The Bone Spindle by Leslie Vedder (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: The Bone Spindle
Series: The Bone Spindle #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: PR Company for Review
Publication Date: January 11, 2022

Official Summary

Sleeping Beauty meets Indiana Jones in this thrilling fairytale retelling for fans of Sorcery of Thorns and All the Stars and Teeth.

Fi is a bookish treasure hunter with a knack for ruins and riddles, who definitely doesn’t believe in true love.

Shane is a tough-as-dirt girl warrior from the north who likes cracking skulls, pretty girls, and doing things her own way.

Briar Rose is a prince under a sleeping curse, who’s been waiting a hundred years for the kiss that will wake him.

Cursed princes are nothing but ancient history to Fi–until she pricks her finger on a bone spindle while exploring a long-lost ruin. Now she’s stuck with the spirit of Briar Rose until she and Shane can break the century-old curse on his kingdom.

Dark magic, Witch Hunters, and bad exes all stand in her way–not to mention a mysterious witch who might wind up stealing Shane’s heart, along with whatever else she’s after. But nothing scares Fi more than the possibility of falling in love with Briar Rose.

Set in a lush world inspired by beloved fairytales, The Bone Spindle is a fast-paced young adult fantasy full of adventure, romance, found family, and snark. 

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Review

The Bone Spindle promises an exciting adventure that’s half fairy tale, half treasure hunt, with multiple points of view and romance thrown in for all. The book is ambitious in its premise and its writing, and while I don’t think it always reached the heights it was aiming for, the overall product was an enjoyable read.

The opening of the book did not catch my attention. I wasn’t invested in either Shane or Fi as characters, and I often felt as if I were being told things about their characters rather than seeing them. Shane is a great warrior with a reputation, a “huntsman for hire,” though I never figured out what was supposed to make her a “huntsman,” exactly. Fi is a historian/treasure hunter with a mysterious past that’s haunting her. However, being told Shane is force to be reckoned with or told that Fi is brilliant is different from believing it, and it took me a while to warm up to them as characters. There is a lot of information and world building that needs to be shared. I admit I felt mildly bored by the whole thing, and I was wondering what I had gotten myself into.

For me, the book really picks up with the introduction of Briar Rose. Although he’s under a sleeping spell, he’s often the most alive. I loved seeing the world through his eyes, his excitement about the quest and finally waking up and freeing his people, his pure belief that Fi and he are meant to be. He’s so in love with living that one can’t help be drawn in and think everything is beautiful and amazing, too, even when the characters are down on their luck or in danger. His adoration of Fi even convinced me she’s at least somewhat interesting as a character. I would read a whole book from his POV alone and enjoy it.

The plot also picks up once this “main quest” of breaking the curse picks up. I do think there are times the book reads the way I am plotting my own WIP, which is that whenever I get bored of writing the story I make something crazy and exciting happen, and the characters seem to get into quite a lot of sudden scrapes. But erring on the side of wild things happening every 50 pages is perhaps better than making nothing happen at all, and some of the scenes are quite entertaining. I do wish, however, that more of these obstacles and pitfalls were related to the main villain. The characters are constantly building up the villain who is going to stop them, who is going to put their entire quest in question, who is going to kill them before they get to end the curse . . . and I spent most of the book waiting for this person to bother making an appearance. It’s quite a letdown.

So, I found the story had a lot of highs and lows. Unfortunately, I didn’t like it as much as I was hoping, especially as I love YA fantasy and fairy tale retellings and lots of the elements that went into this book. However, there were times I gasped or laughed or wondered what would happen next, and the overall experience was positive. I do think I’m interested in reading the sequel, which is always a good sign.

Briana
3 Stars

Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales by Soman Chainani (Spoilers)

Beasts and Beauty

Information

Goodreads: Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales
Series: None
Age Category: Marketed as Middle Grade; More Suitable as YA
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

You think you know these stories, don’t you?

You are wrong.

You don’t know them at all.

Twelve tales, twelve dangerous tales of mystery, magic, and rebellious hearts. Each twists like a spindle to reveal truths full of warning and triumph, truths that capture hearts long kept tame and set them free, truths that explore life . . . and death.

A prince has a surprising awakening . . .                           

A beauty fights like a beast . . .

A boy refuses to become prey . . .

A path to happiness is lost. . . . then found again.

New York Times bestselling author Soman Chainani respins old stories into fresh fairy tales for a new era and creates a world like no other. These stories know you. They understand you. They reflect you. They are tales for our times. So read on, if you dare.

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Review

Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales promises readers that these are stories “for a new era” and that they “understand you” and “reflect you.” The question while reading, however, is whether making the characters diverse and gender swapping some of the characters is enough to make them fully new. In many of the stories, negative gender stereotypes against women remain. And in many of the stories, there is no modernized “enlightened” moral. Rather, the “heroes” in several of the tales become the villains. It is unclear whether readers are supposed to cheer them on for taking on the role of their enemies– or not.

