A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty

A Corner of White, by Jaclyn Moriarty, was published in 2013 by Arthur A. Levine.

Madeleine and her mother have run away from their former life, under mysterious circumstances, and settled in cramped quarters in a rainy corner of Cambridge, England. Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Cello, Elliot is searching for his father. He disappeared a year ago, the same night that Elliot’s uncle was found dead on the side of the road. Official word is that a third-level Purple is responsible, but talk about town is that Elliot’s dad may have murdered his brother and run away with the high-school physics teacher. Elliot refuses to believe this, and is determined to find both his dad and the truth. When Madeleine and Elliot begin to exchange messages across worlds—through an accidental gap that hasn’t appeared in centuries—the large and small events of their lives start to intertwine. Dangerous Colors are storming across Cello (a second-level gray will tear you to pieces; a first-level Yellow can blind you), while Madeleine is falling for her new friend jack. In Cello, they are searching for the tiny Butterfly Child, while Madeleine fears that her mother may be dangerously ill. Can a corner of white hold a kingdom? Can a stranger from another world help to solve the problems—and unravel the mysterious—in your own? And can Madeleine and Elliot find the missing pieces of themselves before it is too late?

Rating: 4/5

A Corner of White, and by extension Jaclyn Moriarty, reminded me a great deal of Maggie Stiefvater’s works. Moriarty effortlessly blends together both the real world and Cello and makes Cello seem both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time with familiar aspects and fantastical additions. She also spends some time poking fun at worldbuilding and, perhaps, what people expect from fantasy worlds, with a letter from Madeleine asking Elliott everything under the sun about Cello (such as its politics, its stance on certain social issues, etc.). Yet even though Elliot never answers those questions, Cello never feels underdeveloped or weak as a world.

I also give props to Moriarty for making the plot become much more complex than I was expecting in the last few pages of the novel. I love flip-arounds like the one that happened here, and it made me eager to get the next book, as opposed to ambivalent as I felt for much of the book.

However, the main flaw of A Corner of White is that its characters, especially Madeleine, Belle and Jack, speak in increasingly unrealistic voices as the novel goes on. The trend in young adult literature nowadays seems to be quirky, philosophical teenagers who snark and talk in ways I’ve never heard teenagers speak and be witty and insightful in every dialogue they have. However, I’ve yet to meet a teenager who actually speaks like Madeleine or Belle or Jack speak in this book—and I hang around them for a living. It’s my problem with a lot of popular young adults books, such as Stiefvater’s (especially her villains) and John Green’s (Paper Towns was the most boring, pseudo-philosophical poetic piece of nonsense I’ve read in a while)—no one actually talks like that. No teenager has wit dripping from every line or has the perfect snarky comeback every time.

That’s the ironic thing about A Corner of White—Madeleine, Belle and Jack, and some of their situations (like the odd, absurd schooling they’re getting. Yay homeschooling, but boo the insane amount of quirkiness) seem more fantastic than Elliot and, to some extent, Cello. Elliot, at least, acts mostly like a normal teenager. I found myself liking Elliot’s story (point of view may be a more apt term) more and more, and liking Madeleine’s story (point of view) less and less.

However, despite the unrealisticness of most of the characters, A Corner of White, due to its truly surprising ending, got me hooked on the rest of the series. I’m not jumping up and down for joy after reading it, but I am looking forward to reading the next book. I just hope Madeleine is a little more realistic this time.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Mentions of drug abuse and infidelity.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

“If you could just open the book at any page, Jack, and ask a question.”

“All right.” He flicked through the pages, whistling to himself, then said, “Here’s a good one. What is philematology?”

Now Holly turned to her daughter. “The only way this homeschooling thing is going to work,” she said sternly, “is if you forget that I’m your mother and respect me as a teacher.”

“You’re funny,” said Madeleine. “It’s like you keep surprising me that way.”

Belle took the book from Jack’s hands and flipped it to a different page.

“Who is Samuel Langhorne Clements?” she said. “I mean, who’s he better known as? Not, like, who is he? Cause you could just say Samuel Langhorne Clemens.”

