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

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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

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

Information

Goodreads: Three Dark Crowns
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2016

Summary

On the island of Fennbirn, queens are always born in threes.  On the day of their sixteenth birthday, the fighting commences.  The one who kills her sisters first is crowned, and the cycle begins again.  Mirabella, an elementalist, can control storms.  But she’s not so sure she can kill her sisters.  Meanwhile, Katharine is a poisoner, one who can eat anything and not die.  At least, she’s supposed to be.  And Arsinoe is a naturalist, one who can bring plants to life and bend animals to her will.  Except she’s still waiting for her familiar.  Whoever strikes first has the advantage.  But do they have the strength to do it?

Review

Three Dark Queens is one of those books that will not bear too much scrutiny.  It is really best not to ask why the sisters continually engage in this barbaric practice.  It is best not to ask why they think some of their ridiculous schemes will work.  It is best not to ask why two people can see each other once, sleep together immediately, and then “love” each other forever–even if the one is already promised to someone else.  It is best not to ask why an overly-possessive guardian would allow a lovestruck boy near her protege, and constantly leave them alone to make out.  Like she’s unaware of what they’re doing.  In short, don’t ask.  And you might enjoy the book.

Yes, most of the book is ridiculous.  Sometimes things happen for no other reason than to drive the plot forward or to make another complication.  Sometimes characters seem to act slightly out of character, again to forward the plot.  Sometimes stuff happens and it’s almost laugh-out-loud crazy and dramatic.  “Seriously,” you think.  “Did that really just happen?”  And yet, it’s the kind of entertaining fluff (if sisters wanting to murder each other can be called “fluff”) that is sometimes hard to put down.

Not every book has to be a literary masterpiece.  Some books are just funny and fun.  Three Dark Crowns is just that, even if unintentionally.  Yes, it wants to be dark and edgy, but really it’s mostly about relationships–romances and friendships–and sprinkled through with some intrigue that usually ends up nonsensical or crazy.  I enjoyed it.  Maybe that’s an embarrassing admission, but I did.

3 Stars

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Information

GoodreadsMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Series: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children #1
Source: Publisher (Quirk Books) for Review
Published: June 7, 2011

Official Summary

A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of curious photographs.

A horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive.

A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.

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. This review, however, is just for book 1, as I tend to review books individually instead of by series. I hope to have reviews of books 2 and 3 up in the future.


I’ve been putting off reading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children since its release because I was always under the vague impression it was some kind of horror story, or at least that it was decidedly creepy, and I do not do creepy. No creepy movies, no creepy books. So, I was actually quite excited when my lovely co-blogger Krysta pointed out that Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is better thought of as just a fantasy book. It turns out she’s right. And since I was expecting fantasy, with the occasional monster, I was not disappointed (as some reviewers have been) that the book isn’t really a scary one. I got exactly what I thought I would, and it was exciting.

The plot follows teenager Jake as he tries to piece together unbelievable stories about monsters and flying children and invisible boys from his grandfather’s past. The book, then, is part mystery, part quest as Jake searches for these, well, peculiar people. With the introduction of the monsters in the latter part of the story, the book turns into action-adventure. So while the tale kept me captivated, and I was stuck to my seat turning the pages to see what happened next, I was at no point scared. There’s a marvelous blending of genres here, but I wouldn’t say horror is among them. The only thing approaching “creepy” is the foggy, old-timey island setting.

Riggs also does a nice job with character development, ranging from Jake himself (who must struggle to determine what is real and what is imaginary) to his father to the peculiar children under Miss Peregrine’s care. I did find the blooming romance between Jake and another character unconvincing, but this book isn’t about the romance, so it’s not a huge flaw. The looks into character’s minds and their motivations and their hopes and dreams are far more entrancing.

The vintage photographs that Riggs includes throughout the story are a nice touch, and I give the book props for doing something that’s utterly unique in the YA market. In terms of actual execution, however, I thought the photographs a bit hit or miss. Some corresponded well with the story and did add another dimension. Others, however, seemed forced into the narrative. For instance, photographs that are clearly of different people are said to be of the same person, or photographs that don’t quite match a character’s description get a lengthy explanation justifying the differences.

Overall, I quite enjoyed this story and do recommend it. With engaging characters, an eerie setting, and a plot full of twists and turns, this is YA fantasy worth reading.

4 stars Briana

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