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 “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 “Pulp” by Robin Talley

Talley, Robin. Pulp. Toronto, Ontario: Harlequin Teen, 2018.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-133512906 | 406 pages | YA Historical Fiction

4.5 stars

Pulp was a random find at the library, while searching for books to read in honor of Pride Month. I recalled hearing about the author Robin Talley as a great author of YA LGBTQ+ fiction, and the cover appealed to me, along with the blurb, which spoke about a genre that I had not heard about before: lesbian pulp fiction.

And fortunately, it lived up to the hype. And a large part of it was the fact that there were two equally engaging characters in the dual timeline format, which can be hard to pull off at times. But I loved the way Janet’s and Abby’s stories played off one another, highlighting the struggles LGBTQ+ people in the fifties faced, in comparison to the way they have much more freedom to be “out,” though things aren’t necessarily completely perfect.

One of the engaging things for me about Abby’s narrative was how diverse it was both in terms of race and sexuality. I feel like racial diversity is often very well-done, but even in LGBTQ+ books, it’s hard to see more than one or two LGBTQ+ characters, and they’re usually the central couple. In this case, not only is Abby a lesbian and her former girlfriend, Linh, is bi, but there is also a member of their group who is non-binary, among others who identify as something other than cis and het.

And this combination of diversity also led to very compelling discussions about the pulp books themselves and their own lack of intersectionality (everyone is white), as well as how the censors often made it so there lacked any gray area, with characters often turning straight at the end (if they didn’t outright die). It’s great that it started that dialogue about how the times have changed in terms of the thinking about the lives of LGBTQ+ people and their portrayal in media.

I think what makes Abby’s story the better of the two for me, though, is its multifaceted nature. It’s not just about her journey with her project and resolving the mysteries surrounding Marian Love, but about figuring out the domestic dramas both in relation to her own sexuality and separate from it, and how it plays into the idea that happily ever after isn’t always about being with one person forever. She has one of the best sibling relationships with her brother, for example, which really strengthens even as everything else at home is falling apart, and one of my favorite moments is them having a heart-to-heart following the reception of bad news from their parents.

Janet’s story was great, if a bit more cliche, coming-of-age without much in the way of surprises, and that’s my only complaint. But, juxtaposed with the rest of the narrative arc of the book, I feel like her story still felt satisfying.

This is an absolutely amazing book, and one that I think pretty much everyone should read.

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.

Review of “Girls of Paper and Fire” by Natasha Ngan

Ngan, Natasha. Girls of Paper and Fire. New York: Jimmy Patterson/Little, Brown and Company, 2018.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0316561365 | 385 pages | YA Fantasy

3 stars

Girls of Paper and Fire received a lot of buzz since its release, but unfortunately this is one of those books I put off for no real reason. Now, with the Asian Readathon going on in May on YouTube and Twitter, I decided to pick this one up to fulfill one of the challenges, especially since I love finding the rare f/f romance, especially if it’s also historical or fantasy.

In regards of fulfilling what it was pitched as — a feminist story where the concubines fight back against an oppressive Demon-King — I feel like it did pretty well. You won’t find a lot of intricacy to the magic system, but I don’t think it needs it. One of the major pluses for me regarding the world was marveling in Ngan’s influences and how they shaped the world in different ways.

The story feels reasonably fast-paced, making it a quick, if rather intense read, and I very much appreciate the trigger warning at the beginning, but even so, I found myself a little taken aback by the scenes of sexual abuse. But Ngan handles it delicately in a way that isn’t too dark, at least in my opinion. I have heard from at least one other reviewer that the book felt a little intense for their taste.

My one gripe is with the way the romance developed, with a culminating moment that struck me as unbelievable in the midst of trauma. For the most part, I thought I would enjoy it, especially given the way the chemistry was developed for majority of the book. But when the moment finally comes where the Demon King assaults Lei, it’s brief but clearly traumatic, yet almost immediately she’s getting hot and heavy with Wren, and it’s Wren who expresses her lack of interest in continuing, while Lei presses her to continue. It seemed so off-putting and contradictory to the message Ngan was trying to convey.

This book as a whole was good, but unfortunately, the one moment did sour my opinion on a key story element for me. Nonetheless, I feel like this book is an important addition to the conversation around sexual assault, not to mention the steadily growing pool of diverse fantasy. I recommend this to other fans of diverse YA fantasy.

Review of “Lady Smoke” (Ash Princess #2) by Laura Sebastian

Sebastian, Laura. Lady Smoke. New York: Delacorte Press, 2019.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1524767105 | 496 pages | YA Fantasy

4.5 stars

Lady Smoke is somewhat better than its predecessor. While some of the flaws of the first book are still evident, mainly the somewhat forced love triangle, I feel like Laura Sebastian improves on the story by giving the story more depth overall. For example, while I would never make the mistake of calling this an overly political book in the sense some adult fantasy tends to be, I like that these elements are touched on, especially as Theodosia is considering an arranged marriage for the sake of helping her people and her cause.

As a result, while she does clearly still have feelings for both Soren and Blaise, and I still found the love triangle somewhat forced and awkward, I did like that it shattered the stereotype of YA love triangles, and focuses instead on Theodosia doing what she thinks is right for her cause, instead of brooding over which boy she likes better.

