Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Gracekeepers

The Gracekeepers, by Kirsty Logan, crosses what I like about young adult fiction (story and setting) with the prose and themes of adult fiction, which it is. As my readers know, the adult section of my shelf is very short, but occasionally, I do pick one up. What attracted me to this one was its setting, a world covered by water, almost like in the movie Waterworld, and a circus boat traveling from island to island. Books about circuses are always a bit odd and intriguing, especially if the setting has other large quirks, as well. (For instance, my husband and I thought of writing a book about a circus performing in a post-apocalyptic world before we ever heard of the concept elsewhere. The idea intrigued us: the pursuit of happiness amidst despair. Well, we never wrote more than a couple short stories about it, and now, I've seen at least this book and one other like our idea on the market.) Cross Waterworld with the book The Night Circus, add a bit of mythology and a large dose of melancholy, and you have The Gracekeepers.

North is the bear trainer in the circus. She ignores the past as she dances with her bear for her act and sleeps by his side at night, all the while balancing life and death, and not just her own but that of her secret unborn baby. Callanish is a gracekeeper. She has webbed hands and feet. She has run from her own past and lives by herself on an island, where she helps damplings (those who live at sea) bury and mourn their dead, the period of mourning marked by the days it takes for a bird (called a grace) to die in a cage. Two lonely women from opposing backgrounds, one a dampling and one a landlocker (those who live on the small amount of land there is), cross lives in this tale of tragedy and hope.

I think the title of this book was not well-chosen. Only half the book is about any sort of gracekeeper, and there's only one of any importance to the story until the end. I suppose it fits the emotional resolution of the story, but it seems to also spoil the ending or, at the very least, hint at it.

As for the end of the story, it reminds me of why I veer more toward young adult fiction. Our world is gritty and real and sad enough without novels that are likewise. Granted, some of the young adult fiction I read is more violent and certainly has gritty elements to it (The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner), but somehow, those stories, despite a degree of realism, portray the idealism and hopefulness of youth. The Gracekeepers is a little more about how life really goes, if you believe you have to make your own way and God doesn't factor in. It portrays a rather sad and pointless existence. And I suppose, in this existence, the female protagonists actually have a pretty decent ending. Their pasts are finally put behind them, and they find a satisfactory end, all things considered. It's actually almost happy, though I had a hard time seeing it that way at first. I guess I wanted more. More justice. More redemption. More hope. More happiness. I'm used to reading books that don't really end, the beginnings of series. But for a standalone book, I wanted a bigger bow on the end, the strings all tied up neater. Instead, I got somber realism...well, at least as much realism as you can get in a bizarre world such as this one.

There's one more thing about the story that is important to me, as a Christian, to mention. The world of The Gracekeepers has its own versions of religion, one of which has to do with hoarding wealth, leaving pollution in its wake, working hard toward salvation and forgiveness (No grace here! And maybe that's the point.), and condemning all those who don't get in line. It's very cultish. Another form of religion worships the land and the trees for their rarity. None of that is even close to what real faith is, sadly, and if that's what people imagine religion to be, no wonder they don't want it.

All that said, the story is beautifully written. Not too much detail is given, and a lot is understated. But the detail that's there is enough to create strong visuals and lingering impressions. It's a world painstakingly created and not easily forgotten. I think it will impact people differently than it did me, so if you're intrigued, give it a chance. My own rating is three out of five stars. This book is available mid-May.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Perilous Sea (The Elemental Trilogy #2)

I was not quite as enthralled with The Perilous Sea, a young adult novel by Sherry Thomas, as I was with the first book in the fantasy romance series: The Burning Sky. In fact, my rating dropped from four and a half stars to three. I still liked it; three isn't bad. Sequels are just hard, and if you come to a resolution in the romance aspect of the book, which the first book does already, you have to change things up to keep the reader interested in that. When everything's happy and mushy, that's great. The reader wants things to end there, but the interesting part is the conflict. Granted, I think more books should be written about the happily-ever-after-or-not, what happens after love's first glow fades when reality sets in. I think the Divergent series does a decent job of keeping the romance interesting by adding depth to it once the characters are finally together.

