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The Books of Beginning: The Fire Chronicle by John Stevens (2012)

Kate looked at Michael and their eyes met.
“Remember,” she said, “whatever happens, take care of Emma.”
“But-”
“Remember your promise.”
And then she and the creature both vanished (p 24).

In this sequel to The Emerald Atlas, Michael finds himself responsible for Emma and for finding the second book of beginning – the Fire Chronicle – when Kate uses the Atlas to deal with a Screecher and fails to return. Michael comes into his own and into adolescence as the power of Life itself is granted to him. Meanwhile, Kate lands in 1899 New York City days before the planned Separation – when those with magic will conceal themselves from nonmagic folk. There, she forges a bond between a group of orphans and the young man, Rafe, who protects them, forever changing future events.

Playing with time is always tricky but Stephens handles it deftly. While the characterization is wonderful – infused with veracuty and occassionally humor – some of the magic realities (as I call them) felt disjointed. The Dire Magnus’s dead but undead state for one. I don’t want to give too much away but there were some thin plot points. Regardless, I enjoyed the reading and look forward to the conclusion.

Netgalley ARC | 448 pages | Expected publication: October 9th 2012 | Knopf Books for Young Readers | ISBN 9780375868719 | Ages 10+

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The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann (2012)

Feathers fell from the sky.
Like black snow, they drifted onto an old city called Bath. They whirled down roofs, gathered in the corners of alleys, and turned everything dark and silent, like a winter’s day (Prologue).

In a world slightly distorted from our own - where magical creatures like faeries mesh in realistic and gritty fashion with our own world, similiar to Suzanne Clark’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (a novel I love love love) - a young changling, part human, part faerie, named Bartholomew is forced to hide his existance. Meanwhile, a bumbling, well-meaning member of Parliment, Mr. Jelliby, becomes unwittingly entangled in an investigation into the murder of nine changling children. When Bartholomew is tagged as number ten, he must take action to save himself and his changling sister.

With shades of Jonathan Stroud and Suzanne Clarke and a conclusion reminiscent of Pullman’s Golden Compass, Bachmann just succeeds in making this novel his own. The writing is fluid though the story alternates settings. I would have liked more attention spent on the relationship – both political and social – between the magical creatures and the humans. The atmosphere was well-developed with strong details so that I didn’t find myself skipping small chunks (as I sometimes do when the writing is poor). I was also surprised when it ended on a cliff-hanger, finding myself simultanously disappointed but also interested in the sequel (sequels?). There are characters I’m intrigued to learn more about (Mr. Lickerish) and others that skewed the rhythm (the faery woman living in a meadow in the middle of nowhere, supposedly Lickerish’s sister?).

Advance Reader Copy from BEA | Greenwillow Books | September 18, 2012

 

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Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon by Naoko Takeuchi (2011)

Usagi is a normal 14-year-old girl, albeit a little scatter-brained but a fun-loving, video game junkie and all around great friend nonetheless. Until she meets Luna, a black cat with a band-aid on her head. When Usagi (aka Bunny) rescues Luna from some tormentors and removes the band-aid, Luna recognizes her as Sailor Moon, the guardian of the Moon sworn to protect the Moon Princess and help retrieve the Legendary Silver Crystal. Yes, Luna is a talking cat. Dark forces are gathering in Tokyo and Sailor Moon must find the Legendary Silver Crystal before the bad guys do. She has help in the form of Sailor Mercury, aka Amy, a brilliant student and water manipulator.

I adore Sailor Moon. From the moment I saw it on USA Network back in 1996, I was hooked on this strange cartoon. The more I watched (and then read), the more I loved it. It has a complex backstory, endearing characters that mature, and some great romance! I was thrilled to learn it would be retranslated and reprinted in the US of A. And with gorgeous covers! Now, can we please see a more faithful dub of the anime and all 300 episodes subtitled. Please? Anyone? I believe the license is up for grabs!

Personal copy | Kodansha Comics | September 13, 2011 | Ages 9 + | 240 pages | ISBN 978-1935429746 | $10.99 |

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The Girl of Fire and Thornes by Rae Carson (9/20/2011)

My sister hates me. I’ve known it for years. Nurse Ximena says it’s because I was chosen by God for an act of Service and Juana-Alodia was not. God should have chosen her; she is athletic and sensible, elegant and strong. Better than two sons, Papa says. I study her as I chew my pastry, her shining black hair and chiseled cheeks, the arched eyebrows that frame confident eyes. I hate her right back (p 4).

Once every century, someone is chosen by God to perform an act of service. When Princess Elisa of Orovalle was an infant, God chose her, planting a gem in her naval.

Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she is to be married to the King Alejandro of Joya. The union will provide troops to Joya for their impending war against the Invierne and a safe place for the bearer of the Godstone. But then Elisa is kidnapped and brought to the front lines of a war that has, unknown to its king, already started. Elisa becomes a part of the resistant, all the while trying to understand a sacred text that portends the mission of God’s chosen.

There are many aspects of this book I enjoyed. Though it starts calmly enough, it isn’t long before the pace picks up and continues throughout. Poignant scenes gracefully provide breaks in the action. Elisa is a well-developed character, as are many secondary characters. Even those we see little of take shape nicely, like King Alejandro and Alodia.

Yet, for all that, I didn’t find myself as emotionally invested in this book as I did with others like it (namely, Graceling and Fire – books this one is oft compared to). It didn’t delve far enough into the political atmosphere. Though Elisa was a brilliant strategist, she’s not really playing the game like Gen (The Thief) or Raisa (Seven Realms), though I could certainly see this developing in the next two books.

Perhaps it is that I am an atheist and religious explorations like these hold little interest for me anymore. Fantasy based in religion allows for deus ex machina resolutions. Yes, Elisa developed into a strong young woman but her hasty, half-understood victory at the denouement came via the hand of God. Earlier, though Elisa prays fervently for the health of her friends, God does not answer. If anthing, this novel reinforced in me the belief that acting in the name of God is not right. Even Elisa’s prayer in the heat of battle felt wrong to me.

Dear God almighty, please deliver my enemies into my hands (p 413).

Instead of entreating God’s will be done, Elisa is asking for the power to deal with her enemies. The Invierne think they are fulfilling God’s will (and I would like to learn more about their motivations). Elisa thinks she is fulfilling God’s will. No one is saying, “God, do as you will and I will accept it.”

Well, these are minor, and perhaps personal, quibbles. This book has a lot of teen appeal. The writing is good (I think it could tighten its belt a bit) and I’m sure it will elicit many questions in the youth reading it; always a good thing. Head over to A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy for a great review of all I liked about the book. It’s a book that will stick with me and I look forward to the sequel.

Read Alikes:
Graceling and Fire by Kristin Cashore
Mistwood by Leah Cypress
The Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima
The Shamer’s Daughter by Lene Kaaberbol
Finnikin of the Rock by Lelinda Marchetta

Read other reviews:
A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy
The Allure of Books
Book Smugglers
Good Books and Good Wine
Melanie’s Musings
Miss Print

Advance Reader Copy | Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers | September 20, 2011 | 432 pages | ISBN 978-0-06-202648-4 | $17.99

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A Seven Realms Novel: The Gray Wolf Throne by Cinda Williams Chima (2011)

She’d never felt safer – she’d never felt more alive than when she lay dying in Han Alister’s arms (p152).

This is a review of an advance reader copy provided by the publisher, Hyperion, via NetGalley.

At the conclusion of The Exiled Queen, Raisa had escaped a kidnapping/forced marriage attempt by Micah Bayar while on route from the south to the Fells in the north. Han Alister and Amon were in pursuit. Raisa, the heir to the Gray Wolfe throne, had spent the last several months at school in the south. While there she and Han were once again thrown together and the two eventually began a romantic relationshp, albeit one based on lies.

In this next installment of The Seven Realms series, readers will follow Raisa on her perilous journey home to reclaim her title while wrestling power away from the Wizarding class, maintaining her independence from the Clan and proving to the common people of the Flatland that she is a monarch to be proud of.

Han will come to learn the truth about Raisa and must decide what he wants. The clan would kill him if they suspected his feelings for her while the wizard elite would just as soon remove Raisa from the throne should she throw in with a street thug like Han.

Still the assasination attempts continue. It seems like it will take a miracle to see Raisa to Queenhood.

This novel has a bit of a middle child feel as things take a turn for the political. I kept thinking, “If Gen were here he’d have this whole mess of who is doing what sorted out in a jiffy.” Raisa, however, has few people she can trust and so must rely on her own wits. Han continues to use Crow as a means to an end even after Crow’s identitiy as a powerful wizard is revealed. But this relationship is only touched on. I am sure it will play a much larger role in future books.

Fans will not be disappointed, only eager for the story to continue. The Seven Realms is turning out to be a well-plotted, immense world. I’m eager for more but not anxious for an end.

The Gray Wolf Throne has received a starred review from Kirkus.

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The Exiled Queen: A Seven Realms Novel by Cinda Williams Chima (2010)

Ok, I’m really not going to summarize when “The Book Smugglers” have done an excellent job of it already.

