Category Archives: young adult

His Fair Assassin Books 1 and 2

The book my book group read last month was Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers. I finished up the sequel Dark Triumph today and am now impatiently waiting for the third book to be published in the spring. This is very enjoyable young adult series, partially because it has a very entertaining central concept, well executed, and the author avoids some of the cliches and narrative traps that plague less entertaining novels. Really any review of these books is unnecessary simply because telling you that the books revolve around TEENAGE ASSASSIN NUNS IN BRITTANY DURING THE MIDDLE AGES is likely to either draw you in or leave you repulsed (if you are a boring person who doesn’t enjoy assassin nuns).

The first book centers on Ismae, who is a peasant girl with a brutal life who escapes to the convent of Saint Mortain, the God of Death. Trained to be a top notch assassin, Ismae is assigned to go to the court of the Duchess Anne, accompanying the handsome yet extremely suspicious Duval. Ismae uses her assassin’s gifts to begin unraveling the plots that surround the Duchess, but she is distracted by her growing attraction to the man she’s assigned to spy upon. One of the things that I enjoyed very much about this book was the combination of historical research and a unique narrative voice. The convent of Saint Mortain is clearly a cover for worship of a much older, more pagan god, given a vaguely Christian appearance in order to survive the religious pressures of the day. Ismae as a peasant who is transformed by her convent training has the zeal of a fervent believer, but even she notices that sometimes her orders to kill that come from the convent might be more politically expedient than they are the will of her god. The fantasy elements are blended in well with Ismae’s assassin training. She can see dark smudges when someone is marked for death, and only then will she act as an assassin. I have a bit of YA Love Triangle fatigue at this point, so I was very happy when the book just concentrated on the growing relationship between Ismae and Duval without the distraction of a third party. It seems like more often in YA these days a love triangle is a required element, so the lack of one felt very refreshing. Ismae has close friends at the convent who were trained at around the same time as her, and this plays in nicely to the sequel books.

In addition to Love Triangle Fatigue, I also have a bit of Trilogy Fatigue, as there are plenty of series that have 2 books of content that are stretched into three, or 4 books of content turned into an unsatisfying trilogy. I also get a bit weary of trilogies that are basically one long book with two horrible cliffhangers spaced out into three volumes. The His Fair Assassin Series is one of my favorite types of trilogies because instead of following the same character and story throughout, the protagonist changes with each book. The timelines cover some of the same periods, but the shift in character perspective makes the series very interesting.

Dark Triumph has Sybella as a protagonist. A girl of noble birth who arrives at the convent acting utterly wild and not particularly thrilled to be there, Ismae regarded Sybella with affection but not a lot of true understanding, as their backgrounds and life experiences are totally different. Sybella is the daughter of the evil (EXTRA EVIL) nobleman D’Albret, who is determined to gain control of Brittany by forcibly marrying the young Duchess Anne. While Ismae may have foiled some of his plots in the first book, he is still around (STILL EVIL!) and Sybella must work to carry out the will of Mortain while dodging her own relatives. Sybella’s main activity is rescuing The Beast, one of Duvall’s close friends whose martial powers when he’s enraged by battle lust are unmatched. As they journey together, more and more of Sybella’s troubled background is revealed, but even she is able to transform and grow into a whole person. The contrast in personalities between the two heroines was enjoyable. Ismae is a true believer, but Sybella is cynical and pragmatic. She enjoys killing people for her own reasons, and in a way she’s almost perfectly matched with The Beast, who leaves trails of corpses in his wake.

The conflict between the political maneuverings of the nuns in charge of the convent and the will of the god Mortain itself are alluded to in the first book and developed even more in the second. I’m wondering if there will be some larger upheaval in the convent for book three. Sometimes there are authors who might seize upon an interesting idea, but the execution and back story isn’t very well filled out, so the reader has to do a lot of suspension of disbelief and mental gymnastics in order to get through the book. I’m thinking particularly of Divergent, which was fun but there were so many loopholes in the events and future history portrayed in the books that it didn’t seem like there was much initial world building taking place before the book was written. This is absolutely not the case with the His Fair Assassin series, where it is very clear that LaFevers has done extensive research into the time period. The reader can just sit back and be transported into another world and enjoy the unique setting and fantasy elements. I highly recommend this series if you enjoy historical fantasy.

Smart Chicks Kick It Tour

I’m always happy to have a local bookstore like King’s English that is so excellent at programming events. The launch of the Smart Chicks Kick It! tour was here in Salt Lake City so it was fun to go see the author panel, which consisted of Kelley Armstrong, Melissa Marr, Ally Condie, Bethany Griffin, Richelle Mead, and Margaret Stohl.