You see.” Holly turned again to Madeleine. “It’s true that this brief interlude of question-asking—it’s true that it might incidentally help me prepare for my quiz show, but its primary purpose is to enliven your young minds.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2rkdGvD

Fairy Tale Friday: Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale

Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale, was published in 2007 by Bloomsbury.

When Dashti, a maid, and Lady Saren, her mistress, are shut in a tower for seven years because of Saren’s refusal to marry a man she despise, the two prepare for a very long and dark imprisonment. As food runs low and the days go from broiling hot to freezing cold, it is all Dashti can do to keep them fed and comfortable. With the arrival outside the tower of Saren’s two suitors—one welcome, the other decidedly less so—the girls are confronted with both hope and great danger, and Dashti must make the desperate choices of a girl whose life is worth more than she knows.

Rating: 5/5

Based off of the little-known Grimm’s fairy tale “Maid Maleen,” Book of a Thousand Days is an engaging, beautiful read of a girl who has to hold herself and her mistress together as they are imprisoned in a tower and then forced into hiding in another country. Dashti is the heart and soul of the book, a female protagonist who is not overtly strong or rebellious against societal conventions, but quietly steadfast and persistent and brave. She’s clever and witty, but not overly outspoken, and she’s basically everything I want in a female protagonist.

Simply put, I devoured this book and its lovely romance. I liked that even though Dashti is the narrator, there are still things the reader will catch onto before she does, such as the nature of Saren’s relationship with Tegus and even, perhaps, the secret of Lord Khasar. I liked that Saren, as annoying as she could get, was at least understandable, in a way, and that she develops, too, and becomes less of an obstacle that Dashti must endure and more of a character.

Book of a Thousand Days is lovely, an adaptation of a fairy tale I’d never heard of (though Hale states she wasn’t particularly true to the original) that is simple, yet engaging all the same. I liked the sweet moments scattered between all the tense and unsure moments; the book has a very good balance of low and high points. This book has redeemed Hale in my eyes a bit after the disappointing sequels to Princess Academy.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: N/A

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tales, Young Adult

My lady removed her hand and started to pace and fret and rub her head. She looked as if she’d like to run away, had there been anywhere to run. My poor lady.

“Say you are me.”

“What?” But why, my lady?”

“You are my maid, Dashti,” she said, and though she still shook like a rabbit, her voice was hard and full of the knowledge that she’s gentry. “It is my right to have my maid speak for me. I don’t’ like to speak to someone directly. What if it isn’t really him? What if he means us harm?”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2qBiM6s

The Kings of Clonmel by John Flanagan

The Kings of Clonmel, by John Flanagan, was published in 2010 by Philomel. It is the sequel to Erak’s Ransom.

When mankind seeks protection from the world’s many dangers, they put their faith in warriors, kings, gods, and even money. In the neighboring kingdom of Clonmel, a mysterious cult has sprung up, promising defense against lawless marauders in exchange for people’s riches. Their sermons are attracting audiences from mils around, but there’s a dark side to this seemingly charitable group, prompting Halt, Will and Horace to investigate. What the trio uncovers could threaten the safety of not only Clonmel, but their homeland of Araluen as well.

Rating: 4/5

The Kings of Clonmel is yet another Part 1 of 2 book, but it’s the best of the Part 1’s, in my opinion. A lot of the intrigue is this book is resolved, but there are still loose threads that will carry over to the next book—which is what makes The Kings of Clonmel a better Part 1 than those that came before it (The Icebound Land and The Sorcerer of the North).

Will continues to grow, but also continues to prove that he is a fully-fledged Ranger who can stand on his own and solve his own problems. Halt is Halt—awesome, but not so awesome that he seems inhuman. He does step in and solve a lot of the other characters’ problems, including Will’s and Horace’s, but it’s much less noticeable and invasive than it seemed at the beginning of the series, especially since Will and Horace can hold their own now. And Flanagan is clearly prepping for what will happen in the next book and the character development that will come about because of it, things that are a little more noticeable if you’ve read the series before. There’s not obvious clues, but there is a little bit of telegraphing, which I think is pretty neat.

The one thing that seems the most out of place or unrealistic in the series, something I noticed most prominently in Erak’s Ransom, is the horses. I’m definitely not an expert on horse training, so I could be way off base, but to me it seemed that the Ranger horses are stretching it a bit in terms of believability. But perhaps horses can actually be trained to react to noises and whatever else the Ranger horses do—it is plausible, but for some reason, in the story I’m not buying it so much.

