Royal Bastards by Andrew Shvarts

royal bastards

3 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this work.

Tilla is a bastard, a child born outside of a marriage. Her father has not acknowledged her as a legitimate heir, so her life is stuck in a holding pattern between daughter of a Lord and servant. She spends most of her time with her half-brother as well as some other bastards of other houses in their corner of the kingdom.

Her somewhat peaceful existence comes to a grinding halt when her father is part of a rebellion against the crown, slaughtering the King’s brother when he is visiting. Tilla, her half-brother (Jax) and 2 other bastards (Miles and Zell) manage to save the princess, but her father sends soldiers after them all and puts out a reward on their heads. Tilla must decide where her loyalties and love lies.

The one huge, glaring mistake in this book is the use of modern slang and idioms in a book that is set in another universe and has a decidedly medieval feel to it. Having the characters say “cool” and “oh, shit” really changed the tone of the book and felt completely out of place in an otherwise foreign landscape. The setting and plot all felt like a standard fantasy novel. There were swords, barbarians and Lords and Ladies. There were castles and politics and magic. And then the characters went and sounded like modern teens. It pulled me out of the flow of the novel every single time it happened in the dialogue, and it happened quite a bit. It was a poor decision on the part of the author.

Otherwise, the main theme of the book were about relationships with parents and the use of conflict and violence in politics. Tilla has a strained relationship with her dad, even before he put money on her head. During her childhood he was a fairly caring parent. They spent time together and Tilla was assured of his love. When he married and produced 2 legitimate heirs, he started drawing away and she was left feeling abandoned and unloved. Miles is more accepted and may even be recognized one day, but still does not have full family acceptance. Jax does not have any parents and Zell’s father has practically disowned him. Since most YA books focus so heavily on romantic relationships, it is refreshing to see parents come us as a focal point of a book.

The other major question the books bring up is the appropriateness of violence in political situations. The part of the kingdom Tilla’s father rules used to be independent, but is now under the thumb of another pair of rulers (the princess’s parents). His assassination of the king’s brother and attempted assassination of the heir were payback for the conquest of his kingdom generations ago and some oppression since. His method of rebellion, though, does not just include fighting between rebels and soldiers, it has innocents getting hurt and killed. How many noncombatants can you kill before rebelling just isn’t worth it anymore? How oppressive does a government need to be before involving innocents is okay?

This was a fairly decent novel, apart from the obvious dialogue error. There was action, magic and romance, the usual ingredients for YA fantasy. Given how saturated the genre is, though, I am not sure I can overlook the error enough to read another.



A Face Like Glass by Frances Harding

face like glass

4 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this work.

This is a super-fun, middle grade fantasy novel. Neverfell is a child in an underground world where artisans create the most magical, weirdest things we would ever have here on the surface.

In their world, no one has natural facial expressions. Instead, the poor and slaves in their society are allowed only a few expressions, ones of obedience and subservience. Richer people pay to learn new expressions: maybe haughty disdain or luxurious enjoyment of treats. Neverfell finds her place with cheese maker, but is told to hide her face from everyone she may encounter. She has every emotion plainly on her face and it will frighten everyone else. When her mask is ripped away, Neverfell becomes an oddity and a pawn in the underground political system.

My absolute favourite part of this novel was the world-building. The author came up with a  magical society that creates marvels that are beautiful as well as manipulative. Instead of normal cheese, you have cheeses that make you hallucinate wonders, or can disarm an enemy merely with its smell. They need to be talked to and regularly bathed and turned. It produces wines that can make you forget or remember but have to be corralled from each other lest they fight, and has a cavern full of crystal trees. Harding pumped this book full of weird imaginative things that are wonderful but also dangerous. The creators get luxuries that those of use live on the surface cannot imagine, but access creates infighting between houses that produce the wonders, and someone might get murdered just to get a piece of cheese or a whiff of perfume. I love the strange things in this book.

The piece around Neverfell’s mask and a society full of people unable to express their emotions through their faces will make this an interesting read for young people and might bring up some neat discussion points. What are the advantages and disadvantages to expressing emotions through your body? Does it give people useful information? Does it make someone feel better to be able to scowl when they are angry and cry when they are sad? Servants and slaves are not allowed to show their discontent, so Neverfell teaches them how to scowl angrily and this gives them power and control over their own bodies. On the other hand, being the only one who displays emotions lets everyone know how she feels and what she is thinking. This gives them power over her. Bringing up these kinds of questions in a children’s book was a neat idea and I hope it makes some kids think.

This work also has really strong friendship themes, another bonus for me because everything I have read lately has focused on romance and little else. I want books that explore every type of relationship humans can have, not just teens kissing. This one has friendship, loyalty, and motherhood. Neverfell had to figure out who is a friend and who is just faking. She must learn to read people who are hiding behind masks like she once had to.

This series is clever and fun. It should make kids think about what self expression really means and spark their imagination. A must-read for anyone who loves the mental picture of grump cheeses needing pampering or else they will attack.

Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

flame in the mist

3 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC of this book.

