Tag Archives: fantasy

Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns Trilogy

20 Jan

This review contains spoilers for A Girl of Fire and ThornsThe Crown of Embers, and The Bitter Kingdom.

Sometime in high school, after reading about yet another vaguely medieval-European fantasy world populated by agile, fair-skinned white people, I decided that, if I ever was to become a writer in the future, I would write a fantasy book in which the protagonist was either a) fat, b) black or darker-skinned, or c) gay. I hadn’t encountered much diversity in fantasy, which seemed to be a genre in love with medieval England and France. 

It’s no surprise, then, that when I picked up Rae Carson’s A Girl of Fire and Thorns I was pleasantly surprised to find a strong, intelligent protagonist who was overweight anddark-skinned, living in a tropics-and-desert climate that was a breath of fresh air from the typical mountains-and-pine forest fare.

Let me have my obligatory “Megan-Moans-About-The-State-of-YA-Cover-Art” section first, though. Let’s look at the US and UK cover art for this trilogy:

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The woman posing in these photographs is so clearly white that it’s insulting, given that the protagonist Elisa is explicitly described as “dark-skinned” several times throughout the trilogy. Compare these frankly appalling covers to the UK versions:

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I don’t know how I feel about her face being covered in all three of these cover photos–in the first one it makes sense since she spends a good deal of time in the desert, but having it covered in all three? That stinks to me of marketing being afraid of showing the full face of someone vaguely Arab-looking on a YA fantasy novel cover, 21st century be damned. That’s problematic, along with the fact that, while definitely more “ethnic” than the US cover art’s cover model, her skin tones seems to have been digitally lightened in these photos. Yikes. However, I love the distinct backgrounds of these covers, as they set the tone and location of each book far better than the US versions.

Okay, enough moaning and groaning about typically racist cover art, because a) What else is new, and b) The writer rarely gets any say on what goes on the cover. The far more important section of this review is what I’m calling

 Why You Need to Read This Trilogy Right Now:

1) The main character undergoes substantial and realistic character growth

Elisa begins as a princess moving into a new kingdom, insecure in political marriage she is entering into. She is overweight and fully aware of it, but eats as a coping mechanism (also making this a book that realistically portrays an overweight person). Though smart and wise, she has yet to learn to speak up for herself and find her leadership role. By the end of the first book, she is far healthier (a long trek through the desert will do that to a person), and more confident. She continues to grow through the second and third book in tremendous ways. She copes with death, she makes mistakes (how many protagonists are allowed to really screw up and learn from it?), and she figures out how to disagree with people that she loves and respects. It is very satisfying to see Elisa’s character reach her full potential by the end of The Bitter Kingdom, in which she has blossomed into a courageous leader with conviction, confidence, and enough political savvy to put an end to a major conflict.

2) The magical element in the story is unique and compelling

When I try to describe the magical element in this trilogy, that Elisa is divinely chosen and has a “Godstone” embedded in her stomach, people tend to roll their eyes. It does sound weird, but Carson makes it believable; there is lore behind the bearers of Godstones, there is a religion that tries to make sense of it, and, as religions often do, certain things are wrongly interpreted. Godstones are also a power source, which makes the enemy, a race born with Godstones embedded in them, even more formidable. Elisa learns to harness her Godstone throughout the trilogy, praying and learning to draw energy from the earth to heal or to destroy. What is absolutely phenomenal about this magical plot device, though, is that it doesn’t end up being a deus ex machina at the end of the trilogy. Once Elisa has mastered the use of her Godstone, it seems clear that she will overpower and win through divine force. It is so much satisfying, then, when she loses her Godstone and still manages to solve the main problems through her own power. 

3) It has unique things to say about destiny and divine intentions

A typical trope in a fantasy novel is having a character that is destined to do something Great. Whether it’s fulfilling a prophecy or having a birthright, it usually serves as the overall map of the story. This trilogy seems to follow that trope for most of the book, since Elisa is a bearer of the Godstone, which is divinely given to those burdened with a specific task that isn’t usually known until completed. As Elisa’s kingdom falls into threat, it seems clear that her divine mission is to unite the kingdoms and restore peace, but in fact her Godstone falls out after a seemingly insignificant act unrelated to the political turmoil, suggesting that divine will might have very little relation to how many lives you save or how good of a ruler you are. In the end Elisa saves the kingdom because she is strong enough, brave enough, and intelligent enough. 

