Category Archives: YA

Arabella of Mars (Adventures of Arabella Ashby #1)

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Sir Isaac Newton decided that instead of his usual stroll around the apple orchard one afternoon, he would take a bath and relax. As he soaked away his cares, he watched a bubble of air rising through the water. And had an idea. That led to King William III of England commissioning Capt. William Kidd to lead the first exploration of space to Mars in the 17th century,  which in turn lead to the colonization of the red planet by the British.

In 1812, 16-year-old Arabella Ashby roams the Martian landscape and her father’s khoresh wood plantation. Raised and schooled by a Martian nanny, Arabella is not the proper young English lady her mother had hoped for, so she insists on returning her to London to live properly and respectfully. Not only does Arabella have to get used to the rules and restrictions of early 19th century England, but she also finds earth gravity to be a total b*tch.

Circumstances cause her to flee back to Mars aboard a Mars Trading Company ship, disguised as a boy and serving as both a deckhand and captain’s boy, in an effort to save her brother from an unexpected danger.  Along the way, she encounters war and mutiny and automatons.

This novel started off with a lot of promise of adventure and fun. It ticks off every box on my list: steampunk, Jules Verne-esque, science fiction, space exploration, STUNNING cover, a kick-ass heroine.  And I loved it, the writing, the story, the descriptions of the air battle, the life on Mars and Earth and onboard the airship Diana. Until about halfway through.

Because… Arabella isn’t really so kick-ass. She starts that way. A young girl raised on the Martian frontier, schooled in hunting and tracking, a girl with a scientific bent who shares her father’s love and affinity for automatons sounds like my kind of heroine. And I love the plot device wherein a girl disguises herself as a boy in order to accomplish an otherwise unattainable goal. But I think author David Levine missed an opportunity with this in his novel. Arabella’s purpose in disguising herself is to accomplish a goal, a goal she is quite capable of attaining as a young woman, but would never be given the chance to do so. When she is revealed as a girl, she is still as capable as the boy they thought her to be, but instead is treated as though she no longer can cope with space travel. And the problem I found is that she does not fight to keep her position, one she earned, but meekly accepts that things are no longer the same.

That is the first of the problems. The rest… oh boy. This is a science-fiction fantasy!  The world can be anything the author wishes! And apparently, he wished for some historical accuracy, even as his sailing ships (which look pretty much like 19th century sailing ships with the addition of large silk balloons to get the vessels aloft) dodged asteroids and his airmen breathed the atmosphere between the stars. So as they did this, they were also racist and sexist and believed in the colonization of Mars and the superiority of the white British male over pretty much everyone, including the inferior Martians. Mars is the interstellar equivalent of colonial India. And in addition, Levine still ensures the reader knows that Indians, while human, are not as good as the Brits. And don’t get me started on the portrayal and description of Mills, the one black crew member.

The captain of the Diana, Captain Singh, is a flat, one-dimensional, polite, fair-minded, darker-skinned man. Nice, but sadly, that’s pretty much it. And the predominantly white crew is determined to overthrow him. And, for some reason, Arabella is attracted to him. And I do not mean that in a way that she shouldn’t be. I mean that in the way that the romance subplot doesn’t work.  We have an adventure!  Let’s leave it at that! The romance reads as if the author was actually ticking off boxes, and thought, hey, she has to fall for someone!  We can’t have a young woman wanting to just make it on her own. Here’s a handsome guy with a good position, she can go for it. And given that the captain spent most of the book believing her to be a boy, the romance seems forced.

Why can’t we have a fantasy world without all these problems?  I know there needs to be some conflict and tension to move the story along, but really? They turned me off, and turned what was a fantastic adventurous read into a teeth-grinding slog.

Levine’s world building skills are incredible. He has won awards for his stories, and no wonder. I travelled through space aboard the Diana with Arabella, floated in the zero-gravity atmosphere alongside the airmen, looked out and saw nothing but vast darkness sprinkled with tiny pinpoints of light. The battle with the French pirates had me on edge, and I didn’t know if we would find a solution to the navigational problem. Levine can weave a story that has you believing that it is only a matter of time before humankind is travelling through space, docking on asteroids to take on supplies, and landing on distant worlds. I just wish he had written a world where humanity could attain more than just another plot of land.

