The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows

Information

Goodreads: The Orphan Queen
Series: The Orphan Queen #1
Source: Library
Published: 2015

Summary

Ten years ago, Wilhemina Korte, princess of Aecor, watched her parents die at the hands of the Indigo Kingdom.  She and the other noble children were taken to the capital of their conquerors.  But they escaped and now they live as spies, determined to do whatever it takes to return home.  Even if they do, however, the wraith, a toxic mist born of magic, is slowly wiping entire lands off the map.  Wil wants to become queen.  But can she protect her people from the Indigo Kingdom and the wraith?

Review

The Orphan Queen will seem familiar to any avid read of YA fantasy.  And even readers who do not customarily indulge in YA will find the plot predictable.  The plot is also slightly ridiculous.  Nevertheless, The Orphan Queen is a spirited book.  It wants desperately to be entertaining and, by golly, it is.

You have probably read this book before.  A princess has lost her throne.  Now she lives in the shadows, surviving as a thief and outlaw while she bides her time to a triumphant return to her land.  In the meantime, she will do some espionage at court, pretending to be a noble lady and flirting shamelessly with handsome men for information.  She will make enemies of women who are more beautiful than she, draw the attention of the prince himself, and ultimately be her own downfall because her efforts at spying are terrible–even though the narrator assures us she is amazing at everything.  Despite having read this book, however, you will probably read it again because who doesn’t love some political intrigue?

At some point, you may stop to think about the political intrigue.  You will realize that it is, in fact, ridiculous.  The princess of a subjugated nation has just waltzed into a palace full of people who could conceivably recognize her.  She is pretending to be a refugee, but does not actually know anything about anything she claims to have experienced.  Instead of keeping a map of the palace in her head, she works on it in her room and–best of all–hides secret documents like that under her mattress.  She is warned that people find her suspicious (and how could they not when she acts so weird all the time and not like a noble lady at all?), but still likes to sneak out at night.  After considering all this, you may decide the book is not worth your time.  Or you may realize that a great deal of YA has terrible politics and you don’t really care.  After all, this is fun!

The rest of the book makes just as little sense.  Our protagonist is leading a tiny group of children who somehow plan to take back their kingdom.  No word on how, exactly.  Wilhelmina, the princess, initially starts out enemies with a vigilante but they, quite expectedly, suddenly fall in love after Wil commits a terrible crime.  Wil also takes a random detour into the wraithland.  Her plan is literally “go there and come back.”  She is gone for weeks and thinks no one will notice.  Wil also knows a murderer is afoot but decides that if she gives a noble-sounding speech, it will be all right.  For no apparent reason.  She lets the murderer go.  But to question is to destroy the fun.  It’s better just to go on a whirlwind adventure and hope everything turns out all right, despite Wil’s increasingly silly decisions.

The Orphan Queen is probably not what one would call a soundly-constructed book.  It contains many logical flaws and its premise is is wholly unoriginal.  Still, I don’t think it is claiming to be high art.  It is supposed to be thrilling and romantic.  And it is.  I already have a good idea of how the sequel will turn out, but I still want to read it.

4 stars

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Dark Breaks the Dawn by Sara B. Larson

Dark Breaks the Dawn

Information

Goodreads: Dark Breaks the Dawn
Series: Untitled #1
Source: City Book Review
Published: May 30, 2017

Summary

The forces of Dark and Light must remain in balance on the island of Lachalonia, or the consequences could be dire. Dark King Bain has no qualms, however, and is bent on extinguishing the royal family who bears the power of the Light.  When he succeeds in killing Princess Evelayn’s mother, she becomes responsible for the fate of her people much sooner than she had planned, and she will have to take great risks to keep her kingdom safe.

Review

My feelings about Dark Breaks the Dawn are complicated.  Reading it now, as an adult, I find parts of it cliché and almost absurd—yet I can’t help thinking that if had read this book in middle school, I would have thought those “absurd” parts fabulous.   But, then again, I would have found them fabulous partly because they’re things I might have written about myself in middle school…but I think that I’ve learned better by now.  I guess my main conclusion can only be that I personally thought Dark Breaks the Dawn fairly flawed, but there’s probably a younger audience out there just waiting to gobble it up.

Some of these clichés include people with rainbow colored hair, people who have jewels literally embedded in their bodies that give them magic, and a royal family that is all-powerful simply because they are royal (divine right of kings or something, I guess).  None of these things are inherently bad; they just lack some of the subtlety or nuance that I think can be found in a lot of today’s YA fantasy.  And, as I said, in seventh grade I probably would have thought a character with purple hair and a magic jewel in her chest was the coolest thing ever, so maybe it’s all a matter of perspective.

