Review: The Dream Thieves

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater. Book II of the Raven Cycle. Sequel to Book I – The Raven Boys. Scholastic. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: In Book I, Blue Sargent became friends with the “Raven Boys” — Richard Campbell Gansey III, Ronan Lynch, Adam Parrish, and Noah Czarny. All had become involved in Gansey’s quest to discover in the Virginia countryside the last resting place of the fifteenth century Welsh king, Owen Glendower. A significant step had been made in awaking the ley lines (lines of energy.) It had not been without cost, but all had been excited about the next step.

In The Dream Thieves, they discover that things aren’t as simple as they had hoped. Dangers come from both the outside and the inside. Ronan had confessed to a specific power at the end of The Raven Boys: the ability to bring things out of dreams. What are the limits of this power? Where did it come from? And will it help, or hurt, their quest?

The Good: As a quick recap on our crew: Blue is the local girl from a family of psychics, raised with the prediction that she would kill her true love with a kiss. Gansey is brilliant, rich, and driven is his search for Glendower. He’s the natural leader, but he doesn’t always see what is around him. Ronan’s father is dead and the family in a shambles. Adam, like Blue, is a local; he’s on scholarship at the elite (i.e., expensive) school that Gansey and Ronan attend. And, Noah — well. Noah is a ghost, killed years ago.

Ronan’s story drives The Dream Thieves, as the title tells. After his father’s brutal murder, the terms of his will were a bit — well, strange. “All of the money was theirs, but on one condition: [the three Lynch brothers] were never to set foot on the property again. They were to disturb neither the house nor its contents. Including their mother.” Their father is lost through death; their mother retreats into a type of depression/sadness; and the boys literally cannot return home. Ronan may have money like Gansey, but without family he’s lost. But, wait, three brothers? He has some family then, right? Not quite. His older brother is bossy, his youngest is, well, young.

Ronan’s created family are his friends. They are what matter to him. Gansey wants to find Glendower? Ronan is in. And, as it turns out, Ronan has his own gift that brings him to the search for Glendower. The ability to bring things out of dreams. If that sounds wonderful to you, remember your last nightmare. Would you want to bring that out of your dreams? It also turns out that Gansey’s quest isn’t enough. Ronan wants more excitement in his life, and he gets it from racing cars. Being as I’m not a car person, what I liked about this turn of plot wasn’t the racing itself. It was seeing another side of Ronan; it was seeing Ronan independent of Gansey; and it was seeing how what seemed a distraction turned out to be something significant.

In many ways, Ronan is my favorite.

But Gansey — Gansey is not so much my favorite, as the brightest light. The one who takes all the attention when he’s in the room and doesn’t even know it. The one who doesn’t always realize that he’s sometimes being an arrogant SOB. “Gansey could persuade even the sun to pause and give him the time.” Even with Ronan being my favorite, and Adam being the one I root for, Gansey — Gansey overpowers them both. He’s on the page and no one else matters.

Ronan, as I said, deals with that with his dreams and his racing. Adam, well, Adam already feels inferior because of his family and his poverty so doesn’t deal with it very well. Instead he fights it. Adam is so busy trying to prove his worth and earn his place that he lets some things slip away. (How can one not want Adam to succeed? If Gansey and Ronan were born on third base, walking confidently towards home base, Adam was born ten miles from the baseball field.)

In The Raven Boys, Blue and Adam were attracted to each other, and for part of The Dream Thieves they are sort-of a couple. As much a couple as they can be, given that Blue is going to avoid kissing. Blue’s avoidance, Adam’s own insecurities, leads to — well. Let me just say I loved how realistic this was, and all the feelings! And emotions! Of Blue and Adam.

Which brings me back to Blue. I loved, loved, loved how The Dream Thieves gives a deeper glimpse look into Blue’s family of psychics. I’m still not sure how all these women are related, and what would happen if one of them had a son, but I enjoyed them all. Which brings me to another favorite. (I do have a lot of favorite things in this book, don’t I?)

And that’s Maura and Norman Reedus. Um, OK, not Norman Reedus. But “Mr. Gray” is introduced in The Dream Thieves, in a particularly violent way, beating up Ronan’s older brother. The Gray Man — Mr. Gray — is an educated hit man. He works for hire, and right now is searching for something called the Greywaren. He ends up visiting the psychics and meeting Blue’s mother, Maura. Does the fact that I think of him as Norman Reedus give away that he is a bad guy who is really good, or a good guy who does bad things, or, I’m not quite sure but wowza the chemistry between Maura and Mr. Gray knocked my socks off. And, it led another layer to the story, to the quest.

Because, remember, there is the quest for Glendower. And amongst the car racing and dreams, the not kissing and the Greywaren, family obligations and jobs, there is still the quest. Yes, our intrepid band gets even closer to finding Glendower.

Needless to say: a Favorite Book Read in 2013, and when is the next book coming?

