Review: Three Dark Crowns

crownsTitle: Three Dark Crowns
Author: Kendare Blake
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 416
Publisher: HarperTeen
Availability: September 20th, 2016

Summary: Every generation on the island of Fennbirn, a set of triplets is born: three queens, all equal heirs to the crown and each possessor of a coveted magic. Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions.

But becoming the Queen Crowned isn’t solely a matter of royal birth. Each sister has to fight for it. And it’s not just a game of win or lose…it’s life or death. The night the sisters turn sixteen, the battle begins. The last queen standing gets the crown. If only it was that simple… [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Three Dark Crowns is a mirror into the lives of three future queens fated to kill each other for the crown. The triplet sisters belong to three groups, each with their own powers, motivations, and schemes to maneuver their queen to a bloody victory. But of course, nothing goes according to plan.

The world of Three Dark Crowns and the inner lives of sisters Mirabella, Katharine, and Arsinoe are rich and complex. Of course, as a result, there’s a bit of a learning curve in the first few chapters. It takes a little time to figure out what’s happening, who’s who, and everything else, but once you do, it’s easy to sink into the fascinating and, at times, heartbreaking twists and turns of the story.

Three Dark Crowns is told from the perspective of the three sisters, and it’s incredibly well done. In contrast, I was a bit thrown by a side character’s motivations and actions (Joseph, what?!). Similarly, the romance at times veers toward the classic YA insta-love. But, considering the pace and epic fantasy style of the book, it almost felt fitting.

I pretty much read this through in one go — and usually, I steer clear of dark fantasy, but after the first few chapters, I was ready for the long, 400-paged haul. I’m definitely grabbing the sequel when it comes out!

Recommendation: Buy it now!

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Book Review: The Poisoned Blade (Court of Fives #2)

bladeTitle: The Poisoned Blade (Court of Fives #2)
Author: Kate Elliott
Genres:  Fantasy
Pages: 468
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Review Copy: Amazon comes through
Availability: Available now

Summary: In this thrilling sequel to World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott’s captivating young adult debut, a girl immersed in high-stakes competition holds the fate of a kingdom in her hands.

Now a Challenger, Jessamy is moving up the ranks of the Fives–the complex athletic contest favored by the lowliest Commoners and the loftiest Patrons alike. Pitted against far more formidable adversaries, success is Jes’s only option, as her prize money is essential to keeping her hidden family alive. She leaps at the chance to tour the countryside and face more competitors, but then a fatal attack on her traveling party puts Jes at the center of the war that Lord Kalliarkos–the prince she still loves–is fighting against their country’s enemies. With a sinister overlord watching her every move and Kal’s life on the line, Jes must now become more than a Fives champion…. She must become a warrior.

Review: Just like Court of Fives, The Poisoned Blade throws you right into the action and doesn’t let up until the end, sort of…it ends with another cliffhanger. Elliott’s sequel begins a few hours after Jessamy’s victory on the Fives court where she became a Challenger, but the victory was tainted because it came at the cost of someone else, someone Jessamy was close to.  The novel opens with her attempting to not burn that bridge and ends up right in the middle of Garon Palace where she decides to use her father’s lessons to her advantage. Jessamy’s sole focus throughout the novel is to find a way to reunite her family and get them to safety. She meets Ro-emnu again, as the last time she saw him he had left her and her family alone under the tombs. Knowing she needs help she decides to trust him again, begrudgingly, but through him she is exposed to a larger underground network of Efeans who are are quietly planning revolution. In fact, they aren’t the only ones, which I cannot reveal due to spoilers, but it is a plot twist that no one can see coming. In fact, it takes their entire society by surprise and Jessamy ends up in a alliance with the very last person she thought she would be in an alliance with. Then, boom, cliffhanger!

Poisoned Blade is not full of non-stop action as Elliott does take time to give us those meaningful character moments that are the heart of any good novel. Some of my favorite moments were the stolen moments between Jessamy and her sister Amaya. Both are in precarious positions within the Garan household and if anyone were to find out they were sisters, trouble would find them, however, many of their moments are filled with sisterly-love and sisterly-bickering. The relationship of the two sisters is fleshed out more and we get a glimpse of what life was like before the girl’s world was up-ended. Elliott also spends more time developing the relationships between Jessamy and the other adversaries in Garon Palace. I really liked this change of pace for the novel as it allowed Jessamy to rely on her own strength, her own fortitude to protect her family.

