Disappointment between the covers: On reading Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce

If you’ve visited my blog at all during the last few months, you’ve probably seen me gushing over the series of fantasy books by Tamora Pierce that I’ve been listening to obsessively. These three quartets, all set in the kingdom of Tortall, feature brave young women finding their own unique strengths and showing courage under fire as well as compassion to those in need. I loved, loved, loved these books, and vowed to keep going until I’d read EVERYTHING set in Tortall.

That vow still holds, but this post will be a temporary break from the gushy lovefest.

I’ve been following story as well as publishing chronology, so after finishing the outstanding Protector of the Small quartet, my next adventure was to be the Daughter of the Lioness duology, starring Alianne, the 16-year-old daughter of Alanna, Tamora Pierce’s first heroine (and Tortall’s first Lady Knight).

I knew I was in trouble almost immediately. I’ve been listening to the audiobook for all of these series… but within the first few chapters of listening to book #1, Trickster’s Choice, I was hopelessly lost. So much exposition! It felt like I was being bombarded with thousands of names (people, places, historical figures), with no firm grounding in action to help keep track. I made the quick, tactical decision to switch to print, hoping that having the ability to flip back and forth and to refer to the maps and cast of characters listing in the print edition might help. Well… I suppose it helped a bit, but the essence of the story didn’t change, and that became a problem for me.

So what’s it all about?

Here’s the Goodreads summary for Trickster’s Choice:

The Future is in the hands of the next generation.

Aly: a slave with the talents of a master spy, a fabled lineage she must conceal, and the dubious blessing of a trickster god.

Sarai: a passionate, charming teenage noblewoman who, according to prophecy, will bring an end to a cruel dynasty.

Dove: the younger sister of Sarai; she has a calculating mind and hidden depths that have yet to be plumbed.

Nawat: a magical young man with a strangely innocent outlook and an even stranger past; Aly’s one true friend in a world where trust can cost you your life.

Aly is short for Alianne, daughter of Alanna the Lioness and George Cooper, Alanna’s husband and the spymaster of Tortall. Aly has been taught the tricks and secrets of the spy trade since infancy, but at age 16, she’s restless and wants to get out into the field, which her parents oppose. She sneaks out on her own to go boating and promptly gets kidnapped by pirates, who sell her into slavery in the nearby kingdom of the Copper Isles.

The Copper Isles are plagued by centuries of unrest between the ruling luarin (white) nobility and the down-trodden (brown-skinned, native) raka people. Aly becomes a slave in a noble household under suspicion from the reigning monarch. The trickster god Kyprioth, the god of the Copper Isles, enlists Aly in a plan to help raise a rebellion. And the adventure is underway.

I had a very hard time with this book. I was half-bored through most of it. As I mentioned, it’s a lot of people and places, but I didn’t connect with most of the characters. For a story about rebellion, the plot has some seriously slow points. But the chief problem I have with the story is Aly herself. She’s just too skillful and knowledgeable about being a spy. Yes, she comes from an espionage family, but she’s never been an agent or seen active duty. She never falters, never lacks the ability to carry out her ideas, and pretty much never screws up.

One of the things that makes the other Tortall quartets so special is seeing the main characters evolve from young, untrained youths who work and fight to fulfill their potential. Here in Trickster’s Choice, Aly already is who she is. There’s no learning curve, no doubt, and very little introspection.

And that’s not even addressing the social issues that are so problematic, which are talked about quite a bit in the many reviews to be found on Goodreads. Basically, this white, privileged girl from noble background has to swoop in to lead the native people to an uprising, which they apparently couldn’t manage without her. On top of which, when given the chance at freedom, Aly chooses to maintain her enslaved status in order to provide better cover for her mission from Kyprioth, which seems to imply that being enslaved maybe has a purpose. All of this made me very uncomfortable.

Oh, and the love interest is a crow who’s turned himself into a man and is learning to be human. Awkward.

I finished this book with a great sense of frustration and discontent… so why did I continue? Yes, despite my fairly unhappy time reading Trickster’s Choice, I went straight on to Trickster’s Queen, hoping for a stronger second act in the Daughter of the Lioness story.

In Trickster’s Queen:

The stage is set for revolution…

Aly: no longer just a master spy, but a master of spies. Can she balance her passion for justice and her compassion for others, and at what cost?

Sarai: beautiful, dramatic, and rash – will she fulfill the role chosen for her by destiny?

Dove: she has always stood in Sarai’s shadow. Can she prove to the world that she herself is a force to be reckoned with?

Nawat: half crow, half man. He wants Aly for his life mate, but will the revolution make that impossible as they step into new roles to change the future?

Suddenly, Aly is a spymaster. She pulls the strings and directs her pack of spies and their recruits, teaching spycraft and strategy, plotting with the raka rebellion leaders, and instigating high-stakes sabotage throughout the kingdom in an effort to undermine and destabilize the ruling monarchs.

And my frustration continues. How does Aly possibly have the skills to do all this? It makes no sense. And if I had to see Aly referring to her spies as “my children” or “dear ones” one more time, I was going to smack her.

