[Shimmer and Burn] Mary Taranta

Even the damned get a choice, or at least the illusion of one. I’m proof enough of that.*

Shimmer and Burn‘s beautiful cover caught my eye when I was requesting ARCs a few months ago, and I’ve only just finished it now.  A debut novel from Mary Taranta, Shimmer and Burn takes readers across Avinea as Faris travels with a tyrannical princess, one who will not hesitate to hurt Faris or threaten the sister Faris left behind. If Faris wants to survive and save her sister, she must listen to the whims of a princess who doesn’t think about consequences. They may be traveling companions but they both have their own end goals.

I really enjoy books that put characters who are essentially opposites together. It instantly sets up tension between them and the reader, which allows for events to unfold differently than if everyone was working together. Faris and Bryn are like that. Faris’ mother died when she was young and she was left to raise her younger sister Cadence in the slums of Brindaigel. The only time she feels powerful is when she’s fighting in the fighting pits. Bryn is the opposite, with everything that she could ever want–but she still wants more. When Bryn decides that she wants to be more than the princess of Brindaigel, Faris realizes that she has an opportunity to save her sister.

Naturally, it’s not as simple as that. Faris’ naivety and moments of clarity were a little frustrating at times, but despite that I really enjoyed her character. I liked that she fought–literally–for things in her life and that she wasn’t a weak person. She wasn’t normally involved in political machinations, but when she found herself in the middle of one she proved that she could handle it. I enjoyed reading how–despite the fact that she didn’t have a political background–she even found ways to gain supporters even as Bryn was controlling her with the spell that connected them. Faris isn’t a strong character. Nor is she a weak character. She had moments of both, mostly centered around her sister, and I thought it was really well done. I enjoyed reading how she was so conflicted with the situations she found herself in. She really had to pull herself out of darkness at times, which made her more unique than the standard heroine who just struggles.

I killed a man to save my sister, trading virtue for vice, compassion for selfishness. There’s no going back from that kind of imbalance, and unless I harden myself into iron, the sacrifice will be for nothing.*

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[Ruin and Rising: The Grisha Trilogy III] Leigh Bardugo

We all die. Not everyone dies for a reason.

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My opinion of this series has changed a lot over the past couple of days. I spent the better part of a day reading through Ruin and Rising in its entirety, even staying up far too late. I was exhausted the next day, but I couldn’t stop reading it when each chapter was filled with action and emotion. Ruin and Rising picks up after the capital has fallen. Alina feels pretty broken, and it’s hard to heal when you’re trapped underground and worried that the Darkling’s forces will find you.

These beautiful illustrations are by Irene Koh.

Beauty was your armor. Fragile stuff, all show. But what’s inside you? That’s steel. It’s brave and unbreakable. And it doesn’t need fixing.

I want to talk about the characters first. I know that this series–and the companion series–has been read and reviewed a lot, so there’s hardly anything new to say. But I’m going to throw my voice in there regardless. I sometimes feel like I’m one of the only readers who likes Mal. I think that his character growth is one of the better things about the series. I’ve heard that readers find him whiny, but I found him very real. He seemed like a real and true person in this fantasy world. He’s presented with so many impossible choices throughout the series and he decides to stay and help Alina, even though he doesn’t know if it will work out for them. He is steadfast and brave even when things are chipping at his resolve and his own emotions. I loved it. Yes, there are better love interests and better characters in other series, but for the Grisha trilogy, I found him to be one of the most changed characters by the end.

You move forward, and when you falter, you get up. And when you can’t, you let us carry you. You let me carry you.

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[The Disappearances] Emily Bain Murphy

 

The Disappearances is a magical-realism, historical novel rich in character and story. The novel primarily follows Aila, whose life has been uprooted following the death of her mother and the deployment of her father. At some point I had forgotten that this was also a historical novel, so that gave it a nice unexpected flavor when I first started reading it. The Disappearances is about a set of three towns that have been struck by strange Disappearances that no one can explain. With a focus on Sterling, the town that Aila’s mother grew up in, The Disappearances probes the events of the past: possible Catalysts, what has disappeared, and how they’ve unlocked some of the secrets of Sterling. When Aila and her brother arrive it’s like the past has come to Sterling; Aila’s remarkable likeness to her mother, Juliet, the only person who escaped Sterling, sets the townspeople on edge. With the next Disappearance coming up, Aila strives to clear her family’s name by discovering where the Disappearances came from. But there are those who may not want the Disappearances to stop.

