Valiant by Sarah McGuire (ARC Review)


Goodreads: Valiant
Series: None
Source: Netgalley
Publication Date: April 28, 2015

Official Summary

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.


Valiant is a compelling fairy tale retelling, based on an original tale and featuring a strong female protagonist.  The story follows teenage Saville as she struggles to make her way independently in a new town and as she inadvertently becomes the kingdom’s champion while trying to help a friend.  Events quickly escalate as the people make further demands on her heroism and she becomes embroiled in both politics and battle.

As a take on “The Valiant Little Tailor,” Valiant stands out among YA fairy tale retelllings.  It does not rely on pure novelty, however, but fully takes advantage of its source material, crafting a female protagonist who is as loyal and brave as she is clever.  Many readers will doubtless fall in love with Saville as she tries her best to save her friends and the kingdom she quickly learns to call her home.  A bit of vulnerability and a stubborn streak round her out and make her realistic. The entire cast of characters is drawn with equal attention to complexity.

Of course, the love interest is alluring: bull-headed himself but tempered with kindness and wisdom.  He and Saville play off each other well and build true chemistry.  Saville also makes a number of unlikely friends, and they all exhibit a blend of personality traits.  No one in Valiant is at first what they seem—which may be entirely the point. The plot they all play out is equally entertaining.

There are several moments that are not entirely logical—times Saville chooses to spill vital information, ways she solves problems, etc.—but she gets a pass for being a teen without all the answers.  Also, character mistakes make for interesting action.  Only the first part of the story is heavily based on “The Valiant Little Tailor,” when the tailor tricks a group of giants.  The rest is McGuire’s imagination, and it leads to wonderful places of palace intrigue and giant/human politics.  A bit of kingdom history also plays a role, which McGuire manages to deftly weave into the book.

Overall, Valiant is a fantastically fun fairy tale retelling, replete with everything fans of the genre will want: a strong protagonist; a swoony love interest; a plot filled with tricks, fights, and intrigue.  Valiant is beautifully crafted and a pleasure to read.  Recommended.

Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay (ARC Review)

Princess of ThornsInformation

Goodreads: Princess of Thorns
Series: None
Source: Netgalley
Publication Date: December 9, 2014

Official Summary

Game of Thrones meets the Grimm’s fairy tales in this twisted, fast-paced romantic fantasy-adventure about Sleeping Beauty’s daughter, a warrior princess who must fight to reclaim her throne.

Though she looks like a mere mortal, Princess Aurora is a fairy blessed with enhanced strength, bravery, and mercy yet cursed to destroy the free will of any male who kisses her. Disguised as a boy, she enlists the help of the handsome but also cursed Prince Niklaas to fight legions of evil and free her brother from the ogre queen who stole Aurora’s throne ten years ago.

Will Aurora triumph over evil and reach her brother before it’s too late? Can Aurora and Niklaas break the curses that will otherwise forever keep them from finding their one true love?


Princess of Thorns is an adventure-filled take on the life of Sleeping Beauty’s daughter after everything she has known is stolen from her—her home, her family, and her kingdom.  The book takes readers on a wild journey across Aurora’s realm and introduces them to both magic and romance.  However, the book also bravely takes a look at the darkness hidden in magic and fairy tales—and also inside of us.

As a teen fantasy novel, Princess of Thorns is wonderfully satisfying.  If I had encountered it during my middle school years, it undoubtedly would have found a place among my most-loved books, probably right next to Tamora Pierce’s work, as both feature strong female protagonists, exciting quests, and hot romances.  As an adult, I appreciate the strong pacing, writing, and character development.

The world-building is also well-planned, though it does take a little bit of time and patience to figure out how the world and its magic work.  The scene is set somewhat ambiguously, but after all the background bits are done—the explanation of how Aurora got to where she is as a teen—the mechanisms of the world are fairly straightforward.  And there are no info dumps.  Jay gracefully weaves information about the kingdom and its various magical inhabitants into dialogue and thought.