Other reviews: Forever Young Adult; Clear Eyes, Full Shelves; Teen Librarian Toolbox.

Review: Dark Triumph

Dark Triumph: His Fair Assassins, Book II by Robin LaFevers. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Nantes, Brittany, 1489.

Lady Sybella is deep in danger and intrigue. Part of it is because she has been trained by the convent of Saint Mortain to be an assassin.

Part of it is because her current assignment means she is living in the household of the nobleman d’Albret, a cruel, vicious, power-hungry man who is intent on capturing Anne, Duchess of Brittany, and forcing her into marriage so he can control her lands and her money. She is working on the side of the supporters of the duchess, and risks all to signal to the duchess’s troops that d’Albret is about to attack.

It is a dangerous place to be: if d’Albret discovers what she has done he will have her killed.

Lady Sybella is playing a dangerous game, but she knew that when she received this assignment. She accepted it, hoping that it would give her the chance to kill d’Albret.

Why?

D’Albret is her father. And no one knows better how much the man deserves to die.

The Good: This is a companion/sequel to Grave Mercy. Grave Mercy was about Ismae, another teenaged nun assassin sent out to under orders of the convent to help protect the young duchess and Brittany. Dark Triumph is about one of Ismae’s friends; and the next book, Mortal Heart, will be about a third friend, Annith. The events in Grave Mercy and Dark Triumph overlap, against two larger stories: the politics and battles of sixteenth century Brittany; and the mystery of Mortain.

“Saint Mortain” is the church taking an old god, the God of Death; and as first Ismae and then Sybella discover, Mortain is no myth. He is real, and he is their father. As daughters of Mortain — true daughters — their skills are not just the training in knives and death and poison that the nuns have provided. Sybella can sense people around her, feel their heartbeats; and she also can see the marque, a physical sign that only his daughters can see, that show a person is marked for death by an assassin. She (like Ismae before her) discovers that while the convent’s purpose is to serve Mortain, the nuns may not know everything about Mortain.

I adored Sybella! She is quite the different character than Ismae, who was a peasant girl rescued by the convent. Sybella is instead a noble woman, but that money did not protect her from the darkness within his father and the poison within his household. As Sybella herself says, “I did not arrive at the convent of Saint Mortain some green stripling. By the time I was sent there, my death count numbered three, and I had had two lovers besides.” Sybella is tough and hard; she plays the game; she does what she has to do.

And yet — Sybella has a softer side, one that she hides to the world. She has managed to get her two younger sisters away from her father’s household, so they are protected in a way she was not. When she discovers a maid has brought her younger sister to work, she arranges to help the girls escape, knowing the risks to the two young girls. That Sybella is so intent on protecting these younger girls should be a clue to some of what Sybella herself has been subject to.

Sybella helps an important prisoner escape, a powerful knight nicknamed “Beast.” He is wounded and she finds herself escaping with him. During that flight, Sybella is, perhaps for the first time in her life, beholden to no one: not to her father, not to her the convent. Oh, yes, she still has to make sure Beast gets safely to the duchess, and she is hardly alone — but she is not in the convent being told what to do. She is not in her father’s house, playing a role.

I loved, loved, loved that Sybella rescues Beast. She does not need rescuing; she can take care of herself; she can fight. I love that Beast likes Sybella’s toughness, but also that what she does, she does well, and she enjoys it. In short: he respects her. Yes, as they are fleeing the countryside, hiding from d’Albret’s forces and the French, there is tons of action and adventure, but there is also a growing bond between Beast and Sybella. A bond, an attraction, that Sybella knows can come to nothing because she is a daughter of Mortain, and she has dark secrets — heck, she hasn’t even been honest with Beast that she is d’Albret’s daughter.

So, yes, I loved the Sybella and Beast romance. Because it’s between equals, and it’s about respect, and it’s about admiration, and it’s about — well. I don’t want to give anything away. But it’s also about people being human, and accepting that in others. (That may be code for, among other things, Beast not caring that Sybella isn’t a virgin.)

Oh, and by Sybella “enjoys it”: it’s not that she enjoys killing people. She enjoys that she does something well. And she knows, thanks to the marque and her service to Mortain, and her own fierce moral code, that she is not killing innocents. The marque tells her people are fated to be dead at her hand; the truth she learns about Mortain, as well as her moral code, means she isn’t killing for pleasure. She’s killing when necessary, to protect those she loves and those she is loyal to. And she enjoys that she can do that: protect and defend.

And I also love how Sybella is not a victim. Some pretty terrible things have happened in her life; a few things shocked me. She’s been hurt, and that means she has scars and trust issues. But — she is not a victim. She’s a survivor.

As I mentioned, a third book is coming next year. Ismae made cameos in this story, so I’m sure Ismae and Sybella will appear, but Sybella’s journey and growth are complete in this volume. What remains open, to be resolved, are the future of Brittany and the role of Mortain. As I sad in my review of Grave Mercy, this is a time period and a place I knew very little about and I loved learning more about it. I’m really curious as to how this is all going to get resolved!

