Weight and Religion in High Fantasy with Rae Carson

Rae Carson has a talent for creating interesting main characters. In The Girl of Fire and Thorns I was impressed by her creation and development of a dynamic character who, in a world so different from our own, struggles with something so relatable as body weight.

Problems with weight loss/gain topic is quite common within contemporary YA literature but I don’t think I have ever encountered it within the high fantasy YA genre. However, this topic fits within another, more general theme, that is perhaps more common: feeling comfortable in your own skin.

Carson did an excellent job in the first installment of this trilogy of creating a believable and relatable main character, Elisa. While she struggles with her physical appearance and health, mentally she is at the top of her game.

Not only did Carson tackle body image issues, she also delved into the ever-controversial topic of religion and faith. Throughout the first installment, Elisa is devoutly religious, but as the story progresses, she is plagued with doubts about the religion she grew up with, and her faith in her God is tested.

I really enjoyed Carson’s courageous effort to create a book that addressed so many controversial topics. It could easily have turned into an offensive mess if done carelessly. But Carson was very tactful and thoughtful in her development of themes and storylines. I really enjoyed this book,. I felt is was very original and excellently executed.

If you are looking for a thought-provoking high fantasy book, I would definitely recommend The Girl of Fire and Thorns. As for myself, I am looking forward to starting the second novel in the trilogy, The Crown of Embers.

Third-Person Omniscient in “Underland” and “Unenchanted” by Chanda Hahn

Homeless and alone, fifteen year old Kira finds herself kidnapped from her cardboard home and enslaved to an underground group of monsters, doomed to spend the rest of her life doing the bidding of hideous snake people, vampires, witches, and zombies. After failed escape attempts, Kira is forced to participate in “the games”—a chance to make a name for herself and possibly earn her freedom.

This fantasy YA book was an intriguing read if you can get past the first couple chapters (they drag). While the excess of back story interludes initially weighed down the narrative, the payoff was surprisingly rewarding as it differentiated her character from that of other popular YA novels such as Katniss from Hunger Games and Mare from Red Queen. While it was nice to have a different kind of character, Kira oscillated inconsistently between being brave and vengeful, and frightened and sappy. The inconsistencies drove me a little crazy, and took me out of the story.

I enjoyed that this book was set in similar world as our own — that Kira comes from the world we already know and love. This gave me a shared perspective with Kira as I experienced the new world of Underland through her eyes.

However, Hahn’s use of third person omniscient surprised me. By jumping from Kira’s perspective to other characters’ perspectives for short periods of time, the reader ends up knowing quite a bit more than Kira. I worried that Kira’s lack of knowledge (or my excess of information) would make me frustrated, but I was pleasantly surprised. While third person omniscient still bothers me a little bit, Hahn did a decent job.

I recently read another of Hahn’s books titled Unenchanted in which she again uses third person omniscient, but much less frequently, and it bothered me much more in that book. She changed perspectives just enough that I noticed it, but not enough that it felt consistent or useful. I think that because Hahn used third person omniscient more frequently in Underland, it felt more purposeful.

Unenchanted‘s premise is that the main character has inherited her family’s curse: that she will relive all of the Grimm fairy tales until she dies or until the fairytales run out. I enjoyed this premise and the book, but I felt it fell short of what it could have been. The book felt childish at times with the main character wavering between mature and inexperienced, naive, and ignorant.

Overall, Unenchanted was a fun read because of the premises but it was not intellectually stimulating, and it felt a bit overdone (cliche’s galore). This was a clean book, but it’s not one I’m rushing to reread or recommend. Unfortunately, while the original ideas behind Unenchanted and Underland were good, they were not executed well, and both books felt inconsistent with character and relationship development.

My recommendation: if you have some extra time to burn, pass on this book, and try a different one.

