Summer Reading, part 3

or old worlds made new…

I ignored everyone after a certain hour yesterday and read my way through the rest of Bitterblue and then I realized there was no more. Bitterblue, for those of you who are unfamiliar with Kristin Cashore‘s series, is part of the Graceling/Fire realms, and I say realms because each of these novels can be read as a standalone, though they all share some common elements, including characters and settings. Bitterblue brings these two realms together, but can be read on its own (though why would you do that to yourself? Read them all!).

*Warning! Slight spoilers for Graceling and Fire*

bitterblueIn the realm of Bitterblue, there are people with certain powers known as Graces, these are marked by their mismatched eyes. Some of these abilities are overt, like strength or fighting abilities, others are more subtle, like mind-reading and coercion. Not all the Graces are bad, and most are happy enough to shuffle along doing what they will. But there are those who use their powers to achieve their own ends and control others. Such is the case of Leck, whose influence leaves a stain in both the Kingdoms of Graceling and the Dells of Fire.

Bitterblue is Leck’s daughter, Queen of all Monsea, and heiress to a damaged kingdom. Leck’s Grace destroyed the idea of truth and reality in his Kingdom, so that no one can be certain what truly happened during his reign, or just how many atrocities were committed under his power. It is Bitterblue’s most desperate need to make these things right, but being a true Queen means uncovering truths that threaten the well-being of her closest allies, and learning things about her father that she never imagined.

*Spoilers done*

Phew! I try to keep those to a minimum, but some can’t be helped, especially when Leck’s doings are one of the elements that most closely binds these three novels. Bitterblue is a dark story, emotionally harrowing at times, almost in the same way that Robin McKinley’s Deerskin can just tear you apart. Leck is a nasty piece, but there is a method to his madness that is just as harrowing as Bitterblue’s wish to see her world made right because, in his own misguided way, that is what Leck also wanted–to see Monsea and its people turned into his notion of what they should be.

At the same time, there is a thread of hope that keeps Bitterblue from becoming unbearably sad. There are dreams and there is love–a sweet, companionate kind of love that Cashore always gets just right. There are also mysteries that keep you guessing, and a lot of to do about ciphers that are often beyond my ability to follow, but are fun to read about.

This is a young adult novel, but it’s one of those young adult novels that doesn’t pander to teenage daydreams about perfect happy endings. Bitterblue doesn’t expect a perfect happy ending, there’s no marriage and a happily ever after to this fairy tale, but there is an ever after.

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Born Wicked

Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood

Scheduled Release: Feb. 2012

Growing up female in a patriarchal society that views women as little more than decorative objects is never easy, especially for a trio of smart, intrepid sisters. Growing up a witch in a society governed by religious zealots that view magical ability as an evil sign of female wickedness can prove even harder. Left in the care of their distant father after their mother’s untimely death, Cate, Maura, and Tess bear the truth of their magical heritage, keeping it secret for fear of retribution from the Brotherhood that rules the country. Unsure where to seek advice, the Cahill sisters fight to stay strong as they learn to wield their powers without guidance, but these girls are part of a greater truth that threatens to destroy them all…

Born Wicked was not at all what I expected after reading the blurb on the back cover… it was so much better! Cate, Maura, and Tess are distinctive, well-developed characters that I instantly wanted to know more about. Cate narrates the trial of being an older sister to a pair of girls growing to fast and powerful for their own good. Always the voice of reason, Cate is a classic older sister as she tries to make the best of a complicated situation while keeping her sisters safe and deflecting the attention of their neighbors and the Brothers.

The plot is tightly woven and suspenseful. This was definitely one of those books I couldn’t put down! I just wanted to know what would happen… Would the girls be discovered? Would they suffer the fate of the other girls branded as witches by the Brotherhood? So many twists to keep me guessing. The history of the Daughters of Persephone–the matriarchal order of witches that ended when the Brothers waged war against witchery–was equally fascinating and lent the story a sense of time and place. I really look forward to following this series.

A great read for anyone interested in mystery, alternate history, and realistic magic (think Charmed).

I received my copy of Born Wicked through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

penny dreadful

I love a good Victorian-esque mystery and the Lady Julia Grey novels do not disappoint. This was one of those cases when Amazon actually got a recommendation right and provided me with a perfect, new addiction. As an early birthday present, I ordered myself the rest of the series and will anxiously await their arrival. I’m sure nothing I read will feel as compelling until I have devoured them.

In Silent in the Grave, the series opens with the death of Lady Julia’s husband , a death that may have been produced by less than natural means… The novel is rife with mystery, mayhem, and adventure as Lady Julia comes to terms with the aftermath of her husband’s death and meets her match in Nicholas Brisbane, inquiry agent and enigmatic object of desire. I could not stop reading.

Lady Julia’s adventures continue in Silent in the Sanctuary as she becomes enmeshed in another case of murder, one that is too close to home. Returning to her role as amateur sleuth, Julia begins her own investigation as Brisbane tries to solve the mystery. Together, they  learn more than they ever expected and break a few hearts in the process.

I am loving this series and can’t wait to read on!

