Review: The Traitor’s Game

The Traitor’s Game
By Jennifer Nielsen
Published February 27, 2018 by Scholastic

There’s a lot that’s familiar in The Traitor’s Game: a corrupt kingdom, an evil ruler, a ragtag group of rebels, and a boy and girl who can’t stand each other forced to work together. But the author pulls all these elements together into a very entertaining story. No, it doesn’t break any new ground, but if you like YA fantasy tropes, you will probably enjoy this book.

Traitor's GameThe kingdom of Antora once had two royal families, the Halderians and the Dallisors. The two clans have fought over the throne for many years, and in a last-ditch effort to defeat their rivals, the Dallisors allied with Lord Endrick, one of a race of people with serious magical powers. With Endrick’s help, the Dallisors won the war, but Lord Endrick took the throne and the Dallisors now serve him, while the Halderians were banished.
Kestra Dallisor is the daughter of Lord Endrick’s right-hand man. She’s been called home by her father after a three-year exile. On the journey, she’s waylaid by group of rebels, the Coracks. They hold her servants hostage and force her to help them find a legendary dagger that is supposedly the only weapon that can defeat Lord Endrick. With two the Coracks, Trina (who loathes Kestra even more than the rest of the rebels) and Simon (who shares a fraught past with Kestra), Kestra returns to her home, where her welcome isn’t exactly warm.

This book is filled with tension. Kestra doesn’t get along with her father and she hates Lord Endrick, but she’s still very conflicted about betraying her family. She’s not at all convinced that the Coracks’ motives are pure and she’s concerned about their connections with the Halderians, who kidnapped and nearly killed her three years ago.

There is a dual narrative with alternating chapters from Kestra and Simon’s point of view. Both narratives felt distinct, and I liked being able to see both sides of the story, since the two characters are working at cross purposes for much of the book. This being a YA fantasy, it’s not exactly a surprise when their mutual antipathy slowly turns to affection. I liked the romance, although I thought that Simon’s hatred turned to love a bit too fast. Kestra’s gradual change in feelings works a bit better.

There are lots of twists and turns, and everyone is keeping secrets. I predicted one of the twists, but then things went in an expected direction. This was a quick, entertaining read and may appeal to fans of The Winner’s Curse series and The Remnant Chronicles.
I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.
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Review: Emergency Contact

Emergency Contact
By Mary H.K. Choi
Published by Simon & Schuster March 27, 2018

I’ll admit that I was first drawn to Emergency Contact by the beautiful cover, but the description also sounded intriguing. I enjoy books about the first year of college, as I think it can be an interesting setting for a coming of age tale.

Emergency ContactI really enjoyed this book. The two main characters, Penny and Sam, are both a little broken. Penny is anxious, and she’s trying to figure things out at college and how to separate from her well-meaning, but very clueless mother, Celeste. (Celeste is very sweet, but she’s young and has no boundaries and wears crop tops. She’s the kind of mom that would make an 18-year-old cringe.)

Sam is 21. He’s just gotten out of a toxic relationship, and his ex doesn’t want to be with him but doesn’t want to let him go either. He’s broke and he lives in a room above the coffeeshop where he works. His laptop is dying, he can barely afford a community college class, and he worries that he’ll never be able to achieve his dream of making films.

Sam and Penny meet through her roommate Jude, who was briefly Sam’s step-niece (his mother was married to Jude’s grandfather) and then they run into each other on the street while Sam is having a panic attack. Penny is no stranger to panic, and she helps him out. They exchange numbers, and they begin a tentative texting relationship, becoming each other’s sounding boards.

Sam and Penny are both the kind of characters you want to be happy (I wanted to hug both of them, but Penny would probably not be down with that). I loved reading about them finding a connection. Yes, there’s a bit of romance, but it’s really about the kind of deep connection people can find. Much of the book is their text chains, and there’s also a lot of being inside their heads (the point of view switches between them in each chapter).

Emergency Contact reminded me a little bit of Fangirl, in that it features a prickly college freshman who wants to be a writer and a slightly older guy. But these are minor similarities, and Emergency Contact stands on its own. Like I said, I like books about the first year of college. This is a quiet sort of book.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review: The Astonishing Color of After

The Astonishing Color of After
By Emily X. R. Pan
Published March 20, 2018

The Astonishing Color of After is a beautiful and unflinching look at love, loss, and grief. It’s a debut novel, with lovely, lyrical writing.