Reading “Graceling” by Kristin Cashore

An emotionally inaccessible young woman with a deadly gift – the ability to kill quickly, easily, and with a single blow – learns the meaning of humanity in this 400+ page fantasy debut novel. Kristin Cashore writes beautifully in the first installment of the Graceling Realm trilogy, Graceling, in which she creates a world where certain people are born with “graces” or special abilities. These people are ostracized from society and such is the world that our protagonist, Katsa, is born into. The niece of a king, Katsa’s deadly abilities lead her to lose herself to rage and fear. The king uses her to do his dirty work, and Katsa, not quite understanding the extent of her power, blindly obeys, hating herself and her uncle for her cruel assignments. However, when a stranger opens Katsa’s eyes to her ability to control her emotions and actions, and choose  for herself what she will and will not do, Katsa becomes a new woman on a quest to redeem her former actions.

This book explores themes of humanity, suggesting that humanity shows itself when we control our base impulses and emotions, and is lost when control is forsaken. I really enjoyed the exploration of this theme through not only Katsa, but also through the villains and some side characters.

The romance within Graceling easily sucks the reader in, loving Katsa and Po throughout as they learn to trust, and to accept what cannot be changed. While the romance was a highlight of this book, it was targeted toward an older audience, containing some suggestive scenes.

The plot, while somewhat straightforward at the beginning, continually surprised me. This was partly due to the pacing of the book, which was unconventional. Cashore portioned out the novel so that an unusual amount of time was spent on specific actions. For example, a longer amount of time was spent on a scene where the main characters are preparing to face the villain, and when the face-off finally happens, it is surprisingly fast, and simple, not the usual climax. Surprisingly, the book does not suffer for this unusual pacing, rather it helps shape the tone of the book. Instead of focusing on the action of the novel, the pacing helps to shift the focus towards the ideology, characters, and relationships within the novel.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. The world Cashore created felt fresh and exciting to me, and the storyline always had me guessing. I would recommend this book, with the advisory that there are some suggestive scenes that might influence some people’s decision of whether it.

Vango—Historical Fiction at its Finest

Well-written, exciting, action-packed, set between WWI and WWII, and excellently translated, Vango: Between Earth and Sky by Timothée de Fombelle, and translated by Sarah Ardizzone, is currently contending for a spot in my top five favorite YA books of all time.

A historical fiction mystery and adventure novel traverses most of Europe, exploring surfacing tensions during the 20th century following the rise of Hitler, Stalin, and preceding the start of WWII. This book, the first of the two-part series,  explores themes and motifs of fate, divine intervention, sacrifice of relationships in return for protection for loved-ones, corruption, and communication. Between Earth and Sky follows Vango, a boy with a mysterious past, an innocent boy suspected of murder. Featuring an ensemble cast, this book expertly balances character development with plot development.

It takes great skill to jump between ten plus characters and still have a balanced narrative with a clear main character, and an engaged audience. While the sheer number of characters forces the novel to sacrifice an intimate reader relationship with the main character, the complexity of the storylines compensates, and even works the absence of intimacy to its advantage. Because the reader is unable to identify intimately with Vango, the mystery of his past and his character becomes an increasingly alluring, drawing the reader further into the mystery.

I thought at one point in the book that the large array of characters would be superfluous by the end of the novel, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that each and every character served a distinct purpose, everything and everyone included within the storyline felt purposely placed in order to better serve the story. de Fombelle’s calculated way of writing both led and misled the reader through giving the clues necessary to solving the mysteries of the novel, but doing so in a way that the reader was either unaware of the importance of the information, or misinterpreted it. While this could have resulted in a confusing and disastrous effect, I found the end result delightfully complex and satisfying.

It has been a long time since I have enjoyed a book as much as I enjoyed Between Earth and Sky, and it was also largely due to the quality of the translation. Had I not known beforehand that it had been translated from French to English, I would never have guessed. Not a single sentence felt out-of-place or awkward. Ardizzone, did an excellent job of translating de Fombelle’s beautiful novel. The figurative language was fresh (I particularly enjoyed the many metaphors), and imaginative, and each sentence felt beautifully crafted.

