Tag Archives: fantasy

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.

Not Your Sidekick (#1)

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The characters in this novel will make your heart flip. They kick some ass and save the world and bond with friends and oh! fall in love in the absolutely cutest possible way.

It is post-WWIII Nevada, and almost 17-year-old Jessica Tran is a bit of an aberration in her family. Her parents are local superheroes (not that anyone knows thanks to their impeccable secret identities), her sister is following in their footsteps, and her younger brother is a super genius and college student that spends his days building things that tend to singe body parts. She’s not athletic, not motivated in school, and not sure what she’s going to do when she turns 17 and everyone realizes she has no powers.

The nuclear fallout from the Disasters one hundred years before caused a mutation in the gene and certain people are born with super powers. Some become heroes, and some become villains. Each city gets a set of each. Since Jess is without powers, she decides to get a job and find out what she can be good at. Bonus: getting a job gets her out from under her parents’ disapproving looks and constant questions about what she’ll do with her life.

And she ends up interning for her parents’ arch nemeses. AND with her secret crush, Abby. This could be the best job EVER. But her dream job takes on a dangerous element when she discovers that the heroes and villains are not all that they seem.

Holy crap, this is a fun book to read! It is charming and endearing and the characters are believable and likable and my heart truly melted over the romances.

Jess is an Asian-American child of immigrant superheroes, her dad is Vietnamese and her mom Chinese.  She is a wonderful protagonist for the story – kind and friendly and desperate for her powers to manifest. She lives with superheroes, collects comic books to read more about them, and belongs to the Captain Orion fan club. She is bisexual, asks people for their pronouns because she does not want to misgender them, and is totally intimidated only by her first real crush. As the child of immigrant parents of two cultures, Jess faces familiar issues. Although comfortable with the food and customs, she is not fluent in either language and never quite feels like she fit in with the Vietnamese or the Chinese communities in her town, while also feeling like an outsider in her own country.

Best friends Bells and Emma are also perfect. Bells is transgender and bright and hard-working, while Emma is cisgender, flirts with every boy that walks by, and is completely oblivious to the fact that Bells is in love with her. They are dynamic and quirky and completely hold their own in the story. And first-love Abby is red-haired and gorgeous and smart and athletic, and Jess is adorably tongue-tied and nervous around her. Their romance is funny and sweet and filled with hope and promise.

All the relationships in the novel are beautifully explored and developed. Author Lee takes everything from casual friendships and acquaintances to first loves and marriages and truly respects the different ties that people have to each other. Not one character seems like a token representation in this novel – various races and gender identifications are present and feel genuine to the story.

The world building in the novel does not take a back seat to the characters or plot. Fallout due to radiation is a common enough superhero backstory, but it is the perfect set-up for this novel. The world is now made up of Confederations, and water and food are not rationed but rather respected and not wasted. Lee has created a dystopian world filled with contrasts; each city has an assigned supervillain and hero to create havoc and order, there are wastelands and well populated big cities, there is extreme wealth with access to perks unavailable to the common population.

At the heart of it is the difference in perception and reality; who or what makes someone a hero or a villain? How do you resist pressure to be something you aren’t, and stay true to your own convictions? Especially when you learn that everything you thought was true is the opposite.

This is a great novel for everyone to read. No age limits, no restrictions. It is fun with fabulous messages, and I am just giddy waiting for the next book in the series!

Not Your Sidekick was published September 8th, 2016 by Duet Books.

Saving Hamlet

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Something fun to help me recover from a month of reading horror – theatre nerds, Shakespeare, time traveling, a bisexual BFF, and a plethora of cute boys to crush on, gay and straight. What more could a girl ask for?

15-year-old Emma is hoping to forget her freshman year at BHS. She started last year as a soccer star with long red hair and a bright future. But then the Hallowe’en party happened and she quit the soccer team and lost her friends. Life looked pretty bleak. Then Lulu sat at her lunch table one day and asked her to join the drama club, and suddenly life looked up again. She had a new best friend and a purpose.

