Akata Witch by Nnedi Okafor

Akata Witch Book Cover

Information

GoodreadsAkata Witch
Series: Nsibidi Scrolls #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2015

Summary

Sunny Nwazue lives in Nigeria, but grew up in the United States. She is also albino. And she feels like she does not fit in anywhere. Then, she learns that she has latent magical abilities. She is what is known as a free agent–a magical person with non-magical parents. And she has to keep her powers a secret.

Soon, she is training with three other students to learn how to control her abilities. But there is a criminal on the loose, a magical person who has been kidnapping and killing children. And Sunny and her friends might be the only ones who can stop him.

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Review

Akata Witch transports readers to a unique magical world where Leopard people train in secret right next to their Lamb neighbors. Where a person can walk between the physical and spiritual realms. Where the creatures of myth just might be real. Readers looking for a young adult fantasy that does not feel derivative or, indeed, like anything else on the market, will want to check out the inspired world of Akata Witch.

As in with any book that feels different, Akata Witch risks alienating some readers. The pacing and the build-up to the climax are uncommonly slow for a young adult read; most YA books seem to prioritize action-based, lightning-fast plots over anything else. Nnedi Okafora, however, takes time to develop the worldbuilding, luring in readers as slowly as the protagonist Sunny is lured into a strange new world of magic and danger. Without exaggerating, I believe I could estimate that the first three quarters of the book (at least) are just Sunny finding out that she has powers, attending magical lessons, and experiencing the magical world. Eventually, Sunny learns that she and friends will be called on to face and (hopefully) defeat a Leopard man who has been kidnapping children for his dark rituals. But, even then, the four do not undergo any special training or feel any sense of urgency about the matter. They attend a festival and play soccer instead. All this slow pacing ends abruptly in the fast-paced climax, however, when Sunny and her friends somehow manage to defeat an ancient evil without really knowing what they are doing.

The worldbuilding is, however, a delight, and readers who value that aspect of fantasy writing will find much to revel in here. Nnedi Okafor draws upon Nigerian folklore to create a world steeped in meaning and magic, a world that feels quite like anything else on the YA market. From the terrifying lessons with her Leopard teacher, to the magical market, to the recipes that apparently can kill or injure should the slightest ingredient go wrong, Sunny’s world is one that constantly surprises. It also keeps Sunny and the readers on their toes as, with any good fantasy world, the price of magic is very often danger. Sunny’s initiation into the Leopard world confronts her with a training system and a belief system that often seems cruel and heartless to her–but the way the Leopard people understand and interact with the world is also thought-provoking, and certainly a key to this coming-of-age story.

Akata Witch is a precious find, a YA fantasy that feels unique and that invites readers into a world that not only enchants and surprises, but also explores questions of identity and belonging. If you are looking for a thrilling YA fantasy, don’t wait! Pick this one up today!

4 stars

My YA Book Wishlist

Here at Pages Unbound, we love reading YA! Still, there are some types of YA books I would love to see more of! Below is my list.

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Characters Who Pursue a Vocation

I see a lot of YA books about characters who are going to college, but I do not think I have ever read a YA book where the protagonist decided to pursue a trade. It would be really interesting–and powerful–to have more protagonists who attend vocational schools or participate in apprenticeships. I know authors probably want to celebrate higher education and encourage readers to attend college, but pursuing a vocation is a valid life decision, too! Why not reflect that in literature?

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Characters Who Do Not Get Into Their Dream College/an Ivy League School

I wrote in 2020 that I wanted to see YA book treat college applications more realistically by showing some of the process (applying for financial aid, worrying about the personal essay, etc.) and by showcasing some more protagonists who do not get into an Ivy League school. (Especially since many of these characters do not even seem to study that much, and surely would not be chosen out of all the more qualified applicants, when acceptance rates are so incredibly low!)

Some commentors suggested that having protagonists worry about the application process or financial aid, or having characters experience rejection would be too depressing for teens, but I don’t think that is the case. Most teens probably do worry about the process, and I am sure most also relate to worrying where the money will come from. It’s relatable! And being rejected from schools is a reality for probably most applicants. The book would only be depressing if it suggested that rejection from an Ivy League or a dream school is actually the end of the protagonist’s life. But the book could just as easily show the protagonist choosing to move forward after rejection and still finding success. Which is something plenty of people do in real life!

