The Circus at the End of the Sea by Lori R. Snyder

The Circus at the End of the Sea Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: The Circus at the End of the Sea
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: October 2021

Summary

Maddy has never had a family or a place to call home. So when she feels the tug of magic calling her in Venice, California, she hops off the bus headed to her new group home. She discovers by the sea a magical circus, but, with the Ringmaster missing, the circus may soon have to close. Maddy offers to help, and suddenly finds herself on a wild adventure.

Star Divider

Review

The Circus at the End of the Sea seems like just the quirky kind of middle grade fantasy I would love. It is filled with plenty of heart as well as magic, and I yearned to connect with the characters and to immerse myself in the world. Ultimately, however, it felt like the story was trying just a little too hard to be quirky for me to find it truly delightful. And I never connected with the protagonist Maddy, who possesses an amazingly bland personality, yet still overcomes each obstacle thrown her way with relative ease, as the apparent Chosen One. The Circus at the End of the Sea may find more love from its target audience, but I never felt the enchantment.

The story begins, of course, with an assurance that the protagonist Maddy is not like the other kids–and that, frankly, was enough for me to start the book with skepticism. Maddy, you see, can feel the tug of magic. And she still believes, even though she has learned not to tell anyone else. Yet there seems to be nothing particularly special about Maddy. She is not particularly kind or wise or brave–she actually comes across as kind of unlikable in her aversion to other children and her seeming resentment at having to be nice to her seatmate on the bus, a young girl who is worried about going to a new group home, but who is unable to see magic and, thus, ultimately too boring for Maddy to want to engage with forever. When thinking about her potential future, Maddy actually thinks back on this girl with horror–she can’t go back to that life and to more kids like that! So it was kind of hard for me to buy into the idea that Maddy was the only one who could save the circus, the only one who could complete the special tasks. The only thing special about her is that she loves magic. While this is often a sign of some great insight or openness or love of life in story books, Maddy does not really have any of that, just a desire to escape her current world.

The actual plot somehow seems rushed, as Maddy passes each challenge on her journey with comparative ease. Yes, there are few times when Maddy is confused, or fails, or has to ask for help. Generally, however, after a brief hiccup, she finds her way. The stories that often really grip me, that make me remember them long after I finish reading, are the ones where the heroes are truly challenged and even suffer. Maddy does suffer from loneliness, of course–because she apparently does not like any of the kids she has ever met before finding one who is, gasp, part of a magical circus–but most of this comes from telling rather than showing. And it is only sometimes related to the journey she must make to find the Ringmaster. While the book ultimately has a heartwarming message about finding one’s self by accepting one’s self, the good as well as the bad, Maddy finds this acceptance without much struggle, and that weakens both the story and her characterization.

Ultimately, The Circus at the End of the Sea is not the kind of story that will stay with me. I enjoyed many of the characters, I was entertained briefly by the plot, and I approved (as a stuffy old grown-up, I suppose) of the Good Messages imparted to the intended child audience. However, I was not moved, and I do not foresee myself rereading this book, or even reading a sequel. It is a good book. Just not the gem I was hoping to find.

3 Stars

Tidesong by Wendy Xu

Tidesong Book Cover

Information

GoodreadsTidesong
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: November 2021

Summary

Sophie longs to attend the prestigious Royal Academy of Magic, but instead is sent to learn her family’s special magic from her aunt and grandmother. But all her grandmother does is assign her chores! Determined to prove her power, Sophie attempts a difficult spell–and accidentally traps a dragon in human form. Can Sophie find a way to undo her magic?

Star Divider

Review

Tidesong is a gentle fantasy reminiscent of a Studio Ghibli film. Young witch-in-training Sophie longs to prove herself, but her self doubt gets in the way of her ability to take direction. As a result, she creates a magical mishap that nearly results in disaster for both humans and dragons. The plot is simple, but also fast paced, so young readers can feel like they experienced a lot of action and growth in a short time.

The greatest strength of Tidesong just may be its illustrations, which are charming and sweet–and sure to appeal to the growing number of manga fans. The high stakes that are supposed to be a result of Sophie’s actions are not always effectively conveyed. However, Sophie’s emotions are–and those form the heart of the story.