I won’t go too far into story developments or resolutions. The book is sloooooow for a very long time, basically just a recounting of spy tactics and information gathering, over and over and over, until the actual battle takes place at the very end. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of bloodshed (and I’m not sure how we’re meant to feel about that), the fairly casual murder of children, and a befuddlingly huge number of named characters, when frankly, not every single spy, servant, or noble who shows up in a scene needs a name. It’s all just too much.

Argh. It’s so crushing to go from absolutely amazing books (like Protector of the Small) to such a let-down in the continuation of the overarching story.

I really did come close to quitting quite a few times, but I do want to continue with the Tortall books, and I still have a trilogy, a book of stories, and the 1st book in a new series to go. What if the people or events from the Trickster books end up mattering down the road? Call it bookish FOMO, but I forced myself… unhappily… to finish.

I will be moving on to the Beka Cooper trilogy fairly soon, once the library’s audiobooks become available. And once I get through all of my Tortallian TBR list, I’ll be able to better state whether Aly’s books are skippable. For future readers’ sakes, I hope that they are!

_________________________________

Book details:

The Daughter of the Lioness duology:
Trickster’s Choice – published 2003
Trickster’s Queen – published 2004
Save

Series wrap-up: Protector of the Small by Tamora Pierce

My year of reading Tamora Pierce continues, and I’m loving every moment! My most recent audio adventure was the Protector of the Small quartet, the 3rd quartet set in the fantasy world of Tortall. These book take place roughly a decade after The Immortals, and two decades after the Song of the Lioness quartet.

Protector of the Small follows a similar pattern to the Lioness books, covering a young girl’s progression through the stages of training to become a knight. In this series, the main character is Keladry of Mindalen, a girl from a noble Tortallian family who idolizes Alanna, the King’s Champion (and star of the Lioness books). Kel’s ambition is to become a knight, like Alanna, but there’s a big difference: Alanna disguised herself as a boy and kept her true identity a secret throughout her training years, only revealing herself as a woman once she succeeded in becoming a knight. While the laws of the kingdom were then changed to allow girls to seek knighthood, none have tried — until Kel.

Kel enrolls in her training as a girl, and refuses to hide her gender or pretend to be something she’s not. She’s out to prove herself, but also to help pave the way for others girls who, like her, have dreamed of becoming warriors and need only the opportunity to make it happen.

Kel differs from Alanna in another significant way: Alanna had the Gift — magical abilities — but Kel has none. If Kel is to succeed, she’ll do so powered only by her mind, her will, her drive, and her strength.

The story of Protector of the Small:

In book #1, First Test, 10-year-old Kel arrives at the palace to begin her training as a page, the first step in becoming a knight. Raised in a noble family, Kel has spent her most recent years in the Yamani Islands, where she learned discipline as well as a variety of fighting skills. Kel’s acceptance into the page training program is hotly disputed, with the training instructor, Lord Wyldon, being absolutely opposed to admitting a girl. Finally, he agrees to train her on a probationary basis — something the boys aren’t subject to, which Kel fumes over. Still, this is the condition for her remaining at all, so she grits her teeth and sees it through.

From the start, it’s clear that Kel won’t back down. She’s been told that it’s customary for the older boys to haze the new pages, but when Kel witnesses outright bullying and degradation going on, she intervenes and fights back, soon earning the friendship of other first-year boys to whom she’s given her protection. Her circle of friends expands to include a working-class maid who begins serving Kel, whom Kel then encourages to stand up for herself and pursue her dream of becoming an independent dressmaker. Lord Wyldon can’t help but be impressed by Kel’s utter devotion to her training, her grit, her cool under fire, and her ability to lead in times of unexpected danger. Kel officially ends her probation, and becomes a full-fledged page.

Book #2, Page, sees Kel continue with the next three years of her training, becoming one of the most skilled fighters among her class, proving over and over again that she’s strong enough and dedicated enough to have the right to try for her shield. In the 3rd book, Squire, Kel becomes squire to Lord Raoul, the Lord Commander of the King’s Own, a fierce group of fighters. At Raoul’s side, Kel learns the art and science of the battlefield, studying warfare and the skills of command, and again proving herself of high value to her comrades and the kingdom. At long last, Kel passes the Ordeal of the Chamber, the terrifying test required as a last ritual before knighthood, and becomes the Lady Knight Keladry.

Finally, in book #4, Lady Knight, Kel sets to work in defense of the realm. A war rages on the northern border of Tortall, as Scanra, the neighboring kingdom, sends raiding parties and killing machines to slaughter townspeople living near the border and try to drive Tortallans off their own land. Kel is assigned to set up and protect a refugee camp, which she at first resents: Do they not think she’s capable of being a warrior in battle? But as she comes to realize, protecting a group of untrained civilians is an incredibly hard job, one that tests her ability to lead, to plan, and to fight. Ultimately, it’s up to Kel to stage a showdown with the evil mage behind the devastating killing machines and to rescue her people from their captors. I won’t give away the details… but rest assured that the Protector of the Small quartet has a very satisfying ending!