Arabella of Mars was published July 12th, 2016 by Tor.

Akata Witch (Akata Witch #1)

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12-year-old Sunny moved to Nigeria from New York City three years ago. Albino and sensitive to the sun, she can’t do what she wants.  Which is to play football in the sun with her brothers, avoid her father’s temper, and have a friend at school.  But instead, she is left out of the games, beaten by her father when he is displeased with her, and constantly bullied at school for being different.

Until the day after she sees the end of the world in the flame of her candle. Her classmate Orlu sides with her during her daily humiliation at school, standing up to the bullies, and then takes her under his wing.  He suspects what she is and introduces her to Chichi and Sasha and Anatov, and suddenly Sunny learns that all her strangeness and differences mean one thing: she is a Leopard Person, and she has power. Great, mystical power.  As part of this ancient community, she is finally accepted, even sought after, for who she is.

This novel is fantastic. An African-based fantasy in which learning and reading are rewarded, where tradition is interwoven with fantasy and magic, and the main character is an athletic, curious girl who goes against all stereotypes and expectations, without any of it seeming forced.

Sunny has had a life of challenges. She looks different, feels different, and must be treated differently that the other children her age. She has to carry an umbrella to shade her skin from the sun, and her pale brown skin stands out from the ebony of her classmates and family. Her classmates call her “akata” which means “bush animal,” slang for foreign-born blacks.

But when Sunny realizes that she is different, that she has magic and knowledge that is restricted to a very few, she handles it pretty much how any normal 12-year-old would.  She has moments of fear and disbelief, she lets it take over in a moment of anger, she learns the responsibility that comes with it, and she embraces the opportunity to learn and grow.  I love her.  She leads a double life as she studies juju and magic and learns to call her spirit face, all the while still going to school and keeping her new-found abilities a secret from the Lambs, or non-magical population.

All the characters aside from Sunny have distinct personalities and roles which move the story along while building the group of friends into a coven of power.  Chichi is blunt and superior but underneath understanding of Sunny’s reluctance and nervousness. Orlu is the peacemaker and the surprisingly powerful yet humble member of the foursome, while Sasha is the brash American, sent home to Nigeria to keep him out of trouble, which gives him great opportunity to find new mischief.

Leopard Knocks, the gathering place of the Leopard People, is a world within a world and is world-building at its absolute best. Visitors to the mystical town must summon their spirit faces, or true selves, in order to see the bridge that leads in.  Once across it, there are shops and cafes to visit, buildings that look like only magic can keep them from toppling over and the Obi Library containing knowledge and power. The people who both live there and visit understand the power of the Leopard People, and celebrate the differences that make everyone unique.

All the while there is an element of danger just below the surface. Not only is the four’s coven tasked to hunt down a serial killer, but even the training they go through can be deadly. But to counter the darkness is light, falling bronze chittim (magical currency) when a new skill is learned, a football game with other Leopard children that strikes a blow for girls’ rights, and an artist wasp that creates sculpture and craves applause and praise.

I love how author Nnedi Okorafor included Fast Facts for Free Agents, a book-within-a-book that Sunny reads to learn more about the Leopard People and her own powers. Written in a patronizing and arrogant tone, the informative book gives Sunny a starting off point for catching up with all she needs to know about herself, while also providing background for the reader without it seeming like an info dump.

This is a coming-of-age story about a young girl discovering power within herself. Sunny learns what she is capable of even as she learns what it means to be part of a community and family. These are common elements enough to any YA or middle-grade fantasy story, but Okorafor takes them and writes twists to make the story surprising and fresh.

Akata Witch was published April 14th, 2011 by Viking Children’s Press.

Esper Files (Esper Files #1)

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In Victorian London, an experiment in controlling electromagnetic power goes horribly wrong, resulting in the Great Storm. This unnatural meteorological occurrence affects some of the population’s electromagnetic field, giving strange new abilities, which of course leads to the rest of the population turning against them in fear, and having the “Espers” live as outcasts.

