Bravely by Maggie Stiefvater

Bravely

Information

Goodreads: Bravely
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: May 2022

Summary

Princess Merida of DunBroch loves her home and her family, but nothing ever seems to change. Unfortunately, the god of ruin, Feradach agrees. It is Feradach’s duty to root out rot and decay, so new things can grow. But Merida is not yet ready to give up on DunBroch, so she strikes a bargain. She has one year to change her family–or death will come to them all.

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Review

Though I am not typically one to read media tie-ins, I am also not one to pass up on a new Maggie Stiefvater book. Bravely takes place a few years after the events of the Disney/Pixar movie Brave, following Merida as she returns home from after a bit of travel, only to realize that life at DunBroch seems to be stagnating. This sets the scene for a plotline that seems a natural fit for Stiefvater–a wager between Merida and a god, witnessed by the Cailleach. Mythology and history are where Stiefvater shine, along with her golden liquid prose. But, somehow, Bravely never really comes to life. The pacing is uneven and the characters–even though they are in a story about change–feel flat on the page. Maybe there are too many constraints when writing a media tie-in. The characters can never really stray far from the source material–and so this story probably would have been far more interesting and innovative if it were not a sequel to Brave at all, but simply a book set in a magical/historical Scotland.

Because some years have passed, the characters in Bravely do not feel quite the same as their movie counterparts. Merida still loves archery and can be fiery and passionate, but she also seems to have matured. Meanwhile, the good parts of Fergus and Elinor have disappeared–they are lazy and lax, allowing their adopted housemaid (a servant who is considered Merida’s “sister” but who still ostensibly works for them??) to get away with being flighty and slovenly, and not really taking an interest in guiding their three young sons as they grow up. Stiefvater does notably attempt to differentiate the triplets (something the movie seemed uninterested in, preferring to treat them as a unit), but this also seems a bit unsuccessful. It’s not really enough to have “the serious one,” “the musical one,” and “the loud one,” as if one part of their personality defines them. Altogether, the characterization here is lacking.

The one character who really comes alive, and who makes the book interesting, is Feradach, the god of destruction. Feradach is a shifting character, one who is seen by every person in a different way, and thus one who has never needed to grow into being any particular way; they start anew each time. Feradach, however, does eventually change in a real, meaningful way, moving from feeling righteous about the necessity of ruin to bring growth, to reluctance to perform their duty. Feradach’s appearances in the story are the one bright spot in a book where otherwise the pacing is slow and uneven, and only a few of the other characters exhibit any really interesting development (even though the whole point of the book is obviously that Merida needs to get her entire family to be different).

I really have mixed feelings about this book. I wanted to love it because Stiefvater wrote it. And it has some beautiful parts when Stiefvater focuses on the mythology, and has room to explore the contest between Feradach and the Cailleach. The other parts of the book, however, feel a bit constrained, as if Stiefvater must be very careful not to introduce anything too un-Disneylike or anything that would be a problem later if considered canonical. I suppose this book would appeal mostly to hardcore fans of Stiefvater, or those who really loved the movie Brave. But I don’t think it’s a must-read for fans of YA fantasy in general.

3 Stars

Blood and Moonlight by Erin Beaty (ARC Review)

Blood and Moonlight book cover

Information

Goodreads: Blood and Moonlight
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Netgalley
Publication Date: June 28, 2022

Official Summary

In this medieval YA fantasy thriller, an orphan with a secret, magical sight gets caught between a mysterious genius and the serial killer he’s hunting.

Rising above the city of Collis is the holy Sanctum. And watching over its spires is Catrin, an orphan girl with unique skills—for she alone can spot the building’s flaws in construction before they turn deadly.

But when Catrin witnesses a murderer escaping the scene of his crime, she’s pulled into the web of a dangerous man who will definitely strike again. Assigned to capture the culprit is the mysterious, brilliant, and enigmatic Simon, whose insights into the mind of a killer are frighteningly accurate.