What a series! I really loved these books, and the audiobooks (narrated by Bernadette Dunne) are really well-done and exciting to listen to. There’s a big cast of characters, but it’s not hard to keep up and keep them all straight. It’s quite fun to see the beloved characters from earlier books pop up here — Alanna, King Jonathan, Daine, Numair — although they’re relegated to mostly smaller roles. After all, they’re all adults now — not nearly as exciting as teen-aged Kel! (Kidding… but this is YA, after all.)

Keladry of Mindelan, from Deviant Arts webisite, by artist CPatten, https://www.deviantart.com/cpatten/art/Protector-of-the-Small-484097486

Kel is a fantastic main character. She’s noble and strong, and consistently puts the needs of the weak and less powerful first, devoting herself to serving those who need her help the most. She doesn’t tolerate bullies or tyrants or people who abuse their power, and she just doesn’t back down. Kel is far from fearless — she’s terrified of letting people down, worries constantly about whether she’s doing the right thing — but once she’s set on her path, she doesn’t let fear stop her.

I love that Kel achieves all that she achieves under her own steam, no magic or interference from the gods involved. She works for what she gets, and if she’s not great at something, she’ll keep working at it until she is. But Kel doesn’t stop with her own training and skills — she trains those around her, all the various people she protects, so that they too can defend and fight for themselves. It’s inspiring, truly.

Being a Tamora Pierce book, there have to be special animals, and this book has plenty. Animals who live in the vicinity of Daine, the Wild Mage (see my wrap-up of The Immortals for more on Daine) develop extra skills, including the ability to communicate with humans and interact with them. Here, Kel has a flock of sparrows who become her devoted band of guardians, as well as a raggedy dog who fights alongside Kel — all of whom came into her life originally as animals Kel fed and cared for. There are more along the way, including Kel’s horse Peachblossom, a baby griffin, and by the end of the series, a whole squad of cats and dogs who help protect the people of Kel’s fortress camp.

I’ve loved all of the Tortall books I’ve read so far. I’m tempted to say that the Kel books are my favorite — but I’ve been saying that as I’ve finished each quartet along the way! Tamora Pierce has created an incredibly rich and detailed world filled with remarkable characters, and I love the strong young women at the center of her tales.

I can see why my daughter has returned to the Tortall books so many times over the years! I have a feeling I’ll be doing the same.

_________________________________

Book details:

First Test – published 1999
Page – published 2000
Squire – published 2001
Lady Knight – published 2002

Save

Series wrap-up: The Immortals by Tamora Pierce

Once again, I need to thank my amazing daughter for her never-flagging enthusiasm for Tamora Pierce and the world of Tortall. After seeing her obsession with these books, starting in her tweens and continuing into adulthood, past college and grad school, I just knew my involvement was inevitable. I re-read (and loved) the Alanna series over the summer (see my thoughts, here), and thanks to a reading-order list supplied by my helpful daughter, I decided to continue onward.

So, following the list, my next stop on the Tortall adventure was The Immortals, another quartet, set roughly a decade after the end of the Alanna books. The Immortals introduces new characters, settings, and challenges, but retains the familiar Tortall at its center and keeps some familiar faces in the mix — although it’s decidedly odd to see our previous teen hero, Alanna, through the eyes of a younger girl, so that Alanna is viewed as an accomplished, brave, grown-up. (Which she is, but it’s a big jump from hearing the story through her teen voice.)

The story of The Immortals:

In book #1, Wild Magic, we meet Daine (full name Veralidaine Sarrasri — isn’t that gorgeous?). Daine is a young girl of about 13, orphaned after raiders killed her mother, who signs on as an assistant to the horse trainer who supplies horses to the Queen’s Riders, an elite fighting force serving the kingdom of Tortall. Daine has an unusual skill with animals of all sorts. When she meets the mage Numair, she learns that it’s not just a skill — it’s magic. Wild magic, to be specific, a rare and unusual gift that allows her to connect with animals and speak with them mind to mind. Later on, as she learns to use and expand her magic, she’s even able to inhabit animals and shape-shift at will, giving her powers that enable her to triumph in the most dangerous of situations.

Daine becomes a key player in the kingdom, working with the King’s forces and range of allies to combat enemies who wish to overthrow him. In book #2, Wolf-Speaker, a fiefdom within Tortall has taken disturbing steps to shield themselves from the rest of the kingdom, using the mining of unusual gems to establish a magical connection with the Emperor Ozorne of Carthak. And in book #3, Emperor Mage, Daine travels to Carthak with a Tortallian delegation to negotiate peace between the nations, only to find herself enmeshed in the Emperor’s sinister schemes.

Finally, in book #4, The Realms of the Gods, there’s the ultimate showdown between Tortall and Ozorne, although Daine and Numair spend much of it literally in another world, having been brought into the realms of the gods for their own protection. Much of the 4th book is spent on Daine and Numair’s quest to find a way back to their own world, in order to fight alongside their friends and defeat Ozorne once and for all.