But not all of them. The man responsible for the failed experiment, the Professor, starts up an Institute to train Espers to handle their abilities, and use them for good. Two of his top agents are James, who possesses the ability to teleport, and Nathan, who can mirror anyone’s ability through feeling their emotion. Together, they rescue Espers and fight against the Baron, a corrupt man and former partner of the Professor who controls an army of corrupt Espers, and wants to control the world. But the Baron has a controller as well…

And you know what would have taken me less time to type? Hey – do you like the X-Men? Then read this series. For the Professor, insert Xavier, for Espers Mutants, for Baron Magneto, for the Institute the School for Gifted Youngsters.

What we have here is a steampunk reimagining of the X-Men universe. But I’m not sure if you can call it a reimagining. It is the X-Men.  Eccentric professor saving youngsters with powers that the population fears and a powerful man with a link to the professor who has gone rogue and is bent on controlling the world.  Put it all in Victorian London, add the Parliament and an airship, and bingo.

What was good? Author Egan Brass writes fabulous action sequences and scenes. The story is well-paced and flows smoothly from one scene to the next. He doesn’t get caught up in over describing the scenes but gives enough detail to really draw the reader into the action. Reading it, I knew where every character was, their actions, and could picture each sequence.

The characters are a bit predictable but change and develop through the novel.  The Professor is horrified by the use of Esper powers for evil and fights for the good of all. *cough* Professor X *cough*. Nathan is a poor outcast with extraordinary powers who is a trouble maker and self-destructive but really has a heart of gold as he discovers how to control his impulses. *cough* Logan *cough*  James is the sidekick, shunned from society as an Esper and a person of colour . *cough* Storm *cough*  You can start to see a pattern… Freya is an orphan whose powers come out under duress as her adoptive parents are murdered and brother is abducted, and she must learn to control her power in order to rescue him.

But. There are problems with the book, besides the obvious inspiration behind it. As a fantasy, a certain amount of disbelief must be suspended anyway. But there is no explanation, scientific or otherwise, of why/how people got abilities through the Great Storm. Nor does it actually ever explain how the Great Storm came about. The failed experiment wasn’t the only factor.

Also, I was distracted throughout by typos and incorrect sentence structure (pot, meet kettle). It is difficult to be in the middle of an action-packed battle scene or tense situation and grind to a halt because of poor word choice or lack of proof-reading. The author has a good story-telling talent, but he needs an editor. (I just researched the publisher and discovered it is a self-publishing site.)  His sentences follow a certain pattern (it is always “he said” or “she ordered” or “the Baron yelled” or “Shadow snarled.”  Mix it up, please).

Show, don’t tell, please. Show me how Nathan learns his self-worth, instead of having me follow his every thought about his life and realizing he is a good person in the end. Show me how Freya comes to trust everyone instead of having read her thoughts as she looks upon her teammates and sees they are good people. And so on. And so on.

The last few chapters were obvious attempts to tie up loose ends and build suspense for the next book in the series, but suddenly certain characters were acting out of character, and I wish the book had ended three chapters earlier than it did.

After all that, you probably think I hated it.  I didn’t. Criticisms aside, this is a fun, fast-paced story. I read it in one sitting, and while it has some violent, fairly gruesome scenes (if excessive blood loss turns you off, or you don’t like the idea of snacking on someone’s brains, this book is not for you), it is a good story for a lazy afternoon.  It is the first in a series, so I am hoping the next book irons out some of the problems.

By the way.  I popped over to Goodreads after I wrote this and read the reviews of the book there.  I’m a DEFINITE minority in my criticisms, so take this review for what it’s worth.

Esper Files was published October 26th, 2016 by Inkitt.

Bronx Masquerade

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At the end of a month of studying Harlem Renaissance poetry, high school English teacher Mr. Ward assigns an essay to class to break down what they’ve learned. One student, Wesley, hands in poems instead, and Mr. Ward asks him to read aloud one of them. The students’ response to Wesley’s words lead to an open mike poetry reading every week in class, where all students are offered the chance to read their original work. Each student takes advantage of the opportunity to tell the world something personal about themselves and how they see their place in society.

