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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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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1923 Newbery Medal: The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle by Hugh Lofting

I’m starting a new series/reading goal: reading every book awarded with the Newbery Medal! While I will not be sticking to straight chronology, I do plan to go as chronologically as possible. Each book I review will have [Year] Newbery Medal before the name in the title of the blog, and I will have a separate page just of the Newbery Medal books I review. I have read some Newbery Medals already, so I will add to their titles.

The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle, by Hugh Lofting, was first published in 1922. I read the Illustrated Junior Library version published in 1998.

Doctor Dolittle, the veterinarian who can actually talk to animals, sets sail on the high seas for new adventures with Polynesia the parrot, Jip the dog, Chee-Chee the monkey, and young Tommy Stubbins. Together they travel to Spidermonkey Island, brave a shipwreck, and meet the incredible Great Glass Sea Snail.

Rating: 4/5

Dr. Doolittle is a series that I read a lot when I was younger. For a story about a man who can talk to animals, it’s surprisingly mature and lacking in silliness. The Voyages of Dr. Doolittle is very much a seafaring adventure whose main character also happens to have the ability to speak to animals. The only thing lacking that would make this a standard adventure novel are pirates and buried treasure, and Lofting replaces those with a shipwreck, a battle, and politics, all of which make for sometimes funny, sometimes serious adventure that is much more mature in terms of language and plot than I remember it being.

Now, having been written in the 1920s, all the things you might expect an author from that time period to include that would be different from today are there. I definitely don’t think either Bumpo or the natives of Spidermonkey Island are portrayed in a negative light, but it would not surprise me at all if there was some essay or argument out there explaining perceived negative stereotypes. Bumpo is an intelligent African prince studying at Oxford, who does use language incorrectly but only for comic relief (although some people might have a problem with even that initial premise). As for the natives, Long Arrow, in particular, is described many times as a great naturalist and while the terminology to describe the natives are not terms we would use nowadays, I feel like Lofting dealt with them with a great deal of respect. Perhaps you disagree, and that’s okay.

The Voyages of Dr. Doolittle is technically the second Dr. Doolittle book, but it is absolutely not necessary to have read the first. It’s a fun little adventure about a naturalist who can talk to animals and his adventures with his assistant, his friend, and the animals who accompany him (Polynesia is the best). It also says some good things about duty and responsibility, curiosity, and helping others. It brought back a lot of fond memories for me and was an auspicious start to my Newbery Medal reads!

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Includes what some people today would probably deem “cultural insensitivity” at least.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Children’s

“From what the purple bird-of-paradise tells me, Long Arrow’s knowledge of natural history must be positively tremendous. His specialty is botany—plants and all that sort of thing. But he knows a lot about birds and animals too. He’s very good on bees and beetles. But now tell me, Stubbins, are you quite sure that you really want to be a naturalist?”

“Yes,” said I, “my mind is made up.”

“Well you know, it isn’t a very good profession for making money. Not at all, it isn’t. Most of the good naturalists don’t make any money whatever. All they do is spend money, buying butterfly nets and cases for birds’ eggs and things. It is only now, after I have been a naturalist for many years, that I am beginning to make a little money from the books I write.”

“I don’t care about money,” I said. “I want to be a naturalist.”

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Fairy Tale Friday: Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

Daughter of the Forest, by Juliet Marillier, was published in 2000 by Tor.

Lovely young Sorcha is the seventh child and only daughter of Lord Colum of Sevenwaters. Bereft of a mother, she is comforted by the brothers who love and protect her: Liam, the natural leader; Diarmid, with his passion for adventure; the twins, Cormack and Conor, each with a different calling; the young, compassionate Padriac…and her other heart, rebellious Finbar, grown old before his time by his gift of the Sight. Sorcha is the light in their lives, and in her young life she has known only peace and happiness. But that joy is destroyed when her father is bewitched by the woman who has won his hear and her brothers are bound by a spell that only Sorcha can lift. To reclaim the lives of her brothers, Sorcha leaves the only safe place she has ever known and embarks on a journey filled with pain, loss, and terror. When she is kidnapped by enemy forces and taken to a foreign land, it seems that there will be no way for Sorcha to break the spell that condemns all that she loves. But magic knows now boundaries, and Sorcha must choose between the life she has always known, promises made…and a love that comes only once. And in that choice, perhaps shattering her world.