 

I really and truly enjoyed this series, although (and I hate to say it), the fourth book was somewhat weak in comparison to the earlier three. I love Daine as a character: She’s fierce, talented, and strong. We see her development from a young girl who’s been wounded by life, full of guilt and self-doubt, into a young adult with the confidence to use and control her gift, but who never abuses her own power. She’s devoted to the animal world and respects all creatures, coming to understand that even animals that humans find repellant have a purpose and a right to their lives. Daine is a loyal friend, who loves unconditionally and pursues what she feels is right, even at risk to her own life.

My problem with the 4th book is right there in the title. By removing Daine and Numair to the realms of the gods, too much of the book is spent with them outside of the central arena of the story so far. They’re isolated, encountering new beings and places on their quest to return home. This takes them out of Tortall for way too much of the story, so that they’re only there for the final showdown. Yes, while in the realms of the gods, Daine learns important facts about her parentage and her own powers, but it’s not a great way to wrap up the series.

 

 

 

I can’t talk about these books without mentioning the amazing animals and gods Daine befriends. There’s Skysong, also known as Kitten, an orphaned baby dragon whom Daine rescues and raises; the badger god, who becomes Daine’s patron and mentor; Tkaa, the basilisk, a strong ally; Cloud, Daine’s pony, and so many more. Because Daine can converse with animals, we get to know all of these as people with their own minds and attitudes, and it’s quite fun and fascinating to see how the author chooses to portray them.

 

 

I listened to the audiobooks — such a treat! The Immortals was recorded by Full Cast Audio, who specialize in full-cast recordings of children’s books. Tamora Pierce herself serves as narrator for the series, and each character gets his or her own voice actor. This was a bit of an adjustment for me at first, as I’m not used to listening to audiobooks with more than a single narrator. Once I got into it, though, it was really a great experience. I particularly loved the voices for Daine and Numair, but also really enjoyed the voices used for their animal and immortal friends.

The Immortals was a terrific listen and a great adventure, and I will absolutely be continuing with my Tortallian quest! Next up (after a pause to catch up on some other audiobooks) — the Protector of the Small series!

_________________________________

Book details:

Wild Magic – published 1992
Wolf-Speaker – published 1993
Emperor Mage – published 1994
The Realms of the Gods – published 1996

Save

Series wrap-up: The Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce

Sometimes, revisiting a series you read ages ago is just the thing for lifting your spirits. Or at least, that’s definitely true for me!

I first encountered the Alanna books (by Tamora Pierce) when my daughter, then a middle-schooler in her tweens, fell in love with the story. Naturally, I thought I’d better check out what had captured my 12-year-old’s attention so firmly. And while I was delighted by the girl-power message of the story, I’ll admit that there was slightly more bed-hopping than I felt entirely comfortable with my daughter reading at that point.

Years passed. My daughter, now an adult, has devoured ALL of Tamora Pierce’s books and treats them like comfort food, revisiting not just the Alanna books but all the other books set in the world of Tortall on a regular basis. She’s been urging the other books on me for years, but I had only so-so memories of the Alanna series, and didn’t remember much of the details. I just couldn’t see myself re-entering that world.

And then, I did.

I’m not sure why I decided to finally jump in, but I ended up listening to the audiobooks of the Song of the Lioness  quartet this summer… and loved them. Narrated by actress Trini Alvarado, the audiobooks were a low-stress, low-commitment way for me to dip my toe back in to the world of Tortall and see if I felt the need to truly swim deeper. Turns out, the answer was yes.

I became immersed in the story almost immediately, and continued listening all the way through until I finished the fourth book. Along the way, there were some surprises, such as the fact that I hadn’t actually read the 4th book when I first encountered the series. I was certain that I’d read them all, until I commented to my darling daughter that I didn’t remember certain of the characters or plot points from that book, and she informed me that I’d stopped before I ever got there! Silly me.

Let me now backtrack and explain a bit about the books, for the uninitiated.

In book #1, Alanna: The First Adventure, we meet Alanna of Trebond and  her twin brother Thom, two motherless 10-year-olds with a father who doesn’t particularly care about his children. They’re sent off to follow the prescribed path for noble children — boys to the capitol city to train as knights, and girls to the convent. But Alanna and Thom have different plans: Alanna dreams of knighthood and adventure, and Thom wishes to pursue a study of sorcery through the convent’s magical teachers. They switch places, and Alanna becomes Alan of Trebond, entering the palace as a young boy embarking on the training to become a knight, starting by serving as a palace page.

As Alan/Alanna grows up, she earns her place among the boys who are her peers through her toughness and her absolute determination to become the best. She’s loyal and fierce, and forms tight friendships with the pages and squires around her, including Prince Jonathan, heir to the throne. She also meets and becomes fast friends with George Cooper, a young man of the streets who presides over the lower class’s thieves and rogues. Between Jonathan and George, she has two allies and advocates who will stick with her no matter what.

Over the course of the series, we see Alanna advance to squire and finally to knighthood. She ultimately reveals her true gender, and sets out on a series of adventures, becoming a member of the Bazhir desert tribes, learning advanced magical skills as a shaman, and ultimately setting out on a quest that will either save the kingdom or end her own  life. There are romantic entanglements a-plenty (along with the bed-hopping that shocked me on behalf of my 12-year-old — although really it’s tame and non-graphic compared to today’s YA fare).

