Harrow the Ninth

by Tamsyn Muir
First sentence: “Your room had long ago plunged into near-complete darkness, leaving now distraction from the great rocking thump-thump-thump of body after body flinging itself onto the great mass already coating the hull.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Others in the series: Gideon the Ninth
Content: It’s violent, brutal, and doesn’t mince swear words. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

There really is no way to mention the plot without spoiling it; truly the less you know about Harrow going in, the better it will be. Trust me.

Know this: Harrow has been made a Lyctor. The first three-fourth of the book will have you questioning your sanity and wonder what the hell Muir is up to. Stick with it. It is not uninteresting, and Muir will keep you guessing and wondering. The final fourth makes up for everything that went before.

It is awesome and amazing and I can’t wait to see how Muir ends this all.

Dragondrums

by Anne McCaffrey
First sentence: “The rumble-thud-boom of the big drums answering a message from the east roused Piemur.”
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Others in the series: Dragonsong, Dragonsinger
Content: There is some bullying and one very off-screen sex scene. It would be in the YA section of the bookstore if we had it.

Piemur — who was a minor character in Menolly’s story of the first two books — takes front and center in this one. A few turns have passed since we last heard from our friends in the Harper Hall, and Piemur, known for his clear boy soprano has had the worst thing happen: he’s started to go through puberty and his voice is changing. That means, he’s no longer the center of all the choruses, and Master Robinton needs to find something to do with him. That something is learning the message drums. Except precocious Piemur does it too well and he’s bullied. One thing leads to another and Piemur finds himself stranded on Southern lands, without a hold, but with a stolen fire lizard egg. Will he ever find a place again?

In some ways, I felt this was just “Dragonsong: part 2”. I guess McCaffrey felt like Piemer needed an arc ‘like Menolly’s: he was bullied, and pushed out of a place he thought he loved, he went holdless, he found joy in a new place. There are some Pern politics in the backdrop that give it a bit more depth than Dragonsong — the tension between the new dragon riders and the Oldtimers in the south, for instance. But, it was mostly just a reprise. Except that Piemur is a delightful character, and Menolly’s in the background giving him support. So: it’s really a better Dragonsong than Dragonsong is. In fact, this might be my favorite of the trilogy, as much as I want to wholly love Menolly’s books.

It holds up as a triolgy, though.

Aurora Burning

by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
First sentence: “The disruptor blast hits the Betraskan right in her chest.”
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Others in the series: Aurora Rising
Content: There is mild swearing, including three (very well placed) f-bombs. There is some alluding to sex but none actual.

Spoilers for the first book, obviously.

So the team of seven is down to six, their pilot, Cat, falling victim to the ancient and terrible enemy Ra’haaam, who absorbed her consciousness into their own. They’re wanted by the Terran Defense force and the GIA, which has been infiltrated by the Ra’haam, even if the rest of the ‘Way doesn’t know it. But, they discover the Hadfield, the ship Aurora was on before Tyler rescued her, and Squad 312 decides to go after it. The only problem: Kal’s sister Saedii is after them, and she’s got a whole Syldrathi army at her beck and call.

This is very much a middle book in a series: it’s a lot of moving the plot forward, but also setting up the Big Climax that will happen in the final book. Aurora learns more about her powers, we learn more about the Squad (including several shocking revelations). They become more of a unit even as the book is tearing them apat.

Which is one thing I can say about Kaufman and Kristoff: nothing is off limits for them. I think it was Kristoff who said, if there sin’t any stakes, the conflict doesn’t work. There ARE stakes in this. Not just big, life-changing ones, but smaller ones as well. And they balance the multiple and changing narrating perspectives quite admirably.

It’s an excellent, page-turning series. Even if I have to wait to read the third one.

The Midnight Lie

by Marie Rutkoski
First sentence: “There were warning signs in the War that day that anyone could have seen.”
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Content: There is a lot of emotional abuse and some physical abuse. There is off-screen sex. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but it’s probably better for the older end of the range (depending on the kid).

Nirrim has grown up as an orphan in the Ward, a place on this remote island where they stick the lowest caste, the Half-Kith. She works for Raven, both in Raven’s tavern and as a forger of passports for Half-Kith to escape the Ward. Then, one day, a rare bird is sighted in the Ward, which Nirrim catches and turns in. Which gets her arrested and thrown in jail to be tithed (they take the blood of the Half-Kith), which is where she meets Sid. And her life completely changes.

The plot is a bit convoluted to get into, but it involves gods and magic and Nirrim waking up to her situation and acting for change. The book is more character and inner-dialogue driven than plot-driven, but it worked for me. Rutoski has written a beautifully worded book (it reminded me of Laini Taylor’s work), that drew me in and kept me turning pages, even when it felt like nothing was happening.

And the love story is gorgeous as well. I enjoyed the push and pull between Sid and Nirrim, how they bring out the best in each other. Though one word of warning: it’s a first book (though it reads like a stand alone) and knowing that may cushion the blow of the brutal ending.

