Thoughts on Rereading The Return of the King: This Book Is Dark

Spoilers!

This year, I embarked on a quest to finally reread The Lord of the Rings. (I know: I talk about it enough on the blog that people probably assume I must reread it every year or something, but that’s not true. It’s been a while since I last read the story cover to cover.) In April, I posted some reflections on the geography of Middle-Earth after finishing The Fellowship of the Ring, in which I realized the world is much more isolated than I tend to remember. Now, after finishing The Return of the King, I’ve realized the story is also darker than I often remember.

The Lord of the Rings is generally a story I associate with hope. Small, unimportant people do great deeds. Disparate people band together to fight an incredible threat. Frodo succeeds in his quest despite all odds. I’ve written before about how the ending is bittersweet, as some things blossom and come to fruition (the actual return of the king) but other things pass away (the Elves). However, I don’t generally think of the book as actually dark. That changed with this rereading.

This time around, I really felt the despair of the peoples of Gondor, and slightly less so Rohan, as they prepared to take on the forces of the Dark Lord in battle. I know, of course, that Lord Denethor despairs of victory, but I always have it in the back of my mind that, of course, he’s supposed to be wrong. Gandalf tells him off for his despair, and readers learn that he’s been tricked into by Sauron, who has selectively shown him things in the Seeing Stone that will make him think Gondor has no chance of winning the coming battle. Knowing that, I’ve come to have in the back of my mind the idea that the other characters must be a bit more optimistic about the situation, but upon rereading, I’ve realized that’s not true.

None of the characters really know what’s coming before the battle at Minas Tirith, but they are not hopeful about it. In general, they are convinced they are going to die. Pippin fears the battle and that he will never see his friends again. Gandalf thinks they have a slim hope of winning this battle, maybe, but of course the whole war rests on Frodo’s ability to destroy the Ring. The people of Rohan ride hard to Gondor’s aid but are half-convinced they won’t arrive in time to participate in the main battle but instead will simply have a chance to briefly harry the orcs and Men who have triumphed over Minas Tirith before succumbing to said orcs and Men themselves, with no one even left to sing songs about their deeds. There is truly a sense that all the characters are going to fail. Or, even if the main battle is won, a lot of these characters are going to be dead.

Things get even more dire after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, when Aragorn and the Captains of the West go to challenge Sauron at the Black Gate. They’re not even pretending there’s a chance they are going to come back alive at this point. It’s basically a suicide mission to buy Frodo a little more time and privacy to get to Mount Doom while Sauron is looking elsewhere. This is very depressing! And when a chapter ends with Pippin’s being attacked and subsequently closing his eyes and losing thought, well, it certainly seems as if he’s dead! I cannot remember what I thought the first time I read the book, and didn’t know the ending, but I assume I really thought Pippin was gone, and perhaps Aragorn and all the others were next.

Of course, the Eagles come, Frodo’s quest succeeds, and things generally become happy by the end. It’s the eucatastophe Tolkien wanted, but for many, many chapters in this book, it really feels as if hope is missing. One gets into the minds of the characters, who do not know where Frodo is or if he’s even still alive, who assume they have a part to play in fighting Sauron because, really, it’s the only option, but they’re not convinced it’s going to work or they’re gong to come out alive. In some places, this may in fact be the most hopeless book I’ve ever read! Or perhaps the most realistic about how people feel before a large battle in which they are outnumbered. Why should they expect to be lucky enough to survive?

The Lord of the Rings is, of course, still one of my favorite books. I simply did not remember the amount of darkness and despair Tolkien manages to convey in the first part of The Return of the King, especially since I now know how it all ends. It’s really a masterpiece of writing, and I think this bit of darkness is often overlooked.

Briana

The Last Legacy by Adrienne Young

The Last Legacy

Information

Goodreads: The Last Legacy
Series: None (companion to Fable)
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Bryn Roth has waited her whole life for the letter that arrives on her eighteenth birthday from her uncle Henrik. Now, finally, she can return to Bastian and take her rightful place in the family. But the Roths play a dangerous game, creating fake gemstones for trade, and they have many enemies in the city and abroad. If Bryn wants to survive, she will have to create her own stake to bring in money for the family. She just didn’t count on losing her heart in the process.

