In the Coils of the Snake by Clare B. Dunkle

In the Coils of the Snake, by Clare B. Dunkle, was published in 2005 by Henry Holt. It is the sequel to Close Kin.

Rating: 3/5

In the Coils of the Snake concludes the Hollow Kingdom trilogy, with Marak, the dry, witty, best character in the first two books dying, and his son, Catspaw, taking his place. The book mainly deals with the marriage/romantic woes of Catspaw and Miranda, who were betrothed to be married when the arrival of an elf lord ruins everyone’s plans.

In the Coils of the Snake is probably my least favorite of the Hollow Kingdom trilogy. Much like Close Kin, where the focus of the book switched halfway through, the perspective switches back and forth between Miranda, Nir, and Catspaw, with the latter two being the more interesting. Miranda is a phlegmatic protagonist. At the beginning, she seems like a good character, very similar to Kate of the first book, but halfway through the book, she turns into a limpid, bemoaning character who mopes around the elf camp and barely does anything to contribute to the story beyond being a plot device.

Catspaw and Nir embody the goblin/elf conflict and the differences between the two races. We don’t get much from the perspective of Nir, but what we do get is suitably mysterious. Despite this being my least favorite book, Dunkle does do some good plotting—there is lots of foreshadowing and a big plot reveal at the end. The majority of it I managed to guess, but it was nice to see everything buildup to the big revelation.

My two favorite characters were Tattoo and Hunter, whose scenes together were my favorites in the book. They managed to pull up an overall disappointing book a little with their bonding as friends. Hollow Kingdom remains my favorite of the trilogy. I liked how in each book we got to see more of the world, but I wish the characterization and some of the overall mechanics had been better.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2TSg6wv

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The Tenth Power by Kate Constable

The Tenth Power, by Kate Constable, was published in 2005 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Waterless Sea.

Rating: 4/5

It’s always bittersweet to read the ending to books you’ve enjoyed. There’s happiness with the characters and where they are (hopefully), there’s sadness that the series is over, there’s lingering feelings of shock and tension from the plot. And, for me, there’s sometimes also a feeling of disgruntlement that the ending isn’t as perfect as it “could have been,” a vague sense that the book let me down somehow.

I got that feeling a little bit with The Tenth Power. Don’t get me wrong—I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It was literally all I could think about during work for two whole days. I had to drag myself away from it in the morning. Constable’s enchanting prose, Calwyn’s struggles and triumphs, her relationship with Darrow, the twists and turns of the plot—all of these things worked together to create a great finish, one that’s satisfying and beautiful (if not bittersweet). The way this trilogy gripped me is still surprising to me. I don’t get entranced by books very often. The most recent ones I can think of are The Queen’s Thief books, which hold a different sort of enchantment to them.  Yet something about Constable’s prose, the world, and especially the characters grabbed me from the get-go.

Maybe it’s because Calwyn is such a fallible protagonist. She makes plenty of mistakes in this book. She gets angry and arrogant, and there’s a part in the middle of the book where things get almost too crazy and there’s a bewitching atmosphere to everything that happens, and despite all her power and all she accomplishes, Calwyn still reads as totally human. And I’m glad of that because the middle-to-last third of the book is so strange that without Calwyn as an anchor, I probably would have been much more dissatisfied.

The book isn’t perfect. There’s that science-fiction-y, ships-from-space bit that doesn’t quite fit in the world. There are several character revelations that don’t fit well, either, but they at least work better than what happens with Calwyn and Samis (seriously…what was that?). But I loved the idea of the Tenth Power (words! And then it hits you that no one has read or written anything in the entire series), and Calwyn and Darrow are still my favorite. Bobbles aside, I haven’t enjoyed a trilogy as much as I enjoyed Constable’s in a long time.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2tgXxqa

The Burning by Kathryn Lasky

The Burning, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2004 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Shattering.

Rating: 3/5

The Burning is the last of the six-book fleck/Pure Ones/St. Aggie’s arc before Lasky takes the series into a different direction. As a last book, it wraps everything up as it’s supposed to: there’s tension and uncertainty to ramp the tension up before the final battle, the villains are defeated, and great acts of bravery are performed by multiple characters.