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Funny YA Books (NOT Dark Humor or Rom Coms)

Humorous middle grade books like Dog Man and Diary of a Wimpy Kid are extremely popular, but humor in YA books seems mainly to be relegated to either dark humor or romantic comedies. I would love to see YA books that treat the experience high school with humor! Why not have a Wimpy Kid-esque book for teens?

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More International Authors/Translations

I would love to see more international authors being published in the U.S.! I think voices from other countries would diversify the types of books on the market, not only because other countries might publish books that aren’t seen as marketable in the U.S.–and so these books would hopefully feel less formulaic–but also because readers would be exposed to ways of thinking that are not U.S.-centric. I talked about wanting to see more international authors back in 2019, and it seems not much has changed in terms of what is being offered.

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More Friendship, Less Romance

YA books are often associated with romance and middle grade books tend to focus more on friend and family relationships. But friendships are important for people of all ages, and not every teen is going to experience a whirlwind romance (and probably not a love triangle). I like a good romance in my stories, it is true. But I think it would be good to reflect more often the experiences of teens who are not dating and maybe are not even interested in dating yet!

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Illustrations

I have no idea why pictures are considered to be just for little kids. Illustrations are an art form, one that can be appreciated by all ages! I would love to see YA books that are illustrated–not just with little borders or decorative elements, but with full-page pictures. And I think it would appeal to teens, too! I know a lot of teens who seem to be just reading Wimpy Kid over and over again. And manga is increasingly popular with teens, as well. Why not make some sort of illustrated book series for those fans? Teens like pictures, too!

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Shorter YA Books

I enjoy longer books! I really do! But sometimes it feels like every YA book I pick up is 400 pages or more. I wouldn’t mind a few more teen books in the 300-page range. Sometimes having to edit a book down can really streamline the narrative, too, so it’s a win all around!

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More YA Books for Younger Teens

I have been talking about the lack of YA books for younger teens for years, and I still maintain there is a need! Most YA books certainly seem to be more mature and possibly aimed at an adult, not a teen audience. I would recommend the majority of YA to readers 16+. But we need books for younger teens! Books where the protagonists are 14 or 15, a freshman or a sophomore in high school. I think younger teen books are being marketed as middle grade these days, but that makes it harder for teens to find these books, especially as they desire to read up and enter the world of YA. It’s time for YA books to be written for teens of varying ages, not adults.

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More Extracurriculars

Sometimes I see YA books focused on sports like football or cheerleading, but I would love to see more stories focused around extracurriculars like band, math competitions, academic bowls, and more. Something like The View from Saturday for teens!

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More Standalone Fantasies

I love a good series! I also love a good standalone. I enjoy having that feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment when I finish a book–and also the knowledge that I will not have to dedicate the next seven years trying to keep up with all the new installments. Find our list of 17 YA Standalone Fantasies and our list of 20 Standalone YA Fantasies!

What would you like to see more of in YA?

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

Information

GoodreadsScarlet
Series: Lunar Chronicles #2
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2013

Summary

Cinder is on the run. The Lunar Queen, Levana, wants her dead, but she has no plans to wait around in prison to let that happen. Meanwhile, in France, Scarlet Benoit is searching for her grandmother. But so are the Lunars. Her grandmother, it seems, just might have information about the missing heir to the Lunar throne. Scarlet will have to team up with a mysterious stranger named Wolf if she wants to learn the truth. But she is not sure Wolf is a man she can trust.

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Review

After giving Cinder another chance, I jumped right into Scarlet, finally determined to find out what all the hype over the Lunar Chronicles was about. Sadly, however, Scarlet suffers quite a bit from second book syndrome. The ending of Cinder suggested that a high stakes political game was about the begin, probably culminating in some sort of epic battle. Scarlet, however, just spends a couple hundred pages working to get Cinder and Scarlet together. It is a bridge book, not a really interesting story of its own.

Strangely, even though Scarlet should, by rights, be Scarlet’s story, I quickly decided that Cinder was the more interesting character with the more interesting plotline. Had Cinder’s story not been intertwined with Scarlet’s, I do not know if I would have finished reading the book. Scarlet spends a lot of time simply traveling from point A to point B. And, even though she has a fiery spirit, and I initially thought she might be an equal for the strong, enigmatic Wolf, at the end of her journey, all Scarlet does is break down in tears and wait to be rescued. How disappointing.