Don’t bother counting the “loves”; the answer is yes, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Stacked; Reading Rants; Wrapped in Books.

Review: Kiki Strike The Darkness Dwellers

Kiki Strike: The Darkness Dwellers by Kirsten Miller. Bloomsbury USA. 2013. Review copy from publisher. Sequel to Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City and Kiki Strike: The Empress’s Tomb.

The Plot: Kiki is back, along with Ananka (the narrator) and the other Irregulars: Luz, Oona, Betty and DeeDee. Inside the Shadow City told how the gang got together, and introduced the “Shadow City,” the tunnels and basements underneath New York City.

In The Empress’s Tomb, the Irregulars battled a criminal mastermind who also happened to be Oona’s father.

The Darkness Dwellers breaks the girls up — no, not that way. By geography. Kiki pursues justice for her murdered family by returning to Europe, and when she goes missing, disguise artist Betty follows her to France. Along the way, the Irregulars come across another mystery, involving spies, World War II, the Paris catacombs, proper etiquette, lost loves, crushes, and hair tonic.

The Good: The Darkness Dwellers begins with a quick recap that includes a listing of all the prominent characters, making it easy to catch up and remember who everyone is.

The girls are fifteen; and, as before, future-Ananka is telling the story. When the story splits up between three narrators (Ananka, Kiki and Betty), Ananka is clear that she is still telling the story, just with input from Kiki and Betty.

Quick points: all that was lovely and wonderful about the other two Kiki Strike books are found here. Girl power, smart girls, plots grounded in real history, fast action, amusing lines, mini lessons from Ananka, and terrific friendships.

The Darkness Dwellers shakes things up by moving some of the girls from New York to Paris. I adored the new history! I’m not sure whether or not this is the final Kiki Strike book, because Kiki’s own story as the lost heir of Pokrovia, fighting to expose her murderess aunt, is resolved. However, Ananka and Kiki have always been the two main characters; the second book focused on Oona and this focuses on Betty. That leaves possible books featuring Luz and DeeDee. In addition, the underground worlds of many cities can still be explored, such as Rome or Edinburgh.

I mentioned how boys didn’t figure that much into the first two books; with the girls getting older, well, it matters more here. But even then, wow, it’s from a girl-power perspective. Ananka has a crush on Betty’s boyfriend, Kaspar, and I love how The Darkness Dwellers addresses this. It’s the perfect mix of feelings and choice, with a whole lot of sisterhood trust.

Last words: The Darkness Dwellers was well worth the wait. This is a Favorite Book of 2013.

 

Review: Kiki Strike The Empress’s Tomb

Kiki Strike: The Empress’s Tomb by Kirsten Miller. Bloomsbury USA. 2007. Review copy from publisher. Sequel to Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City.

The Plot: In Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City, Kiki assembled the Irregulars, a group of disgraced former Girl Scouts who all have extraordinary talents and skills. Together, these fourteen year olds discovered the “Shadow City” under the streets of New York City and fought crime.

In The Empress’s Tomb, the continued exploration of the Shadow city leads the Irregulars face to face with the infamous leader of the criminal Fu-Tsang Gang, Lester Liu. Liu, it seems, has a close tie to the Irregulars.

Runaways, genius children, thieving squirrels, criminal masterminds, and issues of trust and friendship (as well as how to fight crime and avoid being sent to boarding school) are all part of the adventure!

The Good: Girl power to the infinity! This group of girls are smart, talented, and work for it. By “work for it,” I mean that Kiki Strike shows that talent or interest or brains is not enough: DeeDee, the chemist, tries different things out, experiments, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Betty’s disguises take time. Ananka, who also narrates, doesn’t just “know” things: she is shown reading and looking things up.

A hint of a romance for one of the girls is introduced in The Empress’s Tomb: it’s light, it’s fun, and, best of all, it’s a non-event for the group. There is no jealousy or triangles; no one views the possible relationship as threatening; no one views it as the ultimate goal. It just is.

As with the previous book, all the girls are around fourteen while the narrator (Ananka) is talking from sometime in the future. This is a terrific, fun middle school read, perfect for the younger young adult readers but with enough depth that readers of any age will enjoy it. By depth, I mean, if you look up the references or history the Irregulars encounter, such as the Bialystoker Synagogue, you’ll find it’s real.

The Kiki Strike books are a combination of mystery and adventure, all super-heightened. Put another way, they are the tween book mashup of James Bond and Jason Bourne, with the same type of coincidences, villains  and gadgets. For example, Kiki is actually a lost princess of Pokrovia whose entire family was murdered. Kaspar is a young runaway who lives in Central Park with trained giant squirrels.  There may or may not be ghosts. The adventure and the inventions and the mystery and the danger make this a great book for any reader who wants those in a book.

