Book Review, Fantasy/Magical Realism, Young Adult Fiction

Every Heart a Doorway

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This book was everywhere a few years ago. Since then there has been about one new book in the series per year. If you know me, you know I love Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Inkheart trilogy, or anything where a kid finds himself/herself somehow in another world. “Portal fantasy” appears to be the term thrown around to describe these novels and Every Heart a Doorway, so we will go with that. Every Heart a Doorway is a portal fantasy with a boarding school setting, a murder mystery, a diverse cast, and some hints at romances to come. On paper, it sounds great. In reality, it was a bit of a disappointment to me.

Nancy arrives at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Nancy is under the impression that this is simply a boarding school her parents have sent her to because they do not believe that she has traveled into another world. However, the school is specifically for children who have traveled to other worlds. Their parents think that their children have ran away, been kidnapped, or abused, while the children all know that their experiences in various fantasy worlds were real. The Home for Wayward Children helps kids who have returned from their portal world either find their way back to their doors or come to terms with their lives in the “real world.” Nancy meets the proprietor, Ms. West, as well many of the other children staying at the school. While Nancy went to a world very much like the underworld, many others went to candy lands, nonsense worlds, rhyming worlds and worlds with vampires, goblins, insect queens, and the list goes on. Just as Nancy starts to understand her peers and the school, brutal murders begin happening, endangering all of the students. Nancy and her newfound friends must figure out what is going on in order to save their school from possibly closing down, which would leave all of the children without a place to call home.

The characters were probably the strongest part. Nancy and her friends were all good characters. Some of their banter was entertaining, and the cast was diverse with asexual and trans characters. I praise the representation, but some of the conversations about sex felt slightly forced. Especially when the book as a whole is so short, it feels odd to have characters take so much time to talk about sex, sexuality, and masturbation in a fantasy novel. Is it cool that we talk frankly about sex in a YA novel? Definitely! Is it cool that it takes up more time than other aspects of the plot and characters? Maybe not. Again, I truly appreciate that the author spends time on these topics (the author also writes about sexuality/gender issues very beautifully and with respect), but give me all of that in addition to more of the fantasy, magical, creepy school goodness I was promised in the blurb.

This is a novella-sized story that tries to fit in a lot in a short number of pages, and it does not work perfectly. The pacing feels odd. We start with Nancy arriving at the school, we get to know her, she gets to know a few students, then all of the sudden MURDER. The murder mystery consumes the plot from then on. I was looking forward to getting to know the fantasy aspect of how these portals or doors to other worlds work. I was looking forward to exploring the school building (What huge mansions and expansive grounds in a fantasy novel do not have secrets?), the classes, the students, the teachers, and the various worlds more, but there just wasn’t time to develop anything fully. Now, I know that there are several more books in the series, and you cannot expect everything to be explained in the first book of a series, but there was so little here that I do not feel inclined to pick up the next book. The ending also felt abrupt. The murder mystery is rather quickly and easily dealt with at the end. The author drops some hints about how the magic/doors work in the final scenes, but it is too late in the plot to get any actual answers.

I liked a lot of what Every Heart a Doorway had to offer, but it just needed more— more descriptions, more details about the plot/mystery, more character development, more information about the school, magic system, etc. Is this an incentive to read more of the books? Maybe. I am curious about the rest of the series, but I am not sure if I will read them all. If you’ve read any more of the series, let me know your thoughts in the comments. Am I complaining about things that get better in the next books? Tell me! As of now, I gave Every Heart a Doorway a rating of three out of five stars.

 

Adult Fiction, Book Review, Children's Fiction, Fantasy/Magical Realism, Young Adult Fiction

Odd and the Frost Gaints

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What would 2019 be without some Neil Gaiman? The edition I chose to read is illustrated by Chris Riddell, who sometimes provides illustrations for Gaiman’s works as well as writes and illustrates his own books. He and Gaiman have worked together on editions of Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, The Sleeper and the Spindle, and Fortunately, the Milk… I absolutely love Gaiman’s fun, fantastical stories being accompanied by Riddell’s fairy tale-esque, full-of-personality illustrations.