Like Kristin Cashore, Jonathan Stroud and Cornelia Funke, Cinda builds complex worlds (loved her Warrior/Wizard/Dragon Heir series) with complex characters, some clearly good, some evil but many falling somewhere on a scale. I have grown to love many of them.

I’m eager to read more about the Seven Realms, as Chima is clearly setting the stage for a lot more complex action. Chima’s characters, like those in John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice,  are so well drawn I feel like they are friends. Like I have a vested interest in their relationships. I find myself frustrated, elated and scared right along with them.

Apparently, there will be four books in the Seven Realms series; the final two being The Sword of Hanalea (Sept.-Oct. 2011) and The Gray Wolf Throne (Fall 2012). I’m hoping I can get my hands on an ARC of book 3 as well.

I recommend this to those who enjoyed:

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Mistwood by Leah Cypess (2010)

She looked like a deer poised for flight, her slim body taut in an incongruous gown, her face sharp and still. Then she turned and was gone, and Rokan dropped back into his pillow, limp with relief. She was going to do it. She was going to watch over him. Best of all, his biggest worry had just ceased to exist. She didn’t remember what happened last time, the real reason she had fled to her woods (p 61).

Isabel is the Shifter, a thing of fog and mist living in her wood. She can shift into a cat, a wolf, an eagle or turn her skin to stone. But when the King calls on her, she must answer. She is bound to protect the throne, an impulse she cannot ignore.

So, when Rokan approaches her, she could evade him but doesn’t. He ties a bracelet around her wrist to bind her and ensure her aid, for her last assignment did not end well.

Mistwood is full of political intrigue, conniving characters and usurpers. Isabel, with little memory of her life outside the woods, recalls information intermittently as needed. But will it be soon enough? Who is trying to kill Prince Rokan and why? More importantly for Isabel, why can she not shift within the castle walls? What happened to her ten years ago that she retreated to her woods wounded and crying?

This is a good read that will keep you on the edge of your seat and awake well past your bedtime. The action begins immediately and the reader is putting the pieces together with Isabel.

The book’s flaw is that it is so focused on the unraveling mysteries, that it fails in two other important areas.

First, it fails to adequately develop the romance between Isabel and Rokan. I applaud subtlety but this was practically muted and I didn’t quite feel Isabel’s decision at the end was justified, especially considering the second failure.

Cypess does not expound upon the larger political scene. There are vague hints about what is happening outside the King’s castle but not enough to fairly say one man would rule better than the other. We have only Rokan’s opinion that Kaer (the rightful King) would have failed the kingdom.

So, in terms of quality, I would rank it below books like Graceling or Fire by Kristin Cashore but above books like Gone by Michael Grant or Need by Carrie Jones.

Cypess is a first-time author so a William C. Morris Debut Author nod may be in her future.

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Plain Kate by Erin Bow (September 2010)

Plain Kate was thinking of witches. How in bad times people were more eager to buy her objarke, but also more likely inclined to take a step back, to crook their fingers at her when they thought she wasn’t looking, or when they were sure she was. How they wanted the witchcraft to protect them, but how they looked too for a witch to blame. It didn’t matter that there was no magic in her blade, people saw it there. They saw witchcraft in her skill, witch marks in her mismatched eyes, her bad luck, her long shadow (p 19-20).

This is a review of an advance reader copy received at ALA Annual from the publisher, Arthur A. Levine, an imprint of Scholastic Inc.

Plain Kate is a carver’s daughter. As such, Kate had a carving knife “before most children might be given a spoon” (p 1). When her father dies, Kate is left with little but her talent and her ucommon looks which makes her an easy target in a witch hunt.

When a stranger comes into town offering Kate an attractive trade, her world changes. Linay is a true witch and will grant her heart’s desire… in exchange for her shadow, for he knows “a lady who lacks one” (p 24).

Without a shadow Kate flees her home and takes up with the Roamers, a band of nomads who will accept Kate if she can successfully contribute to their group. Through her wanderings, Kate learns of Linay’s plans for her shadow and the story of a true witch woman wrongfully burned.

A coworker of mine (and children’s book author) brought this title to my attention, saying it was getting a lot of buzz for its language. The opening chapters are, indeed, poetic and smooth. But I found the writing inconsistant. While I read eagerly at the start, I finished languidly.

Kate’s closest companion during the story is a talking cat, whose personality is a delight. But in terms of fantasy, I felt little connection to the world Bow created. Nothing like I feel when I read Kristen Cashore or Garth Nix or Neil Gaiman.

