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Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

strangeI don’t think I could possibly pull a quote from this book–there are just too many. The book demands to be read in its entirety. Once again, Laini Taylor’s writing astounds me. She truly has a gift for describing her own odd, ethereal, beautiful, and sometimes ghastly worlds. One thing you can always expect to see in her writing are images of the vivid and surreal–no doubt her artist’s imagination informs the world of her fantasy. And I have to say, I will always love Dreamdark and Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but Strange the Dreamer might have dreamed its way into the title of my favorite Laini Taylor book. Maybe it’s because it’s about a dreamer and a librarian…and I am a bit biased.

In any case–I loved the world, the gods, the godspawn, the Mesarthim and Mesarthium. I loved that Lazlo Strange’s nose was forever broken from a book of fairytales. I can still remember Laini Taylor speaking about dreams to an eager audience at the Texas Teen Book Festival. This book was everything I hoped it would be after listening to her speak–she is a true champion of following your dreams and it is very evident in her novels–this one most especially.

I only had one major issue with this novel. Perhaps I’m being too critical or nit-picky–I really did enjoy it. BUT….I did feel that the big revelation of Lazlo’s identity was a bit too…..convenient. Or perhaps its because this big revelation of identity IS a major component of the YA novel. I’ve seen it done time and time again–sometimes masterfully and sometimes clumsily. On the spectrum, I felt this revelation inched toward the latter. Perhaps because it felt a little too Dickensian to me–that Lazlo instantly found out who he was and that he could save the day (almost). It was just too easy and yes there were some clues (his skin reaction to the Mesarthium, Nero’s discovery, and the white bird), but it seemed to be too much too soon for me there at the end.

I’ll have to say–it was the very ending and revelation of who Minya is that really saved the novel for me. I will wholeheartedly be looking forward to Muse of Nightmares. And despite my feelings on the identity, I definitely would recommend this book to any dreamer or fantasy reader.

 

 

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And I Darken by Kiersten White

andidarken-cover “I am your father. But that woman is not your mother. Your mother is Wallachia. Your mother is the very earth we go to now, the land I am prince of. Do you understand?” Lada looked into her father’s eyes, deep-set and etched with years of cunning and cruelty. She nodded, then held out her hand . “The daughter of Wallachia wants her knife back.” Vlad smiled and gave it to her. ~p. 12

Radu and Ladislav (Lada) are born into a world of conflict–they are the children of Vlad Dracul, who rules Wallachia, an outlying province/principality of the Ottoman Empire. They are as different as night and day–Lada can be a terror, a bully, but she is also strong and fiercely protects what she considers to be her own (such as Radu). Radu is quiet, bullied, but kindness and cunning are his gifts. When their father, Vlad Dracul, allows them to be held hostage by the emperor, Murad, who rules the Ottoman Empire all to keep his throne in Wallachia, Lada remains fiercely loyal to Wallachia, if not her father, while Radu is ready to eschew everything about his former life. Radu loves the Ottoman Empire, Islam, and most of all their friend, the emperor’s son Mehmed. The bonds of their friendship are tested again and again as they grow up and Mehmed takes the throne. Mehmed will need both Lada’s ferocity and Radu’s quiet cunning to help him gain and keep the throne. But what of Lada’s destiny, and her strange place in society as a fighting woman, a woman who refuses what traditional womanhood means? While they are so different, both Lada and Radu don’t quite “fit” into the roles society has given them–Lada desperately wants to rule and protect Wallachia, and Radu desperately wants Mehmed–a desire that he knows is somehow forbidden though no one speaks of it. In the end, what will each of them be willing to sacrifice for what they want?

I have to say that I absolutely loved this book. I loved how bravely the author posed the question, what if Vlad Dracula (Vlad the Impaler) was a woman? How would this story change? Fair warning though, if you like your protagonists to be straightforward good guys, this might not be the book for you. White does an excellent job of complicating both Lada and Radu. And what a love triangle! I see that this is going to be a series and I can’t wait to read the next installment. I enjoyed the writing (subtle and sharp as Lada’s hidden knives), the characters, and even the setting of Wallachia and the Ottoman Empire. And I Darken earned my wholehearted recommendation.