I highly recommend this book. I absolutely loved it. However, if you do decide to give it a try, I would recommend taking it in slowly, and savoring it. The complexity of the many storylines can get confusing if you aren’t paying close attention.

 

 

A Dystopian Dynasty: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

At the end of the gothic vampire fantasy craze in 2008, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins kicked off the dystopian era of YA literature. An era that seems to be coming to a close as audiences begin to snub dystopian film adaptations. However, amid the apparent burn-out on the dystopian fiction genre, one dystopian novel managed to top the New York Times bestseller list in its first week, leading many to wonder if perhaps contemporary audiences aren’t tired of dystopian trilogies after all. I suggest though, that this new series offers something new to the genre, breathing new life into it.

It’s true that as I read the back of the cover of Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, wondering what this hype was all about, I began to feel a little excited. In this series there are two different types of people: those with silver blood, and those with red. Those with silver blood have super powers and those with red do not, creating a severe class distinction, and civil unrest. I was immediately intrigued by the steampunk mixture of super powers in a somewhat feudalistic and aristocratic society. I was excited at the prospect of a protagonist   with superpowers who goes undercover in enemy territory. I was expecting a sort of political thriller.

Sadly, with all my expectations, this book had little hope of living up to all of them. However, despite my potentially unrealistic expectations, I do feel that this novel fell remarkably short of its potential.

The problems with this novel are with the plot and character development. While the premise of this novel was promising, the plot did little to pull me in, and the characters seemed to undermine plot points. Sadly, I struggled to maintain my suspension of disbelief as the text continually contradicted itself, showing one thing and telling another.

For example, throughout the novel the main character, Mare, struggles with her relationship with the two princes. One, Cal, she feels instantly attracted to. The other, Maven, she feels only supposed friendship. Mare meets Cal who is in disguise in her village. He gives her money, and then gets her a job at the castle thereby saving her from being conscripted into the military (and almost certain death). Later in the novel it is revealed that Cal goes into the village regularly, attempting to learn more about the neglected people he will someday rule. He regularly laments the injustices against her people, and even implements a plan to make the military a place of equality rather than subjugation for the red bloods. Despite this kind of evidence to the contrary, Mare continues to convince herself that he is a cold-blooded killer who will do no good on the throne.

This kind of contradiction instills a sense of mistrust with the narrator, making the reader feel that Mare is a bit of an idiot to be seeing all the same things that we are and yet twisting the information to an unbelievable degree, an effect compounded by the fact that it is written in first person. I can only assume that Aveyard was attempting to surprise the reader with a twist in the end about Cal’s goodness, while simultaneously dropping hints throughout the novel that Cal was a good man. Unfortunately, the execution fell short.

Another problem with this novel is related to the character development and portrayal, specifically that of Mare. Because this novel is written in first person, Mare is the character the reader should connect with. There must be points on which we can identify with her, and also trust her. For reasons stated above, the reader’s trust in Mare as a narrator is shaken very early on. Not only this, but I found it difficult to identify with Mare. She seemed, especially at the beginning, a paper copy of Katniss from The Hunger Games. Such similarities between Red Queen and The Hunger Games only grew, given the premise of a people who are suppressed by a rich and well-fed elite class, and who are looking to incite a revolution. While the similarities between Katniss and Mare slowly ebbed as the novel wore on, the similarities were replaced with lack of development.

Mare seemed to become a shell of a character by the end of the novel. She is racked with enormous guilt at the casualties resulting from revolutionary activities, but apart from that she does not seem to do much. She is pulled along by the choices of other characters, blithely awaiting her fate. Despite the book being in first person, we don’t actually get to hear many of her thoughts, the result being that Mare becomes a passive narrator, merely existing to tell us what happened rather than influencing the outcome.

Overall, these, and other such holes in the novel left me with a bad taste in my mouth after reading. While the premise was inspired, the execution left much to be desired.