Through Jessamy’s travels we are able to see the larger world that Elliott creates. Jessamy travels to Lord Garon’s country estates, and in turn, ends up visiting Efean villages for the first time. She connects with her Efean roots and we learn more about the culture that was denied to her.  She meets more Efeans and learns how they cope with the racism they experience, which in turn gives Jessamy more strength to deal with her plans to best Lord Garon.

While I loved the plot’s twist and turns, the expansion of the world and learning more about Efean culture, but what I loved the most was learning more about the relationship between Jessamy and her father. In Court of Fives, Jessamy’s anger and sense of betrayal towards her father was so negative that he was almost a villain. In Poisoned Blade, Jessamy has more interaction with her father and we finally get a sense of what their relationship was like. The two, who really are very similar in personality, start taking the steps back to healing their relationship and also begin to work as a team. For me, this portrayal of a parent/child relationship in a YA novel, specifically where parents are often off-screen in novels, is what made Elliott’s novel for me. I can’t wait for the next book.

Recommendation: If you loved Court of Fives, then you need you get on this sequel!

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Book Review: The Rose & The Dagger

The Rose and the DaggerTitle: The Rose & The Dagger
Author: Renee Ahdieh
Genres:  Fantasy
Pages: 420
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Review Copy: It was a Teacher Appreciation Gift!
Availability: Available Now

Summary: I am surrounded on all sides by a desert. A guest, in a prison of sand and sun. My family is here. And I do not know whom I can trust.

In a land on the brink of war, Shahrzad has been torn from the love of her husband Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan. She once believed him a monster, but his secrets revealed a man tormented by guilt and a powerful curse—one that might keep them apart forever. Reunited with her family, who have taken refuge with enemies of Khalid, and Tariq, her childhood sweetheart, she should be happy. But Tariq now commands forces set on destroying Khalid’s empire. Shahrzad is almost a prisoner caught between loyalties to people she loves. But she refuses to be a pawn and devises a plan.

While her father, Jahandar, continues to play with magical forces he doesn’t yet understand, Shahrzad tries to uncover powers that may lie dormant within her. With the help of a tattered old carpet and a tempestuous but sage young man, Shahrzad will attempt to break the curse and reunite with her one true love.

Review: I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the sequel to Ahdieh’s amazing debut, The Wrath & the Dawn. I feel in love with that novel, inhaling her words, getting lost in the world building and the characters, specifically Shahrzad and Khalid. I loved their individual character arcs in the story and their arc as a couple. When I finished the first book, I was so ready to continue with Shahrzad’s & Khalid’s story that I had high expectations for The Rose & The Dagger. However, I feel a bit let down by it and I’m not entirely too sure why.

To me, the novel started out really slow. It begins just days after the ending of Wrath & the Dawn, with Shahrzad in the Badawi camp with Tariq and Rahim after fleeing the castle in Rey. Along the way, the trio picked up Shahrzad’s father who is in a coma-like state after using such intense magic. She meets Omar al-Sadiq, the Sheikh of the Badawi people and reunites with her Uncle Reza, who is both relieved to see her and upset at her survival at the same time.  I felt like the urgency of the situation was misplaced, focusing instead on Tariq & Shahrzad’s relationship instead of the tension that should come as Tariq prepares for war. Thankfully, this lack of tension doesn’t last long and the story really starts to move when Shahrzad figures out how to make the carpet fly and begins to put her plan into motion. However, some of the plan seems to be too easy, but I knew that it would fall apart at some point as I was only halfway through the book, and fall apart her plan did, but not in the way that one would expect, which I enjoyed. I like being surprised in a novel and there were some surprises in the sequel that I I liked and some that broke my heart.

Ahdieh introduces new characters in the sequel, such as Shahrzad’s sister Irsa, and we get to know characters that we were only briefly introduced to in the first novel. She expands on the magic that seemed to be only hinted at in Wrath & the Dawn. And I think this is where my “meh” feelings toward the novel stem from. Shahrzad learns a bit more about her magical abilities, but I feel Ahdieh could have spent more time exploring Shahrzad’s lessons with new magical character Artan, but the development of her magical talents appears off screen. I would have loved how the development of Shahrzad’s magic would have helped shaped who she is and added more depth to her character growth. Instead, there is no real payoff to the magical element in the story and after one point Shahrzad never mentions her magic again; it doesn’t even register as part of her identity.

