The Red Labyrinth, by Meredith Tate (Review)

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The Red Labyrinth
by Meredith Tate

Genre: YA, Fantasy

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: June 4, 2019

Publisher: Flux

Synopsis: 

The massive labyrinth was built to protect Zadie Kalver’s isolated desert town. Unfortunately, living in the maze’s shadow makes her feel anything but safe. Even without its enchanted deathtraps and illusions, a mysterious killer named Dex lurks in its corridors, terrorizing anyone in his path.

But when Zadie’s best friend vanishes into the labyrinth-and everyone mysteriously forgets he exists- completing the maze becomes her only hope of saving him. In desperation, Zadie bribes the only person who knows the safe path through-Dex-into forming a tenuous alliance.

Navigating a deadly garden, a lethal blood-filled hourglass, and other traps-with an untrustworthy murderer for her guide-Zadie’s one wrong step from certain death. But with time running out before her friend (and secret crush) is lost forever, Zadie must reach the exit and find him. If Dex and the labyrinth don’t kill her first.

ratingtwo

My thanks to NetGalley and Flux for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

“People are more than the worst things they’ve ever done.”

Oh, gosh, this book had so much potential. There’s something so terribly frustrating about a fantasy novel with an interesting concept but paper-thin world-building. The world Zadie inhabits is intriguing, but seriously lacking in development. Zadie lives in a small town surrounded by a massive and ominous labyrinth. The town’s Leader lives in a remote mansion inside the labyrinth, seriously isolated from the people he’s meant to be leading and protecting, which doesn’t seem ominous at all to anyone, for some reason. Also, there’s Absolutely Nothing beyond the labyrinth beyond a total wasteland (according to Dear Leader), and no one really questions this much, either.

I’m not necessarily opposed to stories about brainwashed populations revering an undeserving leader; certainly this can be portrayed convincingly… but the dynamic here feels very odd. The Leader’s characterization of the outside world is accepted at face value despite the dismal conditions in Trinnea, but it doesn’t seem like there’s a cult-like level of devotion to the Leader which would make sense of this wholesale acceptance. Particularly among the “blanks” like Zadie, who are treated as second class citizens in every possible regard, one would expect more skepticism and resentment than is really seen in the story.

And, goodness, the character arcs. The two major male characters have painfully predictable developments from start to finish. (Minor spoilers ahead, I guess, but really it’s painfully obvious very early on that this is how things will develop.) Zadie has a huge crush on her best friend, Landon, and it’s obvious to everyone except the two of them that the feeling is mutual. (This is the friend the blurb mentions disappearing into the labyrinth.) Zadie has to rely on Dex, a ruthless killer and “devil of Trinnea,” to lead her to the center of the labyrinth if she has any hope of helping Landon.

Dex, of course, turns out to be a bad boy with a heart of gold who obviously just needed Zadie to bring out the good in him. (Ugh.) This leaves Landon on the outs, and since the good guy always has to get the girl, it turns out that Landon was a secret villain all along. Because of course he was.

The whole concept of the journey through the labyrinth was fun, but I wanted more from it. The trials felt a bit underwhelming and it always felt like the stakes could be a lot higher than they were. In one stage of the labyrinth, for example, Zadie has to give up her most treasured memory in order to get through. This could have been such a poignant moment were it not for the fact that Zadie feels rather under-developed as a protagonist.

Finally, the ending feels very rushed and abrupt, and the main focus there is clearly trying to set up a sequel. Unfortunately, given the lackluster opening of this story, I don’t think I’ll be able to stick around long enough to get a real conclusion.

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Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire


Middlegame
by Seanan McGuire

Genre: Fantasy

Length: 528 Pages

Release date: May 7, 2019

Publisher: Tor.com

Synopsis: 

New York Times bestselling and Alex, Nebula, and Hugo-Award-winning author Seanan McGuire introduces readers to a world of amoral alchemy, shadowy organizations, and impossible cities in the standalone fantasy, Middlegame.

Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story.

Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math.

Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realise it. They aren’t exactly gods, either. Not entirely. Not yet.

Meet Reed, skilled in the alchemical arts like his progenitor before him. Reed created Dodger and her brother. He’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise the twins to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own.

Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.

