Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine

Ink and Bone, by Rachel Caine, was published in 2015 by Penguin.

Rating: 3/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Swearing, kissing, violence, death, LGBTQ themes

Genre: Young Adult, Steampunk

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

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Saturdays at Sea by Jessica Day George

Saturdays at Sea, by Jessica Day George, was published in 2017 by Bloomsbury. It is the sequel to Fridays with the Wizards.

Rating: 2/5

The Castle Glower series is going a little bit the way of the Wide-Awake Princess series, in my opinion. There’s definitely things that are connecting each book together, but each book feels more tired and pale than the last. Too many old formulas are used and there’s not enough variety to spice it up. As a book series for kids, I can see why George would rely on things she’s used before, but for me as an adult, I don’t find them compelling any more.

If you like the formula of the Castle Glower books, Saturdays at Sea continues in that vein: lots of griffins, some humor, and more revelations about the world and the Castle. In this book, unicorns are introduced, and I did like that George showed them in a different way than you would think of unicorns today. There’s a small amount of characterization with Celie, but not really enough to make any big character changes. These sorts of books tend to keep their characters the same way, which is probably what bothers me the most.

If you liked the other books in the series, then you will probably enjoy this one, too. For me, it was too much of the same-old, same-old, and not enough improvement in terms of writing or characterization. There’s also way too many animals—dogs and griffins and now unicorns are all jostling for position alongside a healthy cast of characters. I definitely would go back and read Tuesdays at the Castle again, but I don’t really want to re-read any of the others.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

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

Chalice by Robin McKinley

Chalice, by Robin McKinley, was published in 2008 by Putnam.

Rating: 3/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

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

The Siege by Kathryn Lasky

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

Rating: 3/5

Lasky continuously finds new ways to amplify the threat of the Pure Ones in each successive book of the series. They start out as a mysterious rumor, to a dreadful shadow, to a fully realized evil. In The Siege, if the author’s note didn’t make it clear enough, the Pure Ones are basically the Nazis. As the title suggests, they lay siege to the Ga’Hoole tree and the Guardians have to fight them off.

The first half of the book, though, deals with the infiltration of St. Aggie’s to weed out the Pure One spies. That’s right—Soren and Co. become spies in order to catch other spies. It’s a great little callback to the first book, and also shows just how far the characters have come in terms of strength and courage. And there’s a great reveal in this book—let’s just say a character in the first book returns in a surprising, amazing way.

Lasky has simplistic views of morality and good and evil laced throughout the book, so while it’s perfect for children, I found it a trifle tedious and boring at times. The long bits of dialogue are especially hard to read. And in this book, Lasky herself stated she “modeled” Ezylryb’s speechs after Winston Churchill’s, and it shows. Ezylryb’s speeches have a ring of familiarity to them, and one strong enough that I had to wonder if Lasky was phoning it in, relying on someone else’s material to make her point rather than try and create speeches of her own. It fits the stark lines she has drawn, but I do prefer a little bit more nuance. Adult tastes opposing the target audience of the book, I know.

I found some confusion at the end in regards to Dewlap’s role, as it is never clearly explained, but overall the book is well balanced, with lots of setup at the beginning, a decent action-filled scene at the end, and lots of setup for the next two books in the series. I’m not a fan of certain aspects of the writing style, but I’m still drawn to this series and what it can teach its audience about good versus evil.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2S5ecYU

Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford

Ghosts of Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, was published in 2017 by Clarion. It is the sequel to Greenglass House.

Milo keeps waiting for that special relief that usually settles in at the start of winter vacation. But it’s not coming. For one thing, there’s no snow, and it’s hard to get into the spirit when all you have to work with is a crust of stupid frost. For another, it’s been a tough couple of weeks at school, thanks to a teacher who doesn’t get how much Milo hates having attention called to him, and to his adoption. Then there’s the lone guest staying at his family’s inn, an art student who seems determined not to leave until he’s sketched very single stained-glass window in the place. Worst of all, Milo’s friend Meddy has been conspicuously absent for a long, long time. It’s almost enough to make him wish for a winter break like last year’s, when his house was full of secretive guests and unexpected mysterious, and Meddy had helped him unravel it all. There’s no chance of that happening again, though; Milo is certain of it. Until the bell rings.

