Queen of Hearts by Colleen Oakes

queen of hearts

4 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this work.

I think this is the first Alice in Wonderland rewrite I have ever ended up enjoying. All of the other ones I have read end up trying way to hard to be weird and edgy that they come out on the other side of ridiculous. They read too much like the 2010 film version (the one with Johnny Depp), where you are looking around in confusion, wondering where the original story went and who gave Depp that much makeup. In fairness though, I was never a fan of the original book or Disney cartoon. I found them too over the top to have much of a coherent storyline. Stuff seemed to happen without cause (and now for some reason, a weird poem about a walrus and a carpenter! or a smiling, disappearing cat!). This book, though, is a prequel to the original story, does not feature Alice at all, and instead focuses on how the Queen of Hearts became the head chopping monstrosity we know and fear today.

Dinah is the future Queen of Hearts and could not be more miserable. Her father is a neglectful tyrant who is always pointing out her faults, her tutor is a bit neurotic about time keeping and her younger brother is obsessed with making hats. Her only joys come from the stableboy she secretly loves and her upcoming coronation. With the crown will come some measure of respect and control over her life. She just needs to hang on a couple  more months.

Dinah’s world is turned upside down when her father brings home a half-sister for her, shortly before. The new duchess is popular, beautiful and poised, everything Dinah is not. While the rules of Wonderland succession are firm, Dinah still cannot help be jealous and suspicious of this newcomer on the scene.

Besides having a few characters in common, this book has a more grounded storyline than most Alice in Wonderland plots. The Mad Hatter’s obsession with hats comes from mental illness, the white rabbit has a reason for begin time obsessed (the tyrant king REALLY doesn’t like tardiness) and Wonderland actually appears to have a somewhat coherent political and social structure, instead of random nonsense. Even the different suites of cards have different jobs (diamond guard the royal treasure, hearts are elite guards if I remember correctly). The Wonderland Oakes has constructed is actually a lot more interesting and satisfying than the original, just because the characters have motivation and backgrounds.

Dinah is a character you can see evolving into the scary Queen of Hearts, but who is still sympathetic at this stage of her development. She is lonely and scared and isolated. Her father is setting a horrible example for what it means to be a ruler and she has no one to guide her properly. She has no one she can trust and you can tell from the fact that this is a series, that things are going to get even worse before they get better.

This is the first in a series that promises a refreshing look at the background and evolution of the Queen of Hearts. The world building is close enough to the original to be recognizable, but unique enough to be worth exploring. I will definitely be looking out for the next one.

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The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye

crown's game

5 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this work.

This is another novel in the small-but-steadily-growing Czarist Russian young adult fantasy sub-genre. I am not sure there has been another book in this tiny sub-genre that I haven’t enjoyed, so I am glad this one is continuing that trend.

The Russian Czar always has an Enchanter serving him, to carry out his wishes, create marvels, and protect Russia from other magical threats. When the old one dies, a new one is born to hold Russia’s magic, and is appointed to the position when grown. Every so often, though, two Enchanters are born and the Czar forces them to compete in the Crown’s Game. The winner gets to be the new Enchanter, the loser dies.

Vika has been trained since birth by her father to tap into elemental powers, and she is eager to prove herself. She is bored of being isolated in the forest and having no one to practice with but her father. Nikolai is an orphan with a demanding patroness and the friendship of the next Czar. He is less than enthused to have to compete and is uncertain about his own skills.

The most enjoyable part of this book is the contest between the Enchanters, watching what they each came up with to impress the Czar and his son. If anyone has read “The Night Circus”, it reads a bit like that, with two magic users pushing both their technical skills and their imaginations to create feats of wonder. It is very fanciful and reads like a very colourful and weird dream. They come up with some neat stuff, while quietly sniping at each other in the background.

The story gets its intensity from the interactions between Vika, Nikolai and Pasha (the Czar in waiting). Vika and Nikolai are supposed to be in life and death competition with each other, but they slowly come to admire each other and even look for friendship in the one other person who has the type of power they thought they alone possessed. They go from wary disdain to tentative trust to friendship, and that is a good path to watch unfold.

This book does not have the same heavy Russian flavour that “The Gathering Storm” and “Shadow and Bone” had, but it is still immersive world building. The characters are realistic and personable and the story moves quickly enough to keep you hooked. Definitely a must-read fantasy for 2016.

 

And I Darken by Kiersten White

and i darken

5 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this book.

Wow did I ever enjoy this historical fiction. Set in 15th century Romania, it features a brother and sister duo who get ransomed to the Ottoman court to assure their father’s continued compliance to a treaty.Both struggle with the culture and politics of the powerful Muslim empire.

The best part of this book is how unique and well written the characters are. Lada is a princess who hates that she was ever born a woman. She will fight her way out of any situation, even those that do not require fighting and longs for her father’s approval. She is rude, brusque, and takes a tough love approach to her brother. It is hard to like her as a person, but easy to empathize with when you get to know why she acts the way she does.

Radu is sensitive and thoughtful, a constant disappointment to his war-mongering father and violent sister. He wants someone who will empathize and comfort him, but no one in his family has any tendency towards kindness. While Lada finds their imprisonment by the Ottoman’s to be a complete betrayal by their father, Radu starts to flourish. Now his intelligence and amiability are an advantage, and when he and his sister befriend the heir to the sultanate, Radu is able to be of use, politically.

