Posts Tagged With: YA

“Tankborn” by Karen Sandler

Back in June, I won a giveaway at The Book Smugglers for Karen Sandler’s novel Tankborn and its sequel Awakening.  The books are from Lee & Low, a new publisher focusing on multiculturalism and diversity in children’s and young adult literature.  Their mission is something that I fully support, and it’s especially heartening to see some of their science fiction and fantasy offerings.

Kayla is a GEN, short for Genetically Engineered Non-human.  The GEN don’t have parents in the traditional sense; they’re born using a tank and then fostered.  When a GEN is 15, he/she is given their Assignment, sent to work as slaves for the humans on Loca.  The GEN are marked by prominent tattoos on their faces, making it impossible to be mistaken for another social class.

Kayla’s friend Mishalla begins her Assignment first, but finds that something’s amiss.  Her task is caring for low-class (but not GEN) babies, some of whom have been injured.  Mishalla realizes that everything isn’t as it seems, and that the humans she works for are involved in something shady.

As Kayla begins her own Assignment, she begins to question what she’s been taught about the roles of the GEN and humans.  She meets an upper-class human teenager named Devak, and the two begin to fall in love.  Personally, I found Devak to be a bit insufferable for most of the book, but it’s understandable because he’s a teenager who has led a relatively privileged life.  For most of his life, the plight of the GEN was something that could easily be ignored, and even though he’s always been kind to the GEN, it wasn’t until meeting Kayla that he really started to get it.

Sandler uses Kayla and Devak’s story to explore how racism can become ingrained in culture.  The social classes in Tankborn are rigidly enforced, and appearance is a major determinant of one’s social position.  GEN do go to school, but their lessons are geared toward their capacity as workers.  Even the GEN religion points to fulfillment only by serving humans.  The GEN and the upper classes are taught that there are major differences between them, and that even touching one another can have serious consequences.  Kayla and Devak both have to challenge their prior assumptions and take risks to be together.

Overall, I’m a big fan Tankborn.  Kayla and Mishalla’s intertwined plot lines are filled with mystery and intrigue as they discover the real history of the relationship between the GEN and humans and fight to break down the social barriers between them.  I can’t wait to read the sequel.

Categories: Fiction, Sci Fi, YA | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Daughter of Smoke & Bone” by Laini Taylor

One of my blogging goals for this year is to work on whittling down my TBR pile of review copies from last year’s Book Expo America.  From the moment that I began reading Laini Taylor’s “Daughter of Smoke & Bone,” I was enthralled.  Taylor builds a magical world reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere“–simultaneously menacing and full of wonder.

Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love.  It did not end well.

Karou is a teenage art student growing up in Prague.  She fills her sketchbooks with drawings of chimera, half-human half-animal creatures.  Karou’s friends believe that she’s eccentric, evidenced by her stories, her blue hair, and her tattoos, but Karou has a secret.  Her hair really does grow that way, and the chimera that she draws just so happen to be her adopted family.  Every week, she slips through a door into another world, where a chimera named Brimstone traffics in teeth and wishes.  His shop is guarded by Issa, who makes customers wear one of her snakes around their necks to keep them from stepping out of line.  Karou runs errands for Brimstone in the human world, but is forever frustrated by his vague answers to her questions about his world.

One day, an angel falls from the sky.  He’s on a mission as part of an ancient war between the angels and the chimera.  When he sees Karou, he is captivated by her, feeling himself drawn to her even though she is associated with his enemies.

Karou finds herself caught between two sides in the battle between the angels and the chimera.  She envisions a world of peace, where the two sides live in harmony.  Is she too late to stop the carnage and protect the people she loves?

I can’t stop gushing about how much I love this book.  Karou has such a strong personality and sense of wonder, and it’s almost tragic to see that innocence get stripped away as she learns more about the ultimate price of magic.  She realizes that Brimstone’s vagueness was a way of protecting her innocence and giving her a childhood, as generations of war have destroyed the fabric of both chimera and angel society.  Regardless of who is right or wrong (and we see very clearly that the chimera are justified in their revolt against the angels), we see the very real impact of a prolonged war that has jaded society to the point that a normal childhood or a walk in the city sound like mad and unreachable dreams.