Jay also successfully takes some fantasy stereotypes and turns them subtly, but strikingly, on their heads. Readers get a lot of familiar fare—a girl disguised as a boy, an overly macho love interest, a girl cursed to never fall in love—but none of these things either start or end exactly as one would expect.  Readers may think they have general idea of where the whole plot, and various plot elements, are going, but the book always stops short of being predictable and throws in some twist and turns.

My one major disappointment: how Aurora breaks her curse.  At the time of reading, I was pretty appalled.  Aurora seems to make all the wrong choices in order to get what she wants.   After further reflection, however, I understand that that is sort of the point.  Magic is dark in this book and tends to work in unexpected ways, ways that no one has to comprehend or like.  Aurora also reworks this moment as a learning opportunity and understands, if she had wanted, she could have done things differently.  She gets what she wants—but the event is hardly unblemished.

Princess of Thorns is a beautifully strong fantasy novel, full of all things that fans of the genre love: complex characters, a richly developed setting, and a well-imagined set of magical rules and values.  It has action, adventure, and romance—and just enough philosophical musing to get readers thinking about love, morality, and friendship.  Highly recommended for fans of Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, or Gail Carson Levine.

The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell

The Castle Behind ThornsInformation

Goodreads: The Castle Behind Thorns
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: May 24, 2014

Official Summary

When Sand wakes up alone in a long-abandoned castle, he has no idea how he got there. The stories all said the place was ruined by an earthquake, and Sand did not expect to find everything inside-from dishes to candles to apples-torn in half or slashed to bits. Nothing lives here and nothing grows, except the vicious, thorny bramble that prevents Sand from leaving. Why wasn’t this in the stories?

To survive, Sand does what he knows best-he fires up the castle’s forge to mend what he needs to live. But the things he fixes work somehow better than they ought to. Is there magic in the mending, granted by the saints who once guarded this place?

Unexpectedly, Sand finds the lost heir, Perrotte, a girl who shares the castle’s astonishing secrets and dark history. Putting together the pieces-of stone and iron, and of a broken life-is harder than Sand ever imagined, but it’s the only way to gain their freedom, even with the help of the guardian saints.

With gorgeous language and breathtaking magic, Merrie Haskell’s The Castle Behind Thorns tells of the power of memory and story, forgiveness and strength, and the true gifts of craft and imagination.


Haskell puts a unique spin on the tale of “Sleeping Beauty,” featuring a young blacksmith as the protagonist (eventually joined by the Sleeping Beauty figure) and explaining the fantastical events of the story with religious miracles instead of magic.

The book opens with Sand’s awakening in the Sundered Castle, the home the local Countess’s family mysteriously abandoned after everything inside was torn in two. Unable to get through the malevolent thorn bush surrounding the castle and back to his home, Sand sets to work mending things.  Unknowingly, he even “mends” Perrotte, the castle’s heir—who has been dead for twenty-five years.

Readers immediately witness Sand’s ingenuity and perseverance, as he undauntedly takes on the task of repairing an entire castle.  Unfortunately, the beginning of The Castle Behind Thorns does not get more interesting than that.  The first half of the book is heavily filled with scenes of Sand’s fixing things.  Once Perrotte joins him, the book expands into scenes of both of them fixing things.  Frankly, the first part of this book is slow.

Some of the details add a little dimension and atmosphere to the early chapters, however.  Perrotte haltingly reflects on what it was like to be dead, which is both intriguing and just a bit dark.  Readers also get glimpses into the religious aspects of the story and the saints that the characters believe are influencing their lives and helping them mend the castle.

The pace picks up more completely about halfway through, as the plot reaches several crises/climaxes. Sand and Perrotte finally find their chance to get past the magic thorns, but it turns out that staying inside might actually be the safer option for both.  The book goes in all sorts of great directions at this point, pulling on miracles, diplomacy, family dynamics, and more.  Readers get both excitement and some meaningful reflections on life and family.

