Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore

Ever since Nimira came to the country of Lorinar with the intention of making her fortune, she has been leered at, exoticized, and made to feel inferior by virtually everyone she meets.  While dancing with a troupe of fellow dark-skinned “trouser girls” from Tassim who are treated as a salacious novelty act, she dreams of being discovered by a gentleman who will care for her.  Nimira cannot imagine the turns her life will take when it actually happens.

Enter Hollin Parry: handsome gentleman, scholar, rich benefactor to young singers.  Nimira cannot believe her luck when Hollin asks her to accompany him to his manor house to sing along with his automaton, a strangely realistic mechanical man who plays tunes on the piano.  When she arrives, Nimira finds that her life at Hollin’s is not all it seems, and she begins to unearth his many secrets.

I was really excited when I thought that Hollin was going to be the bad guy.  Despite having made a couple of really bad choices in his life, he’s a genuinely likable character who seems to love Nimira for all the right reasons.  And there’s nothing I like better than a well-intentioned bad guy.  But there’s a much bigger villain pulling the strings – one who’s not likable in any way.  Hollin is still a believably conflicted character, both in his thoughts and actions, and I enjoyed seeing him struggle with his decisions.  Interestingly, I feel like I came away from the book with a better understanding of Hollin than either of the romantic leads.

The biggest secret Nimira unearths is the true nature of the automaton, which is really a fairy who is trapped inside a mechanical man by a curse.  It is not a surprise that Nimira, who has been made to feel like something inhuman for most of her life and now feels indebted to a man who she does not love, is immediately attracted to Erris, who is similarly trapped and without agency in this world.  However, I didn’t feel that love develop since their conversations were so short and stilted – for reasons that make perfect sense in the plot, but it still left me wanting more.  And let’s be honest, creating really great sexual tension is tough when one of the characters is made of metal and can’t move.  This was one of a few places where I would have liked a little bit further development, which would certainly have been possible in this very short book.  I didn’t find their budding romance unrealistic, I just didn’t feel like I saw it grow.

Despite the fast-moving pace of this short book, the world-building is really well done.  The reader gets a good sense of both Nimira’s home country and of Lorinar, and they are each given their own specific character and customs.  We haven’t seen much of the fairy world at this point, but I’m sure that it will be similarly developed in later books.  Dolamore did a really nice job of using the characters’ cultural backgrounds as a base for their personal viewpoints and choices – you could see the differences between the countries in the way that characters reacted to a situation, even when they are going against tradition.  I would have loved to hear more about the politics of Dolmore’s world.  Many political intrigues are hinted at in the book, and I hope that they will move to center stage as Nimira and Erris’ story continues.

I was shocked, only a few months after the cover change to Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, to see Bloomsbury publish another book featuring a dark-skinned, black-haired protagonist with a very white-looking girl on the cover – especially since this looks like it is a cover that was created with a dedicated photo shoot rather than using stock photos.  (I could, of course, be wrong about this not being a stock photo.)  I think it’s probable that the cover for Magic Under Glass was finalized before that controversy took place, but it’s still truly disheartening to see. I hope that we will see changes when the paperback comes out.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Jaclyn Dolamore on the web.

Candle Man, Book One: The Society of Unrelenting Vigilance by Glenn S. Dakin

Theo is bored with his room.  He is bored with the millet and greens that he eats for every meal.  He is bored with his one yearly visit to the outside world –  a birthday trip to a deserted cemetery.  He is bored with the three people who he has met in his boring, boring life.

But Theo has a terrible disease, and so he must be kept locked away from other people, he must wear gloves at all times, and he must submit to horrible medical treatments every day inside the Mercy Tube.  And so nothing interesting ever happens to Theo – until he finds a strange package during his birthday trip to the cemetery.  A package with his name on it.  And suddenly Theo finds himself out in the world, and learning some alarming things about his disease and the people who have kept him prisoner for so long.

