Author: V. E. Schwab
Shades of Magic, vol. 2
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Lila Bard has already done the impossible, slipping along with the Red London Antari Kell from her own world into his. Now she’s pushing the limits even further, finagling her way onto a privateer’s crew and studying magic–a skill she couldn’t possibly have any ability for, only she does. Meanwhile, back in London, the city is teeming with people all preparing for the great Essen Tasch, a huge magical tournament between powerful competitors from three neighboring countries. Prince Rhy is in charge of the preparations, and as usual, he is throwing himself into the spectacle with gusto. But he and Kell both feel a deep underlying tension as they continue to discover new, uncomfortable ways in which their life-connection links them. And if something isn’t done to let off some steam, they’ll both be likely to go off in some unseemly manner–probably sooner rather than later.
A Gathering of Shadows is the excellent sequel to V. E. Schwab’s hit story A Darker Shade of Magic. First off, I do have to note that you really need to read these in order; there’s a lot you won’t catch in this volume that is explained much more clearly in the first book. Secondly, I must say that A Gathering of Shadows well lives up to the standards of the first volume–possibly even exceeds them. It is really quite a remarkable book. The characters, who I loved from the first volume, are given a greater chance to bloom. Lila, in particular, shines in this book as her personality and thought processes are more fully revealed. We get to see a lot more of Rhy as well, which is fun. And the rakish captain Alucard Emery is introduced in this volume, adding another interesting dynamic to the cast. As for the plot, you’ve got two major threads, the first and the one that plays the largest role in this book being the games themselves, and the second more insidious being a plot seeping over from White London. Looking at it in retrospect from a birds-eye view, the plot is actually a bit gawky, but it doesn’t feel that way at all in the midst of reading it. It flows gorgeously. Where I did run into issues with the plot is at the end–the second plot doesn’t get a chance to resolve, and you’re left with this huge cliffhanger. So. I loved A Gathering of Shadows, but I’m don’t know how I’m going to wait for the next volume to be published. If you haven’t dived into this series yet, I would say go ahead and read the first volume; it ties up quite nicely at the end. But just save this volume until the third comes out, pick up both of them, and just plan to read straight through them both.
Author: V. E. Schwab
Shades of Magic, vol. 1
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Kell lives in a London where magic is the norm, where children play games involving testing their magical abilities from the time they’re young. But unlike any other citizen of his world, Kell has been to other Londons where things are very different. You see, he is an Antari, one of the last, an individual who has the ability control the magic that allows one to cross between the worlds. As a loyal subject–and adopted prince of what he terms “Red London”–Kell works for the king and queen, delivering messages to the royalty of the other Londons, “Grey London” and “White London”. He’s been known to carry other items across the boundaries between worlds as well, which is technically illegal but also profitable and exciting. Kell’s smuggling habits become a bit too exciting, however, when a package turns out to be a trap. And the help of an unmagical, Grey London girl may be his only hope for surviving the ensuing mess.
Okay, so you’ve all been telling me for . . . what seems like ages that A Darker Shade of Magic is amazing. So I’ve finally gotten around to reading it, and I agree. I probably should have read it before, but there you have it. V. E. Schwab crafts quite the exciting and enjoyable story. The writing style is very approachable, with a good balance of description and action. I really appreciated the third-person style that the author used; you see so much first-person writing now that a well-done third-person story is quite refreshing. One of my only complaints about the writing is the use of different languages for people from the different worlds–and I totally get why this was used, it was just annoying to me to try to read unpronounceable words that I ended up just skipping in the end. Minor issue on the whole, though. The characters were fantastic, and I really grew to care for Kell, Lila, and Rhy by the end of the story. I also really loved that the story developed in the way it did–worlds-impacting choices and meaningful camaraderie as opposed to unnecessary and forced romance (which I see way too much of). I would definitely recommend A Darker Shade of Magic for those readers out there who haven’t read it yet, and I’m certainly looking forward to reading the subsequent volumes of this series–as well as anything else I can find by the author.
Authors: Jane Yolen & Midori Snyder
My rating: 3 of 5
Warning: Mature Audience
Fey sisters Serana and Meteora have lived in ageless, carefree youth for uncounted years, but that all changes when one of them accidentally reveals their Queen’s most carefully kept secret. In punishment, the both of them are stripped of everything they have always relied on: youth, beauty, magical power, the freedom of the Greenwood, even the presence of each other. The two are dumped into the human world, miles apart, in the forms of fat, powerless old women. And so, they must find a new way to live, blending in with humanity and seeing humans in a new light. But even the Queen’s curse can’t keep them wholly separated, and in the midst of this new life, the two sisters find new purpose and unity.
