The more I read 2000s fantasy, the more I become convinced that the YA and middle grade fantasy of that decade was particularly strong. Or maybe it’s just the authors I’m reading were particularly strong. Whatever the case, Sharon Shinn delivers another delightful tale in The Truth-Teller’s Tale.
Now, I read The Safe-Keeper’s Secret a very long time ago—at least a couple of years. I loved it, if I recall, and Shinn immediately jumped to the top of the “authors I must read more of” list. However, it took me a while to get this book, though I’m not sure why. I think I simply forgot about it. Once it arrived back on my radar, I didn’t hesitate in picking it up.
I love the magic of the world Shinn has built—the magic of the Safe-Keepers, the Truth-Tellers, and the Dream-Makers. The Truth-Teller concept is especially intriguing—and, luckily, that’s what we get to experience the most in this book (as you might expect from the title). I’m not sure if Shinn is trying to say that all Truth-Tellers are blunt, or if Eleda’s personality simply makes her an exceptional Truth-Teller, but the development and the results that come about because of Eleda being a Truth-Teller were some of my favorite bits of magic in the book. And I like that it’s subtle magic—less flashy and more ingrained in the character.
As much as I enjoyed the book, especially the ending once Things Started Happening (despite the rather obvious reveals), the beginning and middle parts were fairly slow. I understand that the book is very concerned with developing the characters, but I wish there hadn’t been quite so much time spent on “let’s watch the characters grow up before getting to the part the book summary talks about.” By the time Part Two rolled around, I was getting just a bit exasperated with the slow pace of the book. Of course, Part Two almost immediately made me forget about Part One’s slow pace.
It’s books like The Truth-Teller’s Tale, with its sweet romance, interesting magic, compelling characters, and a plot that if easily guessable is at least interesting, that make me love the fantasy genre. Shinn has cemented herself as an author who I want to read more of, so you can expect to see more of her works on my blog.
Death Sworn eventually won me over, but Death Marked failed from the start. Death Marked takes what happened in Death Sworn and makes it entirely irrelevant. It is not a pleasant sensation to finish a book and feel as if the author has simply wasted your time.
The problem with Death Marked is manifold. First, there’s the worldbuilding—again. I talked about the thin worldbuilding in the first book, but this book does almost nothing to build on that. Ileni is once again stuck in a series of cavelike rooms, only venturing out once or twice. There is never any sense of an established world or order. Though “Renegai” is mentioned several times over, there is never a clear idea of what they are beyond “magicians in exile.” The city that Ileni walks in is featureless and boring, its only purpose to show off the Imperial’s way of harvesting magic.
Second, there’s the plot, or the lack of it. I can only assume Cypess intends this as a character-driven novel, but fails for a multitude of reasons (one of which being Ileni herself, which I’ll get to). Motives are too thin or unclear, the characters too one-note, the poorly built world too vague for any solid development to occur. The book ends with no momentum gained, nor any clear resolution reached—only a vague sense that the characters are happy where they are, even though nothing was accomplished.
The biggest problem, I found, was Ileni herself. She spends far too long floundering in confusion, then switching from loyalty to treachery and back again according to what suits her in the moment. She spends the majority of the book reacting (poorly) to what goes on around her, rather than being proactive. The most annoying aspect of her character is her behavior towards magic, the irritating push-and-pull, addictive thinking. She spends one chapter reveling in her power, the next swearing she’ll never use it again, the next using magic and then guiltily remembering her promise. It’s a never-ending cycle, and though I think Cypess wants it to add to her character, I found it annoying.
She also spends far too much time screaming.
The only thing I did like was the departure from that romance-heavy take of the first book. In fact, Cypess actually ends the book with something I didn’t actually think she would do, but didn’t actually mind, as it fit well. Other than that, though Death Marked was a disappointment through and through, almost a complete waste of time.
Death Sworn, by Leah Cypess, was published in 2014 by Greenwillow.
I really wasn’t expecting to like Death Sworn as much as I did. In fact, about halfway through I lamented about how the entire plot was basically an unimaginative romance thinly veiled as something actually interesting. But then, something happened towards the end of the book—I became irrevocably hooked.
