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 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.

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 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.