Odd and the Frost Giants follows a boy named Odd. Odd’s father died in a Viking raid, and his mother married another man she was not in love with. Odd, unhappy with his new living situation, leaves his village to stay in his father’s woodcutting hut. He meets three strange animals in the forest who are much more than they appear to be. It is up to Odd to help the animals reclaim their true forms and their homeland.

In case you don’t already know, Odd and the Frost Giants is a short, lighthearted story about the Norse gods Odin, Thor, and Loki. Picture it as Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology-lite. It is a simple adventure story that would be appropriate for both young and older readers, but the language is not overly simplistic. If you have some knowledge of Norse mythology, you will find a few Easter eggs and nods to other Norse myths in Odd, but having little to no knowledge will not hinder your enjoyment of the tale at all.

I would recommend Odd and the Frost Giants to anyone who enjoys an adventure story, Norse mythology in a more lighthearted structure, and fans of Gaiman’s other writing. Odd and the Frost Giants is a quick and enjoyable read, but it is not necessarily the deepest of Gaiman’s work, if that is what you are looking for.

Book Review, Fantasy/Magical Realism, Young Adult Fiction

The Wildings

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Did anyone else go through a phase of reading books with anthropomorphic animal characters? I’m talking about things like Redwall, Watership Down, The Warriors Series, or The Sight. I used to love any book, TV show, or movie in the same vein. Once in a while I become nostalgic and read something similar. That is how I picked up The Wildings (well, that and I loved the cover). Although I enjoyed this novel, I can’t help but think I would have enjoyed it more if I were younger.

The novel takes place in Delhi, India and follows a clan of wild cats. The clan is comprised of Miao, the elder siamese; Katar, the co-leader of the clan; Hulo, a male warrior; Beraal, a female warrior; and Southpaw, a troublesome orphaned kitten. The cat clans of Delhi live in relative peace with one another and the other animals they share the city with, but one day a Sender named Mara arrives and everything changes. A Sender is a special cat who can communicate long distances with other cats and who can communicate with and befriend other species (except perhaps humans).  The problem is that the clan’s new Sender is an indoor cat, while they are all outdoor cats. With the threat of some feral cats escaping into the city to cause havoc with the established order between clans, the fact that the Sender will not leave her humans’ home, and the other everyday trouble associated with life in the city, the cat clans of Delhi have a lot to contend with.

I have seen The Wildings marketed as YA fantasy, and I would agree with this classification. There is a good bit of violence and cat fighting, but I did not feel it was too graphic. Mating is mentioned, but again, nothing is graphic. In fact, nothing much is said about mating besides the fact that it is a thing that happens and that kittens are the result of it. There are many chapters where the cats are just being cats. The kitty antics will definitely remind you of your own pet cats at home. This is very fun and cute, but the cats are respectable and honorable hunters as well. The writing is also quite descriptive. The sights, sounds, and smells of Delhi are immersive. It also helps that the cat protagonists are so sensory driven. Sometimes animal protagonists can feel too humanized. The cats in this novel felt like cats and behaved realistically, but they were still emotionally relatable.

However, as a cat lover and owner, I was a little troubled by how the plot revolved around indoor cats going crazy or becoming evil. Outdoor cats are portrayed as the natural and preferred way to be a cat or any other animal. This is a debatable topic for humans of course, but making a cat point-of-view novel take a rigid side on the topic felt odd since we do not know what cats are thinking about the indoor/outdoor debate. (I feel like I know cats who would passionately argue both sides!) The outdoor cats are distrustful and prejudiced against indoor cats. I expected that the lesson learned would be that the outdoor cats should not judge others so harshly, just as we humans should not judge others. But no. By the end, the consensus was still that all cats should be outdoors, otherwise they will become warped and evil. There are some parallels between house cats and tigers in a zoo the novel, but I don’t think that is a fair comparison to make. I understand that part of the point was that when indoor cats go outside, they can and often do kill wildlife without eating it. And, according to the novel, outdoor cats develop a respect for wildlife and only kill when they are hungry. But, as a human reader with two very spoiled, healthy cats, I felt uncomfortable with the underlying message that all cats should be outside. Still, there are some good messages about respecting nature and wildlife, and as we all know, humans can be terrible to both.