“We call them the Disappearances.”*

‘The Disappearance affected everyone, young and old, and every thing: fruits and flowers, perfumes and shampoos–even those things that make people sentimental, like the smell of a child’s hair, or scents linked to important memories.’* 

Disappearances. Catalysts. A mystery that has affected Sterling since 1907, with something new disappearing every seven years. It’s something small, something mundane that you don’t think about until it’s gone: the smell of baking bread and flowers, your reflection in mirrors or lakes, the stars. It’s only when it’s gone that you realize what you’ve lost. With the Disappearances affecting everyone for most of their lives or since birth, living with them has become the norm. The townspeople have adopted rules regarding outsiders and the Disappearances, so when Aila and her brother come to live in Sterling with an old friend of their mother’s and her family, it causes problems within a community where tensions are already high. Their mother is called a Catalyst, a witch, and other things,  and it falls to Aila and her brother to deal with the accusations of the townspeople. Aila knows that the only way to clear her mother’s name is to discover the truth about the Disappearances. Continue reading

[Siege and Storm: The Grisha Trilogy II] Leigh Bardugo

Anything worth doing always starts as a bad idea.

I came off of reading Shadow and Bone, the first novel, feeling decidedly unimpressed. It was a good novel; I enjoyed reading it, but it wasn’t quite something I was raving about despite the impressive amount of love there is for it. Siege and Storm is so much better. I think it helps that the novel is longer. Bardugo is able to explore her world a bit more, showing readers the corners that hadn’t yet been introduced fully.

Keith Thompson is one of my favorite illustrators. I didn’t realize that he was the one who created the maps! So talented.

After defeating the Darkling on the Fold, Alina has been running and hiding. She and Mal have been trying to make a life for themselves in a strange land, but as the days pass, it becomes more and more difficult for Alina to hide who she is. When she discovers that the Darkling survived against impossible odds and is now more powerful than ever, Alina realizes that she’s going to have to face her past and confront the Darkling and his allies.

Alina came into her power in the first book, which meant that she finally is a character I like in this second book. I found her pretty annoying in the first book, a standard heroine that whines about her powers (or lack of) while doing little to advance herself. Obviously that had changed toward the end of the novel, but I still wasn’t sure of her and the Grisha series. Now I’m pretty eager to finish the series.

 I am a soldier. I am the Sun Summoner. And I’m the only chance you have. 

One of the best things about Siege and Storm was how much Alina struggled. She had been told by the Darkling that Mal, an otkazat’sya–someone without powers–would never understand her and her power. As much as she tried to ignore his words, they stuck with her, barbs that keep pricking at her heart even as she gets closer to Mal. The resulting inner conflict that Alina goes through makes her a much better character. I felt far more invested in her this time around because I wanted to see how she would overcome–or succumb to–this inner darkness that seems to have been planted in her by the Darkling. As the book progresses, Alina realizes that she maybe can’t blame the Darkling for all of the negative thoughts, greed, and thirst for more that has grown in her. I loved that. I loved that she owned up to her feelings instead of blaming someone else for it. She has all of these pressures on her that are personal and political, and sometimes they become too much for her.

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[The Last Magician] Lisa Maxwell

I love the ouroboros element on the cover.

Find the Magician. And stop him before he destroys our future.*

The Lost Magician starts with a connection, though they don’t know it yet. Esta is a thief who uses her old magic to manipulate time, slowing it down and even jumping to the past and present. Dolph is the leader of a gang of Mageus who use their powers to protect those who cannot. And Harte is trying to blend in as a Sundren magician, hiding his Mageus powers in plain sight in a time when having old magic marked you as a target for the Order of Ortus Aurea in their climb to power. Their stories are connected by the Ars Arcana–a book that was thought to be lost. A book that is said to hold the secret to magic itself. A book that they all want.

Lisa Maxwell has created a story full of fascinating characters, a vivid setting, and an interesting plot. At 512 pages, it may seem a little long, but it kept me fascinated the entire time. As the story progressed and the twists began to show themselves, I seemed to read it faster, hurtling toward an end that made me angry–because it was over and I wanted to read more! While I initially thought The Last Magician was a stand-alone novel, it turns out that it’s the first part of a duology. I’m so glad I get to spend more time with the people and places of Maxwell’s Mageus society, even though I’m not happy about having to wait. I will just have to practice my patience.

The bulk of The Last Magician is set in the world of 1900s Manhattan, in the city before it became soaring skyscrapers and cacophonous noise at all hours of the day and night. The Manhattan of The Last Magician is full of the clip-clop of horse drawn carriages through cobblestone streets, the sickly-sweet smell of opium nests, and the thrill of living in a city that looks toward the future. The city has elements of hope and fear as the Sundren and Mageus live together, sometimes unknowingly. For the Mageus, having the old magic means that you have an affinity: power that allows you to manipulate time, know someone’s thoughts, or kill someone without touching. Naturally, the Sundren fear this, because people often fear what they don’t understand. The old magic is palpable in the air, with a warmth and a hum that is so different than Esta’s Manhattan.