Rating: 3/5

I loved Greenglass House, so of course I had to pick up the sequel! Ghosts of Greenglass House picks up a year after the events of the first novel. It’s been a while since I read the first book, but luckily Milford does a good job of filling in enough of the gaps that I wasn’t completely lost. The fantasy element is even stronger in this book, and the mystery is delightfully twisty as well.

I did think the mystery, or parts of it, was easier to figure out than the first book. The truly shocking reveal I figured out beforehand, but there was another one I didn’t see coming, so that was delightful. There were a few aspects that I found a little confusing, but for the most part, all of the clues were integrated really well into the novel, so much so that I never picked up on them until the characters explicitly pointed them out.

The story aspect that I really enjoyed from the first book is back, as well. I love books that emphasize the power of stories, and I’m glad that Milford stuck to the same sort of thing she did with Greenglass House. That book worked well for a reason, so it was smart of Milford to call back on all those great elements and create a new story out of them.

However, a few things are holding Ghosts of Greenglass House back from being as delightful as the first one. The first is that I really didn’t buy the relationship between Georgie and Emmett. How they interacted felt more as if they knew each other for weeks as opposed to one day. Another thing was the heavy-handedness/preachiness, but that’s probably due to the fact that I’m an adult reading a book aimed for children. Even so, I wasn’t fond of Milo’s self-reflections, especially when it results in a “the people around you need to change, not you” sort of message. I also wasn’t fond of the roleplaying bit this time around, and since it’s pretty central to the novel, I tried my best to like it and ended up not enjoying it.

Ghosts of Greenglass House has a delightful, deep mystery interspersed with fantasy elements that are communicated quite well. There’s mentions of The Left-handed Fate, too! However, a lot of the aspects I remember liking about Greenglass House I didn’t like here, so I’m wondering, if I read the first book again, would I still like it as much?

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

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

Fairy Tale Friday: Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley

Spindle’s End, by Robin McKinley, was published in 2000 by Putnam.

Rating: 3/5

I’ve read both of Robin McKinley’s “Beauty and the Beast” retellings, but never her “Sleeping Beauty” retelling, so here I am to tackle this massive book.

Spindle’s End takes the Sleeping Beauty tale and crafts an entire fantasy world out of it, complete with slight references to McKinley’s Damar books (I caught one The Blue Sword reference but there may have been more). The tale itself is also slightly different from the original; without giving too much away, it gives Sleeping Beauty more to do and there really isn’t a prince figure of the sort prominent in the original.

With two Damar books under her belt, McKinley is used to spinning out more magic and details than were present in Beauty, and Spindle’s End is stuffed full of things. It’s almost too much at times—the beginning is ponderously slow, and the book really doesn’t start picking up until it switches to Rosie’s point of view, 150 pages in. The conflict at the end is almost too dense and confusing for the reader to fully grasp; I struggled to get through McKinley’s long sentences and heavy descriptions of magic and animals to understand what actually happened. And now, as I’m writing this review, I’m starting to realize just how little dialogue is actually in this book—there’s bits and pieces, but most of it is description. In fact, the largest sections of dialogue concern the animals, and they talk almost as ponderously as the descriptions.

People who like developed, built-up fairy tales will probably really enjoy Spindle’s End, but I think I prefer the simplicity of one like Beauty more. Perhaps if McKinley had a better balance of description to dialogue, or if the beginning weren’t so hard to slog through, I might have liked it better, because I did quite enjoy the middle bits. “Thoughtful fantasy” is a term I would use to describe this sort of work, though I’m not really sure what I mean by that. Lots and lots of description, maybe; that’s all I’m going to remember about this book in the long run.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Fairy Tale

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Qyas1o

The Rescue by Kathryn Lasky

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

Ever since Soren was kidnapped and taken to the St. Aegolius School for Orphaned Owls, he has longed to see his sister, Eglantine, again. Now Eglantine is back in Soren’s life, but she’s been through an ordeal too terrible for words. And Ezylryb, Soren’s mentor, has disappeared. Deep within Soren’s gizzard, something more powerful than knowledge tells him there’s a connection between these mysterious events. In order to rescue Ezylryb, Soren must embark upon a perilous quest. It will bring him face-to-face with a force more dangerous than anything the rulers of St. Aggie’s could have devised-and a truth that threatens to destroy the owl kingdom.

Rating: 2/5

I usually have a pretty good memory of what happens in books, and even though my reading of The Journey and my reading of The Rescue were separated by a couple of weeks, I felt going in that I had a pretty good grasp of the world. However, the first chapter left me wildly confused, unsure if it was my memory or if Lasky had messed up.

