Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn

Summers at Castle Auburn, by Sharon Shinn, was published in 2001 by Ace.

Rating: 5/5

Summers at Castle Auburn has been on my reading list for quite a while—since the first Sharon Shinn book I’ve read (The Safe-Keeper’s Secret), I think. The title, plus the rating on Goodreads, plus my love for 2000s fantasy, all contributed to my desire to read the book. It took me a while to actually get it, though.

But, boy, did it not disappoint.

Now, I’ve read other books that are more immediately gripping—The King of Attolia, for one—and it’s not the type of book that I feel I could read over and over again. But I enjoyed it the way I enjoyed Juliet Marillier and Kate Constable—and Shinn’s other works. It’s slow, and meandering, but there’s so much to think about and to see develop.

The book is pretty slow up until about the middle, but once you get to the middle, you see why the first part was important. There’s a bit of odd stuff scattered around, but it all contributes to the world and to the characters. The most prominent is the aliora, which seem like a pretty useless addition—take them out of the story and everything stays the same—but they do contribute to the world in a way that perhaps wouldn’t be as effective if they had been left out.

There’s a lot of court intrigue, which I loved, but the best part is that its intrigue interpreted through the eyes of someone who isn’t really involved in all the intrigue. So we see parts of it, and only get hints at the rest. The best part of this intrigue is, of course, the slow reveal of the character Bryan’s personality and tendencies, as he goes from flirtatious, energetic teenager to smiling monster. And, of course, my favorite part of the book was the ending, where intrigue collides with tension, and there are several big character moments for all of the main characters.

Shinn does make a small error towards the end—basically, Corie tells her sister something, and then later on wonders how her sister knows about that thing—but everything is so well paced and revealed that I could ignore it. And what I mostly cared about was the romance, which was maybe not as romantic as some people might like, but it was very well-developed, and I loved what it had to say about love and about how sometimes loving someone means doing something you normally wouldn’t do.

I’m not sure Summers at Castle Auburn will be on my “Could Read Again” list, but I thoroughly enjoyed almost every page of it—even the slow beginning. Shinn and 2000s fantasy prove their worth again!

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Dark themes (murder is the most prominent, subtle hints at rape)

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Vp8qBy

The Novice by Taran Matharu

The Novice, by Taran Matharu, was published in 2015 by Feiwel and Friends.

Rating: 1/5

I really wanted to enjoy The Novice. The cover art is eye-catching, the premise seemed intriguing, and the summoning aspect of the novel was interesting. I could ignore some of the other worldbuilding flaws as long as the summoning continued to be interesting, and for a book that started on Wattpad (*shudder*), some of it seemed pretty decent, if plagued by mistakes that first-time writers often make.

But, eventually, I couldn’t get past the characters, their terrible characterization, and the stilted, clunky dialogue.

There is no nuance in any of the characters. The main character, Fletcher, is pretty much perfect: he has a rare demon, his flaws in magic are made up for in his innovation and outside-the-box thinking, and he’s perfectly good and true and just. The lack of nuance means emotion is expressed too strongly, and gray areas are never addressed. There’s “Fletcher (and his friends and the commoners)—good” and “Nobles—bad” type conflict, and the characters act as if they’re ten years old, shouting at each other, screaming, and making melodramatic statements at every turn.

The world also falls apart once you even start considering the mechanics of the summoning school. Apparently the rules are able to change at a whim—no one bats an eye when the tournament format is changed last minute to suit the evil teacher’s desires (and this teacher is one of about three teachers at this so-called famous school), and this teacher apparently didn’t even have to fill out any forms or discuss it with a council or anything. In addition, there seems to be no sense of structure or discipline—students go or don’t go to class, are allowed to leave the school apparently at any time and come back at any time, and don’t seem to be on any sort of schedule or regimen (despite the reference to timetables).

Then again, there’s only three teachers, so how are they supposed to keep an eye on all of these wandering students, anyway?

Plus, Matharu’s stark, black-and-white, all rich people are corrupt worldbuilding grows tiresome after the –nth instance of telling rather than showing.

And don’t even get me started on the number of comma splices in every single dialogue.

I wanted to like The Novice, but its Wattpad beginnings are too obvious, and its worldbuilding and character flaws too numerous, for me.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence, death.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Psky3o

2004 Newbery Medal: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo, was published in 2003 by Candlewick.

Rating: 2/5

I must not like Kate DiCamillo as an author (though I remember liking Because of Winn-Dixie). I didn’t like Flora and Ulysses, and I didn’t like The Tale of Despereaux, despite the latter’s place as a beloved children’s novel and one of the few that have had a film adaptation.

