The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye

The Crown's GameInformation

Goodreads: The Crown’s Game
Series: The Crown’s Game #1
Source: Library
Published: May 17, 2016

Official Summary

Vika Andreyeva can summon the snow and turn ash into gold. Nikolai Karimov can see through walls and conjure bridges out of thin air. They are enchanters—the only two in Russia—and with the Ottoman Empire and the Kazakhs threatening, the Tsar needs a powerful enchanter by his side.

And so he initiates the Crown’s Game, an ancient duel of magical skill—the greatest test an enchanter will ever know. The victor becomes the Imperial Enchanter and the Tsar’s most respected adviser. The defeated is sentenced to death.

Raised on tiny Ovchinin Island her whole life, Vika is eager for the chance to show off her talent in the grand capital of Saint Petersburg. But can she kill another enchanter—even when his magic calls to her like nothing else ever has?

For Nikolai, an orphan, the Crown’s Game is the chance of a lifetime. But his deadly opponent is a force to be reckoned with—beautiful, whip smart, imaginative—and he can’t stop thinking about her.

And when Pasha, Nikolai’s best friend and heir to the throne, also starts to fall for the mysterious enchantress, Nikolai must defeat the girl they both love… or be killed himself.
As long-buried secrets emerge, threatening the future of the empire, it becomes dangerously clear… the Crown’s Game is not one to lose.

Review

The Crown’s Game has a fascinating premise: two enchanters must duel to the death to determine who will be the next royal enchanter and adviser to the tsar.  Yet a complicated duel becomes even messier when each of the participants decide they don’t want the other one to die.  With undertones of The Night Circus and other beautifully magical books, The Crown’s Game seemed destined to become one of my new favorite books.  Unfortunately, I didn’t connect with the characters, and much of the plot doesn’t make sense, so The Crown’s Game actually was one of my biggest letdowns of 2016.

Possibly one of the most difficult things for an author to achieve is making readers care about their characters, and it’s certainly something Skye struggles with.  Of course I feel bad that Vika or Nikolai is destined to die, but it’s the type of “feeling bad” I’d have for any person in a sad situation.  I did not care about them, or any of the characters,  as individuals.  I’m not entirely sure what Skye could have done to fix this, though I think showing readers more of what was at stake for the characters might have helped.  Of course nobody wants to die, but beyond that, what matters to these characters? What do they lose if they die?  If Skye had shown me more of what makes the characters tick or what they wanted to achieve in life, or shown me who would have been absolutely devastated if they lost and died, I might have cared more.  I needed to feel there would be some emptiness or unfulfilled potential if one of these characters died.

The plot was somewhat more exciting than the characters, but some of it doesn’t quite make sense, and the pacing is off.  There are really two strains of plot going on, and Skye didn’t quite reconcile them.  The book wants to be dire and epic and deep, but it gets sidetracked by frivolous magic and flights of fancy.  And, honestly, if the book had simply embraced frivolity, I think I could have really enjoyed it.

[Slight spoilers this paragraph.] Ostensibly Vika and Nikolai are dueling to the death. Their goal: impress the tsar with their magic and show him they have what it takes to be a royal advisor and also lead a upcoming war.  What do they with their magic instead? Decorate St. Petersburg.  Now, the book goes out of its way to assure readers that Vika and Nikolai are performing stunning, complex, difficult magic, that it takes enormous strength and power and concentration to do something like paint all the houses on a square or make a water fountain in a river.  So, sure, I’ll buy that.  However, this takes place in a world where 1) few people believe in or know anything about magic and 2) the tsar started the Crown’s Game because he fears a looming war.  So 1) probably no one knows whether painting some houses is complex magic or not and 2) it definitely doesn’t have an immediate use in war.  Of course, the book also has to come up with lots of convoluted explanations to help the plot make sense (i.e. no one believes in magic, so the competitors can’t do anything too dangerous or scary). However, this is still stupid because they could have just gone somewhere more isolated, and I think there’s still a way to demonstrate you have warlike abilities that would be more effective than making magical puff pastries.  The enchanters’ training exercises that nobody saw were more to the point than the things they choose to do during the actual competition.

