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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Review: City of a Thousand Dolls

DollsTitle: City of a Thousand Dolls (Bhinian Empire #1)
Author: Miriam Forster
Genres: Fantasy, Mystery
Pages: 359
Publisher: HarperTeen
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: February 5, 2013 (on shelves now!)

Summary: Nisha was abandoned at the gates of the City of a Thousand Dolls when she was just a child. Now sixteen, she lives on the grounds of the isolated estate, where orphan girls apprentice as musicians, healers, courtesans, and, if the rumors are true, assassins. Nisha makes her way as Matron’s assistant, her closest companions the mysterious cats that trail her shadow. Only when she begins a forbidden flirtation with the city’s handsome young courier does she let herself imagine a life outside the walls. Until one by one, girls around her start to die.

Before she becomes the next victim, Nisha decides to uncover the secrets that surround the girls’ deaths. But by getting involved, Nisha jeopardizes not only her own future in the City of a Thousand Dolls—but her own life. –(Summary and image via Goodreads.com)

Review: City of a Thousand Dolls was a fun read, once I got over the telepathic cats. (The dust jacket does not mention that the cats can talk. I actually stopped reading so I could reread the dust jacket in case I had missed something.) The world of the Bhinian Empire is a fascinating mixture of Indian culture (with a Chinese-style two-child policy and some isolationist Japan vibes) and fantasy.

The City itself—established so parents could drop off their unwanted girl children instead of killing them—is very much a lesser-of-two-evils establishment. While many of its inhabitants don’t fret much about the City’s purpose, Nisha and some of the other characters will at least acknowledge that training girls from infancy so they can be sold as courtesans, rich men’s wives, soldiers, etc., has definite skeeve potential. One minor critique (which could easily be leveled at books like Divergent or even the Harry Potter series), is that I think there are more available slots to humanity than just the seven presented in the novel via the Houses of Combat, Flowers, Beauty, Jade, Music, Pleasure, and Shadows (or Abnegation/Erudite/Amity/Candor/Dauntless or Gryffindor/Ravenclaw/Hufflepuff/Slytherin). Then again, Forster does offer some condemnation of both the City and the Houses through characters like Zann and Tanaya.

One of the biggest flaws in this book is that there is a lot of infodumping. Sometimes the infodumping is strictly for the readers, but oftentimes Nisha gets a secret history lecture. While the latter is important for the plot, both forms are awkward and occasionally difficult to get through. Whenever the Bhinian Empire comes up as a discussion topic, be prepared to learn.

The mystery itself is fairly good. While Nisha is not the kind of detective who would fit into a procedural or noir, she does the best she can with her limited skill set and resources. I was wrong about the murderer and the murderer’s motives, but I easily guessed several other important plot twists. (Protip: You ruin the mystery of whether or not the City trains assassins when they’re listed in the cast of characters.) I also felt that Forster cheated in a big way in the deaths of one of the girls—her death only happened in order to keep the mystery going. Honestly, almost all of the characters in this book are hiding something from Nisha. It didn’t vex me too much, but it will probably be infuriating for some people.

Nisha’s romance with Devan is cute but is undercut by a lot of the City’s skeeviness. Much to my delight, this is explicitly acknowledged in-world (and gets contrasted with another relationship later on). Nisha is often competent and typically knows when she’s about to go in over her head. Of course, since she’s the heroine, sometimes she has far more bravery than caution, but that is far from atypical in a fantasy novel.

Recommendation: Get it soon if you want a fun, quick read set in an India-inspired fantasy. There were a few too many missteps, particularly with the mystery, for me to recommend it whole-heartedly. However, there is a lot of potential in the world, and that means I’ll be back for the companion novel in 2014.

What did you guys think about City of a Thousand Dolls? Do you have any similar novels you’d like to recommend?

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