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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Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes

Falling Kingdoms, by Morgan Rhodes, was published in 2012 by Penguin.

In the three kingdoms of Mytica, magic has long been forgotten. And while hard-won peace has reigned for centuries, a deadly unrest now simmers below the surface. As the rulers of each kingdom grapple for power, the lives of their subjects are brutally transformed…and four key players, royals and rebels alike, find their fates forever intertwined. Cleo, Jonas, Lucia, and Magnus are caught in a dizzying world of treacherous betrayals, shocking murders, secret alliances, and even unforeseen love. The only outcome that’s certain is that kingdoms will fall. Who will emerge triumphant when all they know has collapsed?

Rating: 2/5

Reading Falling Kingdoms was like driving down a one-way street, knowing that there’s no way through but still wondering what the end will look like. I briefly considered putting it down about a third of the way through, but I kept reading.

Why did I keep reading, you ask? Well, it wasn’t because of the characters. Stock, predictable characters who do stupid things for the sake of the plot don’t really interest me. My favorite was probably Magnus, even though the “forbidden love” aspect was gross and annoying. And then we have Lucia, who is supposed to be a main, viewpoint character but is usually pushed aside in favor of Magnus. And Jonas, who is annoying. And Cleo, who’s exactly like every single female protagonist I’ve read in YA, which means the majority of readers probably love her. Oh, and her love story, which is so predictable you can see it coming before the book even starts.

I also didn’t keep reading because of the plot and world. The “this kingdom is oppressing this one and so it decides to fight back, oh and there are some evil kings who want to take over the world and some type of magic and a prophecy and some mystical items to find” plot isn’t developed nearly well enough to make up for its unoriginality, and the world is the standard magical kingdom variety, complete with dead goddesses and The One Sorcerer to Rule Them All.

So, what was it about Falling Kingdoms that made me finish the book and go, “Hmm, I could read the next one”? Since I didn’t enjoy any of the characters, the plot, or the world itself, I can’t honestly say. Maybe it was the simple feel of the book itself, that “you know I’ll be terrible but you want to read me anyway” atmosphere that exudes from books like these. Maybe I just like driving down one-way streets, because they might, somehow, end up somewhere interesting.

Recommended Age Range: 16+

Warnings: Incestual thoughts, violence, death.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

“I need to see him,” Jonas murmured. “I need to do what Tomas wanted to do. Things need to change.”

Brion looked at him with surprise. “So in two minutes you’ve gone from single-minded vengeance to potentially seeking audience with the chief.”

“You could put it that way.” Killing the royals, Jonas was realizing soberly, would have been a glorious moment of vengeance—a blaze of glory. But it would do nothing to help his people chart a new course for a brighter future. That was what Tomas would have wanted above all else.

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Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud

Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud was published in 2009 by Hyperion.

Halli Sveinsson has grown up in the House of Svein, hearing the legends of the heroes as all his forefathers did. Theirs is a peaceful society, where the violence of the past has been outlawed and disputes are settled by the Council. But young Halli has never quite seemed to fit in with the others. For starters, he is neither handsome nor tall, like his siblings. He’s stumpy and swarthy, with a quick mind and an aptitude for getting into trouble. Bored with everyday chores and sheepherding, he can’t help playing practical jokes on everyone, from Eyjolf, the old servant, to his brother and sister. But when he plays a trick on Ragnar of the House of Hakon, he goes too far, setting in motion a chain of events that will forever alter his destiny. Because of it, Halli will have to leave home and go on a hero’s quest. Along the way, he will encounter highway robbers, terrifying monsters, and a girl who may be as fearless as he is. In the end he will discover the truth about the legends, his family, and himself.

Rating: 2/5

In between his Bartimaeus trilogy and his Lockwood & Co. series, Stroud wrote this little Norse fantasy. Heroes of the Valley is, unfortunately, not a good representation of Stroud as an author, in my opinion. It’s not particularly funny, the main character is unlikeable for a good three quarters of the book, and the ending reveal is so random and strange that it falls flat on its face.

Halli is probably one of the most aggravating protagonists to read because he’s selfish, oafish, and unlikeable up to about the culmination of the plot, which happens close to the end of the book. Then he becomes fairly awesome, but it’s a sudden change, one that you can accept because of what he’s been through but still squint sideways at and wonder how, exactly, he changed so suddenly. I did like Aud, though. I don’t usually like female characters like her, but Aud was great.