Ultimately, the book does a wonderful job in being dark, gritty, and somewhat depressing. Virtue does not really triumph over evil in this volume because none of the characters are that virtuous to begin with. And most of the endings are more bitter than sweet, with princesses finding themselves unloved by their husbands and many of the fairy tale characters getting divorced. Presumably this makes the stories more realistic. But most people do not read fairy tales for the realism.

Further, the content of the book really veers more towards adult or YA fiction, making this a really odd choice for the middle grade audience. Yes, tales such as “Bluebeard” have always had violence in them. But it does seem like the stories are crossing some sort of invisible line here over from MG to YA when there are (positive? neutral?) depictions of cannibalism, “happy” endings with the prince marrying two girls at once, and a lot of uncomfortable sexual overtones throughout the book. Usually this type of content is considered mature, and I am not sure what to make of a publisher marketing this content to educators, parents, and children who are likely unaware that it is in this book. Frankly, it does feel like a violation of trust because many people use age categories to find content that is developmentally appropriate for children–and this, by most people’s standards, is not probably not for the average 8-12 year old.

Below, I give my thoughts on a few of the selections from the book. To fully review the tales, however, I do spoil the endings and as well as any notable deviations from the original stories. Read on only if you do not mind being spoiled!

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“Bluebeard”

Not too original for a retelling. Instead of marrying and murdering girls, the titular character buys orphan boys. It’s unclear exactly what he does with them, but there does seem to be a creepy sexual undertone to this story, as with many. The story is not too remarkable, however, since the main feature is the gender swap.

“Cinderella”

I admit I had no idea what to make of this one. The original twist is that Prince Charming actually fell in love with a different girl–not Cinderella–who ends up being turned into a mouse by a witch. Now the mouse lives with Cinderella and is using Cinderella (by lying to her) in order to get into the castle for the ball. The mouse has a lot to say about the evil stepsisters, in a way that links their evilness with their ugliness. There is no clear messaging that this is wrong or that the mouse is just nasty and jealous, and probably should not be criticizing other women about their looks the way she does.

Normally, I would suggest that a book does not need a clear moral message from the narrator, but this is a fairy tale. More than that, it is a retold fairy tale in a book touting how wonderful it is that we have these updated stories that are presumably supposed to align with contemporary values. So why the woman-on-woman hate?

Additionally, the ending was unusual, to say the least. The prince ends up marrying both Cinderella and the other girl (yes, bigamy). I have to admit that I was not aware that this is something most contemporary readers would celebrate as a happy and appropriate ending.

“Hansel and Gretel”

The big twist here is that, instead of the witch trying to eat Hansel and Gretel, Hansel and Gretel team up with the witch to (apparently) eat their evil stepmother. Usually fairy tales try to have morals about how being virtuous will bring good things to a person. Are Hansel and Gretel actually the good characters here, though? Why do they get a happy ending for engaging in cannibalism? Is the point of this story something about how darkness is within us all and no one is really that good? Is that the modern twist–a belief that the world holds no light? Or are readers supposed to cheer on Hansel and Gretel for becoming like the witch readers are used to hating because, you know, killing and eating people is wrong? It’s all very unclear, but neither option seems like a good one.

“Jack and the Beanstalk”

This retelling shows how ineffective merely writing a gender-swapped ogre is in any attempt to make old stories feel less sexist. Negative gender stereotypes about women still abound here. They have, in fact, been added to the story! The ogre becomes a female who henpecks her husband. Jack’s mother, meanwhile, is understandably stressed and bitter because she married a lazy man who squandered all their wealth, and then got himself killed, and now her son seems to be following in his dad’s footsteps. Somehow, however, Jack’s mother becomes the villain because Jack thinks she’s a nag. So evidently she needs to suffer so that Jack can go and be happy with a new family. Ouch.

“The Little Mermaid”

This one is one of the less imaginative retellings, largely because it is not really a story. It reads like a Tumblr-esque critique of the Disney film, with the sea witch merely running a monologue about how silly and shallow the little mermaid has to be in order to give up everything for a guy she has never even spoken to. I imagine most readers will not be particularly impressed by this one.

“Peter Pan”

This is possibly the highlight of the collection. It is told by an older Wendy, who recounts her early adventures in Neverland, and then her growing understanding of how vile Peter Pan really is. She ends up falling in love with a pirate instead. The one aspect I really didn’t like was that Wendy marries someone, but has a years-long affair with the pirate. And I guess readers are supposed to be okay with that because her husband is boring. But being boring is hardly wrong. Why are readers supposed to be disdainful of anyone who does not want to engage in deadly adventures? I so wish that the husband had been fortunate enough to marry a boring woman who would have loved him.

“Sleeping Beauty”

I was not sure what to make of this one, either. It begins with the prince waking up every morning with bleeding wounds, and he worries that he is being attacked by a demon. It seems clear that this is supposed to be a metaphor for his being gay. However, he attacks the boy who has been attacking him at night, then ends up marrying a countess. But he now he is not happy, so he locks himself in a tower, so the boy can return to…hurt him?…every night? This does make him happy. His wife gets upset that her husband has locked himself in a tower, but readers aren’t supposed to worry about her too much because she’s a gold digger (ahem, sexist stereotype!) so she deserves what she gets.