At 15, Leigh Chen Sanders has just lost her mother, who committed suicide while Leigh was kissing her best friend and long-time crush, Axel. Freaked out by the kiss and what it Astonishingmight mean, Leigh rushes home, only to learn that her mother is dead. Leigh’s father is so wrapped up in his own grief that he ends up taking Leigh to Taiwan to visit her mother’s parents, and then he leaves her there. This is bad enough, but Leigh has never met her grandparents (her mother was estranged from them), and they don’t speak English and she doesn’t speak Mandarin.

Leigh is in her own grieving place. She’s confused and sad and angry. Oh, and she’s convinced her mother has turned into a bird. The book opens with the following passage:

My mother is a bird. This isn’t like some William Faulkner stream-of-consciousness metaphorical crap. My mother. Is literally. A bird.

As crazy as this sounds, Leigh is completely convinced that her mother is a bird. Shortly after her mother’s death, she sees a large red bird, and when she sees the bird again in Taiwan, she believes her mother is reaching out to her. Leigh finds incense in her room at her grandparents, and when she burns a stick, she finds herself inside a memory, sometimes her own memory and sometimes one of her family members’ memories.

Yes, it’s a little odd, and if you’re not fan of magical realism, this book may not be for you, but I absolutely loved it. Leigh’s journey through dealing with her grief, meeting her grandparents for the first time, learning about her family history, and coming to terms with it is beautiful and gripping and lovely.

The Astonishing Color of After is also a realistic look at depression. Leigh’s mother has suffered from depression since Leigh was a young child, and the ups and down of her illness have had a profound effect on her family. Leigh’s father travels a lot of work, and he seems to be using it as an excuse to get away from his family. Leigh ends up having to take care of her mother and herself. The book really shows how difficult it can be for both the person with the mental illness and everyone around them.

Although it’s not the main focus of the book, The Astonishing Color of After deals with Leigh’s identity as a biracial person (her father is white). When she goes to Taiwan, she’s in the weird position of being half-Chinese, but not speaking the language or really understanding much about the culture. She hears strangers say “hunxie” when they see her and her grandmother explains that it means biracial (literally “mixed blood”). Unfortunately, she’s used to people pointing out that she’s different:

Back at home, sometimes people say I look exotic or foreign. Sometimes they even mean it as a compliment. I guess they don’t hear how it makes me sound like I’m some animal on display at the zoo.

This book reminded me a bit of I’ll Give You the Sun, which is also about teenagers grieving for their mother. I’ll Give You the Sun is one of my favorite books, so this is high praise.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review: Chaotic Good

Chaotic Good
By Whitney Gardner
Published by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers on March 13, 2018

Chaotic Good is a seemingly lightweight book that deals with some serious issues in a sensitive way. It takes on sexism, toxic masculinity, online harassment, and gender roles.

Chaotic Good Comps14.inddCameron is having a rough summer. She’s just moved to a smaller town from Portland. She hasn’t made any friends yet, she’s bored, and she’s being harassed online. Cameron is a talented seamstress who makes her own cosplay costumes. She recently won a contest, and when she mentioned publicly that she doesn’t actually play the game she made a costume from, the online abuse starts. She’s called an attention whore, pathetic, and other far less printable things. She visits the local comic book store looking for some costume inspiration. Unfortunately, the guy who runs the place is a sexist jerk, who says her boyfriend won’t like the comics she’s picked out, points her to the “girl section,” and belittles her taste. But it’s the only comic book store in her town, so she decides to borrow some of her twin brother’s clothes and return disguised as a boy, hoping to avoid the sexist scrutiny.

The whole thing goes perfectly. She’s treated well at the store, and ends up being asked to join a Dungeons and Dragons group. She’s happy to make friends, and it becomes harder and harder to come clean about her true identity.