As the grisly crimes continue, Catrin finds herself caught between murderer and detective while hiding her own secret—a supernatural sight granted by the moon, destined to make her an outcast, and the only thing that might save her and those she loves from becoming the next victims . . .

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Review

Blood and Moonlight combines medieval architecture, a murder mystery, and fantasy to create a compelling story unique in the YA scene. Multi-faceted characters kept me riveted to the pages, as they attempted to get into the mind of a serial killer and stop him before his victims pile even higher.

To some extent, I think this is the book Four Dead Queens hoped to be (and failed, in my opinion). It expertly combines three genres — historical fiction, fantasy, and mystery — and does it seamlessly. The “main” plot is solving the murder, but Cat’s magic powers are integral to the process, as is her status as a worker at the Sanctum and her knowledge of architecture. None of the parts seem out of place or as if they are distracting from the others. They are all fully developed, from the magic system to the world building, and they work together perfectly. The result is a book that feels different, even if you’re an avid reader of YA fantasy.

Personally, I did find the lengthy discussions of what the killer was doing and probably thinking a bit much, and at times I didn’t really “get” it — and then I struggled with not connecting with it or thinking it sounded right because I have to believe that the author spent a lot of time researching the minds of serial killers while I have . . . spent literally zero time doing so. That is, the author and the characters are probably right, so I’m not quite sure why some of the speculation sounded off to me.

The best part is: I really had no idea who the killer was throughout the entire novel. I was like the characters themselves, going back and forth suspecting one person, then another, then another, then the first person. I couldn’t figure it out, and I always love a book that is truly unpredictable.

This is a must-read book this year for anyone who loves YA.

Briana
4 stars

Hotel Magnifique by Emily J. Taylor

Hotel Magnifique book cover

Information

Goodreads: Hotel Magnifique
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Purchased
Published: April 5, 2022

Official Summary

All her life, Jani has dreamed of Elsewhere. Just barely scraping by with her job at a tannery, she’s resigned to a dreary life in the port town of Durc, caring for her younger sister Zosa. That is, until the Hotel Magnifique comes to town.

The hotel is legendary not only for its whimsical enchantments, but also for its ability to travel—appearing in a different destination every morning. While Jani and Zosa can’t afford the exorbitant costs of a guest’s stay, they can interview to join the staff, and are soon whisked away on the greatest adventure of their lives. But once inside, Jani quickly discovers their contracts are unbreakable and that beneath the marvelous glamour, the hotel is hiding dangerous secrets.

With the vexingly handsome doorman Bel as her only ally, Jani embarks on a mission to unravel the mystery of the magic at the heart of the hotel and free Zosa—and the other staff—from the cruelty of the ruthless maître d’hôtel. To succeed, she’ll have to risk everything she loves, but failure would mean a fate far worse than never returning home.

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Review

Hotel Magnifique is a riveting fantasy that takes readers on a journey with protagonist Jani as she snares a coveted position working in the world’s most (okay, only) magical hotel — and slowly begins to realize things might not be as glamorous as they seem. The lush world building, dazzling magic, sense of mystery, and strong family ties makes this a story very worth reading.

A lot books get compared to both Caraval and The Night Circus; apparently setting a book in a contained magical space in world where little else is magical is enough to earn the comparison. Personally, I didn’t love Caraval because it was extremely hyped at the time of its release, and I felt I get a very standard YA instead of something exceptional. I think Hotel Magnifique blows Caraval out of the water; it is an immensely better book. As for The Night Circus? I don’t know what Hotel Magnifique is really supposed to have in common with it.

The strongest part of the story may be that, while magic is embedded everywhere and the author does a great job of building the atmosphere and telling readers about the wondrous things that can be seen in the hotel, the setting and wonder are never really the point. The book focuses on plot and characterization; the real draw is the mystery of what exactly is going on in the hotel and then the tension of whether Jani will be able to save herself and her sister before it’s too late. I couldn’t stop myself from turning to pages to see how everything would turn out.

