Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier

Black Dog
Rachel Neumeier


This is a review of a book provided to me by Strange Chemistry (the YA imprint of Angry Robot books).
 
The Premise: The Toland siblings, Natividad, Alejandro, and Miguel, have fled from their home in Mexico, all the way across the United States, and have just reached their destination in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Their father’s old enemy, Malvern Vonhausel, still stalks them despite already destroying their village and murdering their parents. Now the siblings are making a desperate gamble: that Dimilioc, a stronghold for shapeshifters called black dogs, will take them in. They have very little to convince Dimilioc’s Master — only that their father was once a Dimilioc wolf, and that Natividad is Pure. Their father told them that Dimilioc protected the Pure, but it never tolerated strays. Miguel may be granted amnesty because he’s human, but Alejandro is black dog and may not be treated so kindly.
 
Read an excerpt of Black Dog here
 
My Thoughts: Before reading Black Dog, the other books I’d read by Rachel Neumeier were two-thirds of The Griffin Mage Trilogy, and House of Shadows. These are all straight fantasy, and for some reason (probably my own obliviousness), I thought Black Dog was the same. I didn’t realize that until I began reading it that this is urban fantasy. This was not a bad thing. It felt nice to be surprised that Black Dog was Neumeier’s own riff on werewolf mythology. The world is not far off from our own as it is now, but Neumeier alters all we know by setting Black Dog right after a war. This war is one that is not necessarily fully explained, but what we do know is that it has wiped out all vampires, and vampire magic happened to hide the supernatural from regular people. It also has the devastating consequence of Vonhausel tracking down the Toland family and slaughtering everyone in their village. Black Dog opens in the midst of the siblings’ flight from home, with the plan to be taken in by the group of black dogs that their father once belonged.
 
Black Dog is narrated in the third person but focuses on Natividad and Alejandro, and as you would expect when a supernatural murderer is after you, this story has a desperate edge. First there is the fear of getting caught before they reach Dimilioc, and then there is the stress over what to say that would most likely keep them alive once they get there. After that the challenges just keep coming. So this has a quickly moving plot, but beyond that, the world building and the characters kept me engaged as well. The Tolands’ Mexican upbringing is part of the narrative (the dialogue is peppered with Spanish), and that mixed with their having to grow up quickly kept these characters real and vulnerable.
 
What black dogs and the Pure are, are organically introduced as necessary. It isn’t difficult to catch on that a “black dog” is a shapeshifter that turns into a monstrous dog, but Neumeier throws in her own touches, from the superficial (like their black fangs and claws, intense heat, eyes of “fiery gold and red”, and black ichor of their wounds) to the fundamental (that they are two separate selves, one human, one shadow, housed within the same body). The Pure, which Natividad is, is more difficult to grasp. Natividad demonstrates that she has powers that she uses to protect and hide her brothers from their pursuers, but as the story moves forward, it becomes clear that’s not all she’s useful for. Adding to the mystery is the strange relationship the black dogs have with the Pure. Black dogs are drawn to the Pure, but while one half of their nature wants to protect them, the other wants to destroy. It’s not certain that even the Pure and the black dogs know how they are linked.
 
The Dimilioc wolves believe in protecting the Pure. In fact, they are prized, which is one of the reasons Natividad and her brothers have decided to go to them. Here is where things get sticky though, because Natividad is willing to sacrifice herself in exchange for her and her brothers’ survival (“I’m not a puta; I won’t lie down with them all. But if you take us into Dimilioc, I will take any one of your wolves you say”). Whether Natividad really has any agency is one issue, that she is only fifteen years old (while the youngest of her options seem to be in their twenties, there are men much older than that here), is another. I suppose I should feel better that it’s one of the youngest who is most aggressive in the pissing contest over Natividad, but when you are fifteen, a five or six-year age difference is significant. Any further romance or consent would be questionable. On the other hand, things don’t progress far enough for me to really question what is happening. All this is sort of there, in the background, percolating, while the Toland siblings deal with more immediate life or death situations. Yes, there is attention and Natividad isn’t immune, but there is the sense she wonders whether it’s real. I feel hopeful, because of the thoughtfulness of the writing, that when this series continues I won’t be disappointed by what happens to Natividad. I am not completely against a romance, but I’d feel better if Natividad got to grow up first. I also wonder whether the controversial romance is deliberate. It’s interesting when you pair the situation with Natividad’s nature, which involves a lot of placating of the black dogs and defusing aggression with teasing jokes made at the right moment. I also noticed a mirroring of Natividad’s situation in another (male) character. Needless to say, I’m very interested in finding out where this is going to go. Unfortunately, Strange Chemistry has been discontinued, but it sounds like Rachel Neumeier still expects to be able to publish the sequel, Pure Magic, one way or another.
 
Overall: Every time I read a book by Rachel Neumeier, it becomes my new favorite by this author. I think this is because of a mix of super thoughtful writing plus an element of surprise. Black Dog is no different. This was the kind of read that you gobble up quickly, with a lot of life-threatening action squeezed into the space of the few days, but it was the quieter moments between the life-or-death situations, where the characters are planning and anticipating and arguing, that lingered long after the book was closed. For those looking for no more than action and adventure, you will find it here. For those looking for something deeper – Black Dog sometimes made me uncomfortable in a way that is never resolved. Depending on how things go, I think this series has the potential to be more subversive than you’d initially expect.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powells | The Book Depository
 
Other reviews:
Bunbury in the Stacks @ Tor.com – “Black Dog is, like the characters within its pages, frightening and beautiful and solid right down to its core.”
Chachic’s Book Nook – “Rachel Neumeier made a successful foray into urban fantasy with Black Dog.”
On Starships and Dragon Wings – “I was excited to get to know some characters a little different from the typical young adult cast, but I was completely unable to connect to them for reasons I’m honestly still not able to pin down.”

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

The Dream Thieves
Maggie Stiefvater

The Dream Thieves was one of the more coveted YA books at BEA last year, and rather difficult to get (the publisher gave out the time to grab the book only to those who specifically asked, and then handed them out so quickly they were gone in 10 minutes). I was hoping to get an extra copy for book blogger friends who only asked for this one book, but I don’t think I had any luck. Anyway, this came out September 2013, and was another pick for the YAckers. They had a lovely chat about The Dream Thieves which is up online now. Of course, being the reprobate that I am, my contribution to this chat was something along the lines of “I’m still reading it, you guys talk about it without me.” This was the right thing to say because it took me a whole month to read this book, mostly thanks to the day job sucking away my time and attention, but I do wish I could have talked about it with the gang because I have the sneaking suspicion that I am the outlier again when it comes to this series. I’ve actually refrained from looking at the chat before I finish this review because I’m afraid of how far off my opinion is going to be.

This is the second book of The Raven Cycle. If you haven’t read the first book yet, I recommend you read my review of The Raven Boys instead of this one, because possible spoilers for that book lie ahead.

The Premise: Despite the freedom of summer break, a newly awoken ley line, and Ronan’s unveiled talent, the search for Glendower is no easier than it was before. Shady characters have appeared in Henrietta, drawn by the power spikes from its ley lines. The trail runs hot and cold as energy grows and dims without explanation or clear source. Similarly, the all is discordant amongst Blue and the Raven boys. Noah disappears and reappears with each dip and surge in energy. Ronan toys with more dangerous pursuits. And a lingering tension hovers between Adam, Blue, and Gansey that threatens to fracture the whole group.

