Review: Shadows Cast by Stars

Shadows Cast by StarsTitle: Shadows Cast by Stars
Author: Catherine Knutsson
Genres: Dystopia/Post-Apocalyptic; Fantasy; Romance, Steamy
Pages: 456
Publisher: Atheneum
Review Copy: Checked out from library
Availability: June 5, 2012

Summary: Old ways are pitted against new horrors in this compellingly crafted dystopian tale about a girl who is both healer and seer. Two hundred years from now, blood has become the most valuable commodity on the planet—especially the blood of aboriginal peoples, for it contains antibodies that protect them from the Plague ravaging the rest of the world.

Sixteen-year-old Cassandra Mercredi might be immune to Plague, but that doesn’t mean she’s safe—government forces are searching for those of aboriginal heritage to harvest their blood. When a search threatens Cassandra and her family, they flee to the Island: a mysterious and idyllic territory protected by the Band, a group of guerilla warriors—and by an enigmatic energy barrier that keeps outsiders out and the spirit world in. And though the village healer has taken her under her wing, and the tribal leader’s son into his heart, the creatures of the spirit world are angry, and they have chosen Cassandra to be their voice and instrument….

Incorporating the traditions of the First Peoples as well as the more familiar stories of Greek mythology and Arthurian legend, Shadows Cast by Stars is a haunting, beautifully written story that breathes new life into ancient customs —(Summary and image via Goodreads)

Review: I wish I liked this book more.

As a moving-to-a-new-town book, Shadows Cast by Stars is serviceable. Cass’s struggles to fit in with the people on the Island—including wanted and unwanted attention from boys—make for some interesting character dynamics and conflict. I particularly enjoyed Cass’s scenes with Madda and her (sort-of) friendship with Helen. The women are the most memorable characters in the novel, though the boys don’t give them much competition in that regard (more on this in a bit).

Unfortunately, I wasn’t invested in Cass’s relationship with Bran. They fall for each other far too quickly for my taste, and their relationship crosses off most of the plot devices for romances (down to an ex-girlfriend stealing a kiss in such a way that the heroine thinks the boyfriend is cheating on her). It doesn’t help that Bran spends large chunks of the story away from Cass, so they end up hitting their relationship milestones really quickly compared to how many hours they actually spend together on-screen.

I have three major complaints with the book, and the first is a matter of expectations. Based on the summary, I was expecting there to be a lot more time invested in exploring this particular disease-ridden world. I wanted to see the cultural, social, and legal ramifications of a world where the government is totally okay with draining people of all their blood in order to stop the spread of Plague. The premise promised me all sorts of interesting possibilities, from a black market for blood to exploitation to national testing and IDs.

I got none of that. The most I got was a chip in all the Corridor citizens’ wrists which let them…connect to the internet? The details are supremely fuzzy and leave more questions than answers: Why doesn’t the government keep better tabs on the people who are the only cure for the Plague? How could our heroes possibly have had time to run when a new plague outbreak occurs? Why isn’t there some kind of set-up where everyone immune to the Plague donates plasma/blood/etc. every [X] days, gets paid handsomely for it, and then the government distributes those vaccines/cures to the people who can afford to get them? Do the antibodies in Others’ blood grant immunity like a vaccine or is it more of a medicine given once the illness has been contracted? Does this government really think it’s an awesome long-term solution to execute the only people immune to the Plague? What is the government going to do when they’ve “overhunted” to extinction?

My second complaint is that many of the characters in the book feel distressingly shallow. Paul spends the entirety of the book as an enigma, and once they get to the Island, Cass spends more time with Bran than him. Neither Cass nor Paul seem to care much about getting ripped out of their lives—the closest we get to them missing anything is when Cass asks her dad if the Island has a school system. (As far as I remember, this never gets answered.) Neither Cass nor Paul apparently had any friends or even extended family in their previous lives. There was one attempt to humanize Avalon, which fell flat for me, Cedar was creepy and probably triggery, and Grace was creepy with a side order of broken. Much of the time these characters (except for Madda and Ms. Adelaide) simply didn’t seem to live in the world they inhabited.

My third complaint is that the culture of the Island felt really off to me. I’ll be the first to admit that my experience with literature starring or written by native people is pretty limited, but even I was able to pick up on many of the problematic bits that Debbie Reese identified. The mixture of Greek mythology and Arthurian legend didn’t mesh well with the story and were distracting (minor) players in the narrative. Frankly, I would have much preferred that they weren’t included at all.

Recommendation: Just skip it, unfortunately. While there are a lot of interesting ideas in the story, they got all tangled up around each other.