The first two books were released in 2006 and 2007; now, in 2013, the third book is coming out. The bad news is long-time readers had to wait for the third book; the good news is we can introduce new readers to the series who won’t have to wait for the third book!

Other reviews: Welcome to My Tweendom; Bookshelves of Doom; an interview with the author at Hip Writer Mama; Armchair Interviews; Miss Print.

Review: Kiki Strike Inside the Shadow City

Back in 2006, I reviewed Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller (Bloomsbury USA 2006). The sequel, Kiki Strike: The Empress’s Tomb, was published in 2007. The third book, Kiki Strike: The Darkness Dwellers is coming out January 2013. Bloomsbury is reissuing the first two books, with new covers (first image is the original, the second is the new one). In anticipation of this, I’m posting my original review of of Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City, with a few tweaks. While I’m tweaking, I didn’t reread so apologize for any errors.

The Plot: Ananka relates how she first met the legendary Kiki Strike six years before, when they were both twelve. Back then, she followed the mysterious vigilante Kiki and helped recruit the four other Irregulars, all uniquely talented Girl Scouts: DeeDee, scientific genius; Oona, expert forger; Betty, master of disguises; and Luz, inventor.

Kiki is the leader and Ananka is research girl.

The mission: to explore and map the mysterious New York City “Shadow City,” an underground labyrinth of rooms and tunnels and escape hatches. The girls realize that Kiki isn’t being honest with them, and when the exploration goes tragically wrong, Kiki disappears, the FBI shows up, and the Irregulars drift apart.

Two years later, strange robberies take place that only could be done with unique knowledge of the Shadow City. It has to be Kiki Strike; the girls band together one more time, to solve the crimes and find Kiki. But maybe Kiki will find them first . . .

The Good: This is a fabulous book; the writing and voice are amazing, the plot is fast moving,

Have you ever watched a movie with spies or a crime caper, where the team has been working together for years and they are skilled, capable, with chemistry and one liners? And have you ever wondered how the team got together? If so, Inside the Shadow City is for you. It has adventure, history, mystery, and humor. It’s a girl power book, but I also think your Alex Rider and Artemis Fowle fans will love it.

Inside the Shadow City celebrates brainy, nerdy, loner girls; and while I love Nick & Norah as much as the next girl, I know that I would never, ever be cool enough for them; I wouldn’t be hanging out with them at any NYC clubs. The Irregulars, tho? They’re my people. We’d have cafe au lait together.

Inside the Shadow City is intricate, and clever, and the girls are inspiring and likable and unique. It’s Harriet the Spy meets James Bond; you think Alex Rider is something? Well, imagine if Alex put together his own super spy organization.

Ananka is relating her past, so it’s a bit of tough reporter with a hint of fondness , as an 18 year old looks back on her youth. She’s worldly wise now, but not so much then, and it works perfectly. So while the book is about girls aged 12 to 14, it also has the sophistication of an older teen voice. Some examples: “Until the age of twelve, I led what most people would consider an unexceptional life. My activities on an average day could be boiled down to a flavorless mush; I went to school, I came home, I took a bath, and I went to bed. Though I’m certain I didn’t realize it at the time, I must have been terribly bored.”

And Kiki. Let’s just say, I want a Kiki Strike T-shirt and I want it now. One of the many joys of this book is that it is absolutely believable that a 12 year old 7th grader could assemble a crackerjack team of other 12 year olds. Kiki is intelligent, mysterious, driven, talented, and sometimes cranky and demanding.

I love the time frame in this book; in addition to the whole book being a flash back told by 18 year old Ananka, it’s also a story that takes four years to unfold. Four years! Why? Because teams don’t just happen. Good plans aren’t made in twenty four hours. It takes weeks and months, and this book allows that to happen.

Between the Irregulars and the bad guys, Miller juggles a big cast of characters and does it well. The girls are a mix of ethnicities and income levels and families, which sometimes causes tensions.

Almost every chapter ends with helpful spy / detective tips from Ananka. “Until now, [my] diaries have sat undisturbed on my bedroom shelves, cleverly disguised as Harlequin romances.” Tips include How to Take Advantage of Being a Girl; How to Catch A Lie; How to Prepare for Adventure.

I mentioned history; Inside the Shadow City takes place in New York City, and many of the places mentioned are real. I so want to take a Kiki Strike City Tour now! It’s one of hidden houses, cemeteries, castles, inns and cafes and streets were murders took place not so long ago.

While this book stands alone, there is room for sequels. I cannot wait to jump on the Vespa and join Kiki and the Irregulars in a new round of adventures. This book is for teens; but I would recommend it to younger readers and also to adults. It went on my Favorite Books Read in 2006 list.

More quotes I adored:

The good news is, with the right attitude and attention to detail, you can become whatever you want.”

If by now you’re a little confused, don’t be too hard on yourself. Life is confusing, and anyone who claims that she has all the answers has probably uncovered the wrong ones.”