I realize that I am harsh in my judgement of this novel, perhaps because I was so disappointed by its failure to live up to its potential. But I hope that if you enjoyed this book that you will continue to enjoy it.

However, if you have not read Red Queen, I cannot favorably recommend this book, but hope that you will judge for yourself whether it is worth the read.

 

Avatar the Last Airbender meets Fairytale

In a world where people can speak to the elements and magic flows from nature, there lives a princess.  She’s timid and unassuming, an insecure princess who wants to be only what others expect of her.  At least, until someone steals her throne.  On a quest to get her throne back, Ani discovers who she is, who she is meant to be, and what she can do.

Goose Girl is a story of discovery, empowerment, and kindness.  The main character, Ani, is an empowered damsel in distress who learns how to stand up for herself and fight back without becoming hardened or losing her newly found self..

I enjoyed the freshness of this story and the characters.  Shannon Hale created beautiful characters who are relatable, complex and realistic.  The main character, Ani, while initially weak and pitiable, develops quickly and fully into a strong, yet soft young woman.  That kind of character seems hard to find – many female protagonists in YA lit tend to be masculinized (such as Katniss from The Hunger Games) or overly weepy and dramatic.

This book is slower paced, and a bit heavy on descriptions for a YA book, but it is beautifully written and contains a wonderful story about the importance of love, laughter, standing up for yourself, and friendship.

The Princess Curse – Bringing me back, way back

I read this book when I needed a break during finals week.  Sometimes you just need a book that you can sit down and read in an hour or two, and doesn’t make you think too much.  This was one of those books for me.  Since I was a little girl I have loved fairy tales.  They’re like my go to genre when I need something familiar, relaxing and/or comforting.  So this was just what I needed during finals week.

This book surprised me.  Over the years I have read a lot of re-imagined fairy tales, and a lot of re-imagined versions of The Twelve Dancing Princesses.  But Merrie Haskell’s rendition of this classic fairy tale surpassed my expectations. Haskell took the story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses and Beauty and the Beast and did a stunning job.

Picture taken from Amazon.com
Picture taken from Amazon.com

Typically the story involves twelve princesses (duh), an invisibility cloak, a curse and a young soldier.  Already you can tell that this has the makings of a good story.  However, most of the renditions I have read I was not especially impressed with.  Classically, the princesses are under a curse or spell to dance all night.  Although their bedroom door is locked they somehow disappear during the night and in the morning all the princesses and their shoes are worn out. The King then issues a decree that to anyone who can solve the mystery of where the princesses go will receive one of his daughters’ hands in marriage.  But, if anyone tries to discover the secret and fails, they are either put in prison or executed. This is where the soldier character comes in.  He, a poor young man, is travelling to the castle with only a few belongings to discover the princess’s secret when he runs into an old woman (or man) who gives him an invisibility cloak in exchange for some food (a classic fairy tale move). So when night comes he slips on the invisibility cloak, and follows the princesses down a secret passage way and frees them from the curse. That’s the basic outline at least.

But if you take out the invisibility cloak, and the soldier, and throw in a bright thirteen-year-old girl with a knack for herbs, you get The Princess Curse. What I loved most about this book was the main character, Reveka.  The relationships she created with the other characters and her positive view of the world around her inspired me and reminded me of what it was like to be thirteen when the real world is still unreal, and you feel that, given the freedom, you can do anything with your life.  The plot is fairly predictable given that it is based on a well-known fairy tale, but it had enough surprises to keep me interested and the characters kept me invested.

Haskell’s writing reminded me of Gail Carson Levine’s (author of Ella Enchanted, Fairest, etc.), and if you liked Carson’s books I would recommend you give The Princess Curse a try. I haven’t read any of her other books yet, but I am excited to explore them.  Although the back of this book recommends The Princess Curse for ages 8-12, I would recommend it for anyone that enjoys fairy tales, needs a little pick-me-up, or wants to feel young again. This is a book that will transport you to another world, and bring you back with a better outlook on life.

Happy Reading!