Category Archives: Young Adult

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.