As a YA novel, “Daughter of Smoke & Bone” tastefully tackles difficult subjects that teens face without being preachy about them.  For example, Karou muses about regretting having slept with her ex-boyfriend when they were dating.  She realizes that it was a mistake and that he was a complete jerk, bragging to his friends about an experience that she had expected to be private and special.  At the same time, she learns from her mistake, and her life is in no way over.  At another point, we see a character realize that she’s involved with someone because of his social position and the expectation that she’ll go along with it rather than because she actually likes him.  Later in the book, we see a completely different kind of romance develop, where two characters are lovers, but have a respectful relationship that is enhanced by their physical connection.  The author’s portrayal of teenage sexuality was refreshingly honest, and I liked that the emphasis was on mutual consent, respect, and trust, rather than on the flat stereotype of a fantasy prince.

If you love YA novels, magic, or books that make you think about the difference between how the world is and how it could be, then “Daughter of Smoke & Bone” is pure gold.  Laini Taylor weaves a world inhabited by rich yet tragic characters, and I look forward to seeing them make their dreams a reality.

Categories: Fiction | Tags: , , , , , | 30 Comments

“Beautiful Creatures” by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

A few days ago at work a library patron brought in this book as a donation for the staff book exchange.  “Please don’t judge me, it’s YA,” she said.  “And it was really good.”  Based on her recommendation, I decided to borrow it for the weekend.

“Beautiful Creatures” isn’t the type of book that I’d have found on my own.  There’s a blurb on the back saying that Twilight fans would love it, which almost always sets of alarm bells in my head.  At the same time, one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and I’m glad that I decided to give this one a chance.  It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a fun read on a relaxing weekend.

There were no surprises in Gatlin County.
We were pretty much the epicenter of the middle of nowhere.
At least, that’s what I thought.
Turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
There was a curse.
There was a girl.
And in the end, there was a grave.

Ethan is a normal teenager growing up in a rural Southern town.  It’s the kind of place where everybody knows everybody, and people generally spend their entire lives there.  Ethan’s on the basketball team, and outwardly fits in with his peers, but he also loves reading and dreams of leaving Gatlin once he graduates.  Ethan’s life is forever changed when a new girl named Lena Duchannes moves into town.  As the two teenagers fall in love, they discover that not everything in Gatlin is what it seems.  There’s an obvious supernatural element, but I’m not going to get into it here, because the gradual introduction and revelation of the magical elements were part of what made this book fun to read.

Gatlin is the perfect setting for this novel.  The authors pay close attention to detail, from the Civil War reenactments, the DAR ladies, and the town rivalries and superstitions.  It makes a wonderful setting for a Gothic/paranormal novel, and it was one of the things that sucked me into the book.

I wish that the book had a little bit less emphasis on high school, but at the same time, I give the author a lot of credit for their perspective on it and for getting it right.  Gatlin reminded me a lot of the town where I grew up (albeit slightly less extreme).  It’s the kind of place where everybody’s known everybody since preschool.  Lena’s the new girl, and she’s different.  She wears the wrong clothes, the wrong shoes, and doesn’t interact like a normal person.  That’s why Ethan likes her.  At the same time, Ethan sets himself up for the same alienation when he begins hanging out with her.  The authors capture all the awkwardness and alienation that you get for being yourself instead of following the unspoken rules of high school.  I liked that the drama wasn’t a love triangle, but rather the conflict between following one’s convictions and fitting in with the crowd.

My favorite character in the book is Marian, the librarian, who runs both the public library and a secret magical library.  In the struggle between the forces of light and darkness, she takes a strictly neutral position, and doesn’t get involved except in the context of her work as a librarian.