For example, I’m fairly sure that in The Journey Ezylryb was the leader of the weather chaw and Elvan (or Poot or another owl) was the leader of the colliering chaw. However, in this book, Ezylryb is described as the leader of both. In addition, Soren keeps referring to Ezylryb as his “beloved” teacher, yet his sentiments in The Journey are disgruntlement that yields to respect (but not to the extent shown here). Perhaps it’s me, or maybe it’s Lasky. Either way, it took me a little bit to get into the novel.

Because of this confusion, I didn’t get as absorbed in The Rescue as the first two books. Some flaws/gaps in the worldbuilding stood out to me a lot more. For example, how did the flecks become magnetized? And is a fire caused by coals really hot enough to demagnetize them?

Other than those issues, The Rescue does a lot to expand on the mysteries revealed in The Journey. There’s also a huge reveal in this book that I remember shocked me silly when I first read these books. I think there should have been a bit more lead-up, but as it stands, it’s a great reveal and makes things more personal for the main characters.

Issues with worldbuilding details aside, The Rescue amps up the danger and intrigue, has a shocking reveal, and makes the stakes even higher for our intrepid band of owls. The ending is really cheesy (I’m not a fan of the songs and poems), but this book, and the series, is the perfect sort of adventure story for kids.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2p4XkUT

One Dark Throne by Kendare Blake

One Dark Throne, by Kendare Blake, was published in 2017 by HarperTeen. It is the sequel to Three Dark Crowns.

With the unforgettable events of the Quickening behind them and the Ascension Year underway, all bets are off. Katharine, once the weak and feeble sister, is stronger than ever before. Arsinoe, after discovering the truth about her powers, needs to figure out how to make her secret talent work in her favor without anyone finding out. And Mirabella, the elemental sister thought to be the certain Queen Crowned, faces attacks that put those around her in danger she can’t seem to prevent….Fennbirn’s deadliest queens must confront the one thing standing in their way of the crown: each other.

Rating: 2/5

One Dark Throne continues right where Three Dark Crowns left off, continuing the suspense and building the tension between the three sisters (and the three families and cities of the island). It’s a slower book than the first one, with the first 30% being romantic drama and the last 70% being a slow buildup to the final parts of the book.

I can see much more of the flaws of the world in this book that I couldn’t in the first, as the concept I found intriguing covered up a lot of it. However, One Dark Throne reveals just how thin the worldbuilding is—are there only these three cities and these three families that occupy them? There is no sense of scale, no sense of how big the island is or how many people live there, or even a clear sense of each city. Characters switch motives at the drop of a hat to propel the plot; there’s lots of tension between Jacob and Jules because of Mirabella, and while Blake seems to insinuate one thing, the characters ultimately end up doing another. Arsinoe indulges in low magic again, despite the failure in the first book, and it somehow works much better than before despite it being the same exact spell. Blake enjoys building tension with mystery and thinly veiled hints, but then fails to deliver fully, leaving confusing revelations behind.

And there are still way too many names thrown around to keep track of them all.

I heard that this book was supposed to be a duology, but is now a trilogy (or a quartet?). That puzzles me since this book isn’t stand-alone at all, nor does it end things satisfactorily; the decision must have been made before Blake published this book, which might explain why it’s so haphazard and filler-y in terms of plot.

I really enjoyed the concept of the first book, but nothing about One Dark Throne is compelling me to get the third book when it comes out. There are still mysteries to solve and questions to be answered, but nothing happened that made me care enough to find out what they are. The book is a mess of plot, character, and setting, behind a thin veneer of intriguing concept that becomes less intriguing the more you realize the flaws of the book.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Nothing explicit, but there’s lots of kissing and obvious sexual connotations.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2MVHn1A

The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Choksi

The Star-Touched Queen, by Roshani Chokshi, was published in 2016 by St. Martin’s Press.

Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. While Maaya is content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: as Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire…But Akaran has its own secrets—thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherwordly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most…including herself.

Rating: 3/5

The Star-Touched Queen tells the story of Maya, who, forced into marriage by her father in order to avoid war, accepts the hand of an unexpected, mysterious suitor who then takes her into another realm, a land full of secrets. The plot reminded me of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” but I wouldn’t call this a retelling, as the book is very clearly based on Hindu mythology.