Because, in the end, Tidesong is not really a book about human-dragon relationships, or magical training, or even finding one’s self. Tidesong is about a girl who seems to be experiencing anxiety, and who must learn not to listen to the voice in her head that tells her she is a failure. Every time someone offers constructive criticism, even in an encouraging and supportive way, Sophie hears that she is not good enough, and never will be. Her self-doubt is helpfully conveyed in red text boxes with jagged edges, showing struggle she experiences to believe in herself. But only by believing in herself can she undo the trouble she has caused with her magic.

Tidesong is not exactly the world’s most memorable story, or the most heartfelt. The action occurs too quickly, and so do the character arcs, to feel truly meaningful. It is, however, a sweet, feel-good book. Just the kind to cozy up with when one needs something uplifting.

Read Briana’s review of Tidesong.

3 Stars

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

Last Graduate bookstagram photo

Information

Goodreads: The Last Graduate
Series: The Scholomance #2
Age Category: Adult
Source: Gift
Published: September 28, 2021

Official Summary

At the Scholomance, El, Orion, and the other students are faced with their final year–and the looming specter of graduation, a deadly ritual that leaves few students alive in its wake. El is determined that her chosen group will survive, but it is a prospect that is looking harder by the day as the savagery of the school ramps up. Until El realizes that sometimes winning the game means throwing out all the rules . . .

Star Divider

Review

I loved the first Scholomance book, A Deadly Education, with its depiction of a mysteriously dangerous school and a protagonist with edges who secretly wants to do the right thing, even with the time it spends on info dumps. The Last Graduate continues in much the same vein, with a few minor changes in tone, so I was once again captivated by the world of the Scholomance.

I admit that while I defended the info dumps in book one because I just found them fascinating, I found them slightly more off-putting this time around. I would have expected that, since so much stuff had been explained in the other book that it wouldn’t be so necessary in The Last Graduate, but Novik is still going all-in on world building and making sure readers know every bit of it. Every time anything is introduced, a new mal, a new classroom, a new student, a new school tradition, etc., it gets paragraphs of background and explanation. It’s still interesting, but I can see how it’s not for every reader. And due to the ending of The Last Graduate, I know we’re going to get even more info dumps in book three.

But I did still love the book! Novik throws in new challenges for El and her friends to fight as they prepare for graduation, not exactly sure what they’ll be facing even with the cleansing mechanism in the graduation hall supposedly fixed, and as the school seems to change its modus operandi. El thought she knew how the Scholomance functions and how the mals target students, but everything she learned in three years gets turned on its head, and she has to adapt to continue to survive.

I do have slightly mixed feelings about the fact El seems genuinely nicer in this installment. I get its character development, but since so much of book one showcased her harsh exterior, her isolation, her instinct to mainly look out for herself even as she was kind of looking out for others by refusing to use her powers for evil, it’s weird to see her become basically the most altruistic character in the book. She’s still brusque, but she’s so often looking out for other people at her own expense that it’s a little jarring.

The romance is, as ever, meh. The nature of the school is, of course, that relationships are a distraction and getting pregnant (since there’s basically no birth control) is like a death sentence, so of course El tries to avoid the situation. But it’s hard for me as a reader to buy into any chemistry between the characters when El keep avoiding the love interest or insulting him. At least he’s interesting as an individual character.

Still, this is an amazing story. It still feels like something I haven’t read before and like something I desperately want to read more of when it comes out. If you got through book one because the info dumps weren’t a turn-off, you’ll enjoy this one, as well.

Briana
4 stars

The Wickeds by Gayle Forman

The Wickeds book cover

Information

GoodreadsThe Cleaners
Series: Faraway Collection (Amazon Original)
Age Category: Adult
Source: Free with Prime trial
Published: December 15, 2020

Official Summary

The reviled villainesses of Snow White, Cinderella, and Rapunzel team up to set the record straight in a subversively funny short story by the #1 New York Times bestselling author of If I Stay.

Envious queen? Evil stepmother? Kidnapping hag? Elsinora, Gwendolyn, and Marguerite are through with warts-and-all tabloids, ugly lies, and the three ungrateful brats who pitted them against each other and the world. But maybe there’s more to the stories than even the Wickeds know. Is it time to finally get revenge? After all, they’re due for a happily-enough-ever-after. Even if they have to write it themselves.

