Posts tagged ‘Young Adult Fantasy’

Afterworlds

AfterworldsTitle: Afterworlds
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Narrators: Heather Lind and Sheetal Sheth
ISBN: 9781442372467 (audiobook),
CDs/Discs: 12 CDs, 15 hours 16 minutes
Pages: 599 pages
Publisher/Date: Simon Pulse, c2014.
Publication Date: Sept. 23, 2014

“The thing is, I want to defer college for a year.”
“What?” her mother asked. “Why on earth?”
“Because I have responsibilities.” This line had sounded better in her head. “I need to do the rewrites for Afterworlds, and write a sequel.”
“But. . .” Her mother paused, and the elder Patels shared a look.
“Working on books isn’t going to take all your time,” her father said. “You wrote your first one in a month, didn’t you? And that didn’t interfere with your studies.” (15)

This is the story of Darcy Patel, a newly graduated high school student who forgoes college in order to move to New York and focus on her publishing career. This is also the story of Elizabeth, a high school senior and the only survivor of a terrorist attack at an airport that leaves everyone else dead and Lizzie seeing ghosts, including a hunky Hindu god named Yamaraj. Elizabeth is the character in Darcy’s story, written over the course of a month-long writing challenge and then rewritten and revised over the next year. Each girl suffers from distractions of their first romance, life’s interference, and their own insecurities about their ability to handle their situations.

First, the negatives. The two stories are told in alternating chapters, which impedes the flow of each story. Elizabeth, or Lizzie, will be running away from a ghost at the end of one chapter, and then readers are flung back to Darcy’s substantially tamer life. If there were parallels between the plots it might have made more sense, but the transitions are disconcerting and seem arbitrary in nature. In one instance, a plot point is portrayed in Lizzie’s story before Darcy finishes the rewrite of it, which makes it all the more jarring when the subject is broached in Darcy’s because we already know what she decides.

I think this may be the first time that the audiobook quality negatively impacts my enjoyment of the book. Each chapter gets only one track, making the tracks close to 30 minutes long, and quite frequently running onto a second disc. That proves frustrating when you’re listening in your car and reach your destination before the track ends. There are also small clicks in one narrator’s enunciation for Darcy’s parts, which may have been included intentionally to emphasize her accent, but are occasionally distracting.

The parts I enjoyed the most are the exposition on the publishing process and the thought-provoking asides as a result. Darcy’s advance, rewrites, edits, marketing efforts, and fearful expectations are all covered, although we aren’t privy to the actual release of her book. There is a well-quoted portion where Darcy’s friend introduces the Angelina Jolie paradox, which forces your mind to really think about how much suspension of belief we have when reading or watching movies. Darcy is questioned about her appropriation of cultural figures for her novel, and she revisits those thoughts again and again. Darcy’s friend Imogen also reveals that some symbolism in a writer’s work may not be as intentional as you might think, pointing things out that Darcy never realized she was doing. There are beautiful turns of phrases throughout the novel that capture your attention.

“Their bodies fit perfectly like this, two continents pulled apart eons ago but now rejoined.” (264)
“The surface of the snow was frozen into glass. Wind-borne flurries uncoiled across it, the high sun casting halos in them, like gray rainbows.”(428)

But the dialogue in places seems stilted and the characters’ reflections make them seem wise beyond their years, even while you’re waiting for character development to happen. Westerfeld even addresses this, when Darcy realizes that her book characters can be boiled down to a few pithy adjectives. It also strikes me as odd that Darcy, on her own for the first time, receives so little parental supervision or inquisition, especially as she keeps stressing the strictness of her immigrant parents. One bright spot is we refreshingly see a character out of school who is forced to make her own decisions and mistakes about budget, including food and living arrangements, no matter how pie-in-the-sky that life may be after Darcy’s six figure advance is paid out.

Personally, I think Westerfeld should stick with the science fiction/fantasy genres. I’ve raved about his Leviathan trilogy several times on this blog, and this seemed like a disappointing departure from what he does well. However, it’s a “chicken and the egg” thought process, because any complaints about the writing style could be attributed to Westerfeld’s portrayal of Darcy’s inexperienced writing and faults, as when someone falls on the ice and claims they meant to do that to show other people the sidewalk is slippery. Tasha Robinson says it better in her NPR Review:

And Westerfeld has an easy out for any flaws in Lizzie’s side of the book: Darcy is a young, inexperienced author. For instance, her relationship with Yamaraj seems insubstantial and heavily romanticized because it’s being written by an 18-year-old who’s just learning about love herself.