Definitely worth reading.

Dragonsinger

by Anne McCaffrey
First sentence: “When Menolly, daughter of Yanis Sea Holder, arrived at Harper Craft Hall, she arrived in style, aboard a bronze dragon,”
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Others in the series: Dragonsong
Content: There is some bullying. It would be in the YA section of the bookstore if we had it.

This picks up exactly where Dragonsong left off: with Menolly, discovered by Masterharper Robinton, arriving with her nine fire lizards at Harper Hall to become an apprentice. It takes place over her first week, where she makes some friends and a lot of enemies, gets into more trouble because of her fire lizards, and tries to find confidence in herself.

I think this one is better, overall, than Dragonsong, but only because there’s a lot more going on and a lot fewer awful people. In the first book, it’s Menolly against the world. In this book, Menolly makes some friends and it isn’t quite her vs. everyone. Though it seems that in McCaffrey’s world, Menolly’s enemies are mostly empty-headed girls, which bothered me. I disliked the lack of female support, and the one-dimensionalness (not a word, I know) of the other women in the book. M pointed out that most of the secondary characters are one-dimensional, but still, for all of Menolly’s talent and awesomeness and that I’m glad she learned to stick up for herself, I kind of wished she had developed more of a circle of female friends rather than becoming “one of the guys”. But, the book was published in 1977, so maybe that’s too much to ask.

At any rate, it was a fun little read.

Carpe Jugulum

by Terry Pratchett
First sentence: “Through the shredded black clouds a fire moved like a dying star, falling back to earth–“
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Others in the series:  Equal RitesWyrd SistersWitches AbroadLords and LadiesMaskerade
Content: There’s a few jokes about sex and a bit of violence. It would be in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore if we had it.

We’re back in Lancre, and Magrat has just had a baby. They’re doing a naming ceremony, and her husband, King Verence, has decided that it would be “modern” and “diplomatic” to invite the residents of the next kingdom over, Uberwald. Which would have been a really great idea, except they’re vampires. Or rather: Vampyres, because they’re modern and sophisticated.

Thus starts a romp as Grany Weatherwax (who thought she didn’t get invited to the naming) goes into hiding as the vampyres take over, and it’s up to Nanny Ogg, Agnes, and Magrat (with some help from an Om preacher, Mighty Oats — go read Small Gods before this, because there are Easter eggs) to get rid of the infestation.

The thing I love most about Terry Pratchett’s books are the little things. Like a character named Igor, who limps and has a lisp and keeps complaining about the new vampires, saying “the old mathter did it better”. Or the page or two of thinly veiled penis jokes in the middle of a vampire fight that had me laughing out loud. Or the fact that the vampire castle is called Don’tgonearthe Castle. Or the Nac Mac Feegle (!), who show up (in an early iteration; they speak mostly gibberish and Nanny has to translate at one point. I like them better in Wee Free Men, but it was still delightful to see them). I think this is one of the better witch books: I liked how all the witches from Granny to Agnes got to play a role, and use their strengths to help.

It’s truly a delight, and a fitting end to the adult witch books. Now to dive into some more parts of Discworld!

Coo

by Kaela Noel
First sentence: “April breezes, warm and mild as clean laundry, fluttered across the dark rail yard.”
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Content: It’s a long book, but the print is fairly large and there’s a lot of white space, so appearances are probably deceiving. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore. It would make a good read aloud for younger kids.

Coo was abandoned as a baby in an alley and discovered by a flock of pigeons. Who carried her to their rooftop and raised her, teaching her their language and feeding her. In return, she helped them when they were injured. She never left the roof, though. When she was older (11 maybe?), her favorite pigeon, Burr, was seriously injured, and the pigeons got Coo to go down an give him to Tully, a woman who came to feed them and helped when they were seriously injured. She saw Coo, and realized something needed to be Done about her. She tried the police, but they didn’t believe Tully that there was a child living with the pigeons.

Eventually, Coo went to live with Tully, learn English and more about the human world. However, when her flock is threatened by the mayor’s plan to eradicate pigeons, Coo rushes in to save them. Because family — especially found family — matters.

It’s a sweet story, if an odd one. Noel is tapping into some heavy themes: child abandonment, animal cruelty, survival, but she does it in such a way that it doesn’t seem heavy or inaccessible. Coo is an interesting heroine to follow, and her love for her flock of pigeons, whether they be the stalwart Burr or the chaotic Roohoo, is definitely palpable. There’s a lot of unnecessary conflict (from an adult perspective), but it kept the story flowing, and I think kids will enjoy following Coo and Tully as they try to figure out their predicament.

It’s an interesting take on the “raised by wolves” story, and one that’s worth reading.