Star Divider

Review

One of 5 Amazon-exclusive short fairy tale retellings from beloved authors, The Wickeds is the only one in the collection I really felt was worth reading. (You can read my review of The Cleaners by Ken Liu here.) To start, The Wickeds is a bit longer than some of the authors, giving a little more time for character development; it also has an interesting premise– trying to make readers wonder if the wicked stepmothers of classic fairy tales might have been misunderstood or even sabotaged (Who made the magic mirror say mean things anyway?). Did they really behave badly? If they did, perhaps their position was understandable?

Now, I don’t think the story succeeds 100% at making the evil characters sympathetic. Many of them did, in fact, actually do things that were pretty horrible! But it was fun following them on their journey to unravel exactly how things played out in the lives, what parts were under their control and what parts weren’t, and which people were actually cruel to them but got away with having a clean reputation.

As with The Cleaners, I’m also not convinced the story is distinctly YA. After all, it follows a bunch of characters who must be in their fifties, and one of the defining characters of YA is that the story has a teen protagonist; however, there’s a lot of crossover appeal here. I see no reason why a YA reader wouldn’t enjoy it.

So, this is fun. It doesn’t quite hit the mark with its message because things aren’t neatly separated into boxes of, “This person was nice and never did something cruel” and “This person was mean for no reason,” but it gives the reader a lot to think about, and the execution of the idea feels pretty original. I do hate that the book fell into the trap where an author seems to believe that a good short story has an ambiguous ending, though.

Briana
4 stars

The Captive Kingdom by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Captive Kingdom Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: The Captive Kingdom
Series: Ascendance #4
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

King Jaron’s ship is attacked at sea and he is taken prisoner by the mysterious Captain Strick and her crew. They claim they have evidence that Jaron killed his parents, and stole the throne from his brother. Could Darius still be alive?

Star Divider

Review

When I first started reading The Captive Kingdom, I had my doubts. Jennifer A. Nielsen excelled at depicting Sage’s cleverness in The False Prince, when he only had to outwit three other people, but has struggled to make Jaron’s success believable on a large scale. Too often, Jaron has succeeded only by a combination of sheer luck (on his side) and sheer stupidity (on his enemies’ side). The laughable opening of The Captive Kingdom almost made me stop reading. I persevered, however, and ultimately enjoyed the drama of the story, even if most of it makes no sense.

The Captive Kingdom begins with Jaron’s ship being overtaken by a unknown enemy. Though Jaron is returning from a trade meeting with an allied country, he has chosen to travel by pirate ship instead of by a mode of transportation more fitting for a king. One might think that this is a good thing–the pirates are supposed to ruthless, their propensity for violence and death legendary. They must be good protection, right? Well, any reader of these books knows the pirates are about as fearsome as a dust bunny. The book begins with the pirates all hiding belowdecks when an enemy ship appears. They immediately hand over Jaron, get captured, and meekly start serving as crewmen for their conquerors. I understand that Nielsen wants Jaron to be a prisoner for reasons of plot, but if this is the only way? Well, I almost stopped reading here because the whole scene was so laughable.

Still, I forged on, and though I cannot say that Nielsen’s grasp on politics or logic has vastly improved, I can say that I was entertained. As usual, Jaron makes a lot of crazy decisions that readers hope are actually someone genius and not just stupid. And, half of the time, they work. It’s exciting! Anyone who has enjoyed the previous three books will find pretty much the same fare here.

But Nielsen is, I think, consciously trying to address some of the weaknesses of the previous books. Imogene, for instance, typically gets taken prisoner and is missing from the stories. This time, she plays a more active role. (Amarinda gets taken prisoner and is missing from the story, instead. Oh well.) Other women also become more prominent; Jaron is captured by a female captain and allies himself with a girl from a conquered nation. Previously, Imogene and Amarinda were pretty much the only females in the books. Roden’s relationship with Jaron is also explored more, as he pushes back on Jaron’s devil-may-care ruling style–a style that probably should worry all of Carthya, if only they knew.