The Kings of Clonmel is yet another enjoyable, awesome book in the Ranger’s Apprentice series. These books are just plain fun to read and it helps that the plot and other details are quite good, as is the world building. This book was the best “Part 1 of 2” in the series, a good sign that Flanagan is continuously improving in his writing—which means better books to come.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

“You can swim, I assume?”

“Yes, I can swim,” Colly said. “But I’m not going jumping off some bluff just because you say so!”

“No, no. Of course not. That’d be asking far too much of you. You’ll jump off because if you don’t, I’ll shoot you. It’ll be the same effect, really. If I have to shoot you, you’ll fall off. But I thought I’d give you a chance to survive.” Halt paused, then added, “Oh, and if you decide to run downhill, I’ll also shoot you with an arrow. Uphill and off is really your only chance of survival.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2q0liBH

Fairy Tale Friday: Princess of Glass by Jessica Day George

Princess of Glass, by Jessica Day George, was published in 2010 by Bloomsbury. It is the sequel to Princess of the Midnight Ball.

Having once been cursed to dance every night with her sisters, Princess Poppy has vowed never again to put on a pair of dancing slippers. Which is why she’s reluctant to participate in the royal exchange program that her father and some of their neighbor kings have cooked up. Life in far-off Breton isn’t so bad, not when there’s money to be own playing cards and a handsome prince promising friendship…and maybe something more. But when a hapless servant named Eleanora enters the picture and sets her sights on the prince, too, which girl will win his heart? And who is behind the magnificent gowns and slippers that the penniless Eleanora has been wearing to the balls? Only Princess Poppy can see through the magic that holds the rest of the kingdom in its spell. And having fought against one curse before, she’s just the girl to take on another!

Rating: 2/5

Princess of Glass is a fairly unique take on Cinderella, following the bare bones of the tale but branching off and fitting it into the larger picture of George’s fantasy world. I’m not a huge fan of the Cinderella fairy tale aside from the 2015 live-action remake, but George does a good job of changing the tale up so it’s not so straightforward and predictable.

Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing I liked about the book. George seems to be hit-and-miss with me; I enjoyed Princess of the Midnight Ball and most of the Castle Glower books, but had problems with Dragon Slippers and now this book. I don’t think it’s the world or the plot in and of itself that made me dislike Princess of Glass; it’s the way George delivers it. Maybe it’s a writing style issue, maybe not. I’m not sure. I just know that the more of the book I read, the more I wanted it to be over.

Perhaps the melodrama that happens when Eleanora becomes “Lady Ellen” and enchants everyone is what started my dislike; Christian is fighting it and yet not fighting it and thinking melodramatic things and seems to be the only person under the spell who realizes something isn’t quite right. Then there’s the thoroughly unconvincing romance between Roger and Eleanora, and the slightly less unconvincing but still not very well-developed romance between Christian and Poppy, combined with a villain whose motives are confusing until a character conveniently infodumps her backstory near the end of the book.

Maybe the best way to describe how I felt about Princess of Glass is “sloppy.” George had a good idea regarding the retelling of Cinderella and then sloppily executed it. There’s too much infodumping, too much melodrama, and too much convenience. It almost makes me want to not read another Jessica Day George book. Princess of Glass did absolutely nothing to make me appreciate “Cinderella” more and only contributed to the many reasons why I would prefer reading a retelling of any other fairy tale.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tales, Young Adult

“You are a strenge gel, Princessss Puppy,” the duchess said. “He-ere you are, with ev-er-y young man in Breton to dence with you, and you well not dence.”

“Ah,” Poppy said after deciphering this. “No. I don’t den—dance.”

“Wuh-hy not?” The duchess raised one overplucked eyebrow.

“Because my mother and sisters and I were cursed to dance for the pleasure of an evil king,” Poppy thought. She reached up and straightened her knitted silk choker. “I do not care for dancing,” she said finally.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2q8XkWq

Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones

Enchanted Glass, by Diana Wynne Jones, was published in 2010 by Greenwillow.