Even though the book did a lot of things right, there are still a few things that annoyed me.  Just basic typical YA book/movie tropes, like the supernatural significance of the 16th birthday, or a curse that seems oddly specific for no reason whatsoever.  Also, the ending didn’t really make sense, and could have been thought out a lot better (Really?  The moon is obscured so she doesn’t get Claimed and gets to be both good and evil?  Have there not been clouds for the past 150 years?).

Despite its problems, I did enjoy “Beautiful Creatures.”  It reminded me a bit of late 1990s Disney Channel movies, so there was definitely a nostalgia factor at work, even if some parts did make me roll my eyes a bit.  It makes good beach or vacation reading, where you don’t want something that involves too much thinking, but are still looking for a book that will make you forget about the world for a while.  At the same time, I don’t feel the need to read the sequels.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, YA | Tags: , , , , , , | 14 Comments

“What’s Left of Me” by Kat Zhang

“What’s Left of Me” by Kat Zhang is a YA dystopian novel set in a world where people are born with two souls.  By the time that most kids turn five, one of the souls fades away and dies off, leaving the dominant soul in control of the body.

Eva and Addy were two such souls sharing one body, but Eva never left.  She still inhabits Addie’s body, but she can’t control it or even speak to anyone except Addie.  The two of them keep it a secret, because the government takes away hybrids, blaming them for any instabilities within their society.  One day at school, Addie makes a new friend who is another hybrid like herself, and she thinks that she knows of a way to help Eva find her voice.  It may be the greatest thing that’s ever happened to Eva, but it means taking a risk that could threaten everything they’ve ever known.

As a whole, I was quite impressed by “What’s Left of Me.”  Zhang’s writing is articulate, and I loved the way that she handled the romance aspect of the story.  It’s barely more than a crush, and the focus isn’t on Eva/Addie’s love life, but rather on more pressing problems, such as protecting their friends and not getting themselves killed in the process.  And you know what?  That’s exactly where the focus should be.  This isn’t the kind of book where the seriousness of the story is diluted by fluff.  Eva/Addie are facing very real threats in a cruel world, and we get to see that very clearly.  That is one of the biggest hallmarks of a well executed dystopian story.

“What’s Left of Me” is set in an alternate version of the 20th Century United States.  In other countries, being a hybrid is the norm, but government propaganda treats all other countries as uncivilized wastelands.  True peace can only exist in a world without hybrids, because a society cannot live in peace if its citizens are at war with themselves and their own natures.

One minor criticism that I had is that the world could be a bit more developed; right now, we have no idea why the government cares how many souls are found in one body, or why they consider hybrids to be a threat (aside from the view purported in propaganda).  I’m willing to forgive this for now because I foresee a structure similar to the Hunger Games trilogy.  In this book, we focus primarily on Eva/Addie’s personal struggles, and then in the later books we’ll likely branch out and see more of the world and of the resistance movement that we are introduced to at the end of this volume.

I read this book in one sitting because I couldn’t put it down and was fully invested in Eva/Addie’s story.  The concept of two souls sharing one body is a clever idea, and the implications of it intrigued me.  Props to Kat Zhang for creating such a remarkable book.

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FTC Disclaimer:  I received a review copy from the publishers in exchange for an honest review.

Categories: Fiction, Sci Fi, YA | Tags: , , , , , , | 9 Comments

“The Iron Witch” by Karen Mahoney

I received a review copy of Karen Mahoney’s “The Iron Witch” while I was at BEA earlier this summer.  The cover looked intriguing, and a  book about alchemists, fae, and angry wood elves seemed like it could be a lot of fun.

Donna Underwood is a home-schooled senior in high school.  Her father died protecting her from a magical attack when she was a kid, and her mother went crazy around the same time.  Donna’s hands were wounded in the attack, but an alchemist named Maker was able to repair them, leaving her hands marked with iron and silver tattoos.

Everyone in the Order assumes that Donna’s going to grow up to be a great alchemist, but mostly she just wants to be a normal teenager.  She’s had problems with bullies, and spends most of her time with her best friend, Navin.  Navin drags her to a party, and she meets Xan, and for the first time thinks she’s met someone who who might understand her secrets.