I don’t understand the link between violence and pleasure here. Also, if the wounds are supposed to be some uncomfortable metaphor for sex, like in vampire lore or something, does that mean the the prince was being raped…and then decided later to become lovers with his rapist?? Because, remember, initially the night attacks were unsolicited and not consensual. They hurt the prince and worried him. How is this an appropriate story for anyone, let alone children?

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Conclusion

Ultimately, I was not overly impressed with the collection. The originality of each tale varies a lot and often the author seems to rely on a gender swap alone to make a story “new,” but without removing gendered stereotypes. The content, too, is too mature for a middle-grade book. I imagine most 8-12 year olds are not developmentally ready to read a book where cannibalism is depicted as either a neutral or a laudable act, and certainly not ready for one where sex is equated with violence and where apparent rape is depicted as the prelude to romance. This is not what children should be learning about sexuality when they are at an impressionable age. That these stories are specifically marketed as updated to reflect contemporary values and sensibilities only makes many of the narrative choices stranger because it implies that readers should take the stories at face value.

Maybe read this one if you like dark tales where no one is the hero and everyone is the villain. But go in knowing that the content here is mature and that the book is not what most would typically call a middle-grade read.

2 star review

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim

Information

Goodreads: Six Crimson Cranes
Series: Six Crimson Cranes #1
Source: Purchased
Published: July 6, 2021

Official Summary

Shiori, the only princess of Kiata, has a secret. Forbidden magic runs through her veins. Normally she conceals it well, but on the morning of her betrothal ceremony, Shiori loses control. At first, her mistake seems like a stroke of luck, forestalling the wedding she never wanted, but it also catches the attention of Raikama, her stepmother.

Raikama has dark magic of her own, and she banishes the young princess, turning her brothers into cranes, and warning Shiori that she must speak of it to no one: for with every word that escapes her lips, one of her brothers will die.

Penniless, voiceless, and alone, Shiori searches for her brothers, and, on her journey, uncovers a conspiracy to overtake the throne—a conspiracy more twisted and deceitful, more cunning and complex, than even Raikama’s betrayal. Only Shiori can set the kingdom to rights, but to do so she must place her trust in the very boy she fought so hard not to marry. And she must embrace the magic she’s been taught all her life to contain—no matter what it costs her. 

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Review

Six Crimson Cranes is an imaginative, immersive fairy tale retelling that focuses on family and friendship and finding oneself through hard work and sacrifice. Readers will fall in love with protagonist Shiori as she fights to free herself and her brothers from a curse, before their kingdom falls to usurpers.

The opening of the story felt a bit shaky to me, as I (and many of the characters) couldn’t quite comprehend why literally running away from her betrothal ceremony seems a reasonable thing to do to Shiori. (Not run away as in escape and live a life disguised as a nicely unmarried peasant, as some characters do but just . . . vaguely run off to the palace grounds.) But things pick up as Shiori has to live with the consequences of that decision and navigate learning more magic in a land where it is forbidden. Readers get to see Shiori established in her life at the palace before the curse kicks in, which grounds the book and helps readers see why she is so fond of her brothers and determined to bring them all safely home.

The real adventure begins with the curse, however, and I enjoyed seeing a range of Kiata’s geography as Shiori travels and looks for ways to put her life back to rights I also enjoyed seeing her transformation from a princess who was spirited but admittedly had little “real life” experience into someone willing to put in hard work and consider other people’s points of views.

However, the story has some of the same flaws as Lim’s other work, which is that the plot starts off at a steady pace, only to rocket off at the end of the book, where a ton of new events happen at once and new problems are introduced, all while the author is still trying to more or less wrap everything up. (Though there will be a sequel to this book.) This could be exciting, but mainly I found it confused, and I’d like to see more even pacing throughout the entirety of the story.

The book also has ties with Lim’s previous duology, as readers see enchanters, demons, and other pieces of magic introduced in Spin the Dawn and Unravel the Dusk, though no knowledge of these books is necessary to read Six Crimson Cranes.

Overall, the book is exciting and fun and a little bit romantic. If you like fairy tale retellings, this is definitely one to pick up.

Briana
4 stars

What YA Fairy Tale Retelling Should You Read? (Flow Chart)

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*Click the title to read a full review.


Valiant by Sarah McGuire

Saville hates sewing. How can she not when her father, the Tailor, loves his bolts of velvet and silk far more than he’s ever loved her? Yet, when he is struck ill shortly after they arrive in the city of Reggen, Saville must don boy’s clothes in the hopes of gaining a commission from the king to keep them fed. The kingdom is soon on edge when stories spread of an army of giants led by a man who cannot be killed. But giants are just stories, and no man is immortal. And then the giants do come to the city gates, two larger-than-life scouts whom Saville cunningly tricks into leaving. The Tailor of Reggen is the hero of the kingdom, the king promises his sister’s hand in marriage, and by the time Saville reaches the palace doors, it is widely known that the Tailor single-handedly killed the giants. When her secret—that she’s a girl—is quickly discovered by Lord Galen Verras, the king’s cousin, Saville’s swept into the twists and turns of court politics. The deathless man is very real, and he will use his giant army to ensure he is given the throne freely or by force. Now, only a tailor girl with courage and cunning can see beyond the tales to discover the truth and save the kingdom again. Valiant is a rich reimaging of “The Brave Little Tailor,” artfully crafting a story of understanding, identity, and fighting to protect those you love most.