The book’s one flaw is that, while the sisters’ relationship is integral to the story . . . Jani’s little sister is actually mostly absent from the text. Readers have to see most of their love through Jani’s reflections and memories. I feel like this is common in a lot of YA that supposedly focuses on siblings, for whatever reason, and I would love to see more stories where the siblings spend the majority of the story interacting with one another.

Overall, this was excellent, definitely one of my top reads so far this year. If you love YA fantasy, you don’t want to skip this one.

Note: I would like to note that both the summary and the story reference “Elsewhere” as if it’s an actual place, like Neverland or Narnia or something. In fact, “Elsewhere” just means . . . travelling. The protagonist and the hotel guests just want to go places beyond their home, places they could reasonably get to by using a boat or horse if they had the means. I’m not sure why “Elsewhere” is used so confusingly here.

Briana
5 stars

Forging Silver into Stars by Brigid Kemmerer (ARC Review, No Spoilers)

Information

Goodreads: Forging Silver into Stars
Series: Forging Silver into Stars #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Netgalley for review
Publication Date: June 7, 2022

Official Summary

When ancient magic tests a newfound love, a dark fate beckons . . .

Magic has been banished in the land of Syhl Shallow for as long as best friends Jax and Callyn can remember. They once loved the stories of the powerful magesmiths and mythical scravers who could conjure fire or control ice, but now they’ve learned that magic only leads to danger: magic is what killed Callyn’s parents, leaving her alone to raise her younger sister. Magic never helped Jax, whose leg was crushed in an accident that his father has been punishing him for ever since. Magic won’t save either of them when the tax collector comes calling, threatening to take their homes if they can’t pay what they owe.

Meanwhile, Jax and Callyn are astonished to learn magic has returned to Syhl Shallow — in the form of a magesmith who’s now married to their queen. Now, the people of Syhl Shallow are expected to allow dangerous magic in their midst, and no one is happy about it.

When a stranger rides into town offering Jax and Callyn silver in exchange for holding secret messages for an anti-magic faction, the choice is obvious — even if it means they may be aiding in a plot to destroy their new king. It’s a risk they’re both willing to take. That is, until another visitor arrives: handsome Lord Tycho, the King’s Courier, the man who’s been tasked with discovering who’s conspiring against the throne.

Suddenly, Jax and Callyn find themselves embroiled in a world of shifting alliances, dangerous flirtations, and ancient magic . . . where even the deepest loyalties will be tested.

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Review

Brigid Kemmerer hooked me on the Cursebreakers series with the swoon-worthy romance in A Curse So Dark and Lonely, but Forging Silver into Stars is the book that has convinced me she’s finally come into her own as an expert fantasy writer. (Her contemporary YA has always been excellent, though not as popular.) With complex characterization, cleaner world building, and a plot focused on magic and assassinations and just pure survival, there’s a lot to keep readers turning the pages.

I have always loved the action and adventure, as well as the romance, in Kemmerer’s fantasy, but I had reservations about her attempts at nuanced characterizations. I always thought her attempts to paint characters (especially Rhen and Grey) in shades of, um, gray fell flat, as the book would try to excuse actions that seemed obviously cruel and wrong to me and suggest they were somehow necessary or sympathetic. This was much less of an issue for me in Forging Silver into Stars, and it really elevated the reading experience.

Kemmerer is still interested in what makes people tick, what choices they will make to survive or support their families or defend their questions. There are still characters who might be doing the right things for the wrong reasons or the wrong things for the right reasons, and the book still asks readers to consider whether the “villains” might have some valid points. It just . . . works a lot better in this book, and I love that Kemmerer continues to work through these questions and has landed on (for me) some more reasonable answers. There are still references to Rhen and Grey glossing over their past decisions, which I continue to find unconvincing, but I love all the newly introduced characters and all their complexities.

