House of Shadows by Rachel Neumeier

House of Shadows
Rachel Neumeier

This is a review of a book provided to me by Orbit books.

The Premise:  In the town of Lonne, in the country of Lirionne, a merchant dies, leaving behind his eight daughters.  The women can’t own their father’s business, and without their father, they’re destitute. The only path is for the oldest to marry so her husband could own the business and let her level-headed sister run it. This way they should make profit in a few years. The only problem is that no marriage can take place without a dowry. To save their sisters, two of the women volunteer to be “sold”.  Karah, the second oldest and everyone’s favorite, secures a remarkable price at Cloisonné House, the best keiso house in the candlelight district. Eccentric Nemienne, the other sacrificing sister, turns her oddness into an asset when she goes the Lane of Shadows to become a mage’s apprentice. Meanwhile, a bard named Taudde is caught in Lonne (in violation of the the treaty of Brenedde) and is forced by his captors to carry out their agenda. As war looms between Lirionne and its neighbor, Karah earns a protector in Leilis (a young woman who is not a servant but also not a keiso) against the jealousy of the other deisa, Nemienne explores the mage’s house and is led to unexpected places, and Taudde struggles to escape the conspiracy he’s been entangled in.

My Thoughts:  House of Shadows is a multi-protagonist story where the point of view cycles between three main characters. The first chapter’s focus is on the sisters and their decision to sell two of their number, the second’s on Leilis of Cloisonné House, and the third’s on Taudde and his difficulties. Because of the rotating points of view, it takes a third of the book (about 100 pages) before a unified plot makes itself known. (This review is going to talk about the threads, but not necessarily explain how they interweave because I try not to give away specific details on plot if it happens after page fifty).

There’s always the danger with multiple protagonists that I’ll end up invested in one character’s storyline and want to skim everything else. At first I was afraid this would happen here because I really liked Karah and Nemienne’s storyline. The death of a merchant father, the eight sisters–each with their own unique ability, and the necessary sacrifice to sell their loveliest and their strangest, infused the story with a fairytale quality I wanted to explore. I saw Beauty and the Beast in the sisters trading themselves in for their loved ones’ comfort. I wanted to dive into a story that revolved around their training to be a keiso and a mage. The shift to Leilis, a servant who is not really a servant was a surprise, but she was still in the same orbit as Karah, and smooths Karah’s transition into the House, so it wasn’t a bad shift. Also, Leilis is mysterious and I wanted to figure out what was behind someone who could be unobtrusive and also navigate the in-house politics of Cloisonné. It was when the the story moves to Taudde in the third chapter that I struggled the most. That’s when I really had to accept that the focus wasn’t just on the two sisters forging new lives. On the other hand, with Taudde, the the scope of the story widened from personal drama to political intrigue. This wasn’t the story of two sisters that I was expecting, but the world building combined with wanting to know what was going on lured me forward.

What I liked about the world building in House of Shadows is that you can feel the influence of other stories on it, but it still remains distinct from them. I’ve already mentioned fairy tales when I talked about the sisters’ story, but there’s also hints of it elsewhere: an unexplained curse, enigmatic animal guides, a man with an iron will. The sense of fairy tale also compliments how the magic of Lirionne is described. Lonne seems to be seeped in magic, yet most of the city is totally unaware, so when it is encountered, it’s strange and secret. I felt like there was a sense of wonder and mystery because here was something complex and unpredictable. The best example of this (and my favorite) is the mage’s “oddly outsized” house built into the mountain, where rooms may move and hallways stretch and bend. I love the “magical buildings that grow at will” trope.

Another influence I could see was Japanese culture — appearing here as the keiso, Neumeier’s version of geisha, with an emphasis she says, on “their roles as artists and high status women”. Beautiful, respected, and independent thanks to their artistry, keiso are sought after and could even marry, becoming “flower wives” to wealthy men (their sons would be acknowledged by their fathers). I liked that this suggests a different kind of world building than the default Western-based one. The cover reflects that, depicting a girl with with Asian features, but in the book, race is actually hazy: Karah has blue eyes, “creamy skin”, and “clouds of twilight hair”, Leilis has “storm-gray eyes” and hair “so dark it was almost black”, while another character has “dark eyes” and “straw-pale brows”, his hair, “a shade lighter”. That this story nods at Japanese culture, but it’s only a facet of the world building, not all of the world building, is good too.

Overall: This was a nice multi-protagonist story and bonus: it’s standalone, which isn’t too common in Fantasy (the ending leaves the door ajar for further adventures, but I haven’t heard any news about a sequel). The one complaint I have is that I wouldn’t have minded getting to know individual characters more, but it didn’t feel like there was room for that and to have the plot threads interweave so neatly and so well-synchronized. Character development is a big part of my personal scoring system, but I loved the world building, so in the end this fit into a middle-ish “liked” category for me.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers –  8 (Excellent)
Bunbury in the Stacks – ” I enjoyed the fairy tale beginning, but it was from halfway through to the end of this book that I was truly glued to the pages and unable to put it down.”

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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 Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

I won an ARC of this book last year but didn’t get around to reading it until: a) I heard so many good things about it from my fellow readers, b) I heard Cat Valente speak at a NYPL event and, most importantly c) it was chosen by my readalong buddies Holly and Chachic.

The Premise: September is a twelve-year old girl, tired of the same thing at home while her father is away at war and her mother works in a factory. Then one day while she stands over the dishes, the Green Wind sweeps in through her window and asks her if she’d like to come away with him to the great sea that borders Fairyland. Of course she says yes, and pretty soon she is stepping through the closet between worlds in a green smoking jacket and meeting witches and a Wyvern. September would like to enjoy Fairyland, but ever since Good Queen Mallow disappeared and the Marquess took over all is not well.

My Thoughts: There are layers to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. On the surface, it’s a story of a girl who escapes her humdrum life and has lovely adventures in Fairyland. I think young children would enjoy the descriptions and the lush language (it has the sort of omnipresent narrative with dashes of whimsy and color that would be perfect for being read aloud, one short chapter at a time). On a deeper level, there’s poignancy and gems of insight in September’s adventure that makes this a book that will resonate with mature readers too.