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Review

After reading the Fable duology, I was thrilled to be able to return with Adrienne Young to the dangerous world of the Unnamed Sea. The Last Legacy mentions characters readers have seen before, but works as a standalone, exploring the Roth family, their trade in fake gems, and their new desire to be accepted by respectable society as part of the merchant class. The stakes are high as Bryn attempts to navigate this new world. Readers who love their YA fantasy filled with dark secrets and intrigue will devour The Last Legacy.

The Last Legacy has the opportunity to expand on the world of the Unnamed Sea, as readers learn more about the city of Bastian, and the traders and merchants who vie for supremacy there. Unfortunately, however, much of Young’s vivid worldbuilding is lost in this story, as it focuses more on Bryn’s budding romance than it does on anything else. Even Bryn’s concerns about finding her stake in the family and being accepted by the Roths feel like a bit of an afterthought, as if the story exists mainly to give readers more Ezra (a character from the former duology)–and to maybe give Ezra his chance at happiness.

The romance, however, feels very lackluster, just as it does in the Fable duology. The timeline here is very fast and the story slim, so Bryn and Ezra do not actually know each other–or anything about each other. They are inexplicably drawn to each other, and I guess readers are supposed to accept that passion or lust for someone they just met is enough for the two to risk their lives to be together. Personally, however, I could not buy into this, so I felt no real emotional pull for the pair.

The actual intrigue also proves a little disappointing. The story does have its twist and turns, with Bryn trying to figure out whom she can trust and whom she cannot. Savvy readers, however, will know when Bryn is being played long before she does, which makes the story somewhat less gripping. Furthermore, the book is so short that the drama feels underdeveloped. Perhaps it would have been less of a problem had I not had higher expectations based on Fable and Namesake.

Still, despite its flaws, The Last Legacy still manages to entertain. I kept reading because I wanted to know what would happen next and because I wanted to see Bryn succeed and free herself from her family. The book may not quite live up to its predecessors, but it likely will still please fans who wish to return to the Unnamed Sea.

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

Witches of Brooklyn: What the Hex?! by Sophie Escabasse

Witches of Brooklyn What the Hex

Information

Goodreads: Witches of Brooklyn: What the Hex?!
Series: Witches of Brooklyn #2
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Sophie loves exploring her new powers as a witch and, even better, she’s starting to meet the other witches in town. They’re really cool women who do their best to help others! But there’s a new girl at school, and suddenly everyone seems way more interested in her than they are interested in hanging out with Sophie. Can this witch figure out how to save her friendships?

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Review

The sequel to Witches of Brooklyn is an engaging, if not particularly memorable read. Like many middle-grade graphic novels, it focuses on the drama of changing friend groups, though with the added twist of making the protagonist a witch. Sophie, however, does not experience any real struggles with her magic in this installment, thereby lessening much of the drama and keeping the focus on her jealousy towards her friend’s infatuation with the new girl at school. What the Hex?! is a pleasant read, but not the type of story that invites rereading.

What the Hex?! attempts to intertwine two parallel stories, with only partial success. One thread follows Sophie’s anger at her friend for paying more attention to the new girl than to her. Another follows Sophie as she meets more neighborhood witches, and learns about a city corner that seems to be cursed–at least, everyone who goes by seems to meet with bad luck. Predictably, Sophie’s ability to move past her jealousy and reach out is what ultimately enables her to solve the conflict at the corner, as well.

Unfortunately, however, the magic system is somewhat undeveloped, as is the process whereby Sophie solves the problem of the curse. As a result, the ending scene feels a bit rushed or perhaps unearned. Sophie has a random idea about the corner, based on little evidence, that just happens to be right. And then all is solved by the power of friendship! I support messages of friendship, but sometimes just throwing out that love can solve everything seems a bit too facile to be believable. There needs to be work involved, as well.

In the end, I did enjoy What the Hex?!, but the story and the art do not stand out from all the similar titles. Witchy middle-grade books are trending, as are middle school friendship dramas. As are witchy friendship dramas, which is apparently now its own subgenre. What the Hex?! simply is not as strong as the titles it is competing with. And it is not really the kind of book that I see lasting.