Cinder takes a bit more agency in her part of the book, escaping from prison and teaming up with the foppish Thorn, who provides quite a bit of comic relief. I felt a bit of gratitude each time her chapters appeared. I enjoyed that she takes no nonsense from Thorn and that, even though she is on the run with no overall plan, she at least has a series of actionable steps to complete while she figures things out. Unlike Scarlet, who kept waiting for Wolf to protect her, Cinder has to take charge herself–and it looks like she will probably end up rescuing Kai, instead of the other way around.

In the end, I do not have really strong feelings about Scarlet because it really does seem like a bridge book. It is not a story of its own, but just a way to set up the next stage of Cinder’s journey. I hope that the set-up for action in book three will not disappoint.

3 Stars

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Information

Goodreads: Cinder
Series: Lunar Chronicles #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2012

Summary

Cinder is the most gifted mechanic in New Beijing–but only because she has a secret. Cinder is a cyborg, and thus considered a second-class citizen. Her stepfamily mistreats her and she must live with the knowledge that society hates and fears her. Then Prince Kai shows up with a mysterious request. He needs the information hidden in a broken android. Suddenly, Cinder is involved in a most unexpected romance–but also embroiled in interplanetary politics.

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Review

I first read Cinder years ago, closer to when it was first released. Although Briana–and most of the bookish community–loved it, I was less impressed. While setting a “Cinderella retelling” in a sci-fi setting was original, the rest of the plot seemed more mediocre to me. I liked the book, but not enough to keep reading the series. Ten years later, however, I have given Cinder another chance. While I still do not find the story breathtaking, I did find it engaging enough to keep on reading.

The most interesting aspect of the book, for me, is Cinder’s identity as a cyborg since cyborgs are looked down upon by the rest of society, and even mandated to enter a draft for medical test subjects since their lives are seen as inherently less valuable. This gives the book plenty of room to interrogate societal injustices and civilians’ tacit involvement, while also making Cinder a relatable teen. Though readers may not know what it is to be a cyborg, plenty probably know how it feels to not fit in, to feel awkward in their bodies, and to long for a place where they will be truly accepted as they are. The intersection of Cinder’s identity with the empire’s politics lies at the heart of the story, raising the question of when or if Cinder will choose to start pushing back.

The bulk of the story, however, is really about the romance between the mechanic Cinder and the prince Kai. The prospect of a rags-to-riches story, with Cinder getting back at all those who treated her poorly by finding acceptance among the elite, is probably what has driven the popularity of the “Cinderella” tale over the years. It’s just so satisfying. Even so, I was glad to see that Marissa Meyer subverts this storyline. Though Cinder may have caught the eye of prince, it is not his favor that makes her special. Cinder is strong and remarkable all by herself–and the ending of the book promises to explore this theme more. I enjoyed the prospect the ending laid out of seeing the prince forced to see Cinder as an equal, one whose favor he might just have to earn in order to redeem himself.

Cinder works as a retelling for me because it takes a familiar storyline and does more than move it to a futuristic setting. Rather, it promises to interrogate social injustices and to subvert readers’ expectations from the original story. While I think that Meyer could do a little more to flesh out her world (all the nations seem kind of the same to me), the tech aspects at least give the story some grounding, while also providing a starting point for Meyer to add more original aspects to her retelling. Ultimately, Cinder is a satisfying YA read, and, this time, I will be checking out the sequel.

3 Stars

Bravely by Maggie Stiefvater

Bravely

Information

Goodreads: Bravely
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: May 2022

Summary

Princess Merida of DunBroch loves her home and her family, but nothing ever seems to change. Unfortunately, the god of ruin, Feradach agrees. It is Feradach’s duty to root out rot and decay, so new things can grow. But Merida is not yet ready to give up on DunBroch, so she strikes a bargain. She has one year to change her family–or death will come to them all.

