Review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

A dark blue cover with white text, and a flourished font for the title Caraval. There is a multipointed star behind the title and it is surrounded by red artistic flourishes around the title and author name.ARC Review:

Title: Caraval (Caraval #1)

Authors: Stephanie Garber

Publisher and Year: Flatiron Books, 2017

Genre: fantasy, young adult, romance

Blurb from Goodreads:

Whatever you’ve heard about Caraval, it doesn’t compare to the reality. It’s more than just a game or a performance. It’s the closest you’ll ever find to magic in this world . . .

Welcome, welcome to Caraval―Stephanie Garber’s sweeping tale of two sisters who escape their ruthless father when they enter the dangerous intrigue of a legendary game.

Scarlett has never left the tiny island where she and her beloved sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval, the far-away, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show, are over.

But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.

Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But she nevertheless becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic with the other players in the game. And whether Caraval is real or not, she must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over, a dangerous domino effect of consequences is set off, and her sister disappears forever.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I thoroughly enjoyed Caraval, it was a face-paced read that was enjoyable in the way that you don’t notice how much you’ve read until you should have gone to sleep an hour ago.  I loved the set up of the story and the game of Caraval with the mystery of its game master Legend.  The magic and the worldbuilding were deeply interesting and honestly I wish I could have seen more of this – especially inside the game world itself. For five days of game there was a surprising lack of detail and richness to the experience within it.

The characterisation was all pretty solid although I thought the father’s character was a little two dimensional as a villain. I loved the two sisters, although I was disappointed that they didn’t share more page-time together and I thought that there was a bit more telling about them rather than showing – Tella was almost absent from the book although critical to the story itself which I thought was actually a bit of a shame – I couldn’t relish in her triumph because I barely knew her. Scarlett was contradictory but in a good way and I thought I had a good chance to get to know her, but I thought that she was a bit too easily led and naive for someone who was supposed to be aware of being manipulated, based on her background. I did really love Julian’s character, and he was one of the stand out characters for me, he was complicated and interesting, was a great foil for Scarlett without being lost in her and without doing anything that made my teeth hurt.

I enjoyed the resolution to the story quite a lot, I thought it was quite fitting and I thought that the fact that there was a rhyme and reason to how Scarlett and Tella ended up at the game at all was well plotted. I was bewildered by the random arrival of the fiance – that whole sub-storyline was a bit clunky for me and I don’t think it played out as well as it could have. I didn’t much care for the cliffhanger, but I am glad to know that there’s more story, it was definitely compelling and enjoyable enough that I’m overtly looking forward to the sequel. This is an interesting YA novel, it’s not a coming of age, but it is a stepping out into the world in a way for the first time, and Scarlett comes to know herself and what she wants for her life a bit more, out from under the thumb of her father and the certainty of her betrothal. I love that the relationship between the sisters is so important and underpins the whole story even if they didn’t share the pages as much as I’d have liked, and overall I’d have loved to see more of Tella. Congratulations to Garber on an excellent debut novel.

Review: Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey

A book cover with a dark background and darkened images, a dark skinned boy is embraced by a white skinned girl, there are feathered birds at the bottom of the image.ARC Review:

Title: Miranda and Caliban

Authors: Jacqueline Carey

Publisher and Year: Tor Books, 2017

Genre: fantasy, retellings, romance, literary fiction

Blurb from Goodreads:

Miranda is a lonely child. For as long as she can remember, she and her father have lived in isolation in the abandoned Moorish palace. There are chickens and goats, and a terrible wailing spirit trapped in a pine tree, but the elusive wild boy who spies on her from the crumbling walls and leaves gifts on their doorstep is the isle’s only other human inhabitant.

There are other memories, too: vague, dream-like memories of another time and another place. There are questions that Miranda dare not ask her stern and controlling father, who guards his secrets with zealous care: Who am I? Where did I come from? The wild boy Caliban is a lonely child, too; an orphan left to fend for himself at an early age, all language lost to him. When Caliban is summoned and bound into captivity by Miranda’s father as part of a grand experiment, he rages against his confinement; and yet he hungers for kindness and love.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

This book is a melding of Carey’s lush prose and the theatrics of Shakespeare. I can’t comment on this story as a retelling specifically, as I’m not familiar with The Tempest. However, I really enjoyed Miranda and Caliban, it was a very satisfying story to read. I read this over a couple of days and found the characters, the setting and the mystery compelling. I loved the romance that was woven throughout this story, Miranda’s toward life, and Caliban. Caliban, towards Miranda – to a fault. I was often perplexed by Prospero and I never really connected with him, but perhaps that was also part of the design, as his personality was to hold himself apart and aloof.