Read an excerpt of The Dream Thieves on scribd (or pdf: here)

My Thoughts: When I look back at my review of The Raven Boys, I had problems with the fragmented focus – there are a lot of characters, each with their own individual back story, and it was difficult for me to tell who the main protagonists were and where the whole story was going. Then I reminded myself that despite having trouble with the meandering storyline, I loved the characters, enjoyed the writing, and would road trip to Henrietta in a heartbeat. I said to myself that this was the cost of set up when there were multiple characters involved and a dreamy supernatural backdrop to explain. And because the framework was taken care of in The Raven Boys, it seemed a reasonable expectation that I would fare better with The Dream Thieves.

Unfortunately, I had very similar issues with The Dream Thieves that I had with The Raven Boys. I don’t know what else to do but sigh over this, but before I go into why this book didn’t set my heart aflame, I want to point out it might do just that for someone else by reiterating what I said when I reviewed The Raven Boys: “If you are one who can sit back and enjoy a character-driven story with lovely prose and you don’t need to know where it’s all going, this will do quite well.” If you are one of those readers, this story is made of words that are simple yet arranged in very pleasing ways. It has characters who you want to follow around and learn what makes them tick. And yes, there is magic.

“In the shower, Adam scratched a thumbnail across his summer-brown skin. The line of his nail went from white to angry-red in a moment, and as he studied it, it struck him that there was something off about the flow of the water across his skin. As if it was in slow-motion. He followed the stream of the water up to the showerhead and spent a full minute watching it sputter from the metal. His thoughts were a confusion of translucent drops clinging to metal and rain trembling off green leaves.

He blinked.

There was nothing odd about the water. There were no leaves.”

If that’s enough for you, you can probably skip the rest of the review and go enjoy the book. Otherwise be prepared for my kvetching because I really wrestled over what exactly didn’t work for me. This was a review more to work out my own demons than anything else.

I feel a little despondent that what this book has going for it wasn’t enough for me, but ultimately it comes down to what kind of reader I am, and like I said when I reviewed the first book, I need structure. It doesn’t have to be all business right away, and The Dream Thieves started out promisingly with a continued search for Glendower and tantalizing hints about Ronan’s ability, but as I read on my enthusiasm slowly waned. I was surprised by the introduction of a morally ambiguous “heavy” (appropriately named The Gray Man), but he seemed interesting so I read on. By mid-book, I felt like things were moving slowly, but I was still hopeful I could like this story if I could just get some answers, such as what Declan really knew and where things were going. A bit after that mid-way point I began to question. Three-quarters of the way was where I realized I wasn’t going to get that direction I was hoping for and I was officially frustrated. Of course the last few pages of the book is where the story takes off, but by then I wasn’t as engaged as I wanted to be.

Thinking back on it now, if I had approached this as a side-story that was about Ronan and not a “traditional” sequel to The Raven Boys, my expectations would have been calibrated properly. Because I thought there would be progress with the Glendower search, it didn’t compute when the search was mired and another mystic concept, the Greywaren, was thrown in as if out of no where. Things were happening, but to me it was a slow inching trek toward an unknown destination, and I was in a frustrating place where I didn’t know if what I was reading was taking me anywhere. In my mind I was in the second book of a series feeling like I actually hadn’t gone beyond the set up stage of the story.

What compounds my problems with direction and plot is that this is a multi-character story with multiple focuses. Ronan has a bigger role in this second book (which I expected, based on the title and the cover), and I was looking forward to it because he’s so enigmatic in The Raven Boys, but because every chapter was a short flash on a single character before moving onto the next, his voice was one of many. It was easy to forget that this was “Ronan’s book” when the focus moved away from him so often. While Ronan’s power to bring dreams to life is explored, two new characters (the aforementioned Gray Man, and Kavinsky – an obnoxious street-racing-fellow-student) are introduced, and Blue, Gansey, Adam, and Noah continue to have their own problems. Not to mention what all the women living at 300 Fox Way get up to. Again I was reminded the first book, where the fragmented focus made me unsure of who the main characters were. In the end, the characters that get the most page time (Ronan and The Gray Man) were the characters I was happiest with because there was enough pulling back of the veil to see their inner workings, even if I wasn’t completely satisfied with their particular story arcs (that’s a whole other thing that goes into spoiler territory though). As for almost everyone else, it was as if there were too many characters for there to be more for the reader than to touch their outside edges, let alone grasp them whole.

Where I really felt this was with Adam, Blue, and Gansey, whose interrelationships are complicated by romance, rivalry, class, and a curse. What we got of them only makes the loss greater: subtle scenes between Gansey and Blue, a raw honesty between Blue and Adam, and tests of friendship between Adam and Gansey. Despite this, I had only my own guesses to things like why Adam’s character was so alien (more angry than vulnerable) from what he once was. I can’t help but feel like I’d trade one or more of the minor characters’ space in The Dream Thieves for more Adam, or Blue, or Gansey.

I know, I know. Due to my (faulty?) wiring, even though I kept thinking of certain wonderful bits and pieces of this book long after it was finished, I was just too bothered by all of the above for The Dream Thieves to be a hit with me. I’m sure I’m in the minority in this.

Overall: My reaction is the dreaded “I wanted to like this more than I did”. While I found a lot of things to like about The Dream Thieves, for each aspect about this story that I enjoyed, there was another that really didn’t work for me. One problem was my expectations and that I was approaching this story thinking that it was a continuation of The Raven Boys rather than something that was more of a companion piece that intertwines into the greater whole. Another was that I just don’t do well with a lot of characters and an unfocused destination. Since I had similar issues with The Raven Boys and hoped I would fare better in this book, The Dream Thieves rated lower than The Raven Boys on my visceral reaction scale, but would probably rate higher if I could repress my feelings and look at this with more neutral eyes. I suspect I would like this book more the second time around now that I know what I’m getting.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Angieville – “If you’re looking for a story worth living and breathing, The Dream Thieves will take you there.”
Book Harbinger – “When somehow the Raven Cycle comes to its impossible, filled-to-the-brim-with-potential conclusion, we’re in for a treat.”
Bunbury in the Stacks – “I am unable to find all of the proper words needed to express my love of book two of The Raven Cycle”
YAckers discussion

Yup yup, everyone liked this more than I did. I will go hide now.

Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley

Graffiti Moon
Cath Crowley


I think it was two (or was it three?) years ago when Graffiti Moon was enthusiastically recommended on almost every YA book blog I read. It’s been on my mental “one day” list for a long time, but I never actually got around to buying myself a copy (I think it was a combination of wanting a paperback edition and preferring the Australian cover to the American one). Finally, I had my chance to read it through Holly of The Book Harbinger. Thanks Secret Santa!
 
The Premise: (from the back blurb) “Senior year is over, and Lucy has the perfect way to celebrate: tonight she’s going to find Shadow, the mysterious graffiti artist whose work appears all over the city. Somewhere in the glassy darkness, he’s out there, spraying color, spraying birds and blue sky on the night. And Lucy knows that a guy who paints like Shadow is someone she could fall for — really fall for.
 