So sophomore year looks good. Emma has changed her look  and she has changed her life. She has a sleek short haircut and a drama appropriate all-black wardrobe, is the assistant stage manager for the school production of Hamlet, the hottest boy in school is directing the play, what could go wrong? Well, how about a fight with her best friend, a sudden promotion to stage manager (a position she has just begun to learn), bad casting for the play, and a hole in the centre of the stage that she trips over and falls through.

And lands in Hell. Otherwise known as the basement below the stage at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Yes, that one. The one in London, in 1601. And the players are preparing to stage Hamlet for the first time. And Emma is mistaken for a boy (how flattering) and as the assistant to the stage manager Mr. Wick, who is known as the book keeper.

Emma is NOT an actor in a story that is set in the theatre. I like that. She is self-conscious and endearing, funny and conflicted, and seems on the edge of losing control at all times. Thrust into the spotlight when the stage manager quits, she has to juggle fragile egos and a disastrous production in the making. Not to mention her no-longer-best friend’s life is imploding, and there is nothing Emma can do to help.

Emma (known as Master Allen in the Globe) encounters Shakespeare himself in her travels back to his theatre, and soaks up the atmosphere of the original production and studies his methods and motivations. She brings that knowledge and new-found confidence in her ideas back to her present day production, and back to her relationships.

Every kid in the novel is misunderstood and melodramatic and, therefore, a totally authentic teen. Small things become huge, and huge things actually become easier to handle. Who would have thought that traveling back in time 400 years would actually be preferable to working on a high school drama club production? (I may have just answered my own question there.)

Stanley and Lulu, Emma’s two best friends, are gay and bi and possibly two of the best-written characters I have read in ages, if not ever. They are beautifully developed with individual personalities and quirks and jealousies, they are complex and not “token”, which I have found so many of the diverse characters in other novels to be lately. And, to top it all off, they are sarcastic and funny, which pretty much made them my favourites.

But all the present-day characters in the novel are strong. I d0n’t necessarily like each one, but my reasons for not liking them are because of their personalities, not because they are poorly written. They aren’t. They are all so real and familiar to me, I am pretty sure I went to school with at least half of them. (Or, given my age, their parents.) And the characters from Shakespeare’s troupe of players and stagehands are exactly how I would picture each and every one, from Will himself to Burbage and Wick. Their humour and egos are spectacular.

The plot is FABULOUS. Author Molly Booth weaves Shakespearean facts and literature throughout the novel, illustrating all the magic that is present in his writing. This isn’t a novel that is filled with action, but rather with subtext and stories and growing up and learning all of life’s fun and not-so-fun lessons. The drama playing out in Emma’s life is mirrored in the theatre, as is the drama in each of her co-workers’ and friends’ lives. Who can be trusted, who is real, what is their motivation for their actions? It is as hilarious as it is poignant and adventurous.

Booth’s world-building showed meticulous research and thorough understanding of the time. Her attention to detail in both the Globe’s and the present day’s productions is impeccable, making me feel like I was breathing in the sawdust of the old theatre and smelling the rank odors of the costumes and players. 17th century London was full of interesting characters and Em’s adventures in that century had me on the edge of my seat.

This is a great novel for anyone with a yen for adventure and romance. And while knowledge of Shakespeare isn’t a requirement to understand the story, it certainly adds to the enjoyment. LOVE this one.

Saving Hamlet was published November 1st, 2016 by Disney-Hyperion.

The Call

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This is the type of horror that seeps into your brain and wanders around, taking over your dreams and worming its way into your sub-conscious. Irish folklore with a twisted twist.

Ireland has been cut off from the rest of the world for a quarter century. Thousands of years after the Sidhe were defeated by the Irish and driven to a nightmarish otherworld, the fairy folk have gathered their strength and returned to fight for their land. To do so, they issue the Call, wherein every Irish child at some time during adolescence systematically disappears and is brought to the Grey Land to fight for his or her life.  1 in 10 return alive. And they, 3 minutes and 4 seconds after they disappear, return to Ireland changed forever, distorted and twisted, physically and psychologically.