The story and its mystery were quite linear, there were no true surprises – one thing did really lead to another. I did not find this to be a bad thing, the story comes across as something to sink into first and foremost, not something to challenge or trick you. I loved the way Miranda and Caliban interacted with one another, both teaching and learning from the other. I loved the beauty of Caliban through Miranda’s eyes because at no point did it seem twee, it fit perfectly with Miranda’s character and her naivety.

I really appreciated the ending to this book. While I thought there was tragedy in the experience of lost love, I also thought Miranda’s pragmatic acceptance of her situation and role in the manipulations of her father was very satisfying and realistic. There is no great hero to sweep in and rescue anyone, it is a tale of what happened, to interesting characters, no rose coloured glasses but not gratuitously dramatic either.

This book stands alone and is a satisfying story to read for some gentle escapism, it is fantastical but not overly so and may be suitable for those who don’t ordinarily like fantasy in their stories.  This is not a particularly in depth review but I don’t think it’s required as what I am left with is the lingering satisfaction for a book I quite simply enjoyed.

Review: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira

Pale blue book cover with flowery font text for the title and author name, there is a silhouette of female figure in a white dress blurred in the background and pink curlicue flowers surround the text and the blurry figure. ARC Review:

Title: Bookishly Ever After

Authors: Isabel Bandeira

Publisher and Year: Spencer Hill Contemporary, 2016

Genre: young adult, romance, contemporary

Blurb from Goodreads:

In a perfect world, sixteen-year-old Phoebe Martins’ life would be a book. Preferably a YA novel with magic and a hot paranormal love interest. Unfortunately, her life probably wouldn’t even qualify for a quiet contemporary.

But when Phoebe finds out that Dev, the hottest guy in the clarinet section, might actually have a crush on her, she turns to her favorite books for advice. Phoebe overhauls her personality to become as awesome as her favorite heroines and win Dev’s heart. But if her plan fails, can she go back to her happy world of fictional boys after falling for the real thing?

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

As someone who really enjoys reading books, and enjoys in particular the relationships, romances and friendships in books this book was right in my wheelhouse! It’s a cute YA about a girl who likes reading and knitting having a crush, being crushed on and figuring out real life romance for the first time. I really like that Phoebe was both curious about and a bit bewildered by the contrast between real life romance and the romances in the books she was reading. I loved that she saw herself in the heroine protagonist’s role time and again, and that she aspired to romance as awesome as those she was reading about.

I really loved the naive fantasy at play here – nothing bad happened to Phoebe! I found the way the story unfolded to be really believable for me because she’s a teen girl with her first real life romance experience. She was clumsy, so was the boy she liked. I liked all the supporting characters actually, her friends were varied and interesting, I liked the happy queer romance that her friend was enjoying, I liked that Dev was Indian and heavily involved with his cultural background, including travelling back to India during the story. There were just nice touches that made it a bit more real for me.

That said, I have minor complaints about the story becoming clunky in the second half, the way the romance unfolded was believable  but it was an effort to keep reading in some places because while I hate insta-romance in most cases, things here also seemed to just take forever – but not in a slow burn awesome kind of way, there were slow places that were a little boring and the let down the pacing a little. This is a minor criticism, and as a debut novel it’s a great beginning.

If you like sweet romance that’s non-explicit involving books, knitting, archery and camping, I highly recommend this book, it was great fun, the characters were endearing and I enjoyed reading it a lot. This book stands alone really well. However, I understand that there is also second book in the series forthcoming, I’ll definitely be looking forward to that when it comes out.

Review: He, She and It by Marge Piercy

He, She and It - coverARC Review:

Title: He, She and It

Authors: Marge Piercy

Publisher and Year:  Originally published 1991, this edition published by Ebury Digital, 2016.

Genre: science fiction, dystopia, feminist fiction,

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

In the middle of the twenty-first century, life as we know it has changed for all time. Shira Shipman’s marriage has broken up, and her young son has been taken from her by the corporation that runs her zone, so she has returned to Tikva, the Jewish town where she grew up. There, she is welcomed by Malkah, the brilliant grandmother who raised her, and meets an extraordinary man who is not a man at all, but a unique cyborg implanted with intelligence, emotions – and the ability to kill…

From the critically acclaimed author of Woman on the Edge of Time, comes another stunning novel of morality and courage. A Pygmallion tale for the modern age, this classic feminist speculative novel won the Arthur C Clark Award.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

He, She and It was a revelation to me, I’m so glad I got to read this and am so glad that somehow this book came to me exactly when I needed it. There is as much about this book that is literary as science fiction, to the benefit of the book and the story it tells. It has incredible depth and is written beautifully, with poignancy that I think is rare to find.

