Review of “Dragonshadow” (Heartstone #2) by Elle Katharine White

White, Elle Katharine. Dragonshadow. New York: Harper Voyager, 2018.

Paperback | $16.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062747969 | 383 pages | Fantasy

4 stars

A direct sequel to what seems like an already-concluded story can be risky, especially if that story is inspired by Pride and Prejudice, which itself has some hit-or-miss sequels. But it appears that Elle Katharine White has managed it, and while the plot itself isn’t necessarily the most engaging now that she isn’t sticking to the frame of Austen’s narrative, there are still things to love about Dragonshadow.

The main thing I enjoyed is seeing more of the world White created, which was one of the standout features of Heartstone. While dragons still feature prominently, I loved getting a wider sense of the scope, including the other creatures, and while many will be familiar to fantasy readers, like trolls and merpeople, they are included in such a fun and unique way.

I also really liked White’s perspective on Aliza and Daired after they’ve gotten together, and how, even though they did come to terms with some of the issues keeping them apart in the prior book, there are still hurdles they are negotiating, especially as Aliza is attempting to adjust to her new role as a Dragonrider’s wife, and him wanting to shield her from it, while she’s determined to be a part of it.

I think fans of the first book who are interested in seeing more of the world and how the major characters progress from the first book will enjoy this one, and would recommend they do so, in spite of any preconceived notions.

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Review of “Shadow of the Fox” (Shadow of the Fox #1) by Julie Kagawa

Kagawa, Julie. Shadow of the Fox. Toronto, Ontario: HarlequinTeen, 2018.

Hardcover | $19.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1335145161 | 409 pages | YA Fantasy

4 stars

Shadow of the Fox was recommended to me a while back, but I never got around to it at the time, and finally decided to give a go. My conclusion is that, while it does suffer from some structural and personal preference things that do lead me to mark it down a bit, it is a fairly solid story.

I felt incredibly silly once I got several chapters into this book, and realized that not only was there the occasional chapter from a secondary character, Suki (written in third person), but there were also two first person narrators, Yumeko and Tatsumi. I partly blame myself for being dense and not noticing, especially in the initial chapters, but it’s just something I find super jarring, particularly when there’s no indicator the narrator changes at the beginning of the chapter, and while it does follow a reasonably predictable rhythm that I picked up on after a while, it was annoying to have to figure out who was who, and only knowing for sure once they were together and each referred to the other person consistently. Your mileage may vary on this, but I’m going to b e the dissenting voice and say that, especially if Suki grows more important in future books, this could easily have been written entirely in third person, to make it less confusing. Or chapter headers could have also helped. Granted, other people seem to have no issue with this style, so it could just be me.

The characters themselves, once I got over that problem, were intriguing to me, with the occasional glimpses of Suki and her plight serving an awful mistress being something I’m hoping we get more of in the next two books. And while initially Yumeko and Tatsumi fall into familiar cliches, those being the naive damsel and the emotionally closed-off hero, they both still had depth that made them feel real beyond that, and I think Yumeko is one of those heroines who, despite not being super kickass like some of the other YA heroines of late, actually does try her best in her own way, and ends up making an impact.

I also love how Kagawa infused her world with Japanese influences, with it being most obvious in part one’s world building, although it continues throughout the book. It feels so rich with lore, and I felt like I learned a lot about aspects of my heritage that I didn’t really know about before (or care to seek out through other means).

This is a solid, if slightly predictable, YA fantasy, although that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable for what it is. And I would definitely recommend it to other fans, with the warning about the weird narrative choices to those like me who aren’t huge fans of it.

Review of “The Queen’s Resistance” (The Queen’s Rising #2) by Rebecca Ross

Ross, Rebecca. The Queen’s Resistance. New York: HarperTeen, 2019.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-002471383 | 458 pages | YA Fantasy

5 stars

The Queen’s Resistance is a delightful conclusion to the The Queen’s Rising duology, building on the great world building and character development of the prior book. Given the reasonably satisfactory ending to the prior book, this could easily have fallen flat as an unnecessary sequel, but it everything worked, with the stakes being raised and the concepts laid out in the beginning of book one being fully realized.

It’s great to see how Brienna has changed now that she is more secure with her adoptive family, the MacQuinns. And found family is a theme that resonates throughout this story of rebuilding following a colossal revolution and deposing of a corrupt and brutal king, with some of the members of his family who have been subjected to abuses and forced to commit acts of violence against others in his name also seeking out a second chance away from the families they were born into.

This also has one of the more subtle, yet beautiful and healthy, romantic relationships in YA between Brienna and Cartier/Aodhan, with them both being dedicated to the cause of rebuilding the kingdom and serving the true queen, as well as caring about and respecting each other.