Reading Heroes of the Valley after reading something like The Screaming Staircase is disappointing. It’s disappointing because I know Stroud is a better author than what this book shows. Heroes of the Valley is so generic, so absent of any of Stroud’s usual plot tricks and characterization that it almost feels as if it was written by a completely different person. To be honest, if this was the first book of Stroud’s I had picked up, I likely would not have picked up anything else of his. I’d recommend Stroud’s other works—but not this. There are better books to read.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence, death, rude humor.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

“Are there roads beyond the cairns?”

The old woman blinked. “Roads? Whatever do you mean?”

“Old ones that the settlers took. To get to this valley in the days before Svein. To other valleys, other people.”

Slowly, bemusedly, she shook her head. ‘If there were trails they will be lost. The settlement was long ago. Besides, there are no other valleys, no other people.”

“How do you know that?”

“How can there be roads, where the Trows are? They devour all who go there.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2kR5EGr

The Safe-Keeper’s Secret by Sharon Shinn

The Safe-Keeper’s Secret by Sharon Shinn was published in 2004 by Viking.

Damiana is Safe-Keeper in the small village of Tambleham. Neighbors and strangers alike come one by one, in secret, to tell her things they dare not share with anyone else, knowing that Damiana will keep them to herself. One late night, a mysterious visitor from the city arrives with an unusual secret for the Safe-Keeper—a newborn baby. Damiana, who is expecting her own child, agrees to take the foundling. She names him Reed and raises him side by side with her daughter, Fiona. As the years pass and the two children grow in to teenagers, they must come to terms with who they are—and who they may be.

Rating: 5/5

I was not expecting to be so caught up in The Safe-Keeper’s Daughter as I was while reading. Looking at the cover, I thought it looked interesting but might ultimately end up being contrived or disappointing or any other number of things to make it less than appealing to me. Starting the first chapter, I thought it seemed interesting but might end up becoming a trudge.

And then I became completely enthralled.

I’m not even sure what it was. Something about the characters, the world, and the conflict caught me up. I had a hard time putting the book down; not because it’s particularly gripping, but because I wanted to know what happened next. I was fascinated by the “magic” of the book, by the Safe-Keepers, the Truth-Tellers, and the Dream-Makers. I was struck by the tight bonds between the characters and the way those bonds shone through in their gatherings together. And I was intrigued by the mystery of the book, of the question of fathers and mothers and familial ties.

Of course, I guessed correctly halfway through the book, if only because I thought, “Wouldn’t it be neat if this turned out to be true?” and lo and behold, I turned out to be right. It was not a surprising reveal, but it was a satisfying one, and there was another reveal that I did not guess that fulfilled the “shock factor” (if also the “okay, I think that’s stretching it a little bit” factor).

The Safe-Keeper’s Daughter was neither a trudge nor a disappointment. I ate up every word, even after I had figured most of the plot out, and I’m glad that a book that at first glanced seemed like another poor fantasy turned out to be so appealing to me. I like it when books surprise me. I hope Shinn’s novels continue to do so.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Some dark secrets are told in the book. Beware of hints and tellings of murder, infidelity, abortion and incest.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Fiona gave him a sharp glance, then took the whistle from his hand. Putting her mouth against the blowhole and her fingers on the openings of the pipe, she breathed in.

But no sound came out.

She tried again and again, each time blowing harder, but the whistle would issue no music. “I don’t understand,” she said at last. “Why doesn’t it work? Is it broken?”

Thomas shook his head. He was still standing with his hand against the trunk of the tree, watching her with his shadowed eyes. “Because a kirrenberry tree won’t make a sound,” he said. “You can cut its branches to make two sticks that you hit together along with the beat in a reel—but they make no sound. Hit it with an ax and the tree yields up no ringing noise. Fell it in the forest, and you will not hear it toppling to the ground. A whistle makes no music. Birds who land in its branches forget their own songs.”

Now she was frowning. “That makes no sense.”

He nodded. “That’s why the kirrenberry tree is planted in front of the house of every Safe-Keeper in every village from her to the Cormeon Sea. Because a kirrenberry tree signifies silence.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2lupq7U

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Crooked Kingdom, by Leigh Bardugo, was published in 2016 by Henry Holt. It is the sequel to Six of Crows.

Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn’t think they’d survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they’re right back to fighting for their lives. Double-crossed and badly weakened, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend to Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz’s cunning and test the team’s fragile loyalties. A war will be waged on the city’s dark and twisting streets—a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of the Grisha world.

Rating: 4/5

I went into Crooked Kingdom knowing something big happens at the end, since people were screaming in Goodreads reviews about it, and I also had a fairly good idea about what that something bad would be. But before we talk about that, let me talk about my overall thoughts of the book.