Death Sworn is full of political intrigue, though you aren’t necessarily able to tell at first glance. Cypess is doing some pretty shallow worldbuilding: all important details are given through conversation or casual asides and thoughts. Since Ileni never leaves the cave, that’s the whole world the reader knows, so the rest of it is pretty flimsy. Yet, somehow, Cypess manages to sell some parts of it, enough for the reader to actually care. Looking back, I can see how thin the worldbuilding is, but in the moment, I didn’t notice. That “in the moment” matters a lot.
The plot itself is part murder mystery, part romance. Well, mostly romance, and a pretty basic, obvious one at that. I’ve never liked the “girl falls in love with dangerous boy” romances, and I’ve also never liked the “boy falls in love with the only girl around” romances. So, since this romance is made up of both of those traits, I pretty much thought that part of the book was pretty boring. However, the parts of the plot that are murder mystery are pretty superb and interesting. I wish Cypess had done more worldbuilding so that I was more aware of all the different details going on, and so that things felt more connected to me as the reader, but despite that, the explosion of plot at the end really hooked me, so much so that I immediately went out to get the second book.
And, despite the unoriginal aspect of the romance, it didn’t end how I thought it would—though, looking back at it, it ends pretty unoriginally as well. But again, in the moment, Cypess exceeded my expectations, and that’s important.
I first caught sight of Ink and Bone in the hands of a ten-year-old girl. I remember being attracted by the cover, with the title and “The Great Library” written on it. I thought, “Oh, cute. A middle grade book about a library. I may have to pick that up.”
Oh, boy, was I in for a surprise. This book is definitely not middle-grade—and thus probably far too mature for the ten-year-old girl who I saw reading it—and much more intense and serious than I was expecting. The concept is fascinating—a world where books and knowledge are tightly controlled, where people can access the book, but only through the use of the Library’s technology. They’re not allowed to touch or own real books. To be honest, I’m not sure if Caine was trying to create some sort of analogy with e-books or not, but there’s definitely a lot of attention placed on the value of owning and holding and reading bound books. The main message, though, is definitely about imbalance of power and the abuse of those who hold all the knowledge and who control the access of that knowledge.
I also found the conversation between Jess and someone else about taking down monuments of the past particularly interesting. Jess says something about how he doesn’t like the idea about people remaking the world in an image that they like, rather than an image that reflects truth and history, and that certainly resonated with me.
Interesting concept aside, I found the writing a little too lackluster and mechanical for my tastes. And the plot itself is a bit of a let-down—it takes too long for things to get moving, then once they do, the plot stalls and slows down, then finally gets to where it wants to go three hundred pages later. I will say that the characterization is great, with each character really standing out (at least the six that Caine wants to focus on), but Jess fades a bit in comparison. He’s not a particularly memorable protagonist.
Once I got past my initial surprise, Ink and Bone was quite enjoyable, though I felt there were some problems with pacing, writing, and unfortunately the main character. It’s an interesting take on censorship, the control of knowledge, and where its true value lies.
We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart, was published in 2013 by Delacorte.
We Were Liars is a suspense/mystery novel. Cadence Sinclair Eastman has forgotten the majority of her fifteenth summer at her family’s private island and the story is about her struggle to put together the pieces of what happened that caused her amnesia.
Though it’s a suspense novel, it really doesn’t read like one. It’s mostly about teenage life, or what Lockhart assumes is teenage life. There’s familial drama, the close-knit adventures of cousins and friends, the confusion as Cadence struggles to remember and people around her refuse to answer her questions, and some odd fairy tale stories scattered throughout. Odd because they seem out of place, though clearly Lockhart believed they were necessary—I just didn’t get it.
Despite the fact that it doesn’t much read like a suspense novel, the ending is quite shocking. I went into it thinking I knew what was happening, then had to change my mind, then got hit with the plot twist at the end. I literally spoke to the book, that’s how shocked I was. Suddenly I wanted to reread the book, or go back quickly at least, to look and see all the clues and foreshadowing. That’s a good ending of a book, if it makes you want to reread it immediately.
We Were Liars wasn’t the edge-of-my-seat, gripping suspense novel I was hoping, but it still pleasantly surprised me, delivering a seemingly innocent plot with a shocking undercurrent. I thought the fairy stories were weird, and the writing was a little too scattered for me to really like, but overall, I liked my first foray into E. Lockhart’s works.
