and a hard place Arista takes his offer and is placed in the home of a wealthy merchant. She continues to deal in secrets, but slowly comes to love the son of the merchant, Grae. She desperately wants to escape with him, but Bones and Wild are both unwilling to let her go.

This book started off looking like it was going to lead to a love triangle, but it actually did not really end there, which I appreciate. But, there was a lot more relationship time than I would have wanted given the premise of the novel. I wanted a historical novel about a cool, brave heroine who sneaks around and blackmails the aristocracy. I wanted political and social tensions and then some action. What I got was romance, more romance, and a bit of sneaking and lying. Everything about Arista’s criminal life seemed just like set dressing for the romance and relationship stuff.

What I did get of the crime plot line was neat. Lady A trades secrets amongst aristocracy. Someone will pay her big to find out that one of their rivals is illegitimate, but will have to pay for that secret with one of their own. Bones ends up collecting the money, but Lady A is the one who physically goes out and meets the customers at fancy balls and dinners. She is a street urchin made up like a lady, trying to pass as belonging to a world she can only briefly visit. She eventually wants to escape to India with her maid, and she takes the deal with Wild, hoping she can save enough to catch a ship over one day. Her two lives as Lady A and a pauper collide when she is set up in a household and expected to act like a well bred young lady, but not reveal that she is the infamous blackmailer.

Arista is a proactive enough protagonist that I really enjoyed reading about her exploits, but she does spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about boys. That is where this book really failed me. The action parts were great, but too few and far between. Read  this if you want a lot of romance in your historical fiction. If not, maybe give it a miss.

Mirrored by Alex Flinn

mirrored

3 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC of this work.

Possible spoilers ahead for those that do not know the Snow White fairy tale.

Alex Flinn has me torn in a way I rarely see with other authors. I really adored Beastly (the addition of IM into the text was used very cleverly), like Bewitching and A Kiss in Time, tolerated Towering and barely made it through Cloaked. I can’t think of any other author I have this wide range of opinions about besides Orson Scott Card.

Mirrored is the story of Snow White told in three parts. The first is the story of the evil stepmother (named Violet) and the tragic childhood that drove her to be the cruel maniac we know from the fairy tale. The second part is the story of Snow White herself (Celine) as she hits high school with Violet as a stepmother. The third part is from the POV of Celine’s best friend as he struggles to find a modern day prince to kiss Celine awake.

I really enjoyed the first section, the childhood of the ugly and bullied Violet. Celine’s father originally had been Violet’s closest (and only) friend, but over one summer he grows handsome and ditches her for Celine’s mother. From then on Violet becomes obsessed with beauty as the only way to make her friend love her again. All of her energy, and then her eventual magic talent, go towards making herself the most beautiful woman of all, thinking that that is the only way she will ever be loved. It is a really sensible backstory for a character that becomes insanely jealous of another person’s looks and really makes her a reasonable character (rather than just being obsessed with her looks out of the blue)

Celine, in her chapters, reveals herself to be ashamed of her beauty, since it causes her stepmother to hate her. She is extremely shy and only has one friend until she meets Goose, an outgoing but height-challenged boy in the school musical. Celine ends up spending more and more time out of her house as her stepmother gets increasingly jealous. Things come to a head when Celine’s father dies and Kendra (a witch whose presence is the one connecting thread through all of Flinn’s fairy tale rewrites) figures Violet is now free to murder Celine.

Goose’s chapter focuses on his quest to save Celine while discovering his feelings for her and Kendra trying to keep Violet from finishing off a now comatose Celine. The seven dwarves end up being Goose (he has a form of dwarfism) and his brothers and sisters. I thought that was a cute touch.

All three chapters end up really focusing on what beauty is. Both female protagonists are beautiful and react very differently to it, while Goose too short to be considered classically very attractive. While they do not discover anything truly earth shattering, it is still a really good message, especially for young teens who may be going through the awkwardity of puberty.

There were some clever bits in this story, and I did appreciate the inclusion of a backstory for the main antagonist. I like it when my villains have some sort of reason for being evil and crazy. Mirrored ends up containing more of the charm I remember Beastly having so I enjoyed it more than a lot of his other works. It is not good enough for this to be a first round pick for a recommendation list for someone new to the fairy tale rewrite genre, but I would give it to those who have worked their way through my favourites.

Eden’s Wish by M. Tara Crowl

eden's wish

4 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC of this work.

Eden has had enough of being a genie. She is constantly stuck inside the lamp, only getting to see the sky when she is briefly summoned to grant wishes. Her only entertainment is tricking the mortals who are wishing, a pastime frowned upon by her genie teachers. When she finally sees a chance to escape, she takes it… and lands buried in a California beach. A couple of kids her age dig her out and give her a place to stay. At first she revels in the freedom, but it turns out her vacation has disrupted the genie world more than she thought. Her teachers have called in some genie alumni to come and persuade her to get back to her genie destiny, while other former genies want to grab the lamp and power for themselves. Eden has to decide which of the two groups will earn her loyalty, even if neither offer the true freedom she craves.