Theo’s world is a strange and wonderful one, and the reader has the fun of discovering it along with him.  The strange creatures, diabolical machines, and very unusual people who Theo meets would already be enough to leave the sheltered young man breathless and confused, but the people in this world also have a maddening habit of giving things very misleading names.   The Society of Good Works, led by Dr. Saint?  Yeah, they’re the bad guys.  On top of all this, Theo must quickly learn about his strange powers – and what exactly they have to do with the mysterious newspaper clippings about an old hero named the Candle Man.

Theo grows into self-reliance very quickly in the second half of the book – too quickly for me to believe after getting to know him as a completely ineffectual young man who has almost no knowledge of the world.  And honestly, I missed the early version of Theo later in the book.  Watching Theo learn how he world works after his isolation was the part of the book that drew me in most, and also provided some of the funniest moments.  There was some implication that his sudden transformation into the kind of hero who gets things done is tied up into his powers – perhaps this is something the reader will learn more about in later books.

In the end, this is a good old-fashioned adventure story of the kind that has plenty of mystery and doesn’t forget how to be funny.  I did find it a little bit meandering and occasionally too caught up in all the cool creatures that exist in the world.   But since most of the meanders (and the creatures!) are genuinely interesting, I don’t think the target audience will be bothered.  Readers will be curious about Theo’s further adventures – I know that I’ll be looking forward to learning more about the myth of the Candle Man.

Glenn Dakin on the web.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Fire by Kristin Cashore

fireThe protagonist of Kristen Cashore’s second book has a lot in common with Katsa, the main character from her debut novel, Graceling. Both are enormously powerful women who are terrified of using their own great talents, and even more frightened of having their powers exploited by others.  But the ways that their powers manifest is very different.  While Katsa’s Grace is extremely physical, and her struggle to hold herself back was always concerned mainly with her body, Fire’s struggle is primarily a mental one.  Fire is a monster, which means that she is unbelievable beautiful and can control other people with her mind.  She is the only human monster left in the Dells.  Fire chooses not to use her power, constantly fighting to keep from becoming like her father, who greatly misused his ability.  She must also deal with the suspicion, hate, and lust that her stunning beauty and her power inspire in others.  But her father’s machinations have left the country approaching war and ruin, and Fire’s reluctant use of her abilities may be the only thing that can save the Dells.

While I, personally, didn’t connect with Fire as well as I did with Katsa, that did not stop this book from being a rip-roaring good story.  (And really, is it much of a surprise that it is harder to relate to someone who is so perfectly gorgeous and powerful?)  And as much as I’m sad to have left Katsa and Po behind, it was delightful to meet this new group of wonderfully complex characters.  The royal family is a treat – every member constantly surprises with new layers.  And Prince Brigan rivals even my beloved Po as a love interest.

There is one holdover from Graceling – we meet King Leck as a boy.  His monstrosity, as a human who can control minds through his Grace, provides a foil for Fire’s humanity, as a monster who struggles to use her powers wisely and well.  I do wish we were given a little bit more insight into why Leck is so inhuman – I assume that it is just as a result of always being able to get what he wants.  But he is so extreme.  And since we only see him as a child through the eyes of his father, whose mind Leck has controlled for many years, the reader doesn’t come away with a very clear picture of how he becomes so warped.  Unlike the other characters we meet in Cashore’s worlds, Leck feels very one-note.

Cashore is masterful at using little movements and changes in posture and bearing to show a character’s thoughts.  It’s a little thing, but it’s done so consistently well – she’s got show-don’t-tell down to a science.  The little descriptions are constant, especially during dialogue between Fire and Brigan, but they never feel extraneous or distracting from the action.  Each character has their own little vocabulary of movement, just as they each have their own patterns of speech.  It’s just one example of the many ways that Cashore brings the characters’ subtext to the surface.  This was one of the things I enjoyed most about Graceling, and I was pleased to see it continue in Fire.  I think it’s one of the reason’s that her romances are SO good – we actually see them developing not just through words, actions, and thoughts, but also through the characters’ physicality.

Kristin Cashore is an enormous talent.  Once again, her book swept me away with wonderful characters, sweeping adventure, and a sizzling romance.  I will be waiting impatiently for Bitterblue, the third book set in this world.

Fire on the web.

Kristin Cashore on the web.

Review copy provided by the publisher at BEA.

The Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede

Thirteenth ChildEver since Eff was born, she’s been treated with fear, mistrust, and sometimes outright loathing -and all this from members of her own family.  Because Eff is a thirteenth child, she is considered unlucky at best, and many believe that she is destined for a life of badness with no way to escape.  According to the same gossiping aunts and uncles, Eff’s twin brother has a very different destiny.  Lan is the seventh son of a seventh son, bringing luck to those around him and making his magic tremendously powerful.

When the treatment of their two youngest children becomes extreme, Eff’s mom and dad decide to move the family out to Mill City for a new start.  Mill City is the biggest city on the frontier, and it is just miles away from the Great Barrier.  Once you pass the Great Barrier that separates the east and the west, the territory changes.  Pretty drastically.  We’re talking Mammoths and Steam Dragons and Sphinxes drastic.  The Barrier keeps this wild menagerie of menacing magical creatures out on the frontier.  But many people cross the frontier to create new settlements and try to tame the land, protected by their settlement magicians.  And while the settlers expect trouble from these large and threatening magical creatures, the thing that causes the most trouble is something they have all overlooked.

Much of the book is concerned with the process of learning magic, and how that process is different for Eff and Lan.  Which is a treat for the reader, because the magical system is seriously cool.  There are three traditional systems of magic – Avrupean, Hijero-Cathayan, and Aphrikan – and each has its own methods and quirks.  Since Eff starts out young and is learning more about how to use magic, the reader gets to come along on that journey.

It is not only the magic system that is exceptionally crafted in Wrede’s book – all of her worldbuilding is top-notch.  I feel like I’ve been seeing more of these books that combine an alternate history of our world with some kind of fantasy element, and this is the best of the bunch so far.   Wrede’s combination of the wild west frontier and the wild animals of fantasy is inspired, and both the creatures and the magic fit perfectly into the world she creates. 

And while the world and the magic are a delight to read, it is Eff who drew me into this book.  Her relatives treated her with suspicion and malice for so long that she has internalized their distrust of her magic.  She is convinced that it is only a matter of time before she turns bad, and so she pulls away from friendships and from her own magical power.  The reader can see that Eff’s struggle with herself is creating more problems than it is solving, and Wrede is slowly bringing Eff along to that same realization. 

The Thirteenth Child builds a great foundation for a series.   The reader gets a sense of the trouble that could be ahead for Lan and Eff – much of it caused by their different upbringings and how superstition has developed their characters.  The seeds for some intense family conflict have been sown, and the backdrop for that potential conflict will certainly stand up to many more books.  I’ll be looking forward to the next in this series.

Patricia Wrede on the web.

The Thirteenth Child on the web.

Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel

starclimberMatt Cruse is out of his element, in more ways than one.  Whether he’s trying to gain traction in the grueling astralnaut training program that will determine the crew of the first vehicle into outer space, or attending posh garden parties to meet his sweetheart Kate’s parents and society friends, Matt can’t quite seem to fit in.  And then comes the part of the story where he is very literally out of his element, as Matt goes off on another one of his wild adventures.  But the ship in this adventure is a little bit different – it’s an elevator to the stars.

Airborn and Skybreaker, the first two books in Oppel’s series, have at their heart Matt’s passion for flying, and his skill and heroism when he is in the air.  Removing Matt from the airships he loves so much and knows so well takes something away from the final book in the series.  I missed the intense joy that Matt feels when he is flying – it is such a defining part of his character that he doesn’t seem quite whole when he is out of the air.  Matt is still a wonderful character, and his determination, resourcefulness, and desire to be good are still here in full force, but I couldn’t help feeling there was something missing.

By bringing Matt and Kate back to their home town, Oppel injects some unease into their usually sweet relationship. Tensions that have been quietly simmering during the first two books make their way to the surface, especially in regards to Matt’s concerns about the class and economic differences that separate them.  Kate is still vivacious and charming – and self-involved to an extreme.  It is easy to see why Matt loves her, and also why he sometimes becomes so frustrated with her in this book.  The many twists and turns of their relationship make the end of the series that much more emotionally satisfying.

