Beautiful People Part I (from July): Meet The General (Red as Blood)

In the monthly Beautiful People (hosted/originated by Cait @ Paper Fury and Skye @ Further Up and Further In, and you can read all about it HERE.), I’ve been exploring the rather large cast of my current WIP, Red as Blood. And though I started to do the July feature back in, well, July, I never finished it – so I’m posting it today. Check back soon for BP Part II, which will feature the August questions and another pivotal character from Red as Blood.

So, if you need a refresher on Red as Blood or some of the major characters, check out these posts, and for more on the Seven Sisters, here’s the link to their general bio.

Next up is the third sister – Ayan Stonefist – more commonly known as “The General.” Here’s a photo and a quick recap of her bio:
A younger but pretty accurate Ayan reference photo
A younger but pretty accurate Ayan reference photo
Don’t be fooled by her small stature - she can, and will, destroy you. The General has one of the best tactical minds of the last century, and it’s a mystery why she’s working at an out-of-the-way food joint. Actually, most everything about her is a mystery, and she’d prefer it stay that way.

Age:  early forties (or so the Sisters guess)

Occupation: Assistant Manager of Henpecked Bar & Grill. But that’s just what it says on paper . . .

Height: 135 cm?    Weight: Unknown    Race: Human?

Weakness: *whispers* Don’t even tell her we asked.

Weapon of Choice: Throwing knives or a good spear

Likes: Order, cleanliness, and quiet. Sharp blades. Maps. Dogs.

Dislikes: Bad manners. Insubordinate people. Disorder. Cats.

Favorite Food: Strawberries (she has a surprising sweet tooth)

Of all of the sisters, Ayan is the most reserved and forbidding. However, she exudes calm and excels at managing diverse and difficult personalities. Sull tries to avoid her as much as possible, yet he admires the way she carries herself – as if she’s twenty feet tall and all corded muscle – anyone in her way will be ten feet under . . .

So, now, let’s attempt to get to know The General a bit better.

  1. Does she  want to get married and/or have children? Why or why not?

This isn’t the sort of thing the General thinks about, to be honest. She’s never desired children, and she has zero interest in any sort of life partner or romance. Still, she isn’t opposed to mentoring a young person, and she did very well as the leader of armies. As a general rule, Ayan feels that children are a nuisance, and that they are a danger to everyone if their parents didn’t really want them. Sull basically affirms everything that Ayan believed about kids. 😛

2. What is their weapon of choice? (It doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical weapon.)

I answered this in her profile (throwing knives or a spear), but the General is one of those people who can use anything for an effective weapon. Her brain is her other favorite weapon though 😛

3. What’s the nicest thing they’ve done for someone else, and why did they do it?

When Ayan had command of a particularly large group of young men (soldiers), she caught one of them stealing food from the stores. Normally, that sort of thing was punishable by discharge and the removal of a hand, and the General had not hesitated to carry out the sentence before. However, after investigating the situation, she discovered that the soldier had taken the food for a group of orphans that had lost their parents in the current battles. Ayan looked into this and allowed the soldier to go with only extended latrine duty. She then set up a fund for the children, and personally found them all homes, despite her general dislike of children. When asked why she did it, all the General would say is that war “wasn’t right, and that no one but the instigators should suffer the consequences.”

4. Have they ever been physically violent with someone, and what instigated it?

She is the General – so 99% of her existence has been in the more violent spheres of life – but she isn’t violent without cause or reason. Rather, she only uses physical violence as a last resort.

5. Are they a rule-follower or a rebel?

While Ayan is usually a rule-follower (she believes that rules exist for a reason), she isn’t afraid to color outside the lines, so to speak. If she truly believes an action is right or wrong, she won’t hesitate to act accordingly.

6. Are they organized or messy?

Highly organized. The General despises anything remotely disordered or messy.

7. What makes them feel loved, and who was the last person to make them feel that way?

The General believes that love is like down comforters or a good mattress: comfortable and a life enhancement, but not necessary for a fulfilling existence. Her soldiers usually loved her, but she discouraged it, as she thought it encouraged an unnatural level of risk-taking and devotion (when she was in a dangerous situation).

8. What do they eat for breakfast?

The General strives for balance in every area of life, so she makes sure that her breakfast is nutritious and balanced, with just the right amount of calories to keep her going until the next meal. That being said, she’s partial to strawberry pancakes.

9. Have they ever lost someone close to them? What happened?

While Ayan tries to maintain a professional distance between herself and those around her, she has witnessed the deaths of many young soldiers. The General feels personally connected to every soldier under her command, and every loss or death has made her strive to be a better commander.

10. What’s their treat of choice? (Or, if not food, how else do they reward themselves?)

The General has a sweet tooth, so she will occasionally indulge in one of Dumpling‘s famous strawberry shortcakes. But only if she has had an extremely stressful day, or she feels quite satisfied with herself.

So that’s all for today- do you feel like you know the General a little bit better? (She’s rather enigmatic). Did you do July’s BP? How is your August going, and what are you writing/reading?

5 Reasons that Vassa In the Night NEEDS to be on Your Fall TBR List (ARC Review)

Anyone who follows my blog knows that I have been INSANELY busy all summer. It’s left me little time to read, and no time to blog – but I finally managed to squeeze in some reading time, and now I have to tell you all about it 😛

JUST LOOK AT IT – So Pretty

First things first – a huge thank you to ABA Whitebox and TOR/Macmillan for the ARC – this advance copy was provided for free as a bookseller promotion, and this is an unsolicited, unpaid, and 100% honest review 🙂

I don’t know about you, but I have a lifelong obsession with fairytales. Whether it was Disney, a dusty copy of Grimms, Ella Enchanted, a folktale collection I found at the library, or Once Upon a Time, I’ve given them all a shot. However, for all of the fairy tales and folktales out there (and there are thousands), only a handful ever seem to make it into novels. So when I saw the synopsis of Vassa in the Night, I knew I had to read it as soon as possible. (Official Synopsis Below)

In the enchanted kingdom of Brooklyn, the fashionable people put on cute shoes, go to parties in warehouses, drink on rooftops at sunset, and tell themselves they’ve arrived. A whole lot of Brooklyn is like that now, but not Vassa’s working-class neighborhood.

In Vassa’s neighborhood, where she lives with her stepmother and bickering stepsisters, one might stumble onto magic, but stumbling out again could become an issue. Babs Yagg, the owner of the local convenience store, has a policy of beheading shoplifters and sometimes innocent shoppers as well. So when Vassa’s stepsister sends her out for light bulbs in the middle of night, she knows it could easily become a suicide mission.

But Vassa has a bit of luck hidden in her pocket, a gift from her dead mother. Erg is a tough-talking wooden doll with sticky fingers, a bottomless stomach, and a ferocious cunning. With Erg’s help, Vassa just might be able to break the witch’s curse and free her Brooklyn neighborhood. But Babs won t be playing fair .