So, I’m normally a huge fan of Jane Yolen’s writing, but Except the Queen just didn’t hit me right. I still liked it–a 3-star rating is still a definite like–but I probably won’t ever read it again. I even suspect it’s actually quite a good book, but still. . . . The first part of the story, while they’re still in the Greenwood, was very difficult for me to get into; I had to force myself to read the first 6 chapters or so. It was only after Serana and Meteora became a part of the human world, as they became more human themselves, that I found them at all possible to relate to. The actual structure and build-up of the story was quite good–I think if it had been written just a bit differently (maybe by just Jane Yolen; I’m not familiar with Snyder’s writing), this could have easily been a 4.5- or a 5-star read. I did love that a good chunk of the story is told in letters exchanged between the sisters, and that’s probably one of my favorite aspects of this story. One of the biggest negatives was that the story is told from numerous perspectives that flop from first person to third person to (very weirdly, and just for the Queen) second person. It’s kind of off-putting. Still, for those who don’t mind a few issues along those lines, I do think that Except the Queen is an original, intriguing sort of contemporary urban fantasy that melds intrigue, romance, and the sweet daily lives of two little old lady sisters quite nicely.
Author: Heather Tomlinson
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Once upon a time, four children were the best of friends: three humans, a boy and two girls, and one fae, a drac who loved mischief and gave the other three a salve that allowed them to see the true form of the fae. Years passed, and the four grew apart. Princess Aurelie lost her mother and became caught up in great responsibilities as her country descended into war. Her dear friend Netta was blinded by another fae, angered by her ability to see him truly, and now she refuses to leave her quiet country town. Loic, the drac, is convinced that his friends abandoned him on purpose and has isolated himself in the world of the fae. And Garin has returned to his home country with his parents–a country that is at war with the land of the princess he loves. Yet none of them have forgotten their affection for each other, and as circumstances rage around them, the four find themselves once again drawn together. . . . And just perhaps, the bonds they share will be enough to save them all.
Having never read any of Heather Tomlinson’s work, I was intrigued by the cover and summary of Aurelie, which promised something along the lines of a new fairy tale or maybe a retelling. I really wasn’t expecting the story that unfolded, though–a politically-charged, romantic fantasy along the lines of Tamora Pierce and Megan Whalen Turner’s writing. I loved it! The plot and the prose are tight and sure, making this a short but engaging tale. The multiple perspectives (of all four friends) work very well in this context. I found it particularly intriguing that Tomlinson chose to give first-person perspective to the three “secondary” main characters–Netta, Garin, and Loic–while writing Aurelie’s perspective in third person. It’s unusual, but it works; I actually didn’t notice until a good ways into the story. The slightly French feel to the story gave it an interesting flavor as well, something more along the lines of Perrault’s fairy tales as opposed to the Brothers Grimm, say. Aurelie was exciting and sweet both, full of unexpected turns and great characters, and I would highly recommend this story, especially to those who enjoy the works of authors like Pierce and Turner.
Author: Elizabeth Peters
Amelia Peabody Mysteries, volume 14
My rating: 4.5 of 5
The year is 1917, and the war is beginning to make travel extremely difficult. Not that that’s about to keep Amelia and her brood out of Egypt. Defying any danger with a stiff upper lip, the Emersons make their way from England back to their archaeological digs near Luxor, only to find that local tomb robbers have discovered a previously-unknown tomb . . . one they suspect might be royal. Of course, the family deems it their duty to find this tomb and protect it before the robbers completely clear its contents. Meanwhile, the family is kept busy on other fronts keeping Ramses away from the War Office and their attempts to bully/persuade him into doing more secret service work behind enemy lines. Amelia’s certainly got her hands full–and couldn’t be happier!
As with all of Peters’ Amelia Peabody books, The Golden One is a delightful admixture of mystery thriller, archaeological adventure, and historical romance of the best sort. Her portrayal of the setting is detailed and skillful without being burdensome–you get what you need to appreciate the setting, but she doesn’t spend pages on unnecessary description. The balance of the historical setting–the war and such–against the Emersons’ personal lives and interests is also excellently done, suiting the largely first-person style of the narrative. I also enjoyed in this volume having the contrast between Amelia’s own first-person voice–very Victorian, feministic, and full of personal witticisms–and the extracts from “Manuscript H” which are told in third-person from Ramses’ and Nefret’s perspective. The generation gap is clearly evident, and the contrasting perspectives are easily distinguishable and provide additional helpful information about what’s happening at any given time. Also interesting about this particular volume is the duality of the plot: one thread focusing on Ramses’ mission into the Turkish lines as a spy of sorts, sandwiched between two other sections focusing on the Emersons’ archaeological work and attempts to find the new tomb. It’s a bit unusual for these stories, but it works quite well. All in all, I think The Golden One is an excellent archaeological mystery for anyone even remotely interested in that genre, as well as for anyone just wanting an exciting and engaging story. Also of note, as this is the fourteenth volume of the series, it definitely includes numerous spoilers for previous volumes, but if you don’t care about that, there’s certainly enough background in the book itself to read it independently without needing to read the others first.
