Archenemies by Marissa Meyer

Archenemies, by Marissa Meyer, was published in 2018 by Feiwel and Friends. It is the sequel to Renegades.

Rating: 4/5

*minor spoilers*

I keep expecting to know how Meyer will do things, but the first book surprised me and this book, though it didn’t surprise me in the same way, still didn’t end the way I expected. The plot is a little more basic in this one: for the entire book, Nova’s goal is to steal Ace Anarchy’s helmet (which somehow amplifies his powers, but we’re never told how or why). There’s some side plots that crop up along the way—Agent N, which was introduced in the first book, and the Vitality Charm—but the main action at the end is focused around the helmet. This is a long book to have such a simple plot, and it definitely shows in areas.

Once again, I expected Nova’s identity as Nightmare to be revealed, and once again, it was not, except now it’s gotten to the point where I have no idea how Meyer can possibly pull any sort of happy ending out of this. Adrian is angry at Nightmare, Nova is angry at Sentinel—how can there be anything large enough to get past that? Will there be a mysterious big villain coming out of nowhere that requires them to team up? Or is Meyer going to use the number of times Nightmare and Sentinel get associated with things that they didn’t actually do be the thing that brings them back together?

Of course, I’m assuming the series will end with their identities being revealed, but now that I think about it, that doesn’t have to be the case. It may, in fact, be more interesting if they were never revealed.

The most interesting thing about these books is that Meyer has stuck strictly to Nova’s ideas of the Renegades throughout, never once showing another side. Not even Adrian’s point of view chapters have much to do with countering Nova’s ideas, and any opposite viewpoint is interspersed with Nova’s curt questions. It’s clear, especially at the end of the book, that Meyer wants us to agree with Nova.

I hope the plot for the third book is a bit more tricky and complex than this one, but otherwise I’m surprised by how much I’ve been enjoying this series. Hopefully Meyer doesn’t pull anything outrageous or annoying in the last book.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: LGBTQ+ themes

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction/Fantasy

Renegades by Marissa Meyer

Renegades, by Marissa Meyer, was published in 2017 by Feiwel and Friends.

Rating: 4/5

*minor spoilers*

Brandon Sanderson’s Reckoners series gave me a taste for superhero novels, so I decided to give Meyer’s (the author of Cinder) YA trilogy a shot. I liked her Lunar Chronicles well enough, except for Winter, so I figured I might enjoy this though it’s a different genre.

At first, I thought Renegades would be predictable. I mean, there’s only so many ways you can take a “girl infiltrates her enemy’s headquarters and seeks to overthrow them from the inside” plot. So, I figured that Nova would, in the course of her Renegade disguise, fall in love with Sketch/Adrian, but then discover that what she thought about the Renegades wasn’t true and/or get unmasked before she can do anything. The book would end with her true identity as a villain/Anarchist revealed.

Things looked good to be heading in that direction, until the very end when Meyer proved that she wasn’t just following a predictable, overused trope.

For one, Nova isn’t unmasked. For another, she still really and truly sticks to her Anarchist roots throughout, and while she learns a lot about the Renegades, she’s still dissatisfied with the way they run things (this whole book seems to be about Big Government Ruining Things because Nova is very into individual responsibility and not letting beaurocrats make all the decisions and solve all the problems). For a third, Meyer pulls a plot twist out of thin air at the very end of the book, a twist I didn’t see coming—and the great thing is, it didn’t come out of left field at all, AND it wasn’t particularly obvious.

So, in terms of plot, I can’t really fault Meyer. She did a much better job than I thought she would do, though the length of the book seems too long. There’s a stretch in the middle where everyone runs around a library that goes on forever. However, I can fault her for worldbuilding because it made very little sense. She’s simply too vague about the way things happened and nothing really is clear as to how things got the way they are. There’s no sense of place or time to the novel. Meyer seems to be being deliberately vague about many things like technology and other familiar things that would ground the novel, but then casually throws out words from modern day that fly in the face of a world-completely-changed narrative.

In addition, while several of the superpowers are clever (especially Sketch’s power) and most are standard ones you can think of, some are mindboggling strange. Like Ruby/Red Assassin, who swallowed some rubies and then suddenly has blood that turns into crystals??? What? And then there’s continuous mention of “bloodstone” with no reference as to what, exactly, that is…a drop of her blood that she uses as a jewel on her weapons? Or does she make weapons with her blood and then adorns each of them with this drop of blood (if so, why?)?