In terms of pacing, the book starts out slowly then goes on a mad dash at the end, complete with the classic “overdone drama between two characters motivated by a seemingly insignificant ‘event.'” I was not really a fan. The book then ends suddenly and kind of assumes readers will be on board for the next one, but I don’t think I will be.

Usually I give 2 stars to books I actively dislike, but I’m giving 2 here instead of 3 mostly because I was just so bored the entire time I was reading it.  I also considered DNF-ing several times, which is also a criterion I use to give lower ratings.  There’s a lot of potential in The Crown’s Game, but it has a bit of an identity crisis over whether it wants to be a book about beautiful magic or a book about war and danger and deceit.  I would have loved a more frivolous take on this, I think, a book that just gloried in aesthetic magic and making St. Petersburg beautiful.  I didn’t really buy all the dire additions to the plot, however.  This was one of my most anticipated reads of 2016, so I’m quite sad I felt so let down.

2 stars Briana

Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell

MechanicaInformation

Goodreads: Mechanica
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: August 25, 2015

Official Summary

Nicolette’s awful stepsisters call her “Mechanica” to demean her, but the nickname fits: she learned to be an inventor at her mother’s knee. Her mom is gone now, though, and the Steps have turned her into a servant in her own home.

But on her sixteenth birthday, Nicolette discovers a secret workshop in the cellar and begins to dare to imagine a new life for herself. Could the mysterious books and tools hidden there—and the mechanical menagerie, led by a tiny metal horse named Jules—be the key to escaping her dreary existence? With a technological exposition and royal ball on the horizon, the timing might just be perfect for Nicolette to earn her freedom at last.

Gorgeous prose and themes of social justice and family shine in this richly imagined Cinderella retelling about an indomitable inventor who finds her prince . . . but realizes she doesn’t want a fairy tale happy ending after all.

Review

Mechanica puts a charming steampunk spin on the classic tale of “Cinderella.”  Nicolette Lampton feels trapped by her cruel stepmother until she discovers her mother’s hidden basement workshop and begins tinkering to make inventions of her own.  She hopes with hard work she’ll be able to buy herself a new life and maybe even become as skilled as her mother.  After all, there’s not just a royal ball coming up; there’s also an Exhibition!

Mechanica gives readers a “Cinderella” character who really knows what to do with her work ethic.  Instead of feeling downtrodden by her abusive family , she feels she’s simply biding her time until good things can come her way.  While I wish  the family dynamics would have been explored more–I think there’s a lot to say about abuse in many fairy tales that many authors simply overlook–I did admire Nicolette and her drive.

Besides the somewhat flat step-family, most of the other characters are similarly well-developed and reveal multiple facets of their personalities throughout the novel.  There’s also a (mechanical) animal companion, and I fall for those every time in books.  Sign me up for a cute horse with intelligence and unconditional love!

The official summary broadly hints how the end of the book will go, so I won’t consider a few more hints much of spoilers.  I’ve seen other readers imply it doesn’t go how they wanted, but I didn’t have an issue with it.  I also didn’t have a problem with the apparent insta-love earlier in the novel; Cornwell clearly indicates that it’s supposed to be read as infatuation.  She’s playing with fairy tale tropes, much the way Frozen does with the insta-love between Anna and Hans.  As for insta-friendship, I don’t find that hard to believe at all.  Half of being someone’s friend is deciding you want to be.

Overall, I just found Mechanica a really enjoyable read.  It will be  appreciated by anyone who adores retold fairy tales as a I do.
4 stars Briana

Why Didn’t Cinderella “Just Leave?”

Cinderella Dicussion

The other day I was speaking with someone about retellings and favorite childhood books, and when we got to Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, she said, “I always loved Ella Enchanted because Levine said she wrote it because she always wondered why Cinderella didn’t just leave.  I always thought that, too.”  As much as I also love Ella (I’ve probably read it about fifteen times), this comment troubled me because it seems to me the answer is is clear: It isn’t simple for people, especially children, to “just leave” the people who are abusing them.  When you also consider that most “Cinderella” stories take place in fantasy worlds or historical time periods when women didn’t have many rights, it becomes even more obvious why a young girl couldn’t “just” set out on her own to seek her fortune and have that venture go well.

