Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson

walk on earth

4 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC of this book.

They have just found gold in California and prospectors and pioneers from all across America are packing up their lives and heading west in search of riches. Leah is content to stay at home with her parents, despite their poverty, but when they are murdered she looks to the gold in California to provide her with a future. Since she has the unique ability to sense gold, it is an opportunity not to be missed. Now all she has to do is make it to California alive. At least she has her best friend Jefferson and her pony with her.

This reads a lot like a historical fiction novel. The fantasy premise: Leah being able to sense gold, does not influence the book as much as I thought it would. Leah has to keep it a secret, so not many of the other characters know about it and she does not use it very often. Most of the book is Leah and Jefferson struggling across the country and fighting against the perils that the early pioneers faced, like finding clean water and keeping oxen healthy. I suspect her powers will be more featured in the rest of the series.

Leah and Jefferson are both strong characters and have a great friendship that does not immediately devolve into romance. They respect and care for each other and discuss something other than feelings. They both grow a lot during the course of the narrative. Jefferson, on the run from an abusive father, finds himself turning from a scared boy into a responsible man who can be depended on. Leah must disguise herself as a boy, so she has to work through her identity issues as she must spend all of her time hiding important information about who she really is. Both Jefferson and Leah must learn how to take crap about who they are (part First Nations and a woman respectively) without falling apart.

The story really emphasizes both the good and bad in humanity as Leah faces thieves and murderers, but also kind hearted and giving folks. It is depressing at times, quite a few people die, but it is probably more accurate because of that. Early travel across America was not safe and sanitary and this work is true to that.

This is a great read for everyone who really enjoyed Patricia C Wrede’s Frontier Magic series. You have the same fantasy/ pioneer america mix and strong characters who are growing into themselves. Also good for those readers who grew up on Laura Ingles Wilder and want the same sort of adventure, just a little more grown up and with a little more magic.

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).

A School for Unusual Girls by Kathleen Baldwin

school for unusual girls

2 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC of this work.

An socially awkward and unusual girl who prefers scholastics to dancing is sentenced to boarding school by her exasperated parents. Expecting a jail sentence of etiquette lessons and giggling debutantes, Georgie is instead groomed to start helping the anti-Napoleon war effort with her unusual gift for chemistry. Her classmates also have an range of socially inappropriate abilities and a number of the neighbours are interested, on one side or another, in the conflict. Georgie has to decide who is a friend, who is an enemy, and what she personally can do to help keep Napoleon for returning.

I have had quite a bit of luck with boarding school novels in the past (thanks Gail Carriger!) so I went into this one with quite high hopes. Most of them were disappointed. It is not a bad book, just not a great or fantastic one. The protagonist almost immediately falls for a guy she perceives as being disrespectful and annoying (because that is sexy I guess?) and spends about half of the book trying to decide whether to be in love or not. Because of these frequent side-trips to mooney-eyed, lovey-land, the actual meat of the plot reads more like a short story than a full novel. All the other relationships outside of the love interest are developed, but not in an in-depth, realistic way. Too much attention is paid to romance and not enough on the story. This book either needs to be longer, or have some pruning done in the romance section because it takes up far too much of the book.

The characters also do not grow much. Georgie is, understandably, upset that her parents dumped her at, what they understood to be at least, a freakishly strict boarding school, but she gets over that really quickly, without really having made much progress with any of her other relationships. Her friendships with the other girls grow rather woodenly and suddenly, without any meaningful emotional interaction. Her crush treats her poorly and she falls for him. She barely says anything to any of her teachers but comes to trust them. Everything is hurried through so quickly none of it seems at all realistic or even understandable.

One of my favourite parts of historical fantasy that this book really skimped on is descriptions of surroundings and costumes and manners. It is sprinkled in, but does not paint a complete picture. You get the sense that you are in history, but not when until someone mentions Napoleon.

The premise is one I like, but will take a little more to pull of successfully. It is something not bad enough to make me stop reading, but something I am not going to read again, or read the sequels to. If you like lots of romance in your historical fantasy (and not a lot of fantasy), then this might be the book for you, but it was not the book for me.

Mortal Heart by Robin LaFevers

mortal heart

4 out of 5 stars

This is the third in a series. I would give the first one 3 out of 5 stars and the second 4. Unlike most series, where it starts out strong and goes a little downhill, LeFevers really seems to be coming into her own as this series progresses. I found the first one too boring and romance-y, the second exciting but too romance-y, and this one exciting and just the right amount of romance.

Each book in the series centres on the adventures of one of three young women raised as an assassin raised in a convent dedicated to the god of death. They are embroiled in the political intrigue surrounding Anne of Brittany and her war against the French in the late 1400s. I wouldn’t have normally read these books, but I REALLY loved the idea of assassin nuns. Each of the girls starts at the convent, but end up being centre in the regions politics, all the while confronting their faith, their comfort with killing, and the possibility of love and friendship. The books are loosely based in fact, but awesomely embellished with fighting, poisons, and gods.