And while this book sees Brienna continue to have a connection to her ancestor that helped her find the Canon in the last book, there are also some revelations about Aodhan’s family, particularly a family member he once thought dead, and the build-up to the reveal was incredibly well-paced.

While I’m glad that Brienna’s story ended the way it did, I think the world Ross has built is interesting, and would like to read more about it, and failing that, I feel that she has great talent for writing YA fantasies that break the mold, and can’t wait to see what she puts out next. In the meantime, I would recommend this one to anyone who enjoyed the first one.

Review of “His Majesty’s Dragon” (Temeraire #1) by Naomi Novik

Novik, Naomi. His Majesty’s Dragon. New York: Del Rey, 2006.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.50 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0345481283 | 356 pages | Historical Fantasy

5 stars

I had long heard good things about Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, and with a combination of historical fiction (and set in the Regency period!) and fantasy elements sounded right up my alley. And it ended up being a nice fun read, with and engaging plot and characters, as well as being grounded enough in both the manners and politics of the Regency period while also adding an intriguing new element with the dragons.

I love the central relationship between Will Laurence and Temeraire, and how well they play off each other as this kind of serious naval officer whose life has been upended and this childish, and sometimes funny, young dragon.

I also like how well the lore around dragons is integrated into the world, especially with the exploration of certain dragons that only bond with women, and that leading to an exploration of the gender politics of the period to an extent, with them seen more as exceptions to the rule than as truly groundbreaking. And I also really enjoyed the inclusion of some excerpts from an in-universe text at the end, providing more context for the history of dragons, as well as further discussing different breeds.

This is a delightful book, and one that manages to seamlessly incorporate elements of both historical fiction and fantasy. I would recommend it to fans of either genre, and I would definitely recommend it to those who like blends of both (on the off chance you haven’t read it yet of course).

Review of “Crown of Feathers” by Nicki Pau Preto

Pau Preto, Nicki. Crown of Feathers. New York: Simon Pulse, 2019.

Hardcover | $19.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1534424623 | 486 pages | YA Fantasy

4 stars

Crown of Feathers was one of several 2019 YA fantasy books on my radar due to the fact that it seemed to be doing things that set it apart from the crowd within its age range and subgenre, without feeling a bit too old to be YA (while also having enough going on that an adult reader would likely still be entertained by it). While the worldbuilding did lead to the book feeling a bit slow at times, once it picked up, I found myself engaged with the story.

I liked the focus on phoenixes, a creature I haven’t seen in a prominent fantasy release for any age group since the Harry Potter books. And the wider world building is also great. While it initially felt a little disjointed from the main story, I love how there were little hints of how everything fit together, culminating in the big reveal at the end.

Speaking of big reveals, I really enjoyed the centrality of the relationship between the two sisters, Veronyka and Val, and Val’s actions come between them, as well as how it plays into Val’s past. The insighting incident had me unsure what to think of Val, and how she would ever be redeemed, but by the end, I actually felt for her and really hope to see them reconcile in the sequel.

I found the two other characters a bit less engaging, but I think Tristan’s perspective did provide additional insight into the inner workings of the Phoenix Riders, and Sev’s did provide greater context for the world around them, which becomes more pivotal as the story goes on and the pieces begin to come together. And while I liked the friendship that developed between Tristan and Veronyka, and that while a romance is hinted at as a possibility, it’s not a huge (and usually somewhat problematic) world-ending passion that takes over the plot that has slowly come to annoy me in other YA fantasy titles, given how little variation there is between character archetypes, but rather one built on mutual respect.

This is a delightful YA fantasy debut that is doing a few fresh things within the genre. I think fans of fantasy who read YA will enjoy this for these things, and recommend that they check it out.

Review of “Stepsister” by Jennifer Donnelly

Donnelly, Jennifer. Stepsister. New York: Scholastic Press, 2019.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1338268461 | 342 pages | YA Fantasy

5 stars

I was intrigued at the idea of a story from Cinderella’s stepsister’s perspective that seemed to subvert our expectations that we had from the original tale, in spite it following in a trend of rewriting fairy tales that has been constant for the last several years in various forms of media.

One of the things I appreciated was it went back to the roots of the original stories, combining elements of both the Perrault and Grimm versions, and also added some much-needed historical context to re-examine these characters and flesh them out, to understand the perceived importance of marriage for all the characters, before working to subverting it.

It was also an interesting choice to see Isabelle as the adventurous one, who didn’t really fit the mold of a proper lady, when some of the other progressive adaptations of Cinderella, like Ever After (which I do still love) paint the Cinderella character as the tomboy.

On that note, I really loved the exploration of Ella’s relationship with Isabelle and Octavia, and how things ended up not being a one-sided jealousy after all. While it is a bit cliche, it was nice to see that Ella is flawed and prone to jealousy too, in spite of her outward beauty and appearance to have it all physically, and this complemented Isabelle’s own journey going from wanting to be pretty to finding out what really matters to her.

