Thorn by Intisar Khanani

thorn

4 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this book.

This is a YA rewrite of The Goose Girl. Princess Alyrra is a shy, abused girl who lives under the thumb of her mother and brother. When a neighbouring kingdom requests her as a wife for their heir, she is nervous, but also anxious to leave home. Her mother sends an unfriendly lady in waiting along. Partway to her new home, Alyrra is attacked by the lady in waiting and their bodies are switched. Alyrra ends up being a lowly goose girl in the kingdom she was supposed to one day rule. She comes to enjoy her new life rather quickly though, and as her appreciation for her new existence deepens, she is going to have to choose whether or not to reclaim her birthright.

The novelty of having a heroine who does not want to fight for what was stolen from her is enjoyable. For Alyrra, being a princess has always meant being bullied and undervalued. Now, as a goose girl, she has friends who appreciate her and she is not pressured to rule or deal with court politics. The only thing that could tempt her back is the moral dilemma of letting a corrupt woman eventually wield political influence.

This retelling incorporates more magic than I expected, but other than that it is a straight retelling of the original. Normally I would dislike something that is so close to the source material, but this fairy tale gets so little attention that it is nice seeing anyone do anything with it.

This story is light on the romance, which I found charming, but really focuses on friendship. For the first time in her life, Alyrra is able to make friends and fit in as a valued member of her community. Those relationships, and what she learns from them, are ultimately what help make her final decision, as opposed to a romantic attachment to one person.

Alyrra is a very passive protagonist, which makes sense for a victim of abuse. I really enjoyed the picture of a princess who enjoys shovelling horse dung and caring for stubborn geese more than wearing silks and ruling, and she does end up finding her own strength in the end. This ends up being a great story for shy young people who are waiting to find their own voices, and a very solid retelling of a more obscure fairy tale.

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The Lone City by Amy Ewing

the jewel  the white rose

4 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC.

Spoilers for the first volume.

This is another series of YA books that focus on women’s reproductive rights. Hooray! I am still not sick of this premise and I do not know if I will ever be.

In this society, the royal elite are sterile and need surrogates to bear their children. The inhabitants of the poorest area of the city occasionally have daughters that have mental powers. These girls are kidnapped from their families and trained to be surrogates for royalty, they are schooled to improve their abilities and then auctioned off to the noble houses. Violet is one such girl, and her mental powers are more powerful than most. This makes her a very desirable surrogate and she is auctioned off to one of the 4 most powerful houses in the kingdom.

The ruling couple have just had a baby boy and all the nobles are anxious to have their own baby girls to offer as prospective future brides. Violet’s owner (the Duchess of the Lake) is anxious to win the race and wants Violet to use her powers to grow the baby faster than nature can. Violet gets caught between her need to rebel against the people who think they can steal her life and her need to survive the vicious and bloodthirsty Jewel (the part of the city that houses the powerful and wealthy).

Violet’s only friend in the house is Ash, the man her mistress bought to train and seduce her niece. They both know what it is like to have their futures controlled by the rich elite. Violet’s close friend (Raven) from school is right next door, but they are not allowed to have any contact. Raven’s condition is quickly deteriorating the longer she is with her mistress. Violet has nothing to do with her time but sneak secret meetings with Ash, hope she does not get assassinated like some other surrogates, and wait until she is impregnated.

At the end of the first book, Violet has been offered a chance to escape. At the beginning of the second book, she manages to get out, along with Ash and Raven. They have to travel out to a hidden rebel base, dodging soldiers until they can reach the relative safety of the rebels. Then all they have to do is topple the unfair, oppressive system.

One of the reasons I like these type of dystopian fiction that deal with women’s issues is because it usually breeds strong female characters. They may be oppressed, but they are willing to punch and kick their way out of the holes they have been placed in. It is also really satisfying when their oppressors get beaten down. REALLY satisfying.

The plot unfolds rather predictably and anyone who has read enough of these books can guess what is going to happen. I kept reading despite this because I found the premise so compelling and the stakes so high for the characters. The world building was convincing and brutal, so I want the emotional catharsis of watching it get torn down.