Basically, Vassa in the Night is a modern reimagining of Vassilissa the Beautiful (there are a lot of Vassilissa stories out there), set in Brooklyn, NYC.
And before you point out how many fairytale/folktale retellings are out there, scroll down for my

Top 5 Reasons to Read Vassa in the Night:

  1. The Prose is beautiful.

    There are sentences that my writer’s brain was wishing I’d come up with. And Sarah Porter’s “stage-setting” and descriptive writing roots you immediately – just read the first couple paragraphs and you’ll see what I mean:

People live here on purpose; that’s what I’ve heard. They even cross the country deliberately and move into the neighborhoods near the river, and suddenly their shoes are cuter than they are, and very possibly smarter and more articulate as well, and their lives are covered in sequins and they tell themselves they’ve arrived. They put on tiny feathered hats and go to parties in warehouses; they drink on rooftops at sunset. It’s a destination and everyone piles up and congratulates themselves on having made it all the way here from some wherever or other. To them this is practically an enchanted kingdom. A whole lot of Brooklyn is like that now, but not the part where I live.

Not that there isn’t any magic around here. If you’re dumb enough to look in the wrong places, you’ll stumble right into it. It’s the stumbling out again that might become an issue. The best thing you can do is ignore it. Cross the street. Don’t make eye contact—if by some remote chance you encounter something with eyes.

(Excerpt from Chapter 1, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter)

Porter takes her time in setting the scene, enveloping you in a fantastical, yet familiar version of Brooklyn. Her writing has its own sort of magic, and it will immerse you in the world of the story in no time.

2. Creativity!

Baba Yaga as a demented shopkeeper? Yes, please. Vassilissa as a purple-haired teen from a blended family? Works for me. Demented, bodiless hands for sidekicks? Sure. Another world on the fringe of our own, populated by characters that Lewis Carroll would envy. SOLD. This is definitely one of the more inventive YA novels I’ve read, and I couldn’t wait to see where it would take me next. I also loved seeing how Porter worked elements from the Vassilissa story into the book.

3. It’s laugh-out-loud funny.

There’s a healthy dose of sarcasm, usually provided by Vassa herself, and a borderline-hysterics sort of humor that balances the macabre setting and rather dark subject matter (i.e., severed heads and gruesome, fairytale style deaths) The side characters and bizarre situations also provide a lot of humor. Erg (Vassa’s “doll), in particular, is a source of hilarious one liners and dry observations.

4. Reality checks.

I love how Vassa in the Night doesn’t have a “perfect” ending. Everything isn’t resolved or tied up neatly. More importantly, throughout the book, we don’t forget that Vassa is a young girl plunged into a world far beyond her comfort zone. None of her problems are magically solved, and she has to work for a resolution. Vassa’s relationships with Erg, her stepsisters, school peers, and missing/late parents are all extremely important, and she has to deal with them in “real-world” ways to grow as a character, and accomplish her goals. And hey – if Baba Yaga was real, I could definitely see her setting up a sinister convenience store chain in NYC. And getting away with it.

5. VASSA.

She’s everything I love in a heroine – smart, funny, snarky, empathetic, and believable. Despite her tough lot in life, she is determined and stubborn, and she refuses to give up when it matters the most. Also of note, though Vassa is obviously our heroine, she doesn’t fall into the stereotypical chosen-one mode at all. Her character growth and arc were well done and satisfying.

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars.*
A lush and inventive modern folktale for readers looking for something a little darker and less romantic than the majority of the fairytale retellings out there. A strong heroine, crazy strangeness, and beautiful prose help Vassa in the Night stand out as one of my favorite YA reads of 2016.
*Here are my minor quibbles (which are really only relevant after you’ve read the book:
  1. Was there a point to the whole story about Vassa’s dad (other than showing his extreme immaturity and selfishness)?
  2. I felt that “The Rules” (governing the magical world/characters) could have been fleshed out a little more. Obviously, like Erg, Babs had rules she was following – otherwise, she might have stopped Vassa more effectively at times. It makes it a bit harder to suspend your disbelief if you don’t know the rules that the world operates by.
  3. Babs defeat was slightly underwhelming. It was fairytale-esque, but (see #2) I felt like it would have worked a bit better if we knew how/why she was defeated.

Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter will be released in Hardcover on September 20th, 2016.

Do you plan on reading Vassa in the Night? Why or why not? Have you read Vassilissa the Beautiful or any of the Vassilissa stories?

 

Beautiful People June: Meet “The Doctor”

IT’S BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE TIME! (No, you don’t have to be as excited as I am)

If you’re scratching your head in confusion – BP is a monthly writing meme run by Cait @ Paper Fury and Skye @ Further Up and Further In, and you can read all about it HERE.

Last month, I featured Mollie, one of the Seven Sisters of Henpecked Bar and Grill (Red as Blood) and I decided to continue that theme this month as well. This time around, I’m featuring Doctor Marjorie Pierce, the owner and manager of Henpecked, and the oldest Sister. Just for a recap, here’s her bio and reference pic again:

NICKNAME: THE DOCTOR.

Yes, otherwise known as Doc, or just Boss. While she isn’t a Timelord, Doc is a medical practitioner. Despite her healing tendencies, she’s a vicious warrior in her own right. And you’d have to be a strong personality to have all of the Sisters submit to your rule (a loving dictatorship). She’s a motherly figure, though she never had any children of her own (though there are rumors of a scandalous, tragic love affair in her youth . . .)

Age: A lady never tells – but she’s north of 40 and south of 60

Height: 127 cm  Species: Human

Weakness: Orphans of any species

Weapon of Choice: Bola

Likes: Feeding People, Sharpening weapons. Being Needed.

Dislikes: Whining and Complaining. Inefficiency.

Favorite Food: Fried Chicken and Biscuits with Gravy and Strong, Black Coffee – and Chocolate Cake. She’s not a health nut . . .

Marjorie is the first person to meet Sull in the narrative, and she (presumably) takes a shine to the battered, skinny boy with haunted eyes and too pretty of a face. He needs food.

As Marjorie is the oldest major character, I thought it would be interesting (and helpful) to explore her childhood a bit, since it’s something she never talks about to the other sisters, though it obviously shaped her life.

 

  1. What is her first childhood memory?

Marjorie’s parents were tenant farmers, and her mother was the farmer’s midwife. They all lived with Marjorie’s two younger sisters and grandmother in a longhouse with the other tenant farmers, so Marjorie’s first memories are of lots of noise and people. It was like having a very, very, large family.

2. What were their best and worst childhood experiences

Best: When Marjorie turned twelve, she had her official Welcoming Day. It signified that she was an adult, and fully capable of taking on an occupation like the other tenant farmers. However, what Marjorie liked about it was how she was finally the center of attention, and how her parents managed to make her a real fruit pie, and an almost-new dress that made her really feel like an adult. She felt loved, appreciated, and happy, and she often wishes she could go back to that moment.

Worst: A rival warlord took over the plantation where Marjorie and her family lived. In the chaos, her entire family was killed. Coming back and finding everyone dead or gone was the worst moment of her life.