Like Abby the Librarian mentions, it seems a lot happens to Kate, rather than because of her. The cover is attractive (the final book will include embossing and matte film lanination) and so I hope it will go out. I would reccommend it but doesn’t seem like a contender to me. I’m eager to read what others think. Will it be on Mock Printz 2011 lists? Will it be shortlisted for the William C. Morris Debut Author award?

Read more reviews: The Zen Leaf, Chick Loves Lit

* UPDATED AUGUST 30, 2010 *

Here are some snipits from our mock Newbery group discussion:

  • We all had some trouble with the ending. What exactly was going on there? It didn’t seem clear.
  • Some disagreement about Kate. Is she a wet noodle or is she strong. Some argued that she struck out on her own (a big decision for a lone women in that setting), found a place for herself to live and ultimately joined up wtih the traders to escape death. Others say she was swept along and didn’t seem active.
  • The intensity and peril of Kate’s situation was in complete contrast to the lyrical, poetic language that set a mellow pace.Some loved this. I found it harder to enjoy.
  • Why does Kate drop the knife at the end of the book? The knife metaphors are so important in the story… a knife can cut both ways – friend/foe (regarding the Roamers and Linay).
  • This will appeal to Hunger Games fans.
  • (p 305) The songs is a beautiful metaphor for story and how it changes over time… how story changes when it chages hands.
  • Loved the concept of magic as an exchange of gifts and how a witch cannot lie.
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Finnikin of the Rock by Melinda Marchetta (2010)

Finnikin of the Rock, son of the King’s Guard, Trevanion, was playmate the royal children and best friends with Prince Balthazar and Lucian of the Mont. The three boys were such great friends, they swear an oath - Balthazar to protect the royal family, Finnikin to be their Guide and Lucian to be a Beacon – when Finnikin has a dream in which the gods demand a sacrifice of blood.

Then the five days of the unspeakable happen. The kingdom is invaded and the royal family murdered. The Forest Dwellers are slaughtered and a witch woman, Seranonna, falsely persecuted. On the fifth day, as Seranonna burns at the stake, a curse flows from the witch’s lips creating a barrier around Lumatere. Those who fled the kingdom are unable to reenter. Those inside are trapped.

This fantasy is slow out the gate but really gathers speed once we join up with Finnikin and his mentor, Sir Topher tens years after their forced exile from Lumatere.

Finnikin receives a message calling him to a cloister where a novice awaits. This novice, Evanjalin, has the ability to walk the sleep of those inside Lumatere and in the sleep of their lost heir, Balthazar, whom she claims is alive.

Evanjalin leads Finnikin and Sir Topher to the hostile country of Sorel, where the King’s Guard has been banished. It is a first step in assembling the persons necessary to break the curse that has rendered Lumataire impenetrable and to succeed in overthrowing the false king.

In Finnikin and the Rock, Marchetta has created an intense fantasy with tangible characters and a plot that will keep you on your toes. Since reading Fire by Cashore and since the delay of her next book, Bitterblue, I have longed for a compelling fantasy that I would want to read again and again.

Marchetta has delivered it. Her Printz winner, Jellicoe Road,  was also a slow starter with excellent prose that captivated me a third of the way through. So it was with Finnikin. I was rewarded greatly for getting through the rather abrasive exposition and immersing myself in this world. This is definitely one to consider for your mock Printz Award list.

Read other reviews at Persnickety Snark and BCCLS.

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Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne JonesSophie, the eldest of three girls, believes herself destined to fail in the fairy tale world she lives in, for isn’t that always the way in fairy tale stories. When Sophie insults the Witch of the Waste, she is turned into an old woman and cursed. So she sets out from home (a Hat Shop) to make her fortune and lands in Howl’s moving castle. The Wizard Howl has the reputation as the eater of young woman’s souls, thanks to Howl’s apprentice Michael. Sophie is soon at home with Michael, Calcifer the fire demon whom powers the magical castle, and Howl whom has created many different names and reputations in order to avoid the Witch of the Waste.

So goes this intricate, humorous and puzzling tale of fantasy and adventure which should both challenge and involve readers. Jones has created an engaging set of characters and found a new use for many of the appurtenances of fairy tales: seven league boots and invisible cloaks, among others. Sara Miller, “School Library Journal”

I was afraid I wouldn’t enjoy Diana Wynne Jones but I was wrong. I adore this book. It poked fun, had an intricate plot line with a most satisfying ending, and great writing. I fell in love with Howl right along with Sophie.

I am going to pop Miyazaki’s anime adaptation into my DVD player and make sense of the film! This is a great fantasy read for 7th graders and up.