I came away with new books: The Golden Lily, Faery Tales and Nightmares, and The Gathering.

The Fool’s Girl by Celia Rees

I read a YA book every month for my YA book group, and I didn’t care for this month’s selection at all. The Fool’s Girl tells the story behind the play Twelfth Night, focusing on the daughter (Violetta) and son (Stephano) of the couples in the play.

Normally, I’d expect to enjoy this book, but I found it extremely dour and depressing and didn’t care for the depiction of Shakespeare in at all. It is very brave to write a book with Shakespeare in it because I think that most people who like Shakespeare already have their own ideas about the type of person Shakespeare was. This certainly prevented me from enjoying the book very much. Also, the framing story for the book was so bleak it was hard for me to summon up much enthusiasm for reading when Viola was dead, Orsino is hapless and clueless, Sebastian is a dissolute murderer, and Olivia is crazy and suicidal. For anyone that enjoyed Twelfth Night, this type of premise is a little hard to take. The play does have dark elements in it, but that’s a little different than making the characters from the play mostly unrecognizable. Violetta flees the sacking of Illyria and goes to England with Feste the clown where she meets Shakespeare and tries to foil Malvolio’s evil schemes.

I didn’t enjoy Shakespeare as depicted in this book. He seemed tired and overwhelmed. I would probably be tired and overwhelmed if I lived in the 16th century, but I don’t picture the man who wrote Shakespeare’s plays as having no sense of humor or delight in writing. Rees’ Shakespeare displays neither of these qualities. In portraying a genius author, it took almost 150 pages for Shakespeare to come up with a Cunning Plan, and Rees takes the lazy way out of saying that he has a plan but doesn’t let the reader know the plan which just seems like a cheap way of building suspense into the story. Then there’s a little mini-checklist of Shakespearian references that gets ticked off throughout the book. Is there a skull? Yes! Are there Oberon, Titania, Witches, and Puck analogues? Yes! Is Violetta a Dark Lady? Yes!

This book wasn’t badly written and it was clearly well-researched, but it just failed to entertain me on so many levels. If I could have gotten over the horribly depressing take on Twelfth Night that opened the book, I might have been able to suspend my disbelief more and found this book less annoying. As it is, I probably only finished it because I’m going to have to discuss it with my book group later this week. I really hope that this book doesn’t start a trend of rewriting wretched back stories for Shakespeare’s comedies, because I do not want to read about Rosalind from As You Like It ending up on the street as a toothless meth addict being slapped around by an alcoholic Orlando.

The Sally Lockhart Series

While stranded in Illinois with only one book that I don’t much feel like reading, I snagged Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart books from my little sister’s room and read them in a few days. The adventures of an atypical Victorian heroine in a gritty version of London were extremely entertaining.

The Ruby in the Smoke

The first book in the series begins with the sentence “Her name was Sally Lockhart; and within fifteen minutes, she was going to kill a man.” I defy anyone not to be curious about Sally after that opening line. Sally’s father has just died and her unconventional upbringing has left her to be remarkably intelligent when dealing with accounting or target shooting, and less informed about dealing with people. When Sally visits her father’s office and utters the phrase “The Seven Blessings” to one of her father’s business associates, he is so frightened that he falls over and dies. Sally is soon caught up in a mystery involving the shipping trade, a mysterious Ruby, and a not inconsiderable amount of opium. Sally leaves her detestable guardian and attempts to strike out on her own. She’s aided by the Garlands, a brother and sister with an unconventional lifestyle who run a photography business. A clerk named Jim with an addiction to penny dreadfulls is also along for the adventure. A horrible woman named Mrs Holland who runs her own criminal empire in the slums of London is after a ruby that may actually be Sally’s legacy. Mrs Holland’s abused servant girl Adelaide ends up helping Sally unravel the mystery of her father’s death. Not knowing how to act like a typical girl leaves Sally to come into her own without the constraints of the society she lives in.

Shadow In the North

One of the things I like about these books is that they reflect happenings in history. While the first book focused on the opium trade, the second has spiritualism and mysticism as a backdrop. A few years after the events in The Ruby in the Smoke, Sally has become a financial consultant. Her friend Fred Garland is now a private detective, and the photography business has been invigorated by Sally’s capital and business sense. Fred often asks Sally to marry him, and she always refuses, because she doesn’t want to give up her independence. One of Sally’s clients loses money in an investment in a shipping company, and Sally senses a strange pattern when she looks at the way the business failed. While Sally investigates shipping issues, Fred and Jim are caught up in a case involving a charismatic and cowardly magician. An evil businessman plans to build an ultimate weapon, and the trio of friends are determined to stop it.