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Review

Though I am not typically one to read media tie-ins, I am also not one to pass up on a new Maggie Stiefvater book. Bravely takes place a few years after the events of the Disney/Pixar movie Brave, following Merida as she returns home from after a bit of travel, only to realize that life at DunBroch seems to be stagnating. This sets the scene for a plotline that seems a natural fit for Stiefvater–a wager between Merida and a god, witnessed by the Cailleach. Mythology and history are where Stiefvater shine, along with her golden liquid prose. But, somehow, Bravely never really comes to life. The pacing is uneven and the characters–even though they are in a story about change–feel flat on the page. Maybe there are too many constraints when writing a media tie-in. The characters can never really stray far from the source material–and so this story probably would have been far more interesting and innovative if it were not a sequel to Brave at all, but simply a book set in a magical/historical Scotland.

Because some years have passed, the characters in Bravely do not feel quite the same as their movie counterparts. Merida still loves archery and can be fiery and passionate, but she also seems to have matured. Meanwhile, the good parts of Fergus and Elinor have disappeared–they are lazy and lax, allowing their adopted housemaid (a servant who is considered Merida’s “sister” but who still ostensibly works for them??) to get away with being flighty and slovenly, and not really taking an interest in guiding their three young sons as they grow up. Stiefvater does notably attempt to differentiate the triplets (something the movie seemed uninterested in, preferring to treat them as a unit), but this also seems a bit unsuccessful. It’s not really enough to have “the serious one,” “the musical one,” and “the loud one,” as if one part of their personality defines them. Altogether, the characterization here is lacking.

The one character who really comes alive, and who makes the book interesting, is Feradach, the god of destruction. Feradach is a shifting character, one who is seen by every person in a different way, and thus one who has never needed to grow into being any particular way; they start anew each time. Feradach, however, does eventually change in a real, meaningful way, moving from feeling righteous about the necessity of ruin to bring growth, to reluctance to perform their duty. Feradach’s appearances in the story are the one bright spot in a book where otherwise the pacing is slow and uneven, and only a few of the other characters exhibit any really interesting development (even though the whole point of the book is obviously that Merida needs to get her entire family to be different).

I really have mixed feelings about this book. I wanted to love it because Stiefvater wrote it. And it has some beautiful parts when Stiefvater focuses on the mythology, and has room to explore the contest between Feradach and the Cailleach. The other parts of the book, however, feel a bit constrained, as if Stiefvater must be very careful not to introduce anything too un-Disneylike or anything that would be a problem later if considered canonical. I suppose this book would appeal mostly to hardcore fans of Stiefvater, or those who really loved the movie Brave. But I don’t think it’s a must-read for fans of YA fantasy in general.

3 Stars

Blood and Moonlight by Erin Beaty (ARC Review)

Blood and Moonlight book cover

Information

Goodreads: Blood and Moonlight
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Netgalley
Publication Date: June 28, 2022

Official Summary

In this medieval YA fantasy thriller, an orphan with a secret, magical sight gets caught between a mysterious genius and the serial killer he’s hunting.

Rising above the city of Collis is the holy Sanctum. And watching over its spires is Catrin, an orphan girl with unique skills—for she alone can spot the building’s flaws in construction before they turn deadly.

But when Catrin witnesses a murderer escaping the scene of his crime, she’s pulled into the web of a dangerous man who will definitely strike again. Assigned to capture the culprit is the mysterious, brilliant, and enigmatic Simon, whose insights into the mind of a killer are frighteningly accurate.

As the grisly crimes continue, Catrin finds herself caught between murderer and detective while hiding her own secret—a supernatural sight granted by the moon, destined to make her an outcast, and the only thing that might save her and those she loves from becoming the next victims . . .

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Review

Blood and Moonlight combines medieval architecture, a murder mystery, and fantasy to create a compelling story unique in the YA scene. Multi-faceted characters kept me riveted to the pages, as they attempted to get into the mind of a serial killer and stop him before his victims pile even higher.

To some extent, I think this is the book Four Dead Queens hoped to be (and failed, in my opinion). It expertly combines three genres — historical fiction, fantasy, and mystery — and does it seamlessly. The “main” plot is solving the murder, but Cat’s magic powers are integral to the process, as is her status as a worker at the Sanctum and her knowledge of architecture. None of the parts seem out of place or as if they are distracting from the others. They are all fully developed, from the magic system to the world building, and they work together perfectly. The result is a book that feels different, even if you’re an avid reader of YA fantasy.