I think the more objective flaw is the book’s pacing.  There’s instalove, to start, which makes it difficult for readers to feel invested in the romance.  Protagonist Evelayn also solves many of her problems with extraordinary ease.  This mean that things that are hyped up as big, dangerous, impossible events by the characters do not come across that way to the reader.  Instead of feeling that Evelyan was performing epic feats, doing things that no one had ever dared to do before, I got the impression that was she accomplished was hardly difficult at all.  I wish scenes had been more drawn out and built more suspense.

Otherwise, however, Dark Breaks the Dawn is pretty solid fantasy.  There’s a clear battle of good vs. evil, plus a badass princess, and a decent amount of plotting and intrigue.  There’s supposed to be some Swan Princess influence, but that only comes in at the end of the novel and looks as though it will be more of a focus on the sequel.   The book isn’t really for me, but I could imagine other people liking it.

3 Stars Briana

Calamity by Brandon Sanderson

Information

Goodreads: Calamity
Series: The Reckoners #3
Source: Library
Published: 2016

Summary

David is facing the greatest challenge of his life.   His own friend has turned against him and now wreaks vengeance upon the world.  David will do anything to get him back.  Even if it means facing Calamity himself.

Review

Brandon Sanderson knows how to write a fantasy/action novel.  The stakes have been raised increasingly higher as the series progressed.  Now, in the final book of the Reckoners trilogy, things are about to get insane.  Not content with killing or saving individual Epics, David wants to go to the source itself: Calamity, who burns brightly in the night sky.  Teleporting to outer space to face down the greatest evil of them all?  No problem.  David lives on crazy.

Part of Sanderson’s appeal is that he tends not to pull punches.  Things are looking grim.  David and his crew are essentially alone.  Many have died.  They fully intend to die next.  Unspeakable horrors have happened and unspeakable horrors have been caused by them.  Sometimes, you see, saving the world gets messy.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell who is a hero and who is not.  As the final showdown approaches, David and the others are going to have to figure out who they are and what they are fighting for, as well as how far they are wiling to go.

The moral questions raised by Sanderson’s characters help to raise the Reckoners trilogy beyond an action story.  The point is not that things are explode–even though Sanderson’s action scenes tend to be pretty cool.  Rather, the point seems to be that everyone has a choice.  To good or to do harm, to stand up or to crawl away.  The story asks: what kind of choice will you make?

5 stars

Tortall: A Spy’s Guide by Tamora Pierce

Tortall A Spy's Guide-min

Information

*written with Julie Holderman, Timothy Liebe, and Megan Messinger

Goodreads: Tortall: A Spy’s Guide
Series: None
Source: City Book Review
Published: October 31, 2017

Official Summary

The secrets of Tortall are revealed. . . .

As Tortall’s spymaster, George Cooper has sensitive documents from all corners of the realm. When Alanna sends him a surprising letter, he cleans out his office and discovers letters from when King Jonathan and Queen Thayet first ascended the throne, notes on creating the Shadow Service of spies, threat-level profiles on favorite characters, Daine’s notes on immortals, as well as family papers, such as Aly’s first report as a young spy and Neal’s lessons with the Lioness. This rich guide also includes the first official timeline of Tortallan events from when it became a sovereign nation to the year Aly gives birth to triplets. Part history, part spy training manual, and entirely fascinating, this beautiful guide makes a perfect gift and is ideal for anyone who loves Alanna, King Jonathan, Queen Thayet, Kel, Neal, Aly, Thom, Daine, Numair, and the unforgettable world of Tortall!

Review

As a longtime Tamora Pierce fan, I was delighted to hear about the release of Tortall: A Spy’s Guide.  It’s a beautifully designed and illustrated book that is supposed to be composed of papers from the files of George Cooper, the Whisper Man, himself.  This means that the collection of information is a bit more random than I expected (they’re seriously just papers he found jumbled together in a room next to his office), so I think the title A Spy’s Guide is slightly misleading about the content of the book, but overall this is a fantastic reference for fans and a lovely addition to any Tamora Pierce collection.