What I love about this series is the ongoing development of Alanna as an individual who refuses to adhere to the predetermined roles available to someone o f her social status and gender. She embraces her strengths, acknowledges her weaknesses, and never stops trying to improve and grow. She also refuses to be all one thing or another: Yes, she wants to be a knight, and to get there must hide her true gender, but she still manages to find kindly women to go to with her questions about women’s bodies, menstrual cycles, clothing, and relationships. Alanna remains true to herself throughout, and proves to be not just brave and skilled as a warrior, but a trustworthy friend, a beloved surrogate daughter, and a devoted lover.

Beyond all that, the Alanna quartet is quite simply a great fantasy adventure. There are sword fights and horseback adventures, battles and feats of chivalry, and all  manner of court dramas and  formalities. The world-building in the Alanna books is terrific, including not just the knighthood aspects but also its own brand of magical powers, sorcery, and a history of gods and goddesses with powers over the land. The pieces all come together brilliantly, and left me entirely satisfied by the awesome climax and conclusion of the final book, but also wanting more of the characters and this particular kingdom and world.

Luckily, there are plenty more books set in Tortall for me to explore, and my daughter has been kind enough to provide me with her recommended reading order. Next up is the Immortals quartet, starting with Wild Magic, which I’ll begin once I finish up the next couple of audiobooks in my queue.

I’m so happy to have finally revisited the Alanna books, and recommend them highly!

But please, not this set of covers. I can’t even.

_________________________________

Book details:

Alanna: The First Adventure – 274 pages, published 1983
In the Hand of the Goddess – 264 pages, published 1984
The Woman Who Rides Like a Man – 284 pages, published 1986
Lioness Rampant – 308 pages, published 1988

Save

Book Review: Winter

WinterAt long last, I’ve read the final volume in Marissa Meyer’s stunning Lunar Chronicles series! By now, all the die-hard fans have probably gobbled it up, maybe more than once. Being a fan but not quite as die-hard, I waited for my library to finally gets its copies and make one available to me… and I’ve spent the entire past week reading this big, long-awaited book.

I won’t bother with a recap or synopsis. If you’re still reading this review, it’s likely because you’ve either read Winter already or have read at least part of the series and want to know how it turns out.

Well, maybe a teensy bit of a recap. Here’s what you need to know: Winter is the 4th novel in the series (with a novella, Fairest, the most recently published, prior to Winter). The overarching storyline is about a mistreated cyborg mechanic named Cinder, her crush on the Prince (later Emperor) of the Commonwealth, Kai, and the struggle against the evil Queen Levana of Luna.

Woven throughout the four books are reimaginings of fairy tale characters: Cinder is Cinderella, Scarlet is Red Riding Hood, Cress is Rapunzel, and Winter is Snow White. Each gets to headline her own book, but Cinder is the ultimate hero, and hers is the through-story that ties it all together.

I binge-read the earlier books at the beginning of 2015, and adored them. However, it was a little tough getting into Winter at first, after a gap of so many months, and I had to rely on online recaps to feel up to speed enough to be able to move forward.

So what did I think of Winter?

First, the good:

All the action and world-building that we’ve come to love in this series continues in Winter, which plunges us immediately back into the battle for world domination. Cinder and her gang are the underdogs, trying to find a way to take down Levana, who seems to have every advantage possible. She has incredibly powerful mind-control abilities (the Lunar gift), and can make almost anyone within her reach do anything she wants, including self-mutilation, harming a loved one, and worse. How can you fight against power like that?

It’s pretty great to see Cinder’s transformation from unloved outcast to worthy leader. She’s fighting the good fight, standing up for the little guy, trying to take the throne not for her own glory, but for the freedom of the people. All the familiar friends are by her side, doing their parts for the greater good, all at great personal risk to themselves. Winter is a nice addition to the cast of characters, although… well, I’ll get into my “althoughs” below.

The ending is just as satisfying as you’d expect. This is a YA series based on fairy tales, and there’s just no way it’s not going to work out to a happily-ever-after. It’s the getting there that’s such fun.

What I didn’t love quite so much:

Oh, where to start? It’s hard to criticize a series that I mostly loved. I mean, really, it’s just so incredibly rich, detailed, and inventive. That said, there are a few things that felt a bit off to me.

WARNING: LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD!

  • Artemisia: Is it just me, or did everyone else immediately think “oh hey, it’s the Capitol from The Hunger Games!”? A glittery, extravagantly beautiful city, filled with the privileged upper class, who are pampered, silly, and frivolous, wearing ridiculous fashions, utterly reliant on the underfed, overworked laborers from the outer districts in order to keep up their wealth and resources.
  • Length: Each book in the series has been longer than the one before. Cinder is 390 pages; Scarlet, 452; Cress, 550 — and Winter is a whopping 824. Yes, it’s the wrap-up to the entire series, and perhaps deserves to be big. But, there are scenes and chapters that could have been cut or whittled down, and the book would have been fine. It felt a little overstuffed to me.
  • Winter and Jacin: Look, I like them both — it just feels a bit late in the game to get invested in yet another couple.
  • Cast of characters: What can I say? The story sometimes loses focus because of the need to involve every single character in the story. The series is really and truly Cinder’s story, and while the others may be wonderful, by Winter, many of them are serving mostly a supporting function. We continue seeing them all because they’re a part of the series, but honestly, Scarlet didn’t seem all that important here, and while I understand that she had to be included, she’s just one of many who didn’t seem particularly necessary.