15-year-old Nessa awaits her Call. She has lost countless friends and family and knows that  her chances of survival depend on her wits more than her strength. Because she has another challenge. Childhood polio left her legs weak and twisted, and outrunning the hunters will be nearly impossible for her. She trains every waking moment to be prepared for the hunt. But even reading the hundreds of Testimonies from survivors cannot prepare anyone for the horror that awaits.

The world building in this novel is flat-out amazing. This is fantasy horror, and Peadar Ó Guilín has nailed it. Dystopian Ireland is a land of terror. Teens live in fear of the Call, parents of losing their children to it. They are cut off from the rest of the world, technology is useless, communications barely survive, and the world has abandoned them. The children are sent away to schools to learn survival tactics, and Year One classes of 60 dwindle to three or fewer by Year Seven, as one by one they are Called.

And the Grey Land more than lives up to that simple description. In a dimension without colour, where time has slowed, there are ugly, twisted, vicious monsters that used to be human. They chase the thieves (what the Sidhes call the Irish teens) to torture and kill. The Called must survive a full day in the Grey Land, but everything there is deadly. The absolute horror of hunting dogs that upon closer inspection were once people, twisted viciously out of shape. The cloaks of the Sidhe, made from human skin. Flora and fauna that had their origins in the Many-Coloured Land of Ireland now haunt and demonize the Grey Land. And the Sidhe themselves, beautiful fairy folk that live for vengeance and can maim with a mere touch.

Nessa is an ordinary girl in an extraordinary situation. She recognizes that in order to survive she has to harden her heart against any distraction, including friendship and love. Cold and aloof, she pushes away her fellow trainees, not ever wanting to be moved from her training and focus. But try as she might to be alone, there are those that ignore her cool exterior and strong arm her into friendship. Megan is one such girl; she is an irreverent redhead who embraces life with as much force as Nessa ignores it.

Conor, Anto, Liz, and Aoife are characters that play a huge role in Nessa’s life, some for good and some for evil. Other characters are met only as they receive the Call; they are the ones that suffer the greatest in the Grey Land but survive the least amount of time. The adults in the story are very much in back ground, as they watch their Nation’s future stolen away from them.  Many work to train the youngsters to survive, studying the Testimonies of the survivors looking for clues to help give an edge to the teens, but in the end are as helpless as those that are Called.

This book is brutal and dark and bloodthirsty. Through the images of horror and fear, it examines the causes and costs if war. We all know that history is written by the victors, but beyond that, how is responsibility determined? Who bears the guilt of past wrongs? Who must pay?

Another horror novel that is not for the faint of heart, although I suspect any teen that reads it will handle the fear better than I and enjoy the fast-paced action and imaginative monstrosities within. But I may never sleep again.

The Call was published August 30th, 2016 by David Fickling Books.

Alice in Zombieland (White Rabbit Chronicles #1)

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Full disclosure: I have had this novel sitting on my shelves for at least two or three years, and have been unable to bring myself to open it. I hate zombies. Can’t handle them. Can handle vampires, ghosts, monsters, witches, you name them, I like them.  But zombies?  Just EW.  But it is Hallowe’en month and sacrifices must be made. So I read it. And I regret waiting so long. Because this one is fun.

Maybe because this is not your typical zombie novel.  Yes, there is fleshing-eating grossness and ooze and snacking on humans.  But there is also a sweet love story and lots of humour that had me giggling throughout.

Alice Bell is a fairly typical teenager, with a few important exceptions. Blond and pretty, she adores her younger sister Emma, and copes with her eccentric parents. Well, not eccentric so much as irrational and deranged. Her father is an out-of-control alcoholic and convinced that monsters are real, even though no one can see them. Alice’s mother loves him and supports his every whim. So at age 16, Alice has never been allowed out of the house after dark, or near a cemetery, or near anyone who would try to convince her leave the house after dark or go near a cemetery, all of which can throw a wrench in any teenager’s life. 

But in one tragic second, she discovers that the alcoholic father she dismissed as insane was not. The monsters are real. And now Alice becomes Ali and fights the undead, the monsters that stole her family.  And along the way, she might get the chance to be a “normal” teenager for the first time.