However, despite those things, as you can tell I still rated this a 4 out of 5, so my issues with the novel weren’t big enough to take away from my overall enjoyment of it, especially when Meyer changed things up and surprised me in a good way. The last (third) book just came out (though the end of this book seems to imply that it was originally only supposed to be 2 books), so I’m glad to read a series that’s actually finished already so I don’t have to wait too long.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Minor LGBTQ+ themes

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction/Fantasy

A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

A Curse So Dark and Lonely, by Brigid Kemmerer, was published in 2019 by Bloomsbury.

Rating: 4/5

A Curse So Dark and Lonely is continuing the streak of YA books that I’m pleasantly surprised with. It’s a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” involving parallel universes, curses, and a fairly decently developed world. Harper, a girl with cerebral palsy, is taken into another world in order to break the curse of the prince of that realm. The curse, of course, can only be broken by true love, but since Harper was kidnapped, she’s really not at all interested.

The thing that I was most impressed with was how Kemmerer resolved the curse. Honestly, overall, I thought she did a fantastic job with building the relationship between Harper and Rhen, and then to make it even better, she doesn’t rush the ending or force the characters into something that doesn’t make sense—instead, there’s a question raised, and a resolution to just try and figure things out. It was done really well, in my opinion, and it was a great way to “modernize” the “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale.

My biggest criticism is probably the parallel universe aspect of it. Harper being a character in the fantasy world makes no sense and would not have worked in the book at all, so I understand the idea behind having Harper be from Washington, D.C., but the parts involving her family back in D.C. were the weakest in the book. Kemmerer’s decision to give Harper’s family a loan shark background really didn’t work very well and seemed only to be used to generate drama, especially since nothing came of that side story, anyway. Scrap Jacob’s role as loan shark muscle and you still have all the incentive Harper needs to miss home and to want to return home later (i.e., her sick mother). So, that part fell a little flat because it didn’t really seem to contribute anything besides more drama that wasn’t needed.

Despite that, however, I really enjoyed A Curse So Dark and Lonely. It was not a traditional “Beauty and the Beast” retelling and I thought Kemmerer did a great job of making things new and original, and especially in changing certain things about the fairy tale that are more problematic and making them more realistic. There’s a sequel coming out eventually, so I might pick that up when it does!

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Realistic, Fairy Tale, Young Adult

Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George

Speak Easy, Speak Love, by McKelle George, was published in 2017 by Greenwillow.

Rating: 4/5

Speak Easy, Speak Love is a retelling/reimagining of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a play I’ve never read and only know vaguely from the one time I watched 10 Things I Hate About You. The setting is the Prohibition Era/Roaring Twenties/Jazz Age, and it has speakeasies, mobsters, jazz singers, female pursuit of advanced degrees, and lots of other fun (and not so fun) period references.

The characters and relationships are great. George does change things from Shakespeare’s original, but she develops the characters so that it makes sense. The stars of the show are, of course, Beatrice and Benedick, whose relationship grows slowly amidst insults, harsh truths, and mistaken beliefs based on well-meaning friends. The side relationships were all right, too, though sometimes following the convoluted mobster plots was really difficult. I understood almost nothing of what Prince was trying to do to help the speakeasy, nor what John was doing, and all the talk of routes and mobsters and rum runners was something I ended up just skipping over and trying not to figure out. I think the change George made to Hero’s relationship made sense in the context of her story, and everything was beautifully written and developed anyway so even if I was a hardcore Much Ado About Nothing fan, I think I still wouldn’t have minded (but you never know).

I’ve really been enjoying the YA I’ve been reading lately…I got Speak Easy, Speak Love on a whim, not sure if I would enjoy it, but I really did. The character development, setting, and writing were all great. I liked how developed the relationships were, even the non-romantic ones (like Benedick with his father). Overall, I was very pleasantly surprised.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Kissing, drinking.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult

House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig

House of Salt and Sorrows, by Erin A. Craig, was published in 2019 by Delacorte.

Rating: 4/5

House of Salt and Sorrows is a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”—kind of. In this version, there’s only 8 “princesses” alive at the beginning, and Craig really uses the fairy tale as more inspiration to weave her own ghostly, mythical story. I actually really enjoyed this book, despite the presence of tropes I don’t like such as insta-love/lust, based solely on the world, the story, and Craig’s wonderful writing.

Like I said, the story is inspired by “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” but Craig interprets and creates so many new and interesting things from it. I loved the plot and the whole mythology/supernatural vibe, and I especially liked how Craig managed to make each character stand out and, in the case of solving the mystery, not too suspicious. There wasn’t any one character that stood out as “oh, that’s the villain obviously” and the main plot twist was cleverly hidden and deftly revealed. Things get a little spooky, a little gory, and a little wacky at the end, but it fits Craig’s spooky, mythical setting perfectly.