As writers continue to offer variations on this classic tale, I hope more of them will take the time to thoughtfully consider that Cinderella’s “evil stepmother” is more than a trope or a plot point; she’s an abuser.   The effects of that on the Cinderella’s psyche deserve to be explored,  not glossed over as something unimportant that Cinderella happily endured while she sang with her charming animal friends (as Disney suggests).

Additionally, authors who want their Cinderellas to just “man up ” and go should make it clear what specific factors in their literary worlds enable the protagonist to do so–as well as clarify that Cinderellas who don’t aren’t necessarily wimps.  They may be bound to their abusers by psychological and societal factors beyond their control.

Why Don’t We Talk about Abuse in “Cinderella” Stories?

Wayfarer Quote

I’ve been taking issue with representations of child abuse in young adult and middle grade novels in general recently, and I intend to write a post on the topic more broadly in the future.  However, I am particularly disappointed by the number of “Cinderella” retellings (and other fairy tale retellings with abusive parents, such as “Snow White”) because the entire point of a retelling is to expand on an existing story, to explore things that were left unexplored in the originals.  Retellings give authors an opportunity to flesh out a bare-bones source story that often focuses on plot instead of things like character psychology/interiority.  In retellings, flat good or evil characters become complex, insta-love becomes a complicated romantic relationship, small details that “just happened” in the original are explained at length.  Yet somehow the fact that Cinderella is suffering from child abuse is left unexplored, as if it somehow doesn’t matter either to Cinderella herself or to the readers.

Conversations about abuse have become more public in our society recently, and I think the fact that victims of abuse often struggle with extricating themselves from abusive relationships is becoming more widely-known.  We have to remember this when we think of “Cinderella” stories and ask ourselves why she doesn’t just leave her stepmother’s home.  We have to remember not to victim-blame, not to assume it’s somehow Cinderella’s fault for “allowing” herself to be treated horribly by her stepfamily.  We should remember, too, she’s a child (or a teen), and children don’t just up and leave the only homes they have ever known.

However, we also should avoid the trap of gong too far in the other direction and assuming that Cinderella’s life isn’t “that bad,” of believing the abuse in the tale doesn’t need to be discussed.  I understand that many authors who retell the story are interested in the romantic aspects of it, whether that’s the rags to riches story or the love story.  They don’t want to delve into the dark world of child abuse in their retelling.  And yet it’s there.  I think responsible authors will tackle this somehow, will avoid the Disney mistake of suggesting that Cinderella’s main virtue is smiling throughout her abuse and being a happy servant.  I want to see Cinderellas who are troubled or depressed or angry because of their treatment and to see authors discuss how their protagonists deal with their abuse.  (Lili St. Crow does this in Wayfarer, but I can’t think of another author who does.)

Does It Even Make Sense If Cinderella Does Leave?

Mechanica Quote

Besides the opportunity to expand on a short story, another benefit of retellings is that they allow for many variations of the same story. So it makes sense that, in some, Cinderella will “just leave.”  However, I think whether she can is a question that should be thoughtfully considered by authors and readers alike.  Particularly if a “Cinderella” story takes place in a past or pseudo-past time period, she may not have the resources to leave or may realize that leaving could make her life worse.

In Victorian England, for instance, a woman’s occupations choices were often between a low wage worker (perhaps a maid or a factory worker) or a prostitute.  Some estimates suggest 1 in 12 women were prostitutes (source).  The situation for many Cinderella characters is similar, when you remember that most of them are isolated and have no friends or family to live with if they leave their stepmother.  Yet if a teenage female left home on her own, the likely options were:

  1. becoming a maid, just in someone else’s house instead of her stepmother’s (though this outcome is least likely since Cinderella would be alone without any sort of references, so no one would trust her enough to hire her)
  2. becoming a sex worker because no one would hire her
  3. becoming a beggar if she couldn’t find “honest” work and didn’t want to be a sex worker

So, no, many Cinderellas can’t “just leave” home.  If authors want their Cinderellas to strike out on their own, they need to create the circumstances in the novel that allow them to do so.  One example is Cinder by Marissa Meyer.  In Meyer’s futuristic world. women can lead independent lives, and protagonist Cinder has enough training as a mechanic in order to sell her skills somewhere.  However, most retellings in this vein–modern or futuristic ones–will still have to make some assumptions. Cinderella is probably at least 18 and legally allowed to just pack up and leave her abusive home.  In a contemporary story, she might simply wait till she’s old enough to go to college. (I can’t say I’ve seen any modern versions where Cinderella makes a bid for emancipation at fifteen and then manages to find a job when most require employees to be at least sixteen.)