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Fairest by Marissa Meyer

In this stunning bridge book between Cress and Winter in the bestselling Lunar Chronicles, Queen Levana’s story is finally told.

Mirror, mirror on the wall,
Who is the fairest of them all?

Fans of the Lunar Chronicles know Queen Levana as a ruler who uses her “glamour” to gain power. But long before she crossed paths with Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress, Levana lived a very different story – a story that has never been told . . . until now.

Marissa Meyer spins yet another unforgettable tale about love and war, deceit and death. This extraordinary book includes full-color art and an excerpt from Winter, the next book in the Lunar Chronicles series.

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Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Isabelle should be blissfully happy – she’s about to win the handsome prince. Except Isabelle isn’t the beautiful girl who lost the glass slipper and captured the prince’s heart. She’s the ugly stepsister who’s cut off her toes to fit into Cinderella’s shoe … which is now filling with blood.

When the prince discovers Isabelle’s deception, she is turned away in shame. It’s no more than she deserves: she is a plain girl in a world that values beauty; a feisty girl in a world that wants her to be pliant.

Isabelle has tried to fit in. To live up to her mother’s expectations. To be like her stepsister. To be sweet. To be pretty. One by one, she has cut away pieces of herself in order to survive a world that doesn’t appreciate a girl like her. And that has made her mean, jealous, and hollow.

Until she gets a chance to alter her destiny and prove what ugly stepsisters have always known: it takes more than heartache to break a girl.

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Geekerella by Ashley Poston

Geek girl Elle Wittimer lives and breathes Starfield, the classic science-fiction series she grew up watching with her late father. So when she sees a cosplay contest for a new Starfield movie, she has to enter. The prize? An invitation to the ExcelsiCon Cosplay Ball and a meet-and-greet with the actor slated to play Federation Prince Carmindor in the reboot. With savings from her gig at the Magic Pumpkin food truck and her dad’s old costume, Elle’s determined to win – unless her stepsisters get there first.

Teen actor Darien Freeman used to live for cons – before he was famous. Now they’re nothing but autographs and awkward meet-and-greets. Playing Carmindor is all he has ever wanted, but Starfield fandom has written him off as just another dumb heartthrob. As ExcelsiCon draws near, Darien feels more and more like a fake – until he meets a girl who shows him otherwise. But when she disappears at midnight, will he ever be able to find her again?

Part-romance, part-love letter to nerd culture, and all totally adorbs, Geekerella is a fairy tale for anyone who believes in the magic of fandom.

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Thorn by Intisar Khanani

A princess with two futures. A destiny all her own

Between her cruel family and the contempt she faces at court, Princess Alyrra has always longed to escape the confines of her royal life. But when she’s betrothed to the powerful prince Kestrin, Alyrra embarks on a journey to his land with little hope for a better future.

When a mysterious and terrifying sorceress robs Alyrra of both her identity and her role as princess, Alyrra seizes the opportunity to start a new life for herself as a goose girl.

But Alyrra soon finds that Kestrin is not what she expected. The more Alyrra learns of this new kingdom, the pain and suffering its people endure, as well as the danger facing Kestrin from the sorceress herself, the more she knows she can’t remain the goose girl forever.

With the fate of the kingdom at stake, Alyrra is caught between two worlds and ultimately must decide who she is, and what she stands for.

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Blanca y Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore

The biggest lie of all is the story you think you already know.

The del Cisne girls have never just been sisters; they’re also rivals, Blanca as obedient and graceful as Roja is vicious and manipulative. They know that, because of a generations-old spell, their family is bound to a bevy of swans deep in the woods. They know that, one day, the swans will pull them into a dangerous game that will leave one of them a girl, and trap the other in the body of a swan.

But when two local boys become drawn into the game, the swans’ spell intertwines with the strange and unpredictable magic lacing the woods, and all four of their fates depend on facing truths that could either save or destroy them. Blanca & Roja is the captivating story of sisters, friendship, love, hatred, and the price we pay to protect our hearts.

Cinderella Is Dead by Kaylnn Bayron

Cinderella Is Dead by Kaylnn Bayron

Information

Goodreads: Cinderella Is Dead
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

200 years ago, Cinderella married Prince Charming. Now, in her honor, the young maidens of the kingdom must appear each year at the king’s ball, where the men will choose their brides. Those who are not chosen are sentenced to a labor camp. Sixteen-year-old Sophia must attend this year, but she would rather marry her best friend Erin. So, she makes a desperate attempt escape, finding Cinderella’s last descendant in the process. Could it be that the fairy tale they have all been told was never true? This feminist retelling encourages readers to smash the patriarchy and choose their own destiny.