I also like that Sebastian is not afraid of shifting expectations regarding who the major threat is. The prior book and the beginning of this one suggests that it’s leading up to a confrontation with the Kaiser, in standard fantasy fashion. And while Sebastian embraces some other tropes in this series, particularly the lost heir fighting to reclaim her crown, I like that she worked to subvert our expectations regarding who the ultimate villain is.

This was a great sequel, and now I can’t wait to see what’s in store for book three. And I would recommend this series to other YA fantasy fans.

Review of “Resist” (Remake #2) by Ilima Todd

Todd, Ilima. Resist. Salt Lake City: Shadow Mountain, 2016.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1629721040 | 347 pages | YA Science Fiction–Dystopian

4 stars

I enjoyed Resist marginally more than Remake, and a large part of that was due to the shift in protagonist. I had nothing against Nine as a heroine, but I felt Theron stole the show, and I was glad to hear that the Ilima Todd felt the same. He has a lot of spirit in him, and I like him finding something that is worth fighting for, and how it helps him grow as a person.

I also liked that, because of this change in protagonist, the story definitely felt more like what I had come to expect from my prior forays into the YA dystopian genre, while still feeling uniquely its own. There were some hints about the villain and their intentions in the prior book, and I enjoyed seeing it come to fruition in a dark and twisted way.

The religious, exclusionary undertones remain, and it is still a bit disconcerting, but I do still try to give Todd some benefit of the doubt in this regard, given that it is about the idea of giving people choices at the heart of this, and that Freedom isn’t truly freedom.

And while the romance did take a backseat in this one to an extent, it was still present, and still incredibly awkward. Theron spends a good portion of the book dealing with his unrequited feelings for Nine, and the fact that’s she’s with someone else, and while he does interact with Pua from relatively early in the book, it doesn’t feel natural that he would choose her so suddenly. And while I do like that Theron is at least given a father figure in Catcher, emphasizing the family element that Todd seems to be pushing in this book, I’m once again disappointed that there’s no way for a guy and girl who are both unattached to be just friends or like family, especially since one of the things Theron discovers over the course of the book is the different kinds of love. I guess it’s done relatively well in terms of the evolution of his feelings for Nine, but I still did not get him moving onto Pua almost instantly.

On the whole, I’m not sure I’ll be continuing with the series if book three ever does come out, although I do plan on read Todd’s new release, to see how it compares, and it was the impetus for picking up Todd’s work in the first place.

Review of “Remake” (Remake #1) by Ilima Todd (Conflicted Review)

Todd, Ilima. Remake. Salt Lake City: Shadow Mountain, 2014.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1609079246 | 296 pages | YA Science Fiction–Dystopian

3-ish stars

I first heard about Ilima Todd when I heard about her latest release with Shadow Mountain’s Proper Romance line, A Song for the Stars, and was excited to hear about an author born and raised in Hawaii and influenced by her heritage, even though she no longer lives here. And after winning an audio copy of her first book, Remake. from the author, I decided to check it out (although I primarily relied on the physical copy, as that’s my preference).

This book has a compelling concept, but I do feel it’s obvious that Todd comes from a religiously entrenched perspective when it comes to how she handles some of the tough topics in this book. One of the immediately obvious ones is LGBTQ+ issues, namely transgender people and their identity. I like the idea of being able to make choices about who you want to be in theory, but there’s an inherent problem in the very first lines of the book, “Male or female?…How can I decide which to be for the rest of my life? It’s so…permanent.” (5) While I cannot speak from a perspective of authority as a trans person, I do feel that this statement and much of the rhetoric of the book diminsh the concept of gender identity, especially by excluding the idea that it may not be completely binary.

Yet, even with some of these red flags, I still felt the intent carried through in some ways, especially in terms of establishing that freedom and equality aren’t really either of those things, especially when people are stripped not only of things that make them unique, like defining physical characteristics, but they are bred in a manner that is pretty much mechanical, and without love or a family. And while there is some heavy bias toward a more traditional family unit here, I don’t mind it that much, given that we are seeing it from the perspective of someone who hasn’t had a family before, and I do feel like she is given the right to make an informed choice, at least in this matter.

As for one of my more trivial complaints, I found the romance incredibly tepid, and despite knowing it was impossible, felt Nine had a lot more chemistry with Theron than she did with Kai, in part because there was a lot of history conveyed in her friendship with Theron. With Kai, she meets him, and he’s kind of rude to her, and over time things develop, and I didn’t see anything in him to really like, especially since he was one of the characters who was really strong in preaching some of the religious messages. It also just seems like authors, especially in YA, can’t seem to get two unrelated characters of the opposite sex together without there being some sparks. I think it would have been much more rewarding, given the focus on finding a family unit, for him to be like a brother to her and for the story to focus on how much the entire family makes her feel wanted.

Despite finding this book really odd and problematic in places, I do plan to read the sequel, in part because it’s about Theron, and he’s the character I was most interested in by the end of the book, and I’m also curious to see what else Todd can do in this world and system she created.