The plot is, frankly, a bit too sensational for me to take seriously. Some of the wild plot twists read more like fan fiction than anything else. I think the twists are supposed to be shocking, but they are so bizarre they end up being obvious. And the choices made by characters are choices that tend to conveniently serve the plot; they do not seem like choices that make sense for the characters.

I imagine fans of the Ascendance series will be divided on this one. Some may love going on another adventure with Jaron, while others may feel that the legacy of the past three books is spoiled by the crazy plot twists. I personally was not a fan of the big reveals because they seem like poor writing–just easy ways to create drama. But I was entertained enough that I will probably read book five. It can’t be any worse.

3 Stars

20 YA Fantasy Stanadalones

20 YA Fantasy Standalones

Looking for a young adult fantasy novel but don’t want to get caught up in reading a series? Check out our list of YA fantasy standalones! Find our first list of YA fantasy standalone recommendations here.

Star Divider

The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

Candle and the Flame

Fatima lives in the city of Noor–only one of three humans not killed by the Shayateen djinn. Now, however, the city is ruled by the milder Ifrit djinn. But when one of the Ifrit djinn dies, Fatima finds herself drawn into the conspiracies of the ruling elite.

smaller star divider

We Rule the Night by Claire Eliza Bartlett

The Union has been at war for years and the situation is growing desperate.  The draft age has been lowered once again and, even worse, the army is now reduced to recruiting women who wield illegal magic in order to power a new flight unit.  Revna is a disgraced factory worker whose skill manipulating the Weave gains her a spot in the unit.  Linné is the disgraced daughter of a general, angry she was caught serving in the regular army as a “boy.” Now they have to work together both to complete their missions and to gain the first women’s flight unit the respect it deserves.

smaller star divider

Cinderella Is Dead by Kaylynn Bayron

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

smaller star divider

Vial of Tears by Cristin Bishara

Vial of Tears cover

Sixteen-year-old sisters Samira and Rima don’t have the easiest lives. Their dad is dead and their mom regularly disappears, gambling away the little money then have. Then a mysterious box arrives from their Lebanese grandfather and, in it, a cursed coin sought by an angry god. Shortly the sisters find themselves in the Phoenician underworld, trying to escape.

smaller star divider

Lore by Alexandra Bracken

Lore Book Cover

Every seven years, nine Greek gods must become mortals and be hunted. The humans who defeat them become gods themselves. Lore turned her back on that life after her family was brutally murdered by a man now turned a god. But then a childhood friend asks for her help, as does the goddess Athena. Lore believes this is her chance to escape the hunt forever, but her alliance will come at a cost

smaller star divider

Into the Bloodred Woods by Martha Brockenbrough

Into the Bloodred Woods

Upon his death, King Tryan divides his land, giving half to his son Albrecht and half to his daughter Ursula. But Albrecht is not content with half. He overtakes her land and declares himself king. Now Ursula is gathering followers to take back what is hers–as well as the land that was Albrecht’s.

smaller star divider

Bright Ruined Things by Samantha Cohoe

Bright Ruined Things

Mae has spent her whole love on the island owned by the Prospers, and she dreams of being trained as a magician like the patriarch of the family. But then the spirits on the island start dying. And Mae might have to consider that the family’s magic is very different from what she thought.

smaller star divider

A Golden Fury by Samantha Cohoe

Daughter of a famous alchemist, Thea Hope longs to create the legendary Philosopher’s Stone with her mother. But when her mother destroys the Stone in a fit of madness, Thea finds herself shipped off to England to live with the father she has never met. She believes making the Stone could cure her mother–but others want the Stone and its power, as well.

House of Salt and Sorrow by Erin A. Craig

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

smaller star divider

Beasts of Prey by Ayana Gray

Beasts of Prey

Sixteen-year-old Koffi is indentured to the Night Zoo, which houses terrible and fearsome creatures. Then one night she unleashes a power she did not know she possessed. On the run, she encounters a monster called a Shetani and a hunter named Ekon. Now all their fates are intertwined.=

smaller star divider

Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

Thirty years ago, the gods tore each other apart. Now scavengers search the deep for pieces of their bodies to sell for technology. When fifteen-year-old Hark finds a still beating heart of a long-dead deity, he uses it to heal his best friend Jelt. But Jelt starts to change. Can Hark prevent him from becoming a monster?