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Review

Feminist fairy tales are rather in vogue right now, and Cinderella Is Dead proudly joins their ranks as it presents readers with a world where young women are seen by men as goods they can choose and abuse at will. The story’s darkness is also rather on trend as it becomes immediately apparent that society as a whole has chosen to look the other way as the king encourages the men of his country to select wives like wares at a market, marry them, beat them, and then dispose of them when they want a younger bride. Women are also being forced into labor camps, or sold secretly as apparent sex slaves. The book is not for the faint of heart. Those look for an edgy, feminist fairy tale with a twist, however, will adore Cinderella Is Dead, despite its share of common YA weaknesses.

Admittedly, a story line focused primarily on how awful men are can start to feel a bit oppressive, and, frankly, a bit unfair. The protagonist (Sophia) and her love interest repeatedly emphasize how there are really no good men because even the few who are not horrible wife beaters and murderers do nothing to stop the king and his followers. Sophia’s father, for instance, is presented as decent to his wife and daughter, but, when it comes down to it, he will not support Sophia’s desire to defy the king and run away, because he fears what the king could do to him and to his wife as a result. Sophia has little sympathy for her parents’ fear of being tortured and executed, and ultimately dismisses her father as a weak coward who cannot be a good man because of his apathy. Pretty much every single man in the book is presented either as evil incarnate or guilty by association. It’s a pretty extreme view that may alienate some readers, even if they do want to fight the patriarchy.

If readers do not mind this portrayal, however, the book has plenty of action, romance, and mystery to keep them engaged. Basically, Sophia needs to figure out the truth of the Cinderella story, not the propaganda the crown puts out in order to keep women subservient. This will allow her to identify the king’s weakness and put an end to his rule. It is a bit unbelievable that an untrained girl has plans to end the monarchy in a few days’ time with zero training and no plan, especially when others have tried before her for the past 200 years, but this is a pretty standard plot line in YA fantasy, so I imagine plenty of readers will find no fault here.

Another issue I had with the book is how quickly Sophia turns from being in love with (and wanting to marry) her childhood friend Erin, and desiring to be with her new flame. One look is all it takes for her heart to change sides. Instalove is pretty common in YA books, and I think Cinderella Is Dead is just engaging in a trope many readers clearly find enjoyable–or at least not objectionable enough for them to stop buying books. For myself, however, I wish the romance had had more of a lead-up. It is particularly difficult to sell instalove when you begin a book with the protagonist in love with someone entirely different!

Still, the weaknesses I see inn Cinderella Is Dead are really common in YA books, and many readers do not mind them at all. While they do prevent me from finding the book to be a five star read, I think it has enough originality and fast-paced action to be enjoyable. Readers who enjoy YA fairy tale retellings will want to give this one a try.

3 Stars

Poisoned by Jennifer Donnelly (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: Poisoned
Series: None
Source: ARC from Edelweiss
Published: October 20, 2020

Summary

Princess Sophie has always known that her stepmother the queen, as well the court, thought her too weak, too kind to rule. But she never thought that her stepmother would actually try to have her killed. Rescued by seven brothers in an enchanted wood, Sophie is safe, for now. However, her heart has been stolen and, if she wants to live, Sophie will have to get it back. Does she have the courage to dare the impossible?

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Review

Jennifer Donnelly follows up Stepsister with another feminist retelling, this time of “Snow White.” Sophie is the heir to the throne, but her stepmother the queen believes her kindness will endanger the country. Fearing that Sophie is a threat to her, the queen orders her killed. To reclaim what is hers, Sophie will need to stop listening to the voices that tell her she is not good enough, not smart enough, not strong enough. She will have to find her own power, and learn that kindness is far from a weakness. Poisoned reimagines “Snow White” as a vibrant call to resist the patriarchy, reclaim kindness, and find true strength in one’s self.

Donnelly begins her story with a note briefly explaining its inspiration and purpose. She wishes to empower readers who may feel “less than” because of what society or social media tells them. Poisoned thus risks feeling a little didactic; Donnelly has told us the moral from the start. However, she deftly sidesteps this issue by purposefully embracing the fairy tale as moral. Her work is peopled with allegorical figures. It is told by an omniscient narrator, whose credentials are that he has done the wrong thing and died for it. It repeatedly tells readers its message, over and over again–strength lies within and cannot be conferred or taken away by anyone else’s words. And it works.

Part of my issue with Donnelly’s previous retelling, Stepsister, is that the speeches coming from the characters feel a little forced. Men do not have to go around explicitly announcing that women must be kept in their place lest they grow too powerful. The patriarchy is usually more insidious, and more subtle. And therefore far more dangerous. Poisoned removes this issue by having the omniscient narrator describe the evils of the patriarchy, the poison of treacherous words. No more over-the-top speeches by the characters themselves. It works because the fairy tale has always taught a message–the woods are a dark and dangerous place, but you can come out on the other side, if you are bright and bold.