 

 

 

 

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Emma by Jane Austen

emma Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. ~Chapter 1, Vol. 1

I first read Emma when I was in high school, and I can’t say that I finished the book just absolutely loving or hating it. I can say that as I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed that Emma is very far from a favorite heroine of Austen’s, but that Mr. Knightley is generally one of her most popular heroes. Yet Jane Austen didn’t title the novel, Mr. Knightley, so on this re-reading I decided to pay more attention to Emma–what was it about her that made me dislike…or simply like her less than my favorite heroines (Anne Elliott, Fanny Price, Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood). Upon first impression, Emma is spoiled, privileged–her help does more harm than good to Harriet Smith and for most of the novel she ignores Jane Fairfax, who would have made a better BFF. But you know what, I found that I liked Emma–she may not be the Austen heroine most in tune with reality–she often has her own vision of things, but she does care for her friends and family. And I have to say that I think Highbury/Hartfield is one of Austen’s best settings. It is much less stuffy than Mansfield Park and certainly better than any of the settings poor Anne Elliott must endure (“smoky” Bath, her sister’s and brother-in-law’s house–her only reprieve, really, is Lyme). The familiarity of Ms. and Mrs. Bates, Emma’s father (overly anxious about his health and the health of everyone else), Mr. Perry, and though we never meet him–the William Larkins that Emma teases Mr. Knightley about. I think Austen crafted some of her most lovable and equally frustrating characters in Emma and I am certainly glad I gave it a second chance!

 

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A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

torch “Skies,” Afya says. “I thought you told me you loved stories. Have you ever heard a story of an adventurer with a sane plan?”

“Well….no.”

“And why do you think that is?”

I am at a loss. “Because….ah, because–”

She chuckles again. “Because sane plans never work, girl,” she says. “Only the mad ones do.”

~p. 388

Note: Spoilers ahead

A Torch Against the Night is the sequel to Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes. It continues the story of Elias and Laia, right as they’re beginning to escape the city of Serra and on their way to get to Kauf prison to free Laia’s brother Darin.
But on the way, they will meet with many unexpected guests. As with any good adventure story, friendships are tested, true identities are revealed, and destinies are made and challenged.
I have to say that I enjoyed the sequel to Ember every bit as much as I did the first book. Tahir’s writing is enjoyable and at times very beautiful. My only complaint is that it could be a little tighter. One of the characters which seemed completely nonessential (Keenan) turns out to be one of the core antagonists. But the love story between him an Laia seemed really extraneous and so the big reveal just wasn’t as devastating to me as it could have been with some tighter writing. In the first novel I seriously thought his only purpose was to be a secondary love interest for Laia–since there was already a triangle between Elias/Laia/Helene.
Speaking of Helene, I am actually very interested in her story arc. I think her story is the one I’m most looking forward to continuing to read in the next installment. I’m also intrigued by Avitas Harper–her former torturer and spy for the Commandant turned ally to Helene. And I’m also curious to see how all the new magical powers everyone has will play out.
Overall, I think I’ve found yet another YA fantasy series that I will be following. I’ve lost count of how many of these I’m supposed to be keeping up with–a very good problem to have, I’d say!

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An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

emberintheashes “You are full, Laia. Full of life and dark and strength and spirit. You are in our dreams. You will burn, for you are an ember in the ashes. That is your destiny.” ~Sabaa Tahir, pp. 400-401

Note: does contain spoilers

 

I thoroughly enjoyed An Ember in the Ashes. I thought Tahir’s fantasy world was original and well-crafted and even more important–it was interesting. Her world of Martials (very similar to the Roman Empire) and Scholars (based on Sufis) and the Scholar resistance to Martial dominance all makes for a fascinating background to the central story–the story of one Martial (a Mask, or fully trained warrior from an illustrious family, no less) who hates the ways of the Empire and it is the story of a Scholar girl who is willing to become a slave and spy in order to bargain with the Scholar Resistance in order to save her brother. Elias and Laia have a lot to learn about each other, about trust, and how two very different people can be more alike than they know.