Bronx Masquerade is a novel written in 18 different voices. The story follows a year in the life of a classroom of high school students in the Bronx as they learn to express themselves through poetry and learn to look beyond the facades that their classmates present to the world. Each student has a chapter which ends in their poem, and as the year of poetry progresses the students realize that although on the surface they are all so different – black, white, Latinx, male, female, teen mother, heavy, thin, bold, shy, beautiful, athletic, artistic – they all face similar challenges and experience similar feelings.

The themes of difference and community and future resonate throughout the novel and the poems. Each of these teens experiences individual versions of loneliness and isolation; each has feelings of not fitting in, or of standing out for unwanted reasons (whether it be Janelle’s weight or Devon’s basketball prowess or Judianne’s fashion or Chankara’s black eye or Porscha’s mom dying of an overdose). But as they sit and really listen to each other speak, they all begin to realize that they are part of a community, and have more in common than perhaps they first thought. That said, each poem and poet is unique.

In the beginning, thoughts of the future are hazy for most of the teens. Hope is a foreign concept.  Most have lost friends or family members to gun violence, while some have just left. But as the kids come together and see they are not alone, the future becomes something attainable. Dreams are ok.  Dreams might come true, with hard work and focus.  Hope is ok.

This isn’t a book with a strong plot or story line. With 18 different narrators, it takes a few chapters to get into the flow of the style and keep characters straight, and you aren’t getting a chance to follow one teen through a year of development and change.  What you do see, rather, is snapshots of the students’ lives and how they react to the changes and revelations of others.

Coretta Scott King Award winning author Nikki Grimes has written a novel that sends an important message to teens to not judge each other, to get to know people beyond preconceived ideas, and to always hang on to hope.  I loved this book, but read a lot of reviews from people (generally adults) who did not.  The main criticism seems to be the lack of continuity of a main character. And while I grant that it is a choppy style to read, the book does a fabulous job of showing what lies beneath the surface is not always what the observer expects to find.

Bronx Masquerade was published December 31st, 2001 by Speak.

Dreadnought (Nemesis #1)

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Before I say anything else, I’m just going to oooh and aaah over this GORGEOUS cover for  awhile…

Danny Tozer is 15 years old and transgender. But no ones knows. Her family life centres around a father determined to make a man of her, and she has endured a lifetime of bullying already from the kids at school that see her as an easy target. But one day, as she crouches behind a concrete barrier outside the mall to secretly paint her toenails, the world’s greatest superhero fights an epic battle right in front of her and dies. And in keeping with tradition, his mantle of power transfers to the witness and transforms her into her true self. A gorgeous girl. But with superpowers. And she is not going back, no matter what.

Whether she likes it or not, Danny is the only one that can defeat the supervillain that killed Dreadnought. But in order to do so, she has to accept that she is worthy of the mantle, worthy of the respect.  And that might be harder to do than saving the world.

This is Danny’s origin story. As with most superhero origin stories, Danny comes of age in a world that wants to deny her existence, and even deny her the right to be herself and to have her powers. As a transgender queer girl, her coming of age is particularly difficult. Her parents deny her existence, her father hurling abuse while her mother insists that she wants her son back. Fellow superheroes are split on her right to become Dreadnought, with some supportive, and some angered by her insistence on being defined by her correct gender. Her best friend hurls insults when she refuses to date him and fractures their relationship irreparably.

I do think that Danny is the most fleshed out character in the novel, and rightly so. She is self-aware before her magical transition, and her growth is steady throughout the novel. She still calls herself trans after the world sees her as a girl, and she is proud of her identity. I like that even after becoming the world’s most powerful superhero, she still is afraid of falling behind in school. (Oh, if only my children were a 10th as responsible, and without superpowers…) I found her fear incredibly heartbreaking and realistic, her fear of her parents and the hold they have over her, her fear of accepting the mantle of Dreadnought, her fear of not being good enough.

But the supporting characters are a bit flat in places, and I am hoping that, as this is the first book in a series, they will become more rounded as the series continues.  With the exception of Calamity and Doc Impossible, the other superheroes are a bit two-dimensional. Both Calamity, who is so important to Danny (please let them get together!  Please!), and Doc Impossible develop nicely as the story progresses, and although I had suspicions that something wasn’t on the up and up with the Doc, I had NO idea of the twist at the end. This was NOT what I was expecting!