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My thanks to NetGalley and Tor.com for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

Middlegame is a deliciously dark and fun adult fantasy novel. Imagine one day finding out there was more than a grain of truth in the fairy tales you grew up reading. Roger and Dodger grew up in a world where a series of books about the “Up-and-Under,” written by Asphodel Baker, were hiding alchemical truths under a thin layer of fantasy. These two almost-twins find out that there is a lot more to the world and to themselves than they ever imagined.

While the story itself is a lot of fun (full of psychic links, time travel, and danger), the absolute high point of this book for me was exploring the relationship between Roger and Dodger. They meet for the first time in their own heads, with a seven-year-old Roger trying to convince himself that the girl’s voice in his head is just a new imaginary friend he’s dreamed up. Except… she knows things he doesn’t, mainly how to do the math homework he’s been totally failing to comprehend.

Roger and Dodger are polar opposites in a lot of ways; Roger lives for books and words, and Dodger lives for the straight-forward world of math. But they’re also two sides of the same coin, with their weird ability to see into each other’s minds and a strange sense of not truly belonging. They love one another fiercely and their bond really jumps off the page.

If I have any complaint about this book, it’s that the pacing can feel a bit off at times. At over 500 pages, it is a bit long, but for the most part is very engrossing. Given the sheer size of the book, it also seems odd that the rules of the universe don’t feel entirely pinned down, although perhaps this will vary from reader to reader, as I’m only passably familiar with a lot of the things McGuire employs in this book, like the Doctrine of Ethos, alchemy, and other vaguely magical concepts.

Middlegame is a highly ambitious novel and a perfect choice for those of us who like our books a bit on the weird side. Great for fans of books like The Seven 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (Stuart Turton), The Rithmatist (Brandon Sanderson), and Dark Matter (Blake Crouch).

**content warning: suicide attempt, violence, mild gore**

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Thank you for reading! This was my first Seanan McGuire book and I’ll definitely be checking out more of her work. Tell me about an author you’ve recently discovered in the comments!

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Review – Mirage, by Somaiya Daud


Mirage
by Somaiya Daud

Genre: YA, Fantasy

Length: 320 Pages

Release date: August 28, 2018

Synopsis: 

In a star system dominated by the brutal Vathek empire, eighteen-year-old Amani is a dreamer. She dreams of what life was like before the occupation; she dreams of writing poetry like the old-world poems she adores; she dreams of receiving a sign from Dihya that one day, she, too, will have adventure, and travel beyond her isolated moon.

But when adventure comes for Amani, it is not what she expects: she is kidnapped by the regime and taken in secret to the royal palace, where she discovers that she is nearly identical to the cruel half-Vathek Princess Maram. The princess is so hated by her conquered people that she requires a body double, someone to appear in public as Maram, ready to die in her place.

As Amani is forced into her new role, she can’t help but enjoy the palace’s beauty—and her time with the princess’ fiancé, Idris. But the glitter of the royal court belies a world of violence and fear. If Amani ever wishes to see her family again, she must play the princess to perfection…because one wrong move could lead to her death.

rating

three

“You do not kneel or bend, I told myself. To anyone. You continue.”

Can I just start by saying that I bought this book purely because of the beautiful cover. Seriously, look at it! I went into it totally blind without even reading the synopsis, so I had no idea what to expect. Mirage is part one of a three part series, and follows the story of Amani, a young woman who is kidnapped by royalty to serve as an expendable body double for the princess in potentially risky situations.

The book definitely feels like the first installment of a series in the worst possible way; it just feels very incomplete in a way that’s difficult to articulate, and I have to put that down to Daud working to set up the events of the next two novels. This actually wasn’t a huge issue for me, as I like some of the themes Daud is playing with, and I’m hoping that the payoff will be worth it in later books. This installment was super character-driven, which isn’t a huge issue in and of itself, but I’m hoping the sequel is a bit more plot-heavy.

It’s very obvious that the author is enamored with worldbuilding, and I do think the novel shines in that regard. Daud pulled from her own Moroccan heritage for inspiration in regards to establishing a culture in the novel, but she has set it in a science fiction environment, complete with imperial droids and colonies set up on moons. Mirage explores classism, colonization, and power dynamics in a really interesting and engaging way that meshes well with her worldbuilding. We see familiar political and cultural themes from the real world, and I think all the best science fiction does this. Lighthearted adventures in space are fun, but substance like this takes things up a notch.

