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: Serpentine

serpentineTitle: Serpentine
Author: Cindy Pon
Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Pages: 300
Publisher: Month9Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: Serpentine is a sweeping fantasy set in the ancient Kingdom of Xia and inspired by the rich history of Chinese mythology.

Lush with details from Chinese folklore, Serpentine tells the coming of age story of Skybright, a young girl who worries about her growing otherness. As she turns sixteen, Skybright notices troubling changes. By day, she is a companion and handmaid to the youngest daughter of a very wealthy family. But nighttime brings with it a darkness that not even daybreak can quell.

When her plight can no longer be denied, Skybright learns that despite a dark destiny, she must struggle to retain her sense of self – even as she falls in love for the first time.

Review: It is a pleasure to relax into a world that I trust an author to handle, and I’m happy to report that my trust was rewarded with Cindy Pon’s Serpentine. One of my favorite things about fantasy is well-crafted worlds, and Pon paints the Kingdom of Xia vividly, from clothing to hairstyles to cultural norms and expectations. And of course, the mythology, with its demons and undead creatures and immortals and secrets. I can’t go too deeply into the my appreciation for the world-building without having to resort to spoilers, so I’ll simply say I wish more authors took as much care with making a world that felt lived-in. The little details can be just as important in setting a scene as the broader ones, and Pon did a fantastic job.

Skybright is a wonderful protagonist who faces challenges both mundane and supernatural. Her struggles to figure out what was going on with herself and the supernatural world were equally compelling. I was particularly drawn to her friendship/sisterhood with Zhen Ni and how their bond was tested in a host of different ways throughout the story. Skybright and Zhen Ni’s relationship was easily my favorite in the book, especially in the second half, when things got rather complicated.

I have a few minor complaints about the romance between Skybright and Kai Sen (mostly at how quickly it moved at the beginning), but it was mostly satisfying. I appreciated that Pon did not let their romance overshadow the bond between Skybright and Zhen Ni. Kai Sen was an interesting character, though I think a significant portion of that interest for me was in the potential for deadly conflict between him and Skybright. Once that was largely settled, my interest in Kai Sen waned.

Stone was a character that I didn’t appreciate much at the outset, but he grew more intriguing as the story turned toward the greater supernatural conflict. I’m curious to see more of him even though I don’t particularly like him—his character has the potential to deepen the scope of the story in the next book.

Recommendation: Get it soon! The fantasy world of Serpentine is well crafted. Cindy Pon has populated the world with interesting characters and a high-stakes plot that steadily ramps up to a solid climax. While there are a few points that didn’t work for me as much as I wanted them to, this was a satisfying read.

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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: The Smoking Mirror

The Smoking MirrorTitle: The Smoking Mirror (Garza Twins, Book 1)
Author: David Bowles
Genres: Fantasy, Action/Adventure
Pages: 220
Publisher: IFWG Publishing, Inc.
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: Carol and Johnny Garza are 12-year-old twins whose lives in a small Texas town are forever changed by their mother’s unexplained disappearance. Shipped off to relatives in Mexico by their grieving father, the twins soon learn that their mother is a nagual, a shapeshifter, and that they have inherited her powers. In order to rescue her, they will have to descend into the Aztec underworld and face the dangers that await them.

Review: The Smoking Mirror is exactly the kind of book I wish I’d been able to stumble across when I was in the target audience’s age range. Protagonists of Mexican descent as heroes in a fantasy book? Facing trials in nine levels of a hellish underworld to save their mom? That would have meant the world to me when I was twelve, and as an adult, it still makes me really happy. It also made a lot of other people happy—The Smoking Mirror was named a 2016 Pura Belpré Honor book.