OK, OK, ranting aside, I still had fun with this novel. My main literary criticism is just that the author could have taken everything a bit further. A cat POV novel has a lot of potential, especially when you bring in other fantasy elements. The cats communicate through a form of wifi-like whisker maneuvers, which is cool. The cats can project thoughts and images over distances, but the mechanics of this ability and the role of Senders are not explained much (this system is expanded on in the sequel at least). There is also a multi-species battle that could have been expanded upon more. It did not feel nearly as epic as it was built up to be. The plot in general felt a little one-dimensional. There were bad cats, good cats with very little morally gray area in between. The indoor/outdoor debate and the prejudice against different cats could have been utilized more to explore the depth of the characters’ personalities and beliefs as well as leave more open-ended questions for readers to ponder over.

Initially, I rated The Wildings 4 out of 5 stars, but I think it is more a of 3 or 3.5 for me. My younger self would very likely rate it 4 or even 5 though. So, if this sounds like something you or a young reader you know would like, give it a shot. It is a cute, fun, fairly unique little story. I am currently reading the sequel, The Hundred Names of Darkness, and I will probably rate it about the same as The Wildings for many of the same reasons I have discussed in this review.

Book Review, Fantasy/Magical Realism, Young Adult Fiction

Fire & Heist

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My relationship with recent YA titles has not been great. YA Fantasy was my go-to genre when I was younger, but everything I read lately is trope-filled and uninspired. I am happy to say that Fire & Heist deviates from this rut.

Sky Hawkins and her family are wyverns (or as she likes to call herself, a were-dragon), dragon/human hybrids who can breathe fire, covet anything gold, and used to be able to shape-shift into actual dragons. Wyverns and humans live together fairly amiably, but humans often distrust or fear wyverns. Most wyverns, in an attempt to satiate their lust for gold, become thieves. Sky’s mother was on a heist, but she was caught doing something the council disliked. She disappeared, leaving Sky, her father, and her three brothers disgraced by her actions. The details of Sky’s mother’s disappearance and the reasons for her exile are murky. Sky decides to do some investigating of her own. She finds out that her mother was stealing something from Sky’s boyfriend’s family vault. Is her mother alive? Why was she stealing from the vault? What was she exiled for?

As intriguing as the whole “were-dragons in the human world” thing is, I was skeptical. The idea sounds like it could be cheesy or feel like a teen fan-fiction. Thankfully, it works in Fire & Heist. Sky is a spunky character who likes to test her boundaries. She’s funny and fun to read from. Her brothers and father are also delightfully sarcastic and intelligent characters. The banter between Sky and her family members was actually really funny, to me at least. There is a sizable focus on Sky’s relationship with her boyfriend, but it does not distract too much from the rest of the plot because their relationship has a lot to do with her mother being missing. So, if like me, you dislike romance heavy YA Fantasy, I would say you might like this title. It is just simply fun. It feels fresh and unique. It reads a little like a mix between middle grade and YA, but as an adult, I still really enjoyed it.

The bad news is that this book does not come out until December 4, 2018. The good news is that it looks very promising, and I would recommend following it as it approaches publication. Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher, Crown Books for Young Readers, for giving me the opportunity to review this title.

Book Review, Fantasy/Magical Realism, Young Adult Fiction

A Darker Shade of Magic

ADSoMbyVESAs you can probably tell from my recent posts, I’ve been really enjoying a lot of what I have been reading lately. Unfortunately, I seem to be in a bit of a reading slump now. Have I unknowingly raised my reading standards? Is it me or is it the books I have been trying to read? Whatever the case I did not enjoy A Darker Shade of Magic nearly as much as I wanted to.