Aidan Cain has had the worst week of his life. Creepy, sinister beings want him dead. What’s a boy to do? With danger nipping at his heels, Aidan flees to Melstone, a village teeming with magic of its own. There he is taken in by Andrew Hope, the new master of Melstone House, who has some supernatural troubles too. Someone is stealing power from the area—mingling magics—and chaos is swiftly rising. Are Aidan’s and Andre’s magical dilemmas connected somehow? And will they be able to unite their powers and unlock the secrets of Melstone before the countryside comes apart at the seams?

Rating: 4/5

Enchanted Glass is probably my favorite of Diana Wynne Jones’s later works; it reads much more like her old works and is less haphazard and abrupt than The Islands of Chaldea and others. That’s not to say it’s without flaws, but for the most part Jones proves herself, once again, as a fantastic fantasy writer with this book.

Jones has such a distinctive voice in fantasy to me that no other reader I’ve read has been able to replicate it; there’s something so quintessentially “Diana Wynne Jones” about her works that make them stand a cut above the rest. There’s something about her books that make me smile when I read them, that make me revel in the world and the magic and the little bits of humor and the DWJ-ness of it all.

Enchanted Glass does have flaws, though, mostly resulting in a lack of explanation about the little details of the world and the characters. For example, it’s never explained why none of the fairies can get Aidan’s name correctly, even after hearing it. Presumably some sort of spell was put on him to protect him, but if so, who did it? His grandmother? It seemed like an awfully convenient plot device, done solely so that Aidan didn’t immediately go with Mabel and Titania, which is a little disappointing if so. There’s a possible explanation, which makes it a little better, but since it’s never fully explained it seems a little hand-wavey to me.

It’s definitely not the best of DWJ’s works, but Enchanted Glass has the charm and the voice that every one of her books seems to have. Along with a pretty decent world and magic (with some flaws), it makes this book one of DWJ’s better works, unique enough to stand out from other fantasy books and good enough to stand next to her more well-known books.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

“Tell me, do you always take your glasses off to count money?”

Aidan lost count again. “No,” he said irritably. Must Andrew keep interrupting? “Only to see if something’s real—or magical—or real and magical. Or to keep it there if it’s only magical. You must know how it works. I’ve seen you do it too.”

“I don’t think I—How do you mean?” Andrew asked, startled.

“When you’re working with magic,” Aidan explained. “You take your glasses off and clean them when you want people to do what you say.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2pezF5j

1925 Newbery Medal: Tales from Silver Lands

Tales from Silver Lands, by Charles J. Finger, was first published in 1924. I read the original from Doubleday.

Tales from Silver Lands is a collection of nineteen folktales, which Finger collected during his travels in South America. In them an assortment of animals, magical creatures, witches, giants, and children struggle for a life in which good overcomes evil. These fast-moving and adventuresome fantasies provide insight into the values and culture of native South American peoples. They stress the importance of close relationships, hard work, bravery, gentleness, and beauty, and contain colorful explanations of natural phenomena.

Rating: 2/5

Tales from Silver Lands is a quaint, interesting book of fairy tales and myths hailing from South America. I can see why it won a Newbery; the language echoes a story-teller/oral tradition voice, the myths are varied, and there is a discernible message that I would assume would be important to the 1920s audience, when obvious morals in literature were still in vogue.

However, the myths are not as enchanting or as memorable as other collections of myths, and after the fifth or so they start to run together and sound the same. The latter half of the book I ended up skimming, not particularly on purpose, but because my mind wandered to other things—never a good sign when reading a book. In addition, while some of the myths were connected (“sequels,” in a way), they were given a rather odd order. The first two were back-to-back, while the third was five or six stories later.

Tales of Silver Lands would be good reading if one wanted to know more about South American myths (although I wonder if there is not a better source out there). I think these in particular are best suited to reading out loud. However, the myths themselves are not particular memorable or remarkable, and although I wasn’t bored while reading, I certainly didn’t get much enjoyment out of the book as a whole. These sorts of books should ignite a curiosity to learning more about a different culture than one’s own, and unfortunately, Finger fails to do so.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy/Myth

Again old Hunbatz flew through the air to the father and tried to set him against the boys, and again that night, when the boys were home, their task was set for the next day twice as much as the day before.