Yet there is still much left to be desired with this “closing” of the first Soren arc (for he comes back later on in the series). The time jumps are bothersome, leaving great swathes of character’s actions to be explained in commentary or as an afterthought later on. This includes Gylfie and Otulissa leaving the Glauxian Brother’s Retreat, Soren’s insistence on not teaching the St. Aggie’s owls to fight, and Gylfie’s appeal to the Northern owls parliament. In fact, Gylfie’s entire courageous arc, where she escapes from pirates and brings an army to help out the Guardians at just the right moment, is entirely overshadowed by a brand-new viewpoint character, and her most amazing moment is never even seen, though we get some of its effect later on when she meets back up with Soren at the battle.

In addition to those odd jumps, Lasky decides to have the battle between Kludd and Soren end in a rather strange way, though at least that decision makes more sense than the random jumps in time. We get a fight between Soren and his brother, but the end result is strangely anticlimactic and unsatisfying. In fact, it seems to have been done purposefully to preserve Soren’s purity than for any other reason.  Or perhaps it was to show how different Soren is from his brother—though that, of course, isn’t a necessary distinction to make since we already know that Soren is far and away the better owl.

Anyway, despite my grumblings, I still thought The Burning was a good end. It wraps up the Pure Ones arc very neatly, and it leaves room for some more growth to the series with the very brief reveal at the end with Nyra. The missteps and the strange choices are probably due to the fact that the last couple of books were published in the same year, so Lasky likely didn’t have a lot of time to really think about the choices she was making.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2BlVDst

The Waterless Sea by Kate Constable

The Waterless Sea, by Kate Constable, was published in 2003 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Singer of All Songs.

Rating: 4/5

The Waterless Sea continues the story of Calwyn and her friends after defeating Samis in his quest to learn all ten chantments. Now, Calwyn and Co. are on a quest to rescue two children from a country that enslaves chanters and uses them to keep the crumbling empire together. And that’s the part that’s probably the weakest part of the book: the motivation behind the quest. Oh, it’s established and explained at the beginning, but even knowing everything going on and knowing the characters, it seems a little thin that they would travel around the world simply for two children, when there are likely plenty of other children in other areas in similar plights that they haven’t bothered to go and rescue.

Motivation aside, Constable builds another great fantasy with the gloomy, dying country of Merithuros. Perhaps what brings the characters there is a hard sell (at least, for me it was), but once there, the unfolding of events is seamless. Constable’s prose is as haunting and beautiful as ever, and Calwyn continues to shine as the protagonist. Plus, I enjoy that her relationship with Darrow doesn’t stand in her way. Darrow gets his own bit of story in this novel, not really enough to establish more than background, but it at least fleshes him out a little bit and makes him less mysterious.

And the ending—well, I certainly wasn’t expecting it. That is, I was expecting some of what happened, but not the bittersweet note. And it makes me even more eager for the third book, to see what happens next for Calwyn. I haven’t felt this way about a fantasy series since I read Juliet Marillier’s books, and I love that middle grade fantasy books can still make me feel this way—excited, enthralled, and eager!

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2sG6usw

The Truth-Teller’s Tale by Sharon Shinn

The Truth-Teller’s Tale, by Sharon Shinn, was published in 2005 by Viking. It is the sequel to The Safe-Keeper’s Secret.

Rating: 4/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Mentions of rape, domestic violence.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2szObVZ

Death Marked by Leah Cypess

Death Marked, by Leah Cypess, was published in 2015 by Greenwillow. It is the sequel to Death Sworn.

Rating: 2/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2CqmzY5

The Dalemark Quartet, Volume I by Diana Wynne Jones

The Dalemark Quartet, Volume 1: Cart and Cwidder and Drowned Ammet, by Diana Wynne Jones, was published in 2005 by Greenwillow.

Rating: 4/5

I haven’t read Diana Wynne Jones in such a long time, and this book has been sitting on my TBR (“to be read”) pile for quite literally years. I’ve read the Dalemark books before, so I was familiar with the story, but it was so great to experience Jones and her writing and her worlds again.

Cart and Cwidder tells the story of Moril, who has to help escort a mysterious young boy to the North. Along the way, they stumble into the path of an army and have to prevent an invasion. The basics of Dalemark are established in this book: the North and the South have been in conflict for years. The South is much less free than the North. Moril inherits a cwidder (I’m guessing like a lute) from his father, which was the cwidder of a famous hero of old, and he discovers that it’s magical. In terms of tropes, everything is very familiar, but Jones weaves everything together in her trademark way and makes things interesting. I also liked the way Moril figured out how the cwidder works: you have to sing things that are truth, not opinion. I think that’s a good message that emphasizes the different between opinion and truth. Moril is a bit of a dull character, though, since he doesn’t get a lot of development.