There are four different Londons. There is Grey London without magic, Red London with some magic, White London where magic is addictive and controlling, and Black London where magic got so out of hand that no one goes there any more. Kell hails from Red London, and he is one of the few people able to travel between all of the Londons. Kell is a message-runner and sometimes a smuggler. His smuggling gets him into some trouble when he gets his hands on an artifact from Black London. Along the way he meets Lila Bard, a thief who robs him, saves him, and convinces him to take her to on an adventure to the others Londons.

This series has a good bit of hype around it, and it just sounds really unique and interesting. And it was, for the most part. It just did not click with me. The premise sounds great, but the execution did not quite work. It all seemed a bit shallow to me. From my understanding, the author writes both young adult and adult books. Her YA novels are usually under the name Victoria Schwab while her adult novels are published under V.E. Schwab. However, A Darker Shade of Magic felt very YA to me. I am not sure if the series gets “more adult” later, but the first book felt like a rather shallow YA novel. I did not connect with Kell or Lila, and the side characters were dull. The villains did not feel very developed. The were evil, power hungry, and that was about it. The setting, which was what drew me in, felt underdeveloped. I am sure there will be more world building later in the series, but since I disliked most other aspects of the first novel, I doubt I will continue the series. The book as a whole felt like lost potential.

After seeing so many people rave about the series, I feel like I jread a completely different book. This is likely a “it’s not you, it’s me” moment, but if your tastes are similar to mine, you might also be disappointed by this fantasy title.

Book Review, Fantasy/Magical Realism, Young Adult Fiction

Six of Crows

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Everyone and their dog has been raving about Six of Crows since it came out. I was skeptical, but hopeful for this book. After reading quite a few mediocre YA fantasy books in 2016 (including the Grisha Trilogy), I took a break from the genre in 2017. I finally decided that Six of Crows had been sitting on my shelf long enough, so I read it. The verdict? Surprisingly good.

Kaz “Dirtyhands” Brekker and his crew are offered a huge amount of money if they can pull off a nearly impossible heist. They are tasked by a rich merchant to go into an impenetrable fortress and break out a prisoner who has knowledge of how to craft a very dangerous substance. Kaz and his crew all have different motives for taking the job. Can such vastly different people come together to complete this perilous task?

This is how YA fantasy should be. The Grisha Trilogy, also by Bardugo, suffered from tired YA tropes like love triangles, plain girl syndrome/Mary Sue, and the chosen one. The best thing about the Grisha Trilogy was the world and magic system. I was happy to see that Bardugo realized this and built upon the fantasy setting while also giving her character construction more attention. The characters have a lot of depth, motivation, and backstory in Six of Crows. The characters are also not all white and not all heterosexual. Bardugo has absolutely improved as a writer, and I respect that. She has also given me some hope that the YA fantasy genre can come out of its rut of repackaging the same story lines, characters, and tropes just to make a quick buck.

I have one major complaint. Just one complaint though! This might be a slight spoiler, but I will mention no names. OK, so there are six members in the group that go on the heist. It is very soon apparent that the six people are going to turn into three couples. Why? Why does everyone have to have a love interest? It does not seem realistic that everyone would end up wanting to date someone else in the very small group. To be fair, some couples have feelings for each other before they join the heist, but still… it doesn’t seem plausible. They are going on a very serious, very dangerous mission and they really have time to develop feeling for one another? At least the romantic relationships do not interfere much with the main plot. I would have been pretty mad if the romances took precedence over the cool adventure story.

I would definitely recommend this book if you like YA fantasy. I would also not worry about reading the Grisha Trilogy before you read Six of Crows. I just started Crooked Kingdom, Six of Crows‘s sequel, but I probably won’t write a separate review for it. Let’s just hope the series (and the YA fantasy genre in general) continues to improve!

Book Review, Mystery/Thriller, Young Adult Fiction

After the Woods

atwbyksWhile running through the nearby woods Julia and Liv are ambushed by a local man. Julia is able to free her friend from his grasp, but takes Liv place. Julia is abducted while Liv runs away. Our story begins with what happens after the woods.

