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.

after zero coverAfter Zero by Christina Collins

Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2018

This debut novel was elevated from the run-of-the-mill “problem” novel partly by its insight into a disorder – selective mute syndrome – that apparently the author herself suffered from as a young woman. Elise has had a strange childhood, home-schooled, raised by a remote and apparently uncaring mother, and kept pretty much isolated from other children, to the extent that at 7 years old she had no idea what a birthday party was. Her father had been killed when she was born, reportedly by a drunk driver. When Elise finally persuades her mother to send her to a real school, she makes several social gaffes, turning the popular group of girls against her, including the one who lived next door to her and had been her friend. Her response to all this is to turn to silence. If when she speaks she makes a fool of herself, she thinks, it’s better not to speak.

Collins is most successful in making us understand Elise’s motivation, and the pain and confusion she feels when she is socially misunderstood. We also get inside the head of a sensitive and creative child, who expresses herself through writing. This was an enjoyable read, but not outstanding. There was a bit of clunky writing and some of the situations – especially her mother’s behaviour, both bad and good, were not completely believable. There was a sub-plot involving a raven that I guessed was added to give some “mythic” resonance to things, but that I didn’t find convincing or necessary. I liked the boy who becomes Elise’s friend, and would have liked to see some of the other characters a bit more fully developed. Things are rather too easily solved, and the conflicts rather too black and white for full believability. However, I would recommend it to the middle-grade age-group it is marketed for.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.