Stalking Jack the Ripper, by Kerri Maniscalco, was published in 2016 by Jimmy Patterson Books.
At first I wasn’t sure if I would like Stalking Jack the Ripper as the protagonist seemed to be of the rebellious female trope that I don’t really like. However, while that certainly was the case, I actually liked Audrey Rose up to a certain extent. While she did have that annoying “I can do whatever I want” attitude, I liked the fact that she still appreciated good clothing and that she also displayed many feminine characteristics despite her progressiveness.
I also found that the romance, while typical, even cliché, was quite sweet and I liked the chemistry between Audrey Rose and Thomas. I thought Thomas was too Sherlock Holmesian in his deduction skills, but I liked the contrast between Thomas’s deduction and Audrey Rose’s induction—or, basically, reason versus feeling.
The mystery portion was good, though I found that actually “solving” the Jack the Ripper mystery made the novel almost too fictional, if I’m making any sense. It’s hard for a novel to successfully pull off an unsolved mystery and maintain an aura of realism—it screams, more than other fiction books, “the author is completely making this up.” Maybe I take my fiction too seriously, though! I do give credit to Maniscalco for coming up with the mystery and the solution, of course. It just seemed strange to me to read.
The only major criticism I have for the mystery as a whole is that there’s a part near the beginning where Audrey Rose and Thomas are investigating one of the victims and there’s a dramatic scene where tantalizing snippets of dialogue are thrown out to heighten the mystery. Except that the scene was completely worthless, since nothing about it is ever explained. It’s literally a red herring meant to increase the suspense, and it annoyed me that we never got solid answers about it.
Oh, and Audrey Rose’s determination at the end of the novel made it incredibly obvious who the killer was, since it was a moment of “that character is way too fixated on this particular thing; therefore, it must not be true.”
Stalking Jack the Ripper was surprisingly enjoyable for starring a protagonist type that I usually hate. I think I will keep an eye on Maniscalco and see what she cooks up next.
The Hollow Kingdom, by Clare B. Dunkle, was published in 2003 by Henry Holt.
At first, The Hollow Kingdom seemed like a “Beauty and the Beast” type tale, and it does share a few similarities, but the more I read the more there was to the book than just some sort of retelling. I thought the book had a fascinating premise, and though I could tell from a mile away what the end result would be, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.
I definitely think this is a book that may lead to a lot of similar complaints that stories like “Beauty and the Beast” get, since it deals with a woman being imprisoned by, in this case, a goblin king, with a romance subplot. But I do think Dunkle frames this much more like an arranged marriage. In addition, Kate isn’t technically forced into marriage—you could argue about Marak’s actions and merits, but she does willingly choose to marry him. So while the idea of a woman being coerced into marriage because there’s no other option for her—and then falling in love with the person responsible—may be dissatisfying to some (if not something stronger), I actually thought it rang true to both the setting Dunkle has established and to real life. Arranged marriages still happen, and people who reluctantly marry (or who are forced to marry) can end up falling in love with each other later on. I’m not saying this happens all the time; it’s just a plausible scenario that I thought fit in the book.
Kate was a great protagonist, exactly the sort of female character I like. While the book does involve a goblin king, he really takes second stage. The entire story revolves around Kate. And, though this may be a little spoiler-y if you’re really picky about spoilers, it’s Kate who saves the day. In fact, we get a reverse Snow White moment at the end (minus a few things) that cements the idea that Kate is the star of the book, even when she’s in a different land.
This book reminded me a little of The Safe-Keeper’s Secret, a book that I wasn’t expecting to like and then was hooked by it the more I read. I loved this book. I can’t say it was fantastically written, but there was some sort of quality to it that grabbed me from the beginning. And that’s one of the most important qualities a book can have.
Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, was published in 2012 by Hyperion.
I really enjoyed Wein’s Black Dove White Raven, and I’ve heard good things about Code Name Verity, so I was hoping for a good story. And the book delivered by giving me a twisty, complex plot all wrapped into a World War II setting (one of my favorites).
