Category Archives: Young Adult

Book Review: Truthwitch by Susan Dennard

Whew! Truthwitch is an absolutely exhausting, if exhilarating, read. There’s an enormous amount of stuff going on in this book, and I kind of loved it, but the problem with doing lots of things in a novel is that it’s only seldom that they’re all done well. Like many other ambitious and complex works, especially those intended for a YA audience, Truthwitch is a bit of a mixed bag.

The biggest problem with Truthwitch is that, while a ton of stuff happens, nothing is resolved and not all of the things that happen seem to belong in the same story with each other. Some parts feel almost entirely disconnected from the rest, while other parts are both too obviously connected with each other and made to feel much more mysterious than they actually are.

The book opens with main characters Safiya and Iseult in the middle of a “heist,” though it’s never particularly clear what they’re up to, how they planned to get away with it, or why this was how Susan Dennard decided to start the story. It could be intended to establish the girls’ “normal” state of affairs, but it’s made very clear later on that this was something that they did infrequently, as both of them have legit positions in the city they live in that would prevent them from really engaging in a life of crime—not to mention the ways their choices are constricted by their social positions. It’s a strange opening that—even more so in hindsight—feels like the beginning of a very different book than what we’re actually given.

Once you get past the unfortunately confusing and unnecessarily cold open, though, Truthwitch is a fast-paced, enjoyable read. It’s still somewhat scattered at times, with a couple of lengthy diversions into subplots that I’m sure will come to fruition later in the series, but the majority of the book is forward motion. By the final quarter, it veritably hurtles towards a conclusion that is equal parts devastating (in a good way), aggravating, and altogether too neat after the chaotic middle section of the book. This is highlighted by having a final chapter dedicated to wrapping up each character’s story in a few paragraphs to prepare the reader for the next book. This seems to be a common trend in YA series, and I hate it. It’s just too much like handholding, and it puts me in mind of the stilted, at-least-half-redundant fashion in which eighth graders write conclusions to essays.

The other major issue I have with this book is a world-building complaint. While the Witchlands is a big, beautiful, complex fantasy world, the details of its magic system can be frustratingly opaque at times. It’s a great idea, and I loved all the different types of magic, but there are several concepts that are woefully underdeveloped and a couple that are just plain ill-conceived. The worst offenses on this score are Safi and Iseult’s powers, which are both poorly defined and not utilized very smartly in the narrative.

Iseult’s magic as a Threadwitch seems useful, but it’s obvious early on that her abilities are non-normative. It’s also just not really that clear what exactly Threadwitch’s do. Although Iseult’s mother seems to have an important place in their Nomatsi community, it’s never actually explained what her role is or how the Threadwitch magic works. Instead, there’s a lot of sort of mystical explanations that seem at odds with the utilitarian descriptions we get when Iseult actually uses her powers.

Meanwhile, Safi’s magic as a Truthwitch is supposedly extremely rare and ridiculously powerful, but there’s nothing in the narrative to confirm that this is truly the case. Again, there are some descriptions of her using her magic that make is seem extremely useful, but it doesn’t seem to affect Safi’s day to day life that much. Especially when it’s revealed—and relatively early in the book—that Safi’s witchery may not be as accurate or powerful as everyone seems to think, I was left feeling that there’s a good deal of much ado about nothing going on. Indeed, Safi’s magic seems redundant and second-rate when Wordwitches exist; certainly, it doesn’t seem to be powerful enough to be worth starting a world war over, though that is exactly what is happening by the end of the book.

That said, the way that Dennard describes and utilizes the magic of the book’s secondary characters is really well-done. Wordwitches, Glamourwitches, and Windwitches drift in and out of the narrative doing really interesting stuff with their magics, which are shown rather than told about. The Bloodwitch, Aeduan, has his abilities described wonderfully—much more what I would expect of a very rare and powerful magic—and again we are shown how his magic works and the way it fits into the story Dennard is telling. I expect that Safi and Iseult’s magics will play a much larger role in future books, but there’s a coyness to the way they’re used in Truthwitch that I found highly unpleasant, largely because of the way in which it contrasts with the much better fashion in which Dennard shows us literally everyone else’s magic.

