Valiant

by Lesley Livingston
First sentence: “The steam rising off the backs of the cantering horses faded into the morning fog.”
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Content: There’s violence, obviously, and some references to naked people and drinking. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Fallon is a chief’s daughter of one of the Celtic tribes back in Roman times. They fought off the Romans, once, but her father was captured and her sister was killed rescuing him. Which means, Fallon’s not allowed to join the warriors (even though she’s an amazing fighter) and is being forced to marry a man she doesn’t love. So, in fit of pique, she storms off only to be captured by Roman slavers. She’s sold — for an exorbitant price — to a gladiatrix training school, one that Julius Ceasar owns, and has to decide: will she fight in warrior games for a country she despises? Or will she become target practice?

I didn’t expect to like a book set in Roman times about a female gladiator, with a side love story with a Roman soldier, but you know what? I did. Livingston knows how to propel a plot and I really enjoyed the female relationships in this. Fallon wasn’t the only girl the slavers captured, and I liked how Livingston developed those relationships. They learned to work together and care for each other, and while she did have some women (once Fallon got to the academy) who were operating out of jealousy, it was mostly a supportive environment.

I didn’t particularly like the romance, though, and it all felt a bit too modern for me at points, but that’s forgivable. I don’t know if I’m going to go on to read the other two in this series, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

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Mark of the Thief

by Jennifer Nielsen
First sentence: “In Rome, nothing mattered more than the gods, and nothing mattered less than its slaves.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s violence, since it’s set in ancient Rome, but it’s not graphic. It’s basically on the level of the Percy Jackson books, so I put it in the middle grade (grades 3-5, though it probably skews to the upper end of that) section of the bookstore.

Nicholas Calva is a slave in the mines, digging up stones and jewels for the wealthy of Ancient Rome. This is not something he chose to do; his family was captured in one of Rome’s many invasions of other, smaller countries. Or sRomething he wants to do: he would much rather be a free man. But, because his mother was sold away, and because he needs to watch after his sister, Livia, he sticks around and is (mostly) obedient. Then, one day, his master sends him down to find and fetch Julias Ceasar’s bulla, a medallion that he carried with him that was supposedly given to him by Venus. Nic finds it, of course, and fights the griffin guarding it, and is endowed with magical powers.

Which gets him in to all sorts of trouble.

See, the current emperor is weak, and there’s a war brewing between the Praetors and the general of the army, and Nic seems to be caught in the middle. The question is, will he even survive long enough to pick a side?

I loved this one. Seriously. Nielsen knows how to create a world, and I was happy to immerse myself in an ancient Rome that had magic. (And pretty cool magic, at that.) Nic, much like Sage, is a impulsive character, one is more than willing to go out on a limb to do what he thinks he should, which makes him a lot of fun to read about. I enjoyed getting to know Aurelia — his friend/pseudo romantic interest — and thought she was a great foil for Nic impulsiveness. My only regret was that Livia was more an idea than a character; I never really felt the connection that Nic did for her, and was never really upset when her life was dangled before Nic as motivation.

But there are some nice twisty moments, especially at the end, and it’s a solid first book in a series.

Heaven Is Paved With Oreos

by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
ages: 11+
First sentence: “Darling Sarah!”
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When I heard that Catherine Murdock wrote a new book in D. J. Schwenk’s world, the first thing I did was put in on hold at the library. It’s been years since I’ve read Dairy Queen and it’s companion books, but I have fond memories of them. And while I didn’t love this one as much as the originals, it didn’t disappoint.

Fourteen-year-old Sarah Zorn is best friends with Curtis Schwenk. And since that’s not really acceptable in middle school (as C finds out more often than not), they’ve come up with their “Brilliant Outflanking Strategy”: let everyone think that they’re dating, even if they’re not. Except, that doesn’t really work: right before Sarah goes to Rome with her grandma, Z (yes, that’s what everyone calls her), Curtis “breaks up” with her.

But, as things go, Lessons Are Learned in Rome (Italy is a good place for Lessons), and Sarah comes home a Wiser and More Mature person, one who is more willing to face the unknown. A lot of that is due to her grandmother’s story, which we learn over the course of the book.

Told in journal-style (is there a name for that?), we see the world, both Wisconsin and Rome, ¬†through Sarah’s eyes. She’s a lovely person to have as a companion through this journey. And even though Z’s story is a non-traditional one, I found it hard to judge her for it. She was who she was, and even Sarah’s questioning of that didn’t stop me from enjoying Z. (Maybe it’s because I’m a hippie at heart.) My favorite part was the Rome section. Murdock only had Sarah and Z spend a week there; I wished it could have gone on much longer, and in more detail. But, I did like how the act of going changed Sarah, and the results that came out of that.

So, no, it’s not as strong a novel as Murdock’s original series; in many ways it feels tacked-on after the fact, an unnecessary cousin tagging along. But that didn’t stop me from really liking it.