Conclusion

Cinderella’s situation is infinitely more complicated than most readers (or authors) assume when they ask why she doesn’t “just leave” her abusive stepmother.  Psychological ties, lack of outside support, the inability to earn money elsewhere, and legal prohibitions on leaving home could all play a factor in stopping her.  Remember that in most Cinderella stories, our protagonist is a child or a teenager.  Most young people don’t simply pack up and leave home when they have no one to turn to and nowhere else to go.  I hope more readers will be sensitive to this, and more authors will put the investment in creating complex Cinderella stories that recognize the existence of abusive and deal thoughtfully with how Cinderella responds to it.

Briana

Ash and Bramble by Sarah Prineas

Ash and BrambleInformation

Goodreads: Ash and Bramble
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: September 15, 2015

Official Summary

No one has ever broken free of the Godmother’s terrible stone prison until a girl named Pin attempts a breathless, daring escape. But she discovers that what seems to be freedom is a prison of another kind, one that entangles her in a story that leads to a prince, a kiss, and a clock striking midnight. To unravel herself from this new life, Pin must choose between a prince and another—the one who helped her before and who would give his life for her. Torn, the only thing for her to do is trade in the glass slipper for a sword and find her own destiny.

Review

I can envision the birth of Ash and Bramble.  Prineas sat down and thought, What if you don’t want to be in a fairy tale?  What if it’s more exciting to write your own story instead of following the pattern of everyone else’s?  The result: a gutsy YA novel that capitalizes on the popularity of fairy tale retellings even as it tries to argue they’re boring and overrated.

I kind of loved it.

The prose, I admit, is a huge turn-off and something I actively strove to ignore throughout the novel.  All of the book is in present tense, which I hate, and uses short, choppy sentences, which I despise.  Worse, however, is the lack of consistency in points of view.  Protagonist Pin’s chapters are all in first-person, while love interest Shoe’s chapters are in third person.  I never understood the reason for the switch; I don’t know if there was an artistic reasons.  I only know it drove me mad.

If one can tolerate the writing style, however, there is a very interesting story buried beneath.  Large swaths of it will be predictable—like which man is going to win in the love triangle—but others are quite unexpected.  The whole point is that Pin wants to break away from a perfect, contrived life as a Cinderella with a happily-ever-after, so she tries to do the unpredictable.

The multiple layers of the story mean that sometimes the pacing is off.  The book starts in media res, except the readers don’t actually know what happened before the action started because none of the characters really know either.  From there it’s a quick sprint to get from the opening scenes to the part where the Cinderella story is supposed to play out to the part where Pin has to decide if she even wants her Cinderella story.  The result is a bit chunk-like, even though the book tries to head this off by dividing itself into parts and signaling something new is about to start.  However, the plot and the characters are interesting enough that I tried to ignore my discomfort with this, as well.

Though Pin is supposedly the star of the novel, and the other characters spend a lot of time observing how unique, how unexpected, how like a flame in darkness she is, I was more captivated by the side characters.  Shoe is definitely a fascinating, complex character, and I was glad he got his own sort-of POV chapters.  I also enjoyed reading about all the other characters who had been caught up in the dangers of their world, who were kind of broken but persevered.  Even the last character in the love triangle was multi-faceted.  Pin just feels contrived compared to them, especially when she goes stereotypical YA protagonist and suddenly discovers she possesses a bunch of kickass skills that will help her in her fight.

In many ways, I fought with Ash and Bramble more than I really enjoyed it.  Half of it pulled me to liking it while the other half pushed me away.  However, I found it interesting, and I think it will appeal to anyone who normally enjoys new takes on fairy tales.

