Review: Untold

Untold by Sarah Rees Brennan. The Lynburn Legacy, Book 2. Random House. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: In Unspoken, seventeen year old Kami Glass learned the truth about her village, Sorry-in-the-Vale. Short version: sorcerers are real. Kami’s family may not be sorcerers, but they have the potential to be something just as valuable: a source, magnifying a sorcerer’s magic.

In Untold, now that the secret is no longer so secret, the sorcerers want to take over her village, and reinstate the old ways. Real old ways: like human sacrifice.

Kami is not about to let that happen. Not to her village. 

So what if she’s not sure who is or isn’t a sorcerer? Or whose side anyone is on? Or that she’s not even quite sure where her own mother stands?

She’s Kami Glass. The sorcerers better watch out.

Well, if only it were that easy . . . .

The Good: Despite the fact that Untold is about evil sorcerers who view regular humans as below them in the food chain, so think that human sacrifice isn’t too much to ask, and has terrifying scarecrows coming to life to attack people, despite all that, I’d love to visit Sorry-in-the-Vale and hang out with Kami and her friends. (Well, as seventeen year old me.) Because Kami and her friends are funny and brave. Yes, they’re scared, but they don’t let that stop them.

I have to emphasize this great mix of humor and guts because Sarah Rees Brennan does it so splendidly. That I can laugh and be scared at the same time? Excellent.

Here’s a bit, where Kami’s friend Rusty describes the Lynburn cousins, Jared and Ash: “Jared and Ash – or, as I think of them, Sulky and Blondie – are still sorcerer trainees.” Not only did I laugh, but it’s a great, irreverent look that at the two powerful teen sorcerers that also reveals Rusty’s personality. And yes, Jared is all Mr. Broody while Ash is Mr. Handsome.

The first book, Unspoken, set up Kami’s world, introducing the reader gradually to the reality of magic and murder and sorcerers, of lies told to protect and to mislead. Now that the rules are set up, the fun can really start. OK, so it’s not fun — but in a way, it is. Yes, it is a matter of life and death; of freedom. And there are moments of betrayal and doubt. But it’s also fun, to spend time with Kami and her friends.

Rob Lynburn is the powerful sorcerer who has plotted to take control of Sorry-in-the-Vale; he and his sister-in-law, Rosalind (the mother of Jared) are in league against his wife, Lillian (mother of Ash.) In the first book, Kami was Jared’s source, which made him a stronger sorcerer. That link was broken, and Kami is left uncertain about her relationship with Jared. Where her feelings for him true? What does he think about her? It used to be easy, because the link meant that they could hear each other’s thoughts. Now, not so much, and it’s complicated by Ash.

Untold begins with the attack of the scarecrows: it’s scary but also a bit funny, and emphasizes the power of Rob’s sorcery but also how even this can be fought against, by both regular and magical means.

Lillian is as arrogant as her husband, Rob, but with one crucial difference. She believes the Lynburns are rightful leaders and sorcerers, but she doesn’t believe in things like human sacrifice. She’s disappointed that her son, Ash, followed his father for a time. She thinks that Kami — especially now that she is no longer Jared’s source — is a nuisance who gets in the way. Lillian is good only in contrast to Rob and her follower’s, but despite that (or maybe because of it?) she is one of my favorite characters. As Kami observes late in the book, “Kami had never actually liked Lillian, but she admired her for a moment, with all her heart, and then her heart sank.”

Kami and Lillian are both strategizing against Rob, with Kami’s the primary story, of course, and Lillian’s in the background. As you may remember from my post about When Adults Read Books For Teens, that’s how I think it should be. What Brennan does masterfully in this series is she does so without getting rid of the adults, or having them unreasonably ignorant or stupid or cowardly. The adults such as Lillian and Kami’s own parents are doing things, they just aren’t the main point of the story. And that is part of what is so great about the plotting in Untold; it makes sense, the roles and power that the different characters have.

The third book, Unmade, is due out in September. Luckily, not too long a wait! There is a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of Untold, but not anything too frustrating or to make one throw the book against the wall. The main plot of Untold is wrapped up; the end is more a hint of what has to be taken care of in the third book. (And let me say, I don’t envy Brennan, because I have no idea how all of this is going to work out.)