Mainly the one thing I didn’t like was the insta-love between Cassius and Annaleigh. At least it’s sort of explained through his origins, but still—not my favorite. However, at least Craig made me forget about it for most of the book, and the ending was fine. I’ve gotten away from YA for a little bit, but I’m coming back to it slowly, and books like this remind me why.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Kissing, gruesome scenes.

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale, Young Adult

Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Spin the Dawn, by Elizabeth Lim, was published in 2019 by Random House.

Rating: 3/5

Spin the Dawn is one of those books where everyone screams about it based solely on the cover and the summary. It was all over Goodreads as well as some other websites I frequent that talk about books before it was even published. It seemed interesting to me, which is why I got it, though I shudder at any “girl disguises herself as boy” plot. I was also hoping for something more fairy-tale-like, which tends to be more palatable to me.

And, all right, the highest praise I can give it is that it was actually pretty good (and knowing my track record with YA, that’s high praise from me!). It didn’t make me want to tear my hair out or anything. Honestly, I thought the plot was handled nicely, even the girl-disguised-as-boy part, Maia was fairly interesting, and the romance was cute. Lim also manages to make a “girl saves boy” plot work, too, without ridiculous hoop-jumping and other eye-rolling plot conveniences.

I mean, there were places where I really wasn’t a fan. The first part of the sewing contest thing was a bit rocky because I thought Maia was too eager to use the scissors for being such a supposedly good tailor, and I thought Lim tried just a little too hard to give her flaws during that part. But the rest of the novel flowed much more nicely and in the end I actually believed Maia when she kept describing how she had changed because it was clearly developed. Also, the romance was cute, but wildly predictable and almost saccharinely sweet in places. Though I liked the successful and believable “girl saves boy,” that entire aspect was too predictable (though not, I suppose, the part at the end with the curse).

Spin the Dawn is probably one of the less irritating YA fantasy novels I’ve read recently. I did have some issues with it, but overall it was enjoyable and I liked the majority of it.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: The romance is between an eighteen (seventeen? I don’t remember)-year-old girl and a hundreds-of-years-old enchanter. There’s also lots of kissing and sleeping together, though the kissing is described much more. 

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

Lovely War by Julie Berry

Lovely War, by Julie Berry, was published in 2019 by Viking.

Rating: 4/5

Lovely War is one of those romance-centric war novels that make great indulgent reads and great sappy movies. Everything’s just so wholesome and sweet and lovely, and Berry pours in enough realism to make everything that much more grounded in something other than indulgence.

There’s Hazel and James, whose story line follows a fairly conventional plot, made more endearing by the beauty of Berry’s writing and the stark reality of World War I warfare. Then there’s Colette and Aubrey, who also have a fairly conventional romantic plot made more gritty and dark with racism. Really, nothing here is unique, but Berry does such a good job of weaving character, situation, and history together that the conventional romances are lifted and made more interesting and relevant.

Even more interesting is Berry’s decision of narrator to tell the story. There’s mythology mixed in with the World War I romance, as the goddess Aphrodite gives the tale of love to an audience consisting of Hephaestus, Apollo, Ares, and Hades. Berry manages to make the fickle, uncaring Greek gods sympathetic, and even gives them a sweet little romance of their own—words I’d never thought I would ever associate with Greek mythology. The inclusion of Aphrodite as narrator elevates the book and helps everything else become something much greater than merely the standard.

Lovely War’s plot is conventional, but its characters and style are anything but. The prose is just the right mix of beauty and clarity, the setting combined with the characters and the narrator is enthralling, and the history and research is comprehensive and illuminating. It falls just short of a perfect rating for me, but that’s only because I had no problems putting it down at night and it lacked the sort of pull that other books have had on me. Still, it’s one of the better young adult books I’ve read in quite a while.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Sexual implications/innuendo/suggestions, swearing, violence, death, racial slurs

Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly, was published in 2003 by Harcourt.

Rating: 3/5

I went into A Northern Light thinking I had never read it before, but I realized about halfway through that I had read it, but remembered almost nothing about it except for one particular scene. So, this was like reading the book for the first time.

I can see why it won so many accolades when it was published—girl power, ra ra, and things like that. It’s the story of (fictional) Mattie Gokey, who finds herself in the possession of the letters of (the real) Grace Brown, whose murder in 1906 by her boyfriend was fairly well publicized and inspired a novel called An American Tragedy. The letters are only a framework, though—the real story is about Mattie and her quest to go to New York for college, a path that’s littered with obstacles like family obligation, money, and the handsome boy next door.