I decide that the real lesson to be learned from fairy tales is that things are rarely what they seem.

 

Review: Adaptation

Adaptation by Malinda Lo. Little, Brown. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Reese and David are returning home from nationals for debate  (they lost, don’t ask) when the world seems to go crazy. They are at the airport when birds begin attacking planes; a series of crashes forces the shut down of all air travel. Their teacher manages to rent a car for the long drive home from Phoenix to San Francisco, but panic on the streets has led to traffic, road closures, evacuations, and worse.

The car hits a bird and crashes; twenty-odd days later, Reese wakes up on a military base. She and David are lucky to be alive. They return home, to relieved parents, to a world that is has recovered from the panic but still has some measure, such as curfews, in place.

All seems normal; even Reese’s best friend, Julian, still believes in conspiracy theories. Only thing is now his theories involve birds and what’s been happening after the crashes. Things even start looking up for Reese personally. After a disastrous encounter with her crush, David, before nationals (don’t ask), Reese meets someone new. All seems normal.

Seems normal.

Except, it’s not. What happened with the birds? And what happened to Reese and David in the military hospital? Why did they have to sign confidentiality agreements about their treatment? Reese is noticing strange things, having strange dreams —

It all comes together in a way Reese couldn’t imagine, couldn’t predict, when she saw the first birds die outside a Phoenix airport.

The Good: So many twists and turns! Just when I thought, aha, THIS is what is going on, BAM, twist, BAM, secret, BAM, not what you think. Why would I ruin this roller coaster adventure ride for you by telling those secrets?

As you can imagine, from that, Adaptation has action and adventure and romance and science fiction, along with other things, and it’s all woven together wonderfully. More than wove together; sometimes, those elements are almost red herrings for what is “really” going on. One minute, birds are attacking and Reese and David are in a horror-type movie, taking a road trip from hell to get back home; the next, they are in a hospital wondering just what happened during the previous month. Next thing, Reese is home and adjusting to being back home, and part of that includes meeting Amber Gray, the girl who sets Reese’s heart racing, so things slow down, a bit, to a cute romance.

Or should I say hot romance? “[Amber] pulled at her hand, like a girl tugging on the string of a balloon that has floated nearly all the way up to the sky, and just like that balloon, Reese felt herself drawn downward, half-floating, half-sinking, towards Amber.”

Reese is dating Amber, adjusting to the realization that she likes girls (but she also likes David), but that doesn’t stop Reese’s nightmares or concerns about what went on while she was at that military base.

Reese, Amber, David — let me say this is one of my favorite love triangles in a YA book. Reese is attracted to both Amber and David; there are no good or bad guys. Yes, Reese likes boys and girls (well, at least one boy,  David, and one girl, Amber), and that’s another aspect about Adaptation. It’s multicultural and diverse, in a casual way, meaning it’s no big deal. It’s not a thing. The teens and adults in Adaptation are straight, bi, and gay; they are white, African American, Asian American. Except, it is a big deal to YA readers because too often the “default” for books is all white, all straight.

Because Adaptation is as diverse as our society. Because it kept twisting and turning, from adventure to romance to love triangle to conspiracy theories. Because I didn’t realize just where it was going to go, even though all the clues were there. Because Reese is smart and vulnerable. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Review: Grave Mercy

Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin, Book 1) by Robin LaFevers. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Brittany, 1588. Ismae, seventeen, was rescued years ago from her former life as the abused daughter of a turnip farmer to enter the service of the god of Death at the Convent of St. Mortain. As it is explained to her, the Christians call the old gods saints. Ismae is already marked, physically, as a daughter of Mortain and it turns out she has other natural talents, as well. She has a choice: if she wants, she can remain at the convent and be trained as a handmaiden of Death, learning all the ways that one can kill in service to Mortain. Ismae just has to promise obedience to those who serve Death.

Ismae says yes; and now she is embarking on her first tests, her first missions as an assassin. Mortain, whether saint or god, is there to protect Brittany and punish those who betray her. With neighboring France hungry to expand its borders, especially now that the old Duke is dead and his heir is a twelve year old girl, there are many who bear the mark of Mortain and who deserve death. Ismae just has to find them; and she finds them by following the orders of her convent.

An assassin’s job is clear: identify the target, confirm that he’s been marked, perform your task. Done. Ismae is prepared and eager.

Until Ismae is ordered to go to the court of the child duchess, to confirm the convent’s suspicions about who is a traitor to Brittany. Her guise? Mistress to a well connected man. Is Ismae, the farmer’s daughter, in over her head? Has the convent prepared her for court intrigue? And what happens when she does the last thing anyone would imagine — and begins to not only develop feelings for the suspected traitor, but also to question to convent’s wisdom.

The Good: You know, “nun assassins” is enough, isn’t it? (Or is it assassin nuns?)

