Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Star Crossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Recently, I've noticed that more and more novels with magical or supernatural elements have been set in some version of our world rather than in very different, completely invented universe.  For example, paranormal romances such as Maggie Stiefvater's Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy (Shiver, Linger, and Forever) have magical elements but are grounded in present day America while popular fantasy adventures such as J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series create a magical world existing as a hidden part of the ordinary world.  Even most dystopian novels such as The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins or Matched by Ally Condie take place in a potential future of Earth and the United States as we know them.  Now don't get me wrong--I love these types of stories and find them exciting and intriguing, frequently because they tie into our world in such clever ways.  However, I first fell into love with the fantasy genre through books that fit into a specific type of "high fantasy": stories in which our known world does not exist and instead the author creates an entirely new universe for the novel.  Some of my favorites in this subgenre include Tamora Pierce's Tortall books, Sherwood Smith's Crown Duel, and Malinda Lo's Ash and Huntress.  So, I was very excited to enter a new magical world with Elizabeth C. Bunce's Star Crossedan imaginative novel that Tamora Pierce has listed as one of her "Picks for Cool New Books" on her website.     

As a thief and spy for hire on the street of the busy city Gerse, Digger knows the rules of survival.  When a job goes horribly wrong, Digger is desperate to obey the first two rules to the letter: stay alive and don't get caught.  Through street smarts and luck Digger falls in with a group of young nobles leaving the city and so Digger the criminal becomes Celyn Contrare the lady's maid.  Along with her new identity, Digger gains new friends and new home with the generous Nemair family.  However, the peaceful mountain estate turns out to be full of hidden passages, illegal magic, and high stakes secrets--including Digger's own.  Suddenly Digger finds herself breaking her last and most important rule: don't get involved.  Now this professional liar must try to handle her most dangerous job yet: deciding where her loyalties truly lie.

Since I greatly enjoyed and admired Bunce's first novel, A Curse As Dark As Gold, I was very excited to read Star Crossed.  Bunce brings the same rich character development and elegant plot creation that she displayed in Curse to her second novel.  The world of this novel is fully developed and exciting to inhabit as a reader; drawing on diverse aspects of the Western European Renaissance, the fictional world has an established culture and complex political and religious structure that intensifies the drama and the suspense of the story's plot.  Digger is a great main character; she is a strong and smart survivor with a complex past and hidden vulnerabilities. Also, as a sneak thief and an outsider, she is a perceptive observer and interesting narrator.  However, the supporting characters are also strongly developed and equally complicated, a fact that makes the novel even more enjoyable.  The story is exciting and Bunce reveals the intriguing complications slowly, pulling the reader in more and more as the plot enfolds.   Occasionally, the complexities of the plot and cast of characters can become a little confusing and, while the novel has plenty of suspense and action, it might feel slow at times to readers who might be used to the more non-stop pace of sci-fi/fantasy adventures like The Hunger Games. 

Overall, Star Crossed is well-crafted and enjoyable entrance into a new fantasy universe.  I was very pleased to see that the sequel, Liar's Moonwill be published in November; I can't wait to see where Digger's adventures take her next! Star Crossed will pair well with other rich fantasy adventures featuring strong heroines such as those written by Tamora Pierce, Sherwood Smith, Malinda Lo, or Shannon Hale.


Monday, September 12, 2011

Putting the Sass and Snark Back Into Supernatural Romance: Paranormalcy by Kiersten White

ParanormalcyFrom the cover (dark clouds, pretty girl in Gothic-esque attire), you might think that Paranormalcy is another supernatural romance full of forbidden love and tragedy.  You would, however, be delightfully wrong.  Paranormalcy is a snarky and fun ride through a world populated by vampires, werewolves, elementals, faeries, and mermaids.  But all these paranormals don't really impress Evie anymore.  The sixteen year old's best friend is a mermaid, her sort-of ex is faerie, and she has grown up working for the International Paranormal Containment Agency, using her unique ability to see through paranormals' glamours to tag and bag rogue paranormals.   But all Evie wants is to be a normal; for her, nothing seems as exotic as the world of high school she sees in her favorite television show, the teen soap Easton Heights.  Knocking out predictable vampires with her favorite pink taser Tasey is great and all but it can't top lockers, driving, or prom in Evie's mind.  But suddenly paranormals are being murdered in huge numbers and a cute shapeshifting boy attempts to break into the IPCA headquarters.  Evie's unexplained abilities might be linked to the deaths, her creepy faerie ex won't leave her alone, and the IPCA seems to have some even darker secrets than Evie ever predicted.  

Paranormalcy is a refreshingly fun take on the popular paranormal/supernatural trend flooding the bookshelves in the YA fiction sections of libraries and bookstores everywhere.  Evie is sassy and snarky and innocent and strong; she's a great kick-butt heroine who remain very much a teenager despite her special talents.    In her review, Abby the Librarian compares the novel and Evie to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is a brilliant connection.  Like Buffy, Evie possesses great power and must deal with some dark situations but she remains snarky and humorous and she persists in her attempts to carve out a 'normal teenage life' despite the strange reality of her situation.  Similarly, the novel takes on a traditionally dark and sometimes melodramatic genre with a lighter approach.  