Rating: 5/5

Daughter of the Forest is a stunning retelling of “The Wild Swans” fairytale. Marillier beautifully combines the fairytale with a Celtic setting, blending history with fantasy seamlessly. While the novel starts off slowly, once the initial set-up to the fairytale begins, the book flies by as the reader is swept up into Sorcha’s journey.

And what a journey it is. Sorcha is a wonderful protagonist, quietly strong and steadfast in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I love female protagonists of this sort, so it helped me connect with Sorcha even more. Marillier has perfectly crafted the circumstances and the effects; everything Sorcha does is explainable and believable in light of the world and the plot and what happens to her is also so, even the terrible parts. Fair warning, there is quite a violent, difficult scene to read at the beginning of Sorcha’s quest to free her brothers. It’s not graphically detailed, but it’s not glossed over at all—so, in a way, it’s much more graphically detailed than you might expect. Sometimes authors use things like this as a device or as another obstacle the protagonist must climb, but I feel like Marillier included it more for worldbuilding’s sake, to depict just how cruel the world can be at times. Or perhaps it’s to show how deep Sorcha’s bond with Red became, or perhaps it’s both. In any case, it’s handled deftly by Marillier.

That leads me to the thing I adored most about this book, which was Sorcha and Red. I think I’ve mentioned before that I tend to love the “agonizing” types of romance more than most other types, and Daughter of the Forest is full of agonizing—from Red, from Sorcha, from the people around them who see what’s happening and feel powerless to do anything about it. The relationship is slowly and beautifully developed, to the point where I cried at a particular part of the book that is poignant and beautiful and made me not want to put the book down even though I had to go to bed. And the romance ends perfectly, too, in a wonderfully satisfying way—usually I feel disappointed at the end of a book, or at the moment the love interests get together. But not in this book. In this book, I felt nothing but satisfaction.

I thought I loved Marillier already from reading her previous books, like Shadowfell and Wildwood Dancing, but Daughter of the Forest made me adore her. It’s a fantastic fairy tale adaptation, but it’s also a fantastic story, filled with love, loss, sorrow, pain, hope, and all the other things that make a particularly good book stand out from the rest. There are some hard things to read in this book, but there are many more beautiful things, and, like Sorcha, the reader comes to the end with a remembrance of the pain but with the knowledge that things are, as much as they can be in that world, going towards “happily ever after.”

Recommended Age Range: 16+

Warnings: Violence, death, rape.

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale

“Listen to me, Sorcha. No matter where we are, or what we do, the seven of us will never be truly separate. We’ll always be the same for one another. But we are growing up; and grown up people do marry, and move away, and let other people into their lives. Even you will do that one day.”

“Me!” I was aghast.

“You must know that.” He moved closer and took my hand, and I noticed that his were large and rough, a man’s hands. He was seventeen now. “Father already plans a marriage for you, in a few years’ time, and doubtless then you will go away to live with your husband’s family. We will not all remain here.”

“Go away? I would never go away from Sevenwaters! This is home! I would die before I’d move away!”

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The Forgotten Sisters by Shannon Hale

The Forgotten Sisters, by Shannon Hale, was published in 2015 by Bloomsbury. It is the sequel to Palace of Stone.

After a year at the palace, Miri and her friends are ready to return home to their beloved Mount Eskel. But when the king orders Miri to start her own princess academy in a faraway swamp for three royal cousins, she is utterly dismayed. She must go on this journey alone, away from everyone she loves and everything she knows. Miri’s new students are not at all what she expected. Astrid, Felissa, and Sus are more interested in hunting, fishing, and wrestling than learning about etiquette and history, and they know next to nothing about their royal ancestry. As Miri spends more time with the girls, she starts to suspect that they are part of a long-buried secret, and that the key to uncovering the truth rests in her and the sisters’ hands. With her new friends at her side, Miri must gather all her strength to solve the mystery—and finally make her way back home.