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Mini-review: A Match Made in Heaven

cover27644-mediumTitle: A Match Made in Heaven
Author: Trina Robbins
Illustrator: Xian Nu Studio & Yuko Ota
Pages: 128
Genre: fantasy, contemporary, graphic novel, romance
Publisher: Graphic Universe
Review Copy: NetGalley
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Aspiring comic book artist Morning Glory Conroy already has too much to juggle at her San Francisco high school–mean girls, inconsiderate cliques, wannabe gangbangers–without the complication of falling for new student Gabriel. Glory’s best friend, Julia, was interested in him first, and if it weren’t for Julia’s deteriorating home life, Glory wouldn’t have had a chance to get Gabriel to herself. But does he count as a real boyfriend if his overbearing guardian forbids even kissing? Soon Gabriel is pushing Glory to show her work at art events, and the new relationship starts taking Glory away from her bff just when Julia needs her. Glory is in for a startling revelation when she discovers not only Gabriel’s true identity, but also that of his mischievous cousin Luci, who trails their every move just to cause trouble. Can Glory and Gabriel keep their relationship aloft when the heavens themselves seem to be against it?
image and summary from Goodreads

Review: Glory and her friends kept me giggling and smiling. This was definitely light-hearted with a bit of quirkiness too. In one scene, readers are even treated to a paper doll type of layout with an attractive young man in his boxers. The illustrations were a lot of fun — especially since Glory’s comics are mixed in and they are a different style than the main storyline. Several startling action scenes are scattered about to keep you alert. I loved it. If you need a laugh or a quick read, this would be the perfect fit.

Recommendation: Get it soon. It would be just the thing when you need a bit of relaxation.

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Review: Tiger Lily

Title: Tiger Lilytigerlily
Author: Jodi Lynn Anderson
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 292
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Copy: Purchased from Amazon
Availability: Paperback available July 2nd. (Hardcover on shelves now!)

Summary: Before Neverland faded into myth, it was a remote and dangerous island filled with deadly mermaids, psychotic pirates, and watchful faeries. And before Peter Pan belonged to Wendy, he belonged to the girl with the crow feather in her hair . . . Tiger Lily.

When fifteen-year-old Tiger Lily meets the alluring teenage Peter deep in the forbidden woods, the two form a bond that’s impossible to break, but also impossible to hold on to. As the leader of the Lost Boys, the most fearsome of Neverland’s inhabitants, Peter is an unthinkable match for Tiger Lily. With her betrothal to another man and deadly enemies threatening to tear them apart, the lovers seem doomed. But it’s the arrival of Wendy Darling, an English girl who’s everything Tiger Lily is not, that leads Tiger Lily to discover that the most dangerous enemies lurk inside even the most loyal and loving heart. (image via Goodreads, summary via Amazon)

Review: It was a chilly afternoon when I discovered Tiger Lily, a re-telling of the classical Peter Pan. I was excited to read the book, especially knowing that the novel would focus on Tiger Lily’s, a character who is often treated with  disrespect. I found the concept to be unique, interesting and worthy of my time. I thought Anderson’s decision to re-tell Peter Pan from a different perspective, one from a character of color, was a bold move. I applauded her, in fact.

 
And then I read the novel. I wish I could say that Tiger Lily lived up to my expectations. I wish I could say that Anderson treated the voice of a character of color with sensitivity and distinction. I wish a lot of things, but unfortunately the novel I imagined, is not the novel that I actually read.

 
Anderson had a wonderful opportunity to give voice to one of classical literature’s most misunderstood characters and instead of narrating her novel from Tiger Lily’s point of view, she choose to use Tinkerbell. Now, I love Tinkerbell, do not get me wrong, but the emotional impact of Tiger Lily’s story would have stronger if the reader was in her head during the entire novel. Anderson explains that Tinkerbell is able to understand Tiger Lily’s thoughts because the little fairy empathetic and can read the changes of the heart and mind. Interesting concept, unfortunately, this makes Tinkerbell an unreliable narrator. Because the reader cannot trust Tinkerbell, our perception of Tiger Lily and the decisions she makes is warped.

 
Tinkerbell makes many assumptions about Tiger Lily and is often unsure of her motives, especially when Tiger Lily makes a very out of character decision in regards to Peter. I feel that if the reader was privy to Tiger Lily’s thoughts in that moment, understood her motivation, I wouldn’t have been angry at the character. Instead, I felt like some of the choices Tiger Lily makes is for convenience of the story and not very true to the character – solely because of Tinkerbell’s narration.