As a retelling, this one is not close to the original at all, which is fine. There are references to the white rabbit and mad parties and evil grins and of course Alice, but Carroll’s story is more of an inspiration than a framework for this novel.

The zombies in this Alice are not the kind we usually see on TV or read about. Shuffling, decaying, mindless monsters, yes, but these ones exist only in the spirit world, are not visible to all, and must be fought in their realm. They are attracted to fear and death and horror and hurt only those that can see them. These are zombies even I can tolerate. (They are still gross and ooze black gunk, but fine, I don’t have to picture them in a horde chasing me.)

Alice is a strong main character. She is smart, independent, fierce, loyal and doesn’t take crap from anyone. She can also be whiny and self-absorbed. Her  self-worth and sense of humour remain intact even as her world has been destroyed, and she not only has to come to terms with the fact that she had a minor part to play in it but also that she has spent her life looking down on her father and dismissing his beliefs, while all along he adored her and was just looking out for her safety.

Best friend Kat is fun, feisty and a bit wild. But she too knows her own self-worth and doesn’t let anyone – ex-boyfriends and fairweather friends included – tell her who she is. She has her own secrets and isn’t afraid to admit when she is out of her depth, and while I wondered about her motivations at first, it becomes clear through the story that she is who she is, and loyalty is one of her most important qualities.

The boys in the novel are really supporting characters for the cast of bad-ass girls. Tough guy Cole is the typical bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold, but I like him.  OK, the intense violet eyes and love at first sight visions of passion are a *bit* over the top, but I can deal. He has a tough job and he carries it out with purpose and passion, all the while managing to look hot and flirt with Ali. Their dialogue is humorous and they have good chemistry, although perhaps the back-and-forth bantering between them goes on a bit long. What I do like is they are equal. Ali is not mooning around, hoping the sexy tough guy will choose her. And while Cole had the upper hand in knowledge and experience of the world she is about to enter, Ali makes it perfectly clear that she stays on her terms, not his.

Nana and Pops bring Ali home to live with them and there are moments that swing between absolute hilarity and sadness as they try to cope with having a teen in their home again, while also dealing with the loss of family themselves. I cringed alongside Ali as they questioned the boys she brought home, laughed at the slang they picked up in their research of current teenage language and cried at their heartbreak.

There is the violence to be expected from a zombie novel, but the gore factor is pretty mild. This is not the book for you if you want a hard-core zombie apocalypse but definitely is if you enjoy a fun romance with a side of zombie beat-down. Books 2 and 3, Through the Zombie Glass and The Queen of Zombie Hearts, are going on my to-read list.

Alice in Zombieland was published September 25th, 2012 by Harlequin Teen.

Three Dark Crowns (#1)

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Kendare Blake has done it again. This is fantasy and horror at their best.

The island of Fennbirn eagerly awaits its next queen. The inhabitants have been ruled by the Black Council for the past 10 years, but the time is coming for the Queen to take her rightful place. But who will be Queen remains a mystery. For now.

Every royal generation starts as three. Triplets are born to the current Queen, who gives up her Crown and her children and disappears.  The three girls possess magic and are equal heirs to the throne, fostered out from age 6 until the night they turn 16 years old. Then the fight begins. Will it be Katherine the poisoner, Arsinoe the naturalist, or Mirabella, controller of the elements?  The young queens must fight each other in order to claim the crown. Only one can live.

Let me start by saying I AM SO HAPPY THERE WILL BE A SEQUEL!  I will buy the hardcover and put it on my shelf next to this one and build a shrine to the series and look at them every day. (That’s normal, right?? Right. My precious…)

Fantasy requires extensive world building, and in Three Dark Crowns it is fabulous. Thankfully, the novel starts with a detailed map, something every fantasy should have on page one. Add in Blake’s descriptions and the island comes alive, immersing me in each village and manor and gathering place. I visited the forests of Wolf Spring, experienced storms over the cliffs of Rolanth, and watched the Black Council in action at Ingrid Down.