The greatest strength of Truthwitch, on the other hand, is its focus on exploring friendship and the families that people choose as opposed to those we’re born into. Safi and Iseult’s relationship is the strongest one in the novel, and no matter what else happens to the two girls, they prioritize their love for each other over nearly everything else. With so many other YA books having a heavier focus on romance, it’s delightfully refreshing to read something where everything revolves around the friendship and love between two young women. At the same time, both Safi and Iseult are distinct individuals with concerns, plans, hopes, and dreams of their own. Though their destinies may be intertwined, they are never subsumed in each other, and their personalities are complementary rather than particularly similar to each other.

That’s not to say that there isn’t any romance, of course, and I found myself rather enjoying Merik and Safi’s hate-to-love journey, though it’s not covering any new ground in the genre. It’s pedestrian, but in a way that is comfortingly familiar. It also helps that it’s not given so much page time that it distracts from other things. Additionally, Merik’s friendship with Kullen is well-portrayed as a parallel to Safi’s friendship with Iseult, so there’s much more than just a romantic subplot going on. Speaking of romance, though, I’m much more interested in whatever is going on between Iseult and Aeduan. Yeah, he’s a terrifying Bloodwitch who is hunting the girls across the world to probably kill them, but there are some sparks there (#iamtrash).

All in all, Truthwitch is a solidly entertaining read and a strong start to an interesting new series. It’s very reminiscent of Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass series, and I’m loving this kind of sword and sorcery trend in YA fiction. While Truthwitch isn’t perfect, none of its flaws are fatal ones, and all are forgivable. I can’t wait to see what happens in the Witchlands next.

Book Review: Winter by Marissa Meyer

This entire series of books has been middling at best, and Winter is no different in that regard than its predecessors. Still, it’s an enjoyable read. The biggest problem with Winter is simply that it’s enormously overlong. At over eight hundred pages, and broken up into nearly a hundred chapters, most of which are very short, it’s a monstrously lengthy read. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough going on in Winter to justify all that length, and while I did enjoy it, my biggest feeling when I finished was resentment at how long it took to finish.

The first three books in this series (I’m not counting Fairest, which I haven’t—and don’t intend to—read) were each one better than the one before. Although none of them exhibited any particular excellence, there was definitely a trend towards improvement that unfortunately seems to have plateaued—and that’s only if one is being generous. To be honest, Winter is just a huge disappointment.

I loved Cress in her book (after feeling very lukewarm about Scarlet), and I had hoped that Winter would be a similarly interesting character. Sadly, she’s not. For most of the book it felt as if even the author wasn’t sure exactly what to do with Winter, and the princess often languishes in the background, both figuratively and literally. While Marissa Meyer has often utilized fairy tale elements in interesting ways in this series, her choice to include Snow White’s poisoning and the glass coffin was simply a mistake. It had no significant effect on the story, never felt as if Winter was in any real danger, and was just one of the many ways in which Winter was kept sidelined and ineffectual in her own book.

The truth about Winter is that, for all its ridiculous length, not much actually happens in its pages. It’s as if all the story was told in the first three books and this one is just eight hundred pages of tying up loose ends. Winter’s personal story never manages to feel like much of a story at all, and while I appreciate that Meyer didn’t end Winter’s tale by having her be cured of her mental illness, I rather felt as if Winter was actually forgotten by the end of the novel, which focused mostly on wrapping up Cinder’s story. I mean, good, I guess, that Winter gets her man in the end, but that’s frankly more irritating than not, since it’s just part of the compulsory romantic pairing off of all the series’ characters.

This isn’t to say there’s nothing to like about Winter, but there’s absolutely nothing about this story that deserved such a lengthy treatment. Meyer does a nice job of cramming a happy ending into the last fifty or so pages for everyone, but it’s all really just a little too neat without having any particular dash of cleverness or panache. Even Cinder’s decision to reject being queen in favor of turning the Lunar government into some kind of democracy (it’s rather vague) just feels too on the nose and follows less from the story or character Meyer has created up to this point than it does from sheer convenience. The author wants Cinder to give up being queen and go back to Earth, and so she does.

It’s this sort of writing for narrative convenience that makes this series’ ending ultimately unsatisfying. After four books (six if you count a prequel and the upcoming collection of short stories that correspond to each book) and eight hundred pages in this one alone, all filled with things supposedly happening, none of it matters. We get the ending Marissa Meyer wanted to write, but it’s not an ending that feels real or earned or at all worth the journey to get there.

The best thing I can say about this series is that it’s an enjoyable read, but it’s got so little substance that I can’t recommend it except as pure guilty pleasure fluff reading. That may have its place, but this final book stretched too long to even be as enjoyable as the previous entries in the series.