Finally, my two big issues:

  • Romance: I get it, these are fairy tales, and fairy tales need a happily ever after. But does every single character need to be coupled off? Is each love story so truly perfect and meant to be? It’s too much. Each of the four power couples is just so, so, so devoted and right and madly, truly, self-sacrificingly in love from the bottom of their perfect hearts.
  • Teens and politics: The incongruities get harder and harder to ignore, the further along we go in the series. Kai is the son of the Emperor when we first meet him, a teen heartthrob, adorable, a bit unruly, the boy every girl in the Commonwealth swoons over. Okay, fine. When his father dies, Kai becomes Emperor. Still fine. But there’s something off when we see Kai bouncing between the role of world leader and adorable boy crush. The better he gets at ruling and making the hard decisions needed to protect his people, the weirder it becomes to see him interacting with Cinder and the others — a politician hanging out with a gang of teen rebels. This little exchange made me laugh and wince at the same time:

(Again, spoilers!)

Levana sighed. “Why, Selene? Why do you want to take everything from me?”

Cinder narrowed her eyes. “You’re the one who tried to kill me, remember? You’re the one sitting on my throne. You’re the one who married my boyfriend!”

Wrapping it all up:

This may make it sound like I didn’t enjoy Winter, and that’s just not the case. I did enjoy it, quite a bit in fact. The writing is fresh and fun, mixing humorous moments with absolutely horrific scenes and pulse-pounding action.

The author takes a moment that was making me uncomfortable — showing the true face of Levana, scarred and burned, that lurks beneath the outward glamour she shows the world. At first, it felt as though her looks alone were being shown as making her worthy of contempt, but fortunately, that’s not what we end up getting:

Cinder hated her own mind for labeling the queen as grotesque. She had once been a victim, as Cinder had once been a victim. And how many had labeled Cinder’s own metal limbs as grotesque, unnatural, disgusting?

No. Levana was a monster, but it wasn’t because of the face she’d kept hidden all these years. Her monstrosities were buried much deeper than that.

Sometimes even a little throwaway moment is so well-written that it shines:

She wiped her nose with the back of her hand. She was not pretty when she cried, and Winter liked this about her.

So really, what’s the deal?

I liked Winter. I really did. Somehow, the plot felt a bit overcomplicated and jumbled, and the large cast of characters kept the focus scattered rather than firmly on Cinder, which would have created greater dramatic tension. The book is clearly a must-read for anyone who’s been reading the series, and it’s a much more satisfying series ender than a few others I can think of (like Mockingjay or Breaking Dawn). The book didn’t need to be 800+ pages long, and I missed some of the awkward quirkiness and self-doubt that made Cinder so special earlier on in the series. Still, I’m glad to have read it, and overall, I still give high marks to the series as a whole.

Reading tip:

Truly, my best advice for someone thinking about getting involved with this series is to read Cinder, decide if you want to continue, and then read straight through. I think one of the reasons Winter fell a little short of my hopes is that I had about a 10-month gap in between the rest of the series and this book. The Lunar Chronicles is a series that demands to be binge-read. I’d lost all momentum by the time I read Winter, but I think if I’d read it right after Cress and Fairest, I might still have been so swept up in the energy of the story that the little irritants I mentioned wouldn’t even have caught my notice.

Interested in the series? Check out my post about binge-reading the earlier books, here.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Winter
Author: Marissa Meyer
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication date: November 10, 2015
Length: 824 pages
Genre: Young adult/science fiction/fairy tale reimagining
Source: Library

Book Review: The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair

expedBefore I actually talk about this book, can I just say how exciting it is to finally win a Goodreads First Reads giveaway? Thank you, Goodreads, and thank you, McSweeney’s McMullens! It’s quite a treat to win a book that I would have been eager to read no matter what.

The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair is the 2nd book in the terrific Expeditioners series, and frankly, I can’t wait for more! Back in 2013, I reviewed the first book, The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon, and I was so happy to get book #2 without too huge a wait in between volumes.

The Expeditioners books are set in a steampunk-ish world, where computers have been proven to be failures, travel is steam-driven, and the world that we know turns out to be missing quite a bit — such as all the previously unknown, secret lands. The Bureau of Newly Discovered Lands (BNDL) controls the discoveries and plunders their resources, and the most important people in the new economy may be Explorers of the Realm, who set out on expeditions of all sorts to discover the planet’s secrets, often risking life and limb.

Our main character is Kit West, a teen-aged boy whose father went missing under mysterious circumstances, leaving Kit, older brother Zander, and younger sister M.K. orphans. In the first book, Kit is given a clue left by their father, which propels the siblings on a cross-country adventure to solve the puzzles and cryptic maps strategically hidden by their father.