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede are a humorous series of fantasy novels featuring a strong-willed princess, a dragon who loves cherries jubilee, a witch who is immune to melting by water, and a motley assortment of magical misfits and mischief makers.

Dealing with Dragons
In which Princess Cimorene decides that she does not want to be married off, thank you very much, and would much rather be a dragon’s princess. Cimorene meets the she-dragon Kazul and gets to display the many skills she acquired when not learning to be a proper princess and gets to put her quick-thinking to use when a group of dastardly wizards decide to get a little too involved in Dragon politics.

Searching for Dragons
In which the wizards return to stir up all kinds of trouble, King Kazul goes missing, and King Mendanbar shows off his sword. Cimorene, now Head Cook and Librarian to King Kazul, teams up with King Mendanbar to avert disaster and find her friend, going on an adventure that takes them across the Enchanted Forest and introduces them to new friends and foes.

Calling on Dragons
In which Queen Cimorene and King Mendanbar have some trouble with an enchanted sword, King Kazul loses her patience with the wearisome Society of Wizards, and the witch Morwen finds a giant rabbit in her garden. There’s always a new challenge to be met in the Enchanted Forest and nothing can stop Cimorene & Co. from facing it head on.

Talking to Dragons
In which the Enchanted Forest is duly enchanted and Cimorene sends her son Daystar on a quest to set things right with the help of the Sword of the Sleeping King. He encounters numerous trials along the way, faces meddlesome wizards, and makes new friends. With the help of the fire-witch Shiara, a young dragon, and the cat Nightwitch, Daystar is ready complete his journey and discover the truth of his birth.

This is a fantastic series! It is witty and ironic, the dialogue is cleverly constructed and amusing, and the characters break with tradition in a good way. Throughout the series, Wrede makes light of the genre, referring to well-known legends, myths, fairy tales, as well as more recent additions to the fantasy canon like The Wizard of Oz. Wizards are melted with buckets of soapy water and lemon juice, Rumpelstiltskin’s descendant decides to open a boarding school for all the children he acquires on the job, and all the Jacks just keep stealing from the friendly giants.

Cimorene is a no-nonsense sort of girl and a very strong character who stands out as a fantasy heroine. Her relationship with Mendanbar built on affection and mutual admiration; Mendanbar respects and supports her choices and listens to what she has to say, even if he doesn’t agree with her. Kazul is a wonderful matriarch and makes a very logical case for female king-hood. Meanwhile, Morwen is the perfect example of the perfectly content cat lady who does exactly what she wants to do.

There are many more memorable characters in the series and some great moments. It’s the sort of YA series I wish would receive some more attention as I think it can appeal to boys as well as girls and provides some subtle lessons in gender equality.

Overall, this series has become one of my favorites and I will be looking out for more Wrede when next I go to the book store (FYI… Two of Wrede’s Regency fantasy books are being reissued as a single volume called A Matter of Magic. It’s already on my wishlist 🙂 )

More than an eligible princess

I love reading fantasy novels that feature strong female characters. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there is a serious bias towards male characters in fantasy, not that I have anything against the brave, heroic, princes and knights, but I like to see a girl who does something more than serve as the damsel/object of desire. Last summer, I posted a request for recommendations on Yahoo!Answers and I was introduced to the novels of Patricia C. Wrede, which feature some of the best “girls who do things” in fantasy.

This week, I found copies of Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles in a used bookstore and they’re wonderful! I couldn’t put Dealing with Dragons down and Searching for Dragons is just as engaging. I’ll write up a proper post on the series when I’m done, but I think Dragons has definitely earned its place on my shelf (a coveted spot indeed, as I’ve been shelf-cleaning)

A Scholar of Magics

Jane Brailsford is one of my favorite characters in Caroline Stevermer’s A College of Magics. In A Scholar of Magics, Jane returns, bringing her cool sense of logic and fashion to Glasscastle University when more than magical studies are underway.

A full witch of Greenlaw and friend to Faris Nallaneen, warden of the north, Jane is no helpless female. Set in an alternate Edwardian England, Jane is no stranger to motorcars, magic, and intrigue. When the warden of the North sends Jane on a quest to Glasscastle  to convince the truant warden of the west to take up his duties, Jane finds herself embroiled in a magical plot of global proportion.

Inviting herself for a stay in her brother’s home, he being a fellow of the exclusively masculine Glasscastle University, Jane meets Samuel Lambert, American sharpshooter-cum-research subject and roommate of Glasscastle fellow Nicholas Fell–the reluctant warden of the west.

Jane has a talent for getting into trouble and this time is no exception. When Fell’s study is looted by a mysterious man in a bowler hat, Lambert and Jane decide to follow a trail that leads them ever closer to danger and discovery.

Whereas A College of Magics was a sort of female bildungsroman, A Scholar of Magics is definitely an adventure.

I found that the sequel was a lot more fast-paced than the first book in the series, but this is understandable given that the first book documents Faris and Jane’s school years, while the sequel takes place over the course of a few days.

Much of the novel is taken up with Lambert’s thoughts concerning Glasscastle and his position as an American outsider, but his insights were interesting and often gave way to heated discussions with Jane or Fell.

Overall, I like Scholar even more than I like College, which is not something that I say very often when it comes to sequels.