Malice in Ovenland by Micheline Hess

malice-in-ovenlandINFORMATION

Goodreads: Malice in Ovenland
Series:  Malice in Ovenland Vol. 1
Source: Purchased
Published: 2016

SUMMARY

Lily Brown is expecting to spend the weekend completing the list of chores her mother left–but then she finds a tunnel leading from the back of the oven to a strange new world.  Who are the Oven Frites?  And why do they think Lily’s responsible for their recent grease drought?  Can Lily escape their prison and find her way home?

Review

The clever play on the title of Alice in Wonderland suggests that Micheline, much like Suzanne Collins in her Gregor the Overlander series, is rethinking children’s fantasy so it can star protagonists from the city.  And, of course, Hess is also featuring a girl who looks like many young readers, but who may not often appear in literature–a girl with brown skin, frizzy hair, and glasses.  Lily Brown is the fantasy heroine many have been waiting for.  Adventures aren’t just for Alice anymore!

It’s pretty cool that Lily can find adventure right in her own kitchen.  Unfortunately, however, though the characters are engaging, the artwork delightful, and the plot full of action, the premise is also…a little heavy-handed.  The story revolves around the anger of the Oven Frites when they learn no grease drips from the Browns’ oven anymore because Lily’s mom is cooking healthier meals.  But the Oven Frites don’t want to eat fruits and vegetables.  They want their fried, fatty foods back!

If you can get past the healthy eating message, the book is quite delightful.  There is some good material in here involving a haunted prison cell, a trio of elite Oven Frite rangers, and a charming traitor to the Oven Frites.  They may be kind of standard elements, but they work.  And sometimes a solid fantasy is all you really need.

[As an aside, Micheline Hess has also appeared on some panels and spoken about her art and Black women in comics.  Search her name and you can find her speaking at the Schomburg Center, with Black Enterprise, etc.]

4 starsKrysta 64

The Princess and the Page by Christina Farley

The Princess and the Page

Information

Goodreads: The Princess and the Page
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: March 28, 2017

Summary

Keira has no idea that her family are Word Weavers, who can make stories real by using a magical pen.  All she knows is that her mom hates stories; only lists, facts, and the “the truth” are allowed in their home.  So when Keira stumbles across a beautiful pen hidden in her parents’ bedroom, she takes it and begins to write a fairy tale,  But she has no idea what her words will unleash or the danger she will find herself in.

Review

Magical pens and stories springing to life sound like the perfect middle grade fantasy, so I was excited to read this one.  Who wouldn’t want the stories they put on the page to take on a life of their own?  Unfortunately, The Princess and the Page did not capture my attention the way I thought it would, and I closed the covers with some disappointment.

I thought the prose jarringly clunky and unsophisticated in general, and I considered DNFing because of it. I’ve talked about before how I think that many modern authors simply do not have great prose (Sorry!), but there’s neutral prose and prose that’s grating; Farley’s leans toward being the latter, and this is one thing I really cannot stand in books.  It’s also one thing that an editor cannot really fix for you, short of hiring a ghostwriter to redo all your sentences.

However, I continued powering through, only to discover that the book also contains one of my other least favorite things: ridiculous sounding pseudo Middle English. Farley lays it on thick, and the result is cringe-worthy.  The medieval character (technically French, but the book is in English so….) runs about spouting gems like this: “Thou art most certainly not what I was expecting, but that is nary a worry…Come hither!”  Worse, Farley is not consistent with the grammar.  (Seriously, Middle English has actual grammar rules you should look into if you want to emulate it.)  So the character says “Dost thou” but “thou can” instead of “thou canst.”  I simply couldn’t take a character who speaks like this seriously.  Think of writing medieval dialogue like writing accents in fiction; you want to give readers a taste of it, not write a character who sounds like a hilarious stereotype.

Beyond these issues, I was not a huge fan of the plot.  There are aspects of it that are interesting, since Keira has to deal with a story she wrote coming to life.  It also has a great setting, a mysterious castle in France, and the glamorous set-up that Keira has won an all expenses paid dream vacation there.  However, the novel is meant to be part mystery, as it takes Keira and her friends a while to figure out what’s happening in the castle, how the actions are related to the story she wrote, who is responsible for certain actions, etc.  The issue is that Farley relies on the trick of artificially withholding information in order to create suspense.  For instance, readers are never told how Keira’s fairy tale actually goes, so they have to wait for actions to happen in the text and Keira to reveal pages later that real life is mirroring her tale.  This also means the story is sometimes choppy because it’s not always clear what is going on.