If you’re interested in trying your own hand at the National Novel Writing Month challenge, which takes place in November, try visiting their website. For more fulfilling books with a writing themed plot, try Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

The Shadow Throne

Shadow ThroneTitle: The Shadow Throne
Series: The Ascendance Trilogy, book #3 (sequel to The Runaway King)
Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
Map by: Kayley LeFaiver
Narrator: Charlie McWade
ISBN: 9780545284172 (hardcover), 9780545640060 (audiobook)
Pages: 317 pages
CDs/Discs: 9 hours, 4 minutes, 8 CDs
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2014 (Scholastic Audiobooks, c2014)

With an unsteady voice, she added, “Jaron, do you expect to die in this war?”
My thumb brushed over hers. Not for the first time, I wondered how her skin could be so soft. Then I said, “With the kind of threat we’re facing, I will fight to the death before I surrender. And I don’t see a path to victory.”
“But you’ll find a way. You always do.”
“Maybe Carthya will come through this. But mine has never been the kind of life that leads to old age.” (20-21)

Jaron has every reason to be defeated. After returning home from the pirates camp with a broken leg, he knows war is on the horizon, and receives word of its arrival at the same time he learns of Imogen’s capture. He saved her once, he can do it again, right? With his friends scattered, his country surrounded, and a possible spy in their midst, Jaron is flung into the deadliest battle yet. While he recognizes that he might not make it out alive, he refuses to admit or believe that fate might fall on one of his friends. But will his efforts force him to choose between his companions, his country, or his own freedom?

I posted reviews to the first and second books in the series earlier this year. I still recommend the audiobook versions as an enjoyable listening experience, with Charlie McWade literally providing a voice to Jaron. But with the amount of movement going on between towns and countries, readers might prefer having the map in the print version readily available as a reference of everyone’s destinations and locations. The other thing that I noticed this time around is that the Jennifer Nielsen presents conversations quite frequently as summaries from Jaron’s perspective. I don’t know if she does this to speed the plot or to avoid writing dialogue. I also don’t know if I noticed this more because I was listening to the audiobook rather than reading it. For instance, here are two examples of times I wish I could have “heard” the conversation:

To avoid any argument, I explained only what was necessary of my plans. Mott’s mouth was pinched in a think line of disapproval and Harlowe didn’t look much happier. Tobias clearly thought I had gone insane during my time in captivity, and as that wasn’t entirely impossible, I didn’t contradict him. In the end, they agreed to all that I asked, and Harlowe made Mott and Tobias Promise to keep me safe. Mott replied that he could protect me from everyone but myself, which I thought was a fair compromise. (122-123)

The more we talked about it, the more I was certain that something was very wrong. (194)

Listening to the audiobook, descriptions like the ones just quoted feel as if Jaron is breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the reader. Readers also get first hand analysis of Jaron’s physical and mental state, such as “I was neither the biggest nor the strongest in this battle. My only hope was to be the quickest.” (205) These comments might have read more fluidly if the book had been presented in the third person or if someone else had told Jaron, but from Jaron’s perspective such self-awareness can be slightly jarring.

At other times, these asides are some of the most beautiful and heart-felt portions of the book. I can’t quote any of them without giving away way too much of the plot. Suffice it to say, you’ll know what I mean when you encounter them. Swoon! Balancing the more heart-felt moments, Jaron’s biting sarcasm is a welcome constant in the series. For instance, after encountering a friend, Jaron claims “I need to smile. Tell me something not awful.” After hearing his companions were “miserable”, Jaron arches an eyebrow and says “This is the worst good story I’ve ever heard.” The story continues with an evening rain, making it “cold and so dark we could barely see our own fingers, and the night seemed to last forever.” Jaron responds “I’m beginning to wonder if you understand what ‘not awful’ means.” (94-95) That’s the Jaron we know and love, and those times always brought a smile to my face.