Aurora Rising

by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
First sentence: “I’m gonna miss the Draft.”
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Content: There is a lot of violence and some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

I have this friend who adores long and intricate books, and who is also a big fan of Kaufman and Kristoff. I (finally) read Illuminae series on her recommendation, and she pointed me in the direction of these. I didn’t get around to reading them, though, until I saw that Kaufman and Kristoff were doing a read-along on Instagram during the quarantine, and I figured now was as good a time as any.

It’s the far future, and Earth — Terra — has branched out into space, discovering new world and forming alliances with new species. The inter-planetary diplomatic corps is the Aurora Legion, to which six of our seven main characters belong. There are different paths in the Aurora Academy, and the six of them come together to form a squad: Tyler, is their leader; his twin, Scarlett, is the diplomatic Face; Cat is their pilot; Zila is their science brain; and two aliens — Finian, a Betraskin, is their tech; and Kal is their Syldrathi weapons and tactical man. The seventh character is Aurora, a Terran girl that Tyler rescues from the Fold (it’s the way they space travel in this world), who sets in motion the events of the book.

And it’s a ride! The chapters alternate in viewpoint between the seven characters (I adore Zila’s chapters; they’re often less than a page, but that says SO much about her personality), and help the reader get to know each person while advancing the winding, twisting (in all the good ways) plot.

Yes, it’s the first in a trilogy, and yes, I am invested in these characters and the conflict that they have put themselves in the middle of. It’s a crazy, wild, fun ride, and I can’t wait to see where Kaufman and Kristoff take me next.

Fireborne

by Rosaria Munda
First sentence “Later, he would be known as the First Protector, and under his vision the city would transform.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is a lot of violence and some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 9-12) of the bookstore.

This book has been on my radar for a while. One of the teens in the teen review group I run at the bookstore loved it. And then it won the Young Adult Speculative Fiction Cybils. And I finally got around to reading it (thanks, COVID19!)

Lee is the son of one of the former rulers of Callipola, the same rulers that were overthrown in a revolution ten years ago. Lee’s kept his memories (he was only seven at the time) to himself as he grew up in an orphanage and then, later, as one of the chosen dragon riders. Annie is the daughter of Highland farm workers, who were heavily taxed and then murdered by the former rulers. She landed in the same orphanage as Lee and also became a dragon rider, and became Lee’s close friend as they grew up.

Fast forward ten years and Lee and Annie are vying for the position of Firstrider, leader of the dragon fleet and on their way to becoming Protector. Lee seems to be the obvious choice: he has talent and skill and charisma. The problem: his exiled family has shown up and wants to take their position back as Rightful Rulers of the island, and they want Lee to help. The question: will he join his family? Or will he stay true to the values of the new republic he has chosen to serve? And for Annie: can she rise to the situation she is constantly being told she’s unworthy of? And will her knowledge of who Lee is get in the way?

This really is fabulous. Incredibly well-told and captivating, I found I couldn’t put it down. Both Lee and Annie, as well as most of the minor characters, were well-developed, and had incredible arcs. Munda thought through her characters well, and I found them to be complex interesting people to spend time with. I loved the slow-burn romance, even if I could see it coming, enjoying the circuitous path Munda took to get her characters there. I loved her version of dragons; it felt more Anne McCaffrey than anything else, but it was also its own thing. Munda took her time to create a lore of her world, and I found myself wanting to know more.

It was an incredible read I can’t wait to see where Munda takes these characters and this world next.

Girls of Paper and Fire

by Natasha Ngan
First sentence: “There is a tradition in our kingdom, one all castes of demon and human follow.”
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Content: There is sexual assault and rape (though mostly off-screen) as well as physical violence. There is also some implied sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I’ve seen this one on the shelf for a while, and it looks intriguing, but I had NO idea what I was about to get into.

In some ways, it’s easier to explain the world Ngan created: it’s vaguely Chinese (she’s half-Malaysian) but she’s flipped the usual hierarchy: the Moon caste, who are fully animal demon, are on the top. Then come the Steel caste, who are half human and half demon. And finally, on the bottom, are humans, the Paper caste. There are a lot of politics in the book, but the long and short of it is that the Paper caste are treated horribly and discriminated against. Especially under the Demon King. As part of this discrimination, though it’s framed as a “privilege”, eight Paper caste girls from across the country are taken to be the king’s private prostitutes.

Lei, our main character, is one of those Paper Girls. She is taken, against her will, because of her golden eyes, to be a bribe from one of the king’s generals. And it’s not an easy life. Lei deals with the politics of court life, the discrimination from the demons in court, resentment from the other Paper girls.

It’s complex and hard to explain, but Lei is a phenomenal character to spend time with. She’s open and vulnerable, yet fierce and determined. Ngan is expert at balancing the world building with character development, and the chemistry between Lei and the person she falls for is intense! In fact, she does an excellent job with intensity all around: the fight scenes, the chemistry, everything.

So, yeah. It’s a hard one to explain (and to sell), but I’m definitely picking up the second in the series!