The last person Lucy wants to spend this night with is Ed, the guy she’s managed to avoid since punching him in the nose on the most awkward date of her life. But when Ed tells Lucy he knows where to find Shadow, the two of them are suddenly on all all-night search to places where Shadow’s pieces of heartbreak and escape echo off the city walls. And what Lucy can’t see is the one thing that’s right before her eyes.”
 
My Thoughts: This is a story told from mostly two points of view: that of Lucy, celebrating the end of year twelve with her friends Jazz and Daisy, and that of Ed, a high school dropout who has a few hours to kill before he and his friends Leo and Dylan plan to break into the school. Ed and Lucy know each other, but between them lies a gulf filled with awkwardness. They had one date that ended in humiliation, and neither of them have quite gotten over it. For Lucy, it cemented her belief that outside of books (and the possible exception of her obsession, Shadow), looking for a kindred spirit amongst the local boys only leads to disappointment.  For Ed, their date was yet another demoralizing event in a long string of demoralizing events.
 
It’s not really anyone’s fault. Lucy doesn’t know a lot of things about Ed because he never confided in her. And Ed is so used to hiding the truth that it’s led to a spectacular failure of a date and his dropping out of school. It doesn’t help that Ed and his mom were barely scraping by before he lost his job. Now he’s worried about the rent and making decisions out of desperation rather than good judgement. That brings them to where they are now: Lucy and her friends with nothing more pressing on their minds than a night of fun and possibility, Ed and his friends going along, but keeping their secrets.
 
What follows is a read that hit the sweet spot: not too short, but not overly long; sweet but not fluffy; predictable in a comforting way, but also utterly different from anything else I’ve read. And just the right amount of humor to keep everything going. I couldn’t help liking Lucy and Ed immediately. Lucy with her instant friendships and her take-no-nonsense edge, and Ed, who is a little bit lost and deserves a break. Most of this book was just Ed and Lucy talking, and their banter is pretty great, but also reading what each is thinking about the other as we switch back and forth between them makes their interactions even better. Ed’s unease with hiding things from Lucy makes for some parts particularly poignant.
 
The book that Graffiti Moon is probably most compared to is Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Music is to Nick and Norah, as Art is to Graffiti Moon. When the shared interest in creativity comes with a night-long adventure on the town, bumping into ex-girlfriends, and skirting from trouble, it’s no wonder that the two books are considered similar. But the similarities are superficial. These stories hit me in different ways. I feel like Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist has a young adult world that’s separate from authority figures and responsibility; it exists within an intimate sphere and is about the magic that happens when people develop a  connection. In Graffiti Moon, that frisson is there too, it’s just that here the characters aren’t so separate from their day-to-day lives. This is particularly true for Ed, who is constantly struggling to just get through life because he worrying about money and helping his single-parent mother who’s making her way through nursing school. Ed’s mind is always in quiet turmoil, and there’s this tension in watching someone who knows better start to take the wrong turn.
 
I think that what really got me with this book was how being a dreamer and using creative expression was portrayed so positively, beyond just being the common denominator between Ed and Lucy. My sister is the artist in the family, and I can tell you that going to the MoMA with her is a whole different experience than going with non-artist friends. Because of this, I just loved reading Lucy geeking out over art. And I loved that art could change Ed’s life in a real, not just metaphorical way, if only Ed would let it. I also loved that Ed and Lucy have parents and mentors who encourage them instead of dissuading them. It was nice to read the interactions between Ed and Lucy and those adults. I loved all these things because every time either Ed or Lucy think about something that inspires them, their words became particularly poetic. It made me root for them to keep this.
 
Overall: Really good. I think this one will have wide appeal — its writing is unassuming and accessible, but if you want depth you’ll find it. Also this is one of those books that pleasantly lingers. It could be because of the beautiful artwork painted with words, or because certain things here make you ruminate afterward. I found myself thinking about how Graffiti Moon was about the juxtaposition between imagination and reality and when I saw that theme I couldn’t stop thinking of examples: in the way Lucy and Ed’s lives became the basis for their art, in Lucy’s expectations of Shadow versus the truth as Ed knew it, and in the way art affected both their lives. It was nice to think about art and life for a little while.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
 
Other reviews:
Inkcrush – 5 stars (“Somehow this book perfectly captures how I felt as a teen – that big dreaming scheming place in my head”)
need_tea – B+/A- (“My initial reaction was perhaps a bit tepid, liked it but it wasn’t that great, but over time I thought about it some more and my opinion of it rose”)
Bookchilla – 4/5 (“Lucy & Ed’s story unfolded very nicely and wrapped up in such a feel good way”)
Bunbury in the Stacks –  (“My experience with Graffiti Mooncould be summed up using a number of variations of the sentence: “I don’t like _________, but I liked it in this book.””)
Angieville – (“GRAFFITI MOON is a gem–a breath of fresh air.”)
 

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl
Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl comes out in September this year. This is an early review on an ARC I received at BEA.

The Premise: It’s fall semester of freshman year, and Cather (aka Cath, the Less Adventurous Twin), feels lost amongst the other undergraduates. Her sister Wren has basically abandoned her (“if we do this together, people will treat us like we’re the same person”); her dad is home alone and Cath worries about that; her roommate Reagan is scary, and comes with the too-friendly Levi, who is in their room all the time. All Cath wants is to be left alone to work on her massively popular and novel length Simon and Baz fan fiction, Carry On, but college is getting in the way, and college is hard.

My Thoughts: Reading Fangirl is a comforting exercise. It’s one of those books where you open it’s pages and don’t notice the words because it takes no time to be engulfed. What’s more, nothing extraordinary may be happening on the page — moving into the dorms, briefly meeting a new roommate, saying goodbye to relatives, but there is an engrossing quality to how the characters reveal themselves through their everyday interactions. Well, sort of everyday. It’s not every day you move away from home and have your support system disappear. Titular character Cath thinks that college is hard, but I think the real issue is having to do it alone. Without her twin Wren at her side, Cath is too anxious to even go to the cafeteria by herself and lives off a stash of energy bars rather than find out where it is. She sits in the bathroom stalls quietly crying while the other girls in her hall are meeting one another. She is a quintessential introvert, her mind focused on an inner world, and who doesn’t like to get out of her comfort zone. Her sister may call her 3 year (now long distance) boyfriend an “end table”, but Cath is content with things being as they are.

You know where this is going. Cath can’t have the world stay safe and easy, and it won’t pause for her. Eventually she has to interact with others and be absorbed into new people’s orbits, and no matter what she does, other people and their lives affect hers. First (and most obvious) to impact her is her sister’s desertion, a strange flip in loyalty that leaves Cath floundering, but her sister is not the only family member that can rattle Cath. In college itself, Cath can’t avoid her roommate Reagan or the ubiquitous Levi, but then there’s also people from her classes like Nick from Creative Writing and the assortment of new acquaintances Cath picks up because she doesn’t want to be rude.