When Navin is kidnapped by wood elves, Donna and Xan must work together to save him.  Meanwhile, Donna begins to suspect that not everyone in the Order can be trusted.

I had high hopes for this book, because fairies are pretty damn cool.  Unfortunately, this one didn’t work for me.

If my hands were covered with a trippy swirly latticework of iron and silver, I’d think they looked badass and beautiful.  I wouldn’t cover them up with arm-length velvet gloves.  Especially if they also confer super-human strength.  Donna acts as if her arms were scarred and burned, not as if she’s got special awesome alchemical tattoos.  The way she hides and gets defensive about her arms makes no sense, and it bothered me.

The book also has a lot of awkward teenage drama.  Donna friendzoned Navin, Navin’s got a secret crush on Donna, she hides her relationship with Xan from Navin because …why?  It’s not like she wants to date him, but the way she dances around telling him about Xan makes me feel like she’s deliberately leading him on, even though I don’t think that she is.  I could still forgive this if I wasn’t so annoyed with Donna acting all weird about her arms, which makes me predisposed to question her judgement about everything else.

Aside from that, I actually do like the premise.  A secret order of alchemists fighting wood elves from a parallel world?  The iron of the city as the only thing keeping the magical folks at bay?  Iron tattoos that burn through magical villains?  Um, yes please.  More of that.

I also liked the way that the story was told in third person but with interjections of Donna’s own voice through journal entries.  It was a good way of tying up loose ends throughout the course of the book, and as a device it worked rather well.

“The Iron Witch” is the first book in a trilogy, but I don’t think that I’ll be reading the others.  The writing itself was decent, but between the cliched romance and Donna’s irrationality about her tattoos, I left the book feeling underwhelmed.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Urban Fantasy, YA | Tags: , , , , , , | 14 Comments

“House of Shadows” by Rachel Neumeier

I received a copy of Rachel Neumeier’s “House of Shadows” from the publishers via Netgalley.

“House of Shadows” is what you get when you blend Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” with sorcery and dragons.  A merchant dies, leaving his eight daughters orphaned.  The sisters are in dire financial straits, and so they come to the conclusion that two of them must be indentured.

Karah is startlingly beautiful, and so she receives a lucrative contract at a keiso house.  A keiso is pretty much the same thing as a Japanese geisha–a skilled entertainer and artist whose hope to one day become the Flower Wife of a wealthy patron.

Nemienne isn’t as pretty as her sister, and she’s a bit too old to be  a worthwhile investment for a keiso house.  However, the mysterious Mage Arkkennes takes an interest in her and sees her potential for sorcery.  The two sisters find themselves in the middle of a plot that threatens to shake the fabric of their entire kingdom.

There are two other point-of-view characters, the first of which is Taudde, a bardic sorcerer from a neighboring kingdom.  In his homeland, magic is channeled through music rather than through incantations.  He finds himself manipulated into an agreement to kill the crown prince, but then has second thoughts about the entire situation.  Taudde is one of the most interesting characters in the book because he is so conflicted, and I enjoyed the way that his character developed as the story progressed.

And finally, we’ve got Leilis.  Leilis was a keiso-in-training, but became the victim of a magical attack perpetrated by a jealous rival.  Ever since then, her skin delivers a painful and weird shock to anyone who touches her, which means that she’s now unsuitable to be a keiso.  Leilis makes it her mission to protect Karah from bullying in the keiso house.

This is a standalone novel, although the ending does leave a bit of room for a sequel if the author ever decides to return to the same world for another adventure.  I get excited when I find fantasy novels that aren’t a part of an unfinished trilogy.  This one was also relatively short (around 350 pages), which seems to be pretty standard for the young adult demographic.  I would have liked to see a bit more explanation and exploration of the world and magic systems, but Neumeier kept it short, sweet, and to-the-point.