There is a lot of tension and politics in this book, and not a ton of up-close action (there is some, just not as much as some fantasy). The books are a neat series, in that you get a view of the same conflict from three very different women, with very different personalities. It is a cool way to approach a series. Each of the girls has different skills and powers (being a handmaiden of death has its advantages) and the overarching plot unrolls like a huge tapestry over the course of the three books. I found the details for the time period convincing, with the inclusion of more strong female characters making it approachable for young girls. Having Wikipedia up afterwards to compare the historical notes to the book is a good idea. Anne of Brittany was a neat historical figure in her own right, and having a bunch of religious organizations dedicated to 9 different pre-Christians Gods mucking about (not to mention the gods themselves) made for a really neat read.

The Magician’s Dream by Shawn Thomas Odyssey

the magician's dream

I was given an ARC of this book. This review may contain spoilers of the first two books.

4 out of 5 stars.

This is the third in the Oona Crate Mystery series. The books are a fun mix of mystery, fantasy, and historical fiction. Set in the 1800’s on a street caught in limbo between earth and faerie, Oona learns of the theft of a carbuncle that can bestow fairy-like powers on the wearer and potentially lead to the gates holding all the horrors of Faerie opening. Fortunately, she has some experiencing solving crimes. Unfortunately, the theft could not come at a worse time as Oona is right in the middle of an important magic project and is also trying to make time to hang out with her friend who works at the library. A clue left at the scene of the crime leads her to believe the theft is not unrelated to her father’s murder, so she must take the case, whether she has time to or not.

If you ever wished a Harry Potter novel solely took place in Diagon Alley, then chances are you are going to adore the world Shawn Thomas Odyssey has set up. It is full of people who accept magic as a reality, but still have to go about the everyday task of living. It is cut off from the normal world, but still guards it from evil magic.

In this addition to the series, we really see Oona starting to grow up, as her attentions towards her male friend become more romantic, and she starts to consider the appeal of having another female in the house. She also starts considering gender equality, as word of the women’s rights movement out in the real world starts filtering in. Oona spends some time considering her future and her place in her world.

I enjoy the weird mishmash of three different genres that these books are composed of, because it ends up being a really unique little world of its own. The combination of interesting plot, world, and character development made this a strong third in this series.

Chantress by Amy Butler Greenfield

chantress

3 out of 5 stars.

I appear to be on a historical fantasy kick. This book is set in England in the 1600s. Lucy is a Chantress, a wielder of magic through song. Most of her kind have already been hunted down and slain, so when a group of rebels finds Lucy, she seems like the answer to their prayers. It is only her magic that can destroy the raven-like Shadowgrims that work for the crown and terrorize the country. Unfortunately, Lucy is completely untrained and unsure of her own powers.

Like the last book I reviewed, this one is a short read. It will take most readers just a couple of hours. Not a ton of descriptions or character growth, but the idea of magic working through song is an interesting one. I also like the training montage. Magic that is immediate and easy always seemed unrealistic and silly. IF magic did exist, it kind of makes sense that it would work a little more like everything else does and require practice and patience to master. Magic should take work, just like every other human endeavour. The cost payed at the end of the book (no spoilers though) will lead really nicely into the second in the series. The cast of characters is a bit thin, but there really wasn’t enough room to fit in any more people and still make them distinct. I would have loved to see more of the world in this one, since Lucy spends most of the book hiding from the king and his monsters.

This is a decent book, but much of my interest in it falls solely onto the shoulders of the premise. There just isn’t a lot of meat to the story itself since it is so short and straightforward. The world and people are not described in any great detail, and most of the story is plot. A decent book, but a bit simple.

The Poison Diaries by Maryrose Wood

poison diaries

4 out of 5 stars.

This book ends on one killer cliff-hanger, so if you find this one at your library, it is a good idea to immediately take out the second one as well. I did not and now I am sitting here regretting it, wondering what happens next.

With the extremely large print and huge margins, this text is probably only 50 real pages worth of material, so it reads a lot more like a long short story or a novella than a novel. I finished it in 2-3 hours. A very quick read. This would be a great book to recommend to junior or senior high reluctant readers who are embarrassed to take out elementary school material but are really intimidated by long books.

Jessamine’s father is an apothecary and gardener, who has a locked garden full of poisonous plants and an obsession with discovering medicinal uses for them. Weed is an orphan Jess’s father reluctantly took in who seems to have a way with plants. Jess starts to realize that her father’s obsession may be taking a darker turn, all the while trying to navigate a blossoming relationship with someone.

The character of Weed was probably the highlight of this book for me. He doesn’t act quite human and his confusion over some emotions is cute. Figuring out who and what Weed is was the best part of this book for me, though figuring out what Jess’ father is up to is also in there. It is not tricky, either of these tasks, but presented skillfully enough that it was still a good read. The presentation of the scenery, especially the plants, is also attention-grabbing, especially for anyone who has shown an interest in botany. Keeping a computer open with Wikipedia up so that you can pop online to read about the various poisons might not be a bad plan for those that like their fiction reading to lead to a bit of non-fiction exploration.