Mirage also begins a romance subplot which will likely continue in the later books, and this was my least favorite aspect of the book. Like so many books in the young adult genre, Mirage seems to want to jump straight into the characters being totally enamored without much thought given to convincing the audience of this. Your mileage may vary here, but personally I was totally uninvested in this part of the story, and I was far more interested in exploring Amani’s fraught and complicated relationship with the princess.

I think more pages could have been devoted to showing the evolution of that relationship and Amani’s begrudging sense of sympathy for the princess, who she realizes has her own unique set of problems. Princess Maram is a deeply flawed person, and it never feels like Daud is trying to make us forget this, but her treatment of this character is nuanced, which I really appreciated. Maram is only half Vathek, a child of the Vathek king and the unwilling queen of the conquered people as a means to solidify his claim to her land. She is resented by her mother’s people as a symbol of the conquering class, and she is viewed with contempt by her father’s people for being an “impure” half-blood. Despite her position of privilege, she is without a place in the world (or entire star system, in this case) and she is in that sense a tragic character.

I wasn’t over the moon about this book, but I definitely enjoyed it enough to know I’ll pick up the next installment. My hopes for the next book: a bit less time in Amani’s head in favor of more plot development, make me buy into the romance or drop it altogether, and some kind of redemption arc for Maram. Amani and Maram should align their interests and take down the whole wretched system.

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Review – The Gilded Wolves, by Roshani Chokshi


The Gilded Wolves
by Roshani Chokshi

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

Length: 400 Pages

Release date: January 15, 2019

Publisher: Wednesday Books

Synopsis: 

Set in a darkly glamorous world, The Gilded Wolves is full of mystery, decadence, and dangerous but thrilling adventure.

Paris, 1889: The world is on the cusp of industry and power, and the Exposition Universelle has breathed new life into the streets and dredged up ancient secrets. In this city, no one keeps tabs on secrets better than treasure-hunter and wealthy hotelier, Séverin Montagnet-Alarie. But when the all-powerful society, the Order of Babel, seeks him out for help, Séverin is offered a treasure that he never imagined: his true inheritance.

To find the ancient artifact the Order seeks, Séverin will need help from a band of experts: An engineer with a debt to pay. A historian who can’t yet go home. A dancer with a sinister past. And a brother in all but blood, who might care too much.

Together, they’ll have to use their wits and knowledge to hunt the artifact through the dark and glittering heart of Paris. What they find might change the world, but only if they can stay alive.

rating

four

My thanks to Wednesday Books for sending me an ARC of this book through a Goodreads giveaway. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

The Gilded Wolves is a richly atmospheric, dark, and magical adventure in Paris. The setting will appeal to fans of both fantasy and historical fiction, and the cast of characters will absolutely steal your heart.

Let’s start with the cast: each character feels well developed and real, and Chokshi pays real attention to diversity in a substantial way. By that I mean that the story doesn’t simply have, for example, an Indian character purely for the sake of diversifying the cast. Laila is Indian and it matters that she is Indian. Her heritage impacts the ways he views the world around her and her feelings about those who want the pretty, shiny bits of Indian culture with no real appreciation for Indian people.

I truly love stories that can weave social issues into the narrative without it feeling shoe-horned in or overly preachy, and Chokshi accomplishes this beautifully. I am using Laila as a specific example here, but I really feel that all of the major characters have something analogous to this with respect to their specific backgrounds and identities. Also, bonus points go to Chokshi for writing a young adult romance subplot that didn’t constantly make me cringe, because that’s a rarity.

I was also a big fan of Chokshi’s world building within this novel. It is set in an alternate version of Paris in 1889 filled with magic and secret societies. The world gives off a kind of steampunk vibe, and the line between magic and technology feels a little blurry at times. The magic system, referred to as Forging, often involves enhancing ordinary objects using one’s magical abilities, although the nature of one’s magical abilities varies from person to person.

