Arrows of the Queen

by Mercedes Lackey
First sentence: “A gentle breeze rustled the leaves of the tree, but the young girl seated beneath it did not seem to notice.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! (Though, to be honest, you’ll probably have to buy it used.)
Content: There is some violence, and some (tasteful) attempted sex. It would be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, if we had it.

Talia is a young, sheltered girl in a Holding that is super patriarchal, giving all the power to men and making women either wives or nuns in service to the Goddess. But Talia dreams of something more: she wants to be a Queen’s Herald. She’s secretly read tales of the Heralds, with the horse-Companions and the adventures, and longs to be one of them. She has no idea how one becomes a Herald, but when she turns 13 and her elders start talking about marrying her off, she runs off. And is chosen by one of the Companions, Roland. From there, Talia is thrust into a whole new world, one of classes and work and acceptance and challenges and friends. At first, she is hesitant, but as the months and (eventually) years go on, she becomes more confident with her role not only as a Herald, but as the Queen’s Own.

I’ve read Lackey before, but not in a while, and not very much. I like her style, though there seems to be a lot more exposition than either action or dialogue. Perhaps that was part of the style when this was written in 1987, but it did drag the story down. That, and Talia was super perfect. I liked her — I mean you have to be heartless if you don’t — but she wasn’t the most interesting character. She was always stalwart, always likable, and always had the answers to her problems. It got old pretty quickly.

Even so, I liked her adventures and the world that Lackey built, and I’m not sorry I dipped into this one.

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Tess of the Road

by Rachel Hartman
First sentence: “When Tessie Dombegh was six and still irrepressible, she married her twin sister, Jeanne, in the courtyard of their childhood home.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there.
Others in the series: Seraphina, Shadow Scale
Content: There are many allusions to sex (including rape). It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

As a head’s up, while this one references Seraphina and Shadow Scale, it’s a completely separate story, and you can probably get away without reading them if you’re not interested. (I didn’t re-read them, and so really didn’t remember much, and still enjoyed Tess.)

Let me say this at the start: I love Hartman’s writing. It’s not elegant like Laini Taylor or Maggie Stiefvater, but Hartman knows how to tell a story in such a way that you lose yourself in it. Tess is a human girl — Seraphina’s half sister — who just wants to be intellectually challenged. But raised in a strict household (they’re paying for Seraphina’s “sin” of being a dragon), what’s expected of her is to marry well. But Tess messes that up when she gets pregnant (at age 14!) and has a baby. And now, when she’s 17, faced with the prospect of raising her twin sisters children or going to a convent she does the unthinkable: she disguises herself as a boy and takes to walking the road, ostensibly to help her quigutl (a sub-species of dragon) friend find the World Serpent.

This is such a remarkable book: a heartfelt and emotional tale as Tess’s story unfolds through a series of flashbacks, but also an adventurous one, as we experience Tess and Pathka’s adventures on the road. It’s a deeply feminist book as well, as Hartman explores the consequences of not teaching your kids sex ed or discouraging girls from getting an education, if they want. It’s all about expressing anger and compassion and helping others out along they way and redemption and forgiveness.

And it’s left open-ended, so we may (or may not) get to join Tess for more adventures.

It’s wonderful.

Scythe

by Neal Shusterman
First sentence: “We must, by law, keep a record fo the innocents we kill.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is, by the very nature of the book, violence. Some of it is graphic. There is also mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but, like Hunger Games, I’d be wary about giving it to overly sensitive kids.

My co-workers have been on my case to read this since it first came out. A couple of them love it (and Shusterman), but I just didn’t have time. (Sometimes, when I need to sell a book at work, I rely on other people’s opinions rather than just reading it myself, since I won’t have time to read all the books. Unfortunately.) But then, it won a Cybils award, and was picked for my online book club (and then they picked it for one of my in-person book clubs), so I figured it was about time I read this.

And, oh wow, everyone was right. This is an excellent piece of speculative fiction.

The basic premise is this: in the future we will have figured out how to defeat disease and death, thereby becoming immortal (pretty much). However, the earth couldn’t handle the subsequent population growth, so a group of people — called scythes — were organized to deal with that. They have a set of commandments, are outside the general law, and basically get to decide when people should die. There are rules governing that, as well — they have quotas they have to meet and can’t go over, and they can’t do it with forethought or malice. The book follows two teenagers, Citra and Rowan, who were chosen as a scythe’s apprentices. As it follows them through the year of their apprenticeship, it’s fascinating reading about their scythe and his philosophies, and then the difference between scythe philosophies (including a radical one who was just horrid). There is a bit of a romance(ish), but that didn’t really go anywhere (thankfully). Mostly it’s about humanity and the meaning of immortality, and how one deals with the power over life and death. There is definitely much to think about and talk about in this book.

Legendary

by Stephanie Garber
First sentence: “While some rooms on the estate had monsters hiding beneath the beds, Tella swore her mother’s suite concealed enchantment.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Others in the series: Caraval
Content: There’s some violence and intense moments. It will be in the Teen section (Grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Spoilers for the first one, obviously.

