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: Orleans

Orleans
Title: Orleans
Author: Sherri L. Smith
Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopia
Pages: 324
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Review Copy: Purchased
Available: March 7, 2013 (On Shelves Now!)

Summary: After a string of devastating hurricanes and a severe outbreak of Delta Fever, the Gulf Coast has been quarantined. Years later, residents of the Outer States are under the assumption that life in the Delta is all but extinct… but in reality, a new primitive society has been born.

Fen de la Guerre is living with the O-Positive blood tribe in the Delta when they are ambushed. Left with her tribe leader’s newborn, Fen is determined to get the baby to a better life over the wall before her blood becomes tainted. Fen meets Daniel, a scientist from the Outer States who has snuck into the Delta illegally. Brought together by chance, kept together by danger, Fen and Daniel navigate the wasteland of Orleans. In the end, they are each other’s last hope for survival.

Sherri L. Smith delivers an expertly crafted story about a fierce heroine whose powerful voice and firm determination will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. –summary and cover image from Goodreads.

Review: “In the early days, before the sky got so angry at the sea and went to war, there was a piece of land between them, and they called her New Orleans. She was a beautiful place, a city that sparkled like diamonds, sang like songbirds, and danced a two-step to stop men’s hearts” (p 35). Through a storyteller, Sherrie L. Smith gives us a glimpse of the past beauty of New Orleans. Then, with exquisite skill, she proceeds to show us what time, floods, sickness and nature has wrought on this city. The world-building in this novel is amazing. We see “…the Garden District, where the city, had gone to seed, a cancerous jungle. Lush garden courtyards had burst like tumors, swallowing their outer buildings whole” (p 162). Debris from floods rests  high in the trees or under the mud, mold creeps up on buildings throughout the city and the forest seems to be a living breathing creature. There is more to this world than the surroundings though.

Smith also slowly reveals the new rules and ways people have learned to survive within their new world. Survival is seldom anything but gritty, messy, and dangerous and that is definitely the case here. Fen, the main character, has led a hard life and it has left its mark on her in more ways than one. She is described as the fierce one and there is no doubt she has learned to fight and protect herself and those she loves. As part of her protection, she keeps herself closed off from most people. This is one of the only drawbacks to this book. It is easy to admire Fen for her intelligence, strength and courage, but it is also very hard to get to know her personally. In spite of this, Smith manages to allow the reader just close enough to care for Fen through the use of her first person accounts. Fen’s voice is clear and almost poetic. Her dialect may be distracting initially, but most readers will likely adjust to it fairly quickly.

Early on, Daniel, a scientist from the Outer States, gets pushed into Fen’s life. The author used third person for his storyline and this seemed to help keep the focus solidly on Fen. Her story remains the main thread though there are many throughout. Smith stopped just short of having too many threads going, but they do weave together well.

There were many layers to the story including trust, racial issues, economic inequality and respect for life. After devastating floods and illness, society has adjusted, but there are still people who do not have what they need and others who have more than their fair share. In Orleans, Smith has created a frighteningly believable world where people must fight for their lives every single day.

Recommendation: Get it soon. The world-building in this novel lifts it above many others in the genre and Fen will be a character you won’t soon forget.

Extras: Blog interview with the author and giveaway
Blog Tour post on Author’s blog
Orleans: Carnivale – a short story prequel to Orleans

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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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