The plot itself is probably the one thing keeping me from rating this a full five stars. While the central story, Séverin and his friends’ hunt for a magical artifact and quest to reclaim his rightful inheritance, is fun in concept, it sometimes felt like the plot was secondary to everything else Chokshi was trying to do within the novel. I found myself more invested in the character development and understanding the magic system than I was in the heist at the center of it all. All in all, The Gilded Wolves is definitely a fun read and a solid four stars!

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Thank you for reading! Have you read any of Roshani Chokshi’s work? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
What’s the best YA fantasy novel you’ve read this year? Let’s discuss!

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Review – My Plain Jane


My Plain Jane
by Cynthia Hand,
Brodi Ashton,
& Jodi Meadows

Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Retellings

Length: 464 Pages

Release date: June 26, 2018

Synopsis: 

You may think you know the story. After a miserable childhood, penniless orphan Jane Eyre embarks on a new life as a governess at Thornfield Hall. There, she meets one dark, brooding Mr. Rochester. Despite their significant age gap (!) and his uneven temper (!!), they fall in love—and, Reader, she marries him. (!!!)

Or does she?

Prepare for an adventure of Gothic proportions, in which all is not as it seems, a certain gentleman is hiding more than skeletons in his closets, and one orphan Jane Eyre, aspiring author Charlotte Brontë, and supernatural investigator Alexander Blackwood are about to be drawn together on the most epic ghost hunt this side of Wuthering Heights.

rating

two

Let me preface this by saying that I thought My Lady Jane was loads of fun, and I went into this book with high hopes. My Plain Jane, like the prior installment of “The Lady Janies,” relies heavily on the reader connecting with the humor of the narrators. While My Lady Jane was good for more than a few chuckles, My Plain Jane fell rather flat. I was left with the overall impression that it was simply too ridiculous, which is really saying something, considering the prior book had a main character who frequently transformed into a horse.

But aside from the issues with the humor, I think I failed to connect with this book because the titular character simply did not feel like Jane Eyre to me. The narrators’ Jane is boy-crazy, unambitious, and bland. Her ability to see spirits should have been an easy route to make her more interesting, but her character simply never clicked with me. On a similar note, I was never cared much for Mr. Rochester in the original source material, but if you were, be forewarned that you will not be a fan of his characterization in this retelling. Despite Jane’s doe-eyed adoration, Mr. Rochester is not presented in flattering terms, to say the least.

Charlotte Brontë herself has also been inserted into the narrative; she was at Lowood with Jane and follows her after she leaves. She considers Jane to be her very best friend, and she is (of course) writing a novel with a protagonist inspired by Jane. The problem with the insertion of Charlotte is that she draws the focus away from Jane in a big way. While Charlotte is deeply attached to Jane, her story is also largely dominated by a desire to work with The Society (essentially, to become a ghost hunter) and a love interest. Jane has become almost a secondary character in the retelling of her own story. This is not necessarily a problem, but the plot lines pushing Jane out of the story must be sufficiently interesting to justify it. They were… not.

Perhaps My Lady Jane was too tough an act to follow. It was a weird, hilarious delight. My Plain Jane unfortunately fell short in comparison. I’m still curious to see what comes next in The Lady Janies series, but I’d recommend skipping this installment.

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Review – How to Fracture a Fairy Tale, by Jane Yolen

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How to Fracture a Fairy Tale
by Jane Yolen

Genre: Short Stories, Retellings

Length: 240 Pages

Release date: November 5, 2018

Publisher: Tachyon Publications

Synopsis:

Fantasy legend Jane Yolen (The Emerald Circus, The Devil’s Arithmetic) delights with this effortlessly wide-ranging offering of fractured fairy tales. Yolen fractures the classics to reveal their crystalline secrets, holding them to the light and presenting them entirely transformed; where a spinner of straw into gold becomes a money-changer and the big bad wolf retires to a nursing home. Rediscover the fables you once knew, rewritten and refined for the world we now live in―or a much better version of it.

rating

three

My thanks to NetGalley and Tachyon Publications for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher.

I have mixed feelings about this anthology, making it difficult to give it an overall rating that feels accurate. There were a few stories that I really enjoyed, but a few too many that never sufficiently grabbed my interest. I love fractured fairy tales, and think I was looking for more drastic changes from the original source material in some cases. What’s the point of writing a retelling without turning the whole story upside-down and making us think about it in a totally new light?