In the 2nd book, Kit, Zander, and M.K. are students at the Academy, a training ground for the next generation of Explorers. (Think Hogwarts, minus magic, plus gadgets and missions.) Kit is still puzzling over a new map which they found at the end of their first adventure, sure that it contains yet another lead from their father, one that may bring them closer to understanding his secrets and his disappearance. A competition to design and lead the school’s annual expedition leads the three, along with best friend Sukey and arch-nemesis Leo Nackley, to a sea voyage to the equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. There, Kit believes the unexplainable ocean phenomenon that has led to countless shipwrecks will also reveal their father’s next clue — but Leo Nackley and his powerful father think they’ll discover oil, which in turn will allow the Realm to wage war against other empires by fueling more deadly weapons of destruction.

The Wests and Sukey end up shipwrecked, and that’s not all. The book includes submersibles, pirates, constrictor eels, telepathic turtles, Caribbean islands, and intrigues and conspiracies galore. There’s also a smattering (but not too much) of teen angst, as Kit’s crush on his close friend Sukey turns to hurt and anger when she seems to fall for Zander instead.

One thing I love about the Expeditioners books is how smart and gifted the characters are. Kit is a cartography expert, Zander studies biology and wildlife, M.K., the youngest of the family, is a marvel when it comes to engineering, and Sukey is a talented aviator. Girls are just as strong and competent as the boys, and just as likely to wield a sword against dangerous pirates or fight off a new enemy with an amazing piece of technology. Kit and the gang use their wits to survive and outsmart their opponents, but they never have it easy and nothing comes without new risk.

Black and white illustrations by Katherine Roy enhance the story’s flow and add greatly to the sense of the characters and their world. The inside of the dust cover includes schematics for M.K.’s submersible, and there are maps and old journal pages sprinkled throughout as well.

The action never stops, and while it’s occasionally a chore to keep straight the various government agencies and the geopolitical factions, the main thrust of the story is the West kids and their quest to follow their father’s clues. By the end of this book, there are cracks forming in the siblings’ unwavering commitment to their quest, however, and Kit and his family seem about to be heading off in different directions, scattered by their new assignments and moving forward separately instead of as a team.

Expeditioners #2 (sorry, that’s a lot easier than typing out the full title) has an open-ended conclusion, clearly laying the groundwork for more to come. From what I’ve seen mentioned on a few websites, The Expeditioners is expected to be a six-part series, which means there’s plenty of excitement ahead.

I highly recommend this series for anyone who enjoys kids’ adventure tales — and that includes grown-ups too! My 12-year-old and I made this a joint reading project, and we both loved it. I can see The Expeditioners appealing to Harry Potter fans as well as fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy… and as a fan of both, I don’t say that lightly. The Expeditioners has a rich and unusual world for its super-smart and super-engaging characters to explore. I can’t wait to see what’s next!

Want to know more? Check out my review of the first book in the series, and also this great Q&A with author S. S. Taylor.

__________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair
Author: S. S. Taylor; illustrated by Katherine Roy
Publisher: McSweeney’s McMullens
Publication date: September 23, 2014
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Children’s fiction (upper middle grade; per Amazon, ages 10 and up)
Source: Goodreads First Reads (I finally won something!)

Series Binge: The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer

lunar_collage2

Curse you, Marissa Meyer! (Okay, not really).

This is why I hold back. This is why I don’t let myself start new series. Because THIS happens. I read one book. Do I stop? No. I keep going. And before I know it, I’ve read three novels, three short stories, and I’m pulling my hair out over the fact that THERE ARE NO MORE BOOKS. For now.

Last week, I wrote a review of Cinder. And since then, I gobbled up Scarlet and Cress, plus the stories Glitches, The Little Android, and The Queen’s Army.

For those who aren’t familiar with the series, here’s the general idea: In a world set at some point far into the future, over a hundred years since the end of World War Four, planet Earth is divided into large commonwealths who live at peace with one another — but the Earthen peace is threatened by hostilities from Luna. The moon was settled and colonized generations earlier, and over the generations, the Lunar population has developed its own characteristics, most notably the ability to control bioelectricity — basically, the ability to control actions, perceptions, and emotions of others. This makes Lunars very dangerous and very scary to “normal” Earthens.

The Lunar Chronicles books take classic fairy tales and plunk them down in this futuristic landscape, creating a mash-up that’s surprisingly original — and which surprised me by how good it really is.

Cinder herself (think Cinderella) is our #1 heroine, a lowly cyborg mechanic who’s discovered to have a secret connection to the Lunar world. When she catches the eye of Prince Kai, heir to the throne of the Eastern Commonwealth, a chain of events is set into motion that makes Cinder the planet’s most-wanted fugitive.

By the 2nd book, Cinder is joined in her struggle by Scarlet (Red Riding Hood), the farm girl whose grandmother was involved in a royal deception many years earlier. Scarlet is tracked by bioengineered super-soldier Wolf — but she can’t quite tell if he’s the man of her dreams, or the most dangerous thing she’s ever encountered.