The surface story reminded me of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but more of The Phantom Tollbooth (a book I grew up adoring), in which a bored boy is transported to the Kingdom of Wisdom via magic tollbooth and has to rescue two princesses whose banishment has caused disharmony..  With Queen Mallow’s disappearance and her replacement by the Marquess, and the playful of storytelling and its characters, I saw a lot of parallels, but as I read further on, they fell away. The Girl Who is a lot more complex. The prose is full of lush vocabulary and description. Fairyland manages to be both a wonderful dream, but it also holds reminders of life’s realities.

So September is whisked away to Fairyland. As can be expected, it is a place of magic, with its own strange rules. September is flown there on a flying leopard with the Green Wind and has to put together a puzzle and get through immigrations in order to enter. Once there she meets three witches (one a wairwulf) who tell her that the Marquess has stolen their Spoon, which September offers to retrieve. Along the way, she meets a wyvern, A-Through-L, who is the son of a Library, and whose wings are all chained up on account of the Marquess’s new rules. Not liking this Marquess the more she hears about her, especially when compared to the Good Queen Mallow, September goes to Pandemonium (the capital of Fairyland) to meet her, and picks up another traveling companion – a boy named Saturday that grants wishes. That, in a nutshell, is the start of September’s adventures, but it doesn’t really describe the experience. Maybe this tidbit will help show you:

September let go a long-held breath. She stared into the roiling black-violet soup, thinking furiously. The trouble was, September didn’t know what sort of story she was in. Was it a merry one or a serious one? How ought she to act? If it were merry, she might dash after a Spoon, and it would all be a marvelous adventure, with funny rhymes and somersaults and a grand party with red lanterns at the end. But if it were a serious tale, she might have to do something important, something involving, with snow and arrows and enemies. Of course, we would like to tell her which. But no one may know the shape of the tale in which they move. And, perhaps, we do not truly know which sort of beast it is, either. Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble.

As you can see, the narration seems well aware of the traditional stories of children who go to have adventures, and September, a reader herself, is aware as well. There’s a consciousness that comes with the creative madness – as if the story is quite cognizant under its merry storytelling of all the other stories in which children are taken to Fairyland, and of all kinds of other things. This made me feel like I had to pay attention to the details so I wouldn’t miss anything. At the same time there was a lot of playfulness that comes out in the words and descriptions, and the setting itself is like another character. I think that feeling of having to pay attention while the story was also so lush in describing the wonder of Fairyland hurt my reading speed initially. I had to slow it down to a crawl so I could digest the story in manageable bites. Things hit their stride when the story, previously innocent and fairly light, took a turn for the more serious.

When I say it became more serious, I think it depends on the reader how things will affect them. It remains, as always, light on the surface. I can see children reading this and seeing a straightforward adventure that they could enjoy, and they may not wonder too much about things like whether September’s flight to Fairyland represents her escaping her own reality (in which her father is fighting in foreign lands and her mother works in a factory leaving September alone by herself), and whether the wyvern has created a father he can more easily accept than one that abandoned his family. When September begins to face the work of the Marquess, I saw a lot of underlying themes packaged in a fairly harmless manner. It’s Good (September) versus Evil (the Marquess), but look closer and there are shades of grey, commentary on childhood, fear, growing up, and death. All of these things aren’t in your face – just gently touched on so that you can contemplate them later at your own leisure, long after the pages are closed and that lovely ending has faded.

Overall: This is a fairytale that works for many ages. If you are looking for depth you will find it, but if you are looking for straightforward adventure, you will find that too. The writing itself is colorful and odd and really rich in substance. It’s the sort of writing you can read aloud, but not meant for fast flipping. I enjoyed the experience once I realized that this was one I had to consume at my own pace.

To see what my readalong buddies thought of this one, take a look at their reviews posted today: Chachic / Holly.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
A Room with Books – “a book that deserves to be read by anyone”
Calico Reaction (has spoilers) – 8 – Excellent and “an easy book to recommend to anyone who has a soft spot for classic fantasy literature, for stories where fairylands are equally magical and dangerous, for beautiful, imaginative prose and ideas”
The Book Smugglers – top 10 of 2011

Other Links

The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland – For a Little While, short story prequel up on Tor.com

Crewel by Gennifer Albin

I was drawn to Crewel because of its blurb that promised a non-conformist who was hiding her true abilities despite societal pressure. I was interested to see what would happen to this girl who went against the grain. I requested Crewel through a BEA-related promotion from Macmillan. This review is based off of that eARC copy.

Crewel
Gennifer Albin

The Premise: In the world of Arras, some women are born with the ability to manipulate the fabric of existence. They are called Spinsters, and they keep the world running smoothly. They can weave food into being and thread supplies from one end of Arras to the other.  But Spinsters are rare and under strict control of the Guild. Every sixteen year old girl is tested for ability, and if she qualifies, she’s whisked away by the Guild to a presumably glamorous life. She will never be seen by her family again, except as a glitzy picture on the occasional Bulletin. While most, including Adelice’s sister, Amie, believe being a Spinster is a dream come true, Adelice would much rather stay in Romen. For years under her parents’ guidance, Adelice has practiced her clumsiness. Although she doesn’t fully understand why her parents want to protect her from them, she assumes that the Guild’s tight control on society (where segregation, rationing, and marriage laws are the norm), is reason enough. As Adelice’s family begins celebrating her failure of the Spinster testing, they are unaware that Adelice slipped up and didn’t actually come off as a dud. Adelice hopes to have one last happy moment with them before being taken away. Unfortunately she underestimates her parents’ resistance. When the Guild comes knocking, her mother and father make a last ditch effort, but Adelice’s silence has limited their chances, and ultimately she’s dragged away, leaving behind at least one dead parent.

Read an excerpt of Crewel here (ch 1, on web) or here (ch 1-5 on kindle) or here (ch 1-5 on nook)

My Thoughts: I have to hand it to this author — she knows how to get a story started. Crewel quickly sets the stage: a dystopian world held in the iron grip of the Guild. Every aspect of life is regulated, all because the Guild controls the Spinsters, and as her parents tell her “no matter how good their intentions, with absolute power comes corruption”. It’s a foreboding stage, and it makes sense that Adelice would want to avoid the Guild’s notice. Instead she screws up in testing and reveals her ability, which leads the Guild to violently rip Adelice’s family apart. They use force to yank Adelice from her home, and threats to make her smile and wave at the cameras, while Guild celebrity Cormac Patton smiles at her side. Later she is drugged, imprisoned, and rebound to the Western Compound for Spinster training.  There she sees first hand what absolute power really brings.