3 stars Briana

Cinderella Stays Late by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams

Cinderella Stays LateInformation

Goodreads: Cinderella Stays Late
Series: Grimmtastic Girls #1
Source: Library
Published: 2014

Summary

Cinderella dreamed of attending Grimm Academy, an elite boarding school that previously her father could not afford–but she never imagined she would have to attend with her stepsisters.  The Steps always try to make Cinda look bad in front of her friends and now they’re trying to sabotage the new prince’s ball.  Can Cinda, along with Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Snow White, save the ball from disaster before the stroke of midnight?

Review

Cinderella Stays Late certainly seems not to be a wholly original idea–other books before have mashed up fairytales and even inserted them into a boarding school setting.  However, the attempt of the Ever After High series to mix cutesy and glitter and fairytale puns to appeal to a stereotypical idea of a tween audience comes across as more cheesy than winkingly funny, and sometimes even as slightly condescending.  The Grimmtastic Girls, meanwhile, manages to take these same elements, even the puns and the emphasis on sparkles and fashion, and to make them seem natural in its world, rather than a heavy-handed marketing ploy.  Perhaps the difference lies in Holub’s and Williams’s ability to know how to mix fluff with real depth; though frills and glitter abound, they never overshadow the characters or the plot.  The result is an engaging tale with an arguably wider appeal–after all, readers can really care about these characters, rather than just about their clothes.

Though the Grimmtastic Girls series possesses an overarching plot, as well as a mini threat to be faced in each book, the characters really drive the story.  Holub and Williams take well-known fairy tales and utterly transform them, beginning by depicting heroines such as Cinderella and Red Riding Hood as pre-teen girls with typical pre-teen problems–first day of school anxiety; friendship troubles; insecurity about their appearances or about fitting in; and, of course, crushes.  The girls may live in a fantasy world, but they feel like they could be students in ours.  Even fairy tale elements such as the cruelty of Cinderella’s stepsisters point to contemporary issues to which readers can relate, such as bullying or abuse.

The cover recommends Cinderella Stays Up Late as a book for fourth graders, but the sensitively-drawn characters as well as the engaging plot will hold appeal for readers of all ages.  Not for a long time have I enjoyed a fairy tale retelling this much and I cannot wait to read the sequels.

Enchanted by Alethea Kontis

EnchantedInformation

GoodreadsEnchanted
Series: Woodcutter Sisters #1
Source: Borrowed
Published: 2012

Summary

When Sunday meets an enchanted frog in the Wood, their friendship blossoms into something more and soon her kiss has transformed him back into a man.  Unfortunately, that man happens to be the Crown Prince Rumbold– a man her family despises.  Rumbold hopes to make Sunday fall in love with him again as he is now, but more than an old family feud stands in their way.  Something evil lurks in the palace and soon no one will be safe.

Review

I looked forward to reading Kontis’s version of “The Frog Prince” since I saw its released announced, but now that I have, I feel mostly confused.  On the one hand, I loved it.  It is a fast-paced, magical story full of all the things I love–enchanted frogs, fairy godmothers, balls and ballgowns, and sisters who care about each other.  On the other hand, I have to admit that most of it makes no sense.  Sometimes disjointed and sometimes uneven, the story seemed as if it was missing parts.  The parts that were there seemed contrived to move the plot forward and nothing more.  Even for a fairy tale retelling, it stretched my belief.

It is difficult to discuss the problematic parts of any book without spoiling the plot, so I’ll have to keep my comments broad.  In brief, I thought the whole story lacked a solid foundation.  Basically, the protagonists fall in love within two days of knowing each other.  The enchanted frog turns back into a man (the cover says as much, so I don’t consider this a spoiler) and then, for some reason, decides to go home without telling his true love about the transformation.  He wants to make her love him, but decides not to reveal  his identity and instead decides to woo her at a series of balls he throws.  The balls seem to be there because he needs to find her, but he met her at her house, so I don’t really know what purpose the balls serve besides to add an element of “Cinderella” to the tale.  Expected romantic confusion ensues as the girl feels strangely attracted to this prince she thinks she does not know, but it all could have been avoided with some honesty on his part.

The rest of the story gets more confusing as half-explained magical feuds and curses intertwine with the romance.  The book keeps saying that our protagonist Sunday will be important and one might assume she will save the kingdom from all these rampant enchantments, but she doesn’t.  The book also keeps suggesting (through the character of the “good” fairy godmother) that most of these events have been orchestrated for some purpose.  I never saw it.  In fact, I do not understand why most of the plot points happened and no amount of “I planned it this way” or “It was meant to be” can cover up the glaring plot holes.

