wicked saintsWicked Saints, by Emily A. Duncan
Wednesday Books, April 2019

It’s not Emily Duncan’s fault that hers is at least the third book this year that I’ve read with the same general premise and structure: a world torn apart, warring factions – magic vs non magic or different systems of magic, a boy, a girl, one or both of whom is powerful, one from each side, alternating points of view. To Duncan’s credit, hers is by far the best I’ve read, even as I wish for slightly less of a “cooky cutter” narrative.

At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. There was the afore-mentioned basic similarity to a lot of other books. It also had a bit of a “Final Fantasy” feel to the magic system (mages carrying round spell books, ripping out pages to cast them). But I was won over by the characters; not just the main characters (and I commend a wise decision by the author in terms of how much of themselves she allows us to know), but the relationships between them and others. I don’t want to say too much more, because spoilers. But the plot was exciting; although there’s a certain amount of blood and thunder, the violence didn’t feel gratuitous, and there’s a really interesting moral ambiguity that feels earned rather than arbitrary. Towards the end, I couldn’t put it down, and I’m already looking forward to the next book in the series.

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Crown of Feathers, by Nicki Pau Preto
Simon Pulse, 2019

For readers of Anne McCaffrey, Mercedes Lackey, and Tamora Pierce, this exciting YA fantasy hits all the right buttons. Sentient bonded animals! Evil empire! Rebel forces in hiding! Girl dresses up as boy in order to join group of Phoenix Riders!

The world has been ripped apart by a terrible war between two warrior queens. Now, the Phoenix Riders are in hiding, and two sisters, Veronyka and Val, barely survive as refugees. Val is domineering and overly controlling, and Veronyka must learn to be self-sufficient if she is to follow her dream of joining the Riders.

Preto takes some rather common tropes of YA fantasy and turns them into a compelling, if somewhat predictable, story, although the last few chapters set up what could be a very intriguing sequel. The world-building is impressive, but a bit heavy-handed; the author needs to learn to integrate background information rather more smoothly. I found the “info-dumping” pushed me out of the story rather than moved it along. Overall, though, I would recommend it to a younger YA audience and will look forward to the sequel.

I was provided a copy of this book by NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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The Cold is in Her Bones by Peternelle van Arsdale

Margaret K. McElderry Books 2019

This is a beautifully written and absorbing mythopoeic fantasy that explores the damage that can be caused by “othering.” It is set in a small forest community – and the claustrophobic atmosphere of this locale adds to the overall affect of the book – where girls and young women are always at risk of being possessed by the spirit of a woman who was ostracized because of her strangeness. Milla lives with her parents and her brother on a small farm. Both her parents seem to distrust her, and she longs to be loved. When a girl moves in to a neighbouring farm, she gains her first real friend apart from her brother, and when both Milla’s brother and her new friend are threatened by the “demon,” Milla risks everything to save them.

van Arsdale conveys Milla’s feeling of isolation and her longing to belong very well. I think what I appreciated most about this story was the portrayal of how lack of affection can be a form of abuse. The coldness of Milla’s father, in particular, is painful. Milla is a strong character, brave and true to her friend and brother without the author resorting to cliches of the feisty heroine, and I also liked that there was no need for the romance tropes of much YA fiction. This is in some ways a disturbing little book, but overall a very effective one.

I was provided an ARC of this novel by NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

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It must be difficult for an author to have written not only his greatest novel, but arguably one of the greatest novels in his particular genre, early in his career.  I write, of course, of The Last Unicorn, a lovely, pure and perfect, haunting fantasy that neither Beagle himself nor any other fantasist will ever quite match.

This book does not match it either, although in parts it comes close.  It also, in a strange way, revisits some of Unicorn‘s themes, particularly the wonder and pain for a mortal person to come into contact with the numinous and the immortal.

Summerlong takes place on an island in Puget Sound, fictional but in atmosphere and geography familiar to anyone who knows the Pacific Northwest.  It focusses on Abe Aronson, a retired(?) historian, and his long-time lover Joanna Delvecchio, and the effect on their lives when they meet the mysterious Lioness Lazos, a beautiful young woman who seems to have the power to keep the island in perpetual spring, make plants grow and talk to killer whales.  She appears to be running from someone, or something, and Abe gives her shelter in his house.  Her presence shakes the lives of both Abe and Joanna and of Joanna’s daughter Lily.

This is a graceful, thoughtful and lovely novel that captures the mood and anxieties of late middle-age (in the case of Abe and Joanna) very well.  It provides a wonderful sense of place and clear portraits of the two elder characters.  Where it is less successful is in the handling of the relationship between Lioness and Lily, Joanna’s daughter.  We are not given enough of a sense of Lily to care greatly about her, and I found her somewhat lumpish and tiresome.  It was hard to fathom the value that Lioness seemed to place in her.  I guessed who Lioness was well before any of the characters, which was also a small irritation, as I felt that we were given enough clues that any educated person, especially a historian like Abe, should have twigged much sooner than he did.

There are many elements that suggest that Beagle is in some way revisiting The Last Unicorn, only in this case in a world that is quite clearly our own and without it being absolutely certain that magic is involved.  However, the love triangle, the attraction and danger for mortals of coming close to powers that they long for but cannot touch, all are reminiscent of the earlier work.  Some might find it slow; not a lot happens, but a lot is felt, and a receptive reader will not be left unmoved.  I enjoyed it very much, particularly responding to its mature protagonists and affectionate portrait of middle-aged longings.

I was provided a copy of this novel by the publisher and NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.