The concept of weaving the threads of life and existence is something I hadn’t seen before. Through manipulation of ‘threads’ on a special loom, Spinsters maintain the infrastructure of Arras, create food, transport people, and even bring new life to the world. But other manipulations are less benevolent. Spinsters are also able to change memories, make dissenting citizens disappear (literally), and remove the elderly even if they are not infirm. A dystopia based off of this concept of an ultimate control of existence is a brilliant idea. I found it interesting that women were singled out for particular control, even the female Spinsters. They were made to keep traditional female roles (teacher, secretary), not allowed to travel alone (unlike men). Even appearance (cosmetics) is regulated.  It is easy to see where the Guild uses the “good of Arras” to justify their actions, and how the propaganda machine and careful memory manipulations keeps the general population blissfully ignorant of the Guild’s actions.

The idea behind of this dystopia appealed to me, but the story didn’t quite ‘wow’ me in its execution. Like I said, the story starts out really well. I loved the first chapter – we’re not only introduced to the concept of Spinsters and Adelice’s own precarious situation, but we’re also shown the dynamics of a close-knit family. Because this story is told in the first person from Adelice’s point of view, I felt like her parent’s protectiveness and their need for secrecy comes through very well, as did her sister’s innocent belief in the system. The writing here balanced world building with plot and character development. As the story continued, this balance wasn’t as well maintained.

One of the biggest issues I had was the with character development. Maybe it’s because all the other characters aren’t her family, so there’s less personal connection from her point of view, but after she leaves home, the secondary characters don’t seem to have the same depth as her family did. In my mind they fall into two groups: bad guys and everyone else. The bad guys are the ones in charge with power over life and death, and they use this power in petty ways. They were the most one-note characters representing a totalitarian government. As for everyone else, they were defined by their reaction to those in power. There was not much to distinguish a character personality-wise – not much that I could really connect to. More often then not, I just felt like they were being used to propel the plot by explaining things to Adelice at opportune moments or to serve as examples of the Guild’s evil. The love interests had a little more personality, but still not enough. There’s the ambitious assistant with his own agenda and the quiet brooder with a painful past. Again I had trouble connecting to these relationships  and had trouble caring about a romance with them. There was very little to make me believe in Adelice’s interest, and two options felt gratuitous (that dreaded love triangle, thankfully not so bad here).

Finally, we have Adelice herself. After what happens to her family, she is surprisingly… resilient. Sure, she sheds a tear here and there, but it is minimal. She says she is sad but I had trouble buying it. I didn’t read ‘mourning’ when her behavior and her narration are no different from your typical teen fond of a little snark. I think that my not buying Adelice’s connection to the other characters made them feel even more flat and lackluster.  As for Adelice’s strength as a main character – Adelice is supposedly rebellious but this didn’t make her seem very smart when who she is mouthing off to just killed at least one parent. Her attitude didn’t win points when we find out Adelice is given a pass for what she is. When it comes to doing something about her situation other than realizing who the bad guys are, she spends much of the book finding supporters who already hate the system (they don’t need convincing from her) and doing what she is told without really knowing what is going on. It is when other characters that tell her that her life is in danger that she finally does something proactive rather than reactive.

Writing out my review I think I have figured out what was missing for me in Crewel. It was that I wasn’t feeling the emotional depth that I wanted to. It just didn’t come through the pages. The story relied heavily on exploring the Spinster dystopia concept and it was what propelled it forward. The characters and their motivations were adjusted to fit this instead of vice versa. As a result it felt like the plot bypasses internal development (like Adelice absorbing her situation on an emotional level or really connecting to the other characters), in favor of shining a light on the challenges of living in a dystopia. This story is more plot-driven, less character-driven and emotional.

Overall: It was OK. The mix of fantasy and dystopia in the concept of Spinsters and their abilities made a lasting impression, but the rest didn’t really resonate. I read Crewel a month and a half ago and I had to reread it to write this review because the rest of the plot disappeared from my head like gossamer mind candy. I think many people will enjoy this and be more engaged than I was, depending on how they react to the dystopia driving the story.  Without the character/emotional aspect I felt like I was left with predictable abuses of power as the plot, and so, this story and I? We do not mesh well. I’m not sure I’ll continue this series.

Crewel is out October 16th in the US, October 18th in the UK.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Bunbury in the Stacks – “this is one worth checking out”

Other links:

The Department of Alterations (a short story set in the world of Crewel)

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

Other reviews:
Not yet

Melina Marchetta, Kristin Cashore, and Gayle Forman at Books of Wonder

books of wonder logo

Last Tuesday evening there was an Author Interviews Author event at Books of Wonder featuring YA authors Melina Marchetta, Kristin Cashore, and Gayle Forman. Luckily for me, I live close enough that I was able to go and attend the event after work!

I was good too — I took copious notes for the blog during the interviews. Here’s the lowdown of two hours of authorly goodness. Please note that I don’t write that fast, so this shouldn’t be considered verbatim — just the general gist of the conversation. And sorry about my blurry photos, I politely turned off the flash and I think my 5 year old camera just isn’t that great in with low light.

Companion Novels
All three authors (who are all friends) noted that they have one thing in common besides writing young adult: they all wrote “companion novels”. Companion novels aren’t true sequels because they were told from a different point of view from the first book in the same world, and in some cases, could be read out of order. All three authors had a similar experience with their companion novels–they weren’t planned. Gayle Forman said she had no intention of writing Where She Went, and Melina Marchetta said she didn’t know there would be a sequel, she thought she was finished when she wrote Saving Francesca. The same with Finnikin of the Rock. Melina didn’t like Froi at first, she just thought he was a tool in her story. She didn’t realize that Froi would get a book until the next year. On the other hand, Quintana was always going to be in a sequel, once she had written 500 pages for Froi and realized there was no way she could end it just yet.

Ways you can “screw yourself” doing things this way
Cashore had to slow things down in Graceling because her characters were moving too quickly, so she created an impenetrable forest, but in Bitterblue, when her characters had to move fast, there was the forest!
Marchetta had a tricky area to deal with because she had a character who loved musicals in one book, but in the other he flipped out over having to listen to Jesus Christ Superstar during a car trip. She says if anyone asks, she explains the discrepancy by saying the character grew out of liking musicals.
Forman says she wished she’d chosen a different name for Adam’s band.
Speaking of names, Cashore noted that names mean different things in different languages. Po means “butt” in German, and Katsa is Italian for penis.