I really don’t know what it is about DiCamillo that I struggle with. Flora and Ulysses and The Tale of Despereaux are very dissimilar to each other. So, perhaps it is just the books and not the author herself.

What didn’t I like about Despereaux? Pretty much everything. The grating narrator “address the reader” asides, the simplistic themes, the annoying protagonist (yes, I found Despereaux annoying), the villain, the unwitting sidekick…all of it combined created an unpalatable mess that I could only barely tolerate. It was the type of book where, if I had my way, I would take forever to finish reading it because I dreaded it so much, but I forced myself to finish it so I could move on to a more exciting book.

However, Despereaux is still not bad enough for a 1/5 rating, and that’s because I acknowledge that this read had a lot more to do with me than it had to do with the book. I don’t like magical realism, I don’t like breaking-the-4th-wall narrators, and I don’t like simplistically obvious messages about light and dark and courage. Plus, the ending was extremely anticlimactic. However, I did like the introduction of complicated words and ideas that the narrator explained, and parts of the novel were, if not enjoyable, at least tolerable—so long as the narrator stayed out of things.

I’ve described lots of Newbery Medals as mediocre, and The Tale of Despereaux is one of the few that I’ve actively disliked, though I wouldn’t call it mediocre. I suppose it’s just an acknowledgement that tastes can vary among readers—even with award-winning books. The Tale of Despereaux is well-written and far from average, but, simply put, I just didn’t care for it.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2X8Gvaw

The Hatchling by Kathryn Lasky

The Hatchling, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2005 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Burning.

Rating: 2/5

Growing up, I really enjoyed books seven and eight of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series. I liked the idea of a young owl overcoming his upbringing and seeking truth and new beginnings. The prophecy part was just an interesting addition for me. Now, of course, however many years later, I have different feelings about it (though the nostalgia factor is always there).

The Hatchling continues where The Burning left off—with Nyra and her egg. Nyroc is the son of Nyra and Kludd, and is destined, or so he is told, to be the next great leader of the Pure Ones. However, thanks to his friend Philip, a rogue smith, and his own firesight, Nyroc discovers the truth about his mother and the Pure Ones and runs away, eventually seeking to go Beyond the Beyond, a mysterious place full of wolves and volcanoes, to find the legendary Ember of Hoole.

As an adult, I can see many of the flaws and shortcomings of this book that I didn’t notice as a child. Nyroc’s change towards the Pure Ones is too abrupt and is handwaved away by his “strong gizzard” and by several actions taken by Nyra. A convenient enough reason for a children’s book, but too unsatisfying for me. The introduction of a random prophecy embedded into the Hoole stories is too sudden and not foreshadowed enough, although I liked that it is Otulissa, and not Soren, who discovers it and sets out on a quest.

But, I do like that Lasky is continuing to expand and build on her owl world, that she is introducing new concepts—however abruptly—and new places and new incentives for the characters. It’s exactly what an extended series should do, and she’s doing it (and she does it again in book 13). And, as I said, I didn’t notice any of these things when I was a child—I just enjoyed the story. So that’s a credit to Lasky.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

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

Wolf Tower by Tanith Lee

Wolf Tower, by Tanith Lee, was published in 1998 by Dutton.

Rating: 4/5

I first read Tanith Lee’s Claidi Journals around ten years ago. Though my memories of the last three books have faded, except for the odd bits and pieces (including what’s probably an important plot point of the second book which has stuck with me), the first book has always been the one I remembered the most. Perhaps it’s because it’s one of the first books I read with a proper twist ending. Or maybe the fantasy was strong enough, memorable enough, to stay with me.

That being said, I did forget quite a bit. Claidi’s voice, for one.  I love her character: brave, yearning for adventure and freedom, yet at times doubtful, hesitant, unsure. I love my characters with a dash of uncertainty—it makes them feel more realistic. And while for most of the book she’s more of an observer, soaking in all the new sights and sounds, she never feels passive. And towards the end, she becomes pretty fierce.

I also forgot various sights, sounds, and plot points. Though I’m not a huge fan of the world—big, empty, waste-y, with scattered villages and cities with different governing systems and no sense of scale—I did enjoy seeing it as Claidi saw it—as she is experiencing it for the first time just as we, the readers, are.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but I remember the plot twist blowing my teenage mind a bit when I read it. Now, of course, I spotted it much more easily and was able to enjoy the lead-up more. I also really like the idea of Claidi being torn between the dazzling stranger who rescued her and the stranger who takes his time to get to know her, as it seems pretty close to human nature: we feel indebted to the people who rescue us (I know Claidi rescued him, technically, but I don’t really mean “rescue” in the “saving” sense. More in the “opened up the world” sense), but we come across people who are more genuine and heartfelt, we feel torn because of our sense of loyalty to the first set of people.