This book is really great. It takes on serious issues, but also manages to be really funny and poignant. Cameron masquerading as a boy has a very Twelfth Night vibe. There’s some romantic confusion: Her new friend Why falls for her in her boy guise, while she’s interested in another guy, Lincoln, and her brother Cooper has a thing for Why. Being a boy gives her a sense of safety and security. As she says:

“Two stoners nod at me as I leave the park. I nod back and keep walking. Normally, I’d be a little bit worried. Worried that they might follow me, or that they might have bad intentions. But I don’t feel nervous walking alone in my boy clothes, and I realize this is why I kept it up so long. This feeling of inevitability, of unquestioned acceptance. It was addicting. Comfortable. Easy. At least I thought it was.”

She’s under so much pressure in her female body, and her boy persona is a welcome relief. And even though things become very complicated, it’s really hard for her to give up the masquerade when it makes her feel safe, something she’s lacking because of the aggressive harassment.

The online harassment that Cameron endures is awful, and when she tries to defend herself online, it gets much worse. Her phone number is posted and she starts getting death threats. It’s really hard to imagine how anyone can think that death threats are a appropriate way to express your annoyance with a young woman who made a costume from a game she didn’t play, but given what happens when a woman dares to express an opinion online, this all feels unfortunately realistic. As Cameron says,

“What did I expect? I expected to post some photo ops and get stupid reaction gifs from my friends. Not hundreds of pages of abuse, not death threats growled at me through my phone.”

I wish I could say that the character of Brody, the comic store manager, is too over the top, but he’s pretty realistic. He’s a classic “nice guy” who thinks that women owe him something just because he’s polite to them. The author does a good job of making Brody three-dimensional, and ultimately, we see that his behavior is rooted in fear.

My only complaint is that the ending wraps up perhaps a little too neatly, but this is a minor quibble and didn’t affect my enjoyment overall.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

 

Review: The Cruel Prince

The Cruel Prince
By Holly Black
Published January 2, 2018 by Little, Brown

I am a huge fan of Holly Black’s books, so I was really looking forward to The Cruel Prince, and I’m happy to say that she really delivers in this book.

Jude is a human teenage who dwells in the High Court of Faerie. Before she was born, her mother was married to a Faerie general named Madoc. The mother left Madoc, took their daughter Vivi, and faked her death. She returned to the human world, where she remarried and had twins, Jude and her sister Taryn. But it’s difficult to truly escape Faerie, and Madoc eventually tracks them down, kills the parents, and takes the three girls back to live in Faerie.

It’s an odd thing to be raised by the man who murdered her parents, but Madoc has The Cruel Princecared for children, made sure they have every advantage, and tried to protect them from the often brutal world of Faerie. As Jude says, “And despite myself, despite what he’d done and who he was, I came to love him. I do love him. It’s just not a comfortable kind of love.”

Her older sister Vivi wants to escape to the human world, but both Jude and Taryn want to stay in Faerie (it seems like there’s a bit of Stockholm Syndrome happening here). But life in Faerie isn’t easy for humans, and Jude is subject to the whims of a group of teen Faeries, who are the worst of high school bullies merged with the amorality of the Faeries. They’re awful, and their leader Prince Cardan is the worst of all. Jude and Taryn attend lessons with the Faeries teens, which gives their tormentors lots of opportunities to torture Jude. The bullying is awful (there’s one particularly harrowing scene involving fairy fruit), but Jude is determined to hone her skills in the hopes that one of the High Faeries will take her on as a knight. Taryn hopes to find a place by marrying a Faerie.

The High King is growing older and plans to step down. The most likely heir is his third son Prince Dain, but there’s potential competition from another son, Prince Balekin. As the youngest child, Prince Cardan is an afterthought and doesn’t play into the succession. Jude becomes involved in court machinations and may have a role to play in how the succession happens.

The Cruel Prince is a very tense book. It’s tight and twisty, and you never quite know what’s going to come next. Black’s Faeries are vicious and unpredictable, and Jude has to be constantly on her guard, trying to stay one step ahead. There are plots and counterplots, and no one is exactly what they seem on the surface. Humans are seen as less than nothing in the High Court, but she does have one advantage: humans can lie, and Faeries cannot.

I enjoyed this book so much. I’m glad that it’s going to be a trilogy, but it’s a going to be a long wait until book 2 is out.