What I liked though, is that Cath got to stay herself while having to accept change. This is not a story with the moral that being introverted does you no good; it’s perfectly fine to be that way. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the story is Cath’s private world and her devotion to the Simon Snow series.  Fan fiction is so popular now, it’s practically mainstream, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a story that embraces that subculture the way that Fangirl does. I don’t think of myself as part of that subculture, but even I know about ‘slash’ and ‘ships’, and there’s a certain joy in recognizing that Simon Snow is a riff on Harry Potter. Obviously (points at book blog), I get the whole fan and being into books thing, and any time Cath waxed poetic about characters she loves, or I read excerpts of Simon Snow or Cath’s fan fiction (placed like intermissions between chapters) and recognized elements, I grinned internally. I loved how this is important to Cath’s life and reflects as such in her conversations and relationshipsSimon or simply, “stories” and “storytelling” is shared ground between Cath and others and there are a lot of scenes where it is the bridge between minds.

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For all of Cath’s fangirl-ly-ness I connected with Cath while also not really connecting with her. The introverted, wanting-to-be-alone parts I could understand, but some of her more extreme coping mechanisms (like not bothering to find the cafeteria and essentially starving) I could not. It doesn’t matter though. What matters is that even if I didn’t always understand her, I always felt for Cath. It was the same for the secondary characters who didn’t always make the best choices but managed to make me care about them. This is what I want New Adult fiction to be–not a marketing term that means sex, but an extension of the coming-of-age tale into a post-adolescent bracket. Fangirl captures the awkward unsure side of tasting independence for the first time.

The last thing I want to say about Fangirl is that it is surprising. There were some things that I was expecting, but in the end, this story made it’s characters a lot more complicated than I thought they were going to be, and thus bucked all my predictions. This includes a blossoming romance that I thought was going to be smooth and sweet but defied me by being almost painfully uncertain instead (and was the better for it). If you think you know what’s going to happen after reading the first 50 pages, you’d probably be wrong. The plot is essentially about relationship growth, and every single relationship Cath began in safe little boxes and mushroomed out to be unique and nuanced and entirely different beasts from which they began.

Overall: Really, really, good. I found very little to complain about, and when I did, it was always a personal reaction to a character’s actions and no reflection on the actual writing or story — not worth going over in this review.  And it actually seems to get better the more I reflect on it after finishing it. I hadn’t read anything by Rainbow Rowell before but it hasn’t missed my attention how many fans she has in the book blogging community. I waited in line for a copy of Fangirl because of the hype, and it was a very long wait. I can tell you now: it was utterly worth it.

P.S. How about that cover? I felt proud of myself for recognizing the artwork of gingerhaze.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Not yet as far as I could tell (I searched amongst my book blog friends), but if I missed yours, let me know.

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Thief’s Covenant by Ari Marmell

Thief's Covenant
Ari Marmell

The Premise: Adrienne Satti was an orphan that was adopted into the aristocracy, an unlikely rags-to-riches story that turned sour when she became the sole survivor of a horrific massacre and had to disappear. Now she is a thief called Widdershins that regularly gets in trouble – both with the law and with her own guild. Unfortunately people are still looking for Adrienne Satti, and maybe one day someone will figure out that Widdershins and she are one and the same. Oh, and she is the only worshiper of the god Olgun, and he lives inside her head.

My Thoughts: This is a book that I bought for purely shallow reasons: the cover pleases me. I like the use of the white background, the title placement, and the unexpected figure hanging from a ceiling beam. It does have a bit of a young adult feel (young woman on cover seems to equal YA these days), but I didn’t really realize it was YA until I looked it up on the publisher’s website. Despite just wanting this book because it’s so pretty, I didn’t pounce until I found a nice used copy because of on-the-fence (not really stellar, but not hating it either) reviews from reviewers I trust.

So.  Thieves, guilds, remarkable orphans, and a pantheon of gods that can directly communicate with their worshipers (if they so wish to). These are very well-worn tropes of fantasy and they form the building blocks of the world within Thief’s Covenant. I don’t really find this a bad thing, it’s comfort food if it’s not new-to-you, and fun if it is. What I think this story does differently is that injects an entertainment to everything. What I mean by that is: no matter what grim thing is happening on the page, the prose manages to veer off into humorous territory. You can start a scene where grim Guardsmen are examining the grisly remains of a dozen aristocrats, the floor positively awash in blood, when the focus shifts to the rafters above them where a whisper-conversation is taking place between Adrienne and her god Olgun. They’re both in shock because, well what kind of secret cult keeps written records?!

I liked the humor to a certain extent. When the jokes were gentle elbow-nudges, I was on board, but it could get rather slapstick-y, which is less of my cup of tea.  Either way, there’s enough lightheartedness in here for me to appreciate the entertainment.  One running gag was how basically everyone was after Adrienne/Widdershins but she always manages to one-up them.  The Guardsmen are after Adrienne for one reason, and Widdershins for another. The Finder’s Guild are after Widdershins for her general cheekiness, and there’s a third group that just wants to find Widdershins/Adrienne to kill the survivor of the massacre. The whole book makes me think of a hall of doors chase scene mixed with elements of  ‘Home Alone’.  Whenever Adrienne is caught, I feel like she always turns it around, leaving her captors worse off.

What is surprising is how this type of humor is juxtaposed with violence. That’s where my one real complaint about the story stems from — strangely, more because of how the secondary characters suffered than for the violence itself (although that was also jarring in the midst of what is mostly a caper). I felt like with so many throw-away characters, no chance for something deeper than a set of archetypes as the supporting cast. I would’ve enjoyed delving further and seeing their relationships with Widdershins develop. Maybe the point is to keep Widdershins isolated, or to add grit to the story. I don’t know, all I know is I wound up feeling unfulfilled, and questioning if how things played out was how it had to go. The humor and adventure in the story mostly balances out this ruffled feeling, but didn’t erase it entirely.

I have the second book of this series, False Covenant, on the to-be-read pile. I plan to read it soon.

Overall: The world building is typical fantasy fare and the secondary characters don’t really get the development they could, but the prose and humor evens things out so what you are left with is something that falls squarely on middle ground. I would recommend this as something to try if what you’re looking for is simply entertainment.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers – Joint rating was: 6 (Good, recommended with reservations)
Bitching, Books, and Baking – 5 beaters (out of 5): “There are WORDS in them thar pages!  Glorious, well thought-out WORDS!”
Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell – “The ever so cool Widdershins made this my fav Marmell book to date”

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven Boys was chosen as December’s YAcker read. You can check out our discussion here.

The Raven Boys
Maggie Stiefvater

The Premise: Every psychic Blue Sargent has ever gone to tells her the same thing: if she kisses her true love, he will die. Other people might dismiss such claims, but Blue lives in a house with her mother Maura and a group of women who are in the business of telling fortunes, and she knows how accurate their readings can be.  Blue’s fate has hung over her head for much of her life, but when her aunt Neeve joins the household, she gives Blue a timeline. This is the year that Blue is going to fall in love.

If that isn’t a grave enough portent for the year, Blue also sees the spirit of a boy during St. Mark’s Eve, when the soon-to-dead march through the grounds of an abandoned church. The boy whispers that his name is Gansey. Blue has no psychic powers of her own (she only magnifies what others see), so seeing Gansey has one of two meanings: either she is responsible for his death, or he is her true love.

In the meantime, Richard “Dick” Campbell Gansey, III (Gansey to his friends) attends the nearby Aglionby Academy. Outwardly he has the ease and confidence of the rich and privileged and he leads a gaggle of Aglionby misfits: Adam, Ronan, and Noah. But inwardly, Gansey is more than he appears. He’s a finder of lost things, and he’s searching for something in particular, something ancient and magical: Glendower, a sleeping king who will grant a boon to whomever wakes him.