It was the same the third day, and the fourth, until at last the boys came to a point where by the mightiest working they could not move a stick or a blade of grass more. And yet, because of old Hunbatz, the father set them a task still greater.

On the fifth day things looked very hopeless for the boys, and their hearts were sad as they looked at the forest and saw the task that their father had set them to do. They went to work feeling for the first time it would be impossible for the sun to go down on their finished task, and the heat of old Hunbatz was glad.

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2obuQJv

Erak’s Ransom by John Flanagan

Erak’s Ransom, by John Flanagan, was published in 2007 by Philomel. It is the sequel (but chronologically the prequel) to The Siege of Macindaw.

What does it mean to earn the Silver Oakleaf? So few men have done so. For Will, a mere boy and apprentice to the most difficult Ranger to please, that symbol of honor has long seemed out of reach. If he is to ever earn it, he must prove himself in ways he never imagined. Now, in the wake of Araluen’s uneasy truce with the raiding Skandians comes word that the Skandian leader, Erak, has been captured by a desert tribe. The Rangers, along with a small party of warriors, are sent to free him. But the desert is like nothing else these warriors have seen before. Strangers in a strange land, they are brutalized by sandstorms, beaten by the unrelenting heat, tricked by one tribe that plays by its own rules, and surprisingly befriended by another. Like a mirage, nothing is as it seems. Yet one thing is constant: the bravery of the Rangers.

Rating: 5/5

After four books that were two sets of two-parters, it’s refreshing to read the jam-packed, stand-alone Erak’s Ransom. It actually highlights the weaknesses of the two-parter books, especially the Part 1s, which is the uneven pace and the overly long set-up. Erak’s Ransom, as a “filler” book telling the story of how Will got his silver oakleaf, a story that was skipped over between The Battle for Skandia and The Sorcerer of the North, is understandably a stand-alone—and works phenomenally well because of it.

There are only a few missteps in this book, at least in my opinion, one of them being Tug’s manipulation of another horse during a race. I suppose it’s plausible, but it didn’t quite fit the story, as impressive and heartwarming as the actual moment was. Otherwise, the book is a perfect combination of humor, tension, and action, with enough plausibility behind events that when everything comes together in the end, it’s believable. Flanagan also does quite a bit of foreshadowing, at least with regards to one character, and while it’s a bit of a Chekhov’s Gun, it’s also awesome and very fitting.

I think Erak’s Ransom may be my favorite Ranger’s Apprentice book so far. It’s also the one I remember the most, probably because I also really liked it when I first read it. This is the first stand-alone book since The Icebound Land (arguably the first one in the series, since the first two books connect) and it works: the pace is fast, but not too fast so as to seem rushed, the action is well distributed and the tension is executed well. Erak’s Ransom, being the story of Will becoming a fully-fledged Ranger, is, appropriately enough, also the novel that takes the series to a whole new level.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“You know the old saying: ‘one riot, one Ranger.’”

The saying stemmed from a legendary event in the past. A minor fief had risen up against their cruel and avaricious lord, with hundreds of people surrounding his manor house, threatening to burn it to the ground. The panicked nobleman’s message for help was answered by the arrival of a single Ranger. Aghast, the nobleman confronted the solitary cowled figure.

“They sent one Ranger?” he said incredulously. “One man?”

“How many riots do you have?” the Ranger replied.

On this occasion, however, Duncan was not incline to be swayed by legend. “I have a new saying,” he replied. “One daughter, two Rangers.”

“Two and a half,” Will corrected him. The king couldn’t help smiling at the eager young face before him.

“Don’t sell yourself short,” he said. “Two and three-quarters.”

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2nQ743a

Castle of Shadows by Ellen Renner

Castle of Shadows, by Ellen Renner, was published in 2012 by Houghton Mifflin.