The plotline itself is extremely engaging and action-packed. Donnelly clearly delights in having her characters face a myriad of monsters and other dangers as they travel, so readers never need fear getting bored. And Sophie is a delightful protagonist. Kind, yes, but not unrealistically or annoyingly sugary. She simply wants to do the right thing, even if she is not always sure what to do or confident enough to do it. But she has enough spunk to her that readers can easily believe that she can grow and change.

Poisoned will appeal to any readers who love retold fairy tales, especially ones that go beyond the original to create a wholly new world with its own rules, settings, and politics. It blends fast-paced action with reflection, creating a YA novel that feels like a true homage to a beloved story. If you are a fan of “Snow White,” a lover of YA fantasy, or simply a reader looking for the next engrossing story, Poisoned has plenty to offer.

5 stars

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King by Ben Hatke

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King Boo Cover

Information

Goodreads: Mighty Jack and the Goblin King
Series: Mighty Jack #2
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Summary

Maddy has been taken by a giant! Now it is up to Jack and Lilly to save her. But, when the two get separated, Jack will have to figure out how to complete his mission on his own.

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Review

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King by Ben Hatke jumps right into the adventure where book one left off. Jack and Lilly journey across worlds to find Maddy and save her from the clutches of a giant. Along the way, they meet new allies and face new enemies. This action-packed read is sure to thrill readers who love fantasy adventures.

What I love most about the Mighty Jack series is perhaps how classic the books feel. They remind me of curling up on a summer day to read tales of heroes and monsters. They pay homage to fairy tale and fantasy tropes, while creating an original adventure. This is the kind of read that you wish would last just a little bit longer, always just a little bit longer.

My one critique is that Lilly remains a far more interesting–and capable–character than Jack, the titular hero. While Jack is off rushing headlong into fights, and failing to achieve much as a result, Lilly likes to step back, assess the situation, and create a workable plan. She ends up saving Jack more often than not. She also proves to have the true heart of a hero, demonstrating self-sacrificial love in moments when Jack remains focused on his own mission. Truly, the series ought to be named “Incredible Lilly and That Guy She Keeps Saving.”

If you can get past the feeling that the series has been inaccurately named for an incapable male instead of his amazing female friend, the Mighty Jack series is truly enchanting. It contains all the wonderful fantasy elements one could want, from goblins and dragons to magical portals to other worlds. If you enjoy stories like Narnia or King Arthur or fairy tales, the Mighty Jack series might just be for you.

4 stars

Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke

Mighty Jack Cover

Information

Goodreads: Mighty Jack
Series: Mighty Jack #1
Source: Library
Published: 2016

Summary

Jack is not looking forward to an exciting summer. His mom is working two jobs and he will have to stay home to care for his sister Maddy, who never talks. Then, one day, Maddy and Jack trade their mother’s car for a box of seeds. Jack has never seen Maddy so enthusiastic. But the garden they grow is magical–and dangerous. Do they have the courage and the strength to face the garden?

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Review

Mighty Jack is a graphic novel I have seen around for years, but I never felt very interested in reading it. I have read Ben Hatke’s Zita the Spacegirl and was not totally in love, as many reviewers seem to be. However, Mighty Jack was available when I was searching for something new, so I decided to give it a chance. I am so glad I did.

Mighty Jack, in many ways, serves mainly as an introduction to what clearly is conceived of as a grander, world-crossing adventure. Jack is stuck at home during the summer so he can watch his sister Maddy while their mom works. He is not initially thrilled about it, but, when they plant some seeds that turn out to to be magical, things get a lot more exciting. The bulk of the book is Jack, Maddy, and their new friend Lilly–a badass, sword-wielding girl who lives down the way–trying to figure out what their new plants do and whether they are life-threatening or just slightly dangerous. Readers will be just as intrigued to see each new seed sprout.

The book is fast-paced and engrossing, even if the world-hopping has not yet begun. It is fun to watch Jack grow in strength and confidence as he faces down each new challenge, always goaded on Lilly who, admittedly, comes off as a bit more heroic than Jack, or at least more skilled. She is the one who can wield a sword and shoot an arrow. She is the one always ready for a new adventure. She is the one who has a real interest in the plants and what they can do. This can be a little awkward, since, at times, one wonders if Lilly should not really be the titular character, rather than Jack. But their friendship is sweet, and Lilly helps draw out the best parts of Jack.

Mighty Jack feels likes some solid childhood fun, with all the adventures of a lazy summer daydream come to life and rolled into one action-packed story. Anyone who has ever dreamed of wielding a sword, finding a magical world, or speaking with a dragon will be enchanted with Ben Hatke’s graphic novel. It feels like a classic adventure. And, thankfully, it’s only the start.

4 stars

House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig

House of Salt and Sorrows  Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: House of Salt and Sorrows
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2019

Summary

Annaleigh lives with her sisters in Highmoor Manor, a house by the sea. Once there were twelve of them, but four of her sisters are already dead, and Annaleigh is beginning to think that is no accident. Each night, she and her sisters sneak out to attend glittering balls. But who–or what–are they really dancing with? Now Annaleigh must place her trust in a mysterious and handsome stranger if she is to break the curse that haunts her family.