Author David Bowles straddles the line between middle grade and young adult with The Smoking Mirror. It is a great action/adventure story—the nine levels of the Mictlan prove to be a harrowing (and gruesome) checklist for the Garza twins to get through. Each section is distinct (and terrifying), populated by gods and monsters who get in their way, and thereby keep the pace from lagging by providing ever-new challenges for the twins. Each time they made it through a level of the underworld, I was eager to see what they would be up against next. Occasionally, it felt as if their victories weren’t as difficult as I wished they were, but there were many other, more satisfying encounters.

While I felt that some of the writing was weak in places (or distracting—my taste in humor didn’t always line up with the author’s) and wished that there had been more space to explore the world (including their relationship with their grandmother and their family’s grief), Bowles made up for it by creating a pair of protagonists I enjoyed rooting for. Carol and Johnny are engaging heroes, and I enjoyed the back and forth of their distinct POVs. Despite their not-infrequent clashing, watching the twins come back together and depend on each other during the story was a rewarding journey. The descriptions of the Mictlan and the frequent use of Spanish are also some of my favorite parts of the book.

Recommendation: Get it soon! The Smoking Mirror is an entertaining adventure story that moves at a quick pace and features a memorable and underrepresented mythology. While the book isn’t without its flaws, it nevertheless kept my attention on the story it was trying to tell. I’m happy to learn that the next book was recently released—I think this series would be a great addition to one of my younger sibling’s bookcase.

Extras
“Author David Bowles on his Garza Twins Series and the Pura Belpré Honor”

“Twins battle Aztec gods in ‘Smoking Mirror’”

“Castle Horror Podcast: Interview: David Bowles, author of ‘A Kingdom Beneath the Waves’”

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Fantasy YA Lit List

These days, I’ve been in the kind of book mood where you just want to bask in old favorites, rereading familiar words over and over again. Naturally, I’ve turned to my favorite genre, fantasy, and have been working through my top fantasy YA books. If you’ve been looking for a quality YA fantasy by/about POC, then check out these books:

6289599Half World (Half World #1) by Hiromi Goto

Melanie Tamaki is human—but her parents aren’t. They are from Half World, a Limbo between our world and the afterlife, and her father is still there. When her mother disappears, Melanie must follow her to Half World—and neither of them may return alive. Imagine Coraline as filmed by the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Howl’s Moving Castle), or Neil Gaiman collaborating with Charles de Lint. Half World is vivid, visceral, unforgettable, a combination of prose and images that will haunt you. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

 

akatalskjsljdsAkata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Twelve-year-old Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born American. Her features are African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a “free agent,” with latent magical power. Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But will it be enough to help them when they are asked to catch a career criminal who knows magic too? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

17869212Promise of Shadows by Justina Ireland

Zephyr Mourning has never been very good at being a Harpy. She’d rather watch reality TV than learn forty-seven ways to kill a man, and she pretty much sucks at wielding magic. Zephyr was ready for a future pretending to be a normal human instead of a half-god assassin. But all that changes when her sister is murdered—and she uses a forbidden dark power to save herself from the same fate.

Zephyr is on the run from a punishment worse than death when an unexpected reunion with a childhood friend (a surprisingly HOT friend) changes everything. Because it seems like Zephyr might just be the Nyx, a dark goddess made flesh that is prophesied to change the power balance. For hundreds of years the half-gods have lived in fear, and Zephyr is supposed to change that. But how is she supposed to save everyone when she can’t even save herself? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

11831627The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson

Sixteen-year-old Scotch struggles to fit in—at home she’s the perfect daughter, at school she’s provocatively sassy, and thanks to her mixed heritage, she doesn’t feel she belongs with the Caribbeans, whites, or blacks. And even more troubling, lately her skin is becoming covered in a sticky black substance that can’t be removed. While trying to cope with this creepiness, she goes out with her brother—and he disappears. A mysterious bubble of light just swallows him up, and Scotch has no idea how to find him. Soon, the Chaos that has claimed her brother affects the city at large, until it seems like everyone is turning into crazy creatures. Scotch needs to get to the bottom of this supernatural situation ASAP before the Chaos consumes everything she’s ever known—and she knows that the black shadowy entity that’s begun trailing her every move is probably not going to help. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