The politics, the disputes, and what exactly is at stake in the two kingdoms now that Syhl Shallow and Emberfall are allied through marriage are also smoother here, and I think Kemmerer has learned a lot about making the political issues logically click, as well.

With the characterization and world building ironed out, I was also able to focus more on the plot, which is engaging. While there were a few times I felt the book was a little long, in general I was extremely interested to find out what happened next, and I enjoyed the shifting of POVs among Jax, Callyn, and Tycho. There’s also romance to spare in this book, as well as cute family relationships, and a lot of questions about magic that have yet to be unraveled throughout the series.

If you enjoyed the Cursebreakers trilogy, you will certainly love this continuation. If you were on the fence, I think it’s worth picking this up and giving Kemmerer another shot, as her writing only continues to improve.

Note: This is a separate trilogy from Cursebreakers and takes place four years after A Vow So Bold and Deadly, so technically it can be read separately. However, so many characters from the original trilogy and so many events are referenced that personally I think it would make more sense to read the original trilogy before tackling this one.

Briana
4 stars

Violet Made of Thorns by Gina Chen (ARC Review)

Violet Made of Thorns book cover

Information

Goodreads: Violet Made of Thorns
Series: Untitled Duology #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Netgalley
Publication Date: July 26, 2022

Official Summary

Violet is a prophet and a liar, influencing the royal court with her cleverly phrased—and not always true—divinations. Honesty is for suckers, like the oh-so-not charming Prince Cyrus, who plans to strip Violet of her official role once he’s crowned at the end of the summer—unless Violet does something about it.

But when the king asks her to falsely prophesy Cyrus’s love story for an upcoming ball, Violet awakens a dreaded curse, one that will end in either damnation or salvation for the kingdom—all depending on the prince’s choice of future bride. Violet faces her own choice: Seize an opportunity to gain control of her own destiny, no matter the cost, or give in to the ill-fated attraction that’s growing between her and Cyrus.

Violet’s wits may protect her in the cutthroat court, but they can’t change her fate. And as the boundary between hatred and love grows ever thinner with the prince, Violet must untangle a wicked web of deceit in order to save herself and the kingdom—or doom them all.

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Review

Violet Among Thorns takes readers to a fantastical kingdom where war is on the horizon and only the prince can stop it by fulfilling a prophecy related to finding his true love– an endeavor he, unfortunately, seems in no rush to complete. Magic and prophecies and intrigue wind together as various characters work towards their own ends and try to keep the prophecy of destruction from coming true.

There is a lot going on in this book, but that often makes it entertaining to read. Protagonist Violet needs to navigate Fates and kings and visions and royal balls and help keep the nation running smoothly, especially because her own position as royal Seer is on the line. Little snippets of other fairy tales like “Cinderella” are woven in, and readers may have fun spotting them, but the plot is largely original and takes a few twists and turns.

Unfortunately, the characterization didn’t work for me. I understand Violet is supposed to be an antiheroine, and I don’t need protagonists to be “likable” if they’re interesting– but it does help if I can understand the motivations of an antiheroine or if I actually think she’s clever. Here, readers get a character who is, arguably, not very good at being a Seer and who is unnecessarily hostile to and judgmental of everyone around her. It’s horrid if they’re all fake rich people out for themselves, apparently, but fine when it’s her. And, frankly, she’s not even witty. There’s a difference between walking around insulting everyone and flinging clever insults at them. Basically, I felt she was annoying and ungrateful and wasn’t really good at being a Seer or being smart or . . . anything that would have at least made her interesting beyond, “She’s not afraid to be rude to everyone.”

The romance is also lackluster. There are a lot of make out scenes, but there is zero chemistry between the two characters, and even they seem at a bit of a loss to explain why they are attracted to each other besides some vague idea they like that the other person is rude to them and the whole thing has a forbidden romance air. Again, I wouldn’t exactly say they are having sexually tense witty banter at each other’s expense; they just seem to say obnoxious things to each other that aren’t truly that penetrating or humorous.