Drowned Ammet I thought was much better story-wise than Cart and Cwidder, and there was much better development as well. I wrote an essay in college about true names in fantasy, and I used this book as an example. The book takes place near about the same time as Cart and Cwidder, though the bulk of it takes place after the events of the latter. I found this one much more interesting, since Mitt was a more interesting character and I liked the mechanics of the magic better in this one. I’ve also always enjoyed the big reveal at the end.

Hopefully the next two books in the quartet won’t take me years to get to! I think Drowned Ammet has always been my favorite, but if I remember correctly, the last two books bring in a Big Bad Villain that ties everything together.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Assassination attempts, hints at violence.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2M4fvoh

The Singer of All Songs by Kate Constable

The Singer of All Songs, by Kate Constable, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5

I have an unwavering soft spot for fantasies like The Singer of All Songs. It reminded me of Juliet Marillier’s The Caller trilogy a little bit, which I loved. This book has beautiful writing, good worldbuilding, interesting magic, a female protagonist who’s strong without being rebellious or good at fighting, and a really sweet undercurrent of romance.

Maybe the explanation is that I just really like fantasies written in the 2000s. Some of the more annoying tropes hadn’t crept their way into books yet. Calwyn doesn’t do a lot of fighting, nor does she rebel against tradition. She’s understated, but still subtly strong. She’s sweet, but fierce; peaceful, but unyielding; determined, but not brash. She makes bad decisions occasionally, but it makes her feel more human. And I’m impressed that Constable went in a different direction with her than I thought would be the case.

Second to my love for Calwyn is my love for Calwyn and Darrow. Like Marillier’s The Caller, the romance is subtle, complicated, and sweet. I adore romances like this one. And even though it doesn’t end as satisfactorily or as resolvedly as I might like, there’s still the promise of the sequels. Darrow himself is just a tiny bit bland, but it’s his background and interactions with the villain, Samis, that are the most interesting (which is a bit of pity, since I like the romance so much). And he remains mysterious right to the end.

The Singer of All Songs is the sort of fantasy that I look for and long for. Absent of any sort of cultural relation or tired trope, there’s only beautiful writing, interesting magic, and a plot that is made more intriguing by the strength of the characters. The book isn’t perfect—but it’s close.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2GJe7bz

Close Kin by Clare B. Dunkle

Close Kin, by Clare B. Dunkle, was published in 2004 by Henry Holt. It is the sequel to The Hollow Kingdom.

Rating: 3/5

I adored The Hollow Kingdom, so finding out there were two more books after it made me really happy. Close Kin is about Emily, the sister of Kate (the protoganist in The Hollow Kingdom), but it’s also about Seylin and his quest to find the elves, and the elves themselves, particularly the two female elves.

I didn’t enjoy Close Kin as much as I enjoyed the first book—there’s just a few too many places where the pace drags, and the elf history is convoluted and hard to understand. And the last third of the book is almost a rehash of The Hollow Kingdom, except a little harder to take and with a greater emphasis on children. I know that many people might not like that Dunkle emphasizes children so much, but it makes sense in the world she has built. If Marak seems a bit heartless, well, his role as King is to help protect the life of his people, and having children is one of those things. So that part I didn’t mind—plus I thought the parts with Sable overcoming her fear were good, too.

Speaking of Marak, the dry humor and wit he exudes with every line is fabulous. I literally laughed out loud, or giggled, during the last third of the book, solely due to his lines. That doesn’t happen with me a lot. Basically, all the parts in the goblin kingdom I liked—it’s when the book moves away from that where it fell apart a little bit. There are simply too many characters, and the point of view switch from Emily, to Seylin, to Sable is just one too many switches, especially since by the end of the book it’s not really about Emily anymore, or Seylin, but Sable. I liked Sable’s parts, but it made for a clumsy, confusing story.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2CtGFSa

Death Sworn by Leah Cypess

Death Sworn, by Leah Cypess, was published in 2014 by Greenwillow.

Rating: 4/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2S9UlqW