The Tiger in the Well

Sally lives on her own with her young daughter Harriett. Someone has been building a trap for Sally for years, and the day that she’s served with divorce papers and a custody claim from a non-existent husband turns into a psychologically harrowing nightmare as Sally tries to discover who her shadowy enemy is. The presence of a faux husband could cause all of Sally’s assets as well as her daughter to be taken from her, and the court system does not favor unmarried mothers. Sally goes on the run with Harriett and finds an unexpected ally in the form of Dan Goldberg, a socialist Jew and political leader. The plight of immigrants and the lower classes in London is clearly portrayed as Sally seeks refuge in neighborhoods that she’s never had to travel before. Sally dodges the police by hiding with her daughter in tea shops and boarding houses, and gradually finds out that a man the Jews call the Tzaddik is behind the attempt to take her daughter away. Sally does some undercover detective work of her own in order to find out the identity of her enemy.

The Tin Princess

The fourth book in the series focuses on some of the supporting characters, as Sally is happily married to Dan Goldberg at the start of this novel. Jim continues with his detective work and literary ambitions, penning thrilling plays and sending them off to theaters only to collect rejection slips. Adelaide who disappeared into the slums of London after the first novel, and when she turns up in the Tin Princess she’s married to a prince from the tiny European country of Razkavia. Unfortunately Adelaide is ill-equipped for princessing, as she is illiterate and doesn’t speak German. A young tutor named Becky visits the new princess, but a bomb goes off outside the house as they conclude their lesson. Jim loiters outside, as he’s been searching for Adelaide for years, and he quickly takes charge of the bombing aftermath, earning the friendship of Adelaide’s husband Prince Rudolf. Becky, Jim, and Adelaide travel to Razkavia together, determined to detect the people behind a recent outbreak of royal assassinations that lead to Adelaide assuming the throne after her husband is killed. Adelaide’s determination to do right by her suddenly adopted country is admirable. There’s bonus knitting content in this volume, as Jim unravels a sweater that Sally knit for him in order to create some improvised weapons.

I think of the series, the first book is one of the strongest and strangest just due to the presence of opium induced visions. The second book was a little muddled, as I was a little taken aback by Fred’s sudden transformation into detective. The third book was the most emotionally gripping, and it was nice to see some of the supporting characters featured in the fourth book. Overall, the Saly Lockhart books are extremely entertaining and well worth reading if you enjoy historical fiction and mysteries.

Life as We Knew It

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

This is what my YA book club is reading this month. Life as We Knew It is a harrowing and gripping story that details one family’s life after a meteor collides with the moon. It is written in diary format, as Miranda chronicles her daily life at school where everyone is dimly aware of the impending collision. After the meteor hits, the effects are worse than predicted, with tsunamis and volcanic activity destabilizing the Earth’s climate. Miranda’s mother does her best to hold the family together by hording food and rationing meals. Her brothers help out with the house, and while a semblance of normal life continues for a time as winter sets in the conditions grow worse and worse, and it is clear that the family is slowly dying of starvation.

Miranda’s normal concerns of high school friendship, sports, and boys continue while her family struggles to stockpile wood for the winter, but as people in her town die off or move to warmer locations in the hope of finding more food her world grows smaller and smaller until she’s left with only the room with a wood burning stove where her family sleeps on mattresses. The book ends on a slight note of hope, but the impact of the disaster on Miranda and the world in general isn’t minimized. I finished this book in a day, and it is definitely worth reading if you enjoy well-written YA speculative fiction.

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn

Books about girls disguising themselves as men are fairly common in the YA fantasy genre, but Eon combines disguise, dragons, and a historic Asian setting to come up with an extremely readable novel. Eon is being raised as a boy by her master as one of the eleven candidates for the Rat Dragon. Dragons and their human counterparts serve the emperor and the realm with their magic. Eon’s disguise is aided by her being a cripple, since no one looks too closely at her. Her secret weapon is her gift of magic, as she is attuned to dragon energy.

Eon’s world is filled with court intrigue and dangerous machinations. When she is chosen by the lost Mirror Dragon, she is elevated to the position of lord. While she is initially aided by her old master, Eon is also a powerful pawn in a desperate move to consolidate power by the Emperor. Eon is guided by her new friend Lady Dela but Lord Ido, the current owner of the Rat Dragon, is determined to seize Eon’s power. Gender issues are explored in varying aspects. Lady Dela is a man living a woman’s life. Various servants in the Empire are castrated. Eon’s true identity being revealed could lead to her punishment and execution. While there isn’t anything particularly new in this book, the combination of detailed world-building and the character relationships made this book very readable. The ending of the book does set up the inevitable sequel, but it looks like two books tell Eon’s story instead of the more typical trilogy. This is a good summer read for anyone who enjoys YA fantasy novels.