Danny’s parents are, sadly, what they appear to be.  And even though Danny has a certain amount of understanding and love for her mother and her situation, and I understand where it comes from, in the end, she does not choose her daughter and loses my sympathy.

The pace of the novel builds through the first half, setting up an explosive conclusion that is not only highlighted by the hero/villain climax, but also Danny’s confrontation with her parents. It isn’t it all rainbows and sunshine and bench-pressing rail cars, however; Danny’s freedom comes at great personal cost.

The world building in this novel isn’t front and centre, but rather steadily in the background, offering an incredible framework for the story to weave through. It is our world, but our world with superheroes who are tasked to keep us safe, our world where the government is still in charge, our world where politics still cover everything, from the ranks of the superheroes to the subtle class differences of those that have some abilities, to the normal people who just go about their daily lives.

Through the novel is a subtle humour with a message underneath. When Danny becomes her true self, that happens to be a girl with the looks and proportions of an airbrushed underwear model. Because that is what society has told her how a girl should look. But the messages are delivered with a nice wit and are not preachy.

The main character is brilliant. The world building is fabulous. The pacing is perfect. But another enemy approaches, and it will be the most terrifying one the world has ever faced.

This is a novel that anyone can read, it has humour, pain, strength, conflict, and triumph. And it is the first in a trilogy, so the love can only continue.

Dreadnought (Nemesis #1) was published January 24th, 2017 by Diversion Publishing.

Dreamers Often Lie

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If I had to summarize this novel in a couple of words, it would be intensely trippy. Think Shakespeare and brain damage and hallucinations and then throw in the usual teenage angst and drama, and there you have it.

17-year-old Jaye doesn’t know how she ended up in a hospital bed with a blinding headache, but she’s pretty sure that characters from Shakespeare’s plays shouldn’t be there with her. So probably best not to tell anyone about that little problem. Her one pleasure in life right now is her work in the school play, so as the star of Midsummer Night’s Dream she has to convince her doctors and her family that she is ok to leave the hospital before she loses her prized role.

But she has personal demons to deal with on top of everything else. A broken family and feelings of loss and abandonment fuel her struggles. Her life becomes intertwined with Shakespeare’s plays and she can’t keep the two of them straight. Especially when Romeo walks into class on her first day back to school. Where does reality begin and fantasy end?

Jaye is a totally unreliable narrator, which has possibly become my favourite kind. I love getting into the head of someone who thinks completely differently than I. I even like that I don’t like her. She is extremely self-centred and immature. Where I do have a problem with her is the lack of growths she displays throughout the story.  Yes, she has a severe head injury, but it seems like it knocked all the sense out of her. She does not develop or change, and she doesn’t seem to learn from her mistakes, acknowledging them and then going on and repeating the same ones over and over again.

And although I understand why she wants to keep her hallucinations secret, and she is afraid of losing her role in the school play, that motivation loses it’s believability as the story continues. There is a certain point where you have to let it go. Certainly when you can no longer remember what role you are playing and in which play. At some point, healing has to become a priority. There is always another play.

The secondary characters are widely varied, and I found the real ones less believable than the hallucinated ones. Pierce is a bit of a sociopath, and it is never clear whether he is truthful or not. Does he actually like Jaye, or is it an ego thing? Is he telling her the truth about her dad? He is not a likeable character at all.  Jaye’s mother and sister are a bit one-dimensional, and her mother is not believable, letting her severely head-injured daughter call the shots about leaving the hospital and going to school.

But the way the Shakespearean characters randomly pop up throughout the novel is unexpected and creepy and so well done, keeping the line between fiction and reality blurred. Ophelia is awesome. She appears soaking wet and cold and white and her mind is distant and confused, straight out of the play. Hamlet fluctuates from mad to lucid and back with each appearance, talking to the ever-present skull, while the Bard himself personally questioned Jaye’s actual desire to return to full health.

The plot explores conflict of many kinds, including the dysfunction present in even a “perfect” family, Jaye’s troubled relationship with her father, her difficulty in facing that conflict, being torn between what you want and what you can have, and of course, reality versus fantasy.