Book Review: Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Nimona is actually my twelve-year-old daughter’s book. I knew it was good when she didn’t even want to put it down long enough for us to check out at the book store. When she finished it the next day, I knew I had to read it myself. I’m so, so glad I did.

So, apparently Nimona started life as a web comic,  but to read the whole thing now you have to buy the book.

It’s totally worth it. You should go buy it right now. Maybe even buy two copies, because this is a book that I could easily see reading over and over again. Also the sort of book that your friends aren’t going to return after you force them to borrow it, so it won’t hurt to have an extra copy laying around.

The art is simple, especially at the beginning, which again betrays  Nimona‘s internet origins, but I found it enjoyable to see the work evolve over the course of the story. Noelle Stevenson’s style is fluid and impressionistic. Every panel looks as if it’s in motion, which adds a sense of realism that is reflective of the naturalistic portrayal of the characters and their relationships. At the same time, Stevenson avoids realistic or consistent color schemes in favor of constantly changing palettes that tell a story of their own and convey moods extremely effectively. I especially liked the oranges in the middle of the book and the acid greens near the end.

Nimona herself is a great character. Though at times she skirts a little too close to Manic Pixie levels of quirkiness, she doesn’t exist in service to anyone’s story but her own. I love the growth of her friendship with Lord Blackheart, and it’s nice to see a bit of gender role reversal here, with Nimona as the rash, bloodthirsty one and Blackheart as a temporizing force and voice of reason. Blackheart and Sir Goldenloin are both nicely written, with a good backstory, and the ending of their story feels organic and earned. I also really appreciate that the only other two significant characters, The Director and Dr. Blitzmeyer, are women, another smart authorial choice that avoids the fantasy convention of marooning female characters in a sea of testosterone. While Nimona doesn’t get much interaction with these women, just their existence avoids one of the biggest problems I tend to have with fantasy stories in general.

The thing about Nimona is that it’s utterly charming. It’s funny and smart and sweet and deploys its pathos in exactly the right ways at exactly the right times to tug at the reader’s heartstrings. Like many web comics, it does tend to meander now and then, but the story is overall well-conceived and deftly executed with a minimum of sidetracking so that it’s cohesive when published in a single volume.

Nimona is a great book and a fast read, and it might (probably) will make you cry. Highly recommend.

 

Book Review: Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Shadowshaper seems to be most often compared to Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments, but it’s a terrible comparison. In fact, there is no comparison to be made that isn’t entirely superficial. Shadowshaper isn’t a flawless piece of work, but it’s not a mess of derivative, hackneyed tropes like the Mortal Instruments series was, either.

Yes, Shadowshaper also takes place in New York, but where Clare’s series was generic and poorly researched, Older’s book is set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood that he resides in himself and has a strong sense of place that helps to draw the reader into the world he’s created.

Yes, Shadowshaper also has a teenage girl protagonist whose story starts when she begins seeing weird stuff and finds out she has magical powers, but where Clare’s Clary Fray is a bland cipher upon which the reader can self-project fairly freely, Older’s Sierra Santiago has a vibrant personality and a specific identity that invites the reader to share and understand her but not to become her. While Sierra has plenty of likable traits–she’s clever and brave and kind, for example–there are many things about her that I don’t expect will be universally relatable. As a white reader, I appreciate the gift that Older offers me–a tiny window into an experience of the world very different from my own–and I can only imagine how gratifying it must be for young people who share more of Sierra’s experiences to discover this book in libraries and bookstores that are far too full of characters like Clary Fray.

Yes, like Clary Fray, Sierra has a group of friends who help her fight the forces of darkness, but where Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunters are a group thrown together by the most boring sort of destiny ever (and often don’t even seem to like each other), Sierra’s friend group in Shadowshaper is made up of people who are part of a community, and that community is really the whole point of the book. It feels real and organic, and the emotional payoffs, for the most part, feel earned.

Shadowshaper even has romance, but it doesn’t take over the novel, and it develops sensibly; at the end of the book, I felt like Sierra and Robbie were embarking on an exciting new part of their lives, but not as if everything was settled before the characters even graduated high school.  I always appreciate when authors do YA romance without turning it into some sort of star-crossed, destined, One True Love situation. Young love deserves to be treated seriously, and teenagers’ emotions are deep and strong, but we seldom meet The One at that age. I tend to enjoy YA romance much more when authors keep it in perspective, and Older has done a nice job with it here, creating a heroine who likes a boy but doesn’t waste too much time overthinking the situation. Sierra has more important things to deal with, after all.