20345202The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey

Beneath the streets of New York City live the Avicen, an ancient race of people with feathers for hair and magic running through their veins. Age-old enchantments keep them hidden from humans. All but one. Echo is a runaway pickpocket who survives by selling stolen treasures on the black market, and the Avicen are the only family she’s ever known. Echo is clever and daring, and at times she can be brash, but above all else she’s fiercely loyal. So when a centuries-old war crests on the borders of her home, she decides it’s time to act… [Image and summary via Goodreads]

 

sorcerer_front mech.inddSorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

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]

 

Have you read any of these? What are some of your favorite YA fantasy books?

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Review: The Girl from Everywhere

girl fromTitle: The Girl from Everywhere (The Girl from Everywhere #1)
Author: Heidi Heilig
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 464
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Review copy: Library
Availability: February 16th, 2016

Summary: Nix has spent her entire life aboard her father’s ship, sailing across the centuries, across the world, across myth and imagination. As long as her father has a map for it, he can sail to any time, any place, real or imagined: nineteenth-century China, the land from One Thousand and One Nights, a mythic version of Africa. Along the way they have found crewmates and friends, and even a disarming thief who could come to mean much more to Nix.

But the end to it all looms closer every day. Her father is obsessed with obtaining the one map, 1868 Honolulu, that could take him back to his lost love, Nix’s mother. Even though getting it—and going there—could erase Nix’s very existence. For the first time, Nix is entering unknown waters. She could find herself, find her family, find her own fantastical ability, her own epic love. Or she could disappear. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: When I first read the premise of The Girl From Everywhere, I was at once intrigued and baffled. Sailing across the centuries? Mythical lands? Time travel? That’s an awful lot going on. Given my love of fantasy and myth, I was more than ready to give it a try, even so.

The whole ‘sailing through the centuries to possibly mythical lands’ business works, once you decide to go with the flow and accept it — which is admittedly a little difficult, given that the book jumps into Nix’s seafaring, time-traveling life with very little explanation. But when you do get with the program, it’s a fun ride. Nix and her father’s ship crew sail to lands both real and mystical in a variety of times. The colorful descriptions of each place — little details such as the spread of New York food — bring each destination to life.

The casual interweaving of the mythical with the realistic is definitely one of the story’s strengths. The storytelling does take on a flowing, lyrical tone — which might or might not be your thing. At certain points, though, this takes an unfortunate turn as the vivid, descriptive style of the book manages to skip over actual, crucial plot details and set-up. There were several times when I was left flipping back through the book, baffled at a plot development that came out of nowhere. To be fair, I may not have been paying attention enough.

Though the novel’s perspective is that of the heroine, Nix, sometimes it didn’t feel like it. This may have been why several plot points seemed to come out of nowhere. As things happen and Nix makes crucial decisions, her thought process was occasionally left out of the equation. Even though Nix is surrounded by a cast of fascinating characters — diverse in their backgrounds, ethnicity, and sexuality — it was hard to get a sense of who they were. The varying settings of the story outshone the characters — all except Kashmir, ship crew member and one corner of Nix’s love triangle. He was a lot of fun, and his moments with Nix were pretty cute.

The one thing about the many locales of The Girl From Everywhere that I enjoyed the most was its honesty. While it definitely did not go into Colonialism 101 (if only), certain truths weren’t avoided — such as the destruction of Hawaii’s sovereignty in the past and other historical injustices. This, more than anything else, won me over. I’d love to see more unflinching looks at history in YA lit.

The premise alone makes The Girl From Everywhere worth reading. If you’re a big fan of adventures on the high seas and time travel, then check this book out!

Recommendation: Get it soon if you’re into the premise of time travel via sailing. Otherwise, maybe just borrow it someday.

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