Negative reactions from readers
Cashore talked about getting some backlash because her book Graceling was seen as anti-marriage and anti-having kids. She notes that the author is not the same as the characters (her phone has a picture of baby as the wallpaper and is “full of babies”), but while she got a lot of positive messages from readers, every so often she got abusive emails. Now she stays off goodreads and no longer accepts comments on her blog posts, and she also doesn’t have a public email address anymore. She decided to do this for peace of mind, but on the other hand, she met Melina Marchetta through an email, so she acknowledges she is missing out on the positive connections from having a public email.
Marchetta’s comment on reviews was that the author is not the audience of the review and that she keeps separate from the negative reviews.
Forman said that she got backlash from the swearing in her books. She says that her family swears at home, even her mother swears, but that doesn’t make them bad people.

Sexual Tension
This is where each of the three authors read a small passage from their books in which the sexual tension between characters was shown. Cashore read a very small scene from Bitterblue in which Bitterblue and Saf have a moment. Forman read a scene from Where She Went where Adam and Mia were wandering around New York together, and Marchetta read letters from The Piper’s Son between Tom and Tara. [note: for video clips of these readings, check out the recap on The Readventurer!]
Marchetta: With sexual tension, it is the insecurities and vulnerabilities that come through. The reader picks up on these and realizes that these characters are broken and are the only two people who can put each other back again.
Cashore: Conflict and the power dynamic are also important. These two people are the only two people who can take each other on. They go back and forth, but they are an even match. Also, what you don’t say is important.
Forman: an adversarial relationships heightens the sexual tension, there is a delicious dynamic.

Switching points of view
Marchetta discussing how Froi arrived, talked about her friends and an long-running joke in which they play “You Raise Me Up” to her. She had just written a scene in Finnikin in which the captain and the guard had put people up on their shoulders, including Froi. Hearing the song soon after that, Marchetta realized that Froi was a player in the story.
Cashore: It was fun to write a book with Bitterblue, who is a character that is more aware of other people’s emotions. Katsa is more of a doer and doesn’t see things in the same way.
Forman: Switching point of view to continue a story is such a good way to do it because you learn things about the characters.
Cashore: didn’t realize how awful Leck was until she wrote his journals and in his point of view. It helped flesh out how horrible he is. Leck is the only character in all three books.
Marchetta says she didn’t understand why she was asked whose POV the book was from, because in Finnikin the book was mostly from his point of view. So she introduced quite early the different point of views in Froi of the Exiles so people wouldn’t be alarmed by the switches to multiple points of view.
Cashore: Switching points of view also helps with boredom. It’s more interesting with a different point of view.

Fantasy Contemporary
During the discussion it was revealed that Kristin Cashore is working on a contemporary story (!), and this led to a discussion on how the transformation happened between Fantasy and Contemporary YA and vice versa.
Marchetta was staying in New York City for two months after writing Jellicoe Road and she was in the subway one day when she saw a poster with a picture of a refugee camp in Africa. Everyone in the car was speaking a different language and she realized that so many people are not in their homeland. By 2007, she had a novel in her head, but she didn’t want it to be too political, so she decided to write it as a Fantasy. Her grandparents were immigrants and had always talked about going back to visit their homeland, so that became part of the spark for Finnikin. But she feels like Finnikin is not so different from her last novel just because it is a Fantasy.
Cashore said that her very first work was realism, and it was the characters that dictated the story and made it a Fantasy.

Q&A: How did you create characters that are abrasive and difficult to like and then make us love them so much it hurts?
Forman: Because you love them.
Cashore said her crankiest character is probably a librarian character in Bitterblue. When you are having fun, readers will pick up on it and like a character.
Marchetta: People start off not liking a particular character of hers, but they see that he uses the name “Anabelle’sbrother” online. This is a clue that he isn’t that bad. Marchetta uses little things like this as a promise that everything will come out right.
Cashore remembers at this point that her cranky librarian has a cat, which underlines what Marchetta just said.

Q&A: Most Helpful Advice from an Editor
Cashore: “Would you consider starting from scratch?” was what her editor said to her after an 800 page draft that took three years. The change of mindset made a difference.
Forman couldn’t come up with a specific piece of advice and says that her editor was key through edits.
Marchetta: “The word ‘said’ is a good word”. So don’t try to use “mocked” and other words like that when “said” will do. Also, “don’t be a thesaurus, use a thesaurus.”
Cashore: “Don’t let fear make your decisions.”

Q&A: Reviews
Forman: You can’t control anything in publishing except the book you are working on in the moment.
Cashore: The reviews that bother her are when the reviewer speculates what the author was trying to do. When people try to guess who the author is, it irks her.
Marchetta advises to stop reading a review when you read “I really wanted to like this book..”

Q&A: Creating Characters
Marchetta: the story begins with the characters. She waits for them to come to her and “observes” them and “listens” to their conversations with who they bring along.
Cashore: has a similar process to Marchetta. She observes. Some characters are easier. They’re talkative. Some aren’t, for example, Saf, who was taciturn. There’s a lot of conversation and dialoging that happens. You’re trying to reveal the characters through words.
Forman: You think you know a character up until you write. The process is endlessly surprising. Characters seem to have a mind of their own.
Marchetta: did not understand Quintana at first. Quintana changed her personality a lot, and Marchetta didn’t understand her for a year, then, during a walk with her dog, it came to her. Too much thought messes up the process — don’t fight them and try to make them into something they’re not.

Q&A: Intent of a book
Forman: It’s what she calls the Perfect Song Conundrum: she listens to an album and asks what the band/artist was thinking. Don’t they know they should do this and this to have the perfect song? there’s a chasm between the book you now it should be, and what it is. The best reading experience for her is cathartic, and leaves her different from how she was when she started.
Cashore: is trying to make a small, simple, emotional point. She tries to write for herself, writing as a writer, and later goes back as a reader. She tries to convey a feeling, and after a bunch of getting it wrong, in the end she gets to the place she wanted to.
Marchetta: Don’t think too much about it. The purpose is to entertain, but make sure you are always in love with the world. She knows it will work out when she’s still in that state when she finishes writing. Also she loves to think that she writes to make a connection.

Q&A: Worldbuilding
Cashore: With Graceling she didn’t build the world first. She did it as she went along, and she thinks this was something of a mistake. Fire is different — she used landscape more carefully in her second book.
Marchetta: Half-planned her world and half-didn’t. Froi hit the ground running because she had set it all up in Finnikin. Her personal travels gets used in her world building.