This is considered a Young Adult mystery/thriller and while it isn’t exactly what I’d consider a thriller I reluctantly agree with the classification. The plot works backwards here- we know that Julia and Liv were ambushed. We know that Julia got abducted and we know she got away. These facts aren’t spoliers as we know these things at the start.

What we don’t know is exactly what happened to Julia and why this man targeted the girls. The book builds up to what happened in the woods and there is a mysterious connection between the man and the girls, but I found these reveals to be disappointing and overshadowed by other plot points that I didn’t see coming. I guess you would call this a twist, but I felt duped. I signed up to know about this mystery, figure out the psychology behind the abductor, what happened to Julia, and if other crimes were connected to the abduction. What I got was… something different and difficult to say without giving things away. Basically, there’s another character who might be considered the real villain.

But don’t let that hook you too much. I found most of the characters to be very shallow. Some seem important, but don’t add up to much in the end. Others are just hollow stereotypes and it is easy to see who is good and bad. I was disappointed by this read, but maybe I expected something I wasn’t supposed to or maybe I simply expected too much.

Book Review, Fantasy/Magical Realism, Young Adult Fiction

The Rithmatist

TRbyBSI know, I know. Another Young Adult novel? Jeez, read some real literature, Jessica. I’m trying to clear out some of the YA literature from my shelf. That and I have just been in the mood for something very light after all the school final projects I’ve been doing. But, as you know, I haven’t had very good luck at finding anything good. Until now! Brandon Sanderson is a very well known fantasy writer, but I haven’t read anything by him before. He’s one of those authors that I’m afraid to get into because if I don’t like him I might have my fantasy fan card taken away. Though The Rithmatist isn’t as popular as Sanderson’s Mistborn series, I still think it deserves attention.

The world of The Rithmatist is somewhat similar to our own. The story takes places in the United Isles of America instead of the United States. Technology in this world is not nearly as advanced and most machines have a steampunk feel. Also, people can make chalk drawings (called chalklings) come to life, duel, defend, and kill people- that is, if you’re a Rithmatist. A select few become Rithmatists and they defend the United Isles from wild chalklings. Rithmatists have a respected place in the upper crust of society, but Joel wishes he had been chosen as a Rithmatist simply because he finds their magic system so intriguing. When Rithmatist students at Joel’s school begin to go missing Joel finds his way into the solving the mystery of the disappearances as well as the cultural ins and outs of Rithmatists. So yeah- the world building is really good in this. There are some minor holes that left me questioning aspects of the United Isles and the history of the world, but I feel like they can be answered and expanded upon later.

A large part of the mystery and the world revolves around Rithmatics, which is the magic system used by Rithmatists. Luckily, before every chapter there are mini lessons on Rithmatic lines of power which include simple drawings. This makes the magic system easy to understand and allows for referencing when the novel talks about a specific line of power of defense. This may be off-putting to some readers because the focus on the magic system sometimes gets a little heavy, but I feel that this much depth to the magic system is a good thing. It makes for a much more interesting world than one having characters recite random magic words or wave their arms around. Understanding Rithmatics takes a small amount of effort, but it adds to the reading experience.

I am not blown away by any of the characters in the novel, but I also do not find them particularly lacking in any specific department. However, I feel like the supporting characters are more colorful than Joel. That isn’t to say Joel is paper thin. He is just… normal. Even though Joel is our “hero” he isn’t some special snowflake like many YA main characters. He doesn’t have it easy and he doesn’t start off in a good position socially, financially, or magically. I also like that he has to think. He doesn’t just rush into bad decisions and have them work out right because he is the chosen one. Most of his actions make perfect sense and I look forward to his growth in future installments.

So all in all this was a really good book. It was creative, fun, and a quick read. I will definitely be reading more things by Sanderson and yes- I think I have my fill of YA literature for the time being.