Ever since the Queen mysteriously disappeared and the King went mad five years ago, eleven-year-old Princess Charlie has lived a wild and mostly unsupervised life in the country of Quale, running amok through the castle instead of following affairs of state. Now revolution whispers through the air, and Charlie is powerless to stop it. Then she discovers a clue: a desperate, unfinished letter scribbled years before by the missing Queen. Charlie doesn’t understand the danger her mother writes of, but she does know that she absolutely must be found—together, they can surely save the King and the kingdom. So plucky Charlie embarks on a quest to track down her mother, armed with the precious scrap of paper and with Tobias, the gardener’s boy, as an unlikely ally. Putting away her tattered old clothes, she must deal with games of political intrigue, the rebels’ rough-laid schemes, and the prime minister’s sudden interest in the forgotten princess’s well-being. And every step closer to the Queen pulls Charlie deeper into an entangling web of lies and secrets, where nothing is as it seems and people are not who they say.

Rating: 3/5

I relatively enjoyed Castle of Shadows, though there were parts of it that made me sigh. The book is what you might expect from a “castle/monarch fallen into a bad state” plot, complete with a wild and untrained princess, villainous servants, and absent parents. The ambience of it does appropriately fit the name; the castle is always described in gloomy and cold terms and nothing about it brings forth the image of a bright, friendly castle, such as in Jessica Day George’s Castle Glower series. There’s enough mystery and intrigue and villainy to fit that tone, and the main villain, at least, is a complex one. You never quite know what he actually thinks or what his actual plan is, and he has that air of simple regret that makes it hard to violently hate him as one might the housekeeper, O’Dair, and her mustache-twirling ways.

I’m not overly fond of Charlie and her character type; I don’t like “wild” characters or ones that do stupid things because they think they know better than everyone else around them. But she does improve over time, and she does have a few flaws to even out all her impulsive actions that usually turn out all right for her. She’s described as being “afraid of the dark” but her fear is actually claustrophobia; she’s fine running around the castle at night, but she can’t handle enclosed spaces. Or perhaps it’s the complete absence of light she fears, rather than the ambiguous dark?

The plot is fairly complex, though it’s ruined a bit by the actions of O’Dair and Watch, who act a little too absurdly and a little too one-dimensionally to be taken completely seriously as villains. But, of course, there must be villainous servants in these types of stories to add an extra layer of tension and another obstacle for our plucky princess to overcome before confronting the real villain.

Castle of Shadows has a fitting name, as Renner uses description quite effectively to really give the sense of a shadowy, eerie setting. The plot and Charlie herself aren’t particularly original, and the plot in particular, though complex and twisty, is marred by the presence of two-bit villains such as O’Dair. Also, I’m not sure I like the ending—everything ends a bit too neatly and perfectly. However, I enjoyed a majority of the book, and its flaws are nothing too glaring and distracting to spoil it much.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“Where did you find this? Have you shown it to anyone else?”

The look in his eyes scared her. “I-I found it in a book.” Why was he so upset? “A book I took from the library. I remember my mother reading it to me just before she disappeared. And of course I haven’t shown it to anyone else.”

“Good! Do not! Promise me. Let me keep this letter for you…or, better yet, let me destroy it—” He made a movement towards the hob and its glowing fire.

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2o7qDa5

A Tale of Two Castles by Gail Carson Levine

A Tale of Two Castles, by Gail Carson Levine, was published in 2011 by Harper.

Elodie journeys to the town of Two Castles to become a mansioner—an actress—but the master of the troupe turns her away. Brilliant dragon Meenore takes her in, then sends her on a dangerous mission within an ogre’s castle. There, disguised as a kitchen maid, she plays the role of a lifetime, pitted against a foe intent on murder. Black-and-white cats, a handsome cat trainer, a greedy king, a giddy princess, a shape-shifting ogre, a brilliant dragon…Elodie must discover which of them is kind, which is cruel, and, most of all which is the one who deserves her trust.

Rating: 4/5

A Tale of Two Castles is just the sort of simple fantasy I love—enough worldbuilding so that the reader understands what’s going on, a smart, compelling protagonist who isn’t particularly gutsy or strong but still accomplishes things, and humor. There’s also an obvious shout-out to “Puss in Boots” all throughout the novel, though I wouldn’t call this a retelling at all.

I also liked the correlation between logic and emotion, where Meenore, in the beginning, scorns feelings and relies only on “induction and deduction and logic” but towards the end of the novel clearly has become fond of Elodie and uses those feelings in making decisions along with her logic. Levine might have been trying to make the point that logic without feeling makes one cold or perhaps the natural progression of things simply makes it seem that she did it purposefully, but either way, there’s a good deal here to discuss regarding the relationship between logic and emotion.