Q&A: What happened to Jimmy Hailer?
Marchetta: “I don’t know.” Jimmy didn’t come back to her. He was based on a real person, and when she knew him, he was an angry person, but now he is happy. You can’t force a character back to hear his story.

Q&A: Race in Cashore’s series
Cashore: The inhabitants of Dell seem darker skinned in Bitterblue, but not so in Fire. The reason is that in Fire, she made the characters darker-skinned, but she did it so subtly that readers missed it. Now that she has a chance to correct that in Bitterblue. Cashore feels like she failed a little bit in making the race difference too subtle.
Forman: Maybe you need to be less nuanced in Fantasy (about race).

Q&A: Cursing
The authors spent a little bit of time talking about cursing in Fantasy and how fun it was to make up swear words or to use quaint ones. Marchetta’s favorite was “swiving” and Cashore’s was “weaselbugger”.


So that was a really fun event, and I did run into a couple of other bloggers there (Catie from The Readventurer, Heidi from Bunbury in the Stacks, Sasha from Sash & Em, and Grace from Books of Love). I also got a few books signed:

  • If I Stay by Gayle Forman – I hadn’t tried this author before and decided I would give the first book of this series a go. (bought at Books of Wonder)
  • Bitterblue by Kristen Cashore – I was sort of unsure of buying the hardcopy because my other two copies of books in this series are trade paperback, but I couldn’t wait. (bought at Books of Wonder)
  • Saving Francesa by Melina Marchetta – I am ready to try one of Marchetta’s contemporaries and this series appealed to me. Really wanted a copy of The Piper’s Son too, but couldn’t find one. (bought at Books of Wonder)
  • Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta – This book has been recommended all over the place and I WILL read it one day! (brought from home)

Other recaps (check these out for more pictures and other details of the event):
Bunbury in the Stacks
The Readventurer

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Erin Morgenstern was signing the new paperback edition of The Night Circus at BEA, and I picked up one for myself based on the good reviews I’ve seen online.

The Night Circus
Erin Morgenstern

The Premise: (from the back blurb) “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.”

Read an excerpt of The Night Circus here

My Thoughts: This story is all about the magical atmosphere of the Le Cirque des Rêves (aka The Circus of Dreams), which is a circus unlike any other circus in the world. This is a circus of Wonder, swathed in black and white. One tent holds a garden made entirely of ice, another holds a vast labyrinth of rooms. The carousel animals breathe, and the food always tastes better than one remembers. Guests move from tent to tent, sampling performances and marvels, but one visit is never enough to see everything. Adding to the special atmosphere of the circus is that it appears as if from no where and is only open at night.

Of course, if the Night Circus seems impossible, that’s because it is. Unbeknownst to the regular people who visit the circus and even to the people that work in it, the Circus is actually a dueling ground for two magicians from opposing schools of thought. Their weapons are their students, Celia and Marco. Since childhood, these two were trained by their respective teachers in the art of magic. Celia’s teacher is her father, Hector Bowen, who goes by the stage name “Prospero the Enchanter”. Marco is an orphan chosen by a mysterious man in a grey suit and the initials “A. H.” Each is taught by an indifferent (and sometimes cruel) father figure, and each is told that one day they would use their knowledge against an unknown other. All they know is that they are bound to someone, and when the circus comes, the game begins.

The Night Circus is a different kind of story, mostly because this is one of those books that actually feels setting-driven. It is all about the circus. All the character’s stories revolve around or are pieces of the circus’s history. The battle between the two magicians is the propellant for its birth, but once it starts to grow, that’s when the cast of characters surrounding it grow too, and they are often as surprising as the circus. First there are the creatives that gather at midnight dinner parties at the eccentric Chandresh Christophe LeFevre’s house planning its execution — a retired prima ballerina with exquisite taste, two fashionable sisters with fine-tuned observational skills, a renowned architect/engineer, and Marco and Mr. A. H–. When the circus is opened, Celia becomes part of the endevour as the Circus’s illusionist, and she is joined by the circus folk. Some of these people seem to have a touch of magic as well, including a mysterious contortionist, a fortune teller who reads the future, and twins born on either side of midnight on opening night. Celia and Marco’s relationship grows alongside the circus itself in a complicated game of one-upman-courtship.

The sign proclaims something called the Ice Garden, and Celia smiles at the addendum below which contains an apology for any thermal inconvenience.
Despite the name, she is not prepared for what awaits her inside the tent.
It is exactly what the sign described. But it is so much more than that.
There are no stripes visible on the walls, everything is sparkling and white. She cannot tell how far it stretches, the size of the tent obscured by cascading willows and twisting vines.
The air itself is magical. Crisp and sweet in her lungs s she breathes, sending a shiver down to her toes that is caused by more than the forewarned drop in temperature.
There are no patrons in the tent as she explores, circling alone around trellises covered in pale roses and a softly bubbling, elaborately carved fountain.
And everything, save for occasional lengths of white silk ribbon strung like garlands, is made of ice.
Curious, Celia picks a frosted peony from its branch, the stem breaking easily.
But the layered petals shatter, falling from her fingers to the ground, disappearing in the blades of ivory grass below.
When she looks back at the branch, an identical bloom has already appeared.

The timeline of The Night Circus spans several years. It starts with a wager in 1873, and the bulk of the story spans a few decades after that. The narrative jumps back and forth in time, and dates and locations are provided at the beginning of each chapter. Very cheekily, there are interludes between chapters, without a date, but the point of view is secondary — “you” are in one of the tents of the circus (perhaps the date is now?) experiencing the anticipation, the pool of tears, the house of mirrors and other circus tents yourself. There is also a secondary story, beginning 11 years after the circus opens, about Bailey — a dreamer and one of many that loves with the circus. His story dovetails nicely into the main narrative as the story expands.

So remember how I said this was a setting-driven story? It’s so focused on atmosphere that The Night Circus is like a wonderful, comfortable dream. Like a dream, I was spirited off to a place where amazing things happened, but there was a buffer between me and what was going on. I was having a grand ol’ time marveling over the very visual descriptions of the circus and being charmed by the unique and likable characters, and while I did care when bad things happened, but I wasn’t gutted by them. I do not think that this is a failing of the book — it just felt to me that this book was more an imaginative treat than it was something real that I was supposed to connect to emotionally. That’s OK. Sometimes I want to read something that just takes me away to a beautiful place for a while and be told a pretty story. It was a fairytale basically.