So, yes, a Favorite Book Read in 2014.

Other reviews: YA Bibliophile; Speculating on SpecFic; Book Lovers for Life.

Review: Unspoken

Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan. Book 1 of the Lynburn Legacy. Random House. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Kami Glass has plans and dreams. The plan: investigative reporting! Even if in her small town of Sorry-in-the-Vale nothing much seems to happen. She manages to get her school to agree to start a school paper and drafts her best friend, Angela, to help. As for dreams, well, does her invisible friend/voice in her head, Jared, count? She’s learned to be careful about letting people know about him, but, still, he’s there, a constant companion and friend.

Plans and dreams unexpectedly collide when the Lynburn family returns after decades away. Kami is convinced there has to be a story behind the Lynburns; after all, they and the village go back over six hundred years. The Lynburns return to their mansion overlooking the town? Terrific story potential!

Kami discovers more than she bargained for when she begins to look into the Lynburns, into the teenage son named Jared, and into her village’s past. It’s not that the town has no secrets; it’s that they have been unspoken for so long.

The Good: Deep breath in; deep breath out. Deep breath in; deep breath out. Relax. Count to ten.

Nope, still not calm enough to talk about this book. WOW. WOW. LOVE. LOVE. AWESOME. AMAZING. WAIT, WHAT? WOW. LOVE. THAT ENDING.

Let’s try that again.

Unspoken begins with a report by Kami, “The Return of the Lynburns,” and it does two things: provide needed background information to the reader, and establish Kami’s own character and voice. Example: “Which leaves us with a town in the Cotswolds that has a lot of wool and no secrets. Which is ridiculous.” and “Six hundred years do not go by without someone doing something nefarious.” As Kami looks over what she wrote, she thinks that “a serious journalist should probably not make so many jokes, but whenever Kami sat down to the computer it was as if the jokes were already there, hiding behind the keys, waiting to spring out at her.” Later on, when she’s corralled her group of friends into doing something that perhaps requires a second or third thought, “she did not let her steps slow. Kami had found it was important not to give people time to say, “wait, is this really a good idea?””

As I reread those first few pages, I realize something else: Brennan is telling you what will happen. Nefarious things did happen; they will again. Be prepared. Oh , be lighthearted, have fun, but there will be violence and death and bad things and difficult choices. While this is a book about the supernatural and magic (not spoilers! in the catalog description and book jacket!), it is also a mystery. The mystery of the village, and of the Lynburns; the mystery of Jared; but there are also some violent acts, including a murder. Here’s the thing about a murder mystery: in books, they are much easier to solve than in real life because all the characters are set out for you. It has to be one of the people in the pages. This means it can be easy to guess the killer. I just have to share — that did not happen with Unspoken. While I won’t hold guessing something like this against a book, it makes me quite happy when I don’t figure it out.

So, terrific: Kami’s voice; the humor; the plotting, setting. Also: the cast of characters and their diversity. Take Kami herself: yes, this is set in England and part of her family, like most of the villagers in Sorry-in-the-Vale, goes back hundreds of years. Except. Kami’s grandmother was Japanese; she met and married Kami’s grandfather in Japan, returned to England for a quick trip, her husband died and the grandmother decided to raise her son, Kami’s father, in Sorry-in-the-Vale. Kami, her parents and two younger brothers, live in the house that has been in the Glass family for generations. Kami’s ancestry is more than “just” including diversity. It also matters to the story. Part of the reason Kami is unaware of the secrets her village holds is because of her grandmother’s outsider status and own lack of knowledge. It’s no coincidence that Kami’s best friend is another outsider, Angela, whose family moved to the village six years before and so has no link to the village history.

If I listed all the things I loved about Unspoken, this review would be almost as long as the book itself. Kami’s parents! The Lynburns! The cousins Ash and Jared! The reveals! The twists! So many funny lines! The romances!