I would have liked this book to spend more time with Sierra’s mother, who I think is interesting enough to carry a book of her own. I felt like Maria’s change of heart about shadowshaping at the end of the book felt abrupt and more driven by what the author wanted to happen and how he wanted to end things than it was by anything that would normally have naturally happened with these characters. I understand wanting to write the happiest possible ending, but the way that this happens felt pretty inexplicable to me.

The shadowshaping magic itself was on the one hand really interesting, but on the other hand slightly nonsensical. It’s not exactly clear what this magic is capable of, and some of the descriptions of the magic Sierra works are confusing. One of the reasons I read this book in the first place was that it promised Caribbean magic. While I think it does a good job of capturing the sense that shadowshaping is specific to the culture depicted in the book, it’s on a bit more shaky ground when compared to other fantasy magic systems (but still worlds better than anything Cassandra Clare has written).

Shadowshaper is an excellent read overall, though. It’s fast-paced, and I had a hard time putting it down because I always wanted to know what happened next. While its flaws aren’t inconsiderable, I think they are more than made up for by its strengths–namely, it’s beautifully crafted setting and a delightfully plucky heroine. Also, it’s got an absolutely gorgeous cover.

Book Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

an-ember-in-the-ashes-by-sabaa-tahirAn Ember in the Ashes was a surprise. I was looking for (and expected) a fast, easy read that would help get me out of the reading slump I’d been in since breaking my foot in May. I don’t read much YA these days, but this book has gotten a lot of positive attention and I could have sworn that I heard somewhere that it was basically a standalone, which would have been nice since I’m not looking to get into any more uncompleted series. I figured this would be a quick, shallow, fun read that I’d never have to think about again.

It turns out I was super wrong about everything except it being a fast read. I did manage to race through it in about a day, but that was because it was really, really good, not because it was light reading.

This book is not light reading.

An Ember in the Ashes opens with a gut punch and then kicks the reader while they’re down, for over four hundred glorious pages. It’s a wild ride from the very beginning, and it’s definitely the best YA novel I’ve read in a couple of years.

At the same time, Ember is a sort of strange book for me to review. It has several glaring flaws that would ordinarily be dealbreakers for for me, but that Sabaa Tahir manages to make work.

First, I don’t love the names of the main characters, Laia and Elias. They’re just too close to each other, too many L’s and A’s, and though I never found them confusing, these names are just a little too match-y for my taste. They’re also part of a general lack of consistent naming conventions throughout the novel. The fantasy world of the book is ostensibly based upon ancient Rome, but the character names are a mix of Greek, English, Gaelic, and other origins. This could work as a way to differentiate between different cultures in the book, but that’s not how it’s done here. Instead, it’s just a mishmash of names, some of which make sense, some which don’t.

This sort of naming convention mess is increasingly characteristic of YA fiction in general, and it always turns me off a bit. It’s only tolerable here because the story Tahir tells is so well-crafted and because, while the names are sloppy, they don’t inhabit the realm of just plain silly and absurd that some YA character names do.

My second major criticism is also sort of about names, but in the general worldbuilding sense. Frankly, if it didn’t all manage to somehow work, I’d think that Tahir had used this humorous article at The Toast as a serious writing advice. Everything is just awfully generic.

There are the Scholar people, who are peaceful artisans and intellectuals who were easily overpowered and enslaved by the warlike Martial people. Aside from these two major groups, there are also Tribesmen, Barbarians, Lake People and Wildmen, The live in places like “The Empire,” “The Southern Lands,” and “The Tribal Deserts.” The one major holiday we see in the book is just called the “Moon Festival,” another extremely vague and generic piece of the world Tahir has created.

Even the prophesying Augurs seem generic when surrounded by so many other generic groups of people, and this isn’t helped much by the use of the name “Cain” for the main Augur. It’s a name that is so loaded with hackneyed connotations of antiquity, mystery and villainy (or occasional anti-heroism) that it should basically never be used unless an author is literally referring to the biblical Cain. I have a special loathing for the use of mythologically significant names in lieu of actual characterization.

All that said, there’s a lot to like about this fantasy world. There are definitely some bits of ancient Rome in here, but this isn’t Rome the great empire and foundation of western society. The Martials are Rome the violent colonizing juggernaut, and the Scholars and Tribespeople are clearly representative of the great civilizations of the Middle East and North Africa. While I think that the conflict between the Scholars and Martials is a little simplistic, it also offers a refreshingly different and much-needed perspective than the pro-imperialist ones that are more common in high fantasy.