The plot is also a fun little mystery, with too many suspects and not enough clues until everything clicks into place. And, mild spoiler here, the suspect is one that is the most unsuspicious of them all, at least in my opinion, which makes the ending reveal delightfully surprising. Levine did a great job with her red herrings and speculations, having enough to make it realistic but not enough to make it seem over-the-top and contrived.

A Tale of Two Castles is delightful, with an intriguing mystery, interesting and unique characters, and solid worldbuilding. It was much better than I initially thought it would be, and a pleasant, fun read after the messy fantasies I’ve read lately. I haven’t read any of Levine’s works since The Two Princesses of Bamarre, but I’m glad I picked this one up.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

The count approached IT. “Three skewers, if you please.”

What about everyone in line? That was no true If you please. Clearly an ogre did what he liked, no matter the inconvenience to small folk.

“It’s isn’t fair!” burst out of me.

The silence seemed to crystallize.

Enh enh enh, IT laughed, possibly in anticipation of seeing me squeezed to death in one enormous hand.

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2nlbs8X

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R. L. LaFevers

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, by R. L. LaFevers, was published in 2007 by Houghton Mifflin.

Theodosia Throckmorton has her hands full at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities in London. Her father may be head curator, but it is Theo—and only Theo—who is able to see all the black magic and ancient curses that still cling to the artifacts in the museum. Sneaking behind her father’s back, Theo uses old, nearly forgotten Egyptian magic to remove the curses and protect her father and the rest of the museum employees from the ancient, sinister forces lurking in the museum’s dark hallways. When Theo’s mother returns from her latest archaeological dig bearing the Heart of Egypt—a legendary amulet belonging to an ancient tomb—Theo learns that it comes inscribed with a curse so black and vile that it threatens to crumble the British Empire from within and start a war too terrible to imagine. Theo will have to call upon everything she’s ever learned in order to prevent the rising chaos from destroying her country—and herself!

Rating: 3/5

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos reminds me a little bit of a much tamer version of Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles, minus the gods, or maybe something more along the lines of Serafina and the Black Cloak combined with Withering-by-Sea. I’m not really a fan of the “young girl is more competent than the adults around her” trope, but Theodosia has some good moments with her parents and there are enough competent adults that it slightly alleviated my disgruntlement with the trope.

The plot revolving around the Heart of Egypt was a little hard to follow, especially once Theodosia gets to Egypt and the tomb, and there were one or two plot threads that seemed totally random (i.e., the whole thing with Isis getting possessed, which seemed completely unnecessary), but I do like how LaFevers wove in the tension leading up to World War I with her supernatural/fantasy plot so that amidst all the magic and cursed artifacts lies that historical thread. LaFevers also includes a lot of other little things about that time period, too, such as Britain’s occupation of Egypt and their archaeological fervor, Kaiser Wilhelm, the growing tension with Germany, and other historical facts that, again, lend a nice note of reality to the supernatural premise of the novel.

While I didn’t enjoy it so much that I’m itching to pick up the second novel, Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos was enjoyable enough that I wouldn’t mind reading more, if only to find out more about the ambiguous “forces of Chaos,” the secret society that Theodosia stumbles across sworn to combat them, and how other historical details will fit in with the story as it unfolds. The main thing holding me back from immediately getting the next book is my annoyance at Theodosia as a protagonist, who is one of those smart-alecky characters who always knows what to do better than the characters around her. Theodosia, luckily, has a few flaws which makes her more endearing and less annoying, but I’m still not incredibly pleased with her.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

Luckily, everyone’s eyes were focused on the artifact so they didn’t see me shiver violently, as if I’d just caught a ghastly chill. The truth of it was, whatever was in that package was cursed with something so powerful and vile it made me feel as if my whole body were covered in stinging ants. When Mother lifted off the last bit of paper, she held a large scarab carved out of precious stone in her hand. IT had gold wings curving out of its side and they were inlaid with thousands and thousands of jewels. A large round carnelian, the size of a cherry, sat at the head, and a smaller green stone decorate the bottom of the beetle. “The Heart of Egypt,” she announced. “Straight from Amenemhab’s tomb.”

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