Overall: Very lovely story where the circus is the star. Reading this book was like gorging myself on a buffet of artisan chocolates, marzipan, and Turkish Delights. It was just so lush in description, and it felt like the story had much the goal of a circus: to entertain and amaze. The Night Circus was a fairytale steeped with visual wonder, but like all fairytales, even though there was love, loss, and even impending doom, I felt removed, like I was reading it through the lens of “this couldn’t possibly be real”. It really is a circus of dreams.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers (joint review): 9 (damn near perfection), and 8 (excellent)
Books Take You Places – 5 out of 5
Fantasy & SciFi Lovin’ News & Reviews – 4 out of 5 (“Whether or not one enjoys “The Night Circus” will likely have a lot to do with whether or not the reader prefers a story that enjoys a romantic dreaminess”)
Once Upon a Bookcase – “It’s not just a story, it’s an experience”
The Canary Review – 3 canaries (out of 5) (“It sounds wonderful, and dreamlike, which is the intent, but after a certain point I am jaded enough to have my doubts”)
Sophistikatied Reviews – DNF
The Hiding Spot – “If this magial place was real, I think I’d run away to join the circus.”
Babbling about Books and More – A
The Allure of Books – “I definitely recommend picking up this novel if you’re a fan of fantasy”
For Love and Books – 5 hearts (out of 5)

Extras:
The Night Circus Deleted Chapter
The Night Circus game

The Serpent Sea by Martha Wells

I was having such a good time reading The Cloud Reads that I was voicing aloud my need for The Serpent Sea before I was finished. I asked, and the Husband answered by gifting me with a copy on my birthday. You could read this book before the first, but I’d recommend you don’t because there’s character growth that’s more rewarding when the books are read in order.

My review of book 1, The Cloud Roads can be found here: https://i2.wp.com/i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/livejournal_com.gifhttps://i0.wp.com/i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/wordpress.jpg

**** This review may contain spoilers for the first book!!  ****

The Serpent Sea
Martha Wells

The Premise: Finally orphan Moon has found a place for himself in the Raksura colony of Indigo Cloud. He’s still adjusting to being a Consort and all that entails, but in the meantime, the Indigo Cloud court is moving. The influence of the Fell has reduced their numbers and poisoned their home, and now Indigo Cloud is returning to the great tree that they left, generations ago. Unfortunately, when the colony arrives at their tree, they discover that a vital part of it has been recently stolen: the seed at its heart. Without it, the tree will die and Indigo Cloud would be left homeless and vulnerable. The colony needs to find the stolen piece before the damage is irreversible.

My Thoughts: The Serpent Sea begins almost where The Cloud Roads left off: with Raksura of Indigo Cloud traveling to their ancestral home via flying boat. It’s been a long journey and Moon and the rest are eager to finally be at their destination, but when they land, the great tree doesn’t feel quite right. It’s not long before they discover the reason why. Someone has come into the tree and stolen the seed at its heart. Of course this now puts Indigo Cloud back into peril again — without a home, they’re vulnerable. The other nearby Raksura colonies may accept their return to their tree, but they wouldn’t necessarily tolerate Indigo Cloud settling in other territory.

As with The Cloud Roads, I loved the fantastic landscapes of The Serpent Sea, especially when it came to the places that the people of the Three Worlds lived. Every one seemed more amazing than the last. It really felt like anything goes here with building places to live. It begins with the colony’s new home amongst the mountain-trees, with branches that interweave to create platforms for smaller trees to grow:

“It grew darker, the green-tinted sunlight muted as clouds closed in high above the treetops. The drizzle turned into a light rain that pattered on the deck. The platforms of the suspended forest grew wider and more extensive.  Many of them overlapped, or were connected by broad branches, with ponds or streams. Waterfalls fell from holes in some of the mountain-sized trees. Moon wondered if the water was drawn up from the forest floor through the roots. It was like a while multi-layered second forest hanging between the tree canopy and the ground, somewhere far below.”

The quest for the seed leads them to other settlements, including the one shown on the cover — a city built on a giant water-monster (!!!) that swims in a large body of water named the Serpent Sea. These are great settings but there is some thought behind them: why people chose to live in these places, and how it affects them are considerations that aren’t omitted from the story. As you’d expect there are also new creatures introduced as the Raksura travel to find the seed for their tree, but there’s no revisit from races encountered in the last book. This may be to underscore how far the colony has traveled, or how isolated populations become from one another because of the difficulty of travel.

I was fascinated as usual by the variety and differences in cultures, but this story doesn’t forget the Raksura themselves. I continue to enjoy how Raksura society is conveyed through Moon’s experiences.
At this point Moon is no longer the newcomer and his actions have granted him some respect. When the colony decides to search for the missing seed, he’s part of those plans, but he’s still settling into his new role as a Consort and he’s not always confident in that role. In the meantime there’s still some tension between the queens, Pearl and Jade. These types of adjustments don’t happen overnight, and The Serpent Sea reflects that.

There’s an implied system of hierarchy based on birth and an internal ranking system and it is fun to see where certain Raksura placed. I loved that this was a society where women were leaders, and queens are expected to be more aggressive than consorts. There’s a scene in particular (towards the end of the book), that illustrates this point and had me cheering. There are some developments that shed light on the history of Indigo Cloud as well as some eye-opening interactions with other Raksura.  I also enjoyed learning a little more about the magical abilities of the mentors. I would love to learn more, and I hope the unique situation that Chime is in (he’s the only Raksura known to have changed from a mentor into a warrior) gets more attention in the next book.

Most of my reaction to The Serpent Sea is positive, but I had one (probably unfair) issue with it. The Serpent Sea is basically a quest story. The goal from the beginning is clear: Indigo Cloud Court wants a home and to have one they must have their seed. Because of this, to me, the plot felt a lot simpler than The Cloud Roads. Since Moon’s past and Indigo Cloud Court’s problems with the Fell have been cleared up, the focus is now on Indigo Cloud Court resettling. The quest for the seed has it’s complications and there are bumps along the way, but I didn’t feel as though there was as much that was unexpected. I feel like I’m being a tough critic with that that reaction though. In other ways, The Serpent Sea shines. It delivers just as rich world building and gripping action as the first book did, and it continues Moon’s personal journey in a believable way.