While the print copy benefited from the map, the one benefit of the audiobook was the inclusion of an “exclusive scene” that was not included in the print copy. This bonus scene transports readers to a mid-point in the story and shows an event which Jaron is not present to witness. It explains the actions of another character, and I find myself comparing it to the Harry Potter epilogue at the end of book seven. Some people might like it, but I would have rather been kept in the dark about this character’s motivations than receive this somewhat loose rational behind their actions. It definitely adds more intrigue to the situation. Just like the second book, Jaron paints himself into one corner after another, with no possibly way to get out (at least to everyone else) until some miraculous foresight is revealed that propels him to the next problem. You can’t help but admire his intense planning, but it is also hard to believe a plan this complicated and hinged on so many factors is going to succeed. Still a highly recommended series, this book is Inception meets Princess Bride, and I think fans of both would appreciate the complexities.

The Runaway King

Runaway KingTitle: The Runaway King
Series: Ascendance Trilogy #2 (sequel to The False Prince)
Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
Narrator: Charlie McWade
ISBN: 9780545497695 (audiobook)
Pages: 331 pages
CD/Discs: 7 CDs, 8 hours 27 minutes
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Audiobooks, c2013.

Newly crowned King Jaron is convinced that the neighboring community of Avenia is set to attack and claim their land, but none of his advisers will listen to the mad king who just resumed the throne after his presumed death at the hands of pirates years ago. When a failed assassination attempt convinces his advisers to hand over a captured traitor in the hopes of placating the group, Jaron fears they will relieve him of his crown in order to send him into hiding. Instead, Jaron puts his own plan into play, which involves sneaking across the border and tracking down the pirates who are trying to complete the unfinished task and collect on the spoils of war. As Jaron’s past catches up with him, he wonders which of his assumed identities he will have to maintain in order to survive. Is he an orphan boy, a street thief, a prospective pirate, or the ruling sovereign of a kingdom in danger? His strength, stamina, and smarts are put to the test in a political game that everyone thinks he will fail.

Jaron is an arrogant, dishonest, insolent, manipulative, overconfident, sarcastic, self-righteous, and stubborn individual, and I can definitely see why his departed father’s advisers would not get along with him. Jaron has his own way of doing things and refuses to listen to anyone’s concerns unless he has no other option. On the other hand, he usually proves himself right by the end of the adventure. I’m not sure if it is maddeningly coincidental that things happen to go his way or just a way for author Jennifer Nielsen to prove his unflappability in the face of obstacles. Scaling a rock wall with a broken leg is not something I would attempt, but he faces it with a determination that you think would ultimately be detrimental to his cause, if not his body. His physical endurance and ability to read his opponent and maintain charades and mind games makes him appear superhuman. And yet, you can’t help rooting for him to succeed and yelling at him to don’t do something stupid that you predict is going to fail.

Jaron’s journey is filled with delays, and it’s a wonder he gets where he needs to be at all. While realistic to the vast distances he needs to cross and the dangers he faces, it does slow down the pace of the plot. In return, you have daring sword fights with his enemies that are over in a manner of minutes at most. A lot of political scheming and plotting is presented, and while I found myself enjoying it more than I thought I would, some readers might want more of the fight and flee action that most fantasies have today. We’re privy to Jaron’s inner thoughts regarding his reasoning, but sometimes only as he tells another character his plans. The audiobook proved slightly problematic, as Jaron’s inner thoughts are sometimes indistinguishable from the dialogue. However, I thought Charlie McWade did an acceptable job distinguishing between the accents and tones of the older advisers, Jaron, the pirates, and his younger friends.

Obviously a set-up for the third novel, with the upcoming conflict revealed in the final chapter of the book, I feel like this suffered the sequel syndrome and didn’t live up to my expectations of the first one. Some readers might remember that I was on the committee that chose The False Prince, the first book in the series, for a Cybils award when it was published in 2012. Knowing who Jaron really is cut down on the tension and intrigue, and the ending, while leaving enough unfinished business for a third book, came about a bit too cleanly. I’m sure Jaron would think privately that it was anything but easy, although he would never voice his frustrations or admit to his limitations aloud. That’s just not his style. It’s a trip of endurance, and many readers might question what they would do in that same situation, never fully understanding Jaron’s motivations or his innate ability to overcome adversity.