In book 3, Cress (Rapunzel) enters Cinder’s world. Cress has been trapped on a satellite in Earth orbit for seven years, completely alone (and with no sharp objects, hence no haircuts). Cress is a master hacker under the control of the Lunar high command, but her true sympathies lie with Cinder and her ragtag band… and the daring, wise-ass space captain Carswell Thorne who comes along to rescue Cress.

And now? Two more books are scheduled for release in 2015: Fairest, focusing on Luna’s evil Queen Levana, comes out in January, and Winter will be released in November. Both relate to the Snow White story — the queen’s version and then the princess’s.

Why do I love these books? Many reasons, but for starters:

In many fairy tale retellings, the fairy tale structure is too obvious. Sure, maybe the story is set in a different time, but the overall story is preserved and presented more or less intact. In The Lunar Chronicles, the fairy tale framework is a supporting structure, but doesn’t dominate or force the story into a shape that restricts the characters or action in any way. So yes, in Cinder, there’s an unloved stepsister, a ball, and a handsome prince — but beyond that, there’s a plague, the second-class citizen status of cyborgs, and geopolitical maneuvering that goes way beyond a rags-to-riches love story.

Likewise, in Scarlet, we have a girl in a red hoodie seeking her grandmother and menaced by a wolf — but also a secret army, mind control, a Big Brother-ish tracking system, and desperate fugitives. In Cress, there’s a girl with long hair locked away, and a dashing hero who is blinded in the rescue attempt — but also space chases, gun battles, kidnappings, and royal subterfuge. The through-stories are never obscured by the fairy tale structure, so Cinder remains the key person of interest throughout the following books, even though the titles would indicate that they’re not about her.

What maybe doesn’t work for me quite as much is the over-emphasis on romance and coupledom. Clearly, with fairy tales as their base, the romance will not be ignored. Still, is it truly necessary for each book to match up its main character with her soulmate? This, I think, is where the fairy tale retelling maybe gets in the way a bit. With so much action, with the intrigue of this sci-fi world — full of new mechanical wonders, genetic mutations and manipulations, and political danger and strategy — we don’t necessarily need so many supercouples. By the end of Cress, there are three clearly defined couples — all of whom seem to have achieved instant soulmate status — and the love story of Winter has been more than hinted at as well.

There is some amazing fan art out there. This one is from http://lostie815.deviantart.com/art/Lunar-Chronicles-Characters-421566528 -- check it out, there's lots more!

There is some amazing fan art out there. This one is from http://lostie815.deviantart.com/art/Lunar-Chronicles-Characters-421566528 — check it out, there’s lots more!

The super-coupledom is really a minor issue, though. I’d call it a gnat-sized irritant in the midst of an absolute smorgasbord of sci-fi, futuristic, female-powered adventure. I love the ultra-imaginative world-building in this series, the distinctive voices of the characters, and the way that the shifting narrative viewpoints add on top of one another to keep expanding our knowledge of this world and all its hidden nooks and crannies.

If you’re a curmudgeonly old hold-out (like I was until about a week ago), resisting the hype and refusing to give in to yet another YA series craze… well, come on! If I can do it, so can you! Sure, I’m a little bent out of shape about having to wait for more, but *sigh* I’m sure I can find other books to read in the meantime.

And hey, if I need a dose of more of the Lunar Chronicles, I’m sure there are a thousand or so Pinterest boards to lose a few hours to.

Final note: The three short stories are all available free online, and are definitely worth checking out. Of the three, The Little Android actually broke my heart just a little. It’s a stand-alone, in that it does not include any characters from the main novels, but it is set in the same world. And it just happens to be a retelling of The Little Mermaid — the non-Disney version, which is one of the saddest fairy tales ever.

Don’t say I never did anything for you. Here are the links to the stories:
Glitches
The Little Android
The Queen’s Army

And now, back to my resolution not to start any more series!

Until the next irresistible one comes along…

Thursday Quotables: Sunrise

quotation-marks4

Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

Sunrise (Ashfall, #3)

Sunrise by Mike Mullin
(to be released April 15, 2014)

Sunrise is the final book in the Ashfall series, a powerful young adult trilogy in which a supervolcano explodes and turns most of the country into a snow- and ash-covered barren landscape. A band of survivors struggles to find a way to get by, but starvation, illness, and violence lurk around every corner.

And yet… it may be the end of the world as we know it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a lighter moment once in a while:

“This foolish proposal illustrates why you should vote for experience over youth. Why you should return to office a trusted leader with almost a decade of experience leading this town. You can choose a man you know and trust or a boy who can’t even grow a proper beard yet.”

That was not exactly true. I couldn’t grow any kind of beard, let alone a proper one.

And on a more romantic note:

I took Darla in my arms, and she crushed me against her body. The world around us was frozen, quiet, and still, as if the last point of warmth in the universe burned between her chest and mine.

Intrigued? My blog tour post and review will be up this Saturday!

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Leave your link in the comments — or, if you have a quote to share but not a blog post, you can leave your quote in the comments too!
  • Visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!