Overall: I think part of me compares this with the first installment and wants something more complex than a quest story, but when I put that quibble (which I feel very few people would share) aside, The Serpent Seas is very enjoyable and shows the same imagination (the world building in these books is amazing) as the previous book. This is well-written fantasy and has an incredibly creative, visual story-telling style.

I will be reading the third book, The Siren Depths, which is out in December and has artwork, but no cover yet.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other Reviews:
The Book Smugglers – 8 (excellent)

P.S. While reading this I came across this artwork of a harpy by Sandara on deviantart which I thought could also work as a Raksura. Pretty, no?

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

I requested Seraphina from Netgalley because the summary mentions dragons that fold “themselves into human shape”. Shapeshifters in the fantasy genre is something I’m still thrilled by, even though I should have my fill already in urban fantasy. Not sure how, but it’s different I tell you. Other things that also drew me: tensions between humans and dragons, a heroine trying to hide a secret while working beside a “dangerously perceptive” prince, and the great blurbs by Naomi Novik and Tamora Pierce. Not to mention some very tempting book reviews.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Rachel Hartman

The Premise: (taken from goodreads) “Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty’s anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen’s Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.”

My Thoughts: This story starts with Seraphina.

“I remember being born.
In fact, I remember a time before that. There was no light, but there was music: joints creaking, blood rushing, the heart’s staccato lullaby, a rich symphony of indigestion. Sound enfolded me, and I was safe.
Then the world split open, and I was thrust into a cold and silent brightness. I tried to fill the emptiness with my screams, but the space was too vast. I raged, but there was no going back.
I remember nothing more; I was a baby, however peculiar. Blood and panic meant little to me. I do not recall the horrified midwife, my father weeping, or the priest’s benediction for my mother’s soul.
My mother left me a complicated and burdensome inheritance. My father hid the dreadful details from everyone, including me. He moved us back to Lavondaville, the capital of Goredd, and picked up his law practice where he had dropped it. He invented a more acceptable grade of dead wife for himself. I believed in her like some people believe in Heaven.”

 
Not surprisingly, my first impression of Seraphina was that she is an odd duck. Clearly there’s something strange about her for remembering her birth, and the inheritance she alludes to. Then she tells us that her father has told her time and again that to stay safe she must stay under the radar.  That her secret, if discovered, would mean her death. Only a select few know it, among them her father and Orma, a her music tutor (who happens to be a dragon). But Seraphina can’t help herself. She doesn’t want attention, but she is herself. Despite her best intentions, Seraphina stands out. Her prodigal musical talent is difficult to suppress, and after she’s noticed for that, it’s hard to forget her.

When the story begins, Seraphina has been court composer’s assistant for two whole weeks. Two weeks of rushing to be ready for the kingdom’s forty year celebration of the treaty with the dragons where the Ardmagar (the dragon equivalent of a king) is scheduled to make an appearance. Then Prince Rufus is found dead during a hunting trip. He was decapitated, and whispers that a dragon is responsible begin to be passed along. Things are difficult enough with the peace without these new rumors — many Goreddis still fear the dragons and worry about Goredd disbanding the knights who practiced dracomachia (a fighting technique used specifically against the dragons).

Seraphina thinks something is about to happen because of Prince Rufus’s death. She isn’t sure what, but she wonders who really killed the Prince and why. Seraphina’s position within the palace gives her special access to the royal family and she tries to keep an eye out for possible threats. She devises her own ways of finding things out, often finding herself face-to-face with Prince Lucian, head of the guard, as a result — and he proves a little too smart and nice for Seraphina’s comfort (especially since he has a fiancée). In the meantime, she also worries about her tutor Orma and the ominous message he received at the Prince’s funeral. Interwoven with that is Seraphina’s own issues with keeping her secret — her flute solo at the funeral moved everyone to tears and of course made her noticed. I’m half tempted to say what Serphina’s secret is in this review (it’s a big part of her character), but I am not sure it’s exactly revealed in the first fifty pages and the blurb dances around it. Let’s just say it is a great secret for storytelling. There’s a lot of little anecdotes about Seraphina’s past and how they relate to her secret all while everything else is going on. Her struggle to understand her mother (who died at childbirth) is a big part of Seraphina’s ruminations. If that isn’t enough, there’s also this strange mental garden that is tied to Seraphina’s secret.

Maybe that sounds like a lot of odd little threads, but these things are related in a smooth and interesting way. This is the type of world building that you sink into and while it has that medieval, city-built-around-a-castle setting that a lot of Fantasy has, much of the world felt fresh and new to me. The highlight was that dragons can shapeshift into people. What I loved about this that is in Seraphina, becoming human is a truly alien experience for a dragon. They can’t really deal with a new body that sometimes makes them feel and think in ways dragons aren’t supposed to. They needs Censors to make sure they don’t go insane – which in their culture, is when a dragon allows emotion to overrule logic. Dragons literally have memories of such a distasteful lapse scrubbed away. Of course, with the dragons so concerned with being dragons and keeping themselves apart from what they think of as human weakness, they also stay unknowable to their human allies who say they have no souls. There’s so many little details like that that are thrown in here. Seraphina knows more about dragons than most people so she bridges the cultural gap in her narrative. Tidbits about dragon and human relationships are dropped as needed throughout the story (not to mention the cultures of neighboring countries Porphyry, Samsam, and Ninys), and they fascinated me. I couldn’t get enough of the meeting of different worlds.

The other thing I really loved about this story were the characters. Seraphina was my favorite. She has more than one facet – sometimes quiet and a bit grumpy, sometimes scared and secretive, other times just fierce and brave. She starts off as a sixteen year old girl who wants to blend into the walls, but as the story progresses her chutzpah shines through as she throws herself into stopping anything from ruining the treaty. I loved this, but I also loved her vulnerability because she has the daily anguish of hiding her true self. And let’s not forget the secondary characters. First of all: Prince Lucian – my goodness, the awesome interactions he and Seraphina have! There was something a little fun about how they both surprise each other, and I can’t wait to see how their relationship develops. Then there’s Seraphina’s father, who tells her to stay unnoticed every chance he gets, but who does so because of his fear for his daughter; Orma, who is a dragon and who has always seemed distant, but who Seraphina still trusts and loves; even Princess Grisselda, granddaughter of the current queen and Lucian’s fiancee proves to be more complicated than she initially seems.

