Odd and True by Cat Winters (ARC Review)

Odd and True by Cat Winters

Information

Goodreads: Odd and True
Series: None
Source: Publisher
Publication Date: September 12, 2017

Official Summary

Trudchen grew up hearing Odette’s stories of their monster-slaying mother and a magician’s curse. But now that Tru’s older, she’s starting to wonder if her older sister’s tales were just comforting lies, especially because there’s nothing fantastic about her own life—permanently disabled and in constant pain from childhood polio.

In 1909, after a two-year absence, Od reappears with a suitcase supposedly full of weapons and a promise to rescue Tru from the monsters on their way to attack her. But it’s Od who seems haunted by something. And when the sisters’ search for their mother leads them to a face-off with the Leeds Devil, a nightmarish beast that’s wreaking havoc in the Mid-Atlantic states, Tru discovers the peculiar possibility that she and her sister—despite their dark pasts and ordinary appearances—might, indeed, have magic after all.

Review

Odd and True is the electrifying yet heartwarming story of two sisters who team together to hunt monsters in early twentieth century America.  I’m always in favor of a good story about sisters, and Odd and True puts that relationship in the forefront, as the protagonists—Odette (Od) and Trudchen (Tru)—support each other even as they work through different opinions and try to come to terms with the fact that both of them have secrets.

Family in general is at the forefront of the story, as Od and Tru deal with their troubled past in different ways—partially because, as the older sibling, Od has totally different memories of their early childhood than Tru does.  The book switches between their points of view, with Tru narrating the present day action of their new quest to hunt down a devil they believe to be terrorizing the area around Philadelphia, while Od’s chapters focus on the past—her childhood and then a few teen years she spent away from true.  The result is a richly textured story that addresses love, loss, identity, and the definition of family itself.

The monster hunting aspect of the story is deliciously creepy yet not always the most compelling part of the story.  Winters plays coy, making readers wonder what exactly about monsters is real and how the story as a whole is going to play out.  It’s also worth noting that she keeps the story tight by featuring one primary monster the sisters go after.  This may be disappointed to readers who expected a little more gallivanting and epic showdowns, but I really liked it.  Some books in a similar vein cram in so many monsters that the fights seem episodic or even repetitive; Winters builds the excitement up around one main moment that’s really worth it.

I had never read a book by Cat Winters before Odd and True, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  If you read my reviews regularly, you probably know I have a tendency towards disgruntled mutterings about the sad state of prose in contemporary, particularly YA fiction (as much as I love YA).  Well, Winters’s prose is beautiful.  She drew me into the story with it from the opening pages, and the beauty never flagged. The chapters from Odette’s point of view have a particular tendency towards the magical and whimsical which really worked with Winters’s style.

I would be willing to read another novel by Winters just because of the writing in this one, but the story and character development are also remarkably well done.  It’s a great blend of magic, historical fiction, and real world issues.  Highly recommended.

4 stars Briana

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Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

Information

Goodreads: Flame in the Mist
Series: Flame in the Mist #1
Source: Library
Published: May 16, 2017

Official Summary

The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she’d been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath.

So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko’s convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who’ve been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace.

The lone survivor, Mariko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.

Review

I know Ahdieh has a great reputation as an author and a strong fan base, but I actually DNF’ed The Wrath and the Dawn a couple chapters in simply because I couldn’t get into the story. The summary of Flame in the Mist sounded like so much fun, however, (a girl defying her destiny and falling in with a band of thieves?!) that I wanted to give Ahdieh another shot. Ultimately, I did enjoy the plot, but I’m not sure I’m invested enough in the characters to continue reading the series.

The story really does deliver all that it promises. In feudal Japan, a spirited young noblewoman bound in duty to marry whomever her parents decree suddenly finds her life uprooted; she is the victim of an attempted assassination and determined to infiltrate the criminal group responsible to find out why. Admittedly, this is not an entirely unique plot in young adult literature, but it’s always one I love to read, and this is no exception. Ahdieh does a fabulous job laying out the intricacies of the tensions between criminals, common people, and nobility, and protagonist Mariko quickly comes to learn that the world may not be exactly as she believed.