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Review

House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig is a darkly atmospheric retelling of the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” Annaleigh and her eleven sisters live in a manor by the sea, but now four of them are dead. At first, the deaths seemed like accidents, but the locals are murmuring of a curse, and Annaleigh is beginning to suspect murder. When another of her sisters begins claiming that she can see and speak with the ghosts of their dead siblings, Annaleigh must discover the truth before someone else gets hurt. House of Salt and Sorrows is a refreshingly original take on an old tale–one that will have readers afraid to go to sleep at night.

“The Twelve Dancing Princesses” has seen its share of retellings, but I am not sure I have yet read one that embraces the horror genre so strongly. Upon reflection, however, horror is the perfect genre for this story. Twelve girls go dancing at night in a mysterious underground world populated by–what? Monsters? Demons? Certainly someone out to get them. Amping up the terror by adding ghosts seemingly intent on revenge simply makes sense. Readers who enjoy creepy tales will not be disappointed by this one.

Admittedly, however, though I enjoyed the scary aspects of the book, I did find that the allure of the unexplained dissipated rather quickly as the book neared its conclusion. Perhaps this is inevitable. The protagonists need to uncover information related to the mystery in order to solve it. But more information means less fascination–once you know what the ghost is, it will never be as frightening. To compensate for this loss, Craig adds a great deal of action and drama. But I would have preferred more atmospheric creepiness to the fast-paced conclusion.

I was also somewhat disappointed by the book’s romance. Annaleigh spends very little time with her love interest, making it difficult to buy into their relationship. She knows next to nothing about him–about what kind of person he is, what values he holds, what future he envisions. As a result, I could not feel very excited about his appearances, nor could I really believe that Annaleigh and he shared some sort of earth-shattering romance that could defy the fates themselves. He was really just kind of…around. Honestly, I can’t even remember his name.

Still, despite a few weaknesses, House of Salt and Sorrows is a satisfying YA fantasy. Fans of fairy tale retellings will likely want to pick it up. It may not be life-changing, but it is solid and enjoyable.

3 Stars

20 YA Books Based on Fairy Tales

YA Books Based on Fairy Tales

Mechanica by Betsy Cornwall

Mechanica’s stepsisters gave her the nickname out of spite, but, as an inventor, Mechanica rather thinks it fits. Still, she’s ready to escape from the family that hates her. Could a technological exposition be her chance at freedom? A charming spin on the “Cinderella” tale with well-developed characters.

House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig

Annaleigh and her sisters live at Highmoor, a manor by the sea. There used to be twelve of them, but four have mysteriously died. The village thinks the family is cursed. But could the deaths have something to do with the balls her sisters attend each night? A retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”

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Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

Eighteen-year-old Xifeng has been promised she will grow up to be Empress–but only if she rejects the man who loves her and accepts the dark magic within her. That magic demands to be fed with the hearts of the recently killed. Is Xifeng ready to pay the ultimate price to gain the throne?

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Entwined by Heather Dixon

Entwined

After the death of their mother, Princess Azalea and her eleven sisters find themselves confined to the castle in mourning, forbidden even to visit the gardens.  Their father in his grief begins to ignore them, leaving the girls even more desolate.  When they find a secret passageway to an underground world, they grasp the opportunity to dance there each night, forgetting their troubles.  There in the darkness, however, lurks a man known as the Keeper, who longs for the power to free himself and visit the land above.  The princesses soon realize they have placed themselves in extreme danger, but, unless they can learn to forgive their father and place their trust in him again, everything may be lost.  A retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”

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Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Isabelle has never been able to please her mother. She’s too wild. Too ugly. Too opinionated. That hasn’t kept her from trying, though. She’ll cut off her own toes to try to make her mother happy. But the prince isn’t fooled. As blood pools in Cindererlla’s glass slipper, Isabelle is sent away in disgrace. Then chance gives her the opportunity to change her fate, to reclaim the pieces of her heart she’s lost. Isabelle yearns to try. But maybe she’s too bitter and broken to get her own happily-ever-after. A standout feminist fairy tale retelling featuring a bold heroine and an imaginative world.

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The Seafarer’s Kiss by Julia Ember

Seafarer's Kiss

When the mermaid Ersel rescues a shieldmaiden named Ragna, she is given a choice: bid farewell to Ragna or face justice at the hands of the king. In desperation, Ersel asks for help from Loki. But if she ever wants to be with Ragna, she will now have to outwit the God of Lies.

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Princess of Glass by Jessica Day George

A companion book to Princess of the Midnight Ball, this reads as a mixture of fantasy, romance, and mystery.  The protagonist Princess Poppy is not the Cinderella figure, but, rather, the one who takes it upon herself to discover where a serving girl has suddenly been acquiring fancy new clothes.  This gives the story a unique spin other retellings lack.