Overall: You know those books that kind of make you excited because you read them and think, “This is right up my alley! This book has things I find awesome in it!” ? Seraphina is one of those books for me. I just want everyone who likes Fantasy with girls doing stuff (and dragons!) to read it already. The characters! The world building! Have I mentioned the shapeshifting dragons?! Alright, I get that not everyone loves YA Fantasy and books with a drop of romance, but if you like that sort of stuff, just a little bit? If you like the quality and creativity of Robin McKinley, Megan Whalen Turner, and Diana Wynne Jones? Then maybe you should try this one.

Seraphina is out July 10th

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Stella Matutina – ” SERAPHINA is just plain delicious from start to finish. I want all of you to read it as soon as you possibly can. “

The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

After a spat of straight contemporary reads this year, I finally started looking at my TBR for a nice fantasy and my eye landed on The Cloud Roads, a book I picked up at LunaCon. This book has been on my radar after a joint review at The Book Smugglers, but Kristen putting it on her favorites list sealed it. I think Kristen has great taste in fantasy, and have resolved to listen to her when she recommends something.

The Cloud Roads
Martha Wells

The Premise: Moon is a orphan who doesn’t know exactly what he is. The sole survivor of the massacre of his mother and young siblings, Moon has wandered among the groundlings, blending in with his own earth-bound form, for much of his life. When no one is looking, he shape-shifts into a scaled, winged creature with claws, frills around his head, and a long tail. Unfortunately, once shifted, he has more than a passing similarity to the Fell, a reviled, sociopathic race with no purpose than to conquering and decimating cities, leaching all resources, and moving on to restart the cycle elsewhere. Moon is not a Fell, but he looks like one, and if his secret form is discovered, the consequences could be dire. And then Moon meets another shape-shifter just like him, who wants to take Moon back to his colony. Moon accepts the offer, if only to find out more about his race, but this stranger has more than altruistic motives for bringing Moon to the others. Moon doesn’t know just how crucial he is to the survival of this colony, nor is it certain he would he have come if he’d known of its recent upheavals.

My Thoughts: The lost orphan making his way in the world. It’s a common trope in the fantasy genre, but ever since I read The Belgariad I’ve loved it. There’s something about the search for identity and the possibilities within the Fantasy landscape that I adore. Add this to another trope I have a thing for, which is discovering new cultures through a character’s eyes, and you’ve got me eagerly absorbing the story of Moon finding his people.

The Cloud Roads establishes Moon’s isolated and temporary lifestyle early on. Typically Moon spends his day hunting alone, then comes home to the hut and the two women he shares it with (assigned to him by the Cordan camp). Sometimes, he sneaks out of the camp at night and assumes his other form. Always, this is in secret:

“Moon had been very young when his mother and siblings had been killed, and she had never told him where they had come from. For a long time he had searched sky-islands looking for some trace of his own people. The islands flew; it stood to reason that the inhabitants might be shifters who could fly. But he had never found anything, and now he just explored because it gave him something to do.
When Moon had first joined the Cordans, he hadn’t thought of staying this long. He had lived with other people he had liked–most recently the Jandin, who had lived in cliff caves above a waterfall, and the Hassi, with their wooden city high in the air atop a thick mat of link-trees–but something always happened. The Fell came or someone got suspicious of him and he had to move on.”

The opening sentence of The Cloud Roads warns us that things are to change for Moon (“Moon had been thrown out of a lot of groundling settlements and camps, but he hadn’t expected it from the Cordans.”), and it soon does. Things happen very quickly, and suddenly Moon is on a journey with Stone, an older shapeshifter. Stone is a Raksura, and so is Moon. Stone wants Moon to come to his colony, Indigo Cloud Court, and Moon agrees, both because Moon has no where else to go, and because he has a burning desire to learn what he is. At the colony, Moon meets the Raksura, a race of shapeshifters with different attributes — some that can shift to winged shape (the Aeriat class) which are the warriors and royals, and others that only have a ground form (the Arbora) which are hunters, mentors, soldiers and teachers. It’s a hive-type society where everyone has their role and place in the overall hierarchy, and the queens are its rulers. Moon is an awkward outsider at first, but he was born a consort, with all the privileges and expectations that that brings. He just has to figure out how to be one. As a solitary, he’s grown up less sheltered and pampered than he normally would be.

There is enough from Stone’s not-being-quite-forthcoming to make a guess where the story would go, but I was never exactly right. Just when I thought I knew what would happen, something else would. The Cloud Roads had a very dynamic plot — new problems were always being thrown into the mix and Moon and the other Raksura spend a lot of time having to react to the latest fire, but at the same time, this was done quite smoothly. I never felt like anything was forced, and Moon’s adjustment to everything had just as much page-time as the threats to Indigo Cloud Court. There is plenty of time for Moon to make both friends and enemies among the Raksura and to begin to understand their politics and culture. Meanwhile, there are also threats outside the colony that need to be dealt with. The outside enemies are your typical shadowy bad guys (although there were suggestions of their viewpoints, they weren’t delved into), but I was okay with this because Moon’s fledgling relationship with the other Raksura felt like the primary focus.

There are also several races in The Cloud Roads world. None are human, although a couple are human-like. There are lizard-like people, snail-like people, tusked people, tentacle-faced people, and opalescent people. There’s the feeling that there are many more. This is a big world and Moon and the Raksura don’t know all that is in it. When Moon and others venture out, they are journeys to places they haven’t been to before, so there’s always an element of wonder and discovery. And it’s quite lovely: the fantastic vistas and architectural marvels captures the romantic notions of fantasy. I particularly liked how the artifacts of past civilizations dotting the landscape added a sense of lost history to the world building.

Overall: A hive-like society, an orphan in search of his people, and a world populated by strange races, none of them human. The Cloud Roads is recognizable fantasy, but with a fresh spin. I really enjoyed the mix of comfort and creativity as well as the imaginative world building, but I was won over by Moon’s personal struggles. I felt empathy for his initial loneliness and culture shock, and I wanted to see him thrive in his new place. I recommend this for traditional fantasy fans who like feel-good adventure and maybe a drop of romance.

I already started reading the sequel, The Serpent Sea, and will probably also buy the third book of this trilogy, The Siren Depths, when it comes out in December this year.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Fantasy book cafe – 8/10
The Book Smugglers – 7 (Thea) and 8 (Ana)
Calico Reaction – 7 (A good read)
Starmetal Oak Reviews – 8 (out of 10)