So, there’s a lot to like here, in terms of mysteries and magic and an exciting plot, as well as political intrigue within Violet’s court and between her kingdom and others. I do wish the main characters had been better-developed, but I still think a lot of readers will enjoy this one.

Briana
3 Stars

Gilded by Marissa Meyer

Gilded by Marissa Meyer Book Cover

Information

GoodreadsGilded
Series: Gilded #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Gift
Published: 2021

Official Summary

Long ago cursed by the god of lies, a poor miller’s daughter has developed a talent for spinning stories that are fantastical and spellbinding and entirely untrue.

Or so everyone believes.

When one of Serilda’s outlandish tales draws the attention of the sinister Erlking and his undead hunters, she finds herself swept away into a grim world where ghouls and phantoms prowl the earth and hollow-eyed ravens track her every move. The king orders Serilda to complete the impossible task of spinning straw into gold, or be killed for telling falsehoods. In her desperation, Serilda unwittingly summons a mysterious boy to her aid. He agrees to help her . . . for a price.

Soon Serilda realizes that there is more than one secret hidden in the castle walls, including an ancient curse that must be broken if she hopes to end the tyranny of the king and his wild hunt forever.

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Review

Gilded is a wonderfully atmosphere fantasy that blends darkness and romance to create a tale that feels so immersive, readers will never want to leave. Based on the fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin,” the book quickly makes the story its own, adding in elements of the Wild Hunt, as well as an original mythology that includes gods and their curses and their gifts. Anyone who enjoys a highly inventive fairy tale retelling is sure to fall in love with Marissa Meyer’s Gilded.

Gilded immediately draws readers into the story through Serilda’s voice. Blessed by the god of lies (or stories), Serilda is a tricky character to write; readers must be convinced that she really does possess the ability to make a person believe anything, to spin a tale so wondrous that it leaves her listeners enraptured. Meyer writes her beautifully. Serilda is spunky and bold, kind and caring–and one marvel of a storyteller. The tales she weaves, far from interrupting the main story, add to it. They have the feeling and flavor of an old fairy tale, the kind that would draw people around the fire to listen, and then have them checking that the doors are locked, lest the spirits of the dead find a way in.

Meyer moves the story effortlessly from Serilda’s village, immersed in folklore and flavored by the joys and frustrations of life where everyone knows everyone, to the castle of the Erlking, which gives the book a darker note; here, Serilda’s stories are real, and not everyone gets out alive. The worldbuilding is extraordinary, deepened by the world’s history and mythology. Readers will love exploring a world where the magical and the ordinary exist side by side, the veil being pierced on occasions when the Wild Hunt can race across the land of the living, seeking their prey. What is terrifying and what is wonderful are sometimes one and the same–and that is the magic of Serilda’s world.

Readers who enjoy YA fairy retellings will not want to miss out on Gilded, its bold protagonist, and its sweet but sorrowful romance. This is a fantasy sure to ensnare the hearts of readers.

*The sequel to Gilded, Cursed, is currently listed for a November 2022 release.

5 stars

A Rush of Wings by Laura E. Weymouth (Briana’s Review)

Information

GoodreadsA Rush of Wings
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

Rowenna Winthrop has always known there’s magic within her. But though she hears voices on the wind and possesses unusual talents, her mother Mairead believes Rowenna lacks discipline, and refuses to teach her the craft that keeps their Scottish village safe. When Mairead dies a sinister death, it seems Rowenna’s one chance to grow into her power has passed. Then, on a fateful, storm-tossed night, Rowenna rescues a handsome stranger named Gawen from a shipwreck, and her mother miraculously returns from the dead. Or so it appears.

This resurrected Mairead is nothing like the old one: to hide her new and monstrous nature, she turns Rowenna’s brothers and Gawen into swans and robs Rowenna of her voice. Forced to flee, Rowenna travels to the city of Inverness to find a way to break the curse. But monsters take many forms, and in Inverness Rowenna is soon caught in a web of strangers who want to use her raw magic for their own gain. If she wishes to save herself and the people she loves most, Rowenna will have to take her fate into her own hands, and unlock the power that has evaded her for so long.