So, The Perilous Sea changes things up to keep the reader interested. In some ways, the changes aid the plot of the story, but as far as the romance goes, it's basically a reset, which is a cheap way to liven things up. Iolanthe (Fairfax), supposedly the greatest elemental mage of her time, and Prince Titus experience memory loss (it's almost cheesy!), and the reader gets to see them fall in love all over again. Yay.... The book alternates between two storylines, one which takes place in the Sahara Desert as the two lovers run for their lives, though they can't remember who they are, and one which takes place in the weeks leading up to their memory loss, in which their relationship takes a downward turn. It would be an interesting dichotomy...if we hadn't already been there, done that. We already got to see them hate and then love each other in the first book.

But in setting up an intriguing mystery for the reader to unravel, the two storylines, past and present, work great, the stronger of the two being the one before the memory loss when things start to go south. The conflict between Iolanthe and Titus is rather painful, but the circumstances that pull them apart are intriguing and leave the reader guessing until the end--who is good, who is bad, who is powerful, who's a pawn.

Since Sherry Thomas is an adult romance writer, I had concerns after reading the first book that the trilogy wouldn't remain sex-free, even though the first book was. This second book teetered dangerously close as the two made plans to have a romantic getaway, but they never ended up doing it. It's possible book three may have that sex scene, though one can always hope they'll be too busy fighting the bad guys to have time for it. In any case, the implication that it's coming and that the characters have no moral reservations about it lowers my opinion of the romance even further.

If the romance wasn't in the way, I think this could be a really good fantasy series with fun characters (Iolanthe pretends to be a boy at an all-boys school in Victorian London, which provides many entertaining moments) and high-stakes danger in a world part-normal-part-magic, similar to that of Harry Potter. Hopefully the next book will be as epic as the first book's set-up promised.

The Immortal Heights, book three of The Elemental Trilogy, comes out in October of this year.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


It has been a few weeks (I know, that is now practically the byline of this blog), but I recently read Uprooted, by Naomi Novik, and enjoyed it very much. There seem to be conflicting ideas out there about whether it's young adult fiction or not, but though it shares similar elements with YA, like a 17-year-old heroine and a fantastical storyline, I think it's more in the realm of regular fantasy, which also often has younger protagonists.

In this tale of wizards and an evil Wood, Agnieszka has a penchant for tangling with nature. Leaves, dirt, and other messes all seem to gravitate to her, and she can find plants others can't. But in her corner of the world, nature is not something one wishes to tangle with. Agnieszka's village is near the Wood, where poisonous plants and evil creatures can taint and destroy you with your smallest intake of breath or the barest scratch. A wizard called the Dragon keeps the Wood at bay and protects the nearby villages at the price of one maiden every ten years, and it's time to pick again. He chooses girls with talent and beauty, so Agnieszka knows she is safe. He will not pick her.

The Dragon is old in years and temperament, but youthful in appearance. He is shallow and petty when it comes to beauty, but powerful in magic. Preferring solitude, he avoids the politics of the kingdom as much as possible until the prince seeks the Dragon's help to find his mother, whose loss to the Wood fueled a war. When Agnieszka is thrown into the midst of the kingdom's politics, between war and the Wood, she finds herself surrounded by danger on all sides, her only hope lying in the most dangerous path of all.

I enjoyed this detour from my normal reading, more detailed than young adult and less angsty. Agnieszka is a bit of an old soul, certainly mature for her age, and even more so by book's end. I don't really mind angsty teenage stories all that much (I do read a lot of them), but this one just has an edge to it that keeps it out of that category. Maybe it's the grown-up romance (which actually wasn't my favorite part of the book; more on that in a bit). Maybe it's that the world is not so narrowly focused on the heroine, not all about meeting her needs. Maybe the thought processes are more mature or the story is darker. (Though, have you read young adult lately? I'm doubting the latter.) In any case, it was interesting to read this kind of story without some of the young adult conventions I'm used to seeing.