Tied into this, some of the characterization in the novel is strong. The bandit gang is represented as deep and complex; they all have shadowed pasts and clear motivations for how they ended up in a criminal life. Ahdieh is careful to portray them as people, not simply as villains, and they have layer upon layer that Mariko slowly uncovers. I wish Ahdieh had done the same for some other characters in the novel; some choices that ought to be more difficult for Mariko suddenly become easy as the lines between “good guy” and “bad guy” are made needlessly clear cut near the end of the story.

I wanted to care more about what’s going to happen in book two because I enjoyed the storyline of book one, and I was invested in the slow burn romance. However, the ending here makes it pretty clear what’s going to transpire next, and I have definitely seen this ending in multiple YA novels. (I’ll refrain from naming any to avoid needless spoilers.) This book was enjoyable while I was reading it, but it’s just not original enough or complex enough for me to want to continue investing time in Mariko and her friends.

3 Stars Briana

The Mirk and Midnight Hour by Jane Nickerson

INFORMATION

Goodreads: The Mirk and Midnight Hour
Series:  Strands #2
Source: Library
Published: 2014

SUMMARY

With her twin brother dead and her father gone off to fight for the South, Violet Dancey is trying to hold her life together.  Unfortunately, her new stepmother is addicted to laudanum, her stepsister Sunny is an obnoxious flirt, and her cousin Dorian seems charming but could mean trouble.  Then Violet and her young cousin Seeley find an injured Union soldier in the woods.  Unexpectedly, he’s handsome and intelligent, nothing like she thought a Yankee would be.  But why are the mysterious VanZeldts caring from him?  Will he be a victim of their dark powers?  A retelling of “Tam Lin.”

Review

Jane Nickerson’s The Mirk and Midnight Hour reimagines the Scottish tale of “Tam Lin” in Civil War-era Mississippi.  Her interest in the Southern Gothic combined with a story of forbidden love makes the story intriguing.  Unfortunately, the plot feels a little messy and the depiction of slavery indicates that, even though Nickerson seems to be attempting to deal with the difficulties inherent in discussing such a terrible topic, she ultimately is unable to avoid reinforcing stereotypes or to avoid the influence of the narrative of the Lost Cause.

[Spoilers Ahead for the Rest of the Review.] The uncomfortable depiction of slavery and Black individuals is in, fact, part of the reason the plot feels like such a mess.  In Nickerson’s retelling of “Tam Lin,” the fairies are replaced by voodoo practitioners.  Because they are invoking mysterious powers, Nickerson wants to depict them as strange and other-worldly.  And, of course, as villainous.  This gets incredibly awkward since it means that the people of the town  see the African men and women as something other than people.  They move strangely, are associated with snakes. and are referred to as (by another Black character) “People-things” to indicate that they are not normal.  In a book where race and racial politics must always be at the forefront, associating Black characters with dark powers and wrongness is…well, it feels wrong.  Furthermore,the voodoo really doesn’t add much to the plot but seems like it was awkwardly tacked on to a standard Union-Confederate forbidden romance story.  So these depictions and their problematic implications could have easily be edited out and improved the book in more ways than one.

The book, however, seems unsure exactly how to deal with racial politics even while it seems clear it knows that it has to.  For example, Nickerson seems to realize that depicting a young woman whose family owns slaves and making that woman the heroine is going to be a problem.  She attempts to deal with this by making Violet and her slave Laney friends.  Violet and Laney grew up together, share secrets, even do the household chores together.  Violet loves Laney’s baby Cubby and babysits him.  There are two nods given to this inexplicable arrangement.  Violet muses randomly that if she were Laney she would run to the Union lines despite the friendship.  And Laney reminds Violet at one point that she cannot, in fact, drop Master Seeley’s formal title when speaking about him.  Otherwise, however, slavery is depicted as fairly benign.  In fact, the neighbor and her slave Jubal seem to have had feelings for each other and are great friends, too!