3. What was their childhood home like?

The tenant farmers lived in a series of longhouses – which are exactly what they sound like – long buildings with almost zero privacy. Families would put up rough curtains between sections, and sleep in a small space on shared pallets. The average number of occupants in each house was around 20, with families that often included grandparents or great-grandparents. The farmers worked long hours, with plantation duties in addition to their other jobs (such as mechanics, android supervisors, medics, etc.) Though many of the farm chores were done by mechanicals and robots, human workers were needed to run things.

4. What’s something that scared them as child?

As a child, Marjorie was frightened of the alien warlord who (basically) owned her parent’s as indentured servants. Though she never really saw the warlord, or his wife (who actually supervised and ran the entire estate), Marjorie heard too many stories about what happened to tenants who broke the rules.

5. Who did they look up to most?

Marjorie had a good relationship with both of her parents and her grandmother, but she looked up to her mother most. Marjorie remembers her mother as a loving, giving, and genteel but capable woman, who never raised her voice above a yell, but was (almost) always obeyed.

6. Favourite and least favourite childhood foods?

Favorite: Other than fried chicken and chocolate cake, Marjorie always loved anything with fresh fruit. Fresh fruit that wasn’t synthetic was a rare luxury that her hardworking parents could hardly afford.

Least Favorite: Slurry. Slurry was the all-purpose name given to the “leftover soup” fed to the tenant farmers twice each day. Morning’s offerings were usually grainy and bland, while evening slurry often had strange, unidentifiable chunks in it. It was so bad that Marjorie never speaks about it, to anyone.

7. If they had their childhood again, would they change anything?

Marjorie would change a lot of things. She’d help her parents more, and daydream less. She would pay more attention, and she would have found a way to get her parents out. That’s what she tells herself, anyway.

8. What kind of child were they? Curious? Wild? Quiet? Devious?

Marjorie was distracted and flighty. She was curious about the world around her, and frequently disrespectful of her elders. Despite this, she was very caring, and she was devoted to her younger sisters.

9. What was their relationship to their parents and siblings like?

Marjorie loved her whole family, but she felt like they were always disapproving of her, and that she couldn’t be as good as them. Her father was very quiet and stern, and they rarely had conversations, but he silently gave up everything to make his family’s lot a little better. Marjorie’s grandmother and mother were two in a long line of midwife/healers, and they imparted a great reverence for life to Marjorie. They taught her everything they knew, and encouraged her apprenticeships with the other longhouses’ healers. Marjorie’s little sisters were twins, and four years younger, so Marjorie frequently had the care of them. Since their parents were normally working, it was up to Marjorie to feed, bathe, and watch over her sisters on a daily basis. Marjorie resented it at times, but it also made her incredibly close to them.

10. What did they want to be when they grew up, and what did they actually become?

Marjorie wanted to study medicine off-planet, though she knew her parents could never afford such a thing. She always dreamed of running away, becoming a famous doctor, and coming back with lots of money to redeem her indentured family.

Due to the traumatic events in #2, Marjorie’s interests turned from healing to revenge. She was thirteen when the rival warlord wiped out the plantation, and she fled for the neighboring plantation. There, she convinced the tenant farmers to take her in as one of theirs, and she enrolled in the warlord’s guard. Through cunning, knowledge of anatomy and herbals, and determination (and aided by her small stature), Marjorie developed a reputation as a capable assassin. She finally caught the attention of the Matron (formal title of the warlord’s wife), and after many successful missions, her indentured servitude was lifted, and she was formally employed. Having achieved this goal, Marjorie set to undermining and destroying the warlord who had wiped out her family. She did eventually receive her medical training, and become a renowned doctor, but the planet she left behind never knew her as anything resembling a healer.

Well – that was darker than anticipated. That’s what I get for writing a book about a bunch of assassins-turned-restaurateurs taking in a troubled runaway . . .

Did you do BP this month (or do you plan to?) – if so, leave your link in the comments so I can go read it 🙂

What do you think about Doctor Pierce? Does she sound like an interesting character to you? Anything else you’d like to know about her/like clarified?

Thanks for reading!!

 

 

Beautiful People: May Edition – “Meet” Mollie (Red as Blood)

So I’m back from BEA ’16 and Chicago (*sniffles* Chicago . . .*), with loads of books and not nearly enough pictures.

*(I never want to leave, but I always do, just like the hero at the end of a western . . .) Err, or rather, like someone who has to go to work on Monday . . .

I fully intend to finish my lowdown on BEA, just not right now. Right now, I’ve been working through my character profiles for Red as Blood, and it’s time to further my character development with this month’s Beautiful People.

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If you don’t know – BP is a monthly writing meme hosted by Sky at Further Up and Further In and Cait @ Paper Fury. Click the links for their fabulous blogs and info on how to join!

Just like Sherlock needs a Watson to humanize him, and the Doctor needs a Companion for almost the same reason, a larger-than-life main character needs someone more relatable and “average” to ground them. Sull, the protagonist of my WIP, Red as Blood, might be a conflicted, angsty teen, but I know that I gave him a rather outrageous story (read more about it here) that few people can (hopefully) relate to in the details.

Enter Mollie. 

If you read my intro to the Seven Sisters of Henpecked Bar and Grill, you know that Mollie is the youngest (and tallest) “sister,” and that she’s not really content with where she is in life. Just in case you didn’t read her bio, here it is again:

Mollie was raised by warrior priests, and fell in with the seven sisters after events that she doesn't like to talk about. However, she is artistic and dreams of opening a shop or gallery in a big, fashionable city. Though she is a passable fighter, her heart isn’t in it, and she ran away from her army-school-temple as a teenager. Mollie’s real name- Machlah – was hard for her superiors to pronounce. Mollie stuck, but she’s sore about it (why doesn’t she get a fun nickname?)

As the youngest, the tallest, and a half-blooded outcast, Mollie immediately sympathizes with Sull. However, he isn’t looking for an annoying surrogate older sister. Still, she’s enamored with the life he left, or what little hints he drops, and she is determined to be his friend. And what Mollie wants, Mollie usually gets.

Age:  23                      Race: Half human/half alien

In my mind, Mollie looks a lot like a younger version of Morena Baccarin in The Red Tent:

  1. How often do they smile? Would they smile at a stranger?

Mollie smiles quite a bit. She’s naturally easygoing, and a daydreamer, so she’s usually smiling at a thought she had.

She would always smile at a stranger – even if she didn’t work at a restaurant. To Mollie, strangers represent different and exciting, so she’s happy to see them and hear about their adventures.

2. What is the cruelest thing they’ve ever been told? And what was their reaction?

Mollie is used to being the target of bigoted jokes about her mixed alien and human heritage. Though she looks human enough (her eyes are red-gold and she has triangular pupils, and her skin has a gold flush to it, along with scale patches), everyone (where she came from) knew her story and how her parent’s left her with monks rather than raise her and bear the shame. So the cruellest things she’s been told are probably not worth repeating, but they almost always are directed at her heritage.

3. What is the kindest thing they’ve ever been told? And what was their reaction?

When Doctor Pierce (her mentor and employer) told Mollie that she (Mollie) wasn’t defined by her success or failure, and that her art was valid even if only she (Mollie) believed in it, this was something Mollie had never heard. Doctor Pierce is not lavish with praise or unnecessary words, but her encouragement gave Mollie courage to continue pursuing art in the most unlikeliest places.