Read an excerpt of The Raven Boys here (pdf)

My Thoughts: 

“I should tell you,” Maura always advised her new clients, “that this reading will be accurate, but not specific.”
  It was easier that way.
  But this was not what Blue was told. Again and again, she had her fingers spread wide, her palm examined, her cards plucked from velvet-edged decks and spread across the fuzz of a family friend’s living room carpet. Thumbs were pressed to the mystical, invisible third eye that was said to lie between everyone’s eyebrows. Runes were cast and dreams interpreted, tea leaves scrutinized and séances conducted.
  All the women came to the same conclusion, blunt and inexplicably specific. What they all agreed on, in many different clairvoyant languages, was this:
  If Blue was to kiss her true love, he would die.


The Raven Boys
begins with a sense of anticipation. The first chapters follow Blue and Gansey separately, but because of fate, Blue’s curse, and St. Mark’s Eve, the reader knows these two characters are meant to cross paths. Blue sees a boy’s spirit whispering the name Gansey, and sitting on a ley line on the other side of town, Gansey picks up the very same conversation on his recorder. Obviously Blue and Gansey are part of a bigger mystery, a mystery that they can only see the edges of from different angles.

Blue was born into the strangeness in Henrietta. She is working class and lives surrounded by women who tell fortunes and are well aware of the ley lines that make her town special. Gansey couldn’t be more different. He was born into privilege and has never experienced life without the ease that money brings to it. Despite this, he leads a pack of misfit boys at Algionby academy and has an obsession with mystic phenomena and a king named Glendower. In spite of their differences, Blue and Gansey’s lives hold some parallels. Mystery swirls around them and they share their lives with people that hold secrets. While Blue lives with her mother and older women named Calla, Persephone, and Orla (in a set-up that doesn’t seem to be unlike what I imagine a coven to be like), Gansey lives in the husk of an old factory with a couple of boys that don’t fit anywhere else.  Her mother and her surrogate aunts warn Blue about kissing boys and avoid discussing Blue’s absent father. Gansey is is leader and support for his friends but there’s a line he can’t cross that keeps Noah elusive, Ronan surly, and Adam defensive.

I liked the way things were set up in this story: Blue’s world about to collide with Gansey’s. Wondering what would happen when these two finally meet had me turning the pages eagerly. Unfortunately, somewhere after the initial set up and the actual crossing of paths, something happened. I never felt fully captured by the story in the way I wanted. It took me a long time to parse out what happened there. My reaction was frustratingly in the middle-of-the-road, and I couldn’t help comparing it to my fellow YAckers who mostly loved the book. I know that reading is a personal experience, subject to mood and a myriad other factors, but while I knew what I liked, I couldn’t pinpoint what kept me from wholeheartedly loving The Raven Boys.

Cut to over a month later, some angst over separating my reading experience from the end of a stressful year, a reread of The Raven Boys, more angst, and I think I have a better idea of what my problem was. Technically, this should have been a winner: the writing is engaging and of good quality; there’s a mishmash of eccentric characters; and the main story centers on mysteries that reveal themselves in slow degrees. Individually each character had his or her own fascinating back story. But for me, some of these strengths also translated into weaknesses. Everyone had some personal albatross: Blue with her curse and her unknown father; Gansey and his obsession for which there is no explanation; Ronan’s father’s death and his subsequent broodiness; Adam with his poverty, pride, and miserable home-life. Even Noah, who is practically a non-entity at the start of the book turns out to be more than meets the eye. On top of that, the antagonist of this story has his crosses to bear. My problem was with so many complex/tragic/secret back stories, the focus felt fragmented. Blue and Gansey took the spotlight the most, but I felt like I was focusing on the other characters through them instead of focusing on them. I’m all for characters having depth, but when there’s a mystery or tragedy to everyone, it felt like too much to me.  You could argue it all links back to the phenomena surrounding Henrietta, but (for me) it created an imbalance. Every issue I had stemmed from this central one. The pacing in the first 150 to 200 pages feels meandering, and the narration hops between characters for some time before something vaguely plot-like appears. I think Gansey and Blue were the protagonists of this story, but I question if that assumption is correct. Then when the pace picks up and the story gathers focus, I felt like certain things like Blue’s acceptance into Gansey’s group didn’t get the attention I wanted. It took me longer than necessary to finish The Raven Boys because I felt adrift.

On the other hand – did I like these characters? Did I want to know what was happening to them? I did. The characters that I loved most are the ones where veil is pulled back a little more in the narration. When that happened, oohh, that’s when I adored this book. That’s why I think I have more of a soft spot for Blue, Gansey, and Adam than the rest of this group. We’re shown Blue’s prickliness towards the raven boys, and Adam’s self-consciousness about being poor, and Gansey’s good intentions that never seem to go right when he deals with either of them. I was half-irritated with Adam’s pride until I came to a realization that his parents failed him when they instilled an us-versus-them mentality in him (which really covers their sins and did Adam no favors), and I was kind of blown away by that epiphany. And then there’s this sweet fledgling maybe between Adam and Blue. It made me hope, but also fear a little, because thrown into the mix is Blue’s curse that points at Gansey. Everything in this story is so fragile and so breakable, and there is no certainty. I’d very much like to find out what happens next.

Overall: There were things I really liked about The Raven Boys and things I really didn’t and they balanced each other out. If you are one who can sit back and enjoy a character-driven story with lovely prose and you don’t need to know where it’s all going, this will do quite well. I think that I needed more structure though. In the end I enjoyed the characters more than the plot. But now that the set up is done, I think I’ll react better to the second book, so I’m planning to continue the series and I’m really looking forward to The Dream Thieves.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Bunbury in the Stacks
Charlotte’s Library
Pirate Penguin Reads
Fantasy Literature
Debbie’s World of Books
The Book Nut
Angieville

Other links:
The Raven Boys website

Jepp, Who Defied the Stars by Katherine Marsh

In an unprecedented vote, the YAckers unanimously chose Jepp, Who Defied the Stars for this month’s pick. To see how we all eventually reacted once we read Jepp, you can check out our chat here.

Jepp, Who Defied the Stars
Katherine Marsh

The Premise: This is the story of young dwarf Jepp, who grew up in Astraveld, a crossroads between the Spanish Netherlands and the Protestant North. Loved by his mother, who runs a bustling inn, Jepp is treated like a prince and is fiercely protected. It is a good life, but when he is fifteen years old, a man comes by the inn, offering to bring Jepp to the court of the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia and her husband, Archduke Albert of Austria. Eager to see the world beyond the narrow one he knows, Jepp agrees. He has always held a dream of one day meeting his father and he believes that the man offering to take him away is part of his fate. This begins Jepp’s journey away from childhood and all its innocence and into the big world, where perhaps he can

My Thoughts: Before reading Jepp, Who Defied the Stars, I didn’t really know what this book was about or what category of young adult it belonged to. I actually thought Jepp was YA fantasy at first because it begins at a inn at a crossroads (familiar Fantasy territory).  I soon figured out that I was reading historical fiction when Jepp says he lives in the Spanish Netherlands and mentions the Infanta Isabella, its sovereign from 1598 to 1621. There’s an author’s note at the end of the book that explains the real life people and events that inspired Jepp, (which is fascinating and worth reading), and basically Jepp did exist, but little is known about his life. Marsh took the question of who Jepp was and extrapolated that into this story. Jepp is divided into three “Books”, and each “Book” seems to correspond to a change in scenery and a new direction in Jepp’s life.