3 Stars

Tidesong by Wendy Xu (ARC Review)

Tidesong by Wendy Xu instagram photo

Information

Goodreads: Tidesong
Series: None
Source: PR company for review
Publication Date: November 16, 2021

Official Summary

Perfect for fans of Studio Ghibli and The Tea Dragon Society, this is a magically heartwarming graphic novel about self-acceptance and friendship.

Sophie is a young witch whose mother and grandmother pressure her to attend the Royal Magic Academy—the best magic school in the realm—even though her magic is shaky at best. To train for her entrance exams, Sophie is sent to relatives she’s never met.

Cousin Sage and Great-Aunt Lan seem more interested in giving Sophie chores than in teaching her magic. Frustrated, Sophie attempts magic on her own, but the spell goes wrong, and she accidentally entangles her magic with the magic of a young water dragon named Lir.

Lir is trapped on land and can’t remember where he came from. Even so, he’s everything Sophie isn’t—beloved by Sophie’s family and skilled at magic. With his help, Sophie might just ace her entrance exams, but that means standing in the way of Lir’s attempts to regain his memories. Sophie knows what she’s doing is wrong, but without Lir’s help, can she prove herself?

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Review

Tidesong by Wendy Xu is a whimsical graphic novel that has the feel of Kiki’s Delivery Service, but with dragons and a setting by the sea. The result is a story that ebbs and flows with protagonist Sophie’s struggles but ultimately will feel warm and familiar and cozy to readers.

The greatest struggle, I find, for many graphic novels is to create a complex story using limited words and space, and I do think Tidesong ultimately feels a bit sparse. There’s the main conflict of Sophie’s wanting to learn magic but then getting her magic tied up with a dragon’s and needing to sort it out so she can continue to practice for her audition for the esteemed magic academy she wants to attend, and there are side plots about Sophie’s family and Sophie’s own inner turmoil. It’s simply not as developed as I’d expect it all to be if the story were told in novel form. However, I don’t think it this will be an issue for the target audience of middle grade readers. As a child, I often imagined fuller stories into the books I read and was surprised to find as an adult that many of the books I loved so much seemed so short and simple. So I think young readers will absolutely fall in love with Tidesong and its world.

And the world has a lot to offer. In a brief space, and with the help of her gorgeous illustrations, Xu brings readers to a seaside town where Sophie’s family works magic and consorts with dragons. You can practically smell the salty air on the pages. I love the idea that Sophie’s magic is tied to water and that her family has a history of special magical traditions they have passed through the ages.

Finally, Xu ensures each character in the book has an arc, from Sophie who has to deal with learning magic in ways she didn’t expect, to Lir who has to come to terms with his memory loss and family problems, to Sophie’s extended family members who need to learn to let go of the past in order to truly see the present. The journey for each of them has up and downs but is a joy for readers to watch.

Tidesong is a book that is sure to delight readers and have them hoping Xu will return to this world with a sequel.

Briana
4 stars

Sabrina the Teenage Witch by Kelly Thompson, et al

Sabrina the Teenage Witch

Information

Goodreads: Sabrina the Teenage Witch
Series: Sabrina the Teenage Witch Issues #1-5
Source: Library
Published: 2019

Official Summary

Sabrina is a teen witch who’s struggling with balancing the double life of high school and her burgeoning powers. Newly relocated to Greendale with her aunts Hilda and Zelda (also witches), Sabrina is trying to make the best of being the new girl in town which so far includes two intriguing love interests, an instant rivalry, a couple of misfits that could turn into BFFs, and trying to save the high school (and maybe the world) from crazy supernatural events. NBD!

Sabrina the Teenage Witch collects issues #1-5 of the ongoing series and features bonus content including the first full issue of Archie and Sabrina written by Nick Spencer and Mariko Tamaki, with art by Sandy Jarrell and Jenn St-Onge.

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Review

Reading about The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a supernatural horror take on the teenage witch, initially made me leery of picking up this title. I do not care for books that are too dark, including pacts with demons and other things possibly too terrible to name. I just want a fun witchy tale for Halloween, not something that will give me nightmares. But Kelly Thompson’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch just hit the spot, presenting a Sabrina who is involved in magical mysteries, but absolutely nothing too scary.