Relationships are central to this book, relationships of family, of parent and child, of community, of spousal partnership, of professional collaboration. Although many readers may centre on the romantic relationships portrayed in the book, these make sense only in the context of all the other relationships that are part of the tapestry of this book. They do not exist in a vacuum or in isolation from the rest of the story.

We follow Shira’s point of view as the dominant protagonist, although Yod and Malkah’s point of view features as well. The worldbuilding for this story is deft. We start with a picture of an enclave, such as we might imagine in any future science fiction city, perfectly coifed and artificial, everything manufactured – the suggestion of control and surveillance is everywhere. We are then introduced to the free city Tivkah, resisting the multi-corporations and having enough skill and leverage to hold onto tenuous freedom and the city’s prized democratic community. Upon losing custody of her son, Shira flees the multicorporate enclave she is employed by and returns to Tivkah, her childhood home. She takes up a position with the scientist Avram to assist him in the socialisation of his cyborg creation Yod.

I didn’t fall in love with Shira at first, and in fact it took me a very long time to warm up to her. Instead, I was drawn to Malkah, matriarch and storyteller, scientist and programmer with a formidable intellect. I took a long time to warm up to Yod too, but I think that is by design from Piercy – as Yod’s experience with personhood grows and expands, so to does the reader’s ability to recognise and appreciate Yod’s personhood. We are invited to mirror Shira’s experience in working with Yod and his socialisation, although her qualms are always situated as her own foibles, and not so much larger moral questions for the reader to ponder. Those questions come more from Yod himself, as he reads Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The crux of the book is the creation of Yod, a cyborg. A story that parellels the creation of a golem in the 1800s. Both created to protect, but as weapons with innate violence in their nature. This is something both the golem Joseph and the cyborg Yod struggle with. My take on it is that this is profoundly to do with existing in the world, regardless of being a human person or not. You cannot erase lived experience, you cannot unlearn compassion or empathy readily – even if you did not come to then naturally and were created whole, as with golem Joseph and cyborg Yod.

I keep coming back to the richness of Tivkah as the locale surrounding the story. A community, built on socialism, collaboration, and fierce anarchic independence. Tivkah is a Jewish city, the days and rituals and experience of the inhabitants within centre the normalcy of their daily lives as Jewish people. This is given further depth by the story Malkah tells for Yod about Joseph the golem. When Nili, a cybernetically enhanced woman from once-Israel, now a dead zone joins them for a time in their city and helps them to defend it, further layers to women, surviving, climate change, resistance, feminism, family and purpose are revealed.

The resolution of this book is one I found deeply satisfying, although it wasn’t an ending as such. Instead it felt like a change, where the people whose lives I’d followed for some time were about to embark on a new era of their lives, but the chapter for this part was over and it was time to part. I valued that and it is a  significant part of the poignancy that I observed as part of the book. There is hope and optimism amidst the realism of living in a dystopia. But people live their lives, they do the best they can with what they have, they value the people and ideologies that are important to them. As do we all. Perhaps with less grace than those in the free city of Tivkah.

I had begun to think maybe I had lost the ability to appreciate deep books that you must read slowly, over a several days and sittings. This book is a compelling read, but it needs breaks – time to think between putting it down and picking it up. Life has to be lived in between reading pages, because it is a book that is about the everyday, about living life, the constraints and difficulties we all face – small and large. I learned in my reading of this book, that in depth, more demanding books are not lost to me, merely I must simply find the stories that are stories for  me – and not dwell so much on stories that other people loved and I did not.

He, She and It is profound and I firmly believe one that will yield much more upon rereading. I loved the abiding feminism in this book where there were so many female characters and relationships between women in all kinds of ways. Women performed all kinds of roles, from the familial and maternal, to great scientific works, piracy, and military defence. The breadth of capability, of choice and recognition of both was startling and wonderful to me. And this is why I don’t think that this is a book of romance, despite that it is one of the plot arcs that is used to contextualise so much of the story. It is like having a spine in the human body – our spine does not define us, but it is critical and unique. Complexities surrounding relationships between parent and child, family in general are also similarly critical to the telling of this story – they are not less important than romantic relationships.