There are things that I like about The Princess and the Page, but since I considered DNFing a couple times due to the prose and the jumpy plotting, I decided to give it two stars.  It has a pretty high overall rating on Goodreads, however (books about stories always seem to be a hit), so others might enjoy it even though I did not.

Briana

The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman, et al.

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists
Series:  None
Source: Library
Published: 1990

SUMMARY

Ten thousand years ago, Dream of the Endless sentenced a woman to hell because she would not be his queen.  Now, tortured by the thought that he might have been wrong, Dream determines to return to hell and release her.  But Lucifer is an old enemy and not likely to allow him entry.

Matt Wagner (Illustrator), George Pratt (Illustrator), Dick Giordano (Illustrator), Kelley Jones (Illustrator), P. Craig Russell (Illustrator), Mike Dringenberg (Illustrator), Malcolm Jones III(Illustrator) , Todd Klein (Letterer).

REVIEW

I admit that part of the reason I could never find myself part of Neil Gaiman’s massive fan base is because his prose annoys me.  It tries too hard to be “high,” to model itself on J. R. R. Tolkien, to say, “Look at me!  I am dramatic and clever!”  It jars me out of the story and causes me to contemplate why Gaiman thinks this is an effective writing style.  Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists begins with that same style.  It is full of repetition and elaborate names.  “Destiny of the Endless” gets a lot of play in the first few pages.  Fortunately, the story gets better and the plot is inventive enough that I am willing to suspend my usual distaste for Gaiman’s prose and admit that that I enjoyed this story.

To explain why I found this story so inventive and delightful would be to give away too many plot points.  So I will not say much, other than that  Gaiman plays with familiar characters and concepts and turns them on their heads.  Some might find his treatment of religion, of angels and demons, irreverent.  Gaiman clearly means them to be.  He is criticizing Christianity.  But in doing so, he raises questions about free will, about the nature of hell, about death.  He is exploring and probing and playing.  You do not have to agree with his conclusions or his apparent beliefs to appreciate his willingness to engage with such topics.

And the art is beautiful.  It is marred by a series of images that seem eroticize (often bound) women and to suggest that female sexuality is monstrous.  (Actually the treatment of women in general throughout the novel is arguably not great, both in the illustrations and in the text.)  However, if you are accustomed to trying to overlook sexism in an attempt to enjoy a graphic novel now and then, you may find it possible to appreciate the art anyway.  Even though the panels are fairly regular and the artists do not do much creatively with the spreads, the individual panels contain very detailed illustrations.  There is  a lot going on, to enjoy and to analyze.

Gaiman fans will not need my positive review of this work to continue appreciating his work and the large range of genres it encompasses.  Others, however, may be interested in knowing that this is the first Gaiman work I’ve read that has really captivated me.  I would be willing to try another book of his again, just to see if he can work his magic again.

4 stars

Bayou Vol. 1 by Jeremy Love

bayou-1INFORMATION

Goodreads: Bayou
Series:  Bayou #1
Source: Gift
Published: 2009

SUMMARY

The daughter of a sharecropper, Lee knows that times are tough and nothing good ever happens in the bayou.  Then Lee’s white friend Lily goes missing and Lee’s father Calvin is arrested for kidnapping.  There’s no evidence against Calvin, but Lee knows that will not save him from being lynched.  She also knows where Lily really is–she’s been taken by the bayou.  Determined to find Lily and save her father, Lee will enter a magical world full of monsters–some of them all too familiar.

Review

Set in Depression-era Mississippi, Bayou tells the story of the Jim Crow South through magical realism.  Lee Wagstaff lives by the bayou, where nothing good ever happens–indeed, she just had to recover the body of a Black boy, lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman.  And even though she considers herself friends with the daughter of the woman who owns the land her daddy works, race relations are fraught and life precarious.  When her friend Lily goes missing, her daddy is carted off to jail and Lee understands it’s only a matter of time before he’s dead.  So what’s a girl to do but grit her teeth and head into the bayou–the bayou where she saw a  monster gobble Lily whole.