On one hand, The Castle Behind Thorns has a promising premise: children trapped in a magic castle!  On the other hand, it becomes apparent that, well, two children alone in a castle do not really have that many adventures (particularly if the castle is not dynamically magical like, say, the one in Jessica Day George’s Tuesdays at the Castle).  Furthermore, these children are generally likable and resourceful human beings, relatively at peace with their fate, so there are not even any dark psychological directions to go with the plot of their being trapped alone—maybe forever—in a castle.  (Or maybe we’re just not doing that because this is middle grade and dark psychological thrillers do not really have a market in this category.)

Once the book begins gathering steam, and readers can focus on something more than their desire for something interesting to happen, it becomes more apparently that The Castle Behind Thorns does feature realistic characters, meaningful reflections on death and the purpose of life, and explorations of what makes solid relationships.  This is not my favorite fairy tale retelling, despite its obvious ingenuity in playing with the plot of “Sleeping Beauty,” but I think avid fans of fairy tale retellings will find something to like about it anyway.

A Question of Magic by E. D. Baker

A Question of MagicInformation

Goodreads: A Question of Magic
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: October 1, 2013

Official Summary

Serafina was living the normal life of a village girl, when she gets a mysterious letter–her first letter ever, in fact–from a great aunt she’s never heard of in another village. Little does ‘Fina know, her great aunt is actually a Baba Yaga, a magical witch who lives in an even more magical cottage.

Summoned to the cottage, Serafina’s life takes an amazing turn as she finds herself becoming the new Baba Yaga. But leaving behind home and the boy she loves isn’t easy, and as Serafina grows into her new and magical role answering the first question any stranger might ask her with the truth, she also learns about the person she’s meant to be, and that telling the future doesn’t always mean knowing the right answers.

In her inimitable and bestselling way, ED Baker has crafted a funny and romantic story that combines some fabulous details from the original Slavic tale, with an all new spin!


E. D. Baker is already well-known and loved for her middle grade fairy tale retellings (most notably The Frog Princess), but she takes her work in an entirely new direction with this spin on Baba Yaga.  I love unusual  fairy tale retellings, and this one definitely fits the bill; it’s the only Baba Yaga story I’ve ever read!  It helps, of course, that E. D. Baker writes it beautifully and packs it full of feisty, good-hearted characters.

Serafina will win readers over from the beginning of the novel.  In so many ways, Serafina is real.  When told she must be the new Baba Yaga, and be tied to a house with chicken feet, away from family and friends, she panics.  Naturally.  When she realizes she cannot outrun this fate, however, she returns to it with determination, drawing on the wisdom her mother has given her to be the best Baba Yaga she can be.  And when in sinks it that being Baba Yaga probably means she cannot marry her childhood sweetheart, she laughs at tired old plot devices.  She doesn’t try to tell him she no longer loves him and thus cause unnecessary and ridiculous drama; she tells him the truth.  Serafina makes plausible, well-informed decisions in the face of inexplicable magic and is thus is a remarkably believable and relatable protagonist.

A Question of Magic, through Serafina’s journey as Baba Yaga, also explores a lot of fantastic questions about ethics and responsibility.  It turns out that, as Baba Yaga and cursed to answer one question truthfully from anyone who asks, one often has to tell people things they do not want to hear.  One occasionally destroys lives.  Serafina confronts this fact bravely, attempting to guide her visitors to choose their questions wisely, but ultimately accepting that they are responsible for their own decisions.  The book suggests that truth is a powerful thing, without necessarily suggesting it is dangerous and without telling readers what to do with it.

Beyond the fun give and take of questions and answers, the book has a fun, fast-moving plot that takes Serafina in a wide variety of directions.  On a practical level, Baba Yaga has to move often and sometimes quickly (due to the whole people not liking the answers they get thing).  This means Serafina gets to travel and experience a range of locations and meet a lot of different people, both magical and not.