Donnelly paints a fairly terrible situation for young women in 1906—powerless to do much and doomed to be housewives, preyed upon by men and ridiculed by society. Shocking pictures are painted by what happens with the female characters, such as Miss Baxter, whose abusive husband threatens to send her to a sanitarium if she keeps publishing poetry, and Emily Hubbard, who is the secret town prostitute (or something—it’s not particularly clear). Then, of course, we have Mattie, who struggles to balance her own family responsibilities with her desire to be a writer, and her own emotions of love/longing/loneliness.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the book, if only because I thought Donnelly was a little too heavy-handed, and I also thought much more could have been resolved between Mattie and her family. As it stands, Mattie’s leaving at the end, while clearly important, is marred by the sense that she’s abandoned her family. I get that the stronger takeaway is her decision to leave Royal because 1) she didn’t truly love him, she just loved the feelings/attention, and 2.) she was abandoning her desire to be with someone who was using her to fulfill his own desires, but I can’t help feeling a bit cheated that there wasn’t a stronger resolution with her family.

Anyway, if you like feminist novels, especially historical ones, then you’ll probably really enjoy A Northern Light. It highlights all the problems for women in the early twentieth century, even if it’s a bit heavy-handed by the time the end of the novel draws near. I found it interesting, but not intriguing; good, but not great. It held my attention, but not to the point where I didn’t want to put it down.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Sexual implications/innuendo/suggestions, swearing

Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction

Chime by Franny Billingsley

Chime, by Franny Billingsley, was published in 2011 by Dial.

Rating: 3/5        

This is one of those books where the cover art really doesn’t do the book any justice. In fact, the cover art is downright misleading, in my opinion. The cover suggests some sort of dark, brooding novel with Gothic undertones and maybe some paranormal activity mixed in. And, okay, the book is somewhat like that, but I don’t know…I felt a bit betrayed by the cover.

Chime is a book that certainly isn’t for everyone. It kind of isn’t really for me. The reason is that Billingsley’s prose is so lyrical and descriptive that it either draws people in or alienates them. I’m not a huge fan of prose like this, but I’m not against it, either, so I was really okay with it except in some parts where it got a little too nonsensical and poetic for my tastes.

The biggest selling point of Chime is the plot, really. Briony, convinced she’s a witch and destined to doom everyone around her, angsts and frets her way through most of the book, while falling in love with the town’s newest arrival, Eldric, and having to deal with the Old Ones (i.e., supernatural beings a la animism) in the swamp. Yet Billingsley draws a really nice balance between Briony’s angst and her strength, and the plot itself is really interesting, though perhaps a little too focused on Briony’s past rather than the present. Not everything is really made clear, such as the nature of Rose’s injury and its effect on her, and it gets a little too courtroom-drama-esque at the end, but the majority of it is woven beautifully together.

I’ve actually read this book before, while I was in college (I think), and I remembered it fairly well (though not the prose, strangely). It was not a surprisingly fantastic reread, but neither did it make me change my mind about the book. I enjoyed it when I read it then, and I enjoyed it now. Billingsley’s way of writing is really not my favorite, but the story itself—Briony’s struggles, her realizations about her past, and her relationship with Eldric—is beautifully done. 

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy/Supernatural

Full Ride by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Full Ride, by Margaret Peterson Haddix, was published in 2013 by Simon & Schuster.

Rating: 2/5

I devoured Haddix’s works as a middle-schooler; she and Caroline B. Cooney defined my reading as a 12-year-old. However, now that I’ve read a couple of books by her as an adult, I find her novels very underwhelming.

Full Ride is okay—much better than either The Always War or Under Their Skin, but not as nostalgic as Just Ella—though the book is probably about a hundred pages longer than it needed to be. There is just so much of Becca having inner monologues all the time about her feelings. And crying. And running. And internally yelling at her criminal father.

The plot was decent, though it seemed highly farfetched in several areas. Not even the author’s note where Haddix talks about how carefully she researched helped. I guess it’s because the whole plot revolves around con artists, so it’s harder to swallow because some areas are just so ridiculous that you can’t help thinking that something is fishy. And, unfortunately, sometimes things seem so ridiculous because the characters do ridiculous things or react in strange ways or interact in scenarios that seem unrealistic.

The best part of this book is probably the friendship between Becca and the group of high-achieving budding scholars. That was the most realistic aspect, and the interactions seemed natural. Everything was a lot less stilted and dramatic when those characters were together, so perhaps that’s why I enjoyed that part the most.

There are a lot of authors that I read in my childhood that I adore, but Haddix is not one of them anymore. I’ve so far thought of her books as no more than mediocre. I’m tempted to read Cooney to see if I feel the same about her. Sometimes there are just certain authors that you grow out of, I suppose!

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Realistic