Violet is a bit of a stock dystopian heroine: in love, tough and resourceful, but because of the political intrigue in the book, she has to be sharper than some other characters would. Outright rebellion could lead to death as quickly as complete acquiescence, so Violet has to walk a thin line between pleasing her mistress and being able to live with herself.

These books are not a sophisticated philosophical treatise on ethics, but do bring up some interesting questions about the ethics of surrogacy https://web.stanford.edu/group/womenscourage/Surrogacy/moralethical.html. They are a quick and fun read that grab you quickly. I am looking forward to reading the third.

The Shi! No One Tells You About Toddlers by Dawn Dais

the shit no one tells you about toddlers

2 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this work.

I do have an interest in biographical works about young children so I decided to give this one a try. I have heard both good and bad things about the toddler years, and since one of my close friends just had a baby, I am also interested in seeing what the next couple of years have in store.

Most of my disappointment comes from the lack of content in this book. It is short, the chapters are just snippets, and none of the stories are very long or go into a lot of detail. This reads a lot more like an outline of a book than a finished book.

The idea behind this work is that there are a number of chapters, each with an amusing theme, like getting toddlers to eat or toilet training. The author complains or talks in general terms about the more universal experience, tells some anecdote from her life and then at the end of each chapter there are very small snippets from other mothers around the same theme. Very occasionally two professionals also add some more scientific explanation of some phenomena.

They (author and editor) just tried to pack in too many themes. The anecdotes are so short that I did not get a good glimpse of the day to day raising of a toddler. The ending pieces by other mothers added absolutely nothing of substance because they were only a couple of sentences. I very much enjoyed the input of the professionals, but they were only called upon a couple of times.

This was just too short and over too quickly for me to get anything out of this. There are some biographies/ comedies that I could recommend, but this would not be one of them.

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

a thousand nights

4 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this work.

This is a gorgeously written reworking of the Shahrazad story from One Thousand and One Nights. It is written in a very straightforward and almost dispassionate manner, so it really reads like an older fairy tale or legend. I found it very compelling from the first moment.

The part of the original story I have always hated was the character of the King and how nobody ever questioned his right to kill countless women. I know he was the king and all, but how many people can you slaughter before a rebellion starts? Also, I never wanted Shahrazad to stayed married to the jerk king at the end. He should have been assassinated and someone less evil put in his place. My younger self had a very strong sense of justice and a happy ever after for a mass murdered was not included. Luckily this rewrite solves that problem!

Our protagonist lives as part of a desert tribe with her family (I can’t remember her ever being explicitly named which makes the story seem even more fairy-tale like). Her sister is graceful and clever and fair, so when the King Lo-Melkhiin rides up to their family to take a bride, she is sure that her sister will be taken away and murdered, like so many young women before her. She quickly dresses in her best to outshine her sister and is taken away to be the next bride. The sister promises to honour our heroine as she would another famous (usually deceased though) relative by praying and making shrines to her as a smallgod.

Here is the cool thing though: the King is actually possessed by a demon who has been draining the other brides of their life-force, killing them in the process. The King is still in his mind somewhere, but the demon has control of the body and demands a continuous supply of young girls to feast off of. The new Queen is able to hold her own, as more and more women in the desert come to worship and pray to her. She is gaining power that the demon cannot steal from her, and as she continues to wake up alive each morning it looks like she may be able to save all of her fellow countrywomen from the demon. Her most important and difficult job will be getting the demon out of the king.

This book has a really intimate feel because it gives lots of details about our protagonist’s day to day existence. Unlike other YA books that only give you the action, we sit with this girl as she weaves and sews with her sister and prays and works with her mother. It is very calming to read something written in this style. It is all the more important for getting to know the protagonist since narratively we do not spend a ton of time in her head.

The culture and world were a neat mix of realistic (weaving, sewing, animal husbandry) and a fantasy world with religious beliefs that you could still actually see a real world culture adhering too. I love it when authors create beliefs and cultures that are detailed and well-thought out enough that you could completely see them happening here.

This book has a bit of a girl-power vibe. It is the women who are being preyed on and it is the women who find the solution to the problem. It contains a very empowering message.

Overall, this was a lovingly written and interesting book. The writing style was unusual and sufficient attention had been paid to the details of the world and the characters. This is perfect for fans of the original story.