Speaking of conventions, a big staple of YA fiction is romance. Uprooted does have an element of romance, but it is underplayed and untraditional. And maybe that's why I didn't like it. I think underplaying the romance is an interesting way to go, but making it untraditional, as well, may upset reader expectations too much. (SPOILERS follow!) Agnieszka falls in love with the Dragon, no surprise there. But it's far from a healthy relationship. He's rude and crotchety-mean and much, much older (though YA, too, messes around with age differences--Twilight, for instance). It might help if his mind retained youthfulness, but no, he's pretty much an old fogey who's conceited and vain about his looks. While you could say he warms up to Agnieszka, he never really gets nicer. There's something good to be said for loving someone despite their flaws, of course, but in this case, the relationship borders on abusive. And a bit unbelievable...this naive, innocent girl willingly pushes past all his defenses, literal and figurative, to sleep with him? Granted, the lead-up to it is rather realistic: a certain situation causes them to become more emotionally intimate, and that bridges the gap to the physical side of things. The book has one and a half sex scenes, which I am both impressed by and annoyed with: impressed by the restraint, annoyed because I'd rather not see any sex at all.

After going that far physically, a YA book would be all about the relationship for the rest of the story. Again, this one differs in that you'd almost think they had a one-night stand and went their separate ways. In fact, I believed that nearly to the end of the book. Then, strangely, when romance had been a subplot the whole time, it got the last say. I would have liked more romance (with a better emotional response from the characters) or none at all. What there was just didn't work for me, though it was not bad to try for that kind of originality.

Where the book's romance doesn't phase some, its darkness might--its dealings with magic and witches and evil. In the realm of fantasy, those things don't bother me so much. I make a distinction between witches in fantasy (where the word implies some sort of magic-wielder, neither good nor bad by default) and Halloween or Disney witches (meant to be scary and mean and evil by default). I don't like the latter at all, but this book falls more into the first category, where the witches actually fight evil.

The darkness of this book has more to do with evil creatures and beings who poison and corrupt the good, which is an apt illustration of how good and evil correlate in the real world. In a Christian worldview, we are born sinful. It's innate. Left to our own devices, lazy about our eternal well-being, evil thrives. Thinking more scientifically, the world tends toward entropy. Either way, left alone, the world is bad. Things fall into disorder. It takes work to make things good, to make things beautiful. Disney says that Belle tames the Beast; it's a lie. In real life, pardon me saying so, the Beast would eat her heart out. All this to say that the Wood in Uprooted acts like evil really acts. It's aggressive. If you aren't keeping it out, be sure it is trying to--and it will--get in. I appreciated the truthfulness of this story's take on evil. But be warned, it's dark and heavy stuff. People in the story are corrupted or die or both. It's not for impressionable minds.

Despite the romance and the darkness, I enjoyed the style of storytelling, the magic of the world, and the way the story broadened in scope as it went on, adding layers and depth, taking the reader to surprising places by its end. I enjoyed the friendship between Agnieszka and her best friend Kasia (she's awesome!), which has more substance than the romance. I give the book four out of five stars.

Uprooted is available mid-May.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The 5th Wave

The 5th Wave, by Rick Yancey, has been out awhile (since May 2013), long enough to already have a sequel (The Infinite Sea, published in September 2014), but though it caught my eye way back when, I didn't pick it up until this year. I gave it only three out of five stars for various reasons, but none of those reasons was my interest once I started reading. The book hooked me quickly and fascinated me throughout. It's one of those suspenseful, mysterious stories where you don't quite know what's going on until near the end, a little bit like The Maze Runner in that regard. But as with The Maze Runner, I wasn't completely satisfied.

The 5th Wave sets the stage with an alien invasion that has progressed in waves: 1) total blackout, 2) coastal areas flooded, 3) worldwide plague, 4) snipers killing the human race one by one. Cassie has lost everyone and everything she knows in this hopeless battle for survival and now waits in hiding, wondering when and what the 5th wave will be. There's no one she can trust; the aliens look just like us. There is no place to go; the aliens attack where humans congregate. There is hardly reason to keep trying to live, but humanity is stubborn that way, and Cassie has at least one reason. Though the outcome looks bleak, Cassie is determined to go down fighting.

Cassie starts the narration, but the book veers off from a focus on her later on so that you begin to wonder if she really is the main protagonist we're rooting for or just one of several. The story starts getting into different characters' points of view, which broadens the story quite a bit but creates some confusion as to Cassie's significance in it. Once you get used to the idea, however, some of the other characters' plots are similarly intriguing.