2 The Point Tuesday The False Prince

I was on the Cybil’s committee that chose The False Prince as the winner for 2012. I’ve held off on posting a review of this because I didn’t want to tip my hand. Now that I’ve reviewed the sequel The Runaway King, I thought I would post a copy of our summary as a To the Point Tuesday. To the Point Tuesday was formed as a 150 word review of a recent read. It’s slightly over the 150 word limit, which I’m okay with because of how much happens in the novel and also how much I loved the book. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

False PrinceTitle: The False Prince
Author: Jennifer A Nielsen
Narrator: Charlie McWade
ISBN: 9780545391665 (audiobook), 9780545284134 (hardcover)
Discs/CDs: 7 CDs, 8 hours 14 minutes
Pages: 342 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic, c2012.
Publication Date: April 1, 2012

“You’re a trick to figure out Sage. Would you ever be on my side, even if I chose you above the other boys?”
“I’m only on my side. Your trick will be convincing me that helping you helps me.”
“What if I did?” Connor asked. “How far would you go to win?”
“Th better question, sir, is how far you will go to wine.” I looked him steadily in the eyes as I spoke, although his back was to the fire and his eyes were set in shadow. […] So we know you’re willing to murder to win.”
“I am.” Conner backed up, speaking to all of us again. “And I’m willing to life, to cheat, and to steal. I’m willing to commend my soul to the devils if necessary because I believe there is exoneration in my cause. I need one of you to conduct the greatest fraud ever perpetrated within the country of Carthya. This is a lifetime commitment. It will never be safe to back down from my plan and tell the truth. To do so would destroy not only you but the entire country. And you will do it to save Carthya.” (28-29)

Sage is taken from his orphanage along with three other boys and thrust into an attempt to save the kingdom from impending war. If he loses, it’s certain death, but Sage is very reluctant to win, since the prize at the end means becoming someone’s pawn and living a lie for the rest of his life. The detailed world Nielsen creates is full of life, populated with mystery, twists and turns, and engaging and complex characters. Readers don’t know who to trust, while Sage knows he can trust no one, especially not Connor, the man who stole them away and has aspirations of his own. Sage’s voice is perfection, reading like a medieval Sherlock Holmes. Unreliable and snarky, Sage keeps his observations, assets, and motivations to himself until he knows he can benefit. Readers can’t help but cheer for him, even as he struggles to come to grips with the ups and downs of a fate he doesn’t desire.

The Rithmatist

RithmatistTitle: The Rithmatist
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Illustrator: Ben McSweeney
Narrator: Michael Kramer
ISBN: 9781427237439 (audiobook), 9780765320322 (hardcover)
Pages: 378 pages
CDs/Discs: 9 CDs, 10 hours
Publisher/Date: TOR Books, a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC. c2013.

The door stopped rattling. All was still for just a moment, then the door burst open.
Lilly tried to scream, but found her voice caught in her throat. A figure stood framed in moonlight, a bowler hat on his head, a short cape covering his shoulders. He stood with his hand on a cane to his side.
She could not see his face, backlit as he was, but there was something horribly sinister about that slightly tipped head and those shadowed features. A hint of a nose and chin, reflecting moonlight. Eyes that watched her from within the inky blackness.
The things flooded into the room around him. Angry, squirming over floor, walls, ceiling. Their bone-white forms almost seemed to glow in the moonlight.
Each was as flat as a piece of paper.
Each was made of chalk.
They were each unique, tiny picture like monsters with fangs, claws. They made no noise at all as they flooded into the hallway, hundreds of them, shaking and vibrating silently as they came for her.
Lilly finally found her voice and screamed. (12-13)

Joel missed his chance to become a Rithmatist when he was younger, but he still gets to observe Rithmatists practice at school. His father was a master chalk maker, but died in an accident and now his mother works non-stop at school in order to pay his debts. Changes and challenges are in the air, as a new professor joins the staff and shakes up the school. When students start disappearing, Joel and a remedial Rithmatist student aid an aging professor in investigating where they went. With no way of protecting himself, Joel isn’t the only one who fears he is in over his head.