At I think that is what is at the crux with my ambivalence to the novel.  I feel like the novel wrapped up to quickly and that plot points that seemed interesting really went no where. I feel like there was so much more to explore with the world that Ahdieh created and that this series really could have been a trilogy, or maybe even more (though I did learn there are 3 novellas, so there is that). I really wanted more out of this novel, and I was left wanting. Hopefully Ahdieh will return to Shahrzad’s world sometime in the future.

Recommendation: If you are dying to know what happens with Shahrzad and Khalid, then buy it now. If you are willing to wait a bit, then get it soon.

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Review: Rebel of the Sands

rebelsandsTitle: Rebel of the Sands
Author: Alwyn Hamilton
Genres:  Science Fiction/Fantasy
Pages: 314
Publisher: Penguin
Review Copy: My local library
Availability: Available Now

Summary: She’s more gunpowder than girl—and the fate of the desert lies in her hands.

Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mystical beasts still roam the wild and barren wastes, and rumor has it that somewhere, djinni still practice their magic. But there’s nothing mystical or magical about Dustwalk, the dead-end town that Amani can’t wait to escape from.

Destined to wind up “wed or dead,” Amani’s counting on her sharpshooting skills to get her out of Dustwalk. When she meets Jin, a mysterious and devastatingly handsome foreigner, in a shooting contest, she figures he’s the perfect escape route. But in all her years spent dreaming of leaving home, she never imagined she’d gallop away on a mythical horse, fleeing the murderous Sultan’s army, with a fugitive who’s wanted for treason. And she’d never have predicted she’d fall in love with him…or that he’d help her unlock the powerful truth of who she really is. — Copy image and summary via Goodreads

Review: I’m going to admit that when I first read Hamilton’s debut novel, I was so involved with the story that I read it in a day. However, there was something about the novel that didn’t sit right with me and I couldn’t figure out what it was, so I decided to read the novel again. I figured that I read it too quickly and might have missed some parts of the story, hence why I was feeling a bit incomplete. I couldn’t figure out why I had this, “I loved it but…” feeling. I enjoyed the main character, Amani, and her male counterpart, Jin; I enjoyed the adventure the two went on and enjoyed the reveal of Amani’s gift. So, why was I hesitant about this novel?

Then it hit me. I don’t feel like this novel is all that original. Hamilton’s novel hits all the checkmarks of all the current trend in female driven hero’s journey novels (outsider girl – check, desires to live a different life – check, meets handsome rogue stranger – check, leaves in a hurry/goes on the run – check, falls in love, but doesn’t act on it – check, discovers secret power that rogue stranger knew about but she didn’t – check, joins a rebellion – check, survives first fight to live on for sequel – check). The “difference” here is that Amani’s world was inspired by Arabian mythology and culture and the way that Hamilton incorporated the mythology and culture is what bothered me.

One theme that rubbed me the wrong way was Hamilton’s portrayal of Amani’s society’s attitude towards women. In order for Amani to stand out, to be original, the oppression that Amani experienced from her society was a bit over the top. Throughout the story Amani states how Miraji men believe women are lacking in intellect and treat them as nothing but property. This is a real stereotype attributed to Arabian culture and I was bothered by the fact that Hamilton chose to include this stereotype in her novel as a reason for Amani to rebel. I would have like a more compelling reason for Amani’s desire to leave her home instead of relying on a harmful stereotype of a culture.

I believe that Hamilton was really trying to be original with the world of her novel, and I will say that she did an excellent job of world building to make Amani’s world believable. In the story, we learn of more of the outside world other than Miraji and Hamilton creates a unique and interesting mythology with the First Beings and the Destroyer of Worlds. The rules of magic that she created made sense to the story. Her characters are well written and she also passes the Bechdel Test where Amani develops a friendship with another girl and they have conversations that don’t revolve around men. To see her develop a healthy female friendship in a hero’s journey was actually very refreshing.

Recommendation: Overall, I am filled with mixed emotions for “Rebel of the Sands”. There was much that I enjoyed from the novel and some parts of it bothered me. I found that when the story ended, I wasn’t quite ready to leave Amani and Jin and am looking forward to seeing where their next journey takes them.

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Review: Sorcerer to the Crown

sorcerer_front mech.inddTitle: Sorcerer to the Crown
Author: Zen Cho
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 416
Publisher: Ace
Availability: September 1st, 2015

Summary: Magic and mayhem collide with the British elite in this whimsical and sparkling debut.  At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, freed slave, eminently proficient magician, and Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers—one of the most respected organizations throughout all of Britain—ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up.  But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large… [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Zen Cho’s short stories are some of my favorites (if you haven’t read her anthology Spirits Abroad, you really should) — so I went into this book with very, very high expectations. I wasn’t disappointed. While Sorcerer to the Crown doesn’t read like her usual fare — this is very Jane Austen meets post-colonial fantasy — it was absolutely wonderful.