I was particularly interested in Elias’ story, of the tension with Helene and his mother’s own hatred of him. The chapters go back and forth between Laia and Elias’ points of view, which makes for some nice tension throughout the novel. One thing that bothered me–just a bit–was how Laia’s parentage was revealed to the Resistance. At the moment when they are ready to kill her–she reveals that she is the daughter of two of the most famous Resistance fighters. Perhaps I’m being persnickety, but that is just REALLY convenient.

However, overall I enjoyed the story, was fascinated by the world that Tahir built, and would definitely be willing to read the sequel.

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The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

darkestpartoftheforest
My love for Holly Black’s books began when I was in high school and read Tithe for the very first time. Tithe is a dark, gritty, and grim fairy tale set in modern day New Jersey. It is a compulsively readable book that I could just not put down (even when I wanted to).
Over the years, I’ve read Black’s other books (White Cat, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Valiant, etc.) and loved them all. In this book, she returns to fairies. The Darkest Part of the Forest is in some way a dark, fairy tale epic. It’s about a brother and sister living in a secluded, small town that is surrounded by fairies and the fairy world. Oh sure, it’s a little bit dangerous (fairies are tricksters and have a different sense of morality than human beings), but nothing has really harmed the townspeople (just a couple of tourists each year go missing or are found not alive)…until now. Can Hazel step up to the plate and be the champion, the knight that she’s always dreamed of being? Can Ben, with all his magical musical ability, face the truth about his feelings and save both his sister and the person he has loved the longest?

In the Darkest Part of the Forest, Ben and Hazel will no longer find the Horned Boy in the glass coffin–tourist attraction and main character in all of their favorite stories. In the darkest part of the forest, our heroes will find adventure, their heart’s desire (though it always comes at a price), sorrow, pain, and the truth about their world and the harsh realities of their peculiar childhood.

I particularly enjoyed the way Black weaves many different fairy tales into the world of this novel.

I recommend to anyone who is a fan of Holly Black or is looking for a good YA fantasy novel.

You might also be interested to see my review of The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.

 

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The Oxford Inheritance by Ann A. McDonald

Oxford“Too soon, the next set of visitors arrived. These weren’t quite so temporary. They came bearing crisp new textbooks and fat induction packets, shined shoes and wide eyes, weighed down as much by their own hopeful expectations as the brand-new possessions they pulled behind them in overstuffed cases. Summer was over and it was time for a new generation of students to take their place in the hallowed roll call of Oxford’s great academic legacy.” ~p. 4

The Oxford Inheritance by A.A. McDonald is your quintessential summer murder mystery/academia/dark magic read. Everyone has those, right? Well I certainly do. This book met all of my own personal requirements for a great novel.

The following, by the way, are my criteria for a great contemporary novel:

  • Set in England: check.
  • Professors in tweed: check.
  •  Tough-as-nails yet brilliant heroine with a shady past: check.
  • Complicated love triangle: check.
  • A supernatural twist: check.

I wouldn’t say The Oxford Inheritance is going to turn your world upside down. The writing is decent: fast-paced and intriguing (as a supernatural mystery/thriller should be). There were definitely a couple of weak spots. Cassie’s cop friend Charlie being one of them–I felt that he accepted Cassie’s story way too quickly. Unless he already believed in the supernatural or had had an experience with it before (which was never explored), I just found his acceptance to be a bit too quick and easy.

I did like that the ending wasn’t quite neat and tidy. Cassie gets what she wants, but there’s a price and no doubt about it. However, since the tagline of the novel is “Privilege has a dark price” it didn’t come as too much of a shock.

I would recommend this for anyone looking for a good, intriguing mystery with a bit of supernatural thrown in. I certainly enjoyed that the setting is Oxford and you as a reader get to slip into the Oxford world (the author is an alumna).

All in all, I’m glad to have added this to my bookshelf!

 

 

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