I was surprised by how well described the chalk drawings were on the audiobook, and thought the details had been added for listeners benefit. Turns out not only are there drawings, but also descriptions of what they look like and how they function included at the beginning of each chapter. The descriptions test your memory for geometry terms from way back when, but they still make sense. I was also grateful for the map at the beginning of the book that detailed where these places were on an altered map of the United States. What happened to the country, I’m not sure we’ll ever know the full details of, but the names and placements of the communities make sense in an almost post-apocalyptic manner.

I also appreciated the turn of events that occur throughout the novel. The tension is drawn out (pardon the pun) slowly, with first one then multiple students going missing, and the trouble escalating. It’s similar to the trouble facing Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series, as parents either pull their students from the university or are encouraged by the authorities to leave them there under the protection of the guards. But Joel is not the fated wizard who will save the world. In fact, he is powerless against the chalklings — creatures made of chalk that can attack both chalk defenses and living beings — instead using his analytic brain to overcome what he sees as a handicap. Melody is the loquacious, wise-cracking side-kick in this story, whose curiosity and optimism get the better of her and repeatedly put her in danger. But Joel needs her Rithmatist skills, however remedial, and their dynamics and budding friendship evolve and appear very naturally as they interact with increasing frequency through their studies with Professor Fitch. I also liked Professor Fitch, who seems best suited to mentor both Melody and Joel. As the principal of the school at one point tells Joel, “Professor Fitch likes to be bothered […] particularly by students. He’s one of the few true teachers we have at this school.” (83) Professor Fitch emphasizes strategy over showmanship, and really encourages reason from the pair.

The problems that Joel and Melody encounter are neatly tied up by the end of the book, only to have author Brandon Sanderson throw a twist into the mix, so the last few chapters open a whole new can of worms. Readers will have to wait for the sequel to truly discover where Joel, Melody, and the person responsible for the disappearances are headed. And unfortunately, the sequel is not expected to see the light of day until 2015 (UPDATED: now it’s not until 2017). Plenty of time for readers to practice their own rithmatist skills.

The Last Dragonslayer

I waited so long to post this review because I was on the Cybils committee the year this was a finalist, and I didn’t want to post it immediately after the results were announced.

Last DragonslayerTitle: The Last Dragonslayer
Author: Jasper Fforde
ISBN: 9780547738475
Pages: 287 pages
Publisher/Date: Harcourt an imprint of Houghton Mifflin, c2012.
Cybils Finalist for Middle Grade Fantasy

Once, I was famous. My face was seen on T-shirts, badges, commemorative mugs, and posters. I made front-page news, appeared on TV, and was even a special guest on The Yogi Baird Daytime TV Show. The Daily Clam called me “the year’s most influential teenager,” and I was the Mollusc on Sunday’s Woman of the Year. Two people tried to kill me, I was threatened with jail, had fifty-eight offers of marriage, and was outlawed by King Snodd IV. All that and more besides, and in less than a week. (intro)

Fifteen-year-old Jennifer Strange is the manager, receptionist, booking clerk, and taxi service for Kazam Mystical Arts Management, an employment agency for magicians, soothsayers, shifters and other “mystical artisans.” Originally slated to serve as an apprentice but taking over after the owner mysteriously disappeared, she has little authority with her employees. Business is literally dying as magic is drying up. Most suspect magic is tied in some way to the dragons that have been held in reserves meant to keep the peace between humans and dragons. Rumor and premonitions predict the immanent death of the last surviving creature, and possibly the death of magic as well. Jennifer sets out to save the company and her position, the only things she values, before Big Magic brings unwanted changes and possible war.