smaller star divider

Descendant of the Crane by Joan He

Descendant of the Crane Book Cover

Princess Hesina of Yan unexpectedly ascends the throne when her father is murdered. Determined to discover the culprit, Hesina consults an illegal soothsayer and uses the information she gains to hire a convicted criminal to investigate. But, with an unstable kindgom, Hesina will have to find answers before everything crumbles around her.

smaller star divider

Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth Meyer

In the forest, a witch captures souls to feed to the heartless tree, and thus expand her domain. But then one of her daughters, Seren, saves the life of a man. Seren longs to be human, but finds herself drawn into a war.

smaller star divider

Sing Me Forgotten by Jessica S. Olson

Because Isda can manipulate the memories of people who sing, she was cast in a well to die at birth. The owner of the opera house saved her. But now Isda finds herself attracted to the handsome Emeric–and in his memories a chance for her to escape the life she’s been given.

smaller star divider

Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte

Four Dead Queens

Seventeen-year-old Keralie Corrington is a skilled thief whose life becomes intertwined with that of Varin when she steals a package from him, thus endangering his life. But their interactions become more complicated when they find themselves investigating the deaths of four queens. Only by discovering the culprit can they save their own lives.

smaller star divider

Jade Fire Gold by June C. L. Tan

Altan is the lost heir to the throne. He believes that Ahn, a peasant girl with magical abilities, can help him reclaim his birthright and get revenge. But their quest puts both their lives in danger.

smaller star divider

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Determined to prove himself a brujo to his family, Yadriel attempts to summon the ghost of his murdered cousin to set him free. Instead, his summons Julian, and Julian will not leave until he solves the mystery of his murder. Soon, Yadriel does not want Julian to leave at all.

smaller star divider

Lost in the Neverwoods by Aiden Thomas

Five years ago, Wendy and her brothers went missing. Only Wendy returned. Now, she has found an unconscious boy in the woods–a boy named Peter who seems to remember the time she cannot. He says that if they do not act, other children in the town will disappear, as well. But Wendy is not sure she is ready to face her past.

smaller star divider

A Rush of Wings by Laura E. Weymouth

Rowenna Winthrop has magic in her veins, but her mother Mairead will not teach her how to use it, believing that Rowenna lacks control. Then Mairead dies, leaving their Scottish village unprotected. And a woman wearing the shape of Mairead appears to take her place. She transforms Rowenna’s brothers into swans and takes Rowenna’s voice. Now Rowenna is on the run. And she will have to claim her power if she is to save her family.

smaller star divider

The Last Legacy by Adrienne Young

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. A companion book to Fable and Namesake.

For the Wolf by Hannah F. Whitten

For the Wolf book cover

Information

Goodreads: For the Wolf
Series: Wilderwood #1
Age Category: Adult
Source: Purchased
Published: June 1, 2021

Official Summary

The first daughter is for the Throne.
The second daughter is for the Wolf.

For fans of Uprooted and The Bear and the Nightingale comes a dark fantasy novel about a young woman who must be sacrificed to the legendary Wolf of the Wood to save her kingdom. But not all legends are true, and the Wolf isn’t the only danger lurking in the Wilderwood.

As the only Second Daughter born in centuries, Red has one purpose-to be sacrificed to the Wolf in the Wood in the hope he’ll return the world’s captured gods.

Red is almost relieved to go. Plagued by a dangerous power she can’t control, at least she knows that in the Wilderwood, she can’t hurt those she loves. Again.

But the legends lie. The Wolf is a man, not a monster. Her magic is a calling, not a curse. And if she doesn’t learn how to use it, the monsters the gods have become will swallow the Wilderwood-and her world-whole.

Star Divider

Review

Reading For the Wolf was a bit of a letdown because most readers seem to have been raving about it since its release in June 2021; it was also nominated for 2021 Goodreads Choice Award. However, I found the book repetitive and don’t think it offered much of a new take on a old tale.

For the Wolf is essentially a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling, set in a magical woods and more enmeshed with the larger-scale politics of the surrounding kingdom than a lot of fairy tale retellings. Normally I love reading “Beauty and the Beast” books, but because it’s a common tale to base a retelling on and because I’ve read a large number of variations on the story, it’s often hard for me to think that any of them stand out. For the Wolf simply . . . doesn’t.