4) It contains a great romantic relationship

It’s always a perk when a well-written fantasy work has a likeable romance that doesn’t overshadow the main plot of the story. At the beginning of the first book, Elisa is engaged to King Alejandro, who is gorgeous and kind, but also an ineffective ruler and uninterested in Elisa. While working with a desert rebellion, Elisa has a budding romance with a young man which isn’t able to last, subverting the “Main woman meets The One immediately and the rest is just inevitable” trope. Her growing friendship and then romance with her royal guard, Hector, however, is where the real meat and potatoes of the romance plot is. From their growing realization of their feelings to their tender and clumsy first time together, the romance feels grounded and realistic, and you can’t help but root for these two characters, who are likeable as individuals and who complement each other well as a couple.

5) It’s exciting!

I can’t overlook the fact that these are, first and foremost, entertaining books. There are plenty of shocks and twists, fascinating world-building, and interesting characters who aren’t what they first appear to be to keep the reader turning pages late into the night.  

In short, lovers of YA fantasy should put this on their “To-Read” lists. It is altogether phenomenal.

Review: His Dark Assassins Series

17 Dec

I love historical fiction, but a common problem that I find is that the author rewrites history to suit our modern sensibilities, giving characters modern thoughts or behaving in ways inappropriate to their historical context. This is especially tricky when trying to write strong female characters; how do you create awesome, strong female characters which still fit in the context of their times? I am in no way saying that there were not strong females throughout history, but understanding their strength often requires some social context of the times, which can be a lot to cram into a novel.

This issue can be resolved by impressive writers, but there is yet another solution! Alternate histories offer the best of both worlds; a rich historical background (to the extent that it serves the story), and the flexibility to create culture as one would in a fantasy world. This means the author can pick and choose what they want to use in their world, which can create a fantastic yarn without the worries of accurately portraying the social context.

The first two books of Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassins trilogy uses this genre to its best possible use, using the backdrop of 15th century Brittany (more or less keeping the political history and adding some interesting religion twists) for her story of empowered female assassins. I’ll give a brief rundown of the two books that are out so far, Grave Mercy and Dark TriumphMild Spoilers Ahead.

url Grave Mercy- First off, let me do my obligatory whine about the asinine Pretty White Girl cover art. Ugh. Why. Why. The art turned me off of the book right away, but I am so grateful that I got past the cover and kept reading, because LaFevers’ writing is gripping and lovely. She immediately plunges us into the world and mind of Ismae, who begins as a turnip farmer’s daughter doomed to be married off to a lecherous man. She is soon sent to a convent where daughters of Mortaine (aka Death Himself) train to become assassins. As one of his daughters, Ismae can see marks on people that Mortaine has chosen for death, and she carries out his will. This soon plunges her into a political intrigue involving a 12-year-old duchess inheriting a duchy of Brittany (which is historically-based), and into an unexpected romance. Ismae also begins questioning the motives of the convent where she trained after she sees Mortaine and finds a whole new understanding of her destiny. In the end she chooses to use death and the freeing of the soul as an act of mercy to those suffering, instead of as vengeance, a clear departure from how she was trained. This plants the idea that institutions can veer away from their original intent, and also demonstrates how groups that seem good can still be flawed or make wrong decisions.

url-1Dark Triumph continues this theme, and it follows a completely different character from Grave Mercy‘s Ismae. Sybella was also convent-trained, but her similarities to Ismae end there. When we readers are first introduced to Sybella’s thoughts, she is a dark-minded and very troubled woman, wishing for death. Whereas Ismae did her assassinations as duties, Sybella loves seeking vengeance. Throughout the book we learn why she is so troubled and cynical; she is raised by a monstrous nobleman, sought after by an incestuous brother, and has seen terrible death and gone through loss and pain. She is more blatantly rebellious against the convent than Ismae is in the first novel, and as the political plot of the young duchess continues to unfold, Sybella begins to heal and starts a romance with Beast, the ugly, strong warrior who also appeared in the first book. They’re oddly perfect together, and it’s refreshing to see two books in a series that approach romance so well, and yet so differently from each other. The growth that Sybella goes through from beginning to end is organic and realistic, and the ending will make the reader be scrambling for the third book, which will feature yet another of Mortaine’s daughters.

Incarceron and a look at the 2012-2013 ITA nominations.

12 Mar

 

It’51MscpKKInL._SL500_AA300_s been a while since I sat down and sunk my teeth into a YA novel! This one’s been on my list since last fall–it’s gotten a lot of buzz at the high school and junior high level, and the sequel, Sapphique, is already out.

While this book is technically a science fiction story set in a futuristic world, it often feels like a fantasy novel; there’s a quest narrative and a dose of magical elements, and an ingenious mechanism that allows for both a dystopian, futuristic prison, and an opulent kingdom designed to match “Era” standards, everything fitting into an aesthetic and social system from days gone by, to exist in the same book.