There’s an introduction by Pierce at the front of the book that welcomes fans and newcomers alike, but the book relies on reader recognition of allusions to characters and events from practically all of Pierce’s different Tortall series, so I see little value in recommending it to someone who hasn’t read Pierce’s other books.  For readers who do get the allusions, the volume is a treasure trove of information, including everything from letters from members in Alanna’s family to spy reports on characters like Thayet and Buri before they entered Tortall to the guide to how to spy itself.  Some of the information is more of a reference guide than something worth reading straight through, such as the descriptions of various Immortals and the timeline of Tortall’s history.

If you like Tamora Pierce’s Tortall series (and especially if you like George!), you will not regret buying this book.  It’s a great blend of new, exciting information and beautiful design, so it will be worthwhile addition to your shelves.

5 stars Briana

Royal Bastards by Andrew Shvarts

Royal Bastards by Andrew Shvarts

Information

Goodreads: Royal Bastards
Series: Royal Bastards #1
Source: Library
Published: May 30, 2017

Official Summary

Being a bastard blows. Tilla would know. Her father, Lord Kent of the Western Province, loved her as a child, but cast her aside as soon as he had trueborn children.

At sixteen, Tilla spends her days exploring long-forgotten tunnels beneath the castle with her stablehand half brother, Jax, and her nights drinking with the servants, passing out on Jax’s floor while her castle bedroom collects dust. Tilla secretly longs to sit by her father’s side, resplendent in a sparkling gown, enjoying feasts with the rest of the family. Instead, she sits with the other bastards, like Miles of House Hampstedt, an awkward scholar who’s been in love with Tilla since they were children.

Then, at a feast honoring the visiting princess Lyriana, the royal shocks everyone by choosing to sit at the Bastards’ Table. Before she knows it, Tilla is leading the sheltered princess on a late-night escapade. Along with Jax, Miles, and fellow bastard Zell, a Zitochi warrior from the north, they stumble upon a crime they were never meant to witness.

Rebellion is brewing in the west, and a brutal coup leaves Lyriana’s uncle, the Royal Archmagus, dead—with Lyriana next on the list. The group flees for their lives, relentlessly pursued by murderous mercenaries; their own parents have put a price on their heads to prevent the king and his powerful Royal Mages from discovering their treachery.

The bastards band together, realizing they alone have the power to prevent a civil war that will tear their kingdom apart—if they can warn the king in time. And if they can survive the journey . . .

Review

Royal Bastards starts off with a fabulous premise: a group of unwanted (well, bastard) teenagers accidentally witness their parents committing a terrible crime and then get framed for the deed.  Only by avoiding the death sentences placed on their heads and revealing the truth to the kingdom can they hope to prevent a violent civil war.  The first half of the novel focuses on this and on the character development of the main group the story follows, and it’s really strong YA fantasy.  The second half of the novel, unfortunately, unravels much of this good work, making the book overall a disappointment for me.

As I began Royal Bastards, I had high hopes.  In some ways it reminded me of typical YA fantasy (the genre is starting to have a distinctive feel that I wish it would break away from), but it offered enough originality that I was hooked.  Our protagonist has a distinctive voice (she’s rather fond of cursing), and the plot was fast-paced and gripping. And though “people on the run from bad guys” isn’t necessarily an original plot, the focus on the group of bastards is pretty unusual.

Unfortunately, the book ends up with two main flaws.  First, it veers away from the dramatic “save our lives and the kingdom” plot and devolves into an awkward love triangle.  I felt no chemistry from any combination of these characters, personally, and I really didn’t get why we were so fixated on teenage romance at what should have been really key points of the plot.  You know, if we’re interested in saving the kingdom and all that.  Secondly, the author destroys a lot of the characterization he established in the first half of the book to get some cheap thrills.  Apparently it doesn’t matter if people’s motivations no longer make sense, as long as the outcome is dramatic.

I wanted to like this, and I did for a decent portion of the story.  Then it all fell apart.  I can’t express how disappointed I ended up.  I was confused by some of the lower Goodreads ratings when I began reading the book; now I understand.  I am not interested in reading the sequel, which will be a hard pass for me.

3 Stars Briana

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Information

Goodreads: Steelheart
Series: The Reckoners #1
Source: Library
Published:

Summary

Ten years ago Calamity appeared in the sky and gave men superpowers.  Called Epics, they quickly used their powers to claim dominion over the Earth.  Dave watched an Epic named Steelheart kill his father.  And now he will do anything to end Steelheart’s rule.  His plan: to join the Reckoners, a group of ordinary men and women who dare to fight back.  Because he thinks he can give them the one thing they need.  A clue to Steelheart’s weakness.

