The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMater Bujold

Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

Information

Goodreads: The Curse of Chalion
Series: World of the Five Gods #1
Source: Purchased
Published: December 2000

Official Summary

A man broken in body and spirit, Cazaril, has returned to the noble household he once served as page, and is named, to his great surprise, as the secretary-tutor to the beautiful, strong-willed sister of the impetuous boy who is next in line to rule.

It is an assignment Cazaril dreads, for it will ultimately lead him to the place he fears most, the royal court of Cardegoss, where the powerful enemies, who once placed him in chains, now occupy lofty positions. In addition to the traitorous intrigues of villains, Cazaril and the Royesse Iselle, are faced with a sinister curse that hangs like a sword over the entire blighted House of Chalion and all who stand in their circle. Only by employing the darkest, most forbidden of magics, can Cazaril hope to protect his royal charge—an act that will mark the loyal, damaged servant as a tool of the miraculous, and trap him, flesh and soul, in a maze of demonic paradox, damnation, and death.

Review

The Curse of Chalion introduces readers to a man who once held a reputation for being a good soldier and trustworthy commander, but who has crossed the wrong people and now mainly wants to live a quiet life.  The gods, however, seem to have other plans, and soon Cazaril is thrust into the dangerous court intrigue he so desired to avoid, as well as an epic battle to save his country from a curse few even know lie over it.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I began reading this novel, and I admit it took me several chapters to even being to have idea.  It is not clear from the opening pages what exactly Cazaril’s talents are.  Apparently he was a page, then a solider, then a commander, and at the start of the book he’s basically a penniless nobody—but he is quickly hired to act as secretary and tutor to one of the most important noble ladies in the realm.  And all through his exposition, which implies he’s good at basically everything, he downplays his skills and insists he’s good at practically nothing.  I wasn’t immediately sure what to do with this, or where the book would lead if the protagonist had so ambiguous a role.

Finding out is really half the story.  I think, in the end, Carazil has more talents than he gives himself credit for (though he’s certainly no Mary Sue excelling at everything), and yet what seems most valuable about him is his integrity.  His knowledge and his physical abilities are assets, certainly in the various roles he comes to play in the fate of his country, but his dedication to his country, his patron, and his duties in general are what make him remarkable.

I enjoyed following him on his journey, as well as meeting the other characters.  His student, Iselle, is a bit impetuous but eager and strong-willed.  The villains are delightfully villainous, and many of the characters in the story have more facets than they initially let on.  And, despite the pure amount of characters who show up in the story, all are wonderfully developed.  As is the history, culture, and religion of the country they inhabit.

The story is a marvelous blend of court intrigue, revenge, romance, magic, theology, and personal character development.  Some developments did seem a little strange to me—and apparently sounded even stranger to my friends when I tried to talk to my friends about what I was reading.  However, it’s unique and all ends up coming together.  The novel is a bit less complex than Brandon Sanderson, but does remind me somewhat of his books in terms of world building and thoughtful attention to human nature.

I was a bit confused by the titles/ranks the characters had and would have appreciated an appendix outlining who was higher than whom in society.  And a map would have been helpful for geographical purposes.  There are multiple editions of The Curse of Chalion, but I purchased mine in the past year, so there are certainly versions being sold today that do not have one—a definite oddity in today’s fantasy market.  However, these are details.  Overall I very much enjoyed the book and do recommend it to others.  I would also be interested in reading more works by the author.

4 stars Briana

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Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Information

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

Official Summary

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

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

Review

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


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

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

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

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

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

3 Stars Briana

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

Information

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

Summary

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

Review

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

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

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

3 Stars

Last Star Burning by Caitlin Sangster (ARC Review)

Last Star Burning

Information

Goodreads: Last Star Burning
Series: Last Star Burning #1
Source: City Book Review
Publication Date: October 10, 2017

Summary

Last Star Burning is the exciting story of Sev, a girl who only ever wanted one thing: to be a good citizen of her country and make a place for herself. So it is a terrible misfortune when her mother betrays the whole nation, and the whole family is branded criminals as a result.  It is an even great misfortune, years later, when the government frames Sev for a fatal bombing in the middle of the city.  Suddenly, all the work she has put into her “re-education,” into keeping her head down and trying to prove she fits in, is wasted.  The only choice she has left is the one she never wanted to make: she will need to leave her beloved nation and see what dangers lie outside the walls.

Review

Last Star Burning is billed as a fantasy (and, indeed, it is), but because the official summary and marketing have focused on the fantasy aspects, as well as on Sev’s romance and personal development, I was not expecting the story to have as much in common with dystopian fiction as it does.  It’s clear once one starts reading the book and sees that there’s a rigid caste system, and government keeping secrets, and a conspiracy to frame Sev for a bombing she almost died in herself, and a wall that barely anyone crosses…that the novel is basically a dystopian that happens in an imagined world rather than in a future version of our own world. I’m perfectly okay with his, however, because Sangster deals with the elements well, making them seem fresh and exciting even to someone who has read her share of YA dystopians.

The plot is well-paced, and there are a lot of twists and turns that will keep readers engaged as Sev begins to piece together what is really going on in her world.  She quickly learns that much of what she learned was true, truths she held very dear, are not true at all–yet it’s unclear whether her new sources of information may also have their own agendas and biases. Throw in some camping and some fighting, and the story is a great mix of action, intrigue, and world building.

Sev herself is a fun character to tag along with.  Her devotion to her country comes across as admirable rather than unfortunate, and it’s great to see her take steps towards turning her nation into the good place she once believed it was.  Her personal relationships are also very interesting, as she navigates friendship,  romance, and family ties.  One of her most defining characteristics is loyalty, and I loved see her fighting even for people who never quite believed n her.