I loved this book, I count it among those I loved best in my reading this year. Although first published in 1991, He, She and It tells as compelling and profound a story in 2016 as it did when it was first published. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who loves a really good science fiction novel. Unlike many dystopian stories, this book is not at all grim, there is no constant sense of doom. Instead, this book is about life, living and problem-solving as well as possible in a future where technology is rampant and equal parts the solution and the problem to the climate change-ravaged future portrayed.

Review: Thorn by Intisar Khanani

Thorn - coverReview:

Title: Thorn

Authors: Intisar Khanani

Publisher and Year:  Self published, 2014

Genre: fantasy, epic fantasy, romance

Blurb from Goodreads:

For Princess Alyrra, choice is a luxury she’s never had … until she’s betrayed.

Princess Alyrra has never enjoyed the security or power of her rank. Between her family’s cruelty and the court’s contempt, she has spent her life in the shadows. Forced to marry a powerful foreign prince, Alyrra embarks on a journey to meet her betrothed with little hope for a better future.

But powerful men have powerful enemies–and now, so does Alyrra. Betrayed during a magical attack, her identity is switched with another woman’s, giving Alyrra the first choice she’s ever had: to start a new life for herself or fight for a prince she’s never met. But Alyrra soon finds that Prince Kestrin is not at all what she expected. While walking away will cost Kestrin his life, returning to the court may cost Alyrra her own. As Alyrra is coming to realize, sometime the hardest choice means learning to trust herself.

 

My Review:

I fell into this book and devoured it pretty much in one sitting. I then bought all the other novels available by Intisar Khanani. This was excellent, the kind of fantasy story that is highly enjoyable, beautifully written and extremely rewarding to read. I’m not familiar with the fairytale that this retelling is based, but it definitely has a fairytale feel about the story that I appreciated.

I loved the way Alyrra navigated her circumstances and I absolutely love that there was no ‘instantaneous love connection’. Instead, Alyrra and Kestrin although they are intended to marry are divided by magic and their ability to even get to know one another is hampered. Where in other stories Alyrra’s inherent goodness might have seemed a little two dimensional, here her ability to cope with the changes in her circumstances are true to her character and growing up experiences. Although she has had an abusive upbringing, Alyrra herself is not broken, but does realistically demonstrate traits that show her mistrust and the effect her past has had on her.

Although Falada’s character is the most fanciful in the story, I love horses in fantasy stories and so I was wholeheartedly willing to go with it, and I am glad that Alyrra got to have a friend while she was finding her feet as a goose girl. I liked that Falada wasn’t omnipotent, or overpowered but merely another sentient race – magical to be sure, but bound by realities that meant Alyrra’s own future was in her hands. I loved that this was consistently reinforced to her. And more than that, I love the way that Alyrra was happy to consider giving up on being a Princess all together, and embracing her change in circumstance as a chance to start anew and have a life she though she would like better. I appreciated the emphasis of being royalty and the duty involved in that position – whether one wants it or not.

I also liked the way Khanani explored differing power relationships and consequences of privilege between Alyrra as the goose girl and Kestrin as the prince. It’s very obvious that he comes from the mindset that he doesn’t intend harm and wants to find the truth and so he is in the right, no matter what difficulty it may cause Alyrra. I also loved the exploration of conceptions of justice in the book – the King’s justice versus the Thieves justice – similar in that they have limited reach to a specific area of the population, but different in terms of flexibility and willingness to follow through on holding people to account.

For me the ending was a little rushed and I would have liked to see that fleshed out a little more, the encounter between Alyrra and the witch, their return and the consequences of that. However, I was also immediately sad that I couldn’t read on to see what happened next – I do hope there are more books in this universe at some stage. I loved that this story was about growing up, coming into one’s self, and exploring ideas of belonging, justice, and family. It was a delight to read, I highly recommend it for reading.

Review: Tremontaine (Season 1) by Ellen Kushner et al.

Tremontaine - season one - coverARC Review:

Title: Tremontaine (The Complete Season 1) (The World of Riverside #0.5)

Authors: Ellen Kushner, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, Patty Bryant, Paul Witcover

Publisher and Year:  Serial Box, 2016

Genre: fantasy, epic fantasy, romance, serial fiction

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Welcome to Tremontaine, the prequel to Ellen Kushner’s beloved Riverside series that began with Swordspoint! A Duchess whose beauty is matched only by her cunning; her husband’s dangerous affair with a handsome scholar; a foreigner in a playground of swordplay and secrets; and a mathematical genius on the brink of revolution—when long-buried lies threaten to come to light, betrayal and treachery know no bounds with stakes this high. Mind your manners and enjoy the chocolate in a dance of sparkling wit and political intrigue.