Lately I’ve come to the realization that I’ve unfairly judged YA novels.  This one had a well-constructed world and an engaging story, and the characters were sophisticated and intelligent rather than angsty.  When I’m reading fantasy, I don’t like it when characters whine and wallow in self-pity.  I was so glad to see characters who seemed to be emotionally mature.

We don’t see a lot of each character’s thoughts, but you still got to see progression and development (Mind you, as far as character development, Karah was relatively flat and unchanging, but Nemienne, Taudde, and Leilis more than made up for it).  Even the minor characters grow throughout the story, and there’s more to each of them than we initially suspect.

Oh, and did I mention that there are no love triangles?  Instead we’ve got political intrigue and dragons.

Point of clarification as of 8/9/12:  Heidi pointed out to me that the book is actually being marketed as an adult novel, despite the fact that Goodreads says otherwise.  I screwed up by not double checking.  However, if you’re a younger reader who is considering reading it, it doesn’t really have any content that would make it inappropriate.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, YA | Tags: , , , , , , | 23 Comments

“Dust Girl” by Sarah Zettel

He thought it was so exciting.  He didn’t get it.  It was bad enough when I had to hide being half black.  Now I might not even be human at all.  How was I supposed to hide that?

I received a copy of “Dust Girl” by Sarah Zettel from the publishers through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I first heard about Sarah Zettel when I read Andrea’s review of Fool’s War, a sci-fi novel which featured a Muslim woman as a protagonist, and I’ve been meaning to read one of her books ever since.

“Dust Girl” is the first book in the American Fairies trilogy.  It’s set during the Great Depression, and tells the story of Callie LeRoux, a girl growing up in the Kansas Dust Bowl.  Most of the neighbors have fled town because of the dust storms, but Callie’s mother won’t leave because she’s waiting for Callie’s father to return home.  Everyone in town believes that Callie’s father was an Irishman, but he was actually a traveling jazz musician, and, coincidentally, the prince of the fairies.  When Callie’s mother disappears into a dust storm, she is forced to come face to face with her heritage.  With the help of her friend Jack, she begins an adventure that includes giant bugs, hobos, and an undead railroad bull who is the type of villain that one can truly despise.

I have a problem with the book’s cover because Callie’s mixed race is a central plot point and is one of the things that she must come to terms with as the book progresses.  The girl on the cover is way too white to match Callie’s description in the book, which could mean one of two things–either the publisher was sloppy and the artist didn’t actually read it, or the publisher is scared that showing a more realistic picture of Callie would hurt sales.  I find either of these options incredibly stupid and short-sighted, as well as insulting.  C’mon, Random House.  You should be better than this.

I liked that Zettel chose to make the fairies black.  A lot of SF/F tends to feature a rather homogeneous cast of characters, and I always appreciate stories that don’t fall into that category.

The magic system in “Dust Girl” is dependent on music.  Since Callie is part fairy, any time she sings, hums, or plays the piano she is able to generate magic.  Zettel uses music to make the setting even more vivid; songs ranging from Woody Guthrie to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” helps to create a strong sensory background for the story.

Sarah Zettel is able to blend together the genres of fantasy and historical fiction to create a story that brings to life what it was like to grow up in the Dust Bowl and to experience racial tensions during that time.  Her story is filled with magic and music, and is another perfect example of what YA literature should be.  The way that the mythology blends into 1930s culture reminds me a bit of the Charles de Lint/Terri Windling brand of mythic fiction, and I loved every minute of it.

One forewarning about the book is that the story doesn’t end.  I wish that there had been a bit more resolution, and I can’t wait to see how the next two books in the trilogy develop!

I’d highly recommend this one to fans of both historical fiction and fantasy.  The Great Depression setting paired with magic and fairies makes for a book that’s unlike anything else out there.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

“Throne of Glass” by Sarah J. Maas

This book has bestseller potential.  It’s one of those YA novels where you hate yourself for liking it so much because it’s got so many problems and cliches but at the same time you can’t put it down and can’t wait to know what happens next and are eagerly awaiting the sequels.