Sorcerer to the Crown features Zacharias Wythe, adopted son of Sir Stephen, England’s sorcerer to the crown. When he inherits Sir Stephen’s staff (among other things), he steps into the trying role of being England’s first black Sorcerer Royal. Along the way, he runs into the orphan and incredibly practical, sort-of schoolteacher Prunella Gentleman, who has an important role in the fate of English magic.

Set in a fantasy version of Regency London, Sorcerer to the Crown reminded me in tone of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer’s writing. The novel perfectly balances the setting of high society in Regency London with the fantasy plot. So if you like novel of manners books, or you love a good fantasy, you’re in for a treat — especially if you want a fantasy that doesn’t fall into the “everyone is white, even the elves!” trap. It’s like getting a bowl with the perfect ratio of rice to curry, and then discovering that there’s a pork katsu hiding in the sauce.

The best part of Sorcerer to the Crown, to me, was how real it felt. Sure, it was fantasy, but the characters themselves, the infighting of England’s magical society, and the various systems of magic all conspired to make the story work. What I find unbelievable about a lot of fantasy and fiction in general is how England (or whatever Western country the book is set in) operates in isolation of the rest of the world, and completely ignores the role colonialism played in making such a society possible. Thankfully, in Zen Cho’s novel, just the opposite happens.

Zacharias and Prunella exist in fantasy England, and experience all the daily microaggressions, and straight-up racism and sexism that follow. Magic-users from other countries make appearances throughout the novel, bringing with them different relationships with magic and throwing into question the nature of England’s political relationship with other nations. My particular favorite is Mak Genggang, a fearsome grey-haired witch who sails in and out of the story, turning it on its head. (I nearly threw my book out of excitement when I first encountered her, but I was riding a train at the time, and restrained myself.)

COKy3g-UsAAj7At.jpg large (2)

Basically, what I’m trying to say is — Sorcerer to the Crown is an awesome fantasy. If you’re into Regency era fiction, or if you’re into good fantasy, then read this book. If you’re not, then you should still read this book. It’s lovely stuff.

Recommendation: Buy it now!
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Review: Court of Fives

18068907Title: Court of Fives (Court of Fives #1)
Author: Kate Elliott
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 448
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Availability: August 18th, 2015

Summary: In this imaginative escape into an enthralling new world, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott begins a new trilogy with her debut young adult novel, weaving an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.

Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But at night she can be whomever she wants when she sneaks out to train for The Fives, an intricate, multi-level athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best competitors. Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an unlikely friendship between a girl of mixed race and a Patron boy causes heads to turn. When a scheming lord tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test Kal’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a powerful clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Little Women’s been on my mind, what with the recent announcement of a dystopian TV show adaptation of the classic novel. I know, sounds super weird. When I started reading Court of Fives, I immediately noticed that the four sisters had names that resembled the sisters in Little Women. The characters loosely match Little Women — especially Jessamy, the protagonist, who would totally jump fences with Jo.

That’s where the resemblance ends, to my mind. Court of Fives is set in a ‘Greco-Roman Egypt’ inspired world, where Jessamy yearns to escape her privileged Patron life (with a few catches) so that she can go run the competition known as the Fives. The Fives involves five sets of challenges and obstacles — and Jessamy is pretty good at it. When Jessamy meets Kalliarkos, a high-ranking member of the Patron class, the difference in their stations in life are starkly apparent.

When Kalliarkos was introduced, I was afraid this would become the usual story — less privileged girl falls in love with privileged boy who is somehow different from his peers. But just the opposite happened. Through subtle details and less subtle commentary from other Commoner class characters, Kalliarkos is shown to benefit from his privilege, while also being a sympathetic characters. I was pleasantly surprised at how well most of the race dynamics and class privilege handled in the book. (My grudge against Jessamy’s father will never cease, though.)

The story itself is incredibly compelling! After a slow start, the book picks up the pace — within a chapter, I was hooked and read the rest of the book in one sitting. The setting felt real, and the late reveal about the sins of the conquering nations (hello, imperialism!) was awesome. I’d love to gush about it more, but that would be spoiler city. Suffice it to say, that it’s magical and thought-provoking.

All in all, I’m really looking forward to reading the sequel. This was a solid book from start to finish, and Jessamy’s world is one I want to return to.

Recommendation: Buy it now!

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