It’s even better than that; because Grave Mercy is more, much more, than just a clever concept and quick book talk.

This is Ismae’s story, and she begins with her marriage three years before to a man as abusive as her father. She begins with the poverty and dirt of her early years; and how she was physically marked by the poison that her mother used in trying to get rid of Ismae before her birth. Once at the convent, she meets two other novitiates around her age, Annith and Sybella, and together they are trained by the sisters of St. Mortain. Having seen Ismae’s abuse, and the condition Sybella is in once she is at the convent, one can understand just why she agrees to enter the sisterhood of assassins. Not only that, but there are signs that are unmistakable that Mortain is real and powerful, signs beyond Ismae surviving poisoning as an infant.

Ismae’s background, then, is that of a peasant first and then of a protected schoolgirl. Yes, a schoolgirl who has been taught to fight, to kill, to poison; who has been taught “womanly arts” and history, but, admittedly, sometimes Ismae skipped those lessons. Still, all of that is lessons, and Grave Mercy takes Ismae to places beyond the classroom. It quickly becomes clear, at least to the reader, that while Ismae has been well trained as an assassin, the lessons on spying and intrigue were not as well learned. That is part of the reason that Grave Mercy is so terrific: Ismae is strong and bright and clever and talented, yes, but she is not flawless or all knowing or perfect. She is real.

The setting for Grave Mercy is the late sixteenth century, in a Europe where battles and wars were being fought for both independence and to create nations. Honestly, my knowledge of this time period in this geographical area was slim to none. The good news is that I needed no prior historical knowledge to follow along with what was happening, what was at stake, and who people were. The bad news is I may have Googled a bit to find out more about the history of the Duchy of Brittany and spoiled myself. Don’t do what I did, kids! The author’s website has some of the real history found in the book without giving away too many spoilers.

Yes, this is a work of historical fiction; it’s also an action adventure book (nun assassins, remember?) full of intrigue and poisonings and crossbows and knives and battles. It is also a romance, and because I didn’t read many reviews before beginning Grave Mercy (just enough to know a lot of people were loving  it) I was a bit surprised to find that out! Surprised in the best possible way because I loved the romance: a bit star-crossed, with two people committed to doing the right thing and unsure of whether the other person was quite trustworthy. Seriously, Ismae is the narrator and so of course we love her, but would you trust an assassin raised by nuns who is convinced that everything she does is guided by the hand of a god and that she never makes a mistake?

As the title indicates, this is the first in a series. But GUESS WHAT. You know how I love when books in a series are related to each other, rather than continuing one person’s story? Like Finnikin of the Rock and Froi of the Exiles? THIS IS LIKE THAT. ONLY WITH NUN ASSASSINS. The second book is about Sybella; the third will feature Annith. YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW HAPPY THAT MAKES ME. Well, I guess using all caps gives it away. Not only do I look forward to learning more about Sybella and Annith, I get to learn more about Ismae by finding out how Sybella and Annith see her. Plus, what this means to you, dear reader, is that you can read Grave Mercy knowing that Ismae’s tale has been told in this one volume; and even if the story goes on, as it will be told by Sybella and then Annith, Ismae’s story is complete. As a reader, I like knowing that, while I also like knowing I will, no doubt, get a peak at Ismae in the future books.

Because nun assassins. Because Brittany in 1588. Because all the real-life people that are in it. Because of Ismae. Because of Gavriel (and I cannot believe I held back on saying how much I love Gavriel.) Because Mortain, whether as saint or god, is real. For all these reasons, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Book Smugglers (a joint review); Reading Rants; Stacked; Angieville.

Review: Out of Sight, Out of Time

Out of Sight, Out of Time by Ally Carter. Disney Hyperion Books, an imprint of Disney Book Group. 2012. Personal copy.

The Plot: Cammie Morgan awakes to find herself in a strange bed, in a strange country. Worst of all? A several month block of time is missing from her memory. The last thing she knew, it was the end of the school year and she was leaving, on her own, without telling anyone, to discover more about the secret Circle of Cavan that had targeted her. The wounds on her body tells her things may have happened that she doesn’t want to remember.

Cammie’s going to need all her strength, all her spy skills, all her smarts, and all her friends to figure out what happened to her. Only problem is — when you run away from home, even though people are happy you’re alive, they’re still mad that you left.

Previously, in the Gallagher Girls saga:

Cammie Morgan and the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women (AKA a school for super spies) were introduced in I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have To Kill You. Cammie juggled spy school, friendships, and secretly dating a town boy who knows nothing about spies or spy schools. Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy introduced a new layer to Cammie’s world: boy spies from the Blackthorne Institute including a maddening, heart pounding, annoying, (and so cute!) Zach. Cammie and friends prevent a kidnapping in Don’t Judge a Girl by Her Cover. More secrets about the Gallagher Academy, Blackthorne, spies, family and friends are uncovered in Only the Good Spy Young.