There is one conversation in which the question of slavery is more explicitly addressed.  Violet’s Union soldier explains he is fighting to end a great wrong.  Violet halfheartedly gives a few sentences about slavery being necessary to the economy (like she would really care), Abraham owning slaves in the Bible, and her kind treatment to her slaves.  Ultimately, however, the sense is that Violet just really hasn’t thought about slavery that much and simply accepts it.  Perhaps that’s the scariest depiction one could give of the insidiousness of the evil of slavery, but the book doesn’t follow this up except to have Violet suddenly have an equally half-hearted repentance.  She apologizes to Laney for having Laney as a slave.  Laney, perhaps realizing that she is still a slave, that the apology doesn’t mean much as a result, and that as a slave she cannot be honest about her emotions with her masters, seems to forgive Violet like it’s all no big deal.

Add to this the inclusion of a Black man who attempts rape and the stereotypical stronger-than-average Black man and the book gets increasingly more troubling.  Yes, Black characters should be able to be presented in a wide range of ways, should get to be the good guys or the villains or the people in-between.  However, when you add these two depictions to everything else going on in the book, it really seems like the books perhaps just is not aware of the implications of some of the characterizations.  I can only conclude that there is a lack of knowledge because the explanation for the presence of the voodoo practitioners in Mississippi is that they voluntarily moved there as free people because they thought they would blend in.  They could have moved to anywhere in the world and they chose to move to a place where they would be hated and despised and would not have legal freedoms?  It makes no sense, but the underlying implication is that slavery must not be such a big deal if free Africans would purposely move to the Civil War South!

Probably this story should have been written as a standard romance without the addition of the voodoo practitioners.  And probably if Nickerson wanted Violet to be sympathetic, she should have made Violet a secret Union sympathizer and non-slave owner from the start.  There are complex questions that could have been addressed, such as Violet’s blithe ignorance of the evils of slavery and what that tells us about how seemingly ordinary people can do something so wrong, but, if they are not going to be addressed, it’s going to make the book an extremely troubling read.

Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton

Traitor to the Throne

Information

Goodreads: Traitor to the Throne
Series: Rebel of the Sands #2
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Official Summary

Rebel by chance. Traitor by choice.

Gunslinger Amani al’Hiza fled her dead-end hometown on the back of a mythical horse with the mysterious foreigner Jin, seeking only her own freedom. Now she’s fighting to liberate the entire desert nation of Miraji from a bloodthirsty sultan who slew his own father to capture the throne.

When Amani finds herself thrust into the epicenter of the regime—the Sultan’s palace—she’s determined to bring the tyrant down. Desperate to uncover the Sultan’s secrets by spying on his court, she tries to forget that Jin disappeared just as she was getting closest to him, and that she’s a prisoner of the enemy. But the longer she remains, the more she questions whether the Sultan is really the villain she’s been told he is, and who’s the real traitor to her sun-bleached, magic-filled homeland.

Forget everything you thought you knew about Miraji, about the rebellion, about Djinn and Jin and the Blue-Eyed Bandit. In Traitor to the Throne, the only certainty is that everything will change.

Review

Traitor to the Throne brings readers right back into the action-packed rebellion with Amani, her Rebel Prince, and their talented crew.  Though it has been awhile since I read Rebel of the Sands, the plot begins basically where it left off, and I was able to pick up the strands quickly.  The story is filled with all the good things that made the first book come to life: magic, romance, danger, and the weight of history.

There is a setting shift in this novel, and I understand why some readers who fell in love with the desert and Old West town feel of the first novel were disappointed to see it go in the sequel; I was a bit sad myself.  However, Hamilton makes the transition to palace harem and court intrigue incredibly well and proves that she is a master of the fantasy genre.

I like court intrigue in general, but Traitor to the Throne gives a very compelling look at the Sultan’s harem and what women do to survive in such a tenuous position and cutthroat environment.  Amani and her rebel friends show one type of strength, wielding knives and guns and magical powers, but the women in the harem work with something else: beauty and cunning and the will to survive.  The treatment of women, their apparently disposable nature, is not pretty in this world, but Hamilton shows that strength comes in many different shapes, and I adored it.