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Review

I generally love fairy tale retellings, even if “The Six Swans” isn’t one of my favorite fairy tales, but A Rush of Wings never really gripped me. With a plot that seemed to wind in a million directions and prose that too often pulled me out of the story thinking, “Wow, the author tried really hard writing this,” I was underwhelmed. Readers who unabashedly love any and all fairy tale retellings might enjoy it, though.

A lot of the blurbs in the beginning of the book mention the “lyrical” writing, which always gives me pause when I start a book. What others consider lyrical, I often consider ridiculous or nonsensical. That wasn’t the case here, but this was a book where I felt I could see the seams of the writing, so to speak. I could see where the author thought, “I’m going to make the character call the other character ‘Scold’ instead of her name all the time” because, apparently, that adds something to the novel. (She probably wasn’t aiming for me to laugh at it every time because, seriously, no one talks like that.) But I’m just not a fan where it feels like I can see the author making decisions about the writing process; I like things to feel smooth and natural.

The plot is kind of interesting, but there’s a lot going on in it. The reader thinks it’s going one direction, only to go in another, and then another. I’m all for twists, but I didn’t feel surprised so much as jolted around back and forth. And I thought the tension between the existence of actual magic and the existence of some highly devout Christians could have been better explored. There’s a lot to work with there, since Christianity in Europe did have an interesting period of overlap with folk beliefs, where people might have believed one thing or even both simultaneously, but it didn’t feel as nuanced as it could have been.

Overall, my reaction to this was “meh” while I was reading. It’s not actually bad, and I think a lot of readers will enjoy it, but it’s not for me.

Briana
3 Stars

A Rush of Wings by Laura E. Weymouth

A Rush of Wings Book Cover

Information

GoodreadsA Rush of Wings
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Rowenna Winthrop has magic in her veins, but her mother, believing Rowenna too headstrong and fiery, refuses to teach her how to use it. Then Rowenna’s mother dies and, in her place, comes a monster wearing her face. Only Rowenna can see the truth, so the monster transforms her brothers into swans, and curses Rowenna to be unable to talk during the day. If Rowenna wants to break the curse, she will have to learn how to use her magic before it is too late, and her brothers remain swans forever.

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Review

I have conflicted feelings about A Rush of Wings. The opening begins slowly, and the prose tries just a little too hard to sound lyrical. I set the book aside for awhile while I focused on reading other books that did not take as much effort for me to pretend I was enjoying myself. Eventually, however, a library due date convinced me to finish the book so I could return it. I found that the ending brings a lot more action than the start, and that kept me reading, even as I found the characterization to be wavery and the romance to be lackluster. Fans of fairy tale retellings will likely enjoy this one, but readers looking generally for YA fantasy might be rewarded with a more solid story if they look elsewhere.

Before I begin to piece together my thoughts on this book, we should give credit where credit is due. I think A Rush of Wings is an improvement over Weymouth’s last book, The Light Between Worlds, which certainly possesses more cringe-worthy prose as well as too many purposeful (and thus distracting) parallels to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia. Even though the story is a retelling, it feels bold, as if the author really wanted to make her own mark on the story. The Scottish setting helps with that, as does the character of Rowenna, who is apparently hot-tempered and untameable–but who loves her family with a fierce passion (that they often do not deserve). After the slow slog at the start of the book, I eventually did find myself really wanting to know what would happen.

Still, the book feels uneven at times, which is, I think, part of why I feel uncertain in trying to pin down what I really thought of the story. Rowenna’s character seems more fierce and proud at the start than she does at the end, when it would seem that an evil king maybe really did beat her down, at least a little. Readers are, I assume, supposed to feel as if Rowenna has found herself, because she refuses to keep doing harm, and thus controls herself and her magic. That does require strength! But Rowenna’s distinctive voice, and her fierce love for her (kind of mean) brothers fades away as the book starts speaking hand-wavy magical things like “being the light.” Rowenna supposedly finds herself at the end, but I the reader was not as certain I knew who she was.