And the storyline itself reflects Jaye’s state of mind. There are secrets and twists and confusion, building tension and leading to an… ending. The story just stops. And I’m not entirely sure what happened. Perhaps everyone died? Perhaps everyone lived happily ever after? It is certainly Romeo & Juliet-esque. (Oh! Maybe it is Newhart all over again! I jest. And show my age.)

I like this novel, but don’t love it. It is not for everyone. You must enjoy being off-balance to get the full effect.

Dreamers Often Lie was published April 5th, 2016 by Dial Books.

And I Darken (The Conquerer’s Saga #1)

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Told from the alternating viewpoints of Lada, Princess of Wallachia, and her younger brother Radu,  And I Darken re-imagines Vlad the Impaler as a girl. With lots and lots and lots of stabbing, both of the physical and the back variety.

Lada Dragwlya is the daughter of the Prince of Wallachia, but he sold her and younger brother Radu to the Ottoman courts to pay a debt and buy favour. Lada turns her feelings of abandonment and loss into aggression, while gentle Radu takes the diplomatic approach, charming and listening and learning about his enemy. She becomes the solider, he becomes the spy.

When lonely young sultan Mehmed enters the picture, everything changes. The heir to the Ottoman empire becomes one of the three, but their loyalty to each other is always tempered by the fact that he will be sultan one day, and the siblings are essentially his property. And both Lada and Radu love and admire him in their own way, which might be the force that tears them all apart.

Lada is an epic anti-heroine. She doesn’t just say she is badass, she is fierce and resilient, and on the surface, perhaps a touch psychotic. But while she is cold and calculating and has no qualms about killing, it is only to serve a deeper purpose. She has her own moral code she lives by and never wavers from, even as it makes little sense to anyone else. As she matures, she begins to recognize what her place is in the world, and not accepting it, must find a way to change her world or herself. She is committed to her kingdom and will defend it at all costs.

Lada fights for everything. She is cunning and aggressive, hot-tempered and intelligent. Dismissed by her father at birth as useless until she proved beautiful enough to marry off, he soon discovered the girl possessed the strength and fierceness he had hoped he would pass on to his son. She looks down on women, having seen her own mother beaten down by her father, and considers them weak. But whereas she begins by denying her own feminity, desperately wanting her father’s approval and seeing his own thirst for power, she learns that power takes many forms, and women have their own source and ways of wielding it.

Lada shares the spotlight with Radu. Unfortunately, not the strong aggressive son that his father wished for, he is graceful and gentle, weak in their father’s eyes, and thus rejected. His sister is both his protector and his nemesis. Their relationship is filled with frustration, jealousy and misunderstanding, underscored with a deep bond. He seeks her approval even as his perceived weaknesses frustrate her, and she feels possessive of him without really understanding why.

But Radu also grows and develops and learns to wield his own influence, a different one than Lada possesses, and maybe ends up the more powerful of the two. He fades into the scenery, listening and sorting through facts and innuendo, and learns controls through subtlety.

OK. Is there a love triangle? Yes and no. There is the unrequited love that Radu has for Mehmed, so strong that Radu leaves rather than be around the one he knows cannot return his desire. And while Mehmed and Lada share a strong attraction, their deepest feelings are truly for their kingdoms and their power.  Wallachia holds Lada’s heart, while Mehmed craves the power of his throne.

Set in Eastern Europe, this is not a fantasy. It is more a historical retelling, a gender-swapping political thriller. It’s about power and the many ways in which it can be used and gained and lost, and fighting to be and get what you want.

This is not a short, quick read. At nearly 500 pages long, there is a LOT of information in it, and as a historical retelling, there is much fact that needs to be sifted from fiction. Author Kiersten White takes the time to develop her characters and follows them through the first decade and a half of their lives, exploring how their worlds intertwine and separate, how power and influence shift and wane and intensify.

If you want something light and fun, this is not for you. If you like a rich history and complex characters and plots that build slowly, this book is the start of a trilogy that will keep you captivated.

And I Darken was published June 28th, 2016 by Delacorte Press.