Unspoken is the first book in The Lynburn Legacy, so, yes, it doesn’t “end” at the end. Given how much I adore the world Unspoken has created, and Kami and her friends, it’s quite happy making to know that I get to revisit them. Unspoken delivered on what it promised: that is, the mysteries about Sorry-in-the-Vale, Jared, Kami’s imaginary friend, the Lynburns, and, yes, that murder, are all revealed. But, it’s never that easy, is it? Getting answers leads to more questions. Solving some problems creates others. Learning the truth about one’s world changes what one thinks they knew. And, of course — one cannot uncover the truth about one’s village and then say, “oh, OK, that’s all I needed, thanks, I’ll return to my safe room now!”. Especially when that person is Kami Glass.

Needless to say, in case WOW. WOW. LOVE. LOVE. AWESOME. AMAZING. WAIT, WHAT? WOW. LOVE. THAT ENDING. wasn’t a clue, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Leila Roy of Bookshelves of Doom at Kirkus.

Review: Team Human

Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan. HarperTeen. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Mel Duan has lived in the vampire town of New Whitby, Maine her whole life. She is not a fan of the vampires, and is happy that they stay in their part of town. Mel is not happy to find out that vampire Francis Duvarnery (turned in 1867) is going to be attending high school as a Senior. She is especially not happy that her best friend, Cathy, is entranced by Francis.

Vampires may follow strict laws about not killing or turning people, but that hardly makes things safe for humans. Take, for example, her friend Anna. One moment, she has blissfully married parents. The next, Anna’s father has run off with a vampire, barely remembering to text his daughter.

Mel is Team Human, and she’s going to make sure her friends stay that way.

The Good: Team Human is part supernatural (vampires are real), part mystery (why did Anna’s father leave), part romance (that would be telling), part social commentary (vampire / human interactions and prejudices), with humor woven throughout. It’s also dusted with pop culture references, such as Whitby from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the Bathory River (for Elizabeth Bathory). Team Human is smart; or, rather, expects the reader to be smart. It doesn’t explain the sources of these names.

New Whitby is a vampire town. In Mel’s world, vampires are real and people know about them. “New Whitby was founded by people escaping persecution because they were the blood-drinking undead.” In the present day, vampires keep to their side of town, humans to theirs, except, of course, for things like human tourists seeing the vampire sites or vampires visiting the still-living relatives.

A full world has been created; and along with that, some of the things that happen in current vampire books and films are gently mocked. Why, for example, would a vampire want to attend high school? Why would someone so old (and dead) be interested in someone so much younger (and alive)? Just how cold is a vampire, what with them being dead? For example, “most vampires claimed to have been royalty or one of the Astors or something equally snotty. Astonishing how few peasants and regular people got vamped back in the olden days, when it wasn’t regulated.”

Even before Cathy meets Francis, Mel worries about Cathy’s fondness for vampires: “She likes history more than the news and likes books better than most people. Of course she thinks vampires, since many of them are older than dirt and thus basically history books with legs and fangs, are totally fascinating.” Team Human sets up Mel’s biases very clearly, and the reader is inclined to agree with Mel, because, well, human! Who wouldn’t be Team Human? As the story continues, though, Mel begins to realize that just as humans are a mix of good and bad, so, too, are vampires.

The writing, dialogue and plotting reminded me, in the best possible way, of Joss Whedon. (Is there anything other than good in making a Joss comparison?) People are smart; there are surprises along the way (and no, I’m not going to tell, but wowza on the person who turns out to be Mel’s romantic interest); there is more than one first expects; and, one minute I’m laughing and the next …. I’m crying. I have to say, since this is in part a book poking gentle, loving, we mock because we care fun at the whole vampire genre, I expected to laugh. I expected to see interesting references. Based on the other books I’ve read by the authors, I expected action and good plotting. I did not think I was going to cry; I didn’t think this would be that kind of book. It was. I cried. And it was that — the tears — that made me think most of Joss, who can make someone laugh and cry.

Joss can also make someone think: and Team Human does that. Yes, it’s about vampires. But more importantly, it’s about prejudices and fear and learning to overcome those initial biases. It’s also about, well, balance. For example, the process of being vamped. Mel is shown to be very against the process of a human becoming a vampire, and part of it is because of the changes it makes to a person: the not going out in the sun anymore, frozen in time, losing ones sense of humor (no, really). Part of it is also because sometimes the process doesn’t work, and the consequences of a failed vamping are very real. Mel’s feelings have a factual basis, yes, but should fear be how one lives ones life? How one judges others?