Though there is much about this fantasy world that is bland and generic, there is still enough detail to make it stand out from more standard fare. The incorporation of creatures from Arab mythology is nice and helps to solidify the reader’s sense of the story world as vaguely Middle Eastern as opposed to the usual vaguely Medieval European fantasy.

The one really original fantastical element Tahir introduces is the masks worn by the uncreatively named Masks, and I would have liked to see this explained and explored a little more. Because Elias’s mask hasn’t bonded to him, we don’t get any firsthand details on what it’s like for any of the characters to have a mask permanently affixed to their faces. The masks are also mentioned inconsistently throughout the book, and it’s never quite clear exactly what the masks look like. It’s too bad that we don’t learn more about the masks because they’re probably the most unique worldbuilding aspect we’re shown.

The things that make all of the above-listed mediocrity okay and turn An Ember in the Ashes into a highly readable piece of work are the well-drawn main characters and a meticulously planned and beautifully realized plot. It also helps that Tahir avoids some of the more obnoxious YA tropes and what tropes she does utilize are smartly chosen. Finally, I really appreciate that Tahir isn’t afraid to hurt her characters. The stakes feel high and the danger feels real throughout the book, but at the same time I never felt like the suffering was gratuitous or overdone. 

This book feels like it shouldn’t work as well as it does, and there are any number of things I can pick out of it that I ordinarily don’t care for. However, I really enjoyed it, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading its sequel. An Ember in the Ashes is a sprawling, challenging young adult fantasy that is much greater than the sum of its parts.

Book Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

Maas_A Court of Thorns and RosesI’ve really enjoyed Sarah Maas’s Throne of Glass series so far, but I know that series is a planned six books so I wasn’t expecting anything else new by her anytime soon. I’ve also been really cutting back on the amount of attention I pay to YA stuff this year in order to focus on some more literary genre work, so A Court of Thorns and Roses managed to slip under my radar until just a few weeks before it was published. Well, I sure am glad I didn’t miss it entirely, because it’s really excellent.

I am a huge fan of reimagined fairy tales and “Beauty and the Beast” is one of my favorites to see retold because it’s a great romantic story with some pretty high stakes that make for wonderful drama. Combining “Beauty and the Beast” with “Tam Lin” only raises the stakes higher, and it creates an opportunity for there to be a truly heroic heroine. It’s an awesome concept, and Sarah Maas does not disappoint.

I’ve really gone off of first person narratives recently, but Feyre is a delight. She’s not the normal bookish Beauty (as popularized by Disney) that seems to have made an appearance in every “Beauty and the Beast” retelling of the last twenty years. Maas’s rejection of this pretty much ubiquitous trope may strike some readers as a little too on the nose, but I found it refreshing. Feyre is tough, resourceful, and self-reliant, but Maas gives her realistic flaws and isn’t afraid to let her heroine make mistakes.

Feyre’s love interest, Tamlin, is much more two-dimensional, a little too perfect, but I think it works for this book. I found myself rolling my eyes occasionally as he and Feyre fell in love, but what their romance lacked in emotional depth it made up for in sexiness. I would classify this book more as new adult than YA, as it does have some actual sex, with orgasms and everything. There are only a couple–sex scenes that is (there are more than a couple of orgasms–go, Feyre!)–but I thought they were nicely done and well-integrated with the rest of the story.

The supporting characters mostly worked as well, although I do have some criticisms. I loved Feyre’s sisters, especially Nesta, and I loved the evolution of Feyre’s relationship with them. Tamlin’s friend Lucien was actually more interesting to me than Tamlin himself. I liked Alis until Maas used her to deliver an enormous chunk of exposition (exposition that is contrary to literally everything that we’ve learned in the book so far) to set up the last act. Rhysand is fascinating, although I am a little concerned that Maas might be telegraphing too much of the plot of the next book in the series through him. Amarantha was definitely villainous; I loved the sequence of tasks Feyre had to face and I enjoyed the final showdown. However, I’m still not entirely sure that I understand Amarantha’s motivation.

All in all, though, I thought A Court of Thorns and Roses was a smart, funny, sexy read. It can easily be read as a stand-alone piece, which is good since I think Maas ended Feyre and Tamlin’s story in a good place. I’m definitely looking forward to further books in the series, but I kind of hope that they will focus on other characters. Nesta in particular could easily carry her own book, and I would love to read that story.