Rating: 2/5

The Forgotten Sisters ranks lower than Palace of Stone only because I thought the message of the latter was stronger—and because the middle of The Forgotten Sisters is a bit of a trudge to read. I’m not sure if it was quite necessary to even have this book, but clearly popular demand led Hale to write another. The plot is a little bit of a mess, although I suppose, in retrospect, you could argue that Hale does indicate something in Palace of Stone in terms of the queen’s sorrow that could potentially tie to this novel. But for me, the plot seemed a little stilted and a little thrown together, and the reasoning behind it all was tied to a brief, flimsy little story told hastily in the beginning of the novel and never dwelled on again.

However, I will say that the ending of the novel was delightful, all thanks to Sus. The entirety of the section with the girls in the Queen’s Castle was good, but Sus (and Kaspar) just made it all that much better. It was cute, funny, and exactly the sort of matter-of-fact dialogue in a tense situation that I love to see executed well (the kind that just ignores all the mean people glaring and simply carries on a conversation in a subtly brilliant way).

Princess Academy is definitely the strongest in the series, with the two sequels not entirely necessary, in my opinion. Hale manages to pull some things together for The Forgotten Sisters, but overall the plot is a little contrived and the pace drags in the middle. There’s also some flowery bits of description that fall a little flat, at least in my opinion. But the ending is charming, and at least the book ended on a high note. However, if Hale writes another one of these, I probably won’t read it, as they’ve declined in quality since the first.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“Something you didn’t know, Astrid,” said Miri. “Something I was able to teach you.”

Astrid shrugged. “All you did was put a fancy name to what we can already do.”

Miri opened her mouth to answer but had nothing to say.

Astrid passed very close to Miri on her way outside and whispered, “And I’m older than you, tutor.”

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The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan

The Poison Throne, by Celine Kiernan, was published in 2008 by Orbit.

When young Wynter Moorehawke returns to court with her dying father, she finds her old home shadowed with fear. The king has become a violent despot, terrorizing those he once loved. His son and heir Alberon has fled into exile and now there are whispers everywhere of rebellion. Meanwhile, Alberon’s half-brother Razi has been elevated to the throne. He struggles to meet his King’s demands while remaining loyal to his beloved brother and to his friend Wynter. Now she must choose—her father or her dreams, her friend o her king, her duty or her love.

Rating: 2/5

What is it with me reading lackluster fantasies recently that somehow manage to compel me enough to keep reading? The Poison Throne, à la Falling Kingdoms, was the sort of book where every chapter I thought, “Okay, I’m going to stop reading” and then I kept reading for some inexplicable reason.

It definitely wasn’t the characters that kept me reading. Every other page one of them is yelling, or screaming, or kicking something, or shouting “NO!”, or crying, or doing a myriad of annoying things. Wynter was a sad, passive excuse for a character, although at the end she gets a little better. Christopher and Razi were bland and boring, and all the characters were so melodramatic that it was hard to take any of them seriously for long.

It also wasn’t the world. It reads like a fantasy at first, and then Kiernan suddenly reveals that it’s a medieval fantasy, set in the Middle Ages, but with some convoluted and inconsistent building that hints at a non-Earth setting even though it’s so desperately trying to be alternate history. Kiernan cobbles together actual places and people groups with fake ones, making it a muddled world overall.

The thing that kept me reading might have been the plot, which had glimmers of hope. The mystery of why the crown prince is reportedly rebelling was vaguely interesting, and the end of the book, with Wynter leaving to go find him (although it’s never stated why, exactly, she’s doing this), was intriguing. The rest of it was as muddled and melodramatic as the plot and the characters, but slivers of interest kept poking up amidst the muck.