One of its main points seem to be the ~atmospheric~ setting of the magical, dangerous, sentient forest, but I have to say a lot of books that center themselves on having an atmospheric woodsy vibe also sound the same to me. The reader goes on about trees (often in a nonspecific way that doesn’t convince me they truly know that much about trees) and the oppressive, mysterious feeling of the trees, and the characters walk around the trees and discuss their fear of trees and . . . it kind of gets monotonous. That’s even truer in For the Wolf, which has some truly repetitive prose. I think it was supposed to add to the character of the book and really get readers into the minds of the main character, but it was odd feeling like I was reading a passage for the fourth or fifth time in the book.

That said, I didn’t think For the Wolf was terrible or anything. It’s a pretty solid “Beauty and the Beast” retelling with some mystery and romance, and the author works hard to add in the political, historical, and religious aspects that are meant to differentiate it from other retellings. I do wonder if those things will come more to the front in the sequel (which I am not planning to read). A lot of people love this book, and I can kind of seem why, but to me it just felt long and like dozens of other books I read before.

Briana
3 Stars

Melisande by E. Nesbit

Melisande Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: Melisande
Series: None
Age Category: Children’s
Source: Library
Published: 1901

Summary

At her christening, the princess Melisande is cursed by an evil fairy to be bald forever. Still, Melisande grows up good and loving. Then she is offered a wish and, to please her mother the queen, Melisande wishes for golden hair that grows an inch a day and twice as fast when cut! Now Melisande has a new problem.

Star Divider

Review

In Melisande, E. Nesbit presents a fairy that still feels fresh and modern. Cursed at her christening by an evil fairy, the princess Melisande later wishes for hair that grows an inch a day and twice as fast when cut. Thus starts a mathematical problem that soon stymies the whole kingdom. How can they keep Melisande comfortable when she has so much hair? And what in the world are they going to do with all that hair once they cut it? Readers will delight in this story that cautions them to be careful of what they wish for.

What I loved about Melisande (aside from the mathematical angle) is that, though it relies on some familiar fairy tropes, it also feels free to play with them. At the start, readers learn that the king and queen specifically do not hold a christening party so no one can be accidentally overlooked, and thus offended. What happens is they offend everyone. This is the start of their dilemma when an insulted fairy curses the baby with baldness.

But the story does more than showcase Nesbit’s familiarity with fairy tales, and her sense of humor in alluding to them. It also presents Melisande as active and admirable. From the start, Melisande is admirable because she is kind, not because she is beautiful or because she is rich. She only wishes for golden hair because her mother desires it. And, once she experiences the fallout from that wish, she still thinks of others, using her hair to help the kingdom and her other mishaps to prevent violence and war. All this is while the Prince Florizel is trying to think of a way to stop her hair from growing so he can win her hand in marriage. She is not just waiting around for him. Melisande is keeping busy.

Lovers of fairy tales will delight in Melisande. It keeps some of the familiar parts of old tales, such as the true love between the prince and the princess, while adding aspects that keep the story feeling contemporary. How Florizel solves the riddle of Melisande’s hair will keep readers guessing. But it might well be Melisande who wins readers hearts over with her kindness.

4 stars

Little Thieves by Margaret Owen

Information

Goodreads: Little Thieves
Series: Little Thieves #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Purchased
Published: October 19, 2021

Official Summary

Once upon a time, there was a horrible girl…

Vanja Schmidt knows that no gift is freely given, not even a mother’s love–and she’s on the hook for one hell of a debt. Vanja, the adopted goddaughter of Death and Fortune, was Princess Gisele’s dutiful servant up until a year ago. That was when Vanja’s otherworldly mothers demanded a terrible price for their care, and Vanja decided to steal her future back… by stealing Gisele’s life for herself.

The real Gisele is left a penniless nobody while Vanja uses an enchanted string of pearls to take her place. Now, Vanja leads a lonely but lucrative double life as princess and jewel thief, charming nobility while emptying their coffers to fund her great escape. Then, one heist away from freedom, Vanja crosses the wrong god and is cursed to an untimely end: turning into jewels, stone by stone, for her greed.