So, Last Star Burning is not quite what I expected, but is a very good read. I’ve been disappointed with some of the YA I’ve been reading recently, but I love how Sangster puts a fresh, riveting face on plot elements that could easily have seemed old.

4 stars Briana

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Information

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

Official Summary

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

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

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

Review

Note: I was sent a beautiful box set of the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children series for review by Quirk Books, as you can see in the photo above. In addition to the three books, this box set comes with a collector’s postcard featuring some of the characters, using the type of vintage photographs found throughout the books themselves. This review, however, is just for book 1, as I tend to review books individually instead of by series. I hope to have reviews of books 2 and 3 up in the future.


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

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

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

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

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

4 stars Briana

Beren and Lúthien by J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. by Christopher Tolkien

Information

Goodreads: Beren and Lúthien
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Summary

Christopher Tolkien presents the various narratives that evolved become the story of Beren and Lúthien who, together, faced the dark lord Morgoth in his own halls and attempted to wrest a Silmaril from his crown.  Illustrated by Alan Lee.

Review

The story of Beren and Lúthien is one of the most famous episodes in The Silmarillion.  It is the story of a mortal man who falls in love with an immortal Elf.  And to win her he must do the impossible–bring her father a Silmaril from the crown of the dark lord Morgoth himself.  Lúthien, however, will not let her lover face certain death alone.  She is accounted not only the most beautiful of the Elves but also the most fearless.  Tolkien had the names of Beren and Lúthien inscribed on the gravestones of himself and his wife, a testament to enduring love.

In this volume, Christopher Tolkien does not present any previously unpublished material.  Instead he attempts to take the story of Beren and Lúthien from its place within the greater narrative of the Elder Days of Middle-earth and present it as a standalone title while also showing the various forms the story took throughout his father’s extant drafts.  His hope is twofold: to show the evolution of the tale while also allowing readers intimated by The Silmarillion to experience Tolkien’s great love story.

Like many of the recently published Tolkien works, then, this book is written for a strangely divided audience: a scholarly one devoted to understanding Tolkien’s drafts and a general one hesitant to read The Silmarillion.  I have never been convinced that writing a book to such two very different audiences can be entirely successful.  I remain unconvinced here.

Christopher Tolkien seems hesitant to present too much background material for the story, even though he admits that it’s almost impossible to separate the tale of Beren and Lúthien from the larger history of Middle-earth.  So he provides a few short notes on Morgoth and some place names, still without entirely explaining who Morgoth is or why the place names are important.  The drafts, too, are confusingly (at least to me) arranged.  They begin with the early draft in which Beren is a Gnome and the short-lived Tevildo Prince of Cats holds Beren as a thrall.  But they are randomly interspersed with notes on the drafts and the evolution on the drafts and notes that, well, seem somewhat irrelevant and ad hoc.  And then the drafts themselves are sometimes cut apart with one draft being interrupted with the insertion of another one before the original resumes.  This is apparently so the story can be told in a coherent manner (not all drafts are as complete as others).  But it can feel disorienting.

I, like many others, am enchanted by the story of Beren and Lúthien.  It is a beautiful and a powerful tale, one that celebrates courage, integrity, and service to others.  It is the type of tale that pierces the heart.  But I do wonder if readers unfamiliar with The Silmarillion will be able to access the story in this new form.

4 stars

The Crooked Sixpence by Jennifer Bell, Illustrated by James Mountford

Information

Goodreads: The Crooked Sixpence
Series: The Uncommoners #1
Source: Library
Published: January 2017

Summary

When Ivy and Seb’s grandmother falls and is rushed to the hospital, the two return to their home only to find police armed with toilet brushes trying to arrest them.  The two go on the run and, in the process, stumble into the secret underground world of Lundinor where ordinary objects have quite uncommon uses.  But an old evil is reemerging and Ivy and Seb will have to uncover their family’s past in order to defeat it.

Review

I wanted to love The Crooked Sixpence because it sounds like just the type of quirky middle-grade adventure I would enjoy.  Eleven-year-old Ivy and her fourteen-year-old brother Seb stumble into the secret city of Lundinor where people trade objects that have unusual uses.  Yo-yos can be used as weapons, lemon juicers as lights, and belts as levitation devices.  However, ultimately the book fell flat for me.

About the first 100 pages read like a series of info dumps, one after the other.  First, the teenage boy Ivy and Seb team up with must explain the world of Lundinor and the idea of uncommon objects.  Then Ivy conveniently walks past a store where a man is lecturing a group of children on some of the laws and traditions of Lundinor.  And so it goes.  And yet, even after 100 pages of this, I still felt a little disoriented and like I didn’t fully understand the rules of the world!

Furthermore, too much in the book relied on coincidence for me to be able to swallow the story.  Time and again Ivy and her brother simply stumble into the people and places that will further plot.  First, Ivy ends up on the doorstep of her grandmother’s old friend.  Then they foolishly reveal their circumstances to a stranger and find out she used to work for their great-grandfather and can provide pertinent information.  Then they conveniently find a place no one else could find for decades.  Then, through sheer stupidity, Seb destroys property only to reveal objects that are the answer to a question no living person can answer.  What are the odds for any of this, much less all of it?

Other problems made reading the book seem a bit of a chore.  The plot is fairly predictable.  Most will be able to identify one of the main villains upon their first appearance in the story.  And the characters never really seem to come alive or to form meaningful relationships with each other, so it’s difficult to feel invested in them or their friendships.  In the end, the part I enjoyed most were the illustrations, which are beautiful and quirky and make the book feel much more exciting than I thought it was.  The last 50 pages or so finally picked up and were full of action.  But I don’t know if 50 pages are enough to convince me to read the sequel.  I’d rather just look at Mountford’s art portfolio.

3 Stars