4. What is one strong memory that has stuck with your character from childhood? Why is it so powerful and lasting?

Mollie was raised by warrior monks. They were strict, ascetic, and firm but well-meaning with their wards. Mollie will never forget when trying to brighten up the drab brown robes with some colored fabric scraps that she sewed on to make flowers. The monks called her to the front of morning meeting and gave her a lecture on vanity in front of everyone. Next, they tore off the flowers and cut her long hair (another sign of her vanity), and she was relegated to latrine duty for a month. They weren’t trying to be cruel (she understands this now), but at the time she was just crushed.

In a way, this almost made things worse – Mollie kept her artistic tendencies secret, and she refuses to cut her hair for any reason.

5. What book (a real actual published book!) do you think your character would benefit from reading?

Probably something practical, like 48 Days to the Work You Love. But I think Mollie would get a kick out of (and be encouraged by) Little Women.

6.Have they ever been seriously injured? How severely? How did they react?

Not really. The worst injuries Mollie has ever sustained were minor fractures and sprains from combat training with the monks and their wards. She’s stubborn and has a high level of pain tolerance, so she rarely shows a reaction – especially if people are watching her.

7. Do they like and get along with their neighbours?

Mollie is generally pretty agreeable. However, if she doesn’t like you, she really doesn’t like you. That being said, she gets along well with most everyone she knows.

8. On a scale from 1 to 10 (1 being easy and 10 being difficult) how easy are they to get along with?

2 – see above.

9. If they could travel anywhere in the world, where would they go?

She wants to go to Ithir (also known as Earth-that-Was), the homeworld of the original humans. She also wants to go to New Milan – which is the fashion epicenter of the galaxy. (And where Sull spent a lot of time)

10. Who was the last person they held hands with?

Despite their asceticism, the monks actually encouraged familial bonding between their wards, as well as kind touches and comforting gestures. Mollie held her fellow wards’ hands all the time, but she grew hesitant to touch others after she left. Being a huggy person herself, she doesn’t understand the premium some people put on personal space. The last person Mollie “held hands” with was probably her mother figure-Doctor Pierce-when the latter rescued her from an ignominious fate and told her to run.

So there you go 🙂

I hope you enjoyed reading more about Mollie and Red as Blood. Thanks for reading! (And if you participated in BP, please leave a link so I can check it out)

TTT: Top 10 Books I Love but I Just Haven’t Talked About As Much (with quotes!)

toptentuesday
Copyright : The Broke and the Bookish

I know for myself (and probably most of you) that there are tons of books I’ve read that I absolutely loved – I just don’t talk about them as much. So naturally, I had to participate in this week’s Top Ten Tuesday (if you don’t know what that is, click here) hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. So let’s get started.

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Mulan = one of the best movies ever.

Top 10 Books I Love (I Just Don’t Talk About Them Much)

  1. The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine (first read in 2001)

9780060293154
This is the cover I have

I love Ella Enchanted, but I actually prefer The Two Princesses of Bamarre. I discovered it in a tiny Northern Michigan bookstore when we were on vacation (15 years ago, *cough, cough*). At the age of twelve, I was obsessed with fantasy and still high off of reading through The Lord of the Rings by myself a couple of times (my dad read it to us when we were little). I was also at that stage when you’ve fallen in love with something (in my case, the feeling that LOTR gave me), and you read ravenously, just trying to find that feeling. This is also around when I discovered Robin McKinley and Patricia Wrede, who have remained lifelong favorites as well. Anyhow, this is a story about the bond between two sisters – one who starts out as the classic “hero,” and the other, who becomes a hero. And it was way before Frozen. ;P

“I put my fingers around the unmarked ring of the spyglass and twisted. The scene became clear. 
Oh no! A hairy brown spider clung to a vine! I couldn't go there!
I'd go to the desert to find a dragon. I began to reset the spyglass, but then I stopped myself. A spider was worse than a dragon?
No.
My first monsters would be spiders, then.” 

2. Dragon’s Milk (The Dragon Chronicles) by Susan Fletcher

“The wild creatures of the earth are as milk for the human spirit; to destroy them is to starve our souls.”

I love these covers <3

While Susan Fletcher is better known for Shadow Spinner (another one of my all time favorites), her Dragon Chronicles were some of the books I reread repeatedly growing up. It’s somewhere between MG and YA, as  I recall. The heroine, Kaeldra, is a gawky, awkward girl who gets thrust into a difficult situation – she basically becomes orphaned Draclings (baby dragons) nanny, in a world where dragons are misunderstood and hated. There are two sequels that take place in the same world, and I remember liking them just as much.

3. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

“We have our clothes, some more splendid than others,—this is our credit; but when a man dies he has only his skin;”

Over a thousand gripping pages (really!), The Count of Monte Cristo is an epic adventure and revenge drama with complex characters and intricate morality. Edmond Dantes is wrongfully imprisoned, and he swears to get the ultimate revenge on the man who put him there. Will Edmond follow his path to the end, or will his convictions and his fear of Heaven stop him before it’s too late? You’ll have to read it to find out. And if you saw that movie, it left out, well, almost the entire book. Another one of my all-time favorite novels, and a definite influence on my writing. On an interesting side note, the nonfiction book The Black Count (about Dumas’ father-an inspiration for a lot of the Count’s adventures) is also well worth the read.

“There are men who have suffered and who have not only gone on living, but even built a new fortune on the ruins of their former happiness. From the depths into which their enemies have plunged them, they have risen again with such vigor and glory that they have dominated their former conquerors and cast them down in their turn.”

4. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip

One of the most beautifully written, lyrical fantasies I have ever read. It’s my favorite one of McKillip’s novels, and the one that made me track down her other novels. Sixteen year-old Sybel is given a baby to raise, even though her only companions up to that point were a fantastical menagerie of creatures. This book is gorgeous, magical, and if you haven’t read it, you should. A strong female lead, enduring themes, and amazing prose – this is one of those “so close to perfect it hurts” novels.

“What do you think love is- a thing to startle from the heart like a bird at every shout or blow? You can fly from me, high as you choose into your darkness, but you will see me always beneath you, no matter how far away, with my face turned to you. My heart is in your heart. I gave it to you with my name that night and you are its guardian, to treasure it, or let it whither and die. I do not understand you. I am angry with you. I am hurt and helpless, but nothing will fill the ache of the hollowness in me where your name would echo if I lost you.”

5. Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

“Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”

“I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

I might have mentioned this book in passing, but I haven’t sung its praises enough. This was the last work Lewis completed, but it started out as one of his earliest projects. Most people know how C. S. Lewis loved Greek Myths and classic literature. Till We Have Faces is the story of Cupid and Psyche told from Psyche’s sister Orual’s perspective. But it isn’t a simple retelling – it’s a complex, dense, thought-provoking, and deeply philosophical novel that thoroughly explores the nature of love itself. Till We Have Faces is nothing you would expect if you’re only familiar with The Chronicles of Narnia – it’s more akin to The Four Loves, or C.S. Lewis’s essays on the power of myths and legends. If I could just take a handful of books to a deserted island, this would be one of them.