Review

One of Brandon Sanderson’s great strengths is building a unique and intricate world, one where the rules of magic both seem to be surprising and to be perfectly natural.  In Steelheart, he begins a trilogy that seems to flip the superhero genre on its head.  What if, it asks, super powers did not lead to superheroes, but to supervillains?  What if ultimate power seemingly leads only to ultimate corruption?  Around these questions he creates a world where anything seems possible and yet where Epics still fall into scientific categories.  Each has a set of strengths, but each also has a weakness.  Comparing the Epics’ powers might just be the answer to stopping them.

Steelheart differs from some of Sanderson’s other fantasies in that it reads very much like the script for an action film.  Indeed, it begins with a high speech car chase, a beautiful yet deadly woman, and a whole lot of bullets.  It is difficult not to picture Sanderson cackling madly to himself as he writes in all the tropes–and makes it good.  I don’t even like action films and I was on the edge of my seat.

This momentum carries through the book as the Reckoners try increasingly dangerous and desperate means to stop the Epic who dominates the city of Newcago.  Along the way, however, they also ponder the philosophical and ethical consequences of what they are doing.  Why stop Steelheart if his city, if terrible, is at least better than most?  Are they responsible for chaos that will ensue after his fall?  Can they still believe that one day an Epic will come who will use their powers for good rather than for evil?  These questions help to ground the story, making it more than an empty book full of explosions.

Fans of Sanderson will likely enjoy the skill and action he brings to the this book.  But it will also appeal to those who like action, those who like superheroes, and those who like fantasy.  And it just  might make a lifelong Sanderson fan out of its new readers.

5 stars

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Information

Goodreads: Hollow City
Series: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children #2
Source: Quirk Books
Published: February 24, 2015

Official Summary

This second novel begins in 1940, immediately after the first book ended. Having escaped Miss Peregrine’s island by the skin of their teeth, Jacob and his new friends must journey to London, the peculiar capital of the world. Along the way, they encounter new allies, a menagerie of peculiar animals, and other unexpected surprises.

Complete with dozens of newly discovered (and thoroughly mesmerizing) vintage photographs, this new adventure will delight readers of all ages.

Review

Note: I was sent a beautiful box set of the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children series for review by Quirk Books, as you can see in the photo above. In addition to the three books, this box set comes with a collector’s postcard featuring some of the characters, using the type of vintage photographs found throughout the books themselves. My review of the first book can be read here, and this post is just a review of book 2. Bonus content in this edition of Hollow City includes: a sneak preview of the third Peculiar Children Novel, Exclusive Q&A with Ransom Riggs, and never-before-seen peculiar photography.


Hollow City begins in medias res, right where Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children left off.  There is some minor exposition to help jog the memories of readers who might have read the first book a while ago, but mostly things start at a gallop, which I liked.  The children are on the run/on a quest to save their headmistress (odd how those two things overlap), and starting the book at a fast pace builds momentum that continues throughout the novel.

I liked that in this installment Riggs shows readers more of the world of the peculiars.  The children leave their island loop and get to visit a variety of other loops and places on the mainland.  We also get to learn more of the history and legends of the peculiars.  Some things just seemed highly convenient (you can telephone loops?), but overall seeing more is fascinating.

There’s also some more character development here of Miss Peregrine’s charges.  As those who read book 1 know, Miss Peregrine is out of commission, which means that the children are in charge.  They have to make decisions and take actions without the ability to consult an adult or the duty to obey any adults, which helps draw out each of their personalities.  Unfortunately, I still think Jacob is a bit of a flat main character (even though he is developing his peculiar abilities, which, thankfully, are more complex than I was led to believe in book 1), and I still think the romance he has with Emma lacks any chemistry whatsoever.  However, the secondary characters really shine here, and it was great getting to see more of them.

One of my struggles with the photography in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was that I didn’t think the photos Riggs chose to represent the characters always matched the character descriptions in the book.  I actually thought that his photo-picking abilities were more on point in Hollow City, though there is a shift here away from photos of people (though there still are many) to photos of things like zeppelins and horses and houses.  Overall, my feeling is still that including vintage photographs is a unique concept for a YA series, but I could really take or leave them.  A photo of zeppelins, in the end, just doesn’t add much to my experience of reading the book.

This is one of those books that, objectively, I think counts as a pretty strong fantasy novel.  On a personal level, I didn’t connect with it quite as much as I hoped, but I think others would enjoy it and feel confident recommending it. The ending also takes enough of a twist that I’m curious to see how things wrap up in book 3.

3 Stars Briana