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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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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Review – Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor


Muse of Nightmares
by Laini Taylor

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Length: 528 Pages

Release date: October 2, 2018

Synopsis: 

In the wake of tragedy, neither Lazlo nor Sarai are who they were before. One a god, the other a ghost, they struggle to grasp the new boundaries of their selves as dark-minded Minya holds them hostage, intent on vengeance against Weep.

Lazlo faces an unthinkable choice—save the woman he loves, or everyone else?—while Sarai feels more helpless than ever. But is she? Sometimes, only the direst need can teach us our own depths, and Sarai, the muse of nightmares, has not yet discovered what she’s capable of.

As humans and godspawn reel in the aftermath of the citadel’s near fall, a new foe shatters their fragile hopes, and the mysteries of the Mesarthim are resurrected: Where did the gods come from, and why? What was done with thousands of children born in the citadel nursery? And most important of all, as forgotten doors are opened and new worlds revealed: Must heroes always slay monsters, or is it possible to save them instead?

Love and hate, revenge and redemption, destruction and salvation all clash in this gorgeous sequel to the New York Timesbestseller, Strange the Dreamer.

rating

five

“Once upon a time there was a silence that dreamed of becoming a song, and then I found you, and now everything is music.” 

Reading a highly anticipated sequel is a somewhat scary prospect, in a way. Will it live up to the first book or will it ruin the series for you? Laini Taylor delivers a worthy followup to Strange the Dreamer with Muse of Nightmares. Taylor has the rare talent of crafting a story which hinges on some extremely dark themes (including but not limited to rape, slavery, and the murder of children) without the overall tale feeling overwhelmingly dark. Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares are both imbued with a magical sense of light and hope.

Taylor introduces two new major characters in Muse of Nightmares, Kora and Nova, which makes the story feel fresh. It’s difficult to say much about this aspect of the story without getting into spoilers, but suffice it to say that the two are sisters with a deep, unbreakable bond. Like many characters in the world of Strange the Dreamer, their lives were thrown into turmoil by Skathis.

Arguably the most interesting character in this installment is Minya, however. Strange the Dreamer left us with a somewhat one dimensional image of the vengeance-driven little girl. This book introduces more nuance to her character and explores how the responsibilities of caring for the other godspawn as a child herself and in the wake of a hugely traumatic event has warped her emotions. Strange the Dreamer shows Minya has wrathful, perhaps irredeemable; Muse of Nightmares asks us to sympathize with her. Minya has some of the best character development in the duology in this book.

As in Strange the Dreamer, the world building in this novel is enchanting and immersive. The last page will leave you wishing to spend more time in this magical universe of Taylor’s creation.

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Review – Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik


Spinning Silver
by Naomi Novik

Genre: Fantasy, Retellings

Length: 480 Pages

Release date: July 10, 2018

Synopsis: 

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders… but her father isn’t a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife’s dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty–until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers’ pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed–and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.

But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it’s worth–especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.

rating

three

“But I had not known that I was strong enough to do any of those things until they were over and I had done them. I had to do the work first, not knowing.” 

Spinning Silver is a creative and enchanting re-imagining of the Rumpelstiltskin story. I really wanted to enjoy this book as much as it seems everyone else does; I definitely understand the appeal, but there were some things that simply didn’t work for me. Primarily, Novik is wrestling with what felt like too many POV characters; not all of these perspectives felt necessary. Miryem (the moneylender’s daughter), Wanda (a girl hired by Miryem’s family to work off her father’s debt), and Irina (the daughter of a duke) are the primary POV characters. Once Novik veers away from these perspectives, the story seems less engaging.

The number of perspectives also had the effect of bogging down the pace. (Listen, I love long fantasy novels. Brandon Sanderson has never let me down, and that man churns out pages like he’s single-handedly trying to kill the rainforest. Those novels never feel long to me, despite often being over 1,000 pages. Spinning Silver felt long to me, despite being under 500.)

That being said, there was a lot to like about this book as well. First and foremost, Spinning Silver features numerous strong female characters, with agency and nuance. Miryem was arguably the best developed and most sympathetic of the three. She takes on the duty of collecting her father’s debts of her own accord, because her father can’t or won’t do so. To prevent her family from starving, she feels she must make herself cold and somewhat unfeeling; she cannot accept excuses from her father’s debtors, or suddenly everyone will have excuses, and Miryem won’t have money to buy food to help her sick mother get well again. This is only the beginning of her troubles, and as the story progresses, she finds herself victim to the mysterious Staryk King, who rules the fey-like race that wreaks havoc of Miryem’s world.

Novik’s mythology is interesting; she draws on the folklore around Rumpelstiltskin for inspiration, but she weaves a whole new world around it. The result is a pretty balanced mixture of the comfortable and the strange. Spinning Silver may be an excellent choice for fans of The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss of American Gods, by Neil Gaiman.

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