The artwork presents Sabrina as a cute, quirky teenager, eager to fit in with her human peers, but also excited to use magic. Her aunts want her to be careful, but a few simple spells can’t hurt, right? Sabrina’s little spells, of course, quickly bring huge trouble as she discovers that her school seems to be some sort of supernatural hotspot. Readers will follow Sabrina’s adventures avidly as she tries to navigate normal parts of high school, like dealing with mean girls, while secretly investigating a magical mystery.

The main weak spot of the story is admittedly its conclusion. The villain is revealed rather hastily, with only vague motivations readers cannot know too much about. And Sabrina ends up saving the day, but only because her aunts happen to have a storeroom of incredibly rare magical artifacts. Sabrina does not really get to show off her powers or what she can do with them. She wins largely because she was better equipped than the bad guy. And this is disappointing.

Even so, I enjoyed Thompson’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch and its mix of the magical with the everyday. I want to know more about Sabrina’s life. I want to see which cute guy she’ll finally choose to go out with. I want to know if she gets to learn more powerful magic. This version of Sabrina is perfect for the reader looking for a book that has witches and magic, but is never very scary.

4 stars

Bright Ruined Things by Samantha Cohoe (ARC Review)

Bright Ruined Things

Information

Goodreads: Bright Ruined Things
Series: None
Source: ARC
Publication Date: October 26, 2021

Official Summary

Forbidden magic, a family secret, and a night to reveal it all…

The only life Mae has ever known is on the island, living on the charity of the wealthy Prosper family who control the magic on the island and the spirits who inhabit it. Mae longs for magic of her own and to have a place among the Prosper family, where her best friend, Coco, will see her as an equal, and her crush, Miles, will finally see her. Now that she’s eighteen, Mae knows her time with the Prospers may soon come to an end.

But tonight is First Night, when the Prospers and their high-society friends return to the island to celebrate the night Lord Prosper first harnessed the island’s magic and started producing aether – a magical fuel source that has revolutionized the world. With everyone returning to the island, Mae finally has the chance to go after what she’s always wanted.

When the spirits start inexplicably dying, Mae starts to realize that things aren’t what they seem. And Ivo, the reclusive, mysterious heir to the Prosper magic, may hold all the answers – including a secret about Mae’s past that she doesn’t remember. As Mae and her friends begin to unravel the mysteries of the island, and the Prospers’ magic, Mae starts to question the truth of what her world was built on.

In this YA fantasy, Samantha Cohoe wonderfully mixes magic and an atmospheric setting into a fantastically immersive world, with characters you won’t be able to forget.

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Review

The Tempest has never been my favorite Shakespeare play, but Cohoe takes the idea of a magical island where spirits are tamed to do a master’s bidding and builds her own story around questions of identity, belonging, power, and love that had me riveted and wanting to know how protagonist Mae’s journey would end. From her initial desire to learn magic for herself and ensure she could keep the island as her home to her ultimate questioning of everything she’s ever known, I was cheering for her to find herself and get the happy ending she deserves.

While the structure of the story and the characterization initially seem straightforward (Mae wants to learn magic, to stay on the island, to catch the eye of one of the Prosper boys), I quickly realized that everything was a bit more convoluted than I expected. And every time I thought I had a handle on what was happening, Cohoe managed to nuance it even more. Every time I thought, “Oh, this character is a jerk” or, “Oh, this is what will happen next,” Cohoe mixed things up. I experienced a roller coaster of emotions, not entirely sure which characters I should be rooting for or what outcome I should be hoping for, as Cohoe ultimately shows that everyone is multi-faceted, and a single bad (or good) act doesn’t define someone.

I find I’m often fairly good at predicting what will happen in books, so it’s nice when I’m genuinely taken by surprise — and I love that in Bright Ruined Things it’s not because there’s some wild climatic event I didn’t seen coming; it’s because the characters keep surprising me again and again with their thoughts and their motivations and their actions. (And their evolving characterization is natural; Cohoe isn’t making them do out of character things for the sake of plot.) I love how it made me constantly reassess the characters and try to figure out what they were doing and why, as well as what was important to them.

The setting is also a nice touch, though I wouldn’t call it the main draw. The island itself feels very real; I could picture it as I read, from the paths Mae likes to the run to the spirits that create never-ending music in the sky. The 1920s aspect feels more inconsequential. Cohoe does describe some fashion and art of the era that make it clear that’s when the story is occurring, but I think the marketing suggesting Bright Ruined Things has a Great Gatsby vibe might be overblown.