 
Choosing to use Tinkerbell as the narrator, instead of Tiger Lily, also brings up the very fact that another character of color’s voice was muted. This simple fact makes me quite angry. In 2013 when the call for more diversity in YA literature by readers and authors is getting louder, to have the opportunity to write outside of one’s comfort zone and write a strong character of color, but don’t, is heartbreaking. Anderson had a wonderful opportunity to push her own personal writing boundaries, to give voice to a people not usually heard from and she chose to not take it. Instead, the novel often times feels like a National Geographic special where the colonists are observing the natives and making assumptions based on the people’s actions. Tiger Lily did not end up being a distinct character and ended up being more of a stereotype/stock character.

Despite using Tinkerbell as the narrator, Tiger Lily is still an entertaining read. Anderson does create a world that fits into our previous knowledge of Neverland, while being different and wholelly her own. Her Captain Hook and Mr. Smee are not entirely one note characters, and she does turn Wendy into a character that one loves to despise. To me, Anderson has an unfinished story here and while Tiger Lily is good, Anderson needed to go the extra mile to make it great.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday.

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Mini-review: Cat Girl’s Day Off

cat girlTitle: Cat Girl’s Day Off
Author: Kimberly Pauley
Pages: 331
Genre: fantasy, mystery
Publisher: Tu Books
Review Copy: library (the love of my life)
Availability: April 1, 2012

Summary: Natalie Ng’s little sister is a super-genius with a chameleon-like ability to disappear. Her older sister has three Class A Talents, including being a human lie detector. Her mom has laser vision and has one of the highest IQs ever. And Nat? She can talk to cats. Nat and her friends are catapulted right into the middle of a celebrity kidnapping mystery that takes them through Ferris Bueller’s Chicago and on and off movie sets. (image and summary via Goodreads)

Review: I recently reread Cat Girl’s Day Off and I’m glad I did. The fact that the main character Nat Ng’s Talent is talking to cats already makes the book pretty awesome. On top of that, the book features three good friends (Nat, Oscar, and Melly) solving the mystery together — I’m a total sucker for stories with heartwarming friendship. The fast paced story, loveable characters, and hilarious dialogue make for a light, fun read.

Recommendation: Definitely read it if you get the chance or need something to brighten your day.

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Review: Hammer of Witches

hammer

Title: Hammer of Witches
Author: Shana Mlawski
Genre: Historical Fiction/Fantasy
Pages: 400
Publisher: Lee and Low Books/Tu Books
Review Copy: NetGalley Digital Arc
Availability: April 9, 2013 (but may already be on shelves since the hardcover arrived early)

Summary: Baltasar Infante, a bookmaker’s apprentice living in 1492 Spain, can weasel out of any problem with a good story. But when he awakes one night to find a monster straight out of the stories peering at him through his window, he’s in trouble that even he can’t talk his way out of. Soon Baltasar is captured by a mysterious arm of the Spanish Inquisition, the Malleus Malificarum, that demands he reveal the whereabouts of Amir al-Katib, a legendary Moorish sorcerer who can bring myths and the creatures within them to life. Baltasar, of course, doesn’t know where the man is—or that Bal himself has the power to summon genies and golems.

Now Baltasar must escape the Malleus Malificarum so he can find al-Katib and help him defeat a dreadful power that may destroy the world as they know it. As Bal’s journey leads him into uncharted lands on Columbus’s voyage westward, Baltasar learns that stories are much more powerful than he once believed them to be—and much more dangerous. (Image and Summary via IndieBound)

Review:  “My uncle Diego always said there was magic in a story. Of course, I never really believed him when he said it.” So begins this tale filled to the brim with stories. They are most often magical and overflowing with mystical creatures, adventure, and hidden, but simple truths.

Baltasar has grown up with amazing stories swirling around him. Fortunately, the stories continue throughout his adventures. They are the jewels that bring sparkle and life to this book. The plot line runs in a relatively straight line, but is peppered with all kinds of tales. The stories feature murder, revenge, demons, golems, a unicorn, and quite a few ferocious creatures that are the stuff of nightmares. Stories are powerful here regardless of their truthfulness. As Baltasar learns to his surprise– perception is often more important than fact.

Characters were also a bright spot in this tale. Baltasar, our storyteller extraordinaire, meets many friends along his journey. A few of them are female  characters who definitely add depth to the story. One in particular refuses to be locked into the roles other people choose for her and she schools Baltasar quite thoroughly.