Let me break it down, because this is where things get a bit complicated. Incarceron is a living prison. It is sentient, constantly watching and recording its prisoners, and nobody has ever escaped. Finn is convinced that he was born on the Outside, but the only clue he has is a mysterious mark on his wrist and a crystal key.

In a separate part of the world, or perhaps in a separate world altogether, there’s the land where everything is designed to feel like the past; carriages, castles, gowns, and the works. Although there is some cheating on the sly with out-of-era technology, the social system stays dated. Claudia, daughter of Incarceron’s warden, is betrothed to be married, but when she finds a way of communicating with Finn, she begins to learn about the prison, which is entirely different from what she and her people have been told. In return, Finn begins to piece together his mysterious past.

In terms of prose, there’s nothing too exciting going on here, but the world Fisher creates is fascinating, and it gives way to some interesting ideas to chew over. I was particularly fascinated with what these worlds were ideally supposed to be and what they ended up being instead. Both Incarceron and the “Outside” were designed to be paradises, and so either side considers the other side as a paradise. In the beginning, Incarceron was to be a place where criminals were relocated and reformed to be a part of this amazing society with excellent education and technology, but instead factions split up and crime breaks out. And Claudia’s world, too, is far from perfect, even though it was designed to be.  “We will choose an Era from the past and re-create it. We will make a world free from the anxiety of change! It will be Paradise!” reads a decree that opens up an early chapter of the book.

That leads the reader to ask, why do we idealize the past? Is it because we only choose to see the good details and ignore the bad or inconvenient ones? It seems natural to become nostalgic for things gone, to shy away from change and to keep things old. Yet the citizens of this Era-restricted world constantly cheat with modern conveniences; hidden washing machines, secret elevators, carefully-used Skin Wands. It’s interesting that society seems unable to make a comfortable mesh of these old and new things; instead they pretend that everything is old, hiding away new conveniences like some ugly but necessary secret.

The fate of the prison, too, makes the reader wonder, as the characters in the book do, if man automatically reverts to evil. When criminals are given the best resources, will they still return to crime and evil, despite all best efforts? I really don’t think so. I mean, Australia turned out okay.

At 442 pages, this book is rather hefty, but the type is forgivingly large and the book flies by. There are some satisfying twists toward the end, including the very inventive and surprising location of the prison. It’s also a nominee for the 2012-2013 Iowa Teen Awards (ITA). While I wouldn’t deem it as the best book of 2012, it certainly is the most inventive one I’ve read this year, and I’m curious to read the sequel.

Then again, I haven’t gotten around to ANY of the other ITA nominations for the year! I need to get on that. Here’s a look at the other nominees:

  • Artichoke’s Heart, by Suzanne Supplee
  • The Big Field, by Mike Lupica
  • Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • I Am Number Four, by Pittacus Lore
  • Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld (my GRANDMOTHER has read this one and I have not. Goodness)
  • Lockdown, by Walter Dean Myers
  • Lost in the River of Grass, by Ginny Rorby
  • Maze Runner, by James Dashner
  • Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper
  • Payback Time, by Carl Deuker
  • Ruined, by Paula Morris
  • The Running Dream, by Wendelin van Draanen
  • The Truth About Truman School, by Dori Hillestad Butler
  • Virals, by Kathy Reichs.

Have you read Incarceron? If so, what did you think? How about any of the other ITA nominations? Any guesses for which one will or should win?

Readaloudable Books

4 Dec

Some books demand to be read aloud. The importance of reading stories aloud to children has already been explained in far more interesting and factual ways than I could do here, but let me step up on my soapbox for a second and defend the importance of reading aloud with a child even after she has become a confident reader.

No matter what your age, there is a joy to telling and listening to a story aloud, a joy which traces back to before words were written down at all. Reading aloud not only helps with fluency and creating a teacher-student/parent-child/friend-friend bond; it also brings the story alive in a whole new way. My mother and I would read books aloud at night well into my junior high years, taking turns reading alternating chapters (although I’d never admit that to my friends). Even in college, my roommate and I would read each other snippets from our books or little anecdotes before we went to sleep. Reading together is enjoyable in the same way that watching a movie or a TV show with someone else who appreciates it. You laugh together at the jokes, you yell in astonishment, you feel the same sense of awe at a perfectly woven sentence that pulls you both somewhere impossible and wonderful for a few moments.

The following are seven classics that only serve as a starting point. If you haven’t read them, please do. If you have, read them again, this time aloud to someone who will beg to know, “What happens next?”

With the bedtime storyteller in mind, I’ve given an estimate of how many nights the story would take to read, assuming that the reader would be devoting 20-30 minutes a night for reading.

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