Overall, this is a fantastically thoughtful and engaging book that stands out as something different in the crowded YA market.

Briana

The Halloween Moon by Joseph Fink

The Halloween Moon

Information

Goodreads: The Halloween Moon
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: July 20, 2021

Official Summary

Esther Gold loves Halloween more than anything in the world. So she is determined to go trick-or-treating again this year despite the fact that her parents think she is officially too old. Esther has it all planned out, from her costume to her candy-collecting strategy. But when the night rolls around, something feels . . . off.

No one is answering their door. The moon is an unnatural shade of orange. Strange children wander the streets, wearing creepy costumes that might not be costumes at all. And it seems like the only people besides Esther who are awake to see it all are her best friend, her school bully, and her grown-up next-door neighbor.

Together, this unlikely crew must find a way to lift the curse that has been placed upon their small town before it’s too late. Because someone is out to make sure Halloween never comes to an end. And even Esther doesn’t want to be trapped in this night forever.

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Review

The Halloween Moon is the perfect book to break out for Halloween, whether you’re an actual child or a just a child at heart. With engaging characters, a wild plot, and a setting that transforms magically from Southern California to a Halloween nightmare, the story has everything you could ask for.

I’ve read mysteries and thrillers and books about witches or zombies, but I’ve never before read a book so purely about Halloween itself. The Halloween Moon, while a scary book with a plot focused on adventure and a bit of a mystery (aka WHY ARE ALL THESE SCARY THINGS HAPPENING???) is a celebration of all aspects of the holiday: costumes, scary movies, trick-or-treating, candy, decorating your yard, and more. If you want a book that will truly immerse you in the spooky season, led by a protagonist who loves the holiday deeply herself, this is it.

I love that the book starts out focused on “normal” Halloween things, like Esther’s questions over what costume she should wear to school and whether her best friend will go trick-or-treating with her, and then things begin to take a more sinister shape as Esther starts seeing actual monsters. She loves being scared, but does she love being THIS scared? Isn’t the fun of scares at Halloween knowing that it’s all fake? Esther (and friends, some of them delightfully unexpected) rise to the challenge, however, and soon are fighting to bring back normal Halloween in a fast-paced and exciting plot.

The story also grounds itself in some real-world issues, such as the antisemitism Esther faces and her fears about growing up and going to high school next year. There are times I think the narrative voice might get too in the weeds pontificating on the nature of change and whatnot, but overall it’s very thoughtful.

Truly, this is an excellent read. It will be enjoyable any time of year, but you definitely won’t regret reading it around Halloween itself.

Briana
4 stars

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

The False Prince

Information

Goodreads: The False Prince
Series: Ascendance #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2012

Summary

Forcibly taken from his orphanage, Sage finds himself embroiled in a courtly intrigue. Conner, a regent of the realm, has a daring plan to prevent the kingdom from falling into civil war. He will train four orphan boys to present themselves as the long-lost prince. Only one boy can be chosen, however, and Sage will have to use all his wits to outmaneuver not only Conner, but also the other orphans.

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Review

The False Prince is a gripping old-school YA fantasy, focused solely on the delights of watching an under-estimated orphan boy outwit those who would control him. Readers may believe that they can predict the outcome of the book, but Sage’s actions will keep them guessing. How much does he really know and control, and how much is simply chance? The plot kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time, and I promptly put in a request for the sequel. I wish more YA books were written like this one.

Much of the appeal of The False Prince is its pure escapism. The story notes political worries and, of course, political intrigue forms the foundation of the story. Sage must outmaneuver those who would control him as a puppet prince, or even have him killed, because they have their own political aspirations, or because they wish to see the country go in a different direction than the direction the previous, weak monarch took. Even so, however, the book does not go into the gritty details of politics. It does not make everything seem ugly and dirty, or suggest that nothing can ever change, or make bold statements about how all monarchs are tyrants and must be replaced by more modern-day social structures. Rather, the book has an implicit faith that a ruler can be good, can create positive change. It is infused with a sense of hope, the belief that putting the right ruler on the throne is something worth fighting for.