Vanja has just two weeks to figure out how to break her curse and make her getaway. And with a feral guardian half-god, Gisele’s sinister fiancé, and an overeager junior detective on Vanja’s tail, she’ll have to pull the biggest grift yet to save her own life.

Star Divider

Review

Apparently I like Margaret Owen’s books so much that I have a tendency simply to never review them at all. I loved The Merciful Crow but never reviewed it, and I was going to give up on writing anything for Little Thieves, as well — except I put it on my list of best YA books I’ve read this year, which feels like it merits a full review. Owen’s books are complex, well-written, and unique, the kind of books I remember long after I’ve read them and that I immediately think of when I’m coming up with ideas for books I want to buy as gifts.

Little Thieves is a retelling of “The Goose Girl,” but from the perspective of the girl who steals the rightful princess’s identity. Owen’s talent is such that, while readers have to recognize that Vanja is technically wrong and has a lot of flaws that extend beyond “stealing someone’s identity and practically leaving her for dead,” they’ll also see Vanja’s point of view. In some ways, one wants to believe it makes sense that she does the things that she does, that they might be wrong but . . . are they extremely wrong?

There is, of course, also a lot of action in the book, and anyone who loves complex fantasy that mixes intrigue and magic with a badass skilled protagonist who gets things done that no one else can will find exactly what they want in Little Thieves. Add lushly descriptive writing, some family relationship drama, quotable philosophical bits, and a love interest both clever and a little awkward, and this feels like the perfect read.

If you love fantasy, any fantast (you don’t need to be a YA fan), this is definitely a book to look out for.

Briana
5 stars

Into the Bloodred Woods by Martha Brockenbrough

Information

Goodreads: Into the Bloodred Woods
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: November 2, 2021

Official Summary

This is Martha Brockenbrough’s feminist twisting of the Brother Grimms’ stories, Game of Thrones-style.

Once upon a time there was a kingdom and a forest that liked to eat men and a girl who would change everything, but not alone . . .

Except-

There’s no such thing as once upon a time.

In a far away land, populated by were beasts and surrounded by a powerful forest, lies a kingdom about to be sent into chaos. On his deathbed, King Tyran divides his land, leaving half to each of his two children-so they’ll rule together. However, his son, Albrecht, is not satisfied with half a kingdom. And even though his sister, Ursula, is the first born, he decides that as a girl and were bear, she is unfit to rule. So he invades her land, slaughtering her people and most of the were beasts, and claims it for himself. As King Albrecht builds his iron rule and an army of beasts to defend his reign, Ursula is gathering the survivors and making plans to take back the kingdom. Not just her half-the whole thing. Because Albrecht should have never been allowed to sit on the throne, and Ursula is going to take his crown. And if he’s not careful, he might not get to keep his head either.

Star Divider

Review

Into the Bloodred Woods is likely to be a polarizing book. It’s original and gripping, but it’s also extremely gruesome. Readers who aren’t looking for a story with sexual assault and explicitly described bloody violence aren’t likely to rate the book high, but readers looking for something as dark as the Brothers Grimm tales the book is based are will be intrigued.

I personally, was NOT in the mood to read a book where terrible things happen to the characters left and right and the reading experience is almost more stressful than enjoyable, but I tried to look past that while I was reading and while I was reflecting on the book. I don’t WANT to read about people being tortured and bad guys getting away with things, but I have to admit that the book is technically well written. Martha Brockenbrough takes fairy tale stories readers are generally familiar with (Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, etc.), mixes them up, and creates something new. Wild, ugly things happen, but it’s hard to look away.

One potential issue is that there is such a large cast of characters that at times it’s difficult to be invested in each one as an individual, and it takes time to see how all their stories are going to fit together. However, this also gives the book something of an authentic fairy tale vibe. Traditional stories aren’t really about characterization and introspection, but more about plot and potential lessons, so having the characters not be 100% fully fleshed out here is not necessarily an issue.

I also have questions about whether this “kingdom” is simply the size of a large town and some surrounding farms but, again, complex geography and world building isn’t really the point here. It’s fairy tale vibes and intersecting stories of woman being abused while trying to wrest the power they deserve from men.

If you like the dark, mature bent YA has been taking in recent years, this book is for you. If you’re looking for something lighter, pass.

Briana
4 stars