The Good:  My brief series spiel: yes, this is best read in order. Yes, this is a terrific addition to the series.

What I like about Carter’s series is that she gives readers both what they want (the predictability of a spy story) with what they need (new story and series elements). What I also liked: I had half-suspected that Carter’s overall series arc wasn’t plotted out until the second book, based on who was mentioned and what happened and the like. I had a moment of awesome squee when something from the first book, Love You, Kill You, was mentioned as being important to that arc. Yay!

How does Carter mix things up? Take Cammie: a classic Gallagher girl with mad spy skillz. Out of Sight, Out of Time changes that up, by putting Cammie in the strange position of loss of memory with evidence that what happened to her was bad: “Blood and dirt were caked under [my fingernails] as if I’d crawled out of my school and halfway across the world on my hands and knees to reach that narrow bed.” That Cammie is in this position at all meant, also, that whatever she did over her summer vacation, whatever she did in hunting for information about the Circle of Cavan, it went bad, bad enough for her to be bloody and broken in bed. Bad enough to show that Cammie is not the perfect spy some of us (um, me) had begun to think of her as.

Readers may recall Cammie’s tight group of friends, Liz, Macey and Bex, and boyfriend, Zach, who she trusts as if they were family. This, too, is shaken up, as well as Cammie’s relationship with her mother and aunt, because, well, she left. Trust has to be rebuilt on both sides.

Will Cammie regain her confidence? Will she find out what happened during the summer?

She’s a Gallagher Girl! She’s going to do that, and more.

Some classic quotes; “He looked at me like I was a crazy person. Trust me, I’m a teenage amnesiac. It’s a look I know pretty well.”Jet lag. It’s killed more people than anthrax.”

And the end! The end! All I’ll say is I had a big goofy grin on my face.

Because the Gallagher Girls are my go-to books when I want to be happy. Because these are books about confident, smart teenagers (both girls and boys). Because these books build on each other. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Emily’s Reading Room; Biblio File; ReaderGirlz (author interview).

Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson. Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Elisa, Princess of Orovalle, weds Alejandro de Vega, King of Joya d’Arena on her sixteenth birthday. Elisa is not just a princess; she is also the bearer of the blue Godstone, lodged in her belly button, a sign from God that she is destined for service.

Before Elisa leaves Orovalle for Joya, her older sister Alodia whispers to her, “trust no one.”

Elisa leaves Orovalle a child, protected, spoiled, indulged, soft. Her marriage to Alejandro and journey to Joya begin an adventure that will change her from a child waiting for her destiny to a woman who makes her own destiny.

The Good: What a beginning! “I have been praying — no, begging — that King Alejandro de Vega, my future husband, will be ugly and old and fat.” Elisa, Princess of Orovalle, marries the King of Joya d’Arena on her sixteenth birthday, leaving her home and country for a strange land. Why does she make this prayer? “He will know that I am easily bored, that my dresses grow larger with every fitting, that I sweat like a beast during the desert summer. I pray we can be a match in some way. Maybe he had the pox when he was young. Maybe he can barely walk. I want a reason not to care when he turns away in disgust.”

As an infant, Elisa was chosen, literally, by God; the proof is the blue Godstone she bears. With her dual status of both princess and bearer, she has had a life of privilege and indulgence. For sixteen years, Elisa has done what she wants: she has studied, both religious texts like Scriptura Sancta and books about war like the Belleza Guerra. She has ignored politics and state functions, leaving that to her father and sister, the heir. She eats what she wants when she wants; she has never known what it is not to get what she wants. Despite this, she is not spoiled — she is simply young, sheltered, untested. Elisa’s first test is when the wedding party is attacked on its way to Joya. Elisa is the first to recognize the danger and to react; she gives sound advice based on her knowledge of military history; she saves herself and the two women who wait on her by thinking quickly and escaping a burning carriage through a trap door, and when Elisa sees someone else being attacked and about to die she grabs a knife and stabs.

Elisa’s adventure is about to begin, and part of the joy of The Girl of Fire and Thorns is how she triumphs, despite the hardships and challenges she faces: everything from kidnapping to sand storms. I loved Elisa; loved how a person can be a hero who spent their life in books and comfort. Elisa had no reason to learn sword fighting, to ride a horse, to be athletic, so she wasn’t. She doesn’t become some slim fighting machine; but she does transform herself into a person of action. At its heart, The Girl of Fire and Thorns is about a girl becoming a woman because she realizes her actions have consequences, that life is more than sitting back waiting for things to happen, and that she has choices.