Favorite characters from Rebel of the Sands come back in Traitor to the Throne, and it is wonderful to see them continue to grow.  There are some new ones, as well, and they are all crafted with finesse and attention to making them multi-faceted.  The Sultan in particular is interesting, and readers finally get to see situation from his point of view—why he has made the decisions he has while ruling the country, and whether he thinks they were right or would go back if he could.  Hamilton delves into the complexity of politics and shows that there are not always black and white, easy answers.

The prose is still choppy in a way I cannot quite describe, an issue I had with Rebel of the Sands, as well, but overall the plot, characters, and world building carry the book enough that this is just a minor irritation rather than a deal-breaker.

Traitor to the Throne is a strong installment in what I can only assume will be a strong series through to the end.  I look forward to reading Amani’s next adventure and to seeing more writing from Hamilton.

4 stars Briana

Bayou Vol. 1 by Jeremy Love

bayou-1INFORMATION

Goodreads: Bayou
Series:  Bayou #1
Source: Gift
Published: 2009

SUMMARY

The daughter of a sharecropper, Lee knows that times are tough and nothing good ever happens in the bayou.  Then Lee’s white friend Lily goes missing and Lee’s father Calvin is arrested for kidnapping.  There’s no evidence against Calvin, but Lee knows that will not save him from being lynched.  She also knows where Lily really is–she’s been taken by the bayou.  Determined to find Lily and save her father, Lee will enter a magical world full of monsters–some of them all too familiar.

Review

Set in Depression-era Mississippi, Bayou tells the story of the Jim Crow South through magical realism.  Lee Wagstaff lives by the bayou, where nothing good ever happens–indeed, she just had to recover the body of a Black boy, lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman.  And even though she considers herself friends with the daughter of the woman who owns the land her daddy works, race relations are fraught and life precarious.  When her friend Lily goes missing, her daddy is carted off to jail and Lee understands it’s only a matter of time before he’s dead.  So what’s a girl to do but grit her teeth and head into the bayou–the bayou where she saw a  monster gobble Lily whole.

Lee’s resilience and determination are inspiring, and bring some light to what is otherwise often a very dark book.  Much like the bayou, the book looks and feels magical, but there is also a dangerous current underneath.  It can be difficult to tell who is friend and who is foe.  And the world of the bayou begins to look strikingly like the world Lee left behind.  Those with power oppress those without, and might too often makes right.  No wonder Lee is so angry, so loud.  She understands she lives in an unfair world, and she wants to do something about it.

Though the protagonist is a child, this is no children’s story.  It’s full of violence, often graphic, and Jeremy Love does not want you to look away.  The graphic novel  medium allows him to shed light on the conditions of the Jim Crow South.   Lee and her father cannot escape the violence, the brutality, the degradation.  Readers, Love suggests, should not be able to try to escape to a more comfortable place either, but rather must engage with America’s bloody past.

Krysta 645 stars

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

strange the dreamer

Information

Goodreads: Strange the Dreamer
Series: Strange the Dreamer #1
Source: Library
Published: April 2017

Official Summary

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

Review

I really enjoyed the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, so I was stoked to hear about Strange the Dreamer.  But not stoked enough to buy the book; I waited until it was available at my library, so I’ve just read the novel recently.  My overall feelings: It’s beautiful and imaginative and skillfully celebrates both book knowledge and field work, but it has a couple flaws.

First, the pacing is rather slow.  Taylor may be known for her prose and world building, but I think it’s possible to give such things slightly too much reign.  In Strange the Dreamer, it takes her 200 pages (no exaggeration; I checked) to introduce the main point of the novel.  Sure, she introduces the world and the characters, but she does that thing where authors withhold information; readers are not told for 200 pages who one of the main characters is, what she’s doing, or how her life is going to intersect with the other protagonist’s.  I like long books, but I don’t like this.  I think Taylor could have tightened things up.