Additionally, the romance is spectacularly weak in this book and, I have to admit, just a little uncomfortable. The love interest is a boy just as fierce and proud as Rowenna, and sparks fly when the two clash. Even so, they somehow fall in love (it is not really described how or when) and this is shown by Rowenna giving the boy orders and the boy, instead of arguing, meekly following. Um… true love is being ordered about by your lover without complaint? I cannot help but think how much more uncomfortable this would look to readers if the genders were reversed, and the protagonist were a male telling the girl to do things and her meekly obeying because she has been tamed by her love, or whatever. Sorry, but ew.

Finally, the magic system is not fully explained here. This will bother some readers, but not others. Just be aware that, aside from some vague explanations about certain people being connected to certain elements, the rest seems made up on the fly. Wards, blood sacrifices, and curses also appear, with no real reason why or how they work. Rowenna also seems tied to more than one element? She can hear the wind, but her name throughout the book is “saltwater girl,” so apparently she also has some affinity to the sea, which is why she feels darkness inside. Or something. Maybe I was not reading closely enough, but it seemed confusing.

The real strength of A Rush of Wings is Rowenna, and her desire to overcome all obstacles to protect her family. She willingly sacrifices herself in order to save them, even when they turn against her, even when they give her no thanks. There are good parts in this book, but also plenty of room for improvements in the next.

3 Stars

Gilded by Marissa Meyer (Briana’s Review)

Gilded book cover Marissa Meyer

Information

Goodreads: Gilded
Series: Gilded #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Gift
Published: November 2, 2021

Official Summary

Long ago cursed by the god of lies, a poor miller’s daughter has developed a talent for spinning stories that are fantastical and spellbinding and entirely untrue.

Or so everyone believes.

When one of Serilda’s outlandish tales draws the attention of the sinister Erlking and his undead hunters, she finds herself swept away into a grim world where ghouls and phantoms prowl the earth and hollow-eyed ravens track her every move. The king orders Serilda to complete the impossible task of spinning straw into gold, or be killed for telling falsehoods. In her desperation, Serilda unwittingly summons a mysterious boy to her aid. He agrees to help her . . . for a price.

Soon Serilda realizes that there is more than one secret hidden in the castle walls, including an ancient curse that must be broken if she hopes to end the tyranny of the king and his wild hunt forever.

Star Divider

Review

Gilded is an entrancing, original take on “Rumpelstiltskin” that had me glued to the pages, much like Meyer’s previous books – though I think Gilded has the added benefit of being less predictable than some of Meyer’s earlier work. I was easily drawn into the world where dangerous magic creatures walk, yet many humans refuse to believe in them, and where the protagonist finds herself embroiled in their plots with no clear way out.

Serilda is an intriguing protagonist in that the reader might argue her decisions don’t always seem like the best, but one can see where she’s coming from and why she made those decisions at the time. It’s the perfect blend of showing that humans don’t always have all the information and they aren’t always right, but they’re doing what they can. It adds to the sense that while she tries hard to be clever and to keep herself and her family safe, she also feels as if the supernatural beings she is sparring with are always ahead of her, trapping her into a situation she needs to get out of. I liked her spunk and her innovation and her love for her village, even when her village doesn’t have a lot of love for her.

The world building feels original, even when it clearly draws on inspiration from things like the Wild Hunt, and I enjoyed the mix of the book feeling a bit like high fantasy, a bit like folklore, and a bit like mythology. There’s also a nice variety of settings, from the little village to a homey inn to a spooky castle.

I was somewhat puzzled by the fact that this book should have felt very dark – there’s violence, ghosts, a lot of deaths, etc. – and yet it never really did. It didn’t drag me down into its moodiness and darkness like other YA books I’ve recently read, like Into the Bloodred Woods. This isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing or a “good” thing about the book (it may depend on your mood and what you’re looking for), but I have been pondering this for a while trying to parse out why it didn’t feel dark when objectively it is dark.