The origin myth of this world is that “the First World died and God brought us here with his righteous first hand . . . [M]agic crawls beneath the skin of this world, desperate to squirm free. To combat it, God selects a champion every century, someone who can fight magic with magic.” A myth, except that Elisa is her generation’s champion and the physical proof of the truth of this story is the blue Godstone that appeared in her belly button while she was an infant; a stone that burns hot or cold depending on the danger she is in. Different legends and religious beliefs have arisen, to try to understand and interpret just what it means to be a bearer. Elisa thinks that all believe as those do in Orovalle, and she is devout (and who wouldn’t be, with a stone in their belly?); but she learns that other people have very different beliefs than the ones she was raised in. The Girl of Fire and Thorns is not so much a look at religion, as a look at how people believe in God and the structures and belief systems that arise to answer their questions.

Carson has created a wonderful, deep fantasy world, with names, food, architecture, language and peoples based on Spanish, Italian, Mediterranean and North African culture. The evil, cruel invaders are identified by their pale skin and unnatural blue eyes. And the world building! The Girl of Fire and Thorns is a triumph in how to show, not tell, backstory, in how to bring a reader into a strange, new world without any info dumping. By the time I finished this book, I knew there was so much more to this world that I look forward to revisiting it, in part to see what Elisa does next (note how I do not say what happens to Elisa next — she is now a doer), in part to find out more about Orovalle, Joya d’Arena, and Invierne, the land of the enemy. Invierne is clearly the enemy, and has done some horrific things, but Carson gives a whisper, a hint, a possibility that the Invierne are more than just barbarians.

What else do you need to know?

Elisa is fat. This is not a book about Elisa being fat; and there are a couple of characters I simply adore because it becomes clear that when they look at Elisa, they see her as beautiful and capable; they don’t see her as defined by whether or not she’s as slim as the fancy ladies at court.

Carson pulls no punches. Invierne is at war with Orovalle and Joya; war is not pretty. War is death and starvation; war is injury and mutilation. War is tough choices and living with the consequences of both choices and not making choices.

This is an epic, sweeping adventure; and yes, there is some romance and to say too much would, well, give too much away. But I will say I love, love, love the romantic elements in this book.

Because Elisa is such a wonderful, smart, unique main character; because The Girl of Fire and Thorns is about taking responsibility for one’s life and actions; because belief and God and religion is treated with respect; because the food made me drool; because for a few minutes I actually wondered how I could travel to Joya and see what Elisa sees and eats what she eats; for all this, The Girl of Fire and Thorns is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2011.

Review: Eon

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman. Penguin Books. 2008. Reviewed from audiobook by Brilliance Audio provided by Brilliance Audio. 2008. Narrated by Nancy Wu.

The Plot: Eon is a twelve year old boy. He has been training intensively for years to get the opportunity, along with a handful of other boys, to be selected by a magical dragon, thus becoming a Dragoneye. Sword work is difficult, because of an accident years ago that left Eon lame. Eon is gifted with magical gifts, able to see energy and dragons. He and the master who discovered him as a slave on a salt farm believe that these gifts will be enough to have the Rat Dragon choose Eon.

Eon has a secret. Eon is actually Eona, a sixteen year old girl.

Eon’s world is one with strict laws and beliefs about class and gender. A female Dragoneye? Ridiculous! Discovery means death. How far will Eon’s charade go? And who else will be swept into the intrigue?

The Good: Goodman creates a complex world, the Empire of the Celestial Dragons, with references to Chinese astrology and mythology. Dragons are real; the twelve Dragons each has an Dragoneye and each Dragoneye has an apprentice. Every twelve years, a dragon chooses a new apprentice, the former apprentice becomes a Master, and the old Master retires. The relationship between the Dragons and their Dragoneyes are complex; it takes those twelve years for the chosen boy to master the skills and gain the stamina needed to interact with the dragon and control it’s powers. The Dragon council work to serve the land, preventing natural disasters. They are supposed to be removed from politics, but as Eon/Eona soon learns, some Dragoneyes pursue power at any cost.

What to tell without revealing whether Eon is chosen as a Dragoneye? Well, the book is called Eon: Dragoneye Reborn. She gets what she desires, but not quite in the way she planned. Her masquerade gets more intense and complicated as the game escalates, and lies build upon lies. Eon’s game is simple: one of survival. She didn’t seek this out — her master bought her, and if she fails him, he can sell her, send her back to the salt farms. While she didn’t seek this life out, Eon quickly realizes she has a role to play, and an important one. How she embraces that, while juggling her lies, is fascinating. What is the right answer? Should she reveal her true self?

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn is also an interesting look at gender and gender roles. Eona hides herself as Eon to gain opportunities barred from women. She muses on how learning how to be a boy is much more than wearing trousers. Eunuchs also play a role; and a major character is a Contraire, a man who lives as a woman. The Emporor has concubines. Class and rank also matter; and some implications are deadly. Part of the reason that political intrigue and danger exists is that the present Emperor did not follow protocol. When becoming Emperor, he should have executed all his younger brothers. He did not, and one of those brothers, Sethon is now a threat — a threat with power, because the trusting Emperor made his brother Commander in Chief of the Armies.

If you don’t like spoilers…. don’t read the title of the sequel!