“Oh, I can see it happening, age after age, and growing worse the more you reveal your beauty: the son turning his back on the mother and the bride on her groom, stolen away by this everlasting calling, calling, calling of the gods. Taken where we can't follow. It would be far better for us if you were foul and ravening. We'd rather you drank their blood than stole their hearts. We'd rather they were ours and dead than yours and made immortal.” 

6. Artemis Fowl Series by Eoin Colfer

“Confidence is ignorance. If you’re feeling cocky, it’s because there’s something you don’t know.”

Twelve. Millionaire. Genius. Criminal. Artemis Fowl is all of those things. And Eoin Colfer sells it with the writing equivalent of a cheeky grin and a magician’s sleight of hand. One of my favorite middle grade series ever, Artemis Fowl is laugh out loud funny. The characters are hilarious, the plots are crazy, and at the center are the epic odd couple of Artemis and his loyal butler, Butler. Yes – Butler. Butler is the other best thing about these books.

“That was horrible. Horrible. That poor little guy."
Pex was unrepentant. "Yeah, well, he asked for it. Calling us ... all those things."
But---buried alive! That's like in that horror movie. Y'know -- the one with all the horror."
I think I saw that one. With all the words going up on the screen at the end?"
Yeah, that was it. Tell you the truth, those words kinda ruined it for me.”

7. The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf (The Squire’s Tales #3) by Gerald Morris

“I said you lie, knave!” shouted Beaumains, drawing his sword. “And for telling such craven falsehoods, you must die!”
The knight looked plaintively at Roger. “What’s wrong with this fellow?”
He was dropped on his head when he was a baby,” answered Roger.”

This book is hysterical – even if you haven’t read the Arthurian original that it reinterprets (The Kitchen Knight). I loved every book in this series, but this one is a definite stand out. It takes Arthurian story constructs and constants, and turns them completely on their heads, all while keeping the basic story intact. With its witty, sharp-tongued heroine, a dash of faeries, crazy characters, and of course, the aforementioned sense of humor, this is another book I’ve read repeatedly.

8Sorcery & Cecelia: or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer

“I am determined to have the headache Thursday, if I have to hit myself with a rock to do it.”

Manners, Magic, and Mayhem

The concept behind this book is positively brilliant: two writers decided to write letters to each other, assuming the characters of Regency girls with magical aptitude. Their letters became this delightful light fantasy novel that mixes Jane Austen with Diana Wynne Jones’ style magic and hilarity. The sequel, The Grand Tour is equally funny, and highly recommended.

“She probably enjoys cutting up everyone's happiness. Not to mention cutting up other parts of people; given her penchant for poisoning people and turning them into beech trees, I fail to see how she has reached thirty without leaving a trail of bodies behind her.” 

9. The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

While I’ve mentioned my affection for Pearl’s writing, I doubt I’ve praised this book enough. Dante’s Inferno is a favorite of mine, and this historical novel surrounds the translation of the Inferno made by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Oh, and there’s murder most foul, as well.* But who doesn’t like to watch a group of middle-aged writers solve a murder, all while being terribly literary?

“The force of Dante's poetry resonated most in those who did not confess the Catholic faith, for believers would inevitably have quibbles with Dante's theology. But for those most distant theologically, Dante's faith was so perfect, so unyielding, that a reader found himself compelled by the poetry to take it all to heart.”

10. The Kestrel (Westmark Trilogy #2) by Lloyd Alexander

The dedication in this book: “To those who know they are only human, but strive to be nothing less.”

Lloyd Alexander is another author I’ve touched on at times – with his excellent Prydain Chronicles being one of my favorite MG fantasy series ever. I’ve also named off Westmark in passing. But The Kestrel is one of the first, and best YA novels (that I have read) to deal with the trauma of war and fighting (especially for causes you believe in). Theo, the young printer’s devil from the first book, convincingly transforms into the Kestrel, a fearsome warrior and bogeyman to haunt the enemies dreams. Humanity, hatred, fear, rage- this book covers it all, in a surprisingly slim package. There are touches of Les Miserables and A Tale of Two Cities (two more of my all-time favorite novels), but it’s an easier read. Not convinced? Read this excellent review and see if it changes your mind.

Well, if nothing else, I’ve learned that I need a shelf just for silly fantasy novels (I hadn’t realized what a great favorite they were of mine until I started working on this list!)

Have you read any of these books, or do you intend to?

What are some favorite books that you don’t mention enough?

Memories of Ash by Intisar Khanani – COVER REVEAL!!! (+ Release Date, Preorder Info, and More!)

If you’ve followed me (or even just stopped by my blog), you might have noticed how much I loved the fantasy novella Sunbolt, by indie author Intisar Khanani. You can read my review of Sunbolt here. So, naturally, when I heard there was going to be a sequel soon, I was super excited. I have the distinct privilege of participating in a cover reveal today for Memories of Ash, and keep reading for an interview with Intisar Khanani and info on pre-ordering the book!

I’m excited to have Intisar Khanani on the blog today, revealing the cover for her newest novel Memories of Ash. This cover was designed by the amazing Jenny of Seedlings Design Studio. There’s also a Kindle Fire giveaway, so make sure to scroll down to the end of the post to enter.

Describe Memories of Ash in 3 words.

IK: Walk with courage.

What compelled you to write your first book?

IK: I always wanted to write a novel, so my senior year of university I decided I’d better buckle down and try. I chose a fairy tale (The Goose Girl) to give me an over-arching plot and narrative structure, and then went to town with it. I really wrote it as an exercise to test myself, not intending to do anything with it when I finished. But, by the time I finished, I loved my characters so much that I ended up working through over a dozen revisions to take it from “writing exercise” to my debut novel, Thorn.

If you could live in one of your books, which one would you choose?

IK: Definitely the world of the Sunbolt Chronicles. Sunbolt follows Hitomi, a street thief with a propensity to play hero when people need saving, and her nemesis, the dark mage who killed her father. Although there is a lot of darkness in Sunbolt, there’s also a lot of light. It’s a real world, in its way, and I love the diversity and vibrancy of the cultures and creatures that populate it. I’d have my choice of living in a tropical island sultanate reminiscent of historic Zanzibar, or among the nomadic desert tribes that eke out an existence alongside the cursed Burnt Lands, to name my two favorite options. Then again, in Memories of Ash, there’s the decaying grandeur of the capitol of a fallen empire that feels a lot like an Istanbul of old, right at the heart of the Eleven Kingdoms. Plus, I wouldn’t mind having shape-shifting friends and charms to keep my bread from burning.

What authors, or books, have influenced you?

IK: As a young duckling, I imprinted on Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley’s earlier works. I read pretty widely, but those are the authors I kept coming back to, especially McKinley’s Damar books. I am also an incorrigible Jane Austen fan, but my books don’t reflect that very much!

What are you reading now?