I was pretty impressed with Bardugo in the Grisha trilogy, but she has clearly improved since then. Her writing is better, the plot is better, the characterization is hugely improved (except for one character, but I’ll get to that) and I thoroughly enjoyed this duology. Ruin and Rising let me down in the end, but Crooked Kingdom did not. My favorite moment of this book was the unexpected, small plot reveal made right at the end of the book, where I said “What?” out loud and then giggled in delight. I love authors who can so deftly weave a complex plot right under your nose and leave things hidden until the very end.

That being said, let’s move on to that Something Big that devastated most everyone who read the book—at least according to Goodreads. To be honest, I don’t know if the knowledge that something was going to happen ruined the moment for me, or if I would have felt as ambivalent about it even without knowing. And now I’m going to mention spoilers, so beware.

*SPOILERS BELOW*

Frankly, Matthias’s death didn’t affect me all that much because Matthias was probably my least favorite character. He was probably the blandest, most boring character of the bunch—and I know that’s an unpopular opinion, but as I said about the first book, Nina/Matthias was never my cup of tea.

Also, looking back, his death was incredibly telegraphed—there’s only so much “we’re going to be awesome and I’m going to change the minds of my people and everything will be roses and daisies” talk that can happen before you start thinking “this person is totally not going to fulfill this, probably because he’s going to die.” And Matthias also made the most sense as to which character would die; Kaz and Inej are too important and Bardugo probably would never dare to kill off either Jesper or Wylan, so it made sense that either Nina or Matthias would die. And since Nina gets a new power to struggle over, that left Matthias.  So, I’m inclined to think his death would not have surprised me even if I hadn’t been spoiled.

Bland Matthias aside, I really did enjoy Crooked Kingdom. It wasn’t quite as heist-centric as Six of Crows, but there was still a great capers plot and enough compelling and surprising twists to satisfy and surprise until the very end. Bardugo has definitely improved since the Grisha trilogy, and I would have to say that this duology is the stronger of the two series.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Homosexuality, violence, mentions of drugs and prostitution, death.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

“This is good for us,” said Kaz. “The Shu and the Fjerdans don’t know where to start looking for Kuwei, and all those diplos making trouble at the Stadhall are going to create some nice noise to distract Van Eck.”

“What happened at Smeet’s office?” Nina asked. “Did you find out where Van Eck is keeping her?”

“I have a pretty good idea. We strike tomorrow at midnight.”

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Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo, was published in 2015 by Henry Holt.

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone….A convict with a thirst for revenge; a sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager; a runaway with a privileged past; a spy known as the Wraith; a Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums; a thief with a gift for unlikely escapes…Kaz’s crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.

Rating: 4/5

Six of Crows is a little bit like Ocean’s Eleven crossed with Bardugo’s Grisha universe and some romance mixed in. It’s not necessary to have read Shadow and Bone or the other two books before reading this one, but they do help to fill in some of the gaps in the worldbuilding and some of the information about Ravka in this book is easier to understand and grasp the significance of if you’ve read the Grisha trilogy.

I loved the action and the complexity of Six of Crows, though it did get a bit tiresome at the end when Bardugo pulls the “here’s what a character did but oh, wait, you don’t know the full story and the ingenious thing they just pulled off until a little bit later.” I do like a limited narrator, so it was only the repetitiveness that grated at me a little, not the concept itself. The ending of the plot was a little obvious, but the reveals were good and even the parts that were obvious were gripping and suspenseful.

I do wish the romance would have been a little bit better, and I say that knowing that many people (according to reviews on Goodreads) loved it. I felt that it was a little predictable (six characters=an obvious three pairs of couples) and though the fan-favorite couple seems to be Nina and Matthias, I must admit that theirs was the most cliché, overused romance in the book, in my opinion. I’ve read maybe thirty different variants of the “I hate her but I love her” romance in various young adult novels. I much preferred the romance of Kaz and Inej, which is, if not less overused, at least less obvious about it.

I really enjoyed Six of Crows, flaws of predictability in romance and in some aspects of the plot aside, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else is in store for Kaz and his crew. Maybe an appearance by another character from the Grisha trilogy? One can only hope!

Recommended Age Range: 16+

Warnings: Violence, mentions of drugs and prostitution, death.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Twenty million kruge. What kind of job would this be? Kaz didn’t know anything about espionage or government squabbles, but why should stealing Bo Yul-Bayur from the Ice Court be any different form liberating valuables from a mercher’s safe? The most well-protected safe in the world, he reminded himself. He’d need a very specialized team, a desperate team that wouldn’t balk at the real possibility that they’d never come back from this job.