That is not to say that the book does not go dark places, or that it does not depict morally grey characters. Characters are tortured and killed. Female characters face the constant threat of sexual assault. And nearly all of the characters have to make choices that put their lives and safety in conflict with their values. The story never suggests that there are only easy choices out there. But it does hold out the hope that people’s actions can be meaningful.

More contemporary YA fantasies seem to be delving darker and deeper, often with the effect that change seems out of reach and everything is grim. Choices are often between bad and worse. For many, these depictions constitute “realism.” The great joy of fiction, however, is that is enables us to conceive of alternate realities, ones where everything does not have to be terrible, and people do not have to be the impotent pawns of more powerful forces. The False Prince imagines a world where people matter, and where violence and evil are not countered with more violence and evil, but with selflessness and honesty. These are the kinds of stories that I miss.

So, if you are looking for a YA fantasy that combines thrilling intrigue with a sense of hope, look no farther. The False Prince is escapism at its finest–the kind of escapism that dares readers to dream of change.

4 stars

Defy the Night by Brigid Kemmerer

Information

Goodreads: Defy the Night
Series: Defy the Night #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: September 2021

Official Summary

The kingdom of Kandala is on the brink of disaster. Rifts between sectors have only worsened since a sickness began ravaging the land, and within the Royal Palace, the king holds a tenuous peace with a ruthless hand.

King Harristan was thrust into power after his parents’ shocking assassination, leaving the younger Prince Corrick to take on the brutal role of the King’s Justice. The brothers have learned to react mercilessly to any sign of rebellion–it’s the only way to maintain order when the sickness can strike anywhere, and the only known cure, an elixir made from delicate Moonflower petals, is severely limited.

Out in the Wilds, apothecary apprentice Tessa Cade is tired of seeing her neighbors die, their suffering ignored by the unyielding royals. Every night, she and her best friend Wes risk their lives to steal Moonflower petals and distribute the elixir to those who need it most–but it’s still not enough.

As rumors spread that the cure no longer works and sparks of rebellion begin to flare, a particularly cruel act from the King’s Justice makes Tessa desperate enough to try the impossible: sneaking into the palace. But what she finds upon her arrival makes her wonder if it’s even possible to fix Kandala without destroying it first.

Star Divider

Review

Brigid Kemmerer has long written captivating YA contemporary, but she broke into the fantasy scene with the bestselling A Curse So Dark and Lonely (Cursebreakers #1), and she’s following up that success with Defy the Night, a book with a different setting but similar themes and moral questions. While the themes are familiar, the plot is different, and I enjoyed every minute reading about Tessa and her country and the people’s attempts to find healing and hope.

One of my biggest complaints about the Cursebreakers series (as much as I enjoyed it) is that the politics rarely made sense. I can tell that Kemmerer really wanted to address that here, and there are a lot of more explanations of the political system and why things are being done and why things that look like better options are not being done. While it’s still not perfect, I am much more satisfied with the explanations in Defy the Night, and I love how far Kemmerer has come in this regard.

On the flip side, she still has a fixation (like in Cursebreakers) with trying to create a morally gray love interest who does evil things and asking questions like whether the evil is necessary and whether the person is really bad, etc. It didn’t work out for me in Cursebreakers, and it’s still not working out for me here. There are often things I really do NOT think the love interest HAD to do and that there were clearly kinder options. I like the love interest as a whole, and I think the romance is quite swoon worthy, but I just don’t think this repeated theme of, “Are people who do evil things actually good?” is working out the way Kemmerer likely hopes it is for readers.

I enjoyed Tessa as a character, and while she’s introduced as some thieving badass scaling walls, that’s not her persona in most of the book. Her defining character seems to be kindness, and her hopes are for peace and healing. (In many ways, like the female characters in Cursebreakers. Sorry, I can’t stop drawing comparisons. They’re just too obvious.) I do love THIS recurring theme, that kindness is important and possibly more powerful than fear or violence or even cleverness.

The side characters really shine here, too, from the king to the Palace Master to Tessa’s friends at home. Some of them disappear from the narrative, only to come back stronger later and really add something to the narrative. Characterization and making readers care about the people in her books is truly one of Kemmerer’s strengths.

This book really isn’t Cursebreakers, as much as it reminds me of it. It’s a fast-paced fantasy with memorable characters that can stand on its own. It’s found a lot of fans already and is likely to find a lot more.

Briana
4 stars