Lee’s resilience and determination are inspiring, and bring some light to what is otherwise often a very dark book.  Much like the bayou, the book looks and feels magical, but there is also a dangerous current underneath.  It can be difficult to tell who is friend and who is foe.  And the world of the bayou begins to look strikingly like the world Lee left behind.  Those with power oppress those without, and might too often makes right.  No wonder Lee is so angry, so loud.  She understands she lives in an unfair world, and she wants to do something about it.

Though the protagonist is a child, this is no children’s story.  It’s full of violence, often graphic, and Jeremy Love does not want you to look away.  The graphic novel  medium allows him to shed light on the conditions of the Jim Crow South.   Lee and her father cannot escape the violence, the brutality, the degradation.  Readers, Love suggests, should not be able to try to escape to a more comfortable place either, but rather must engage with America’s bloody past.

Krysta 645 stars

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

strange the dreamer

Information

Goodreads: Strange the Dreamer
Series: Strange the Dreamer #1
Source: Library
Published: April 2017

Official Summary

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

Review

I really enjoyed the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, so I was stoked to hear about Strange the Dreamer.  But not stoked enough to buy the book; I waited until it was available at my library, so I’ve just read the novel recently.  My overall feelings: It’s beautiful and imaginative and skillfully celebrates both book knowledge and field work, but it has a couple flaws.

First, the pacing is rather slow.  Taylor may be known for her prose and world building, but I think it’s possible to give such things slightly too much reign.  In Strange the Dreamer, it takes her 200 pages (no exaggeration; I checked) to introduce the main point of the novel.  Sure, she introduces the world and the characters, but she does that thing where authors withhold information; readers are not told for 200 pages who one of the main characters is, what she’s doing, or how her life is going to intersect with the other protagonist’s.  I like long books, but I don’t like this.  I think Taylor could have tightened things up.

Second, the romance is not compelling.  I love the two protagonists individually, but together…meh.  I don’t want to say much that spoils the plot, but their relationship felt too much to me like something that arose out of circumstances rather than something I really believed in.  Of course, all relationships depend on circumstances…living near someone, for example, but I left the book with too much doubt that these two would be together if things had been different in small ways.  When I read about romance, I want to feel the chemistry.

The rest of the book was stellar, however.  As I’ve mentioned, the world building is phenomenal.  Taylor really delves into the myth and lore and of her world and how it travels and evolved.  I also love that she combines love of research and book knowledge with a love of adventure and getting out and doing things.  For a while I thought she was going to pick one over the other and imply that, ultimately, spending your lives with texts is not as fulfilling as going out into world, but she nicely sets out the value of both.

Strange the Dreamer is thoughtful and imaginative, stocked with a varied set of complex characters–dreamers, doers, idealists, pragmatists.  I enjoyed entering this world.  However, I didn’t love the story quite enough that I’m truly interested in sequel, particularly as it is set up at the end of book one.  Perhaps I’ll get to it eventually, but it won’t be a priority for me at time of publication.

4 starsBriana

The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones

dark-lord-of-derkholmINFORMATION

Goodreads: The Dark Lord of Derkholm
Series:  Derkholm #1
Source: Gift
Published: 2016

SUMMARY

Every year Mr. Chesney’s Pilgrim Parties come from another world wreaking havoc as the wizards and villagers have to pretend that they are ruled by a Dark Lord and that the Pilgrims can fight battles to defeat him.  But constant pillaging and fighting means food is scarce, birth rates are down, and everyone is overworked.  Now the Oracle has prophesied that if Derk is appointed Dark Lord, the tours will end for good.  But is Derk competent enough to defeat Mr. Chesney and his demon?

Review

Diana Wynne Jones takes all the traditional elements of fantasy and upends them, creating a world where no Dark Lord rules and the kings and wizards do not fight each other, because they are all too tired planning for the Pilgrim Parties that tour through their lands each year.  One wizard is appointed Dark Lord and must act the part for six months, tearing down villages, scorching crops, and bespelling soldiers to fight for him.  Sometimes people really die.  Sometimes people are sent on tours specifically so they might.  But, generally speaking, all of it is a sham, a show put on for tourists from another universe who don’t understand how their tours are hurting the people they exploit.  Talk about a great concept for a fantasy novel!