But Serafina also has her own web of mini plot lines.  She has to deal with learning the tasks of Baba Yaga, she must evade some people determined to track her down and use her magic to their benefit, she must figure out how to tell her family about her new role, and she has to search for a way to end the Baba Yaga curse.  Surprisingly, this is not too much for a book of this length at all.  The various threads all weave together and take just about the right amount of time (an exception being near the end, when one character accomplishes a list of “difficult” tasks questionably quickly).  The story has about the perfect blend of action and character development.

Readers of the blog might remember I had a few yawns for The Frog Princess, but E. D. Baker has won me over with A Question of Magic.  It has well-rounded characters, an interesting plot, and a lovely sprinkling of magic.  If this is the direction Baker’s books are taking, I will continue to read them!

Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

Daughter of the ForestInformation

Goodreads: Daughter of the Forest
Series: Sevenwaters #1
Source: Purchsed
Published: April 1, 1999

Official Summary

Lovely Sorcha is the seventh child and only daughter of Lord Colum of Sevenwaters. Bereft of a mother, she is comforted by her six brothers who love and protect her. Sorcha is the light in their lives, they are determined that she know only contentment.

But Sorcha’s joy is shattered when her father is bewitched by his new wife, an evil enchantress who binds her brothers with a terrible spell, a spell which only Sorcha can lift-by staying silent. If she speaks before she completes the quest set to her by the Fair Folk and their queen, the Lady of the Forest, she will lose her brothers forever.

When Sorcha is kidnapped by the enemies of Sevenwaters and taken to a foreign land, she is torn between the desire to save her beloved brothers, and a love that comes only once. Sorcha despairs at ever being able to complete her task, but the magic of the Fair Folk knows no boundaries, and love is the strongest magic of them all…


Daughter of the Forest has a unique voice that will captivate the right audience.  The story follows teenager Sorcha, who must save her six brothers from a curse set on them by their wicked stepmother.  To do so, she must make six shirts from a painfully thorny plant and refuse to speak until the spell is broken.   Marillier draws on Irish culture and history for even the tone of the novel, creating a quiet, mystical atmosphere that focuses on the relationships of her characters.

The quiet tone really sets the pace for most of the novel, and the plot begins slowly.  Personally, I was most invested in the story when it was practically over.  There is something to be said for a fantastic finale—but there is also something to be said for getting readers hooked from the beginning and keeping them there.  It does not help that a number of plot events are cliché, and not always in the “well, this is a fairy tale retelling so certain cliché things must happen” way.  Basically, if anything can happen to thwart Sorcha’s quest, it does, and it is often predictable.

I also found the motivation for the entire plot somewhat unsatisfactory.  Sorcha’s brothers are cursed by their evil stepmother, who happens to be one of the Fair Folk.  No explanation is given for her doing so, besides that she is evil.  I at least would have appreciated some non-answer about how evil fairies must exist to balance the good in the world.  However, readers are not given even that.  I left the book with the sense that Lady Oonagh is evil just because she is, which raises some questions about whether she has free will (at least in my mind).  And she curses Sorcha’s family just because she can?  How pointless.

These complaints aside, however, I did enjoy reading Daughter of the Forest.  The integration of Celtic religion and history is interesting in its own right, but Marillier’s decision to weave in the story of “The Six Swans” somehow manages to highlight the culture.  This story is actually both entertaining and educational.

The romance, which I think will be the main draw for many readers, is also very compelling.  The beginning of it could use a little more grounding, although, ironically, this is not entirely clear until the end of the book, where the love interest describes his own feelings basically as instalove.  Yet from that first moment, his relationship with Sorcha quietly grows and blooms, and readers will love how strong he is, how gentle when necessary, and how competent at his work.  Also, who doesn’t enjoy a long speech by the love interest detailing all his romantic feelings?

Daughter of the Forest is an enjoyable fantasy, if not my favorite.  It has a unique voice and focuses on relationships more than magic and swords.  Perfect for lovers of Celtic mythology and druidism and for fans of fairy tale retellings.

Content Note: There is a rape scene in this book.  It does affect Sorcha psychologically, but I hesitate to say it added enough to the plot to be warranted.  Basically the same story could have occurred without the rape (though the love interest does give Sorcha’s fear of men as a reason he was not more straightforward about his romantic intentions, which leads to some specific plot events).