Tremontaine is an episodic serial presented by Serial Box Publishing. This collected omnibus edition gathers all 16 episodes from Season 1.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

What isn’t to love about sword wielding women, politics, hot chocolate, frocks, parties, manners and physics? The serial format of Tremontaine works very well, it’s clear that the background world and universe of Ellen Kushner’s is beloved by all the authors that are invited to play in the world for this story. I’d fallen off the appeal of epic fantasy for a while, but between this and An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows, I’m excited about this genre again!

In particular I love epic fantasy that involves complex political intrigue and lots of diplomacy, talking around things, layers, and consequences too far reaching to see clearly. I also love characters that are engaging and interesting, sometimes I love the because I identify with them, and sometimes because I’d love to fall in love with them, and other times because they seem so wonderfully wicked – there are all these kinds of characters in Tremontaine and more.

I should point out that I haven’t actually read the other novels that this one is a prequel for, but given how much I enjoyed this book I will absolutely be looking forward to Swordspoint and The Privilege of the Sword!  This is a short review, mainly because I loved it without reservation, the story, worldbuilding, characters, blending of authorial styles were all fantastic and delivered to me an exceptional reading experience. More fantasy like this, with diverse characters who are queer, not all white, who come from different backgrounds and storylines with ‘villains’ who are complex and interesting characters too – you can’t just think of their wickedness, instead it’s tempered with compassion for them, sympathy and understanding for how they’ve gotten into the narrative dilemma they’re in. I really can’t wait for Season 2.

Review: The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library #1) by Genevieve Cogman

Invisible Library - coverARC Review:

Title: The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library #1)

Author: Genevieve Cogman

Publisher and Year:  ROC, 2016 (US edition)

Genre: urban fantasy, fantasy, steampunk

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

The first installment of an adventure featuring stolen books, secret agents and forbidden societies – think Doctor Who with librarian spies!

Irene must be at the top of her game or she’ll be off the case – permanently…

Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, which harvests fiction from different realities. And along with her enigmatic assistant Kai, she’s posted to an alternative London. Their mission – to retrieve a dangerous book. But when they arrive, it’s already been stolen. London’s underground factions seem prepared to fight to the very death to find her book.

Adding to the jeopardy, this world is chaos-infested – the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic. Irene’s new assistant is also hiding secrets of his own.

Soon, she’s up to her eyebrows in a heady mix of danger, clues and secret societies. Yet failure is not an option – the nature of reality itself is at stake.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I really enjoyed this book – it’s what you call a ‘rollicking good read’! The story and characters were just fantastic and hooked me from the beginning. I also love the idea of an inter dimensional Library with all the knowledge and spy librarians! Such an awesome concept and I’m delighted by the surge in books about libraries and librarians and how awesome they are lately!

In regard to this particular book and its story, I enjoyed the alternate London universe quite a lot, with magic being a likely threat and having to navigate unfamiliar politics – and without the resources one could usually expect. I’m very keen to see how the story continues and also whether we will get to peek into other dimensions and worlds that the Library is interested in!

My only thought is that the romance in this book was a bit clunky and I wanted to believe in it a little more from both sides. I’m hoping that element improves in subsequent books as the characters and story develops further. I think this is in part to Irene’s perceived immaturity – even though she has a quite extended lifespan, much of it has been spent in the Library confines and less being out in the world – or at least, that’s the only conclusion I can come to? I want a bit more growth from her overall. Kai plays the part of mysterious super-attractive side kick character really well – it’s not often the super-attractive character is the sidekick actually so that bit I particularly like.

I enjoyed The Invisible Library a lot and can’t wait to read more about the story and these characters! It was the right book at the right time – adventure and fantasy and just light and fluffy enough but also with enough depth to really have me enjoy the reading experience. Sometimes I think it’s as much the right book for the right mood/occasion as it is excellent writing/story/characters. The latter things are important, but if you’re not in the mood for a super crunchy thinky read then you’re not, and similarly if you want that and try to read something super fluffy, you’ll be disappointed. This book is not super crunchy, complex and deep – nor would I want it to be. It’s entertaining and full of adventure and All The Cool Things – because if you got to work for a magical library wouldn’t enjoying all the cool stuff be partly the point?