Anyway, I enjoyed re-reading Wolf Tower very much. I’m looking forward to seeing how much of the other three books I actually remember, and how many plot points I know, and how surprised I will be if I don’t know them.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

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

The Naming by Alison Croggon

The Naming, by Alison Croggon, was published in 2002 by Candlewick.

Rating: 3/5

After devouring Sharon Shinn and Kate Constable, I immediately went on the hunt for more 2000s fantasy and found Alison Croggon’s Book of Pellinor quartet. I’ve actually read this series before, something I realized once I started, but it was long enough ago that I only remember bits and pieces. And I don’t quite remember if I actually finished reading the series, though I think I did. Anyway, the whole book seemed hauntingly familiar, though I barely remembered anything of the plot. To be honest, the thing that I most remembered was the “let’s pretend this book was an actual historical document that’s been translated” gimmick.

Anyway, on the back cover, Tamora Pierce describes The Naming as Tolkienesque, and that is definitely apparent in the book. Of course, it’s not nearly as vast or extensive as Tolkien made the Lord of the Rings. Though much having to do with the politics and culture of the world is ignored, Croggon has developed the Bard part of the world well, with its own language and customs, and the whole legend of the world is also done well, if a bit trope-y. There’s the standard Light and Dark concept, with the standard Evil Villain. The magic is unexplained and described only as “the Gift,” with very little to show how it works or what it does. However, the world was much better developed than many similar fantasies I’ve read, and I could tell Croggon put a lot of thought into it.

The one thing that held me back from complete enjoyment of the book was the writing style, which was too old-fashioned. That’s probably not even the right word to use, but that’s the only thing I can think of to describe it. I was not a huge fan of the way characters spoke, and I especially didn’t like how differently Maerad spoke than other characters. It’s like every character is formal and speaks in a bit of antiquated syntax, and then Maerad speaks normally. Perhaps that’s to contrast her with the other Bards, but I didn’t enjoy it.

Also, I had trouble reconciling the fact that traveling seems to take no time at all, or at least seems to take no time at all, but then Maerad is consistently mentioning her period. So, Croggon is apparently trying to say, “It’s been three months since she left Gilman’s Cot!” when the way time has been tracked before then makes it seem as if it’s only been one month, if not two. There needs to be a better way for the readers to follow the time then for a character to think, “Oh, time for that monthly thing!”

The Naming has some promising worldbuilding, though there’s not much explanation for many of the concepts, and there’s very little sense of the world beyond Bards, Hulls, and some semblance of a Bardic ruling system. The fact that I’ve read this book is both a blessing and a curse, since I can’t wait to get to the parts I do remember liking, but am dreading the parts I remember not liking (which, to be honest, isn’t anything in specific—I just remember being let down by the ending. If I even finished the books, which I think I did).

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

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

The Dalemark Quartet, Volume 2 by Diana Wynne Jones

The Dalemark Quartet, Volume 2: The Spellcoats and The Crown of Dalemark, by Diana Wynne Jones, was published in 2005 by Greenwillow. It is the sequel to The Dalemark Quartet, Volume 1.

Rating: 4/5

The last two stories in the Dalemark Quartet are the most connected of the four, though the fourth one unites all the characters as well as the villain from the third book. In my years-prior reading of these books, I’ve always thought these last two books were the weakest. However, I’m actually much more fond of the fourth book than I remember being, though I still think it has a few problems.

The Spellcoats takes us back to early Dalemark, with Tanaqui and her four siblings: Robin, Gull, Hern, and Mallard. Their journey begins when their father dies in the war and Gull comes back changed. This book introduces Kankredin, the villain of this book and the next, and his quest to take over Dalemark. It’s nice that Jones took the time to both build and show the history of Dalemark in these four books; all five of these characters are mentioned as legendary figures in the first two books, as well as in the last one. Jones also introduces the Undying in this book, godlike people with great power. Though some showed up in Drowned Ammet, I don’t remember them actually being called the Undying in that novel. Anyway, I quite enjoyed this look at early Dalemark, and the plot is actually quite twisty, with some great reveals—though the ending, in my opinion, leaves a little to be desired. It had to be that way because of the nature of the storytelling, but still, I wasn’t fond of it.