Katherine is the Heir Apparent. The last three generations of Queens have been poisoners. Poisoners are perfectly creepy. They wear only black and ooze attitude and superiority. They turn up their noses at untainted food and enjoy showing off their power by ingesting poisons in all their food and drink. Except Katherine’s gift doesn’t seem to have fully developed. Poison makes her ill. She is weak and thin, and the odds of her winning the Crown seem to slip away with each passing day. Her guardian, Natalia, will not let that happen. Her family has served the poisoner Queens for generations, and she will not let the line end with Katherine.

Arsinoe is the naturalist queen. Picture a hippie commune where everyone talks to animals and hugs trees. Arsinoe should be able to make fruit ripen and blooms grow and fish and game leap to her table. She should have a powerful animal familiar as her companion. Except she suffers from the same fate as her poisoner sister. Her gift has yet to appear. Her best friend Jules is the most powerful naturalist of her generation and strives to cover for Arsinoe’s weaknesses.

Mirabella has the strength that her two sisters lack. Elementalists are self-assured and have swagger. And Mirabella has power. She brings storms and controls fire and commands the waters and the earth. And she is beautiful. But she has her own weakness, one that would put her in danger if ever discovered. Mirabella alone of the three queens remembers their lives together, and misses their companionship. But the hopes of the elementals rest on her powerful shoulders and she cannot fail them.

There are love interests and consorts and backstabbing politics and wonderfully unexpected friendships. I am not usually the biggest fan of the love triangle, but this one  added a whole new layer to the story. Giselle, Pietyr, Sara, Luca, Rho, Joseph, Billy, Bree, Elizabeth and so many more supporting characters add a myriad of relationships throughout, and make the Queens so much more real.

There are twists and turns in the story throughout. And while I loved the entire book, it does take some time to build the characters and relationships, so the pacing is much slower for the first half.  It was the last few chapters that had me turning pages almost before I’d finished reading them. And the ending. Holy crap, the ENDING. I did NOT see any of it coming. What an epic cliffhanger!

If there is one weakness to the novel, it is that the histories of the Goddess and the Queens and the Island are hinted at, but not fully explained. I am hoping more is revealed in the second book.

Read this one. There is violence and gore, and some very PG-13 sex, but is still appropriate for the entire YA range.

Three Dark Crowns was published September 20th, 2016 by HarperTeen.

Labyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas #1)

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15-year-old Brooklyn teen Alejandra is a bruja, the latest in a long line of witches in her family. But magic doesn’t hold a thrall for her; she has seen the dark side of it far too often. So as her own magic wakens and she realizes her incredible power, she makes the fateful decision to turn her power back to the Deos. Easier said than done. She tries a new canto at her Deathday celebration, and her entire family disappears, banished to Los Lagos.

Her only hope is Nova, the strange new brujo who has mysteriously entered her life and raises only questions with his tattoos and odd behaviours.

I was really looking forward to this one. It was released the day that I finished Shadowshaper, and I was so eager to dive into a culture of which I know next to nothing. The trouble with this story is that I just didn’t care. I wanted to. I wanted to love it, and parts of it I did. It draws on the magic and history of the Latin-American culture, which I found to be brilliant. And another enticing and intoxicating cover. But the execution and the characters felt rushed and thrown together.

I like that it is a diverse cast, including a bisexual main character. And written without stereotypes, just a normal teen. Fantastic.

But. I did not connect with Alejandra. Actually, I did not connect with any of them. Although I can understand the daily turmoil Alejandra went through, her choices were unimaginable. After living her life surrounded by magic, after seeing mysterious death, after being chased by malevolent spirits and almost dying herself and seeing her family scarred, and after realizing that her own powers were immense and out of control, she decides she doesn’t want the power, and attempts dispel it with no idea how to go about it properly? And then she blamed the one person who had warned her not to do it? It makes no sense.

The relationships in the novel never struck me as authentic. No one really seems to know each other (at least of Alejandra’s generation), and I’m not sure that you could date or be friends with a witch of the power displayed by her family and have NO IDEA that something odd is going on.

As for the bisexual element of this story, it just falls flat for me. Alejandra’s relationship with both Rishi and Nova is disappointing. While I am not the biggest fan of the love triangle to begin with, I did think this could be an interesting new approach. But the characters lacked chemistry, and while I applaud the attempt to add diversity to the novel, this feels like an afterthought thrown in. Nova is too much the stereotypical bad boy with the troubled past, and Rishi just lacks spark.