It may be worthwhile to note that The Cruel Prince is set in the same universe as Black’s previous Faerie books, the Modern Faerie trilogy and The Darkest Part of the Forest. It’s not necessary to have read any of the previous books, but a few characters from these books make appearances in The Cruel Prince that are a bit spoilery.

 

Review: People Like Us

People Like Us
By Dane Mele
Published February 27, 2018 by Putnam

People Like Us is a fun, twisty YA thriller set in a privileged and vicious world. Kay Donovan is a scholarship student at an elite boarding school, the Bates Academy. Because she’s a soccer star and captain of the team, Kay is one of the school’s most popular students, and she’s part of a group of girls who run the school.

People Like UsKay seems to be on top of the world until the night she and her friends try to go skinny-dipping and find a dead body in the school lake. It looks like the dead girl committed suicide, but the police are investigating her death and have a lot of questions for the girls who found the body. The morning after, Kay receives an email from the dead girl, telling Kay that she has to carry out an elaborate revenge plan or her past will be revealed. Kay has skeletons in her closet, and if they come out, her chances for a college scholarship are in danger, so she feels she has to go along with the plot, and she gets caught up in trying to investigate the death. As you can imagine, this doesn’t exactly go well for her.

This book was a lot of fun. I ripped through it, dying to get to the big revelation at the end. It’s really fast paced, and it mostly kept me guessing until the end. There are a lot of suspects, and all of the characters are kind of awful, so it feels plausible that any of them could have done it. Kay is a morally ambiguous character. She’s been a mean girl to lots of her fellow students, and when she begins to fall under suspicion, people are quick to turn on her. She feels terrible about the things she’s done, but she’s also willing to sacrifice her friends to save herself. She’s a mess, and I found myself rooting for her even as she did some really dumb things.

People Like Us has a lot of LGBT representation. The main character is bi, her best friend is gay, and there are other gay and bi characters. It’s refreshing to see this representation, and it’s treated as unexceptional in the book.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review: Tempests and Slaughter

Tempests and Slaughter (The Numair Chronicles Book One)
By Tamora Pierce
Published February 6, 2018 by Random House

Tamora Pierce is a legend in young adult fantasy, and the release of a new book by her is always cause for celebration. Tempests and Slaughter is the latest of a long line of books set in the world of Tortall. This time, we go back to the childhood of the mage Numair. Once upon a time, he was a boy named Arram Draper.

Arram is one of the youngest and most talented students at the Imperial University of Carthak. He’s a very impressive mage in training, and has been moved up to more advanced classes, which Tempests and Slaughtermakes him a bit of an outcast. But then he meets Ozorne, a prince from the imperial family, and the lovely and charming Varice. The trio quickly become the closest of friends.

Tempests and Slaughter has a delightful old-school quality. Recent Young Adult fantasy often has certain hallmarks: breakneck (and sometimes nonsensical) plotting, instalove, and weak world building. Pierce is a master of the genre, and none of these pitfalls are present in Tempests and Slaughter. Pierce takes her time with the story. Obviously, the fact that this is the latest in a long line of books set in this world means that the world-building is adding on to an existing world, but Pierce doesn’t cut any corners. Every element of the world is well thought out.

There’s not actually a ton of plot. It’s mostly about Arram’s day-to-day life at the school. He learns what he is capable of, he grows in his friendships with Ozorne and Varice, and he begins to formulate his world view. Arram is very aware of the injustices of the society he lives in. He comes from a country that doesn’t have slavery, and he is very bothered by slavery in the Carthaki empire. It’s difficult for him to understand why no one else seems to be bothered by this system. He’s also very aware of the problematic issue of gladiator fights. As part of his mage training, he is called on to help treat the injured gladiators, and he’s horrified by the practice of fighting and the fact that it’s viewed merely as entertainment for so many.

There’s only the barest hint of romance in this book, which makes sense considering that Arram is 10 when the books begins. It covers a 4-year period in his life, and as he gets older, there are attractions and crushes, but they are a very minor part of the book. Given Arram’s young age at the beginning of the book, Tempests and Slaughter may appeal to both middle grade and young adult readers. It has a Harry Potter quality, in that you’re watching a child as he grows older. I enjoyed Tempests and Slaughter very much, and it’s inspired me to go back and finish the Tortall books I haven’t read.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.