IK: I just finished “Kingdom of Ruses” by Kate Stradling. In a kingdom where the eternal prince who rules is just a ruse kept up by the prime minister’s family (and most recently, Viola, our heroine), keeping the peace is a delicate thing. Enter a stranger who manages to take the place of the doppelgänger the family uses, and Viola has her hands full.

Your first reaction to the cover in GIF format.

 

And here it is…

MoA_FC_FNL16_BN

“In the year since she cast her sunbolt, Hitomi has recovered only a handful of memories. But the truths of the past have a tendency to come calling, and an isolated mountain fastness can offer only so much shelter. When the High Council of Mages summons Brigit Stormwind to stand trial for treason, Hitomi knows her mentor won’t return—not with Arch Mage Blackflame behind the charges.

Armed only with her magic and her wits, Hitomi vows to free her mentor from unjust imprisonment. She must traverse spell-cursed lands and barren deserts, facing powerful ancient enchantments and navigating bitter enmities, as she races to reach the High Council. There, she reunites with old friends, planning a rescue equal parts magic and trickery.

If she succeeds, Hitomi will be hunted the rest of her life. If she fails, she’ll face the ultimate punishment: enslavement to the High Council, her magic slowly drained until she dies.”

Kobo Pre-order | Apple Store Pre-orderAmazon Pre-order | Barnes & Noble Pre-order | Add it to GoodReads

A Special Treat For Those Who Pre-order…

Not only is the pre-order of Memories of Ash on sale for only 99 cents, but anyone who buys the pre-order will receive a free digital art print of Hitomi by artist Grace Fong. Just email your proof of purchase to moapreorder@gmail.com!

Haven’t read Sunbolt (Book 1) yet? It’s been knocked down to just 99 cents to celebrate the release and is available at most major e-retailers. That’s two fantastic books for less than your morning coffee. And don’t forget to check with your local, independent bookstore to see if they can order Sunbolt for you. (I have a physical copy and it’s beautiful!)

MoA_PreOrder Special

About Intisar Khanani

Khanani_Author_PhotoIntisar Khanani grew up a nomad and world traveler. She has lived in five different states as well as in Jeddah on the coast of the Red Sea. Until recently, Intisar wrote grants and developed projects to address community health with the Cincinnati Health Department, which was as close as she could get to saving the world. Now she focuses her time on her two passions: raising her family and writing fantasy. Intisar’s current projects include a companion trilogy to Thorn, featuring the heroine introduced in her free short story The Bone Knife, and The Sunbolt Chronicles.

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Book Review: Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin (and Why You Should Read It)

My avalanche of 1-3 star reads finally stopped this last weekend, when I picked up Ryan Graudin‘s Wolf by Wolf. Thank you to Little Brown and Co. Books for Young Readers/Hachette Book Group for this ARC! (Wolf by Wolf will be available October 6th, 2015) Note: Cover and quote might not be final.

Love this cover.
“These were the names she whispered in the dark.
These were the pieces she brought back into place.
These were the wolves she rode to war.” 

I read The Walled City earlier this year, and really enjoyed it. Wolf by Wolf was better, with a tighter story and more developed main characters.  Like with TWC, Wolf by Wolf takes actual history for its inspiration. But this time, there’s a fantasy twist. Here’s a rundown for you:

 

Set in an alternate 1956, Wolf by Wolf imagines a world where the Axis powers reign triumphant, and their victorious alliance is celebrated each year by a cross-country motorcycle race. The 1955 victor was the only girl, Adele Wolfe, and she had a rare opportunity to dance with Hitler himself after winning the race. That up-close look at the elusive Führer is one that resistance groups would gladly die for. But it seems impossible.

Yael, a young resistance member, just might be able to make the impossible happen. A Jewish girl who survived terrible experiments and escaped from concentration camp, Yael can skin-shift, altering her appearance to resemble any girl she has seen. If she can imitate Adele Wolfe, infiltrate the race, and win, Yael might get close enough for a second Operation Valkyrie.

Yael has been trained to fight and survive, and she has spent the last year practicing both racing and imitating Adele Wolfe down to the tiniest detail, but there are two major problems: Luka, who has a bitter romantic history with Adele, and much more serious, Adele’s twin brother Felix. Yael will have to fool them both, and defeat them along with all of the other competitors, if she wants to complete her mission.

 

Alternate history, what-ifs, human experiments, motorcycles, infiltration, how could this not sound amazing? But all that aside, this was a strong novel with an epic concept. And here are five reasons you should read it:

1. Yael. I loved Yael so much. A little Winter Soldier and all survivor, she was sympathetic, hardcore, and brave. She (understandably) had a hard time trusting others, but she wasn’t afraid to love or feel for the people in her past. She wanted to think well of people, and she put her mission ahead of her own interests.

Also, I loved her interactions with Adele’s brother Felix. Felix was brave, adorable, and loyal and Yael really didn’t know how to handle this. Humor, and some surprisingly touching moments, resulted from this. (But she’s not Adele, so, ouch!)

2. The story. I really enjoyed the movie Valkyrie, and I find revolution/resistance novels tend to resonate with me. Wolf by Wolf was definitely character centered, with Yael’s inner war against the Axis ideals, and what it took from her, taking more of the focus than the overall plot. Also, the fact that Yael was Jewish, while important to the story, wasn’t shoved in your face. Likewise with a cast of mainly German and Japanese teens.

3. Alternate history. Though Graudin definitely had to bend and shape history to her story, she did a great job of projecting how the world might have looked if things were different. From the tensions between Germany and Japan, to the disinterest of the US, to the eventual fall of Britain, it felt like she put a lot of time and thought (and research) into this historical fantasy novel.

4. The skin-shifting. I guess this relates to #1. I loved how the story just went with this slightly outrageous premise. I mean, scheming Nazi scientists? But it just worked, and the shifting was worked into the greater themes and character development. Also, Yael’s ability reminded me a bit of X-Men’s Mystique. Yael had similar identity problems due to always wearing someone else’s face. Also like Mystique, she tended to distance herself from her feelings and thoughts because of this.

5. Nothing was neat, tidy, or easy. Everything from the motorcycle race, to the ending, to Yael herself unraveled a bit. There was no quick fix. Especially when it came to playing Adele while dealing with Luka and Felix. Yael was always teetering toward failure, and I really wasn’t sure (till the end) how things would pan out. That’s a rare occurrence.

Minor Quibbles:

Yes, I loved this book so much, but I did have a few tiny issues. Like with TWC, the characters (other than Yael) were a bit thin for my liking. In particular, I would have liked to read more about the Japanese racers (there was some, but I wanted more).

Luka was a James Dean meets Thor type, and I wasn’t particularly interested in reading about him, but that’s purely personal. However, I did like how Yael handled his interactions with “Adele.” Talk about an interesting situation there.

Other than that, this was one of my favorite books this year, and I am so thrilled that she is writing a sequel! The fallout from the ending just begs another round, and Yael is a heroine I would gladly read a series about.

Overall: 5 out of 5 stars. An exciting alternate history with a strong heroine, lots of action, and a fascinating premise. Recommended for fans of The Hunger Games, Valkyrie, The Scorpio Races, The Maze Runner, Code Name Verity and X-Men.