I also (incorrectly) thought this book was a standalone, when it very much is not. I’m intrigued because I am really not sure where the story is going from here – a lot is wrapped up, while other things are not, and some wild twists were introduced at the end. This is clearly one of those “retellings” where the first book starts out as a retelling, and the rest of the series is just original fantasy. It’s fine. I’m just unable to predict where the story arc is going and how it’s all going to fill a whole second book, but that’s exciting since my one critique of Meyer has always been that her plots are predictable.

Definitely check this one out if you like YA fantasy and loose fairy tale retellings.

Briana
4 stars

The Captive Kingdom by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Captive Kingdom Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: The Captive Kingdom
Series: Ascendance #4
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

King Jaron’s ship is attacked at sea and he is taken prisoner by the mysterious Captain Strick and her crew. They claim they have evidence that Jaron killed his parents, and stole the throne from his brother. Could Darius still be alive?

Star Divider

Review

When I first started reading The Captive Kingdom, I had my doubts. Jennifer A. Nielsen excelled at depicting Sage’s cleverness in The False Prince, when he only had to outwit three other people, but has struggled to make Jaron’s success believable on a large scale. Too often, Jaron has succeeded only by a combination of sheer luck (on his side) and sheer stupidity (on his enemies’ side). The laughable opening of The Captive Kingdom almost made me stop reading. I persevered, however, and ultimately enjoyed the drama of the story, even if most of it makes no sense.

The Captive Kingdom begins with Jaron’s ship being overtaken by a unknown enemy. Though Jaron is returning from a trade meeting with an allied country, he has chosen to travel by pirate ship instead of by a mode of transportation more fitting for a king. One might think that this is a good thing–the pirates are supposed to ruthless, their propensity for violence and death legendary. They must be good protection, right? Well, any reader of these books knows the pirates are about as fearsome as a dust bunny. The book begins with the pirates all hiding belowdecks when an enemy ship appears. They immediately hand over Jaron, get captured, and meekly start serving as crewmen for their conquerors. I understand that Nielsen wants Jaron to be a prisoner for reasons of plot, but if this is the only way? Well, I almost stopped reading here because the whole scene was so laughable.

Still, I forged on, and though I cannot say that Nielsen’s grasp on politics or logic has vastly improved, I can say that I was entertained. As usual, Jaron makes a lot of crazy decisions that readers hope are actually someone genius and not just stupid. And, half of the time, they work. It’s exciting! Anyone who has enjoyed the previous three books will find pretty much the same fare here.

But Nielsen is, I think, consciously trying to address some of the weaknesses of the previous books. Imogene, for instance, typically gets taken prisoner and is missing from the stories. This time, she plays a more active role. (Amarinda gets taken prisoner and is missing from the story, instead. Oh well.) Other women also become more prominent; Jaron is captured by a female captain and allies himself with a girl from a conquered nation. Previously, Imogene and Amarinda were pretty much the only females in the books. Roden’s relationship with Jaron is also explored more, as he pushes back on Jaron’s devil-may-care ruling style–a style that probably should worry all of Carthya, if only they knew.

The plot is, frankly, a bit too sensational for me to take seriously. Some of the wild plot twists read more like fan fiction than anything else. I think the twists are supposed to be shocking, but they are so bizarre they end up being obvious. And the choices made by characters are choices that tend to conveniently serve the plot; they do not seem like choices that make sense for the characters.

I imagine fans of the Ascendance series will be divided on this one. Some may love going on another adventure with Jaron, while others may feel that the legacy of the past three books is spoiled by the crazy plot twists. I personally was not a fan of the big reveals because they seem like poor writing–just easy ways to create drama. But I was entertained enough that I will probably read book five. It can’t be any worse.

3 Stars