The romance between Evie and Lend, a shapeshifter who (like Evie) feels like an outsider, is sweet and fun.  I admit I found it a relief to see that Evie views the dark, brooding faerie who tried to seduce in the past as creepy and dangerously possessive;  it was a nice change from some paranormal romances in which the plot revolves around the innocent girl who can't seem to resist the clearly dangerous dark creature who wants to seduce/hurt her.      

I sped through this novel with ease and can't wait to include in it some booktalks for 7th and 8th graders later this year.  I feel confident that it will fly off the shelves with very little work from me :) And, best of all, Supernaturally, the second book in this trilogy-to-be, was published in July so there's even more of Evie's sassy supernatural adventures to enjoy! 

4/5 STARS 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Huntress by Malinda Lo

I love fantasy, especially an area of fantasy I like to think of as 'awesome kick-butt heroines fantasy,' populated by writers such as Tamora Pierce, Kristin Cashore, Sherwood Smith, Phillip Pullman, Robin McKinley, and so many others.  With the publication of her first novel, Ash, in 2009, I added Malinda Lo to that mental list.  But Malinda Lo's writings bring another important factor to the table in the world of fantasy writing: some diversity.  As I said, I love fantasy; it has always been and will always be one of my favorite sub-genres.  However, I must say that it is, traditionally, a rather white-washed and heteronormative area of fiction.  Inspired by this reality, Lo and fellow young adult author Cindy Pon (Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix) banded together this year to address the continued lack of diversity in young adult fiction by creating the website and book tour "Diversity in YA," a celebration of diverse stories in the YA fiction world.    

However, Malinda Lo's newest novel Huntress is a gorgeous addition to young adult fantasy not simply because it brings variety; it is a great new fantasy because it is a excellent story with wonderful characters, lovely bittersweet romance, and a beautifully developed world.  Set in the same universe as Ash but centuries earlier, the human kingdom of Huntress is deeply out of balance; the sun has disappeared from the sky, destroying crops and trapping the land in a permanent chilly dullness.  Meanwhile, the bodies of strange creatures are appearing along the human nation's borders.  The king has received a summons from the Fairy Queen-the first in recent memory.  The Council at the Academy of Sages seeks answers and seems to have found a some in the confusing visions of Taisin, a young sage in training.  

Taisin has seen that both she and her classmate Kaede must travel with the king's son to visit the Fairy Queen in her capital city of Tanlili.  But Taisin hasn't told the council everything : although she has never really interacted with Kaede before, Taisin knows that her visions involving the other girl leave her feeling an intense combination of love and despair.  Meanwhile Kaede, who possesses no apparent otherworldly gifts and remains at the Academy only due to her father's political power, chooses to accept this quest out of a desperate need for escape--from her parents' expectations and from a proposed marriage to a nobleman she has never met.  These very different young women do not know what to expect from the strange journey--or from each other.  

From the opening pages, Lo immerses the reader in the story's world and characters.  The world she's crafted is beautifully fleshed out with the exposition woven gradually into the plot so that it enhances the story instead of weighing it down.   As other writers have drawn on historical cultures such as medieval Europe to enrich their invented worlds, Lo has infused her world with aspects of Asian cultures, especially Chinese culture.  The I Ching structures much of the sage studies and selections from that text begin each section of the novel;  Lo also offers a pronunciation guide for the characters' names at the beginning of the book.  By drawing on these less utilized cultures to craft her imagined world, Lo creates a refreshingly unique and beautiful setting for her romantic adventure. 

The third-person narration shifts its focus between characters, giving the reader a glimpse into most of the main characters' minds and perspectives.  The plot is great adventure fraught with creepy dangers.  But the highlight of the novel is definitely the wonderfully complex relationship between Taisin and Kaede.  The slowly growing attraction and emotional connection between the two young women creates a wonderful tension.  Although their romance might be considered bittersweet, I found it to be achingly lovely and very satisfying to follow.  Both Taisin and Kaede remain true to their established personalities throughout the story and their relationship allows each woman to find greater self-knowledge.  

My only quibble with this otherwise lovely novel is that it suffers from what I think of as 'double climax syndrome.'  The plot reaches its exciting and intense climatic point in a significant confrontation scene that manages to be both action-packed and contemplative; this first climax pulls together thematic concerns and the major plot very well.  But then afterwards there is a strange sort of second climatic point in a smaller confrontation and while I could understand some of the thematic significance for this second climax, it seemed unnecessary; the story had already reached its high point and this little side adventure feels a bit tacked on.  

However, overall, I found Huntress to be a lyrically written and compulsively readable adventure and romance.  I would highly recommend it both to fans of Malinda Lo's first novel, Ash, and to fans of other female-focussed fantasy adventures such as those written by Tamora Pierce or Kristin Cashore.