The plot focuses on Lada and Radu navigating the political spiderweb that is the Ottoman Court, flying underneath the radar to avoid execution and building lives in a religion and culture that is strange to them. The book has little straight up action, but quite a bit of intrigue and plotting. Since the two main characters are so dissimilar, we get to see the Empire both through the eyes of a combatant and a thinker. There is a lot of character growth and introspection and, even if you do not agree with the decisions the character’s make, it is still enjoyable to watch them try to find their places.

The time period this novel is set in was a huge plus, since there are few, if any, YA books written about the 1400s and the Ottoman empire. The tension between Christian Europe and the Muslim Ottoman’s is a central theme in the book, and I thought the historical details were done well. I am not an authority on this period in history, but I know a bit an everything seemed fairly authentic. The details gave everything a rich, lush feel to it.

This is a fantastic novel that pulls you in and makes you care about the characters. It is unique, both in the historical time period and the geographic location, and does political intrigue/ political thriller in a way that very few YA authors are able to do. I would highly recommend this book.

Kingdom of Ashes by Rhiannon Thomas

kingdom of ashes

4 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this work

*spoilers for the first book*

For my review of the first book, A Wicked Thing, please follow this link.

Aurora has decided to ditch the fairytale wedding to the son of the usurper to her kingdom’s throne and make an alliance with a neighbouring, dragon-infested kingdom. Prince Finnegan is eager to help her, as her powers show signs of being able to help with his dragon problem, but she is torn between loyalty to her country and the new pull of her blossoming fire powers.

I liked this sequel more than I liked the original actually. My problem with the first book in the series is that Aurora is just a very passive character and lets everyone control and manipulate her. In this sequel, she starts to stand up for herself and come into her own. She starts experimenting with her own power, forms alliances and treatise, and starts to live her life the way she wants to. She becomes less of a doormat and more of a person. She forms relationships the way she wants and she starts taking control of her own powers.

This sequel breaks away heavily from the Sleeping Beauty-rewrite tone of the original and turns into a very nice dragon-themed YA fantasy. Aurora has fire magic and hopes she can use it to control/ banish the dragons from Finnegan’s kingdom. Since she is the last magic user, though, she has to figure out the use of her powers through trial and error, without setting the whole kingdom ablaze. Finnegan is willing to help, but he has no experience with magic either. Their relationship develops as Aurora becomes more confident and starts mastering her powers.

Aurora also has to deal with her fall from grace in her home kingdom. Since refusing marriage to their prince, the usurper king has turned most of the kingdom against Aurora, claiming she is a fraud who is burning cities and villages. Aurora has to decide how much she is willing to sacrifice to try and save a population that now hates her.

This book takes a stark, realistic look at what it really means to be a ruler and be responsible for the safety of a population. Aurora is torn between duty and her own wishes and has to find her way to a life she can bear without losing herself in the process.

While losing the original fairy tale thread, this is still a strong fantasy book, especially for those who love dragons and I found it a more satisfying read than the original.

 

 

The Vanishing Throne by Elizabeth May

vanishing throne

3 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC of this book.

*Spoiler alert for the first book*

This is the second book in the Falconer series. It follows the adventures of Aileana, a young Scottish Lady who spends her days attending balls and parties, and her nights hunting and slaughtering faeries to avenge her dead mother.

In the first book, Aileana is mostly battling minor faeries who infest Edinburgh, going out every night to fight and train and coming back in the early hours of the morning to rest for another day of paying social calls and trying to attract a husband. The two worlds start bleeding together when her unreliable faerie trainer and ally Kiaran starts showing up during the day, offering enigmatic advice. Then faeries start attacking people during daylight hours and it becomes harder and harder for Aileana to keep being a respectable young lady and a warrior. Scandal threatens to upset her mundane life and a faerie uprising looms on the horizon. Aileana discovers she is a falconer, a gifted fighter, and humanity’s only hope against the faerie invasion.

The second book starts immediately after the first left off, with Aileana failing to defeat the faeries and Edinburgh destroyed. Aileana is captured and tortured by a would-be faerie king while Kiaran and his sister search for her.

This second book was not as enjoyable for me as the first. The charm of the original came from the tension between Aileana’s life as a lady and her life as a Falconer. That was the main conflict of the story and I really enjoyed watching a character try and reconcile two different parts of herself that were so at odds. It also really concentrated on Aileana as a daughter who had watched her mother’s murder at the hands of a faerie, and her relationship with her estranged father. The first book presented Aileana as a complex character, a daughter, best friend, warrior and inventor, where the second cuts all of those out but the warrior role. Aileana becomes a much flatter, much less interesting character. Her life as a lady is destroyed with Edinburgh and the book becomes a very standard fantasy, with a tough protagonist beating up the bad guys and discovering her own powers. The destruction of all of Aileana’s other alter egos and interests just made her much less of a person and more of a trope.

The cast also shrinks quite a bit and more attention is paid to the Aileana/Kiaran relationship while all other relationships vanish. There are a few new characters, but the relationships never seem to get far off the landing character. Nothing is drawn out or developed, and the only person Aileana seems to respond to emotionally is Kiaran. Suddenly Aileana is not a daughter and friend and ally, just a love interest. It is very unsatisfying.

The book has a lot of action, not much character growth, and not a lot of world building for a book that should contain quite a few fairy landscapes. I just felt that this is something that I have read before, many times. There are a couple of clever and funny quips, but not enough to make up for a fairly stale plot.