I had high hopes for this one, even though it’s been a long time since I’ve read Caraval and admittedly I don’t remember much. And while Legendary was good, I don’t know if it lived up to my high hopes.

It’s shortly after the Caraval that Scarlett won, and Legend has already set up another one. This one is  in the capital city, and it’s Tella’s turn to play. The prize? Legend’s name. The cost? Tella’s mother’s life. She’s made a bargain with a criminal: the location of her mother in exchange for Legend’s name. She has to win, but at what cost?

I did find this one engrossing; Graber has created a very unique world, full of magic and deception. But, maybe because it wasn’t new like it was in Caraval, I just wasn’t that thrilled by it. It could be that Tella’s journey wasn’t as interesting as Scarlett’s or that I just didn’t find the villain of the book that enticing, or even the final reveal all that shocking. I definitely found the ending unsatisfying. I probably just wanted… more.

It’s not that it’s a bad book; it’s not. And maybe if you read it right after Caraval, it would come off as better. Whatever the reason, I was a little disappointed.

Bob

by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead
First sentence: “I feel bad that I can’t remember anything about Gran Nicholas’s house.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s written perfectly for the younger age group. It is in the middle grade  section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Livy hasn’t been to her grandmother’s house in Australia in five years, when she was five years old. She doesn’t remember much from the last time she was there: not the room or the toys or the landscape, and especially not the green creature in the closet. Bob (the green creature in the closet) remembers Livy though. She told him to stay put, which he did. For five years. In the closet. But now that Livy’s here, he’s sure she can help him find his way home again.

Bob (the book not the character) is a charming little story about friendship and growing up, but also home and family. And it’s a delightful twist on fairy tales. In Mass’ and Stead’s hands, it’s not saccharine, but simple and sweet and tender.  Livy was more complex than I expected, pulled between her childhood self and a desire to be “older” and the responsibility of being a big sister. And Bob was charming and delightfully innocent. I liked that the fairy tale had rules: even though they were never spelled out in the book, Mass and Stead were consistent with who could and could not see Bob. It was incredibly well done, and a delightful read. .

 

Audiobook: Children of Blood and Bone

by Tomi Adeyemi
Read by: Bahni Turpin
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Listen to it on Libro.fm
Content: There’s a lot of violence, some of it intense. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Imagine a world in which magic existed, but the non-magic users (who happened to be in power) were afraid of what magic can do, so they (well, he: the king) did everything they could to stamp it out. They killed the magi — adults who were at full power — and suppressed the children of the magi. These children, Diviners, were never able to fully come into their power, they were discriminated against, and their families taxed beyond what they can afford.

This is the world that Zélie, a Diviner, was raised in. She remembered the raids, when her mother was taken and killed and her father (who is not a magi) beaten. She remembers the stories her mother told about magic and the gods, and has all but lost her faith that it can ever come back. That is, until she meets Amari, the daughter of the king that ordered the raids. Amari has stolen a magic scroll, an artifact that, in the right hands, can bring magic back. And she’s on the run. She teams up with Zélie and Zélie’s brother, Zane. And together they are determined to bring magic back.

Except it’s not as easy as that. Amari’s brother, the crown prince Inan, is on their tale, determined to stop them. And nothing — NOTHING — goes to plan.

It’s a huge book, but it’s a fast-paced one; Adeyemi definitely knows how to plot to keep a reader engaged and the pages turning. Or, in my case, a listener listening. It helps that my favorite narrator, Turpin, read this book, and as always, was fantastic at it. It’s such an excellent performance, one that immersed me into the world of Orïsha (and it helped with all the foreign names and places too!) and the story.

And what a story! There were moments that I was afraid Adeyemi would disappoint me (especially toward the end), but she pulled off a spectacular ending, and still left enough undone for a sequel (which I can’t wait for).

Remarkable. And definitely worth the hype.

Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories

by Kelly Barnhill
First sentence: “The day she buried her husband — a good man, by all accounts, though shy, not given to drink or foolishness; not one for speeding tickets or illegal parking or cheating on his taxes; not one for carousing at the county fair, or tomcatting with the other men from the glass factory; which is to say, he was utterly unkonwn in town: a cipher; a cold, blank space — Agnes Sorensen arrived at the front steps of Our lady of the Snows.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are more mature themes and some swearing (though I’m not remembering any f-bombs). It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

I have a tortured history with short stories. I want to like them, but I find them much like poetry: I don’t get them. They’re words, and often pretty words, but I just don’t… well… understand them. (Even Neil Gaiman’s stories, which I seem to have a bit more affinity for.) And this collection was more of the same: I liked the stories, but I need someone else to read them and then explain them to me. (Especially the title story. I know it’s a metaphor, and I’m sure I’ll smack my head when someone tells me what it’s a metaphor for, but right now, I’m a bit lost.)

Barnhill is a gorgeous crafter of sentences, and this is no exception. She has a beautiful way with words, and it does pull you into the story. I especially liked the final story, which is more of a novella (which could be why), because the world that Barnhill built — a comet flies by once every 25 years and endows pre-born children with magical powers which a minister then harnesses for his own means — was so fascinating, but also because the writing was just so beautiful.

And maybe, someday, I’ll figure out how to read short stories and actually understand.