Personally, I did find the lengthy discussions of what the killer was doing and probably thinking a bit much, and at times I didn’t really “get” it — and then I struggled with not connecting with it or thinking it sounded right because I have to believe that the author spent a lot of time researching the minds of serial killers while I have . . . spent literally zero time doing so. That is, the author and the characters are probably right, so I’m not quite sure why some of the speculation sounded off to me.

The best part is: I really had no idea who the killer was throughout the entire novel. I was like the characters themselves, going back and forth suspecting one person, then another, then another, then the first person. I couldn’t figure it out, and I always love a book that is truly unpredictable.

This is a must-read book this year for anyone who loves YA.

Briana
4 stars

Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

Information

Goodreads: Queen of the Tiles
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Summary

Najwa Bakri left the competitive Scrabble tournament scene one year ago, when her best friend Tina Low died at the Scrabble table. Now, she’s back, attempting work through her grief and her panic attacks at the same venue where Trina died. But then Trina’s Instagram account starts posting again. Could it be that Trina’s death was actually murder?

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Review

Queen of the Tiles lured me in–as I have no doubt it will many a word lover–with the intriguing premise of a mystery set in the world of competitive Scrabble. However, while I enjoyed learning more about Scrabble tournaments, and the people who compete in them, I admit to finding the mystery itself lackluster. The plot is slow to start, the sleuthing sort of haphazard, and the drama almost nonexistent. I never really felt that Najwa or her friends were in danger–there was simply no suspense. Read Queen of the Tiles if you really love Scrabble, but maybe pass if you have high standards for thrillers.

Queen of the Tiles is probably more accurately described as a novel about grief, and not really a thriller. The mystery surrounding Trina Low, previous reigning champion of the Scrabble tournament scene, is more or less a set up for the main character, Najwa, to explore her feelings about a friendship where she constantly took backseat to Trina’s wants and desires. The book is Najwa’s journey to accepting what everyone else already seems to know–Trina was not a nice person. As such, it is admittedly difficult to really care about the mystery, since no one (aside from Najwa) really seems to mourn Trina’s loss (shocking and horrible as that may be). Also, the mystery is simply not that mysterious.

No one really finds Trina’s death suspicious until when, one year later, at the same Scrabble tournament venue where she died, Trina’s Instagram starts posting again. The posts are all scrambled letters, clues to decipher. Only Najwa and Trina’s former boyfriend Mark seem to care about the clues, though. Everyone else is content to feel a bit of unease or brush it off as a really bad prank. Because of this, there is no ambience of mystery, no feeling of suspense that bad things could happen. The plot just slowly meanders on to its, frankly, anticlimactic finale.

Queen of the Tiles has an intriguing premise, but fails to deliver. While I was drawn in by the promise of a high-stakes Scrabble tournament and a thrilling mystery, the drama is fairly low-key. Read this only if you really love Scrabble.

3 Stars

Cinder & Glass by Melissa de la Cruz

Cinder and Glass book cover

Information

Goodreads: Cinder & Glass
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Giveaway from Penguin
Published: March 8, 2022

Official Summary

1682. The king sends out an invitation to all the maidens in France: their presence is requested at a number of balls and events that will be held in honor of the dashing Prince Louis, who must choose a bride.

Cendrillon de Louvois has more grace, beauty, and charm than anyone else in France. While she was once the darling child of the king’s favorite adviser, her father’s death has turned her into the servant of her stepmother and cruel stepsisters–and at her own chateau, too!

Cendrillon–now called Cinder–manages to evade her stepmother and attend the ball, where she catches the eye of the handsome Prince Louis and his younger brother Auguste.

Even though Cendrillon has an immediate aversion to Louis, and a connection with Auguste, the only way to escape her stepmother is to compete with the other women at court for the Prince’s hand.

Soon, as Cendrillon glows closer to Auguste and dislikes the prince more and more, she will have to decide if she can bear losing the boy she loves in order to leave a life she hates.

Melissa de la Cruz takes a lush, romantic hand to this retold fairy tale classic.

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Review

Cinder & Glass strikes me as the type of book I would have enjoyed reading as an actual teen, a time both when the YA market wasn’t as saturated with wildly good, sweeping fantasy as it is now and when my own personal standards for being impressed weren’t so high, purely because I hadn’t read as many books as I have now that I’m older. That is, Cinder & Glass is a perfectly good, serviceable retelling of “Cinderella” that will be a fun, light read for someone who likes “Cinderella” retellings, but it just isn’t particularly memorable and doesn’t add any really original twists to the story.