The Crown of Dalemark was published almost 15 years after The Spellcoats, which makes me wonder if Jones planned a quartet in the first place, or if she decided to make one more book after a while. This novel takes the characters from the first, second, and, yes, the third book as well, and puts them all together in a quest to find the missing crown of Dalemark in an effort to unite the country. The cleverest bit of this book is the time-travel—I love time-travel novels, and the fact that Jones did it in her own fantasy world is neat.

I really enjoyed this book, much more than I thought I would, and definitely much more than I remember liking it before. The time-travel is clever, and it’s nice to have all the characters come together. There are some great revelations in this book, and the ending is delightfully endearing. Mitt remains my favorite character, though Maewen is pretty great, too. As for its problems, I’ve simply always thought that Kankredin as the villain seemed too abrupt since he’s introduced in the third book and isn’t mentioned in the others at all. And, because of the gap in the publication dates, I’m guessing, some elements of this book seem to ring a little false in terms of worldbuilding, as if Jones had trouble remembering what she had already established. I’m thinking mostly of the Undying. Mostly, the problem with this book seems that Jones was trying too hard to connect this book, and the first two, with The Spellcoats. However, I now think I like this book second behind Drowned Ammet, though to be honest, all four of them are pretty solid.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2EE0Y0m

The Dream-Maker’s Magic by Sharon Shinn

The Dream-Maker’s Magic, by Sharon Shinn, was published in 2006 by Viking. It is the sequel to The Truth-Teller’s Tale.

Rating: 3/5

The Dream-Maker’s Magic is my least favorite of Shinn’s Safe-Keeper trilogy, though it’s still a delightful read. Kellen, whose mother has always insisted that she was a boy, learns to find her own way in life with the help of her friends, especially Gryffin, the lame boy she befriends in school. Along the way, several (unsurprising) plot twists occur, faces from the previous two books appear, and several happy endings occur.

While this last book is about the Dream-Maker, that really takes a backseat to Kellen’s story. Shinn is fond of the long, slow development, something I noticed in The Truth-Teller’s Tale. She likes to build the characters up before doing much of the plot, so the book is much more character-driven than story-driven. I didn’t quite like the romance as much in this one, but Kellen’s journey is delightful, though predictable. Shinn has a knack for really making small-town life come alive with its own unique characters and dramas. As an added bonus, while she does include several things that are darker, her fantasies are, overall, light and fluffy, which is nice. Sometimes I want to sit down and read some Finnikin of the Rock, but sometimes I want to sit down and read Sharon Shinn, who I know will deliver me plot, character, and the light-heartedness I crave.

Overall, I’m very pleased with my discovery of Shinn. Though I’d probably not reread The Dream-Maker’s Magic, as it was a bit too slow and plodding for me, with an underwhelming romance and plot, I would definitely go back and reread the first two books, as well as, of course, discover her other books.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Mentions of domestic violence, death.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2EsvDh6

2014 Newbery Medal: Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, by Kate DiCamillo, was published in 2013 by Candlewick.

Rating: 2/5

Magical realism is a genre that I struggle with. To be honest, I can’t even think of one book title, beyond this one, that I’ve read in magical realism that I’ve liked (there probably are some, but at the moment, nothing comes to mind). I prefer my fantasy world separate from my reality, and I always have, really. I’m more drawn to other-world fantasies than fantasies set in this world and mingling with it.

I didn’t know going in that Flora & Ulysses was magical realism. From the cover, it simply looks like a girl with a pet squirrel. Slightly strange, but it won a Newbery Medal, so there must be something special about it, right?

Then the squirrel picked up a vacuum cleaner, and that’s where the book lost me. I stuck it out, of course, through the whole book. It’s a fairly short and quick read, and to be honest, not all that much happens. Flora finds Ulysses, shenanigans happen, Flora leaves with her father, more shenanigans happen, Flora goes back to her mother’s with her father, more shenanigans happen, Flora and her mother connect, and the ending is happy. While there’s a little bit in there with Flora and her mother in terms of message and power, most of the book is light and fluffy stuff about a superhero squirrel, a cynical girl, and a temporarily blind (or is he?), philosophical boy.

It’s strange, and I’m not a huge fan of strange, especially in realism. I’ve never liked “odd” books, and this one is so quirky, and is so obviously the type of book that will really appeal to certain people, but leave the rest scratching their heads. I was scratching my head as I finished this one. I like that a work of magical realism won the Newbery Medal, but Flora & Ulysses and its superhero squirrel story just made no sense to me.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy, Realistic

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

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