Or maybe the thing that kept me reading The Poison Throne was the “It’s so bad it’s good” concept or the “can’t stop watching this train wreck” concept. Every page I turned, every chapter where I half-thought I would close the book, was the page or the chapter where I thought, “Well, maybe just one more, just to see what happens.” I’m certainly not a fan of The Poison Throne, nor do I consider it above a mediocre fantasy (if even that), but it’s one of those books where, if I was browsing the library shelves and had nothing else I wanted to read, I might just pick up the sequel. You know—just to see what happens.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence, a small snippet of swearing.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

“Where is Alberon, Razi?” Wynter asked. She kept her voice low and only glanced sideways at him. They had had no contact for the last five years; had, until now, not even been sure if the other survived. Now, questions, if asked at all, would have to be asked gently, obliquely, for fear of opening old wounds or uncovering secrets best left hidden.

Razi cleared his throat and shook his head. “I don’t know where Albi is, little sister. He is not here. Father says…Father says that he has sent him to the coast, to inspect the fleet.” Their eyes met briefly and Wynter looked away.

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Rose & Thorn by Sarah Prineas

Rose & Thorn, by Sarah Prineas, was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster. It is the sequel to Ash & Bramble.

After the spell protecting her is destroyed, Rose seeks safety in the world outside the valley she had called home. She’s been kept hidden all her life to delay the three curses she was born with—curses that will put her into her own fairy tale and a century-long slumber. Accompanied by the handsome and mysterious Watcher, Griff, and his witty and warmhearted partner, Quirk, Rose tries to escape from the ties that bind her to her story. But will the path they take lead them to freedom, or will it bring them straight into the fairy tale they are trying to avoid?

Rating: 4/5

Rose & Thorn is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, though perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s a reimaging. Rose & Thorn is a sequel of sorts to Ash & Bramble, which set up the idea of Story forcing people to fulfill fairy tales over and over. So, the main goal of the characters is to not have the original fairy tale happen, so things go a little differently than one might expect (although saying that may be spoilery, but oh well).

It’s a beautiful retelling of Sleeping Beauty, a fairy tale I don’t actually much like, and there’s loads of originality throughout. Rose is a great protagonist, the type of female protagonist I like. She’s not all gung-ho, “I can do everything cool and awesome” warrior-esque, which can get so tiring and boring. She’s much quieter and understated, which I prefer.

The romance was a little boring, but I find most romances boring in YA since it’s so clearly designed to appeal to teenagers. Griff as a character, at least, was interesting, although I thought the ending was a little rushed—it was believable, but definitely could have been more so in terms of his change.

The main problem of Rose & Thorn, and of Prineas’s fairytale retellings in general, is the concept of Story as this malevolent force that constrains people to its will somehow (through a Godmother, but then at the end it’s revealed it can act on its own, so why does it need a Godmother?) and forces them into fairy tales over and over. But not all stories are Story, only some—if they’re “your own stories,” whatever that is (seemingly the one you want). What if the story you want is the same one that Story wants? Anyway, it’s a little hard to swallow and several times it seems a little forced in the story, as if Prineas also realizes that an idea like Story is hard to convey or accept as realistic.

However, despite the problems of its underlying concept, Rose & Thorn is an imaginative, fresh retelling of Sleeping Beauty with memorable characters (even if you haven’t read Ash & Bramble) and an interesting protagonist, and carries enough appeal to make me want to keep reading Prineas’s fairy tale retellings.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale, Young Adult

“Ohhhh,” I breathed. This was the Forest. It had offered the clearing as a baited trap, I realized, and it had reached out to take me as I slept. Merry had told me that the Forest was evil, and maybe I should’ve been frightened, but I suddenly felt excited. Ready to go where the Forest led me.

It was, I realized, my story beginning. “Once upon a time…,” I whispered to myself.

I ate a quick bite of breakfast, rebraided my hair, washed my face in the stream—which hadn’t disappeared, like the road—put on my cloak, slung my knapsack over my shoulders, and, ready to start, turned in a slow circle, looking for a way through the trees.

“Once upon a time,” I repeated, “there was a girl who was searching for a path through an enchanted forest.”

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