In some ways, the story is what you'd expect from an alien invasion story. In every one, the humans don't go down without a fight, and somehow they end up triumphing. The funny thing is, the book is trying so hard not to be like those stories. Cassie's musings even make fun of people's perceptions of aliens before the attack. She says the stories are all wrong; we never had a chance. But, of course, someone must survive, or we wouldn't keep reading. So, as much as the story strives for originality, it has to follow certain formulas, at least a little, in order to even retain an audience. I don't have a problem with this; I simply find it ironic.

(Minor SPOILERS this paragraph.) As I said, I was thoroughly intrigued by the book's premise and mystery, and captivated to the end. But I can't say I loved the book. Some time has passed since I read it, unfortunately, and I couldn't tell you exactly what threw me off most. The story goes to dark places. I don't usually mind darkness, but it gets a little brutal and graphic and leaves you feeling, at best, uneasy. At one point, you get vibes of the Holocaust. There's a lot of death, and if you thought The Hunger Games was brutal because kids were killing other kids, you won't like this. There's the violence, but then there's the romance, which borders on Stockholm Syndrome, though no one is actually a captive in the situation. There's probably a better term for falling in love with your savior, especially when the two of you are the only ones around. Anyway, it's a bit clichéd: girl is rescued by handsome stranger, who also happens to be the only other person she's sure is alive, and falls in love with him after he cares for her injuries. It's hard to swallow at first. Maybe it was because I want romance in my novels that I eventually got used to the relationship, even if I found it strange sometimes.

A movie adaptation is in the works. I can only wonder what it will be rated, though I am curious enough to consider seeing it. The book's sequel is available at my library, but I haven't quite felt the urge to pick it up.

Firefight (Reckoners #2)

[This review was first published with others on a blog I wrote for and has been only slightly altered for this website.]

Brandon Sanderson, author of high fantasy, changes style and tone a bit for this young adult series that began with Steelheart and continues with Firefight (published January 2015), but his wit, humor, and vision for winding up a story toward a great end are all on full display. The beginning of Firefight didn’t reel me in immediately, despite having already secured my interest with the first book, but by Part 2 of 5, the game was changing, the stakes were rising, and I was hooked. By about the halfway mark, it began to get difficult to put the book down. My husband, Nick, and I rarely read the same stuff, but we both like Brandon Sanderson. Being a young adult fiction reader, I generally prefer quicker reads like this one. Nick has yet to convince me to read Sanderson’s 1000-page (and that’s just one book out of a whole series) high fantasy epics. And I have to chuckle a little bit as I say that since Firefight and the other books of this series are all about Epics.

(SPOILERS in this paragraph, if you have not read Steelheart) In Firefight, David is a Reckoner, a member of what used to be a highly secret group of Epic slayers, but now David has become a legend. All he wants is for the people to fight back against the super-powered Epics, humans who, one infamous day, gained powers and have used them to conquer and destroy the world. They are dangerous and nearly invincible, each with one carefully guarded weakness, the only thing that can possibly take them down. They are madmen, every last one of them. In this case, absolute power does really corrupt absolutely. David and his team are about to attempt to take down a very powerful Epic and her cohorts in what was once New York City and is now Babilar, a city covered by water where the citizens live relatively peaceful lives under the rule of Regalia. But the woman David loves works for Regalia, and even though his love is an Epic, David is willing to risk his life to prove she can be redeemed.

This was a great sequel. I liked the first one well enough, especially as it progressed (Nick and I both agree that Sanderson has the art of the ending down), but sequels are hard. How do you keep everything that made the first one good but turn it around enough so that it’s not just a copy of the first? Well, you could take notes from Sanderson. He introduces new places, switches out a few people, and changes up the protagonist’s motivations, but still keeps the same sense of humor and, really, even the same basic plot. This series is set up spectacularly for that. There’s always another cool Epic to fight in a world overrun by them, right? But Sanderson has the imagination to remake and redirect his story in such a way that everything is as exciting as the first time. Arguably, this second book is actually better than the first, and that takes serious talent! He is currently writing Book 3, Calamity, and I can hardly wait! Five stars.