This book puts a lot of detail into the genie mythos that is usually missing. Like: where do genies come from? Are they ever freed? What do they do between wishes? How do lamps end up travelling? Wouldn’t you just pass it to a friend once you were done and keep all the wishes in the family?

In this world, Genies have to grant 999 wishes, and the 1000th wish sets them free to live on earth as immortal, beautiful creatures. When one genie is done, another is born to take her place. They are trained by two teachers and spend most of their time stuck in the lamp. There are certain restrictions on wishes (like no raising the dead), and the lamp randomly appears somewhere on earth once the last user is done with it. Crowl did a great job bulking up her story with these kinds of details. She has obviously put some thought into this whole genie gig and weaves it nicely into her narrative.

Eden isn’t a hugely complex character, but this is a junior novel so I did not expect a huge amount of introspection from a 12 year old genie. Eden is forced to make a difficult decision at the end of the book, however, and Crowl did not introduce some sort of deus ex machina to take the problem away before the protagonist has to face it. I really appreciate her showing that even a young protagonist must sometimes make hard decisions and not everyone gets a complete happy ever after. Eden is brave, smart, and just starting to rebel so will be very identifiable for a mid-elementary level readers.

This book is mostly action as Eden and her new friends dodge various groups of determined ex-genies. I found it a bit short, but should be just right for the intended audience. There is no romance, but there is friendship. The premise of someone their age having wish-granting abilities should be enough to hook younger fantasy readers. I would send this confidently out to younger library patrons who like their stories filled with magic.

Every Day and Another Day by David Levithan

every day another day

4 out of 5 stars for the first one, 2 out of 5 stars for the second

I received an ARC of Another Day

Every day features a person named A who, every day, wakes up in a different body. He takes control of a person’s body and lives their life until midnight, when he is transported into another body to repeat the process. Age seems to matter, and the bodies tend to be clustered together geographically, but other than that there are no rules as to whom he will wake up as next. A has always been careful to disrupt the lives of those he inhabits as little as possible, until he meets Rhiannon while inhabiting her boyfriend Justin. Now he is willing to do just about anything to spend time with her, but one boy remembers too much about his body being kidnapped for a day and starts making waves with a story about demonic possession.

I really adored this first book. A is a very sympathetic character (I am just going to use the male pronoun for A from now on since english does not really have a good set of genderless pronouns for people), trying to balance his needs with the needs of his host body and trying to figure out what kind of thing he is and the rules that govern his life. He is immune to almost any prejudice because he has been in just about every life circumstance and he gets into quite a bit of trouble trying to physically get to where Rhiannon is in a variety of bodies. Sometimes he is sick, unable to drive, living with parents who won’t let him leave, or unable to speak english. We get to see the world through multiple lenses while having the same trusty narrator accompany us through the story.

I think the part I enjoyed most was just A and Rhiannon trying to work out how a relationship can practically work if one person keeps switching bodies and locations. Sometimes Rhiannon will be further away, and sometimes she will be more or less attracted to A’s current body. Every day A spends with her is a day that interrupts the normal life for the person whose body he is inhabiting. They can never wake up together and any future children will end up being completely confused for a long while.

This book has a great anti-bullying message and I really enjoyed reading it, despite all of the focus on relationships. It had enough other stuff going on, like the body switching and figuring out what to do about the boy who is convinced he was possessed by a demon, to keep me hooked.

The companion book I did not enjoy nearly as much. This one is told from Rhiannon’s POV, and most of it is trying to decide whether to dump her boyfriend Justin for A. My main problem was that it did not have nearly enough new content to justify an entirely new book. Most of the dialogue is directly taken from the first book, as are most of the scenes. The new content is Rhiannon spending time with Justin and trying to justify her relationship with him, despite everyone (including me) thinking he is a complete loser.

What made Rhiannon’s relationship with Justin more interesting in the first book is that, since we were missing all of their alone time, it was still possible he was an awesome guy, just when nobody but Rhiannon can see it. There was still a tiny possibility that Rhiannon had a difficult choice in front of her and wasn’t just completely lacking in all self-respect by dating someone that actually treated her terribly all the time. It turns out that Justin is just as bad in person and Rhiannon just has no idea how normal relationships are supposed to work (or she just lacks any spine). I immediately started disliking her for being such a disgusting pushover and trying constantly to justify a relationship that, while not straight up abusive, is clearly not good or healthy. I want a protagonist who is willing to leave a relationship that is not working for her, not stick around because she thinks the person needs help or will change.

Rhiannon does not have much of a personality, and since the book was missing the body-switching that made the first one so cool, I really did not get anything new from it besides a severe dislike of a character I had been more or less cool with before. This book does not have enough new information to justify an entire novel. Nothing earth shattering is revealed and it is missing all of the interesting elements from the first book.

In conclusion. Please read the first one, it is amazing, but I will not blame you if you give the second one a pass.