Red Riding Hood Gets Lost by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams

Red Riding Hood Gets LostInformation

Goodreads: Red Riding Hood Gets Lost
Series: Grimmtastic Girls #2
Source: Netgalley in exchange for an honest review
Published: March 25, 2014

Official Summary

Red Riding Hood might have a terrible sense of direction, but her grimmtastic friends are always there to help!

Once upon a time, in faraway Grimmlandia…

Red Riding Hood is thrilled to try out for the school play. Acting is her dream, and she’s great at it–too bad she has stage fright! After a grimmiserable audition, Red decides to focus on helping her friends Cinda, Snow, and Rapunzel save Grimm Academy from the E.V.I.L. Society. But when Red gets lost in Neverwood forest and runs into Wolfgang, who might be part of E.V.I.L., she needs her magic basket and a grimmazingly dramatic performance to figure out what’s going on!


Slight spoilers for Cinderella Stays Late.

Red Riding Hood Gets Lost is a grimmtastic follow-up to Cinderella Stays Late.  Holub and Williams shift their focus to Red Riding Hood, a spunky and confident protagonist—even though she has a bit of stage fright.  Readers will enjoy getting to know her better, while still getting glimpses of her fairy tale cohort (Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel) throughout the book.

The authors also further develop ideas and plot points introduced in the first Grimmtastic Girls book.  The main storyline—the girls’ attempts to thwart a clandestine E.V.I.L. Society—continues with lots of action and intrigue.  The mystery deepens with the introduction of a new character, Wolfgang, who seems to know about the Society, as well.  But is he working for or against it?  And is he crushing on Red or just trying to learn her secrets?  The answers unfold in a clever twist on Red’s classic tale, as she and her friends head into Neverwood forest on the edge of Grimm Academy.

More minor points are embellished, as well.  Readers learn more about charms, magical items that attach themselves to a specific person, and it looks as if each book will introduce a new charm to the titular protagonist.  There is also a little more background on Grimm Academy and Grimmlandia, and on what it means to be fairy tale character with a pre-defined role.  Concepts are kept relatively simple to be appropriate for the target audience, but there is enough detail and nuance to keep older readers hooked, as well.

The authors also continue their theme of personal growth.  In Cinderella Stays Late, Cinda learns to navigate a new school.  In Red Riding Hood Gets Lost, Red discovers that it is best to face one’s fears, instead of allowing oneself to be conquered by them—then puts her newfound courage to the test in a play audition.  The Grimmtastic Girls series has great messages for young readers, which are the perfect complement to the action-packed plots.

Holub and Suzanne put great modern twists on classic fairy tales and populate them with fun, realistic characters.  I will continue to follow this series with pleasure.

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!


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.

Cress by Marissa Meyer


Goodreads: Cress
Series: The Lunar Chronicles #3
Source: Purchased
Published: February 4, 2014

Official Summary

Rapunzel’s tower is a satellite. She can’t let down her hair—or her guard. 

In this third book in the bestselling Lunar Chronicles series, Cinder and Captain Thorne are fugitives on the run, with Scarlet and Wolf in tow. Together, they’re plotting to overthrow Queen Levana and her army.

Their best hope lies with Cress, who has been trapped on a satellite since childhood with only her netscreens as company. All that screen time has made Cress an excellent hacker—unfortunately, she’s just received orders from Levana to track down Cinder and her handsome accomplice.

When a daring rescue goes awry, the group is separated. Cress finally has her freedom, but it comes at a high price. Meanwhile, Queen Levana will let nothing stop her marriage to Emperor Kai. Cress, Scarlet, and Cinder may not have signed up to save the world, but they may be the only ones who can.


Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles only get better as the series progresses.  In Cress, Meyer continues to give readers great plot, while expanding her setting and character base.  Cinder and her team find themselves traversing parts of the world they would never have imagined and bring readers with them on journeys into space, Africa, and back to their homes.  Meyer’s imagination allows her to write science fiction that truly gives readers the sense that technology can lead to global connections.  No place is too far for her characters to go, and no effort for them too great to make in hopes of saving their world.

As usual, Meyers also introduces new characters in Cress—the star being the titular Cress.  Cress is inspired by Rapunzel, and she is perfect.  Meyers takes a bit of a Disney Rapunzel route, imagining Cress as someone bubbly and excited about seeing what lies beyond her prison.  But Cress is also vulnerable and a little unsure, intimidated by how much there is she has never known or experienced.  Her time with Cinder’s team, however, allows her to grow into a confident young woman.

Readers get to see new facets of old characters in Cress, as well.  There is a particular focus on Thorne, who may have a hero’s heart under all his bravado.  Readers who were not already in love with Thorne may begin reconsidering that position.  Additionally, old romances continue to simmer.  Meyer knows how to give readers just enough for them to swoon and sigh over, while clearly holding material back for a big finale.

Plot-wise, readers know they can expect something fast-paced and exciting.  Cress has the distinction of being the most unpredictable of the series, however.  The one flaw of the Lunar Chronicles has hitherto been that its direction has always been quite obvious—and not just because the stories are drawing from well-known fairy tales.  Readers may have a sense of the general path Cress must take, but it actually has several surprising plot-twists, which makes reading it all the more pleasurable.

Cress is breathtaking, offering adventure, romance, and intrigue all in one novel.  It is completely satisfying—except that it will leave readers tortured that Winter is not being released right now.  Highly recommended.

Spinners by Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen


Goodreads: Spinners
Seris: None
Source: Purchased
Published: August 1, 1999

Official Summary

This is the story of two spinners. The first honed his craft at a stolen wheel, crippling his leg, turning a room full of straw into a glittering dress for his beloved — and losing her. The second steals moments to teach herself. Saskia is her name, and she grows up to be a master spinner. Nothing is beyond her — until she, too, must spin straw into gold. And it is then that they meet . . .


Although Spinners is a relatively short book, Napoli and Tchen offer readers a unique and well-developed interpretation of “Rumpelstiltskin.”  The story is based around an imaginative interpretation of the relationship between Rumpelstiltskin and the female spinster; she is his daughter, although she does not know it.   Readers might expect this relationship to soften Rumpelstiltskin’s deals with the young spinster, but Napoli and Tchen imbue him with a realistic bitterness that compels him to continue carrying out the tragedy of this tale, and helps the book retain some of the darkness of the source story.  There is enough suspense to keep readers hoping, however, that he will rediscover his heart and relent.

The story, then, is as much about character as it is about putting twists on the well-worn plot.  Napoli and Tchen walk a fine line, making the book a bit general and ambiguous (such as never giving some characters names), while placing a priority on developing personalities and exploring the contradictions within them.  Rumpelstiltskin both loves his daughter and resents her.  His daughter both loathes the king but wants to live.  Characters make hard choices in Spinners, and the authors never sugarcoat that.

Mixed into the drama, however, is a plethora of knowledge about spinning, weaving, fabrics, and yarns.  The authors have clearly done their research, and thus are able to portray Rumpelstiltskin and his daughter believably as expert spinners.  They also use small details to demonstrate differences in their yarn creations, and thus in their personalities.  As a bonus, readers come out fairly well-informed about spinning.  (Random knowledge gained from books is always a perk, in my opinion.)

Yet Napoli and Tchen would have benefited from paying equal attention to detail in some other aspects of the story.  For instance, the setting is entirely unclear.  One operates under the assumption it occurs in some unnamed fictional world, until the final chapters, when characters suddenly make offhand references to real places.  Similarly, the magic is not well-integrated.  Something magical must be happening for a man to spin straw into gold, but just about every other “magical” occurrence is explained away, and the characters themselves seem reluctant to believe in anything supernatural.  Finally, after carefully developing the entire retelling, Napoli and Tchen leave readers with an abrupt, and completely inexplicable ending, that is rather unsatisfying.  Even an awkwardly tacked-on epilogue would have given readers some closure.