This is a nice choice for readers wondering where all the “lower YA” has gone, in a market that seems dominated by really dark and mature YA books. If you want a light romance that mostly sticks to kissing and a book that has obstacles and set-backs for the protagonists but that doesn’t delve deep into cruelty, abuse, exploitation, dark magic, etc., then this is definitely a book to look into. It is, truly, simply a retelling of “Cinderella” set in 17th-century France, following the basic storyline one would expect. The main spin-off is that the second half of the book, instead of featuring simply a ball, involves a bit of a “contest” among various women the prince might pick for his wife (imagine something along the lines of The Selection).

I am on the fence about the pacing of the book, however, and whether things like the eligible maiden contest and the romances in general felt rushed. Part of me thinks they are; part of me appreciates a nice YA standalone that just gets the job done and wrapped out, rather than drawing everything out into a dramatic and lengthy trilogy. This is another reason the book reminds me of the YA published when I was a teen myself and why I think it works nicely as a lower YA recommendation.

So . . . this book is fine; my biggest problem is that I don’t have much to say about it beyond that. It fills a niche I think has been left empty in the current YA market for some time, so if you have a job where you recommend books to others, this is worth keeping in mind. If you are personally an avid reader of YA fantasy and retellings, this one is not likely to stand out to you.

Briana
3 Stars

Hotel Magnifique by Emily J. Taylor

Hotel Magnifique book cover

Information

Goodreads: Hotel Magnifique
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Purchased
Published: April 5, 2022

Official Summary

All her life, Jani has dreamed of Elsewhere. Just barely scraping by with her job at a tannery, she’s resigned to a dreary life in the port town of Durc, caring for her younger sister Zosa. That is, until the Hotel Magnifique comes to town.

The hotel is legendary not only for its whimsical enchantments, but also for its ability to travel—appearing in a different destination every morning. While Jani and Zosa can’t afford the exorbitant costs of a guest’s stay, they can interview to join the staff, and are soon whisked away on the greatest adventure of their lives. But once inside, Jani quickly discovers their contracts are unbreakable and that beneath the marvelous glamour, the hotel is hiding dangerous secrets.

With the vexingly handsome doorman Bel as her only ally, Jani embarks on a mission to unravel the mystery of the magic at the heart of the hotel and free Zosa—and the other staff—from the cruelty of the ruthless maître d’hôtel. To succeed, she’ll have to risk everything she loves, but failure would mean a fate far worse than never returning home.

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Review

Hotel Magnifique is a riveting fantasy that takes readers on a journey with protagonist Jani as she snares a coveted position working in the world’s most (okay, only) magical hotel — and slowly begins to realize things might not be as glamorous as they seem. The lush world building, dazzling magic, sense of mystery, and strong family ties makes this a story very worth reading.

A lot books get compared to both Caraval and The Night Circus; apparently setting a book in a contained magical space in world where little else is magical is enough to earn the comparison. Personally, I didn’t love Caraval because it was extremely hyped at the time of its release, and I felt I get a very standard YA instead of something exceptional. I think Hotel Magnifique blows Caraval out of the water; it is an immensely better book. As for The Night Circus? I don’t know what Hotel Magnifique is really supposed to have in common with it.

The strongest part of the story may be that, while magic is embedded everywhere and the author does a great job of building the atmosphere and telling readers about the wondrous things that can be seen in the hotel, the setting and wonder are never really the point. The book focuses on plot and characterization; the real draw is the mystery of what exactly is going on in the hotel and then the tension of whether Jani will be able to save herself and her sister before it’s too late. I couldn’t stop myself from turning to pages to see how everything would turn out.

The book’s one flaw is that, while the sisters’ relationship is integral to the story . . . Jani’s little sister is actually mostly absent from the text. Readers have to see most of their love through Jani’s reflections and memories. I feel like this is common in a lot of YA that supposedly focuses on siblings, for whatever reason, and I would love to see more stories where the siblings spend the majority of the story interacting with one another.

Overall, this was excellent, definitely one of my top reads so far this year. If you love YA fantasy, you don’t want to skip this one.