Author: Catherine Gilbert Murdock
My rating: 5 of 5
The Princess Benevolence (better known as Ben) has lived most of her life free from the restraints of court life, protected by her beloved mother–a fact which Ben’s equally unrestrained girth supports. Everything changes, however, when Ben’s mother and her uncle, the king, are brutally murdered and Ben’s father goes missing, leaving Ben heir apparent. Her aunt Sophia, serving as Queen Regent until Ben reaches her majority, begins pruning Ben to be ready to rule, putting her through all sorts of lessons and curbing her diet to an extent that Ben finds inordinately cruel. But Ben is not exactly a willing victim, particularly when she discovers a magically guarded room hidden above her own tower room . . . a room that has been hiding all sorts of magical secrets that it now begins to disclose to Ben.
I very much enjoyed reading Princess Ben. It reminds me a great deal of Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, in that it is a fantasy that reads and feels like a historical novel for a large portion of the story. Indeed, although the names of the particular kingdoms were unfamiliar, for the first third of the story, I had no real reason to believe this was not a historical novel focusing on some small medieval kingdom. It would have been an excellent story, just as a historical novel, too. The characters are well developed, growing, and full of surprises; the political intrigue is suspenseful and convincing; and the development of the kingdoms and their history is equally interesting and convincing. But then, around a third of the way through, Ben discovers all this magic that’s secreted away, and it becomes clear that the story is in actuality, a fantasy. And it works beautifully as that also. The magic suits the setting and enhances the story without diminishing the importance of all the other set up that has already been placed. Furthermore, although Ben has magic at her disposal, she comes into situations where she can’t use it and must still rely on her strong will and wits. Also, I really appreciated the small, deft allusions to numerous classic fairy tales that were scattered throughout the story without ever becoming anything significant . . . almost as a hint that this will become a fantasy, for those sharp enough to catch it. Princess Ben is a story that I greatly enjoyed and will definitely read again–highly recommended.
Note: This is kind of random, but I appreciated finding a fantasy that dealt with obesity in a practical and appropriate way–not a topic much touched on in your usual fantasy novels
Author: Sage Blackwood
Jinx, vol. 2
My rating: 4 of 5
The wizard Simon and his apprentice Jinx have temporarily defeated the evil wizard Bonemaster, but they know it’s only a matter of time until he breaks out of the wards they have set around his castle. Simon has begun visiting every witch and wizard he can find in the Urwald forest, attempting to get them to help reinforce the wards on the Bonemaster until he can figure out a way to defeat him for good. . . . Unfortunately, no one wants to get caught up in this matter at all. Meanwhile, Jinx accompanies his companions Elfwyn and Reven to the edge of the Urwald and the kingdom of Keyland where Reven intends to make his claim to the throne–being, it’s supposed, the rightful king, although he can’t say so because of a curse placed on him long ago. And as if he didn’t have enough to deal with, Jinx finds himself wrestling with unclear rumors passed on by the trees of the Urwald and a niggling sense that there’s something he’s supposed to remember–something important.
I hugely enjoyed the first book in this trilogy, Jinx, and was very excited to find the sequel, Jinx’s Magic. This was definitely a fun, exciting children’s fantasy, much in the spirit of the first volume. The writing style–as with Jinx–reminds me of a mix of Diana Wynne Jones’s and Tamora Pierce’s styles; it’s creative and fun and easy to read. I love the characters, many of them reappearing from the first volume. Several of them have what would typically be referred to as strong personalities. Or you could just say they’re stubborn. Jinx himself is an interesting character, particularly as he grows through the story–although in this particular volume, I feel like he grows more in skills and understanding of his place in the world than he necessarily does in character. The stylistic descriptions of magic and of Jinx’s perceptions of things like people’s thoughts and emotions (as colored clouds) is probably one of the most original and interesting facets of the story aside from the characters themselves. As for the plot, it is definitely exciting and interesting, but I do feel this is where things fell apart just a bit for this book (the only reason I gave it a 4 instead of a 5 rating). I felt like there was just too much going on and too much that was left unresolved at the end of the book. I realize this is setup for the final volume, and I’m very excited to read that; however, it just seemed a little loose in my opinion. Still, I enjoyed Jinx’s Magic, would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the first volume (and yes, you really do need to read Jinx first), and fully intend to read the final volume in the trilogy when I get a chance.