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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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.

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.

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.

The City’s Son by Tom Pollock

city's son 2

4 out of 5 stars.

This is a weird, but good one. It is urban fantasy for those that REALLY want a lot of urban in their fantasy. Most of the genre is about fantasy that is set in a city. This is a fantasy about a city itself.

The protagonist, Beth, is a graffiti artist in London. During her many city wanderings, she runs into Filius, a strange young man who sweats oil and whose skin is the colour of pavement. Fil turns out to be the prince of London’s strange underworld of fantasy creatures, each tied into the structure of London itself. There are electric creatures living in the street lamps, monks inhabiting statues, and spiders who eat words running around on the telephone wires. Fil and his subjects are set against Reach (I think it is supposed to be a manifestation of gentrification?!). Anyways, there are epic battles between Fil’s guys and Reach’s battle wolves (made of scaffolding). It is awesome.

This is very dirty and gritty. I don’t mean dirty as in lurid sex scenes, I mean this book contains a lot of descriptions of garbage. One of the characters has a body that is assembled from trash. There are rats and beetles and lice. Do not eat this while reading.

Having so many parts of a city personified is a very clever and interesting way to go. It was very enjoyable seeing what kinds of creatures Pollock could come up with and what he would make them out of. It is a very well built world that shows a lot of imagination. The characters are also unique. Fil, the obvious love interest, is kind of oily and dirty, as opposed to the sculpted adonis YA males usually turn out to be. Beth deals with her personal tragedy in her life by illegally tagging things and running around unsupervised. They really read a lot more like real teenagers than most characters do. Their relationship also develops more naturally than most. I found them both sympathetic and realistic.

This book crosses pretty close to being an adult novel instead of YA, I think it could belong in either collection fairly easily. It really reads a little differently than most YA, a little more seriously and adult. I think adults could easily relate to the characters despite their age.

Despite feeling a little nauseous at parts (I do not like bugs…) this really was original. Never has trash and graffiti been so magical. Enjoy!

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.