The pacing of the novel is way off. At first, author Zoraida Córdova does a good job building to the big event as Alejandra struggles with her powers, unable to control them, and wanting them gone. But after her family disappears and she has to follow them to Los Lagos to rescue them, the plot seems to slow down and takes one confusing turn after another. The characters make bad decisions, take the wrong path (even though they were warned), trust the wrong characters (again, after being warned), and then all of a sudden *poof* and Alejandra figures out a new aspect of her immense power just in time to correct the mistake. Ten minutes ago, she couldn’t control any of it. It is frustrating, not suspenseful.

I did enjoy the author’s notes at the end of the novel, where Córdova explains what is real, and what is straight out of her imagination. It is a great mix between the two.

So I will say not bad, but it never reached its full potential. And for all that I did not love this story, I seem to be in the minority. Most reviews I have read are glowing, so I do think the book is worth the read, just to see what you think. It is appropriate for the entire YA range.

Labyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas #1) was published September 6th, 2016 by Sourcebooks Fire.

Shadowshaper

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OH. This cover. Possibly the most beautiful I have seen in forever, and a perfect representation of what you will find inside.

Brooklyn teen Sierra Santiago is a talented artist and is looking forward to a great summer. The first party of the season is tonight, and then she’ll spend her months off hanging with friends and painting a huge dragon mural on the wall of the abandoned eye-sore of a  building next to the junklot. But everything starts to change when she sees the colours of one mural, a tribute to a friend’s brother who was shot by the police, start to fade, and a tear slide down the face of another. To top it off, the night of the party she is chased down the street by a dead body. Things you don’t tend to see day-to-day, normally.

These fantastical occurrences lead Sierra to the world of shadowshapers – people who call the spirits forth through art and storytelling and music. Sierra had not been aware of her family’s connection to the spirit world, but her brush with danger leads her to question and start digging into the world of the shadowshapers. She find out that not only does her family have a powerful connection to them, but also that someone is using the shadowshaper power for evil, trying to take all their spiritual force, and destroying the ‘shapers and the link to their ancestors.

I am in love. With this story, with Sierra, with Robbie, and with Tee and Izzy and Big Jerome and Manny and the whole cast of characters that make the novel come alive. And maybe a touch with Daniel José Older too, because the magic flowed through his pen.

Older weaves the experiences a person of colour would have in a white dominated society throughout the story, but within the context of an urban fantasy. I am in awe. Police brutality, misogyny, racism, spirituality, diverse culture, as well as the small, not unimportant, everyday bigotries and judgments that all people exhibit. Sierra’s own aunt passes judgment on her niece’s natural afro and Robbie’s darker skin. And while none of these experiences are the main focus of the novel, they serve to enhance the plot and develop the characters.

And Sierra is the type of female main character you want to find in a YA novel. She is strong, self-aware, has a great sense of her history and culture, and adds humour and  humility, and a touch of teenage angst. In short, she is authentic.

Sierra’s friends are also such a wonderful cross-section. Older writes these characters effortlessly, almost as if he picked teens off the street and had them describe themselves and their friends. Sierra has lesbian best friends, she has friends with African, Haitian, Caribbean, and Puerto Rican heritage, and all stand out as individuals while mixing together in a great representation of Brooklyn youth. And their dialogue is fresh and hilarious, and the use of slang throughout is perfect. (Well, I assume it is. I’m old, so it definitely isn’t MY vernacular.)

I love that while Sierra is interested in Robbie, she doesn’t let that get in her way. Too many times in YA the romance is made the most important aspect of the heroine’s life. Not here. Sierra finds Robbie hot, but she has other things to do first, like save her family, her heritage, the world.

I think my only complaint is the length of the novel. I wanted to learn more about Sierra and the shadowshapers and magic and the different cultures that were all touched upon, but could have taught me so much more.

This is a must-read for anyone of any age.

Shadowshaper was published June 30th, 2015 by Arthur A. Levine Books.