One last part, and it’s an important part. Team Human has a great, diverse group of teens. Mel is Chinese American; one of her friends is black; a couple of characters are gay. Since all to often the “default setting” of books is all white, all straight, it’s refreshing when a book reflects a broader world view.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Joelene Reviews; io9.

Review: The Demon’s Surrender

The Demon’s Surrender by Sarah Rees Brennan. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2011. Book 3 in The Demon’s Lexicon Series. Book One: The Demon’s Lexicon; Book Two: The Demon’s Covenant. Reading anything after this point is spoilers for the rest of the series. Personal copy.

The Plot: Sin and Mae have been named as the two potential future leaders of the Goblin market. For Sin, 16, a fourth generation Dancer in the Market, the Market is her life. Life used to be simple. Her enemies were the Market’s enemies: demons and magicians. Tourists, even her own father, are best kept at arm’s length. Take care of your own: those in the Market and her younger siblings.

How can Mae possibly become a leader when she is just a tourist, even if she is able to Dance up a demon? Plus, Mae’s brother Jamie is a magician in the deadly and ruthless Aventurine Circle. It’s not just magicians Mae seem close to; there are also the Ryves brothers. Know it all Alan, so self righteous, who Sin owes because he saved her baby brother. And Nick . . . Nick, whose handsome exterior masks a demon.

Will Sin win leadership of the Market? Or will she lose everything?

The Good: First things first; yes, this is a series, and yes, these books are best read in order. At this point, please check my prior reviews (links above) for The Demon’s Lexicon and The Demon’s Covenant. The bigger question, with this being the last book in the series, is — is it worth it? Should a reader invest their time in reading this series? The answer, I’m happy to say, is “yes.” Those of you who were waiting because you want to read a series all at once will be richly rewarded with this intricate examination of magic, power, politics, choice, family, and love.

Each of the books in the series uses a different point of view to tell the story: first Nick, then Mae, now Sin. This shift in perspectives not only changes the knowledge and emotions motivating the narrator, it also shifts the story priorities and world-view. The Market as Nick and Mae saw it is different than how Sin sees it. Sin’s loyalty to the Market is so great, she hasn’t told her father about her younger half siblings.

As a born and bred Market girl, Sin often sees the trees and not the whole forest. Sin also has secrets of her own, that risk her future. Sin is a good choice to narrate the third book: it bring the reader into the tight, clannish Market world in a way they weren’t before, because the Ryves brothers were visitors with some knowledge and connections and Mae was a tourist overwhelmed with the newness of it all. It makes sense that now that the reader is more familiar with and comfortable with the Market world, that a Market girl tells the tale. It also increases the stakes of what could be lost if the Market is lost, because Sin — unlike Alan, Nick, Mae and Jamie — has no where else to go.

Sin has many different balls to juggle — sister, daughter, Dancer, friend, potential leader, student — much like Rees Brennan has many plot points that need to be addressed to create a satisfying end to this series. What can I say without spoiling the ending? Rees Brennan takes those threads and weaves a fulfilling and exciting story. Like the previous two books there are twists and turns and much plotting and the reader only knows what Sin knows. What Sin doesn’t know is that she’s in a Sarah Rees Brennan book. I know that not everything is as it looks, and people lie and hold back information. I figured out one twist (one of about, oh, a dozen) and I liked finding out I was right about at least one thing. And wrong about others. Further complicating it are certain things the reader has learned: Alan lies, a lot; and demons like Nick always tell the truth.

Sin and Mae’s relationship was refreshing, because they are two strong-willed, opinionated, ambitious women. It would have been easy to make them enemies, but they are not. They are friends who want the same thing. At times, on Sin’s behalf, I wish she got angrier at Mae. Sin recognizes it is better to have the warmth of friendship than the coldness of enmity. Can I also add that I loved that the Sin/Mae triangle was not a love triangle (who will get the boy?) but a power triangle (who will become leader)?