Book I begins while Jepp still lives in his mother’s domain, but not for long. A man named Don Diego comes to the inn and invites him to he court of the Infanta Isabella, and that’s where Jepp stays for this part of the story.  Jepp is still rather innocent and unsure of himself so he is mostly an observer, doing what he is bid by the others around him. We get Jepp’s impressions of the specially designed rooms for the court dwarfs, the gardens where they arranged themselves in a tableau for the Infanta’s pleasure, and the performances where he has to play the fool for a few laughs.  As for the people at court, Jepp focus is narrow: Don Diego; the other dwarfs, Sebastian, Lia, and Maria; the court jester Pim, who arranges the entertainment; and Hendrika, the mistress who oversees them. These people are the ones he interacts with most, and everyone else is hazy and not so well-defined.

Despite Jepp’s faithful descriptions, there’s the sense that there’s a certain naivety in what Jepp observes. He sees things that trouble him, but does not fully comprehend them until later. He dislikes his treatment at the palace, but doesn’t immediately see the same misery in others.  His youth is part of the story, but I found some of this innocent observation and floating along very passive. Basically, Jepp wasn’t really doing anything, and this didn’t make him easy for me to connect to.  The only goal he seemed to have was to one day find out the identity of his father, but there seems no way of doing so away from his mother, and so I felt like there wasn’t much of a direction to the story. Sometimes there are other things that saves a story for me in this situation, like a romance I could sink my teeth into, but even here, Jepp disappoints. He thinks he’s in love, but he barely knows the girl. When things do finally pick up, it is instigated by a situation someone else is in, and Jepp is pulled into it by his sweet nature and wanting to help. Of course this changes his life, and propels his fate along in a way he doesn’t expect.

There’s some drama as the story segues into Book II, but the story stalls for a second time as Jepp repeats what he’s done before: letting things happen to him, and observing rather than doing. The eccentricities of his surroundings is where the entertainment lies, not in Jepp’s own actions. Of course Jepp, Who Defied the Stars gets better – Jepp does start to take his fate into his own hands, if you will, and it’s nice that when I think back now, I see how Book I is reflected in Book II, but with an older and wiser Jepp, one who begins to take part in his own life – but reading was a slow process (I’m sorry to report that I kept putting the book down and sighing for at least the first half). The last third of the book (Book III) ended up being the best third for me, but it takes some patience to get there. The change in Jepp from passive to active removes a lot of the issues I had with reading, and with his relationships with other characters.

Jepp, Who Defied the Stars essentially becomes a story about fate versus free will, but this isn’t a clear message for me until the author’s notes at the end. I liked Marsh’s own personal relationship with this theme that she described in the addendum, but I’m not sure if the idea that Jepp was fighting against some fate was really something I picked up on while reading this story. I think the history itself was a little bit more interesting. Despite being set in the past, this story does a good job of keeping the focus on Jepp’s personal experiences rather than on History.  However, Jepp’s voice has a formality to it that is a deliberate reflection of the time (Marsh notes she was careful to choose words in use before 1600 when writing Jepp), and the language contributed to feeling like I couldn’t comfortably sink into the story.

Overall: I have a sort of “middle ground” reaction to Jepp. I wasn’t wowed while I was reading it, and Jepp’s passivity and the formality of his narration made me feel impatient with the story. On the other hand, I can see that these were deliberate choices in the writing because of the theme of “fate versus free will” and because of the time period that Jepp is set. I think my visceral response usually determines how I feel about a story and for much of this book, I felt like I was plodding along, but when I think about it analytically, it comes off much better. So: this may be more for the “thinkers” than it is for the “feelers”.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers – 7 (Very Good)
The Book Harbinger – positive (“it wasn’t only the engaging history but also the character of Jepp himself which drew me in from the start.”)
Word for Teens – DNF
Book Nut – “Overall, it’s a bit uneven” but also, “found it to be a wonderful bit of historical fiction”

(Also may I say, this book was BEAUTIFULLY designed? I loved how the inner pages were NAVY with pretty endpages and chapter headings, and the cover had shiny bits on a matte background, silver font, and those stars. Gorgeous.)

Psych Major Syndrome by Alicia Thompson

A few weeks ago I went to the Greenburgh Library Book Sale and picked up several books, including this one. Isn’t the cover adorable? I think the wistful, fresh-faced look of the cover model is a perfect representation for what’s inside.

Psych Major Syndrome
Alicia Thompson

The Premise: Leigh Nolan is a freshman psychology major at Stiles College – a progressive school where students aren’t graded and are expected to take charge of their own education. In a small school like Stiles, this means quite a few over achievers, “freaking out about their entire academic career” a couple of months into their first year. It’s a trying time, but on top of trying to decide on a topic for her senior thesis, mentoring cynical middle school students, and dealing with other competitive psych majors, Leigh is also questioning her relationship with Andrew, her high school boyfriend and fellow Stiles underclassman. Lately their relationship has lost it’s luster, and Leigh is confused by how much she’s noticing Nathan, Andrew’s roommate who never seems happy to be around her.

My Thoughts: Well this was as cute a story as I was hoping for. I think it has the right amount of the expected love story, but it’s balanced by writing that gives Leigh a faceted and likable character. Her psychology major fits nicely with delving into her psyche.  Leigh is constantly self-evaluating and acknowledges her own quirks, which include (but are not limited to): refusing to buy a parking pass, waiting until the last minute with her assignments, and a fear of being stranded in the desert. To add to the theme, each chapter begins with a psychological term and its definition, which foreshadows what’s to come.

Ask her some psychology related thing, and Leigh can dredge up what she learned in AP Psychology and class. But for all her book smarts, Leigh is a bit naive. She still has NO clue that her relationship with her boyfriend is in trouble. When you forget a date, and so does he, it doesn’t really say you’re feverishly in love. Leigh’s roommate (and best friend) Ami isn’t enthusiastic about Andrew, but Leigh defends him:

“Ami doesn’t have the benefit of all these great memories, so she continues to think that he doesn’t treat me as well as I deserve. Which, in a way, is totally loyal and cool of her– but completely unfounded. Well, mostly. If anything, his main problem is just that he’s too smart.  He has so much going on in his brain at any given moment that it’s no wonder he’s a little absentminded sometimes.”

Leigh rationalizes Andrew’s non-attentiveness and the distancing that has happened between them since school started. To be honest, from Leigh’s workload, I can understand why it’s easy for her to do so. She’s quite busy with college herself.  Her day-to-day life involves going to class, meeting with her academic adviser, long talks with her roommate, and waiting till the last minute to do her work. (As an aside, Psych Major Syndrome captures the college experience really well — when Leigh stays up till 5am writing a 20-page essay, the details of falling asleep and waking up with barely enough time to hand it in, felt eerily familiar). But schoolwork only goes so far as an excuse, and eventually Leigh has to face what’s really going on between herself and Andrew.