Did this book reach the heights of Airborn and Skybreaker?  I felt that it did not quite get there – but those were exceptional books.  Starclimber still kept me awake until two in the morning on a work night – and I was more than willing to concede those hours of sleep for the conclusion of this exciting series.

Starclimber on the web.

Kenneth Oppel on the web.

How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier

How to Ditch Your FairyI have an ulterior motive for reviewing How to Ditch Your Fairy: writing a review gives me a good excuse to post the book’s amazing paperback cover.  Go ahead and take a minute – get a real good look at that sucker.  Take that, Tinkerbell!  Now, we all know what they say about books and covers.  But we’re going to ignore that for the moment – I’m giving you permission to judge this one.  Because this book is very funny, a little bit subversive, and just sweet enough for some bright purple cursive script.

If you live in New Avalon and you’re unexpectedly good at something, you’ve probably got a fairy.  It could be something amazing, like Rochelle’s clothes-shopping fairy.  It could be something mostly useless, like a loose-change-finding fairy.  Or it could be something that gets you unceremoniously stuffed into the back of a massive hockey player’s car every afternoon, like Charlie’s parking fairy.  Charlie doesn’t have a car.  Charlie doesn’t even LIKE cars, and she sure is sick of the smell of gasoline that seems to follow her around.  When Charlie finds out that her arch-enemy Fiorenze is trying to get rid of her all-boys-like-you fairy, they hatch a plan to make a switch.

New Avalon is just different enough to make things interesting in Larbalestier’s world – and Steffi, the love interest, is conveniently new to town.  His presence both provides a way to add some exposition about the many quirks of New Avalon, and also gives a voice to the readers’ questions and frustrations about the local customs. Steffi makes a great voice of reason when everyone around him goes on about the Ours – New Avalon’s local celebrities – or when the rules and restrictions at Charlie’s school seem way over the top.  He’s also helpful for translating the slang, which I found sometimes clever and sometimes just distracting.

Charlie attends the local sports high school, where calorie counts are mandatory for all students, discipline is tight, and getting too many demerits means missing game time.  And Charlie absolutely thrives on all of this.  It was one thing that made her feel very different from characters in many YA novels, where creativity and a quirkiness are the traits that are glorified much of the time.   Some people prefer having rules to follow and high standards to strive for – and it’s nice to see one of those people show up in a book every once in a while.

The novel initially raised a lot of wonderful questions about the fairies.  For one thing, not everyone in New Avalon believes that they exist, and no one really knows what they are, where they come from, or why some people have them.  There seems to be some religious aspect to the fairies – people who don’t believe in them are not likely to have one, and are sometimes called “agnostics.”  Fiorenze’s mother is a fairy expert, and Charlie and Fiorenze are guided by her extensive research.  But Tamsin’s research is not just practical – it is ethical as well.  She brings up some questions about the possible consequences of switching fairies.  I was intrigued by a lot of these questions, and I wish they had been explored a little bit more – they mostly fall by the wayside as the story’s action takes off.

In the end, this was a good light read that I thought had the potential to be something more.  But don’t let that take away from the fun of the story.  It’s well worth reading for the luge scene alone!

Justine Larbalestier on the web.

Justine Larbalestier’s wonderful blog.

Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel

Airborn

Matt Cruse lives a life he loves, sailing through the air as a cabin boy on the Airship Aurora and hoping to one day captain a great Airship. When Kate, a headstrong and very rich young passenger, confides in him that she is searching for an undiscovered race of flying creatures that were discovered by her uncle shortly before his death, Matt is swept up in her search. It is only when a pirate attack leaves the Aurora stranded on an island that they finally find what they are looking for.

Oppel’s novel is a richly detailed, rollicking adventure set in a Victorian fantasy world. Matt’s narration is fresh and lively, and his passion for flying gives the novel a joyful feel. With exploration, flight, romance, piracy, adventure, shipwrecks, a realistically drawn fantasy world, a rich plot, and compelling characters, there is a lot to love about this book. While the plot is fun and adventurous, it is Matt’s quietly competent passion and Kate’s strong will and curiosity that carry the novel. The quick pace of the plot and Matt’s enthusiastic narration make Airborn’s 500 pages fly by. I look forward to reading the sequel.