Second, the romance is not compelling.  I love the two protagonists individually, but together…meh.  I don’t want to say much that spoils the plot, but their relationship felt too much to me like something that arose out of circumstances rather than something I really believed in.  Of course, all relationships depend on circumstances…living near someone, for example, but I left the book with too much doubt that these two would be together if things had been different in small ways.  When I read about romance, I want to feel the chemistry.

The rest of the book was stellar, however.  As I’ve mentioned, the world building is phenomenal.  Taylor really delves into the myth and lore and of her world and how it travels and evolved.  I also love that she combines love of research and book knowledge with a love of adventure and getting out and doing things.  For a while I thought she was going to pick one over the other and imply that, ultimately, spending your lives with texts is not as fulfilling as going out into world, but she nicely sets out the value of both.

Strange the Dreamer is thoughtful and imaginative, stocked with a varied set of complex characters–dreamers, doers, idealists, pragmatists.  I enjoyed entering this world.  However, I didn’t love the story quite enough that I’m truly interested in sequel, particularly as it is set up at the end of book one.  Perhaps I’ll get to it eventually, but it won’t be a priority for me at time of publication.

4 starsBriana

The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones

dark-lord-of-derkholmINFORMATION

Goodreads: The Dark Lord of Derkholm
Series:  Derkholm #1
Source: Gift
Published: 2016

SUMMARY

Every year Mr. Chesney’s Pilgrim Parties come from another world wreaking havoc as the wizards and villagers have to pretend that they are ruled by a Dark Lord and that the Pilgrims can fight battles to defeat him.  But constant pillaging and fighting means food is scarce, birth rates are down, and everyone is overworked.  Now the Oracle has prophesied that if Derk is appointed Dark Lord, the tours will end for good.  But is Derk competent enough to defeat Mr. Chesney and his demon?

Review

Diana Wynne Jones takes all the traditional elements of fantasy and upends them, creating a world where no Dark Lord rules and the kings and wizards do not fight each other, because they are all too tired planning for the Pilgrim Parties that tour through their lands each year.  One wizard is appointed Dark Lord and must act the part for six months, tearing down villages, scorching crops, and bespelling soldiers to fight for him.  Sometimes people really die.  Sometimes people are sent on tours specifically so they might.  But, generally speaking, all of it is a sham, a show put on for tourists from another universe who don’t understand how their tours are hurting the people they exploit.  Talk about a great concept for a fantasy novel!

This concept would have been sufficient for me, since it was pretty intriguing to see the economic  and human repercussions of the tours.  The Dark Lord has to ruin perfectly good houses to make it seem like he mistreats his people.  Towns have to allow the ransacking of their homes and the plundering of their harvests.  Slave girls have to be hired because tourists are really into that kind of exploitation, I suppose to no one’s surprise.  And meanwhile the villagers really do have nothing to eat because the crops are destroyed each year.  The dragons don’t have enough gold and birth rates are down.  And everyone feels too exhausted to fight back.

But then the book starts complicating things.  Illegal transactions are occurring and magic is disappearing, etc.  It felt like the story was trying to encompass too much by the end, leading to a looser and almost choppy narrative as the book tried to wrap up.  Gladiators!  Mines!  Thieves!  New revelations about tons of old characters!  In this case, less would have been more.  Focus on the Pilgrim Tours and how you plan to end them, leave the rest for the sequel.

I also have to note that the depictions in this book aren’t really up to modern standards of sensitive representation.  The slave girls, for example, are found in the Emirates.  It’s not clear if this is because the tourists themselves just expect slaves in a place called the Emirates, since the Emirates don’t actually have slaves.  But it’s still a jarring moment, one that seems to try to exoticize a region we might associate with our own Middle East.  And though the story touches a  little on how the “slave” girls feel exploited, the book does not fully explore this problem the way it might have.

All things considered, however, the book is a fun play on standard fantasy tropes and fans of the genre are sure to enjoy it.

4 starsKrysta 64