Add to this the fact that most of the magic is never explained, the random discovery that all of Sunday’s family suddenly has magical powers, and the almost bizarre insertion of several fairy tales into Sunday’s life (strange mostly because other characters seem to live only one fairy tale, not five), and the plot gets harder and harder to swallow.  My confusion was compounded by the writing, which seemed to assume parts that were not there.  One second I’m reading about Prince Rumbold and the next Sunday is running out to save someone, but we don’t know why she’s doing so or how she knew to do so.  It was a bit disorienting.

Strangely enough, however, I still kept reading with my eyes glued to the page.  The romance was sweet, even if it did happen in one week.  The family element was endearing, even if Sunday’s family all possess unexplained powers.  I wanted to be with these characters and to learn more about them, even if nothing about their lives made any sense.

So I will be reading the sequel and presumably all the sequels that follow.  I am attached to Sunday and her family and hope they will take me on more adventures.  I just hope I can keep up.

*Read Briana’s take on Enchanted here!

Cinderella Stays Late by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams

Cinderella Stays LateInformation

Goodreads: Cinderella Stays Late
Series: Grimmtastic Girls #1
Source: Netgalley in exchange for an honest review
Publication Date: March 25, 2014

Official Summary

The authors of the hit Goddess Girls series put a fun and girly twist on another super-popular theme: fairy tales!

Once upon a time, in faraway Grimmlandia…

A Grimmtastic girl named Cinderella is starting her first week at Grimm Academy on the wrong foot. Cinda’s totally evil stepsisters are out to make her life miserable. The Steps tease Cinda, give her terrible advice about life at the academy, and even make her look bad in front of her new friends, Red, Snow, and Rapunzel! But when Cinda overhears the Steps plotting a villainous deed that could ruin Prince Awesome’s ball, Cinda, her new friends, and a pair of magical glass slippers have to stop them–before the last stroke of midnight!

Review

Cinderella Stays Late is a fabulous adventure story that draws readers into a world of fashion and friendship.  Readers follow protagonist Cinda through her first days at Grimm Academy, where fairy tale characters can learn everything from etiquette to magic.  Cinda, however, will find her greatest lesson is learning to be confident and be herself.  Her nasty stepsisters may attend Grimm Academy with her, but they no longer have to control her life!

Cinda’s personal story is one of growth, but the overarching plot is a mystery/adventure.  There are tons of girly moments as Cinda and her friends prepare for an approaching ball, but problems bigger than what shoes best match what dress may prevent them all from going!  The school is missing a magical artifact, and Cinda thinks she just might know where to find it.  Although readers do get some resolution for this plot, a lot is left open-ended.  Cinderella Stays Late is in many ways the start of a story, rather than a self-contained one.  Readers will have to continue with the series to get answers.

Cinda’s classic story—attending a ball, meeting a prince, losing a shoe—is skillfully woven into all this action.  Holub and Williams win big with their decision to have Cinda’s tale play out at Grimm Academy itself, as it can be difficult to make books where fairy tale characters all attend school together make sense.  (See my previous review of Shannon Hale’s The Storybook of Legends for more on this.)  One question the authors do not address: How can the characters know they are story characters—but not know what their stories are?  This question is nagging, but is ultimately a minor issue and it does not hinder the flow of the plot in any way.

Though the book draws on fairy tales, the authors ensure their retelling is up-to-date and relatable to today’s girls with the inclusion of “fairy tale slang.”  Characters, for example, might exclaim, “That’s so Grimm!” to express that something is amazing.  This playful language is never cheesy and succeeds in making the book sound just a touch modern, even though the characters jokingly mention that it will always be the Middle Ages in Grimmlandia.

Cinderella Stays Late is everything a reader could want in a middle-grade retold fairy tale.  It keeps the spirit of the original story while putting a new, contemporary spin on the characters and plot.  At times funny, thoughtful, and surprising, it will keep readers turning pages to see what Cinda and her friends get up to next.  Recommended for fans of E. D. Baker, Shannon Hale, and Sarah Mlynowski.