The setting of the book is rich and detailed; I haven’t read many Hindu/Indian settings in literature, and this one is beautiful. There’s lots of mythology thrown about that can get a little confusing, but Choksi integrates it very well. Choksi writes well, too, with great descriptions that stop just short of going overboard. There’s still a bit of polish that needs to happen—details often get lost, contradicted, or are given too brief explanations—but there’s lots of beauty in the writing.

The lack of tightness in the writing is a little more prominent in terms of the plot. Plot details are often sidelined for description; Amar is almost too mysterious and is too inactive (Maya is the one who does most of the work in the novel; Choksi is obviously going for girl power, but makes Amar almost impotent and useless as a character as a result.); and the pacing of the plot seems rushed and imbalanced. Maya wanders through Akaran discovering its mysteries for a long amount of time, then makes several quick, important decisions in the span of a few pages, then wanders around some more. The moments in the last few chapters of Part One, in particular, stand out as particularly poorly delivered: decisions are made and described too quickly, motivations seem thin, and cause and effect isn’t clear at all.

The Star-Touched Queen is an impressive debut, especially in terms of setting and description. The writing, beautiful as it is, could do with more polish, especially in terms of uniting description and plot. There were far too many moments that were covered up by hasty explanations or thin motivations. Maya herself was a good protagonist, with brains rather than strength, which I prefer. However, Amar was cardboard, and he seemed completely unnecessary even in his own role; his sole purpose was only to motivate Maya. I get it, it’s subversion of the damsel in distress trope, but I’ve seen it executed far more effectively than what is given here.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Nf2Phh

The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross

The Queen’s Rising, by Rebecca Ross, was published in 2018 by HarperTeen.

When her seventeenth summer solstice arrives, Brienna desires only two things: to master her passion and to be chosen by a patron. Growing up in the southern kingdom of Valenia at the renowned Magnalia House should have prepared her. While some are born with a talent for one of the five passions—art, music, dramatics, wit, and knowledge—Brienna struggled to find hers until she chose knowledge. However, despite all her preparations, Brienna’s greatest fear comes true: she is left without a patron. Months later, her life takes an unexpected turn when a disgraced lord offers her patronage. Suspicious of his intent, she reluctantly accepts. But there is much more to his story, for there is a dangerous plot to overthrow the king of Maevana—the rival kingdom of Valenia—and restore the rightful queen, and her magic, to the northern throne. And others are involved, some closer to Brienna than she realizes. With war brewing, Brienna must choose which side she will remain loyal to—passion or blood .Because a queen is destined to rise and lead the battle to reclaim the crown. Who will be that queen?

Rating: 4/5

The Queen’s Rising was the sort of book where I knew pretty much everything that was going to happen, but I enjoyed the book anyway. While it’s fairly formulaic, it avoided many of the pitfalls that YA fantasy books can fall into. Brienna is a capable protagonist, but not annoying; the romance is subtle; the world and the plot make sense and are interesting. Best of all, it’s a self-contained novel: though it’s not a stand-alone book, it could easily be one. There’s no contrived, cliff-hanger ending to entice you into the next book. Everything is wrapped up nicely.

Ross’s writing is beautiful, but can sometimes stray into the “strange description” territory, such as “I smiled, the laughter hanging between my lungs.” What is that even supposed to mean? Besides her occasional bouts of eyebrow-raising-description, Ross’s writing is smooth and succinct when it should be, and flows well. It’s also not in present tense, thank goodness.

As I stated, the plot is really predictable; I guessed all the reveals pretty close to the beginning of the book, and nothing really surprised me. However, Ross doesn’t go with the obvious tropes all the time, which is good because it would have made me like the book significantly less. The plot is formulaic, but not stuffed with old tropes, so I got to enjoy the ride and not get annoyed at the lack of originality. There’s a good moment near the end of the book where Brienna has a choice between two options and I liked that Ross sort of acknowledged that one choice would have changed the whole feel of the book (to me, at least). I like that Brienna, though important to the plot, isn’t an absolutely central character to the world. I like having protagonists who are more on the fringe because it’s more relatable.

The Queen’s Rising has some flaws, but I really enjoyed it overall. The writing is beautiful, though sometimes strange, the romance isn’t annoying, and though the plot is predictable, it’s detailed and developed enough that things make sense. I loved that it read as a stand-alone novel, too. I will be keeping an eye out for more books by Ross.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2N5tmNV