This was a book that I enjoyed more with a second reading than I did after the first. It’s not something I would give rave reviews for, but still something I would recommend. Readers are thrust into the story with little introduction, and the fast pacing and detailed descriptions make it difficult to catch up with what’s going on originally. There are a lot of complex satirical themes that recommend itself to teen or tween readers, such as capital and corporate gains, political maneuverings, and legal wrangling that are used to manipulate events one way or another. Jasper Fforde handles all these angles with skill, but I’m just not sure how well I could summarize them when recommending it to readers without revealing too much. There’s a somewhat anticlimactic twist at the end that I didn’t see coming and still don’t fully understand the magic involved in its resolution. I think my favorite part of the whole story was the characters. Jessica is a no-nonsense, independent thinker who comes to her own resolutions and holds to her beliefs in a community that is corrupted by greed. The book doesn’t have the fight sequences that you would expect in a book titled The Last Dragonslayer but for people who want a unique fantasy with some social commentary mixed in, this is a good place to start.

The Raven Boys

Raven BoysTitle: The Raven Boys
Author: Maggie Stiefvater
Narrator: Will Patton
ISBN: 9780545465939
Pages: 409 pages
CDs/Discs: 10 CDs, 11 hours 9 minutes
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press (Scholastic Audiobooks), c2012.

He fell to his knees — a soundless gesture for a boy with no real body. One hand splayed in the dirt, fingers pressed to the ground. Blue saw the blackness of the church more clearly than the curved shape of his shoulder.
“Neeve,” Blue said. “Neeve, he’s — dying.”
Neeve had come to stand just behind her. She replied, “Not yet.”
Gansey was nearly gone now, fading into the church, or the church fading into him.
Blue’s voice was breathier than she would have liked. “Why — why can I see him?” […]
“There are only two reasons a non-seer would see a spirit on St. Mark’s Eve, Blue. Either you’re his true love,” Neeve said, “or you killed him.” (15-16)

Blue Sargent has been told that she will kill her true love with a kiss, and therefore has sworn off men entirely. But when she sees a spirit in a graveyard on St. Mark’s Eve, there’s only two reasons she would see him: either she’s his true love or she killed him. Neither bodes well for Blue, so when she runs into the boy, named Gansey, when he visits her psychic relatives, she’s curious about him. It turns out he and his friends Adam, Ronan, and Noah have been searching for the hidden burial-place of an ancient king that will grant a wish to his discoverer. But little do they know that their group isn’t the only ones searching for the lost king, and their competition will stop at nothing to reach the tomb first.

Initial thoughts were that I didn’t enjoy this audiobook as much as I had hoped to. Loyal readers might remember that I was surprised by how much I found myself enjoying Shiver and raved about Scorpio Races. Looking back at my Waiting on Wednesday post when I had first heard The Raven Boys was being published, I expressed some confusion about the plot and characters. Unfortunately, my suspicions turned true, and I had a hard time connecting with the characters in this story. There were a lot of unexplained phenomenon that I’m assuming will be explained in the upcoming sequel, but I wish I we had been rewarded with some of those answers at the end of this book.

For people who like gothic mysteries, this might be a good book to try. There are lots of spooky descriptions, unexplained physic phenomenon, and brooding boys. The romance is a little gothic too, since I found myself comparing Adam to the guy from Corpse Bride, even though he and Blue are both very much alive. Blue starts off dating Adam, but is inexplicably “drawn” to Gansey, the leader of the pack of boys that also includes perpetually sullen Ronan and the perpetually silent Noah. I thought Adam was the most flushed out of all the boys, and we get a really good sense of his motivations and feelings, more so than anyone else. It’s got some mysticism too as Gansey’s obsession with finding lay lines and an ancient king who may (or may not) be buried nearby dominates his thoughts and actions.

But in order to get to the romance (which is a predictable love triangle unlike what we find in Scorpio Races) we have to slog through the first third of the book, which is a slow recount of back story after back story, first with Blue, than with they boys, then finally Gansey’s quest. The action is almost nonexsistent until the final chapters, where it then becomes so rushed (maybe making up for lost time?) that you have difficulty following what’s happening. It’s not so much that there are unexplained coincidences, but things are so intertwined that it’s difficult to accept that these five teens would get along with each other so well in real life. It’s Gansey’s search that holds them all together, but no one appears as interested in it as he is until the very end. We see very little of anyone’s life separate from each other, which makes me wonder if that’s why I found it so difficult to relate with them. I spoke with another librarian who also really liked Scorpio Races but couldn’t get into The Raven Boys so if you fall in this category I would probably say skip the inevitable let down and go reread Scorpio Races for the umpteenth time.

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