This is a wonderful retelling that expands and reworks elements of Cinderella in just the right ways. I would recommend this to other fans of fairy tale retellings.

Review of “Heartstone” (Heartstone #1) by Elle Katharine White (Throwback)

White, Elle Katharine. Heartstone. New York: Harper Voyager, 2016.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062451941 | 336 pages | Fantasy

5 stars

A mix of preparing to read the second book in preparation for the release of the third (but having forgotten the specifics of this one) and the recent uptick in new Austen retellings in other genres led me to feel the urge to revisit Heartstone. And while I still enjoyed it much more this time around, my recent renewed interest in fantasy, which wasn’t the case so much last time, led to me finding new things to enjoy apart from this new take on the story itself.

One of the things I continue to love is the way the story was adapted to suit the new world, especially in terms of how it deals with the class conflict at the center of the plot. While there are elements While clearly makes her own, I could easily recognize the struggle between the nakla and the Dragon Riders and empathize with them.

The wider world of the story is also incredibly rich with history and lore, ensuring that this is just one adventure with these characters and this world, and that I was even more excited for the succeeding books and how they develop things from there, especially with the creative turn the last few chapters took.

I still very much love this book, and would still recommend this to fans of Austen retellings, especially if they also happen to be fans of epic fantasy.

Review of “Markswoman” (Asiana #1) by Rati Mehrotra

Mehrotra, Rati. Markswoman. New York: Harper Voyager, 2018.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062564542 | 368 pages | Fantasy

4 stars

Markswoman has a great premise and setup. I did feel like the pacing and plot did kind of waver here and there, and the conclusion did not feel that satisfying (something I hope will be rectified in book two), but there are still some great elements here, especially since it seems to be author’s first book.

I loved the Asian influences in the development of the world-building. And while I did feel like the magic system wasn’t that present in the book, it does have a lot of potential, and that’s something else I hope is built on more in book two.

What really stands out is the protagonist, Kyra. Fantasy is full of “strong female characters,” but the problem is that they often lack depth, especially in YA (or, in this case, YA-leaning,) stories. I like how, while she is the titular Markswoman of the book, she strikes the perfect balance of not being great at everything all the time while also not being the standard damsel in distress.

This is yet another great multicultural fantasy book, and one I would recommend to other fans of diverse fantasy.

Review of “Witchmark” (The Kingston Cycle #1) by C.L. Polk

Polk, C.L. Witchmark. New York: Tor.com/Tom Doherty and Associates, 2018.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1250162687 | 318 pages | Historical Fantasy

5 stars

Witchmark came highly recommended by a book club friend or two as a romance-adjacent fantasy with an m/m romance, and some recent conversation on Twitter in response to some hostile reviews for the forthcoming sequel regarding the shift in protagonist (despite said book not even finished and available to reviewers yet) inspired me to pick up the book even sooner than I originally planned.

This book had such an engaging plot, and was so fast-paced. I also liked that, while it’s not the most complicated fantasy in terms of worldbuilding and magic, it feels both easy to comprehend due to the historical influences and also well-drawn enough to be distinct at the same time.

Miles and Tristan are both fabulous characters, and especially Miles, given that he’s the protagonist and narrator. I loved the exploration of his conflicts as far as his family is concerned. And their romance…there are some pretty cute moments between them, and it balances out the darker atmosphere of the mystery plot and the world war.

This book was utterly enjoyable, and I will definitely be reading the sequel. I would recommend this to fans of great historically-inspired fantasy.

Review of “Isle of Blood and Stone” (Tower of Winds #1) by Makiia Lucier

Lucier: Makiia. Isle of Blood and Stone. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2018.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0544968478 | 390 pages | YA Fantasy

4.5 stars

I randomly heard about Isle of Blood and Stone mentioned on BookTube, and it’s been on my radar ever since, and once I heard it was a nominee for the YALSA Top Ten, I was even more interested. And upon finishing it, I definitely feel it’s worth the hype. I love that it’s a YA fantasy with a somewhat original concept and a rich, historically inspired setting, and while it does have subtle romance, it doesn’t overwhelm the plot or feel shoehorned in just for the sake of it.

While there were quite a few characters, and it did take a little bit to get to know them, I ended up really becoming invested in them through the adventures they went on and the revelations uncovered along the way.

The character bonds are what stand out. The aforementioned friendship/possible romance between Elias and Mercedes is beautiful, and I love how she’s often the one saving him! It’s so nice to see a healthy relationship highlighted in YA once in a while, since it seems like the most notable ones are somewhat toxic.

This is definitely a great example of a YA fantasy done right, and would love to see more in the same vein. And I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who loves a good fantasy novel, regardless of whether they like YA or not.