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Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

Princess of the Midnight Ball

Rose and her sisters are cursed each night to dance for the King Under Stone. Can Rose save her sisters with the help of Galen, a soldier newly returned from the war? An original retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” featuring a knitting hero! Book one in the Princess series.

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Princess of the Silver Woods by Jessica Day George

A decade has passed since Petunia and her sisters defeated the King Under Stone with the help of a young soldier. The bonds keeping the evil king’s sons imprisoned, however, are breaking. Oliver, a dispossessed noble and sometime bandit, wants desperately to protect Petunia from harm. But webs of magic and treachery lie all around and even true love may not prove strong enough to break them. A retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” (with a dash of Robin Hood). Book three in Jessica Day George’s Princess series.

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A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

A Curse So Dark and Lonely

Prince Rhen is cursed to relive his eighteenth year over and over again until a girl falls in love with him.  Unfortunately, they never do–not when they see the beast he becomes.  Then Harper, a girl from D.C. enters his world and, suddenly, Rhen thinks he might have a chance.  But war approaches his borders and Harper fears for the family she left behind.  Can Rhen save both his kingdom and his heart? A gripping retelling that goes beyond the romance to tell a story about political machinations and impending war.  Readers who enjoy high fantasy and war stories will delight in this expanded version of an old story. The first in a series.

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Spinning Starlight by R. C. Lewis

Liddi Jantzen is the heiress to the most influential tech company in the Seven Points; she only wishes she were as clever at inventing tech as her older brothers are, so she can earn the role. But when all of her brothers go missing at the same time, trapped in the conduits between the seven planets, it is up to her–the girl with the “checked genes”–to find a way to save them. The final catch: the person who imprisoned them placed a vocal imprint in Liddi’s throat and if she speaks about the plan to anyone, her whole family will die. A retelling of “The Wild Swans.”

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So This Is Love by Elizabeth Lim

So This Is Love by Elizabeth Lim

In this retelling of the Disney movie, Cinderella never tries on the glass slipper. Never taken to the palace as the missing princess, she instead finds work there as a seamstress. But then she gains knowledge of a conspiracy against the kingdom. Can Cinderella stop the plot before it is too late? A fun and entertaining read for fans of the original film.

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Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Maia Tamarin has longed dreamed of becoming the tailor to the emperor. Unfortunately, the position is not open to women. But then emperor calls her father to court and Maia, seeing her chance, disguises herself as her brother and goes in his stead. There she enters a competition to please the emperor’s newly betrothed and become the court tailor. But she never reckoned on being assigned an impossible task or on falling in love with an enchanter. An enjoyable fairy tale with a classic feel.

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Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore

The del Cisne sisters are cursed. One day the swans will take one of them, transforming them into a swan, and leave the other behind. But their fate becomes even more complicated when two boys become involved.

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Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore

It is 1518. When women in Strasbourg begin to dance in the street until they fall dead, people look to Lavinia and her family. Are they witches? Five hundred years later, Rosella Oliva has a pair of red shoes attach to her feet, making her dance uncontrollably. She will have to look to the past if she wants to save her life.

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Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Echo North

Scarred by a wolf when she is seven years old, Echo Alkaev leads a lonely existence, shunned by the villagers who think she is cursed. Years later, she meets the wolf again and he strikes a bargain: he will save her father’s life is she agrees to live with him for one year. In his house under the mountain, Echo finds an enchanted library and begins to fall in love with Hal, who seems trapped in the books. But an evil force is growing and the wolf, Echo, and Hal will all be lost at the end of the year, unless Echo can find a way to break the curse. This enchanting fantasy blends elements from “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Tam Lin.”  Readers who love retellings with a classic feel will fall in love with Echo North, which captures the elusive spirit of Faerie.

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Rogue Princess by B. R. Myers

Rogue Princess

Princess Delia steals a spaceship to avoid an arranged marriage. When she discovers a stowaway, however, the two will have to join forces to defeat a rebel plot. A gender-swapped sci-fi retelling of “Cinderella.”

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Geekerella by Ashley Poston

Geekerella

In this modern retelling of “Cinderella,” Elle is a geek girl who meets her prince at a con. This is a cute read meant primarily to be fun, though the book also raises questions about geek culture and what it means to be a “real” fan. A lively retelling perfect for readers looking for something sweet and charming.

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Nameless by Lili St. Crow

Found in the snow at six years of age and adopted by a powerful branch of the Family, Camille has no memory of her past. She only knows that she is human, not a true member of the Family, even if they treat her as one of their own. And her past is about to catch up with her. Nameless puts an original spin on the story of “Snow White”, replacing the dwarfs with branches of a powerful Mafia-like family and shrouding the past of the protagonist in shadow.  The result is a compelling paranormal romance set in an alternate universe where magic entered history sometime after the Industrial Revolution.  

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Wayfarer by Lili St. Crow

Wayfarer

Ellie Sindar is a powerful charmer, but her stepmother abuses her, forcing her to use her spells for stepmother’s gain. But when handsome Avery arrives at her school, Ellie begins to dream of a future romance. Unfortunately, however, her stepmother has dark plans in mind–and Ellie’s soul may be the price.