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Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Red Queen, by Victoria Aveyard, was published in 2015 by HarperCollins.

Mare Barrow’s World is divided by blood—those with red and those with silver. Mare and her family are lowly reds, destined to serve the Silver elite whose supernatural abilities make them nearly gods. Mare steals what she can to help her family survive, but a twist of fate leads her to the royal palace itself where, in front of the king and all his nobles, she discovers an ability she didn’t know she had. Except…her blood is Red. To his this impossibility, the king forces her into the role of a lost Silver princess and betroths her to one of his own sons. As Mare is drawn further into the Silver world, her actions put into motion a deadly and violent dance, pitting prince against prince and Mare against her own heart.

Rating: 1/5

I had no clue what this book was about before I started reading it, but it very quickly became apparent to me that Red Queen was very akin to The Selection. I don’t understand what it is with authors wanting their future queens of their fantasy world to compete for the prince. At least Aveyard explains it slightly better than Cass did.

Red Queen, besides its Selection-esque world, relies very heavily on love triangles and the overused, boring “the king of the country is corrupt and abuses a part of the population because they’re different/poor/whatever” plot archetype. Seriously, I am sick of reading books about revolutions and overthrowing the monarchy, especially when it’s combined with love triangles, a clueless protagonist, and hard-to-swallow plot twists. At least the ending twist was good, though I saw it coming a mile away.

Also, the author tried so hard to get us to buy the love triangle of Mare, Cal and Kilorn (or possibly Mare, Cal and Maven, or possibly Mare, Maven and Kilorn), but since Cal is described as both a compassionate ruler and an emotionless monster, and Kilorn is barely in the picture at all and until Mare mentions something about wanting children I wouldn’t have believed they were anything more than friends, it falls way flat. None of the characters were interesting except Maven, and I might have found Mare interesting if she was less clueless and if she wasn’t so obviously a Special Protagonist who all the girls hate and all the boys like.

I actually finished it, which is an accomplishment since I considered stopping multiple times, but I have zero interest in getting the next book. I learned my lesson with The Selection. I’m not going through all that nonsense again.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

“What Father is trying to say is htat she represents an opportunity for us,” Cal says, cutting in to explain. Unlike his brother, Cal’s voice is strong and authoritative. It’s the voice of a king. “If the Reds see her, a Silver by blood but Red by nature, raised up with us, they can be placated. It’s like an old fairy tale, a commoner becoming the princess. She’s their champion. They can look to her instead of terrorists.” And then, softer, but more important than anything else: “She’s a distraction.”

But this isn’t a fairy tale, or even a dream. This is a nightmare. I’m being locked away for the rest of my life, forced into being someone else. Into being one of them. A puppet. A show to keep people happy, quiet, and trampled.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2ip1dhM

Cybele’s Secret by Juliet Marillier

Cybele’s Secret, by Juliet Marillier, was published in 2008 by Alfred A. Knopf. It is the sequel to Wildwood Dancing.

For Paula, accompanying her merchant father on a trading voyage to Istanbul is a dream come true. They have come to this city of trade on a special mission to purchase a most rare artifact—a gift from the ancient goddess, Cybele, to her followers. It’s the only remnant of a lost, pagan cult. But no sooner have they arrived when it becomes clear they may be playing at a dangerous game. A colleague and friend of Paula’s father is found murdered. There are rumors of Cybele’s cult reviving within the very walls of Istanbul. And most telling of all, signs have begun to appear to Paula, urging her to unlock Cybele’s secret. Meanwhile, Paula doesn’t know who she can trust in Istanbul, and finds herself drawn to two very different men. As time begins to run out, Paula realizes they may all be tied up in the destiny of Cybele’s Gift, and she must solve the puzzle before unknown but deadly enemies catch up to her.

Rating: 3/5

Cybele’s Secret is not as strong or as beautiful as Wildwood Dancing, but I enjoyed it anyway, especially towards the end with the traverse through the cave solving riddles a la Indiana Jones. Paula is a great bookish, scholarly main character, and if the writing is a little stilted in places, that can easily be explained as Marillier capturing the character of Paula through the narration.

Cybele’s Secret is about as obvious as Wildwood Dancing was (so, very obvious), and I knew who the main villain was the second s/he appeared. Everything was just slightly too convenient and I waited about half of the book for the other shoe to drop until, finally, it did, just as I had predicted. The villain was also a little one-note and aloof, so that was a little disappointing, but at least by the time the villain was revealed I was too invested in the characters and the story to grumble much.