In present-day Manhattan, the old magic–the magic that Esta and the rest of the Professor’s Mageus crew have–is nearly dead. The one thing that connects the two times, other than the magic flowing through their veins, is the Brink. The Brink, to those without magic, is nothing. To those with magic, it is terrifying. If they get too close to the Brink, it seems to pull at the magic in them, desiring to take it from them. To get close is to feel like you are losing part of yourself. To pass through means the loss of your mind and certain death. The Mageus have been trapped on the island ever since the Brink was created by the Order. And in 1902, more and more Mageus flock to Manhattan and the promise that they will not be persecuted there like they have been in their old countries, only to find that they are trapped there by the Brink.

A view of the Brooklyn Bridge, where the Brink is located.

Maybe it was because the Order of Ortus Aurea and all they’d done so long ago seemed more like myth than reality. The stories had been so monstrous, but in actuality, the Order itself had always been little more than a shadow haunting the periphery of Esta’s vision, the boogyman in her unopened closet.* 

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[The Epic Crush of Genie Lo] F.C. Yee

Chinese folklore, action, and the threat of a demon invasion. That is what The Epic Crush of Genie Lo is made of. Epic Crush is the debut novel from F.C. Yee, and combines high school classes and college prep with hunting down demons and learning how to control sudden powers. The gods, goddesses, and demons from Chinese mythology were unfamiliar, but they were integrated into a modern setting in a way that introduced them to a reader who has little to no knowledge of them.

I know nothing about Chinese mythology, so this was my first introduction to the gods, goddesses, and demons. It worked for me and I enjoyed reading a book that also taught me something. Ultimately, I’m not sure if learning about folklore from a YA book is the best because authors sometimes pick and choose, but it was interesting enough for me! I enjoyed that both Chinese names and translated names were used. It was a good choice because had all traditional names been used, I think it would have had the tendency to run together, but if all names were translated, it would have given the book a childishness that the book doesn’t deserve.

I really like books that incorporate an older, mythological setting and characters into a modern one. I like the urban fantasy aspect that it creates for books. While I felt that the modern setting was a bit too vague and relied on the reader to supply what they thought the Bay area looked like, I was able to imagine the world of the gods that existed alongside the modern one through the descriptions given to me in the stories Genie learned about. So while I felt that the normal setting was a bit bland and unrealized, the mythology behind it made it much more interesting.

The main character in Epic Crush is Genie, a girl prepping for college by studying hard, going to an adviser, and generally doing any volunteer activities that will help her get into a college far, far away from her hometown. That’s her main goal. She’s kind of thrown for a loop when she’s suddenly told that she has powers, but they’re not exactly the standard ones. There’s a lot of adjusting, and then there’s even more adjusting when something is revealed that makes her question her whole identity. I thought it was an interesting take on the powers trope. It isn’t something I’ve read before, so I was pleasantly surprised by it.

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[Caraval] Stephanie Garber

Once people leave this isle, the things they’ve done here don’t just unhappen, no matter how much they wish them undone.

Well, I’m glad that I didn’t pursue the idea of buying a UK edition. While Caraval did suffer from the fact that I went through a major reading slump while reading it, it wasn’t just that. I feel like Caraval was far too long for a story where very few things happened.  We were promised a carnival-esque setting, but I feel like I didn’t see much of it. The story primarily focused on Scarlett and Julian instead of the scavenger hunt / performance of Caraval.

Anytime I heard anything about Caraval, I heard about carnivals and circuses.  The people who participate in Caraval are supposed to solve a mystery–the disappearance of Scarlett’s sister–by following a set of clues like a scavenger hunt. It was something that sounded so interesting–a carnival steeped in a fantasy world. At the beginning of the novel, we’re introduced to several characters who are participating in this scavenger hunt, so it seems like Scarlett will have to compete against people who only want the prize, where she has a lot more at stake because it’s her sister. However, as the novel progresses, the only characters we consistently spend time with are Scarlett and Julian. The other characters are somewhere else, only showing up when they need to give hints to Scarlett or reveal that another character is villainous. There’s been other novels where I’ve complained about this before, but Caraval was the absolute worst that I’ve read to date. It basically was Scarlett and Julian wandering around Caraval and happening upon clues. I was really disappointed that the novel ended up focusing on the romance (instant-love, by the way, no matter how much Scarlett feels it’s meant to be and complains about her sister doing the same thing).

I wanted to know more about the tattooed young man and the woman who records all of Caraval–both past and present–in her book. There were shops where you answered truthfully or lost a day of your life–in the sense that you literally die for a day and then wake up the next. Those little bits of fantasy elements that were thrown in were so fascinating that had they been focused on and expanded, I think I would have liked Caraval more than I did. Despite it being about a performance, we didn’t see much of any performance. It had so much potential that wasn’t met, despite the fact that it was heavily marketed as a fantasy-circus novel. I think that Caraval is a prime example of book marketing done right–in the sense that many readers, myself included, were eagerly looking forward to getting our hands on this book. I feel so disappointed that it disappointed me.

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