From the title and cover, I was expecting a fantasy and possibly some history, but had no idea how MUCH history. I appreciated learning about this time period and came to the realization that I have not read much about the Spanish Inquisition in the past.

The title had me puzzled initially, but that is because I had never heard of the document before. The Malleus Malificarum, or Hammer of Witches, was written in the 1400s and led to the persecution of witches or people thought to be witches. Without that base of historical knowledge, I had to read and re-read some things, but most readers will likely be able to follow the events regardless. In addition, Shana provides a great author’s note at the conclusion which points out the relative historical accuracy of the book and where she took artistic license. She also offers many links to primary and secondary sources on her website. I find that I am always craving a bit of non-fiction with historical fiction, so this fit the bill perfectly.

Recommendation: Get it soon particularly if historical fiction is one of your favorites. This is a unique book blending fantasy and history with a diverse cast of characters.

Extras:

Sneak Peek of Hammer of Witches

National Geographic Channel video about the original Malleus Malificarum

 

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Review: Vessel

VesselTitle: Vessel
Author: Sarah Beth Durst
Genres: Fantasy, Heroic
Pages: 424
Publisher: Simon & Schuster/McElderry Books
Review Copy: Received as a birthday gift
Availability: September 11, 2012 (on shelves now!)

Summary: Liyana has trained her entire life to be the vessel of a goddess. The goddess will inhabit Liyana’s body and use magic to bring rain to the desert. But Liyana’s goddess never comes. Abandoned by her angry tribe, Liyana expects to die in the desert. Until a boy walks out of the dust in search of her.

Korbyn is a god inside his vessel, and a trickster god at that. He tells Liyana that five other gods are missing, and they set off across the desert in search of the other vessels. For the desert tribes cannot survive without the magic of their gods. But the journey is dangerous, even with a god’s help. And not everyone is willing to believe the trickster god’s tale.

The closer she grows to Korbyn, the less Liyana wants to disappear to make way for her goddess. But she has no choice: She must die for her tribe to live. Unless a trickster god can help her to trick fate — or a human girl can muster some magic of her own. –(Summary and image via the author’s site)

Review: I thoroughly enjoyed Vessel, and that was largely due to the world building and Liyana. Durst did an excellent job of creating a desert-dwelling culture, and the book was sprinkled with fun details about the tents, clothing, animals, critters, and food. (I will admit that the food wasn’t always fun, but I suppose eating snakes is a better alternative to starving.) This attention to detail—from the embroidery on Liyana’s dress to the preparations our heroes take for incoming sandstorms—grounds the world and makes it feel lived in. This is especially helpful since there’s a bunch of mystical stuff going on. In addition to Korbyn, the tribes have magicians of their own, and this world is one filled with wolves made of sand, dragons made of not-actually-glass, monstrous silkworms, and the Dreaming (afterlife/world of gods). Some of these mystical elements and their impact on the plot are more fuzzy/arbitrary than I’d like, but I could accept them.

Liyana and Korbyn, and even the Emperor to some extent, make the world even richer through the sharing of fairytale-esque stories (which, since this is a fantasy book, are not entirely made up). Many of the stories are about the desert gods, but some are about the empire’s gods or even mortals. Some of them were pure indulgence; others revealed characters, world building, or history; and yet others were used by the characters to teach or debate within the book. I loved these stories.

Durst spends a lot of time on the nature of the vessels and their sacrifice, and these moments are particularly poignant. Some vessels are fanatically devoted to their god and their tribe; others are terrified and don’t want to die. Liyana falls along “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” line—she’s not thrilled to die, but she knows that her tribe needs her goddess, Beyla, in order to survive the Great Drought. It’s particularly wrenching when Liyana says goodbye to her family or whenever she thinks about the extra time she’s been given only because her goddess has disappeared.

I have one major complaint about the book, and that would be the last moment romantic rival—and it’s not even really a rivalry as Durst avoids any competition/jealousy between the boys. Much of the book is devoted to the kind-of-sort-of-not-vocalized romance between Liyana and Korbyn. (Things are complicated—Korbyn is Beyla’s lover, but a mutual attraction between him and Liyana grows over the course of the book.) I was taken by surprise when a certain character expressed interest in Liyana, though that plotline won me over by the end due to a combination of 1) already enjoying that character and 2) the sheer practicality of it all.

Recommendation: Get it soon. Liyana, Korbyn, and the other main characters are an enjoyable and complicated ensemble, and the world they inhabit is as magical as it is dangerous. I loved the world, and the story was a solid quest with fun characters, lots of peril, a not-too-angsty romance, and occasional armies.

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