6 Reasons Why You Need to Read Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani

Copyright Disney

If you have read anything I posted in the last month, there is a good chance that I referenced  Sunbolt. If you haven’t heard of it, Sunbolt is a fantasy novella by indie author Intisar Khanani (who also wrote Thorn, which I loved).

There was one complication: I loved Sunbolt so much that I couldn’t write anything coherent about it . . .

So I let the dust settle a bit, and here’s my take on Sunbolt:


Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani

A review copy of Sunbolt was graciously provided by Netgalley.com in return for a fair and honest review.
Summary from Goodreads.com:

“The winding streets and narrow alleys of Karolene hide many secrets, and Hitomi is one of them. Orphaned at a young age, Hitomi has learned to hide her magical aptitude and who her parents really were. Most of all, she must conceal her role in the Shadow League, an underground movement working to undermine the powerful and corrupt Arch Mage Wilhelm Blackflame.
When the League gets word that Blackflame intends to detain—and execute—a leading political family, Hitomi volunteers to help the family escape. But there are more secrets at play than Hitomi’s, and much worse fates than execution. When Hitomi finds herself captured along with her charges, it will take everything she can summon to escape with her life.”

And that’s just what happens in the first few pages. What follows is a dip into a fascinating, effortlessly diverse world with colorful characters, an intriguing magical hierarchy, and an intricate history. And in less than 200 pages.

Han and I salute you

Here are 6 reasons you should read Sunbolt:

1. Hitomi. She is everything I love best in a hero. She’s brave, smart, and quick on her feet, but she’s not perfect. She is survivor, afraid to stand out or call attention to herself, and yet she holds deep convictions that go against the grain of popular opinion. And she’s an outsider with untrained (read: illegal) magical powers. Sunbolt is her story, but the supporting characters are interesting too, especially Val, which leads me to #2.

2. Breathers.* And fangs, and mages, and . . . you get the idea. All of the usual suspects, from vampires to wizards, are part of Sunbolt‘s fantasy landscape. But they’re interesting! Like the many races and cultures of human characters, they have longstanding feuds, histories, and racial tension/prejudices. I want to know more (especially about the Breathers)!

3. The relationships. Like with Thorn, none of the characters fall into predictable YA relationship patterns. There’s no romance, for instance, and even the friendships are full of tension. I will resist writing more about my favorite developments because, spoilers!

4. The Shadow League. First off, they’re a rebel/resistance outfit called The Shadow League, led by the enigmatic young man known only as Ghost. It’s like the Scarlet Pimpernel took up with the barricade boys from Les Mis (despite how totally counter intuitive that sounds) and all started fighting for freedom from the shadows. Hitomi and her friend Kenta (a Tanuki!**) are part of the league, though they’re not very high up on the ladder, and I loved how they all interacted.

5. The plot/story/world. These are as intertwined as a celtic love knot. Though Sunbolt is basically an origin story, introducing us to Hitomi, her hidden powers, and her world, is also includes a lot of plot elements/threads that I’m hoping to see explored in later installments. There is a lot here for such a small book, and none of it was too much.

6. The writing. I’ll say it again, Intisar Khanani can write. Her prose is elegant, effortless, and never artificial. Her pacing is great, and she has a knack for narrative. In short, the only complain I have about Sunbolt is that it ended. It needs to be the size of The Lord of the Rings. (Not that the story felt incomplete or anything, her writing is too good for that!)

Overall: 5 out of 5 stars. A brilliant fantasy adventure with a strong heroine and an interesting world.

Footnotes: *You’ll have to read the book to find out about Breathers.
**Tanuki: Japanese Raccoon Dog, and a legendary shapeshifter in Japanese mythology
FURTHER READING: If you liked Sunbolt try:
Sabriel by Garth Nix
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
The Westmark Trilogy by Lloyd Alexander
The Blue Sword (or most of her other books) by Robin McKinley

Book Review – Black Widow: Forever Red by Margaret Stohl (No spoilers)

Because I have not had time* to do a BEA review post, and now it would be sort of pointless, I’m going to review the first ARC (that I have finished) from my BEA haul:

DRUMROLL PLEASE

Margaret Stohl’s Black Widow: Forever Red 

it’s so (appropriately) mysterious that the Goodreads blurb is only this:

“This novel features all the thrilling adventure readers will expect from the Marvel brand, backed up by the young-adult cred of #1 New York Times bestselling author Margaret Stohl. Uncover a new side of the Marvel Universe, accessible to old fans and new readers alike, as Stohl weaves an unforgettable story through the world of the Black Widow.” 

First: This cover is GORGEOUS. My cover is sort of boring (still cool though), without this fabulous artwork ——->

<——–But more importantly, it’s a signed copy 😉 I can forgive it for lacking the awesome art.

  And yes, this ARC was generously given to me by the lovely people at Disney and Marvel press in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Gifs are from Tumblr.com and belong to respective copyright holders.
When I first heard this was happening, I was so excited. Natasha Romanov a.k.a. Natalia Romanova a.k.a Natasha Romanoff a.k.a you get the picture, is one of my favorite Marvel characters (comics and movies) in both the classic and modern Marvel storylines. Her no-nonsense efficiency, her awesome skills, and her troubled past make for a fabulous character in the right hands.
Which leads in to the next part: I read three chapters of Beautiful Creatures once. Suffice it to say that I am not a fan.
I don’t do sappy, drippy, really drippy witch/teenage-angst novels. Period. So I was all, Marvel, really
But then I met Margaret Stohl at BEA. She was fabulous – humble – and filled with trepidation about the general populace reading her take on Black Widow. That made me feel a little better. And she geeked out with us about how awesome Black Widow is in the comics, and then she signed my book.

And honestly, I shouldn’t have worried so much, because I really liked the book.

So people of the world, here is a brief, spoiler free summary of Black Widow: Forever Red

Forever Red starts in Ukraine, 8 years in the past (you can actually read the beginning online). The Black Widow is hunting down her old mentor/trainer, Ivan Somodorov. The mission goes south, but not before Natasha rescues the girl that Ivan was experimenting on, turns the girl over to S.H.I.E.L.D., promises she’ll come if the girl needs her, and leaves.
8 years later, we are introduced to the primary characters (other than Natasha): teenagers Alex Manor and Ava Orlova. Ava is, of course, the little girl that Natasha rescued eight years earlier. Ava had been living in a (dreadful sounding) secure S.H.I.E.L.D. facility before she escaped, and she currently lives in the bottom of a Brooklyn YWCA. Both of them have strange dreams, but Ava’s are about Alex (she’s never met him). Ava has also nurtured hatred against the woman who saved her life, and then left her to fend for herself in a strange world.
But children are disappearing again, and the Black Widow suspects that Ivan survived their confrontation. That means he is after her, and after Ava, so Natasha heads back into the field, and back into Ava’s life. However, things are far more tangled than Natasha realized: her memories are leaking into Ava’s head, thanks to Ivan’s experiments in “quantum entanglement.” Ava absorbs Natasha’s skills, and the Black Widow can’t feel it. As frustrating as this is, it’s also incredibly dangerous. They aren’t the only Entangled pair that Ivan left behind.
To disentangle themselves, Ava and Natasha must find Ivan, face their childhoods, and go back to where it all began. And what does Alex Manor have to do with everything?