In the meantime, all that schoolwork and the social life of college means that Leigh has a pretty full life, and it’s not all about her romantic relationships in this book. The interactions between Leigh and Ami, the other psychology students, her mentee, and Nathan are all natural extensions of her life and nothing ever feels forced about them. Even if I could predict exactly where the story was going to go, Psych Major Syndrome adds enough humor and color to make the predictability pleasant and comforting instead of dull. Also (and here I go back to the romance), Leigh’s happy ending is one of the sweetest ones I’ve read in a while. I ended up really liking the guy she is paired with, even if I thought he was a bit of a fantasy boy. I can overlook how Leigh acted before she figured out what she wanted because of how well this guy suited her – it all ended on just the right note.

Overall: A sweet and fast comfort read. It has a good balance between an expected plot and a unique approach to that plot. Leigh is an endearing narrator, and I enjoyed this reminder of college life.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
One More Page – ” a very entertaining contemporary YA read, even if there’s really nothing surprising about it”
A Room With Books – “Psych Major Syndrome was an okay read. Leigh was much too blind to everything around her for me really connect.”

Other:

Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan

As already mentioned on this blog, Unspoken was the pick of last month’s YAcker’s talk. This was something I suggested because I read it and really enjoyed it. It’s got humor, a Gothic storyline, and believable relationships. That’s a cool combination right there. Plus, it has a knock-me-flat ending, and I kind of love those.

This review is based off an eARC I received through NetGalley.

Unspoken
Sarah Rees Brennan

The Premise: Kami Glass is cheerfully odd. She has long conversations in her head with a boy named Jared way beyond the age when having an imaginary friend is deemed acceptable. Also, she’s full of crazy ideas. These are all in Pursuit of the Truth, like exposing the dark underbelly of the cricket club, which often requires that she ‘volunteer’ her best friend Angela in her madcap schemes. Her latest plan involves her quiet hometown, Sorry-in-the-Vale. Nothing really happens there. Nevertheless, she, the intrepid journalist, will discover its secrets. She’s just convinced her school to let her start a newspaper and she is just burning to find a story. The most obvious topic for news is the Lynburns. They are the family that originally founded Sorry-in-the-Vale, and own a big mansion overlooking the town that has stood empty since Kami’s been alive. Now the Lynburn family has returned, and among them are teenage cousins Ash and Jared. Since the Lynburns have returned, strange things are starting to happen around town, and Kami discovers something she may have never wanted to know: the voice in her head is definitely not imaginary and belongs to a very real Lynburn boy.

Read an excerpt of Unspoken here

My Thoughts:  This is actually my first experience reading Sarah Rees Brennan, so I came into this story without knowing what to expect. From the cover and the blurb of Unspoken, I thought I would get a Gothic mystery, but what I didn’t expect was the humor. It infuses the story with a lightheartedness that makes a serious plot into something fun. I loved the banter between characters – banter that was not just funny and highlighted the camaraderie between Kami and the other characters, but that also conveyed everyone’s individuality – like Kami’s gung-ho personality and Angela’s antisocial one:

“There are only two important things for us to discuss right now,” Kami said. “The first is that to be a success, our newspaper requires a photographer.”
“What’s the other thing?”
“He’d be excellent decoration for our headquarters,”Kami said. “You have to admit, he’s very good-looking, and I need a photographer, so can I keep him, please, oh, please?”
Angela sighed. In the cupboard, the sigh was like a gust of wind. “Kami, you know I hate guys being around all the time. They won’t stop staring and bothering me and giving me the sad, sad eyes like a puppy dog until I just want to kick them. Like a puppy dog.”
“So you have some puppy issues,” Kami observed.
The cupboard door swung suddenly open.
The new boy stood framed by the bright light of the office.
“Sorry to interrupt,” he said. “But I can hear everything you’re saying.”
“Ah,” said Kami.

Right off the bat, Kami reads a this kooky girl who just really wants to nose her way into finding things out. Like some sort of amateur sleuth, she bulldozes her way into getting her best friend to join whatever scheme she has currently cooking up and sort of exasperates Angela with her enthusiasm until she relents. Kami does get her way and signs up the new boy to be their paper’s photographer, as she does with many other things. But without this irreverent personality a lot of the story wouldn’t be. Kami is the star character; the glue that binds the story together. Without her, there wouldn’t be a newspaper, and when weird things start happening, there wouldn’t be anyone even paying attention.

With Kami, students who previously didn’t really belong to a group, suddenly do – Kami and Angela are joined by Holly and the two Lynburn boys, and soon everyone is interacting in lovely, complicated ways. Kami and Angela navigate including another girl into their circle and what this means for their current friendship, Ash and Jared prove to be cousins who just met each other for the first time, and Kami is put in the awkward position of getting attention from not just Ash but Jared as well. What I liked was that these were relationships that were nuanced and evolving and that there’s a fair amount of growing pain that comes along with the humor and banter. I liked the healthy female friendships here, and the lesson and that there’s always something to learn about people you think you know. Angela’s prickliness, but her surprising vulnerability under that, won my heart.

But particularly delicious for me was Kami’s relationship with Jared.

Kami did not feel comfortable talking about Jared’s mother, but she knew they didn’t have a good relationship.She also knew it was irrational and illogical and insane to worry about his family troubles. It was insane to care so much in the first place. He was a voice in her head, after all:she tried not to think about it too much because it made her think she really might be crazy.
Jared filled in the silence.  She wants me to stop talking to you.
Kami did not let her dread touch him. And will you stop? she asked, trying to show him nothing but support.
I told her I had to think about it, said Jared wearily.
Kami curled tighter under the covers, feeling cold. Jared said nothing else. There was silence in her head and silence beneath her window, and still she could not sleep

While Kami always feels reassured by the Jared in her mind, they’ve had to build barriers between themselves in order to appear sane. The voices scare their mothers, and Kami has stopped asking Jared about his life or talking about him with others. So when Kami meets Jared in person, he is so rude and unlike her Jared that she doesn’t make the connection until it’s blatantly obvious the two Jareds are one and the same. I liked that there was a dissonance between inner and outer personalities, because so often how people read you can be so different from what is in your head. Unfortunately it’s not just different perceptions that Kami and Jared have to contend with. The mental barriers between them adds the awkwardness of literally being in someone’s head but not really knowing them, and their lifelong link means both have a desperate need for the other. The irony is that being in each other’s head actually makes it more difficult for them to communicate their feelings for one another than less. There’s no telling if their intense feelings are real, and if one were to feel a certain way about the other that isn’t reciprocated, being stuck with them for the rest of your life is a special kind of Hell. This situation combined with teenaged angst is a recipe for relationship drama and catastrophe.

Speaking of drama, Unspoken is very Gothic. Some of the Gothic elements added a certain creepiness to the story, some of it felt tongue-in-cheek, but all of it felt very familiar to the genre. There are dark, spooky nights with strange noises, a mysterious caste, a ruin, the strange Lynburn family, dead animals, and many more. Even the interest in Kami by the two Lynburns and her hesitant response is not unfamiliar when it comes to Gothic romance. The story is very atmospheric, with a certain amount of build up: questions about what secrets Sorry-in-the-Vale holds, and hints of a dark entity in the town, but without any solid confirmation that anything is really going on until the story is well underway. I really enjoyed how these elements were pulled into the story but didn’t make Unspoken feel old-fashioned. The teen protagonists and the snappy dialogue kept everything modern.