I received a review copy from the publisher while at BEA, and I got a chance to meet the author, who is very nice.  Sarah Maas got her start writing at Fictionpress.com, and has written several shorter stories that are companions to “Throne of Glass.”  I’m impressed that she’s already been able to garner such a huge fanbase before the book has even been released.

“Throne of Glass” tells the story of Celeana Sardothien (she has a rather epic last name, don’t you think?), an assassin who has spent the past year enslaved in a salt mine as punishment for her crimes against the King.  She receives a visit from Prince Dorian summoning her to the castle, where she will compete against twenty-three rivals to win the position of King’s Champion.  Prince Dorian wants her to win the competition because it will annoy the King.  If she wins, she will earn her freedom after her term as Champion is complete.  If she loses, she’ll be sent back to the salt mines, or, more likely, she’ll be dead.  Celeana decides to accept the challenge.  As the Trials begin, the dismembered corpses of some of the contestants begin turning up in deserted hallways, which is when the story starts to get interesting.

During the first 150 pages or so, I had a hard time getting into the story because I felt like the author was rehashing every commercially successful SF/F novel that’s come out in the past ten years.  The competition itself felt a bit contrived and reminded me a lot of “The Hunger Games.”  There’s a brief mention of Prince Dorian’s little brother, who is essentially Prince Joffrey from the Song of Ice and Fire series.  Even Celeana’s enslavement seemed to mimic Kelsier’s in “Mistborn.”  Oh, and let’s not forget the horribly obnoxious love triangle between Celeana, the Prince, and the Captain of the Guard, which not only is annoying in a YA-love-triangle manner, but also displays elements of Stockholm Syndrome.

And yet, by the time I finished those first 150 pages, I was hooked and couldn’t put the book down.  It gets better once Celeana starts getting entangled with magic, parallel worlds, and a long-dead fae queen.  As the story got going, it started to display more originality, even though the love triangle still detracted from my enjoyment of the book.  When I finished, my first thought was “Goddammit!  …b…b…b…but where’s the rest of the story?  Why can’t I start the sequel NOW?  What’s gonna happen next!?!”

Celeana is a kickass heroine who can hold her own against any opponent and doesn’t seem to have any real qualms about her chosen profession, but at the same time she’s got a big heart and wants to prevent others from experiencing injustice.  My favorite character though was Nehemia, a foreign princess who pretends to not know the language so that she can be a more effective spy.

Finding the right audience for a book is everything.  This book is getting rave reviews right now because it’s finding its target audience.  I’m not that audience, and I’m willing to acknowledge that.  I prefer my fantasy without the fluffiness of love triangles and fancy dresses.  At the same time, I think that this book would be great for young adult readers, particularly those who need the type of story that they won’t be able to put down to get them interested in reading.  I can already think of a handful of people that I’ll be recommending this to when it comes out, and I know that they’ll become obsessed with it as soon as they start it.

I keep seeing this book compared to a lot of others, so I’m going to do a bit of brief comparing/advising of my own based on some of the more popular comparisons that I’ve seen.

  • Suzanne Collins – Very apt comparison, actually.  Fans of the Hunger Games Trilogy will probably enjoy this one a lot.  If you are okay with the flaws of The Hunger Games, then you won’t mind them here.
  • Kristin Cashore – If you like Cashore’s writing specifically because it doesn’t contain the love triangles/etc., then this one is probably not for you.  However, the writing does have a similar feel to it, so I can understand where the comparison is coming from.
  • George Martin – It doesn’t have the same complexity, so don’t expect it.  You will see some mild political intrigue set in a glass castle, so there’s that.  Sara Maas will also probably be far better at providing sequels in a timely manner than GRRM.
  • Brandon Sanderson – Sorry, but no.
  • J. K. Rowling – Yes.  This is another relatively apt comparison.  On a darkness level it’s more like the later Harry Potter novels than the earlier ones.
Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, YA | Tags: , , , , , , | 19 Comments

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