My thoughts – without spoilers

5 things that worked:

1. I loved the book’s format. Each present-day chapter is followed by a S.H.I.E.L.D. Line-Of-Duty Death (L.O.D.D.) case document. They are interviews (often with Natasha) and other files that tie into several plot threads. I love how these were worked in to the story
2. Margaret Stohl does a great job with Natasha’s character. She’s the hard edged, sensible, and capable assassin/spy we all love, but she’s also human (but with a very messed up past).
3. Ava and Alex were both likable (surprisingly so), and I was interested in their character arcs. Ava as Natasha’s “mini-me” provided some humor and insight into the Black Widow.
4. The plot. It was old-school spy stuff with gadgets, disguises, mad scientists, and chase scenes, but with an awesome heroine instead of a suave, suit wearing James Bond type.
5. The covert peeks into Natasha’s classified past. Black Widow is mysterious, and that’s one of the things I always liked. I was worried that a novelization would take away too much of that mystery, but it didn’t. Natasha is given just enough history, just enough name-dropping (I didn’t grin stupidly at everyone in the airport when I read a certain case note**), to both reconcile her comic/cinematic character, and leave a lot of interesting openings. Oh, and Coulson is in there a bit 🙂
BONUS: The Russian. I never forgot that I was reading about Russian characters, and it gave both realism and grounding to a book with a crazy mind-meld plot.

5 things that didn’t work as well:

Image Credit

1. While I liked Ava and Alex, and was rooting for them, but they weren’t why I was reading the book. I just didn’t care as much, and I was far more engaged when Natasha was on the scene.

2. This was a minor part of the book, but the predictable Alex/Ava romance (while believable) didn’t do anything for me. Sure, they were cute and not annoying, but (see above), I didn’t really care. But hey, they’re kids.

3. I felt like it occasionally suffered from trying to be too cryptic and mysterious. There were a few details that needed further explanation/examination for the plot’s sake. The only major example of this was all the disappearing children.***

4. Ivan. He had a bit of Marvel Movie Villain Syndrome: Ivan was evil, sadistic, and had quite the past, and yet he felt a little flat. But again, only Loki and Wilson Fisk (Daredevil) have truly escaped this.****

5. This one is 50/50 for me (because sometimes it worked better than others): the constant reminders that we are in a very normal, modern, but alternate Earth where superheroes are an acknowledged thing and Avengers destroyed/saved New York once.

Overall:

4 out of 5 Spiders. 

I’m just one of those annoying people who wanted more Black Widow. Maybe a novel that takes place in the past now? With Winter Soldier or Daredevil cameos?<—YES

Footnotes:
*I know that having time and making time are directly related.
**(not really a spoiler but just to be safe) Black Widow’s file has her age redacted. And there is a footnote that says to reference the files of Rogers, Steve and Barnes, James. Which means that they haven’t thrown out her backstory from the comics. There is still a chance that Natasha will be more like her real age (just rewritten every time) and has trained under the Winter Soldier. So I grinned at strangers ( I was reading in a busy airport, people).
***Seriously, where did all those kids go? If this was really addressed in the book, I must have missed it. I think it was just mentioned in passing toward the end.
****If you count the Winter Soldier as a villain [which in CA:TWS he technically is), then that makes three.

So, have you read this? Will my review be whisked away into secret S.H.I.E.L.D. files even though I avoided spoilers? 

Do you love Black Widow, or think she was less deserving of a novel than other Marvel ladies? 

How do you feel about her treatment in the movies? Would you like to see a Black Widow and Daredevil or Winter Soldier team up in the cinematic/novel/TV universe?


Book Review: Thorn by Intisar Khanani

The artist is Jenny from Seedlings Design

I stumbled across Thorn on Goodreads and the gorgeous cover art caught my eye. When I realized that it was a retelling of The Goose Girl and written by indie author* Intisar Khanani, I purchased a copy. 

The cover is even more beautiful up close. However, like the best fairytales, the beauty of Thorn isn’t just skin deep.

Princess Alyrra is the ignored and neglected princess of a backwater kingdom. Her only friends are the servants and a playful wind. Still, she is content enough until the powerful neighboring King of Menaiya shows up with a startling proposition: he intends to bring Alyrra home as a bride for his son Kestrin.

Alyrra has no idea why a powerful prince would want someone like her for a bride, but it doesn’t matter, as she has no choice. Or so she thinks. When a sudden betrayal turns Alyrra’s life inside out, the princess must choose between doing (what seems like) the right thing, or pursuing the life she makes for herself.

Thorn is a beautifully written book, and a thoughtful take on The Goose Girl. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but if you’ve read the original fairytale, you should be familiar with the basic plot. There was so much I enjoyed about it, but here’s a quick 5 reasons you should buy a copy:

1. Alyrra was very different from your average YA fairytale heroine. Accustomed to both abuse and hard work, she relishes the position of a lowly goose girl. The hard work is fulfilling to her, and she has chosen it for herself, which makes it better than her life as a “useless” princess. Her character arc and development was logical and well done, and I love how her hidden strengths bloomed and truly made an impact on the plot.

2. The “romance,” is much more mature and believable than most YA novels. Kestrin and Alyrra’s relationship was slow-burning, and fraught with (understandable) conflict and deception. Where it ends, in particular, was realistic and a bit messy, not tied in a perfect bow, and it made a lot of sense.

3. The writing. I cannot say this strongly enough: Intisar Khanani has a gift for language. Her prose is elegant and descriptive without being flowery. It immerses you in her world.

4. The serious plot elements are well-handled and thought out, not just thrown in for pathos or shock value. Some truly terrible things happen to these characters! Khanani touches on topics from physical abuse to murder, The characters have to deal with these things, and they retain both baggage and scars that influence them and those around them.

5. The characters. Even the “villains” were nuanced, with histories and motives that helped you understand them, even if they deserved their fates. Characters grew, changed, and had to deal with real consequences from both action and inaction. Kestrin was an interesting foil for Alyrra, and a complicated character in his own right. However, none of the characters were just throwaway or fillers.

I only had one real complaint: It was too short! I would have loved to read more about this world and its people, and I want to know more about the mentioned Fair Folk. There were so many elements hinted at in the story that, while not bearing on the plot, intrigued me.

In summary: 4.5 out of 5 stars. This was a brilliant Goose Girl retelling from an author to watch. I will definitely be reading her other books.

Have I convinced you yet? Here is a link to her books so you know where to buy them. I ordered mine through the indie bookstore store where I work (and I plan on stocking a copy). Have you discovered any fabulous indie authors that we should check out? Sound off in the comments.

Footnotes:
*Thorn was self-published. I don’t just buy any book, self-published or otherwise, but I strongly believe in supporting the brave, independent people who take their own path. On top of that, this book is very good, which makes it even more deserving.