Book Review, Fantasy/Magical Realism, Young Adult Fiction

Finnikin of the Rock

FotRbyMM.pngAnother young adult fantasy novel, but this time it is a series and not a standalone. Finnikin’s homeland, Lumatere, is splintered and his people are exiles. Finnikin, Sir Topher-his mentor, and a mysterious girl named Evanjalin set out to find the heir to the throne in hopes to reunite their people and piece together their kingdom.

This is a series I have heard good things about and it has been on my second-string list of books to read for a while. This might be a bit of an unpopular opinion, but I am not really a fan of this book and will not be continuing the series. I simply found it boring.

The writing is clear, but I would no call it beautiful. I found the descriptions of settings lacking in depth. There are a couple of maps in the front of the book at least. The beginning of the novel contains a lot of backstory and it is a lot to grasp at once. There are multiple flashbacks and dream sequences that help flesh out the characters, but the amount of information and jumping around jumbles the flow in my opinion. Though the characters have development I did not find myself liking them or even interested in them. Evanjalin in particular seems to make every event and conversation more difficult than it needs to be. She has strength, which is nice, but I could not get behind most of her actions.

Though this might be a nice series for some readers, I did not find anything gripping or original in it. Don’t hate me!

Book Review, Fantasy/Magical Realism, Young Adult Fiction

The Star-Touched Queen

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I have been staying away from young adult literature lately because I have had so many disappointing reads from that genre. However, I won a giveaway for The Star-Touched Queen on Goodreads and since it was recently released I thought I’d give it a try. The novel is being marketed as a standalone fantasy inspired by Indian folklore/mythology. The main character is Maya, a princess who is born into her father’s harem. Unlike all of Maya’s half-sisters who have been married off, Maya is still a maiden at age seventeen because of her cursed horoscope. As an act of desperation, her father plans to marry her off in an attempt at peace between the countries Maya’s kingdom is at war with. The plan does not go smoothly and Maya finds herself in a world that she thought only existed in fairy-tales.

Mythology, political intrigue and Indian culture all in a standalone fantasy novel? Sign me up! But… after reading it I might have to add it to the pile of YA disappointments. There is very little of everything. The myths are told in an off hand manner or glossed over. Mythological beasts are mentioned, but not often described well. The politics do not really exist. (Why is everyone at war again?) The novel is pretty short at about 330 pages and it shows. The potential for a great story is there, but everything feels hurried. So many questions pile up throughout the narrative and the last few chapters try desperately to sew up the loose ends.

I also hoped that the familiar YA tropes would not crop up, but they did. Maya is special and can do things no one else can and her love is, of course, instantaneous. There are reasons for both, but they are, again, explained very quickly in the end. To top it off, the writing is overly bloated with meaningless metaphors. Which really saddens me because there are so many interesting places, beings and events that could use descriptions that actually allow the reader to envision them.

What annoys me the most is the characters. I liked Maya during the first quarter of the book. She loves one of her half-sisters dearly and tells her stories (though we hear none of said stories). She is not afraid to spy on her father’s meetings, but after she meets her love interest she becomes a malleable pile of lovey-dovey goo. She goes alone with everything he says and she cannot question anything because of a curse that does not allow anyone to speak of the fantasy world she is in. (Which is a plot point that seems a little flimsy to me to begin with.)

When Maya notices some strange happenings that only she seems to see/hear she does not even try to question others about them. She takes it upon herself to go looking for clues even though she is told repeatedly how dangerous it is. The other characters, when they do notice she is acting strange, do not question her either even though they presumably know the dangers. Maya’s quest does not flow well. It feels like she visits places just to check them off a list. Basically, the actions of the characters are unbelievable because of flimsy plot devices and contrived circumstances that do not feel natural to the flow of the story. They act the way they do only to further the plot and not so they can be fleshed out characters.

Am I just expecting too much from YA novels? Maybe. I am certainly beginning to think so. The Star-Touched Queen feels stilted, overly flowery, and has a thin romance. I can see an audience for this novel, but I expected much more depth to the story, characters, and the use of mythology. It was simply an OK read, but I do give a few bonus points for at least trying to incorporate mythology into the story. Those aspects were easily the best part of the novel.