The Demon’s Surrender, like the two books that came before, is full of action and fight scenes: knives, swords, guns, and, of course, magic. People die; people get hurt. I’m not sure why,but the violence in this book really hit home, seemed more real, even though the earlier books had violent deaths. Maybe it was because Sin was not just fighting, as the others fight, but also protecting: a younger sister and toddler brother who depend entirely on Sin.

Oh, I’ll give one spoiler. There is a love interest for Sin. The unlikely Alan. Unlikely, because while readers of the series have adored Alan since the start (or, at least, this reader), Sin did not. It takes her a bit longer to come around to our side.

Alan, Alan, Alan. I have one critical thing to say about Alan, or, rather, the jacket illustration. I’ve been picturing him as Eric Stoltz (circa Some Kind of Wonderful), so the cover made me go “that’s not MY Alan.” But picture in my head aside, I love the colors and illustration: the burning sky, the London skyline (most of this is set in London), Alan and his bow and arrow that hints of battles to come.

I heartily enjoyed The Devil’s Lexicon trilogy and recommend it for its adventure, action, twists, turns, humor, and romance. Sin is a terrific, conflicted, complex character. For all this (and for how the book ended!), this is one of my Favorite Reads of 2011. I’m looking forward to rereading these books one right after another.

Review: The Demon’s Covenant

The Demon’s Covenant by Sarah Rees Brennan. Simon & Schuster. 2010. Personal copy.

The Plot: The story of Alan, Nick, Mae, and Jamie starts not that long after the events of The Demon’s Lexicon. Demons, magicians, and battles, oh my.

The Good: There will be spoilers.

For those who have not read The Demon’s Lexicon: if you like horror infused with humor, read my review, read the book, then get the sequel. Know that yes, this is a trilogy, and the sequel is as good as the first so yes, you want to invest your time in this one.

The rest of the review is for those of you who read The Demon’s Lexicon and are wondering — how’s the sequel?

Alan and Nick are dealing with the consequences of Nick’s true identity being made public. Meanwhile, Jamie is trying to balance school and being an untrained, unaffiliated magician. Mae is trying not to think about the magician she killed to save Jamie, as well as her relationships with both Alan and Nick and Seb. Seb being the main person bullying Jamie. Alan is concerned that Nick is going to end up giving in to this true nature and disaster will follow. Mae doesn’t want to lose her brother. Jamie wants to know about how to be a magician, even if it means meeting with Gerald, a magician known to see humans as sub-magician and not worthy of care or concern. Mae’s concern for Jamie brings her back to the Ryves brothers.

This is terrific horror. The demons are chilling in their difference from humans, the magicians terrifying in their belief in their superiority. As with the first book, the risks to body, to sanity, to life are quite real. And, as with the first one, the quartet of teens deal with stress, danger, and risks with one-liners that make me both laugh out loud and want to hang out with them. Without, of course, the threat of doom and danger. You know what it’s like? Redford and Newman at their finest, in The Sting and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. (If right now you’re going “huh? who are they?” don’t share your reaction with me, as it will make me cry. Just go to Netflix or your library or wherever you go to get movies. You won’t be sorry. Do share your new-found love of these movies.)

Alan, Alan, Alan. The older brother who will do anything, lie to anyone, risk everything, to protect his brother Nick. Including protecting Nick for the consequences of Nick’s actions. And Nick. Oh, Nick. The younger brother who see the world differently, knows he is out of step emotionally with everyone around him, yet wants to change (or at least pretend) for Alan.

And Mae…. can I officially be jealous of Mae? Because with who she ends up kissing, well, how can I not be jealous? I loved, loved, loved how this was handled. A female with multiple love interests? At the same time, no less? And for each one, I thought, “yes, this is right, pick him.” OK, maybe there was one I was a bit “eh” about. The Demon’s Covenant, while not a paranormal romance, does a terrific job of exploring attraction, want, need, lust, love, and sexuality.

Because I love me a book that can have me scared and laughing, often at the same time, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2010.

The third book, The Demon’s Surrender, is due in 2011. I cannot wait!