One thing that I loved about this collection was the sheer variety of stories and cultures represented. This anthology includes dragons, princesses, a vampire, and even time travel; you will find stories that feel like they could have been plucked out of a Brothers Grimm book as well as much more modern tales. The Jewish themes seemed to be the most prominent throughout the anthology, but Yolen has reworked tales from Europe, Asia, and more.

Here is a small sampling of the sources of inspiration for some of Yolen’s stories:

  • The Bridge’s Complaint – Billy Goats Gruff, Norwegian
  • One Ox, Two Ox, Three Ox, and the Dragon King – Chinese dragon stories
  • Brother Hart – Brothers Grimm story (Little Brother Little Sister)
  • Sun/Flight – Icarus, Greek Mythology
  • The Foxwife – figure from Japanese folklore
  • The Faery Flag – Scottish folklore
  • One Old Man, With Seals – Greek mythology
  • The Undine – inspired by Little Mermaid and various French stories
  • Sister Death – Jewish myth
  • The Woman Who Loved a Bear – Native American myth

The stories vary quite a bit in tone; many of them use somewhat antiquated language, while the occasional tale reads like something a friend is telling you over coffee. These differences helped to break up the anthology and keep it from feeling overly uniform or repetitive. The variety assures that there will be something in this collection for just about everyone. Whether you’re looking for something totally re-imagined, something with a classical feel, something whimsical, or something dark, you’ll find it somewhere in these pages.

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Review – My Lady Jane

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My Lady Jane
by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult, Fantasy

Length: 491 Pages

Release date: June 7, 2016

Synopsis: 

Edward (long live the king) is the King of England. He’s also dying, which is inconvenient, as he’s only sixteen and he’d much rather be planning for his first kiss than considering who will inherit his crown…

Jane (reads too many books) is Edward’s cousin, and far more interested in books than romance. Unfortunately for Jane, Edward has arranged to marry her off to secure the line of succession. And there’s something a little odd about her intended…

Gifford (call him G) is a horse. That is, he’s an Eðian (eth-y-un, for the uninitiated). Every day at dawn he becomes a noble chestnut steed—but then he wakes at dusk with a mouthful of hay. It’s all very undignified.

The plot thickens as Edward, Jane, and G are drawn into a dangerous conspiracy. With the fate of the kingdom at stake, our heroes will have to engage in some conspiring of their own. But can they pull off their plan before it’s off with their heads?

rating

four

This is a ridiculously fun novel, emphasis on the “ridiculous.” It’s an “alternate history” of England, where the driving conflict is between the Eðians (shapeshifting humans who can turn into animals) and the verities (who oppose the Eðians on religious grounds and denounce them as unnatural savages.) The novel is intensely humor-driven, with a splash of romance. If the humor doesn’t work for you, the novel as a whole will not, as it’s very much in your face for the majority of the story.

Our protagonist, the Lady Jane Grey (based on a real historical figure, like many of the major players in the book) is married off to Lord Gifford, who happens to be, much to her surprise… a horse. The two are married for political convenience at their first meeting, and there isn’t the slightest spark of affection between the two at the start. Jane is (understandably, I should think) upset at being married off to a horse without her knowledge; Gifford is similarly disappointed in the match, as Jane seems far more concerned about spending time with her books than with anything or anyone else. Their verbal sparring provides a good deal of the humor for the early portion of the book.

“No horse jokes,” he said.
“My lord, I apologize for the horse joke. If you put down the book—unharmed!—I will give you a carrot.”
He brandished the book at her. “Was that a horse joke?”
“Neigh.”
“Was that a horse joke?”

The characters are largely caricatures without a lot of depth, although that feels intentional. The novel as a whole has the feel of a humorous play. We aren’t meant to empathize with these characters (for the most part, anyway) so much as we are meant to laugh at them. Jane’s sole personality trait seems to be her undying love of books. Gifford spends half his time as a horse, so that doesn’t exactly give us a lot of time to explore his emotional depths. King Edward is defined primarily by his ambivalent feelings towards the throne and his desperate need to kiss a girl. The villains are a bit Disney villain-esque.

All in all, this is a fast-paced and intensely fun adventure, but it may make serious historians weep with the liberties with authors have taken with British history.

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