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 Star of Kazan, by Eva Ibbotson

starofkazanA good old fashioned fairy-tale featuring a kind-hearted orphan girl, the pair of gentle Swiss cooks who find and raise her, a trio of nutty professors, and a returning mother who may not be what she seems. Annika spends her days exploring Vienna with her friends, learning to cook exquisite dishes, and dreaming of her long-lost mother. Since she was abandoned in the Alps as a baby, Annika has imagined every possible scenario for her mother’s return. When it finally happens, she is overjoyed to find that her mother is a beautiful and rich landowner who has been desperately searching for her lost child. The only disappointment is that she must leave her dear friends, adopted family, and beloved city to join her mother in an unfamiliar, far-off home. When they arrive, some things about the new home strike Annika as very strange, but her devotion to her new mother make her ignore any misgivings. The reader will share the sense of unease, and will cheer for Annika and the mysteriously stable-boy as they uncover the mystery of what Annika’s mother is really after.

The good people of this story are dedicated and hard-working, and Annika is no exception. She is unable to understand her family’s desire to avoid hard work at all costs, and she shines when she has a difficult task to accomplish. Even when the action is taking place in her mother’s decrepit manor house in the north, Annika’s love for Vienna is central to the story, and the city is lovingly recreated in period detail and contrasted with the stark landscape of Annika’s new home. However, the story really picks up once Annika has uncovered the plot that’s at work and begins plotting her escape. While she unwinds the threads of her mother’s plan, Annika fights her way back to her home and her real family.

Saving Francesca, by Melina Marchetta

Saving Francesca

Francesca is one of 30 girls attending St. Sebastian’s Academy, which is accepting girls for the very first time this year. The teachers and the student body have not been exactly accommodating of the girls, and Francesca makes it to school every day only from the motivation of her mother Mia, who is extremely optimistic, lively, and often annoying. Until one day, Mia won’t get out of bed. Mia was the center of the whole family, and suddenly Francesca, her father, and her little brother Luca must struggle to keep daily life going. As Francesca slowly adjusts to her new surroundings at school, makes friends with the other girls, and begins to fall for the infuriating Will Trombal, she must also learn to live life without the constant guidance of her mother and her old, popular friends. And finally, Francesca needs to discover the root of her mother’s sudden depression, and learn what she can do to help Mia return to her life.

I imagine that well written, light-hearted novels dealing with depression are few and far between, but this title certainly fits the bill. Francesca is a heartbreakingly real character, both in her humorous reactions to everyday life and in her emotional reactions to her mother’s illness. Life and relationships are allowed to be complicated in Marchetta’s book, and Francesca deals with these complications in ways that many teens will be able to relate to.

Before We Were Free, by Isabel Alvarez

Before We Were Free

Anita de la Torre is just trying to navigate the confusing world of school and first crushes. But life is more complicated than that, because Anita lives in the Dominican Republic in the early 1960s under the dictator Trujillo. People are disappearing, the Secret Police are everywhere, and many of Anita’s friends and family have already evacuated to the United States. But Anita and her family stay behind, and Anita eventually learns that her father, her uncle, and their friends are plotting a revolution. Day to day life is tense, and everything in Anita’s life changes suddenly and drastically on the day that Trujillo’s body is discovered by the secret police in the trunk of her father’s car. But the intended revolution is unsuccessful, and when her dad and her uncle are taken away by the Secret Police, Anita and her mother must go into hiding and eventually escape to the US.

Anita’s story is moving, and would make a good introduction to the terrors of this and other South American dictatorships from the recent past. And in fact, the story barely feels like it is set in the past – aside from a few references to poodle skirts the novel feels modern, which will make it accessible to more teens. Anita’s story is not only about politics and revolution, but is also a very tender coming-of-age story. Alvarez deals with all of these issues with a light touch, filtering the horror of the dictatorship through Anita’s young eyes. Anita is only twelve years old, but this book has definitely been marketed to a YA audience, from the beautiful teenage girl on the cover to the awards for YA literature. Readers will see Anita mature as she begins to understand the true nature of life in her country.

A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly

northernlight

Mattie Gokey is desperate to earn enough money to escape her tiny North Woods town and attend college in New York. Her dream is to be a writer, but in reality she is caring for her younger sisters and helping her father run the family farm. When she goes off to work at a popular summer resort camp to earn money for a new mule, Molly meets a young couple, and Grace, the young lady, gives Mattie a bundle of letters to burn. However, before Mattie gets around to burning the letters, Grace Brown turns up drowned in a boating accident on the lake, and her boyfriend is no where to be found. Reading the letters, Mattie discovers that Grace was murdered. Grace’s story, combined with Mattie’s own blossoming relationship with a local farmboy, make Mattie question whether relationships are harmful to women.