I put this on my to-read list looking exclusively at the cover because it was pretty. Because of the author and the cover, I was just assuming it was going to be another one set in the Middle East. It was not. It is set in a historical Japanese setting. If you are an adult and have read some James Clavell and want to pass on something with a similar feel, but that reads like a teen novel, this will be a good fit.

Mariko is the daughter of a noble and is being married off to a prince. En route to the wedding, she is attacked by a group of thieves (the Black Clan) who slaughter the rest of her escort. She manages to escape (barely), but instead of heading home, decides to enact revenge. Dressed as a boy she gets into the gang and starts to plot. As her relationships with the guys start to develop, though, she realizes her perception of the events might not be completely accurate.

It seems to be all over the reviews that this is a rewrite of Mulan, but I cannot see it. It is a story set in the Orient and has a girl disguised as boy and those are the only two similarities. Her father is not called into army service and she does not take his place. This is set in Japan and that was set in China. In that one the protagonist saves a country, in this one she has saved her own life and nothing else so far. The similarities are incredibly few and far between.

This one fell flat for me. The book was too focused on characters and did not give me enough culture and plot. I do not know a ton about Japanese culture, neither historically nor modern, so I would have loved this book to have given me a glimpse into their food, clothing, literature, etc. (that is part of what I really liked about Evelyn Skye’s The Crown’s Game and The Crown’s Fate. Those really gives you a feel for Russian culture). It was so busy with burgeoning romance and relationships that they rarely go into descriptions of the culture that I am craving.

Similarly, there does not seem to be a lot of plot once you get to the end of the book and reflect. Mariko is attacked, manages to escape and join a gang, then finds out she might be wrong. For this having some politics in it, it should be more complicated. It should have more twists and turns and surprises. It has one. That is not enough.

This reads like a very standard YA book that is mostly about feelings. If you like teens making kissy faces at each other, go ahead. If you are looking for something special, maybe look elsewhere.

The Crown’s Fate by Evelyn Skye

crown's fate

4 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC of this work.

This review will contain spoilers for The Crown’s Game and a few very early book spoilers for this one (though they are also found in the book description.

This is the second in the duology written by Evelyn Skye. There is currently a small niche of fantasy books that take place in a tsarist Russia. This is the only series, so far at least, that has attempted to place itself against an actual historic backdrop instead of just a fairly believable facade. It is set in Russia, 1825 during the Decembrist revolt. Tsar Alexander has passed away in the first book and his son Pasha (Nicholas I) is on his way to being crowned (though his bossy sister Yuliana does interfere a LOT).

Vika won the Crown’s game in the first book and is the Imperial Enchanter. While this does come with a luxurious lifestyle, it also comes with an oath of obedience and an enchanted bracelet that threatens to burn her if she disobeys. Given her fiery nature,  this will not work well. Nikolai, the other contender, having sacrificed himself to save her, is now trapped between life and death in his enchanted bench on Vika’s island. Since his mother managed to pull herself back from death by leeching life from worms and, later, from slaughtering people, it is do-able, but his preference would be a much gentler way. His undead mother might try to persuade him otherwise though.

While the first book really saw Vika and Nikolai falling in love while competing, this one has Nikolai slowly going evil and Vika having to fight him because Pasha and Yuliana compel her to. Both Pasha and Vika are torn between their loyalty to Nikolai and their fear of him trying to take over Russia. He slowly turns from a very gentle character into something more sinister. Vika, if she wants to try and save Nikolai, has to find a way to

What I did not enjoy about this book was that they did not have the displays of beautiful magic that I enjoyed so much in the first book. Part of the Crown Game was celebrating Pasha’s birthday and having beautiful and creative shows of magic. In this book it has changed mostly to combat, which is the way most fantasy books work. I loved seeing the gorgeous, fanciful things that the author came up with. There is still a bit in this one, but not nearly as much.

I loved the way Nikolai trying to seize the throne was intertwined with the historic Decembrist revolution. There are not a lot of fantasy books that I read that work that closely with real historic events and try and work magic into the cause of something that happened in this world. Sometimes magic rides alongside, but in this case it was worked into the actual cause of the event itself. It was clever and fun to read.

This was a solid conclusion. It took on a more solid and sombre tone, played with the relationships a bit more and came to a very satisfying ending.

Now I Rise by Kiersten White

now i rise

4 out of 5

I received an ARC of this work.

This will contain spoilers for the first book in the saga, And I Darken.

The majority of the first book focused on the relationship between Lada and Radu, as they both are held captive in the Ottoman Empire to  guarantee their father’s best behaviour. It showed us their childhood and development together. In this sequel they are separated and it takes on a more political tone and focuses more on their independent growth.

Lada’s father and brother are killed, and since Radu is not willing to leave Mehmed’s side and rule, she wants to become prince of the country as she is next in line. Unfortunately, as a woman, no one is willing to accept her. She is not going to ask for help from the Sultan or her brother, so she grabs some soldiers and starts cutting a rather bloody path across the territory between Ottoman -controlled land and Wallachia to grab the throne anyways. She does manage to gain some allies eventually, but her main point of negotiation is the one found at the end of a sword. This remains very characteristic of her.