Ultimately, however, Spinners is an interesting retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin” that succeeds in the most important places.  It gets at the heart of the original story, and at the emotions and other forces that must have driven the characters to play out such a bitter tale.  Alternately dark and light, but always thoughtful, it will appeal to readers who like their fairy tale retellings to be complicated, instead of having a straightforward happily ever after.  Great for fans of Lili St. Crow and Adam Gidwitz.

Content Note: Sex

Whatever After: Fairest of All by Sarah Mlynowski

Whatever After Fairest of AllInformation

Goodreads: Fairest of All
Series: Whatever After #1
Source: Library
Published: May 1, 2012

Official Summary

A fresh, modern spin on a classic fairy tale–from bestselling author Sarah Mlynowski!
Mirror, mirror, on the basement wall . . .

Once upon a time my brother and I were normal kids. The next minute? The mirror in our basement slurped us up and magically transported us inside Snow White’s fairy tale.

I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true.

But hey — we’re heroes! We stopped Snow White from eating the poisoned apple. Hooray! Or not. If Snow White doesn’t die, she won’t get to meet her prince. And then she won’t get her happy ending. Oops.

Now it’s up to us to:
– Avoid getting poisoned
– Sneak into a castle
– Fix Snow White’s story
And then, fingers crossed, find our way home


Whatever After: Fairest of All is a cute exploration of what could happen if Snow White didn’t eat her stepmother’s poisoned apple; it turns out, she might just miss her chance to meet her prince!  Ten-year-old Abby and her little brother Jonah are not about to let that happen, however, so they embark on a quest to ensure Snow gets her happily ever after, after all.

The result is a romp of a tale that sprawls through different excursions, as Abby and Snow brainstorm various ways to put Snow’s story back on track.  Do they reenact everything?  Lure the prince?  Go to the prince themselves?  (And which prince are they trying to attract anyway?)  The characters have a variety of fun adventures, and hilarity and danger both ensue, as Abby, Jonah, and Snow try various approaches—all while trying to dodge the still very determined evil queen.

Although the plot is light and a bit quirky, the voice is of the book stands in contrast.   It may be due to an attempt by Mlynowski to give her protagonist a young voice, but Abby often just sounds petulant.   She also routinely states the obvious and can be very repetitive.  Here are few quotes from the beginning of the story, so you can get a feel for her voice yourself.

“Why is the mirror in our basement turning colors?  Mirrors should not change colors.  I do not like mirrors that change colors!”

“Um, why are there thousands of large trees in my basement.  Wait.  My basement does not have trees.  I turn to Jonah.  ‘We’re not in the basement!’”

Abby does have a personal character arc, as her adventures in the mirror give her a better perspective on what things matter in life, and on working to make the impossible possible.  Further, she deserves kudos for exhibiting spunk in the face of danger and sticking close to her friends.

Jonah, the younger brother, is seven years old and a little more immediately endearing.  He too has a penchant for repetition, but with more exuberance.  Examples include: “Wake up, wake up, wake up!” and “Excuse us, excuse us, excuse us, excuse us, excuse you, EXCUSE US!”  This is pretty believable for a little kid, although it can be just about as tiring to read as it can be to listen to in real life.  (Ok, once in awhile it’s funny, too.) In the end, Johan is my favorite character due to his big heart, his loyalty, and his unfailing sense of adventure.

In spite of the annoying (in my opinion) dialogue interjections, the plot proceeds at a steady pace, and there is just enough mystery at the end of the book to encourage readers to continue with the series.  Readers still have a lot to discover about the magic mirror and the relationship between our world and fairy tale worlds.  Finally, there is a little hint that Abby and Jonah will be called on another adventure quite soon—and that they will be willing to answer the call!

Fairest of All will appeal to younger middle grade readers who enjoy fairy tales with spirited heroines.  Great for fans of E. D. Baker or Diane Zahler.

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