Donnelly’s narrative is complex and nonlinear, shifting seamlessly from Mattie’s life on the farm to her life at the hotel in the wake of Grace Brown’s murder. The parallel narratives of Grace Brown’s doomed relationship, Mattie’s confusing relationship with Royal, and the several other romantic relationships that are scattered through the text are skillfully woven, and the book is beautifully written. I did feel a little bit beat over the head by the “marriage is bad for women!” message of the book. While choosing not to pursue a relationship with Royal is part of Mattie’s journey, and the relationships of Grace Brown, Mattie’s teacher, and other women are illuminating to that journey, the exploration of this theme felt very one-sided.

The book was based on an actual 1906 murder, which was also explored in Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy.

Piratica, by Tanith Lee

piratica.jpg

Miss Artemesia Fitz-Willoughby Weatherhouse falls down the stairs one day at her posh lady’s school, and suddenly remembers her childhood as a pirate. Fed up with her current life, Art sets off to regain her old one, when she used to travel the seas on her mother’s pirate ship. However, Arts mother died many years ago, and when Art finds the old pirate crew everything is not what it seems. In fact, Art’s mother was a famous actress, and the pirate adventures that Art remembers actually took place on a stage. This new information hardly phases Art, who captures a ship and turns her band of actors into a real pirate crew. It turns out that one part of the stage show is real, and Art and her crew take off on the trail of a treasure, all the while being followed by the infamous, beautiful pirate Goldie Girl and her bloodthirsty crew.

For a book that seems so light-hearted and adventurous, the two main characters are surprisingly dark. Art is almost scarily driven to succeed as a pirate, and her eventual love interest, Felix, has a tragic past that informs his current life. Some levity is added by the crew of pirate actors, who are charmingly funny and given to declaiming. Lee’s novel moves quickly, and Art’s ploys as a pirate are clever. The book is fun to read when the pirate antics are going full storm, and Art is a truly independent and capable female lead character. However, I did not get everything I wanted out of this novel, perhaps because I was anticipating something a little more heavy on the adventure and less on the characters’ deeper, darker motivations. One other small quibble: Piratica is a truly awful title.

The Dashwood Sister’s Secrets of Love, by Rosie Rushton

The Dashwood Sisters Secrets of Love

In a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, the sudden death of their father places three very different sisters into a life of relative poverty. Ellie, the sensible one; Abby, the romantic troublemaker; Georgie, the tomboy; and their frazzled mother are suddenly forced to move to the small town of Norfolk on the coast of England, and their beloved family house is left to their father’s awful new wife. While the plot focuses on the three sisters romantic exploits in the new town, the book’s real center is the girls’ struggle to adapt to their new surroundings and circumstances. It is their relationships with Blake, Nick, and Adam, as well as their strong bond as a family, that eventually help the girls accept their new home.

I was surprised to find a generous portion of Austen’s novel Emma inserted into the plot, as the basis for Abby’s relationship with Nick. While Rushton’s novel certainly does not have the depth of either of Austen’s classics, it was pleasantly readable and engaging, with three likable main characters and will appeal to many teenage girls – or to anyone who, like me, is a sucker for anything Jane Austen.

Trickster’s Choice, by Tamora Pierce

Trickster’s Choice

Aly’s only ambition in life is to be a spy, like her father, but her parents won’t allow it. So when she is kidnapped and sold into a life of slavery in the Cooper Isles, Aly is prepared to collect imformation for her spymaster father, and then to escape back to her family. But when a God appears to her and makes a deal, Aly accepts. She is bound to stay with her captors and to protect the Balitang family’s children for one year. As Aly learns why the Balitangs are in exile from court and works her way into the family’s trust, she discovers that she is in the middle of a burgeoning rebellion. Aly is swept up in the excitement and intrigue, as well as the friendships and romantic relationships she establishes in the Copper Isles. She makes herself indispensable to the Balitangs and to the rebellion, and at the same time finds her own destiny.

Aly is a clever, engaging heroine, and Pierce’s world is full of excitement and intrigue. It is obvious that Pierce’s work on her earlier books set in the same world have led to a very complex, well thought out fantasy setting for the book. While Aly does sometimes come across as much more talented and clever than anyone has a right to be, she has her share of flaws. These flaws, along with her humanizing relationship with Nawat and her sassy humor, help keep her from becoming a too-good-to-be-true heroine. The fast moving plot and the strong female characters will make this book especially popular for girls who enjoy fantasy.