I was expecting a straightforward novel, but straightforward is not the word to describe this book. It starts out simple enough, but by the last half of the book Wein has completely turned the tables on the reader, upending everything he thought he knew. There’s spy intrigue, acute danger, friendship, and, of course, lots of piloting, something that shows up again in the other Wein book I’ve read. It completely upended my expectations and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. And it has plenty of girl power, but not in that obvious, in-your-face sort of way that annoys me so much in other novels. This is girl power solidly set in history, which makes it great.
I was rooting for a happy ending the entire novel, but Wein follows through on the historical accuracy and delivers a gutwrenching finale, displaying how sometimes there are no easy choices to make and that the best decision doesn’t mean everyone gets what they want. It’s a solid reminder that moral decisions can be hard to make and that in wartime, sometimes the best thing to do is the last thing you ever wished would happen.
Code Name Verity navigates friendship in wartime, how bonds are made and broken, and courage in the face of danger and death. I could have done without some of the swearing, but it did authenticate the voices of the characters. And the complexity of the plot will always stand out in my mind as an extremely pleasant surprise and a stand-out of the book.
Robin McKinley is an author who I like to think writes “specialized” fantasies—fantasies revolving around a particular element or thing. For example, Rose Daughter revolves around the growing and cultivating of roses. Chalice is about bees.
Robin McKinley is also an author who really enjoys lengthy, detailed descriptions of that particular element or thing. I mentioned that in Spindle’s End, she got so loquacious it was hard to bear at times. I noticed the same thing when rereading The Blue Sword. Chalice is like that as well, which isn’t a bad thing if you like her style of writing. I’m on the fence about it, but I actually ended up really enjoying Chalice.
McKinley does go on and on about bees and honey, but she manages to meld it nicely into her world. One thing about McKinley is that she does tend to fling you right into her world; it actually took me a few dozen pages before I really got a feel for the world and what Mirasol’s role as Chalice was. Plus, she has a tendency to go forward and backward in time without much warning, which makes details a little harder to fit.
Pacing and other stylistic elements aside, I really liked the characters and the story. Once I understood how the world works, I got very involved in the whole idea of the Chalice—someone who is responsible for keeping things together, basically, merely with a cup and some mixture. The romance sneaks up at the end almost unnecessarily, but at least there’s some background for it. There’s not that much action in the book, at least in terms of fighting, but there are some tense scenes that help disguise the fact that not much actually happens in the book until the very end.
Robin McKinley’s writing is an acquired taste, I think, and though I like the devotion and the time she takes to craft and develop the particular element of her fantasy (like bees or roses), it does lead to uneven pacing. However, once the action of Chalice got started, and I understood the world more, and I grew more attached to the characters, I really enjoyed it. I just wish there had been a little more “oomph” to the story as a whole.
The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, was published in 1984 by Vintage.
I like the vignette style of writing better than the poetry style of writing, and The House on Mango Street weaves the vignettes together into a (mostly) cohesive story of Esperanza and her neighbors. The stories are mainly about Esperanza and the people around her, though a few of them are more about her feelings or observations.
I say mostly cohesive because the jump from topic to topic, and the seemingly random stories about clouds or trees, break up the overarching story of Esperanza. “But those stories are important to her life and character,” you might say. And you’re probably right. If I were studying this book, exploring it for its literary quality and experience, I might agree. But reading it as I did, to experience it for the first time without really delving into it, some of it seems disjointed.
The vignettes are beautifully written, even some of the more random ones, and Cisnero’s description of a Latina girl growing up in a poor neighborhood and her experiences with her family, her neighbors, the people she meets, are striking and vivid. Many of the vignettes end in a tantalizing way, hinting but never showing, while others reveal a darker side of things that are never further addressed or resolved. This is “slices of life” at its most realistic: the things people notice, day to day, the interesting stories they hear, are highlighted. Perhaps that’s why The House on Mango Street also feels disjointed at times: people’s observations and thoughts aren’t always smoothly connected together.
I can see why this book is put on high school reading lists. It was one of my high school’s picks for summer reading, though I read The Joy Luck Clubinstead. Though I can’t say I really liked the book, I can complement its beautiful writing, its portrayal of Latino culture, and its insight. The House on Mango Street is a book that should be savored, and while I didn’t have the time to savor it, I can at least see the potential in returning to it and taking the time to soak it all in.