There’s also a love triangle, but to be honest, the third side of the triangle is so faint that it’s not really a love triangle at all. It’s more of a “there’s two men during Paula’s adventure that she can potentially hook up with so so we’ll call it a love triangle,” but Paula doesn’t waver between the two of them as with other love triangles. It’s very clear who Paula will end up marrying, and if the angst and heartache at the end is slightly contrived, the reunion between the two is still very sweet and touching.

I did prefer Wildwood Dancing, but Cybele’s Secret has its moments. The quests and riddles in the cave, the descriptions of Istanbul that make it come alive, and Paula’s sensible character all come together to make the book an enjoyable read, if one with an obvious villain and plot.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

A fragment caught my eye. I lifted it out with extreme care, for it was ancient and fragile. The script was ornate and regular. I guessed the language was Persian, for one or two such pieces had passed through Father’s hands over the years, and I recognized the style of decoration: tiny, vivid illustrations and elaborate hand-drawn borders full of scrolls and curlicues. The pictures were indeed strange. It was not clear whether the figures in them were of men, women, or animals. They reminded me vividly of the Other Kingdom, the fairy realm my sisters and I had visited every full moon through the years of my childhood. While my sisters were dancing, I had spent the better part of those nights in company with a group of most unusual scholars, and they had taught me to look beyond the obvious. Eithers these were images of just such a magical place, or they were heavy in symbolism. I could see a warrior with the head of a dog, a cat in a hooded cloak, a blindfolded women with a wolf, someone swinging on a rope…

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2fR0GEC

In the Shadow of the Lamp by Susanne Dunlap

In the Shadow of the Lamp, by Susanne Dunlap, was published in 2011 by Bloomsbury.

Rating: 2/5

It’s 1854, and Molly would give anything to change her circumstances as a lowly servant in a posh London house. So when she hears of an opportunity to join Florence Nightingale and her nurses in the Crimea, the promise of a new start—and perhaps even adventure—is too tempting to pass up. The work is grueling, the hospital conditions are deplorable, and Miss Nightingale proves to be a demanding leader. But before long, tending to sick and wounded British solders becomes more than just a mission of mercy; it becomes a mission of the heart when Molly finds that she’s falling in love with not one, but two young men. With the battle raging ever nearer, one of the men will fall victim to the great guns. Will it be the dashing young doctor who sees molly as more than just one of Nightingale’s nurses or the foot soldier who has left everything behind and joined the army to be near to her?

I should have known from the summary that In the Shadow of the Lamp would be a rough ride. It doesn’t even try to hide the love triangle romance. And it’s the worst kind of love triangle, with the unoriginal “Old Friend vs. Exciting Newcomer” (where 90% of the time the Old Friend wins) and with the protagonist thinking how much she loves her Old Friend, then when she meets the Newcomer is convinced that her Old Friend is just a friend and that she really loves the Newcomer, and then realizes at the end that the Old Friend was the one she loved the whole time, really.

And most of the time for these sorts of love triangles I always root for the Newcomer to win because they almost never do. They turn out to be cads and/or die.

So, yes, I was very unhappy with the love triangle. But the historical aspect of the novel was actually quite good. I liked the portrayal of Florence Nightingale and the realization the novel gives as to how profoundly she affected nursing during the Crimean War. And the bits on the actual nursing were good, too.

The one thing I didn’t understand was why Dunlap decided to throw in some sort of odd mysticism/fantastic element to the whole nursing thing. Was it just to stay true to the people who were present during the war or what? The whole “healing hands” thing was weird from start to finish. And it also made Maggie one of those protagonists who a.) everybody ends up liking and b.) has some sort of special insight into a topic that she beforehand knew nothing about. And her waffling between Will and Doctor Maclean was annoying, especially since I didn’t buy her romance with Will one bit.

In the Shadow of the Lamp is decent historical fiction, but has a terrible love triangle romance and the protagonist has too many flaws in terms of characterization. I liked the look at the Crimean War, but I could have done without everything else attached.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult

“These are the men who were just admitted last night,” Dr. Menzies said.

As my eyes became accustomed to the half light, I could make out shapes writhing on the floor. “Shapes” was all I could think to call them. Human bodies so mixed together and covered with blood and gore it seemed I was looking at a single creature.

“The wards are above. If you’ll follow me.”

We picked our way gingerly through the men on the floor to a staircase. Maybe upstairs in a proper ward there would be more order. My hopes didn’t last long. I heard Miss Nightingale exclaim before I reached the top of the staircase, “But there are no beds! And the linens are filthy. The stink is abominable. What is that surgeon over there doing?”

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