Also keeping this story in this century: the fact that Kami was a quarter Japanese (her father is half), and so are her two younger brothers. I’m always happy to see characters with a mixed racial heritage since I am too. I particularly liked that Kami and her brother Tomo looked more like their dad, and her brother Ten looked more like their mom. I think those true-to-real-life details are important.

So about that ending. When I was updating my goodreads status, I think I called the ending a cliffhanger, but I don’t think that is technically true. No one is in dire danger and there’s no shocking revelation, but there is some drama that left me dying to find out what happens next. I expect angst and even more drama, and usually I am not a fan of these, but Unspoken is the exception: I actually LOVED how it ended. I think it opens up a lot of possibilities for where the story can go and I’m excited that we could be on an emotional rollercoaster next. So delicious!

Overall: I am a fan. I didn’t expect to be so won over by this book, but I am. The concept of young adult with Gothic overtones is done in a fresh and satisfying way, the characters are nuanced with fully-fleshed and engaging emotional lives, and the humor takes it to another level. The balance between these things guaranteed that I would thoroughly enjoy Unspoken.

For more thoughts on this book (with a bit more spoilers), check out the YAck Attack of Unspoken on the YAckers blog.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Harbinger – “it’s going to be a long wait for Unbound.”
The Mountains of Instead – “While Unspoken is an enjoyable read it is not without flaws.”
Book Nut – “[Brennan] has a way of keeping me engaged, turning pages, until her satisfying-yet-frustratingly-open conclusion.”
Fantasy Literature – 3.5 stars
The Book Smugglers – 7 (Very Good), “The most striking thing [...] is its combination of the utterly familiar and the clearly distinct.”
Smexy Books – B, “a huge, enjoyable surprise”
The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia – “on my ‘Best of 2012’ list.”
Clear Eyes, Full Shelves – “between this novel and Team Human, I’m pretty much hooked on Sarah Rees Brennan’s writing”
Bunbury in the Stacks – “The struggle of a relationship that is both symbiotic and parasitic makes Unspoken shine”

Other:
Sarah Rees Brennan answers 6 questions @ Tor.com


The Spring Before I Met You
The Summer Before I Met You
– two prequel shorts set in the world of The Lynburn Legacy.

The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke

The Assassin's Curse
Cassandra Rose Clarke

This was a book that popped on my radar because of a On the Smuggler’s Radar post over at the Book Smugglers. Pirates and assassins and curses (oh my)! Throw in the suggestion of a romance in there and you have me obsessively searching for info online. Finally I checked Netgalley and it was there! I hit that button to request it in a flash. Meaning to read the book after the books I was supposed to read, I downloaded it and.. looked at the first few pages. Yeah, so three hours later at 2am I was done. I couldn’t help it. This was a fun fun book and it was so easy to zoom straight through it.

The Premise: Ananna belongs to a respected family within the Pirates’ Confederation, the Tanarau clan, and she’s spent all her seventeen years living on a boat.  She’s proud of being a rough-and-tumble pirate, but when her family arranges an alliance with the low-ranked but rich Hariri clan by marrying Ananna off to their son, Ananna balks. During the introductions to her husband-to-be, Ananna plays along, but at the first chance she gets, she’s is on a camel and leaving her fiance in the dust. Unfortunately, the Hariri clan employs assassins when they are displeased. Skilled at both combat and blood magic, assassins are almost legend — not real. Or so Ananna thought, until an assassin appears. Desperate and terrified, Ananna makes a split-second decision which shockingly activates a curse and chains her to the very man hired to kill her.

Read an excerpt of the first two chapters of The Assassin’s Curse here

My Thoughts: This book starts off abruptly. It begins right in the middle of Ananna’s meeting with her new fiance. She makes a quick assessment of his prospects as a pirate captain (not stellar), and escapes. At first I had some catching up to do to understand Ananna’s situation, but once she moves from prospective bride to escaped fugitive, I got the gist: Ananna is a pirate princess and being married off is not on her agenda. Fleeing on camel, Ananna takes to the streets like a female Artful Dodger, using the skills learned over a lifetime as a pirate to survive. The story is very dynamic — Ananna is constantly on the move. At first she just wants to get away from her arranged marriage, but when she finds out that an honest-to-goodness assassin is after her, her desperation ramps up.  Assassins, it is said, are not just killers. They are blood magicians. It seems likely that Ananna will die–until a turn of luck puts Ananna in an partnership with the very assassin sent to kill her.

Ananna is a handful, with a lot of rough edges that come through in her narrative (“The sea crashed against the big marble wall, spray misting soft and salty across my face. I licked it away and Mama jabbed me in the side with the butt of her sword.“) Although she is seventeen, not more than five years younger than Naji, the assassin, her unrefined manners and pirate’s vernacular (peppered with ain’t‘s, double negatives and bravado) made her seem younger. It’s suggested that Naji sees her that way too – he is horrified by the whole situation. Assassins are by their very nature solitary. They do not spend their time looking after teenage girls.

There’s a gentle humor in an uncouth pirate girl taking on a magic-wielding ninja-assassin, then the two being shackled to one another. Even in the most dire circumstance, Ananna’s luck always leads to a path of ever-increasing disaster, and the story seems to acknowledge this with sly nudges. It’s not enough that Ananna has the wrath of a pirate clan behind her and she’s stuck in the middle of the desert, no, an assassin joins the chase. When Naji switches sides, things do not get better, instead they seem to get worse. The Hariri clan still wants Ananna dead and Naji has enemies of his own, enemies scarier than the Hariri– who now have Ananna on their radar. As Naji and Ananna continue their adventure, the hits keep on coming.

The setting of The Assassin’s Curse is something out of the usual Desert and High Seas Adventure canons. The magic of this world has familiar elements too – blood, herbs, an invocation, and an affinity, all combine to create a spell, but there is something new and fresh in Ananna’s experience of it. Her voice with it’s street edge, mixed with the meshing of familiar concepts in new ways (pirate and assassin, desert trek and sea adventure, a dash of weird thrown in for good measure) really makes the story. That, and the bickering between reluctant allies Ananna and Naji. I really enjoyed the way their relationship slowly developed through the book and the hope that it could develop into something more.

Ananna’s pirate persona and voice may not appeal to some, but while I did find Ananna  young and hotheaded (with an odd resentment towards attractive people), this just made her realistically flawed to me. Likewise, Naji’s hang-ups with appearances showed his own human weakness. I hope this doesn’t turn into a story that advocates a bias against beauty, but I don’t think it will. I expect to like the next installment just as much as this one, and I plan to read it when it comes out. This was a lot of fun and I’m excited to see more.

Overall: The Assassin’s Curse an entertaining Fantasy YA story: it has swashbuckling adventure, a pirate heroine, and a blood magic-wielding assassin, for crying out loud. If that is something that appeals to you, I say try this one and read it for the brain-candy enjoyment of it. I read it in four hours. I had a good time. I will come back again for a continuation to this ride.

Assassin’s Curse comes out next week (October 2nd US/Canada, October 4th UK).

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

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