Radu does not accept the throne of Wallachia or want to accompany his sister more than staying next to the Sultan Mehmed. It seemed safer at the time, but the Sultan’s lust for the city of Constantinople drives Radu into the role of spy within its walls. The subsequent battle start bringing out the more vicious side of Mehmed. While Radu has always treasured Mehmed and loved him, seeing how far he will go to bring a city to its knees makes him question what his love for this man is worth, and how far the Sultan’s ambitions should go. It also puts his life in peril as he is now trapped in a city under siege.

Because of the split of the siblings, this novel really reads like two books crammed into one. One plot line is the Ottoman Empire attacking the city of Constantinople, trying to starve it out and force the Emperor Constantine to surrender it. The second plot line is Lady Lada Dracul travelling through Wallachia and the surrounding country, attacking various European countries and trying to find allies in the Wallachian nobility and gain the throne. It is interesting because one plot line is a HUGE historical point of a major city changing hands between empires and religious powers and the other is a tiny country changing princes when it does so alarmingly frequently. It is definitely a contrast in historical events.

The siblings are still greatly juxtaposed personalities even though they are now geographically separated and growing older. Radu is a gentle soul, filled with love who only goes on this mission out of loyalty for the person he adores most. Lada is tempestuous and passionate and REALLY likes stabbing things. They have a weird relationship for two people who really have nothing in common.

My favourite part of this novel was actually the attention drawn to the attack on Constantinople. I liked seeing what sort of technology they used to try and bring down a city in the 1400s. Apparently they had  cannon big enough to fling 600 lb cannonballs at the wall, but it overheated at one point and exploded. Fire, arrows, shields and ships were involved. The entrance to the harbour was blocked using a huge chain, but the ships got around it by being transported over land on logs.

This was a really good second book in a saga because it developed the characters further and expanded its perspective. Please go read, especially since it looks at a historical event that does not get a lot of attention!

Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton


3 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this book.

This may contain spoilers for Rebel of the Sands.

There has been a recent uptick in the number of YA fantasies set in an historical middle eastern setting. This is wonderful because now we can add Djinns into the mix of magical creatures we get to read about, and not everything is automatically medieval Europe. I love the diversity these books add to the mix of YA fantasy.

In the first book, Amani, a sharpshooting and adventurous young lady, is desperate to get out of her dusty and boring hometown before she gets married off. When a stranger stumbles into town, closely pursued by the army, she grabs the chance and escapes. At the end of the book it is revealed that he is a prince who is helping his brother plan a rebellion against their father, and that Amani herself is part Djinn.

In this second instalment, Amani is captured by the crown and taken to the palace as a prisoner. Instead of a desert, she must now navigate the corrupt world of the harem. Jealousies run high amongst those closest to the sultan and Amani having Djinn powers does not fully grant her immunity.

I liked this book more than the first one. In Rebel of the Sands Amani does not really have any long term plans besides ditching her hometown. In this book she has purpose and direction, which gives her character more life. It also gives the book a little more direction. The first one felt like the plot was just random stuff happening to this poor girl and she had little to no say in where she was going and what she was doing. At least in this volume she has a clear goal.

Despite being vaguely desert-themed, this world was not the best in terms of fleshed-out detail. Most fantasy worlds do not hit so close to reality and I was hoping for a bit more deviation, either in terms of food or religion or clothing or something, but the world rang a bit flat. I like the non-European setting, but it definitely could use more creativity.


The Wish Granter by C.J. Redline


4 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this work.

This is a rewrite of the fairytale Rumplestilstkin, but it took most of the book for that to be apparent. Could have just been me though.

Princess Ari, up until a couple of days ago, was the bastard daughter of the king. This worked for her, since it meant running wild with her best friend, baking, and not being called on her un-princess like behaviour. Then the entire proper royal family is murdered, her twin is King and she is now the heir apparent. She and her brother are only alive because her brother has made a deal with the devil. The Wish Granter appears to the desperate and offers them their hearts’ desire, in return for their souls, to be collected at a later date. The now King Thad traded his soul for the kingship, praying that will be enough to keep his twin safe. Thad has his soul for the next ten years, as long as he does not interfere with the Wish Granter’s shady business dealings and drug manufacturing. Ari has to watch the powerful Fae gain a toehold, then foothold in her brother and her kingdom and decides to fight back.

I love Ari as a heroine. She is a little plump, loves baking, hates being a proper princess and can talk her way out of anything. She is vibrant, friendly and completely someone I would want as a best friend. Her character was well constructed and real, and a spunky, interesting heroine. Sebastian, the love interest, is also a great character. He comes from a  broken home, with a drug addicted mother and and abusive father, but he is working to rise above it. He is strong and loyal to his friends.

This is an amazing interpretation of this fairy tale. The Wish Granter is vicious and conniving in a way that forces the protagonists to be clever and on their toes. They are trying to figure out how to legally wrangle themselves out of a contract, as well as possibly assassinate a Fae, so it is a two-pronged attack, which is something a lot of books don’t have at this level. They tend to be “kill the bad guy”, not “maybe litigate your way out of trouble?”. We get some back story on Rumplestiltskin but the fairy tale is twisted around in a complex and amazing new way.