Note: I would like to note that both the summary and the story reference “Elsewhere” as if it’s an actual place, like Neverland or Narnia or something. In fact, “Elsewhere” just means . . . travelling. The protagonist and the hotel guests just want to go places beyond their home, places they could reasonably get to by using a boat or horse if they had the means. I’m not sure why “Elsewhere” is used so confusingly here.

Briana
5 stars

Forging Silver into Stars by Brigid Kemmerer (ARC Review, No Spoilers)

Information

Goodreads: Forging Silver into Stars
Series: Forging Silver into Stars #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Netgalley for review
Publication Date: June 7, 2022

Official Summary

When ancient magic tests a newfound love, a dark fate beckons . . .

Magic has been banished in the land of Syhl Shallow for as long as best friends Jax and Callyn can remember. They once loved the stories of the powerful magesmiths and mythical scravers who could conjure fire or control ice, but now they’ve learned that magic only leads to danger: magic is what killed Callyn’s parents, leaving her alone to raise her younger sister. Magic never helped Jax, whose leg was crushed in an accident that his father has been punishing him for ever since. Magic won’t save either of them when the tax collector comes calling, threatening to take their homes if they can’t pay what they owe.

Meanwhile, Jax and Callyn are astonished to learn magic has returned to Syhl Shallow — in the form of a magesmith who’s now married to their queen. Now, the people of Syhl Shallow are expected to allow dangerous magic in their midst, and no one is happy about it.

When a stranger rides into town offering Jax and Callyn silver in exchange for holding secret messages for an anti-magic faction, the choice is obvious — even if it means they may be aiding in a plot to destroy their new king. It’s a risk they’re both willing to take. That is, until another visitor arrives: handsome Lord Tycho, the King’s Courier, the man who’s been tasked with discovering who’s conspiring against the throne.

Suddenly, Jax and Callyn find themselves embroiled in a world of shifting alliances, dangerous flirtations, and ancient magic . . . where even the deepest loyalties will be tested.

Star Divider

Review

Brigid Kemmerer hooked me on the Cursebreakers series with the swoon-worthy romance in A Curse So Dark and Lonely, but Forging Silver into Stars is the book that has convinced me she’s finally come into her own as an expert fantasy writer. (Her contemporary YA has always been excellent, though not as popular.) With complex characterization, cleaner world building, and a plot focused on magic and assassinations and just pure survival, there’s a lot to keep readers turning the pages.

I have always loved the action and adventure, as well as the romance, in Kemmerer’s fantasy, but I had reservations about her attempts at nuanced characterizations. I always thought her attempts to paint characters (especially Rhen and Grey) in shades of, um, gray fell flat, as the book would try to excuse actions that seemed obviously cruel and wrong to me and suggest they were somehow necessary or sympathetic. This was much less of an issue for me in Forging Silver into Stars, and it really elevated the reading experience.

Kemmerer is still interested in what makes people tick, what choices they will make to survive or support their families or defend their questions. There are still characters who might be doing the right things for the wrong reasons or the wrong things for the right reasons, and the book still asks readers to consider whether the “villains” might have some valid points. It just . . . works a lot better in this book, and I love that Kemmerer continues to work through these questions and has landed on (for me) some more reasonable answers. There are still references to Rhen and Grey glossing over their past decisions, which I continue to find unconvincing, but I love all the newly introduced characters and all their complexities.

The politics, the disputes, and what exactly is at stake in the two kingdoms now that Syhl Shallow and Emberfall are allied through marriage are also smoother here, and I think Kemmerer has learned a lot about making the political issues logically click, as well.

With the characterization and world building ironed out, I was also able to focus more on the plot, which is engaging. While there were a few times I felt the book was a little long, in general I was extremely interested to find out what happened next, and I enjoyed the shifting of POVs among Jax, Callyn, and Tycho. There’s also romance to spare in this book, as well as cute family relationships, and a lot of questions about magic that have yet to be unraveled throughout the series.

If you enjoyed the Cursebreakers trilogy, you will certainly love this continuation. If you were on the fence, I think it’s worth picking this up and giving Kemmerer another shot, as her writing only continues to improve.

Note: This is a separate trilogy from Cursebreakers and takes place four years after A Vow So Bold and Deadly, so technically it can be read separately. However, so many characters from the original trilogy and so many events are referenced that personally I think it would make more sense to read the original trilogy before tackling this one.

Briana
4 stars