This concept would have been sufficient for me, since it was pretty intriguing to see the economic  and human repercussions of the tours.  The Dark Lord has to ruin perfectly good houses to make it seem like he mistreats his people.  Towns have to allow the ransacking of their homes and the plundering of their harvests.  Slave girls have to be hired because tourists are really into that kind of exploitation, I suppose to no one’s surprise.  And meanwhile the villagers really do have nothing to eat because the crops are destroyed each year.  The dragons don’t have enough gold and birth rates are down.  And everyone feels too exhausted to fight back.

But then the book starts complicating things.  Illegal transactions are occurring and magic is disappearing, etc.  It felt like the story was trying to encompass too much by the end, leading to a looser and almost choppy narrative as the book tried to wrap up.  Gladiators!  Mines!  Thieves!  New revelations about tons of old characters!  In this case, less would have been more.  Focus on the Pilgrim Tours and how you plan to end them, leave the rest for the sequel.

I also have to note that the depictions in this book aren’t really up to modern standards of sensitive representation.  The slave girls, for example, are found in the Emirates.  It’s not clear if this is because the tourists themselves just expect slaves in a place called the Emirates, since the Emirates don’t actually have slaves.  But it’s still a jarring moment, one that seems to try to exoticize a region we might associate with our own Middle East.  And though the story touches a  little on how the “slave” girls feel exploited, the book does not fully explore this problem the way it might have.

All things considered, however, the book is a fun play on standard fantasy tropes and fans of the genre are sure to enjoy it.

4 starsKrysta 64

Blood Rose Rebellion by Rosalyn Eves

Blood Rose RebellionInformation

Goodreads: Blood Rose Rebellion
Series: Blood Rose Rebellion #1
Source: City Book Review
Published: March 28, 2017

Official Summary

Sixteen-year-old Anna Arden is barred from society by a defect of blood. Though her family is part of the Luminate, powerful users of magic, she is Barren, unable to perform the simplest spells. Anna would do anything to belong. But her fate takes another course when, after inadvertently breaking her sister’s debutante spell—an important chance for a highborn young woman to show her prowess with magic—Anna finds herself exiled to her family’s once powerful but now crumbling native Hungary.

Her life might well be over.

In Hungary, Anna discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. Not the people around her, from her aloof cousin Noémi to the fierce and handsome Romani Gábor. Not the society she’s known all her life, for discontent with the Luminate is sweeping the land. And not her lack of magic. Isolated from the only world she cares about, Anna still can’t seem to stop herself from breaking spells.

As rebellion spreads across the region, Anna’s unique ability becomes the catalyst everyone is seeking. In the company of nobles, revolutionaries, and Romanies, Anna must choose: deny her unique power and cling to the life she’s always wanted, or embrace her ability and change that world forever.

Review

Blood Rose Rebellion is generally an engaging book. It’s well-written with strong characters and an engaging plot.  Unfortunately, it reminds me of a lot of other YA fantasy I’ve been reading, and it doesn’t stand out from the crowd.  The marketing team for the book is comparing it to Red Queen, presumably because of the class differences that the book explores; magic is in the bloodlines of the ruling elite.  However, for me the story most brought to mind A Shadow Bright and Burning with its setting in an alternate 1800s Europe and focus on a female protagonist with unusual powers whose destiny may lead her to dispense magic to people to whom the ruling class declares it does not belong.  While both novels are good, reading them side by side does make them blend together, and I wish Blood Rose Rebellion had felt more original to me.

That issue aside, I very much liked the characters in the book, particularly protagonist Anna Arden. She’s passionate and idealistic but sometimes too impetuous for her own good. Her personality makes her a great main character to follow, as she’s always getting into one adventure or another.  I also enjoyed her grandmother, dignified but with a hidden strength, and her cousin who also has a hidden heart of  gold.

On the hand, I do wish the love interest had been more developed.  I know what I’m supposed to think about him–he’s smart, hardworking, and loyal to his family.  However, I felt as though this was often told to me rather than shown, and I didn’t feel a connection between him and Anna.  For me, the romance is not the high point of the story.

The world building is solid, and I felt like I could picture the magic system that Eves has created.  The historical aspects might have been better integrated, however, as I mostly got the general points that Hungary wants to be free from the Habsburgs and that Europe is in a general state of rebellion.  Anna mentions Queen Victoria of England in passing.  Eves does include an author’s note with some more historical details at the end of the book, but I would have liked this information to be included in the actual story.  I also could have done with fewer info dumps.

I think fans of YA fantasy will enjoy Blood Rose Rebellion, but I didn’t really read it at the right time to fall in love with it.

Briana